Social Justice

It Takes A Village To Hold A Protest

Let me start by saying that I am not a “protest” kind of person.  My experience with numerous protests is that a lot of people assemble, shout angry slogans, maybe sing a few songs, and then go home, leaving piles of garbage in their wake.  No matter how much I cared about an issue it always seemed to part of me like protests were something that we “attend” the way that one might attend a rock concert, and that they were geared more towards letting the participants feel good about having “done something” than actually effecting change.  For that reason, I approached the Day of Non-Compliance (July 29th) in Phoenix with some personal apprehension.  Since I knew that I was not planning on getting arrested, I wondered then what exactly it was that I would be doing.  Was I flying two-thirds of the way across the country just to attend a protest?  But I tried to approach the coming days with an open heart – letting the Spirit guide me.

 

At six am Thurs, we arrived at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an interfaith service.  A rainbow hung high in the sky, seeming to make its arc right over Trinity. Seeing it, my heart leapt with hope.  I thought of the biblical story of God’s promise to His [sic] people.  I thought of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.  After the service, we started marching towards downtown.  So far, this was not unlike other rallies/protests/marches/vigils that I had attended.  But it was during the march that I first noticed them – people carrying plastic trash bags collecting water bottles and other refuse from marchers, so that the streets remained clean.  Cleaning up after ourselves?  What a novel concept!  How lacking in sense of privilege!  I smiled at the young Latino man carrying the garbage bag and felt that he was playing a role as important as any cleric who spoke from the pulpit or any of the rally organizers.

When we got to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I saw that Puente (a local Phoenix movement with whom we’re partnering) had set up a staging area where bottles of water cooled in kiddie wading pools full of ice.  Two cots were available for those who fell ill.  Hand made signs were available for those who wanted to carry them.  Those of us who were not going to get arrested made sure that others had plenty of water to drink, grabbing bottles from the kiddie pools and handing them out to everyone, including the police officers who must have been roasting under their riot gear.  Someone from the staging area called for volunteers to run sitting pads over to the demonstrators at the intersection in front of the Wells Fargo Building (Arpaio’s office).  I was handed a pile of bath towels that had been cut in half and then sewn to an insulating backing, to protect people’s behinds and legs from the baking asphalt.  Wow, I thought, they had prepared for everything.  Little did I know.

Much later, after watching the last of our people get loaded into the police paddy wagon, I started heading towards the 4th Ave jail where other demonstrators – including Peter Morales, Susan Frederick-Gray. and Puente’s Salvador Reza – had blocked the jail entrance.  On my way, I stopped by the staging area to see if I could carry some bottles of water over.  I was told that there was plenty of water at the jail already but I could carry over two spray bottles for cooling people down.  I walked the two blocks with the spray bottles alone – a curious sense of solitude given the frenetic energy all around me, including the beating blades of a police helicopter overhead.  Once at the jail site, I looked for red faces to whom to offer a cooling spray of water.  (By the time the 4th Ave protestors were arrested some time later, I was pretty red-faced myself.)  Roaming the crowds, I also saw volunteer medics coming to the aid of those for whom water was no longer enough.

Those of us who had not been arrested straggled back to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix during the mid to late afternoon.  We ate some food.  We cooled off as best we could.  We attended to those of us who had succumbed to heat exhaustion.  But now what next?  Do we just wait at the church?  Go back to our hotel or homestays?  That didn’t seem right.  The answer came from Puente, who had had the foresight to apply for a permit to hold an all-night vigil at the jail.  It turns out that whenever one of their own is in jail, they hold vigil so that no one is released out to an empty street – every member who was arrested comes out to cheers and hugs.  So, with night fall, we boarded our vans and headed over to the jail.  Puente people had already been there since 4 pm.  We lit candles.  We prayed.  We sang.We tried to sing in Spanish.  (Note to self: that is something we have to work on *before* we get to the vigil.)  Word came that the 4th Ave arrestees would be arraigned at 11 pm, which meant they would be released in the wee hours of the morning.  A group of us stayed all night to greet them as they got out.

Friday dawned, tentative.  Those who had been arrested in front of the Wells Fargo Building would be arraigned at 10 am, which meant they would be out by early afternoon.  Members of UUCP bought food and fed us breakfast/lunch.  Some of us volunteered to go over to the offices of Puente and the lawyers who were helping us to see if there was a way to pitch in.  Others headed to the jail to be there when people got out.  By mid afternoon, all of our people had been released, and we started packing up the base of operations at UUCP to head over to Valley UU in Chandler, AZ.  The plan had called for a potluck dinner, followed by a Taizé worship service and debriefing.  As far as we were concerned, we were done (for this round – we knew there would be others).  At the potluck, we were told that the delicious cheese enchiladas and chicken tamales were made by Puente, in appreciation for our participation.  Once again, I thought, they really understand community.

We had not even finished our worship service when the word came – more people had been arrested.  That part was not too surprising as we knew that our partners intended to keep up the pressure by demonstrating in front of Arpaio’s Tent City prison.  But what sent a shock wave through all of us was word that Salvador Reza, who had already spent the previous night in jail, had been taken in by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies even though he was across the street and no where near the site of the protest.  I could call that moment a decision point – the kind of moment that determines what kind of people we were going to be by how we respond.  I could call it that but in truth people responded so quickly that there was never any doubt.  We packed up as quickly as we could.  Audra opened up the boxes of yellow “Love” t-shirts, offering a free clean one to anyone going to the vigil.  We loaded our vans and cars, and away we went… to Tent City.  I had wanted to see Arpaio’s notorious prison but did not know it would be under such circumstances.

