Blessing of the Backpacks — A Mini Primer

Such a brilliant idea: a Blessing of the Backpacks. I first encountered it in Full-Week Faith, created by Karen Bellavance Grace through the Fahs Collaborative, which is ” is an exciting laboratory that brings people together to explore and create innovative ways to deepen faith through educational encounters.”

There are many reasons to do this.  As part of that innovative re-visioning of faith formation, such an event would help congregations remember commitments made at child dedications, as well as connecting our UU principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” as a thing we not just inside the walls of the church, but outside them as well.

Image by Jessica Fergosun

Image by Jessica Fergosun

Full-Week Faith (FWF) envisions this ritual as part of a larger effort that works on many levels, including intentional outreach via letters and social media contacts to young adults so they feel connected to the congregation, growing a tutoring program that connects elders in the congregation with youth afterschool, and a host of other possibilities – bringing out faith out of Sunday morning and into the WHOLE week.

Though FWF recommends this ritual take place as part of Sunday worship, the congregation where I am currently the Intern Minister wanted to do it a little differently. Like many Unitarian Universalist congregations, we hold lay-led Sunday services in the summer. Though children are welcome, they are rarely present. Our big Ingathering, “first” service of the year takes place the Sunday after Labor Day. This means that if we were going to bless backpacks before the start of the church year, we would need to create an event just for this purpose.

Many people played important roles in making this happen, though it was just a handful in the conceptualization stage, and a few more added on in the last few weeks.  Since this took place at the end of the summer, we were fortunate that people were around to be able to give of their time.  A big shout out to everyone from start to finish who helped make this moment in our church life possible!  Thank you thank you thank you.

Here is a description of our process in creating this, just in case you are considering doing something like this and don’t want to reinvent the wheel.

Choosing a Date & Time  After identifying when school would start in our locale, we then decided that we should not do it the night before school starts – likely too stressful for families. So we scheduled it for two nights before.

Since we are talking about including families with school age kids, including the littlest ones, it would have to be early evening, since some Littlests go to be early-pearly. Knowing that the ritual and the whole event would need to match the attention spans of kiddles and of families, we settled on starting at 4:45 and planned to be done by 6:00.

Outreach  The Religious Education Committee had discussed it as one of their agenda items at their meeting in June. The Intern Minister (that’s me) created a Facebook event; typically this congregation has not used the Facebook event function for church activities. So this was an experiment. Facebook events must be either private (by invitation only) or public (the whole world can know about it).  We choose “public,” even though our outreach would focus on our congregants. Though this is something we may want to grow to welcome the whole town/wider community or other UU congregations, we thought we would start just with us to see how it went and to gauge whether it had any traction.

We reached out to several key members in the congregation who had 1) a Facebook practice and 2) had some social sway (by which I mean that they were connected to other families in the congregation and if they posted something on their Facebook profile, others in the congregation would likely see it and have a positive feel towards it). We asked them to talk up the event, including posting it on their Wall once a week in the few weeks leading up to it. In the last two weeks, we created more activity on Facebook around the event – on the event page itself, posting it to pages of the congregation, the Minister, and the Intern Minister. Not only did this create energy around the event, it helped inform those who had not already seen it and it helped remind those who had.

Blessing-of-the-BackpacksFor the FB event page, we borrowed an attractive image from the internet that was made for this purpose (this ritual, it turns out, is a thing – many churches do it and have created graphics around it). It’s a wonderful graphic. I wish I knew who created it so I can give attribution. We know that best practices in social media includes use of appealing visuals. It makes a difference as to whether people will pay initial attention.

What turned out to be far more attractive that that wonderful image was som11902568_949239898466557_5902685194081794962_nething we did not plan. It came from the synergy of the congregation. Our church is in the middle of this old New England down. Seriously: right in the middle. We have a relatively new sandwich board sign that sits on Main Street when we have special events. Bless whoever is in charge of it, because they created a sign announcing to the whole wide town our event (we didn’t think of this and didn’t ask them to do this – they just came to the idea on their own). Then, they took a photo to share. We posted that photo on our congregation’s Facebook page (so then, it went out to the whole wide world).  Imagine our surprise when Facebook’s analytics reported that the photo had over 1,700 views! In addition, we have observed numerous UU individuals around the country asking their communities, “Isn’t this cool?” and “Can we do this at our church??”

Before the Ritual  While families were arriving and folks were jusIMG_20150825_164431864(2)t hanging about, waiting for it to start, we provided sidewalk chalk and encourage anyone – but especially kids – to drawn on our brick walkway. This gave a focus for those gathered and a way for awkward energies to be channeled. As well as whose spirits aren’t lifted when they see whimsical, joyful drawing by children?

Highlight Youth  The service began, like any good UU service, by lighting the chalice. After that, we then marked the end of the summer by singing a camp song.  We chose an interactive, “repeat-after-me” song. We chose Boom Chicka Boom, which is silly and has multiple verses that are fun to enact. Children were invited to help lead the song if they knew it.   Delightful and unplanned is that some of the older kids who came forward to help lead knew verses the Intern Minister didn’t and, in fact, ended up leading the song — way more fun.

Our congregation is structured so that we have Coming of Age every other year. This year is one of those years. At that June meeting, we identified that we hoped that this Blessing event would provide an opportunity for the Coming of Agers to participate and begin to identify as such. We didIMG_6997 not know how many COA’ers would attend, so we wrote the liturgy to bless them first (and to remove that part if none of them showed up), then have their role to be the giver of the blessing to the rest of the participants.

