Friday, October 12, 2018

We can't just mark a ballot

Before becoming a minister, my field was literature.  The most important lesson in criticism is not to criticize a work for what it's not. I published a recent sermon a few days ago which garnered many responses on one of the FaceBook pages I link to, most of them negative. My sermon was not intended to be a call to the barricades. I would love to storm the Bastille, but tell me where it is in 22nd century America. Is it in the school board? The town hall? The state capitol? Congress? The White House? It's a genius of democracy that power is diffuse, and to use it we need to know who to address. I know my congregation audience. One response I especially appreciated was a friend coming forward to say she, who had never been to a public protest in her life, would attend the next one with me. That's the best I could want.

I'm uninterested in responding to the criticism. Again, from literature, the work stands or falls on its own. But it did leave me wanting to make a stronger statement about the responsibility we have as people of faith to call it as we see it. This administration is actively involved in crafting and doing evil to the people least able to defend themselves among us: immigrants, children, the undocumented, non-Christians, women, people who work with their hands, gays and lesbians, members of the trans~ community, the poor who rely on government services and the poor who work for minimum wage and less, the homeless, the mentally ill, native Americans, the sick and the dying. In short, the members of the Beloved Community who most need community.

We're reaching a vote soon that can do some real good, that can put into place the actors we're counting on to move the country back in the direction of helping, not hurting. Of giving, not greed. But even if we win every single seat we hope for it means nothing without our involvement. When Obama was elected, our work had only started, and it was going to be a long, hard slog, even with an ally in the presidency, to accomplish what we need to. When he won reelection, we needed to continue working, maybe work harder.

We have been lazy, leaving it to others to do the things we need done, as if we can mark a ballot every couple years and that does it. That's why one of the greatest presidents of my time has been followed by one of the worst, why he has taken it as his mission, and his supporters' mission, to dismantle even the few good things we accomplished to help people who need it. 

We can't change that direction with cobblestones or bullets, even by overturning tables in the temples. We have to work together, understand one another and our friends, and make the changes necessary. And then we have to pay attention. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

We Were Never Meant to Survive

This is the text of a sermon I gave yesterday at my congregation. The title is taken from a line in the poem "A Litany of Survival" by Audre Lorde. If you were there, the bracketed sections were ones I excised in the interest of time.  

