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Posts Tagged ‘public witness’

On Saturday, as I tried to prepare for a class I’m teaching, I found myself instead glued to my computer screen as I On Saturday, as I tried to prepare for a class I’m teaching, I found myself instead glued to my computer screen as I watched a group of religious leaders, along with author Cornel West, slowly make their way, arms linked, down the streets of Charlottesville, VA.  The live Ustream feed on Facebook showed them lining up in front of a Confederate statue in a park, police barriers next to them, as they silently witnessed their support for the town officials who want to remove the statue.  Quietly, then with passion, they sang “This Little Light of Mine” and then offered a brief prayer – some of them in Spanish or in Arabic – for that moment.

I was filled with gratitude to see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s President, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, there.  I also saw other members of our clergy:  Rev. Jeanne Pupke, Rev. Wayne Arnason, Rev. Carleton Elliott Smith, Rev. Kathleen Rolenz, and many more.  They were there with leaders of many faiths, having answered the call to come to Charlottesville, sent out by Rev. Dr. William Barber and others.

Then, violence occurred – many injured, one dead; then, two more killed as a police helicopter, surveying violence on the ground, crashed.  It was, I am told, the largest white supremacist demonstration of current days.  It was terrible.  It still is.

When I was in high school in Hamden, CT (just outside of New Haven) I was in the Drama Club crowd.  It was a large school – about the size of Lexington High School – and if you were going to survive you had a niche group to connect to.  Mine were the artsy kids.  One of them, another lifelong UU, was a friend named Alison, an African American, gorgeous, kind, smart young woman.  We went everywhere together, and we were in LRY (precursor to groups like FUUY) at church.  Time changes memory, but mine holds this series of events:  one day, things just imploded.  The mostly-Italian youth who hung together had been taunting the African American athletes…football and basketball players – and the race-baiting reached the boiling point.  I walked into the cafeteria to see chairs flying, windows breaking, and kids running.  I turned and ran too, away from the cafeteria, to my locker to grab my bags, and outside to the street.

As police streamed in and students ran, I was relieved to see one of our friends in a car who yelled to me, “Get in!”  I did and, as we drove away, I said, “Where’s Alison?  We have to get her out of here!”  One person replied, “I saw her – she’s with the other black kids.”  The reality hit me like a thud:  of course.  She had to choose where to go, and she chose safety in people who looked like her and were, in many ways, like her.  Somewhere, a very big line had been drawn. It was the first time the reality of the division cause by race hit me, square in the face.

People sometimes strive for their ten minutes of fame.  Hamden High got its ten minutes that week, as a short piece ran in Time Magazine about the race riot, one that became similar to others happening around the country at a time when race relations were going from simmer to boil.  And then, there’s Charlottesville, right now – in 2017.  And here we are now, living in nice, safe, Lexington, MA, believing that these things won’t happen in our town.

We should delude ourselves no longer:  it was not that many years ago that the Westboro Baptist Church, spewing their hate-filled rhetoric, came into town.  It is a somewhat-regular occurrence that white supremacist groups appear on the Lexington green to celebrate the ‘freedoms’ that the American Revolution yielded.  We need to know that our voices – voices of UUs and all faithful people – must be heard, now, to counteract the hate-filled rhetoric.

And I know this:  this is why we have religious education…so that our children can learn about values that support equity and justice.  This is why we go to worship – many faiths, in many settings — whether we like the sermon or not…because in worship, we can share our values and find support for our message of love and hope.  And peaceful and continuing resistance.

Let us continue to pray that this does not happen in our town.  But let us remember that it happened in Hamden, CT and Charlottesville, VA.  It can happen here.  And we are called – all of us, of many ages – to learn the values of our faith and live it – bring it to the public square, to make sure that freedom and justice and equity endure.

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In May, I posted on this topic with thoughts on why the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) should not to action to pull its General Assembly (GA) out of Phoenix (2012) in protest of the repressive Arizona law, SB1070.  In June, the General Assembly did vote to gather in 2012 in Phoenix for a GA that will be different from others and acutely focused on social justice issues and partnership-building with organizations including Puente.

