Tree of Life

Saturday morning I attended a board meeting in Pittsburgh, for a public health ministry in Nicaragua.  We chose Pittsburgh because of civil unrest in Nicaragua,  It wasn’t safe for us to travel.   Our board’s focus was on how to provide access to health care, in the midst of growing violence and uncertainty in that country.  We chose Pittsburgh because it was easy to get to and considered safe.

As we met, several miles down the road, a man with an assault rifle entered Tree of Life Synagogue and murdered eleven Jews gathered for worship.   They were the ‘minyans’ mainly older faithful Jews, who gather early, to begin the Saturday morning Shabbat services.   Others, such as busy parents, would  join them as their schedules allowed.  The role of the minyan is to hold the sacred space, for others to join them.

It was a typical Shabbat, until a white male with a history of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, broke in and murdered eleven…wounded several others, including four police officers.

We all thought Pittsburgh was safe.

The reality is we live in a volatile time.  Barack Obama as the first African-American elected president, led to a dramatic increase in white supremacist organizations.  Donald Trump’s political ascendency and presidency is based in part, on  promoting an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality.  A focus on division rather than unity.

This week that division was evident:  Pipe bombs mailed to over 14 leaders within the Democratic Party; two African-Americans murdered at a grocery store, after the assailant was turned away from an African-American Church; eleven Jews murdered while worshiping.  Each act of violence by a white supremacist.  An ideology which finds encouragement (intentional or not), in the freewheeling rhetoric of our highest elected official.

So what is the antidote to hate and division?

The answer is simple yet profound:  Building relationships.  It’s hard to label a person or be indifferent to their plight, once you know their name, their story.

Sunday night, we gathered as a community at Temple B’nai Abraham.  My friend Rabbi Alison Adler, on only several hours of notice, gathered together 300 neighbors, from ten different faith communities, to grieve the atrocity visited upon Tree of Life Synagogue. We gathered too, in response to the nationwide increase in anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant violence.

Passover at the home of Rabbi Alison.

We came together to remember that we belong to one another.  At the Temple I said: ” I am here tonight because Rabbi Alison is my friend.  Her family and my family have been in each other’s home.  We have broken bread, played and prayed together.  And, because we are friends, when someone messes with my friend (anti-Semitism) they are messing with me.  I am responsible to and accountable for the well-being of my friend (s).”

The antidote to hate and violence is found in relationship building.  I challenge myself and you, to get to know those who are different from you. Get to know neighbors of different religions, ethnicities, race, nation of origin, sexual orientation, political perspective, languages.  Listen to one another’s story.  Let the other get to know you.

If you don’t have enough diversity in your life, then get out of your zip code.  Reach out. Find ways to rub elbows.  Break bread, sip wine, play games, talk with… someone who is different than you.

As relationships are built, prejudices based on ignorance, melt away.  The rhetoric of fear and the house of cards it is built upon, collapses.

The poet William Stafford, writes ‘the real enemy, is the one who whispers in your ear, telling you who to hate’.  As citizens, as neighbors, may we be wary of those who sow division.

On Sunday night, Temple B’nai Abraham was a beautiful mosaic of faiths and backgrounds.  We gathered to grieve with and draw strength from the company of one another.

Jesus said, ‘perfect love, casts out fear’.  May it be so.  For all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Refusing to be Silent

Fabiano de Oliveira, a Brazilian man detained by immigration officials, was allowed to come home.   Karah de Oliveira, his wife, found out around 2:30 p.m. Friday that he was being released, when her husband called from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility, the maximum security prison where he’s been for the past month.

The family, who lives in Beverly, MA, were reunited at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in Burlington, Massachusetts on Friday night. It was the first time Fabiano was able to hold his wife and their five-year old son.  The family is reunited as Fabiano goes through a legal process, hopefully resulting in permanent residency.

The de Oliveira family live in the city I call home.  Fabiano’s story is that of countless others.  He left poverty in Brazil in 2005 and came with the dream of making a better life.  He worked hard to send money back to his family.

He and Karah (a life long resident of Beverly)  met in 2010 and married in 2016.  They have a child.  Fabiano has worked hard, paid taxes, kept out of trouble.

