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Rev. Stephen Tickner
Rev. Stephen Tickner


Nurturing life, at home and in the church.

by Rev. Stephen Tickner

Published: December 16, 2017

Danbury News Times

The meaning of Christmas took a drastic turn for me following the events of early one July morning.

After nine months and a grueling 22 hours, my wife finally gave birth to our first child, Kayden Noelle. Not only did this experience bring the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen into my life, it also led to a new understanding of the Christmas story.

The pregnancy period felt like it took forever. Besides massaging my wife's feet, there was very little I could do to help. I was forced to sit idly by and watch my wife go through all the twists and hurdles that come with carrying a new life in her womb.

So, in this grueling nine-month waiting game, I often found myself dreaming. What is it going to be like to be a father? Am I ready for this? Will I really be able to raise a daughter in this crazy world? I had to get mentally prepared.

Finally, just before sunrise on July 15, 2015, the big moment arrived and Kayden entered this world.

The feelings of the first days with her are hard to articulate. I was consumed with an incredible joy that went deeper than anything I had experienced before.

An incredible sense of peace overwhelmed my spirit, even though I hadn't slept in 38 hours. And despite the fact my daughter was only hours old, I found myself daydreaming about a hopeful future for her life. To put it more succinctly, I was in love.

But as beautiful as those first days and weeks (and months!!) were, they were also incredibly difficult and frustrating. I had very little experience with infants, so I had to learn how to do everything from changing diapers to learning how to properly hold a newborn - and I am not even going to mention what I went through learning how to use a car seat! Added on to that was the stress of getting no sleep.

Those first days required an intense amount of nurturing, time, exhausting work and newfound responsibilities. Undergirding this struggle, however, was an indescribable feeling of unconditional love that baby Kayden brought into our lives. It was this love that kept us moving forward and fulfilling the amazing amount of work that a baby requires.

And this brings me back to Christmas.

In the Christian Church, we love to tell the story of the star, the manger, the shepherds and the wise men, but we gloss over the fact that Jesus was a helpless infant. He might have "lay down his sweet head," as we sing in the famous Christmas carol, but how many times did he spit up all over Mary's gown?

Have we considered how tired Mary and Joseph must have been between a screaming newborn and keeping all those barn animals away? Let's not even mention all the distracting visitors that must have callously interrupted baby Jesus' naps. Caring for baby Jesus must have required a lot of exhausting work.

And this is where my understanding of Christmas has started to change.

I cannot imagine the birth of Jesus without thinking about how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph. And I cannot think about Christmas without reflecting on what it means that God entered the world in the form of a helpless infant.

More than just a celebration of the birth of the Son of God, Christmas has become a call to action for me. Baby Jesus was a helpless infant and could not survive without Mary, Joseph, and all those who cared for him in his infancy. Similarly, Jesus' ministry and message could not survive today without people nurturing it and carrying it forward.

As a follower of Christ, I believe it is up to me to spread the hope, love, joy and peace of Christ's message. It is up to me to love my neighbor as I love myself. It is up to me to treat all the people I meet as if they are Christ.

Doing this requires an intense amount of nurturing, time, exhausting work and newfound responsibilities. But, undergirding this struggle is an indescribable feeling of unconditional love that the baby Jesus symbolically brings into my life. It is this love that keeps me moving forward.

Christmas is different since the birth of my daughter. Now, as I wait for Dec. 25, I prepare myself by reflecting on the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace this Christ child brings. Merry Christmas!

Rev. Stephen Tickner is senior pastor of Central Christian Church of Danbury, 71 West Street, Danbury, CT 06810. He can be reached at: centralchristiandanbury@gmail.com or at: (203) 748-3020

Darlene Anderson-Alexander
Darlene Anderson-Alexander


The 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism.

by Darlene Anderson-Alexander

Published: December 2, 2017

Danbury News Times

Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith tradition. Our beliefs are diverse and inclusive. We have no shared creed. We draw wisdom from the world's religions, from the words and deeds of prophetic women and men, from spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions, and from humanist experience.

Unfortunately, this broad theological scope often leads to the misconception that we are the faith where you can "believe anything." Far from it! All member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote Seven Principles.

Our Principles and a myriad of other introductory information may be found at https://www.uua.org/beliefs. I encourage you to visit the site if you are interested in deepening your understanding of our faith.

As a professional Unitarian Universalist religious educator for children and youth, I like to share this version of our Principles that contains very accessible language, easily understood by all. We agree that:

1. Everyone is special and important.

2. We should treat each other fairly and with understanding.

3. Our congregations are places where all people are accepted and where we learn together.

4. Each person must be free to search for what is true and right in life.

5. Everyone should have a vote about the things that concern them.

6. We should work for a peaceful, fair, and free world.

7. Our Earth and all its inhabitants deserve our care.

Unitarian Universalism is known as a "living tradition," constantly evolving and changing. It is often said that, for us, revelation is not sealed as it is in many faiths. The current iteration of our Principles, for example, was adopted in 1985.

A question that the denomination is grappling with right now is whether or not to add an eighth Principle specifically targeting dismantling racism and other oppressions within our own institutions.

While it is certainly important for Unitarian Universalists to understand the meaning and intent of the Principles, it is far more important for us to actively live them out in our daily interactions. To share a sense of what that looks like with Danbury Unitarian Universalists, I enlisted the assistance of two of the youth enrolled in our Religious Education classes.

Drew (age 14) and Zack (age 10) interviewed two adult congregants to find out why they choose to be members of a Unitarian Universalist congregation and how they live out their Principles in their lives. What fascinating conversations between the generations ensued!

There seems to be agreement that the most "important" Principles are the first and second - each and every person is important and we should treat each other kindly. This is not surprising, since the vast majority of organized religions hold this "Ethic of Reciprocity" as sacred.

Where Unitarian Universalists differ, however, is that we try to take this very literally and to the extreme. We make an effort to recognize value in all individuals, regardless of whether or not they believe or act as we would like them to. Many see that as a challenge for Unitarian Universalists, but one that is worth trying to achieve - to love without exception.

Unitarian Universalists try to live out our faith in the work that we do. One of the adults who was interviewed by Drew is a middle school history teacher. She uses her role as an educator to help her students develop a multi-perspective view of issues and people.

Another of the adults just retired from a long career in human resources. He told Zack that the most important thing for him was working to ensure that all of the people in his workplace had a voice and that they were treated fairly.

For example, he recently completed a project where everyone in the company was guaranteed a minimum wage that enabled them to live securely. He truly believes that his success in the human resources field was due to his conscious effort to live out his Unitarian Universalist Principles.

Often, folks who come to Unitarian Universalism from other faiths cite our Seven Principles - and actions coming from living them - as the reason they were drawn to this faith, as well as the reason they stay. As our living tradition evolves, it will be interesting to see if our Principles change, if new ones are added, and, most importantly, if we Unitarian Universalists will be able to effect the positive change that we desire to create in the world.

Darlene Anderson-Alexander is the Director of Religious Education, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury, 24 Clapboard Ridge Road, Danbury, CT.
She can be reached at: darlene_dre@uudanbury.org .

Carol Morey
Carol Morey


Not too tired to volunteer.

by Carol Morey

Published: November 18, 2017

Danbury News Times

"Oh, no."

My pastor was sitting down, looking at two of us, and she was beginning to bring up the dreaded topic of volunteering.

I was tired of volunteering. I had just finished a discouraging and unproductive three-year term as a trustee for the Bethel United Methodist Church. It was mentally exhausting to never have enough funds to meet goals. It was depressing to keep discussing important topics like access for the handicapped without finding a workable, affordable solution. I just really wanted to take a break.

The new opportunity to volunteer involved working with an organization I had never heard mentioned during my 40 years as a church member: Our church would be working with a nonprofit organization based in Hartford to provide help to Connecticut's children who are neglected, abused and/or impoverished.

Helping children would use a very different skill set. Being concerned about children, rather than lead abatement or a leaking roof, seemed like a better fit for me. Although my mind was still putting up some resistance to the idea, my heart was beginning to soften. Maybe I was supposed to do this?

I needed to find more details before I made a final decision. The program our church would be involved in was called Adopt a Social Worker. The nonprofit would find a Danbury-area agency that needed support, and a social worker at the agency would alert the church when specific items were needed for the children in her caseload.

While considering this commitment, I remembered that at one point in my life a family member had suffered from a debilitating disease that changed our lives. Medicaid and food stamps became both a blessing and a painful embarrassment. People who took the time to help in small and caring ways gave us hope and strength. I understood now that this volunteer position was my opportunity to pay it forward.

I was ready. I truly wanted to be involved, and on a fall Sunday I stood in front of our congregation with my pastor, the social worker and the district representative of Covenant to Care. We all signed a covenant, pledging to work together to support these children. We could provide items that would add another measure of stability to their lives, items that the state did not have the resources to provide.

Our first of many opportunities to serve and support came at Christmastime. The social worker forwarded the list of requests from the children. Each separate item was written on a colorful holiday tag with the age and gender of the child.

