The Race Elephant

“…it simply is not true that one can believe anything and be a Unitarian.  This is not what creedlessness means.  One cannot be a racist and a Unitarian; be a Nazi and a Unitarian; a polygamist and a Unitarian; a bigot and a Unitarian.  In our zeal for growth, we must not sacrifice the character of our movement as a rational, idealistic, ethical religion.  Everybody is not, and cannot be a Unitarian regardless of their unethical behavior or prejudicial beliefs.” – A. Powell Davies

In all the years since the merger that created the Unitarian Universalist Association, one issue remains constantly at the forefront of our unaccomplished vision.  Year after year, we failed to adequately address institutionalized racism in our own churches, let alone in the world beyond our walls.  The irony is that we know the causes – privilege and whiteness.  The tragedy is that we have not yet developed the communal will to tackle these causes.  Our goal of affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person will remain beyond our grasp until we destroy these pernicious attitudes.

Many in our ranks work with great dedication toward this end.  Some of our ministers and lay members represent models of allyship with People of Color.  However, the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists remain unengaged in anti-racism and anti-oppression work.  Like most of our social justice causes, we gently encourage members to educate themselves; we create painless ways to help ourselves feel like we are contributing to the greater good; and we provide a modicum of support to organizations committed to the cause.  In the end, however, our commitment as a faith body to erase racism is tepid.

Every time another young Black man or woman is murdered by the police or some heartless “stand your ground” zealot, we wring our hands and opine at the scope of the problem.  And yet, the solution is not only obvious, but one we have done before.

quote-life-is-just-a-chance-to-grow-a-soul-a-powell-davies-58-44-80The Reverend A. Powell Davies accepted the pulpit of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C. in 1945.  Living in Washington showed Davies first-hand the realities of segregation.  He began by getting his own house in order, for while African-Americans had attended All Souls over the years, they were not welcomed as full members until 1950.  He pressured the Police Boys’ Club No. 10, housed at All Souls, to integrate.  They refused and ended their relationship with the church.  Davies then helped create the racially integrated Columbia Heights Youth Club.

But his most significant contribution came in 1953, when Davies launched a successful city-wide campaign to patronize only those restaurants that would serve all people regardless of race.  In his wonderful biography, George Marshall quotes Davies from his February 1953 sermon:

Suppose we said this – “I do not believe in segregation; it is unjust, unrighteous, unbrotherly; I intend to do what I can to end it.”  Well, that is our intention, a good intention, and it makes us feel like fine people.  We are very happy, very warm with self-esteem, and very safe within its shelter…Suppose we should say, “I will not eat a meal in any restaurant that excludes Negroes.”  Suppose we said further, “I will make it known to the managements of such restaurants.”  We might feel rather odd – and we might have to eat in unaccustomed places.  Our friends would raise their eyebrows – not much, but just enough for us to notice it.  “Isn’t that going a little far?” some of them would ask.  Which it surely is.  Because it is carrying a good intention to fulfillment…If America is to be a righteous nation, worthy of the greatness of its opportunity, it must come through righteous deeds, not lofty talk.  

Davies then made that commitment and called on the 1000+ members of the church to follow his example.  This call to end segregation in restaurants, hotels, and other entities spread across the country.

The time is long overdue to continue this work, to carry our good intentions to fulfillment by attacking not only the effects of racism, such as segregation, but its root causes.  We must take our lofty words and resolutions and turn them into denomination-wide actions that are not merely suggestions but mandates of a people of faith.  For you cannot be a Unitarian Universalist and a racist.

That means every one of us commits to understand and accept the role of privilege in our lives and to act and sacrifice to dismantle its effects.  Every one of us must stand against white supremacy is all of its forms, and drive the bigots from positions of power and influence.  We must defend victims of race-based violence as our brothers and sisters.  And we must pursue a realignment of social priorities in order to eradicate poverty and provide basic human rights for all people, especially if that means sharing the wealth we obtained through the fruits of privileged birth and station in life.

This is not a creed.  This is a test of our faith.

