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Yesterday, day two of the Abolition Academy, the implicit theme of the day seemed to be messiness. There is a lot we can know about the supply chain from slaveholder to consumer–apparel corporations, for example, can identify every subcontractor and source all the way back to the cotton field much more easily than they often claim–but there are still complications in ensuring that no one in the chain is trafficked or enslaved.

For example, one of the requirements is monitoring: monitoring one’s suppliers, contractors and subcontractors, to make sure they are not committing any of the abuses that point to forced labor. (Examples: holding workers’ passports so that they can’t leave; requiring overtime; beating people who don’t make their quota.) Well, there are third-party monitoring organizations. But even they sometimes hesitate to make unannounced inspections, because they want to have a relationship of mutual trust with the subcontractors. (Hey, we can’t even get unannounced inspections in this country. But that’s because we specifically rewrote safety laws so that corporations could conceal problems before an inspection. Would you like E. coli with that hamburger?) The whole system is a work in progress.

For this and other reasons, instead of the shorthand “slave-free,” Not For Sale recommends the term “zero tolerance.” Even the most diligent company, conducting third-party unannounced inspections, can’t guarantee that abuses of workers’ rights won’t occur. The commitment we ask of them is that they keep a sharp eye out for these abuses, and when they find them, take effective action. That’s zero tolerance for forced labor. Monday’s facilitator compared it to a university having a zero tolerance for racism. They aren’t guaranteeing that no one on the campus will ever do anything racist–that’s not possible. Instead, they are promising to pay attention and to act on such incidents.

This is wisdom for congregations, which can be paralyzed by the impossibility of guaranteeing perfection. Being a Welcoming Congregation (UU lingo for proactively welcoming and supporting LGBTQ people) doesn’t mean promising that no one at church will ever utter a homophobic word; it means speaking up if anyone does. Being a multicultural, antiracist congregation doesn’t mean you always get diversity right, but that the congregation is stretching, listening to what its people of color have to say, and being willing to change. Standing for justice doesn’t mean you’ll never do something hypocritical like treat a church employee badly–on the contrary, it means you’ll diligently watch for just such moments and correct course when they happen. The aim is not perfection. We are human and messy, and so the aim is to be honest and keep on moving forward.

The troublesome verse, Matthew 5:48, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect,” has come in for a called-for re-interpretation in recent years. The Aramaic word that’s usually translated “perfect” evokes, not the absoluteness that “perfect” has in English, but a strong sense of integrity, maturity, completeness: a fruit come to ripeness, a person grown to adulthood, a body whole and healthy. In a world where, as last year’s Trafficking in Persons Report says, “it is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor,” it’s important this movement is calling us, not to perfection, but to integrity.

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A woman in the class recommended this primer, 18 minutes long, by the author of Disposable People and founder of Free the Slaves, Kevin Bales. If you don’t have time to read his book, check out this excellent talk.

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ETA that Boy in the Bands, my colleague the Rev. Scott Wells, just posted about one of the worst cases of child labor in the world today, the girls pressed into being soldiers and sex slaves of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. Here’s his post, and here’s the link to help fund the film on the subject being made by a friend of his. Thanks, Scott!


Yesterday, day one of the Abolition Academy (the week’s theme: the supply chain), was pretty fact-filled and unemotional, overall. Even the movie we watched about the trafficking and forced labor of children in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa plantations, The Dark Side of Chocolate, went very light on the heart-wrenching details; from what I know of the abuses against these children, they could have shown us much worse, but they were very restrained. One exchange in the movie, however, brought tears from me that wouldn’t stop.

Children are lured or simply kidnapped from the surrounding countries–Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria–and taken to the plantations, from which most never return, much less send home the money they were promised they’d earn. The filmmakers follow a bus that takes Malian children to the village closest to the country’s border with the Ivory Coast. Once there, they’re taken by motorcycle taxi over the border to an Ivory Coast village, from where they’re distributed to whoever buys them around the country.

Once on the Ivory Coast side, the director went up to a little boy who was sitting alone and crying, and asked him why he was crying. “I’m looking for Ali,” the boy said.

“Who’s Ali?”

“Ali. The man driving the bus. The bus over there,” the boy said, crying and gesturing toward the village square as if the bus had disappeared from there. My heart broke to see this child who wanted only to go back to the bus, who didn’t even realize that he was now in another village, in another country.

An essay of mine, titled “Beyond Either/Or,” appears in a book just published by Skinner House Press and edited by Susan A. Gore and Keith Kron, Coming Out in Faith: Voices of LGBTQ Unitarian Universalists. It’s a beautiful little volume, with diverse and fascinating voices represented in the fifteen essays, and I highly recommend it.

