About the Author
Alex Winnett

Web Banner Campaign for NRCAT

Last spring, thousands of houses of worship and religious spaces–including hundreds of UU churches and fellowships–hung banners outside of their buildings announcing that torture is wrong and immoral. This campaign was organized by the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT).

NRCAT is asking religious communities to once again hang their banners to remind the new Congress and Administration that torture is not to be ignored.

But it does not end with churches, mosques, temples and synagogues. Now, you can “hang” a banner on your blog and/or web page.

The two banners look like this–

You can sign up to have the banners on your blog or web site by visiting nrcat.org

For more information on UUs and NRCAT, please see
uua.org– UUs Take a Public Stand on Torture
Stop U.S. Sponsored Torture- Action of Immediate Witness
uuworld.org– UU a Leader in Campaign to End US Torture

What Is Marriage?

In the past few years, we have heard many arguments from the Religious Right concerning the definition of marriage. Many claim that civil marriage for same sex couples will fundamentally redefine marriage in American culture.

After the passage of California Prop 8 and Florida Prop 2, this debate has reemerged in the mainstream media. Many activists have made compelling and moving arguments for marriage equality. And some have even cited precedent for how redefining marriage has happened in the past and has made our nation better. In the past, marriage was a business arrangement between fathers. In the past, slaves were not allowed to decide who they got to marry, if at all. In the past, interracial marriage was illegal. In each instance, the social and legal definitions were fundamentally changed. And our nation has become more just for it.

But my favorite definition of marriage has come from a furry blue monster and a little boy. In this definition, we see that marriage has nothing to do with gender or sexuality. It has to do with love, commitment and support. This is what activists of civil marriage equality are fighting for. And I cannot think of anything better to be fighting for.

Iraqi and American Peace Accord On the Move

On Sunday, the Iraqi Executive Cabinet approved a timeline of American withdrawal from Iraq. Of the 28 ministers at the meeting, 27 approved the measure. This overwhelming support for the agreement from the Executive Cabinet marks positive possibilities for the passage of the plan by the Iraqi Parliament some time this week.

The agreement extends the presence of American troops beyond the Dec. 31st expiration date of the UN Resolution 1511. However, it requires a preliminary reduction of American troops on January 1st, 2009. Furthermore, it would put coalition-led missions under the guidance of the Iraqi military.

The time-line for withdrawal would continue in this way:

  • Full withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities, villages and towns by July 1, 2009;
  • A complete handover of all military bases to Iraqi military forces by December 1, 2009;
  • A full withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq by December 31st, 2010.

These deadlines are non-negotiable. They will not depend on benchmarks. They will not depend on ground conditions.

The agreement is expected to succeed as the Shi’a and Kurdish blocs have agreed to pass the resolution. The Sunni minority bloc is currently split on the resolution, as many fear it would leave the future of Sunni security at the hands of the Shi’ite majority. The only Minister not to approve the agreement on Sunday belongs to the strongest Sunni party.

There has been much speculation that the Bush Administration has made major concessions in order to get the resolution passed before the transfer of American governance in January. This agreement has been pushed even further up as the Iraqi Parliament prepares to adjourn for the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca for the holiday Eid al-Adha.

There is some disagreement here in the United States on whether or not this agreement would need to be ratified by Congress before it goes into effect. If Congressional review is necessary, it would need to be put on hold until the 111th Congress begins its session. That would mean then-President Obama would have the pleasure to sign the agreement into reality. According to the New York Times and Washington Post, many in the Bush Administration want to skip the Congressional review so that the reduction of troops could begin within the tenure of the Bush Presidency.

If this agreement is passed by the Iraqi Parliament, there will still be a lot of work to do on the part of the peace community. First of all, these deadlines are hard and fast, but the agreement has not been passed yet. And if there is Congressional Review necessary for American participation, we will need to speak to our elected officials to make sure the agreement is ratified.

Furthermore, these deadlines are crucial for the Iraqi people to feel empowered as a sovereign nation. We must keep the Obama administration accountable to the needs and requests of the Iraqi government and military. The deadlines must be respected and honored.

We must also keep our government and military accountable for other military operations we are currently in. We must work with the Afghani government to make sure our withdrawal from their country is timely and accountable to them as well as us.

