“Our Place in the Web of Life” aims to meet the following objectives:
- Deepen your understanding of place—where your congregation fits geographically, ecologically, socially, and economically in the complex set of interdependent relationships that comprise life on earth;
- Explore and bring to a greater awareness your congregation’s impact on your local community and beyond—how is your behavior unwittingly affecting groups of people and entire communities, as well as fragile ecosystems?
- Develop a group consciousness and ethic around your congregation’s relationships with front-line populations;
- Reinforce your congregational identity by engaging in discussion about what matters to you, what values you hold in common, and how you are willing to act on those values;
- Do serious justice work using lively and creative methods, having fun in the process!
This curriculum is designed so that each session builds on each other in a cumulative fashion.
Session 1: Gratitude for Our Place in the World
The conversations and reflection exercises in this session aim to begin to build a sense of community amongst the participants, in large part by examining foundational themes related to identity, place and connectedness. To begin, class members identify and explore various dimensions of “place”—geographic, biological, social, cultural, and economic. This sets the foundation for future conversations about your congregation’s place in the web of life and all the relationships that connect you.
Conversation questions also work to spark new awareness of how much our identity determines what we love and feel connected to. How and why do we bring different experiences, expectations, and perspectives to conversations about justice and the environment/Nature? As members of a religious community we are called to participate in the healing and restoration of our world out of love, gratitude, respect, and connection. In this way we act from our highest selves. We end this session talking about the role of gratitude as a religious response to being alive, as the starting point for how we live in the world, and how we live in community.
Session 2: Mindfulness and the “Stuff” of Life
Our society is set up to distract us and make it difficult to be conscious and intentional – living fully aligned with our deepest values and from a place of gratitude. Using the popular animated film “The Story of Stuff” as a jumping off point, this session begins a discussion of the impact of our values and behaviors on other humans and our planet’s limited natural resources. How are our values and behaviors influenced by our socioeconomic, cultural, historical, and generational “place” in the web of life?
This conversation lays the groundwork for the research participants will do before Session 3 relating to the environmental, social, health, and economic impact your congregation has. Participants will break into teams and determine their research assignments. A short demonstration video gives everyone a “sneak peak” at the technique used to conduct Session 3.
Session 3: Mapping Congregational Impact
By now, your class will have identified one or two themes that you will explore in detail in this session. Note: we suggest that you choose one or two themes from this list: water, energy, air, waste, land, and food. A narrower focus will produce greater depth and better conversation. Regardless of the theme(s) you choose, classes are encouraged to integrate climate change in their analysis.
You may have taken some field trips to meet with community experts and investigate particular situations through the eyes and voices of those affected. You may have invited some local resource people to join you for this session. All of this is valuable input to depict in the “Ah-Hah!” visual map/mural you will create along with other research done by participants. By tracing the consequences of your congregation’s decisions “upstream” and “downstream” to people and more-than-human communities nearby and far away, your class hopefully should have some big “Ah-Hah!” insights by the end of this session.
Note: Some facilitators find that given the amount of material they want to discuss at this juncture in the process, they add an extra session here or schedule this for a weekend when more time is available for the conversation. Check out FAQs and Facilitator Support for more.
Session 4: Ethical Reflections on Our Place in the Web of Life
The class steps back from the picture developed in Session 3 to assess the implications—taking their analysis to the next level. Together you will Identify and consider the racial, economic, and environmental justice implications of your congregation’s behavior. You will also reflect on the spiritual and ethical challenges related to what you see as your congregation’s role in certain situations you’ve highlighted for deeper study.
Through a structured set of questions for small groups, participants will build what is often difficult for congregations to do—a systemic or structural analysis of oppression and discrimination. Small groups will also envision what “Beloved Community” would look like in the situations they’ve prioritized. They will report their findings in Session 5. In this way, Session 4 sets the stage for developing a plan for future study, action, and sustained spiritual deepening that emerges in Session 5.
Session 5: Lessons Learned, Next Steps and Evaluation
Facilitators are encouraged to consider beginning with a celebratory meal, which might affect the scheduling of this final session. Participants will discuss the meaning of accountability for your congregation and identify priority areas for becoming more accountable. They will talk about the root meaning of atonement—“at-one-ment”—and write prayers for the closing ritual.
Based on the small group reports of work done in Session 4, the class develops an action plan: how their insights and learnings can be shared with the broader congregation and inform your justice work in the world. The session also contains time for oral and written evaluations to bring things to full closure.
About the Authors
Dr. Mark Hicks
Dr. Mark A. Hicks is the Angus MacLean Professor of Religious Education at Meadville Lombard Theological School and Director of the Sophia Fahs Center for Religious Education. He holds a doctorate degree in philosophy and education and a Master’s degree in higher and adult education, both from Teachers College, Columbia University in the City of New York. Drawing on his experience as a teacher, musician, university administrator and advocate for social change, Dr. Hicks brings to Unitarian Universalism his experience of designing a gold-standard professional development degree that transforms the teaching and learning lives of public school teachers and children. He is known as a teacher’s teacher, his scholarship and teaching being recognized by peers for “Teaching Excellence” as well as making “contributions that stand the test of time” to the field of transformative teaching and research.
Pamela Sparr is a political economist and popular educator specializing in sustainable development and equity issues. Her primary interest is in how we nurture an individual’s psychological and spiritual growth at the same time as we participate in social change and justice-making. Ms. Sparr’s particular expertise is working with non-profits to develop transformative programs, educational materials, and experiences that enable staff, board members, and constituents to grow as they engage in effective, sustained justice work in the world. Ms. Sparr’s past clients have included UN agencies, national and international labor, religious, development, and environmental groups and foundations. The UUA and UUMFE are among Ms. Sparr’s current clients. She was the founding chair of her congregation’s 7th Principle Committee and led its Green Sanctuary planning process.
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