By the time I got to the vigil across the street from Tent City, it was in full swing.  People lined the street – an intermingling of Puente and Standing on the Side of Love signs.  A drummer stood at the center, with at least one person with a smaller drum accompanying him.  UUs and Puente people took turns leading chants (so that no one got too tired).  Some of us held signs that said “Honk if you oppose SB1070!” and a steady stream of cars flew by, many of them honking.  We were especially gratified whenever a bus would honk.  At least two different people walked up and down the length of the vigilers, holding smoldering sage – blessing & protecting every one of us.  As had happened the previous day, people handed out water continuously.  About two hours or so into the vigil, women started handing out bean burritos and tortas with some kind of meat, and little ice cold cups of lemonade.  It was another thing that they had thought of.  We on the outside supported those inside the jail by keeping vigil, but the vigilers too were supported, ensured that standing outside holding signs and chanting did not mean going hungry or thirsty.

At one point a local leader played the drum while chanting a sacred song.  Instinctively, we gathered round him in concentric circles – as if the drum were the center of our little solar system.  It was a deeply spiritual moment, not only because of the drumming/chanting but because our people – UUs and Puente – were united as one.  The only sour note was when, at the end, a handful of UUs started clapping.  In Euro culture, that is a sign of appreciation, but it also tends to turn the ritual into a “performance.”  The leader admonished us “Don’t clap!  This is sacred.”  Oh well, we are two groups learning how to be together.  There will be small mistakes.  (Note to self: instructions on not clapping should be part of our orientation for future groups of UUs.)

After 10:15 or so, after we had stayed long enough to be featured on the local Fox affiliate, we packed up our vans to move the vigil over to the 4th Ave jail.  Word had come that Sal had been moved there.  Once again, people – both Puente folks and UUs – picked up every bit of trash that we had generated.  When we were done, you would not have been able to tell that dozens of people had just been there.  I climbed into the cool AC of the van.  Such relief.  I was so tired.  I did not know how I would be able to stand for another set of hours, however long, once we got to the 4th Ave location.  But I knew I had to.  With grim determination I got out of the van with my fellow passengers and we walked towards the jail.  We heard music.

Puente folks who had arrived before us had set up a speaker and they were blasting salsa music.  People were dancing on the sidewalk.  My heart filled with joy.  It was a lot easier to dance than it was to stand.  These people knew how to throw a protest! – how to make it so that everyone felt involved and important, so that everyone was nourished physically and spiritually, so that the streets were cleaner for our being there, and so that everything was infused with both reverence and joy.  We danced with crazy happiness, grateful for these last few days.  When a few sheriffs opened the doors to take a look at us, we dance over to greet them and invite them to join us.  (They retreated back into the building.)  That gesture – loving and inviting into community, joyful even in the face of oppression – epitomized to me what our days in Phoenix were all about.  I plan to go back to Phoenix and learn more from our partners, Puente (and others).  But even if I for some reason don’t, I will never forget the lessons learned in Phoenix.  It turns out that I am a “protest” kind of person after all, when it’s done right.  And to do it right, it takes a village to hold a protest.

On Borders...

It was a family tradition when I was growing up that almost every summer we would pack the car and drive from San Francisco where we lived, to Yosemite National Park, then Lake Tahoe, then Reno. The city of Lake Tahoe is bisected by the border between California and Nevada. The first time I saw the Cali/Nevada border, I was disappointed and confused over the lack of a big black line, as I had seen on the map. Instead, there was only a small sign on an otherwise normal looking street. As an adult, I can now see that one direction has casinos and the other only the cheesey tourist shops, but as a kid I would look down the road in one direction and then the other, and it would pretty much all look the same to me. If the little sign were not there pointing it out, I would not have known that there was a border at all. But since there was a sign, I would hop one step to the left and say I was in California, and hop one step to the right and say I was in Nevada.   Looking back on it I see now that my child brain was trying to understand what a “border” actually meant. Yet try as hard as I might, I could not feel a real difference in the land.

 

Now I live about a block and a half away from Eastern Avenue, which also serves as the northeast border between the District of Columbia and the state of Maryland. In some subtle ways, you can tell that something has changed when you cross Eastern. The houses are slightly larger and more spread out in Chillum, Maryland, and there are streetlights on the Washington side of Eastern Ave, but not on the Maryland side. But in most respects, people cross the border multiple times a day without a second thought – to go to and from work, to buy groceries, to run errands – by foot, by car, by bike, by bus, by rail. The closest grocery store to my house is half a mile up Eastern Ave, on the Maryland side of the street. The nearest drug store is also on the Maryland side of Eastern, a few blocks in the opposite direction. When the need arises, I hop in my car and drive to Maryland to bring my cats to the vet, to shop at Target, to buy pet supplies, to meet friends in Takoma Park or Silver Spring… While I often underestimate the traffic when calculating how much time it will take to get to my destination, I have never had to estimate how long it will take to get through a checkpoint. What would my life be like if, because of a border, I was no longer allowed to go to the grocery store a half mile away from me and instead had to go to one miles away? Or if I had to factor in the time it would take to cross the security checkpoint both ways when running errands? No more spontaneous runs for ice cream, that’s for sure.

