I. A Few Exemplary Instances
II. Community Ministry and Historical Crisis
III. Exemplary Community Ministries in the UU Movement at the End of the 20th Century
IV. UU Community Ministry in the "Viet Nam Era"
V. Unitarian Universalist - Project East Bay, (UUPEB)
VI. Re-Training to Overcome (Liberal) Racism
VII. Struggles with Racism & Sexism, Give Birth to the Community Ministry of Dreams
VIII. Our First Tentative Explorations
IX. The Initial Experiment Succeeds
X. The Proof Is in the Pudding
XI. Group Projective Dream Work - A Tool for Changing the World
XII. Dreams, The Universal Language of Human Consciousness
Ever since John Woolman walked up and down the Eastern seaboard in the mid-1700's, attempting through the force of his preaching and moral argument to persuade colonial slave holders to voluntarily release their slaves, the liberal, non-credal religions of North America have been a natural seed bed for vital and unconventional "community ministries" that reach out beyond the customs and confines of the congregation and the parish in an effort to shape the larger society into a better and truer reflection of "the Kingdom of God on Earth." The relationship between community ministries and the life of congregations and parishes has always been somewhat problematic for this very reason. Historically, "community ministers" have been inspired most often by beliefs and convictions that defy or transcend the accepted "community standards" of their time. Community ministers have always been deeply motivated by religious beliefs and spiritual visions that are larger, and look farther then the received, conventional, institutional wisdom of their day.
In John Woolman's colonial era, and indeed for at least the next hundred years, the received majority institutional "liberal religious" position on slavery, as evidenced by the records of the preaching and writing of the day, was that slave owners had a God-given moral responsibility to treat their slaves kindly and to look after their well-being from the cradle to the grave, because the further development of "high civilization" required the division of labor that slavery made possible. After all, the "liberal" argument went, the entirety of human history up to that point demonstrated that high culture had always rested on the economic foundation of slavery, and that "civilization" and slavery were inseparable.
In another instance of a community ministry at odds with the attitudes and opinions of even the most "liberal" of institutional churches and church leaders, it is reported that when Henry David Thoreau was jailed for his calculated acts of civil disobedience in resistance to the morally reprehensible but immensely popular land-grabbing war with Mexico in 1846, he was visited in the Concord jail by no less a leading light of liberal religion in general, and Unitarianism in particular, than Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"What are you doing in there, Henry?" Emerson is said to have asked.
"Oh, Ralph," Thoreau is reported to have responded reproachfully "What are you doing out there?
Community ministers and their ministries are not always so far ahead of their more traditional institutionalist brothers and sisters as to be out of touch with them. In moments of profound historical crisis, it is sometimes the parishes and congregations themselves that promote and support the bold step of community ministry beyond the walls of the congregation into the larger world, in response to the shared sense of urgency and historical purpose that the parishioners and congregants themselves embrace.
When Thomas Starr King came across the continent from Boston to serve the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, just before the outbreak of the American Civil War, he became a community minister with the strong support of his new parishioners, The newly installed Starr King left his pulpit for months at a time and traveled all over the state in the harshest and most difficult conditions, preaching passionately in support of the Union, and against the pending ballot referendum that proposed a division of the geographically huge the state into two separate legislative entities: Northern California and Southern California. The strength of his concerted campaign of preaching is given credit, even by secular historians, as the single most decisive factor in defeating the referendum. The defeat of the referendum kept the whole state of California in the Union, and prevented the secession of what would have been the new state of Southern California, which was poised and ready to join the Confederacy if the referendum passed. Thomas Starr King gave his life to that community ministry, contracting the pneumonia that took his young life while preaching in the gold fields and mountain camps of the Sierra, refusing to stop his work, or even slacken his pace before the vote was taken.
Closer to our own time, the work of Noel Field, the first Director of the then newly-formed Unitarian Service Committee, is an example of another community ministry, one which functioned on a world-wide scale. Noel Field's first overseas project for the fledgling USC was serving the medical and humanitarian needs of exiled refugee Spanish loyalists after their defeat in the Spanish Civil War. Working in the refugee camps and ghettos in Southern France, Field set up, and was instrumental in maintaining an "underground railway" that saved thousands from death at hands of Generalissimo Franco's fascist death squads, (the most influential historical model for the Latin American death squads of our own era.). Field later extended his ministry of rescue, saving many more from death at the hands of the Nazis and their extermination camps, and later still, saving even more people from certain death at the hands of Party Chairman Stalin's executioners and the Iron Curtain gulags.
