Is a Congregation Required for the UU Faith?

I stopped going to church. I didn’t stop being a person of faith, or abandon Unitarian Universalism, it is just that I stopped making the habit of leaving my daughter and my non-religious husband for a couple of hours to join a gathering of other people of similar religious identification.

I stopped going to church because I felt like oil and water. No matter how much I tried to stir myself in, I always felt separated. Some of this resulted from circumstances of life. I started going when we moved to Buffalo, and continued for about seven months. With that said, I only attended whenever I was home and not entertaining out-of-town guests, which often meant two weekends or less per month. As Tom Schade notes, UU churches are high-commitment entities, and the time I had was hardly enough time to integrate into the community. I didn’t see the same faces month to month, neither in the pulpit nor in the pews. We moved to New York so we could travel to see our families, who live in adjacent counties and cities. So that was not going to change.

I also kept running into experiences where you had to be “in the know” to know what was going on – being surprised by a plethora of trivial, small things like how a couple of dollar fee for a soup lunch replacing the coffee hour was omitted from the order of service on a day I had no cash (city living, folks). So I waited through a long line and surprise! That was embarrassing. People seemed to know each other, and/or not be interested in talking to strangers. I have enough social skills to recognize that, and so I’d spend most coffee hours alone. The cumulative effect was that it felt like I was still an interloper after maybe seven months. I shared this with an online UU growth discussion group, and was attacked and accused by one of the congregation’s members of essentially being a person of poor character (not taking initiative, playing the victim, not showing up for extra things, and other things that were not true) for describing this experience and not having memorized every single thing in every single bulletin they sent me, one email among hundreds I get per day. I mean, come on: there are plenty of character flaws that I actually do have to choose from. No need to attribute inaccurate ones. Beyond that, the services were not pushing any of my intellectually or spiritual boundaries, and so I left with neither a sense of being challenged to grow, nor any social integration. I decided that those hours were better spent with my kid and husband. (My spouse grew up without a religion and is very happy that way. I respect this.)

Most of my life I have been religious and made going to church a habit, be it as a Catholic in my youth or as a UU in adulthood. One of my reasons to seek out a religious home was to find a place to teach my daughter faith, but it seems right now she needs time with me more than she needs to be in yet another child-care setting for a couple extra hours, or squiggling and distracting her mother during a service. I work full-time in homelessness alleviation. I don’t need a church to have connections to the social justice community of my area, because it is what I do for a living. Taking more time to do church would have pulled time away from my kid and from time to develop my professional and activist connections in the community. Incidentally, my professional and family life are the most salient ways that I live my UU faith.

Why am I telling you this? I read Jordinn Long Nelson’s essay on church as a vending machine, where she argues that folks leave church in part because they have a consumerist approach to it. She’s certainly accurate that to be a part of any community, you have to sink time and energy into it. Relationships take time and effort, and being a part of a community is being a part of an aggregate of many relationships. You have to give. Like a friendship, it dies if you’re approaching it with a “what can I get out of this?” orientation. She’s also right that it is normal for people, in a context of capitalism, to evaluate everything with a cost-benefit orientation because it’s as ingrained into our culture as it is into our economy.

What Jordinn’s piece missed, in my opinion and experience, that not all relationships are worth one’s time. Not all communities are worth one’s time. We human beings aren’t connected to everyone and not a part of every social entity. You also can’t start a relationship without effort and comfort from the others involved. We are not infinite creatures. Working full-time and having very small children (one who is not yet born) is actually enough to be over-scheduled without any additional activities.

This particular essay of Jordinn’s didn’t examine the relationship of church to faith. It’s been a few months, and I am finding that church attendance and engagement is not necessarily required to live this faith. I am living the UU principles of creating a society that respects everyone’s inherent worth and dignity, interdependence, and pursuing justice outside the church walls and with people who are not exclusively UU. There are other UUs doing this work: I see them, and members of that congregation in particular, in my professional and activist life. They are doing fantastic work to better the city through civic service or community organizations. I also run into Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists doing very UU-like things. For the talk of pursuing beloved community, it’s that my community isn’t a church, it’s the broader city of Buffalo and Western New York.

