A Blessing at the Start of a Ministerial Internship

For my new Teaching Parish Committee


We are artists, not evaluators…


Though there are tools that will be offered,

carefully crafted grids for assessment and measurement,

guidance for feedback and evaluation,Cairn

do not be deceived: your task here is not technical.


Think guideposts, not guidelines.

Think cairns, not cautions.


This is not science.

This is art. Holy art.


If we do it right, it will be messy.

It will be experimental.

It will contain surprises and hidden messages,

disappointments, and triumphs.


If we do it right, there will be more questions,

than answers; more tasks, than time;

more laughter, than silence.


If we do this right,

it won’t turn out as we imagine it now.

It will take on shape that can only emerge

through the gathering of our gifts,

one upon one upon another,

sums greater than parts.


Our attention and appreciation,

our building up and breaking down,

our care for the process more than the product,

will coax that sacred energy that reminds us,

ours is a covenantal promise we make to one another

over and over, each day anew.

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Shameless Self Promotion: Karen Wants to be a Minister on GoFundMe

GoFundMeCLICK HERE: http://www.gofundme.com/enriws

This was the exact response from the husband when I brought up the whacky idea of doing some crowdsourced fundraising.  You know: Kickstarter.  Indiegogo.  The UU version called Faithify (which is great, but doesn’t fit this particular goal). Turns out there’s even a Buddhist site.

The husband said,

What do you have to lose?

[Pregnant pause.]

Except your dignity…

I hope not.  (He said it with a smile on his face that reflected my own optimistic ambivalence.)

So we’ll give this a try. (With the dignity intact, we hope.)

If you are a reader of my blog and feel so inclined, I hope you will click on the link above and consider sharing your abundance in support of my path towards ministry.  I send this request out into the wider world, my favorite line from an Anne Sexton poem lingering in my ears:

abundance scooped from abundance, still abundance remains

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Risking Hope: Who Could Have Seen That Coming?

So it would be just peachy if everything worked out all cause-and-effect-like. Two-plus-two-equals-four. You cut onions: your eyes tear up. The cat is  in the box whether you look inside at it or not.

(Unless, of course, you are Schrodinger. Then all bets are off.) 6843256290_367c299519_o

So it was this past Monday, when climate amaza-trons Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara were

going to trial for blockading a coal freighter at Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset—using an old wooden lobster boat christened the Henry David T.—for the sole reason of addressing the climate crisis. In what looked to be an unprecedented case in the United States, they were set to be the first to use a “necessity defense” in a direct-action civil disobedience case centered on climate change, arguing that what they did was justified for the sake of public health and safety.” (The Nation, September 8)

Photo by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Photo by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

On May 13, 2013, those hope-filled fools blocked a shipment of coal from being loaded onto a transport ship by parking their boat in the middle of the channel with one big-ass anchor. One day’s delay is what they got. One could say, not much was accomplished. The coal was eventually delivered. Was it worth all the fuss? They had to have seen that coming. What was the point?

Yet a message was heard loud and long and in unexpected quarters with unanticipated results. The Bristol County District Attorney, Sam Sutter, responded on the day of the trial (September 8) by dropping criminal conspiracy charges (they were reduced to civil infractions) and calling climate change,

“one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced”

He also said

“political leadership on this [climate] issue has been gravely lacking”

He concluded by sharing with a surprised and exuberant crowd of people that in two weeks’ tie, he would be in New York City taking part in the People’s Climate March.

Why’d he do it? The Cynic would suggest the prosecutor has decided to court that part of the citizenry who is worried about climate change, perhaps eyeing a higher public office.

The right-wing conspiracy theorists would say the whole thing was for show, that Sutter was in cahoots with the Lobsterboat Blockade the whole time. But I was a part of a conversation this week with someone who had been a part of the strategizing for the trial. They had absolutely no idea that the prosecutor would basically validate their “necessity defense.” Who could have seen that coming?

It turns out there had been a continuous, though often invisible and not wholly traceable, wave of information and action and engagement and resistance and further engagement and research and facts and news reports and horrible tragedies and disastrous weather events and despair and crazy connections that would somehow not so much as result in this outcome, but still bring this outcome to our doorstep.

Thank the Universe (or Lord Vishnu or the goddess or the stars)!

viagra It reminds me the chapter on Viagra in Rebecca Solnit’s book, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilites. She does not write about the results of that pharmaceutical on the (im)potence of men. Instead, she writes about how, with the advent of its use to treat erectile dysfunction, there was a decrease in Asian countries of the acquisition of aphrodisiacs made from the fuzz of adolescent Caribou antlers, which meant that somehow, unexpectedly, perhaps explained by chaos theory, more Caribou lived into adulthood. Who could have seen that coming?