Finally, after our troops come home, we must continue to support them. We must call for a strengthening of our Veteran’s Affairs as well as improving the physical and emotional services the veterans require. Even after the war is over, we will have over 1.5 million Iraq War veterans to support. This will require extensive physical and emotional rehabilitation as well as giving them concrete job skills to compete in the struggling economy.

Overall, this is an exciting time for the anti-war community and we should not forget to celebrate our successes. With this agreement, the United States is well on the road to a complete and timely withdrawal from Iraq.

December Action of the Month: Pictures of Peace

Throughout the month of December and into 2009, Unitarian Universalist communities across the United States are invited create pictures of peace in intergenerational arts and crafts time. Please use crayons, finger paints, collages, or any other medium to convey your dreams of peace. Congregations are encouraged to hand-deliver the pictures to the office of their local decision makers. The pictures, along with a ministerial cover letter will allow church members to create relationships with their senator and share a dream of peace.

This is an excellent project for Religious Educators to adopt. It gives the opportunity to community members of all ages to learn and teach from one another and be active together. This allows people who usually do not interact with each other (young people and elders) to work together in a spirit of peace and intergenerational dialog.

Now, in the Holiday Season and the beginning of a new Government, Unitarian Universalists will share the opportunity to imagine that world of peace and justice. Please join us as families, friends and members of a religious community to develop pictures of peace for the future.

Now is also a crucial time for Unitarian Universalism as a movement. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is currently exploring what UU peacemaking looks like. Congregations are urged to read and discuss the rough draft for the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking. This document, to be voted upon by General Assembly in June 2009, aims to be a comprehensive, dynamic and prophetic vision of what UU peacemaking could look like. Please review the document with the intention of giving feedback to the UUA by February, 2009.

We encourage you and your community to participate in this conversation by downloading the rough draft of the Statement of Conscience on Peacemaking and sharing your feedback. This year, the Commission on Social Witness requires at least 25% of UU congregations approve of the Statement of Conscience being voted upon by the General Assembly. Your congregational feedback helps us reach that crucial goal. Congregational feedback opens *Tomorrow* at http://dyn.uua.org/congregation/.

For more information on the project along with resources on how to organize an in-district lobby visit and UU peacemaking, please visit http://www.uua.org/socialjustice/actioncenter/121437.shtml

Tents of Hope Was a Great Success!

Over the weekend of November 7-9th, hundreds of tents from around the United States and the world converged on the National Mall in Washington DC. These tents, beautifully painted, were created to bring attention to the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. Organized by the Tents of Hope Campaign, this event was a huge success.

Tents from UU congregations sat near tents from Catholic and Protestant parishes, Jewish temples, college campuses and community organizations. Together, they made a beautiful tapestry of color and a message for peace. With the Washington Monument and Capitol Building acting as backdrops and the music of local and Darfurian musicians, this was a stunning and powerful experience.

Activists and tourists alike wandered the tents learning about the conditions of refugee camps in Darfur and Chad. Organizations like Save Darfur, UU Service Committee, and Amnesty International helped participants learn about the conflict in Darfur and how to help those most affected by the violence and displacement.

Many UU Congregations, including All Souls Church, Unitarian in Washington DC; The UU Congregation of Kent, Ohio; First UU Church of Dallas, Texas; and the UU Legislative Ministries of Maryland all provided tents. Many more congregations utilized the postcard campaign for Darfurian women organized by the UU Service Committee.

Several of the tents used this weekend will be sent to Darfur and Chad to act as schools, health clinics and shelters in Darfurian refugee camps.

Tents of Hope was the September Action of the Month for the UU Advocacy and Witness Team. For more information on the Actions of the Month, please visit uua.org/socialjustice.

Why I Work the Polls

Tuesday morning, my alarm clock went off at 5 AM. The sky was still dark as the sun would not rise for another two hours. I made myself a coffee and an english muffin, then walked through my eerily quiet neighborhood at 5:45.

