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My Dear Friends,

We live in an era of hatred and intolerance directed against those who do not conform to an increasingly archaic set of “norms” – White, cisgender, male, ethnically and economically privileged. This hatred is stoked by those who would elevate their own power at the expense of another human being’s dignity.
Anti-Transgender “bathroom bills” and the incredibly cruel announcement from President Trump (which could potentially start a purge from the military of well over 5000 openly transgender troops currently serving our country) serve no legitimate purpose. They protect nobody, save nothing, accomplish nothing beyond the undermining of our national security, credibility and moral authority. They exist entirely to bolster the status of politicians who view bigotry as a convenient path to power.
It is an old story, and an intolerable one. It is the story of Dixiecrats, the “Southern Strategy,” “Defense of Marriage” acts, anti-immigrant racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, continued legal discrimination against the lgbtq community, and much more; the list stretches far too long. Always the method is the same – find a vulnerable group in society, paint them as less deserving of human rights, and therefore less than human, and use them as objects to create societal division. Always the consequences are the same – violence, discord and despair – and in the extreme, genocide.
To my transgender family, friends and neighbors who are suffering today, I give you my support and my solidarity. You have been victimized, not because of who you are, but because of what you are – an easy target. It is wrong on every level, and I pledge myself to your struggle.
I am far from the only one.  I only hope you know, in this moment of suffering, the love that is yours, the support you have, and the determination with which we will continue on behalf of your dignity, your freedom, and your rights.

Please do not be silent. Tell us what you need, and we will listen. We must listen. At stake is the soul of humanity.

In faith,
Rev. Dan Schatz
and human being
photo by Tim Evanson, used with permission
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Pete Seeger once said about Woody Guthrie’s music, “Any damn fool can get complicated. It takes genius to attain simplicity.”

Saro Lynch-Thomason has written a simple song, and it’s genius.

I first heard the young Appalachian folklorist, ballad singer and songwriter last Fall at a Washington, DC area folk music retreat. In a mini-concert which featured a number of traditional and older songs, she ended with one of her own, leading the packed room in harmony.

There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.
There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me,
There are more waters rising,
This I know, this I know,
There are more waters rising,
This I know.

As she led the crowd through verses about fires burning and mountains falling, I began to hear echoes of voices past – Jean Ritchie and others whose deeply rooted music documented the devastation brought by mountaintop removal mining, often falsely referred to as “clean coal technology.”

Then the song took a turn.
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.
I will wade through the waters
When they find their way to me,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know, this I know,
I will wade through the waters,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason had not written a lament, as I originally thought, or even a warning. Hers is a song of resistance and hope. It stayed with me for a long time, and after the election last Fall, the song began to take on new meaning.

I will walk through the fires
When they find their way to me,
I will walk through the fires,
this I know….

When I finally asked Saro if she could send me a recording of her song, she did one better, creating a video for everyone to share. I thought of this song when I marched through the streets of Philadelphia the day after Inauguration, with my child beside me holding a sign that read: “March today and work everyday for justice, equality and compassion.” I remembered its words when airports filled with demonstrators, and immigration lawyers became the new heroes of the age. I heard its melody as I worked with my Unitarian Universalist congregation to reach out to immigrant communities made vulnerable by the government’s actions. Its echoes came to me as I watched the fires burn at Standing Rock. I sing it again today as we face the very real impacts of climate denial and environmental policies that place profit over responsibility.

We are all walking through fire.

There will be damage, it’s true. Many of us are learning what the people of Appalachia have known for decades – that we can’t stop all the harm done by those who act without regard for the land, the water and the people. It would be easy – too easy – to fall to hopelessness. But there is another lesson here – when the people stand strong, holding on to what is important, we can begin to repair what has been broken. We begin to make a difference simply by letting our voices be heard, and we are only beginning.

I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know, this I know,
I will rebuild the mountains,
This I know.

Saro Lynch-Thomason’s song ends as it begins –

There are more waters rising –
They will find their way to me….

– but somehow, having crossed waters and fires and rebuilt mountains, these words no longer feel like a cry of despair. Instead they are a call for resistance and resilience, an affirmation of what is possible when communities from across a country and a world come together in support of human decency. This we can and will do, although the task will be difficult. It always has been, but we will wade through these waters. We will walk through these fires. We will rebuild these mountains.

There are more waters rising!

This I know.

(This article has also been posted at The Huffington Post.)

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George Stephens, Lisa Null, Saul Brody, Brendan Phillips, Terry Leonino, Duncan Phillips, Greg Artzner, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer "Singing Through the Hard Times"

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Dan Schatz, Saul Broudy, Brendan Phillips, Duncan Phillips, Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer “Singing Through the Hard Times” in 2010

When I was a very small child and I needed comfort for whatever reason, sometimes my mother would sit up on her bed and take out her guitar. I would sit beside her and she would sing to me. It didn’t really matter what the song was; I sang with her, and we would make music together. It was closeness and connection, a reminder that not everything had to be hard. There was goodness to be found.

Recently many of us have needed that kind of comfort. The rise of open race hatred, misogyny and religious intolerance in the United States and elsewhere is terrifying. For many it has been a wake up call, bringing new clarity to the work we have before us. There are entire communities at risk, and it is up to each and all of us to be allies to these communities and to one another.  There are principles of human rights, human dignity, and respect for the environment which will need defending.

But it can be hard to get started in that work when the weight of it seems so heavy. After all, the usual day to day events of our lives go on – school, work, getting ready for the holidays, and everything else that fills our attention.  When we combine all of these things with the national mood, it becomes easy to get depressed or defeated, or to turn our attention entirely away from the need that seems so much greater than our ability to help.

That’s where the singing comes in. Several years back, when I was producing a CD to honor the folksinger Utah Phillips, I learned a relatively unknown song of his called “Singing Through the Hard Times,” which eventually became the title of our album. “We are singing through the hard times,” he wrote, “working for the good times to come.” These were exactly the kinds of times he was thinking about when he came up with this verse:

And when the war clouds gather, it’s so easy to get angry
And just as hard not to be afraid.
But you know in your own heart, no matter what happens
You just can’t turn your back and walk away.  

Our “singing through the hard times” may take any number of forms; it doesn’t need to be musical. We might share food, do art, or enjoy conversations with people we love. We might come together in congregations, gatherings or holiday celebrations. Whatever it is that we do, it will be important to keep our spirits whole and strengthen our hearts as well as our communities for the work ahead of us.

Then we do the work.  Bringing “the good times” will take the dedicated effort of a great many people, and we know it won’t be easy. It will be up to all of us together to protect those who are unsafe, speak up for those whose voices are taken away, rebuild broken relationships and begin to create new and stronger ones with all kinds of people. That’s our task, and as daunting as it is, others have done this work before, and successfully. Now it is our turn.

So hand in hand together, we help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it and walk and talk and give it
The world of peace won’t be so far away.

Sing through the hard times. Work for the good times to come.

“Singing Through the Hard Times,” from the Righteous Babe CD, with footage from U. Utah Phillips

 

 

 

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Election Day this year has been a long time coming. It’s as late as it can be in November, and this year it feels even later than that.  A great many of us are ready for this to be over.

As a minister serving a congregation, I always feel torn during elections.  There’s a delicate balancing act involved in speaking our values with all the passion that is their due without crossing the line into electioneering.  When we feel passionately about a candidate, and when that passion arises in part from religious conviction, it can be hard to set the work of the campaign apart from the work of the congregation.  I find myself speaking passionately from the pulpit about social justice and encouraging members to vote and help others vote in any way we can, while carefully maintaining the spirit as well as the letter of the law.

But elections like this one are difficult in another, more subtle way.  During especially divisive campaigns, we sometimes find ourselves wondering about our most treasured values.  Candidates may say and do things we find morally reprehensible, and supporters of one side or the other may do some things we consider even worse. Unitarian Universalists like myself affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, but we sometimes find it tough to concede the worth and dignity of candidates we vehemently oppose.  We speak of the right of conscience and of acceptance of one another, but may find it hard to be accepting of family, neighbors and frends who see things very differently than we do.  Other religions face similar dilemmas, perhaps viewing all people as children of a living God, while finding it difficult to acknowledge the divine spirit within those whose words or actions cause harm to others.  Those without any religious affiliation deal with the same issue, as all people do whenever our deeply held values come into tension with one another.  Language and beliefs vary, but the challenge is remarkably constant.

No matter who wins this election, on November 9 we will all have work to do.  Issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, economic and environmental justice will still need to be addressed, along with many others.  We will have work ahead of us to rebuild the respectful community that has been damaged by the rhetoric of such a harsh campaign, and to create a new and better society that honors diversity.  This, as much as anything else, is the work of my faith and many others.

My prayer and my wish is that we enter this task with compassion and open hands, creating connections and
building bridges among people of every political stripe.  Despite our political differences, we and our neighbors have far more in common than divides us – love for family and friends, simple human compassion and kindness, the realities of human suffering and frailty, the experience of awe at the beauty of Autumn.  May we nurture our connections with every kind of person, so that we truly learn to live the spirit of love, this year and every year.

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When conservative activist Marco Gutierrez warned about the consequences of a loss for his side in November – “taco trucks on every corner” – the internet rejoiced. “I’m not seeing a downside here,” any number of people commented. A friend pointed out that panang curry trucks would be nice too, and it would be awfully helpful to have easy access to some good shwarma and tabouli, along with a real New York bagel.

Our conversations about immigration in the United States have tended to center around fear. It is, after all, normal to be afraid of what we don’t know or understand. The problem is that when we hold our debate on these terms – one side expressing anxiety, the other reassuring – we miss the real benefits cultural diversity brings.

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I live in a world defined by differences. My faith is rooted in the idea that we are stronger when we’re surrounded by people of many backgrounds, beliefs, ethnicities, abilities, cultures, gender identities and sexual orientations. Each week I preach the value of a community of diversity, in which all of us deepen through our connections with people who don’t see the world as we do, or have different life experiences, or bring different gifts and perspectives. Each week we remind one another that we grow when we interact meaningfully with people who are different from us.

This isn’t just a religious idea. It is the best of what America can be – a country in which we learn from differences, honoring the unique cultures which have come together to make our diverse society. Every culture has value. In my America the cultures of the West Virginia hollers, North Philadelphia neighborhoods and Latino communities of South Texas each form an essential part of a rich whole. In my America we embrace not only the food and the music of every culture, but also the wisdom.

I believe in an America in which we don’t just tolerate differences – we celebrate them.

Yes, America needs more taco trucks. We also need more Asian festivals, more pow-wows, more African American poetry, more old time fiddle music, hip hop and banghra, more mosques and temples and gurdwaras, more Humanist societies, more diverse churches of every stripe. We need more libraries filled with books by every kind of author. We need real community shared with thoughtful neighbors of every political persuasion. We have moved beyond the old idea of a melting pot, in which each of our cultures loses its distinctiveness; instead we are a tapestry, woven together by our connections and conversations. We are better when we are not all the same.

Politics aside, I think the United States is moving in this direction. It is the inevitable product of a world in which communication across cultures has become the norm. That world may be frightening, sometimes – the unfamiliar often is – but if we embrace its promise, there is no end to the wonders and wisdom that await.

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IMG_2222 2Easter was a challenge this year, for all sorts of reasons.  It’s not the easiest holiday for most Unitarian Universalists to begin with – the majority of us do not identify as Christians, and those who do generally emphasize the teachings of the human Jesus of Nazareth over stories of a physically risen Christ.  Yet it’s also important, because the metaphor of resurrection – in spirit if not in body – is powerful when the spirit within us seems to have died.  The day is a reminder of hope and promise, despite every difficulty.

