When I look back on what I like to call my “justice summer,” in many ways it feels like a dream, or a fantastic tale that happened to someone else. I read my own blog entries, illustrated by the photographs I took during my travels, and it’s like I’m reading about a person who is so much more passionate, dedicated, and connected than I am.
And yet those are my words and my pictures, which only dimly reflect my memories. When I take the time to pause and deeply remember, I am still so moved by the power, the struggle, and the beauty of what I witnessed that tears come to my eyes, and I weep. If I had a tear cup, it would have seen much use as my heart broke over and over again. Every day I prayed that as I opened myself to other people’s stories, my heart would break wide enough to let the whole world in. My theory is that if my heart lets the whole world in enough times, eventually that door won’t remember how to close anymore.
I have trouble talking about my travels. It’s not that I don’t want to share. But this summer was the beginning of a pilgrimage. It’s not that I was traveling to a holy land, but rather everywhere I traveled was holy land, and after what I experienced, I cannot speak of it lightly. This summer was a gift that changes the direction of my life, my sense of self, my connection to the world around me. I touched, briefly, what it meant to be truly connected to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This summer made me want to amend that Seventh Principle to read: the interdependent web of all existence of which we are but a part.
My journey this summer was a progression from outward to inward, public to private, fast to slow. It began in Minnesota, getting on an airplane with a group of fellow travelers, led by someone who had done this before, flying down to Chiapas, Mexico for a global justice trip with my seminary. After returning to Minnesota, I realized my pilgrimage had only just begun. After going to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, I spent four days driving by myself down to Phoenix, Arizona to answer the call for justice. Once I was there, I marched in the protests against the anti-immigration laws, feeling oddly alone, and yet surrounded by a cloud of loving witnesses who marched with me. My journey led me straight into a Phoenix jail, where I spent the night with other UU ministers and seminarians, activists of all kinds, and other inmates who would have been there regardless of our presence. My claim to fame is that I was arrested with Peter Morales, President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which told me I must have been doing something right. As I explained to the police officer who was escorting me into the jail, “I just got arrested with my pope!” I’m not sure the officer understood.
After my release, I stayed with friends a few days until I healed enough to make it home. As I approached the Twin Cities after what felt like several lifetimes away, my mother called to ask if I would stop and have dinner with my grandparents on my way back into town. I was exhausted. I hadn’t showered. My clothes were filthy. I wanted to see my cat so badly that I was on the verge of tears. But I stopped in Bloomington and had dinner with my grandparents. A week after my return, my grandmother died.
It’s really the thread of her narrative that ties my summer together. Like carefully placed stitches, the measured approach of her death turned my summer into a beautiful quilt, when it could so easily have ended up as a scattering of patchwork pieces. She had been terminally ill for four years, but this spring she was hospitalized for what we knew would be the last time. Every time a departure date drew near, I worried that I should cancel my plans and stay home to be with her. She told me to go. As she said so many times over those last four years, “I may not be here when you get back!” But she wanted me to go live my life, and so I did. She had threatened to “not be here” so many times that I almost didn’t think it would ever happen.
Then she was gone. And I wonder sometimes if she held on in order to make sure I got safely home before she left on her own pilgrimage into the mystery of death.
Sitting in the airport in Chiapas, Mexico, we are told to pick our roommate. I turn to the only four people that I know in this country, only to discover they had already paired off with each other. I put a determined smile on my face for the stranger I’m being paired with, ignoring my urge to cry and trying not to feel rejected, assuring her that I was positive we would get along just fine.
Two days later, lying in the dark, listening to my roommate’s light snoring, I’m quietly weeping to myself again. But this time it’s because, just before lights out, my roommate and I discovered that she knew my grandmother, and suddenly we were no longer strangers, but two long-lost friends who just happened to have connected two thousand miles away from home. It seemed to me to be something worth shedding tears over. On our last day, I told her I wouldn’t have wanted any other roommate.
The majority of our discoveries in Chiapas, however, were not so lighthearted. Over the span of our ten-day trip, I don’t think a single day passed where we did not feel the weight of our American privilege pressing in on us. It stared at us from the wide brown eyes of children who were struggling with malnutrition, who would never receive a high school education, who were slowly dying of diseases that a single trip to a doctor could have cured.
Our privilege clung to our white skin as we walked among people in the marketplace who were desperately trying to earn five dollars that day, or who sat unresponsive and lethargic because they knew we would not stop for them, or who followed us through the streets heckling us to buy a bracelet or a shawl or a doll.
And we sat and learned about the cost of our privilege from people who were not American as they told us what our country was responsible for doing to Mexico and the global economy. In a democracy like ours, where we vote and have freedom of speech, it is very hard to argue that you are not responsible for what your government does.
