Monday, May 20, 2013

Standing up for Mom (May 19, 2013)

When I became a mother, I felt a tiger wake up within me. I mean, I’ve always been concerned in justice, but once Nick was born there were certain news stories, certain ideas that would cause this tiger energy to just come rushing into me. This tiger comes out:
When I hear about children who do not have enough food to eat or a safe place to live,
When I hear about parents who are denied their right to parental leave after the birth of their child.
When I hear about parents who can’t afford good childcare and are forced to choose between putting food on the table and having a safe place for their child while they work.
When I hear about women who aren’t allowed to make choices about their own bodies during their pregnancies or labor .
when I hear about women sterilized against their will.
This tiger surprised me with ferocious need to protect the most vulnerable. I keep this as a symbol of that part of myself.

Last week many of us celebrated mother’s day with flowers, with brunch, with cards. And speaking for myself, I can assure you moms do love those things. But what moms all over the world really need is a tiger, who will defend their right to make choices about their own bodies, who will defend their children’s’ rights to a safe and healthy start in life. 
Yes, motherhood is about playing patty-cake, and swing-sets, and stories at bedtime. But Underneath all that motherhood is about the choice to perpetuate the species through your own body. That is a pretty ferocious responsibility.  That mild mannered woman in the pink sweater is actually a tiger. I remember one time a substitute taught our pre-natal yoga class, and she as these third trimester women struggled into some pose  “oh you all are so cute!” And I felt my tiger rising --  here were a group of women who have chosen to face one of the most dangerous, courageous acts a human can choose, who are going to embody and face the gateway between life and death- and you are calling us cute?  Biological mothers have made a choice to sacrifice their own body to the pains and changes of pregnancy and labor, have chosen to risk their own lives in the act of birth. And whether they birthed their babies or not,  all mothers have chosen to put their own life between their child and life’s dangerous edges. Motherhood is about being a tiger.
Maybe it is because we are afraid of the power of that tiger that so many cultures seek to minimize mom’s power. We are so blessed in this culture that women have the right to decide when and with whom she will have a sexual relationship. We believe that both partners in any sex act should consent. We are lucky that we live in a culture where we don’t have to worry about forced sterilization.  We are lucky that for the past 40 years we have had effective birth control so that parents can choose when they are ready to have children. As a woman who grew up in the 70s I have long taken these things for granted. I didn’t understand that for centuries women had been pregnant for most of their adult lives, that as soon as one child had weaned a new one was on the way.  For some mothers this was a joy and a blessing, for others it was an inescapable struggle.  I am so blessed to be part of a generation given the power of consent.

For those of us who growing up in a UU church in the 1970s, both our families and our church affirmed our inner wisdom and gave us an ethical compass for making decisions. They empowered us to make wise informed choices about our lives. Growing up I didn’t understand how recently some of these rights had been won.  I didn’t realize that it wasn’t until 1965 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut, that the U.S. Supreme Court decided that married couples could use contraception.  Let me repeat that: the United States Supreme Court had to decide that a married woman could practice birth control.[i]  

In an age where many of those rights I took for granted as a child are being challenged in states like Oklahoma and North Dakota which are considering laws that would make the  birth control pill illegal, we need to stand up for a woman’s right to decide with whom she will mate, and if she choose to have children, when and with whom she will have children. As Dina Butcher, longtime Republican activist from North Dakota said in a recent story “this is not a legislative issue-- this is between a woman, her doctor and her god.” [ii]

That, my friends, is why we are talking about reproductive Justice this morning. We are a people who have covenanted to support one another in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. When people are verged on the most important ethical and spiritual decisions of their lives, they should feel they can turn to their beloved community. Whether or not we ourselves are parents, we have a responsibility to be allies to those who do propagate our species, we have a responsibility to be allies to all those who refrain from reproducing, and we have a responsibility to all the generations who follow us. I believe our responsibility is threefold. 
First, it is our responsibility to provide for one another an ethical framework which supports us as we make these critical decisions about life. As a faith tradition, we have been allies in helping people, youth and adult alike, understand what it means to have a healthy, responsible sexual life since our first Sex ed curriculum “About Your Sexuality” in 1970. I took that class at my UU church in 1984.  Today we provide this ethical framework through a Sexuality Education program called Our

