Thoughts on MLK – his life and legacy

For this, the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, a few members of the A&W staff group offer these reflections.

It’s too late at night for me to still be wrestling with this simple assignment: a few words about the legacy of Martin Luther King in my life. And yet, though my daughter is goading me to ‘write something already and turn the light out’ in the room we share in the UUA’s Beacon Hill bed and breakfast, I’ve been struggling. I’ve been alive 52 years; Dr. King has been dead for 40 of them. I was about the age of my daughter when I ceased knowing the man and began knowing the legend: the holiday written into law by Ronald Reagan which gives me the day off, to lie in my warm bed in Minnesota February and listen to the sanitation workers out there in the cold picking up my garbage. Which one of us was it he died standing with in Memphis, again?

The junior high student that I was in April, 1968 stepped into a dark auditorium set aside for first period, for those who wanted to have ‘a time of meditation.’ Sitting weeping in the darkness, I realized with a start that I was about the only white student there, though the school was majority white. Later, one of the popular girls, a cheerleader, whom I had spent months cultivating as a friend, ridiculed me for this. “So, you MEDITATED?” she asked me loudly at lunch. This was a clarifying moment when I realized that I would never be a popular girl, and didn’t want to be. This was a moment when those UU values gave me strength and I said loudly back, head up, “Yes, I MEDITATED.”

– Rev. Meg Riley

On March 18, 1968, days before his murder, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King told striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tenn., “It is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis . . . getting part-time income.” Dr. King said, “We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life…Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children… Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Last month on March 13th, the UUA co-sponsored an event with the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign held in Memphis, Tennessee to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of Dr. King’s address to the striking sanitation workers. Along with leaders of faith, one of the speakers was Taylor Rogers, a striking sanitation worker who witnessed Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech, the night before King’s assassination, and became President of the Memphis sanitation workers’ union, AFSCME Local 1733. “We got tired” striker Rogers told the gathering, “And so we stood up and said ‘I am a man.’ Without Dr. King and the ministers who helped us, we never would have won that strike.” [Click here to read about it.]

Forty years later millions of Americans are still making poverty wages and Dr. King would indeed still call it criminal. His legacy inspires today’s movement for a living wage. It was while I was putting together Resources for Living Wage Days a couple of years ago that I actually read the entire “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. The linkages King makes between the various injustices of war, poverty, and racism, the strategies he was moving toward, including boycotts and community investing, most certainly threatened the power structure, and the prescience with which he discusses his possible death are just incredible to read and show a leader who was so clear on the direction forward. He is completely relevant today.

In the course of my research I found a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to all:
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
at Stanford University

– Susan Leslie

I have joked amongst UU friends that if there were a pantheon of UU saints, Rev. King would be at the top. He is that much beloved amongst us. In my church, All Souls Church, Unitarian in DC, the Sunday closest to MLK’s birthday is second only to Easter in terms of attendance and energy. Just why is King so beloved? There have been other champions of social justice in our history, people who have been every bit as dedicated as him to their respective causes. But while King started in the struggle for black equality, he ultimately transcended personal causes. That is why, exactly a year before his assassination, he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and in support of peace. Even some of his own supporters told him that he should stick to his own issue, but King recognized that all causes for justice are inter-related, mutually dependent. That is why he supported the rights of workers, as both Meg and Susan talk about above. That is why his widow Coretta Scott King could state unequivocally that MLK would have supported the current struggle for BGLT equality had he lived to see it. King spoke for all his people.

Dr. King was a prophet – a modern day Moses. He delivered his people out of the bonds of legal segregation. Since we lost him 40 years ago we have been wandering in the desert, delivered from overt institutional racism but still struggling with systemic racism and more. We are not yet at the Promised Land, but we are a heck of a lot closer because of him.

