Sunday, April 30, 2006

Out of Iraq, Into Darfur

You wouldn't know it from the lack of press coverage, but there were hundreds of thousands of people at the March against Iraq in New York City on Saturday. And despite the lack of cooperation from the New York City police, we did manage to have a worship service before the March. There were Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders who offered prayers and readings; I opened with a litany for peace grounded in my Unitarian Universalist tradition. My friend Ledell Mulvaney led us in song throughout the morning.

It felt right to be there. I wish I could have been in DC today at the Darfur march. I hope you will participate in your own way to honor immigrants on May 1st. The horrors of the world mean we must speak out, each in our own way. Thank you to Rabbi Waskow and Reverend Sekou for allowing me to add my voice.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Stop the Attacks on Women's Health by the Government

What's a picture of Glamour Magazine doing on a minister's blog? No, it's not the cover story on "juicy sex answers from 109 men!"

The Religious Declaration calls for a a faith-based commitment to sexual and reproductive rights. This month's Glamour magazine includes a frank and alarming article on the Bush administration's assault on women's health. In an article titled, "The New Lies About Women's Health", the reporter writes:

"In fact, Glamour has found that on issues ranging from STDS to birth control, some radical conservative activities have used fudged and sometimes flatly false date to persuade the do lies become official government health information?"

The article goes on to detail false reproductive health information on government web sites, inaccurate federally funded teen education, the withholding of over the counter emergency contraception, denial of EC to rape victims, misinformation campaigns on HPV, condom effectiveness, and abortion side effects, and the stacking of health panels with ideologues. It is a masterful overview of attacks on women's health and I urge you to read it.

But more...I urge you to include it in your sermons and newsletters, pass it on to others, and call on your federal representatives to end the attack on women's sexual and reproductive rights. It's not just a public health issue; when the government lies to us and denies us health services, that's immoral.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Iraq, Darfur, and Showing Up

There are some days that I find myself screaming at the newspaper or the television news. It's just too painful at times to pay attention to what is going on in the world. Although my ministry is primarily directed to sexual justice and healing issues, I am also -- like you -- profoundly affected by the larger brokenness in the world.

I've just agreed to be one of the worship leaders at the prayer service before the March for Peace, Justice, and Democracy (sponsored by United for Peace and Justice) in New York City on Saturday. The interfaith service will be at 9:40 on 19th Street (please note this is a correction from earlier post) between 5th and Broadway. The March is convening between 10:30 and noon on 20th Street. Sunday, is the March to end the violence against Darfur in Washington, D.C. If you are on the East Coast, I hope you're planning to be at one or both of these events.

Some times, all we need to do is show up. Some times, we need to put our bodies where our hearts are. Some days, I need to add my religious voice to the larger progressive religous community. Let's make sure that this weekend we are heard.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Religious Leaders Support Marriage Equality

The New York Times has once again published a story on religious views on marriage equality without a single mainstream or progressive religious voice quoted. Yesterday's NY Times reported that "50 prominent religous leaders" have endorsed a petition in support of a constitutional amendment blocking same sex marriage.

What the article ignored in its entirety is the growing movement among religious leaders and religious denominations in support of marriage equality. They didn't tell their readers that several religious denominations have endorsed marriage equality, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association, or that nearly a dozen denominations allow their clergy to bless marriages or union ceremonies for committed couples. They didn't report that more than 500 prominent religious leaders have endorsed the "Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality" that says in part that all persons have the right to lead lives that express love, justice, commitment, and pleasure, including but not limited to civil and religious marriage.

The Religious Institute calls on religious leaders to promote good marriages and family values without restrictions based on the sexual orientation of the partners. Shame on those religious leaders who seek to institute their particular narrow religious point of view into the U.S. Constitution.

If you are a religious leader or the staff of a religious institution, please endorse the "Open Letter." Or pass this on to your clergy person. And write your Senator to say that as a person of faith you oppose this effort. Visit our Action Center.

Just because the New York Times doesn't remember to quote us, we don't have to be silenced.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Lutheran Ministers Speak Out for GLBT issues

Greetings from the very rainy Northeast. Our backyard is flooded and our basement is wet, but I just received an email from a minister in Tuscon, Arizona that has brightened my day.