Much to our joy, two COA’ers were there and joyfully took part.   Their facilitation of the liturgical elements (talismans, holy water) was powerful for the younger kids who could see youth in important, serious roles and for the adults for that same reason.

We ended the whole service with a song sung by three of our older youths – this was organized only in the final few days before the ritual took place.   In fact, the youth decided which song to sing (with final approval from adult organizers). It was a lovely choice: Seasons of Love.

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

Inclusive Language  We were sure to use inclusive language regarding educational choices – since we were using school as a reference (“school is just about to start”) we were sure to reference those who are homeschooling. We also decided that to invite as much multi-generational participation as possible, we would also include the School of Life – thus making it clear that anyone could receive a blessing if they were so moved. Finally, since we invited folks to bring their backpacks (empty), we were sure to do two things: normalize if someone forgot to bring their backpack (we spoke of “invisible backpacks”), as well as to let folks interpret “backpack” to mean most anything. On Facebook and in person, people asked if they could have their briefcase, their wallet, their cell phone, their purse, the bag that holds their sheet music, and so on blessed.

IMG_20150825_160422(1)The Ritual  The actual ritual included words and blessing elements of water and the giving of a material reminder of the blessing in the form of talismans made for this occasion. The talismans, created by one of the members of the congregation and the Director of Religious Education together, were so delightful, combining symbols of peace, or beads that said “UU” or the name of our church (the congregation’s initials, “FPCOG”). They were colorful and put on a key chain so that they could be attached to the backpacks.

We blessed the Coming of Agers, then students of any age, then teachers, then anyone who hadn’t yet been blessed (those students of life). One of the ministers spoke these words (more or less – adapted a bit to each group) to each of the called groups:

Even when you are away from First Parish, you carry the heart of Unitarian Universalism with you wherever you go.

May you feel curiosity all your days.

May your imagination catch fire.

May you find courage when it is necessary.

May confusion lead to better questions.

May you feel compassion toward those around you, and they towards you.

May you feel heard and seen; may you hear and see others.

May you speak up for those who are not heard, who are not seen.

As your spirit’s home, we are made stronger when you share what you learn. We ask you to bring what you learn of the world back to this place. If you agree, say – “we will.”

Then the Coming of Agers dipped the talisman in a bowl filled with the holy water (created from last year’s Water Communion and used throughout the whole year for special occasions), then handed the talisman to each person who had lined up to receive the blessing. As they moved through a line, the other minister gave a water blessing to the backpack (or wallet, or purse, or bag, or shoulder).

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

A short benediction was offered, then we broke bread (which is to say, we ate pizza and brownies) together.

Photo by Steve Lieman

Photo by Steve Lieman

You are welcome and highly encouraged to borrow any part of this – no need to feel loyal to the words we used or the particular flow of the ritual. Change it up. Mix and match. Make it your own. Take one element, take no elements, take all the elements and rearrange them to suit you, or use it as a whole cloth. It’s up to you. My only request is that if you are going to use the words of our blessing in their current form and use them in print (hard copy or online) that you attribute them to me.

If you do a ritual like this and you have found this post helpful, please let me know by commenting below.  It would be great to hear how this works out in other places.

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Coming to the Pond: Surrender & Prayer (sermon)

Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence

August 9, 2015

(The Mary Oliver poem referenced in this sermon can be found here.)

When I joined my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, this very one, nearly twenty ago, there was not much tolerance for the G-word (or the J-word) and there was a strong allergy to the p-word: prayer. We could have silence or meditation, but not prayer.

Spirituality was strongly here – this was and is no “corpse cold” congregation (thank you Ralph Waldo Emerson for that crisp descriptive phrase). Just in those days, a reactive one that has seemed to mellow in this regard over the years. For those of you who have been around that long and longer, I wonder if you might agree with this assessment. This discernible shift belongs not just to this congregation, but seems to be denomination-wide, though uneven to be sure.

Since starting seminary four-and-a-half years ago now, I am surrounded even more now with spiritual people – among friends, in the parishioners I served for two years in Cummington, among my colleagues, at the hospital and nursing home I spent last summer serving as a chaplain intern – it comes with the territory.

Consequently, and not surprisingly, I am surrounded by requests for prayer.

“Keep me in your prayers.”

“Can you say a prayer for fill-in-the-blank.”

These requests are all around me in a way they were not when I was growing up, or a decade or even half a decade ago. They are even on ~ gasp ~ Facebook (though I’m not sure they have made it to Snapchat or Vine yet…)

Even in the wide world, with its growing number of “spiritual nones” – N-O-N-E-S, those who do not identify with any particular religious tradition – prayer is present. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life,

Close to 90 percent of those affiliated with religions report praying on a regular basis, and 40 percent of Nones in general say they pray with some frequency. Indeed, …17 [percent] of those identified as “Atheist/Agnostic” …report that they pray. Among those who described their religious affiliation as “nothing in particular,” more than half say they pray regularly.

I’ve had more than my fair share of ambivalence about prayer and its power (not to mention about God and God’s power – the two topics are intricately related). It helps that people – like the UU Reverend Kate Braestrup – write about prayer – someone I not only respect, but whose writing allows me to chortle and perhaps even laugh at myself.

I do wonder about the power of prayer. I wonder about the nature of the prayers we flawed human often make. Some of us have been taught – in the religions we grew up in, from depictions in the media – that prayer is of that intercessory kind: please give me something. Maybe it’s a bargain: if you do this, I’ll do that.  I’ll do this, if you do that.

