Of Trees and Sweeping

Florence Caplow is a Soto Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and a dharma teacher, field botanist, UU seminarian at Iliff School of Theology, essayist, and editor. She was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship in 2015 and is currently on her visit with the Shrine. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Florence reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Day 5 at Tsubaki Grand Shrine (to read about why I’m here, read Entering Another World, my last post). Over the last few days I have been gradually transformed from my usual black-clothed Western self into “staff” at Tsubaki – first a white cotton jacket with the kanji (Chinese characters) for Tsubaki Grand Shrine over my Western clothes, then, yesterday, multi-layered full Shinto robes, all in white, that took a sweet young woman priest, Sakaka-san, about twenty minutes to put on me (today I was on my own, and no one has laughed, so I must have been successful). (more…)

A Recap of the International Human Rights Work at the UU-UNO in 2014


December 10th is International Human Rights Day. Guided by our principles, Unitarian Universalists are called to advocate for international human rights; to be a voice for the voiceless by promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all living things. Our Unitarian Universalists United Nations Office is the UU voice to the United Nations. I would like to share with you all of the important accomplishments of our office in 2014.

High Level Consultations

The UU-UNO’s reputation has grown over the past few years, to the point where we are consulted and asked to speak at very influential forums. Over the course of 2014, we have been invited to speak and consult with the: Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development on human rights including religious freedom, women’s rights and sexual orientation and gender identity human rights. These consultations included staff from the Office of the Prime Minister. We enjoy a close working relationship with Amnesty International’s UN Office, and their offices in Canada and the United Kingdom.    1

We have been asked to join a consultative group at the United States Department of State that pulls together faith-based leaders to advise the State Department on the areas of Social Justice, Development, Peace and Conflict Resolution. We have played an important role on the Social Justice subcommittee which has focused on sexual orientation and gender identity human rights. (more…)

A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Ranwa Hammamy is a UU seminarian & 2015 M.Div candidate at Union Theological Seminary. In September 2014 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Ranwa reflects on her powerful, moving experiences in Japan.

Sitting in my dorm at Union, I often hear the bells of Riverside Church chime in the morning to announce the 8:00AM hour. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunity to pause and listen to their familiar ring, reminding me that a new day is beginning – new opportunities, learning, and connections await. On days when my time management is lacking, their sound is also a reminder that I should be preparing for class. The Riverside bells have become a welcome piece of my routine, serving roles beyond simply being a marker of time.

Since my return from Japan, these bells have taken on a new function. They remind me of another sacred sound, one that became familiar and welcome in my routine at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine. Every morning for my 10 days at the shrine, I would hear the sound of the taiko drum at 8:25AM, five evenly spaced beats, announcing that it was time for chohai, or morning worship. On most of these mornings, I would be helping clean the inside walkways of the shrine or sweep leaves from the gravel paths of its outside grounds.

This practice of cleaning, of purifying the shrine, took place every day before worship. Its deliberate motions helped me remember each morning that the ground I walked upon was sacred. When the drums sounded at 8:25, I would pause in my cleaning and perform temizu, a purification ritual with water, before entering the main sanctuary for worship. The drum would return later in the service, as the leading priest would beat a specific rhythm towards the end of worship. I asked Ochiai, one the priests at the shrine, what the drum beat meant. He told me it was another form of purification. When I felt its vibrations run through my body, I was inclined to agree. (more…)

A Seminarian’s Experience at Tsubaki Grand Shrine

Sarah E. Gillespie is a UU seminarian & 2014 M.Div candidate at Andover Newton Theological School. In July 2013 she was the recipient of the UUA’s Tsubaki Grand Shrine Scholarship. Tsubaki Grand Shrine is an ancient Shinto shrine in Suzuka, Japan, and an historic interfaith partner of the UUA. In this essay, Sarah reflects on her experiences in Japan.

TGS2013-1It doesn’t surprise me that my favorite characters to write in Japanese calligraphy turned out to be “thank you” and “kami.” On my very first day at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine, I found myself staring across my desk at a woman writing elegantly and effortlessly with a handmade brush and jet-black ink. I watched her work intensely until she looked up and noticed my staring. Lucky for me she spoke English well and told me that she was writing the names and prayers of visitors who purchase shrine tokens. I had a bad case of jet lag, culture shock, and an upset stomach, but I was captivated by her and her art in that moment and wanted to learn more.

Eventually this lovely woman, Yumiko, took time to teach me the method for writing Japanese calligraphy. I learned about eight or ten words total during my lessons with her but in my practice I kept coming back to “thank you” and “kami.” These are the words that best describe my time at the shrine. I felt grateful for the experiences which, in turn, helped me listen deeper to my spiritual center. (more…)

Stories of Strength and Self-Assurance

The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She just finished coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

Our delegation just traveled to India’s western state of Gujarat, where we spent the day on Friday with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a UU Holdeen India Program partner.

