About the Author
Adam Gerhardstein

Environmental Justice and Spiritual Insecurity

As a follow-up to Rowan’s post on Mountain Top Removal  Coal Mining in West Virginia, I want to share the process and one result from a recent theological reflection. As background, you should know that for the last several years Washington Office staff have met approximately once per month to contemplate our views on a particular policy issue or arena.  A few weeks ago, together with a few special guests involved in the partnership between the UU Ministry for Earth and the UUA, we focused on the subject of environmental justice.

We used a reflection process learned in seminary by a colleague; I’m sorry to say that we don’t have more proper attribution than that.  It consists of five questions (and could easily be used by any congregational social justice group wanting to go deeper!):

1. What’s the problem?

2. What’s the source of the problem?

3. What’s the solution?

4. What’s the source of the solution?

5. How do we get there?

One thing from our discussion stuck with me in particular. In the course of discussing the source of the problem, someone used the phrase “spiritual insecurity” to describe one of the factors which drives materialistic overconsumption.  We speculated that this insecurity comes from a lack of connection, whether that be to God, humanity, nature, or what have you.  When we’re not grounded, we tend to treat everything and everybody–including our own selves–worse.

I identify as a religious humanist, and I can definitely attest that I feel most spiritually secure when I feel connected to other people.  I am grateful for the family, friends, colleagues, and congregants in my community. Yet I also feel a sense of connection with all people in the world, based largely on my ethical and Unitarian Universalist beliefs about the commonality and value of all people.  Thus other people’s suffering is also a source of spiritual insecurity, which can be overcome only by my actively working to end oppression.

What does spiritual security look like for you?

Advocacy and Witness Meets with White House

The day after the ruling upholding Proposition 8 came down from the California Supreme Court, I visited the White House for the first time since coming to UUA Washington Office over three years ago.  Rev. Meg Riley, Director of UUA’s Advocacy and Witness Programs (my boss) accompanied me.  We met with Paul Monteiro, the White House Office of Public Engagement’s Associate Director charged with creating partnerships with the faith community.  The meeting covered a lot of ground, but we began by clearly communicating our movement’s commitment to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights.  We spoke about the work of the UU state advocacy networks, the UUA office of BGLT concerns, and, most importantly, our many congregations.

I shared the UUA’s Legislative Objectives for the 111th Congress and highlighted the report card we issued on the Administration’s first 100 days.  We also discussed the OWL curriculum and the advocacy work many UUs are doing to support comprehensive sex-ed.  I even brought my computer and

showed him the promotion video I made for the Sexuality Education Advocacy Training (SEAT).  I wanted him to see the faces and hear the voices of the young people who come all the way to  D.C. to lobby for comprehensive sex-ed.
We then discussed the role that Unitarian Universalism can play in the many important challenges our country is facing. We spoke of Van Jones’ Ware Lecture, and how it sparked a realization that Unitarian Universalism needs to shift from a movement focused on protesting to taking up the hard work of governing. Monteiro appreciated this shift and was clear that he felt religious groups were most powerful when we use our religious voice and moral authority.  Monteiro also lifted up the power of unlikely groups coming together to create change in their communities and said he is constantly searching for such stories.  So if you have any let me know (agerhardstein@uua.org).

Monteiro was already very familiar with Unitarian Universalism, having worked closely with many UU volunteers in Iowa during the campaign.  He was receptive to our legislative objectives and our commitment to work in community partnerships and we are in the process of scheduling further meetings and sharing more information. This meeting felt like a genuine  step forward in addressing the many issues Unitarian Universalists work and pray for every day.  While the UUA will not always walk side-by-side with the White House, I am convinced that we are both committed to sharing our respective directions and understanding what drives us forward.

Confronting Contagion

(Photo Credit LA Times)

It is a time to pray, not to blame; to send help, not to close borders; to love more fully, not to exclude more effectively. The H1N1 virus threatens our immune systems, but our spirits must repel the equally dangerous contagions of hatred and fear.  We must offer an active resistance to bigotry.

There is deep danger in assigning blame for the virus along ethnic lines, as radio talk show host Jay Severin did by calling Mexican immigrants “criminaliens,” “primitives,” “leeches,” and “women with mustaches and VD” on Boston’s WTKK-FM last week.  This reactionary response to a real public health crisis spread false information and racist language. WTKK-FM has yanked Severin from the air, but the bigotry that inspired his words is being echoed in scape-goating blog posts and cartoons across the United States.

