Mar 25, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, March 22, 2020, online worship
These are strange days. If you are anything like me, you are probably finding that you have to adjust to a new--and rapidly changing--situation. I certainly never imagined myself leading a congregation that is worshipping exclusively online. And I bet that most of you never imagined that you would be participating in worship remotely. The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston has been around for over a hundred years and in all that time the congregation has always met in person for worship, fellowship, and the difficult but vital work of building the beloved community.
But these are strange days, and I find myself missing seeing you and sharing the regular rituals of our worship service. As I preach this sermon, I find myself looking out over an expanse of empty wooden pews. As I preach this sermon, I find myself glancing over to where our choir usually sits and seeing only Mark Vogel, our Music Director. As I preach this sermon, I find myself thinking about our Thoreau campus where some of us regularly gather to worship and watch videos of the sermons. Thoreau has a lovely sanctuary that overlooks a clover filled expanse of greenery. That sanctuary is vacant now. And as I preach this sermon, I find myself wondering who exactly is listening. Are you one of our members, friends, or one of our regular visitors? Did you stumble upon this service online? Are you listening to it in the Third Ward, in Montrose, in Sugarland, or in Richmond? Are you listening from someplace far away?
I imagine you are in your home, sheltering in place. It is what most of us are doing during these strange days. I have been limiting myself to my apartment and trips to the church. Some of you are probably working entirely from home--maybe it has even been a few days since you have been outside. You might be listening to this service on Sunday. You could be seeking solace at the same time this congregation usually gathers in person. Or you may be doing what I did last week when I listened to Scott’s moving sermon. I made dinner while I took comfort from his compassionate words and my cat chirped at my feet, trying to convince me that he deserved an early feeding, and my son played video games in the other room.
Wherever you are, whoever you are, I hope that our service is providing you with a sense of connection and consolation during these strange days. As Scott told us last week, “during troubling times it’s good to be part of a community such as this.” I have been renewed by Mark’s music and Scott’s words. And the exquisite images from the Hubble Telescope and that donna e. perkins and Rania Matar have shared with us have provided me a needed balm. Art, music, poetry, are important reminders that it is always possible for humans to bring more beauty into the world. There has been poetry written during war, and economic depressions, and forced migrations, and unjust imprisonments, and, yes, even bouts of pestilence and plague.
We have words from Julian of Norwich, whom Scott quoted last week, and who pointed towards transcendence within: “I saw the soul as wide as if it were an infinite world, and as if it were a blessed kingdom.”
We have words from Carl Sandburg, who survived the 1918 flu pandemic, and wrote of our shared mortality:
I saw a famous man eating soup.
I say he was lifting a fat broth
Into his mouth with a spoon.
His name was in the newspapers that day
Spelled out in tall black headlines
And thousands of people were talking about him.
When I saw him,
He sat bending his head over a plate,
Putting soup in his mouth with a spoon.
We have words from Mark Doty, who survived the HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and wanted us to know:
A bird who’d sing himself into an angel
in the highest reaches of the garden,
the morning’s flaming arrow?
Any small thing can save you.
And, now, we have words from Lynn Ungar, who invites us to:
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
We have words, and paintings, and sculptures, and music, that testify to the power of humanity to bring more beauty into the world even when we humans find ourselves at the end of the world. And that is where we find ourselves now, at the end of the world.
We find ourselves at the end of the world, in our remaining time together, I want to talk with you about three things. First, we need to admit that in some, real, non-metaphorical way, the world has ended. Second, living at the end of the world means that we are living amid an apocalypse. “The Greek word apokalypsis means to unveil, to disclose, to reveal,” the theologian Catherine Keller tells us. There are many things being unveiled, disclosed, and revealed right now. We should pay careful attention to them. Our human future depends on it. We would do well to heed James Baldwin’s words, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.” Third, we should turn to our theme for worship: compassion. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, compassion is what is going to see us through. At the end of the world, during these apocalyptic times, as we peer into the murky cloud of the future we must recognize that today, tomorrow, and each day we collectively struggle with the pandemic, we will be forced to make a choice between compassion and callousness. It is only by choosing compassion that we can learn the lessons of the hour.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has changed how we live and interact. The safest thing we can do right now is to avoid as many people as possible. Keeping our distance, sheltering in place, it means that so many things that seemed perfectly normal even a few days ago are foolish and dangerous now.
We have closed to the church buildings to the public. Most of the staff is working from home. Gustavo is still here, making sure our Museum District is properly maintained--we have a volunteer checking in on our Richmond campus. And Cheryl and Tawanna are coming in some of the time to process the mail, to handle the banking, and to make sure that all the bills get paid. The ministerial and worship staff is here occasionally--to produce this service and, beginning next week, a midweek forum. But, starting Monday, all of our staff meetings will be online. There will be no regular staff lunch, no just dropping by someone’s office when I have an idea I want to share or pastoral matter I want to talk through.
In the last week we have worked hard to take our congregational programs entirely online. In the next days we will be offering some form of almost all our programs through Zoom. We will have small group ministries and religious education programs for children and youth. On Sundays, we will have virtual gatherings for the whole congregation. In April, Scott and I will each be leading spiritual development and support programs for adults. I’m going to offer one on the religious and philosophical classics that might see us through these strange days--we will start with Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” But none of this will take place in person. And most of it will be open to anyone online who wants to register and join with us. Our virtual community will be different than our physical community.
I am hopeful it will be safe for us to regather as a worship community in September. But whenever we do, we will be different. We will have gone through this experience of online worship together. And we will have a different sense of who our community is and what it does. Something will have ended and something else will be beginning. Because we find ourselves at the end of the world.
How has your work life changed? I know a lot of people who are now working from home. Colleges and universities are closed. Most of my academic friends are teaching classes online. Big corporate offices are closed. My friends who are engineers or accountants are almost all now working remotely. What about you? Where are you working? Or are you working?
A lot of people have already lost their jobs. I have friends who are restaurant workers. Many of their workplaces have shutdown. And I have a friend who is a yoga teacher. In the last couple of weeks, she has lost every single one of her paid teaching gigs. Many people are financially vulnerable and scared. Some cannot pay their rent or buy enough food to feed their families. Jobs that seemed solid ten days ago have evaporated.
Middle and upper income people on the verge of retirement--or those who have retired--have lost large sums of money. They are worried that they will not be able to support themselves or return to the workforce. The plans of a lifetime--work for forty years and then retire--appear precarious or threatened. In some real sense, the world has ended for them. They no longer make the economic assumptions that they once did.
It is not just our work lives and economic situations that have changed. Many other things have shifted. Like me, a lot of parents are trying to juggle parenting while working from home. My son’s school has closed. It will not physically reopen until the autumn. He is now mostly at home--except when he goes to the park. It is not safe for him to have friends over. So, he spends a lot of time online--which is something that so many of us are doing now. Will the nature childhood be the same when it safe for him to gather with his friends again? Probably not, for we have reached the end of the world.
A lot of people, like me, have made the wise decision to severely limit their physical contact with others. And, here, I find myself thinking of all the older members this congregation, and of my parents, and of all of those I know and love who are over the age of sixty-five. The virus that causes COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for them. It is not safe for many of them to leave their homes. A lot them are doing what my parents are doing, hunkering down for the unknown duration, not planning on venturing to the grocery store, but having food delivered, truly sheltering in place.
I hope that this service is providing them a sense of connection while they are in self-isolation. As Scott said last week, “We will get through this together.” And we here on the staff of First Houston will help you get through this by reaching out and by helping you reach out to each other.
We find ourselves at the end of the world. The global political order of the last seventy-five years has come to crashing end. The United States is no longer the world’s dominant power. The inept bungling of the current President and the federal executive that he decimated mean that the pandemic will have dramatic consequences for this country. Ideological decisions to cut the budget for pandemic management have left the federal government ill-equipped to respond to the rapidly metastasizing situation. The economic damage will be severe. But just as severe will be the political damage. The politics of America First will prompt the government to look inwards, to persecute immigrants, and to expel foreign nationals. None of this will solve anything. In a global health pandemic, the only polity--understanding of who or what is the political community--that makes any sense is a global one. Humanity is all in this together. Martin Luther King, Jr. was right, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Whenever this is over, and it will eventually end, the world will not be the same. Religious communities will not be the same. Friendships will not be the same. Families will not be the same. School will not be the same. Work will not be the same. Global politics will not be the same. We find ourselves at the end of the world.
We are living in apocalyptic times. Apocalypse, the word itself comes from the Greek, by way of the Latin. It means to uncover or to disclose or to reveal. And that is exactly what this virus is doing, it is revealing fundamental truths about our society. Things that appeared solid have proved illusory and I cannot help but think of Karl Marx’s famous line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Whatever you might think of Marx, and there’s a lot to dislike, his words name the dynamic of apocalyptic crisis. In these times, we see what really matters. We learn we need food, shelter, health, and connection--even if can only come through a screen. In these times, we discover whose work really matters.
The health care workers, the farmers, the grocery workers, the food service workers, the transportation workers, the maintenance workers, society cannot function without you. It is you who will keep the rest of us going while we shelter in place. You are the ones who are risking your lives so that the rest of us can get through this viral pandemic. Without your willingness to work, to endanger yourselves, and your families, no one else would have any chance of getting through this.
Your labor is essential. And this unveiling, this bringing into plain sight that which is so often is hidden, should prompt you to recognize how vital you are to society. For I cannot but look at the heroic work you are doing and hear words of the old labor anthem:
They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn
But without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn
We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn
That the union makes us strong
Those phrases might some members of our regular Sunday morning congregation uncomfortable. But apocalyptic times, and apocalyptic visions, are not easy to bear. When the veil is torn away, we see things we have hidden from ourselves. And this country has hidden the fundamental truth that the labor of food workers, and health care workers, and transport workers, and day care workers, are essential to keeping society functioning. And for too long, so many of you have had to eke out precarious existences, barely paying the rent, working too hard, working too many hours, and now so many of you are being asked to do even more than that. I know grocery workers who are putting in seventy hours a week to food on the shelves. And companies like Whole Foods are telling workers that they will not give them paid sick leave. Instead, they are being told to give their earned time off to their sick co-workers. And I remember the old words, “[W]ithout your brain and muscle not a single wheel will turn.” What you do is essential. The veil has been ripped off.
The veil has been ripped off and the truth is shining through. Low wage workers, Whole Foods workers, Amazon delivery people, you have great power. Our society cannot function without you. In this apocalyptic moment you have the possibility to use that power to organize, to go on strike, to make demands, and to win yourself more pay. No one whose labor is essential should ever have trouble paying their bills, finding a place to live, or affording enough food to feed their family. No one who must take care of others in these strange days, in these apocalyptic times, should worry about whether or not they have health care.
And, now I know that I am making some of my regular congregants uncomfortable. But apocalyptic visions are like fever dreams--perhaps an apt but uncomfortable metaphor--and they can make us squirm. And it the preacher’s job to offer up the prophetic voice, to speak the truth that must be spoken, to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. And if we are to learn the lessons of the hour, that is precisely what must be done, we must comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If we do not then society will not change. And if society does not change then I fear we will be unprepared the next time the veil is ripped up away and we face a global crisis.
So, grocery workers, delivery workers, health care workers, if you want to take the lessons of hour and use the opportunity to struggle for better, safer, wages and conditions, here is what you might do. You might find one of your trusted co-workers and ask them the questions: Are you safe at your work? Are people getting sick? Are you being paid enough to live? And then you might suggest that you and your trusted co-worker each meet individually with your other co-workers and ask them the same questions. Get everyone’s email and phone number. Make a plan. Promise to support each other. Set a day and a time. Walk off your job, but keep your social distance, and, as a group, tell your employer you demand better wages and safety condition--you demand adequate masks and gloves so that you won’t get sick and sufficient pay so that you can afford your home and feed your family.
Do not just do it for yourselves. Do it for the rest of us. Because here is the truth, the real unveiling, the lesson of this apocalyptic moment, most of the good things we have in this society--Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, all of the programs that came from the New Deal and ended the Great Depression--came about because people like you in early generations, during the Great Depression, who were performing essential work, refused to work anymore until they could work safely and be paid enough to support themselves and their loved ones.
The federal government is not taking the actions it needs to address the viral pandemic. It is not repurposing industry to build ventilators for sick people, to build hospitals, or take masks. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the Amazon workers said: We will not deliver anything else until the government focuses on building us hospital beds if we get sick. Ask yourself, how quickly would things change if the grocery workers said: We will not stock the grocery shelves until masks are made for us to safely interact with our customers?
The veil has been lifted. The essential work of society has been revealed. And I hear, echoing in the distance, but perhaps creeping closer, the old question, put into poetry by William Butler Yeats: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
We have reached the end of the world, we are living in apocalyptic times, and now, what beast shall it be? Shall it be a compassionate one or callous one? Yeats’s verse hints at both possibilities--for Bethlehem is where the Christians believe that their messiah was born and, yet, the beast is rough.
So, we come to the final point of our sermon. “Once upon a time we had... time... And now we seem to have lost it,” Catherine Keller observes. And now we must choose between compassion and callousness.
For we are rapidly running out time. The viral outbreak grows ever more dire. And we now must choose between compassion and callousness. The choice cannot be deferred any longer. Deferring the choice to immediately mobilize, to immediately act, means choosing to callousness. Yes, those of us who can, who are not essential workers, need to shelter in place. That is a compassionate act, for it will slow the spread of the virus.
But we need to do more than that we, we need to choose compassion as our guiding principle going forward. And we need to recognize that we are in extraordinary times. We are in a crisis and we should listen to the economist Milton Friedman, “only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change.” Real change is going to come from this crisis. The only question is: will it be compassionate change or callous change?
Already the current President is using the pandemic to pursue the politics of callousness that he has long sought to enact. He is sending asylum seekers back to Mexico. He is undermining the ability of unions to collect dues from federal workers. He is demanding the relaxation of environmental protections. Each action, he claims, is somehow related to fighting the pandemic.
We can choose differently. We can use this crisis to pursue the politics of compassion. We can society’s quick mobilization as lesson that it is possible to act rapidly to address the climate emergency. We can take the truth that all of us are vulnerable to the virus; that our health care system cannot continue in its current form; and that we need universal health care now. We can recognize that we are all dependent upon each other and, so, therefore we must all take care of each other. We can choose the politics of compassion.
We have reached the end of the world. We are living amid an apocalypse. The veil has been lifted. Will we choose the politics of callousness or the politics of compassion? “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise,” said James Baldwin. What shall we choose? What will you choose? How shall we act? How shall we take the lessons of the hour? These are the questions that haunt us in these strange days. And I end not by precisely answering them but by raising them. For truthfully, they are not my questions to answer alone. They are questions we must answer together. We must answer them together, even as we social distance, because we are rapidly running out of time. Let us choose wisely.
The case count is rising. The virus is spreading. Please, take good care, be safe, know that you are loved, and that this congregation is here for you, and now, I invite you to say with me, wherever you are, Amen.
Feb 3, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, February 2, 2020
Today we launch our annual stewardship campaign. It is the season in congregational life when you decide how much money you will pledge to support First Houston in the coming fiscal year. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, churches are owned and governed by their members. Making an annual financial commitment is an affirmation of membership that signals that you have made a personal, spiritual, and monetary commitment to be part of this congregation, build the beloved community, and uplift Unitarian Universalist values.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from Joanna Fontaine Crawford. Some of you might know her. She was on First Houston’s ministerial staff for a couple of years in the early part of the last decade. She moved on to serve a congregation in Austin. She drew inspiration for the phrase from the theology of our Universalist religious ancestors.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven. What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
One of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. In the early nineteenth-century, he was a circuit rider who traveled widely spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. One such story was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding, he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it late at night carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by, we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you would not throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing about and spreading the gospel of universalism. This portrayal elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from First Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like First Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was an ancient Christian theologian who lived in North Africa. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived close to two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism. It helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common one for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new acquaintance. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.”
You explain. You might tell them that Unitarian Universalism is religious tradition that celebrates the possibility of goodness within each human heart, the transformative power of love, and the clarifying force of reason. You perhaps share that we offer to be a religious home for all wish to join us: welcoming the GLBT community, declaring that love has no borders, proclaiming that black lives matter, toiling to address the climate crisis, and struggling for democracy. It could be that you quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or perhaps it is that you cite Marta Valetin. She reminds us our world contains the good and the holy when she writes:
The golden present ever reaches for you
and wonders if you’ll come
to unwrap its gifts.
