By Art McDonald
I have been in Pittsburgh a few times over the last month, leading a weekend retreat for activists on the topic of Mysticism and Social Transformation, giving a talk on a history-writing project I’ve been asked to do for a group of activist priests, and I taught a class at the Univ. of Pittsburgh Law School on Community Organizing and the Law. After the class one of the students wanted to talk about a research paper he was writing for the class on the role of Law and the Church Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when religious organizations across the country harbored undocumented refugees, mostly from El Salvador, who were fleeing for their lives from a brutal civil war in that country.
What was great about this is that I was heavily involved in this movement in Pittsburgh, as a local Mennonite churched voted unanimously to declare their church a sanctuary, even though the concept which protected churches from prosecution in the Middle Ages, was not recognized in U.S. law, thus the church was in violation of immigration law. So I was able to give this student the names of several other people in Pittsburgh who were active in this effort whom I had worked with closely.
As I look back on my roughly 45 years of ministry, I must say, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything I’m more happy about then helping protect undocumented immigrants from the threat of persecution back home or incarceration here in the U.S. When I drove from Pittsburgh to mid-state Ohio to pick up Maria and Gabriel, a husband and wife who left 9 children behind with their own parents, thus being part of a new underground railroad that began in Texas and Arizona and had connecting points in most major U.S. cities, I was told that if I were arrested and turned over the then INS (now ICE-Immigration and Customs Enforcement), I could potentially spend years in jail. But because I was part of a wide network of religious activists and communities, I was more than willing to follow what I thought was a higher, moral law, and, like the Good Samaritan, see Gabriel and Maria as my neighbors. In essence we were resisting and protesting what we thought to be an immoral U.S. immigration law, which lawyers told us violated international law, demanding that countries harbor immigrants who are fleeing from war. For better or worse, right or wrong, we were convinced a higher law supported us. Once Gabriel and Maria got settled in the Mennonite church, most every Sunday Melanie and I took them around to other churches and they simply told their harrowing story. It was a very difficult time in this country as many of us found ourselves at odds with our own government and the President, Ronald Reagan. We believed it was only thing a good patriot could do.
Last Monday evening about a dozen of us sat in this Sanctuary and prayed and meditated about the next day’s election. And since that election I have heard from many of you, as well as many, many friends, expressing great concern about the direction of our nation. Sadly, we had two flawed candidates. Many expressed anger, but more expressed worry and fear. What we all have just experienced in these last many months of primaries and debates leading up to the election of now, President-elect Trump, should make us all sick. I have never experienced such vitriol and viciousness and hate-mongering from Presidential aspirants as in these last months. The attacks, the accusations, the bitterness, the violence are not what we as people of these United States stand for. Frankly, I blame both sides, though I also believe the winning side went much, much lower. The losing side suggested “when they go low, we go high,” but it was not always the case. I believe firmly we as a people are owed an apology, not only from the candidates, but from the parties that didn’t stop this from happening, and, I might add, the religious leaders who never voiced opposition, like the Cardinal of New York, who at the annual Al Smith fundraising dinner, allowed the most vicious attacks to go on without intervening and silencing the event; instead he mostly laughed at the banter. And, in a final blow to any sense of human dignity or humility, when asked Friday if his rhetoric, at times, went over the top, our now President-elect replied: “No. I won.” I was horrified. And, in these last few days, there are reports all over the country of heightened hate speech and activity, such as the encounter at Wellesley College where two Babson students drove onto the Wellesley campus and yelled racially and sexually offensive comments at women and people of color. Sadly, our fears and worries and upset, and, yes, anger, are more than justified.
What might be our response? First, I’d suggest, we get our theology straight, that is, we do all we can to articulate and live out our very best values as people of faith, Unitarian Universalists, always drawing off our wisdom traditions, the Bible, Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, and the best of our humanist sentiments. President Obama was partly right when he said the other day in calling for unity, we are not Republicans or Democrats, firstly, we are Americans; I would take it further and say firstly, we are not Republicans or Democrats or Independents or Green, or Americans but, rather we are human beings, world citizens, Internationalists, if you will, but also members of a faith community expressing a deep set of values and principles. And I must say, in my world view, these higher values, pardon the expression, “trump” all other values, even when they conflict with American Law, as in the Sanctuary Movement, when we tried to protect Salvadorans from harm as our government turned its back on them. And these UU values give me great hope, particularly as I look out and see all of you – I know committed to the same values. When they go low, we must go high and even higher and stay there. Our highest values are not just private; they have social implications if they are serious.
Besides meeting with many of you last Monday, Friday at Game Night, and here today, several of us went to an ECCO (our faith-based community organization in Lynn) meeting on Thursday evening, somewhat to plan strategies for the coming year, but mostly to share our fears and worries about the future. I went, in part, because I knew I would walk into a room with people from Africa, Latin America, Haiti, and others whose ancestors came from Ireland and Italy, England and the Middle East. I went because I wanted to hear people speaking not only English, but Spanish, Portuguese, French and a few African dialects. I went because I knew there would be wealthy people, middle class folks and poor and marginalized people. I went because I knew there would be gay folks and straight, young and old, and even a few small children. I went because the Vice-President of ECCO, a woman from Paraguay, is undocumented, even though all of her children are U.S. citizens – many of our friends in the immigrant community are undocumented; I want to stand by them and keep them safe. I went to be part of the America that reflects all of our differences and comes together to work in harmony. I was not disappointed; instead I was encouraged and energized and comforted. I left with hope and I carry it with me today. There is a vision and there is a people who can carry the vision forward.
