Is Your Church Allergic to Change?

The controversy had been going on for years. Should Yale University rename one of its residential colleges? The issue was finally put to rest three weeks ago when University President Pater Salovey announced that Yale’s Calhoun College would be renamed to honor a most distinguished graduate, Grace Murray Hopper. In his statement, Salovey said, “The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.”

 

As a graduate of both the Yale School of Music and Yale Divinity School, I have been following this story for several years. Students have been protesting that Yale should not glorify John C. Calhoun by continuing to name a residential college after him. Calhoun received a B.A. degree from Yale in 1804 and a LL.D. degree in 1822. During Calhoun’s political career, he served as vice-president, secretary of state, secretary of war, and a U.S. senator from South Carolina.

Calhoun is most remembered, however, as a fierce advocate for slavery. At the same time as many slaveholders saw slavery as a “necessary evil,” Calhoun saw slavery as a “positive good,” which further embedded the practice and glorified the owning of slaves in America. Periodic demonstrations and protests have taken place ever since the naming of the undergraduate residential college (the former Yale Divinity School buildings) after Calhoun in 1933.

In April of last year, President Salovey decided not to change the name of Calhoun College, convinced that the university should not erase its history but rather acknowledge and learn from it. At the same time, Salovey formed a Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming. According to Salovey, the “Witt” Committee decided to “establish a strong presumption against renaming buildings, ensure respect for our past, and enable thoughtful review of any future requests for change.” At the same time, the Witt Committee outlined four principles that would help Yale decide if a building should be renamed.

  • Does the legacy of the person in question conflict with the mission of the university?
  • Was this person’s legacy a source of conflict during that person’s lifetime?
  • Why did the university choose to honor that person by naming a building after him/her?
  • Has the building in question played “a substantial role in forming community at Yale”?

This is the university’s formal mission statement, “Yale is committed to improving the world today and for future generations through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice. Yale educates aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society.”

With these four guidelines in place, President Salovey reversed his decision not to rename the building. Part of his reasoning was that John C. Calhoun championed slavery and became famous not despite his racist views but because of them. At the same time, Salovey said that symbols of Calhoun will still remain in other parts of the campus, and a plan will be developed to ensure that Calhoun will be remembered for having been a residential college name for eighty-six years.

Grace Murray Hopper is a wonderful choice for the renamed college. She was born in 1906, graduated from Vasser, and received master’s and doctoral degrees from Yale. The university describes her as a “trailblazing computer scientist, brilliant mathematician, and teacher.”

Hopper worked on the first large-scale digital computer, the Mark I, and has been called the “queen of code” and the “mother of computing.” The early computer she worked on had 750,000 parts and was eight feet high, eight feet deep, and fifty-one feet long. In 1951 Hopper discovered the first computer “bug,” which was an actual moth inside the computer! As if that wasn’t enough, Hopper served in the Navy, helping to create uniformity in computer languages and achieving the rank of rear admiral at age 82. When she retired from the Navy for the second time in 1986, Hopper was our nation’s oldest active duty officer. The Navy named a destroyer and a Naval Academy hall after her.

 

Last November President Barack Obama awarded Grace Hopper a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. “If Wright is flight and Edison is light, then Hopper is code,” Obama said during the ceremony.

Not only is the renaming of Calhoun College an interesting story, but it has much to teach us about adaptive leadership in a rapidly changing world.

The Art of Listening

Yale President Peter Salovey listened. Even after deciding last year not to rename the building, he kept the lines of communication open and encouraged students on both sides of the issue to make their voices heard. How are your congregation’s listening skills?

Having the Courage to Change

It’s not always easy to go back on a decision that you previously made. In this case, Salovey’s desire not to bury or deny Yale’s history around slavery led to his original decision to keep the Calhoun name. However, it was Salovey’s continued encouragement of dialogue as well as the findings of the committee that prompted him to rethink his prior decision.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that one of Grace Hopper’s most popular quotes was, “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that.” This is a different world than 1933, when the building was first name after Calhoun. All things must change. Can your church muster up the courage to change, when appropriate?

The Importance of Mission Statements

Yale’s mission statement provided the foundation for the Witt Committee’s discussion around a possible name change. Promoting the legacy of a white supremacist and the legacy of “Improving the world today and for future generations…and educating aspiring leaders worldwide who serve all sectors of society” simply did not align. How well do your congregation’s decisions and practices align with your mission and vision statements, core values, and strategic priorities?

