Archive for the ‘Civil Rights’ Category

Banks of the Muddy Dan

June 2nd, 2013

Back to key childhood town today via the NYT opinion piece, I recalled Danville, VA. Tess Taylor, likely the age of my eldest son, wrote on how early Civil Rights protests hit even her white, establishment granddad.

In the very segregated setting only three miles above North Carolina, I went to elementary and junior high. Separate black/white schools were the norm. Even Greyhound was the white bus line versus the black Trailways. Some accommodations were not quite blended. I think of the Rialto movie theater, which kind of accommodated black folk, so long as they sat in the balcony. In fact, when I was eight, a friend thought he was tricking me by sending me upstairs with my bag of popcorn. When I noticed that the white people were downstairs and I was among rows of exclusively black people, I wasn’t bothered and watched the double feature (always at least a double and the Rialto had the Westerns and other action flicks). Later I wondered whether anyone in the balcony resented a white kid in their seats. If so, they didn’t let me know. After the movies, my classmate met me and looked chagrined. I think maybe he tasted his own racism and found his joke unfunny.

Taylor’s piece is on her grandfather’s modestly foolish upbraiding of a racist judge for coming heavy on black protesters for integration. It gives nice background on Danville as well as the perceived praise of her relative.

I’ve written on Danville here before. I lived there longer than anywhere until I moved to Manhattan after college and those were formative years.

Fortunately, my mother was not a racist and we were not infected by the malevolent disorder. She ran the Red Cross chapter, where black folk as well as white volunteered and received such services as blood, transportation, first-aid and home nursing training and such. Black folk were as welcome in our lives as whites. There were a few Jews, including the physician who rented to us, although I don’t recall knowing or even seeing Asians. It was a two-colored world.

Danvillelibrary

We moved to a far more rural Chester — middle of the same state, but not at all a city, before going to Plainfield, NJ for high school. PHS was half black. Plus my classes were a quarter to half Jewish students. I took the bus to Manhattan every chance I got. I experienced intense culture shock, almost entirely in a good way. I did hear and see Yankee de facto segregation and overt racism though, as I did and do during my decades in Boston. The first time I heard anyone openly using the N word was in my first few days in New Jersey. The separation of races in old Danville seems to have minimized open disdain, plus likely the veneer of civility in the South.

Pic note: The building was my public library and had been the site of the last capital of the Confederacy. Danville came with extra baggage.

On a far more prosaic level, I can draw light lines to other cultural transitions. I think of common tools, such as computers. I went from a manual typewriter to an electric one, on to when being a computer user meant bringing your task, like data analysis to a programmer who typed out punchcards and handed them to you to pile into a huge computer for calculation, I went on to batch processing in a shared environment and to paper tape mainframes before dedicated (and very expensive) word processors before workstations and then personal computers.

The improvements in integration and race relations have not been as linear or incessant. Yet integration advances, even in places like Boston, although there’s still a lot of happen. To return to the weak tool analogy, much as occurred in my lifetime and my towns. I think of my wife’s late grandmother, who grew up from the era before electricity and automobiles. Like Mable Thames, I have seen and benefited from much. Keep it coming.

 

Benny Stays Responsible

February 11th, 2013

I am not Roman Catholic, have never been and don’t even play one on internet radio. Yet I have more than passing interest in Pope Benedict XVI, born Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, 25 years running the Roman Inquisition (formally the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and widely known in ecclesiastical circles as God’s Rottweiler. benny

It may be unfair in some emotional ways for a non-RC type to criticize him, but he’s long been a foe of marriage equality among other good trends. He’s also done his damnedest (most blessed?) to shrink the Church. He’s made it plain that he only wants to truly devoted and obedient congregants.

So, he announced that he’s stepping down on February 28th and has called for a conclave to replace him in March. The last time a pope resigned was 598 years ago, when Gregory XII stepped down to heal a major succession schism.

