Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Chanukah: A Celebration of Religous Freedom

Tonight is the first night of Chanukah.

I have to admit that each year I have to remind myself of the details of the historical story. It's more complicated than the nativity story, but just as compelling.

So here it is from last year's blog:

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 2,176 years.

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 this historic 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. The oil lasting 8 days is a truth story, and most likely not a true story.

Chanukah is a holiday then about religious freedom, diversity, and hope. It's also a reminder that to paraphrase Margaret Mead's famous words, a small group of people can change the world; in fact, it's the only way that happens. As we light the first candles tonight, let us praise the heroes, those who stand up to oppression, and let us rekindle hope in our hearts for everyday miracles.

Happy Chanukah!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Rape Is Never A Joke -- and Too Real for Too Many of Us

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control released yesterday found that one in five women report they have been the victim of sexual assault, more than half when they were teenagers.

I'm one of those women.

I was a victim of date rape once at college and once in my early twenties. Except at the time there wasn't a term for "date rape" -- it was more understood as "that's what you get if you are alone with a man in a bedroom." I reported neither. In today's world, I would have reported both.

I'd like to think that in today's world they wouldn't happen -- that young men know that "no means no" and that in the second situation, I would have screamed and fought back sooner.

But the story coming out of the University of Vermont indicates that things may not have changed as much as we'd like to think. A fraternity there did a poll last weekend asking, "who would you like to rape?" Not, who would you like to go out with, get to know, even have sex with, but RAPE. My heart chilled as I read that story.

The young men there have been censured and said it was just a joke. But, rape is never a joke. Just ask one in five women you know.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Herman Cain Round Two: Sex Ed for Politicians

I've written similar blogs before on public figures who find themselves mired in public revelations of their sexual behaviors and relationships.

The list of "men behaving badly" seems almost endless and of both party affiliations, conservative and progressive, straight and gay. It also goes back in time and to the Bible -- just reread David and Bathsheba's story.

The latest allegations that Herman Cain had a thirteen year affair that he ended just as he entered the Presidential race certainly seem plausible to me. Men don't generally make 4:30 am phone calls to women they barely know. More will be revealed.

RH Reality Check asked me to comment, so I dusted off my "Sex Education for Politicians" article (first published here on Eliot Spitzer) and updated it. You can read it here:

http://www.rhrealitycheck.org/article/2011/11/29/sex-education-for-politicians-%E2%80%93-herman-cain-edition

It would be great for you to comment there or re post it. Maybe even send it to a public figure you know.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blessings for Thanksgiving and a link

Dear friends:

I wanted to share this link with you to the piece I wrote for today's Washington Post.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/on-faith/post/what-weve-learned-from-penn-state/2011/11/22/gIQAtPcKmN_blog.html

It's more about what I think we've learned from the sex abuse scandals at Penn State and now Syracuse University -- as well as abuse by clergy.

But, today is also an opportunity to share my gratitude with you -- for your support, your ideas, your feedback, and your interest in all things sexuality and religion.

May this Thanksgiving you feel gratitude in your heart and in your soul.

May you feel loved and may you love.

May you take the time to share your gratitude with those who ennoble your life.

May it be a day of peace and blessings.

I am grateful for you.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

What Penn State Reminds Us About Abuse-Proofing Your Child

The high profile Penn State case of associate football coach Jerry Sandusky abusing children in his care over a ten year period should be shocking, but sounds all too familiar to those of us who work on sexual abuse prevention. Children are primarily abused by adults who know them well; people who abuse children look for opportunities to be with children and groom them as trusted adults getting to know them, as Sandusky did at his center; too many times other adults look the other way.

What is shocking though is to think that when reported, officials perhaps all the way up to Coach Patierno and even perhaps the President looked the other way rather than hurt the football program. I hope that isn't true, but it certainly reminds us of the Roman Catholic Bishops and Cardinals who did just that when faced with allegations against priests.

So, what does this remind us to do? First, to report any adult we suspect of child abuse.

And second, to use this as a teachable moment to 'abuse-proof' your children. Make sure that the programs your children attend -- scouts, soccer, school, church or synagogue -- have a strong policy on keeping children safe, including screening and background checks for volunteers and employees and never being alone with children. Make sure that your child knows that most people would never hurt children, but that an older, bigger, stronger person should never touch a child's genitals. Make sure your child knows that adults don't ask children to be their friends or keep secrets, and that if someone makes them feel bad, funny, or uncomfortable with their touch or their words, they should tell you. Tell them that their body is wonderful, it belongs to them, and that they can say no to unwanted touch. And finally, tell them to come and tell you if someone does touch them. You may not be able to prevent the first case of abuse, but if your child is equipped with language and this information, you can prevent the second.

It's been a week of teachable moments in the news, with Herman Cain and Penn State. I hope you are using them.

(For more ideas on preventing sexual abuse of children, you might want to read my books "From Diapers to Dating" or "What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know."

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Sexual Harassment: Why Herman Cain and The Commentators Don't Get It

As I listened to NPR this morning, I heard a report that Herman Cain said he was having a hard time remembering the details of the accusations (and settling) of sexual harassment charges. A male respondent I heard on CNN had said something like, "that happened twenty years ago; why is it even an issue now?"

I felt my blood boil. I was a victim of sexual harassment by a faculty member in 1976. I remember every minute of it, including having a professor hand me a room key, and finding the note on the door when I next came to my TA job, "your services are no longer needed." I also remember the woman faculty member who I went to saying, "It happens to women; we'll find you another TA job."

I remember exactly how I felt watching Anita Hill testify against Clarence Thomas, and how every detail of my own experience came flooding back. I remember how I felt when there was finally a federal law and definition of sexual harassment, so that future generations of women wouldn't experience what I had.

This week, I did the first required training ever for the staff of a national religious denomination on sexual harassment. Sexual harassment, because of the law, may no longer be as blatant as it was when a faculty member fired me for not having sex with him. But it still exists; workplaces including faith based organizations still need training on sexual harassment prevention; and women and men need to know that they can come forward and be taken seriously.

I'm hoping that Mr. Cain learns that lesson this week.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What I Learned on Safari

On Saturday, I returned from a vacation to Kenya. My first visit to Africa was unforgettable, the game parks were lovely and the safari rides thrilling. But, I am haunted by the images of the cities, villages, and reservations we passed through on our way to the game parks.

Like many tourists, we visited a Masai village. We sat in a mud and cow dung constructed hut, little bigger than the office I am writing in now, that housed 10 people in two beds. We watched mothers nursing newborn babies, covered with flies. We were told about teenagers, both boys and girls, going through circumcisions and women having babies attended only by their mothers-in-law. When I asked, I was told that “only” about one in ten women in the village die in childbirth. The cities outside of Nairobi we drove through on barely passable roads were filled with children begging when our 4 by 4 vehicles stopped for traffic, with corrugated aluminum tiny homes dotting the roads.

These so-called optional tourist excursions broke my heart and brought home the reality of the need to address poverty, maternal mortality, and access to family planning. It provided me with a renewed commitment to the Religious Institute’s Rachel Sabbath Initiative to engage religious leaders and faith communities in working for U.S. support to reach the Millennium Goals worldwide.

I know that Kenya is not the poorest country in Africa, and compared with its neighbors, it is relatively peaceful. But, still, one in 38 Kenyan women will die in childbirth, 26% of women will marry before adulthood, and female genital mutilation is still widely practiced.
The average woman in Kenya has six children, while her desired family size is four, although in the Masai village I visited fertility was much higher -- yet this marks substantial progress from an estimated 8.1 children per woman in the late 1960s). Fewer than half of Kenyan couples use contraceptives (46%), although that marks a significant increase compared to the 39 per cent reported in a 2003 study. According to the CIA World Factbook, the urban population in Kenya is “growing at an alarming rate as many Kenyans migrate from their rural homes to urban centers,” which has led to a scarcity of jobs and opportunities.

World population growth stops being an abstract idea when confronted with individuals and whole communities suffering without enough food, shelter, sanitation, health care, and economic opportunities. At the end of this month, the world's population will reach 7 billion. It was 4 billion when I first started working thirty five years ago.

