By Curt Collier
Seventy years ago, in early spring 1952, a band of Ethical Culture families who routinely commuted to the New York Society decided to form their own congregation, initially to provide Sunday School opportunities for their youth. On December 12of that year, they held their first public address with a visiting leader, Algernon Black, adding weekly platforms (services) to their list of programming. For the past 70 years the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County has kept to that original mission of providing a place of learning ethical ideals, instilling a commitment to ethical service, and most importantly, providing a community for participants of all ages.
Prior to March 2022, the Ethical Society has had four other professional leaders, notably Dr. Howard Radest, Douglas Frazier, Paul Weston, and Dr. Joseph Chuman. I am the fifth person to take over that responsibility, and I do so with excitement, yet am humbled by the position. In many ways the world has drastically changed since 1952, and with it leadership as well. The rise of the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, and rights for the LGBTQ community and ongoing work on anti-racism and equity have made many realize that institutional patterns and governance, not just the ideals held by a group, are equally as important in creating the conditions for fostering ethical personalities. I, too, am squarely in that camp. Despite being a white male who in many ways benefits from the privileges of the dominant culture, my own sexual orientation has provided me with a host of experiences that demonstrated how oppressive the dominant culture can be. In rural south Texas, and in many other places, I, too, have been on the receiving end of bigotry, including having my personal belongings and vehicles vandalized, being physically thrown out of a person’s home, having a knife held to my throat, being told I could not adopt a child, being told I could not join the military (like my brothers), being told I could not donate blood, being threatened with violence and blackmail on many occasions, and eventually being driven out of my own culture. Hence context, as well as ideas, matters, which is the central focus of my ministry.
Bright, shiny moments drive out memories of bigots
Despite the risks and litany of aggressions, and frequent evidence for the contrary (such as Russia’s slaughter of innocent civilians in Ukraine), I believe humanity can do better. This optimism is not often rewarded, but my work in many communities has also proven that there are a majority of people who have demonstrated a deep capacity to support and care for others, even strangers, and have rallied together to provide a place of healing and wellbeing. This, too, I have experienced time and time again, and these bright, shiny moments drive out memories of the transgressions of bigots grumbling within my mind.
I am also the Bergen Ethical Society’s first ethical biocentrist leader, which means I am more interested in Felix Adler’s (the founder of Ethical Culture) central project of creating a path for cultivating ethical ideals that begins with the affirmation of worth and dignity of others (and I include nature), rather than assuming that worth and dignity are a part of some prescriptive ethical set of beliefs. This is a subtle distinction for some, but an important one for others. In plain speech, my ethics doesn’t demand a belief in the worth of others. Actively affirming the worth of others gives rise to my ethics. The former path has the risk of stagnation, as Adler argued, but his approach allows for transformative ethical insights to arise again and again.
‘I am inspired by you’
On May 15 we will be having an installation ceremony. This is not just about me but is really about this community. I am amazed by you. I am inspired by you. Despite challenges that would have torn some groups apart, you have each demonstrated a willingness to put the health of the community, and your relationships first, despite differences of opinion. That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of. On that day, we will be celebrating all of those who can come forward to provide lay leadership and governance, provide numerous volunteer hours, pull together to educate our young, rally together to impact the larger world, and those who said “yes” again and again. If you feel comfortable, and taking into consideration that pandemic risks remain, please join us if you can on that day. There will be an indoor ceremony, which will require all in attendance to be masked and vaccinated. But there is also a reception at 12:30 pm outside (weather permitting). This is a time to come together once again and renew our commitment to an organization that has done so much good over the years. My pledge to you is to ever honor that legacy.
Curt Collier is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.