We received only twelve letters about our cover story on the Rev. Denis Meacham and his addictions ministry and the accompanying article by Anne M. Fletcher on ways to help substance-abusers but it was a powerfully affecting lot. The response, which came largely from recovering alcoholics, reminded me of an experience I had as a divinity school intern at the Pine Street Inn, New Eng-land's largest homeless shelter. Before the internship began I had a chance to meet the Inn's president, and I recall him using the word “heroic” to describe many of the guests' struggle against alcoholism. At the time, it surprised me. What was heroic about fighting alcoholism? Wasn't it a moral failing that one was alcoholic in the first place? It was preventable, a sure sign of a lack of self-control. But as my internship progressed I came to see otherwise.
Yes, it was preventable. But I also saw the struggle it created in its victims who sincerely wanted to stop. For the first time, I got the sense that for many, being drunk wasn't an option. Sure, you could say no to the next drink. But when your life has been built around drinking and you're physically addicted, that's asking for su-perhuman effort, and yes, heroism.
There are no parades for recovering alcoholics. The victory is often quiet. In fact, we may never know just who among our relatives and friends has managed to achieve it, since addiction seems to thrive in secrecy. So to all recovering addicts, whatever your poison, my hat is off to you. And I am grateful to our courageous readers for sharing their stories.
Among thirty-seven other letters, we received eight about Forrest Church's essay, “Choose Your Enemies Carefully.” The Rev. Larry Hamby of Athens, Georgia, criticizes Church for being too theoretical. “Church suggests that salvation from sin is reconciliation. This kind of theological abstraction sounds great in sermons, but please, tell me in concrete, everyday terms how I can effect reconciliation with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?”
My life story has much in common with Denis Meacham's (“Out of the Basement,” July/August). I have been very active in AA for nearly twelve years now and consider this activity my personal ministry. I feel strongly that the AA Twelve-Step program can be successfully used by those who are agnostic or even atheistic; just as it has in my case when I was initially repelled by the seemingly required belief in a Christian God. Fortunately my nearly forty years as a Unitarian equipped me with the tools that allowed the construction of a personal version or conception of God sufficient to utilize the AA program. Today, I spend considerable time trying to assist people sincerely interested in sobriety but who, like me, are unable to believe in the Christian concept of God regardless of the severity of the threat or how great the pain. There is a place for the Unitarian faith to facilitate a spiritual treatment to help many escape from a hopeless state of mind and body. Denis Meacham is to be commended for his work and willingness to step out into the open. The need is truly enormous, as the article points out.
John R . Gandee
It's amazing in a scientific age in a journal of rational religion that old and even dangerous myths are perpetuated about addictions: the myths of AA being a proven therapy, the myth of powerlessness, the disease model of addictions, and of real concern to religious liberals, the old AA degrading myth that alcoholism is a spiritual problem. Addictive behaviors are not mysteries any more, but are now seen as a complex interaction of bio-psycho-social forces.
Addictive behavior is ultimately a choice and is not “cured” by spirituality. Seventy-five percent of people who quit or cut back using alcohol do so all by themselves. The number one factor in becoming sober is long-term commitment. The locus of control is not a god, a book, a therapy, a sponsor, a special spiritual practice, or even a group of addicted individuals. The locus of control is the three-pound organ between one's ears, and that is where the battle for sobriety will be won or lost.
I so enjoyed the feature on the Rev. Denis Meacham's leadership in his innovative addictions ministry in July/August's UU World . I got clean and sober in AA, but have moved on as I felt stuck. I want to mention Women For Sobriety, a wonderful organization that is called a “New Life” program, which is what my journey in recovery has been. I am a certified moderator for WFS and run a meeting in the Tampa Bay area in Florida. I also belong to the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater and was so pleased to see the feature article in UU World . Women for Sobriety can be reached by visiting their Web site at www.womenforsobriety.org.
I must take exception to Anne M. Fletcher's article “You Can Help.” As a longtime member of Al-Anon, I found Fletcher's depiction of Al-Anon inaccurate. As the child of an alcoholic father I well understand the desire to try and control the behavior of the drinker. Most members of Al-Anon grew up learning to ignore their own feelings and focus on the feelings/behavior of the substance abuser in their lives. Al-Anon helps us to put the focus back on ourselves and take responsibility for our actions and our lives. Fletcher's article advises putting the focus back on the alcoholic and their behavior with the goal of changing/healing the alcoholic. My experience in Al-Anon working my own program and focusing on my own healing has created changes in those around me in a way that my constant attempts to do so never did.
I've stayed sober for eight years without AA. I take issue with a few of its dogmas. Here are three examples:
Providence: a higher power can do for me what I can't do for myself. I simply used my free will and exercised moral restraint to quit drinking, and it works better than providence for me.
Character defects: are considered to cause alcoholism. I consider it to be a matter of acquiring a compulsive habit from making unwise lifestyle choices.
Carrying the message: is considered essential to recovery and necessary for preventing one's own relapse. Where is the evidence for this dogmatic call to evangelism? I prefer to stay sober by immersing myself in meaningful activities of my own choosing.
When I left the Roman Catholic Church after thirty-five years I found a home that welcomed me—and has continued to do so—at Neighbor-hood Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena. About eight years later I found myself in AA. Spiritually it was the perfect fit. I see AA and Unitarian Universalism as very compatible. In the third step “god as you understand god” is always printed in italics. Isn't this a UU principle? A free and responsible search for truth and meaning? AA supports my sobriety (I'm twenty-two years sober) and Neighborhood Church supports my spiritual growth.