This year, looking out at the world, the difficulties are obvious and hope has seemed especially hard to find.  It’s difficult not to feel hopeless and helpless when so many of the loudest voices in society respond to terrorist violence by further victimizing the refugees whose lives have been most damaged and remain most in danger.  It’s hard not to feel lost when we hear the bitter words of White supremacy echoing openly once more in our own country.  We feel heartbroken when states pass laws banning the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human beings, and offer cash rewards for turning them in, like Judas and his thirty pieces of silver.

I said all of this in my message on Sunday – but I noted that we continue on regardless, just as people did two thousand years ago, and just as people everywhere have always done.  Sometimes, the work that needs doing outweighs the grief, and sometimes in the process of doing it despite it all we start to realize that the beauty and joy still in the world are just as real as any hardship and suffering.  We find hope and renewal by becoming it.

I finished the service with a prayer, which I give to you in somewhat modified form.  It was written as an Easter prayer, but it needn’t be.  Hope and renewal need never be limited to one day or time of year.

~

A Prayer of Hope in a Time of Terror

God of many names and no name,
Spirit of hope and possibility,
ever growing and changing,
reborn each moment
with the turning of the world –

We have seen too many sorrows.

With the people of Brussels we have wept,
as we have wept with Ankara, Turkey,
Maiduguri, Nigeria,
Baghdad,
Paris,
San Bernardino, California,
the nation of Syria,
and so many others,
and as we weep today with the people of Lahore, Pakistan.
Our hearts cry out with all whose lives have been taken and torn.

We know that as war begets war,
hate begets hate
and fear becomes anger.
We are too tempted to respond
to the brokenness of the world
by fracturing it further.

In this, our season of rebirth,
may we meet death
with affirmations of life,
finding hope through destruction
as we give ourselves to the world’s renewal.

Today, we embrace the redemption of love
and begin the work of healing.

This we pray:
Let us become the resurrection.

Amen.

– Rev. Dan Schatz
March 27, 2016

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school-926213_1920During his victory speech following the Nevada caucuses, Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump raised eyebrows and chuckles when he recounted the groups which had voted in his favor.  “We won with poorly educated,” he said.  “I love the poorly educated.”  Within twenty minutes, television pundits had picked up on this.  References started appearing on social media.  Even National Public Radio got in on the joke.

Finding humor in a candidate appearing proud of supporters’ lack of education might be understandable, but the reaction also exposed something ugly in our society.  This laughter wasn’t really directed at the candidate; it was directed at the people, revealing a grain of truth behind stereotypes of liberal intellectual elites as snobs who don’t care about ordinary folks.

Our culture conflates formal education with human worth far too often.  Degrees, especially from elite universities, become symbols of status and privilege, while people labeled “poorly educated” become targets for derision. Many fall into the trap of assuming that all education takes place in schools, or become condescending to people they believe to be “less educated.” Formal education gets confused with intelligence, leading to a worldview in which people become problems to be solved or burdens to be dealt with rather than human beings who deserve respect. However unintentional such disregard is, its effects are real, lasting, and harmful.  Whatever our political leanings, we can and should be better than this.

Of course, it is one thing to talk about love and another to show it.  A politician’s highest expression of esteem becomes patronizing and cynical when it isn’t backed up with policy. Real love requires action.

In policy terms, love in action means giving all working people a living wage, so that the kinds of jobs typically taken by people with less schooling don’t result in a lifetime of poverty. It means funding public schools fairly, so that less affluent communities aren’t victimized by generations of educational neglect. Love means increasing access to college, but it also means honoring the needs and accomplishments of those who follow other paths.

On a personal level, love means treating all people with equal regard, whatever our education and theirs. It means finding the courage to connect as equals across educational lines, gaining wisdom and insight from all kinds of life experiences. Love means letting go of the assumptions and stereotypes our culture too often promotes, along with all remnants of condescension and judgment. Love means being able to value education without undervaluing any group of people. At its most basic, love means eye contact.

We should all love one another, whatever our respective levels of education, and our love should lead us to work for a more just and equitable society.  If that can happen, we will have taken a step closer to creating the genuine community our world needs.  Perhaps the “better educated” among us might even learn a thing or two.

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