Justice as a Spiritual Practice

This past week was a difficult one for me. Watching the state house accepting lies as facts in their passing HB 57 shutting down a women’s ability to have dominion over the fate of her body by restricting access to clinics was difficult to bear. It was also difficult to learn the Accountability Act has the negative impact of reinforcing and securing segregation once again of our schools. Alabama Senate also passed the open carry gun law allowing people to carry guns anywhere even at places of employment against the employer’s policies. This on top of the ongoing draconian actions taken against migrant and immigrant families and the Governor’s refusal of accepting an expansion of Medicaid that would potentially save the lives of 550 people annually. An expansion that would be paid in full by the Federal government the first 3 years and then gradually increase Alabama’s share to cover a mere 10% of the cost by 2020. These actions by our state will increase the suffering our citizens experience.

But our state wasn’t the only state considering and passing laws that were void of any sense of justice. Tennessee sought to specifically create their voucher program for private schools to exclude benefiting Moslem parochial schools and to deny welfare benefits to families whose children are doing poorly in school. The voucher program was killed in session but the welfare benefits in exchange for good school grades passed the TN house on Wednesday.

Then there is the town of Nelson, Georgia that passed an ordinance requiring every head of household, unless a felon or mentally ill, to own a gun and ammo . It isn’t the first town in Georgia to have such an ordinance; the town of Kennesaw has had such an ordinance, albeit unenforced, since 1982.

Our country claims to have a moral compass but I am having difficulty finding true north on this compass. It only seems to point at those things that seem expedient, that seem to support pharisaical righteous indignation and not anything resembling the core teachings of our major religions.

At the same time, our denomination seems to be very active in a variety of social justice issues. Last week there was a very strong presence in Washington DC for the Supreme Court hearings on marriage equality. And Unitarian Universalists are preparing to join thousands this coming week for the Immigration march on Washington to push for humane immigration reform. Unitarian Universalists have joined the protests against the building of the Keystone Pipeline—some even pledging to participate in civil disobedience. At the School of Americas Watch protest every fall, Unitarian Universalists join in seeking closure of this international military training camp that has resulted in millions of lives lost and displaced in Latin America.
These are in my mind important issues but how does one keep from being swallowed up in the search for justice for all. How does one keep from becoming bitter and sardonic in the face of so much pain and suffering these injustices cause?

There are three people who I believe can provide some insight into how Justice can be a spiritual practice. These three people are Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

But first we need a working definition of what defines a spiritual practice. Venerable Deo Kwun gave a dharma talk to Unitarian Universalists in Grand Rapid Michigan. He was looking for a definition of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice and came to understand spiritual practice for us as being: a repeated action coupled with clear intention to connect with all things in a way that rests in wisdom, love, kindness, compassion, and joy.

Leave it to a non-Unitarian Universalist to come up with a viable working definition of what we do as a spiritual practice. That is another sermon topic.

I am going to use this definition to present some ideas regarding creating Justice as a spiritual practice. I begin with Bishop Desmond Tutu.
For those who may not know Desmond Tutu. He is the first black Anglican archbishop from Capetown, South Africa. He fought for the end of apartheid. He insisted not to become bitter in the face of his adversaries. Bitterness, one might think, would be a justified reaction given the pain and suffering he and his people have endured under apartheid. He chose not to go there.

In order to do the work for freedom and justice he followed this daily routine: He sought to think positive. He would remember all the positive and loving actions he experienced from others and think about those actions. He would seek to recognize present moments of positive and loving actions in his day to day life. These memories and present encounters would motivate and provide direction for his life. He awoke each morning with quiet time, a walk, and prayerful reflection. Now his prayerful reflection because he is Christian included reading and reflecting on the Hebrew and Christian scriptures as a parallel to what was happening in his life. And because he is Christian, he sought to hear his god’s voice in the midst of all that was happening around him to aid him in guiding his journey.

Reflection is important in doing Justice work. I believe that it is essential regardless of the faith doctrine one hangs their hat. Without it, creating justice becomes another exterior action that has no central conviction behind it. Creating justice should be expanding the realm of freedom and liberation and not forging steel bars of anger, resentment, and bitterness exchanging one prison cell for anther one.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. followed a practice of ‘Satya-graha’ or soul force. Soul force was created by Gandhi from his study of many religions. He took the Hindu concepts of Ahimsa—non-violence and Anaskati- detachment, the Christian concept of loving your neighbors as yourself and redemptive suffering and Jainism’s anekantavada—the many-sidedness of truth to create this notion of Soulforce.  Martin Luther King adapted Soulforce for his non-violent resistance through out the 1950’s and 60’s.

Gandhi and King had their followers in various marches sign pledges of Soulforce action. For both Gandhi and King, Soulforce was not just a tactic in order to win victory but rather a way of life that transforms first the individual engaged in it and secondarily the world around them. For them the goal was not victory but justice and reconciliation. To achieve justice, it was important to live justly. Both men sought this level of commitment in the people who marched with them.

There is a quote in the Movie Gandhi that has him saying something along the lines of “when the British leave India we want to see them off as friends.” And this attitude of reconciliation was at the heart of his message and his commitment.