The Bible calls us to be stewards of the earth and caretakers of our neighbors. I hope you’ll join us in rededicating ourselves to living out our faith through renewed action on behalf of all the people of the world.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Speak Out for LGBT Youth

This morning, for the second year in the row, the Religious Institute, is calling on the nation’s clergy to speak out in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth at services near National Coming Out Day, which is October 11th. The recent suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14 year old gay youth who in the spring made his own It Gets Better video, demonstrates the sad urgency of this call to action, which remains as necessary as it was in the wake of multiple teen suicides in September 2010.

All of us have teens and young adults who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in our congregations, many who are suffering in silence and are at risk. One study found that 14% of teens in religious communities identify as something other than heterosexual. Almost nine in ten of them have not been open about their sexuality with clergy or other adult leaders in their faith communities.

Studies show that almost six in ten clergy from mainline denominations support the full inclusion and acceptance of LGBT persons, yet other studies have found that eight in ten of even the most progressive clergy don't have programs in their congregations to support LGBT youth.

We have known for more than thirty years that at least one third of all suicides to teens are to gay youth. Our young people are dying because we are not speaking out for them. Ask yourself honestly, do the LGBT youth in your faith community know that you welcome and support them? What have you done to make sure that these youth know they are loved and supported, to demonstrate that you understand that they, too, are God's children?

The Religious Institute has created new worship resources in support of National Coming Out Day. They include a responsive reading, prayers, a collect, a prayer litany and more, available at www.religiousinstitute.org/lgbtqworship.

Can you work with your local rabbi, minister, imam, or lay leaders to speak out for LGBT youth in the next few weeks? In this case, silence can equal death. Please help.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

La Shana Tova!

As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, my family (and my congregation) observe the major Jewish and Christian holidays. Tonight is Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. My extended family will gather to eat and share and laugh, and to hope together for the year to come. Some of us will gladly put down some of the challenges we have faced in the past twelve months and look to the future. We have people who have passed who we will mourn and joys to celebrate.

This is the prayer I will offer, that I wish for you as well.

The Days of Awe begin with us tonight.

May the next ten days be days of reflection, introspection, and peace.

May we prepare ourselves for the changes in the year to come.

May it be a good year.

May it be a healthy year for all of us.

May we have the strength to face the challenges that are sure to come this year, like every year.

May we have compassion and patience, for ourselves and for each other.

May it be a year of peace for all of us, in our homes, in our communities, all around the globe.

May it be a year of peace within ourselves.

May we live our lives with integrity, service, and love.

May we be blessed with the strength of community, of our families, of our friends.

May we remember what it truly important in life.

May we remember to be grateful every day.

May we all be inscribed another year in the Book of Life.

La Shana Tova!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

DADT is Done...History is made!

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" heterosexist unjust law is history as of yesterday morning. Today, service people everywhere who are gay or lesbian or bisexual can affirm their sexual orientation publicly without reprisal. People dismissed from the military because of their sexual orientation can reapply. People can come out to their colleagues, friends, and family members.

I've known several gay and lesbian members of the military. Some put pictures on their desks of people of the opposite sex to represent their girlfriend of boyfriend back home. Some went to significant events including their own promotions without their partners. One went so far as to marry a person of the opposite sex to guarantee that her female partner would be guaranteed her survivor benefits if she died overseas through a complicated legal arrangement with her legal husband.

I remember when President Clinton signed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a compromise measure and how angry both the gay and lesbian community and the sexologist community felt. To mandate people denying their God-given gift of sexuality to others was just wrong.

And now, it's over.

I saw this YouTube video of a soldier calling his father to tell him he was gay this morning:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVAgz6iyK6A&feature=aso

He plaintively asked several times, "Do you still love me, Dad?" Dad, thankfully, answers quickly and strongly, "I still love you." It's the only answer we should ever give our children. It's the answer that we should give everyone as we celebrate sexual and gender diversity.

Friday, September 09, 2011

9/11 Thoughts

I'm often asked by people why I believe that belonging to a faith community is important. Sometimes people say something like, "I can pray at home alone." Some people say, "I have a book group, I don't need a faith community."

Those discussions came to mind this morning when I watched the Today show piece on the emerging 9/11 memorial in advance of the 10th anniversary this Sunday. I found myself teary as they unveiled the memorial and the new building that is emerging.

And like I'm sure most of us who remember that day, I was brought back to that beautiful blue crisp morning, a morning with weather not unlike today. I was still a seminary student, driving to a UU minister's meeting, when I heard the first news. By the time I got there at 9 a.m., the first tower had fallen. We sat together in stunned silence around a radio at that church, one of the ministers, Rev. David Bryce led us in a very short worship service, and we all knew we had to go directly to our own congregations and wait for what was to emerge.

We learned fairly quickly that two of our congregants -- brothers -- had been killed in the towers, and our senior minister, Rev. Frank Hall, went directly to their parents' home. My close friend Rev. Barbara Fast, then our associate minister, and I knew we had to do something but we didn't know what. We send out an announcement that the church would be open that evening, and that we would offer an opportunity for people to gather for as long as they wanted and needed. We closed the doors at midnight after dozens of people came in and out. We didn't know what to do or say, but we knew that we needed to be together, in community, at this tragic time. It is an evening I will never forget.

And that's really the answer to the first question above...that we need each other, that a faith community provides a place where we can search together for our own answers to the big questions and to the joys and tragedies of life.

So, I am glad that the 10th anniversary is also our church homecoming service this year. We will gather together again on our front lawn, greet each other, and process into our beautiful sanctuary. And there, we will celebrate our homecoming and pay tribute to 9/11, and we will do it together, in community.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

One Sperm Donor, 150 Children, the Century+ Dad

We all remember the uproar about the Octomom and her eight children conceived by ARTs.

I couldn't help but think about the vast difference between her and the man who was reported in the news today to have fathered more than 150 offspring.

A few years ago, the Religious Institute published an "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Assisted Reproductive Technologies" which recognized that "the broad spectrum of assisted reproductive technologies calls for deeply personal and complex moral decisions that are unprecedented in human history." Although the letter does not address the number of sperm or egg donations, it does raise the issues of the impact of ARTs on families and children, including advocating for regulations to safeguard health (both physical and emotional) and prevent negative outcomes.

I can't help but think that the children of this man on discovering their more than 150 plus half siblings won't be affected, and that religious leaders and theologians need to be part of considering what the limits should be.

What do you think?

Friday, September 02, 2011

Attacks on Family Planning and Abortion Are Attacks on Children: A Guest Editorial

The Religious Institute co-founder and current Advisory Committee member, Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, shared with me this piece he wrote for Protestants on the Common Good, on the current attacks on women's health services. I liked it so much that I asked him if I could share it with you:

“Re-introducing Corporal Punishment”

As I approach my seventieth birthday, I’m spending more time remembering how fortunate I was to have been raised in a loving family, where, as an only child, I was treated as something special.

For health reasons, my mother was explicitly told not to risk what would likely be another unsuccessful pregnancy. But throwing caution to the wind, and desperately wanting to have a child of their own, mom and dad gave it one more try.

My birth was treated, literally, as a gift from God.

Well, almost all the time. The exceptions, of course, had to do with those occasions in which I seriously misbehaved – that is, those times when I caused my parents to question whether the divine gift had a good bit of the devil’s contribution in the mix.

When that happened – and it had to be a very serious offense to cause this particular punishment – the razor strap came out (my dad was a barber at a time when facial shaves were a regular feature of his trade) and I was given a truly stinging whipping.

That corporal punishment I still see, all these years later, as an exception, a deviation from, my parents’ love. Even then I recognized that their anger against me caused them to draw on the worst parts of their otherwise compassionate and caring personalities. (And I can only hope that my own children recognize that when I inflicted corporal punishment on them, it was a similar departure from who I was as the father who loved them.)

I have the sense that my parents, at that time, weren’t exceptional in reverting to corporal punishment when angry with a child’s behavior. As far as I can tell, it was the norm.

But that started changing when more and more parents over time heard about, read, and took to heart what Dr. Benjamin Spock proposed in his book “Baby and Child Care” (1946) and other writings: be verbal not physical in disciplining the child, and all within the context of expressing love, even if it had to be tough love.

