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Because No One Else Had: Why a Buddhist Wrote a Book about Islam

No Comments | Share On Facebook| Because No One Else Had: Why a Buddhist Wrote a Book about Islam Share/Save/Bookmark Oct 23, 2013

I may be Buddhist, but I’ve spent a good portion of my years building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. As I was preparing for a reading recently of my second multigenerational book on Islam, Muhammad: the Story of a Prophet and Reformer, I pondered this rather unexpected vein in my life’s work.

Long ago as an undergrad in religious studies at the University of Colorado, long before the words Islam and terrorist were coupled together in our media, I sensed the profound Otherness of Islamic cultures for Americans. I remember seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and leaving the theater before the movie finished, fuming at the stereotyping of volatile, threatening Arabs. In that moment I recognized that Hollywood had used this shoddy currency throughout its history, lodging harmful images deeply in our cultural unconscious as what Sam Keen called the Faces of the Enemy.

A few decades and careers later, one of the first things I wanted to teach in public school was media literacy, most of all to help students identify The Other embedded in our everyday news—especially visual news. As U.S. involvement ramped up in the Middle East, it was almost too easy for my students to find images in newspapers, magazines, and TV of an angry, violent Arab mob. During these years in education, I was fortunate to receive several grants from the State Department to travel to the Middle East twice and collaborate with Muslim teachers and their classes. All of my U.S. students had email-pals in Egypt during the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we studied both countries’ unfolding media narratives. Believe me: They were two very different stories.

The stereotyping continues unabated. Most recently, I was deeply disappointed that the film Argo received such accolades. If you time the angry mob scenes, which front the film, as well as the turbaned gun-toting men running amok in the city, they take up about 50 times more of the narrative than the single, rather touching scene in which an Iranian actually voices her feelings about the U.S. role in aiding the Shah’s brutal regime.

I had my first book on Islam, Ayat Jamilah, Beautiful Signs: a Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents, with me when I visited teachers in Jordan. Some people actually wept at a book reading held in Amman—amazed that an American made the effort to present a respectful collection of the Islamic stories they’d grown up with.

So why did this Buddhist write the first multigenerational narrative about the life of Muhammad for non-Muslims and Muslims? Why did Skinner House Books, an imprint of the Unitarian Universalist Association, publish it? Because no one else had. Because our collective ignorance about Islam fuels our willingness to let our government wage wars again and again. Because Americans need to know why the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is so beloved by millions around the globe. Because, whether one is a Believer or not, Muhammad’s story is one of the most remarkable and influential hero’s journeys in history. Because one man risked everything to follow a spiritual calling and guide others on a path of virtue. Because such a rare and courageous life is always worth our time and understanding.

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This post was written by Sarah Conover. Although many of Sarah’s books target a multigenerational audience, she insists on accurate scholarship and a sensitivity to the complex, culturally embedded perspectives of religious faiths. She facilitates religious literacy through her writings, writing workshops, books on world wisdom traditions, interfaith dialogue, and media literacy training. Her web site is http://www.sarahconover.com/

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Standing on the Side of Love at Atlanta Pride

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Marching in Atlanta Pride.

On Sunday, Oct 13, around 100 member and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA) marched in the Atlanta Pride Parade to witness on behalf of LGBTQ rights.

UUCA Board President Joetta Prost said, “We looked great in our Standing on the Side of Love (and assorted other) t-shirts. Our choir members and musicians sang and played music all the way down Peachtree Street. [We had] wonderful responses that the crowds lining the street gave us when they saw our affirming messages. We had Rev. Makar and Rev. Thickstun leading the way. We had babies and grandmothers, and everything in between. I know that we sparked interest among parade watchers about the welcoming and accepting faith called Unitarian Universalism… and so we are keeping our commitment to change lives!”

Another participant, UUCA member Sven Lovegren, had this to say: “It was my first Pride Parade. I was amazed and heartened at the great number of people on the streets supportive of human/gay rights and equality for all. It was very heartwarming.”

Pride Sunday worship service at UUCA.

Earlier in the day, during a special Pride Sunday worship service, I shared a story about a conversation I had with a local reporter back in June when the Supreme Court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8. The reporter wanted to know about Unitarian Universalism’s stance on marriage equality and LGBTQ equality.

Here’s what I said, in a nutshell.

First, I talked about how Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. Committed, loving relationships between mature adults who have chosen to be together is something infinitely sweet. To cherish and be cherished is the most amazing thing in this world, and every day, people suffer and even die from the unfulfilled longing for it, gay and straight. Whenever we see such cherishment in the world, we all ought to stand up and cheer, we all ought to stand back and behold the miracle that is worthy of the name God. We all ought to. It is holy. It is the Sacred, it is the Mystery, it is the Divine.

For my second point to the reporter: I talked about how Unitarian Universalists have been supporting gay rights for a long time now. Gay rights as human rights, human rights as gay rights. We were saying that long before Hilary Clinton. As just an example: in 1970, the Unitarian Universalist Association passed a general resolution urging people to immediately bring an end to all prejudice against gays and lesbians and bisexuals. In that same year it also called for lifting of the ban prohibiting gays and lesbians folk from serving in the U.S. military. Then, in 1996, “transgender” was added to the name of the UUA’s office overseeing all of this: the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns.