In my essay, something happened along the twisting path of editing and revising. The published version appears to be, not my final draft altered by the usual edits that every author must grin and bear (and often benefit from!), but a reversion to an earlier draft that was still floating around in someone’s hard drive, as earlier drafts do. It’s a shame, since I found the editors’ comments on my later draft extremely insightful and I knew they were improving my piece. The final version, however, didn’t incorporate these (though I’ve heard from readers that it’s good as is). Here, as best as I can recreate it, is the final version that I believe all three of us intended to appear in print.

Beyond Either/Or

I didn’t blog all last week because we were on a family road trip to Southern California, so daytime was for driving and/or activities like hanging out with my mom or touring Legoland, and nighttime was for much-needed unscheduled time with the family, and sleep. It was great. The first day took us down Route 5 through the Central Valley, which contains about 1% of the country’s agricultural land but produces 8% of its agriculture. The politics of water, a major issue in California, is in your face, with various pleas to make water cheaper and reminders that cheap food depends on it. “Food grows where water flows,” the signs say. “Congress-created dust bowl”–they mean Democratic Congress-created, since the signs list the culprits as Pelosi, Boxer, and the local Congressman, Jim Costa. My primary impression whenever I pass through this land, however, is bewilderment that anything edible grows here at all. It’s practically a desert–not a dust bowl, but very dry land. Rerouting water here in the amounts needed to raise things like fruit trees, lettuce, and cattle is a major problem–as anyone in the Sacramento Delta can tell you. It seems that there just isn’t enough water to green this valley and still have salmon in the rivers and water in the pipes of cities with populations in the millions.

My first impression is not quite right, though. Actually, the desert, like the abundance of food growing in it, has largely been created by humans. The valley used to be a mix of grassland, woodlands, and marshland, with lots of rivers. We turned the grassland into fields, cut down the forests, drained the marshes, and diverted the rivers to irrigate the farms and provide water for 30 million people around Los Angeles, as well as the smaller but significant population centers of the Bay Area, Sacramento, and the lower Valley itself. Now we are trying to grow food in what has indeed become a desert.

On a related political issue, I hid from the heat in the air conditioning of the car, and whenever I had to emerge for gas and food, the heat of the air was like a hammer pounding me into the ground. I can’t imagine going out there day after day to plant or pick, unless I had no other options. Maybe Mexicans feel otherwise, being more accustomed to a hot climate, but there’s only so much adjusting a human body can do; farm workers die of the heat there every year. One thing’s for sure, it’s the kind of job that should be very generously compensated, if we compensate based on the value of the work done and the strength needed to accomplish it. Obviously we don’t. Another hidden cost of our cheap food.

We drove by fields (lettuce and strawberries), orchards (almonds was our guess), enormous feedlots where a lot of the country’s beef cattle live out the last one-third to one-quarter of their lives (beef-eating friends tell me the taste is about what you’d expect compared to grass-fed cattle, but obviously most consumers of beef are fine with it). The water policies of the past several decades have given rise to entire communities, a history and a home, a whole way of life for many thousands of people, that are now threatened by changes in policy; yet the old policies don’t seem to be sustainable. No wonder the people are angry. What is a fair approach to solving the dilemma we’ve created?

Drawing sessions resumed Monday. It was so good to be back. This was my best of the morning.

A vibrant young adult group at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta has launched a national outreach. I really like their self-description as an “incubator group,” a model they recommend for all young adult groups: focusing on building community before adding programming; vigilant about avoiding the cliquishness that repels newcomers; accepting of the ebbs and flows of attendance, ideas, and leadership; and regarding its mission as helping its folks get comfortable with the congregation. They go into detail about “incubator groups” here. It’s a model that applies very well to all kinds of small groups in congregations.

It looks like the 2030s group in Atlanta has decided to be an incubator group for Unitarian Universalism as a whole. Love it!

ETA: In a blog entry made today on the 2030s National site, Tim Atkins advises against using “Young Adult” as the name of one’s group. Like him, I’m used to YA meaning 18-35-year-olds, because that’s what it means in UU parlance, but even in UU circles it is confusing. It’s been my observation that our teenagers refer to themselves as young adults (for the same reason Tim observes: that’s their section in the library/bookstore), and presumably 18-35-year-olds also continue to associate the term with people much younger. So please read “20s and 30s” for “young adult” above.

I’m now on study leave and one of my projects is a week-long intensive course in modern slavery at Not For Sale’s Abolition Academy, conveniently held across from the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park. (If you’re interested, but aren’t close to the SF Bay Area, they also offer shorter “Backyard Academy” sessions all around the country.) I first learned about this organization when their president spoke on a radio show earlier this year, then I did more research when I was looking for an anti-slavery organization to support, as I chronicled in May, and along the way got interested in learning more from them.

