UUs Participate in Anti-War Demonstration

Last Friday, Washington DC played host to the Interfaith Peace Witness—a project of the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership. Over 11 houses of worship, including All Souls Church, Unitarian hosted services where hundreds of faithful activists prayed and meditated for a world united in peace and justice. An interfaith service with guest speakers including Rev. Bill Sinkford was then held in the pouring rain in Upper Senate Park. Participants continued to the Hart Senate Office Building. There, a non-violent direct action was held in the atrium of the building while religious leaders met with Sen. Reid’s (D-NV) office.

The whole day was really quite powerful and more information about it can be found at uua.org. What I would really like to focus on is the Civil Disobedience (CD) that happened in the Hart Building. I have been in direct actions before—at the School of the Americas as well as other events. But I have never seen a more beautiful and spiritually grounded action as this one.

The original plan for the action was to have a “pray-in” on the front steps of the building. As senators, staffers, lobbyists and tourists left the building, they were brought into our worship service for peace. Capitol Hill Police (CHP) came out of the building and began filming our service. The trickle of people leaving dried up. And after an hour, it was evident that CHP was trying to wait us out.

So the plans changed. It was decided that the CD would head inside where it was warm and dry. Those risking arrest sat in the middle of the Office Building’s Atrium in a circle and began to sing hymns and pray. CHP came within a matter of minutes to break this up.

As CHP entered, they came to intimidate. They marched in and made a circle around the protestors. The rest of us then made a circle around CHP. We now had about three concentric circles. The CHP captain came with a bull horn to inform every one sitting that they had gathered without a permit and they needed to move. After three warnings, CHP brought out the handcuffs. At this moment some one stood up and started to pray in a loud, strong voice.

They thanked God for their ability to stand strong and peacefully in the face of injustice. They said that the police had no need to be afraid as we were peace loving people. They thanked the United States for being a good land to live safely in. And finally, they thanked CHP for doing such a good job, keeping our building safe. They prayed to God to protect every one, from the police officers to the soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and to the people suffering in war torn regions. At this moment, the spirit of the room changed.

I could visibly see the tension of the police officers leave. They no longer felt the need to intimidate. The Quakers have a saying that “The Light came into the room.” And I could feel that. The bullhorn went away. And police officers crouched or sat on the ground in order to have conversations with the people they were arresting. The officers told folks that they could move along and not get arrested. They gently helped people up from the ground and gave them an option of whether they wanted to be handcuffed in the front or the back.

Those of us who were not getting arrested, were polite and professional as well. We followed directions well and thanked the officers for their work. We clapped for every one getting arrested. One by one, each of our 41 participants were handcuffed, had their picture taken and were gently led to the police vans. They were then all taken to jail.

Back at our hospitality site, we could only wait. We called each of the contacts for the arrested and let them know what we knew—which was not much. We expected a minimum of 4 to 8 hours of holding time. But after only 2 hours of waiting, we found that people were already getting released! Reports from those getting released showed that CHP continued to act in a professional and peaceful manner. They moved people along, giving them an option to Post and Forfeit—a legal option similar to a traffic violation or parking ticket. Just four hours after the first arrest, every one was released. All but three people took the Post and Forfeit, choosing instead to take this case to trial.

Like I said before, I have seen a lot of CD’s end in arrest. I have seen police officers get tough and mean. Once, a White House Police officer threatened to hit me with his cruiser! I have seen people being held in uncomfortable situations, sometimes for hours. I have never before seen such a beautiful, respectful, honor filled and peaceful action as this one. My compliments go to every one involved, activists and officers alike for respecting the inherent worth and dignity and the divine spirit of every one in that room.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Tomorrow, March 8th, is International Women’s Day. On this International Women’s Day, one area of conversation that I hope will re-open for Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Greens, is reinstating funding for the UNFPA (United Nations Fund for Population Activities).

As you’ll recall, President George W. Bush de-funded the U.S. commitment to this program in the early days of his Presidency, on the grounds that Chinese programs sponsored by the UN coerced women into having abortions. Though his own State Department sent a delegation to China which concluded that, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth, U.S. funding for this program has been eliminated ever since.

In fall of 2003, I was privileged to be part of an interfaith delegation to China to scope out the situation. I joined Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims in an extensive tour to remote areas to meet with U.N. sponsored programs. We divided up into subgroups, and between us we met with over fifteen U.N. sponsored family planning programs in 9 provinces.