Addendum (2008.04.13 4:43 pm)

Tracing back through a series of blogs, I found this great news article about Dr. King that pertains to the Wright controversy:

– Kat Liu

Building the Border Wall Hurts Us All

On the grounds of “protecting national security,” the U.S. government wants to build a wall on the 2,000 mile border between the U.S. and Mexico, with estimated costs ranging between one and eight billion dollars. (For perspective, the first 11 miles of the wall near San Diego cost $42 million – that’s $3.8 million per mile.) The government is building this wall despite evidence that tells us that the Canadian border is far more susceptible to anti-U.S. terrorist activity than the Mexican border. (Yet the U.S. is not building a wall along the Canadian border). Also, where it has already been built, the wall is woefully ineffective at keeping people out, delaying crossing by a matter of minutes. Instead, the wall has made human smuggling a lucrative business.

The Bush administration wants to complete another 670 miles of this wall across the environmentally sensitive Southwest by the end of this year. On April 1st the Dept of Homeland Security announced that it would be waiving almost three dozen federal, state and local laws and regulations in order to accomplish this goal. DHS has the power to do this because Congress passed the REAL ID Act in 2005, which amongst other things gave the Department of Homeland Security the ability to waive all legal requirements, as necessary, in order to expedite the construction of border walls.

Unfortunately, this was not a cruel April Fools joke. In addition to the exorbitant costs for something that isn’t effective, these waivers have other quite serious repercussions. First, in the name of security, they bypass the very laws designed to ensure our safety, including the Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. This means for example that DHS can build its wall without monitoring the impact that it will have on the Rio Grande. (If there are no negative health impacts, then why the need to bypass the laws?)

Second, by bypassing laws that protect land ownership/use, DHS can force the rightful owners to sell the needed land. This includes the forced selling of First-Nation-owned, sacred, ancestral lands, violating the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Third, it means that wildlife refuges that took years to create by painstakingly purchasing contiguous segments will be cut in half, bypassing laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act. The wall designed to segregate humans will also keep endangered species such as the ocelot from hunting and mating. It’s no wonder that the wall is opposed by a broad coalition of mayors, land-owners and environmental activists.

Our Seventh Principle, the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part, tells us that what we seek to do to one group also affects everything else including ourselves. As the examples above show, building a 2,000 mile wall across a continent hurts the most vulnerable people and animals on both sides of the border. We need a more holistic approach than building walls to reinforce boundaries that nature does not recognize. Looking at the economic forces that drive immigration and recognizing the need for equitable economic development would be a start.

Friends, if you are outraged by this latest abuse of power in the name of “security,” please do not let another abuse pass without resistance. Raise awareness. I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t even know about it. Tell your friends. Write letters to the editor. Blog. Make your voice heard.

Updates on the Eco-justice Front

First off, we offer this very graphic presentation on environmental degradation from the Guardian UK, in case you haven’t seen it. The images are powerful and disturbing, and drive home the scope of the challenges we face.

Secondly, some joyful news. Last week, leaders of the two largest faith groups in the U.S. took stronger stances on the need to act on global climate change. When the Vatican spoke to the Catholic faithful about the “new sins” of our times, they listed “ecological” offenses. Pope Benedict has recently and repeatedly said that climate change is an important concern for the entire human race. Along similar lines, the New York Times reported that high-ranking Southern Baptist leaders are backing a declaration calling for more action on climate change, saying their previous position had been “too timid.” We applaud the efforts of both denominations in our shared work to care for our earth.

Lastly, a call to action:

Saturday March 29th, is Earth Hour. Earth Hour started last year in Sydney, Australia. This year it is a global movement. Participants turn off their lights for one hour at 8 pm. Some past participants held weddings by candlelight. Get creative! In addition to raising awareness of the urgency of global climate change, if you register to participate in Earth Hour, they’ll give you tips of further actions you can take.

These actions will be good practice leading up to Earth Day!

What We Can Learn from Obama’s Speech – Opinion from Meg A. Riley

Those of us who are part of the UUA’s Advocacy and Witness staff group can’t go two feet without, on a daily basis, stumbling over racism that is not only historic but alive in contemporary public policy decisions. Our legislative priorities range from global AIDS to immigration policy, from reproductive choice to living wages, from Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender (BGLT) rights to the war in Iraq. In all of these, and in every other area of priority for us, race is a significant factor. That’s not even to mention the work we do which is labeled racial justice work, such as disparate prison sentences, or racial profiling. Almost without exception, people of color get ‘the most of the worst and the least of the best,’ to use sociologist Dr. William Jones’ language.

