When you get a vocation to the Unitarian Universalist ministry (and it's the same thing for most denominations), it sends you on a path not only of spiritual self-discovery and academic learning, but into a huge bureaucratic structure. You get a sponsoring congregation. You enroll in a three-year master's of divinity program at an accredited institution. You take out loans. You take about 25 classes, various workshops and trainings. You earn a certificate in Clinical Pastoral Education, which requires a nine-week intensive in a hospital or similarly crisis-oriented environment where you learn to do pastoral care by the old "throw them in and see if they can swim" model. Your supervisor's and peer group' s job is to break through your defenses and delusions about yourself.
You go to career counseling, and you go through a battery of psychiatric evaluations. You complete a year or two of field education and a year or two of an internship in a congregation. You keep impeccable, exhaustive records of all this work that go to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a committee of venerable ministers and lay people who will read all these files and interrogate you one morning about your calling. They will give you a number rating between one and five to let you pass on to the next step, which is to be ordained by a congregation, or they tell you you have more work to do, or they say, "what were you thinking?"
Finally, a congregation may vote to bestow upon you the honor of ordination, and the title "Reverend."
If you get a vocation to be a parent, seeking the honor of the title Mom or Dad, you need to get a sperm and an egg together (which is not always -- but generally a lot more fun than earning a master's degree) and then wait for nine months.
There may be infertility treatments or surrogacy issues or long adoptions processes to endure, but in the end, there is always a wait, always a crib to get ready, and always a new life to care for in the end wherever that may take you. It may take you into great joy. It may take you into great suffering. But you know one thing for sure; as soon as they place that little critter in your arms, you are going to be taken somewhere, and it's going to be big.
Before you start that journey, though, will be no degree required, there will be no interrogation by a jury of your peers to assure that you are fit and ready to the task; there will be no psychiatric evaluations, and there will be no internships with helpful evaluations. There will be no pomp and circumstance as you are named "Mama" or "Papa" for the first time, just a quiet explosion of excitement as the little person before you names your new title in their very own voice.
There have been an awful lot of hot words about the sanctity of parenting -- and especially motherhood -- in the past decade or so. I suppose these things never stop being hot issues. In our current era, the hottest words are reserved for abortion. In the end, of course, only women of our species can bring a new human life out of their body, and only they have the power to say whether or not a pregnancy will culminate in the birth of a child. Women have always had this power, and they have always wielded it, using their best powers of discernment and moral agency to decide whether or not it was wise to bring forth new life. When medical abortions have not been available, women have found a way to terminate pregnancies. They have always done so and the sad fact is, they will continue to do so at great risk to themselves and their families whether safe, legal, medical abortion is available or not.
What is so particularly fascinating to me about the debates about reproductive choice in this country of late -- and it's very similar to the debate about the so-called "sanctity" of marriage-- is that while some folks are absolutely sure that terminating any pregnancy is a moral crime, they never seem very interested in the question of who feels genuinely called to the vocation of parenting, and whether or not we as a society should even acknowledge -- let alone respect -- the fact that not every man and woman does feel called to be a parent.
As I see it, when we debate about abortion, we're not just debating about the fate of a woman's pregnancy but really about how adults -- particularly female of the species-- are allowed to spend their adult lives. It staggers me that we have not confronted the fact that we do not agree in the first place that there is any other legitimate way to spend one's adult years than in raising a family. If we could at least agree that there are other legitimate ways to spend one' s adult years, liberals and conservatives in this country might at last reach consensus on the necessity of reliable, available and affordable methods of contraception. We could acknowledge the importance of comprehensive sexuality education for our children, and on the necessity of doing all that we can to support our nation's children once they are born to people who want them, whether they be man or woman, gay or straight, black or white, wealthy or of modest means.
How can anyone in this country say they are truly pro-life? Choose life, the anti-choice people say. Choose life. I' ve seen the bumper stickers. What do they mean by that, exactly? Does it mean that we should all, collectively, truly honor what it takes to live into the vocation of parenthood, or does it just mean that every sexually active woman in America (or at least in South Dakota) should be prepared to become a mother if she' s biologically able to get pregnant?
There are more than 73 million children in the United States: 40% of them live in low-income families and 13.5 million of them live below the poverty line. The official poverty rate in the U.S. has increased each consecutive year -- by 5.4 million Americans -- over the past four years.
What do you mean, choose life? What does that mean?
Nearly ten million children age 18 and under are totally uninsured. The number of uninsured children grows roughly by 3,000 a day. I used to stand outside abortion clinics or Planned Parenthoods when anti-choice protesters were out there harassing the women (who were mostly going in for routine exams) and scream at them, "How many adopted children do you have!!? When did you advocate for legislation for social services for families and children? How many hungry children did you clothe and feed today, like JESUS SAID TO?"
I don't think I was very effective, but I don't regret it. This debate can bring out the craziness in all of us. We are dealing very, very badly with one of the most pressing moral concerns throughout the history of humankind: how shall we perpetuate, and care for, the next generation?
I want you to hear what South Dakota State Sen. Bill Napoli ( R-Rapid City) said on "the NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" this past March about outlawing abortion in his state. First of all Napoli believes most abortions are performed for 'convenience,' but he told Jim Lehrer what he though might pass as an exception. These are the words of State Senator Bill Napoli:
"A real-life exception to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl, could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.'"