This misses the mark. In his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes,

People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or boyfriends get them as a result of praying.

However, his comment didn’t stop there. He goes on,

But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of what they have lost, very often find their prayers answered. They discover that they have more strength, more courage than they ever knew themselves to have.

In my summer as a hospital chaplain, I found this to be true. More often than I expected. Sometimes,

  • For people who are scared and have good reason to be scared;
  • for people who are in pain and have medical conditions causing that pain;
  • for people who are agitated with fear, with uncertainty, with loathing

I have seen talking do little, and prayer be the only thing that melts the suffering that plaguing them. Not for everyone, but for some. Melts it right away.

  • Sometimes it is a familiar prayer, known to them from their faith tradition, sometimes known to them and millions of others since before they were even born.
  • Sometimes it’s a prayer totally made up by the presence shared together and a companion who listens, watches, cares, and then, makes a leap of faith and opens their mouth…

So even though prayer has not been my idiom, I am honored to be asked. And to comply. I don’t have to know for sure, with solid guarantee, that it will work — for me to put in the effort. (If that were the criteria threshold, I’m not sure how many social justice rallies would take place.) I experience it as a chance to be blessed and to be a part of that greatER holiness that surrounds us.

Why do I agree to do this, when I don’t think asking God to change brings about said change? Why do I do it when I don’t even believe in a personal God? I turn again Rabbi Kushner, whose response mirrors my own. He tells a story of a late night phone call from a stranger, asking the Rabbi to pray for his sick mother.

Why did I agree, if I don’t believe that my prayers (or his, for that matter) will move God to affect the results of the surgery? By agreeing, I was saying to him, “I hear your concern about your mother. I understand that you are worried and afraid of what might happen. I want you to know that I and your neighbors in this community share that concern. We are with you…”.

Prayer is an act of generosity. And solidarity. And humility. It is living into this truth that I have my ideas of how the world and the universe operate, but I really don’t know.

It is also living into our seventh principle: into the interconnectedness of all living beings. We are not only with you, we are you.

But that is only half of why I consent.   It is an important half, not to be minimized, but it is the lesser half. The other half has to do with my own experience not of praying, but of being prayed.


I have noticed that when some Buddhist teachers approach the concept of the non-self, they speak using phrases that discourage the use of the concept “my.” For example, they might say, “the mind thinks” rather than “my mind thinks” or “I was thinking.” The intent here is to discourage a sense of Self and encourage a sense of belonging to the Great Interdependence of which we are not theoretically a part, but really are a part.

For folks not into Buddhism, that might sound just plain silly. Maybe it is. Or maybe it isn’t.

One of the other ways I have heard Buddhist teachers approach this, since breathing is so key to meditation practice, is to talk about experiencing one’s own breathing as being part of the whole wide Unity of all and breath being breathed in the experience of your own body.

I have experienced something similar, though it wasn’t exactly about breathing. The story goes like this…

A long time ago, someone I was close to betrayed me in a very personal way. This happened when we were in college. It was the kind of violation that left a deep and lasting mark, requiring attention and healing.

Fast forward ten-plus years to a renegade college reunion. This was before Facebook for the general public, but email and listservs were in play. It became clear that the person who betrayed me would be in attendance. I vacillated over whether to attend, but decided that I would not let the presence of this person deter me. Over email, I told him to stay away from me and to have no contact with me.

The reunion turned out to be tiny; it was impossible to avoid each other, though he did his best. For my part, I was a vulnerable mess. I had come with friends but somehow they seemed to evaporate at just the time I needed them. At some point in the midst of reunion-type activities, I returned to the little dorm room I had been assigned as lodging. I was not sure of much except that I did not want to be there at all, feeling utterly and uncomfortably and despairingly alone and lost. In that loss, I turned to poetry.

There is, at least, some consistency in my life.

I had brought Mary Oliver’s New & Selected, and I happened upon a poem that took my breath away. I had read the poem before, had even earmarked it as a favorite.

But now it was new.

I found myself repeating its lines, over and over, giving myself to it, as if it was a mantra, as if it were – dare I say it? – a prayer.

Even half-asleep they had
such faith in the world
that had made them – – –
tilting through the water,
unruffled, sure,
by the laws of their faith not logic,
they opened their wings softly
and stepped
over every dark thing.

faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic

The repetition, the cadence, the urgency made it all much bigger than me, made it more than a poem and I more than a reader. I was not praying: I was being prayed.

I came out of that experience and did something I did not plan, envision, or anticipate. Who is this strange woman and what is she doing? I asked my former friend to walk with me. We talked, my focus on accountability, not forgiveness.

It was the boldest thing I ever did. I did not know why I was doing it, just that I had to and that I put trust – or faith – in the urgent impulse that came from being prayed.

faith not logic / faith not logic / faith not logic


When someone asks me to pray for them, I say yes.

I say yes, knowing I will be praying for them to have the courage and strength to endure what they are enduring, that they come out on the other side with their heart broken just enough to experience generosity and cultivate compassion in this world with its ragged, sharp edges.

I say yes, bringing Kate Braestrup’s voice again, “as long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity,” and “so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love.”

I pray because this is a sorrowful world and we are vulnerable creatures in it – I want my energies to help cultivate the kind of vulnerability that doesn’t make us weak or mean, but brings a surrender that makes us stronger.

I say yes, because I know that prayer reaches places that mind or intellect can only belittle or, at best, describe, but never touch. Faith, not logic allowing me – us – to step over every dark thing.