Before I go further, let me be clear that good and faithful Unitarian Universalists (UUs) support all three of the remaining contenders for President of our country. But the political climate (and Barack Obama’s recent speech) has given us an opportunity to think together about the issue of race in this country and how we as Unitarian Universalists, and we as citizens, engage with that very large elephant in our room.

I believe that conversation about race in the United States is relevant to every day of all of our lives. While the country actually focuses on race for at least a news-nanosecond, this could be the moment to take the step of amplifying the conversation with every resource we have. And when a Presidential candidate invites us into a meaningful conversation on this topic, we need to accept with heart and soul; such an opportunity is long-overdue and may not soon come again.

I am tremendously thankful that Unitarian Universalism has given me numerous opportunities to learn who I am as a white person. It’s not something I was taught in school, and I’ve learned the hard way that bringing it up in my family is much like mentioning alcoholism or sexual abuse. When I heard Barack Obama speak of his white grandmother’s acknowledged fear Black men, I thought of my own life. I am the parent of an adopted child of color. Her pain about race is a large part of who she is. Were I still unable to ‘see’ race, or to talk about it, we would not have the close trust which allows me to be present to her.

Still, I know that there is much that my daughter does not share with me, just as I know that there are certain pains even my closest friends of color will save to share with those who can resonate from the inside. I remember years ago when an African American friend shared an encounter with a white colleague which she experienced as racist. I replied with some convoluted explanation of how she might have misunderstood the colleague. “Oh, stop being so white!” she exclaimed with annoyance. “Could you just listen to me?”

Listening turns out to be incredibly hard for many of us who are white to do—to just listen. The derision with which Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s prophetic words are greeted reflects that very unwillingness. “No,” we respond too often, albeit unconsciously. “We won’t listen, because we don’t have to. We’ve got the pundits, the judges, the rulers on our side. Why listen to you?”

If we’re lucky, we can learn to let the voice of faith speak up in response to the impulse of privilege, and say, “It’s hard, but yes, I want to listen. I need to listen. I can’t be whole unless I listen.” And after we listen, I hope that we will be able to then say, “I need to speak up and be an ally. I want to speak up and be an ally. I can’t be whole unless I am an ally.”

I hope that you will take that first step, either alone or with your family, or with members of your congregation. The Unitarian Universalist Association offers some significant resources to help people make these conversations faithful, helpful, and truthful. Our Related Content section at the bottom of this post offers some possibilities.

I strongly urge you to seize this opportunity. Use covenant groups, adult education classes, religious education for youth, forums, and every other venue possible to do this. Share together some of the questions, and responses these questions elicit, in a structured listening format. Share from your heart and from your faith.

It is hard for those of us who are white to talk about race. I still remember the first time, in seminary, that a professor asked me to write about how being white impacted my theology. I was truly bewildered. In response I wrote about being Appalachian, fat, a lesbian, and in a marginal religious group. “All this is true,” she wrote back in the margins, “But you are still white. You did not answer my question.”

It is time for those of us who are white to struggle with the question. What does it mean to be white in our country at this time? What does it mean to have white privilege? Let us not lose this moment to begin that sacred and saving conversation with one another.

Rev. Meg A. Riley is Director of the UUA Advocacy and Witness staff group. She has served as Director of the UUA’s Office of Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Concerns, the Washington Office for Advocacy, Youth Programs, and as a religious educator in several Unitarian Universalist congregations. She is currently President of the Board of Faith in Public Life: A Resource Center for Justice and the Common Good.

Resources/Related Content:

Barack Obama’s speech on race and politics (March 18, 2008)

A Long Overdue Conversation About Race: UUA President Rev Bill Sinkford responds to Obama’s speech.

