Archive for February, 2014

Community: A Home We Build Together

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Faith Leaders demonstrate in front of the White House; Dr. Dharmaraj kneels in the front row.A few weeks ago, on President’s Day, two Bishops, a General Secretary and several of us from The United Methodist Church were arrested, handcuffed and thrown in jail as we sang songs and knelt in prayer for immigrants’ rights before the White House. Nine others and I were put in a  6’ X 9’ cell with nothing but our clothes on our bodies.

As an active member of the Task Force set up by the action of the General Conference and Council of Bishops, I have heard many horror stories about the despondent plight of undocumented immigrants. The tipping point came to me recently from two fronts: No abatement in the forceful deportation of 1100 people every day which splits children and families, and the monetary and sexual exploitation of some immigrants who want to stay in the country in order to place food on their family’s table.

As National President of the Asian Federation, I keep my ears on the rail to listen to the stories of Asian immigrants. Not too long ago, a parent of two children was forced to offer sexual favor in order to stay for a little more time in the country. Upon further investigation, I found out that it was not an isolated case. Undocumented immigrants are extremely vulnerable and targets of exploitation and criminalization.

The issue of Immigration is an area fraught with complexity. Many factors contribute to human migration. They are broadly summarized under two categories: pull-factor and push-factor. Pull factor involves migration to a new place or a region on account of better jobs and for economic reasons available there. The push factor involves an escape from poverty, oppression and persecution. Walls and harsh policies could not keep people from seeking better opportunities or a way out of cruelty.

Since 1990s, the onset of globalization, fast travel and advanced technology have transformed not only the quality of life but also shattered self-enclosed boundaries. Mass migration ceaselessly continues from multiple access points – air, land and sea. For the first time in the history of humanity, a world-community without a world-state is being formed. Consequently, we are compelled to re-orient our lives, our world-view and missional engagements along a “local-global axis.”

In the U.S. there is a vast population of undocumented immigrants living among us.  The people we might once have called the Other are now in our neighborhood, maybe in our home, in our bed or maybe in ourselves. In this context, what our church needs today is not necessarily brilliant minds but compassionate hearts. It is the relationship with the Other, which makes us properly human, and that is open minded and kindhearted.

We need a comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes the hardships and contributions of people moving here, that keeps families together here in this country, and creates a rational process of citizenship for new Americans. That will do more for the United States than expensive and impractical approaches like trying to deport millions of people, or trying to wall off a 2,000-mile border.

Our broken immigration system has spawned a thriving market for smugglers and exploiters, has generated chaos. A seemingly random enforcement policy targets ordinary immigrant workers and families, which wreaks havoc among children and youth who were born and raised in the US.  

Well-meaning Christians often say that undocumented workers are breaking the law by either overstaying their visa or entering “illegally.” They quote fuzzy statistics, cite drunk or criminal immigrants, and display negative portraits of them. They often paint with a broad brush, that many of the immigrants are violent and criminals. 

In the book Such is Life the writer brilliantly presents a tension between the law of society and a more universal sense of right and wrong, very much like the tension which exists in our society today, especially in matters of immigration policy. Steve Thompson, one of the lead characters, describes the injustice of his situation. “I’m sick and tired of studying why some people should be in a position where they have to go out of their way to do wrong, and other people are cornered to that extent that they can’t live without doing wrong,  and can't suicide without jumping out of the frying-pan into the fire.”

Many immigrants are here primarily to provide food for their families very much like Joseph’s brothers who crossed borders to Egypt to fill their sacks with grain in order to feed those at home. Some among us have become accustomed to the cruelties and injustices surrounding us and are untroubled by them unless they trouble us directly. Trapped in the closed circles around sameness, some among us still fail to explore the mysteries of pain, death and loss.

As members of the Immigration Task Force, we are engaged in justice ministries neither to win nor defeat. Not even to make a difference, albeit it would be good. We stand for our Christian conviction and mission principle even as we are daunted by the enormity of the immigrants’ grief. As a faith community, we live in justice and mercy, compassion and righteousness, commitment and charity. Therefore, we commit ourselves to a proposition that reason and persuasion are the only acceptable ways through this impasse.

