Donald S. Marsh: composer, mentor, friend

A dear friend and mentor of mine, Donald Stuart Marsh, died this past month.  I have been thinking about his legacy, his impact on my life and on the life of the community he called home for forty years.  Don was the director of arts of the First Presbyterian Church in Port Jervis, NY.   A ministry he shared with his life partner, the Rev. Richard K. Avery, who served as minister of this congregation. Don had a unique gift of being able to see the gifts that a person carried within them.  He saw the spark of who they were and intuitively was able to fan that spark so that it would be a fire of vitality.

I first met Don when I was about 12 years old. My junior high experience was fairly traumatic with bullying by my class mates. So when my older sister invited me to attend an actor’s workshop of the Presby Players, I felt my life was shifting towards something remarkable.

Presby Players was the acting troupe that Don founded and directed for forty years, bringing quality theatre to a country town with discussion of contemporary issues to the fore. He is considered to be the longest running director of a church arts program of its kind in the country.  I was privileged to have been able to work behind the scenes as well as on stage in several productions.  I had parts in “The Trojan Women,” “The House of Blue Leaves,” and “The Devil’s Disciple.”

Don outside his home in Santa Fe in 2006

These opportunities were a life saver for me.  I also participated in the church’s choir where we sang a variety of anthems and full choral pieces with orchestration like Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Hodie. For a number of years, the church would put on a version of the passion play on Good Friday.  I enjoyed participating in all of these events as they would sustain me through my week.

But Don and Dick were music composers in their own right, collaborating on more than 150 compositions that have been enjoyed in congregations across the country as well as several being translated into several languages including Swahili.   I was often invited to participate in worship workshops where they introduced creative ways to not only perform traditional music but also their own songs.  When I turned 14, Dick and Don offered me a position to assist in their publishing house, Proclamation Productions.  All of these activities were like a safe haven for me from the day to day school life of being bullied for being gay.  He offered me and so many others like me a life line and then taught us how to offer that life line to others.

I am not the only person whose life was forever transformed and enriched by the life of Don Marsh. There are hundreds of people, not only in the city of Port Jervis, NY but across the country that were moved by the light that was Don.  The comments that are left in the online guest book are filled with similar stories.  I shall be forever grateful for his life being such an integral part of my story.

After I came out of the closet, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to tell Don how important his life intersecting mine was and how vital a role he played in my growing up. I hope that my life will be at least half as important to those around me. If there are people in your life that have intersected with your life making you the better for their presence, tell them.

To quote one of Dick and Don’s songs, “Love them now. Don’t wait till they’re gone away.  Love them now, while they’re around. Touch them, hold them, laugh and cry with them. Show them, tell them, don’t deny with them.  Honor them, give birth and die with them now.  Love them now before they’re just a guilty mem’ry.  Love them now.  Love them now.” (Love Them Now © 1970 by Richard K. Avery and Donald S. Marsh)  Blessings abound, Fred

Cottonwood

Cottonwood thrives in the white sands of New Mexico.  It is a rather remarkable feat.  When I visited the largest white gypsum sand deposit in the world I came across these small groupings of shrubs growing in the sand dunes.

Cottonwood growing at the White Sands National Monument, New Mexico

What I didn’t realize was that these were not shrubs but rather the tops of 30-50 foot high trees that were buried by the shifting dunes.  The trees strive to keep branches above the sand and as long as they are able to that the tree thrives.  At the bottom of the shifting sand dune, the cotton wood has dug it’s roots 3 feet deep to the water table.

This to me is a metaphor for faith.  The shifting sands, circumstances in our life could indeed bury us but as long as two things are operating we will thrive.  First we need to have our beings rooted firmly in what nourishes us.  So when the winds are shifting / disrupting everything we were once confident in, if we are firmly grounded in what sustains us we will be able to stand.  We might be shaken horribly by what is blown away but these things are not what sustain us.

Second we need to keep our interactions with the world, vibrant, responsive, green.  In other words offering / sharing our hope, our love, our life with others.  Remain engaged in the world.  It might at first seem sense-able to hunker down and allow the storm to bury us / entomb us until it has passed but this is not the way of faith.  Surrendering to the sand storm will mean our spiritual death.   The cottonwood by sending its green branches high above the sands offers shelter, solace, even water to the animals that calls this desolate place  home.  We are called to do the same and even more so when the sands of harsh circumstances blow across the ground of our being.

And when the sands of life have shifted again, we remain as testaments to an enduring faith offering wisdom and hope to another generation. Blessings,

Cottonwood that survived the shifting dunes that once covered it

Confederate Memorial Day

Today in Alabama and in Mississippi and in several other southern states is the commemoration of the Confederate War Heroes known as Confederate Memorial Day.  This year is especially singled out as this year marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.   It is on this date in 1865 when General Joseph Johnston surrendered to Union General William Sherman.

