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Black Lives Matter

Michael Brown May 20, 1996 – August 9, 2014

Black lives matter.

In August, police in Ferguson, Missouri gunned down Michael Brown, an unarmed African American man.  Last night the officer who killed him was held blameless.  This happens all the time.  Last Saturday, police killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy in a Cleveland playground playing with a toy gun.  Thursday it was Akai Gurley in Brooklyn.  A year ago it was Trayvon Martin, shot to death by a vigilante in Sanford, Florida.  Every one of them died senselessly.

Black lives matter.  My colleague, Unitarian Universalist minister Christina Leone Tracy, writes: “Black lives matter.  Yes, all lives matter.  But our society has forgotten, or never really learned, the value of black lives.”

I am White.  I have never had to worry that I was in danger during a traffic stop.  I have never been followed by security in a department store.  I have never been afraid that if I walked down the wrong street I could be targeted by law enforcement or vigilantes.  Nobody has ever had to be told that my life matters.

Prior to the Grand Jury ruling in Ferguson, Michael Brown’s father made a statement in which he said, “No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain.  I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone.”

Sign outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Warrington, Pennsylvania

Sign outside the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Warrington, Pennsylvania

Such change will not come easily.  Bringing it about will mean speaking hard truths about racism, recognizing the disparity that remains between the races within the criminal justice system.  It will mean acknowledging the existence of White privilege, even when many White people do not feel privileged.  It will mean working through our collective shame, so that we can talk openly about the history and culture of racial injustice.  It will mean good people having to face aspects of themselves and their communities which they do not want to admit.  Black lives matter.  If we as a nation ever want to live this truth, then we have work to do.

A member of my congregation recently remarked that justice is a process, not an outcome.  To this I would add the words of an African Methodist Episcopal minister I used to work with – “In my Bible, it doesn’t say ‘get justice.’  It says ‘do justice.'”

The good news is that we have begun the process of doing justice.  After centuries of killings which have passed without consequence in the public sphere, large numbers are at last taking notice and speaking up.  Some people won’t want to hear about it, because many of us had liked to think we’d already moved beyond this kind of thing – but we will not be silent any longer.  May we have the courage and perseverance to keep talking, keep telling the truth, keep advocating, keep organizing and keep voting.

Michael Brown’s father asked that his son’s death not be in vain, that it lead to incredible, positive change.  This is my prayer – because Black lives matter.

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International

Love the World Anyway

Before the election, I made a personal promise to avoid immersing myself in the results.  This does not come easily for me – not only am I passionate about the causes I believe in, but I’m also a political junkie, born and raised in the Washington DC suburbs.  I follow every horse race and analyze the moves; if any networks would like to bring me on as an occasional commentator, I believe I’d be good at the job.  I’ll even get myself a pair of analo-glasses.

But, given my stands on the issues, I knew I’d probably be mostly depressed by the results of last night’s election, so I told myself I would stay away from the news.

Thus far, I have done a rotten job.  All right, I didn’t watch cable TV, but I did stay up way too late checking results as they came in, dying just a little inside with almost every race.   As a result, I’ve been depressed, impatient, and generally grumpy.  On Tuesday evening I caught myself snapping at people, and the results hadn’t even come in yet.  I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor – Tom Paxton’s Lament for a Lost Election has helped there (warning: not safe for work or children) – but when you’ve worked hard for something and cared deeply about it, it’s not that easy to just let go and accept that sometimes you lose.  Utah Phillips taught us to sing through the hard times and work for the good times to come, but he never said it would be easy.

As we navigate whatever emotional waters are for us tied up in current events, we need to remember that important as these events are, they are not all that is.  Ours is still a world of wonder and beauty no less than hardship and tragedy.  Remind yourself of the beauty.  Let it feed you.  If your soul is dry and parched, return to the well that nourishes you and drink deeply.

Go look at some art.   Listen to good music.  Sing.  Laugh.  Spend time with a child.  Read poetry.  Immerse yourself in spirit-filling prose.  Have lunch with a friend.  Walk into the November air and find the tree that has not yet lost quite all its leaves, but still shines in glory.  Discover the Autumn crocus and carry its image in your heart.  Replenish yourself, and greet the coming snows with gratitude.