I imagine that people who talk about “sealing” the border between the U.S. and Mexico don’t really know what the border looks like. Maybe they imagine a big black line spanning four states like we see on the map – 2500 miles with nothing on either the U.S. or Mexican side for at least a half mile. A “no man’s land.” Maybe they think that on the northern side, everyone is “American,” i.e. – white, and on the Mexican side everyone is Mexican, i.e. – brown, forming two distinct populations. In reality, not only does human activity encroach all the way up to the border but there are towns, cities, Native American reservations, privately-owned ranches, and sometimes even individual buildings that straddle both sides. Between 30 to 40% of Arizona is Latin@/Hispanic. Spanish is spoken in border towns across the U.S. and always has been. Families living there for generations did not immigrate cross the border; rather the border crossed them. They were of that land before that land became of the United States.

Even after the Southwest changed nationalities, people traversed it nearly as freely as when it was all part of Mexico. A Latina friend tells me how her family has lived in the Los Angeles area for generations – some of them U.S. citizens and some Mexican. For a long time, citizenship status mattered so little that they did not bother to consolidate. She tells of how it used to be routine to spend weekends visiting family in Tijuana. They would cross the border going south on Friday evening and cross it again going north on Sunday evening. In this way, births, anniversaries, and funerals were observed together as a family. A Euro American friend who grew up in the border town of El Paso, TX, tells me how she used to cross freely back and forth, noting the obvious difference in wealth between the two sides. She tells of how her first boyfriend in high school was Mexican and they went to his home in Juarez (in Mexico but right next to El Paso) to meet his family. When I visited Nogales, a woman talked of growing up living in Nogales on the Mexican side and going to school each day in Nogales on the U.S. side. On the days when she forgot her pass, the border guard would wave her through anyway, telling her that she wasn’t going to get out of class that easily.

This was the reality of the border long after it became a border. People crossing back and forth with ease – to visit family and friends, to go to school, to buy groceries, to run errands. People mixing freely…until some in the U.S. decided that was a bad thing, built a wall and militarized the border. In reality, if it weren’t for the border guards with the automatic rifles slung over their shoulders. If it weren’t for the 15-foot wall made from recycled landing strips from the Vietnam and Gulf wars. If it weren’t for the obvious economic disparity caused by economic imperialism, you could hop on one foot on one side of the border and then on the other, and not feel a difference between what is called the U.S. and what is called Mexico.

Gethsemane & the Gita

Gethsemane & the Gita

By Kat Liu

Delivered at the First UU Church of Second Life

On April 1st, 2010

Reading:

From the book of Matthew, chapter 26, verses 36-46:

Then Jesus went with [his disciples] to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to [them], ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’ Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you will not have to be tested… Again he went away for the second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.’ Again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed …

Sermon:

Gethsemane and the Gita

There is a reason why I wanted to lead the service this particular week, this Thursday before Easter, Maundy Thursday. According to the story in the bible, it was on Thursday that Jesus and his disciples held what is called “The Last Supper” – when they broke bread and drank wine together for the last time. After which, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, was apprehended, beaten and interrogated overnight, and then crucified the following day, known as Good Friday.

So the story goes.

Now, I know that it is not without risk that I preach about the Passion Story at a UU service. In fact, I would not be surprised if one or two of you have already logged off, if not physically then at least mentally. But for those of you who are still listening, please hear me out.

Of the many positive traits that Unitarian Universalists are known for, one is our tolerance for diversity, openness, willingness to learn. But that same tolerance does not always extend to Christianity. Often, one can talk about stories from Buddhism and Hinduism and many other faith traditions in a UU setting much more easily than one can about stories from the bible. If I stood up here and told you how Isis painstakingly collected the parts of Osiris after his brother Set had betrayed him and cut him into pieces, and resurrected him, few would protest “But you can’t prove that Osiris even lived!” Instead, we might talk about what the story could mean, what different events symbolize, and maybe even how we might relate to it today.

In contrast, a good number of UUs might be ok with talking about Jesus just so long as it’s only the parables and the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus as human teacher. But if I start talking telling the story about Jesus dying on the cross as part of God’s plan, my guess is that even if you are too polite to say it, a significant number will be thinking “That isn’t true.”

And I’m not asserting that it is true. What I am suggesting is that there may still be something that we can learn from the story. Often times liberals will dismiss the bible as “myth" and what we’re saying is that it didn’t really happen that way in history. But myth has a deeper meaning than just not being historical. Saying that Columbus sailed in 1972 is not historically accurate, but that doesn’t qualify it as a myth. Myths carry truths bigger than just history.

So what I would like to do tonight is suggest that we take the claim – “That story is a myth” – seriously. Meaning that we set aside the question of whether it “really happened” and look to see whether it seems “true” in some other way.

And at the same time, I’d like to juxtapose another story – one from the Hindu tradition. One that I’ll probably have no trouble convincing you to approach as myth, but with which you might not be as familiar – that of Arjuna the archer.

Jesus and Arjuna. Two men on the brink of something momentous, undergoing existential crisis, talking with their God – or, if you prefer, mulling things over with their higher self. ;)

Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane pleading with his Father on the eve of what he knows will be his death, and Arjuna, the great warrior, talking with Lord Krishna, on the eve of an epic battle where he will have to kill family and friends. Whether you believe that either of these are accountings of Divine Will or just made up stories is not the point. The more interesting question is what these stories might mean for us today.

Let me start with Jesus. And many of you may be familiar with his story, as accounted in the Gospels.

Here he is. He’s been touring the country for about three years now and has developed quite a following. A group of people travel with him everywhere he goes. Just a few days ago (Palm Sunday), he entered the city of Jerusalem to adoring crowds, proclaiming him king. But he knows that he’s about to lose everything.