I confess, if I may use that term in its common meaning, that I admire and appreciate his reasons. Unlike many predecessors who literally limped along when they were ailing and both physically and mentally enfeebled. he admitted he doesn’t have the oomph to do papal duties. As he put it, … “After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…”

He brother Georg Ratzinger said the Poper was having increasing difficulty walking and that his resignation was part of a “natural process”.  “His age is weighing on him. At this age my brother wants more rest.”

I of course hope for a new, improved version, one less doctrinaire, more compassionate, and more believing in using the Church’s resources for social action.

Free-dumb on the 4th

July 5th, 2012

Visiting #1 Son and DIL around Independence Day of course has been full of obvious and subtle examples of freedom and restrictions. While the Fourth is ostensibly about casting off colonialism and occupation, we boomers go far beyond that.

Growing up with WWII parents and WWI grandparents, we are filled with grand and even naive ideals of cultural and personal. Those were reinforced by that newish TV, movies and all around us. American exceptionalism and frontier concept of freedom characterize and drive us.

My curmudgeonly comment today includes exasperation with 20 and 30 somethings who would try to excuse ignorance and lack of analysis saying they weren’t born when this or that occurred. That shows only a lack of knowledge, curiosity and perhaps intellect. The world did not begin spinning when you nor I arrived.

With my hoary head, I noticed our airport experiences and the heavy symbolism of a trio to Alcatraz.

For the former, recap it with removing shoes and belts keeps no one safe. We are both delusional and sheeplike pretending otherwise. Chants about sacrificing for safety or even that the mere theater of arbitrary and ineffectual TSA regulations and procedure dissuaded terrorists from plying their hellish aims are sad and un-American.

More to the metaphor on the Fourth, ferrying to the Alcatraz tour was an object lesson in freedom as well. Ceding all liberty as punishment for crimes is an Independence Day meditation.

We coursed through our day and night until early on the Fifth, interacting with other revelers, residents, citizen, cops barkeeps and such. We experienced the relative liberty boomers idealize in most places. We did show our papers – train, and boat tickets, credit cards and such on demand. Some instances were silly overkill, like three times each in the snaking, cordoned ferry line for The Rock, but in the main, we perked and went at will.

As a nation, we definitely have freely ceded too many liberties to feed our collective post-9/11 insecurities. We’re not likely going to regain those soon or easily.

Live Free, Even a Schoolgirl

May 17th, 2012

A long, often emotionally wracking struggle finishes with this school year. In September, Jen will attend a new public school. She’ll no longer be ostracized or isolated or punished or sent hither and yon to use a toilet.

Almost all of us are wont to say this or that is “only common sense.” Likewise, many of us see respect for each other and our shared humanity as right and necessary. Jen finally will have those baselines.

Background: The original post on her schooling and the bizarre, hostile behavior of school officials is here.

In the case of this smart, loving transgender child, only a family support system, augmented with the straight-ahead savvy and attitude of a GLAD lawyer brought respect and kindness. Jen’s mother and grandmother did battle as necessary school officials, while buoying Jen at home to compensate for the daily angst. They lavish praise on the GLAD attorney who helped them, or as they put it, “the most wonderful, caring, thoughtful, selfless man, My Attorney Janson!!!! He gave us more than we could ever ask for.”

And there you have it. Yes, he negotiated with school officials. He educated them (and Jen’s family) on the requirements and limits of the law. (The national Americans with Disability Act, for example, excludes transgender, relying on state statutes and public officials to be savvy and humane.) Certainly having legal oomph behind you never hurts.

The solution of switching schools would seem less than ideal. The other elementary school students were fine with Jen’s transition. It was only a parent or two and the administrators who were crazed over her closing the bathroom stall door once or twice a day. They should have been the ones to change and mature and humanize.

However, The key here is that Jen gets to be a student and a child and a girl in school. That really shouldn’t have been so hard.


 

1870 Fairmount Rumble

February 19th, 2012

agwMy hill in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood has had its moments. When we moved on Fairmount Hill over two years ago, we figured it looked like just another undistinguished almost-suburban area. Heaven knows the few plaques (at the bottom of the hill, thank you very much) say little and nothing political. However, we did learn that the Grimké sisters, Sarah and Angelina, lived here. Angelina (right) with her husband, Rev. Theodore Weld, and Sarah next door.

