My faith teaches me that God speaks in every human heart.  No one person has a monopoly on truth; rather, each of us has the responsibility to listen for the still, small voice, within.

And so when an individual or a couple comes to me for counselling around an unwanted or unsafe pregnancy, my role is not to judge or condemn, but to support them in discerning what to do.  Let’s be honest:  often, all three options are tragic and difficult.  People need to be held in love and encouraged to make the decision that is right for them.

I am so grateful for Planned Parenthood.  Firstly, the health care they provide means that these difficult situations are rarer.  Secondly, they walk with people regardless of which of the three paths they choose. Thirdly, they support the long term health of all women with cancer screenings and reproductive health care.

The current campaign to discredit Planned Parenthood is riddled with factual mistakes and inconsistencies.  Abortion accounts for less than 4% of the work Planned Parenthood does, and not a single tax dollar goes to paying for it.  Nor is donating fetal tissue for research purposes “selling body parts.”

I support the right of other religious leaders to have their own opinions, beliefs and perspectives.  However, it’s wrong to impose those beliefs on the entire population.  Closing Planned Parenthood would do a great deal of harm and very limited good.  Abortion would not go away; women’s access to a safe and survivable abortion would be severely compromised.

This is a difficult and complicated issue. Regardless of where people stand, I pray for civil discourse and mutual respect.  As for me,

I Stand with Planned Parenthood.

Broken Hearts are Messy

August 10, 2015

I’ve said before that change and progress on Big Complex Issues require letting our hearts break.  This is true of stopping climate change; to find our way forward, we need to feel and learn from the heartbreak of looking at our beautiful planet and acknowledging all the damage that has been done.  It’s also true of eradicating racism.  The reality of our history- that this country was built on the bodies of Native Americans and African slaves- is beyond heartbreaking.  The reality of our present is equally difficult to swallow. Yet we must take it in, must be present to this heart-breaking reality, if we are to have a hope of finding our way to wholeness.

Taking it in breaks our hearts, and broken hearts hurt.  Our reluctance to feel pain all too often keeps us from facing reality.  We numb ourselves.  We build homes in denial instead of just using it as it is meant to be used- a way station on our way to deeper acceptance and greater wisdom.

This week, though, we’re being reminded that not only does that necessary heartbreak hurt, it makes a godawful mess.  When we are feeling those difficult feelings, we can’t always access our best and most graceful communication techniques.  We can’t always maintain open minds and hearts when our hearts are in pieces on the ground at our feet.  We can’t always avoid trampling on or rolling over pieces of other people’s hearts when they’re all over the place, like legos after a kindergarten play date.

This is why we need to try to be gentle, kind, and forgiving with friends who are having a hard time on this heartbreak-and-healing journey.  Like the people who are responding with anger and defensiveness to the action at Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle last week.  Like the people who committed acts of violence in Ferguson last night.  Like me.  Like all of us.

At the same time, we need to hold ourselves and one another accountable; it’s not fair to ask other people to clean up our broken-heart messes.  We need to be patient; if we tidy everything up too quickly, we compromise our ability to learn from the mess.  We need to be aware of privilege, need to remember that the ability to live in denial is a privilege in and of itself.  People who are living in black or brown skin can’t take even short breaks in the imaginary land of “we are a post-racial society.”

No one said it would be easy.  Progress has never been a smooth, straight path.  Can we let the bumps in the road be just bumps- and not turn them into mountains?  Can we let the unexpected twists and turns be part of the adventure, not proof that we don’t know where we’re going?  Can we let the mess be…messy?

The other thing I like to say is that when we let our hearts break, and then heal, they will be bigger and stronger and more resilient.  This has been my experience.  When I’m brave enough to feel the fullness of the grief, despair, and pain, on the other side of the feelings I’ve found peace, acceptance, and a willingness to change.  While my ego longs for tidiness and control, my soul longs for justice, and the only way to get there is to embrace the pain and the messiness of my broken heart.

The work of unravelling racism takes time and happens on many levels.  Justice requires systemic changes to our criminal justice system, symbolic shifts like taking down the Confederate flag, building community coalitions and more.  The unraveling happens on an individual level, as well.  Every time that we kindly but persistently call our racist Uncle so-and-so on outrageous comments, we are doing the work.  Every time we examine our own heart and expand our awareness of the ways racism has shaped us, we are doing the work.