It doesn’t matter how he knows this. Whether it’s because he’s God, or overheard Judas talking to the Sadducees, or has a keen sense of intuition, or maybe the author just writes the story that way. The point is that Jesus knows that something very hard is coming up that he doesn’t want to do. “Father,” he says, “if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” In other words “I don’t want to do this. Please don’t make me.”

He is now alone. Judas has betrayed him. Even his most loyal disciple, Peter, can’t stay awake with him in his time of need. In the version of this story according to Luke, it even says that he’s so stressed that he sweats blood! He is in anguish. He is scared. He so does not want to go through with what is facing him that he is pleading.

But…

He still says “not what I want but what you want” and “your will be done.”

Some people will hear this and focus on the interpretation that God wanted a blood sacrifice. But what captivates my attention is him saying, I don’t want to do this (whatever “this” is), but *if* I have to, I will. If the circumstances demand it.

To me, this is the true power of the Passion Story. If you see Jesus as an omnipotent God who knows he’s going to be resurrected, then what’s the big deal? Instead, Jesus in the Garden is much more like a human being under extraordinary circumstances who says “I don’t want to go through with this, but I will if I have to... If the circumstances demand it.”

Unitarian Universalists adore Martin Luther King Jr., and rightfully so. What we sometimes forget is that he was a Christian minister. I don’t know how many of you have been to Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. It’s the home congregation of Dr. King, where his father had preached, and where he preached after his father retired. It is at Ebenezer Baptist Church that King first taught the doctrine of non-violence.

The congregation has since moved to a larger, modern building across the street but the original building is now part of a National Historical Site. And if you visit it, what you will see on the back wall of the sanctuary, above the pulpit, so that every person can see it, is a stained glass window of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Just think of what that image and that story must have meant for Dr. King. Jesus on his knees praying, “God, please don’t make me go through with this. I’m scared. I don’t want to do it. But I will if I have to.”

Think what King might have felt as he sat in jail in Birmingham. Or the night before Selma. At any given time, he could have stayed in Atlanta, where the situation was better. Heck, he could have had the pulpit of a Unitarian church in DC (my home congregation, All Souls) and been quite comfortable. It was offered to him. Instead, he chose to lead a movement that could and did get him killed. Because he knew he had to. The situation demanded it.

But surely there were times when he was scared and tempted to pack it up and go home.
King learned non-violence from Gandhi but it was the thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that pulled him through.

And what can the story mean for us?

Heroes aren’t necessarily the brawny guy who knows no fear and is just itching to fight for his country. In fact, in most cases, not. Heroes and prophets are every day people who, when the circumstances call on them, say yes. It’s usually not easy. It often ain’t pretty. But you don’t need to die, most of the time. All it takes is to say yes when the situation demands it. For us it might be something as simple being willing to be late for a meeting in order to help someone out in need. Being wiling to extend oneself when there is no reward and it might even be an inconvenience.

The decision that faced Arjuna was similar in striking ways. But since Arjuna’s story is less familiar to most of us in the West, a little background is in order. The Baghavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata, an epic story in Hinduism. In a nutshell, it involves two related families – the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas.

Leading up to the part that is known as the Baghavad Gita, the Kauravas have treated the Pandavas HORRIBLY. Cheated them, abused them, abused their common wife Draupadi (the five brothers share one wife but that’s a whole other story)…forced them into exile, took their land, refused to give it back, insulted their Lord God, Krishna….they were just plain mean and rotten … to the point where the two parties are on the brink of war - the five Pandava brothers and their allies on one side, and the 100 Kaurava brothers and their allies on the other.

But remember, the Pandavas and the Kauravas are first cousins. So each side has close relatives and friends and mentors on the other side. On the eve of battle, which is where the Gita starts, Arjuna, one of the Pandava princes and their greatest warrior, surveys the troops on both sides lined up for war. He sees his relatives, friends, and mentors on the other side and realizes that he either has to kill them or be killed by them. And his heart fails him.

Seems reasonable, no?

He says “O Govinda, of what avail to us are a kingdom, happiness or even life itself when all those for whom we may desire them are now arrayed on this battlefield? O Madhusudana, when teachers, fathers, sons, grandfathers, maternal uncles, fathers-in-law, grandsons, brothers-in-law and other relatives are ready to give up their lives and properties and are standing before me, why should I wish to kill them, even though they might otherwise kill me? O maintainer of all living entities, I am not prepared to fight with them even in exchange for the three worlds, let alone this earth. What pleasure will we derive from killing the sons of Dhritarashtra?"

Arjuna, like Jesus, doesn’t want to go through with what he believes/knows that he has to do. Arjun was the son of the great god Indra, and a master archer. While not immortal, he had no fear of dying or harm to himself. Rather he was afraid of having to live with the consequences of his actions. Afraid of hurting people in the course of pursuing justice. But through the counsel of Krishna, Arjun finally resigns himself to his destiny. What Krishna told him in a nutshell was that the situation demanded it.

Here I must make a personal aside: I am not in any way advocating for war. When I read the Gita I am still troubled by the choices facing Arjun. And many people have interpreted the war to be metaphorical, thereby side-stepping the troubling image of God/Krishna demanding and arguing in favor of slaughtering kinsmen. And they may be right. During the course of arguing in favor of war, Krishna schools Arjuna on the Dharma. It’s clear that Arjun is meant to represent “every man,” represent the best of us, and we are meant to learn from Krishna’s teachings. And how many of us are faced with really having to slaughter our cousins and other loved ones? So it’s not unreasonable to see the great, bloody war as just a metaphor.

