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 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."