Tom Schade’s essay on building church community discusses this. He argues that focusing on building a local beloved community it is a poor growth strategy. I would push it a step further: it is perhaps contradictory to what living UU values also mean.

What I am seeking when I go to church is a place that will facilitate living my faith. A consumerist approach, as Jordinn notes, is the wrong one, as my faith requires that I give a lot of time, energy, and love. However, it requires that I give it to the world, not just to other self-identifying UUs. We also lack the divine directive or commandment to attend church that other faiths have. I see the church itself as a piece of belonging to a religion, and not the entirety of it.

The entire UU infrastructure appears to function on congregations, even though the religion calls us to be broader than that. With that, we have a severe demographic problem. Do you know how many Catholic churches there are in the city of Buffalo? Thirty-two, and this is after a significant amount of closures. There is one Unitarian Universalist congregation within the city limits. Buffalo is a city of approximately 260,000 people. The three county statistical metropolitan area has 1.2 million people. There are all of five congregations in that area, compared to… I’m not even going to try to count how many Catholic or Protestant churches there are. Many communities in the country aren’t even large enough to support a single UU congregation. My point is that there aren’t enough UUs to sustain enough churches to justify a congregation-centered organizational structure. With that said, I am uncertain of what better model there would be, except that I am certain we’ll have to invent it from scratch.

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Letter to a local school board about their use of an ethnic slur for a mascot

To the Lancaster School Board:

I am a research analyst, mother, and current renter in the City of Buffalo. My family moved to Western New York a year ago, and are now looking into buying a home. We are seeking a community that fits our family – seeking an area that combines our love of parks, walkable spaces, interesting culture, and our desire to have our children in a solid, stable school district. Lancaster appeared to be one of the better fits.

The current controversy surrounding the “Redskins” moniker has given me pause. I am also an anti-racist activist of European extraction. While I do not have any blood of racial or ethnic minority groups, I advocate for an anti-racist society because it is the right thing to do. It is important to me to teach my children the importance of creating and maintaining a just society in which every single person’s dignity is respected, regardless of their heritage. In my day-to-day work, I am more accustomed to trying to explain the nuanced elements of racism: how society is structured in ways to privilege certain groups, how this privilege relies upon taken-for-granted ideas on how things should be, how events in history inform a racially disparate construction of society, and so forth. These are concepts that even college students struggle with, because they are tricky, hard to wrap one’s mind around, and require questioning everything that one considers true.

The part that almost no one struggles with? It’s not OK to use ethnic slurs.

As a parent considering your school district, it alarms me that alumni of your high school seem to be attached to using an ethnic slur as the school mascot. It seems so obvious to me that an ethnic slur is unacceptable. Denying that “Redskin” is an ethnic slur requires quite a bit of ignorance of history – isn’t the school district in the business of teaching history? Native Americans have not been a venerated group in our society. We have tried to kill them and destroy their culture. Redskin is a derogatory term. Indeed – we teach small children not to call names and not to use bad words with relative success. Why don’t the graduates of your high school understand this?

There are explicit and implicit lessons that a school can teach. The explicit lessons are those which show up on the exams at the end of the year. The implicit lessons are the ones taught by the school’s culture. By maintaining a mascot of “Redskin”, an implicit lesson that the school district teaches is that anti-Native American rhetoric is not only acceptable, but should be celebrated. This does not have to be the case. My own high school in Liverpool, NY changed its mascot to be more respectful of Native Americans, ceasing to use an Onondaga Warrior in favor of a Spartan Warrior (unlike Native American culture, the Spartan culture is a facet of history). The City of Buffalo is changing the name of Squaw Island (which is near my current home) to Deyowenoguhdoh Island in an effort to be respectful of our region’s Seneca heritage. These are positive changes. I was relieved not to have to explain to my kids that while the park is named “Squaw”, that’s actually a term they should never use, and that shouldn’t be there except that white people often have no problem disregarding the dignity of those who are not white. I will still need to explain this, especially with Redskins, teaching her lessons that our local educational bodies seem unwilling to do on their own.

