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Posts Tagged ‘standing on the side of love’

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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It’s happening again.  A hate organization that calls itself a church is coming to Lexington to demonstrate in front of another religious organization.  This time they’ve targeted a large nondenominational Christian church, although past visits have picketed Baptist, United Church of Christ, and Unitarian Universalist churches and a synagogue as well as the town public schools.

And this time — as has been the case for the last three or so visits — this “church” and its hate-mongers will be greeted by a non-violent interfaith group of silent people acting as a human shield around the congregation being targeted.

The ‘church’ says it is picketing the targeted congregation in order “to remind this nation that paying false prophets to lie about God will send you to Hell!”  They’ll then move on to picket another congregation in Boston, then they’ll picket in front of a hotel where a benefit dinner is being held, and then on Monday,they’ll stand in front of a Boston school.  Thanks for coming, folks.

I’m not sure why Lexington, Massachusetts has been getting so much attention from this group – we’ve guessed that it’s because the Revolutionary War is said to have started in our town, on the Battle Green right in front of the congregation I attend, First Parish in Lexington, Unitarian Universalist.  They are probably further provoked by the commitment of Lexington’s town government and education department to affirm all people, all families, all faiths.

Whatever the reason, these folks picked the wrong town.  If they seek to intimidate, they should look elsewhere.  We’re fortunate to have a very active and dedicated set of interfaith organizations – drawn from faith communities, government, and the community – who have responded to hate, over and over, with love, peacefulness, and steadfastness, to form human shields around buildings being picketed.

The ‘church’ generally arrives with bullhorns and offensive signage, and their goal is to provoke a confrontation and gain attention.  Instead, the good people of Lexington are committed to their non-violent response of turning their backs on the picketers, joining hands, and forming a ring of love and protection around a targeted space.  These ‘shields’ don’t speak, and they remain in position until the ‘church’ goes away.  The local police department have shown wonderful support as well in making sure that violence and confrontation do not erupt.

My faith tradition encourages people to ‘stand on the side of love.’  Other faith traditions, and those that support equality for all people, regardless of race, religion, family structure, or income, have responded similarly.  Fear and loathing are what the people of this ‘church’ preach.  That is not the religion I affirm, and on June 6, I trust that once again, the people who live in the cradle of liberty will proudly act on their belief in equality for all and freedom of religion throughout the land.

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