Tag Archives: FirstULou

the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

7 Nov

My good-bye sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY on October 23, 2016.

As we all know, today is a very special day. Today, we celebrate the Cubs making it into the World Series.

Just kidding. Unless you are a Cubs Fan.

No, today is special because it is the last time I will stand before you as your minister. At the end of today, I will turn in my keys, say my final goodbyes, and take a week off before I start my work for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association.


The wayside pulpit at First Unitarian Church on the night of a devastating fire in December 1985.

Last sermon for you. Oh my goodness. There are so, so many things I want to say. When I write a sermon, I usually throw out a rough draft or maybe two, but this sermon has had at least 5 different versions. At one point, I thought I’d do a narrative: tell my story, tell your story, tell the story of our time together, and then talk about your future and what hopes I have for you. Another version had me listing all your ministers – I was going to ask you to raise your hand or stand up for each minister you remembered. I wanted to demonstrate that though my ministry with you is transient, the ministry continues. This is why ministers generally cut off contact with congregants when they leave – to make room for the next minister to fill the role.

I even made a spreadsheet with all your ministers – settled and interim (I am number 28!) – and I included not just their start and end dates, but how old they were when they started. It was pretty neat to discover that in terms of length of ministry and age when I started, I’m actually a pretty average minister for you! But as fascinating as spreadsheets and data mining are to me, it is not a suitable topic for a last sermon. And, truly, this last sermon – it’s not about me. It’s about you.

I want you to walk away from today uplifted, hopeful, and grateful for our time together. I want you to walk away emboldened and energized to live your mission. No, I won’t be with you, but again, it’s not about me. It’s about how First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY embodies our saving faith in this neighborhood and beyond. I want to remind you that you are a beacon!

So many of you have told me, these last few weeks, how this church has saved you – not in some other life, but in this life, here and now. In a world that tries to convince people otherwise, you shared with me how healing it is to be told, each week, that you are lovable and that you are loved.

So many people are looking for a place where they are accepted, no matter their educational background, their theology or lack thereof. People are looking for a place where their gender identity and sexual orientation are not only accepted but celebrated. People are looking for a place where their quirks are tolerated, where it’s okay if they’ve served time, where their family structure is supported, where they will be told that black lives matter, and where they can get into and out of and around the building independently whether on wheels or on legs.

There is so, so much pain in this world. So much “othering” of anyone who does not fit society’s arbitrary standards. So many people are looking for ways through the confusion, looking for the transformational power of love that First Unitarian Church offers. And then, once you experience it and begin to heal, it is natural to want to give back. To serve this congregation that helped to save you.

This is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist – that you know it is your responsibility to love and help others once you have experienced that love and acceptance yourself. Mark Morrison Reed wisely wrote that it is in being loved that we learn to love. We cannot, must not, hide our light under a bushel – it is not only irresponsible, but it is wrong. Wrong to keep this saving faith to ourselves.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to put ourselves out there. To help bind up the broken, the love the hell out the world and to love each other out of hell.

How will First Unitarian continue to do this? How will you continue to embody and incarnate your mission, even in these few months before the interim minister arrives?

When I look back, I see that we have done great things together in the last 7.5 years. We’ve worked on what it means to welcome people – the welcoming statement that’s on every order of service and the website is a living document that is constantly being added to, expanded. We joined CLOUT in an effort to use our privilege to amplify the voices of those too often silenced. We made our bathrooms accessible to all genders. We gave Religious Exploration its own hour and welcomed children into worship. We have used this building as outreach to the community: offering affordable space to Central Louisville Community Ministries, FORward radio, and two other worshiping congregations! We have strived for excellence in worship and in all we do. We have argued, debated, and even changed positions when we thought we were entrenched.

We have done amazing ministry together.

Now you are at an intersection – my ministry with you has reached its end. We each will go our separate ways.

Which way will go you?

Will you turn inward? Let any anger or frustration, or even fear, or sorrow about my departure cause you to pull back into yourself? Will you hide your light so that only those already here will see it?

Or, will you use this time to flourish? Will you continue to be a beacon of liberal religion here in Kentuckiana? Continue to share our saving faith with those who need it? This, this is my hope for you.

But how do you do that between now and when your next minister arrives? I’ve told the Board and leadership that the #1 thing that I think you need to, in order to continue to be the beacon you ought to be, and indeed, even to help you figure out who to call as your next minister, the #1 thing you need is a plan. A strategic plan.

You need goals. Priorities and objectives that you can measure against – priorities that can drive your budgeting choices – whether that budgeting is financial, or even when you are budgeting how much volunteer or staff energy you have. Because you can’d do and be everything.

One thing I do not recommend you put in that plan is to grow your membership. For too many years, Unitarian Universalist congregations were told that they were only successful if they were growing. What we know now is that the vast majority of congregations, Unitarian Universalist and otherwise, are dying. Growth in membership, for the sake of growth in membership, is an unrealistic target. And then it feels like a failure when it doesn’t happen.

But there are other important ways you can grow: you can grow in how you incarnate, embody, your mission and vision. You can grow in spiritual depth. You can grow in your organizational capacity.

The reality is that your options are not limitless. They are bounded by your financial capacity and the amount of energy needed to accomplish something. But you are are so rich both in terms of finances and in terms of volunteer and staff energy, you certainly have many, many options!!

Yes, you are financially very well off. I’m taking a Finance Management for Nonprofits graduate class right now – we are learning about debt ratio and assets. Let me tell you: no one should ever claim that there is “not enough” here – because there is abundance! You have no debt, you are generous pledgers, you have an amazing endowment and you are wrapping up a wildly successful capital campaign.

And yes, you are very well off in terms of volunteer and staff energy. You are a congregation that knows how to support your minister, that strives to be fair in how you pay your staff. You are a congregation that says “yes” to ideas that members come up with. You are a congregation that has learned how to rise above conflict to do the right thing, even when it is HARD. You have abundance, in finances and in the amount of talent, skills and energy people have to get the job done.

What you don’t have, yet, is a plan against which to measure your decisions. You are reaching out in every direction – a mile wide and an inch deep. This applies to how you do your finances, how you do your social justice work, and it applies to pretty much everything. This is the shadow side of being a “yes!” congregation without a plan: everything gets stretched too thin and it feels like there is not enough. But if you focus, if you know where you want to go and can set goals and objectives, then you will know how to prioritize your resources and how to better utilize and manage them. There is abundance here. It just needs to be be harnessed properly, and pointed in the right direction.

