Unitarian Universalism

Singing African American Spirituals in a Multicultural Context

Went to Fellowship Church this morning, which I’ve decided is my home church in San Francisco.  Even though it’s not Unitarian Universalist, it embodies the values of UUism, sometimes better than many UU congregations do.  Case in point, this morning I was late and walked up the stairs to the sanctuary while the first hymn was being sung.  It was “No More Auction Block for Me” (#154).  I had to laugh, remembering the first time I ever saw that song in our UU hymnal. I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore along with Omi.  Omi is not a UU, is UU-friendly, but has had some less than favorable experiences with how our UU Euro-centric liberal culture approaches issues around racial diversity in general and African Americans specifically.  But since a mutual friend was preaching that weekend, she was there to see/support him. Sitting in the pew with me, randomly flipping thru our hymnal, she stopped - incredulous - at one song.  I looked over to see what the matter was and saw for the first time “No More Auction Block for Me.”  My eyes went wide and I held up my hands as if to disavow myself and repeatedly said, “I had no idea that was in there; this is the first time I’ve seen it in there; we never sing it.”  The idea of a predominantly Euro congregation singing “No More Auction Block for Me” was beyond mortifying.  In contrast, this Sunday morning at Fellowship Church, where the congregation is diverse but more African American than not, the song still felt uncomfortable *to me* but not mortifying.  Especially when Rev. Dr. Blake exhorted us to think of what it meant for formerly enslaved African Americans to be free of being sold as a commodity, free of the lash of the slave driver. 

And that was not the only time during today’s service where the contrast between Fellowship Church and UU encounters with Black spirituals would be evident.  The closing hymn of the service was “Wade in the Water”(#210).  This song was used extensively at All Souls DC when I first joined.  Only we didn’t sing the version in the hymnal. We sang it out of a printed insert and the words were printed as “Wade in duh wadduh.”  Being new to UUism and church and intentional multiculturalism, I didn’t think anything of it…until I invited a friend who happens to be Black to come to church with me and we happened to sing that song.  She was like “Why are they faking an accent?!”  And I was like, “Uh, I don’t know.”  I brought this up with the church’s right relationship committee and a mini controversy ensued between those who felt that it was more authentic to sing the song the way the words would have been pronounced at the time it was created and those who felt that such contrived accents, again in a predominantly Euro congregation, was…problematic. What I noticed was that no resolution happened but we sang the song far less than we used to.  Which is sad because it’s a beautiful song.  So singing it today at Fellowship, I couldn’t help but note that we sang the words “Wade in the Water” out of the hymnal as it is printed, with no contrived accent.  But before singing, Rev. Dr. Blake again put the words in context, explaining that when escaped slaves journeyed towards freedom they often had to cross rivers that were frightening, but the song promises that God would look over their safety by sending an angel to “trouble the water,” blessing it.  And I thought to myself that if the aim was to sing the song authentically, this way was so much more so.

"I go to church for pie."

That was the title of and the highlighted quote from a recent HuffPost piece talking about new approaches to church that included Unitarian Universalism.

To be fair, I did not watch the video so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t bother past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when UUism was first described to me as “you can believe anything you want.” I thought, “That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.” And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie.

Identity on the Margins

This year I met numerous fascinating people at General Assembly. In fact, I spent a larger proportion of time talking to others. I am an officer in DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), and volunteered to be at the table for some time each day in the exhibition hall. I roomed with a woman I met at a DRUUMM event several years ago, and we were able to deepen a friendship that has continued to grow as we see each other each GA, since we live on opposite coasts. The DRUUM folks have been like family, and I love them.

A life changing meeting was with a Chicana sociologist from San Diego. She told me of her work, and how she applies sociological methods to different questions. She modeled how to ask questions in dialogue with someone, as she greeted people at the DRUUMM table. For negative self dialogue, she told me to tap into my inner grandmother. Her participation in the Chicano/a movement in California inspired me to claim the identity Chicana. Depending on the grandparent, I am third or fourth generation Mexican American. My grandmother was born in Arizona before it became a state. Latina and hispanic never felt right, but when I was much younger Chicana was "too political." Claiming "person of color identity" is a political act. I am in solidarity with the struggles of all people who are marginalized due to their culture or skin color.

