Keeper of the Flame

Keeper of the Flame – Lauren Neal

This is the first article of 2017 in a series where I, Lee Elliott Carnes, President – Board of Trustees, ask questions to the Leaders of our gatherings. This month, Lauren Neal, 2016 Chair of the ADORE Team (A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity), shares her experience and wisdom with us.

Lee Elliott Carnes: What was your first experience with Unitarian Universalism?

Lauren Neal: I moved from New York to Vermont in the late 70s, when Ben and Jerry’s was located on St. Paul’s street in a refurbished gas station, just before they launched their successful grassroots campaign, “What’s the Doughboy Afraid of?” in response to Pillsbury trying to prevent them from growing; right before Bernie Sanders became our approachable Socialist mayor, and when Howard Dean, was our family primary care physician, I was a witness to history in the making, as an adolescent finding my way.  My new best friend, who was Catholic, told me she had been invited by a friend to attend the church at the top of Church Street.  She told me,  “those people were playing instruments and singing together,” she exclaimed, “…that was NOT church…that was a TALENT show!”  In response, I widened my eyes, and shook my head in disbelief, and suggested, “well, maybe they aren’t THAT bad…” I don’t think I shared with her, at that time, that my mother had begun attending that First Unitarian Universalist Society (pictured above) and she was quickly becoming one with those happy, singing, talented people!

Assuming that my engagement with Unitarian Universalism will be life long, I would say I am in the midst of experiencing, first experiences as a UU.  I am going to take license with your question, Lee,  and present a survey of early experiences that have helped form a sensory connection to Unitarian Universalism:  My UU sociology teacher in high school, in rural Hinesburg, VT,  provided me  with random supportive praise as I was typically surrounded by peers and a few teachers who had only unhelpful media representations to guide their initial connections  me; in young adulthood, my artist partner whom lacked helpful tools to manage the impact of macroaggressions on his soul, appeared more serene and less victimized while attending sermons by Reverend Dr. Bob Sengas, a Buddhist, minister at First Unitarian Universalist Society.  My partners’ father, passionate about his role within the fellowship, lead endeavors such as getting much needed  medical supplies to Burlington’s Sister City, Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, and supporting the Sanctuary movement where the UU fellowship and other progressive churches in Burlington, offered a safe haven to families facing deportation.  Moving forward to more recent UU first experiences, was engaging in a UU fellowship in State College, PA  with my mother,  witnessing how her feminist identity had grown since VT;  watching her as a sought out friend and leader in the Unitarian Universalist  Fellowship of Centre County.  I watched her courage in engaging in anti-racism work within the fellowship, and then in the community at large.  She moved back to her hometown, and in her retirement home in Mechanicsburg, PA, published her first chapbook “Unicorn in Captivity” which honestly presents the history of segregation in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania through the voices of different characters throughout time.  Her work has served as an ongoing movement toward healing in that region.

At the heart and soul of Unitarian Universalism is multiculturalism.  As an ADORE Co-lead, my goal has been to serve as a non-judgmental  resource offering unconditional positive regard to those who approach me to talk about diversity topics; to provide opportunities for me and my fellow congregants to enhance ability in authentically communicate with diverse community members; to provide information and rich opportunities for all of us to explore and stretch cultural horizons, with a willingness to address  societal “undiscussables” and address the challenging; to create environments for those who cherish diversity to discuss, explore, dive deeper, develop diverse relationships  in ways that are not readily encouraged by our society.  In that way we are revolutionaries.

Lee: What were your memorable experiences of the ADORE Team in 2016?

Lauren: Most memorable experiences in 2016?  I would say as a member of the ADORE team, collaborating with other teams in the congregation and organizations in the community to enhance connectivity and mutual support of each other; for example, coordinating with Interweave and Youth RE in getting our youths involved in Charlotte Pride as supporters and volunteers; also collaborating with Youth RE in encouraging youth to participate in voting rights and marching with the NAACP. We want the input of our youth, we want them to be witnesses and active participants in history by engaging in social action, we want them to learn in loving community how to be deep thinkers-feeling comfortable in communicating social justice issues in diverse, perhaps at times, non-progressive environments.  The response of other teams in providing mutual support has been very good.  I can’t say yet that youth attendance in ADORE and ADORE collaborated activities are high. But, I believe with continued invitations, persistent steps and creativity we will enhance engagement of our wonderful UU youths. This is not to take away from the social justice activities our youth are already engaged in and other initiatives that I have not been involved in, I am just saying that there is room at the table at ADORE meetings, volunteering at Charlotte Pride, participating in Moral Marches, attending Potluck with a Purpose Luncheons, educational workshops, museum visits, book and movie discussions, and most importantly project planning and setting up for events.

Lee: In 2017, what can we at Piedmont UU Church look forward to from the ADORE Team?

Lauren: Wonderful question!  This year we will begin meeting every 3rd Sunday, after the sermon, in the Meeting House.  All are welcome to attend. We suggest you bring a snack or a lunch as meetings are typically 2 hours. This year, as part of our Black History month celebration, we have invited Dr. Rodney Sadler, from Union Presbyterian Seminary, to join our congregation for a sermon.  Dr. Sadler frequently lectures within his church and in the community on Race and the Bible.  Also, early 2017, the ADORE team will provide information to our fellow congregants to ensure everyone has access to information about why the UUA supports Black Lives Matter (BLM), and aim to dispel inaccuracies about the BLM movement that have the capacity to create division, fear or anger.  Please note, that I am available to talk anyone confidentially, who may feel unheard about their perspectives on BLM.  In mid-February, there will be a rededication of Piedmont UUC’s support of Black Lives Matter, with a re-raising of the BLM banner, followed by personal reflections and a “Bring your Own Soul food Potluck” multicultural dinner, with music, spirits, fun and love, and possibly dancing.   Yearly, we host a lunch and museum field trip; a book/movie discussion group to explore issues of race and ethnicity; in the fall, we plan to present a local scholar for a “Potluck with a Purpose” to share how she participated in turning her local Title I school performance around; and to discuss her research documenting race and desegregation at West Charlotte High School.  This is the way that the ADORE team collaborates with our congregation in Cherishing Diversity.

Lee: What was the question you hoped that I asked?
Lauren: You have created this wonderful opportunity for me to share a little about me and ADORE.  Thank you, Lee!