But I also think to dismiss the war lightly is to miss a large part of the point. This was an extremely difficult choice for Arjun, with negative consequences either way. If it were easy, it would not have been much of a story, nor be very relevant spiritually. While we may never have to kill our 100 cousins, perhaps there are other times when we’ve been faced with the choice to do something that hurts a loved one or do nothing and let injustice continue. How many times have we failed to do what is right for fear of upsetting people? I’ll speak for myself. I know I have.

The discussion between Krishna and Arjun is one of the greatest existentialist treatises of all time. At issue is the balance between the wisdom to be gained from pursuing knowledge (retreating, gathering information, reflecting, meditating) and the results to be gained from actually acting. Krishna lifts both up as ideals to be pursued but ultimately favors action.

The reason why, I think, is because at times our heads can talk us out of doing what is right. Especially when the circumstances are complex. My brain can rationalize my way out of doing just about anything, and it almost always seems perfectly reasonable at the time. How much more easy can it be to not act when the consequences are hard like those facing Arjun?

I remember the first time I heard the story of Martha and Waitstill Sharp – only the second and third Americans to be honored for helping Jews and others in Nazi-occupied territories during WWII, at great risk to themselves. The Sharps were Unitarians and their work led to the start of the Unitarian Service Committee, which became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, still working against human rights abuses today.

Waitstill and Martha left their two small children behind to go risk their lives.

When I heard that I was deeply torn. On the one hand, what they did was amazing. They saved dozens, perhaps hundreds of lives. On the other hand, they could easily have been killed and left their children as orphans. It would have been perfectly reasonable for them to have said, “No I cannot go. My children need me.” Who would have blamed either one of them for staying home?

Yet they said “yes.” And even after they made it safely back to the States, they went a second time, because the situation demanded it. And what a huge difference they made.

Now, I don’t know if you will ever have to make the choices that faced Jesus or Arjun -
to be betrayed, tortured and killed (rather than running away) or to kill your loved ones, friends, etc, in the name of justice. I most fervently hope that you never face anything like either. As I fervently hope you never have to make the choices that faced Dr. King or the Sharps. But we still do make smaller choices in our daily living, on whether to act or not, when facing something that we would rather not do. How do we say “yes” in those situations?

And it may be that Jesus and/or Arjuna can serve as inspiration.

May it be so.
Amen. Ashay. Blessed be. and Namaste.

Border Trip: Tuesday, Nov. 10th

Border Trip: Monday, Nov. 9th

Part 4 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. This was written on the 9th, but, due to lack of internet access while in Mexico, is being published now. Photos can be found here.

Monday, November 9th. Rising early, we visit Southside Presbyterian Church at 7am. Southside played a pivotal role in the Sanctuary movement of the 1980s and is still deeply involved in border immigration issues. It is early for us but the volunteers there have already been hard at work, cooking and laying out food, coffee, milk and pastries for whoever shows up. It’s quite a spread. In addition to normal breakfast items such as cold cereal and pastries (donated from Starbucks), there is a buffet of hot foods. This morning’s fare included salad, rice and beans, pasta and pork chops. Southside Presbyterian does this twice a week, Mondays and Fridays, while other area congregations provide similar meals on other days. The church also provides clothing for those who need it.

We visit their sanctuary, which has been built in the shape of a kiva. The most obvious difference from a normal church is that there is no “front,” – only the center of a circle. The niches of the walls contain kachinas and other native sacred objects, and the light covers are decorated with petroglyphs. This is (Borderlink instructor) Elsbeth’s home church and her face lights up as she describes the congregation’s call to ministry surrounding the border. Outside the kiva is a memorial to those who have died in the desert. The trees are decorated with bandanas found in the desert and small stones are inscribed with the names of the dead.

For a little while, I help serve milk and cereal alongside Jesse, a regular volunteer at the church. We are told it is a light day – only 75 or so show up, as opposed to the usual 200. As the crowd thins, I wander back over to the memorial. One of the guys who has come here for a meal asks me what our little group is about. I explain that we’re here to learn more about border issues. From the looks of him, I suspect he is a veteran. Many of those seeking aid from Southside are. As the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that we do not share the same views about immigration. In his view, Arizona should be even tougher on illegal aliens than it has been – as they take our jobs and present a threat to homeland security. My pointing out that no suspected terrorists have been caught crossing the U.S./Mexico border (unlike the U.S./Canadian border, yet we’re not building a wall up north) does not move him. Nor does my pointing out that people are dying. I point to the pile of stones in front of us, 209 so far in the Sonoran this year. “We think Bush did a good job. What is your opinion on him?” he asks as he made his way to go. “Not so much,” I replied to his turning back. It was a reminder that just because someone comes to Southside for assistance doesn’t mean that the person agrees with Southside’s views, nor should he have to. And a reminder of how complex these issues are.

Afterwards, we speak with Rev. John Fife. Rev. Fife served Southside Presbyterian for 35 years before retiring 4 years ago to work for the Samaritans and No More Deaths. Much of that time was during the 1980s, when Southside became heavily involved in the Sanctuary movement, in response to the extreme need that they saw from people coming to their doors. U.S. policy was supporting repressive dictators in Central America – mainly El Salvador and Guatemala. People fleeing to the U.S. were clearly political refugees but the U.S. would not recognize them as such (despite evidence of torture) because that would require recognizing that we were supporting oppressive governments. The worldview of President Regan did not allow for anything more nuanced than “us” versus “them.” So Rev. Fife, along with Quaker Jim Corbett, recognized that they were required by conscience to take more active measures – helping refugees cross the border safely and providing sanctuary. He explains to us the difference between “civil disobedience” and “civil initiative.” When the government is violating human rights, then it is both the legal right and moral responsibility for citizens to take civil initiative to protect the victims. True then; true today. Rev. Fife thanked the Presbyterian Church of Canada for their part in moving refugees through the U.S. and into Canada at that time, and acknowledged the UU Church of Tucson’s sponsorship of No More Deaths today.

