Into the Wilderness

Rev. Josh Pawelek.

6-9 water gapI remember a moment, about twenty-five years ago, driving home from college on spring break with my friend Rob. We were heading east on Interstate 80, late in the day, crossing through the Delaware Water Gap where the Delaware River cuts through a ridge in the Appalachian. The sun was setting. Dark shadows lengthened across the thickly forested, low-lying mountains. I’ve been to more remote areas, but at that moment, for whatever reason, it felt pretty remote. I made some remark about the wilderness, how one could disappear into it—into those dark hills. I don’t remember his exact words, but Rob responded that the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. There’s a relationship. Although I wasn’t sure what to make of his statement at the time, it struck me as important. So I’ve held onto it.

Today I still think Rob is right. The wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. They mirror each other. They speak to each other. The darkness of the mountainside at dusk speaks to darkness in us. The emptiness of the sky overhead speaks to emptiness in us. The fullness of lakes after spring thaws speaks to fullness in us. The lush forest speaks to what is growing and vibrant in us. The vastness of the desert speaks to vastness in us. The raging river speaks to what is raging and uncontainable in us. Perhaps those features of wilderness that excite us, that call to us, that fill us with awe speak to what we find exciting in ourselves, speak to our passions. Perhaps what we fear in the wilderness—what makes us pause, turn back, flee—speaks to what we fear most in ourselves. There’s a relationship.

Lush Forests

Our June ministry theme is wilderness. I love this theme at this time of year as the days grow warm and summer arrives. For me, summer—whether we’re talking about summer the season, or our spiritual summers, which can come in any season—summer is the time for exploring and experimenting, for stretching and growing, for traveling to the borders of our lives—to the edges, the boundaries, the margins, the fringes, the frontiers. Summer is the time for venturing out, for crossing into the unknown, for wandering in the wilderness that lies beyond our well-worn paths.

Perhaps the most familiar use of wilderness as a spiritual concept comes from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Here wilderness is the place where one finds challenges that must be overcome; the place of suffering and misery that must be endured; the place of temptation that must be withstood; the place to which scapegoats, criminals, lepers and all the supposedly unpure people are exiled. Many of you have a basic familiarity with the story from the Hebrew scriptures of the ancient Israelites wandering in the wilderness Sinaiof Sinai for forty years following their exodus from centuries of slavery in Egypt. Many preachers use the Israelite wandering as a metaphor for whatever struggle or challenge we’re facing in our lives. We have to wander in the “wilderness” of that struggle or challenge in order to find ourselves, to prove ourselves, to come of age, to complete our quest. We have to wander in the wilderness in order to grow in some necessary way. We have to wander in the wilderness before we can be whole, before we can come home, before we can come fully into our “Promised Land,” whatever it may be. This is a powerful narrative. It’s a sustaining narrative. Struggling people can endure more easily if they believe their struggle will ultimately end and some good will come of it.

But if we’re being honest about the Biblical record, that’s not entirely what God had in mind. The wilderness time was a punishment. God had done great things for the Israelites in Egypt, but they still don’t believe God can bring them into Canaan, the “Promised Land.” They don’t believe it because spies they’ve sent into Canaan come back saying, essentially, “We’ll never defeat the Canaanites. They’re bigger than us.” In the Book of Numbers, Chapter 13, verse 32, the spies say “all the people we saw are of great size…. And to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”[1]

Upon hearing this report, the people start complaining—the latest in a long string of complaints. They say it would have been better to die in Egypt. They wonder if they should give up and go back to Egypt. This lack of faith angers God. It’s the last straw. God wants to disinherit them and strike them down with a plague immediately. After a long negotiation with Moses, God forgives them, but says, nevertheless, “none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.”[2] Their children will enter the Promised Land, but for the complaint-ridden exodus generation: “Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness.”[3] They are consigned to the wilderness not to discover faith anew, but because they lack it. It’s a punishment. And it’s for the remainder of their lives.

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

Jesus: The Temptation by Rosetta Jallow

In the Christian scriptures Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism. [4] He fasts for forty days and then, in the midst of his hunger, Satan appears and tempts or tests Jesus. Jesus resists temptation. He passes the test. Satan departs. Here again we have this narrative of struggle in the wilderness—in this case a story of encountering and overcoming evil. Again, this kind of narrative is powerful and sustaining. We all have our wilderness struggles. Stories of overcoming obstacles and returning home, returning to friends and family, returning to a life renewed speak to and inspire us in the midst of our pain and suffering. Some of the best sermons ever preached locate the congregation in some wilderness, fortify them for the struggle, the test, the temptation—whatever it is—and then, from the mountaintop, paint with words that stunning picture of a land flowing with milk and honey, a promised land, a home at long last, a home we will reach if we can endure just a little bit longer.