Nine ELCA ministers (that's the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America if you're not up on your Protestant denominations) have joined together to develop a campaign to protest the ELCA policy on gays and lesbians. They write that they are committed to :

Truth-telling: we will do our best to make clearer to all (including ELCA members, ecumenical partners, interfaith groups, social service agencies, community leaders, and general humanity) our view that current ELCA policy towards lgbt (lesbian, gay, bi, transgendered) persons does not reflect Lutheran Christian theology at its best, nor does this policy reflect the diversity of faithful Biblical interpretations held by Biblical scholars of integrity as taught in our ELCA colleges and seminaries.

They have developed a statement and are seeking signatures of ELCA clergy and other religious leaders. Their web site has many good resources on full inclusion. Please pass on the word to any Lutherans you know.

At the Religious Institute, we applaud those brave religious leaders who speak out against sexual oppression and work for sexual justice within their own denominations.

(I'm off to Washington, D.C. for two days of meetings with progressive religious leaders to encourage greater involvement in sexual justice issues. Check back here Wednesday to see how it goes.)

Thursday, April 20, 2006

William Sloane Coffin, Part Two

On Thursday, there was a memorial service for Rev. William Sloane Coffin at the Riverside Church in New York. I was unable to attend because of travel, but I've been thinking about him a lot this week and reading many reflections by other religious leaders.

When I asked the students at Princeton yesterday to name a current progressive religious leader, none of them could think of one. They could name the religious leaders on the right. That speaks volumes for the need for prophetic voices today on social (and yes, sexual) justice.

But what I've been even more struck by is how many of the reflections I've read on Dr. Coffin's life reflect on his personal kindness and his reaching out to others. I wrote earlier this week about how much it meant to me to receive a personal letter from him thanking me for my ministry even though we had never met in person. What I've learned this week is he did that sort of thing all the time: sending letters of encouragement and praise, calling other clergy on the phone, allowing people he didn't know to visit him.

In other words, pulling on my Jewish background, he was a mensch. A real human being. He never let his celebrity go to his head and he never stopped speaking out for what he thought was right. He knew how much his encouragement meant and he was generous with it. May I do half as well in my ministry and life.

My Day at Princeton

I had a terrific day at Princeton University as the guest of the Center for the Study of Religion. I met with a group of students and faculty over lunch at the Women's Center, did a talk in the afternoon in a grand lecture hall that reminded me of "A Beautiful Mind", and had dinner with a group of graduate students who are studying various aspects of sexuality and religion. It was exciting to meet these young scholars and engage them in dialog.

I was told that there is a strong and growing conservative element among Princeton's students, including a society devoted to promoting chastity among students. It was "Pro-life Week" at Princeton, and a visual demonstration of 300 pink and blue tiny flags was in front of the student center. The sign said that they represented those who would have been admitted into the class of 2010 if their mothers hadn't had abortions. A banner hung in the back, asking observers to remember the women who might have died had abortion not been legal.

I wish I had had my camera so I could show you. It was a visible reminder that even on Ivy League campuses the cultural wars thrive. Some students noisly proclaim their virginity and try to recruit others; some students I was told engage in binge drinking and nameless hook ups. Sexual assaults on campus are increasing. And sexuality education is scarce on the campus. I loved talking to these groups about sexuality and religion, but I can't help but think that they need to have me back to talk just about sex.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sex Offenders Don't Deserve To Be Set Up For Murder

You may have seen the news this morning that two men with a history of sex offenses were murdered in two towns in Maine on Easter Sunday. Their names, home addresses, places of employment, and photographs were on the Maine sex offender registry. Last summer, two other sex offenders were hunted down by a vigilante in Washington State.

The Religious Institute stands firmly against violence against women and children and recognizes that child sexual abuse is a devastating social, personal, and public health problem. But I personally believe that computerized offender registries that don't differentiate between pedophiles and 17 year olds that have sex with 15 year olds -- and that basically provide a map to the homes where people who have served time and presumably have had treatment live -- offer little more than a false sense of security about sexual abuse prevention. The reality is that in 90% of cases children are abused by people they know well -- family members, family friends, coaches, teachers, babysitters, and clergy. Rounding up sex offenders, putting them on lists, restricting where they can live and so on will not keep your children safe; educating them and educating yourself will as well as making sure your church, school, and community agency do adequate screening of their staff and volunteers.

