Centering for Freedom

Rev. LoraKim Joyner, DVM

I was born into a racist culture and family – specifically in Atlanta, Georgia. We moved to Northern Virginia in 1968, only a few months before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. My parents enrolled me in Louise Archer Elementary School an all African American school, founded in a black neighborhood mostly fenced off from white suburbs. I started only a few months after the school had been desegregated and I was in the first batch of white children to attend.

I found myself making friends quickly Thea, who I invited home so that we could practice a school play. She lived nearby, but on that the other side of that fence, which we climbed to get to my house. My mother came home from work and saw us playing in the living room and told me to get Thea to leave. As soon as she left my mother slapped my face and said, "Don’t you ever bring another _______ into this house again.

My family has a lot of work to do and so do I to combat that training of seeing more worth in some than others, undoing the fear that I would be loved less if I thought any differently. Though my example is more extreme than many, none of us escape this enculturation.

My family is not just my biologic nuclear family, but it is my cultural family anchored here in the USA. I didn't know how that family had trained me into a dominating colonizing culture until I started to work in Latin America. I consulted with the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery project. Once a million of these lived on the island precolonization, but by 1973, only 14 remained

The indigenous people were long gone due to European colonization, and the parrot nearly went extinct due to the large deforestation of the island after the USA invasion and colonization in 1898. The USA collapsed the Puerto Rican economy and put sugar cane all over the island. Due to extreme efforts the parrot numbers somewhat rebounded. But the recent hurricanes this late summer, Irma and Maria, devastated the people and the parrots there, vulnerable due to past and ongoing extraction economies, and instutionalized racist business, taxation, and aid practices.

My human, USA family has a lot of work to do, and so do I because I benefited and continue to do so at the cost of the many. None of us escapes the work to stop this extraction and domination economy that marginalizes and colonizes.

I responded to the work my human family and I had to do by taking up the call to UU Ministry. My sense of family grew to incorporate Unitarian Universalism. While preparing for the ministry I learned the long, hard, and painful history of how Unitarian Universalists had made many mistakes in how people of color were treated in our movement, as evidenced by this book, multiple painful episodes since, and ongoing ones as evidences in this book.

My UU family has a lot of work to do. I know this because I am at the forefront of a UU movement to understand how what harms animals, also harms humans. We ask how extending our sense of the inherent worth and dignity to individuals of all species helps humans too. This work brings up the pain and loss of how deficient UUs have been with people, as well as other species. This is uncomfortable, painful, and stressful, and it seems that none of us can say or do the right thing. Sound like fun? It is hard, but there is a tang of freedom in the air. You are invited to join us as various possible denominational change, votes, and study groups are coming in the future, including reading this book. My family is doing the work, and we need to do more, for we have not won freedom yet

Our work for freedom means addressing intersectionality. Intersectionality means that oppression is experienced differently based on our various identities. Women experience oppression differently than men, and blacks different from whites, and hence black women experience oppression from being both black and female. The corollary is also true - we benefit from a system that oppressed others based on our identities and locations of privilege. I am white human North American from the lower middle class -this gives me privileges that others have, and oppressions that others don’t have.

Intersectionality also means that there are core oppressions that intersect all identities. Some call this core oppression patriarchy, which isn't really about men, so relax guys. It is a culture based on seeing different others as less than, which is tied to dominance, power over, white supremacy, and inequality, all of which catch each of us in a sticky web of harm and benefit.

What does the work of intersectionality look like?

First off, it is not shame or blame or pointing fingers at who oppresses more or is oppressed more. We all are enculturated to be oppressors and oppressed. We are not to blame, but we are responsible. All of us.

The world has lived with 500 years of modernity and colonization to hide the reality that we are inextricably tied to one another and all life in beauty, tragedy, and death. "Wishing for life at any price continuously calls forth death - the death of other people, other beings, the extinguishing of languages, ideas cultures, and worst of all, possibilities and degrees of freedom" (Andrea Weber). We all are trapped. Our work for freedom is undoing the core oppression for our co-liberation. For this liberation we must learn to live without fear and to die courageously.

This is a death of individualism so that all are centered. In the circle of life, the suffering of another is also ours. In the countries I work in Latin America there is constant evidence of the devastation of colonialism and USA foreign policy. The people I work with, descendants of disappeared indigenous cultures and slaves, and the dearth of wildlife, do not let me forget it. But I am so alive there for it takes everything I’ve got to show up and be vulnerable. What began as a wound ends in a caressing touch. I’m undone and then made whole.

The work for freedom means we center the marginalized voices. Our individualism dies every time we allow another to speak. And we are born again.

We must center what we marginalize within ourselves. Miki Kashton, a leader in Nonviolent Communication, told me a few weeks ago to not believe a thing you grew up thinking or doing, for it was all based on core oppressions. We need to lay aside the armor that doesn't protect us, but fetters us. Let us lay that burden down.

