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knowing how to work the system.

9 Sep

Short version: People don’t all start from the same starting line. Knowing how a system works is a privilege that gets passed down generationally, giving those who come later an inheritance that helps them to succeed.

Longer version: We took our eldest to college for the first time a few weeks ago. Not surprisingly, this has caused me to reflect quite a bit on my college experience. The differences between her experience and mine have caused me to think about how difficult it is to navigate a system that no one in your family knows much about.

College is not a common experience in my family history. My dad and his brother were the first generation in their families to go on to higher education. My mother’s father got his degree, but it was when he was an adult. Neither of my parents’ experience with higher ed was a “typical” university experience – my father went to the Naval Academy and my mother went to nursing school.

The issue that stands out to me as the most illustrative is around housing. I was a very vulnerable 18 year old. I was still on antidepressant medications. I was still prone to self-harming. When I went to college, the school over-enrolled my class and so a number of us ended up in a motel off campus, 3 people to a room. I had no say in picking my roommates, we were just assigned at random. I ended up with two young women who went out the first night and brought back a bunch of fraternity guys, waking me up with their partying. This happened several nights in a row. To make matters worse, I had a M-F 8am calculus class that was off campus on the other side of campus from the motel. It took forever to get there. Needless to say, I missed a lot of calculus and did a lot of couch-surfing until the mandatory 6 week waiting period before asking for dorm changes.

This is the privilege part: If my kid had been in a similar vulnerable place and had had similar issues to what I had, as her parent I would have made an enormous ruckus. The school administration would have heard from me every day until I felt she was in a safe situation that would allow her to succeed. I am generally not one of those pesty parents, but in this case, I surely would have been.

I don’t blame my parents – they had no idea that they even could make a ruckus! They just accepted that it was the (bad) luck of the draw. They did not have any expectations that the college they were paying might provide some resources to their daughter because they had not had that experience themselves.  Comparatively, I had it easier than most. Imagine how much more difficult it is for children who are the first generation in their families to seek higher education! 

This is one way privilege gets perpetuated and passed on down the generations. Because I had a college experience myself, I have higher expectations for what that experience will be for her, and I know how to work the system for her benefit.  Imagine how much more difficult it is for children who are the first generation in their families to seek higher education!

I sometimes hear people claim that “we all start off at the same starting line” in life. But that isn’t true. In any way. Some of us get a leg up thanks to the experiences of our parents, or their parents, or even generations of ancestors who passed things down to us: finances, expectations, or even just knowing how to work the system for our benefit. And these are all priceless inheritances that one not everyone starts off with.

the right hand of fellowship?

10 Jun

These words were given during the Ordination of Christe Lunsford at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on June 9, 2019.

Rev. Lunsford (!!!), over the years I have watched you grow in your ministry. From those early days of being the music director at First Unitarian, to working with you on the ministry team, through your discernment to enroll in seminary and all that it entailed.

And so I am thrilled to be with you today. THRILLED!

The offering of the right hand of fellowship is one of our oldest traditions, which comes from the Christian Scriptures. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes that during his commission as an apostle, he received the right hand of fellowship from the other apostles. It was a symbol of their mutual relation, their equal authority, and their common affection. It was a pledge that they recognized each others gifts and that they were colleagues on a greater mission. Though they knew they might never meet again, they pledged fidelity to each other and were, in effect, bound by the ties of faith and suffering and hope.

It was the right hand, as opposed to the left, in part because offering the right hand was a show of peace, demonstrating that one had no weapon.

So this ritual is one that is grounded in our history. Offering you the right hand of fellowship today suggests a covenant among colleagues. We are fortunate to be part of a living tradition that has inspired our lives and has been passed down for generations. Fortunate to be a part of a vocation and a role that is much bigger than us as individuals.


Let’s get real. Most of those who have participated in this ritual through the ages have been cis-white men. They haven’t looked like me until relatively recently. And they haven’t looked like you until really recently. And sometimes, we fail in our collegiality with each other. We fail to recognize one another’s call and gifts for ministry. As our colleague the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen recently reminded us at the ordination of Sara Green, professional associations are fallible, and even collegiality and the collegial covenants we create can be weaponized to serve white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and capitalism.

I can offer you my right hand and still stab you in the back with my left.

And so, I have the temerity to suggest an adaptation of this ritual as a part of our living tradition – an update to better fit the times we find ourselves in – times when it is no longer only cis-white men welcoming one another into collegiality, times when our ministers represent a much broader array of genders, orientations, cultures, races, ability levels and more.

Instead of the right hand of fellowship, I would like to offer you the hug of collegiality. With your consent, of course.

