Monday, September 22, 2014


Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
Rev. Dr. Gaye Ortiz
September 21 2014

May this synagogue be, for all who enter,
the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life.

Our opening words this morning are adapted from a prayer from a Reform Jewish prayer book, and they are sentiments that we all have in our hearts as we gather together in worship. After all, what would we be here for, if not to do as our 3rd principle asks, to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations?
The last 3 words there - in our congregations - are important, because anyone could follow their own spiritual path. One of the blessings of membership is taking on the responsibility of encouraging our members to grow spiritually alongside each other. And as members we covenant with one another. Covenants began in the ancient world as a way of contracting between rulers and their people, and they are important in Judeo-Christian history and theology. And when our religious forebears settled in this country, they kept the free church tradition alive by creating covenants such as the Cambridge Platform of Church Discipline, which was written by the New England Puritans in 1648 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is a covenant of mutual promise.

 Forrest Church paraphrased the Puritans' covenant like this:
We pledge to walk together
In the ways of truth and affection,
As best we know them now
Or may learn them in the days to come,
That we and our children may be fulfilled
And that we may speak to the world
In words and actions
Of peace and goodwill.

Reading our covenant aloud this morning, I wonder if you were reflecting on the obligation that you are asked to assume. After all, a covenant is a promise, and it’s a tool that helps us to reconcile ourselves within the community when we fall out of covenant.

Assuming good intentions is hard for a lot of people; we automatically think the worst when we hear things – usually from someone else – that a person has done. When we don’t agree with what we’re hearing, we begin to think negative or even awful things; we form assumptions that, if we were to voice out loud to that person, would quickly prove to be false assumptions. The covenant gives us a measuring stick; we can ask ourselves: when I am feeling this way, is it going against what I promised to do? Can I give this person a break, and stop assuming they are acting against my best interests or the church’s best interests?

So in our congregation, when we have a problem, when we don’t like what someone says (or what we’ve heard they’ve said), instead of fuming silently, or expressing our anger to someone else in the parking lot, we are urged to approach the person with whom we differ directly – assuming good intentions – to ask them to speak with us about what is concerning us. Using ‘I’ statements, not interrupting people when they are trying to answer your question, not judging others by what they say…these are familiar parts of a behavioral covenant, heard in meetings of a committee or the board, that many of us feel are vital to ensuring respectful communication in congregational life.

Wouldn’t it be grand if everyone everywhere lived by a covenant of right relationship? I am not saying that everyone here abides fully by the covenants they affirm…but we at least have the ability to be called back to our best selves, because the covenant exists, for us, as a living document.

Unfortunately, today I am speaking to the topic of ‘when people don’t like what you say’ because we as Unitarian Universalists need to reflect on how we deal with the feelings we – and what we say and do – evoke in people who disagree with us. People who feel threatened by our tolerance, our inclusivity, our liberal religious and creed-less faith tradition. Those who, in contrast to our opening words, do not value our invitation to all who enter our church to see it as “the doorway to a richer and more meaningful life”. They may see it, instead, as a pathway to godlessness, to immorality, to false prophets, and of course, to damnation and hell. You may well know people who think that about us; some of you may have family members who think that, and this surely weighs heavily upon your hearts this morning.

On a Sunday morning in mid-July, to use the words of Krista Taves, “something pretty scary happened at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans. Members of Operation Save America, a fundamentalist anti-choice organization that (Taves says) is known for descending upon abortion clinics and making life a living hell for anyone coming or going”, showed up as if to attend the church service. During the service they began to verbally harass the worshippers and to try to push anti-abortion pamphlets into their hands. Imagine being in the sacred, silent space of meditation just as we do every Sunday following Joys and Sorrows, and suddenly hearing shouts of “Abomination!” “You are going to hell!” (

What happened next was probably not what they expected to happen, because that Sunday the church was commissioning youth leaders of the UU College of Social Justice.These young people immediately circled around the protesters and began singing. The minister asked the protesters to respect the worship space and take their protest outside, and at that church leaders began guiding them out of the sanctuary. The police were called, and they arrived ready to intervene should things turn violent. The director of religious education made sure the children were safe; unfortunately the protesters had surrounded the church and had identified the RE rooms. They pressed graphic pictures against the windows, so the children were moved to an inner room. A note was left on the classroom doors for parents so they would be aware of where the children had been taken.