Whole Lives which has curricula for everyone from Kindergarteners to Adults. It is built upon four core values:

1.     Self-Worth
Every person is entitled to dignity and self-worth and to his or her own attitudes and beliefs about sexuality.
2.     Sexual Health
Knowledge about human sexuality is helpful, not harmful. Every individual has the right to accurate information about sexuality and to have her or his questions answered.
Healthy sexual relationships are:
·         Consensual (both people consent)
·         Nonexploitative (equal in terms of power; neither person pressures or forces the other into activities or behaviors)
·         Mutually pleasurable
·         Safe (no or low risk of unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, or emotional pain)
·         Developmentally appropriate (appropriate to the age and maturity of persons involved)
·         Based on mutual expectations and caring
·         Respectful (including values of honesty and keeping commitments made to others)
3.     Responsibility
We are called to enrich our lives by expressing sexuality in ways that enhance human wholeness and fulfillment and express love, commitment, delight, and pleasure. All persons have the right and obligation to make responsible sexual choices.
4.     Justice and Inclusivity
We need to avoid double standards.
People of different ages, genders, races, backgrounds, income levels, physical abilities, and sexual orientations must have equal value and rights.
Sexual relationships should never be coercive or exploitative.
Being romantically and sexually attracted to both genders (bisexual), the same gender (homosexual), or the other gender (heterosexual) is natural in the range of human sexual experience.[i]

UUs are encouraged to use these values in decision-making concerning their own sexuality and relationships.

Second, we have a responsibility to protect the rights of all our brothers and sisters, so that they are free to make the decisions that their conscience, their bodies call them to make. Last June the delegates to the General Assembly in Phoenix, chose “Reproductive Justice” as our “Study Action Issue” for the next 4 years. It was up against many other critically important issues, but I believe that it won the our hearts and minds because we had seen too many congressional hearings where rows of men in suits testified that people like me should not be allowed to make decisions about my family any more. UUs across the nation realized that we can’t take for granted people’s rights to make their own choices about their bodies, about their sexuality unless we are willing to be tigers and protect those rights. 

A number of folks have asked what this term “reproductive justice” means. It is a term that was first coined in the 1990s by a black women’s caucus, who developed an “intersectional theory highlighting the lived experience of reproductive oppression in communities of color.”  I know, that sentence is a little jargony. What it is trying to express is the complexity of providing a supportive community for people deciding whether or not to become parents, and then to support those parents in being the parents they are called to be. The group “Sistersong” defines it this way:  The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments -- is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions.”[ii]  So Reproductive Justice is a new framework for looking at this whole complex web of issues -- not just thumbs up or thumbs down on one particular piece of legislation, but the complex reality of trying to have a sexual life that affirms the Self Worth of every person, promotes their Sexual Health and Responsibility, and promotes Justice and Inclusivity for all. And being an ally does not mean deciding once and for all what is right, but empowering women and men to make good decisions, and making sure they have the support they need to live out those decisions.

This is our third responsibility – supporting the living out of those tough decisions. We have a responsibility  to the actual physical well being of mothers and their children. Are parents really free to choose if  they feel that they cannot provide a safe and nurturing environment for their children?  If they are going to lose their jobs if they become pregnant? If they can’t put food on their table? If they feel alone and disconnected? Parents are not able to do this alone, nor were they meant to.
What does it mean to be an ally? My mom and my mother in law were allies there supporting me at the hospital through the birth, respecting my sometimes unusual choices. My husband was an ally when he stood by me we felt the doctors were not honoring my rights as a patient, and not honoring my own knowing about the process, saying  “I’m busting you out of here- I don’t care if I have to body block orderlies on the way to the elevator.” 