The word Chicana is distinctly Mexican. Years ago in an undergrad philosophy class, there was a reading about Tucson, and the author wrote that she did not want to send her children to public school because of all of the "Mexican children." I did not question anything but the racist tone of the article, because that was my lived experience. My classmates were other Mexican American students. Numerous students in the philosophy class, from countries like Guatamala or El Salvador,  spoke out against the assumption that the kids were "Mexican." Up until this point, I was thrilled about the diversity in Los Angeles, but I learned that Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans are on the bottom of the social hierarchy in California not only by race (a social construct), but by culture as well. I still love the amazing diversity of Los Angeles, but took too many years since for me to claim Chicana.

As we go into next years justice oriented General Assembly in Arizona, I will go with less reticence. I have been boycotting the state with its racist politics, even though my family lives there. At GA I learned that by going in at the invitation of indigenous groups, we UUs will strive to make more of an impact than simply taking our money our money elsewhere. The folks from DRUUMM are taking a particular chance to be arrested. I will stand in solidarity with them, the "Mexicans" I grew up with, and the others who are targeted by the policies.

Ethical Eating: Produce

On Friday, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly overwhelmingly passed the Statement of Conscience on Ethical Eating. I had been practicing the principles, imperfectly, since it's inception. What I've learned is to remember that it is just that, a practice.

I live in a predominantly Latino and Black neighborhood in a medium sized city in Southern California. I just completed ny second seminary year which included field education. Before I took the internship (not UU), I did have a part-time office job. I was earning the same hourly wage that I did 15 years before, but with full benefits back then. To be clear, the last year and a half, I've been living on my spouse's death benefit, taking a full load in seminary, and only doing the internship once it became clear that I could not keep my grades up and work, as well.

As money becomes tighter and tighter, I anticipate the ethical eating part of my life to become more difficult. I do wonder if the resolution on ethical eating, coming from place of privilege, is irrelevant and elitist to a country in the grip of economic hardship and a class war that has a grossly unequal income distribution.

Beans and rice are staples of the poor, and I grew up on them. I do love vegetables. When I was very young, there were pitched and protracted battles regarding vegetables vs. meat, fish and poultry. One particularly memorable battle was over having an artichoke to myself and the expense of said artichoke. That said, here are some thoughts, just on produce:

In my neighborhood there are two major grocery stores, two ethnic grocery stores, and several small ethnic markets. Before my spouse died, we wanted to buy a share in a farm. We just never had enough money to invest up front into a season or more of organic vegetables. The stores in my neighborhood are overflowing with inexpensive, plentiful produce. The first time I met a new dean at school, she asked which Pasadena neighborhood I lived in. She proceeded to enthuse over the cheap produce at one of the ethnic grocery stores.

My theory is that the produce are loss leaders, and every thing that is processed is overpriced. The people that shop there walk, ride bicycles or take the bus. The store has a shuttle to take people home. The cyclists are of the variety that ride the wrong way down the street or on sidewalks, not the pannier, helmeted set. The clientele at the particular store do not speak a lot of English. Beer and sodas are incredibly expensive, as are virtually all other brand name and processed foods. Before a ill-planned condominium complex was built across the street, small items from deodorant to razors were locked behind glass, and cost more than the big name grocery stores. This is the reality in poor neighborhoods. How would we begin to address the inequalities of access, before the pesticide laden produce?

Most of the ethnic grocery shoppers do not have the choice to buy local or sustainable, nor the education to desire or request change. I use the store when I'm not feeling flush, but I have begun to have anxiety over doing the "right" thing since so many issues come into play. When buying, my first thought is food miles. Where did most of these inexpensive vegetables come from? In this neighborhood, they come from Mexico, and further South. With the unfortunate exception of my attachment to bananas, I am intentional about buying produce from California, staying within the season. (By the way, when in the world did garlic begin to be imported from China? I thought the garlic capital is in Northern California.)