Let us resolve to take this opportunity afforded by the social effects of pandemic to reshape ourselves, our churches, and our society; to right historic wrongs; and to achieve the our dreams of equality, fairness, and justice.

God is Love

97050-uuchurchofsmithtonAfter I finished my ministerial internship, I took a half-time contract position at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Smithton PA.  Looking back, this was perhaps my happiest time as a minister.

During my time in this tiny town of 400 souls, we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the congregation, one of last remaining Universalist churches in the Pennsylvania Convention.  Each member epitomized what I saw as the best of our faith tradition.  While interested in intellectual discourse, they most valued relevance of their church in their lives and in the greater community, and loving every person for who they were.  With nine members and a budget barely exceeding $10,000, they ran an LGBTQ coffeehouse in a conservative, rural area; they marched in Pittsburgh’s Pride Parades; and we reached seekers who lived far away because the message we delivered spoke to them.

A self-proclaimed atheist, my first exposure to the church was a wooden plaque hanging near the pulpit proclaiming, “God is Love.”  This artifact of the church’s Universalist roots brought me shockingly face-to-face with a seminal philosophy that my largely Unitarian exposure had for the most part ignored.  I wrote a sermon in which I posed the question, “What exactly do we mean when we proclaim that ‘God is Love’ from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit?”  I used that sermon to promote the then new Standing on the Side of Love campaign.

Today, however, my answer to that question would be very different.  Today, saying “God is Love” from a Unitarian Universalist pulpit does not emulate the First Epistle of John the Apostle that says, “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

Modern Unitarian Universalism treats love as a desirable commodity; a commendable practice, but not truly fundamental to being Unitarian Universalist.  Love is something we do on weekends when we are not too busy.  We love when it doesn’t really cost us much time, or energy, or money.  We love so long as it makes us feel good.

I know that sounds harsh.  But these words only hurt because we have yet to realize the true depths of love and what power lies in that love.  We Unitarian Universalists proudly proclaim long lists of “famous” people in our history, including scientists, politicians, reformers, and authors.  But for me, our single most noteworthy figure was none of these.  She was not famous, or influential.  She was not rich or highly educated.

Viola Liuzzo was an average person – a wife and mother raising her family in Detroit – when she heard the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for people of faith to come to Selma.  She answered the call.  Weeks later, she was shot to death by Klansmen as she drove with another volunteer.

I am not saying we must die for our beliefs.  For love to have meaning, however, it must involve sacrifice.  Parents often sacrifice greatly for their children.  Children sometimes sacrifice to care for their elders.  But how much do we sacrifice for the stranger?  How many of us would willingly enter a Covid-19 ward day after day, living apart from our loves ones, with inadequate personal protection to protect the lives of strangers?

Siding with love means education and advocacy; it means service and action.  But siding with love ultimately must mean being willing to give up anything, perhaps everything, to abide in love and to let that love abide within us.  Through this, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.

Let us resolve to become a religion that loves unconditionally and without limits.  Let us abide in love so that love will abide in us whatever trials we face.  Without that love, science cannot fix our brokenness, money cannot buy solutions that heal us, and reason cannot unite us as one human family.

Our Saving Message

Since my time in seminary, one question has haunted my ministry – what is our saving message?

David-BumbaughThis question was posed to us by David Bumbaugh, who I consider the wisest teacher I ever learned from.  He spoke with sadness that the compelling faith of Universalism died with the merger and that the ensuing new denomination never articulated what he called a “saving message.”

Of course, as seminarians newly inspired to devote our lives to ministry, we found his concern perplexing.  Here was someone who devoted nearly 50 years to our vocation, only to find himself wondering whether the faith he dedicated himself to was indeed lost.  I worked hard to develop my own statement of faith that expressed such a message for the current generation of Unitarian Universalists.  As a newly minted minister, I entered the pulpit confident that I could voice a saving message for our faith in the 21st century.

I was wrong.

I now believe that the problems David Bumbaugh addressed – far more tactfully than I ever could – do exist and have transformed our denomination into something incapable of providing the message of love and hope that Universalism held out in previous centuries.  And I have come to the conclusion that barring seismic changes in the way we “do” church, Unitarian Universalism will inexorably devolve into little more than religious justification for much of what ails America – racism, elitism, and classism.