After, we watch documentary on border issues/immigration called, Crossing Arizona. It gave different perspectives, including those of ranchers who are losing thousands of dollars a year due to broken fences, trash clean-up, water left running, cattle being killed for food or accidentally killed when they ingest trash left by migrants. One woman talked of her fear of working her own land in case she ran into trespassing men. My heart went out to the ranchers even as I recognized that migrants are just trying to survive. A particularly interesting point made was that when the U.S. signed trade agreements with European countries, it caused the collapse of local economies that resulted in the mass migration of Irish, Polish, Italians, etc to the U.S. to work as cheap labor. The parallel between that and NAFTA not lost. I had known that it was U.S. economic policy that was causing the current massive immigration of Mexican-Americans. But I did not know that this was just the most recent chapter in our long history of economic refugees. Under NAFTA, U.S. subsidized corn and other crops are sold to Mexico for cheap, forcing Mexican farmers out of business. They could not make enough to support their families, resulting in pressure to migrate to the U.S. for work. NAFTA created a situation where goods move freely across the border but the workforce that creates those goods cannot.

During a brief introduction to the history of the wall, the presenter tells us that the first U.S. law specifically excluding immigrants of a particular origin was the Chinese Exclusion Act. It reminds me of why I’ve felt this issue so personally.

Finally, in the afternoon, we make the three hour drive – first along highway 10 and then 90 – to Agua Prieta, Mexico, a small border town who’s population exploded after NAFTA. The desert is as beautiful as I remember it. Through the van window, the passing landscape of saguaro and opuntia cacti, ocotillo, and yucca reminds me very much of the Mojave desert in California. By the time we get to Agua Prieta, it is after sunset and we cross the border in darkness. Our host for dinner and lodging is a Catholic organization called CAME (pronounced “kah-may”). CAME provides food and shelter, a shower and change of clothes, and even a phone call for migrants, most of whom have recently been caught in the desert and sent back to Aqua Prieta. But the most important service that CAME provides is that its volunteers listen to the stories of the migrants, all of whom have been traumatized by their experiences in the desert, whether running out of water, being violently assaulted, or stumbling across the dead bodies of fellow migrants. After being deported, CAME is usually the first kind experience the migrants get. Its staff of 56 volunteers is run by a sweet-faced, soft-spoken 20-something named Ricky. He explains that many of the volunteers are young adults, called to service by the suffering they have witnessed. Suffering that is increasing. In 2007, CAME served 1,040 people. So far in 2009, it has served 2,500, and the year is not over yet.

Dinner is rice and refried beans, a delicious spicy potato mixture, and of course, steaming hot corn tortillas. Brian (from Canada) and I sit next to Diego and Jose Luis. Diego speaks some English while (Borderlinks trip-leader) Tracy needs to facilitate the conversation between us and Jose Luis. Both of them are from Sinaloa, the same state that (Borderlinks trip-leader) MaryCruz is from. Jose Luis had been caught and “processed” in front of a judge. If he comes back and is caught again within the next 20 years, he will go to jail for 6 months. But he will try again, because there is no other way to put his two children through school. Diego had been picked up by border patrol trying to cross and dumped via bus in Agua Prieta. He has a girlfriend in Dallas and three teen-aged children in Mexico. He’s already made the crossing several times and knows the way by now. No need for “coyotes” (who take you over the border for a price). He tells us that tomorrow he will try again, walking four days in the desert (assuming that he isn’t picked up by Border Patrol), which means that he will be walking on his birthday on Friday. No one should have to walk through the desert on their birthday just for the opportunity to earn a living. Diego has worked as kitchen staff in a Chinese restaurant in Dallas. We joke that he probably cooks better Chinese food than I do. Then I ask him, “You’ll be turning 44. How many more years do you think you will be doing this?” He shrugs off the question with a sad, resigned smile. At that point, Jose Luis asks us a question, “Why does the United States want to keep us out?” The question breaks my heart. Through Tracy, I tell him it’s because the U.S. still sees itself as a white European nation with a few “minorities.” It is afraid of losing that status. Brian and Tracy also talk of economics and other factors. But really, no answer seemed adequate to explain the pain we were causing him and thousands of others.

Border Trip: Sunday, Nov. 8th

Part 3 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border. Photos can be foundhere.

Sunday, November 8th. Spent the morning attending service at the UU Church of Tucson and speaking with volunteers at No More Deaths (NMD) afterwards. The people there were a mixture of NMD activists who know of the church through the partnership and/or congregants who got involved with NMD as the church did. When I asked how it is that UUCT chose to sponsor No More Deaths, everyone agreed that while the exact organization wasn’t decided upon until relatively recently (when Walt Staton brought it to the congregation), the church had known for years that it wanted a social justice ministry around which to coalesce and was pretty sure that it would be around immigration and the Border. As congregant Helen O’Brian put it, “When you live in Tucson, people turn up in your backyard who need water.” On this particular day, the congregation just happened to be assembling food and first aid packs. People had donated items such as sports drinks, socks, aspirin and then children and adult members put them together into 123 packs that will be taken to the desert. It was clear that support for No More Deaths came from the entire congregation. As we talked about the need for volunteers, a vision emerged of UU service groups coming from all over the country to volunteer in the desert the way that we do in New Orleans. I haven’t even started our Border trip yet and already I’m thinking of coming back for more.