Now twenty-nine countries outlaw corporal punishment in the home, twenty-two of them in Europe. In the United States it remains legal, but here too there are limits to what is acceptable physical punishment.

I can see that transformation operating in the way my own grandchildren are being raised.

It has taken decades to achieve, but even here in the U.S. we’ve changed.

Or have we? Might it be that we’ve only changed the way we administer the corporal punishment?

Charles Blow, columnist for the New York Times, recently (8/27/11) made that case in a “striking” (but non-corporal) way.

He referred to a Guttmacher Institute report that indicated unintended pregnancies have increased 50% since 1994, yet politicians are passing laws to restrict abortion at a record pace: 80 this year, compared to 23 in 2010 – more than three times as many so far this year compared to all of last year.

What has this got to do with corporal punishment, when supposedly it is the mother (almost never the father) that is being punished for her sexual behavior? Mr. Blow answers: “Even if you follow a primitive religious concept of punishment for sex, as many on the right seem to do, you must at some point acknowledge that it is the child, not the parent, who will be punished most by our current policies that increasingly advocate for “unborn children” but fall silent for those outside the womb.”

(While Mr. Blow doesn’t mention it, there is an irony that some of the anti-choice legislation includes the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, which often provides the contraceptive education and resources that reduces the number unplanned pregnancies, and thereby ultimately diminishes the likelihood of neglect and abuse of unintended children.)

But it isn’t just in the area of sexuality where we’ve found new ways of inflicting physical harm on children. Mr. Blow also quotes from a new report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “the official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 – 2009.” (Remember that many years in that decade were considered periods of abundance.)

And if that weren’t enough, Mr. Blow draws from a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that “the number of children facing food insecurity in 2009 soared to nearly one in four.” Then there is also an ABC News report that “49 percent of all children born in this [United States] country are born to families who receive food supplements from the federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program.”

What is the consequence of that kind of malnutrition brought on by child poverty and child hunger? What is the corporal punishment that is being inflicted?

Delayed growth and motor development. Lower I.Q.’s. Severe behavior problems. Attention deficit hyperactivity. Deficient learning capacities. Lower educational achievement. The list goes on and on.

All that punishment inflicted against children for the sin of being born into families guilty of being poor.

Members of the Republican party, as well as many Democrats and Independents, express what seems to be genuine concern about the national debt that today’s children will have to bear as adults. But in their 2012 budget proposal the Republicans, in particular, want to reduce spending for nutritional programs. Mr. Blow comments: “They want to hold the line on tax breaks for the wealthy, not paying attention to the fact that our growing income inequality, which could be reversed, continues to foster developmental inequality [among children], which is almost impossible to reverse.”

Since in this country we don’t have laws condemning the old forms of parental corporal punishment, there’s probably no chance of passing legislation that would assign some form of appropriate punishment to politicians and members of society-at-large who engage in this kind of neglect and abuse of our nation’s children.

But couldn’t those of us in the Christian community at least take guidance from the procedure Jesus recommended to his church when one member sinned against another? He instructed (see Matthew 18: 15-17) that if one fails to get the attention and confession of the offender in a face-to-face meeting, the circle of witnesses ought to be widened, and, failing that, the offense ought to be brought to the whole community for judgment and then, finally, punishment.

That punishment apparently was exclusion from the community of faith. Maybe that’s what the church today needs to do with its child neglectors and abusers in public office.

And, of course, the electorate could do something similar when it’s time again to choose its leaders.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Crazy. Stupid. Illegal. My Letter to Steve Carell

Like many ministers, I face an occupational hazard when I go to see movies, watch television, read a book. The stories so often form as future sermons in my mind, that I some times feel all entertainment should be a tax deduction.

But, last Friday night, a friend and I went to see Crazy. Stupid. Love, seeking a complete diversion and an opportunity to laugh.

And I did laugh -- as well as cringe at some of the sexual messages, especially the attitudes about casual sex and the lack of any visible signs of contraception or STD prevention, no less sexual negotiation or limit setting. But, it was the end of the movie that really upset me, in that it portrayed illegal adolescent behaviors.

I contacted my friend Nell Minow, who is the "Movie Mom" for Beliefnet.com as well as hundreds of radio stations around the country. (Read her at www.blog.beliefnet.com/moviemom

She encouraged me to write Steve Carell, the producer and star. I thought you might enjoy reading the letter I sent him. Even better, write him one yourself. I'll let you know if I receive an answer!

Mr. Steve Carell
Carousel Productions
4000 Warner Blvd
Bldg 144
Burbank, CA 91522

Dear Mr. Carell:

I am writing to you as a certified sexuality educator and an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who is concerned that your new movie, “Crazy, Stupid, Love” models behaviors for teen and tween audiences that puts them at risk for legal action. I am the author of several books for parents on talking with their children and teens about sexuality, and I have worked with adolescents on responsible sexual behavior for many years.

There are several sexual messages in the movie that I disagree with, but I am most concerned about 17 year old Jessica giving 13 year old Robbie nude photos of herself that she took. It is illegal for anyone to create sexually explicit images of a minor, to possess such images, or to distribute them. Although it may seem nonsensical, several states have passed additional laws that make it illegal for teens to take and distribute such pictures of themselves to other teens. Indeed, because of their age differences, depending on the age of majority in the state, Jessica might also be charged and convicted as a sexual offender for exposing a minor to child pornography. In some states, she could face life in prison or have to register as a sex offender for life. Further, the gender of the characters reinforces a stereotype that teen boys cannot be victims of child sexual abuse, when in reality, a boy is most likely sexually victimized by a teenage girl.

These are fictional characters – but their actions may well be repeated by young people in your audiences. I know that your movie is out in general release, and I don’t know what can be done by Carousal Productions at this point to get out the message, “don’t’ try this at home”. But, I do know that PG-13 movies shouldn’t be modeling criminal behaviors as harmless or worse, acts of generosity.

I would welcome hearing a response from you. Please let me know if I can provide you with additional information.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner

Monday, August 08, 2011

Peter and Kenneth - Legally Married After 56 Years


Yesterday, I performed a legal marriage ceremony in New York City for two 87 year old friends of mine who have been together as a couple for 56 years.

Six years ago, I led a ceremony for them celebrating their 50th anniversary. I promised them that I'd do all I could to help create the day that I would be able to do their legal wedding.

Yesterday was that day.

Kenneth, Peter, two witnesses, and I signed the marriage license in the middle of the ceremony. All of us present, including me, had tears in our eyes when I said, "By the power vested in me by the state of New York, I now pronounce you husband and husband, legally wed."

I blessed them in part with these words, "Peter and Kenneth, we all know that your holy union of two lives, two souls, two hearts is far greater than a legal union sanctioned by the state. But we are grateful that this day for equality has finally come. We are grateful for the blessings that brought us to this day, and ask for continued blessings on your home, your health, your companionship, your friendship. May we all hold these moments, this moment, in the blessed spirit of all that is holy."

May I invite you dear readers, along with those who were present with us yesterday, to bless them with your "Amen."

Friday, July 29, 2011

Trust women? Not in North Carolina

Last week, I wrote about the good news.

Today, I want to share with you this news about the new law in North Carolina, that is about the most draconian restrictions on women's right to choose abortion I can imagine.

I can't imagine what it would be like to be required to have and view an ultrasound of a fetus and listen to its heartbeat that I knew for my very own personal reasons would be a baby I would never know. And then have to receive state prescribed information and then being asked to wait to have the procedure for 24 hours.

This article says it will change some 27,000 women's minds who will go on to have babies that they had initially believed they were unprepared to raise. One wonders what North Carolina is prepared to do to support those children -- and those mothers -- after those births.


Here's what happened in North Carolina yesterday:

Women will get more information and face new restrictions before having an abortion in North Carolina after the state Senate passed the regulations into law Thursday over Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue's veto.

The Republican-led Legislature completed its veto override when the Senate voted 29-19 to approve the bill requiring women to receive counseling and wait 24 hours before an abortion. The House agreed to the override earlier this week.