Unlike a handshake, a hug demonstrates true care and concern. With a hug, I make myself vulnerable to you, and you do to me. We welcome each other into our personal spaces. We use both hands (no side hugs!) so no hand is free to backstab. And a hug says: I have your back, and I know you have mine as well.

I offer you this hug of collegiality, knowing that it has not and it will not be easy for you. That you will have to continue to demand your right to exist, even within our faith tradition, even, sometimes, among your colleagues. But you are not alone. Many of us already have your back, and will support you, and challenge you. We will move with you in the world, in whatever ways we can, knowing that your very presence as our colleague makes us all better. Knowing, too, that we need each other.  Because the mantle of ministry is impossible to bear alone.

So in offering you this ritual today, I say for myself, and for our trusted, faithful colleagues: We are here for you. In the good and the bad, the ups and the downs. And we expect you to be there for us, too. May this ritual be a symbol of our mutual relation, our equal authority, and our common affection. Know that we recognize your gifts and that we are colleagues on a greater mission. We exhort you to be faithful to this sacred trust. I have no doubt that you will be – indeed you have already proven your faithfulness.

And so, Rev. Lunsford, in an update of the custom of our congregations, as a part of the living, changing, growing tradition we share, on behalf of myself and our trusted colleagues, may I give you the hug of collegiality?

the problem with proximal power

17 Oct

From a middle-class, white-collar white cis-woman to other middle-class white collar white cis-women.

When the call came from an unknown number, I answered because I was waiting for a tow-truck to come and remove a rusted-on flat tire and was hopeful it was the driver calling with an estimated time.

“Hiya, Sweetie!” I heard in a Texas twang.

My body instantly tightened and my adrenaline started running.

“Can I help you?” I asked, with obvious impatience in my voice.

“This is your tow-truck driver, sweetie! I’m just calling to let you know I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”

“Fine, thank you.” And I hung up.

Flash back to earlier in the week, when we had needed an electrician to come do some work on the house. I work at home, so it makes sense that I am the person who handles this sort of thing. Plus, I knew what needed to be done. The guy who came was a former marine and we chatted amicably a bit. After a few minutes, though, he came over and tapped the buttons that I always wear. 

“Before I start, I have a problem with this one” he said, tapping the Black Lives Matter pin on my clavicle.

I froze. Then we engaged in a conversation around why I wear the pins. I was tense the whole time – this guy was in my house and was definitely capable of overpowering me. Thankfully, it was nothing like the story Sarah Suze told on twitter of trying to sell her dryer, but you never know when these things can turn, do you? Eventually, I left the conversation and went to try to do something else while he did his work. I was exhausted when he left.

After I hung up the phone with the tow-truck driver, I turned to my spouse. “You have to handle this,” I told him. “I just can’t.”

He looked at me gently. I am usually the one who interfaces with people. I am the outgoing and friendly one. And I just couldn’t.  I was so thankful he was around. And I was so thankful I wasn’t stuck on the side of the road somewhere by myself, with this my only option.

When the truck pulled up, my spouse went out to to talk to them. First, an older Black man hopped out of the passenger side. And then a very friendly Latinx man exited the driver side. He was obviously the one with the Texas twang who had called me “sweetie.”

And all my fear disappeared.

I went outside, told them what was going on, and they removed the rusted on tire. They went on their way, I went mine, and I have been thinking about this encounter ever since.

Why did my fear disappear as soon as I saw who the men were? As soon as I saw they weren’t white.

The answer, which it took me a while to come to because I am a bit slow sometimes, is power. As a middle-class , white-collar white cis-woman, I have more power than those guys. In this way, I am a beneficiary of the systems of white supremacy ingrained in this country.

But the power that I have isn’t absolute, as I was reminded with the electrician. It is proximal power – power that comes from being white, being in proximity to those with the most power: white men.  

Sometimes, we white women mistake this proximal power for our own inherent power. We align ourselves with the white men, with the oppressors, rather than with others who are oppressed.  As Rebecca Traister aptly points out “White women, who enjoy proximal power from their association with white men, have often served as the white patriarchy’s most eager foot soldiers.” So true.  

In Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin observed that “From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.”

But when white men choose, they can take white women’s proximal power away. We see this most starkly with rape culture, where they protect their own and put the onus on a woman not to be raped rather than on a man not to rape, but this is not the only way it manifests. Mansplaining, interrupting, gaslighting, sea-lioning – all these bullying techniques, techniques designed to “keep women in their place”  are ways that white men strip away the proximal power of white women.

