Monday, September 19, 2016

Water is Life

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.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Black Leaders, White Allies

In the last few weeks I've been challenged by my white privilege on two occasions. In the first instance I watched two black youths walk down the street on their way to school in Lake Worth. On their backs they had backpacks. The backpacks were what you might call “see-through” because the material used was clear. I could see all the contents being carried in the backpack. I didn't think how innovative it was or that it may be a new fashion trend. No, because the youths were black I thought what a good idea because the police could see inside the backpack and the youths might be less likely to get stopped, searched, or even killed. My white privilege was challenged, because had the youths been white I would have never thought of the advantages of a see-through backpack. I simply would have thought about the fashion trend. I wouldn't have worried about whether a white youth might have a greater chance of survival using such a backpack.

If you’re not a person of color in America you might not need to worry about such things. Black Unitarian Universalists and their allies across the country gather on a Facebook page to organize and support one another. They call themselves Unitarian Universalists for Black Lives. I received a notice of a post from the page. The post annoyed me. It read:

We find ourselves particularly dismayed by the willingness of UU congregations and ministers who have shown support for the Movement for Black Lives and now feel compelled to signify their allegiance to police officers and policing itself. As members of an over-policed and underserved constituency targeted by the police for harassment, economic exploitation and random violence often resulting in death, we wonder:  Who does this allegiance to law enforcement serve?  How does it undercut the messaging of the Movement for Black Lives and take focus away from the need for fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, if not the altogether abolition of law enforcement as we have known it?  What are Black Unitarian Universalists to make of their congregations’ and their ministers’ public affirmations of an institution known to oppress and kill them from its inception?

I responded to the post writing that I was tired of groups assuming that all cops are bad cops and that if we are truly going to resolve race relations with people we need to create relationships and collaborate.

I didn't sleep after writing that message. I lose sleep when something isn't right or I believe I haven't challenged myself to do the right thing by looking at all the sides of an issue or problem. The next morning I sat up in bed and thought "white privilege!" You see, as a white person I can’t remember an instance, an experience, a situation where I couldn't trust the police. In fact, I was raised in a culture where police were my friend and helpful. If I had been born black it would've been a different story. I would have been born into a world where policing was invented to control me, deny my rights, cause physical and emotional pain. I haven't had an instance or experience that would lead me to mistrust police. I am now suspicious of police since racism in America has had a brighter light shed on it. Not being in touch with my white privilege allowed me to write that post where I was asking people who are black to get over it and move on where police were concerned.

I'm not ashamed of my white privilege. It is what it is. It is when I don't check my white privilege, identify it, own it and how it shapes my actions and reactions that I should be concerned. Had I done that work before making a decision about the backpacks and the message I sent, I likely would've never allowed my ego and privilege interfere with what is right, just, and true. We should all think about as Unitarian Universalists what we are called to do. Whether it be the Everglades, climate change, poverty, homelessness, or race relations, as Unitarian Universalists our faith and tradition calls us to respond in an informed and compassionate way. Both of the examples I shared this morning left me asking what do black leaders want from this white ally?  I bet you've asked yourself a similar question.

One thing I know, that our Justice Action Ministry knows, is that blacks need to lead and white allies need to listen and to learn.  Blacks need to control the narrative because whites have controlled it for far too long and look at what this is come to in our history. The answer to the question, "what do black leaders want from their white allies?" has varied.  In fact over the past couple of years the black narrative has changed.  Take for example the case of Cornell West. He is a black professor at Princeton and an extremely influential activist. West has been criticized that his view of race relations no longer works or is what the black community needs to progress.

Some compare him to the boxer Mike Tyson. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself.  American academic Michael Eric Dyson tells us, "Like Iron Mike, West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship. Like Tyson, he is given to making cameos — in West’s case, appearing as himself in scripted social unrest, or playing a prophet on television in the latest protest. He has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity. He’s grown flabby with disinterest in the work needed to stay aloft: the readiness to read, think, and recast thought in the crucible of written words."

I am disheartened by such criticism. I admire Cornell West. However, the black community is expecting something different in their modern leadership and modern movements. That causes white allies to ask, "What is expected of me?" We should listen to the answer and learn.

It is an important question. Whether Unitarian Universalists should be allies to and involved in the modern black justice movement is not a question but a given. But what qualifies as an ally, from black and white perspectives, isn’t universal. “I think a white person can only be a true ally if he or she works from the desire to dismantle white supremacy instead of merely being fueled by white guilt,” says Katrina L. Rogers, the communications manager of an advocacy organization in New Orleans. Rogers tells us “never be under the assumption that if a white person identifies as an ally that they’re invested in my well-being.” “Labels mean little,” she says and “if you’re not working with us and taking our direction, you’re not an ally.” While some argue that institutional change happens only when white people get out of the way, seeing white people participate in the cause can lead to awareness. When white people see white people brutalized it stirs up the same fears and anxiety that black people have had to contend with on a daily basis for centuries.