The only Republican who voted against the measure when it initially passed the Senate last month, Sen. Stan Bingham of Davidson County, did not vote on Thursday. With one other Republican missing this week, the GOP had just enough votes to override Perdue's veto.

Based on the impact of similar laws in other states, the restrictions would cut the more than 27,000 abortions and result in about 2,900 additional births per year, legislative fiscal analysts said. That will cost taxpayers about $7 million a year, mostly because nearly half of the births would be funded entirely or in part by Medicaid, the health program for the poor.

North Carolina had been one of 16 states that don't require specialized counseling before an abortion. Half of all states require counseling, then a waiting period.

The law prohibits an abortion unless a woman is provided with state-specified information about the physician at least 24 hours in advance. Women also would get information about the likely stage of development of the unborn child, the medical risks of having an abortion and giving birth, and the availability of abortion alternatives.

The new law also requires that an ultrasound be presented along with a chance to hear the fetal heartbeat. Women do have the choice to look away.

Majority Republicans said the measure is designed to give women more information about what happens in an abortion and who is providing it. Social conservatives praised the bill, which also requires a woman consider an offer to see the shape of the fetus and hear a heartbeat.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Progress on Sexual Justice...One Day, One Step At A Time

I've been teaching at Pacific School of Religion all week. It's been a wonderful class of fifteen diverse students, from 7 different faith traditions, ranging in age from 21 to 60. It's been a 20 hour intensive introduction to sexuality issues for religious professionals.

The apartment we've been living in doesn't have TV, so I'm a little behind on my daily news watching. But, it's been a remarkable week for sexual justice.

The Institute of Medicine just recommended in a new report that contraception be available at low cost or free as part of health care insurance plans. And it looks like DHHS will include it as a covered prescription medication.

Leon Panetta just announced tonight that he will announce the end of Don't Ask Don't Tell and that gay and lesbian people will be able to serve openly in the military.

And the President has announced his support for Senator Boxer's new act that will overturn the Defense of Marriage Act.

All of these are overdue, from this minister's perspective, and all are still far from the law of the land. Nevertheless, they indicate that despite the rhetoric of those on the right, the arc of the universe is indeed bending towards sexual justice.

Perhaps I should step away from the news more often.

Monday, July 11, 2011

World Population Day -- July 11, 2011

My first job after college was at the Population Institute as a secretary. It was the summer of 1975. I remember writing a piece about how the world population had just hit 2 or maybe 3 billion.

In July 1987, the first World Population Day was celebrated -- the world's population was 5 billion.

Today, the world's population is 6,948,317,241.

It's expected to hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011.

It's hard to grasp that it has more than doubled since I began my working life in the sexual and reproductive health field.

Our understanding of population growth and the needs of the world's environment have grown exponentially since 1975. But some basic facts are still true: too many of the world's women don't have the contraceptive services they need and want to control the number of children they want to have. Too many women are denied basic civil rights, including the right to education and equal employment. The developed world still consumes far too many of the world's resources. The earth has limited ability to sustain uncontrolled population.

Genesis calls us to be stewards of the earth. There's still time for us to do more.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Pope on Twitter: Here's What I'd Like to Read



This picture just made me smile all afternoon. It's Pope Benedict on his IPAD, sending out his first tweet on twitter. His twitter name is @news_va_en






I sent him an email suggesting that he follow me @revdebra and my organization @religiousinst for help staying up-to-date on sexuality issues. Goodness knows, the Vatican could use some help to bring them into the 21st century on sexuality broadly defined.



I hope the Pope gets some good lessons on coming up with 140 character tweets for us. Here's some of what I'd love to see him tweet as NEWS, but I'm not counting on it:




Sexuality is God's blessing.



Sexual and gender diversity is part of God's blessing.



We've made a mistake. Catholic couples, please use modern methods of contraception.



Family planning saves lives.



Follow your own conscience. Abortion is a moral decision only you can make.



Women, start applying to be Catholic priests. We need you.



The Catholic Church welcomes everyone.



I'm profoundly sorry to those the Church has hurt.



Jesus stood for full inclusion of the excluded of his day.

WWJD about lgbt people? Welcome them.




***



I could go on. I bet you have your own ideas. Let's hear them!



Saturday, June 25, 2011

Celebrating New York Marriage Equality!

Five years ago, I presided over a 50th anniversary celebration of two men friends of mine in their New York City apartment. I promised them that one day soon I would be able to marry them legally. I prayed to myself that they would live long enough.

Last night, New York made history, as the Republican Senate voted 33 to 29 to approve marriage equality, and Governor Cuomo signed the bill almost immediately.

You all know I've been working for marriage equality for the past decade. I am celebrating with all my heart those who have done so much to bring about today. As I say in a press release you can read at www.religiousinstitute.org , I believe that New York will be the tipping point for marriage in this country.

My heart is full this morning, as indeed the arc of the universe bent one step closer to full inclusion for all.

Peter and Kenneth, name the date and time. I'm there.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Sex Education for Politicians - Weiner Edition

Congressman Anthony Weinter joins the long line of men in public office who have risked their familieis and careers for sexual indiscretions. It's been a solid month of high profile men behaving badly, very badly: John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

There's not much new about this. There have been many heterosexual well known men who have potentially risked everything for a sexual encounter or thrill. Think Gary Hart, Marv Alpert, Bill Clinton, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Bill Cosby, Elliot Spitzer, Bill O'Reilly, and Mark Sanford. Mr. O'Reilly and Mr. Cosby continue on with their work and Mr. Spitzer got a TV show; others have not been so lucky. It remains to be seen what will happen to Mr. Weiner, although one has to wonder whether tweeting yourself in underwear or facebook chatting with women you don't know is really grounds for resignation. Surely though his vast abilities and his championship of many of the causes I hold dear are now severely compromised.

But these men have either forgotten or never learned some basic rules for sexually healthy adults. So here they are:

Honor your commitments to your partner. A sexually healthy marriage is based on honesty and trust; only you and your spouse know what you have agreed to, but don't put her in the position of having to stand by you at a microphone while you confess to the entire world. Keep that picture in your head as you are considering your behaviors. And, if you can't honor the commitments you've made, you're better off staying single.

Understand that you can have a sexual feeling without acting on it -- without even telling anyone about it. Think about it -- if Bill Clinton had thought to himself, "Cute Intern. Too Young, Too Risky" and moved on, he would not have been impeached. If your partner isn't interested in exploring a particular part of your eroticism with you, the safest thing is to explore it only in the confines of your mind. No one has ended up on the front pages because of a privately held fantasy.

Nothing, really nothing, is ever private between two people. Someone always tells someone. And the less the other person has to lose, the more likely they are to tell more people. In fact, unless it's your life partner, only have sex with someone who has as much to lose as you do. Sex workers don't. Neither do women or men in their twenties. And sexual bantering, sexting, tweeting, emailing and Facebook messaging are NEVER private. We tell our teens don't post anything you don't want your grandmother to see. To men in public office, don't post anything you don't want to see on the front page -- anywhere or ever.

Sexually healthy adults discriminate between sexual behaviors that are life enhancing -- for themselves and their partners - with those that could be destructive (of themselves or their partner(s). If there's a chance that the behavior could cost you your partner, career, reputation, just say no. Visiting a sex club, a sex worker, having sex with an employee, tweeting a sexual photo or sexting, soliciting someone in a public bathroom or park: chances are it's going to land you on the front page and you'll lose your job and probably your marriage. It's even worse if you've campaigned or worked against other people doing the same things. At least Congressman Weiner isn't for curtailing other people's sex lives while exploring the dark side of his, a la Vitter.

Remember that a moral sexual relationship is consensual, nonexploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable and protected. Does the relationship meet those criteria? Mr. Weiner says he never touched any of these women: I guess that makes them protected. I'm wondering though about the other four. If you can't answer yes to these, say no.

Always ask if the behavior consistent with your values, expressed and internal. If you're found out, will you be accused of hypocrisy? More importantly, can you live with yourself?

