A short film of hope for dying congregations

I was searching online, clicking links and reading tonight when I found this charming, touching and pleasingly funny film short. It’s about a Jewish congregation in the East End of London trying to keep a minyan on Yom Kippur. Spend ten minutes and — if your congregation is in peril — hope.

“The Tenth Man”

And the punchline, for this blog? The Sandys Row Synagogue, where it was filmed, is a real place. And this is the actual building, in another age then known as the Parliament Court Chapel, where a spiritually-conflicted John Murray and his first wife, Eliza, heard the Universal Gospel from James Relly. In other words, this is where the “father of American Universalism” became a Universalist. It makes me think, and tremble a little.

Who's really central in the UUA?

After a quarter-century as a Unitarian Universalist, I can say with conviction that our largest problems have little to do with money or even membership, but with deep unresolved issue of identity. The continual plaints — and curiously distributed — circle about who is or is not welcome, with tones more fitting for a Dickensian workhouse door. Mewing and poormouthing is sure to bring a comfort SWAT team — which even more obvious online — which soothes the complaint but (1) doesn’t discover if it was based in fact nor (2) does it resolve the underlying tension.

Nor do I intend to; indeed, I think the Ship of Simple Solutions sailed a long time ago.

The question I ask above — Who’s really central in the UUA? — is quite literal and is a response to calls for selling the UUA’s historic and central properties and finding other accommodation. One failed idea would have kept the offices in metro Boston, but other calls would have ’25’ move to the less-expensive middle of the country. I don’t advocate for this, considering the disruption to staff and their experience, the doubtful cost savings and the loss of morale from a move (however framed) made from lack.

But I also like to fiddle with UUA data and want learn more about optimization and mapping. So using this method, I figured out the geographic center of the UUA membership. That optimal point, as the crow flies, for all UUA congregation members to meet up. Well, not all. I’ve only included the North American congregations and have excluded the non-local Church of the Larger Fellowship for obvious reasons. And the data’s a year old. But that shouldn’t put us too far off.

So where? A field outside of St. Anne, Illinois, about 75 miles due south of Chicago. (But I suppose Gary and South Bend are more economical options.)

Western Conference Unitarians are entitled to say “I told you so.”

And that then would make the congregation at the center of the UUA the Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Park Forest, Illinois. Congratulations! (But is there room for 160,000-odd people for coffee?)

Worship: once a year (or as needed)

Please excuse a moment of somewhat-silly ecclesiastic conjecture. Regular readers know I am considering working with a congregation that will meet for worship once a month. I know what you’re thinking: Once a month! Why so much? Geez. Slow down! Don’t you have anything else to do?

Well, I do know of some churches that meet once or twice a year. Why?

  • It’s a associated with a legal membership meeting or other requirement of an otherwise dormant church. (I know of a Universalist church in Canada that meets four times a year for this reason.)
  • It’s a religious observance associated with a family reunion. (I know of and have preached to a dormant Universalist church like this; the church has a cemetery, which I suspect is the compelling reason for this annual service.)
  • It’s an extended ministry — perhaps to a small expat or linguistic community — and is dependent on overstretched clergy support.

This last case seems to be the case of some non-English-speaking Lutherans in the United Kingdom. (Don’t ask what got me reading about these.)  Consider the Icelandic Lutherans in Hull, who only worship in Advent and early June. Or the Latvian Lutherans in Swansea, seen twice a year. Or the Icelanders in Edinburgh who only meet (once) in Advent.  Likewise the Norwegian Lutherans in Cardiff and Bristol, who also get a tree-trimming party as a part of the package.

There are two other once-a-year worship services I can think of: the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship communion service at General Assembly and the Sunday morning ecumenical Christian service at the U.S. Esperanto Landa Kongreso.

These two in particular make me think of how a once-yearly service might be helpful, say for Unitarian Universalist Christians and Esperanto-speaking Christians (and others of course): to start a religious presence, rather than wind one down. One, of course, can lead to more and little is better than none. But there’s something to be said for a yearly service here, and one a couple of towns over, and so forth until a network is created.  And unlike a more frequent service, a yearly (or twice- or thrice-) service can also be the basis of a regional invitation. A weekend or even longer: a conference rather than a single Sunday morning.

Now, if once a year, when? The Advent dates above suggest a pre-Christmas — so as not to conflict with more regular congregation — observance, but All Souls or Rally Sunday (first Sunday in September) have their appeals. So also the last Sunday in May, to take advantange of the Memorial Day weekend, especially if the intent is to restart a church with a graveyard. Week of Christian Unity (in January) or World Communion Sunday (in October) might be better for the Esperantists, especially since December is already in play for the language’s founder’s December 15 birthday.

