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Posts Tagged ‘Unitarian Universalism’

I walked in the door a few hours ago with hope in my heart and alive with the possibility — the just-maybe feeling that I don’t get all that often anymore — that maybe our country, our world, has a chance to find its goodness and center again.

It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and that’s part of it.  Yesterday I put my professional chef skills to work and volunteered my services to make a lunch for all the folks in my congregation — and VIP’s in our town — who were headed for the town’s annual CommUNITY MLK celebration.  The fact that there was a huge pan of food left, and that we arranged to have some volunteers take it to the food pantry in the next town, was even better. Feed our people, feed the hungry, and pass it on.

I headed to Boston to join my congregation’s Coming of Age youth (high schoolers in 9th and 10th grade), who were on retreat discussing our faith’s call to social action, how they can make a difference, and what our faith teaches about reaching out to others.  We talked, we cooked together, we walked around Boston (oh yeah, we watched the Patriots lose a Very Important Football Game too) and I watched these amazing young women who are part of this year’s All-Girl Coming of Age class, talk about their dreams, their aspirations, and why they are Unitarian Universalists.

Then today we headed to an urban K-8 school to be part of the MLK Day of Service projects going on in Boston and throughout the country.  I met folks from all over greater Boston, made Rainbow Fish craft kits for disadvantaged kids, watched others from our group make quilts for lower income babies, cuddle toys for homeless children, cards for service men and women who are protecting our country, scarves for people living in shelters.  We cheered each other — all of us joining together to give back, even a little — and left feeling lifted up.

When we got home I switched on the television and watched our President and his First Lady walk down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House following the inauguration.  And this evening I finally got to sit and watch the inaugural speech, in which this man stood and delivered, talking about the promise of this country and its challenges and opportunities — which must be open, with equality, to all of us.

There have been so many days when the news has been ugly.  When I’ve sat here, shaking my head, wondering what kind of country I live in; when I’ve wondered whether the country that my grandparents dreamed of living in and emigrated t, will ever live up to the vision that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had for it.  And then, I talk to my daughter in college in New Orleans.  I hear her sharing her excitement over voting in her first presidential election – realizing that she is a part of this great experiment called democracy.  I talk to the 10th grade Coming of Age participant who spent months working for Massachusetts’ now-Senator, Elizabeth Warren…a girl who now dreams of working to support the campaign of Rep. Ed Markey as he runs for election to John Kerry’s Senate seat and who thinks about running for elective office some day.

I see in the eyes of these bright young women the promise of tomorrow; the vision that they carry with them for a country that will offer equality, opportunity, and excellence in education.  The singers who are part of Sweet Honey in the Rock once sang of what we need to do “if we want hope to survive”:  March on.  Teach on.  Walk on.

Inspired by our children, called by our President, reminded of the legacy of Dr. King, and ever-hopeful, I remain ready to keep on in this struggle.

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Yesterday, I had the opportunity to share with my congregation my thoughts regarding Massachusetts’ proposed ballot initiative (known as Question 2) which asks voters whether the Commonwealth shall permit physicians to prescribe a lethal dose of medication to terminally ill individuals who request such assistance.  My perspective on this is deeply personal.

It was in July, 1993 that I got the phone call from my father.  After months of mysterious muscle weakness, stumbling, falling, thinking that it was the result of a fall off a ladder the previous year that had resulted in cervical fractures, he had received a diagnosis of ALS, or Lew Gehrig’s disease.  A death sentence for most people – the question was when, and how.

I was pregnant with Abby.  My mother was overwhelmed with trying to care for my father, and I have no siblings.  Dad asked whether Ben and I could talk to his doctors and find out if they would write a prescription for a lethal dose of medication that would allow him to end his life.  Ben and I talked about it, as I recall for a while, but not for long.  Because we knew we would do what Dad asked.

We got in the car and drove to New Haven, having made appointments with Dad’s primary care physician and neurologist.  We prepared ourselves for a fight.  We had all the arguments at hand about why this was the humane thing to do, the thing that would fulfill the wishes of the person who would never recover from his disease.  We had done our homework:  Rev. Ralph Mero, the Unitarian Universalist minister who had led the effort to pass a death with dignity law in Oregon, had provided us with information on options, given us some talking points, and had offered compassionate, sensible help to us at every step of the way.

We arrived at the doctor’s offices on the Yale campus, and began our meetings.  We were astonished to find no argument coming back from either physician.  Were these my father’s wishes, they asked?  We asserted that they were.  Then yes, of course they would write the prescriptions.

We were stunned that it had not taken an argument, and we were deeply grateful.  Our next visits were with my father’s best friend, an eminent psychiatrist at Yale.  He confirmed that he would be there, with my father and mother, while my father took his last breaths.  Steve Fleck would not fail, we knew, and we were deeply appreciative of his courage and strength.  Finally, we saw my parents’ minister.  She confirmed that she, too, would be there and would support the decision.  We felt that we had a plan.  The prescription was filled at a local pharmacy and picked up.

