Working for Justice, Making a Point, and Being Funny

Working for justice is long, hard work, so I’m grateful for opportunities to laugh along the way. It’s especially rewarding when humor also makes an important point.

On that note, here’s to Mike Brown from the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Springfield, MO, for his letter published in the “Roses & Thorns” section of the Springfield News-Leader. His piece calls out unacceptable behavior, lifts up justice work as central to Unitarian Universalism, and it made me laugh. Thanks Mike! May you and First UU keep up the good work.

Mike Brown’s August 13 Post on Roses & Thorns

Goodbyes of all sorts

Yesterday was the first full day after American Troops had ceded power of urban areas to Iraqi troops. While there was some violence, the day was mostly peaceful. This is an important step in the relationship between Iraq and the United States. I am glad to see this day come.

Today marks another “goodbye” for me. Today is my last day working for the UUA. After two years as the Program Associate for Peacemaking at the UUA, my term of service is coming to an end. I think it is a fitting end to my time here, I leave just as American troops leave Iraqi cities.

I have really valued and appreciated my time at the UUA Washington Office. The people I worked with, both here and in Boston, are dedicated to the faith and are examples of grace and humility under pressure. I have learned lots from them and appreciate their mentorship and friendship.

Some highlights for me in the past two years include:

  • Advocacy and Witness’ weekly staff meeting and all the fun ways we would decide the agenda
  • Theological Reflection with the UUA Staff and our office minister, Alida
  • Hearing about all the awesome work people are doing in their congregations
  • Working with the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Seeing the Tents of Hope on the National Mall
  • Making origami paper cranes with the UUA staff after the Knoxville shooting last year
  • Helping people think of new and innovative ways of thinking about peace.

One blog post could never appropriately capture all the thoughts and feelings I have right now. So, I will just leave it with this: my gratitude is unfathomable. I will always love and charish the time I had with the UUA. It helped me grow into the faithfilled leader I am today.

As for what is next with me, I join the mighty ranks of the “underemployed.” This gives me an opportunity to find another career that fits my passions and skills. It also frees up some time to work on a project I have started with some friends– The UU Volunteer Service Core (UUVSC). It is my hope that the UUVSC will allow me to pass on some of the opportunities I had by working at the UUA by supporting UU Young Adults spiritually while they work for change in their communities. For more information on the UUVSC, you can see our facebook page here. And if you a thing or two about starting up a non-profit, you can get in touch with me at UUVSC(dot)Alex(AT)gmail(dot)com.

Getting Ready for GA with Standing on the Side of Love

Lisa and I caught an early morning flight from National Airport to Salt Lake City, Utah for the annual business meeting of the UUA. I am really excited to be here. If memory serves me correctly, this is my 10th GA (yeow!).

But I don’t ever remember being as excited for a GA as much as this one. Not only are there three history setting votes (including edits to the Principles and Purposes of the UUA, the Peacemaking Statement of Conscience, and the election of a new UUA President), but I am really excited about the launch of the UUA’s new outreach campaign, Standing on the Side of Love.
Standing on the Side of Love is a way UUs can act upon their faith by working along side marginalized and oppressed people in American society.
Adam Gerhardstein (former Legislative Assistant for International Issues and former Acting Director of the Washington Office for Advocacy) is now the campaign director for Standing on the Side of Love. In the video below, you can see Adam overseeing the hanging of our Standing on the Side of Love banners in the Salt Palace Convention Center.
We will be posting videos like this all week long. You can see these videos and receive more updates by going to our companion blog for Standing on the Side of Love at http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/ or at youtube by subscribing to our feed.
You can also follow the Standing on the Side of love campaign through many different ways.
If you want text messages from GA sent to your cell phone from GA, just text STAND to 41411.
You can follow us on Twitter @SideofLove
And you can become a fan of Standing on the Side of Love on facebook

Dr. Seuss and Social Justice

Yesterday, Lisa sent me an email she had received from one of her immigration listservs. The note links to a blog post called RI4A: Finding the right Dr. Seuss metaphor for our movement. The author of the post, who goes by the “Nom de Blog” Sneetch posed the question: “What is the best Dr. Seuss metaphor for the immigration movement?” The author of the note first proposed Horton Hears a Who!. Lisa excitedly sent me the note because she knows that “Horton…” is my all time favorite book I have ever read.

