Monday, May 7, 2018

You Can't Make Me Choose! (May 6, 2018)

Solving for Pattern by Wendell Berry

Perhaps most of us who know local histories of agriculture know of fields that in hard times have been sacrificed to save a farm, and we know that though such a thing is possible it is dangerous. The danger is worse when topsoil is sacrificed for the sake of a crop. And if we understand the farm as an organism, we see that it is impossible to sacrifice the health of the soil to improve the health of plants, or to sacrifice the health of plants to improve the health of animals, or to sacrifice the health of animals to improve 7 the health of people. In a biological pattern – as in the pattern of a community – the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.

It is the nature of any organic pattern to be contained within a larger one. And so a good solution in one pattern preserves the integrity of the pattern that contains it. A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa. [i]

Sermon
When my son was little, a popular parenting technique in the “positive parenting” movement was to give kids a choice. Instead of saying “no, you can’t stay up and play” you would say “Which pajamas would you like to wear to bed tonight?” Nick caught on to this pretty quickly. He couldn’t express what was wrong with my question, but he knew that I was limiting his choices even while asking him to choose.

For far too long, we have let false choices limit our work for social justice. All the way back in the 19th century, activists who had worked side by side on abolition and women’s suffrage were told that as a nation we had to choose between allowing African American men to vote or allowing women to vote. And we fell for it. Longtime allies fought bitterly[ii]. There is a rift between folks working for women’s rights and folks working for racial justice that persists to this day. The way we have done justice work, even in our UU communities, is to divide into committees and subgroups, each working for their own agenda.

Here at UUCAS, we finally became accredited as a Green Sanctuary Congregation just as we were beginning a congregation-wide initiative in Racial Justice. The environmental movement and the Racial Justice movements have also had a long history of tension. The early environmental movement was all about protecting swaths of pristine land for the hunting and vacationing of privileged white folks like President Teddy Roosevelt[iii], who was instrumental in establishing the National Parks. While in theory these parks are for everyone, they are disproportionately used by older white folks.[iv] While mostly-white environmental activists focused on preserving pristine places, “Toxic waste facilities are located primarily in communities of color” a 1987 report by the United Church of Christ's Committee on Racial Justice showed. But the mainstream environmental groups were not interested in cleaning up those polluted neighborhoods. And didn't consider such work to be part of the environmental movement. According to an article in High Country Times when activist Richard Moore “approached Earth Day organizers to become a part of the event. They told him that the issues he was working on -- groundwater contamination caused by feedlots and other petrochemical facilities, uranium mining, sewage plant odors, sheep and cattle grazing -- just weren't relevant.” [v]

So as a congregation, we could see this moment as a choice we have to make between our environmental work, and our totally separate racial justice work, or we could try to understand the way the two movements intersect.

This video offers a quick and cogent explanation of how we can do this:



The video offers 3 suggestions for how to move forward in an intersectional way:

1) Examine our own privileges. We, living here in the valley, have the privilege of not living near a toxic waste dump. We have the privilege of living near two beautiful rivers, with plenty of open lands to walk, to fish, to hunt, to grow gardens.

2) Listen to others. We call it environmentalism because it refers to the environment where we live. For those of us who live and work here the valley, we want to preserve our pristine waters, our maple trees, the beautiful view as we look out over the rolling green endless mountains and the places where we hike or boat or fish. But what if you lived in downtown Elmira, or New York City. There’s environment there too, right? Or what if you were part of a community of color that was barred from certain beaches and parks during the Jim Crow era?[vii]

3) Do our environmental justice work through a broader, more inclusive perspective. Dr. Dorceta Taylor, Professor at the University of Michigan, notes that “our lived experiences with environment are different. White people bring their experience to the discussion — that’s why they focus on the birds, trees, plants, and animals, because they don’t have the experience of being barred from parks and beaches. It’s just a different frame. But overall, we want the same thing: safe places to live, work and play, clean spaces and sustainable, long-lasting communities.”[viii]

"Through the 1960s and 1970s the environment is framed as the forests, the trees, the beautiful birds, the perfect oceans and lakes. It didn’t include the issues that related to urban areas or to poor people. Certainly not to persons of color,” said Dr. Taylor. “Part of the pushback of communities of color was a sense that, we’re not going to come out and march to save the bald eagle when we don’t have food in the house to feed our children. We have to take care of that first."

