Monthly Theme: Unconditional Love
Prayer (Rev Denis)
Spirit of life and love in the universe,
Wellspring of compassion and justice;
We are once again faced with tragedy too horrible to contemplate.
We are trying not to be numbed by the constant barrage of fear and hatred
Expressed in acts of vengeance and violence.
But even as we continue breathing and trying to find our center,
We don’t know what to do.
For the longest time, we would acknowledge the hurt in others
And forge in the fire of our bellies
Our connections to those suffering.
Our compassion would be annealed by the belief
No…the surety of knowledge…
That we are all one.
That the suffering of one is the suffering of all.
We would join our hearts and minds in radical acts of collective consciousness.
Some called them thoughts.
Others called them prayers.
Whatever we called this intentional reaching out across space and time,
our goals were always the same:
To make a safe place for healing.
To provide comfort to those most affected by the horrors of terrorism
To remind ourselves that we can, that we MUST, create positive change.
But terrorism happens daily now.
Thoughts and Prayers are no longer enough.
Thoughts and prayers in times such as these have become a diversion,
A method of delaying action at the time when we are most outraged
Most called upon to fix that which is profoundly broken.
As we try to figure out what to do,
“Now is not the time,” they say
Afraid that they will be blamed for inaction.
Now is the time.
Now is the time to stop making excuses
That there is nothing we can do
That it’s all too overwhelming
Now is the time for each of us to reflect deeply
Now is the time to look within ourselves and find the source or our power
And the reasons for our complicity
The prayer we engage in is no longer a call for peace
The prayer we engage in is no longer a hope for connection
The prayer we engage in is a call to power,
To find within ourselves
The Spirit of life and love in the universe;
To find within ourselves
The Wellspring of compassion and justice.
May we, each of us, find our source of power.
And ways to end the cycle of vengeance and violence.
And if we can’t, may we find people who can hold the hope for us, and accompany us on our journey.
May we join together
Emboldened by one another
Empowered by our shared ideas
And act to make change
Action is our new prayer.
First Homily Gary Davenport
Good morning. My name is Gary Davenport and I’m honored to be your guest today. I’m from First UU Church of Youngstown, a little over an hour southeast from here. I’ve been a member there since 2011 and currently serve as Justice Ministry Coordinator.
Since 2015 I’ve been a candidate in the commissioned lay ministry program, CLM for short, which allows me to deeply focus on a specific area within my congregation and region while receiving education about our denomination and support from a mentoring minister outside of my congregation. In my case, my focus is organizing and leadership development for social justice-hence my role as justice coordinator for my church-and my mentor for the CLM is Rev. Denis.
And also with Rev. Denis, I’m a board member of UU Justice Ohio, a group of UU lay leadership and clergy who work with congregations throughout the state to organize, train, and mobilize UUs around issues of justice, equity, and equality. UUJO has acted as a network for advocacy and training opportunities and, in the last year, has been offering a lot of great, original content of its own-ask me later if you’d like to know more.
So I work in an area related to power, justice, and dignity, which we know are in miserable misbalance today, that intersects with congregations and communities, which we know serve and need opportunities for action and sanctuary. I have a story to share with you today about something that happened recently in Youngstown and how it shows this misbalance and has something to do with you, and me, what we stand for, and what we can do in a given place for people who are facing fear, uncertainty, and doubt whether it’s in the face of deportation, discrimination, violence, or any other drag on dignity.
Some of you may may have read recently about Amer Adi, called “Al” by friends, a Palestinian by birth in Jordan who immigrated to the United States almost 40 years ago when he was 19. Al had been in various stages of immigration since then, at times with a green card and at times with a work permit, with his hope ultimately being naturalization.