When I chose to start my family,  my congregation was an ally. They  not only provided me with paid maternity leave so I could recover and tend my child in his earliest days, but they had a tradition called the “baby cafĂ©” where volunteers would come by every 2 days with home cooked meals to help us through the challenging transition of becoming parents. Really, I’ve never felt anything like that outpouring of support.  Whenever a friend is expecting a child, I think of my mothers, my husband, my church who taught me to be a tiger, an ally.

Now that I am done making difficult decisions about my own family, that tiger inside me is called to defend those rights I have been so lucky to enjoy, whether that is the right to effective birth control, the right to have a say during labor and delivery, or the blessed relief of a community rallying around with casseroles in the challenging early days of parenthood.

In this age not all of us are called to be parents. Not all of us need to be parents. But we all need to be tigers. Or to put it another way, we are all called to be allies. Allies of mothers and fathers who become biological parents, allies of mothers and fathers who raise children who do not share their DNA and allies of people who refrain from becoming parents. We must be allies who defend the rights of all people to make decisions about their own bodies- when they will have sex and with whom. When they will become parents or refrain from becoming parents. We must be allies of children to make sure they grow up in a family that loves and cares for them, allies of children who make sure they have enough to eat, and access to a good education.

Let’s all find that tiger inside of ourselves. Not all of us are called to be parents, but all of us can be allies to the generations of children coming into this world, and to their mothers and fathers, so they can be the kind of parents this world needs them to be.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Inherent Worth and Dignity (May 5, 2013)

Chalice Lighting
 In celebration of International Worker's Day
We light our chalice this morning in honor of all the workers of the world
In honor of the workers who tend crops and harvest our food
In honor of the men and women who cut and sew our clothing
In honor of the women and men who built our homes, who built this church
In honor of men and women who built our phones and our call phone towers,  our cars and the roads we drive on
We honor all the women and men who repair all these things when they are broken
We honor the truckers and mail carriers and delivery folk who bring the things we need to this community
We honor the cooks and waiters and dishwashers that prepare our food when we go out to eat
And we honor all the other workers I have not named, could not begin to name
As we remember that daily we co-create this world with billions of other people
to whom we are connected in an "inescapable web of mutuality"

In Ithaca, the town where I live, I am told that there are more restaurants per capita than any place else in the US except Manhattan. We are lucky that so many restaurants near our house are independent locally owned businesses, and many feature local organic produce and local humanely raised pork and beef. If you are a foody and if you care about ethical eating it’s  a great place to live.

Now I worked in restaurants while I was in school- as a bus person, as a waitress.  I worked at fancy places and family restaurants. It’s hard work, that I know. Never was I so physically exhausted at the end of a work day as I was when waiting or bussing tables. But it is good work you can feel proud of. I loved that feeling of rapport with the customers, I loved the food we served. I loved the camaraderie with my fellow servers were some of the most fun co-workers I’ve ever had. I even got good at carrying plates on my arms, or on one of those huge trays on my shoulder.  I didn’t love working a 7 hour shift with no breaks, and I didn’t love the days when the restaurant sat empty while we refilled salt shakers or wiped down the wait station with no customers to wait on, and no tips to help pay the bills, and I’m glad I didn’t have to support a family on my tips But the Restaurant industry is one of the largest growing in the country, and it is work 10 million  Americans are proud, as I was, to call their own. 