The minister, according to Taves, continued with the service, preaching “about how fundamentalism offers only one path of truth, whereas liberal religion recognizes a diversity of paths, and that this offers us a significant way to engage the challenges of our world.” Once the service finished, Planned Parenthood came to escort congregants safely back to their cars.
As we know, especially from being in the Bible Belt, the radicalized anti-choice movement is supported increasingly by right-wing politicians, and feels empowered to threaten women’s reproductive rights through legislation as well as public protest. Many of us UUs are members of Planned Parenthood; some have been present to demonstrate on behalf of women’s reproductive rights. We should all know that Planned Parenthood is in the front line of protecting women’s rights and are publicly vilified for doing so.
The Supreme Court recently ruled against safe boundaries of protest, so that anti-choice protesters can engage in intimidating behavior without buffer zones, inciting violence against abortion providers and those women who choose to use their services as they are entitled to do under the law.
 The LA Times reported that eight months ago, “the man in charge of the group that invaded the Unitarian church in New Orleans, a fundamentalist Christian minister named Philip “Flip” Benham, was convicted of stalking a North Carolina abortion doctor, passing out “wanted” posters of the physician. He was sentenced to 18 months of probation and ordered to stop the harassment. Benham’s group, Operation Save America, has blockaded clinic entrances, violated the privacy of doctors and abortion clinic workers, and harassed women seeking abortions.”
But spreading their message of hate wider, they violated the sacred space of sanctuary… “or as Benham described it on his website, “presented the truth of the Gospel in this synagogue of Satan.”” (LA Times)
And as Taves says, “This protest was a violation of our sacred space, and when I say “our” I mean it.  We Unitarian Universalists are in sacred covenantal relationships of mutuality.  When one congregation is violated in this way, we are all violated.” Not only that, but the deep religious vein that runs through American civic life respects the sanctity of the sanctuary; I believe that Operation Save America did itself and its cause no favors by invading a worship space, because many Americans will be appalled at this display of disrespect for religious freedom of worship.
 After all, we reject the idea of Taliban fundamentalists enacting radical control of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and even trying to stifle the right to women’s right to education by nearly killing the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzi.
The minister who led the service and kept her head was Deanna Vandiver; she calls the protesters ‘religious terrorists’ who have made us targets in the process of trying to achieve their goals by violent means. At least the confrontation in the New Orleans church that morning did not turn violent, due in large part to the non-anxious reaction of those UUs present for the service. There was no yelling or pushing back, but there was an affirmation through the actions and the voices of the young people lifted up in song. There was a naming of what was going on by the minister from the pulpit and a request to behave appropriately. Then there was action to protect the children, secure the building, and call for help.
This is National Preparedness Month. Maybe this is an appropriate sermon to preach in that case. No one wants to think that we need to be prepared for something like the sanctuary invasion in New Orleans, but there are practical things we can take away form that morning’s disruption.
 The clergy of the New Orleans churches were interviewed on the VUU, not the ABC show with Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie O’Donnell, but the web broadcast of the Church of the Larger Fellowship; I have put the link to the interview on our Facebook page (please like us if you haven’t already): . In that VUU episode, which is entitled ‘Defending Sanctuary’, it was noted that there was a strategy employed in that sanctuary that morning that we need to be ready to use should any type of disruption occur in ours.
First, name what is happening. I will not always be in the pulpit, so our Worship Associates also need to able to give clarity to the moment: “What is happening at this moment is that someone is trying to disrupt our service; please respect the sacred space of this sanctuary.” Rev. Vandiver herself did not at first comprehend what was happening, and before she heard the words they were using she thought the shouting was from someone who didn’t understand the congregation’s tradition of silence during meditation. So telling others clearly from the pulpit also relieves anxiety of those who cannot understand what is happening, and this could be for several occasions when there is a disruption in the sanctuary.
 The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Minneapolis has a script under the podium with several paragraphs for the worship leader to read in case someone is having a medical emergency or there is violence erupting. But with a violent disruption it is vital to be vocal about who we are; we do not tolerate violence or disrespect of our sanctuary and our congregants.
The second thing is to have a protocol kicking in, for the church leaders – greeters or board members, who know they are responsible for physically removing the people who are disturbing the service; third is to make sure everyone is safe and secure. At our church safety briefing this week, we discussed the importance of locking the kitchen door when the service begins every Sunday, a new element of safety prevention that will begin next month. Of course there will be people arriving late, but they will need to use the front entrance. Leaving the back door unlocked provides easy access to our RE wing, and even people sitting in the conversation corner listening to the service will not be able to stop someone with violent intent from entering. So that would be one less action needed to secure the building in an emergency.
 And the final step is a debrief after all the activity is over. This helps to see what can be learned from the experience but also what we can do to respond what has happened. In the case of the New Orleans disruption, they embarked on a media outreach campaign that used “this awful experience as a tool to continue changing the hearts of this nation” (Taves). You might have seen Rev Vandiver on the Rachel Maddow program. The message they want to pass on is “that religious people have diverse ways of being pro-child and pro-family, and that religious liberalism might just be where we can find the clearest embodiment of what it means to be…pro-life in its truest sense. (Taves)
New Orleans UUs feel that this incident has not created a bunker mentality where they are afraid of being under attack, but instead are driven out even more into the wider community. Their social justice committee is called the community ministry team, and that name is proving to be quite accurate. They said on the VUU that they are being seen as people of faith because of their social justice stand, and that instead of ‘defending sanctuary’ they are ‘expanding sanctuary’ to disenfranchised and marginalized elements of the wider community. Meanwhile, there has been no outcry from conservative Christian groups who usually are very sensitive to restrictions on their religious freedom of expression…and you might have heard that the office of the Democratic mayor, Mitch Landrieu, backtracked and said that in error he had issued a proclamation praising Operation Save American for its ‘outstanding service to the city of New Orleans’!