The people who bring food to the table have such appalling working conditions. They have been documented not to be given breaks, shade, decent living conditions, fresh water, subject to wage theft, exposed to herbicides and pesticides. Yet, when grocery stores charge more for "organic" produce, I wonder just how much of that extra money is passed on to the farmers and the migrant workers.

About eight years ago, there was a grocery store strike in which the workers lost badly over healthcare and wages. I refused to walk into one of the big name chains until a couple of years ago. I will only go for the very few things that can not be found in Trader Joes, or the store fondly known as Whole Paycheck. I was appalled at the price of produce when I did return. According to Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA), a strike is imminent. We UU's passed an Action of Immediate Witness, but how will that support the workers once they go on strike? Trader joes pays fairer wages, but Whole Foods is anti-organizing and their produce is ridiculously high. However, they have some organic things not found elsewhere. Reconciling these choices is difficult.

At Trader Joes, food miles and packaging come into play, as well. Not only do they sell out of season produce from Mexico and Chile, the produce comes prepackaged in plastic, in a family size. Trader Joes has begun to improve based on consumer pressure, but as soon as one item is sold individually, different prepackaged items arrive. I limited my produce to the staples, organic: carrots, celery, in season lemons, onions and tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower. Squash is plentiful, inexpensive, good and relatively safe in the grand scheme of things not organic.

This leaves the small family owned markets and the farmers markets. This is where I have to be most intentional. I will admit to being exceedingly blessed when it comes to farmers markets in the area. There are several going on each day of the week during the day, with some in the evening. It takes planning to go. There is a small health foods market that is in the next town to the North straight uphill. The farmers market that is in my neighborhood is held on Tuesday mornings, but there are numerous other in the area. As much as I want to support the mom and pop shops, knowing where the produce comes from is more important.

So, the anxiety continues. I have stopped eating quite as large of a variety of vegetables for fear of pesticide residues, perpetuating unfair unhealthy working conditions for those who pick and package produce, environmental impact and the impact on migrant workers of herbicides and pesticides, economic justice for grocery store workers, supporting small business, lack of time to shop at farmers markets being a student, and my own economic well-being. Fortunately, by putting together this post, I found a CSA that was not available before, which allows payment on a week to week basis.

Choose to Bless the World

Author: 
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker

Your gifts, whatever you discover them to be‚
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind's power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Hoard bread,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together‚ that is another possibility waiting.

It Takes A Village To Hold A Protest

Let me start by saying that I am not a “protest” kind of person.  My experience with numerous protests is that a lot of people assemble, shout angry slogans, maybe sing a few songs, and then go home, leaving piles of garbage in their wake.  No matter how much I cared about an issue it always seemed to part of me like protests were something that we “attend” the way that one might attend a rock concert, and that they were geared more towards letting the participants feel good about having “done something” than actually effecting change.  For that reason, I approached the Day of Non-Compliance (July 29th) in Phoenix with some personal apprehension.  Since I knew that I was not planning on getting arrested, I wondered then what exactly it was that I would be doing.  Was I flying two-thirds of the way across the country just to attend a protest?  But I tried to approach the coming days with an open heart – letting the Spirit guide me.

 

At six am Thurs, we arrived at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for an interfaith service.  A rainbow hung high in the sky, seeming to make its arc right over Trinity. Seeing it, my heart leapt with hope.  I thought of the biblical story of God’s promise to His [sic] people.  I thought of the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice.  After the service, we started marching towards downtown.  So far, this was not unlike other rallies/protests/marches/vigils that I had attended.  But it was during the march that I first noticed them – people carrying plastic trash bags collecting water bottles and other refuse from marchers, so that the streets remained clean.  Cleaning up after ourselves?  What a novel concept!  How lacking in sense of privilege!  I smiled at the young Latino man carrying the garbage bag and felt that he was playing a role as important as any cleric who spoke from the pulpit or any of the rally organizers.