As  a Yankee,  I admit I do not fully understand, when our nation has Memorial Day to honor and remember all of America’s war dead, why there is a  need to differentiate this war from the rest. The history of the origins of Memorial Day and Confederate Memorial Day may give some clues.   Memorial Day was developed to honor the war dead of both the Union and Confederate Armies.  It was first celebrated on May 30, 1868.   The south did not choose to honor their war dead on this date but instead chose another day, April 26th.  Some southern states celebrate Confederate Memorial Day on a different date. It was not until 1971  did the South recognize this holiday in May when Congress declared the last Monday in May to be a nationally recognized day of memorial to commemorate all war dead.  But there some differences in how this particular war is perceived by the losers and winners that I believe is the reason or perhaps the real motivation behind this southern holiday.

If I was to ask what this war between the states was about, those who side with the victors would say this was a war about slavery.  Those who side with the losers would state this was a war about state rights and sovereignty.  Both answers are partially correct.  As my grandmother would say “There are three sides to every story; your side, my side, and the truth.”

The issue between which has predominance, state rights or federal rights continues to be waged in the political arena.  This holiday as it is celebrated today is a grim reminder of the concern of federal sovereignty over states rights. It is the battle cry of the Tea partiers who want less federal government.  The Tea partiers do not necessarily want less government paid service–as they shout to keep hands off social security and medicare–but they want the states  and not the federal government to have more control over their social programs.   State rights have come to the fore over same-sex marriage.  And it is surely to be on the front burner after the passage of  Arizona’s new controversial immigration law.

Do states have the right to determine who they provide services to, who they marry, who can live within their boundaries?  Do states have the right to pass discriminatory laws that fly in the face of the federal constitution?  What interstate agreements  do states have in honoring other states who declare other laws to be legal for their citizens?  Confederate Memorial Day is a painful reminder of the wounds that still remain in this country from a war that tore this country in two 150 years ago.   Its wounds still fester in the racism expressed in this country under the new guise of fear against socialism, equal rights for sexual minorities,  and immigration reform.

From the chair that I sit in, Confederate Memorial Day is a longing to return to the day when states could ensure that white privilege was codified as was the case in the Alabama State Constitution last ratified in 1901 and still on the books though no longer enforceable because of  Federal law.

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 8:42 pm  Comments Off on Confederate Memorial Day  
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Mother Earth

Mother Earth Rev. Fred L Hammond April 18 2010 © Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Earth.  There are very different perspectives towards this orb that is whirling through space with the Milky Way Galaxy.

Western civilization has taken a dominion perspective based on one of the two creation stories found in the Hebrew Scriptures.  “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”  This is such a powerful command of domination over the earth that it is integral to the American way of life for 200 hundred plus years.

We, mostly for the pure sport of it, wiped out in a single generation the passenger pigeon. This beautiful bird had flocks in the billions that would darken the skies for days as they traveled north in their annual migration.  The last bird in the wild died at the hands of a young boy who saw the bird sitting on a fence in his yard and asked his mother for the shot gun.  But there was a time when newspaper’s boasted the number of birds killed with a single blast.   These birds were a hazard to progress.  They would land on telegraph poles and their collective weight would bring down the lines.  And so the corporations that ran the electric and telegraph lines sought out to destroy this bird once and for all. [1]

Fill the earth and subdue it.  Whether they are indeed the words of a god almighty or a words of a people who found that they are adaptable to the wiles of nature’s wrath; we have been seeking to tame the earth ever since these words were recorded.

In the last forty years there has begun a shift in our collective understanding of life on this planet earth.  This collective understanding is not new to us; humans around the world have held this understanding before.  But in the last forty years, this understanding has in western culture grown in strength.

We know this understanding as our seventh principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”  Our western culture is ever so slowly beginning to grasp that when a species goes into extinction, the impact of that extinction ripples out across all of creation.

The passenger pigeon was not simply hunted to extinction.  This magnificent bird would not be around today even if steps were taken to protect it.  Its primary source of food was the American Chestnut and Oak.   These trees were once predominant in our forests.   The American Chestnut was prized for its lumber and was preferred for its endurance over the Oak.  However, a fungal blight was introduced through the import of an Asian Chestnut in the early 1900’s and by the 1940’s most of the American Chestnut was wiped out.   The bird would not have been able to withstand the loss of its primary food source.  But what if there was some other interconnection between this bird and the trees it used for food and nesting?   What if there was some sort of mutual benefit between the two species that when one was gone, the other subsequently suffered?

There is for instance the relationship between the sea otter, sea urchins, and kelp.   The sea otter uses the kelp forests as a hiding area from its predators.  In return for this protection, the sea otter eats sea urchins whose source of food is kelp.  Remove any one of these three and the other will suffer.  This was the case when the Southern Sea Otter was nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900’s.  The sea urchins in turn decimated the kelp forest. [2]

Another example of interdependence between species was discovered regarding the number of coyotes and the diversity of song birds.  It was discovered that the diversity of song birds diminished when coyotes were hunted out of the canyons in southern California to make them safer for housing developments.[3] The reason for this is that coyotes acted as a control on the predators such as cats, fox, and rodents that ate the birds.