Though we had read about SEWA’s work empowering some of India’s most impoverished women, nothing could have prepared us for the morning we spent with the rag pickers. We met with these workers in the place they labor each day: the municipal garbage dump of Ahmedabad, where they pick through fresh mounds of trash to glean the scraps of plastic, paper, and cloth that can still be sold for recycling. Standing high atop the literal mountains of garbage that stretched out on every side, we listened to the women talk about their lives and the difference it has made to have a union that helps them fight for their rights.

We heard Jasiben describe the ways she and her coworkers had been preyed upon by people who buy their gleanings — and how that changed when SEWA opened a competing scrap-buying stall that caters only to women. This stall actually paid market rates for their collections and forced others to raise their prices as well. We learned of SEWA’s tireless efforts to press the government to provide an education to the children of the rag pickers so that the next generation can find alternative employment and an easier life. Epitomizing the end of this particular cycle of poverty, Jasiben’s face shone with pride as she told us that her own daughter has just entered her first year of university. (more…)

The Familiar and the Foreign

The following post was written by Laney Ohmans, membership coordinator at the First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis and member of Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul. She is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

Of all the things I’d imagined would seem welcoming about my return trip to India, the smell of the Mumbai airport had not been one of them.  As soon I stepped out of the plane, though, there it was: a thick bank of turmeric and musk and damp. I felt a mix of recognition and surprise, of the familiar and the foreign, that would follow me through my time here.

Laney Ohmans at the Vidahayak Sansad school.

Four years ago I came to India on a similar quest from my home congregation, Unity Church, tovolunteer for two months as an English teacher in the school run by Vidhayak Sansad (VS), a Holdeen partner in rural India. This trip was a return to the familiar VS campus with a service-learning group of 10 Unitarian Universalists, all connected through the UU College of Social Justice. I had initially agreed to the trip — a gift from my minister, who realized at the last moment that she would be unable to go — with no hesitation. As the departure date ticked closer, though, I grew more and more uncomfortable.

I’d returned from my initial time in Usgaon overflowing with admiration for the work of our Holdeen partner, ready to offer, as Dag Hammarskjöld says, “the chalice of [my] being to receive, to carry, and to give back.” Four years had passed since that trip, however, and in the interim I felt that my chalice had slowly emptied. The realities of my life had seemed much more pressing and had demanded so much of my attention. I’d lost pieces of that passion in the struggle to find a job, find a new job, find another job, balance three jobs, finish my bachelor’s degree, move to a new city. I worried that the girl who had gone to Usgaon years ago had become a stranger to me, and that my life would seem completely foreign to her. (more…)

The Proverbial Fire Hose of Experience

The following post was written by Rev. Jay Leach, senior minister of the UU Church of Charlotte. He is currently taking part in a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

Since disembarking from our plane in the Mumbai airport last Saturday evening, it feels as if I have been trying to drink from the proverbial fire hose of experience. The flow of sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings, and thoughts is at a rate that is completely impossible to imagine, must less take in.

UUCSJ program co-leader Mahesh Upadhyaya receives a blessing.

From the seaside of one of the world’s immense cities, we came here, to the modest, bustling campus of Vidhayak Sansad, the center of such astounding activity in this area of such astounding need and opportunity. We were greeted at the gates by a procession of over 200 tribal schoolgirls clad in navy blue and white, and they enthusiastically paraded us in a pulsing procession to this remarkable place.

We’ve been learning from local tribal activists — union leaders — who have unpacked accounts of their decades of work. The depth of their clarity, conviction, and commitment easily transcends the barrier of language, which often requires translation from Marati, the state language, into Hindi, the national tongue, before making its way into English. Their accounts are of creative, powerful, often clever, and always strategic efforts to lift themselves and their people out of a complex web of oppression and exploitation.

Yesterday included a visit to a nearby small village where a centuries-old Hindu temple rises like a fortress above the swarm of the street. We were there not just to see that spectacle but to hear from other union activists about their work in organizing the temple staff to demand fair wages. Their actions included a hunger strike staged on the steep steps leading up to the temple. They also chose not to discard (as was their responsibility) the mounds of marigolds offered in homage to the deity but to fill the offices of the trust officials who employed them with the wilting blooms until the trustees agreed to negotiate.

The needs of the so-called adivasi — the “first people,” whose legal rights to these lands have been so abused — are as foreign as so much we’re encountering and as familiar as all struggles for justice and equity in which the members of our delegation are engaged. Our learning — and my learning — is taking place at the intersection of this way of strategizing for change and our individual and congregational efforts to work with immigrants, the economically deprived, the homeless, the incarcerated, and all those deprived of full equality and adequate opportunity.

