Traveling Stories (to Bismarck)

I write to you, dear reader, from the air, somewhere over the Great Plains in a tiny plane. Below are stripes of green and gold fields, interrupted by folds in the land, twisting and untamable. I wonder if water is collecting there. 

Soon we will land in Bismarck.

It’s not my first time, traveling to a place that has earned a reputation for police brutality, to witness the militarization against unarmed civilians; it’s not my first time entering a war-zone-that’s-not-a-war-zone (even though photographic evidence would suggest otherwise), where people of the land are treated as less than human while mainstream media remains astonishingly silent and neutral. 

For all that I’ve done similar things before, the blind eye always catches me by surprise. I wish it were otherwise, but for an immense number of people in our country (or, more accurately, in our globalized world), their experience of being non-White in a White-dominant culture has led them to expect that they will be made consistently invisible and voiceless in our whitewashed world. (My privilege is showing again.)

How is it that we can divide ourselves from one another, and not realize how much we are suffering as a result? How long until we finally, collectively, figure out that there is no such thing as someone else’s pain — that the theology of interconnectedness and oneness of being is not just a poetic idea, but the reality of the universe?

The plane will be landing soon. Pausing for turbulence. 

~*~

My alarm went off at 4:30am, and I stumbled through the darkness to dress for the North Dakota weather (low 60s with the sun, below freezing at night), in spite of the relative (and unseasonal) warmth of Elgin, Illinois in early November. I had packed and showered before bed; my clothes were all laid out; the cat was fed. All I needed to do was make it to the driveway with my backpack, preferably with matching shoes on my feet. 

In all my preparations, I tried to be mindful of my destination — fluctuating temperatures, rough outdoor conditions, no running water (because the government turned it off to deter the ones protecting it), no grocery stores, no sidewalks. I’d have my rental car, but otherwise only what I could carry on my back — which had to include everything I’d need to sleep on a floor (either of a church or a tent). With a sleeping bag, travel pillow, and jacket, it didn’t leave room for much else. I’m wearing all the clothes I brought, aside from the clergy collar and stoles for public witness. I managed to fit in a toothbrush. In my daypack, I have goggles to protect against chemical weapons, ear plugs to protect against sonic weapons, and a scarf to cover my face and mouth (and wipe them off, if needed). I packed some TP, and a bag to carry it out in. Some dry hand soap. At the last minute, I threw in a handful of my daily vitamins and some electrolyte powder to mix with the water I’ll buy in Bismarck before driving down. 

I saw headlights moving slowly in the dark, winding their way up my long, rural gravel driveway. My ride was here, a couple minutes early. I went out to meet them, switching off the lights and trying not to let my overadventurous cat dart out between my legs. 

Turning to the car, I blinked in the darkness, sure that my eyes were tricking me.

The driver had come up to the door to meet me, solicitously inquiring how I was doing. As we walked to the car, I mentioned that the car was perhaps a bit larger than I had expected, with my one backpack of luggage.

“Oh,” said he, ” that’s because we have additional passengers.”

So it was, with some bemusement, that I climbed into a sleek black stretch limousine, which reached half the length of my yard, in the pre-dawn hours on a Wednesday morning, crawling awkwardly over the laps of the two passengers already occupying the forward-facing rear seat. Eventually I was successful in arranging myself on the sideways seat under the mood lighting, facing the carefully arranged mirrored bar. 

As the enormous snake of a car attempted to back its way out of my driveway, the other passengers, thinking to engage in small talk at 5am, asked where I was going. In turn, I asked the same of them, and found they were leaving for a vacation to Hawaii. 

Having thus exhausted the topic of location, then came the inevitable question: “So why North Dakota?”

I sent a plaintive prayer to the universe, wondering what I had done to warrant being outed as a clergy activist at such an hour, on so little sleep, and while the driver was doing his best not to run over my bergamot and ostrich ferns.

But this is why I’m doing this work, yes? To engage the story, to broaden its reach, and to stir the hearts of people distracted by life’s other minutiae.

