Sunday, December 30, 2012

Dr. Douglas Kirby, Rest in Peace, Dear Friend

My dear friend and colleague Dr. Doug Kirby died last weekend at the age of 69 while hiking a mountain in Ecuador.  According to his guide, he stopped for a drink of water, looked out at the moonlit landscape, said, "Isn't life great!", clutched his chest and died instantaneously.  The autopsy said it was a heart attack and stroke. 

Doug was a giant in the sexual and reproductive health field.  He did the first national study of sexuality education in the late 70's and the first national evaluation of school based clinics in the 1980's.  In 1988, he moved to California to become the director of research at ETR Associates, where he was working until his death.  He was one of the hardest working people I know.  We often talked about his cutting back: in our last conversation, he said, "I'm just accepting it's genetic. I'm never going to stop working this hard." 

Doug's impact on the world is enormous.  His evaluations led him to created the characteristics of effective sexuality and HIV prevention programs.  His monographs No Easy Answers and later No Emerging Answers taught us all what was effective prevention and which programs work and he taught us all how to use new logic models to improve our work.  His work formed the basis for the national programs list that is funded by the federal government.  In the past decade, he began his international work, completing the evaluation of AIDS prevention programs in Uganda, and working with the World Health Organization, UNESCO, USAID, and UNFPA on improving programs around the world.  He spoke to the House of Lords in London, Presidential Commissions, the ministers of health from around Latin America...and even more. 

He and I first worked together at the Center for Population Options (now Advocates for Youth) from 1984 to 1988.  He was the Director of Research, I was the Director of Education.  I referred to him as my "office husband"; we had lunch together nearly every day when we were both in town.  I think we must have had a thousand slices of pizza together.  We didn't always agree and we had long long discussions about the impact of some of his findings on advocacy.  He was a steadfast researcher with an unswerving commitment to data, and no one was happier than he when he finally found sexuality education programs that did change contraceptive behaviors and the research that allowed him to say that existing abstinence only programs did not.  I had wanted him to say so earlier; he would not. 

We moved from CPO at about the same time, I to New York to be the head of SIECUS, Doug to Aptos, California.  Fortunately, we were often at the same conferences and so continued to have time together.  Doug always made the effort to drive to see me if I was speaking anywhere in California; and we often had meals and shared time together when he was working in New York City.  We explored Cuba and Puerto Rico together.  We shared countless meals where we were the last people at the restaurant as we hungrily caught up on each other's personal and professional lives. 

And we took walks.  Anyone who worked with Doug or was friends with Doug knows the importance of those walks.  Dinners out were less important to Doug, although desserts -- especially chocolate desserts -- were very important.  My husband and I were once with Doug and his dear wife Gail in Puerto Rico and we had spent the day hiking in a rain forest.  We all wanted pina coladas at the beach; Doug had us stop at a Wendy's first so he could have a chocolate milk shake.

Doug introduced me to the Unitarian Universalist church while we were both in Washington.  He encouraged us to come, saying a line I have repeated to so many others, "Try it, but you have to commit to coming twice.  Some weeks aren't as good as others."  He also, as I struggled with my call to ministry, aid to me on one of those beach walks, "Debra, you can start seminary part time.  Just start."  Those two moments changed my life.

Doug was infinitely curious about people and I have been so struck by how many people in the past week have said how close he was to them.  He made people feel special because he was so interested in them.  He always asked questions about people's lives before he turned to the work at hand.  That so many people felt Doug was a close friend surprised me because he never gossipped, he never shared one's confidences.  He was a mensch in the fullest meaning of that word.

Doug's last gift to me was for his 69th birthday.  He told Gail that he wanted to eat chocolate ice cream for this birthday and to send me a generous check for the Religious Institute.  His note to me, that I will forever cherish, said, "We've eaten the ice cream and here is the check."  I cried when I received it; now that card will be his final gift.  We spoke by phone for the last time in early December for a long time:  about our work, about our now grown children, about how excited he was for my daughter's engagement, about his upcoming trip to Ecuador, about our need to make a plan to see each other more in 2013.  I promised I would fly to Washington next time he was there.  We as we did in almost every conversation marveled about the work we are both so privileged to do in the world, and like every conversation we had, said, "I love you" before we hung up.

The world has lost an amazing man.  Gail, Kathryn, and Cameron, have lost their beloved husband and father. 

I read these words this morning by Abraham Joshua Heschel:  "I did not ask for success.  I asked for wonder."  That was Doug.  May you rest in peace, dear friend.  I will hold you in my heart for ever. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Women's Leadership, Reproductive Justice, and Marriage Equality Make The World Better

I am appalled to learn the National Review ran an article blaming the Newtown tragedy on women's leadership of the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Mike Huckabee blamed it on abortion.  Westboro Baptist Church blamed it on Connnecticut's legalization of marriage equality.

A deranged young man with an assault weapon caused the Newtown massacre.  Sexual justice had nothing to do with it.

I live and serve a church 15 miles from Newtown, CT.  My heart breaks for the families there, for the teachers, for the children lost, and for the survivors.  This past weekend, at three different church services, I read the names of those murdered.  My heart broke every time I read, "age six" after the name of the victim.  Although all of my congregants were spared directly losing a relative, none of us were untouched.  

I've spent the last thirty five years advancing sexual rights, first as a sexuality educator and now as a religious leader.  I am convinced, as I know you are, that full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people makes the world more just.  Liberty and justice for all is not a slogan; it's an aspiration.

The Religious Institute works every day to assure sexual rights in faith communities and society.  Please join us.  Take a stand against gun violence and for comprehensive mental health services.  Take a stand for women and LGBT people.  Go to to support our justice-seeking leadership today. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hug Your Children Tightly...and Talk

Another heart stopping school shooting.

This time at an elementary school not far from where I live, work, and worship.  The senseless violence is closer than ever, even in a bucolic Connecticut town.

I've already been asked about how or if to talk to children about it.  I remember too well the day I picked up 6 year old Greg from school on September 11, 2001.  He already knew that something was wrong.  There were teachers and parents crying in the halls.

A lot of parents then wanted to avoid talking to their children about it.  They hoped that their children might not have heard. 

They'll hear about this too.  Even the kindergartners and first graders need to hear from you, their parent or trusted adult, that you are there for them.  They need to know that this type of tragedy is very very rare and that schools are safe.  They need to know that there are procedures to keep children safe in schools and that's why there are things like fire drills and hall monitors and crossing guards.  They need to know that you too feel sad hearing about children who were hurt and killed and that this type of violence should never ever happen.  They need to know your values about guns.  They need to know about all of the adults who came to help: the teachers, the police, and the concerned towns people.