Our learning continues, today with more activists, tomorrow in excursions into outlying villages to observe and document what we experience and understand about the work of these courageous agents of creative change. I’m profoundly grateful to be having this experience and look forward to unpacking it and exploring aspects of it with my congregation in the coming days, weeks, months, and years.

Cross-posted from the UU College of Social Justice blog.

The Power of Collective Action

The following post was written by Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ). She is currently coleading a service-learning trip to explore justice for rural India with the UU Holdeen India Program.

On Tuesday we traveled from Mumbai to Usgaon, the village where partner organization Vidhayak Sansad is based and where it has organized a school for 254 tribal girls from 5 to 18 years old. We received an unforgettable welcome from the children, who had gathered at the gates to meet us. They offered each of us a traditional blessing, anointing our brows with yellow and red powder and greeting us with the words that mean, “I greet the light of the god within you.” Accompanied by drums, the girls then danced up the pathway and led us to the main center, where we learned about the power of collective action in rural India.

UUCSJ delegation at Vidhayak Sansad.

Vidhayak Sansad is a key partner of the UU Holdeen India program. We were privileged to meet throughout the afternoon with nearly a dozen women and men who are major leaders of the union associated with Vidhayak Sansad. Nearly all of them are adivasi, or tribal people, who still have to struggle and often risk grave violence in order to secure their most basic rights. Some of the leaders we met were among those who had been bonded laborers before the birth of the union in 1983.

Though it seems unthinkable in this modern era, the entrenched systems of power and privilege in rural India have made it frighteningly easy for the equivalent of slavery to persist.  In so many areas, the laws that were meant to protect the adivasi people and their rights to land and water have been ignored; more powerful farmers from higher castes simply took the land and began planting it, hiring back the former owners for well below minimum wages.

The adivasis have undertaken recent efforts to recover land and water that has been stolen from them and, in some cases, to insist on minimum wage. Women play a key role in these struggles, and gender equality is one of the union’s principles.

Vidyulata Pandit, who founded the union with her husband, Vivek, and a group of former bonded laborers, lifted up a vivid example for us of the way women’s empowerment is linked to the entire struggle for justice. A meeting had been called to convince the workers that they had the right under the law to stand up and demand the landlord pay them the minimum wage (at the time the men were being paid 4 rupees a day and women just 3, but they were all legally entitled to 7). Both women and men attended the meeting but, as has been traditional, the women kept silent and only the men spoke. The men were unwilling to act, saying that nothing really could be done.

The meeting ran late into the night with no progress made, and then just as it was breaking up one woman finally stood and found her voice. Turning to the men of the village, she said, “You’re always saying that the men are the brave ones that have to go out there in the world and the women must keep silent and stay home. We have just heard of the way to find our freedom. If you men are afraid to do it, then take these bangles from my wrists, wear them yourselves, and go home!” Other women then stood with her, and the women walked out of the meeting and led a march — joined finally by the men — around the landlord’s home demanding fair pay. The next day a spontaneous strike began. The landlord buckled after two weeks and agreed to pay all farm workers the minimum wage.

This is just one of the dozen moving stories we have heard from people whose lives have been so changed by the power of collective action. We are deeply inspired by what we’ve heard and are so privileged to be among them.

Cross-posted from the UU College of Social Justice blog.

Exploring Faith-Based Social Justice in Burundi

The following post was written by Rev. Eric Cherry, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office. Cherry was one of the leaders of the UUSC-UUA Supporter Journey to Tanzania and Burundi. 

Service-Learning trips through the UUSCJ are a terrific way for UUs to get to know the social justice strategies and methods of partners around the world.  Many of the partners that UUCSJ interacts with through S-L trips are secular in their approach.  But, some of them are faith-based – and even Unitarian/Universalist.  In those cases, the experience for trip participants offers a unique opportunity to connect spiritual practice and faith with outreach ministries.   And, introducing the team of UUCSJ service-learners in East Africa to the leaders and members of the Unitarian Church of Burundi was a great example of that connection..    Together we explored the ways that Unitarianism is pursuing social justice work in Burundi.

The Unitarian Church in Burundi was established by Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana in 2002 as a liberal religious alternative to the dominant Roman Catholic presence in Burundi.  Rev. Fulgence is, in fact, a former Dominican novitiate who discovered Unitarianism while studying in seminary.  After leaving seminary and pursuing a correspondence with a Unitarian minister in the UK he was inspired to start the church in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura.