And they made sure we learned about our responsibility. When the weight of that responsibility settles on your shoulders, I think that’s worth weeping over.
We learned that first world countries, including the US, are trying to encourage their large corporations to “go green” by assigning each of them a set number of carbon credits. They are not allowed to go over this number…unless they can buy a chunk of rainforest somewhere else on the planet to “offset” what they’re spewing into the atmosphere. So they buy up the Mexican cloudforest up on the mountaintops in Chiapas. But then the land is just sitting there, not earning them any money. So they chop down the cloudforest and sell the lumber of the exotic trees. But they still need the carbon credits, so they plant African palm trees. The palms do not thrive in mountain climates, but there’s a high global demand for palm oil, so the companies coat the land with fertilizers and pesticides to keep the trees alive; the trees, not being adapted to the climate, suck up all the water that used to pool into reservoirs. What little water remains for the villagers lower down the mountain is polluted by the chemicals that were used. Meanwhile, all the undergrowth that held the soil in place dies off. Then hurricane season arrives; the rains, once absorbed into the cloudforest, instead create toxic mudslides that destroy the indigenous villages. The people usually don’t have time to escape before they are buried and drowned.
We are responsible for this. I think that’s worth weeping over.
We visited the Zapatistas in the small village of Oventic. You won’t be able to find it on Google maps, because according to the Mexican government, it doesn’t exist. Outside the gate, a rusted sign read in Spanish “You are in the territory of the Zapatista Rebellion. Here the people command and the government obeys.”
The Zapatistas are the movement of indigenous Mayan people in Chiapas who are demanding basic human rights and the recognition of full citizenship from the Mexican government. Their villages are organized with Councils of Good Government who look out for the welfare of all the people. But how to they manage to avoid succumbing to the same corruption of power that they are resisting? They are saved by the deep reverence they feel for the people they are serving. The responsibility of their office is a sacred duty for them. They each serve a period of time on the Council, fulfilling a cultural obligation to give of themselves to their community, and when that period is over, they willingly step down.
It was such a beautiful system, but what motivated them to maintain its integrity? The Zapatistas live in a country where their national government is killing members of their families because they find the indigenous people inconvenient. Young men are beaten to death or stabbed or “disappeared,” and women are raped before they are murdered. Entire villages are shot down by paramilitary groups that attack with no warning and with no insignia to identify themselves.
Our country trained those paramilitary groups. At the School of the Americas, the United States trains Mexican soldiers how to wage war on their own people—and those people are usually unarmed elders, women, and children. We are responsible for this.
Yet in the face of these horrors, the Zapatistas maintain that the right path to gaining their rights, their freedom, and their safety is through education and nonviolence. I think that’s worth weeping over.
While we were in Chiapas, we asked the Zapatista government and the survivors of one of the slaughtered villages what we could do to be in solidarity with them. Remember, solidarity doesn’t mean that we simply support their cause; we have to offer them more than our applause and our charitable contributions. But as we sat literally at the feet of these natively dressed, soft-spoken leaders, we had no idea what we could do for them besides feel horribly guilty at what our country had done to theirs.
And then the Zapatistas spoke to us gently, like a benediction.
“The fact that you came here to this place means everything to us. You could have stayed home and sent money, but instead, you came. The Mexican government tries to tell the world that we do not exist; but you are here, and you see us with your own eyes. We do exist. And because you came, we know that we are not alone. So we thank you. For now, these are our words.”
A few days later, when we visited the village of Acteal, where 45 men, women, and children had been gunned down in a plot sanctioned by the Mexican president, the elders invited us into their meeting house. Again, we asked how we could be in solidarity with them.
One of the elders told us, “I think that you, who live in the United States, because that place has so much influence on our country (for example, you trained the soldiers that attacked our village), you need to use your influence to effect change so these atrocities will stop.”
And our bus driver, Julio, said to us, “We all only have one enemy—capitalism. All peoples of the world have heard many times ‘You are not alone.’ You are the ones that make this possible, because you are here. It confirms to us that others are resisting. When you stop coming, it will be harder. We only ask that you do not forget about us. If you forget, things will be harder. We know that utopia doesn’t exist—we only have to imagine it. It is difficult to look at yourself truly, to keep looking in the mirror, asking yourself, ‘What do I want? What have I done? And why?’ It is difficult. But after that, one can start walking a different way.”
Solidarity doesn’t just mean support. It means being fully, openly, and honestly present to the total reality of a situation. It means recognizing that for all your good intentions, you are part of a system that oppresses people who do not have the power to resist. Those who are hurt by these systems of oppression are often referred to as victims of “systemic violence” because of the unthinkable wrongs that are perpetrated by the strong against the weak.
And if you see these systems and believe yourself to be outside of it, that means you are in the seat of power. You are one of the oppressors.
That is what we were forced to realize on this trip. I think that is worth weeping over.
