Friday, 19 December 2008

New Unitarian group in Togo

We are told by French Unitarian leader, Jean-Claude Barbier, that a new Unitarian group is developing in the African country of Togo. More details at the AFCU blog.

The Togo Unitarians will join the growing family of African Unitarians. After many years of stagnation, when Unitarians were only present in Nigeria and in South Africa (and being SA Unitarians predominantly white), there has been a dramatic growth of Unitarianism (mostly in its classical Christian version) in several African countries such as Burundi, Kenya, and the two Congos, and inquiries from many other places.

The future of Unitarianism seems promising in Africa and will no doubt present many possibilities and challenges for the worldwide Unitarian+Universalist religious community. If you were ever interested in having increasing diversity in your church, you will find that cultural, ethnic and linguistic diversity is the hallmark of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists! Please visit us and consider attending our open events and supporting our work to nurture existing and emerging Unitarian and Universalist groups worldwide... including Africa.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


I've written before about internet communities that I've been invited to join. Generally I've declined such invitations as I feel the need to limit the number of such communities I'm part of and also limit the number of easy access points to me from friends-of-friends. One of these communities, however, seems to be gaining ground in U*U circles as a community of preference. The ICUU website (NOTE: NEWLY REFURBISHED, Take a Look! by visiting here)
even has a link to this one, Facebook. If you join Facebook you will find links to many self-identified Unitarians and Universalists around the world.

But, do take care when on this website, too. The BBC has just published an item about crooks who are targeting Facebook members (link:) by inviting them to view a video of themselves. Now, we all know to avoid invitations to view pretty girls, but ourselves??? Pretty tempting for most of us until we start to rationally ask, how can there be a video of me that I don't know about?

At least once a week I get an email from a friend cautioning me about a new powerful virus that has been announced and I should warn all my friends about it. 99.99% of these emails are a waste of time, either warning of old viruses that are known about or warning about something that is an urban myth rather than a virus. These don't get any further when they reach me -- there's enough useless email clogging the system up without me emailing all my contacts.

So, I guess I'm suggesting that Facebook would be a site that would enable you to meet lots of U*Us, but even here be careful. And don't email all your friends about the current attempt to trap Facebook members, just don't fall into one of the most seductive traps around, the offer to look at one's self.

John Clifford

Monday, 29 September 2008

Religion and Politics

Archbishop Oscar Romero, the assassinated Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, once observed that when he attempted to feed the poor he was called a saint but when he started asking why people were poor he was called a communist.

Religious motivation informed by belief in a God of love and in human dignity and equality can lead people to actions which others think as political, especially when the "immediate relief" option is passed over in favour of the "change the system" option.  Any individual who is motivated by faith to do something will have to make choices based on opportunity, resources, and temperament -- this might mean, for example, trying to educate oppressors and their community; trying to educate the oppressed and their community; trying to meet immediate urgent needs;  trying to change the rules and structures that create/perpetuate an injustice; or, for those who believe that prayer can be effective, to withdraw from the world and try to pray effectively -- just to list a few options.

Unitarian and Universalists are not alone in seeing a strong bond between religious ideals and human rights, but we are one group which has seen the struggle for the expansion of human rights as a religious struggle.  In Britain, Unitarian use of the toast, "to civil and religious liberty the world over" goes back at least as far as the French Revolution.  In the United States, Unitarians and Universalists (still largely 'white' skinned in an increasingly mixed society) were not just sympathetic to the struggle for 'black' empowerment and freedom, they were active in marches, sit-ins, political action, publicity, and many other areas of sometimes dangerous personal and community witness.  The UUA continues to witness to the religious and political values of the human equality of women and gay people in society and in their churches.

A recent report from Sri Lanka is merely one report out of many in our current world --  so many, in fact, that these reports often do not get any publicity outside their own communities.  The UU Association of Sri Lanka has called attention to its government's recent regulations requiring ethnic Tamils in the North to register (again) but not requiring ethnic Singhalese to do so.  The UUASL points out that this bears uncomfortable resemblance to the Nazi registration of Jews in territories it ruled, preparing the ground for isolation and control, possibly leading to systematic destruction.  This is obviously a political issue but at the same time a religious issue.

So while the Western media are focused just now on the economic turmoil caused by unregulated and under-regulated financial speculation; on wars and refugee hardships; on natural disasters; and on political debate (Kenyan and Zimbabwean election followup, both the USA and Canada national elections in the next several weeks, South Africa and Israel in the next few months); countries like Chad and Myanmar slip down the list of editorial priorities, while Sri Lanka and Chechnya appear only in regional media until the next atrocity grabs a headline.

One of the interesting issues grabbing some headlines in the USA just now is the decision by a group of clergy (mostly theologically and politically conservative) to challenge a law which forbids churches recommending particular candidates in elections.  These churches/ ministers want to assert the right of the church to witness to its values without interference from the secular authorities; the law wants to maintain a distinction between political action and religious witness.   It will be fascinating to see how this resolves in the US courts.  


Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Knoxville Shooting Aftermath

“Knoxville” a sermon by Rev. Brian J. Kiely

Unitarian Church of Edmonton September 21, 2008

Chalice Lighting

We are safe.

We are together.

We are loved.

And so it will be.

-Brian Griffin DRE TVUUC


The facts of the Knoxville tragedy itself are simple and sad and are not the main point of this sermon. But we must begin by acknowledging what happened. During a summer service featuring excerpts from “Annie” by young people from a church camp, a stranger walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation carrying a loaded 12 gauge shotgun. An older man, an usher named Joe Barnhardt stood in front of him barring entry. Mr. Barnhardt died in the first blast. A mother In the quiet room nearby quickly barred the door putting herself between the shooter and the children. Fortunately, she was not noticed. The man walked into the sanctuary and fired again wounding seven including Linda Kraeger, visiting from another nearby UU congregation. She would soon die of those wounds

Jamie Parkey thought the blast was part of the play his daughter was helping putting on. Then he saw blood on another parishioner behind him and saw the gunman.

“He had the gun leveled in our direction,” Parkey told television reporters a day later. “That’s when I pushed my mother and daughter to the floor and got under the pew. When I saw the men rushing him was when I got up to join them.”

The men led by Dr. John Bohstedt, father of another of the performers, subdued and disarmed the shooter who was soon taken away by police.

In many ways, those few terrifying and scarring moments were merely the start of this story, a story of strength and courage, of compassion and community, of solace taken from core liberal values that stand at the center of our faith. And most of all it is a story of healing begun amidst an ocean of love. That’s the story I wish to share today, the story of how our religion and our people helped one another through tragedy.

Within hours other Knoxville UU congregations had thrown open their doors for informal services and pastoral care. Within a day the various faith communities came together to hold services, to raise funds, and provide food. In the great tradition of the south, casseroles, pies, salads, cookies, and every other kind of food started pouring into TVUUC for the victims, the volunteers and the workers.

Within a day the Unitarian Universalist Association had a well-trained crisis intervention team on site, including a very dear friend of mine, Police Chaplain Rev. Lisa Presley. They and government provided grief counsellors stayed in the church for over a week organizing group debriefings and providing personal care for any who needed the chance to talk. The support is now continuing in other ways, including a relief fund of over $40,000.

The evening after the shootings, there was a multi-faith candlelight service held at the Presbyterian Church next door. The crowds of mourners overflowed.