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
Now, what comes next? Do you invite your friend to come with you to First Houston?
I wonder what happened next in Ballou’s story. Did the farm family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. And if we serious about heeding that calling, we are called to build and sustain institutions like First Houston that empower us in our efforts to love the Hell out of the world. We cannot love the Hell out of the world by ourselves. We need others to do it with us.
I will return to the subject of the importance of building and sustaining institutions like First Houston at the end of the sermon. But, first, let us be honest, there is a lot of Hell in the world right now. For many of us, the current political situation seems bleak. The last several years have witnessed a steady erosion of democratic norms. And, as I have told you before, I fear the country to be sliding towards totalitarianism. Totalitarian states are organized around the personality of a charismatic leader who personifies the state’s power and projects a totalizing view of society. Totalitarian leaders might gloat, as the current President does, of leading a country with “unmatched power, strength, and glory” and boast to their enemies “if conflict comes—we will dominate the battlefield, and we will, win, win, win.” They might propose, as the President has in reference to immigration courts, “we should get rid of judges.”
Rather than respecting the rule of law, totalitarians concentrate power in the head of state--often following the maxim of Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” In efforts to consolidate power, pit the populace against itself, and stoke a climate of fear, totalitarian leaders identify a racial or minority group who are cast as representing an existential threat to the social order. They claim this group must be purged from the body politic for the health of the country.
Such logic has been present in the current administration’s Muslim ban and immigration policies. This past week the federal government extended it to seven new countries as part of the President’s policy of, in his words, creating “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” He has portrayed Muslims as purveyors of terror who threaten the safety of country and who must be excluded to ensure its security.
He has further brutalized this country’s policy towards migrants launching what he has called a “zero tolerance” approach. This has been manifested in a family separation policy that has removed least 5,400 children from their parents--babies, toddlers, and adolescents all torn from their parents’ embracing arms. It has also been manifested in the expansion of what many scholars of totalitarianism have disturbingly named the concentration camps along the border. Concentration camps are not necessarily extermination camps, where people are sent to be killed, they are places where, in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt, “The human masses sealed off in them are treated as if they no longer existed, as if what happened to them were no longer of interest to anybody.” They are locations where migrants are put out of sight so that their suffering will remain out of mind. And suffer they do, with more than thirty of them dying in governmental custody since the President took office.
At the same time, white supremacist terrorism has dramatically increased and there have been numerous mass shootings. The situation is a stark reminder that in a totalitarian regime no one is ever secure. People who live in a totalitarian society never know when or where violence will erupt. They only know that it is always possible for them to meet a terrible end at the hands of agents of the state, paramilitaries, or, today, supposedly lone actors whose violence is fueled by a shared white supremacist ideology. Arendt describes the phenomenon this way: in a totalitarian regime, “Terror strikes without any preliminary provocation... its victims... objectively innocent... chosen regardless of what they may or may not have done.” In such a society, “nobody... can ever be free of fear.” It is hard to find better words to describe the epidemic of gun violence. In 2018 firearm deaths reached a fifty-year high, costing almost forty thousand lives. Meanwhile, as mosque shootings, synagogue massacres, temple invasions, and other hate crimes have shown, white supremacist violence has reached historic levels.
All of this has formed the background for what can only be described as an assault on democratic norms. Foreign actors have been invited to interfere with federal elections by the President himself. Ample evidence--including accounts by some of his former advisors--exists that he pressured the Ukrainian government to influence the upcoming election by investigating one of his political opponents. This evidence led to the House passing two articles of impeachment. A Senate trial has now taken place--a trial without evidence or witnesses, a trial whose results appear to be foreordained, a trial in which the President’s acquittal seems to be guaranteed.
The situation could be described as one of permanent emergency. This permanent emergency is a struggle over who shall rule. The coming years may well witness the further undermining of liberal democratic norms, the continuing erosion of the Voting Rights Act, an increase in gerrymandering, the appointment of two more reactionary Supreme Court justices, and the complete the normalization of white supremacist anti-human immigration policies. They might even pose an existential threat to humanity in the form of an administration that is committed to a denial of the climate emergency as the brief window to address it closes. The historical moment is evocative of George Orwell, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
The temptation in such a situation is to prepare, as more than one partisan has suggested, to go “all in” on the upcoming election. Now, I do not want dissuade anyone from mobilizing or participating in voter turnout and registration efforts. In fact, in the coming months I will be urging First Houston to participate in the campaign for the 2020 election that the Unitarian Universalist Association has named UU the Vote. But I also want to remind you that “going ‘all in’ is a gambling term” where, as activist Andrew Sernatinger warns, “you either win big or leave with nothing.”
Whatever happens in the upcoming election, and whatever side of the partisan divide you might fall on, we should not leave 2020 with nothing. Whoever wins the presidential contest the forces of love and justice should complete the year stronger than before.
One of the best ways we can do this is to live into the vision of our Universalist religious ancestors and commit ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world. It is to devote ourselves to building a beloved community that offers a foretaste of the world we dream about, a world where all are accepted and love is the organizing principle of the hour. Love has the power to create communities where isolation is vanquished. Love creates empathic bonds and inspires ideals that prove totalitarian narratives false. Loving bonds and loving communities, along with the loving truth that, to cite William Ellery Channing, we are each a “member of the great family of all souls,” are targeted by the totalitarians’ narratives of fears. But never yet, not in all of human history, have they been fully successful in completely breaking the traditions that foster love.
Khia’s moving testimonial of being welcomed by this congregation as a queer woman of color is a testament to the possibility of First Houston to live out a theology of love. Such a theology of love is why I am asking you to participate in this year’s stewardship campaign and support First Houston. As I said at the beginning of my sermon, in the Unitarian Universalist tradition churches are owned and governed by their members. Your financial gifts account for more than 75% of our annual income. This year we are hoping to raise $550,000 in pledges at the Museum District campus--a 10% increase from last year--so that we can continue to grow the congregation and our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. Committing to sustain and grow First Houston is one way that you can help ensure that no matter who wins the 2020 Presidential contest, no matter if the country as a whole continues its slide towards totalitarianism, there will continue to be religious communities where we teach that love is more powerful than hate. Where people can dream what historian Robin Kelley calls freedom dreams, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
Just free... the theme of worship this month is imagination. It is imagination that reminds us that however imprisoned we might feel by the historical moment there is always the possibility of casting a larger vision where we might, in the words of our choral anthem, dream of “[s]oaring and spinning and touching the sky” like the “boy who picked up his feet to fly.”
It is the imagination that helps us envision what our congregation and Unitarian Universalism can become: a place where, in the words of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, we can go “when the task feels too great, when life is too much, and it’s all too heavy, we can stop, breathe and lean into each other.”
Imagination is tied to stewardship because it inspire us to envision how we can transform and sustain our religious community across time into a place devoted to loving the Hell out of the world, inspiring collective liberation, and dismantling white supremacy. Where we can come together and constitute here, in the city of Houston, a different sort of vision for the world than the one pedaled by hate mongers and white supremacists, a community where all are loved and welcomed be they migrant, Muslim, transgendered, cis-gendered, white, black, Latinx, indigenous, or any other member of the human family. In such a place we can embody a kind of democracy that inspires the rest of society. Such a vision is not absurd. The Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams observed our religious ancestors “considered their free church to be a model for a democratic” society. We might foster such an ideal again and love the Hell out of the world.
Is such a vision foolishness or unwarranted? Perhaps the boot that Orwell predicted will soon come grinding down. Perhaps we will prove incapable of imagining our community thus and living as the beloved community. I cannot answer that question. I can only assert that amongst the purposes of religious community is the gifting of hope. And it is my hope that somehow, somewhere, maybe even now, maybe even here, as we consider our annual stewardship drive, a new vision for this country and our world will arise among us. It may grow from the smallest of seeds and in the most unlikely of places: the streets where we mass to protest, the neighborhoods we live in, or in religious communities like ours.
In that spirit, I close with a parable about that old metaphor for the beloved community, for creating a space for loving the Hell out of the world, the Kingdom of God, as attributed to Jesus: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered… Other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
Whoever has ears, let them love the Hell out of the world.
Let the congregation to say Amen.
Sep 9, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, September 8, 2019
Some years ago, I found myself in the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix, Arizona. I was there with a group of Unitarian Universalists--clergy and lay folk--who had been arrested while protesting Arizona’s newest anti-human immigration law. Most of us were from out of town. We had come to Phoenix to participate in the protests against Arizona’s vile legal code at the invitation of the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, who now serves as the President of our Association. She had been urged to ask Unitarian Universalists from across the country to travel to her state, and participate in protests, by a coalition of local immigrant and indigenous activists who had come together in opposition to Arizona’s latest anti-immigrant legislation.
Broadly speaking, the law authorized state law enforcement officers to demand to see the immigration or citizenship documents of anyone they stopped. The consequences of the law went like this: Imagine that you are an undocumented immigrant. You have a broken taillight on your car. The police pull you over for this minor traffic infraction. They force you to reveal your immigration status by demanding to see your papers. And you quickly find yourself on the path to deportation.
The law also criminalized people who provided shelter to, hired, or offered transport to undocumented immigrants. Imagine this: Your neighbor is an undocumented immigrant. They ask you for a ride to the grocery store. You drive a little too fast and get stopped for speeding. Your neighbor is forced to reveal their immigration status to the police. They find themselves headed for deportation. You find yourself headed to jail for transporting an undocumented immigrant.
The law was, in essence, the precursor to the draconian, anti-human, immigration policies of the current President. It also served as inspiration for similar anti-human legislation here in Texas. This summer the current President attempted to take the law nationwide. He has praised its chief Arizona enforcer, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, for offering “admirable service to our nation.”
The protest organizers asked those of us who had citizenship status, and were willing and able to take a risk, to commit civil disobedience and get arrested. On the day the law went into effect, we attempted to shutdown both Maricopa County Jail and downtown Phoenix. We did this by blocking the major city intersections and the entrances to the jail.
I was part of a group that committed to occupy one of the intersections. We were about a dozen strong. We linked arms. We walked into the middle of the street. And we sat down, and we sang songs until the police came and dragged us out of the intense summer heat and off to jail.
I was photographed, fingerprinted, charged, and briefly placed in a general holding cell with a mixture of protestors and folks who been jailed on other charges. There was one young man, maybe twenty, who was wearing his soccer uniform--baby blue shorts and a baby blue short-sleeve shirt with white stripes. He had been stopped that morning driving back from practice. He was undocumented. He had come to the United States as a young child. His minor traffic infraction was likely to be translated into deportation to a country he barely knew. He despaired. There were others who were in a similar situation. I did not get much of their stories. Those of us who were in the jail for protesting were soon removed from the general population. We were placed in a cell together.
It was then that I met Arpaio. He came to gloat. Accompanied by a solid half-dozen stout Sheriff’s deputies, he entered the cell we were being held in and asked us questions like, “How do you like my jail? Would like to stay for awhile?” To be honest, he reminded me of one the cartoon villains I used to watch on television when I was a kid. They had names like Snidely Whiplash, sported absurd moustaches and ridiculous cowboy hats (Arpaio was wearing a large black one), and had penchant for tying people to railroads and chortling at their victim’s fate. Of course, in the cartoons the villain was always foiled. Not so with Arpaio. He was given a presidential pardon after he was convicted of breaking the law in his efforts to deport immigrants.
Things got tense in the cell. A couple of the younger protestors tried to argue with him. His minions bristled. I was afraid there was going to be physical violence. A few of us managed to defuse the situation, largely by praying. Arpaio got bored and left. And we were stuck in our cell.
Jail is fine place for theology. Paul of Tarsus wrote at least two of his letters while in prison. Henry David Thoreau penned his famous essay on civil disobedience after spending the night in jail for failing to pay a war tax. Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks are some of the most important works of twentieth century political theory. Martin King wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” And, of course, Piper Kerman wrote “Orange is the New Black” following her prison stay.
It might not surprise you that we choose to honor the tradition of jailhouse theology. We began by reflecting on our encounter with Arpaio and his henchmen. We thought about the nature of jail and what it exactly it was that we were protesting. Soon, I found myself talking with one of the local leaders of the protests, a Nahuatl-Xicano organizer by the name of Tupac Enrique Acosta.
Tupac and I found that we agreed that white supremacy was at the root of Arizona’s immigration law. We speculated that it provided the motivation for Arpaio’s behavior. White supremacy is a belief. The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily summarized it this way, “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
Race is not a natural category. It has little biological reality. Skin color has about as much to do with someone’s overall genetic makeup as their eye color or hair color. There is no such thing as the white race. Whiteness is an idea that been created over time to justify the power that some people exercise over other people. It is a belief that is used to justify the violence that people who believe themselves to be white enact upon people with brown and black bodies as they despoil land to create white wealth.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has described this process clearly. He writes that whiteness is “a modern invention.” Before people “were white” they “were something else... Catholic, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish... the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; [and] the destruction of families.”
In that jail cell, Tupac and I talked about the political moment we were in and the process by which whiteness was created. He explained the purpose of Arizona’s anti-human immigration legislation succinctly. Its “purpose,” he told me, “was to consolidate the perceptions of some white Americans around the idea of an America that is white in a continent that belongs to them.” If we were going ever defeat the legislation in Arizona and prevent families from being ripped apart and end the violence men like Arpaio inflicted upon society then we had to disrupt and deconstruct these beliefs. We had to disrupt and dismantle white supremacy. We had move past the idea that there was such a thing as the white race. We had to prove lie to the thought that America belonged to white people.
Now, you probably know that I carry around a fair amount of history, theology, and philosophy in my head. The same is true for Tupac. Together we traced out the history of whiteness. We talked about its origin points and the moments when the belief that there are such things as separate races came into existence. We talked about how it was that some people came to believe that they were white, and that whiteness was superior to blackness, brownness, redness, yellowness, or any other skin color. We talked about how colonizers came to believe that they were better than indigenous people. And we talked about all these ideas were lies. And that the truth was that there is only one human race. And that we are all indigenous to Mother Earth.
It was a very long conversation. We began it there, in jail, and continued it for many months afterwards, once we had been released. It was filled with lots of technical details, fancy terms from philosophy and theology, narratives of historical events, and discussions of the relationship between the human imagination and human reality. It would take me hundreds of pages, dozens of hours, to fully recount or accurately reconstruct. So, let me just share with you the four major points.
The human imagination is the most powerful force in human life and human culture. We imagine our reality into being. Race, religion, economics, politics, begin as stories that we imagine. We use these stories to organize our communities and our lives. We use them to create things that had not existed before. This is true on a mundane and a profound level. On the mundane level, let us pretend that you are hungry. You decide that you want a sandwich. You get some bread--I prefer crusty sourdough. You get a tomato--there are still a few in season if you know where to look. You get a bit of arugula--I guess this actually my sandwich. Anyway, I get some argula and a bit of eggplant I fried the other night. I put it all together and viola, I have a delicious sandwich. I imagined something and then I brought it into being.
The same is true of all of the great institutions and categories that exist in the world. That jail cell that were we in began as someone’s idea. Some architect imagined and designed it before construction workers built it. Before that some people imagined that there should be such a thing as jails. They imagined things like laws and then imagined a category of people they called criminals who did not live in accordance to those laws. And then they imagined police who would enforce laws and place criminals in jail.
One of the primary expressions of imagination is religion. Religion might be partially be understood as those stories we tell each other about: what it means to be born; the purpose of our time on Earth; and the reality that we must die. There are lots of religious stories in the world, lots of ways that communities attempt to narrate the meaning of this rich mess we call life. One of the most powerful of these is Trinitarian Christianity.
Trinitarian Christianity is organized around the story of sin and salvation. At the heart of the Trinitarian Christian imagination is the idea that we are born sinners and that unless we overcome our sin our destiny is an eternity of torment in Hell. The path to overcoming sin, in this story, is by achieving salvation through Jesus Christ. It is only by having knowledge of Jesus, and the salvation he offers, the story goes, that you can escape eternal suffering—sometimes imagined as the pricks of sharp pitchforks wielded by grotesque demons. It is the historical mission of Trinitarian Christianity to save human beings from such a fate in the afterlife.