We Were Never 
Meant to Survive
A Sermon Delivered to Unitarian Church North October 7, 2018
          [To be a good sermon writer you need to pay attention to what happens around you and bend it to make sense in a sermon. To be a great sermon writer you just need to pay attention and write it down, whether it makes sense or not.]
          Friday morning, just after my wife left for work and I was settling in with a book, she called me to say, One of the cats got outside and there are a couple people in front of our house trying to change a tire. I popped my head out and let the cat inside and saw a pair of young women.  I said Hi and they said, Please, do you know anything about changing a tire, because we don’t. They were practically crying. I said, Yes, I do know how to change a tire, because that’s something my mother taught me many years ago, saying If you’re going to drive, you need to know how to do this. [Now, in a good sermon I would tell you that] I changed their tire and they went happily on their way and I’d say something about how we all need to help strangers in need and that would be that.
          But [I’m going for a great sermon, which means I need to tell you,] try as we might, we could not get that flat tire off. We just didn’t have the right tools to take the lugs off the flat. They called friends and came back later to fix it.
          Kinda anticlimactic. But what makes this worth telling you about is why they stopped at my place with the flat tire. They weren’t sure what kind of reception two early-20s Hispanic single mothers with a flat tire, a trunkful of their kids’ clothes, and the wrong tools on the street of a mostly-retired white neighborhood would get at 8 in the morning. Then, they said they saw this sign [holds up “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign] on our front lawn.
          We live in a nation—and probably a lot of you knew this already, and for some of you this may have always been the case—where we have to advertise our willingness to help strangers. In the last two years we’ve developed other, sometimes subtler (shows safety on shirt) ways, sometimes not (pulls out pink pussy hat) of showing strangers we’re on their side, or at least willing to listen to them.
          Fred Rogers famously said in an interview, When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
·        "Separations from their parents, especially in moments of extreme distress and displacement, has a very negative impact on a child’s wellbeing, mental health, and development…And I don't think that we want to be a society that does that to children." Dr. Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Boston Medical Center
There are a lot of scary things in the news nowadays, and a lot of it scares adults. One thing is called Zero Tolerance and it refers to the program put into practice by the current president and his administration to prosecute everyone entering the United States illegally. Now, this type of program isn’t new itself—it’s long been a staple of Republican and Democratic administrations that, when families entered the country illegally and were caught, they were detained or returned to their origin country or paroled into this country. But the difference is that they remained together throughout the ordeal. The Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy of separating parents and children, something very costly in time and money and considered by previous administrations as “unnecessarily harsh”, was begun earlier this year. Its stated purpose was providing a greater deterrent against people trying to enter the country illegally.
This sort of news leaves adults looking for the helpers too. You realize one day that If you can’t find the helpers, then you have to be the helper.
·        [“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians…So many of these parents are fleeing for their lives…So many of these children know no other adult than the parent who brought them here.” Dr. Colleen Kraft, president, American Academy of Pediatrics]
As we’re here in a Unitarian Universalist church I think we can count on everyone’s beliefs in the first and second UU principles: That is, there is inherent dignity in everyone and a commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. The Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy promotes neither. If anything, it promotes the idea that some people are more worthwhile than others, with immigrant children at the bottom of whatever list someone might create.
     It is, at bottom, an evil policy that does evil to the people least able to defend themselves.
·        “The food was often expired, the milk was spoiled, and we weren’t provided with snacks for our children between meals. When we saved food for snacks, it was taken from us and thrown out because of concerns about rats in the dorms. Children went to bed hungry. And we could get water between meals only by asking the officers. Sometimes they wouldn’t bring any. The water we did have made us sick… When our children were sick, we waited days for medical attention. When one mother whose daughter had asthma informed the officers that her child needed medical care, she was told that she should have thought about that before she came to the United States. Another mother asked for medical assistance for her son, but it never came. She was deported, and her son died just a few months later.” Anonymous woman at a family immigration center, New Mexico
Shame on them. Evil is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, so much that we sometimes are blind to it. You know it when you see it. Evil is hurting other people or animals when you don’t need to. Evil is treating other creatures as if they don’t exist, or if they do exist, they don’t matter. Evil is treating other people like they’re means to an end. Evil is pretending they don’t have people who love them.
·         “The expectation [of officials in the Trump administration] was that the kids would go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that the parents would get deported, and that no one would care.” Anonymous immigration official quoted by Jonathon Blitzer

