Standing on the Side of Love–a Spiritual Practice

Yesterday I went to the Statehouse in Montgomery to testify against HB 56, Alabama’s version of Arizona’s SB 1070.  As I listened to the testimony of those who were for this bill, I was struck by the anger they felt towards the values I hold dear.

Values like compassion for others.  Values like acceptance of diversity.  Values like equal opportunities for all.  Values like honoring the integrity and dignity of others. Values like having life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness accessible for everyone.

My faith denomination, Unitarian Universalist,  has been the sponsors of the Standing of the Side of Love Campaign.  It has been used in several ways.  It is prominent in the ongoing immigrant rights struggle in Arizona and elsewhere.  It is prominent in supporting Muslim’s right to freedom of religion in Tennessee and in New York City and other places in America.  It is prominent in the right to marriage campaign across this country.  And most recently, it has been supporting workers rights for collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

One of the criticisms lobbied at Unitarian Universalists is that we are not spiritual, that we are too much of the head and not enough, if at all, of the heart.  It has been a fair criticism.  We Unitarian Universalists value reason and critical thinking skills as a way to cut through the unprovable and the improbable in order to see the core of the matter in the hopes that we can make a difference for the better of all of our lives.  Sometimes we have succeeded and sometimes it has been our thorn in our side.

The Standing on the Side of Love campaign is in its very essence a remedy to that criticism.  Many years ago now, I decided to join Rev. Mel White, founder of Soulforce, in a seventeen step journey towards preparation in confronting the homophobia and violent rhetoric within the Christian Church.  This was a series of essays and reflections which I was invited to journal about and discuss with a friend before joining Mel White in Lynchburg, VA to speak with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell about his vitriol against gays.

One of the things Mel White wrote was this:

“When we seek freedom for someone else, we find freedom for ourselves. When we finally make the decision to take a stand against oppression (or the rhetoric that leads to oppression) that stand itself leads us to spiritual renewal whether we win or we lose the battle.”

Those who begin to engage in Standing on the Side of Love have an opportunity, to not only achieve the desired goal of undoing a grave injustice but also to experience a spiritual renewal within themselves.  Okay so that sounds self-centered and not altruistic in the least.

Yet, it is only ourselves that we can change. I cannot make someone else love their neighbor as they themselves would like to be loved.  But I can do that.  I can choose to love my neighbor.  I can reflect on what that action means to me and reinforce it into my behavior.  I can join with others who also choose to love their neighbor and together we can reflect on our common experiences of doing that act and build that into our way of being together.  This is what our Unitarian Universalist congregations aim to do every Sunday.

We can role model that behavior for others to witness.  Standing on the Side of Love is spiritual work.  It is not simply wearing a yellow t-shirt or placing a heart logo on our facebook page.  It is and can be a spiritual practice that helps us be fully in touch with our humanity’s soul.

I do not know how I will be able to face the anger that I faced yesterday if I do not choose to stand on the side of love daily.  I do not know how I will address that anger and possibly soften their anger to seeing another way if I do not choose to stand on the side of love daily.

I invite you to join me to stand on the side of love as if your life and faith depends on it.  I know mine does.  Blessings.

SB 1070: What’s all the Fuss About?

A friend of mine asked what the fuss was all about because the judge stayed several of the controversial pieces in SB 1070 so why were people still protesting in Phoenix, AZ?  The simple answer is a partial victory is not a victory.

There were still portions of the law that placed Latinos and other Arizona citizens at risk. One aspect of the law that was upheld was the ability to charge a driver of vehicle for human trafficking and to impound the vehicle.  This would include churches that go into neighborhoods to pick people up for church activities, should any of the individuals attending church through church provided transportation be undocumented then the driver is charged with human trafficking and the church van is impounded.

No Clergy Special!

In the foyer of the Maricopa Jail there was a sign that listed “No visits, No Money, Legal Visits Only” and then in pen was scrawled “No Clergy Special!” The church does not have any privilege here.  My point is that if you were thinking Sheriff Joe Arpaio would not go after the congregations transporting undocumented people  to attend church, think again.

Another aspect upheld prohibited the picking up of day laborers at day labor sites.  Thereby effectively limiting a source of possible income for unemployed people, regardless of status.  If the laborers could not get transportation to the labor sites then they cannot work.  In this economy, day labor can be the difference between having food and shelter and being homeless.

But the larger answer is that racial profiling was happening even when it wasn’t codified into the law.  I know, I know, the law specifically states racial profiling is not allowed in order to enforce this law, but the words are meaningless when contrasted with the actions performed.

