Walking Through the Yard

One day I was walking down the paved ramp at San Quentin State Prison, towards the yard to my destination, the education building. I like walking down this leisurely quiet route verses the stairway, which seems so abrupt and crowded. I admire the greenery on the side of the pavement; the agapanthus in various states of bloom, the blackberries and their occasional large fresh, juicy berry. I enjoy the mixed brick and mortar texture of the ancient brown, gold and tan colored walls, cracked, full of story, like old parchment.

Usually I walk this route between classes, so it provides me with a few seconds of solitude, as no inmates are allowed on the ramp. I’ll use these moments to “reset” my energy between groups, clear the slate, take a few bites of my flatbread and almond butter sandwich or a sip of water and breathe in the birdsong as it trills between the coils of razor wire. Those few moments of contemplation shift gears as the ramp rounds the corner into the large, open yard, consisting of a track, tennis courts, football field, baseball diamond, exercise areas, basketball court and several picnic tables where various games and activities take place daily.

On this particular day, as I rounded the corner, I was taken aback by how crowded the yard was, even for a Friday. I had never seen so many men here. My normal path around the perimeter of the yard was not accessible. My breath stopped short. I was going to have to walk straight through what looked like one large crowd of hundreds and hundreds of men, many without shirts, all standing, running, or sitting very close to each other.

As I approached the corner of the yard, I felt eyes shift towards me. I did not want to show my vulnerability by pausing. “Use this as an opportunity” I said to myself. “All these beings together in one place-what a great moment to generate compassion and bodhicitta!” I embraced my vulnerability, raised my eyes and walked forward, breathing in a prayer of peace and out a prayer of protection for myself, all these men, and the guards, all-one, no one alone.

In that very moment, as if by design, the alarm went off in the yard. In a single motion the hundreds of men sunk to the ground on their knees in silence, as if praying with me, bolstering my prayers for them, for us. Who but The Divine could have orchestrated this moment?

It was like the parting of the waters. Now the hundreds of men I thought I was going to have to pass face to face, were all kneeling down, lower than me. As an outside “free” person, us volunteers are the only ones besides the guards who move when an alarm is called. My path to the education building was suddenly clear. I did not have to weave or wind my way through anyone, as the men were frozen until the alarm was called off.

I continued my way through this miracle, saying hellos to the upturned eyes but imagining the power that could be generated if all of us on the yard at this moment WERE praying for the protection and welfare of all sentient beings. Behind my sunglasses, my eyes filled with the grace of this experience, this blessing. My heart swelled with love, which I imagined going out to all of the men and birds around me. “Hail Mary full of Grace! Shine your love on these men as they kneel!”

As I crossed the basketball court and walked through the gate to the ramp leading to the education building, the alarm was called off. Instantly, the yard went back to its high degree of activity and hubbub as if nothing had ever happened.

But something did.

Prison Chaplaincy: The Mike Tyson Talk

Stamper-MichaelReflection on the Mike Tyson Talk

By Rev. Michael Stamper, Ph.D., Chaplaincy Institute, Board Treasurer

I gave a talk about Mike Tyson and the issue of sexual abuse at several Florida prisons in the fall of 2014, the first being the Zen Buddhist sangha at Lake CI in Clermont. I was uncertain about the reaction that I was going to receive, and was nervous giving the talk for the first time. I have a neurological disorder that results in tremors and the intensity of those tremors is a pretty good indicator of the level of stress that I am experiencing. My built in stress-o-meter was registering “high.”

The second thing I noticed was that the talk made many of the men uncomfortable. It is an explosive topic. Sex abuse statistics are sketchy but what little exists suggests that a majority of inmates were sexually abused as children. Moreover, a significant portion of the prisoner population are sex offenders. Within the walls of a prison, no one is more despised than a child molester/sex offender. They experience isolation, verbal abuse and physical abuse. They are truly outcasts amongst the outcasts. And understandably, many are in the closet about their offense, and live in fear of being “outted.”

Moreover, the men in our dharma group were not expecting this topic. So, they were on their heels from the start. But, after a short period of awkwardness, some of the guys opened up and we had a discussion – a bit stilted – but a discussion nonetheless. One theme that resonated was the idea that the forgiver benefits from the forgiving. There was considerable discussion about this point, often illustrated with examples from their own lives. None of the examples, however, dealt with sexual abuse. The topic of forgiveness was comfortable to talk about, the topic of child sexual abuse was not.