Julio referred to the idea of holding up a mirror in which we are challenged to see ourselves truly. He understood that when we take that first honest look, it is difficult—very difficult—to keep looking.
Privilege, and the power that comes with it, is an inherent part of the system in which we all live and operate. But being ashamed of privilege (hiding from it, pretending it isn’t there, being afraid to use and wield it) that helps no one. It is an abuse of the gifts we have been given. Neither can we give it up; it is tied to every part of who we are.
The only control we have is how we choose to use it.
And in this case, I chose to use it to stand on the side of love with my brothers and sisters in Arizona. After returning home from Mexico, I learned that Sheriff Joe Arpaio—an elected official in my own country—had announced his intention to raid people’s homes, looking for excuses to arrest and deport them. I realized I could not stay home until I knew that they would be allowed to stay home, too–-whether that home is in Mexico or the United States. I couldn’t run from my white privilege. But I could embrace it and use it to protect those who could not protect themselves. In short, I decided to take their place in jail.
All this traveling (and a night in jail) gave me plenty of opportunities to think. Because really, there’s not much else to do. I drove most of the 4,000-mile trip in silence. It was like a spiritual cleansing, or a driving meditation.
I thought a lot about my grandmother. I knew she would die that summer; a recovery was out of the question, and she had held on for much longer than the doctors had expected. But I wondered whether we had oppressed her unintentionally. Had we been in solidarity with her? Sometimes, to be in true solidarity, we must do the opposite of what we would personally wish to do, in order to uplift one who has no power.
Forrest Church writes in his book Love and Death, “About a week before [my father] died [of cancer], at a particularly dark moment, he said to my mother, ‘The worst thing about all this is that you can grow to hate the people you love the most.’ From that point on, my mother stopped all attempts to feed him or to make him do anything he did not want to do. She told him that she was ready for him to go. She told him that she wanted what he then so profoundly wanted. She, too, wanted him to die…. He seemed grateful and relieved.”
Standing over her hospital bed, watching her struggle to breathe, seeing her get thinner and weaker, hearing her say she was ready to die, and then listening to my family rally their forces to convince her to live, I wanted to say to my grandmother, “I love you, and I want you to die.”
I never said the words. But I stood by her bedside looking down at her, and I thought them with all my heart. I thought about what a strong, brave woman she had been, how many gifts she had given the world, and I thought to myself that the one gift we could give her in return would be to let her go—and to encourage her to let go.
So I stood at her bedside, willing her to hear me as I said goodbye.
The next morning, she squeezed my grandfather’s hand, smiled up at him, and left.
We can learn much by traveling. But I’ve found one of my most important lessons right here in Minnesota, watching the trees change color and the snow fall.
Leaves that stay green don’t fall off the trees. The green color is caused by the production of chlorophyll, which allows the leaves to produce sugars for the tree to live. As the earth spins out around the sun and begins tilting towards the darkness, that tells the tree to stop producing chlorophyll.
Because green isn’t the natural color of leaves. When the leaves stop saturating themselves with chlorophyll, the green goes away, and the true colors of the leaves suddenly show through in a startling display of natural autumn beauty.
So every once in a while, I stop to ask myself: With what am I saturating myself? And is it preventing my true colors from showing through?
With the trees, once those true colors start showing, the leaves soon fall to the ground. To an observer, this might look like a version of death, of giving up. And in a way it is giving up. The tree is giving up that which it doesn’t need anymore. Even more than that, the tree is letting go of something that would only hurt it if it held on any longer.
You saw the snow we got yesterday. (It was pretty hard to miss.) Thick. Wet. And heavy. Winter comes after fall—that’s the nature of things. In letting go of its leaves—not losing them, but actively letting them go—the tree is able to survive the winter. If it still had leaves, the weight of the snow would snap off the branches, and the tree would die. In letting go, the tree made the choice to live. And when it is time, the tree will bud and bloom once again.
So with this winter reminder outside our windows today, I invite you to ponder these questions: What am I hiding behind? Am I allowing my true colors to show? What in my life do I need to let go? In what way should I be more like the tree?
As I bring this bowl around, I invite you to take some pomegranate seeds. As you eat them, remember that, like life, they are both sweet and bitter, but in the center is the seed from which new life springs.
This sermon was presented on November 14, 2010 to Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Paul, Minnesota where I am serving a quarter-time internship. Improvised piano music was interspersed among the segments of the sermon; the sermon itself was bracketed by “Blowin’ in the Wind,” accompanied on guitar as the congregation sang. Readings used during the service included excerpts from Love & Death by Forrest Church and from an essay by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz in Lift Every Voice. Responsive Reading #587 (“A Litany for Survival”) and reading #560 (“Commitment”) were used from the UU hymnal Singing the Living Tradition.