Yes, my all time favorite book…ever. Not just my favorite children’s book. Not just my favorite Dr. Seuss book. Not just my favorite book about anthropomorphic elephants. My favorite book ever. So much so, that when my peers in my high school Advanced Placement Literature class wrote reports about Dostoevsky, Austen, and Steinbeck, I wrote a report about Horton Hears a Who!

I love Horton… because I really do believe it is a wonderful story about strength, faith, courage, and justice. It is about doing what you think is right even when it is difficult or when you face ridicule or no one believes you.

It has become a staple for UU Religious Educators and it is taught all over the world. I have seen it published in no fewer than four languages. Plus it is a really fun story.

It tells the tale of Horton, a loveable and gentle elephant, who finds a speck of dust while splashing in a jungle pool. As the speck of dust falls through the air, his powerful ears are able to hear the tiny cries of the people who live in the speck of dust–the Whos. Hearing their calls, Horton catches the speck of dust on a clover and swears to protect them. “After all,” says Horton, “a person’s a person, no matter how small.”

As Horton travels around the jungle carrying a speck of dust on a clover, he attracts the attention of other jungle creatures. They don’t believe Horton when he says tiny people live in the speck of dust. They are threatened by his faith. They call him crazy. They ridicule him and put him through many dangerous feats of strength and courage to test his faith and commitment.

Finally, the jungle creatures threaten to drop the speck of dust into a cauldron of boiling oil. Horton insists that every Who in Whoville must lift up their voices and make a great sound to let everyone know that the Whos exist. While every Who does make a sound, it is not until the smallest Who of all adds her voice that the jungle creatures finally hear the Whos and believe Horton. It is then that every creature in the jungle commits to join Horton in protecting the Whos.

It is a very good story that touches on all the themes of social justice–especially from a UU perspective. It shows the inherent worth and dignity of every person (no matter how small). It shows that we should work for justice and equal rights. It shows the importance of every hand and voice being raised for the good of others. And it shows the power of faith and commitment to sustain the long and grueling movement toward justice. And how we can soften the hardest hearts through the power of love.

I love this book. I keep of a copy of it on my desk and read it when I am feeling discouraged. I give it away for birthday, coming of age and transition celebrations. I like reading it to kids using silly voices and encouraging kids to say with me the refrain, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

To return to the letter Lisa sent me, Sneetch critiques the Horton frame as being patronizing toward recent immigrants. If we are to follow the Horton theme of the non-profit world as Horton and the immigrants as the Who’s, it shows how non-profits have taken on the role of the protectors of the helpless immigrants. Yet, I believe this is a flawed analysis of the book as it ignores the fact that Horton helps the Whos become moral agents who are able to raise their own voices for justice.

The blog writer Sneetch offers The Sneetches instead. The Sneetches is a great allegory for racism and white supremacy of Dr. Seuss’s time. But I feel that Sneetch missed the point of The Sneeches by focusing on the dangers of materialism that is inherent to the Sneetches story. She compares the modern non-profit sphere to the scam artist McBean in The Sneetches. McBean profits off the pain of those who look for his help. Much as, the author claims, the non-profit world profits from the pain of recent immigrants. But that saddens me. By reading the blogpost, I am sorry to hear the hurt and pain in Sneetch’s words. I know the long journey of justice can be difficult and exhausting. But that is why we need stories like “Horton Hears a Who!” to refresh and inspire us.

Which stories inspire you to keep on the long road to justice? What are your favorite social justice stories, Dr. Seuss or otherwise? Please share in the comments below.

Get Ready to Vote for the Statement of Conscience for Peacemaking

General Assembly (GA), the annual business meeting for the Unitarian Universalist Association is quickly approaching.