My neighborhood is called Columbia Heights. It is one of the new, “hot”, neighborhoods in DC. A space that was once known as a really “dangerous part of town.” But recently, it has seen an influx of young, white professionals. Columbia Heights was not always that way. In the 1950’s and ’60’s it was a thriving middle class Black community. But after the riots of 1968 and the recession of the ’70’s, Columbia Heights fell apart. The main shopping area for DC’s Black community burnt down during the civil unrest and many of the middle class residents moved out.

But many stayed as well, raising their children and being active members of the community.

When the polls opened at 7 AM, the line out the door was wrapping around the block. For two solid hours, a constant stream of people came to my table to receive their ballots. There was a good mix of voters. Young professionals, older residents, recent immigrants all lined up to vote. But promptly at 10, the young, white professionals disappeared. Elder members of the Black Community exclusively came to cast their votes. Retired women and men in their 70s, 80s and 90s came in and voted through out the mid-day.

All greeted me with smiles. One older woman told me about how the elementary school gym we were in (now closed and being prepared for condos) was her elementary school in the 40s. An elderly man told me about how he lives in the same house he bought with funds from the GI Bill after WWII. Another woman told me about how sad she was since her husband died a month earlier.

But most of all, all of these residents, my neighbors, seemed proud. These were folks who lived through a segregated DC under Jim Crow Laws. These were people who witnessed Dr. King’s march on Washington and his death. They also survived the riots immediately following. They saw the establishment of DC Home Rule. And now, they were able to vote for the man who would become the nation’s first black Presidential. The energy and excitement were palpable. People hugged each other and laughed. Many older men shook my hand firmly and thanked me.

As the day progressed, and the sun began to set, young people replaced the Elders again. Some were professionals, others were students at nearby Howard University. Many of the young voters were voting for the first time. Every time I saw a blank or confused face, I took the time to explain to them how to cast their vote correctly. I slowly went over the ballot and how one fills it out.

Finally, as the sky darkened and the crowd thinned out to a trickle, a young black man in his late twenties showed up with his four year old daughter. He took the ballot and thanked me. I asked his daughter if she would help her dad vote. She shyly said, “No.” But her dad looked at me and said, “Oh, she will.”

He took her over to the booth and quickly scanned the ballot, voting for all the local offices. I noticed he had not filled in the bubble for President. He then bent down. He grabbed his daughter’s hand and gave the pencil to her. Very carefully, he held her hand and they connected the arrow together. They then walked her over to the ballot box and they fed the paper in together. They both received a little “I Voted” sticker and walked out the door as he whispered something in her ear. She nodded.

I am not sure who they voted for together. But I have a pretty good guess. And typing this makes me choke up just as it did ten minutes before the polls closed Tuesday night.

And that is why I work the polls. I work the polls to honor our elders who worked so hard to make this country free. I work the polls to make sure everyone feels confident that their vote was cast correctly. And I work the polls so that our future is protected.

Prevent Voter Fraud on November 4th.

The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case. Thomas Paine- 1796

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, affirm and promote the use of the democratic process…The Fifth Principle of the UUA

On November 4, the General Election will be held. With the record turnout for the Presidential Primaries, early voting in states that allow it, and a huge influx of new voter registrations, this could quite possibly be the largest election in the history of the United States.

The botched elections in Florida (2000) and Ohio (2004) have kept people on the lookout for voter fraud. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), attempted to remedy many these problems by making it easier to register to vote, updating old voting technologies, and making voting practices more secure. While it has solved some of these issues, HAVA still has a lot of issues to work out–mostly due to lack of oversight on the appropriation of funds and unrelaiable voting machines. Today, 27 states — including such large ones as California, New York, Illinois, and Ohio require electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verified paper trail. There is paper-trail legislation pending in a dozen more states.

There is still a need for Congress to pass a strong federal law requiring electronic voting machines to produce reliable paper records.

And there have been quite a few problems leading up to this election. The controversy surrounding ACORN’s voter registration drive (less than 1% of their registration of 1.3 million new voters have been found to be inaccurate) has created a flashpoint surrounding voting records. This has increased a clampdown in many states and making sure everyone on the rolls is a legitimate voter may have caused legitimate voters to be stricken from the records. Many Sec’s of State and Political Committees have used this opportunity to disenfranchise many voters by striking them from the voting register, a practice used long before the controversy surrounding ACORN.

