My Very Humanist Weekend in Washington DC

Last weekend was very Humanism-centered for me.

This past August it was my privilege to receive endorsement from the Humanist Society to be a Humanist Celebrant. This means, among other things, that I am legally authorized in the same way that ordained clergy people are to officiate weddings. The Humanist Society, founded in 1939 as a form of Humanist Quakerism, connected in the 1990s with the American Humanist Association to provide this service for its members and everyone who would seek the assistance of an endorsed celebrant. This isn’t just about presiding over weddings, though. The Humanist community and non-religious people in general still seek ceremonies to mark other significant moments in life. Funerals and memorial services are clearly necessary, but there can also be Child Welcomings, Coming of Age ceremonies, and the like. For me, it provides a means to continue, in a secular fashion, the ministry to which I devoted myself in my early 20s. However, being a Humanist Celebrant is not exactly the same as being a Christian Minister, as the expectations and approaches with regard to ceremonies can differ widely between the two. In order to be more certain about what I’m doing, I signed up for Humanist Celebrant training through the Humanist Institute.

Held at the American Humanist ASsociation’s offices Washington, DC, this one-day training provided a surprisingly in-depth crash course on what it means to be a Humanist Celebrant. We covered not only typical ceremonies and styles, but also the business aspect of this type of work. Although it is unusual for someone to really make a living as a celebrant, it is often a type of side job, and one that needs to be treated seriously. The training and the organized collection of ceremonies and business-related documents will certainly prove invaluable to me.

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The next day being Sunday, I had arranged to stay in DC to do some sightseeing, and also to pay a visit to the Washington Ethical Society. This Ethical Culture congregation, also affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association, is thoroughly humanistic in its outlook and approach. It’s fine if members have theistic beliefs, but as with all Ethical Culture Societies, at WES it’s all about ‘deed before creed.’ If you’re going to be in the DC area over a weekend, I encourage you to check them out.

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It was a good weekend, and I look forward to participating in more Humanist events in the not-too-distant future.

New Jersey’s Best-Known Evangelical Church Has a Weird History

So far as I have ever been able to tell, there is only one evangelical radio station in the New York City area. Known as Star 99.1, it plays contemporary Christian music as well as some talk shows and sermons. I’ve always known it had a close connection with Zarephath Christian Church, and that some sort of ministry called ‘Pillar of Fire’ was in the mix. What I didn’t know was that Pillar of Fire is a tiny Wesleyan denomination whose founder, Bishop Alma Bridwell White, was a vocal supporter of the KKK, and that Zarephath Christian Church is one of the few remaining congregations of the denomination. This all only came to my attention this week through a New York Times article

It actually bothers me more that I was unaware of this denomination than that its long-dead founder was a white supremacist. Granted, racist systems can remain in place long after those who originated them have turned to dust. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Pillar of Fire, which has foreign missions in places like Liberia, and which has members and clergy representing a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Whatever the sins of the ancestors, they shouldn’t be visited on the descendants who have repudiated them. Two statements from the organization, on in 1997 and the other in 2009, made it clear that they regretted and rejected the racist ideology of their past.

Now, how did I miss this denomination? As I mentioned, it’s of Wesleyan origin, having been founded in 1901 in the Holiness tradition. A little digging online turned up very old copies of their Book of Discipline – some adaptation of which many Wesleyan denominations use – from that era, but nothing more recent. Perhaps they still have one but don’t make it generally available. I can’t seem to find a public-facing publishing house at all, for that matter. 

It’s likely this denomination escaped my notice simply because it’s so small. As the NYTimes article puts it:

From a peak of more than 50 domestic congregations, the denomination had shrunk to only a few American churches and mission churches in several foreign countries. But in the 1990s, a new generation of leaders saw promise in this historic place.

It’s clear than many people don’t know that Zaraphath Christian Church is affiliated with a denomination, however small. 

“We like that the church is nondenominational, because we are nondenominational as well,” said Sabrina Da Cruz, 34, who drove 40 minutes from Elizabeth, N.J., with her husband and infant to attend a service this summer. “They talk about Jesus, which is what a lot of people need. It’s Jesus from beginning to end.”

Now, don’t get the idea that just because I accept that this group has moved on from its racist path, I somehow give them a pass for their teaching in other ways. Far from it. 

First, doctrine. If you take a look at the denomination’s statement of faith, you’ll see that they express a confidence that the Bible is correct in its entirety. That’s not-so-subtle code for some form of six day creationism (either young earth or old earth, they aren’t specific). Further, they reference the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden as an objective fact, further confirming their rejection of what scientific research has demonstrated to be the truth of our origins as a species. This anti-science outlook, as benign it may seem, is insidious. It discourages critical thinking and lays the foundation for distrust of any findings of science that seem to contradict their faith. While I affirm their constitutional right to believe and teach whatever they want, there’s no way I’ll ever actually think it’s healthy to base one’s life on fairy tales (at least, not again).