There will be a time for the struggle; it has not gone away.  There will be a time to dedicate our energies once again to campaign for what we believe in.  Our work in that time will be far more effective if we come to it as whole people, spirits strengthened by the goodness around us.

Sometimes, the world can be hard.  Love it anyway.

Autumn crocus

My heart is rejoicing as marriage equality finally comes to Pennsylvania!  On the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship website, I published the following statement:

Special Statement on Pennsylvania Marriage Equality
May 20, 2014

This afternoon a Federal court declared Pennsylvania’s ban on same sex marriage unconstitutional. In so doing, Judge John E. Jones III wrote, “We are a better people than what these laws represent, and it is time to discard them into the ash heap of history.”

Unitarian Universalists have long supported equal rights and equal protection for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has a long tradition of celebrating same sex marriages, and we now look forward to the opportunity to perform these marriages legally in our own sanctuary. For us, this is a matter of deep conscience and religious freedom, and we are proud to have been part of the movement that has led to this moment.

We also recognize that our work is not finished. Aside from possible appeals of this ruling, Pennsylvania’s laws continue to allow housing and workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity. Legally married citizens of Pennsylvania could still lose their livelihoods for the act of putting wedding pictures on their desks. We urge the Governor to drop all appeals to the marriage equality ruling and the Pennsylvania House and Senate to quickly pass HB and SB 300, guaranteeing protection from discrimination. Further, we look to the day when marriage equality will be enshrined nationally as the law of the land.

Today has been a powerful day for justice; there will be more such days to come. In the meantime, moved by love, we continue to work for justice and compassion, celebrate diversity, and honor the worth and dignity of all people.

In faith,
Reverend Daniel S. Schatz,
Minister, BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

To paraphrase Dr. King, “Justice anywhere is an aid to justice everywhere.”  Today’s ruling makes the lives of all Pennsylvanians and all people everywhere better.

pride-flag-feature

This morning I read an eloquent and powerful article on Cinco de Mayo by Sudie Hoffman at the Zinn Educational Project.  In this must-read blog post, Hoffman correctly names the damaging ethnic stereotypes embodied in the commercial appropriation of this day as it is celebrated in the United States.

I remember discussing Cinco de Mayo in a Mexican Studies class at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute of Latin America Studies, back in 1992 when I was a student there.  Henry Selby, then the Director of the Mexican Center, went over the history of the holiday – the 1862 Mexican victory in a battle with France, which delayed (but did not prevent) the French march into Mexico City.  The details of this battle are still celebrated in the state of Puebla, but largely ignored in the rest of the country.  “Now why, ” he asked, “would a minor military victory become a national holiday?”

The answer lies in the name of one of the principal Mexican officers in that battle – General Porfirio Díaz.  The elevation of Cinco de Mayo was an essential part of his political rise to power, and fourteen years later, Díaz seized control of Mexico, beginning the Porfiriato – a brutal thirty-five year rule that ended only with the Mexican Revolution.  Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that relatively few actual Mexicans pay much attention to the day.

Cinco de Mayo in the United States recalls none of this.  Instead, people here drink large amounts of beer, wear fake sombreros, eat North American versions of Mexican food that would never be served in most of Mexico, and imagine they are celebrating “Mexican Culture.”

Why do we do this?  Why do good, thoughtful people who would never think to celebrate African American culture with fried chicken, watermelons, and Sambo figurines nevertheless feel it perfectly appropriate to “honor” Mexico with racist stereotypes?

I don’t have an answer to this.  I hate to think people actually believe those stereotypes, but it’s likely many do.  Or maybe they simply don’t stop to think about how hurtful and damaging those kinds of images can be.

On the other hand, there is a reason Cinco de Mayo came to the United States, and it wasn’t to celebrate a dictator.  In the 1960s Chicano activists thought that this day might become a bridge to better understanding and acceptance of Mexican Americans in the United States, and a window to authentic Mexican culture.  It didn’t turn out that way, but there is no reason we cannot return to that initial intent.

If you want to celebrate Mexico on Cinco de Mayo, here are some things you can do:

  • Read up on Mexican history – there are lots of good primers online.
  • If you want Mexican food, try to find a good non-chain Mexican restaurant owned by people actually from Mexico – otherwise look up some authentic recipes online.
  • Read a classic Mexican novel – Pedro Páramo or Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) are readily available in translation – or see the movies.
  • Listen to authentic Mexican music.
  • Set yourself firmly and publicly against racist laws and policies that target Mexicans and other Latino people.
  • Learn about Mexican Americans in the United States.
  • Support organizations that work for immigrant justice.
  • Consider celebrating 16 de Septiembre – Mexican Independence Day – instead.

