Category Archives: Human Rights

10 Dec #Cry #AdventWord 2018

10 Dec #growThe Advent devotional project, #AdventWord  is offered by the Society of St John the Evangelist. Each day a word is provided and participants are invited to share images and/or reflections and to use hashtags so our reflections may be included in an Advent Calendar with others from around the world.

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Filed under Photo, Human Rights, New York, United Nations, Advent

Human Rights Day, Seventy Years On

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This year is the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations on 10 December 1948. The Universal Declaration – translated into a world record 500 languages – is rooted in the principle that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

The Declaration, and the commitment of UN Member States to affirm and implement its principles, has resulted in the dignity of people uplifted, untold human suffering prevented and the foundations for a most just world have been laid in the treaty regime built upon the Declaration. It is both an aspirational, visionary document and a set of standards that permeates international law.

The Declaration articulates a vision that has been built upon and used to extend rights and protect people around the globe. In a world where exploitation and violation are so strong, we can be grateful for the many ways in which the Declaration has had an impact. Its successes are many.

At the same time, violations of international law and human dignity are perpetrated in many countries. In a report released on Friday, a team of experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council noted that:

Recent memory is replete with multiple examples of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Impunity reigns supreme in many countries undergoing conflicts or political upheavals, encouraged by narrow national objectives, geopolitics and political impasse at the United Nations Security Council.

The report expressed concern that an “upsurge of nationalism and xenophobia seen in countries of asylum, at a time of rising forced-migration” is “reversing the gains of international humanitarian cooperation of the last 70 years.”

UN News notes that :In honour of the 70th anniversary of this extraordinarily influential document, and to prevent its vital principles from being eroded, the UN is urging people everywhere to “Stand Up for Human Rights”.

One way to do that is to  choose a place in the world where human rights are abused (including in the United States of America) and become informed. Take one action today that affirms and celebrates the worth and dignity and rights of others.

See you along the Trail.

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Filed under Human Rights, Death Penalty, Current Events, Antiracism, United Nations

8 Dec #Alert #AdventWord 2018

8 Dec #Alert

The Empty Chair memorial in Juneau, Alaska provides a poignant reminder of the need to stay alert to protect our rights and the rights of others.

The Advent devotional project, #AdventWord  is offered by the Society of St John the Evangelist. Each day a word is provided and participants are invited to share images and/or reflections and to use hashtags so our reflections may be included in an Advent Calendar with others from around the world.

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Filed under Advent, Human Rights, Photo, Travel

Throwing off Cloaks or Be Like Bart

Mark 10:46-52
28 October 2018
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. Mark Koenig

46They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 

IMG-8424Bartimaeus – the son of honor. Once could see. Lost his sight. Encountered Jesus. The crowd tried to keep him away. Jesus called Bartimaeus to him. The man who was blind threw off his cloak and went to Jesus. After a conversation, Jesus healed him. He regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. Remember Bartimaeus who threw off his cloak. We will come back to him.

Events of the week rocked my world.

People make up a significant part of our worlds. Family. Friends. Members of Christ’s body. They touch and enrich us.

Values make up a significant part of our worlds. Faith in Jesus Christ. The principles which guide us.  The practices by which we act.

Places make up a significant part of our worlds. Places we have lived. Places we have visited. Places that shape and form us and give us meaning. In the words of Archibald Graham, the one-time baseball player who found his true calling as a doctor in small-town Minnesota in the movie Field of Dreams, “This is my most special place in all the world. Once a place touches you like that, the wind never blows so cold again. You feel for it, like it was your child.

People. Values. Places. Events rocked all three of those parts of my life this week.

People. On Wednesday my brother’s father-in-law had died. Charles Wilt – Chuck as we all called him – had been ill for a while, but still his death was a bit unexpected. He worked for state of Pennsylvania on water safety. I saw him at every family gathering. He was a kind, gentle, thoughtful man with one flaw. He liked Notre Dame football. He was buried yesterday wearing Notre Dame socks. It was a blessing to know him.

