“It Wasn’t About Us” – My sermon on the July 29th, 2010 Protests

Andrew Coate
“It Wasn’t About Us”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellswroth
Ellsworth, Maine
September 5th, 2010

It was oppressively hot outside, which shouldn’t surprise anybody for the fact that it was late July in Phoenix Arizona. The sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist congregation of Phoenix was pleasantly cool and very quiet, a stark contrast to the hustle of the community room where things were getting organized and figured out just a few rooms away. The thing I noticed most was the quiet, even with dozens of people around me. “All organizing should happen in sanctuaries,” I remember thinking. I felt like I was flipping through a mental thesaurus to come up with the word to describe how I felt when we gathered to worship and organize on that stifling hot Wednesday evening in July. United? Connected? Included? Loved. I felt all of those things as I looked around and saw everyone else who had been called to come to Phoenix, and I experienced a little jolt of excitement when Gini Courter stood up to start things off. We sang songs, we read things in unison, and then Susan Frederick-Gray, the minister at UUCP, stood up to open in prayer.  More people spoke, and much of it has blurred in my mind a short month later but one line remains clear;

“This?” someone said, referring to everyone in the room, everything going on outside, the protests and rallies and arrests, the legislation “this is not about me.”

It’s a line that would carry me through a lot of emotions over the next few days, both in Phoenix and after returning to Maine.

It was really easy to get caught up in the feeling good aspect of what we were doing that night.  We laughed as we were trained in civil disobedience, we sang songs that we all knew without hymnals, we buddied-up, we met new people, we bought shirts, we shared how we had come to be in Phoenix for this. The people closer to my age grouped up a little, shared where we were in school, or where we had graduated from. We laid out our “activist histories” for each other. It was hard to remember that this was not about us, either as individuals or as a faith community. That knowledge and clarity came at 4:30am on Thursday. This was surprising because not much comes to me, clear or otherwise, at 4:30am.

We had the option of going to the 4:30am vigil and march from the Wells Fargo building, where sheriff Joe Arpaio has his office, to Trinity cathedral where the interfaith worship service was to be held or of simply meeting at 6am for the interfaith worship service. The other person staying in the same house as me was game for the vigil and, well, frankly he was willing to get a cab.

There were a lot of different groups either from Phoenix or that came to Phoenix to protest the “papers please” bill; among them were Puente, Somos, The Catalyst Project, and yes, the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign. We were the largest organized group, the biggest and most visible with our bright yellow-orange t-shirts.

But up to this point I hadn’t actually seen any of the non-UU organizers, apart from the three folks from who came in to train us in civil disobedience. So when we showed up at 4:30am in the already-oppressive Phoenix heat and saw scores of people assembled and not another yellow shirt in sight? “Oh wow,” I thought, “this is not about us.” This vigil had been going on for 102 days; 102 days of sitting in the heat, praying to G-d and Jesus and Mary, holding each other up, hearing stories… who were WE, I thought, to come in on day 103 and walk a few blocks with them? I joined the ranks somewhere near the middle, thanking my grandmother that I understood the instructions we were being given in Spanish, and then walking. I didn’t really talk to anybody. I know that I could have, but sometimes my inner shy kid from middle school comes out. So I walked, for at least an hour, slowly processing from one part of town to the other. I had no gauge of where we were, or where we were going. I didn’t know if the procession would end after the next corner, the next block. Normally that would make me nervous. I like to know what is going on, to have a plan, and know the schedule; but this was different. I was OK with not being in charge. I surrendered, I accepted my lack of knowledge. I trusted. I put my faith in others and I simply walked.

We made it to the cathedral by 6:00, and after some photo ops and a few words to media we filed into the cathedral. There were hundreds of people there, squished in the pews, grouped voluntarily by faith or organization. The order of service listed speaker after speaker, each with their title next to their name. There was an Imam, a Rabbi, a couple of politicians, a UnitarianUniversalist minister, and a whole lot of Christianity.

“THIS is not about us.” I thought ruefully, as I sat down. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle this level of Christianity; it had been a long time. So I sat when I was expected to sit, stood, sang, bowed my head, and when I found myself getting annoyed with the “Jesus talk” I would look around, and realize that at least some people were paying rapt attention to whoever was speaking. Just as the UUs all paid attention to Reverend Frederick Gray when she was speaking because she was saying what we needed to hear, everyone else was hearing what they needed to hear.

All through that day a lot of folks were struggling with what our role was in Phoenix. Struggling with what it meant to have white privilege and be protesting this bill and have had the ability to come from all over the country. I sent dozens of updates to Facebook and Twitter over those days; some were strictly updates on what was happening, but many were my trying to process who I was and why I was there.

As I sent those updates, and got peoples’ replies to my cell phone I found myself growing frustrated. People kept thanking ME, saying that I was doing something important, that I should be proud of myself because they were proud of me.

NO, I kept shooting back, STOP IT. STOP IT! This is NOT ABOUT ME! This isn’t about my Latino heritage, my experience as an activist, my age, my energy. I was annoyed that people were so insistent that I was doing anything extraordinary. Yes, I was there and yes, that is something that not everyone can say. But by making it out to be something extraordinary, unusual, pride-inducing, or congratulations-worthy it was, in my mind, detracting from why we were there. That’s a lot to explain in the 140 characters of twitter, or the 230 my phone allows before splitting it into separate texts.

It’s a lot to explain while you are also standing in oppressive heat, running water to protesters and police alike, and trying to answer questions that people are lobbing every which way. All of that, combined with the fact that I wasn’t quite sure myself why the continuous insistence on people being proud of me was driving me up the wall.