Even though much if this work was, of necessity, carried out in secret, it was a community ministry that received the financial and moral support of the American Unitarian Association before, during, and after the Second World War, until they were at last dissuaded from further support of Field's ministry, due primarily to the rise of McCarthyism in the United States in the early fifties. Field died, sick and abandoned by his institutional American supporters, in a prison in Communist Czechoslovakia, accused of being "an American spy".
The ill-conceived and morally reprehensible U.S. War in South East Asia, (let us not forget the "incursions" and "black ops" missions in Cambodia, Thailand, and elsewhere during the "Viet Nam" war), spawned several similar community ministries, both public and clandestine. One of the most dynamic and successful, in terms of its stated goals, was Sid Peterman's ministry to AWOL American, Australian, and other soldiers in Japan and the West Coast of the United States.
During this same period, the community ministries of Howard Matson to the then-fledgling migrant farmers' movement, and Rick Maston's world-wide ministry of poetry and song did much to shape and change the climate and convictions of institutional liberal religion in North America. At that time, my wife, Kathryn, and I also participated in a clandestine community ministry while we were both undergraduates at the University of Buffalo, ferrying fleeing, conscience-driven military, and civilian refugees across the border to seek political and religious asylum in Canada.
When the U.U. seminary student, James Reeb, was beaten to death while participating in one of Dr. Martin Luther King's historic marches for jobs and freedom in Montgomery, Alabama, he was participating in a community ministry that by that time had gripped the imagination of the liberal religious movement as a whole. When the attack took place, Reeb was in the company of Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller, two U.U. ministers whose liberal religious convictions had led them out of the parish and into the streets. Olsen and Miller were also severely beaten, but they eventually recovered from their injuries and continued their community ministries for many more years.
As a consequence of James Reeb's death, and the subsequent assassination of Dr. King himself, many financial contributions flooded into the UUA to support the community ministries mobilizing popular opinion against racism. This period was in some senses, a "heyday" of community ministry, when institutional support for active work for social change outside the parish was accepted and funded, even by the largest main-stream denominations.
My own community ministry, performing and promoting "group projective dream work" in the service of facilitating both personal growth and non-violent social change, grew directly out of the experience of this era of domestic political, cultural and spiritual turmoil and international unrest. In 1969, when I was completing my government-mandated "alternate civilian service" as a conscientious objector to war, I was called upon to lead a volunteer re-training exercise devoted to "overcoming (liberal) racism" as part of the work of Unitarian Universalist - Project East Bay, (UUPEB), an on-going community organizing effort centered in Emeryville, California, funded in large part by the "James Reeb money".
At that time, Emeryville was a tiny, oppressed community on the Eastern shore of San Francisco Bay whose citizens were all African-Americans, and whose city government, fire department, and police force were all run by a single "dynasty" of Euro-Americans all from the same family, the LaCosts, father and sons, all of whom lived in white communities outside Emeryville and commuted in to work.
The re-training exercise was made necessary by the fact that although all the volunteers serving UUPEB from its inception were absolutely and sincerely convinced that racism was a bad idea and should be eradicated, they were for the most part still so subject to unconscious racist attitudes, that we drove the folks in the community crazy with our "extra 'nice", "extra deferential", and impersonally unconscious condescending attitudes and behaviors. (I include myself in that "we" even though Kathy and I did not migrate to California until after the initial struggles had already taken place.) As Reverend George Johnson, the Methodist Minister/community organizer who founded and guided UUPEB, told me after we had arrived, the first indication he had that the Emeryville organizing effort was achieving any success at all was when the community members rose up en mass and threw out all the volunteers. My most important assignment when I first arrived from UUSC headquarters in Boston to finish out my alternate civilian service was to design and facilitate a training seminar for past and future UUPEB volunteers focussed on "Overcoming Racism".
Under Rev. Johnson's gentle direction, and in consultation with several other San Francisco Bay Area UU ministers and other community activists, particularly Aaron Gilmartin, then minister of the UU congregation in Walnut Creek, I carefully crafted a curriculum for this (re)training exercise. The response to the offering was very positive. Virtually all the disaffected volunteers who were still residing in the area signed up, along with a diverse group of new prospective volunteers.
