Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year! and Goodbye to All That!

I've been reading lots of 2009 retrospectives today.

On Monday, when I get back to work, I'll plan to post a decade overview.

But for my stalwart readers, I thought I'd quickly recap 2009.

It wasn't a great year for sexual justice. The good news is that our network of religious leaders committed to sexual justice grew past 5000, and the Religious Institute continued to grow in revenues, despite the economic turn down.

But, as I think back over the year, some things stand out:

Men Behaving Badly: Oh, Tiger, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, Mark Sanford, John Ensign. Nuff said. Can we get through 2010 without a front page sex scandal?

More Men Behaving Badly: Shame on the House and the Senate for caving to the Catholic Bishops and throwing women under the bus on health care reform. Let's send Bart Stupak back to obscurity in 2010.

Men Behaving Timidly: New York and New Jersey, really. Marriage equality is long over due.

Voters Turning Back the Clock: Maine voters, what were you thinking?

Barack Obama: Yes, for ending abstinence only until marriage education programs. Yes, for ending gag rule. But, really, NOTHING on LGBT rights? You PROMISED. We're going to hold you to it in 2010. (But thank you for inviting me to the Christmas party at the White House -- a definite highlight for 2010.)

A year of personal work highlights for me: speaking and/or leading worship in 15 states; serving on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA; creating the Congo Sabbath Initiative for V-Day; meetings at the White House and the United Nations; the UUA becoming the first denomination to pass a sexual health competency for candidates for ministry; a beautiful new web site; entering the world of twitter (follow me @revdebra) and Facebook; and wonderful pastoral moments, including presiding over my first LEGAL same sex marriage ceremony.

Thank you to my loyal readers; I am blessed by my ministry and your support.

Blessings to you for the new year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Response to Garrision Keill0r: Our Unitarian Universalist Christmas


Dear Mr. Keillor,

I read your article last week on called “Don’t Mess with Christmas.” The sub head said, “It’s a Christian holiday…and it’s plain wrong to rewrite Silent Night. Unitarians, I’m talking to you.”

Now, I have always thought that you, the host of the NPR show Prairie Home Companion, were sort of an adopted Unitarian Universalist, right up there with Poet Mary Oliver. I even know UU ministers who don’t start writing their sermons on Saturday nights until your show is over. I guess, I was wrong.

Your article goes on to say this about a Unitarian Church you visited recently in Boston, “Silent Night has been cleverly rewritten to make it more about silence and night and not so much about God.” You conclude, “Christmas is a Christmas holiday – if you’re not in the club, buzz off.”

Oh, Mr. Keillor, there’s so much wrong here, I don’t know where to begin.

You seem to have forgotten that December 25th is an arbitrary date for the birth of Jesus, picked sometime in the 4th century because it was the day of the pagan feast of the unconquered sun, spelled S-U-N, not S-O-N. Those “Christian” symbols of holly and ivy and evergreens and indoor candles you refer to were all part of those pagan solstice rituals. The early church was trying to co-opt this winter holiday to recruit non-believers to Christianity.

You conveniently ignore that even more recently the Christian church didn’t embrace the celebration of Christmas. It was outlawed by English Parliament in the 17th century and by Puritans in America during the 18th. It wasn’t even a recognized l holiday in the United States until 139 years ago.

By targeting Unitarians, you forget that many of the Christmas songs and stories you hold dear were written by Unitarians. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, It Came upon a Midnight Clear, Over the River and Through the Woods, even Jingle Bells. All Unitarian. Oh, and that indoor decorated Christmas tree? Yup, that’s our’s too.

So, Mr. Keillor, we Unitarian Universalists are gathered tonight to celebrate Christmas Eve, to hear the stories of the birth in the manger, the journey of the magi – to light candles and to yes sing Silent Night. Some of us were here earlier to watch the miracle of a children’s Christmas pageant. Some of us are Christian, and we celebrate our cradle faith’s traditions. Some of us, like me, grew up Jewish - - or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or secular – but have joined together in our wonderful liberal religion, finding a new religious and spiritual community.

We’re here, not because we think alike, not because we all believe that Jesus was the Messiah or even if there is a God, but because we love alike -- because we hope alike.

We know that those ancient pagans and those early Christians were on to something. That in the darkest time of the year, we need to bring the light inside, to be together with those we love, to reach out to those who have less than we do -- so that we can all be a little warmer, a little more connected, a little less lonely, a little less fearful.

We may not believe that Jesus is God, but we celebrate what Jesus stood for. Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Speaking truth to power. Taking care of those who are less fortunate. Working together to heal a broken world.