Many years ago now, I joined Rev. Mel White in a similar venture for justice. He is the founder of Soulforce, an organization that seeks justice and reconciliation within the conservative faiths regarding gender and sexual diversities. We engaged in a 17 week course of reflection on being gay and oppressed in the context of Soulforce with the goal that we would sit down to dinner with the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

We too had to sign a pledge similar to the pledge that Gandhi’s and King’s followers were asked to sign. We also were asked to take five vows as life long commitments. Some of them are harder to keep than others.
The vows were the following :

Five Soulforce Vows or Promises
1. Vow to Truth
I promise to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.
2. Vow to Love
I promise to reject violence (of the fist, tongue, or heart) and to use only the methods of nonviolence in my search for truth or in my confrontation with untruth.
3. Vow to volunteer suffering
I promise to take on myself without complaint any suffering that might result from my confrontation with untruth and to do all in my power to help my adversary avoid all suffering, especially that suffering that may result from our confrontation.
4. Vow to control passions
I promise to control my appetite for food, sex, intoxicants, entertainment, position, power that my best self might be free to join with my Creator in doing justice (making things fair for all).
5. Vow to limit possessions
I promise to limit my possessions to those things I really need to survive and to see myself as a trustee over all my other possessions, using them exclusively to help make things fair for those who suffer.

The first vow was based in the notion that we all fall victim to untruth. Jerry Falwell was not my enemy, even though he said hateful things about my character as a gay man, he was instead a victim to untruth just as I had been a victim of the same untruth. The interactions we had with him were not so much as to reach a victory as it was to find reconciliation and end the sharing of untruth about us.

The second vow to love was to refrain from all forms of violence; of the fist, tongue, or heart. I served as a peacekeeper for the celebration of Lynchburg Virginia’s first gay pride event. We were told that the protesters  including some of Westboro Baptist folks, were to be on the opposite side of the road from where the event was taking place. I and other peace keepers created a human shield between them and the festivities. The police did not keep their word to keep the group on that side of the road and soon they were up against our backs, saying all sorts of vile things in our ears hoping to get a rise out of us. They were leaning into our bodies hoping for us to make a move in which all hell would break loose. We remained steadfast in our restraint. We said no words, we used no fist, and I hope I was keeping a calm heart as well.

The Vow to voluntary suffering means acceptance of any consequences that may arise from my keeping the first two vows. There is a powerful scene in the Movie Gandhi where there is an attempt to shut down the salt mines. Row after row of men lined up to move in and the police and guards hit them hard to keep them from advancing forward. The sheer volume of men coming forward to insist on closing down the mines is overwhelming. Vince Walker, in reporting this scene says: Whatever moral ascendancy the West once held was lost here today. India is free, for she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
They accepted the consequences of their actions. To work for justice means to be willing accept the consequences in the process, not to complain about the consequences but to accept them and to take the next step forward. The forces of untruth are often virulent in their desire to maintain prominence in a culture.

One only needs to see the virulence of untruth as it swirls around the reality that we have a black president. It has struck with a vengeance and so many people in the US today are being forced to reckon with the idea that their prejudices and racist beliefs about others are false. A reelection to office has not tempered the vile untruths being spouted. But Soulforce would ask us to have compassion on those who are so trapped in the prison cells of untruth because they are victims just as much as those who suffer from their racially charged laws and judgments.

It could be argued that the first three vows are specific to causes of justice and the last two are more life style choices; to control passions and to limit possessions. But consider that if passions are allowed to run free how might that impact on the justice we seek to create? How many people in religious or political settings have been destroyed because they have allowed their passions to control them instead of them their passions? Trying to live up to these two vows as Mel White suggests is a personal decision. They cannot be standardized or quantified. Therefore, how I might live these would be vastly different from how you might choose to live them.

Here in the south we see all too frequently what happens when a group of people attempts to quantify or set up a behavioral standard as to what these might look like in our lives. It results in imposing one’s will or one’s doctrine onto another person or group. That attitude results in suffering and oppression instead of reducing suffering.

So to take on these last two vows is to commit to the hard work of discerning the parameters of passion and the parameters of living simply. It is hard work. And Gandhi and King were no saints in this regard, far from it. They each have stories circulating around them where these two vows were clearly broken. But that fact does not undo the justice they attempted to create in the world. It does keep them human and hopefully away from the iconic images of saints being above reproach.

To live with Justice as a spiritual practice is to allow oneself to be transformed in order to change the world. Rep. John Lewis in an interview stated: “… hate is too heavy a burden to bear. And if you accept nonviolence as a way of life, as a way of living, then you must be true, you must be consistent. Because if you only accept nonviolence as a technique or as a tactic, it becomes like a faucet. You can turn it on and turn it off. You have to go around deciding who you’re going to hate and who you’re going to love today, who you’re going to like or dislike, and I can truly say that I don’t have any ill feeling or malice or hatred toward anyone that attacked me or had me arrested or jailed during that period. I saw the men and women that engaged in the violence and the mob, whether it was a Bull Connor in Birmingham or a Sheriff Clark in Selma, as victims. We all were victims.”

Justice as a spiritual practice is not like faucets that can be turned on or off, you have to decide that this work is important to who you are in the world. It means extending love to all we meet. Even those who are adamantly oppositional to us, we are called to love with justice. May we begin again in love. Blessed be.

“Justice as a Spiritual Practice” by
Rev. Fred L Hammond  was offered on 7 April 2013 ©  to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

[1] http://thecontributor.com/medicaid-expansion-could-save-over-500-lives-year-alabama

[1] http://thinkprogress.org/education/2013/04/03/1815461/tennessee-may-deliberately-exclude-muslim-schools-from-new-voucher-program/

[1] http://www.tennessean.com/article/20130404/NEWS0201/304040068/TN-bill-linking-welfare-benefits-grades-passes-House-committee

[1] http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/02/17567999-georgia-town-passes-law-requiring-citizens-to-own-guns-and-ammo?lite

[1] http://grzen.org/talks/What_is_Spiritual_Practice.pdf

[1] http://www.archives.soulforce.org/1998/01/01/take-the-five-soulforce-vows-or-promises/

[1] http://paceebene.org/nvns/nonviolence-news-service-archive/hate-too-heavy-burden-bear-interview-rep-john-lewis-0

Published in: on April 23, 2013 at 11:32 am  Comments Off on Justice as a Spiritual Practice  
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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.

