Thursday, October 29, 2015

Reformation Day...Our Faith Today

Did you know that October 31st is not only Halloween but Reformation Day? It was on that date in 1517 that Martin Luther famously is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Catholic church in Wittenberg, Germany.

Reformation Day is a holiday in Slovenia, Chile, and five of the German states. If you’d like to celebrate this day that changed religious history then go to a website with a ‘Pin the Beard on the Theologian’ game:
You can photocopy John Calvin’s face and then, in a version of ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’, blindfolded children can try to pin a beard on it.

Or you can go into the ‘Luther Maze’,, where Luther is looking for his hammer and you can trace through the maze to help him find it.

In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, Reformation Day is bittersweet. Unitarianism was a challenge to Trinitarianism and Catholicism, and it was able to survive and travel throughout Europe as the Reformation spread. But John Calvin himself was the person who secured the death of one of our most important figures, Michael Servetus, who was put to death on October 27, 1553. 

Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland, after being captured while escaping to Italy from France, where the Catholic Inquisition had briefly held him as a heretic. Servetus wrote about the fact that the Bible has no Trinitarian doctrine to back up the insistence of Christianity of the existence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and his writings fueled dissatisfaction with Catholicism and threatened the credibility of Trinitarian Protestantism. 

So Servetus had the dubious honor of being wanted as a heretic by both factions of the Reformation, but his horrible death made many people of faith call into question the punishment by death of those who had different religious beliefs.

The right to question and the importance of liberal religious freedom are values that come from the struggles of Servetus, Francis David, John Biddle, and others, who fought a valiant and often lonely battle against the religious status quo. So, at this time of the year, rather than celebrate Luther’s hammer or Calvin’s beard, I would rather mark the contribution of Servetus, which is summed up by the inscription found on a monument to him in the vicinity of his execution:

Michel Servet[us], . . . geographer, physician, physiologist, contributed to the welfare of humanity by his scientific discoveries, his devotion to the sick and the poor, and the indomitable independence of his intelligence and his conscience … His convictions were invincible. He made a sacrifice of his life for the cause of the truth.” (

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Interfaith Connection

I returned yesterday from five amazing days at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City, Utah. Most people I told about it here in Augusta wanted to know why it was being held in Salt Lake City, maybe thinking that somehow the Mormons were hosting this.

The answer I never had time to give is that the first Parliament was held in Chicago in 1893, organized with the help of a Unitarian minister, Jenkin Lloyd Jones. He was a promoter of Unitarianism in the Western United States; he was a charter member of the Chicago Peace Society, and was a supporter of women in ministry. There were 4000 attendees to the first Parliament, which exposed many Americans for the first time to world religions. The Parliament was re-established in 1993 in Chicago, and since then has been held every five years in places like Barcelona, Spain and Melbourne, Australia.

The Parliament in Salt Lake City was organized very much in the spirit of Rev. Jones, offering for the first time a Women’s Convocation, featuring speakers such as Marianne Williamson and the dynamic Indigenous Grandmothers. 

As a UU minister who celebrates a faith that has ordained women since the mid-19th century, I was able to be in solidarity with Roman Catholic women who spoke up for women’s ordination.  Pagan priestesses, whose panel presentation included the theologian Starhawk and the Rev. Selena Fox, spoke of the value of pastoral presence and worship expertise that I strive for in my ministry. And the passion of Mother Maya Tiwari and Dr. Vandana Shiva in lifting up the nurturing and creative strength of women made me want to widen the circle of opportunity for women in our community, who care for their families against the odds of poverty and illiteracy, and in our world, where women still are not afforded dignity.

Jones would have been amazed that over 10,000 people from 80 nations and 50 faiths attended. One of the most impressive achievements of the Parliament was an act of selfless service. Sikhs from all over the world converged to offer Langar, a free meal that is central to Sikh hospitality. 

Langar with Imam Jamal from the Augusta Islamic Center

Hundreds lined up every day to go into the hall and get not only their fill of wonderful food, but also conversation with people sitting beside and across from them.

Dialogue truly was a highlight of the Parliament. On my last day there I went with another female UU minister to lunch and we ended up sitting with a Mormon woman. We discussed our lives, our religion and what it means to us in terms of our relationships and our lives. Each of us was moved to tears when sharing things openly, and after lunch was over we exchanged warm handshakes and a smile, wishing that we could have that kind of encounter everywhere we go.

The challenge of the Parliament to the 10,000 who attended came in the form of the theme: Reclaiming the Heart of Humanity. So many speakers brought up the issue of climate change and how we must act so that future generations can still inhabit this glorious planet. How we do that will be determined by our ability to open our hearts to our fellow human beings and reach out, despite - or perhaps because of - our diversity.