One of the underlying strategies informing the seminar was to encourage the disaffected volunteers to tell their stories, in part to give them an opportunity to express their feelings and "be heard". On the surface, the initial sessions were quite "successful". From week to week, people generally seemed to feel better and more connected with one another at the end of each session that they did at the beginning. the plan was that these distressing experiences could then be re-framed through discussion and application of various economic, political, historical, and sociological perspectives.
It all seemed to be working more or less as planned, but it struck me with increasing emotional force that there was a "meta-message" to our work that was most distressing and counter-productive. The subtle implication of what we were doing and saying each week seemed to be that "we were the best and the brightest, and we had given this overcoming racism thing our best shot, and that we had failed..." Each meeting left me feeling more and more secretly distressed and increasingly torn. If this was the deeper unconscious message we were perpetuating, then far from "overcoming racism," we were actually making it worse!
In my increasing distress I thought about simply canceling the rest of the meetings and re-thinking the whole endeavor, but that would, of course, have sent exactly the same counter-productive message out to the whole community of social activists in the Bay Area. I could vividly imagine their responses when the word got out: "Those Unitarian and Universalists - they think they're the best and the brightest, and they put on this pretentious overcoming racism' seminar, and they failed so badly that they couldn't even complete their publicly announced schedule of meetings...!"
Faced with that dilemma, I started casting about with escalating desperation for some new strategy to adopt in the re-training effort that might break through to a deeper. more transformative level of awareness and consciousness change. In the midst of that interior search, I was reminded that my wife, Kathy, and I had been struggling manfully and womanfully for some years in an effort to free ourselves and our evolving relationship from the unconscious limitations and distortions of sexism. Like the conscious convictions of the UUPEB volunteers about racism, Kathy and I were both absolutely and sincerely convinced that sexism was a bad idea, something we should devote ourselves to rooting out in our own lives, and in global society and a whole, while at the same time, we were both still subject to old, unconscious sexist patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior that we often drove each other crazy with our unexamined, habitual responses and behaviors.
I was vividly aware that sometimes we would reach a point of frustration in our on-going efforts to rid ourselves and our relationship of unconscious sexism where one or the other of us would say: "I even dreamed about what you keep doing to me...!" I also realized that when our on-going conversation expanded to include the dreams we had about each other and the troublesome issue of unconscious sexism in our lives, the discussion itself changed and became more interesting and more productive. It became easier to remember why it was worth having these fights in the first place, and it even became easier to imagine what a relationship relatively free of sexism might even look and feel like if we ever managed to get there.
It suddenly struck me that there were at least two important parallels between sexism and racism. Each presents an intimate and personal face, distorting and crippling people's personal/emotional/relational lives on the one hand, while simultaneously also presenting a large, measurable social and cultural face. Both sexism and racism result in heart-broken personal stories on the one hand, and large collective injustices, like unequal access to community resources, like education, health care, and financial capital, and unequal pay for equal work, etc. on the other.
The person driven by the prejudices of sexism and racism is limited, a priori, by the first moment of face-to-face encounter. The immediate answer to the question, "what sex is this person?" and "what race is this person?" limits all future interaction to predictable, stereotyped encounters. At the same time, the cumulative, collective effects of institutional sexism and racism create demonstrable, measurable patterns of inequality and injustice.
In light of these striking similarities, it occurred to me that if remembering and sharing dreams that reflect the difficult unconscious reality of sexism in the personal struggles could ease and creatively energize our efforts to "clean up out act" around sexism, then perhaps sharing dreams in which similar symbolic and literal representations of racial sentiment and feeling appeared, might have a similar positive effect on helping us "clean up our act" around racism as well. Given the frustrating dilemma I found myself in, it seemed worth a try.
After the formal close of our next meeting, I made my pitch to the assembled trainees.
"Next week, when we get together, I'd like to suggest that we not tell any more "war stories" about how "those people" failed to appreciate our best efforts to "help", and instead, I'd like to suggest that we start telling dreams to one another, paying particular attention to those dreams that have racial incidents and racial feeling as part of their manifest content..."
Needless to say, this idea was greeted initially with disbelief and derision by all those present. However, I did my rhetorical best to explain my misgivings about what we had been doing thus far, interesting and important though it unquestionably was, and to suggest why I thought sharing dreams in this fashion might be equally, or even more interesting and revealing. There was a great deal of wide-ranging discussion, which I would summarize, (not entirely facetiously), as agreeing that we were all self-identified as "liberals", if not "radicals", and that meant, among other things, that given sufficient curiosity, we would "try anything once."