During that first week the fire department’s hazmat team came in and cleaned the church and the Sanctuary. My friend Lisa remarked in a message to colleagues how gentle, kind and efficient they were. Within a day the only sign of the event were the shotgun pellet holes in a fire door you may have seen in the video. There was some talk of replacing the door, but congregational leaders put a hold on that. “We don’t want to pretend it didn’t happen”, they said.

Four days later Annette Marquis, the District Executive for the region of UU churches that included Knoxville published the following:

I have never been so proud of being a Unitarian Universalist (UU) as I was yesterday in Knoxville. It started when thirty or so people, some from... (the church and the sister congregations), some from the Red Cross, some from the local mental health agency, some from our own UU Trauma Response Team, several local UU ministers, gathered together to plan the day, or should I say, the day after. The meeting was chaotic, disjointed, and disorganized—yet our task was clear. What needed to be done ... to begin the healing process in the wake of Sunday’s devastating tragedy?

After only a few minutes, one subgroup broke off and began planning the critical incident stress debriefing sessions that would be held from 5 to 7 p.m. that evening, sessions that were age and situation-appropriate: those who witnessed the attack and those who did not, those from TVUUC, those from the other UU congregation, children and adults who had been in the cast of "Annie, Jr.", pre-schoolers, first and second-graders, second and third graders, and on and on. Another group created a master list of all the decisions, all the tasks, all the work that needed to be done this week, from getting the damaged pews out of the sanctuary and into storage to planning the vigil that was happening that night, to imagining a re-dedication of the sacred space that is the TVUUC building.

Within a couple short hours, amidst all the heavy hearts in the ...(church) that day, a plan to start the healing process was born...

“I made my way up the hill to Second Presbyterian Church, a congregation literally right next door to TVUUC, a congregation that provided blessed refuge for our children on Sunday morning, a congregation that generously offered to host our debriefing sessions and our public vigil that night...Starting the service with an emotional rendition of Spirit of Life, Rev. Chris Buice, minister of TVUUC, gave the opening words and identified the “power in this room.” “The presence of so many people from so many faith traditions being here for our church means so much to us," he said.

Rev. Bill Sinkford helped those gathered try to accept that it was not possible to make sense of such a senseless act but that by owning our feelings of anger, grief, hurt, helplessness, and pain, we could work through this together. His clarity about how the strong social justice tradition of the congregation will not let it retreat in the wake of this tragedy brought tears to my eyes. He said, "None of us can allow our pain and anger to keep us from living our faith, from welcoming all people, from standing on the side of love. We will not let that happen. We will continue our commitment to welcoming all people."

Rev. Mitra Jafarzedeh, minister of Westside UU Fellowship, closed the service (with). “Go forth in light,” she said, “be daring and audacious enough to have hope. Let nothing silence us.”

“Proud of my faith” does not even begin to describe my feelings, Annette concludes.

In my role as President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, I was able to reflect from afar:

The news of the recent shootings ... was at once troubling, saddening and in an odd way, encouraging.

It was deeply troubling in that one human soul so could become so sick and twisted that he felt he had to try and kill complete strangers solely because they support liberal religious and social positions. This gunman apparently felt that all the things wrong in his life could be blamed on people with progressive points of view. Unitarian Universalists were convenient symbolic targets.

For U*Us in many parts of the world this attack on our faith so deeply shocking as to be almost beyond comprehension. Yet I am mindful that for a good many of our brothers and sisters in too many parts of the world this act of violence, while still terrible, is not so rare or shocking. Our hopeful, loving faith exists in the midst of violence, lawlessness and political unrest, in the midst of warfare, in the midst of deeply dangerous circumstances. Perhaps those U*Us have a better understanding today of what our Tennessee sisters and brothers have experienced this week. Still, for me, fortunate to live in a fairly peaceful place, the news was terribly shocking.

One member of our local Edmonton church suggested that as with 9-11, there are a lot of people from our communities feeling a little less safe in their churches today. That is troubling.

And of course, these events leave deep feelings of sadness for the victims, their families and friends. Only people who have been through that kind of experience can begin to grasp what the families must be enduring. I feel blessed that I have never had to face such events. All I can write is that I feel tremendous sympathy for the members and friends of the Tennessee Valley UU Congregation as they grieve their losses and try to find ways to feel safe again in their church.”

The video clip from Bill Moyers Journal ( showed Rev. Chris Buice, someone whom I had just met at our recent CUC meetings. He was not in church that day. Like me he was on vacation in July. Chris was present throughout the days and weeks of aftermath and by all reports did amazing work. I have listened to and was deeply moved by his remarkable series of August sermons stemming from the incident on the church website. They included the clips we heard a few moments ago. I commend them to you.

At the sanctuary rededication service seven days after the shooting, Chris spoke. There was sadness and grief of course, but overall his remarks were filled with passion, courage and hope, and his homily was interrupted many times by applause, even cheers. He said,

“There are many names for the power of healing, and we have felt that power in this congregation this week. This has been a time of paradoxes. Last week a man came into this sanctuary with the intention of inflicting terror and he inspired quick and decisive acts of courage. Reports say that he had been told that liberals were soft on terror. He had a rude discovery.”

“He came into this space to... do an act of hatred, but he has unleashed unspeakable amounts of love. A man tried to strike a blow for of intolerance and by so doing he inspired ...gatherings...throughout the week of Christians and Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, believers and unbelievers, crowded in the aisle, sitting on the stage, gathered outside in the rain, holding, hugging and helping each other to heal.

A man tried to divide us...divide us into liberals and conservatives, gay and straight. Instead his actions united us making us more willing to listen to each other, care for each other, respect each other, support each other.” And referring to the tangible southern minister of the casserole he added, “And let’s be honest ....feed each body and spirit...Our (larger)community surrounded us with love.”

“He came into this space to inflict death and he took away the lives of two precious people, wounded six others, traumatized our community, but strangely at the same time reminded us of the preciousness of our children, the sacredness of life and this moment of time, the true value of friendship and family and how much we need good neighbours.”

In a later sermon Rev. Buice shifted to the reasons for the attack: that we Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists profess a liberal faith and that the Tennessee Valley congregation has a strong justice seeking history.

“Liberalism is an easy target... (because we agree with Voltaire who said), ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Buice suggests that it is an idea that leads some to think we are weak and easy targets, that we won’t respond in kind. He said, “You can call a liberal all sorts of terrible names and a liberal will still defend your freedom of speech... of the press... of religion. Contrast that with how others might react.”

He then led a guided meditation of a sort asking people to imagine themselves in a local bar late on a Saturday night. He invited them to imagine mounting the stage, taking the microphone and calling all in the room traitors to America giving comfort and succour to the enemy. He then surmised that anyone who did such a thing would soon be joined on stage by any number of people strenuously pointing out the error of that statement.

“We are peaceful, tolerant and understanding people. We are open to listening to opinions that are different from our own. We are committed to non-violent social change, therefore it does not take a lot of courage to verbally assault a liberal.”

From the first day after the shooting, this has been the message of the church President, of Rev. Buice and UUA President Bill Sinkford. Each issued strong and faithful statements. They declared that our liberal approach will not be altered or changed by this tragedy. They spoke of love and compassion, not hate and revenge. In the midst of this tragedy, the people found new strength and resolve. They are finding positive meanings in this terrible event.