Of course, this means change. It means potentially sunsetting programs that don’t energize people, programs that don’t measure well against your plan or your mission. It means change, and change means loss. But it also means growth and possibility. A new day.

I want you to shine. I want you to pick a direction and point your light that way, and start moving, confidently and with conviction.

I will be watching. And rooting for you. And talking you up to my colleagues. You are an essential part of my ministry – your sap runs through my veins. You taught me, gave me confidence in myself as a minister, helped me grow my gifts and talents. You allowed me to take risks, and to fail, and to know that that is okay. James Keller pointed out that “A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle.” I burn brightly because you lit my flame. And so I take you with me wherever I go.

But I am not the bright light of this church. You all are. You own the ministry. You light the beacon and keep it burning. If you think I hung the moon, it is only because you built a ladder for me to reach it. This is my final task for you: seek to embody your mission, relentlessly, and First Unitarian Church will continue to shine, as it has for nearly 200 years. I love you. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

the place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

14 Dec

That Which May Seem Like The End…
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on December 13, 2015

Listen here:

Today, we’re going to do a bit of time travel. But I don’t have a hot-tub, or a delorean. Nor do I have either a tardis or a phone booth. Instead, we are going to have to use our imaginations.

We are going to go back 30 years. Right here, on this very corner of 4th and York.

So close your eyes, let me do some magic. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus. And now open them up.

01-pre1950So, here we are standing outside the church, in 1985.

Wait, what? That’s not 1985! I think we overshot it by about 50 years! Okay, close your eyes again, and let’s try again. Hoogade boogade, hokus pocus.

02-pre-fire from 800Ok, close enough. So here we are, standing on the balcony of the 800 building across the street, looking down at First U. As you can see, the old steeple is still in place, and the old peaked roof. Where our church library is now, in 1985 there green space between the church and Heywood House.

If we go inside the church, we will see it looks a bit different, too.

03-Sanctuary 1985This is what our sanctuary looked like in 1985. You can see that it is lovely – old, dark wood, lovingly oiled and polished since 1872. We faced a different direction then – those windows on your left were the main doors, and the pews faced east, towards what is now the courtyard. The bay window area in our social hall is where the chancel, or stage area, was, with the pulpit, and an amazing organ that was only about 15 years old.

The sanctuary was very different. And the church was different, too. Rev. Bob Reed, the beloved minister who had served the congregation for 17 years, had left just a few months earlier, and the congregation was in search for a new minister. The interim minister was the Rev. Virginia Knowles, the first woman minister to serve the congregation. Anne Miller was 17 years into the 23 years of service she gave as First Unitarian’s Director of Religious Education. Penny Nader was president of the board. The congregation had about 300 members, about 50% more than our membership today.

December 13, 1985, exactly 30 years ago, was a Friday. The weather was a bit cooler than average for December in Louisville, with the high in the upper 30s and the lows in the low 20s.

That Friday night, there was a pizza party for the church youth. They were here, eating pizza, having fun and fellowship. Carol and John Findling were the chaperones.

As the evening wore on, the temperature outside continued to drop. A cold front was moving in. But the church was toasty and warm – Carol even remembers thinking that it was a bit too warm. The boiler had been acting up but a technician was scheduled to come the next week to service it, and there was nothing else that could be done. As the pizza party wrapped up, Carol and John locked up the church and headed home.

Temperatures continue to drop – almost to the single digits.

And then, something happened. We still don’t know exactly what, though suspicions fall on that pesky boiler.

The fire department got the first call at 3:27am, and the second alarm followed 14 minutes later. First Unitarian Church, at 4th and York, was on fire.

04-nightime burningIt wasn’t long before between 65-75 firefighters and 15 pieces of fire apparatus were on site, trying to contain the blaze. A wall collapsed on one firefighter, David Miracle, and he was taken to the hospital with severe injuries and burns. 2 other firefighters were sent to the hospital but soon released. Many others suffered injuries sustained from the combination of water and 12 degree temperatures outside.

As it became more and more clear that the church would be a total loss, firefighters worked to make sure it didn’t spread. There were watchers in nearby buildings and up on ladders, making sure sparks didn’t ignite the roofs of other nearby buildings.

The church sexton and his family, who lived in Heywood House (which is where the parlor, church offices, and some of the RE classes are today), were evacuated along with their cats. Firefighters continued to hose down Heywood House, and miraculously it didn’t catch fire.

07-smoulderingAs the sun rose, the scene was one of devastation.

Breaux hall, the social hall that was where the courtyard is now, was gone. The RE classrooms were gone. The sanctuary was gone.

For 114 years, the church had stood at 4th and York. And now it was gone. All that remained were the stone walls.

08-firefighter in rubbleThere were at least three miracles in this fire. The first: David Miracle, the critically injured firefighter, would heal and return to his vocation. The second: that Heywood House, mere feet from the inferno, suffered only minimal damage. The third miracle is the one that would help guide the congregation and give it fortitude in the years to come: The wayside pulpit sign, which still today is on our York Street side, provided this advice:

05-wayside pulpit with firefighterThe place which may seem like the end may also be only the beginning.

Arrangements were quickly made for the congregation to worship at Spalding, just a few doors down, on Sunday morning. The planned service was scrapped, and Rev. Knowles instead provided space for people to mourn – it was a service not at all unlike a memorial service.

And just as quickly, Calvary Episcopal across the parking lot, offered their church for our Christmas Eve service. All over town, and beyond, congregations who had also experienced fires reached out to First Unitarian and shared what they could.

In the days that followed, firefighters braced the walls so that they wouldn’t fall in the road or on passers-by.The burned steeple was removed.

12-rebuildingIn the bitter cold, congregants salvaged what they could from the rubble. Some books, some music, but there was not much that could be saved.

Reporters asked Penny Nader and Rev. Knowles: What would the congregation do? Would it stay downtown? Would it rebuild elsewhere?

09-post-fire from 800Almost immediately, the congregation decided to rebuild in place. Insurance would cover much of the rebuilding, and the identity as a downtown congregation was the heart and soul of the church – they had already planted a church in the suburbs. They would stay downtown.