So, the next week we gathered and began the ticklish and unprecedented process of sharing our dreams with one another, with a particular eye to what they might have to suggest about our own unconscious, self-sabotaging racial attitudes. Right in the first meeting we began to evolve our own version of the "If it were my dream...", "projective" technique of dream exploration.
[Insert footnote here: At that time I was not aware of the earlier ground-breaking group work of Montague Ullman, who pioneered the first developments of this group projective technique of dream exploration. I do not believe that any of the other seminar participants were aware of Dr. Ullman's work either, because none of them mentioned it, (and we were an aggressively talkative group, regularly evoking any experience and/or external authority we could to bolster and support our respective ideas and points of view.) I am forced to imagine that this important way of work is, in some sense, "an idea whose time has come."
We needed to develop a strategy of communication where we could all enter the discussion of the possible layers of deeper meaning and significance of our dreams as intellectual, and most importantly emotional equals, not granting undue deference to "people with letters after their names", (of which there were several in the group.)
There was enough general sophistication in that heterogeneous class, race, and gender group that we all realized with only a minimum of discussion that "you can't blame anyone else for what you dream." Even though dreams may reflect waking life experiences, the dreamer him/herself has to take some sort of radical (albeit unconscious) responsibility for the particular shape and character of his/her dreams. Acknowledging that any idea that any of us had about the possible layers of meaning that may lie hidden beyond the surface of appearance in someone else's dream must, of necessity be a projection was of paramount importance for the success of the experiment. Since all ideas about the possible deeper meanings of someone else's dream must be projections, the only honest and courteous thing anyone can say is, "Well, if this were my dream, here's what it makes me think of..."
At the end of that first meeting where we initiated the experiment of group dream sharing, several people came up to me and said words to the effect: "Even though we occasionally pick up some little gem of new information from you, Jeremy, generally, all this history and politics and sociology we have been talking about all these weeks is pretty well known to us, but this dream stuff! - this is something new and really interesting! Let's do some more of this"!"
And so, we started to share our dreams remembered for sleep, and to discuss their possible implications for the deep unconscious sources of racism in our lives, and in society as a whole, jumping off form the foundation we had developed in the earlier meetings. The first thing I noticed was that as soon as sharing dreams became a focus of our shared attention, people suddenly became much more interested in, and respectful of each other as individuals.
Prior to the introduction of the regular dream sharing, there had been a pretty strong tendency for people in the seminar to treat one another as "representative spokespersons" for their respective political and religious points of view. Now, suddenly people were recognizing one another as unique and deeply nuanced individuals, and were suddenly paying much closer attention to one another and what they had to contribute to the conversation. Another thing I noticed almost immediately was that the elapsed time of our meetings suddenly seemed to be whizzing by, in marked contrast to the somewhat "stately pace" of the earlier sessions... In "no time" we came to the end of our scheduled set of meetings.
When we reached the end of the scheduled set of meetings, I reminded every one, not without certain misgivings, that the larger purpose of these meetings had been to prepare us all to go down into the streets of Emeryville and give our best energies and ideas to the citizens to support their evolving efforts to reclaim the power to determine their own lives, individually and collectively. My worst fear was that interesting and exciting though this first excursion into the realm of group projective dream work had been, all we had succeeded in doing was inventing yet another "liberal displacement exercise", where we talk endlessly about a problem and never get around to actually doing something about it.
I was afraid that the volunteers who had previously been expelled from the community would still feel so threatened, unappreciated, and emotionally injured that they would be unwilling to return, To my relief and amazement, every one, including the previously disaffected volunteers, swallowed hard and confessed that over the past few weeks "something had happened", something that had the effect of reawakening their senses of possibility, idealism, and excitement, and, albeit with some trepidation, each one was prepared to go back down into the Emeryville community and begin to offer the particular skills and support that they each had to give...
In the weeks that followed we started getting a trickle of "unsolicited testimonials" at the Project office about the work of this new crop of volunteers. Some of these accolades came from the very same emerging community leaders who had been instrumental in organizing the "purge" of many of these same volunteers, a mere matter of months earlier. These comments and positive responses of community members eventually led George Johnson to turn to me in a UUPEB staff meeting and ask me, "...just what have you been doing with these folks all this time?"
George's question was not entirely unexpected, because for a number of reasons I had neglected to tell him that I had all but abandoned the previously prepared, carefully crafted curriculum we had worked so hard on, in favor of getting the volunteer trainees to share dreams with one another. (I have said on other occasions, not completely in jest, that I used the CIA as my model. That information was to be shared on a "need to know" basis, and George had no need to know how the details of the volunteer training had developed.)