I pray it be so. Amen.

Special thanks to Rev. Ute Schmidt, my supervisor during my hospital chaplaincy internship, who was guest reader at this service.

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Prayer on the First Anniversary of Michael Brown’s Death

May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts contribute to peace and justice in this world.  I invite you at the end of each passage to speak these words in unison: We bear witness.

One year ago this morning, Mike Brown, the son of Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, a father and a mother who loved their child, was breathing.

We bear witness.


One year ago today, Mike Brown, 18 years old, had just days before successfully graduated from high school.

We bear witness.


One year ago, at noon, Mike Brown, unarmed, living in a city with a police force that did not reflect the racial make-up of the community, where emails with racist content were shared regularly among law enforcement, where people of color were stopped for traffic violations at a much higher rate than their white fellow citizens, was shot and killed.

We bear witness.

One year ago, four and a half hours later, Mike Brown’s body lay where he fell, a pool of blood his pillow; neighbor children were protected by their parents and moved to rooms in their homes that did not look out onto that part of the street; cell phone cameras and twitter accounts focused on this image and shared it with the world.

We bear witness.


One year ago and ever since, our nation has been reeling. Every single day, except the day of Mike Brown’s funeral, there have been protests in the streets. A festering wound has surfaced again, reality for many all these long years, visible now to a wider swath of the nation and the world.

We bear witness.


We cannot turn away from the dire truth that too many people, especially too many Black and Brown people, lose their lives under suspicious circumstances at the hands of those entrusted to keep the peace or by those who “stand their ground.”

We bear witness.

On this one year anniversary of the death of Mike Brown, let us bear witness to all that our nation has lost in these lives which matter; let us bear witness to all that our nation might gain should we commit ourselves to doing our part to bend the moral arc of the universe towards racial justice.

We bear witness.



*****   ******  ******   *****  *****  ******

For many social justice actions across the nation in the past year, the symbolic time period of four and a half minutes – like the four and a half hours Mike Brown’s body lay in the street – has been powerful. This morning, we will use it for our prayerful time together.

This is, for our context, a long time. It is, in fact, too long – and yet, that is the point. It will likely make us uncomfortable – and yet, that is the point. This is a time in our nation when we must not push away our discomfort, but use it to fuel our capacity to change what is wrong.

To help us all of stay with this meditation, I will ring the chime once each minute in case – or when – minds wander. I will ring the chime three times at the end our meditation.

Should you be so moved during the meditation, a list of the names of unarmed Black people who “have been killed by police in the US” since Mike Brown’s death. There are 96 names because it was printed on Friday morning – less than 48 hours ago. Yet there is already a name missing: Christian Taylor, 19 years old, killed Friday evening in Arlington, Texas.

Let our holy stillness begin.


In an effort to honor Michael Brown’s life and all the black lives that have been taken by police and America’s other systems of racism, we list the names of unarmed black people killed by police since Michael Brown’s tragic death. We realize that this list only contains part of the picture of police violence against black people. We hope you will use it as a starting point for prayer and personal action.