We are making progress these days.  Policies are shifting and hearts are opening.  Sadly, one of the ways we know this is that the backlash has been horrific.  Nine religious leaders were killed at a prayer meeting in Charlestown, SC.  At least seven historically black churches in the South have been set afire.

It’s no coincidence that the black church has borne the brunt of the backlash.  It has historically been a center of resilience and resistance in the black community.  People of faith and people of conscience are called to stand, now, in solidarity and support of these black churches.

Letters of condolence can be mailed to Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston (the address is Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 110 Calhoun St, Charleston, SC 2940).  A fund has been organized to support the rebuilding of the churches that have been burned down (donate online at https://cccathedralstl.dntly.com/campaign/2571#/ or send a check to Rebuild the Churches, c/o Christ Church Cathedral, 1210 Locust Street, St. Louis, MO 63103).

Let’s show the world that here in the Palouse, Black Lives Matter.  Let’s work together to unravel racism.  We build the beloved community one act of compassion at a time.

Rev. Elizabeth Stevens, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Palouse

Moscow, ID

After Lamentation

June 19, 2015

My colleague, Ron Robinson, posted on Facebook today that ‘after lamentation’ he feels moved to work on mentoring young the white men and boys in his neighborhood.  While I was impressed by his clarity and transparency, my heart responded, with a great surge, to those two words.  After lamentation…

When something horrible happens…for instance, the shooting of nine innocent people who had gathered to pray…we have an emotional response.  Grief.  Shock.  Horror.  Lamentation is both a corporate and a personal act of expressing those emotions.

Sometimes, I find myself wanting to skip over lamentation, and jump right into problem solving mode.  Sometimes I get stuck in lamentation.  Ron’s words reminded me that lamenting is a necessary stage through which we must pass if we are to arrive at right action.  We grieve, and then we pick ourselves up and we find a way to make the world a better place.

It’s been just over five months since we here in Moscow experienced our own horrible happening.  A young man shot four people, killing three, one of whom was his mother.  You would be hard pressed to find anyone in our little community who wasn’t close to at least one of the victims.  This is one of those cases where I may be a little ‘stuck’ in the lamenting stage.  Grief takes as long as it takes, and I’m still grieving.

However, this latest tragedy has pushed me to start thinking, again, about what needs to come after lamentation.

With regards to the Charleston shooting:

  • Continued focus on racism and discrimination here, in the local community
  • Continued focus on systemic racism in our country
    • self-education (listen, listen, listen– especially to the voices of the oppressed)
    • constructive dialog (help keep white folks I know ‘moving forward’)
    • Be an ally (listen and respond to requests, like that from the NAACP to petition SC government to stop flying the Confederate flag.)
  • Talk about the violence culture, be active in supporting gun control measures

With regards to the shooting in January, the third item, above, plus:

  • Work to increase the number and quality of resources for people with Mental Health issues locally
  • Continue to provide pastoral care for everyone impacted by the shooting.

My current wild and crazy idea is to require not just a criminal background check, but two ‘recommendations’ from family members, clergy, or mental health professionals before anyone is allowed to buy a gun.

I have to be honest…I’ve got a case of lamentation fatigue.  It’s too much.  I figured after Newtown, for sure, we’d have some reasonable legislation passed.  Enough is enough.  As a nation, we need to figure out what steps we might take ‘after lamentation.’

Love for the Long Haul

February 16, 2015

Last Sunday, I shared part of what, for me, has been a rich conversation about long term relationships.  I asked several couples in my congregation to share their thoughts on what enabled them to maintain long and happy marriages.  I asked several colleagues what helped them sustain long term ministries.  And then I asked the entire congregation to share their answers to two questions:  What are some of your richest and most long-standing relationships?  And what have these relationships taught you about love, life, and being human?

Here are their answers.  And below those answers are the answers from the folks I asked ahead of time, with some ‘bonus material.’  Enjoy!