As an example, those two girls I mentioned at the start, the one’s with the flat tire. Would it have been evil, given that I feel we all are connected whether we know it or not, not to have put out that sign that led them to believe they were safe if they stopped? I don’t know. But I can tell you it would have been evil for me to have that sign up and then to look out the window, see them struggling with their tire, and pretended they weren’t there. That would have been to pretend they weren’t us.
·        [“I was forced to flee my country because of violence and threats of violence against me and my family. When I was a teenager, my father and I witnessed a murder by local gang members. In 2005, my father was murdered for having testified. The gangs threatened me as well, but since the murder case got dropped, I was able to continue my life and found a job in law enforcement. However, several years later, they threatened to kill me too. That’s when I decided I had to leave and bring my son and my 16-year-old sister with me. If we had stayed, they could’ve killed us all.”  Anonymous woman at a family immigration center, New Mexico]
Evil is knowing this is happening to people, and when they tell us about it, to pretend maybe they’re not telling the truth, or worse, if they are telling the truth, that it doesn’t matter because they don’t look like us, they don’t sound like us, they don’t eat the same things we do, they don’t care about each other the way we do. It’s okay to separate them because, well, if they really loved their kids they never would have taken them on such a long, dangerous journey. They’re not like us.
Now you may think the “us” of Audre Lorde’s poem we read earlier includes us, and it does, but only if we use that second principle, justice and compassion. Compassion. Looking at situations or events as if we are living it too. For most of us, certainly for me, living on the shoreline is a good thing. I hear Lake Michigan in my dreams, see it even as I step out the front door for work. But this shoreline is metaphorical, it’s a line where on one side there is solid ground and on the other is deep, unfathomable unknown. To treat someone like he’s not us is evil. Because ultimately there is only us. Evil is pretending not to know it’s because immigrant parents love their children like we do that they were desperate enough to take them on such a long, dangerous journey.
·        [“There were people there who only spoke English, and they always said to us, ‘No touch, No touch’…You always had to be ‘an arm’s length’ from everyone. Un brazo de distancia. Un brazo de distancia.” Leidy Veliz, 9, from Guatemala. “No touch, no touch” is a phrase repeated by nearly every former child detainee]
·        "I couldn't hug my mom because the official didn't allow us to touch. Physical contact wasn't permitted…They took us to another cell, and we were talking there, whispering, because they didn't permit us to one another. They put ankle monitors on us and were going to drop us off at the bus stop. All I want is to live with my mom, go to school, get an education, and when tomorrow comes, be somebody…I know everything in life costs something. Nothing is easy. And whatever is easy isn't worth it." Alejandro, 13, on being reunited with his mother after 2 months separation
·         “Just take me back to jail. You’re not my mom anymore.” Jenri, 5, after being reunited with his mother Anita after a month’s separation
Evil is hearing these reactions from kids and pretending we don’t have anything to do with it. Or that there’s nothing we can do. Or that it just plain doesn’t matter.
     Evil, see, isn’t just doing something bad, it’s also not doing something when it’s possible for us to do. It’s dumping a kid’s lunch into the trash at school because he doesn’t have enough to pay for it. It’s delivering a pizza and seeing a woman with a black eye mouthing, Help me!, and not calling the police as soon as you’re able to. It’s seeing a guy on the street asking for your change, and even though you have some, not only pretending you don’t but pretending you don’t even see him. Evil is not doing anything when you could do anything.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of that peace and tranquility. That Anne Frank, one of a swiftly vanishing handful of people who could legitimately tell God that She had messed up mightily, could still say this about Hitler, a man whose policies killed so many people including Anne that we refer to him only by one name, like Voldemort, as if that will keep him from returning.
Hitler’s policies and practices were evil. But there were still helpers. People like Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, who, after the family was arrested and sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland where all but Anne’s father died, returned to the hidden rooms and retrieved, among other things, Anne’s diary. I will share a secret with you. In spite of everything, while they did evil, the Germans were not evil. The Nazis, even when they were sifting through the ashes that had once been people, looking for gold teeth, were not evil. What they did was evil and what they believed was evil. But if our first principle is to mean anything, it means Nazis had dignity too.
There are evil acts, evil ideas, evil practices, and I am convinced that the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy is among them. But do I believe that anyone who takes a child away from his mother and father because of where they come from, from agents to supervisors to administrators to cabinet secretaries, is, in spite of everything, good at heart? Yes, I do. Does that mean I believe that Stephen Miller, who has argued most successfully for the implementation of Zero Tolerance and who has overseen its practice, is, in spite of everything, good at heart? Yes, I do. Do I believe that Donald Trump, in spite of everything, is good at heart? Yes, I do.
If our principles mean anything, they mean that we have compassion for the people we know are doing evil things, even if they don’t see it that way, and we afford them the dignity they deny others. Most of you know that I work with people who are dying, and you might be surprised at this, but in their last days or hours they don’t ask me where I think they’re going, either heaven or hell. I couldn’t answer that anyway. But the question they ask me is as hard to answer. They ask, in one way or another, if what they did in their lives was the right thing.
Boy, if that isn’t the hardest thing for anyone to answer. Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about the end of life. At the end of it all, we must face our parents and our spouse and our children and our friends and ask them, Did I do the right thing? Now, if those are the only people we ask, maybe we can say, Sure, for them I did the right thing. But we also have to turn to other people’s parents, other people’s spouses, other people’s children and the friends of strangers, and ask of them, Did I do the right thing?
This is maybe the best test of whether we have done the right thing, because helpers can answer, even if it’s only tentative, humble, or a whisper, I did the right thing. In the absence of helpers, in the face of someone hurting, us are the helpers. (Touch chest) Us. (Indicate congregation) Us. (Indicate the world)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The heart is filled by water

I used to think of myself as a forest person. I grew up in the woods of upstate New York, and one of my first memories of sheer joy was taking off shoes and socks and wading in the the stream behind the garages and down the steep bank. The stream, a distant cousin to the stronger Agawamik Creek further north, flowed lazily along the north end of our property and it was full of crawfish and tadpoles and water skippers and picked up speed as it narrowed. It was cool and wet and in places you had to look hard through foliage to see it. That's how I saw the world then, as something where things were hidden by nature and to find them you had to look hard.