Sadly, unfortunately, many of us live very segregated lives, ethnically, culturally, economically – our society is mostly structured that way. So we all have to make an effort to go beyond that human-constructed segregation and encounter people who are different from us, socially, ethnically, economically and, yes, politically. We need to listen, we need to dialogue, we need to empathize, we need to move forward, as best we can, with others of goodwill, and heal from these massive wounds that have been inflicted, most especially in these recent days. We must say to our political leaders, stop this divisiveness, talk of the common good, and as the best of our religious tradition preaches, whether the prophets or Jesus or Muhammed or the Buddha, be most especially caring for the poor and marginalized. Strengthen social security and Medicare, build affordable housing, expand drug treatment programs, etc. People’s lives are at stake. Take to heart the message of the Good Samaritan story, even if, as Dickens wrote in HARD TIMES, “the Good Samaritan is a bad economist.”
The great folk singer and lyricist, who visits our coffee house yearly, Dave Mallet, wrote a tune 20 years or so ago about a friend of his who was killed in the Vietnam War. The song is about loss, but also about crisis times, times like now. It’s entitled “Closer to Truth,” and It goes like this:
I sit alone in the mornin’ light, my head in my hand
I didn’t get to sleep last night, I was thinking ‘bout my old friend
Bad news comin’ down the wire, another victim of unfriendly fire
We are closer to Truth, in dangerous times, We are closer to Truth
Pain and suffering all about, never hit so close to home
Right now I’m so filled with doubt, has God left us all alone
Staring up at the empty sky, Does anyone know why we are
Closer to Truth, in dangerous times, We are nearer to God
When our lives are on the line, we are nearer to god
The last time I saw my friend, he just laughed and said goodbye
That’s how I’ll always think of him, standing there so alive
In the best and worst of times, seems we always find we are
Closer to Truth, in dangerous times, we are closer to Truth
We are nearer to God, when our lives are on the line
We are nearer to God, we are dying for love, for all humankind
We are dying for love, in dangerous times, in dangerous times.
I, like many of you, are hurting, fearful and worried; and a bit angry. Though not optimistic of these next years, I am HOPEFUL; Hope goes much deeper than optimism; it’s a way of life. I look out at what we built here and the values we share and I am very hopeful; I carry the image of that ECCO meeting from the other night and realize that ECCO is getting stronger and more diverse every day, and I am hopeful. I am energized. The rallies across the country in these last days, at least the loving and non-violent rallies, give me hope. We have an opportunity in these dangerous times, and we must seize it together. I believe, like Mallet, we are closer to Truth in these fearful times. For Gandhi God is Truth, being closer to Truth is closer to God.
But feeling closer to Truth and God does not give us license to be self-righteous. We must, as the prophet Amos reminds, live justly, lovingly and humbly with our God. Our dangerous times are also a time for mercy. This afternoon, interestingly planned months ago, I am giving a talk on mercy at Notre Dame Spirituality Center. I must admit I’m not feeling so merciful in these days. Living out the virtue of mercy is hard. Nevertheless I’ll be using lyrics from an amazing song of the great Leonard Cohen, who died this week, named Bernadette. Bernadette was a young girl who had a vision of Mary, Jesus’ mother, who told her: (Cohen’s great lyrics) “…there were sorrows to be healed, and mercy, mercy in this world.” Spiritual writer Joan Chittister reminds that God’s greatest attribute is Mercy and suggests: “Beware of those who show no mercy. They are dangerous people because they have either not faced themselves or are lying to themselves about what they find there…to hold others to standards higher than our standards for ourselves is to live in constant agitation, personal, national and global. ‘Unless it extends the circle of its compassion to all living things humanity itself will not find peace.”
While harboring the Salvadoran refugees at the Mennonite church in Pittsburgh many years ago, we received a call from the Immigration service; they wanted us to come into the office. 4 of us went down and we thought we might be arrested on the spot. Thankfully, they only wished to convince us to hand over the refugees. However, they could not guarantee Gabriel and Maria wouldn’t be deported. We couldn’t do it, we replied, to a very friendly officer. We are operating from a higher moral law than Immigration law, we said in unison. We gently (I think) suggested that anyone implementing such an immoral law might want to rethink his position. At that point he became pretty unfriendly and accused us of implying he was not moral. We had no right to do that. He was a practicing Catholic. A Catholic priest in the group, again, gently reminded him the Catholic Bishops had asked the Immigration service to stop deporting Salvadorans. Sadly, he was unaware of this. Maybe we were too morally righteous? Maybe we could have been more merciful to a man who felt he was doing the right thing? Happily, we were not arrested; free again to defy the law, a law that for many more years deported Salvadorans back to potential persecution and death. But happily we were able to help Maria and Gabriel to get 8 of their 9 children out of El Salvador, back to Pittsburgh, on to a sanctuary church in Michigan, and finally across the border to safety and legal status in Canada, eventually to become Canadian citizens.
In these times we are, once again, it seems to me, called to stand with those in need, those who have been excluded, marginalized, those who cry out for help and justice. Called to be Good Samaritans, whatever the cost. Together we can accomplish much, especially if we do it living out our very best UU values, reaching out across any barriers that divide us, even those that today seem insurmountable, demanding justice, showing mercy. I do believe in dangerous, conflictual times, we are closer to Truth, closer to God, and now we must be closer to one another. May we be blessed. Amen.