Let Us Not Turn Away: Some Reflections on Justice General Assembly

Rachel Naomi Remen says “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.”[1] This statement, for me, begins to name the heart of what it means to be a religious witness. When someone is suffering, let us in the very least not turn away, not move on to the next agenda item, not think of the next thing we need to say. When someone is suffering, let us stay present to their pain; let us keep our focus on what has happened to them. When someone is suffering, let us stay with them, sit by their side, listen to their story, support them, encourage them. When we act as religious witnesses, we make suffering visible so that it cannot be ignored, denied or downplayed by anyone. When we act as religious witnesses we say to those who suffer, “you do not have to endure this alone.” When someone is suffering, in the very least, let us not turn away.

Our ministry theme for July is witness. We selected this theme in part as a way to reflect further on the actions of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Justice General Assembly[2] or “Justice GA” in Phoenix last month. I will do that, but I first want to speak more generally about what it means to be a religious witness, and in particular what it means to be a liberal religious witness. Witness can and has for some of us become one of those haunting theological words we associate with traditional or conservative religion. When a preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” we know they want someone to testify about how God is making a difference in their life, how God is making their life better in some way, how God is great.

Liberal religious people in general, and Unitarian Universalists in particular don’t bear witness that way. This is a basic theological difference between liberal and conservative religious understandings of the Sacred. In a conservative religious context, if the preacher asks, “Can I get a witness?” and someone starts testifying about God’s greatness, everyone says “Amen!” “Hallelujah.” Everyone has, more or less, the same concept of God. But liberal religion allows for and encourages doubt, skepticism, questioning and wondering. If the liberal religious preacher were to ask, “Can I get a witness?” and someone were to start testifying about God’s greatness, you might hear “Amen, Hallelujah!” but it’s not likely.  You’d be more likely to hear someone ask (maybe at coffee hour), “What do you mean by God?”  We’d start debating the existence of God and there’d be as many opinions in the room as there are people. We don’t just join the amen chorus. We don’t all have the same concept of God. We don’t all believe in God.  We’re comfortable acknowledging we don’t really know. We ask questions.  We express doubt.

Having said that, I don’t want to sell us theologically short. While liberal religious people don’t typically bear witness to the traditional, conservative idea of God, there are many ways we experience the sacredness of life and many things to which we ascribe sacred meaning or ultimate worth: Human Beings, Family, Community, Learning, Growth, Evolution, Nature, Earth, Cosmos, Ancestors, Spirit, Breath and, for some, Gods and Goddesses. All of this works in our lives. All of this impacts our lives in positive ways. All of this is great. This is what our worship and our congregational life is all about. We do testify. All the time. We do bear witness. All the time. We just do it differently.  We use different language. “Can I get a witness?” doesn’t roll off our tongues the way it does in more conservative churches; but that doesn’t mean the Sacred is absent from our lives. It’s quite the opposite.

That’s the bedrock definition of what it means to be a religious witness—proclaiming the power of the Sacred in one’s life. But where liberal religious people are more comfortable using the word witness is in our response to suffering, especially suffering created by social, political, economic, or environmental injustices.  At the Justice GA in Phoenix the language of witness was pervasive. To bear witness was the reason we went to Phoenix. Reminder: the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) holds its General Assembly every June in a different city. We don’t typically get as deeply involved in local or state issues during GA as we did in Phoenix, but Phoenix was different.

I preached about the difference in June;[3] I’ll explain it briefly for those who missed it. In April, 2010 Arizona became the first state in a string of states to pass a harsh, anti-immigration statute, known as SB1070. It gave local and state police unprecedented—and mostly unconstitutional— powers to enforce federal immigration law. It essentially made racial profiling legal (though its supporters deny this). When Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070, civil and migrant rights organizations in Arizona called for a boycott
of the state. At that point, the UUA had to make a decision about whether to go ahead with our GA scheduled to take place in Phoenix in June, 2012. It was a hard decision, but in the end we decided to go to Phoenix, primarily because the civil and migrant rights organizations that were calling for the boycott invited us to come. “But don’t come and conduct business is usual,” they said. “If  you’re going to come, come and bear witness to the suffering of Latino and migrant communities in Arizona. Come, bear witness against an inhumane, unjust law. Come, bear witness against abusive, unjust county prisons. Come, bear witness against a blatantly racist sheriff’s department. Come, but don’t turn away from the suffering and injustice taking place in Phoenix. Come, bear witness.