In the meantime, Al opened a chain of gas stations and a used car lot and raised four daughters with his wife Fidaa. By the time I met Al, he had sold his gas stations and opened a business in downtown Youngstown-something significant in my city, because we’re a food desert. The only other shop downtown was a dingy, ill-lit disaster, to put it mildly, and having a large, well-lit place with glass windows and open isles and and fresh food was nearly a revolution. It was also a big gamble, and one that paid off for Al, his family, the city by way of taxes, and so many that lived downtown and had few other options.
During his immigration process, ICE consistently used their discretion to deny movement forward for Al despite their ability to decide otherwise. They were operating within an area of the law that said the decision was theirs. To put it simply, they said no because they could say no. Al spent a couple decades in the courts asserting his desire to become a citizen, or at least obtain a new green card. He fought to do things the right way every time, his deportation
Finally, last Fall, ICE told Al that he would have to leave the United States in January, of his own accord his own but on a certain date and without question. All of his options had been exhausted. He prepared for three months, selling his home, putting his daughters into an apartment, and hiring family into management positions at his shop downtown so the business would remain even after he was gone.
When I saw him before he was supposed to go, he said it was like being in limbo. He was just waiting to go with whatever was left of his life left hanging around him.
But Al was told his departure was postponed-despite him having bought tickets out of his own picket and having sewed up everything in his personal life here-and he had to come in for another “check-in.” When he arrived for the check-in, Al was arrested and placed first at Geauga County Jail then at the detainment prison in Youngstown. And Al’s next choice was his only. And when you’re in solitary confinement, with visitors, no phone, no reading materials, no running water, and one hour out of your cell a day for a shower before you jump back into the same clothes you wore yesterday, about the only thing you can choose to do is not eat.
And here I’ll skip straight to Al’s outcome because I want to focus on the work between Al’s imprisonment and his deportation. After two weeks of not eating and plenty of public pressure, Al was taken back to Jordan 20lbs lighter, very tired, but overall healthy. The first thing he saw after getting off the plane was his mother, 90-something years old, whom he hadn’t seen in 20 years. “Bittersweet” is the word Al used. He was torn away from 40 years of his life, but being almost anywhere was better than being in solitary confinement.
So Al lost. And Youngstown lost. Al, an immigrant from Jordan who could have picked anywhere in the world to settle, had tried to settle in Youngstown and grew to matter to that place. He showed up and dug in and didn’t stop trying to better his life and his city’s until he was forced to stop. He thought he had a place in America but America thought better of it. We lost.
But one of the first and last things Al said during the last part of his debacle was this: it wasn’t just about him, it was about all the other people in his situation-all the other people being affected by an administration that values on power over others instead of valuing people. People were only as useful as they were in making examples to others. Al insisted, over and over again, the we must fight. And that’s where you and me and our congregations come in.
First UU Youngstown stood by Al during his last days here. We fell in love with him when he came to share his immigration story with us about a year before he was forced to leave the country, and we were ready to magnify his situation when the time came.
A community coalition, led by Al’s family and full of congregants, bought Al phone privileges by placing 200 people across the street from the prison for an hour. We were able to push mail through after a letter-writing vigil for Al and the ICE directors who were choosing to hold him without cause. And we were able to get visitation rights after we hosted a candle-light vigil with packed seats. We didn’t pray for Al that night, we prayed for the field director who was in charge of Al’s deportation and imprisonment.
We showed up and we dug in. And we were the only faith community to do so.
That’s right: the Unitarian Universalists in Youngstown were the only faith community to show up. The only faith community to say it’s wrong to treat a human being this way and right to love people not just for who they are, but just because they exist.
Sometimes, my fellow Unitarian Universalists, we are the only people who are willing to do what is needed, to send the message so radical that other faith communities may not be willing to say it: you matter and are deserving of love. We see you and you matter.
So Eastshore and Youngstown are both sort of oasis churches. We’re at the east ends of our geographic areas, so we’re the only place that may be available for someone in need of sanctuary, or someone in need of hearing our message. We live in times so miserably out-of-whack that saying everyone deserves the same dignity is a radical idea.
