My Father, Saul Haffner

Saul Haffner.jpg

Saul Haffner, 1930-2017

My dad, Saul Haffner, would have wanted to be here.  He loved being the center of attention.  Saul wanted to be with us for at least another 13 years.  Saul loved life, loved his life, and loved all of you.

Saul lived WELL.  He told me in June that the problem he saw with being 87 was that no one would say, “he was too young to die.”  But, of course to all of us, he was too young.  Any age would be too young to lose him. I am so grateful that he was able to fight against the mysterious illness that took him to be at Alyssa’s and Emily’s weddings and to co-officiate at Abigail’s.  None of us thought those would happen. 

My dad was brilliant and wise, as all of us who ever heard him speak or teach knew.  He loved learning and he loved teaching.   He loved travel, photography, theater, golf, watching sports, performing weddings and keeping up with politics. 

Saul wasn’t the best father of small children – but he was a great father to adults.  He liked all of us, including the grandchildren, better when we were able to talk with him about ideas or where we could share an experience with him.  He adored being the family patriarch – and I’m sure that none of us, including the son-in-laws and all of the 8 grandchildren will ever celebrate a seder without thinking about the Passovers at his table.  Or the Thanksgiving blended family adventures.

Saul’s last few years were diminished in some ways as his memory started to fail him and he no longer took delight in being surrounded by people.  But, in some ways, he became kinder, sweeter, and more attentive.  As his short-term memory started to fail him, he learned to concentrate on you in a way that his active mind in his earlier years prevented.  He lived well in the present moment.

Three years ago, as my dad was struggling to regain the ability to walk in a rehabilitation center, I said, “Dad, I’m so sorry about all of this.”  He replied, “It’s not so bad.  I read the New York Times, I watch a ball game on TV, you girls come to visit, they bring me my food, and a trainer comes to work me out twice a day.  If this is what my life is now, I’m okay.”  He defined his “good enough day.” I was so taken with his acceptance, his patience, and I told him I’d include that story in his eulogy. He made me promise to speak at his funeral.

I am flooded with so many memories – from trips we took when Jodi and I were children, to the wonderful trip to the Galapagos with Barbara and Saul, to his teaching me to golf, to the 80th birthday cruise to nowhere – to talking to my dad as we both discovered the Bible and him helping me learning Hebrew from his long-ago yeshiva lessons. How grateful I am to have had a father who he believed in me, who taught me that I could do or be anything, who I knew was always there for me.

Saul and I shared a love of religious leadership and scholarship. He was delighted that I was a minister, and I think he would have liked to have been young enough to study to be a rabbi.  He never stopped studying religion and I am grateful that I will receive all his Bible books.  He often said he wished we could do a wedding together.  I’m so sad that isn’t to be.

Saul called me about ten years ago, excited that he had found a wonderful poem by Henry Scott Holland to read at someone’s memorial service.  I’ve used it several times since, and to conclude, I share it with his voice in my mind today: 

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other, 
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight? 

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

#MeToo Sunday, October 29, 2017

In the wake of the disclosures about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, women across the United States have posted #MeToo almost two million times on Twitter and Facebook.  Almost every one of my women colleagues and friends has posted “MeToo”, speaking up, often for the first time, about how they have been sexually harassed, sexually abused, or the victim of sexual violence. I added my own #MeToo. 

(If you are not familiar with the #MeToo emerging movement, you might want to read this article.)

Sexual violence against women is not new, nor is it increasing.  What is new is this cultural moment of women claiming their voices and their agency from those who have hurt them. 

This Sunday, at our worship service, we will give voice to all who have survived sexual harassment, street harassment, sexual assault, sexual violence, domestic violence, and sexual misconduct. 

I’ll offer a sermon about these issues, including addressing the continuing echoes of the professional misconduct that happened here by three of your past religious professionals.  I’ll talk about UUCR’s commitment and polices to be a Sexually Safer Best Practice congregation.  After the sermon, there will be a rite of healing. 

I hope that by breaking silences and sharing words and music, we can comfort each other -- and resolve to listen, to believe, and to act to end sexual abuse, misconduct, and harassment.

Please know that if you are struggling these days with something that has happened in your past, I am here to listen.

I look forward to being with you this Sunday. 

Never Go Back - Birth Control Edition

On Friday, October 13, 2017, I was the final speaker at a rally to preserve birth control coverage in front of the White House.  Here are the notes from my remarks!

Good afternoon!  I am Rev. Dr. Debra Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister, representing the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation and the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, Virginia.  I am also the co-founder and the President Emerita of the Religious Institute, an organization of over 8000 religious leaders from more than 50 faith traditions who support sexual justice, including reproductive justice, contraceptive availability, and safe, legal, and accessible abortion services.  On a personal note, forty years ago, as a 20-year-old in my first job at the Population Institute, I wrote a pamphlet called “Does Your Campus Offer Birth Control?” It is inconceivable to me, pun intended, that all these years later we are once again fighting for birth control access.