Of course, this ethic applies to all of us, not just people in political power. May we once again be reminded that sexuality is both sacred and powerful, and we need to honor its role in our lives.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Celebrating 8 Years of Ordained Ministry

This week is the 8th anniversary of my ordination to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

Saturday, May 24th, 2003 was one of the most magical evenings of my life. Surrounded by family, friends, colleagues, and congregants, I felt a golden light descend from the highest point of the glass church roof and fill the congregation at the very moment that the members of the congregation said, "we pledge our continuing relationship and support in all aspects of your ministry. We welcome you and affirm your ministry."

I don't know if that golden light was my imagination...or the Holy Spirit...or just relief for this moment that I had worked so hard for for so many years. It doesn't matter...it was real to me.

As I read the program tonight, my eyes fill again with tears at the words, "We the members of the Unitarian Church in Westport hereby ordain you, Debra Wynne Haffner, to the ministry of Unitarian Universalism." It still feels awe-filled to me that God has brought me to this work and all the amazing moments of these past 8 years.

I answered them in words, that I recommit myself to again, this week on this anniversary:

"It is with joy and appreciation that I accept this ministry to which you ordain me. I will serve faithfully, with humility and courage, mindful of both the privileges and responsibilities this ministry brings."

Humility and courage...privilege and responsibility. Yes it requires both...yes it is both. And I am deeply grateful every day to be doing this work. Thanks be to God.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Find Your Passion - My Commencement Address At Widener University



On Saturday, May 14, 2011, I received the Doctor of Public Service, h.c. from Widener University and was privileged to offer the Commencement Address. Here's what I said:

Good morning, President Harris, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents and family, and most of all to the 846 graduating students.

I am moved almost beyond words by having my life’s work recognized by this prestigious university. People have asked me how it is that Widener, a university in Pennsylvania, heard of my work to award me this honorary doctorate. I've told them that when it comes to graduate training in human sexuality, you are the premier university in the country. One of my most important teachers and mentors, the Rev. Dr. William Stayton was a co-developer of the program, which began at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. When Penn decided to close the program in 1999, Dr. Stayton brought it to Widener. Under the leadership of President Harris, and the direction first of Dr. Stayton and now Dr. Betsy Crane, the human sexuality program has grown to be the most outstanding preparation for sexuality professionals in the country and I am intensely proud to now be among its degree holders. Thank you from the deepest part of me.

I am deeply honored to have been asked to be your commencement speaker. To be honest, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed about it, as your previous commencement speakers have included your Congressman, a former Surgeon General of the United States, and then Senator Joe Biden. I can imagine that some of the students and parents are thinking “who is Debra Haffner and why didn’t we get a famous person to speak?” My mother and children who are here today are probably wondering that as well!

It has been said that every minister and rabbi really only has one sermon in them, and that every sermon is merely a variation of that theme. If I had to describe mine, it would be in the title of the second sermon I ever gave, “Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal.” Regardless of your individual eschatology (a word that I learned in seminary that means your understanding of what’s to come after our time in THIS world ends), that regardless of our individual beliefs, this the one life we for sure know we have been given, and it is up to us to create it as fully as we can.

You all probably remember the fairy tales that you were read when you were little. They often involved a prince and a princess, who met, fell in love, got married, and …(lived happily ever after…) When I read those stories to my own children when they were little, I would change the ending: they met, fell in love, got married…and it was a lot of work.

I wish I could promise you happily ever after, but like marriage, life is both wonderful and a lot of work.

Some of you may remember the Billy Crystal 1991 movie, “City Slickers”, about the middle age men on go on a cattle drive for a vacation? Curley, the crusty owner of the Ranch says,
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that….

So, I thought about just standing up today and saying, “just one thing” and sitting down. Dr. Harris told me that one of the most successful commencement addresses he ever heard was a young CEO of a company who stood up and said, “I was only a so so student at Widener. I graduated, started a company, made millions, retired at 35, and if I can do it, you can do it too” and sat down to a standing ovation.

For me, part of the “just one thing” is discovering your passion in life. Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner defines finding your passion, your call in life as the intersection of discerning “where the world’s greatest need meets your greatest joy.” Sexuality education and now sexuality and ministry are my calling.

I could not have imagined how my life would have turned out at my own college graduation, 35 years ago this spring. I was on my way to an internship in Congress in DC, on my way to law school, and what I hoped would be a career as first an attorney and then as an elected politician. If someone would have told me that 35 years later, I would be a sexologist minister – I would have laughed. It would be a little like telling me that 30 years from now, I’d be an astronaut!

My career has taken me to the most amazing places: to the set of the Golden Girls with then Surgeon General Koop to talk about Hollywood and the AIDS epidemic, to a meeting with the House of Lords with all of them in robes and wigs to talk about abstinence, to debating Bill O’Reilly on national television about whether the word uterus would damage kindergartners, to Thailand for the Peace Council. I could never have imagined any of these.

It’s also been about the quiet moments of ministry: blessing a newborn baby, conducting weddings including several of same sex couples under the threat of arrest, to holding someone’s hand as they lay dying and being with their family after, to the glorious night 8 years ago when I was ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

The point is that you cannot possibly know today what life will evolve for you. I hope that each of you will find what you love and then find or create a way to make a living doing it. Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

When I asked a young friend of mine graduating this spring for advice about today’s talk, she wrote me this on Facebook:
“Honestly, all of us are scared of the "real world". Just tell them we're all gonna be ok, and just to not let fear stand in the way of anything.” It reminded me of Julian of Norwich, the 14th century English mystic, who was the first woman to write a book in English. She wrote, "…All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well"…and indeed, I want you to know it will be.

I also want you to know that it is more important to be happy than it is to be successful, and that the most important parts of your life will take place not in your workplace but with the people you love and who love you back. I’ve heard the principles of Buddhism described with these four simple statements, that I try to use to guide my life:

Show up…Speak the truth….Do what you do with enthusiasm….Don’t get attached to the outcome.

Of course, the last is the hardest. It is especially at those moments of greatest change that we need to do the first three – show up, speak the truth, do what you do with enthusiasm -- and trust that the rest will work out. Graduation is one of those moments, but so is falling in love, changing jobs, moving away, thinking about retirement…Sometimes, we have to be willing to trust that all will be well.

But, we can help ourselves along the way. Some of you may know about the relatively new field of study called positive psychology. We now know that there is a genetic component to happiness. But the research also tells us that happiness in life is even more based on our daily choices and actions than genetics. People who are happier:

Exercise, spend time in nature, Do good deeds and serve others, take the time for daily reflection, through journaling or meditating, have a strong support network including family and friends, belong to a religious community, and express gratitude each day.

Meister Eckardt, a thirteenth century mystic, wrote,
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough”.

Today is a day for immense gratitude. I hope that at the end of the ceremony, you will say thank you to your parents and other family members who did so much for you to reach this place of graduation, remembering for many of you, you are the first people in your family to graduate from college. I want to say thank you to my husband and children today for the sacrifices and support they have given me to make today possible for me. The only prayer we ever need is thank you.

I want to end with a story of a small village a long long time ago. In that village, like in every village a long time ago, there was a wise old woman, who the people in the town revered and who helped them with their problems and questions. The teenagers in that town, like teenagers ever since, doubted their elders and sought to discredit the wise old woman. The leader of the pack of teenagers came up with an idea.

“Let us go to the wise old woman with a bird in our hands. We will say to her, “Wise woman, is the bird in our hands dead or alive? If she says alive, we will crush the bird with our hands and show her the dead bird. If she says dead, we will open our hands, and the bird will fly away. “

And they climb the hill, go to the wise woman’s home, and knock on the door. She comes out, and the leader says to her, “Wise woman, if you are so wise, is the bird in my hand dead or alive?”

She looked at them for a long long time and was quiet, so quiet that the teenagers could barely stand still. And then she spoke, “The answer is in your hands.”