Ezell Ford                                    August 11, 2014

Dante Parker                           August 12, 2014

Corey Levert Tanner                  August 13, 2014

Levon Leroy Love                           August 17, 2014

Arvel Douglas Williams                  August 20, 2014

Rondre Lamar Hornbeak         August 22, 2014

Veronica Woodard                  August 22, 2014

Briant Paula                           August 23, 2014

Cortez Washington                  August 26, 2014

Darrien Hunt                           September 10, 2014

Ricky Deangelo Hinkle                  September 13, 2014

Charles Smith                           September 18, 2014

Cameron Tillman                           September 23, 2014

Eugene Williams                           September 27, 2014

Oliver Jarrod Gregoire                  September 28, 2014

Latandra Ellington                  October 1, 2014

Lashano Gilbert                           October 4, 2014

Balantine Mbegbu                           October 6, 2014

Iretha Lilly                                    October 7, 2014

Adam Ardett Madison                  October 17, 2014

Michael Ricardo Minor                  October 23, 2014

Florence White                           October 25, 2014

Christopher McCray                  October 27, 2014

Kaldrick Donald                           October 28, 2014

John T. Wilson III                           November 1, 2014

David Yearby                           November 2, 2014

Tanisha Anderson                           November 13, 2014

Keara Crowder                           November 18, 2015

Akai Gurley                                    November 20, 2014

Tamir Rice                                    November 22, 2014

Eric Ricks                                    November 25, 2014

Rumain Brisbon                           December 2, 2014

Dennis Grigsby                           December 15, 2014

David Andre Scott                  December 27, 2014

Jerame Reid                           December 30, 2014

Matthew Ajibade                           January 1, 2015

Brian Pickett                           January 6, 2015

Andre Murphy Sr.                           January 7, 2015

Artago Howard                           January 8, 2015

Demaris Turner                           January 23, 2015

Alvin Haynes                           January 26, 2015

Jeremy Lett                                    February 5, 2015

Natasha McKenna                           February 8, 2015

Terry Price                                    February 21, 2015

Calvon Reid                                    February 22, 2015

Glenn Lewis                           February 25, 2015

Charly Keunang                           March 1, 2015

Darrell Gatewood                           March 1, 2015

Thomas Allen Jr.                           March 1, 2015

Andrew Williams                           March 6, 2015

Bernard Moore                           March 6, 2015

Naeschylus Vinzant                  March 6, 2015

Tony Robinson                           March 6, 2015

Anthony Hill                           March 9, 2015

Terrance Moxley                           March 10, 2015

Jonathan Paul                           March 12, 2015

Askari Roberts                           March 17, 2015

Brandon Jones                           March 19, 2015

Denzel Brown                           March 22, 2015

Dominick Wise                           March 30, 2015

Phillip White                           March 31, 2015

Donald Ivy                                    April 2, 2015

Eric Harris                                    April 2, 2015

Walter Scott                           April 4, 2015

Freddie Gray                           April 12, 2015

Frank Shephard III                  April 15, 2015

Darrell Brown                           April 16, 2015

Norman Cooper                           April 19, 2015

David Felix                                    April 25, 2015

Bryan Overstreet                           April 28, 2015

Brendon Glenn                           May 6, 2015

Jason Champion                           May 6, 2015

Nuwnah Laroche                           May 6, 2015

Sam Holmes                           May 8, 2015

DaJuan Graham                           May 12, 2015

Lorenzo Hayes                           May 13, 2015

Markus Clark                           May 20, 2015

Richard Davis                           May 31, 2015

Ross Anthony                           June 8, 2015

Alan Williams                           June 13, 2015

Kris Jackson                           June 15, 2015

Jermaine Benjamin                  June 16, 2015

Kevin Bajoie                           June 20, 2015

Spencer McCain                           June 25, 2015

Kevin Judson                           July 1, 2015

Jonathan Sanders                           July 8, 2015

Salvado Ellswood                           July 12, 2015

Sandra Bland                           July 13, 2015

Kindra Chapman                           July 14, 2015

Darrius Stewart                           July 17, 2015

Alexis McGovern                           July 17, 2015

Joyce Curnell                           July 23, 2015

Samuel DuBose                           July 19, 2015

Ralkina Jones                           July 26, 2015
Raynetta Turner                           July 27, 2015

Created by Karen G. Johnston, Erika Hewitt, and Kellie Kelly. Primary Sources were,, and

Posted in Justice, Prayers, Standing on the Side of Love | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prayer for Children Reclaiming Structures Meant for Climbing

This is a summer scene along the Harborway in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

IMG_20150724_112143203It both delights (the children) and infuriates (the sign) me.

My companion and I debated what we thought it might be. It turns out that it is called “The Wave.” It was created by artist Donna Hiebert. Its shape and size seems built exactly for the purpose to which these children are putting it to use.


It is located right next to a community playground, for godsakes.


the waterfront playground right next to The Wave in Halifax

Someone — or more likely, some entity — put up a sign (several signs, actually) around its perimeter. Not just any sign. A sign etched in granite.

Don’t do the very thing your heart leaps toward at the sight of this structure.

Don’t scale this whimsically shaped protrusion that provides the perfect amount of traction underneath the soul of your sneakers or your bare feet.

Don’t risk greatness because you might end up with a scraped knee or broken arm along the way.

This scene calls to mind the fourth stanza of Woody Guthrie’s anthem, This Land Is Your Land:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

My first prayer: No way. Amen.

It turns out that there is a whole history to this piece of art: municipal attempts to keep it as untouchable and human insistence on reclaiming it for the righteous purpose of whimsical play. I was glad to learn, as this article seems to indicate, that in 2012 authorities gave in: the sculpture has been given over to its rightful, if not originally intended, function.  (Even if the granite markers suggesting that people stay off are still present.)

Still, I offer up this second and lasting prayer:

May all children know the call of adventure, the thrill of risk, and the heart-leap of “let’s do that again.”

May all children know failure as the teacher who says love yourself, then try again.

May all children experience the astonishing fruits of their bodies and minds whatever their abilities; may they be praised no matter their accomplishment.

Should they tumble down or fall off, may all children be met with kisses and caring, as well as respect for personal autonomy in deciding when to return.

Should they have to leave before they are ready, may all children be companioned by patient grown-ups who remember with empathy disappointments from their own childhood.

May caregivers of children be not reckless with the safety of those in their charge; but may they also be willfully ignorant of bureaucrats saturated with disproportionate fear of litigation.

May the seduction of protection or security never stop any of us from finding delight or courage, stamina or justice.

May all our metaphorical climbs contain some portion of the whimsy, some portion of bravery, some portion of helping the person beside us.  

May all our metaphorical descents contain some measure of pride in our accomplishment, some measure of gratitude for those who helped, some measure of humility for the gift of our body, heart and mind.

And let the people say: Amen.

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From Halifax to Havana and Back Again

July 26 was a national holiday in Cuba.  Photo by Karen G. Johnston

July 26 was a national holiday in Cuba. Photo by Karen G. Johnston

Four years ago, to the day, my newlywed (like, two days previously) partner and I arrived in Havana, Cuba for our honeymoon, endearingly dubbed “Commie-moon” by a friend. It was what I call a “soft adventure:” it was still illegal for U.S. citizens to travel there (well, officially, for us to conduct financial transactions there), but Obama was president: word on the street was that he was not likely to prosecute.

So we made our way – as many adventurous US citizens had over the years – through a third country.

Some of our best experiences there came from meeting real Cuban people – and doing so in places and spaces where they might talk freely. This was not an easy feat – informants were (and likely still) a real danger: friend pitted against friend, family member against family member. When people learned we were American, there was enthusiasm and curiosity. While the island had many tourists, few were from the U.S. Somehow, on multiple occasions, we found ourselves in unplanned and delightful situations where we were able to speak frankly with our new friends.