Phoenix is in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff Joe Arpaio is one of the most ruthless anti-immigrant law enforcement officers in the country, proudly identifying himself as “America’s toughest Sheriff.”[4] County residents, especially in the Latino and migrant communities, have complained bitterly about conditions in his jails for decades, especially his infamous Tent City Jail on Durango Street, where prisoners are confined to army surplus canvass tents. The Sheriff himself has measured the temperature in those tents at over 140 degrees on hot days. Those are good days to deny water to prisoners. In 1997 Amnesty International issued a report citing a long list of human rights abuses and condemning the practices at many of the Maricopa County prisons.[5] This past May, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Sheriff Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging that it discriminates against Latinos, uses excessive force, runs its jail unconstitutionally and has taken illegal action to silence critics.[6]

At the Justice GA we heard from a woman named Isabel Chairez from the Neighborhood Defense Committee (Comites de Defensa del Barrio) of Tonatierra, an indigenous peoples’ cultural organization dedicated to community ecology and self-determination.[7] Tonatierra was one of the organizations with whom we partnered to create Justice GA. Ms. Chairez told her story of being incarcerated at Estrella, Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for women next to Tent City. She said: “Last year, for working to feed my family, I was arrested at my home and my 3-year-old daughter witnessed the police handcuffing me and taking me away. I suffered the horrible conditions at Estrella … where I spent 3 long miserable months. At the time, I was 4 months pregnant and I did not receive adequate care and treatment. We were only fed twice a day … in the morning and late afternoon …. I ate what was given to us; even then I only gained 4 pounds by the time I was six months pregnant.

“I witnessed many ugly things inside that jail. The guards yelled at the women that didn’t speak or understand English. Verbal abuse happened all the time…. In December of 2011, women sued the county for this mistreatment…. One of the hardest things for me was that I was not allowed to walk around when I started feeling uncomfortable with my pregnancy. I was confined to the bed just like all the other women.

“One of my biggest concerns with the arrests, detention, and deportation is how parents are treated like criminals in front of their children. Think of all the children that are being separated from their mothers. My daughter is traumatized from seeing me arrested and taken away. Every time there is a knock on the door, she runs and holds on to me saying ‘Is it the police? I don’t want them to take you away.’”[8]

Rachel Naomi Remen tells us: “There is in life a suffering so unspeakable, a vulnerability so extreme that it goes far beyond words, beyond explanations and even beyond healing. In the face of such suffering all we can do is bear witness so no one need suffer alone.” On Saturday evening, June 23rd, more than 2000 Justice GA attendees boarded busses that took them to the front gates of Sheriff Arpaio’s Tent City Jail. It was a peaceful witness. We did not attempt to block jail access. We did not engage in civil disobedience. We did not confront the Sheriff or his deputies. We did not confront the small band of counter-protestors—a few of them carrying guns—expressing support for the Sheriff.  We held candles. We chanted. We sang. Our leaders and our partners spoke about the human rights abuses and suffering taking place inside Tent City. They spoke about the culture of fear and cruelty the Sheriff’s Department has established in the county. They spoke about the backwardness and injustice of SB1070. They spoke about the need for comprehensive national immigration reform that upholds the worth and dignity of all people.[9]  This was our witness. More than 2,000 UUs—most of them wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts—doing our part to draw national and global attention to suffering and injustice, lending our collective voice and power to our partners in Phoenix, doing our part to “make what is invisible, visible …. what is deniable, undeniable ….  what is unseen, seen.”[10] That night on Durango St. there was no place else in the world I would rather have been. That night I was deeply proud to be a Unitarian Universalist and inspired to be part of movement to end mass incarceration and deportation; to build a more just and loving society.