Now, one could easily dismiss my concerns as the disgruntled rumblings of a malcontent – an argument not without merit.  But as we deal with a pandemic that will change our society forever, I believe we have received a great gift – the chance to rethink our institutions and how we view our relationships with each other, with the world, and with God.

There, I said it.  The “G-word.”  This is perhaps our first major step.  We must get over our pointless hesitation to use the term that uniquely defines what sets churches apart from other social organizations in this country and elsewhere.  Professing a belief in God betrays nothing and brings us to the table of billions of adherents across the world who accept the existence of forces we cannot explain, will likely never completely understand, and may possess some form of consciousness.

On the nature of the divine, the 2004 report Engaging Our Theological Diversity stated, “We agree that the universe is an interdependent web, held together by a force (or forces) that can be understood in a variety of ways.  We disagree concerning how that force (or forces) should be named, and whether or not it possesses consciousness.”  The fact that this issue exists for us makes me question whether Unitarian Universalism is indeed a religion, or simply a support mechanism for sophists, nonconformists, and lost sheep wishing to reclaim the baby they threw out with the bath water.

In my time serving congregations, I met many amazingly intelligent people.  So often, I watched them argue with eloquence and seemingly unassailable logic that belief in God was misguided and threatened the core tenets of our faith.  As much as I love and respect these individuals, such academic bullying serves little purpose beyond self-aggrandizement and often hurts people seeking meaning and purpose in their lives beyond soulless polemics and unemotional erudition.  Love and logic can co-exist.  In the end, however, love must dominate our faith relations, especially because logic cannot provide answers to all our questions – especially our most important questions.

A saving message cannot grow from a pip of pedantry.  A saving message must bloom from seeds nurtured in caring, with respect for the power of natural forces that sometimes exceed our human capacity to quantify.  In future posts, I will discuss ways that I believe Unitarian Universalism could, and should reform in order to meet the needs of this new post Covid-19 society, starting with this:

Let us resolve to embrace everyone regardless of the name they apply to the forces of all existence and to end, once and for all, our energy draining and valueless debate over using language of reverence.

Migracion si!

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Paths trod through oak woods,

Rutted roads span grassy plains.

Steel rails, son and asphalt mark lines on maps,

Roaming here, there, to and fro.

 

Trees sway in the breeze,

Flowers wing seeds to the sky.

Water sculpts the land, forming lakes and vales.

Glaciers shape the continents.

 

Movement is memory.

We walk on holy journeys.

Like Monarch waves flitting over nations,

We should also migrate free.

“Uncle Sam wants you to stay a dummy”

fencesWe have all seen pictures of “the wall.”  Usually, the pictures are taken in isolated desert areas with no sign of nearby human activity.

But, the wall is not just a barrier, or a fence.  The wall between the United States and Mexico is creating a Stammlager (you may be more familiar with the shorter version, Stalag). These were the camps the Nazis used to hold prisoners of war. Of course, Germany was not alone.

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America is not inexperienced when it comes to fencing in prisoners of war.  This country illegally interred more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans whose only crime was their ethnic heritage.  Thousands of German-American “enemy aliens” were also arrested and interred in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War One.

But now, we are building the biggest fence against our enemies in history. Who are these enemies? Not terrorists – most of them enter the country through visas, or are homegrown; not the drug dealers – most of them arrive via plane or boat; and not most human traffickers – their clients are wealthy businessmen with plenty of money to protect their modern-day slaves from detection.

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So, who are the prisoners of war being detained in Stalag 1776? Not the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalians, or indigenous peoples fleeing violence in their homes – violence too often funded by the U.S.  No, the prisoners are you and me, and every American who does not speak out in opposition to the growing police state that is America. We are prisoners of a war of fear, a war of capitalist imperialism, a war of racial bigotry.

The title of this posting came from the back of a shirt worn by one of the managed migrants paraded before the federal judge on February 12.  I honor this man’s courage to wear such a message while imprisoned by vast paramilitary forces of our country.  Uncle Sam does want you to stay ignorant, to remain complacent, to focus on the needs of yourself and your loved ones.  To hell with these u wanted illegals, with their diseases, their gangs, and their drugs.