Their houses are gone. While Victorian homes of the period are on the block, modest brick two-story ones (and no plaque) are there now. Maybe the UUA will chip in. They like to claim Weld, and in truth, at least late in life, he and Angelina did become Unitarians.

I already cited their abolition and women’s suffrage work. There is a a link also to the tale including the mixed race Grimké brothers Archibald and Francis whom the sisters supported, saw educated and helped into starting successful careers as a lawyer and diplomat and a preacher. That was the good side of do-gooder guilt, a.k.a. social activism. The sisters discovered that their brother who remained in South Carolina has fathered the boys by their enslaved mother. Nothing like blood to bring anti-slavery sentiments full circle.

The brothers Grimké and one’s daughter, likely American’s first published lesbian poet as well as activist in the family mode, Angelina Weld Grimké all spent time on this hill. For Weld and the sisters, it was a base of operation to correct the wrongs of slavery and suppression of women. I like to think that if there are such things as spirits, those of the several generations of these remarkable people hum and inspire here still.

Over at Marry in Massachusetts, I just added a wee rant on what may befall the creeps and crazies throttling women in November. We can extrapolate pretty easily as to what Sarah and both Angelinas would make of the current GOP boys’ policies. Plus, now they’d have a vote to do something in addition to writing and talking.

Helping and Harming a Transgender Child

February 2nd, 2012

I’m tempted to call it the magic headband. From the day the 8-year-old transgender student wore it to class, there was a transformation. The angry, screaming child who would flip over desks suddenly became a happy scholar.

Who could find problems with that?

ID note: To respect the privacy of all involved as this unfolds, this identifies the child only by first name, does not reveal the locale or school, and cites the grandmother as GM and mother as Mommy.

Source note: My j-school/newspaper background normally has me going to multiple sources. This draws almost entirely on the candid conversation with GM. Future updates may include lawyers, the therapist, the principal or others, but there’s plenty in the experiences from her view.

The principal of the school was among those who has not yet learned to deal with John presenting as Jen. In particular, she’d like Mommy and GM to punish Jen for using the girls restroom and apparently claims Jen will do so “over my dead body.” Unfortunately, in New Hampshire, the legislature rejected the bill that would add legal protections to transgender children and adults. The other New England states prohibit discrimination based on gender identity.

Acknowledged transgender is not common. Estimates run from 3% down to a quarter of 1%. Yet it’s real when it’s real, and denial, anger and other irrational responses help no one and change nothing.


Revealing Jen


This child’s background is not so simple as many of our lives and goes far below gender identity. For starters, a single mom with a daughter found out and met the brother and sister five and three year olds who had been in foster care for years. She decided to bring them into her home and begin the adoption process.

That’s remarkable enough. In what would have dissuaded most prospective parents, the boy, John, was deemed severely autistic, low verbal, prone to outbreaks, and not toilet trained at five. GM reports that her daughter asked her, “Do you think I can do this?” She replied, “If anyone can do this, you can.”

The adoption took a year, but two years ago, the pair legally came to Mommy. He had already been toilet trained as soon as they came into the home, as GM put it, “in two weeks…with love.” He was still unhappy but quickly more verbal. GM notes that both children had arrived gaunt and pale. Even their skin color changed, to the point where the doctor’s office didn’t recognize them.

There was no tension with the existing daughter. She was fine with a sister, but in particular had always wanted a brother.

The wrinkle was in the boy’s fondness for things frilly. He liked to dress up in girls’ clothes. Mommy and GM quickly became aware this was not transvestism. Rather, he said he was a girl.

They took him to a therapist, who asked among other questions, “Have you always felt like a girl?” John replied, “No, I’ve always been a girl.”

While Mommy and GM are quick to point out they just love the children and want to do what’s best for them, let us note their wisdom and equanimity as well. They did not flip out, did not scream at or hit John, did not do the gender-identity version of trying to convert a lefthander, and did not demand that he live double school/home lives.