When I came back to the prison the following week, I noticed a vehicle from the county medical examiner parked on the prison grounds. Once I was in the chapel, I was informed that an inmate had hung himself in the shower of his dormitory. The inmate apparently was a sex offender and had been hounded by the other inmates: suffering both physical and verbal abuse. When his body was removed from the shower, some inmates had lined up and cheered/jeered, chanting: “cho mo” (child molester).

That morning two men came to me and shared their experiences of being in prison as sex offenders. As they told their stories, I noticed that the energy in the room shift. As the facades were dropped and the rawness and honesty of the real person emerged. I was pulled deeper into the intensity of the NOW. I was so focused on the experience that I was having that at several points I began hallucinating – I would look at a face and see light emanating from it – and the areas around the face fell out of focus and broke up like cubist paintings.

That afternoon, instead of giving a dharma talk, we let the guys talk and process what had happened. Two of them had written reflections that they shared. This discussion was much more open than the previous week. Much of the discussion was about the nature of prison life: anger at the abuse that inmates receive from the Corrections Officers, and anger at the abuse they receive from bully inmates. Frustration was expressed that kindness and compassion are usually seen as weakness and that an “every man for himself” attitude becomes the norm. And, although no one knew the deceased personally, several of the men expressed regret that they had not done more to reach out to him and alleviate his isolation. Some admitted that they had avoided talking to him out of a fear that in doing so, they would become outcasts themselves.

While the substance of what was shared was moving, I was most impressed by the fact that the discussion took place at all: that the men opened up and exposed more of their inner lives. They demonstrated a level of vulnerability that I rarely see in prison – or out of prison, for that matter. It was an honor simply to be there as a witness.

The Practice of Brushing Horses

PebblesThere’s been several times in the ten years I’ve had my horse Tiger where either I was injured, or he was. Consequently, our relationship found new ways to deepen beyond our magical rides through the coastal tundra outside of Inverness, where Tiger lives. Since all of our various injuries resulted in limited mobility, simply spending time in each other’s presence led to new levels of communication for us both. Hours would pass with me sitting in his pasture, listening to the chomp-chomp as he and his buddies grazed nearby, their ears twitching this way and that, or watching the jackrabbits and cows playing hide and seek in the bushes nearby. As I sat there, without agenda, the minutes elongated and became filled with events, exchanges, comings and goings. So much going on aside from me just sitting there! Also, as a student of equine and human acupressure, I’d pack my anatomy books and meridian charts out to the field with me. No matter which one of us was injured, there was always something to learn, some points to try, to help us learn to heal, and reunite our energies with wholeness.

Tiger has a special brush, not a brush made for horses, but a rubber human hairbrush that I found in the streets of Berkeley one day. I took it to the ranch and tried it out on him. It was love at first touch. Over time, the other horses and dogs at the ranch fell in love with this brush, too. I’d go out to Tiger’s pasture and his two pasture buddies Fox and Pebbles would line up, waiting for me to turn the magic brush on them. The dogs hovered near as well, hoping to get a few minutes of the magic brush darshan as well.

During a very long and painful recovery from a car accident in 2009, I could not ride for almost seven months. For a few months it was nearly impossible even to drive to the ranch, as it took me a good 20 minutes or so simply to get in or out of the car. The radiating nerve pain along with the frustration of so much of my life being put on hold led me to the brink of sadness and isolation many times. I knew that the best thing for my spirits was to be with the horses, so I put great effort to get to the ranch as often as I could, even if it meant lying flat in my van while someone else drove me there.

All sadness and isolation I had been feeling turned to immediate joy as soon as I rounded the corner of the driveway and saw all the horses grazing in the lush fields. I’d limp out to greet them, magic brush in hand. Tiger always whinnied and came running when he saw me, leading with his pasture mates close behind. Pebbles the Pony, just short of 43 years old at the time, would edge her furry tummy close to me so that her itchy spots were right by my hands. Big pushy Fox, Tiger’s long time friend and companion, always tried to edge in between Missy Pebs and me. In turn, Tiger did horse contortions, equine asanas, lifting one leg up and out and pointing with his nose to show me where his itchy places were, usually, but not always, places he could not reach himself. We spent hours playing this “point and scratch” game. As the hours flew, I felt surges of gentle ecstasy, an expansive joy that filled me, wave after wave. I was broken, and yet for these moments of brushing the horses, my pain dissolved into a sacred wholeness.