The members of the Task Force are aware that we are not obligated to complete the task but neither are we to free to abandon it. Collectively, we as a group have developed the art of hanging-in-there by standing in solidarity with the weak and vulnerable when their future is in the balance and press on until no family is broken without fair hearing or disrupted by forceful deportation.

The members of the Task Force are committed to playing a creative and responsible role in these changing times. This involves a change of heart, a repositioning of what we consider valuable, and an appreciation of now as an inner moment, a moment that can inspire change.

Finally, we acknowledge that we cannot achieve our goal alone. It is a collective endeavor. Hence we join hands with all Kingdom workers to celebrate life, not death. For many immigrants can cope with death but not life in the current form. It is not death that defeats them but life in limbo that disgraces them. We are convinced that a community is a home we build together.

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Dr. Jacob DharmarajJacob Dharmaraj, Ph.D. is Vice President for Advocacy of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. He authors books and lectures on the topics of faith, colonialism, and ministry across cultures.

Jacob Dharmaraj, Ph.D. is Vice President for Advocacy of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. – See more at: http://um-insight.net/perspectives/a-voice-from-below%3A-an-asian-american-perspective-on-general-conference/page-2.html#sthash.KVotbBg2.dpuf

 

Jacob Dharmaraj, Ph.D. is Vice President for Advocacy of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. – See more at: http://um-insight.net/perspectives/a-voice-from-below%3A-an-asian-american-perspective-on-general-conference/page-2.html#sthash.KVotbBg2.dpuf

Mondelez Outsources Plant: Nabisco Jobs Leave Philadelphia for Mexico

Monday, February 24th, 2014

Nabisco Logo with the word "outsource" on the inside. On February 19, my 17-month-old son went to his first protest.  A number of people, including politicians, union representatives from around the country and employees of the Nabisco Plant in Northeast Philadelphia gathered to let Mondelez International know that they are outraged by the decision to close the iconic Philadelphia factory, which will leave about 350 people without jobs, including my husband.   As a pastor in Philadelphia, I am constantly preaching about kingdom-building.  As parents we are trying to raise our son as ethically as we know how and we want him to know that what corporations like Mondelez do to employees is not ethical. 

Mondelez, Kraft, and Nabisco are one in the same.  Kraft bought out Nabisco, then the company split into Kraft and Mondelez last year.  They make billions annually. 1.8 billion went to their share holders last year and their CEO took home $29 million, not including use of the company jet.  This is not a company that is hurting for money.  “This is a case of corporate greed on steroids,” State Representative Brendan Boyle said in the press conference held during the rally, “They brag about how much money they are making.”   He later wrote, “The decision to close the plant is a shocking window into the motives and agenda of Mondelez International and an example of the threat which outsourcing poses to working class families.”

Mondelez claims the production that will leave Philadelphia will go to strengthen the other east coast plants; however, the production lines that have already been leaving the factory in the past year have been going to the plant in Monterrey, Mexico.  Dan Melendez, Chief Stewart of the Philadelphia Nabisco Plant, informed me that the factory in Mexico has 2000 workers, which all make just over $3.00 an hour and they receive no benefits.  American Mondelez employees make $23 an hour on average, receive excellent benefits, a pension and a 401K. 

Kraft laid off 1600 American and Canadian employees when the company split and will lay off hundreds more within the year.  In response to the negative reactions about the Philadelphia plant closing, Mondelez reassures the public that they are going to invest in their other east coast plants.  What they are leaving out is that their investment is in new machines that will cause the lay off of more American workers. 

While all of this is happening, Dan Melendez said, Mondelez is investing $600 million to build the world's largest cookie plant in Mexico.  At low wages and no benefits, Mondelez is in effect, opening the biggest cookie sweat shop in the world.  It is slated to open at the same time the Philadelphia plant will close.  Ted Constable, of Local 358 in Richmond Virginia, added that the new plant will be built closer to the Texas border in a free trade zone, meaning no inspections and no guarantee in quality.  Corporations that build in free trade zones are given tax breaks, so, “as tax-payers, we are paying to get rid of our own jobs,” Melendez pointed out. 

Quote-box containing Dan Melendez statement.In addition to the unethical ways Mondelez is treating their employees, with no environmental laws, they can dump whatever they want into the water, causing further pollution to the earth.  That water is then put into the products in the factory.  On the bullhorn, John Lazar, a representative of the local union, asked passers-by, “Oreos will be made in Mexico, do you know what's in the water?”  He also stated in the press conference that “there is not one Fig Newton or Graham Cracker made in the U.S. anymore, they are all made in Mexico.”  After the new factory opens many more products will be produced in Mexico.    