Our richest and most long-standing relationships are with…

Griff…geo…cats…Jane…books…nature…art…crows…night skies and bright dawns…an inclusive community…my amazing, strong, resilient and inspiring mother…my beloved partner in life and love…my husband, our children and grandchildren, to whom I am bound in a unique way…my sister, who has known me all my life…my second marriage in which I am loved always, unconditionally, and the always evolving relationships with our grown children…my dear younger brother Xavier…John, my husband…Janet, my friend…my mother…my children…friends near and far…my spouse…Nagars (serpents, snake-beings, magical dragons)…my most important relationship is that with my wife….siblings..nieces and nephews…my children…ongoing friendships…former romantic partners…my husband…my friend Nell…my sister Rosia…Yoga…my sister who was given up for adoption by my parents, at birth (I met her when I was 37)…myself.

These relationships have taught us…

Fragility and strength, hope and dreams, kindness and beauty.  In the black wings of crow there is iridescent light, graceful flight, and trust.  The importance of selflessness and of giving to others.  To be fully, unashamedly, authentically myself.  That we only get this one life, and to live it with joy and gratitude every day. How very reciprocal these relationships are and have to be.  Over decades, we support and are supported, give and receive, annoy and are annoyed by, amuse and are amused by.  Whatever happened, our love prevailed.  I discovered that the power of our love can overcome most of our weaknesses.  Our love is power and helps give us the strength to keep on going, battling our inner demons.  Love brings us relief where we thought there was no more.  Faithfulness.  Caring.  Acceptance.  Love can disappoint, because it never is what you hope it to be.  Love can surprise, too, because it doesn’t leave you even if those you love most may die or become distant.  Nagars are challengers and supporters for being human.  They often help, sometimes challenge.  In many ways, they are humanity’s loyal opposition party.  Loving because they’re loyal.  Challenging because they’re in opposition.  Everyone has someone they know who is a nagar or nagi (female nagar), although they might not see it.  Love needs work.  I have learned that I don’t respond well to conflict,and so always must strive to reach out.  With every encounter (even when there’s friction, we share insights, encouragement, warmth and hope.  Humor and optimism, tenderness, eternality, humility, growth.  Love can happen immediately on meeting so you feel like you’ve always known and always loved.  My sister makes it OK to be me when I’m with her.  She validates me and introduces me to new ways of thinking, new perspectives.  Mary has always made me feel that because she is, I’m not so weird after all.  I’ve learned that even when I’m alone, I don’t need to be lonely, because I’m supported and surrounded by love.

Couples:

#1:  Married 48 ½ years:

We think our relationship has lasted because:

 We laugh a lot. You don’t notice the bumps much if you are laughing.

 We are compatible: We enjoy many of the same things and both like having adventures and variety.

  We agree on financial decisions and try to live within our means.

  We leave each other space but go in the same direction. We have always nurtured our own identities but do things together too.

 We try to overlook lapses in judgment, realizing that we are all imperfect.

 We celebrate each other’s accomplishments.

 We honor our marriage commitment and work out problems when they arise, realizing that there is no perfect relationship.

 We share work and make decisions together. It helps that we share core values. We continue to share parenting tasks (and yes, they continue even with adult children).

 We get through sorrows and focus on the many joys of our life together.

 Attitude is probably the greatest tool for sustaining relationships—and life in general. Focusing on what’s working and the good things makes for a more contented life. No relationship is perfect, and no life is perfect but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t always things to celebrate.

#2:  Married 49 years

Is there a magic formula for a successful long term relationship?  We don’t have one and different couples probably find different paths.  Of course loving each other is vital, but it also takes respect, support and being best friends. We were lucky in that we have the same values on the important concerns like religion, money, raising children etc., issues which are often causes of conflict in a relationship.  We even have similar tastes, so that designing and building a house together was one of our most satisfying experiences, not a cause for disagreements. But we don’t sweat the small stuff.  It’s really easy to go along happily with what your partner wants on most things.  The only problem is when you are both trying to defer to the other’s wishes.  We do share many interests like travel and dancing, but still maintain our separate activities.

 #3:  Married 49 years 

For a Long and Happy Marriage 

 We began with and continue to share many attitudes and perspectives.

