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Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Guest Post by Ben Soule

The day after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly ended my wife Deb and I were still in New Orleans. Most of the other delegates had already flown out and Deb was scheduled to be in meetings with some of the remaining UUA leaders, so I had some time to myself. Finding that the museum I intended to visit was closed on Mondays, I decided to take a long walk through my favorite city instead.  I took out my cell phone, opened Google Maps, dropped a pin in the middle of the Bywater District, hit the start button, and set off.

I was glad for this chance to get out of the hotel room, out of the GA bubble, and stretch my legs.  I was also glad to be able to have a chance to reflect on all that had happened in the past five days.  I thought back on all of the mind- and soul-stretching workshops I had attended, working to understand where I fit in the seismic shift in Unitarian Universalism that this year’s Assembly has signaled.  In addition, I had set out on my own quest to answer some questions for which I could find no ready answers, such as:

~ What is the cultural origin of the word ashé? 
~ Why have “indigenous people” been given a separate category from the larger category of people of color? 
~ How did the phrase “white supremacy” come to be the default term for that which we are working against?  
~ And my last and only unanswered question of the week: How do we wrestle with the issues raised by the brutal attack on two UUA staff members in the French Quarter on Saturday night, in light of all we had learned in recent days?  I was working hard on that one.

My route took me around much of the crescent for which the old city was nick-named.  As I crossed Bienville I recalled the news report from that morning saying that the attack took place on “the 200 block of Bienville.”  I glanced to my left and wondered.  I continued past Jackson Square, past the French market, through the industrial end of the Marigny district and into the Bywater.  The Bywater is a pleasant neighborhood that appears to have come a long way since Katrina, and shows signs of the mixed blessing of gentrification.  I walked along Rue Dauphine past many brightly painted houses as well as some that clearly needed to be worked on.  I came to a corner with a Mom and Pop market and a flower and bookshop where my GPS told me I had another 100 feet to my destination.  I walked the last few steps, stopped and looked around, hoping that there would be  something there, something significant, something that I was supposed to find.  But there wasn’t. Just some well-kept houses on a quiet street shaded by lime trees. 

So I turned back the way I had come to that last street corner.  It was mid-afternoon on a warm New Orleans day and I was glad to be able to buy something cold to drink at the market.  I stepped past a few people sitting in the shade of the sidewalk awning and entered the dimly lit market.  I exchanged a few pleasantries with the woman behind the counter as I bought a bottle of fruit juice and had a few gulps.  I stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked across the street at the book and florist shop I had passed earlier. 

And then I knew why I was there.  I crossed and went into the tiny florist’s but no one was there.  I called up the stairs where the books must have been.  No answer.  As I turned to leave, a young woman appeared in the doorway.  I recognized her from the group across the street.  “Do you work here?” I asked.  “Yes, can I help you?,” she said.  I asked for a small mixed bouquet for a sick friend.  She went to the tinier back room and returned with a lovingly assembled splash of colors and look of sympathy in her eyes.  I asked for a card to write a note, jotted a few words and tied it with the yarn around the brown paper bundle.  I paid her the $13.20, thanked her, asked for the most interesting route back to the Quarter, and set off.

On Burgundy I passed a carefully restored Esso station with a sign saying “No gas today.”  On Elysian Fields I saw a circle of rust brown statue-people facing defiantly outward.  On Rue Royal I was greeted with a “How y’all doin’” by a young man, and I saw a young woman retrieve an electronic recorder for a UPS driver that had fallen from his truck.  Everything seemed to have meaning to me in the hyperaware state I was in because my GA experience. 

I was nearly all the way across the Quarter when I drained the last of the now-warm juice, and saw the sign for Rue Bienville up ahead.  My heart was pounding as I turned left toward the river.  I passed the 400 block and crossed North Peters.  I seemed to be out of what I thought of as the French Quarter but I kept on. Ahead was a single four-story brick building surrounded by parking lots.  I realized that the flowers’ brown paper wrapper was soaked through with my own sweat as I took the bouquet with my right hand from the crook of my left arm and approached the building.  It was marked number 208.

There was a man setting up a power washer.  The intake hose was in a drainage ditch of an adjacent building project.  As he started the washer I saw that his job was to wash away the sand that was strewn on the sidewalk.  My realization that I had found the right place was confirmed when, as he cleaned away the top layer, I saw the caked red sand beneath.

