Monday, November 17, 2008

Seven Fat Cows and Seven Thin (November 16, 2008)

The story of Joseph and his brothers [Gen. 40-46] that our Children are studying this morning speaks to me at this moment of economic uncertainty; every night on the evening news we hear about the lean years ahead. I hear about banks failing, car companies failing, homes foreclosing. I hear from my friends in Silicon Valley about the widespread layoffs that are sweeping through the tech industry on top of the crash in housing prices and stock values. At such a time as this we look at the story of Joseph and see the wisdom of his putting away 1/5 of their crops in anticipation of the tough times ahead. But it begs the question “where are we in this story?” We no longer have 7 years to store up grain for the coming hard times. In my mind the point where we enter the story is where the grain has been stored, the people are struggling, and it is up to Joseph to make wise choices about how to share the resources.

I tend to look at ancient stories like this one not from a historical critical perspective, but from the perspective of archetypes and the collective unconscious. One of the tools each person can bring to such a story comes from some schools of dream interpretation (including the Gestalt Method developed by Fritz Perls) which holds that the dreamer is each part of the dream. This same technique appears in Jerome Berryman’s approach to teaching sacred stories in religious education for children. Each person who hears the story is asked “where are you in this story today?”

Sometimes we are Joseph, who is sometimes in the dungeon, and sometimes in the seat of power, who has to make hard choices and sometimes does wisely, and sometimes is selfish and petty. Because remember, in the Hebrew Scriptures all the heroes make mistakes, all the heroes have weaknesses. It is up to us to determine whether their behavior is noble or selfish. So when we are listening to the stories from the Torah, sometimes we are the narrator, observing what happens, noticing what is fair and what is not, except we have the power to interrupt the story and say “Wait a minute Joseph, who are you to throw your brother in Jail, even if they did sell you into slavery?” So if I can imagine myself as Joseph I can see in this story the times I am blessed with foresight, the times I responsible to share resources justly and times when I am slow to forgive.

Sometimes I am like the brothers making the long journey to get the help I need, sometimes caught up in the pettiness of the distribution system. Sometimes I am like the Pharaoh who is worried about the future and needs help to make good choices. Sometimes I am like the grain, often abundant and plenty in what I offer the world, and suddenly I have nothing left to give.

I was excited to see that the story the children are talking about today has something to do with our focus on the UU Service Committee, because the UUSC is the organization that we as a whole denomination built to look out for our brothers and sisters in the world during the lean years. But unlike Joseph’s charge to mete out grain, the main concern of The UUSC is to make sure that basic human rights are shared by all our world neighbors.

Today the UUSC divides its work into 4 primary areas:
1) Defending civil liberties and access to democratic processes which is particularly focused on strengthening individual liberties and democratic processes in the Global War on Terror.
2) Advancing economic justice which means addressing the issues of globalization and privatization, with a focus on defending workers' rights and supporting living wage campaigns.
3) Promoting environmental justice : UUSC's primary focus in this area is promoting and defending the human right to water, especially in communities facing water-service privatization and resource depletion.
4) Protecting rights in humanitarian crises; UUSC responds strategically to disasters, whether natural or man-made, focusing especially on defending the rights of marginalized and oppressed populations. It is under this heading that we find the UUSC work in the aftermath of Hurricanes like the ones in New Orleans and Burma.
One these humanitarian crises is the genocide in Darfur, which has been a Major focus of the UUSC over the past 5 years. UUA president Bill Sinkford has also named this a primary focus of his work, traveling to visit the refugee camps in 2005 and lobbying his leaders. Some of you may remember the story of his arrest during a protest in 2004 at the Sudanese Embassy in Washington, DC, as part of an ongoing protest against genocide in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The UUSC continues to work for “ development of a viable and inclusive peace process in Darfur that will lead to sustainable peace”. “At the same time”, they say in a statement about their current focus “we are deeply concerned by the protection crisis facing Darfurian women and girls, who continue to use all the resources they can find to protect themselves and their families. We believe it is imperative to find new and creative ways to protect women and girls from the violence that they face as they go about their daily lives. The protection of women and girls in Darfur cannot wait for an end to the war.”

And so the UUSC is working in practical ways with local partners and within the refugee camps to help the safety of women in and out of those camps. For example, they are helping provide ways women can make money inside camps so that they have do not have to enter dangerous territory to earn money to sustain their families. If they can find ways to reduce the need for firewood the women won’t need to leave the camps to get it. They are coordinating efforts among different agencies to improve protection for women leaving their camps to search for firewood and other resource. They are also rebuilding women's centers in the camps and provide leadership and organizational training to women so that they can make their voices heard by camp leadership. Finally they are offering human-rights and women's-rights training to people with authority in the camps so they understand the particular vulnerabilities of women and girls.