Sometimes the world is crushingly predictable.  War after war after war.  Yet sometimes, unpredictably, it is not.  Sometimes, hopeful things happen, despite the darkness, despite the cruelty, despite the stupidity.  And those things happen sometimes when we can predict they will, but sometimes, they just happen.  We can’t trace it back to its origins, we can’t figure it out, though we keep putting our hopeful energy towards it.

In a different chapter, entitled, “Looking Into Darkness,” Solnit writes,

“Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. All that these transformations have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk.

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by David Butow

Rebecca Solnit. Photo by David Butow

“I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should show you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

If we risk hope, I wonder what we can see coming next?

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Remembering Who Is In the Room: Let Our Voices be a Safe Haven

Let us remember who is in the room.

Let us be mindful of who is in the room when we speak, when we consider how and when to ask our questions. Let us be thoughtful when we speculate.

Let us be guided by facts and real-life testimony of survivors of violence and their allies that in most any public circumstance, in any gathering of people, there are survivors of domestic violence among us. They are us and we are them.

Let us be aware that the term ‘survivor’ does not necessarily mean past tense (though that may very well be true). It often means survival right now, each day, each hour.

If survival is the past tense, let’s include not only those adults (and unfortunately, teenagers) whose partners hurt them deeply with words or with their body and got away. It also means survivors who as children witnessed the violence visited on one of the caring grown-ups in their life by another of their caring grown-ups, bringing existential and spiritual confusion, planting complicated ghosts that haunt future relationships of all sorts: romantic, sexual, parenting – anything built on trust and self-knowledge.

Remember that when you ask the question as if there is only one right answer, your tone comes off as both arrogant and ignorant. When you ask, “Why does she stay?” or the other version, “Why doesn’t she leave?” remember that she is in the room with you, is reading comments left on social media, is vigilant like many trauma survivors, listening for the underlying messages of victim-blaming and reproach.

Not only is she experiencing her relationship as not safe; when you ask those questions out loud, she is experiencing that you are not safe.

Maybe you don’t know better. Maybe you don’t know the reality of people living in violent relationships. Maybe you think you don’t know anyone living like that. I would wager a whole paycheck that you do.  Abusers get good at hiding their violence and making sure it stays secret.

(Let’s not forget that many abusers experienced violence themselves, growing up, serving in the military, wherever.  It does no good to have the world calling them “monsters,” when what should be called for instead is comprehensive accountability and interventions that are both psychologically and spiritually integrated.  Courtney E. Martin has written another great essay that covers this well.)

photo from Flickr by Ben Pollard, through Wikimedia Commons

photo from Flickr by Ben Pollard, through Wikimedia Commons

There’s a saying: It’s okay to be ______________ (stupid, a jerk, unaware). It’s not okay to stay that way.

It’s okay that you didn’t know, but it’s not okay to stay ignorant. Our ignorance and turning from the facts and lives here in the room is harmful. That’s not the intention, but it is often the impact.

This means that if we truly want to know why someone stays, then we must be authentically curious.  We need to be open to all the realities of that particular person and aware of all the facts and dynamics of this particular scourge. Not ready to pounce with judgment, fueled by our own sense of helplessness in the face of such suffering. Not ready with blame, fueled by our own desire to have humanity be less messy than we actually are.

There are resources to end that ignorance.  Some of them are definitely 21st century, like how the Twitterverse has exploded with testimonies no longer than 140 characters, but powerful and poignant, to be found at #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft.  Plus there’s commentary on this social media emergence: from Michel Martin at NPR.  From the Good Men Project. From the Boston Globe.   Or this piece, focusing on the courageous Beverly Gooden, who has spoken out on her experience in a violent relationship, why she stayed, and why she left.

Among the many stories tweeted in the continuing saga of the Ray Rice/Danay Rice, several people have turned those problematic questions on their heads.  Instead of asking Why Does She Stay or Why Doesn’t She Leave, how about asking

Why does the abuser continue to abuse?

Why does he keep hurting her?

Why doesn’t he just leave (her alone)?


I don’t know why an individual person (most likely a woman, as 85% of those experiencing domestic violence are women) stays. I won’t presume to speak on anyone’s behalf.