When we got to Cesar Chavez Plaza, I saw that Puente (a local Phoenix movement with whom we’re partnering) had set up a staging area where bottles of water cooled in kiddie wading pools full of ice.  Two cots were available for those who fell ill.  Hand made signs were available for those who wanted to carry them.  Those of us who were not going to get arrested made sure that others had plenty of water to drink, grabbing bottles from the kiddie pools and handing them out to everyone, including the police officers who must have been roasting under their riot gear.  Someone from the staging area called for volunteers to run sitting pads over to the demonstrators at the intersection in front of the Wells Fargo Building (Arpaio’s office).  I was handed a pile of bath towels that had been cut in half and then sewn to an insulating backing, to protect people’s behinds and legs from the baking asphalt.  Wow, I thought, they had prepared for everything.  Little did I know.

Much later, after watching the last of our people get loaded into the police paddy wagon, I started heading towards the 4th Ave jail where other demonstrators – including Peter Morales, Susan Frederick-Gray. and Puente’s Salvador Reza – had blocked the jail entrance.  On my way, I stopped by the staging area to see if I could carry some bottles of water over.  I was told that there was plenty of water at the jail already but I could carry over two spray bottles for cooling people down.  I walked the two blocks with the spray bottles alone – a curious sense of solitude given the frenetic energy all around me, including the beating blades of a police helicopter overhead.  Once at the jail site, I looked for red faces to whom to offer a cooling spray of water.  (By the time the 4th Ave protestors were arrested some time later, I was pretty red-faced myself.)  Roaming the crowds, I also saw volunteer medics coming to the aid of those for whom water was no longer enough.

Those of us who had not been arrested straggled back to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix during the mid to late afternoon.  We ate some food.  We cooled off as best we could.  We attended to those of us who had succumbed to heat exhaustion.  But now what next?  Do we just wait at the church?  Go back to our hotel or homestays?  That didn’t seem right.  The answer came from Puente, who had had the foresight to apply for a permit to hold an all-night vigil at the jail.  It turns out that whenever one of their own is in jail, they hold vigil so that no one is released out to an empty street – every member who was arrested comes out to cheers and hugs.  So, with night fall, we boarded our vans and headed over to the jail.  Puente people had already been there since 4 pm.  We lit candles.  We prayed.  We sang.We tried to sing in Spanish.  (Note to self: that is something we have to work on *before* we get to the vigil.)  Word came that the 4th Ave arrestees would be arraigned at 11 pm, which meant they would be released in the wee hours of the morning.  A group of us stayed all night to greet them as they got out.

Friday dawned, tentative.  Those who had been arrested in front of the Wells Fargo Building would be arraigned at 10 am, which meant they would be out by early afternoon.  Members of UUCP bought food and fed us breakfast/lunch.  Some of us volunteered to go over to the offices of Puente and the lawyers who were helping us to see if there was a way to pitch in.  Others headed to the jail to be there when people got out.  By mid afternoon, all of our people had been released, and we started packing up the base of operations at UUCP to head over to Valley UU in Chandler, AZ.  The plan had called for a potluck dinner, followed by a Taizé worship service and debriefing.  As far as we were concerned, we were done (for this round – we knew there would be others).  At the potluck, we were told that the delicious cheese enchiladas and chicken tamales were made by Puente, in appreciation for our participation.  Once again, I thought, they really understand community.

We had not even finished our worship service when the word came – more people had been arrested.  That part was not too surprising as we knew that our partners intended to keep up the pressure by demonstrating in front of Arpaio’s Tent City prison.  But what sent a shock wave through all of us was word that Salvador Reza, who had already spent the previous night in jail, had been taken in by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies even though he was across the street and no where near the site of the protest.  I could call that moment a decision point – the kind of moment that determines what kind of people we were going to be by how we respond.  I could call it that but in truth people responded so quickly that there was never any doubt.  We packed up as quickly as we could.  Audra opened up the boxes of yellow “Love” t-shirts, offering a free clean one to anyone going to the vigil.  We loaded our vans and cars, and away we went… to Tent City.  I had wanted to see Arpaio’s notorious prison but did not know it would be under such circumstances.