You can see how that would be an impossible choice to make- choosing between feeding hungry children, cleaning up poisoned neighborhoods or preventing the extinction of entire species. But in today’s reading, Wendell Berry proposes that a good solution does not sacrifice one for the other. A good solution creates a pattern that is good for all.

Let’s take a look at a very specific issue that affects all of us- water. Last week Judy approached me to talk about alternatives to bottled water at fundraisers. She had been doing some research about alternatives to plastics, and was hoping we could find one that would work for us here at the church. I’m sure we’ve all see the disturbing images and statistics about the millions of tons of plastics in the oceans[ix], or the heartbreaking photos of birds or fish who died from ingesting our trash[x]. (You might check out Chris Eng’s letter to the editor on this topic- there’s a copy our bulletin board in the social hall). So thinking carefully about our use of plastics is something that would fit right into our values and ethics here at the church. Sure, we do have a plastic recycling bin in the church kitchen, but it turns out that recycling does not really solve this problem, because “most plastics can only be recycled once or twice[xi]” which means that all plastics end up in landfill, or in the ocean gyre eventually. And as plastic breaks down, it releases toxic chemicals. So Judy was curious about alternatives like glass, which “can be recycled endlessly without any degradation of quality. This means in addition to their ability to be recycled … again and again, you can personally reuse glass without worrying about it degrading and leaching chemicals into your liquids.”[xii]

I was thrilled when Judy brought this up, because back when I lived in California, I had become very passionate about water privatization, Perhaps you remember that during the drought there residents had to stop watering their lawns, had to limit their water consumption. Some farmers had to let crops die, but the Nestle Corporation’s rights to draw water from those same water sources did not waver. Companies like Nestle and Coke a Cola are buying public water rights (that’s my water and your water) and then are within their rights as private property owners to overdraw the ground water, emptying local wells which provide drinking water to local residents, and then selling our water back to us at seriously inflated prices, in plastic bottles that make us sick if we re-use them.

What a perfect intersection- the desire to reduce the toxic side effects of plastics on birds, on fish, on eco-systems, intersects with the desire to make sure everyone has access to water, a fundamental human right. I had been considering the idea of selling reusable plastic sports bottles as a fundraiser so we could boycott privatized water, but that does nothing for the ocean gyre, that does nothing to reduce chemicals that are toxic to humans and other living beings. Studies show that reusable products have the lightest environmental footprint, as long as they are reused many times, so when we use the mugs and glasses in our kitchen which were here long before I arrived, we are already doing the best thing we can do. [xiii] So Judy and I have been brainstorming about maybe a glass water dispenser. And for those occasions where there is no practical way to wash dishes, paper cups with high recycled content seems to be the next best option. [xiv] If we want to do a fundraiser selling reusable GLASS mugs at events like Trivia Night, maybe finding a way to incentivize people to bring them back, so that they really would be reused.

But wait, you’re saying, we’ve just made this commitment to racial justice. Are we going to leave behind our work on racial justice to think about water bottles? Nope, instead, let’s ask ourselves, how can we look at those plastic water bottles from a racial justice perspective, or an economic justice perspective? If you are not a land owner with a private well, the ability to boycott private water depends on the presence of a safe, clean municipal water supply. So one of the best ways to both reduce our use of plastic and boycott privatized water is to support our own municipal water systems. If you don’t trust your local water enough to drink it, let’s do some research to find out what’s wrong, and lobby to protect our drinking water. Those of us here who are involved in citizen science water testing are already part of this solution.