Some were concerned about what the fire would mean for the congregation’s search for a new minister. Richard Beale, a minister in Maine who was looking for a new congregation to serve, found exactly the challenge he was looking for in this fire. He, too, understood the wisdom of the wayside pulpit quote.

In the years that followed, the congregation went through a lot. They met at different places: Spalding, and Plymouth Congregational Church, West End Congregational Church and elsewhere. They brought in experts to design the new building – a building that would be featured locally and beyond for its architectural blending of old and new – a building built with the original walls.

For some, this time of transition was too much, and they left the church. But others stayed. And those who stayed were brought together. They had to choose to stay, and in making that commitment, dedicated themselves to the future of the congregation.

The first service in the new building, in the building we are in now, was held on March 26, 1989. Easter Sunday. We’ll have to wait three and a quarter years for part 2 of this sermon, which will be the story of the new building and where we have gone since then.

First Unitarian Church burned, but like a phoenix (an icon that would continue to inspire) it rose again out of the ashes. The devastation that at first may have seemed like an end, truly became a beginning. And we continue to live this legacy today.

In just a few moments, I will open the floor for reflections from those of you who were there. What do you remember most about the old church? And what did the fire mean to you? But before that sharing, let us return to December 13, 2015. Close your eyes…Hocus Pocus.

IMG_4313Ahh, it is good to be back in 2015. Thank you for time traveling with me today.

Musical interlude

I can only imagine what it might have been like on that night 30 years ago, and in the days, weeks and months that followed. But I know many of you were there. I invite you now to tell your story about the fire and it’s aftermath. How was the fire an ending for you? And how was it also a beginning?


Thank you for sharing your stories. I invite everyone to celebrate these stories, and perhaps continue the conversation, over cake during coffee hour. And as you leave, think about how long these walls have stood here on this corner, and what they have endured, and what stories they might tell were they able.

10-Rebuilding wayside pulpitFirst Unitarian Church has been living it’s mission in downtown Louisville since 1830, and right here at 4th and York since 1870. And we have been worshipping in this uplifting, light-filled, beautiful space since 1989. This congregation has suffered fire, flood and homelessness, but it never lost its identity as an urban church.

May this history and this identity continue to inform us today. And whenever we may find ourselves at an impasse, may we be heartened by the knowledge that what at first might seem like an end, may really and truly be just the beginning.

welcoming all genders.

19 May

Listen Here
Part 1:

Part 2:


Moment for all Ages


Imagine with me for a moment. Imagine that someone asks you what happens if you decide to no longer be whatever gender you are – if you change your mind. For most of us, that must seem like one of the strangest questions in the world. We know what gender we are, we’ve always known what gender we are, and while there are always pluses and minuses, we’re probably pretty okay with it.

But for others of us, this question is one that gets asked on a regular basis. “Are you sure that you’re really the gender you claim to be?” people ask. On a regular basis, some people have to defend who they know they are at the very core of their being. All because they don’t fit into the prescribed gender boxes that society wants them to fit into. There is a great interview with Jazz where the interviewer asks Jazz this question, and Jazz astutely responds “That’s like me asking if you are sure you’re a woman. That is what is like for me too,” she explains.

chaliceAs Unitarian Universalists, we want to be welcoming to all those who might find a religious home with us. We understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. We value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. We understand that all of who you are is sacred. We want to be a safe community where everyone is told that you are lovable and you are loved, and that all of who you are is welcome here.

I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want Jazz and her family to find a religious home with us were they to come here. I know, beyond any doubt, that we would want them to feel the warm embrace of a loving, respectful community that would stand by them and be their allies in a world that too often feels like a war against their very existence. I know, beyond any doubt, that this welcoming is something that is very, very important to our core sense of who we are.

And I know, beyond any doubt, that we often do not do enough to make what we want, and what we say, a reality. I know this because I’ve heard it. And it usually sounds something like “I’m just not sure I’m safe here.”

So how do we bridge this gap between the type of religious congregation that we so desperately want to be, and where we are in reality right now?

Step one is education. And in order to get to the other steps, we need to do a little bit of education right now. For some of you, this might seem old hat, but for many of you this is very confusing stuff. That’s okay – especially since as society grows in our understanding and awareness of gender identity, this stuff is changing. Rapidly.**

5bodyThe first thing to understand is that there is a difference between biological sex and gender identity.

Biological sex is the purple circle in the picture to the left.  It refers to what genitalia you are born with, and there are not only 2, but at least three possibilities: male, female, or intersex.

Gender identity is a person’s internal sense of being a man, a woman, a girl, a boy, none of these, both, and so on; it’s about one’s inner sense of being, and is represented by the grey brain in the picture. Everyone has a gender identity, even if it is not a common one.

When a person’s gender identity and biological sex are the same, they are said to be cisgender.

When a person’s biological sex and gender identity are not the same, the individual may identify as transgender, queer, or gender-nonconforming.

Gender expression, the green box, refers to how we present ourselves to the rest of the world in terms of clothing, communication patterns and interests. A person’s gender expression may or may not be consistent with socially prescribed gender roles, and may or may not reflect their gender identity.

For most of us, our biological sex, our gender identity, and our gender presentation all line up with one another. But for others of us, they don’t.

Gone is the time where we thought there were only two genders: man and woman, boy and girl.

Today, we reject this gender binary and recognize instead that gender is a spectrum.

GenderBinaryWe see this change at a variety of societal levels. Forms that people fill out are starting to move from check boxes to blank spaces where a person can identify their gender themselves rather than being confined to the usual two.

Just this past week, the Oxford English Dictionary officially added “Mx” as an honorific (like Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Mz) for those who either don’t identify as being a particular gender, and for those who are transgender.  And Facebook now has 56 new possible gender identities that you can select from beyond the gender binary.

Transgender (which, by the way, is never “transgendered”) can broadly mean anyone for whom their biological sex and their gender identity are not in alignment. This can encompass:

  • 2 people someone who is transitioning from one gender to another,
  • someone who is not transitioning and may feel trapped in the “wrong” body,
  • as well as those who consider themselves queer or gender-non-conforming, meaning someone who does not follow other people’s ideas or stereotypes about how they should look or act based on the biological sex they were assigned at birth.

And these words and definitions are still in flux.

