Monday, December 31, 2012

What's your local social action cause?

Mahatma Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."  A fundamental part of our faith development program is working toward social change - in the world and in the local community.

In the fall, our focus is global, raising awareness and money for UNICEF.  In the spring, our focus is local.  Last year, some of our children chose "Animal Rescue" as our local cause for the spring.  We raised money through our Easter Egg "money" hunt and we had some groups of children visit the Worcester Animal Rescue League.

This spring, we would like to extend the opportunity of choosing our faith development social action to the congregation.  What is your personal cause?  What local organization are you involved with that you would like to bring to our awareness?  Are you willing to speak up about this organization and cause?

On Sunday, January 20, youth coordinator Lesa McWalters and the YRU2 group are leading a social action-based worship.  We are looking for 3-5 members of the congregation (of any age) who will offer their personal cause and organization for consideration.  The congregation will have an opportunity to vote, and the cause that is chosen will be the focus of our Faith Development Social Action for the spring.  We will incorporate it into our Hogwarts Spring Spectacular (both in curriculum and in raising funds) and into our Easter Egg Hunt.  We do ask that the organization be locally based, in or near Worcester.  Those that are not chosen will still be getting exposure through our church community.

If you want to promote your cause, then please answer the following questions (in the words you would use if you were speaking to the congregation) and send them to Jessica Gray at by Wednesday, January 16.

  • What is your name?
  • What is the name of the organization you would like us to support?
  • What (specifically) does this organization do to make a difference in the local community? And in the world?
  • What does this cause mean to you personally?
  • Are you willing to participate in the social action causes relating to this organization throughout the spring?
  • Does this organization have a website or another way for us to learn more about it?

Thank you for being willing to make change in the world!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

January Multigenerational Opportunities

Dear Parents,

Happy Holidays!  The season has brought us many opportunities to worship and celebrate together.  I especially want to thank everyone who worked to make our Christmas Pageant and Hanukkah party a success last Sunday.

This Sunday (December 23) will be the last of our Faith Development classes until January 27.  This is not intended to be a "winter break" or a time for families to stay away.  Rather, we hope that your family will participate in the multigenerational worship opportunities we have between now and the end of January.

December 24 at 5:30 pm - The Christmas Eve worship is always open to families.  Between readings and songs, this is a time to be together as a community.  I will share a children's story called "Three Wise Women" by Mary Hoffman (one of my all-time favorite Christmas stories).  I hope you will join us.

December 30 - We do see this day as sort of a break for families to spend time together.  Happy New Year!

January 6 - We will return with a fantastic Winter Celebration, including a drama (any students who would like to be snowflakes and help make a wishing well, please join us at 9:45 and wear white or light colors if possible).  The story of this drama continues the story of Diana and her brother Jack that we began at the Autumn Celebration.  They will meet the Goddess Brigid (played by Ellen O'Neill Waite).  Jessica Gray will be preaching.

January 13 - This will be the farewell worship for Rev. Tom and Sue Schade, and we hope families will share in this farewell together.  Tom has been a fixture at this church for most of our children's lives.  Our teenagers will offer a message for Tom, and we will offer a gift made by the children.  All are welcome at the celebration luncheon after the service.

January 20 - Martin Luther King, Jr Worship - This is a time when our church turns to social action and civil rights.  The YRU2 will share readings from the classic Civil Rights stories, and we will explore together how we wish to make a change in the world.  Last spring we focused our local social justice efforts on animal rights and rescue.  What will we choose this year?  Come and make your voices heard!

Then, January 27 we will begin our classes again.  We will not have another multigenerational worship until mid-March, so students will have a good opportunity to connect with one another through this extended time of classes.

Our YRU2 and BYKOTA groups will meet according to their own schedules during this time.

I hope that all of our families have a happy, healthy holiday season, and I look forward to sharing the coming year with you.

Bright Blessings,
Jessica Gray
Director of Faith Development Ministries

When words don't seem like enough

It is so difficult for us to know what to say to children in the face of a tragedy like the shooting in Newtown, CT.  Many of you have struggled to find your own words, and some are probably fatigued at reading even more words.  I found the following to be very worthwhile - to read myself and to share with my own 5-year old (who has asked some questions).  It was written by Rev. Jan K. Nielsen at The Universalist Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.  I have changed only a few names to make it relevant for our children.