On one day, we went to the top of a tiny “mountain” called Mirador. We rode sorry horses as far as we could, then completed the final distance to the summit on foot. There, we encountered this lovely couple.

Photo by Karen G. Johnston

Photo by Karen G. Johnston

In the tiny, cleared area on top of the mountain, there was no one else around. And no listening devices. We found our conversation going further than superficial polite engagement. Luckily, she spoke fluent English, as my Spanish was not sufficient for the depth of exchange we ended up having. We spoke about many things, including what Americans call “the Cuban Missile Crisis” of 1962.

I can’t remember how that topic came up. It quickly became clear that our view of the facts were significantly different than their view of the facts. Our exchange was good-hearted – not tense at all – neither couple was invested in the other seeing it as they did. Both couples descended the mountain, still certain of our own view of that historical event.

I was reminded of this because on our walk around Halifax, Nova Scotia today, we encountered this.

IMG_20150724_104137835_HDR In Dartmouth, which is across the bay from where we are staying, there is the World Peace Pavillion. Its history is detailed below.

IMG_20150724_134115There are rocks – or variations on rocks, such as bricks made from earthen materials – from all over the world. The above rock was given to the project by Cuba.

Here is the plaque, associated with Cuba’s contribution to this peace project, no doubt written by some official within the Cuban government:

IMG_20150724_104923In case you can’t read it, it says

Rock from the “Playa Giron,” an historic beach where in 1961 a mercenary invasion was defeated – and POWs were exchanged for food for the children of Cuba.

1961 is the year that the U.S. government decided to invade Cuba.  Growing up in the US, I was taught this was called the Bay of Pigs.  I was not taught that POWs were traded for food for the children of Cuba.  I do know – as the world knows – that military incursion was an epic fail. The kind of which was perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come in Viet Nam. And Iraq. And Afghanistan. And…

So maybe you can see why I might be thinking about my Commie-moon of four years ago, about those delightful encounters we experienced, about how the peoples of one country still find ways to connect with the peoples of another country, no matter what stupid-ass, archaic ideologies our governments might keep in place to divide us?  Given what is going on in the world — I am thinking in this moment right now of the US and Iran — this continues to be relevant.

May we ever and always find ways to know each other, to connect across borders and sanctions, to make peace even as our nations make war or create twisted detentes misconstrued as peace. Our very lives depend on it.

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Showing Up for Racial Justice: One White Person’s Wading into the Waters… (Part II)

Part II: C’mon In, the Water’s … You Tell Me

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

With inspiration for following through on this project (as described in my last post), I called up courage and confidence to go beyond the posting of a yard sign and move to knocking on my neighbors’ doors. Last Saturday morning, I spent an hour walking two streets – my own and one adjacent to my house — with a new friend from the local SURJ group.

I have lived here for nearly five years. I expect to live here for one year more – two at the outside. I know some of my neighbors – we have helped or been helped out when it comes to shoveling snow. Our dog is a rascal and gets out of our fenced yard regularly, which has brought us into contact with neighbors further away than I would like for my dog’s safety. Though some people clearly know each other well, we are latecomers and don’t have friends nearby. My kids were mostly grown by the time we moved in, so that chance to get to know neighbors through kids playing together was long gone.

Painting by Phoebe Cape.

Painting by Phoebe Cape.

The layout of the neighborhood leaves much to be desired – once you find your way in, it can be hard to find your way out. Here is a painting my talented step-daughter made of the experience of getting lost in our neighborhood.

GPS is, more or less, a necessity.

Built in the mid 1960s, the neighborhood originally consisted only of single-family ranch-style houses. In the past decade-and-a-half, some houses have had second floors built upon them. I live in one of those. There are people who have lived here since the very beginning and there are many families who have different relations who live down the road or two streets over. There is more racial, ethnic, and class diversity in this neighborhood than the last neighborhood where I lived in the same town. It is not close to the village center, which makes the housing more affordable.

There are 19 homes on my street.  Not everyone was home. I’d say that we got to interact with fewer than half of my neighbors. Here is a sampling of some of our interactions.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy, white, was busy in his yard but took the time to talk with us. He wore a t-shirt with the American flag, cut off sleeves, and had a crew-cut. Father of two kids under the age of seven. He said he was “one hundred per cent supportive” of our efforts and that what is going on is “not right.” He seemed more willing to talk, than wanting to talk. His social cues were for us to stay talking, even though he seemed ambivalent. He mentioned how things were supposed to be better, but then the shootings in South Carolina happened. He agreed to sign up for more information about local organizing. He chose not to take a yard sign we were giving out for free.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

The next family – an older couple, both white – didn’t want to talk about it but agreed to the sign. We planted it proudly in their front lawn.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy – white, middle-aged, bald head, lip-piercing – didn’t even allow us past the knock. “Not interested.”

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy – about my age, which is to say, middle-aged – who I think was white, but maybe not, it can be hard to know just by looking and I didn’t ask – he said he had grown up in here. He felt though there are problems in the nation, things are pretty good here.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One white woman, when she heard what we wanted to talk about, said directly that she did not support Black Lives Matters. “All lives matter” she said, no matter the color.   We listened. She pointed to the sign in my yard – “I don’t agree with that” she said.   “No thank you” she said in so many words. I responded, “Well, since it’s my sign in my yard, if you would let me just tell you why I put it there – not to argue with you, but to share my perspective – I’d appreciate it.” That it was my sign and that I was a neighbor slowed her down and opened her up. She agreed to listen. I said

  • Yes, all lives matter.
  • Since in our nation’s history and current events, Black and Brown lives are treated differently, with more violence, it’s important to say out loud that their lives matter.
  • To me, to say “all lives matter” in the face of all these killings is like going to a fundraise for breast cancer and shouting to all the people there – the people giving money and the survivors who have battled the cancer – and saying “all diseases matter!”