One day I had the magic brush and was massaging certain acupressure points on Tiger’s legs. I angled the brush just so, getting the rounded, narrow area in the hollow of his heels, right above his hooves. The first time I did this Tiger squealed with delight, a sound I had never heard from a horse, a sound more like a dolphin or a whale would make. At the same time he arched his neck, smacked his lips and showed deep delight and approval in his surprised expression. One by one he lifted or pointed at each foot, wanting to make sure I didn’t forget any of his four legs.

It occurred to me that this might well be the first time Tiger had experienced these few inches of his own body being touched in this way. After all, there was no way he could reach this spot. I pondered the hunger and joy of these horses and dogs lining up for their turn of the magic brush, knowing they were going to be attended to from nose to tail, knowing all their itchy spots would be scratched. I pondered the parallel reality for so many sentient beings, humans included, of living their entire lives without this experience, their itchy places going untouched.

In that moment I had a realization of how this Practice of Brushing Horses was similar to the job of a chaplain. As chaplains we are trained to discover the itchy spots of each person and situation with deep listening and a bearing of witness. We acknowledge those itchy spots either by doing or by not-doing. Simply acknowledging them with our presence is enough sometimes! In our merging with the energy field of another, accompanying them on their path for a minute, an hour, a day, a week, something else is created, a different reality, one that will lead to a different minute because we are there. In this way our presence is the magic brush that finds all itchy spots!

Meanwhile Tiger’s friend the big white egret landed nearby. His deer family moved closer too, now and then scratching their ears and wiggling their tails. Pebbles edged a little closer wanting a second turn with the brush. Tiger came out of his soliloquy long enough to tell her clearly, with his flattened ears, not yet. A few frogs croaked; two red-tailed hawks circled above. I had been out in the field so long that the shadows had turned long and yellow with that Rembrandt like light that only happens for a few moments as the sun begins to fall. The starlings lined up to begin their evening murmurations, their joyful aerial offering of thanks to all of creation for another day on the planet.

A few tears of gratitude rolled down my face. In the isolation of my own pain I came to brush these horses. In brushing these horses I was reunited with the blessing of life, the connection and interconnection with all that is!

May all sentient beings have the blessing of having their itchy spots scratched! May I, as a chaplain, be led to the spots that trouble them, and may the energy of the Divine show me the skillful means and wisdom to bring benefit!

Vows for same-sex wedding

Indiana made it more difficult today for ministers performing same sex weddings, but elsewhere across the country  beautiful wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples happen every day. Here are some same sex wedding vows from Revs. Grant and Renate Ann Diversa in San Diego http://www.abeautifulceremony.us/vows_weddingvows.htm. While they are not Unitarian Universalists, we Unitarian Universalists affirm their commitment to marriage equality. Of course, these vows can be altered for straight couples as well.
I, ________, in the name of the spirit of the Divine which resides within us all, by the life that courses within my blood, and the love that resides within my heart, take you, ________, to my hand, my heart, and my spirit to be my chosen one. To desire and be desired by you, without sin or shame, for none can exist in the purity of my love for you. I promise to love you wholly and completely without restraint, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in poverty, in life and beyond, where we will meet, remember, and love again.

________, I stand here, today, in front of our friends and our family, to make these promises to you. I promise to love you passionately in the good times and the bad times. To always put your needs and desires before my own. I promise to respect you and give you the time and attention that you deserve. I promise to keep an open mind and an open heart to the changes life might bring to us. To never tear down your hopes and dreams. I promise to keep our relationship alive and exciting, filled with imagination, joy, and strength. To never have a dull moment. I promise to grow along with you and never keep my secrets and my fears away from you. I promise to be the best friend to you that you have and continue to be to me. I promise to give you all of me and to never hold anything back. These are my promises to you. I am yours completely and forever.

________, on this special day as we become partners in life, before our family, our friends, and each other, I make these commitments of my own free will. I promise to take you in to my heart, as you are, and as you will become. I promise to walk by your side and support your dreams, I will express my thoughts and emotions to you and listen to you in times of joy and in times of sorrow. I promise to be your best friend and companion on the road of life. I will help you fulfill your dreams, and be sensitive to the cares of your heart. I want to spend the rest of my life hearing your thoughts and seeing your dreams come true. I will travel with you through all of life’s journeys. And I, ________, want you, ________, to be my companion throughout our journey of life.

I, ________, take you ________, to be my partner in life, my best friend in life and my one true love. I will cherish our marriage and love you more each day than I did the day before. I will trust you, respect you, laugh with you and cry with you, loving you faithfully through good times and bad, regardless of the obstacles we may face together. I give you my hand, my heart and my love, from this day forward, as long as we both shall live.