By all accounts he is a loving family man, a good employee.  The kind of guy you’d be happy to have as a neighbor.

The only problem is he lacks the proper documents.  This makes him illegal in the eyes of the Trump administration and resulted in his arrest and detention for the last month.  Arrested ironically when he went to an ICE office to fill out paper work for legal status.

That he was released is great news.  But the reality is that tens of thousands of others with similar stories remain incarcerated.  Most like Fabiano are loving parents, hard workers, good neighbors.  The truth is that the rate of criminal activity is far lower for undocumented immigrants, than those of us who are citizens.

On Saturday a dozen of us gathered at the ICE office in Burlington for a prayer vigil.  We had heard that morning that Fabiano had been released.  Our vigil continued for those who remained incarcerated.

Imagine our surprise when Fabiano and Karah showed up to say ‘thank you’ for supporting them and ‘thank you’ for continuing to stand with and for other families  being torn apart by the current immigration policy.

It has been said that the nation we become is determined by regular citizens like you and me.  We stand vigil for those who are most vulnerable.  We refuse to be silent.  We refuse to be complicit with an unjust immigration system.

America has always been as much an idea as a place.  A place where if  people work hard and respect others, they find a welcome.

Mr.Trump is putting in place an infrastructure of prisons and an increase of ICE officers, that will result in a more than doubling of those detained or deported by the end of 2018.  The capacity for annual arrests and deportations will soon reach 540,000.

Each of these numbers has a face.  Each has a story.  Each life detained and deported has a ripple effect that affects countless others.  That tears at the fabric of a community.

Here in the small city of Beverly, Massachusetts, we got a taste of what this ruthless policy looks like. It was visited upon one of our own families.

That enough of us stood up and said ‘no’, ‘not in my name’ gives me hope.

The nation we become requires constant vigilance and persistence.   There are many more families who look for people of conscience to stand with them.  To stand up for the American dream.

In the Company of Dreamers

I spent this week attending a conference on immigration hosted by PICO http://www.piconetwork.org  We gathered as a faith-based group of 110 activists from 13 states working for humane immigration reform.

Several workshops were led by Dreamers.  The Dreamers I met are educated young people,  who move effortlessly between English and Spanish.  Each is deeply committed to the values that we as a nation aspire to: Hard work, family, faith, responsibility to community, respect for others.

I heard their stories.  Listened to their hopes and dreams.  I heard too their fear of being deported, of being separated from family and friends.  Of being forced to return to a land they don’t know.

I was inspired by Jennifer who came to this country at thirteen years of age.  Her parents crossed the border without papers, fleeing violence and poverty in Honduras.  In the eighteen years since, she graduated from college, has a full-time job, pays taxes and is raising two beautiful children who are U.S citizens.

Jennifer is a Dreamer. One of the 800,000 who were brought to the United States by their parents as children.


In 2012 President Obama, as a result of Congress’ inability to act, passed an executive order (DACA) giving them temporary legal status (renewable every two years).  DACA allowed these young people to go to college, get a job, serve in the military.   They became known as ‘dreamers’.

In September 2017 President Trump rescinded that order.  As of March 5th 2018 the Dreamers will lose their protection and be subject to deportation.

In the meantime, the Republican led Congress is playing a cruel game.   Dreamers are used as pawns for their political maneuvering.

In recent days Republicans led by President Trump, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have become more hard line.   They’ve tied the fate of the young people to further militarization of the border with Mexico,  further restrictions on immigration and an increased budget for deportation.

The budget includes adding beds in detention facilities.  Their goal is to increase from the current 39,000 beds nationwide to 51, 379 beds by the end of 2018.  Each bed on average is used by ten individuals over the course of the year.  As a person is detained and then deported it frees up the bed for a new detainee.

Do the math and the goal of ICE is to ramp up to 513, 790 deportations per year (double the average in recent years).  Each of these 513, 790 people have a name. Each has a story.  Each has a dream.

One of those names at risk, is my friend Jennifer and her two children.

It’s been said that ‘the one who controls the narrative, has the power‘.  Mr. Trump and his supporters cast immigrants in the most negative way.  He has referred to brown and black immigrants as coming from ‘shithole countries’.  He whips up a crowd saying that ‘Mexicans are rapists, murderers and drug dealers’.