I listened to the first hand stories of the people who have been harassed daily by police for the the minutest infraction, infractions that white people are rarely called into account.  A tail light was cracked. Driving 57 in a 55 mile zone.  The trailer hitch obscured a letter/ number of the car tag.  The car tag was crooked.  Being stopped once in a great while is one thing but when it becomes a daily or weekly occurrence, it is profiling.  These are the infractions that the people were concerned would become the “reasonable suspicion” for being asked to show their papers of citizenship.

We who are white would think being stopped by the police would be for something a bit more tangible, like driving 70 mph in a 55 mph zone or driving under the influence, things that posed a safety risk to self and others.   So we (whites)  have a hard time understanding differentiating between a routine stop and what Latinos are experiencing.

Our Whiteness gives us privilege for minor infractions to be ignored or if we are stopped for these minor infractions we are given a warning, sometimes written/ sometimes verbal.  These folks are not given a written warning they are arrested and the stayed portions of SB 1070 means the questions of documentation can only be asked after the person is arrested on a charge.

This division became all the more evident when I heard the stories of those arrested in the actions on July 29th.   My Anglo colleagues were not once asked their country of origin.  My Latino colleagues were. One of my colleagues refused to answer the country of origin question and was then subjected to five separate interviews with ICE agents. She simply was not white enough to assume American status.  My Anglo colleagues when given a “psyche” evaluation were handed the questionnaire with all of the no answers circled as one big circle and asked if this was correct,”if so we are done here.”  My Latino and African American colleagues were asked each question individually, one question asked was “Do you ever wake up feeling despondent or depressed?”  In Arizona where you feel your ethnic community is being targeted, what is the correct response to this question?  White privilege was in full force operation.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio made a rare visit to see those arrested on July 29th.  He looked at the clergy arrested and went up to one of my colleagues who is fair skin with light ginger hair and asked, “And why are you here?”  The implication being he did not belong with these Latinos.  The sheriff made threatening gestures towards some of the local clergy arrested letting them know they will now be watched and possibly harassed by the county police. The fuss is that this man is a racist with an agenda to purify Arizona.

One of the Puente leaders arrested was arraigned in the wee hours but held for another four to five hours after arraigned for release, came out of the jail and then he and  his party waiting for him went to their cars which happened to now be parked at an expired meter.  Upon their entering the vehicle to leave, police cars surrounded the vehicle and were going to arrest him again for violating the conditions of his release by having a car parked at an expired meter. This is the sort of harassment that happens on a daily basis.

The message is clear, the county police are going to intimidate the Latino population and hopefully make it so hostile that they will indeed through “enforcement by attrition” reduce the  Latino and Native American population in the state.  I mention Native Americans because Native Americans are Mexicans, their heritage has been native to this part of the country for thousands of years.  Many are tri-lingual, speaking their native tongue, Spanish,  and English.

The fuss is that the State Legislature and Governors office (not the citizens of Arizona) have declared that it is a criminal offense to be in this country without papers.  The truth is being in this country without documentation is a federal civil violation and not a crime. The fuss is that the 14th amendment of the US Constitution states that only the Federal government can create immigration laws.  The fuss is that the Sheriff Joe Arpaio sees immigrants as less than human and treats them less than dogs.  When Sheriff Arpaio abducted Salvador Reza for no probable cause, he was held in a van for two hours with no air conditioning.  Arizona in July is already one of the hottest places in the country, being locked in a van for two hours in that kind of heat, knowing that heat inside cars can climb very fast to a killing heat is a form of torture. Senor Reza at that moment became a political prisoner.  The fuss is that this law only codifies the racist actions that Sheriff Joe Arpaio wants to hostilely inflict on the Latino and Native American communities.  The fuss is that the State Legislature and the Governor’s office wants to redefine the American Dream/American Values as only being for white America.

This is not what America is about.  We declared that all people are created equal with unalienable rights… we declared that we are a nation with justice and liberty for all.  We declared that this was a land of opportunity for all people…

The fuss is that one of the core values of the iconic republican,  President Reagan’s farewell address is being ignored:  “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace, a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity, and if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it and see it still”

These are the American Values this country was founded on; equality for all people, justice for all people, liberty for all people.  There are no skin color tests, no brown paper bag tests that determine whether a person qualifies to live with these values.   These values are for all our people.

I join with my Colleague Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is proclaiming “not one more person, not one more family torn apart.” Not in Arizona, Not in Mississippi, Not in Alabama.  Not in any town or state in this country where we proclaim as sacred the right to equality, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.