May we be the ones who make it so.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Deeds, Not Creeds

At the end of last week I traveled to Statesboro for our monthly UU Coastal Cluster clergy meeting. The ministers from Charleston down the coast to Brunswick,  from Columbia to Augusta to Statesboro, try to get together regularly to support each other and get to know one another as people come and go in our area. We move our meetings around so we can visit the churches and see the cities and towns where we do ministry. It’s a time I treasure, to be with my colleagues in fellowship.

This last meeting was a little uncertain for some of us who were coming from the coast, but as of Friday the storm had not hit and we were able to have a good meeting and return home safely. But since then, our coastal UUs have had a rough time of it. The new interim minister in Columbia was evacuated from her home, barely having unpacked from her move from Arkansas. As we know from the news and from social media, a number of dams burst in South Carolina and have made things much worse for the midland population than the effects of the storm in the coastal towns of Savannah and Charleston.

Times like these make us aware of how little control we have over our lives; many people inland, who watched the storm approaching the coast, were thinking it wouldn’t affect them beyond heavy rain and maybe minor flooding of roads. Now they have no power, no fresh water, they have left their homes suddenly as dams burst and the gushing waters threaten to cut them off from an escape route, or even to wash away their cars. How frightening to be faced, especially if you are elderly and not as mobile, to have to evacuate and not know how long you will be away from your home and from resuming life as normal.

Now think of how that is true for all the refugees fleeing Syria; the people displaced by the terrible mudslides in Guatemala; the storms and flooding in the French Riviera…we truly are fortunate to be where we are, secure in our homes, our lives, our family and friends close by or at least able to be in touch by phone or email.

And finally, think about how you might be able to assist in the rescue effort going on in these places. From donating water to folks in South Carolina to sending off money to rescue organizations working in the midst of the devastation of war, we can support one another as world citizens and as human beings. We don’t know if one day we will be the ones in need of that kind of support and compassion; the Golden Rule that Pope Francis so eloquently evoked during his visit to this country still rings true for the way we can model our faith: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” As UUs the “Do” is emphasized: “Deeds, not creeds.” Living our faith means never standing still in the face of injustice, cruelty, crisis, or despair. We are fortunate and, yes, blessed, to have our religious community to help us widen our vision and renew our strength, as Mark Morrison-Reed reminds us: 

“The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.”

May we be the ones who make it so.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Ultimate Justice of the People

This year on Sept 11th Paul Simon sang “American Tune” to close the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. The song is, in my interpretation, an epiphany of despair, a realization of the failings of this country:

“...when I think of the road
We’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong…”

Paul Simon wrote American Tune in 1973. The year before that, I remember how excited I was to be able to vote in my first election. I was a volunteer for the George McGovern campaign, one of those young idealistic Democrats who didn’t trust President Nixon and who were dismayed at the turn the Vietnam war was taking. I honed my political rhetoric by arguing with my dad every night at suppertime, The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in the background. If we weren’t disagreeing over the war, we were arguing about the Watergate burglary in June of 1972, which was intended to steal documents, related to the Pentagon Papers leak, from Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office. I was sure it would lose the election for Nixon… but he won by a landslide.

The Watergate Scandal: Congressional Hearings
Before long, Congress began to hold hearings about the break-in. By 1973 the Watergate scandal was destroying everything we thought we knew about Washington politics, and it got downright scary in October with a full-blown constitutional crisis – on October 20th 1973, the president fired Watergate “prosecutor Archibald Cox in what has become known as ‘The Saturday Night Massacre’."

It was one of those moments in American history when many Americans remember where they were when they heard the announcement, and then the next breaking news, and the next, as events piled up furiously on top of one another. John Chancellor reported on NBC news that evening that “Because of the President's action, the attorney general resigned. Elliott Richardson quit, saying he could not carry out Nixon's instructions. Richardson's deputy, William Ruckelshaus, was fired because he, too, refused to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general. More than 50,000 telegrams poured in on Capitol Hill, so many, Western Union was swamped. Most of them demanded impeaching the president. The following Tuesday Congress filed 21 resolutions calling for Nixon's impeachment.”

No wonder Paul Simon felt that he was a long way from home…all of us watching this scandal unfold felt like the Statue of Liberty was floating away, with all the symbolism of the country being adrift in a crisis that no one had ever experienced before.

I begin with this recollection because the title of my sermon this morning, “The Ultimate Justice of the People”, gives you an idea of what did in fact prevail in the Watergate scandal. Nixon backed down an appointed a new special prosecutor and agreed to cooperate with the investigation, which ultimately led to his impeachment and resignation.

But that phrase comes from another time when the American nation was at crisis point of a different kind: these are words written and spoken by Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861:

 Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope, in the world?...By the frame of the government under which we live, this same people have wisely given their public servants but little power for mischief; and have, with equal wisdom, provided for the return of that little to their own hands at very short intervals.”