Values. Today we mark Reformation Sunday. We Presbyterians trace our roots in the Reformed tradition to John Calvin.

John Calvin followed Jesus and knew that Jesus was a refugee. Fearing what Herod might do, Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to Egypt for safety (Matthew 2:13-15). Calvin was French, he left his home and went to Switzerland where he eventually found a leadership role among the followers of Jesus in Geneva.

These itinerant experiences of our ancestors have made welcome an important value for my understanding of what it means to follow Jesus and to be in ministry. The separation of families at our border grieves me. What impact does that have on the parents and children involved? What does that say about us as a nation that such separations have happened and continue?

Many responses to the people coming from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and other countries grieve me. People are leaving their homes and making a perilous journey to what they perceive as greater safety. “These individuals are largely asylum seekers, families of people who are seeking safety. How we react to them says a lot about how we value them as human beings,” said Teresa Waggener, immigration attorney for the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues. How we react to them says even more about who we are as human beings. For whatever reason they flee their homes, they all have rights under international law. They all have a claim on us as people made in the image of God. What does it say about us as a nation that our leaders encourage us to respond with fear rather than to love?

By training, Calvin was an attorney. He believed that God is God, as I heard in a sermon last week. God is God. And God is God of all of life. We follow Jesus in all our living. Every part. That includes our public life – our life together – the ways in which policies are made and implemented. Calvin referred to the office of “civil magistrate” – the authorities – as the “most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.

While I have never had the desire to be a civil magistrate or to run for public office, I have long understood advocacy as part of my calling as a follower of Jesus and a teaching elder in the Presbyterian church. This involves communicating with elected officials and supporting positions on issues. It does not involve publicly supporting any individual candidates. I will encourage you to vote. I will never say vote for a specific individual. But I will say vote.

My heart broke in June 2017 when a gunman opened fire on Republican congress people as they practiced on a baseball field. My heart broke this week as I learned that pipe bombs described by the FBI as “potentially destructive devices” were mailed to people across the country. The recipients include Democratic public officials, former government employees, and a funder of progressive candidates and causes. Any political violence – in whatever form, be it overt or subtle – tears at my values and rips at our society.

Places. On Wednesday, Mr. Maurice Stallard and Ms. Vickie Jones were killed at a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. Race played a role in the killings. Mr. Stallard and Ms. Jones were African-American. The shooter is white. He tried to enter an African-American Baptist Church before going to the Kroger. I lived in Jeffersontown for six years when I worked in Louisville. My go-to grocery store was the Kroger on Taylorsville Road where Mr. Stallard and Vickie Jones were killed.

Yesterday, a shooting took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. 11 people are reported to have been killed and 4 police officers and two others wounded. The gunman reportedly made anti-Semitic remarks during the shooting. In addition, his social media account indicates his anti-Semitism. It is also reported he expressed criticism of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) for its work with immigrants and refugees. The link between HIAS and the Tree of Life remains unclear; one report indicates the synagogue recently hosted a HIAS event.

I noted that the names of those killed at the Tree of Life had been released shortly before our service but I had not been able to find them. Clerk of Session Lisa Sisenwein did so during the service and I read the names:

Squirrel Hill is a neighborhood in Pittsburgh. It’s Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. He lived there. A Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers was not a member of a congregation. But he was an active participant in Sixth Presbyterian Church, located about  a 10-minute walk from the synagogue. On Saturday evening, Sixth Presbyterian Church hosted an interfaith prayer vigil with neighbors – neighbors – of all faiths and no faith. While I never actually lived in Pittsburgh, I spent most of my early life in Western Pennsylvania – within the orbit of Pittsburgh. It remains one of my “most special places.” When pushed to name a place as home, I reference Pittsburgh.

Events of the past week rocked the people, values, and places of my world. Perhaps these or other events rocked your world.

What do we do? What do we who follow Jesus do in times such as these?

We grieve.  We weep.  We rail and rant and rave.  Sometimes we grieve hard.

IMG-8432We pray. We light candles. We make music and sing songs, even when they are cold and broken Hallelujahs. As another Leonard, Bernstein in this case, once said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.