After the meeting, Helen and her daughter were kind enough to give me a ride over to Borderlinks, the organization that will be facilitating our journey. I am the first to arrive. Our small group from All Souls DC initially had a problem. There were not enough of us to meet the required minimum number of sojourners. However, a group from the Presbyterian Church of Canada were in the same boat so we decided to join forces. The American Unitarian contingent consists of Rev. Louise Green, Jeff, Ron, and myself. The Canadian Presbyterian contingent consists of Stephen, who serves the Presbyterian Church, Mary, Joan, Christine, and Greg. Gary, a researcher from the University of Arizona who is studying religious experiential learning trips, fills us out to ten. When everyone eventually arrives, we are given a brief orientation to both Borderlinks and the trip. We learn how Borderlinks was born out of the Sanctuary movement, a religious movement in the 1980s offering refuge to immigrants fleeing political turmoil and violence in El Salvador and Guatemala. (No More Deaths was also born of the Sanctuary movement.) It exists to facilitate experiential learning through immersion trips to the Border, so that we can better understand the complex issues and bring that new-found understanding back to our communities. Historically associated with the Presbyterian church, Borderlinks is now ecumenical/interfaith. It is also bi-national, with offices in the U.S. (Tucson) and the Mexican side of Nogales. For example, our group will have three trip-leaders, two from the U.S. – Tracy and Elsbeth – and one from Mexico – MaryCruz, who is from Nogales and speaks primarily Spanish.

We’ve only spent a couple hours together so far, but already I can tell that what we had originally approached as a compromise – the pooling of Americans and Canadians – is truly a gift. We Americans will be able to see the Border/immigration not only from our own eyes, but through Canadian eyes as well. As fellow religious progressives, we share many views in common, but as the Canadians are in many ways a third party to the U.S./Mexican “dispute,” their perspective can be quite different at times.

 

By the time everyone assembles and we go through the logistics of how to share cramped communal space, and the brief introduction to Borderlinks history, and some exercises designed to help us get to know both each other and the issues better, it is already quite late. But we can’t miss the Day of the Dead. Dia de Los Muertos is a time to remember and celebrate our ancestors, particularly those who have passed in the last year. A colorful alter is decorated with pictures of the deceased and their favorite foods are laid out. In other parts of the world (particularly Latin America) Dia de Los Muertos was observed last week during All Saints Day and All Souls Day. In fact, last week Taquiena Boston (of the UUA’s Identity-based Ministries) and I had attended a Dia de Los Muertos observance at the National Museum of the American Indian. But in Tucson it is celebrated one week later, today, with a parade – the Alls Souls Procession. Started by a local artist who had lost her father, the community puts together a parade to remember and celebrate those who have passed from us. In this U.S. town close to but not on the Border, the festivities are obviously syncretic. The sound of bagpipes mingles with more traditionally Mexican images of skeletons. I think of how I lost my mother in May. Unfortunately, I think her Chinese sensibilities would not have approved of all the carrying-on, but for me and our group, the atmosphere was intoxicating. At its climax, a giant urn was hoisted up via a crane and set on fire. Trip-leader Elsbeth explains to us that it contains pieces of paper bearing the names of the deceased – names that were written by people in the crowd. While done on a fantastical scale, the ritual is similar to what we’ve done at All Souls DC, similar to what the Chinese do to honor the dead, similar I’m sure to the rituals of so many cultures. Our group stood lost in the crowd and watched the giant urn glow in the night sky, and I felt like all the ancestors in world must have been there watching affectionately too, even Mom.

Border Trip: Saturday, Nov. 7th

Part 2 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

Saturday, November 7th. It’s the eve of our Border trip. I am flying into Tucson a day early in order to attend service at the UU Church of Tucson and speak with some of the people there who run No More Deaths. Ever since I first heard of the arrest of Walt Staton for leaving bottles of water in the desert, I have been enamored with the organization and its volunteers. It is one of many reasons why I wanted make this journey to the Border. Regardless of one’s feelings about undocumented immigration, the idea that someone could be arrested for humanitarian aid is unfathomable.

But that is tomorrow. Today on the eve, I am excited and also a little apprehensive. It’s not that I think anything will go wrong per se. It’s just that I’ve invested a lot personally into this trip, and I’m worried that it may not be what I expect… although I’m not even sure what it is that I expect. Already I have realized a disconnect between my perspective and the realities of the Border. Being the daughter of non-Euro immigrants myself, I had been approaching the trip as an opportunity to explore identity – the “border” identity of someone who lives in more than one culture. Growing up in California, I have felt some affinity with Mexican-Americans – we are both often overlooked as the national discussion on race focuses on black and white. And when we are noticed, it is often as “foreign invaders.” As a kid and even a few times as an adult I have been told to “go back to where you came from.” I thought this put me in the position to better empathize with people whom our country is rounding up and deporting. That may still be the case. However, in reflections with our group in preparation for the trip, I’m also aware that there are many differences between the experiences of the migrants who cross the Mexico/U.S. border and my Chinese middle-class family.

