Wednesday, June 04, 2014

What to do now?

(c) 2004 The Center for Economic and Social Justice
The fourth of the Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism, as articulated by the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh for the Order of Interbeing, is this:
"Do not avoid suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world."  
Over the past few years I've been doing increasingly more of precisely this, albeit, I must confess, primarily from the safety of my home.  Even so, I have had my head and my heart stretched wider than I'd thought they could be.

While I was still in my position at UUHQ, we were gearing up for a "common read" of The Death of Josseline:  Immigration Stories from the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands by Margaret Regan.  The stories she relates make all too painfully human the face(s) of the battle over illegal immigration. Principles and policies are exposed as really being very much beside the point -- human suffering on a scale nearly unimaginable (at least by me, then) is what's ultimately at issue here. How can you read stories like these and not take them in?  And having taken them in to your heart, how can you be the same?

About a year later, in the summer of 2012, someone turned me on to the book Take This Bread: a radical conversion by Sarah Miles.  This is the story of how a self-described "lesbian left-wing journalist" (and professed atheist) came to a deep connection to a religious/spiritual understanding she'd never known, in a Christianity she'd never imagined.  The vehicle for this was her work through the food pantry program at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  Her book is a beautiful spiritual memoir, and this dimension touched me deeply.  But she also provides a window into the world of urban poverty (at least as experienced by this woman, in that place, at that time).  Again, humanizing what can so easily be for so many of us something of an abstraction. And oh man, was it inspiring to see how love can be made palpable and what it then can do!

Near the end of that year came The New Jim Crow: mass incaration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.  This one was not so much inspiring as enraging.  Alexander rather convincingly makes the case that our current system of mass incarceration -- largely synonymous with our "war on drugs" -- is an intentionally designed new strategy in an age-old effort.  Slavery maintained a very clear caste system in our country, based on race.  With the end of slavery, Jim Crow laws were enacted which perpetuated essentially that same caste system.  Once Jim Crow was overturned some new mechanism was needed, and the war on drugs was born.  She did not provide as many moving narratives, but her clear and convincing arguments made me see differently when I encountered people here in Charlottesville who'd been caught up in this system.

2014 started off with me watching the movie Dark Days, a documentary film by Marc Singer.  (This was quickly followed by watching the documentary short called Fragile Dwellings, based on the work of Margaret Morton, which was included as an extra on the DVD of Dark Days.  In quick succession, I then read Teun Voehoten's Tunnel People, and two of Morton's books -- The Tunnel:  the underground homeless of New York City and Fragile Dwelling, the print version of the short I'd watched earlier.) All of these tell the stories of some of the unhoused women and men who came to make their homes in a stretch of deserted Amtrak tunnel beneath the streets of New York City.  Once more human beings took root in my heart instead of simply finding more concepts in my head. "The homeless" had a more human face. 

This past month I read Tattoos on the Heart:  the power of boundless compassion, by Gregory Boyles.  Fr. Boyles -- known affectionately as "G" by the people with whom he lives and works -- tells story after story about the ways he has found God, and ways he has found to share God, in and with the gang youth of one of LA's most gang-ridden neighborhoods. It is astonishing to me that anyone's heart and psyche could survive the kind of ministry he's found himself called to do, yet perhaps not so surprisingly his testimony is that the "secret of his success" has been in his refusal to see labels and, instead, to be with these youth. His humanity meets their humanity, and they embrace each other.

And now I have just finished reading Finding God in a Bag of Groceries:  sharing food, discovering grace, by Laura Willis.  This time it's the story of rural poverty -- 'though again it's the ministry of a food bank at work -- and once more I've found myself looking into a world I could not have even fully imagined, so different is it from my own, yet finding there more of the "we" that is revealed when we let go of divisions between "us" and "them."

From undocumented immigrants in the southwest, to the urban poor in San Francisco, to people of color caught up in a (legal) system of oppression and dehumanization through the US, to homeless women and men making homes for themselves among society's refuse in NYC, to inner city gang youth in LA, to the urban poor in Tennessee -- it's been quite a ride. I've "seen" things, and been allowed to "listen in" to experiences so radically different than my own, than any I've known. 

And yet, what has struck me most is not the differences; it's the common humanity all of us share. One thread that runs through all of these books and films is that our guides into these "other worlds" recognize, witness to, and affirm what we Unitarian Universalists refer to as, "the inherent worth and dignity of every person."  (Often said as if we, alone, understood that phrase!)  Over and over again the message is the same one I preach so often -- there is no "us" and "them" ... there is only "we."

So a question rises up in me -- what to do now?  How can I -- and how can we as a faith community committed to ending oppression and affirming the inherint worth and dignity of all beings -- respond? That's a question I hope we'll all wrestle with, dance with, for a good long time.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

1 comment:

Dave Dawson said...

Keep it up! You're sounding more like Ron Robinson all the time.