I started thinking more like what Bill Holms called a prairie person when I studied poetry with him in graduate school in Minnesota. Things were still hidden in that view, but because they were closer to the earth, often right underfoot. You didn't have to look hard, you just had to notice them. Now I live on the edge of a Great Lake, which is like a moist prairie in what things aren't hidden but you do need to notice them. I often start my barefoot walking starting with the grassy hill about a half mile from my home that runs down to the beach and then northward for a mile or two, before disappearing under a pier and the weight of local businesses.

I've written of the jolt of recognition I experienced when I realized that, in doing this, I've come to live out the dream I had for myself 30-odd years ago. I've lived in several river towns--in the east and midwest it's almost impossible not to. Lakeside living was never something I had experienced before moving here, and in the winter especially I cherish it. In the forest, nothing ever seems dead in the winter; on the prairie, everything seemed dead when covered with two feet of snow, ice, and bitter wind; here on the Lake, there is a sound of life all winter long, even when the ice shelf covers a mile and a half from the beach, the regular pulse of water coming in and going out, helping me to breathe through the winter.

What brings all this thinking on is having read Terry Tempest Williams' An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field. I hadn't read a book by nature essayists in a long while, and since I picked that up I've gone back to Gary Snyder's Practice of the Wild, an old essay collection from Anteus someone sent me decades ago, Peter Jenkins' A Walk Across America, Bill's The Heart Can be Filled Anywhere on Earth: Minneota, Minnesota, books about not only wandering around in the woods but stopping to look closely at what you're walking among and on. I expect I'll even go back to Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the one that began it all for me. I have a first edition I picked up somewhere on whim 40 years ago that is so water- and sun-logged, its sleeve long since shredded memory, whatever value there might be to it rests in what the cost to recycling the paper might be.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Always be the helpers

I'm not generally one who reads advice columns, but this one, aimed at parents, nudged at me, making me want to share it.

Too often, it strikes me that the person writing in for advice is asking for something specific to him or her, a response to a problem that's unique to him and him alone. But this mother's plaint is common, and not just to parents. I struggle, too, with the question of how to effect optimism with friends and others without, as she puts it, "overloading" them.

Carvell Wallace puts it plainly: "To be a child in 2018 is to know that the adults have completely abdicated our collective responsibility to make a decent world for our kids." Game, set, and match. Abdicated is the polite way to put it; the truth is we have, as a species, gone out of our way to fuck this world up with a passion.

Her suggestion, taken from a now-famous Fred Rogers' quote, is spot-on: In order for our children to find the helpers, we must be he helpers. What good does it do them if we're all behaving like chickens with our heads lopped off or, worse, as if the issue doesn't matter? America claims it hates a bully, and goes out of its way to elect one. We say children are our future and are important to us, and defund and beggar the very schools and programs meant to help them grow into that future.  We insist school be a safe place for them, and offer nothing more than thoughts and prayers to keep guns out of them. 

Everyone knows kids aren't stupid and we all like to brag about how intelligent ours are, but then we behave as if they're not only dim but blind and deaf too. The note that little ones have big ears and eyes is so common it's trite, but it's not only their own parents they're listening and watching. It's what we mean by having compassion: When you're outside your home, act like there's a kid watching and mimicking you. I do this myself. I feel better for it. Because there often is one somewhere. And they will eventually treat me the same as they see me treating others 

Saturday, July 28, 2018

How to treat offensive words

It's an offensive picture. It should be. It's an offensive word. But some context here is important. This is a stretch of beach near my home that's lately been made inaccessible by both a higher tide and the loss of some boulders people used to get around the fence the owners of this stretch put up. It is also close to the water so it can only be seen if you approach it from the lake. Finally, it seems to have been scratched into the face of one rock using another.

I remember as a young tween being overwhelmed by the power of some words to elicit responses from other people, not always responses I liked, and sometimes totally out of proportion (to me) to the relative smallness of the word or the intent behind it. (In a related way, this is also about the time I began to understand how written or spoken words could have an effect on others, which opened a whole new way of being to me.) I had a litany of words I thought were offensive that I'd mutter under my breath when I was angry or frustrated, including the above word and, for some reason, "booger."