I wanted to give everyone an opportunity to contribute in a small way. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving the tags were hung on The Giving Tree; the overflow of tags covered the entire surface of the table holding the tree.

Our church family had never before been asked to give on such a large scale. The wishes for Legos, stuffed animals, dolls, dinosaurs, baby toys and superhero figures filled dozens of tags. Many of the children also needed winter clothes, jackets or shoes. Some families needed sheets and blankets or pots and pans, filling even more tags.

Over the course of two Sundays all the tags were taken. Church members called and asked if they could include more than the item on their tag. The gifts were delivered to the church in bright, festive, overflowing holiday bags. Arts and crafts, books, and board games were also tucked inside the bags to encourage positive family time.

Giving was not a struggle or a chore.

My church family returned their gifts with smiles and stated how much fun it had been to shop for the child on their tag. They would never get to meet that little person or know his/her name, but the Christmas season had taken on a new glow for them.

Our faith encourages us to look beyond our church walls and to take action when it is needed.

Joy just seems to follow.

Carol Morey is Outreach Coordinator at Bethel United Methodist Church, 141 Greenwood Avenue, Bethel, CT 06801. She can be reached at: bmethodistchurch@snet.net.

Mariam Kahn
Mariam Kahn


For women, Islam means empowerment, not oppression.

by Mariam Kahn

Published: November 4, 2017

Danbury News Times

I see myself as a strong, empowered young Muslim-American woman who has overcome bigotry, ignorance, and racism that attempted to make me feel ashamed of my Islamic beliefs and values.

It's common for people to see my hijab (headscarf) and assume that I live a life of oppression, where only extrication from my religion can 'liberate' me. I'm consistently baffled by this.

In accordance with the Islamic principle "there is no compulsion in religion," I choose to wear my hijab as an act of worship for God alone, not for my father, brother, or a civil law. Islam has taught me how to value myself as a Muslim woman, and demand respect through my character and intellect, not through society's distorted standard of beauty.

Islam came with a revolutionary message that uplifts women's status to claim equality in stature and worship.

Islamic principles are derived from the Qur'an (the words of God), as well as the teachings, actions and advice of Prophet Muhammad. The distorted narrative that injustice and oppression are the foundation of Islam originates from many places, e.g. the misrepresentation and misbehavior of some Muslims, cultural traditions of patriarchal leadership, political ambitions, and economic and political instability.

Prophet Muhammad would be appalled and disheartened to find that some Muslim-majority countries largely circumvent Islamic principles, causing injustice in numerous areas along with denying women their God-given rights. Muslim women worldwide are now invoking the authentic rulings of Islamic Shariah (law) to reestablish these liberties.

During what was known as "the time of ignorance" prior to the revelation of the Qur'an, women had very little control over their lives, including their marriages. Women had no say in choosing their spouse or in taking possession of their dowry (the gift from the husband to the wife at the wedding).

Islamic Shariah decreed that my approval and consent is a prerequisite for the validity of a marriage. I am empowered to keep my last name to further establish that I retain my identity and I am not my husband's property. Islam even gave me the right to call for a divorce, which would require child support.

Financial empowerment is key to maintaining independence and equality. Islamically, one of mens' main responsibilities is to financially provide for their family. However, this does not limit my ability to acquire and manage my own assets. I have the right to excel in a socially beneficial career, work in a safe environment and earn a salary with fair pay. Any property, wealth, or inheritance that I attain remains under my control without any obligation to contribute to the household. This provides flexibility for women in terms of family planning and management.

Islam considers pursuing education as a momentous act of worship, and an obligation for every male and female. Growing up, my brothers and I were all raised with the same expectations: to get good grades, acquire higher education, build a career, and support and raise our families. None of these ambitions are gender-related. Prophet Muhammad challenged misogyny by being very attentive to his family and doing household chores.

Not only did Islam empower me to play an active role in my own well-being, I also have the right to political participation and to vote. Historically, Muslim women were provided several political and societal responsibilities, and even held legislative debates with the Prophet himself. One of many examples of this is a woman named Shifa bint Abdullah who held the position as the market's financial controller in a male-dominated career.

These rights came at a time when no one was protesting or rallying about the mistreatment of women. It was only after fierce fighting from determined women in the Suffrage movement that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified to grant American women the right to vote, only a century ago. In fact, many of the rights that Islam honored women with over 1400 years ago were not granted to women in the West until the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The Qur'an put an end to inequality by granting women spiritual, intellectual, economic, and social rights equal to, if not more than men. Prophet Muhammad both explicitly taught equality of the genders and took numerous concrete measures to profoundly improve the status and role of women.

I am not anyone's maid, slave, or property. I am a tenacious, strong-willed individual who has control over my life due to Islam's revolution of the way society should view women, and the way I view myself.

Mariam Khan is an Islamic Studies teacher and youth mentor at Baitul Mukarram Masjid of Greater Danbury, and is employed at The Mount Sinai Hospital.

Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Like vegetables growing in a garden.

by Polly Castor

Published: October 21, 2017

Danbury News Times

In our garden we grow red tomatoes, yellow tomatoes, striped tomatoes, and deep burgundy colored tomatoes. Some tomatoes are tiny balls, bursting in your mouth, some are huge, heavy, and filling your whole hand, while still others are medium sized, meaty, with fewer seeds. We grow long yellow peppers perfect for sauteing, beautiful, crisp, red peppers perfect for roasting or eating raw, and some slim hot peppers, where a little goes a long way.

We also had red mustard greens and green mustard greens. They grew next to each other in complete neighborly equanimity, without being bothered at all by their differences. Truly, they were so busy being who they needed to be, they didn't feel a need to defend themselves.

It is very clear to me that God rejoices in diversity and expects us to as well.

As a Christian Science practitioner, I sometimes request clients make a list of God's qualities and attributes. I encourage them to to come up with at least 300.

Here are just a few possibilities to get you started: merciful, kind, patient, good, all-knowing, generous, intelligent, joyous, harmonious, eternal, powerful.

The Bible tells us in the first chapter of Genesis that we are made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, Christian Scientists strive to understand mankind as godlike, instead of defining God with manlike characteristics, as human philosophies so often do.

In thinking of the list of Godlike qualities, and realizing that we reflect each of them as God's image and likeness, we begin to understand what we must be as well. Some qualities and attributes on our list we easily identify with, while others seem a stretch or even laughable when we try to apply them to ourselves.

Even if we seem to fall short, Christian Scientists believe we actually do include all of those Godlike qualities; we are works in progress. With practice, we can express more and more of who God originally created us to be.

Christian Scientists look to Jesus as the one who best exemplifies this whole spectrum of the godlike qualities and attributes. We feel he set that supreme example to show us what we are supposed to be and do ourselves.

But that can seem like a tall order, which is why I suggest making a list of God's attributes. It is sort of like a spiritual to do (or to be) list to help keep us on track.

But what is interesting, is that none of God's attributes are material. Not one is about color, size, or country of origin. Each of God's qualities work in unison with all of the others, and cannot act independently on their own. None of them have a mind of their own. None of them are negative, nor do they consort with evil, intimidation, or fear.

God, the Creator, is infinite, and this list of spiritual qualities and attributes is endless as well. There is so much vast good we are made to include! But even though each one of us is comprised of all right ideas, we are unique individuals as well. It's as if each of us is a number, that if missing, would cause the whole principle of mathematics to collapse.

I believe we all have a special place and purpose in the whole; otherwise we would not have been created. The Bible talks about different parts of the body of Christ. The hand and the foot might not see things the same way, but they are both needed exactly as they are. I see diversity as key to how creation best operates, while the underpinning of shared qualities and attributes is also important, because it brings unity to all of creation.

Let us rejoice in our mutual uniqueness and diversity. Let's embrace and give thanks for it, and utilize it for the common good. And let us individually and collectively work to better express our unity through increasingly embodying all those godlike qualities and attributes that we can. Let us honor and amplify those qualities and attributes in ourselves and each other.

None of us are redundant or unnecessary. I have found God's design to be so much more varied, intricate, and fresh than most people notice or realize. I thank God that all tomatoes are not the same, and rejoice that all varieties are equally, but uniquely, wonderful. I feel that way about people as well.

Polly Castor is a Christian Science practitioner, and member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, Ridgefield. She can be reached PollyCastor@gmail.com.

Diana Carna
Diana Sarna


Balancing faith and marriage.

by Diana Sarna

Published: October 6, 2017

Danbury News Times

What do you get when an Irish Catholic girl from the Berkshires marries a Conservative Jewish guy from the Bronx?

This isn't the start to a bad joke, but rather the start to my marriage 29 years ago this October. The journey to balance my marriage with my faith has made me feel at times like a tutu-clad hippopotamus trying to balance on a tightrope. Raised eyebrows, shock and disbelief are typical reactions when I share that I'm a practicing Catholic married to a Jew and raising Jewish children.

My story begins one winter afternoon in 1987 when I pulled off the road. I'd had an epiphany.