We must center ourselves in history, ecology, and biology. We must look at past societal practices and how we have been harmed and benefited. Thanks goodness for our neuroplastic brains which are ready to believe that power over is the only way to meet our needs, but can also learn that cooperation and co-liberation brings flourishing to many lives. We must accept that we will die and no level of control will stop that. We must embrace t reality - to accept all that is now and also, paradoxically, do everything in our power to change it. We are so powerful in freedoms return embrace.

I am glad that this month's theme for our journey groups is resilience because we tread a fragile path of feeling shame, separation, and oppression, but there is joy lurking in that journey. We can take a beginning step by sharing our social location when we meet with others, without shame or blame, being honest of our privilege and oppression. We confess. Here is an example.

My name is LoraKim Joyner. I identify as a white human heterosexual female of European descent raised in the southern USA in the lower middle class, 2 generations from Alabama sharecroppers, currently living outside of NY City. My childhood was full of experiences and hard lessons taught from family, friends, the surrounding society, and a dominant oppressive culture that acculturated within me the trappings of privilege, white domination, human domination, as well as victimhood. I am also a mother and grandmother of people who identify as of European/indigenous descent from Honduras. My work in the world is as conservationist throughout Latin America, wildlife veterinarian, Unitarian Universalist minister, and a Compassionate Communication trainer and practitioner.

All of this history and categories of oppression and oppressor cannot be unwoven from my relationships. They form me but they do not bind me. We can help each other loose these chains of bondage by sharing how my message and this congregation intersect with your identities, experiences, and locations of oppression and privilege.

I am held rapt by the power and hope of freedom won together, for none are free until all are free. My father in his older years nearly died of heart failure, but miraculously a heart match was found for him quickly. He was a small man so the heart of an African descent girl who had died in a car accident became his. My parents were grateful, and softened.

Let us not let death, or the fear of death, keep us from giving our hearts to one another.


Centering 1: Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging"

Rev. Meredith Garmon

This is the first in a series of reflections on the essays collected in Mitra Rahnema, editor, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry (Skinner House, 2017). In this post, I reflect on Darrick Jackson, "Othering and Belonging."

The Stress of Being Black

Shortly before I began reading Centering, I heard a story on NPR's Morning Edition that brought home in a particularly poignant way one of the myriad effects of US racial prejudice. The Center for Disease Control has reported on the infant mortality rate per 1,000 live births in 2015. For white nonhispanic Americans, the rate was 4.8%. For Hispanics, it was 5.2%. For black nonhispanic Americans, it was 11.7% -- more than twice the rate for whites. OK, that's appalling. But why is it happening? Is it poverty? Is it genetics? NPR's Rhitu Chaterjee and Rebecca Davis reported:
"Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African-American women so vulnerable to losing their babies. Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term." ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
The essence of the matter is stress on the mother. Stress causes early labor, thus premature births, thus higher infant mortality. This gives us a very concrete manifestation of the stress of being black in America.
"Even educated, middle-class African-American women were at a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies with a lower chance of survival....Black and white teenage mothers growing up in poor neighborhoods both have a higher risk of having smaller, premature babies. 'They both have something like a 13 percent chance of having a low birth weight baby.'...But in higher-income neighborhoods where women are likely to be slightly older and more educated, 'among white women, the risk of low birth weight drops dramatically to about half of that, whereas for African-American women, it only drops a little bit.' In fact, today, a college-educated black woman is more likely to give birth prematurely than a white woman with a high school degree....Some people suggested that the root cause may be genetics. But if genes are at play, then women from Africa would also have the same risks...[But] babies of immigrant women from West Africa...were more like white babies — they were bigger and more likely to be full term. So, it clearly isn't genetics....[Moreover,] the grandchildren of African immigrant women were born smaller than their mothers had been at birth. In other words, the grandchildren were more likely to be premature, like African-American babies....Meanwhile, the grandchildren of white European immigrant women were bigger than their mothers when they were born....'So, there was something about growing up black in the United States and then bearing a child that was associated with lower birth weight.'...What is different about growing up black in America is discrimination....'It's hard to find any aspect of life that's not impacted by racial discrimination, whether you're talking about applying for a job, or purchasing a new car, finding housing, getting education....' Higher education and income did not necessarily mean people experienced less discrimination....In 2004, David and Collins published a study...in which they reported the connection between a mother's experience of racism and preterm birth. They asked women about their housing, income, health habits and discrimination. 'It turned out that as a predictor of a very low birth weight outcome, these racial discrimination questions were more powerful than asking a woman whether or not she smoked cigarettes.'...Other studies have shown the same results. ("How Racism May Cause Black Mothers To Suffer The Death Of Their Infants," Morning Edition, 2017 Dec 20)
In what does this extra race-based stress consist? For some details, I looked at J.B.W. Tucker's "The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post"." A few lowlights:

