Soul Advocacy

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Spiritual writer and medical doctor, Rachel Naomi Remen,[1] once pointed out that “in [our] culture the soul … too often goes homeless.” Her solution to this condition is listening. ‘Listening,” she says, “creates holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”[2] The remedy to the soul’s homelessness is listening.

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Most of you have heard by now that we finally, and very thankfully, have a report in response to the congregational survey we conducted a year ago. Our Growth Strategy Team is working hard at producing a summary to share with you. There are copies of the full, 323-page report in our office if anyone would like to read it in its entirety. As I was studying the report this summer I noticed a set of comments about social and environmental justice advocacy. We have a strong identity as a congregation that engages in social and environmental justice advocacy: Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, sanctuary, domestic worker rights, environmental racism, renewable energy, climate change. We’ve recently established a partnership with the Verplanck Elementary School in Manchester which may, in time, involve different forms of advocacy in solidarity with the students and their families. We’re currently signing people up to attend the October 28th launch of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance. Participation in that organization, in time, will involve advocacy. Not every UUS:E member is involved in these activities, but these activities do shape the identity of the congregation.

The comments I’m referring to were asking, essentially, “is that kind of advocacy the essence of who we are?” “Does that kind of advocacy provide a sufficient or sustainable foundation for the identity of a congregation?” Or more bluntly, “what about our own congregational community? What about our needs right here?” And even more bluntly, “what if I disagree? Is it OK to say that?” I don’t read these comments as assertions that progressive churches should not be acting on their principles in the public sphere. I read these comments as asking, simply and forthrightly, that we not forget the other reasons we gather on Sunday mornings. We gather in worship to hold up and celebrate all that is worthy of our attention, time, energy and commitment.[3] We gather to be in multigenerational community, wherein our children learn from adults, and our adults from children. We gather to be held in our grief and affirmed in our joy. We gather to celebrate our milestones. We gather for our own and our collective spiritual growth and deepening. We gather because in our larger culture the soul too often goes homeless; and here, we hope, the soul finds a home. If we somehow forget these reasons for gathering, if we do not tend well to this soul homelessness, then our social and environmental justice advocacy will be ultimately ineffectual.

One way to describe what we do here on Sunday morning and throughout the week is “soul advocacy.” Our social and environmental justice advocacy beyond the walls of our meeting house must be grounded in, and is thus dependent on, the soul advocacy that happens within the walls of our meeting house.

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Soul advocacy. This term came to me as I was contemplating the survey report this summer. However, I was sure it is not unique to me. I googled it. Sure enough, it’s pretty common. People who use it fall into two categories: new-age-self-help gurus and Christian motivational speakers. In either case, nobody ever explains what the soul actually is. People use the word ‘soul’ all the time, and just assume that the rest of us know what they’re talking about. Yet, if there’s one thing I know about Unitarian Universalists, it’s that the minister can’t use traditional religious terms—especially terms as ambiguous and mushy as ‘soul’—and expect a group of UUs not to wonder what they mean. So I want to spend a little time on what I mean by ‘soul’ right now.

Soul isn’t a clear Biblical concept. Neither the Hebrew nor the Christian scriptures offer a well-developed conception of the soul. In the western world, soul is a classical Greek idea, the  Platonic idea of an indestructible, immortal entity that is part of us, though it seeks liberation from the physical body. It seeks to return to the source, the One, or God. It wasn’t until the European Middle Ages that Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas successfully synchronized the ancient Greek ideas with Christian thought. Even then, and certainly today, Christianity has never spoken with one voice on what the soul is. Catholics and Protestants have differed. Liberal and Conservative Christians have differed.[4] Aquinas lived at almost exactly the same time as the Sufi poet and mystic, Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, who is well-known for his beautiful meditations on the soul. My sense is that, similar to Christianity, there have been ongoing discussions of the soul in Islamic philosophy over the centuries as well. And there are similar, longstanding dialogues within Eastern religious traditions.

These have largely been dialogues among theologians and scholars. What has filtered down into popular western culture is an understanding of the soul as an entity that resides within us, has something to do with who we are—our personality—and lives on in some way after our physical bodies die. Popular culture is filled with references to this understanding of soul. Some of you may be familiar with the Netflix show “The Good Place,” a thoughtful, hilarious meditation on the afterlife and how one’s soul enters the good place, or not. I’m also thinking of the Saturday morning cartoon trope in which a character predictably dies in some spectacular way, and then a whispy, ethereal version of them leaves the crumpled, physical body and floats upwards, sometimes all the way to Heaven where it encounters a version of St. Peter at the pearly gates. Sometimes the direction is downward to a much less benign fate. (For those of a certain age I’m thinking of the misfortunes of Wile E. Coyote, but I see it in today’s cartoons as well.) (I’m also thinking of the Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.) That whispy, ethereal version of the character is the cartoon representation of the soul.