While the role of white participants in Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be left to black organizers to figure out -- black Americans have had to contend with racism and it isn’t the responsibility of blacks to show whites how to be good allies and comrades -- white activists and sympathizers with the Black Lives Matter cause should take a page from white activists of the civil rights movement: that black people are the leaders, that the movement is centered around them, that glorifying white participation in a black-led movement is gauche and unhelpful, that it isn’t about white people.

There’s no clear path or prescription for how white allies should operate in a movement led by black and brown people -- that’s part of the work. But one refrain expressed among white activists is the idea that the freedom of white people, of all people, is tethered to ending injustices for people of color.  One thing is for sure: it’s the responsibility of whites interested in ending racism to sacrifice their comfort, ask questions, and take cues and orders from black people without relying on them to show you and tell you how. It’s not the usual order of things, but it’s the way forward. Groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which began after black leaders approached a group of white organizers during the Tea Party’s rise in 2009, are thinking and talking about how to be effective white allies and organizers against racism. Their goal “is to get millions of white people in the movement,” says Andrew Willis Garcés, SURJ’s regional resource organizer. He says, “We actually want to ask white people to step into that messiness and tension.” When it comes to organizing, Garcés says that SURJ has developed relationships with black- and brown-led organizations, but doesn’t expect to be told what to do or say. 

In his searing book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job — or, by extension the job of other black voices or leaders — to coach white folks, let alone worry about their feelings. Which it’s not. The whole point is that we white people should be the ones thinking more about black people — their feelings, their experience and their reality, which can be dramatically different than our own. But at the same time, Coates concludes his text noting that structural racism won’t change until white people change. There are already white people who want to change, and want to help spur change in their communities. Many people are reticent to speak out, for fear of misspeaking; others want to do something, but don’t know what to do. Instead of continuing to unconsciously reinforce structural racism in America, there are many white people who want to consciously help deconstruct and dismantle it. But how? 

It is not up to Black Lives Matter, nor any movement led by and for communities of color, to make space for, or articulate a vision for white people. The expectation that black leaders and movements should automatically do so is a subtle extension of the sort of white-centric entitlement that gives rise to the need for such movements in the first place. Then again, we haven’t exactly blazed a path to enlightenment and liberation so far on our own. While doing research for this sermon I found some of the leading voices and activists in Black Lives Matter who shared their hopes, asks and even demands for white people in America today. Each echoed many of the same themes, encompassing both hopes and critiques. Here, in their own words, is what they said:

 "I don't like the term ally.”
 Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.
•Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice

“Allies are best as accomplices.”
Be complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks, putting your bodies on the line in the streets, sharing access to resources (and releasing agency over them), living in some discomfort with difficult conversations in collaboration, knowing when to listen and organizing other white folks.
•Mervyn Marcano, spokesman for Ferguson Action

“Safe spaces are illusions.”
Racism is an illness that afflicts each and every one of us. It steals our humanity, our capacity for empathy, the righteous indignation that is our birthright. I don’t believe in allies; I believe in the decolonizing power of solidarity. White people ought to challenge themselves to engage in more spaces of risk and difference.
•Umi Selah, mission director of the Dream Defenders

“You can be progressive and anti-black.”
The two are not synonymous. Just because you have progressive politics doesn’t mean you’re not racist as hell, that you don’t think black people are less than; it doesn’t mean you have a racial analysis. Being progressive doesn’t give you a pass. You have to do the work within yourself if you’re going to be in this space.
•Celeste Faison, co-founder of the Black Out Collective and coordinator of Black Lives Matter, Bay Area

“Expand what being progressive means in America.”
The conditions that are taking the lives of black and Latino communities with heart-shattering speed cannot be solved with economic solutions alone. A progressive movement that isn’t organizing to dismantle structural racism isn’t a progressive movement. It’s a movement of white middle-class self-interest, where white people on both sides of the aisle are fighting to retain white privilege in different ways.
•Malkia Cyril, director of Center for Media Justice, co-founder of Media Action Grassroots Network

“Stop saying ‘all lives matter’”
Understand why you can’t say that. Whatever people need to do to understand why that’s not OK, they need to do that. What we’re saying right now is that all lives will actually matter when black lives matter — and black lives don’t matter right now. So we need to say black lives matter to change that. We need to change that individually, we need to change that within our communities and we need to change that systemically.
•Robbie Clark, organizer with Black Lives Matter Bay Area

“It must go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
I want white people to do the work of pushing Democratic darlings to take more seriously the impact of structural racism…. Beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter, I want to hear more about what each of them will do to ensure a world where #BlackLivesMatter — and that means weighing in for an end to deportations and citizenship for all, fighting to end mass incarceration, ensuring that domestic workers have full rights in and outside of the workplace and on and on.
•Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter

“Organize yourselves.”
“White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black-racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.”

Let us, black and white alike, do the work to understand ourselves in the context of the anti-racism movement. White allies, it is not enough to say “I’m not racist.” Prove it. Do the work. Understand white privilege without guilt. Black leaders, as white allies we will do the work but need your direction and grace as to what you need. As black leaders and white allies, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a responsibility to one another. The responsibility to love, to be outraged, to act, and to heal.

May it be so.

Black Leaders, White Allies, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 4, 2016.