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that Blacks are less than 13% of the populations, yet, as best we can tell since many police departments do not report, blacks are 31% of all fatal police shooting victims, and 39% of those killed by police when not attacking. Yes, it's worth remembering that 61% of the "killed by police when not attacking" category are not blacks. Still, the number that are is disproportionate.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that young black males, ages 15-19, are 21 times more likely to be to be shot and killed by the police than young white males. Between 2005 and 2008, 80% of NYPD stop-and-frisks were of blacks and Latinos. Only 10% of stops were of whites. 85% of those frisked were black; only 8% were white. Only 2.6% of all stops (1.6 million stops over 3.5 years) resulted in the discovery of contraband or a weapon. Whites were more likely to be found with contraband or a weapon.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that blacks (remember, 13% of the U.S. population) are 14% of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 56% of those in state prisons for drug offenses.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that one in every 15 black men are currently incarcerated, while for white men the statistic is 1 in 106. Prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes in recent years.

The stress of being black in America comes from the fact that whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color -- and that a black college student has the same chances of getting a job as a white high school dropout. For every dollar a white man makes, white women make 78¢, black men make 72¢, black women make 64¢.

The stress of being black in America comes from Voter ID laws, which do not prevent voter fraud, but do disenfranchise millions of young people, minorities, and elderly, who disproportionately lack the necessary government IDs.

The stress of being black in America comes from news reporting that regards black lives as less significant. African American children comprise 33.2% of missing children cases, but only 19.5% of cases reported in the media.

The stress of being black in America comes from knowing that financial institutions expect to be able to exploit you and take advantage of you. In 2009, bailed-out banks such as Wells Fargo and others were found to have pushed minority borrowers who qualified for prime loans into subprime loans, which can add more than $100,000 in interest payments to a mortgage over the life of the loan. Among high-income borrowers in 2006, African Americans were three times as likely as whites to pay higher prices for mortgages: 32.1% compared to 10.5%. Black car buyers are charged $700 more on average than white car buyers of the same car.

The stress of being black in America comes from consciously or unconsciously racist real estate agents. When looking for a home, black clients looking to buy are shown 17.7% fewer houses for sale, and black renters learn about 11 percent fewer rental units.

The stress of being black in America comes from facing hiring discrimination. In one study thousands of identical resumes were mailed to prospective employers -- identical except only for the name. A black sounding name – say, Daunte Williams instead of David Williams – was 50% less likely to be called back. Fifty percent.

The stress of being black in America comes from a medical establishment and a political establishment that doesn't care about you as much as it does for white folks. Doctors did not inform black patients as often as white ones about the option of an important heart catheterization procedure. White legislators – in both political parties -- did not respond as frequently to constituents with black sounding names.

"The Ultimate White Privilege Statistics and Data Post" has a lot more data . If you don't know it, take a look.

Darrick's Dilemma

It's a good idea to have this reality clearly in mind as one begins reading Centering. Were it not for this reality, then Rev. Derrick Jackson's essay, "Othering and Belonging," which opens the book might seem to be merely Rev. Jackson's statement that his preferences in worship style differ from most other UUs.

Rev. Jackson was raised in the AME Church. When he says, "I often ache for the music that makes my heart soar," he means the kind of music he was used to growing up. Whether Jackson also thinks that this music is objectively better, more heart-soaring, regardless of one's upbringing, isn't entirely clear. That is, is typical UU worship music different from AME worship music because UUs find a different style of music makes their hearts soar, or because UUs prefer not to have their hearts soar in worship? I don't know what Jackson would say, but sometimes he seems to imply the latter:
"Music can evoke a deep spiritual strength in me that helps me transcend the issues and concerns in my life. In worship, it can help me connect with the theme for the service in a visceral way. But most UU hymns feel like vehicles for the words, not for an experience of the holy." (4-5)
The point seems to be more than just that Jackson personally doesn't experience the holy in UU hymns, but that UUs have opted for hymns in which human beings generally will not experience the holy.

The same goes for sermons. UUs "look for sermons that make them think and find sermons that stir the heart lacking" (5). Again: is it that other UUs find their hearts stirred by a different kind of sermon from the kind that stirs Jackson's heart? Or do UUs prefer sermons that don't stir their hearts? Jackson's implication seems to be the latter. When he says "I want to touch the heart, to nurture the soul," he implies that "the intellectual sermon" typical of UUs doesn't do those things.

I suspect Jackson is mostly right about that, but that that's not the whole story. Suppose we grant that  typical UU sermons touch UU worshipers' hearts less than AME sermons touch AME worshipers' hearts. Even so, those UU sermons do touch the hearts and nurture the souls of many listeners more than they do Jackson's -- and a more AME-styled sermon would touch their hearts less than it would  Jackson's.