Notice, though, that none of these have anything to do with sexual orientation (the heart in the image above) – that is another can of worms entirely, as it relates to who you are attracted to and who you love. Anyone, of any gender, can be of any sexual orientation. Today, we’re not talking about welcoming people of all sexual orientations – that would need a sermon of its own. Today, we’re talking about welcoming people of all genders: men, women, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, androgynous, pan-gender, two-spirit, and more.

Now, this is such a new awareness to many of us that we may still find ourselves trying to categorize someone: is that person a man, or a woman? We human beings are drawn to patterns, to solving puzzles. We want people to fit into the gender binary box, and we have a tendency to impolitely stare and puzzle until we think we figure out which box a person belongs in.

And there are two very serious problems with this:

First, we cannot make that determination for someone else – instead, we affirm each person’s ability to judge for themselves who they are and express themselves in the way that is most authentic to them.

And second, it dehumanizes the person in question. We objectify them. Actress and trans activist Laverne Cox summed this up beautifully in her interview with Katie Couric, after Couric rudely asked Cox about her genitalia. Let’s watch:

By focusing on bodies, we don’t focus on the lived realities of the oppression and discrimination that Trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people experience every day. And there is nowhere that this oppression and discrimination is more obvious than when it comes to where we often feel most vulnerable: the bathroom.

Cisgender people often ask: “Why do trans issues always seem to revolve around the bathroom?” It is such a cisgender privilege to not have to worry what sort of reception we will experience if we are perceived to be using the wrong bathroom – cisgender people don’t have to worry: will someone call management? Will someone beat us up? Will I get killed? But this is the reality for trans, queer and gender nonconforming people.

And this is a huge issue in our country right now. The more stories hit the media about people like Bruce Jenner and now Miley Cyrus, the stronger the backlash against trans people becomes. For instance: the Bathroom Bully bill here in Kentucky, sponsored by a state senator who wanted to allow cisgender students using bathrooms and locker rooms to sue their school for $2,500 if they caught a trans or gender-nonconforming student in the “wrong” restroom. The State Senator says he wrote the bill in response to a Louisville high school’s decision to allow a transgender student to use female facilities, but that incident is really just the prevailing excuse. In reality, the Family Foundation of Kentucky, a conservative think tank, requested the State Senator to submit the bill. And in fact, similar bills applying to both schools and public restrooms were also submitted this year in Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida and Nevada.

In fact, so many states are dealing with this issue, or related ones, that there is now a hashtag on twitter, #WeJustNeedToPee, for trans, queer and gender-nonconforming people to share images of themselves in bathrooms that may match their biological sex but not their gender identity. Which can be dangerous for them. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s hear from someone here at First U who regularly deals with this issue, our music director Christe.

So Dawn has presented a lot of information this morning. For some of you processing all this is no big deal, others may find you are confused with the ever changing terminology. You are not alone. When I began my community activism at 18, we marched for “gay rights”. Gay rights. Not GLBTQ rights. Neither lesbians nor any of the others were acknowledged. And homosexuality, meaning men, was still a part of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a mental illness. Gender identity was staunchly on a binary. Any new gender identifiers were trying to fit somewhere in the middle of that male/female binary.

Things change over time. And here we are in this social climate where a day doesn’t pass without a story somewhere in the media about gender issues., stories about people like me, who have never fit on the binary and are trying to live an honest open life, proud, healthy… authentic.
You see by today’s definition I am transgender. I however prefer to be considered gender non-conforming, partly as respect for friends who are seeking full Male/female or female/male gender transition. Here at First I have had no one question my gender or my gender presentation.

But out there, beyond these walls – at the grocery, the home improvement store, the theatre… I am seen as a man, even when I am not in a suit and tie. And about 95% of the time I am addressed as “sir” or Mr….. as they quiz me for a name for the waiting list.

I am perfectly okay with this because it tells me where that person is coming from… if they only have sir or ma’am to choose from. They choose based on where they are, what their perception of me is at the moment. Would that we could move beyond the need for identifiers at all.

So 2 years ago I attended General Assembly here in Louisville. On the very first day it was announced from the pulpit that the restrooms were to be considered all genders and you would find them marked as such. You would find male and female gendered restrooms on the floors open to the general public.

I took the announcement in stride… this was new – living in a way that was radically welcoming. I got more and more comfortable with each session of GA, letting my guard down and being my authentic self. It was not until Saturday night when Dianna and I went across the street to the Marriott Hotel to listen to kRi and hettie that I was again confronted with issues I have lived with all my life.

I needed to make a quick stop in the restroom before going up to the ballroom, and Dianna said she’d wait in the lobby. I found the first restroom marked women’s and stepped in…. Upon leaving the restroom while washing my hands a woman opened the door, saw me and stepped back out of the room to look at the sign. She then re-entered the room and in a very pointed voice she proceeded to tell me I was in the wrong restroom and she was going to get management.

I assured her she was mistaken and excused myself from the room. When I met up with Dianna, I shared the experience. We had a brief discussion about how this kind of thing happens all the time for me… it’s just a part of life.

Because Christe is okay with Christe… but the world at large has no way of defining her or him. I don’t fit on the binary and the world at large continues to see gender as male or female. Me being my authentic self, challenges that assumption.

I was not fully aware until that Louisville GA how much stress I carry about my gender. There are little adjustments, snap decisions that I make every day to keep myself and my loved ones safe. These choices are so very ingrained in me … like waiting to use the restroom where there is only one stall or waiting till I get home even if that means having to leave a gathering early.

You see if I get that kind of aggression in a women’s restroom… what awaits me in a men’s room? I have a friend who is in transition from female to male who fears being gay bashed in the men’s room for his outward appearance as an effeminate gay man. I can’t blame him, history and the media has shown us too many cases of gay bashing for it not to be a valid consideration. And aren’t we all going to the restroom for the same reasons? It is a basic human function.

There are a multitude of things this congregation can do to show that we are not willing to live in “gender jail. By “gender jail” I mean where the male/female binary is used to put us all in the “proper” box .

It makes me proud to serve a congregation that is committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders.

As Unitarian Universalists, we are committed to being radically welcoming to people of all genders, and we understand that part of that welcome means that everyone deserves a safe place to use the restroom.