White women having proximal power that can be taken away puts us in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, which is exploited by white men’s divide and conquer tactics.  When we choose the illusion of safety and proximal power of our whiteness over the liberation of others, when we align ourselves with those in power, we forget that our proximal power is only that which is allowed. We forget that when we try to claim our power it is easily “written off as loudmouthed hysteria, or the dubious ravings of pussy-hatted suburbanites with itchy Etsy trigger fingers” (Traister). We are labeled nasty, impolite arrogant women who persist despite being told to be silent.

Our proximal power, which we think will protect us, often does the exact opposite. In the hierarchy of women, Dr. Christine Ford is at the top: white, cis, hetero, professional, well-educated. And white men ripped the carpet out from under her, didn’t they?  We white women benefit from systems like capitalism, colonization, and white supremacy but these systems were not made to give us our own power and so we are easily ignored, dismissed as hysterical.

And yet, look at what Dr. Ford’s courage has inspired! Men like Trump and McConnell have no idea the beast that they have unleashed, gliby commenting that it will all blow over. They have no idea that white women are waking to the illusion of proximal power and instead claiming our real power, which is a power-with instead of a power-over.

Some of us are a bit late to this party. Women of color have been telling us this for a long time, but we haven’t listened. Many of us haven’t felt as though we needed to listen because we thought the white men would protect us. We were wrong.

Our real power comes when align ourselves with others, like women of color, who are fighting for liberation. It comes when we stop seeking or expecting protection, much less permission, of white men. When we stop apologizing. Stop being polite, stop trying to keep the peace. Stop all the things that keep us in our place. We gain real power, power-with, when we resist the divide and conquer tactics and align ourselves with the liberation of others.

So what do we do? Once we realize our proximal power is so easily taken away, how do we begin to claim a more true, whole power-with?

It begins with listening to those who’ve been in this fight longer than us. Women of color, particularly Black women, know the landscape – they know how to sustain themselves over the long haul that is ahead. Listen to women of color, immigrants, and those from other marginalized communities.

It means standing up for ourselves. When that electrician tapped my pins, rather than trying to engage him in a conversation I should have loudly said that his touching me was unacceptable and asked him to leave. Scary stuff, I know, but how many times do we just accept it when we are cat-called, groped on the bus, mansplained on social media? We need to stop just saying “Oh, that will happen” and start enforcing our boundaries loudly and unignorably.

It means becoming a tribe with other women, no matter their age, race, creed, socio-economic status, etc. When we see another women being harassed or belittled, we must clearly, strongly and publicly align ourselves with her, whether that is in real life or online.  It means that, should we decide to #WomensStrike, we support those of us who are unable to rather than belittling them and further alienating them.

It means being humble when other women, particularly ones from marginalized communities, point out our growing edges. We have much to learn.

It means expanding our definition of allies: people across the gender spectrum, people across the sexual orientation spectrum, people with disabilities. This is intersectional work, and we need one another. Our liberation is all tied up together.

Finally, we need to stop making excuses for the male-identified people we love. We need to bring them along on our journeys and help them learn how to be a part of the solution instead of part of the problem. This isn’t always easy – they have even more unlearning to do than we do, more privilege that is at stake. They are often fragile and emotional and may feel attacked when we stand up for ourselves. There are some great articles online on how to do this.

When we do this, when we realize who our true allies and accomplices are in this fight, when we learn to listen with humility and allow ourselves to grow, then we will recognize the sham of proximal power and embrace our true power and use it for the liberation of all.

even optimists get the blues.

28 Aug
Ode to the Holy Spirit, by Dawn Wicklow

Ode to the Holy Spirit, by Dawn Wicklow

I saw it from across the room and knew immediately it was for me. I am not into art, but this painting captivated me – the colors, the lines, the way it caught the light. I knew it would fit beautifully on the mantle in my living room (and really class the place up, too), and so bought it and prepared accordingly.

When it arrived in the mail today, almost shredded, I felt a deep sense of loss – the loss of a beautiful, original piece of art that had touched me so deeply, combined with the loss of a plan for brightening my living room.

It has been a few weeks of compounding losses for me, and this was the final straw. I broke down in tears. Tears for the loss of the painting. Tears for my spouse, whose uncle just died. Tears for my mother, who lost her uncle on the same day as my spouse. Tears for the loss that came just as I was posting my blog about ultimate optimism – one that has caused a disruption in my family’s plans for the future. Tears for the loss of colleagues – so many have died in the past few weeks – and tears for my colleagues who step up to midwife the grief of others even as they grieve themselves. And too, tears for how much pain and suffering there is in our society right now.

Because this is how grief works: one strand gets connected to another, and another. Where I might be able to handle one strand or even two without much disruption in my day-to-day life, when it becomes a heavy net of strands woven together, even an ultimate optimist can collapse under the weight and retire to bed for recuperation. Which is what I did.