This is, indeed, a popular culture conception of what the soul is and what happens to it after death. And certainly there are religious people who believe that the goal of the religious life—and the goal of soul advocacy—is to ensure that whispy ethereal version of us achieves eternal life in Heaven.

But that isn’t at all what I mean by the soul. It isn’t what Rachel Naomi Remen and other modern spiritual writers mean. It isn’t what the new-age-self-help gurus mean. And it isn’t what many Christian, Jewish and Muslim theologians and philosophers mean. For me it’s important to bring the soul down to earth, to ground it, to advocate not for its other-worldly, eternal status, but rather for its health, well-being and visibility in this life.

In a sermon I preached about five years ago, I said “Imagine we’re having a conversation and you’re telling me about something for which you have great passion, something that makes you come alive, something so important to you that you can’t let it go; you’re going to pursue it, you’re going to wrap your life around it. When I see your eyes light up at the prospect of your life so dedicated; when I hear the enthusiasm and the strength in your voice when you speak about it; when I perceive it living very naturally in your body; when I sense the energy you gain from contemplating what your life could be—that glow, that excitement, that conviction, that power—that’s your soul. It’s not a thing. It’s a quality in us. It shines through when we’re being authentic, telling the truth, pursuing our passions. It’s never complacent or static…. It is restless. And if we open ourselves to it, it will push, prod, call us further along, higher up, deeper into…. fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness.[5] The soul is that part of you that is most uniquely you and without which you would not be you.

When Dr. Remen says “in our culture the soul … too often goes homeless,” I hear her saying that this quality in us, this best self, this true self, this passionate self, this source of our creativity and our desire for wholeness—that’s what goes homeless. That’s what too easily gets shut down, overlooked, cut-off, silenced, ignored, or forgotten through the course of a normally busy, a lonely, isolated day, or a technology-saturated day. That’s what becomes an afterthought in the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of anxiety, stress and fear, in the midst anticipated crisis or actual crisis. And that’s the soul we advocate for here, when we gather in this place.

How do we do that? Soul advocacy begins with listening. Dr. Remen says  “the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it…. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”[6] Of course, the word ‘advocacy’ often assumes taking an action, marshalling resources, speaking truth to power, fighting for rights, fighting for justice. There’s an underlying assertiveness to it, and underlying aggressiveness. Soul advocacy is different. ‘Passive’ isn’t quite the right word, but it may look like passivity, because the one doing soul advocacy is quiet, open, attentive, listening. The one doing soul advocacy creates space, and offers into that space a welcoming, inviting, curious attitude. “You speak (or draw, dance, sing, cry). The soul advocate holds what you communicate with care and tenderness.”

Soul advocacy is as simple as that. Listening, focusing, caring, being present, staying with. Our willingness to listen invites the speaker’s soul to come forward from wherever it is hiding. Our willingness to listen creates space for the speaker’s soul to surface, to emerge, to reveal itself not only to us but to the speaker as well. “When you listen generously to people,” says Dr. Remen, “they can hear truths in themselves, often for the first time.” Our willingness to listen not only to the usual pleasantries, the small talk, the weather, but also to the desires, the yearnings, the longings, the passions, as well as the struggles, the challenges, the pain and the painstaking movement through it—that is soul advocacy. Where do we really get to proclaim this part of our selves, let alone openly wrestle with it? Where do people deeply listen to us? Hopefully our families and close friends create such spaces for us, though this is not the case for everyone. Does your soul get to come out at work? Maybe, if it’s a very special work place. School? Maybe. If it’s a very special school. I’m sure there are places many of you can name where your soul does not feel hidden or homeless. But certainly religious community ought to be one of those places where soul advocacy happens regularly.

We share joys and concerns publicly as part of our Sunday morning worship. It’s an opportunity for people to speak from their depths. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

Most of our committee meetings begin with some form of check-in. This, too, is an opportunity to speak from the depths for those who choose to do so. The rest of us listen. That’s soul advocacy.

In our small group ministries, our spiritual affinity groups, our religious education classes, during pastoral visits, memorial services, and when we welcome new members into the congregation—there are opportunities to speak from our depths. The rest of us listen. That’s  soul advocacy. When the listening creates a space for the speaker to begin to shine, to glow, to sing; when it creates a space for the speaker to confidently share from a place of vulnerability or pain; when it creates a space for the soul to come home, then our soul advocacy is successfull.