Right now, at First U, we have one all genders restroom. It is upstairs, and you have to walk through the choir room to get to it. It is not handicap accessible. And it is not always available, because the choir room door is often locked.

Most of us would say “Well, a trans, queer or gender-nonconforming person should feel free to use whatever restroom works for them!” – and this is certainly true. But how will they know this if we are not explicit? How will they know that this is a safe place unless we make it clear, to both trans AND cisgender people, that we welcome all genders here at First U?

They can’t know it if we don’t tell them. The reality is that most religious institutions don’t welcome all genders. If we don’t explicitly say that we do, if we don’t provide the appropriate markers, then people will assume we are like so many others that don’t – and they won’t risk it.

And having a bathroom hidden away upstairs, which may be locked, is definitely neither safe, nor welcoming.

This issue, combined with the upcoming move of our nursery to the second floor, has lead the Ministry Council, with the full support of the Board of Trustees and the staff, to reorient our restrooms on the first floor.

What is now the men’s room will become a single-stall, handicap accessible, family-style lockable restroom with a changing table. Anyone, of any gender, can use this restroom.

What is now the women’s room will remain a three-stall restroom, but the stall walls will be extended to the floor. This will also become an all-genders restroom, meaning that anyone can use it anytime.

The leadership, in their wisdom, understand that the 3-stall all genders restroom will make some people uncomfortable, especially in the beginning as we get used to it. This is one reason to extend the stall walls to the floor. It is also the reason that the second floor restrooms will remain binary gendered restrooms: men’s and women’s.

So to reiterate: soon, anyone, of any gender, can use either of the 1st floor restrooms. For those who prefer a men’s or women’s room, the upstairs restrooms are right outside the elevator doors at the top of the stairs.

These changes are beginning this upcoming week and we hope to have them implemented fully by the annual meeting. You will notice new signage when they are completed – rather than using the traditional male/female images which we know do not represent the gender spectrum, we will be using the universally recognized symbol of a toilet.

Of course, we know that our welcome must go beyond our restroom configuration. And so you might notice other changes, though they will be more subtle. We will be endeavoring to use inclusive language in our communications: instead of saying “this event welcomes men and women,” we will say “all genders welcome”; rather than talking about “men and women” or “boys and girls” we will use the words “people” or “children”.

DSC_0151_originalWe also invite you to write your pronoun preference on your name-tags.  Perhaps for most of us, this will be the traditional he/him/his and she/her/hers. But American English has a problem in that we don’t have a commonly accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun except “it” which, since the whole point is to stop being dehumanizing and objectifying, is counterproductive. Several alternative gender-neutral pronouns have been tried, however, the singular use of “they” seems to be what is getting picked up most often. So for those of you who are grammar junkies, please know that we will be using “they” intentionally instead of he or she, and that this is now an acceptable usage! And of course, you are free to choose whatever pronoun you would like for yourself, and we will strive to use it correctly.

And finally, as a part of renewing our Welcoming Congregation certification this fall, we will be having adult education curriculum on alternate Sunday mornings that will continue to inform and educate us about the issues trans and gender-nonconforming people face and how we can be both welcoming and good allies.

We don’t do this in anticipation of hundreds of trans, queer, and gender nonconforming people storming through our doors when they hear how welcoming we are (though that would be great). This is primarily for us – it is for the trans, queer, and gender-nonconforming people who are already here, several not publically, and those who might find a religious home with us in the future. We do this in order to live our mission to be witnesses for progressive faith and to nurture our community. This is for us, to help bring our actions in line with our highest ideals, values and beliefs.

Because we understand that each of us has worth and dignity, and that that worth includes our gender. Because we value diversity and see it as a spiritual gift. Because we want to be a safe community where each of you is told that you are lovable and that you are loved, and that all of who you are, including your gender (whatever it may be) is sacred, and is welcome here. May it be so. May we make it so.

**To demonstrate how in-flux our understanding of trans and gender-nonconforming issues are, I have recently been made aware that some members of the trans community believe the distinction between sex and gender is no longer a preferred lens through which to understand trans issues, as it has been used to defend anti-trans bigotry. There is not general consensus on this issue, however. My apologies to those in the trans and gender-non-conforming communities for any harm that my use of this lens might have caused. 

sex, secrets and the “p” word (power/polyamory, you choose)

26 Apr

Note: This sermon deals primarily with the struggles of a particular congregation from the period of 2000-2005. I share it here so that current and previous congregants might be able to reference it, and with the hope that it might be helpful for other congregations struggling with similar issues. Be warned: it is very, very long. During the service, I divided it up into 3 parts, linked to here for easy navigation:
Part 1: Sex
Part 2: Secrets
Part 3: Power

Listen here:

Part 1: Sex

Americans, at the very least, are obsessed with who has sex with whom, and when, and how. Some of us wonder how far we have come from the Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and taking place around 1650. In this classic, Hester Pryne has a child outside of wedlock and in punishment is shunned by the community and forced to wear a scarlet A on her dress at all times. Those Puritans embraced sex inside of marriage, but heaven help you if you indulged pre or extra-maritally. But by the 18th century, Americans had come a long way. In fact, by many standards, we’re actually more puritanical than we were then. At that point, American men loved telling dirty jokes and playing sexual pranks, “they sang outrageously ribald songs, they drew scandalous cartoons, and they masturbated in the churchyard when they thought the sermon was boring.” – Please do not take that as a suggestion! “They spied on each other through the cracks in the cabin walls, they had sex in haylofts, and they told everybody they knew when they got laid. There was no expectation of privacy” in 18th century America. Of course, one on one heterosexual sex was the norm – no one was doing anything like this around same-gendered sex. And I doubt it was as much fun for women.

Thankfully, we are a bit more civilized than they were back then. Certainly we’ve come a long way in understanding the equality of genders, privacy, consent, and same-sex relationships. But there’s at least one thing that we’ve brought forward from 300 years ago: our undying curiosity with who is having sex with whom, and how they do it.

In our hetero-normative society, where male/female sexual pairings are considered the norm, the curiosity is pretty basic. But add some variety in there and our curiosity has a tendency to move into the realm of dehumanization: we no longer see the people involved as human beings with inherent worth and dignity. Instead, we sexually objectify them and see them as no more than the sum of their genital parts and what they do with them.

