A graduate of Harvard College, Gary received his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, where he was also a Merrill Fellow. He has served congregations from New England to Kentucky and from the Northwest to North Carolina. He currently serves as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical responder with Hondo Fire & Rescue in Santa Fe County.
“Para mi, la spiritualidad significa una connection con un Realidad mas grande que yo. Puedo encontrarla en el arte y la poesia, en la naturaleza, en la amistad y tambien a menudo en mi iglesia. Como el ministro con la congregation Unitarian Universalist de Taos, espero de ayudar construir esta communidad donde la gente puede sentir un poco de la belleza, la maravilla y el misterio de la vida, sin condenacion o dogma. Quisiera andar con otras quienes estan intentando a traer un poco de la luz al dentro de un mundo llenado con tantos rincones oscuros de miedo y odio. Para mi, es un honor para servir esta reunion de individuos pensativos donde ideas diferentes son respectados – y donde no se necesita creer para pertenecer.”
Spirituality for me means connection with a Reality larger than myself. I can find it in art and poetry, in nature, in camaraderie and friendship, and often even in church! As minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Taos, I hope to help strengthen this community, where people can experience a little of the wonder, beauty, and mystery of living, without judgment or dogma. I want to walk with others who are trying to make a difference in the world. For me, it is a privilege to serve this amazing little gathering of thoughtful, principled individuals, where honest differences are respected—and where you don’t have to believe to be loved or belong.
If you are new to Unitarian Universalism, the best way to learn about our faith is to experience it firsthand. Please visit our services on first and third Sunday mornings. Or feel welcome to contact me directly. Whoever you are, whomever you love, wherever you find yourself on the path, I look forward to hearing from you.
Reverend Gary Kowalski
From the Taos News, August 22, 2019 “Happy Labor Day”
Labor Day weekend will be celebrated by many Americans as an occasion for picnics and end-of-summer cookouts. But who invented the weekend, or the vacation, for that matter? Before the holiday honoring workers was created, back in 1882, most wage-earners toiled 12 hours a day, seven days a week in sweatshops, mills and mines that were dangerous, dirty and that paid a subsistence income. Many of the early labor organizers had names like Sacco and Vanzetti: they were Italians, Slavs, Jews or other recent immigrants, considered “un-American” and almost subhuman. But the fight for an eight-hour day, a minimum wage, sick leave, safe working conditions and an end to child labor were all their achievements.
But those wins are in jeopardy. Recently U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at Koch Foods in Mississippi rounded up hundreds of undocumented workers at chicken factories where workers had joined the United Food and Commercial Workers and won multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the owners for racial and sexual harassment in the workplace. The company’s owners faced no criminal charges for illegal hiring. Instead, the bosses phoned the feds to retaliate against their own employees.
At Peco Foods, also targeted by ICE, workers had suffered amputations as the number of federal inspectors dropped and the speed of the slaughter line increased. One Peco plant in Mississippi disassembles and packages approximately 17 tons of poultry weekly.
These detentions, the largest single-state ICE enforcements in history, were timed for the first day of school, so that children (many citizens born in the United States) came home from class to find their parents missing, behind bars. Their crime? Seeking better working conditions in jobs that nobody else wanted.
That same weekend, a shooter who posted a racist screed warning of a Latino “invasion” of our country, murdered 22 shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, the youngest victim just 15 years old.
No doubt much of that prepackaged meat is coming from places like Koch and Peco Foods. Peco Foods lists Walmart among its top customers.
Please, as you enjoy your backyard barbecue on Labor Day, ask yourself where that meat came from. Ask yourself why, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, so many meatpackers earn as little as $10 per hour. Ask yourself who would wade through a killing floor of blood, guts and grease, risking life and limb, for that kind of money. Remember the undocumented workers who are exploited, victimized by wage theft, bullied by bosses and often unable to complain for fear of deportation. Then remember the people with funny-sounding “foreign” names who fought like heck so you could enjoy a weekend.
Happy Labor Day.
Is There A War On Christmas? (from the Taos News, November 21, 2018)
Every December, liberals like me rankle under the accusation that we are waging a “war on Christmas.” During his presidential campaign, for example, Donald Trump made it a major talking point, vowing to “make Christmas great again” and promising that “If I become president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store.” He wasn’t the first.
Notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford raised the issue back in 1929 in a pamphlet he published titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem,” complaining that “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth.”
Fast forward 30 years to 1959, when the ultra-right-wing John Birch Society warned of an “assault on Christmas” by United Nations fanatics who wanted department stores to replace baby Jesus with symbols of international cooperation and global peace. (Heaven forbid!)
Now, in this digital age, the alleged “war on Christmas” is a predictable part of the blogosphere every holiday, as conservatives stir fears that sinister conspirators (Muslims, Democrats, secular humanists or the bogeyman de jour) want to rob Christians of their right to worship or express their beliefs in public. When the clerk at Home Depot says “Happy Holidays” or your neighbor wishes you “Season’s Greetings” or the U.S. Postal Service releases a new December stamp featuring a glowing candle rather than a cross, commentators on Fox News automatically assume they are plotting to establish a secular republic that will stamp out God, ban the Bible and likely feed Sunday school teachers to the lions. What rubbish!
The truth is I love Christmas. In my experience, it was great long before the Donald came along.
I grew up singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” in church on Christmas Eve, and in my opinion that is exactly where these songs and symbols belong: in church, not in a public school classroom and not in a creche erected on the town plaza.
Because much as I love Christmas, I also respect my neighbors who have other beliefs and other traditions than my own. Whether Jewish or Muslim or nonreligious, whether they celebrate Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa or Bodhi Day, commemorating the Buddha’s enlightenment, they are all Americans and welcome in this spiritually diverse land where no official or established church is named and where all are guaranteed the freedom to follow their own conscience in matters of faith.
So instead of waging any kind of war or quarreling over friendly salutations, how about toning down the rhetoric and working together for a little more peace on earth this December, with goodwill for all? Wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Feliz Navidad” or “Joyeux Nöel” if you like; I won’t take offense. And on Dec. 25, attend the church or visit the Chinese restaurant of your choice.
Hate Crimes On The Rise … (Taos News, November 2, 2019)
Hate crimes are rising and roughly half target Jews. The 11 murdered at a synagogue last weekend come on the heels of a pipe bomb mailed to Holocaust survivor George Soros from a Floridian known for peddling anti-Semitic rants online. Last spring, a self-described white nationalist calling for a United States “free of Jews” drew 89,000 votes in preliminaries to California’s Republican primary, while assorted neo-Confederates, white supremacists, and other fascists marched in Charlottesville last year chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
This is becoming a nation that most of us no longer recognize, where vile ideologies once lurking in the shadows are pushing to the forefront of political rallies. We must not allow these distortions of American values to enter the mainstream. As our parents’ generation fought the Nazis, we must fight bigotry in our own time, standing in solidarity with our Jewish sisters and brothers, with our LGBTQ sons and daughters, with blacks, immigrants and every other minority that has become a scapegoat to channel the unfocused anger of an empire in decline.
In words attributed to pastor Martin Neimoller, “In Germany, first they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the Catholics and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time, there was no one left to speak up.” Speak up and act up!
We Still Have Far to Go … (Taos News, June 20, 2016)
Whatever you think of the nominee, few would dispute the historic significance of a woman heading the presidential ticket of a major national party. Hillary Clinton has borne the aura of “inevitability” so long that it is easy to forget the long (and unfinished) struggle to gain equal political rights for women.
It started in 1848 with the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, where delegates that included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and the former slave Frederick Douglas passed a resolution demanding equal suffrage. But three generations passed before the ratification of the 19th Amendment finally granting women the ballot.
Now a century later, women are still trying to level the playing field. In the workforce, women continue to earn just 79 cents for every dollar paid to their male, full time counterparts. The U.S. ranks twenty-third worldwide in the number of females holding elective office, behind countries like Ireland, Nicaragua and Cuba. Women’s reproductive rights are eroding, while paid family leave is still a distant goal. Sadly, victims of sexual assault cannot always be confident that their assailants will face justice in our criminal system.
Even the right to vote is once again in question. Voter I.D. laws passed three years ago in the wake of the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Voting Rights Act have had the practical effect of disenfranchising women disproportionately–because the married surnames they carry on their passports, driver’s licenses and other official documents seldom match the last names given on their birth certificates.
