Thursday, March 24, 2011

We're On A Mission (March 20, 2011)

Do any of you remember a movie from 1991 called “City Slickers?” It’s kind of a screw-ball comedy with Billy Crystal in which a trio of suburban middle aged men busy with family and work go on vacation for 2 weeks driving cattle from Colorado to New Mexico with real live cowboys. Towards the end of the movie one of them, Curly, played by Jack Palance (Curly) turns to Billy Crystal and says
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: This.
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].

You must know what one thing is at the center of your life and devote yourself wholeheartedly to it. Every though this was as screwball a comedy as they come, I found myself overcome by tears throughout the end of the movie. Why? Because I was 21, and I was profoundly afraid of living my whole life without ever understanding that secret. I was terrified that I might die without ever having lived.

This begs the question- what does it mean to live, really live? Let’s pause now so each of us has a change to think of some moments in your own life when you felt like you were really alive…any moment that when you look back on it you said “I sure am glad I did that”...if more than one memory surfaces, begin to make a little collection of them, like beads on a string. There is an index card in your order of service, if you want to write them down, you can feel free to do that. Now look for any patterns you notice among those memories. What elements are there that you recognize, what do they have in common, like the string that holds the beads together? That, I submit, is your de facto mission. A mission is your reason for being, and here, collected on this string or on this index card are the moments when you have truly lived.

Now notice, does the pattern change over the course of your life? Is what is important to you now different than when you were a child or a teenager? I bet it has. See, mission is a fluid thing, it changes over time. And if we become conscious of it, we can guide it, we can make choices. Think about what might be missing from that string of memories. My father, who has been a musician nearly all his life said to me the other day “my one regret is that I never was part of a political protest” What things are there like that for you, the gap between what you have done, and what you feel would be a full and rich life. Notice what those missing things have in common. Adventure? Connection to other people? Quiet time for reflection? Because a mission is not about those individual acts, those acts are goals that support your mission. Mission is the thread that strings those all together. Now check out how that mission feel in your heart and body when you project it into your future. Does it make you excited or inspired, or maybe even a little afraid? Or do they make you feel heavy and tired: “I really AUGHT to…” Because as Rev. Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Now notice any qualities that come to mind as you review your string of memories and dreams. Compassion? Courage? Beauty? I’ll give you an example of what I mean from the most well know mission statement in the western world today
“To explore strange new worlds
To seek out new life and new civilizations
To boldly go where no man has gone before”
Boldness is the quality with which the crew of the Star Ship Enterprise want to seek new worlds. It would have been quite a different show if they had “prudently” gone, wouldn’t it?

The next step could be to turn that thread into a statement, but it is not required. Whenever I try to write a mission statement for my own life, I feel it looses something. So right now I’ve got a image of my son in my mind- because he reminds me more than anything about the important relationships in my life, and how I want to live deeply into them. I’ve also got a memory of Muir woods in my mind, because that old growth forest reminds me of all that is beautiful and at risk in this global eco-system we share. Then I’ve got a image of this church, reminding me of both my calling to serve you and my tradition, and also my own spiritual journey. Now the problem with Curly’s secret to live- one thing- is that most of us are doomed right from the start. Anyone who has a partner or children or friends and also has a job, or any kind of work they feel passionate about has more than one thing, and sometimes those things compete for our time and attention. So for me the principle at the center of these 3 things is balance. Balance is a very important word to me, an important principle in how I live my life. It is easy for me to get so passionate about my work that I forget to spend an afternoon goofing off with my son, or my partner. It is easy for us as a planet to get so carried away with producing new better products that we forget the impact on the earth. And I know when I feel balanced, I am more present in my own life. So I guess for myself rather than a mission statement I could arrange three images in a triangle, with the word balance linking them.