As members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation in the South, where sometimes we may feel isolated, we do have support even though it may seem quite lonely at times. We have a cluster of UU congregations, the closest being our sister congregation on Aiken. The spirit of the Cambridge Platform still lives in the relationship that we can continue to grow with their members. The relationship that we have with other area communities of faith, through the Progressive Religious Coalition and the Interfaith Fellowship of Augusta, is also a source of support. And we are of course a source of support to them: yesterday in meeting with the Interfaith Fellowship, I heard the Imam of the Islamic Center talk about recent threats phoned in to their center threatening on the eve of 9/11 to burn copies of the Koran. We agreed that continuing our efforts together to educate the community about faiths other than Christianity is the important work we need to do.
Our support for religious freedom is crucial to our identity as Unitarian Universalists. The price we pay for our dedication to our faith has always been the threat of violence – from the early days when Michael Servetus and Francis David paid with their lives, Joseph Priestley being burned out of his home, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo martyred during the civil rights struggle. Even in the history of this church – for example, the creation of the Open Door kindergarten and the threats we faced – we have known the threat that liberal religion poses to prejudice and intolerance.

What else can we do but circle round for freedom? In the words of Edward Frost, “It would be far worse for us if, in our fear, we doused the fire and ran, alone, into the dark.” Let us pledge today to circle around the light of freedom, inclusion, compassion, and love that our chosen faith provides for us. 

May it be so, Blessed Be, Amen.
GW Ortiz, 9/21/2014