Caroline Fraser in her text, Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution writes: “Why do species matter? Why worry if some go missing? Part of the answer lies in the relationships coming to light between creatures like the canyon coyotes and the chaparral birds. After the nineteenth century’s great age of biological collecting, when collectors filled museums to bursting with stuffed birds and pinned beetles, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have proved to be an age of connecting. Biologists have begun to understand that nature is a chain of dominoes: If you pull one piece out, the whole thing falls down. Lose the animals, lose the ecosystems. Lose the ecosystems, game over.”[4]

What is beginning to be understood is that the earth is more intertwined together than a collection of individual independent parts.  The rainforest of the Amazon is a vital key to the amount of rainfall that other areas of the globe receive. This heavily dense forest holds moisture close to the surface so that it can be released easily back into the atmosphere preventing the formation of deserts.  Not to mention the vast number of life forms that will disappear forever as the forest is replaced with agricultural crops.    Life forms that may contain secrets to our very health.

A vast number of pharmaceuticals have been derived from plants, animals, and microbes.  What most of us might consider as creatures of insignificance could be the key to cures of cancer or HIV/AIDS.  The cone snail, for example, injects a toxin into its prey numbing and paralyzing it.  This toxin is being investigated as a possible pain reduction substitute for opiates.   The Horseshoe crab has within its blood antimicrobials that destroy bacteria.  This finding could be vital in developing a new anti-bacterial medication for the now pandemic resistant strains of bacteria.

We are all connected to this planet in a myriad ways.  If we truly ponder this interconnection it could prove to be mind boggling.  Thomas Starr King, Unitarian Minister wrote to a friend Randolph Ryer about a lecture he heard Emerson give in 1849: “Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up into the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sun-flower, and inspired turnip. Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon-vine as my ancestor (melancholic thought). I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it.” **

I fear I may lose it.  The reality is we may indeed lose it all, if we humans do not begin to claim our rightful place in fellowship with our companions on this wonderful mother of us all, called Earth.

So what can we do?  We heard this morning a challenge being presented to us by our social Justice chair.  To celebrate Earth Day’s fortieth anniversary we are being asked to do forty things over forty days.  These forty things taken one day at a time can be the beginning of making a difference in our treatment of Mother Earth.

Some examples might be to fast from fast food for 40 days.  This means for the next forty days no McDonalds, no Taco Casa, No Wendy’s, No Quiznos, No Subway, No Cici’s, no KFC, no… well you get the point.  Or maybe you start a vegetable garden which you tend to for the next 40 days and beyond reaping a harvest of fresh tomatoes, squash, etc.  Or maybe you decide to shop at local farmers markets.  Purchase fair trade products where by the middle person is taken out of the equation enabling farmers to make a living.  We could even begin to sell fair trade products here to our members and friends-we already serve fair trade coffee on Sundays.  Say no to water in plastic bottles for 40 days saving our landfills from plastic that does not decompose.  Reduce packaging by purchasing your rice, grains, and cereals in bulk.  Have a book discussion on ethical eating or environmental issues.  Decide to eat lower on the food chain by eating more vegetables x number of times a week.  Eat as you always do but keep and measure the volume of packaging used and document and share your findings with the congregation and with the UUA’s blog on 40/40/40.[5] Meet with other members and friends and discuss your discoveries as you proceed in doing 40 things over the next 40 days.

These seemingly small gestures of choosing foods that are not processed beyond recognition or are packaged in biodegradable containers will ripple out to make a larger change in the environment.  We are connected in more ways than we might imagine.  We share common strands of DNA with all life on this planet.  It is not humans vs nature… We humans are a part of nature.  We are interdependent with the vast array of life on this planet.  We depend on the diversity of plants and animals to survive.  If any one species become extinct it ripples out and causes other species to become extinct.  Eventually, humanity will face the consequences of its indiscriminate treatment of the planet which gave it life.   Be good to your mother.

Blessed Be.


[1] Some of this information is from Clive Ponting's 'A Green History of the World', Penguin Books, 1992

[2] http://www.1hope.org/intdpndt.htm

[3] REWILDING THE WORLD: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser. Copyright (c) 2009 by Caroline Fraser.  Published: January 21, 2010  New York Times

[4] Adapted from the book REWILDING THE WORLD: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution by Caroline Fraser. Copyright (c) 2009 by Caroline Fraser.  Published: January 21, 2010  New York Times

**Found the archives of the Graduate Theological Union’s library in Berkeley, CA

[5] ideas found at http://www.uua.org/socialjustice/issues/environmentaljustice/159611.shtml

Published in: on April 18, 2010 at 11:00 pm  Comments Off on Mother Earth  
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Yom HaSho’ah

Yom HaSho’ah by Rev. Fred L Hammond delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa in Alabama on 11 April 2010 (c)

Yom HaSho’ah was presented as a day of remembrance for Jews and it has been embraced by other faith traditions so that we will never forget the millions of lives nor the horrors that occurred. It is in the hope that we will learn its lessons to never allow it to happen again.   Unfortunately, this day of remembrance in recent years has also included remembrance of holocausts that have occurred since this time period.  The genocides in Cambodia, in Bosnia, in Rwanda, and in Darfur have been incorporated in honoring all the lives lost.   New countries are being added to the list of atrocities by the non-profit organization called Genocide Watch.   There are things that we can do to help prevent the conditions that allow genocide to occur.