More than a thousand years ago, in Europe, this imagined story of Trinitarian Christianity brought into being the idea of the racial other. This happened through a series of events we now call the Crusades. The Crusades were launched to conquer Jerusalem. Trinitarian Christianity had within it ample resources that suggested it was supposed to be a religion of peace. In the Christian New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” and “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It was a long-accepted practice that Trinitarian Christians were not to launch aggressive wars.
In order to overcome this theological tendency, theologians created a legal and theological framework to justify the attempted conquest of Jerusalem. They did this by first imagining that since all people did not know about salvation through Jesus were doomed for eternity in Hell they had a moral obligation to spread Christianity throughout the entire world. In their imagination, this moral obligation came with global legal jurisdiction. Only Trinitarian Christian governments, they reasoned, could have legal standing in their political order. All other lands, like Jerusalem which was then ruled by Muslims, effectively did not have governments and were essentially empty until and free the claiming until such time as they were ruled by Trinitarian Christians.
An immediate consequence of this idea was the categorization of Jews and Muslims as “other.” Trinitarian Christians no longer viewed adherents of other religions as humans in the same way that they viewed themselves. They were to be converted and saved. And if they failed to convert they were to be removed from society less they corrupted it, rendered it less Trinitarian Christian, less pure, and endangered it. The first victims of the Crusades were not Muslims in Jerusalem. They were Jews in Europe. The Crusades launched with a massive pogrom directed against Europe’s Jewish population. This attempt to cleanse the continent of Jews resulted in the deaths of about a third of the European Jewish population.
The idea that non-Trinitarian Christian lands were empty and that they were free were taking was codified into something called the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the idea that empty lands, lands without Trinitarian Christians, belong to the Trinitarian Christians who “discover” them.
You have heard, of course, that Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. What that means is that when he arrived the lands that he found were empty of Trinitarian Christians. Without a government that he recognized, the land, by the logic of the narrative that we have been tracing, became Spanish land because Trinitarian Christians from Spain were the first to encounter it.
This process of “discovery” was accompanied by a process of declaring the people who the Trinitarian Christians encountered was a racial “other.” The indigenous peoples of the Americas were imagined to be something other than European and, therefore, something less than fully human. They were not Trinitarian Christians so they were not human in the same way that the Trinitarian Christians viewed Jews and Muslims as less than human. At the same time, Europeans were imagining that people from Africa were not entirely human. The lands that were being “discovered” in the Americas required human labor to exploit them. The indigenous populations were vulnerable to European diseases, refused to cooperate, ran away, committed suicide or took up arms, when the Europeans tried to force them to work the lands. Europeans decided it was easier to create the Transatlantic slave trade than attempt subjugate the local population. They justified all of this by arguing that by taking the lands from the indigenous and enslaving Africans they were able to convert them to Trinitarian Christianity, save their immortal souls, and free them from an eternity of torment. In return for losing their lands or their freedom the indigenous and Africans gained, the Trinitarians told themselves, eternal salvation.
At the core of the creation of race lie religious ideas like the Doctrine of Discovery. And less you think that this is all ancient history let me tell you something that I learned from Tupac. The Doctrine of Discovery forms the basis of United States property law. As recently as 2005 the United States Supreme Court used it to affirm that the United States government, which is a linear descendent of a European power, has the right to control the lands that make up the United States. It is why when you sell or buy a house you own it outright--at least once you are done paying off the bank. The land was empty, free to be discovered, when it was first purchased and, therefore, you can buy and sell all of it. In Europe, in contrast, much of the land is still owned by the feudal order. When you buy or sell a house you are often just buying a long-term lease. The land itself is still understood to belong to some European noble.
Imagination created religious ideas that then were used to justify the theft of the land and birthed the belief of race and racial other. Imagination leads to ways of being. When we talk about disrupting white supremacy, we are talking about imagining new ideas that will lead to new ways of being. Some of these ideas are actually very old ideas. As Tupac told me repeatedly during our conversation, we are all indigenous to Mother Earth. Disrupting white supremacy requires us to develop narratives that remind us we are all part of the same human family. And that we are all dependent upon the Earth, the land, for our continued existence.
Disrupting white supremacy is not about people who are believed to be white like me choosing to be in solidarity with black and brown people out of some noblesse oblige. It is about understanding that we are in a period of profound crisis and that the white supremacist narratives found in the Doctrine of Discovery--the myth that the land can belong to anyone, the myth that we are racially different--must be disrupted if we are to survive that crisis.
This year in worship, we are going to be acknowledging that we, as human species, face three interrelated crises that threaten our continued human existence. These are: the resurgence of white supremacy, the climate emergency, and the assault on democracy. At the root of all of these crisis lie our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth. At the center of worship this year we are going to place the questions: How can we develop the spiritual and religious resources to face these crises? How can we imagine new ways of being and overcome our imagined differences and our imagined separation from the Earth?
This is deep work. It is scary work. It challenges us to question who we are, how we do things, why we do them, and what we think is possible. But the hour is urgent. As I will be talking with you about next week, the climate emergency is dire. We need to imagine and then create new ways of being or we may well cease to be.
One of the spiritual resources that we will be using in our efforts to create new ways of being is song. As I move towards the close, I want to invite the choir to the refrain from our earlier hymn. We will be using it as a sort of anthem this year, Mark.
We will be taking this hymn as something of an anthem over the year. I invite you to think about a few of its words:
It is time now, it is time now that we thrive
It is time we lead ourselves into the well
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
It is time now. We are at a decisive moment in human history. What we do now will resonate through the centuries. And we have the human power, the power of imagination, to make choices to thrive and to lead in love. It is our human power that has created the world that we live in and it is our human power that can change it.
This is why I choose our readings for today. They both are suggestive of other ways of being, ways of being that we must move beyond. The wisdom text of Ecclesiastes, a beautiful text that I love, suggests that the world is permanently as it is. Humans do not change it. Only the divine can change it. While there are many magnificent teachings in the Hebrew Bible, this is one that we need to now reconsider. The world is fluid, not static. The things we do and the stories we tell, matter. We have to accept our responsibility and recognize that our actions impact those who will follow us.
Revelation is a text that suggests that only the divine can bring about justice. It tells the story of a cosmic war between good and evil which ultimately ends with the divine creating the most wonderful of all societies. It is divine action that brings justice or injustice, and not human choices. This, again, is a narrative we must reject.
Instead, as we pursue our new ways of being, we need to recognize that “It is time now.” And what time to be alive. You may know that I am not a particularly hopeful person, but I want us to close on a note of hope. For there may just be a chance, against the odds, that we can disrupt white supremacy, survive the crises that we face, and learn to lead in love. The impossible has happened before. And so, as a reminder of that, I will invite us to sing, shortly, “Amazing Grace,” a hymn that helped inspire the end of the slave trade. A hymn written by a former slave trader who realized that there was only one race, the human race, as he transported Africans along the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, from freedom to slavery, and came to understand that he, like you and me, could find a new way of being.
Let us pray, that now, such realizations may come for all of us. Let us pray, that we will find Amazing Grace, and create new ways of being. And let us pray that we can do that work together.
I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Aug 14, 2019
as preached August 11, 2019 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus
This morning’s sermon is a bit unusual. It does not have a single message or a unifying theme. Instead, it consists of my responses to questions from members of the congregation. Thirteen different people submitted questions and in the next twenty minutes or so I will attempt to respond to all of them.
I understand that you do not have a tradition of this kind of service. Among Unitarian Universalists, it is not uncommon. As far as I can tell, Question Box sermons emerged sometime during the 1950s as part of the humanist movement. They were part of our faith’s general movement away from being a primarily biblically based religion--a pattern that began with the New England Transcendentalists of the mid-nineteenth-century. Question Box sermons were, and are, an expression of our theology of preaching. Good preaching is a really dialogue. The preacher listens to the community, observes wider world, connects with the holy that surrounds us, and the infinity of which we are all a part, and reflects back, lifts up, offers some of it the congregation. If preaching does not reflect the concerns of the gathered body then it will fall flat and fail in its task of opening the heart, quickening the mind, moving the hand to action, and expanding our communion with the most high.
With the Question Box sermon the act of listening is more explicit. The preacher responds directly to the concerns of the community. Since ministry is always a shared exercise, I have invited Board President Carolyn Leap up here to be my questioner. I thought it would be good in the service to directly model the shared leadership between ordained and lay leaders that is essential to the vitality of Unitarian Universalist congregations. And so, with that, I would like to invite Carolyn to ask your first question.
1. If we can’t readily be a sanctuary church ourselves, could we support another congregation that does undertake that role?
Shall I answer with a simple yes? Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in the Woodlands recently decided to become a sanctuary church. We could support their efforts. Alternatively, we could reach out to some of the other congregations in the Museum District and see if they would be interested in collaborating with us and to work to collectively provide sanctuary. That is what the First Parish in Cambridge did. Together with three other Harvard Square churches they provided sanctuary in concert. Only one of the four churches felt that they had the facilities to offer a family sanctuary. So, the other three congregations provided them with financial support and volunteers and showed up en mass to rally in support of the family whenever there was any question of a threat from ICE.
If the broader concern is about the plight of migrants, there are lots of other things we could do. We could work to make ICE unwelcome in Houston. We could organize a regular vigil at a local ICE detention center. We could figure out how to support children whose parents have been deported. They need to religious communities to advocate for them.
We can take a trip to the border and work with migrants there. The congregation has organized to do just that. A group of lay leaders are planning a trip to Laredo next week to volunteer at a local refugee center. They are leaving on August 15th and returning August 19th. I believe they still have room for volunteers if anyone is interested in joining in them. I am sure it will be a powerful act of witness and a meaningful expression of solidarity in response to one of the great crises of the hour.
2. Xenophobia is Universal. In the U.S. it is black/white; in Romania, Hungarian/Romanian; in France, rich/poor (black); anti-Semitism (Jew). Xenophobia has deep human roots!
I am unsure whether this is a question or a statement. It seems to me that it is an assertion about human nature. It reminds me of the old religious orthodox claim that human beings are innately depraved. While, xenophobia can be found in many cultures, I am not willing to believe that it is something innate in human nature. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of movements and teachers who sought to transcend it. And we know that sometimes these movements and teachers were successful in moving beyond xenophobia.
Jesus preached “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Now, we might quibble about the theology, but the message is clear: we are all part of the same human family and we all share the same fate. We are born. We die. We have some time in between. That time is better spent bringing more love into the world rather propagating hate.
More recently than the first century, the Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka has done extensive research into how teaching children racism might be understood as a form of child abuse. She tells us that people who believe they are white are taught they are superior and racialized by society, by their families, and, unfortunately, by their religious communities.
And so, I think that this is one of the principle purposes of our religious tradition and the other great dissenting traditions. It is push us to move beyond xenophobia and hatred towards love and compassion. It is challenge us to remember the teachings of the great and the ordinary people who allowed love to be the animating principle in their lives. Religious leaders like Jesus or Martin King or Dorothy Day or Rumi or the Buddha... Ordinary people like the gentiles who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust; civil rights workers who bravely committed to nonviolence in the face of the physical, spiritual, and political brutality of white supremacy; the powerful drag queens of New York who fifty years ago inspired Pride; the, well, the list is so long that if I were to try to do it any justice to it we would be here all day.
3. Climate change is worse than we can imagine. Now! I cannot see a practical way forward!
Just this year the United Nations, drawing upon the overwhelming consensus of scientists, told us that we have eleven years to avert catastrophic climate change. General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces warned, “We are the last generation that can prevent irreparable damage to our planet.” The future is unwritten. We might be able to avert this damage--and stave off the possibility of social collapse and even extinction that comes with it--if we act now. Will we as a human species do so? I do not know.
What I do know is this. If we are to confront climate change, we will have confront the very meaning of the word practical. A few years ago, the Canadian journalist Naomi Klein wrote a book about climate change titled “This Changes Everything.” Her basic premise was that the climate crisis was so severe that the only way out of it was to move beyond the fossil fuel based capitalism that has formed the basis of the global economy for the last two hundred years. This will mean challenging, and dismantling corporate power, living our lives differently, planning our cities differently, moving towards a different kind of society. Can we, as a human species, be impractical and demand the impossible? I don’t know. What I do know is that in the 1940s people in this country and elsewhere were able to radically sacrifice and defeat the existential crisis of fascism and Nazism. Perhaps we will be able to find the moral strength for such a mobilization again.
4. What led you to the ministry?
Answering this question would take all of the time we have remaining and more. Like a lot of ministers, I have my own story of my call to the ministry. Recounting it, however, takes about ten minutes. So, the succinct answer: I love Unitarian Universalism and think it has the power to change lives, change communities, and change the world. I became a minister because I decided I wanted to live a life of service and help actualize that change. I love people and love the privilege of accompanying members of the congregations I have served through the journeys of their lives. There are few other callings that allow someone to be with people in their most intimate moments--celebrating the birth of a child, the union of love, or death--and at the same time require reflection, study, and a commitment to social action.
Thank you for letting me serve as your minister. It a great blessing to have such an opportunity.
5. Is it possible to choose your beliefs? My friends and family feel like I actively abandoned our faith, but I feel like it was something that happened TO me. I miss being a part of that community, but I don’t think I could ever get myself to literally, earnestly believe in what I used to.
A friend of mine once advised me, “Unitarian Universalists do not believe what we want to. We believe what we have to.” Honest belief is not chosen. It is something we come to through our experiences. For it is religious experience, the connection to or the absence of, the divine that forms the basis of belief. The experience comes first, our interpretation of it, our beliefs, comes second. Try as we might, we do not really get to choose our experiences and so we do not get to choose our beliefs either.
I sense a great deal of pain behind this question. And that is understandable. Many of us connect with religious communities through our families and friends. And so, leaving a religious community can feel like leaving them.
Now, I do not know the fullness of our questioner’s story. So, let me just say this. We are glad that you are here with us and we want this congregation to be a place of healing and joy for you. In this community you are loved, and you are welcome. You and your presence are a blessing beyond belief.
6. The U.U. merger? What was behind it (got anything interesting or unusual to share?) and most of all, what are any theological ramifications. (If they are a perfect fit, why didn’t they merge sooner?)
I have no juicy pieces of gossip to share. Probing the theological ramifications would require a book. The short story, in 1961 the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America realized that they shared a great deal of theological ground and that they would be stronger together than they would be on their own. The somewhat longer story, there had been people who were both Unitarian and Universalist in their theological orientation in both institutions for more than a hundred and fifty years. For example, in the middle of the nineteenth-century the great abolitionist minister Thomas Starr King served both Unitarian and Universalist churches. Going even further back, unitarianism--which uplifts the humanity of Jesus--and universalism--which proclaims God’s infinite love for all--were of the two theological beliefs that were deemed most threatening to the Roman Empire. They were explicitly outlawed in the 3rd and 4th centuries when the leadership of Christian churches aligned itself with the leadership of the Roman empire.
7. U.U. churches – are there any deaf members or deaf pastors? How often are hymns updated? Is there a group for single adults 40’s+?
So, three questions in one! Yes, there are deaf members in some congregations. My home congregation in Michigan actually pays a sign language interpreter to be present for each sermon. And yes, I know of at least two ministers who are partially deaf and who have had successful careers. That said, I do not know of any ministers who have devoted themselves entirely to the deaf community and who preach using sign language. That does not mean such people do not exist. There are well over a thousand Unitarian Universalist ministers in the United States. I only know a small fraction of them.
We introduce new hymns from time-to-time in our worship services. If you would like to suggest one, I am sure that either Mark or I would be happy to receive your input. Personally, I am always looking for new hymns. Singing the Living Tradition, our grey hymnal, dates from 1994. Singing the Journey, the teal one, dates from 2005. And Las Voces del Camino, the Spanish language the purple one, dates from 2009. This year we will be singing at least one hymn a month from it. I understand that the process of compiling a new hymnal is soon to start.
We do not currently have a singles group for people in their forties. If you are interested in forming one please speak with Alma, our Membership Coordinator, and she will advise you on what to do to get it underway.
