chalice with rainbow flame
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County

The Spirit in the Struggle

Service given by Rebecca Bryan and Miriam Axel-Lute
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County, NJ
6 December, 1998

This service was inspired by our experience last November at Fort Benning, Georgia, where we participated in a demonstration to close the US Army School of the Americas, also known as the "School of Assassins."   We are hoping that as we give this service today, we will do it in the same spirit that was moving among us that day.   We hope to invite that spirit into ourselves again so that you can feel it too.  At the center of this spirit is the memory of the people of Latin America whose lives have been taken from them by graduates of the SOA.   We bring their memory to be present with us and we sense that in a real way we are commissioned by them in the work that we do to close the School.   We invoke their presence using a tradition which we have learned from the movement to close the SOA, whose leaders brought the tradition back with them from struggling communities of faith in Latin America.   We ask you to join us in calling the martyrs' presence here to us by responding with the word 'Presente' after we speak each name.   Of course, in this context we can bring only a few names - but let them represent for us the thousands and thousands unspoken.  

[Miriam and Rebecca read alternately]
Oscar Romero
Ita Ford
Laureando Lopez
Jean Donovan
Victor Jara
Antonio Domingo
Myrna Mack
43 adults and children of Segovia, Columbia
Michael Devine
900 adults and children of El Mozote, El Salvador
Dorothy Kazel
Maura Clarke
Rutillo Grande
Andrea Villareal

I'm going to start this "sermon" in a way that might be more familiar to you as a way to start a period of meditation: by asking you to become aware of what it's like right now to be in your body.   Bring your attention to your breathing.   Feel your weight sinking down into your seat, and down into the floor through the bottoms of your feet.   Notice what sensations are present in your body right now.  Also, notice that you are not alone here.   Even though in our traditional church setup, Miriam and I are the only ones in your direct line of sight, be aware that in your peripheral vision is a community of people who are sharing this moment with you. Everything we're talking about this morning starts right here, in your feet, in your breath, in your tense shoulders...   and in the connections between you and the person across the aisle from you. From time to time during the rest of the service, you might want to bring your attention back to where you are - in your body and breath, in this room, with these people - and just check in there.   If those things all connect with what we are saying today, then we will have done our job.

The movement to close the School of the Americas, led by the organization SOAWatch, founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, is a movement unlike anything else I have encountered in my experience of activism.   (Perhaps if I were old enough to remember the Civil Rights movement, I'd have some material for closer comparisons.) But the reason that I want to share something with you this morning about what makes this movement so uncommon is that for me and for many others its difference is a very deep source of hope.   For our understanding of what is possible in the realm of social justice, and even for what is possible for an individual - the wholeness that comes from truly living what you believe - there is something here that restores faith.   I believe that the reason this movement is so different and so powerful is a religious reason.   The leaders of the movement are people of faith who have spent their lives developing an understanding of the relationship between spiritual awareness and action in the material world, and they conduct themselves in such a way that every single person who comes in contact with this movement is moved to explore that connection within themselves.   The result is a dedication to the movement which is rooted much more deeply than any based on guilt, or a sense of what "should" be done, or just anger at an injustice.   What I do for the struggle to close the SOA, I do because I know that in order to honor what is truest within myself, I must do it.   I know this not because any movement leader told me so, but because they created a space in which it was possible for me to discover it within myself.   Within this truth there may be a lesson for all of us.