They may need a chance to write or draw or play act their feelings.  You might want to light a memory candle at dinner or look for a community candle light vigil or religious service. Remember to tell your children how much you love them and that you want them to talk with you about their feelings. 

With older children, start by asking what they know.  Listen to their feelings.  Share your feelings and values.  Think about what you can do together, like writing your elected representative about gun control or reaching out through your congregation to families in Newtown.

And pray.  Pray for the families that will never be the same.  Pray for the families that were observers.  Pray for the children who survive.  Pray for the souls of all the victims, including those that caused the violence.  Pray for mental health services for those who need them and laws to ban handguns and assault weapons.  Pray for an end to senseless violence. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Election 2012: Hope and Love Win!

It was a very long tense election night.  But ultimately, hope and love won. Misogyny, racism, homophobia lost.  The people of the United States voted, and on sexual justice issues, we are the new moral majority.

Sexual justice seeks to uphold the experience and expression of sexuality as life giving and pleasurable, in a social context marked by mutual respect, equality, and accountability.  Sexual justice fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health and accepts no double standards and applies to all persons.  It encompasses reproductive justice for women and the full inclusion of women and LGBTQ people. 

There are so many ways that sexual justice triumphed on election night.  The future of the Supreme Court was likely decided for generations to come, and it  will I believe continue to support the precedent of Roe v. Wade and ultimately decide that the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional.   Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin were roundly trounced from office, following their inane and disrespectful comments about rape victims.  Eighteen women were elected to the United States Senate, including several remarkable feminist political leaders and the first out lesbian.  Maine and Maryland became the first states where the majority of voters supported marriage equality; Minnesota rejected a ban on same sex marriage; and Washington is likely to support marriage equality as well.  Fifty five percent of the voters resoundingly defeated an anti-abortion measure in Florida. 

These victories did not come easily, and they represent the work of thousands of people of faith across the country.  We know that people of faith came together to work for marriage equality and abortion rights in every state where they were debated.  We know that the values of compassion, full inclusion, equality for all triumphed.  We know that young people, people of color, Latinos, and many Catholics and evangelicals helped bring about these social and sexual justice victories.  We will learn more as the pollsters and analysts do their work in the coming weeks, but I’m convinced that there will be a new understanding of what it means to be a values voter. 

The hymn that is going through my mind this morning is “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door.”  It resonates with my hopes – I hope all of our hopes. despite which candidates you supported yesterday – for the future of the United States and the world:

With laughter drown the raucous shout, and though these sheltering walls are thin, may they be strong to keep hate out and hold love in.”

And so may it be. 

Monday, November 05, 2012


I love everything about voting.  I love standing in line with my neighbors at the local elementary school; I love the PTA bake sale; I love going into the voting booth and pulling the levers; I love wearing the little "I voted today" sticker.

Tomorrow's election is probably the most important election we've had on sexual justice issues in at least three decades.  The party's platforms couldn't be more different on these issues.  Four states are voting on marriage equality.  Several states have policies on abortion access.  The future of the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to be affected.

I have readers from across the political spectrum and across the values spectrum.  Whatever you believe, please go out and vote.  Make sure your neighbors vote.  Make sure your older parents and your adult children vote.  Be an informed voter.  Our future depends on it. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

50 Shades of Grace: Jesus' Sexuality

I wasn’t surprised to read that the Vatican has published a response to the September 18th announcement of a tiny piece of papyrus that includes a dialog where Jesus refers to “my wife.” It is, in their words, a “clumsy forgery.” I only wonder what took them so long.

As you have no doubt read, Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, released findings last week regarding a newly found original document that offers evidence suggesting Jesus was married. It was front page news and lit up social media, with some claiming that it provides support for women priests and a married Roman Catholic clergy. 

Veracity of the fragment aside, this wasn’t news to those of us who think about sexuality and the church.  More than forty years ago, William E. Phipps wrote a book entitled “The Sexuality of Jesus,” in which he postulated that Jesus would have been betrothed by his parents during his teen years as was the custom for Jewish men based on the mores of the time. With an average age of marriage of 14, Phipps argued, Jesus was in all probability married. By the time we meet Jesus again at age thirty, when the Gospel story introduces him as an adult, he was likely a widower. (Women on average died in the first century at the age of 25, most often in childbirth.)

As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it’s hard for me to fully understand why a married Jesus causes such dismay. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the embodied Jesus would surely have been sexual from birth to death as all humans are. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was asexual or celibate his entire life—something that would have been so extra-ordinary that surely it would have been mentioned by their authors. Indeed, the ideal of a celibate clergy was not decided until the late seventh century: the Quinisextine Council in 691 was the first to decree that clergy couldn’t marry after ordination, although previously married men could become clergy.

Rather than decrying the idea that Jesus was married (and therefore most likely sexually active with at least one woman), perhaps the discovery of the papyrus fragment will reopen the too-often missing dialog about sexuality in those denominations that would rather wish it away. If sexuality is one of God’s gifts to us, if sexual diversity is part of God’s blessing, if people of all genders are created in God’s image—then surely there is the possibility that Jesus too enjoyed this good gift.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Diverse Multifaith Leaders Support Family Planning -- Of Course

     This summer, I celebrated my 37th year working in sexual and reproductive health and rights.  My very first publication in the field was a 1976 pamphlet for the Population Institute titled, “Does Your Campus Offer Birth Control?”aimed at extending contraceptive services to college students.  In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed family planning for unmarried women, and more and more universities were recognizing that their health services needed to include prescribing contraceptives.  Indeed, during my time at Wesleyan University, I had helped organize the movement to provide gynecological services at this previously all male school.

    I never would have predicted that nearly four decades later that birth control would once again be controversial.  After all, nine in ten heterosexually active women use family planning, nine in ten Americans believe that birth control use is morally acceptable , and three quarters of voters in 2012 agree that “we should do everything we can to make sure that people who want to use prescription birth control have affordable access to it.”

    Yet, during the past two years, there have been efforts to pass so called “Personhood Amendments” that would criminalize hormonal methods of birth control, the federal government almost closed down because of an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, and contraceptive coverage in health care reform is being challenged by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calling its inclusion an attack on their “religious liberty.” Given these efforts, coupled with increased restrictions on abortion and politicians’ ridiculous statements on how pregnancy does and doesn’t occur, terming this a “war on women” seems all too apt.