I concluded my ICUU Presidential letter with this: “We who choose a liberal and principled approach to faith can expect to be tested in that faith from time to time, though seldom is the test as shocking as that Sunday in Knoxville. It is at moments like those that we look to those Principles and to our understanding of the divine working within us to pull us through. May our Knoxville sisters and brothers find the strength they need in their time of grieving. May we all join them and find new reasons to renew our own commitment to our UU faith.

I leave the last word today to Tennessee Valley member Jim Elsaesser. He wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper a few days after the Monday candlelight memorial service.

For the last segment of the services, the children of the cast of "Annie" took the stage of the sanctuary. After receiving counselling for the events they had endured, the children had asked their musical director, if they too could sing at the memorial service ... and they did, before a weeping, cheering, shouting church full of mourners ... all singing their grand finale, "Tomorrow."

It is worth noting that out of this tragedy, the children of that church led their congregation in singing, again, a song of hope, a song of healing.”

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Canadian Director demits office in September

Mary Bennett, Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council (Conseil Unitarien du Canada), and the CUC have announced that Mary is demitting office in mid-September.  Mary has seen the organisation through eight years of great change.  During this time the relationship with the Unitarian Universalist Association fundamentally changed.  There was a shift in delivery of almost all services to congregations from the UUA to the CUC with the need for substantial infrastructure development as well as programme expansion.  Under Mary's leadership, at the same time all this 'internal' work was going on, the CUC strengthened its international witness and has become a strong supporter of ICUU.

Thank you, Mary, and best wishes for the future.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Disasters, natural and unnatural

Not all disasters are "natural" -- many of us were shocked when a gunman killed two and injured several others during worship in the Tennesee Valley UU church in Knoxville, Tennessee USA on 27 July.  Trauma experts and other help from both UUs and civic authorities were sent to the stunned congregation immediately.  The initial shock at a 'random' event by some madman with a vague grudge against life and liberals had to give way to a more reflective response as it became known that the gunman had had previous contact with UU events, including at least one in his home some time before.  

Many of us will remember that almost exactly three years ago rains caused severe flooding in Transylvania, causing extensive damage including Unitarian churches and homes, and the Transylvanian Unitarians from 'dry' areas rushed to give practical assistance.  Only a few years before that the swollen Danube flooded central Prague causing severe damage to the Unitarian church there.  Unitarians around the globe raised funds and sent encouraging messages. Earthquakes have hit Unitarians (among many others, of course) in Indonesia in the past few years and the coast of the USA from about Texas around to South Carolina is periodically hit by hurricanes and severe storms, damaging homes and public buildings including Unitarian Universalist ones.  Florida is bracing itself for a "hit" even as I write this.  And the pictures on British television of the flooding in Northern Ireland where one month's rain fell in a few hours yesterday, are heart breaking. 

In Indonesia, the Unitarians there, members of the ICUU member group Jamaat Allah Global Indonesia, rushed aid to their stricken citizens, non-Unitarian as well as Unitarian.  Many Unitarians and Universalists around the world contributed to an Appeal, publicised by UUSC to help them do this.  When earthquakes hit Pakistan a couple years ago the very small Unitarian community there also strived to provide practical assistance to their fellow citizens, many of whom hate Christians and don't bother to make an exception for Unitarians.  American UUs were active in providing both short- and long-term support to residents of New Orleans after Katrina and will no doubt assist as they can if aid is needed after the current emergency in Florida.  We, like decent people of all religions and cultures, respond to disasters as quickly and generously as we can.  Organisations like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Oxfam, UNESCO, Tearfund, and others, while receiving government funding, depend on the generous responses of the public to do the emergency relief work that they are set up for.

One bit of good news: No one was killed in Northern Ireland by the floods yesterday and no homes or churches of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (the religious liberals closely connected with British Unitarians) were directly affected -- in fact, amidst the turmoil of roads closed by floods and landslides they still managed an ordination!

Why do bad things happen to good people?  What, you don't assume that Unitarians and Universalists are good people?  Very insightful, but the fundamental question remains.

Universalists have long held that the best motivation for good behaviour is a response of love to being loved, rather than the traditional motivation based on fear of punishment for being bad.  It was a hard struggle in many lands to get the changes in public policy that this theological understanding implied, from education to public health, from prison reform to worker and child protection.  That reforming battle continues.

There may be a temptation to see good behaviour as a kind of protection against evil things happening, and perhaps some people do contribute to disaster relief as a kind of insurance policy, but the truth is that if reality were so constructed that well behaved people were rewarded with good health, long lives, and wealth, while bad people had brutish existences, then many fewer of us would behave badly.  

We will each have our own resolutions to the question of why a God of Love would not build goodness into the structure of the way things work --  in fact some take the intentional evil done by both individuals and communities as proof that a God of Love cannot really exist.  I share my conviction that it is precisely because goodness and justice are not built into the way the physical world operates that we have the obligation to do our best to build goodness and justice into our human community.  To the extent that we are successful in this never-ending struggle, goodness and justice will exist; to the extent we fail, goodness and justice will not exist.  

Meantime, we will be subject to the same range of natural and unnatural disasters as everyone else and will continue to need to respond as open-heartedly as we can to immediate needs even while we engage in fundamental reform of our ways of thinking, perceiving, and acting.


Sunday, 3 August 2008


I've just received an invitation from a UU in Kenya to join an instant community that they are already a member of.  This is actually the second such invitation I've received from a Kenyan Unitarian Universalist in the past couple months.  It reflects growing access to computers and internet connections in Africa and perhaps even growing ownership of computers as they drop in real price and as they become more available.

I'm not sure how many such communities there are on the web.  I'm already a member of three, Skype, SightSpeed, and MySpace, and am not sure I want to start developing this aspect of my connection to the web just now, but the variety of means by which we can link and communicate to each other seems to grow daily.  I suppose that in one sense there is competition between these 'instant connection clubs' to sign up the most members.  At least, one of the promised benefits of joining is the number of potential people to whom one will have instant links.  And they work -- at least from personal experience I can say I located my niece in Australia via MySpace and I use Skype at least weekly to talk with family and friends around the world and I use SightSpeed occasionally with a friend who can't seem to get Skype to work.  Video calls, audio calls, even quick text conversations are great ways to communicate and as computers and connections increase in power and decrease in cost many more of us will be dependent on these to supplement our decreasing ability to drive and fly around the world to see people.

But how do you respond to a plea for greater connectivity from someone you have only met once or maybe may even have never met?  Apparently Barack Obama has over one million such connections -- this is understandable I suppose because he is a major politician.  But for ordinary mortals like me there is the conflicting tension between not wanting to reject or insult (on the one hand) and trying to keep the 'instant' dimension of contacts within a manageable number.  I like the fact that when I am on Skype (for example) I can see when one of my contacts is also online, permitting a very quick 2 minute conversation -- either purely social or for a quick Q&A -- but then I've only 30 something contacts on Skype.  I also understand that when I am logged into Skype, part of my free RAM is used to make the system work and I am willing to pay this price for the benefit I perceive.  Some of these 'instant contact clubs' include the opportunity to be bombarded with ads -- a price I'm reluctant to pay although I do like the ability to contact people easily and cheaply.  But then, email does this well when an instant reply is not needed.  And telephone charges are actually dropping.  The soup of communication methods we now have available perhaps contains too many standards and too many options to use its potential usefulness.  I long for the day when some universal standard (such as obtains with DVDs) permits really easy and cheap communication.