And we celebrate the birth of this one child as a reminder of the promise of each and every new life. In our church, Mr. Keillor, we teach our children that every child is a special child, that every child reminds us that they are “Emmanuel “ which means the divine is with us. We are reminded that every human life, no matter how humble its beginnings, can indeed bless the world.

See, Mr. Keillor, we believe in the miracles. Maybe not the miracles as they are told in the Bible stories, but in the miracles of our lives together. For some of us who are facing illness or personal tragedy or unemployment or family issues, we may be particularly struck by the miracle that we indeed made it to this night. But the reality for each of us is that tonight is the miracle. The miracles of your family – and mine – and the miracle that we are alive at all. The miracles that happen here, right here, in this community, when we join together. The miracle of this darkened sanctuary on this one night, remembering that in the darkest of winters, in the physical world or in the dark part of our souls, even the tiniest light can with faith become brighter and stronger.

In a few minutes, we will light the candles and join our voices and hearts and sing Silent Night. One tiny light will light another until our whole sanctuary is filled with light once again. We’ll do it as metaphor and for tradition and hope and community and love.
And because, Mr. Keillor, Christmas belongs to all of us who chose to celebrate it. I think your Jesus would have liked it that way.

With blessings for your holiday and New Year,
Rev. Debra Haffner, on behalf of the Unitarian Church in Westport, CT

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Religious Institute Leader Network Now More Than 5000 Strong

We did it!

The Religious Institute has surpassed its 2009 goal of 5000 religious leaders as part of our network.

These religious leaders represent more than 50 faith traditions and come from every state in the country. They are willing to be publicly identified as supporters of sexual health, sexuality education, and sexual justice -- in faith communities and society.

And we know that they represent thousands more ordained clergy, religious leaders, theologians, and senior staff at faith based organizations. We hope to have 10,000 in our network by our 10th anniversary in 2011.

We're launching a network of people of faith in January. YOU can join our Faithful Voices Network and be part of our ministry of sexual health and justice. Stay tuned.

We have so much more to do, but for now, we are celebrating!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Help the Religious Institute Meet Its Goal...18 To Go

I'm just back from a few days of vacation before the holidays begin.

It was an eventful few days to be away from the computer and the office.

I'm celebrating that the mayor of the District of Columbia signed marriage equality legislation late last week. I love that the signing took place at All Soul's, a Unitarian Universalist congregation in D.C. It was a stirring reminder that people of faith support marriage equality.

I'm furious that the Senate approved the Nelson amendment as part of health care reform, again limiting coverage for abortion services beyond current limitations. The Democratic leadership caved for one Senator's support of the overall bill. Once again, women's lives were traded away for votes.

On a more positive note, I came back and found that the Religious Institute leader network has grown to 4982...just 18 short of 5000. That's right, we need only 18 religious leaders (clergy, religious educators, theologians and staff of faith based organizations) to pass 5000 religious leaders who publicly support sexual justice issues.

Can you help us meet our goal by the end of 2009? If you are a religious leader, please go to and do it online. If you are a person of faith, please ask your clergy person or religious educator to do so now.

We've got 10 days to go and 18 people to put us over the top! Can you help?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Secretary Clinton on U.S. Commitment to Global Reproductive Health and Family Planning

Posted by Dr. Kate Ott, Religious Institute Staff

As part of the Rachel Sabbath Initiative, we invite you to join us online in watching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deliver a major speech on renewed U.S. leadership and commitment to global reproductive health and family planning. On Monday, Dec 21 at 3:00pm EST, the speech will stream live on

The Religious Institute's Rachel Sabbath Initiative: Saving Women's Lives supports the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal 5 through raising awareness in congregations and denominations on how to improve maternal health internationally. Secretary Clinton's speech will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the international Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and will announce the U.S. Government's renewed support for and dedication to reaching the iCPD goals and other related UN agreements including the Millennial Development Goals, by 2015, according to the ICPD planning group.

Together, we can work toward improving and saving women's lives globally!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah 2009

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Happy Chanukah! As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it is one of the holidays we celebrate in our home.

In case you've forgotten, here is a quick recap of the story (adapted from my blog from two years ago.)