Consider Flint Michigan; Food and Water Watch reports that, “In 1992, the Genesee Power Station first applied for a permit to build and operate a wood-burning incinerator in a predominantly low-income and African-American community in Flint. Residents promptly filed an environmental civil rights complaint with the EPA, citing concerns over the local release of toxic pollutants as well as racial discrimination and the use of intimidation tactics during Michigan’s public hearings on the proposed power plant.”

“The Reverend Philip Schmitter, who was part of the Genesee complaint from the beginning, said it was clear that Michigan was discriminating against black residents and believes that if the EPA had taken action earlier, the city's ongoing lead drinking water crisis may have been avoided. The EPA’s finding of environmental racism in the Genesee complaint references Michigan’s admitted failure to provide Flint’s African-American residents the ‘same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities’ in the water crisis... After 25 years, the EPA finally unequivocally stated that there is a “preponderance of evidence” in the Genesee case showing that Michigan engaged in discrimination “that resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than Whites.”[xv]

Now if we look at the bottled water problem form a “broader, more inclusive perspective” it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure the EPA is really carrying out its mission “protect human health and the environment” including working to ensure that “Americans have clean air, land and water”[xvi] Activist LeeAnne Walters, who helped expose the Flint water crisis and recently won the Goldman Environmental Prize, encourages us to lobby the EPA about the Lead and Copper rule which requires testing for lead in water. According to Walters “instead of doing that, they're actually cheating and using loopholes to hide and minimize the lead. I want to change the rule so that the loopholes that are in the system that are not illegal are eliminated so that this way, we are testing in accordance to the way the law was written so that we don't have any more future Flints.”

The old way of looking at all these justice problems would make us choose. Choose whether to keep plastic out of the bellies of ocean birds, or whether to keep Companies like Nestle from taking local water and selling it back to us. We would have to choose between fighting racial injustice, and plugging loopholes in the lead and copper rule. We still see this kind of thinking even among our allies on Facebook- bickering about why my priorities are more important than your priorities, caught up in the lie that we have to choose. It presumes that Justice is zero sum game which must by necessity have winners and losers.

Universalism has always looked at the world a little differently. As Hosea Ballou wrote “Is [God] not perfectly joined to his creation? Do we not live, move and have our being in God? …to take the smallest creature from him, … you have left something less than infinity.” (Treatise on atonement P. 81-82) The Universalist God’s love includes every inch of the web of life, includes even the smallest creature. Justice without women, without people of color, without the birds or the trees is not true justice.

So it would make sense that Universalists would be drawn towards a more holistic view of justice making. Intersectionality is a new way of looking at justice work that encourages people to bring all of who they are to the table. Just as KimberlĂ© Crenshaw (who conceived the idea of intersectionality) fought a legal battle so that her clients could be simultaneously recognized as women and as people of color[xvii], we are re-imagining justice work that weaves connections across categories and divisions. Such justice work requires us to examine our own privilege, to listen to each other, and to practice justice through a broader and more inclusive lens. I believe with Wendell Berry that “What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air.” The interdependent web of all existence is by its very nature intersectional, interconnected and interdependent. Let us open our minds and hearts to intersectional solutions that hold and nourish and heal us all.
 


[i] http://www.seedbed.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Berry_Solving_for_Pattern.pdf
[ii] https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/antislavery-connection.htm this is discussed in The Woman's Hour By Elaine Weiss, a summary of some of the issues can be found here:
 https://www.bustle.com/p/the-womans-hour-by-elaine-weiss-details-how-the-womens-suffrage-movement-laid-the-groundwork-for-modern-politics-protests-8469779
[iii] https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/07/white-black-environmentalism-racism/
[iv] https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-04-26/us-national-parks-are-used-mostly-older-white-people-here-s-why-needs-change
[v] https://www.hcn.org/issues/42.2/the-shot-heard-round-the-west
[vi] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-nmxnmt_XU&t=1s
[vii] https://environmentlawhistory.blogspot.com/2017/04/parks-and-jim-crow.html
more about Dr. Taylor’s work is here: https://corpsnetwork.org/moving-forward-initiative-guest-series-interview-dr-dorceta-taylor-diversity-and-equity-initiatives
[ix] https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/21/health/ocean-plastic-intl/index.html
[x] http://chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/#CF000313%2018x24
[xi] https://recyclenation.com/2017/08/plastic-vs-aluminum-vs-glass-which-packaging-should-you-choose/
[xii] https://livegreen.recyclebank.com/because-you-asked-should-i-choose-plastic-aluminum-or-glass-bottles
[xiii] http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/166022
[xiv] https://www.portlandoregon.gov/sustainabilityatwork/article/507465
[xv] https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/insight/epa-makes-rare-finding-environmental-discrimination
[xvi] https://www.epa.gov/aboutepa/our-mission-and-what-we-do
[xvii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2015/09/24/why-intersectionality-cant-wait/?utm_term=.b55877d69fed