Every religion tries to answer the question burning in our souls “what is the meaning of life?” I believe that the answer, in this Unitarian Universalist tradition, is highly individual, but there are some common themes. The great UU religions educator Sofia Lyon Fahs said “the religious way is the deep way” So living life deeply is one secret your faith offers. Our tradition also teaches us that serving the common good is essential to a well lived life, As Rev. Rebecca Parker wrote:
“You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
So our tradition invites us to live our life deeply, and to serve the common good with our gifts. But neither of those things really gives us a “to do” list for when we wake up in the morning. That depends on our one thing. One can live deeply and serve the common good if you are an elementary school teacher, or a machinist, or a chiropractor. So it’s up to us to ask “what is the meaning of MY life” and our faith tradition calls us to make sure our own mission, our own reason for being, is guided by certain principles, like respect for the inherent dignity of every person, and the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. It encourages us to live out a mission different from that of the culture at large which I believe is “the one who dies with the most toys wins” or “you can never be too rich or too thin”

When I was getting ready to go on maternity leave, I had just started my first full time settled ministry. I knew that managing my time would be a challenge. So I signed up for a seminar called “First Things First” from the folks at Franklin Covey. Now here’s the funny thing about this seminar – it’s designed for business people, but it has religious values at it’s center. It believes that even if your boss is paying for the seminar, you are allowed to put family on your list of “first things” It encourages us to keep our mission in front of us whenever we have our calendar out, to look at the schedule for April and say “where is my family in this? Where is that old growth forest? Where is my spiritual life- My faith tradition?” The primary message was that when we get up in the morning, we do the most important things first- one executive said he didn’t answer the phone or open his e-mail in the morning until he had made $40,000- so that when that unexpected call comes in the afternoon, or when your child comes home from school early with a fever, you have already done the most important thing, and you can end the day saying “well, I didn’t get it all done, but I got the most important thing (singular!) done.” So whether you’ve got a mission statement for yourself written on that card, or a group of images, I encourage you to put some expression of your mission wherever you are when you start your day. Maybe it is an index card taped to your computer screen, or your bathroom mirror. Or I noticed just as I was writing this sermon, that I’ve already got a photo of Nick and a terrarium right next to my computer screen, all I would have to do is add some symbol for my spiritual life in community and I would have a physical representation of my own mission right there on my desk, like a little altar. By keeping your own mission constantly before you, it increases the odds that you can live your life by that mission, by the thread of meaning that makes you come alive, instead of being buffeted by the events of your days, instead of getting sucked into a life of getting the most toys.

Now I want to change our focus from personal mission, to the mission of this community we all share. Take a moment of reflection now to think about those moments in the life of this community when you have said to yourself “I’m really glad I made it to church that day” and I don’t just mean to this building, because sometimes we do church in other places, like at Mt. Pisgah, or the Phoenix Kid’s cafĂ©. If you like to write things down, take a second card and list or draw some of those memories. Are you starting to get a picture of the mission of this church? What string links together those precious gems of our life as a community, a string that reaches all the way back into our first days in 1809, and will lead us into our future. Take a moment to write down any words, phrases, images, pictures, symbols that reminds you of what is our reason for being, our reason for coming together. Now let’s read together our mission statement as a church:

Our mission is to provide a forum for liberal religious expression in an atmosphere which encourages spiritual growth and ethical living.

One question we are asking ourselves as a church right now is “does our mission, our actual lived mission, fit inside this statement?” Have we changed at all in what we put at our center, in the direction we are traveling since we wrote that statement? Is there anything we would add or remove to make that statement more accurate, more complete?

But that’s not the most important question. That question- is how do we best use the resources of our community, the gifts each person brings, and the legacy handed down from our founders over 200 years, to serve our mission? We want to be unified by a shared sense of mission, and to express that shared mission in the living out of our life together. When the board, or Committee on Ministry or the worship team or the Committee for environmental justice and sustainability or when I or Josh roll up our sleeves for the good of our church, what things do we put first? At the end of the day, how will we know that we have lived that day to the fullest, both in the life of this beloved community and in our own personal lives?

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is?
[holds up one finger]
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].
Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"
Curly: [smiles] That's what *you* have to find out.