The last part was administering the medication.  My Dad had lost the ability to feed himself, to move his arms more than a little.  So administering the medication was a real concern.  I didn’t want to ask my mother to do this, and after considering the question, I decided that I was prepared to act.  Helping someone you love to spend the last part of their life in as dignified a manner as possible is high on my list of promises I will keep.  I was ready to drive to New Haven and feed my father the medication.

Abigail Soule was born in the early morning hours of October 5, 1993.  Three weeks later, we brought her to Connecticut to meet her grandfather, so that he could pronounce her ‘perfect’ and be at rest, knowing that this great wheel of life had turned once more.

On October 30, with his breathing growing more difficult as fluid built up in his lungs, my father developed a bladder infection which we had decided we would not treat with antibiotics.  He announced that he was ready for the medication:  life was just not fun anymore, and even his quips and jokes were not enough to keep him going.  Pneumonia set in.  He saw the next door neighbor’s children in their Halloween costumes on October 31 as they came to the house to Trick or Treat, and then, on November 1, he passed, as he had said he would, “quietly into the night.”  As sometimes happens in these situations, fate had intervened before action was required.

In the face of such difficult decisions, our family was lifted up:  by the compassionate physicians who were willing to support my father’s request; by the friend of decades who was willing to stand by; by the minister who – while acknowledging her own belief in the value of life until the last breath is taken – was willing to honor my father’s last wish.  We were lucky.

I hope that Question #2 passes on November 6 — because I don’t want people to have to be lucky about having the nerve to ask the difficult questions we asked, relying on the compassionate physicians, ministers, friends who we were fortunate enough to have, or be left to hope that a family member would have the guts to administer medication to a family member if she or he couldn’t lift up the medication to their lips.  We don’t need luck, we need a law that will help to ensure that people have as good a death as possible.

My father died on All Saints Day, a day of remembrance and celebration honored in different ways in Christian, Celtic and pagan communities. A hymn that we sing in our Unitarian Universalist congregations, “For All the Saints,” says, “Thy name most holy, be forever bless’d,” in speaking of the departed.  I would offer that same praise and blessing for those who have stepped forward, in different times and places, to compassionately help those who we love exit this life in dignity and peace.

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The news is full of the latest on the oil leak disaster in Louisiana.  Every day it gets worse…now, folks in the Gulf are reporting signs of illness, tar balls are starting to wash ashore, oil-covered turtles are being found, and there are clear indications (as well as reluctant admissions from BP) that the oil gushing out of the well is dumping many, many more gallons each day than previously stated.  Further, the gulf stream is moving the slick toward a path that will soon take it up the East Coast.  This doesn’t count animal and marine life being sickened and killed, individuals put out of work, the economic impact that will come in the food chain from all who used to eat fish caught in the oil-polluted waters, the devastation of coastlines for generations, and oh, so much more.

Like lots of folks, I’ve gotten more and more disgusted as I hear BP and Halliburton, and some of the government agencies involved, throw up their hands, shrug, and say, “oh dear, but what could we do?”  There is no solution to the problem, and the response, given the fact that some of these companies continue to reap billions even with this disaster, is just hideous.

Unfortunately the miserable behavior, the ducking and the oh-so-sincere apologies, don’t help address the mess.  My chosen faith community, Unitarian Universalism, has issued a number of statements of policy around the environment, including one (1984) on Toxic Substances and Hazardous Waste and another (1994) on Environmental Justice.  No doubt some other religious organizations, not to mention social change groups, have issued similar statements of policy over the years.    So far, none of these groups have been able to bring enough pressure to bear on government officials or businesses to do more than act as a growing throng of witnesses to an evolving disaster.  In Belle Chasse, alone Plaquemines Parish, and now across the Gulf coastline into Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, people are beginning to scream, louder and louder, that more must be done, and soon.

But the lack of backup plans, and the inability of any entity to bring the problem under control, is chilling.  And the damage, while spreading more widely every day, has been impacting historically disenfranchised communities in far greater numbers than those who are part of established majority control groups.  Benjamin Chavis is the African American leader credited with coining the term ‘environmental racism,’ to refer to a “policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially-homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities.”  The poor communities along the Gulf — populated heavily by those who make their living from fishing — are being clobbered.  The people who struggled, and are still struggling to return to the Gulf coast communities most blighted by Katrina, are now being socked again by a disaster that big-money made and that no one seems prepared to clean up.

Today I’m thinking of my friend Tyronne Edwards, who led the efforts to reclaim the land from Katrina’s wrath and rebuild his town of Phoenix in Plaquemines Parish.  Phoenix is just up the road from Venice, where the tarballs are rolling in now.  Shrimpers and fisher-people live in these small, poor communities.  Once again people are faced with a disaster no one seems prepared to address.  And once again, the resilience of people who have, for generations, lived on this land in the Delta, may have to find their own way to restore their livelihoods and their land.  The folks in the Gulf are taking it on the chin – again.

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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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