Shared Planet. Shared Faith. Reflection #2.

Rev. Meredith Garmon
All-Westchester Worship Service
2019 Mar 17

I'm mindful that as we gather to worship and reflect together on our Earth and our faith, our hearts are also carrying the fresh wound of Friday’s shootings at mosques in New Zealand. Fifty are dead; another dozen are in critical condition. While Australia has tight gun control policies, New Zealand is at the other end of the spectrum, similar to the U.S.

Our own country has been under a scourge of gun violence for some time – a shadow that will not lift. On the occasions of such shootings we hear people say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and families.” We may also hear, “What good are your thoughts and prayers?”

Indeed, it’s tempting to be cynical about public statements of prayers being with. While we can pass no judgments on the sincerity of anyone’s prayers, we may suspect that many of these prayers are doing nothing to transform, deepen, or even connect the pray-er. We don’t know -- though it has occurred to me to wonder -- how much prayer actually happens. The prayers we are told are with the victims and families, in some cases, perhaps, are never prayed. If they were, we might see greater commitment to the holy tasks of building beloved community: reducing violence, fostering respect, ending injustice, making peace, strengthening institutions, developing practices of neighborliness, joy, and sustainability.
Our Earth needs our prayers.

Our Earth and all its peoples, all its inhabitants, all its life – need our prayers – because our daily lives push and pull at us with a constant flow of concerns, issue, matters to be dealt with, meals to fix, dishes to wash, jobs to do. If we do not pause, step back for a few minutes every day, to remind ourselves of what we want to our lives to be beyond to-do list, reconnect with the big picture beyond the minutiae of each day, reorient ourselves to the love that we are here for, then our spirits are not sustainable.

You can make your house fully solar powered – get rid of your car and walk, bicycle, carpool or use public transportation to get around – eat vegetarian because 15% of greenhouse gases come from the meat industry – plant a tree every day, grow your food, remove plastic from your life.
You can reduce your carbon footprint and your net resource consumption and pollution to zero. You can do all that and still not be living sustainably if you aren’t taking times for quiet reconnection to, and reaffirmation of, what’s the meaning of your life and the joy of existence.

Our energies will flag if our spirits are not sustained. Worse, we may be driven by anger and frustration and fear and set back the very causes to which we vociferously declare our allegiance if we do not maintain the spiritual work of keeping ourselves grounded. It’s not that anger and fear don’t have roles to play. The wholeness of our humanity makes a place at the table for the voice of every emotion to be heard. But the beloved community is not constructed where the loudest voices are fear or anger.

The Earth needs us, and it needs our spirits sustained for the long work, and so, it needs our prayers. It needs not the claim of prayers that substitute for action but actual prayers enabling and energizing action: strengthening our resolve, deepening our grounding, and bringing cheer to the work. So let us pray.

Shared Planet. Shared Faith. Reflection #1

Cindy Davidson
All-Westchester Worship Service
2019 Mar 17

As Unitarian Universalists, we are often called to minister to a weary and unjust world…. And we do rise to the call for justice!

Over the years, we have learned we do our best justice work when we leave behind any tendencies to swoop in as experts and try to fix things, and instead, we build relationships and partner with impacted communities.

We do this, in part, by centering the voices of those most marginalized and by flanking their leadership. We become allies, even accomplices, at times, for the good of all. The same is true as we work together to create climate justice.

Among the many on the frontlines of climate change and injustice are our children, youth and young adults. Because their physical presence, feelings, and energies are absent in today’s line-up of speakers and musicians,

I want to at the least lift up the words of two young climate activists.

Greta Thunberg is a Swedish fifteen-year old who began in August 2018 to skip school on Fridays and sit outside the Swedish Parliament protesting their inaction on reducing carbon emissions. You may have heard she was nominated last week for the Nobel Peace Prize. She addressed leaders of the 2018 United Nations Climate Talks last December and the World Economic Forum in January. There, she said,
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic....I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act...I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
What began as her solitary action spawned a global movement: Fridays for the Future.
This past Friday, an estimated 1.4 million students skipped classes to attend 2,052 organized protests in 123 countries.

Columnist Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, recognized these climate strikers as “the force of possibility that runs through the present like a river through the desert.”

Thirteen-year-old Alexandria Villasenor is part of that force. She is a native of California whose family relocated to New York City so she could breathe more easily. She has followed in Greta’s footsteps and spent every Friday since December outside the UN headquarters protesting their inaction on climate change.

In a recent interview for The Nation, she said,
“It’s important to take action now, because we don’t have time left. By the time the youth are in positions of power, it’ll be too late to reverse climate change. We have to force politicians to start acting on climate change.”
When asked why she wasn’t in school, she replied,
“Why go to school if we won’t have a future? Why go to school if we’re going to be too busy running from the next hurricane or fire?”
She is one of three organizers of the US Youth Climate Strike and was, I imagine, among the many students in New York City on Friday protesting at schools, City Hall, and Columbus Circle, before staging a mass die-in on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History.