My group, which primarily toured rural areas, popped in on tiny villages and walked the streets chatting with women home from the rice paddies or cornfields. (Ever since, I have imagined what it would be like if I opened my door one day to a delegation of Chinese women, come to interview me about my own life history related to birth control and abortion. I kind of doubt that my neighbors would offer the immediate and warm hospitality which we received universally, or welcome the open discussions of the pros and cons of IUDs versus the pill!)

Nowhere did we see evidence of the UN supporting coercion. Indeed, the UN used its funding to leverage family planning clinics NOT to coerce abortions! Swamped by many more requests for assistance than they could provide, they only worked with groups who agreed to extensive and detailed contracts related to subtle and nuanced ways in which abortions might be coerced. Any UN program where this was discovered had its funding suspended immediately.

Every time we met with a clinic staff, we would ask them dozens of questions, probing to learn if there was any validity to the rumors of coerced abortion, as well as asking them about their clientele and services. After we were done talking to them, we would always ask if there was anything they wanted to ask us.

In each setting, with clear desire not to offend but also with clear bewilderment, they asked about the prevalence of teen pregnancy in the United States. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the U.S. carrying out the recommendations of the U.N. Conference on Population in Cairo in 1994? Their clear and shining pride in China’s recent admission into the U.N. shone throughout these meetings. They clearly did not understand how we could dismiss our own responsibilities so lightly.

How did it happen they wondered, that teens were so often getting pregnant in the US? Didn’t they have the access to birth control which the conference in Cairo had agreed was essential? Were they getting good education about the implications of the decisions they made? Didn’t teen pregnancy hurt the young parents’ ability to have a good life, and diminish their ability to be good parents?

The humility I felt grew by the day as I saw these remote Chinese villagers holding up an expectation of international cooperation and accountability. It took a number of days for me to realize that I had learned, despite my professions to the contrary, to dismiss such international agreements as optional or secondary. My humility grew as I listened in on conversations of peasant women discussing the pros and cons of birth control options with far more knowledge and thoughtfulness than I had heard among college educated women in my life. It turned to something akin to shame as I began to recognize how deeply I had internalized American superiority; U.S. Supremacy in the world.

On this international women’s day, I’m going to do two things, in which I invite you to join me: First, I’m going to contact my candidate of choice for U.S. President to restate the importance of UNFPA funding. Second, I’m going to check out materials provided by the planning group for the UU International Women’s Convocation, now posted on the web at www.icuuw.com. Happy International Women’s Day, one and all!

Rev. Meg Riley

Holy Cow! Meatout is in Two Weeks!

On March 20th, grassroots activists across the globe will celebrate the twenty-third international Meatout. Organized in 1985 by FARM, Meatout is a day for activists to promote a plant-based diet through leafleting, tabling, cooking, blogging, holding lectures, performances, walks, or concerts.

Why participate in Meatout? According to the Meatout website, “Kicking the meat habit holds lasting benefits for consumer health, world hunger, resource conservation, environmental quality and animal welfare.”

Since becoming a vegan seven weeks ago, I’ve been pondering the connections between reduced meat consumption, vegetarianism, veganism, and Unitarian Universalism. Or, if you’ll allow the pun, you could say that I’ve been chewing on the seventh principle: We covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

As the Meatout website says, there are many reasons to eliminate or reduce meat consumption. I decided to adopt a vegan diet because I did not want to be complicit in systems of animal cruelty, such as battery caging, which house 98% of America’s egg-laying hens, or the veal industry, which is supported by the dairy industry. Dropping my resistance to learning about the cruel treatment of cows and chickens, allowing myself to be changed by what I learned, and finally going vegan has fostered a radical awareness of my accountability in the web of existence.

Other UUs follow the seventh principle in different ways. Take my co-workers in the Washington Office, for example: Adam buys local produce and commutes to our office by walking or biking. In his free time, he likes to hike and canoe. Alex uses a clothes horse to dry his laundry and subscribes to a local CSA . He and his seven housemates also practice reduced meat consumption. Grace carries reusable bags when she goes shopping, and plans to outfit her future children in cloth diapers, just like her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother did.

So while I wish in my animal-loving heart of hearts that everyone would stop eating meat, or at least practice reduced and conscientious meat consumption, I know that we all have different ways of honoring our relationship with the environment and all beings.

But whether you’re a vegan, an ovo-lacto-vegetarian, a locavore, a freegan, or a lover of steak and eggs, I invite you to celebrate and learn more about the benefits of a plant-based diet on March 20! . . . . And to make it fair, on March 20th I’ll use a clothes horse and walk to work.

