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The past two weeks have been packed with preparations for our launch of the Unitarian Universalist Abolitionists at General Assembly (GA). The Abolition Team is proposing “Ending Slavery” as the next Congregational Study/Action Issue, and for that we need five speakers at tomorrow’s plenary, before the vote. We left one open speaker’s slot in case we met someone during GA who was so enthusiastic that they should be the fifth; I prepared a piece as a backup. Everyone was very happy with what I wrote, but I will not be reading it tomorrow morning, for the best reason: the Youth Caucus has chosen to support our CSAI, and so they are getting that spot. They make their decision by consensus, so it is momentous.

Here, then, is the piece I wrote. I called it “Bury Us Not in a Land of Slaves,” after the Frances Ellen Watkins poem whose close I find so moving. Harper was a Unitarian poet, abolitionist, and survivor of slavery.

There is a child in a cotton field. He is just a little older than my daughter. They could be schoolmates, or playmates. But he doesn’t play much; he doesn’t go to school. He works, without choice, without pay, far from his family. He is a slave.

He might have picked the cotton of the t-shirt I bought my daughter last month. She looks really cute in that shirt. He would, too, this child who could be her friend, this little boy in Uzbekistan or Texas. But he doesn’t have a new shirt, just as millions of other children harvest cocoa beans, but don’t eat the chocolate; or make bricks, but live in shanties made of tin and cardboard. I don’t want to raise my daughter to believe these children are any less deserving than she is. Yet I am trapped, she is trapped, all of us are trapped, in an economic system where slaves make many of the goods we use.

We know how to spring the trap. It’s called the abolition of modern slavery, and it is overdue. So is our involvement.

I hope with our vote today we will follow in the footsteps of the Unitarian and Universalist abolitionists of an earlier day. I hope no one will ever say of us what was said in 1851 when the other churches in a Massachusetts town rang their bells for freedom: “The bells of the Unitarian church, being clogged with cotton, would not sound.” We know that our true self-interest is served by freedom and justice for all. Let us act so that the generations to come will look back on this GA as the moment when the UUs claimed their better heritage and joined the 21st century abolition movement—or, better, helped to lead it—and made freedom ring out throughout this country and the world.

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Whether or not the CSAI passes (we’re waiting for the result), we have done a lot at this GA to build a UU abolition movement, and we’ll go forward from here. If you want to know more, please:

write to info AT uuabolitionists DOT org, or

visit the UU Abolitionists website (now due for a post-GA update), or

“like” our Facebook page,

Or sign up for our Twitter feed, @uuabolition.

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Last year I tried three Lenten practices: I refrained from one thing (Facebook), I engaged in one thing (daily drawing), and I gave money to justice work (abolishing human trafficking). I didn’t keep to the drawing practice very well. The other practices, I kept, and they were deepening. I’m going to follow the same structure this year: a negative practice, a positive practice, and the practice of generosity.

This year I have a somewhat different internet-related practice: not to use the internet as entertainment. In his poem “Ash Wednesday,” T. S. Eliot prayed, “Teach us to sit still.” It’s something I strive to learn, and the net is amphetamines for my monkey mind. So although I will appear on Facebook, I will endeavor not to fritter. Right now I want to go over there just to see what’s going on. That’s the kind of thing I’m planning to resist from now until Easter.

photo by JamesJen, used by permission (Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The line is fuzzy. Reading the week’s secrets every Saturday night at Postsecret seems like a spiritual practice, even though it sometimes affords all the satisfactions of gossip; reading others’ blog entries is serious but can easily drift into just fooling around; using Facebook to see how a friend is doing or take some political action honors the spirit of the practice, but can easily turn into mere entertainment. I will have to be attentive to what’s calling me to a webpage in order to know when to continue and when to stop.

My positive practice is to walk the labyrinth each day I’m at church. The first couple of days’ practice will be to restore it. It’s made of river stones, which are easily dislodged, and the path has actually been altered in at least one place, as I realized when I walked it the other day and discovered that once you get to the center of the labyrinth you can walk right out. There may be labyrinths with that design, but ours is the Cretan labyrinth and follows the same long path out as one took in. I for one need that contemplation time both going into the center and emerging.

I’m going to continue the support of justice work I began last year by putting much more time into the abolition work I’ve been neglecting. I have no desire, or evening time, to be on organizational boards. What I do best is write, speak, coach volunteers, and teach, so I think this is the time to dig out my notes for a UU abolition curriculum and get a draft done. I’ll also be helping the good folks at Aptos, which has the only anti-slavery action group of any UU congregation that I know of (if there are others, please chime in in the comments!), to have a strong presence at General Assembly (GA), where the Congregational Study Action Issue they proposed is being considered as the next official UU-wide issue and where they have a program on the GA schedule, bringing Kevin Bales of Free the Slaves to tell UUs what the problem is and what we can do about it. I already give to anti-trafficking organizations, but I’ll give a special donation for the season.

Do you have, or have you had, any practices for Lent? What are they?

Black History Month, day 14

I knew that terrible conditions continued to oppress black Americans after Emancipation, of course. I knew that lynchings and the unequal application of the law kept a boot on their necks. I knew, for that matter, that slavery is still going strong around the world. But I didn’t know half the stuff documented in Slavery By Another Name, aired yesterday and available for viewing here now.