According to the Brennan Center for Law at New York University, birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20.” By comparison, the Center notes, the infamous poll tax — once used to keep African Americans from voting in the Deep South — amounted to just $10.64 in current dollars.
In one recent Texas election, 117th District Court Judge Sandra Watts of Corpus Christi faced difficulties voting because her maiden name was her middle name on one document and not another. The ID she had used for forty-five years was no longer acceptable at the polls. She was able to file a provisional ballot and produce proof of identity later. But what happens to thousands of women without the legal savvy of a district court judge?
Ten states now have restrictive voter ID laws, with enough collective electoral college votes to influence the outcome of the presidential contest in November. Suppressing voter turnout on the basis of gender could tip the balance. Is that any way to select a president?
We still have far to go to achieve equal rights for all. Sex discrimination remains a serious problem in the workplace, in our courts, and in our electoral process. But if women in sufficient numbers simply demand their constitutional due, then we can still believe the words of Susan B. Anthony, that “failure is impossible.”
A Right To Die?
Do people with incurable terminal illness, in distress and with no hope of recovery, have a right to a doctor’s assistance in hastening their own death? That question is now before the New Mexico Supreme Court, and opinions differ.
As a pastor, I recall difficult instances within my own church. Margaret was in her mid-’70s when she was diagnosed with ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which results in a death through paralysis as muscles shut down (ending with the inability to swallow or breath) while the mind remains intact.
Rather than submit to slow but relentless strangulation and suffocation from the disease, Margaret decided to stop eating or drinking. Dehydration is not a quick or painless exit, but at the time, it was the only option the law allowed, and Margaret expired over the course of about 10 days. She told me she wished she had the alternative of a prescription that would have made it fast and merciful.
Many individuals in such dire circumstances fear the loss of personal dignity and autonomy most of all. That was true of Miriam, another member of my church diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor gradually removing her cognitive functions. She was a widow. Her children were grown. She didn’t want to die not recognizing them, not being able to say goodbye at the end. She feared losing control of her own medical decisions, being artificially kept alive in a vegetative condition. Miriam too decided to die of thirst rather than submit to the future fate had in store.
Eventually, the state where I served as minister, Vermont, passed legislation that with proper safeguards permitted people like Margaret and Miriam to take charge of their own end-of-life decisions. Only a handful of patients have actually requested lethal drugs since that option became available. It turns out that most people have a very strong will to live, so long as any shred of quality or chance of recovery remains. But many who will never avail themselves of assistance-in-dying want the assurance that it is a legal option in case of extremity.
Many religions consider suicide a sin, regarding it as a rejection of the gift of life. But “physician-assisted suicide” is the wrong term for cases like Miriam’s and Margaret’s. Neither were choosing between life and death, strictly speaking, because survival was not on the menu. Rather, each was selecting the manner of her own ending, bowing to the inevitable but insisting upon meeting the unavoidable on her own terms rather than acquiesce to senseless suffering. As a final act of courage and self-determination, I honored these decisions as affirmations of life, not as its denial.
I respect those who disagree, like former Catholic Archbishop Michael Sheehan, who lobbied then Attorney General Gary King to appeal a court ruling that would have granted all New Mexico residents a right to die. Yet I would urge that the archbishop confine his religious views to his own flock, without imposing those teachings on others (equally moral and equally faithful) whose convictions differ. And I would urge our Supreme Court Justices to remember Miriam and Margaret as they consult both law and conscience in their chambers.
Rev. Gary Kowalski, from the Taos News, Nov. 22, 2015
Racism is like a disease or virus. Hatred festers quietly, incubating in some obscure corner. And like measles or Ebola we think we have the monster controlled, perhaps even vanquished, until another outbreak reminds us that the sickness is still in our midst an always has been.
The senseless murder of nine worshipers in an African Methodist Episcopal Church by a young, white supremacist ideologue, Dylan Roof, is a searing reminder that America’s history of racial violence is with us still. The passing of time, the turning of generations, has not been sufficient to contain the illness. Racial hate has not been quarantined to the past – to the bad old days of Bull Connor or the KKK – but continues to infect the minds and hearts of even the youngest.
Signs of progress, hopes that the sickness is abating (like the election of an African American president seven years ago) are countered by the clear evidence that microbes of malice continue to multiply. Indeed, when President Obama opened his White House twitter account for the first time last month and sent a message of goodwill to his countrymen and women, the response was a flood of race-baiting vitriol. Not only is the disease still active. It threatens to reach epidemic proportions.