  •  We both came from mainstream protestant families, have evolved together toward a tolerant humanist atheism. 
  • Doing the right thing is very important to both of us. 
  • We both believe that political involvement and especially voting are a civic obligation. We discuss politics freely.  We have voted in almost every election that we have been eligible for, and we probably voted the same way in almost all cases.
  • We share an appreciation for the local community.  That means don’t complain – get involved and help preserve what is good and change what needs changing.  We take seriously the adage to think globally, but act locally.
  • We have always been comfortable with joint accounts and joint financial decision making.  We’ve always had enough money, partly because we spend conservatively. We have always saved for the future, and we’re lousy shoppers.  We are willing to use our money support good causes, especially local ones.
  • We had the advantage of seven years of marriage to get to know each other before the children arrived.  While children can certainly dominate a family, those seven years as a couple helped us avoid total domination by the kids. 
  • Food and family meals. We share a passion for good food. We also believe that families should sit down together for around a table preferably several times a day for good food and conversation.

 

We could both have probably made more money and achieved more career distinction if we had made other career choices along the way.  However we have both loved our professional careers and neither of us is much prone to regret over what might have been.  The choices we did make have turned out well for both us as a couple and us as a family.

  • We are each our own persons. We both have hobbies and activities we do alone or with friends, but we also share many hobbies and interests that we like to do together. We are interested in each other’s projects but don’t need to participate in all of them.
  • We are true partners in our life together. Sure, there is a division of labor in the tasks of everyday living, but we can pinch hit for the other if it is necessary.
  • We both love travel. We can and do travel on our own on occasion, but are happiest traveling together.
  • Neither of us were particularly focused on having kids, but now can’t imagine not having them in our lives. We are very proud of our sons and their own families, and happy to see evidence of their lives growing up with us in the way they are making their own family lives.
  • We both have an appreciation of nature and outdoor activities – gardening, hiking, walking, snowshoeing, mushroom hunting, time on the river – and really feel lucky to live in such a beautiful place.
  • We both like to learn new skills and are always willing to try something new. This has resulted in a lot of clutter in our house, but it’s OK because it’s our clutter.

 Take the long view, live and let live, pick your fights, consider the alternatives – in nearly 50 years, there is bound to be something that irritates you once in a while. Life may not be perfect, but it’s pretty darn good. I think every day I feel lucky that we found each other and have had the good fortune to create such a happy and interesting life together.

The Long Haul: A Marriage Trip with Rebecca and Theresa – February 13, 2015

 Some of you may have heard the joke already – “What does a Lesbian bring along on the second date? – a U-haul.”  This is of course a reference to the stereotype that Lesbians –  being the mathematical equivalent of Women times 2 – have an intense “urge to merge” and so they begin a lived life together ASAP!!! 

 For Theresa and me, the desire to merge was pretty much like that, but we both had good rental situations at the time we met, so it wasn’t until about 6 months later when Theresa jumped on an opportunity to buy a small house that I ended up moving in with her, merging our stuff, as well as our lives.

 Now it has been over 23 years.  We have pulled that proverbial U-haul around to a few different physical locations in Moscow over that period of time, settling for the last 12+ years in our big house on the east edge of town as our longest-time, likely life-time, living destination, being quite happy here.  But don’t think the metaphorical U-haul of our relationship hasn’t had its share of wibble-wobbles along the way, hitting a few ruts here and there, and even careening off the road for a short spell some years back. 

 Yet we know we are in it for the Long Haul, and here are a few things (spiritual practices!) we have figured out along the way that have helped us stay together and grow stronger:

 First, the usual – humor, openness, honesty, appreciation, respect, conversation, listening, faithfulness…

 Things we like to do – have fun times together, respect each other’s interests & growth, do nice things for each other, say thank you (often), appreciate our independence from each other…

 Things we try to do/not do –  never go to bed angry, don’t take each other for granted, “rescue” each other when needed,  keep talking when we want to run, listen, listen, listen, be the first one to reach out instead of waiting for the other, do not diminish or embarrass each other in public even in joking…

 What’s kept us strong through the years? – Loving friends, family, and being part of a larger, loving, stable, embracing community (UUCP).  Having this kind of supportive safety net where people believe in you and your relationship makes a big difference.

 And so, the journey continues. We are thankful to have found each other, and for everyone that has been, and will be, a part of it.

40-year friendship

We had different childhoods- her parents were wild and mine were rigid. So I know I liked her house for the lax rules where she liked mine for the structure. We have always communicated our likes and dislikes about each others lives and choices. We shared many fun childhood adventures, sleepovers, sledding in the sump, hanging out in the local game room. Shared our first boy experiences. Having different lives that change over time to share some of the same pains and troubles. Our paths have been separated by distance but when it truly counts we are there for each other. She lives in Montana but came to NY when mom passed. We choose to stay in touch. We ask for guidance and help from each others strengths. Every long term relationship has ebb and flows but it is a choice to keep it going…the become a part of you a new family.