Ira and I had struggled in interfaith counseling sessions over how we would raise our children. As I watched the falling snow through my windshield, I felt a wave of relief. On that winding, snow-covered road, I had made a choice. My future husband was the only child of a Holocaust survivor, and I was determined not to do what Hitler couldn't do - end the line for this Jewish family.

Our journey as an interfaith couple was just beginning. My mother had died prior to our engagement, but I hoped to receive my grandmother's blessing. She was the matriarch of the family, attending church daily to say the stations of the cross until becoming wheelchair bound. She quietly cried as I explained how we had found a rabbi willing to perform an interfaith wedding, yet she gave her blessing.

As the graduate of the College of New Rochelle, a Catholic women's college, I next sought counseling from my campus priest. Like so many students before me, I had daydreamed of being married in the college's chapel by Father Bernie. Father regretted being unable to marry us, but his final comment to me was to "follow your heart."

I was married outdoors under a chuppa (wedding canopy) built by my brothers, who had never seen one before, never mind built one! In fact, my family hadn't known anyone Jewish until they met Ira. I walked down the aisle in my mother's wedding dress. Pinned inside my bra was a red ribbon which my mother-in-law insisted would keep away the evil eye!

Our early marriage was not much different from those of same-faith couples. Of course, it took some time to gain my kosher mother-in-law's trust when helping wash the dishes. She feared I might mix the meat with the dairy silverware! Jewish holidays were spent in the Bronx and Christian holidays in Massachusetts.

Children changed everything. I remember holding back a wave of panic at my first daughter's baby-naming. Was I making the right decision? Recently, a colleague had reprimanded me for damning my baby to Hell. I ran upstairs fighting my tears and turned to find the rabbi in the doorway. Somehow he understood.

My husband and I decided to convert both girls shortly after birth. In contrast to that first baby-naming, this time I held back laughter as I watched my anxious husband dunk our child into the water of the mikvah (Jewish ritual bath).

I agonized that December. I didn't want a secular Christmas or confused children. There would be no more tree to decorate or wreath on the door. I had grown up singing "Happy Birthday" beside an empty manger on Christmas Eve, and then celebrating baby Jesus's arrival Christmas morning. Now, I strung multi-colored dreidel lights and hung blue tinsel for Hanukkah. We lit candles and the girls unwrapped one gift per night for seven nights. The eighth night's gift would go to someone less fortunate.

At first, Christmas Eve was spent like those of so many of our Jewish friends -- Chinese food and a movie, which resulted in a good deal of self-pity on my part. Eventually, I found ways to make Christmas easier, like volunteering at the homeless shelter on Christmas Eve and delivering donated toys collected from our temple's family Hanukkah dinner. Still, Mass feels lonelier than usual at Christmas and Easter.

My husband and I committed to building strong Jewish identities for our children. Both girls completed religious education through confirmation and recently traveled to Israel together.

Yet after all that effort, I know I can't determine who they will fall in love with any more than my own parents could. Hopefully, we have taught them a bit about finding a balance between love and faith.

Diana Sarna, MamalaD@aol.com, United Jewish Center, 141 Deer Hill Avenue, Danbury, CT 06810

Lynn Crager
Chaplain Lynn Crager


When it's time to talk about death.

by Chaplain Lynn Crager

Published: September 16, 2017

Danbury News Times

As a hospital chaplain, the focus of my ministry is to deliver compassionate care to hospital patients and family members.

The word compassion itself means "to suffer with." It does not mean fixing or advising. It also does not mean ignoring the possibility of death so as not to "take away hope," a complaint I have heard from families and professionals alike about speaking openly of death with a patient. This would infer that life in general is hopeless as we are all going to die someday.

Certainly chaplains meet the patients where they are emotionally and do not randomly broach the subject of death and dying. We cannot and do not force anyone to talk about death. But we do listen for clues that it may be on the patient's mind and enter into that conversation if the patient wants to. In my experience, patients almost always sense when death is approaching. Having the opportunity to talk about death can often relieve a burden of keeping silent about one of life's greatest mysteries. But culturally, silence is often the approach to the topic of death. We simply do not want to even think about the possibility of death. The inability to talk about it is a fundamental societal problem. Wouldn't it help if we were able to talk about death like we do about birth or retirement or any other milestone that we prepare for?

Medical care has advanced dramatically in the last century, and the emphasis is on curing a person of a particular illness, sometimes at all costs. The cure, however, may leave a person with little quality of life.

It is not unheard-of to speak about a cure being worse than the disease in certain instances. I have witnessed family members agonize when faced with making end-of-life decisions for a loved one who can no longer speak for him- or herself. "The subject just never came up," is what I often hear. Unfortunately, silence will not overcome the inevitable. None of us can hope to live in this world forever.

To me, not talking about death feels hopeless. It strips a person of his/her wholeness and the ability to participate in life fully until the end. I, for one, want the opportunity to communicate honestly.

I want the chance to complete any unfinished business, should I be nearing death. I want to be able to share in reflections of my life. I want the gift of forgiveness. I want to share my parting words of love for my friends and family. I want to express gratitude for those who supported me along my life's journey. I want to say good-bye. These are all theological concerns.

I ask people, "In the absence of a cure, what would hope (or healing) look like?" Amazing revelations can surface.

I recall a man who was dying but whose personal goal was to get better. Reflecting upon the question of emotional healing, he responded that he wanted to see his family reunited.

This young man had been raised by his grandmother who, when she learned of his wish, had contacted his mother as well as the prison where his father was incarcerated. Special arrangements were made. Three days after the parents and son reunited, this man, who had been suffering with intractable pain, died peacefully. To witness a person transcend suffering, find meaning at the end of life or fulfill a yearning for healing is truly a miracle.

I am not saying that facing death is without painful emotions. End-of-life discussions require a soul-searching exploration of possibilities that most of us would rather not face. Some people are never able to face it.

Yes, it can be terrifying, anxiety-provoking and isolating. But wouldn't it be easier if we could find acceptance and support during the struggle? Have you considered how you want to die? What is important to you in the end? What would hope look like to you as you near death? What do you want your loved ones to know?

Chaplain Lynn Crager, MSN, Director of Spiritual Care and the Goldstone Caregiver Center at Danbury Hospital.

Meredith Yoho
Meredith Yoho


Service project helps teen deepen her faith.

by Meredith Yoho

Published: September 2, 2017

Danbury News Times

Appalachia Service Project is a home repair ministry that serves families in central Appalachia.

My church has been working with ASP for 18 years. The program brings teens and adults closer together in faith. Not all of the teens who go on the trip attend church every week, due to school and other activities, but they always make time for ASP.

I have been very involved in the church for my whole life, but as I got older I began to question my faith as a lot of teens do. Even though I was constantly surrounded by people of faith and teaching the nursery children about our faith, it was hard to know what I really believed.

The times I felt closest to God were when I was volunteering. I help out with the younger groups at our church and am frequently helping them with projects that benefit the less fortunate. Seeing these young kids so willing to help others really inspires me to do so as well.

I was very excited two years ago to finally be old enough to go on the ASP trip. All I expected was that there would be hard work and hanging out with my friends, and there was a lot of that, but you are never ready for the emotional impact of it. Every year is different, and the gratitude from the families that we work for and the sense of accomplishment are what brings people back.

I've always felt pressure to go because my family all went, but as the years went on I felt called to do it as a service to myself, to the people I would be working for and to God.

The couple we were working for this year were so kind and appreciative of us, even before we had started working. Each day we prayed with our homeowners on their porch. I was always the kid to keep my eyes open and not bow my head while praying, but in that first moment of us praying on Monday morning I decided to bow my head, close my eyes and just listen. I felt so uplifted by the words of encouragement and asking for help that it got me through the long week.

This year our homeowners were an elderly couple. The husband, Tommy, would go for cancer treatments every morning, yet he still had the kindest smile and sat out with us to keep us company while we were working. This family made the most of their situation and remained happy. You can choose to be happy and see the good around you. This family always did, and their faith helped them do so.

Saying goodbye on the last day is always the hardest. Even though you have only known each other for five days, you feel a deeper connection. You know it was something greater than yourselves that brought you together.

On our journey home we each wrote reflections about our week. While I was writing, I realized that I was so much happier than I had been in a long time and wanted to continue that feeling. Being closer to God and the people around me changed my perspective on how you can choose to be happy.

After 3 years, I finally figured out why I was so moved by this trip. I saw how happy all of my homeowners were. On my first two trips, the worksites had children and they were always so happy and played with us. They could find joy out of the smallest things, like having five teenagers squeeze into a tiny playhouse or jumping into a kiddie pool with their clothes on.

From young parents and their adorable children to older couples who love so deeply, every year I am reminded about how acts of kindness cannot just brighten someone's day, but change their life. When you return home, the lessons you've learned are in the front of your mind, but as you acclimate back home, you can lose touch with the faith and happiness when returning to school or work.

Yet the littlest things can bring you back, like wearing a shirt you wore there, seeing a house under construction or the people working on it, or just volunteering more. Telling friends and family about your experience can transport you back to that mindset of faith and accomplishment that feels so good.

