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.

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

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

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.

President Obama Takes a Long View on Military Policy.

When President Obama left Istanbul on Tuesday, he hosted a town hall meeting with Turkish students. He was asked a lot questions about the U.S.’s relationship with the world. One student asked the President how he was different than his predecessor, George W. Bush.

That is a question a lot of folks in the United States are asking these days with Obama as Commander in Chief.

Since the President entered the Oval Office, we have seen him taking a firmer stand on Afghanistan. He has committed to an increase of 51,000 American troops as well as 5,000 NATO troops to the region. We have also seen several bombings of Al Qeada camps in Pakistan, with more scheduled soon. This should not come to any one as a surprise as the President campaigned with a platform that was tough on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The President also issued a 19 month plan to bring an end to the war in Iraq. But the plan includes 50,000 troops to stay in the region as peacekeepers for an additional two years. For many who want to see an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, these plans have us stay in these lands for far too long.

But the President told the Turkish student that he is looking to the long term on military policy and people of the United States and the world should do the same.

While in Prague, in the Czech Republic, the President pledged the United States to be the moral example in ridding the world from nuclear weapons. He promised the United States and Russia would enter negotiations by the end of the year to reduce their nuclear arsenals.

Many people note that the President has increased the military spending budget by over $20 billion compared to last year’s Bush Administration budget (from $513 billion in FY09 to $534 billion in FY10). I would agree this is a disturbing trend that should be reversed. But I take pause and rethink this when I find this spending increase would help give benefits to soldiers and vets and would include improvements in the lagging Veteran’s Affairs and hospitals.

In fact, the President has told Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to cut out costly and unnecessary weapons systems. Secretary Gates passed the message to the Pentagon and told Congress to resist the urge to increase military spending in the budget. Many Republican Congress Members, including Saxby Chamblis (R-GA) expressed their dismay that the Pentagon would no longer be buying F-22 stealth jets (a plane never used in combat).

In January of this year, Secretary Gates said, “…the spigot of defense spending opened after 9/11 is closing.”

In the short run, I am extremely disappointed by the President’s military policy. I think the troops should come home and a surge of diplomats, engineers, and educators should help secure Afghanistan and Iraq. But in the long term, I am thrilled.

I hate knowing that my tax dollars are wasted on useless missles systems, jets and nuclear warheads. I think these changes are crucial steps to reversing the out of control spiraling military budgets.

U.S. and Iran Share Table at Afghanistan Meeting

This week The Hague, Netherlands, hosted a meeting to discuss the future of Afghanistan. Attendees included representatives from 73 nations, 11 international organizations and several observers from non-governmental organizations.

This meeting was very important and we at the UUA applaud the use of multi-lateral discussions and diplomacy to find a speedy and responsible end to the war in Afghanistan.

The UUA also approves of the United States and Iran joining together in dialogue over this cause. Iran has become an important ally in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At this meeting, Iran has agreed to strengthen its control of the Afghani/Iranian border to prevent the opiate and heroin trade.

Reports indicate that the U.S. Envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke, shared a short conversation with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Mehdi Akhundzadeh. If this is true, this would signal a monumental shift in U.S. foreign policy with Iran. In previous years, Iranian and American officials never spoke with one another. A mending of relations between the United States and Iran after a thirty year rift is crucial to the progress and security of the Middle East. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said the meeting between Akhundzadeh and Holbrooke was “cordial” but “unsubstantive.”

However, today the Iranian government denied any such meeting happened. While Iran is committed to working alongside the United States to bring peace to Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranian officials refuse to meet directly with American officials.

We encourage the Obama Administration to continue working with Iran and opening up relations between the two countries. As one of its legislative objectives for the 111th Congress and the Obama Administration, the UUA calls on the government to “…prevent armed conflict with Iran, through multilateral diplomatic engagement.”

Witnessing on the Sixth Anniversary of the War with Iraq—Fulfill the Promise: End the Occupation

By Susan Leslie, Director, UUA Office for Congregational Advocacy & Witness

On Saturday, a coalition of Unitarian Universalist congregations from the Mass Bay District and the UUA, Military Families Speak Out, and United for Justice with Peace (a MA coalition of peace and justice organizations) gathered on the Boston Common and read the names of all the US military personnel killed in Iraq since the war began six years ago.

