Contradictions and Juxtapositions at Standing Rock

Drawing of the Camp

In early November, I flew to Minnesota to join a delegation of clergy vanpooling from Minneapolist to the Standing Rock Reservation, in North Dakota. The Minnesota Unitarian Universalists Social Justice Action Alliance, or MUUSJA, or Moose Jaw, for those of you who are familiar with the UU's tendency to reduce everything to initials. MUUSJA is the equivalent of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of California, organized and funded a good part of the trip. The local Episcopal priest, Father John Floberg called for clergy to help the Sioux tribe, with members from more than 300 tribes across the Western Hemisphere in solidarity, protest the building of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation. What is at stake is their only source of water at risk of being poisoned by the Black Snake, the Missouri River, which is a tributary of the Mississippi River. *And* this company building the pipeline is notorious for leaks. Drinking water for millions of people are at risk.

My decision to go was a spiritual one. How could I with my presence be helpful to the Native women who are up there, prayerfully fighting for their land, and by extension Mother Earth and all of us. It helps to be aware of one's social location, especially when going into another culture, which in going to the reservation we were told again and again that the culture was different. My own social location as a Mestiza, or mixed European American and Mexican American, including indigenous heritage, queer woman. Part of my lived experience is having lived on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Northern Arizona when I was young, where I went to Head Start rather than kindergarten, and the first grade. I'm a Unitarian Universalist candidate for ministry who practices Zen Buddhism on my spiritual path. I have had a profound love for nature as far back as I can remember. In holding these identities in tension, social location certainly informed my experience while I was there.

Standing Rock is at the center of numerous intersecting issues. Going forward,Unitarian Universalists need to start thinking about issues, beyond single issues, such as environmentalism, rather through the lens of "intersectionality", a word coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw that recognizes and names the fact that there is no single issue. Environmentalism is a popular issue with UUs. What gets overlooked more often by those who have environmentalism as their issue is that communities of color most often deal with toxic dumping, factories, or chemical or petrochemical storage or pipelines with unhealthful tendencies that are put in that area because white communities do not want them and have the power to demand that they are placed elsewhere. Not in my back yard(NIMBY). Plus, you have women who are affected by the chemicals and possibly that affects reproduction. The water is affected so there is external health effects, as well as internal. In this example, environmentalism intersects with racism, feminism, and it is systemic in that those in power in the government are deliberately making laws to limit companies to be near communities of color rather than white predominantly white communities.

This Dakota Pipeline protest is about the Black Snake going through their land and ground water, but it is also about the way that Native Americans continue to be treated by the US government informed by racism, and corporations having explicit, there for systemic backing by the state and US government. It is about the threat to water, our most precious communal resource. It is about power. The pipeline was originally supposed to go near Bismark, but the citizens, white citizens, would not have it. It is about Christianity. The Pope of the Catholic Church issued a bull in 1493, called the Doctrine of Discovery, shortly after the "New" World was discovered. This document declared that all land was to be claimed, and any people on the lands were to be converted to Christianity and enslaved or killed. This bull is the basis for court decisions to this day, regardless of what is written in the numerous treaties. Treaties that have been broken time and again, not by the Native Americans, but the white European Americans that greedily stole land. The protest is a Human Rights issue, the right to water and indigenous sovereignty.

Unitarian Universalists passed a resolution to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery at General Assembly in 2012. The Episcopalians preceded us in 2009. Our Unitarian Universalist Service committee has based one of their programs on the Human Right to Water. The UU Justice Ministry of California has centered work around water. We, as Californians, know or should know how critical water is too life, but are especially aware in a desert that has been stricken by drought. We're not out of the woods yet. Thich Nhat Hanh Plum Village Line Zen Buddhists' with concern for the Mother Earth have formed an Earth Holder Sangha, of which I am apart. The One Earth Sangha, a multi-Buddhist environmental group is concerned about Standing Rock.The Christian intentional community of which I am a friend, Urban Village, was concerned enough about Standing Rock that they and friends funded my trip. I went to Standing Rock, as one person, knowing that I represented the solidarity and well wishes of members of all of these communities, as well as the UU communities I am involved with. Those are JUUstice L.A. with whom I had a travel mate, Neighborhood Church, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship. Around sixty UU clergy traveled to Standing Rock for this particular call.