This was played out on the main cultural stage during the AIDS crisis in the 1980s – people assumed everyone who had AIDS was gay and had therefore indulged in anal sex, which, apparently, was reason enough for you to be shunned by society. Those who were diagnosed were dehumanized in such a way that Hester Pryne would have felt like her sentence was pretty light in comparison.

Straight people in power reduced the gay community to a single sex act. There was no room for being a whole person, for forming loving relationships, for living as a human being with all the attendant messiness, wonder, pain, struggle, joy – the whole kit and caboodle of life. Even today, though many of us struggle to change the standard, for much of the population calling something “gay” is still a put-down.

Thankfully, the tide has been turning on the dehumanization of gay & lesbian people for quite a while. As same-sex marriage becomes more recognized and accepted, the cultural mind doesn’t immediately go to a sexual act when they hear the term “gay couple” but instead are beginning to picture a family where the adults happen to be gay.

Bisexual and pansexual folks are often still often sexually objectified, though – people seem to assume that these descriptors mean that you are unable to be in a committed relationship because you must have sex with everyone you see. Which is ridiculous. It simply means that you have the capacity to love people regardless of their biological plumbing.

Unfortunately, the cultural jury is also still out on whether intersex or transgender people are really human beings. I haven’t yet seen Diane Sawyer’s interview with Bruce Jenner which aired earlier this week, but the interview Katie Couric did last year with Laverne Cox, a trans woman who is phenomenal in her role, as a trans woman, on Orange is the New Black, demonstrated this cultural sexual objectification. Rather than focus on Cox’s activism, or her character on the show, or any of the other successes and trials in her life, Couric focused on her genitalia, in an effort, she claimed to “educate” people. Cox’s response was wonderful. “By focussing on bodies,” she said, “we don’t focus on the lives realities of [the] oppression and discrimination of transgendered people.”

And it’s not just sexual orientation and gender identity that raise the cultural eyebrows when it comes to sex. Women who have had an abortion, or who are raped, are in a constant battle against a society that objectifies them by erroneously labeling them as “promiscious” or suggesting that they must have been “asking for it”. It wasn’t long ago that divorced women were thought to be promiscuous simply by nature of not being in a marriage anymore. Single women who chose to have children without being married had their sex lives placed under intense public scrutiny as recently as the early 90s, when the TV show character Murphy Brown stirred up a controversy when she decided to have and raise her child alone after the biological dad decided it was too much trouble.

By focusing on bodies – on biological plumbing, or on how people have sex or whom they have it with, we dehumanize people and disregard their inherent worth and dignity. And the reality is, for the most part, it is none of our business! Consensual, informed, and welcomed relationships between adults should not matter to anyone else.


Part 2: Secrets

Alcoholics Anonymous has a saying: “”You’re only as sick as your secrets.” And they are so right. Though decorum and civilization require a certain amount of privacy – we certainly don’t need to share everything with one another – there are some truths that if we keep them bottled up inside become like a poison, eating away at us and making us sick emotionally, spiritually and even physically. Yet out of shame, or because of a family rule, there are things in many households and families that get permanently swept under the rug and that you just are not allowed to talk about. The same is true for churches.

Ten years ago, this congregation effectively institutionalized a secret. And it has eaten away at us ever since.

On April 24, 2005, First Unitarian Church called a special congregational meeting. This was not the annual meeting, but a separate meeting that was called to discuss and vote on one particular motion.

The motion had several parts:

  • first, that the congregation would not be affiliated with polyamory or any group chiefly concerned with polyamory;
  • second, that no group at the church that is “chiefly concerned” with polyamory would be allowed to become a special interest or affiliate group, a status that gave groups certain privileges;
  • third, that no group with polyamory as its chief concern would be allowed to use First Unitarian Church in its name or in any way “otherwise purport to be affiliated with the church.”; and
  • finally, no such group would be permitted to advertise itself or its meetings through newsletters, orders of service, distribution of materials, bulletin boards, brochure racks, etc.

This motion overturned existing Board AND Council decisions that were in contradiction with the above.

There were 141 people at this special meeting, and they narrowly ruled in favor of passing the motion. Though it was never in the text of the motion, this meeting became known, and talked about in shorthand, as the day it was decided that we just don’t talk about polyamory. It was the day we swept the elephant in the room under the rug.

How did we get to that point?

First, a primer on what polyamory is. Polyamory is the potential for romantically loving more than one person at a time. Another term for it is “responsible non-monogamy”. Polyamory is a general term covering a wide variety of relationship styles, including polyfidelity (which means group marriage), open marriage, expanded family system, intimate network, and some kinds of intentional community. It means having the potential for a serious, intimate, stable, affectionate bond with more than one person.

Polyamory is not cheating, as honesty and forthrightness are crucial between all partners. And it is not swinging. Swinging is an expression of recreational sex, whereas polyamory is about relationships and sharing lives together.

If you would like more information about what polyamory is, there are brochures about it on the table by the doors as you head out. (readers: I invite you to check out the UUPA website).

So how did we get to the point where the church took such an adamant stance which, in retrospect seems to be not so much on the side of love, certainly not on the side of multiple loves? How did we get there? It all started about 8 years before that meeting in 2005. At that time, eighteen years ago now, the first discussion about polyamory was had at the church in an adult religious education class. I wasn’t there, but I would guess that the conversation had something to do with what polyamory is about, and how it is about a lot more than sex.

Three years later, in 2000, upon request, the Board of Trustees approved the creation of a local UU’s for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA) group. Bless that board – they certainly had NO idea what they were getting into. This was back in the time when we had announcements before the service, and so the first UUPA group meeting was announced, and the group meeting apparently went well. But people immediately complained to the Board, enough so that the Board asked UUPA to not make announcements anymore – they didn’t revoke UUPA’s group privileges at that time, but began to set boundaries on what the group could do. UUPA protested the restrictions, which were eventually lifted.

Within 3 months, a special Board meting was held just to discuss the polyamory group. At this time, the previous restrictions, plus some more, were put in place. Primarily, these restrictions had to do with what the group could call themselves and how they could publicize their meetings. Meanwhile, the minister was on his way out, and really didn’t want to deal with this issue in his final months. Remember, this is 2000, five years before the congregational meeting of April 2005.