209 NOLAI placed the flowers in a nook in the front of building and left the man to his task. As I walked away I wondered why I had done this thing.  It was not my typical behavior.  I didn’t do it for myself, and I knew it would make little difference to the victims.  I had no expectation that the flowers would be there more than 10 minutes after I left.  But I understood I was the only person in that place and at that time who could make that gesture, who could bear witness, as Deb phrased it later.  I understood that no matter how difficult we find the road that we travel together, no matter how long it takes to hear and to know each others’ deepest stories, how painful it is to create a welcome place in our movement for all who wish to join, we must stand together.

Clearly I had felt a call from my deep life-long connection to Unitarian Universalism.  I am grateful to have been awake and aware enough to heed that call.

Ben Soule is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.  He resides in Lexington, MA and is a member of First Parish in Lexington.

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We went to see “The Help” last night at our wonderful little movie theatre, the Lexington Venue.  It was as full as I’ve ever seen it, full of folks about our age, baby boomers in an upscale Boston suburb, who wanted to see what Hollywood had done with Kathryn Stockett’s novel based on a particularly sad time in our U.S. history.  I expected to hate the movie, and had squirmed in making a decision about whether to see it.  I’ve had enough anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism training and work to set off my internal radar with cheery, do-gooder versions of other peoples’ histories, and I was afraid that this movie would fall into that hole.

But it did not.  Some have called it a little too upbeat, but I squirmed in my seat as I saw mean-spirited women take on their maids to make sure they did not behave in a manner not befitting their status, watched other characters cast their eyes down as hard-working domestic workers were demeaned and dissed.  And I was transported back to the time when I recalled – as a young girl — the assassination of Medgar Evers, Jack Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

More than that, I thought about our own ‘help.’  My mother had grown up with parents who believed that African Americans were less than others.  She once handed out a stern warning to her mother, I remember, when Gram referred to the “niggers” across the street, telling her that such language was not OK while I was around.  She knew, I suspect, that she couldn’t change her parents, but she wasn’t about to let them launch a verbal attack in my presence.

When I was five and we lived in Akron, Ohio, my mother decided that she would like to go back to work, at least part time.  She signed up as a substitute teacher, and often, she got called to come in to school.  She had hired a woman name Elizabeth Baileys — large, Irish, a little rough around the edges, always wearing a blue maid’s uniform — to come and help clean the house and look after me when she wasn’t there.  On days when Mom was at a school, I’d walk home from school for lunch (as we did in those days) to find burned tomato soup and a peanut butter sandwich on my plate.  I didn’t mind, though…in fact, I got to like the burned soup, which developed when Mrs. Baileys would turn the heat on the stove and then go off to clean something, forgetting what was on the fire.  She would sit and talk to me while I ate, send me off to school again, and continue her work.

When we moved to Connecticut Mom began working at Planned Parenthood of New Haven as a volunteer, and later, board member.  She would meet women who wanted access to birth control.  Some of them needed jobs, and she would hire them to help at our house.  She’d pick the women up at the bus stop, bring them out to the house, they would clean some and talk some to Mom about ways to get better jobs, and she would share recipes for ‘economical and healthy’ food, like Sloppy Joes, food that would help stretch a dollar and feed a hungry family while getting a few servings of vegetables in at the same time.  They came and went, some with curlers in their hair (as in the film, “The Help,”), some disappearing into the social welfare system or moving away.

And then Zula Simmons came to our house.  I don’t know where Mom met Zula.  She was elderly, moved slow, and reminded me, when I saw the film, of Constantine (beautifully played by Cicely Tyson).  Zula had served all her life as a domestic worker, and I think she was grateful for the job at our house.  I don’t know that she had much energy left to clean, but she was a presence.  My mother had been hit by psoriatic arthritis and diverticulitis, and her health was not good.  I was in high school and though I was the center of the world, so I expected attention.  I’d come in the door and be greeted by Zula, shaking her finger at me:  “Now your mother is sleepin’ down the hall.  Don’t you make no noise and bother her!  She needs to rest!”  She scared me enough to pay attention — I was not going to take Zula on — so I did as she said.  She was in charge while she was there, made dinner for us, did the laundry, kept me in line, and when my father would come home from work, he would drive her to the bus stop, and off she’d go until her next date at our house.

It was a difficult time.  Our high school had a race riot, with the Italian kids fighting the Black kids, that made it into major news outlets.  On a trip across the country the summer of the Watts riots, we saw groups of restless people gathered on street corners.  The Viet Nam war added yet another element of heat to the mix.  And through it all, there was the help in our house, keeping things moving, keeping the child in line, adding a level of stability.