Is it always successful? Do we always get it right? No. We don’t. I know there are times when I’ve left a meeting and realized later that someone offered a sharing of great depth to which I wasn’t fully attentive. We don’t always listen well. We don’t always listen skillfully. We don’t always succeed in our soul advocacy. I suspect that is, at least to some degree, the reason why some survey respondents raised concerns about social and environmental justice advocacy. If a person is living with soul homelessness, it makes sense that they would raise questions about where our collective focus is, where our attention is. So I’m reminding us: our act of listening to each isn’t just good manners. It’s spiritual practice. It’s soul advocacy.

Listening, if we’re doing it well, is an inherently relational act. The listener gains as much value as the one they listen to. I love the way Dr. Remen puts it: “In the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.” That is the kind of spiritual foundation soul advocacy creates in a congregation. My prayer for us as we enter more fully now into the congregational year is that through our connections to each other, through our listening, through our soul advocacy, we may encounter that singing.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] For information on what Dr. Remen is up to currently, see her website: http://www.rachelremen.com/about/.

[2] Remen, Rachel Naomi, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) p. 220.

[3] Arnason, Wayne, and Rolenz, Kathleen, Worship that Works: Theory and Practice for Unitarian Universalists (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2008).

[4] This brief synopsis is drawn from Harvey, Van A., A Handbook of Theological Terms (New York: Touchstone, 1997) pp. 226-227.

[5] Pawelek, Josh, “For What the Soul Hungers,” a sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, April 14, 2014. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/for-what-the-soul-hungers/.

[6] Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, pp. 143-144.

What Does the World Require of Us?

In the midst of news reports, candle-light vigils, politicians and clergy speaking words of comfort, conversations with loved-ones and with strangers, advice from trauma specialists, lists of what to say to kids in the aftermath of unspeakable violence; in the midst of prayers, hugs, tears, utter shock, disgust, incomprehensibility, feelings of profound sadness, despair, anger, confusion, vulnerability; in the midst of stories of hiding for dear life in closets, stories of heroism, of self-sacrifice, of unfathomable grief, of outrage, of children close your eyes; in the midst of vows of never again and cries of gun control now; in the midst of the rush to transform this unbridled evil into—not a political opportunity, as some are calling it, but a sacred opportunity, a human opportunity —because it’s long past time to curb this American culture of violence; in the midst of all of this, let us pause, let us breathe, let us just be in each other’s presence and recognize how truly precious it is to be together.

We know this. We know it’s precious to join together in community in a world that seems to do everything it can to drive people apart—to alienate, to fragment, to disconnect, to separate. But this Sunday, after an act of such enormous evil just sixty miles from where we gather—this Sunday when we who weren’t even in the line of fire, we who are blessedly removed from the immediate experience of this evil, but we who still nevertheless long to make sense of what happened, long for comfort, solace and healing—this Sunday when congregations thousands of miles away, all across the nation, are remembering the victims of Friday’s massacre in Newtown—this Sunday we realize anew just how precious it is to be together.  I, for one, am reminded of how much I love each of you. How truly precious it is to be together.

The choir originally planned to sing a piece entitled “Tikkun Olam,” which is Hebrew for the practice of repairing the world. It’s a wonderful piece. You will get to hear it—we’ll be singing it next week. But after the Newtown shooting it didn’t feel right to sing this song this morning. In his remarks at the Friday afternoon press conference in Newtown, Governor Malloy said something akin to “it’s too early to speak of rebuilding.” He’s right. We can’t speak of rebuilding before the families of the victims—and we too—have had time to fully accept what has happened. It still feels so unreal, so impossible. There are presents already bought—maybe even wrapped—for some of these deceased children to open on Christmas morning. It’s not time yet to speak of rebuilding. Rebuilding will come. Repairing will come. Healing will come. Forgiveness will come. Peace will come. But it’s not time yet.