There were eight UU parish ministers and representatives and groups from 15 UU congregations (Marblehead, Dedham, Cambridge, Concord, Arlington Street Church, Community Church, First Parish Arlington, Sharon, Jamaica Plain, Sherborn, Middleboro, Beverly, Bedford, No Andover, and Stow). A group of UU young adults who had heard about the event on Facebook came together from Western MA to the Metro Boston area. College students from Bridgewater State also picked up on the Facebook listing, checked out and came carrying peace signs.

The names were read for six minutes at a time, followed by the ringing of a gong. Every hour there was a minute of silence for the Iraqi victims. Members of military families spoke gave testimonials including Bonnie Gorman and Gold Star Mother Malida Arredondo. [The Arredondo family circled the Common with their flatbed truck exhibit for Gold Star Families to End the War and sent passersby over to our Witness event.] They spoke of the pain and suffering of losing loved ones in an “ill-begotten war” and they called for healthcare and jobs for returning soldiers. Patrick Daugherty, of Iraq Veterans Against the War, called for a justification for President Obama’s plan to leave 50,000 troops in Iraq.

Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, minister, UU Church of Marblehead, MA, presided over the event and began by saying:

We gather today in worshipful remembrance of those lost in the United States war with Iraq. Although it seems unreal that we mark a sixth year of US Occupation, the consequences are all too real for many here. We mark with great sadness over 4300 US deaths. We mark with a different sadness all the Iraqi deaths. Some reports are of up to 1 million victims. Neither lesser or greater, but each arriving with a host of other emotions. We gather for more than remembrance of these lost lives, however. We come here with a call to Fulfill the Promise, to End the Occupation, to recognize the cost of the occupation upon Iraq and stand accountable. to tell the truth about those who have returned and how we as a nation will own their stories and tend to their needs. We gather because it matters. We gather because it was on our watch that we arrived in Iraq and we must be quite sure that we bring them home. Thank you for joining us here today.

She ended our time together with these words:

We gather with heavy hearts.
Among us, those grieving the unimaginable. Those who have lost loved ones.
Among us are those who served alongside comrades who would not return, and those who would return, forever altered..
Among us are those who know war too well. Those who served faithfully and know death in ways that inhabit nightmares and on some days, waking hours.

We gather with hopeful hearts as well.
Among us, those looking to a new way of being in the world. A way that will lead to a more rapid return of our soldiers.
Among us, those looking with new eyes at raising awareness of the needs of those already home, but facing economic and health issues that should shame our nation.
Among us, those who know that change will not arrive without our voice – our call to fulfill the promise, end the occupation, tell the truth and take good care.

A picture and caption of the event was featured in The Boston Sunday Globe on March 22nd. We also got some good Indy coverage including a You Tube posting with lots of footage of Rev. Wendy and others.

Mass Peace Action posted a photo album of the witness.

It felt good to be standing with UUs and partners as we work to help President Obama end this immoral war that he too opposed. We remain faithful in our witness to end this war.

Sixth Year in Iraq This Week

This week, we mark the sixth year our forces have acted as an occupying force in Iraq. Since the initial invasion we have seen thousands of US, Coalition and Iraqi lives lost. We have seen billions of dollars wasted and lots of lost opportunities.

While we mourn the loss of lives and resources, we also celebrate our successes. President Obama may have inherited this war, but he is acting quickly to end it in a safe and responsible manner. He has promised a redeployment home of 12,000 military personnel this summer followed by a near complete withdrawal of troops by the end of 2010. However, we are disappointed that a total of 50,000 troops will remain without a clear and concrete mission or time line.

We encourage your congregation to participate in the Iraq Memorial To Life and work to finish the job in Iraq in a timely manner.

Please visit our Iraq War pages at to find out how you can recognize this milestone as well as support our veterans and reconciliation with the citizens of Iraq.

Violence Returns to Northern Ireland

When I speak with ministers or seminarians, they all agree: their clinical pastoral education turned their theology lessons from theory to reality. There is nothing like comforting the dying, praying with a prisoner, or helping a student discern her calling to experience the beauty and grace of the divine.