Anne Frank, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Norbert Capek, Solomon Perel, Elie Weisel, Bruno Bettelheim, Rena and Danka Kornreich, Corrie tenBoom, Martha and Waitstill Sharp, and Oscar Schindler.  These are only a few of the names of people who died, who survived, and who helped rescue a few of the lives caught up in the web of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.  Here are some of their stories.

Danka and Rena Kornreich were sisters and the youngest of the Kornreich family in Tylicz, Poland.  There was a small Jewish community there and the Jews and Gentiles lived in relative peace together.  There was a young gentile by the name of Andrzej Garbera who had a crush on Rena… it was a crush that was mutual albeit forbidden by Jewish custom. Theirs was a secret affair kept afar.  He wanted to marry Rena but Rena turned him down because to do so would have broken her parents’ heart.  When the Germans invaded Poland, it was Andrzej who assisted in Rena’s escape to the border into Slovakia.  He assisted many Jews to escape to the border.  One night on his return from the border there was a search by the SS with dogs. He hid in a tree for the night; nearly frozen he fell out of the tree.  The next day some of the villagers found him and brought him home but he contracted pneumonia and died a few weeks later.

Rena in an effort to protect those who gave her shelter in Slovakia decided to turn herself in and enlist for the German Work Camps.  She is taken to Auschwitz where she is tattooed with the number 1716.  The huge sign at the gates, declares “Work will make you free.”  And everyone entering Auschwitz with Rena that day believes the sign.  “‘We are young,’ we remind ourselves. ‘We will work hard and be set free. We will see what happens.’ But on the outside we are walking as if we are doomed.  It is raining, chilled like March rain. We are lost in thought but it is too cold to do much thinking.  Everywhere is gray.  My heart is turning gray. “

“There are men along the barbed-wire fences, in striped jackets, caps, and pants, watching us. Their eyes reflect nothing.  I think to myself, This must be an insane asylum, but why would they make the mentally ill work?  That’s not fair.” [1]

A few months later, she is reunited with her younger sister, Danka.  Danka is frail of health and Rena worries about her surviving the harsh conditions of the coming winter.  Rena is selected by Dr. Mengele for a “special” work detail.  Rena thinks this might be an indoor job as he has done in the past and arranges for Danka to join her.   They are sent to a room where they fed more than their daily ration of slice of bread and broth.  They think that perhaps this is a good thing for all concerned. After a few days they are told to remove their uniforms–Uniforms that once belonged to Russian prisoners of war who were shot –and to wear dresses with aprons.   Rena notices that they are not asked to place their numbers by which they are known on the outfits.  She sees one of the elites remove a young woman from the line up.  She notices the woman did this with an air of authority. And decides she and Danka must get out of this group.  With bravery, with a feeling of self-importance they return back to where their uniforms were.  The uniforms are all piled up and together, if they can get their uniforms back on they might be able to be in time for roll call.  Frantically, they find their numbers and change back into their uniforms. They run back outside where the roll call is still taking place, they are in time and they are counted.

A few days later, Rena hears that the special work detail was for sterilization and shock treatments.  All of the women either died from the shock treatments or from the infection that set in from the sterilization procedure.   Rena tells in her narrative, “There is a pressure screaming for release against my eyes, I don’t cry.  It takes time to cry and there is no time.  I fight to find a reason, but there is no reason in this place.  What did they do when they discovered there were three numbers missing in the experiment detail?  Did the woman who snuck her cousin or sister out of line just place somebody else in her place?  Why didn’t they search us out?—they had our numbers written on a list.  Why are we alive and the other girls we were selected with not?   Will there ever come a time when we can thank God for being alive today before we have to ask the same privilege tomorrow, and the next day?  Is life a privilege or a curse?”[2]

Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps writes in The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, “to have some small token experiences of being active and passive, each on one’s own, and in mind as well as body—this, much more than the utility of any one such activity, was what enabled me and others like me to survive.  By contrast, it was the senseless tasks, the lack of almost any time to oneself, the inability to plan ahead because of sudden changes in camp policies, that was so deeply destructive.  By destroying man’s ability to act on his own or to predict the outcome of his actions, they destroyed the feeling that his actions had any purpose, so many prisoners stopped acting. But when they stopped acting they soon stopped living.”  [3]

Danka and Rena Kornreich are among the survivors of the Holocaust.  Their actions enabled them to survive.  When one sister despaired of life, it was the other sister that acted on both of their behalves.  Of course not all people who took on small actions of deliberate choice in the holocaust survived to see the liberation of the camps by the allied forces.   But if Bettelheim is correct, it is these small acts, no matter how insignificant in our eyes, that enabled the survivors to retain some level of integrity.

PAUSE

Solomon Perel’s story is a remarkable and unbelievable true story of courage and wit.  The Perel family were shoemakers in Germany and were persecuted by continual vandalism.  In 1935, they relocated in Poland.  When the Germans invaded Poland, Solomon and his brother Isaak attempted to escape to Soviet-occupied Poland.  The brothers were separated and Solomon, lived in a Soviet orphanage.   When the orphanage was taken over by the Germans, because of Solomon’s perfect German, he was able to convince them that he was a German living outside of Germany.  He adopts the name of Josef Perjell. The German soldiers took him in as a German-Russian interpreter.  He played a key role in the capture of Stalin’s son, an officer in the Soviet Army.  This made him a hero in the eyes of the Germans.   However, he had to continually hide his true identity and being circumcised was made all the more difficult.

