Thursday, December 13, 2018

An Advent Journey


Our faith in Christ Jesus, who was himself an immigrant and whose untimely death came at the hands of agents of a militaristic state, compels us to speak truth to power, to cross borders and boundaries, and to stand with those on the margins. Especially in this holy season of Advent, we are called to embody our faith in a real and transformative way.

For many months, I have been praying for guidance on how to respond to the crisis at the border.  A couple of weeks ago, when I heard about Global Immersion’s Day of Learning and Solidarity, I knew immediately it was what I had been seeking.  Here was a chance to learn directly from those most affected by the immigrant caravan – those in Mexico who are working with the travelers on the front lines – and to hear from them directly how people of faith in the US can be helpful advocates without getting in the way.

Guidance was sought and arrangements were made and now the time has arrived.  Tomorrow, along with my 16-year-old son Elijah, I will travel to San Diego along with more than 150 other people of faith from around the nation.  We will spend a long day in Tijuana on Saturday December 15th and then return early Sunday morning (in time for church!). 

Our day on Saturday will include a visit to a church that has become a shelter for Haitian and Central American immigrants where we will meet the pastor and bring supplies he requested – ponchos, sleeping pads and activity books for children.  Then we will have a visit to the border wall, where we will spend some time in prayer and participate in a Las Posadas litany with participants calling across both sides of the border. Finally, we will engage with some local activists about how to best be supportive of immigrants and activists going forward.

I’m so inspired by - and grateful for - the powerful and faith filled testimony of American pastors and people of faith who are protesting and have risked arrest at the border in recent days.  Protest is an important aspect of our faith expression of resistance.  The particular day Global Immersion has planned and in which I am participating is for learning and growth and building of solidarity.  Although these are also acts of resistance, it is not our plan to risk arrest on the 15th.

I’m so grateful for the support we have already received, especially from my husband Jeff and from the people of Vancouver UCC.  Some of you have asked how you can also support this trip.  This would be helpful for me:
-       Pray for and with all those traveling to San Diego and Tijuana on December 15. If fasting is one of your spiritual practices, you might declare a fast day.
-       Come to the airport to see us off!  We will be gathering near the Alaska Airlines ticket counter from 10:00-10:20 am TOMORROW Friday, December 14 for a farewell and blessing.
-       Check social media on Saturday, December 15 – I’ll be posting as I can throughout the day.

With love, Jennifer

Monday, June 25, 2018

Sunday, June 24 Sermon


May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor
1 Samuel 4
By Jennifer Brownell
At Vancouver UCC
June 24, 2018


In the book and movie trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, young people – children really -  are selected from among the many regions of a starkly divided culture to participate in a televised game in which they must fight to the death. As they are sent off to the competition, one of the organizers of the games trills “may the odds be ever in your favor.”  It’s creepy every time, because of course the odds were never in the favor of the young people. The whole game is rigged by those in power, who use The Hunger Games as a method of distraction and control of a populace that is always teetering on the brink of revolution.

One reason the book and movie resonated so strongly is that we recognized so much of our own culture in it, perhaps particularly in regards to our collective treatment of children and our willingness to put them in harm’s way.  

In 1991, Patrick ONeill, a unitarian minister included this story in a sermon (https://www.uua.org/worship/words/reading/and-how-are-the-children)
 “Among the most accomplished and fabled tribes of Africa, no tribe was considered to have warriors more fearsome or more intelligent than the mighty Masai. It is perhaps surprising, then, to learn the traditional greeting that passed between Masai warriors: "Kasserian Ingera," one would always say to another. It means, "And how are the children?"
It is still the traditional greeting among the Masai, acknowledging the high value that the Masai always place on their children's well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, "All the children are well." Meaning, of course, that peace and safety prevail, that the priorities of protecting the young, the powerless, are in place. That Masai society has not forgotten its reason for being, its proper functions and responsibilities. "All the children are well" means that life is good. It means that the daily struggles for existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.”