 

That’s not the sermon I’m preaching this morning.

Twenty-five years ago my friend Rob said “the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us.” My concern is that the “Promised Land” narrative—as powerful, sustaining and inspirational as it is—is often too black and white, too either/or. It doesn’t allow us to fully value wilderness as a spiritual asset. It makes wilderness a place of suffering and trial, a place of punishment, a place where evil lives, but not a place that might offer its own wisdom, its own sacred power, its own sustaining wells. We move through it, always trying to overcome it and leave it behind. We privilege civilization; we abandon wilderness. And in so doing, I say we abandon something in ourselves. I’m convinced that something matters deeply.

Jon D. Levenson

Jon D. Levenson

Back to the Hebrew scriptures. Jon D. Levenson is a professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School. In his 1985 book, Sinai & Zion, he points out that scholars are unable to locate the site of Mount Sinai with any certainty. Mount Sinai is the place in the wilderness where Moses talks to God, where he receives the Ten Commandments, where God’s covenant with Israel is articulated. One can argue it is the most significant site in early Jewish tradition. It’s the place where the Sacred speaks. The inability to locate it, says Levenson, is not simply a failure of “the modern science of topography. Rather, there is a mysterious extraterrestrial quality to the mountain…. [It] seems to exist in a no man’s land…. ‘The mountain of God’…. is out of the domain of Egypt and out of the domain of the Midianites, [in] an area associated, by contrast, with the impenetrable regions of the arid wilderness, where the authority of the state cannot reach. YHWH’s self-disclosure takes place in remote parts rather than within the established and settled cult of the city. Even his mode of manifestation reflects the uncontrollable and unpredictable character of the wilderness rather than the decorum one associates with a long-established, urban religion, rooted in familiar traditions…. The deity is like his worshippers: mobile, rootless and unpredictable. ‘I shall be where I shall be’—nothing more definite can be said. This is a God who is free, unconfined by the boundaries that man erects.”[5]

Our spiritual lives may, on one hand, involve the familiar, the known—rituals, practices, prayers, meditations, worship, activism, service, gardening, the singing of comforting hymns, the dancing of familiar dances, being in community with people we know and love. We need these things in our lives. We need them to feel rooted, planted, grounded. But we also know that any repeated practice, any too familiar pathway, any rote repetition of words or principles, any unexamined theology can become stifling if it’s all we do. It starts to box us in, lull us to sleep, generate in us laziness, apathy, boredom. Thus, on the other hand, our spiritual lives also need access to wilderness—not because we lack a site for our encounter with evil, not because we’ve been consigned there for complaining too much, not because we’re on some hero quest in search of dragons to slay. We need access to wilderness because we are part of it and it is part of us. Its dark mountainsides can speak to us of our own darkness in a way civilization can’t. Its empty skies teach us of our own emptiness. Its full lakes after spring thaws inform us of our own fullness. Its rivers know our rage. Its deserts know our vastness. Its oceans know our depths. Its forests know our lushness. We need access to wilderness because it offers raw, unbridled truth—a truth not always easy to encounter, but with its guidance we can live with a kind of immediacy and presence civilization only dreams of—the immediacy and presence we so often notice in the way wild things live. Civilization as we know it is only the tiniest blip on the screen of human existence. Wilderness, not civilization, is the norm for that existence; and thus wilderness, not civilization, is our heritage, our birthright. Wilderness is our home as much as any Promised Land we may inhabit, either now or in the future.