At GA, we have a full docket of things to discuss and vote upon. But what I am most excited about is the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking. This statement is the culmination of three years of study, action and reflection. If passed, this document will help the UUA, congregations and individuals discern future peacemaking opportunities. It will also help with spiritual discernment on peace matters for years to come.

The Statement of Conscience was written by the Commission on Social Witness (CSW) and aims to be a prophetic and dynamic statement on the role of peace in the UU community and our role as peacemakers. It is the result of three years of work of hundreds of UU activists, theologians and ministers. Congregations had a total of four opportunities to give feedback to the CSW on the topic of peacemaking. The resposes we received were varied and complex. It was the goal of the CSW to reflect the diverse opinions held by members of the larger UU community.

At GA, there will be two mini-assemblies on Thursday for delegates to propose ammendments and edits. Ultimately, there will be a vote on whether or not to pass the statement made by the delegates of the GA. The statements requires a 2/3 majority vote to pass.

In preparation of the mini-assemblies and the final vote, we recommend that congregations discuss the Statement of Conscience with their delegates. To find the final draft of the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking, please visit our website. For ideas on how to collect feedback, please see this resource from an earlier feedback period. For more information on UUA peacemaking, please visit uua.org/peacemaking.

Thank you for your time and efforts before the event. By coming prepared, we can have a productive and helpful conversation on the statement.

Our Last Days with Mom

Two days before I was supposed to fly to San Francisco for my father’s 80th birthday, my mother was diagnosed with stage IV adenocarcenoma of an unknown primary. (For you non-medical types, that means she had cancer of the epithelial cells that line our throat, stomach, intestines, and reproductive organs; it had spread to multiple locations, but they didn’t know where it had started.) When Mom – who was the opposite of a hypochondriac – had complained of not feeling well, we had of course urged her to see her doctor. That was in late January. She did not get an appointment until early March. By then she had lost weight and was having trouble breathing. Upon seeing Mom’s condition, her primary care physician checked her into UCSF hospital, where they drained several liters of fluid from her abdomen and both lungs. It took another week for the test results to come back with the diagnosis. When I got home on March 19th, Mom’s belly was distended. She could not eat. She could not have a bowel movement. She burped incessantly. Instead of a big birthday celebration it was just Mom, Dad, my brother Victor and myself in a house stiffled by worry. Mom managed to force down one small piece of mango birthday cake.

The prognosis had been 6-9 months, but Mom was always faster than anyone expected. She left us only seven weeks later, one day shy of Mothers Day.

I know that when people are grieving we often look for someone or something to blame. I know that Mom’s cancer was diagnosed very late, and even if the health care system had worked perfectly for us, Mom likely still have passed away from us too soon. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to note the numerous ways in which the health care system made what little time we had left with her that much harder for us. And all the while, I have to remember that we are the “lucky” ones who have health insurance. Mom was covered under an HMO.

First, there was the matter of the referral. Mom’s primary care physician had written a referral for her to see an oncologist. But when I called the number on the slip to make an appointment, I was informed that before we could have one we needed more tests in order to try to pinpoint the primary location of the cancer. “You can’t be serious,” I exclaimed, “She has cancer; she needs to see an oncologist immediately.” The woman on the other end of the phone “explained” that “all the oncologists at UCSF are highly specialized,” some specializing in lung cancer and others in colon cancer, etc. Without knowing the “primary location” of the cancer, she did not know which oncologist to refer Mom to. After a little more back and forth, it became clear that I was not talking to a doctor, but an HMO bureaucrat, one that had the power to decide whether my mom could see a doctor or not.

Two additional tests were required. When we tried to schedule these tests, we were given appointments three weeks later. Three weeks for the test, another week for the results… a month. And in the meantime the cancer was growing every day.

At this point a family friend who is a doctor explained to us that “in-patients” automatically get priority for procedures over “outpatients,” even if the outpatients have a time-sensitive, life-threatening disease. With that knowledge, we checked Mom into the hospital in order to speed up the process. It wasn’t hard to get her admitted. Mom was now vomitting on a daily basis. But being inside the hospital presented its own challenges. Instead of familiar family surroundings, the hospital was stuffy, cramped and depressing. Mom shared a room with a woman who apparently screamed in her sleep, keeping Mom up at nights. During the day, there was little for her to do other than wait for visitors (of which there were thankfully many). It was not an environment conducive to remaining in good spirits, which is essential to maintaining health.