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Freedom of Spirit (April 8, 2017)

How much freedom do we really have? Sometimes our lives can feel very constricted- We don’t have enough time to do the things we want. We don’t have enough money to buy the things we want. Cultural norms limit our freedom in what we do and say. We have responsibilities to our families and our employers. Sometimes we can feel boxed in by the external realities of our lives.

And because we are called to live an ethical life, an authentic life, a compassionate life, we can feel like the choices shrink even further. I often get feel a sense of constriction trying to make the right choice, the perfect choice, I agonize about whether I am “going the right way.” I happened to be listening to an interview with Kiran Trace[i] who claims that our true nature is freedom, that in fact we have “oceans of freedom.” I really liked the sound of that. “Oceans of freedom.” I felt better just hearing her say it. But what did she mean? I think she was pointing us toward a spaciousness that is available in us and all around us if we open ourselves to it.

Years ago my yoga teacher Kent Bond used to talk about making spaciousness in our yoga poses. “Our real job is to be space-makers” he said. Even though we may be holding a difficult pose, or a boring pose, he challenged us to create a felt sense of spaciousness in whatever position we were in. For those of you who don’t do yoga, imagine an ice cube tray coming fresh out of the freezer. At first the ice is adhered to the plastic tray, but if you wiggle it a little bit the cubes fit more loosely in their cubbyholes. Sometimes we see our limits like walls around our lives, and we spend so much energy, so much attention pushing against the walls, but we can also turn our attention to the freedom we have within those constraints, even if it’s just as much as an ice cube has in its tray.

Let’s take our hero Inventor McGregor. Anyone would agree that being the parent of 5 young children provides significant limits to personal freedom, especially on a handyman’s salary. And yet within those limits, McGregor has created a life for himself where between gluing and oiling had hammering he takes time to walk the winding lane in back of his house, to paint, to fiddle, and to enjoy his family.

This is one way of looking for freedom in our lives. When we are feeling cramped by our job, our financial situation or our families we can wiggle around a bit in our lives and see where space can be found. I discovered recently that when I get up earlier (once I recover from the alarm going off) I enjoy the wiggle room of having an extra half hour to make and eat my breakfast at my own pace in a quiet house. Or I can get up even earlier and hit the yoga studio while it’s still dark out. I feel like I found a hidden cache of time all for myself. If we look for it, we may find ways to make space for ourselves, we may find freedom to choose a path that feels right to us. It may be hard to believe in oceans of freedom, but no matter how tightly we squeeze our fingers together water will always find a way to wiggle out of our cupped hands. Could we believe at least in a trickle of freedom? Could we see the gaps and spaces where freedom flows all around us?

We might start by noticing all the choices we make every day. A friend felt stuck in a job where after years of her loyal service the corporate culture around her had turned toxic. “I’m choosing to stay” she told me “I’m not stuck, I’m this is my choice.” Our choices don’t always feel good, but they are still choices. And this affirmation that she had the freedom to stay or go helped her stay sane while she put aside a financial safety net week after week until that day when she told me with both trepidation and joy, “I gave my notice today.”