    I am proud to tell you that this morning, 38 nationally recognized religious leaders are joining me in affirming safe, affordable, accessible, and comprehensive family planning services.  They include current and past heads of denominations, such the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black (United Church of Christ), the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Reformed Church in America), the Rev. Peter Morales (Unitarian Universalist Association), and the Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)); presidents of seminaries such as Dr. Philip A. Amerson (Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), and The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale (Episcopal Divinity School); organizational heads such as Dr. Richard Cizik (the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good), the Rev. Harry Knox (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), and Jon O'Brien (Catholics for Choice); and nationally recognized theologians such as the Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo, the Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, and Dr. Mary Hunt. They have all endorsed the Religious Institute’s new “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning” []

    The Open Letter was developed at a Religious Institute colloquium held this spring.  A dozen Christian (mainline, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic), Jewish, and Muslim theologians created the Open Letter in a day of dialog and discussion.  They affirmed that, “in a just world, all people would have equal access to contraception.  The denial of family planning services effectively translates into coercive childbearing is an insult to human dignity.”  They called on hospitals and health services, regardless of religious affiliation, to provide or refer to contraceptive services, and reminded those who would oppose such services, that “no single faith can claim final moral authority in domestic or international discourse.”  They urged religious leaders to “advocate for increased U.S. financial support for domestic and global family planning services”.

    There is nothing new about religious leaders supporting family planning.  In 1929, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform Judaism)  and in 1930, the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion  passed the first religious organization policies supporting it.  Today, at least 14 major denominations, including the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) (, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, [], and the Seventh Day Adventist Church [] have policies supporting contraception.

    As people of faith, we must resist those who would deny individuals the ability to make their own personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives; indeed we must resist the political attempts to make such decisions and such services controversial when they are not.  As the Open Letter states, “contraception allows for a fulfilling sexual life while reducing maternal and infant mortality, unintended pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.”  Surely as the wide range of endorsers of the Open Letter demonstrates, family planning is common ground.

    If you are a religious leader, please add your name to the list of endorsers by clicking  Read the Open Letter and view the endorsements there as well.   If you are a member of a faith community, please ask your religious leader to add their name.  Help us spread the word about the new Open Letter on Facebook and Twitter. 

    Let us demonstrate to all who would once again limit contraception that people of faith understand that “contraception saves lives, promotes human flourishing, and advances the common good.”  

Monday, August 06, 2012

Chic-fil-a & Biblical Definition of Marriage

I'm just back from two weeks of vacation where I stayed away from the electronic world and most of the news. 

I did manage to catch Dan Cathy of Chic-fil-a's comments about same sex marriage, the day of protest by anti-LGBT so-called Christians, and the news of the kiss in.  There are no chick-fil-a's in Martha's Vineyard (and no fast food at all, except for one Dairy Queen), otherwise I would have been happy to been there to kiss people while in my clerical collar.

I dislike what is called proof texting, but Cathy is just wrong when he talks about biblical marriage as one man, one woman.  The fact is that marriage has changed dramatically since Biblical times, when polygamy was the norm and women were regarded as property.  Remember that Biblical texts also forbid divorce and require women to be subservient to their husbands as well. 

And of course, Cathy conveniently forgets all of the other statements in the Leviticus Holiness Code that he most likely ignores, including serving milk products with meat or bacon on anything. But more importantly, he seems to have forgotten that the overriding messages of the Scriptures are love, justice, and inclusion.  As our Open Letter on Marriage Letter states, "scripture neither commends a single marriage model nor commands all to marry, but rather calls for love and justice in all relationships." 

My colleague Ken South has compiled this list of what the Hebrew Bible says about marriages and has given me permission to reprint it here.  I somehow doubt that it is what Cathy has in mind.

ives, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail of Carmel, Nabal's widow.

1 Samuel 30:5 David's two wives also had been taken captive, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel.

1 Samuel 30:18 David recovered all that the Amalekites had taken; and David rescued his two wives.

2 Samuel 2:2 So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel.

2 Samuel 5:13 And David took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron; and more sons and daughters were born to David.

2 Samuel 19:5 Then Joab came into the house to the king, and said, "You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines,

1 Kings 11:3 He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart.

1 Kings 11:4 For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.

1 Kings 11:8 And so he did for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and sacrificed to their gods.

1 Kings 20:3 'Your silver and your gold are mine; your fairest wives and children also are mine.'"

1 Kings 20:7 Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, "Mark, now, and see how this man is seeking trouble; for he sent to me for my wives and my children, and for my silver and my gold, and I did not refuse him."

2 Kings 24:15 And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; the king's mother, the king's wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon.

1 Chronicles 4:5 Ashhur, the father of Tekoa, had two wives, Helah and Naarah;

1 Chronicles 8:8 And Shaharaim had sons in the country of Moab after he had sent away Hushim and Baara his wives.

1 Chronicles 14:3 And David took more wives in Jerusalem, and David begot more sons and daughters.

2 Chronicles 11:21 Rehoboam loved Maacah the daughter of Absalom above all his wives and concubines (he took eighteen wives and sixty concubines, and had twenty-eight sons and sixty daughters);

2 Chronicles 13:21 But Abijah grew mighty. And he took fourteen wives, and had twenty-two sons and sixteen daughters.

2 Chronicles 21:17 and they came up against Judah, and invaded it, and carried away all the possessions they found that belonged to the king's house, and also his sons and his wives, so that no son was left to him except Jehoahaz, his youngest son.

2 Chronicles 24:3 Jehoiada got for him two wives, and he had sons and daughters.,

Daniel 5:2 Belshazzar, when he tasted the wine, commanded that the vessels of gold and of silver which Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken out of the temple in Jerusalem be brought, that the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them.

Daniel 5:3 Then they brought in the golden and silver vessels which had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem; and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them..

Thursday, July 19, 2012

LGBT Full Inclusion & Contraception: Not Controversial

When I tell people what I do for a living, some times people respond by saying, "Wow, you work on the most controversial issues of our time."  People use phrases like "hot button issues" and "wedge issues" to describe the movements for full inclusion of LGBT people, marriage equality, and recently, contraceptive coverage.

Except that the reality is that they are not.  At last week's London Summit on Family Planning, sponsored by the Gates Foundation and the British Government, donor governments and foundations promised to provide an additional $4.6 million so that an additional 120 million women can receive family planning services.  The vast majority of people in the U.S., including women of all faiths, use and support contraception.  The trumped up Fortnight to Freedom campaign by the U.S. Catholic Bishops tried to make contraception a controversial public policy issue failed to garner much public attention, especially as compared to the U.S. Nuns on the Bus campaign against draconian budget cuts.