But It’s a Dry Hate

“But it’s a Dry Hate” presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on August 15, 2010 © Rev. Fred L Hammond

A few months ago, I am sitting in the annual business meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association.  On the dais were two people not to debate the question of our denomination holding General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012 but to simply state their positions, pro and con.  Rev. Susan Frederick –Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix gave an emotional appeal for us to not only host a Phoenix based General Assembly in 2012 but to come to Arizona on July 29th to  prevent one more child, one more mother, one more father from being ripped away from their families.  I listened to her call and I felt my heart affirming yes, I will go to Phoenix.

The call as I heard it was not simply to protest an unjust law because the law only codified what was already happening in Maricopa County and elsewhere in Arizona.  A population of indigenous and immigrant people were being systematically targeted as no longer welcome in a region that for thousands of years was their homeland.  The call was to return to our core values of honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

On the grounds of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix is a sculpture by John Henry Waddell entitled “That Which Might Have Been: Birmingham 1963.” It is a reflection on what might have been offered to society, to the world at large had four young girls not died in a racist motivated firebombing of a church in Birmingham, AL in 1963.

That Which Might Have Been: Birmingham 1963 by John Henry Waddell

The gifts of these potential women are depicted in this sculpture, each facing outward to the four corners of the world.  The ‘what if’s’ surrounding these four young girls of what could have been is powerfully emoted.

Coming to Arizona from Alabama and being greeted by this image, this connection to another time and place when America was gripped in fear of a different other is a stark reminder that these two moments in our history, the civil rights movement and the immigration rights movement are linked together in profound ways.  As I pondered on this statue and its now ironic juxtaposition with the beginning of ethnic cleansing of Arizona, I wondered what the ‘what if’s’ might have been if SB 1070 and the other laws were not passed.  What would the lives of the families torn apart have been like had their mother or father not been deported? What gifts these families would have presented Arizona and the United States in the years that followed had a different scenario filled with love and welcome been played out?

What was hailed as a post-racist America when the first African American President was elected has certainly in the recent past months proved to be instead a new incarnation of racism in America.  And just as Arizonans like to exclaim to their out of state friends, “But it’s a dry heat,” this new incarnation of racism in America is a dry hate. There are no Jim Crow laws banning Latinos and Hispanics from white only drinking fountains or sitting at white only lunch counters.  There are no laws segregating schools into white and brown.  But as my friends on Facebook reminded me when I asked if there would be a marked difference between Alabama’s 104 temps with humidity vs Arizona’s 104 temps without humidity, hot is still hot.   And so it is with hate.

And while Arizona is insisting that racial profiling is not to be tolerated in the enforcement of this new law, it is evident in the actions of the Maricopa County sheriff who treats rescued abused dogs better than he treats Latinos, Hispanics, and indigenous people in his county.  It is evident in the actions of State Senator Pearce and Governor Brewer who have declared all undocumented persons from south of the border as criminals and parasites on the state.  Such dehumanizing behavior is racist and is a necessary component to begin ethnic cleansing or as Arizona prefers to call it, “enforcement through attrition.”  It is indeed a dry hate that is drying out the very heart of America as its fear spreads across the country into other states.

To begin to understand where this hatred originates, a history lesson is needed that is no longer allowed to be legally taught in Arizona because it places whites in a different social location, that of oppressor.  My colleague Rev. Jose Ballester of the Bell Street Chapel in Providence RI, informed me of this history, he writes “In a letter dated June 30, 1828 General Manuel Mier Y Teran warns Mexican president Guadalupe Victoria that the growing numbers of immigrants from the United States of America would soon disrupt the territory of Tejas (Texas), ‘It would cause you the same chagrin that it has caused me to see the opinion that is held of our nation by these foreign colonists, since, with the exception of some few who have journeyed to our capital, they know no other Mexicans than the inhabitants here. . . Thus, I tell myself that it could not be otherwise than that from such a state of affairs should arise an antagonism between the Mexicans and foreigners, which is not the least of the smoldering fires which I have discovered.  Therefore, I am warning you to take timely measures.’ Of particular concern was the immigrant’s ignoring the Mexican law prohibiting slavery.”[1] Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, parts of Nevada and Utah were ceded to the United States as a result of a war guised as defending the white American immigrants of Texas but intending to have the result of additional territory for this country.  When I was in Arizona, I saw many signs that declared, “I did not cross the border; the border crossed me.”

The United States has a long history of coercion and aggression to obtain territorial control.  When Spain ceded the Louisiana territory to France it contained the caveat that it not sell or surrender the land to the United States.  Florida became a territory after the invasion of the Spanish colony of La Florida by General Andrew Jackson.   What does this repeated action of conquest do the heart of a people?

On my first night in Arizona, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix showed the film, 9500 Liberty documenting the effects of a similar law passed in Prince William County, VA in 2007.  Producers, Eric Byler and Anabel Park were present to comment on the film and to answer questions. The film revealed the destruction of the economic base of the county and in increase of taxes by 25% as a result of the resolution targeting Hispanic citizens. But more poignantly the film chronicled the devolution of a community’s soul from harmony and tolerance to suspicion and fear of the other.