In Youngstown there are a little over a hundred of us, and we did what we could for someone who was being treated like an animal. You here matter the same way: someone is looking for you and someone needs you. You may be the only place where someone may find sanctuary or a message they need to hear.
Since Al returned home and things returned to what we usually call “normal” we wrestle with questions. For instance, what about other people in Al’s situation? What about people in Al’s situation that don’t have the community support? What about people in Al’s situation without the documentation? And what about all the people in that detainment prison? Why were we the only faith community who showed up for someone so beloved by the community? Who else should we be fighting for? Who else should we be talking to?
And when do we get to sleep?
just showing up matters
you are special because you exist in this place
there are others a step ahead and a step behind you-reach out
what happens next?
First Reading (Rev Denis)
Our first reading this morning is from The Poverty and Justice Bible, the Contemporary English Version.
It begins with a piece of Psalm 23, verses 10 and 11:
Don’t move a boundary marker or take the land that belongs to orphans.
God All-Powerful is there to defend them against you.
Editors Lamar Vest and Richard Stearns comment:
Throughout the world, land is highly valued. Good locations, fertile land, mining rights – whatever the attraction, people will do what they can to get hold of it. Governments and powerful business interests think nothing of driving people from their land, bulldozing houses, redrawing boundaries, building walls. Slums are bulldozed to make way for shopping malls, villages are flooded for the construction of enormous dams, and traditional lands are taken from those who have looked over it for generations.
So often victims are the poor who have to watch the little that is theirs being taken away from them since they are unable to afford the legal fees to fight their case.
Who will defend their rights? …
Proverbs warns against moving the stones that mark another’s land. In the world of ancient Israel, God is often understood to be a person’s next of kin, the one who can act as their redeemer. Part of the redeemer’s role was to buy back family land that had been lost. God takes that part and will fight on behalf of his family.
Who will fight for these people? Who will be their kinfolk? God will. And, perhaps, we will too. (1)
Second Reading (Gary)
Our second reading is from The Monk of Mokha, by Dave Eggers. It’s the true story of Mokhtar Alkhanshali, an American citizen whose mission has been to resurrect the coffee trade in his family’s homeland of Yemen, restoring the region of Mokha to its glory as the birthplace of coffee.
Mokhtar continued to go into tribal areas, hours or days from Sana’a, and every time he packed his dagger, and a SIG Sauer pistol. His driver had a semiautomatic rifle. When he was in more troubled or unknown districts, he brought along another man who carried an AK-47 and a grenade. None of this was unusual. There were twenty-five million people in Yemen and at least thirteen million guns-after the United States, it was, per capita the world’s most armed nation. Men wore AKs walking down the street. They brought them to weddings.
When Mokhtar was young, [his grandfather] Hamood had given him a pistol, a Colt .45, and Mokhtar still had it. Eventually he’d bought an old AK-47 and occasionally borrowed Hamood’s 1983 Krinkov. He liked to have them in the truck in case they got caught in a tribal dispute, or if someone tried to get at the cash Mokhtar strapped under his belt. Or in case they needed gasoline.
Rumor had it that those supporting the ousted Saleh bombed the petroleum pipelines. He wanted to sabotage the infrastructure, to convince the Yemeni people that things were better when he was in charge. And so gas sometimes grew scarce, prices skyrocketed and gas lines grew long. When the lines were long, tempers went hot. Someone tried to cut the line, guns were drawn, shots were fired in the air. –
Mokhtar got so used to being out in the provinces, returning to Sana’a dusty and unwashed, unshaven and dressed in a tribal way, that he forgot, momentarily, to which world he belonged. Once a week he’d be in the capital, and he’d go to the Coffee Corner Cafe, an upscale place frequented by wealthy and worldly Yemenis, and some Westerners, and there he’d use the wifi and write up his reports. (2)
Second Homily Rev Denis
Once in a while, my husband Joe and I catch up on a tv show. It’s a terrible show, so I won’t share the name with you, but will tell you that the reason we check it out is because it has incredible musical numbers. I mean musical in the Busby Berkeley, Fred and Ginger, 80’s pop video sense. But the storyline is horrible.