We need opportunities to search for our sources of faith at the foot of holy, mysterious mountains rising out of remote landscapes beyond all established jurisdictions. We need encounters with the unknown, the unpredictable, the uncontrollable. We need wind rushing against our backs. We need experiences for which there are no words. Such encounters have the power to jolt us out of our settled, habitual ways of thinking, being and doing. Such experiences have the power to set our spirits free. Such encounters have the power to change us. I loved this quote from Vancouver School of Theology student, Emma Pavey, from a paper she delivered this past weekend. She said “we are ambivalent toward wilderness: it represents lostness, wandering, chaos and isolation, but also grants ‘thin’ moments of transformation.”[6]

So how to get there? Scholars don’t know the location of Mount Sinai. But maybe that’s ok. Rob said the wilderness around us is connected to the wilderness within us. Perhaps the Sacred that lives and speaks freely and truthfully out beyond the bounds of all established jurisdictions also lives and speaks in the wilderness places in us—in our darkness, our vastness, our rage, our emptiness, our fullness. But how do we access that wilderness? Like the wilderness around us, the wilderness within us can also be inscrutable, unknowable, beyond words. So often it exists beneath our awareness, in our unconscious depths, in our dreams, in our intuitions and hunches. We know portions of the landscape, but so much lies beyond knowing.

Emptiness

Earlier I read Meg Barnhouse’s meditation, “Going to an Inner Party.” I suggest she offers here one route into our inner wilderness. She says, “I love the flickering things that bump along the edges of mainstream consciousness. These glimpses of an inner wisdom flash like fish in a creek, and if I can grab one by the tail I feel like I have a treasure.”[7] She’s saying our unconscious puts words and ideas together without thought, as if by accident, or perhaps by accident. She’s learned to pay attention to these accidents. She’s learned to receive them as pearls of wisdom, and as sources of joy. The meaning isn’t always clear. There’s lots of interpretation involved. She finds it mostly amusing. But something deep within is speaking. And she’s listening. And it’s giving her a chance to look at the world differently, to make new connections she wouldn’t have made otherwise. That’s what wilderness does for us. Her meditation reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comments in his 1844 essay, “The Poet” about the effect poetry has on us. In response to “tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms,” he wrote, we get “a new sense, and [find] within [our] world another world, or nests of worlds.”[8]

worlds within worlds

We get back to our wilderness by listening to the flickering things that bump along the edges of consciousness. We get back to our wilderness by noting our dreams, by following our intuition, trusting our gut, letting ourselves feel deeply all our joys and sorrows. We get back to our wilderness by allowing ourselves moments of spontaneity and unpredictability. We get back to our wilderness by living, as best we can, like wild things, like children: immediate, unbridled, alert, raw, honest. It’s my faith that as we get back to our wilderness we’ll discover that the things we hold sacred live and speak there too.

Rob Laurens

Rob Laurens

My friend Rob once wrote a song called “The Blue of the Road.” It’s a song about driving, perhaps on I-80, heading east through the Appalachians, as the sun begins to set. In that song he says, “there in that wild blue ride the insights of your life, that wisdom unlooked for, the solution to the gnawing ache in your heart, and the laughing simplicity of effortless release, letting go. Like the answer to a prayer, the matter of course toward what is still right and true in your life…. When all is chaotic, when the days of your life are as dry autumn leaves scattered across the main streets of your home town. Get back to these great arteries, these long edges of grace that cut through the wilderness, these wonderful highways that put you at one with yourself and the last seeds of your American dream, and reopen your heart, and cause you to remember what you’ve always known: this great frontier has been with you all along.”[9]

 

Amen and blessed be.

Blue of the Road



[1] Numbers 13: 32, 33b. (New Revised Standard Version)

[2] Numbers 14: 22-23. (New Revised Standard Version)

[3] Numbers 14: 29a. (New Revised Standard Version)

[4] Matthew 4:1-11. Luke 4:1-13. Mark 1:9-13.

[5] Levenson, Jon D., Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible (New York: HarperCollins, 1985) pp. 21-22.

[6] See the abstract to Emma Pavey’s paper, “Wilderness and the Secular Age,” delivered at the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association’s Annual Meeting on June 2, 2013 at http://www.academia.edu/2626584/Wilderness_and_the_secular_age_-_abstract.

[7] Barnhouse, Meg. “Goning to an Inner Party,” The Rock of Ages at the Taj Mahal (Boston: Skinner House, 1999) p. 63.

[8] Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “The Poet,” quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) p. 374.

[9] Rob Laurens, “The Blue of the Road,”appears on his 1999 album, “The Honey on the Mountain.” See http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/roblaurens.

Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.

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

No Greater Love (or Not Your Kind of People)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Watch video here.

