Demos Head Talks Democracy

Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

Demos President Heather McGhee with Women’s Alliance President Mary Geissman. (Photo by Chris Goodwin)

You may have first seen Heather McGhee on Meet the Press or Real Time with Bill Maher or Hardball with Chris Matthews, but on Saturday, May 6, the progressive pundit made an appearance at All Souls hosted by the Women’s Alliance. As the featured speaker at the Alliance’s Spring Event, she covered a wide range of topics from the economy to last fall’s election to immigration and racial prejudice.

And the audience of mostly women and a few intrepid men paid close attention over their strawberry shortcake and other desserts. McGhee, who holds a Bachelor’s in American studies from Yale University and a University of California law degree, also writes for the New York Times and The Nation. But it is her easy-going but focused interaction on the workings of our democracy that account for her popularity as its defender.

Demos (the people), where McGhee is president, describes itself as “a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy.”

Asking for a show of hands from the audience from those who participated in January’s Women’s March and getting a good response, McGhee said she believes that we are at a moment of civic renewal and awakening of deep American values. “It’s exciting, and it’s overdue.”

Most engaging of the stories McGhee told was the experience of answering a caller on a CSpan talk show last summer before the presidential election. Callers posed a wide range of questions, she said, and one, a man named Garry from North Carolina, confessed to being racially prejudiced. How, he asked, might he go about remedying the situation? “How can I become a better American?”

Taking a deep breath, McGhee made a number of simple suggestions: get to know a black family; join a black or interracial church; learn some African American history. The interchange went viral on the Internet and the story was picked up by the Washington Post and CNN. Eventually, McGhee found out Garry’s full name and that he lived in Asheville. She and her husband visited him and have remained friends. His newfound attention to racial matters (the Confederate flag among them) has lost him some friends, but McGhee assured him he has her friendship and that of others. (You can see a video of McGhee and Garry speaking live on the website.)

“We are at a moment of deep reckoning on the question of who is really American,” she said. “And what is America? Is it a competitive marketplace where we meet to discuss money and power? Is that why all the world’s people have come here? Or is it our destiny…to form a demos out of the world’s population and reject the idea that we are somehow different and that some are better than others?”

“I believe that it takes all of us.”

A lively period of Q&A followed.

A Boy’s Gift

By Alexandra Rowley ‘10

Let me begin by saying this:Elliott Rowley

My husband, Stephen, and I are parents in creative careers (a writer/editor and an artist/photographer) and have had an incredibly challenging year personally, professionally, and financially. A year that has caused us to examine literally everything and reconsider who we are and what we truly value. Terrifying though it feels, it has also been incredibly illuminating in important ways.

I make gratitude lists almost nightly and try to focus my attention on the actions we can take to feel grounded and model resilience for our son, Elliott, who is five and incredibly sensitive. I have thought a lot about using my skills in the service of my convictions and have found more ways to do that this year. And Elliott has been a constant source of inspiration for us to be our greatest selves. Both All Souls Church and All Souls School (where Elliott is in his final year) have been havens for us. That said, we have had to cut our expenses drastically and have not been able to make charitable contributions as we are accustomed. Put simply, we have not felt able to support the places that support us, and that hasn’t felt good.

Anyway, here we are on a hot August day, and Elliott and I decide to head out for an adventure. He loves trains, so we decide to go to Grand Central Terminal, where we chat with some conductors, get some “tickets” punched full of holes, hit the whispering gallery (an archway where two people standing at diagonal arches can hear each other whisper), and have a quick lunch of fries and chowder at the Oyster Bar before deciding to extend our adventure at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn. As we are headed down the stairs to the subway and I’m searching for my MetroCard, Elliott says “Look, Mamma! Dollars!” I look down and right at his feet on the steps are four $100 bills. I look behind me and ahead of me and no one has just dropped them. No one is anywhere. The bills look fake they are so crisp and new. We are both paused, staring down, and a man running up the stairs flashes a smile and says “Wow! Lucky kid!” So I hesitate, but I awkwardly scoop up the money, drop it in my bag and down we go!

At the token booth near the base of the stairs I ask a man in a bright yellow vest if there is a lost and found nearby and he aggressively asks what I found and barks, “Give it to me.”

I hesitate. What am I teaching my son here? What are the limits of my control? What is the right choice? So I lie and say “No, no, we lost something.”

And he barks, “What did you lose?”

“A mitten,” I say. Which is true. Elliott is still upset about a mitten we lost on the subway eight months earlier. But it’s not true. Not now. But somehow it gives me a minute to gather myself.

So I flee my own discomfort at the lie and we thank him and get on the subway and I’m reeling and unsure but trying to seem collected. I tell Elliott we are going to consider all of our choices and discuss the money with Dada later.