For You Were Strangers in That Land (March 6, 2011)

For weeks before this past year’s General Assembly, (where important decisions for our denomination are made by delegates from our congregations) The UUA board had been having special meetings, as had our executive for the UU Minister’s Association in preparation for what they knew would be a powerfully explosive issue. You see, while the country was calling for a boycott of Arizona after the passage of SB1070, (that law that required anyone who looked like they might not be a citizen to show their ID at any time), our own 2012 Assembly was scheduled to be held in Phoenix. The minister’s chat was abuzz for weeks before our annual meeting. Should we boycott, knowing we would forfeit over 600,000 in hotel cancellation fees? Many said yes, and even started passing the hat to make up to defray the cost of moving the assembly. DRUUM issued a statement which expressed concerns about the safety of our members who would be subject to racial profiling under this law, and LUUNA also issued a statement concerned that our Latino/a members would experience harassment by local law enforcement.

I was a supporter of the boycott, but the words of Rev. Susan Fredrick-Gray changed my mind. She is the minister of the church in Phoenix, Arizona and she and her congregation had been working with the local grass roots immigrant rights group Puente. She said that though the boycott might make us feel good for a moment now, this was not what our brothers and sisters in Arizona most directly affected by the laws wanted. They wanted us to come and stand by them, to come march, to come and witness. The discussion was passionate and emotions ran high. It was hard to know whether conscience called us to witness for justice. But you know what was absolutely clear? That our mandate here was justice, and that this law, SB1070 and the anti-immigrant sentiment behind it are unjust and immoral, and that we as UUs must stand against it as strongly as we can. Ultimately the Assembly voted to hold the assembly in Phoenix as planned, but to fundamentally change the nature of that assembly. We voted to advice the UUA board to hold a justice-oriented “General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012 with a business agenda limited to the minimum allowed by the bylaws. We asked the UUA administration to work with leaders in Arizona UU congregations to establish an Arizona immigration ministry; asked the board to work in accountable relationships with DRUUMM, LUUNA, ARE, Equual Access, TRUUST, and other stakeholders to maximize the safety of historically marginalized groups going to Phoenix; called on the UUA board to direct economic transactions during the 2012 General Assembly towards partners and allies; and called on the board to provide resources to build the capacity of UUs to stand in opposition to systemic racism.”

So really, when it came time to vote for the new Study Action Issue, the issue that we as an association of congregations would commit to studying and putting into action over the next 4 years, when it came time to decide which of the 6 issues folks around the country had put before the assembly, it seemed right that we would chose “Immigration as a moral issue.” There was a feeling of unity growing among us. We had heard our brothers and sisters speak about their pain in Arizona and around the country, and our hearts were turned.

So here we are, back in Pennsylvania, where Immigration is not in the forefront of local politics. Here in this congregation the other current issue “Ethical Eating” has been a powerful source of reflection and action for us together. I invite us, starting here and now, to join in solidarity with our sister congregation in Phoenix, with all our brothers and sisters around the country, around the world, and let our work begin in our own hearts.

Way back in my first year in Seminary, on my first election day in California, there was an issue on the ballot called proposition 187, which would make sure that undocumented immigrants could not receive medical care, or public education or other social services. The proposition was titled “Save our State” and the argument was that we could save 3 million dollars a year if we didn’t provide such services to undocumented immigrants. The language of the proposition was fiery: “The People of California find and declare as follows: That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state. That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.”

I was, at that time, enrolled in a class called “Basic Buddhist Meditation” taught by a Theravadan Monk. One of my classmates brought to our seminar this seemingly complex issue. Our teacher Bhanti said- it’s simple. It’s a matter of compassion.” He had long been trying to explain to us the importance of compassion in Buddhist teaching, explaining that in Buddhist practice the goal is to let go of all things except compassion and equanimity, that we hold on to compassion right up to the moment of enlightenment. There was a stunned silence in the classroom as he reduced months of fiery politicking in the media to just one concept – compassion. Would it be more compassionate to provide medical assistance to a sick or injured person, or to deny it?