Because he was a minor, he was sent to a Hitler youth school in Germany.  He did what he had to do in order to survive. He “does confess later on that it was difficult to play the role he did where he had to pretend to be German. He writes in his autobiography, ‘I gradually suppressed my true self. Sometimes I even ‘forgot’ that I was a Jew.’”[4] Yet, he pledges that the essence of who he is would never be exterminated.   Solomon survives the war, learns of the fate of his family, learns for the first time of the horrors of the concentration camps and is reunited with his brothers David and Isaak.  Solomon moves to Israel in 1948.

It is only before a critical open-heart surgery that he decides to tell his story.  Part of his delay in telling this incredible story was because in his words, “What would those who had survived the death camps think of me?” (Perel, p. 196) “I constantly found myself comparing their bitter fate with what I had endured, and I realized how much life had spared me.” (Perel, p.200-201.)[5] While this story seems too incredible, it is estimated by researcher Bryan Riggs, that several hundred Jews masquerade as German soldiers in order to survive Nazi Germany.   Survivor guilt is strong in the people who lived to see the end of the war and the end of the holocaust.

PAUSE

“Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were American Unitarians who visited Norbert Capek’s Unitarian congregation in Prague, Czechoslovakia throughout the 1920’s and 30’s.  When Czechoslovakia fell to the Nazis in 1938, the American Unitarian Association chose to send ‘commissioners’ to assess the needs of the refugees and the Prague church.  Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were distraught over what was happening in Europe.  ‘These were our friends’, Waitstill would state later and something needed to be done.[6] While reluctant to leave their two young children, the Sharps arrived in Prague in 1939, the very day that the Nazis marched in.  Their work enabled many to escape to the U.S. and gave rise to the establishment of the Unitarian Service Committee, still in existence today as the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.  The Sharp’s barely escaped arrest and detention.  They returned to Europe in 1940, where Martha Sharp arranged for 29 children and 10 adults to leave Nazi-occupied Europe.   The Sharp’s work combined with the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee ensured the rescue of 3500 families from Nazi controlled Europe.[7] The Sharp’s became known as the ‘Guardian Angels of European children.’

“Martha Sharp was said to have asked her daughter-in-law, ‘What important work are you going to do for the world?’ This is a statement of strong conviction that with our lives intricately connected to the world around us we carry a responsibility to that connection.”[8]

What important work are you going to do for the world?  It may seem impossible for us to prevent the atrocities in another country say Uganda, where legislation is proposed to eliminate the HIV/AIDS and homosexual threat by executing those who are living with this disease or who are homosexual in orientation.

Will this legislation if enacted result in Genocide?  First we need to understand the definition of Genocide.  It is important to know because many deny genocide based on a misunderstanding of what constitutes genocide.   According to international law: genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The phrase “in whole or in part” is where many people trip up.  Genocide does not need to be the whole population; it can be a part of the population that is being harmed.  While sexual orientation or disease is not stated explicitly in the definition; the rest of the definition would classify such action as genocide.

There are distinct stages that a country progresses through en-route to committing genocide.  The first two stages are common to our human nature.  There are examples here in the United States and it does not mean that genocide will occur.  But it is clear from all the holocausts this world has experienced in the last 100 years, every single one, Armenia, Germany, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Darfur all began with these two stages that escalated to the third stage.

First stage:  Classification.  What divides us from them?  Is it race? Ethnicity? Religion? Nationality?  Sexual orientation?  There is a preventative in the form of education of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding.  The President of Genocide Watch, George Stanton states, “Th[e] search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide.”  Part of the important work that we can do for the world is to educate others about who the other is.  The other is just like us in more ways than we may even currently acknowledge. It is vital that we speak up when we hear hate speech or derogatory statements that dehumanize the other.

Stage two: Symbolization.  These are names or other symbols we give to those we classified as other.   From our own history, this would be the derogatory terms used to describe people of color or sexual minorities or political conservatives or political progressives.

These first two stages are not necessarily going to result in genocide unless they lead to the next stage; dehumanization.   Hate speech and hate symbols can increase the likelihood of advancing to the next stage.  The key is to remove the power behind the symbolization.  The act of setting up a donation table to solicit funds for organizations that support HIV/AIDS treatment or Gay civil rights where ever Fred Phelps’ church calls for the death of homosexuals is one way of removing the power his symbols might carry.

Stage 3: Dehumanization.  The humanity of the other is denied by equating them to vermin, animals, and diseases.  We have heard this dehumanization increasing in our country in the past few years.  Television talk show hosts have been accused of hate speech that dehumanizes or degrades the opposing political opinion.   Words such as “being the cancer of America” and to reload and take aim at those politicians who have supported allegedly the wrong bill have been heard.  This is dehumanization.    These are hate speeches aimed at dehumanizing the other.   Genocide Watch suggests “Local and international leaders should condemn the use of hate speech and make it culturally unacceptable. Hate radio stations should be shut down, and hate propaganda banned. Hate crimes and atrocities should be promptly punished.”

