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Jul 28, 2014

Reading Romero in El Salvador

One of the books I took with me on my trip to El Salvador last week was Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements. It is an edited volume of some of Oscar Romero’s most important writings from his tenure as Archbishop of El Salvador. Romero served as Archbishop from 1977 to 1980. He was assassinated after speaking out against the government oppression during the opening months of El Salvador’s Civil War. The day before he was shot, while celebrating mass, he preached a homily, broadcast on radio, in which he said: “In the name of God, then, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise daily more loudly to heaven, I plead with you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: put an end to this repression!”

Romero is the patron saint of El Salvadoran democracy. There are portraits of him throughout the offices of the popular education organization, Equipo Maiz, that we visited. The main building of the Ministry of the Exterior, the equivalent of the Secretary of State, has a painted image of his face on the outside that is at least twenty feet high. He features prominently in murals at the airport and in the streets.

He was a gifted pastor who believed in what liberation theologians call the preferential option for the poor. Towards the end of his life he wrote, “the world that the church ought to serve is, for us, the world of the poor.” In the same speech, delivered at the University of Louvain in Belgium scant weeks before he died, “Because the church has opted for the truly poor, not for the fictional poor, because it has opted for those who really are oppressed and repressed, the church lives in a political world, and it fulfills itself as church also through politics. It cannot be otherwise if the church, like Jesus, is to turn itself toward the poor.”

He urged his priests to follow the preferential option for the poor through a religious practice he called “‘companionship’ or ‘following’” (companionship can alternatively be translated as accompaniment). This was the engagement of religious leaders in popular, or mass, organizations both as political activists and religious leaders. Priests who accompanied the poor, which in El Salvador during Romero’s tenure included more than 90% of the population, were to participate critically and politically from “the perspective of gospel values” with organizations actively trying to overthrow an unjust government and economic order.

I had wanted to read Voice of the Voiceless closely for awhile. Romero figures heavily into the article I am writing on Staughton Lynd. Reading Romero in El Salvador seemed the right thing to do. In doing so, I was able to walk a few of the streets that he walked and see some of the things he saw while thinking about his words.

Mostly, I thought about how difficult it is, both for individual religious leaders and for religious communities, to choose the preferential option for the poor. Religious communities by necessity have to raise money to function. Every religious leader I know spends a great deal of time fundraising. This is even true of those--and here I’m thinking of my friends Susan Frederick-Grey, Ian White-Maher, Kay Jorgenson and David Fernandez Davalos--who I think of as having chosen the preferential option for the poor.* The poor, by the nature of their poverty, do not have money--they have other gifts to give. It is to middle income and wealthy people to whom religious leaders must frequently turn for funds. This creates a tension. Genuinely choosing the preferential option for the poor means denouncing the fundamentally unjust nature of capitalism. To denounce capitalism one day and the next have to turn to people who benefit from it in order to raise funds to keep a ministry alive creates a difficult dynamic. Gifted clergy manage to navigate these tensions. They are the exception. Most find it easier to become, as my professor in seminary David Bumbaugh named them, chaplains to the middle class. A few of them, and here I am thinking of the legendary IWW organizer A. S. Embree and the great anti-war and labor activist A. J. Muste, find that in order to choose the preferential option for the poor they must leave formal religious leadership.

Even more challenging is learning how to bridge the wide gap between the experiences of the poor and my own experiences as a person with a great deal of privilege. Most religious leaders have a great deal of privilege. Even if they started out poor they, by the very nature of their being religious leaders, have access to resources and social connections that many of those around them do not. Somewhere, Ivan Illich wrote about this and argued that someone from a middle income background would never be able to really understand the suffering of the poor. Even if they somehow become poor themselves they will still have experiences drawn from a life outside of poverty. (The situation’s a bit like Pulp’s classic song “Common People.”)

This gap was made clear to me not just by the horrid poverty of most people in El Salvador but by something that happened my last full day in El Salvador. One of the things NDLON did while I was with them was hold a series of forums on migration. These forums included testimonies from Efrain and Sandra, two people who had been deported after living several years in the United States. All of the presenters went out to dinner with our delegation. We went to a fairly inexpensive restaurant, my food was less than $3. We paid for the dinners of the two deportees, one is unemployed and probably makes less than $10 a day at her job.