We remember.

We remember that, as challenging as life becomes, God is God and God is with us. God never promises to make life go the way we would like. God never promises a life free of pain and struggle. What God promises is God’s presence. In all things. Whatever life brings.  God holds us . . . strengthens us to rebuild . . . frees us to care for one another . . . inspires us to work for new beginnings . . . God loves us . . . God leads us to new life.

We remember Jesus. Jesus knew the sorrow and pain of this life. He lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire He encountered sickness and hunger. His earthly life ended in arrest, torture, and execution. And his closest friends? His followers? One betrayed him. One denied him. Others fled from him. Only the women remained.

But, God raised Jesus from death to life overcoming the power of sin and death. In so doing, God affirmed Jesus’ life and witness that we are made for each other. We are made to be loved. We are made to be love.

We remember the followers of Jesus. The disciples through the centuries. Those who took in the spirit of Bartimaeus, I told you he would be back. We remember the people who heard the call of Jesus and jumped up and threw off their cloaks and followed him.

This seems a particularly appropriate day to remember Jesus’ followers. Today we celebrate 147 years of witness and ministry by that part of Christ’s body known as the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone. We stand in the long tradition of followers of Jesus. Particularly, we stand in the tradition of those good folk who threw off their cloaks and followed Jesus in Queens. Some are long gone, and we follow in their footsteps. Others sit in the pews around us. We remember that today. And we give thanks that we do not have to work alone.

Because after we grieve and after we remember, we have work to do. As Rabbi Rick Jacobs said, the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue, and other attacks on places of worship and acts of hate, reveal that “the fabric holding our nation together is fraying. It is our task to ensure that it does not come apart.” We have work to do.

We need to challenge speech that is hateful or that incites violence when we hear it expressed. Words do not pull the trigger on guns. Words do not build explosive devices. But words create an atmosphere in which some people think it is OK to build and send bombs and shoot guns. Pastor Gregory Bentley reminds us that “Words create worlds. The power of life and death is in the tongue. Choose life and speak life!” When we hear words that express hate or stoke violence, we need to find ways to respond. We can tell the President and other public servants to stop the hate. We can stand up to bullies. We can refuse to laugh at jokes or comments that demean or degrade.

We need to recognize that all people are made in God’s image. All people are precious to God. Anti-Semitism, white supremacy, patriarchy, nationalism, racism, sexism, homophobia and other prejudices and systems that divide us and that say some have people have more value than others, cannot go unconfronted. When we find ourselves in gatherings where someone says something racist or anti-Semitic or homophobic or otherwise hateful, those of us who hear can no longer look at each other uncomfortably. This has to end. We – I – have to find the courage to disrupt such thinking whether it is our living room or on the Internet or at public events. We must also work to dismantle the systems build on such lies. The Rev. William Barber tweeted “I am reminded of what Dr. King said after four little girls were murdered in an Alabama church: ‘we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderer.’

We need to learn about the issues we face. The Presbyterian Peace Fellowship has created a resource about addressing gun violence. We could do a study about that if we wanted to do so. Our Presbyterian Office of Public Witness and Office of Immigration have made available resources to help us learn about the people fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. A few copies of those resources are on the table in Fellman Hall. We can make more. Various organizations including the Presbyterian Church can help us address racism. More Light Presbyterians and others provide insight and support for overcoming the oppression of our LGBTQ siblings.

We can welcome each other. We can share our condolences and support with our Jewish friends. Or we can make the effort to make Jewish friends.

We can give. I made a small contribution to Muslims Unite for Pittsburgh Synagogue, a fund started by Muslims in Pittsburgh to help with the expenses faced by families who had a loved one killed or wounded in the shooting. I am happy to tell anyone who might like to consider making such a gift. I know that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is in conversation with Pittsburgh Presbytery and may provide opportunities for giving. But there is something immensely satisfying to me to be a Christian contributing to a fund organized by Muslims to reach out to a Jewish community in the aftermath of religious violence that can strike any faith community.