I do know that the highest risk for homicide comes when someone tries to leave their abuser. Murder. Death. So sometimes, staying in a relationship means staying alive. We might hear people say it’s a death-wish, but sometimes, more often than we would like to think, it’s an extension of a very real life-wish.

I do know that as a society we severely underfunded shelters and safe houses that are supposed to provide safe heaven. It is hard enough to decide to leave a relationship, to let strangers know your business and let systems humiliate you and your family, but to have no place to go, or a place that requires the survivor to leave her community, her support system, her workplace, and sometimes, her older male children – that shit is not easy.

I do know that the question, “Why doesn’t she leave?” treats such a decision as static and as if it is a one-time deal. Yet, on average, it takes seven attempts at leaving a violent relationship. So, though she may be with him now, we should not assume that she has never tried to leave. Or that she isn’t trying right now. Or isn’t just about to try and could use a few words of encouragement:

You don’t deserve this.

It won’t be easy, and you’ll figure out when the time is right, but there is a better life out there for you.

You are a survivor, not a victim.

Where others may see weakness, I see strength in you.

The National Domestic Abuse Hotline (1-800-799-7233) is available online and by phone to provide support to survivors and people who love them and want to support them.  Click here to get some ideas of how to support someone you know in a violent relationship.   If that person is an adolescent, this organization — loveisrespect.org — is tailored to teen needs.

Remember: that survivor is here, listening. May our questions and presence offer her safe haven.

Take+a+Stand+Against+Domestic+ViolenceThank you to a colleague and friend, who got my mind and heart working around this notion of who is in the room.

Posted in Standing on the Side of Love | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Finding a “New” Peace (Pagoda)

New England Peace Pagoda

New England Peace Pagoda

We live within driving distance of Leverett, Massachusetts, which is home to what I thought was the Peace Pagoda.   When my kids were younger, it was a place we would visit often enough that they have many memories of our time there together.  Even once they outgrew it, I have continued to go several times a year; it has become a kind of pilgrimage for me.  Sometimes on my own, sometimes with a companion. Sometimes just to be quiet.  Sometimes to enact ritual.  I have written here about the walking meditation I do there.

I recently learned that the same order of Buddhist monks who built the New England Peace Pagoda built another one, making the one in Leverett not the Peace Pagoda, but a Peace Pagoda.  The second one is not all that far away: in Grafton, New York.  (They are, apparently, working on a third in North America, in the Smoky Mountains.)  My daughter and I recently took a road trip that included visiting this other Peace Pagoda.  The temple exudes warmth and welcome; the shrine room is resplendent with statues and figures, reminiscent of some Tibetan Buddhist shrine rooms I have visited.


Peace Pagoda in Grafton, NY

The looming, white, half-egg dome that is the stupa echoes the one in Leverett, but is its own self.  The Leverett Peace Pagoda has four statues that depicts the Buddha’s life, each a quarter way around the dome. This one in Grafton has one primary statue of Buddha at the opening of the stairs, then, when walking clockwise, many more depictions of the Buddha’s life flow.  I was smitten with these.  They remind me of my reading of Osamu Tezuka’s eponymous graphic novel of the life of the Buddha.  Slightly different stories depicted between those two, or even the story with which my Tibetan Buddhist husband is familiar.  I offer them here, until you can visit it yourself.

Buddha's Conception PP GraftonBuddha's Conception caption

Buddha's Birth PP GraftonBuddha's Birth caption

Buddha's First Steps PP Grafton Buddha's First Steps caption

Four Sufferings PP Grafton Four Sufferings caption

Buddha Leaves the Palace PP Grafton Buddha Leaves the Palace

 Buddha Cuts His Hair PP GraftonBuddha Cuts His Hair caption

Buddhal Sits Under Boddhi Tree:Mara PP GraftonBuddha Sits Under the Boddhi Tree caption


Buddha at Deer Park PP Grafton Buddha at Deer Park caption

Buddha & Unity PP Grafton Buddha & Unity caption

Buddha's Dying  PP GraftonBuddha's Dying caption

Buddha's Relics PP GraftonBuddha's Relics caption


Posted in Buddhism, Travelogue | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Ferguson Challenge: Talking Across Race

21I just returned from business travel that required flying in and out of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport. I had to take a taxi from the airport to where I was scheduled to work. Though I tend to be rather non-conversational in social situations like this (my inner introvert rises to the occasion), I decided that I did not want to miss out on a possible opportunity. I wanted to take what my mind termed, “the Ferguson challenge.”

Not the “test” of Ferguson that the governor of Missouri has intoned, with more emphasis on order than justice for my liking.