The American public is also increasingly in favor of LGBT rights.  Recent polls show that the majority of Americans now support marriage rights, and more than three quarters support legislation protecting lesbian and gay people from employment discrimination.  It is indeed shameful that the Boy Scouts of America just reaffirmed its position against openly gay Boy Scouts or Boy Scout leaders, at a time when the vast majority of young people the ages of those engaged in those programs support gay rights.  There simply is no justification for discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- and Americans agree. 

We need to actively resist those who would marginalize issues of sexual justice by labeling them as "too hot to handle."  One can only hope that the platform committees of both parties are listening. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

World Reproductive Justice Day

July 11 is World Population Day.,

July 11, 2012 is the historic Family Planning Summit in London, England.  Sponsored by The Gates Foundation, its goal is to develop and commit to new strategies to provide 110 million women around the world with contraceptive services they currently do not have.  It is estimated that 222 million women, mostly in the developing world, lack access to birth control.

I agree with my colleagues at Population Action International that family planning is essential but not enough.  These 222 million women need access to a broad array of sexual and reproductive health services, including safe and legal abortion.  We need to be advocating for reproductive justice writ large not population control, an argument that I thought we had won in 1994 in Cairo at the ICPD conference.

Nevertheless, there are strong religious foundations for affirming safe, affordable, accessible and comprehensive family planning services.  Access to contraception allows for a fulfilling sexual life while reducing maternal and infant mortality, unintended pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted infections.  Every individual adult, no matter where they live, is a moral agent with the right and responsibility to make their own decisions about procreation, including family size and the spacing of their children.

There can be no question that in a just world, all people would have equal access to contraception.  We stand with and pray for those in London today to affirm reproductive justice for all.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fortnight to Freedom - Wolf In Sheep's Clothing

     The Catholic Bishops have begun a two week campaign leading up to July 4th with a centerpiece of removing contraceptive coverage from health insurance reform.  Of course, the Supreme Court any minute now may end or modify the Affordable Care Act, which may make this debate moot.
     They are calling it a “Fortnight for Freedom” and cloaking their objection to modern methods of contraception in a religious liberty argument.  It is a classic example of those on the religious right who would restrict individual freedom to make private sexual choices co-opting language to confuse and gain supporters.  It is reminiscent of the right’s coinage of “partial-birth abortion” for abortion procedures after 20 weeks and “death panels” in health care.

    As a religious leader and as a person of faith, I of course support religious freedom.  So does the U.S. Constitution and so I presume do you.  To me, and millions of people of faith, religious freedom means that all persons should be free to make their own personal decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives, including their decisions about when, whether, or if to have children.  These decisions are optimally informed by their conscience, faith tradition, religious beliefs and families, but ultimately they are deeply personal decisions that individuals can and should have the freedom to make. 

    Religious freedom means that the government should not privilege the teachings of one religion over another or deny individual religious freedom.  Individuals must have the right to accept or reject the principles of their own faith without legal restrictions.  The Bishops do not speak for all faith traditions on contraception; indeed they don’t even speak for the people in their pews who use and support family planning in overwhelming majorities.  It is past time for the Vatican and the American Bishops to understand that they cannot claim final moral authority in domestic – or as we saw in Rio last week international – discourse.

    It is up to each of us to not allow the Bishops or anyone else to co-opt religious freedom.  Universal access to family planning does not require anyone to use contraception – rather it assures that individual moral agency and conscience are respected.  Supporting religious freedom means supporting the right of all of us to make our own moral decisions.  We know a wolf in sheep’s clothing when we see it. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Twin Teachable Moments To Talk to Your Children About Sex Abuse Prevention

The news is full of the twin horrifying trials in Pennsylvania of men who have allegedly perpetrated sexual abuse against children -- one directly of children in his care, the other by not removing priests who had abused children from direct involvement with other children.

There have been many articles and blog posts about these trials, but I have been struck that none of them have been aimed at helping parents protect their own children from possible abuse.  The "solutions" to these alarming stories have discussed legislation and registries, but not how we can empower children.

In my book "From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children" I provided detailed information on how to educate your children to prevent sexual abuse.  Even preschoolers need to know that their bodies are good, that their bodies belong to them, that they have the right to tell someone not to touch  any part of their bodies, and to tell right away if an older child or adult has made them uncomfortable in any way.  Make sure you screen nannies and babysitters, and that your preschool does background checks on everyone who works with the children, including part time teachers, babysitters, and custodial staff.

Elementary age children need to know that sexual abuse occurs when an older, stronger, or more powerful person looks at or touches a child's genitals, and that a person who is sexually abusing a child may tell the child to keep the behavior secret.  Make sure they understand that a child is never at fault if an older child, teen, or adult touches them in a way that is wrong or uncomfortable.  Tell them that most adults would never abuse children, but children are generally hurt this way by people they know who act as if they are special to them.  Tell them to tell right away.   

Make sure that the school, Scout troops, soccer leagues, and yes churches and synagogues are doing background checks on anyone who will work with your child.  Watch out for adults who seem too interested in your child, and don't let your child spend alone time with adults one on one unless you know them well.  Empower your children to say no to requests for kisses or hugs from anyone, including relatives.  Let them know that they have the right to say no to any unwanted physical contact.

Most important, know that you may not always be able to protect your child from the first time of sexual abuse, but you can stop the second IF your children are educated to tell you right away and that they can count on you to take action.  Over and over again in these trials, we have heard adult men say that they were too afraid to tell.  Make sure your children know you want to know immediately. 

The Sandusky and Lynn trials, while traumatic to watch, are providing you with a teachable moment.  Don't let it pass for your children's sake.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Nun Story Redux

Growing up Jewish in the 1960’s  my understanding of nuns was shaped by Sally Field as Sister Betrille, the Flying Nun, and Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke in The Nun Story. They were both passionate, courageous and authority defying, as well as loving, caring, and dedicated to the poor.

I didn’t actually know any nuns until I began my seminary studies, when I had the privilege of taking a class with Sister Mary Boys at Union Theological Seminary, spending time at the Peace Council with Sister Joan Chittister, and being guided in an independent study by Sister Margaret Farley at Yale Divinity School (YDS). These Roman Catholic theologians inspired me with their brilliance, their deep understanding of ethics, and their unending compassion for their students and the world.

Two weeks ago, my adviser at YDS, Sister Margaret Farley was publicly condemned by the Vatican for her 2006 book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Ethics. They said it could cause “grave harm” to the faithful, in presenting a sexual ethic based in justice.  My denomination, the Unitarian Universalist Association, actually encourages our candidates for ministry to read this book for grounding in sexual ethics. Ironically, the Vatican’s action means that Farley’s book now has an audience much larger than ever before: it’s gone from being a somewhat obscure read for seminary students to apparently selling out its print run on Amazon.
The statement against Farley follows the Vatican’s public crackdown on the Leadership Conference on Women Religious, an organization that, according to their website, includes 80% of American nuns and whose mission is to “further the mission of the Gospel in today’s world.” The Vatican has called for a full-scale overhaul of the LCRW, because they have not done enough to speak out against abortion and same sex marriage—an accusation that could be leveled at the Gospels as well since neither issue is ever mentioned in them. The Board of the LCRW went to Rome earlier this week to speak directly to the Vatican officials, calling the charges “unsubstantiated accusations and the result of a flawed practice that lacked transparency.”