The following day, we gathered to begin our preparations for civil disobedience and how we would support those risking arrests. At this point in time, I am sure that I will participate in the acts of civil disobedience.  We knew that we would be involved in two actions; one will be the blocking of the intersection at the Wells Fargo Building where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has his offices.

On Wednesday night, the other action is still a question mark and therefore is not being discussed except among the leaders of Puente and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).  Puente is the human rights organization that we, the Unitarian Universalist congregations in Phoenix and the UUA, have aligned ourselves with in this process.

On Thursday morning at 4:30 AM some Unitarian Universalists gather at the federal court to join those who have been in vigil for the past 104 days since the law passed.  This was their last vigil as many were undocumented.  Being dependent on coordinated transportation I joined the vigilers at a 6:30AM Interfaith service at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.  As we approach the cathedral there is an early morning rainbow against the pink sky that seems to arc from the cathedral’s steeple to the Maricopa County Jail. My companions in the car wonder if it is a sign of good omen.

It is standing room only in the sanctuary, I am aware that because I am wearing a clerical collar I am ushered to one of the few remaining seats instead of being sent to the overflow rooms.  This was indeed an interfaith service with rabbis, imams, bishops from the Roman, Anglican, and Methodist traditions, pentecostal and protestant ministers participating, and Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray offering one of the three homilies.  The vigilers are also introduced and speak.  Their stories are poignant and personal.  The energy and spirit in the room is electric.

We walk from the cathedral to the Wells Fargo building, we are singing songs.  We are a sea of “Standing on the Side of Love” yellow shirts as far as one’s eyes can fathom.  I am greeted several times by locals, Latinos and whites alike, with “Thank you for coming.”

It is time to make our final preparations for one of the two actions we agreed to be involved in that day.  We are going to block the intersection.  Our organizer is giving excellent details as to what is going to happen.  Then she announces there are people wearing florescent green hats who can connect us with lawyers if there are questions about after the arrest.   I paused.

In my work with Soulforce many years ago, I knew that this journey I was embarking on was a spiritual journey and not simply a political one.  The way of justice is always aligned with the spirit.  Where was my spirit in this work?  Was I truly prepared to what might occur at the hands of what I have come to believe to be a sadistic sheriff?

In speaking with the lawyers I was told that because I was from out of state, because I chose not to have any verifying documentation on my person that would identify me as a citizen, that I might be required to post bond in order to be released.   One of my last conversations with our board president was that my benefit compensation package did not include bond money.  I laughed then, but the question of who would post bond for me was now no laughing matter.  I knew I did not have enough money in my account for such a bond.  And I suddenly realized that I did not know if I could trust the process to move forward with civil action.  I did not know who had my back should I be arrested.  And because I could not answer this question with any full assurance, I stepped away from the civil action and assumed a supportive role.

I now know where my personal work lies in order for me to continue to stand on the side of love.  This week has been truly a gift to me if only because of this one realization.  But I ask you, where does your inner soul work lie enabling you to continue to stand on the side of love?   Because as this work continues, it will grow harder for some of us and it will demand a strong spiritual commitment to this work.

There are many stories of grace being witnessed as the protests continue.  One of my colleagues overheard an African American child ask her mother what they were doing.  Her response, “Do you remember what I told you about Dr. Martin Luther King, that is what they are doing.”[2] I see our people in yellow shirts, go up to police who are standing on the frying hot pavement and offer them water, which is gratefully received.

Mar Cardenas from First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Diego is the first to be arrested. In the county jail, Sheriff Arpaio, wants to see just who these yellow shirts are that disrupted his plans for his biggest raid to date.  She sees him and makes the sign of a heart with her hands and says, “I love you Sheriff Joe.”  He looks at her and says who me?  “Yes, you.” she replies.  He shakes his head in bafflement at her gesture. Mar Cardenas later states that she recognizes that Sheriff Joe Arpaio despite his cruel and sometimes sadistic actions against the Hispanic community, he still has dignity and worth as a human being.  It is simply a matter of reaching that core of him that still recognizes others as human.

I hear about the arrest of Unitarian Universalist Audrey Williams who is in physical pain and suffering from heat exhaustion.  She is asked by the police if she still wants to be arrested after they have escorted her out of the hot sun and into the shade. The police tell her once she is in the county jail, her experience will not be easy.  She sees the Latinos in the crowd and lifts her fist and says to the Latinos, “I love each of you.”  The police then arrest her.   Because of her medical condition she is placed into an icy cold isolation cell with no blanket and no communication with the others.

Meanwhile, our organizers discover that the Maricopa County Jail has no police officers outside the building.  So the second action is given the go ahead.  Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and members of Puente create a barricade in front of the receiving door.  They have linked their arms inside of pvc pipes, with metal bars where jellybean clips to hold their wrists in place.  The pipes are wrapped in paper with “no 1070” and “no 287(g)” written on them. This human chain is then chained to the poles on either side of the entrance.  A banner proclaiming “Not one more” in English and in Spanish is hoisted above them.   The Maricopa County Police are taken by surprise.  They have never seen anything like this before in Phoenix.  And Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls back his police from the raids he planned to figure out how to deal with this action.  The demonstrators from the Wells Fargo intersection are held in the vans because they cannot be received at the county jail.