Clergy

Rick Davis, Salem, OR, 22 years:

Until I came to Salem over 22 years ago, I had moved around a great deal in my life.  Likewise, the congregation in Salem had had ministers come and go, none settling in for long.  The longest ministry before mine was that of William Ellery Copeland (named after William Ellery Channing) who served about seven years at the end of the 19th century before ill health forced him to retire to a utopian socialist commune up in the Olympic Peninsula.

 So, we (the congregation and I) were both primed to try something radically different – to see how a long term commitment might play out.  There’s plenty enough coming and going in our world, and, yes, it is true that everything changes, but finding some stability and a deep sense of loyalty still has its place.  This relatively long time we’ve been together has given our affections a chance to deepen and grow.  I’ve officiated at the weddings of those I once knew as little children, and I’ve often wept as we’ve said goodbye to so many beloved, sometimes quirky, wonderful members at memorial services.

 We all understood from the beginning that change would be a constant part of the equation.  At the moment we’re trying to get used to two Sunday services again.  There has been some conflict and misunderstanding, but we have been always been willing to sit down and work through that and get to the other side with no lingering residue of bitterness or misunderstanding. 

  They say that you should never enter into a relationship with an eye toward changing the other – that you accept what you get or you shouldn’t get in at all.  We accepted one another as we were.  Paradoxically, it is such acceptance that has created opportunities for growth.

 As long as this has lasted, we know that it won’t last forever, although we don’t really talk much about that.  I’m still learning and growing and still feel called to stick to my post.  We have some ways to go before we hand the torch to those who will come after.  It’s good that we have gotten to bear it together this good length of time.

Dennis Hamilton, 27 years, Carrollton, TX

I retired after 27 wonderful years serving the Horizon UU Church in Carrollton, Texas.  I say the ministry has made me a better person than I really want to be.  It has called me to be more patient, more loving, more understanding than I would have been if I were not called to be a minister.  It helped me to think about the fact that I was serving as a representative of all the ministers who came before me, who bore the same burdens and experienced the same joys.  It called me to a deeper understanding of people, to a generosity of spirit and heart that is its own reward.  We grew together.  The congregation forgave me many mistakes, slights, incompetence and bloopers.  But I was faithful to them.  I never betrayed them or took them for granted.  It was a privilege to serve them, to love them and to live a life in the ministry.  It was worth the effort. 

Roger Berchausen, 25 years, Fox Valley UU Fellowship, Appleton, WI

For me one of the keys has been keeping it fresh and interesting. Growth in numbers has helped that happen: I’ve been able to serve in a small, mid-sized and large congregation all in the same place. This has forced me to reinvent my ministry on the fly. But more than anything I feel like I’ve been really blessed that my congregation mostly lives by their covenant to provide their ministers and lay leaders with steadfast love. Not always like (though mostly). But love. I hope I’ve been able to give that gift back.

Elizabeth Greene, 25 years, Boise, ID

A genuine test of love:  commitment, as often as possible, putting the relationship above (or at least equal to) the individual needs; spiritual practice, with a deep respect for each other’s theological/spiritual positions; lots of laughter and tears; from my 12-step practice, a life of rigorous honesty, taking inventory of the self(ves) constantly; for the minister, a certain amount of humility, saying you’re sorry every time you’re even remotely in the wrong—immediately, without reservation;  for the congregation, realizing we are all humans in this together, ready to walk in each other’s shoes, to forgive and be forgiven, over and over and over; sharing ministry, which means that the professional minister needs to step aside frequently and act as a catalyst and/or observer, while the laity understands its profound responsibility to keep the place running in an open, loving, as-organized-as-possible way.

I see a lot of people making the assumption that participating in #BlackLivesMatter protests shows a lack of respect or support for law enforcement personnel.  NYC mayor Bill de Blasio asked that the protests stop until the two officers tragically slain by Ismaaiyl Brinsley are buried.  The Police Union in Cleveland demanded an apology from their football team for wearing t-shirts supportive of the movement.