I urge you to change the mascot to something respectful of human dignity.

Sincerely,
Christine Slocum
[address]

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On Not Using Anonymity

Buffalo Street in Winter; Morning

I made a promise to myself about five years ago: I was going to write everything under my real name. I wasn’t going to use pseudonyms when I write essays for my blog or when I write comments on websites. If I felt that I couldn’t say it without it being tied back to me, then I wouldn’t. I decided that it was important to me to be as transparent as possible, and as private as logical. I knew I needed to cultivate ownership and boldness. If something needed to be known, it probably needs an advocate for it. In addition, this was in a phase of life that I realized I struggled with boundaries and this would provide accountability: I value my reputation. So the imperative was this: I better make sure that the ideas were good ones, and I was stating, as far as I could know, the truth. If my name was attached to it, I better be willing to stand behind it. With that said, I was only outing myself. I wouldn’t identify people unless their identities were vital to what was being said or unavoidable (for instance, I belong to a religion which generally only has one church in any given geography; I only have one husband). This decision was made during a time of life where I was finally figuring out that those who love me are under no illusion that I am any better than I actually am, so there wasn’t an imperative to be perfect, just to be as good as I could be.

After a half-decade of this, I have a few observations:

    1. A half-decade goes quicker than you’d think.
    2. Transparency has fewer consequences when the experiences are exclusively yours, and more when experiences are intertwined with others.
    3. People may project themselves onto your entries when you don’t identify the essay’s target, which can be very revealing.
    4. If you decide not to be anonymous, you will not be anonymous.

It is this last point which is most salient for me. Sunday marks my 1 year Returnaversary to Buffalo. I moved here as a freelance barely-eeking-a-living copyeditor and mother of a small child. I finish this year as a comfortably-employed nonprofit research analyst expecting her second child. I’ve experienced extraordinary generosity from others in terms of opportunities and kindness. I love living in Buffalo, and my social circumstances permit my husband and I to live, and provide for our daughter, a very comfortable life in this city.

Seriously, Buffalo rocks.

It’s also not a very large city. It wasn’t long before I met new people and they would tell me that, “Oh, I’ve seen your name around.” My first thought was, “Dear God, I hope it was for something good.” There wasn’t really a rational reason for this fear. The recognition was usually due to my agency affiliation or they read something I wrote; the biggest risk was disagreement. I quickly learned that anonymity due to newness and sheer numbers was not a facet of Buffalo living. While living in Seattle, I drew comfort from being in a sea of too many people. Now, I see Buffalo’s denseness as a perk. In the same way that one builds relationships by being present, living by your name has the effect of building connections with civic endeavors, especially given that so much of communication occurs in online spaces.

It also has the impact that folks know what you are like.

There are some noteworthy things which come with this territory that makes being known safer. For instance, I do not share intensely embarrassing experiences. I do not belong to any especially marginalized groups. I do not live alone. I do not tend to write about subjects which get other female activists death threats. My employer read my blog and Twitter account before hiring me and felt that it would not reflect poorly on the agency. My husband is a fine, upstanding citizen who makes positive impressions on everyone he meets (for a good reason: he’s a fantastic fellow). I do not live a particularly controversial life, so being known, being comfortable, and being simultaneously authentic reflects a social location that not all people occupy.

I plan to continue this practice of using my name and avoiding anonymity. Honestly, I would recommend it. It cultivated a habit of given pause before publishing my words. It has allowed me to meet a lot of really wonderful people. It preemptively gives oneself permission to be known.

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Being a Control Freak is a Futile Endeavor Informed by Unrealistic Expectations

My mother’s advice was solid, “You just have to make sure that they don’t drown, electrocute themselves, or fall from too great of a height.” I had been expressing some sense of being overwhelmed at the responsibility of parenting. My mom’s advice is a version of “You can’t control everything, just sweat the big stuff.” It’s a different message than I see out there, where there seems to be an assumption that parents can and ought to foresee and control all things for their children. Flukes and freak accidents are treated as events that should have been predicted.