I am asked to go to the county jail to support this action.  I walk over with Salvador Reza and I have a moment to get to know this man who has inspired and led his people to resist the heat wave of hate that has moved across Arizona.  When I arrive there is only a handful of supporters there within the hour, our numbers grow into the hundreds.  Rev. Peter Morales, president of our association and Salvador Reza join the human chain by standing behind them.  Another group of clergy link arms in front of the chain.  We are chanting, we are singing.  And we wait for Arpaio to make his move.  At one point police officers come out in regular uniforms and assess the situation up close.  Then they go back inside.

We wait.  We know that something will happen. The doors behind the human chain open, Rev. Peter Morales and Salvador Reza are arrested first.   Then police in full riot gear and weapons come out, cut the chain links on either side and dragged the human chain inside.  The clergy who are sitting in front of them are also picked up and dragged inside.  A legal observer and a reporter are swept up in the arrests; they tried to get out of the way and had no place to go.  A barricade of officers with riot gear and clear plastic shields march out and push the crowds away from the entrance.  They stand there for what seemed like 15 minutes or so and then back up and enter the jail, closing the doors.  In total 83 people were arrested, 29 of them were Unitarian Universalists.

Later that night, I join in a vigil outside of the county jail. We are singing songs in English and in Spanish and banging drums.  We hope our friends in the jail can hear that there are people outside in support.  I later hear that some of them were able to hear us and spread the word that we were there.

The following day, after all of our people are released, we gather at Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Chandler, AZ.  We are participating in a Taize service and a ritual of gratefulness is in progress.  UUA Moderator, Gini Coulter comes up to the microphone and stands in silence.  Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray comes up and announces that Salvador Reza, the leader of the Puente organization has been arrested again for the second time.  This time falsely.  He was observing an action taking place outside of Tent City; Arpaio’s make shift jail.  We are asked to join them in vigil at Tent City until his release.

Salvador Reza was placed in a van for two hours with the outside temperatures of over 105 degrees.  The van was not running.  This amounts to torture.

We gather at Tent City to sing, to pray, to stand.  One of the songs Unitarian Universalists are singing is “Siyahamba, We are Marching.”  We are singing the English words –We are marching in the light of God–and next to me is a Latino family with a young boy.  He is looking puzzled.  We then sing the Spanish, “Caminando en la luz de Dios” and his eyes light up.  He begins singing along jumping up and down.  He continues singing after the rest of us have finished.

Some of the Puente women have brought bean burritos and carnitas sandwiches and we are all grateful for the meal.  The thankfulness that is expressed in our joining them in this struggle is huge.  There are many words thanking us for our presence.

Tupac Enrique speaks to us about Salvador’s arrest and offers a history of the oppression that has been occurring in the Southwest for centuries.  He states the borders were determined between two governments that did not consider the rights of the native nation that was there first. Because of this he declares SB 1070 an illegal law created by a government that has broken every treaty ever made with the indigenous nations.

I am reminded of the indigenous lacrosse players who were denied use of their native nation’s passports[3] to travel to England earlier this year. Lacrosse a game created by the indigenous people of this country and yet not allowed to play their game in a world competition.

Tupac offers a prayer in his people’s language.  It is a soulful emotional prayer.  I begin to understand in a deeper heartfelt manner that this struggle is not just about immigration rights but rather living and breathing the inherent worth and dignity of every people.

We receive word that Salvador has been transferred to the County Jail and we move our vigil there.  It is clear that this arrest is pure harassment and intimidation.  At the County Jail, we decide to dance in the streets to loud Mexican music to let Sheriff Arpaio know that we will not be intimidated. Even the rain that begins to fall after 1 AM does not deter us from dancing.  There is a picture of me with other Unitarian Universalists dancing a conga line. The police are watching us from the rooftops but no action is taken against us.  At his second arraignment, the judge dismisses the case because there was no probable cause for the arrest.

Prior to going to Arizona, some of my conservative friends on this issue told me that the law could only be enforced for reasonable suspicion that arose in the line of investigating another situation.  I was told that with the judge staying so many parts of the law the reason for my being in Arizona was no longer valid because everything was changed.

Talking with the people in Arizona this is not the case at all.  Employers cannot pick up day laborers along side the road. This reduces the ability for day laborers to get jobs that would enable them to have food on the table or a roof over their family’s head.   Churches could have their vans impounded and drivers arrested for human trafficking should they pick up a parishioner who is undocumented—regardless if the driver was aware of the status or not.  Police can still be sued for being perceived as not enforcing the law.  These components of the law are still in effect. The harassment of people is still occurring.

People are being stopped for minor infractions like a broken taillight and that becomes the reasonable suspicion to detain them for immigration authorities.  Even traffic court cases that were settled become the reason for detaining them.  These examples are pre-passage of SB 1070.  The harassment was going on before this law was enacted.  Once a person is handed over to immigration there is no due process.

One of the leaders of Puente was released from the jail and witnesses saw him get into a waiting van.  The police immediately surrounded the van.  The police were going to arrest him again for violating the conditions of his release because of a meter running out.   This is the sort of thing that is happening in Arizona.  And I was told by several local people that this happens daily just as this sort of thing happened in Alabama in 1963.

It is time for our nation to return to its core values of liberty, equality, and justice for all.  It is time for America to return again to being a nation worthy of its creed of all people being created equal with unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is time for America to “return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.[4]

[1] From an email written by Jose Ballester dated Saturday, August 7, 2010.  Used by permission.