It is imperative that people join together and stand on the side of love. Think of what you can do to be a healing agent in this time of crisis.  Writing blog posts and letters to our papers confronting dehumanizing rhetoric is important, but also consider other ways to be in solidarity.  A radical ministry at this moment may be as simple as having a joint potluck with a Mexican church.  Or, if day laborers congregate in your neighborhood, bring some baked goods or coffee one morning. 

We need to come together, even if we are wearing masks and disinfecting our hands every five minutes. We cannot let any virus destroy the fabric of our human family.  So next time you are driving by a Mexican restaurant and someone in your car cracks a joke about the swine flu, maybe you ought to pull over and have a delicious dinner of rice, beans, and carnitas.

Obama Iraq Strategy Video Response

Adam Gerhardstein, Acting Director of the UUA Washington Office, responds to President Obama’s Friday announcement of his Iraq strategy. This is the first video post from the Washington Office and we are still working out the kinks, but hopefully you’ll get the message.

We invite you to send us links to your videos, so we can promote the important work UUs across the country are doing for justice. Cheers!

A Reflection from the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry

Brokenness, evil, hope, encounter, partnership, accountability, effectiveness, justice, change, worship, and repeat.

That is the mantra that is emerging for me over the course of my past two days surrounded by committed and prophetic Unitarian Universalists. Without naming it, I have spent my nearly three years with the UUA’s Washington Office learning and living this mantra. Much of my inspiration and guidance along this journey comes from the people present at this convocation.

I was asked at the convocation how I see my faith impacting my justice work. I quickly replied, ‘I don’t see a difference between the two.’ When asked to expand on that, I had trouble articulating what I meant. But after listening to so many panelists speak of such core components of our faith and our work for justice, I zeroed in on a clearer sense of my meaning. My faith is composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. My justice work is also composed of community, reality, hope, belief and joyfully showing up to do the work. At their core, I don’t see a difference.

But there is a need – and a space – for our faith to have a more defined and complete theology of justice and ministry other than faith = justice. I have found that the space between and among our faith and justice work is filled with the elements of the mantra above. Each one of those elements has been spoken to at this convocation, albeit in often disjointed and incomplete ways. But, like a puzzle, as each moment passes the picture is becoming more clear.

At the end of the last panel discussion we were asked to come forward and share song or metaphor to illustrate our visions of prophecy and justice. Participant after participant went to the microphone and stood before all of us and the camera, and beautifully and articulately added more and more pieces to the emerging puzzle. I was literally on the edge of my seat.

Bipartisan Interfaith Prayer Service: Praying with Pelosi

This morning, I joined Shelley Moskowitz of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) in attending the 111th Congress Bipartisan Interfaith Prayer Service at the Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church. For many members of Congress, the prayer service is time of reflection and centering before taking the oath of office.

Prior to the service Shelley introduced me to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, whom she has known for twenty years when they were both working towards peace and justice in Central America. It was a great honor.

The service appropriately began with the hymn My Country ‘Tis of Thee, followed by Republican and Democratic Members of Congress reading from the Qur’an, Hebrew Bible, and New Testament. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) offered the first reflection on the story of the Good Samaritan. He called upon his colleagues to put aside their differences, get off their high horses, as did the Samaritan, and remember their obligations to their constituents, especially the least among them.

Rep. John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, offered a Litany of Intercessions, which included a call for peace on earth and an end to violence, words that had deep meaning for me as I thought of the violence in Israel and Gaza. The Lord’s Prayer was then recited in Spanish by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX).

Rep. Nancy Pelosi offered the final reflection on the story of the loaves and the fishes. She affirmed the miraculous nature of Jesus the Shepherd feeding 5,000 people, not counting women and children, with five loaves and two fish. But she added a belief that the miracle alone did not feed all gathered; the miracle itself was multiplied as it inspired others within the crowd to produce and share what little they had as well. Her interpretation was poignant in this time of economic turmoil.

It was a poignant service, moving many to the verge of tears. In the middle of the service, a soprano, Andrea Trusty, sang a soulful version of Let There Be Peace on Earth. When she finished, Shelley leaned toward me and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if they opened each day with that song?”

With the Representatives gathered facing an economic crisis, war in the Middle East, and global climate change, I got the sense that they wouldn’t mind that at all. The 111th Congress has huge challenges to face; inspiration and prayer is needed. Let us remember that in the months ahead.

One Nation, Under God

The staff of the Washington Office, Kat, Lisa, Grace, Alex, Alida, and I, met each other at 10:30 this morning in front of the White House for our weekly theological reflection. We all agreed that the White House looked different this morning. It looked more approachable.

