Unleashing courageous leadership and collective power
to realize a just and loving world.
Last week, clergy responded to a call by Father John Floberg -- a man who has served for 25 years as the supervising priest of the Episcopal churches of Standing Rock in North Dakota-- to come be in "protective witness" with the #WaterProtectors. He expected 100 clergy. Over 500 of us showed up from 20 different faith traditions.
Father John was clear: the actions of the 500 would reflect upon the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, and that our presence and our actions must be in alignment with supporting the #WaterProtectors long after we leave. He expressed, alongside other leaders, a clear request: "that you remain prayerful, peaceful, nonviolent, and lawful."
I slept in the camp the night before the action, watching as mega lights lit construction across the river, as family and community fires burned across the entire camp-- a human settlement of thousands-- and as one sacred fire has burned 24/7 since the camp began. Amplified voices of leaders and visitors sing, pray, and make announcements near that fire as their voices carry over the fog and tell stories of the day before, providing encouragement to the struggle. In the morning, a 70-year-old leader coaxed us awake over the 6AM fog: "Wake up! Wake up! The Black Snake is creeping across the river! Sun Dancers! Pipe carriers, smudge your pipes! Christians, dust off your Bibles! The water is warm, and we are here for a purpose!"
I experienced the camp as a community: kitchens are sprinkled throughout camp that feed anyone and all, structures going up and coming down throughout the days (with more permanent, winter-ready tipis going up now), daily trash pick up and portable toilets. The cost of trash and portables for the camp are $1500 a day-- paid for by the Sioux and donations that are coming to them in support.
In one conversation with an elder at camp, he expressed to me that our presence was a welcome pause in the recent escalation of violence, a chance for the community to regroup. He shared that he hoped we would carry prayers that the community of leaders and protectors maintain their spiritual structure as they are continued to be battered, instigated, and even infiltrated by DAPL security or police forces. Further, as 500 clergy wandered the camp, police presence was minimized for the day-- with fewer helicopters, airplanes, and drones. Some expressed this was a welcome pause in the ongoing assault of the senses and spirit.
I'm sure for others who I didn't speak to, our presence was complicated, if not painful-- particularly as people of faith and as representatives of religions that have undergirded, if not outright orchestrated, native genocide. Alongside the stories I've heard before arriving, I personally experienced the ways white, non-native visitors occupy space at the microphones, or take up resources without return or regard. As white folks, we have so much work to do to call each other in as white people, to unlearn entitlement and domination, and to learn new patterns of relationship. This shows up in the ways we reach for microphones, to the ways we use policies to grab land for profit. This is an urgent task.
Our specific clergy action began with a repudiation of the "Doctrine of Discovery" around the sacred fire by leaders of several different represented faith traditions (who had already repudiated the Doctrine in their own communities). The Doctrine in the original Latin was given to several elders from the community who were present-- it was burned in an abalone shell separate from the sacred fire. Following the burning, each of the 500+ clergy were smudged by local community members as we sang, prayed, and made our way to the bridge where police waited, leading to a couple more hours of music, story, and prayer in a large circle around a couple of burnt cars as helicopters flew overhead.
Standing Rock is not just about a specific place and people in North Dakota-- it is everywhere we are. It demands of us: Where do you come from? Whose land do you occupy, whose land do you call home? Who were your people? And who are your people now? Its personal, its communal, its ecological, its economic, its political, its ancestral, and it is work that requires us to be where we are, now. Be with, now. Be in relation, now.
What is needed at Standing Rock: They need ongoing financial support, advocacy/direct action at local-state-national-corporate levels, and bodies-- especially bodies with offerings for healing, feeding, and the ability to be arrested. They update an extensive list at their website: http://www.ocetisakowincamp.org/donate
What is needed everywhere: knowing whose land we are on, honoring treaties, anti-racism, repatriation of land and resources, funding indigenous-led movements, a move away from entitlement to deep and humble permission, and an actionable awareness and reverence of where the sources of our life come from (our food, water, power, people).
If you are interested in planning an advocacy event or fundraiser in your area or faith community in Southern California and what support, please contact me. I'd be interested in working with you and following the suggested guidelines from the Standing Rock Solidarity Network (http://www.standingrocksolidaritynetwork.org/resource-packet.html).
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A Message from the Executive Director
How is it with your soul?
This is the question the John Wesley, Anglican priest and the founder of Methodism, was known to ask of participants in small reflection groups. And I ask you all tonight because, for me, this has been a hard week. I am carrying the swirling anxiety that has been almost palpably present in our country with me in my body and spirit, as I look toward this incredibly important and totally unprecedented election tomorrow. I am fearful about what the outcomes will mean for me and my children and my beloveds and the generations to come, no matter who wins. I am hopeful that my neighbors and kin will say "yes" to love and interconnectedness and "no" to bigotry and oppression, and that the election results will empower the candidates who best embody those values. I am aware of all the work my communities have been doing to organize for change in a thousand places, from the ballot box to the streets. And I know that no matter what the election results are tomorrow, the moral arc of the universe will still not yet have been bent enough toward justice.
So, beloveds, how is it with your souls?
If your response to that question is anything like mine, I want to invite you to pause as you read this. Take a deep breath, say a prayer, sing a song, light your chalice, feel the force of gravity pulling us all toward the same center -- whatever helps you feel more rooted and less alone.
Now do it again. And again, and again.
And, once you feel that rootedness and connection, hear this:
You are loved beyond belief. You are enough, you are precious, your work and your life matter, and you are not alone. You are part of a "we," a great cloud of witnesses living and dead who have insisted that this beautiful, broken world of ours is a blessing worthy of both deep gratitude and fierce protection. Whatever happens tomorrow, our ancestors and our descendants are beckoning us, compelling us to onward toward greater connection, greater compassion, greater commitment to one another and to the earth. Together, we are resilient and resourceful enough to say "yes" to that call, to make it our life's work in a thousand different ways, knowing that we can do no other than bind ourselves more tightly together, and throw ourselves into the holy work of showing up, again and again, to be part of building that world of which we dream but which we have not yet seen.
If you haven't already, do go vote tomorrow. And outside of the ballot box, please be gentle with yourselves and everyone around you. If you need someone tomorrow to pray or take a few deep breaths with, call me -- seriously. I will take your call (my number is in the signature below), and spend a few minutes with you as we help each other re-ground. It would be lovely to hear from you.
In closing, I leave you with a beautiful poem from MUUSJA Board Member Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer, written for weary souls on this election eve:
(written for the Presidential Election, 2016)
I walk in, as on pilgrimage.
The altar cloths are red, white, and blue
the ushers are the women
who have been running these things
who have been running everything
since before I was born.
I’m handed the ballot
like a scroll
because the questions
seem that important -
ancient and modern
of what my God and country
ask of me:
Who – for commissioner, mayor, president –
who –for district 8, ward 7, school board –
who – will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly?
I make my mark
with at least a shred of hope
that something good will come from this.
And regardless, I remember:
the world won’t be destroyed, entirely, by this;
the world won’t be saved, entirely, by this.
Marking my vote
is like kneeling in prayer
because neither will accomplish
anything right away -
but the purpose of both
is to remind me
of my deepest hope
for the world that I’m trying to help create.
So I rise from prayer,
and turn in my ballot
and remember the who is me,
and us, and we the people -
and again I set to the task that is mine:
justice, mercy, humble service
in my small corner of the world.
In faith and solidarity,
Rev. Ashley Horan, Executive Director
YoUUth SOALS is MUUSJA's social justice leadership program for Unitarian Universalist youth in the Twin Cities. Over the course of six monthly sessions, high school youth are delving deep into activism and organizing, our UU theology, congregational dynamics, and living out our faith as justice-seekers within and beyond our spiritual communities. In this entry, written at the mid-point of our program, Lazlo & Nelson reflect on their experiences and learnings thus far.
Lazlo Zbichorski is a member of the youth group at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi.
Nelson Maroukian is a member of Unity Church - Unitarian's Tower Club for high school youth. Both are high school seniors, and have been serving as the YoUUth SOALS interns, leading their peers in worship, reflection, and action in our monthly sessions.
In what ways have you noticed the program impacting your daily life? Lazlo:
I have noticed being part of this program has given me the opportunity to grow as a leader, I have also noticed being more aware about the social justice infrastructure of my church which has helped me notice where we are thriving and where my church could do a lot more work.
How has this program changed your ways of thinking about social justice within your church community?
Since the beginning of the program I have found myself noticing more about specific events and actions in my congregation. I have also found myself noticing the explicit, implicit and null curriculums both at church and in other public or community spaces.
Nelson: How have you seen yourself grow or change since the beginning of the program?
I have definitely seen myself grow not only within my leadership positions in this program but also taking more initiative within my youth group and school programs. I’ve also noticed feeling much more comfortable talking within groups of people I may not know as well.Lazlo:
What is one of the biggest takeaways from this program that you will incorporate into your life?Nelson: Definitely the leadership and planning skills that I am getting, as well as the perspective and insight that I’m gaining from the lessons and other participants in the program.
What is the biggest lesson you have taken away so far? Lazlo: One of the biggest things that I have taken away from the program was actually our first meeting and talking about social service vs social justice. Then thinking about that during the homework for the most recent session of the program, where we went to see what the church looked like from the eyes of someone going there for the first time, I realized just how much of the “social justice” things on the agenda would lean more towards social service then justice.
“There is a big difference between anti racism and “not racist”. Someone who says they are not racist may not necessarily say anything racist but that does not mean they are fighting against the systematic oppression people of color, especially black people face every day. To be truly against racism you must be anti racist, which means standing up for the rights of the people. ”Lazlo:
Have you started noticing thing about your congregation after the program you might have not noticed before?Nelson:
Yea, the “curriculums” at my church have become more apparent to me since the beginning of the program. I also have started to notice where our church is doing social service versus where we are doing social justice, as well as where we are recognizing that distinction.