Take a look at Meatout’s website for events, ways to get involved, resources on plant-based diets, and meat-free cooking advice. If your church is planning to do something for Meatout, you can register your event in the Meatout Event Directory. And for more information about Unitarian Universalism and animal welfare, check out UFETA, Unitarian Universalists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

I wish you all a merry Meatout!

Faithful America

By now, I think it’s safe to say, we’ve all learned to quit answering the question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” It’s become the clichéd description of media bias that leads to a no-win situation for the one being questioned.

Other biased questions are sometimes less obvious. For instance, in 2004, I was one of many voters who answered, “yes” to a question about whether or not my faith and values had determined my vote. Little did I know that, somehow encoded in that yes answer resided my declaration, “I want a Christian theocracy and I want it now.”

I’ve been wary of polls ever since. They used to seem like benign, information gathering tools, but now I view them more like SPAM or unsolicited credit card applications, not trusting the intent of the questions. This suspicion increased when I learned that special interest groups can literally purchase the questions asked.

Now, it turns out, along with ducking questions that don’t come with decoder rings, I should have been wondering about the questions I’m not asked. For instance, in this primary season, the television network’s exit polls are asking Republican voters many more questions than they are Democratic voters. In some cases they are not asking Democrats a single question about faith and voting! And, when the pundits spin the data from those polls in every state after the elections, they have droned on endlessly about Republican evangelicals and completely ignored Democratic evangelicals!

Faithful America, an interfaith internet organizing effort, is gathering signatures to protest this media bias. As we move into the Ohio and Texas primaries today, they want as many signatures as possible on an internet petition to stop this media bias. Already they are closing their goal of 10,000 signatures of people of all faiths and all political parties.

The petition reads: “The primary exit polls, sponsored by ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox and the AP, must stop stereotyping people of faith. We call on the media pollsters to ask all voters—Republicans and Democrats—the same religion questions on the exit poll surveys.

You can sign this petition at www.faithfulAmerica.org.

This is the first organizing effort through Faithful America under new management at Faith in Public Life after beginning its life at the National Council of Churches. (Full disclosure: I chair the board of Faith in Public Life.) Even if you read this blog long after the primaries are done, log onto the Faithful America website for Move-On style quick, easy, activism from a progressive, interfaith perspective.

Rev. Meg Riley

Faith Based Organizations Make It Happen

I’ve been organizing in the faith based community for two years and I’ve never seen anything like what happened yesterday.

At the end of last week, a core group of faith based organizations (FBO) poured some serious brainpower and hard work into drafting a religious sign-on letter to members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA). The letter calls for support of Chairman Berman’s legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Berman bill, due for markup on Wednesday, supports comprehensive prevention programs and drops the requirement that 33% of our HIV prevention funding must go to abstinence-until-marriage programs. The letter was completed and sent out to members of the religious community for their signature at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. We asked for FBOs to sign-on to the letter by close of business Monday. We had one business day to gather signatures.

In one day, 26 religious organizations came forward and put their signature on this letter!

To put this in perspective, two years ago we circulated a sign-on letter that had a very similar message and only 12 FBOs signed-on after three weeks.

I can not say exactly why we more than doubled the number of FBOs in the course of a single day, but if forced to speculate I would say two things.

First, the excellent outreach and organizing of dedicated faith groups, including our office (the UUA Washington Office), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and the American Jewish World Service. When collaboration is truly effective, expectations can be exceeded in ways you never thought possible.

Secondly, I believe that every FBO that signed the letter grasped the significance of this moment. With PEPFAR due for reauthorization, there are millions of lives in the balance. This legislation has the potential to redirect our international HIV prevention programs from abstinence-based to evidence-based. This letter provided the religious community with an opportunity to say, “Our faiths motivate us to support the best and most flexible approaches possible to preventing new infections.”

This morning at 9 a.m. every member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs received our letter. I came into work this morning feeling proud and powerful. Each of the 26 organizations that signed the letter deserves a big pat-on-the-back. At a time when legislators are looking towards the faith-based community with many questions, 26 organizations provided them with an answer that challenges assumptions of what it means to be religious.

Tenth Anniversary of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS)!

In 1996, the National Labor Committee published a report exposing the use of Honduran sweatshops by Kathie Lee Gifford’s clothing line, Kathie Lee, sold exclusively at Wal-Mart. The NLC’s exposé, along with similar concerns raised about Nike and Gap, brought sweatshops into the limelight. In response, concerned university students across the United States began organizing. Thus, United Students Against Sweatshops, or USAS, was born.