These somewhat random thoughts were sparked by the invitations I received from Kenyan UUs but the bellows feeding oxygen to the sparks was an article in today's online Observer,
that reports a study confirming the widely held belief that the average number of degrees of separation (people connecting you in a chain with a particular stranger) is 6.6.  Microsoft analysed its records of usage (30 Billion electronic messages) and came up with this average length of chain of names connecting any two people.  Add to this the numbers of text messages sent by mobile telephones and countless normal emails, that is one whale of a lot of connection even for the number of folk on this planet.  

So who is doing the work while we are all busy communicating?  

I haven't yet seen any comments clarifying the most common question for instant messages, but I have seen the most common question for mobile phone messages: 'Where are you?'  

Perhaps with computers a more useful question will be: 'What should you be doing now?'

Friday, 1 August 2008

Brief recent items from around the world

From Hong Kong: The world body responsible for internet classifications (.org, .net., .com, etc) is about to make a major opening up of classifications and one of the groups taking advantage of this is the UU group in Hong Kong, called the Spiritual Seekers Society.  They have had an internal consultation about what sort of registered names might be most useful in the future and they have decided to take out registrations on three endings:;; (for a future UU group in China).  Note that they are posititively thinking about future witness in mainland China!

From the Khasi Hills, India:  A recent report from their General Secretary, Rev Helpme Mohrmen, describes their plans for continuing the education of their church leaders within the contexts both of their strong local democratic conditions and their recognition of a more professional approach to ministry being required in the modern world.  Their first training session was well received and they hope that these training sessions will help leaders to develop skills that they need for doing ministry in their respective churches.  They have found that the previous training was able to boost the leaders' confidence and also empower them. The training was on leading worship, conducting rites of passage, basic Khasi Unitarian beliefs, and pastoral care.

Their Executive has also decided to start a review of partner church relations and has set up a Cell to oversee all matters involving partnerships.  Two members of their leadership were able to attend the recent UUA General Assembly and meet with American UU Partner Church Council members.

From Chennai, India:  The Madras Unitarian Church, partnered with the Glasgow and Edinburgh congregations in Scotland for the past 18 years, is just about to rebuild their 200 year old church.  The old building will come down and a modern replacement built.  The new building will be better able to serve the local community needs which the congregation tries to meet.  Professional advice has been taken and substantial financial help from an Appeal organised by the Scottish Unitarians will supplement local efforts.  The existing bell tower (separate from the main building) will be retained.

From Lagos, Nigeria:  The building of the First Unitarian Church in Lagos was recently under immediate threat because of irregularities in the planning and registration procedures when it was constructed many years ago.  The UUA International Office and ICUU have provided an emergency grant to enable rectifying procedures to be completed.  One of only three Unitarian churches of any duration in Africa, it would have been a great blow to the congregation to have lost it.

From South Australia: The small single-room Shady Grove Unitarian chapel in the hills outside Adelaide will celebrate its 150th Anniversary in October.  It has served isolated farming communities both as a chapel and a school house over the generations and still lacks electricity and power.  It does have a pedal organ, however, along with a continuing small congregation and a part-time leader based in Adelaide.

Michael Servetus Back from the Ashes and in English

Mr. Sergio Baches, the incumbent Secretary of the Michael Servetus Institute in Spain, has informed us that Michael Servetus' main work, and which took him to the stake in Geneva under the accusation of heresy, Christianismi Restitutio (The Restitution of Christianity), is now available in English.

According to Mr. Baches:
As the Michael Servetus reported in its previous communication dated 14 October 2007, Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey initiated the project to translate into English the main work by Michael Servetus, Christianismi Restitutio, already some years ago.

Under her coordination, as Managing Editor and Project Director, Christopher A. Hoffman and Marian Hillar made the first translation of the first part of the "Christianismi restitutio" entitled "De Trinitate" (On the Trinity), which was released in September-October 2007 under the title: "An English Translation of Christianismi restitutio, 1553, by Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Translated by Christopher A. Hoffman and Marian Hillar" (Lewiston, NY; Queenston, Ont., Canada; Lampeter, Wales, UK: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2007).

The purpose of this new communication is to inform you that the Second Volume (composed of two books) of the translation of "Christianismi Restitutio" has just been released this July.

You can obtain further information on the books in

Monday, 28 July 2008

Statement by ICUU President on the Tennessee Valley shooting

(This is the statement sent by Rev. Brian Kiely, President of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, regarding the tragic news of a shooting inside a Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee (USA).)

Dear U*U Friends around the world,
I have just learned of a terrible incident in the United States that touches our UU family. A single gunman went into the Tennessee Valley UU* Congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee and opened fire. The man was not known at the church. Details are still unclear, but it appears that at least one person is dead and several others wounded.
On behalf of the ICUU, I have sent the following message to the Tennessee Valley Congregation, to UUA President Bill Sinkford and UUA Moderator Gini Courter:
Dear Fellow UU's
On behalf of the Executive and all the national groups represented at the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists, I am writing to offer my deepest condolences in the wake of the Tennessee Valley tragedy.
We are shocked an outraged at the violence and violation committed in the sanctity of your church home, a place meant to be a safe haven. More importantly, we are deeply saddened by the loss of life, and the physical and emotional injury this terrible act has brought into your community.
We pray for you and with you in this time of trial. We pray that you will find the strength necessary to survive and rise above this crisis. We hope that your community is able to come together and be the source of strength it has always been for you and that this sad event will help bring you even closer through shared grief and shared healing.
The thoughts of Unitarians and Universalists the world over are with you in this tragic time.
Rev. Brian J. Kiely
International Council of Unitarians and Universalists

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Bishop of Nigerian Unitarian Church has died

The ICUU has just learned about the sad news of Bishop A. Soyombo-Abowaba's demise. He was the institutional leader of the Unitarian Church in Nigeria.

Brian Kiely, President of the ICUU, has written to the Nigerian Unitarians: "It is with great sadness that we have learned of Bishop Abowaba's death. Even though he was too ill to attend, we who participated in the Kenyan Leadership Conference felt his strong presence through each of you. I know I feel poorer for never having met him in person. The Unitarian Church in Nigeria has had a long and important presence in West Africa. Bishop Abowaba's strong leadership is no small part of that unique history. Unitarians and Universalists throughout the world join you in your sorrow."

The Unitarian Church in Nigeria was founded in 1919 by a gathering of liberal Christians from different denominations. Their hymns and church services are in Yoruba language, and they include the use of drums in their worship.

Friday, 30 May 2008

A call for more linguistic diversity

French-speaking Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists have joined forces in a common call for increasing linguistic diversity in the U+U world, particularly for those international languages other than English that are currently represented in the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU).

This joint statement follows the annual meeting of the Canadian Unitarian Council/Conseil Unitarien du Canada (CUC) in Ottawa, and it has been signed by representatives from associations in Canada, the French-speaking countries in Europe, Burundi, and Congo.

The statement acknowledges the work of the CUC and the ICUU is fostering diversity and the expansion of the Unitarian faith in cultural environments where English is not the primary language. It is hoped that this increasing diversity is also reflected in websites, worship resources, publications, and other written materials.