Is this hypocrisy? No, not at all. Being an ultimate optimist does not make one immune to sorrow. We still struggle with it, just like everyone else. We get sad. We cry. We mourn. What we don’t do, usually, is get stuck there permanently.

I am in bed today, and maybe even tomorrow. But I know that as I process the grief, these cracks in my broken heart will heal. And in my healing, I will be made more loving, more vulnerable, and perhaps even more human. As Leonard Cohen writes in his poem “Anthem”

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

Blessed be.


15 Mar

A twist on a twist on an old Zen Buddhist story…

One day, as a mother and her teenaged son were traveling through the countryside, they came to a river where the bridge had washed out. There they found an old woman, restlessly pacing the bank.


“Good day, madam!” the son called out. “Do you need any help?”

“Yes!” the old woman replied impatiently. “The bridge has washed out and I am needed immediately on the other side.”

“I am familiar with this river,” the mother shared. “It is not more than chest deep at the deepest spot. Perhaps my son and I can carry you across.”

“Well, lets hurry up and get on with it then!” the old woman said.

And so the mother and son decided that the son would start with carrying the old woman’s things and the mother would give the old woman a piggy-back ride across the river. They got the old woman onto the mother’s back and set across the river.

The water was cool but the current was not too swift as the threesome crossed. However, as they got towards the middle, the old woman shrieked out “My feet are getting wet! Carry me higher! My feet are getting wet!”

So there in the middle of the river, the son and the mother put the old woman upon his shoulders. But the old woman wasn’t stable there, so the mother had to brace and support her from the back. They continued on.

The old woman squirmed and squirmed, moaning about her wet feet. As she squirmed, she broke wind*, loudly and quite stinkily, into the mother’s face and the son’s neck.

Finally, they arrived at the other side of the river. The mother and son put the old woman down.

“About time!” she exclaimed as she grabbed her things, and she stomped off down the road without a backward glance.

The mother and son were glad that they were traveling in the opposite direction, and they continued upon their journey.

Before long, the son could not keep it in any longer. “The nerve of that old woman! She treated us like cattle, and then without even a ‘thank you’! I can’t believe how rude some people are.”

The mother nodded and agreed that the woman had been something.

As they continued, the son brought the old woman up again, and again. Each time, his blood pressure rose and he got more and more angry. His mother, however, didn’t seem to bothered by the experience at all. Finally, he couldn’t stand her lack of concern. “It was YOUR face she tooted* into! How can you be so nonchalant?” he demanded.

“Dear son, I forgave the old woman and put her down miles ago. You seem to still be carrying her.”


* When this was originally posted, it included the word “fart” in place of these euphemisms. However, it was quickly pointed out to me that for some people, that word is the “f-word” that should take its place with the other seven dirty words. I had no idea!   In my family, growing up and today, the word “fart” is as innocuous as its gas passing cousin “burp”.  However, in deference to those who find the word “fart” to be highly offensive, I have edited the story while maintaining, I believe, the impact. 

the not-too-distant past…

3 Oct

Do You Remember When…?
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 23, 2012

Listen here.

I have preached a lot about the future – about where we are going, about what struggles we face, about the unclear and uncertain future. And this is all well and good, but I pray I never forget the power of past stories, and the importance in telling them as a way of rooting who we are in our history so that our branches might reach for the sky in the future. Indeed, the future of this congregation, is grounded in its past: a lively, exciting, rich and meaningful past. Not without its struggles, of course, but also not without its moments of celebration.

In the Steeple-room, through those doors, is a plaque that lists the ministers who have served this congregation. It is a humbling plaque for me to look at, with the names of some giants in our tradition – giants who shaped their futures, what we now call our present – in real and powerful ways.

This congregation was founded almost 200 years ago, in 1830 as an outpost to the west. In 1833, it hired James Freeman Clark as one of the first ministers. Clark went on to lead the expansion of Unitarianism into the midwestern states. He was driven, and without his ambition, Unitarianism may never have made it into the frontier states.

John Healy Heywood came here as minister in 1840, planning on staying only a few months, and ended up stayed for 37 years! During his time be became Superintendent of the Louisville Public Schools. He also oversaw the 1870 merger of First Unitarian with the Universalist church in town – 91 years before the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists created Unitarian Universalism – our current living tradition.

The original First Unitarian Church building was out at what is now 5th and Muhammad Ali. Back then it was 5th and Walnut. The original Universalist church was nicknamed “The Devil’s Chapel” and was on the corner of Market and 8th. But when the churches merged, they not only took on a new name (The Church of the Messiah) but also built a new buil

In 1870, the first building on this site was built. Unfortunately, the sanctuary burned down on December 31, 1871. The new sanctuary was rededicated a year later, on December 15. Remember, remember, the month of December – it comes up again in a few minutes.