I was surprised to find out that the so called “tipped minimum wage” has not changed since I was waiting tables- it is still $2.13 an hour[i] nationally (Pennsylvania is $2.83)  I have to tell you it’s been 20 years since I waited tables, and I was shocked to find that waiters In most states today made the same wage I did 20 years ago. It turns out that the minimum wage and the tipped minimum wage rose together until 1996 when Herman Cain, then the head of the National Restaurant Association, struck a deal with Congress to de-link the two — the minimum wage will continue to rise, but the minimum wage for tipped workers will be frozen. Now in theory, if you don’t make at least the minimum wage in tips, your boss is supposed to pay the rest so you are making at least minimum wage- and some bosses do, and some don’t.  The law also requires that  wait staff is taxed based on 15% of their sales. Which means that if someone forgets to leave a tip, or chooses not to lave a tip, you still get taxed on 15% of their meal. Those taxes are taken out of your paycheck, as they are for most folks, so most wait staff get a  paycheck of $0, with a paystub detailing which taxes were withheld. 

It is a common misconception, I think, that waiting tables is a lucrative profession. You look out over the dinner rush as you calculate your tip, and you think, geeze- if my waitress gets this same tip from everyone seated here she’s going to make a ton of money. What you don’t see is everything that goes into that tip. You don’t see the hours a waiter or waitress spends before the restaurant opens polishing silver and filling salt shakers. You don’t see the wait staff waiting anxiously as the early customers trickle in- hoping their tables will be filled more than once that night. You don’t see the waiter stuck at work as he waits for that last table to finish up- the table that hasn’t ordered anything in an hour, but is enjoying each other’s company. All the waiter can do is, well, wait for them to move on so he can clear their table and re-set it for the next day. You don’t see that in restaurants where there are bus people, they also make $2.13 an hour, and so when I worked at such restaurants the waiter must take part of his or her tips and give it to the bus people, and give part to the bar tender- it’s called “tipping out”. I’ve also been the bus person who has seen the tips left on the tables and knows that what the waiter is handing me is not the full percentage of their tips.

You also don’t see that the Friday and Saturday night dinner shifts go to the most senior staff. Waters and bus staff start on Mondays, or the other less popular shifts. A Restaurant Opportunity Center study showed that only 20% of restaurant workers make a living wage, and those are mostly in fine dining restaurants[i]. (p. 141) So, yes, if you work at a fine dining restaurant in NYC and get the Friday and Saturday night shifts, you can make a decent living. But I think for too long we have let the image of the tuxedoed waiter rolling in tips keep us from making sure the waitress at the local pancake house can also earn enough to feed her family. In fact within the restaurant industry are 7 of the 10 lowest paying jobs (p. 71) as are the 2 lowest paid jobs in U.S. are in the restaurant industry (p. 101). Restaurant workers rely on Food stamps are double rate of rest of the work force, and their poverty rate is triple the rate.

So what does this have to do with Inherent Worth and Dignity? I would like to propose the radical idea that Affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person needs to go beyond our good thoughts about our brothers and sisters, beyond treating our neighbors kindly, to creating a society where all our brothers and sisters can live in dignity. I propose that we could best affirm the worth and dignity of all honest hard work through a living wage. Right now the minimum wage in this country, in this state, is not a living wage. And what do I mean by that? A living wage is defined as the amount of money that a person needs to earn to put a roof over her head, food on her table, to go to a doctor when she is sick. I also heard a republican legislator say recently that this country was built on people saving up their money and starting their own businesses. Well, if we believe that is important, then we should pay our workers enough that they can put away a little bit for a rainy day, for their retirement, or even to become their own boss someday.  That is what we mean by a living wage. [ii] A living wage means that anyone who works full time should not need public assistance to survive. Of course what it costs  to live in Manhattan is different than what it costs to live in Bradford County. In Tompkins county, where I live, the living wage as determined just this past Friday is now $26,242.21 a year or $12.62 per hour.

The restaurant industry is just one industry where it is common practice to pay people less than what they need to live on. It is so common that we don’t often take time to think about – it is invisible to any of us who are paid enough to live on. It is so deeply embedded in our assumption about the world that we are afraid of what any change to this norm will mean. But there are enough examples to show that something more just is possible. For example in seven states, the tipped minimum wage is now re-joined with the regular minimum wage and all of these states continue to have growing restaurant industries.