You can find the whole statement, in French and in English, in the blog of the Assemblée Fraternelle des Chrétiens Unitariens (AFCU).

(Note: Thanks to Jean-Claude Barbier from Correspondance Unitarienne for spreading the news about this.)

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Change of Unitarian leadership in North East India

This information has been distributed by Khasi Hill Unitarian leader and member of the ICUU Executive Committee, Pearl Green Marbaniang, on a recent change in the leadership of the Indian organization:

“Bliss was it that dawn’d to be alive;
But to be young was very heaven”- William Wordsworth.

The cry for change that reverberated throughout the length and breadth of the Unitarian Union has brought in young faces to the top echelon of the UUNEI administration. In a historic verdict, the voters today elected four young ministers to take over the administrative affairs of the UUNEI for a three-year term. Rev.Derrick Pariat pipped Rev.Carleywell to become the President of the Union . Rev. Helpme Mohrmen was elected the new General Secretary, Rev.Darihun Khriam retains Treasurer and Rev. Pearl Greene is the new Assistant General Secretary. The position of Vice President will be filled when the new Exec meets on the 17th.

Ten others were elected EC members, representing the four Circles (Districts) - three from the Jaintia Hills, as many from the Khasi Hills, two each from Ri Bhoi and Kharang Circles. Prominent among them are Rev.Nangroi Suting and Bah Khlur Mukhim.

Sunday, 6 April 2008

General Assembly 2008 of the British Unitarians

According to their tradition, the General Assembly of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches of Great Britain was held during the Easter weekend.

We could not find much information in the website of the British Unitarians themselves, but there is a good summary in the UUA-sponsored Inspired Faith, Effective Action blog, so feel free to check the news there. For those who like a more personal approach, Unitarian blogger Stephen Lingwood attended the meeting and recorded live his impressions of the sessions: see his Reignite blog for details.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Upcoming UUA Board Meeting

Blogger Philocrites informs about the upcoming UUA Board meeting to be held in April. Among the many materials to be discussed, the report from the Advocacy and Witness Staff Group includes an interesting report on the UUA activities in the international area. Check it out.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

UU = Unaffiliated Unitarians?

There is a lot of controversy lately in American Unitarian Universalist circles after the publication of an extensive survey on religious affiliation in America by the Pew Forum on Religion. Among those who have commented (and generated many thoughtful responses) those data in their blogs, I recommend reading Philocrites, Peacebang, Surviving the Workday, and Transient and Permanent.

Basically, what the Pew Forum survey results seem to imply is that there are many more Unitarian Universalists who are not affiliated to any UU congregation, than those who are actual members of congregations. The survey has found that 0.3% of Americans identify themselves as Unitarian Universalists, which is roughtly equivalent to 600,000 people out of the total population of the USA, but the total adult membership of UU congregations is about 160,000.

These data raises questions about how to serve those who are not regular attendants or even paying members of Unitarian+Universalist congregations. The issue is probably not just American but it may be applied, in different degrees, to other countries. How many Britons would identify with Unitarian beliefs and principles, but simply dislike the idea of going to church on Sunday morning? How can emerging Unitarian groups in Europe, Latin America, Africa, etc. reach out to those who agree with Unitarians but disagree with "religion"?

And finally, we tend to identify members with those who sign a book, or get baptized, or pay their membership fees. Perhaps a wider discussion on membership and belonging is in order, so that we can provide spiritual services and focus on those who are away from our religious center. Remember the Gospel parable about the shepherd and the sheep?

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Kenya Day 8- Departure
Our Boeing 767 has just departed Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It is mostly empty on its way to Amsterdam. I gaze out at the small farm plots dotting the dusty plains below and ponder my last day in Kenya.
In the airport I noticed a bookshop just beside my gate. It is, of course, geared to international travellers, but the selection of books chosen for the window display is intriguing. On lower shelves are a couple of tomes on getting rich and being successful, including the new religious version of same by Joel Osteen. On the upper shelves are the US political books. Bill Clinton’s auto-biography and his book Giving on generosity towards the third world provide the bookends for the current editions about Hilary and Obama. Nothing appears about the Republican candidates. On the second shelf are a series of books about various African countries, mostly historically or politically inclined. But the most interesting thing is the center-piece. Pride of place is given to Shake Hands with the Devil, the account of the Rwandan genocide by the UN Commander and fellow Canadian ( and national hero) Lt. General Romeo Dallaire. My heart swells a little. I have avoided this book until now. Having read enough of Dallaire’s story in the papers and having seen the fictional account in Hotel Rwanda, I know it will be a rough ride. Placed so prominently it seems both like a bookseller’s prayer of hope and a warning to Kenya. Rwanda was a peaceful place where genocide erupted in 1994, killing 800,000 and displacing millions more. The display seems to say, “Let us be careful...this could happen here. Let us return to sanity.” I buy the book. I barely notice our departure for the tears filling my eyes and I haven’t even finished the Introduction.
In this morning’s papers, the Kenyan politicians seem to be playing at silly buggers again, but I have faith in the people I have met on the streets and in the restaurants. Perhaps they are telling the westerner what he wants to hear, but the light in their eyes suggests to me that there is a widespread and genuine belief in Nairobi at least, that Kenyans are better than that. There will be peace and a political solution, if not this week, then in time.
Still, this 767 heading to Amsterdam is empty. The economy is in chaos and the tourist trade is gone for this winter. There is a column in the Nation newspaper today. It’s one of those anonymously penned pieces by someone called The Watcher. Watcher relates a story. One or the other political leader (I think Mr. Odinga) spoke of the election in terms of having his cow stolen from him. But the Watcher quotes a wise head who commented, “They are arguing over who owns the cow and not noticing that they are trampling the grass on which the cow feeds. If there is no grass, there will be no cow.” I only hope they realize this truth sooner rather than later. The people have figured it out. Why can’t the politicians grasp it?