Fast forward to the early 20th century. Another giant in our tradition who served this congregation as minister was Lon Ray Call who is remembered as the “father of the fellowship movement.” He looked at the lay-led Universalist churches around Kentucky and thought that it would be an ideal way to spread the liberal religious message, so after leaving here he went around helping Fellowships to start up, encouraging them to continue to be lay led.

And there is more, much, much more. I highly urge you to read John Findling & Jennifer Lavery’s fabulous history.

But that is not really what I meant to talk about today. On this day of remembering, I wanted to focus on the years between about 1930 and 2000. So many of you shared stories – stories of why you loved the church, of what it was like, stories of struggle, of conflict, stories of real people who live in in our hearts and memories even if they no longer live and breathe among us.

During the Depression, churches were really struggling, but First Unitarian was a warm and welcoming place for its members. It was a formal church at that time, with specially printed certificates for new births and for other life milestones. Attendance awards were given in Sunday School. It was a two-hour church, also, with Sunday School for adults and children at 9:30 and the worship service at 11. Many kids would skip the worship, going home with adults to get ready for the main meal of the day, or hanging around downtown (don’t get any ideas!). Some kids joined the choir, which did mean they had to stay for the service.

Dick Seebode, the minister during the Depression years, brought the first Candlelight Christmas Eve Vespers Service to First Unitarian. While other churches were doing midnight mass, First Unitarian had their service at 5:00 so that you could go home, have dinner, and open gifts after the service. The only time this changed for close to half a century was when the organist, who was a student at the Baptist Seminary, had to leave to head home, so the service that year was moved to 4.

Christmas Eve Vespers, or “Vespers” as it is often called, became an important tradition in the life of First U. It was a blend of beautiful music and the spoken word. In the later years of the 20th century, Vespers was preceded by a half-hour of vocal and instrumental preludes, with an orchestra often being brought in, and section leaders for the choir. Eric Tachau would stand by the old fuse-box to control the lights for the service.

During WWII, there was an influx of new people. The first hour Sunday School was eliminated due to traffic concerns – even high schools were starting later to reduce morning rush. An alleged Nazi spy was apparently arrested at a church supper. Everything was done by the Board and Women’s Alliance and Sunday School Department.

First Unitarian Church had a tradition of closing down in the summer – a tradition that came both from its New England roots and from the fact that it was a Southern church with no air conditioning. There would be a big picnic at the top of Iroquois park at the end of the church year. This was around the 2nd Sunday in June. And then there would be nothing until the Sunday after Labor Day, when church would start back up again.

The Young Peoples Religious Union met on Sunday nights. This was the time for the senior high school youth to meet with the minister, Carl Bildorf, to talk about what it meant to be a Unitarian. The Bible was on the podium most week. While other Unitarian churches around the country were leaning towards humanism, First U kept a friendly balance between the humanists and the theists.

And there were a lot of social clubs: the Channing club, the Heywood club, eventually the Couples Club (which changed its name once a prominent member divorced but continued to attend).

The original building was very old, and very formal. If you go look at the pictures outside my office door, you will see the old woodwork along the walls and ceiling. You would walk in the doors off 4th street into the back of the sanctuary. There were two sections of pews with a center aisle and walkways along the side. The sanctuary was long, with the chancel where the bay window in the social hall now is. The original organ was on the side, but in the 70s a new tracker organ was bought and installed right in the center of the chancel, so it was behind the minister as he spoke. Organ tours would come in to see this new, fancy organ.

At the beginnings and ends of the service, the choir would process in, and out. At the end,
they would stand in the side section where the doors to our sanctuary now are and sing a 7-fold amen at the end of most services!

Behind the sanctuary, where our courtyard is now, was Breaux Hall – the social hall on the first floor where coffee hour was. The kitchen was originally on the 2nd floor, so there was a dumbwaiter system. After WWII, there was a renovation that moved the kitchen downstairs and gave more classroom space for Sunday School Upstairs.

The growth continued in the 50 and 60s, when the minister at the time, Robert Terry Weston, was a regular panelist on the popular local TV show “The Moral Side of the News.” In fact, the church grew so much that they were able to buy some land and send 50 families out to the “suburbs” to start Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church.

Jump ahead to the 70s, a time of change for the congregation. Bob Reed was the minister, who would see the congreation through this time of change. Guitars were brought in for worship service music. There were streakers at the beginning of one worship service – not planned. No one knows if they were members or not – but they ran through the center aisle and out the building.