Despite the reassurance that he hoped to give to Southerners about his election as president, the speech did not dissuade them from starting the civil war the following month.
Two major crises, just over a century apart, in which the power given by the vote was challenged. But we are facing a presidential election season this next year – in which we are already knee-deep, with candidates, debates and campaign appearances – that may not even allow large numbers of American citizens to cast a vote. And that is because of restrictive legislation in many states that is a direct result of the rollback of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in June of 2013. And what is more, this dismantling of the protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was orchestrated deliberately over decades, according to an in-depth article by Jim Rutenberg in the New York Times Magazine.

The Voting Experiment

When, as Jill Lepore says, (Rock, Paper, Scissors, How we used to vote,
 the United States was founded as an experiment in eighteenth-century republicanism… it was understood that only men with property would vote, and publicly, since they were the only people who could be trusted to vote with the commonweal, and not private gain, in mind.” “In the first Presidential election, only six per cent of Americans were eligible to vote.”

But voting became a violent ordeal by the mid-1800s, when all white men could vote; in 1859 “eighty-nine Americans were killed at the polls during Election Day riots.” “…the nation’s founders could scarcely have imagined that the population of the United States, less than four million in 1790, would increase tenfold by 1870. The revolutionary step of providing printed ballots that voters had to read made it much harder for immigrants, former slaves, and the uneducated poor to vote.”

You may know about the Jim Crow era, which marked the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s, and the difficulties it posed for black Americans who wished to vote. If they were not physically attacked on their way to the polls, they had poll taxes to pay; if they wanted to register to vote, there were often civics or literacy tests to take, from which white voters were exempt. Those of you who saw the film Selma recall that the Dallas County, Alabama registrar’s office was only open during business hours on the first and third Monday of each month, and new registrants needed to bring someone who could vouch for them.
If blacks tried to register, just that simple act could lose them their jobs – like employees of a nursing home in Selma in 1963, who lost their jobs when they tried to register to vote. If blacks tried to register to vote, they might have a loan called in or might be evicted from their residence. And the intimidation of having your name printed in the local newspaper as a voter applicant also was meant to keep blacks from even trying. (Teaching Tolerance Viewer’s Guide)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, marching for voting rights
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 did away with these practices that kept blacks from voting, and it contained special rules for states and localities where discrimination was especially known to exist; these places were not allowed to make any changes affecting voting without ‘preclearance’ from the Justice Department in Washington. Georgia was one of 9 entire states that qualified for this special treatment.

The Southern Strategy

The South was under Democratic control following Reconstruction but the Voting Rights act upended the status quo, making it almost impossible for conservative democrats to win primary elections against progressives. Nixon saw the opportunity of more black participation in elections to appeal on the basis of race, so that white voters in the South elected Republicans – that’s come to be called the Southern strategy.

One of his advisors is quoted by Jim Rutenberg as saying, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans” (p 35). Jesse Helms in North Carolina is one politician who benefitted by the Southern strategy.

During the decades since the original act was passed, Congress has voted several times to reauthorize it, but in the 1980s John Roberts came to Washington as a court clerk and slowly began making his way up the ladder until he became chief justice. His stance on voting rights was that justice should be colorblind, which sounds good until you realize that race-based decision-making is necessary when preceded by centuries of segregation and discrimination. He argued that discrimination cases should be hard to prove, a position that Republican senator Bob Dole disagreed with: “I don’t know where we lost track after Abraham Lincoln” (Rutenberg, p 36) he said, referring to the Reagan White House needing to show it cared about the votes of Hispanics and African-Americans.

There were intentional political blocks to voter accessibility: in 1990 President Bush vetoed the motor-voter bill which would allow registration at other government agencies like the DMV, but Clinton signed it when he took office; “following its passage, black registered voters increased 10% by 1998” (38).

The next blocking tactic was to clean up voter rolls, and the result was that many people were wrongly erased by being mistakenly designated as felons. In Florida a disproportionate number were black, more than 90% of whom voted for Al Gore in the 2000 election; of ballots thrown out in the Florida election, 3 times as many came from black voting precincts as from white precincts.” (39)

In 2005 the Georgia voter-ID law was up for a vote in the statehouse; the law diminished black voting, and “Rep Sue Burmeister said that was because blacks were less likely to vote if they were not being paid to do so” (46). The law was invalidated, although upheld by the Supreme Court once revised to allow those without ID to cast provisional ballots.

After 2010, a slew of new voter ID laws were passed in 11 states, all almost identical, and by 2012, almost all suspended or blocked by the state courts. Less than a year after President Obama’s re-election the Shelby decision struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, with Chief Justice Roberts saying that the section had served its purpose and race was no longer an issue. Justice Ruth Ginsberg fiercely disagreed, citing Department of Justice figures since 1982 of more discrimination cases than between 1965 and 1982. She famously stated, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA” (47).