For me, as someone who studied peace theory in college, my theory did not become reality until I went to Northern Ireland. Peace, there, was always a tenuous ideal despite the fact that it had been a little less than a decade since Catholic and Protestant leaders signed the 1998 Peace Accord, creating a power sharing agreement between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Unionists.

Violence in Northern Ireland definitely had been reduced, but had not disappeared. While violence based on religious backgrounds had grown out of societal favor, we had seen increased hate crimes against recent immigrants and surrounding perceived gender and sexuality. The drug trade and organized crime also lead to an increase of street violence.

For the people of Northern Ireland, politics, religion and culture is a big stew of memory and hurt. While the dividing systems of The Troubles are under deconstruction, it is nearly impossible to fully bring together such a divided and segregated society. Even if every sectarian mural was painted over, every “security fence” taken down, and every bench scrubbed clean of graffiti, it would be a herculean task to reconcile a city such as London/Derry, which has literally polarized its different factions of population on opposite sides of a river.

During my time in Northern Ireland, people were happy for the peace accord. Democracy was blooming as power sharing negotiations had begun again and the local government returned to order after a five year hiatus. People were hopeful again.

But tension lingered. Sectarian violence always seemed to be a possibility. Anger and frustration churned just below the surface, like a pot of water just before it starts to boil. The question was: would sectarianism ever come to the surface and erupt again?

Last Sunday, two British soldiers were gunned down by the Republican paramilitary, RIRA (Real Irish Republican Army), stationed in Northern Ireland’s County Antrim before they left for Afghanistan. And again, the next day, a different Republican paramilitary, CIRA (Continuity Irish Republican Army) took credit for the first murder of a police officer in over ten years.

Immediately the leadership of Sinn Fein, the majority Catholic Republican party in Northern Ireland, denounced the violence. Martin McGuinness, former leader of the Provisional IRA and Deputy Leader of the party called the dissident Republicans “traitors” to the peace process. He added that the CIRA and RIRA “don’t deserve to be supported by anyone.”

Strong words from a man convicted in 1987 of setting bombs that killed eleven.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly met at Stormont (the Capitol building of Northern Ireland) on Monday, the Sinn Fein Leadership stood and offered a moment of silence for the fallen soldiers and police officer. Republican Leadership offering a moment of silence for fallen British soldiers was a sight unthinkable as little as five years ago.

I was deeply moved by seeing the Nationalist and Republican responses to this violence. It is a strong testament to the peace process and the power of reconciliation. Yesterday, a friend in Northern Ireland posted pictures from the rally in Belfast. All over the province, over 200,000 people (about 1/6th of the population of Northern Ireland) came out for a silent protest against the violence.

As Minister McGuinness put it, in many ways this violence has “strengthened the peace process.”

Many people wondered what the radical Loyalist factions would say about the killings. Thus far, they have been positive.

Jackie McDonald, head of the largest Loyalist paramilitary–Ulster Defense Association (UDA)–has echoed Minister McGuinness’ statements saying, “The IRA blew the two communities apart during the Troubles but the Real IRA and Continuity IRA have actually united the people like never before.”

While the major political leaders and much of the population have decried the violence, it is not over yet. A threat of a “major” and “considerable” bomb being smuggled onto the island by CIRA and/or RIRA has caused a cross-border task force of the Northern Ireland Police Service and the Republic of Ireland’s Garda Siochana (Guardians of the Peace). So far, two people have been arrested in connection to that threat but no device has been found.

International Criminal Court Calls for Arrest of Sudan’s Al-Bashir

On Wednesday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir, along with many high level cabinet officials, for crimes against humanity. The warrant calls for any government to apprehend and extradite Al-Bashir to The Hague for trial. This is the first time a sitting President has been called before the Court.

