What I thought of while watching “Wonder Woman”

A version of this post was originally created as for the June 10 newsletter for the Universalist Christian Initiative.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to state the the film Wonder Woman (link plays audio) has been re-set to take place in World War One, and that is has scenes of wartime fighting. (She’s been around seventy-five years as a heroic Amazon warrior-princess and was introduced in the Second World War.)

I like the film very much, and if you like action films you should see it; it includes themes that I can’t discuss without giving away the plot. It was it in mind that I afterwards started reading John van Schaick’s The Little Corner Never Conquered, an account of the work of the American Red Cross in Belgium in World War One, and immediately thereafter. It’s available at Archive.org here.

Picture of Red Cross officers including John van Schaick

The “little corner” refers to that part of northwest Belgium unoccupied by the Germans, west of the Western Front, but though unoccupied was still atacked, creating refugees, and maiming and killing countless numbers of people. Van Schaick (pronounced “van skoik”) was a Universalist minister, and indeed a ministerial predecessor of mine in the Washington parish, known since 1930 as Universalist National Memorial Church. Even now, the parish parlor is named for him, his wife Julia and her parents. But van Schaick was not there in a ministerial role — he took a leave of absence — serving with the American Red Cross; he and Julia and the others were there to help those who could not help themselves, and did so with humility worth emulating. They accepted constraints (still not universally held); they did what was needed by taking the lead and cue from Belgians. They were there to support, not to control. All of this starting a hundred years a few weeks ago…

It’s a thrilling read, but not an adventure story; understatement hides horrors. John repeats Julia’s work as a nurse’s aide — a matter-of-fact list, from a day book? — caring for wounded American soldiers behind the lines:

Took down records of the wounded American soldiers, four papers for each. Collected patients’ letters, took them to censor, who was a wounded officer on top floor. Translated a letter written in Italian into English, so censor could pass on it. Got the passes for the slightly wounded going out. Fed soldiers helpless through wounds in hands or arms, or very ill. Gave out newspapers, fruit, matches, cigarettes and writing paper. Handed out uniforms for men going out for the day and other clothing like socks and underwear. Washed feet. Prepared special soup on alcohol lamp. Bathed very ill men on head and hands with cologne. Put into English lists of surgical appliances and material the French surgeons were asking of the American Red Cross. Attended funerals of the boys who died and was the only woman at the grave of some of them. Got the wreaths for these funerals, tied them with our colors and put them on the casket. Brought back the American flag from the grave. Wrote to families of the dead boys. Prepared little boxes in which boys could keep bullets or pieces of shell taken out of them. Helped an American sergeant entertain his French sweet-heart and her mother who had come to visit him. Telephoned. Sorted, counted and sent out dirty linen. Got men ready to take motor rides. Wrote letters for men. Interpreted for doctors, nurses and patients. Mended clothes. Picked up trash. (p. 52)

How horribly maimed must have the “very ill” been? The thought of Julia Romaine van Schaick’s care, as an stand-in for all those who risked health, safety and life humbles me. She was not there in a religious capacity, but her humanitarian care looks a lot like the soul of ministry to me. Remember them, too, in these centennial years — and remember those who put themselves at risk today in your charitable giving and, if the opportunity opens, with your talents. And remember: stories like these call us to higher service, if we would listen.

Want more? Yesterday I visited the National Postal Museum. A new exhibit on World War One opened. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., see highlights on their website.

My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I

Universalist Christian Initiative at #uuaga

I’m soft-launching my new project, the Universalist Christian Initiative at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, which begins today in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s mainly about creating resources and finding direction for Universalist Christians, and at this point I’m looking for people interested in this work.

Please join the newsletter list here, and follow our Twitter account (@universalistci) here.

If you’ll be at GA, meet me at the UU Christian Fellowship booth (#115 in the exhibit hall)

  • Thursday, Jun 23 from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Friday, June 24 from 11 a.m. to 12 noon

… or send a direct message to the @universalistci Twitter account if you’d like to talk.

First thoughts about Economics of Ministry Summit

I normally write blog posts in the evening for morning publication, but I wanted to sleep another night before writing about the Economics of Ministry Summit, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and hosted this week in St. Louis. So far as I know, its only live presence was by Twitter, with the hashtag #sustainministry, so you should revisit those tweets for context.

This isn’t about that meeting’s outcomes, but how I want to approach the enterprise. I’m not going to start by being appreciative, by saying how wonderful the opportunity is and how talented and dedicated the participants. This has been a norm of communication among Unitarian Universalists, often repeated, for several years now and a response to our long-cultivated habit of minute criticism. An over-correction, I think, because it telegraphs an unwholesome cheeriness, softball responses and lowered expectations. That’s hardly respectful, or useful. It’s as if adults can’t be trusted with the truth. So I won’t question the sincerity, intelligence or diligence of the parties of this or any similar conference, but you can have all of these and still end poorly.

At root, the would-be leadership of the UUA has a trust problem with the would-be follower-ship. With each passing year, the UUA does less to justify its existence. What are the high marks for the last few years? Board governance? A property shift? These are internal matters, not missional ones. Are we building or redeveloping churches? No. But worse, we still have a model of ministerial formation that treats people like expensive, yet disposable, liabilities. And a raft of churches — and few will speak of this — that chew up and ruin the ministers they get with impunity. As for our external, missional successes, these come in the form of partnerships, formal and informal. Easy enough to ask, “why not affiliate with whomever’s leading?” If there are successes, they’re in local settings and perhaps informal networks. Again, a challenge to a national body. Unitarian Universalist structures have historically been hard to use, with little money offered. Sluggish, a bit haughty. You learn not to ask for much, and expect less.