This attack on American nuns is nothing short of incongruous by the all-male, celibate Roman Catholic hierarchy. On the one hand, they are censuring Farley because of her public stance on sexuality; on the other hand, they are trying to take over the LCRW because of their lack of a public stance on sexuality. This should come as no surprise after the U.S. Roman Catholic Bishops declared earlier this spring that removing contraception from health care reform would be their number one public policy priority, even though overwhelming numbers of American Catholics find birth control morally acceptable. As Roman Catholic theologian Mary Hunt notes, “The Roman men are hell-bent on reining in American nuns, if only to prove that they can rein in somebody in a world that pays them increasingly little heed.” There seems to be no end to the Roman Catholic hierarchy wanting to prioritize sexuality issues.

Except perhaps among their own ranks. Ironically, just as the news of Farley’s censure was being reported, so was a news story that the Milwaukee Archbishop had paid sex-abusing priests to leave the priesthood, rather than holding them accountable for their actions. The U.S. Roman Catholic Church has spent millions of dollars settling cases of priest sexual misconduct with children and adolescents. No other religious denomination has been tainted by such widespread abuse of children, cover up of cases, or moving abusing clergy to other parishes.

Meanwhile, the Sisters are speaking truth to power and standing for the full inclusion of women in religious life.  I am hopeful that the Sisters who went to Rome let the Vatican know that it is way past time for the male hierarchy to cease seeking to control Roman Catholic women, either secular or religious.

I noted in my Huffington Post piece that the LCRW posted a prayer on their website that ends with these words:

May we continue to faithfully live the
questions of our time and witness to
the people of God that we are women
at home with mystery and filled with
fierce hope for our shared future.

So may it be during these upcoming days. The prayers of the Religious Institute are with these Sisters.   

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Response to TUMC: Religious Leaders Stand With LGBT People of Faith

I'm pleased to tell you that today the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice, issued a statement regarding The United Methodist Church’s decision General Conference not to remove the doctrinal language that states, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Twenty-three major mainstream religious leaders joined with me to endorse the statement, which reads:

As religious leaders, we are speaking out against the decision of The United Methodist Church’s General Conference not to remove the doctrinal language that states, “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Using the Bible to exclude or attack people violates the very spirit of our traditions and is morally unconscionable. We affirm sexual and gender diversity as gifts people offer to their congregations and communities. We stand in solidarity with those United Methodists working to transform their denomination into one that celebrates sexual and gender diversity as a blessing that enriches all.

“Too many religious institutions have failed to embrace sexual and gender diversity. Some have mistakenly called homosexuality sinful, when the real issue is heterosexism or the unjust privileging of heterosexuality. Silence, misinformation, and condemnation of differing sexual and gender identities have created despair, destroyed relationships, and led to violence, suicide, and even murder. Sexual and gender oppression can no longer be portrayed as virtuous and morally defensible.

“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. There can be no turning back from the goal of the full participation of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in our faith traditions and communities. Surely, that day is coming soon.”

Rev. Dr. Michael J. Adee
Executive Director
More Light Presbyterians

Dr. Ellen Armour
Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality
Vanderbilt University Divinity School

Karen Barr
Moderator of Council
GLAD Alliance

Meredith Bischoff
President, Board of Directors
Welcoming Community Network

Francis DeBernardo
Executive Director
New Ways Ministry

Marianne Duddy-Burke
Executive Director

Yolanda Elliott
SDA Kinship International

Rev. Yvette Flunder
Presiding Bishop
The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries

Dr. Sharon Groves
Director, Religion and Faith Program
Human Rights Campaign

Rev. Debra W. Haffner
Religious Institute

Dr. Alice W. Hunt
Chicago Theological Seminary

Dr. Mary E. Hunt
Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER)

Rev. Dr. Jay Johnson
Senior Director
Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry
Pacific School of Religion

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones
Union Theological Seminary

Dr. Joel L. Kushner
Institute for Judaism, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion

Andrew G. Lang
Executive Director
United Church of Christ Coalition for LGBT Concerns

David Lohman
IWR & Faith Work Coordinator
National Gay & Lesbian Task Force's Institute for Welcoming Resources

Jon O’Brien
Catholics for Choice

Marilyn Paarlberg
Executive Director
Room for All (Reformed Church in America)

The Very Reverend Dr. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale
Episcopal Divinity School

Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer
Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, Wider Church Ministries
United Church of Christ Office for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Ministries

Howard Solomon
World Congress of GLBT Jews

Rabbi Arthur Waskow
The Shalom Center

Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson
Metropolitan Community Churches

Rev. Dr. D. Newell Williams
Brite Divinity School

(List in formation)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Go Forth: An Update on the Religious Institute

I had the privilege of hearing Rev. Dr. James Forbes preach last week at the 175th anniversary of Union Theological Seminary.  He chose Genesis 12 as his reading, and using God’s command to Abram to “go forth”, he inspired us to reflect on Union’s faculty and graduates impact on the world.

The sermon touched my soul – not just as a proud Union alum and adjunct professor – but because of the journey I have been on for the past two months.  Rev. Forbes reminded me that Abram set out on his journey because God called him to make it, without experience in the destination.  So did Moses, so did the Israelites in the exile, so did Jesus and the disciples.  Called by God, to go first into the chaos or the wilderness, they went forth because they had no other choice but to obey God’s call.

When we discovered just 8 weeks ago that all of the monies of the Religious Institute had been used by its fiscal agent without our knowledge or permission, we were plunged into the darkness and the wilderness.  I had no idea how or if we would survive, but I did know that the ministry of the Religious Institute was too essential, too unique not to try.  I knew deep in my bones that I would have to work harder, be stronger, be more resilient, be braver and be more faithful than perhaps I had ever been before.

God’s yes, God’s go forth, was louder than any internal desire on my part to just give in or give up.

And so here we are, two months later, with 90% of the money for 2012 raised or committed. We have not been alone in the wilderness.  More than 550 individual donors and eight foundations have become part of our re-birth.  We are a newly incorporated organization with its own board of directors, on our way to becoming an IRS recognized 501 c 3 organization.