________, today I join my life to yours, not only as your partner, but as your friend, your lover and your confidant. Let me be the shoulder that you lean on, the rock upon which you rest, the companion of your life. With you I will walk my path from this day forward.

________, today I commit to our life partnership. I promise to comfort you, to encourage you in all walks of life. I promise to express my thoughts and emotions to you and to listen to you in times of joy and in times of sorrow. ________, I love you, and you are my closest friend. Will you let me share my life and all that I am with you? (I will.)

I come here today, ________, to join my life to yours before this company. In their presence I pledge to be true to you, to respect you, and to grow with you through the years. Time may pass, fortune may smile, trials may come; no matter what we may encounter together, I vow here that this love will be my only love. I will make my home in your heart, from this day forward.

As freely as God has given me life, I join my life to yours. Wherever you go, I will go. Whatever you face, I will face. In good or ill, in happiness or sadness, come riches or poverty, I take you as my partner for life, and I will give myself to no other.

From “Union” by Rev. Robert Fulghum

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Robert Fulghum writes a chapter entitled “Union” in his book From Beginning to End.

Here is an excerpt from that chapter:
You have known each other from the first glance of acquaintance to this point of commitment. At some point, you decided to marry. From that moment of yes, to this moment of yes, indeed, you have been making commitments in an informal way. All of those conversations that were held in a car, or over a meal, or during long walks – all those conversations that began with, “When we’re married”, and continued with “I will” and “you will” and “we will” – all those late night talks that included “someday” and “somehow” and “maybe” – and all those promises that are unspoken matters of the heart. All these common things, and more, are the real process of a wedding.
The symbolic vows that you are about to make are a way of saying to one another, “You know all those things that we’ve promised, and hoped, and dreamed – well, I meant it all, every word.”

Look at one another and remember this moment in time. Before this moment you have been many things to one another – acquaintance, friend, companion, lover, dancing partner, even teacher, for you have learned much from one another these past few years. Shortly you shall say a few words that will take you across a threshold of life, and things between you will never quite be the same.

For after today you shall say to the world –
This is my husband. This is my wife.

Weddings Where You Tell the Truth About Marriage

How many times have you attended a cookie-cutter wedding? Have you ever left feeling like it wouldn’t have mattered who was getting married? Can you recite the platitudes about marriage you hear at such weddings? Here at LifeBlessings.net, we believe there is another way. One of our officiants recently led a marriage ceremony for a young couple with a complicated family situation. There were multiple parental divorces among both the lesbian and straight parents, and one parental death. The families ranged from Jewish to Evangelical Christian to Atheist. At the end of the wedding, all the parents approached our officiant with delighted surprise that it had been a lovely ceremony. Thinking it over later, we realized what distinguished the ceremony was that she had spoken the truth about marriage during the ceremony, both the hard parts and the good parts. She had woven in all of their families’ religious traditions into the ritual. She had spoken to the actual strengths and weaknesses of the couple. She challenged the community to support them for long haul. Unitarian Universalists are uniquely positioned to help you create authentic and meaningful personal rituals.

Memorials as a Celebration of Life

When my great aunt died, her memorial service was officiated by someone no one in my family knew. He did not meet with us. He did not respond to my request for a conversation as a colleague in the ministry. So it was no great surprise when the service did not speak to her life or her relationships. He used the occasion to proselytize his Christianity in a way that might have made some of his colleagues proud. It made most of my family extremely uncomfortable. My brother considered feigning a bloody nose to be able to leave the room. I sat and stewed in my rage. This was my beloved great aunt who had been a central elder in my childhood and my constant conversation partner in college. She was an artist, an educator, and a devoted Christian. She had lived a life that would have been easy to celebrate in her passing, had the minister taken time to learn more about her. We didn’t need to have his Christianity shoved down our throats in our time of grief. We needed to mark the passing of a dearly beloved member of our family, to remember her life and all that she stood for, to grieve and to be together. I am grateful to be part of the Unitarian Universalist ministry because my colleagues are people who can honor the plurality of religious expression in which many families live. They can listen to the real stories of people’s lives and speak the truth of the complexity of a life during a memorial service.

Coming Out as a Person of Faith by Rev. Amy Beltaine

Last weekend I was on Oregon’s coast, hosting the exhibit of “Coming Out as a Person of Faith.” This weekend I officiated a wedding in the hills below Mount Hood. At both of these events the petition for the Freedom to Marry in Oregon was being circulated. At both of these events I spoke on the meaning of marriage:  Marriage creates a family, it means commitment, it means a deep and abiding love. All loving couples who want to make a commitment to each other should have the freedom to marry. For every couple, this commitment creates a shared life that benefits and blesses families, neighborhoods, and our whole interconnected world.

