Category Archives: Standing on the Side of Love

Looking for the Love‬

news_loveandjusticeToday is the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and the second day of the “Thirty Days of Love” sponsored by our Association. I’ve waited until today to address something that happened just about a month ago.  I waited to make sure I wasn’t over-reacting. I waited, thinking maybe I’d feel better as time passed. I waited to give us all some time to calm down.  Just under a month ago,  the Unitarian Universalist Association posted a holiday greeting on Facebook that led to a long painful discussion.

At least, it was painful for me. So painful that I had to consider whether Unitarian Universalism is a place where I can or should continue to pour my energies, ideas, and hard work.  That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not.

The words and image chosen for the greeting are not the primary issue for me. Yes, I understand the intention was to remind Unitarian Universalists that the most important thing about the holidays is not the gifts and materialism. But I also understand that those words and the accompanying image left some feeling painfully excluded.

Yes, Unitarian Universalists are, in general, well-educated and economically privileged. But there are those among us who do not have what they need. There are also people like the woman I sat with in my office on December 23 who wept because she could not find a way to give her children the Christmas she felt they deserved: no tree, no big dinner, and most painfully for her, not a single gift. She chose to pay the rent and keep the heat on, but doing so made her feel like a failure and she knew her children would be disappointed.

The greeting also uses language that assumes that all of us can see, hear, and embrace with arms of love.  Some say the language is simply metaphor, and it may be. But in a world where barriers to inclusion and microagressions are an everyday thing for folks with disabilities, exclusive metaphors still sting.

When they are coming from your faith community–a community that says it is working to be inclusive and counter-oppressive–the sting becomes a burn. (This is something I’ve learned from my experience as a trans* person and by listening to others in my beloved community who struggle to be included–let alone, celebrated–in their fullness as human beings with abilities and disabilities.)

But it was not the greeting that broke my heart.

After the greeting was posted, a few brave souls pointed out that it may have been hurtful and/or excluded some folks in our beloved community. They did so gently and carefully, being clear that they knew that whoever had posted the greeting did not intend to exclude or hurt anyone.

And then all hell broke loose. And my heart broke.

First, Peter Morales, the President of our Association of Congregations replied:

I am sorry you were offended by the UUA’s Facebook page posting… However, I believe you misread both the intent and the content of the posting and that your criticisms are misdirected and counterproductive.

(I’ve deleted a story from President Morales’ childhood about being poor and information about how the new UUA headquarters will be accessible to people with disabilities.)

…What troubles me about your letter is that it falls into a pattern of what I have called UU’s who arrive “pre-offended.” The result is a kind of bullying that ends up having people become so cautious that our discourse is trivialized. To say that we need vision is not to demean those who are blind. To say that we should stand on the side of love does not disrespect those who cannot stand. To say that we should listen deeply does not marginalize those with hearing disabilities. Are we to avoid singing “Guide My Feet” in fear that someone without feet might be offended?

I do not believe we should ever give offense deliberately. And, yes, we should be thoughtful and sensitive. However—and this is critical—we should not take offense when none was intended. I rarely go to a major meeting of UU’s when someone does not come to me in righteous anger about some imagined offense. It is counter productive. Frankly, it is silly.
There are real issues we must confront together. I am convinced that economic inequality does enormous emotional damage and threatens our democracy. We need to work together to make our congregations and our society more open and accessible.

I look forward to working with you and others to confront real issues of injustice and marginalization that affect thousands. I suggest we spend more energy taking action and less taking offense.

The scolding, paternalistic tone of President Morales’ words was the first (and deepest) wound. Calling people “pre-offended” is to say that no offense was given and the critique  offered is a figment of the imaginations of those who are “too sensitive”–an age-old way of silencing people who dare to speak up and name oppression.

President Morales continues to  dismiss his critics (or critics of the greeting since the response to the greeting was never aimed at Morales personally) calling their critique a “complaint” that is misdirected, counter-productive, and a form of bullying. He admits that people approach him all the time in “righteous anger at some imagined offense.” Then he tells us what he really thinks: “Frankly, it’s silly.”

Sadly, President Morales is not the only one. After he posted his response, hundreds of people chimed in. It was like a floodgate opened and instead of compassion and love for those who felt excluded and hurt, what came pouring out was defensiveness, dismissal, and anger. And that was when I began to wonder, “Am I on the wrong team?” Are we so invested in our own culture, structures, and self-importance that we can’t even listen when someone says, “Hey, that hurt.  Ouch.”?

The holiday greeting was a relatively small thing: a picture and some words. Yes, those words were written by a beloved UU leader. And the picture is pretty and represents something we’re proud of: a grassroots effort to create images for social media that carry our values and message into the world.   When people critique  a well-intentioned greeting, it’s painful. When they point out that our words (and images) may have effects that we did not intend, it can be frustrating. But isn’t this exactly the kind of thing we have to be willing to do if we are to  live out our commitments?

Our Association has adopted Global Ends, which is a fancy way of saying Big Goals that are supposed to guide all that we do. One of those Ends is:

  • Congregations and communities engage in partnerships to counter systems of power, privilege and oppression.

I can’t help but wonder if we mean it.  Today, many of us are quoting Dr. King. But what about tomorrow? During the Thirty Days of Love, we’re studying up on multiculturalism, but is our beloved community truly welcoming to all? And if it is not, are we willing to change? Next time someone asks us to look at our words and consider that they might not be as loving as we thought, how will we respond? Will we accuse them of being the problem and dismiss them as silly? Will we tell them we’re too busy doing the real work of justice to be bothered?

Is that what we mean by Love?