[2] http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/note.php?note_id=426638593187

[3] http://www.manataka.org/page2244.html

[4] “Return Again” words and music by Shlomo Carlebach

Journey into Soulforce

Back in 1999, I participated in the 17 step journey into Soulforce.  It was a spiritual journey of readings, reflections, and preparation for joining Rev. Mel White and 200 delegates to meet with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and 200 of his congregants.  The hope was the meeting would help convince Falwell that his anti-gay rhetoric was bringing increased suffering to families across the country.  It was the inauguration of SoulForce.  The event made news. 

Many of my friends scoffed at my going  to meet Falwell.  What good will it do?  I was also told that I was being played the fool in thinking that a person like Falwell could change his bigoted opinions.  Well, I knew that Falwell could change.  He had already changed over the years from a strict segregationist to successfully integrating his congregation on Thomas Road.  That change happened through a life long friendship with a person of color.  It was the relationship that Falwell had with this person that led to his letting go of prejudice and racism.  And that was the hope in beginning this dialog with the members of Thomas Road Baptist Church and with Rev. Falwell to develop friendships.   I had kept in contact with a few of the students I met from Liberty University for a year or so after meeting them.  So from my point of view the visit with Jerry Falwell was a success even if Jerry Falwell’s rhetoric against gays did not abate.   

About the time we arrived at Lynchburg, VA to meet with Falwell.  There was a news report claiming that Falwell had said one of the cartoonish Tinkie Winkie characters was gay and promoting homosexuality.   Soon Falwell was derided by every gay joke on TV and in the press.  It turned out however that Falwell never said this comment.  One of his staff made the comment and the association of this staff member to Falwell meant to the press that Falwell said it.  It was an untruth. 

One of the pledges I took in following the journey towards Soulforce was to uncover and name every untruth about my adversary.  Only truthful comments would be used to dialog with my adversary.  Untruthful comments would only help maintain the barriers to the truth between me and my adversary and so, I need to know what is true and what is untrue about my adversary.   The Tinkie Winkie comment was untrue about Falwell and so I could not use that comment in dialog.  

Sexual minorities are facing increased hostility in this nation.  There is pain over Obama’s selection of Rev. Rick Warren, a known supporter of Prop 8 and whose church will not allow gays to be members and will excommunicate them if found.  There is distortion and hyberbole in the media regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s annual address to the Curia denouncing gender theory causing more pain and hurt, especially in the Roman Catholic Dignity community. 

Our language can either be inclusive or it can be exclusive.  It can invite people into dialog or it can oust people from dialog.  It is one of the lessons I learned from participating in the Soulforce delegation to Lynchburg.  It is a lesson we all need to learn if we are going to mend our nation from its polar extremes. 

Rev. Jerry Falwell and his anti-gay rhetoric is now amongst the pages of history.  But I have hope that the seeds planted in meeting the 200 delegates from his congregation will one day sprout into compassion and acceptance of all people.  That’s the beauty of seeds, they can remain viable for years after they have been planted.  Waiting for the right moment, the right conditions for them to sprout and grow into maturity.   

Here is a song sponsored by Soulforce.   Blessings,

Published in: on December 25, 2008 at 1:40 pm  Comments Off on Journey into Soulforce  
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Sermon: Blessing As a Spiritual Practice

Blessing as a Spiritual Practice a sermon given by Rev. Fred L Hammond November 9 2008 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

As I picked up my package and began turning to leave the store, I heard the sales assistant say “Have a blest day.” I looked at her and saw her face smiling brightly, she meant what she said. This was not just a polite phrase her momma taught her. I hear this phrase a lot in the south, “Have a blest day.” It is not something I heard often in other parts of the country.

There is a difference between the phrases “Have a good day” and “Have a blest day.” Having a Blest day implies something more than just good. It signifies to me a day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered.

These are days when I feel confident in who I am from the very core of my being. These are days that regardless of what events occur I can rest assured that the integrity of me is in tact and cannot be undermined in any way. But where does this come from this assuredness of integrity; this self confidence of my being. It is more than just someone in a store saying “Have a Blest day.”

This morning we celebrated a Blessing ceremony for one of our youngest members. You heard from Tyler’s parents and sister their blessings, their best hopes and dreams for him. You heard from family friends offering their blessings on Tyler as well. And then we as a congregation chimed in with our blessings.

This blessing ceremony was done in a style used in pagan circles. Where the energy of the individuals and the group focus their best thoughts and wishes on the one they wish to bless. The blessing according to pagan beliefs then acts as a spiritual shield for the child. It becomes a grounding point for the parents to remember and reflect on when parenting may stretch their skills. And it becomes a touchstone for Tyler to always know that he was born into a home of love and care for his best unlimited potential.

The blessing does not originate in a vacuum but is grounded in the ongoing relationship of the person being blessed and the person or persons offering the blessing. The fruition of the blessing may not be seen in the near future but may take decades to unfold as Tyler’s life twists and turns with the wide variety of experiences to be had. There may along his path be apparent defeats that might crush a blow if it was not for the grounding his parents and this congregation offered him today to hold fast to the promise of a fulfilling life of purpose and meaning.

Matthew Fox, theologian, speaks of what he calls Original Blessing. Before there could be any fall from grace, there was first and foremost an Original Blessing. Fox tells us that blessing is found in the metaphorical creation story. After each day, God “Looked at what he had done, and it was good… all of it was very good!”

Matthew Fox states that the creative energy that created the heavens and the earth, call it god, call it source, call it by what ever name, continues to create and invites creation to participate in its creating. There is a relationship in the bestowing of the blessing. Fox further states, “Blessing involves relationship: one does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality. And if it is true that all of creation flows from a single, loving source, then all of creation is blessed and is a blessing, …” (Original Blessing p 44)

In this creation story is the investment of the creator in bringing about the creator’s best wishes for creation. The story tells us that the intention of creation is to be something of worth, to be something good. And if Matthew Fox is correct in his theorem, then ongoing creation is also something of worth, something good.