Yesterday was a free day for me. Earlier in the week Kevin Gesimba had asked me to come and visit his family about 30 km outside of town. I said I needed to do some gift shopping for my family. My wife had asked me to bring drums for my daughters. (I hope my ears don’t live to regret that!) So Kevin and Shem took me first to the Masai market, a sprawling colourful conglomeration of blankets and displays with crafts, fabrics, jewellery, paintings, woodcraft and pretty much anything you can think of...and drums of course. We westerners sometimes lament the lack of service in our stores. No problem here! As I entered the area I suddenly had a dozen new friends who wanted to shake my hand and take me to their stalls. With my real friends doing the negotiating I found my few purchases and departed with far more shillings in my pocket than I had anticipated.
We booked a taxi and headed east to Kitangera Estates. The trip took nearly 90 minutes thanks to Nairobi’s amazing and endless traffic. In today’s paper experts estimated there would be total gridlock in 15 years. To my eye they are being wildly optimistic. I expect that a dozen more new cars will produce total gridlock in about 15 days!
To a westerner the word ‘Estate’ suggests something a little majestic and well to do...or at the very least something pretentiously hoping to be majestic and well-to-do. Kenyan Estates are, to privileged western eyes, anything but. Please understand, that this is an observation of difference and is not tinged with disrespect or even pity. In fact, I sense that Kenyans are happier in general than westerners. When everyone is poor, they don’t suffer from the material lust and ‘gotta have it’ that plagues the west. They do have real wants and needs (unlike me with only my imaginary ones), but beyond that they focus on family, friends and mutual support.
Kevin’s house is off the main dirt road, down a narrowish alley and then down an even narrower alley. Because of mud holes the taxi can get no closer than 100 metres. In Kevin’s street, the alley is perhaps a dozen feet wide, each side lined with a solid wall of brick abodes. We push through the metal door into a meticulously clean and comfortable room. There are three sofas spread on each of the other walls. Each sofa is covered with an embroidered seat cover. I would learn that this is Divinah’s handiwork. She is Kevin’s wife and a participant at the conference.
There is no cooking area, no washing area and no toilet or running water. There are just two rooms with a small window in each. Kevin extravagantly buys Fantas at the tiny store across the alley. He then goes and gets his sons, his nephews and a friend from school to bring them to meet me. I am already being kept company by Happiness and her daughter Eva, although I am not quite sure of the relationships here. Eva is six. I show them pictures of my girls and there are warm smiles all around. I am entranced by little Eva and long to kiss my girls.
The boys come tumbling through the door. There are formal handshakes, a little conversation, many pictures and then off they run back to class.
Kevin and Shem then take me into the other room hidden by a curtain. It is a bare cement room for storage and work. There are two sewing machines, a lovely old treadle style Singer and a newer portable. This is where Divinah does her work. They hope to find financing to start a home based clothing business. We discuss details. It seems that the impossibly inaccessible sum of $200 US or so would get them started. I have read about micro-loans, but this is the first time I have come in touch with the reality of what one can do. I think we can make this work.
It is a hope of mine that we will find a way to connect UU’s from around the world in some way to help make these small subsistence dreams a reality. As I wrote in chapter 7, nothing is set-up yet, but I am hoping that will change in the months ahead.
Hours later after another long dusty drive, I connect with my remaining faculty colleagues back at the Guest House. For most of us this is our last time together until who knows when. We head out to a local restaurant for a final meal. We wind up at the Java Hut at the Nakumatt Center. Nakumatt appears to be the Kenyan Wal-Mart...perhaps is the Kenyan Wal-Mart. The Java Hut seems strangely out of place to me. Why? It’s Starbucks decor in a land where nothing else looks that way. But the Swahilli curried Tilapia is an absolute delight and the chocolate ice cream (my first sweet since arriving) is heavenly. I think my stomach is ready to go home.
I’ll close this blog this way: I know this journey has changed me, but for now the feelings, sensations and friendships are too fresh for me to venture a guess as to how that change will sort itself out. I do know it will be harder to dismiss the Third World as ‘them’ anymore. I do know I will pay attention when I hear the word ‘Africa’ from now on. I am more convinced than ever that we in the West and the North will have to be prepared to make material sacrifices in order to bring economic justice to the world. It will not be enough to simply nod when politicians protecting national interests say that their economic policies will help the Third World and that rising economies will float all boats. Instead, I believe some real redistribution of wealth will have to occur. If we don’t manage that change, it may just happen to us we run out of resources and as the rest of the world, led by China and India find their power.

Thanks for reading this, friends. Thanks to those of you who have written and thanks for caring about our ICUU leadership school. It has been a transformative and unforgettable experience for us all.



Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Kenya Days Blog 7

The ICUU Leadership Conference ended last night with a great deal of hope and joy, with mutual gratitude, with hugs and singing...and with a trip to the open air bar just up the road. The faculty decided that everyone needed a treat. It was a wonderful party with more singing, lots of conversation, back slapping, handshaking and an enormous amount of good will. The Tusker beer, Pilsner and Guinness didn’t hurt either. Speaking of cultural differences I saw a new one...Guinness and Coke. Hmmmm.

The final day of work was given over to planning in local groups, a session on the structure and history of the ICUU, a discussion of ordination practices around the world which was of great interest. We also reviewed the Covenant Groups model.

Each day we met in the same small groups for a time of speaking and listening...not conversation, but speaking and listening respectfully. It is a structured practice used in many parts of the UU world. There is a chalice lighting, a brief time to check-in on how each person is doing, a shared reading on a topic of the day, a time of silence and then an opportunity for each participant to speak in turn on their views and feelings about the topic. This week the topics all had to do with that particular day’s work. After all have had a chance to speak, there are a few moments for final comments and then a closing reading.

I happened to be part of an all male group, something I am not used to in a church setting. That may be why we gelled so quickly...or perhaps it was because Adeyinka Matimojou of Nigeria was part of our group. He is a happy, loving and passionate man who has been in such groups before and is always willing to start if needed and to share deeply. The other faculty told me their groups took longer to get going. None of us are sure why that was, but I will count myself fortunate. The time I spent with these six men was the richest part of my conference experience. From them I learned what life in Africa is like. Of everyone here, only Adeyinka is a full-time minister. The rest have to farm or work in the city. There are social workers, tradesmen, students, many farmers, journalists and business people. Some are working, some aren’t. In return for their stories they now have learned a lot more about Canadian winter then they would ever wish to know! I don’t think any is willing to try Edmonton at -40C.

We spoke of life and love, of farming and family, of hopes and dreams. We cried a little and laughed so much that one of the other groups asked us to quiet down. It is a memory that will not soon fade.

Late in the afternoon the groups reported back about their plans for the next five years. These people may have few resources, but they have amazing vision. While some national groups hope for regular meetings and a stable congregation, others are dreaming of small hospitals, schools, orphanages. As I was writing this, Sister Alice Magara showed me some photos of the Sarah’s Orphans project in Kisi. They live in the region next to the areas with the most violence and have been swamped with displaced persons. Looking at the photo, there must be 50 orphans in their village right now needing food, clothes and medical supplies. She showed me photos of the women’s group making clothes for sale on some shared sewing machines, making soap from avocados and a host of other projects.

I guess my point is that they may have big dreams, and they will need help to realize them, but that’s not stopping anyone from moving forward in city or country.

Today I am scheduled to visit with the Nairobi group and to see some of their projects. Tomorrow I start for home, so I expect this blog will have one more instalment.

Thanks for reading.


Monday, 11 February 2008

Kenya Day 6

We are nearing the end of our ICUU Leadership Conference and the end of my time in Kenya, so this posting will focus on some of the differences I have observed here about how we understand and practice Unitarianism. (Apologies to my Universalist and UU friends. In Africa the name is Unitarian).

Ok well, first, one cultural observation: Mobile phones.

I thought North America was swimming in cell phones. I thought I was coming to a ‘third world’ country. (Experienced travellers know where this train of thought is headed). It is fascinating to see that in Africa where poverty is so rampant that everyone... EVERYONE has a mobile phone. Most poster advertising concerns mobiles. Every second store and booth sells phone cards , inexpensive phones and prepaid mobile time. And I must note that the one pay phone at our guest house never has a dial tone.

Of course this mobile revolution makes sense. It is the way the people here are able to communicate in a nation where landlines are few and far between and expensive to boot. Mobiles are cheap, effective and convenient. They bring a new freedom. Perhaps the explosion of this ease of communication both helped spark the recent violence, and helped provide the massive internal and international peaceful response to the violence. How many violent actions in the past in this continent have gone unnoticed because no one far away heard of the unrest?

My colleague, Rev. David Usher pointed out the other day that Samuel Morse (Morse code), Alexander Graham Bell (the telephone) and Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web) each sparked a revolution in communications...and all were Unitarian. I guess that’s really not a surprise. It is an unspoken principle in our liberal and questing faith that the more pathways of communication we have, the more information to we have, the better and more peaceful the world will be.