Marching in Atlanta Pride.

As for our work here at UUCA, I talked about our UU Lesbian and Gay Community from the early 1980s, how it was a powerful voice in Atlanta advocating for understanding and acceptance. I have a stack of newspapers from those days, and it’s amazing, all the things this congregation has done. Our current Interweave group was formed in 1994. We kicked off our initial Welcoming Congregation process in 1995, putting us on a path of becoming far more proactive around celebrating (vs. just tolerating) diversity.

I said all this, and then I told that reporter a third thing: how I sincerely believe that we Unitarian Universalists are far more faithful to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures than our so-called Bible-based opponents are—the Jerry Falwells and the Michele Bachmanns and the Sandy Rioses. Out of the seven passages in the entire Bible (Old Testament to New) that supposedly condemn “homosexuality,” none seem to actually talk about committed, loving relationships between people of the same sex. Scholars will tell you that the passages are probably talking about ritual forms of sex that occurred in the religions outside of Judaism and Christianity, and Jewish and Christian leaders wanted their followers to stay far away from it. Stay pure. But what we’re talking about today isn’t a religious ritual you can put on and take off like clothes: we’re talking about identity, what people are born as, how the manner of one’s loving flows out of that so very naturally. A completely different thing! We UUs, I told that reporter, are the ones who are doing the Bible justice.

The reporter sounded kind of stunned when I told her all this, as if she couldn’t believe that a church like ours actually existed. As if it amazed her that you could be a person of faith and affirm that LGBTQ people are as normal and as beautiful as a fall day.

All in all, it was a good day for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta, for Unitarian Universalism, and for human rights!


This post was written by Rev. Anthony Makar, Senior Minister at the UU Congregation of Atlanta, Georgia.

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The Power of Five

2 Comments | Share On Facebook| The Power of Five Share/Save/Bookmark Oct 18, 2013
FUCSJ youth write letters

FUCSJ youth write letters to their members of Congress.

Five kids with five pens and five pieces of paper sat at one table at one Unitarian Universalist church and wrote five letters to their congressional representatives. The young people at First Unitarian Church of San Jose (FUCSJ) expressed their fears about climate change and asked their elected leaders to use their power to do something about it.

That same Sunday, one 11-year old and one mom rode bikes to the mailbox and sent the letters.

Kids are worried. “I am one of the millions, even billions concerned about climate change,” writes one. “If you could make this a priority, I would sleep more comfortably in my bed,” writes another.

Kids have compelling arguments to show the urgency they see: “It seems like this country is concentrating on wars. If we do not concentrate on global warming there will not be ground to fight wars on,” writes an eighth grader.

They understand it. “The rim fire in Yosemite was one of the biggest in our state history,” writes one. “Plants and animals have been going extinct,” acknowledges a 13-year-old.

Children already know what has to change: “We need to tax carbon emissions.” And they know that the adults are the ones who need to take charge. “I’m writing because I want you to use your power as a representative to start making changes in our laws affecting the issue of global warming.”

FUCSJ youth speaks at Sunday service

FUCSJ youth reads her letter at the Sunday service.

Follow the Leaders

Three short weeks later, it was time to follow the leaders. These five letter-writing youth headlined at the FUCSJ service on Sunday, October 6, when Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones invited them to read their climate change letters to the congregation. There was a “Silent Spring” sensation as they shared their fears, knowledge about the issue, and demands for legislative leadership. These twelve- and thirteen-year-olds then led a letter-writing campaign for the adults.

Standing Room Only

By 12:20pm, just five minutes after the service ended, it was standing room only at the Climate Change Letter-Writing Campaign.

The youth split jobs at the table: assembling a quick photo poster; handing out envelopes, stamps, and legislator’s addresses; acting as ambassadors by walking around at coffee hour inviting adults and other kids to write letters. But it didn’t take much convincing. Parishioners readily asked for a pen, paper, and a seat at the table.

And adults know the issues too. “Global warming and climate change is already adversely affecting agriculture in California,” writes one.

FUCSJ adults write letters too.

FUCSJ adults write letters too.

They too are concerned, “Global warming worries me. Not so much for me personally (I’m 96 years old), but for my children and their children and everyone’s future kids,” another stated.

And they too want to see their leaders take action. “We need a carbon tax. We need you to be a leader. We need you to be brave.”

When the table folded 40 minutes later, 33 adults and ten total children from FUCSJ had written letters to their congressional representatives bringing the letter pile to 43.

It’s Monday, and the letters are mailed. Our next step is to encourage other children and adults to write letters.

Next Step

The junior high class at FUCSJ wants to spread the word to other congregations. What if these five kids inspire five more kids and five more adults to write letters to their representatives to ask them to do something about global warming? What if those fifteen people inspire another fifteen, and those thirty inspire another thirty, until the letters pile high on every representative’s desk?

Stack of letters to Congress.

Stack of letters to Congress from members of FUCSJ.

What if every Unitarian Universalist congregation invited their children and adults to participate in this letter-writing campaign?