In a way that I could not begin to imagine on that terrible day when I learned about the betrayal of the Religious Institute, we now know that we have survived this financial tsunami and we have emerged as a stronger organization, with greater support than ever before.  We are reborn because of all of the people who have stepped forward to make sure that we would.  Your prayers, your donations, your volunteering, your cards and notes have kept us going through the wilderness. 

We are far from done, but we are on our way and we can see the other side of this journey.  I have felt the Holy Spirit’s presence in the darkest moments and in the signs of spring that have also emerged during these two months.

I have reminded myself often of Goethe’s words:  "Sometimes our fate resembles a fruit tree in winter. Who would think that those branches would turn green again and blossom, but we hope it, we know it.”
Because of your support, we have once again begun to blossom and we hope, indeed, we know, we will once again blossom.  Thank you for being part of our rebirth. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Update on Religious Institute, Inc. -- We Have Survived and Are Moving On!

I wanted to give you an update since my blog a few weeks ago.

I am now more confident than ever that the Religious Institute (now formally Religious Institute, Inc.) has survived a financial tsunami and that we are ready to move on.

I am pleased to report that the Religious Institute, Inc. is now legally incorporated in the State of Connecticut, obtained its own EIN, and has a new Board of Directors. The first meeting of the Board took place on March 9, 2012, and bylaws were adopted. We are just about finished with our IRS papers, seeking 501 c 3 status. We expect to have that by September.

People and organizations have been supportive beyond words and expectations. Within 2 days, I had raised $40,000 to cover the debts we were left and staff salary for two payrolls. By the time I’m writing this, in just five weeks, we have commitments for more than two thirds of a scaled down 2012 budget. We have had office volunteers, people bringing us lunch, the most lovely letters and notes, and infinite generosities. I can honestly say that I have now experienced the worst of people and the best of people in new ways.

Our 2012 work will continue because it must. Even during this crisis, we have continued to speak out on reproductive justice, LGBT equality, and sexuality education on television, radio, and in print media. In a few weeks, we are convening an amazing group of theologians to develop a new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on contraception. We are moving ahead with our plans for the Rachel Sabbath Initiative on Mother's Day weekend, and I'm backing to co-writing our new guide for congregations on the Internet.

If you had considered donating, but were waiting to see if we would make it, please know how grateful I would be for your tax deductible contribution. You can do it online at or mail us a check to 21 Charles Street, Suite 140, Westport, CT 06880. Let me know that you are one of my blog readers.

P.S. If you want to know what's going on with the investigation that's public, google search my name and "news." There's going to be an article on Sunday that will tell you more. Please know that we continue to work with authorities at the local, state, and federal level on their investigation so that justice will prevail.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Help the Religious Institute survive! What You Can Do!

The Religious Institute -- and I - am in the fight of our life.

I believe with all my soul that the Religious Institute ( must survive having its parent organization close down and the loss of all of our funds.

In last week's post, I told you that The Unitarian Church in Westport ( immediately became our new fiscal sponsor. On Monday, with the assistance of the Probono Partnership, we will begin filing to be an independent organization and becoming our own 501 c 3.

We are accepting tax exempt donations immediately. You can donate at or send a check to TUCW/Religious Institute to 21 Charles Street, Suite 140, Westport, CT 06880.

If you are local, you can volunteer. We need at least one volunteer a day to do clerical work. Please call first as our offices are tiny.

If you believe in our mission promoting sexuality education, sexual health, and full inclusion of women and LGBT in the life of the faith community, you can ask your friends through FB, twitter, or blogs to "like" us on FB, take the Faithful Voices Pledge at, or send us donations.

You can send a card or a note to the Religious Institute offices for our staff and advisors. Every kind word is making a difference. Use the address above.

Please know that the Religious Institute has contacted every possible local, state, and national authority and they are investigating. Please know that I am working 15 to 18 hour days to survive -- and to do things like write CNN blogs and appear on radio and TV shows on current sexuality issues where our religious voices is desperately needed. Please know that our program work is continuing but that our usual 24 hour turn around time on requests for assistance is slowed down.

During crisis, whether this kind or in a personal tragedy or loss, people have often told me that they don't reach out because they don't know what to say. What we need to hear is simple: "I'm sorry. What can I do? Your work is valued." (If you are reading this and don't know about our ministry, please go to

The kindness of loved ones and of strangers has been uplifting. We know we are surrounded by prayers. My church is doing all they can. Our web site designer is hosting us free for a year. A seven year old sent in $1.45. Churches are holding special plate collections. My chiropractor has offered a free session for all of our staff. A hair dresser even offered me a free blow out. People have brought lunch to the office for us. A church sent the office spring flowers.

I am confident we will survive. YOU can help us survive. Please make your most generous donation (again is the quickest way) and please PRAY.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Disasterous News But We Will Survive -- Please READ

Dear faithful blog readers:

I need your help. I need your prayers. I need your support and I need you to help spread the word about the vital ministry of the Religious Institute. If you can't read all of this, please go to for a short version.

I am in the fight of my life. The Lenten season is upon us, I have been betrayed, we are in the garden, and we need you to stay awake for us.

My regular readers know that I am the director of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization that I co-founded in 2001 to promote a progressive religious voice on a broad range of sexuality issues and to help faith communities address sexuality issues.

On February 21, 2012, the Religious Institute received shocking news from its fiscal agent, Christian Community Inc., that it had ceased business operations, and that it was shutting down immediately. In its capacity as fiscal agent, Christian Community Inc. was responsible for processing all donations to the Religious Institute as well as managing its financial obligations. At that time, we were notified that all of the Religious Institute funds for fiscal year 2012, and all of the Religious Institute reserves and fund balance, were gone. All ties between the organizations were immediately ended at that time.

The shock and the betrayal are beyond words. All authorities -- local police in several jurisdiction, state attorney generals offices in several states, U.S. Attorney, and the FBI have been contacted and are investigating. We have filed reports, given statements and documents, and I've been asked to let them begin their investigation.

I am working 15 hour plus days, harder than I ever have in my life. I have ceased having a salary. The staff of the Religious Institute -- Marie, Blanca, and Michael -- have been AMAZING. We pray, we cry, we hold each other, we feed each other, and we work incessantly. I have never felt so loved. And I have never known how strong I can really be. We are in the wilderness, but we WILL survive.

The response so far (and it's only been a week) has been remarkable. A probono law firm has agreed to take us on as a client and will help us become our own independent 501 c 3. My church, the church I serve as a community minister, The Unitarian Church in Westport (TUCW) immediately voted to become the new fiscal agent for the Religious Institute.