Whatever the external limits to our freedom, there is always the possibility of cultivating inner freedom. This kind of freedom is much harder to define, is much slipperier, because it is so highly personal; only you know for sure when you a sense of freedom in heart mind and spirit. Many spiritual traditions encourage us to cultivate inner freedom, and in our UU principles, we talk specifically about a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” This value on freedom is not something hippies came up with in the 60s, it has been an explicit part of our faith since the Act Of Religious Tolerance And Freedom Of Conscience in 1568 when King John Sigismund declared: “no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied.” Or as the Universalists wrote in their Winchester Profession of 1803 “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” Freedom of thought, freedom of belief is a cornerstone of our faith tradition. We believe that a sense of inner freedom, a sense of inner spaciousness, is a sign that we are headed in the right direction on our journey of spiritual growth.

When I was training to be a spiritual director we talked a lot about freedom. We talked about how avoid limiting the freedom for those who came to us for direction. It’s funny how subtle those limits can be. A casual comment like “you must feel very sad” can put your directee in a bind- you’re the authority, if you say they must feel sad, they might look at their inner experience through that lens. But what if that’s not quite what they are feeling? What if they are really feeling angry, or ashamed? Then they have to choose between disagreeing with you, or putting aside their own experience to follow your suggestion. So we learned to mostly ask questions- “how do you feel” or “do you feel sad?”

It turns out I am particularly susceptible to such things. I really want to give the right answer, I really want to be agreeable, to be easy to work with. But when they sent out our monthly reflection form I felt a sense of inner constriction. I dreaded it. I put it off. Finally I chose honesty as a starting place, and wrote this:
“I feel a surprising amount of resistance to this form. ... It just felt physically bad to have to take all the extremely personal, beautiful, deep parts of my life and put them on a form like a high school assignment or job application. I felt some inner door closing as I looked at the form. .. It puts me in a tight spot where I must answer these questions or fail to keep my commitments to the program.“


As you might expect, the facilitators replied with “sorry you don’t like the form, would you like to talk?” and “the form is for you, use it however you want.” I had seen that form as a narrow box and had tried to shove myself into it. But that was my projection, my assumption. I had assumed there were external limits to my freedom, but when I tested those limits, I learned there was plenty of freedom there for me to be who I am and express my truth.

So the next retreat I went to we were given the assignment to write in our journals. Ugh. I thought, “I literally write about my spiritual reflections for a living. I love my work, but I’m on retreat.” I was filled with a rebellious spirit, determined to claim my freedom. I noticed there was a craft room right off our meeting space. I boldly went right in a signed out a box of colored pencils, and did much of my journaling for the remainder of the retreat in doodle form. And, in point of fact, some of the images I doodled turned out to be powerful and useful in my process -- transformative even. I think some of that freedom to express what needed to be expressed came from the fact that I never draw. I have no confidence or expectations of my drawing. Whereas I’ve come to expect my words to be measured and thoughtful and grammatically correct; with my colored pencils I had escaped expectations of form or technique. Such a small rebellion led to a huge opening of inner gates and locks. There was freedom available to me when I went looking for it.

I think of my little dog when he makes a bed for himself. He is so ingenious the way he pokes and shoves whatever blankets or pillows he has to work with. He hollows out a little space for himself that is just right and then rests into it. As in our human lives, some structures do not give no matter how many times we turn in a circle or dig at them. Sometimes his custom-made bed involves a bookcase, or a pile of shoes, or a laundry basket or suitcase that really doesn’t give very much at all, but he takes the materials he has and makes the space he needs, and then, satisfied with his work, flops down into it. We spend many Sundays here talking about how to move some of those big external obstacles to freedom -- economic inequality, systemic racism, mass incarceration, rigid gender roles -- but to be truly useful, our tradition must help us when the external realities of our lives are unyielding. While we fight for freedom in the outer world, we must also claim the inner freedom that is also a type of resistance,

A stream takes its form from the bed it runs in, if it weren’t for soil and rocks and roots that shape and limit its flow, it would be a wetland or a pond. Freedom may be our true nature, but limits give our lives their own unique shape. When Hector McGregor finally got the time he needed to invent- no distractions, no demands, just a clean empty page in a clean empty room, he froze. He had no inspiration. It reminded me of the 20th century composer Stravinsky’s notion of the “abys of freedom.” When all the external limits disappear, we still have to make choices or we can’t move and be in the world. Complete freedom leaves us, like Inventor McGregor, staring into emptiness. So we must ask…. freedom for what?

