We Begin in Water

We begin

in water

and emerge

with a first breath.

We will depart

with a sigh.

In between

that first breath

and final sigh

is our journey

a unique




(c) Fred L Hammond

The religious freedom argument against HB 56 that was not made

The Federal judge, Sharon Lovelace Blackburn heard the three suits against HB 56 today.  While I supported the Department of Justice’s and the Civil Rights suits, I was most interested in the Bishop’s suit that HB 56 infringed on First Amendment rights.

I wished I had been able to track down a copy of the actual complaint because if I had I would have offered an amicus brief  presenting another argument than the one offered in court today.  Judge Blackburn was adamant that the three bishop’s;  Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic  had not made their case.

The attorney said “If the bishops encourage their clergy and congregations to serve immigrants then the bishops would have exposure to be in violation of the law.”  What?  This is not about the bishops.  This is about seeking to fulfill the tenets of faith that teach to welcome the stranger, to serve the poor, to provide resources that enable the immigrant to live here.

The Judge repeated the question, how does this statute prevent the church from practicing its faith. How does it prevent the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion?  “Saying it does, does not make it so,” Judge Blackburn stated. As I listened to the judge read portions of the bishop’s affidavit, I would agree.

One of the bishops wrote that this law would impinge on his freedom of religion by prohibiting him from offering counsel to an immigrant pregnant woman where by not being able to receive his counsel she might then get an abortion.  I sat there in horror. This was their argument?

Judge Blackburn simply did not see the argument of infringement because the argument was based on doctrinal beliefs and not on services congregations provide based on living their faith. There is nothing in Section 13 that speaks to doctrinal beliefs and therefore does not impinge on freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of assembly the judge stated. The Bishop’s example provided was so far fetched and out of touch with what his congregations are doing that I was stunned at the weakness of this argument.

Let me back track with a story.  In Danbury, CT there developed in the 1990’s a large community of Brazilians.  The question arose as to why Danbury as a destination point?   The answer was simple.  Danbury had a well established and large Portuguese community which provided among other things  a Portuguese radio station, a Portuguese newspaper, Portuguese markets, and Portuguese worshiping communities.  Granted these were in continental dialect  Portuguese and not brazilian dialect Portuguese but the language similarities were close enough that their presence provided the resources to enable the Brazilian community to thrive and integrate easily into American society.

Congregations, regardless of faith tradition,  seeking to live out their faith teachings to welcome the stranger and to provide hospitality to the least of these  are providing the resources to enable immigrants to thrive here in Alabama.  HB 56 section 13 specifically states that harboring, transporting, and encouraging immigrants to reside in Alabama is against the law.  The free practice of our religion to provide these services as taught by our collective faiths is impinged and injured when the offering of these resources to immigrants become illegal under section 13.

What are these resources that enable and  encourage  immigrants to live here?  The provision of English as a Second language courses is a resource that will enable immigrants to live in Alabama.  The provision of meals through soup kitchens, food pantries, meals on wheels enable immigrants to live here.  The provision of church run homeless shelters, the provision of worship services in languages other than English allows/  enables/ empowers immigrants to live here. There are other resources that congregations in living out their faith provide immigrants.

Worship services do more than just feed the spirit they provide a place of community; a place where connections can be made for support.  Immigrants coming to Alabama need to find places where they can meet people who are similar enough to themselves in order to thrive.  Churches and congregations are these places because in part they are following the tenets of the faith to welcome the stranger, to feed the poor, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless.

This law on its face  states that actions that allow places of harbor, that transport immigrants to access vital resources  are actions that encourage immigrants to reside in Alabama and therefore are illegal under Section 13. The lawyer attempted to point out that section 13 does not define the terms harboring, transporting, concealing.  She further stated that Section 27 talks about entering into contracts and therefore  congregations could read this as impinging the delivery of church sacraments such as marriage.  The judge did not buy this argument because there have been no cases where a church was not allowed to perform a marriage ceremony according to its faith. The lawyer was not able to state that it was indeed the intention of the legislature to impinge faith institutions in part, I presume, because the bishops were not at the public hearings to report what was said.