And I suppose that this brings me to the most interesting thing I have learned about Unitarianism in Africa.

In the weeks before the conference, Rev. Patrick Magara kept inviting us to come to Kisi, a place very close to where the worst violence took place. “No, No,” he would say, “Kisi is safe.” It was hard to believe. But then we came and discovered that for years Rev. Magara and others from the Kisi Unitarian congregations have travelled around the region speaking to people and groups having conflicts with one another. They have a history of peace-making. When their region went up in flames, that groundwork helped preserve the peace.

How to live our Unitarian Universalist faith into our daily lives is a challenge for many westerners and northerners face. We tend to go through our lives not announcing our religion to the world. In Kenya that kind of separation of faith and practice is literally unthinkable. Ask the Kenyan Unitarians about their church and they won’t talk about worship or membership numbers. Instead they will tell you about the projects they do: the women’s groups, the working cooperatives, the orphanages, the volunteer-run schools and so on. To be a Unitarian here is to be involved in the community in a faithful way. Take my new friend Cyrus Itare. He is a young man still in his 20’s. He and his wife have a one month old child. He is unemployed (not unusual around here and while problematic, not a shameful thing). Oh, did I mention that he and his wife have taken eight orphan children in their home? I am in awe.

The last major difference between Kenyan Unitarians and the ‘first world’ UU’s concerns the topic of growth. It’s hard, exactly to say how many Unitarians there are in this country, but it is certainly over 500 in over 40 congregations. Five years ago, there were none... Zero.

Why so much growth so fast? Kenyan Unitarians are willing, eager to spread the word of their faith far and wide. Some preach in market places. Some talk to groups from other churches. There are many cases where entire congregations have ‘converted’ to Unitarianism. And then there is the outreach of their community programs. Anyone can participate, but they WILL hear about our faith. No one is forced to convert, but few who come in contact with Kenyan Unitarians will walk away not knowing something about us.

Good heavens! Conversion? Proselytizing? Unitarians doing that? Amazing.

But here’s something worth thinking about: If their success continues, within a few years there will be more Unitarians in Kenya than in Germany, Canada or the UK. Wow!

And now, the commercial: These folks are growing fast and are hungry to learn. I mentioned in Blog post 5 that they snapped up a suitcase full of books on our tradition. Perhaps we could look around our churches and communities for Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist books that haven’t been read for awhile. When I get home, I will start to explore how best to get those books to Africa. PLEASE DON’T SEND ANYTHING YET. Past experience has shown that a mailed book stands little chance of reaching its destination. But if you think you have a few books to contribute the cause, write to me personally ( I will keep track and then in a few weeks (more likely a few months) I will contact you about next steps.



Sunday, 10 February 2008

Kenya Day 5

It had to happen. It was waiting to happen. During Saturday evening worship it finally was unleashed in all its joyful splendour. Eight Kenyan men and women from the Kisi stood at the front and unleashed a passionate and powerful song that had everyone singing and soon after, dancing. In the classic call and response style the high soprano voice washed over us like a cool and refreshing rain on a hot day supported by strong bass and baritone rhythms. In seconds we were clapping. In minutes we were dancing and euphoria swept the room. What a wonderful close to the day!

Of course, the start of the day had been pretty nice as well. The cats did not disturb the night this time. I woke early and was ready for the day about 6:30 a.m. Here, just a degree below the equator, day and night are equal. Daylight shines from 7 to 7. I collected a strong black Kenyan coffee from the dining room and wandered to the upper verandah and watched the sun leaped into the sky just beside the giant eucalyptus in the distance.

And it also had been a deep and challenging day rich with power and moments of meaning. In our early session I had the privilege of leading a section on church structure and organization. African Unitarian Universalism is a mix of ages and stages. Congregations in South Africa and Nigeria date back to the 19th century. But in Uganda, Kenya, Congo-Brazzaville and Burundi, our liberal faith is a brand new presence on the religious scene. These newer groups have formed since 2000 and some as late as 2004. Many of them first learned of our religion from the internet. Bless Tim Berners-Lee (a Unitarian) for his wonderful invention of the worldwide web! These New UUs called to the International Council asking us to come and teach them more about what Unitarianism is all about.

Most of the people here are considered to be ministers by their people, but few have the formal training that we expect ministers to have in other parts of the Unitarian world. That’s not a criticism of their ministries, just an observation of fact. None are paid. In fact, the most common question I received this week from these ministers was, “What do you do for a living?” They are amazed to learn of such a thing as professional paid ministry and that I not a farmer.

My new colleagues display a wonderful passion for their faith and are courageous in working to make it grow. Indeed, many in my world who could learn a lot about growing churches from them. For all that they have many needs to help them grow in ministry. “Lack of resources for study” does not begin to describe the condition here. They need books and articles and teachers to help them understand our history and approach to religion, for use in creating worship and for the development of leadership skills. ICUU Executive Director John Clifford brought a small suitcase of used books about our faith, some of them quite old. He laid them out and invited people to come and choose a book or two to take away. They were snapped up in minutes and carried like treasures.

With the novelty of the UU experience in many parts of Africa, and this lack of resources, a session on church structure seemed like a good idea. The ICUU will circulate a couple of short papers we produced before and during the conference on this topic, but in short I suggested that structures were shaped by the religions that came before, the social context in which the church exists and the understanding of God and faith in the community. But the most important factor includes the people who both create and shape the structure.

I did not speak for long. Instead I asked people to talk awhile amongst themselves about how these factors impacted their long standing or emerging communities. And then we had an open conversation. That’s when it got very deep. Two main issues emerged. The first was the struggle of social context. To be blunt, nearly all of the participants are unemployed or are poor farmers working in a communal setting trying to get enough to eat. Kenya and its conflicts are in the news right now, but all of these nations have faced strife, exploitation, HIV/AIDS and poverty in recent years. The ‘churches’ here have to address those issues in some way almost before they begin if they are to have any credibility. I say ‘churches’ in quotes. Daniel from Kisi told me that his congregation meets under a shady tree outside the village. You can bet that makes regular worship tough in the rainy season! Other groups meet in restaurants or homes. Very few have church buildings of any sort. I am not sure I would have the strength of character to pursue religious leadership under such situations.

The second issue is even more deeply felt. Unitarianism is a new kind of thought, a new approach, a new faith in most of Africa. But Africa is a collection of cultures where elders are often revered and given an extraordinary amount of control over the affairs of the community. Perhaps half of the tension-laden conversation dealt with how to build something new in a place where new is not always welcome. It is a painful issue for the young ministers who are torn by their inbred respect for elders, and their passion for moving ahead with this new religious venture. For them it’s not just a matter of making change. They must find loving answers for a difficult situation.

The best I could offer was a North American analogy about the equality of women in our movement. In the 1970’s, UU women came together and in gentle ways and harsh demanded their place at the table. That place was given grudgingly at first, but in time a new generation of ‘elder’ males grew up as supporters of change in a climate where women were perceived to be fully equal, and the struggle lessened. We suggested that these people in the room were the elders in training. When their time comes to assume that role, perhaps they would be the ones to let go the power.