So my suspicion is the above, hidden away as it is, and using a tool that was at hand rather than brought along like a spray can or even a marker, is the result of a young boy (it's almost always boys who write these things) just feeling the immensity of that power, the way a simple (so it may seem to him) word can make some people angry or giggle or turn serious or agreeably nod. For his purpose the word could have as easily been "cunt" or "faggot", words that aren't likely to come up in normal conversation and have no purpose except degradation and insult.

When I was a grad student I wrote a bunch of phrases in chalk on the walls and windowsills of my office, like "Stop praising dust!" and "Fight the power!". I was gratified, visiting a friend a decade later now in the office, to find that the phrases, or what was left of them just above the height of someone with an eraser, remained. This is not, of course, exculpatory but it is suggestive that the proper response is not to react against it (unless you happen to know the person who did it) but to let the rain and waves handle it.

Friday, July 6, 2018

We won't leave

There aren't too many people, at least not that I know of or have heard of, who are seriously considering leaving the country because of trump and his policies, but I speculate about it sometimes. In a time when humanitarian advances in voting rights, women's rights, abortion rights, immigrant rights, gay rights, trans~ rights, worker rights, minority religious rights, and the rights of nearly anyone who isn't white and wealthy and self-described Christian are under fire when not in downright retrograde, it's an exercise in both pleasant self-deception and potential self-defense to daydream about it. 

But I won't. I don't think many will. Most of us, I suspect, will take our cue from this drawing. Many Americans may follow a bully, some Americans may be bullies. But most Americans hate bullying and know the proper response to a bully is protecting the bullied. It's what the angels of our better nature demand. 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Lift Every Voice

I will confess to feeling, if not burned out, then exhausted by the massive, deaf wall that is Trump and his supporters. They feign to be doing either what the law demands or what the economy demands or what the American people demand, and when it is proven, by polls or votes, that the people do not demand it but demand exactly the opposite, they purport that the polls are wrong or biased or lie or simply that the people don't really know what it is they want.

But as British columnist Emma Brockes reminds us, 
Trump’s presidency has been one long series of outrages [between] the twin risks of normalisation and outrage fatigue... [Citizens] are reduced to a state of numbness and apathy, caught up in a cycle of responding to each buffoonish Trump tweet while the bigger picture pixelates away to abstraction.
We run the risk by being so absorbed in the latest Trump scandal, insult, evasion, even missteps, that they become a huge Trump lump of just "another example how Trump and his supporters don't care about or pay attention to either the law or other people." As a result, we become that luckless employee who, with each new offense by his employer, rather than working to change it, prides himself on crossing off another day until retirement. 

I understand that because I feel it myself. I become mired in the constant battles with Trump supporters who insist people "like me" either don't understand the law/politics/history/reality or that our only problem with the situation is that it's Trump rather than Hillary or Obama making the policy. And when "people like me" post, over and over, proof in the form of primary sources or analysis by historians or research done by what for the majority of us satisfies the requirement of objectivity, we're told it's fake news, or that its source is biased against Trump, often in the form of a post from someplace purporting to prove Snopes is financed by Soros or The New York Times is a liberal front. There are only so many times we can be told Richard Specter is more legitimate a resource than Paul Krugman.  When everything is true, nothing is true. 

But I have to repress the natural instinct to turn from these blasts against reality because in the meanwhile, real people are suffering and afraid. I can't justify to myself staying out of the fray because it's too hot, it's too exhausting, it's endless, it's frustrating. To do so is to deny the humanity of the people whose humanity I want to uphold. 

I was among the hundreds of thousands of protestors (in the US alone; I don't have figures for the world sites of protests) at the Families Belong Together rallies. At mine, Congresswoman Gwen Moore of Wisconsin's 4th District spoke, and while I don't remember what she said I was impressed by the passion and indignation in her voice. Such fiery voices, speaking truth to power, are perhaps all we have in our arsenal. Can voices change abuse and evil into something better? It may seem like they can't, but voices after all were all the abolitionists had, and Women's Suffragists, and Civil Rights workers. It worked for them. It will work for us. Si si puede