And so I gently explained where I was going and why, and what had happened, and what I hoped to do. The couple asked good questions, and by the time we pulled into O’Hare, we were chatting easily in the limousine’s soft mood lighting, and their hearts were engaged, at least in that moment, with the people of Standing Rock. We parted congenially.

Then, as the huge fancy car pulled away, I discovered my flight had been cancelled. 

~*~

Ministry doesn’t always take the form you expect it to. Sometimes it’s telling hard stories gently in the back of a stretch limo. 

Sometimes it’s projecting good cheer and gratitude to the airline attendant whose hands are flying over the keyboard, pulling every string at her disposal to get you to Bismarck when every flight seems full and she can’t figure out why.
Sometimes ministry is ignoring the chatty man in the seat next to you on the flight to Denver as he details, in that early dawn hush, his life story for no reason, even though you’re not looking at him or asking him any questions. Sometimes it’s going a step further and closing your eyes, pretending to fall asleep, as he decides this is a good time for an unsolicited lesson in how runways work. It’s ministry, because it doesn’t involve duct tape. 

Sometimes ministry is the quiet voice of the woman on the other side of you, saying she’s glad you’re going to Standing Rock (a detail the chatty man uncovered before changing the topic to one where he was the expert). Sometimes it’s a heart to heart, ranging over many topics, that you realize you don’t want to end when the plane lands. 

Sometimes ministry is the flight attendant holding the door after the last call, as you bound down the steps from your delayed flight, sweaty but present, and just in the nick of time.

Amd sometimes ministry is your new seat mate, introducing herself as UUA staff in President Peter Morales’ entourage, letting the conversation fade in a companionable sort of way so that you can have a few minutes of not talking for the first time since that 5am limo ride in the darkness. 

It’s the cheerful guy at the car rental counter, introducing himself by name and offering a handshake over the counter as he gets your keys. 

It’s the bright North Dakota sunshine and cool breeze over the Great Plains. 

It’s the call of friendship and allyship, bringing us together because our hearts are interconnected; there’s no such thing as strangers. 

Ministry is what nurtures us into courage, nourishes us into strength, and sings between us across the miles.

~*~

And now I leave for the grocery store to stock up on water and food before heading to Cannon Ball, North Dakota!

More later, as connectivity allows. 

-lm

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Standing with Standing Rock

I am going to Standing Rock.

A call went out today, asking clergy of all faiths to come to the Standing Rock reservation outside of Bismarck, North Dakota to witness and join the water protectors, whose numbers have swelled with representatives from over 200 tribal nations from all over the globe in an unprecedented showing of Native solidarity.

I will be answering that call, flying to join them at the Camp of the Sacred Stone on November 2nd for a training, and then participating in a clergy action, under the guidance of the Standing Rock elders, on November 3rd.

I am coming because I was asked — by people with whom I am in relationship.

I am coming because that is what Love calls me to do — I am compelled by Love.

I am coming because I refuse to buy into the worldview that separates people into “us” and “them,” when in truth there is only “we.”  What do lines on a piece of paper mean, when clean water is essential to everything?  What do we need with more oil, when our communities are fracturing and our children’s inheritance is at risk?

As our great Civil Rights leader once said, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related.  All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

~ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

So when I go, it is because I feel another’s suffering as my own — that is the nature of compassion.  Compassion, a form of love in action, is what moves us to alleviate another’s pain, because it is natural to act in a way that diminishes suffering.  By showing up to witness, to put my body on the line, to learn the stories and bring them back, to give voice to the voiceless — in all these ways, I can work to ease our collective suffering.

In a recent visit to our congregation, Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison Reed reminded us that social transformation and justice movements are built on relationship; we human beings, for all our flowery talk of doing something because it’s the right thing to do, are not actually compelled by conscience, but by being in relationship with people who are asking us to show up, which is to say that we are compelled by love — which is just another way of saying that change happens when our hearts are moved to compassion, when we must alleviate another’s suffering because it is our own.

It comes down to the question: Whose Are We?

To whom do we belong?  To whom are we bound in a mutual relationship?  To whom are we accountable, both today and in the future?

The answer to that question will dictate where you show up, which is another way of saying how you use your power.

