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This blog contains the musings of an Ethical Culture Leader (clergy).
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Leader’s Message – “What the World Needs Now Is Love” – February 2018

Sat, 01/13/2018 - 12:15pm

Remember the 1965 song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love”? Hal David wrote the lyrics, and Burt Bacharach composed the music. Bacharach, who was on quite a roll back then, initially didn’t believe in the song and was reluctant to play it for Jackie DeShannon, who loved it, recorded it and made it popular. It has since been recorded or performed live by over 100 artists and used on many movie soundtracks.

I wonder why Bacharach was reluctant. Did the sentiment seem too trite or banal? The song has a simple melody that’s easy to learn. The lyrics tell us (or a creator) that the world has plenty of meadows, cornfields and wheat fields to grow; plenty of sunbeams and moonbeams to shine, too; what it really needs is love. Even today, half a century later, the world still needs love. Such a message is timeless.

What was happening in 1965? On January 2, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a drive to register Black voters. Two days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his “Great Society” State of the Union address. Almost a month later, on February 1, Dr. King and 700 demonstrators were arrested in Selma, Alabama. Later that month, on February 21, Malcolm X was assassinated by Nation of Islam followers at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. And on “Bloody Sunday” (March 7), Alabama troopers and civil rights demonstrators clashed, galvanizing the nation’s leaders to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King returned to Alabama on March 21 to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, arriving in the state capitol on March 25. Riots broke out in the Watts area of southeast Los Angeles on August 11. On the following day, the west side of Chicago also broke out in riots.

Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam escalated, and protesters organized. The U.S. occupied the Dominican Republic in April during its civil war, and stayed over a year. The space and nuclear arms races were also well underway.

It was a precarious year, to say the least. I was fourteen years old and a veteran of school “duck-and-cover” and bomb shelter drills. I was unaware of Malcolm X at that age, but I had loved John F. Kennedy (as did all Irish Catholic girls) and mourned his death. I remember singing “What the World Needs Now is Love” at the top of my voice. It was both a plea and a prayer.

The song was remixed in 1971 by disc jockey Tom Clay, who worked at radio station KGBS in Los Angeles, into a social commentary. He added “Abraham, Martin and John” to the title. It began with a man asking a young boy to define the words bigotry, segregation and hatred, followed by a soundbite of a drill sergeant leading a platoon into training and gunfire sound effects. Then we hear the song, interspersed with excerpts of speeches by Kennedy and King and soundbites of news coverage of each one’s assassination.

What would we hear in a remix of this song today, I wonder. With a racist occupying the White House and the Voting Rights Act in shreds, with prolonged military presence overseas and an administration’s denial of climate change, we are arguably worse off than we were back in 1965.

Still, I refuse to lose hope, and neither should you. Our history is replete with stories of greed and generosity, prejudice and acceptance, hate and love. We must learn from that history. As individuals and as a nation, we must choose love.

That’s the message I heard at this year’s Mayor’s Interfaith Breakfast on January 11 at the New York Public Library. Imagine a great hall filled with clergy representing all the religions of our city. At my table alone were a Mormon (with whom I chatted about my hometown, Palmyra, birthplace of Mormonism), a Muslim woman (sans hijab), a resplendent Baptist African-American couple, two evangelical Christians preparing for a journey to the Holy Land, and two Hindus from Queens. The morning was a veritable lovefest: celebrating our diversity of faiths and a commitment to unity of social justice action.

Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr. from First Corinthian Baptist Church gave the introductory invocation. He said, “Take love seriously. Take seriously who you are called to be. Take our humanity seriously,” to which I heartily responded, “Amen!”

What the world needs now, has always needed, and will always need is love, sweet love, because that’s “the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Choose to love not just some, but everyone.

Leader’s Message – “Undone by Women” – January 2018

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 2:16pm

“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days
The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.
No more the drudge and idle, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”

These are lyrics from the union song, “Bread and Roses” They commemorate the strike begun on January 12, 1912 in Lawrence, MA, one of the most significant struggles in the history of the American working class. Although a new state law had reduced the work week in textile mills from 56 to 54 hours, the bosses sped up the looms and cut the average wage to $6 a week, putting workers on the edge of starvation.

In 1905, sixty years after its founding as a textile city, Lawrence became home to the American Woolen Company, the world’s biggest textile plant. Advanced technology enabled the owners to replace skilled workers with lower-paid Arab, Russian, and East European immigrants. By the time of the strike, workers from 25 different nations lived within a one-mile radius of the mill under deplorable conditions. It is estimated that over one-third of mill workers died before the age of 25 years, mostly from respiratory diseases, and nearly half of the children died before their sixth birthday. Women were subjected to sexual harassment and assault.

“Short pay! Short pay!” rang out when the wage cut was announced, and 23,000 workers left the mills to pour into the streets. The National guard was called out.

So, too, was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 21-year old organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), who organized the strike. In contrast to the American Federation of Labor (AFL), comprised of white men who barred women and Black workers, the IWW, formed by socialists, emphasized unity and solidarity. Women led the Lawrence strike, and every union meeting was translated into 25 different languages. They sang, put on dances and debates, and invented the moving picket line. Flynn educated women and immigrants about the oppression they faced.

After police beat one pregnant woman so brutally that she had a miscarriage, the national and international outcry forced Congress to open an investigation, putting pressure on the bosses, and on March 14, strikers won some of their demands for pay raises and overtime pay. Sadly, this victory was short-lived. Nonetheless, at a time before they had suffrage, women persisted and prevailed. They would never forget.