It's possible, I think, to be both intellectual and heart-stirring. A. Powell Davies' sermons made worshipers think and also quickened their pulses, fortified their spirits, and expanded their souls. Granted, even Davies wasn't universally appealing -- even in his time, and even among worshipers theologically aligned with Davies, some worshipers found the thinking getting in the way of the feeling and would have preferred more feeling. For the great bulk of preachers less gifted than Rev. Davies, the either/or of mind OR emotion/body/spirit is transcended less far and less often. The practical reality is that one side or the other will be emphasized. Sunday after Sunday, the average UU minister leans more to the intellectual than the average AME minister, and the average UU worshiper is less heart-stirred and more mind-stimulated than the average AME worshiper. Is that a bad thing? Or are both groups pretty much getting what they want and what feeds them?

Here's why it's a problem. At the first level, people want both their theological preferences and their worship-style preferences satisfied. If worship-style preferences were the only dividing line among US congregations then having different congregations with different worship styles would be all we needed. But Americans also fall into different theological groupings. People who, like Jackson, have a theology that is liberal but a worship-style preference that is body-experiential and emotive currently have no very satisfactory home. I do believe that Unitarian Universalism must make itself into a more satisfactory home for people like Jackson -- or Unitarian Universalism will (and will deserve to) whither and die.

At the second and deeper level, my phrase "worship-style preference" must now be exposed as misleading. There are worship needs at stake that are not mere preferences. And Jackson's experience cannot be reduced (as, so far, I have been doing -- in order to now expose its reductiveness) to the experience of finding UU worship different from the worship to which he happened to have grown up accustomed. What's at issue isn't just a fond nostalgia for childhood church experiences.

Race is fundamental to all our experience (though whites find this easier to ignore -- that's part of our privilege), and Jackson's experience as a black American is fundamental to his. This is why I began this post with an extended account of the stresses of being black in America. The music and preaching of AME worship is not accidental. Such worship emerged and was sustained because it responded to the needs (not "preferences") of a community under tremendous stress.

Nor is the music and preaching of historically-typical UU worship accidental. It is a response to the needs of people whose bodies are not at risk, who have sufficient physical security to indulge the luxury of philosophical exploration. They -- let me say, we -- may, indeed, find our hearts stirred and souls cultivated (interestingly distinct from "nurtured," isn't it?) by these explorations because we can take for granted a certain basic belongingness. Our experience of alienation and partiality (i.e., not feeling whole) is based more in ideas than in direct threats to our bodies, so our path of healing depends more on engaging with ideas. It's not that the ideas we explore in worship don't touch our hearts and lift our spirits -- for our predominantly white, middle-class congregations, they often do. But (a) they don't do much to touch Darrick Jackson's heart or lift his spirit, and (b) folks like Jackson won't find their hearts much touched or spirits much lifted in worship unless that worship addresses the fundamental stresses to which their lives are subjected.

How Can This Change?

If belongingness is the, or at least a, fundamental psychospiritual need of corporate worship, the belongingness that UU worship has tended to provide for its predominantly white, well-educated congregations is reassurance of a place within the structures of white privilege. Our community-building provides networking for mostly whites. Our pastoral sermons have often assured congregants "you're OK" within a system of unjust privilege.  Our social action has flowed at least partly from an attempt to conscientiously deploy our privileges to "do good" -- and thereby make ourselves feel that we deserve to have these privileges, and are "at home" with them. In short, the belongingness our worship and our congregations have offered is belongingness within white power. (Yes, we have occasionally been able to extend that belongingness to a few people of color -- but this is because the structures of white power themselves admit a few exceptional people of color.)

The challenge is to proffer a different kind of belongingness. At first, we would offer it mostly to white people because those are currently most of the people in our congregations. The new ground of belongingness that I have in mind depends on identifying with -- not just sympathizing or even empathizing with -- the sufferings and stresses of all people. Their suffering is apprehended as my suffering; their stress is understood as my stress.
"All the pains, the joys, the sufferings, the cries of everyone in the universe are as such my own pain, my joy, my suffering, my cry....A straightforward look at our present world as it is will manifest the state of suffering of countless living beings, those suffering in the midst of dehumanizing poverty, where malnourished babies die every minute, and where many continue to die victims of violence both individual and structural. All this is my very own suffering, and my body is racked with pain from all sides. And I cannot remain complacent and unconcerned; I am literally inspired by an inner dynamism to be involved in the alleviation of this pain and suffering, in whatever capacity I am able." (Ruben Habito)
Darrick Jackson observes that UUs tend to find "sermons that stir the heart lacking." Even if we are allowed the qualification that we love sermons that stir our hearts, it's true that we haven't much cared for the kind of worship that is healing for people who live under much greater social stresses than middle-class whites. If we are to become a people who appreciate, who yearn for, who need the kind of worship that theologically liberal American blacks like Rev. Jackson appreciate, yearn for, and need, then we need a theology that takes on the stresses blacks face as our very own. Care, of course, must be taken not to do this appropriatively, and not to claim any of the moral high ground that comes from being a voice of the oppressed. We can't speak or act or judge as, for, or on behalf of the oppressed. We can simply take in the pain and grasp it as our own.