According to the Abraham myth found in Genesis, God said to Abraham, “…I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will … be a blessing… Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.”

This was done in the context of a covenant established between god and Abraham. Covenants are relational contracts between people. They convey how a people is to be in relation with one another. Covenants when followed convey how the people will be perceived by others. For the Children of Abraham, the covenant they made with God was to be a blessing to others, even if the others did not embrace their way of life.

From this covenant and from the stories of a people of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have modern concepts of justice between people. It took the evolutionary journey of these ancient people to develop these notions of equitable justice but we do find them rooted in this tradition. Concepts such as those found in Leviticus, that book of law that is oft quoted by those seeking to repress others also has some of the most liberating verses on justice. Such as this one in Leviticus 19:34: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: ….”

Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (10:18) talks about showing justice to the orphan and the widow through providing food and shelter. The prophet Micah reminds the people of his day that God had already showed them how to know what is right…It is to love mercy, to act justly, and walk humbly with your god.

These are acts of blessing bestowed on another. It is through the ongoing covenant, the ongoing relationship of these people that blessing is bestowed. This is a daily process with a promise woven into the fabric. How that fabric is later to be used may still be unknown but its cloth will be a blessing to others.

Sometimes it is in the keeping the covenant to work towards justice that future blessings are finally realized. It is in the laying down of the groundwork that future blessings are able to sprout to their fruition.

There is the story of an elderly man who decided to plant fruit trees on his property. His neighbors chided him for doing this because it was evident that he would never live long enough to be able to benefit from his labors in planting these young saplings. The elderly man responded and said that he planted the trees not for himself but for those who would come after him and be blessed by the bountiful fruit these trees would offer. He was bestowing blessings into his future. He saw a vision of what could be and wanted his life to be a blessing towards that future.

Forty-three years ago, a young African American by the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson, ordained a deacon by his church, sought for four years to register to vote. He was denied. He knew that voting was his right as a citizen and he knew that it was a right for every citizen. He was determined to work towards voting rights.

When another young man, James Orange was arrested for assisting and recruiting potential voter registrants, Jimmie Lee marched in Marion, AL with hundreds of others in protest of the arrest. The police began to beat up the protesters and chased Jimmie Lee, his mother and his 82 year old grandfather into a café. The grandfather was beaten and when his mother attempted to get the police off of him, she too was beaten. Then when Jimmie Lee came to her aid, he was shot at point blank range by a State Trooper. It was Jimmie Lee’s death that provoked the march on Selma. Jimmie Lee’s belief that all people deserve the right to vote was a blessing that laid the foundations for what was to come. His untimely death was not in vain towards that goal.

In March of that year hundreds of ministers joined Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march on Selma to again protest not only the inequity of the voting laws that kept African Americans from voting but also the extreme measures used to enforce this injustice. One Unitarian minister by the name of James Reeb was struck down while walking on a street. He went to Selma with the conviction that all people have inherent worth and dignity and therefore should be afforded equal rights.

Forty-three years ago, a young mother from Detroit Michigan, came down to Alabama to assist in voter registration efforts of African Americans. She knew that the promise of this country was that all of its citizens were created equal and had a voice in how this nation should be governed. She came and bestowed her blessing of knowing what was right and just for America. She had covenanted to work along side those who did not have the vote.

African Americans were given complicated and sometimes inane literacy tests geared for their failure. Unitarian Viola Liuzzo offered the blessing of standing along side people of color in their quest for the vote.

Forty-three years ago she was shot by four KKK members while driving an African American home after the march in Selma. The police and the FBI conducted a smear campaign to discredit her character enabling her murderers to be acquitted. Three of KKK were later convicted on violating her civil rights. Her family was subjected to all sorts of shame by the government in order to reduce her murder to that of an unfortunate woman who associated with people who did her wrong.

It was the events of these three deaths that resulted in the swift passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you ever get a chance to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Headquarters in Boston, you will see a plaque commemorating the lives of these three people and their efforts to bestow the blessing of freedom and justice for all people.

Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King’s dream was bestowing a blessing on this nation. Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo were also part of the planting of that orchard of which they would never benefit of its fruit. Some blessings don’t always germinate and manifest as fast as we would like them. But blessings do go forth.

This past Tuesday, this nation elected a man based on the content of his character and not on the color of his skin. Now you may not have liked his politics and you may have voted for his opponent, that’s okay. The right to vote is the right to choose what our destiny is in moving forward. This election result could not have happened if the convictions of the promise of this nation were not held fast by these men and women in the civil rights movement.

Their efforts and the blessings they offered us were not forgotten by our denomination. After the election results came in, the UUA sent bouquets of yellow roses to Marie Reeb Maher, the widow of James Reeb, and to the daughters of Viola Liuzzo. Rev. Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb when he was fatally attacked, helped orchestrate the honoring of their lives and their sacrifice that enabled this day to be possible.

Sally Liuzzo had this to say in response to receiving the roses, (quoted with permission from Ms. Liuzzo) “We have a policy at my job not to talk politics. All that was thrown out the window yesterday. My boss encouraged me to tell anyone that asked my mom’s story, when they questioned why I received yellow roses. …

“I cannot begin to explain the sense of pride I have right now for my mother and all the civil rights activists of that time. I feel like everything they have fought for, has now been realized. Black children will no longer feel like they are ‘less than’ and they will now know….they can be ANYTHING they set their minds out to be, Here I am crying again.