Since then the congregation has grown in strength, numbers, and outreach ministries.  In 2011 the congregation dedicated the first Unitarian church building constructed in an African country in decades.  And it serves as a home for their church services, as well as a meeting place for activists.

The outreach work of the church has taken many forms including:

  • Capacity Building and Advocacy work with Burundi’s Batwa community
  • Domestic Violence prevention through workshops and other intervention
  • Supporting Micro-finance initiatives
  • Partnering with a local School
  • Establishing scholarship programs for University students
  • Leading a coalition of Unitarian churches in development in Francophone African Countries

All of the congregation’s work is done in the context of the slow recovery – and the struggle for truth and reconciliation – taking place in Burundi following its Civil War.  Burundi needs liberal religious leaders, and the Unitarian Church in Bujumbura is serving that role.

During the visit we were inspired by meetings with a former combatant who now operates a small restaurant, and a team of women who are operating a vegetable stall at the women’s market in the city – all beneficiaries of the church’s micro-finance initiative.

We also visited the local school that the church is partnering with.  Here, nearly 2000 primary school students have found a secure place to begin their educational journeys.  Through assistance from its partners, the Unitarian Church has helped the school bring electricity to its classrooms – and will now attempt to set up a water system for the school.

Participants in the University scholarship program also met with us.  They explained how nearly all of them were the first people in their family to attend University, and that completing a degree is the fastest way to escape poverty in Burundi.  We were inspired by the path they have chosen.

And, on Sunday, we gathered for church with 60-70 Burundian Unitarians.  The singing was fantastic, the prayers were social-justice centered, and the sermon by Rev. Fulgence was prophetic.  He took a text from Jeremiah which advised those surrounded by devastation to build up their cities, and display show signs of hope.  The members of the Unitarian church clearly appreciated and embrace his message.  We visiting friends are challenged to do the same as we return to our homes.

Cross-posted from the UU College of Social Justice blog.

Love, Dedication, and the Constitution of Tanzania

The following post was written by Patricia Jones, manager of UUSC’s Environmental Justice Program. She is currently coleading the UUSC-UUA Supporter Journey to Tanzania and Burundi.

The Tanzania Gender Networking Program (TGNP) is hosting a UUSC-UUA delegation of supporters in Dar es Salaam this week. Participants will join TGNP in their work on the constitutional process in the country. Tanzania’s political parties passed a very controversial law in 2012 that sounded the starting bell for the country to adopt a new constitution by the end of 2014. You may think three years is enough time. TGNP and civil society do not.

Yesterday we met with the founding members of TGNP and learned about their groundbreaking programs to raise awareness, mobilize grassroots constituents to demand their rights, and change law and policy to make the rights of women and men more real. The current constitution was adopted in 1977 and amended during the years since, but it contradicts itself, especially concerning the equality of men and women. In Tanzania, women may not inherit property, and marriage age for girls is 14 and for boys is 18 — but the constitution provides that all Tanzanian children have the right to education to the fullest of their potential. These “gaps,” as the Tanzanians call them, are just some of the issues TGNP is working to change. They want to see the human rights of the people — including the right to water, to health, and to education — more clearly expressed.

But they first had to reform the law that guides the process. In Tanzania, the constitution, all the laws, and the court decisions are in English. English is taught in secondary school, so Tanzanians who complete primary school only (to age 14) do not learn English. TGNP and their coalition partners at the Civil Society Constitutional Forum (CSCF) worked to require that the constitutional process be conducted in Swahili, the language the vast majority of Tanzanians use in daily life.

TGNP and CSCF are conducting civic education on the constitutional process. However, that is another “gap,” as they point out. The law passed by both ruling and opposition parties limits and regulates civic education. TGNP and CSCF must apply to conduct civic education on the constitution, disclose their funding for the program, and have the content authorized by the Constitutional Review Commission. If they violate this process, they could be fined 5 million Tanzanian shillings or be jailed for 3 years. This while the political parties are openly passing out talking points during the “open forums,” the first step in the constitutional process.

During our delegation visit, we saw boxes of the current constitution in Swahili at the  CSCF offices we visited. They had printed them and are now distributing them. TGNP and CSCF want the time table changed; they want to slow the process down so people can learn about their constitution and what is at stake, and then be able to form their own opinions. The parties want to have the constitution wrapped before the 2015 elections.

Who knows what other surprises are waiting in the wings. Possibly land reform that would give away large parts of Tanzania to major foreign farming firms? That would privatize water rights? Diana, the director of CSCF, assured us they will include the human right to water. She had been without water in her home for the past week.

The delegation was inspired by the dedication, insightful analysis, persistence, and what cofounding member Subari termed the “love” that they express through their work. I agree, Subari, it is one of the highest expressions of love to dedicate your time and heart to changing the highest law of the land, the constitution.