Wrestling with Our Heritage

Critics of removing Calhoun’s name from the college claim that we should not judge people who lived two hundred years ago by today’s standards. It’s a fair and complicated question. The Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming put together a thoughtful process with principles to guide decision-making, yet many people are still divided over the issue. Some want all vestiges of Calhoun to be gone because they are signs of institutional racism that have no place on a college campus.

For more than fifty years, a stained glass window in the common room of Calhoun College depicted a black man in shackles kneeling before John C. Calhoun. The image of the slave was removed in the late 1980’s through the efforts of Chris Rabb, co-founder of the Yale Black Alumni Network. Even though Rabb felt offended by the window, some have wondered if these vestiges of slavery can be teachable moments.

When students and visitors walk by these disturbing images, might they at least spark questions and provoke honest conversations about race that we so desperately need today? Regardless of where students and others stand on the name change from John C. Calhoun College to Grace Murray Hopper College, kudos to Yale University during this Black History Month for not being allergic to change. How about your church?

Another Open Letter to Sports Illustrated

To my friends at Sports Illustrated,

Here I am again, three years after I wrote my first open letter to you. When SI’s annual Swimsuit Issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday, I was reminded of my hope of engaging you in dialogue several years ago. However, I never received a response.

I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated for thirty-six years. I am just one of three million subscribers and twenty-three million people who read SI every week. The Swimsuit Issue accounts for 7% of Sports Illustrated’s annual revenue and generates more than a billion dollars a year for its parent company, Time, Inc.

I read Sports Illustrated from cover to cover every week. As an amateur athlete myself, I enjoy the variety of sports that I find in SI, but I especially like the quality and style of your writers. Clearly, SI has a huge platform in America and around the world. But along with great influence comes great responsibility.

I have a lover’s quarrel with Sports Illustrated because of the annual swimsuit issue, which you have published for over fifty years and which I refuse to read on principle. It does not escape me that the vast majority of SI readers are male, yet I am still puzzled. How is devoting an entire issue to scantily clad gorgeous models related to sports? Of course, I understand. The majority of ads are for alcohol, perfume, cologne, underwear, and DIRECTV. No doubt the bottom line is marketing, profit, and more subscriptions.

The 2017 SI Swimsuit Issue has one hundred and seventy pages of females modeling in various exotic locations around the world. MJ Day, who has produced the swimsuit issue for the past nineteen years, said in an interview in Us Weekly magazine, “This year’s issue will showcase the widest diversity of women in SI history. Women of all ages, and shapes, and from many different backgrounds. We want to celebrate strength, beauty, and more, so we want to know: What do you model? So I’ll kick us off. I model determination. I’m determined to get out the message that there is not a singular definition of beauty.”

I know that you have heard the complaints of readers over the years that the models are unrealistically thin and do not accurately represent the vast majority of women in our world. I applaud the increasing diversity of body shapes, age, and ethnicities in the Swimsuit Issue. Kate Upton is SI’s Cover Girl, and the magazine also features 63-year-old Christie Brinkley as well as Olympian gymnasts Simone Biles and Ali Raisman and tennis star Serena Williams.

Yes, I celebrate that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. There is great strength that comes with being comfortable in our own skin. However, SI continues to miss the heart of the matter, and that is the sexual objectification of women. The SI Swimsuit Issue feeds a very unhealthy culture that clearly caters to male readers who are most interested in the sexually provocative clothing and poses.

Promoting what I consider to be soft porn does not contribute to the health and welfare of girls and women, but it condones and even encourages men and boys to treat women as mere instruments of sexual pleasure.

I am sad that Sports Illustrated and its risqué cover is casting a blind eye to the objectification of women in our country and world. According to National Sexual Violence Resource Center statistics, one in five women will be raped at some point in their lives. 81% of women suffer significant long-term or short-term impact from rape, including PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Annually, rape costs more than any other crime in the US (127 billion dollars). One in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. Only 12% of child sexual abuse is reported to authorities.

Perhaps more insidious is the widespread effect of pornography in our world. The Internet pornography business is a multi-billion-dollar industry and is the cause of unimaginable heartache for individuals and families whose lives have been destroyed by this addiction. Pornography crosses all barriers and is even a problem for clergy. No one is immune. Do you see how even something as seemingly benign as the Swimsuit Issue can be a stumbling block for others?