The group of over 500 church leaders met in the gymnasium the night before the event. I had weird a sense of deja vu having gone to non-sporting events in the gymnasium on the reservation. I began to feel like I was having an out of body experience observing. We learned about the history of the region from one man, and heard one of the women speak of the struggle. Native women are doing the lion's share of organizing and support in this struggle, much like women are doing the organizing for Black Lives Matter. One woman who spoke the night before, told the assembled clergy that the camp looks just like a camp to non-native Americans. She said those of Native American heritage would feel like they were coming home. When we drove over the rise the next morning and saw the camp bathed in the light of a truly spectacular sunrise I was overwhelmed with love and longing. Love for the land and people, and longing for their ill-treatment to be over. Metta prayers.

For the ceremony the next day, the priest offered a copy of the Doctrine of Discovery, in it's original Latin, to burn in the sacred fire that continuously burns in the camp. Those representing the tribe chose to burn it in an abalone shell outside the sacred fire. The water warriors did not want to contaminate their sacred fire with the ugliness of the source giving permission for European colonization. I liken it to the profoundly offensive practice when white people dump their loved one's ashes at the source of springs and rivers. These headwaters represent life and people come to that sacred space and pollute it with death. There is a long way to go for a cultural understanding of just how sacred the earth and it's elements are, and/or a respect for nature.

I saw the burned out vehicles, the planes and the helicopters circling overhead. Too, I saw the most beautiful sunrise in my life on the day of the protest ceremony. Yet, I also saw a ceremony that was ostensibly interfaith be performed with a profoundly Christian view. As that person who straddles borderlines, I had a hard time reconciling that the religion of the oppressing group, was also the focus as we walked behind a cross to the river. That people with other symbols were "welcome" to process in front as well, felt strange since it other faith's are not about elevating their symbol above all. This is a case where members of the colonializing dominant culture, while apologizing for the past sins of their faith, reasserted that faith in that Native American space.

Repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is a step in the right direction. A young Buddhist asked if he should repudiate it since this was not his religion that issued the bull. I did not hear what the answer was, but my answer is yes. As a U.S. citizen, he is benefitting from the legacy of that papal bull. I, as a US citizen, am benefitting from that legacy. The Standing Rock Dakota Pipeline protest is emblematic of indigenous struggles against state supported corporations, U.S. supported corporations, up and down the American continent. I met a young Tinglet woman from Alaska. She was unlikely to be born when the Exxon Valdez ran aground; yet, she has grown up with the consequences. She came down from Alaska to protest in solidarity so that what happened in Alaska would not happen in North Dakota.

The struggle is just beginning if we, as UUs, are to do something more than symbolically repudiating. Clergy were asked to return and educate. I pledged to return and educate. We do not necessarily need more UUs going up to Standing Rock, unless it's to deliver supplies. We need people to use their skills. Fundraising? Social Media? Political Savvy? Legal? Communications? Too, the water warriors need warm clothes and sleeping beds to endure the winter to come. They are committed to saving the water, by continuing the protest and camp through the often brutal winter.

Meg Riley, the minister of the Church of the Larger Spirit writes, "Hope is born in the communion of struggle." Many struggles are and will continue to be upon`us in the coming days. Bill McKibbon reminds us: "History offers us no chance to completely erase our mistakes. Occasionally, though, we do get a chance to show we learned something."

Beatitudes and Black Lives Matter . . .

Union of Black Episcopalians Fourth Lenten Service

There is something about Episcopalian services, or black church, or good music. Once a decade or two I experience that je ne sais quoi that puts me over the edge. Perhaps it is just my own intensely spiritual experiences have been in the Catholic and Episcopal churches.