Stage four: Organization.  There is always organization behind genocide.  It is usually supported by the government where the genocide is taking place but organized through militias so the government can deny responsibility. This is the case in Darfur.

Stage five: Polarization.  Hate propaganda is broadcasted informing this is for the best interests of the country, further polarizing those who might act to stop it. Laws are passed outlawing behaviors associated with group, such as gathering for worship on Friday evenings for Sabbath.  Laws forbidding social interaction may also be passed. It became illegal in Germany to shop at a store owned by Jews.

Stage six: Preparation:  Groups are separated out from the general population.  They are forced into ghettos, concentration camps or regions with no or limited resources for survival.  Our own history revealed this being done to the Native Americans who were forced off their land and into desert regions we called reservations.  Symbols are also used to designate these people and these are forced on the people.   In Germany it was the yellow star or various colors of triangles.  In Cambodia it was a blue scarf.

Stage seven: Extermination.  Mass killings begin and this is called genocide.  Those doing the killing do not believe their targets are human.  Rapid international armed intervention must be given in order to stop the genocide.  Safe zones that are protected by international forces must be developed for refugees.  Unsafe, safe zones are worse than no safe zones because they become targets as was the case in Darfur, where the international armed forces abandoned the safe zones allowing for Janjaweed, an African Arab tribal militia, to enter and massacre the refugees.

Stage eight: Denial.  Actions are taken by the government to deny the genocide took place.  Obstructions to investigations occur.  A label of civil war may be used to cover up the genocide, such as in Darfur and Bosnia. It is important that an international council is set up to investigate and bring the proponents of genocide to justice.[9]

Survivor of the Bosnian genocide, Kemal Pervanic, stated at the first annual Holocaust Memorial Day conference in the United Kingdom: “Most Bosnians learned to regard all Serbs as murderers, killers: they believed something was wrong with them. I don’t think like that.  It’s OK to be different. We are all different, but on the other hand we are all the same, with the same rights to life, love, dignity. Lots of people aren’t prepared to share these values with others who are less fortunate than them.”[10]

Through out the eight stages of genocide there is a drive to destroy, to drive out, to reduce to sameness, to kill the human spirit that creates us as all unique.  Yet, as these few stories point out and in every story of survival of genocide I have ever heard, the human spirit has never been able to be fully crushed.  There is always some spark, some insignificant moment or choice made that restores a sense of dignity, of integrity, even if for that one brief moment that beckons the will to live another day. There is always a creative way for the human spirit to seemingly instinctively change course as Rena and Danka did with mysterious surging bravado, or to be a chameleon in the midst of enemies in order to survive like Solomon Perel did or causes Waitstill and Martha Sharp to reach out a hand to save a few from falling into harm’s way.   The human spirit cannot be fully crushed.  It can be repressed.  It can be oppressed. It can be held down and shackled.  But its spark can never be fully snuffed out. There will always be something of the human spirit that will declare its existence, its shout of I AM.

Anne Frank who lost her life in the Holocaust wrote in her diary “… in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” [11]

May it be so in our life times.


[1] Rena’s Promise by Rena Kornreich Gelissen with Heather Dune Macadam.   Page 60

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bruno Bettelheim, The Informed Heart  © The Free Press 1960  pg 148

[4] http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/33d/projects/jewishlife/JewishPerelRuth.htm

[5] ibid

[6] Roots and Visions: The First 50 years of the UU Service Committee, page 15

[7] http://www.brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=2628

[8] Originally from the sermon, “How to be A Hero” by Rev. Fred L Hammond  © February 26 2006

[9] As found at http://www.genocidewatch.org/aboutgenocide/8stagesofgenocide.html © 1998 Gregory H. Stanton. Originally presented as a briefing paper at the US State Department in 1996.   (The eight stages presented here is adapted from this work of Gregory Stanton.  The comparisons of some of the stages to the political scene,  past and present,  in the US is my commentary and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of  Genocide Watch.

[10] As found at http://www.hmd.org.uk/news/item/holocaust-memorial-day-trust-1st-annual-conference

[11] as found at http://www.buzzle.com/articles/holocaust-quotes.html

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 12:51 pm  Comments Off on Yom HaSho’ah  
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The process of life

(This first appeared as the message for Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church Newsletter for April.  I thought it might be of interest.)

I have been enjoying American Idol this season.  All of the contestants are really, really good.   It has been years, O alright decades, since I had voice lessons but I am impressed with the maturity of the voices I am hearing.   Simon Cowell made a comment tonight that was really quite profound.  He told one of the contestants, one of my personal favorites, to not allow the process of the competition lead her away from who she is.  She tried something new. It was a risk.  It was a good risk.  I thought it worked for her.  But Simon’s comments were important not only for the contestants but for all of us as well.

There are a few singers who have learned early on that if they do a certain thing, the audience is going to love them for it.  It is great to know that the singers have those skills but when those skills become the standard to the performance it not only grows stale, it becomes false to who they are.

