Presence and absence are persistent themes in theology and in religious practice. Both the presence of the spirit and despair born of the absence of hope are “truths” that religion strives to recognize, to explain and, sometimes, to control.
Today, across the US and here in Portland, a “Day Without Immigrants” is being promoted on social media. Those born outside the US are being encouraged to stay home from work and school, some businesses will close and marches will take place. Since November, taking to the streets has become our norm.
The absence of all of our foreign born neighbors would, without a doubt, crash our economy and our spirit. That absence is important to notice. We need to pay attention to absence.
In religious community, we also should welcome and celebrate presence.
In 1992 former Senator Edward Kennedy and Coretta Scott King both wrote letters opposing the nomination of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. This Tuesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren was allowed to read Kennedy’s letter of opposition as she argued against the nomination of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, but was silenced and banished from the Senate floor for attempting to read the letter from Mrs. King. It was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who demanded she be silenced. Below is the letter I sent to Senator McConnell yesterday:
February 8, 2017
Senator Mitchell McConnell
United States Senate
Dear Senator McConnell,
I write to ask a simple question: Why should I respect the United States Senate?
As a minister, it is hard enough for me to avoid purely partisan response to our current politics. My views differ from yours on a vast array of issues facing our nation today. But I have continued to struggle to place my trust not in short term political outcomes, but in the institutions of our democracy.
Since November 8, our sanctuary, like the sanctuaries of many religious communities, has been full. Even after almost three months, even after the Inauguration, even after the snow and ice, there were 1000 adults in the sanctuary last Sunday. The classrooms of the Learning Community were filled. Our programs are well attended and well received.
The ministry of First Unitarian, to nurture the individual spirit and build the Beloved Community, is clearly needed by liberal religious folks as we navigate these days. Our leadership and the liberal religious presence we offer in this community are important.
Just this week we certified our membership to the Unitarian Universalist Association, up just slightly from last year, at 1050 adults. The stream of visitors continues strong and the number of folks joining First Unitarian continues to be significant. Hundreds of “Standing on the Side of Love” armbands were visible at the recent Women’s March and our new Immigrant Justice Group has dozens of active members.
There are many signs of health and vitality at First Unitarian. But I also need to report on those areas where we struggle. Like most congregations, money is one of them.
The staff begins the budget process for the coming year this week. This requires making a firm estimate of income, especially pledge income. I want to thank everyone and every family that has made a pledge of support for next year, over 900 of you. The vast majority of you maintained your financial commitment and more than a few were able to increase. But, as those of you who have been keeping track know, the total of the pledges has been running behind last year’s level, not by huge amounts but consistently.
Our best estimate is that pledges will fall approximately 10% short of our goal (a 3% increase), and almost 7% short of last year’s level.
There are many reasons for this, without doubt. Each pledge is an individual decision and reflects not only the importance of First Unitarian to the individual/family but family financial circumstances as well. It is a time of transition at church and a few individuals indicated dissatisfaction as a reason they were reducing their financial support. More indicated changed financial circumstances. There are some past pledges from last year that have not been renewed, at least yet. That is always the case. And many congregations, both UU and otherwise, are reporting higher levels of discord and lower levels of financial support this year.
We have been asking for pledges since Celebration Sunday in November. Past pledging households from whom we have not heard have received two e-mail requests and at least one phone request (typically a voicemail message). We will continue some very selective solicitation, but our budget will need to be based on pledges to date and a reasonable forecast for pledges through June.
The 10% shortfall from goal translates to approximately $145,000, or a $100,000 reduction from this year. I expect we will be able to partially cushion the impact of this shortfall on operations next year by the judicious use of available reserves and budgeting more tightly to avoid the surpluses we have run in the last three years. But we will not be able to offset the entire shortfall.
My commitment remains to operate First Unitarian within our means, as does my commitment to supporting our mission. Fulfilling both of those commitments will challenge us in the coming year when the need for our ministry is so clear and so pressing.
And it goes without saying that if you have not yet made your pledge, or want to increase the pledge you have already made, "now is the time."
The winter holidays are a special season at First Unitarian. We celebrate both the value of the long dark of winter and the return of the light as the earth begins its turn toward spring. Join us for a special Music & Worship service this Sunday, Dec. 11, centering on motherhood, for our traditional Solstice Service on Dec. 21, and, of course, for one of our three services on Christmas Eve. Our Christmas Pageant, in its 92nd year, will be the center-piece of the 4 PM Christmas Eve family service.
Here is our webpage
to the complete listing of services through the first of the New Year, and a listing of opportunities to give back out of our abundance.
May this season offer you the rest and respite you need and the opportunity to restore your spirit as we move toward the New Year. We hope the community at First Unitarian can help this holiday season be for you a time that points toward hope.
Blessings of the season,