State Senator Mike Stack and other elected officials stated they would boycott Kraft/Nabisco products.

Many people at the protest were discussing how big corporations, like Mondelez, are tearing apart the American middle class.  State Representative Kevin Boyle said, “it's a betrayal of the middle class, a betrayal of the American dream.” Constable said it's “unethical for them to strip the middle class from the U.S.  It's hurting American families.”  Zach Townsend of the Atlanta plant said, “It's a sad day for a lot of people because it means a loss of their house, and for some no college for their kids.”  

 State Representatives Boyle issued a statement, "It is clear, through their decision not to consider our offers and invitations, that Mondelez International’s decision to close the factory at Roosevelt and Byberry was driven by profits over people.”

Zach Townsend said the reason he came to the protest all the way from Atlanta was because, “this isn't a one-stop situation, it's an ongoing process.  If we don't stand up today, all of the jobs will be in Mexico.  We're not asking for anything special, just to keep our jobs.”

Edward Burpo of the Chicago plant also came out to support his brothers and sisters in Philadelphia, saying, “We as Americans want to work and want the company to keep production in America.” 

Everyone, not just Americans, have the right to a living wage, but that is not what Mondelez is ensuring for anyone.  They are paying their Mexican workers an unfair wage with no benefits, and they are cutting thousands of good-paying jobs in America.  We want to raise our son to be successful, but not at the cost of others.  I don't mind that my son didn't inherit my fiery red hair, but I hope he inherits my fiery spirit for justice.  This was his first protest and it won't be his last.  Even when it may seem hopeless, we will always fight to build the kingdom because it is what each and everyone of us are called to do. 

Wondering what you can do? Boycott all Kraft/Nabisco products made in Mexico (on the nutrition information panel it will say Made in Mexico).  Every purchase of one of these products is a vote supporting Mondelez.  Call 847-943-4000 and tell Mondelez you do not support them and will not buy their products that are Made in Mexico.

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Rev. Julia SingletonJulia Singleton is a mom, wife, pastor and advocate for social justice.  She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from La Salle University, her M.Div. from Drew Theological School and is currently serving a church in Philadelphia, PA.  

Getting It Right: A Reflection on the Church and Civil Disobedience

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

Provided by UMNS, 2014.

(Photo by UMNS, 2014)

While most of Washington, DC was reveling in a federal holiday and hoping no more snow would come before the start of the work week, the Holy Spirit was moving faith leaders to action yesterday. A group of about 60-70 people (the largest I’d seen for a strictly faith-based gathering in front of The White House) gathered in Lafayette Park to witness to the Executive Office, calling for President Obama to use his authority to expand the deferred action for childhood arrivals and end deportation of immigrants who have sought safety and stability in the United States.

The current administration will soon reach 2 million deportations of undocumented persons. Those who have been detained and deported are separated from their families. These families, now separated, continue to struggle for economic survival.

Immigration, deportation, and economic self-sufficiency are concerns of faith leaders because people of faith are affected by these concerns. Congressional call-in campaigns, face-to-face meetings with elected officials in their home areas, and talks to President Obama and his administration have not led to ending deportations. And so yesterday more than 30 faith leaders knelt in prayer in front of The White House in an act of civil disobedience and a witness to the world.

I wasn’t part of those 30. I can’t speak for their experience of kneeling in front of The White House, singing and praying. I stood with another 30-40 people who were moved away from the “postcard zone” by US Park Police. We were separated from those who chose to be arrested by barricades and police tape. A horseback unit flanked one side of the area; containment vans flanked the other side.  Separated from our courageous siblings in faith, we sang and we chanted and we prayed.  Some of those who were eventually arrested are leaders in The United Methodist Church, clergy and laity working for just immigration reform: Bill Medford from the General Board of Church and Society, Carol Barton and Harriett Jane Olson of United Methodist Women to name a few.  Kneeling front and center were two bishops of our Church: Bishop Julius Trimble of the Iowa Annual Conference and Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the California-Pacific Annual Conference.