Of National Lies and Racial Amnesia: Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the Audacity of Truth” by Tim Wise

Sample Questions for Discussion on Race, Politics, Religion” by Michael Salwasser

NPR’s On Point Talk Radio (audio): Anna Deavere Smith and Andrew Young, guests, discuss Obama’s speech with host Tom Ashbrook

Religion, Race, and Reverend Wright” – UUA Advocacy and Witness Blog

What Kind of Prophet? – A Statement by United Church of Christ General Minister John H. Thomas

Claiming Our History, Warts and All” by David Pettee (UUA)

4,000 American Deaths in Iraq

On the tail of the fifth anniversary of the War in Iraq, we reach another chilling milestone—the Four Thousandth American Death. 4,000 Americans have died in Iraq. It is a sad and horrible day for our nation. But 4,00 is such a big and faceless number, what does it actually mean? What are the implications of 4,000 dead American soldiers and what other numbers will we not be hearing today?

1,750 more American soldiers have died in Iraq than all of the employees who died in the World Trade Center on 9/11/01.

Each loss is terrible and tragic. According to, a website that specializes in keeping records of Iraqi and coalition deaths, 81.8% of US deaths are caused by combat related wounds (3270). Improvised Explosive Devises (IEDs) are the number one cause of death for American Soldiers followed by General Hostile Fire and then Hostile Fire from Small Arms Ammunition.

Of the remaining, non-combat related deaths, many were caused by accidents. But 145 deaths were self inflicted. Most suicides have been gunshot related.

95 of the total deaths were women. 12.7% of fatalities in Iraq have been the age of 21–being the most likely age to die. And 79% (3164) of American fatalities have been under the age of 30. Americans in their 20’s are most likely to die in Iraq—61.7% of fatalities have been between the age of 21 and 30. A great many US casualties today were unable to vote when this war began. People who were just children when this war began five years ago are now expected to fight in it.

California, Texas and Pennsylvania have lost the most of its native sons and daughters to the fight. Although, of American enlisted forces who lost their lives; 34 came from Puerto Rico, 7 came from American Samoa, 6 each from Guam and US Virgin Islands, 5 from Washington DC, 3 from Micronesia, and one each from Great Britain, Canada, Panama, Guatemala and Palau—66 dead American Soldiers came from nations and regions that have no US Congressional voting abilities. There are people who decide when and how wars will be fought. And there are those who actually do the fighting.

29,451 American servicemen and women are returning home with injuries. Brain trauma from concussion blasts are the most common injury, followed by hearing loss and lower limb injury. In the Korean and Vietnam Wars, one had a one in four chance of dying from a serious injury. On the other hand, in Iraq and Afghanistan, one has a one in seventeen chance of dying from a serious injury. (Jeff Donn and Kimberly Hefling, AP 9/29/07). This is due to increased body armor and medical technology. But it also means more and more people are returning home with physical and mental injuries.

Then there is the very invisible injury but very real of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM IV) categorizes PTSD as a mental disorder caused by one or more critically stressful or traumatic events. It can cause an emotional and physical numbing of an individual as well as intrusive memory in the form of flashbacks. It can cause clinical depression and disconnect between individuals.

Because the Department of Defense only calculates American casualties, it does not count the numbers of Iraqi injuries and fatalities. estimates a total 8057 Iraqi police force deaths—twice that of American fatalities. They also estimate an outrageous 40,935 Iraqi civilian death count from both Coalition attacks and insurgency attacks alike—more than 10 times that of American GI deaths. Clearly, we have their blood on our hands. Due to the Department of Defense’s refusal to calculate Iraqi deaths, we know very little of who they were and exactly what happened. Maybe this is one of the most tragic aspects of this war. The people we came to “liberate” and “protect” have become little more than collateral damage–a part of the landscape and a “natural part of the war”. I refuse to believe nearly 50,000 dead Iraqis can be counted as “collateral damage”. And what of the invisible insurgency? The warring factions we just group together into a nameless, faceless mass of “evil-doers”? How many have been killed in their own struggle for liberation?

What is most difficult for me as I read these numbers is to remember that these are not just numbers. These are people. These are communities and families and young souls who have been forever changed by these events.

Even in the unlikely chance that the War in Iraq were to end tomorrow, there would be thousands of US Troops who did not come alive and many more who will—and still do—need emotional and spiritual healing. I am saddened by the news today of the 4000th American death. But I am also saddened by the thousands more—American, Coalition, and Iraqi forces alike—who will need support and healing in the years to come.