I know a few things about slavery today, the first being that it’s alive and kicking: actual cases of people being locked up, forced to work, deprived of their wages, and even inheriting their servitude from their parents. Another is that it is far from a remnant; more people are enslaved right now on Earth than there were in the entire African slave trade of the 16th through 19th centuries. Tens of thousands are enslaved in the US or pass through here each year–obviously it’s illegal, but enforcement and prosecution are rare. A large component is sex slavery (the Iowa Family Leader kicked up a little dust yesterday by coming up with an outrageous euphemism for a child who was the property of the man who had produced him by raping his mother, who was also his property: “raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household”). I also know that apart from a few well-publicized cases, like the Thai workers locked in a sweatshop in Los Angeles several years back, there isn’t much awareness of the problem even among people who are attuned to social problems.

I’ve been pretty ignorant about it myself, which is why I want to learn more. The course I’ll be taking later this month is on the supply chain, following the connection from slaveholder to consumer and empowering companies and consumers to break it. A couple of reasons I like Not For Sale (NFS) is that they also train people in investigating slavery in their neighborhoods, and they do outreach to the faith community (possible future courses to take, if this one is good). I hope we Unitarian Universalists will act on our pride in our abolitionist forebears by leading the movement to (as NFS puts it) “re-abolish slavery.” I’ve already committed to preaching on 21st century slavery and abolition on August 14, so now I’ll have much more knowledge to bring to the pulpit.

This is hard to say, because Unitarian Universalists generally treat Thou Shalt Adore the Poetry of Mary Oliver as a commandment, except that we don’t do commandments, but I need to confess. Oh wait, we don’t do confession either. (Though we ought to. That’s for another post.)

Never mind. The point is, I think Mary Oliver is mediocre. In fact, it’s gotten to the point that I cringe when the lovely images are drawing to the inevitable conclusion, the moment when Oliver says “Look” or “Listen” and then starts asking us rhetorical questions. It’s like coming to the end of a fable by Aesop.

I am not a person who believes that poems should have morals tacked on to the end. In my experience, the best poems, the ones that eventually turn my life inside out and, like Rilke’s Apollo, inform me that I must change it, are rarely the ones that tell me in plain language what I ought to do. They are more likely to make me say “huh?” I have to read them many times before I dig out their deeper meanings, and when I hold one of those meanings in my hand I know it’s the first of many, that that poem will keep revealing more to me the more times I read it. Oliver’s poems are, in a word, obvious. When she says, or implies, “Look!” I want to say, “Hey, you’re the poet. Don’t tell me to look. Just give me something to look at, something so compelling that I don’t need to be told what to do, and scoot yourself out of the way so that I can see it.”

I once came across an essay on the internet that said better than I can why she isn’t a very good poet and, damn it, is too good not to be a very good poet, but the internet being what it is, I have no idea where to find it again. It expressed my central frustration with Oliver: that someone who can evoke the experiences of the senses so well with words, who seems so perceptive and grounded, who can see the world with clarity, and yet stops short of creating really complex art, is very disappointing.

However, the failings of her poetry make it an excellent source for liturgy. In a worship service, just as the hymns must be fairly simple to sing, the readings have to convey their meaning the first time, to listeners who don’t have another chance to go back and read them again or hear them again (though in our contemplative midweek services, we sometimes do each reading twice). They can be layered, but they also have to be very accessible. They can’t have a very big “huh?” factor. This is why I seldom use my favorite poems in services. Those require absorption; they require analysis and reflection, and many rereadings; then they take off the top of your head, to quote one of my favorite, profoundly “huh?”-inducing poets, Emily Dickinson. You often can’t get them on the first go-round. Or you might pick up something of their wisdom, but you’ll grab on to the easiest bit. Like that last line of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” by Rainer Maria Rilke, which sounds like a moral and seems easy to grasp. But having grasped it, we still need to spend more time with the poem in order to have any sense of why, how, a headless torso can see us so penetratingly that we know we must change. At least, I did. Rilke’s language is easy (a German speaker once told me it is notable for its simplicity) but his meaning is not. Spend a little time with this poem and you may see what I mean.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Of course, you can use readings in a Sunday service that will have meaning on first hearing and then also repay further reading and reflection. But those are harder to find. The poems that offer most on the surface are seldom the ones that offer much more on reflection–that are, in short, great poems. Oliver’s poems are good liturgy for the same reason they are mediocre poetry. They deliver a poignant thought or a morsel of good advice for living, they do it with graceful language, they offer up images the mind can easily hold, and they have very little in them to distract the listener with “Wait, I didn’t get that bit.” They lead one with silken inexorability to a conclusion. That’s not what I look for in a poem, but it’s exactly what I need when I’m sitting in a worship service, or shaping one.

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