When I spoke at the house public hearing, the chair of the committee sponsoring this bill stated clearly that if a congregation has undocumented immigrants worshiping in the church he would personally insure that in addition to the immigrants being arrested, the clergy would be arrested for harboring them.  The Lawyer could not state that as an answer  when the judge stated, “Everyone is exaggerating, it is not going to go that far.”  The legislator who wrote this bill intended it to go that far, I heard him after I gave my testimony against this law at the public hearing.

The best the lawyer could do was state the provision for  church exemption was removed from the senate version of this bill indicating that churches were not exempt to this law.  The judge simply did not buy this as a strong enough statement of intent.

Our hope for this law to be halted whether in whole or in part rests with the much stronger arguments presented by the U.S. Department of Justice and  the Civil Rights suits.  May it be so.

Whose are We?

That Which Holds All by Nancy Shaffer

Because she wanted everyone to feel included
in her prayer,
she said right at the beginning
several names for the Holy:
Spirit, she said, Holy One, Mystery, God

But then thinking these weren’t enough ways of addressing
that which cannot fully be addressed, she added
particularities, saying, Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
Ancient Holy One, Mystery We Will Not Ever Fully Know,
Gracious God, and also Spirit of this Earth,
God of Sarah, Gaia, Thou

And then, tongue loosened, she fell to naming
superlatives as well: Most Creative One,
Greatest Source, Closest Hope –
even though superlatives for the Sacred seemed to her
probably redundant, but then she couldn’t stop:

One who Made the Stars, she said, although she knew
technically a number of those present didn’t believe
the stars had been made by anyone or thing
but just luckily happened.

One Who Is an Entire Ocean of Compassion,
she said, and no one laughed.
That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning,
she said, and the room was silent.

Then, although she hadn’t imagined it this way,
others began to offer names.

Peace, said one.
One My Mother Knew, said another.
Ancestor, said a third.
Breath, said one near the back.
That Which Holds All.
A child said, Water.
Then: Womb.
Great Kindness.
Great Eagle.
Eternal Stillness.

And then, there wasn’t any need to say the things
she’d thought would be important to say,
and everyone sat hushed, until someone said


“Whose Are We?” Rev. Fred L Hammond
21 August 2011 ©

Those of us who are old enough to remember the Hippie Movement, perhaps some of us even were hippies, when asking about a friend might hear, “’He’s off to find himself, man.”  It was a time of self-exploration, of dropping out of society, to wander across the country, to participate in vision quests in the hopes of finding oneself.  It was a quest that was often met with derision from the then over 30 crowd. But the quest is as universal as any other experience.  Who am I? Where do I belong?  What am I supposed to do with my life?

In some European cultures when their youth graduate high school would take a moratorium, a year or two off, to explore life a bit before going back to school for an advanced degree.  It is not a bad idea.  How many of our high school graduates know what they want to do for the rest of their life when they enter college.  How many change majors more than once as they attempt to sort things out for themselves.  The quest to find oneself, to become aware of who one is, is an important question to ask.  But if that is all we ponder then we risk falling into a sort of self-love that borders on idolatry.  We risk the fate of Narcissus, the Greek tale of a handsome young man who fell in love with a reflection of himself but found this love to be unfulfilled and subsequently died.

Rev. Colin Bossen interprets the story of Narcissus as lifting “up the importance of being connected to something other than, something greater than, ourselves. If Narcissus had been connected to something other, something greater, than himself he would not have died. The same is true for us. If we are not connected to something greater then we risk falling into a consuming self-love and spiritually wasting away.”[i]

So the quest to discover who we are, is an important one, but if it ends there it leaves us wanting. So as we ask who are we, we need to follow up the question with whose are we?  To what or whom are we responsible?  To whom are we accountable?  Who lays claim to me / us?

Last summer the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association began a nation wide conversation on the question whose are we?  And in the fall our various minister chapters gathered and began to ask the question of each other, whose are you?  We continued to answer the question to whose are you until we had no more responses left to give.  The response our listeners were to give to each of our answers was “God be merciful.”