Please join this project. For more information, contact Jennifer Castro, member, First Unitarian Church of San Jose, at djcasyun@a-link.net.


This post was written by Jennifer Castro, a member of the First UU Church of San Jose.

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Responding with Love

No Comments | Share On Facebook| Responding with Love Share/Save/Bookmark Oct 16, 2013

Have you ever watched the news coverage surrounding a tragedy like the Newtown shooting or the Boston Marathon bombing and wondered how you could help? As members of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry, we are asked these kinds of questions all the time.

One thing you can do right now is join the Responding with Love Network, so you will be connected in the wake of a traumatic event. Click here to sign-up.

Last summer, thousands of you responded to the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by writing messages of love and support to the Sikh community there. This action inspired Standing on the Side of Love to start a “Responding with Love Network” to recreate this outpouring of love whenever incidents of violence and hate occur.

Now, we are recommitting to this vision of a group of people dedicated to sending love in times of trauma.

Will you join the Responding with Love Network with us? Click here to sign-up.

For more information on productive ways to respond to trauma, visit Standing on the Side of Love’s new trauma response resources page.

May we continue to stand on the side of love together wherever and whenever people experience hate and oppression.

In faith,

Rev. Julie Taylor & Rev. Susan Karlson
On behalf of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry Board


The message above went out on Wednesday, October 16, 2013 to Standing on the Side of Love supporters. You can sign-up for these emails here.

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Worshipping on the Side of Love at the Colorado State Capitol

No Comments | Share On Facebook| Worshipping on the Side of Love at the Colorado State Capitol Share/Save/Bookmark Oct 15, 2013
Colorado SSL Worship Service 1

Colorado’s 8th Annual Standing on the Side of Love Service. (Credit: Janet Meyer)

Seven hundred Unitarian Universalists (UUs) and local community members came together in Denver on the morning of Sunday, September 29, to stand (and sit and pray and sing and worship) on the side of love! For the eighth year in a row, Unitarian Universalists from the Front Range of Colorado and beyond gathered for a worship service on the steps of the Colorado State Capitol and witnessed for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) justice. Led by ministers, directors of religious education, musicians, adult and children’s choirs, and lay people from nine different Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area, participants sang hymns together, were inspired by rousing words and music, and offered blessing to each other and out to the world.

This year’s service held a tri-fold focus: to celebrate the recent victories for relationship recognition–here in Colorado and around the country, to energize ourselves to stay committed to the ongoing struggle for marriage equality in Colorado, and to challenge ourselves to expand our love and our understanding of LGBTQ justice to include issues beyond marriage equality, such as LGBTQ youth and homelessness. As a part of this expanded focus, participants took offerings, both of paper hearts inscribed with messages of love and of money, for two organizations that serve LGBTQ homeless youth in Colorado.

Colorado SSL Worship Service 2

The crowd gathers at the 8th Annual Standing on the Side of Love Service at the Colorado State Capitol. (Credit: Kevin Lowry)

The now-annual Colorado Standing on the Side of Love worship service began in 2006, as a public witness of the First Unitarian Society of Denver against Amendment 43, a referendum that proposed adding a new section to the Colorado Constitution to define marriage as only a union between one man and one woman. Although the referendum passed several months later, the worship service had such an impact on its participants that they decided to continue holding it each year in the fall, as an ongoing witness for the power of love and, more specifically, as a call for marriage equality in Colorado.

As the years went on, First Unitarian invited other area UUs to join them at the worship service, along with public officials, community groups, and friends and family. The service grew–in numbers, in scope, and in energy–to be what it is today: a multi-congregation, multi-choir, multi-faced, must-attend event for Unitarian Universalists and community members on the Front Range. As we continue to grow and expand, the intention is to invite folks from other faith communities who share our vision of a world where all people are loved; all relationships, identities, and genders are understood as holy, worthy, and true; and equality is enshrined in the laws of our state and nation. Until that time, UUs in Colorado (and beyond!) will continue to witness together at the State Capitol, singing, praying, shouting, dancing, and worshipping on the side of love. For, in the words of the declaration read together in unison at the service,

We believe that everyone is created in love, worthy of dignity and respect. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are an integral part of natural and divine creation. We stand with our whole human family.

We believe that family is best defined by love and commitment, not by gender, configuration, genetics, or government. We stand with all families.

Colorado SSL Worship Service - Kierstin Homblette

Post author Kierstin Homblette speaks at the 8th Annual Standing on the Side of Love Service. (Credit: Kevin Lowry)

We believe that creation is characterized by diversity, and that love, relationships, self-expression, and inner truth take many forms. Reverence for diversity encourages peace and enriches all of our lives. We stand for diversity.

We believe that responsible freedom creates an environment that promotes healthy community and a culture of equality where human and divine love flourish. We stand for freedom.

We believe that true freedom must include the option to marry the person of our choice. This freedom must include the ability to move safely through the world without fear. This freedom must include access to shelter, food, work, warmth, family, and love. If these freedoms do not apply equally to all, then none of us is free.

Together, we stand on the side of love.


This post was written by Kierstin Homblette, the Beloved Community Coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Congregations of Colorado.

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