Our Fifth Principle

Paul Simon sings that Americans came on the ship they called the Mayflower…and the Pilgrims and Puritans who settled in New England so longed for a place where they could have their voices heard, their liberties exercised and protected. The creation of the 5th principle –the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large -  arises from that experience, and yet the definition of citizenship that informed the Declaration of Independence excluded so many people for the privileged few.

It would have been a mystery to the founding fathers, who wrote the immortal lines “all men are created equal” and “endowed with certain inalienable rights”, that I was allowed to register to vote in 1972. And, as Parisa Parsa points out in her wonderful essay on the 5th Principle (Brandenburg), our Puritan forebears, “credited with forming our Unitarian polity, would not have envisioned the level of inclusiveness or low threshold for membership that we do today.” They were determined to “resist corrupt influence by ecclesiastical authority”, and so membership was restricted to those who could testify “ to an experience of grace and full conversion to the life of Christ”. This rule was meant to “preserve decision making for the people who were considered most capable of being entrusted with the well-being of society.” (76)

Parisa understands the desire behind this restriction, because she identifies church as a place where “the democratic process and the development of our own consciences become religious acts”. She says that “in our religious lives, the democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience.” In the words of Theodore Parker, “Democracy means not ‘I am as good as you are’ but ‘You are as good as I am’. My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.” (77)

With freedom of conscience comes accountability and faithful unity, even in disagreement: that is our covenantal responsibility as Unitarian Universalists; we pledge as much when we sign our congregational covenant that hangs next to the office block. Parisa says that she values her congregation, because they know that being fully present and showing some flaws is infinitely more valuable than being correct in principle but disconnected from real community.” (80)

The democratic process is messy and frustrating, but voting – whether it is in our congregational meeting or in a precinct voting booth - is “shorthand for taking interest in, and ownership of, the process by which we as a community live our faith and choose to use our collective power to shape our world in accordance with that faith.” (81)

Living my faith - that is why I drove to Winston-Salem NC in July and in the heat of the day gathered at a Moral Monday rally with the Rev. William Barber, Rev. Peter Morales our UUA President, Jim Key the UUA Moderator, and 500-plus UUs among more than three thousand citizens on the first day of a federal trial that will determine whether parts of a controversial North Carolina voting law are constitutional.

Rev. Barber at the Winston-Salem Moral Monday Rally
Rev. Barber says that we are in the era of a 3rd Reconstruction, but voting laws, like the one passed in North Carolina, are an attempt at a third deconstruction. His catchphrase is “This is our Selma now”, because in effect the gutting of the Voting Rights Act means that there are less voting rights now than in 1965, when Dr King led marchers to demand justice and an end to discrimination.

What will the verdict be on this law? We can only hope that the rights of citizens to vote will be protected, not restricted. So far every time it looks like civil rights are being threatened, the people of this country have shown a resilience and have risen up in protest. It is an exercise in compassion to fight for the rights of others.

The writer Sarah Ruth van Gelder describes several consequences of our ability as American voters to be resilient, to expand our circle of compassion, and to live into our 5th principle.

She writes:
"Participation in the political process does not require us to sink to dirty politics or reduce our vision to sound bites. As our circle of compassion has expanded, so have our capacities to keep ego from dominating our work, to build movements based in distributed power, to listen deeply to the fears and the hopes of those we are trying to reach, and to choose language that communicates our common humanity and common aspirations.”


It is not true, despite the Chief Justice’s ruling, that the goal of the civil rights movement has been achieved. Don’t forget Dylan Roof’s justification for his murder of the 9 people in Emmanuel Temple in Charleston—“You are raping our women and taking over our country”.
James Noel reminds us in his essay that for African Americans, there never was a period of not mourning those slain by racism. Meanwhile black folks will continue to do what they must: “keep on keeping on . . .” In the words of James Weldon Johnson, “We have come over the way that with tears has been watered; we have come treading our way through the blood of the slaughtered.”

Resilience: despite the disillusionment of what followed, my first vote cast in 1972 was not my last, and I am committed to help others to be able to exercise their right to vote this November and the next and the next.

As Paul Simon ends his song, “Tomorrow is another working day…” a glimmer of resilience, that after some rest we can go on, and go forward, to protect the right of conscience and the democratic process. 

Let us have faith in the ultimate justice of the people.

May we be the ones who make it so.

Gaye W. Ortiz


Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address.

Jim Rutenberg,“A Dream Undone”, New York Times Magazine. .

Teaching Tolerance, “Selma: the Bridge to the Ballot”, Viewer’s Guide p. 21.

Parisa Parsa in Ellen Brandenburg, ed., Seven Principles in Word and Worship, Skinner House Books, 2007.

James Noel, “Judgment Day in America” July 21, 2015