8. Why are you so political rather than spiritual? (from the pulpit) Why is your focus on racism and anti-oppression so important to focus on? What gives your life meaning? What are good ways to deal with prejudice in ourselves and others?
Four meaty questions! Let me start with the first, why am I so political rather than spiritual? We are at a crucial moment in human history. The next decade may well determine whether humanity has a future. Meanwhile, we face the threats of renewed white supremacy, both inside and outside of the government, and an all out assault on democracy. Such a time as this requires that I preach from the prophetic tradition. The Hebrew prophets of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the like went around the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel pronouncing doom and offering hope. They proclaimed that if people did not change their ways the wrath of God would be upon them. And they said that if they changed their ways God would have mercy for them. And, whatever happened, there was always the possibility of repentance and hope. They also said that ultimately justice will prevail upon Earth as it has in heaven.
I do not think that we need fear the wrath of God. But it is pretty clear that if we do not change our ways then our society and even humanity may well be doomed. Certainly, the federal government’s anti-human immigration policies, the constant threat mass shootings that we all face, and climate change all require us to change our ways.
I focus on racism and anti-oppression because I think that the principle change that needs to take place is rooting out white supremacy. I understand white supremacy as racial capitalism in which the exploitation of the black and brown bodies is coupled with the extraction of the resources of the Earth to produce wealth for men who believe themselves to be white. We have to overcome it if we are going to have a collective future.
What I am trying, and probably failing, to communicate, is that my decision to be political from the pulpit is not in opposition to spirituality. It is a specific kind of spirituality. And it is rooted in the things that give my life meaning.
And here I would like to invoke my parents, Howard and Kathy. During the political right’s family values crusades of the 1990s, they told me that they objected to all of those who cast family values as inherently conservative saying, “We have family values. We have liberal family values.” As far as I can tell those values boil down to: love your family, treasure your friends, bring more beauty into the world, and hate fascism. I have done my best to live by each of those tenets. Doing so has given my life a great sense of meaning.
I am not going to get into the question of how to confront prejudice in ourselves and others in any depth. Other than to note, that I suggest a hatred of fascism, not fascists. We are called upon to try and love the Hell out of the world. We need to love those we struggle against and proceed with the hope, however fragile, that the spark of love that resides in each human breast might somehow flame up and overcome whatever hate exists in human hearts.
9. How dogmatic are the 7 principles? What should you do if one of them interferes with justice?
The seven principles are not a creed. You do not have to believe in them to be a Unitarian Universalist. They are a covenant between Unitarian Universalist congregations, and not between individual Unitarian Universalists. We have freedom of belief and if you do not believe in one of the principles you are still welcome and loved in this community. We could have a longer conversation about what beliefs you cannot hold and be a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation--one could not be a neo-Nazi and a Unitarian Universalist, for example--but that is a different subject.
In order to answer the second question I would need a case, an example, of when one of the principles came into conflict with justice. But my short answer, if there is a conflict between one of the principles and justice, choose justice.
10. How do you reconcile the Christian sentiment of sin with religion/spirituality? For example, is there sin in U.U. or does it encompass following your own ethical code?
Unitarian Universalists could benefit with a more robust understanding of sin. We rightly reject the idea of original sin, that when we are born there is inherently something wrong with us. We think that each human life begins as an original blessing, a joy, a beauty, to celebrated. It’s like the words of our hymn, “We Are...” written by the Unitarian Universalist Ysaye Barnwell:
For each child that’s born,
a morning star rises and
sings to the universe who we are....
We are our grandmothers’ prayers and
we are our grandfathers’ dreamings,
we are the breath of our ancestors,
we are the spirit of God.
Original sin is not the only kind of sin. The theologian Paul Tillich defined sin simply as estrangement or alienation. We sin when we find ourselves estranged each other and from the world that surrounds us. We sin when we give into white supremacy and racism. We sin when undermine democracy. We sin when we propagate climate change. And yet, we can overcome this sin. We can seek reconciliation. We can work for racial justice, build democratic institutions, and seek to live sustainable lives in harmony with the Earth. These are all collective projects and collective liberation, overcoming our various forms of estrangement, is the great task before us.
Sin is also a relevant concept in our personal lives. How many of us are estranged from loved ones? We can work to repair broken relationships, and to overcome sin. We can call the child or the parent with whom we have become estranged. We can reach out to the friend who have hurt or with whom we have grown apart. We can do something about estrangement. We can do something about sin.
11. What is the purpose of Unitarian Universalism in today’s world? What aspects of Universalism are important for us now?
When I was in my final year at Harvard, the philosopher and theologian Cornel West told me, “Unitarian Universalism is one of the last best hopes for institutionalized religion.” Unitarian Universalism’s purpose today is to demonstrate that religion can be, and is, relevant for the world we live in. And that means both nurturing loving and joyous communities that tend to the human spirit and provide places for free inquiry and organizing ourselves to confront the great crises of the hour. Future generations will ask of us, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” The purpose of Unitarian Universalism today is really to inspire each of us to answer that question in a beautiful, joyous, affirmative!
As for Universalism, the most important aspect of Universalism today is proclaiming the belief that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Love is not easy. It is difficult. Challenging. Transformative. And here I want to quote Fyodor Dostoyevsky:
“...active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with the love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one's life, provided it does not take long but is soon over, as on stage, and everyone is looking on and praising. Whereas active love is labor and persistence, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”
12. How can we effectively promote social justice?
Social change happens through the creation of new ways of being in the world and the creation of new institutions. Unitarian Universalist congregations can both be sites for pursuing those new ways of being and nurture new forms of institutional life. Our understanding that salvation is primarily a social, a collective, enterprise rather than an individual one makes us well equipped for such work. It is no accident that the ACLU and NAACP both have roots in Unitarian Universalist congregations. Or that Rowe vs. Wade was partially organized out of one.
When we gather, we are free to imagine a different world, a better world. And we are free to experiment amongst ourselves in bringing that world to fruition. We can be a space that welcomes and loves all in a world full of hate. We can seek to live lives of sustainability. We can practice democracy. And in doing so, we can demonstrate that living in such a way is possible, desirable, enjoyable, and worthwhile. We can save ourselves.
13. In the face of the drift toward totalitarianism how do UU stand to protect democratic values?
I suspect that the person who asked this question heard my Minns lectures on the same subject. My answer took about twenty-six thousand words and I have already been far too verbose. So, instead of answering the question I will just say this: much of our work together in the coming year will focus on trying to collectively figure out how, as a religious community, to develop the spiritual resources to confront the intertwined crisis of the hour. These are the resurgence of white supremacy, the assault on democracy, and the climate crisis. All of these crises are rooted in some form of sin, of estrangement from each other and from our beloved blue green planet. They are at their core religious and spiritual crises. And it is the task of before Unitarian Universalism and all of the good-hearted people of the world to confront these religious and spiritual crises and, in the spirit of Martin King, undergoing a great moral revolution where we move from a thing oriented to a planet and person-oriented society.
Those being all of the questions, I invite the congregation to close with a prayer:
Oh, spirit of love and justice,
known by many names,
the human spark that leaps from each to each,
let us nurture in each other,
a spirit of inquiry,
a desire to seek the truth,
knowing that whatever answers we find
will always be partial,
and that human knowledge
will always be imperfect.
Remind us too,
that the future is unwritten,
and that our human hearts,
and human hands,
have been blessed with the ability
to play a role,
however small and humble,
in the shaping of the chapter
Be with us,
be with this community,
so that we will each have the strength
to answer the question,
“History knocked on your door,
did you answer?”
with an enthusiastic yes.
That it may be so,
let the congregation say Amen.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to step away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
Apr 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, April 14, 2019
This morning’s sermon is about drawing spiritual lessons from the music of Neil Diamond. I will get to that in the moment. But first I want to tell you about one of my favorite artists, the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp. Do you know his work? He is perhaps most famous for his piece the “Fountain.” He entered it into an art show in New York City in 1917. The show had a simple selection criterion: anyone who paid the entry fee had their piece accepted. Duchamp, cheeky surrealist that he was, submitted a commercially manufactured porcelain urinal under the pseudonym “R. Mutt.” This enraged the selection committee. They complained that R. Mutt had not created the piece. It had obviously been produced in a factory. More troubling, the urinal was not art. It was an ordinary object that was used for, shall we say, basic human functions. Its presence in the show debased art. It placed one of the highest expressions of human culture alongside the ordinary, banal, and mundane.
Duchamp responded by publishing an anonymous editorial in an art magazine that he ran with a couple of friends. The relevant section from the editorial reads: “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view--created a new thought for that object.”
The editorial gets at why I like the piece. I think it offers an essential religious lesson: all things contain beauty. It is a religious discipline to open ourselves to that beauty. An “ordinary article of life” viewed through the eye of the artist becomes art, becomes something beautiful. The artist has “a new thought for that object,” they see something new, something that challenges them, when they look at the familiar--perhaps the most familiar.
I invite you to try it. Pick an object in the sanctuary. A brick. A floor tile. A wooden pew. A section of the ceiling. Your shoes. It does not matter. Just pick something. The more ordinary the better. Look at it for a moment. Really look at it. Can see something of the beauty in it?
When I was preparing this sermon, I came down from my office, stood in this pulpit, and tried the exercise myself. I picked that brick. It is ordinary in its brown redness. There are a scattering of dark spots. These attest to the presence of the iron sulphate in the clay used to make the brick. A few of the spots are pock marked--evidence of where air bubbles burst when the brick baked. Some of the spots lack clear edges--they fade into the mass of red brown when the eye inquires for their ends.
As I stood in the pulpit, I watched light play off the brick. The beauty of the brick shifted as the sun’s rays filtered through the sanctuary window that sits above the choir. It had one set of tones when a cloud passed in front of the sun and another when the day star shone uninhibited. Looking at the brick, I thought of the canvases in Houston’s Rothko Chapel. Have you seen them? The chapel is under renovation until the end of the year. If you have not been, I hope you will go when it opens again.
Light in the chapel comes through the top skylight. As the earth spins on its access, as water vapor moves through the sky, the amount of light that hits each canvas changes. And with it the richness of the canvas--purple tones fade to black or move against pecan or hickory framing.
The roughness of the brick’s clay contains the same effect--it shifts as the light hits it. Looking at the brick, there is beauty in an “ordinary article of life.” There is “a new thought for that object.” Shall I name it? Perhaps, Seven Stars of Revelation--seven being the number of spots and a mystical number found over and over again in the biblical book of Revelation. That book attests, “These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand,” and unfolds one of the grandest mystical visions in the Christian New Testament.
The Unitarian minister and transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson taught us “revelation is not sealed.” These words are to remind us that we can learn something new, something beautiful, from each experience, from each ordinary object, in our lives. When I look carefully at the brick with the seven spots I am reminded of Emerson’s lesson--seven stars which help me open to constant possibility of revelation--of the feeling the sacred--that is around each of us in each moment of our lives.
Another exercise, listen. Not to me. Listen in this pause to the sound that surrounds the silence. When I stop speaking what do you hear? The musician John Cage composed a piece named 4’33”. It consists of a pianist sitting on a piano bench for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The pianist just sits there. They do not play a single note. Cage’s intention with the piece is to prompt the audience to listen to the sounds that are around us at all times--your breath, and mine, the heart’s beat, the passing street car, the rustle of your shirtsleeve. What is music? What is beauty?
A musician friend of mine made a similar point in a piece they composed called “Up Train, Down Train.” For the piece, they rode the commuter rail up and down the San Francisco peninsula. Along the way recorded the sounds of their journey: the ticket collector, the jostling of the passengers, the clatter of rail, doors sliding open, and the rain on window glass. In their recording studio they mixed in a variety of other sounds--fragments from classical music, bits of Beethoven or Brahms, snatches of jazz, spoken threads of poetry. Incidental noise and carefully crafted songs were combined to create a haunting composition that pushed me to open my ears to the ordinary music of life.
The heart can turn any object, any sound, any song, into a prayer. Prayer, in my understanding, is the act of reaching out for connection with that which is greater than any of us, surrounds each of us, and infuses all of us. Prayer need not be theistic--God centered--in its orientation. It only need be the opening of the individual self--the I, the you--to the infinity without and the infinity within. This is an understanding I carry with me as I move through the ordinary world, encountering the ordinary objects of life. And it is a lesson I take with me when I have preaching assignments that are not quite of my choosing.
This year at the church auction, I auctioned off the right to give Mark and me a prompt for a Sunday service. This a well-worn practice in a number of Unitarian Universalist congregations. It is one that comes with warning from experienced clergy. One minister I know tells the story about the time they were assigned the Apollo moon landings as a service topic. Well, actually, the person who won the auction item was a conspiracy theorist. They wanted to a have service on why and how NASA’s moon landings had been faked.
My ministerial colleague managed to craft a service that somehow served their congregations from that assignment. Nonetheless, I was a bit worried when this year I decided to auction one of our services. So, I was relieved when I found out our topic was to be the singer songwriter Neil Diamond. I admit that I did not that much about Diamond or his music--or at least I thought I did not. But music is a well-worn path to the spiritual. I knew that if I listened to his music and read something of his life I could find a lesson in it.
When I found out the service topic the first thing, before I even turned to Google, was call my brother Jorin. Jorin, you might know, is a painter who lives in Los Angeles. He is also a fount of information when it comes to popular music.
So, I got him on the phone and asked him, “Jorin, what should I know about Neil Diamond?”
He paused for a moment and then began, “Well, some people call him the Jewish Elvis. You definitely know his music. He wrote, ‘Sweet Caroline,’ and ‘America.’ He also wrote the Monkees’ song ‘I’m a Believer.’”
As I listened to my brother I realized that Diamond is one of those musicians who music infuses much of contemporary life. In this country, you are likely to hear a song like “Sweet Caroline” almost anywhere. It has been featured in movies, sung by a contestant on American Idol, and used in television commercials. It is one of those pop songs that it seems like almost everyone knows. The tune might be familiar, Mark. You might recognize the chorus as well:
Good times never seemed so good
I believe they never could
Mark already played the other Diamond song that my brother mentioned, “America.” Diamond’s parents were themselves the children of Jewish immigrants to New York. He grew up in Brooklyn listening to family stories about his grandparents journeys from Poland and Russia to the United States. Diamond’s immigrant heritage inspired him to write “America.” Its lyrics suggest two things. First, the United States has represented a land of freedom and opportunity for many people around the world for generations. Second, most people in the United States are the descendants of immigrants. As the song begins:
We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream
The intertwined messages of this song are important today when we have a President who praises dictators like North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un and maligns liberal democratic political systems such as the European Union. The song is a reminder that the authoritarian values of the current White House occupant are not consistent with liberal democratic values--the values that Diamond celebrates in his tune. The song is also a reminder that immigrants have contributed enormously to the economic prosperity and cultural vibrancy of the United States. The current President should know this. His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. His grandparents were immigrants from Germany. Two of his three wives have been immigrants as well. I could pause now to make the observation that the President’s comfort with his European immigrant family and his antipathy or even hatred for immigrants from Latin America highlights his ties to white supremacist movements. That, however, is not the subject of this sermon.
Returning to Diamond, I note that like a lot of Jewish America singer songwriters of his generation he got his start writing songs for other people. He wrote four songs for the manufactured British band the Monkees, one of the boy bands of the seventies. They used have a television show that my brother and I watched as reruns in the early nineties. The lyrics of “Believer” suggest of the way that love, that profound and intimate connection with another soul, can spring up unbidden and unexpected:
Then I saw her face, now I'm a believer
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I'm in love, and I'm a believer
As I researched Diamond I began to see something of myself in him. As I suggested at the opening of the sermon, any object can be seen to contain beauty. Anything around us can open the marvels of the universe. The same might be said of human biography. Each of us has a great deal in common with the rest of us. On some level, all humans need the same things: clean air to breath, clean water to drink, good food to eat, shelter, love, and some work to call honest. This observation is one of the core conceits of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
And so, I was not surprised when I came across words by Diamond describing his own experience as a songwriter and his approach to his music that resonated with me. They are from an interview he did in 1975 with Rolling Stone magazine. There he says that his work is an artist stems from an attempt, “to gain an inner sense of acceptance of the self.” My own approach to the craft of preaching is linked to a similar attempt to both find self-knowledge and stir it in others. At the same time, I find myself agreeing with Diamond that music and art are not bound by tightly dictated rules. According to the interviewer, he believes that his songs do not “need to be explained. Or even understood.” He just wants people to open to the music and be stirred by it. About the composition of music he says, “There are no rules, you see. That’s the beautiful thing about it. And the best things I’ve done are the things that people don’t really understand.”