We opened with words from Barack Obama’s Springfield speech when he announced his candidacy. A speech which ended with: “Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this earth.”

We shared what Sen. Obama’s victory meant for us personally, our communities, our nation, and the world. We were all emotional. Alida shared a snippet she had heard a man say on NPR, “Martin walked so Obama could run so our children could fly.”

We all agreed that progressives, especially spiritual progressives, have much work to do. We committed to working in coalition, to having patience, to being welcoming.

We then took the time to dream. We envisioned what our perfect union would look like. We articulated a vision that included excellence in education, access to health care, marriage equality, just immigration reform, reduction in our military expenditures, an end to the Iraq war, a green economy, no border walls, protection of women’s right to choose, and much more.

Knowing that this future will not be handed to us, we each took responsibility for helping build such a future. With this commitment in the forefront of our minds, we closed our theological reflection by reciting the pledge of allegiance while standing directly in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. All of us recited it loudly and proudly as dozens of tourists milled about us.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Still Undecided?

For five of the past six weekends, I have been going door-to-door for my candidate of choice. When I knock on voters’ doors, the first question I ask is, “Have you decided who you will be supporting on November 4th?” To my surprise, many voters remain undecided. As late as Saturday, two of the 25 voters I spoke with were undecided. For those of us who are out knocking on doors, emptying our wallets, and losing sleep, this may seem unbelievable. But it is real.

Some of you may be wondering, “How can anyone be undecided at this point?” The undecided voters I have spoken with have given many reasons. Here are a few that I have heard multiple times.

  • Cynicism – Some voters see the choice between candidates as the lesser of two evils. These voters often mention how many campaign promises end up being broken. They tend not to trust politicians in general.
  • Political identity is shifting – I have most often seen this among traditionally Republican voters who are upset with the way the Republican Party has been running this country for the past eight years. The economic crisis, two ongoing wars, and record deficit spending are on these voters’ minds. These voters have supported a political party that they are increasingly convinced is undermining our beloved country
  • Legitimate concerns about both candidates – Many voters I have spoken with have expressed misgivings about both candidates that many die-hard supporters conveniently overlook. Whether some people want to admit it or not, all of the candidates running for President are real people with real flaws. These voters are different from the cynical voters because they genuinely believe that their vote matters and that politics can be positive; they just are not satisfied with their choices.

In addition to these perspectives, I have heard undecided voters speak about the limitations of the two party system, issues overlooked by the candidates, and the potential imbalance of power between Congress and the Administration.

In my opinion, all of these concerns are legitimate reasons to deliberate. But in the end, you either vote for someone or you do not vote at all. After patiently listening to undecided voters for the past six weeks, I am relieved that their time is up. By the end of tomorrow there will be no such thing as an undecided voter.

Tomorrow, each of the persons I spoke with, and millions more, will all be using that great equalizer: our one vote. It is a little terrifying, a little exciting, and completely real. I know many of you may have trouble sleeping tonight. Maybe this will help you rest: Of the hundreds of voters I have spoken to, only one said they have not really been following this election. This country is engaged. This country cares. This country is weighing its choices… carefully.

The Roadmap for Peace

The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations recently endorsed an initiative spearheaded by the American Friends Service Committee called The Roadmap for Peace. Over 30 national organizations have joined together to call on the next U.S. President and administration to engage in a new foreign policy based on these five core principles.

  1. Our nation should invest in peace.

    Our country should invest in diplomacy, development, and conflict prevention — cost-effective ways to improve national and global security.

  2. Strengthen the civilian agencies that work on peace and development issues.

    The military is not an effective relief agency. The government needs a strong civilian foreign assistance and crisis response team.

  3. Give diplomacy a chance.

    With a highly skilled diplomatic corps, the United States can prevent conflict and restore its international reputation.

  4. Be a part of global peacebuilding efforts.

    We must work with renewed commitment in international institutions and partners to address major global conflicts and challenges, such as nonproliferation, climate change, migration, public health, and poverty.

  5. Create justice through good development and trade policies.

You can join the UUA and the AFSC by personally endorsing the Roadmap for Peace.

Tents of Hope for Darfur

The UUA’s September Action of the Month was Tents of Hope for Darfur. The program is ongoing and there are many congregations who are continuing to collect postcards, pitch tents, and even planning to come to D.C. for the national gathering, November 7-9th. A story about UU involvement in the Tents of Hope project has gone up on www.uua.org. We encourage you to read the story and if you have one of your own, please send it (along with pictures) to Alex Winnett at awinnett@uua.org. Thanks!