To ensure your voter registration, please visit www.maps.google.com/vote before November 4th to confirm your registration and find your polling place. Remember, your polling place should be close to your home address. You can also call your local board of elections to confirm your voter registration and polling location.

Please take note of where your polling place is and be sure of how to get to it from your residence or work place.

On November 4th, please be aware of your rights while voting.

Take time off of work. Your employer is legally obligated to give you time off of work to vote. Whether coming in late, taking a long lunch, or leaving early, you are allowed to take time off of work to vote. Do not let work or a boss keep you from casting your vote.

Stay in line. Expect long lines at your polling site. Visiting your site during off-peak hours will help reduce the time you will have to wait in line. Between 10 and 11 AM or 2 and 4 PM will have the least amount of voters. Once you are in line, do not leave. Everyone in line has the right to vote, even after the polls have closed. Anyone who is attempting to intimidate voters in line by threatening to call the police on people waiting is in strict violation of the law.

Many states require proof of identification. This may be required for all voters. Other states may require identification for first time voters or people who registered through the postal service. Please be prepared to bring proper identification.

You have the right to a provisional ballot. If you have confirmed your voter registration with your local board of elections but find that your name is not on the roster or is being challenged by one of the campaigns, do not panic. You have the right to cast a provisional ballot. Please retain any receipt the poll worker gives you (or ask for one). This will give you the appropriate information to confirm that your provisional ballot was counted.

Read any signs on the wall. This will give you clear information on your rights as a voter. Signs may include an example ballot as well as any local laws protecting your rights as a voter. For instance, signs in California, New York State and Washington DC may inform you that it is illegal to wear or display any campaign paraphernalia in the polling site. Signs may also inform you how to contact your local board of elections in order to file a complaint or describe any violations of your rights.

Bring your sample ballot. Many states offer sample ballots either through the mail or online. These sample ballots will often give helpful information on candidates or propositions on the ballot. Feel free to complete your sample ballot at home before you travel to the polls. You have every right to bring your sample ballot with you into the voting booth. You have the right to be an informed voter.

Take your time. You have the right to take as much time as you need to vote. If you have made a mistake, you may “spoil” your ballot and ask for a new one. You have every right to ask for a new ballot. Don’t let anyone rush you or harass you while voting. Many areas may have new voting technologies you may not be familiar with. You should ask for help if you need it. Many states and jurisdictions will also offer ballots in other languages. When in doubt, ask a poll worker.

When in doubt, ask a poll worker. If you have any questions, ask a poll worker. If you have a problem or concern, ask a poll worker. If your ballot is incorrect or incomplete, ask a poll worker. If you are afraid you are at the incorrect polling site, ask a poll worker. If campaign officials are harassing people in line, ask a poll worker. If you feel harassed by a poll worker, ask for a different poll worker or a precinct captain.

Pay Attention. If you find anything suspicious while voting, please keep track of it. If there is anyone intimidating you or other voters, please make note of it. If you are having a difficult time with a poll official, please make note of it. If you find your ballot is incorrect, please make a note of it. If you press the button for one candidate but find the name of another one lights up, please make a note of it. Please file any complaints to your board of elections and the Lawyer’s Committe for Civil Rights Election Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE (1-886-867-8683).

If you have already voted either by absentee ballot or early voting, consider being an election judge or participating with video the vote a grassroots organization that is documenting any irregularities on polling day. (Remember to honor any local laws concerning voter privacy in the jurisdiction while participating in video the vote)

And don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008.

The Real Rules and Faithful Democracy Help Protect Churches

On Sunday, September 28th, thirty-three conservative churches broke IRS regulations by endorsing a specific candidate for president. This action is in direct violation of a 1954 law prohibiting non-profit organizations from endorsing candidates for political office. This has brought up many questions in the media about this rule. The UUA has released several resources to help answer some of them.

The IRS designation for non-profits including churches and religious communities is known as 501 (c)(3). Named after the provision in the IRS Tax Code that protects them, 501 (c)(3)’s are prohibited from making any explicit statements for or against any political candidate. But that does not mean they are barred from participating in political conversations.