There were also important traditions: the annual fire drill, the Christmas Fair. And the Haunted House that the middle schoolers would put on in the basement – fondly remembered by many folks. The youth would spend the night before making the basement as creepy as possible. If you have been in the basement, you get the sense that you probably couldn’t quite tell if the spiderwebs were real or fake.

The church was involved in the arts and the community. They did a production of Fiddler on the Roof, and danced the Hora around the whole sanctuary. The Senior High youth brought in the original Nervous Melvin and the Mistakes one year. To the surprise of the youth, a matriarch of the church came up to them after the service to thank them. At the end of the church year, Anne Miller, the longtime Director of Religious Education (who served as DRE from 1965 to 1990!) would have a balloon tree and kids would get balloons and RE teachers would get plants.

When the church finally was able to buy Heywood House, the house next door to the church, the youth were put to work cleaning woodwork and tile. They tore up linoleum, scraped clean the fireplaces. And as a reward, they got to decorate their own room on the third floor. A much brighter, more welcoming, less moldy space than their old room buried in the bowels of the basement.

A first hour got added again on Sunday mornings. Guest speakers from the larger community were brought in for an adult Forum, and the kids had Anne Miller guiding them in all sorts of enriching activities.

A recounting like this can’t help but miss important details. And certainly, there were struggles, like the decision to stay out of the Sanctuary movement in the 70s. But even a broad look such as this would be remiss if it left out the events of December 14, 1985. Remember, remember, the month of December. A fire at the church in the middle of the night. A column of smoke so high and large it could be seen for many miles. It was bitterly cold and the water from the hoses was freezing on ladders, poles, and from the hats of the many firefighters on site. The building was engulfed. At the end, what was left was a steaming pile of embers and the inflammable stone outer walls, which still stand today. When you leave through the sanctuary doors, you can still see the scorch marks. Or the next time you are in the steeple room, look up, and see history.

The wayside pulpit that was up during the fire would prove to inspire the congregation: The place that may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

First U chose to rebuild rather than relocate. To stay downtown. To use the historical old walls to create something new. Something beautiful, something unique. And in the choosing, redefined the experience of the fire: Yes, it was an end. An end to grieve, with many losses. And it was a beginning. A new time, a new chance.

For the fire was not the ending. As we come up on the thirtieth anniversary of the fire, we find a community that moved forward, who continued to have stories to tell. Like about how outlandish the Announcements became. Leading up the Service Auction, Gene Miller would always brandish a fresh crisp new hundred dollar bill during the announcements. The first year he did it Alice Culin, a young child at the time, won it!!! Stories about Al and Idell Rosen who were great supporters of both the Youth Group and welcoming of new members. At one point, Al came dancing down the aisle in a wrinkled black garbage bag, to the tune of “Heard it Thru the Grapevine”, to announce a wine tasting fund raiser at his home.

Stories about Otter Creek weekend, which was a highlight of the church year for many members and friends, coming right after the final service of each summer back before we changed to year-around services. This community-wide campout was a carryover from the tradition of having a picnic at Iroquois Park and became very popular.

Or stories about the Schmutz sisters. The sisters all had memories of attending Sunday School at the chapel in the Highlands. They also remembered attending moving picture shows at the Church, one of the only churches to indulge in such modern amusements at the turn of the century. The sisters always said that they were leaving money to the church, but everyone was completely blown away when the actual amount of $250,000 was announced.

And stories about how each person brings something unique and precious to this congregation. We sometimes forget this – we are only human after-all – but when we remember, it can be beautiful. Like at an annual meeting where the Board proposed a budget that sparked intense debate. Not only did people speak in direct opposition to one another, they did so persistently and vehemently. In the end, the final budget contained few elements that had been originally recommended by the Board. You probably can’t even tell what year this was, since it happens so frequently.

One member, new at the time, shares that when the minister asked what she had thought about the meeting, she admitted that she was taken aback and slightly shocked by the differing opinions and how oppositional the discussion had been. The minister, Richard Beale, responded by saying “But isn’t it wonderful that people are so passionate about our church?” Which sparked a new appreciation for the church in this member, because it meant that even though we as congregants can disagree intensely with each other, we still “respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and we truly can “seek the truth in love.”

Or when an older member and a younger member argued in an RE class, and afterwards the older member put her arm around the younger member and said “Wasn’t that fun?” – modeling to the younger member that bickering can be okay, that disagreeing can be wonderful when there is mutual respect and love.