Meredith Yoho is entering her senior year at New Fairfield High School. She can be reached through her church, Congregational Church of New Fairfield at cnnf@nfcongregational.org

Rev. John Parille
Rev. John Parille


Trusting in the "amazing' power of prayer.

by Rev. John Parille

Published: July 15, 2017

Danbury News Times

The summer season is fully upon us here in New England, and with that comes the dreaded three "H's": hazy, hot, and humid. Now some folks just love this type of weather; I'm just not one of them. This type of weather never makes for comfortable seating in an old New England style church.

The Bethel United Methodist church, which I have the honor of shepherding, has a beautiful old-style sanctuary, complete with old fashioned wooden pews, a tall vaulted ceiling, tall windows, and yes, very little air flow! When the three "H's" arrive, it is not all that pleasant.

I could give the best sermon ever delivered to humankind, but if it is warm and humid, the three "H's" make a worship service quite miserable.

However, the story gets better! After going through last summer and the difficult conditions, I made it my personal mission that somehow, some way, we would have air conditioning in the sanctuary by summer 2017.

How that was going to happen was a mystery. Installing air conditioning in an old building is a difficult task, and then of course there was the problem of finding the funding to do so. So in the fall of last year, I began meeting with HVAC contractors to get quotes.

To my utter dismay, I was told we would need about $65,000 to make this happen. Yikes! That was not going to happen. However, with big tall windows come big tall openings.

We figured out we could buy six large AC window units and cool the sanctuary off for about $10,000. Still a big figure but much more manageable. And so, the AC Window campaign of 2017 was underway.

Through a couple of generous donations, we raised $6,000 of the $10,000 needed, but we were still $4,000 short. I did not want to have the congregation endure another summer of the three "H's: so we needed to find this money and find it fast. So, as any good church pastor would do when a need arises, I began praying . . . a lot!

Have you ever been in a place where every possible natural solution seemed to be no solution? In my experience, this is when our faith can be tested, but it is also when our faith can grow. In this case, in "the natural," the funds were not there, but then the supernatural showed up!

The church office received a phone call from an individual informing us that her uncle had passed away a few months earlier and that he had been a member of our church for many years long ago. She then proceeded to inform us that he had graciously left the church some money in his will. And the amount? You guessed it, exactly what we needed: $4,000!

Now some may say, "Oh that is just a coincidence." I say, "No, that is the hand of God."

I believe God moves beyond the natural. My faith teaches me that God wants what is best for us, and when we can fully trust in the Lord for everything, amazing supernatural things can occur.

I believe God hears and honors our prayers, and sometimes even answers them right down to the exact detail. Because of my prayers, God knew my heart's desire to have a place where folks could come and worship and not be distracted by the three "H's."

I believe God is faithful. The Christian New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (13: 8) has these words: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." I believe he cares about our comfort, not only to battle the three "H's," but when we hear a bad health report from the doctor, or when the company we work for says "we no longer need you," or even when we must say goodbye to a loved one.

I believe faith is like a muscle; the more we use it the stronger it will become. Perhaps you will find, as I have, that if we can start trusting and believing in the little things we ask for - like finding a lost set of keys or a closer parking spot - then when we need our faith muscle to really stretch in difficult times, it will have no problem doing so.

I believe God is ready and listening. The questions we may want to consider are, "Will we trust in God for everything?" and "Will we ask?"

Rev. John Parille, Senior Pastor, Bethel United Methodist Church, 141 Greenwood Ave, Bethel CT

Emily Grillo
Emily Grillo


What's in a name. Grace knows.

by Emily Grillo

Published: July 1, 2017

Danbury News Times

Grace changes everything.

A few weeks ago I was working at one of my jobs providing pony rides to children at a school fair. It was a beautiful day. I had great help. Everyone was friendly and the children were super excited to get to ride a pony.

It was like most of the other jobs I had done - or was it?

We were about halfway through the event, and up next was a little blonde girl about the age of 7 or so. I introduced myself and started my routine questions. I always chat with the kids during the ride.

I asked the little girl her name. "Grace," she replied. "Grace," I repeated. "That is one of my favorite names." Grace said, "Lots of people tell me that."

I started saying, "I don't know why . . ." But our eyes met at that moment, and I changed my words. "No. I know why. For me, it's about my faith." To which Grace replied, quite matter-of-factly, "Yeah, from church. God's Grace."

Her statement made me smile and filled me with warmth. It was such a profound moment for me that it is still resonating with me weeks later.

In my experience, words about faith, spirituality, or religion are often omitted from our everyday lives and conversations. This is a struggle for me because my faith drives everything I do. Small moments like the one I shared with Grace can bring fullness to each day.

The word "grace" in the Christian world is a blessing or gift from God. I was taught to believe that God is present to all of us, and we run into his goodness and saving grace every day - whether or not we are even aware that it is God, whether or not we choose to notice and name it as God's blessing.

In other words, God's grace could be said to be present when you see a mama Robin cautiously return to her nest to feed her babies. God's grace could reach you in the serenity of a river flowing into a waterfall, or in a song that moves your heart. Grace can be a loving touch, a kind word, or a simple gesture - like someone hailing a cab for a vision-impaired stranger.

I believe grace is exemplified when people from all faiths and beliefs come together with compassion and acceptance of their diversity for the greater good of all humanity. There is an anonymous saying I appreciate: "Being a good person does not depend on your religion, status in life, race, skin color, political views or culture. It depends on how you treat others."

I see God's grace surrounding us within our towns, our faith communities, our families, our friends, and even among groups of people we do not know - as people treat one another kindly. And that grace helps me to grow spiritually, embrace our wonderfully diverse world, and acknowledge those every day signs that God is everywhere.

I know I certainly felt God there with me in that moment I shared with Grace. She reminded me to be mindful of God's presence and to embrace how powerful God's grace can be. She reminded me to look beyond the craziness of every day for signs of grace - and if I can recognize God's grace, I can share it as an act of kindness.

This world is constantly troubled, but I figure if I do my part and insert small acts of kindness, perhaps it will catch on, and even lead to a more global shift. Even a minor tip of the scales toward a more grace-filled humanity would be refreshing.

If an innocent child named Grace is not afraid to share her faith with the world, then why should any of us hesitate?

Emily Grillo, King Street United Church of Christ, 201 South King Street, Danbury, CT 06810. pointofentry@arcforpeace.org

Rev. Joseph Krasinski
Rev. Joseph Krasinski


The diverse joys of coexisting.

by Rev. Joseph Krasinski

Published: June 17, 2017

Danbury News Times

Bumper stickers have always fascinated me. I enjoy reading the various messages that car owners try to convey.

One that took me a little time to understand is the word COEXIST, which is written out in the symbols of various faiths. For the C, it uses the crescent moon of Islam, a peace sign for the O, combined male and female symbols for the E, a Star of David for the X, a Wiccan pentagram for the dot of the I, the Taoist yin-yang symbol for the S, and a Christian cross for the T.

To me it is a beautiful symbol of religious freedom and diversity.

Growing up in New York City in the 1970s, I missed the brief period of racial violence there - because where I lived, what might have been called a "riot" elsewhere looked more like a Brooklyn street fight. The High School I graduated from was totally diverse.

It wasn't unusual to speak Yiddish phrases as a part of regular conversation. I knew about the Passover Seder because I went to my friends' houses to participate in them. And I am amazed sometimes how much Spanish I still can speak, since I studied French in high school.

As I grew older, into my very late teens and 20s, there was a great mixture of people who were part of my social circle. We always knew which restaurant in New York served the best ethnic food for the cheapest price.

We all learned from each other about one another's cultures and customs. We all learned to respect and even love each other's traditions and backgrounds. We truly did coexist.

This month, I will celebrate the 35th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon in the Episcopal Church. (The anniversary of my ordination as a Priest will be in January 2018.) For most of those years of ministry, I served in parishes that didn't have a lot of diversity - which is one of the reasons I wanted to come to Danbury.

I really like the diversity you find in this city. I believe it is one of its strengths. But throughout America, we are seeing more and more hostility brewing up in all directions.

I have never seen as much fear among the American people in my lifetime as I do now. And it is fear on all sides - from U.S. citizens, to immigrants, to police officers. It seems we have forgotten how to coexist.

The Episcopal Church is a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. From its very beginning, under Queen Elizabeth I, we had to figure out how we would be both Catholic and Protestant. How did we balance all sorts of different theological concepts and still remain united? How could we, as a Church, coexist?

It was not easy, but our founders were very careful to ensure that everyone could be a part of the Anglican Communion. One example of this was called the "Black Rubric," which was worked out by church leaders in 1552.

"Black" in this case had nothing to do with race. It was the color of the typeface in which it was printed in the 19th century, since earlier rubrics had been printed in red. A "rubric" is a church rule for how you do worship.

When it came to the rubric for receiving Communion, some felt that to kneel when receiving the bread and wine was too Catholic. Others felt standing to receive was disrespectful. At the last minute, the Black Rubric was added to the Book of Common Prayer, which said that you could either stand OR kneel.