Would you, could you, do the same? How might you amplify this force of possibility, and step into the “present like a river through the (parched) desert?”

I encourage you to take more than just this moment and our time together today to reflect upon the fears and courage demanded of those whose future unfolds amidst such unimaginable change and uncertainty. We do owe them and all beings a livable climate.

As Greta Thunberg reminds us, “The one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.” So then, tell me, and tell the children, tell the youth, and tell the young adults, and tell each other – what actions do you intend to take in your one life to help build today’s movement and create climate justice?

For your acts are their hope today and for tomorrow’s tomorrow.


Greta Thunberg, TEDx Stockholm, Nov 24, 2018

Greta Thunberg, COP24, UN Climate Talks in Krakov, Poland, Dec 12, 2108

Greta Thunberg, World Economic Council in Davos, Switzerland, Jan 23, 2019

Rebecca Solnit: “Thank you, climate strikers. Your action matters and your power will be felt.”

“Why Go to School When You Have No Future?” A Q&A With a 13-year Old Climate Striker


Justice on Earth: Chapter 10

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I’m looking at Chapter 10:
Peggy Clarke, "Eating the Earth.”

Rev. Clarke begins with the story of what rewarding fun she found when she joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – the party with friends who came over to celebrate and partake of the bounty; and learning to can with her neighbors.

Then she got involved with a project to bring people together across generational lines. A community garden seemed just the ticket. “In light of consistent reports of isolation from every corner of American culture, participating in life-sustaining, communal, multigenerational activities that deepen our connection to Earth could become a healing balm” (110).

She co-founded InterGenerate, “a small food-justice organization” for establishing community gardens for which participant neighbors pay $50 a year and commit to “shared work and communal engagement.” A couple years in they were up to four gardens and an “experiment of communal caretaking for about 45 chickens with 25 households.”

Bananas, for instance, from a New York grocery store come to us from Latin American plantations created from deforestation and habitat destruction. They come to us from farm workers who pick them, earning less than a living wage; women who drop them into vats of a carcinogenic solution that slows ripening, at risk of illness and early death from exposure to those chemicals; workers who box them and others who truck them, driving diesel trucks that burn fossil fuels and produce pollutants.

“I am accountable,” says Clarke, “for how food gets to my plate” (112). I’d say, rather, that we are responsible, but, unfortuntately, not accountable. Our spirits want and need to be accountable. We yearn for relationships of accountability. The meaning of our lives flows from embeddedness in relationships that compel us to account for ourselves. That we aren’t accountable to the food supply-chain is a part of the problematic modern condition which engenders lives deracinated (literally, “uprooted,” appropriately enough) and alienated. We desperately need relationships that hold us accountable. In the cooperative labor and the sharing of neighborhood gardens, along with the sustaining food, participants are fed by accountings they give and receive, in word and in body -- accountings much more robust and hearty than the wan, abstracted, depersonalized accounting given by the credit card swipe with which we buy bananas.

Neighborhood gardens build relationships and build community. They reduce our carbon footprint and contribute to saving the planet. They offer an alternative to the food system in which labor is exploited and polluting effects are felt mostly by the poor and communities of color.

These gardens transform participants from isolated and disconnected lonely individuals into people connected to their neighbors and to the good earth. It’s about the food, “but it’s also about harvesting a deeper way of living. It’s about planting and watering and weeding and harvesting community. It’s about deeper life, better life, shared life. It’s about being transformed” (116)

1. “Food deserts” are places where affordable access to fresh produce and other healthy food options is limited. What food deserts are in and around Westchester?
2. How much do you know about the food supply-chain that brings food to your table? How might knowing more change what you do, and change you?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making
  8. Pamela Sparr, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves
  9. Kathleen McTigue, “Learning to Change: Immersion Learning and Climate Justice


Justice on Earth: Chapter 9

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I’m looking at Chapter 9:
Kathleen McTigue, “Learning to Change: Immersion Learning and Climate Justice.”

McTigue spent 6 months in the 1980s in Nicaragua as a volunteer host for visiting US citizens encountering the realities of Contra violence. For many, the experience “completely changed their understanding, perspective, and actions – and in some cases, their lives” (97).

Experiential journeys aren’t always done well, but when they are, participants “see more vividly the ways our political and economic systems leave entire populations in the margins, both within our nation and around the world, and we begin to learn what it can mean to become effective allies to their struggles” (98).

Approaching climate change with a “justice lens” means learning about and accepting the leadership of the “voices, choices, and needs of these frontline communities most affected.” McTigue offers four guidelines:

1. Always work with a partner organization made up of the people who are directly affected. “They are in a position to tell us what they actually need from us, and though that sometimes feels incongruent with our expectations, we are far more likely to be of genuine use” (100).