By the time I got to the vigil across the street from Tent City, it was in full swing.  People lined the street – an intermingling of Puente and Standing on the Side of Love signs.  A drummer stood at the center, with at least one person with a smaller drum accompanying him.  UUs and Puente people took turns leading chants (so that no one got too tired).  Some of us held signs that said “Honk if you oppose SB1070!” and a steady stream of cars flew by, many of them honking.  We were especially gratified whenever a bus would honk.  At least two different people walked up and down the length of the vigilers, holding smoldering sage – blessing & protecting every one of us.  As had happened the previous day, people handed out water continuously.  About two hours or so into the vigil, women started handing out bean burritos and tortas with some kind of meat, and little ice cold cups of lemonade.  It was another thing that they had thought of.  We on the outside supported those inside the jail by keeping vigil, but the vigilers too were supported, ensured that standing outside holding signs and chanting did not mean going hungry or thirsty.

At one point a local leader played the drum while chanting a sacred song.  Instinctively, we gathered round him in concentric circles – as if the drum were the center of our little solar system.  It was a deeply spiritual moment, not only because of the drumming/chanting but because our people – UUs and Puente – were united as one.  The only sour note was when, at the end, a handful of UUs started clapping.  In Euro culture, that is a sign of appreciation, but it also tends to turn the ritual into a “performance.”  The leader admonished us “Don’t clap!  This is sacred.”  Oh well, we are two groups learning how to be together.  There will be small mistakes.  (Note to self: instructions on not clapping should be part of our orientation for future groups of UUs.)

After 10:15 or so, after we had stayed long enough to be featured on the local Fox affiliate, we packed up our vans to move the vigil over to the 4th Ave jail.  Word had come that Sal had been moved there.  Once again, people – both Puente folks and UUs – picked up every bit of trash that we had generated.  When we were done, you would not have been able to tell that dozens of people had just been there.  I climbed into the cool AC of the van.  Such relief.  I was so tired.  I did not know how I would be able to stand for another set of hours, however long, once we got to the 4th Ave location.  But I knew I had to.  With grim determination I got out of the van with my fellow passengers and we walked towards the jail.  We heard music.

Puente folks who had arrived before us had set up a speaker and they were blasting salsa music.  People were dancing on the sidewalk.  My heart filled with joy.  It was a lot easier to dance than it was to stand.  These people knew how to throw a protest! – how to make it so that everyone felt involved and important, so that everyone was nourished physically and spiritually, so that the streets were cleaner for our being there, and so that everything was infused with both reverence and joy.  We danced with crazy happiness, grateful for these last few days.  When a few sheriffs opened the doors to take a look at us, we dance over to greet them and invite them to join us.  (They retreated back into the building.)  That gesture – loving and inviting into community, joyful even in the face of oppression – epitomized to me what our days in Phoenix were all about.  I plan to go back to Phoenix and learn more from our partners, Puente (and others).  But even if I for some reason don’t, I will never forget the lessons learned in Phoenix.  It turns out that I am a “protest” kind of person after all, when it’s done right.  And to do it right, it takes a village to hold a protest.

A Very Brief Primer on U.S.-Mexican History

In the early 1800s, U.S.Americans started settling into a territory of Mexico known as Texas.  Alarmed by the fact that the immigration rate was so high that U.S. settlers were starting to outnumber Mexicans, Mexico closed the territory to further legal immigration.  But U.S. settlers continued to pour in illegally.  Rather than attempting to learn the language and culture of the country to which they had immigrated, U.S.American immigrants in Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836.  (One has to wonder what the Mexicans whose families had already been living in Texas thought about that.)

In 1845, the Republic of Texas was annexed as the 28th state, and President Polk was eyeing Mexico’s territories west of TX, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.  The annexation of Texas, which Mexico continued to think of as a rebellious territory, caused Mexico to break diplomatic ties with the U.S., but it did not declare war.  Polk needed Mexico to be the first to engage in hostilities so that he could frame his expansionist intentions as defensive.  He sent Gen. Zachary Taylor to Texas to push its southern boundary from the Nueces river (the border that Mexico recognized) 150 miles southward to the Rio Grande (the border that the U.S. wanted).  The ploy worked; in April of 1846, a Mexican detachment attacked a U.S. patrol in the disputed area, killing 16 U.S. solders.  The U.S.-Mexican War was on.