These are the themes that I found over and over in the stories people shared: That First Unitarian Church has a history and a vision of trying to be a place of welcome and safety, of warmth and community. We fail sometimes, of course, but we keep trying. And we have a tradition of truly enjoying each other, drawing support from each other. And we endure. For 182 years so far, this church has endured – it has grown and shrunk, faced challenges and emerged (somethings scathed, sometimes not), we have adapted, and tried so hard to live into our values and principles. This is all part of our shared story, and what a story it is indeed.

So even though the future may be uncertain, we are grounded in this rich past. It gives us firm footing as we reach for the sky. May it be so, may we strive always to make it so.


7 Mar

A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on March 4, 2012

Listen to this sermon here.  For context, we had a family who lost much in the recent tornados share their story. We did a collection for the Red Cross Disaster Relief.

The sermon notes below have some overlap with what I actually preached on Sunday morning (read about what happened at my earlier blog entry), but if you are trying to listen and follow the outline at the same time, you will get lost. Also, I will have to save my story of my Grandmother and her faith as a formative presence in my life for another time.

If you are looking for something more spiritual, listen to the sermon.
If you are looking for something intellectual, the sermon notes section below has more “information.”

Reading from Faith by Sharon Salzberg

The tendency to equate faith with doctrine, and then argue about terminology and concepts, distracts us from what faith is actually about. In my understanding, whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.

For some this will be a very different approach to faith. Many link faith to narrow-minded belief systems, lack of intelligent examination, or pain at having one’s questions silenced. Faith might evoke images of submission to an external authority. Historically, the idea of faith has been used to slice cleanly between those who belong to a select group and those who do not. To fuel their own embittered agendas, fanatics harness what they call faith to hatred.

I want to invite a new use of the word faith, one that is not associated with dogmatic religious interpretation or divisiveness. I want to encourage delight in the word, to help reclaim faith as fresh, vibrant, intelligent, and librating. This is a faith that emphasizes a foundation of love and respect for ourselves. It is a faith that uncovers our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart.

Faith does not require a belief system, and is not necessarily connected to a deity or God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith is not a commodity we either have or don’t have – it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.

Sermon Notes

What do you think of when you hear the word “Faith”?

1.”Other” Slayer on BtVS
2.George Michael song
3.Profession of faith (list of beliefs)
4.My grandmother (whose faith I admired)

Not Sharon Salzberg’s idea expressed in our reading.

That is changing – book challenges us to broaden our understandings of faith.

Not talking about Fowler’s 6 stages of faith development, which has virtually no correlation with how an individual lives their day to day life.

Faith, according to Salzberg, is what gets us out of bed in the morning. It motivates our actions, it grounds us, it is what we build our lives around.

This felt so amorphous to me, so my first task was to understand what “faith” means. I struggled to understand the similarities and difference between faith, belief, hope and trust.

Finally came to understand: Faith is the ability to act on an informed trust and hope. It is future oriented.

“ability to act” is very important. Faith implies movement, action. In Pali, Hebrew and Latin, faith is actually a verb.
Difference with faith and belief is the forward thinking action oriented. Belief does not necessarily cause you to act on the belief. Faith implies shaping your viewpoint.

Belief more intellectual
Faith is spiritual

Faith is the journey, not the destination. It is for this reason that it is a word that I believe has an important place for Unitarian Universalists, that we not just throw the word out. Because we are a people who understand that it is a religious impulse to search for truth and meaning. This search is a faithful act!

Faith says “I don’t know what will happen on this journey, but I will travel it anyway. Everything may, or may not be alright, but that is besides the point.”

When we don’t have faith, we may not be able to put our foot on the path, to start or continue the journey. We are likely to experience the opposite of faith: despair.

Those who have felt suicidal often feel a loss of hope. But those who complete suicide also often experience a loss of faith. When we have faith, our hope might falter but we trust that we might find hope again. When we lose faith that we might ever feel hope again, we succumb to the despair.

In the movie Hugo, George “Mel-YEZ” filmmaker – lost faith in industry, in himself.
Stuck for a long time. Broken.
When his faith was restored, he resumed his journey.

Faith moves, requires putting one foot in front of another.

But does not ask us to walk blindly: Doubt is an important aspect of faith.

This is what I am talking about when I mention “informed” trust and hope. Faith encourages us to ask questions.

Salzberg calls it “verifying faith”

Anglican Priest Kenneth Leech “True faith can only grow and mature if it includes the elements of paradox and creative doubt. Such doubt is not the enemy of faith but an essential element of it, for faith does not bring the false peace of answered questions and resolved paradoxes.”

This is the kind of faith my grandmother had, that I so admired.

  • “Good Christian woman”
  • Known her share of suffering
  • devoted to her church
  • Religious faith was the cornerstone of her life.

Yet she always questioned. She did not know the answer to many of my questions. Doubt was “like butterflies” flitting around her.