As a community minister my social justice work often crosses over into my other ministries, but it isn’t every day that I can use the same words at both events!

The petition campaign to give all loving and committed couples the freedom to marry is going well and I have every expectation that a law creating marriage freedom will get onto the ballot, and pass next November. This will make Oregon the first state to successfully undo the “between a man and a woman” clause that was added to the constitution. Though we were a little disappointed Oregon wasn’t at the front of the race for justice, we will be the first state to correct a constitutional amendment. I hope we will provide a road-map to other states where the constitution needs to be corrected.

For many people the question of allowing all couples equal access to civil marriage is a non-issue. Several years back I remember one member of my congregation expressing complete shock. She was floored that my marriage was not legally recognized, Incredulous that the issue had not been handled years ago. But for others religion remains a barrier.

It is one of my greatest honors to be witness to the shift people experience when they view the Coming Out as a Person of Faith exhibit, or engage in an open-hearted, faith-based conversation with me.

The exhibit shares the stories of several people of faith: leaders in the community, gay, lesbian, and trans couples, parents of gay or lesbian sons or daughters… Visitors to the exhibit see photos, read the stories, and hear the participants speak. Then, we sit down together to talk. The reconciling goes both ways. Individuals who have felt rejected from their faith see open hearts and arms and can contemplate rejoining communities of depth and meaning. Individuals who felt constrained by their faith are released from a prison of their past and become free to love, without having to give up their faith.

I look forward to a time when religion is not a barrier, but a way for people to connect and create more love. Where all couples have the freedom to marry and we can move on to taking down the next barriers to justice as we work to make the world a better place.




Great Tips for Meaningful Ceremonies

Many wonderful resources abound for planning weddings and other ceremonies. We encourage you to make use of your local public library as well as what is available on the internet. Here’s a few tips from us:

Create a connection – Interview enough ministers, usually 2-3, so that you feel really good about your connection with the one you choose. At your meetings be open and honest. The minister will need to know you in order to make a personalized ceremony.

Be true to yourselves – In writing vows for a wedding or other elements of a different kind of ceremony make sure they reflect who you are and what is important to you. Be genuine. Your ceremony can reflect your style and your values.
Bring in your cultures, your religious backgrounds, your families and communities – You can incorporate your cultural and religious backgrounds and family and community ties through poetry, photographs, music, objects on the altar, or special elements in the ceremony. Your minister can help you with specific ideas for this.

Plan ahead – Don’t leave the ceremony for the last minute. While the details of weddings, even memorials can be overwhelming, remember to contact an officiant early with enough time to plan a meaningful ceremony. If you are writing your own vows, start on them well ahead of time, perhaps with a weekend retreat with your future spouse.

Not too short or too long – A ceremony shorter than twenty minutes will not feel like anything significant occurred. A ceremony longer than an hour may leave participants fidgety and glancing at the clock. Aim for something in the middle.

Be respectful – Your officiant is an ordained, seminary educated, experienced professional. If you keep your appointments, interact courteously, and fulfill your commitments, you will receive the best from your minister and the services they provide.
Relax and enjoy! – No matter what happens on the day of your ceremony, it will become part of the story. You and your family and friends will cherish the memory.

For those who consider themselves spiritual but not religious–why have a minister help you create a meaningful wedding?

For many people a wedding is a time of weaving together a community of love and support around a couple who are publicly professing their love and intentions to make one of the most challenging commitments for two human beings: to live a life together come what may. Often when people say that a wedding is not religious they mean that they don’t what the wedding to be about Jesus or traditional notions of God or to contain any traditional churchy images or symbols. But in our view, a wedding, if done well, is a transformative ritual. The couple, having been witnessed by their community in stating their promises to one another in the presence of the sacred, leaves the wedding changed. If this ceremonial element really isn’t important to you, you always have the option of having a justice of the peace do the official legal part of the marriage and then gather with friends and loved ones more informally to celebrate. On the other hand, if you want to create a ceremony with a minister — in this case not someone you have known for many years, but someone who has experience creating meaningful rituals and officiating at weddings — then we think it is worthwhile to give the process some time and attention. Thoughtful religious leaders can help you with this. Many can give you a process to follow to write your own vows, which we highly recommend. With our help, you can create a deeply meaningful, spiritual wedding using the images, symbols, and language that speaks to you and your families and communities.