In the meantime, Polk had sent word to U.S.Americans in California, also a Mexico-owned territory, that the U.S. would support any efforts of “independence” against the Mexican government.  When word of the U.S.-Mexico war reached California, U.S. settlers there played “the Texas game” and declared revolution.  (Again, one has to wonder what the Mexicans whose families had already been living in California thought about that.)

Weak from internal instability, the Mexican government was no match for the U.S. military.  By September 1847, U.S. forces occupied Mexico City.  Mexico had no choice but to accede to whatever the U.S. demanded.  The U.S. secured its hold on Texas, established the border at the Rio Grande, and received land that would become all or parts of the states of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming.  (Again, at the risk of repeating ourselves, there were Mexican families who had lived on these lands for generations before they suddenly became part of the U.S.)

All of the events above are well-known to anyone who has studied U.S. history.  But there is something that is not as widely known – which is that while U.S. forces occupied Mexico City, the Senate debated whether or not to annex ALL of Mexico.  To be clear, there were moral voices against the war and its subsequent land expansion, including but not limited to a then young Rep. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois and former President then Rep. John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts.  But overall, the country was in the grips of “Manifest Destiny” fever, and we might well have annexed Mexico if not for the persuasive argument made by Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina:

…it is without example or precedent, wither to hold Mexico as a province, or to incorporate her into our Union. No example of such a line of policy can be found. We have conquered many of the neighboring tribes of Indians, but we have never thought of holding them in subjection—never of incorporating them into our Union. They have either been left as an independent people amongst us, or been driven into the forests.

I know further, sir, that we have never dreamt of incorporating into our Union any but the Caucasian race—the free white race. To incorporate Mexico, would be the very first instance of the kind of incorporating an Indian race; for more than half of the Mexicans are Indians, and the other is composed chiefly of mixed tribes. I protest against such a union as that! Ours, sir, is the Government of a white race. The greatest misfortunes of Spanish America are to be traced to the fatal error of placing these colored races on an equality with the white race. That error destroyed the social arrangement which formed the basis of society. The Portuguese and ourselves have escaped—the Portuguese at least to some extent—and we are the only people on this continent which have made revolutions without being followed by anarchy. And yet it is professed and talked about to erect these Mexicans into a Territorial Government, and place them on an equality with the people of the United States. I protest utterly against such a project.

Sir, it is a remarkable fact, that in the whole history of man, as far as my knowledge extends, there is no instance whatever of any civilized colored races being found equal to the establishment of free popular government, although by far the largest portion of the human family is composed of these races. And even in the savage state we scarcely find them anywhere with such government, except it be our noble savages—for noble I will call them. They, for the most part, had free institutions, but they are easily sustained among a savage people. Are we to overlook this fact? Are we to associate with ourselves as equals, companions, and fellow-citizens, the Indians and mixed race of Mexico? Sir, I should consider such a thing as fatal to our institutions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sen. Calhoun convinced the U.S. Senate to let Mexico remain an independent nation, not because it was morally wrong to annex countries by conquest, but because Mexicans are Indians and the U.S. could not have Indians as U.S. citizens, as equals to “the free white race.”  (I am sorry to say that John C. Calhoun was a Unitarian, a member of my beloved All Souls Church, in DC.  But I am proud to say, so was John Quincy Adams.)