We can reach out to our African-American friends. We can reach across the wondrous diversity that God creates and build the community for which God creates us, for which Jesus redeems us, and for which the Holy Spirit inspires us. To adapt a statement by Paul Brandeis Raushenbush of Auburn Seminary, this is time for “people of all faiths [and no faith] to come together, reject the hate and work for the future of our nation where there is no supremacy by any one group, and all are welcome, there is equity for all and that the tree of life bears fruit for all.”

To do that, we double down on love. It might be tempting to withdraw from the world around us. To try to create insulated pockets of safety. To circle the wagons and hunker down. To make it through life as individuals. Safe and secure.

But Jesus revealed that God does not make us for isolation. God does not make us to live as individuals. God does not make us for safety and security. Jesus revealed that God makes us for relationships. God makes us for love.

And as Lin-Manuel Miranda, speaking as he received a Tony award about twenty-four hours after the horrific slaughter of members of the LGBTQ community at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando:

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

In the face of difficult days and troubling events that shake our worlds, we have the opportunity to be like Bart. To hear the call of Jesus and throw off our cloaks and with hearts shattered in pieces and tears streaming down our faces and voices cracking with emotion and knees knocking with fear, to love one another, to love everyone as disciples of Jesus. To love fiercely. To love graciously. To love, by the grace of God, as well as we are able. May it be so. Amen.

 

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, Family, First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Friends, Gun Violence, Human Rights, Louisville, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

We Won’t Be Erased

Alex Patchin McNeill, Executive Director of More Light Presbyterians, has written a powerful post responiding to “the ways in which the Trump Administration is working to ‘define transgender people out of existence.'”

Read the article. Read the whole article!

But here are some suggestions on how to support trans people and to make sure no one is erased.

 

  • If you’re looking for some more education to increase your confidence in engaging around trans inclusion, we recently released Connecting the Dots Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation as a two-part video series. It’s a great way to learn more so you can help push back against transgender erasure. Check it out here: https://mlp.org/connecting-the-dots-gender-identity-and-sexual-orientation/

  • Worship can be a great way to be sure people in your congregation know that God loves trans people just as they are. This weekend, consider naming trans and non-binary people in the prayers of the people, or in your sermon. You could even read part of the GA overture “Affirming and Celebrating the Full Dignity and Humanity of People of All Gender Identities” as part of worship:

    • Standing in the conviction that all people are created in the image of God and that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, the 223rd General Assembly affirms its commitment to the full welcome, acceptance, and inclusion of transgender people, people who identify as gender non-binary, and people of all gender identities within the full life of the church and the world. The Assembly affirms the full dignity and the full humanity of transgender people, their full inclusion in all human rights, and their giftedness for service. The Assembly affirms the church’s obligation to stand for the right of people of all gender identities to live free from discrimination, violence, and every form of injustice. Making these affirmations, the Assembly acknowledges that the church has fallen short of these commitments and obligations. In the world and in the Church, transgender people too often experience and suffer discrimination and violence.  The church has failed to understand fully and to celebrate adequately the full spectrum of gender embodied in God’s creation. As a result, we have participated in systemic and targeted discrimination against transgender people, and we have been complicit in violence against them. The Assembly affirms the scriptural obligation to work for justice for all God’s children, and particularly here to work for justice for people of all gender identities. We have fallen short of this obligation, and – by the grace of God – commit ourselves to do better.
  • Support transgender led organizations working hard to preserve and promote trans lives. Most transgender led organizations run on a shoestring budget, whether you support them with your dollars or even sharing about them with people in your life, a little goes a long way.

    • More Light Presbyterians: Yes! We are a trans-led and run organization working to center the voices of those often silenced in churches.
    • Trans LifeLine, fighting the epidemic of trans suicide and improve overall life-outcomes of trans people by facilitating justice-oriented, collective community aid
    • Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement founded at the beginning of 2014 by trans and queer immigrants, undocumented and allies, youth leaders and parents which organizes, educates, and advocates for the issues most important to our lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) and Latino communities
    • Sylvia Rivera Law Project: SLRP works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence. SRLP is a collective organization founded on the understanding that gender self-determination is inextricably intertwined with racial, social and economic justice.
  • Immerse yourself in positive representations of trans and non-binary folks to explore the big, beautiful world of trans-created art.