Instead the choir sang, “What Does the World Require of You?” This question seems essential to me. In the aftermath of tragedy, what does the world require of us?  That’s the question I want to ponder now. It’s the question I want you to take with you into this week, into the holidays, into the new year. What does the world require of us? There’s a part of me that answers this question with exasperation, exhaustion, despair, cynicism and helplessness. What can I possibly do? The December 14th Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was not only evil, it was absurd, beyond explanation. What is required of us in the face of such violent absurdity? And keep in mind: if it hadn’t happened on Friday, we might have lit candles of concern this morning for the families of the three people who lost their lives on Tuesday when a gunman opened fire in a mall in Happy Valley, OR. And two weeks before that it was two dead in a university classroom in Casper, Wyoming—the shooter happened to be from Vernon. And before that it was seven dead at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; July 20, twelve dead in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater; May 30, five dead in a Seattle, WA cafe; April 7, three dead in Tulsa, Oklahoma; April 2, seven dead in Oakland, CA; February 27, three dead in Chardon, OH. I’ve been studying the lists. They are long. And I’m not even touching on the gang violence that plagues urban neighborhoods across the nation and leaves a trail of asphalt chalk bodies and tattered yellow police tape, a trail of shattered lives, broken families, fractured communities. I’ve been working to address violence in Hartford for six years now in coalition with a number of North Hartford pastors. We’re talented, committed leaders who want deeply—even desperately—to make a difference, but the impact we’ve had is embarrassingly small—inconsequential by most measures. What does the world require of us? Who in the world knows? What can we possibly say to these families who’ve lost children to such absurd violence? How can we even remotely know what they feel? What can we possibly do for them that will make a difference? Who in the world knows?

That’s my exasperated, exhausted, despairing, cynical and helpless answer to the question, “What does the world require of us?” And let me be crystal clear: we all get to have our version of that answer. We all get to cry tears of confusion, vulnerability, hopelessness. We all get to throw up our hands and say I can’t handle this anymore! We all get to feel helpless in the face of evil. We all get to plead with the heavens: what is happening to us? We get to have that response because it is real—an honest, human response to evil.

But we don’t get to have it forever. And not even for long. The truth is we aren’t separate from one another. The truth is we aren’t disconnected from one another.  There may be brokenness; there may be fragmentation; there may be alienation; but in the end we depend on one another—and we never see it so clearly as we do in the wake of tragedy. We need one another, as we said in our opening words.[1] We don’t live alone. We don’t live alone. We live in families. We live in communities. We live in town and cities. We live in states. We live in a nation. We live in a world. And this means there are requirements!

What does living in this world in the aftermath of tragic violence require of us? I have three answers this morning.

Requirement #1. In the wake of tragic violence, after your time of despair, seek to ground yourself. Start breathing again. Be intentional about it. Breathe deeply, slowly, fully. Fill your lungs with oxygen and remind yourself it comes from green plants and algae. Remind yourself this air you breathe is evidence of your connection to the whole of life. Not separation, but connection.  Breathe in, and as you breathe, relax, rest, be still, be quiet, be calm. Breathe in, and as you breathe, reflect, concentrate, contemplate, focus, pray. Then, still breathing, when you feel ready, start to move. Slowy at first. Gently at first: bend, bow, stretch, lengthen, extend, reach. Keep breathing. And then, when you feel ready: walk, roll, run, dance. Then, still breathing, as you feel ready, begin to create. Creative acts are so essential to moving out of despair and finding our ground. Write, compose, sing, speak, play, act, sculpt, craft, paint, draw. Feel yourself slowly coming back to yourself.

If you can, go outside. Touch the ground, the soil, the earth—the beautiful, dark brown earth. Work in the dark, brown earth. Play in the dark, brown earth. Tend it, till it, turn it, plant seeds, nurture what comes forth. Let the dirt get on your hands, under your fingernails, between your toes. Feel yourself coming back to life. Listen for the still small voice. Hear your own truths, your convictions emerging once again. They are there. They’ve never actually left.

The mystic Howard Thurman wrote, “How good it is to center down!”—he’s talking about becoming grounded—“to sit quietly and see oneself pass by! / The streets of our minds seethe with endless traffic; / Our spirits resound with clashings, with noisy silences, / While something deep within hungers for the still moment and the resting lull. / With full intensity we seek, ere the quiet passes, a fresh sense of order in our living; / A direction, a strong sure purpose that will structure our confusion and bring  meaning in our chaos.”[2]  Maybe you can find your grounding quickly. Maybe you’re tying and you can’t quite get there yet. Maybe you need more time. It’s ok. Despair is not easy to overcome. Take your time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. But have hope: your center is there—it’s real. You’ll find it. The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, in the wake of violence, after our time of despair, seek grounding.