We have a wonderful time at the transit museum and I feel an incredible sense of abundance that day. It’s not about the money exactly (because I feel deeply conflicted knowing someone has lost something), but it’s rather what the money represents. A windfall. A sign. A gift. A sudden unexpected moment of grace during a really challenging year. And I’m not superstitious. I’m someone who believes in hard work and that you make your own luck. But still. I’m open. Especially this year. This felt auspicious in larger ways. It felt like the universe saying, “Pay attention! Put the phone down! Look! There are gifts everywhere!”

We got home and discussed it with Stephen. We agreed that it wasn’t our money. Not any of ours, but really, especially, not ours. Elliott found it, so it was for him to decide, with our guidance. Maybe half in college savings? Half to contribute? There was brief discussion of a toy. We knew Elliott’s fifth birthday was coming up and he would be getting the puppy toy he wanted so badly.

“Okay, Elliott, why don’t you think about places to donate it”  —and before we could even suggest his school or the Humane Society of New York (where we volunteer and Elliott donates money he makes selling lemonade)— he said, “I want to give it to All Souls to repair the cracks in the ceiling!”

Boom! Just like that.

It was beautiful how quick and clear he was, without any hesitation or encumbrance. It was one of those moments where I think “My goodness, you wise little soul.” I feel an enormous sense of gratitude that he is in our lives to remind us to be simple and clear. He was so clearly paying attention.

You see, on Sundays, Elliott likes to come to church in the sanctuary and hear the music. He always has, even when he was two or three. Now that he’s five it’s easier for him to sit through service. “Music is my passion. Singing is my passion,” he will tell you if it comes up. He says it like he’s forty years old and has devoted decades to his art. But it’s true. He just loves to sing. And he has started violin. And he loves the music at All Souls.

We have a little ritual where he listens to the service and stands to sing (though he doesn’t read yet so he can only sing the songs he knows, like “Ode to Joy”) and he draws, and puts our modest check in the silver bowl and then (please don’t be cross) he silently eats cheddar bunnies during Galen’s sermons. And, lately, Elliott has been making drawings during the sermon. He insists upon giving them to Galen after. Two Sundays ago he made one that was so beautiful I asked if I could have it. A swirl of graphite train tracks. My brother agreed, it looked like Jean Dubuffet. Please? Nope. He said it was “for Galen to repair the cracks in the church.”

And I admit I was baffled. What did he mean? I pictured the sanctuary ceiling becoming a collage of Elliott’s work. Oh lord! That’s so not Unitarian. How could Galen use these drawings? Would he understand this eccentric little boy stopping him after service and handing him these pieces of paper, mumbling something about cracks?

And then it just dawned on me. Elliott knows I sell my artwork and people pay me to make pictures. He comes to my studio. He knows his father writes about art and design and that stuff people make is important. Elliott helped make chocolate caramels that were sold at the All Souls School winter bazaar to help raise money for the school. I think he must intend for his drawings to be sold to raise money for the church.

The money he found sat in my desk until I realized the other day that we hadn’t donated it yet. Perhaps I relished the auspicious abundance it represents, the promise of a windfall, and also the beautifully clear conviction of our son. But I knew it was time. And  I knew the good feelings would linger and be multiplied and that our year had been filled with other auspicious abundances. So I stuffed it in an envelope with a note as we raced out the door and arrived just in time to sing the first Christmas carol.

Clearly he is paying attention.

Another Poet Dead

By Carolyn Jackson, ‘94

On most Wednesday afternoons, I attend a poetry workshop at my public library in Morningside Heights. Led by poet Bill Zavatsky, the group is open to anyone, and it attracts a group that is quintessentially New York. I’ve met (among others) a jazz musician, a psychoanalyst, a college student in a designer hijab, a radiologist, a convicted felon, a chiropractor, teachers, and, last spring, an African American woman in her sixties with the demeanor of a church lady.

Deborah came in a little late and sat beside me at the ever-expanding table configuration, accepting Bill’s handouts and poems submitted by other attendees. She mumbled a bit while Bill spoke, but she was affable and the next time she came, she read a poem that she had written. I left town, but while I was gone she went out for ice cream with a young man in the group and later brought snacks for the class. When I returned in the fall, she wasn’t there.

One October Wednesday, Bill told us that Deborah, whose last name was Danner, had been shot and killed in the Bronx by a policeman who responded to neighbors’ complaints about a woman out of control. She had been armed with a pair of scissors and, according to one account, a baseball bat. I’d never known that Deborah suffered from schizophrenia—or that she was an information technology professional or that she had quit coming because the library wouldn’t let her bring in her baskets of belongings. She wasn’t homeless—she had an apartment of her own and a sister who cared about her but was often rebuffed.