Find your passion, show up, speak the truth with enthusiasm, be open to the adventures life offers you. The answer is in your hands. May you choose wisely and well throughout your lives. Thank you again for honoring me, and blessings to each of you on this graduation day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Full Inclusion

Last night, the Twin Cities presbytery passed the 87th vote that will allow the Presbyterian Church USA to ordain gay and lesbian clergy persons. It is a watershed moment in the history of the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Over the past months, presbyteries have been voting on whether to amend the denominations’ constitution, comprised of the Book of Order along with the Book of Confessions, (http://www.amendment10a.org/) to change the standards for ordination. Here is the new, replacement language:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life. The governing body responsible for ordination and/or installation shall examine each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of office. The examination shall include, but not be limited to, a determination of the candidate’s ability and commitment to fulfill all requirements as expressed in the constitutional questions for ordination and installation. Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates.

The language is important, because it removed the following restrictions:

“Among these standards is the requirement to live either in fidelity within the covenant of marriage of a man and a woman, or chastity in singleness.”

“Persons refusing to repent of any self- acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin shall not be ordained and/or installed as deacons, elders, or ministers of the Word and Sacrament.”

In other words: All who are called to serve may now answer that calling, without regard to sexual orientation, sexual experience, or marital status.

Last night's vote bases the review of each candidate’s calling, gifts, preparation, and suitability for the responsibilities of ordination, rather than on sexual orientation or marital status.
With this vote, the PCUSA joins such denominations as the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the United Church of Christ, and the Union for Reform Judaism, all of which removed restrictions to lesbian and gay people serving as clergy in the 1970s. They join the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that did so for coupled gay and lesbian people in 2009, and the Episcopal Church, which elected their first openly gay bishop in 2003. They join the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination with an official stance allowing non-celibate gays and lesbians to be ordained.

Loving, just communities embrace everyone; they are strengthened when all people are able to live fully and express their gender and sexuality with holiness and integrity. Faith communities benefit when they recognize the gifts of all people, without regard to sex, gender, age, bodily condition, marital status or sexual orientation. Step by step, our faith communities are moving towards sexual justice and welcoming all who are called to serve.

We joyfully celebrate with our colleagues in the Presbyterian Church who have worked so long and so hard for today. We hope that The United Methodist Church may soon follow their lead. There can be no turning back.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

HR 3 Violates Women's Moral Agency: Senate, Just Say No

Yesterday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the most restrictive federal abortion law yet,HR 3, “The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act. As people of faith, we must speak out to assure that the Senate rejects its draconian measures.

According to the National Network of Abortion Funding:

"If enacted, this bill would have a devastating impact on millions of women and families. Every woman, whether she gets her health care through a safety-net program like Medicaid or private health insurance, deserves to make her own decision about whether and when to have a baby.


HR 3 would make permanent bans on federal funding of abortion, bans that Congress should eliminate in the interest of fairness and women’s health. “Every single day we talk to women who have been denied the ability to make their own decisions because of these bans on abortion coverage,” says Stephanie Poggi, Executive Director of the Network.


HR3 reinforces health disparities by withholding abortion care from low-income women, women of color, and immigrant women. Because of racial inequalities in the United States , women of color are more likely to use Medicaid for their health care, and bear the burden of funding bans.


In addition to permanently banning the use of federal funds in Medicaid and other federal health programs, the bill would deny once again “home rule” to the District of Columbia to use its own money to pay for abortion care for women in need, prohibit abortion coverage in the new health care exchanges set to launch by 2014, and drive up the cost of health insurance by denying tax credits to individuals and small businesses that purchase insurance plans that include abortion coverage. The bill shows complete disregard for a woman’s health by denying funding even when continuing a pregnancy could lead to paralysis or interfere with cancer treatment."


As a faith leader, I seek to create a world where abortion is safe, legal, rare, AND accessible. HR 3 will deny women the right to make their own moral decisions about their own personal circumstances. Nothing in HR 3 will promote moral decision-making or flourishing families. I pray the U.S. Senate and the President "just say no."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on Sufferingand Renewal This Holy Week

Today is Good Friday and the fourth day of Passover. As a Unitarian Universalist, I celebrate both.

I've been reading both Exodus and the Gospels this week, and I am moved by how much these stories are also about us. Who among us has not felt like we were in the wilderness or pleading with God when all feels overwhelming, "take this cup from me." We know how it feels to be lost, to be persecuted, to be betrayed, to be done with suffering. It's part of being human.

But, we also know and trust that renewal and indeed resurrection happens. From my window, I am watching the pink buds strain to open, the forsythia already in bloom. Spring is returning to the earth.

Our work at the Religious Institute is about helping alleviate the suffering that too many feel because the sacred gift of their sexuality has been denied, abused or exploited. But it's also about the hope of restored relationship. And yes, there are signs of change all around us. Just this week, for example, I learned that only seven more Presbyteries need to ratify the amendment that will allow gay and lesbians to be ordained in the PC-USA. Spring is coming.

A colleague forwarded me this beautiful piece on passion week and sexual injustice this morning. I found it breathtaking
http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2011/04/17/a-sermon-for-passion-week Take a look.

May this Passover and Easter Season bless you with liberation and hope.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Support Planned Parenthood -- Stop the Attacks on Women

I watched CNN late last Friday, transfixed as news broke that the government shutdown had been averted and that forty policy riders had been dropped, including the amendment to ban Planned Parenthood affiliates across the country from receiving federal funds. I had just returned from a day in Washington with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Clergy Advisory Board, including an interfaith breakfast attended by hundreds of Planned Parenthood supporters of faith. I had been stunned all week to think that the government shut down, in Senator Harry Reid’s words, might come down to the House leadership using the budget to attack women’s access to health care services or environmental protection.

Last week demonstrated what many of us already knew: the Tea Party is only the latest version of the religious right in new wineskins. Following the November 2010 elections, studies from both the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life and the Public Religion Research Institute found that “the Tea Party rank and file are not in fact secular libertarians, but are social conservatives largely drawn from the ranks of the Christian Right.”

I am angry: angry as a woman, as a mother, as a Planned Parenthood staff veteran, and as a member of the clergy. And like tens of thousands of people of faith across the country, I’m doing what I can to make my voice heard. Last week, the Religious Institute joined Planned Parenthood Federation of American, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and more than twenty other leading organizations to take part in the Stand Up For Women's Health Rally in front of the U.S. Capitol. We stood together to show our legislators that faith-based and sexual and reproductive health organizations support access for women and men to the health services they need to lead healthy and responsible lives. It is immoral to use family planning and reproductive health services—vital services that save women’s lives in the United States and abroad—as a bargaining chip in politicized budget debates.

In collaboration with colleagues from other faith-based organizations, we helped to develop the “Interfaith Statement Opposing Restrictions on Women’s Health Care Options” distributed to members of Congress and endorsed by organizations as diverse as the National Council of Jewish Women, the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, and Muslims for Progressive Values. As the Religious Institute’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Maternal Mortality and Reproductive Justice states, “The sacredness of human life is best upheld when women and men create human life intentionally and women are able to have healthy pregnancies and childbirths.” Publicly funded family planning services help women prevent STDs/HIV, provide cancer screenings, and offer access to contraception. In 2006, publicly funded family planning services helped women avoid 1.94 million unintended pregnancies, which would likely have resulted in about 860,000 unintended births and 810,000 abortions. According to the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Guttmacher Institute, doubling current investments in family planning and pregnancy related care could save the lives of 400,000 women and 1.6 million infants each year. To put it bluntly, access to reproductive health services is a matter of life and death.

I am relieved that sanity prevailed in Washington, D.C. and that the President and many Congressional leaders refused to trade women’s access to gynecological services, pap smears, HIV testing, and, yes, birth control, for a budget agreement. However, I am angry that once again the District of Columbia will not be able to use its own funds to support abortion services. As more details about the budget cuts are released, they will most certainly hurt the most marginalized and vulnerable among us. I made a donation to the DC Abortion Fund on Monday morning, letting them know I was a faith leader.

Some time this week, the House and the Senate will vote on whether federal funds can support Planned Parenthood affiliates. The guess is that the vote to ban them from providing FAMILY PLANNING (not abortions as some news has incorrectly inferred) will fail. But your voices are needed, and I hope you've been in touch with your Congressperson to "JUST SAY NO TO PENCE."

These are the worst attacks on women's health that I've seen in my 30 plus years as an activist on these issues. The voices of people of faith who support women's sexual and reproductive rights must be heard.