But if I think that the strength of this movement lies in the connection of spirituality and action in the world, then I'd better be clear about what I mean by "spirituality." Among UU's it is likely that we have a number of different understandings of what it means to seek spiritual depth.   Some might look for it in the natural world; others might practice Buddhist meditiation, or pray.   A few lucky ones might find spiritual satisfaction in their work.   What is it that we seek in these practices?   I believe that we are seeking connection to what is truest within ourselves, to the Source inside or outside ourselves that guides us towards wholeness.   Another important thing that I think is common to all spiritual work done with integrity is that it does not separate us from the world we live in, but allows us to become more conscious of our deep connections to it and our presence in it.   The present moment is where we can experience beauty and joy.   The present moment is the only place where we can experience true connection with other human beings.   We cannot seek wholeness without coming to be fully present here, now.   Since our minds could so easily spend all our time planning for the future, reminiscing about the past, and imagining other places and possibilities, presence is something we have to practice.   This is what spiritual practice is about for me, and also what it means to many of the feminist liberation theologians who have become my teachers: the conscious practice of becoming more and more conscious of and fully present to the world of our own experience, and responding to what we find there.   For of my Christian colleagues, this presence in the here- and-now is where God is revealed in the world, through each of us.   This understanding of spirituality is also deeply connected to the sense of the sacred found in Buddhist and North American Indian spiritualities, and others.

What we're talking about today is the connection - in fact the unity - that we feel between this understanding of spirituality and the work of justice-making in the world.

What does it mean to be truly conscious of, and present to, the world around us?   There's a lot out there (and in here, even) that we'd rather not be conscious of!   To be fully present in our world means coming face to face with real suffering.   All of a sudden this spirituality thing, which we might have been thinking about as an individual endeavor, is not so individualistic anymore.   We meet our own suffering and the suffering of others.   The suffering we encounter can be both deeply personal and broadly communal.  

Being consciously present in a world of suffering leads to the conclusion that something is not right with the world as it is now.   This is true because we have a vision of the way things *should* be - like the way the African American slave churches sang about going to heaven, and what they meant was that they knew from the bottom of their hearts that the way they had to live in this world was not the life that they were created for.   Nobody had to tell them that.   And nobody has to tell us that people in Latin America were not created to live under repression and extreme poverty for the sake of our wealth.   If we are present with the knowledge of such a situation, we KNOW that our own wholeness depends on the healing of that wrong.   But what is it, then, that keeps most of us silent most of the time?

The biggest reason is that there is a LOT of suffering - much too much to take in all at once.   We have all had to choose not to think about things because we just didn't have the energy to handle them.   And we can all come up with reasons why it's easier not to be truly present in our own pain and the pain of others.   We might feel that once we began, there would be no way to get away from the hurt, guilt, frustration, burnout, the sense of powerlessness to change anything...   I know i have felt that way.   A lot.  We can't be present to all of it.   But neither can we afford to habitually close it all out, because if we do, this habit will become a wall that limits our own growth and separates us from the truth of the world and the human beings who live in it.   How can we learn to be able to see what is in front of our eyes?

For me, not being present to the realities of Latin America took its toll.   When I came back from a month in Guatemala in January 1996, it seemed like it would be cutting off a part of me to suddenly turn away from all I had learned and seen.   But yet the enormity of the poverty, the power of the military, and the effect of the U.S.  companies was so overwhelming and so disconnected from my life here.   Nothing connected.   My life was so different, so removed, that calling up the realities of suffering there was just too much - I had enough to worry about here with the pain of those around me.   But cutting that off made the rest of my activism hollow.   Rather than enjoying the Spanish language, frequently anything in Spanish touched off a burden of guilt that I had let the Spanish I knew slip away from me, that I hadn't kept in touch with my Guatemalan teachers, that I hadn't sent that email about Chiapas on.   My occasional letters to Congress were phrased in a kind of pragmatic patriotism, and also went out because they were the minimum I could do to be at peace with myself.

Standing on the hill that Sunday morning in Georgia was like no other experience I have had.   It was not like pouring out in hurt and rage onto 5th Ave over the death of Matthew Shepard.   It was not like leafletting against sweatshops in the mall.   I stood there for almost two hours with my cross Sunday morning before we walked onto the base.   The name it bore was Laurendo Lopez, from Guatemala.   I stood there letting the songs and messages and the crowd and the litany of names into me, and I was at peace.   With the tears coming, I could remember the destitution I saw and cried over almost three years ago, the barefoot child in the wet diaper recovering from pnuemonia while her mother lay feverish in a home with no door, with no money for even aspirin.   I could remember riding by plantations and beef pastures so large I almost mistook them for savannahs, and the contrast of subsistence farmers trying to grow corn on 80 degree slopes.  I could remember Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu's stories of family members tortured and killed in the most inhuman of ways, and know she was far from alone.   I could remember these things, and I could feel them, because that is what we were there to do.   We were not there to debate or argue or rage.   We were there to bear witness to what we knew was the truth, to feel it, and to bring the power of it into that place, because we had faith that that power could bring healing and justice.   My vision of closing the school hung bright and shining with the massive crowd present.