But 2012’s a long way off, and it would be easy for an organization, or individuals, to lose focus around these issues.  Fortunately the enactment of SB1070, and the commitment to witness for justice shown by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, and others, has not allowed this to happen.

On July 29, responding to a call put out by Frederick-Gray, Sal Reza of Puente, and others, more than 200 UU leaders and lay people committed to social justice went to Phoenix and other cities to put their money, and in many cases, their bodies, where their mouths were.  29 UUs were arrested in Phoenix, dragged off to the jail of the repressive Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and given a taste of the Sheriff’s form of justice.

UUA Moderator Gini Courter and others had helped to prepare those who would be arrested by writing the phone number of a lawyer on their arms in black marker, so that when all possessions were taken away, the phone number would remain.  From what I could observe, everyone present was prepared for a long seige.  UUA President Peter Morales was one of those arrested, and during the night, while he and other protestors sat in jail awaiting arraignment, those who remained free stood outside the jail, holding vigil through the night.

All this is a far cry from the kind of public witness the UUA used to engage in.  Although a successful “Back Alley March” was held in Milwaukee, WI in 1990 as part of the GA to lend support to the efforts of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and other groups to ensure the right to safe and accessible abortion services, the next year (1991) brought a paltry gathering down to the beaches of Hollywood, FL where a few placards were raised and waived — with no press in evidence — in support of ecological protections.  By 1993 an event to oppose North Carolina sodomy laws and support the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people had been organized, with a great deal of UU support — but the timing of the event was so late that the daily news cycle had ended before the demonstration began and mostly, those demonstrating were talking to themselves.

Thanks to the continuing work of UUA’s public witness team, the expert coaching of communication consultant Helio Fred Garcia, and the deep commitment of many people of faith, things have changed over the years.  A shout-out is due to Susan Leslie and Audra Friend of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group, who have had primary responsibility for organizing the GA public witness events of the last several years.  Leslie and Friend were in evidence in Arizona as well last week, along with the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love (SOSL) team, helping UU leaders select gathering spots, making sure that word got out to the outside world.  The SOSL bright yellow T-shirts were everywhere, ensuring that when people protested or were dragged away, the media and Unitarian Universalists would know that it was one of ours being hauled off.

Effective public witness, as Garcia frequently says, “needs to be both public, and witnessed.”  While that makes for one of those “duh” moments – how literal do we need to get here? – it’s not always easy to pull off.  Too many times, multiple agendas and good intention have served to undermine the desire to make an impact in the Public Square.  Effective witness calls for deep grounding in the fundamental principles of faith, the opportunity to make something happen that will be noticed, and a natural fit with the organization engaging in action.

This time, the UUA got it right from one end to the other.  The partnerships formed with Puente and other organizations have been intentional and healthy.  I believe that organizations on the ground in Arizona know that they can count on the Unitarian Universalists, and others of faith, to stand with them as they fight for justice.  Opinion pieces from UU leaders showed up in The Huffington Post and elsewhere prior to July 29.  Those involved in the demonstrations were tweeting, Facebooking, blogging, producing videos, taking photos that they uploaded to the web immediately.  Reporters (print, radio, internet, TV) were present.  The story got out.

This is not an end, it’s a beginning.  There will have to be much more…more relationship-building, more education, more demonstrations and almost surely, more arrests, all leading to the 2012 Phoenix GA.  But this is what witnessing the faith is about.

The UUA is preparing to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary.  Early in the UUA’s history (borne out of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America), Rev. Dana Greeley, the first UUA President, asked ministers to respond to the call of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Selma and witness their commitment to civil rights and justice for all.  Many went and marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, arm in arm, and one died for the cause.  In 2010, ministers and lay people responded to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s call and went to Phoenix to stand for the civil rights of those who come to this country in search of a better life.

From where I sit, it seems like the UUA has come full circle in its understanding of how to witness the faith.  As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons wrote, “the time is now, the place is here…[there is] no other world” but this one, calling out for effective witness in support of simple justice for all our people.

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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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