    • Them: I’m currently getting inspiration daily from this incredible Instagram account and trans-led media/news company

    • We Are Transilient: A traveling photo and interview project featuring the daily lives of trans folks

    • To Survive on This Shore: a photo and interview project of transgender and gender non-conforming older adults. It’s a beautiful project you can experience online or as a hardcover book!

 

We are all God’s precious children. God delights in us as we are. Nothing can separate any of us from the love of God.

See you along the Trail.

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Filed under Current Events, Family, Friends, Human Rights, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Grandma Cao

I watched The Apology tonight on PBS. It is a harrowing story of sexual violence and of official denial and the refusal of people to acknowledge and address past wrongs. It is a story endurance and perserverance in the face of such violence–physical, social, and psychological.

The documentary “follows three former “comfort women” who were among the 200,000 girls and young women kidnapped and forced into military sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Seventy years after their imprisonment, the survivors give their first-hand accounts of the truth for the record, seeking apology and the hope that this horrific chapter of history not be forgotten.”

I stand in awe of the grandmothers who tell their stories. Their courage and grace amazes me. I grieve for their experiences and for all the women who did not survive this violation. I am grateful for their willingness to share their stories and to filmaker Tiffany Hsiung and those who have captured and preserved their stories.

Grandma Cao, one of the women featured in the documentary, died on October 22.

Tiffany Hsiung has written a reflection on Grandma Cao, the grandmothers, and the realities of telling stories of sexual abuse and violence. The contemporary parallels are clear, painful, and instructive.

Here are some quotes:

It has been almost a decade since I first met Grandma Cao, and some other survivors of World War II. History might refer to them as “comfort women,” a euphemism given by the Japanese Imperial Army. But to me, they are “the grandmothers” and what started out as a journey to uncover these atrocities, soon turned into an exploration of one’s perseverance.

The grandmothers I interviewed told me that back in the old days — and even today — people will say things like, “Well, if it really happened then why didn’t you say something sooner?” Or, “The only reason you are saying this is because you want money and attention.” Sadly, this rhetoric is still often heard today as a defense when a woman publicly discloses her experience with sexual violence.

For many survivors, the decision to speak out is a daunting one. The thought of negative repercussions can be worse than burying it deep inside of you forever.

For victims of sexual violence, the biggest fear about speaking out is not being believed and, thereby, being re-victimized. Society has perpetuated a culture of shame that has resulted in decades, or even lifetimes, of silence for survivors of sexual violence. Something has to change.

Watch The Apology. Read Tiffany Hsiung’s article. Believe survivors. Break the culture of shame. Challenge rape culture. “Something has to change.”

See you along the Trail.

 

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Filed under Current Events, Human Rights, Movie

Holy ground

Last night, Friday October 19, 2018, I stood on holy ground.

The gathering took place at the Joel E. Smilow Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. About 100 men of all ages gathered in the gym for a teen forum.

Teenagers sat in the bleachers. The elders, ranging from 30 to over 80 years old, sat in chairs on the gym floor facing the teens. There were fathers of some of the teens. At least one  grandfather. Staff from the club. Friends. Friends of friends.

Several men shared their stories. Stories of mistakes. Of keeping on in the aftermath of a son’s death. Of endurance. Of the values of freedom and equality. 44416412_10156534705201063_6388540716364070912_nOf despair. Of hope. Of redemption.

When they finished, the teens asked questions. Why should I stay in school? How do I stay strong? How do I avoid the trouble of the streets? What do I do when the trouble comes looking for me?

The elders answered honestly, speaking from their experience.

After two hours, the group stopped and shared dinner. One on one conversations took place in the dinner line and as they ate. The evening closed with a promise to meet again and to meet on a regular basis.

When they do, wherever they do, the ground will be holy.

See you along the Trail.

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, Family, Friends, Human Rights, New York