Over the course of my travels this summer, which culminated with me spending a night in jail, I have had many people ask me why I felt compelled to go the places I did. I will attempt the outline of an explanation here.
A year ago, I was in a very different place, both physically and spiritually. I was a science educator at a museum in Illinois. I was in the process of finishing my job there and packing up to move to Minnesota to begin seminary. I did not spend much time thinking about racism or social justice. I had never been an activist.
Yet once in a while I would listen to those individuals who felt passionately about their causes, and I felt a little bit like Scrooge looking in on Tiny Tim at Christmas dinner. What would it be like, I wondered, to believe in something so deeply that I would be willing to get arrested for it? It seemed like a marvelous but alien thing, this fire of commitment that burned so brightly in these people. But the passion continued to elude me.
It was around this time that I heard about the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. I signed up to receive their email newsletters, and I signed their petition for marriage equality. I pledged a small amount of money to support their work. It didn’t really feel like I’d done a lot, but I didn’t see what else I could do.
As I settled into my new apartment in Minnesota, I began looking over the course catalogue for my seminary, and I saw that one requirement of my education would be participation in a “global justice course.” I had no idea what that meant, but there were a handful of different possibilities: the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Chiapas, Mexico. I learned that we would be expected to go to one of these places for approximately ten days. What we were supposed to accomplish there, I didn’t know. I had visions of being asked to perform missionary work, which rankled my Unitarian Universalist beliefs (for example, my belief in every person’s right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning).
So when the fall term was beginning, I sat down with my advisor, who happened to be the professor who led the North American global justice trips. I learned, much to my relief, that these trips were not mission trips, but rather a chance for us to witness the oppression that happened in other places of the world. We would not be expected to change these people’s lives in an immediate or measurable way; rather, we would be expected to listen and talk to people whose backgrounds and lives were completely different from our own. Then we would bring their stories back home with us, and we would give voice to a people who didn’t have the power to make the United States listen.
As I sat in that comfortable office with my new professor, I saw in her this elusive fire. She cared so very deeply for the people of Chiapas and of Guatemala. She spoke straight from her heart about the suffering she had witnessed, as well as the hope and courage these people displayed. I sat glued to my chair as she gave me a glimpse of how her life had been changed by these trips, and in that moment, I knew I had to go. I didn’t know how I would fund it, and I didn’t know when my schedule would allow it, but in that moment I committed.
As chance would have it, things fell into place for me to go on the global justice trip to Chiapas, Mexico in June, 2010. I knew, in an intellectual sort of way, that this would be a life-altering experience. But of course there is no way to predict those internal changes. Even as I attended the first group meeting prior to our departure, I had no idea what to expect. I heard words like “liberation” and “Zapatistas” thrown about, but there was no internal resonance within me; I wanted to feel that passion, but I was still an outsider looking in through the window. I shrugged to myself, and packed for the trip, and figured it would all work itself out in time.
I started feeling the excitement a few days before we left. I asked a fellow student to show me how to keep a blog for the trip, and I decided that I wanted to take on the responsibility of chronicling our adventures. The link to the blog can be found on the right side of this page, at UTS Global Trips, or to jump straight to the first Chiapas entry, you can click here.
I will let the blog speak for itself about what we experienced in Mexico. But I came back from that trip feeling somehow larger than I had been. I came to realize that one city, one state, was no longer large enough to hold me comfortably. My boundaries of awareness had been stretched, and I did not want to sit around and wait for them to shrink in on me again. My world now encompassed more people than those who looked and thought like I did; my family was extended across the face of the planet.
After returning, I was putting together a Sunday service for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois. In my sermon, I explained my return from Chiapas with the following words:
Upon returning to the Twin Cities, I was caught up in the rush of attending my first General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist congregations as a delegate from this church. By the time I was back in the United States, GA was already half over.
It might be an understatement to say I was experiencing some culture shock.
And yet at the same time, it felt like a continuation of my trip. Though the people that surrounded me were mostly pale instead of dark, their eyes held the same fire of commitment. Though my ears heard English instead of Spanish, the words carried the same hopes for a new and better world. And though I was back among people who have power and privilege, I witnessed the same dedication to justice I had seen the week before among the poor and oppressed in Chiapas.
At this General Assembly, our assembled congregations voted to stand on the side of love with our immigrant brothers and sisters in Arizona. Rather than boycott our Phoenix GA in 2012, we will be showing up in force for a General Assembly the likes of which has never been planned. We will be having a “Justice GA,” where business is kept to a minimum and thousands of assembled Unitarian Universalists will be unleashed on Arizona to do hands-on social justice work. Mark your calendars. Plan to be there.
If you don’t want to wait for Justice GA Phoenix 2012, the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, urges UUs from across the nation to witness in Arizona this July 29th, the day harsh new anti-immigrant measures are scheduled to go into effect. Maricopa County law enforcement has announced major sweeps and raids to implement the law. Every pair of eyes and hands will be needed to offer support and bear witness.
During that Minneapolis GA, I sat in the plenary audience as Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray called us to come to Phoenix. Just as my professor had done nearly a year previously, Rev. Susan spoke from her heart, asking the assembled congregations to help those who could not help themselves. And once again, I was riveted; I felt as though a rope had been tied to the very core of my being and was being tugged. And I knew I had to go.
Was this what it felt like? I wondered. Is this what those people feel, when they go to do their activist work and stand up for justice in this world? It was compelling. It was unequivocally insistent. There was not a doubt in my mind that this was a call I had to answer.
Now, that does not mean I didn’t have concerns. As the date for departure drew closer and plans became more concrete, it became evident that I would be making this trip alone, and there would be no one I knew waiting for me at the other end. My car was twenty years old and looked like it was on the verge of falling apart. The air conditioning had been broken for years, which was not ideal for traversing the desert in July. And then to top it all off, I fell and cracked my rib just two days before my intended departure, and I had to delay my trip another two days so I could go through treatment. Yes, I definitely had concerns.
But I couldn’t not go. There were many unknowns on this trip. But the one thing I knew for certain was that this was something I had to do. It was the path I was meant to take. And as I set out on that crisp July morning just a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t remember a time in my life when I had felt more alive or more attuned to the world around me.
So that’s how I ended up in jail. I will share the details of the arrest itself at a later date, but since the case is still open, I would rather not publish anything that could be used against me or my friends in a court of law. I’m sure you understand.
I chose to share with you, dear reader, my travels, both physical and emotional. I was going into uncharted territory, and I knew that there were friends out there in the world who wished they could have come along. By keeping this blog, I made that possible, and it has been a vastly rewarding experience for me as well to be able to share this journey with all of you.
After being released, I stood blinking in the sunlight and cheering chaos as I was surrounded by my affectionately-dubbed “Love People” wearing their bright yellow t-shirts, declaring to all the world that they were standing on the side of love. I found myself hugging and kissing the people who, scarcely a year ago, had been nothing more than names in my inbox.
I must have looked rather dazed, because at one point, a UU minister came over to me and said, “Why don’t we go sit over here in the shade, and I’ll help you put your shoelaces back in.”
We sat there re-lacing my shoes, and he grinned at me and said, “Welcome to the ministry. Is it everything you hoped it would be?”
And I felt the fire leap within me as I answered with a fierce “Yes!”