Starting wearing dresses at home and being very saddened by having to wear a boy’s suit for his adoption ceremony, John left no doubt about identity. Willing to present as a girl at school, as Jen, meant simultaneously being honest and risking what came from classmates and teachers.


Trouble from Above


Both Jen and her sister are shorter and slighter than many peers, but neither lacks courage. Jen has retained and expanded her friends, says GM, who noted with pride the attitude of the younger sister to the few students who would taunt on the playground. “She protects Jen. She’ll get right between her and children on the playground. She’ll say, ‘Don’t call her a boy. That’s my sister.'”

Jen insisted on going to school in dresses. The therapist supported this and told Jen to use the girls room when no one else was there. Mommy and GM met with teachers and the principal several times to let them know what would happen. The principal even met with Jen in her office to prepare.

Then the letter arrived. It seems one parent had complained about Jen using the girls room. “The school was going to pursue legal action if (Mommy) didn’t punish her for this,” said GM. “Plus, they were going to follow her around school.” GM and Mommy weren’t about to punish Jen or accept separate and unequal treatment.

Jen had gone from a problem child to a student of the month. She loved school and had lots of friends. Now, said GM, “Jen came home crying saying she can’t use the bathroom, ‘because I’m making them uncomfortable.'”

In the closest thing the school came to trying a compromise, the principal said Jen would have to use the nurse’s office restroom. While GM and Mommy heard this and thought they could frame it as their idea and something special. Unfortunately, the principal presented this as a mandate to Jen before letting them know what was up. Thus, Jen felt punished and tried to go the dayswithout using any restroom.


More to Be Done


Jen loves school, but short-term, she’s not there. Until arrangements are in place and there is a clear understanding, she’s being home schooled. Oddly GM and Mommy had some experience with this years before in a previous school with the first daughter. She was diabetic and the school would not medicate her as needed for her health. They resolved that and got her back in.

Likewise, the aim her is to get Jen back in class with her friends, who GM says are fine with the transition. Meanwhile, GM and Mommy have been in contact with a GLAD lawyer as well as counterparts in two other states. The school will receive guidelines on how to deal with a transgender student.

GM seems singularly well organized and a formidable force. She and Mommy had also kept detailed records of the entire process, including all communications and meetings. They are more than willing to do their parts to make this work as smoothly and pleasantly as possible. They also have not stopped reading and speaking with people who understand they physical, psychological and legal aspects.

Their attitude includes that a transgender student going to school in a dress, “is not going to be the hardest thing she’ll go through.”

In fact, their surprise came when they had to confront their own related issue. First it was from the older daughter, the one who had always wanted a brother. As John transitioned to Jen, GM said, “She cried and said, ‘I’m losing my brother!’ That’s when we realized we were losing him too.” All had known John as he joined them and blossomed from the sad, autistic boy they first new into the happy Jen who loves school and is popular. “We’ve had to grieve John, ” said GM. “John no longer exists.”

Instead, Jen is ready to get on with her life. Mommy will see that her name is changed legally. Moreover, at this point it seems that sexual reassignment surgery is somewhere in the more distant future.

While Jen was initially unclear on genital anatomy, she knew she had a penis. When Mommy explained how girls and boys differed, Jen said, “Mommy, why do I have to wait? Can’t you just cut off my penis, so people will like me?”

For those who would say such things as homosexuality is a lifestyle or in this case transgender is a choice that weird adults make, let us consider the reality of the latter with Jen. She is a child who has known early on what her true gender is. She hurts no one and wants to get on with her life and to develop as any child. Her grandmother, mother and sisters will do their part. It is a small enough thing to expect everyone else to let her go about that life.

Cross-post: This appears also at Marry in Massachusetts.

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S.C. Free Rag Nails It

July 3rd, 2010

We had heard and seen and read about Alvin Greene already, from the Globe to the Times to Huff to Daily Show. The best just arrived today though.

Our friend who moved back to South Carolina, Savannah (a.k.a. Marion Etheredge), mailed us the Columbia Free Times with the cover story. There’s no fabulous breakthrough, but it’s the very best piece on the funky Dem primary win of an unemployed unknown for U.S. Senate ever.