The assumption of control is pervasive, to the point where some discourses in our culture expect that we take responsibility for all things existing in our lives. Women apologize excessively. It often seems to me that the retort, “Quit being a victim!” is used to dismiss the significance of one’s experience with being wronged rather than anything else. It’s the cousin of the just-world hypothesis, which assumes that every thing which happens is occurring righteously. If an experience is terrible, the experiencer brought it upon themselves; clearly we can control these things. Except that we cannot. Even the man struck by lightening might have lived if he took another path, but why would he have thought to do so?

I was asked today if I like living in Buffalo. “I do,” I replied. And that was all I said until prompted with another question. I love my life here. I have a fantastic job, my husband has a great job, my daughter is healthy, my home is comfortable and my life is challenging enough that I feel alive and productive. Though if I hadn’t happened to move back to New York State around the time my low-turnover agency had an opening, I would not have this job. The person who helped my husband get his job, a very good, much loved friend of our family who has been nothing but extremely kind to us, was a random roommate assignment his freshman year of college. My daughter was a surprise. My son is a surprise. All of these are correlated to things we did, but the opportunities themselves have a high degree of coincidence. So I am very happy in Buffalo, but all I can honestly say is that she’s been extremely well-timed for me. Your mileage may vary. I could not have foreseen well enough to create this life intentionally.

I have spent much of the last few months reading about predictive analytic tools for homelessness-alleviation program referrals and they are all flawed. There is so much research that comes down to a shrug, and while it is far better than a first-come, first serve system, it is not the certainty that everyone craves. The desire for certainty and predictability is as American as individualism. With the assumption of control also comes the assumption of potential perfection. These are all the unattainable goals. These are the expectations that will disappoint. The more I remember that, the better I am.

And it can’t hurt to listen to my mother.

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White water walking

When you walk, you see things.

I am trying to make more time to write. I feel like I am my own marionette, pulling myself through a fast-paced script for a faster-paced life. It’s like the rapids on a quick-moving river. You spend all your time balancing the raft, consumed by the experience and vivaciousness of the trip, that you don’t get a chance to sit back and appreciate the beauty of the rock formations the river cut. At the end of the day, I find myself laying next to my daughter in her absurdly scaled bed, snuggled, and falling asleep. We joke that she’s putting us to bed – we often forget to wake up after she falls asleep.

Well, looks like there’s finally someone with enough balls to take on the corrupt New York State officials. We’ve otherwise been Illinois without the consequences. This gives me hope. There are a few politicians I feel whose intentions are for the people – Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz come to mind – who have spoken against very popular politicians or entities when it was fit. Most politicians in NYS fall in the rank and file. Fearful of losing whatever power they have managed to acquire, those who should otherwise be rocking the boat carefully balance stones to ensure it never tips, and our politics remain corrupt.

I suppose the facet of our political culture that frustrates me the most is the dearth of truly brave leaders. And the tricky thing is that there is a fine line between bravery and foolishness. There’s a degree to which playing nice accomplishes your goals. There’s a degree to which your colleagues – fellow politicians – need to feel they can trust you. At the same time, there’s an obvious institutionalized complacence for inefficiency and often corruption. As if everyone gets so caught up in the minutiae of what they are doing, that they don’t take a step back and say, “Wait a minute!” Politics is known for being dirty for a reason, and it keeps reminding me why I’m registered as a Green.

I walked to an emergency shelter that I’d never visited before. The clients weren’t there, needing to be out during the day as per the shelter’s rules. I felt like I was intruding on private space, but it looked like a hotel before it was occupied – everything was crisp and clean. It wasn’t that far. I don’t walk as much as I did before moving to Buffalo again. I did not have a car nor a kid, and that facilitates long walks. When you walk, you slow down. You see things, notice buildings that were otherwise absent. Driving can be like experiencing the world through a tube – you see the bits on the outside ends, but not much in between. Even bicycling can blur your surroundings a bit, but to a much decreased extent. Pregnancy-related balance issues are keeping me off my bicycle. My schedule, and its tightness, keeps me driving. I’m not Percy Grainger; I can’t take hours and hours to walk. Though when I can, the world shrinks.