In his wonderful book Everything Belongs Richard Rohr puts it this way [p. 93] “We have defined freedom in the West as the freedom to choose between options and preferences. That’s not primal freedom. That’s a secondary or even tertiary freedom. The primal freedom is the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances.” That primal freedom is not contingent on anything external. That is a way of being in the world, a way of being in our own hearts and minds.

I don’t want to understate the very real limits to freedom, like having to choose between the electric bill and the rent, like the brutal schedule of chemotherapy. Like mass incarceration and white supremacy culture. But Rohr suggests “the freedom to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances. That’s what great religion offers us. …. That’s why the saints could be imprisoned and not lose their souls. They could be put down and persecuted like Jesus and still not lose their joy, their heart, or their perspective. Secular freedom is having to do what you want to do. Religious freedom is wanting to do what you have to do.“

Increasing our inner freedom does not always mean having more options . In Buddhist teaching the ethical limits we put on ourselves actually increase our inner freedom- if we refrain from harming others, we are free from the pain and guilt of having harmed ourselves or others. By living ethical lives we limit our options, but we feel free in heart and mind.

Our freedom and our limitations are like two sides of the same coin. We are both free and not free in every moment. Both our freedoms and our constraints allow us to be not “anything” but to be specifically who we are. For Hector McGregor, the fact of living in community, the particular problems of real people formed his creativity into useful things. The very first mark you put on a blank page limits all that comes after, but you cannot have a painting, or a novel, or an invention without it.

Every living being is limited by our biology, our eco-system, by the times we live in. And yet filling every gap like a river flowing in its bed, surrounding us, permeating us, like the air we breathe, freedom is there too. All around us are oceans of freedom, the freedom to think what we think, the freedom to love what we love, the freedom “to be the self, the freedom to live in the truth despite all circumstances”

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Welcome the Stranger (March 18, 2018)

Ever since I went to that Red Cross disaster training right after Hurricane Katrina, I meant to put together a disaster preparedness kit for our family. But I procrastinated for more than a decade. It was finally watching the videos of folks fleeing their flooded homes in Texas this past summer that firmed my resolve. I finally got a couple of used backpacks and filled them up with rain ponchos, water, trail mix, blankets and a change of socks. Then I added water purification tablets after I heard the stories of folks in Puerto Rico. Now when I see a car stuck in the side of the road in a snowstorm I think “I should add hand warmers.” When I see coverage of folks evacuated into a red cross shelter, I think “I’ll need a deck of cards and a favorite book.”

My family thinks I’m a bit strange to spend so much thought on a bag that we’re hoping never to use. But I know that when the whole rest of the family is standing there with their coats and shoes on, I’m the one who is looking for my cell phone and saying “I feel like I’m forgetting something.” And since scientists tell us that that when we are in a crisis rational, systematic thought shuts down[i] I thought it might be a useful exercise. As I told my family, hopefully this will just be a quirky thing about mom that you joke about when we’re old, but there’s another layer of value to the practice I think- the realization that floods aren’t something that happen to those people far away, that when there’s a flood in Texas, that has something to do with me.