If Simon were to offer his advice as a piece of spiritual wisdom, he might have said, “Do not let the process of living lead you away from who you are.” These are important words and hard to follow because we are always in relationship with our environment.  Peer pressure is the best example I can come up with that exemplifies what I mean.  We want to be liked by others.  We want their approval.  Nothing wrong in these two desires but the way peer pressure works; we sometimes surrender who we are in order to be liked by the in-crowd or to win approval from that in-crowd.  And it is in the doing of things that we know in our heart of hearts is not true to our center that we find ourselves being led away from authenticity.

But it is not only peer pressure that is part and parcel to the process of living.  It could be disappointments that we faced.  It could be emotional woundedness that we never quite were able to resolve to satisfaction.  The process of living can result in residual habitual behaviors that tamp down the joy that life has to offer.

The first Sunday of April is Easter; a day where Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Taken just from its metaphorical meanings, it signals that even the most insurmountable defeats do not need to be so.  New life, new possibilities, new opportunities to be our authentic selves abound even in the face of insurmountable defeats.  And so it is with Simon’s advice to the young performer. To follow the leadings of the process that the institution of the performing arts demands can be a process that leads to the tomb or if kept true to her integrity can be one of exhilarating resurrection.  The process of living does not need to wear us down.  If we remain true to who we are, maintain our integrity of self, we might find our very souls being lifted up.

Published in: on April 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm  Comments Off on The process of life  
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What Do We Do With Easter?

What do we do with Easter?

Rev. Fred L Hammond

Our Home Universalist Unitarian Church

4 April 2010 ©

Easter was always a holiday of great joy growing up.  There were dyed eggs, chocolates and gifts hidden, and new clothes. And of course there would be the wonderment of the Easter Bunny—the cousin of Santa Claus—who would scatter his candy everywhere.

In my childhood home of New York State, Easter would be the true herald of spring because it was only by Easter that the first tulips or daffodils would begin to bloom.  And maybe, if it was a particularly a warm spring, the forsythia at my home would begin to yellow.   Frost was still a possibility and there were times when a late spring snow storm would blanket the new blooms.

Easter was the few days of the year that my family would have dinner rather than supper.  Now in my family supper was served around 7 PM and dinner was served around 4:30PM.  Dinner on Easter was always fancier than supper.  We could have Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks for supper but dinner might include a roast of some sort.

The church would be filled with Easter lilies given in memory of loved ones.  These would sometimes be read aloud as part of a litany of remembrance.  I would always scan the insert to see if my grandmother’s and later my grandfather’s name would be listed.

When I was a teen, I was asked to play the part of Jesus for the Sunday School classes for a re-enactment of the last week of Jesus’ life leading up to Easter.  On Palm Sunday, we did the triumphant entry, the turning over of the money changers tables and the crucifixion.   I was laid in a tomb which was a small unused storage space under the front porch of the church.  The entrance to this area was from the first floor of the church.  There was a rock foundation and stone floor. It looked tomb like. A bench had been placed there for me to be ‘entombed.’

Now there was a Jewish couple who had been coming to the church because they enjoyed the minister’s liberal sermons.  Their daughter was about 5 years old and began attending Sunday school.  She watched attentively as I was placed in the tomb.  The following week, Easter morning, the classes gathered around the tomb only to find linen on the bench and an angel standing there saying he is not here he is risen.  The little girl turned and saw me, no longer in the role of Jesus, and exclaims, “There he is!  Jesus is alive!”

She apparently enthusiastically told her parents that Jesus was alive because that was the last time this family attended the congregation. They did not believe this part of the Christian story and did not want their child to accept something that they did not believe. I heard this child, years later was a college student studying abroad and flew back to the US aboard the ill-fated plane that crashed over Lockerbie Scotland.

When you do not believe in the resurrection, it can feel a bit awkward to celebrate Easter.   We don’t really know what to do with it.  We feel an obligation to acknowledge the day because it is part of our heritage.  But we don’t feel comfortable in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.  We instead would rather celebrate the metaphor of resurrection through the rebirth of spring.  The rebirth of spring has close ties with the pagan celebrations of new life and fertility that occurred around the spring equinox.   Many UU congregations across the south and southwest have conflated the Flower Communion with Easter celebration.  It is a way to nicely avoid the subject of the Christian belief of the resurrection.

Flower Communion was a ritual developed by Norbert Čapek as a ritual specifically for Unitarians.  He chose to celebrate the diversity of humanity through flowers as no two flowers are exactly alike.  The first Flower communion was held in June of 1923 in Prague just before the summer holidays. According to his wife, Maja Čapek, the ritual was to be more secular in its associations so as to be the most inclusive of all people, regardless of creed.   An important aspect that would grow over time as their neighboring country of Germany grew in power and intolerance of Jews and those of political differences grew deeper.  She stated in a letter[1] that conflating it with Easter would probably not have met Norbert’s approval and an alternative date to June could be to commemorate the last Sunday that he preached which was March 23 before being arrested and subsequently killed by the Nazis in Dachau concentration camp.  These meanings of diversity and acceptance found in the Flower Communion have nothing to do with Easter. I believe the two should be kept separate so that the fullness of each message can be contemplated.