This narrative is racist and fear based.

But I believe in a different narrative. That the United States has always been more than a place on the map.  We are a country of ideas and ideals to which we aspire.  One of those ideals is that we are a nation of immigrants.  That we make room for people of all backgrounds, who aspire to work hard, raise a family and contribute to the overall good. 

A new friendship, Kent and Ruben. Kent was born in the United States. Ruben in Haiti. Both call USA, home.

 

This is the story I believe in. This is the story that makes America truly great.  This is the story I will stand up for.

How about you?  What story do you believe in?  What story will you tell?

Each generation must decide which story we believe in.  Which ideals we will live by.

 

 

 

 

 

Attitude of Gratitude

Growing up Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday. A time for adults and kids to gather around the table, enjoy each others company and eat well.

One of my favorite Thanksgiving memories is my Dad and his two brothers, Freddy and Bob cooking the Thanksgiving meal while the women visited and the kids played. Every few years they’d make the decree ‘this year the boys are cooking’. I still remember the smell of the turkey wafting from the kitchen filling the house with anticipation.

The last Thanksgiving the three brothers were together was 2000. I remember working with several cousins alongside Bob, Freddy and Norman. The location was a rented Masonic hall kitchen. In the main room approx. 50 family members gathered. Then living in Oregon, my daughter Katelyn  age 7 had travelled with me to spend this holiday with her east coast family. It was a special time to celebrate the ties that bind us one to the other. Stories were told, great food enjoyed, jokes cracked and board games played.

By the next Thanksgiving both Norman and Freddy had passed away. While that Thanksgiving was 17 years ago it remains one of my favorite memories.

 

Thanksgiving is an opportunity for memories to be made. The common element in each gathering large or small, is the choice to be grateful.

It has been said that the antidote to unhappiness in life is choosing to be grateful.

Science tells us that the regular practice of being grateful improves one’s health both physiologically and emotionally. Being grateful lowers your blood pressure and elicits dopamine, the pleasure sensor in one’s brain. When we choose to practice an attitude of gratitude we simply become happier.

Surely there’s a lot of pain and cause for worry in the world.  Yet, there’s also much to be grateful for.

Last night,  I participated in a Multifaith Thanksgiving worship service.  Our evening was a feast for the soul with wisdom gleaned from Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian and Christian traditions.  We gave thanks for the gift of community and the love of our Creator.   Psalm 133 says it so well:

How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity.

Thanksgiving reminds us to pause, break bread with family, friends (longtime and new) and take a moment and say ‘thanks’. The 14th century monk and mystic, Meister Eckhart said: “If the only prayer we ever offer is thank you, that would be enough”.  To that I say ‘amen’.

Dancing with the Devil

The great sin of our nation is racism. It has been with us since the beginning.  Think of the subjugation of Native Americans, an economy built on slavery and legalized segregation into the 1960’s.   Think of reoccurring waves of anti-immigrant sentiment in our nations history.

Racism is sometimes tamped down but always reemerges.  The latest manifestation was Charlottesville on Saturday as hundreds of white supremacists, ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis strode through the streets of this small southern city.

 

 

That many carried Trump signs is concerning. That the President initially refused to specifically condemn the hate filled messages of the white supremacists is particularly alarming.  In response he offered a general condemnation of violence with an implication that the counter marchers were equally to blame.

Certainly people voted for Mr. Trump  for many reasons.  Many I’m sure condemn the message of those who marched with torches held high.

But what is apparent to me and many others is that Mr. Trump in his run up to the election and as president, has  played to a racist portion of his base.  He has regularly played the fear card:  ‘Mexicans crossing the border are murderers and rapists’….’Muslims are Islamic extremists’…’the undocumented are raising the crime rate and must be deported’….’Obama was not born in America’….and the list goes on.

In the midst of a society that is racially and ethnically more diverse and with a shifting economy that leaves more people behind, Mr. Trump has chosen the time-honored path of a demagogue… division and fear.   Division is easier than finding a positive way forward as a united people.