I’ve often wondered what happened to Zula, just as Skeeter wondered about Constantine in Stockett’s novel.  I hope that she was able to end her days with some dignity and grace, but I fear that she lived in deep poverty and privation.  And now, early in the morning, I drive through the town where I have lived for the last twenty-some years and I sometimes watch the current generation of help get off the bus.  Few of them wear uniforms now, as they walk to the large, elegant houses where they raise other women’s children and cook, clean, and do the laundry.  But they are here, and they, too, call for us to know their names and tell their stories.

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There’s a quote, attributed to Bob Dole, John McCain, or possibly the Bible (I doubt it!) which says, “Don’t get into a wrestling match with a pig.  You’ll get dirty, and the pig likes it.”  A friend of mine had another version she often used:  “Don’t get into an argument with an idiot.”

Whichever phrase you go with, the intention’s the same:  don’t start to do battle with someone who wants to get down and dirty or sling mud at you – no one will win.  I thought about this when, emerging from a few days of camping and news blackout on Cape Cod last week, I returned home to find that Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck had decided to hold a rally (the “Restoring Honor” rally) on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on the anniversary of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  And that, in response, Rev. Al Sharpton and others then decided to have a counter-rally to combat the provocateurs’ move.

I believe Beck is despicable.  This is the man who likes to sow the seeds of hatred wherever he travels, who made a previous accusation that President Obama was a “racist” who has “a deep-seated hatred for white people.”  On Sunday, following the rally, he decided to pass judgment on Obama’s religious beliefs, saying, “”People aren’t recognizing his version of Christianity.”  This, from a Mormon who should know what religious discrimination feels like, and might do well to remember the process — as fellow Mormon Sen. Orrin Hatch does — which led to a steeple finally being placed on the Mormon Temple in Belmont, MA, despite community protests.

I, like so many of my generation, grew up being inspired and motivated by the words of Dr. King to build a country based on deed rather than creed, a country where justice would be served for the benefit of all – a country that we still have not achieved.  On the other hand, isn’t Sharpton’s response –on the surface, to try and rally King supporters and those who decry the hateful rhetoric and “lock and reload” language of Palin, and certainly, to try and capture the attention of the media — just playing into the hands of right wing hatemongers who want to bait liberals?  And who wins in such a battle, anyway?

Sharpton organized his “Reclaim the Dream” rally after he learned of Beck and Palin’s plans.  Depending on whose numbers you believe, Beck and Palin had around 87,000 attendees (if you believe Rep. Michelle Bachman, 1 million attended, but no one else counting heads gives a number close to that); Sharpton drew only about 3,000 to his gathering.  Who wins in this game?

I continue to be very, very worried by the amped-up rhetoric I hear thrown out over the air waves and through social media channels, and the acts of violence that are striking some communities — directed at one ethnic or cultural or religious group or another.  One pundit, speaking on MSNBC, suggested that this behavior is exactly what Al Qaeda wants to incite — to essentially have us eat one another alive and divide in disagreement and hate.  So far, we’re doing a pretty good job of it, and no one looks good.  In Murfreesboro, TN, a case of suspected arson occurred and gunshots were heard being fired near an Islamic center in the town.  This is hardly a lone report: cases of bias and violence against people perceived to be ‘other’ are rampant, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported over 900 hate groups active in the country.

Last I checked, this country still supported freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights, and by golly, that includes Muslims and the worship of Islam.  A number of religious groups understand the importance of this principle — certainly the Reform Jews do, for they have known what this kind of discrimination and attack feels like — and some groups have found ways to respond, with non-violence and without embrace of direct retaliatory language or behavior, to the rhetoric of Beck, Palin and others.  But not enough.

“We do not have to think alike to love alike,” said non-Trinitarian pioneer Ferenc David.  Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly locked in a battle of who gets to claim moral and religious superiority over another group or individual.  The fight is based on hate, not love, and on who can scream the loudest, who can intimidate the best, and who can capture the coverage of the media with outrageous commentary.  We’re throwing gobs of mud at each other, and in this battle, everyone’s getting pretty dirty.

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Tomorrow many of my former colleagues, as well as friends, and those who I have never met, but whom I support in faith, will gather to raise their voices against the horribly restrictive law (SB 1070) of Arizona that is scheduled to go into effect tomorrow.  It will be sweltering hot, and they will be outside, some in clerical collars, others in “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts, many with buttons that show an inverted blue triangle or the statement “I could be illegal.”

I wish I could be there with them.  They have gone to say, once again, that laws that discriminate against a person because of race or ethnic origin are simply wrong.  As Sheriff Joseph Arpaio prepares his outdoor holding pen to contain those who he and his deputies plan to arrest under the new law, thousands of others will chant and pray, march and demonstrate, for the civil rights on which this country was founded.