You’ll notice that “partners” are mentioned a lot in the projects of the UUSC. One of the most fundamental principles that runs like a recurring theme through the work of the Service Committee is that their role is primarily supportive to those whom are most deeply effected by that work. It would easy for an organization like UUSC, empowered to act for the common good, to assume that their own vision of how to serve that good was true and sufficient in all contexts. By asking those actually living with injustice, instead of imposing their own vision of justice, the UUSC is acting out of the Unitarian Universalist faith in the individual’s innate wisdom and dignity. They call this style of collaboration “eye-to-eye partnerships”, because they know that the grass-roots organizations with which they partner are the authorities on the communities which they service, and the UUSC honors their wisdom as we assist them through grants, technical assistance, helping them network and building advocacy skills. In this way we might think of the UUSC as the Pharaoh, the one with the grain to share, giving those resources into the care of Joseph who had spent time in servitude, spent time in prison, known first hand how cruel humans can be to one another, and who has shown wisdom and can distribute those resources fairly.

Let me tell you about our partner in Peru, where a deal with the Inter-American Development Bank to modernize water services came with a requirement to privatize water. Many were afraid that water would be come prohibitively expensive as it did in Argentina and Bolivia when water was privatized there, causing major social unrest. The UUSC paired with a local grass roots organization FENTAP, the Federation of Water and Sanitation Workers of Peru which was “decertified” once privatization began. FENTAP organized a group of grassroots coalitions called Agua y Vida including environmental groups, union members, consumers and faith communities. FENTAP held workshops on human right to water within those coalitions and with local governments and together they developed a plan for responsible modernization. One Agua y Vida Coaltion partner challenged the privatization in court and local municipalities are withdrawing from the privatization. [UUSC “Rights Now” Fall 2008, p. 7].

I believe that each of us is called to serve the cause of justice, to be Joseph who was asked to make sure resources are shared fairly. The resources we share with UUSC through our annual Guest at Your Table progrm have this kind of power. Our gifts enable just action, and the manifestation of our principles in the world. Or maybe we are like the Pharoah when we give to the UUSC, asking the Service committee to help put our gifts to good use, and to give us good council on how to act rightly. It is good to know that if the you feel called to speak out against the genocide in Darfur or the privatization of water in Peru, the UUSC is there, not only to act on your behalf, but to help you learn how to act for justice as you feel called. The UUSC is also the observer who tells the story- noticing who is being treated fairly and who needs our voice and our helping hands so that they will not be left out.

Then what about those times when we are the people of Egypt who need grain in times of famine? The UUSC helps closet to home as well. For example after the bombings of 9-11 the UUSC relief effort was directed entirely to partner grass-roots organizations in New York who work with those disenfranchised persons overlooked by other relief organizations. One such organization was the Stonewall Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund which supported the partners of Gay and Lesbian victims of 9-11, who were ineligible for employee benefits or government aid. The UUSC also worked with partners to advocate policy change. Subsequently New York state issued a policy change declaring surviving partners of gay and lesbian victims eligible for benefits of aid programs.

Or most of us are concerned for the protection of our own civil rights, and the way they have eroded since the “war on terror” began. The UUSC takes as one of their primary goals the protection of our civil rights and to this end they work with U.S.-based program partners to defend civil liberties. For example they work with such partners as Appeal for Redress which represents active duty military personnel whose civil liberties (e.g., freedom of speech and freedom of assembly) are threatened. Most members of Appeal for Redress have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are opposed to the Iraq War. UUSC supports their public education programs and public demonstrations.

The UUSC also endorses and/or opposes national legislation that threatens civil liberties, especially the Military Commissions Act, and they mobilize the members of UUSC, (us) to help defending civil liberties. The UUSC has an Action Alert network, which anyone in this congregation can join if you haven’t already. The Service Committee will let you know when a piece of crucial legislation is coming before congress and show you how you can contact your representatives to let them know how you would like them to vote.

And on this day when we celebrate the work of the UUSC , and on a day when the fate of our own economic future, and the fate of our own civil rights is uncertain, each of is the one who notices when justice is not served. Each of is the one who gives, the one who receives, the one who advises and the one who needs advice, and the one gives of oneself as if we are the stores of grain who have only ourselves to give. May it be so.