Wednesday, January 28, 2015


This past Sunday I visited the Unitarian Univer-salist church in Mequon, the nearest congre-gation to our new home in a new hub. I have been processing-although that word is overused in my profession it still means something important-my experience since then.

I struggle in some ways to articulate it. It was uniformly positive and I am certain I will join the church. But it was also disturbing in some ways, how comfortable and peaceful I found it. This is the part I have difficulty articulating.

I arrived early, earlier than anyone else except the member and her daughter responsible for preparing the sanctuary. I talked with them a while and then with an older woman who was chief greeter for the day, then with one of the church's two (!) ministers, then with several others as they walked in. My wife refers to this as my funeral director mode, when I wander around introducing myself to people, sometimes introducing them to each other.

So I was at ease when I sat in the sanctuary to listen to the pianist and watch the bulk of people filter in. It's a UU church, after all, so most of them showed up at 9:56 for a 10 o'clock service, with another 30 or so arriving after the welcome and first hymn. The second part of that sentence carries a measure of something that surprised me. Although there is another, larger congregation in Milwaukee, the church has a couple hundred members, probably 25 of them black or Latino, and nearly 125 to 150 were there that day. The speaker was the retired minister from the Milwaukee church so some were undoubtedly visitors from there to hear him; but at 100 were congregation members who generally showed, I figure.

The retired minister was a good speaker and had a good sermon about UU beliefs I couldn't argue with. But what I was most absorbed by was the feeling I had surrounded by the people. I felt outside myself, emptied into the sea around me. I loved the image from Star Trek: Deep Space 9 of one character's people as an ocean (beginning about 6:40 in) into which they subsume, every particle mixing, and what I felt was something like that. To call it feeling "at home" seems banal but nonetheless accurate.

Here is the best I can say: I felt as in family, as among my tribe, as comfortable as I do in my best times with the Rainbow Family or with vagabonds. A friend of mine calls it being accepted in one's integrity, a statement I think is good as any and more accurate than most. I was taken in not only for who I am, but given my anonymity, in spite of who I may be. As if all my sins, rather than being washed clean, simply have no place there. Unconditional love. Acceptance without boundaries. I felt comfortable leaving because I know it will be similar when I come back.

Friday, January 16, 2015

you might need someone to hold onto when the answers don't amount to much

The past two evenings have been my final worknights as a chaplain for kids at connected residential treatment facilities, one for teen boys and one for girls. I only began there in May but I feel as if I've been there for years. And in a good way, because while the kids change, each one discharging either positively or negatively, so that only three boys remain of the large group I began with, I have shifted in the ways both that I see them and work with them. Improving, I like to think.

Perhaps the greatest change I've experienced is my belief in the necessity of touch in their treatment lives. There is, of course, great potential for abuse by both staff and other kids in this, which is why it's so strenuously forbidden by policy. But these programs are six to nine months long. If a kid is having a particularly bad experience with his treatment and isn't allowed home visits for the course of treatment, or worse, has no home or family to visit st all, she can go through the entire program without a single hug. Can anyone feature how that feels, to go through the better part of a year not experiencing human contact? Two kids who had both had rough but separate experiences that day flaunted the major consequences staff told them they'd receive, including loss of privileges, in order to hug each other for comfort in the hallway. We expert somehow that a kid will become more humane in that period.

The girls especially are so starved for contact they developed "boundary hugs," folding their arms across their chest and bumping elbows together, for congratulating each other or for expressing grief. Last night one girl returned from a home visit during which she attended her grandmother's funeral, and sat on the floor and cried. Girls walked around her and surreptitiously brushed the top of her head or shoulders, an act of community, of concern, and of desperation.

For my part, I hugged freely for my last nights, hoping to make up in some way for not having done so the previous eight months. My position, as chaplain, allows for some leeway, for one-on-one conversations, for sitting quietly beside the kid (as I did with the girl last night), and for full-body hugs when a kid discharges. Every child the past two nights who requested a hug goodbye snuggled against me like the kids, below the fronting and the anger and the trauma, they still are.

My position is simple: in treatment programs there is the need for human touch. Between staff and residents, between residents, even between staff. We are so afraid of how our actions might be misinterpreted we withhold something important and life-giving. This isn't to say touch shouldn't be regulated. Too much abuse is possible. But it should be consensual, open (in full view of others and the ubiquitous cameras), and healthy in the best sense. There's a reason touch is a part of all religions, from the laying on of hands to pranam. Skin is the largest organ of our bodies, the method by which we make the most contact with the world. It makes no more sense to shut it down while in treatment than it would to be blindfolded or wear earplugs.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

80s memories

Recently, as I was filling my gas tank at one of those stations that play a little video of some gas-related "news" on a small screen so you have something to watch, I got to thinking about things we had in the 80s that, somehow, disappeared. Before they vanish completely down the memory hole I'd just like to note them.