As the resident Bishop of The United Methodist Church in Iowa and the mother of two daughters and a son and two young grandsons, I will continue to speak out about the way in which women are exploited in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as well as in American culture. It is virtually impossible for a girl to grow up in America or around the world without being sexually harassed or abused. Unwanted sexual or gender-directed behavior or discrimination is designed to humiliate, degrade, exploit the vulnerability of, or exert power over others.

  • A prospective employer asks a young woman if she intends to become pregnant in the near future. If she has small children, she is asked if caring for her family will interfere with her job.
  • There is an inappropriate focus in the workplace on a woman’s appearance, and derogatory comments are often made about clothing, weight, or body shape.
  • Crude sexual remarks are directed to women at a business party.
  • Sexually suggestive emails or text messages are circulated in the office.
  • Grabbing a person’s breasts or buttocks against their will is considered okay.
  • Women are pressured to perform sexual favors in order to retain their job.

More than one of my closest friends and family has been sexually abused and will bear those scars for the rest of their lives. I have heard the stories of dozens of other women who were sexually abused by relatives, neighbors, friends, business associates, or church members. Many of the perpetrators were trusted by the girls/women and were never held accountable for their actions. Millions of abused women around the world suffer in silence until someone empowers their voice to be heard.

I am especially disappointed in this year’s SI Swimsuit Issue because it comes on the heels of a statement made by now President Donald Trump about a 2005 video released during the presidential campaign. Suggesting that his extremely inappropriate and sexist remarks about groping women were merely “locker room talk” diminishes the outrageous assumption that men can have whatever they want from women because, after all, they are simply objects.

Producer MJ Day said about the SI Swimsuit Issue 2017, “The celebration of sexuality is in a really weird place right now. People will always have passionate opinions, and I welcome that. But I’m passionate about getting the message out that we’re not just that.”

I agree with Day in that we humans are far more than sexual objects. Where we disagree is what responsibility the media has to refuse to glorify sexuality in a way that provokes objectification of women. We only need to remember the Women’s March on January 20, when millions of pink-clad women, girls, men, and boys gathered around the world to protest the degradation of women and honor the beauty and potential of all people.

Thank you, Sports Illustrated, for some positive changes in the SI Swimsuit Issue. However, as I did three years ago, I again issue an unapologetic challenge to Sports Illustrated. I ask you to publish a swimsuit issue in 2018 that features ordinary people who are making a difference, both male and female, none of who are professional models and none of whom are scantily clad or sexually suggestive.

  • A little boy with Downs Syndrome playing in the water
  • A teenager who was the last one picked for the soccer team
  • A man playing baseball with his children
  • A girl with cerebral palsy participating in a wheelchair race
  • A young adult who lost a leg to cancer riding a bike
  • Children of different nationalities playing together on the playground
  • An elderly woman walking with her grandchild in a stroller

Don’t do it just because it’s the politically correct thing to do. Do it because you have an extraordinary platform to promote self-esteem, confidence, and real beauty. Do it to celebrate the fact that each person in this world is a unique, one-of-a kind child of God. And one more thing. In your next issue, please don’t forget to include a cover picture and feature story about the Connecticut women’s basketball team, which won their 100th straight game on February 13. Make my favorite magazine even better.

Sincerely,

Laurie Haller
Resident Bishop
Iowa Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
2301 Rittenhouse St.
Des Moines IA 50321
bishop@iaumc.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Laden with the Gifts of Circumstance

A week ago, I was utterly and completely exhausted when I drove home from the office in the late afternoon. I’d had a hectic travel schedule the past few weeks and assumed I was just sleep-deprived. I changed my clothes, headed out for the walking trail, and reflexively checked my email and Facebook on my phone, wondering what the new crisis or breaking story of the day might be. After all, it’s important to stay on top of current events.

The farther I walked, the more distressed I became until I finally turned off my phone. Enough. Attempting to discern what was going on in my spirit, I realized that I was inadvertently taking on the collective anxiety of our country and world.  

Being outside in creation always has a way of grounding me. In unpredictable times, the timelessness of the laws of nature provide solace. As I often do when walking, I prayed, “Here I am, Lord. Speak to me. My heart is open.” And this is what I heard God say, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” (a saying from one of the 4th century desert fathers). So, figuratively speaking, that’s what I did all week when I wasn’t working. I read, prayed, and walked.  