Sunday, I went to a Lenten service held by the Union of Black Episcopalians. This service was held in the late afternoon in Inglewood, CA, once morning duties had been completed. This was a gathering of black clergy and a black choir at one of my great favorite social justice priest and fellow alum, Francisco Garcia's, Holy Faith Church. The theme of this service was Beatitudes, #Blacklivesmatter, and the Jesus Movement. An intimate number of folks showed up to participate. There were enough though, that two Caribbean dignitaries slipped in in cognito enough to be acknowledged at the end of the service once their presence was realized.

The second hymn was Kumbya. I'm thinking okay, Kumbya. This is probably not going to be my campfire Kumbya. The rendition is incredible, and I'm good until the lyrics "somebody's in despair, somebody thinks that no one cares," and we repeat it and repeat it like in the YouTube link below. Not only did my neck hairs stand up, the star spangled banner can do that, but my hair stood on end, every last one on the top of my head. Unbidden tears just streamed tears down my face. The last time that happened as a spiritual experience was at All Saints Episcopal Church, sometime in the mid 1990s. (Tears streamed down my face as I walked to the communion rail at that church, more than once.)

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=S-a9Fk1PAu4

There are too many hurting out there. I have much brokenness inside that rarely gets activated at that deep spiritual level unless it is in a church space I feel safe in and the music is not from a short list of acceptable Protestant composers, arrangers, or songwriters. I was an Episcopalian for a few years before I decided they were not liberal enough, theologically or politically, and moved further left to Unitarian Universalism. That does not mean I do not love still the churches and services. At the time, my heart and mind wrestled weekly with the Nicene Creed in the service. There is something to worshipping body and spirit, however.

One thing I will say is that the outpouring emotion during Kumbaya was not about my grief, truly a first in recent memory. Of course the service was Black Lives Matters, but any sadness in recent memory would automatically tap grief. This was not about my fears and anxieties. The outpouring of emotion was not about me at all, but tapped into that dark place of despair and losing one's way. I have been there, but I am on the other side now. The community holding the lament, and the sense of the community's faith was strong, based on way too much experience, and tradition. The community carries the broken until they can move forward. That is something that is missing in so many white churches. They want to skip the pain, the lament, to happy, or at least numb.

The rest of the service was amazing. We invoked the ancestors. The Episcopal Chorale was beautifully directed. There was a lot of music, contemplative, mournful and uplifting, covering different styles of the diaspora. We remembered the lives stolen. What upset me was except for a few, Travon, Tamir, Freddy Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charlston Nine, I cannot keep track of the names, or the circumstances of so many dead. There are too.many.dead. This is a lament. No one person can keep track of so many names.

The collection plate was taken for the families of the man and woman, Marquintin Shandlin and Kisha Michael, who were shot dead by police just a few weeks ago right there in Inglewood. The couple was asleep or unconscious in the car. The policeman felt threatened. Between the two single parents out on a date, they left seven children. The church generously matched the collection.

The world is broken. For just a little while, in a loving strong cohesive faith community, can one feel whole again. Hopefully, those in pain will find some comfort. Perhaps there are those of us who found respite before we go back out with the foolishness we prayed for to think we can make a difference.

I was Gobsmacked #BlackLivesMatter. It was beautiful.

Image credit Brooke Anderson/KQED

I got it. I finally got it, and I had not yet written to help others understand. It is now time.

Black Lives Matter was important to me from the beginning. The city of Pasadena has our own young black man, shot dead by police, reports delayed and heavily redacted, and no indictment. He has a name: Kendric McDade. I went to a vigil for him after #BlackLivesMatter was established, and he was mourned in the context of men and women across the country being killed by police. I mourned with fellow citizens and members at the First AME church when nine people were murdered in cold blood in Charleston, South Carolina. The examples above, plus black person, after black person, after black person dying at the hands, or guns, of those sworn to “protect and serve” cemented my support for #BlackLivesMatter. To put myself in context, I walk the border, la frontera, between white and black as a queer multicultural, or mestizaje, Unitarian Universalist graduate of a Methodist seminary who believes showing up is an important part of ministry, and for those who do not show up, educating. So at this point in a blog, a typical progressive could write something like “I support them, but…,” or, “I supported them, but they…” Mine is more like, “I support you. Oh! (Face palm!) Of course!” With about a year between “you.” and “Oh!”