Over the course of Mom’s five weeks in the hospital, we saw numerous doctors – so many that we could not keep track. Different doctors looked after different parts of her. A team of oncologists conferred regarding her cancer, but would not start chemo while Mom was still in the hospital. A surgeon and his students stopped by briefly each day to check on the status of her blocked bowel, but claimed that they could not operate so they did nothing other than stop by. Every procedure, whether ultrasound or CT scan, was handled by a different department. And Mom was gurneyed from one location to another by attendees who left as soon as they reached their destination, whether the receiving end was ready or not, sometimes leaving Mom out in the hall as if she were a package. One doctor was supposed to watch over her overall health, tying it all together. But that position was filled by a different doctor each week, so that each time we started over again with someone unfamiliar with her case.

To be fair, some of the nurses and doctors were wonderful, displaying real compassion and attentiveness. But far too many were not. There was the oncologist who, when my brother mentioned that he had been researching Mom’s cancer online, shook his head in disapproval. When my brother said we were seeking a second opinion, his response was, “Yeah, good luck with that.” There was the doctor who drugged Mom into a three day delirium, prescribing one anti-nausea medication after another instead of considering that the approach wasn’t working. When we voiced alarm, we were told that it was “common for senior citizens to show some delirium,” ignoring the fact that we knew OUR mother had been mentally sharp until only a few days before. There was the doctor who, when I questioned some decisions that had been made, beligerantly suggested that I was making random acusations. There was the nurse who decided to “test” Mom’s condition by waiting to see if she could stand without assistance, despite my informing him to the contrary and despite Mom’s cries of distress.

Above all, the most frustrating thing was that once in the hospital, we were caught in a catch-22. The cancer had created numerous secondary ailments – a bowel obstruction that resulted in vomitting, ascites (fluid buildup in the abdomen and lungs) which caused painful distention and hampered her breathing, and edema (swelling of the lower limbs due to poor nutrition). As long as we were in the hospital, Mom could not receive chemotherapy because chemo was for outpatients only. Nor were we allowed to try alternative treatments such as acupuncture or homeopathy because of the liability issues it presented. But without the chemo or any other treatment, Mom’s cancer multiplied unchecked, causing the symptoms that were keeping her in the hospital. As long as she was vomitting, they kept her as an “inpatient,” pumping her full of anti-nausea medications that impaired her mind and were only addressing the symptoms. It was madness.

Little by little, yet all too fast, Mom grew so weak that chemo was no longer an option, even if her bowel obstruction had spontaneously recovered. In her last days, her kidneys started to fail and in her last hours her lungs filled again with fluid. She died of respiratory failure at 6:50 am, May 9th, 2009. After talking with the doctor on call we gathered up Mom’s belongings and left at about 8:30 am. An hour later at home, the hospital was on the phone telling me that we had to come back in order to sign the release for the body. “Why,” I asked incredulously, “didn’t you tell us this during the hour and a half that we were still there?” It was indicative of every frustration that we had experienced during the last seven weeks. Only this time, they had nothing to hold over us. I refused to return. Another hour later, they called again, this time saying that we didn’t have to sign at the hospital after all and could do so with the funeral home.

I won’t go into the details of Mom’s funeral, except to say that in almost every way our experience with the funeral home was far more pleasant than with the hospital. The employees were kinder. Every person that we worked with seemed to know Mom’s case. Instead of telling us what we couldn’t do, they went out of their way to meet requests. Obviously, funeral homes are businesses and depend on satisfied customers. But shouldn’t a hospital want satisfied customers as well? As I said, I am at terms with the fact that Mom’s time here was up, but our last days with her could have been so much less unpleasant than they were. From my family’s perspective, there is little that is healing about the health care system.