In March of 2001, there was the first all-church meeting about the issue. Discussion continued, an interim minister was hired in the summer and in November 2001, the Board voted to designate UUPA as an outside group, which would disallow certain privileges such as publication and room usage. By March of 2002, however, the poly group was being asked not to use either a chalice logo OR the name of the church on their brochures and publicity. UUPA was tenacious, though, and would not let the matter drop.

In August of 2002, the new settled minister started, and in March of 2003 he told a representative of the poly group that polyamory was not a problem for the church, and that he would not discuss either polyamory or UUPA anymore. But by June 2003 he had recanted and announced that the problem was killing the church.

September of 2003 had another special congregational meeting on the topic. The next day, the Council, the programming arm of church governance, denied UUPA’s application for special interest group status, but they invited UUPA to reapply after a year. Which UUPA did. In November of 2004, the Council decided to postpone the decision on granting special interest group status to UUPA until June 2005, at the annual congregational meeting.

UUPA appealed the Council’s postponement to the Board. The Board chose not to rule, but in January 2005 the Council reopened the discussion. They surveyed the congregation on their opinions, and got mixed messages. In February 2005, the Council approved granting UUPA special interest group status. Within a month, there was a congregational petition to call the April 24 special congregational meeting.

During those years of controversy, there were a range of concerns expressed about why there should not be a polyamory group at First U. There was concern that the church would get to be known as “The poly church” in the larger community, which some felt would sacrifice 175 years of built up social capital in the community.

There were concerns expressed about the children – what would it be teaching or modeling to them? Would the children be at risk of predatory behaviors from the poly folks?

There were arguments that the church was not in the business of sanctioning lifestyle choices. And there were concerns that more of “those people” would show up at the church.

Perhaps these arguments sound familiar to you. Many of them are the arguments that were made against embracing GLBT people in our congregations many years ago. (FYI: I am using the abbreviations from the time period, not the currently accepted alphabetic string that indicates people on sexual orientation & gender identity spectrum.) And, indeed, they are the arguments that were made against incorporating the Pagans into our churches many years ago.

These arguments don’t come from facts. Neither gay men, pagans, nor poly people have any higher incidence or predatory behavior towards children! And, frankly, we sanction lifestyle choices all the time, though usually they’re the lifestyle choices that are already sanctioned by our larger culture and so don’t stand out.

Instead of a place of facts, these arguments come from a place of fear: fear of safety, and fear of loss of prestige. And, really, First Unitarian had good reason to fear, particularly around issues that connect, even peripherally, to sex. We have some troublesome history.

In 2000, it had not been long since the youth group had been disbanded due to sexual encounters and drug use on church premises. Many in the congregation could still remember a minister who engaged in what today would be considered sexual misconduct with a congregant. The 70’s era free-love key swapping that swept through Unitarian Universalist communities landed here as well, and caused harm to several marriages. Divorce was thought of as “catchy” as people saw their friends ending long-term marriages and were afraid it would happen to them, much like some people today are concerned that same-sex marriage will somehow hurt traditional marriage. Fear is not always rational.

And the church was no stranger to conflict: there had been intense debate around ultimately deciding not to join the Sanctuary movement in the 80s, which would have provided safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. Plus there was the fire in 1985, which in church life was just yesterday to those in 2000 – we now pride ourselves on staying downtown but many didn’t agree and left the church over the decision, or over the decision to worship in the West End while the church was rebuilt. And I’ve heard several times how difficult the rebuilding process was.

Add to these factors a lack of trust in the congregational lay leadership, 3 ministers (none of whom handled this well), and a push to grow, grow, grow because congregations during this time were told that if they were not growing then they were not healthy or, even, worthwhile.

Combine all these factors and you get a powder-keg that was ready to explode. It almost didn’t matter what the issue was. Meanwhile, polyamorists were starting to come out all over the Unitarian Universalist Association, with some of the leaders being from this congregation. Across the country, UUs were having a hard time discussing polyamory because we were afraid. We were afraid we would lose prestige. We were afraid what it would mean in regards to our firm stance on sexual orientation and gender identity justice. We were afraid that “they” would take over.

And so we sexually objectified practitioners of polyamory – we focused on who was sleeping with whom, or what the sexual logistics and mechanics of their relationships were. Here at First U, there were even multiple incidences of different poly women being sexually objectified by the male minister. We sexually objectified polyamorists, rather than focus on whether their relationships were consensual, informed, and welcomed covenants between adults.

There was almost no way that the church could have handled it well. Let me say that again: given all these factors, there was almost no possible way that the church could have handled this situation well. And we didn’t. I don’t say this to shame those of you who lived through this era, I say this with love and deep compassion, knowing I truly cannot comprehend how tumultuous and painful the time was.

After five years of intense conflict in which everyone was on a side (even those who purported to take no side), the congregation was exhausted. In many ways, the congregation needed to pass the resolution 10 years ago just to move on – it was getting nowhere. The church was being ripped apart.

And what was the result of the resolution? We effectively institutionalized a secret that would slowly poison us over a decade. The problem with a “keep the peace no matter what” attitude in the wake of the congregational meeting was that it forced people to leave quietly rather than stay and continue the hard work of community. Many people on both sides of the issue left the church. As I recently listened to the tape recording of the meeting, I was struck by how I’ve never met approximately half the people who spoke, and I arrived only 4 years after the meeting.

At least 3 board presidents left the church right after their tenure, as well as many others in leadership. A large number of those who left the church were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender folks, who heard the poly people being talked about as “those people” – an othering phrase that had been used on them in the recent past.

Interweave, the GLBT group at the time, absorbed the poly folks. Meeting twice a month, it would offer a GLBT-focused program one week, and then a poly -focused program the next time. Some of the poly folks stayed. Most left.

Four years and two more interim ministers later, and I arrived in 2009. The poly conflict was all throughout this congregation’s materials. My first reaction when reading the information about this congregation was, honestly, pity – y’all seemed so down on yourselves. But the poly issue didn’t scare me, because I had written my thesis in seminary about it. Some friends of mine had asked me to solemnize the union of the three of them and I’d had to do some heavy thinking about whether or not I would. In my research, I learned that the institution of marriage had changed throughout human eons, and in fact was still changing. Who was I, I decided, to judge the rightness or wrongness of a consensual, informed, welcomed relationship? I realized my friends came to me, knowing that their union was far outside the norm, wanting someone to uplift them, to see them, to support them. Don’t we all want our love of another person to be honored by our community?

elephant under the rugSo I was not afraid to become your minister. And pity rapidly changed to deep love and appreciation for the many, many wonderful things here. And over the past 5.5 years we have done much, so much, healing together. The congregation is in a healthy enough place that on this, the anniversary of that special congregational meeting, it is time to address the elephant that we swept under the rug ten years ago.