We can revise one of our hymns -- Sarah Dan Jones' "Meditation on Breathing," which goes:
When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love
We can replace this with something more like tonglen practice, in which we take in the suffering of ourselves and others on the in-breath, and on the out-breath send back compassion to ourselves and all who suffer. A single word change yields:
When I breathe in, I breathe in pain.
When I breath out, I breathe out love.
After about 10 minutes of chanting that, even white UUs with PhDs might be ready and eager for the most joyful, emotive, embodied, lively, shouting and dancing worship that Darrick Jackson could imagine.

And if not, well, it would still be a start.


Steadfast in the Craziness

Rev. Meredith Garmon, Oct 3

Hurricane Maria brought suffering to millions in Puerto Rico. Water is in short supply, the power is out on much of the island, communications are down, and temperatures are hitting 44 degrees C -- which is 112 F. It's a deadly dangerous situation for critically ill hospital patients. The San Juan airport is packed with people there to get a one-way ticket off the island.

In Las Vegas, Steven Paddock fired from a hotel into a concert crowd, killing 59 and injuring about 500 more.

Our distress at these two disasters is compounded by our country's tepid response. In the one case, thankfully, aid is arriving in Puerto Rico. Getting it distributed to the places it is most needed remains a huge challenge which we could do more to help address. In the other case, the most needed response is reasonable gun control legislation -- which our legislature is incapable of passing.

Other calamities of recent months include the Transgender Military Ban, the rescinding of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), violence and white supremacy in Charlottesville.

The world may seem to be getting crazier, harsher, crueler. Our task remains what it always is: to love, to connect in empathy and kindness, to seek understanding, to give help where we can, to keep doing the work of peace and justice. There are many so committed. We are not alone. As the poet Adrienne Rich put it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.


On Statues and Statutes, Part 3

Cindy Davidson

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are called to bear witness to those whose worth, dignity and rights are denied. We are called to answer the call to love and defend those rights. Knowing this, delegates of the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Associations, our annual large gathering, passed a responsive resolution repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. Delegates called it “a relic of colonialism, feudalism, and religious, cultural, and racial biases having no place in the modern-day treatment of indigenous peoples.” (See https://www.uua.org/action/statements/doctrine-discovery)

The resolution called “upon our Association to invite indigenous peoples into a process of Honor and Healing (often called Truth and Reconciliation) and to consider Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist complicity in the structures and policies that oppress indigenous peoples and the earth.”

The work of truth and reconciliation, the work of justice-making and being good allies to Indigenous Peoples today rests not solely with our Association’s leaders. We, too, play an important role.

We can cultivate relationships with the Indigenous Peoples in our own area and learn more how they would like us to follow their lead in addressing their current challenges. For us, that would be the Ramapough Tribe in Mahwah, New Jersey which maintains the SplitRock Sweetwater Prayer Camp, working to educate citizens and protect sacred lands and waters from the environmental threats of proposed pipelines. The Westch­­­ester Indigenous Collaboration is in development in a neighboring UU congregation to offer support and partnership to the prayer camp. Stay tuned for ways to become involved.

UU minister Colin Bossen, in his award-winning sermon, “This Land is Your Land?” picks up on how the Doctrine of Discovery, which he describes as a “product of human imagination,” “is one of those hidden sources of human suffering that needs to be revealed [not only because of the atrocities][but also because] it remains present ….. within the way most European Americans think about our relationship to the land.”

He urges those of us who are primarily of European descent “to enter into right relationship with the land and her original inhabitants, our indigenous” kin, that is “to reconcile ourselves to our mother earth and all of her peoples who our ancestors harmed, and who we continue to harm, through the ongoing process of colonialism.” (http://colinbossen.com/the-latest-form-of-infidelity/13604898)
Neither we, nor any peoples, are owners of the land, of this earth, though we may “own” a sense of discovery as we encounter new lands, landscapes and people on our life journeys or legally own a title or rights to specified land.       
Rather, we are of this earth… waters, fire, atmosphere, sun, moon, the stars.
“Earth forms us,” we sang earlier. “Then, let us with justice, willing and aware, give to earth, and all things – [all peoples] – ­­­­living liturgies of care.” (“We are Not Our Own.” Singing the Living Tradition Hymnal, #317. UUA, 1992)

Let us “create a new inheritance for the future, … recognize and abandon the familiar attitudes and practices that do not serve the whole, … and assist in dismantling paradigms of oppression and suffering.” (Spoken Invocation: “Being Human Means We Are of This Earth” by Sweethome Teacup: https://www.uua.org/worship/words/invocation/being-human-means-we-are-earth)

Let us build the way to a future that “honors the gifts of the people who were here before … that heals wounds, makes amends, and honors the holiness of all humanity.” (Reading: “Call to Worship for Indigenous People’s Day” by Rev. Jason Cook. Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Fullerton, CA. October 5, 2017.)