2. Focus on justice rather than service. Service “helps people with an immediate and chronic need,” while justice involves seeking “to challenge and change the systems that give rise to that need in the first place.” Both are important, but the needs of justice are likely to be less tangible and satisfying than service labor. The people need us to hear their stories, “bear witness to their struggles and victories,” “honor the solutions they choose for themselves,” “look unflinchingly at the historic, systemic injustices that may continue to benefit us today,” and “go home prepared to roll up our sleeves and tackle those systems” (102).

3. Use a study framework before, during, and after the program. Before you leave, study up about the community you’ll be visiting and the background of your partner organization. During the encounter experience, study yourself – observe with curiosity the reactions you’re having. Continued study after you get home helps integrate your experience.

4. Ground the program and participants in reflection and spiritual practices. Group reflection helps collective wisdom emerge. Prayer or meditation quiets our inner noise and helps us be less reactive, more open – and able to set aside the urge to “fix it.” “We come up with a great idea that will surely make things better, like a scholarship program or a solar lamp project. As well-meaning as these ideas may be, if they spring from our own need to be of use and are not rooted in the wisdom of the host community, they are likely to have unintended negative results” (105).

1. Would you be interested in taking an immersion justice learning trip? (The UU College of Social Justice has a number of options: see uucsj.org)
2. What “immersion” experience with a frontline community might be available to you right here in Westchester?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making
  8. Pamela Sparr, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves


Justice on Earth: Chapter 8

The 2018-19 UUA Common Read is:

This week, I'm looking at Chapter 8: Pamela Sparr’s essay, "Transforming Unitarian Universalist Culture: Stepping Out of Our Silos and Selves.” Sparr relates that when she taught about climate justice at a summer institute, she had been warned that participants didn’t want to be “bummed out.” Anyone who speaks about environmental issues faces that question: how to be inspiring rather than paralyzing or depressing. This is what I have said and firmly believe: reality is never depressing. Depression comes from attempts to block out reality. When those attempts fail and awareness seeps in, mixing and conflicting with our desire for denial, depression is the result. Embrace of reality – with no desire to deny any of it – is many things: fascinating, challenging, invigorating, even oddly peaceful. Reality may be beautiful, dangerous, or both. But reality can never be depressing. It's denial that's depressing.

Still, embracing reality is no easy thing. I’m not always great at that myself. But when I’m bummed out or just bored, I ask myself, “what is the reality here that I’m resisting rather than embracing?”

Sparr’s approach is to call for:

(1) a bolder prophetic imagination. We need to speak, among ourselves and to others, in visionary ways, showing humanity a better version of itself, offering moral clarity, and an unflinching insistence on justice.

(2) the courage and capacity to talk religiously. UUs are disproportionately involved in environmental organizations, yet when we show up for this work, our UUism is often invisible. “Our challenge is to move out of our secular skin and to wear our UU skin all the time” (83) – to claim our identity and authority as religious persons. Grounded in our faith, a moral language of hope and justice takes the center – and proposed technical solutions move to the periphery. This means UUs must get comfortable and articulate in about our profound sense of the sacredness of all life, the dignity and worth of every person and every threatened species, our wonder and awe and the interconnected mystery of existence. Faith-rooted solidarity is based on knowing that “my well-being is totally and irrevocably tied up with yours. My liberation is dependent on yours” (84). Acting religiously means that the opposition is never demonized, never “othered,” always loved.

(3) getting out of our silos. Racial injustice, climate change, sexual harassment and abuse, LGBTQ discrimination, environmental degradation and species extinction are all interconnected and all have the same solution: building a world of justice and equality. We can’t let ourselves get into a “single issue” silo.

(4) radical relationship building. “We are going to have to stretch ourselves to befriend and collaborate with many different types of people and movements, including those with whom some of us may feel theologically uncomfortable” (90).

(5) becoming more countercultural. Current culture is characterized by a disconnect from nature and a casual acceptance of power hierarchies (and thus of the injustice and inequality that necessarily inheres in institutionalized hierarchy). Our denomination must transform itself into one that is thoroughly counter to these characteristics.

Sounds to me like a five-fold approach for embracing reality.

Do you know how to go about doing any of these five? Which ones? How?