In less public moments, this dynamic plays out when folks (mostly white folks) respond to comments or postings on the issue by pointing out what a dangerous job it is to be a police officer.  I’ve also seen police officers who attempt to support the movement accused of being ‘traitors.’  This attempt to polarize the issue, to create a ‘for and against,’ confuses me.

Here’s the thing:  to kill an unarmed person is to go against the fundamental instinct to preserve life.  It creates a soul wound.  The refusal of ‘the system’ to hold police officers accountable for this tragic mistake…dare I say, this sin…compounds the wound.  When a human being makes a mistake, the path to healing leads through accepting responsibility to apologizing to restoring relationship.

The kind of people that we want policing us are the kind of people who take their responsibility and their power seriously– the kind of people who would be devastated should their fear drive them to kill someone needlessly.  Any work that we are able to do to address systemic racism and create accountability will ultimately help them, too.  So while- of course- the primary reason to do the work is to prevent tragic deaths from happening in the first place, one also hopes that it will help to protect the integrity and soul-health of law enforcement officers.

Following up on the Forum

December 16, 2014

Last Thursday, I participated on a forum called ‘Lessons from Ferguson.’  My co-panelists included Moscow Police Chief David Duke, U of I journalism professor Steve Smith, and Vivi Gonzales, director of diversity at the ASUI.  Over a hundred people attended and the Daily News wrote an extended article that appeared on the front page the next day.  I shared the story of my trip to Ferguson.  Professor Smith talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in media coverage of the events in Ferguson and beyond.  Chief Duke talked about the problems in policing that are generating so much heat across the country, and shared the ways he tries to keep those problems out of the Moscow police force by focusing on ethics and diversity.  Ms. Gonzales spoke of the bad reputation that Northern Idaho has due to the white supremacist organization that used to be in Coeur d’Alene.  She also shared a heartbreaking story of her own brother being subjected to racial epithets at a soccer game.  We can do better, Idahoans!

Three of the panelists and most of the people who asked questions were white.  That’s not going to work going forward.  We need to step back and make (safe) space for people with stories of discrimination and oppression to share them.  If my I can use my privilege as a white clergyperson to help establish and enforce ground rules that make the space safer, I’m happy to do so.  Otherwise, I’ll just sit and listen and support the effort in whatever way I am asked.

There was a ‘teachable moment’ that we missed.  A woman named Sharlese (sp??) shared that she doesn’t like people asking her where she’s from.  She’s like people to get to know who she is rather than trying to fit her into a category.  A little while later, an older, white male with an accent stood up and claimed he ought to be able to ask people where they’re from; the group laughed it off and asked him where he was from.  But truthfully, his question was defensive.  We’ve got to be willing to listen WITHOUT getting defensive.  We need to be teachable, and I wish I had been quicker on the uptake and able to say so in a way that he could hear.

The most important thing about the forum was that it showed that there is considerable energy around unraveling racism here in the Palouse.  Here is my prayer:  May that energy be converted into truth-telling, and transformation, and healing. And my promise:  I’ll do whatever I can to help!

No justice. No peace.

November 25, 2014

My Twitter and Facebook feeds are full of thoughtful analysis, rallying cries, beautiful poems and prayers.  They are also full of grief and rage and frustration- as they should be.  Let’s pause and acknowledge what just happened:

A door slammed shut, a door that could have led to a better future.  Unlikely though it may seem, especially in retrospect, the law enforcement community could have used this moment and this momentum to transform themselves.  Prosecutor McCulloch might have done his job, which was to build enough of a case against Darren Wilson to make a trial a viable option.  Had the Grand Jury indicted Darren Wilson, last night could have been the first step on a journey toward greater police accountability, toward an acknowledgement of the pervasive racism in our ‘justice’ system and our nation, toward a peace built together.  It could have been a moment when ‘business as usual’ gave way to new understandings and deeper compassion.

Instead, not only was the verdict a slap in the face to everyone who has dedicated time, money, energy and love to the cause of securing justice for Mike Brown, it was delivered in such a way as to ensure that justifiable rage and grief would overflow into violence.  I am not a conspiracy theorist, but it seems to me that the steps the governor took during the lead-up to the announcement, the choice to announce at night, and the interminable and abusive thirty minutes that Prosecutor McCulloch spent saying things that HAD to have been deliberately chosen to inflame add up to a rather sinister plan to trigger riots and looting.  I am not a violent person, either, but I wanted to punch McCulloch.