But the challenge I heard when I read UU minister Tom Schade’s blogpost, calling us to learn, re-think, and teach. He wrote,

Learning, Re-Thinking, and Teaching are political acts of great significance and power.

He continued, making a list of many things we can be learning and doing, including the challenge:

We should be talking to African American young men to learn first hand what it is like.

The driver of my taxi was a Black man. I knew that it was risk (of more than just awkward) to enter into such a conversation with a stranger, with a stranger across race, what with the world on fire, what with Ferguson continuing in its unrest and protest, its arrests and rubber bullets. I worried a bit about what it would be like for this man of color to be approached by a white person, particularly a paying customer, asking, “So, what do you think of what’s going on in Ferguson?” Lots of intersections of power dynamics that could easily make the conversation at best, token, and at worst, with shades of fear.

(Still, it felt less risky asking a Black man about this than I would have in engaging with a white person on the subject.  Which is revealing of deeper trouble that I will explore some other time.)

We did end up talking about Africa (where he grew up and where I once studied, though thousands of miles apart in different regions of that vast continent). We talked about political activism and faith, our views of god’s and human power in the world. We talked about the immigration system of this country, with stories from within his community filling the air with discouragement, and some hope.  It was a particularly awesome conversation.

(It was the second time this week I have found myself saying aloud to an immigrant that “I am mad at my government.” Earlier in the week, I said it to a gathering of mostly Muslim friends and acquaintances at the good-bye party of a friend who has been told by my government to leave this country.)

So even though I took “the Ferguson challenge” to, as a white person, learn more about what life is really like in this country from the lived experience of a person of color, and even though we didn’t end up talking about Ferguson, or about what it is like specifically to be a young Black in this country, we were able to talk: across differences in race, in immigration status, and in faith outlook.

When I started chatting (“Do you live around here?”), I did not know where the conversation would go.  As it turned out, my taxi driver friend, J.— and I, we didn’t find world peace or solve the myriad problems plaguing the globe. For my part, I heard from yet another immigrant of the impact of the U.S. immigration system on his life and the lives of people dear to him. I experienced open curiosity about the god he affirmed as present and more knowing than any limited human being.

I don’t want to speak for him and say what he got out of our exchange. How could I? It is my hope, however, he experienced that there are (some? a few? more than the traditional media gives voice?) white people out there who care and are committed ~ who care about Ferguson; who are outraged about racism, not just historical but current; who seek out the voices of and listen to people of color; who care about fixing the broken immigration system.  Who want to engage rather than turn away, and are attempting, hopefully skillfully, but sometimes not so, in how to have these conversations.  That there is a faith, called Unitarian Universalism, that understands part of its religious presence in the world is to engage theologically and spiritually about events like Ferguson, like immigration justice.

I’m really glad that I initiated the conversation. I hope to take this positive experience with me to next opportunities. I share it with you so that you might, too.  I encourage you to share your similar stories of in the comments below.  Let us speak up for possibility and potential. 


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Notice Who Matters: The Sermon (Part 2 of 2)

August 17, 2014

Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence 

 By Langston Hughes:

* Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

* Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

This poem keeps repeating itself in my head and heart these days. Of course, I know why. And so do you.

Our nation has just experienced a huge explosion. Let me take that back: are experiencing, present tense. The violence visited upon Michael Brown is far too common, far too familiar, for anyone to think of this as beyond the pale or highly unusual.

Maybe you have heard and were shocked, or maybe you already knew and are cynical or afraid, but since 2006, on average, in this nation, in this so-called home of the free, twice every week, a white police officer has killed a Black person.

 We mourn for Michael Brown.  We stand with his family. We mourn all these dead.

We can’t be surprised at this explosion, its force or intensity. It comes as the latest in a much-too long litany of young African American men, men of color and some women, too, who are killed “extra judicially” which is a big, official, obfuscating word for outside the due process of law, otherwise known as murder. Eric Garner last month in Staten Island. Ezell Ford in Los Angeles two days after Michael Brown was killed. The numbers grow: mostly-young, people of color killed, by police officers or citizenry emboldened by cruel laws purporting to be about self-defense, but too often are instruments of racialized fear and violence.

Originally this morning I was going to talk about my experience interning as a hospital chaplain, where I saw more than enough death and violence. Instead, I choose to preach the headlines. We are choosing to preach the headlines. And still I want to preach prayer, too.

