Leader Bart Worden

Into the Heartland: How Stories of Ethical Communities Can Knit Us Together

I doubt it’s just me. It seems every day I wake up feeling as if I am in a foreign land, a land that gets more foreign with each passing day. It was not so very long ago that I’d arise feeling cautiously optimistic about the future. It seemed that many important rights and privileges were at least being gradually recognized and even accepted. I felt we had a long way to go, but the arc of history was seeming to bend toward justice, even if ever so slightly. With time and concerted effort, I hoped, improvement was surely on the way.   

That was quite a while ago, now that I think about it. The past ten years and more have surely eroded my confidence in our country. With the increasing lawlessness of elected officials, unchecked human rights violations in our justice system, widespread wanton, and profligate waste and consumption (the list continues to grow) I’ve found it difficult to feel connected – in a positive way – with the people of my time.  

The aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election has been particularly corrosive for my spirit and already had me traumatized when the US Supreme Court Justices rolled up their sleeves to dismantle the foundations of justice. It feels as if our country is dallying with the dark side and the pace of that dallying is accelerating. I expect many in the Ethical Humanist communities share that concern.  

Last March the American Ethical Union’s Board of Directors had a planning retreat in Long Island (thank you, Tom and Carolyn, for your exceptional generosity as hosts!). The primary aim of the retreat was to consider how the AEU might effectively address several challenging organizational considerations. In early February the AEU’s longtime Director of Administration, Law’nence Miller, died unexpectedly, leaving a tremendous emotional and administrative gap in the AEU. L’s death compounded an already complicated situation as I had previously announced my planned retirement and there would be significant turnover in the Board of Directors this summer with four new Board Officers.  

Those considerations also needed to be addressed within the larger context of challenges already being faced by existing member Societies, and by groups in formation, as our groups worked to surmount the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and difficulties in growing or sustaining membership participation.  

It was clear, at the board retreat, that engagement of the leadership of the AEU’s member Societies is crucial for success and the board has, I believe, an excellent plan in motion for that. Sometime after that retreat, a thought occurred to me that, now that most of our groups were again having face-to-face meetings, personal visits to Ethical Societies were doable once again and might provide an opportunity to gather the information that would be helpful for future planning efforts.  

Much of my time as Executive Director has been devoted to weekend visits with Ethical Societies – typically about a dozen each year. The visits provided opportunities to share information about the AEU and to hear about what has been happening in our member Societies. COVID-19 interrupted that practice. And while our move to virtual meetings using Zoom made many things possible, the emotional connections I experienced virtually did not have the richness I craved.  

At the same time, personal visits can be time and cost-prohibitive so, I wondered, how might I visit Societies in a way that would be time and cost-efficient, require few demands upon Societies while generating helpful information and good feelings, and be doable within a rather tight time frame?    

The answer I came up with is what I called a “whistle-stop tour”: I’d string together a series of visits – mostly on weekdays – that would involve stops at several Societies in a week’s time with each stop involving a meeting with Society members who would respond to invitations to share their experience of their Ethical Society during a facilitated conversation. All that would be needed is a place and time for people to gather and chat for about 1½ hours. By driving my car to most of the stops, and happily accepting home hospitality, the costs could be kept low.  

What I most looked forward to with these visits was the chance to hear about the emotional connections members had made with their Ethical Society and with each other. In such a troubled time as this one, I thought it important to seek out sources of positive energy and determination to do good things, to hear about how members have benefited from the comfort of friends and the kindness of goodhearted people who share their passion for the common good. And gathering those accounts together would, I believe, provide a rich source of information for planners as they seek to ensure a vibrant future for the AEU.  

So, I planned a series of road trips to the heartland of Ethical Culture (double entendre intended.) These trips would take me to the 23 Ethical Societies that make up the American Ethical Union before the end of 2022, and, hopefully, capture stories of the goodwill so many of our members experience with their Ethical communities.  

Thanks for reading and please stay tuned for the next chapters as I’ll use this space to share an account of my visits, beginning with my most recent ones in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Missouri!  

Bart Worden

This post originally appeared at AEU.org.