In 167 b.c.e., a Greek leader named Antiochus attempted to institute a Greek state religion. He ordered the takeover of the temple in Jerusalem, had a statute of Zeus built on its altar, and called for ritual sacrifice there and in other Jewish temples throughout the countryside. Mattathias killed the first Jew who came forward to offer a sacrifice as well as a state official, and he and his five sons were forced to escape to the hills. Together, they organized first a small band of rebels to resist Antiochus, which grew to a 6000 person army that retook Jerusalem and the Temple. Three years from the day that Zeus was erected, the 25th of Kislav, Judas Maccabeus and his followers rededicated and purified the Temple in an 8 day celebration. Chanukah has been celebrated more or less continuously for 2,170 years.

Chanukah is the first recorded battle for religious freedom and against efforts to have a minority religion assimilated into a larger whole, reason enough for us to celebrate it in today's world where religious fundamentalists claim that theirs is the only truth.

But the legend of Chanukah also speaks to me. According to a very short passage in the Talmud, the Maccabees came into the temple and after purifying it, went to relight the eternal flame. They only had enough oil for one day. Pressing new oil from the olive trees would take another week. Miraculously the oil lasted for the entire eight days. The Rabbis who wrote the Talmud transformed the telling of the history from a heroic military battle into a story of God’s miracle and grace to the Jewish people. They moved it from a story based on the facts to a story based on the universal need for faith and hope and redemption. It is a truth story, not a true story.

Who among us hasn't needed to find that light within during dark days of the soul?

The need to light the flame in the deep part of winter -- or in the dark part of our lives -- is reflected in Chanukah, in Solstice rituals, in the stories of the journey of the magi. Faith is often part of that journey -- the belief that no matter how dim it seems, that we can count on the light to return. May the Chanukah lights remind us.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Human Rights Day 2009: Uganda's Anti-Gay Proposal

December 10th is Human Rights Day.

There are many things I could write about today. Sexual rights are human rights, and in too many places in the world (and in the United States) they are denied. The right to bodily integrity, the right to live one's sexual orientation and gender identity without fear of discrimination or violence, the right to marry, the right to reproductive health care, the right for adults to make consensual sexual decisions without governmental interference, the right to information...the list is long.

But, the most horrific example for today is the anti-gay bill that is proposed in Uganda. Read it here. It criminalizes same sex sexual behavior, which is punishable by seven years in jail for a first time, unless the person has HIV and then it is punishable by life imprisonment or death. Allies who who "aids, abets, counsels or procures another to engage in acts of homosexuality commits an offense and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for seven years. Same sex couples who marry are to be imprisoned for life. A Ugandan citizen living an another country who commits "such offenses" can be extradited for trial.

This proposed law is an unspeakable outrage against humanity, and religious leaders are speaking out. According to GLAAD,

I joined a letter this week of Christian conservative and progressive leaders who sent a letter to Uganda decrying the law's inhumanity. It was signed by a wide ranging coalition of faith leaders, from Catholics to ultraconservative evangelicals to denomination leaders to progressives who regularly speak out for LGBT rights. You can read it and the list of endorsers here.

What can YOU do?

Become educated about what's being proposed. Tell your friends and colleagues. Here are some suggestions from GLAAD's faith program:

  • If you oversee many congregations, email a pastoral letter for human rights day
  • Issue a press release and hold a press conference on Human Rights day
  • Preach a sermon about all of us being created in God’s image;
  • Contact faith leaders in your tradition and other traditions and urge them to write letters and take a public stand.

Join the letter writing campaign to the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity. Tell him that your faith teaches you that all humans have dignity and worth and that sexual diversity is part of God's blessing. Tell him that it is immoral to violate human rights because of a person's sexual orientation. Tell him that the world is watching.

Here's the address:

Hon. Dr. James Nsaba Buturo

Minister of Ethics and Integrity

Office of the President, Parliamentary Building

P. O. Box 7168

Kampala, Uganda

Let Your Voice Be Heard.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Tell the Senate: No Further Restrictions on Abortion In Health Care Reform

I just can't write another blog this morning on abortion in health care reform. Senators Nelson and Hatch introduced the Senate version of the Stupak amendment, which if passed, will mean that increased abortion restrictions will be part of health care reform if passed. It's likely to be voted on today. As I've written here and on Huffington Post, it puts pro-choice advocates in an impossible position of having to choose between supporting health care reform and access to abortion services.

The Religious Institute joined twelve other religious organizations in sending a letter to the Senate. I'm reprinting it below. I don't think I have anything new to say -- except that if you haven't called your Senator, NOW is the time to do so.

Here's the letter:

The undersigned religious and religiously affiliated organizations urge the Senate to support comprehensive, quality health care reform that maintains the current Senate language on abortion services.