Rainbow Birthday Cake

The Unitarian Universalist Washington Center houses the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, Identity Based Ministries, and Holdeen India Program, as well as Shelley Moskowitz, the Washington representative of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Once a month we get together and have a Washington center meeting and potluck to celebrate the birthdays that month. Today, we celebrated the birthdays of Lisa Swanson, Legislative Assistant for Racial and Economic Justice, and Adam Gerhardstein, Acting Director of the Washington Office. To celebrate, Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking, baked a cake that can only be explained by the pictures below. Enjoy!

Alex (Baker)

Adam (Birthday Boy)
Lisa (Birthday Girl)

Recognize Your Mom (Figure) The Right Way

Mother’s Day is this Sunday, and I’ll bet you know many moms who deserve thanks, and an award, for all she does. The UUA and MomsRising.org want to thank all the mothers and mother figures in the world for all the amazing work they do.

Give them an “award” for their years of tireless service by visiting MomsRising.org and watching a video of Hollywood Celebrities, President Obama and grateful folks recognizing the mom in your life.

We look forward to making this a great year for mothers and families together.

To share this video with other folks, please copy and send the following link:
http://news.cnnbcvideo.com/index2.html?p=uu

100 Days in Office

Today marks the 100th day in office for the Obama Administration. To recognize the event, the UUA Washington Office for Advocacy has made a report card for the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress.

The Washington Staff is also recognizing the event by sharing some of the things we accomplished in the past 100 days.

Alex-
Worked in my garden and made compost
Read
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Read Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith
Watched the entire first season of
Mad Men on DVD
Made vegan macaroni and cheese
Went to the US National Arboretum
Co-founded a non-profit for UU young adults called the UU Volunteer Service Core

Lisa-
Began to incorporate fasting once a month into my spiritual practice
Read Eboo Patel’s book Acts of Faith twice
Enjoyed the famous D.C. cherry blossoms
Traveled to Chicago, Boston, New York City, Durham, and Pittsburgh
Made up a (brilliant, I’m telling you) series of “walked into a bar” jokes that all end with “You can put it on my tab,” spoken by a can of Sprite, a computer keyboard, and a file folder
Accepted admission to law school for this August
Emailed every nonprofit that solicits donations from me to tell them that I plan to be broke for at least the next three years

Orelia-
Moved three times
Learned to love Brussels sprouts
Started a new job
Turned 28
Bought my first suit, which came from a consignment shop
Took 6 trips on airplanes
Organized a national conference on comprehensive sexuality education

Adam-
Got engaged
Got inspired at the Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministry
Conducted an Inspired Faith Effective Action training in Chicago
Got accepted into law school
Deferred law school admissions to keep working at the UUA for another year
Read Eboo Patel’s Book Acts of Faith
Traveled to Boston four times
Bought my parent’s Prius named “Tyler” and sold my Dodge Neon named “Awesome”
Was totally impressed by the participants at the 2009 Sexuality Education Advocacy Training
Hiked in Asheville with my siblings
Conducted a workshop at the National Center for Transgender Equality’s Religious Leaders Summit
Spent as much time as possible in my garden
Watched the Office and 30 Rock every Thursday

Random Acts of Kindness

Working in peace and social justice can be incredibly exhausting. To work for peace is an exercise in making what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “impossible possibility.” To trudge chest deep in pain, suffering, war, genocide, and famine can lead to fatigue and burnout.

There are always those inspiring stories, that seem too far and in between: people overcoming violence to do great and heroic things. And those stories are important. Then there are the stories of people who stand up in the face of injustice and work to right past wrongs. Those stories are important as well.

But sometimes, what really makes me most hopeful are random acts of kindness. To see people stand up and make a gesture to help a stranger with no need of recognition or compensation. Rather, they just help because they can.

There is a short video going around in the Do It Yourself community about Tweenbots. These little robots travel in a straight line at a constant speed with a flag asking for a push in the right direction. They rely on the kindness of strangers to get to where they are going.

The creator then follows the robot with a hidden camera. And the footage is pretty amazing. Perfect strangers in midtown Manhattan stopping to point a little robot in the right direction.

It warms my heart.

I think we need more stories of random acts of kindness in our daily lives.