If ever there was a time for UUs to be proactively involved in public education it’s NOW!

Public School
Photo by Ian McKenzie

Unitarian Universalists have the most academic education, second only to the cousins in the Hindu religious tradition.  We love questions, learning, searching. If we love our education so much, wouldn’t we want access to education for everyone as an expression of our Unitarian Universalism?

Trump’s appointment to the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos troubles me deeply. Public school, our country’s most important civic institution, will potentially be gutted, and not in favor of fairness and equality. Trump’s appointment is a call to action and service. What will you and your congregation or Covenanting Community do to protect public education?

  • Can you imagine if every UU congregation ran a member for the local school board as part of their mission?

  • Can you imagine congregations annually commissioning public school teachers and staff in a ceremony of celebration and gratitude?

  • Can you imagine scholarship program run by congregations to fund field trips and extracurricular opportunities as a way to support their local schools?

  • Can you imagine partnering with other groups to offer after-school enrichment programs?

I can imagine this and more.  I can imagine it because it’s part of our heritage.  Horace Mann (Unitarian) started the Common School Movement to ensure that basic education funded by local taxes was available to every child. The idea and movement of universal schooling spread across the new country.  Mann knew that political stability, basic civility, and social harmony are the basis for civilization and universal public schooling is the means to that advancement.

Horace Mann started the public schools, and it’s time we rose up to ensure their protection.

A Note About Gratitude

There were a couple years in which I felt particularly crafty.  I would print out blank cards with black and white chalices for my small children to color.  Or we would make chalice stamps out of sponges or reused Styrofoam.  The back of the card sported a simple chalice and the words:

Come recharge your spirit within our religious community.

<name of congregation>

<address>

<times of worship>

<website>

My children and I would keep these cards handy for times when we saw someone living out our Unitarian Universalist values and send them a thank you note.  Often we’d gather around the Sunday newspaper and search scavenger-hunt style for our values in action.  We’d make a list of people and note their good deeds or courageous decisions.  We’d look up their address, write a thank you note, and then pop it in the mail.  As our little project gained momentum we’d keep a stack of cards in our car and then leave notes in our wake whenever we were out in the community.

I noticed a positive shift in myself and in my children.  We found what we were looking for.  We found Unitarian Universalist values that we hold dear alive throughout our community.  And we started feeling powerful and supportive in our witnessing.

I figured these good vibes would ripple out in some way, but I had no idea of the impact magnitude until I was at a community gathering.  My towns mayor kept looking over at me throughout the evening and then final came over and asked, “Did I do something wrong?  Have I offended you?”

“What on earth?  No.  Why?”

“Well, everyone on City Council has received a note from you in the past year except me…”

I gave him a bear hug and assured him that my children looked up to him and appreciated his job.  I also made a mental reminder to send a note as soon as we could.

When the mayor notices, something is working.  Witnessing, appreciating, thanking is powerful and transforming for both the sender and receiver.

Religious Education is in the noticing and the appreciating.

Note:  If your social justice committee effort has become a checklist of issues, consider picking this effort as congregational justice making. It has real potential to breathe life and love back into a community.

Baby, tell me… I forget…

At the time I was pregnant with my first child I was also a caregiver for people living with AIDS. My husband and I had been the Tuesday night volunteer team for three years in a row. We passed out medications on schedule, changed bandages, made dinner according to dietary restrictions and cravings, logged behaviors and were present.

Three Cedars was an extraordinary place in the early 90s in that there were only four paid staff members and the rest of the 30 member staff were volunteers. Six hours would go by without a paid staff member being on the premises.  I think it worked because we didn’t know it couldn’t.  It worked because we were pioneers with deep, deep compassion and commitment to loving people.

No one at Three Cedars ever asked a resident how they acquired AIDS.  We honestly didn’t care.  We wanted to know what gave them life, what gave them joy and then surround them in those elements.  We did our best to reunite families, but most times families were estranged and we created our own. There was such misunderstanding about AIDS.

This was at a time when medicinal cocktails merely prolonged life or diminished pain.  We insisted that people came to Three Cedars to live, but at that time, once someone came to us, we knew that they would die here in the safety and love our arms.  Our goal was to make that transition as dignified and humane as possible.

When I was a volunteer, we couldn’t afford to take any moment for granted.  Man, could we celebrate! We’d lie out a special feast for just about any holiday and even make up some holidays. Anything to lift spirits and get our boys eating. We got supermarkets and restaurants to donate their finest food in order to entice our residents to eat well. The medicines at that time made people so nauseous that eating was usually laborious.