The response was just as challenging as the question.  In the room were myriad concepts as to what god is or isn’t. The word merciful in this context also brought on debate, what is mercy? How can the Mystery, the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of this Earth, Gaia, One my mother knew, That which holds all, and Breath, be merciful?  And what is mercy in the context of whose am I?

In my own journey there are many who have laid claim to me in some fashion and whether they still lay claim to me today or not, these relationships have shaped my perspective on the world and shape my actions.

Whose am I?  I am my family’s.  I learned early in life that my actions and the actions of each member reflect on my family as a whole.  When I was growing up to say that one came from a good family was an important statement in society.  I experienced the emotional disappointment of others when expectations were not met by me or by any one of my family.  At some point in time we all fell short of the ideal we sometimes held high of the other. Sometimes we were able to find forgiveness for each other and sometimes forgiveness came too late.  God be merciful.

Whose am I? I am the earth’s.  My grandparents on my father side were conservationists. My grandmother would take me on walks and show me all the great variety of life that grew on their property.  She would point out the subtle differences between two varieties of Hepaticas, an early spring flower.  One variety had leaves rounded and another had leaves that came to a point but the flowers looked the same.  And she would reveal to me the diversity of life even within the same species.  A fern frond has one point and another frond on the same fern ends in two. All living things express diversity. Observe life on earth and it will reveal its secrets.

But the greatest secret of all was that all things grew out of the earth in one fashion or another and all things would return.  Whether it was the pitcher plants that would die off and sink into the bog on the edge of the old ice pond or the insects that would fall into its pooled water to feed it, all things find nourishment from the earth and all things would one day return to it, including me.  Spirit of the Earth be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my childhood friend Glenn’s.  My relationship with Glenn was a life altering one. We were best friends in junior and senior high school, both gay, but back then both too afraid to say those words aloud.  I sought refuge in Christianity and Glenn found reconciliation and came out of the closet.  We remained friends and I would visit him every so often in our adult lives. Then in 1987, Glenn told me he was HIV positive.

I sought to find a way to support him from afar—that support led to my co-founding Interfaith AIDS Ministry, serving as board president then stepping into the Executive Director position when the fledgling agency lost its third director in about the same number of years. This agency went on to serve hundreds of people living with HIV/AIDS, preserving family integrity of families affected by this disease, and empowering youth to be prevention educators to their peers.

In the process I reconciled my own sexuality and was excommunicated from my Christian community. Glenn died before I became director, before I came out of the closet, but I was able to thank him for being in my life and opening my life to new possibilities. One who is an entire ocean of Compassion be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am god’s.  My favorite hymn from childhood was I Come to the Garden Alone.  Some of you may know it from your childhood as well. I loved the chorus especially where “He tells me I am His own.”  Believing that I belonged to god was an important part of my identity as a child and as a young adult.  As a child struggling between my sexuality and the churches teaching that my mere sexuality, prior to any behavioral expression of same, meant I was an abomination; the knowledge that I was god’s brought me comfort.

My childhood faith in a loving god and my young adult faith in a god who heals the broken was one of immense hope that belonging to god would bring me the deliverance I sought.  As I came to realize that my sexuality is fine just as it is; the deliverance I found was not from my sexuality but rather from a restrictive dogmatic belief.

I began to see the eternal as something far more fluid, far more flexible in expression than I ever realized. This realization resulted in being excommunicated from a community I called home, divorced from people that I loved dearly, shaken from a faith that no longer could answer my questions and opened the doors to a freedom I was only just beginning to experience.  Closest Hope be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am justice’s.  Two of my great grandfathers, my grandfather, granduncle and grandaunt were public servants.  One great grandfather served as Mayor and County Judge.  Another great grandfather was President of the Board of Health. My grandfather served as town supervisor.  A granduncle was a lawyer who assisted in rewriting the mental health legislation for New York State. My grandaunt, also a lawyer, was a consultant in the writing of the constitution for the country of Liberia until a military coup assassinated their president.

