Thursday, November 26, 2015

Giving thanks with awareness of our collective original sins

Thanksgiving has always been a wonderful break to gather with family and friends, but also a time to clarify what specifically is worthy of celebrating.

I give thanks for the values this nation's founders sought--the freedom for each American to live out his or her most cherished ideals, the opportunity to speak our conscience without fear of reprisal, the separation of church and state, and the protection from individuals and organizations who threaten to violate our basic freedoms. 

But the story of how our nation has lived out these values is deeply checkered. Beginning with the displacement and exploitation of native peoples that has occurred for generations--our Thanksgiving story is a myth that glosses over the treatment of Native Americans.

But that’s not the only original sin of our nation. The institution of slavery that was protected in this nation’s original documents has contributed to a history of racial tension that still has yet to be resolved. 

Throughout our history, the nation’s leaders have failed to live up to the sacred ideals of our nation from the very beginning. Since then, leaders have seen fit to treat some of our people as ‘less’ than others, often favoring people who look and act like those in power and limiting the rights of populations who don’t. Examples include Irish, Italian and Polish immigrants exploited for their labor, Japanese citizens rounded up into concentration camps during WWII, Mexicans forced to show documentation of citizenship, and now Muslims being targeted by some politicians as potential terrorists.

During this Thanksgiving week, our region is haunted by the legacy of racism, inequality and injustice. Here in Chicago, we must come to terms with a cover-up of the murder of a 17-year-old black boy by a white Chicago police officer. 
The last two nights, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets chanting "16 shots" responding to the release of a video showing Laquan McDonald being gunned down; many of the shots fired after he fell to the ground.
When the City of Chicago first became aware of this video, they offered $5 million to Laquan’s family with the stipulation that the family would not seek to make the video public. This happened before the family had even filed a lawsuit. 

The leaders of Chicago and Cook County are struggling to deal honestly with the shooting of a teen. They knew what happened was unacceptable, yet remained silent, while the trigger-happy officer faced no charges--until a court ordered the video released.

Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez declared that the video would not be released until a federal investigation was concluded. But now that the video has been released, Alvarez has suddenly filed charges against the police officer. Why not months ago? Why the cover-up? 

The Chicago Reporter just released an article that raises ever more questions.

This week, I give thanks to be able to celebrate with loved ones. I also give thanks to be a part of a community of clergy and concerned citizens that are willing to organize against injustice, that are prepared to ask challenging questions, that are committed to working together to seek fairness for all people, including transparency in the methods of investigating police conduct – and misconduct.

That’s the kind of America I want my children to live in, an America that is committed to becoming an ever more perfect union.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Let Us Offer Refuge

The past few days have been a time of anguish and incomprehension. On Friday I was in a state of shock taking in the overwhelming brutality of the the attacks in Paris. My heart goes out to the many, many families whose loved ones were killed or seriously injured. 

The morning after the Paris attacks, I didn't want to rush out and do anything. But I had committed to attend a training sponsored by RefugeeOne about what is involved in supporting refugees who come to the United States. And so I pushed myself there. 

It gave me solace to be with 170 other people of faith representing 50 congregations, who are committed to helping refugees seeking a new life in America. We were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Unitarian Universalist. We could express our shared grief--and our shared commitment to recognize the humanity of so many people who are pushed out of their homes by similar brutality.

The refugees that RefugeeOne resettles in the Chicago, many of whom are Muslims, have fled their homelands where so many of their friends, neighbors, and often even relatives have been killed. They leave because staying is untenable. 

But as we have witnessed over and over, when refugees seek a better life, there are tremendous perils on the journey. Many have died needlessly. Many are detained in refugee camps and wait and wait and wait. Sometimes for decades. 

When those who finally reach the United States, their hope is to create safe, productive lives. However, what awaits them is an extensive vetting process that narrows the vast numbers of those who need help into a mere trickle. 

Although many individuals soon become contributing members of society, many more face overwhelming struggles because they don’t have the skills to offer because they are poor or they have spent much of their lives detained by political or military events over which they have had no control. 

Over 50 million refugees worldwide are currently seeking asylum and a chance at a new life. They come from brutally violent places all over the world. Syria has been in the news, but the number of Syrians coming to our country is very, very low. There are many refugees coming from Iraq, from Africa--especially Congo and Somalia, and out of Myanmar (formerly Burma) and other south Asian countries. 