Efrain and Sandra were virtually excluded from our conversation. It was not people did not try to engage them. Efrain sat kitty-corner across from me and both I and the person sitting next to me tried to draw him into our dialogue. The problem was that we had very little in common. Most of the people at the table were day labor organizers and had come to the United States as undocumented immigrants. The plots of their stories were very different from Efrain and Sandra’s stories. They had achieved either legal citizenship or permanent residency. This effectively placed them in a different world from Efrain and Sandra. They were able to return to the United States while Efrain and Sandra were not.

My own life is even further removed from the life of a deportee in El Salvador. I can reach out to people like Efrain and Sandra, I spent a lot of time on Friday talking with Efrain, but at the end of the day I can’t really understand what it is like to live their lives. If I were to move to El Salvador and devote myself to working with deportees or become a day labor organizer in the United States I would always be equipped with the skills and privileges to leave or make a different choice. Even voluntary poverty is just that, voluntary.

This prompts me to wonder: What does the preferential option for the poor really entail? How can it be chosen? Can the separation between people of different social and economic classes ever actually be overcome?

*I am not sure all of them would agree that they operate within that framework. Kay and David certainly identify with liberation theology. I am not sure Ian and Susan do.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 26, 2014

Why They Leave

My last full day in El Salvador was so packed that it would take me a few thousand words to do it justice. The delegation held two forums to publicize the findings from NDLON and UCA's joint study on migration, I met with Andreu Oliva (UCA's rector), I conducted two interviews with deportees, and we visited the center where deported migrants arriving from Mexico were processed before being released. Members of the delegation also met with the Vice President. 

The visit to the deportation center was jarring. It is the place where children, and parents with children, arrive. Outside the gate waiting for people to step out was a media circus. Whenever a child would be released with his or her guardian a swarm of television journalists would try to get video and a statement. It was clear that no one wanted to talk to the press. Parents and children exited with shirts pulled up over their heads.

When we walked into the center itself we were confronted with suffering. I was particularly struck by the sight of a nursing mother whose baby could not have been more than a month old. Seeing her and her child prompted me to wonder, "How messed up does your life in El Salvador have to be to make you decide that taking your tiny vulnerable child on a harrowing five week journey is better than staying home?" I received my answer in the form of two stories shared with our group.

The first comes from a young man one of us talked to in the deportation center. He was fleeing gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the friend who collected fares. The young man and his other friend were allowed to live. Shortly afterwards the gang members changed their minds. They let it be known that they planned to kill the two friends because they were witnesses to the murder. When the gang killed the young man's surviving friend he knew he had to leave the country. After failing to make the journey North, the young man called his mother to let her know he was back in El Salvador. She told him it was not safe to come home.

A story told during one of the forums was far worse. It involved a kid, his age was not given, who is now living in Los Angeles. He comes from a rural community. He fled it because gang members started to threaten the kids on his soccer team. He left for the United States when they killed one of his teammates. By the time he got to Los Angeles six kids on his team had been murdered.

Stories like these take the mystery out of the question, "Why are people coming to the United States?" I would leave El Salvador too if I was placed in a similar situation. 

I am sure I would also leave El Salvador if I lived with the kind of poverty that we were confronted with at the deportation center. El Salvador is a terribly poor country and its government has insufficient resources for almost everything. The deportation center was not fit for children. There was no place for them to play and no tables on which to change diapers and clean little ones. Social services essentially did not existent. We saw three young boys sitting together. The oldest one was probably about 15 while the youngest may have been only 8. They had tried to make the journey North and were caught in Mexico and brought back. When we saw them they were being interviewed by the only social worker in the facility. When I mentioned this to one of the Salvadorans who studies migration she told me it was the first time she had ever seen a social worker in the facility. Her research takes her there several times a week. I am confident that the kids are faced with few choices now that they are back in El Salvador. They can either join a gang or become potential victims of gang violence. If they somehow escape these two options they will still face a life of grinding poverty. Most Salvadoran families survive on only a few thousand dollars a year. I suspect that ultimately they will choose to try to reach the United States again.

Meanwhile the United States government continues to have its priorities completely wrong. President Obama is currently asking for 3.7 billion dollars to deal with the influx of children into the country. Much of this money is to be spent on border enforcement. The entire budget of the Salvadoran government is only about 500 million dollars more than this. If the United States government had its priorities in order it could spend its money on economic and human development in El Salvador instead. I am sure that would have a greater pact on slowing the flow of migrants than money.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 24, 2014

Lunch with the Vice President's Wife

One of the things that has most surprised me about this trip is the level of access we have had to high ranking government officials. Today we met with both the wife of the Vice President, Elda Tobar de Ortiz, and Liduvina Magarin, Viceministra para los Salvadorenos en el Exterio (the equivalent of the undersecretary of State). I know our access is due to the leadership of NDLON's close ties to the FMLN. Still, the experience of having multiple hour meetings with government officials is, to say the least, novel.