What ever you do, think about what you are doing and leave the racist stereotypes behind.

Here, to give you a taste of the beauty of Mexican culture, is the legendary Mexican group Los Folkloristas, in a 2011 performance on tour in (of all places), Wisconsin.

 

Art and Spirit

Some time ago, I wrote about a watercolor a friend of mine had painted, years past. The painting was of a flower of seemingly infinite hue which seemed to be unfolding continuously. If I had to choose a physical image of divinity, it would be that flower, complete with its utterly appropriate name, “Untitled.” After I wrote about this, I sent a copy to my friend. The painting had sold long ago, but I felt she deserved to know how much her art meant to me.

Last month I received a small package in the mail. In it was a different painting, acrylic this time, and fired with oranges, reds, and yellows, whirling in unending vortex. Where the last piece suggested to me a blossoming out, this one draws me in, suggesting an inner journey that is neither safe nor sedate – but that is unquestionably exciting. On the back was written, “To Dan – Not the original, but I hope you enjoy.” The piece itself was, of course, untitled.

"Unitled," © 2014 by Kate Steere

“Untitled,” © 2014 by Kate Steere

It is easy to let the search for truth and meaning become solely intellectual. Religion and spirituality should make sense – Unitarian Universalists like myself feel especially strongly about this; the use of reason in religion is our special heritage. Still, there is a part of the mind that can only be touched by art – whether it be painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance or theater.   It is part of every culture in the world, and to ignore or neglect it is to miss a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.

Art expresses the inexpressible and teaches the unreachable. At its best it awakens the deep parts of ourselves and reminds us of the unfathomable greatness of being. Whether it fills us with wonder, joy, fear, sorrow or comfort, art carries with it the power to transform.

I’m deeply grateful to my friend for that painting. It helped me look inward and it reminded me to make time to look outward.

I think I’ll go to the museum next weekend.

I wore a lot of buttons in high school, but none of them excited so much comment as the pink triangle.  At the time it was rare for anyone who wasn’t gay, lesbian or bisexual to wear the symbol, and national progress toward justice was slow.  The Supreme Court had just ruled sodomy laws constitutional, and the right to marry was a distant dream.  The AIDS epidemic in the United States was at its deadliest moment, and the enduring image of the time, created by AIDS activists, was a big black poster with a pink triangle and the words “SILENCE = DEATH.”

pinktriangle
The pink triangle itself came from Nazi concentration camps, in which gay men were identified with a pink triangle on their shirts.  Tens of thousands were imprisoned, many were killed, and some were not released even at the war’s end.  (Lesbians were not identified by pink triangles, but many were arrested for “antisocial behavior” and made to wear black triangles in the camps.)  In the 1970s, the triangle began to appear as a symbol of gay pride and a warning of the dangers of oppression.

During the 1990s, the pink triangle began to fade from use.  The rainbow “welcoming flag,” celebrating diversity, appealed to straight allies as well as bisexual, lesbian and transgender people.  It was a less harsh, more positive symbol, a way of saying, “all kinds of people are welcome and valued equally.”  Today the pink triangle seems all but consigned to history.

With the news of draconian anti-gay measures in Russia, Nigeria and Uganda, a new ban on gay sex instituted by the Supreme Court of India, and nouveau Jim Crow laws proposed in Arizona and elsewhere, I wonder if it might be time to bring back the pink triangle.  While the world has made great progress in the struggle for equality, the current backlash is proving powerful and dangerous.  In the United States, measures permitting discrimination on the basis of “religious freedom” will inevitably prove unable to withstand constitutional scrutiny by even the current Supreme Court.  More pernicious are the American religious extremists who have given up on the United States and turned their energies toward countries that offer no such protections, or who have weak governments in need of distraction or scapegoats.  Ironically, both Russia and Uganda have couched oppressive new laws as reactions to colonialism by Western gay culture when the truth is exactly the reverse.

I love the welcoming flag, and fly it proudly – but maybe we need to hold onto the pink triangle as well.  Maybe we need a reminder of the cost of hatred, in real human lives and livelihoods.  Maybe we need to remember that silence really does equal death, and the worst thing we can do is remain silent in the face of oppression.