My sense of distance is still informed by not having a car, despite the fact that my family is currently in possession of two of them. When you don’t have a car, your world shrinks. Your activities might be mostly bound by where you can bike, where public transit can take you, and where you can walk. I rarely left the city of Seattle. I doubt I’d often leave the city of Buffalo if I didn’t have a car. Walking blocks can take some time – walking miles takes even more. Bicycles are often faster than buses, but they are still not entirely quick. I perceive the suburbs as being far away, though my husband works in one and drives there everyday. I still think of things in walking time. I don’t like going more than a couple miles from home. And that’s a thing I think people don’t understand about the car-free. You don’t get out very far, but you know everything within very very well.

Your life slows down when you don’t use a car.

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pplkpr and quantitizing relationships

Pplkpr. I’m only aware of it because David Cervi shared it on Twitter. It reminds me of the psychophysiology articles I used to read in undergrad for my psychology degree: the dependent variable was often measured by some sort of physical response. Heart rate was a common one. Sweating was another. Being that we are corporeal beings, our thoughts and emotions are physical manifestations that can be found in the body. The creators of this app took that information and tried to optimize it so that you could compare the physiological reactions you have to people and note trends – does someone make you feel terrible? Is someone boring? What about positive? Then, it premises that it would auto-schedule those into your life, or “pplkpr can compose text messages, invite people to hang out, or block or delete their contact. These actions will appear on your home screen as they happen.” This as fascinating to me as it is something I am entirely unlikely to use.

The site itself is a single page, with an FAQ at the bottom.

This isn’t dramatically different than what social scientists and big data folks do on a regular basis, which is to say that they are seeking ways to attach numbers and operationalize all facets of human behavior into something that is measurable. When it’s measurable, one can analyze it more effectively. Science requires that you take something like “love” and break it down into all of its facets. So when you say “love”, do you really mean feelings of warmth and attachment? How do we operationalize warmth and attachment? (It’s a fun exercise. I realize that one reason I use insult curse words so infrequently is because I am in the habit of describing exactly what bothers me about a person. Blanket terms suggesting that one is a lousy person are just too imprecise to be satisfying to me. Interjection cuss words, on the other hand…) The creators of the app are using changes in heart rate to operationalize strong feelings. They’ve needed to decide boundaries over what makes a change in heart rate a “strong” feeling – is it a change of 20 beats per minute? 15? And so forth. This is so fascinating to me.

With that said, the app itself is not something I see myself being likely to use. For one, I suspect the habit of mindfulness and self-awareness probably achieves the same goal as the app. Instead of numbers telling you that person X inspires strong feelings, you’re likely aware of it from remembering the experience. Making decisions to hang out with someone more frequently or less frequently based on how you react is a purely utilitarian approach to relationships that does not correspond with how we decide who will be in our company. Read Twitter before Thanksgiving, see how folks are lamenting spending time with some of their relatives, and you’ll get what I mean. Many of our social companions are from some other interpersonal calculus. Another example: I really like my coworkers, but that’s not a universal experience by any stretch of the imagination.

Some relationships exist solely out of a pursuit of happiness. If a party does not feel happy, I suspect it may not be a lack-of-information issue. Perhaps it is a denial issue, or an issue of a lack of empowerment and self-confidence, or an abusive or manipulative relationship. All of these keep people from acting in their best interests, or best interest as defined by this app: maximizing positivity. We don’t always make the best decisions. Data alone is rarely sufficiently persuasive in the face of habits or interpersonal decisions. I’m a data nerd who is aware of this and my friends could tell you about times where I maintained relationships despite overwhelming information that it was unwise. We all have somebody in our lives that was hard to give up. So I’m not convinced that the app’s information would be necessarily used in the rational ways the creators designed it, especially if we make poor decisions in a context of information overload.