Why am I writing about this?  There are people who complain that immigrants come here and do not attempt to assimilate into U.S. culture.  That actually isn’t true, but it’s clear from our history that U.S.Americans have done just that, and not only refused to assimilate but then took the land from their host nation…twice.  There are people who have said that undocumented immigrants from Mexico are ignoring the law by crossing the border between our two nations without papers.  It’s clear from our history that Mexicans have lived on this land long before it was called the U.S.  When the U.S. annexed the land (by force) it split extended families apart so that some were now U.S. citizens and some remained Mexican citizens.  There are people who draw a firm distinction between Mexicans and Indians (Native Americans), tolerating the presence of Native Americans but insisting that Mexicans should stay “out” unless they have a piece of paper allowing them “in.”  It’s clear from our history that even Euro-Americans once recognized the commonality between Mexicans and Indians and there are Native people who still recognize that commonality today.  Some of the most vocal protestors of SB1070 are Native Americans, who object to the exclusion of their sisters and brothers down south, and who themselves are the targets of racial profiling.  A recent activist arrested for protesting SB1070 asked a question that has stuck with me, and I hope it will stick with others: “Why are people who are indigenous to this land being checked for status by people who are settlers of this land?”

Border Trip: Pilgrimage

Part 1 of a series of posts devoted to a trip to the U.S./Mexico border.

A few months back I spied a notice in my congregation’s weekly bulletin about a trip to the Border being organized by Rev. Louise Green, our social justice minister here at All Souls, DC. It said that participants would be going to part of the border between Mexico and the U.S., with the possibility of also visiting Native American nations in the area. The trip, organized by Border Links, would feature immersion experiential learning and we would be expected to reflect and write on our experiences. I knew immediately that I had to go. But I also felt tremendously guilty at the idea of going. Both for the same reason.

Some of you may remember my post about bitter experiences with the health care system as my mom was taken by cancer. With Mom’s passing, the thought of taking a week to go anywhere other than San Francisco where my family is seemed incredibly selfish. But on the other hand, with Mom’s passing, I have been thinking more than ever about the journeys that she and Dad took from China to the U.S. – the many obstacles they had to overcome to get here, some recounted on this blog and others not. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be Chinese American – to be both Chinese and American and yet not fully either in the views of many.

Does one cross a border? Or does one straddle it? Or does one go back and forth?

Both the Border Links website and Louise in our group discussions leading up to the trip have asked us why we are interested in going. Fair question. Complicated answers. I am going to better understand my neighbors – their perspectives, their stories, their roots – but I am also going to better understand myself. I am going with the assumption that although our families come from different countries, different cultures and different circumstances, there will be at least as much that we have in common in the immigrant family experience as there will be differences. I also expect that there will be surprises, perspectives that I assume we share in common but are not the case. In any case, the process will be informative.

If you are interested, I invite you to stay tuned. The All Souls DC trip to the Border will take place Nov 8th – 14th and I plan to be blogging about it before, during, and after our pilgrimage.

Sharing a Family Secret

When Mom passed away recently, her niece, my cousin, flew into town for the funeral. Later that evening as we sat around the dinner table, my cousin asked questions about her aunt. Most of the stories that my dad told in response were ones that I had heard many times before. How Mom’s and Dad’s respective families had fled the communist takeover of mainland China and landed in Taiwan. How some family members on both sides had been left behind as the curtain descended. How they had met each other while working for the Taiwan post office. How they had immigrated to the U.S. as masters students at Brigham Young University. And how I was the first baby born to the community of Chinese students there – quite possibly the first Chinese baby born in Provo, UT.

Almost as an aside, Dad mentioned something that I had never heard before – that he and Mom had once been divorced. My grasp of Mandarin is not the best so at first I figured that I had simply misunderstood him. But as he continued talking, it became undeniable that I had heard correctly. Although married in Taiwan, Mom and Dad had divorced, immigrated to the U.S., and then remarried again. “Why?” I asked. “Because,” my dad explained, “U.S. immigration officials would not grant visas for married couples. They only gave visas to single students.”

I immediately understood why. Prior to the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, there was a strict quota based on nationality that discriminated blatantly against Chinese and other immigrants of non-Western European origin. U.S. immigration policy sought to “preserve” the county as a “white” nation. The U.S. would not have granted student visas to a Chinese married couple as they would be much more likely to have a child while in the U.S., who would then pave the way to permanent residency and citizenship. I sat there at the dinner table stunned both by the revelation of a family secret that I had never known and also by the lengths to which my parents were willing to go in order to get into the U.S.