UU minister and author Kate Braestrup writes this about prayer:

I can’t pretend to be unconditionally in favor of the practice of prayer. No, I’ve got plenty of conditions. I’ll pray only as long as prayer helps me to be more present, more aware and attentive, and as long as prayer helps me to see the suffering of others. As long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity, I’ll pray, and I will keep on praying so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love….

Still, if someone is starving, for God’s sake, don’t sit around praying: Give him food. (The same goes for water, warmth, rest and the Heimlich maneuver.) To assert that prayer is always, under all circumstances, the first thing love should do, or even the best that love can do, is irresponsible at best and a self-serving lie at worst. (Beginner’s Grace, Kate Braestrup)

Still, if someone is being shot dead in the middle of the street, unarmed as they are, with their hands in the air, by police officer, for God’s sake: don’t let it happen (again).

So with that in mind, with all these stories and commentaries about Ferguson, about racial inequality, gun violence in the hands of police, tear gas and rubber bullets, I want to share a story with you about prayer. The power of prayer. Prayer and Ferguson.

Reverend Willis Johnson is a pastor at the Wellspring Church in Ferguson. Apparently there is a photo of him out there in social media land, one I hadn’t been able to locate til recently, of him hugging a young man, Joshua Wilson, one of the protestors, a young African American man he had never met before, in the midst of the protests in Ferguson. When interviewed by NPR, here is what Rev. Johnson said about this embrace:

I just embraced him. Because he was so angry. You could feel it in his body. You could feel it in his speech. And I have a newly turned teenager. I’ve been Joshua before. Something just said grab him, hold him, maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what is really symbolic of the situation at hand. People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt. People who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like that. I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harm’s way and from doing something that we need not to do.

 Rev. Johnson continues,

Well, one of the things I shared with him is that I understand and I know you want to – I know you want – you got to channel this in another way. Not to discourage protest. Not to discourage his expression. That was never the case. If anything, it was to affirm him. And to affirm both of us. Because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed. We were being told and suggested that what we were doing was wrong and it was not wrong. People are feeling, I believe, empowered by the fact that there are others who feel passionate like them. And it’s hard for people who are not there in it to maybe understand or understand why someone would choose or channel that mean or mode to express themselves. I don’t understand it fully.   But what I do understand is what it means to be that angry, so I’d rather if you are going to fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear,…

And then comes the prayer part:

…and at the same time, I just began to pray with him, “Give him the strength. Give us the strength, to be courageous enough not do what they expect us to do.”

What does courage look like? I couldn’t hug young Joshua, but Rev. Johnson could. I am so thankful he did.

Let me be clear, though Rev. Johnson suggests, as one Black man talking to another, that courage in that moment is resisting the strategy of violent protest, I do not think this is the only courageous choice at all times and in all places. Sometimes courage is renunciation of violence. More often than not. And sometimes, given imperialism, fascism, given oppression in many of its forms, courage is the intentional and skillful use of it. I say this with what I hope is an appropriately uneasy sense that it is likely right, though not especially desirable.

Either way, as someone who lives a racially privileged life all the hours of my days, it’s not really up to me to measure or judge, and certainly not to dictate. I have entered only recently, and the story line of current violence started long ago in our nation’s racial history, as Ta’nehisi Coates was quoted earlier:

“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

So if (as one of our readings says) safety, and respect, and equality look different depending on race privilege, upon gender identity, upon class affiliation, then what does courage look like for you, at this moment, in your life here, in your life in the context of our nation on fire?

In an interview just a few weeks before she died, the great sage Maya Angelou said that “courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving any of those without courage.”

How do we, as Unitarian Universalists, live into the bookends of our Seven Principles, the one that says each person has inherent worth and dignity and that we are all part of the interdependent web of all being? How do we find the courage to do what it takes to not just believe in those values, not just say them out loud, but to live into them, to embody them, especially if our privileges provide protections from the harm of this systematically unjust society that allows fear-turned-to-hate to fester and run, allows it to stink like rotten meat, allows it to be a heavy load on the most vulnerable among us…

So what does your courage look like? How will you notice who matters, and who does not, and change that ~ in yourself, in your neighborhood, in your nation, in this world? Whatever it is ~ and there is a handout attached to your order of meeting that gives you specific ideas, if you would like them ~ may you find yourself praying or affirming or risking your way there.

May we all find our way there sooner, much sooner, because it is already later.

source: @thoughthawk

source: @thoughthawk

Benediction (by Rev. Wayne Arnason)

Take courage friends.

The way is often hard, the path is never clear,

And the stakes are very high.

Take courage.

For deep down, there is another truth:

You are not alone.

Posted in Prayers, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment