What I Learned at GA This Summer

I have been to lots of General Assemblies – the yearly meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I have also been to a few years of the preceding Professional Days for UU ministers. I always find these national gatherings to be really exciting and really exhausting. I always buy at least one more bit of chalice jewelry. The hotel I stayed in this year had a late night happy hour that started at 10:00 pm, with huge cheap margaritas and this yummy flat bread. And this year I was reminded that I am just getting too old for a regular diet of staying out very late with colleagues in the hotel bar, sipping margaritas, and then getting up for meetings early in the morning. It just can’t keep up that kind of pace for very many days in a row.

Yes, I have been to a lot of GA’s but this one was different. It was different in a number of important ways and it is the uniqueness of this year’s experience that I want to share with you today. At this GA, we had really great music. GA is often a place to introduce new music to the people. And we UUs have been getting a lot more passionate in our singing than they way UUs sang a decade or two ago. We held our hands in the air and swayed back and forth as we were literally filled with the spirit as we sang songs like this one…

Here in reverence now we gather, for the blessings we have know
With a pledge to one another that we journey not alone.
Joy and sorrow makes us wise, kin to all that lives and dies
Love calls us on, love calls us on.

At the professional days for ministers, and at GA, we learned a lot about the changing demographics of the US and of our faith community. There were many speeches about congregational health and what the future likely holds for Unitarian Universalism as a movement. You’ll get to hear more about that in a November sermon – I promise.

But today I want to talk with you about the theme of this year’s gathering. This year we gathered in Phoenix, at the request of local UU leaders and our allies in community work, to hold a Justice GA. We kept the business meetings down to the minimum and really focused on justice work. I took part in a service project where I sat in a school gym and helped an elderly Mexican woman fill out her paperwork to apply for US citizenship. She had a permanent resident card, a green card – had it for 20 years. She now wanted to become a citizen. The older lady spoke no English. Seniors who have been here a long time can have the English Language requirement waved. I had the help of an interpreter and a couple of times one of the volunteer lawyers had to help us with the details of her particular case. Like the fact that she did not have divorce papers from when her husband left her years ago. We had to add in an addendum sheet to list all the many children she had, including several who had died as babies in Mexico. My guess is that this lady now seeks citizenship so she will qualify for government help as she ages and deals with greater health problems. But when I asked her the required question on the form about whether she would be willing to take up arms to protect this country. She said proudly that if that if she were young and strong she would do whatever she could to protect America.

This experience made me reflect on my own family’s immigrant story. My grandfather came from Germany several years before WWI. He left Germany illegally, to escape being drafted. He and my great aunt snuck onto a steam ship going to Canada and then came over the boarder to the US to work on farms in the Midwest. He didn’t have enough money to come into this country legally, but the kind boarder guard let this 18 year old boy and his 16 year old sister enter anyway. Later in life, my Grandfather went to court to ask to become a US citizen. His English was so bad that the judge could barely understand a word he said but made him a citizen anyway become of the passion of which he spoke about this country.

Most of the GA justice work this year was in the area of human rights and the mistreatment of Hispanic workers in American in the face of recent anti-immigrant laws. There has been a frenzy of legislation in this country. It began in Arizona with SB 1070. It has since spread state by state to other parts of this country, like Alabama, South Carolina, Utah, and Georgia. And 24 other states have proposed legislation with some similar provisions. This legislation is described as a way to improve community safety and rid our country of Mexican drug dealers and low wage workers who steal our jobs. In reality this radical immigration policy is devastating to children and families. It is killing innocent people. It is creating a separate but not equal justice system that should be an embarrassment to every American. And as UUA president, Peter Morales, says … Todos Somos Arizona – We are all Arizona. What happens in Arizona impacts us all. Let me tell you more. It may well disturb you, but this needs to be told.

Right now, if a person is walking down the street in Phoenix, if they look even a little suspicious they can be asked for proof of their citizenship. Now my Oregon drivers license would not be enough because I didn’t have to prove citizenship to get this drivers license. It would need to be something like a passport. You can be asked for documentation if you are pulled over for a traffic stop and if the officers think they have reason to believe you might be here illegally. Such a reason might be that you look Mexican or you are speaking Spanish. I heard from a Mexican American school teacher that she was pulled over and asked for her immigration papers because she was driving 3 miles an hour below the speed limit. That seemed enough cause for the officers to pull her over. If you cannot produce the papers that satisfy the officer, you are not arrested. But you can be detained. Being detained does not require a warrant and also does not mean you have to be read your rights or you necessarily have a chance to call a lawyer. You might not be taken to jail but can be sent to a detention center. These detention centers are often run by private contractors who do not necessarily follow the regulations the keep American jails within some livable standard. You could be detained in an immigration detention center until they decide what to do with you and this can take a long time. The legal status reminds me a bit of those who are held at Guantanamo Bay, only this is on American soil.

Immigration officials in states like Arizona are doing everything they can to round up lots of undocumented immigrants for detention. They encouraged truant teens to go back to school and then made a sweep through the school, picking up Mexican students. Officers called their parents to come and get them and, at that point, the parents were asked for papers and when they couldn’t produce the needed papers, the parents were sent to detention to await possible sentencing. Parents are now afraid to send their children to school. Not only that , but crime victims are afraid to call the police for help. Immigrants want to avoid contact with the police for fear of being asked for their papers, so dangerous crimes go uninvestigated. How is this keeping our community safer?

At GA, a petite young woman in her 20s, holding a baby in her arms, told us her story with the help of an interpreter. Her voice shook as I heard a story of a young woman who answered the door to immigration officers just as she came home from her job in a restaurant. Yes, she is one of the many undocumented workers in this country who work in the restaurant industry. She told how she was handcuffed and taken away as her three year old child stood in the doorway crying with fear and rage. At that time she was pregnant with the child we now saw in her arms. In the detention center where she was held, she and the other detainees (they are not prisoners of course, but detainees) were fed only twice a day. If she had a court hearing and missed the mealtime, she missed the meal. In the several months of her pregnancy that she was detained she only gained about 4 pounds because she didn’t get enough to eat. As her pregnancy progressed she was often confined to her sleeping area and not allowed to walk around to try to get comfortable. When her family was allowed to visit she could not hold her crying child who had no understanding of why mama had left her, because they allowed no physical contact with visitors. This woman was eventually released from detention but she was severely traumatized, as was her young family. I challenge anyone to look me in the eye and tell me that the fact that this woman is not a US citizen means we have the right to deprive her of enough food when we lock her up during her pregnancy. This is not a matter of her immigration status, but a matter of her basic human rights.

So lets talk about these detention centers for a moment. We heard so many horror stories at GA, they began to run together frankly. The Ware Lecture at GA, a lecture that has had past speakers with names like Jane Addams and Martin Luther King, was delivered this year by the NPR correspondent Maria Hinojusa. She has done extensive investigative reporting on the issue of human rights violations in our immigration system. This is some of what she told us about one detention center she visited in Texas.

People housed in circus tents with no windows…where the one window had a red line around it and where you are not allowed to cross. So even looking out a 24 inch window was not allowed. I was shocked that the women’s tent had a complaint box that was nailed shut so no way to even put a complaint inside. Where there was no clean drinking water. Imagine every time you were thirsty in a circus tent in the middle of the desert in Texas and having to ask for a cup to get water every time. Inside that room there was no TV…no windows. A woman named Maria who grew up in Austin and was a single mom and who never knew she was undocumented told us she was sexually assaulted by a female guard. I know this is going to sound horrible…she told me that they were so bored that they gave the rats names. That they would run out of toilet paper and pads and would have to plead for more. That when they smelled chicken they knew that outside monitors were coming to see Willacy but that other than that they were hungry most of the time.

This is what is happening today in America my friends. This is how people are being treated in our country, on our watch. This is not the kind of country that I like to think I belong to. I love my country and like to believe that we are not capable of this kind of thing, but we are. And remember, folks in these detention centers are not charged with a crime, these are considered civil matters and so they are shunted off to a system with fewer rights. They are not necessarily appointed a lawyer and often the only judge they see in a hearing is only present via video camera.

One unforgettable experience for me at Justice GA was a candlelight vigil outside of the Tent City, where so many of the Arizona detainees are housed. The Maracopa County Animal Shelter is just down the road. It is an indoor facility with air-conditioning. The detention center for undocumented immigrants is a concrete expanse covered in tents. It was hot as we stood vigil. Even after dark the temperature was about 105 degrees. It should not be a surprise that at the vigil we read the names of those who have died in this center as temperatures in their tents have been recorded around 130. Maracopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio is often called the toughest Sheriff in America and he is very popular with those in his county. Sheriff Joe brags that he spends more money to feed his police dogs than his prisoners. This tent city has been criticized by groups like Amnesty International for violating human rights. The sheriff himself refers to this facility he runs as a “concentration camp”.

At this GA, literally thousands of UUs, many in Standing on the Side of Love Yellow T Shirts, stood vigil outside this Tent City of Maracopa County. We sang and I understand those inside could hear our singing. That felt good to me. There were speeches declaring that we will not stand for this kind of injustice. We called on them to close Tent City. We were joined by the head of the liberal Christian denomination, the United Church of Christ, who promised that next time thousands of yellow shirted UUs gather in this kind of work that we would be joined by thousands of UCC brothers and sisters in red T shirts. And then a local Baptist minister got up and preached about how Jesus told us to feed the hungry and care for the prisoner and we cheered with him as well. Sheriff Joe’s riot police, some on horseback and all in riot geer, stood at the ready in case we tried to storm the gates. But we did not riot. We sang and we chanted and we promised to take this experience home with us. And that is what I am doing right now.

So this what I learned at GA this summer. I learned that in parts of this country a person can be stopped on the street and asked for “their papers” and who is asked is based mostly on their ethnic group. If they cannot show the right papers, they are not arrested for any crime, but are taken to away and locked up a place with inhumane conditions –a place that is referred to by one of those who manage it as a concentration camp. I am sorry, but this sounds bad to me. This sounds a little too much like another chapter in our human history. Am I saying that this persecution of Mexican immigrants today is just like the Holocaust, not at all. Am I saying that I worry that it could eventually become as bad if things get out of hand, yes, that is my worry. Remember that SB1070 began in Arizona but this trend has been sweeping the nation. The supreme court just examined this law and found that, at least for now, the “papers please” provision still stands.

As you remember, my grandparents came to this country from Germany. I am pleased to say that they came over before the rise of the Nazi party and when my grandparents heard about what was going in their native land during WWII they cried. But what if my family had still been there? What if I had lived in that time and that place? We often say things like, “Didn’t the German people know what was going on in those camps?” Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. I don’t know. But I do know now what is going in in the Maracopa County Tent City and in other immigrant detention centers. And now that I know, I will not turn a blind eye. I will not be one of those who knew about the mass mistreatment of human beings in the 21st century in America and did nothing to stop it. I believe in having reasonable immigration laws. I am not an advocate of completely open borders. But I will not be a party to this kind of human rights violation in the name of immigration reform. Not while I am a citizen of this nation and have a voice.

And the Unitarian Universalist Association will not stand by silently. History has seen different church groups that turned a blind eye to terrible injustice that was taking place as they took no action. History has not judged them kindly. Think of the German Catholic Church in WWII or some American Christians during the days of American Slavery or the interment of the Japanese. We will not be one of those Churches, not this time.

Join me in stopping this wave of so called illegal immigrant crackdown before it reaches our state. Let our elected leaders know that we do not want people checked for papers and put in camps as part of our American way of life. If one of these laws shows up on our ballot some day, vote it down. Tell your friends and your family what is going on in this country. Don’t let this stay hidden from view. If you want to talk more about how we can help, meet with me after the service and we can begin to work together for to combat this injustice.

In closing I offer you the famous words of Rev. Martin Niemoller

First they came for the communists,
 and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, 
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
 and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me 
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Todos Somos Arizona We are all Arizona

May it be so.