As the daughter of immigrants, I have always been sensitive to public anti-immigrant sentiment and its racial overtones. It doesn’t matter that public ire is currently directed at immigrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. I know that blame was once directed at people who looked like me and could easily be so again – all it takes is a spy plane incident or a weak economy to turn us from “model minority” to “yellow peril” – just as it has been directed at successive waves of people who looked and acted differently.

Indeed, as I look at the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S., I can see many similarities with the situation facing immigrants from Latin America today. Chinese immigration started in sizaeble numbers in the mid-19th century because of work available on the railroads and in mines and the lack of economic opportunity in the homeland. Their growing numbers stirred anti-immigrant sentiment even as the railroad and mining industries happily took advantage of their cheap labor. (Does that sound familiar?) The Chinese were accused of being too insular, keeping to themselves, and unable to assimilate into “American” culture. (Does that sound familiar?) Chinese migrant workers were ambushed, beaten and sometimes killed. (Does that sound familiar?)

Anti-Chinese immigrant sentiment culminated in the 1882 “Chinese Exclusion Act,” the only law passed by Congress that bars immigration and naturalization based on race. By the 1920′s, the Chinese and eventually all Asians except Filipinos (because their homeland had become a U.S. colony) were prohibited from marrying whites, owning property, and/or becoming citizens, and subject to a slew of other degrading and racist laws. While I don’t expect things to get quite that bad ever again, the actions of authorities like Sheriff Arpaio make me wonder.

Most people nowadays would argue that the immigration debate isn’t about race at all, but the rule of law. “Illegal aliens are criminals because they’ve broken the law.” It may be easier for someone whose family has been in country for generations and is not viewed as “foreigners” – most likely a white family – to say that undocumented workers are “breaking the law.” It sounds so objective, unbiased, fair… But that ignores the fact that the law itself is unfair. If the law is written such that it makes it a lot easier for one group to “obey” the law than another, then there is something wrong with the law. My parents did not do anything “illegal” per se but they took drastic steps in order to circumvent the intended purpose of the law at that time… because they knew that the law was discriminatory and unjust. To what extent would someone go who does not have the privilege of applying for student visas?

My parents took the drastic measures that they did so that they could give their future children a better life. And I am not just referring to the divorce. They left their friends and family, their native soil and their culture, all for the sake of their children. Other parents right now are going to even greater extents – braving deserts and vigilantes, breaking the “law” – driven by the same love for their children and a desperation to provide for them what they know they cannot in their homeland. We are all (or nearly all) immigrants or descended from immigrants here, no matter how long your family can trace its roots in the U.S. And all because our ancestors were looking for a better life for their progeny.

Is Unitarian Universalism a Prophetic Church?

Any Facebook friends who’ve paid attention to my “status” will know that the recent Convocation on Theology of Justice and Ministries has been on my mind for the last two weeks. Last week, my status worried that I might not make it to a session due to winter ice. This week, I’ve spent more time pondering what came out of the discussions, such as wondering “whether Unitarian Universalism can preach to both the comfortable and the afflicted in the same congregation(s).” From talking with others who attended, I know that I am not alone in being deeply impacted by the experience. Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker, the president of Starr King School for Ministry and a presenter at the Convocation, even mentions the Convocation (and our blog) in her e-newsletter to the seminary.

At a meeting of the First UU Church of Second Life last night, I asked fellow UUs there whether they consider Unitarian Universalism to be a “prophetic church.” This question, of course, raised other questions: what does it mean to be a prophetic church? After making clear that I did not mean a church that predicts the future, but rather a church that speaks the truth of justice to unjust power structures, we moved on to other questions. Have we been a prophetic church in the past? Are we now? Will we be in the future?

Due to logistics, the Convocation was not open to everyone, but these discussions are not meant to be limited to attendees. Essays were submitted, presentations were filmed, and a book and a DVD will come out of this for others to have the same chance for reflection. In addition, this will be taken up at the social justice track of UU University at General Assembly in Salt Lake City.

But in the mean time, I am asking our readers what I asked the UUs of Second Life: Is Unitarian Universalism a prophetic church? Do you want it to be, and if so in what way?

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