For one thing, the border is right there, an artificial boundary between two nations sharing the same continent. Mexican immigrants can travel back and forth between their county of origin and their adopted country. In contrast, my parents had only their memories to compare to their new homeland, and I can count on two hands the total number of visits I’ve made to Taiwan and China – a divide so wide that it was another world to me. I’ve been proud to hail from California, a “border state” with a large Mexican-American population. But now I realize that San Francisco is a world away from the border compared to Los Angeles, which is a world away compared to San Diego, which is a world away compared to San Ysidro. I do not know what it’s like to physically live on the Border. How different it must be to see every day the difference in wealth. How could one not wonder why?

Second, while my parents lacked money when they first arrived in the U.S. and some my earliest memories are of Mom calculating how much food we could afford, we were never truly poor nor really desperate. Education is a kind of wealth and my parents had the security of knowing that there would be better days ahead. Of course, I have always known that my family is middle-class while the people who brave the desert are driven, not just by a desire for a better life for their families but often by a dire need. It’s just that, it’s one thing to know this difference intellectually and another to know it experientially. This point was made clear to me while our group read a poem about crossing the desert at night.

I love the desert. To me it is a place of calm and stark yet delicate beauty. Yes, water is scarce and life is fragile, but that only makes more real the sense of being alive. Some of my most spiritual, mystical experiences have been in the desert – watching the lizards sunbathe, staring up at night skies creamy with stars. The quiet. The promise of being in the desert again was yet another enticement for me to make this trip. But I have always been in the desert as a tourist, with plenty of water, and food, access to shade in the day and to warm clothing and shelter at night. A car never far away, and with the security of knowing that I could call for help. Reading the poem, “La Ruta de Mujeres,” by Rev. Delle McCormick, which talked of furtive crossings at night, snakes and coyotes, rape and death… I was reminded of how dangerous and terrifying the desert actually can be. Again, I knew this intellectually – why else would it be necessary for the volunteers of No More Deaths to place water bottles in the desert? Why else is the death count so high? But there was a disconnect between the facts that I have learned and even repeated to others in arguing for more compassionate immigration policies, and my own middle-class sheltered experiences. It was a humbling realization.

And so here I sit on the eve of the trip, excited and yet apprehensive. Did I remember to pack my passport and proof of insurance? Check. Digital camera and cell phone charger? Check. I had been (and still am) excited to blog about our experiences and share them with you. Only a few days ago did it occur to me that we might not have internet access for much of the trip. Another disconnect. Oh well. No matter what I am here to learn and grow. I can already tell that it will be more than I imagined.

Border Trip: Pilgrimage

Part 1 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

A few months back I spied a notice in my congregation’s weekly bulletin about a trip to the Border being organized by Rev. Louise Green, our social justice minister here at All Souls, DC. It said that participants would be going to part of the border between Mexico and the U.S., with the possibility of also visiting Native American nations in the area. The trip, organized by Border Links, would feature immersion experiential learning and we would be expected to reflect and write on our experiences. I knew immediately that I had to go. But I also felt tremendously guilty at the idea of going. Both for the same reason.

Some of you may remember my post about bitter experiences with the health care system as my mom was taken by cancer. With Mom’s passing, the thought of taking a week to go anywhere other than San Francisco where my family is seemed incredibly selfish. But on the other hand, with Mom’s passing, I have been thinking more than ever about the journeys that she and Dad took from China to the U.S. – the many obstacles they had to overcome to get here, some recounted on this blog and others not. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Chinese American – to be both Chinese and American and yet not fully either in the views of many.

Does one cross a border? Or does one straddle it? Or does one go back and forth?

Both the Border Links website and Louise in our group discussions leading up to the trip have asked us why we are interested in going. Fair question. Complicated answers. I am going to better understand my neighbors – their perspectives, their stories, their roots – but I am also going to better understand myself. I am going with the assumption that although our families come from different countries, different cultures and different circumstances, there will be at least as much that we have in common in the immigrant family experience as there will be differences. I also expect that there will be surprises, perspectives that I assume we share in common but are not the case. In any case, the process will be informative.

If you are interested, I invite you to stay tuned. The All Souls DC trip to the Border will take place Nov 8th – 14th and I plan to be blogging about it before, during, and after our pilgrimage.

Border Trip: Wednesday, Nov 11th

Is Unitarian Universalism a Prophetic Church?

Any Facebook friends who’ve paid attention to my “status” will know that the recent Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministries has been on my mind for the last two weeks. Last week, my status worried that I might not make it to a session due to winter ice. This week, I’ve spent more time pondering what came out of the discussions, such as wondering “whether Unitarian Universalism can preach to both the comfortable and the afflicted in the same congregation(s).” From talking with others who attended, I know that I am not alone in being deeply impacted by the experience. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for Ministry and a presenter at the Convocation, even mentions the Convocation (and our blog) in her e-newsletter to the seminary.

At a meeting of the First UU Church of Second Life last night, I asked fellow UUs there whether they consider Unitarian Universalism to be a “prophetic church.” This question, of course, raised other questions: what does it mean to be a prophetic church? After making clear that I did not mean a church that predicts the future, but rather a church that speaks the truth of justice to unjust power structures, we moved on to other questions. Have we been a prophetic church in the past? Are we now? Will we be in the future?

Due to logistics, the Convocation was not open to everyone, but these discussions are not meant to be limited to attendees. Essays were submitted, presentations were filmed, and a book and a DVD will come out of this for others to have the same chance for reflection. In addition, this will be taken up at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

But in the mean time, I am asking our readers what I asked the UUs of Second Life: Is Unitarian Universalism a prophetic church? Do you want it to be, and if so in what way?

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