Part 3: Power

For the past 10 years, there’s been an elephant under the rug. No, there are no official sanctions against talking about polyamory, but the unofficial line is that we don’t do it much. Those of you who are newer probably had no idea that there was such a time of intense conflict at the congregation not that long ago, though I would guess you might have suspected something.

Some of you, undoubtedly, wonder why I am bringing it up now. We settled that 10 years ago, right?

Not really. We settled it for the short term, but that resolution was not one that contributes to the longterm health of a congregation.

That resolution prevents us from being a truly sexually healthy congregation because it does not permit exploration of the whole range of healthy relationship possibilities. We offer OWL to the whole spectrum of ages here because we want to be a sexually healthy congregation.

We also want, need, to be able to talk about hard stuff, to take a stand on difficult issues, but we can’t do that if we can’t talk about this. We cannot claim our power in all areas of life if some areas are considered off limits.

And we need to recognize that there are steadfast, loyal, loving poly people and their allies within this church who are still suffering from the pain this controversy caused them personally. These are people who have been and are leaders in our congregation, who are valued members, who are raising their children here and their grandchildren. Do we tell beloved members of this community that they can only bring part of themselves here?

We do not. In fact, on our order of service each week we proclaim that we are a welcoming congregation, and this means that we “embrace all persons equally, no matter their sexual or affectional orientation, gender identity or expression, age, race, ethnicity, neurodiversity, social or economic class, education level, family structure or abilities.” We proclaim that we welcome all to participate fully and openly in our congregational life. This means you should not be afraid to bring your whole self, and your whole family (no matter the configuration) for fear of how you might be treated or objectified.

Being welcoming also means the ability to connect with others who are in a similar situation so that you can support and accept one another and encourage each other in your spiritual growth and faith development, whether that would be a group for widows, a group for alzheimer caregivers, a UUPA group, or a group for parents of autistic children.

I am so proud of this current Board of Trustees, who just passed a policy removing all special interest group and other group designations. From now on, anyone who wants to start a group or organization simply will need to justify how the group fits into the congregation’s mission. If that is done successfully, the group will have full access to the congregation’s resources. You can check out the new policy in the members section of our website.

And there is more that we can do to continue to move forward into health. Our Ministry Theme for this month is Freedom. Science fiction novelist and screenwriter David Gerrold says that if we want to be free, we need to understand that “freedom is not about being comfortable. It’s about seizing and using opportunities, and using them responsibly. Freedom is not comfort” he says, “It’s commitment. Commitment to the willingness to be uncomfortable.” As we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in this congregation, there will be times when we are uncomfortable. This is the difficult work of building the beloved community. It is hard, but it is worth it.

In the next few weeks and months, we will have ample opportunity to explore the discomfort that freedom brings, the discomfort that being witnesses for progressive faith brings. We will be talking about, and taking action, on a lot of things that there are disagreement around:

This fall, we are engaging in a renewal of our Welcoming Congregation certification. This is something that has not been undertaken in over 10 years, even though it is supposed to happen every five years. Much has changed in society since the last time we went through this process – I have no doubt that there will be much that makes us uncomfortable!

Before even this fall, though, there is much to challenge us. Two weeks from now, we will be talking about welcoming people of all genders, and what that looks like in regards to creating all gender bathrooms.

This spring, we are talking about joining a social justice organization that is currently Christian and that will require us to partner in areas of agreement with other local congregations with which we perhaps have much disagreement.

We will also be talking about what it would mean to hang a BlackLivesMatter sign on our building and how we would know that the time had arrived when we could take it down.

I suggest that we might even choose to step into the discomfort, to step into right relations with one another, by, at our annual meeting on June 7, repealing the motion made 10 years ago on that fateful day in 2005.

I do not believe we can talk about these issues with integrity and good faith until we acknowledge our history and commit to holding each other in love and care.

I ask this of you in the coming weeks. First, trust your leadership. They are, frankly, amazing. Each of them have educated themselves on the issues they are raising, they have done the internal work necessary to understand the nuances involved. They don’t press us into these areas just out of intellectual conviction but out of a desire to truly live our mission and to honor the interdependent web of which we are all a part.

Second, I ask that you recognize that negotiating our various differences is an essential part of building community. When we are confronted with someone or something with which we disagree, I ask that we first remember that we all want what is best for this congregation. I ask that we look for solutions rather than focussing on the problem – for instance, if this were ten years ago I would suggest that, rather than focussing on what imagined harm a UUPA group might cause the congregation, we recognize that the polyamorous folks in our congregation would like to have a group that explores how their faith is expressed through their family structure and focus on ways to make that happen.

I also ask that we make sure that this issue is not personalized. Each of us is so much more than one thing: I am a minister, a mother, a spouse, a daughter, a friend, a colleague, and so much more. We are each more than our views about polyamory, or about any other individual issue.

And. And I know this is hard. And I know I am asking so much of you. But you are ready. I know you are. You are such a healthy, vibrant, loving congregation. You want to be a force for good in the world and in the community. You want to be welcoming. You want to be healthy. You want to be whole.

For ten years, we have been walking around the elephant that was swept under the carpet. It is time to no longer be held back by the pain in the past, to move forward in loving covenant with one another, and to claim our power together and in the larger community. May it be so. Blessed be.

bragging, just a bit.

27 Jan

The congregation I serve is so cool. Here are some short videos they made about what they did, and how they did things, while I was on sabbatical. It almost makes me wish I had stuck around! I am so glad to be back with them now.

First Unitarian On The Loose
This video is about a group of adventurous people on an amazing journey exploring new ways of doing the same things while I was on sabbatical.

To Speak The Truth In Love
This video describes the way they worshiped together while I was gone.

Sharing Our Time, Talent And Treasure
And this video describes some of the ways they shared their time, talent and treasures.

Aren’t they amazing?


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