I don' t really need to comment on this. I see it in your faces; you are as horrified as I was.This is hateful madness. This has nothing to do with children and life. It has to do with sick, sadistic pornographic fantasies and religious fanaticism and controlling women's bodies. If this is the kind of rhetoric we get from our leaders, where are ordinary people to find their role models in discussing the issues of how, when, and under what circumstances we should be having children?
We should recall that in our country'
s not-too-distant past, there was a great interest in eugenics the social philosophy that advocates improving the human race through genetic selection and control. This philosophy, which came out of Darwin'
s then-new concept of evolution, bred a whole school of junk science and came to its most terrible apex in the Nazi "experiment" --but it was very popular for a time in the United States. This is a largely ignored and unknown era in our history, but during that time thousands of men and women deemed to be unfit genetic material endured forced sterilizations. It should sober us to know that many social progressives Unitarians among them were interested in and advocated for policy based on eugenics. The issue of "choice" regarding reproductive rights in our country is a lot more complicated than any bumper sticker or chant outside a family services clinic can possibly express. And as our scientific knowledge grows, so do the complexities around these questions.
Can you imagine the moral maturity of a nation that would enable its citizens to ask each other, "Concerning our future generations: do you feel called to parenthood? Do you feel you are up to the task? Do you have a network of support that will be there for you and your children, do you have the emotional and financial means to nurture them and provide for their most basic necessities? If not, how can we help you connect with appropriate resources? What information do you need about pregnancy, birth and parenting? How can we, as a world community, foster a sense of hope, possibility and love in all our children so that they feel enthusiastic about fulfilling the promise of their unique lives and solving the problems that plague each generation of earthlings?
How did you decide to become parents? I hope it was because you had a vision for your life that included children and family. There is no other happy reason to have children. You have to have that vision of that little baby, and that little toddler leaving crayon marks all over the walls, and the teenager staying out too late and worrying you to death, and the adult child who might finally understand you and become your friend as well as your child until finally God grants you that sweet revenge when your children have children of their own and start to sound just like you. The sweet, simple joys of parenthood.
For my mother and father, I don't know if they had a vision and happy expectation of family life, or they had children primarily because it was expected of them. It was "what you did" in their day. My mother, one of the most nurturing and emotionally generous people I know, freely admits that she had no idea what she would have done with her life if she hadn't become a mother. She doesn't mean that to say that she had a sense of true destiny to become a mother. She means that she was just never encouraged to have any other vision for her life than to fulfill the roles of wife and mother. She loves and lives for her family, don't get me wrong, but there's a reason that my sister and I have never once heard from her lips, "So, when are you going to give me some grandchildren?" Shirley has been a mother whose only agenda for her children was to support them in whatever they felt called to be and to do. What a gift that has been. I am missing her today, as some of you are missing your own moms.
It says in the Book of Deuteronomy, "I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, [that] I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live." That' s where "Choose Life" comes from.
Choosing life requires so much more than fighting for legally mandated motherhood for every woman who finds herself pregnant, and for every man whose lover she has been. Mothering and fathering is a human vocation, one to which we are all called whether or not we have children in our own homes or not. This broader kind of parenting living with a sense of responsibility to future generations and being willing to make changes and sacrifices for them is a moral imperative for all of us, but not a personal vocation for all of us. Living into that imperative requires a pro-life mentality that is far beyond what any red state or blue state can claim to be living out today. We none of us can honestly claim to be truly pro-life. We have too often thought of our own children and not enough of other people' s children.
I am thinking a lot today about a mother named Isaura Mendes, a Dorchester woman whose son Bobby was stabbed to death ten years ago when he was 23. After her Bobby was killed, Isaura Mendes became an inspiring and greatly respected peace activist and community organizer who was granted the Robert H. Quinn Award by U Mass Boston in 2004. People call her a preacher of peace. Last week, the Mendes' second son, Alex, was murdered in a random drive-by shooting just yards from where his brother had died. Alex had just been on a trip to England with his mother to talk to incarcerated youth there about the effects of violence in their lives. Like his mother, he was a peace activist. Alex' s was the twenty-first murder this year in Boston.
We have thought too often about our own children and not enough about other parent' s children.
Choose life. I ask you, church, to deeply consider how we may choose life together in ways that aid and support all of us in our vocation to be nurturers of children of all ages. Let us send out our hearts today to Isaura and Pompilio Mendes, who I hope are feeling surrounded by faith, hope and love today at St. Patricks Church on Blue Hill Avenue This must be such an especially painful day for them. Let us say a prayer for them, and for all of us, and our children.
Spirit of Life,
Known to us in many ways, but so often, in so many cultures, in the image of a mother,
Hold us in your arms this day.
Let all that we value and all that we hold dear in the images of motherhood we carry be our guide.
We are grateful for all the parents that share the community of this congregation: The young ones and the old ones, those still with us and those departed. May the blessings they give us be rich and overflowing.
For some of us our experiences and images of parents have been tarnished by absence or abuse. Let us not forget that not all mothers, not all parents, have been able to rise to the many challenges that parenting brings us. May we find healing and maybe even forgiveness for all the ways that our parents fell short of fulfilling the love that gave us birth.
The community of this church gives us a great blessing: we are gifted with the chance to celebrate births, and parenting, and the glorious unfolding of human potential. Today is a day for such celebration. Let us make the most of it. Let us use it for thanksgiving and renewal and re-dedication in the good company of loved ones and friends.
May it be so! Amen.
-- Wayne Arnason