How many people must be murdered in cold blood before effective screening and treatment programs replace online lists as the way to protect our children?

To order a copy of my book, "A Time to Heal: Protecting Children and Ministering to Sex Offenders" call Lifequest Publications at 419-872-7448.

(I'm off to speak at Princeton University on Wednesday as the guest of the Department of Religion and the Women's Center. Check back here Thursday afternoon to see how it went.)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Evangelicals and Sexuality

In between Easter services and Easter dinner, I had a quick chance to look at the Sunday New York Times. But, perhaps you didn't, so I want to point out a fascinating article on page 5 of the week in review, "Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of Evangelical". You may be able to read it online.

In my work around the country with secular progressive leaders, I often correct people who equate the word "evangelical" with fundamentalists or the religious right. This article points out that there are really three types of evangelicals in America -- traditionalists (who represent about 12.6% of all Americans and resemble what we think of as the religious right), centrists (who represent 10.8% of all Americans and generally avoid politics) and modernists (2.9% of Americans, who are more flexible socially and politically.)

What interested me most about the article was the graphic that included polling data on evangelicals and sexuality. (Yes, sexuality is often what most interests me in articles...) Almost six in ten modernist evangelicals support either civil unions and same sex marriage and 63% support abortion rights at least in some cases. One third of the centrists support either civil union and same sex marriage and more than four in ten support abortion rights. But even among the most conservative evangelical Christians, 11% support civil unions or same sex marriage, and 16% support abortion rights in at least some cases. Add those together and that's a substantial number of evangelical Christians who support at least those measures of sexual justice.

To this minister, that seems like really "good news."

Blessings for the week ahead.

Rev. Debra

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Sexologist Minister's View of Passover and Easter

As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, my family celebrates Passover and Easter. Last night, was our family Passover seder; Friday night is our church communal Passover seder; andSunday, we will attend church and celebrate dinner with my spouse's family. When we were first together, before we belonged to a faith community, we used to say, "we ate our religion." In some ways, I guess we still do.

Last night as we read the lines that because we were once strangers in Egypt, we must remember that others are still oppressed today, I couldn't help but think about all the people who are oppressed because of their sexuality. Certainly people who are sexual minorities, but also girls around the world denied opportunities, maybe even life itself, because of their biological sex and those forced into the sex trade. I thought about women forced to carry pregnancies to term and women where tradition or culture leads to female genital mutilation. The Easter story too is about oppression and a ruling class that sought to murder dissent.

But, ultimately what appeals to us about these holidays is their message of HOPE. The possibilities of liberation from oppression, rebirth and resurrection from the darkest places and days of our lives. May you and yours be blessed this Holy Week.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

William Sloane Coffin

I was sad to learn this morning that William Sloane Coffin has died at 81.

Rev. Coffin was the epitome of a religious leader working for social change in society. During the Vietnam War, he spoke truth to power on a regular basis and emerged as a leading religious voice against the war.

I never met him personally, but I had his support. I remember how thrilled I was when he was one of the first religious leaders who endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. Even though he was retired and living in Vermont, he was still speaking out for the rights of the most marginalized. A year ago, after I had sent out a mailing to the Religious Institute network, he sent me a personal handwritten note thanking me for our work. William Sloan Coffin thanking me? It's still hanging on the wall of my office.

America has lost a giant. He will always be one of my role models and an inspiration for what a religious leader can do -- and more importantly, be. Rest in peace.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Easter Eggs and Sexual Justice

Do you live in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area and support the rights of all families? Do you have a child (or a friend with a child) who is seven or younger who might enjoy the White House Easter Egg Hunt on Monday, April 17th? Here's your chance -- in the spirit of this season of liberation and the triumph of hope over struggle -- to speak out for all families, regardless of the sexual orientation of the parents.

The Family Pride Coalition is organizing GLBT families to attend the Easter Egg Roll to celebrate their families. I called their Executive Director Jennifer Chisler and asked, "What if all the families at the Easter Egg Roll were wearing rainbow leis, whether or not the parents were gay? What if the lawn of the White House was a sea of rainbow leis, bandanas, and t-shirts? What if instead of 200 GLBT families the majority of the folks on the lawn, regardless of the sex of their co-parent, indicated their support for gay people to have and adopt children?" (In the interest of full disclosure, the idea came to me from that 1997 Kevin Kline movie, "In and Out".)