This month, Jewish people all over the world are going to celebrate Passover, a ritual remembrance of a time thousands of years ago when Jewish people left their captivity in Egypt, fleeing into the wilderness even though they could take no more than they could carry, even though they had no other place to call home. A whole generation of people lived as refugees; for 40 years they wandered in the desert. And now during Passover, thousands of years later, Jewish people remember the time when they were refuges, and tell the story of their exodus from Egypt. In the book of Deuteronomy, after Moses comes down from the mountain for the final time carrying the carved stone tablets and God tells Moses it’s time for his people to journey to their final home, the scripture asks “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?” Right near the top of that list is Deuteronomy 10: 19 “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This idea appears again and again. Exodus 23:9, reads, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egyptian. And Leviticus 19:34 “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

In point of fact, none of the millions of people enacting the Passover Seder this year could personally remember being strangers in Egypt, so the scripture here is asking us to use our imaginations to enlarge our sense of “we” – we were strangers, and so we have some obligation to strangers. As we retell the story of the exodus, we imagine ourselves wandering in the desert, to feel in our hearts and in our moral imagination what it feels like to be a stranger, and feel a calling to love the stranger as you would have been loved.

We who live and work in the Valley, we know something about floods. We remember what it looked like here on North Street back in 2011, the streets and cars and trees covered with several inches of beige mud. We remember there were boats down on Main street. We remember that some of our neighbors had no power or water, couldn’t stay in their homes. We know there’s a river just a couple blocks that way. And we know that floods come with living by a river. Even though many of us have never been forced out of our homes for days or weeks or months, our sense of “we” is bigger, “we” know what it is like to have our homes flooded.

So strong was our feeling of kinship with those who were flooded out of their homes, that we were moved to open our own church building to welcome the stranger, at first just to use the bathroom, or be in a clean dry place. And because we are who we are, cooking immediately followed. There was a great outpouring of people wanting to make chili or cornbread or brownies. Day after day we served lunch in our little kitchen, and day after day we walked out into the neighborhood delivering brown bag lunches to neighbors who wanted them. And when we see coverage of the great floods this past fall, our hearts go out to them. We want to offer a hand, because we remember what it is like when your community is flooded.

Flooding is not new, there have always been big storms and human beings have always migrated, moved from place to place when conditions changed. But scientists tell us that as a symptom of the climate disruption now underway, we can expect an increase in extreme weather events. We can expect rising sea levels. For those of us who inland, it might be hard to get a sense of the urgency of these changes, of the impacts they are already having on people’s lives. Island nations far away are already seeing their homes irretrievably changed by rising sea levels. Like the islanders of Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, this is not a future crisis; their way of life, their home is coming to an end right now. The seawater is contaminating their water supply. The tides come up into their gardens, into their homes, and the salty water is making the land less fertile so they can no longer grow enough food in their gardens. School ends midday because the hungry children cannot pay attention into the afternoons. [ii] And sea levels keep rising.

Closer to home coastal towns in Alaska, Boston, Miami, New Jersey[iii] can expect similar impacts -- residents of low laying areas are already seeing effects “on available drinking water, roads and sewer lines”.[iv]

It’s just so hard to wrap your mind around; how could the way of life of towns we know and love be changed forever? The mind just shuts down when trying to assimilate that information. I think that’s
Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, New Orleans, Spring 2006
part of why I packed “Go Bags” for my family- to cross the boundary from “probably things will always be just like they are now” to “climate change is already happening.” The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says 36 million people were displaced by natural disasters in 2009, (the last year such a report was taken). Scientists predict this number will rise to at least 50 million by 2050. Some say it could be as high as 200 million.[v] I want to make it real for myself that we can’t take our warm dry home for granted. I want to imagine a larger we that includes the folks who will be forced out of their homes in Boston, New Jersey, Louisiana[vi] whose children will not be able to live in the homes they now inhabit. A “we” large enough to include the folks of Puerto Rico and New Guinea. We remember what it was like to be flooded, and so we reach out to support others who can’t go home because of flooding. We welcome the stranger.

So what does that look like? Here’s where our imagination comes in. If I were flooded out of my home where would I go? What would I bring? If you heard that your cousin in New Jersey or your sister in Boston were flooded out of their homes, how might you help? My friends’ parents live in Puerto Rico, and of course they flew to Ithaca to stay with her as soon as the airports reopened. It’s reassuring to have a pull out bed and an extra pile of blankets just in case our friends or family needed them. The Red Cross actually recommends making such plans for yourself and your family. There’s even a sheet you can fill out to help think it through. A useful conversation to have, especially during hurricane season when floods are on people’s minds.