They served their constituents well and in the process instilled in me a sense of duty to protect the welfare of other’s rights and freedoms.  The duty of justice-making led me to support the formation of a people’s first chapter for the developmentally disabled, found an agency to advocate for medical care for people living with AIDS, coordinate the formation of Faith Leaders for Peace in San Diego, March to Washington for equality for LGBT people, and most recently organize an interfaith response in the form of yesterday’s rally; Somos Tuskaloosa: Neighbors against HB 56.  The drive for justice where oppression lives, the drive to empower voice where speech has been silenced is as deep a part of me as the blood the flows through my veins.  Yes, I am justice’s.  Refuge be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my ancestor’s history.  I grew up on the legends of a proud family history.  Many of the legends in investigating them did not equal the reality of their lives.  Yet other stories emerged. Some painful to uncover like my 12th great-grandmother Adrienne Cuvelier who is blamed for the first massacre of the Manhattan natives in 1634.  She is also the mother of the first white male child born on these shores.  Others emerged with joy like my 9th great grandmother Anne Dudley, who was the author of the first published book of American poems. At my nephews wedding, a poem by Anne Dudley was quoted unbeknownst to the bridal couple that these words brought his 10th great grandmother into the wedding ceremony.  There are grandfathers who fought in the war of 1812, the civil war, the Spanish American War, and the War to end all wars with the guns and swords from these wars echoing on our family’s walls.   There was the great-uncle who was the accountant for Thomas Edison.   And the host of ministers, too many to count who stood in pulpits and preached their truth.  There is the wonder; what of their life story still courses through my veins? Ancestor be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am the universe’s.  One who made the stars be merciful.

Whose am I? I am America’s. Great Eagle be merciful.

Whose am I?  I am my deepest desire’s.  Most Creative One be merciful.

Whose am I? I am yours.  Spirit of Love be merciful.

Whose are you? Who do you find yourself most accountable to in this life?  Who do you strive to remain in relationship with no matter what the cost?  To whom do you find yourself being shaped and guided in ways that are mysterious, ever unfolding, and perhaps enlightening?  That Which Has Been Present Since Before the Beginning be merciful.  Blessed be.

[i]“Who Do We Serve?” preached by the Rev. Colin Bossen, March 6, 2011 at Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. As found at http://www.uucleveland.org/worship/WhoDoWeServe.php

“Pillar to Post: Musings of a Wandering Jew”

(This sermon  was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by past President Ana Schuber on August 14 2011 ©. It  is a reflection on the Tornado of April 27, 2011. But it is more than that, it is a powerful story of resilience over the course of a lifetime in the face of immense change. It is a story of healing and of hope.  I offer it here with permission.)


First let me assure those of you who are somewhat confused by the title of this talk:  I have not become a believer…still very much an atheist.  The wandering Jew I am talking about is something similar to this—a wandering Jew (lift plant into view).  Get it?

What makes me have anything in common with a wandering plant?  Well, let me say that although I try to put down roots, it appears to be the intent of the universe to keep me on the run.  (And by the way, when I finish today, someone should take this plant home with them because with my history of moving, it will probably be left here and die).

From Pillar to Post:  an Idiom which is a grammar term I love.  It means “from one place to another:  hither and thither, aimlessly from place to place, from one situation or predicament to another, pretty much the history of my life.  My family dragged me from pillar to post my entire young life.  When I was young, I was allowed one old military trunk to put my “stuff” in.  The trunk itself had had a wandering existence and I inherited it from my uncle who had used it in the Korean War long before it came to me.  Inside that trunk, I had a few toys, books, maps, pencils, artwork, etc.  Since that was the entire collection of things in my life, I was always careful to choose very tiny things to put in there.  I could have a lot if I had very tiny stuff.  To this day, I am not big on souvenirs.  I went to England several years ago…a trip of the lifetime and of all the things I could have come home with, I chose this:  Anubis, a small dog god from the British Museum.  He would have fit nicely in my old trunk.  But even my old trunk is in disarray at this moment in my life.  After listening to Deb Crocker last week talk about collections, I feel like this particular talk should be titled anti-collections, but we are not here to talk about collecting things unless events and places could be considered things.