Thus, everyone could do what they felt was the best for their own spiritual lives. One group of believers could worship with another group of believers without an issue. In other words, rather than causing a huge church fight, they could coexist.

I believe God loves infinite variety, which is why God made us all so very different. The scriptures that begin the book of Genesis tell us that after God created the world, everything God beheld was good.

To me, love of neighbor is really the foundation of COEXIST. And learning to live together, to coexist, could be our acknowledgement that we truly believe that everything God made was good.

The Rev. Dr. Joseph A. Krasinski is the Rector of St. James' Episcopal Church, 25 West St., Danbury. He can be reached at joseph@saintjamesdanbury.org or 203-748-3561.

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Rev. Smallwood-Garcia


The meaning of Pentecost.

by Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia

Published: June 3, 2017

Danbury News Times

Tomorrow is Pentecost, sometimes called the "birthday" of the Christian church.

It is rooted in the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Law to Moses. We also might even consider Pentecost the birthday of democracy, since the binding of covenant continues in faith communities like mine, where members seek guidance through prayer and Bible study before taking a congregational vote.

The Pilgrim ancestors of my Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ (UCC), launched modern democracy in America as they signed their Mayflower Compact in Provincetown Harbor. Their covenant, signed November 11, 1620, brought together two very different groups: the "saints" of the separatist Congregational refugees fleeing English tyranny, and the "strangers," the adventurers and tradesmen who shared the voyage.

As a pastor today of the 260-year-old Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC), Pentecost inspires my ministry and gives solid biblical grounding to one of our covenants, which we call our "Open and Affirming" (OnA) statement. Adopted in May 2005 by congregational vote, our OnA statement begins with a passage from the Hebrew prophet Hosea, and ends with words from the Hebrew prophet Micah:

"I will show love to those who were called unloved and to those who were called 'not-my-people' - I will say 'you are my people,' and they will answer 'you are our God.'" (Hosea 2:23)

With the help of God's grace, we celebrate the total identity of all people created in the image of God. We continue to follow the call of Jesus to love God and neighbor by cherishing and honoring people regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity, race, gender, age, economic status, physical, or mental ability.

We therefore actively welcome all to share in the full life and leadership, ministry, fellowship, worship, sacraments, responsibilities and blessings of participation in our congregation.

With God's guidance and love, we the people of the Congregational Church of Brookfield declare ourselves to be an Open and Affirming Congregation.

". . . to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God" (Micah 6:8)

This practice of bringing diverse groups together dates back to the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit filled the Jerusalem house where the followers of Jesus were observing Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, 7 weeks after Passover. The Acts of the Apostles describes it like this:

"When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability." (Acts 2:1-4)

To me, the most amazing Pentecost miracle was not the wildfire from heaven, or the speaking in tongues, but the understanding of each other's perspectives. The text says the crowd "was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each." (Acts 2:6)

As a reversal of the Tower of Babel story (Genesis 11:9), this model of holy peacemaking preceded both the United States and the United Nations!

Peter, the leader of the disciples, interpreted the event through God's prophesy from the Hebrew Bible's book of Joel:

"I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit. . ." (Acts 2:17-18 & Joel 2:28-29)

This Pentecost, I celebrate Joel's democratic vision of God's holy wisdom shared with all humanity - regardless of gender or sexual orientation, age or ability, marital or economic status, or race or national origin. I believe this spirit of diversity and inclusion is truly the foundation of a free nation, a free people, "one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

Our church shares this vision of "God's extravagant welcome" to all peoples in our Sunday worship, but also through our Refugee Resettlement Ministry and our mission trips. You are invited to visit our Parsonage Thrift Shop today from 9am to 3pm. Gently used sporting goods, baked treats, and clothing are offered in exchange for donations to IRIS (Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services) in New Haven and to this July's Senior High Youth Mission trip to Boston.

Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia, Senior Pastor, The Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC), 160 Whisconier Road, Brookfield, CT 06804. She can be reached at 203-775-1259 or bryn@uucb.org. Web site: www.uccb.org.

Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith
Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith


The need to cultivate civility.

by Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith

Published: May 20, 2017

Danbury News Times

I'm regularly amazed at how quickly the years fly by. It seems like only a little while ago that my wife and I were walking our son to school for his first day of kindergarten. This past week, he graduated from college and is now preparing for the next chapter in his life.

In this season of high school and college graduations, many of our young people will hear commencement speakers giving them advice for life in the adult world. They'll hear speeches that talk about the importance of perseverance and of following their dreams. These are certainly important messages and it would be hard for a valedictorian to go wrong with including them.

But there is another topic that might be even more worthy: civility.

While I'm certainly not naíve to the lessons of history, it seems as though our society has entered a new era of incivility. What may have begun as in-group chatter in the darker corners of the internet has spread into mainstream political discourse, with name-calling replacing the honest exchange of ideas and one-upsmanship becoming more important than looking out for the welfare of our whole society.

Respectful discourse and debate seem to be quaint virtues of the past. But our faith traditions speak to this on many levels, offering correctives.

Within Judaism, the Torah (Leviticus 19:18) commands the faithful to "love your neighbor as yourself," and the great Rabbi Hillel taught "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah; the rest is commentary."

Muslims point to the words of the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH), who taught, "None of you believes until they wish for others as they wish for themselves." In every religious tradition, there are similar teachings about valuing other people.

One such example from my own Christian tradition will be read tomorrow (from the Common Lectionary) in Roman Catholic and many Protestant churches: Acts 17:22-31. In it, the Apostle Paul, addresses the people of Athens.

Before he began to deliver his own message, Paul paused to honor Athenian culture and beliefs, telling them, "I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, 'To an unknown god.'"

Paul had journeyed to that city with a preaching goal in mind, but it was good that he first slowed down and spent some time walking the streets, looking around, and listening to the folks around him. This attention to the Athenians' way of life allowed him to engage in conversation with his hearers in ways that respected their history and culture while also encouraging them to see his point of view.

Such civility and respect go a long way to build and strengthen relationships, even among those with whom we disagree. Our families, our schools and workplaces, our face-to-face and online friendships, and our civic life are improved when we speak - and especially when we listen - with respect.

As those receiving their diplomas take the next steps on their journey, and as we all move forward in our lives together, may we be inspired by the wisdom of our faith traditions - by teaching us respect in civil discourse, they can help us open our hearts to those with whom we may have differences.

Rev. Paul Bryant-Smith, Pastor, King Street United Church of Christ, 201 South King St., Danbury CT 06855. He can be reached at: 203-748-0719 or revpaulucc@gmail.com.

Rev. Nancy O. Arnold
Rev. Nancy O. Arnold


My Mother's Flower Garden.

by Rev. Nancy O. Arnold

Published: May 6, 2017

Danbury News Times

As Mother's Day approaches, I find myself in the garden. Digging in the moist soil, and planting seeds, I feel very connected to the earth, and close to my mother.

My mother was a gardener, as was her mother. As a child, I remember sitting under the grape arbor in my grandmother's back yard to eat lunch on warm summer days.

In what was probably a fairly normal-sized backyard, my grandmother grew vegetables and flowers and fruits. She re-created her ancestral Italy with her enormous tomatoes and fragrant herbs that eventually found their way to the table. Grandma spent most warm-enough days on her knees - in her garden.

I can still picture her emerging from the rows of corn and tomatoes, with weeds clutched in one hand, and ripe vegetables grasped in her apron with the other. Her face was weathered and muddied, but her smile was radiant. On her knees, in her garden, my grandmother was one with her creator and creation.

Her daughter, my mother, disappeared into our back yard as soon as the soil could be cultivated. In one plot she grew tomatoes, basil, and peppers. In another area, were several fruit trees surrounded by roses and herbs.

But my mother was most at home with her flowers. Growing vegetables was a necessary tribute to her heritage. The flowers were purely for her.

My mother loved to gather the flowers into a bouquet for the dinner table. She would never have described herself, or gardening, as creative or spiritual. She just did what she did. But her garden was a haven for her soul, a respite from the daily chores of being a stay-at-home wife and mother.

Living in a condo, I no longer have much space for a garden. But, like my grandmother, I mingle flowers with vegetables and herbs in the limited area we have. Some of the physical energy that used to go into gardening has turned inward.

I have been cultivating my interior life, and growing my soul. The acts of planting, hoeing and watering remain necessities of life. "The growing season" now continues year-round. My identity as "gardener" remains intact. But what is being cultivated is more intangible than the gardens I used to tend.

Perhaps that's why our Unitarian Universalist Flower Communion is so meaningful for me. It is a ritual gathering together of individual flowers brought by members to form one beautiful bouquet that represents the Congregation.

The Flower Communion began in the Unitarian Church in Prague, Czechoslovakia, where people were not free to worship as they chose. They were punished for practicing any religion that was not approved by the government. Unitarianism was not one of those religions.

The Flower Communion was created by their minister, Norbert Capek, to remind the members that they were not alone, and to bring some beauty in their services. Dr. Capek was a "gardener of the spirit" who planted and nurtured seeds of beauty and freedom.