And then there is this: This is an art project, but it is also something that fits in with the ways that parts of our society are trying to use technology to solve all of its problems. Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages suggests that the goal of the twenties and thirties is to wrestle the conflict between intimacy and isolation. In some ways this means finding a partner, and in other ways it means learning to relate. The pplkpr app is a very technical solution to that problem. And why would this be surprising? Technology is just one variety of tool, and humans are noted among animals precisely because we build our tools and rely upon them to solve our problems. I suppose what I find so interesting here is that social tools are becoming tangible objects instead of bodies of knowledge. Social skills are real skills, the knowledge of how to talk to folks and what to say. If you are building a house, you need a hammer, a physical implement to move other physical implements. The skill there is in how to hold it, and how to swing it. Here, you are using physical implements and math to solve a problem that is far more intangible – human interactions.

It is very fascinating.

But you won’t see me using the app.

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Crepes

The truth of the matter is that I enjoy making crepes more than I enjoy eating them. That’s not to suggest that I dislike crepes: quite the contrary. Since I initially learned to make them in Russia in 2009, I’d been craving their savory and sweet combinations. My first attempt in the States was a failure – an equipment issue, as I recall. I didn’t have any flat bottomed skillets. With a whole world of other potential culinary adventures, I forgot about crepes. Then I became vegan, and figured it was a lost cause.

Not making crepes often means not eating crepes because it is not common to find them at restaurants in the United States, at least the parts of America that I find myself frequenting. A quick search of Yelp finds only a handful of places on my side of the Niagara River; at least crepes of the European sort. I kept thinking that I would make my way to the cafe on Parkside Ave which sells them, deferring it in the way you do when something has no deadline and no particular urgency. (Ask the average Buffalonian how often they go to Niagara Falls. I reckon you’ll get an answer varying from “never” to “every time my relatives visit”.) The prices were around $4.50-8 for something I know is much, much cheaper to make. Russians, as known as they are for their caviar, tend to eat inexpensively. Then I had a really mediocre experience at its non-crepe sister cafe. So, I figured it was time to try making them myself again.

It was ultimately an impulse decision on a rainy day. I grabbed my husband’s welding glove, our fish spatula, and our cast-iron skillet. I grabbed my mother’s old Betty Crocker book, my go-to for all classic foods, and found a recipe. My refrigerator was completely lacking in milk but had powdered buttermilk, so I made that substitution. I whisked together the ingredients, buttered the pan, poured on the thin batter, and tilted the heavier-than-crepe-pans cast-iron skillet. I waited. I wasn’t sure. I know from my Russian cooking instructor that the first crepe is a sacrifice. This one didn’t make my memory of his lesson a liar. It was soggy in butter, flimsy, and broken. The second one, benefiting from a more seasoned pan and more seasoned baker, came out perfectly. My right wrist would need to build some muscle, but I had this.

I’d played with the recipe. What happens when you run out of buttermilk, and still don’t have milk? What if you grind your oatmeal into a flour? Yesterday, I realized that veganizing the recipe wouldn’t be too hard. I could replace the milk with a substitute, the eggs with flax “eggs”, and the butter with coconut oil. Add some nutmeg and almond extract and boom. And some extra water, because flax left standing will bind more. Veganizing the recipe was purely for the challenge. I do not know any vegans in Buffalo to cook for. I am not vegan anymore. I still have a vegan-compatible pantry, but it’s not exactly a cheaper way to cook.

Truth it, I find making crepes more satisfying than eating them. My life is blessed with an abundance with delicious food. Crepes aren’t special in that regard. This recipe requires that I step back from what is turning out to be a very busy phase of life, focus on the skillet for a little bit. I can’t step away. I can’t try to multi-task. I have to watch, focus, and be there. I can create something which feeds the rest of my family. I cannot deny the satisfaction of success after a “F-it, I’ll do it myself,” moment.

Presence of mind and a freedom from distraction are proving more elusive than I would have expected, at least as I was foreseeing my life at a younger age. I’m recognizing a greater need to be intentional about staying in the moment as well as being aware of the clock and schedules.

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