In this role, it will process donations to the Religious Institute. (I have served this congregation as a Community Minister since 2003, and have been a member since 1988.) Additionally, the Religious Institute has started the process of being recognized by the IRS as an independent nonprofit organization, and is managing its own finances. Once the Religious Institute receives IRS recognition as an independent nonprofit organization, it will no longer need the services of TUCW.

The kindnesses people have offered demonstrate to me how loved we are, how we can get through anything with enough love and support, and concrete actions. Our website host has dropped all fees for 2012. My chiropractor has donated free sessions to the staff as has my spiritual director and a psychologist. Members of my church are volunteering their hands and their professional expertise. Churches are taking collections for us.

I've raised one third of what I need to keep us open for the next ten months so we can re-establish ourselves. You can help us get to that goal.

And through it all, I have continued my ministry. In this past week of horrors, I've also done the Geraldo ABC radio show to defend contraception in health care reform, written an article for the Albany Times, provided technical assistance to a church where a staff member was arrested for child sexual abuse, and created a plan for an international meeting on maternal health and family planning. The ministry must survive -- indeed, it is more critical than ever.

Donations to TUCW on behalf of the Religious Institute are fully tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. Donations can be sent to the Religious Institute at 21 Charles Street, Suite 140, Westport, CT 06880, or can be made online at

A seven year old boy sent $1.45. One of my friends sent $10,000. Your $25, 50, 100 to $1000 will make the most vital difference. If you have ever thought about supporting our ministry, now is the time. Tell your friends who have resources that you are committed to helping raise a progressive religious voice in the world and ask them to help.

And most of all, please pray for us. God is with us in this struggle. God and love will get us through this. Thank you for whatever you can do.

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Wednesday, February 08, 2012


I am in disbelief that contraception has become a political football this electoral season.

99% of American women use contraception. 99%. It gives to meaning to "we are the 99%."

Yet, the U.S. Catholic Bishops have called an all out attack on birth control coverage in health care reform -- and each of the GOP contenders have joined them. Their anti-women, anti-sexuality positions are being cloaked in a "religious liberty" argument that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

Today, I joined 22 other national mainstream religious leaders in issuing a statement on behalf of birth control coverage in health care reform. You can read it at

Stand with us and speak out!

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Sex and the Seminary: The Sequel

Today, I am proud to report that the landscape at U.S. seminaries, divinity and rabbinical schools is shifting towards increased sexuality education. The Religious Institute announced this morning that twenty seminaries now meet a majority of the criteria for a sexually healthy and responsible seminary, or twice what we found in 2009 in our original "Sex and the Seminary" report.

During the past three years, the Religious Institute has partnered with these seminaries to ensure that tomorrow’s clergy are prepared to minister to their congregants, and to be effective advocates for sexual health and justice. These twenty seminaries now provide coursework on sexuality, policies that support sexual health, a commitment to an environment safe from harassment and abuse, and leadership that is committed to activism on sexuality issues. We have designated these twenty institutions as Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminaries.

The twenty seminaries represent 9 denominational schools and several inter/nondenominational schools in 12 states.

Some of the improvements in the past two years include the following:

Brite Divinity School, a Disciples of Christ seminary in Fort Worth, Texas now offers a full-semester course on sexuality and pastoral care issues; has revised their community inclusion statement to be inclusive of sex, gender identity, and orientation; and requires all field education supervisors, students, and lay committees to address sexuality-related training needs. Additionally, Brite has developed a model for seminary-wide conversations on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) ordination within Christian denominations.

• The Jewish Theological Seminary developed two full-semester courses on sexuality issues, and now requires at least one full-semester sexuality-related course as well as clergy sexual misconduct training for all rabbinical students prior to graduation. Going forward, almost all Conservative rabbis in the U.S. will have at least one full course on sexuality issues, including education on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as professional sexual misconduct training—all as a direct result of this project.

• Union Theological Seminary dedicated its alumni days to “Sex and the Church,” instituted a required sexual misconduct class, and greatly increased its curricular offerings on sexuality issues.

• Yale Divinity School now requires students take at least one of sexuality-related course prior to graduation. Yale also revised their Master’s of Divinity required ministerial misconduct workshop to include broader sexuality topics, including LGBT issues and sexual health.

These changes come at the same time that denominations have begun to require that their ministerial candidates demonstrate competencies in sexual health and sexuality education, and to take sexual misconduct prevention classes. The Unitarian Universalist Association and the Metropolitan Community Churches now require all of their ministers to be prepared to address congregations’ sexuality issues. Other denominations, including The United Methodist Church, are currently preparing stronger requirements on sexual ethics and misconduct prevention.

These changes are occurring amid a backdrop of denomination struggles around the full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons and the increasing recognition that clergy sexual misconduct is far wider than just the Roman Catholic Church. Today’s clergy are faced with ever-complex sexuality issues, ranging from congregant online affairs to welcoming transgender people. The sexuality issues that clergy must sort out over the course of ministry aren’t going to go away. As more sexually healthy and responsible clergy successfully meet these challenges, it is my heartfelt desire that we continue building on this progress, moving towards a time when all seminaries meet these criteria.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

My Top 10 Predictions for 2012 on Sexuality, Religion,and Public Life

Happy New Year to you all.

Here are my top 10 predictions on sexuality, religion, and public life for 2012. Tell me what you think!

10. The Republican candidate for President will run on an unambiguous anti-choice platform.
Regardless of who the candidate is, this isn't too much of a stretch. All of the candidates in the Republican race are anti-choice; the only question is HOW anti-choice the candidate will be. Rick Santorum, who came in second in the Iowa Caucuses, even would be willing to let availability of contraception become a state issue.

The White House will disappoint pro-choice supporters, again. We will see a return to more pronouncements about reducing the numbers of abortions rather than the NEED for abortion.
Despite assurances from the White House that they are pro-choice, in 2011, the Secretary of DHHS stopped Plan B from being available without a prescription to adolescents and access to abortion was stripped from health care reform. The White House will continue to reach out to conservative voters by not standing strong on access to abortion services.

The Republican candidate for President will be anti-full equality for LGBT persons and will speak out against same sex marriage. See my comments under #10. It is only a matter of degree.

7. The President will NOT support same sex marriage in 2012. Despite being the most pro-lgbt President in history, the President in courting conservative voters will not speak out for marriage equality -- despite what I believe must be his support in his heart.

Several major political and/or religious figures will be involved in extramarital sex that will be exposed publicly. In 2011, we learned about Anthony Weiner and Herman Cain and more than we cared to about John Edward's bad decisions and actions. It will keep happening in 2012.