Blind faith, a faith we don’t question, is dangerous. Leads us to trust in things, people, that may harm us or others. Blind faith is unhealthy.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are not asked to have blind faith, but instead are encouraged to doubt, to ask questions.
“To question truly is an answer” we sing in one of our hymns that we will sing later this month.

Popular reading in our hymnal, by Rev. Robert T. Weston (minister of this congregation in the mid 20th century) reads:
Cherish your doubts, for doubt is the attendant of truth. Doubt is the key to the door of knowledge; it is the servant of discovery.

This is the kind of faith that I think Unitarian Universals can work with: A faith that can be, but certainly does not have to be, connected with a deity. A faith that asks questions. That causes us to move. Faith as an ability to act on an informed trust and hope, knowing that the way may be hard, and the path unclear but that it is the journey that matters, not the destination.

Faith tradition vs denomination

As we search for truth and meaning;
As we accept one another and encourage each other on our journeys
May we have faith that it is so, and by having faith, may we make it so.

racial justice as a necessary component to the beloved community.

9 Feb

I don’t usually post First Unitarian Church events here, but this month is pretty spectacular, so I thought I would share.

Our ministry theme for February is “Beloved Community” and this year we are focusing on Racial Justice: Historically and Today.

Our Covenant Groups are meeting to learn and explore Beloved Community. In addition, everyone is invited to participate in any the following activities:

February 5
9:30am Round Table Discussion
Watch and discuss part one of the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion”

10:55am Celebration of Life
Racial Justice in Louisville and First U’s Involvement. In this sermon, I used a story from Eric Tachau that people really liked. You can read that story and more here.

February 19
10:55am Celebration of Life
The Invisible Knapsacks We Carry, a service that explores white privilege

February 23
6:30pm Book Discussion
Join me and others at Unity Church (757 South Brook Street) to discuss “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by long time civil rights advocate and litigator Michelle Alexander.

February 24
7:00pm “Ain’t No Massa Over Me” Performance
This play has been performed for the past 3 years in Hodgenville, KY at the request of their mayor. It is currently on tour. Catch it at First U! The play is the powerful story of one slave family’s experience of the emancipation. After the play there will be a discussion/talk-back in the social hall. No tickets required, donations appreciated.

February 26
9:30am Round Table Discussion
Watch and discuss part two of the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion”

10:55am Celebration of Life
Contemporary Racial Justice Issues (alternate title: “No, we are not a post-racial culture”)

March 4
9:30am Round Table Discussion
Watch and discuss part three of the documentary “Race: The Power of an Illusion”

the story.

27 Sep

Here is the wonderful piece done by Adam Lefkoe and Michael Driver at WHAS.  It is now available on YouTube.

This one is sooooo much better than the shortened piece that CNN used.  It tells a rich story and isn’t going for sensationalism.

ministry and roller derby.

23 Sep


A hearty welcome to all of you who have come here, looking for more information about me, the Rev. Dawn Cooley, also known as “Liv Fearless”.

Maybe you saw the wonderful piece our local news folks did, or read about it on facebook, or saw it on To be honest, I am humbled by how many of you have seen it and been inspired, or have reached out to connect with me. Thank you, and yes, I am crying again. I do that quite a lot, as my congregation will tell you.

I thought it would be a good idea to give you more information about my church and my team. So here you go! Also, if you are interested in the sermon I wrote for that service, you can get to it at:

I skate as “Liv Fearless” for the Derby City Roller Girls. My bootcamp started in March 2010, so I am pretty new at this but I have taken to it like a fish to water. I love it. I love my teammates, I love the physicality of it, I love it. Its not all roses, of course – hanging out with a bunch of strong women creates conflict and tension, but we all are in it together and that sure goes a long way. We are in our training season right now, so I don’t have a game schedule to share with you yet, but I can tell you we are working hard to pull together some fun activities for those of you who might be in town.

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister and I serve First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY. My congregation has been in Louisville since 1830 – it was one of the first churches in the town! We are a liberal religious congregation made of people from all walks of life. We welcome everyone, without regard to theological preference, sexual or gender orientation, race, age, culture, ability level, education level, socio-economic class….EVERYONE! I love that our fellowship/coffee hour after the service will have a president of a university talking with someone who currently lives in a shelter, a Wiccan chatting it up with an Athiest, a 5th grader getting coffee for one of our octogenarians.

We are a member congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Association. If you’re interested in the exciting, free faith tradition known as Unitarian Universalism, visit our Association’s web site at

And if you are interested in learning more about me, well, you found my blog so have fun checking it out! And feel free to contact me if you have more questions.

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