Let us lift up, honor and celebrate Indigenous Peoples this day and every day.

On Statues and Statutes, Part 2

Cindy Davidson

We can’t quite concur that what’s past is past with Columbus and the Doctrine of Discovery. That’s because the Doctrine of Discovery has been articulated and used in US courts and become part of a body of federal Indian law and that has been used to deny tribal sovereignty and land rights for almost two hundred years and continues to be used in case law. It has also been a key tenet in statutes that infringe upon the freedoms, rights and thriving of African Americans.

In 1823, US Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall used it to argue “that ‘superior genius of Europe’ claimed an ascendancy over the Indigenous peoples and that the bestowal of civilization and Christianity was ample compensation to the inhabitants (Dunbar-Ortiz 29).” He also argued that “discovery” of a land equaled conquest and the Doctrine “becomes the law of the land, and cannot be questioned (46).”

Later, beginning in 1887, the Doctrine was used in the Dawes Act, the General Allotment Act in effect until 1934 which divided treaty lands into privately held lots meant to undermine tribal communal life. This was also “a massive land grab by the United States, with a loss of two-thirds of Indian treaty lands by an act of legislation (55).”

Lastly, as recently as 2005, the US Supreme Court has cited the doctrine in a decision concerning the Oneida Indian Nation of New York (doctrineofdiscovery.org).

Cherokee anthropologist Russell Thornton estimates a pre-contact Indigenous population in North American of seven million plus. “By 1890, 228,000 American Indians were counted in the US, … a population decline of roughly 97 percent (Dunbar-Ortiz 28).” A complete litany of the genocide, cultural genocide, and other mistreatments of our Indigenous Peoples perpetuated by the Doctrine of Discovery and its way of shaping thinking, behavior and legal decisions, is best summarized and revealed, I think, by this confession, apology and pledge from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

In September 2000, Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, offered these remarks at a ceremony marking the 175th Anniversary of the establishment of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. I share here excerpts that resonate with me, inspire my reflection and engender a similar humility as a white person benefiting from settler colonialism at the expense of our kin of color. Gover writes:

… this is no occasion for celebration; rather it is time for reflection and contemplation, a time for sorrowful truths to be spoken, a time for contrition. 

From the very beginning, the Office of Indian Affairs was an instrument by which the United States enforced its ambition against the Indian nations and Indian people who stood in its path, … to execute the removal of the southeastern tribal nations, …. and to participate in the ethnic cleansing that befell the western tribes. … The deliberate spread of disease, the decimation of the mighty bison herds, the use of the poison alcohol to destroy mind and body, and the cowardly killing of women and children made for tragedy on a (ghastly) scale. This agency and the good people in it failed in the mission to prevent the devastation. And so, great nations of patriot warriors fell.

After the devastation of tribal economies and the deliberate creation of tribal dependence on the services provided by this agency, this agency set out to destroy all things Indian … (it) forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were. Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.

The legacy of these misdeeds haunts us. ... These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.

Let us begin by expressing our profound sorrow for what this agency has done in the past. ... On behalf of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, I extend this formal apology to Indian people for the historical conduct of this agency.

We accept this inheritance, this legacy of racism and inhumanity. And by accepting this legacy, we accept also the moral responsibility of putting things right.

Never again will this agency stand silent when hate and violence are committed against Indians. Never again will we allow policy to proceed from the assumption that Indians possess less human genius than the other races. Never again will we be complicit in the theft of Indian property. Never again will be appoint false leaders who serve purposed other than those of the tribes.

Never again will we allow unflattering and stereotypical images of   Indian people to deface the halls of government or lead the American people to shallow and ignorant beliefs about Indians. Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again.

Together, we must wipe the tears of seven generations. Together, we must allow our broken hearts to mend. Together, we will face a challenging world with confidence and trust. Together, let us resolve that when our future leaders gather to discuss the history of this institution, it will be time to celebrate the rebirth of joy, freedom, and progress for the Indian Nations. (Complete remarks at https://www.indianaffairs.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/public/pdf/idc1-032248.pdf)

May we as a country be up to that formidable task.

On Statues and Statutes, Part 3
On Statues and Statutes, Part 1

On Statues and Statutes, Part 1

Cindy Davidson

Columbus Day – Indigenous Peoples' Day. What’s all the fuss about? What’s up with the round-the-clock police presence at Columbus Circle in New York City and the guarding of the 70-foot granite column and statue of Christopher Columbus that stands there?