And as you start teasing out your own answers, you will begin to realize that there’s a thread of relationship and meaning that weaves your entire life together.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~ William Stafford

This thread could be called other names — your life purpose, your calling. That Which Makes You Excited And Maybe A Little Scared But You Do It Anyway Because You Can’t Quite Live With The Idea Of Not Doing It Because You’d Be Disappointed In Yourself And Would Need To Find A Way To Repair The Relationship With Yourself And Probably Others.

Or we can just call it the thread.

And right now, my thread is leading me to Standing Rock.

Will I see you there?

– lm

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Is She Coming to You?

I met a woman here in Selma — a fine, strong, intelligent woman.  She’s savvy, and involved in racial justice, and politically conscious.  She’s a motivated, connected activist, and she’s in it for the long haul.

She’s also NOT a Unitarian Universalist.

She’d never heard of us before she was invited to this conference about Selma, this commemorative event that we dared to call “Marching in the Arc of Justice.”  Upon receiving the invitation, she thought she’d look up exactly who these Unitarian Universalists are. Continue reading

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Do You Love?

With whom are you in relationship?

This question lies at the heart of every successful justice movement, and the work cannot be done effectively or sustainably without an answer.

And, because of that relationship, what does love call you to do?

It’s not enough to reason your way to action, or to argue your way, and you can’t even Continue reading

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A First Look at Selma

So much has been happening over the past two days, I hardly know how to make sense of it for you, dear reader!  Volunteering here at the Living Legacy Project’s event in Birmingham (which can be live streamed here) has been a joy and a privilege, and with so much going on, it has also been a rigorous schedule to keep.

We started bright and early on Thursday morning, setting up the bookstall and registering new guests.  On the way into town with Monica, my local guide and volunteer-boss, a local columnist came on the radio, saying, “In Alabama, we have a long and illustrious history of defending our rights…often at the expense of the rights of others.”  In this particular case, John Archibald was alluding to the recent judicial altercations over same-sex marriage, but his words ring true across issues.

After lunch, we all piled into two big buses and headed for Selma, which is nearly 90 miles away.

Now, I was anticipating warm weather here in Alabama — at least, warmer than Minnesota!  However, as we hurried out the door, we had to brace ourselves against snow and sleet, which Continue reading

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Memorial of the Martyrs

Imagine yourself in a crowded sanctuary — not just crowded, packed.  Every pew filled, hip to hip, the balcony overflowing, the walls lined with those hardy souls who are willing to stand.  Even the front surrounding the pulpit is full of people — choir members, ensemble singers, accompanists, directors, esteemed speakers, even a couple men in suits who look like they might be bodyguards.  There are so many people that even the band is hidden amongst bodies, the drum set obscured, the guitarist just one among many.  Then add the television crews, the photographers, the journalists, gathered like a flock of birds at the far back near the doors.  The room is bursting with energy and anticipation.

It’s the anniversary memorial service for the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, fifty years after our honored friends were killed by the very violence they were protesting.  We are gathered at the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Selma, a blend of faiths and faces, packed together and singing for all we’re worth.

There — filling the fourth row — is the entire extended family of Rev. James (Jim) Reeb.  And over there, gathered in a clump up front, is Continue reading

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Arriving in Birmingham

I write to you now from Birmingham, Alabama.  Far from the frigid snows of Minnesota, my first breath of Southern air made me think I’d landed at the aquarium rather than the airport — humid and warm!  Temps were in the seventies, the sun was shining mightily, and even the trees and shrubs were covered in the beginnings of pink and yellow blossoms.

But before my northern friends get too upset with me for boasting of the nice weather, I’ll add that as I write tonight, a cold rain is beating on my bedroom window — local schools are cancelled tomorrow for fear of ice as the temperature plummets.  I also saw on Facebook that some of my colleagues around the country have had their flights cancelled and won’t be able to make it to the conference at all.  So I’m feeling lucky that I made it here without a hassle.

During my layover in the Chicago-Midway airport, I began to hear a different sort of music in the voices of other passengers awaiting the boarding time — swapping stories , rambling from one tale to the next, these Continue reading

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