The crowd that marched through Charlottesville, for the most part were outsiders to that community.  They marched through this progressive college town with a message of hate.  Carrying torches they reminded us of the KKK in the days of Jim Crow.   They shouted ‘blood and soil’ as they marched, a fascist slogan of the Nazis in pre-World War II Germany.

President Trump’s response was muted and muddy.  He chose not to condemn those who helped him get elected.

It’s been said: ‘You can’t dance with the devil and not be tainted’.

In the Bible we hear:  ‘What good is it to gain the whole world but forfeit your soul?’ (Mark 8:36).  Mr. Trump has made his choice as to what kind of man and leader he will be.  He has chosen to align himself with those who promote bigotry and division.

The choice is ours.  Who will we dance with? What kind of America do we believe in and seek to be?  Being silent or complacent is a choice with consequences too.  Who will you stand with?

On Sunday evening I gathered with approx. 200 of my neighbors.  We were brought together by a woman named Jena Beers who decided to act. Jena was horrified by the images of violence in Charlottesville.  Her heart broke as she saw a racist drive his car into a crowd of peaceful marchers, killing a young woman and injuring many more.   She decided to act.

On Sunday morning via social media she invited her community to gather that very evening,  to say no to hate and yes to love, no to racism and yes to diversity.   200 plus neighbors gathered to speak to the best part of who we are as a people. Hundreds of such groups took place in villages, towns and cities across our nation.

President Lincoln said it is incumbent upon each generation to ‘become a more perfect Union’.  Our time has come.  Who will you dance with?  What message will you add your voice to?  Who will you stand and march with?

 

 

Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!

‘Immigrants, Refugees and Undocumented, Oh My!’  Grabbing a line from the Wizard of Oz we are living in a troubling time.  Especially if you are a new immigrant or refugee and God help you if you’re undocumented.

Using a time-tested technique, President Trump and minions play the  anti-immigrant fear card to advance their political agenda.  But this is nothing new.

“New immigration” was a term from the late 1880s that came from the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants from Italy and Russia (areas that previously sent few immigrants).

Nativists http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nativism_(politics) feared the new arrivals lacked the political, social, and occupational skills needed to successfully assimilate into American culture. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a “melting pot,” or if it had just become a “dumping ground,” and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics, and culture.

 Immigration 1930 to 2000:

Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914–18) and into the early 1920s, Congress changed the nation’s basic policy about immigration.

The National Origins Formula of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States, but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. It essentially gave preference to immigrants from Central, Northern and Western Europe, severely limiting the numbers from Russia and Southern Europe, Africa and declared all potential immigrants from Asia unworthy of entry into the United States.

Underneath it all was a desire by those already here to keep America as they knew it.  Essentially ‘white’.

This specter of racism and fear of ‘the other’ has been a reoccurring theme in American history and is once again being played for all its worth by ‘nativist’ like President Trump, advisor Steve Bannon and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The antidote of course is building relationships with immigrants, refugees and undocumented neighbors.  In the past two weeks:  An undocumented refugee from Congo (who fled a war) walked into my office to ask me to pray with him.  He spoke of his fear of being deported, separating him from his wife and two-year old son (both of whom are US citizens).

I spoke with a young couple from Brazil who are here on a temporary visa but want to stay and take care of her ailing father who is a US citizen.  And, while my car was being serviced I spoke with a young legal immigrant from Egypt who pumped my gas.  He told me of ongoing insults shouted by passing motorists, calling him a ‘f***ing towel head’ and ‘go back where you belong’.

Such are the stories of  immigrants and refugees that are our neighbors.  ‘Nativists’ would have us believe that they are to be feared, that they are not like ‘us’.

The problem however, is that I’ve gotten to know their names.  Listened to their stories.  Discovered that they want the same things you and I want.  Safety and opportunity.  Their family to be healthy and happy.

Despite  prejudice and hateful rhetoric immigrants and refugees still see the United States as a refuge a place to make dreams come true.  They see what is best in us as a nation…even when we forget.

What is needed is meaningful immigration reform. Something that Congress has resisted since last initiated by Ronald Reagan.

What is needed is the wisdom of a Moses:

‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for once you too were foreigners in Egypt.” ~ Exodus 22:21