Last month the rock band Garbage released its most recent album entitled “Not Your Kind of People.”[1] The lyrics to the title track seem so relevant to what I want to say this morning that I’ve decided to share them with you as a starting place:

We are not your kind of people / You seem kind of phoney / everything’s a lie  / We are not your kind of people  / Something in your makeup / don’t see eye to eye / We are not your kind of people / Don’t want to be like you ever in our lives. . . . We are not your kind of people / Speak a different language / We see through your lies  / We are not your kind of people / Won’t be cast as demons / creatures you despise.[2]

I don’t know if the band intends to convey a specific meaning with these lyrics or if they are describing a specific situation. It isn’t clear. I assume at some level they want listeners to find their own meaning and apply it to their own situation. Although the music is gentle (especially for Garbage) the lyrics convey a strong—even harsh—sentiment. We are not your kind of people conveys a feeling of disconnection, separation, alienation—a feeling, even, of brokenness in the human family. It’s akin to the feeling—a mixed feeling to be sure—that arose in me when I watched the film, “No Greater Love,” a 2009 Lionsgate and Thomas Nelson film. (Thomas Nelson is the world’s largest Christian book publisher and is Lionsgate’s exclusive distributor to the Christian entertainment markets.)[3] I don’t normally watch films like this. Alan and Kathy Ayers suggested it to me as background for this sermon which they purchased at last year’s goods and services auction. Alan and Kathy wouldn’t normally watch a film like this either. They watched it thinking it was something else.

Here’s the story-line: in a haze of alcohol and drug-use a young woman, Heather, walks out on her marriage and new-born baby due to her depression and disappears.  Ten years later her “ex” husband, Jeff (who she’d known since childhood), accidentally runs into her again when he sends his son to a summer Bible camp where she is working. They start to get to know each other again.  In turns out that during those ten years of separation Heather has become an evangelical Christian. She’s been saved in the traditional sense. Jeff, who is not religious in any sense, realizes he is still in love with Heather and calls off his engagement to another woman. But Heather’s minister, Chris, tells Jeff they can’t be together because he is a non-believer. (That’s when the not your kind of people feeling started rising in me.) This upsets Jeff; but then he reveals that he never actually executed divorce papers—he and Heather are still legally married. Now Pastor Chris tells them they have to stay together based on their church’s interpretation of Biblical law: under any circumstances marriage is better than divorce.  (We can assume they wouldn’t apply this standard to same-sex marriage, or in the event one of the partners underwent sexual reassignment surgery—that would be a very different movie entirely!) Heather is concerned that her unbelieving husband won’t allow her to practice her Christian faith. Jeff is concerned that Heather is now only staying in the marriage because the Bible and her pastor demand it.

I suspect most people can watch this film and, no matter what spiritual or religious beliefs they profess, get caught up in its romantic plot, and really root for Jeff and Heather to be in love and to be together. I certainly wanted a happy ending. What Alan and Kathy are reacting to, at least on the surface, if I understand what they’ve said, is the role of the pastor and church law and what appears to be Heather’s inability to think for herself beyond trying to fit herself into the framework her church and the Bible demand. And right there is the border between conservative religious people and liberal religious people. There are many ways to describe this border, but in this case the conservative religious person looks to some external authority—the Bible, the Ten Commandments, church law, the minister, a transcendent God—and the liberal religious person looks to some internal authority—conscience, reason, personal experience, “the still small voice in me”[4] as we just sang, “that place inside where we know our truth,” an imminent God, an inner sense of the divine. In this case the conservative religious person assumes the situation is black and white, that a definitive, correct answer exists, and can be found through a careful reading of scripture and church law—and the minister is the expert in these matters, or at least should be. The liberal religious person encounters a whole lot of gray and will search through that gray looking not for the “right” answer but for what is hopefully the “best” answer given all the nuances of the situation. The liberal minister’s job is to help the individual discern their best answer.

While the differences are more complex than I’ve just described them—some liberal religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as conservative; some conservative religious people would identify more with what I’ve described as liberal—they are very real.  Because of them, liberal religious people typically experience conservative religious people as unthinking and irrational. Conservative religious people typically experience liberal religious people as not actually religious, as non-believers, postmodern, relativistic, rudderless, etc. There’s a border here. (Remember: borders is our ministry theme for June.) It cuts through countries, states, cities, towns, neighborhoods, workplaces, schools and families. From the perspective on either side of that border it is quite possible to feel we are not your kind of people.