Song: By the Rivers of Babylon [Rebecca]
On the road to the SOA, there we sat down
And there we wept, when we remembered the bloodshed.
There the wicked carried us away to captivity
And they required of us a song
But how can we sing our holy song in a strange land?
So let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
Be acceptable in thy sight over all.

When the names of the victims of SOA graduates began to be read, faces appeared before my eyes.   When they sang out the name of a baby, the whole crowd quavered as they responded, 'Presente,' absorbing the shock without averting their eyes.   When they sang out the name of a 93 year old, the nun next to me drew a sharp breath and shook her head.   When they sang out someone my age, I felt a sense of connection and loss and wonderment that I was there to remember them.   We moved down the hill and towards the gates with the litany of 'Presentes' still going, carrying our crosses and forming into rows of four.   No one was thinking about the future, the past, anything else we had to do.   We were there, with our defenses down, stepping over a painted white line onto the military base where 60,000 Latin American soldiers have been trained in combat, torture, and psychological warfare.   And in the face of such things, with the stories and presences of those gone, we didn't shy away from the fact that we can so dehumanize people that they can light another person on fire, kill a baby, or rape a nun.   With that openness stunning us into solemnity, the words of Amazing Grace, as they began floating back from the front of the previously silent line, caught us in our openness with the knowledge that people can be good, too.   The words of that hymn - written by a former slave trader who survived a shipwreck and was transformed into an abolitionist - moved along a column of conscience whose beginning we couldn't see in front of us, and whose end we couldn't see behind us.   Among us were 70 people who were risking 6 months in federal prison for crossing the line for the second time.   Waiting outside were five thousand people who wished they were with us.

Song: We shall not be moved [Miriam and Rebecca]
We shall not, we shall not be moved (2x)
Just like a tree that's planted by the water,
We shall not be moved.  

No, no, no nos moveran (2x)
Como el arbol firme junto al rio,
No nos moveran.  

When the word reached us that over 2,300 people had crossed - more than twice the expected number, and so many they could not arrest us all - the jubilation was all the more powerful for the additional ghosts we had welcomed among us.

My cross bore the name of Laurendo Lopez, of Guatemala.

What was it in this situation, at this time, that allowed a kind of presence and healing that had previously been impossible?   We can't know, entirely.   But it's very important to me to think about what it might have been, because for me, this is where the hope is. There are certain things that we need before we can allow ourselves to open up to a painful reality.   I have come to understand this more clearly as the leaders of SOAWatch have met those needs for me in a way that nothing else had before.

Perhaps the most important thing, as Miriam said, was that we were able to let ourselves feel very deeply that day specifically because that was what we were there to do.   We were reminded again and again that we were there to bear witness, to be present in this place where so much evil was and to hold these people and their stories in our memories.   The pain of that remembering was not something to be overcome and pushed aside - by affirming its meaning and importance, we were able to transform the pain into the power to speak, the power to join together, the power to care, the power to take action.   Creating spaces to publicly, collectively, and intentionally be present with the reality of unjust situations is an important, and perhaps crucial, step on the path to individual and collective healing.  