Praise to writer Corey Hutchins. The only thing missing is a big pig — more on that in a moment.

For background, click the Daily Show clip below on the subject. Jon Stewart aptly calls S.C., America’s whoopie cushion. He has the basics down. Greene put down ten large to be in the primary, didn’t campaign and won the primary with 60% of the vote. He surely will lose resoundingly to incumbent Republican Jim DeMint in November, but meanwhile…

Unlike the WTF? view of national reporters, the local guy does what Sandlappers do well. He asked, “Who are your people?,” and dealt with that. Greene’s father, James Greene Sr., has long been a populist activist. So despite the pretty sad conspiracy wails of the Dems when their favored candidate, ex-legislator Vic Rawl, took his drubbing, this may have been the post-Reconstruction fluke it appears. That is, a non-politically connected black man gets the party nod for U.S. Senate. Maybe that just happens every 140 years or so.

To those pigs though, I know about the importance of BBQs in elections. I lived in S.C. for five years, edited the black weekly there for a year, and married a native (although in fairness, we met where I lived in Greenwich Village when she was visiting). In a state with carefully choreographed legislative votes and election prep, pigs are big.

I remember many times being in the state house (with its external metal stars where every piece of Yankee shrapnel hit the building in Sherman’s rude visit). Typically a couple of buses of school students were on field trips as part of their civics or history education. They had anticipated the fervent debates and grand oratory on a bill under consideration.

Invariably, the bill would get announced and there’d be a clear, often unanimous, vote up or down — nary at metaphor, much less a passionate speech.

The pig had happened. That is, the party leaders and often the whole legislature would be at a BBQ or Christmas party. They’d do their lying, swapping and dealing over chunks of pig. By the time they left the function, they really had nothing else to discuss on the matters at hand.

Amusingly enough in Greene’s case, he has never been part of the power structure. He almost certainly never got an invite to a pig roast…and almost surely never will be in the BBQ elite.

In S.C., there is pretty my much a mirror image of Massachusetts’ party structure. Here, Dems rule. There, Dems converted to that other party during the sweeping civil-rights revolution. The S.C. Dems feed off the leavings as MA Republicans do.

In that sense, it’s irrelevant whether Greene came up with that $10,400 filing on his own. The national media has the dummy’s fixation that this is the issue.

More to the point, we need to consider that other fixation, that is of an innate wisdom of the larger electorate. Even locals up here like to squawk about voters being smart. As the Greene victory suggests, that is a fantasy that ignores short, mid-term and deep history.

We voters goof up all the time. We don’t pay attention. We don’t understand the issues. We don’t know the differences among candidates’ positions. We goof up.

Sometimes, we do it inanely, on purpose and reflexively. Think of the James Strom Thurmond, former governor, elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954 and 1956 and serving until 2003. That was 59 years from S.C. into D.C. for that destructive schmuck. If possible, they might have returned his corpse to the office.

As a nation, we have done as badly shorter term for President too many times as well. Wait until after the November elections. We can look at whom we elect. Then we can talk about how smart the electorate is.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Alvin Greene Wins South Carolina Primary
www.thedailyshow.com

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Hidden HP History

April 1st, 2010

212 Fairmount Ave.

Nondescript 212 Fairmount in Hyde Park was the site of a social-activist nexus for Hyde Park, Boston and beyond — a century and one-half ago at least. Think abolitionists, suffragettes, Weld and the Grimkés (including the sisters’ half-black, former slave nephews).

Its nearby neighbors today are largely splendid Victorians. This is one of several clearly razed and replaced. No sign or wall plaque hints at the former buzz within.

In fairness to whomever redeveloped 212, that was what happened and not only in Hyde Park back then. One of Boston’s virtues is how many of its historic buildings it has kept. In contrast, in Manhattan far more important sites get that plaque if anything. However, Hyde Park was carved out of open tracts of Milton and Dedham and Fairmount Hill required either bushwhacking from the Mattapan train terminus or pushing across the bridgeless Neponset in a punt to begin settling the area. Such niceties as devoting resources to troubled houses could come later.