For my reflection/summary on previous chapters, click the title:
  1. Jennifer Nordstrom, "Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice"
  2. Paula Cole Jones, "The Formation of the Environmental Justice Movement"
  3. Sheri Prud'homme, "Ecotheology"
  4. Sofia Betancourt, "Ethical Implications of Environmental Justice"
  5. Adam Robersmith, "Cherishing Our World: Avoiding Despair in Environmental Justice Work"
  6. Peggy Clarke, Matthew McHale, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age
  7. Kathleen McTigue, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making


Justice on Earth: Chapter 7

This week I'm reflecting on Kathleen McTigue’s essay, "Drawing on the Deep Waters: Contemplative Practice in Justice-Making” – Chapter 7 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

UUs, notes McTigue, “agree broadly that any religion worth the name should help shift our behaviors and actions toward the greater good.” This, she says, “is necessary and laudable, but insufficient.” McTigue explains five reasons we need to do the inner as well as the outer work.

1. Spiritual practices ground us in something bigger than ourselves. “We are connected to and are part of a vast unfolding that we cannot entirely grasp.” Living is not a private affair of the individual – we belong to each other and the universe. When we waste time, we are squandering the universe’s opportunity. This spiritual awareness also helps us attend to care for our fragile planet.

2. Spiritual practices help us stay in the present moment. Incessant stories play out in our heads. If you pay attention to it, you’ll be appalled at your “monkey mind” – the repetitive, boring, and judgmental running commentary going through our heads virtually every waking moment. “Spiritual practices help quiet the noise in our own heads.” This reduces our reactivity and thus reduces internal conflict within a justice movement that occurs when we trigger each other’s unexamined emotional reactions.

3. Spiritual practices cultivate the qualities we most want to bring forward. “Despite what we aim for in our moments of high aspiration, we get caught up in the small stuff. Spiritual practices help tilt us back toward our aspirations.”

4. Spiritual practices remind us that the things we most want to change in the world also exist in ourselves. “If deep inside us we are seething with anger, how shall we be peacemakers? If deep inside us there are the seeds of greed, how will we shift the grotesque chasm between the rich and the poor? Spiritual practices keep us hones, mindful of the fact that the change we want to work for in our world need to be undertaken with a willingness to be changed ourselves.”

5. Spiritual practices help sustain us through confusion and despair. “Despair, discouragement, helplessness, and confusion may all still go parading through our hearts – but spiritual practices help us hold them within a larger context. . . . In the long arc toward justice, our best efforts are just one small part. This allows us to hold even our despair within the larger frame of this lifetime work. Grounded again in hope, we can then bring that hope back out with us, to all the others who are struggling to find their way in this beautiful, fragile, difficult world.”

1. What’s your spiritual practice, and how does it integrate with your justice work?
2. Have you had experiences in your justice work where you later wished you’d been more spiritually grounded?

Yours in faith,

Justice on Earth: Chapter 6

This week I'm reflecting on Peggy Clarke and Matthew McHale’s essay, "Becoming Resilient: Community Life for a New Age” – Chapter 6 of the 2018-19 UUA Common Read, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment.

The prophetic task, the authors note, is not merely to decry injustice. It’s more broadly about nurturing, nourishing, and evoking, an alternative community. The essay then develops in two parts:

1. Resilience-based organizing. Here we learn about Movement Generation, which offers trainings, resources, and support to social movements led by communities of color or low income. Movement Generation’s organizing approach is rooted in community “in a way that reorients power to be more local and democratic.”

The approach is inspired by such examples as the Black Panthers and MST (Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement -- Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra). The Black Panthers’ less famous programs provided services such as free breakfast for school children, free medical clinics and drug rehab, clothing distribution, and classes on politics and economics. In Brazil, MST peacefully occupies unused land, securing it for the dispossessed. MST sets up cooperative farms, constructs houses, schools, and clinics while working for environmental sustainability and promoting Indigenous culture and gender equality.

2. Congregations as centers for community resilience. “Houses of worship will need to become centers of hope and resilience.” Doing this will entail congregational engagement with the communities around us -- offering meeting places and shelter, learning centers for reskilling, among other things. “We can start by identifying local ‘front-line communities’ – low-income communities and communities of color who bear the brunt of the devastation of the modern industrial system and who are leaders in the struggle to shift toward a more just and sustainable future.” Once such a prospective community is identified, the congregation’s task is solidarity, listening, relationship-building, humility, and a willingness to take on a support role when asked – NOT to expect to swoop in as the savior or the experts.

The authors conclude: “Without authentic partnership and without clearly understanding the systemic transformation required, our response to the current climate crisis will be insufficient. . . . Building resilient communities is the transformative response these times demand.”

What communities around CUUC are most directly affected by issues in which environment and race come together? How might CUUC develop a relationship of solidarity with those communities?

One response to the essay might be: “I’m convinced that we need to commit ourselves to supporting and nurturing communities of resilience. But I don’t see any need for congregations. Congregations should simply fold – transferring their land, buildings, and members’ energy to organizations like Movement Generation.” How would you respond to this suggestion? The members of a support network for resilient community would share a kind of “secular faith” – is that faith enough?

Yours in faith,