Chinese prisons keep slavery alive

It’s hard to see the “reeducation through labor” prisons in the People’s Republic of China and not see slavery. These laogai prisons not only detain people — including prisoners of conscience, including in Falun Gong and Christian believers — but then sell their products overseas. So some of those cheap Chinese goods come not simply from an artificially depressed Chinese currency and at the expense of Chinese workers, but from real, live modern slave labor. The EU has no effective law, and the US is toothless.

A documentary on Al-Jazeera — a part of their Slavery: A 21st Century Evil series(watch it online) — brings it home. Or if you’re in Washington, D.C. you can visit the Laogai Museum and see more yourself. I’ve been — it’s north of Dupont Circle — and is worth the visit.

Laogai Museum
1734 20th Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20009

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Perhaps instead of “Black Friday”/Buy Nothing Day?



Occupy: D.C., New York, Davis or where-have-you

I’d hate for my readers to think that my few comments about the Occupy movement suggests I’m uninterested. Far from it. Indeed, I’m very mad and deeply concerned about yesterday’s pepper-spraying of student demonstrators at University of California Davis. Google for it, if you’ve not seen this now-iconic photograph.

But I comment mostly by Twitter, Identi.ca, Google+ and Facebook.  And if you have the means to support your closest Occupy encampment, I encourage you to do so.

Hurricane blogging update

I’ll either be blogging heavily about an odd mix of items over the next two days because I’m bored, or very little because the power will be out (or because I’m enraptured by the storm.) I live-blogged the last hurricane threat we had — in 2003 — and included in that post an hurricane-appropriate hymn and a short litany from historic Universalist sources.

Join in the rapture by listening to the is-this-what-the-future-was-to-be http://youarelistening.to/irene and looking at images, like the one following, from NASA. (Click the picture for the source page.) It’s now my computer’s desktop image.

Stay safe, and spare a prayer particularly for the frightened, first responders and caught travelers.

Righting the bad news from Somalia?

There’s nothing good about the news coming from Somalia. Or the Somaliland area. Or whatever you want to call that drought-stricken place that’s among the most lawless in the world, the transitional government notwithstanding. But serious, concerned people have an interest in knowing what’s happening there and helping, so far as within us lies.

Much of the food aid is being stolen and resold. That makes the starving children — 400,000 are a risk of a starvation death, per the UK development minister (video) — the hostages of those hoodlums who, in essence, holding them hostage before a starving world. (And in essence, the same thing done by that most repressive of governments, North Korea. Let’s not forget them.)

Leads one to despair.

So I’m asking if anyone has heard a good analysis of the situation, or better, know of a group that has been more effective in securing food for vulnerable, hungry people. Understamd, then act.

Girl soldiers in Uganda: a film project

My work colleague, Zubedah Nanfuka, has produced a short documentary called Wives of War: Uganda’s Former Girl Soldiers of the LRA, the last referring to the Lord’s Resistance Army.

If you care about understanding the role of women and girls — as soldiers, as sex slaves, as returnees — in armed conflict, I’d ask you to support Zubedah’s project to expand and improve the film.

The project costs $3,000, of which $650 has already been raised. I’m certain your contribution — even $5 is helpful; more is better — would be well appreciated and carefully stewarded.

Again, that link.

Emergency preparation: can stove

I think my several years of childhood in hurricane-vulnerable New Orleans has deeply affected my approach to emergency preparation. When there’s news of very bad weather coming, the first thing I do is put back at least two gallons of drinking water (Dutch ovens are good, plus a pitcher in the fridge) and plug in everything that can recharge. Then start a load of laundry — the risk of four or five days off-grid is more bearable if there are clean clothes to change into — and then out for supplies. But I try to keep a few days’ worth of food in the house that can be eaten without cooking. Perhaps not desirable, but edible.

Place these thoughts in the context of the current suffering in Japan. Sometimes preparations don’t do much good, but that’s not an excuse not to prepare. And so I thought about what extra resources — not too obtrusive or expensive; butterfly bandages, say– would I put back?

Now, I’m no camper, but a camp stove would be a good choice, and one — like the long-used and much loved beverage can stoves would be a better to have than no way to cook or heat a bit of water at all. Here’s the concept, and here’s a variation I’d want to have on hand. But the idea is that one might be made after the outages if the directions were held back, say on a battery-powered laptop. (Feedback and additions, particularly from actual campers, welcome.)