December 16, 2012
A Time for All Ages
·       Something happened last week that made a lot of people very sad. 
·       A person hurt some people, including some children. 
·       It was wrong for this person to hurt other people. 
·       Things like this don’t happen very often.
·       Most people are good and do good things.
·       But sometimes a few people do bad things and when they do, we all feel sad.  Sometimes after bad things happen, we also can feel scared or worried. 
·       When I feel sad or scared or worried, it helps me to talk to someone I feel safe with.  If you ever need someone to talk to about what you’re feeling, you might talk with someone at home or at school, or you can always talk to your parents, Ms. Jessica or your Sunday School teacher.
·       I want all of you to know that you have a lot of grown- ups around you who work very hard to protect you and keep you safe. 
·       I also want you to remember that each one of you is loved very much: your families love you, and Ms. Jessica, your Sunday School teachers,  and all the grown-ups here at church love you very much.    
·       When bad things happen, it helps to be with other people and do things together that make us feel better.   
·       When we are sad, it also helps to do what we can to help other people.  When we help other people, we feel better inside.  You might draw a picture or write a letter for the kids and families at the school.  
·       It’s good to help others but it’s also important to help ourselves by enjoying life and having fun doing all the things that make life special – like eating dinner at home or running and playing games or just sitting quietly with a book – and when we’re enjoying these times we don’t have to think about sad things; we can just let our hearts be happy right now, right where we are. 
·       We have inside us hearts, hearts that pump blood throughout bodies and help us to live.  We also have deep inside us our spiritual hearts that help us love other people and enjoy life.  
·       Our hearts, our spiritual hearts, are made to feel better after bad things happen -- and when we help each other and enjoy life and love each other, our hearts feel better. 
·       When we are sad, it helps all of us to be together in places like this where we can pray together and remind one another
o   that life is a very special gift and
o   that the most important thing we can do each day is to love one another.
·       I believe in a loving God who is with us always and is sad with us when we are sad and who is very happy when we help each other and love one another.    
·       And I believe that our prayers make a difference.  When we pray, we help each other and we also help ourselves to do God’s work in the world. 
·       A prayer I’ve been saying and one I’ve heard some of your parents saying the past few days is one most of us know by heart -- our benediction.  Let’s say it together: 
Go out into the world in peace
Have courage
Hold on to what is good
Return to no person evil for evil
Strengthen the fainthearted
Support the weak
Help the suffering
Honor all beings

Friday, November 30, 2012


Advent is a time of looking forward.  Traditionally it is celebrated as "looking forward to Christmas."  In my family, we lit the five candles of the advent wreath every Christmas.  Some families remember the classic advent calendars with a door or a pocket filled with little treats and the kids get one treat per day leading up to Christmas.  But it is also a time to stop - just for a moment - and be together as a family in a time when we are often pulled in many different directions.

In the past First Unitarian has celebrated Advent in a variety of ways, first offering traditional calendars to families and later offering creative calendars full of family activities that form a wreath with stickers.

I have created a completely different kind of Advent calendar to share with you this year.  It is a simple paper calendar, though it is double-sided (or two paged) because it is so full.  On this calendar, I have included the dates and quotes to correspond with many different Festivals of Light.  First there is Chalica, a unique UU candle celebration where rainbow candles are lit for each principle.  Then Hanukkah, the Jewish celebration of the extension of light.  The traditional Advent candles for Christmas are included.  Some general quotes about winter lead up to the Winter Solstice, which has always been about the rebirth of light in the darkness.  The calendar concludes with Kwanzaa, a cultural celebration of light.

It is my plan with my family to light a candle each night during this advent month and to read the quote.  Then we will either cross it off or put a sticker on it.  If we have time and inclination, we will talk about it or do some sort of activity related to it, but at the very minimum we will light our candle and read the quote.  Just for this moment, we will allow the light to penetrate the darkness.  Just for this moment, we will allow the wisdom sink in.  Just in this moment of the busy holiday season, we will be still, together as a family.  We may light special candles (rainbow candles for Chalica, the menorah, our Yule log), or we may just light a single candle every time.