Our voices matter, and we can save lives.  Sometimes what matters most is a word of encouragement and welcome to a teen just coming out.  Sometimes it’s our support of equal marriage rights, and equal protection in housing and employment.  At other times we need to raise our voices for those around the world whose sexual orientation places them in far more immediate jeopardy.  We can do this not only by campaigning against anti-gay laws, and supporting sanctions towards nations (and states) that pass them, but also by calling to account those who would export hatred.

I pray for a world in which a symbol like the pink triangle is can be a historical curiosity, when people are simply regarded as people, whoever they are and whoever they love.  I believe in my heart that such a world is both possible and likely – but it will take years of work, and history must never be forgotten.

Meanwhile, it’s time to find that old button.

Pete Seeger

When I was growing up, I wanted to be Pete Seeger.  I loved the songs, the harmonies he drew out of people, the banjo he played, the way he brought people together and got them singing.   My mother made me tapes of some of his concert albums, and I listened to them over and over again.  I learned every song.  And when I sang, I used to look up into the air and shout out the high notes, just like he did.  It was a real disappointment to me when my voice changed and I discovered I wasn’t a high tenor.

To be honest, I still want to grow up to be like Pete.  Through the years I have learned as much from him – through music, writings, the example of his life, and the few conversations we shared – as from anyone else I can think of.  Yes, he was a musical genius – I found that out the first time I sat next to him at a People’s Music Network Gathering and heard his impromptu harmonies and counterpoint – but he was also a deeply thoughtful, ethical man who made it his mission to bring people together.  In his courageous testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he said,

I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life.  I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

Pete attached every bit as much importance to a performance for a classroom full of children as he did to one at Carnegie Hall.  He got people singing with each other and listening to each other, and he taught generations of us to do the same.

I won’t pretend that I knew him well.  If the people who have mentored me in music are the children of Pete, I am a grandchild, influenced as much by the music he inspired in others as the songs he performed himself.  In recent years I had the privilege of working with him on some projects, and through that work we shared a few conversations.  Our interactions were almost all over the phone, and I always felt privileged if he called, or if I happened to reach him on a day when he felt like talking.

And oh, what conversations they were.  I used to take notes, which is not something I would normally do – but there was so much wisdom in everything he said that I knew I didn’t want to let it slip away.  He talked about community and the connections people of different cultures were able to make with each other, more and more across the world, and how much hope it gave him for the future.  With typical modesty he never once mentioned that he was a pioneer in making those kinds of connections; I don’t think it even occurred to him.  He said that if the human race survives another hundred years, it will have been the arts that saved us – music, visual art, theater, dance, and especially laughter.  “If we can get the whole world laughing,” he told me, “we can move the world along.”

Pete was a Unitarian Universalist, and I’m sure he is one of the reasons I went into the UU ministry. It wasn’t anything he ever said to me – instead it was the lessons I learned listening to those records and singing his songs.  I learned to care about ordinary people, to value freedom and justice, to work for what is right no matter how daunting it seems, to bring people together, to listen and value the voices of others.  I learned to respect all people, no matter who they are and where they come from.  I learned the value in a story.

Last week, my six year old son came back from school telling me they had talked about Pete Seeger and sung his songs.  He knew some of the songs already, of course, and had often listened to the CD of Pete’s Children’s Concert at Town Hall, or some of the music that Pete helped to influence.  Whatever direction his own life and music take as he grows up, he’ll be part of another generation touched by the musical and spiritual gifts Pete gave to us.  And what a gift that is.

In an interview for BeliefNet a few years ago, Pete was asked if he thought there was an afterlife.  He said,

Well, you might consider this. When Toshi and I had our first child who died when it was only six months old, I was in the army, my father wrote me and said, “I don’t think I could cheer you up in the usual way. But remember this, that something good that has happened can never be made to unhappen.” That’s a nice way of putting it, don’t you think? Something that has happened can never be made to unhappen.

Pete’s life was unquestionably good, and it can never be made to unhappen.  Knowing that brings comfort and tears.  They are good, healing tears, and when they are done, Pete will still be with us – in the ways we sing, the work we do for justice, the care we take of this old brown Earth, and the community we live with one another.

Rest in peace, Pete.  Thank you.

 

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