As a Unitarian Universalist, I know my spiritual home is one where we can bring healing into the world. For more information on how to support our troops and their families in a spiritually liberal manner, please visit our website and download our guide on welcoming home our children in uniform.

World Water Day

Happy Vernal Equinox!

The availability of fresh, clean, drinking water is something that we tend to take for granted. It’s true that many of us worry about possible contaminants, but that is not the same thing as having no drinking water, where the only source of water for you and everyone around you is a well that is miles away on foot, or the river where others bathe and do their business. Most of us take for granted that when we turn on the tap, there will be water for us to drink, to bathe in, to wash our dishes and laundry and water our plants and slake the thirst of our pets. We take for granted that we can flush our toilets, safely and neatly removing bacteria away from us.

What if that weren’t the case?

One of every six people in the world lacks access to safe drinking water. That’s over 1.1 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

Two of every five people in the world lack access to basic sanitation services. That’s nearly 2.6 BILLION PEOPLE globally.

The repercussions of these numbers are immense. Since in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring the needed water for their families, water scarcity poses an extra burden on their lives. And the lack of safe, clean water and sanitation leads to diseases such as dysentery. Over 13,000 people die every day due to water-related diseases, many of these children and almost all of them poor and communities of color. Over 13,000 deaths every day that could be easily avoided if we had the will.

March 22nd is World Water Day. It grew out of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and its purpose is to raise awareness to water scarcity experienced by so many while we here often take the right to water for granted.

Several factors exacerbate water scarcity, the two of the biggest of which are global climate change and privatization of water:

As global climate change results in droughts and flooding (which contaminates water), water scarcity will be increasingly urgent. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that by 2080, it is likely that 1.1 to 3.2 billion people will be experiencing water scarcity. At least a billion will be forced to leave their homes, becoming water refugees. Those who are the least responsible for climate change are the first to suffer.

Large multi-national corporations are gaining increasing control to water sources all over the world. On the premise that they will provide jobs, these companies are often given large subsidies, even as they drain away millions of gallons of water from the local sources, leaving residents in the dust. As private companies have gained control of water sources, water has become a commodity that is denied to those who cannot afford to pay.

Water scarcity affects people all around the world and right here in this country. Last Fall we heard the amazing news that the metro area of Atlanta, Georgia had less than three months worth of water left. A booming population was competing for drought-scarce water with power plants, wildlife refuges for endangered species, and the needs of people down stream in Alabama and Florida. Imagine living in a city with no water coming from your tap, where only those who could afford to pay for bottled water can drink.

Given that access to clean, drinkable water is essential to human life, the UUA recognizes the human right to water, regardless of ability to pay. We follow the lead of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) on this issue. We also lift up the work of the UU Legislative Ministry of California for their work in my home state.

March 22nd is World Water Day. This Saturday, please take the time to reflect on all the ways you use water in your life. Visit the UUSC’s pages on the right to water. Visit the UUA’s new pages on this issue. And pledge to work for water justice.

Religion, Race, and Reverend Wright

On March 13, a media firestorm began surrounding comments made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr., former pastor of Southside Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. According to FOX News, “Sermon highlights [show] Wright . . . . portraying the country as institutionally racist.” FOX also called Wright’s comments, “anti-American invective.” Some news commentators went a step farther and condemned the entire Trinity United Church of Christ congregation as racist.

By now, many of us are familiar with Wright’s words, which expressed frustration and anger towards the United States government for its role in deaths from HIV/AIDs, the injustices of the Drug War, and the systemic racism of the criminal justice system.

These words have brought to the forefront the unique heritage and spiritual challenges that black Americans of faith carry to their places of worship and meditation. What does it mean to be living in a country whose government has authorized the enslavement, segregation and impoverishment of your race?

On the church’s website, Trinity United Church of Christ describes the congregation’s relationship with God as follows:

“God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries which address the Black Community.”

As Reverend Al Sharpton said, and as UUA President Rev. Bill Sinkford has repeated, “People of color have a history, not a hallucination.” Reverend Wright’s words ministered to the real, legitimate, and righteous anger of congregants whose inherent worth and dignity have been discounted in North America on the basis of racial identity for over half a millennia. The hubbub over Rev. Wright’s expression of this anger has demonstrated that white and black people of faith are sometimes out of touch with one another.