That night I sat with new friends and talked to them. We were waiting outside the county jail for our protesters to be released and there wasn’t much to do but talk. the singing was done, the chanting, the water runs, the text updates from the campaign, all of it. Now it was simply a waiting game. I shared what I was struggling with, they shared what they were struggling with.

Many of us had the same problem; how do we bring this back to our home communities in any meaningful way? Many, dare I say most, of us would be leading worship services on the topic, but aside from that we didn’t have much to go on. Our conversation was cut short at 2:30am when our first protester was released. We clapped and hugged and laughed as he told stories. I was left to think on my own, which was probably a good thing.

**********************

One of the hardest things about leaving Phoenix was that I was returning to a place where nobody had shared in the experiences of what I had just done. I was tired and sun-soaked, I had slept very little in the past 72 hours but that didn’t matter. I had a million “inside jokes” that I could never explain to anybody because, really, those things are never funny when you weren’t there. I had things I wanted to laugh about and share that I couldn’t articulate. I had songs swimming around my head that I wanted to sing. I had tears that I simply had to cry and no way to explain what they were about. I spent a lot of time online in the days immediately following my trip, even more than usual. I friended everyone I could possibly remember on Facebook and Twitter, and I looked through hundreds of pictures. I read peoples’ posts on their personal blogs and on the Standing on the Side of Love blog. I sent a couple of texts, and chatted with a few people on facebook. I sent thank you notes. I spent a lot of time reflecting in my journal and online. I wrote in my own blog shortly after returning from Phoenix,

Whenever I return from any conference or workshop or big, social-justice event I sometimes forget that everyone else in the world wasn’t doing the same thing at the same time. I will hear somebody say something to me or about an issue and I’ll find myself thinking, “what? how can you say that? what did we just spend the last 2 hours/weekend/4 days/week talking about??”

Times like this make me so grateful for the internet. Without the internet it would have been a lot harder for me to process what I had just done and all my emotions swirling around so quickly that I couldn’t name them, much less put them to paper. Reading what others had to say allowed me to more deeply articulate what and how I was feeling.

Lisa Kemper was one of the clergy that went to Phoenix, and we ended up chatting quite a bit. We met within the first 20 minutes of my arrival, and she definitely looked after me a little, and checked in a time or two.

When I returned I looked her up online and started following her blog. In her blog post titled, “I’m not in the pictures” she struggles with what it meant for us to be in Arizona, as people of faith, as mostly-white people, as people with amounts of privilege that those we were there for don’t have.

…as I watched the news coverage and all the links posted on Facebook, I wondered what it meant for so many white people to join in these protests. I wondered if we had done the right thing. I wondered if we were too prideful or if we had distracted from the issue.

That was it! that was what I had been trying to articulate!

She later goes on to say

And that’s when I realized it was precisely our privilege and visibility that we brought to Phoenix that day. We were a large group. That made us more visible. We all had yellow shirts. That made us noticeable. Most of us were citizens. That meant we wouldn’t get deported. And many of us were white…

…Our presence at the actions accomplished two important things: First of all, we helped swell the numbers of people in town that day–we covered the landscape with our bright yellow-shirt-clad bodies and we made people come up to us and ask, “who are you?” and “why are you here?”

And that is important. That matters. We mattered. It was not about us, but we DID matter, and we DID count, and it’s a good thing that we were there. It was the “who we were” that people seemed to be focusing on when the “why are you were” was the question that I wanted to answer.

Yes, we are people of faith, and yes, we came from all over the country, and yes, we were mostly white. But we weren’t there because of those things. We were there because we believe in our principles, and we believe in people and in democracy and in love. It was not about who any of us were as individuals, or who we were collectively, it was about what we, as people, did and it is who we WERE that made that possible. For every single person that came to stand on the side of love there was a group of similar-minded people back home, standing with them in spirit.

When I say, “this is not about me, you, Unitarian Universalism, SB 1070, or Arizona” that is what I am trying to say. It was not ABOUT us, but we mattered, we were effective, we made our voices heard. We made our voices heard not because WE matter but because every person matters.

Arizona definitely changed me. It gave me ideas and alternative views of ministry, it gave me an amazing network that would have taken years to build from here in Maine, it moved me further in my spiritual journey than I ever thought 3 days could, and it made me view activism in whole new interesting and frightening ways.

This wasn’t the activism I was used to. This wasn’t the, “get everything done as quickly as humanly possible” kind of activism I knew and loved. We took time to sing. Time to pray. Time to listen to others and ourselves. We took time to meditate.

On my last night in Phoenix we quickly helped organize and attended a vigil outside the tent city jail. It was getting to be evening, I had to be at the airport in just a couple of hours. I didn’t have to go to the vigil, and part of me didn’t even want to. I had mentally checked out.  I was done.

Standing outside I broke down crying, leaning up against the walls of the church. I was exhausted and things seemed disorganized and confusing and I didn’t know if I had a ride to the airport anymore. But nevertheless I got in one of the big vans we had rented, and we drove to tent city. It was like somebody had hit rewind to the day before. The protesters were the same, the chants were the same, we were in the same shirts. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand and chant and scream.

So I sat. I joined a group of people who were praying and meditating on the curb facing the police department. I put a Standing on the Side of Love sign in front of me. I crossed my legs. I closed my eyes. I prayed.

I prayed in earnest for probably the first time in 11 years. And then I sang. We sang “meditation on breathing” and we sang “gentle angry people” and then we were quiet again, with all the chaos surrounding us, we were quiet, with our hands outreached, folded, lifted, opened, to the universe and to each other and to ourselves.

This was not about us, but we did matter. We mattered because we are people who love other people and respect other people. We matter.

Blessed be.

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