The chance might be here already.  Today,  a Unitarian Universalist posted a lovely reflection called Love means it’s time to kill your darlings. How will we respond?

Thoughts on Justice GA 2012 in Phoenix, AZ

One World UnborderedIt probably doesn’t go without saying that the following are my own thoughts and do not represent the UUA, the GA Planning Committee, the Arizona Immigration Ministry, The Accountability Group or anyone else.

People are beginning to notice and respond to the Justice GA Schedule and grid (available here.)

Since I was at the meeting where the schedule was created, I want to ask you to think about a few things as you begin to respond:

First, be gentle in your critique. This schedule is the result of a lot of good people working hard together to respond to a wide variety of needs and expectations.  We made a very clear decision to privilege the needs of the local community and let THEM tell us what they need. The form the schedule takes reflects that. It’s more about the local community’s needs than our hopes and expectations.

Second, I learned at the meeting that there are not (at this point) a whole lot of ways that 3000-4000 UUs can be truly helpful to the local community. There are many ways that trying to meet OUR need to do something that we recognize as service/witness would tax the local community’s resources. We can’t just descend on them. And the amount of organization and resources that a huge service project would demand would actually be a drain on the limited resources of the very people we hope to serve. Knowing this, we’ve tried hard to find ways that  we can use our presence, power, and resources to do things that are truly helpful.  This GA will offer many ways to be of service, but they may not look like we may have expected.

Third, (and I’m not sure I know how to say this gently) we have A LOT to learn. The amount of education and preparation is very intentional and is also a response to the local community wanting us to truly understand not just the issues they face, but the history behind those issues. Education is perhaps THE very most powerful thing we can do to help–not only the Arizona migrants–but people back home, who also face the consequences of this history in ways both similar and dissimilar.  If we can get thousands of UUs to grapple with the history/theology of the Doctrine of Discovery OR to understand the basics of coalition building and community organizing OR to feel like they can help make a difference with the privilege and power they have…well, we’d have accomplished a lot.

Fourth, there will be a lot of choices built into this GA. People will be able to choose how much service they can do, how much history they want to learn, how many practical “take it home” skills they learn, etc.  The “grid” can’t reflect that very well. But what I heard among the very key people at the planning meeting was a deep desire to allow attendees as much flexibility as possible to learn, reflect, and act.  All of that, of course, takes place within the constraints of time, space, and available resources.

Truly, I was amazed by the commitment, dedication, realism, and vision of the planners. This GA won’t be perfect. It probably won’t be like you imagine it. But it will be a very heartfelt effort to create something that helps create justice and truly partners with the people who need us in Arizona.

One of our partners in this work, B Loewe , Communications Director at National Day Laborer Organizing Network, started our time together with a reflection on three goals we might share for this experiment we call “Justice GA”:

1. Build power for the local communities by using our resources, privilege, and access (especially to the media) to draw attention to the struggle in Arizona and the deeper inequities and injustices it reveals.

2. Shrink disbelief among our own people and among people throughout this nation who think and say, “I just can’t believe our government would do these things” or “I didn’t know it was so bad.”

3. Enlarge compassion.

He reminded us that we are not expected to do a Justice GA perfectly, but we are committed to doing it in partnership with the people who invited us, with the people who have taken the risk to make it happen, and with each other.

Love Will Guide Us,

Sean

To Write Love on Her Arms

Today I’ll have “love” written on my arm. Like kinsi and lizard eater, my life has been touched by suicide.  Touched by others’ deaths and also, as a young queer person, touched by the struggle with whether my own life was worth living.

I made it through that struggle and I can say that I am glad and grateful and delighted by what lay on the other side of the choice to live, to reach out, to get help and to hang on. At the time, I was completely convinced my life had no value. I was wrong.

If you struggle with thoughts of suicide, you are not alone. Please, read this, right now. And know that today, the love written on my arm is for you.

Speaking on Behalf of Love

What I said at the rally in support of the Freedom to Marry at the County building in Redwood City this morning:

I am the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison and I am here, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, because I believe that every major religion has compassion and love at its center. The message of love may get lost or warped, or coopted by power, but at its heart, staying true to our religious values means standing on the side of Love—not only romantic love, but love that demands fairness, equity, compassion, and justice for all.

Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear, which scapegoats particular people and deems them somehow less than human, worthy of fewer rights and responsibilities, and somehow not really worthy of equality under the law. These fears hurt us all—they keep us from living up to the high ideals of our nation that ultimately make each of us and all of us better human beings, capable of building better societies and a better world.

In the spirit of Love, will you join me in a moment of meditation, prayer, or intention as we begin?

Spirit of Life and Justice,
We have come together today in service to Love. We are here to bear witness to the right of all people to Love, to enter into covenanted relationship, and to enjoy the rights and bear the responsibilities of those commitments.

We are here because we cannot stay silent in the face of inequality and injustice. We have learned from the past that separate is not equal, and that denying the rights of the few does harm to the many. We are here for ourselves and for each other, knowing that if there is more Love and more Justice in the world, we will all benefit.

We are here to bear witness to the beauty of love and the pain that happens when Love’s legitimacy is denied. We are here to call for equality and to celebrate Love that demands justice. We are here to say yes to Love and no to fear.

We are here to be clear that laws that separate and discriminate are not good enough for our state or our nation. We are here to insist that we live up to the principles of equality and justice for all upon which our nation was founded. We are here in service to Love.

May Love prevail here, now, among us, and as we go forward as a people, insisting that our community truly protect justice and equality for all people. May we, through our action here today, help fear give way to fairness, injustice give way to justice, and hatred give way to Love. May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.