Kathy and Alan asked me to preach on how, as Unitarian Universalists, as liberal religious people, we can best relate to people like Heather and her minister when we encounter them.  How can we relate to people who live on the other side of this border from us? How can we respect beliefs that at times seem illogical or irrational to us?  How do we accept people who hold those beliefs? How can we resist the temptation to judge?  Even in suggesting these kinds of questions, Kathy said she felt she was coming across as arrogant—but said it seemed like the same kind of arrogance she feels conservative religious people direct at her liberal religious identity.  So that’s the question: how do we relate across the religious border?

I’m pretty sure the capacity to relate across religious borders—and across many of the borders that divide people from people—doesn’t come to us naturally. It takes practice. It requires patience. We need to work at it. And I think we acquire it through a developmental process. That is, we develop the capacity to relate well across religious borders as we move beyond an initial sense of excitement about our own faith, an initial sense of pride in our own faith, an initial sense of feeling special because of our own faith to a deeper place of humility, a recognition that our faith is one of many, that there is room within a family, a neighborhood, a workplace, a school, a town, a city, a state, a nation, a planet for many faiths. None is set above. None is set below. None is set apart as special. It’s a movement from pride to humility.

The film “No Greater Love” does not reach that humble place and that’s not why it was made. The proof is in the title. There’s the romantic meaning, which has to do with how Jeff and Heather feel about each other. And then there’s the Biblical meaning. I read to you the Bible verse that contains this phrase, John 15:13, “there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” In the film nobody lays down their life for their friends, not even remotely.  So, it seems like a bad title. But if you read the next few verses it becomes clear why this title might make sense. Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.”[5] In my experience this is one of those Bible passages often used to justify an attitude of Christian exceptionalism. Not always, but often. Jesus says: “I chose you.” I didn’t choose everyone. I chose you. This is not universalism. This is exceptionalism.  And all through the film, although the characters don’t use the language of chosen-ness, they say it in many ways: We’re different. We’re special. There’s something about us that sets us apart from other people. Can’t you see? And Jeff, the unbeliever, who wants to be with the believing Heather, begins to see this difference; he sees that Heather’s faith has helped her resolve the problems that led her to leave him in the first place, and he admires it. He says, essentially, “I want what you have.”

There’s nothing wrong with a movie studio making a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with people being excited about their faith, proud of their faith, even feeling special because of their faith. But let’s be clear: humility is a sign of a mature faith, and this is not humility. This film sets Christians—and a certain kind of Christian at that—apart and above other people. Despite its pleasant, romantic vibe, it contributes to a strengthening of the religious border by proclaiming we are not your kind of people. And that’s why liberal religious people, including liberal Christians, might react negatively.

To emphasize this last point, let me be clear: I am not suggesting that religious exceptionalism is somehow unique to religious conservatives. We religious liberals have our own version of it. It’s perhaps more subtle than the religious conservative version, because the language we typically use to describe our liberal faith expresses an openness to other religions, an embrace of religious pluralism. Our Unitarian and Universalist roots inform us all are chosen, all are welcome, all matter, all possess inherent worth and dignity regardless of who they are, what they believe, who they love, how they live. This is beautiful. It’s exciting. It fills me with pride. It makes me feel special. But I am also aware the line between humility is thin. If I’m not vigilant I can very easily fall into that place of assuming my faith is the more enlightened faith. My faith sets me apart. My faith is forged in the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind, not a set of ancient books that tell an exaggerated if not false history of the ancient Near East and promote a patriarchal culture whose values run completely counter to modern, democratic principles. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred, not from a church doctrine designed to control the people, to wage a war on women, to make sexual minorities invisible by preventing them from achieving full legal status, or to inspire holy war against perceived infidels. Can you hear it? I believe the sentences I’ve just uttered are true; they express who I am; they express my social, political and spiritual commitments. But let’s be honest: they can also be heard as an expression of liberal religious exceptionalism.

This is primarily because of the words I chose to use. I emphasized who I am not as much as who I am. I said “not in a set of ancient books” and then spoke about those ancient books in a condescending way. I said “not from a church doctrine,” and then implied that church doctrine is responsible for a whole host of social evils. I built my faith up while tearing the faith of others down. It’s divisive language, it’s fighting language, it’s us vs. them language, its exceptionalist language. It’s not empty rhetoric, but it is rhetoric all the same. It’s easy. I’m pretty good at it. There’s something satisfying about it. But it’s not humble. And it’s not effective if the goal is to relate well across the border.

