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.

Spreading the Message

20190212_083622My week here on the border will change me.  My hope is that this time will also help me to change others.

But words only go so far.

Throughout human history – from cave paintings 50,000 years ago to today – art has been the universal language of our species.

20190212_083730The Borderlinks offices are filled with art of all kinds, displaying a world that many only read about or hear described on the news.  Even before we begin our immersion into the world of the undocumented, we are surrounded by their message, from photos to posters to original artwork.

Not surprisingly, images of Jesus and Mary are common.  Whatever the faith tradition, however, most striking are the themes of devotion, of belief, of love.  The people seeking freedom from oppression and violence in our country are people devoted to the moral teachings of a fellow traveler, whose ancestors also walked to new lands to escape oppression.  Their law teaches them to welcome the stranger, to love even one’s enemies, and to treat every person as brother or sister.

20190212_083814One of the sources of Unitarian Universalism is the teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions – the laws of Moses, the justice of Isaiah, the wisdom of Solomon, and the gentleness of Jesus.  We, too, can find meaning and inspiration in art, regardless of the theology of its creator.

Art is not neutral.  Art does not discriminate.  Art can be used for evil purposes.  But art always reveals a truth; a truth about the artist as well as a truth about ourselves.

Another World

I have been to Arizona before.  But this time, the landscape seems unfamiliar – almost alien.  I know this is still America, so perhaps the purpose of my journey offers a different and even a little scary perspective.

I am here with other Unitarian Universalist ministers and seminarians for a week-long border witness program, coordinated by the UU Service Committee’s College of Social Justice.  Our goal is to explore the circumstances affecting people seeking to live in the United States who lack the money and other privileges that make such travel easier.

Tucson is flat, desert country.  Saguaro and other cacti grow everywhere.  In the distance, the rocky Tucson Mountains jut quickly into the blue sky.  Definitely not the mountains of Appalachia.

I am not a tourist, nor am I here to effect any lasting change on the people of this arid clime.  I am an outsider, an observer, but I am not neutral.  I have set aside the routine matters of church and life to expose myself; to open myself to new perspectives.  I expect some of my worst fears to be confirmed – the immoral treatment of refugees; the heartlessness of a racist system of incarceration; and the madness of using centuries-old solutions to address a nonexistent problem.

But, I also seek signs of hope.  I want to see firsthand how people combat this injustice; how we can welcome the traveler without fear or reservation.  I want to find how to reverse my growing pessimism caused by the erosion of American ideals and basic tenets of human decency.

It is only a week, but I am ready.

Why go to church?

I imagine that every person who attends regular church services has a unique answer to this question.  So, let me suggest a universal answer to which we all can relate.  Primarily, we go to church to be ministered to.  After all, you can go other places to learn, to partake of community, and to sing.  There is no lack of charitable and other organizations that could benefit from our skills and energy.  But church is one place where the primary mission of the enterprise is to provide ministry.

Let me immediately clarify that I do not see the function of ministry to be the sole province of so-called “ministers.”  Yes, I have jumped through certain hoops of preparation so that I can function among the various types of ministry.  But, long before I attended seminary, I taught religious education classes and advised youth groups – activities that I considered to be youth ministry.  In this broadest sense, every one of us is capable of ministering to others.

So I will amend my answer to the title question.  Primarily, we go to church to be ministered to and to minister to others.  Your presence in a worship service alone is enough to be a part of the ministry of a church.  Worship is the group celebration of that which is of worth, and religion is the binding together again and again of people in community.  Each person brings with them absolutely unique experiences, attitudes, and emotions that enhance the flavor of the religious stew within a church.  Salty or sweet, bitter or soothing, each of us contributes a necessary and valuable ingredient to a successful church community.

So, on those Sunday mornings when the newspaper and coffee maker beckon, remember the special richness that church offers.  One never knows when the spark of enlightenment will flicker into a flame of transformation.  And we never know when our presence may produce a special moment of joy for another.


Interim ministry differs from called ministry in several significant ways.  My time is short (relatively speaking), so some urgency exists to help the church prepare for its next pastor.  On the other hand, new ministry always carries a good deal of anxiety.  The interim minister must tread lightly, while exploring needed change and evaluation.

Key to both ministries, however, are the key questions every minister should ask any congregation:

  • Who were we?
  • Who are we?
  • Who do we want to be?

When looking at who the church was, one should spend time examining why the church was the way it was.  Churches nurture some traditions like a garden, carefully pruning and meticulously feeding each plant.  But every garden also has weeds – habits that emerge uninvited and unplanned for.  Sometimes, those weeds take root and are difficult to eradicate.  One task of interim ministry is to help a congregation kill the weeds and help the garden thrive.

One of the greatest gifts the interim minister brings to a church is fresh eyes to answer the question, “Who are we?”  Over time, every congregant sees their church through rosier lenses.  The interim minister sees the clutter, the cherished decor items no one remembers receiving, the outmoded practices, and the habits ingrained in a community of friends that may not be as welcoming as it thinks.  The interim minister can tweak those spots of chaos and territorial boundaries that inhibit healthy change.

Interim ministry is a great time to re-examine the vision of a church.  The interim minister can challenge a church to ask, “what if?” in an environment that is perhaps more forgiving and less encumbered with assumptions.  If goals already exist, the interim can help the church maintain momentum and keep focused on achieving established objectives.

For me, the key to interim ministry is my lack of agendas or preconceptions.  I come to a church with the eyes of a visitor.  I have two primary goals – to be present where needed and to help the church best prepare for a long and successful settled minister.

The Blazing Barn

The farm is on fire.  Smoke rises from the fields; sparks alight on the house; and the barn is ablaze.  Some people carry buckets of water.  Others try to free animals trapped behind walls.  Still others gather valuables from the house to prevent destruction.  The remainder stand frozen, not knowing what to do, and fearing that nothing they do will make a difference.

Since the election of the current President, our nation has burned with the fires of hate, greed, privilege, cruelty, and selfishness.  Our social justice organizations exhaust every bit of money, time, and energy available and nothing seems helpful.  Many of us experience depression and trauma over our inability to stop the destruction and help those most in peril.

What is the solution?  First, we must all agree that the barn is indeed ablaze.  We no longer possess the luxury of time to develop legislation and to nudge along the slow machinery of social evolution.  We must agree that change must happen now and that we all have roles to play.

Second, we must not allow the flames to divide our forces.  If one group tries to save the corn, another the tractor, another the horses, and another the building itself, we will all fail.  No one group possesses the needed resources to eliminate the threats before it.  We must work together to save the entire farm, or we will all perish in its ashes.

Third, we must embrace new forms of firefighting.  As we struggle to extinguish the flames and rescue threatened resources, we must also attack the root cause of the flames.  What good is putting out this fire if our farm remains vulnerable?

Our nation is on fire.  As Unitarian Universalists, what can we do to respond to the danger?  First, we must embrace education about issues and quickly move toward accepting our complicity in the current situation.  Reading the right books no longer suffices for church members to successfully engage in social justice work.  We must acknowledge the roles we and our ancestors played in creating our present country, accept those facts, and then change ourselves into better people of faith.

As a religious community, we must unite in our common ideals to fight all injustice together as one.  Love can only defeat bigotry and violence when people join together in an army of compassion.  Every issue facing us as a people today affects us all.  If we allow marginalized people to suffer, we too will suffer.

And we must set aside traditional boundaries and create new structures to address the array of intersectional issues troubling the waters today.  We must share resources, let go of outmoded titles and organization, and embrace the strength of more organic, more responsive structures of social justice.

When we transform ourselves, and unite in new models of cooperation, we will lay the groundwork for a fireproof farm.  We will plant the seeds of Beloved Community that can repel the pestilence of tyrants and oligarchs.  And we will rebuild our faith in each other as brothers and sisters , one family, regardless of skin color, gender identity, ability, age, or belief.

Justice and the Future Church

During the past 50 years, membership in nearly every American religious denomination has been in decline.  Pundits argue many causes, but I see one primary reason from which all others derive – relevance.