Each year, as the story of the first Flower Communion is retold, we remember Dr. Capek. Because he preached openly about his beliefs during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, he was later arrested and charged with treason. His ministry ended at Dachau where he was executed one year after his arrest.

Once a year, everyone is asked to bring a flower to the service. Each places a flower in a basket to signify that she or he freely joins the others in the church. All the flowers held together in one basket show us the variety and beauty of the congregation as a whole.

Everyone then takes a flower from the basket - different from the one they brought. This reminds them that just as they give something of beauty to others, so they receive something beautiful from others in return. Each time they look at their flowers, they can think of the many gifts of love and friendship they receive from church friends.

For me, the Flower Communion not only commemorates our Unitarian roots in freedom of belief. It honors my mother, and my grandmother whose gifts of gardening planted in me the seeds of faith and hope.

When we tend to the work our souls must have, we become "gardeners of the spirit" who plant and nurture the seeds to replenish the empty places in our lives. Gardening is a spiritual practice that fills us with hope, and creates a universe in the image of our personal conception of beauty.

Rev. Nancy O. Arnold, Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury. 24 Clapboard Ridge Road, Danbury, CT 06811. She can be reached at 203-798-1994.

Rev. Joseph Shepley
Rabbi Josef Tiwy


The meaning of Passover, then and now.

by Rabbi Stefan Tiwy

Published: April 15, 2017

Danbury News Times

This week, Jews all over the world have been celebrating Passover, one of the major holidays of the Jewish tradition.

The first night, families and friends gather for the Seder, a festive meal where we retell the story of the Exodus of Hebrew slaves from Egypt. This epic tale of liberation would later also become the model narrative for many other oppressed and downtrodden peoples around the world, a reminder to never give up hope for ultimate redemption.

The Torah teaches that the departure from Egypt happened so suddenly that the bread did not even have time to rise - which was not only "tough cookies" for the Israelites, but also for us, their spiritual descendants, who yearly celebrate this season of liberation with a week of indigestion in their memory.

Taking a closer look at the Exodus story, we also notice that freedom was not something that was achieved instantaneously: Jewish tradition considers the Exodus mainly as the event that granted our physical freedom, whereas our spiritual freedom was not achieved until the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, received the Torah, and entered into the covenant with God.

During the Seder, we also get to transcend the boundaries of space and time. We are not to be mere observers retelling remote events from our people's past, but we are also called on in the Passover Haggadah (the text containing the order of the Seder) to consider ourselves as if we had just experienced liberation: "In every generation, each person must regard themselves as if they had come out of Egypt."

This moment during the Seder is truly "time out of time," when the lines between past, present, and future are blurred. Not only were our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, led from slavery to freedom, but we who live today are also active participants in this process, and the yet unborn generations coming after us will be part of it as well.

Although tradition dates the Exodus back more than 3,000 years, the story and its impact persist well into modern times, when freedom and liberty are still pressing issues.

Passover reminds us that in times of crisis and impeding danger, we should not only be relying on miracles for our situation to change, but also to be taking action to bring about those changes. When being confronted with Pharaoh's continuous pigheadedness, even his courtiers found the courage to speak up to him in favor of the Israelite slaves, and the overall Egyptian population supported them on their journey to freedom as well.

Just to give a recent example: Starting a couple of months ago, this country has seen several drastic changes in travel and immigration policies, which not only have affected the lives of thousands of people, but also provoked strong reactions all across the political spectrum. Since then, a feeling of unpredictability has crept over many. Not knowing what is going to happen next, not having some reliable prognoses, has made for quite scary and unnerving times.

It takes courage (some might say, a leap of faith) to stand up for the values of freedom and liberty our tradition holds to be true and just. A rabbinic Midrash (Torah commentary) teaches that when the Israelites reached the Sea of Reeds during the Exodus, the waters did not part until one person, Nachshon ben Aminadav, dared to take a bold step forward into the unknown.

This is my wish for you at this season: to keep the spirit of Passover and its message of freedom and justice for all in your hearts, and to move ahead boldly and steadfast in pursuing them. Have a Chag Pesach Sameach, a happy and memorable Passover, and also a happy Easter to our Christian neighbors.

Rabbi Stefan Tiwy is the spiritual leader of the United Jewish Center, 141 Deer Hill Avenue, Danbury, CT 06810, www.unitedjewishcenter.org. He can be reached at 203-748-3355 or rabbi@unitedjewishcenter.org.

Rev. Joseph Shepley
Rev. Joseph Shepley


Servant Leadership.

by Rev. Joseph Shepley

Published: April 1, 2017

Danbury News Times

As Christians, we share a common call to what is known as 'servant leadership," valuing the power of love over the love of power. An example of this is the ceremony on Holy Thursday of foot washing.

Washing another's bare feet publicly is just as countercultural today as it was during the time of Jesus, at least among so-called equals. On a recent trip to Israel, we toured the ancient remains of a once-prominent member of Jerusalem's ruling class' house, and in the entryway was a place allocated for the house servant to wash off guests' feet, a common custom.

Just as we might hand our car keys off to a valet upon arriving at an elegant party, in Jesus' time, such an entry would begin with having one's dusty feet cleansed by the lowest person on the social ladder.

The day before his crucifixion, Jesus held the Jewish Passover meal with his disciples. Afterward, he got up, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Initially, his disciple Peter objected to the uncomfortable disruption of cultural norms as his rabbi, a superior, took a servant's role in washing his feet. Yet soon he agreed to receive this gift, recognizing that to be washed by Jesus is to be united in his way of servant leadership.

Following that foot washing, Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment that they love one another through the example that he showed them. When Jesus wanted to explain to his followers what his life and imminent death would mean, he didn't give them a theory, he gave them a meal on the one hand, and a dramatic action on the other.

As Christians, we commemorate this event in different ways, according to our particular tradition. The Episcopal Church's celebration is known as Maundy Thursday, derived from the Latin, mandatum novum, meaning "new commandment." "Maundy" is an Old English corruption of mandatum.

As Jesus called his followers to continue his self-giving example of love revealed in the foot washing, on Maundy Thursday this commission to a life of service is symbolized by the pastor kneeling beneath, and washing the bare feet of new members of the community. Here we stress the importance Jesus puts on humility among leaders, and the need for cleansing with water, a symbol of baptism.

After re-enacting the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, what we call Holy Communion (or the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist), we conclude our service by stripping the altar and surrounding areas of all objects and ornamentation, which symbolizes Jesus' abandonment by his disciples before the crucifixion. The lights in the church are then turned down, and a single voice sings the anthem, "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?"

We then "watch" one hour, in the form of silent prayer in the dark, just as the disciples were invited to stay up late with Jesus during his agonizing prayer in the garden before his betrayal by Judas. The next few days are for quiet, solemn reflection as we prepare for the celebration of Easter, signaling the resurrection of Christ.

As Christians in the liturgical tradition, where the drama of ceremony is shared by all participating, we believe that such symbolic disciplines aid our call toward discipleship, both in remembering the ministry of Jesus, and in reinforcing our call to service today.

We show forth the power of love over the love of power when we practice foot washing. It reflects our desire to live out the example Jesus left us as an enduring gift. We are strengthened as a community as we hold each other accountable to servant leadership as a daily way of life.

Servant leadership allows us to experience a spiritual paradox - that in giving do we truly receive, that in being turned upside down in our value system we actually become right side up. Were we to live like this all the time by putting others before ourselves, then the world might see and believe that there are still true disciples of Jesus today. And that is one way we can continue to hope for the glory of God to be revealed in tomorrow's world.

The Rev. Joseph Shepley is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 174 Whisconier Road, Brookfield. His e-mail is shepley.j@gmail.com


Rev. Phyllis Leopold
Rev. Phyllis Leopold


Giving thanks in times of trouble.

by Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold

Published: March 18, 2017

Danbury News Times

Giving thanks. It's not only the theme of a major American holiday but also a major principle in every world religion.

As a person of the Christian faith, the biblical story of giving thanks that has always mesmerized me is the story of "The Ten Lepers." Jesus heals all ten of them. But it is one and only one who returns to Jesus to say, "Thank you."

Alanis Morissette has a thank you song with lyrics I think are terrific. She sings:

Thank you disillusionment!

Thank you frailty!

Thank you consequence!

I don't look forward to disillusionment, frailty, or consequence. But I believe they truly have their place. In my experience those things can produce great personal, social, and spiritual growth.

I remember when I was in divinity school, studying to be a minister, there was a popular television commercial for Coke where one person, and then a host of people, would sing "I'd like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony." What an ambitious goal! Imagine the whole world singing in "perfect" harmony!

I enjoyed that commercial when it came on. Amidst the heavy theology books, I thought that commercial had a pop culture way of capturing hope for the future.

Now I can barely carry a note. But in my own way, I thought my call to ordained ministry was, so to speak, to help teach the world to sing. And yes, in harmony!