If you want to place someone beneath the notice of the public, declare them a criminal–it will give you lots of leeway for abusing them without anyone being willing to intervene. If they haven’t done anything illegal, make new laws that criminalize things they are already doing. The former slaveholding states would tolerate neither the equality of black people with white nor the loss of all that free labor. And so the law against vagrancy–the inability to prove that one has a job–was “dredged up from legal obscurity” and used to sweep black men into prison. (Once again, in our own wave of high unemployment, we have political leaders  proposing penalties for being poor: Judson Phillips, president of the Tea Party Nation, recently spoke approvingly of the 18th century law against voting if one did not own real estate. Last November would have been my first election! And actual prison sentences for debt are on the rise, according to this article in the Wall Street Journal, and despite federal debtors’ prisons’ having been abolished 180 years ago.)  Defendants were required to pay for the expenses the state incurred in convicting them. If they couldn’t pay the fees to ” the sheriff, the deputy, the court clerk, the witnesses,” they were in debt and had to work it off–again, laws created in order to manufacture criminals, i.e., slave laborers.  Furthermore, contract laws were in place to penalize anyone attempting to leave a job before an advance had been worked off”–another form of thinly-veiled enslavement, practiced frequently today in countries such as India and the United States.

I wrote 1865-1945 because the author of the book Slavery By Another Name, Douglas A. Blackmon–another journalist with the Wall Street Journal–focuses on the scope of 80 years. It seems to me that this practice is far from over, but that’s for an upcoming post.

For today, please be aware that there are more slaves in the world today than there were in the entire 400 years of the African slave trade. Chocolate and flowers are industries with a lot of slave labor. If you want to give a Valentine to children in West Africa and women in South America, buy the chocolate or flowers that profit their ethical bosses, not the exploiters. Look for the fair trade symbol. One World Flowers is a good option for roses, and your local natural foods store probably carries non-slave-produced chocolate brands, such as Divine, Tcho, Theo, and Equal Exchange. (Whole Paycheck is not my favorite food store, but they are a good source for fair trade chocolate.)

Black History Month, day 6

Zumbi was a great military and political leader of African descent, known as Zumbi dos Palmares because of his legendary leadership of the quilombo (settlement of free Africans) by that name in colonized Brazil during the 17th century.

Antônio Parreiras - Zumbi - 1927

Zumbi, by Antônio Parreiras (public domain in the US)

His story–and the story of Palmares–is told in an excellent movie, Quilombo, directed by Carlos Diegues with music by another great Afro-Brazilian, Gilberto Gil. If that version of the history is accurate, Zumbi represented the rebellion side of the perennial debate among people rising up against oppressive circumstances: continue rebelling and hold out for fuller freedom, or accept a compromise from the enemy? Zumbi successfully challenged the more conciliatory Ganga Zumba for leadership of Palmares. Palmares finally fell to the Portuguese in 1694 and Zumbi was captured and summarily executed the next year. Brazil eventually gained its independence, of course, 127 years later.

One legacy of the quilombos is the martial art U. S.  Americans of descent other than African or Brazilian may know: capoeira. According to the website Aruandê Capoeira,

Created by slaves brought to Brazil from Africa, during the colonial period, Capoeira is a martial art that grew from survival. People were brought from Angola, Congo and Mozambique, and with them, they brought their cultural traditions.

They hid their martial art and traditions into a form of dance. The African people developed capoeira not only to resist oppression, but also for the survival of their culture and the lifting of their spirits. After slavery, they continued to play capoeira.

Brazil’s Black Awareness Day (“Dia da Consciência Negra”) is celebrated on November 20 in Zumbi’s honor; his birthday is unknown but that was the day he died.

Here is Gilberto Gil singing the title song of Quilombo, accompanied by a slide show of this piece of black history.

Last Sunday’s sermon. It will shortly be up at the UU Church of Palo Alto, along with a list of resources for further action and inspiration.

August 14, 2011

A few ideas that are in the mix for this Sunday’s service:

Stories of local cases of trafficking and slavery, such as the restaurant in Berkeley that inspired David Batstone’s involvement in the issue, the use of Thai slaves to repair the Bay Bridge, or even closer to home, forced prostitution in San Mateo and Sunnyvale.

Our heritage of Unitarian abolitionists like Theodore Parker and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Universalist abolitionists like Benjamin Rush–and those Unitarians and Universalists who opposed them. The former are important because we honor them and may be inspired to follow in their footsteps, creating the 21st century movement to equal their abolitionism of two centuries earlier. The latter are important because their hesitancy may illuminate what barriers stand between us and action.

Harriet Tubman’s repeated journeys back to slave states, the most dangerous places she could go, in order to free others. Clearly her answer to Kevin Bales’s question, “And if we can’t use our power to bring about the end of slavery, are we truly free?” would have been “No.” The same challenge faces us: we are ostensibly free. Are we willing to venture into troubling territory to bring people out of bondage? That territory, for us, does not carry the risks the South did for Tubman; the risk we run is the discomfort of learning of others’ suffering and having to change.

Videos about human trafficking playing on the patio before and after the services, my technological abilities permitting.

The longing to be a part of a UU abolitionist movement. We don’t have one. We need one. I’m starting it now. Join me to get in on the ground floor.

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.

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.

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