The numbers that reach the United States is very low, and I pray President Obama will provide resources to support these people who know profound sorrow and suffering. And we can locally. Between the church teams, volunteers and the good social services already in place on the northside of Chicago, RefugeeOne and other resettlement agencies are making a tremendous difference in the lives of these desperate people.

When a refugee family arrives, they have literally nothing. RefugeeOne provides the structure for congregations to offer direct support that helps assimilate refugees into our community. It begins with showing up at the airport to welcome the family to Chicago. Volunteers make weekly visits to provide comfort and support. There are fund drives for clothing and household goods. Mentors help refugees learn a new language.  There are classes and social services to teach families how to live in a big city, how to navigate the many demands of modern life, and how to survive in this country that is so unfamiliar to them. 

Some congregation members offer to sponsor a family. The cost to provide housing and furniture is about $8,000 a year. I am deeply thankful that my congregation will host at least one family and I am hopeful that we can host two or three more by spring.

In the process of supporting a refugee family, I am confident that we will become the ones whose hearts are opened, whose lives are enriched. 

Actively and sincerely caring for people who know profound sorrow and suffering is at the heart of all spiritual teachings. Taking action to help the thousands of frightened, hopeful and incredibly brave human beings who seek refuge in this country is how we express the moral teachings that make up the best of all religions. 

It is natural to experience fear in the wake of the attacks on Paris, in Lebanon, and wherever violence erupts, including in the city of Chicago. In my congregation, we read the names of those killed by violence in the city of Chicago. At times it is demoralizing. But if read the names of people killed by violence in wider circles, we'd be paralyzed. Fortunately there is another way.

Fear spreads when we remain isolated from others. Fear threatens to become our society's plague. Fortunately there is another way: love through courage.

Love emerges when we come face to face with others, when we help others, when we show up in the worst of times despite so many doubts--to help those most gravely in need.

Love enlarges us. Love moves us through our fear. The greater our love as a wider community, the less fear will isolate us and destroy us. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Celebrating All Souls and The Day of the Dead

Above my son’s bed hangs a photograph of him with his beloved Mexican grandfather gazing at him with kind eyes.  The picture helps Marco remember his abuelito, who died four years ago.  

Another cherished object in our home is a colorful round rug made for Marco by Joan Van Note, who died recently at 92. Joan was one of the most attentive, hospitable and engaging members of the congregation I serve. Yesterday we held a memorial service to celebrate her life and mourn her death.

Today is All Souls Day, a holy day that embodies the memorial service we held yesterday. All Souls Day and El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) remind us that we are part of a broad matrix of relationships, and this celebration is for the purpose of recognizing all souls, not just our own loved ones.  

When asked about his religion, William Ellery Channing, the minister whose vision inspired Unitarianism, said:  “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls.” 

The photograph and the rug are tangible mementos of people my family have loved and lost. We’ve told Marco that his grandfather is both nowhere and everywhere at the same time.  “You can think of abuelito and Joan in the glow of the stars and the blaze of the sun, for their love is now a part of the warmth and light that make all life possible.” 

When we die, we lose our physical location in the world but our love, our honesty, our integrity and courage, our acts of kindness and compassion  -- all ripple forth, and, like our grandfathers and grandmothers, our dear friends and companions that pass, they become a part of the breath of the ancestors that intermingles with everything. 

Too often our culture encourages us to forget those who have come before us, leaving us with the mistaken belief that we are the architects of the many blessings we enjoy. The truth is that we sit under trees we did not plant, we use resources we did not create, we build on foundations we did not lay, and we enjoy customs woven from centuries of family traditions.

My son Marco is in the second grade religious education class at the church I serve. The students have been talking about All Souls Day and the Day of the Dead, each child recounting a loss they have experienced – a pet, a grandparent, a friend. Together the children remembered the good things about these loved ones, even though it can feel frightening and sad to understand that they are gone physically from their lives.

This sharing is at the heart of El Dia de los Muertos and extends throughout the year. I love this part of my children’s Mexican heritage. I am hopeful Erica and Marco will know their grandfather through our stories and mementos, better than I knew my grandfather who died when I was five years old. Since discovering this aspect of Mexican culture, I have sought stories of those whose love shape my life and shaped my parents’ and grandparents'  lives

Are we not each a member of the great family of All Souls?  If we consider our location amidst humanity, not only in the present moment, but in the generations to come, it is good to recognize whose love has sustained us and whose love we take forward.