Frankly, I wanted to punch President Obama, too.  His plea for a non-violent response felt like pure hypocrisy layered on top of a masterful campaign to turn things ugly.  What I wanted to hear my president say?  “We are horrified at this gross miscarriage of justice.  Rest assured, there will be a full investigation at the Federal level.”  Full stop.

This morning, all of us who care are still reeling.  I feel bruised and battered, and I know that my feelings as a white ally can only reflect a fraction of what people of color are feeling…and their pain is only a fraction of what the people closest to Mike Brown will be living with for the rest of their lives.

I think we need to stay here for a moment; we need to pause in the pain, the confusion, the frustration, the rage at the slammed door, the slap in the face.  We need to gather our strength and our resolve for a time.  Because when the way is shut, there is nothing for it but to turn, and find another way.

I don’t know what that other way might look like. I know it is likely to be a lot more difficult to find and to navigate.  Perhaps in places other than Ferguson, there is still hope that we can ease the door back open.  We can have conversations with police officers where we are.  We can talk about racial profiling and body cameras and anti-oppressive training.  We can serve on police oversight committees, and if such committees don’t exist, we can lobby our municipal governments to form them.

If none of that works, well, I have tremendous faith in the generation of brilliant young leaders of color who showed up in Ferguson.  They will find the new way.  The path will be carved out of hard, unforgiving soil; we have to excavate the depths of this nation’s racist history.  We have to be willing to start with ourselves, to crack open our hearts and dig out the lingering traces of defensiveness and privilege.  I am standing by, pick ax and shovel close to hand.

But for now, a pause, and a rallying cry that has turned into a confession:  No justice.  No peace.

March for Survival

September 19, 2014

Each of us can take steps to reduce our carbon footprint.  However, without changes made on the level of national and international policy, the level of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to rise to the point where less and less of the earth’s surface are hospitable to life- human, plant and animal.  No one wants this to happen.

Yet many of us feel immobilized by the scope and complexity of the problem.  We feel disempowered by a political system where key players on all sides are in bed with big oil.  It’s sort of like being on an out of control train, heading toward a deep ravine with no bridge.  We know disaster is coming.  We don’t know what to do to stop it.

Or at least…we didn’t know.  Next week, world leaders are meeting at the United Nations for a Climate Summit.  These are the folks who have the power to put on the brakes! In advance of the summit, there will be massive demonstration involving over 1400 different organizations and over 100,000 people in the streets of NYC.  Simultaneous demonstrations are planned around the world- including here in the Palouse, where the Palouse Environmental Sustainability Coalition (PESC) is planning a peaceful “March for Survival” on Sunday, September 21st.  (See www.sustainablepalouse.org for details.)

This is the moment when our bodies, our participation in these events, can make a difference.  Show up at the Quality Inn in Pullman at 2 pm and walk.  Show up at Friendship Square in Moscow at 6pm for a potluck, drumming, and speakers.  Help get the message across:  we want to stop this train, so that our children and our children’s children can have a future.

Things I Learned in Ferguson

September 4, 2014

Many people are writing and reporting on the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. I am tempted to simply list some of the more accurate articles; after all, I am just a white chick who jetted in for the big Labor Day protest and jetted home again once it was over. However, I learned a ton while I was there. By writing about it, I hope to both help myself remember what I learned, and to share these insights with the folks who read my blog.

Lesson One:  Don’t believe what you see on television. I expected to witness chaos, devastation, and drama. Instead, I saw a community coming together to try to address deep systemic issues and individuals trying to get back to their normal lives. The looters got plenty of screen time; meanwhile, we haven’t heard or seen much about the local folks who shut the looters down, and protected local businesses with their bodies. Yes, many people are angry (see below) but things are not out of control. And the folks who restored order were, by and large, the people who live there – not the people with the badges, guns, tear gas and tanks.  

Lesson Two:  The protests in Ferguson are not just about what happened to Michael Brown. They’re not even about the outrageous, out-of-control militarized response to the initial protests.  Protesters are hoping to shine a light on issues that run deep.