The next day there was a man on the sidewalk outside the convention center with a sign that read “UUs: What Have You Done?” which I took to mean your presence here in Phoenix has changed nothing. You have accomplished nothing. On one hand he’s right. Justice GA did not end mass incarceration and deportation.  It did not shut down Tent City. It did not arrest Arpaio. We left Phoenix much the way we found it, and many communities there still live in fear of the sheriff’s department. Some have asked what good a nonviolent witness does in the face of this kind of power. Don’t we need to take more extreme Measures?

That’s a conversation worth having, but I see three things that happened at Justice GA that the man with the sign didn’t see. First, the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist congregations in Arizona, and the historically, racially white Unitarian Universalist Association built solid, lasting, accountable, relationships with people of color civil rights and migrant rights organizations on the ground in Arizona: Puente Human Rights Movement, National Day Laborers Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Arizona Worker Rights Center; Arizona Advocacy Network, National Council of La Raza, Somos Arizona, Tonatierra, Tierra y Libertad Organization and more.[11] None of these organizations can achieve its vision of a more just and loving society alone. Relationships are essential. Relationships are the essence of successful movements. This kind of relationship-based participation in a national, multicultural, multilingual, multiracial and antiracist movement for social justice is new for Unitarian Universalists. It marks a level of growth in our faith we could barely imagine a decade ago. Justice GA is over, but the truth is we haven’t left Arizona. We are still there through the power of our relationships. The justice movement our partners started is now stronger.

Second, the man with the sign does not understand that 4,000 UUs came to Phoenix and realized that the kinds of injustices that exist there could happen anywhere. It’s called Arizonafication.  4,000 UUs, myself included, left Phoenix determined to build partnerships and coalitions in our own states, determined to halt Arizonafication in our own states, determined to bear witness to suffering and injustice in our own states. The movement for a more just and loving United States of America just grew stronger.

Finally, the man with the sign missed this: Our yellow t-shirts say “Standing on the Side of Love.” It’s not rhetoric. It’s not a cheap platitude. We really mean it. And while I’m sure Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies, and the counter-protestors with guns, and Governor Jan Brewer are capable of great love—loving their families and friends, loving their jobs, their mission, their state, their country—it is not a loving act to tear a mother from her child in the middle of the night. It is not a loving act to put a prisoner in a tent in the desert where the temperature rises to 140 degrees and then deny that prisoner water. It is not a loving act to confine a pregnant woman to a cot when she needs to walk. It is not a loving act to terrorize whole communities who want nothing more than to live in peace.  It is not a loving act to take pride in one’s ability to conduct racial profiling. It is not a loving heart that enjoys mass incarceration and deportation, even if it is legal. When we bear witness to all these atrocities and we say we are standing on the side of love, we mean it. Love matters. A loving heart matters. A loving community matters. A loving nation matters. If you ask me, maybe not now, maybe not next year, but some day, love wins. I believe it. What did we do in Phoenix? We did not turn away. We bore witness to love. It made all the difference.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] Remen, Rachel Naomi, “Bearing Witness,” My Grandfather’s Blessings (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000) p. 105.

[2] For footage and text from the UUA’s Justice General Assembly, see: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/index.shtml.

[8] Ms. Chairez’ testimony at Justice GA is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/business/200226.shtml.

[9] Video footage and the fully text of the speeches at the Tent City witness are at: http://www.uua.org/immigration/re/ga/200252.shtml

[10] This language comes from a litany called “Why We Witness,” which was art of the Saturday evening worship at Justice GA, prior to the Tent City Witness. See: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/worship/200328.shtml.

[11] The list of our Justice GA partners is at: http://www.uua.org/ga/2012/185401.shtml