YOU can make that happen. Here's my challenge. Go the Family Pride web site and find out how to get tickets. (It means standing in line on Friday night.) If you don't have a child, volunteer to stand in line on Friday night to get tickets for families that do but can't be there. If you are a member of the clergy in the DC area, send out an alert to your congregation. Show up on Monday wearing clerical garb and a rainbow lei. Let people know in the words of my UU bumper sticker that as people of faith we believe, "We are all family and we all have value."

It's Holy Week and it's Passover. Let us send a message that we affirm the dignity and worth of all persons and we recognize sexual difference as a blessed part of our endowment. What better time to speak out for liberation and rebirth for us all?

(And if you go on Monday, send me your stories and photos and I'll post them here!)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

"Love Your Neighbor"

I spent the weekend in upstate New York at a church that is working to develop its policies on keeping children safe for sexual abuse. This morning, I offered the sermon on "Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing."

A woman approached me at coffee hour and said, "I don't agree with some of what you said." Now, given that I had preached about sexuality and religion, I wasn't surprised. "What didn't you agree with?" I asked.

But she surprised me when she responded, "That part about love your neighbor. Maybe we should talk about tolerate your neighbor. But some people don't deserve to be loved." Now, I am thinking that she meant terrorists, suicide bombers, murderers, pedophiles...So, I responded, "It sounds like you are wondering how we could extend this love to people who are evil." And to my surprise, she answered, "I was thinking about people in my life, including some people here, who I can barely tolerate no less think about loving. Some people don't deserve to be loved."

I repeated something that I had said in the sermon. The hardest part about "Love your neighbor as yourself" is that part about loving ourselves, offering ourselves the same unconditional love and regard that we try to offer others. And told her that the people who are hardest for us to love may be the ones who need it most.

Like her at that moment.

I closed my sermon today with this quote from Hafiz about unconditional love. "Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, 'you owe me'....a love like that can light the world."

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Week in Review: Sex and Religion in the News

When I started my blog, someone asked me if I would have enough to write about on sexuality and religion. The reality is that every day I have to choose which stories to cover. So, I've decided to institute a new feature every Friday -- "The Week in Review: Sex and Religion in the News". Let me know what you think!

Here's some of what happened this week:

*Senator Feingold spoke out in support of marriage equality, saying that although no religious faith should be compelled to officiate at such marriages, all people should have the right to marry. We applaud Senator Feingold's decision to speak out. The fact is that more than ten denominations allow clergy to perform same sex marriages; it's the state that discriminates against some of the marriages I perform.

*Cable stations joined the networks in rejecting the new ads by the United Church of Christ that support full inclusion and welcome for all people. Join their protest. The Religious Institute asks the stations, "how is it too political to open church doors to everyone?"

*The Religious Institute applauds Rev. John I. Jenkins, the President of Notre Dame, who decided to reverse his earlier decision and allow the continuation of the Vagina Monologues and a gay film festival on campus. We applaud his courage in bringing sexuality issues to the campus for open dialog and discussion.

*We are deeply saddened by the news of yet another government official arrested for soliciting minors on the Internet. The Religious Institute strongly supports efforts to prevent the exploitation and abuse of children and teenagers, and encourages faith based communities to become more proactive in keeping children safe. See our new resource, "A Time to Heal." Homeland Security indeed.

I'm off to upstate New York to lead a workshop on safe congregations and to preach on Sunday. Have a blessed weekend. Let me know what you think of this new feature.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Happy 5th Anniversary Religious Institute!

Today is the 5th anniversary of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield and I co-founded the Religious Institute to promote the vision of the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.

I'm very aware that most new not-for-profit organizations do not make it to their fifth anniversary. Here's some of what we've accomplished:

*The network of the Religious Institute has grown to almost 2500 religious leaders from more than 40 religious traditions.

*We have published theological frameworks on sex education, marriage equality, and abortion.

*We have given over 150 talks on sexuality and religion, reaching close to 10o,000 people.

*We have published three guidebooks on aspects of sexual health for congregations, and a national study of youth development in faith-based communities.