The Hebrew Scriptures also offer us a clear response to this tangled issue. The book of Leviticus, the one with all the laws, says: (Leviticus 19:33-34 ESV ) “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"

What I think is important in this passage, is that you shall love the stranger as yourself. First of all, notice that it says we shall LOVE the stranger. Today’s rhetoric around undocumented immigrants is so rarely loving. And we shall love them as ourselves, yet laws like SB1070 create a separate class of human beings, somehow less human than those who are citizens of this country. As if basic human rights do not need to be applied to all humans; the right of mother and child to be together. The right to due process. The right to a speedy trial. But the Hebrew scriptures are clear – though this law recognizes the difference between stranger and native, and it acknowledges that the stranger is at risk when sojourning among us, it is clear that there is to be no difference in treatment. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Or, for any of us living in America who are not first nations people, we were strangers in this land. If we ourselves were not born in a different country, our parents or grandparents or great grandparents were. The scriptures call on our empathic imagination to remember that we have been strangers, and so ask us to treat the stranger as ourselves.

Now I know the call to pure compassion is always simplistic. We all fear, and rightly so, that if we pour ourselves out in utter compassion, we will use ourselves up, there will be nothing left to give. So one school of thought on immigration reform is that we need, literally, better boundaries. We need walls, barbed wire and an armed citizenry to defend our boundaries. Lets look again at that preamble to prop 187: “The People of California find and declare as follows: That they have suffered and are suffering economic hardship caused by the presence of illegal aliens in this state.” The perception is that undocumented immigrants drain our resources. But a study by the tax lawyer journal from the American Bar Association argues that the undocumented immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in social services. A 2005 New York Times article showed, for example that they pay about $7 billion annual to social security, with no hope of ever receiving a social security check.

Now look at the second sentence of prop 187 “That they have suffered and are suffering personal injury and damage caused by the criminal conduct of illegal aliens in this state. That they have a right to the protection of their government from any person or persons entering this country unlawfully.” We have a right to be protected from undocumented immigrants. Why do I need protection exactly? It is hard to gather conclusive data about the relationship of immigration and crime, but a number of studies, including one by the immigration Policy Center, based on U.S. Census Bureau data showed there was no increase in crime in relationship to undocumented immigrants, and a study by the public Policy Institute of California showed that cities with more immigrants have lower crime rates than comparable cities.

So the contention that we need protection from undocumented immigrants does not seem to be based on facts, it seems to be based on irrational fear. And that fear is not only directed at folks who are undocumented, but folks who LOOK or SEEM like they might be immigrants. That seems like racism pure and simple to me. Whenever we create a second class of humans, we are building oppressive structures. We cannot allow our immigration policy to be based on fear and xenophobia. It must be based in the reality of our shared lives together. This is where, since our very beginnings 400 years ago, the Unitarians come in. We bring the light of reason. The Study Action issue process starts with study. We begin with open minds to ask the basic questions about immigration: Who are the immigrants in our communities? What underlying factors contribute to global migration? And where are we complicit or accountable in these factors? We start our journey by asking questions, by paying attention, by inviting this issue into our “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

There are a lot of assumptions and half truths and downright lies out there in this debate about immigration. For example, the claim of prop 187 that undocumented immigrants costs us 3 million dollars a year in social services, when studies show this is simply not true. As a people of faith who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person (not just of American Citizens) it to me that Unitarian Universalists are called to stand up for an immigration policy that is based on reason and facts, rather than fear.

We must also insist that our immigration policies and practices are based on compassion and not hate. UUs, along with other activists around the country, plead the case of Marlen Moreno, the woman we met in our opening reading. She is mother of 2 children, one of who is only 10 months old. She is married to a legal resident, and came to the US with her parents when she was only 13 – undocumented. For this, she went to jail for 4 months. ‘Detained” they call it. At our recent Movie night we watched a fictional movie called “the Visitor” in which the hero is “detained” while awaiting deportation. A voice near me said in the dark “what? You can’t walk in there to visit like that with only one security check!” and I remembered one of our member’s brothers, who was “detained” without any charge for 4 ½ months while awaiting deportation. Those being detained have no idea how long they will be incarcerated, are denied even basic information about the status of their case, are separated from family who face significant obstacles and sometimes expense to stay connected with them. Family visits are limited to one adult at a time, can last no longer than ½ hour and are conducted through a glass partition, using wall phones. She told me later that: “The truth is, contrary to the movie where the professor and the mom had nothing else to do but to visit the young man, most families do not visit inmates in detention because of the 1/2 hour restriction. How many people can afford to take a whole day off for a 1/2 hour visit? Processing visitors takes anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour, assuming you know to arrive an hour before "the count" when all visits are interrupted for 1 to 1-1/2 hours for the officers to account for all inmates. Young children do not visit.” Her brother is now in Hong Kong, they told him one morning he was leaving that very day. Marlen Moreno was just days away from being taken away from her family, deported, but activists phoned, faxed, called the press, and were able to delay her deportation for a year. Still her future is uncertain. When reason and compassion are applied to the way our system treats undocumented immigrants like criminals, how can they be justified? It can’t really be to save the taxpayers money; Atlanta news station WSB-TV reported that the annual cost to taxpayers just to detain and deport immigrants adds up to $2.6 billion.