Desiring a Refreshing Wind

by Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa 16 May 2010 ©

Reading from the Christian Scriptures: The Acts of the Apostles chapter 2:1-8

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”

Just over one hundred years ago on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, a group of men and women gathered to pray in a revival.  This was an old fashion, bible thumping, hands up in the air, glory hallelujah kind of revival.  And then something happened.  People began to speak in what sounded like strange languages. But what also was unique is that this revival in 1906 was integrated. One account reports, “African-Americans, Latinos, whites, and others prayed and sang together, creating a dimension of spiritual unity and equality, almost unprecedented for the time.[1]

This event is heralded as the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the Christian church.  From this beginning several Pentecostal denominations were born, such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God, and Pentecostal Holiness Church.  Pentecostalism is rivaled only by Islam as being the fastest growing faith in the world today.

Now there is one major difference between what happened on Azusa Street and what happened in the Christian text we just heard (Acts 2).  The difference is this: each one heard them speaking in his own language.    In Pentecostalism and in the Charismatic Movement that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s, people who heard others speaking in tongues could not understand each other unless the hearers were supernaturally graced to do so.

There is only one place that I know of where people speak in other tongues and others are able to understand them.  That place, my friends, is right here in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation.   And it is a gift that we often fail to cultivate to its fullest potential.

What am I talking about?  Did I suddenly say words that seem incomprehensible?  I am going to do what many Pentecostal ministers do when preaching and refer back to the text of the day.   The text states that when all of these Jews who came from all over the known world to worship in Jerusalem heard the disciples speak, they heard them speak in their own language and were amazed.   The men and women, who had gathered still in grief over the death of their teacher, began to speak in words that others could hear and understand.

And who are we?  We are a people who gather together professing no specific creed.  Right here in this congregation we have people who profess a Christian faith, a Hindu faith, a Jewish faith, an atheist faith, a pagan faith, or possibly a New Thought faith.  We are a diverse people who speak many different tongues.  Yet here we are, covenanting together to create a community that welcomes, promotes our differences.   We have chosen to dialogue together about our various creeds so that when we meet a person who has a creed that is different than our own, we can be open and affirming with that person.  Because we have learned, some better than others, to hear those beliefs and creeds in our own language and at the same time honor the unique differences of their faith.

My spiritual journey includes the Catholic Charismatic movement.  And I remember prayer meetings where softly in one section a person would begin to sing in tongues, and then another, and another.  Suddenly the whole room would be singing, some would seem to have a melody line, and others carried the harmonies.  The voices would rise and fall easily like waves on the ocean.  And then as if conducted by an unseen maestro, the singing would stop.   It was a very beautiful experience of harmony.   But one can only have harmony if different notes are being sung.

And here we are, singing our song together, a Humanist voice joining with a Hindu voice, a Christian voice, and a Pagan voice.  And what is more, we are coming together in understanding.  We understand that each of us is needed to make the beloved community.

Several years ago when I was in San Diego, I served as coordinator for an anti-war initiative called Faith Leaders for Peace[2].  It was an initiative with 75 clergy from various faiths which sponsored events to support the end of the Iraqi and Afghani wars.  We held two interfaith services during my time there, one on the anniversary of the Iraqi war and one on Memorial Day.  The services were coordinated by Unitarian Universalists.   We know how to do interfaith services.  We know how to include voices that on the surface might seem to have disparity and find the common thread that weaves us together.  At the same time we know how to honor the differences of those threads.

A comment frequently heard from those who do not understand this aspect of our faith, is how are we held together as a community when we are diverse theologically?  Ask any weaver and you will hear that silk is spun from the most delicate of threads made by the silk worm and yet when woven together is a strong fabric.   And so too are the threads of diversity that creates our faith of Unitarian Universalism.

In honoring the diversity of beliefs within our hallowed walls we have discovered that diversity of beliefs adds to our humanity and understanding of life.  We have discovered that it is our diversity that makes us stronger spiritually and gives us increased insight into the mystery we call life.

Later this month, Buddhists will be celebrating Buddha Day. It is a day to honor the life of the Buddha. There is one story that the Buddha told that reflects this truth of diverse perspectives.

Four blind men were asked to describe an elephant.  One blind man felt the legs of the elephant and said, the elephant was like four huge trees, sturdy and strong.  A second man felt the side of the elephant and said, No that is not so, the elephant is like a huge wall, tall and wide.   A third man after feeling the trunk of the Elephant said, No you are mistaken, the elephant is like a snake, able to coil and strike.  The fourth man after feeling the tail said, you are all wrong; the elephant is like a whip.  The Buddha said that we are like the four blind men only able to see from our perspective but not able to see the whole.