As debate and the toppling of Confederate monuments has filled our news, so too has a reassessment of Columbus’ place of honor in American history. Meanwhile, the fate of the more than 100 statues of Columbus across the country hangs in the balance.

As the Denver Post reports, statues from California to Minnesota have recently faced vandalism or removal. In New York last month, the Columbus Circle monument was vandalized with pink nail polish, symbolizing the blood on Columbus’s hands. And, not far away in Central Park, a seven-foot tall statue of Columbus was spray-painted with the words “Hate will not be tolerated.” The hands were covered in red ink. (http://www.denverpost.com/2017/10/07/christopher-columbus-statue-police-guard)

Geez, I grew up knowing Columbus as a hero, the explorer who first discovered America! I remember celebrating Columbus Day, a federal holiday since 1937, in elementary school. We recounted the tales of his voyages to the New World … the three Spanish ships a-sailing in 1492 … the Pinta, the Santa Maria, and the Santa Clara, nicknamed the Niña.

And today … well, today we assail that tale, as we deconstruct a history that’s been told impartially and through the lens of white superiority and the so-called “Age of Exploration” and colonialism. Today, we hear a more complete history of discovered lands and people – but, just who discovered whom? It depends on who you ask! There are two points of view, at least, in every meeting and border crossing.

Now, thanks to historical records, scholars, and the lived experiences of our Indigenous Peoples, we have an opportunity to face uncomfortable truths about how our country was so-called “founded” and “settled.” We have an opportunity, for those of us of European heritage, to acknowledge where we have been complicit in or benefited from centuries of wrongdoing.

We know Christopher Columbus was an Italian explorer who set out to reach the East Indies by a western route. His voyages to the Americas were financed by the Spanish Crown, which was eager to enter and profit from the spice trade. We don’t always remember – at least I wasn’t taught – that Columbus had been a slave-trader for twelve years before his first voyage to the Americas when he landed in what is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. During a time of economic competition, his real search was for gold but the bounty he claimed was in the number of Arawak people he “discovered,” captured and enslaved.

Scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and journalist Dina Gilio-Whitaker report Columbus took ten to twenty-five captives to Europe from his first voyage, with only seven to eight surviving the trip (Dunbar-Ortiz, Gilio-Whitaker. “All the real Indians died off”: and 20 other myths about Native Americans. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. p 26). In his second voyage, he returned with “seventeen heavily armed ships, attack dogs and more than twelve hundred men (26),” capturing fifteen hundred men, women and children. Of those, five hundred were sent back to Europe, though only three hundred survived. All told, over four voyages, “Columbus is thought to have enslaved five thousand Indigenous Peoples throughout his voyaging career (26)” – he holds a record for any one individual. Something else I never learned in school!

Columbus set up large estates on the islands and enslaved the Arawaks to extract gold; when gold was not found, he systematically killed them, and many were driven to “mass suicide and infanticide to escape the cruelty of the Spaniards (Dunbar-Ortiz 27).” Historian Howard Zinn writes, “In two years, through murder, mutilation and suicide, half of the two-hundred-fifty thousand Indians on Haiti were dead. By 1515, there were perhaps fifty thousand left…. By the year 1550, there were five hundred. A report of the year 1650 shows none of the original Arawaks or their descendants left on the island (27).”

That’s a pretty gruesome and savage account, in my opinion.
Hmmm…. I didn’t learn this in school either! This man’s a hero?
Just who wrote my history text-books?

Columbus wasn’t the only explorer of his times to venture forth and capture lands and peoples for European monarchs. He and others had the Catholic Church’s urging, if not blessing, to declare religious wars on nonbelievers and to seize their lands. The Church issued legally binding edicts, called “papal bulls,” that justified such practices and set forth specific orders. Three of the edicts from the 1400’s form what we know as the “Doctrine of Discovery.”
The first edict issued, in 1452, gave Portugal the authority to “reduce Muslims, pagans, and other nonbelievers to perpetual slavery and to seize their property, and … facilitated the Portuguese slave trade from West Africa (Dunbar-Ortiz 29).” A second, in 1454, granted Portugal a monopoly on the African slave trade. A third, issued in 1493 after Columbus’s first voyage, granted the newly “discovered” lands to Spain.

The Doctrine of Discovery reflects beliefs in manifest destiny and Christian imperialism that hark back to the mindset, language, and practices of the Crusades between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries. It is steeped in Christian superiority, especially of European white Christians, and is an early overtly racist document.

Now, hundreds of years later, we might consider this a closed case --- Columbus and other explorers have come and gone; and our churches don’t carry out Crusades of this type anymore, at least not to my knowledge. We can’t undo the past, we can’t bring back the lives that have been lost, we can’t undo most of the atrocities our Indigenous kin have suffered since Columbus’ days. We can agree that what’s past is past, right?