Members of USAS began by targeting their own universities to ensure that the clothing their university sold was produced under fair labor standards. But students didn’t stop there—USAS was directly or largely responsible for multiple gains made in the anti-sweatshop movement in the years that followed. Among these was the October 1999 announcement of Nike and other companies that they would comply with the requirement to disclose their factory locations. This was the first time that any garment industry company conceded to this demand.

In 2000, USAS members helped found the Workers Rights Consortium, an independent labor rights monitoring organization. In one year, over 80 universities joined the WRC, in spite of Nike’s “bullying” of WRC-supportive universities, such as NIKE CEO Phil Knight’s withdrawal of a $30 million donation to the University of Oregon. In 2001, the WRC and USAS achieved major strides for fair labor standards at the KukDong International factory (a Nike/Reebok production facility) in Atlixco de Puebla, Mexico, and the New Era factory in Derby, NY. Currently, over 170 universities and colleges are affiliated with the WRC.

Today, USAS organizes its works into three major campaign areas: the Sweat-Free Campus Campaign, Ethical Contracting campaigns which includes a campaign against Coca-Cola, and Campus-Community Solidarity campaigns, which includes fighting for living wages for campus workers, and campus workers’ rights to organize.

USAS has taken as its motto a quote from aboriginal Australian activist Lilla Watson,

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

USAS demonstrates its solidarity with workers in sweatshops and on college campuses by supporting workers organizing themselves for better conditions. They pay special attention to the rights of women, as 90% of garment industry workers are women. USAS also runs not only regional member blogs, but also blogs for and by people of color, BGLT folk, people who identify as Womyn-Genderqueer, and working class people. In short, USAS is committed to working for justice in a just and inclusive way.

So to celebrate USAS’s 10th birthday, try one of the following:

  • If you want to read a more complete and truly inspiring account of the history of USAS, take a look at their page on the History and Formation of USAS. If you are affiliated with UNC–Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, UC-Irvine, UW-Madison, Middlebury, Duke, Georgetown, University of Oregon, or Occidental College, you might find this article particularly interesting.
  • Visit USAS’s Take Action page and find out how you can become involved in the fight for workers’ rights.
  • If you are a university freshman, sophomore, or junior, you can apply to be an international summer intern with USAS, which will send 8-10 students to different countries to research, organize, and build relationships with workers, unions, and other allied organizations.

Happy Tenth Anniversary to USAS, and many happy returns!

"Saved": The SAVE Act, Nativism, and Our Role as Immigrant Advocates of Faith

“In ordinary usage, “to save” means to keep safe or to protect from harm. In Christian theology, being saved is deliverance from sin through Christ’s death and faith in God. Unitarian Universalist tradition is founded upon the belief that salvation is universal—available for all people, not a chosen few. But on Capitol Hill this winter, “SAVE” has acquired a different meaning: the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement Act of 2007 . . . .”

Hey y’all, that was a teaser! Today the rest of my post is over at Street Prophets,”the online forum that mobilizes progressive people of faith to name, discuss and take action on critical political and religious issues.”

Read the rest of my post at http://www.streetprophets.com/story/2008/2/25/1017/29086, and check out the other great articles on Street Prophets!

Leap Into Action Day

This Friday is a leap day–an event that happens only every four to eight years. That means the month of February is one day longer than it usually is. This is due to the fact that the actual length of time it takes for the Earth to circle to sun is actually approximately 365.242 days. The modern algorithm to calculate leap years was developed in the 16th century by St. Gregory in order to keep the vernal equinox as close to March 21st as possible.

What exactly does this mean for people like you and me? Well, it means that Friday, not Thursday, is the last day of February. That means you have been given one extra day in the month to Leap into Action!

Leap into Action Day was created in 2004 by a group of Radical Anarchists in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to encourage people to reclaim their extra day and do something different. In encouraging people to do something different, they hope a cultural change would occur. They hope people would find that they liked working for change and justice.

I would like to encourage you to do something different and thoughtful on February 29th, 2008. There are loads of different things you could do on Leap Day. Why don’t you do something to better yourself or your community? Spend your day working for social justice! Spend your day volunteering with local aid organizations. Help your local community by working with a homeless shelter or feeding the hungry. Tutor at an after school program. Or pick up litter in your neighborhood. You could register to be a poll worker.

You could also learn a new skill. Three years ago, I learned how to knit. Now I like to trade scarves and hats for personal favors, like haircuts or books or things like that. I think I might learn how to crochet on my leap day. But you could also build a project out of wood. Or dust off your old sewing machine and make someone in your life a tote bag.