We also changed wounds, inserted suppositories, changed diapers… nothing phased the seasoned volunteers. I could change a bandage of a herpes lesion without batting an eye so gingerly that the person receiving my care would only moan slightly in discomfort.

As I became more obviously pregnant it became harder and harder for me to change people’s diapers or perform the heavy lifting required of some bandage changes.  But I’d cheerfully waddle around passing out medications, reading to people, or cooking up gourmet meals. The men loved touching my belly.  I think most people fight back the urge to fondle pregnant bellies, but there was a special, delightful inhibition at Three Cedars.

One of the men had dementia and his mind regressed to that of a small boy’s was especially fascinated with my belly. Martin would rest his head on my roundness while I read him stories.  We would curl up like that for hours.  When the baby moved he would squeal and trace the movement with his fingers.

Dementia is a very individual process.  My great grandmother had Alzheimer’s for years before she died, so I was familiar with the symptoms. But each resident was different.  Some would get nasty and throw food at me if the order wasn’t right.  Some would wander from room to room not quite knowing what they were looking for.  Some would become involved in deep philosophical conversations but could never recall anyone’s name. And some would go through the entire disease never experiencing dementia at all. Martin regressed to the mind and emotional state of a child about the age of six.

Martin was about 6 feel tall and weighed about 110 lbs. toward the end of his life.  I had to play games with his food to get him to eat.  I would make smiley face pancakes and fruit salad in the shape of bunny rabbits.  If he finished his plate clean I’d give him an ice cream cone treat.

On Christmas Eve we couldn’t get him to stay in his bed. He was overly stimulated with the all the festivities. I was huge by that time and tired in my last trimester.  My husband sweetly offered to clean the kitchen so I could rest. But as soon as I’d settle down in my favorite chair with my feet up, I’d hear Martin over his intercom singing children’s Christmas carols.  And then I’d hear Cecil, the man next to Martin holler for Martin to "shut up, I’m trying to sleep."  I pattered up to Martin’s to tuck him back in and gently ask him to be a good boy and go to sleep.  This went on for three or four times and I was getting awfully exasperated.

Usually Martin went to bed after his bedtime story, but the excitement of Christmas Eve was too much for him. I heard Cecil holler for me to "Put Martin’s ass in Time Out" as I trudged to the top of the stairs one more time.  I took a deep breath before going into

Martin’s room.  I was starting to get ticked off and question my readiness for motherhood. I was seriously weighing the wisdom of putting Martin in Time Out.

I pulled open the door with determination. Before me was a grown man in a diaper sitting on the side of his bed, bouncing up and down an, clapping his hands. In a sing-song voice he was repeating over and over, "Santa Clause is coming! Santa Clause is coming!" absolutely beaming with anticipation.

All frustration drained through my feet. Here was a man abandoned by his family with a brain so simplified it didn’t even register the enormous pain in which his body was immersed.  Here was a boy waiting for Santa Clause surrounded by a makeshift family with presents under the tree fulfilling his list of Tonka trucks and Legos and a stocking filled with candy that I just knew he’d shove in his mouth as quickly as he could unwrap.

"Martin," I whispered, "Santa won’t come unless good little boys are asleep…" Martin gasped, cupped his mouth, and then leaped under the covers.

"Rub my back until I fall asleep," he begged.  Before he rolled over he kissed my belly. I rubbed and hummed a lullaby until his breathing was a steady, slow rhythm. I wasn’t far behind him.

Two months later I gave birth to a strong baby boy.  On the way back from the hospital my husband and I came to Three Cedars before even going home.  I wanted to show the residents my baby before he got all baby-germy and therefore became a hazard to the health of the residents.

Martin was still there.  Busy with a Lego creation.  He leapt up and ran over when I came in with the baby. He was fascinated with the bundle I was gingerly holding.

I’d never held a baby that small, and I still couldn’t believe it he was mine. The staff and residents were all gathered around admiring our first Three Cedars Baby.

Martin leaned in and very quietly asked if he could hold the baby. I held out the tiny bundle for him to take, much to the dismay of the staff who was giving me The Look.  In a sense I had just handed my newborn over to a 6 year old boy capable of 6 year old temper tantrums. Martin shuffled out of the room and into his room.  I stopped one of the staff who was going after him.  I bent my head to the monitor in the dining room.  We could hear Martin with the baby.

"Baby, tell me what it’s like.  I forget…. Tell me again what it’s like."  There was silence except for newborn grunts and gurgles.  We all held our breath. Martin came shuffling back out with the infant in his arms and handed him back to me.

Martin died within 24 hours peacefully, surrounded by people who loved him and respected him.


Religious Education happens when we stare horrible tragedy down and respond with graceful love and acceptance.  Religious Education is the transformation we experience when we leap into justice work with faith as our safety net.