Thank you from my sisters and [me], for never forgetting our mother. The three of us were totally overcome with emotion. I feel like mom’s sacrifice has now been worthwhile. Yes……she made a huge difference. I am so proud of America for getting past the limitations of race, and vote for what is best for our country.

“….Actually we feel like mom reached out…through the UU church…to send those flowers. The yellow roses told us that she had a hand in it. She has a mighty strong spirit….that is alive and well. …”

We may never know the impact our lives may have on another person nor how our actions for justice today will empower the people who come after us no matter what the immediate consequences of those actions may have been. But if we want to have blessing as a spiritual practice then I believe we must do several things.

The person offering blessings holds fast to the best possible potential for the lives of others. The person joins in a covenant which holds each other accountable towards these highest ideals. When the blessing being offered is to right an injustice, the perpetrators of injustice may not believe they are doing anything wrong, therefore the relationship needs to be one gently revealing the untruth they have bought into. It means to be willing to listen respectively and willing to state respectively where the error is found. The person stands firm in their convictions of the vision they see possible even when disappointment and failures happen.

In October 2002, I was asked to join the members of Soulforce to provide support to Lynchburg VA’s first pride celebration. We were also there to follow-up on a meeting we had with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and his congregation a few years before. I had joined Soulforce to meet with Rev. Falwell asking him to stop his anti-gay rhetoric because it was resulting in untold pain in the gay community. He promised to stop but in the days that followed 9/11 he blamed the gay community and other groups of people for the attack on our country by Al Qaeda.

On the Saturday of my time in Lynchburg, I was to be a peacekeeper, essentially a wall between the local queer community of Lynchburg and the ultra conservative Christians who were there to taunt them. The original plan placed us on one side of the road and the protestors were to be on the other side of the road, a good 25 feet away. However, the police allowed the anti-gay group to cross the road and they were standing with their chest up against my back screaming in my ear all sorts of foul things. Words my grandmother said no good Christian would even whisper let alone shout in mixed company. My task was to stand there silently ignoring their taunts and absorbing their hatred so that it would not interfere with the joy of the hundreds of young people coming out to proclaim who they were. We did not allow these taunts to rile us even though we were emotionally drained by the end of the day. The event with the exception of the loud jeering of hell fire went peacefully.

Then on Sunday morning we lined up in single file outside Thomas Road Baptist Church for a silent vigil to sadly confront the broken promise Jerry Falwell had made to us. One of the more touching moments for me was when I was standing in front of a neighbor’s house when a young father with a three week old infant came out to stand with us. He was a teacher at the local school and said he taught in his class room that all people are to be respected for who they are. He wanted the world his newborn son grew up in to be one where people would live their lives with the same inherent integrity that his son was born with. If his son were to be gay, he would want his son to be proud and able to live life as freely and fully as anyone else.

This was the contrast of the two days. I knew I was offering a blessing to those young people at the pride festival by standing there and absorbing the hate so to shield them from those blows. I knew that this young father and infant were being a blessing to me on Sunday, affirming the essence of my being, enabling me to continue to stand tall.

My vision of the blest day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered is not here yet. There are still people who are seeking justice; justice in education, justice in marriage equality, justice in employment and housing, justice in racial equity, and justice in health care. There are people who are still in pain in the face of these injustices. It is my intention to be part of the blessing that enables justice to roll down like a mighty river. There is much work to be done. Let us begin our blessing work. Blessed be.

Published in: on November 9, 2008 at 2:41 pm  Comments Off on Sermon: Blessing As a Spiritual Practice  
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Soulforce Equality Rides Coming to AL & MS

Soulforce, the organization seeking to have conservative Christian groups embrace their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, intersexed, questioning members, is sponsoring another Equality Ride.  They have been quite successful with their previous rides to Christian Colleges and Universities to discuss how they have treated sexual minority students.  This fall they will be coming in October to Heritage Christian University in Florence, AL and Mississippi College in Clinton, MS. 

Soulforce is based on Gandhi’s teachings of non-violence to create change and justice.  I was privileged to have been able to participate in Soulforce’s first event in meeting with Rev. Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, VA.  It was a powerful event meeting face to face with 200 of Jerry Falwell’s congregation and attending his worship service.  I went back to Lynchburg a few years later and served as a peacekeeper for Lynchburg’s first Gay Pride event.  Having conservative Christians lean up against me and shout in my ear that I was attempting to sexually assault them was a most difficult moment in being silent and resilient in justice work. Being the buffer of their hatred so those who came to celebrate their humanity could do so was well worth it.  We also stood in silent vigil this time outside of Thomas Road Baptist Church on Sunday in prayerful intercession regarding Jerry’s violent accusations of Gays and Lesbians being one of the causes for 9/11. 

While in Lynchburg, I heard first hand how difficult it was to be in the closet at Falwell’s Liberty University.  The anguish the students faced, trying to please their parents by going to a Christian University; trying to discover who they were as a child of God; and knowing that being that person at that campus meant at best expulsion and worst the taking of their life.  The spiritual violence committed is atrocious.  The pain and suffering is incredible. 

The message of Jesus seems so clear to me.  Love one another.  Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  

Those who heap vile hatred against others must not be able to love themselves very much and they also must want to be treated in the same manner.  How very sad.  And after 2000 years, the message of Jesus is still not heard even by those who call out ‘Lord Lord.’