Except for one part of one episode.
The main character – I won’t call her a protagonist – was at the wedding of a cousin in her hometown on the opposite coast. She was complaining to the Rabbi about how she hates her hometown and can’t stand her family. The Rabbi, of course played by Patti Lupone because it is a musical after all, responded to her this way:
You are these people.
You are this place.
If you hate these people, and you hate this place, you hate yourself.
And if you hate yourself, how can you expect anyone to love you?
Something happened this week to remind me of that scene. I learned the story of Mohktar Alkanshali, a story of loving two places: the San Francisco where he grew up, and his family’s homeland of Yemen.
Mohktar’s grandfather, Hamood, left Yemen as a boy, striking out on his own after the death of his father. All he asked his older brothers for was a goat, for transportation and income. They told him he was worth less than a goat. Eventually, Hamood left Yemen, made a comfortable living for himself, built several businesses and a family in Brooklyn, New York.
Mohktar’s father, Faisal, left New York for San Francisco to strike out on his own. He and his wife Bushra rented a tiny one-bedroom apartment for their family of seven, in the Tenderloin District, the toughest, grittiest neighborhood in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Mohktar grew up stepping over people sleeping in doorways, avoiding drug deals in the streets and needles on the sidewalks, witnessing murder and other violence. But, he loved it. He thrived there, learning how to work hard and talk his way out of – or into – any situation.
He struggled as a teenager, cutting corners when he felt he had to, but he grew up to be the model citizen: tidy, respectful, law-abiding. The mosque was his anchor. The son of the Imam was one of his best friends.
Mohktar dreamt of becoming a lawyer, and was working to save money, while engaging himself in social justice and charitable work with his mosque.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, he was invited to be part of a delegation of Yemeni Americans, to travel to Washington DC and address the State Department and the White House. They didn’t get to meet President Obama, but felt like they’d been successful. Heard. Taken Seriously.
Afterward, he and the other delegates went to the Lincoln Memorial, to pay their respects and get some pictures and videos for the folks back home. A park security officer approached them, and asked them obtusely what language they were speaking.
When Mohktar responded that they were speaking Arabic, the officer asked them for their ID and disappeared. Understandably, they were nervous. The officer returned twenty minutes later, and told them they were free to go.
Mohktar was hurt. Incensed, really. He said to the officer, “after a day of speaking to important people and feeling good about our democracy, this will be my experience of DC. … If Lincoln were alive, what would he say?”
Mohktar loves this country, his country, where he was born. But everyday, people make assumptions about him based on his family’s heritage and his religion. Wrong assumptions. The same kind of assumptions Al had to contend with every day in Youngstown.
A while later, still trying to get the funds for college, Mohktar was still sleeping on the floor of his parents’ crowded apartment, working as a doorman at a new highrise where two-bedroom apartments fetched upwards of ten grand a month.
He was losing his drive, so his girlfriend mentioned a statue across the street that he had never noticed, a statue of Yemeni Monk drinking a huge cup of coffee.
That encounter led him to the discovery that the first coffee plants in the world were in Yemen, and the first person to roast and grind and brew the beans into something akin to what we drink today was a Sufi Monk living in the port City of Mokha. His name was Ali Ibn Omar al-Shadhili, represented by the statue and for generations on cans of Hills Brothers coffee.
He had no idea coffee had originated in Yemen. He learned that the quality of coffee coming out of his family’s native land was atrocious, a nameless commodity sold for cheap brands. Mohktar suddenly had purpose again: to make Yemeni coffee the best in the world. Mohktar called the man of the statue the Monk of Mokha, and the Monk of Mokha became his muse.