Those thirty minutes, while arrests were being made, while praying and chanting and singing abounded – those thirty minutes provided a glimpse of what God’s world could be. Clergy and laity were engaged in action together. The documented and undocumented were taking a risk for one another. Queer and non-queer recognized that LGBT rights expand beyond the realm of marriage equality and that marriage equality opens our eyes to the need for immigration reform. The young and the old were in solidarity: When the chanting died down and we couldn’t figure out what to sing fast enough, one 5 year old girl atop a mound of snow led us by shouting “Tell Me What Democracy Looks Like!” Indeed, a little child shall lead them.

In those thirty minutes, I not only gave thanks for those who were arrested, but I gave thanks for grace that stirs our hearts and minds and hands and feet. I gave thanks for a Church that, though we sometimes get it wrong, was getting it right.

We can continue to get it right again, you know? United Methodists in the United States can continue to put pressure on The White House through emails and phone calls, and our Congressional representatives by visiting them in their offices every time they’re home on break. United Methodists around the world can continue to ask that our Book of Discipline reflect God’s love for all people, not just some. And United Methodists can write, call, and email their bishops (yes, friends we can and should do that) to let them know that we are proud of the Methodist tradition which requires our Episcopal leaders to be a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering world through the tradition of social holiness (2012 Book of Discipline, ¶404).

As one friend stated yesterday, “I was proud to be a United Methodist again.”

It’s true, you know, because we were being the Church at our best.  Let us continue to be our best as we live into God’s call to love our neighbors, to welcome the stranger, and to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

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Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.

Do. Love. Walk.: A Sermon at the United Methodist Building

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014

Camp Horseshoe. Tucker County, West Virginia. 

This is where I first came to know God the summer of my 16th birthday. 

The flowing creek with stone smoothed from centuries of weathering where we slid along with the rapids on lazy afternoons; the mountain which we hiked and the meadow of the top that showed forth beauty in the early morning hues of pink and purple and blue; and the call and response song we often sang,

            “God has shown me,

            O People,

            What is good and what the Lord requires of thee.

            Is to do justice,

            and to love mercy,

            and to walk humbly with thy God.”

Even though I’m a terrible singer, I still get chills remembering 100 teenagers singing this song together on a summer’s evening, the valley aglow with fireflies with the drone of the cicadas providing a prayer to match our own.

These were moments in which I knew I was loved by a God who painted the skies and carved the creeks.

These were moments in which I knew I was loved by God, in all my humanness.

These were moments in which I knew that God was calling to me, and I could do nothing but respond.

Theological education, however, took all that beauty and poetry of my most formative faith experience and crushed them in a ball. Thankfully, theological education also helps us put all the pieces back together and smooth the crinkled edges of our faith.

Depending on the biblical translation you choose, you get a variety of words for the infamous passage in Micah 6:8.

            Seek justice.

  Do justice.

            Act justly.

            Love kindness.

            Love mercy.

            Love tenderly.

AHHHH – so many different translations with so many different meanings! The only thing that everyone seems to agree on is that we should walk humbly with God! Thankfully, a bit of context and word study can go a long way.

Us justice-seeker, do-gooder types really like to use this passage of Scripture as a rallying cry. It makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, right?

Well, the prophet Micah wasn’t about the feels, as the kids say these days.

The first three Chapters of this very short book are pretty much proclamations of gloom and doom against the behavior of the leaders of Israel. Disaster is looming and Micah is alerting the people.

The prophet laments – good prophets do that I hear – and points out why the gloom and doom is coming: the wealthy and the powerful are seizing property and possessions from the poor and the powerless.  Rulers and the ruled are in this mess together, too.

Eventually, Micah stops lamenting and offers some direction to the people.

The prophet starts by calling the people to plead their case in the presence of God’s creation.

Micah continues by stating what God has done for the people:  freedom from captivity, sending of leaders and prophets, the salvation and redemption of God’s people.  The people, as we tend to do, whine and complain that offerings have been made. A pronouncement is given that encompasses more than ritual and ceremony, but calls the people to lives of justice and righteousness. To recognize their deliverance is wrapped up with one another.

Justice, in the Hebrew text, is mishpat.  So often we think of justice in legal terms, and indeed the prophet Micah’s own words seem to be setting up a legal indemnification of the people of Israel. But there’s a distinct difference between legal justice and moral justice.