The people in New Guinea we don’t know but it breaks our hearts when we hear the stories of vulnerable people with no place to go. Fortunately, the mission of UU Service Committee, who this congregation has supported faithfully for years, is to work with grassroots partners in effected areas. And one of those issues is climate forced displacement.

In addition to our partner work in Papua New Guinea, “to relocate households from the Carteret Islands to areas in mainland Bougainville,

· In Alaska, UUSC is supporting our partner is working with 16 Alaska Native Tribes “to to ensure the protection of their human rights if they are required to relocate as a consequence of climate change.”

· In Kiribati, a small nation in the Pacific ocean, “our partners are …. working to raise awareness about the unique needs of People Living with Disabilities in Disaster Risk Reduction planning and responses.”

· In Palau and Micronesia, our partner is [helping] remote rural villages to build protections against climate change hazards, [helping] communities self-organize and to advocate for assistance from their governments and the international community.”

And just like we can talk to our families about where we would go if we had to leave our homes, The service committee is advocating for a Global Compact on Migration[vii] “In the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, adopted in September 2016, the [UN] General Assembly decided to develop a global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. … The General Assembly will then hold an intergovernmental conference on international migration in 2018 with a view to adopting the global compact. ”[viii] This is a “significant opportunity to improve the governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development.”

Because, as generous as folks in this congregation might be, we can’t put up all the climate refugees in the world in our guest bedrooms. Fortunately global leaders are starting to understand that this need for migration in response to changes in climate, to extreme weather event, to rising sea levels, this is the new normal. “Developing countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Kenya, … generously host the bulk of the world’s refugees without the GDP to match, while wealthier countries increase border controls and security checks at increasing expense.” Sadly the United States is one of those countries who is putting more energy into keeping refugees out than helping them to safety, which is ironic because we are one of the countries contributing most to the climate disruption that is displacing them. “In early December, the US pulled out [of the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants ] Rex Tillerson saying, "in this case, we simply cannot in good faith support a process that could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders." [ix]

All of us, every American family were strangers on this shore once. “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” That go-bag by my door reminds me, that we may be strangers once again someday. As people living in Huston and New Orleans know only too well.

Fortunately we here in this beloved community are good at this. Just as we welcome Sunday morning visitors to our congregation with open arms and delicious baked goods, as we welcome visiting speakers with new ideas. Just as we served meals to hundreds of our neighbors displaced by flooding back in 2011, as we made macaroni salad and peanut butter cake last June for the free meal at the Methodist church, The “we” of our little congregation is a big “we.” So big that it reaches all the way to Huston and Florida and Puerto Rico, all the way to Alaska and New Guinea. And just as we make a plan with our own family about where we would go in an emergency, we support the Service Committee and all those world leaders with the foresight to prepare global equivalent of a family emergency plan.

There are a lot of people in the world right now who have lost their homes, and sadly more will follow. And since for we ourselves know the feelings of a stranger, since we are all one, it’s time to get out our metaphorical pull-out- beds and soup pots and welcome the stranger, as we would want to be welcomed.

Endnotes
[i] https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=537015685

[ii] https://medium.com/@UNICEFpng/the-last-islanders-rising-sea-levels-in-papua-new-guinea-2b5153fff7b9

[iii] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/07/29/sea-level-rise-cities-towns/2593727/
https://www.wired.com/2015/10/map-shows-sea-level-rise-will-drown-american-cities/

[iv] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/seas-rising-but-florida-keeps-building-on-the-coast/

[v] https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/climate-refugee/

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/us/resettling-the-first-american-climate-refugees.html

[vii] https://migrationdataportal.org/themes/global-compact-migration
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/global-compact-on-migration-no-time-for-cynicism_us_5a1d2dc9e4b07bcab2c699b5

[viii] https://refugeesmigrants.un.org/migration-compact

[ix] https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/03/politics/us-global-compact-migration/index.html