As for the tactics #BlackLivesMatter employ, I admire the courage it takes to shut down business as usual. This country’s citizenry is entirely too comfortable to have compassion for the true suffering of others, unless it directly affects their social circle. It is not until the pursuit of the dollar or the spending of that dollar gets interrupted that the bubble of comfortable ignorance is burst. Oh, and interrupting their driving will get most of their attention. Brilliant move.

Fellow liberals complained that emergency vehicles could not get through when roads were blocked. Although this was was untrue, fair weather liberals said they could not support #BlackLivesMatter as a consequence. People dying in the streets had their lives interrupted. Permanently. The families and friends of those victims had their lives interrupted by profound grief. Then the families had their lives interrupted by something utterly unfathomable when the justice system failed them not only by not indicting the perpetrator, but by blaming their loved one for their own death. Will not interrupting your ride cause you stop, think, have any kind of empathy or compassion?

The interruptions of Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches were another tactic that even more older white liberals used to stop supporting #BlackLivesMatter. Yet, there was progress, too. Conversations began. The establishment opened a tiny bit to listen. Supportive liberal white people who continued started conversations with their friends, their families, their churches. Places of worship who supported all along became more overt by putting out signs. The women #who started #BlackLivesMatter started a chapter program so that there would be a unified voice, and those with other agendas would be less able to hijack local groups.

My only question was why #BlackLivesMatter did not work more with the leaders from the civil rights era. As I am not a black person, I cannot, nor will not presume to know better. Occasionally, I’d been dropping in on a Saturday workshop held at a church in Los Angeles on nonviolent resistance, with examples coming from from the Civil Rights Era. The tactics were adapted from Ghandi in India. It all sounded good. The bus boycott and the lunch counters were issues chosen by women, and worked on equally, we attendees were told. The workshop facilitator did not think #BlackLivesMatter would work because of the tactics, and that the appeal is not broad enough, that is to young and old alike, which is code for respectability politics. Yet the tactics chosen in the late fifties and early sixties were radical enough to shake the status quo, in that context.

To the North, Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena, strengthens its commitment to racial equity with numerous events and meetings. At a film and panel held there, I was fortunate to see one of the founding members of #BlackLivesMatters, Ms. Patrisse Cullors on a panel. Without asking, my question was answered. Respectability politics. Again. I get respectability politics: the elders know from experience that the oppressed must approach those in power in an approved way in order not to offend them. Tone policing goes with that, modulating one’s voices as not to frighten or offend the one in power. I could understand why Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton were refused when they swooped in to Ferguson. Sometimes one just does not need that kind of help. I had read certain words over and over related to #BlackLivesMatter. Once I heard the words: women, queer, Trans, agenda, from Ms. Cullors mouth in the context of being held back from talking in Church did I understand. I was gobsmacked! Of course! These are women leading. There are queer and Trans women leading. These women are about far from what the church civil rights leaders can handle.

Black Lives Matter is radically inclusive. I kept hearing Trans and queer but it did not register deeply until I, in my inner vision, saw the women of Black Lives Matter asking to speak, and being barred from talking in church about people dying in the streets because of their “queer agenda.” My heart hurt every time I learned yet another Trans woman was murdered this past year. Black Trans women, although a tiny minority, are the most vulnerable of black adults. Queer black women are not far behind. Black Lives Matter is based on the profound truth that all black lives matter, even queer and Trans black women, because they are the marginalized of the marginalized.

The older generation of Civil Rights and/or leaders still reduce the embodiment of the radical love of Christ to an “agenda.” In the wake of yet another Martin Luther King Jr. day the straight church civil rights leaders are being left behind in that journey towards restoring equity, civil rights, and sometimes basic human dignity to all those who are marginalized in this country.

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