You could also start a garden. Vegetable patches and window boxes are a great way to add freshness to your surroundings and food. If you already garden, think about composting. Composting keeps tons of waste out of landfills and goes back into your garden for an inexpensive boost to your vegetables and flowers. Or you could start a worm farm in your basement.

You could also go for a hike in your local national park. You could visit a museum in town. You bike a new bike trail or take your dog for a walk a different way than usual. You could try a new recipe from a cook book you haven’t opened in years or use an ingredient you have never used before. You could write a letter to a friend. You could call a family member out of the blue. You could make a collage out of old newspapers and magazines. You could clean out your closet and donate old things to Goodwill. You could go to the library and check out a stack of children’s books. The options are endless.

But whatever you do, don’t waste your extra day! Do something different! Do something new! Do something daring and exciting. Leap into action on your leap day!

Interfaith Peace Witness and 10,000 Feet of Hope

On March 7th, thousands of faithful peace activists will converge on Washington DC in order to pray for peace. Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Quakers and Unitarian Universalists will worship, pray and march together in the name of peace and justice.

Sponsored by the Olivebranch Peace Partnership, an interfaith coalition of religious peacemakers of which the Unitarian Universalist Association is a member, this rally will bring a religious voice that will speak truth to power.

As religious people who love creation, peace and equality, we are tired of an illegal and immoral war in the Middle East. We are disgusted by thousands of displaced refugees in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are embarrassed by the dehumanizing effects of war on our citizen soldiers and the terrible treatment of our veterans after their return home. And we are afraid of future wars with no planned end.

Unitarian Universalists will gather together on March 7th at All Souls, Unitarian in Washington DC where they will hear the inspiring words of our President, Rev. William G. Sinkford along with Rev. Robert Hardies and guests from the Unitarian Universalist Community. We will then join the larger interfaith community in the shadow of the Capitol Building.

As a united voice, we will call for an end to this war and promote peaceful means to transform our conflicts.

For more information on this event, please visit http://www.olivebranchinterfaith.org and download our flier.

We recognize this may not be an event that all can attend. However, even if you cannot be there in person, your congregation’s thoughts and prayers for peace can be present with our 10,000 feet of hope.

We are asking all religious communities to send a rope with prayers and hopes for peace tied to it to be sent to Washington DC. We will then take these ropes-of-hope and encircle the Capitol Building with our prayers for peace.

Please send your Rope-of-Hope by March 1st to:
10,000 Feet of Hope
c/o Clarendon Presbyterian Church
1305 N. Jackson St.
Arlington, VA 22201

And may we all share in a prayer for peace.

A Common Word

In the Fall of 2007 a diverse group of 138 Muslim leaders and scholars signed a statement entitled, “A Common Word Between Us and You” and distributed it to 27 Christian leaders and to “leaders of Christian churches everywhere”. The purpose of the statement was to promote world peace through embracing two theological commitments made by Muslims and Christians.

  1. “love of the One God,”
  2. “and love of the neighbour”

The authors offer numerous citations from the Qur’an and Christian Scripture that point towards these two agreements.

For example,

(from the Qur’an)

  • “So invoke the Name of thy Lord and devote thyself to Him with a complete devotion (Al-Muzzammil, 73:8).”
  • Ye will not attain unto righteousness until ye expend of that which ye love. And whatsoever ye expend, God is Aware thereof. (Aal ‘Imran, 3:92)

(from Christian Scripture)

  • But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. / Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, / “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” / Jesus said to him, “ ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ / This is the first and greatest commandment. / And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ / On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

Following the citations and commentary, the authors offer the following summary:

“Whilst Islam and Christianity are obviously different religions—and whilst there is no minimising some of their formal differences—it is clear that the Two Greatest Commandments are an area of common ground and a link between the Qur’an, the Torah and the New Testament.”

And, highlighting the importance of this project clear, the authors close by writing that,

“Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world’s population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world’s inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake. “

Since the letter was first published, nearly 100 additional Muslim leaders have become signatories, and many of the Christian leaders it was addressed to have responded individually and collectively. You may have seen the response signed by more than 300 Christian leaders that was published in The New York Times last November.

While the Unitarian Universalist Association was not a specific recipient of the original letter, a response from UUA President William Sinkford’s was gladly received. Among other things, his letter seeks to highlight the inspiration that Muslim/Christian rapprochement can have for the wider interfaith community.