Banana Woman

The following story lends itself well to worship service.  Think multiple readers, puppets, bananas on the alter… I’d love to hear how you adapt it and make it yours!  And yes, it is a true story. Banana Woman is alive and well.  Last time I saw her she was blowing bubbles out her car window while stopped in traffic.

Reader 1: There once was a young woman who went to school in New York City. She was nervous about going to New York City.  It was much bigger than anything she had experienced.  The skyscrapers were soooo tall. The amount of people seemed endless. The beautiful sculptures and fancy-dressed culture were like nothing she knew.  Amidst the bustle and color and richness she saw people with hollowed eyes holding out their hands in hunger.  This wasn’t something she had seen before.

Reader 2: She asked her mentor what do with this. He told her that she would know what to do when the time was right she just needed to open her heart to love.  And so she went back to school and soon the idea came to her.  Bananas.

Reader 1: She took her bus money and bought as many bananas as she could buy and hold on her 20 block walk to school.  Bananas were the perfect food for her mission.  They were soft to wiggly teeth.  They were rich in potassium for people who were nutritionally deficient.  They came naturally prepackaged – and she later found she could write hopeful messages and drawing on the peels.  To each person that held out a hand or a Styrofoam cup for spare change she held out a banana.  She looked deeply into their eyes and smiled.  She did this every morning that she went those 20 blocks back and forth to school.

Reader 2: She learned a lot in her classroom, but the young woman had other teachers, as well.  She grew to recognize, to know, to love the banana people.  She never knew their given names, but gave them each nicknames.  There was the woman asking for change who took out each of the copper coins and rubbed them over and over until they were shiny.  The young woman called her Penny.  There was the man who made funny monkey noises whenever she handed him a Banana.  The young woman called him George after Curious George.  There was the woman who held a sign with a plea to help her and her three kids as she was out of work.  She was named Mother.  There was the young man who had a different hustle every day and she dubbed him The Business Man.

Reader 1: She had a favorite.  Rasta Man. He had the most glorious dreadlocks and Caribbean accent.  He didn’t ask for money so much as he stood on a street corner and loudly proclaimed the coming apocalypse mixed with governmental travesties. On the first day of the bananas he stopped his banter long enough to ask what she was doing with all the bananas.  She cheerfully handed over a banana and he remained a customer ever since.  When he saw her coming down the street he would wave him arms in greeting and call, “Banana Woman!  She is coming!” There were others and they each had their nicknames.  And as their familiarity grew the boundaries fell away.  The young woman would greet them with a smile, a banana and a hug.

Reader 2: This went on for the three years that she was in school in New York City.  Her time came to graduate and go back to her home.  A feeling of sadness came over her as she realized there would be no one left to keep on with her banana mission.

Reader 1: She bought her last bunch of bananas and began her walk back.  As she gave her banana and hug, she told each of her friends that she was going back home and wouldn’t see them again.  Each was appreciative and wished her well.  And she wished them well.  As she came close to her destination she still had 6 bananas left.  She noticed a man sleeping in the doorway of a church and quietly approached him, careful to not wake him up.  She placed the bananas in a halo around his head and marveled at how he looked just like an angel.  Then she thought of his surprise when he woke up encircled in fruit and she laughed to herself.

Reader 2: Further down her last block, Rasta Man greeted her.  She smiled and hugged him and then sadly realized that she had no bananas left to give him.  She pointed to her banana angel and they both chuckled.  She apologized for greeting him empty handed.

Reader 1: “Dear Banana Woman, I will miss you and the bananas were good.  But it wasn’t bananas that you gave me.”

Reader 2: Banana Woman, thought for a moment and wondered what he thought she had been giving him.  Knowing that his world was different than the world she knew and lived in, she wanted to better understand.  “What did I give you, Rasta Man?”

Reader 1: He held out his hand and covered her heart.  Her eyes instantly filled with tears.

“I am going to miss you, Rasta Man!”

Reader 2: Rasta Man bellowed his big laugh and then said softly, “No, I’ll be right here” as his hand remained resting on her heart.  “And you will always be right here.” He took her small hand and placed it over his heart.

Reader 1: And they remained together ever since.  The lesson learned that day lives in everything Banana Woman does.

Reader 2: We are all connected.

Reader 1: There are lessons to be learned from everyone and everything.

Reader 2: And once we learn a lesson, we must breathe life into it by putting it into action.

Reader 1: Justice is a transformative dialogue requiring an open mind, a loving heart, and helping hands

Reader 2: We are from the church of the open mind, the loving heart, and the helping hands.  We have solutions right here and we are not alone.