Rev. Ellen's Reflections, November 2017

Those of you in church on Sunday know that our guest speaker from the Merrimack Valley Project Interfaith Sanctuary Network had to cancel due to illness. I appreciate everyone's understanding. I know that immigration and sanctuary were named at our all-congregational retreat on September 30th as one of the issues calling our attention. We will reschedule a time for her to come back to share with us about the MVP's Sanctuary Network at a later date.

I have been encountering sanctuary in a couple of different contexts. The one we hear most about in the news is sanctuary for undocumented individuals facing deportation. Congregations around the country, including several Unitarian Universalist ones, have chosen to become sanctuary churches. In Lowell, Christ Church United (UCC) has voted to do so. The MVP Interfaith Sanctuary Network is working with them to provide volunteers and logistical support. I am on the coordinating committee and have learned a lot about the level of commitment required to be a sanctuary church. It is hard to plan ahead since we can't know what will be needed until we know the individual's particular situation. It can also happen fast and volunteers are needed to mobilize quickly, to provide logistical support (i.e., medical, legal, tutoring, translation, laundry, shopping) and site support (to be present in the building while the sanctuary guest is there to deal with any crises or issues that may arise).

I spoke with several you via email and after church on Sunday who are interested in learning more about volunteering with MVP and Christ Church United, should sanctuary be requested. There will be three opportunities for volunteer trainings for volunteers interested in accompanying a potential Sanctuary guest: Thursday, November 9th, 7-9pm; Friday, November 17th, 7-9pm; Tuesday, November 28th, 7-9pm. They will take place at Christ Church United, 180 E Merrimack St. in Lowell. You only need to attend one. If you plan to attend, please let me know so I can pass the information along to the trainers. I do know that individuals from First Parish have already indicated an interest in attending the trainings on November 17 and November 28. As we discussed at the retreat, we don't have to re-invent the wheel. We can find opportunities right in our own neighborhood to get involved with the issues we believe our UU faith calls us to address in these troubled times. This is one such invitation.

Sanctuary is also something we offer each other at First Parish-through worship, spiritual exploration, music, and all of the other ways we find to give space for our souls and to deepen our sense of connection and belonging. I spent this past week at a retreat center run by the Benedictine Sisters in Racine, Wisconsin, to learn about a curriculum called "The Geography of Grace." It comes at sanctuary from this angle-creating space for our own and one another's stories to be shared and held within a "circle of with trust" using natural landscapes as inspirational starting points. The curriculum was developed by two facilitators from the Center on Courage and Renewal, founded by the Quaker teacher, Parker Palmer. I am looking forward to offering it here at First Parish. Another topic that came up at our congregational retreat was healing the growing divisiveness and acrimony in our public discourse. There is something in this curriculum that gives me hope for doing just this. It is a general enough curriculum that we could use beyond First Parish. I have been thinking about how we practice "circles of trust" conversations in our larger neighborhood.

It is so easy to be overwhelmed by all the issues that call for our attention. When things get crazy, the wisest thing is to go back to what is at the heart. As we heard at the retreat, what brought people to First Parish and what keeps us at First Parish is community. I believe that gratitude and hospitality are the core practices of beloved community, and thus at the heart of worship, what we do together in our sanctuary. The purpose of sanctuary is not to hide from the world or pretend that bad things aren't happening. Instead, sanctuary holds a space-physically, emotionally, spiritually-for a sacred pause, to give room for deeper, more thoughtful responses and alternatives to emerge. Sanctuary is a countercultural response, a peaceful resistance to the escalating busyness, chaos, and divisiveness in our current culture.

In faith,
Rev. Ellen

Rev. Ellen's Reflections, October 2017

I had lunch with a colleague where we discussed our shared sense that we have been writing the same newsletter column month after month since last fall. The focus might change but we are constantly confronted with one crisis or another, whether a natural disaster or human conflict and violence. In just the last couple weeks, Puerto Rico has been wiped out by a hurricane, Mexico is reeling from multiple earthquakes, members of a church in Tennessee were attacked by a gunman as they gathered for worship, ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, and the U.S. and North Korea are engaged in nuclear brinkmanship. But the story garnering the headlines is the President of the United States name calling of black American professional athletes who knelt during the national anthem. One headline to come up on my cell phone’s feed was from a Fox News editorial stating that black athletes should focus on fostering constructive conversations about race rather than kneeling during the national anthem. I give credit to Fox News for naming the real issue—it is not about “disrespecting the flag” as many argue. It is about drawing attention to the realities of racism in our country. I also agree that constructive conversations about race and racism are badly needed. First among those who are responsible for leading these conversations are our political leaders, including the President.  Calling black American athletes who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b******”, in contrast to his restraint and mixed messages in condemning White Supremacist and Neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, does not foster a constructive conversation about race. In fact, it increases the divisions and fosters violence in rhetoric and action. As a religious leader and a person of faith, I believe this to be irresponsible and a failure of leadership.