From Pillar to Post:  Just for fun, I decided to see if I could write down all the places that I lived from the moment of birth to now deciding to only include places I lived for longer than six months:  Albuquerque-New Mexico, Brewton-Alabama, Montgomery-Alabama, Cheyenne-Wyoming, Oklahoma City, Travis Air Base-California, Yokota-Japan, Clark Air Base-Philippians, Birmingham-Alabama, Langley-Virginia, Wheeler Air Base-Hawaii, McCord-Washington State,  Birmingham-Alabama, Langley-Virginia, Teheran-Iran, Kansas City-Missouri, Warrensburg-Missouri, Fort Worth-Texas, Kansas City-Missouri, Sedalia-Missouri, Tuscaloosa-Alabama—4 different addresses.    This doesn’t include the places we lived for less than six months and then I have to add a whole ‘nother continent for that since part of it was in Germany, Greece, Wake Island and Guam just to name a few.

From Pillar to Post:  In terms of a bucket list of tragedies,  I have actually punched my card full including:  war zones in Beirut and Teheran, earthquakes in Japan & Iran, Hurricanes including  Camille, Opal, Erin, and Katrina, Asian hurricanes called Typhoons, Volcanoes—seen one not actually had to run from one, floods in Kansas City and Missouri, Fires in Oklahoma, Tsunamis in Hawaii, and while I have seen and loved (yes, I said loved) tornadoes from afar, I have finally ticked that one off my list.

I won’t say that what happened on April 27th was the worst thing that has ever happened to me, although it did produce one of the worst nights of my life and not because I lost part of my stuff or a house…it was because I didn’t know where people I loved were and because I didn’t have control of myself. It was the first time in my life, I didn’t have a plan.  I didn’t have an idea.  I didn’t have a map.  Hell, starting over is my old friend.  I left Iran after being invited to leave by the Ayatollah Khomeini.  We left with my family and my trunk and I went to college.  I walked out of a marriage taking only my kids, the cats, an old computer and our clothes and I rebuilt a life.  I thought I liked starting over with nothing.  Empty my trunk and I can fill it again.  My story is buried deep inside and it can’t be touched by disaster and I don’t need that “stuff” to continue the story.

This time, however, I have encountered within me a different reaction to change.  I have to admit defeat somewhat in my effort to quickly overcome the moment and move on to the next without looking back.  Yesterday, I overheard a volunteer who works with one of the local area support organizations say that the recovery from the April storms is slated to take us up to three years.  Three years to recover to what?  I winced when I heard that.  I am so ready to be over the April storms.  I am tired of hearing about the tornado.  I am tired of talking about the tornado.  I am ready to be on with my life.  I am tired of the look in people’s eyes.  You know that look…it is a lost sort of look with tears around the edges.  I am tired of that feeling inside when I know that I am not going to be able to hold back the tears myself.  I am tired of driving past places I know deep down in my soul and not recognizing them.  I am tired of feeling like a grumpy toddler who just wants to go home.  Every day when I leave the parking lot on the campus, I want to turn toward the east and head home to 18 Forest Drive.  I want to pick up food at China Fun and stop at Sonic and get me a large unsweet iced tea.  I want to go home.

It is not just me.  I look around and it is all of us.  It is the older lady who sat beside me in the hospital the other day and in a very loud voice said “they need to put that McDonald’s back on 15th street so I know where to turn. I drove past it twice.”  It is the kids that are starting back to school this week and last and they are not where they were before.  It is all of us when we drive down one of the affected roads at night and there are no lights.  It is the eerie shapes in the partial darkness around us that are the skeletons of former homes and businesses.  It is the naked and stripped trees that stand against the sky.  It is with us when we think about running to Hobby Lobby or Taco Casa or Milo’s.  It is in our language when we realize that we now have to say…”where it used to be….”  It is with me when I stand on what is now an empty lot and I can’t even remember what it looked like before the storms.