Several years ago, when I asked a religious education class to draw the pictures the blind men described in order to draw an elephant, the result was a very silly looking picture.  Something was still missing of what an elephant looks like.

We have this understanding of truth that our individual perspectives are valid and yet only when we combine them can we even begin to gain a glimpse of the whole.   Yet, we also know that even combining our perspectives might still lead to a distorted and perhaps silly picture of what the elephant of truth might look like.   It is this perspective that needs to be heard in our land today because we know that in dialogue, in using all of our gifts that the hard rough boundaries of these images begin to soften and transform allowing the true essence and shape of the elephant to come into focus.

It is not only the ability to understand and bridge the diverse theology in this nation that Unitarian Universalists are capable of providing.  We have an opportunity to assist this nation in embracing the diversity of ethnicities in our land as well.  Paula Cole Jones, UUA consultant spoke at the Mid-South District Annual Assembly and offered us this statistic.  “75% of people in this country aged 70 and above identify as white, 75% of people in this country aged 10 and younger identify as people of color.” This means that in our lifetimes America will become predominantly a non-white culture for the first time in its history.

Shirley Chisholm, first African American woman elected to Congress and first African American woman to run for president, once said, “We Americans have the chance to become someday a nation in which all racial stocks and classes can exist in their own selfhoods, but meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically. We can become a dynamic equilibrium, a harmony of many different elements, in which the whole will be greater than all its parts and greater than any society the world has seen before. It can still happen.”

Remember what happened at the Azusa Street revivals where African Americans, Latinos, and whites came together to pray in one worship service.  It was remarked as being unprecedented for the time.  Sunday mornings at 11 AM is still considered the most segregated hour in America.  Now this integration did not last because William Seymour, the African American minister of Azusa Street, had as his mentor Charles Parham a white minister from the segregated south who thought this integration was an abomination. Parham sought to divide the congregation which he did effectively; the result was the formation of predominantly black Pentecostal and predominantly white Pentecostal denominations in the Pentecostal movement.

There was for a brief moment during that 1906 revival for whatever else it may have represented religiously, a dissolving of racial tensions.  It was an opportunity that others, specifically Parham and his ilk, could not condone nor accept.   At this point in our American history we seem to be at a similar fork in the road. One road leads to a broader appreciation of our multi-cultural diversity where ethnicities other than Anglo will be the majority by 2030 or there about.  The other road leads to increased polarization, increased racist behavior, increased attempts for white supremacy to rule.

With the passage of two laws in Arizona and a third bill working its way up the legislature, it seems that some people in this country want to travel down the road leading to increased polarization and increased racist behavior.   Other states are already looking to follow Arizona’s lead.

The Arizona governor may protest that the new immigration law does not target native and Latino descent people but that argument falls silent in light of their other new law which is a blatant attack on two cultures of our citizens.  This new law states that teaching ethnic studies are to be banned and that teachers who speak with an accent will be banned from teaching English. The reason given for banning the courses is because they “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

First, this country was founded on the principle of overthrowing an oppressive government; it is written into our Declaration of Independence.  The closest we came to doing this in the United States was during the civil war.  A war that did not successfully end the racial oppression in this country yet is representative of this principle.   Since this war we generally have sought other means to over turn injustices through an election to remove the officials not representing the will of the people or Supreme Court rulings. But it is a people’s right to change the government that is oppressive to the liberties that are fundamentally endowed to us.

Second, understanding the place in history a group of people played in shaping our country is important.  Arizona, like many states in the southwest was once part of Mexico and before that belonged to the native peoples.  How Arizona came to be a United States territory was through the Mexican- American war of 1846-1848.   Texas had laid claims to the northern territories of Mexico when it declared independence from Mexico ten years earlier.  So when the US annexed Texas, we sent troops into the territories that Texas claimed, including parts of Arizona.  Mexican Americans even though technically citizens as of 1848 were not recognized as citizens for decades.  Their allegiance to the United States remained under suspicion even after statehood was conferred to Arizona in 1912.   This is the albeit brief history that Arizona no longer wants taught to its Mexican American citizens in its ethnic studies because it places Anglo America in a bad light.

Our history is our history whether we agree with what our ancestors did or not, it is still our history.  Being aware of that history and how it shapes current attitudes and policies is important to an informed electorate.