We believe that it is our social and moral obligation to ensure access to high quality comprehensive health care services at every stage in an individual’s life. Reforming the health care system in a way that guarantees affordable and accessible care for all is not simply a good idea—it is necessary for the well-being of all people in our nation.

The passage of meaningful health reform legislation will make significant strides toward accomplishing the important goal of access to health care for all. Unfortunately, the House-passed version of health reform includes language that imposes significant new restrictions on access to abortion services. This provision would result in women losing health coverage they currently have, an unfortunate contradiction to the basic guiding principle of health care reform. Providing affordable, accessible health care to all Americans is a moral imperative that unites Americans of many faith traditions. The selective withdrawal of critical health coverage from women is both a violation of this imperative and a betrayal of the public good.

The use of this legislation to advance new restrictions on abortion services that surpass those in current law will serve only to derail this important bill. The Senate bill is already abortion neutral, an appropriate reflection of the fact that it is intended to serve Americans of many diverse religious and moral views. The bill includes compromise language that maintains current law, prohibiting federal funds from being used to pay for abortion services, while still allowing women the option to use their own private funds to pay for abortion care. American families should have the opportunity to choose health coverage that reflects their own values and medical needs, a principle that should not be sacrificed in service of any political agenda.

We urge the Senate to support meaningful health reform that maintains the compromise language on abortion services currently in the bill.


Catholics for Choice
Disciples Justice Action Center
The Episcopal Church
Jewish Women International
National Council of Jewish Women
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Washington Office
Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
The Religious Institute
Union of Reform Judaism
United Church of Christ, Justice and Witness Ministries
United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society
Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Still a Second-Class Citizen

Rev. Haffner is on the road this week. This guest blog is by Tim Palmer, who leads the Religious Institute's LGBT inclusion initiatives.

Thirty-eight elected officials -- each of them sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution and the American values of freedom and equality -- went on record today to say that I am second class. That I am not a full citizen of the nation where I was born. That even though I am subject to the same laws and tax codes as any other citizen, I am not entitled to the same rights.

I watched live-stream video from Albany this afternoon as 38 state senators voted down a bill authorizing civil marriage for same-sex couples. They took a roll call vote. Every "no" cut deep.

First came the disappointment. Just minutes before, I'd been captivated and inspired by the testimony of senators urging a yes vote. Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, a self-described PK (preacher's kid), said her sister, now a minister, might disagree with her vote, but she was casting it in honor of their brother, a gay man long estranged from both his family and his country.

Several other senators spoke eloquently of their faith and of the Bible's unqualified directive that we work for justice and treat one another with love. Senator Liz Krueger acknowledged that some senators believed their religion compelled them to vote no. She answered that her faith compelled her just as strongly to vote yes.

Disappointment soon turned to anger. I've been writing this blog post in my head all day, each time finding sharper, more stinging words to assail those 38 senators. Only one of them had risen to speak against the bill; the other 37 lacked either the courage or a decent argument. Most probably lacked both.

But, amidst the anger, an image kept coming to mind -- of Jesus standing silently before Pilate, bearing deeper cuts and greater indignities than I will ever know. In the end, justice and love will speak for themselves.

So today we draw a breath, whisper a prayer, and keep the faith.

My partner Eduardo and I got engaged a few months ago. Until today, we held some hope that we might be married here at home. Now it looks like Vermont for us. It won't be a big wedding, but in this economy, I'm guessing the Vermont innkeepers, the Vermont florist, the Vermont caterers, the Vermont musicians and the Vermont restaurateurs will be glad for the income.

There is at least some justice in that.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

World AIDS Day -- We Remember

It's World AIDS Day.

And we remember.

We remember the 25 million people who have died of AIDS since the epidemic began.

We remember that there are more than 33 million people in the world who are living with HIV now.

We remember that each year, nearly 3 million people are newly infected with HIV in the world.

We remember that almost every one of those new cases could have been been prevented.

We remember that the United States took too long to respond to the epidemic, and that U.S. policies privileging abstinence over condoms and safer sex education still put people around the world at risk.

I remember my friends and colleagues who died way too young -- Bill, Danny, Billy, Stuart, Lacey, Marjorie, Damien, Michael. You have your list too.

And we remember those who insisted on a sane, compassionate, realistic response to the epidemic: to my brave colleagues in Act Up, local health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, the WHO. Those who continue to work to make sure we do not forget and we do not give up working for prevention and services for people living with AIDS and adequate medications and education for everyone.

We remember -- with love and a conviction that there is still so much more work we must do.