In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “We must face the fact that in America, the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing that Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation.”

In conversation at our office, Taquiena Boston, the UUA’s Director of Identity-Based Ministries, spoke about the reasons for segregation in faith communities. “It’s why black people are sitting in black churches and not white churches–because white people do discount the experiences of African Americans, or in some ways require their silence to keep peace, so that [white people] can be comfortable. So when you spend six days a week having to calibrate and monitor and repress, when you come to the place where you’re supposed to be honoring the holy, and when you have an understanding that God sees all, it just wouldn’t do to be hypocritical or silent about the injustices and the oppression that you see operating in your life every day.”

Unitarian Universalist Reverend Kathleen McTigue addressed this same issue at the Unitarian Society of New Haven in her February sermon A Way Out of No Way: The Black Church in America. “Where we stand affects what we will see and how we will see it,” McTigue observed. “The undeniable truth is that the default center of our nation – in terms of power, language, definitions, history, money, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That ‘something’ has resided for generations in the black church.”

Ministers speak to the issues which congregation members confront in their lives. Experiences of economic and racial injustice may be a greater part of congregation members’ daily reality and consciousness in some churches than in others. As one member of Trinity’s congregation said to ABC News, “I wouldn’t call [Rev. Wright’s words] radical. I call it being black in America.”

The words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright embody a powerful, prophetic convergence of race, class, politics, and faith that have inspired both feelings of joy and affirmation, and feelings of shock and discomfort. If we wish to grow in our relationships with one another, we must be willing to listen to things that may make us feel uncomfortable.

Developing an anti-racist consciousness is a powerful experience, and as any anti-racist person of color or anti-racist white person could tell you, it is often neither easy nor comfortable. Listening to the pain of others, acknowledging your part in it, sharing your own pain, and asking others to acknowledge your truth is one of the most difficult processes for human beings to undertake together. It is also one of the most worthwhile.

We as a nation cannot effectively address the economic and ethical challenges that face us without listening to the experiences of those in our country who have been discounted and marginalized. We must learn how the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination has put and continues to put black people and all people of color at an economic disadvantage. Reflecting on reconciliation, Reverend Sinkford said, “Race and class in this country are inextricably intertwined. If our work for racial justice does not engage with the realities of class it is doomed to fail. Likewise, if we try to reconcile class inequities without acknowledging race, those efforts are equally doomed.”

As an anti-racist ally who has lobbied against the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity, I am moved by Wright’s bold condemnation of injustice in the criminal justice system.

As an advocate for economic equality who has volunteered in post-Katrina New Orleans, I experience a feeling of sorrowful affirmation upon hearing Wright’s critique that the United States government has at times treated its citizens of color as less than human.

As a citizen of the United States, I feel pride that our faith leaders can publicly urge the government to greater accountability.

And as a Unitarian Universalist, I view Reverend Wright’s insights about race and class in our nation as a part of our second source of faith: “the words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

“It feels to me,” Sinkford said on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day in 2007, “that Unitarian Universalists have been stuck around the issue of race for far too long.”

The recent media storm around race is a challenge to people of faith to listen, to hear, and to get unstuck.

“It is not racism to name this truth [of the reality of racism and white privilege],” Rev. Kathleen McTigue wrote in her sermon. “It is a form of racism, I believe, to ignore it. Talking about race is difficult. Listening to the experience of those who have suffered racism is painful. But this listening is what black UU minister Mark Morrison has called “a passive act of power.” He said, ‘To open ourselves to that which we know will be painful is an act of strength.’ May we choose that act of strength. May we listen. May we respond.”


Five Years Too Many

With the fifth anniversary of the war upon us, I would like to share some memories.

A week into my senior year of high school, two airplanes smashed into the World Trade Center, bringing the buildings down. A third airplane smashed into the side of the Pentagon. And a forth crash landed into the Pennsylvania countryside. Almost 3,000 people died that day. I remember walking through my halls and past a “Wall of Fame”. On this wall, the school placed portraits of alumni who had died while serving their community. There were pictures of Vietnam-era soldiers, community police officers and fire fighters and one of the just 253 American soldiers to have died in the Persian Gulf War. I remember thinking, “there will be more here.”