Over a century later, women have gained the vote, but not equal rights, and sexual harassment is as prevalent now as it was in the textile mills of Lawrence. How we had wished it would be otherwise! The first time I saw the #MeToo meme was on my daughter’s Facebook timeline, and I immediately felt that I had failed her. I had been subjected to sexual harassment, but it was not supposed to happen to her.

The “Silence Breakers,” named Person of the Year 2017 by Time magazine, have succeeded where other women have failed, bringing down movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and triggering an avalanche of sexual harassment accusations and consequent resignations. Of course, two Black women blazed the trail.

In 1991, Anita Hill became a national figure when she accused former boss and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. “I did what my conscience told me to do, and you can’t fail if you do that,” she said. And in 1997, long before hashtags, Tarana Burke, listening to a 13-year old girl tell her about being sexually abused, gave birth to the Me Too campaign. “It really bothered me, and it sat in my spirit for a long time,” she said. Ten years later, she founded Just Be Inc., a non-profit organization devoted to helping victims of sexual harassment and assault.

Salma Hayek, who began her acting career in Mexico, who suffered at the hands of Mr. Weinstein, wrote, “I am inspired by those who had the courage to speak out, especially in a society that elected a president who has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women and whom we have all heard make a statement about how a man in power can do anything he wants to women. Well, not anymore.”

Not anymore? Only if we organize as Black women in Alabama did last month to ensure the victory of Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four Black girls, over alleged pedophile and confirmed racist Roy Moore. Only if we stand together and march in the Women’s March 2018.

Millions of women across the country will reprise last year’s marches during the weekend of January 20-21. Here in New York City, the theme is “March Into Action,” and it will take place from 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday, January 20, targeting a route along Central Park West with the rally beginning just north of Columbus Circle. I have registered a group from our Society to participate and will keep you apprised of details. For more information, visit https://womensmarchalliance.org/2018-womens-march-on-nyc/2018wm-faq/

We cannot let this moment end until all of our goals for women’s empowerment are met. Remember: “The rising of the women means the rising of the human race.”


Leader’s Message – “Be a Muslim Ally!” – December 2017

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 2:11pm

One of the joys of my profession is engaging with clergy colleagues from other faith traditions in social justice and university campus settings. My pastoral counseling training also included students from different faiths, and it deepened my appreciation for how much we have in common. All of us serve communities of people striving to be their best selves and to nurture loving relationships. The principles of group dynamics apply everywhere, so we learned together, supported one another, and stay in touch.

Ethical societies include religious literacy in their curriculum for children. Growing up in the Brooklyn Society, my children had the opportunity to visit churches, synagogues, Hindu temples, and mosques. Their friends in public school grew up in all of these faith traditions. Learning about them made them better friends. How I wish everyone had this experience!

Last month I participated in a Muslim Ally Zone Training at New York University, where I serve in the Center for Global Spiritual Life as Humanist Chaplain. Two presenters addressed a full house comprised of students, faculty, administrators, residence advisors, and chaplains. We were all eager to learn more and distressed to hear that, even on a liberal campus in a multicultural city, Muslims face not only discrimination but also harassment and violence.

There is a negative stigma associated with the terms “Muslim” and “Islam.” Most Americans know very little, and misinformation is rampant. Indeed, 21% believe that ISIS is a proper depiction of Islam. As one presenter said, “We talk a lot about our faith, but people don’t listen. I choose not to wear a hijab, but my sisters do. No one forces them. It is a way in which they practice their faith and assert their rights as Americans. As individuals, we are all free to practice our faith in different ways.”

Here are some basic facts:
• There are 1.7 billion Muslims in the world or 23% of the world’s population. They are racially diverse, live in 77 countries, and 62% live in the Asia-Pacific area.
• Islam is the second largest and fastest growing religion in the world. One in five Muslims is a convert.
• The first Muslims arrived in America as slaves in the 17th century and now number 3.3 million or 1% of U.S. population. Dearborn, MI has the largest number of Muslims in the country, and Queens has the largest number in NYC.
• One out of eight NYC public school students (12%) are Muslim, and in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx they number as many as 20%.
• Anti-Muslim violence remained significantly higher in 2015 than pre-9/11 levels, with American Muslims up to nine times more likely to suffer violent attacks.
• There has been a 197% increase in the number of anti-Muslim hate groups up from 2015. These organizations portray Muslims as fundamentally alien, irrational, intolerant and violent. The propaganda they disseminate about Islam is overtly hostile.

The other presenter relayed his experience of growing up on eastern Long Island where, on 9/11, he was a high school freshman and one of only ten minority students in a class of 600. “I have heard every terrible thing you can imagine about being Muslim,” he said. “I moved, but my parents still live there and are often told to ‘go back to where you came from.’ The sad thing is that we’re used to it and it doesn’t bother us anymore. I worry about my young children.” He reminded us that when Ted Cruz was a presidential candidate in 2016, he said, “I am a Christian first. I am an American second,” and asked whether it would be acceptable for any Muslim candidate to put her or his faith first.

What are we to do when hate crimes targeting Muslims are at an all-time high? Be an ally. Ask your friends, neighbors and colleagues how you can support them. If you are a bystander to harassment, engage the victim and offer a friendly presence. Accompanying this essay is a helpful list from WNYC’s “On the Media” program. Above all, educate yourself about Islam and visit a mosque. Ask questions and participate in social action in support of Muslims.

Omid Safi, Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, offers these words: “Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul. . . Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.”