In fact, Hyde Park let herself go. The dangerous and dilapidated Fairmount House was totally gutted and rebuilt on Michael Tallon’s dime to become Townsend’s. The former grand inn lives only in a few pictures on the upstairs walls. Also, many of the grand meeting halls went down.

Moreover, the most known and distinguished building in this newest of Boston neighborhoods (1912) is Christ Church. While architects cite this Ralph Adams Cram building as the prototype for many other 19th Century works, it looks ugly to me and has mediocre stained glass.

Crusaders of Fairmount

Theodore Weld operated out of 212 Fairmount for the bulk of his rabble rousing career. In partnership were his wife, Angelina Grimké, her sisters, Sarah and Eliza, and eventually two of those those nephews, Archibald and Francis Grimké, They were a one-stop stop for freedom fighting for Black Americans and women.

The nephews became accomplished in their own rights, one after getting his Harvard Law degree. The lawyer, Archibald, also had a daughter Angelina Weld Grimké, who became a well-known poet and writer. She too had lived at 212.

The details of the sisters’ shock at finding their S.C. brother had continued to own slaves, fathered children with one of them, and then sold his sons is here.  Typical of today’s progressives, they did something, lots, about it. Their tale and Weld’s are in that and related documents on the link above.

So, out of 212 came tracts and activists on missions. Weld and the Grimkés were together and separately active writers, orators and organizers for abolition causes and what was known then as elevation of the Negro to equality. They were as passionate about women’s rights, and the suffrage action that didn’t take place in New York came out of Fairmount Hill.

Imagine the parade of women from 212 on election day, March 7, 1870, who went to the Hyde Park poll to cast the first votes ever by American women. Those did not count toward the total, but that was an inspiration for many.

There is a splendid period mixed theater to that episode as well. Each woman going to vote symbolically had a male escort, who had presented her with a floral posy. Each man held back at the poll to let the woman advance and place her ballot in the envelope for that purpose. So, it seems under the protection of men and with flowers, the women were at once demanding and fem.

Literally to the very end, Angelina showed her toughness and right-mindedness,  the stuff of a reformer. She had been frail and then lived her last years partially paralyzed from a stroke. She continued to write and made a poignant statement in her final note — I have purposely selected my oldest clothes to be buried in, that my good ones may be given to the poor, that they may do good after I am gone.

If there are any spirits around, it would seem that 212 would still have lots of Grimké/Weld mojo.

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Praising Needy Volunteers

October 1st, 2009

Likely more than most, I was a volunteer before I had the volition. My mother ran Red Cross chapters. By elementary school, I was folding appeal letters and stuffing envelopes, graduated to hand tweaking mimeograph sheets with a stylus and then running the wondrous flier maker, and even playing the victim for first-aid classes.

On a pedestalMy volunteer line has few interruptions and certainly did not stop when I left my mother’s apartments. As a child and adult, it has been church, professional associations, civil-rights and other political groups, and of course teaching swimming and first-aid myself.

All of that is to say that there are reasons I am astounded by two attitudes. One is the adult who grew up in a non-volunteering household and is content to sit before a TV or computer nights and weekends doing nothing that I think of as worthwhile. The other is the needy volunteer.

I am not either of those. I have known many though. In my UU church work and professional association stints, I met and dealt with those for whom no amount of praise and honors is adequate. Each act of volunteering requires constant affirmation.

Some friends at my professional group (the Society for Technical Communication) had giggles at my expense at June’s end-of-year meeting/dinner thingummy. We always gang our mentions of and hand out certificates, plaques and such to those who gave energy and time over the year.

This time, I got one of the special awards, the Spirit of Volunteerism one. It’s a much lower key version of the lifetime achievement Oscar. I had been on a six-year leadership ladder, including the presidency of the Boston chapter, but I found getting the sculpture and honorarium embarrassing.