Third, ethnic solidarity over individualism is a cultural moré of many Latino cultures therefore to ban a course that might emphasize community is a direct attack on a people’s heritage. Insisting that people are individuals and not part of an ethnic identity is a tactic that repressive regimes have used to break the hold of familial influences. Individualism and ethnic solidarity need not be opposing polarities.  Individualism may be as American as apple pie but it is not better than family or ethnic loyalty. It is simply a different perspective.

Fourth, the teachers who teach English but speak with accents, presumably Spanish accents, were initially hired as part of Arizona’s bi-lingual education program which ended in 2000.  Since they could not get rid of the teachers they transferred them to teach English and now the law to ban teachers who speak with accents. Sure there is a need to ensure that English teachers have a proficiency in English grammar but there are other ways to ensure this without targeting teachers with ‘accents.’  This law is a discriminatory way to remove Latino diversity from the public schools and increase hostility towards a specific population.

The new Arizona bill, SB1097,[3] which is winding its way up the legislative process, would mandate teachers to identify and report the students in their classrooms who are from undocumented families.  The rationale given is to document the true cost of teaching undocumented families’ children. All residents of Arizona regardless of status pay for public education through various property taxes. So this bill is not about undocumented students receiving services not paid for by their families. The result of this bill would move the teachers away from their primary function and make them informants for the immigration authorities.  The possibility exists for students to be harassed for not revealing their parents’ status and if the teachers do not believe them, false reporting may result. This will encourage students to drop out of school or not enroll in school in the first place increasing the possibility of unsupervised children on the streets.  We all know that unsupervised children will inadvertently find trouble and if the children are of a specific ethnicity already being targeted, what then?

Rev. Bill Sinkford several years ago commented on what he sees in Unitarian Universalism across this country.  He comments with joy the willingness of our congregations to tackle the real day to day life challenges from our pulpits.  He is thrilled with what he describes as the resurgence of reverence, awe, and gratitude for life as being markers for us towards becoming more of who we can be.

I believe it will take more than reverence, awe, and gratitude to make us more of who we can be.  Yes, these are powerful developments for us Unitarian Universalists.  However, I see our potential as being a powerful bridge over the great chasm that has cut through this nation.   We have an ability to offer our covenantal manner of being with each other honoring our diversities.

We can do what the revivals on Azusa Street began to do but were unable to complete and that is healing the racism in our land.   The healing of racism  on Azusa Street was only the temporary feel good kind of emotionalism.   We know that to heal racism in all its forms in this country will take more than just a feel good emotion that is fleeting.

At the recent Mid-South District Assembly, I proposed a resolution which stated in part, to “Resolve to urge our member congregations to engage in a robust dialog about how both legal and illegal immigration affects their local communities and to support efforts of the United States Congress to enact legislation that addresses, in an effective and compassionate way, the entire immigration issue, and further

“Resolve to urge Unitarian Universalists from local communities to the national level to develop creative ways to bear witness to our commitment to justice, equity and compassion for all, but particularly to the poor and powerless.”

We know to do this kind of work takes the skills to listen deeply to one another, especially to the hard truths that each of us has witnessed.  We know that to do this work means we must be in relationship with the other. We know that this work is transformative work where the whole person; the intellect, the emotions, and the spirit of the person are transformed towards acceptance of humanity’s diversity.   And we know that to reinforce the transformation of the person, the institutions have to be transformed.  To only touch the emotions does not make for lasting change.

We Unitarian Universalists have at our fingertips an understanding and appreciation of the world religions.   We need to become conversant in world religions so that we can share our faith of strength in diversity with others.   We need to have a better understanding of our multi-cultural and religiously pluralistic society.  We Unitarian Universalists have covenanted in our principles to seek this understanding.   We recognize the vast wisdom of the world religions as a source of our living tradition that nurtures our faith.

But to make an impact on our society in the 21st century, we as a people of faith must be willing to commit to a better understanding of these living traditions that feed our spirits.  We also need to commit to seek to be in relationship with those who still suffer under the racism that binds this nation in xenophobia in order to reveal that another way is possible.

We stand at the crossroads of a new day in America.  And what road we as Unitarian Universalists choose to follow will define us as a people of faith.   I believe our nation has a desire for a refreshing wind to accompany us on this road.    Unitarian Universalists have an opportunity to be a part of that refreshing wind of change that leads us to a place where we “meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically”.  Blessed Be.


[2] Faith Leaders for Peace was started by First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego and was an interfaith coalition of some 75 clergy from San Diego County.  I served as its coordinator.