Meeting the challenge of relating well across the religious border does not require us to change our liberal religious values. It does not require us to moderate our excitement about our liberal faith tradition, or our pride in it, or the way it might make us feel special and grounded and whole. The first step towards spiritual humility at the border is speaking our truth without denigrating others. My faith emerges from the crucible of my life experience, my intuition, my reasoning mind. It is consistent with modern democratic principles: freedom, liberty, human rights. My faith emerges from the story of my life, from the place inside of me where my truth resides, where I discern and connect to the Sacred. It leads me to support reproductive rights for women and families, equal pay for equal work, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. It leads me to reject war and other forms of violence as methods for resolving conflict. It’s the same statement, but it doesn’t intentionally create an us and a them. It says who I am without criticizing who I am not.

But even more important than this is our capacity to bring curiosity to the border; to bring a genuine desire to learn about people who live across the border and to become well-versed in the religious ways of the world. Curiosity does not necessarily change who we are, but it does challenge us to clarify and deepen who we are. How different it would have been—and how much more authentic—if the character of Jeff has said, “Wow, Heather really believes the Bible is true. She strives to conduct her life in response to it. Well, what is true for me? Where do my truths come from? To what truth does my life respond?” Learning another’s faith enables us to become more of who we are, not less. Learning another’s faith challenges us to clarify and deepen our own faith; it challenges us to become more mature in our faith; and it calls us to humility as we approach the borders of our lives.

I suspect it is true there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends or one’s family. But in an age when we are so prone to exceptionalism, often without even realizing it; in an age when we are so divided, especially by religion; in an age when our borders are places of tension and conflict, cheap rhetoric, and deep feelings of  “not your kind of people,” I say it is also a sign of our desire to be more loving, more compassionate, more connected, more related, more peaceful when we approach the borders of our lives with humility, as curious searchers, and as people with strong opinions who may nevertheless be able to find common ground with those who believe differently. It may not be the greatest love, but it is an essential love for our time.

Amen and Blessed be.



[1] For more information on Garbage and “Not Your Kind of People, “ explore:  http://garbage.com/ and  http://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Kind-People-Deluxe/dp/B007H9B8FS.

[2] Check out the song, “Not Your Kind of People” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEClCAFjYHg.

[4] Denham, Shelly Jackson, “Blessed Spirit of My Life,” Singing the Living Tradition, (Boston: Beacon Press and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1993 # 86.

[5] John 15: 13-16.

June Ministry Theme

Borders

Good Fences?

By Marlene J. Geary Chair, Sunday Services Committee

In considering our June ministry theme of “borders”, I offer this story as a way to think about the many borders in our lives–the ones that are of­ten right in front of our faces – and how difficult it can be to navigate them.

In 1998, I purchased a home near Orlando, Florida. The houses were roughly 15 feet apart and my partner and I lived on the far edge of the neighborhood, within direct view of a vast field of grazing Holsteins.

We had a house policy of “ignore the neighbors” because my partner grew up in a tough neighborhood in Cincinnati and she felt that if you left the neighbors alone, they would leave you alone. She’d also been tossed out of more than one Orlando apartment for being gay. I didn’t like it but I was a road warrior and only home for the weekends, so not getting to know the neighbors didn’t affect me much.

That all changed when I stopped traveling full-time in 2001. I set up a home office and spent my days teleconferencing while I looked out of the win­dows and watched my neighbors. I noticed that the fellow with the Crimson Tide yard sign across the street had a different bathrobe for every day. I saw when his wife started spending nights with the me­chanic who lived to my left; she walked home every morning just after sunrise. I heard the elderly lady to my right, Elaine, chain up her ancient, rickety dog each day on her front steps.

Shortly after I stopped traveling full-time, Elaine’s son Rob, roughly about 35 years old at the time, came to live with her. That was when the trou­bles began. I will say: this isn’t a story about drugs and whether or not they should be legalized. This is just a story about neighbors.

Rob had lots of visitors at all hours of the day and night. Men and women would come and sit on the outside porch with Rob for hours, talking, laugh­ing, drinking beer. I wished for a big tall fence to separate me from them and their noise, but commu­nity rules didn’t allow it. I wanted to call the police several times, but my partner warned me to be afraid of retaliation.