My mother taught me to let volunteers take credit for things, even if they were not the originator or driver for them. She also taught me to praise the volunteers while deflecting attention from myself.

What a Good Boy Am I

 

I thought of this very recently when we moved Boston neighborhoods. The fellow of the couple who owned the house was a needy volunteer. I was pleased to hear that he was also a cyclist, but puzzled by a few things. First, he only rode from late spring when it got warm and only to prepare for the Pan-Mass Challenge, a three-day ride to raise money for cancer research.  For maybe nine months, he didn’t ride. I try to ride every day it isn’t sleeting, snowing or pouring rain. He instead seemed to ride for praise.

Second, he wanted everyone to know he does this to do good. He seemed inordinately proud of this, despite the many hundreds of others doing the same ride for the same purpose.

Likewise, packing for his move, he gathered up books he didn’t want to truck to Texas. When a bookstore would offer him only about $100 for the lot of six boxes, he took them to a local college, who incorporated them in a book fair. He says they said they got maybe $600 for his share. Again, he went on about how wonderful and clever he was to have benefited the school.

We didn’t bother to say that for years, we give our books like that as well as other valuable artifacts to Boomerangs in Jamaica Plain. Their money goes for AIDS research, but we don’t need a pat on the head for our small share.

Of course, praising volunteers has realistic and reasonable rewards for the organization. After all, by definition and custom, volunteers do not receive pay for their work. In that sense, praise is in lieu of salary. Public acknowledgment in a newsletter, at an awards ceremony and orally in front of others is the right things to do in any case.

The problems come when volunteers get self-absorbed, self-righteous or demanding. On the cash end, a couple at my professional society said they would only help if they got a discount on their membership dues, in other words, money. On hearing that, a long-term board member sneered and said that perhaps they should look up the definition of volunteer.

You Can Fire Volunteers

More commonly though, emotionally needy volunteers want figurative head pats and to step on pedestals for doing what the rest of us do as a matter of course. They can be very high maintenance. These characters want constant and repeated recognition of their service and are not at all shy about telling everyone else how wonderful, kind, generous, wise, and philanthropic they are.

We didn’t see a lot of that in the Red Cross. There, a typical chapter has many hundreds of volunteers in blood drives, disaster preparedness, teaching home nursing, first-aid or swimming, motor service to ferry folk to care facilities and on and on. There, helping others seems to be its own reward.

Churches, on the other hand, seem to swell the ego and open the need gates for many. As well as ad hoc and committee service, I chaired committees and boards at UU churches. While our congregations have a great concentration of do-gooders and sincere volunteers, some constantly leap over that boundary into look-at-me land.

There must be theories about what makes some need effusive praise for what others do quietly.

When there is much to do as in many social activist churches, some volunteers are just too high maintenance. That can be unfortunate from many angles. I can recall music, social action, worship and religious education groups with praise hounds. That is amusing at a low level, and thus forgivable. Cranked to the extreme though, it can be a distraction to ministers, staff and committee leaders. When your hands are busy holding another’s, clapping, or patting their backs, you can’t do your own work.

In the past decade or so, I have seen numerous articles about how it is right and sometimes necessary to fire volunteers. Often, a minister or committee chair can detour the worst offenders into special projects or roles where their interaction with other volunteers is less. On rare occasions though, there is the painful message often best delivered by a minister that they are not working out and need to step back for a bit.

If committee chairs and staff have to stop constantly to praise and honor the neediest volunteers, someone with a larger, wider view might be assigned to those volunteer jobs instead. Recruiting folk is always a chore, but intense management of the most distracting is more of one.

On the other side, then District Executive Tim Ashton of the Mass Bay District dealt with us at the Arlington Street Church in his extremely respectful and pleasant way. Behind all that was a candor that made his an effective manager and pilot.

ApplauseOne thing he taught us while we transitioned from Victor Carpenter through Farley Wheelwright into Kim Crawford Harvie during the interim ministry was to praise efficiently and with purpose. He noted that the ASC volunteers didn’t have enough fun often enough. He said we were far and beyond the most socially activist church in the district, but we were too focused on all that needed to be done and not on what we accomplished on the way.