I saw a lot of families on the march, mothers who point to the very long list of people of color wrongly profiled and killed by police, and the very short list of officers held accountable for their actions. One woman (a college professor) said, “It basically feels like open season.  If things don’t change, it could be one of my boys that gets killed.”  Another woman, a pastor, shared the story of her son who was shot while handcuffed, the wound on the right side of his skull even though he was left handed. Yet the police insisted it was suicide, and six years later, she still has no answers and no justice.

People invest a lot of energy into trying to prove that these victims were ‘thugs’ or somehow behaved in a way that warranted such a violent and permanent response.  (This ‘thugification’ is, in my book, abusive.  Can’t we let the families mourn?  Imagine losing a loved one and in the midst of your grief, having the entire nation weigh in and judge him.)  Folks on the ground know that it’s not just ‘thugs’ that get killed.  They also know that even victims who ARE involved in drug trade/crime/etc. are theoretically protected by policies and procedures that keep deadly force as a last resort…and they know that those policies and procedures are all too often ignored in real life.  This means that no one is safe, and people are scared for their kids. 

People were talking about The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.  They were pointing out that the US has 6% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners, disproportionately people with brown and black skin. I learned about the specific ways municipalities in St. Louis County persecute and exploit people of color. In Feguson, with a population of just over 21,000 people, the police issued over 32,000 citations, mostly for traffic violations. Fees from traffic violation are the second largest source of income in the city’s budget. Most of these traffic violations are pretty minor- and people of color are, of course, stopped at a disproportionately high rate.  If you happen to be poor, and can’t pay your tickets, the stakes ramp up pretty quickly…higher fees, then warrants for your arrest.  This article in the Washington Post shares a disgustingly typical story:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2014/09/03/how-st-louis-county-missouri-profits-from-poverty/

Michael Brown’s story is one of literally thousands that have systemic racism as their root cause. As tragic as these deaths are, they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Lesson Three:  While the entire black community agrees that these problems exist, different folks have different ideas on how to address them.  Some people seem to distrust not just police and the justice system, but community leaders, churches, and organizations. Others are trying to mobilize political power by encouraging people to vote. Still others propose specific policies (body cameras, independent review of all police homicides) to address specific issues.  It was awkward to watch this tension play out, especially as an ‘outsider.’

Attitudes toward the presence of white folks varied, as well.  Many people expressed gratitude to us for being there, and no one was unpleasant to me personally. However, it was also made clear that there were spaces where white people weren’t welcome. After watching some really unskillful behavior by a couple of folks, I really understand why. It’s so important for people who aspire to being white allies to understand that none of this is about us.  We are not at the center of the struggle, or at the front.  At best, we can be quietly supportive.  We can pray.  We can show up.  

The most valuable thing we can do is to have those difficult conversations with other white folk in our family or our social circle who perhaps aren’t as aware of the effects of systemic racism…so that black folks don’t have to.  We can choose to be learners, always listening and processing and, hopefully, becoming more skillful in our attempts to support the black community and work for justice and compassion within our own community. Then we can pass on what we’ve learned in a caring and compassionate way.

We’re looking at a big, complex problem, and there are no magic bullets or easy solutions. I know that shaming one another doesn’t help.  I know that denial doesn’t help.  I know that white folk tend to be intimidated by black anger, myself included, and yet I also know that black folk have the right to be really angry. It’s not fair to expect people to conform to cultural norms which require calm, rational discourse.  The pain is raw, and so the anger is raw.  

So we can also work on developing our capacity to be present to that rawness.  It doesn’t help to take it personally. It really doesn’t help to reinforce and perpetuate a sick stereotypes of ‘the angry black man’ or ‘the angry black woman.’ Yes, some of the folks I met were angry and upset.  They were also intelligent, insightful, and working really hard to figure out a way forward.  I encourage you to read this account of ‘the Crew’ by Pastor Renita Marie:  

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pastor-renita-marie-mdiv/love-always-wins_b_5757066.html  

I am still processing the experience, and there are new lessons being offered up almost every day.  Perhaps the most important is this:  

Lesson Four:  Change comes hard, and it takes a long time.  We need to continue to pay attention.  We need to resist the unrelenting push of the news cycle and stay focused.  And…we need to do the work of unraveling racism WHERE WE ARE, with the people we love and serve.  

This is “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” by William Stafford:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider–
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give–yes or no, or maybe–
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

 

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