I am grateful that a federal judge today blocked some key parts of this law from taking effect. In issuing her decision Judge Susan Bolton wrote, ““There is a substantial likelihood that officers will wrongfully arrest legal resident aliens.   “By enforcing this statute, Arizona would impose a ‘distinct, unusual and extraordinary’ burden on legal resident aliens that only the federal government has the authority to impose.”

We should not think that, by virtue of Judge Bolton’s ruling, the crisis is over.  The debate over the law that was passed by the state electorate is almost surely bound for the US Supreme Court, and there are hotly-held feelings on both sides.  I can not forget, and Elie Wiesel does not want any of us to forget, that in another time individuals were hauled off the streets, incarcerated, and gassed because of how they looked, their last names, or their religious beliefs.  We are fools if we believe that such things can not happen in the United States, because this Arizona law is a perfect example of the same circumstance occurring.

As I have noted previously, I am the granddaughter of Russian Jewish immigrants.  My last name, my cultural and religious beliefs, all connect me to my Ashkenazic Eastern European relatives.  And I will not forget, and I will not go away, and I will not be silent or back down.  I applaud the stance taken by Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and UUA Moderator Gini Courter: we must protest, whether we are in Boston, Phoenix, Minneapolis, Miami, or Podunk.  I’ll be here in Lexington, Massachusetts, but I will be wearing a blue triangle and a badge that says “I could be illegal.”  And I will be carrying my passport with me as well.  I can only hope that all over the Boston suburbs, as in other parts of the country, thousands and millions wear the same badges.  They connect us to brothers and sisters we have never met who seek a better life in the country that has held so much promise for nearly three centuries.

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A number of Unitarian Universalists have already weighed in on whether it is advisable for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to pull out of Phoenix for the 2012 General Assembly (GA).  After a conference call meeting, the UUA Board of Trustees has decided to put the question to a vote of GA delegates at the upcoming GA in Minneapolis.

Now, my turn.  My very first GA was in 1987, in Little Rock, AK.  I remember being amazed and thrilled as Bill Schulz, then-president of the Association, took the stage and with passion, informed the delegates that the UUA would pull out of Phoenix (where GA was to be held in 1988) because of Arizona’s failure to support a Martin Luther King Day holiday.  People roared and cheered.  We were going to ‘show them’ what we stood for.  We said we would go back to Arizona after a King Day had become law.  We went, in 1988, to Palm Springs, CA.  As I recall, we had a perfectly delightful GA in a lovely resort area that was really luxe.  And, in 1997, we did go back to Phoenix.

And now, here we go again.  This time, the reason seems more powerful – Arizona’s new law, which discriminates against illegal residents and essentially makes Arizona a police state, is not only disgusting, it smacks of Hitler’s Germany, where anyone can be asked to show their papers to authorities, and questioned if those authorities think they might be illegally in the state.  And yet…we have to consider how we can most effectively witness our beliefs and values in a way that will be seen, and heard, by the residents of the state to which GA travels, and the authorities who govern that state.

There have been many other states where oppressive laws are in place.  For instance, many states have sodomy laws.  The UUA, which actively supports absolutely equality for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals, has found a way to witness against such laws, and/or bring financial and moral support to the local BGLT community, many times.  In other states where oppressive laws exist, we’ve held marches in support of abortion rights, environmentalism, and more.  In Cleveland, the GA witnessed against the offensive use of the Chief Wahoo character  by the Cleveland Indians, during a rain-soaked march and rally.

Do we stay or do we go? A friend of mine is a noted travel industry writer, and she’s working on a story which is about the economic impact on Arizona of conventions pulling out because of the law.  And she’s following the UUA to see what we do.  It will cost over $600,000 at a time when there is no money to spare and when numerous staff members have already been laid off and UUA programs ended or re-envisioned for lack of funds.

My belief – informed by years of GA involvement and commitment to effective public witness – is that our voice as faithful and committed people will be heard more if we stay.  The revenue lost by our relatively small convention leaving is ultimately not going to make much of a difference to the Arizona convention industry.  And if we go, our voice is out of the mix.  If we stay, and witness our faith and values effectively, the people of Phoenix and those who live in this repressive state are likely to know more about who Unitarian Universalists are, and what we believe in, than before we showed up.  Through our actions we can be known — and in being known, allegiances can be formed, and influence increased, and we can have the chance to really walk our talk, hand in hand with the immigrant community.

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