The regulations surrounding 501 (c)(3)’s are difficult and complicated. However, the UUA’s Real Rules and Faithful Democracy clearly explain what congregations and their leaders may or may not say. It gives many fine examples of what the IRS does and does not expect a church to do during election cycles.

There you will learn how congregations and its leaders may:

  • support positions and policies, but not candidates;
  • use congregational funds to support voter registration and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns;
  • and/or host a polling site but not a campaign headquarters.

Please look at the Real Rules and Faithful Democracy in order to prepare and protect yourself in this election season.

Five Reasons to Be A Poll Worker

The United States of America is facing a shortage of poll workers. It is in desperate need of people–particularly younger people–to help people vote this year. Working the polls for an election is a concrete way to ensure your local race goes smoothly.

And with the historic turnout in the primary elections this previous spring, working the polls will be more important than ever before.

All of following facts are examples of why you should register to work the polls this November. If you need more reasons for why you need to work the polls, please read my reflections on working the polls last February.

1. A New York Times editorial from two weeks ago read: No One Should Have to Stand in Line for 10 Hours to Vote”. In it, the author writes about the usual complaints we hear about voting lately: long lines, voter intimidation, and confusing or out-of-date voting machines. He looks to the 2004 elections in Ohio and shows how understaffed voting precincts coincided with the largest number of voter irregularities.

2. The Virginia Pilot reports how the state of Virginia–destined to be a battleground this election–is short some 2,000 poll workers this year.

3. Minnesota, also classified as a swing state this year, is scrambling to find enough poll workers.

4. Jackson County, Missouri has a shortage of 500 workers for their 250 polling locations. That is an additional two people per polling place in order to be fully staffed.

5. The progressive news source, AlterNet.org, lists a shortage of poll workers as one of the “Seven Ways Your Vote Might Not Count This November“. Along with voting machine allocations and voter purges, alternet fears that a shortage of poll workers can result in flawed ballots and slow lines.

And don’t forget to get our election preparation resources called Faithful Democracy.

UUA District Hosts Retreat for Young Adults

For the “first time in a long time,” the Pacific Southwest District of the UUA hosted a retreat for young adults. Entitled “Encounter the Spirit,” sixty young adults and allies met together in the woods to worship, build community, and learn about social justice issues. I was there representing the UUA and leading a workshop on peacemaking and sustainable social justice. But I was also a participant in this excellent meeting.

It was exciting to be back at Camp DeBenneville Pines, in my home state of California, with all these wonderful, passionate and compassionate people. I reconnected with old friends and made loads of new ones. My workshop on social justice for young adults was well attended and the energy was high. We talked about living our passions and performing random acts of kindness in the larger world.

We also shared worship together. We sang songs under the stars. Among the ponderosa pines, we blessed each other’s hands. We did this by holding the hands of the person next to ourselves and giving prayers for strength and grace as they work for love and justice. Our covenant groups allowed us to know that there are other UUs our age who struggle with many of the same issues and share many of the same desires. And I found moments of cleansing solitude among a clear mountain stream.

We also played cards, built puzzles, danced in a late summer thunderstorm, went swimming, and allowed ourselves to be silly. We told jokes, sang songs, shared stories and made friends. We discovered people who lived in our neighborhoods and shared the same church, but never went when we went.

Most importantly we found we are not alone. Current estimates show that upward of 90% of people raised in the UU church leave the faith in their young adult years. Retreats such as these can help nurish and grow the Unitarian Universalist young adult community. The creation of space like this gives people support. It welcomes new people into our religious community, honors those who have stayed, and beckons others to return.

The myriad reasons are too vast to go into in this particular post. These could include the growth of new priorities and/or the discovery of new faith communities. But going to camp and seeing my peers was an amazing, life affirming, and empowering experience. By being together, we were able to remind each other why the Unitarian Universalist community is so wonderful. We were able to share, stretch, support and learn with one another. I came home feeling rejuvenated and empowered to work for justice knowing that there are others like me working for change.

Plans for next year’s Pacific Southwest District Young Adult Retreat are already underway. We will be gathering again at DeBenneville Pines from Sept. 4-7, 2009. For more information on next year’s event, please visit Connect UU.

(Photo Credits: Katrina Thompson and Lauren Eaton)