The second session was focused on worship, led by Rev. David Usher. He encouraged a networking experience where people reviewed their worship practices in their communities and then shared them with the group. There is nothing like the exchange of ideas to spark new thought and new ways of doing things. The high point came when he asked us to recite the Lord’s Prayer in our native languages.

I am continually amazed by the language issue here. We are conducting affairs in English and French, but almost every participant is working in a second (or third) language. I would guess that there are 10 different ‘native tongues’ being spoken among the 50 participants in the room. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were more. Most Africans speak at least two and often as many as four languages. Hearing the Lord’s Prayer spoken in so many ways was a powerful experience.

In the afternoon I had a little free time. As often happens at conferences like these days, it suddenly became urgent to go ‘off campus’ for an hour or so. I headed out into the local neighbourhood in search of more bottled water for our room. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the water in Nairobi is fine, but I am reluctant to take the chance. The consequence of guessing wrong would be unfortunate for me and the work here.

So I headed out on a Saturday afternoon to find a still crowed street in this mostly residential neighbourhood. Men, women and children were walking in numbers I usually only see at West Edmonton Mall. The street vendors were doing a good business selling corn cobs roasted over an open brazier, selling sodas and lottery tickets and a host of fruits and vegetables in tiny stalls. The businesses, including our guest house, all have uniformed security. The mini-busses scurried about honking with the bus-boys waving to see if I wanted a ride. Two police officers armed with cut down AK 47 rifles talked earnestly with a man in a late model car – a rare sight around here...the new car, not the police.

About a kilometre up the road I arrived at the little open air mall we visited on the first day. Now well past my jet lag, I looked around a little more and sat awhile under a tree reading a novel while enjoying a Coke (no Pepsi here!). Okay, there was the chocolate donut too... I wandered into the grocery and found my water and then noticed a very well-stocked liquor section. This is a well-to-do area of town. With the devil in my heart I purchased and smuggled a couple of bottles of wine into the dry Guest House in order to lubricate our nightly staff meetings. Sometimes it’s sooo good to be bad!

After a few days together, relationships among participants and between participants and faculty are building. People are feeling safer with one another, and I am finding myself continually involved in ever-deepening and rich conversations, about religion, about vision, about struggles and about life. I am indeed fortunate to be here. I suppose that was underscored last night when I Skyped home and talked with my wife and daughters and learned that it is a brisk -30 Centigrade in Edmonton!

More tomorrow. Bye’ from Nairobi!

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Kenya Day Four
Today began early for many of us – somewhere around 4 a.m. I am afraid it was a case of the neighbourhood erupting with the sounds of violence. Fortunately for all involved it was only a long and drawn out fight between cats staged atop the garbage can battlefield. The echoing sounds of struggle could be heard for quite some time. ☺
Usually such nocturnal events don’t disturb my sleep for more than a moment or two, but this week is different. My brain is so busy with thoughts about this new to me world exploding like popcorn. Sleep was done for the night, so I grabbed my laptop and retreated to our bathroom to write yesterday’s blog. I didn’t want my typing to disturb my roommate David Usher. I already give him enough reasons to dislike me! Just kidding. We are good roommates.
I m writing this blog early in the morning again, but David is awake and preparing for his presentation on Worship, so at least I am more comfortable at the desk. We will both be presenting today. I’ll let you know how it goes tomorrow.
Our more formal conference activities began with a pre-breakfast worship at 7 a.m. in our spacious and bright meeting room on the second floor of the Guest House. One side is marked by a wall of windows looking out over the rooftops towards a grove of trees highlighted by a tall eucalyptus tree. The Burundian contingent led the brief service that featured music, meditation and a brief scriptural passage and reflection. We all then piled into the dining hall downstairs and across the courtyard.
The food here this week has been plentiful and good with a nice variety that serves the needs of vegetarians and omnivores alike. Breakfast is usually English style with bacon, sausage, eggs (you can also get made to order omelettes), potatoes toast and fruit. Lunch and dinner includes salads, some kind of cream soup, at least two starches like rice and noodles or potatoes, steamed vegetables of some variety and at least two and even three kinds of meat, chicken, pork and fish served breaded, roasted or stewed. The chef has a nice hand with the spices and people have been eating well. Dessert is usually fruit: bananas, pineapple and watermelon. At tea breaks the kitchen usually provides some baked loaves and fritters. No one is going hungry this week.
At 8:30 Rev. Jill McAllister began with a discussion of definitions of religious terms that provoked a good deal of discussion. In the second half of the morning Rev. Rosemary Bray-McNatt covered a great deal of the development of Unitarian history and theology. Both programs were content-rich, but the excellent and focused questions which followed suggested that the participants were hungry for such information and highly knowledgeable about religion in general. It was personally interesting to see how the questions and comments grew out of the different experiences of the different national groups. In each nation Unitarianism has been overlaid on top of a slightly different religious experience. Burundi is primarily a Catholic country while Kenya was most recently served by English missionaries. By contrast the strongest undercurrent in Congo-Brazzaville is still the animist religions of ancient Africa. As each national group tries to refine the place of Unitarian Universalism in their country, very different questions arise. Watching the process unfold is fascinating.
The ICUU intends to start circulating the brief foundational papers from this school as well as regular (monthly or perhaps more frequently) papers on various theological, historical, organizational and worship-related topics. Keep an eye out for word of this new service in the next few months.
The afternoon was set aside for free time, networking and follow up conversations. Several faculty members wound up listening to the story of one young man in distress. Although he was not near the violence, his family in the Eldoret area was displaced by the troubles. The killings have clearly had a searingly deep impact on him. He is struggling to find understanding and a reason for hope... and a reason not to hate. Later I sit silently with him by the pool and play with my camera. I have a photo of him that captures the brooding pin. I won’t speak for my colleagues, but I know I feel inadequate. There is little I can do but listen. At the suggestion of one skilled member of our team, we are trying to connect him with the trained Kenyan therapists that are part of our school, feeling he can be better helped by his own people.
I mentioned the pool. The Methodist Guest House is equipped with a lovely 25 meter outdoor pool and a children’s pool as well. Today was sunny and bright and the water was refreshing for this lad from northern climes. Several of the participants joined us. There was a lot of splashing and laughing and several impromptu swimming lessons.
Late in the afternoon we hold our first Covenant Group sessions. The participants have been divided into small groups of six or seven (including one French speaking group). The faculty members serve as facilitators. Many in North America UU circles will be familiar with the small group ministry format. There is a brief liturgy designed to get us thinking about a certain topic for the day. The purpose is to encourage deep listening to one another’s stories.
As a minister in North America, I seldom ever work ith a group that is not mixed gender or even all female. It is rare that I work in the company of men. As it turns out my six group mate are all male and with five from different parts of Kenya and one from Nigeria. The topic is nature and the sharing is rich. In fact most of us kept talking after the formal session was over. I felt lucky.
In the evening the ICUU Executive Director John Clifford gave a presentation on the structure of the ICUU. Four of the five national groups are either emerging or pre-emerging groups in the ICUU, so the primer was a useful necessity. John also shared a delightful variety of slides from his collection of our communities around the world. Later the Nigerian and Burundian groups shared something of their history. The Burundians is quite new to Unitarianism, but the Nigerian church has been operating since the 19th century.
The day concluded with worship directed by the Ugandans including a witty homily from Mark Kiyamba. Most of us headed quickly to bed. It had been a long day.
We prayed for a night of peace amongst the feline population.