Our military-industrial complex has kept America at war my entire life.  Growing up on movies about World War II, these wars have lacked clear concepts outlining why we were at war, who the enemy actually was, and what would constitute victory.  Generations of military men and women returned home with no clear sense of purpose, suffering horrific injuries and emotional trauma.  Unlike WWII veterans, these men and women received no ticker tape parades, and none of the well-earned rewards of past patriots serving their country.

Our nation faced other problems – institutionalized racism, homophobia, and gender inequality; unchecked capitalism causing unstable markets and recessions; and the near complete erosion of any public confidence that their government works honestly and ethically in their best interest, among other things.  And through it all, the church has stood largely mute.

Today, America remains embroiled in multiple senseless wars; the rights of our citizens face constant attack; and government officials seem to have lost any sense of right and wrong, or what constitutes moral leadership.  Why, then, should we be surprised that today’s young adults stay away from churches, looking elsewhere for relevance in a country that has lost its moral bearings?

That is why a Justice Center at our church matters.  As people of faith, we must reclaim the moral high ground on which the founders built this nation.  They were imperfect, but their vision was bold and unique.  And they recognized the value of a free church, independent of government control or influence, as a guardian of the spiritual values of the nation.

The time has come for us to show the people that we have not abandoned that responsibility.  Our churches must once again become relevant institutions challenging oppression, bigotry, violence – any barrier to the supreme commandment of every faith tradition – love your neighbor.

I look forward to helping build that Justice Center here in Louisville and showing the people in our community that our church still stands for freedom and equality, democracy and compassion.

New Beginnings

The inevitability of change affords us frequent opportunities for new beginnings.  The past year was an exhausting journey through the world of protest, advocacy, and agitation.  Living in a state capitol, I found myself at public events nearly every week, allowing me little time for reflection and writing.  As I start my new position here at the Thomas Jefferson Unitarian Church in Louisville KY, I am committing to more online engagement as I build partnerships with local organizations and help the church achieve its dream of creating a Justice Center.

To that end, let me state clearly that I believe Unitarian Universalism will thrive as a relevant religion in this nation only if we embrace our Living Tradition of direct action to make a difference in the world.  We will always be a haven for freethinkers and the growing number of Americans who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  But as people of faith, we must aspire to be more than truth seekers — we must be justice makers.

I believe the most important reason for the existence of the church is to build a community where we can become more together than we can when isolated and alone.  That is true whether one talks about worship, pastoral care, social activities, or education.  And it is especially true when it comes to fighting oppression and defending our innate human freedoms.

Changing Our Gun Culture

I spoke today at a vigil for those killed and injured during the act of domestic terrorism last Sunday in Las Vegas.  The spokesperson from Moms Demand Action said something during her introduction that I found curious.  She said that the group is not against guns; rather, the group opposes against gun violence.  A quick internet search found this sentiment expressed by a number of activists associated with Moms Demand Action.

I support the work of all the organizations advocating for legislation that will stem the gun epidemic in this country.  This approach seems to me, however, timid and lacking in the grounding necessary to effect any real change.

I am against guns.  I am against the Ruger AR-556 Takedown semiautomatic tactical rifle, the Bushmaster QRC Quick Response Carbine semiautomatic tactical rifle with mini red dot, the Colt LE6920 semiautomatic tactical rifle, and the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II semiautomatic tactical rifle (each of these weapons is available for purchase from Cabela’s Outfitters).  I see no reason why these weapons should exist outside of the military and law enforcement – and only in very special cases for the latter.  The threat these weapons pose to the safety, health, and well-being of this nation far exceeds any possible benefit that can be derived from their private ownership.

I don’t give a damn about curtailing the profits of the manufacturers, imposing onerous regulations on gun shops, or any individual’s claim to the inalienable right to buy these weapons.  We routinely ban products deemed unsafe for consumers and even prevent products predicted to be unsafe from ever being marketed.  These guns serve no purpose but the expeditious killing of people from a distance.  Therefore, they should be banned.

There is only one more vigil I want to officiate – the memorial for the death of semiautomatic rifles.