But there are other important things we need, too, before we're willing to open ourselves to be present with a painful situation.   We need to be able to trust that that suffering will lead to some kind of transformation.   Suffering, in and of itself, is not redemptive.   The transformation of suffering can be.   But we need to know that transformation is possible.   Knowing that we are creating an intentional space for that purpose is one critical part of this, but we also need an idea of how it's going to work.   We need trustworthy leaders, we need enough committed people-power to know we can make something happen, even if it's starting small.   One of the most important things that the leaders of SOAWatch have done is to personally model the kind of spiritual presence that is the root of the power of this movement.   In their words and actions - whether they're being interviewed for a local newspaper or spending months in prison as the consequence of their peaceful protest - it is clear that they have given their lives to this cause not out of guilt, or an abstract ethical sense that it "should" be done, but because they are being honest to what they know of the truth of the world on a very deep and personal level.   This spiritual presence, in addition to careful attention to having accurate information, managing concrete logistical details, and keeping everyone clearly informed about what they can expect to happen, elicits an amazing amount of trust and commitment from the people of the movement.   Before crossing the line, all of us who were planning to cross attended training sessions on nonviolence, and at those sessions we repeated aloud a covenant in which we promised to act consistently with the given principles of nonviolence.   We also promised that if we had a serious disagreement with the leadership of the movement, we would remove ourselves rather than disrupt the unity of the action.   In a situation where we were risking arrest and problems with the law, we were willing to take the risk because we were putting our personal and collective fate in the hands of leaders who had shown themselves to be thoroughly worthy of that trust.  

And in the act of trusting the movement's leaders, we also created a situation in which we could trust each other.   That was a joyful feeling.   We were 2300 line-crossers, 7000 demonstrators, and we were trusting each other to do what was necessary to make this day work.   And beyond that, to keep on doing what is necessary until this school is closed.   The experience of that demonstration has allowed me to trust all of those people to be back next year if the school is not yet closed, and to work as I am working in the meantime to make sure it is closed as soon as possible.  

At this point, increasing trust and increasing commitment become cyclical.   I am willing to do more, and give more of myself, because I deeply believe that it will not be work done in vain - I have thousands of brothers and sisters doing it with me, and together we are powerful, and we will keep on working as long and as hard as necessary to close this school.   If it comes to that, I would be willing to spend time in prison for this movement.   Because my own spiritual journey has shown me that working to close the school is necessary and meaningful, Because I honor trust and commitment present among the members of this movement, And also because of the tremendous hope that the movement inspires in me, that in its success it might truly transform how we understand ourselves and how we imagine what is possible in this country.

Miriam: This is the song the group outside the gates sang to us as we returned from the park to which the military buses had brought us, bursting out with new verses to keep it going for a full hour or more...  

Song: Bright Morning Stars [Miriam and Rebecca]
1.  Bright Morning Stars are rising (3x)
Day is a-breakin' in my soul!
2.  We come from many places...  (3x)
3.  The line goes on and on...
4.  We'll close the SOA...

There is one more thing which is deeply necessary for our ability to be fully present in this kind of struggle, and it is with this note that I want to end today.   If we are to open ourselves to a painful situation, we need to be able to trust that the pain will not be so much that it will overwhelm and destroy us.   We need to have an idea of what strength it is that will carry us through.   We need to remember that being open and present brings not only pain, but also great beauty and joy, and authentic connection with other people on our journey.  

My experience working with the movement to close the SOA is a testament to this truth.   Even though the campaign to close the School of the Americas brings us face to face with things we'd rather not know about, it has also given us the capacity to know a powerful goodness.   We have felt our grief and helplessness and isolation transformed into the power to speak, the power to join together in solidarity, the power to take action.   And because of that transformation, suddenly everything felt more real! I can still remember what it felt like to stand there, surrounded with people, with the sun on my back.   And what it felt like to sing out in full voice, joining thousands of other voices.   And what it felt like to dance in celebration after we returned safely from our adventure with the military police.   I felt alive.   Even though I had poured out a great deal of my energy to travel the physical and emotional distance to be here, I received even more life-giving energy in return.

This is probably the most important lesson that we wanted to share with you today - we have experienced the truth that when we take the risk to be truly present with the world around us, we open ourselves not only to pain, but also to very deep and authentic hope and joy which are more than enough to make it all worthwhile.