In these plague times, indifference is not enough. Pretending to be “color-blind” or insensitive to racial disparities is not sufficient. Treating Dylan Roof’s act of savagery as the isolated blunder of a misguided young man will not do, any more than treating a single viral specimen of rabies as an isolated organism will do. It is a symptom and harbinger of a malady that will linger until its moment comes to manifest in fevers of madness and destruction.
Like doctors without borders or the CDC, decent-minded people must not only look inward to purge and protect themselves from this illness. They must travel to the front lines to combat the virus where it exists. We must become vigilant in our pro-active resistance to racism to build resistance in others. We must name and turn the microscopes of media examination on this animal, exposing it as the malevolent beast that it is. We must join in public outcry. For exposure to the light is like a powerful antiseptic.
Why did the KKK ride at night? Why do the authors of malicious tweets cloak themselves in anonymity? The germs cannot breed, except in darkness.
Reverend Gary Kowalski, June 19, 2015
“We recognize that there are a diversity of views in the faith community, and respect the right of other religious groups to refuse to stand in support of abortion under any circumstance. Indeed, not everyone in our own congregations or denominations agrees on this complex issue. But as leaders, we feel called to declare our support for a woman’s ability to access abortion and other reproductive healthcare services as a basic issue of health and safety for women and their families.”
Reverend Doug Inhofe and I have added our signatures to an appeal from the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights declaring our support for women’s autonomy in making the profoundly personal and intimate decision to end an unwanted pregnancy.
This is in accord with the UUA’s current statement of conscience on “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling,” which will be presented to delegates at the 2015 General Assembly in June and consistent with numerous other affirmations of women’s empowerment concerning their own bodies reaching back almost fifty years.
Make no mistake that that the anti-women’s movement, which slowly closes clinics and limits access to abortion with waiting periods, mandatory counseling and other ruses, seeks not only to outlaw abortion but ultimately to prohibit contraception and family planning as contrary to God’s will, imposing Catholic and Protestant Evangelical teachings on sexuality as statutory law on all U.S. citizens.
To prevent this from happening, people of faith and goodwill – Jews, Quakers, Episcopalians, United Church of Christ, Presbyterians, Methodists and church women’s groups from many denominations – have joined to form the New Mexico Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Along with Doug, I am proud to add my name to the statement below.
Rev. Gary Kowalski, May 24, 2015
We, clergy and religious leaders from across New Mexico, in accordance with our moral convictions and our personal faith, support a woman’s ability to access a full range of reproductive health services, including abortion.
As leaders of various faith communities, we have lived and ministered closely with thousands of women and their families. Many of these women find themselves faced with the decision to have an abortion, and one in three will decide to end a pregnancy at some point in their lives.
These women are our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends and our peers. As people of faith and as New Mexicans, we believe in loving our neighbors, and treating one another as we would like to be treated—with dignity and respect. This means recognizing that the decision to have an abortion is deeply personal and should be left to a woman, her family, and her doctor in consultation with her faith.
We live in an era where abortion is discussed at length both in the media and in our communities. Regardless of how we feel about abortion personally, we know that this is a complex decision, often made under heartbreaking circumstances. The decision to have an abortion is not something that should be restricted by elected officials. Every family and every pregnancy is different and a woman should feel confident that if she decides to seek an abortion her clergy or religious leader will provide compassionate and nonjudgmental support.
We recognize that there are a diversity of views in the faith community, and respect the right of other religious groups to refuse to stand in support of abortion under any circumstance. Indeed, not everyone in our own congregations or denominations agrees on this complex issue. But as leaders, we feel called to declare our support for a woman’s ability to access abortion and other reproductive healthcare services as a basic issue of health and safety for women and their families.
Our religious principles are grounded in a love and acceptance of all people, and we believe deeply that means ending the shame and stigma associated with abortion and increasing access for all women to a full range of reproductive healthcare options.
New Mexico has a long history of valuing and protecting the dignity of all women. It is time to end all attempts to interfere in a woman’s deeply private medical decisions about abortion and leave them in the capable hands of a woman, her family and her doctor in consultation with her faith.