Francisca B . Neumann
In reference to the article “No Classroom Walls” in the July/August issue, if parents choose to homeschool their children, that is, of course, their right. But I object to the idea that it in any way embodies or fits in well with UU principles. Public schools may have many faults but they do offer some very important lessons in learning how to get along with children who may be very different from one another. I also agree with the Rev. Dr. Helen Lutton Cohen, “that children benefit by being in situations that are not focused primarily on them as individuals.” One of the UU values that resonates most strongly with me is the importance of community. This is lost in the inward focus of homeschooling. Lastly, as the article notes, “Home-schooling is largely a middle-class phenomenon in two-parent households that can afford to have one parent stay at home.” This promotes the already unfortunate but accurate perception of Unitarian Universalism as a religion of the middle and upper-middle classes.
Donald E. Skinner's article about homeschooling did a good job of illustrating home-educating families themselves rather than relying on experts who don't understand home education. But, like most such articles, it also touched on some typical misconceptions.
The most important misconception is that home education sets up a conflict between the individual and the community. In fact, home education combines the best aspects of individual attention and community participation. We have unmatched flexibility to accommodate our kids' learning styles and interests, and most of us are also drowning in opportunities for group interaction with people of many backgrounds. For us, education is a more cooperative, community-based enterprise than schooling. We help each other educate our kids, and our kids are more involved in the real world.
Another misconception is that home education always involves school-like lessons and textbooks. The mother profiled in the article who gave up home education fell victim to this. Learning can be accomplished with almost no formal instruction or force, and it is more meaningful that way. Home educators call this “unschooling.”
As a poet and a reader I wish to thank you for including Everett Hoagland's “Homecoming” in the July/August issue of UU World . It is becoming an uncommon experience in a magazine of any sort to be able to s-t-r-e-t-c-h o-u-t with substantial poetry, to do more than dip our toes in the wading pool, to feel the delight and terror of total immersion in untamed waters. It reminds us that poetry can be more than just a passing moment of reflection/inspiration/whimsy over a cup of morning tea, however pleasant and reassuring that can be.
I commend the essential bravery of Hoagland's work, which connects the intimate and personal now to the vastness of a historic and global outrage. Yet he spans that Middle Passage ocean and time not only with justifiable indignation, but with the sly knowledge that the historic saga has made him something other than a displaced African, something deeper than an American. This is self-knowledge on an epic scale. All of us, regardless of our origins would do well to come to such grips with the long shadows of our own histories.
Forrest Church's commentary (“Choose your enemies carefully,” July/August) had me right with him up to the end of the third paragraph. And then he stopped talking about us as a nation and started talking about us as “we humans.” Church's emphasis on sin and on “the veneer of civilized behavior” shifts focus away from American accountability by allowing us to disappear into the rest of the human race and to take comfort there. Church's version of denial is “it's human nature.” This is wrong. We Americans, from politicians to ordinary citizens, have always tried to convince the world that America is special, and that being an American is the best you can be. If we want to hold up America and being an American as ideals for the world, we'd better be willing to take a hard look at what that means. Being an American is no excuse for the abuses perpetrated in Iraq. Being a human being is no excuse, either.
What a ray of hope in your July/August “Reflections.” Rever-end Church accurately states, “To whatever extent we place our primary identification with creed or nation, with race or gender, with school or party, we betray our common humanity.” Far too many UUs yield to these tribal impulses, instead of bettering their own lives.
For example, the “UU News” in this issue reports that UUA President Sinkford urges us to squander energy on voter registration. Some of us choose not to legitimize the Demo-Publican farce by voting, and to reject the divisiveness and corruption of political tribalism.
Church's words bring hope that these choices may someday enjoy tolerance from the majority of UUs, instead of hostility.
While I laud Forrest Church's willingness to defend original sin, I think that he gets it wrong. His definition equates evil with selfishness, and there is much of that, but it misses the evil done by people in groups.
The difference is crucial; the 9/11 hijackers, for example, were selfless and willing to make the highest level of personal sacrifice for what they thought was the common good.
It is a dangerous misdiagnosis to see the source of human evil as excessive individualism, rather than in instinctively misplaced loyalties. Totalitarian movements, whether right or left, secular or theocratic, always claim to represent the common good and demand our loyalty. The individual conscience resists; sometimes because the common good is not good for the individual, and sometimes because the “common” is too small and narrow. Remember that the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light because a few individuals didn't go along with the group and valued their individual consciences more.
The Rev. Tom Schade
Kris Fikkan tells us in “Still Hungry” (July/August) that the Seven Principles did not define a faith to her during childhood. I understand completely; those principles, important as they are, do not define a faith to me as an adult. However, when I add the six sources from which Unitarian Universalism principally constructs itself, I can begin the process of defining my faith.
Even so, our principles and sources by themselves are not enough for many (especially the young) who are trying to develop spiritual coherence. We need to present not only vivid examples of each principle and source, but to make clear how they can be connected to each other. We need to convince children and adults that they can weave those principles and sources into a colorful and textured tapestry that will enrich their lives. These activities form a spiritual process that, to my knowledge, is unique to Unitarian Universalism.
Fair trade coffee
Thank you for highlighting the buying and serving of Fair Trade coffee as a way of supporting fair wages and human rights on coffee plantations (“Fair Trade coffee gives congregations a lift,” July/August). However, Unitarian Universalist congregations should serve coffee that is also organic and shade-grown.
Between 17 and 69 percent of coffee cropland acreage in Central America and Colombia has no shade. Shade-grown coffee is cultivated under a canopy of trees by growers who help to sustain indigenous peoples and to save crucial habitats for wintering birds. In the spirit of the Seventh Principle we should support them. For labels to be meaningful, shade-grown coffee must be certified, either by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Cen-ter's “Bird Friendly” seal or the Rainforest Alliance seal; the former also certifies that the coffee is organically grown.
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