In that moment, I put the best face on it that I possibly could and told George that the only thing that I had done differently from the original plan was that I had persuaded the trainees to share dreams with one another as a regular part of our training process.
Once again, the meeting dissolved in disbelief and derision, but eventually George quieted the other staff members and said words to the effect of: "I know - this sounds just as bizarre to me as it does to all of you, but in this particular instance, I think we should cut Jeremy a little slack and give him the benefit of the doubt, because look at the results...!"
It was in that moment that I first allowed myself to have that thought clearly, all the way to the end: "...Yes, look at the results - if blundering around, sharing dreams with one another, without even any clear idea of what we were doing, could have this kind of result - an independently verifiable and confirmed positive impact on the deep unconscious sources of racism no less! - one of the most pernicious and seemingly intractable problems in our society! - what had I actually done here? What had I stumbled onto...?"
My excitement at this thought was immense. If stumbling around, sharing dreams with one another could do this, what else might it be capable of fostering and accomplishing? I decided on the spot that I would alter my education and career development plans and devote myself to exploring this way of working together in community to discover some of the deeper layers of meaning in people's dreams, my own included, just to see what the upper limits of possibility with this way of work might be.
In my youthful arrogance, I imagine that this "side trip" might take a year and a half, maybe two years - max... That was back in 1969, and all I can say in this regard is that after 30+ years of work trying to answer this question, I am still at a loss to even speculate about what the upper range of achievable possibility is in this work. All I can say with absolute certainty born of experience is that things like overcoming racism, (by exposing its deep unconscious roots and sources to more conscious scrutiny through group projective exploration of dreams) is just something that can be reasonably expected right at the beginning...
I have since given a great deal of thought to the question of how and why we succeeded to such a dramatic extent in that first experimental approach to group dream work focussed in the service of non-violent social change and consciousness raising. Over the last three decades of this community ministry of teaching and group dream work, the evidence of my experience has led me to the conclusion that all dreams come in the service of health and wholeness and speak a universal language. At the "Gestalt" level, all the characters and events in a dream are symbolic reflections of different aspects of the dreamer's own psyche. The scary "black" figures in people's dreams, (regardless of the race of the dreamer), are emotionally charged pictures of archetypal "Shadow" energies in the dreamer's own interior life. The denial of conscious connection with these aspects of out own beings, and the inevitable involuntary projection of those same feelings and potentials out onto others is the psychological source of racism. Thus, simply sharing dreams that "embody" these interior shadow energies reduces the psychological "pressure" to project these feelkings and potentials out onto others. The unconscious projections are reduced and withdrawn through the dream sharing, and the unconscious racist attitudes and behaviors diminish in demonstrable ways.
Institutional, collective, social, cultural problems such as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and the rest all injure our psycho-spiritual health and wholeness in dramatic and demonstrable ways. For this reason, they are always issues that the dreams of individuals address (in symbolic fashion). If one has an "eye" and "ear" that is sensitive to these issues, it is easy to see how they are addressed by people's dreams. When a remembered dream raises an "issue" in the dreamer's life, one of the inescapable implications is that the dreamer is capable of solving that issue, regardless of whether the dreamer thinks he or she is capable of solving it or not. At a conservative estimate, I have worked with something significantly in excess of 100,000 dreams in the last 30+ years, and I have never met a single dream in all that time that seemed to me to be saying: "Nyeah, nyeah, nyeah - you've got these problems and there's nothing you can do about them!"
If someone remembers a dream, and upon awakening is struck with the thought, "...that dream is about so-and-so in my life, and I can't do anything about that! Why are my dreams torturing me with this stuff???", the answer to that perfectly reasonable question, in my experience, is that there is something that the dreamer can do about that issue - that there is some creative response possible that the dreamer has missed or ignored. Usually the dreamer doesn't see the creative possibilities of conscious response to his/her life dilemmas because he or she has been dazzled by conventional wisdom. Sure enough, if conventional wisdom actually did represent the upper limit of creative possibility, then, indeed, there would be nothing the dreamer could do to respond further to his/life problems, but the number of times when conventional wisdom actually represents the genuine limit of creative possibility are almost nil, and so, in the service if health and wholeness, the dream comes to WAKE US UP to the deeper creative possibilities of our lives, both individually and collectively.
© 1989 Jeremy Taylor