America has a problem. Being youthful, black and male should not be a crime, but Freddie Gray’s death is Baltimore is the latest in a string of police assaults on unarmed African American men. Before that, just in the last few months, there was Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in New York, Dontre Hamilton in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, John Crawford in Dayton, Ohio, Ezell Ford in Florence, California, Dante Parker in Victorville, California, Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, NY, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Rumain Brisban in Phoenix, Arizona, Jerame Reid in New Jersey, Tony Robinson in Madison, Wisconsin, and the list goes on. There is a pattern here that black people have always known about but that now even white folks are beginning to see. Young black men are being profiled, harassed, victimized and all too often murdered by the police who are supposed to protect the public and dispense equal justice to all.
What is the remedy? Body cameras on cops are a good idea. Here are some other initiatives that make sense:
· establishing special prosecutors whose sole job would be investigating police misconduct (ending the chummy relationship between law enforcement and District Attorneys)
· hiring more women on the police force (females tend to be better at negotiation and de-escalating confrontations that men)
· de-militarizing departments that have become tooled up with tanks, drones and wartime technology
· providing better training to enable police to deal with psychiatric issues as illness rather than criminal offense.
First and foremost, we must collectively admit that racism is a societal problem. We cannot just blame the police without also shouldering a portion of the responsibility for overcoming the legacy of discrimination that continues to make inequality the norm in our country. Maintaining “law and order” must do more than perpetuate a system that distributes wealth, rank and privilege to those already connected to the echelons of power and opportunity. It is up to each of us to create a future where every child has an equal chance in life. Until then, we will get the police we deserve.
Rev. Gary Kowalski, May 3, 2015
Starting on the first Sunday in April, the Unitarian Congregation of Taos will begin meeting at the Masonic Lodge, located at 124 Camino de Santiago. Come visit our new quarters!
While this is purely a rental arrangement and there are no formal ties between Masonry and the Unitarian Universalist Association, the two organizations do share common traditions and history.
Many of our nation’s founders, for instance, were both Freemasons and early Unitarians. Benjamin Franklin, who founded the Masonic Lodge in Philadelphia, also attended religious services at America’s first Unitarian congregation, established by his friend and fellow scientist Joseph Priestly in nearby Northumberland. John Hancock and Paul Revere also fall into this category.
Masonry in its modern form took shape with the establishment of London’s Grand Lodge in 1721. The first constitution of the Masons, while disavowing any religious intent, assumed belief in a Creator and in the unity of the human family, encouraging an ethic of service to neighbor. International in outlook, Masonry soon established outposts in Russia, the American Colonies, and other European nations.
Many early Masons were also connected with London’s Royal Society. Scientifically minded, they hoped to establish a fraternal order that would promote learning and cooperation, and that by placing morality on a rational rather than supernatural basis, would bring cessation to the dogmatic differences that fed religious strife.
I look forward to sharing our new home with Bent Lodge 42 in Taos. While I am not affiliated with the Masons personally, my studies and research have given me great respect for their aims and principles.
Rev. Gary Kowalski, March 15, 2015
Author, Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers
March 7 marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, when unarmed protesters marching for the right to vote were brutally assaulted by Alabama state troopers. The following week, President Lyndon Johnson appeared before a televised joint session of Congress to call for passage of a Voting Rights Act that would guarantee citizens of every race the most basic of democratic freedoms: to participate in choosing their own elected leaders. Unfortunately, half a century later, access to the polls remains problematic in too many jurisdictions, as people of color are thwarted not with billy clubs, but with restrictive voting laws that require expensive or hard-to-acquire documents to cast a ballot. According to a Harvard Law School study, the price of the “photo ID” demanded in places like Texas, North Carolina, and other Old South states which have passed measures to combat the imaginary problem of “voter fraud” may vary from $75 – $175, when you include the cost of travel and lost wages; for comparison, the actual “poll tax” the Supreme Court outlawed in 1966 amounted to just $1.50 (equivalent to about eleven dollars now). Partly due to voter suppression of this type, electoral turnout last November was the lowest since World War II – almost surely affecting the outcome of the Congressional elections. When billionaires can spend all they want to buy candidates, equal access to the polls is the last remaining pillar of popular government. And when any citizen is denied their right to vote, all who cherish democracy must remember Selma, and the unfinished work that remains.