© Jeremy D. Nickel 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
July 15, 2012

As I have pondered what of the myriad sights, sounds and feelings I experienced [at General Assembly - GA] in Phoenix to bring back to all of you, I have continued to return to two very different vignettes.

The first is the Ware Lecture. The Ware lecture is always one of the highlights of my GA experience. It is a tradition that dates back to 1922 and has been delivered by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Saul Alinsky, Jesse Jackson, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Lear, and more recently Van Jones and Karen Armstrong. This year it was delivered by Maria Hinajosa, who has been the pioneer of Latina voices in mainstream radio news. Many of you may know her as the producer and main voice of the NPR program "Latino USA."

The main thesis of her lecture was that Latinos, whether documented or not, live in a very different America than the one most citizens of European or even African and Asian descent do. She returned again and again to this idea of Two Americas, asking us to imagine living in fear of every authority figure we come into contact with, to imagine not being able to call the police when you have been raped or assaulted for fear that you, the victim, could be torn from your child, sent back to another country you yourself hardly knew, while your child was kept here.

Then, to drive her point home, she told us about the detention center for undocumented immigrants that she had recently toured. She spoke of giant, unventilated rooms that reached 120-degree heat by day, no access to water or, even more shockingly, no access to a lawyer, to a judge, to any counsel whatsoever. Often these undocumented workers are held for months without any due process, out of communication from family, friends and counsel, [yet] here in our country - the home of the free, the place where we believe that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. This other America exists - this parallel America for the men and women and children caught up in our nation's need for cheap labor and our broken immigration policy, the country that many of us dare proclaim to be the best in the world.

Which brings me to the other vignette that I also keep returning to. When I returned from Phoenix, I had a week of TIVO to catch up with. One new show I had been hearing buzz about is called Newsroom - it is Aaron Sorkin's new offering. The first episode of this new series begins with the main character - a Tom Brokaw news-anchor type, in a panel discussion. He is asked the question, along with the two other guests: Why is the United States the greatest country in the world? His answer created a firestorm both for his fictional character on the show, and nationally in real life, as he responded not as the other two panelists did, with a list of all the reasons the United States is the greatest country in the world, but rather that it was not.

Now, I don't know what people mean when they say "the greatest country in the world." I suppose there could be many metrics. We certainly are the greatest single economy in the world, but we also are great in many other areas. For instance, we are number one is total crimes, number one in CO2 emissions, number one in divorce rate, in teen birth rate, in heart attacks, in prisoners, and in McDonalds restaurants. And no list of our greatness is complete without noting not only our military superiority, but the vast sums of money we spend annually on our endless war machine - much greater than any other country.

So rather than wade into a radioactive debate without clear metrics, I would instead say, as someone who considers himself a patriot, that without needing to compare it to any other country, the U.S. is falling far short of my expectations for what it should be.

What Maria Hinajosa reminded me is that although all these ugly truths are very real about this country, we are also living in a time of revolution. There is change in the air around the entire globe. This is a time of possibility when, if we refuse to believe this is the only way, we could actually make some important steps forward. She harkened back to another person who had given the Ware Lecture almost fifty years ago, in a different time with some striking similarities.

I speak of Martin Luther King, Jr., who gave his Ware Lecture in 1966 at our General Assembly in Hollywood FL, with the civil rights movement in full swing and much of the rest of the world unsettled as well.

King that night similarly made reference to the incredible revolutions going on in the United States and around the world. He asked what role we, as part of the faith community, should have in them. His central claim was that "through our scientific genius we have made of this world a neighborhood, and now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make it a brotherhood." He was also talking about not Two Americas, but Two Worlds that needed integration - the haves and the have nots. He went on to say that "all life is inter-related, and somehow we are all tied together. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of all reality." In perhaps one of the most memorable parts of his speech that night, he called upon the assembled UUs to join him, saying, "My friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I'm proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity."

This is the same call we received this hot summer night in Phoenix - that we refuse to be adjusted to these racist non-solutions to immigration, that we refuse to be adjusted to a system that treats our fellow humanity as less than.

Then, in the culmination of General Assembly, Maria Hinajosa concluded her speech and joined several thousand of us on a trip across town to Tent City, Sherriff Joe Arpaio's sprawling jail complex that houses an unknown number of undocumented immigrants in giant tents in conditions like those she had shared with us in her speech: extreme heat, little water, no access to counsel or family; tactics of degradation and humiliation the norm.

I do not pretend to have the solutions for our immigration problem, but I know the symptoms of a broken patchwork of a non-solutions when I see one. The inhumane and immoral practices of Sheriff Joe are a scary and sad symptom of a real horrible solution. As King said, we are all interrelated. I can never be all that I can be until you can also be all that you can be. As long as we keep our undocumented brown-skinned brothers and sisters in a condition we would never allow for a citizen of this country, we are all held back from becoming our greatest selves.

That is what we were going to tent city to witness to. In anticipation of our peaceful protest, Sheriff Joe had ordered the entire complex locked down and ringed with deputies, many on horseback and carrying large weapons. They also wheeled out a tank to park by the main gate, just to show off.

I watched as the streets in front of the tent city jail became filled with Unitarian Universalists in yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts. I listened as speaker after speaker exhorted the thousands of us who showed up to help make the stories of these invisible human beings being held just hundreds of feet from us, visible to all. I felt the blasting heat against my body, that even at 10 pm was well over 90 degrees of dry, parching warmth that hits you like a blast furnace. I was almost brought to tears when a delegation from our group returned from a tour of the facility to report that those detained within could hear our singing and were overjoyed to know that people were out there remembering that they existed. I felt a deep sense of pride for our movement when, as I left, I encountered a long line of local activists who had showed up to thank us as we left. We hugged and shared promises of solidarity.

And, I will be honest, it all had a real effect on me. I knew deep in my heart that what was being done in this place, in my name, would never happen in the greatest country in the world, and shouldn't be able to happen in one that aspires to call itself that.

But there we all were. People from across this country, literally standing on the side of love, linked arm in arm, singing, witnessing, refusing to believe that another way was not possible.

As always, I have deeply mixed feeling about my country, as I think any good patriot should. But I left that evening feeling one thing clearly - that I was more proud of my denomination than I had ever felt before. Something important happened that night in Phoenix. I was transformed from someone who thought intellectually that our immigration policy was broken and needed fixing, to someone who knew emotionally that what is being done in my name is simply wrong and that I must get involved to help effect a change for the better.

I truly believe that this is the heartbeat at the center of Unitarian Universalism: We will stand with you, whoever you are, wherever you are on life's journey, we will stand with you, on the side of love.

May it be so. Ashe.

Back to Top