Then the police started patrolling our quiet little outpost. I hadn’t so much as seen one police car on my end of the street in the years I’d lived there; now I was seeing police patrols two and three times daily.

One day there was an altercation between Rob and a police officer driving by. After that, Rob disap­peared for six or seven months. I learned from my mechanic neighbor that Elaine’s son had been dealing drugs out of her shed. Marijuana, heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and maybe more. My mechanic neighbor with his contacts in town told me the police knew that Rob was dealing much heavier stuff than marijuana, but they couldn’t catch him. Rob had been in and out of jail for years and had violated his probation when starting the fight with the officer.

I was relieved that Rob was gone. I was quite glad that we hadn’t interacted with him at all. I was pretty upset to learn what had been going on so close to my home. Visions of drug dealers and machine guns ran through my head. I thought about what a crystal meth explosion in Elaine’s shed would do to my house: the rooms we occupied most were right near the shed. I believe that people should be left alone in their own homes, but I was conflicted on this particular drug issue. I wasn’t sure what to feel when that kind of drug use had put us in such potential dan­ger. I thought to myself: if he comes back, I’ll apply to the community board for permission to build a fence. A big tall fence.

To my dismay, Rob reappeared one day with a girlfriend and three kids in tow. I learned from my mechanic neighbor that Rob and the family had been living in a local motel but they’d been evicted, so they’d come to live with Elaine.

Rob started up his drug dealing again. The police tried to catch him but that didn’t happen for about a year, until one night he got caught in a rou­tine traffic stop, shot the police officer and ran across the fields to get to Elaine’s house. The chase ended up with an all-points search around our neighborhood to find Rob and in the end a savvy German Shepherd sniffed him out. Rob went back to prison and the girl­friend and children stayed.

As soon as the kids moved in, I saw that they did not go to school and they were clearly not being home-schooled. The kids played all day long out in the yard and went inside only for lunch. It was clear from the yelling at the kids to keep quiet that their mother spent the day sleeping before she headed out to work the late shift at the local Cracker Barrel.

And I was torn. These children were clearly raising themselves through near-total neglect. They were not getting any education. I thought long and hard about calling the Department of Social Services to report at the very least that the kids were not going to school. But I was afraid. And was it any of my busi­ness?

My partner warned me not to call. I mean, if we caused trouble for this family by calling the au­thorities, who knew what kind of trouble might visit us during the night in revenge? Again I wished for a big tall fence. I thought that if I couldn’t see the prob­lem over the border, maybe it would go away.

But I couldn’t leave it; I had to help the chil­dren. I did call Social Services. Eighteen months later, the kind and weary lady who came to my doorstep told me that they’d been searching for the children for quite some time.

Not long after the social worker visit, the girl­friend and the children moved away. Elaine told me herself that the family was living in a local motel again, that the authorities had found them and threat­ened to put the kids into foster care. No one ever came to retaliate against us.

So, I stepped over my property border to inter­fere. Thought I was doing a good deed: reporting that the children were not being taken care of. And in the end, the children lost the steady home they’d had for two years. I still wonder if a fence would have been the right idea. If I’d had a fence, I might have left it alone; their problems wouldn’t have floated over to me.

Growing up, I always thought I’d want to get to know my neighbors. When I was a kid, neighbors brought you banana bread and box cutters when you moved into a new house. They helped you clear branches and you bought their kids’ Girl Scout cook­ies. Now I am wary.

I see fences and because I have been afraid about neighbors, I think “yes, smart idea.” I wonder about my neighbors, if they will visit fear upon me in the night. I hesitate to reach across the property line, my safety border. And yet, I still wonder. What will I do if I have another neighbor situation? What if the perception I hold about my neighbors does not have all of the information? What if the action I take out­side of my own borders causes more damage than good? Should I reinforce my borders and forget what’s on the other side?

What if the neighbor was another country? What would I think if someone were digging a tunnel under my house? Would it matter to me if the tunnel was being used for both drug-running and for emi­grants fleeing danger? Could I differentiate between the two? Would I ban the emigrants because of my fear of the drug-runners? Would I look at everyone like they were a drug-runner? Wouldn’t it simply be easier to build a big tall fence and stop everyone from crossing the border? I don’t have an easy answer. What I know simply is that it isn’t easy to cross the border in either direction in spite of fear, nor is it al­ways right.