I find myself longing for a more contemplative environment—one with time for thoughtful conversation, thinking, and healing. One where practices around listening, gratitude, and hospitality are central. Not to run away and hide from all that is happening beyond and within our congregation but to create and nurture a sense of sanctuary. I keep thinking back to the workshop series I attended during my sabbatical through the Center for Courage and Renewal: the idea that the health and wellbeing of our communities, our “outer life” is nurtured by the health and wellbeing of our inner lives. We don’t have control over all the events in the world but we do have agency over our own souls. Creating spaces and places where we can practice living in the kind of communities we hope for ourselves, our neighbors, our world and our children is the response and commitment we can offer for the long term. We have been dealing with a deep hurt of our own within the congregation (if you do not know what I am referring to, please feel free to contact me, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.). I have watched and listened in the conversation circles facilitated by my colleagues from the UU Trauma Response Ministry team and witnessed how you have listened to each other with respect and compassion, rather than judgment or righteousness. It creates a very different ethos, one grounded in covenant, in walking together, holding each other’s different truths in love and respect.

As I preached two Sundays ago, covenant is much than our UU principles. In the words of Conrad Wright, a pre-eminent historian of our tradition: “Covenant...emphasizes that the church is a community of mutual obligation, which involves a sense of commitment. Even the freest of the free churches needs that much discipline if it is to last long enough to accomplish anything of value in this world.” (p. 41 in Redeeming Time). I offer two invitations for you to consider with regard to covenant. The first is a reminder that our all-congregational retreat is this Saturday, September 30th. If you have not already RSVP’d, please do so at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. More information about the retreat is described elsewhere in the newsletter.

The second is for families who wish to participate in a service of dedication for their children. Child dedications are the way that we as a congregation enter into covenant with parents and children, promising to support you in the religious and spiritual development of your children and your family. The ritual itself is simple: we ask parents to bring their children up front and share their children’s names with us. We bless the child with water and welcome them into our community and the community of the Spirit of Life. We honor their uniqueness with a rose. And then we share in the words of a covenant of dedication. We did this last year during our October intergenerational service. We would like to offer the invitation again this year for our intergenerational service on October 15th, for any new families or for any children who have not yet been dedicated. If you are interested, please let Dolores know at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

One final thing: I have been asked to be on the coordinating committee of the Merrimack Valley Project’s Sanctuary Network. The Reverend Peter Lovett and his congregation at First Church United (UCC) in Lowell have voted to become a sanctuary church. If someone should seek sanctuary there, they will need volunteers (shoppers, tutors, social companions, etc.) and donations (food, clothing, books, etc.) The likelihood of this happening is small but it could come to be. Leena Mathews from the Merrimack Valley Project will be coming to speak at our worship service on October 29th and will tell us more about what this means. However, in the meantime, if you are interested in providing support to this as a volunteer or with donations, please let me know: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

In faith,
Rev. Ellen


ALL-CONGREGATIONAL RETREAT: THIS Saturday September 30th from 9 am to 3:30 pm. The Standing Committee, the Committee on Ministry and I invite, encourage and request that everyone who can, attend this retreat, facilitated by the Rev. Dr. Larry Peers. Larry facilitated two retreats with us about 10 years ago that led to our current First Parish Covenant. It is time to look it again as a congregation and see where we are. The specific goals are of the retreat are to:
* Explore what we have learned from our congregation’s story of living this covenant.
* Listen deeply to one another and to what calls to us now in our congregation and the local areas we serve as well as the changing world around us.
* Determine what we need to carry into the future and what we may need to do differently moving forward.
* Discern some ways for moving forward into our immediate future as a Parish.

Contact Info

First Parish Church
2 Westford St
Chelmsford MA 01824

978-256-5133