The interviewer describes Diamond as “the consummate searcher,” a sentiment that is familiar to many Unitarian Universalists. A sense of that appears in his song “I’ve Been This Way Before” which the choir performed earlier:
I've seen the light
And I've seen the flame
And I've been this way before
The search for meaning that I find in this song resonates with the Unitarian Universalist tradition of a search for truth and meaning. And if there is any message that I have been trying to communicate in this sermon it is this: we can find religious truth, beauty, meaning, in almost anything. It is more about the perspective we bring than it is necessarily the content, the object, that is already there. For Marcel Duchamp, beauty or art could be found in the ordinary objects of life. For my musician friend, it was found in the rocking movement of the train as it travelled up and down the San Francisco peninsula. And for lovers of Neil Diamond’s music, it is found in his songs.
And now, before I close, two brief pointers to our readings and two spiritual suggestions for you. The poems I chose are each about finding the sacred, the beautiful, in ordinary life. Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California” is a personal favorite. It connects to the way I tend wander through the world: a head full of poetry and a rather ordinary life of grocery shopping, children’s basketball, and laundry. Like Ginsberg, I often find myself opening to the sacredness of the ordinary in the most banal of places: the Trader Joe’s on Shepherd Street or the HEB on West Alabama. And like Whitman in Ginsberg’s poem, I discover myself going from the most basic questions to the most profound: “Who killed the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?” What about you? Do you have similar experiences in your life?
Naomi Shihab Nye is a Texas poet and the child of a Palestinian immigrant. Her poem “My Grandmother in the Stars” recounts a similar experience:
Where we live in the world
is never one place. Our hearts,
those dogged mirrors, keep flashing us
moons before we are ready for them.
Looking at the night sky, she finds that she carries memory, beauty, art, a sense of the sacred ever within her. It is everywhere. In the stars. In the universe which connects all to all. And in her unnamed companion.
Any object can open us to the divine. Any sound can be music. I conclude with my two spiritual suggestions. This, afternoon, or tomorrow, or anytime, take a few minutes to do two things. First, find an ordinary object from life. It could be a urinal, a brick, a piece of asphalt, a cigarette butt, or the beam on a suspension bridge. It does not matter. Spend five minutes really looking at it. What do you see? Do you find yourself opening a little more to the beauty of the universe when you engage the object.
Second, listen to an familiar sound. Pick a pop song that you do not know or choose the ambient collision of wind upon leaf. What sense of connection to the universe do you find within it? Do you discover that revelation is not sealed? That each of us has an original relationship with the universe?
For I've been released
And I've been regained
And I've sung my song before
And I'm sure to sing my song again
...there is only the sky
tying the universe together.
What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked
down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking
at the full moon.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Apr 1, 2019
as preached the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 31, 2019
We have reached the midpoint of our sermon series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” The core question I want us to focus on is: What does it mean to be responsible? Before we get to that question, though, I want to invite you back with me to an earlier time and place. I want you to come me with to Geneva, Switzerland.
The year is 1553. Geneva is a growing medieval city. A mass of tight streets and narrow houses on the shore of a large sweet water lake, in the next ten years it will almost double in size. Near the city’s center sits St. Pierre Cathedral. It is a Gothic structure, solid stone. There are big round columns capped with carvings depicting biblical scenes, angels, the resurrection of Christ, Satan, and even a mermaid. The rest of the massive sanctuary is spare. The ancient statues and carvings that had depicted the saints have all been smashed by iconoclasts. The stain glass remains. Blue, purple, and red pools on top of the wooden pews. Near the front of the church stands the pulpit. And from that pulpit each Sunday preaches John Calvin--one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin is a man of both religious reform and religious reaction. He is a reformer for having rejected the authority of the Pope in Rome. He is a reformer who wishes to save the church from the accrued corruptions of medieval theology. He is a reformer who claims that salvation comes through faith alone. He is a reformer who understands the Bible to be incontestable the word of God.
He is also a reactionary whose supporters have turned him into the virtual dictator of both civil and religious life in Geneva. He is a reactionary who believes that without divine intervention humans are innately depraved. He is a reactionary who believes that certain ancient theological, non-scriptural, teachings are non-negotiable. He believes in the Trinity--the idea that the Holy Spirit, God, and Jesus Christ are all one single being. He believes in infant baptism--the claim that the immersion of children in water shortly after their birth is a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.
Just recently, Calvin has charged a man by the name of Miguel Serveto with spreading heresy. Serveto--who will be known to history as Michael Servetus--is a brilliant man. A doctor, a theologian, a true Renaissance scholar, he is the first European to describe pulmonary circulation, the way blood moves from the heart to the lungs and back again. Servetus’s theology is not Calvin’s. He does not believe that people are born wicked or sinful. He rejects infant baptism as unnecessary. Instead, he holds that it is only possible to enter into a covenant with God as an adult.
More troubling to Calvin is Servetus’s position on the Trinity. Servetus has rejected it as a non-scriptural form of tritheism. Servetus reads Hebrew and Greek fluently. He argues that the Trinity is to be found nowhere in the Bible. He believes Trinitarians are actually tritheists. He claims they worship three gods. In one inflammatory text he has written, “Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus.”
It is not solely Servetus’s denunciation of the Trinity that Calvin finds troubling. It is the way that Servetus thinks about Jesus. Servetus believes that Jesus was a man. In one particularly offensive book Servetus has written: “God himself is our spirit dwelling in us, and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain working latent energy, a certain heavenly sense, a latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.” In this passage and elsewhere Servetus has signaled that he believes it is possible for each human being to awaken the divinity within them. Jesus, Servetus believes, was created by God to help make people aware of the breath of God which resides in each of us.
Servetus has been inspired in his views through his encounters with Judaism and Islam. He grew up in Spain immediately after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel had offered the Jews and Muslims who lived there a choice. They could convert to Christianity or they could suffer banishment. Many stayed, converted, and secretly continued to practice their religions. Servetus’s interactions with these conversos has convinced him that the Trinity is the stumbling block that prevents practitioners of all three religions from recognizing that they are all children of the same God. This belief and his discovery that the word Trinity is not in the Bible has given him a lifelong mission to teach the Christian world about the errors of the Trinity.
Sitting on a wooden chair, gripping its hand tooled armrests, brooding, in St. Pierre Cathedral, Calvin reflects that Servetus’s views threaten all of Christianity. If they are allowed to spread, they will destroy the very Reformation Calvin has worked so hard to create. Servetus’s unorthodox theology will undermine Christian theological unity. The Catholics and the Protestants might not agree upon much but they agree upon the Trinity. They agree that humans do not have the spirit of God dwelling within them. And they agree upon the necessity of infant baptism.
Calvin is thankful that in response to his charges the Council of Geneva, the city’s civic authority, has condemned Servetus to death. At Calvin’s prompting the Council has issued a verdict “to purge the Church of God of such infection and cut off the rotten member.” This surgery is not be merciful. Servetus is to burned alive with his books on a pyre built from green wood.
Calvin sits and broods. He and Servetus have corresponded for years. When they were young men they had both been on the run from the Catholic Inquisition. Their paths almost crossed once in Paris as they each sought to escape the authorities. Yet, Servetus has grown so obstinate in his heresies that Calvin has become convinced that Servetus will never realize his errors.
Calvin sits and broods. A friend arrives, bringing him a report of Servetus’s death. Even at the end, Servetus refused to recant his beliefs. On the way to his place of execution he cried, “O God, O God: what else can I speak of but God.” His last recorded words also deny the Trinity. Right before he succumbs to the flames he wails, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” Calvin’s friend observes that Servetus could have saved himself from the flames if only he had transposed the words. Had he called on Christ the Eternal Son instead of Christ the Son of the Eternal God he would have been allowed to live.
The trial and execution of Michael Servetus is one of the most famous episodes in Unitarian history. His 1531 book “On the Errors of the Trinity” is largely regarded as first text in the continuous stream of religious tradition that stretches from sixteenth-century Europe to this pulpit in twenty-first-century Houston. It is true that are earlier figures and movements whose theology influenced ours. The second century North African theologian Origen taught that all souls would eventually be united with God. Arius was another North African theologian. Living in the third and fourth centuries, he built a large following by arguing against the Trinity. He believed that Jesus was not eternal. He believed Jesus was created by an eternal God. But despite these truths, it is with Servetus that enduring Unitarian theology begins.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Edict of Torda. Issued in 1568 by King John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, it was the first European law guaranteeing religious tolerance. Sigismund and the other Transylvanian Unitarians were greatly influenced by Servetus as they struggled to make sense of Christianity while living on the edge of the pluralistic world of that was the Ottoman Empire.
There is a direct line from Servetus to the Polish Brethren of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who were known as Socianians. They were followers of the Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini. Like Servetus, they rejected original sin and the eternal nature of Jesus. They influenced the English Unitarians who later founded some of the first Unitarian churches in the United States. When President Andrew Jackson’s followers smeared President John Quincy Adams for his Unitarianism they called him a Socianian.
This direct line is one reason why our tradition was long summarized as a commitment to “freedom, reason, and tolerance.” When asked to describe Unitarian Universalism, the lifelong member of our communion Melissa Harris-Perry wrote, we “set aside divisive doctrinal battles [while] we seek a straightforward commitment to the fluid, open, collective work of seeking our truths together without assuming that we will all share the same truth.” An understanding that doctrinal beliefs can be lethally divisive is why a commitment to “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning” is central to our faith.
Now, I said, at the outset of my sermon, I wanted to focus our attention on one word of our principle. That word is responsible. Since we are examining a single word, I thought it wise to consult that massive tomb known as the Oxford English Dictionary. It once spanned more than a bookshelf. These days it has been safely reduced to a database. Turning to the OED, as it is affectionately known, we discover that the word is both an adjective and a noun. In our principle it appears as an adjective modifying the word search. There are eleven different ways in which responsible can be used as an adjective. The earliest dates to the sixteenth century. The most recent only came into use in the 1970s. Our adjective invokes the most contemporary meaning. Responsible in our principle appears to mean, “a practice or activity: carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.” A responsible search: a search carried out in a morally principled or ethical way.
Responsible is derived from the French responsible. The French comes the Latin respōnsāre, which means “to reply.” We might then think that to be responsible is to reply or respond to some set of underlying moral or ethical claims. Our fourth principle does not tell us what these underlying moral or ethical claims are. It only suggests that we are to be accountable to them.
In what remains of our sermon, I want to suggest to you two varieties of moral claims we might be responsible to in our search for truth and meaning. And then, in a somewhat tautological move, I want to suggest that the challenge of the search for truth and meaning is that it is a search for the very thing we are responsible to.
Two types of moral claims we might respond to in our search are the horizontal and the transcendental. These types of claims exist upon separate axis. As the name implies, horizontal claims are those that we make based upon this plane of existence. We make a horizontal claim when we refer directly to our relationships with other humans, other animals, and the Earth.
Transcendental claims are those that we make based upon some other plane of existence. As the name implies, such claims transcend this world. We make a transcendental claim when we refer directly to our relationship with a moral law that exists outside of the human community or exists due to a divinity such as that indescribable religious element we call God.
Much religious jostling takes place over the question of which of these two types of claims--the horizontal or transcendental--takes precedence. This Thursday at Rice I am going to be part of panel on interfaith dialogue. The conversation will be between an evangelical Christian, a Muslim, and myself. We are supposed to circulate our questions to each other in advance. The questions are supposed to be around some aspect of the other person’s tradition that we do not understand or would like clarified.
The evangelical Christian is from a conservative tradition that is opposed to sex same marriage. One of my questions for him, therefore, has to do why his community chooses to emphasize that aspect of their theology. There are only a handful of Christian scriptures that appear to address issues of same sex love. Most of them were originally directed towards other concerns. In contrast, there are over two thousand biblical verses that focus on the injunction to be in solidarity with the poor and to work towards economic justice. Why, I want to know, does his tradition emphasize one at the expense of the other? The evangelical Christian’s question for me is: Isn’t the dismissal of God, the deification of the human spirit, and trust in human ethics a naïve and dangerous project?
Based on these questions, I am not entirely certain our efforts at interfaith dialogue are off to a good start. However, I think that they nicely highlight distinctions between horizontal and transcendental moral claims. I arrive at my line of inquiry from a horizontal position. I am concerned about the GLBT community and economic justice because of the human relationships I have. I grew a Unitarian Universalist in a faith community that has long taught that many different kinds of sexual expression and gender identities are natural, normal, and wonderful. I have long known that there is only one human family and that a society based on the exploitation of labor leads to poverty, injustice and human suffering. Looking around, I am moved by the pain that I see in the eyes of others. I recognize it as similar to my own. It is like the verses by Mary Oliver in our hymnal:
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. / You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. / Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.
Such words summarize horizontal moral claims more eloquently than I can. Here we find an understanding that it is the shared human experience--our animal, bodily, loving nature--that unites us. It is to this earthly unity that we are responsible.
In contrast, my evangelical counterpart’s relationship is not primarily with the horizontal--with the human community that surrounds him--but rather, with the transcendental, that which he has chosen to name God. He worries about my more horizontal morality because, he fears, it misses the place where morality is rooted: in a particular conception of the divine.
This conception of the divine, his community teaches, has issued certain injunctions about how we humans are to live our lives. If we fail to live by those injunctions--which for him includes particular teachings about human sexuality--we not only lead morally deformed lives in this world. We jeopardize ourselves in the next world. That, is a truly, transcendental position. Not only is our moral orientation to something that exists outside of the human life we share. But the consequences we face for failing to live a moral life come not in this horizontal world but in some other transcendental plane of existence.
My evangelical counterpart’s transcendental position is not the only one. Nor is my horizontal position the sum of horizontalism. Our human best includes people who oriented themselves towards the transcendental. Coretta Scott and Martin King attended Unitarian churches when lived in Boston. They ultimately moved away from Unitarianism because they felt they needed more of a transcendental connection to the divine than they believed our tradition offered them.
Conversely, our human worst includes people who oriented themselves towards the horizontal. The Soviet Stalinists of mid-twentieth-century killed millions of people. They justified their actions on horizontal claims about alleviating the most suffering for the largest number of people. Some, like the great Russian dissident Anna Akhmatova, drew upon the transcendental to survive their brutality, writing:
A choir of angels glorified the hour,
the vault of heaven was dissolved in fire.
“Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?
Mother, I beg you, do not weep for me...”
Other Russian dissidents, such as the poet Victor Serge, drew upon the horizontal as they resisted:
Our hands are unconscious, tough, ascendant, conscious
plainsong, delighted suffering,
nailed to rainbows.
Together, together, joined,
they have here seized
And we didn’t know
that together we held
this dazzling thing.
And so, we reach our tautology, our fourth principle. Our Unitarian Universalist Association has committed us to “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But that search, is, so often for the thing that we are responsible to. In your search do you find yourself responding to the horizontal? Is it the human, the this world, the way rain glistens upon live oak leaves or the scamper of a lizard (is it a gecko, a skink, or a six lined race runner?), the tears that you see in the eyes of migrants as they suffer under Texas bridges, that call to you? Or is it an awe-inspiring indescribable divinity who blesses the universe with life and stirs within you an understanding that you should work to change the country’s barbaric practices towards immigrants? Is it both? Are they incompatible? Which are you responsible to? The horizontal or the transcendental? Or, perhaps, even, something else, something that I have failed to name that is neither horizontal or transcendental but unites, encompasses, or exists outside of both?
I could close with those questions. Instead, I want us to reach back to Calvin and Servetus. Calvin had Servetus killed because he felt that our religious forbearer endangered humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. Calvin believed that a relationship with the transcendental took precedence over a horizontal relationship. Conversely, Servetus was trying to reconcile the horizontal and transcendental. Humans understand God in many ways. Finding the commonality between these paths, he thought, would lead to peace. And yet, he could not give up on what he felt was his correct understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental. As he was burned he cried, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” And as Calvin’s friend observed, Servetus needed only to change the words--to compromise on his understanding of humanity’s relationship with the transcendental--to save his life.