She listened. She shifted. To how wrong all the police brutality is, no matter who is the target of that brutality. And I got to agree again. And I said, “You know, our nation wasn’t paying attention to police brutality before #BlackLivesMatters so I’m feeling thankful for them to raise our awareness.” With that, she could agree.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy (yes, white) said he didn’t support it because he doesn’t support anything outside his own yard. He said it matter-of-factly, with no intended animus.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One guy (again, white) just straight out said he didn’t support it (and gave the indication that we were not welcome to stay).

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

One young – mid-twenties – white guy came out of his garage to talk with us. He seemed the most informed of any of the white people we met. At least, the most able and willing to talk about different issues. He expressed interest in talking about the topic. He had a different perspective on it. He mentioned his support for a local guy who is newly displaying a Confederate flag as his response to the national controversy. My neighbor said, “It’s Southern heritage, you know?”

This is such a volatile issue in our nation given the Charleston shooting of nine African American Christians in their own church by a white man with white supremacist intentions. It seems like a no-brainer to me, as a Northerner, that the Confederate flag is a symbol of racism. However, I was recently told by a friend, a white person who grew up in the South, who gets intersectional politics of justice and oppression better than most, that it’s much more complicated than how the media is portraying it.

So, I wanted to be not just careful, but thoughtful, as I considered this conversation with someone who has such a different perspective than I do.

Me: “It’s a pride thing? Is that guy, is he Southern?”

My neighbor: “Nah. But I think he employs someone from the South.”

Me: “Oh.”

My neighbor: “Yeah. He wants to show his support. But it’s not racist.”

Me: “I hear you. But I just read this thing. Can I tell you about it?”

Awkward silence.

My neighbor: “Sure.”

Me: “Yeah, it turns out the guy who actually designed that flag. He published an editorial in the newspaper at that time stating that his intentions were that it be a symbol of white supremacy.”

My neighbor: “Well, I don’t know about that…”

Me: “Yeah, neither did I ‘til just last night.”

Awkward silence.

Me: Hey, [to friend knocking on doors with me] didn’t you say you grew up in the North Carolina?”

My friend: “Yeah, I did.”

Me: “What was your experience of the Confederate flag there?”

My friend: “Well, I grew up in a place with a lot of Black and Native American people and none of them flew that flag.”

I don’t know that the exchange of information changed his mind. Of course, it didn’t change my mind. I do want to believe that he might integrate two new pieces of information, but I don’t think this is an issue that is rooted in ignorance of lack of information.

What I have more hope about is that he sees me, and people like me (liberal bleeding-heart door-knockers who live in two story houses and drive Priuses), as more dimensional than before our conversation. Certainly, I see him as more multi-dimensional than before our conversation – I see him as more than his opinion. Part of my spiritual practice is to continue to see individuals as whole, affirming their inherent worth and dignity, even in the face of disagreement, even in the face of odious, hurtful points of view.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

Our last knock ended up being on the door to a home of a family of color. The guy we talked to – middle-aged, Black – spoke of his support for the #BLM movement, but could not display a sign for reasons I cannot go into here. We engaged in a long conversation about race and class in this country (he is originally from elsewhere). He is of the steadfast opinion that the divisions between us not really about race, but is about class. Race is a wedge to divide working people so they will not join together against the “two percent” who run everything and gain from how our society is set up.[1] I couldn’t agree more. I was glad to shake his hand.

I was glad to shake the hands of all my neighbors – those who would let me – regardless of whether our perspectives matched or not. My engaging eight neighbors is not going to change the world. But that is why I am not doing this in isolation. Taking part in a national campaign (organized by the fine folks at Showing Up for Racial Justice’s — SURJ), with others here in my community, with others across the country – allying ourselves with the #BlackLivesMatters movement, seeing ourselves as a part of the wider global movements of democracy, of environmental justice – now that just might change the world.


[1] History bears this out. European indentured servants worked the fields alongside African slaves and Native Americans. Not only did they work together, they sometimes socialized and rallied together. Laws were written by land-holding European men who, by doing so, began to socially (and legally and culturally) create Whiteness and divide the workers so that they would not pose a threat to their wealth. The three-part documentary, “Race: The Power of Illusion,” is a great resource on this.

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Showing Up for Racial Justice: One White Person’s Wading Into Waters (Part I)

Part I: Wading into the Waters

I am not an activist.

(My activist friends are trying hard not to bust out laughing, because this is so obvious.)

Certainly, not the kind who regularly goes out on the front lines, who stops traffic, who risks arrest. I am more than willing to learn, to listen, to reflect, to examine, to challenge, to grow, to advocate, to re-vision, to ally, to be held accountable, to hold accountable, to march, to educate, to speak, to donate, out, to speak up, to amplify, to read, to blog, to publicly mourn.

I was once arrested for civil disobedience. That was nearly twenty-five years ago — during the First Gulf War. I did partake in an action described by detractors as vandalism but which we understood as holding rapists accountable and raising visibility of sexual assault in a community sorely in need. But, again, that was more than a quarter century ago. I don’t sit on those laurels any more — haven’t in a very long time.