Aside from the shock of something gone terribly wrong, I understood my connection to Deborah. My father’s sister had schizophrenia. People with severe mental illness can be challenging. One minute they may be charming and engaging, the next ferocious. My aunt was like that, and, so, apparently, was Deborah.

But the big difference is that my aunt was white and died in her sleep past her 80th year, and Deborah was black. The policeman didn’t use a Taser or wait for back-up, he simply pulled out his gun and shot her. Mayor Bill de Blasio said Deborah didn’t have to die. A police spokesman said he spoke in haste, before a proper investigation. I have heard nothing else. Beyond my hope that perpetrator will never again be allowed to carry a weapon, I want to see police trained to pause before they act. Most do, but experiments have shown that , no matter what our racial identification, our reaction to skin color is deeply ingrained and prejudiced against dark skin. We need to address our approach to mental illness with that in mind.

Just the month before the shooting, in September, we at All Souls gave the Forrest Church Humanitarian Award to the three women—Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tumeti— who founded Black Lives Matter. Ever since, I’ve been wearing a rubber bracelet that was created for the occasion. It never occurred to me that someone I knew even casually would soon be shot dead by police. But now I have.

And I hope we won’t turn away.

Present Nuclear Dangers

By John Liebmann ‘88 and Carolyn Jackson ‘94

The danger of a nuclear explosion—by miscalculation or accident— is greater today than during the fraught years of the Cold War, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry told a large audience at All Souls on October 24. Perry was Secretary during the Clinton administration and also served as Undersecretary in charge of research and weapons acquisition in the Carter administration.

Perry was also involved in analyzing for President Kennedy Soviet missile installations during the Cuban missile crisis. “To this day, I believe we avoided a nuclear holocaust as much by good luck as by good management,” he said.

In Perry’s view, relations between Russia and the United States today can “only be called hostile.” Russia has dropped its “long-term policy of no first strike,” and the United States has responded by seeking to upgrade its nuclear arsenal at a cost of a trillion dollars.

Perry named two other possible scenarios for nuclear explosions: acts of terrorism or a regional conflict, such as exists between India and Pakistan. In any case, Perry said he has been convinced since seeing the devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki shortly after those attacks that nuclear explosions could end our civilization.

Perry, 89, has made education of Millennials about the threat to civilization posed by nuclear weapons his major work. He teaches a course at Stanford University centered on nuclear disarmament.  The course promotes a student exchange with counterparts in Russia. And he has launched a website:, chock full of information about nuclear danger. On the website, readers can sign up for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) about the topic.

Perry’s October talk, sponsored by the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force along with the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Peace Action of New York State, was one of the major public events at All Souls this fall. You can watch it both on YouTube (Perry All Souls) or on the website, which has the text as well.

Since the November 8 election, amid a general outcry about the caliber of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet choices, Perry has been generally positive about the appointment of retired General James Mattis as Secretary of Defense. While as a candidate, Trump vowed he would proceed with the proposed nuclear weapons modernization proposed under the Obama administration, Mattis has championed removing land-based missiles to reduce the danger of false alarm.

Perry advocates abolition of all nuclear weapons. He was a contributor to the Ploughshares Fund recommendations: “Ten Big Nuclear Ideas for the Next President.”

All Souls Grows a Sangha

Contemplation may be low on the list of activities at All Souls , but that could be changing. Sunday, October 2, at 1:30 p.m.,  will be the sixth time that the church’s monthly sangha will meet for meditation and  talks about Buddhist teachings by Dr. Pilar Jennings, a follower of Tibetan and Vinyassa traditions and a licensed psychologist.

At the invitation of the Rev. David Robb, Pilar has been a frequent and popular speaker at Adult Education on Sunday mornings, and she agreed with Pamela Patton, Interim Director of Pastoral Ministries and a Buddhist, to offer participants the opportunity to form a Buddhist community, or sangha. To their surprise, about fifty people turned up on a chilly Sunday afternoon last April. Subsequent sessions had somewhere between 35 and forty-five attendants, and now there are ninety church members and friends on the mailing list.

A typical All Souls sangha session begins with an introduction by Pilar, followed by a guided meditation, then another talk about Buddhist teaching and an opportunity to ask questions, followed by a shorter closing mediation. The sangha is open to beginners as much as those experienced in meditation.

The association between Unitarians and Buddhism goes back to the nineteenth century, although the association with Universalism is not as long. The Eastern practice is consistent with the Unitarian Universalist “free and responsible search for meaning and truth,” and neither tradition dictates what to believe. Today about one hundred UU congregations have sanghas.

American Buddhist Lama Surya Das writes about our shared values in his introduction to Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism: “Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism value many of the same things, including experiential practice, study and self-inquiry, mindful awareness cultivation, insightful wisdom development, and loving-kindness, combined with active compassion in the world. This is the heart of sacred activism—empowering, educating, edifying, elevating, transforming, and liberating.”