During our meeting with Elda Tobar de Ortiz we learned quite a bit about the deplorable state of El Salvador's public services. There is, for instance, no foster care program and nothing really akin to Child Protective Services. The best the government can do when a child is in an unsafe or abusive situation is place them in an institution. This means that the government of El Salvador is utterly unprepared to receive the influx of children headed its way. Currently, about 400 minors, accompanied and unaccompanied, are returned each week from Mexico, en route to the United States. The US government has told the government of El Salvador to prepare for 20,000 by the end of the year. However, the US government is providing El Salvador with absolutely no aid to deal with the returning children. The goverment of El Salvador lacks the the resources to handle the situation, its annual budget is only about 500 million more than that of Harvard.

Liduvina Magarin told us about what El Salvador is doing to advocate for its citizens in the United States and described some of the horrors people face when crossing Mexico. She spoke to us about a man who had his organs harvested, young girls who were pregnant with their rapists' children, and the burns women suffered as a result of being driven around locked in the trunk of a car under the hot sun. It is all further proof that the immigration system brutalizes and dehumanizes people.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 23, 2014

The Forum of Deported Dreams

Yesterday NDLON held a forum, in conjunction with researchers from the University of Central America, at the University of El Salvador on the realities of deportees. The campus was tropical and lovely. It was also a visceral reminder of why people might want to migrate to the United States. Harvard, where I am graduate student, is the richest academic institution in the world. As a student there I am surrounded by opulence, there are chairs in the Divinity School Library that cost several thousand dollars and expensive art can be found throughout the campus. The University of El Salvador resembles a poorly maintained American public high school. While the forum took place a group of students were painting the building. One of the truths about migration is that until the wealth disparities between the United States and Central America are significantly reduced people are going to continue to do whatever they can to migrate. The opportunities in the United States are a lot greater. As someone our delegation, himself a migrant put it, "the reality is you live so much better once you get to the United States."

The forum itself focused on releasing data from a study that NDLON commissioned on migration. It was conducted by researchers in the sociology department at the University of Central America. They report that between 2011 and 2013 57,000 people were deported back to El Salvador. They all discovered that there were three major reasons for migration: fear of gang violence, poverty, and a desire to be reunited with family members. 

The forum was attended by about 60 people and the stigma around deportation was really made visible when one of the researchers from the University of Central America asked the audience two questions. The first question he asked, "Who has a relative in the United States?" Everyone raised a hand in response. When he asked, ᤾"Who knows someone who has been deported?," no one raised a hand. This is simply unbelievable. The sheer number of deportees means that almost everyone must know someone who has been deported.

After we left the forum, the realities of the violence in El Salvador were made a little clearer to me. Our van broke down in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The delegation organizers, both of whom are Salvadoran, called cars to pick us up immediately. It turned out that we had broken down in gang territory. It looked like an isolated stretch of rural highway surrounded by coffee trees. The only way to stay safe was to keep moving. It was especially important that the three white people in delegation leave as soon as possible. Our presence put everyone else at risk.

Later in the day one of the Salvadorans shared a story about his father's funeral, which took place last month. The funeral was huge, over a thousand people attended, and it was too difficult to take all of the flowers to the cemetery at the time of the burial. The next day when the family went to take the flowers to the cemetery they learned that it was gang territory and that had to pay the gang a bribe if they wanted to bring flowers to their father's grave.

The level of violence in El Salvador is now worse than it was during the Civil War. By closing our borders to people coming from El Salvador we are closing our borders to refugees fleeing violence, often fleeing for their lives. People in such a situation will do whatever they can to find a better life for themselves and their families.

Deporting people back to El Salvador is further destabilIzing the country. It often cuts families off from their major source of income, the money migrants send back to their home communities, and in doing so increases poverty. The stigma that the deportees face make them targets for recruitment by gangs, thus increasing the cycles of violence. Until the government of the United States recognizes these two intertwined realities there will be no solution to the migration crisis.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 22, 2014

Deportees

Our day started with a presentation by the American sociologist Elizabeth Kennedy. She has interviewed 322 deported children, I'll post some stuff about the data is she shared with us later. Suffice  to say it was pretty startling.

The most intense portion of the day was our visit to the airport to meet deportees as they got off the plane from the U.S. The center where the deportees are processed is a squat cinder block building a few hundred meters from the main airport terminal. The building has two doors, one for the staff and visitors to come and go and the other where the deportees to exit. The staff and visitor door is made from the kind of nice plate glass that one expects in modern office buildings. The deportees' exit is crude chainlink. The cinder block to one side of it is smeared with ink left by deportees who wiped it with the leftovers from fingerprinting.

Inside the building we met with Jenny Vazquez, the director of the return center. She told us that deportees go through a three part process when they arrive in El Salvador. First, they are processed by migration and, if necessary are examined by a medical professional. Second, they speak with the police. Third, they are given back their belongings. She also told us that the center is set up to process 120 deportees a day. It receives one plane a day, except Wednesday when it receives two. On that day the center processes up to 240 deportees.

Today there were 45 women and 69 men. After meeting with Jenny Vazquez, we were taken three at a time to see them in the holding area. It resembled a worn out Greyhound bus terminal. There were beaten up plastic chairs in several colors, bad fluorescent lights and very little space. I think I saw 70 or 80 people in that area. I was surprised by how young most of them were. They were clearly traumatized and exhausted. I felt like a voyeur. I also felt like my humanity and their's was lessened.

Shortly afterwards we went outside to wait for people as they were released. The Sun was fierce and there was very little shade. People were release with their belongings, all of which could fit into a beaten up red mesh drawstring bag. One of the deportees shared her story with me and a couple of other people from my group. She was in her early twenties and had just been deported after 10 months in the United States. She spent half of her time in a detention center in Texas. It was privately run. She worked from 6 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon in the laundry. She made a dollar a day. Prior to being detained she lived in Los Angeles for 5 months with family members. She shared with us that she has been manacled for the entire flight from Texas to El Salvador. She also told us about her trip from El Salvador to the United States. She was sexually harassed and saw two young men die en route. They drowned crossing a river. The only family she had in El Salvador were her grandparents and she had just learned that her grandfather recently died of a heart attack. She arrived with no money and no idea what she was going to do next.

We talked to several other deportees. Three of them, all men, shared that they had left El Salvador because they were being threatened and blackmailed by gangs. Now that they were back they feared for their lives.

We left the deportees after an hour. I I left with a mixture of emotions: anger, shame, sorrow... How is it human beings you can be so cruel to each other? How do we fail to see each others suffering? Why do we inflict such pain on each other? Why are we so afraid of each other? We need to answer these questions. We need compassion.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Today the Airport

Yesterday we met with Sigfrido Reyes, the President of El Salvador's National Assembly. The meeting itself was a testimony in to the distorted power relations between the United States and Central America. It is almost impossible for me to imagine John Boehner, Reyes's equivalent in the United States, taking an hour to meet with a delegation of human rights activists from another country. 

Reyes is a former FMLN guerilla commander and he spent more time listening than talking. When he did speak he mostly spoke abput the difficult political situation in the U.S. around immigration politics. He didn't seem to know a lot about the intricacies of US immigration law, which some people found disappointing. 

Today we are holding a press conference to announce the findings from a study on the impact and causes of immigration in El Salvador. The study was conducted by faculty at the UCA and throughout the rest of the week we will be holding town halls to share its findings. This afternoon we are heading to the airport to interview people who have been deported after they get off the plane.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 21, 2014

Equipo de Maiz

I arrived in El Salvador a few hours ago and was met at the airport by two gracious Salvadoran activists, Paula and Mila. Paula works with the Salvadoran organization Equipo de Maiz, a group that focuses on popular education. Mila is part of an organization that is based in the United States that works with the Salvadoran population there. On the way from the airport to Equipo de Maiz's office they gave a bit of background information on the situation of Salvadoran migrants. One thing I was surprised to learn that there are almost 3 million Salvadorans living outside of El Salvador, the majority of them in Los Angeles. El Salvador itself only has a population of about  8 million, which suggests something of the dynamic that migration plays in the country. 

When I arrived at Equipo de Maiz I discovered to my delight that they are very inspired by the legacy of Oscar Romero. There is a full audio library of his homilies and several portraits to him. There are also ample materials celebrating the FMLN and the 1992 Peace Accords. 

The major project of the moment is one I am better equipped to observe than participate in. The other members of the group all belong to different immigrant rights organizations in the United States. They are creating popular education materials to help immigrants in the US know their rights and understand the history of immigration laws. The materials will be a mixture of text and cartoon images. We leave very shortly to meet with the National Assembly.

CommentsCategories News Tags El Salvador Immigration

Jul 20, 2014

Two Hearts, One Body

preached at First Parish in Lexington, July 20, 2014

The image of an elderly Emerson, perhaps resting in dusty sunlight on an overstuffed armchair, asking his wife, “What was the name of my best friend?” is moving. It suggests that Thoreau's name faded long before the feelings his memory evoked. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau are not exactly the type of people I usually think of when I think of friends. Thoreau, the archetypical non-conformist, sought to live in the woods by Walden Pond to prove his independence. His classic text opens, “I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself... and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.” For Thoreau solitary life was permanent while life amongst his human fellows was but a sojourn, a temporary condition.

Emerson was equally skeptical about the social dimensions of human nature. In his essay “Self-Reliance” he claimed, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against... every one of its members.” He believed that self-discovery, awakening knowledge of the self, was primarily a task for the individual, not the community. When he was invited to join the utopian experiment Brook Farm, Emerson responded that he was unwilling to give the community 'the task of my emancipation which I ought to take on myself.'”

Yet both of these men sought out the company of others. Emerson gathered around him a circle of poets, preachers, writers, and intellectuals whose friendships have become legendary. That circle contains many of our Unitarian Universalist saints. I speak of the Transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, of course, but also the pioneering feminists Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, the fiery abolitionist Theodore Parker, and the utopian visionary George Ripely. What we see when look closely at Emerson and Thoreau is not two staunch individualists but rather two men caught in the tension between community and individuality, very conscious that one cannot exist without the other.

Emerson wrote on friendship and in an essay declared, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with the roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frostwork, but the solidest thing we know.” Margaret Fuller's tragic death, she was forty when she drowned at sea, prompted him to write, “I have lost my audience.” Emerson thought that Fuller was the one person who understood his philosophy most completely, even if they sometimes violently disagreed. Of her he wrote, “more variously gifted, wise, sportive, eloquent... magnificent, prophetic, reading my life at her will, and puzzling me with riddles...” Of him she wrote, “that from him I first learned what is meant by the inward life... That the mind is its own place was a dead phrase to me till he cast light upon my mind.” Perhaps Fuller's early death is why Emerson recalled Thoreau, and not her, in the fading moments of his life. But, no matter, a close study of their circle reveals an essential truth: we require others to become ourselves.

The tension between the individual and the community apparent in the writings of our Transcendentalists leads to contradictory statements. Emerson himself placed little stock in consistency, penning words that I sometimes take as my own slogan, “...a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Let us consider Emerson the friend, rather than Emerson the individualist, this morning. If for no reason than when Emerson was falling into his final solitude he tried to steady himself with the memory of his great friend Thoreau. Emerson himself wrote, “Friendship demands a religious treatment.”

Have you ever had a good friend? A great friend? Can you recall what it felt like to be in that person's presence? Perhaps your friend is in this sanctuary with you this morning. Maybe you are sitting next to them, aware of the warmth of their body. Maybe they are distant: hacking corn stalks with a machete, sipping coffee in a Paris cafe, caking paint on fresh stretched canvas, or driving a taxi through the mazing Portland streets. I invite you to invoke the presence of your friend. Give yourself to the quiet joy you feel when you are together.

Friendship is an experience of connection. Friends remind us that we are not alone in the universe. We may be alone in the moment, seeking solitude or even isolated in pain, but we are always members of what William Ellery Channing called “the great family of all souls.” If we are wise we learn that lesson through our friends.

Again, Emerson, “We walk alone in the world. Friends such as we desire are dreams and fables.” Such dreams and fables can become real, they can become, “the solidest thing we know.” Seeking such relationships is one of the reasons why people join religious communities like this one.

When I started in the parish ministry it took me awhile to realize this. In my old congregation in Cleveland we had testimonials every Sunday. After the chalice was lit a member would get up and share why they had joined. Their stories were almost always similar and, for years, I was slightly disappointed with them. The service would start, the flame would rise up and someone would begin, “I come to this congregation because I love the community.”

“That's it?,” my internal dialogue would run. “You come here because of the community? You don't come seeking spiritual depth or because of all of the wonderful justice work we do in the world? Can't you get community someplace else? If all you are looking for is community why don't you join a book club or find a sewing circle? We are a church! People are supposed to come here for more than just community! Uh! I must be a failure a minister if all that these people get out of this congregation is a sense of community!”

Eventually, I realized that community is an essential part of the religious experience. The philosopher William James may have believed, “Religion... [is] the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,” but he was wrong. Religion is found in the moments of connection when we discover that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Life together, life in community, is a reminder of that reality. People seek out that experience in a congregation because of the isolating nature of modern life. In this country we are more alone than ever before. Just a few years ago, Newsweek reported that in the previous twenty years the number of people who have no close friends had tripled. Today at least one out of every four people report having no one with whom they feel comfortable discussing an important matter.

Congregations like this one offer the possibility of overcoming such a sense of isolation. We offer a place for people to celebrate life's passages and make meaning from those passages. Friendship requires a common center to blossom and meaning making is a pretty powerful common center.

Aristotle understood that friendship was rooted in mutual love. That love was not necessarily the love of the friends for each other. It was love for a common object. This understanding led him to describe three kinds of friendship: those of utility, those of pleasure and those of virtue, which he also called complete friendship. Friendships of utility were the lowest, least valuable kind and friendships of virtue were the highest kind. Erotic friendship fell somewhere in between. Friendships of utility were easily dissolved. As soon as one friend stopped being useful to the other then the friendship dissipated.

It took me until I was in my twenties to really understand the transitory nature of friendships of utility. I spent a handful of years between college and seminary working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. I worked for about a year at on-line bookstore. When a recession hit there were a round of lay-offs and, as the junior member of my department, I lost my job.

Up until that point I spent a fair amount of social time with several of my colleagues. We would have lunch and go out for drinks after work. I enjoyed the company of one colleague in particular. I made the mistake of thinking that he was really my friend. He had a masters degree in classical literature. Our water cooler conversations sometimes revolved around favorite authors from antiquity, Homer and Sappho. “From his tongue flowed speech sweeter than honey,” said one. “Like a mountain whirlwind / punishing the oak trees, / love shattered my heart,” said the other. Alas, when I lost my job a common love of literature was not enough to sustain our relationship. My colleague was always busy whenever I suggested we get together. Have you ever had a similar experience? Such friends come and go throughout our working lives. Far rarer are what Aristotle calls friendships of virtue. These are the enduring friendships, they help us to become better people. Congregational life provides us with opportunities to build such friendships.

The virtues might be understood as those qualities that shape a good and whole life. A partial list of Aristotle's virtues runs bravery, temperance, generosity, justice, prudence... Friendship offers us the opportunity to practice these virtues and, in doing so, helps us to become better, more religious, people. The virtues require a community in which to practice them.

Let us think about bravery for a moment. The brave, Aristotle believed, stand firm in front of what is frightening not with a foolhardy arrogance but, instead, knowing full well the consequences of their decisions. They face their fears because they know that by doing so they may achieve some greater good.

Seeking a friend is an act of bravery. It always contains within it the possibility of rejection. Emerson observed, “The only reward of virtue is virtue; the only way to have a friend is to be one.” I have often found, when I hoped for friends, that I need to initiate the relationship. I need to start the friendship. I am not naturally the most extroverted and outgoing person. Many days I am most content alone with the company of my books or wandering unescorted along the urban edges--scanning river banks for blue herons and scouring wrinkled aged tree trunks for traces of mushrooms.

But other people contain within them possible universes that I cannot imagine. My human fellows pull me into a better self. And so, I find that I must be brave and initiate friendships, even when I find the act of reaching out uncomfortable or frightening. Rejection is always a possibility. I was rejected by my former colleague. Rejection often makes me question my own self-worth. When it comes I wonder perhaps if I am unworthy of friendship or of love. But by being brave, and trying again, I discover that I am.

Bravery is not the only virtue that we find in friendship. Generosity is there too, for friendship is a giving of the self to another. Through that giving of the self we come to know ourselves a little better. We say, “I value this part of myself enough to want to share it with someone else.”

We could create a list of virtues and then explore how friendship offers an opportunity to practice each of them. Such an exercise, I fear, would soon become tedious. So, instead, let me underscore that our friends provide us with the possibility of becoming better people. This can be true even on a trivial level. Just the other day, a friend visited from Cleveland. I took the opportunity to make a vanilla soufflé, something I had never done before but will certainly do again. We delighted in its silky sweet eggey texture. It can also be true on a substantive level. Just the other day, a friend called me and reminded I should try to make the world a better place. Next week I am going to El Salvador to gather testimony from undocumented immigrants who have been deported back there.

How have your friends changed your life? Emerson and Thoreau certainly changed each other's lives. And I know that the two men, whatever their preferences for individualism, needed each other. I half suspect that Emerson's tattered memory of his friend, “What was the name of my best friend?” was actually an urgent cry. As Emerson disappeared into the dimming hollows of his mind Thoreau's light was a signal that could call him back into himself.

I detect a similar urgency in Elizabeth Bishop's poem to Marianne Moore: “We can sit down and weep; we can go shopping, / or play at a game of constantly being wrong / with a priceless set of vocabularies, / or we can bravely deplore, but please / please come flying.” Whatever was going on in Bishop's life when she wrote her friend the most pressing matter, the strongest tug of reality, was that she see her friend. Surely it is an act of bravery to admit to such a need. Truly it is an act of generosity to wish to give one's self so fully.

Let us then, be brave, and seek out friends. Such bravery can be a simple as saying, “Hello, I would like to get to know you.” Let us be generous, then, and give ourselves to our friends, saying, “I have my greatest gift to give you, my self.” Doing so will help us to lead better, more virtuous, lives and may draw us to unexpected places and into unexpected heights.

Amen.

CommentsCategories Ministry Sermon Tags Friendship Emerson Thoreau

Jul 19, 2014

An El Salvador Reading List

I am starting pack for my trip to El Salvador. I have two long plane rides and so I am anticipating having a fair chunk of time to read. I have compiled a small of list texts to bring with that will either provide me with historical and political background or aid me in the theological reflection.

Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky
Aftermath: Deportation Law and the New American Diaspora, Daniel Kanstroom
Witness to War: A Doctor’s Moving and Urgent Story, Charles Clements
Ignacio Ellacuria: Essays on History, Liberation, and Salvation, ed. Michael Lee
Voice of the Voiceless: The Four Pastoral Letters and Other Statements, Oscar Romero

The first two are some of the better recent books on immigration. Clements is a Harvard professor who served as the Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee for a several. He spent his politically formative years in El Salvador. Ellacuria and Romero are both important Catholic liberation theologians. Both were assassinated by right-wing thugs during the civil war. I also plan to bring a good Spanish dictionary, I’m fond of Larousse, and Enrique Vila-Matas’s Chet Baker piensa en su arte; Relatos selectos. I realize that’s rather a lot of books for such a short trip but we’re going to be based out of a hotel and I’d like to have useful tools on hand preparing notes and, possibly, blog posts.

CommentsCategories News Research Notes Tags El Salvador

Jul 17, 2014

El Salvador and Immigration

Last week the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office and Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director asked me to represent the UUA on a delegation being organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON) to El Salvador. I leave on Monday. The trip is promoted by the increasing number of children attempting to migrate to the United States and the abusive, outrageous and immoral treatment they have experienced at the hands of the Border Patrol. The goal of the trip is to better understand the causes for their migration and the horrors that they experience when they migrate to the United States, during the deportation process and when they return to their native country. We will be taking testimony from people who have been deported and organizing public town halls to raise awareness about their plight and the need for investment in reintegration initiatives.

I hope that my participation in the delegation will equip me to aid in the effort to shift the conversation about immigration. It is currently rooted in fear. It needs to be rooted in compassion. Immigrants are not abstractions. They are human beings. They suffer the same as anyone else and deserve to be treated with dignity and kindness. The cores of the Western religious traditions--Christianity, Judaism, and Islam--all revolve around loving one’s neighbor. Good hearted religious people, whatever their political alignment, should be reminding America’s politicians of this at every moment of the immigration debate.

When I get back I will be preaching and writing about my observations in El Salvador. On August 17, I will give a sermon, “Through Eyes that Have Cried,” at the First Parish in Lexington. I will also be working with one of the editors at N+1 on a piece and will be looking for other venues for my reflections as well. I am not bringing a computer to El Salvador but if I can find an internet cafe I will post about the delegation as it unfolds.

CommentsCategories Ministry News Tags El Salvador Immigration

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