It is difficult to be responsible. It is challenging to understand what we are supposed to respond to even as we seek to find it. And, so recognizing this challenge but also recognizing our call to meet it, I close with repetition of our earlier reading by Leslie Takahashi. I invite you to hear it as a prayer:
Walk the maze
within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue lies peace.
Let us walk the maze together,
open to where it leads us,
open to the transcendental,
if we encounter it,
and the horizontal,
when we find it.
Be us not afraid to name the divine
if we discover it
and be us not afraid
and care for the human,
and all that is
this beautiful world
wherever we go.
to say Amen.
Jan 15, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, December 24, 2018
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“for hate is strong
and mocks the song
of peace on earth,
to all good will.”
These words were penned by the great Unitarian poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote them on Christmas Day in 1863. He wrote them in the middle of the Civil War, shortly after his son had joined the Union Army without his permission. He wrote them two years after his wife died. He wrote them when this country was in the midst of a profound crisis and when he was caught in his own personal crisis.
“And in despair I bowed my head,” these are good verses for tonight. Christmas 2018 finds this country and our world again in severe crisis. The federal government is shutdown. Migrants are dying at the border. Climate change continues to wreak havoc across the planet. Turkey threatens genocide against the Kurds of Syria. I do not have it within me to offer you a light and cheery Christmas homily.
Perhaps that is alright. Christmas is a complicated holiday. When we turn to the ancient texts we find much in them to suggest that the world was not right two thousand years ago. There is Caesar Augustus organizing a census to count the people of the Roman Empire. He did so not to aid the poor but to benefit the wealthy. There is Herod flying into a rage massacring “all the boys aged two years or under” because one of them might have threatened his rule. The names may have changed but the story has not. We can replace Caesar Augustus with the current President of the United States and the narrative will not be all that different. We can swap Herod with Basar al-Assad or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and our discussion of executed or planned massacres will mirror the gospel texts.
The fundamental conceit of the Christmas holiday is that two thousand years ago a child was born who threatened this great disorder of things. We are supposed to be celebrating the advent of a messiah whose birth meant that God was going to bring about peace and joy to the whole world. We are supposed to celebrating the coming of the kingdom and the reign of the divine. For Christians this event is so important that it actually divides time in two. First there was the era known as B.C., Before Christ. And now there is the era of Anno Domini, in the year of our Lord.
For Unitarian Universalists, the holiday is more convoluted. Most of us do not believe that Jesus was the messiah. A few of us wonder if he existed at all. And yet, we celebrate the holiday.
Sometimes this prompts people to tell jokes at our expense. A few of these are jokes are quite mean spirited. Others a bit more gentle, “What’s the Unitarians favorite Christmas movie? Coincidence on 34th street.”
Occasionally the holiday prompts us to poke fun at ourselves. One of my favorite bits along these lines is the late Unitarian minister Christopher Raible’s holiday hymn, “God Rest Ye, Unitarians.” Appealing to the hardcore rationalists among us it begins:
God rest ye, Unitarians, let nothing you dismay;
Remember there's no evidence there was a Christmas Day;
When Christ was born is just not known, no matter what they say,
O, Tidings of reason and fact, reason and fact,
Glad tidings of reason and fact.
A rationalist reading of the Christmas story would examine other aspects of the ancient texts as well. It would point out that their references to a census by Caesar Augustus and Herod’s massacre of the innocents are metaphoric at best. There seems to be little historical evidence that either occurred.
And yet, in 2018, Christian readings of the Christmas story that celebrates Jesus as the world saving of messiah and rationalist readings that offer “Glad tidings of reason and fact” both miss an essential point. The Christmas story, whether metaphor or fact, suggests something crucial about what we are called to do when in despair we bow our heads. It is a lesson of where we are supposed to look for hope.
When we read the story carefully we discover that the invention of Caesar Augustus’s census and Herod’s massacre of the innocents turn Jesus not only into a messiah. They turn him into a child of migrants fleeing political persecution. They turn him into a child of the least of these. The great messiah is not born to the high and mighty. He is born to outcasts so poor they must take shelter in a cave or a stable because they cannot find room in an inn.
This story suggests that we are to look for hope on the margins of society. We will not to find it by looking to the powerful. We will not find it by turning to Caesar Augustus or Herod or the President of the United States or Assad or Erdoğan. We will to find it by looking to the prisoners, the migrants, the refugees, the civilians who endure the horrors of war... all of those who bravely insist that there is another way.
I have been thinking of this dimension of the Christmas story over the past weeks as my heart has been burdened by the death of seven-year-old Jacklin Caal. She was the young Guatemalan migrant who died in the custody of the United States Border Patrol after being denied medical attention. If Jesus existed he was born into a family like Jacklin’s, a family that was fleeing violence and death.
And let me tell you, that is exactly what Jacklin’s family was fleeing. The countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are some of the most violent in the world. They routinely have murder rates that mirror those of countries at war. I have gone to El Salvador and interviewed the victims of that violence. I spent years doing human rights work in southern Mexico and spoke with migrants who passed through that country on their way to the United States. I could recount their stories and on this Christmas Eve push you to despair.
If were to do so, I might tell you that the violence found in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala was produced by the powerful in this country. Their histories of instability are a result of the United States government’s systematic undermining of their movements for democracy. Their recent spikes in violence a result of our government deporting Central American gang members back their home countries in the nineties. Addressing their widespread poverty would do more to stem the flow of migrants than Donald Trump’s quest to build a wall. The budget for building a wall is almost the same as the entire budget of the government of Honduras. The budget of the US Customs and Border Patrol is about five times the budget of El Salvador. Imagine how different the lives of people in Central America would be if the money spent keeping them out of this country was spent to improve their countries instead.
But I digress. The Christmas story does not just remind us that the powerful are so often responsible for the violence of the world. It reminds us that hope is to be found at the margins of society. It is to found amongst those who have the most at stake in changing the world: the migrants who flee violent lands with a dream of peace in their hearts; the prisoners who are bold enough to imagine a world without prisons; the labor militants who believe that it is possible build a world where there is prosperity for all; the peace activists who dream of the end of war; the ecological activists who hope that there is way that we might yet live in harmony with the earth... When the world changes for the better it will be because of the work of those on the margins.
When we remember that we can go beyond the third verse of Longfellow’s hymn, “And in despair I bowed my head:” and hear the bells of the fourth:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep;
“God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, to all goodwill.”
My prayer for us this Christmas is simple:
May we hear the deeper peals of the bells
and, rationalist or believer,
remember that the story tells us to look for hope
not among the powerful--
the architects of wars
and government shutdowns--
but at the margins of society.
It is there
that we might find hope
just as it was there
that the ancient texts
found hope in the birth
of a child
fleeing political persecution
some two thousand years ago.
Much love to all of you,
have a wonderful holiday
Jun 20, 2018
This is my last sermon with you. It is not my last time in Ashby as your minister. That will be the evening of July seventeenth when I come to enjoy a concert on the green. Nonetheless, this morning is the last time that the collective you, the members and friends of First Parish Church, will listen to me in my current capacity--as your minister. Which is too bad. There is still so much that I would like to say to you and share with you. I cannot say all of it. What I can do is continue our conversation from earlier in the month. It is in some sense the same conversation we have been having all year. It is an attempt to answer the question: What is the purpose of the church? Or, really, as I said before, it is an attempt to answer three interwoven questions: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
In my last sermon I suggested that one way we might answer these questions is to claim that this congregation, like Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country, can be a place where we learn the skills necessary to live in a democratic society. When we learn these skills we can make a difference in our own lives and in the wider world.
Some might argue that this is an answer that comes from the Unitarian part of our tradition. It suggests a certain faith in human nature. It suggests that we can collectively improve our lot and our selves. The claim that we have the ability to improve our selves is one of the claims that was at the heart of the Unitarian controversy in the nineteenth century. That was the conflict between liberal and orthodox Christians that eventually led to the First Parish Church splitting in two. The liberals, who believed that humans have the capacity to improve our selves, became Unitarians and stayed in this building. The orthodox, who claimed that human nature was inherently wicked and could only be redeemed with divine intervention, built the church across the street.
This morning I want to suggest a different purpose for the church than one that comes from the Unitarian tradition. I want to propose a purpose rooted in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. The purpose of the church is to love the Hell out of the world. Yes, we gather to further democratic practice and to build a more democratic society. But we do this because we are called to love the Hell out the world.
You might remember that Universalism was founded on a simple theological proposition: God loves people too much to condemn anyone to an eternity of torment in Hell. My friend Mark Morrison-Reed quotes the late Gordon McKeeman to describe this doctrine. He writes about how he once heard McKeeman “say, ‘Universalism came to be called ‘The Gospel of God’s Success,’ the gospel of the larger hope. Picturesquely spoken, the image was that of the last, unrepentant sinner being dragged screaming and kicking into heaven, unable... to resist the power and love of the Almighty.’”
Mark continues, “What a graphic, prosaic picture—a divine kidnapping. The last sinner being dragged, by his collar I imagined, into heaven.” What kind of a God was this? ... This was a religion of radical and overpowering love. Universal salvation insists that no matter what we do, God so loves us that she will not, and cannot, consign even a single human individual to eternal damnation. Universal salvation--the reality that we share a common destiny--is the inescapable consequence of Universal love.”
In New England, one of the earliest and most important advocates of this doctrine was Hosea Ballou. For several years he was a circuit rider who traveled throughout the region spreading the message of God’s universal, unconditional, love. Ballou is reputed to have had a quick wit. There are a number of stories that have been preserved about his encounters with orthodox Christians who rejected the idea that God loved everyone without exception. You might recall one I have shared with you before. It was collected by Linda Stowell.
It seems that once when Ballou was out circuit riding he stopped for the night at a New England farmhouse. I imagine it was of the type that many of you live in: a large creaky wooden amalgamation of home and barn with the livestock living not all that far from the people.
Over dinner Ballou learned that the family’s eldest son was something of a ne’er-do-well. He rarely helped out with chores or did work on the farm. He stole money from his parents. He spent it when he went out late at night partying and carousing at the local tavern. The family was afraid that their son was going to go to Hell.
“Alright,” Ballou told them, “I have a plan. We will find a spot on the road where your son walks home drunk at night. We will build a big bonfire. And when he passes by we will grab him and throw him into the fire.”
The young man’s parents were aghast. “That’s our son and we love him,” they said to Ballou. Ballou responded, “If you, human and imperfect parents, love your son so much that you wouldn’t throw him into the fire, then how can you possibly believe that God, the perfect parent, would do so!”
It is a pretty fun story. I have used in a couple of sermons. It exemplifies the logic of universalist theology. God loves everyone, no exceptions. So, we should love everyone no exceptions. But as I have been thinking about the story I have come to recognize that it is not without its flaws.
It presents Ballou as a sort of lone hero--traipsing through rural New England spreading the gospel of universalism. There is truth to this portrayal but it elides a larger truth. Ballou did not spread universalism alone. He was but one of many early preachers who discovered the doctrine, a doctrine that is found in the Christian New Testament and in the theological works of early Christian theologians.
Someone like Ballou read a verse such as “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive,” to mean literally what it said. Ballou and others interpreted this verse from I Corinthians to hinge upon the word “all,” which appears twice. All were condemned to mortality by Adam’s disobedience to the divine in the Garden of Eden. All will be given immortality through Christ. Not some. Not only the believers. Not just the righteous. But all. Every last sinner dragged screaming and kicking into heaven.
Ballou was not the first one to discover universalism in verses like I Corinthians 15:22. Origen of Alexandria was a Christian theologian who lived in the second and third centuries of the common era. Almost eighteen hundred years ago he taught that all would eventually be united with God. Taking a slightly different position than Ballou, he wrote “and there is punishment, but not everlasting... For all wicked men, and for daemons, too, punishment has an end.”
Ballou and Origen lived almost two thousand years apart. Their similar theological perspectives suggest one reason why Ballou and other circuit riders like him were so successful in spreading the Gospel of God’s Success. Lots of people believe that God is love and that a loving God does not punish. However, since this belief is held to be heretical by orthodox Christianity many people think that they are alone in their belief. Encountering someone like Ballou in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century did not convince them of universalism. It gave them permission to profess universalism because it helped them to recognize that they were not isolated in their beliefs.
I suspect Ballou’s circuit riding was a bit like the contemporary phenomenon of discovering people who are Unitarian Universalist without knowing it. Have you had this experience? It is a somewhat common for Unitarian Universalist ministers. And I think it is a relatively common one for Unitarian Universalist lay folk as well. It runs something like this: You go out to coffee with a relatively new friend. You chat about your friends and your families. Maybe you tell them about the foibles of your cat. Perhaps they share with you gardening tips. At some point though, the conversation turns serious. You might not know how you got on the subject but suddenly you are discussing your core beliefs. You tell them you are a Unitarian Universalist. They say, “I have never heard of that.” You explain. You give them your elevator speech. You might quote Unitarian Universalist author Laila Ibrahim:
It’s a blessing you were born
It matters what you do with your life.
What you know about god is a piece of the truth.
You do not have to do it alone.
Or maybe you quote our own Liz Strong, who reflecting on her childhood in Universalist church, wrote: “the center of my religious faith was a powerful belief in the inherent goodness and worth of all life. I believed in a god who loved me and all of creation.”
Whatever the case, your friend says to you, “Hey! That’s what I believe. I guess I was a Unitarian Universalist without knowing it.”
But what comes next? I wonder that about in the story of Ballou and the farm family. Did the family start a universalist church? Did they gather their friends together and form a small community of people someplace in rural New England who proclaimed, “God loves everyone, no exceptions?”
We do not know. But what we do know is that belief is not enough. We are called not just to believe in the power of God’s love. We are called to love the Hell out of the world. There is a lot of Hell in the world. And we know by now, from long experience, from all the prophets, is that the only way we can get rid of that Hell is through the power of love. It’s like Kenneth Patchen says in his poem, “The Way Men Live is a Lie:” “There is only one power that can save the world-- / And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.”
There is a lot of Hell in the world right now. This week we learned that since April the United States government has separated 2,000 immigrant children from their parents. 2,000 children. Separated from their parents. That is about as close a definition to Hell as I can find. It comes from the opposite of love. It is built upon the opposite of compassion.
The people who migrate to the United States do so because they have no other choice. It is an unbelievably difficult decision to uproot yourself and your family and travel thousands of miles, not knowing what you will find on the other end, in the hopes of making a better life. It is a decision that people only make when all the other options seem worse. Those options are sometimes to stay home and watch your children starve to death; to stay home and be murdered by paramilitaries; to stay home and be butchered by gangs; to stay home and be killed by an abusive spouse...
Immigrants provide net economic benefits to this country. Ask any honest economist and they will tell you that the United States is a wealthier country because of immigration. Immigrants have brought a wonderful diversity of art, food, and culture to this country. Mark Rothko, David Hockney, and William de Kooning are all iconic American artists. Each one an immigrant. Pizza, a gift from immigrants! St. Patrick’s Day comes from immigrants!
Hate and fear close the borders and try to keep immigrants out. Loving the Hell out of the world demands that we open the borders and let the poor, the marginalized, the frightened, the hungry, and the huddled, in.
Love over hate. This is an actual choice we make. Hate comes from a belief that all of nature can be reduced to the red tooth and claw. There is only so much in the world. You have to compete to get what is yours and damn everyone else. This is a view that turns immigrants into criminals. It prioritizes law over justice. It separates children from their parents. It falsely believes that the United States is worse off with all of the richness that has come from immigrants.
This is kind of hate is a choice. It is a choice that is sometimes based on a misreading of the Unitarian Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of the Species.” It misunderstands observations such as “One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die.” It bolsters this wrong interpretation of Darwin with false readings of the Christian New Testament like the one offered by the Attorney General this week.
Competition is certainly a factor in nature but in sits in tension with cooperation. Social animals like humans and honeybees cooperate with each other. Social animals survive by working together. The building of roads, the creation of schools, the development of science, the construction of a church, the maintenance of a congregation... All are acts of cooperation. Each comes from an often unarticulated belief that we are better working together, striving together, than we are alone.
