I have a solid memory of being five years old and surveying our northern New York land with my father. He was trying to find the best place to dig a well. One thing, however -- I'm not sure if I'm imagining it -- but I think he might have been using a branch to find the groundwater, which is called dowsing. Coming from 18th century superstition, while using a branch as you would a metal detector on the beach you search for groundwater and supposedly the branch would shake if you indeed found water. I wanted this part of the memory to be true, but alas every study over the last century agrees that dowsing remains a superstition. I remember my father choosing a spot and breaking ground with a shovel. In fact, he and a few other men dug this well mostly using shovels. They extracted a few boulders out with machinery which when clustered became a playground for kids and a hiding spot when we stole a few moments to smoke cigarettes as teenagers. Those boulders remain in the same spot today.
At 5 years old I understood that the well and water was central to our livelihood. The well was vital not only to my family, but to two neighboring families. You see, the wells that had been used for a couple of generations had gone dry. Water had been a great concern for my family and our neighbors. The digging of the new well and access to water meant sustaining life for the people, land, and crops and animals on the land.
After my parents died, the land and property were sold. My brother and I received much grief from the other two families using the well. The thought of water scarcity made them do and say things I would have never expected. You see, the new owner of the well could have cut the other families out leaving them without water, without the resources they needed to live. Eventually we nailed down an agreement and all was settled. Perhaps one of the earliest water summits. Over 40 years later the well still supplies water and hasn't once gone dry. I’d like to give credit to the supposed branch.
This success story is becoming more uncommon these days. I recently watched a video titled A Four Year Old Bucket List. In that video we see a 4 year old Kenyan boy who has been granted the opportunity to do everything he has on his bucket list before he dies. He goes to the ocean for the first time, he plays soccer on the national field, and he has his first kiss, among other things. The boy isn’t terminally ill. His reality is that most children where he lives die before they are 5 because they have no access to unpolluted and quality water and that water is already in short supply. The boy doesn’t complete his bucket list.
I've learned firsthand, through my ministry, and study that water is life and when that resource is absent or threatened, relationships fall apart, conflict arises, people are oppressed, threatened, hopelessly die, or are even killed.
We don't need to look far for the threat to life. We have our own battles to fight right here in Florida to ensure water is life giving. I’m talking about the Everglades. The two biggest threats to the Everglades is water quality and water quantity. Development on the coast calls for an increased demand for water, but the problem is that the quantity of water isn't growing as demand grows. Man-made structures don't allow water to flow to the Everglades as it should. Often the water that reaches the Everglades is not quality. Runoff from expanding urban centers and unsustainable farming practices are polluting the water supply which is already limited. Not unlike the well of my childhood there is tension around the issues of quality and quantity. Stakeholders such as Native American tribes, park services, fish and wildlife services, the Audubon Society, water management, concerned citizens, religious groups, and others are all players in the Everglades issue and all have varying opinions, resources, ignorance, and ideas which create conflict over life-giving water. Will we see results before we have to make bucket lists for our loved ones and we see our environment continue to suffer and die?
I’ve shared with you that after Hurricane Katrina I traveled to the 9th Ward of New Orleans a few times, which had been the most devastated part of the city. I realized after being on the ground for only a few hours that my project of gutting and rebuilding homes was secondary to landing in the middle of a human rights conflict. Residents desperate to return to their homes and communities were being blocked by local and federal officials. In order for a community to be restored, that community needs health facilities, food, and water. All human rights in my book. Just ask Canada. Residents wanted to return but resources were held up and denied. The water remained muddied both figuratively and literally. Some did return to find that the mayor had ordered the demolition of their home where generations have lived. No access to water, food, or shelter. Basic human needs stomped on. I forgot to mention this was a black neighborhood where people were challenged socio-economically. If you were asking yourself, "why would officials do that?” I just gave you your answer.
Perhaps the most recent water and land conflict on our radar -- if it isn't perhaps it should be -- is the conflict in Standing Rock in North Dakota. Earlier this summer I began hearing about something happening near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A few people from Standing Rock on horseback were trying to stop the construction of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, that would cross the Missouri River just upstream of their community. Many were arrested. The next I heard, they had been joined by people from the other six Lakota Sioux tribes, then by the Cheyenne, traditional enemies of the Sioux, and then tribal people from across the country started getting in their cars and trucks and driving to the camp on the banks of the Missouri River. Now, in September, there are flags of 300 indigenous nations flying at the Camp of the Sacred Stones, and there are several hundred to several thousand people (depending on the moment), of all races, at three different camps, all gathered in support of nonviolent resistance.