 

Sitting in my cell, I heard God calling me to solitude. When I was a child, I would take long walks in the woods and have always known that being outside keeps me centered in God’s grace and hope. I also spent long hours as a teenager practicing the organ in an empty church. Solitude helps me to listen for God’s voice as well as my own heart. These words from poet Wendell Berry spoke to me last week.

“True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.” (“Healing,” Stanza V, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)

It is in solitude that I can see my true self most clearly, let go of ego and pride, gain perspective, and recover my passion to make a difference in the world. Over the past ten days, I have seen bald eagles in two different parts of Iowa. One eagle soared above me in the woods, and the other was sitting on the path just a few yards away as I turned a corner. “Pay attention,” they whisper in my ear.

In Native American thought, eagles encourage us to have the courage to stretch our limits, soar into the unknown, and continually expand our view of ourselves and others. Sitting in the cell of my intimate connection to the earth and to God, I claimed the words of the prophet Isaiah 40:29-31, “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” I am content to wait.

Sitting in my cell last week, I also realized that, laden with the gifts of circumstance, God is calling me to action. The self-integration that accompanies solitude also calls me to enter into the fray of human life in order to advocate for healing and wholeness for all of God’s children.

 

Last Tuesday was Legislative Day in the Iowa Annual Conference. We began with a prayer breakfast at a nearby United Methodist Church where five legislators were able to join us.

In our conversation, they reminded us of the power of voting across party lines and that the voices of citizens who take the time to call, write, and advocate on behalf of issues are heard. It doesn’t matter what your political persuasion is, they said. Your voice matters, and we want and need to hear from you. We laid hands on our legislators, surrounding them with prayers of encouragement for the challenging work they face every day.

Walking into the Iowa State Capitol for the first time, the sacred nature of the political process overwhelmed me. Hundreds of citizens were milling about the rotunda, many prepared to advocate in committees for bills that were up for discussion. A phrase from Wendell Berry’s quote came to mind again, “Laden with the gifts of circumstance…” The word “laden” can mean “burdened” or “weighed down.” Many of us feel laden by the divisions in our country right now. Yet another definition of “laden” is “fully charged.” Could it be that God invites us to see the circumstances of our lives as gifts that can fully charge us to for action rather than as heavy loads that slow us down?

As a hundred United Methodists split up across the Capitol building to advocate for what Jesus stood for, I realized how important it is to be grounded in the grace and hope of Jesus Christ before acting.

Finally, sitting in my cell last week, I heard God calling me to stand in solidarity with and learn from the very least of God’s children. On Thursday night I had the opportunity to preach at Women at the Well, which is a United Methodist congregation located within the walls of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville, Iowa. Led by pastor Lee Schott, Women at the Well says this about themselves, “We are a diverse community composed of women incarcerated at ICIW, men and women from around the State of Iowa who choose to worship with us, and many volunteers who regularly support our ministries and programs. We gather together to share the teachings of Jesus Christ, and to experience the life transforming Spirit of God.”

The vision of Women at the Well is “to lead the church in love that breaks down walls.”      Laden with the gifts of circumstance, what could I possibly share with these seventy women, many young and others old, some imprisoned for months, others for many years, some with family waiting for them, others with nobody on the outside. Sitting in my cell, I realized that there was only one sermon that I could preach: grace.

I was both overwhelmed and fully charged by the gift of this circumstance. The joyful singing rocked my spirit. The fact that this congregation of women, who earn 50 cents an hour working in the prison, could donate $34.00 for Breast Cancer Awareness, moved me to tears. The gift of a painting by an 81-year-old “lifer” invited me to enter into full communion with my sisters. We sit in our cells so that Jesus can teach us the way of love and we can break down the walls together.

A part of me will always yearn for the solitude and restfulness of my cell. At the same time, laden with the gifts of circumstance, I emerge fully charged to see the circumstances of the time in which we live as opportunities for witness, advocacy, grace, and hope.

“From the order of nature we return to the order – and the disorder – of humanity. From the larger circle we must go back to the smaller, the smaller within the larger and dependent on it. One enters the larger circle by willingness to be a creature, the smaller by choosing to be a human. And having returned from the woods, we remember with regret its restfulness.” (“Healing,” Stanza VI, What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry)