Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Wisdom of Sacrifice

Over the last two weeks, I’ve heard lots of deep concern and appreciation for the medical personnel who are on the frontline confronting the Covid-19 epidemic, risking exposure and literally putting their own health—and that of their family’s—at risk. I’ve also had conversations with physicians about it, and I’m truly inspired by them. The three I talked to have said, “I know that as a doctor I will most likely contract the virus. It is the nature of the current fight against the virus that doctors are taken out in waves as they contract it, but all of us who get better and can return to work, we shall have immunity and the ability to treat infected people with no further concern of contracting it again.” Some doctors who have fallen ill, they almost nearly hope they have contracted the virus so that their bodies shall build resistance to it so that they can return to treating patients without further worry. 

All of these conversations are making me think about the nature of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from the latin sacrocere which has the same root as the word sacred. Sacrifice originally meant to make sacred, to make holy. To give something up of great material value on behalf of a larger or transcendent value. A sacrifice is a signal that what you’re making a sacrifice for is more important than what you are offering up—and what you’re offering up may be the most valuable thing you have. 

In the early biblical times, the Jews didn’t eat meat much because meat was so expensive, especially beef. When the ancient Jewish people offered up a fatted calf to Yahweh, they were offering up the most valuable thing they had for the sake of being in right relationship with their god. 

This past week, all around the world, people have been called upon to give up their independence, to sacrifice our freedom to move about wherever and with whomever we want, and instead sequester ourselves at home for the sake of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Sure, you may say, most everyone is staying at home to protect themselves and their loved ones. Yes, and

I’d like to suggest, in the words of the late UU minister A Powell Davies: "There’s a sort of duality in each of us, a conversation within our innermost thoughts. Some of us will call the nobler voice within to be the voice of God, not literally, of course, but in source and spiritual vitality. Others of us will call it our better nature. But no matter what we call it, its presence is a firm reality.” We cultivate our inner lives, and thereby raise the quality of all our living, by giving specific time and attention to discerning and participating in this better nature of ours. I call this cultivation of our inner thoughts with our heart and spirit, spiritual practice. And, as Davies says, “To the extent that we see the world more clearly and ourselves and our part in it more plainly, we gain wisdom, clarity, sureness of direction; and this, in turn, relieves the tension that the world imposes on us—much of which is due to vacillation and uncertainty — and brings us closer to serenity.”

Who would have thought that in the year 2020, the world economy would be brought to its knees. It’s really scary what’s happening—all the uncertainty and anxiety. In today’s American culture, sacrifice seems foolhardy. Why ever give up something of especial material value? But in another perspective, one where there is a faith in love, a deep affirmation of the worth and dignity of all people, a recognition that we are all interconnected, how can we not give the best of ourselves and what we have for the sake of others, especially others who are suffering?

For us today and in every era, what is more important than money? What is more important than our independence? What is more important than even our own health and well-being? In this time, we are all called upon to make sacrifices.

I’ve enjoyed listening to exuberant expressions of gratitude at 8pm. This outpouring of spirit celebrates our health care workers. Let’s also think about who also is putting themselves at risk of exposure each and every day: grocery store staff, pharmacy workers, truck drivers, garbage collectors, people who harvest our food, prepare it or work at the factories to process or wrap it. It’s also a time to honor the service of police and firefighters—and firefighters are also EMTs who do ambulance duty. I am grateful for all these people who are leaving their families several days a week for the sake of the wellbeing of the rest of us. This a time to reflect on the various levels of sacrifice that so many people are making, on behalf of our common good.

We’re in the middle of a transition that will affect our society for the rest of our lives. The way we approach it will shape who we are as individuals and as a wider society. White Eagle,  an indigenous Hopi leader wrote a week ago (I got this from adrienne marie brown on social media): “This moment humanity is going through can now be seen as a portal and as a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you. If they don’t repent of the problem and consume the news 24 hours a day, with little energy, nervous all the time, with pessimism, they will fall into the hole. But if you take this opportunity to look at yourself, rethink life and death, take care of yourself and others, you will cross the portal.”

A friend said, “It’s like our whole culture is going through a birth canal, and what is being birthed is a deeper awareness of how interdependent we are.” At least those of us who are willing to look at ourselves, to rethink life and death, to commit to caring for ourselves and others—it is like going through a long birth canal, from which we will emerge grounded in love.

What do you want to make sacred at this time? What greater good gives your life purpose and meaning? What is worthy of your time and attention and resources? Where are you called to sacrifice at this time? 

I talked with a father of retirement age whose son is a doctor leading the response to COVID-19 at a local hospital. He had been asked what he'd do if his son gets extremely ill. The father said that he would go and tend to his son, risking his own health. Sometimes we are called to sacrifice what is materially most precious to us.

This is a time to discern what we are willing to sacrifice for. Such decisions are being made millions of times all over the world. May we help midwife a world where there is a greater recognition of the wisdom of sacrifice. May we cultivate our own spiritual practices to live fully and with love at our side, love infused in every cell of our body—so that we embody this wisdom. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Wisdom of Tenderness

On the social networking site, Nextdoor.com, an Oak Parker shared with her neighbors that she’s following the news back in China. In her hometown, she says there is a swing dancing school that has been closed for over two months and is now reopening. There’s something truly beautiful about one of the first community organizations to reopen in a town is designed to bring people together in joy and dance—and to touch one another. Apparently the long winter in China is opening up to spring.

And here we are, a mere three days into spring. Usually there are not yet daffodils up in mid March, but nearly two weeks ago while walking to the offices—when I was still walking to the offices—I spied a few small hardy daffodils that had popped open. I couldn’t believe it. This is an odd year: a mild March which is usually the cruelest of months, an early spring, and all the while the world’s population navigates a winter of the soul, collectively journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. 

The Chinese people appear to be coming out from that valley, while we here in the United States are just entering it. But it won’t last forever. I’m grateful for the many readings that you all have been sharing with me. The one that has been raised in conversations more than any other is the 23rd Psalm, for we really are journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. A contemporary version of this psalm begins May I remember in this tender moment that Love is my guide, always, shepherding me toward ways of openness and compassion. 

This month we are exploring the theme of wisdom. Months ago I had named this service The Wisdom of Tenderness. I had planned to go in a far different direction, but the wisdom of tenderness is so very much what I believe we need in this moment. This time of physical distancing is a time to become more tender with ourselves, more tender with our loved ones, more tender with our grief. Many of us struggle with connecting with our own grief, and right now those of us who must cloister ourselves away are coming face to face with our own vulnerability, with the losses in our lives, with both new grief and unresolved grief of the past. 

And so I ask: How is it with your soul? How goes the rhythm of your days? 

As many of us cloister away in our own homes, how are you settling in? It’s been a struggle for me to put boundaries around my checking the news and checking my email and phone. I hear from many of you that finding balance is challenging. This is a time for many of us to develop a new rhythm for our days. I am taking the opportunity to deepen my spiritual practice, at least before the kids are awake.  It is also a time to be grateful for all those who provide essential services, to recognize what is essential in our lives, all of our lives. 

When touching into grief and vulnerability, the tenderness of wisdom beckons. My dear friend and colleague Daniel Kanter lost his father four days ago. His parents came to visit him in Dallas over Christmas and then his father fell ill with an acute form of leukemia and was unable to return home to New England. So Daniel put his parents up in his home. Now that his father has passed, Daniel cannot gather with loved ones to mourn. Daniel’s father is Jewish. His extended family on the east coast always sits shiva when someone dies, and receive friends and family for days on end, eating and talking and telling stories. But that’s not possible now. Daniel shares that he identifies with CS Lewis who famously said in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”

Have you noticed a lot of fear lately? Maybe it’s grief that is tugging at your heart. 

Our world and our lives are changing and we are waking up to how little control we actually have. If we are tender with ourselves and honor our grief, we shall also wake up to just how big we are, to what really matters, to love.

In the coming weeks, I invite you to join me to reflect on how the wisdom of tenderness  is moving in your life. Each Tuesday at Two and Thursday at Three I will be available for whoever wants to drop in virtually via Zoom. I am also available to talk at other times, as is Rev. Emily and our Pastoral Associates. My cell phone is on the voicemail at the office.

In these challenging days, I find words from Frederick Beuchner helpful, when he summed up his decades of being a preacher and a theologian: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

One way people in China have coped with the viral storm has been sharing videos of ordinary people wearing face masks dancing and even gathering online for dance parties. Might the rhythm of your day include viewing exuberant expressions of joy or even sharing in the movement?

In this difficult time as loved ones fall ill, lose jobs, struggle with isolation, may we remember that in these tender moments, Love is our guide, always, shepherding us toward ways of openness and compassion. And life itself is grace. 

Blessed be. Amen.

As a benediction, I offer you words recently penned from Kitty O’Meara, a retired chaplain in Madison, Wisconsin:

And the people stayed home, and read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. 

Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently. 

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed. 

May it be so. Blessed be. Amen.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Taking Heart Amidst Disappointment

This morning, February 14, I attended the hearing for Mario and his two younger children at the Brownsville immigration court, essentially a large tent right next to the bridge to Matamoros in which rooms have been created with television screens. I knew that the judge and interpreter would not be physically present—they were at the immigration court in Harlingen, 25 miles away. A video camera would be on them so they would be broadcast on the screen. 

Even though I agreed to be the sponsor for Mario and his kids if they were granted asylum, I was not allowed in to attend Mario’s hearing. The lawyer, Cathy Potter, who took this case on as “low bono” had thought they would let me in. Because they didn’t, she gave me her car keys and I hightailed it to the Harlingen courthouse. Two people from out of town wanting to witness a case in person had already been told that they were not allowed in. Because of my relationship with Mario and his wanting me to be there, I was allowed in. 

I sat on the far side of the room so I could see Cathy and Mario on the television screen. There were at least 25 empty chairs behind them. I was the only person in the room who wasn’t the judge, the translator, or the lawyer representing the government. When the lawyer for the government spoke, the video camera was set on her, and I could be seen in the background. Mario waved at me. I was glad he knew that I was watching what was happening.

I was impressed by how Cathy asked Mario questions to get his story out. He is from a small town in Honduras but found a good job in the city of Pimiento. He worked at a clothing factory. He was appreciated and hardworking. A man that Mario knew from much earlier in life had joined the gang MS-13 and moved back to Pimiento. This man came to Mario’s house with two companions and requested that Mario sell drugs at his factory where over 2,000 people worked. Mario refused and his acquaintance said he had a week to think it over--and if he didn’t agree he and his children would pay the consequences. 

It was a heartbreaking and terrifying story. Mario broke down in tears when asked about moving away from his extended family. The government’s attorney asked Mario several questions and then it was over. There was a recess at the end of which the Judge said she would give an oral decision. I drove back to Brownsville and waited outside the Brownsville court to learn the judge’s decision. As I waited, I met seven people from all over the country, people who had come to help and witness what is going on. 

When Cathy finally exited, she told me that Mario’s request for asylum was denied. She said that the judge acknowledged that she believed Mario but the law requires a certain amount of evidence to grant asylum. Cathy told me from the very beginning that very, very few migrants meet this bar. The bar to demonstrate persecution is so very high—and very few people can meet this, even people who have been kidnapped and hurt. She also said that most go into these hearings without a lawyer, and no one who represents themselves has been known to win their case. This has been the experience of many of Mario’s neighbors. Some told me that they had a tremendous amount of evidence and that they were still denied—but they didn’t have a lawyer. The law requires a certain type of argument and demonstration of persecution—and this is why the presence of a lawyer makes it 17 times more likely of winning the case--and still the probability is very low.

Once Mario and his kids were back in Matamoros, all I could do was give them hugs, talk with them, tell them I’m sorry. I gave Mario some money and told him that I will stay in touch. I will reach out to the people I know in San Miguel, a city in a relatively safe part of Mexico. He needs to find a place to where he can move, find a job and live without worrying about his family's safety. I’m deeply saddened that entering the United States is not an option for them. I'm angry at how the U.S. immigration law works. 

Mario is a hardworking individual, communicates well, and demonstrates a deep commitment for his children. I believe he can find a new life in a new place, but it's identifying where and taking the leap that he now needs to do. He wants to file an appeal so that he can stay in the camp, but that will most likely simply delay the inevitable.

Until the laws change, refugees with real reason to leave family and friends to seek a new life will be stymied at the U.S. border. Cities like Matamoros will have areas that are essentially concentration camps. Although the conditions are better than when I visited in October, the people living there are living in a dead end. I admire how they hold on to hope and how, at least in Mario’s neighborhood, the people are taking care of each other. 

I encountered a staggering number of people from all over the United States wanting to be of help, both in meeting the basic needs of these people and in changing the laws to be more humane. I met people from many different organizations, including Angry Tias and Abuelas. I talked political strategy with a number—more pressure needs to be applied to our federal representatives to end the Migrant Protection Protocol. I take heart at the numbers of people so concerned about this issue that they are going down to the border themselves. 

So I return with grave disappointment that Mario and his children cannot enter the United States while I take heart there are people with courage and resilience both within the camp and outside, committed to finding a more humane way forward. 

Love with Courage,


Friday, February 14, 2020

A Return to the Border

I am writing from the southern tip of Texas. I crossed from Brownsville into Matamoros, Mexico.  Tents no longer filled the sidewalks and the public courtyard right next to the road leading to the bridge. Instead the tents were lined up on either side of the dirt road at the street level, and even more were lined up below in the area between the dirt road and the river, but high enough that the river was still ten feet below them.

When I found Mario and his children, Belen came running to me and gave me a big hug. Esteven was close behind. The smile on Mario’s face was precious. Tears were in his eyes as he thanked me for returning. They showed me the way back to their tents—they now have two tents, one where they sleep and the other for the clothing and toys they have been given over the months. I didn’t notice any other family who had two tents. Both have tarps over them so they are not as effected by the rain. Because Mario and those in his “neighborhood” have been there so much longer than most, they have more space. Their area has a small table and a gas stove for cooking. It looks like a campsite for one family, but 80 people share this area.

Some of the people looked malnourished, but more looked healthier than the last time I visited. I recognized two of the men who were sitting outside the tents. One of them, Marvin, asked me if I could fill out forms he has in English to request an appeal to his recent court visit that ended in a “denial” to receive asylum. As I sat at the table on the bench, Belen and Steven sat on either side of me, pushing themselves into me. They craved the physical presence of someone familiar. 

Marvin shared with me how in Honduras, his son was in college. When his son was asked by  gang leaders to sell drugs at the college, he informed his father that he was scared. So Marvin went to the drug leaders and said that his son could not do what they were asking. The drug leaders told them that they had three options: sell drugs, leave, or die. So Marvin and his son left for the border, leaving his wife and daughter. Because his son was under 18. at age 17, his son was taken by border patrol and treated as a minor. After three weeks in detention he was allowed to live with a cousin in Houston. 

Marvin has been at the border since early July. He talks with his wife, daughter, and son by phone each day. He has a quiet tenacity that pushes me to try to help him. I agreed to send send his application for an appeal to where they need to go. 

Team Brownsville continues to provide a breakfast and late lunch each day. Marvin said the food is more than sufficient and that it’s healthy—not a lot of grease like at the nearby taquerias. That day, Marvin and Mario’s family joined me for lunch at a nearby restaurant.

After lunch we walked through the camp. I was heartened by a lot of what I witnessed. There are now over 30 port-a-potties each in two different areas, clearly marked for men and women (up from 5 that were really gross). There are two water purification units providing clean water for cooking and drinking. There are two sets of showers for bathing. These improvements have been made by Team Brownsville to help meet the basic needs of the people there. There is a free clinic that is much more effective at treating people. 