It was a long journey that involved learning everything there is to know about specialty coffee: how it’s produced, how it’s graded,
and how it’s sold. He made long trips to Yemen where he did whatever he had to do to learn and survive in a land where the south hates the north, city dwellers hate the hill people, religious extremists fan the hatred, and guns are everywhere.
Mohktar blended in, as he always did in the Tenderloin. He found commonality with everyone, meeting them where they were, learning their customs and dialects, all the while drawing them into the story of coffee and the promise it could offer.
He got people excited – no matter who they were – about building a future from embracing the practices of the past.
As he taught farmers how to grow coffee in a new/old way, the 2014 insurgency erupted as Houthis took over the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 12 year olds carried AK and AR rifles and played at being soldiers while everyone pretended it was normal.
Mohktar barely made it out alive, getting through checkpoints, interrogations, short imprisonments, and midnight inrusions by hooded men, finally escaping across the Red Sea in a fiber skiff that was taking on water.
But he went home did the unimaginable. He rented an apartment in that high-rise where he had worked, and from the balcony overlooking the bay, literally watched his ship come in…a freighter with a 18 tons of Yemeni coffee beans.
He visited his grandfather who had retired back to Yemen, and gave him a thick envelope of hundreds. Money for the man who was worth less than a goat.
Yemen coffee is now ranked the best in the world. Farmers are making three times what they were making before, and the brew from their beans sells for $16 a cup. It comes with a cardamom cookie made from Mohktar’s grandmother’s recipe.
Something else happened this week, that gave this story extra poignancy for me.
17 students and faculty were killed in Parkland, Florida. The event, of course, has been followed by the usual public discourse: Blaming, avoidance, name calling, and something that makes absolutely no sense to me. Increased gun sales, as if there aren’t enough. As if more will make us safer.
But something surprising is also happening after the shooting. The voices that are emerging as the loudest this time are those of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and other high schools across the country. They are saying enough is enough. They’re demanding creative solutions. Not more guns. Not walls and travel bans to keep out people like Al and Mohktar. Not talking and tweeting and blaming.
Highschoolers want answers. They want to feel like they can safely go to school in a land were southerners and northerners don’t hate each other. Where city dwellers don’t feel superior to rural folks. Where religious extremists aren’t fanning hatred.
Where they won’t be expected to carry guns as soldiers in a culture war they didn’t start and have no interest in perpetuating.
They are afraid, as I am, that that’s where we’re heading. Per capita, we have more rifles in the US than they do in Yemen, and the rhetoric of our country is getting more extreme.
It’s time for us to defend the rights and the lives of children, instead of defending our own rights to property. None of us wants the US to turn into a war torn nightmare like Yemen.
And we as Unitarian Universalists know that no god is going to do the work for us. We have to do the work. We have to be the kinfolk of the orphans and the widows. We have to be the oasis of reason in a drought of critical thinking. We have to be the place without deadly extremism, where rational people can listen to each other and do the right thing.
The Monk of Mokha has been Mohktar’s muse.
And in a funny way, Mohktar is becoming my muse, a model of hard work, meeting people where they are, and connecting through creative energy and shared hopes. In a time like this, when hope is hard to hold onto, he holds it for me, proof that a kid can grow up surrounded by violence and not only survive it, but emerge strong and loving, an agent of change.
What can we do together to make creative change? The problem is so complex, that responsible gun control is only one small step in the right direction. If we work together, so that when some are feeling depleted everyone else carries the hope for them, we’ll figure it out. We’ll find our muse. We’ll be the answer to our grandmothers’ prayers. We’ll be the manifestations of our grandfathers dreamings.
(1) Lamar Vest and Richard Stearns. P. 17 of “The Core,” in the Poverty and Justice Bible. 1995. New York, NY. American Bible Society.
(2) Eggers, Dave. The Monk of Mokha (pp. 165-166). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.p>