Today is my fifth anniversary as a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. I decided to spend it reflecting upon what I have learned and what I feel called upon to do in the future. (Fortunately, my contract has been renewed by the Board of Trustees, so I’ll be spending at least the next three years with you.)
So how did I get this reflection off the ground? I cleared my desk and cleaned out my file cabinets, of course. What better way to review the past than to pour over what I felt was worth keeping? And some of it wasn’t worth keeping, although I lingered over scraps of paper, wondering whether they held messages to my future self, before pitching them into the recycling bin. Soon the top of my desk and the conference table, too, were littered with sacrificed trees. Weren’t computers supposed to save us from such waste? I wasn’t reflecting; I was drowning. So I did what I tell everyone else to do and took a deep cleansing breath. “Breathe in, breathe out, survey the landscape and get in touch with your feelings.”
When I first entered this office as a leader (no longer an intern with Dr. Khoren Arisian), I knew I had to change the landscape. It was far too austere and intimidating, and the door to the hallway was locked. That door is now wide open, an invitation to everyone who passes by. My colleagues, Joe Chuman and Curt Collier, granted my request to “nest,” so I brought in a sofa, rug and chair from home and got to work. Then I put our maintenance staff to work, too, hanging pictures on the walls and moving furniture.
Soon I had a “home away from home” where I could conduct business and settle in for chats with members. I love walking in every day and sometimes linger at night to look around at all the trappings of my leadership: an origami mobile, prints, and a painting made by members; a photograph of a sculpture in Rochester, NY, of lifelong friends Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony; a still-thriving geranium plant that the lunch discussion group gave me one year for National Teachers Day; a banner from the National Religious Coalition Against Torture and placards from various marches and demonstrations. Oscar the Grouch sits on a glass table, and there are picture books on lower shelves for children to read here and a “magic” box for them to hunt through for small toys to take home.
I riffled through a file that held letters and cards from members and photos from events over the years. There were faces of people who had died during my tenure; I officiated at their memorial services. There were also faces of couples whose weddings I officiated – and of their children. Sorrows and joys poured out: so many people held so dearly by this community.
Other file drawers held Sunday platform addresses, workshop handouts, and many committee agendas and minutes: the day-to-day work of an Ethical Culture leader and a community of dedicated members. I realized that over five years we have come a long way organizationally. We have a skilled Board of Trustees to guide this institution, staff and volunteers who provide intergenerational programming, a caring network that reaches out to housebound and recuperating members, and social justice projects that connect us to the larger community. And, thanks to the creative genius of a couple of members, we now have “branding” that identifies us as “Ethical,” giving our message a real kick.
Where do we go from here? Three years ago we celebrated the centennial of our meeting house. It’s time now to make it truly a House of Ethics. We have been discouraged by building rentals that are necessary to keep the roof over our heads but that neither reflect our values nor convey our message. We must grow in membership and influence, reaching out to populations – and generations – that share the common ground of ethics revealed by founder Felix Adler in a rented hall on May 15, 1876. It will take time, energy and determination, but I firmly believe that we can reclaim our heritage and carry it into a brighter future for everyone.