On Statues and Statutes, Part 2
On Statues and Statutes, Part 3


The Bouquet

Cindy Davidson

In recognition of the 95th Anniversary of the original Flower Communion service

Have you noticed the beautiful flowers at your feet lately? Listen carefully, and you may hear the flowers speaking in this ancient story, “The Best Flower in the Garden.”

Throughout the church garden, the flowers were in a tizzy! They saw the gardener strolling the pathway with her snippers and basket collecting flowers, and began to argue. Who would be selected to grace the Sanctuary table this Sunday? Who was the most beautiful flower in the garden?

The fragrant lilies of the valley, with their white coral bells upon their slender stalks, exclaimed with joy, “We are the ones who ring when the angels sing! What more fitting flowers for the Sanctuary?”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Ah! So beautiful and fragrant!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.

The Virginia Bluebells called out, “We are much taller and more regal! Our bells bring the beauty of the blue sky to the shady forest floor. Surely, this gardener appreciates a splash of blue!”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Ah! Such a beautiful color!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.

In the meadow and near the stream, the delicate Cuckoo Flowers waved in the breeze and whispered, “Over here! Over here! We are the wisest flower of all, for our blooms signal the arrival of the cuckoo birds each spring!”

The gardener noticed, snipping just a few. “Cuc-koo! to you, too!” she said, adding them to the basket and continuing on.

Meanwhile, the May Apple spread its broad leaves and spoke softly. “Just you wait! I guard the most beautiful flower of all! When the time is right you will see my blossom dangling beneath my leaves.”

The gardener noticed. “Ah! What beautiful, glossy foliage!” She kneeled to have a look underneath the leaves and said, “Ah, the time is not yet here. Your flower will come – I must be patient.”

Her basket filled, the gardener returned to the pathway to make her way indoors. Looking from ground to sky, she gave thanks for the abundant beauty of the flowering ground covers, shrubs and trees. As her eyes swept the landscape, she couldn’t help but notice the hillside covered by masses of a delicate-looking flowering white plant.

She gasped. More garlic mustard! European settlers brought it here in the late 1800s for its food and medicinal qualities. Since then, this innocent looking plant has spread so aggressively it overpowers the native plants and robs them of the nutrients they need to flourish.

The gardener wept inwardly and vowed to do everything she could to help remove those plants, so that life in its fullest diversity might once again flourish on the grounds.

She returned indoors, placing the flowers into vases of cool water to prepare them for the bouquet. She rested and reflected on the importance of finding beauty in a world that holds both joy and sorrow.

Refreshed, the gardener entered the Sanctuary to create the bouquet for the annual flower celebration service. She gathered her supplies, and in gratitude first blessed the flowers.

She began to select and arrange the flowers in combinations she found pleasing, balancing color, height, shape and texture, placing the most fragrant where their scents would not compete or clash with one another.

At times, she clustered like flowers and colors with like, for there can be a sense of belonging, strength and impact in unity. Sometimes, she intermingled the flowers with wild abandon, appreciating the energy each gave to another in the contrasting of their qualities. Mindful of the tension between unity and diversity, she favored no one flower over another. “How much better and more beautiful we are together,” she thought.

She remembered learning about the first flower ceremony years ago conducted by Rev. Norbert Capek, minister to the Unitarian church in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In 1923, inspired by a springtime stroll through the city full of blossoms, he asked all the people in the church to bring a flower, a budding branch, or even a twig with them the following week.

“What color? What size? What kinds?’ they asked. “You choose,” he said. “Each of you choose what you like.”

And so, the next Sunday people came with flowers of all sorts. There was excitement in the air as they filled all the vases. Together, they had created something greater and more beautiful than any one blossom.

That day, Rev. Capek preached: “These flowers are like ourselves. Different colors ... different shapes … different sizes, each needing different kinds of care -- But each [is] beautiful ... important and special, in its own way.” He invited the people to choose a different flower from the vases to take when they left that day.

As the gardener finished arranging the flowers, she wondered who in her congregation had chosen and brought each one. Who would take home which flower?

She reflected on the importance of biodiversity and wondered how she could be a good steward and Place Keeper of the land on the church grounds, in her own backyard, her neighborhood and all through the world. She pondered in her heart the importance of preserving a similar diversity in our own communities, one that values and includes all expressions of humankind. Why do we not appreciate different sizes, shapes and colors of people the way we do flowers? What would it take to remove those practices and institutions interfering, like the garlic mustard, with the full flourishing of all life?

She noted the proper conditions for the flowers’ growth -- fertile soil, nutrients, sunshine, rain, mulch -- and the important roles of pollinators and gardeners.

So, too, she thought, must we tend to the proper conditions for growth and vitality in human communities. So, too, must we use the right tools for different kinds of care. If we keep at it, inch by inch, adding our prayers and songs, so might the bouquet of life and the communal garden of our dreams flourish.

(Adapted from the May 7, 2017 flower celebration multi-generational service, CUUC, White Plains)