Second, although Pillar of Fire is now a diverse denomination, it is not explicitly anti-racist, nor is it inclusive of the lgbtq+ community. As for the former, this leaves open the possibility that an underlying bias in favor of whites may persist, as well it has in even ardently progressive denominations like the Unitarian Universalist Association. With the latter, Pillar of Fire is no different from any other conservative evangelical body in that it teaches that homosexuality is a sin. I can’t help wondering how many queer youth are going to bed tonight believing they’re hell-bound sinners because of these doctrines, or else have suffered rejection from their family and church for coming out. Again, people are completely free to join and support such churches, but that doesn’t make it right.

There is one way in which I think that Pillar of Fire in general and Zarephath Christian Church in particular could serve as a case study, and that would be in terms of church growth. In 2004, Zarephath reportedly had about 100 members, and now it reports an average weekend attendance of 1400. It offers a multiplicity of different ministries, covering difficulties like divorce, domestic violence, and single motherhood. The NYTimes article attributes the burst of growth to its adoption of a contemporary evangelical worship style. Personally, I think what really helped was that the denomination owns a radio station, and that the now-former minister (he admitted this past February to having been involved in an adulterous relationship) Rob Cruver had a charismatic personality. I’d be interested in an in-depth case study to see if there are any lessons that might be learned by secular communities and Unitarian Universalist congregations. Clearly ‘woo’ and manipulation aren’t options, but there must be some healthy things Zarephath is doing that can be emulated.

Starting Over Almost From Zero as a Unitarian Universalist

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A year ago this month I joined Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ. For some time prior to that I considered myself a Unitarian Universalist, and in fact had already become a member of the board of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. This was after over 20 years of being an evangelical, having even trained for and served in ministry.  As a supply preacher, student minister, missionary, and then full-time minister I organized services, taught Bible studies, preached, led youth group, visited the sick, officiated weddings and baptized converts. All of this is very familiar territory to me. Some of this maps over to life in a UU congregation, but the mapping isn’t precise. It was disconcerting to me to be reminded not long ago that I really am starting over almost from zero as a Unitarian Universalist.

Despite the fact that I intend to return eventually to full-time ministry as UU clergy, the thought of delivering a sermon to a UU congregation fills me with dread. In a Christian context I have the Bible to rely upon as a source text. Among UUs, virtually anything can be used as material for a message. This may seem liberating, but it certainly isn’t for me. My years of Bible study allowed little room to really explore the vast array of other literature available, from poetry to prose, in a multiplicity of genres. Then there are Broadway shows and film, both of which also serve as fertile grounds for UU homilies to be conceived, and my familiarity of both is quite limited. Then there’s the matter of style! As an evangelical minister I preached from an outline, while UU clergy seem to read their sermons from a complete text. The only time I ever did that was the first time I ever preached, back in 1995, and it was my worst sermon.

I spent a lot of time talking about sermons, but that’s not all. The recent reminder I mentioned above was preparations for a service in honor of James Baldwin. In the weeks prior I had scrambled to get myself up to speed on Baldwin’s work, and yet when I sat down to assist with planning, I barely knew what to say or suggest. I couldn’t even help with song selection, as UU hymnody is also quite new to me. I felt practically useless.

There was a time many years ago when I barely recognized the names of the Minor Prophets, and the Protestant songbooks were almost foreign to me. What makes it hard, I suppose, is that I was 17 then, not 41. When I was younger I accepted that there were many things I didn’t know. Now I feel as though all this ‘church stuff’ should be second nature to me, even though I know that the context has changed dramatically.

Now, I know this will pass. 8 or 9 years ago, if life permits, I’ll begin my transition back into ministry. I’ll go to seminary, serve an internship with a UU congregation, do pulpit supply, and seek ministerial fellowship and ordination within the Unitarian Universalist Association. By the time that process starts I’ll certainly know my way around the songbooks, be able to usefully assist in planning services, and be far more familiar with the breadth and depth of literature and the arts. I will have mastered the lingo and perhaps even preached a few sermons. Between now and then I have a long road ahead of me. I’ll try to travel it cheerfully.

Fastest Growing Service at All Souls UU in Tulsa is Humanist

Rev. Marlin Lavanhar announced on his Facebook page that the fastest growing service at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma is The Point, a Humanist service that was started just 5 years ago. 