We live in a time of great hope and possibility, yet the potential for a just world for all of us is not possible when racism and oppression keep us divided. This can make us forget how closely connected we truly are. Racism is still present throughout all of our contemporary institutions and structures. Racism is devastating to People of Color and is closely intertwined with all systems of oppression. It robs all of us- White people and People of Color- of our humanity.*

I have my socially-constructed white skin color and my new-to-me, always-temporary class comforts of enough income. I have too much education (one course away from my second masters degree) and speak with acceptable diction. I live in a gender-conforming body and experience few barriers in accessing any place I want to go. I experience privilege in so many ways that allow me the illusion that activism is a choice, is a life style into which one can opt.

On top of all that, I have a temperament that does not lend itself easily to street-level activism – though I can visit that realm, I am much more a tourist than a resident.   I am much more comfortable with other forms of social change – ones that are, not coincidentally, less demanding of courage and the possibility of confrontation.


We honor and learn from the long history of People of Color and White people who have been unrelenting in their struggles for racial justice, and ending all systems of oppression. We are showing up to take our responsibility as White people to act collectively and publicly to challenge the manipulation of racist fear by the ruling class and corporate elite. We know that to transform this country we must be part of building a powerful multi-racial majority to challenge racism in all its forms.*

I sometimes wish I was the kind of activist who goes out on the front lines, who stops traffic, who risks arrest. I wish to be the kind of clergy who stands as an oasis of calm between a too-nervous-for-comfort police officer and a raging protester. I admire the courage of such clergy: their clarity, their bad-ass-selves. Just maybe, that will be me one day.

While I am wishing, I sometimes need a kick in the ass to remember that I can do what I can do, even if it doesn’t look like that version of activism.

captured from

captured from

In that spirit, I recently joined the door-knocking campaign started by the fine folks at SURJ.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

SURJ is a six-year old national network organized to “engage and move white people towards racial justice action.” It is “rooted in longstanding white anti-racist efforts and leadership, along with strong relationships with organizers and leaders of color.” (Thanks, Chris Crass, for those quotes.) Since last summer, with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, new chapters and members have been met with new projects to mobilized this growing base of white people who want to do more than just feel bad or angry or depressed about what is going on.

This particular project was inspired by grassroots efforts in St. Louis called the Anti-Racist Collective (ARC), where they brought yard signs that said “Black Lives Matter” to predominantly white neighborhoods. According to the organizers, of those people with whom they spoke, half took a sign and agreed to display it, as well as to learn more about that organization’s efforts.

According to the national SURJ web site,

We are taking up the project of door-knocking with Black Lives Matter yard signs in hopes of providing local organizers with tools to initiate conversations around race in predominately white communities, and to build larger bases of white people to take action for racial justice.

My local chapter of SURJ – WesternMass SURJ — decided to join with other communities across the country and do this same action.

Earlier this month, I attended a meeting with about forty other people. First of all, we beheld one another. Forty people! More than expected. With representation across at least three generations. We learned more about the goals of this campaign: to increase invisible support for #BlackLivesMatters and to create opportunities for conversation about race and racism among white people. We examined our fears about taking part in knocking on doors, as well as our hopes.

Everyone’s biggest fear was different. My most noticeable anxiety was door-knocking in my own neighborhood — what if one of neighbors is a real a**hole about this and there is an awkward residue after we encounter each other? (If this is my biggest worry, this is the proof of the ocean of racial privilege in which I swim daily.)

We left the meeting with a suggestion-only script (well intentioned, but a bit too stilted), helpful instructions, and some yard signs to hand out.

I wonder if you might have some time right now to talk with me about racial justice, about what’s going on in our nation, and how heart-breaking it is?

Despite my anxiety, it made sense for me to do it on my own street: this is where I have relationships, this is where someone might be more likely to listen to me when I knock on the door. As one of the other people attending the SURJ meeting pointed out: maybe I would have the opposite experience. I might discover reactions from neighbors that would give me hope.

Upon my arrival home from the meeting, I immediately planted one of the yard signs in my lawn. I live on a corner, so it would have good visibility. The first step in the dipping of toes! I wasn’t yet knocking on doors, but I was publicly casting my lot with the #BlackLivesMatters movement.

photo by Karen G. Johnston

photo by Karen G. Johnston

I wondered what the reactions would be? I wondered if the sign caught anyone’s attention or whether they just drove by. I worried it might be defaced (it has not been). It did not take long before I found out.

On a sunny afternoon, I was in my house with windows open. I heard two little girls riding their bikes past my house. I could not see them but I could hear them. One of them read the sign aloud in that halting way that reading is a newly-acquired skill. This caught my attention, so I listened more closely. As if speaking to no one in particular, the girl said, happily, “Well, of course they do.”

The next day, I was at home and on the phone. The doorbell rang. My younger daughter answered it. Later, when I was done with my call, I asked my daughter who had been by. It was a neighbor, several houses down, someone I had never met though I had seen her in her yard numerous times. She had come over because she had seen the sign. She wanted to thank us.

I was sorry to have missed her and decided to take a chance. I went over to the house I thought was hers. I knocked. She answered, wearing the orange dress my daughter had described. She smiled. I smiled. We learned each others’ names. We talked, which is to say she told me some stories and I listened. We hugged. Perhaps you guessed? She is African American.

It was an incandescent moment. It cemented my intention: ready or not, I would go door knocking.  (Click here for the next post in this series.)

BLM yard sign* These words are from the information sheet prepared by the local SURJ folks using national SURJ materials to handout during  door knocking.

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