I wonder if what is happening here is what my old theology professor used to call a “Language event”? In an age where the Supreme court confirms that Corporations are people, but the workers of the world are called   "labor costs" that need to be “minimized.” As long as we think of the people who bus our tables, wash our dishes, and make our phones as "labor costs" that must be "minimized" we are stripping them of their inherent worth and dignity. 

When we explain why we can’t pay employees enough to meet their basic human needs, we hear a lot about market forces. But as near as I can tell, the market does not take care of people who make things. We cannot leave that to "the market" because it is the explicit job of the “market”  to "minimize costs." The lives of human beings are not a cost. They are a blessing. Each and every one has worth.

No it is not the job of the market to make sure that each and every person on this planet is afforded dignity, and that we honor their worth as human beings.  Such Ethical concerns fall to people of conscience like us.  I am not aware of any religious tradition the world over who hold as their highest principle “maximizing shareholder value” or “minimizing labor costs.”  And you will not find either among the Principles and Purpose that join Unitarian Universalists in a common purpose. I know these are powerful ideas in our culture right now, almost like a sacred cow we must refrain from harming, but the mission of this congregation is to encourage spiritual growth and ethical living. I propose the radical notion that whether  our brothers and sisters who put food on our tables can themselves afford to feed their families is not something we should consider “if market forces allow.” It is a fundamental ethical principle that we must bring to every decision we make as a country, as a community.

When you hear about market forces, remember that YOU are a market force. The market has no inner ethical compass except for yours. Not everyone knows that tips are not a bonus for extra good work, but are rent money, grocery money. Not everyone knows that the IRS assumes you tipped your server %15. But the next time you are eating out with friends, and dividing up the check, have a conversation about how the tipping system really works. The next time you are eating out- get curious. Do you know which restaurants offer their employees something better than the $2.83 per hour required by law here in Pennsylvania? Do you know which restaurants have a history of making their employees clock out before they are done working, or taking a portion of their employees tips? As UUs concerned about ethical eating, we have gotten curious about whether the greens are local, or the beef grass fed. Let’s start getting curious about which restaurants offer paid sick days and promote from within. Let’s get curious about which restaurants honor the inherent worth and dignity of their employees. And then let’s be a market force- let’s support the restaurants that are ethical leaders.

These restaurants need our support in Washington[iii] and Harrisburg as well. Owning a restaurant, especially a small local restaurant, is challenging. Owners who want to pay a living wage to their staff really have to work hard and get creative to compete with all the restaurants who pay only $2.13 an hour. And it would really help level the playing field if we encouraged our legislators to re-connect the tipped minimum wage to the regular minimum wage- one bill that has recently been through congress, but was defeated, would have set the tipped minimum wage at %70 of the federal minimum wage so that whenever the minimum wage goes up with inflation our waiters and bussers would see their wages go up too. I know  there is a myth out there that that if the minimum wage is raised, food will become so expensive that none of us will be able to afford to eat out any more. The proposed Fair Minimum Wage Act, introduced in 2012 by Representative George Miller (D-CA) in the House and Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) in the Senate would have raised the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.80 per hour over the next 3 years and the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 to 70% of the regular minimum wage.  Studies show that the actual impact on American families would be only about $.10 per day over 3 years.[iv] Wouldn’t you pay $.10 a day to raise many Americans out of poverty, to reduce the need of working people to subsidize their wages with food stamps? I would. 

We are a people who affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Those words are beautiful and inspiring, but challenging too. To promote the worth and dignity of every person we must go beyond the respect for one another that we hold in our hearts, that we aspire to live out in our day to day interactions with our brother and sisters, we must also create a world where each person who works receives a wage that allows them food and shelter and medical care, without which dignity is hard to come by. Be they restaurant workers, farm workers, or garment industry workers- we are called to stand by every worker until each can live in dignity.