Then came my first appointment as a minister of a church. What I walked into was a bunch of divisions between several church leaders, a shortage of funding, and a crumbling building. For a young starry-eyed minister it was not what I had expected.

It seemed so far, far away from that heart-racing call to help "teach the world to sing." Or in the words of Alanis Morissette, it was quite the "disillusionment." But a decision was made to work to identify the wounds, heal the wounds, and get beyond them to start a new chapter in good ministry.

Within 12 months, all members who had dropped out came back and dozens of new members joined the church. There were babies getting baptized! Youth getting confirmed! We raised sufficient funds to support the church and community services! Plus, we had a capital campaign to restore the entire outside of the church.

That experience not only helped the church but it also helped in my own spiritual journey.

It helped me to "break through the disillusionment," the idea that being a minister in a church was always going to be a glorious journey. The experience gave me a new sense of self and a better understanding of the complexities of people, even "church people."

I like to see God's spirit at work in sunny days, in pretty flowers, and good quotes. But I also deeply believe God is there in the complicated times and in the chaotic messes.

I believe God smiles for all who will indeed have a Happy Thanksgiving by all the obvious standards of happiness. But I also believe God is with us when there is an "empty chair" at the thanksgiving table or any kind of emptiness in our lives.

The lepers that Christ healed were people who lost parts of their bodies, a little at a time: a finger, a nose, a toe. How awful it must have felt after each loss. It is ever amazing that nine out of ten people did not have the manners or decency to be thankful for their healing and new life.

Yet, one person did.

Sometimes one person is all it takes to keep a good message going. For people who share our joys and also for people who help us to break through our disillusionments, O God, I am very thankful.

Rev. Phyllis J. Leopold, Executive Director, The Association of Religious Communities. She can be reached at 203-792-9450

Rev. Lori Miller
Rev. Lori Miller


Lent is a time of spiritual renewal and preparation.

by Rev. Lori Miller

Published: March 18, 2017

Danbury News Times

I have never been a particularly athletic person. I got into jogging as a young adult - but beyond that, I never have done much in the way of exercise.

Then a couple of summers ago, I suffered a neck injury. Following surgery and months of therapy, I realized I needed to do something to improve my physical condition. So I joined a gym and started working with a personal trainer.

I've learned I have muscles in places of my body that I wasn't even aware of. I didn't even know those places were in my body. That's how physiologically illiterate I was. But despite the deep soreness and the frequent fear in the gym that I might be making a fool of myself, I am feeling pretty good now.

It was nice to feel my strength come back - or more accurately to finally have some strength in my upper body, a little muscle tone, a sense that I am now at last lifting things correctly. I don't seem to get as hungry as I did before.

My husband swears that if I keep at this, in another year I will fundamentally be a different person, and my trainer confirmed that. She explained that when we change the ratio of fat to muscle in our bodies, we change not only our metabolism, but also our psychology and our moods. Cells regenerate naturally; our whole being becomes new.

I share this story of personal change, because spring is the season of renewal in the Christian religion. Many Christian denominations, including my own United Methodist Church, observe the season of Lent - which began on March 1, Ash Wednesday.

Lent is a 40-day (plus 6 Sundays) season of preparation for remembering the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross on Good Friday. It is a time of reflection, of moral inventory-taking and increased spiritual commitment.

In the very early days of the Christian church, those who had been separated from the community by sin engaged in practices of penance so they could be restored again at Easter. New converts to the faith prepared for baptism in Lent and were received into the church at Easter Vigil, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday.

Today in the United Methodist Church, Lent is still a season for preparation and increased spiritual commitment. Many individuals engage in special practices, such as committing to read the Bible each day. Some engage in the traditional "giving up" of something, which often seems to be chocolate but now may include abstaining from social media. Others will give up a weekly meal, donating the proceeds to charity.

Churches will offer special Bible studies or small groups during Lent. Others offer mid-week supper groups or worship services, maybe joining with other neighborhood churches. Regardless of how we do it, for most of us, our goal is to ready our hearts and minds to walk with Jesus toward the cross on Holy Week. That begins Palm Sunday, which falls this year on April 9.

In special Holy Week services, the church remembers the events of the last week of Jesus' life. Worshippers are invited to join in a spiritual sense to his self-giving love, with the hope that experience helps us receive the new life that is at the heart of Easter.

As we live in Christ's love and allow his spirit to live in us, we pray to become truly new creatures. Our attitudes, our priorities and our habits can change, and that change is both a gift and a challenge.

I found that paying attention to my health and following a conditioning routine left me with greater strength and confidence. I looked better and felt better. But it also gave me more energy for work, for service, and for doing the things that matter to me.

Similarly, spiritual renewal has been for me a true gift of faith and one that brings meaning and joy. But the end goal is to be re-energized for work and service in the world.

During Lent, we Christians can re-commit ourselves to ministry among those who are hurting. We can work for justice and peace for all human beings, especially those who are marginalized. As we seek renewal, we seek to be changed-but then we also seek to become agents of change and renewal in God's world.

The Rev. Lori R. Miller is senior paster of the Newtown United Methodist Church.

Usman Akhtar
Usman Akhtar


Muslims and Jews find common ground in resisting persecution.

by Imam Usman Akhtar

Published: February 18, 2017

Danbury News Times

As I sat to write this article, feelings of fear and uncertainty are inescapable in my community. The fear of being banned from entering our country, the fear of backlash and hate, is halting us in our tracks. It's a deafening silence, a long and uncertain wait of what will happen next. We sit glued to our screens, hoping that our families and children will be OK.

As these days go by, the unpredictability grows. Members of my congregation contact me through phone calls and emails, demanding answers on how to cope with all of this. News of mosques being burned down, shootings at mosques, and discrimination at airports has paralyzed some of my community. As people of faith, our trust and hope is in Allah, but it has never been tougher to reaffirm our commitment to faith than in these trying times.

Allah reminds us in the Quran of the struggle Moses and his people went through. When the tyranny and oppression of Pharaoh was getting out of hand, Moses led his people towards the Red Sea in the darkness of the night.

By the morning time, Pharaoh had gotten word of his departure and mobilized an army in hot pursuit. When Moses and his people reached the Red Sea and saw Pharaoh and his army getting closer, they started to lose hope and exclaimed, "We are doomed!"

Moses sensed his people losing faith. He sensed their apprehension, their angst, their dread. He took the opportunity to remind them who truly is in control of all things and replied, "Never! Surely, my Lord is with me, and he will show me a way out." In another verse, Allah gives us hope and says, "Do not be weak, and do not be grieved. You will surely be victorious, if you believe."

It is not just Muslims and immigrants who are targets of fear and hatred, but others as well. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in our country.

Symbols of hate were spray-painted right here in our city and in surrounding areas. There was anti-Semitic graffiti painted on a sign near a Jewish institute's entrance in Cincinnati and on a New York City subway. These are disturbing attacks that impact us all.

These are times in which we need to continue to support one another against any type of hatred and discrimination. Our strength is in us coming together. Though we may have many differences, our commonalities far exceed our differences.

Acts of kindness will revive humanity, and will remind us that there is hope. Acts such as the leaders of a Jewish congregation giving Muslims the keys to their synagogue so they could continue to worship after their mosque was burned down in Texas. Acts such as when passengers on the train got together to clean off anti-Semitic graffiti in New York.

This reminds me of when a funeral procession of a Jewish person passed by the Prophet Muhammad, and he stood up out of respect. His companions asked why he did so, mentioning to him that it was a Jewish person, not a Muslim. To this, the Prophet Muhammad rhetorically asked, "Is he not a human being?"

The history of the world is rich with stories of people of different faiths living and thriving alongside each other. In fact, if we take a look at Muslim Spain, you will find Muslims and Jews flourishing and prospering in solidarity. This was a time when Muslims and Jews were both subjected to violence. Hundreds of years later, and we find ourselves in the same position.

I am proud and delighted to say that through the last few months, the outpouring of love and support that our mosque has received is amazing. Instead of the fabric of our country being torn apart, we find ourselves coming together. We have been receiving messages and donations full of support and love. I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who reached out to us and those who visited us. Your strength and kindness is priceless.

A hope of mine is to have all marginalized communities and minority groups to come together and build a coalition of solidarity. I pray that we as people of different backgrounds can come closer together to support one another in the face of hate to make our world a better world.

Imam Usman Akhtar is the director of religious affairs at the Islamic Society of Western Connecticut. He can be reached at imam.danburymasjid@gmail.com.

Deacon Peter Kuhn
Deacon Peter Kuhn


The story behind real St. Valentine.

by Deacon Peter Kuhn

Published: February 4, 2017

Danbury News Times

The presidential inauguration is well behind us, and Super Bowl LI is tomorrow. Come Monday, what will we have to look forward to? Valentine's Day, of course.

For many of us, especially couples, this day set aside in celebration of romantic love often is the one bright spot in the otherwise dreary month of February. And celebrate we do!

CNN reports that Americans will spend $18.6 billion on Valentine's Day, including $1.6 billion on candy, $1.9 billion on flowers and $4.4 billion on diamonds, gold and silver. In 2015, Hallmark alone sold 4.25 billion Valentine greeting cards!