I remember the hopelessness I felt as I graduated from high school nearly 9 months later and seeing classmates join the military to serve their injured country.

I remember the Bush administration telling story after story and changing facts in order to convince the American People to go to war.

I remember asking my Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, “Do you actually believe we will be greeted as heroes when we get there?” And I remember him saying to me, “They will be cheering and baking us apple pies.”

I remember how shocked and awed I felt when, five years ago today, the bombs started falling. And I remember thinking how much Baghdad at night looked like my hometown at night.

I remember how heartbroken I felt when a week later, a member of my community, Cpl. Jose A. Garibay died in Iraq. And while he wasn’t placed on my school’s Wall of Fame (his picture belongs to my cross town rival), he grew up where I grew up. And he probably shared many of the same memories I still get to relive.

Today, I could talk about all the lies we were told. I could talk about how our nation has lost so many resources. But I think those are better saved for other days.

Today, I remember Cpl. Jose A. Garibay and the nearly 4,000 other military members who have lost their lives in Iraq. I remember the countless communities who have been soiled because they have lost a young soul.

Young people just like me are fighting in Iraq. They are sent off to protect the land. But the callous and culturally insensitive way our government planned to protect the land did not make it easy for the young people in Iraq. They are following orders. But these orders are flawed. And those orders cause a whole generation–My generation—to lose their souls. Today, there is no cause to celebrate the anniversary. Today, there are only reasons to mourn.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers Launches Petition to End Sweatshops & Slavery

“Juntos, somos más fuertes que Burger King.”
Together, we are stronger than Burger King.
–Lucas Benitez, farmworker and co-founder of CIW

This morning I was present at Capitol Hill Park for The Coalition of Immokalee Workers’s signing of the National Petition to End Sweatshops and Slavery in America’s Fields. So were Senators Sanders (VT) and Durbin (IL), Representatives Kucinich (OH) and Conyers (MI), Students United Against Sweatshops, the director of The Robert F. Kennedy Center, and many others.

It was a truly inspiring morning. Speakers recounted the coming together of tomato pickers in Immokalee (rhymes with “broccoli”), Florida in 1993 to protest unjust working conditions and wages. When the growers who employed the workers wouldn’t listen, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW) took their cause to the world’s largest fast-food corporation, Yum! Brands, which owns Long John Silver’s, A&W, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. In 2005, after an intense four-year boycott of Taco Bell, Yum! agreed to work with the CIW to improve pay and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers.

As part of the 2005 agreement, Yum! resolved to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes. According to CIW’s website, “Given that workers today receive roughly 1.3 cents per pound,” or about fifty dollars a day; $7,500 per year, “the raise amounts to an increase of roughly 75% for workers.” In April of 2007, CIW won a similar victory with McDonald’s.

But not every fast food corporation is taking responsibility. Burger King has not only refused to pay workers a penny more per pound of tomatoes, but is actively working to undermine the CIW’s achievements.

At the Petition signing kick-off this morning, Rep. Conyers said that he had just placed a phone call to Burger King’s CEO, John Chidsey, and left a message about Burger King’s refusal to pay Immokalee workers fairly. “John, wherever you are,” Conyers said to the press cameras, “return my call. I’m in the phone book.”

Senator Durbin declared, “The tomato on my hamburger is not worth the indignity that the workers of Immokalee must face every day.” And Rep. Kucinich stated, “The Civil Rights Movement is not over; it begins again today, and we need the help of American consumers.” Finally, Lucas Benitez, a farmworker and co-founder of CIW, spoke about the strength of consumers, workers, politicians, and companies standing in solidarity. “Juntos,” said Benitez, “somos más fuertes que Burger King.” Together, we are stronger than Burger King.

As the ceremonies wound down, I spotted a woman wearing a clerical collar in the crowd and went up to introduce myself. The woman turned out to be Reverend Noelle Damico, who has led the Presbyterian Church USA’s Fair Food campaign. The Presbyterians have done some amazing work around this issue, and their website features a great Burger King Campaign FAQ.