We are here today to protect women’s access to birth control.  We are here today to say that it is immoral as well as unethical to use religion as an excuse for denying access to birth control coverage.  It is also based on the lie that religious Americans oppose birth control coverage.  The facts are that almost nine in ten Americans believe that using contraceptives is morally acceptable or not a moral issue; that 99% of American women who have had heterosexual sex have ever used a birth control method other than natural family planning; that evangelical Protestant women are even more likely to use the most effective methods of birth control than mainline Protestants or Catholics.  More than a dozen religious denominations, from the most progressive like the UUA and the UCC to the most conservative, like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Seventh Day Adventists, have all passed policies in support of family planning.  The moral controversy about contraceptives ended nearly 60 years ago.  For decades now, almost all faith traditions, with one major exception, accept modern methods of birth control, and support it as means of saving lives, improving reproductive and public health, enhancing sexuality, and encouraging intentional parenthood.

As a religious leader, I believe that every individual has the right to make their own moral decisions, including when and whether to have children. People of faith of every religion support the right of individuals to make their own moral decisions.  By privileging one very limited religious view of sexuality and conception, these new rules and yesterday’s Executive Order violate the religious freedom of millions of people who hold different religious views about family planning and harm those who need their health care to include this basic preventive health coverage.  Denying family planning coverage in health insurance effectively translates into coercive childbearing.

Let us be clear -- Contraceptive use is not a sin neither is its provision in a health care plan.  The sin is denying people contraception, reproductive healthcare, and sexuality education. The sin is denying poor women, women of color, women in rural communities the same access to safe, accessible contraceptives and other reproductive health care services  that more privileged women have.  The sins are poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. The sin is passing restrictions on reproductive health services while ignoring the lives and needs of children who are already born for food, clean water, housing, health care, good education, and for their parents, support and good paying jobs.  The sin is using religious beliefs as a smokescreen for discrimination and injustice. 

Other people have asked you to join them in chants.  As a clergy person, May I ask you to join me in prayer:

Spirit of Life and Love, we know you by many names or by no name at all. We give thanks for your gift of moral discernment. Today, in the spirit of reproductive justice and affirming the moral agency of all, we pray for contraceptive access for all people.  We especially hold in our hearts those who will be most harmed by these proposals: low income women, women of color, teenagers, LGBTQ people, immigrants and those without means.  Bless these people gathered today as we work to create a more just world for all people: where all people have the right and the ability to make their own moral decisions, where none can impose their will on others, where all children are loved and cared for, where all people have the right and ability to obtain safe, affordable, accessible, comprehensive and covered family planning services. 

And may the people say, Amen.

NOTE:  Sections of this testimony have been adapted from the Religious Institute’s publications, including the Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning,


This is Us - High School Reunion Version

One of the things I love about the new NBC series, “This is Us”, is the seamless way it moves back and forth over the lifetime of the characters.  We see them at 8, 17, and 37, and we know the 37 year olds through the lens of their younger selves. 

That’s what it felt like this weekend to go back to my 45th high school reunion.  When I entered the opening cocktail party, the room at first appeared to me to be filled with white haired older people, looking like an ad for long term care insurance or Leisure World. Yet, as I looked at familiar names on their name tags, their visage changed.  I saw through the gray hair, the slight stoops, the wrinkles to the teenagers that I partied with, the elementary school children I played with in the fields and at recess.

Forty-five years since high school seemed both impossibly long ago and impossible to be that long ago.  These were the people who knew me before there was a me.  They knew me as Debbi: class flirt, yearbook editor, smart and boy crazy.  I knew them as unattainable football player, homecoming queen, class clown, early hippie, and troublemaker.

Here we were 45 years later, an entire middle adulthood behind us.  We had married, been divorced, some of us three or four times. We had been widowed; we had never found the right mate.  We had children, grandchildren, were infertile, and had had children die.  Nearly fifty of 410 classmates had died before we reached the age of sixty-three. In conversations, I learned you had spouses who had killed themselves, been alcoholics, and domestic abusers.  We have struggled with cancers, strokes, depression, addictions, and failed dreams. Some of us have succeeded professionally beyond anyone’s dreams for us, and some of us have struggled to eke out a living. 

For one weekend, forty-five years later, we reconnected with each other, our pasts, and our high school hopes. It no longer mattered who we had been in high school. The popular boy danced with women he probably didn’t notice as girls; the popular girls smiled and talked to men they would have not dated.  We were all kinder, more compassionate, more open than we were 45 years ago when cliques ruled. 

We know now what we didn’t know then: That life would challenge all of us.  That there would be suffering, heartbreak, grief and loss unimaginable to our 16-year-old selves. That love wasn’t passionate making out in the back seat of a car, but the day to day recommitment of long term marriages and raising children.  That real friendships would come and go, but that these high school and even elementary school connections would still matter. That success in a career was far less important than happiness.  That stature in high school didn’t tell us anything about success in life, but that an open heart did. 

That at age sixty-three, we have lived more life than we have ahead of us. We are the lucky ones who have made it this far; by the 50th and 60th reunions, there will be fewer of us still here. So, for one weekend, we danced, told stories, remembered, and reconnected – to each other and to ourselves.   This is US, class of 1972, and I am grateful to be among you.