Love the Hell Out of the World; we are faced with a choice. We can turn to hate or we can turn to compassion. That is why we Unitarian Universalists gather for community, we encourage each other to turn towards compassion. Competition or cooperation, hate or love, it comes down to a wager. We can choose to believe, like orthodox Christians, God will punish all sinners with eternal fire. The fire is coming for us like it was coming for the ne’er-do-well farmer’s son. The country cannot absorb more immigrants. Or we can bet upon love. That God, the perfect parent, will not condemn us to the inferno. That today, in the richest country in the history of the world, there is enough for all of the frightened, the starving, the poor, who come to our borders seeking sanctuary.
It is a bet on what is at the core of our humanity: love or hate, cooperation or competition. To love the Hell out of the world means to choose cooperation over competition. It means to suggest as, did Kenneth Patchen,
There is only one truth in the world:
Until we learn to love our neighbor,
There will be no life for anyone.
What have you chosen? As individuals? As a congregation? To love the Hell out of the world? That peace is more redemptive than violence? That we need to march, not fight, for our lives? That love is more powerful than hate?
I leave you with those rhetorical questions. They suggest answers to our three interlaced questions from the beginning of the sermon: Why does the First Parish Church exist? What difference does it make in your lives? What difference does it make in the wider world?
Those are your questions. You will have to wrestle with them as long as this congregation remains. But now, I have to go. And before I do, let me say this:
I hope that you will continue to love the Hell out of the world.
I love you.
I will carry you in my heart as long as my pulse continues to beat.
And I am deeply grateful for our year together.
Thank you for everything.
Let us give the final word, again, to the poet, who wrote in his non-gender neutral language:
Force cannot be overthrown by force;
To hate any man is to despair of every man;
Evil breeds evil--the rest is a lie!
There is only one power that can save the world--
And that is the power of our love for all men everywhere.
Let the congregation say Amen.
Jan 10, 2018
It was recently announced that the Trump administration has decided to cancel Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans who have been allowed to legally live and work in the United States since 2001 when devastating earthquakes struck El Salvador. There are approximately 200,000 Salvadorans currently living in the United Country under the program. Almost all will try to stay. While some of the country’s infrastructure has been rebuilt El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries on the planet. This should be reason enough to extend TPS for many years to come.
In the summer of 2014 I travelled to El Salvador as part of a human rights delegation with the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. Upon my return, I published a theological reflection in the UU World and preached a sermon about my experiences there that I shared with congregations throughout New England. I wrote a third piece that I submitted to several magazines but was never able to publish. It seems like now is a good time to post the unpublished manuscript. My hope is that it will help further an understanding of what life is like in El Salvador and the kinds of situations that the Trump administration is planning to send Salvadorans back to.
Fleeing a Culture of Violence; Migration and El Salvador
After we pass the thick line of waiting family members I notice a white column next to the gate. At least, it was originally white. Now it is covered with a thick hatch of black ink, the remnants of finger-printing. The deportees emerge, one at a time, through the mesh gate and wipe their hands on the column, hoping, I imagine, to quickly leave behind at least one sign of their humiliation. They were heroes when they left, some of them walking for weeks until they reached the U.S./Mexico border. They were heroes while they were there, many of them sending several hundred dollars a month back to El Salvador to support their extended families. But now they are mostly ashamed and afraid.
I have travelled here with NDLON, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, to learn about the experiences of migrants: why they leave and what it is like for them when they are brought back.
We visit two repatriation centers during the week I am in El Salvador. The one at El Salvador’s International Airport, the one with the white column covered in fingerprints, is where deportees from the United States arrive. There are as many as 700 of them in a week. The other center is in San Salvador’s La Chacra neighborhood. It is for deportees from Mexico. The center by the airport reminds me of both a prison and a Greyhound bus station. When the deportees are taken off the planes they wait for processing in a poorly-lit room filled with rows of plastic molded Eames chairs in bold colors. None of the red, blue, black, and beige chairs are empty. In each one sits someone whose face is weighed down with a mixture of exhaustion and trauma. One part of their ordeal, usually months in detention, is coming to an end. Another, confronting their place in Salvadoran society, is about to start.
We are not allowed to bring cameras or audio recorders or cell phones into the repatriation centers. The deportees themselves aren’t eager to share their names. But they are willing to share their stories. At the center for deportees from Mexico, one man tells us he was deported after living in the United States for eleven years. He is almost quivering with anger. His wife and children are still there. This is his second time being deported. The first time he was caught in the United States and flown back to El Salvador on a plane. This time he only made it as far as Mexico; he was shipped back on a bus. He says that as soon as he can he will leave again.
Another man at the center explains why he fled. He is a victim of gang violence. He and two of his friends had operated a bus together. He was the driver, while his friends tended to the passengers and collected fares. One day some gang members boarded the bus and killed the fare collector. The bus driver 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 had witnessed the murder. The gang murdered the friend while he ate dinner at a neighborhood pupuseria. That's when the bus driver decided to leave the country.
When the deportees arrive they are processed quickly. They are given a soft drink, a pupusa, and sent into a waiting room. After a brief wait they are interviewed by an immigration officer and, if necessary, given a health exam. If any of the deportees have criminal charges pending in El Salvador they are handed over to the police. There are three phones where, afterwards, they are permitted to make a free phone call.
The bus driver says he called his mother. She told him that it wasn’t safe for him to come home. He has no idea what he is going to do next.
Away from the repatriation centers I interview Sandra Elizabeth Borja Armero. She is eager to tell me her story. Before she was deported, she worked with NDLON in Los Angeles, taking part in their Teatro Jornalero Sin Fronteras (Day Labor Theater Without Borders). Her husband and son still live in Los Angeles. Her son is five. He is named Barack, after the President who oversaw her deportation. "It is ironic," she tells me. Like many Hispanics, she thought that the election of the first black President would herald a better life for undocumented immigrants. Instead, she says, the first black President has deported more brown people than any of the white Presidents who preceded him, to date more than two million. She and her husband named their son after President Obama because of the hope he represented. She says, "I want to be with my son" before repeating, "Barack, it is ironic."
A red mesh bag containing a wallet, a cell phone, maybe a couple of pieces of mail, shoelaces, is all deportees are allowed to bring back with them from the United States. Whether they were caught sneaking across the border or rounded up after living in the States for fifteen years, they bring back the same small number of possessions.
I meet José Efrain Mortimez Rivas at another event organized by NDLON. This man wants his story told. He lived in the United States for six years. He worked hard, got married, and regularly sent money back to El Salvador. Twice a month, he sent $300: $100 for his mother, and $100 each for the mothers of his two children in El Salvador.
His move to the United States was a family investment. Before he left his family raised $6,000 to pay a coyote to smuggle him from El Salvador to the United States. The investment more than paid off. During his time in the United States he sent back over $40,000. There are no other financial instruments available to poor people in El Salvador with six-hundred percent return rates.
Rivas lived in Melbourne, Florida, and worked as day laborer there. He made, on average, $70 to $80 a day. Now that he is back in El Salvador, when he can find work, which isn’t often, he is lucky if he can make $10 a day. He isn’t able to support his mother or his children. His wife, who still lives in Florida, has left him. He is not sure if he wants to risk the return journey, but he knows that his options if he stays are very limited. He is exactly my age, 37, and tells me that the best part of his life is over.
The journey to the United States is dangerous, the deportation process ugly. One young woman I meet outside the repatriation center describes a little of her experience. It took her five weeks to travel to the United States. Before she made it across the border she saw two of her fellow migrants die. Both young men, they drowned trying to cross a flooding river. She was in the United States for ten months: the first five in Los Angeles hustling for all kinds of work; the last five in a deportation center in Texas.
Her story about her time in detention catches my attention. The place was called the Coastal Bend Detention Center. There, she worked everyday from 6:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. She says, she was paid $1.00 a day. A phone call cost a dollar. A bag of chips from the canteen was $2.50. The center, she claims, was privately run.
When we arrive at the repatriation center in San Salvador, there is a small swarm of reporters. They are waiting outside to get interviews with and pictures of families that have been deported. No one wants to talk to them. The families draw shirts up over their heads and pile into taxis in an effort to escape the journalists. The journalists, meanwhile, chase after the taxis like paparazzi pursuing celebrities. Two news anchors, young women caked in make-up and wearing bold single color dresses, have started to work-up a sweat.
Our arrival provides a welcome distraction. Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s Executive Director, holds an impromptu press conference to publicize the results of a study on migrants that his organization has commissioned with José Simeón Cañas Central American University (which everyone calls UCA). Then the gate opens, the journalists scatter, and the chase after another taxi begins.
Inside the repatriation center a bus with children from Mexico has just arrived. I see a nursing mother whose baby can’t be more than a month old. There are three boys traveling together unaccompanied, the oldest no more than fifteen. The center feels like a refugee camp. It is overrun. There’s no place for the adults to sit or for the children to play. The bathrooms don’t include tables for changing diapers. After seeing the nursing mother I ask someone in my group, "How bad does your life have to be to make migrating to the United States with a tiny baby seem like a good idea?"
While not visiting the detention centers, we talk with NDLON leaders, attend presentations, and meet with some senior government officials. The main reason we have any access here is Francisco "Pancho" Pacheco, NDLON’s National Director of Organizing. Pancho is a former central committee member of one of the organizations behind Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, better known as the FMLN, now El Salvador’s ruling party. It turns out that many of Pancho’s old comrades in arms are now leading members of the government. During our week in El Salvador we meet with the President of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, the Vice President, the Vice President’s wife, and Lidwina Magarín, the Deputy Foreign Minister for Salvadorans Living Abroad. Lidwina fought under Pancho and took his command when he fled to the United States in 1995, three years after the Peace Accords were signed. In the years between the signing of the Accords and Pancho’s decision to leave El Salvador he survived three assassination attempts.
He arrived in Los Angeles with little English and began shaping up on corners, looking for work, like so many other Salvadorian migrants. A brilliant organizer, he naturally began to talk to other day laborers and became involved in a local workers center. This led, in time, to him becoming part of NDLON’s leadership. In recent years it has become safe for him to travel back to El Salvador. The FMLN has won the last two presidential elections and more than twenty years have passed since the end of the civil war. Politically motivated violence is largely a thing of the past. Now, the danger is gang violence. Despite this change, Pancho doesn’t want to move back to El Salvador. After almost twenty years in the United States it feels like home and he is not confident he could find work in his native country. Still, he tells, he thinks he might move back when he retires.
During the week I spend in El Salvador I only see Pancho get flustered once. The van we are traveling in breaks down in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Quickly, I learn that we are in gang territory. On one side of the road: a coffee plantation. On the other side of the road: sheer rock crowned by crowded foliage, trees draped in tropical greenery.
Pablo, or someone, makes a phone call and two cars appear. There are three white people in our delegation. It is urgent that the three of us leave immediately. As we get into the cars I see that a group of people had begun slowly moving up the highway towards us.
As many as 90,000 unaccompanied children are expected to migrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to the United States in 2014. The majority say they are fleeing violence. The murder rate in the communities they are leaving is below only Syria.
Another member of our delegation tells me about a child who successfully made it to her community in Los Angeles. He left because the local gang started threatening the kids on his soccer team, trying to extort money from their parents. When the gang killed one of the team members, he fled. By the time he was safely reunited with family members in the United States, the gang had murdered six more children on the team.
Aug 17, 2015
UUA General Assembly video of my award winning sermon "This Land is Your Land?" is now available on You Tube.
Aug 16, 2015
Sep 4, 2014
Aug 29, 2014
preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, October 7, 2007
All human beings deserve the same rights and respect. It does not matter whether you are black, white, Asian, Mexican or Native American. It does not matter whether you are male, female or transgender. It does not matter whether you are homosexual, bisexual or heterosexual. It does not matter if you are rich or poor. You deserve to live your life with grace and dignity.
This coming week marks both Columbus and National Coming Out Days. In very different ways these celebrations epitomize the controversy that often erupts when people insist upon and advocate for human rights for all. Columbus Day is a celebration of the European discovery of the Americas. Most indigenous communities do not view the holiday as a celebration of discovery. For them it is a reminder of the genocide of their ancestors.
Our society denies gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people their full human rights. National Coming Out Day is a chance to raise awareness about this. Like Columbus Day it is not a holiday that is universally celebrated. Those who oppose full human rights for members of the queer community are likely to either ignore or protest National Coming Out Day.
When I was a child we celebrated Columbus Day in my elementary school. In one of my classes we made drawings of Columbus and his three ships--the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We learned about how he had discovered America and convinced the Spanish king and queen Ferdinand and Isabel to finance his trip across the ocean. No mention was made of the native populations who inhabited this continent before the arrival of the Europeans or of their fate after the conquest of the Americas. To a naive child Columbus was a hero to be celebrated.
My consciousness about Columbus Day changed when I became involved in indigenous solidarity work in Chiapas, Mexico. I now understand that it as a complex holiday. On the one hand, it is an important day for Italian Americans and others to celebrate their heritage. On the other, it is a reminder of the suffering of generations of indigenous people at the hands of European colonialists. This complexity makes the Columbus Day holiday an ideal time to reflect upon one of the pressing issues of our day, immigration. Columbus was, after all, the original immigrant. Many of the undocumented immigrants to the United States today are descendents from the original inhabitants of the Americas. The debate about immigration is in part a continuation of a long debate about whom this continent belongs to and who has a right to participate in our society.
The immigration debate has gradually been heating up for the last several years. In 2006 it reached a boiling point when Congress attempted to pass a series of laws to clamp down on undocumented immigration. One of the measures that conservatives hoped to pass called for the deportation of the at least twelve million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. A mass deportation of this type would prove disastrous, not in the least because, according to the Center for American Progress, the costs would be at least $215 billion.
Right now, undocumented immigration is an issue in most wealthy countries. Things have gotten so bad in the Global South, in the developing countries of the world, that people are willing to risk anything to have a shot at a better life for themselves and their families.
Many do risk everything and ultimately die attempting to reach the wealthy countries. In five months in late 2005 and early 2006, for example, between one thousand and fifteen hundred sub-Saharan Africans died trying to sneak into Spain. According to the journalist Jeremy Rose that is "five and seven times the number of people who died attempting to reach West Berlin during the Berlin Wall's entire history."
People do not take such risks and leave their families behind because they want to. They do it because they have to. People emigrate to places like the United States because the options of staying behind in their home countries are much worse than risking death trying to leave them.
There are many people in our country who are afraid of immigrants. They are afraid that undocumented immigrants erode border security, take jobs from American citizens and threaten American culture. These issues frame most of the debate around immigration. I believe they obfuscate the central issue. The central issue is: who do we, and by we I mean both the people in this room and our culture at large, consider a human being? I believe that we all deserve the same rights and respect. We are all human beings. We all deserve to be able to live our lives with grace and dignity.
This idea is at the core of the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association. This first principle says that our community affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That means that we think all human beings are human beings and are worthy of respect and dignity. This idea is at the heart of the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It says, in part:
"Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."
The Declaration of Human Rights is supposed to be the global standard by which countries are judged, both in terms of how they treat their citizens and how they treat others. The Declaration contains all of the basic things that human beings are supposed to be entitled to. According to the Declaration all people are afforded the right to own property, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to work and not be forced to work, freedom to choose their own sexual and life partners and freedom of movement. To deny people these rights is to deny them their humanity.
For undocumented immigrants the words "other status" are the key phrase in the document. That means that everyone in this country is supposed to be afforded these rights, whether or not they are here with the approval of the government.
The question of who really is a human being has been one that our country has wrestled with for a long time. Throughout the colonial period and during the first decades of our history as a nation the only people considered to be full human beings were land owning males of European descent. Anyone who did not meet the criteria of being male, white and a landowner was seen as less than a full citizen and, therefore, less than completely human. Slavery was justified by claiming that Africans and people of African descent possessed less developed faculties than Europeans. They were thought to need the guidance of others, their slave masters, to become civilized. Women, likewise, were denied the vote because they were thought of as less rational and capable than men.
Today, though most of us would not admit it, our country continues to have such attitudes. Today we do not consider people who live in the Global South, that is developing nations like Nicaragua, Iraq or the Sudan to be full human beings. If we did we would never let our government pursue the foreign policies it has in those countries.