As a result, Al-Bashir’s government has expelled over 10 foreign aid groups from the area including Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and CARE International. The Sudanese President believes these organizations were responsible for giving the ICC enough evidence to indict him. Without these organizations the nearly 3 million displaced refugees in the area will have reduced access to food, clean water or medical facilities. Doctors Without Borders believes an untended to outbreak of cholera, meningitis or malaria would cause deaths in the thousands.We, at the UUA, are greatly saddened and disturbed to hear about the expulsion of the aid workers. Their presence in the camps is necessary for the health and safety of the residents.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama made very strong statements concerning the future of Darfur in Sudan. He said the United States must have “unstinting resolve” to solve the crisis there. So far, we have seen no movement on his part to act even after the call from the ICC. The UUA, a member of the Save Darfur Coalition, is asking you to send a postcard to President Obama to help end the violence in Darfur. You can send your postcard electronically and request hard copies for your congregation by visiting the Darfur Action Center.

Rev. William G. Sinkford, President of the UUA, encourages every UU to sign their postcard to President Obama. He believes this is an issue for all Americans, especially UUs to learn more about. President Sinkford says, “We felt called to speak out, to shine the light of truth into a region overshadowed by the worst form of government oppression… Neither innocence nor ignorance can excuse us from acting, but despite the outcries from the United Nations and much of the world community, the killing continues. We must do more.” See his complete remarks at

Batman and Counter-Terrorism

The third in a series of blog posts this week inspired by movies highlighted in Sunday’s Oscars Awards ceremony. Today, Alex Winnett, Program Associate for Peacemaking, discusses The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight won two awards–one for Best Supporting Actor and another for Best Sound Editing.

I was thrilled to hear that the late Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for Best Supporting Actor at this year’s Academy Awards. Not only was this an excellent tribute to an amazing actor we lost far too early in his career, it is also a recognition of his best performance ever.

Ledger won for his portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker, in the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight. Ledger joined the ranks of such acting greats as Cesar Romero, Mark Hamill, and Jack Nicholson who took on the role of The Joker. But whereas Romero, Hamill and Nicholson played The Joker with a tongue-in-cheek campy insanity; Ledger’s portrayal was dark, sinister and homicidal.

Ledger’s Joker was the worst of every boogey man in our culture, a terrorist who understood the true power of terror: the ability to make an enemy an ally.

Last month, The National Review Online named The Dark Knight as the 12th Best Conservative Film of the last 25 years. One pundit made connections between Batman and Former President George W. Bush saying:

In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public.

But what the NRO forgets is that Batman fell into to the trap of the Joker’s genius. The Joker was able to pull Batman down to his level and turn him into a fellow terrorist. Watching the movie again, I can’t but notice the most heroic moments are not when Batman breaks the law, puts civilians in danger, or invalidates civil liberties; instead, we champion the moment when Batman’s techy assistant, Lucius Fox, destroys a surveillance computer that would make the NSA drool. We mourn the loss of the white knight District Attorney, Harvey Dent, as he goes insane. And cheer when two ferries full of civilians and convicts respectively–when faced with a high stakes example of the prisoner’s dilemma— each decides to sacrifice themselves instead of the other–thus saving every one.

While the political right would like every one to make the connection that George W. Bush and his band of neo-cons are heroic Batman-esque figures, not every one sees it that way. When faced with destroying the principles your are attempting to save, it seems like Gen. Petraeus’ principles of counterinsurgency hold true: the more force you use, the less effective it can be; tactical success guarantees nothing; and if you lose moral legitimacy, you lose the war.

Furthermore, we want to make every terrorist The Joker. We want to believe that every single person out there wanting to destroy the American system–from the Middle East to the Midwest–are all single minded homicidal maniacs who want nothing more than to kill, pilliage and destroy. But as Eboo Patel and Max Abrahms point out, the average terrorist is not Osama Bin Laden or Ayman al-Zahariri; but, rather a lost young adult who seeks refuge in a community of supporters. It is striking to see that all the 9/11 hijackers were no more than eight years older than myself. Some were even younger than I am now. Timothy McVeigh was only 23 when he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in 1995.

While Commissioner Gordon announces, in a puritanical fashion, that Batman is the hero we deserve (in a world of fear and pain), but he is not the hero we want (one who will inspire us and give us hope), we are forced to ask if we should receive the hero we want or the one we deserve. If it is a choice between one who falls easily to the trappings of terrorism, or one who rises above it, I believe we should get the hero we want rather the one we deserve.