While the tents in Mario’s neighborhood are not terribly close together, there are other neighborhoods where they are. Where there had been a basketball court, literally 160 tents crowded into neat rows were. This was the more recent people who have arrived. While each of the other “neighborhoods” are separated into separate nationalities. Though people of Honduras and El Salvador are housed together. There is one neighborhood of indigenous people from the Mexican state of Chiapas and another people fleeing the violence in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

At the end of the afternoon we met with Cathy Potter, the lawyer who took this case as low pro bono. We met at the new resource center where lawyers can meet with their clients and where refugees can seek support. The resource center opened one week after I visited in October, and its heartening to see it up and running. 

Tomorrow I attend the hearing of Mario. I pray it goes well, and he and his family can leave this place where so many people wait in impoverished conditions, even if the conditions have improved. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

People at the Border Need Our Prayers and Our Support

Mario has now lived in a tent with his 4 year old son Steven and his 9 year old daughter Belen for six months. They are lovely people from Honduras seeking asylum but have been stuck at the border since August. His wife and eldest daughter are in Dallas, also awaiting an asylum hearing. They crossed just before the Migrant Protection Protocols were instituted. Mario and his younger two children came just after. His second court date will be February 14. His wife’s is Feb 23 in Dallas. 

It has been a challenging time at the border. When Mario first arrived in August, there were maybe 200 people there. Now there are nearly 3,000. These people are at the mercy of humanitarian workers, most of them coming from Team Bronzeville.

When I met Mario, I also met several of the people who live in tents in his immediate area. They were from not only Honduras but also Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These people who arrived at about the same time have been a community to one another, providing security in numbers. But it hasn’t been easy. His children can’t attend school. They get some lessons from volunteers who come over the border on weekends.

In December, nine year old Belen got so sick with a respiratory infection that she ended up in the hospital. It shouldn’t be any surprise since her home is a small tent laid out on concrete pushed up against other tents. When it rains hard, the tent floods because there is nowhere for the water to go but collect. It has been a nightmare for Mario and his family. And yet he expresses deep gratitude for the care and the attention he has received from humanitarian workers. He constantly names his blessings.

I know these things because I helped him get a phone and I’ve remained in touch through WhatsApp. But it costs 10 pesos (55 cents) to charge a phone for an hour at the nearby little store. Sheer extortion. It costs the same if you wish to use a toilet in one of the nearby restaurants. Otherwise there are five port-a-potties that serve what is now nearly three thousand people camped out right across the border from the United States. 

The power of telling his story and others has resulted in generosity. A friend of mine said, “Have you considered giving Mario a solar-powered charger?” And then that friend said, “Take mine—I will get another one.” But there’s generosity on a much larger scale as well now that This American Life and 60 Minutes have broadcast their own stories: Team Brownsville is the humanitarian organization that is heroically helping as many of the migrants as they are able. They serve two meals a day and they are creating a clean water system for the area. It costs $50,000 and now they have the money in hand. Their current projects are at their website here. Please take a look and consider whether you’d like to be of support. 

When immigration activist Betty Alzamora returned to Matamoros, she gladly took with her a few gifts from me and our congregation at Unity Temple. From the congregation she brought cards/letters that were created by children in the religious education program at Unity Temple. It brought tears to my eyes to see Betty’s photo of Belen looking at these cards, holding the blue binder that I and others here have held in our hands. Belen was charged to give out the cards to other children, though many of the children she has known have left. Their parents have sent them across the Rio Grande in hopes that they may know a better life than what they believe they can provide for them. Truly heartbreaking.

In November, Illinois State Representative Lisa Menendez introduced a House Resolution calling upon the Illinois U.S. Representatives and the U.S. Congress to end the Migrant Protection Protocols that has created this crisis and to defund ICE. I joined Mony Ruiz Velasco in testifying in support of this important resolution—and it passed! When the federal budget came up, it included increases for ICE and the border patrol, not less. A few brave representatives opposed the budget for this reason. But even my U.S. Representative, Danny Davis, voted for it. There is still a lot of organizing to be done.

I keep the people on the border in my prayers and encourage you to do the same. But don’t just pray, share the stories, participate in actions to change federal policy to be compassionate rather than inhumane, and contribute to or volunteer with humanitarian organizations that are making a real difference in people’s lives who currently have no where to go.