*We have appeared regularly in the media as progressive religious spokespersons on sexuality issues, including such venues as CNN, NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Time, and US News and World Report.

*We have provided courses for seminarians at Meadville-Lombard, Union Theological Seminary, and the Yale Divinity School.

There is of course so much more for us to do. But, for today, I'm going to take a moment to be thankful -- thankful to first Larry Greenfield and now Steve Clapp for being my day-to- day partners, to Kate Ott and Coralie Meade for their ongoing services, to the foundations and the donors who support our work but more importantly our vision, and to the religious leaders and congregations who have opened their hearts and doors and who speak out for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society. You are indeed "Pastors for Sexual Health, Prophets for Sexual Justice."

Happy Anniversary!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Tom DeLay's Resignation

I first learned about Tom DeLay when he introduced a Congressional Resolution condemning SIECUS, the organization I directed from 1988 - 2000. I think he had been in office a month. At the time he was a freshman Congressman from Texas; I've watched with horror as he climbed the ranks of House leadership and used his office to consistently attack sexual and reproductive justice.

I was not surprised to discover that he had engaged in unethical, immoral conduct while in office. So many times the so called "moral leaders" of the right are found lacking in their own moral decision-making. They find it easier to limit our rights to make our own private decisions to limiting their own excesses.

There's nothing new about this, of course. Perhaps he missed those verses about taking the log out of your eye or throwing the first stone. It's a reminder we all need.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Morning chapel at Yale

I'm a Visiting Professor at the Yale Divinity School this semester, teaching a course called "Sexuality Issues for Religious Professionals." Today, my students led worship in Marquand Chapel for the Yale community.

The word indeed became flesh. All of the work we've been doing this semester came together. They broke the silence that so often exists in our churches about sexuality. They prayed, they quoted sex positive Scripture, they preached their own stories of silence in the church.

Emily Scott ended her prayer this way,

Holy Spirit, breathe among us.
Move us to do God's work.
So many of your children experience pain and brokenness
Associated with sexuality....
We are religious leaders.
If we do not speak to this pain and brokenness, no one will.

God, help us to do your work in the world, as embodied people,
Made in your likeness.

The closing hymn they chose was "Spirit I Have Heard You Calling." Tears rolled down my face as we sang,

Spirit, I have heard you calling...
I have heard you in my longing,
I have heard you in my pain.
Now, I feel you moving in me,
Feel you burning like a flame...

Now your love defines my longing,
Now your love shines through my pain,
Now we dance in endless union,
Singing out creation's name.

The opportunity to teach seminary students about sexuality and to witness their gifts of ministry unfold in this area is a precious blessing. The Religious Declaration ends, "God rejoices when we celebrate our sexuality with holiness and integrity." Surely God rejoiced this morning.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Challenging the Religious Right on the Air

On Sunday at 5:30 pm EST, I will be the featured commentator on Air America's "State of Belief." This new show is sponsored by The Interfaith Alliance to bring progressive religious voices into the public square. I'm honored to have been asked to talk about the work of the Religious Institute. You can listen live on the radio or online, or on Monday, you can download the show or my commentary as a podcast. Goodness, my first blogs and first podcast all in the same month! Here's an excerpt.

Organized religion has contributed to the cultural confusion about sexuality. Many of us grew up in faith communities that taught that our sexual feelings were wrong. We may have learned that homosexuality, masturbation, premarital sex, or even pleasure is wrong. Or our religion may have simply been silent about sexuality, ignoring the intimate connection between sexuality and spirituality.

But that’s changing. There is a growing movement in the United States to reclaim the authentic religious voice that affirms our sexuality as one of God’s most life fulfilling and life sustaining gifts. It is a movement that is firmly based in Scripture and religious tradition.

Almost 2500 clergy and theologians from more than 40 religious denominations have endorsed the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. These faith leaders advocate for full inclusion of women and sexual minorities, sexuality education, and sexual and reproductive rights.

We are challenging the so-called morality of the Religious Right, asking is it moral to coerce women into carrying a pregnancy to term? Is it moral to deny young people life saving information? Is it moral to tell committed couples that they cannot marry or gays and lesbians that they are not welcome in our pulpits? The answer is a resounding "NO."

TUNE IN. And don't forget to change your clocks.