Child sexual abuse in faith communities, universities, and schools will continue to be exposed -- and continue to happen. Despite -- or maybe because of - - the national teachable moment on Penn State, more allegations of child sexual abuse by people in authority will be revealed. I hope that more attention will be paid to child sexual abuse PREVENTION in 2012.

The issue of full inclusion of lesbian and gays will continue to be debated in mainstream denominations, and The United Methodist Church General Assembly will be focused on this issue. I fear that once again The United Methodist Church will narrowly defeat changing its position on homosexuality to one of greater inclusion and welcome.

Marriage equality will continue to move forward in 2012. The American electorate will continue to support marriage equality in increasing numbers. Washington State will pass marriage equality, following yesterday's support by its governor. Attempts to roll back marriage equality will not be successful.

The teenage birth rate, which reached its lowest level in 2011 in 70 years, will continue to decrease. Teenagers will continue to act more responsibly about their sexuality, as they have increasingly done in the past decade.

Progressive religious voices that support sexual justice will continue to grow in the public debate. More and more religious leaders will speak out for sexual health, sexuality education, and full inclusion of women and LGBT people in 2012 -- at least if the Religious Institute has anything to do about it. More seminaries will meet the criteria of a sexually healthy seminary, more denominations will require sexuality education of their clergy candidates, and more congregations will address sexual health. Stay tuned for progress on this one.

Happy New Year!!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

10th Day of Christmas -- Why Do Unitarian Universalists Celebrate Christmas

On Christmas Eve this year, I offered a homily on Jesus at the Unitarian Church in Westport. That might not be unusual in most churches on Christmas Eve, but it's the first time, I've devoted a sermon to exploring who Jesus might be to Unitarian Universalists, who Jesus is to me, a Jewish Unitarian Universalist minister.

On this 10th day of Christmas, I offer excerpts of it here to you:

The most frequent question I am asked after I give the elevator speech on Unitarian Universalism, is “Do Unitarians celebrate Xmas?” When I answer “yes”, the next question often is “why would Unitarians celebrate the birth of Jesus?”

Or, do we celebrating the birth of Jesus? After all, most of us reject the ideas that we’ve been reading and singing about tonight – agreeing with the historical view of the Jesus Seminar, that “Jesus was not born of a virgin, not born of David’s lineage, not born in Bethlehem, that there was no stable, no shepherds, no star, no Magi, no massacre of the infants, and no flight into Egypt.” We also know that December 25th is an arbitrary date for Jesus’ birth, chosen some time in the fourth century.

So what are we doing here? For those of you from Christian backgrounds, the answer may be rooted in your family traditions and memories of past Christmases. Many of us love the Christmas traditions, the carols, the tree, the lights, and yes, church on Christmas Eve. For some of us from non-Christian backgrounds, including those of us who earlier tonight may have celebrated Chanukah in our homes, it may be the chance to share in what is now largely an American holiday, or to acknowledge that our more recently adopted Unitarian Universalist identity is rooted in Jewish and Christian tradition. Most of us are also here to celebrate the magic we make here on this night with its bells, candles, songs, family, and our beloved community.

But, I’d like to think that for many of us it does have to do with Jesus…not the Christ, but Jesus the mystic, rabbi, teacher, prophet and exemplar.

Now I didn’t know much about Jesus growing up. I’ve told you about how in second grade, bullied by my Catholic classmates into learning the catechism, I went home and asked my parents, “how come you haven’t told me about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?” I remember being called a “Christ killer” by a fellow third grader and being completely confused. I remember being puzzled by the flowing haired picture of Jesus in some of my friend’s living room – a picture that was referred to in seminary as the Breck boy Jesus – often next to pictures of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. “Jesus Christ” was also a swear word used in my home; when a grown up was really upset, they might even say, “Jesus Christ Almighty.” The irony of my parent’s using that as an expletive with no context was lost on them and me.

I frankly wasn’t interested and when I think back about it, surprisingly uncurious about who this Jesus was and why he was important to so many. I didn’t really learn about Jesus until I started divinity school in 1996, when a professor suggested that I read the New Testament before I began his course in Christology. He suggested that I read it like I was reading it for the first time; the reality was that I was! Growing up I’m quite certain my Jewish parents would have preferred finding pornography in my room rather than a New Testament.

I liked much of what I read about Jesus in the New Testament – Jesus who stood up to the oppressors of his time, Jesus who told wonderful stories, Jesus who welcomed everyone and said to “carry one another’s burdens” to fulfill his law and to “love one another just as I have loved you.” When I discovered the work of the Jesus Seminar, a group of theologians and historians who are trying to separate the historical Jesus from the myth, I liked their portrait of Jesus as a revolutionary and humanitarian even more. I remember saying to a Bishop friend of mine, “I think I would have followed Jesus in the original.”

Right after my first semester at divinity school, I was attending a conference that included many evangelical leaders. About 30 people were part of a group discussion on religion and politics in everyday life. Millard Fuller, the President of Habitat for Humanity, was there, and at one point in the discussion, he said:

“I really pray for my Jewish friends. Even though they are good people, I know they are all going to go to hell.”

I was stunned. How could this man who was doing so much good in the world state something so anti-Semitic so boldly? The conversation moved on, but my blood ringing in my ears, I just had to say something. I raised my hand.

“Mr. Fuller, I am just beginning seminary and I am really enjoying learning about your Jesus. But as a person from a Jewish background, when I hear comments like your’s, it makes me want to have nothing to do with the practice of a religion that excludes people like me.”

Hushed silence, like in the old E.F. Hutton commercials. Finally, Rev. Tony Campolo, a leading evangelical theologian, spoke up. He said something like, “You know, Millard she’s right. Remember what Jesus says in Matthew 25 about who will get into the kingdom of heaven: that all will get in who gave me food when I was hungry, drink when I was thirsty, welcomed me when I was a stranger, gave me clothing when I was naked, took care of me when I was sick, and visited me when I was in prison. They answered him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food or thirsty and gave you something to drink.” And Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” And Tony looked at me and then at Mr. Fuller and said, “I don’t think you need to worry about your Jewish friends.”

It was indeed a Christian moment, in the way that I have to come to understand and love what Jesus stands for. . Loving your neighbor as yourself. Radical hospitality and radical inclusion of all. Speaking truth to power. Taking care of those who are less fortunate. Working together to heal a broken world.

And I believe it is that Jesus we celebrate as Unitarian Universalists on Christmas Eve and that fifteen years into my ministry, I still want to know more about. May we be blessed to follow Jesus’ example and love one another. May together we bless the world. Blessings to you this holiday season. Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas.

And may I add, Happy New Year. All blessings for a healthy, peaceful 2012.