Have I been here before?  I have always been this way before.  It is just the recovery time that is longer.  Usually when I have a life changing moment, I am intact.  I may not have a lot, but whatever I have is all with me after the moment has passed.  This is different.  At this moment, I don’t know where a lot of my stuff is.  I had a call from a friend the other day and he said, “I have some of your art in my kitchen.”  I didn’t know he had anything.  Makes me wonder what else is out there.  It is like waking up as the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz and hearing him say, after the flying monkeys have torn him up….”they threw my legs over there and they threw the rest of the me over there….”  I have talked to others who were affected by the storms and they say the same thing.

What are the lessons that we learn from this event whether we lost something or not?  There are many.

We have to cry.

There was a death here on a massive scale.  Not just the death of people although that was a horrible result of it as well.  But the death of certainty hangs heavy upon us.  Nothing seems certain any more.  We have to grieve and that means denying it, getting mad at it, stomping feet, falling to our knees and crying over stupid things like a lost quilt or a lost book or a favorite sweater or a well-loved restaurant or a gardenia bush.  The tears will be warm and they will wash away and they will comfort.

We have to ask for help.

For some of us that is difficult, not because we are so proud we can’t accept it, but because we are so independent that we almost don’t know how to ask for it, and for many of us we don’t know how we will ever pay back the favor and that weighs heavy on our hearts.  They say three years, but it could be much longer.  This is a long journey back and so there will be for some of us many opportunities before the journey ends to ask for help and really need it.

We have to show Gratitude.

The moment that it happened, there was kindness all around.  In the eyes of the young man who was dressed in National Guard Kaki, the one that told me “Ma’am, you can’t go home tonight” and then “Is there anything I can do?”  The water that was handed out, the chainsaws that just arrived, the sweet faces of friends who just appeared, the hot dogs, the people who called and texted, the ones who showed up to pack, the ones who held our hands and let us cry, the ones who gave us strength or boxes or a place to live, or handed us cash or gave us a hug.   I have written close to 60 thank-you notes trying so hard to let everyone know who has helped me, whether or not I know them personally or not how much I appreciate the help, the little bit of glue that they have offered to bind up my life and put it back together….and if I have left you out in some way, please know that it meant something, everything and I thank you.

We have to allow the change to shape us.

Whoever we are is ephemeral–always changing.  We may think we remain the same, but in fact we change and the role of crisis sometimes is to uncover the authentic self —sometimes that “self” that we hide from the rest of the world.  For me, the crusty curmudgeon, it means letting a more vulnerable self have a moment in the sunshine.  I don’t have the faith that some of you do in a god or angels, but I do have a faith and it keeps me going.  Someone right after the tornado, who knows I am an atheist came up to me and said…”after that, I bet you believe in god”.  While I believe I could have decked him with one blow, I simply said “well, I’ll tell you one thing I believe in the power of that tornado.”  My brand of faith hasn’t been shaken.  I still know that 2+2 is 4 and that when I put sugar in my coffee it is sweet and that the sun rises because the earth continues to turn and that tornadoes are random and powerful and mighty and beautiful and terrible and life-changing.  I am different, we all are.     

We have to let some of it go. 

In order to heal our hearts, we have to find our way out of the damage and let “before” go.  Who hasn’t looked back over his or her life and with nostalgia welling-up and wished for a new start? Rare, indeed, is the person who has never said, “If I had my life to live over again, I’d…”  or “I wish there was some wonderful place called the land of beginning again…”,  Every pillar or post that I have encountered has made me who I am.  Although playing the “what if” game is sometimes fun on a Saturday afternoon, it is not really what I want.  I accept the storms of April and the changes in my life.  The Etch-A-Sketch events of that terrible moment offers me and you a clean slate, a clean beach an empty lot of land to build again.                                                       

Within the darkness that we will feel for some time, we will find redemption; we will find the ability to see the faint light that can shine on the faint new path that will take us—all of us– to a new home.