It's a great story, but it’s not true.  The Masai, as do most people in the world, greet each other with their version of hello (sopa) (https://www.theguardian.com/education/mortarboard/2012/jun/27/michaelgove-kenya). As you do, the Masai  might follow this initial greeting with questions to catch up on things:  'How is the homestead?', 'How is the weather?', 'How are the cows?' and also perhaps 'How are the children?'

But we keep telling and re-telling that story I think because it’s comforting and sweet, to imagine the Masai people - far away from Washington on the plains of Africa - exchanging this greeting with one another “How are the children?”.  In his story, ONeill describes them as “fabled” (meaning practically mythical) people who we can maybe picture from our elementary school perusal of national geographic. Asking first and foremost “how are the children” is just another one of those exotic and unfathomable customs that “those people over there” participate in, one that -  told the way it’s usually told – is impossible for us to imagine US doing.

How are the children?  We can’t bear to ask because we are instead sending them empty thoughts and prayers, trilling “may the odds be ever in your favor,” when we know the odds are against them from the start. We can’t bear to ask the question “how are the children,” because cannot bear to hear the answer.

Can hardly bear for even 5 minutes to hear the wails of children broadcast in our halls of government.  (http://theweek.com/speedreads/780850/democratic-rep-ted-lieu-played-audio-children-crying-detention-center-5-straight-minutes-house-floor)

Can hardly bear to learn that this week yet another black boy - Antwon Rose Jr -  was killed by a police officer – shot in the back by Michael Rosfeld, a police officer who had been on the job only three hours, who’d been fired in January from his previous job as a security guard at a local university for brutally beating a black student.   (https://twitter.com/ShaunKing/status/1010346351530528768)

Oh Antwon, the odds were never in your favor.  You knew that when you wrote this poem in school a couple of years ago: (http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2018/06/21/Antwon-Rose-Jr-poem-victim-police-shooting-east-pittsburgh-high-school-teacher/stories/201806210160d)

“I’m confused and afraid. I wonder what path I will take/I hear that there’s only two ways out / I see mothers bury their sons / I want my mom to never feel that pain / I am confused and afraid.
“I understand people believe I’m just a statistic/I say to them I’m different/ I dream of life getting easier / I try my best to make my dream come true / I hope that it does./I am confused and afraid.”

How are the children? “Confused and afraid.” Antwon answers for himself, for a generation of young men of color, for children he has never met, confined in cages on our southern border: confused and afraid.

Confusion and fear are not, of course, new to us.  We did not invent them in this generation.

They are as old as our bible stories. Picture this.  A large plain, surrounded by hills. On one hill – the soldiers of Gath.  On the other – the army of Judea.   Goliath stands in the front of all his men, gathered high on a hill, and all day he shouts insults and challenges at the men of Judea, standing high on another hill. Wait, did I tell you that he stood in front of all his men?  Not quite right – because his shield bearer stood before him.  See, even with all that enormous, powerful and painfully detailed armor on, he still had to have someone ELSE stand in front of him, holding up a shield.  Maybe for all his bluster, Goliath knew he was not quite as all powerful, maybe not quite as undefeatable, as he would have you believe.

So Goliath stands in front of all his men, except for that one holding the shield in front of him, for days and days and days. And for all that time he’s…tweeting. Broadcasting the fake news that he is unbeatable and his opponants are third-rate clowns, sad failures.

Early this week, Gary Roberts told me that his grandpa, the logger  used to say, “It’s easier to believe a lie you’ve heard 1000 times than a truth you’re hearing for the first time.”  And after all the bluster, those Judeans really started to believe it.  “Maybe he IS unbeatable,” they murmured.  “Maybe we really just have to sit here and listen to him.”  They had placed their trust in institutions of the state, system of government and military and religions that had served them all along,  and those institutions were not acting to put an end to Goliaths taunts and threats.  Everyone was frozen, cynical or despairing or afraid to act. 