Rev. Tim suggested that we regularly stop to celebrate. He suggested that committees also have gatherings for fun and mutual enjoyment, with no intention of conducting any business or setting more goals. He never once suggested catering to the neediest volunteers or picking individuals to praise.

Yes, volunteers deserve thanks. No, they should not require that everything and everyone join in praising them for every deed.

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UU, Me, Me

August 4th, 2008

Pardon me while I scream. I attended a Sunday worship at a UU church far from the death, wounding and panic in Knoxville, only to hear vacuous comments from a minister owning the risk and fear from afar.

Come to notice this all too common pseudo-empathy, I suppose it is as bad as schadenfreude. Is there a term for feigning the perils and travails of others from a position of safety and comfort?

This time it was in a wealthy church distant from urban threats and unpleasantness — overcrowded housing developments for the poor, street gangs, the wandering and homeless demented too early from treatment, druggies seeking to buy or steal their next fix, vast and obvious class differences…

The minister did the same thing in two ways:

  • Each of us is at daily risk, as surely as if we lived in a war zone.
  • If it happened in a Knoxville UU church, it would happen anytime in any UU church.

Well, no, damn it, no!

In too much of the world, violence can be random, cruel, sudden and frequent.


Even if done with the best of intentions, such preaching does not service to the congregants. Trying to frame tragedy in our shared fears has its limits, or should.

Fair preaching, for one example, is noting that we are all terminal patients here. We all die. Such thoughts can often lead to sermons with specifics on living well and helping other, true shared UU ideas and ideals.

Equating the minor inconveniences and elevating the fears of the most privileged with the very real dangers to the most imperiled is not fair or reasonable or respectful. Projecting that a lone loony could appear at any moment out among the wealthy white suburbs intent on violence is more likely self-absorption.

We heard this over-projection during the 60s civil-rights period as well. There was no surer way to alienate black activists than to say your minor inconveniences were the same as a heritage of slavery and then government-aided oppression. A recent version is rich folk eating on a food-stamp budget for a few days saying they understand the suffering of those with no choice.

During the sermon, I found flashed on one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books, McElligott’s Pool. The young lad angling in a tiny splash of water imagines myriad, diverse fish headed his way. “Then maybe some fish might be swimming toward me!  (If such a thing could be, they certainly would be!)”

A post over at Marry in Massachusetts, touched on the difference even being in an urban UU church means. There at a church with seven days of activities, supper programs for the poor and outreach to many the needy, unhappy and unstable are always there. They consider the downtown church theirs and some abuse it. Some arrive with anger and even sometimes armed. The likelihood of violence is vastly higher in a less isolated and protected setting.

Yet, it is a still different, harsher, riskier world in war zones. For the dreadful events in Knoxville, our UU churches in this country should be very cautious about claiming solidarity. How many of us can imagine and accurately project living where armed militia may well shoot any of us on the street, in our homes or anywhere? Can we comprehend a daily possibility that someone of a different religion or political bent would maim or murder us and anyone with us? Can we really project what it would be like to drive to the grocery with the strong likelihood that a roadside bomb could explode at any moment?

In too much of the world, violence can be random, cruel, sudden and frequent. While it may speak to our sympathetic side, we must be careful to equate our lot with that. Projecting our compassion may well go to our seventh principle — Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Yet, let us not trivialize the suffering of others by pretending our minor doubts and insecurities are the same.

Numerous churches have been scenes of violence and death. Progressive politics don’t seem to be the marker either. UUs shouldn’t be so sure we are targets just because we are more left-wing than many.

Yes, we should feel a sibling relationship with the Knoxville congregants and clergy. In light of evidence that this particular killer, Jim David Adkisson, had stockpiles of right-wing literature and seemed to have a fixation on liberals, we can pause and think and rethink.

We should certainly not try to close off our churches, be wary of any visitor, or generally be non-UU welcoming. We should do the what-if though, not to become paranoia and distrustful, but to revel in our worship and other events together, knowing we are likely to return home safe as well as fulfilled.