Requirement #2. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair now trailing behind you, from a place of groundedness emerging within you, attend—however you can—to suffering. It may not be clear for some time how we can be of service to the families of those who died in the Newtown shooting, especially at a distance. But we can be sure the suffering is extraordinary. We can be sure the suffering will last. We can be sure the suffering will ripple around the state and the nation for years to come. Already I see people on Facebook who know someone who lost a child in the shooting; or who know someone who knows someone who died; or who used to live in that part of the state; or who work in the Newtown schools; or who live in Newtown but whose children attend a different school; or who live one town over; or like Scott and Christine Hapgood, who used to attend here, who asked if we could hold up the name of a friend of theirs,  Laurie Veillette, an EMT who lives in Newtown and was one of the first responders; or like Pat Eaton-Robb—a member here—who’s been in Newtown covering the story for the Associated Press; or like Rev. Jeanne Lloyd—also a UUS:E member—who serves our congregation in Woodbury, two towns over from Newtown, and who will certainly need support as she conducts ministry just a few miles from the site of the shooting. It may not be feasible for us to provide any kind of direct care to the families of the victims, but this suffering, this pain, this trauma will ripple around and around. If and when you encounter it, attend to it. That is, stay present to it. We help alleviate suffering through our presence. Offer a helping hand, a kind word, a hug, a supportive conversation. If and when you encounter it, hold on. Don’t let go. Don’t look away. Don’t turn away. Take time. Make yourself available. Again, stay present.

The doctor-turned-spiritual-writer, 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.”[3] The world requires this of us. In the wake of tragedy, with your despair finally fading behind you, from a place of groundedness, attend however you can to suffering.

Requirement #3. In the wake of tragic violence, having moved beyond despair, having grounded yourself, having attended to suffering, it’s time to engage in the work of repair. It’s time to rebuild what has been destroyed. It’s time to change what isn’t working, to address the sources of suffering—at least those that are within our power to address. And here I want to say a few words about gun control. I don’t believe there is any law or set of laws that can keep us totally safe from the kind of horrific violence we saw in Newtown on Friday. My sense is that if a person is as tormented, confused, angry and violent as this shooter was, and if they become—for whatever reason—driven to commit an act of violence, and they really want to procure a gun, and if they’re persistent, they’ll likely be able to get one regardless of the law. But friends, that is no argument for the United States of America to continue its reckless habits of lax gun control. As I hinted at the beginning of my remarks, working for stricter gun control now is not the politicization of a tragedy; it is a moral imperative whose time is long past due. Changing American guns laws to make ownership more restrictive, to make guns more traceable, to close gun show sale loopholes, to hold dealers accountable when guns they sell are used in crimes, to hold owners accountable when they fail to report when their guns have been stolen, and to limit the kinds of guns people can own (i.e., assault weapons are not necessary for hunting)—all of these changes will save thousands upon thousands of lives. In my view, this is the work of repair emerging from Friday’s tragedy.

 

I suspect the Newtown shooting will change the direction of the conversation about gun control in this country. It’s a tipping point. And it is my hope this morning that people on both sides of the gun control debate can come together and agree on a sensible, sane approach to gun ownership that continues to protect Second Amendment freedoms but makes change substantial enough to stop the madness of American gun violence.

I suppose that sounds naïve. At least there’s a part of me that fears it is. And perhaps in this moment, just 48 hours after the shooting began at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is too soon to talk about repairing what is broken. We aren’t there yet. We’re still trying to get beyond despair to groundedness. But the world requires this of us—after finding our grounding, after attending to suffering, we must work to repair the world.

Some final thoughts: I think it’s possible that on a morning like this morning it all feels like too much. How to find grounding in the midst of despair? It feels like too much. How to bear witness to the suffering inflicted on the people of Newtown, or any suffering we may encounter? It feels like too much? How to engage in the work of repair, especially when we know the immense power of the forces opposing changes in U.S. gun laws? It feels like too much. This brings to mind an excerpt from the Irish writer, Seamus Heanney’s play The Cure at Troy. He writes: “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.” That is, there are reasons to feel down, to feel demoralized, to feel despair. We’re witnessing one 60 miles down the road. And history is filled with them.  “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.”

But Heanney doesn’t succumb. He refuses to learn this lesson. And so should we. He continues: “Once in a lifetime / The longed-for tidal wave / Of justice can rise up, / And hope and history rhyme. / So hope for a great sea-change / on the far side of revenge. / Believe that a further shore / Is reachable from here. / Believe in miracles/ And cures and healing wells.”[4]

Friends, the truth is we are connected—to each other, to the people of Newtown, to all people, to all life. We are connected and therefore world requires certain things of us. In the wake of tragic violence, in the midst of despair, first seek grounding. Then attend to suffering. Then work to repair the world. Why try to meet these requirements? Because a further shore is reachable from here. May we reach it.

Amen. Blessed be.

 


[1] Odell, George E., “We Need One Another,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #468.

[2] Thurman, Howard, “How Good to Center Down!” in Fluker, Walter and Tumber, Catherine, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998) pp. 305-306.

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

[4] Heanney, Seamus, excerpt from The Cure at Troy, in Murray, Joan, ed., Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) pp. 64-65.

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