The people there say they are not “protesters,” they are water protectors, and they are doing this for all of us. Many faith and environmental communities have joined their voices in support, including Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who called on Unitarian Universalists to support the Standing Rock Sioux. The fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline has emerged as one of the defining climate justice fights in the United States. It has also become a central focal point of the ongoing worldwide struggle by indigenous peoples to have their treaty and land rights respected by other governments and corporations.
Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, and are leading the fight. Corporations have repeatedly used force to extract fossil fuels from their lands with approval from government attorneys and military forces. Major pipeline projects invariably cut across Native lands while bypassing white suburban communities. We must follow the lead of indigenous communities that have protected their land for countless generations, and work together in solidarity to ensure a thriving planet for future generations and all living things.
I tell you all of this to help you understand that the situation in Standing Rock is yet another event in a series of events of oppression. Native Americans have been here before. Columbus and colonists have cheated, raped, murdered, oppressed and were at the wheel of genocide from the very beginning. If you doubt genocide will be a consequence, you’ll need to explain to me why dogs with gnashing teeth are being allowed to tear at the flesh and spirits of protesters and why poisoning an indigenous people is considered with no feeling or conscience. The Sioux Tribe protecting their land in North Dakota aren't simply greedy. They understand that if a pipeline is built it will be sparking genocide. Water is precious and a pipeline would contaminate that life-giving resource, leaving a community to die. They become dispensable once again.
This people are also protecting the sacred. Their ancestors are buried within the land, which is treasured, revered, and has significant and sacred meaning. I know if the construction of a pipeline that would run through the cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried I would be equally as outraged and afraid that that sacred land would be defiled. I can breathe easy. That won't happen. My ancestors and I are white.
The dogs growl, the pepper spray bites, the bulldozers tear up the soil. “Water is life!” they cry. “Water is life!” The presence of suffering in this cry of outrage is profound. We are called by our faith to say, “No more, no more. You will not poison our water or continue ravaging planet earth: mocking its sacredness, destroying its ecosystems, reshaping and slowly killing it for profit.” As the Green Party insists, the North Dakota authorities should instead be pressing charges against the real vandalism taking place at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation: the desecration of sacred burial sites and the immoral use of vicious attack dogs, calling on our government to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline company that is endangering drinking water.
As I watched videos, read updates, and talk to my colleagues who had been to Standing Rock over the past weeks, I could feel my heart turning toward North Dakota, almost as if a part of me was already traveling there, longing to bear witness to something extraordinary, something never before seen on this continent or perhaps anywhere, the rising up of the tribal nations to protect water and land. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Guardian: “What’s happening at Standing Rock feels like a new civil rights movement that takes place at the confluence of environmental and human rights awareness.” And the protectors have been clear that they need the support of everyone, that without many witnesses, they could be silenced, just as they have been intimidated and silenced before, for these last 150 years. I watched a video of 13 year old Tokata Iron Eyes, talking about why she was there as a water protector.
I felt I needed to be in North Dakota. But how could I go? It seems wild to just pick up and go to North Dakota. I have sermons to write, committee meetings to attend, and family and financial responsibilities. But I kept thinking of the UUs in 1965 who heard the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, and how many of them, certainly many of the ministers, had responsibilities that could have kept them home: sermons to give, committees to attend. And yet, and yet…they got in their cars, got on airplanes, got on trains to travel to Selma to support those who were struggling nonviolently for basic civil rights, against enormous odds and overwhelming police presence, threats, and brutality. How is this different? In North Dakota there are people who have also been oppressed for generations, rising up courageously, facing their own fear for the sake of their culture and community and for the rest of us, and calling for people of conscience to join them. And native people from the Northwest and around the country have answered that call. How can I not?
I wondered if I had the audacity to do this. It is part of my call and it will benefit this congregation too. I am going to Standing Rock. Stay tuned for the details. As Unitarian Universalists we must challenge ourselves to imagine things differently, to be brave enough, creative enough, to birth a way of life that does not bring so much death in its wake. My friend and colleague the Rev. Kathleen Matigue writes, “We have to do this. We live still in the illusion that we have a choice, but we have no choice. It’s like believing that in the ten seconds between now and the moment your car crashes into the wall, it’s optional whether or not you turn the wheel. It’s not optional. We either turn the wheel or we crash. Turning that wheel means focusing intently on how we can live differently, how we can reduce, and reduce again, the enormous amounts of everything that we misuse—but especially life giving water.”
Not only will I follow my call to Standing Rock, I will offer ways that you can contribute from Florida. As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said, ‘Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.’ That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.” The beauty of the earth, the necessity of the earth, call us. We have to answer.
May it be so.
Water is Life, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 18, 2016.