At the risk of being cheerful, let me hold out some hope. When you look at the summit in tandem with the emerging communities pilot, I do see a willingness to entertain options and lower the opportunity costs of working within the UUA, and that’s good.

No: it’s better than good. It’s essential, because this work will take place somewhere, and without some structural change it will take place elsewhere.

Appreciating the City Weekend

A pause from my thread on re-orienting Unitarian Universalist approaches to social engagement to note Esperanto, and two things it can offer us.

Today is Zamenhof Day, the birthday of L. L. Zamenhof, Esperanto’s founder. (As featured on the UUA’s Wall of December Holidays.)

The first is a cautionary tale. I like Esperanto, the world’s most commonly used constructed language, in spite of the fina venko movement among Esperantists and not because of it. The fina venko (“final victory”) would be when Esperanto would be used as a second, auxiliary language to communicate across cultures and around the world, and with it improve mutual understanding and reduce the risk of warfare. I enjoy Esperanto for the game quality of learning it and the odd culture that’s grown up around it. (Even the Wall Street Journal picked up on conventional Esperantist wanderlust.) I’d like the fina venko to take place, but I have no faith it will happen. So I won’t invest effort to bring about world understanding that way. There may be some parallels to how people approach churches, but I’ll let you work that out yourself.

The second thing is a newish style of meeting found among North American Esperantists. Esperantists in Europe or Japan have an endless number (the link is to a calendar; in Esperanto, klare, but you can get the gist) of conferences and meetings often somewhat entertaining and often at shockingly little cost. And little wonder for a language community where ali?ilo (“registration blank”)  is a basic vocabulary word.

They’re low-cost because they’re designed that way. If perhaps more than we’re personally accustomed to. Beware the offer of the amasejo (“mass area”) for sleeping: likely a piece of bare floor for which you’ll have to provide a pad and sleeping bag. (This music festival  provided “luxury” accommodation: the same space as the non-luxury, but providing a mattress and bedding. And 20 roommates. But it was 60 euro, for North and South Americans, for nine days. A guesthouse option was also available.) All things being equal, it’s nice to see the needs of the cash-strapped considered.

But in North America, our wide distances and fewer numbers make these extended festivals impractical. Enter the Urba Semajnfino, the City Weekend. Like an overnight meetup. And there may be a model here for Unitarian Universalist affinity groups who want more meeting opportunities.

The organization manual is in Esperanto, but Google Translate makes a decent job for non-Esperantists. It suggests cost savings, even if you don’t want to go as far as sharing beds, and how to price the event. Plus a suggested schedule, how to make the best use of restaurants (UUs and Esperantists both seem to attract vegetarians) and a reminder to cite the event where there are reasonable amenities and a bus or train station.

The take-away: humble and thoughtful planning makes opportunities appear. And that’s world-changing in its own way.

Who were (are?) the Universalist Comrades?

Call it my late Cold War childhood, but I’ve always found the term comrade thrilling in a slightly transgressive way. Which make the Order of Universalist Comrades, a national men’s organization, so appealing. Appealing, but evidently short-lived.

Like similar women’s and mixed young adult organizations, its goal seems to have been fund raising and wholesome entertainment, in the mold of then-more common city clubs, and may have been an outgrowth of freestanding clubs.

But without documentation, it’s hard to say. Will keep an eye out for references.

And perhaps an opportunity to consider the next wave of men’s organizations.

Why I blog

Be sure to see the comments, below.

The group of Unitarian Universalist bloggers on Facebook have been meditating on a common questions, one of which is “why do you blog?”

Some of the reasons I blog are predictable: to muse aloud, to keep notes for later use or to promote something-or-other. It is not a systematic work, and its focus has changed over time.

I started blogging because of an aphorism about Universalist newspapers: one I came across when I was writing my unfinished thesis on antebellum Universalist history in the South. He — John C. Burruss, I think — wrote and edited his newspaper because the printed word would go where “the living evangel” could not go, and it would survive after he was long dead. Both assertions proved true. And it was the bit of folk wisdom I learned from a living minister: that if you wrote and published, anything would be forgiven you. I hope I’ve never done anything in such a need of such overwhelming forgiveness, but it’s clear, in Unitarian Universalist circles, where the power is. Public writing is important.

But more recently I’ve decided on another reason to blog. It’s far more effective to blog your little bit, and hope that it’s effective in some small way, then to be lost in bureaucratic committees. I read the agenda and minutes of the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees with a mixture of sadness and pity. So much work, so much responsibility, so much process, so little return.

Blogging, and by extension, shared or distributed, self-initiated online work seem to be better use of my little time.

A guide for conference organizing (government transparency or otherwise)

Another happy bragging point about my workplace, the Sunlight Foundation. (And thanks to you who have spoken to me privately about it.) Sunlight has a guide for Transparency Camp, our annual meeting (convocation? unconference?) that has many transferable lessons for those organizing a conference.

And while you’re at it, why not try out Sunlight’s SuperPAC identifier mobile app (Ad Hawk) or follow coverage of the presidential electoral conventions.

Of course, I don’t speak for Sunlight (but then it doesn’t speak for me either.)