I hope your family will consider doing this as well.  We will have printed versions of the Advent calendar available on Sunday, and it is also available online at:

Additionally, we will be lighting the Advent candles during Sunday worship at First Unitarian.  Traditionally, we have had families say a few words about the topic and light the candles together.  We need families to volunteer for this honor.  Please let me know as soon as possible if your family can do this and which date you would like:
  • December 2 - HOPE
  • December 9 - LOVE
  • December 16 - JOY
  • December 23 - PEACE

And may the spirit of light shine upon you this holiday season!

Monday, November 26, 2012

A Rainbow of Possibilities

The following is a story I shared with the children as part of our Thanksgiving Bread Communion worship on November 25, 2012.  It corresponds with a sermon, The Threshing Place, which I have posted here.

I want to share with you a true story.
When I was born, the first thing my dad said about me was “Look at all that hair!” 

Over the years I have had lots of different hairstyles. 

Sometimes I had curly hair.

Sometimes I had really long hair.  

Sometimes short.  

And sometimes in different colors.  I really liked having purple hair.  

And one time, I actually dyed my hair into a rainbow.

Well, just two months ago, I found out that my body has a disease called cancer.  Do any of you know someone who has cancer?  And the best way my doctors knew how to treat the cancer is by giving me a strong medicine called chemotherapy.  This particular medicine helps to get rid of the disease, but it also sometimes makes me feel tired or sick, and it also changes my hair.  For the first time in my life, I have no hair.

(In person, I took off my wig to show my bald head.  But here on the internet, I'll just share with you a picture of me in all my bald glory... standing with my bald dad, uncles and cousin... it runs in the family.)

At first I was a little bit scared about losing my hair.  I thought I would look different and people might treat me differently. 

But when I was talking to my little girl, Ariana, about it, she reminded me that when she was a baby she didn’t have any hair.  And that I would still be her mommy, with or without hair.  What really mattered was what I have inside here (point to head) and inside here (inside heart).

I had to let go of one way of being, but I found a whole rainbow of possibilities… I can wear a wig or a hat.  My favorite thing to wear is a really soft scarf.  Feel how soft this is.   

Sometimes I can wear nothing at all… but that can get a little bit cold.

So, the point of my story is that there are a lot of ways to look at it when things don’t happen like we expect.  I could cry or get upset because the medicine made my hair fall out.  Or I can have fun with my rainbow of possibilities.
I have one more rainbow to show you.  My mom and dad’s friends made a quilt for me of prayers – it looks like a rainbow too.  There are lots of little strings on the quilt, and people tied knots in the strings as prayers. 

It’s a little thing to tie a knot, but it gives people a chance to take a moment to remember and send positive energy.  I like to tie the prayer knots, too.  These prayers help me remember that there are a lot of people out there who are also hurting and sick or learning how to deal with things they didn’t expect.  So, if you want, after church you can tie a knot in my rainbow quilt.  Just say a little prayer that I will get better – and that everyone else who is sick will get better, too.  Your prayers are part of the interconnected web of all existence. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Christmas Pageant!!!

On Sunday, December 16th many of our children will perform in our annual Christmas Pageant.  Participation is optional, but for a number of our children this is one of the most fun and rewarding traditions of the year.  Children who participate enjoy the feeling of accomplishment through this mixed age event.  Most of all, annual traditions like this that remain relatively unchanged over many, many years hold great meaning and are both joyful and comforting for kids and adults alike. 

The pageant sign ups are now online (click here) or you can sign up on Sunday during fellowship hour (“coffee hour”) after class.
The pageant takes the place of the usual Sunday worship service on December 16th.  Children in first through fourth grade are invited to participate in the play as angels or shepherds.  These parts are offered first to fifth and sixth graders: Herod, Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, the innkeeper, and the three wise people.   The narrator parts are offered first to those individuals in 7th and 8th grade.  Those who prefer to continue this year as angels or shepherds, along with the younger children, are always welcome to do so. 

The narrator parts are the sole speaking roles in the play.  We always hold an informal, low-key “try out” to help the play director become familiar with narrator styles.  As has been done in years past, we make final assignments of narrator parts at the “try out.”   Those who wish to play Herod should also plan to attend the “try out.”   Please attend the “try out” after church on Sunday, December 2nd at 11:45, immediately after dismissal from class, if you have signed up as a narrator or as Herod.  If you can’t make it because you are out of town or ill, you can contact me to make alternative arrangements to read for Kris Johnson, the director.

Again, the pageant sign ups are now online (click here) or you can sign up on Sunday during fellowship hour (“coffee hour”) after class.

Children who sign up:

·    Will need to attend rehearsals on Saturday, December 8th, and Saturday, December 15th, from 9:00am to Noon (shepherds and angels from 10:00-noon).  Our rehearsals include time for costume fittings.   During downtime at rehearsals, the children enjoy social opportunities and a chance to do seasonal crafts. 

·    Will also need to come to church by 8:45 am on December 16th for the dress rehearsal followed by pageant performance.

Help With the Christmas Pageant!

Parents and Guardians, thank you so much for your willingness to help with the Christmas pageant.  This annual event is a community effort that requires all of us to pitch in.  Your pageant hours do count toward the total volunteer hours required from you annually.  Parent helpers can also sign up online (click here) or on Sunday.  You can sign up for one day or for multiple days:

·    Kid wranglers help shepherd (pun intended) our young children through rehearsals and the performance.  These people guide the children through the blocking/staging of the performance as this blocking is directed by Kris Johnson, direct the children to costume fittings, assist the children in finding their costumes as needed, and help the children with activities during rehearsal downtime.  We need six wranglers.

·    Holiday Craftspeople set up and assist the children with holiday crafts during rehearsal downtime.  Bring your own ideas (or supplies), or simply come ready to help and we’ll provide the activities (or supplies).   We need two craftspeople at each of our two Saturday rehearsals.

·    Costumers attend the Saturday rehearsals and help the children with costume fittings, do minor alterations as needed when an exact-fit can’t be located (this is in a minority of cases), help locate and keep the costumes organized, make new tinsel garlands or other simple costume accessories as needed.  Only very basic sewing skills are necessary.  We need two or three costumers.

·    Props Assistants come a little early to the rehearsals, particularly the morning of the first rehearsal to help us get out the props and costumes and place them appropriately. 

·    Hair Accessory Masters help the children to get hats, halos, and other accessories securely in place on the day of Pageant, Sunday, December 11th.  These folks need to arrive with the children for dress rehearsal, and should be available until show time.  If you can manage bobby pins, you can do this job!

·    A Director’s Assistant is on hand to assist the director in any way needed at the rehearsals and during the pageant.  

·    Snacks: Bring snacks to our rehearsals and on the morning of the big show.  Can you bring snack on Saturday, December 8th or Saturday, December 15th, or on Sunday, December 16th?   We need just a few snacks per rehearsal.

Note: Snacks will need to be nut free.  Please try to avoid large amounts of heavily processed and overly sweet foods.  Some good snack suggestions include sliced fruit, carrot and celery sticks with dips, pretzels, popcorn, sliced bagels and cream cheese, and cheese and crackers. 100% fruit juices are also popular drinks.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pinocchio Pajama Party

While the parents play at the December Gala, the kids are invited to a
Pinocchio Pajama Party
Saturday, December1

When you wish upon a star...

During the Dinner and Dance Gala, our teens from BYKOTA and YRU2 will lead the kids their own celebration downstairs:

6-7 p.m.
(during the adult Cocktail Hour)
Kids' Dinner - Pizza and snack foods - Parents are encouraged to bring a snack to share, but we'll have the basics covered. Let me know if your children have any special dietary needs we should consider.

7-8:30 p.m.
(during the adult dinner)
Puppet-making and creation of a puppet show.

8:30-11 p.m.
(during the adult Dance)
Quiet star-related activities and watching "Pinocchio," the movies.

Kids should wear their pajamas and bring a pillow and blanket (or sleeping bag) and a stuffed animal from home (but we've got extras here if you forget). The games are designed for kids of all ages. We will have a quiet room available if the kids get tired at any point. And the adults can stay as long as they like, knowing their kids are in a safe space. It's like camping out at church! Parents must stay on site, but kids can attend all or part of the evening. Adult volunteers are needed to help with each shift. Sign your kids up when you buy your tickets to the Dinner or Dance Gala! There is no charge for the Pinocchio Pajama Party.

Any questions should be directed to Lesa McWalters, Youth Ministries Coordinator, at

Monday, October 29, 2012

Making the Magic at Hogwarts Halloween

Saturday we had a fantastic event called "Hogwarts Halloween."  I've been the Headmistress of Hogwarts summer camps for eight years now, but this was the first time I've tried to do a single day of Hogwarts in the middle of the year.  Our faith development team chose to do this instead of our more traditional Halloween festival.  Basically, we had a single day of camp - assembly, a short house time, classes, Quidditch, and closing with the slideshow video from the summer.  We only used about half of the rooms in the church and set up on Friday.   I had some excellent help (thank you to Abby, Rudy, Rhye and Sylvester for your help with set-up).  We also had a lot of help with clean-up, and I specifically want to thank Madeline and Alana, two teens, who were among the last to leave.

By 9 am, we had about fifty students and twenty adults gathered at the Quidditch Pitch.  Our festival is usually a fundraiser for UNICEF as part of the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign, so we made that the focus of the Hogwarts Halloween. All of the proceeds of the day were designated for UNICEF, and we incorporated some things about UNICEF into the classes.  In the assembly, we showed a video about how UNICEF provides food, water, medicines, and other resources to children all over the world - and that by supporting UNICEF, we could save lives.

I told the students about how J.K. Rowling has encouraged imagination as one of the greatest qualities a person can have - the ability to imagine the pain and needs of another person.  She learned this when she was young working for Amnesty International.  In her Harvard Commencement speech (which is SO worth reading), she said:

"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared."

We talked about how the real magic we can create in the world is helping others.  UNICEF helps us to do that, to imagine how it feels to be someone else who really needs help, and that was our true source of magic.  The fourth gift was the opportunity to really make a difference in the larger world (and to teach our children about generosity of spirit and of resources).  The event was an enormous success.  We raised $505 that day, then about $200 more on Sunday morning as the children took their trick-or-treat boxes through the sanctuary and our youth group held a cake walk.  And many of the children will still take out their UNICEF boxes trick-or-treating.  It's amazing.  According to the UNICEF info, with $500 they can provide a water pump for an entire village to have access to clean water.  What serious magic!

I also truly enjoyed teaching my class.  I teach Defense Against the Dark Arts, and we learn about how to face fears, nightmares, and other scary things.  I decided to share a dance meditation with my classes called Tara Tames the Eight Fears (some have asked for the music - it's available here).  This is a fantastic practice about facing basic human emotions - the snakes of jealousy, fire of anger, waves of desire, prison of greed, elephants of stupidity, lions of pride, thief of wrong ideas, and demons of doubt.  It is a fun dance designed for children, but there is SO much of worth for adults.  At the close of my classes, we lit candles in honor of our houses qualities: love, hope, peace and faith.  I told the kids that like birthday candles, we were going to make a wish, but our wish was for all of the people in the world to have these qualities.  We transformed the flames.  It was a meaningful moment with each group of children.

I saw such joy in the kids and adults.  They were so excited to be back at Hogwarts just for the day.  We had several great classes offered by Linda Wyatt (Edible Transfiguration),  Abby Hannaford-Ricardi and Charlotte Eckler (Transfiguration/Charms), Amy Borg and Erica Krenis-Peck (Herbology/Potions), Rhye Gray (Divination), and Nan Gibbons (Incantations).  Professor Gibbons taught us a new song:

         Come away to the center of peace
         Come away to the center of faith
         Your heart is calling you, gently calling to rest
         Come away to the center of hope
         Come away to the center of love
         Your heart is calling you, gently calling you home

We are looking forward to a Hogwarts Spring Spectacular sometime in March or April.  We will send out a survey about dates sometime after Christmas.  And we will also choose a new social justice project for our focus.  And the dates have already been set for Hogwarts in the summer (July 15-26).  I hope that you will be able to join in the magic!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Personal Journey

Dear First U congregation and friends,

I need to tell you about a personal matter that has developed in the last month.  

A few weeks ago I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer.  This is the most common (and most treatable) form of breast cancer. I feel quite confident in my doctors’ and my ability to fight this.

I begin chemotherapy on Wednesday, October 10, which will continue until mid-January.  Then my team will determine the course of surgery and radiation.

I will NOT be taking a leave of absence from work.  My oncologist encourages me to stay active and to do everything I would normally do, just rest as needed. He said, “You’ve got to live your life, or else why are we doing this?”  We WILL have Hogwarts next summer.  Dates have already been determined – July 15-26.

We are scheduled to have two Hogwarts-related events during the year.  October 27, a Hogwarts Halloween, will continue as planned.  

It is my sincere hope that this will have limited effect on the Faith Development programs.  Abby and Lesa will both step up as needed, I know.  The co-coordinators of the Faith Development team and I have decided it would be best to find “coordinators” to work with me on all of the special events (multi-generational worship, parties, one-room schoolhouses, etc.).  I will work with you on planning and content (as needed), and will be present for the event to the best of my ability.

If you are willing to sign up as a coordinator for an event, please sign up here.

For each Sunday, the “Safety Monitor” system that Suzanne Weekes is coordinating is now much more significant.  If you have not already, please visit her Doodle Poll to sign up.  I will also be opening both of these opportunities to families and the greater congregation.

Many people have also asked how they can help me and my family and also want updates on how I am doing.  I have created My Pink Ribbon Journey blog.  If you click on the “How Can You Help?”, I have made a specific calendar of our needs as I know them.  A friend of mine is coordinating this effort.  Send him an E-mail ( if you are willing to provide a meal, childcare, etc.  It is very difficult for me to ask for help, but I know we need help now more than ever.

It is my sincere prayer that my ministry will be stronger because of this.   

In faith,
Jessica Gray

Thursday, October 4, 2012

A Hogwarts Halloween

Spend a day at Hogwarts!!!
October 27, 2012
9 am - 3 pm

    • Halloween Activities in Hogwarts Classes
    • Quidditch
    • Halloween Costume Contest 
    • Hogwarts songs
    • Our real magic - making the world a better place!
    • And the unveiling of the summer camp slideshow
What better way to celebrate Halloween than a day at Hogwarts?  This event is open to all students and staff from our summer Hogwarts camp, but all guests and newcomers are also completely welcome.  

Students should register in advance if possible.  We are asking a $15 donation (all proceeds beyond expenses will go to UNICEF).  We will allow walk-in students, but pre-registration will help us to plan.  Use the following link:

Students will be separated into houses.  Those who were officially "sorted" in the summer will stay in their same house.  All newcomers will be house "visitors" for the day.  They may or may not be in the same house if they come in the summer.

We will start with a welcoming assembly.  Then, during a short multi-age house common time, the students will learn a bit more about UNICEF and do some related activities.

Then we will split into age class groupings to rotate through short classes (six classes in one day instead of three), all with a Halloween theme.  Students will eat the lunch they bring from home, so parents, make sure you pack a lunch!

All students will gather back at the Quidditch Pitch for at least four games (2 younger, 2 older - so each team gets a chance to play).

We will close with an assembly which will include a Costume Contest (all Halloween costumes welcome), singing some of our Hogwarts songs, and the unveiling of the slideshow DVD from the summer.  Students from the summer who want to pick up their copies can do so on this day (others will be mailed).

This is a drop-off program for school age kids, so parents do not have to stay... but all adults and teens are welcome to join our Hogwarts staff for the day.  If you have preschool age kids or younger, parents need to stay as part of the staff.   High school students could sign up either as staff (ELFS) or students.  Adults and high school youth can sign up as staff here:

Adult & Teen Staff Registration

 Families are also encouraged to bring Hogwarts snacks to share!

Questions?  Contact the Headmistress at

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Faith Development Class Calendars

We now have full calendars for each of our Faith Development classes (which you can copy into your own google calendar or smart phone if you wish).  Each class has its own calendar (click on the links below) and shows the topic and teachers for each Sunday.  For several (including Spirit Play, Holidays & Holy Days, and Building Bridges), if you click on the individual Sunday you can open a link to the story or lesson plan for the day.

  • BYKOTA (Middle school youth group)
  • YRU2 (High school youth group)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Sacrifice and Mindfulness

Sermon given by Jessica Gray
Sunday, September 23, 2012

This time of year brings up images of bounty and abundance – apples, pumpkins, corn, grain.  It is a time when we harvest the seeds that were planted in the spring, when we manifest spirit into matter.  Food has always been the focus of the harvest.  The abundance of autumn prepares us for the lean winter. 

We have so much food in this country.  It’s available everywhere – grocery stores, restaurants, street corners, produce stands.  Every social gathering has some element of food connected to it.  In our Sunday School classes and fellowship hour, the sharing of food is an essential part of building community.

I have not known much food scarcity in my life.  Even though my parents had a fairly low income when I was growing up, we always had some sort of food on the table.  We did not always have exactly what we wanted, but we always had everything we needed.  I know firsthand that there are food-assistance programs.  These social services are not easy to navigate, and some people in this country do starve, but most of the poorest among us have access to food.

The clearest memory I have of food scarcity came when I was an adult, and it was related to disaster rather than economics.  We lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina.  We didn’t have a television and our internet was down, so we did not know what was happening in New Orleans.  But when I ventured out to the grocery store to replenish our supplies after the storm was over, I was shocked.  There was no food.  Not just a few things were missing from the shelves.  The supply trucks could not get through.  There were a few canned items and such left, but everything else was gone.  The population of Baton Rouge had tripled overnight.  It took months before there were enough supplies for the surge of population.

But there are places in our world that never have enough supplies.  It’s not a specific disaster, just a way of life.  In a statement from June of 2012, “The UN has sounded the alarm about a full-fledged food crisis in the 21 century.” Over 1 billion people across the globe are starving and another 2 billions are malnourished, while Europe and the US are paradoxically fighting unprecedentedly high levels of obesity.  Some have too much, while others, many of whom are producing most of the food, have too little.

Food production has been a cause of tension and war since early in human history.  A number of scholars have proposed that the biblical story of Cain and Abel is really about the agricultural revolution.  (See this link among many others.) Going back to the beginning, Adam and Eve lived as gatherers in paradise, in the Garden of Eden.  After gaining the knowledge of good and evil, they are cast out of the garden and punished through “toil” of the land.  The culmination of the conflict shows through their children.  Abel, who raises livestock, represents the pastoral hunters and gatherers.  Cain cultivates the land, and thus he represents agriculture.  The brothers each offer a sacrifice to God.  Abel offers a blood sacrifice of animals, while Cain offers vegetables. God favors the earlier, less “civilized” hunter-gatherer and pastoral culture, but agriculture violently overcomes when Cain kills Abel.  The agricultural revolution caused major changes in society. Growing food did not require the efforts of the entire tribe, so some people now had the free time to develop philosophy, art, science, music  - civilization.   This allowed humanity to develop new talents and resources, but it also disconnected many of us from the sources of our food.

In a close analysis of this passage, Islamic sociologist Ali Shariati concludes, “This inevitable revolution of the future will be the culmination of the contradiction that began with the battle of Cain and Abel and has continued to exist in all human societies, between the ruler and the ruled. The inevitable outcome of history will be the triumph of justice, equity and truth.  It is the responsibility of every man in every age to determine his stance in the constant struggle of the two wings we have described, and not to remain a spectator.” (Shariati, On theSociology of Islam)
We cannot afford to be spectators in this.  Food is too important, too much a part of who we are.  We literally are what we eat – the very molecules and amino acids of our food become the building blocks that form our bodies.   And our relationship to food is also connected to issues of social justice and equality.

But how often do we even think about the food we eat?  I know I have long had a complicated relationship with food, as do most people in our society.  We treat food as a reward or celebration when good things happen.  Then we treat food as a comfort or solace when bad things happen. When we’re bored, we mindlessly consume empty calories.

Geneen Roth, author of Women, Food, and God, writes,
“The bottom line, whether you weigh 340 lbs or 150 lbs, is that when you eat when you are not hungry, you are using food as a drug, grappling with boredom or illness or loss or grief or emptiness or loneliness or rejection.  Food is only the middleman, the means to the end.  Of altering your emotions.  Of making yourself numb.  Of creating a secondary problem when the original problem becomes too uncomfortable.  Of dying slowly rather than coming to terms with your messy, magnificent and very, very short – even at a hundred years old – life” (52).

Roth teaches that our relationship with food goes beyond the physical into the spiritual, and that often we try to fill our suffering with food.  She writes:

“During the first few bites, and before we get dazed by overeating, everything we want is possible.  Everything we’ve lost is here and now. And so we settle for the concrete version of our lost selves in the form of food.  And once food has become synonymous with goodness or love or fulfillment, we cannot help but choose it, no matter how high the stakes are.” (175)

I recently began paying a lot more attention to my diet.  By eating less, I paid attention to what kinds of food and what quality of food I was eating.  I was amazed to see how many times I ate food I didn’t really like just because it was there.  Or because I failed to plan ahead and found myself out and about but extremely hungry.  It took a lot of effort to change my habits, but I certainly feel better about myself.

But there’s nothing simple in the world of ethical eating.  I’ve always liked really good tomatoes.  In fact, when I was in college my friends called me the "Tomato Goddess."  Bring me libations of tomatoes and I will bless you.  But unless I get them from a Farmer’s Market, most of the mass-produced tomatoes taste like cardboard.  As part of my conscious effort to eat better, a couple of months ago I started getting heirloom tomatoes from Trader Joes.  They are more expensive, but I felt good that I am eating better food.  Then, this past week at a meeting with my fellow religious educators, one of my colleagues, Mandy Neff from First Parish in Cambridge, told me about a social action campaign that she did with the students in her parish.  While studying the peace and justice issues of immigration, Mandy invited a representative from the union of immigrant “tomato-pickers” to speak to the kids.  They were in the process of negotiating a minimal increase in price of tomatoes with several grocery stores, including Trader Joes.  The kids wrote postcards and made signs shaped like tomatoes.  They also convinced their parents not to shop at Trader Joes until the matter was resolved (and it was eventually resolved).  I was amazed.  I thought that my choice to shop for the more expensive tomatoes at Trader Joes was enough.  I honestly had not thought at all about the people picking those tomatoes.

For every tomato that I eat, someone prepared the seeds, tilled the soil, and planted it.  Thousands of tiny insects and other beings gave up their lives in the process.  Someone made sure it had adequate sun and water and was kept safe from pests (even without chemical pesticides).  Someone watched until it was time and then picked it.  And packaged and shipped and marketed it.  So much effort was involved.  And that is just a single tomato.

How can we honor the effort, the sacrifices made for our food?  Pay attention.  Mindfulness goes a long way. 

How mindful are you about your food choices?  Whether you eat vegetables or meat, homegrown organic or drive-thru fast food, are you paying attention to the food that will become you? 

Do you pray before your meals?  It doesn’t matter if you pray to a God or simply take a moment to honor the energy that went into bringing this food to you.

In my personal spiritual tradition, we offer this prayer before meals:

Manifesting as the divine, we receive this food as a sacred offering, celebrating our interconnectedness with all of life.  May it nourish us and strengthen us that we may be able to bring benefit to all we touch. 

In this we honor our own inherent worth and dignity.  In our tradition, this means we are physical manifestations of divine spirit.  The food we consume is sacred.  It is as meaningful to us as the offerings that Cain and Abel offered to God.  We are infinitely interconnected to the web of all existence, of which we are a part.  We honor the sacrifices of those beings who gave their lives for us to eat.  And we know that it is worth it because this food will now give us strength to do the powerful work we are meant to do in the world.

We close the prayer with the syllables “Om Ah Hung.”  Om means “immeasurable greatness.”  We raise up this food and make it immeasurably great.  With the syllable “Ah” we transform it into wisdom nectar, into all that is needed.  And with “hung” we satisfy the needs of all beings.

I wish I could say that I offer this prayer every time I eat.  I wish I could say that I think carefully about every bite of food and look closely into the social justice issues related to its production.  But it’s a start.  I hope I’ve given you some food for thought. In the midst of the harvest, together we can plant these seeds for the future.  May we reap what we sow.

Om Ah Hung