In fact much of the immigration to the United States is a direct result of the failed economic and political policies of Washington. The last few years have seen an average of 500,000 undocumented immigrants from Mexico per year. Currently the greatest export from Mexico is Mexicans. As a result, remittance, money sent back to Mexico from the United States, is one of the top sources of income within Mexico. This is a direct result of the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, more commonly known as NAFTA. NAFTA has decimated the Mexican countryside by placing small Mexican subsistence farmers in direct competition with large agricultural combines from the United States and Canada. Unable to compete, over 1.3 million Mexicans have left the countryside in the last ten years.
The violence that our government has perpetrated in Central America is another major reason why so many people have been forced to emigrate to the United States. Throughout the seventies and eighties the United States backed repressive regimes or right wing guerilla movements in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. The conflicts in these countries led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of primarily indigenous peoples. Those that could, fled. And those that fled, fled to the United States.
One of the major reasons why people immigrate to the United States is that they want to be treated like human beings. I remember talking with a campesino in Chiapas, Mexico a few summers ago about this. He told me: "You Americans care more about your pets than you care about us." At least three thousand people from Latin America have been found dead along the United States border in the last ten years. I cannot help but wonder if he is right.
The material poverty that most of Latin America lives in is staggering. Through my work with CASA, the human rights organization that I helped to start in Mexico, I have visited Mexico a number of times. While there I have taken trips to the poorest rural communities and urban slums. People live without running water, far from the nearest school or doctor. They live in shacks with dirt floors and thatch or tin roofs. And they work hard for very little. Many live on less than a dollar a day.
The journey that many people from Mexico and Central America take to escape this kind of poverty is arduous. It involves a difficult and lengthy trip to the border, often through dangerous areas where immigrants are preyed upon by organized crime and harassed by governmental authorities. Once at the border immigrants will locate a coyote, a professional people smuggler, to take them into this country. Coyotes charge as much as $3,000 to people who wish to cross the border. Most of the people who cross into the United States lack the resources to pay up front. So coyotes often deliver them directly to potential employers through whom they can work off their debt. This can amount to modern slavery. Undocumented immigrants have been held in bondage for years while working off their debt. Once their debt to the coyote is cleared they often continue to live in fear as their employer threatens to have them deported if they step out of line.
Two myths about undocumented workers are that:
They do work that Americans do not want to do;
and they depress wages for American workers.
If either of these myths are true it is only by the slightest degree. Economics is not a zero sum game. There are not a set number of jobs available. More people in the United States means more needs for goods and services. This in turn means more jobs. The extent to which undocumented workers depress wages is also open to question. An article in the Economist argued that at most undocumented workers depressed wages for other Americans by 8%. Their analysis suggested, however, that the actual number was much closer to .4%.
Most undocumented immigrants do the work immigrants and poor people in this country have always done. They work in fields, in restaurants, in the garment industry and in domestic work. The wages in these industries are low in part because the management in these industries has fought tooth and nail against unionization efforts. Management would prefer that the workers stay undocumented so that they continue to live in fear and stay docile. Giving undocumented workers papers and a path to citizenship would in fact raise wages much more than clamping down on undocumented workers would.
It is certainly true that the income gap between the rich and poor in our country is growing. This is not the fault of undocumented immigrants. It is a result of the same economic and political policies that cause people to immigrate to the United States in the first place. Through trade agreements like NAFTA, a situation has been created where there a free movement of capital but not free movement of labor. Companies are free to move their factories wherever they like if labor costs get to expensive and workers are not able to follow them. This creates a series of captive labor markets, each trying to outbid the other in terms of low wages and services. The governments of poor countries vie with each other for the right to exploit their citizens. Working conditions in those countries are not fit for human beings. In some, children work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week for only a few dollars in wages. Such practices were outlawed in the United States three or four generations ago. Yet we allow our government to pursue economic policies that support such behavior. And in the end it hurts our country as well because manufacturing jobs from the United States leave for places with cheaper labor.
This is not capitalism as envisioned by Adam Smith. He believed that capitalism required free movement of both labor and capital. Restrict one and you distort the capitalist system and deny someone’s basic rights.
Columbus Day and the debate around immigration are connected to National Coming Out Day by questions of human rights. Both undocumented workers and members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities are denied some of their human rights. The struggles of both challenge us to make our society more inclusive.
Not long ago almost all members of the queer communities lived in the closest, afraid to admit their sexual orientation to any but a trusted circle. Over the last several years this has changed and, in many communities, it is now more acceptable to be queer. The stories from lesbians of two different generations that Dana read earlier demonstrate this. Young people questioning their sexual orientation or identity today have far more opportunities to safely explore whom they love than they did twenty years ago.
This does not mean that our society treats members of the queer community justly. It does not. Most states do not recognize the right of gays and lesbians to get married. The murder of Matthew Shepard a few years ago also served as a tragic reminder that while our society has become more tolerant of queer lifestyles, we still have a long way to go.
This is why celebrating National Coming Out Day is important. Coming Out Day reminds us both of the struggles that have been fought in the past and those that must be waged in the future. It is a time for us to pause and remember Stonewall, Matthew Shepard, Harvey Milk, and the countless others who have either suffered because of who they loved or struggled for equal rights for all people. Coming Out Day is also a time for us to roll-up our sleeves and commit to making the lives of those around us and those who will come after us better. Never again should it be permissible to hate someone because of their sexual or gender orientation.
The history of this country is in part the history of the expansion of the franchise. Gradually more and more groups have been allowed to become full participants in our society. First white men without property and then women and black men were granted equal rights, at least under the eyes of the law. They are now all considered human beings and the laws for committing crimes against them are, in theory, the same. It is time to expand the franchise again. This time we must expand the franchise to truly include all human beings. We must recognize all of our brothers and sisters on planet earth as human beings.
In the hopes that it may be so, I say Amen and Blessed Be.
Aug 17, 2014
preached at the First Parish in Lexington, August 17, 2014
It was the martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero who said, “There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.” Unitarian Universalist theologians Forrest Church and Rebecca Parker offer us similar advice. Church claimed that the core of our universalist theology was “to love your enemy as yourself; to see your tears in another's eyes; to respect and even embrace otherness, rather than merely to tolerate... it.” Parker, meanwhile, writes, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.”
As many of you know, last month I spent a week in El Salvador as part of a delegation organized by the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, also called NDLON. Our goals were to better understand the reality of migration from Central America to the United States; the reasons for migration; and the experiences of deportees. During our week in El Salvador we met with academics, representatives of the Salvadoran government, and a popular education organization. The most visceral parts of the trip were our conversations and interviews with deportees and the stories we heard about migrants.
I invite you to see through their eyes. I have already shared with you two stories that we gathered while in El Salvador. Let me share with you two more, one from a deportee and one from a migrant.
Imagine you are a nineteen-year-old Salvadoran woman. Your parents are dead. Your grandparents raised you in dire poverty. The home your family shares is on the outskirts of San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city. The floor was dirt. There is no running water. Often, there was not enough food to eat. You rarely had your own bed. As you grew older you wanted to find a job to support your grandparents. They were getting old. Your grandfather had heart trouble. You searched for months. You found nothing. Finally, you decided to set out for the United States. You have a cousin who lives there. He sends your aunt and uncle money each month, more than enough for them to live on. You want to provide the same kind of support for your grandparents. Your grandmother has arthritis. It is difficult for her to move.
Your grandparents and your other relatives raised money to help you on your journey to the United States. They came up with $2,000. It was not enough to hire a coyote to guide you across the border. But it did help.
You set out. The journey took five weeks. Part of the time you walked. Part of the time you rode “El Tren de la Muerte,” the death train. It is a network of freight trains that stretch from Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, to the US-Mexico Border. When you rode it you saw someone slip between freight cars and have their legs severed. You can still hear the screaming. You and several of your fellow migrants tried to ford a flooding river. You saw two young men die, drowning when the rising water swept them away. You barely made it across ahead of them.
You made it to Los Angeles. You found work, illegally, in a laundry. Your wages were enough that you could send back a couple of hundred dollars a month, provided you lived in a cramped apartment with several other migrants. You did not mind. The money was a small fortune for your grandparents. After five months there was an immigration raid on your workplace. You were caught and carted off to a detention center. You were told that if you agreed to be deported voluntarily you could return to El Salvador immediately. You refused and tried to fight deportation. So, you spent five months in a privately run deportation center in Texas before you lost your case. Every morning you woke up early to work in the facility’s laundry. You made a dollar day. The corporation who ran the center charged you that much to make a local phone call. If you wanted to buy a bag of chips from the canteen it was $2.50. After you lost your case you were manacled, chains were put around your ankles, wrists and waist, and put on a plane back to El Salvador.
You arrived at the repatriation center outside the El Salvador International Airport after spending twelve hours on an airplane in chains. Everything you have with you fits into a standard issue red mesh bag: a couple of pieces of mail, your shoelaces, and a wallet. It is all you bring back with you after ten months in the United States. After you are processed by immigration officials, fingerprinted, and told that there are no criminal charges pending against you locally, the woman who runs the repatriation center directs you to the phone. She tells you to call someone to pick you up. You call your grandparents. Your grandmother tells you that your grandfather died while you were in detention. He was a victim of his bad heart. No one can meet you at the airport. It will take you at least a day to get to your grandparents' house. And then what?
You are a fourteen-year-old boy. You left El Salvador after the local gang started threatening kids on your soccer team. They tried to extort money from the players’ parents. To make sure everyone knew that they were serious, the gang members killed one of your teammates. They shot him in the middle of the street, after school. That was when your parents sent you to the United States. They gave a coyote $6,000, almost everything they had, and prayed the coyote could get you across the border. The journey was terrifying. You were afraid that the coyote was going to abandon you in the desert. You were afraid that he was going to kidnap you and demand that your parents pay him ransom. You made it to Los Angeles. By the time you received asylum and were safely reunited with family members, your aunt and uncle, the gang had killed six more of your teammates. Each of them was murdered in public.
When we look through eyes that have cried what do we see? If I was placed in the same kind of situations that many migrants find themselves in I would make the same choices that they have made. I would stuff a backpack, raise money and depart for the unknown land of opportunity and safety. What would you do? Didn’t many of our parents and grandparents do the same thing?
There are stories about migration in my family. My grandfather Morrie and great aunt Claire fled the Ukraine with their parents in the early 1920s. It was after the Russian Revolution. They were Jewish. Things for Jews in the Soviet Union seemed to be getting worse, not better. Violence was on the rise and religious persecution was increasing. My grandfather, great aunt, and my great grandparents left their home in Odessa with the clothes on their backs and whatever they could put in a small handcart. My grandfather was two or three years old. My great aunt pushed him in the handcart most of the way across Europe until they reached a port where they could sail to the United States. Their story and the stories of migrants from El Salvador vary only in the details.
It should not be hard to see through eyes that have cried. Who has not cried? And yet faced with the pain of others we humans often react fearfully rather than lovingly. We turn away. We try to push people away. Jesus offers us a story in the Christian New Testament that challenges us to greet the tears of others with love rather than with fear. You might remember it, it is usually called the “Parable of the Good Samaritan.”
In the Gospel of Luke it reads: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”
The Gospel reports that after telling this story, Jesus asked his listeners, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
“The one who had mercy on him,” someone replied. To which Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”
There are many interpretations of this parable. One I particularly like comes from the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez. He observes that the Samaritan in the story crossed the road to help the man in the ditch. The wounded victim of the robbery was not initially in the Samaritan's path. The Samaritan made a conscious choice to aid him. Reflecting on this, Gutiérrez writes, “The neighbor... is not the one whom I find in my path, but rather the one in whose path I place myself, the one whom I approach and actively seek.”
This is an important lesson for Unitarian Universalists, especially Unitarian Universalists in overwhelming white and affluent congregations like this one. Many of us have the privilege to close our eyes to others. We can choose to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. We can choose to be ignorant of the violence that exists in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The majority of child refugees who have fled to the United States this summer have come from these three countries. They have some of the highest murder rates in the world. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all ranked amongst the planet’s five most violent countries. Since 1995 El Salvador has topped the list at least five times and Honduras has topped the list at least four times.
I did not understand how violent El Salvador was until I went there. In a good year the whole country has a murder rate equivalent to that of Detroit or New Orleans. In a bad year, the murder rate can be two or three times that found in the most violent cities in this country. The communities that migrants are fleeing have murder rates significantly higher than their country’s average. If I lived in such an unstable society I would leave it too.
Do we close our eyes? Or do we open them? Can we see through the eyes of others? It is imperative that we do. Closing our eyes is an act of fear. Opening them is an act of love. Which do you want as the motive force in your life? Fear or love?
Choosing neighbors who might make us uncomfortable is an act of love. Choosing to live with neighbors who only look, act, and think like us is an act of fear. Which shall we choose? The influx of refugee children forces us to make such choices. Shall we welcome those who are fleeing violence? They are children. They have suffered far too much already. Shall we increase their suffering and fear the changes they bring to this country? They do bring changes. They will make this nation a little browner and a little more fluent in Spanish. They also bring us the chance to see through their eyes. We need to.
The truth, and it is a truth which for many of us does not sit easy, is that this country has significant responsibility for the crisis of violence in Central America. It is a legacy of the region’s civil wars. Those wars began in the 1960s and ended in the early 1990s. The United States government fueled them, sending arms to prop-up right wing regimes against left wing popular insurgencies. The United States military trained the death squads that massacred tens of thousands. In 1980, Oscar Romero challenged President Carter’s support of El Salvador’s right wing thusly, “instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution… [sharpens] the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people...”
The cycle of deportation continues to sharpen injustice in El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. Over the past few decades the United States has deported millions of people, a small minority of whom have been gang members. When these gang members find themselves back in their country of origin they organize gangs. By deporting gang members, the United States government has exported American gang culture. The governments of Central America lack the resources to control gangs and they have spread throughout the region, bringing violence and instability with them. Immigration will not be stopped by deportation. Deportation will only further destabilize the countries that people are leaving. Deportation is an act of fear. Immigrants need to be met with love. The only way for people in the United States to stem the tide of migrants is to help stabilize the societies that they come from. In the short run, that will be far more difficult than deporting people. In the long run, it is the only solution.
Before I close, let me offer a brief coda. This week the murder of Michael Brown and the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri have made the human cost of living in a white supremacist society clear. This morning liberal and conscientious ministers across the country are focusing their sermons on our society’s desperate need to address its ongoing racism. They are expressing righteous rage that unarmed African Americans continue to be gunned down by the police. They are expressing indignation that police departments throughout the United States have been militarized. Many are invoking what Michelle Alexander has called the New Jim Crow, the partially privatized prison system that continues to target, stigmatize, and marginalize people of color. Many are calling for a rejuvenated civil rights movement. A few are going so far as to echo Martin King, who said, “riots are caused by nice, gentle, timid white moderates who are more concerned about order than justice;” and “The judgment of God is upon America now;” and “America too is going to Hell... If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty... she too will go to Hell.” King, remember, saw racism, poverty, and militarism as interlinked. He called them the giant triplets. The triplets are born together. We will only be rid of one of them if are rid of all of them.
The only way we will rid ourselves of the giant triplets is if we learn to see through the eyes of others. Imagine yourself in Michael Brown’s situation. Imagine yourself killed by a police officer in broad daylight, unarmed, hands raised. Imagine yourself as Trayvon Martin, gunned down while walking home from a convenience store. Imagine yourself as any other of the millions of black men and women who have been victims of racial violence. Try to see the world through their eyes. You will find your own tears there, whatever the color of your skin.
This is the task of our religious community. If we are, in the words of Micah, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” then we must learn to see with the eyes of others. We must remember, as Rebecca Parker charges us, “There is no holiness to be ascertained apart from the holiness that can be glimpsed in one another’s eyes.” It is only by seeing holiness in one another’s eyes that we can begin to turn from fear to love. It is only by recognizing someone else’s tears as our own that we can overcome racism. It is only by seeing through eyes that have cried that we can learn to welcome, and not to fear, the migrants who have come to our borders.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Jul 28, 2014
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.
Jul 26, 2014
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.
Jul 24, 2014
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.
Jul 23, 2014
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.
Jul 22, 2014
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.
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.
Jul 21, 2014
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.
Jul 17, 2014
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.