Thursday, December 01, 2005


Forgiveness & Reconciliation

I'm going through a difficult time being in my current UU congregation.

Once our previous co-ministers resigned, one to another congregation and one to retirement, the question of naming the retiring minister as an "emerita" came up.

(FYI - We're now in search mode for a new minister.)

As a prelude to the ministers resigning, the board chose to ignore its agreement to use the Carver procedures in dealing with a dicey budget question that was brought before the congregation for a vote. This minister indicated that she felt that balancing the budget at the expense of the lowest paid staff, our Sextons, would be a violation of our
Seven Principles as she interpreted them. And she could not continue as our minister under those circumstances.

As I interpret what ensued, the end result was that some members saw her as being principled while others saw her as holding "their" congregation hostage.

Thus, the last few months of this person's 10-year ministry at our church was marred by controversy and ill feelings.

When she refused to sign marriage licenses till she could do so for LGBT couples as well, she was hailed as a principled minister. Yet when she stood up for her principles on a financial matter, she was reviled as obstructionist, mean, and unfeeling.

One of the first thing our current interim minister did when he came to our church was to have the history of our church posted on large boards so that people could write comments and some of the things anonymously written about this minister were, to me at least, truly shameful, meanspirited and libelous.

I spent half a month in South Africa with her and saw a side of her that many in the congregation, including some of her harshest critics, have not. While I spent that time with a compassionate woman, those who are angry at her have accused her of caring more about people in Africa than her own congregation! As if being white, comfortable and upper-middle class is somehow worse than being an African orphan with AIDS!

Now, nearly two years later, during an open forum to discuss bringing up having a congregational vote on making her emerita, the negative feelings are still deeply held. One person, who was on the board during that time, expressed her deep anger with this minister while another said she would stand at the door to prevent this minister from even trying to enter our sanctuary to worship!

I've been a member of this congregation since September of 1997 and within a year had already had my earful from some of the longtime members about previous ministers and how horrible they were and how they could never be forgiven for "what they did." These people are hanging on to their resentments and vengefulness going back 20 years and more!!!

My question to the group during our "healing" meeting was this:

Where is "forgiveness" and "reconciliation" in our 7 Principles? We tell folks how wonderful our religion is, yet we don't model it within our own congregation. If the people of South Africa can work towards forgiveness and reconciliation, why can't we?

I, and most of my friends, do not identify as christian and more and more of them have stopped going to church. Our current interim minister is more "traditional" than our previous ministers, and that ministry style has left me and many of my friends feeling excluded rather than included in Sunday worship. That, coupled with this negative undercurrent of anger, is driving many of us away. I'm encouraging folks to keep contact with the church through Small Group Ministry, yet that isn't going to last forever.

My feeling is that if we, as a congregation, don't learn how to model forgiveness by going about the business of learning how to forgive and then actually putting it into practice, then I believe that our congregation will end up as just a bunch of spiritually stunted, self-righteous activists who will never understand why we aren't growing.

This year is my fourth as a SGM facilitator and I really want to be a force for exploring the issues of Forgiveness and Reconciliation within my congregation and would like to start with this topic as part of my Small Group Ministry group.

To those of you who end up reading this, please feel free to comment and / or offer recommendations.

Thanks in advance,

© Stephen Schwichow
Bearing With-ness

In making the decision to go to South Africa, I also made the decision that it was to be a spiritual journey as much as a physical journey to a new place.

Margot Campbell-Gross is one of the two resident parish ministers at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco and it is her earlier connection with the *Thabong Community of Dominican Nuns that is the reason this trip was opened to me.

Two years ago Sister Sheila Flynn, who created and mentors the **Kopanang Women's Group, and two of the women, Jabalele and Ivona, came to our Society to introduce us to the embroideries that they hand-make, as a means of earning money and becoming independent.

I was at that service and had the opportunity to meet Jabulile and Ivona afterwards. It happened that I had brought with me some of my mothers jewelry to donate to the annual rummage sale and I gave a piece to each of them, saying that I would like to visit the Kopanang Group in South Africa someday.

Last year, Rev. Campbell-Gross mentioned from the pulpit that she planned on going back to visit the Thabong Community and wanted to know if anyone in the congregation was interested in accompanying her.

Even though I had no idea how I would manage it financially, my roommate being grossly underemployed and unable to pay his full share of living expenses, I said that I wanted to go.

The doubt and fear "devils" beset me with everything from my fear of flying to worries about whether or not the Internet company from whom I purchased my tickets was a real travel agency.

Prior to leaving, Margot requested that we read "Bearing Witness," by Bernie Glassman, a 45-year Zen practitioner and founder of the Order of the Peace Makers. As I read about his extraordinary experiences meeting, getting to know, and finally witnessing to those who suffer and rise above suffering around us, I realized that I would not be able to "bear witness" unless and until I could "share withness" with the very people who's stories must be told.

Finally, my newly purchased, heavy-duty suitcase was fully loaded and precariously balanced on my newly purchased bathroom scale, desperately trying to stay under 65 lbs. and not fall over.

Thursday, October 16, 2003 at 16:00, I will leave San Francisco on Virgin Atlantic for London, and after a brief layover, via Swiss International through Zurich to Johannesburg.

* Zulu, "Place of Joy"

** Zulu, "Gathering Together"

uNkulunkulu makawubusise uMzansi Afrika
© Stephen Schwichow

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