Sunday, September 23, 2007

Help still Needed

Last week I spent five days in New Orleans. I was there for a leadership conference with the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee). I volunteer as a Regional Coordinator and this was our annual get together to see what the UUSC is doing and where we can help. I just started volunteering last January, so this was my first conference. It was very overwhelming and inspiring.

We toured all around New Orleans, seeing both the good and the not-so good. It was not surprising to see that Canal Street, the Riverfront, and French Quarter are almost completely back to normal. There was definitely work in progress, but for the most part, it was very habitable and open for tourists.

Then there is the rest. There is still so much devastation. The major debris has been hauled out, but so many houses are barely standing. Numbers are still on houses marking where people died. Near where the levee broke, there are only driveways. It is hard to see. Almost everyone I met has some sort of horror story of themselves or family barely surviving (or not) the flood. I met people who waded over dead bodies, were turned away from escape at gunpoint, and were separated from their children. I was continually struck by their strength. I don't know if I would have had their inner reserve - especially as I began to better understand all the obstacles residents are facing in trying to get home.

We met with various neighborhood organizations. It quickly became evident that they are the ones that are truly bringing people home. The maze that the government has set up to help people return is almost impossible to navigate. If you have access to a computer, you are more likely to get help. Of course, very few people have that luxury. The local government, while claiming to help, has started reinforcing a lawn mowing regulation. If your lawn isn't mowed they can file a lien on your property. The goal is to eventually take over your home. I know if I lost everything, my first thought would be to make sure my lawn is mowed..... Once again neighborhood organizations have stepped up and established groups to go around mowing any lawn that needs it. This is what was inspiring.

There are so many other issues - schools that aren't open or not functioning well, public housing that the city refuses to reopen, no easily accessible medical clinics, few jobs, no daycares - it is almost impossible to know where to help. I was very glad to see that the UUSC had carefully chosen and supported groups that are making a difference. It is sometimes hard to give to an organization and know that what you contribute is going where it is most needed and will be the most effective. I left feeling that we are helping. That our efforts are making a difference.

I would encourage all you to not forget the Gulf Coast. While it has been two years, there is still so much that needs to be done. Please consider giving to a charity of your choice (of course, I would recommend the UUSC). If you are interested in donating directly to one of the groups I met with, please email me and I will send you their address. The UUSC also helps organize volunteer groups to work in the area. You can find out more information at their website - http://www.uusc.org/ or you can go to the UUA's site at http://www.uua.org/ and search for their Gulf Coast Volunteer program.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Covenant

Yesterday was the start of the official church year. It was really nice to see all our church friends after the summer break (discussed in an earlier post). Our congregation has a Book of the Month group. We mostly read books that somehow deal with Unitarian Universalism (UU). They range from the historical to contemporary. I have learned more about our/my faith through this group, then any other class I have taken through the church. We are a small, but dedicated reading bunch. Most of the books we have read are listed in my sidebar.

In an effort to make ourselves know to the larger congregation, we have set up a little book table, selling the books we will be talking about this fall and other applicable books. I was SO EXCITED to see how many people bought books. I know deep down, people are looking for a deeper understanding of UU. I can not even tell you the amount of people I talked to about the various books. Even if they don't come to the book discussion, I hope they read the books. It was also an eye-opening experience in the lack of communication between the activities at our church and people's awareness of them. Almost everyone with whom I talked with, was surprised that we had been meeting for a year! - despite the fact we were in the newsletter at least once a month. It really brought home the fact that if you don't see something in action, it is hard to take note of it.

During the second service, while I was manning the table, I had an interesting discussion with a longtime church member. I asked if he was planning on attending the service. He said that he doesn't anymore. This caught me a little by surprise as he is retired and continues to commit to teaching RE every year. His partner is also very involved in the choir. He stated that the minister doesn't really speak to him and he doesn't get much out of the service. I told him that, even though he doesn't come for the service, I am glad that he still attends the church. We (church) would greatly miss his commitment and help to the congregation.

That is where the conversation took off. He brought up the excellent point (and a point brought up beautifully in "Heretic's Faith), that, traditionally, UU is about a covenant to eachother, not to church doctrine. He is right. That is one of the reason's I was drawn to UU. I liked making a commitment to our community. A community that welcomes all that are willing to commit and support eachother. As I mentioned in my previous post about missing tradition and symbols, you don't get that in a UU church. This member noted that he has seen an increase in the UUA trying to bring about a more streamlined vision of its member congregations. Also, many people who come to UU, come with a religious background that pretty much told you what to believe and how to behave. When they start looking around the UU community, it is hard not to have that available. There is a tendency to feel that we need to develop standardized practices/traditions/beliefs, etc. But that isn't UU at heart. When I meet people who are interested in UU, I always suggest that they visit a few congregations. We all have a different feel, and it is important to find one that meets your needs.

Which brings me back to this congregant and books. While he doesn't feel the sermon's meet his spiritual needs, he has made a covenant to the people of our church (and us to him) and that is what keeps him coming back. I feel the same. But I would also add that only through active learning can we really understand UU and our own belief systems.