Then, into their midst came a country lad, a guy who was unplugged from the social media machine and so hadn’t caught the taunts and the threats, a kid who had never heard those lies even once, let alone a thousand times, a young man who nevertheless knew enough to understand the urgency of the situation, to see how dire it was, this vicious stalemate. David realized at once that cynicism and despair and fear were not the answers, that taking action was, even if it meant putting himself in harm’s way.  But he did not go alone.  He was not just a little guy defeating a big guy, he was a young man who knew God, and knew that God’s love prevails.

As Michael curry wrote this week, meditating on the crisis on our border, (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/23/michael-curry-how-can-america-call-itself-a-christian-country-if-it-treats-children-like-this) “Strength does not require cruelty. Indeed, cruelty is a response rooted in weakness. Jesus was clear about what true strength is and it always is driven by love. There may be many policy prescriptions, but the prism through which we view them should be the same: does the policy treat people with love, acknowledging our common humanity? If the answer is no, it is not a Christian solution.”

The young man knew that cruelty was not strength, indeed it was a sign of weakness.  He knew that God’s way was strong but never cruel.  The seasoned leaders and soldiers, the older and experienced ones, tried to talk him out of it. 

“You will never succeed,” they cried.

“God is with me,” the young man knew, and so he said again that he would go.

“Well, here, at least take these with you!”  

David tried on Saul’s armor but it did not work, the tools of empire did not fit him, would not protect him in the battle ahead.   “For the master's tools,” as Audre Lorde said,  “will never dismantle the master's house.”

David needed something simpler, and so he went out into that field to meet Goliath. (And the shield bearer? We don’t know what happened to him, maybe he ran away altogether, abandoning the great fighter. Eventually it happens that all bullies find themselves standing alone)

And David famously knocked him down with a single stone, the weapon finding it’s way past the bluster and taunts and landing on the one place that was not covered with armor. God’s power is stronger even than giants, even giants with really loud voices, and seemingly insurmountable power

We are in the hills my friends, and Goliath is out there, taunting us. Our Goliath is despair and cynicism and fear, and he strides onto the battlefield in a coat of armor emblazoned with the words, “I don’t really care, do you?”

According to journalist Giovanni Tiso, (https://overland.org.au/2018/06/a-brief-fascist-history-of-i-dont-care/)  I don’t care (me ne frego) was the slogan of Italian fascists in the first part of the twentieth century and is still associated with European fascism today.  Originally it may have meant “I don’t care” in the sense that “I’m not afraid of death,” but  today “menefreghismo (literally, ‘Idontcareism’), has come to mean a cynical individualism, one that openly does not care for the suffering of others.

Goliath totters before us, spouting his lies.  Too long, those in opposition to his message of cruelty and hate have cowered on the far hill, believing what he says, frozen in fear.

There is no time left.  No time left for Antwon Rose Jr.  No time left for the children at the border, and their families, who fled places of violence in a last act of desperation with the one hope of sparing their children’s lives, holding them in sight of them on all that long trek, only to be torn apart at the end.  

The time is now for giants to be defeated. The time is now to stop sending our children into harm’s way with the offhand, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” or “I don’t really care.”

The time is now to act.

The time is now to tell your own stories of immigration, sanctuary and refuge.

The time is now to pray as hard as you’ve ever prayed, for God to show God’s power in and through you.

The time is now to speak up.

The time is now to call congress.  

The time is now to look idontcarism in the face and proclaim with all that you are, all that you have “Yes! I really care!”

The time is now to respond with valor and confidence to the uncertainty and confusion of others.

The time is now to talk to your neighbor about how, whatever you your politics, it is not Christian to put children in harm’s way.

The time is now to put aside the empire’s weapons, the empire’s ways of fighting evil.

The time is now to lace up your marching shoes.

The time is now to recall that we have defeated the powers before, and we will again.

The time is now to step boldly up to Goliath, holding only the tools we have been given, and realizing that he is not as powerful as we had believed.

The time is now to say God’s name aloud, and to proclaim that God’s work will always, always, ALWAYS be more powerful than any earthly power.

The time is now, brothers and sisters.