Monday, April 04, 2011

My Homily at the Worship Service Celebrating the Religious Institute's 10th Anniversary

"The Religious Declaration debuted as a full page ad in the New York Times in January 2000, surrounded by the names of 850 endorsers. Since that time, more than 3500 religious leaders from more than 50 faith traditions from every state and 12 countries have endorsed its message that faith communities must break the silence about sexuality and be truth seeking, courageous and just.

As might be expected, the religious right was not amused – indeed six months after it was published, Focus on the Family’s Citizen Magazine ran a cover story called, “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” about the Religious Declaration, with a side bar about my decision to go to seminary they titled, “The High Priestess of Immorality.”

Ten years ago, Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield and I had lunch upstairs in the Refectory to talk about what we might do next with the Religious Declaration and its network of endorsers. We sketched out the goals of a new organization on a napkin – to grow and support this new network of religious leaders committed to sexual justice – to help faith communities, including congregations, seminaries, and denominations become sexually healthy and responsible communities – and to bring a progressive authentic religious voice on sexual justice into the public square. A fellow student came up and asked what we were doing so intently. We looked at each other and said, “Perhaps creating history.” I don’t think we could have imagined today.

It was a time to act and a time to build. Victor Hugo wrote centuries ago, “There is no greater power than an idea whose time has come.” The time for a new multifaith movement on sexuality and religion had come.

There has always been deep hunger for a greater understanding, a greater acceptance of the relationship of sexuality, spirituality, and faith. We need only think of the eroticism of the young unmarried couple in the Song of Songs, the voices of Julian and Jovinian resisting calls to celibacy, the ecstatic poetry of the saints, even Augustine’s plaintive cry in the Confessions, “Give me chastity, but not yet.”

It is a hunger that continues today. As a minister I know that many people of faith are seeking to understand how they can act morally and still embrace their sexuality. They want to be good and they want to be sexual. As a man in his thirties said to me with tears in his eyes last year, “I’ve been taught I can either embrace my sexuality or my religion. Not both. Can you help me?” A newly married 24 year old Southern Baptist asked me, “Rev. Debra, my whole life I was taught that sex was a sin. And now that I’m married, I’m supposed to forget all that and just enjoy myself. It’s killing me not to be able to do that with my husband.”

I know that many of us experience brokenness about our sexuality – a brokenness that is often suffered in silence in our faith communities. Some of us were sexually abused as children; some of us have been forced to have sex against our will; some of us struggle in abusive relationships; some of us struggle with how to improve sex and intimacy and some of us have given up on love and sex completely. We are so grateful to the seminaries and denominations who are working with us to assure that future religious leaders have the training they need to help with sexuality issues.

Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker first said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The past decade has seen more and more faith communities making a commitment to sexual health and justice. Ten years ago, no woman led a denomination; today at least five do. Ten years ago, only the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ had welcoming organizations promoting the full inclusion of lesbian and gay persons. Today, Jewish, Muslim, Roman Catholic, evangelical, and every mainline Protestant denomination have a welcoming organization. During the past decade, more and more denominations are ordaining openly gay and lesbian, and in some cases transgender, clergy persons, with the Presbyterian Church (USA) poised to become the latest this year.

A vivid display of change came in the mail this week. Have you seen the cover of this week’s Christian Century? Sex a Sacramental View is the cover headline. Even for the Christian Century, sex sells. The lead article proclaims the need for, “a rich, candid, ongoing ecclesial conversation about sex as both an earthly pleasure and a heavenly treasure, a feast and a gift, a delight and an honor and therefore a breathtaking responsibility.” It’s hard to imagine this cover story possible a decade ago.

Sexual justice issues are moral issues that demand a public progressive religious response. Our commitment to the most marginalized and our understanding that it is because life is so precious, we must do everything possible to make sure it is not created carelessly means that we must support contraception and sexuality education. Our commitment to the moral the moral agency of women means we must articulate that abortion is always a moral decision and that each woman must have the right to make that decision without government interference. Our theological commitment to the dignity and worth of all persons and our understanding that sexual and gender diversity is part of God’s blessing, means that we must stand up for full inclusion of GLBT persons. We must articulate that the sin is never sex but sexual exploitation. The sin is not homosexuality but homophobia and heterosexism. The sin is violence and discrimination against women and GLBT persons. The sin is when any of us, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, make sexual decisions that exploit others.

Today the Religious Institute enters its second decade with a renewed commitment to assuring that in the next decade, all faith communities will be sexually healthy, just, and prophetic. In a few minutes, we will ask you to join your voices and your hearts to affirm that you will stand with us as members of our Faithful Voices Network.

Robert Kennedy Jr. wrote (and I have changed his pronouns a bit!) "It is from …diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time people stand up for an ideal, or act to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Today, may we remind ourselves that we can be those ripples of hope. It is time to speak, time to act, time to build, time to rejoice, and time to recommit ourselves together to creating a world of sexual and spiritual wholeness and hope."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Be With Us Virtually At The 10th Anniversary Celebration!

Last week, I invited you to send in your picture to be part of the Religious Institute's 10th anniversary celebration and the commissioning of the Faithful Voices Network. If you get us your picture by noon today (Tuesday, March 29th), we can still include you: www.religiousinstitute.org/pics But, we've also just arranged for you to watch the worship service live from your home or office. It starts at 12:00 p.m. EST, and will feature several members of the Religious Institute advisory board and the world premiere of a new hymn by Patrick Evans, commissioned just for the 10th anniversary. You can watch it here at www.religiousinstitute.org/streaming Come join us for worship on Thursday, March 31st and celebrate with us!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Celebrate the Religious Institute's 10th Anniversary!

The Religious Institute was born in April 2001 in the Refectory at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. We sought to advance the goals and vision of the then-new Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

It has been an amazing ten years. Our network has grown to more than 5200 religious leaders from more than 70 faith traditions and thousands of people of faith support our Faithful Voices Network. Our ministry to clergy, congregations, denominations, and seminaries have helped create sexually healthy faith communities. What's more we have helped changed the dialog about sexuality and religion.

I began this blog in 2006, and although I now also blog for the Huffington Post and the Washington Post (as well as Facebook and Twitter @revdebra) my readers here have been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement (and some times hearty disagreement.) We'd like you to be able to be with us virtually at the 10th anniversary celebration.

Please go to www.religiousinstitute.org/pics and download a picture of yourself holding the Faithful Voices Network sign. Or "Like us" on our Facebook page and we'll do it for you with your facebook picture.

We'd love for you to also leave your message of support, either here or on Facebook.

Celebrate with us!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Oprah's Network "Pray the Gay Away" Reinforces Myths and Stereotypes

UPDATE: I have been contacted by the Naming Project, who let me know that the staff at the camp are Lutheran ministers and lay leaders who are openly gay. I am sorry that I missed that in my observations about the piece. Please see the Comment from Ross in the Comment section for more more information about the Naming Project.

I just happened to see an ad that the Oprah Winfrey Network Lisa Ling show was titled "Pray the Gay Away?" last night.

You can see a trailer at http://www.facebook.com/OurAmerica

The first 30 minutes of the program was filming of an Exodus ("ex-gay") conference, and an un-responded to statement that the Bible is anti-gay (although Ling does point out that there are only six explicit verses.) Two pieces examined the troubled childhoods of two gay individuals reinforcing the myth that parenting makes people gay. There was a short piece on the naming project, a camp for queer Christian young people. It wasn't until 55 minutes into the program that we heard an adult man who said he was gay, Christian, and happy.

I kept waiting for them to interview religious leaders who understand that sexual and gender diversity is part of God's blessing -- with the exception of the camp counselor, there was none. I was hoping that they might mention that many denominations in America, including the UUA, the UCC, and the Union for Reform Judaism, are fully welcoming and inclusive. They did not. I wanted them to talk with some of my colleagues from the large number of denomination groups working for full inclusion -- or someone from among the thousands of gay and lesbian clergy I know. They did not.

I tweeted to my followers (@revdebra) that it is a MYTH that you can't be happy, gay, and Christian (or any other faith.) I reminded my followers that God loves them, that we are all created in God's image, and that as one of our Open Letters, endorsed by more than 2700 leaders says, "sexual difference is a blessed part of our endowment."