It's almost inconceivable that all this spending and celebration is done in the name of an obscure 3rd century Catholic bishop and martyr. That he lived and died during this period is one of the few certainties we have about the man known formally as Saint Valentine of Rome.

In 1969, the Church removed him from the General Roman Calendar - the annual calendar of feasts and holy days, including days set aside to honor particular saints - because we know so little about him. He is still considered a saint, however, and is honored on Feb. 14, the date traditionally held as the day of his execution around the year 269.

The story behind his being martyred - that is, executed for his fidelity to his faith - gives us the rationale for his long association with love and romance. In the 3rd century, the Catholic Church was strongly being persecuted by Claudius Gothicus (Claudius II), the Roman emperor. Valentine, then a priest in Rome, was arrested for marrying Christian couples in secret (so that the husbands wouldn't have to go to war) and generally assisting Christians who were being persecuted.

Both were serious crimes. Nonetheless, while in jail, a cordial relationship began to grow between Valentine and the emperor. It lasted until Valentine attempted to convince him about the truth of Christianity. Claudius became so enraged that he ordered Valentine's execution.

Another legend has it that Valentine was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to offer sacrifice to the pagan Roman gods. While imprisoned, he restored the sight of the jailer's blind daughter. On the day of his execution, he left the girl a note signed, "Your Valentine."

A few other events also may have contributed to the saint's name being associated with an annual celebration of love. Some scholars believe the February 14th date became mingled with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, a festival of love. There was also an ancient belief that birds first mated in mid-February.

Whatever the reason, Valentine has been celebrated for centuries as the patron saint of love, of engaged couples, and of marriage. But what is a "patron saint," exactly?

We Catholics often are asked if we worship saints - like the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph or Saint Valentine - in the same way that we worship God Himself. The answer is an emphatic "no." Catholics, like all Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, are monotheistic in faith and practice. That is, we worship only one God.

A saint is someone we believe has achieved eternal life with God in heaven as a reward for having lived a virtuous life while they were alive on earth. We think of them as role models of "faith-full" Christian living. We also pray to the saints - asking that they, in turn, pray for us before God.

An engaged couple, then, might pray to Saint Valentine asking for God's blessings on their engagement and their future married life together. Whatever your status - whether single, engaged, or married - may your Saint Valentine's Day be blessed, happy and loving!

Deacon Peter Kuhn ministers at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Brookfield. You can contact him at deaconpeterk@parishmail.com

Polly Castor
Polly Castor


Why Christian Science got into journalism.

by Polly Castor

Published: January 21, 2017

Danbury News Times

With the presidential inauguration Friday and the Million Woman March on Washington Saturday, I think it is a good time to stop and reflect on the source of government and power.

From a human perspective, this has been a contentious political season, with people on both sides expressing deep dissatisfaction, genuine concerns, and visceral opinions. Egos have flared, and behavior has not always been exemplary.

It is easy to get discouraged about our national state of affairs, but remembering that God has a clear, macro perspective helps me trust that there are perfectly acceptable solutions I can't see or imagine. Through it all, Christian Science encourages me to look away from human strife and controversy to see what God, the one divine Mind, is doing, instead of getting too mesmerized with what many diverging minds are insisting about a subject.

However, knowing that the "government is upon His shoulder," as the Bible states it, does not release any one of us from carrying out our own pragmatic responsibility for making our world a better place. I believe that as God impels each one of us, both separately and collectively, to do the right thing and be our best selves, the world improves in proportion to our obedience and fidelity.

More than 100 years ago, the founder of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy, at the age of 87, listened deeply to God, and was impelled to start a daily international newspaper in response to what was called the 'yellow journalism" of her day. The papers then were making money sensationalizing the news, appealing to mankind's lowest inclinations, for the purposes of profit. The adage, 'If it bleeds, it leads,' determined what would be headlined.

She wrote, "When news-dealers shout for class legislation, and decapitated reputations, headless trunks, and quivering hearts are held up before the rabble in exchange for money, place, and power, the vox populi is suffocated, individual rights are trodden under foot, and the car of the modern Inquisition rolls along the streets besmeared with blood."

She knew that people needed an unbiased, objective source for news that also included topics that elevate character and uplift the human race. The Christian Science Monitor international daily newspaper was the result. Its express mission is to 'injure no man, but to bless all mankind."

Mary Baker Eddy didn't despair and wring her hands over the state of things. She did something intended to bless everyone. She accepted no sense of limitation, and it was not at all about serving herself or her church. Even though the words "Christian Science" are in the newspaper's title, it is not at all a religious periodical - just straightforward, honest, balanced, fair, productive news.

All these years later, the Christian Science Monitor still has a solid reputation for high-quality news with the least bias, receiving numerous Pulitzer Prizes for its exceptional journalism. It has recently evolved into an award-winning online news source, with a weekly magazine. It is just as revolutionary in our day as it was in hers, since it is not owned by corporate money or political interests, and has a serious mandate for holding a high moral ground.

As long as individuals in our day respond to our challenges as effectively as Mrs. Eddy responded to hers, I think our country will be OK. We have options about where we get can get our news, and there are things within our own spheres of influence we each can do to contribute to our collective success and progress.

As a Christian Scientist, I have learned that true government is not about human will and dueling human interests competing for the upper hand. I have learned power is not about leadership by human ego and hubris.

In Christian Science, we learn that God is all-powerful, and we only have our own power as a byproduct of God. I believe God-given government and power are about sincere, humble service, and that is the only way any good is ever done.

I also believe that we get more of what we focus on, so I will not fixate with despair on the divisive yellow journalism of our own day. Instead, I am listening for ways I can serve this country - to help us get past this pivotal point and into something that radiates more of God's love and care for all.

Polly Castor is a Christian Science Practitioner and member of First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Ridgefield, CT. She can be reached at PollyCastor@gmail.com

Jo Gabriele
Jo Gabriele


A diverse religious community provides light in the darkness.

by Jo Gabriele

Published: January 7, 2017

Danbury News Times

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" ~ Lao-tsu

This is the inspirational phrase that provided me the courage to embark on a year-long journey at this time last year. My goal was to define my personal spirituality and come to better understand my purpose in this lifetime. I hoped to take part in events that would allow me to learn more about the different faiths in my area, both Christian and non-Christian.

I consider myself to be a person of deep faith, which emanated from being born into and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. My belief in God is unwavering. He remains the Supreme Being to whom I pray - for hope in times of despair, forgiveness in times of sin, and comfort in times of tragedy.

That said, as I've aged, I've experienced a growing sense of restlessness. I was no longer leaving services with a direction or understanding of how to live my mortal life in preparation for my eternal life with God. I also struggled with some of the teachings of my faith.

So, in search of enlightenment, my journey began.

I am grateful for my decision 14 years ago to begin work for the Association of Religious Communities (ARC). After spending 34 years in the corporate world, I was inspired to move to the nonprofit sector. I wanted to spend the rest of my working life in service to all of God's children.

Now there is no doubt that this was the best decision of my life. I know I am where I am supposed to be. With my position at ARC, I have had many opportunities to learn about other faiths.

One of my responsibilities at ARC is being a community liaison, which has provided me amazing access to clergy and congregations in the Greater Danbury area. I've been given the privilege of attending services at various houses of faith and addressing congregations to talk about the various programs of ARC.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of my job is working with groups of youth (ranging in age from 5 to 18) and young adults. Through their associations with ARC, as well as their own congregations and civic groups, I have seen them developing a clear understanding of how simple acts of kindness can benefit those most in need in our community.

Through my journey, I've learned about general principles of Judaism; the five pillars of Islam; the seven principals of Unitarian Universalism; the eight steps to happiness of Buddhism; the nine beliefs of Hindu spirituality; as well as the evolution of various Protestant denominations and their current practices.

I've enjoyed the diversity of the services I've attended; and yes, sometimes even their informality. Ultimately, through them, I've been able to evolve and better understand my own spirituality.

Many denominations refer to their sacred house of worship as the "house of God." I know I have experienced that profound presence of God no matter what house of faith or service I've attended. I have come to understand that this feeling comes from the realization that God resides within me and is with me every moment of every day.

As 2016 was winding down, a colleague and friend invited me to attend a Christmas Eve service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Danbury. In that service, there were readings from scripture and non-scripture, as well as music to celebrate the reason for the season. The shamash and first candle of the menorah were also lit to recognize the beginning of the eight-day Hanukkah celebration -- also known as the Festival of Lights.

Near the close of that service, all of the contributing readers were invited up to the front of the congregation. Each one lit a candle in recognition of a different religion, providing a short sentence explaining that religion's practices of bringing light into the world.

In that moment, I realized my year-long spiritual journey was complete. I was ready to reclaim my identity as a Christian, but now with a profound respect for the diversity of faiths that make up our community. I sensed that my purpose in this life was to represent light to help others out of the darkness.

Jo Gabriele, Association of Religious Communities (ARC). She can be reached at proassist@arcforpeace.org.