So this leads back to what do we do with Easter?  How do we proclaim the resurrection when some of us might believe it to be an improbable event at best?

Paul of Tarsus, who spread the message of Christianity in the first  century of the Common Era, declared that if the resurrection did not happen, then all of the Christian faith is folly.  In his letter to the Corinthians he states, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”  (1 Corinthians 19)  I know many Unitarian Universalists who would say this is probably the first thing Paul ever said in which they can full heartedly agree.

So if Paul is correct, then we Unitarian Universalists have no reason to celebrate Easter since our hope, our salvation is indeed based in this one glorious life.  But I do not believe Paul is correct.

I think on this point, Paul got it wrong.  Sebastian Castellio after the martyrdom of Michael Servetus by burning at the stake in 1553, stated “to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine; it is but to kill a man.”[2] The same can be said of Jesus, who many call the Christ.  And just what doctrine or doctrines were sought to be protected by his death?   The doctrine that declares justice only exists for those in power.  The doctrine that declares ‘might makes right.’   The doctrine that declares that survival is only possible by looking out for number one.  The doctrine that declares grab what you can, when you can.  The doctrine that declares trust no one.

The seditious doctrine of loving your neighbor as yourself and doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is the leavening that not only lived on after the life of Jesus but multiplied and expanded throughout western civilization.  In spite of the horrible tragedies that took place in the name of the Christian church through out its 2,000 year history, tragedies that continue to occur even to this present day, these two thoughts have revolutionized the world.

Yes there is much that the Christian church has allowed to occur in its name. Actions that were more representative of evil than of godliness have occurred in every era.  But the revolutionary idea that humanity can improve and create a more just world continues to live on two thousand years later.

We can celebrate Easter not because we believe in the resurrection of Jesus.  We can celebrate Easter because we seek to adhere to the ideals of Jesus’ message of love for the other.

I attended a Good Friday service at the University Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa.  One of the parts of the service that I found personally powerful was in a section entitled, Solemn Reproaches of the Cross.   This was a litany of ills or sins.  The final one was adapted from the Gospel of Matthew: “‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’  For this you nailed me to a cross.”

We seek to do justice in the world.  We seek to not only feed the hungry but to figure out ways to prevent hunger and famine from occurring.  We seek to not only give water to the thirsty but to also find new ways and resources for clean water to be available.  We seek to not only offer shelter to the homeless but to find ways to prevent homelessness.  We seek to find ways to reduce the racism and the oppression that results in inequity in our justice system.

Nailing to the cross is the refusal to act / to help.  It is a despair that says there is nothing we can do in this life.  It echoes one of my favorite scenes from the Color Purple where Sophie confronts Ceelie on Mister’s abuse.  Ceelie says, “This side last a lil while, heaven last always.”   Ceelie is nailing her life’s situation to the cross, it is a cross of despair, a cross of helplessness, a cross of surrender to the injustices of this world in the hope of a heaven forever.  Sophie responds with, “you betta bash mister’s head open and think bout heaven later.[3]”   While I am not condoning the action Sophie recommends, the actions that we do take to create justice are in the here and now, in this lifetime.   Waiting to go to heaven to have justice is too little, too late.

Whether or not we believe in the resurrection of Jesus, we can celebrate Easter with joy because the ideals that Jesus taught continue to live on.  They are resurrected every time we seek to liberate the poor and down trodden.  Every time we seek to create a safe environment for all of our children in schools we resurrect the ideal that all have inherent worth and dignity.  Every time we seek to find ways to provide health care to all, we resurrect the ideal that all people should be able to live as healthfully as possible. Every time we tell our elected officials that blood for oil is not how we want our country to solve its problems, we resurrect the ideal that a lasting peace is a possibility.

The Standing on the Side of Love campaign that the UUA is sponsoring is lifting up the ideal that love is stronger than greed, that love is stronger than racism, that love is stronger than any ism that is swirling around in this country today.  We resurrect that notion of freedom for all.  This for me is the meaning of Easter.

It is more meaningful than the new clothes or finding hidden eggs filled with candy and trinkets.  These are nice things and I will always remember fondly the Easters of my childhood and the joy a child experienced when she thought she spied the resurrected Jesus in her midst.

In some ways she was right.  She did see Jesus alive.  And her joy in seeing Jesus resurrected is an experience we can all experience when ever we see another person seeking to live out the message of Jesus’ life to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  Whether it is a simple kindness like a smile and a hug or working tirelessly to right an age old injustice, there the spirit of Jesus is found.  There the Buddha is revealed.  There Gandhi-ji is honored.  There the Dali Lama is emulated. There Rosa Parks is sitting for justice again.  There Mother Theresa is loving the poor.   There the alleluias are being sung!


[1] Henry, Richard Norbert Fabian Čapek: A Spiritual Journey (Skinner House, 1999)

[2] as found 2 April 2010 at http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/michaelservetus.html

[3] http://www.moviequotes.com/repository.cgi?pg=3&tt=77439

Published in: on April 5, 2010 at 12:01 am  Comments (1)  
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