Oprah and Lisa, I expected better from you.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Leading Evangelical Speaks Out With Rev. Haffner

Yesterday, Rev. Richard Cizik and I released an op ed column on our joint support for domestic and international family planning.

You may remember Rev. Cizik as the head of the National Association of Evangelicals, a position he became after Rev. Ted Haggard had to step down after being discovered having sex and buying drugs from a male escort.

Rev. Cizik has gone on to head a new organization, the New Evangelical Partnership, which is a coalition of more mainstream evangelical organizations committed to the common good. Here's a piece of part of what we said:

As religious leaders, we are both called to respond to the needs of the most marginalized, the most vulnerable, and the most likely to be excluded. Both of our organizations are committed to Goal Five of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, calling for improved global maternal health by reducing maternal mortality by three quarters and achieving universal access to reproductive health. Both of us are committed to helping create a just and equitable world where no woman will die giving birth to the next generation.

Although we hold differing moral values about abortion, we share a commitment that because life is sacred, it should never be created carelessly or unintentionally. That is why we both support the Title X family planning program, which helps avert nearly one million pregnancies in the United States annually. That is why we have a shared belief in international family planning programs, because we know that maternal mortality around the world could be reduced by more than 70 percent by improved access to reproductive health services. We support domestic and international family planning because we know it reduces neonatal and maternal morbidity and mortality, including deaths attributable to unsafe abortions--and it helps build strong families and lives.

As religious leaders, we are called to improve women's and children's lives. It is simply inconceivable to either of us that those who oppose abortion services also have voted to cut or eliminate family planning, prenatal care, mother and infant nutrition programs, and community health services. We stand together in calling on people of faith across the religious spectrum to stand up for the needs of low-income families and their children. We are pro-faith, pro-family, and pro-child.

As people of faith, we call on the U.S. Senate to reject the draconian and ultimately immoral cuts proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives. As religious leaders called by God to co-create a better world where all may flourish and thrive, we can do no less.

You can read the whole piece at www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Three Steps Ahead for Marriage Equality, Countless Steps Back on Reproductive Rights

Later today, the Maryland Legislature is likely to pass marriage equality legislation for same sex couples.

Yesterday, Hawaii's governor signed a same sex union bill, giving same sex couples all the rights of marriage in the state. A few weeks ago, the Illinois governor need similarly.

And, the President of the United States told the U.S. Justice Department to stop defending DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, even as it continues for some inexplicable reason to defend "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in the courts following the signing of its repeal.

I'm celebrating all of those.

But, I can't help wonder how it is that these bills are moving ahead with such alacrity while at the same time attacks on family planning and abortion are at the highest levels I can remember in my 35 years in this field. As I'm sure you know, last week, the House of Representatives voted to defund the federal family planning program, eliminate most funding for international family planning, and specifically ban Planned Parenthoods from federal funds. (I wrote about support for domestic and international family planning in last week's Washington Post.)

People across the country are speaking out against these cuts, and you can add your name to a petition that is receiving tens of thousands of signatures. Rallys are planned for many cities, including New York City this weekend, and I intend to be there.

I'm struggling to understand how rights for lesbian and gay people are advancing while reproductive rights for women are so precarious. Is it that the religious right has abandoned their fight against homosexuality because they know that the culture has tipped and they will lose? Is it that reproductive rights are taken for granted as they've been in place for the past 40 years so the activists have not made inroads into the mainstream and perhaps these latest assaults will be a needed wake up call? Is it the difference between state laws and legislatures which vary widely and the U.S. House which has so precariously tipped conservative? Is it that gay votes are seen as more important than those of women? Is it that in a troubled economic time, poor women are seen as marginal? Is it that the LGBT movement is better organized and better funded?

It could be all of this. I'd like to know your thoughts.

What I do know is that sexual justice shouldn't be siloed. That at its core my commitment is to sexual justice for all -- and that includes women, LGBT people, sexuality education, family planning and abortion access, and marriage equality. I hope you will join me in speaking out for all our rights.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day -- A Little Bit of History

In some ways, Valentine’s Day is a perfect holiday for me. The legend of Valentine’s Day is unique among secular holidays in its connection of religion and sexuality. Its history is both pagan and early Christian.

The Roman festival “Lupercalia” was a pagan holiday in mid February to assure the fertility of both women and crops. Young men pulled slips of paper with the names of young women out of boxes to learn who would be their sexual companions for the next year, sort of an early match.com.

In 496 c.e., Pope Gelasive turned the festival into a minor Christian holiday, naming it for St. Valentine. The names of saints replaced the names of young women on the slips of paper in the boxes, and men were supposed to emulate the saint on the slip they had chosen for the next year. (One can only imagine this must have been a hard sell after the previous custom!)

St. Valentine was a priest in the third century (or maybe a composite of several priests.) The Emperor Claudius had outlawed marriage for young men so they could serve in his military without family obligations. The priest Valentine continued to marry young couples in secret. Discovered, he was sent to jail and sentenced to death for disobeying the Emperor. The legend continues that he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter, and wrote her a note, signed “From Your Valentine”, prior to his beheading on February 14, 270. This of course was when priests were still allowed to marry.

Quite a history for a day that's now celebrated with Hallmark cards and boxes of candy. It's early pagan origins remind us of the centrality for many people of having a sexual partner in their life. St. Valentine's story reminds us that marriage was once not available to young men, and that he began his own marriage equality movement in protest.

I like that so many sexual justice organizations celebrate Valentine's Day as a day of justice. It's Freedom to Marry week, it's Standing on the Side of Love Sunday, it's even national condom week.

And it's a day and a week to celebrate love -- all the types of love that grace our lives. For those of us with a partner, it's a time for a "recommitment ritual", a time to remember what makes our relationship special and holy. For those of us with children, it's a time to remember our special bonds of love. For all of us, it's a time to be grateful for the people who we love and the people who love of us, just the way we are.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Dear GOP: Rape is Rape. No Force Needed.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and 173 co-sponsors introduced a heinous bill, "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act."

It goes further than any other previous legislative proposal to make abortion less accessible, less available, especially to low income women. Jessica Arons from the Center for American Progress presents a comprehensive review of what's so wrong with this legislation at www.rhrealitycheck.org

There are so many reasons to oppose this bill, but it's the provision that redefines rape that has me the most upset. For decades now, there has been an agreement even by the most anti-choice legislators that poor women who become pregnant because of rape or incest should have access to abortion services.

Rep. Smith and his friends have now decided that only women who are victims of "force-able rape" would be "worthy" of being able to have an abortion. Not women who were coerced, not women who are minors and victims of statutory rapes, not women who were drugged -- just those who are forced.

This issue isn't just political to me, it's personal. I was date raped twice as a young woman. There were no guns or knives --just men who didn't listen as I yelled "no" and went ahead anyway. Back in the mid 70's, there wasn't a term for date rape; in fact, I had several older women at the time tell me that there wasn't anything to be done, it just happened some time to women who were alone with men who didn't listen. I was fortunate that I didn't become pregnant either time -- and I've been happy that on today's high school and college campuses young people are routinely taught about date rape and that "no means no."

And so, I am furious that Rep. Smith has decided that once again it's not rape unless there's force involved. I'd like the GOP to listen to those of us who are survivors who will tell them that the only definition of rape is sex without consent of both partners - no adjectives involved.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Matters of Life and Death

The Washington Post asked its On Faith panel this week to reflect on a Catholic hospital's decision to not offer sterilizations and the excommunication of a nun who had courageously helped a woman who was dying having an abortion that saved her life.

You can read my response and other panel member's reactions here:

www.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/index.html

Most of the comments that follow my blog are predictably anti-abortion and feel to me that they miss the point of my column. I support the rights of individual providers to not perform services that they find morally objectionable as long as they refer women to the safe and legal services they need. Supporting reproductive justice is not just about legal services, it's also about safe services as illustrated so dramatically about the news of an unregulated provider in Pennsylvania.

I'd love you to leave a comment at the Washington Post blog to support women's rights to legal, safe, and accessible reproductive health services, regardless of where they live.