In fact, in American Sign Language there are two signs for justice. A mishpat is a re-ordering of the world to set the world right again. Just because someone “gets justice” in a court of law doesn’t mean that the world is set right again: it’s about restoration instead of retribution. God doesn’t seek malice against God’s people; God seeks their wholeness.

Mishpat is a word of action. You don’t just wish for it or hope for it. You actually work for it. Mishpat becomes your passion.

Do justice.

Justice, however, is never acted upon in a vacuum. The first thing I learned in seminary was this: “Context, context, context!”

Sometimes we have a habit of turning the macro-level issues of justice to a micro-level and calling it mercy. Our Wesleyan heritage encourages us to engage in acts of justice and acts of mercy. But too often we separate those acts. We compartmentalize them.

I propose there is a symbiotic relationship between acts of justice and acts of mercy. The word is Hebrew is hesed – and it’s often translated as kindness. Neither kindness nor mercy gets at the root meaning of hesed. Hesed has to do with love and faithfulness. It has to do with relationship.

Relationship moves us from the heady work we often do around justice “issues” and helps us live lives rooted in the real injustices in this world. It breaks us from our ivory towers and comfortable offices and begs us to get our hands dirty. Hesed – loving kindness – is that in-breaking reality.

Do justice. Love kindness.

The really cool part about mishpat and hesed – is that they really only work when they’re together. Can you imagine if Fred Astaire dancing without Ginger Rogers? Macklemore without Ryan Lewis? The Captain without Tennille? Well, you get my point…

When doing justice and loving kindness meet, there we journey with God, because God is in the mixed up muck of life.

Sometimes that walk is because we’ve experienced some form of injustice in our lives. Or maybe because of a close friend or family member’s experience.

But there are times when we’re able to see the bigger picture of how interconnected our lives are – or as Dr. King so eloquently stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It’s important for me to remember that in the work I do, sometimes the best thing I can do is not speak against someone else’s injustice, but to accompany others and empower them to use their own unique voice for justice.

Our Gospel reading today reminds us of those blessed voices who are part of our lives: the poor, the meek, the merciful; the peacemakers, the persecuted, the wrongly accused. Walking humbly with God means we allow our lives to be shaped by these blessed voices.

In his book, Accompanying, Staughton Lynd reflects on how Archbishop Oscar Romero’s passion for the people of El Salvador helped liberation theology move from a preferential option for the poor to companionship with the poor as they began to organize themselves and claim their unique voice and experience. This is walking humbly with God (and God’s people).

Hunger and homelessness are often the ways good church people understand poverty in contemporary American society. Donating canned goods to food banks is a worthy cause – and I give thanks to those who did in the great Seattle vs. Denver contest among United Methodists this past weekend. But those donations, for many, aren’t connected to the lives of hungry people in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.

My prayer is that those super Methodists will take time before the next Super Bowl and get to know the experiences of the poor and the hungry in their neighborhood, and then be compelled to join those neighbors in advocating for a world in which hunger and poverty are addressed in concrete ways by their elected officials and community leaders.

Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God (and God’s people).

It’s so easy to think we’re doing it all right, but the toughest part is that you really can’t pick and choose from this list. We have to do all three. At once.

The reality is that sometimes we walk stumbly with God more often than we walk humbly.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m more of a stumbler on most days. Thankfully the prophet Micah holds all of these things in tension: justice/mercy; walking/stumbling; judgment/hope.

We do justice and love kindness because God has called us to walk carefully in the ways God has set before us.  When we forget that our grounding for social change is theological, we risk putting ourselves first instead of God and God’s people.

Even on those summer nights amidst the babbling creek, the fireflies, and the cicada drone, God was calling to me, to my friends, to you, to the world.

The mountains and valleys of Appalachia are holy ground for me because they remind me that my walk with God isn’t disconnected from poverty and powerlessness. Where are your holy places that remind you of your call to do justice and love kindness? Where will your walk with God taken you and where will it lead you?

Amen.

 

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Preached during Wednesday Worship at Simpson Chapel, The United Methodist Building. Chett Pritchett serves as the executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA). Chett is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary and completed post-graduate studies at Drew University. “Seminary trained, but not ordained,” Chett is a member of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington, DC and currently serves as a lay member of the Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference.

 

 

 

 

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