While in jail for her civil disobedience in protest of SB1070, UU Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo reported: “While inside the Maricopa Jail garage, I saw a young Latino man dragged past me and behind some vans, calling out ‘I am not resisting arrest. I am not resisting arrest.’ When I saw him again, perhaps only ten minutes later, it was clear he had been beaten. Beaten badly.” Whatever concerns we may have about the economic impact of immigration policy on this country, the act of separating mother and child, the act of beating a prisoner, these are not compassionate acts, and they are not necessary in order to uphold the laws of this country. I call for a reform of our laws to make them just and compassionate, and reform of the ways we implement these laws, that they be carried out in just and compassionate ways.

Last July, about 100 UU ministers and lay-people, along with president Peter Morales, flew from around the country to be part of the non-violent civil disobedience in response to SB1070. Of the 83 protesters who were arrested that day, 26 were UUs, including President Morales. Our UU protesters were wearing those saffron yellow t-shirts with big hearts reading “standing on the side of love.” Rev. Paul Langston Daily, one of the ministers participating in the march wrote later in his blog: “At lunch today, a colleague told us she overheard some people saying “Hey, look over there, it’s the Love people”.

We are called by these 2 pillars of our heritage- by reason and by love. With reason we will ask the questions that so urgently need to be asked, with reason we will seek truth and justice. With love, with compassion we will act, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Will you accept this call? Will you take up the rights of the stranger in our land, as we have stood for civil rights so many times before? Lets reach out to our brothers and sisters around the country, around the world letting reason and love change this broken system to one of compassion and justice.


J. Lipman, Francine, J. (Spring 2006). Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation. The Tax Lawyer. lso published in Harvard Latino Law Review, Spring 2006.

Eduardo Porter (April 5, 2005). "Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions". New York Times.

Eunice Moscoso (2007-02-27). "Study: Immigrants don't raise U.S. crime rate". Arizona Daily Star.

“Crime, Corrections and California: what does Immigration Have to Do with it” PPIC California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles V. 9 Number 3 Feb 2008 by Kristin F. Butcher, Anne Morrison Piehl.

Immigration as a Moral Issue (Congregational Study/ Action Issue for 2010-2014)

The Cost Of Illegal Immigration By Justin Farmer Posted: 12:16 pm EDT May 10, 2010 “'Justice' General Assembly to be held in Phoenix: Days and nights of work result in a plan most can endorse” By Jane Greer 6.28.10 UU World

J. Lipman, Francine, J. (Spring 2006). Taxing Undocumented Immigrants: Separate, Unequal and Without Representation. The Tax Lawyer. Also published in Harvard Latino Law Review, Spring 2006.

Eduardo Porter (April 5, 2005). "Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions". New York Times.

Eunice Moscoso (2007-02-27). "Study: Immigrants don't raise U.S. crime rate". Arizona Daily Star.

“Crime, Corrections and California: what does Immigration Have to Do with it” PPIC California Counts: Population Trends and Profiles V. 9 Number 3 Feb 2008 by Kristin F. Butcher, Anne Morrison Piehl.

Immigration as a Moral Issue (Congregational Study/ Action Issue for 2010-2014)

The Cost Of Illegal Immigration By Justin Farmer Posted: 12:16 pm EDT May 10, 2010