I left the petition signing inspired and disturbed–and if you’ve read this far, I hope that you’re feeling the same way. I am disturbed that Burger King, Wal-Mart, Subway, and Costco are contributing to the oppression of workers in the United States. But I am inspired that so many people are mobilizing around this issue. I hope that many Unitarian Universalists will support the CIW’s fight for justice.

In conclusion, here’s what you can do:

And finally, tell your friends! Heck, tell your acquaintances, and strangers, too. The farmworkers of Immokalee are counting on us. Now is the time to stand with CIW–and to prove that, together, we are stronger than Burger King.

Putting the Justice in Environmentalism

This past weekend was both physically and emotionally draining, highly educational, and ultimately uplifting. As happens occasionally, I double-booked myself. I had signed-up to attend Ecumenical Advocacy Days, a three day conference on advocacy and social activism. (I’m not Christian but at no time did I feel excluded.) On the same Sunday, I was also slated to give a sermon at the congregation of Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists. Yet there was a kind of synergy going on, for the “track” that I was attending at the conference was “eco-justice” and the topic of my sermon was on environmental justice. The presentations that I heard on Saturday certainly helped to prepare me for Sunday. And with Sunday in mind, I took in all the information from the conference through the lens of Unitarian Universalism.

I will be talking about environmental justice a lot in the coming weeks, for certainly one post is not enough to do justice to the subject. But I thought I’d start off with an introduction on the difference between environmental justice and environmentalism as it has often been practiced, for indeed there is a difference and there shouldn’t be. Environmental Justice (or EJ for short) looks at environmental issues through the lens of racial, economic, and gender justice. For example, concern about global warming/climate change is environmentalism. Concern about global climate change because of the immense human suffering that it will cause to those who are least to blame is environmental justice. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions is environmentalism. Saying that we’re going to address global warming by drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions while ensuring that low income families do not suffer disproportionately from the “solutions” is environmental justice.

This weekend was emotionally draining as I heard first-hand accounts of how global climate change is impacting residents of Tuvalu, forcing them to plan for mass evacuation/emmigration as their islands are being swallowed by the rising salt sea. The shoreline encroaches on houses; mangrove trees that form a natural protective barrier are dying; agriculture is failing and fresh water is increasingly scarce. They are being forced to become climate change refugees, leaving their homelands and relying on other nations to take them in. And the great irony is that these island cultures are the least responsible for the greenhouse gases that are causing global climate change. They are the least responsible yet the first to suffer.

It isn’t just island nations that are being adversely affected. The drastic changes in weather patterns due to global warming have resulted in floods in some places (which contaminate fresh water) and droughts in others. The United Nations has said that the violence in Darfur, Sudan has been greatly aggravated by the two decade long drought in the region. And given that in many cultures it is the women and children who are responsible for procuring water, it is they who suffer the most when local water sources are no longer usable and they have to travel ever farther on foot to carry the family’s water. Between the masses of refugees and the fighting over scarce resources, it should be obvious that global climate change is a peace and security issue. If we want peace, we must work for environmental justice.

As we drove to the conference in our cars, sat in well lit and comfortably warm rooms, watched presentations projected from computers onto big screens, ate our lunches packaged in plastic, and shopped for books, t-shirts and fair-trade coffee, etc. the irony really hit home. What we do on a daily basis without even thinking about it is directly responsible for suffering going on right now around the world. And it is taking resources that have taken hundreds of millenia to create and literally burning through them as if they were nothing. Our life style is simply not sustainable. Ultimately, environmental justice is spiritual work. EJ calls us to be in right relationship with our mother earth, with the rest of creation, and with each other.

For the record, the Cedarhurst Unitarian Universalists welcomed me with great warmth and hospitality. Their questions showed great interest, knowledge and desire to make a difference. UUs have long been leaders in the racial and economic justice movements, in the women’s movement, in the peace movement, and in the environmentalist movement. It’s long past time to link them all together as an organic whole. I believe that our experiences will allow us to do just that, and that our voice is urgently needed.