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With Humanist chaplaincies as well as Sunday Assembly and Oasis groups taking root around the world, Unitarian Universalist congregations should read the secular handwriting on the wall and reach out actively to non-theistic and agnostic people. While not every congregation will have the means to create an additional service, they could certainly participate in the Freethinker Friendly program and work on becoming more welcoming to the ‘nones.’

Shane Claiborne And Others to Speak at Beacon UU in Summit, NJ

Several years ago I saw Shane Claiborne speak at The Justice Conference and at Park Avenue Christian Church in New York. He and a couple of other activists will be speaking later this month at my home congregation, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, New Jersey. I hold Shane in high regard, and certainly not because of his association with the sadistic Mother Teresa. While I disagree with his religious beliefs, he really is doing what he can to advocate for a more just, peaceful world. You can read more of his bio and get details on this event below, taken from the Beacon UU website.


CHRISTIAN ACTIVIST SHANE CLAIBORNE & 2 NJ ADVOCATES SPEAK ON FAITH & POLITICS

~by Jean Crichton

Shane Claiborne, a Philadelphia-based Christian activist who worked in India with Mother Teresa and continues to campaign for nonviolence and service to the poor, will speak on Faith and Politics at 6 p.m. Thursday, September 21, at Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, 4 Waldron Ave. (at Springfield Avenue).

The program will focus on the intersections of faith and politics in the life of religious institutions, the federal budget and the non-profit sector. It is being sponsored by Rev. Carmine A. Pernini, pastor of the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rahway.

The public is warmly invited to the event, which is free.  Check-in begins at 5:30. Light refreshments and beverages will be served.

Claiborne’s talk will be followed by a panel discussion, including two New Jersey advocates for social justice: Archange Antoine, executive director of Faith in NJ, a multi-faith, multi-racial community-organizing network of faith leaders and faith communities, and Sara Lilja, director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey (LEAMNJ). Erich Kussman will be panel moderator.

Shane Claiborne, a prominent speaker and best-selling author, is part of the New Monasticism, a Protestant movement emphasizing a communal life, thoughtful, prayerful contemplation, a focus on hospitality and practical engagement with poor people.

In 1998, he founded The Simple Way, an intentional faith community in one of the poorest neighborhoods of North Philadelphia where he still lives. He was also a founder of Red Letter Christians, a movement committed to living “as if Jesus meant the things he said.” The group is named for the red lettering of Jesus’ words in traditional Christian Bibles.

Claiborne has gone to jail for advocating for the homeless and has visited war-ravaged areas in Iraq and Afghanistan to stand for peace.  In 2011, he withheld a portion of his income taxes, meant to correspond to the percentage of the federal budget spent on the military, and instead donated the money to charity

His current passion has been to end the death penalty. Last year, he published the book Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us (Harper Collins).

Archange Antoine, a New Jersey native of Haitian background, works with Faith NJ to provide realistic approaches for improving the quality of life for poor and middle-class people. Faith in NJ is a faith-based community-organizing initiative aimed at reducing racial and economic disparities. It is affiliated with the PICO National Network , which involves more than 1,200 congregations in 17 states.

 Sara Lilja has served as director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry since 2011, leading the public witness of nearly 80,000 Lutherans and Episcopalians in 450 parishes in New Jersey.

She serves as a faith-based advocate in Trenton on issues related to hunger, housing, economic empowerment, immigration and community violence and also helps congregations learn more about using their voices in the public square.

For additional information about the program, please contact Rev. Carmine Pernini at 

Conservative Evangelical Leaders Double Down on LGBTQA+ Exclusion

It’s last week’s news that a group of conservative evangelical leaders recently published what they entitled ‘The Nashville Statement.’ It is nothing other than a reaffirmation of their sub-culture’s obsession with sexuality and gender, one in which they make it very clear that they have no intention of budging one bit. Hundreds of Christian leaders and organizations have already responded, and one of my favorites is Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber’s ‘The Denver Statement.’

The best response, in my opinion, is that of Ethical Culture clergy leader James Croft. In ‘Queers: Our Worth is Independent of Theology’ he argues that any valuation of human life based on texts and traditions is subject to interpretation, and therefore not a worthy basis. I agree wholeheartedly.

I keep hearing, including in Unitarian Universalist circles, talk about having a theology of this and that. What is meant is that issues of significance are analysed based on a conception of what a god is like and would want. That seems terribly hokey to me. Even members of the same religious tradition envision their god somewhat differently. Within Christianity alone there are thousands of extant denominations and movements representing a range of understandings of the supernatural and a variety of political inclinations. Even within the same congregation there can be strong differences of opinion. Leaving the treatment of human beings to something as unstable as religious beliefs is a very bad idea.

Based on empathy and compassion, let’s take human dignity and worth as a starting point, rather than as a destination. If we make that concept central and build out from there, we can begin to build a better world.