What do you hope to get from this program that you have not yet?
I hope to make even more connections and stronger friendships with other UUYouth outside of my congregation.
How has this leadership position helped you grow and change within your daily life?Nelson:
Most clearly through my leadership and planning skills, specifically surrounding social justice work. I hope that I will continue to grow and change as I learn more about the possibilities and particulars of social justice action, organization, and leadership.
In the fall of 2013, the Social Justice committees of both UU congregations in St. Cloud (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and Spirit of Life Church) joined forces to find a joint project that would allow us to live out our UU faith values in our community and contribute to local social change. We conducted a joint social justice survey of both congregations. In November 2013, we held a joint congregational meeting at which we considered three issues that had emerged from the surveys: labeling of GMO products, school bullying, and justice for previously incarcerated people. After discussion, we voted and chose to focus on Justice for Previously Incarcerated People (which intersects with such issues as racial equity, housing and homelessness, and employment discrimination).
Since then we have held monthly meetings, networked with other groups working on the same issue, hosted a joint congregational presentation by Emily Baxter of the “We Are All Criminals” Project in the Twin Cities, examined St. Cloud ordinances that affect landlords and housing applicants, and eventually decided to focus our efforts on housing access for previously incarcerated people.
Most recently we have partnered with the St. Cloud Area Regional Human Rights Commission Working Group on Housing and Homelessness, the St. Cloud Coalition for Homeless Men (which is leading the effort to bring tiny houses to St. Cloud), a local Homeless Concerns group, and Mid-Minnesota legal Aid.
In addition to supporting such initiatives as establishing a Resource Center for the Homeless and bringing Homeless Housing to St. Cloud, we are having conversations with the city about (1) reducing rental fees for landlords willing to rent to those with a criminal record, and (2) amending zoning and square footage ordinances to accommodate tiny houses.
In the last two years we have evolved from starry-eyed, well-intentioned do-gooders with little knowledge about local barriers to housing access, especially for those in re-entry from incarceration, to better informed, more strategic activists with a focused plan of action.
We have been practicing with our light sabers and have been learning to empower ourselves with the Force of our UU faith and values. Just call us the UU Jedi in training!
Nelson Moroukian is one of MUUSJA's two Youth Interns for the 2015-16 YoUUth SOALS program. He is a Senior at St. Paul Central High School, and a member of Unity Church-Unitarian's Tower Club.
I am a Jewish and Unitarian Universalist (a JUU, I like to say). My roots in Judaism run deep; my dad is a Reform rabbi and I grew up in a religious household and community in New Jersey. I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New Jersey two years ago when I was searching for a community of both spiritual connection and real engagement in social justice work. Finding Unitarian Universalism gave depth and substance to my spiritual experience in a community that truly lived out its very global principles of respecting and protecting human dignity and the interconnectedness of all things.
While I have been deeply fulfilled by the connection and support I have felt in UU communities, I have been most impressed with the history and legacy of UU institutions standing up for what is right regardless of whether society was ready for it or not. This inspires me to pursue what I know to be right and true, and makes me proud to be a part of a community of people who share that commitment.
A truth that most of the U.S. is not willing to accept or recognize is that Palestinians endure a brutal occupation that enacts daily violence against civilians, with full approval by the U.S. government. The occupation serves as part of a whole system of racial apartheid (akin to South African apartheid) that devalues Palestinian life and denies basic human rights in nearly aspects of life. Palestinians ask for solidarity and justice, and it falls on so many Americans’ deaf ears. Personally, when I think about what community of faith would lead the call to support Palestinians in their quest for justice, I think hopefully about Unitarian Universalists – because I think if anyone is going to stand up for what is right, it is going to be UUs.
On March 4th, UUs in Minnesota have a unique opportunity to be one of the only organized faith communities to show up for an issue of international justice. In March, the State Board of Investments will consider whether or not to continue investing the state pension fund in Israeli bonds. The Minnesota Break the Bonds campaign has been working for over six years to divest the state from its $10 million dollar investment in Israel bonds in response to the 2005 call from Palestinian civil society for solidarity in their struggle against occupation and racism through boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against the state of Israel until it complies with international law. These bonds expire on June 30, and March 4 is the State Board of Investment’s last opportunity to weigh in on whether or not the state of MN should reinvest in Israel bonds, or say good riddance. Not only do we need more people to show up for March 4, and to sign the petition calling on them not to reinvest, but we need more people of faith to heed the Palestinian call for solidarity and human rights.
Presently, I have the privilege to work for a national organization called Jewish Voice for Peace as their new Midwest Regional Organizer. I welcome the opportunity to connect with more UUs who support justice in Israel/Palestine. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
I also encourage UUs to connect with the growing Twin Cities chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace by coming to our house party on March 1.
Please consider signing the MN Break the Bonds petition telling the State Board of Investments not to invest in Israeli bonds, and send it to your friends and colleagues to sign as well.
Onwards towards justice…
-Sherri Knuth, MUUSJA Board of Directors & Member of Unity Church-Unitarian