I say, to hell with Uncle Sam – an outmoded symbol of American imperialism.  Let us return to the Statue of Liberty, who greeted so many of our own ancestors to these shores.

The Wall

20190213_155337Nogales should be a unique and attractive city.  After miles of relatively flat desert and mountains in the distance, you enter on Interstate 19, and are suddenly faced with hills covered with homes of many styles.  It is a vertical city without the benefit of skyscrapers.

Nogales should be a unique city.  I imagine that in years past, the cultures of Mexican Nogales and Nogales, Arizona blended to make a fascinating town.  Streets literally feet apart must have shared neighborhood shops, festivals, and community.

20190213_160203Nogales should be an attractive city.  But now, Nogales is a wounded city.  A horrible gash splits the American and Mexican cities and a militarized gate makes passage between the two a burden, even a danger.  The lumbering monstrosity dominates the landscape, looking for all intent making each city look like a  prison.

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We approached the wall having seen news reports of the wall, fence, or whatever we are calling it today.  But nothing can quite prepare you for the horror of it all.  The horror just a few feet away is unspeakable; America is enclosing itself in a concentration camp that would have made the Nazis proud.

And yet, as if to magnify the irony of such a frightening visage of fear and violence, we turned and saw an incredible sight.  Across the street was a dirt driveway leading to a house.  In front of the house were about a dozen peacocks strolling casually and obviously oblivious to our presence.  One had its tail feathers spread full, and another was completely white (something I didn’t know existed.20190213_162509

Such magnificent color against the silver barbed wire; such fragility against the cold steel pillars.  Would that we lived in a world where one was the norm and the other had no reason to exist.

The American Reich

20190213_101309Migrants entering the United States face an incredible array of personnel and technology.  Beyond the standard local police, county sheriffs and U.S. marshals, they must also evade the Border Patrol.

Close to 20,000 border patrol agents stand between a migrant and the dream of living and working in America.  Border Patrol trucks are everywhere in southern Arizona, some hauling horse trailers so agents can get to off-road locations.  Checkpoints – permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary stop vehicles on roads and highways.  Towers dot the landscape with motion and heat detectors.  Once located, quickly dispatched helicopters locate whoever is walking in the desert.  One must wonder how any migrant escapes their surveillance.

20190213_153319.jpgAnd what does it take to become a border patrol officer?  A six-month course (only recently expanded from three months) and passing a test.

In Nazi Germany, many men failed the entrance exams to become soldiers of the Wehrmacht.  Thousands joined Ordnungspolizei units – police battalions often stationed in the Eastern front.  There they traveled from town to town rounding up enemies of the Reich and shooting them, filling mass, unmarked graves in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere.  Report of Ordnungspolizei brutality only came to light decades later in Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners.

The Southern Borders Community Coalition reports 83 deaths of migrants in the past eight years at the hands of border patrol agents, along with many reports of brutal treatment.

One must wonder how these vast resources could be used in a more constructive, humane, and moral way.

In the Desert

When I heard that we would make a desert water20190213_130149 drop on this trip, I was excited.  I prepared for the walk carrying gallons of water jugs, as well as my own water and supplies.

What I failed to prepare myself for was the terrain of the Sonoma Desert.  The area surrounding Tucson is largely flat.  One hour south, near tiny Arivica, the desert consists of steep hills and dry water beds, all covered with stone and sandy earth.

20190213_134259The area is beautiful and inhospitable at the same time.  Huge temperature fluctuations, torrential rainstorms, and land that supports only thorny trees, scrub grass, and cacti make for a unique climate.

The first hill winded me badly.  I was assured that the way would get easier (it didn’t).  Going was slow going down the hill and I took my first tumble of the day, catching myself before rolling 100 feet to the river bed below.

At the bottom, we drank water and ate fruit, rejuvenating ourselves for the next mile or so along the rocks.  Steep cliffs overlooked our way.  We passed under barbed wire and constantly had to avoid low-hanging branches. Rocks m slid beneath our feet on every step that could easily turn an ankle.

20190213_115427We arrived at a water drop.  A shady area with a dozen or so water bottles and a few cans of beans.  People had written messages on the many empty water bottles, such as “Via con dios!” Some food cans were empty.  The pull top tab had corroded on others and we could tell that migrants had tried to open them.

We pressed on another half a mile or so, reaching another water drop site.  More empty bottles and cans.  The group decided to leave our water jugs here, and we cleaned up the used containers.

On the way back, I tripped stepping over a log and took my second fall of the day.  I hit the exact same place on my shin, scraping the shin nastily.  When we reached the first drop off point, most of the group cleaned up used containers while two colleagues bandaged my leg.

At this point, my pride was beyond repair, because I later took one last spill when my knee gave out just as a reached the crest of a hill.  I finally managed to get back to our van without further harm (or embarrassment).

I had walked a few miles, with a guide, on a cool, sunny day, with plenty of water and food.  Migrants by the hundreds walk these same paths daily in the hopes of living in this country.  They walk miles just to get to these drop off points and then miles more to get beyond the 100 mile range of authority of the Border Patrol.  Many are caught and brought to the federal court we witnessed the day before. And some die on their journey to freedom.

Gangs at the Mexican border routinely rob them.  Women, children, and LGBTQ individuals are particularly vulnerable.  Even able bodied men fall victim to the cold, to flash floods, and getting lost until their supplies are gone.

So, please do have the tiniest bit of sympathy for my clumsiness and lack of  physical conditioning.  But share the bulk of your concern and love for the thousands who simply want to work for a fair wage and to raise families without fear of government terror and murder.

Here’s What You Can Do

Whenever I speak about social justice and social action, this question invariably pops up: “But, what can I do?”

20190212_111001This morning, we met Lois Martin, an 84-year old who moved to Tucson 10 or so years ago to work on immigration justice.  She is a member of No More Deaths, an initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson.  No More Deaths is a humanitarian organization based in southern Arizona working to end death and suffering in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands through civil initiative.  Their work focuses on direct aid (such as water drops in the desert), witnessing and responding, cons iousness raising, and promoting humane immigration policy.

Lois is an amazing person.  She has traveled extensively through Central America and has served as an election observer in Honduras and Guatemala.  She minced no words – the violence people are fleeing in these countries came about and continues because of American support of illegal regimes.  For the last century, groups like the United Fruit Farmers and a handful of wealthy landowners have terrorized the compesinos into fleeing for their lives.  And the U.S. has used these countries as staging points for immoral acoins in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

She taught us about our government’s goal to criminalize migration and to deter migration through death and imprisonment.  She explained how people caught by the border patrol agents (who perform police functions without proper police training) are remitted to the criminal justice system, not the immigration system.  Border patrol can hold migrants for 72 hours with no guarantee of even the basic services such as bedding. Claims of asylum are ignored and victims are processed through Operation Streamline, which results in a criminal record and immediate deportation.

Since the hearings take place in federal court, victims are not provided any translators but Spanish.  As a result, defendents (who may be members of many indigenous people’s with their own dialects) may have no understanding of what is happening to them.

We then spent the afternoon at the federal courthouse watching close to 100 people led into the courtroom in shackles.  Looking confused and frightened, shuffling because of the ankle chains, groups were led before the judge charged either with misdemeanor illegal entry or felony re-entry after removal. Pleading guilty to the former means immediate deportation and a criminal record.  All of the latter cases made plea bargains resulting in dropping the felony charge, but serving 30 to 180 days in prison.

20190212_161651Only after the hearing are migrants remitted to immigration services, where claims of asylum may be heard.  But, often the only person who may hear the claim is the bus driver taking them to Nogales, or an officer who simply chooses to ignore it.

The futility and inhumanity of this charade of justice was brought home by one man.  The judge asked if he had been in her court before.  He affirmed her recollection.  She told him, “I don’t want to see you here again, because next time it will be a felony.”  He replied, “Not anymore…what’s the point?”

What is the point?  What can you do?  See.  Think.  Plan.  Act.  Reflect.  And repeat.