Most of the time, we see religious freedom invoked to protect conservative religious views. However, Unitarians and Universalists have a long and pioneering history of supporting religious freedom, because our progressive views have never been shared by the majority.
Lately, I have been advocating religious freedom which is violated by the anti-LGBTI laws passed by Uganda and Nigeria. Even before the Ugandan law had been officially put in force, the Ugandan police questioned our Unitarian Universalist minister in Uganda, Rev. Mark Kiyimba, for over two hours. He was asked why he and his UU congregation were supporting homosexuality. Before this incident and immediately after it, I had extensive conversations with the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and the United States Department of State about the need to enforce religious freedom for progressive religious practices which are under threat by the newly enacted laws in Nigeria and Uganda. I made the point that our faith does not promote any particular sexuality, but rather is welcoming and affirming to all regardless of sexuality.
The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs immediately contacted their high commission in Nairobi which also represents Canada in Uganda and the U.S. Department of State contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kampala. The head of the U.S. Embassy Political section contacted Rev. Mark Kiyimba and visited his congregation in a profound demonstration of solidarity.
The UU-UNO has partnered with Spectrum Uganda to provide health and counseling services with LGBTI people in Uganda. (See more in the article on Spectrum below.)
In Nigeria, the Metropolitan Community Church is not allowed to practice and its minister Rev. Jide McCauley is forced to reside in the United Kingdom because his religious freedom is violated by the Nigerian government.
On May 15th, I’ll be part of a religious roundtable at the U.S. Department of State to discuss these and related issues. I’m delighted to see that the United Church of Christ with UUs in support have filed legal action in North Carolina because their anti-LGBTI laws violate religious freedom.
Our faith began with a determined stand for religious freedom and it is time to take that stand again when we see our values of tolerance, compassion, inclusion and affirmation of everyone everywhere being violated by small minded and ignorant laws which criminalize LGBTI people and anyone who helps them in any way whatsoever.
Collaboration with Spectrum Uganda
The UU-UNO is delighted to partner with Spectrum Uganda, which was co-founded with John Wambere, also known and Long Jones. His work was recently recognized by GLAAD in Los Angeles. The UU-UNO/Spectrum partnership will keep operations open and provide medical and counseling services with the LGBTI population in Uganda, which is under increased stress due to the passage of the anti-homosexuality law. Spectrum is one of the oldest and most effective organizations in Uganda providing services to the LGBTI community. John Wambere was featured in the award winning documentary film, Call me Kuchu.
Spring Seminar and onwards
This year’s Spring Seminar on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was
the biggest and best in our 52 year history. We were graced for the first time with the President of the UUA, Rev. Peter Morales, the Executive Director of the CUC, Vyda Ng, and world-renowned indigenous architect, Douglas Cardinal as our keynote speakers. Thanks to the help from the Permanent Mission to the UN of Canada, we obtained the UN’s Trusteeship Council Chamber for our keynote presentations. From May 12-23, the United Nations will host the Indigenous People’s Forum. We will participate and our April seminar laid important groundwork for the important forum this month, which will also take place, fittingly enough again in the United Nations Trusteeship Council Chamber. Read more here.
I chair the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights. Our most active subcommittee deals with racism and other forms of intolerance. This subcommittee hosts two major events during the year, Sacred Seasons in the Fall to look at racism and other forms of intolerance through the lens of faith and this year’s Spring program which focused on the elimination of racial and other forms of discrimination as the UN formulates new sustainable development goals to replace the current millennium development goals which end next year. I moderated the May 1st panel at the UN dwhich included Maarit Kohonen Sheriff, deputy head of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Professor Elizabeth DeFeis, Seton Hall University; Carlos Garcia, Ambassador to the UN from El Salvador; Kingsley Mamabolo, Ambassador to the UN from South Africa; Dr. Vilna Bashi Treitler, Black and Latino Studies at Baruch College; Carols Manuel Vazquez, Georgetown Law School; and Shulamith Koenig, Founder of People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning. We discussed how everyone needs to know their human rights and to claim them. We also discussed systemic racism which perpetuates racism even when people are no longer visibly racist. We see this in the rates of incarceration of people of color, in rates of graduation, in employment statistics. Even though there are few public expressions of racism, it lives on in our institutions and is born out in the statistics which clearly indicate that systems which oppress people of color continue in the world.
Farewell to our interns
Every year, we have a farewell lunch for our interns who graduate from our program and most from their respective universities. We never seem to be able to get the entire group together at one time, so there are a few missing from this photograph. This year our interns come from Columbia, Fordham, Yeshiva and NYU Schools of Social Work, and both Union and the New Brunswick Theological Seminaries. They also come from the USA, Haiti, China, and Argentina this year. In past years, we have had interns from India, Croatia, Albania, Jamaica and elsewhere. We have had Christians of various denominations, including a Catholic Priest, Jews, Muslims, and Unitarian Universalists. Most of the other religious offices at the UN only take interns who adhere to their faith. We are proud to take interns from all nations, diverse educational and religious backgrounds. All we ask is that they understand our faith; to learn what we believe and practice and to be in sympathy with it. All our interns leave with a deep appreciation for Unitarian Universalism. There are always tears as we say farewell and most interns keep in touch and come back as volunteers. All report that as compared with other internships available, the UU-UNO provides by far the best experience, primarily due to the trust we place in our interns to carry out substantive tasks and originate programs. We treat our interns as the professionals they are and that they are so soon about to become. It is empowering for them and it gives our office substantially increased capacity to serve our congregations and to be the effective Unitarian Universalist voice we are at the United Nations.
In the next couple of weeks, we will be welcoming our contingent of summer interns.
Death in the family and cancelled events
Due to a death in the family, I had to cancel my talk to the League of Women Voters in New Haven, CT and the UN Sunday Service at the Westport, CT congregation. I did a video of my talk on immigration to the League of Women voters, which they shows and about which I got favorable comments. I am working with the Westport congregation to reschedule my visit there.
The Canadian Unitarian Council’s Annual Conference and Meeting (ACM) takes place in Montreal May 16-18, 2014. The UU-UNO is hosting a Blue Ribbon Award Reception on Sunday, May 18th, in the Gentilly room, from 4:00pm to 5:30pm. I’ll be there talking about our programs and with information about the UU-UNO.
I’ll be at the Rock Tavern, NY congregation on June 8th.
UUA General Assembly
Kamila Jacob and I will be at the UUA General Assembly June 25-29. The UU-UNO will be hosting three events this year:
Beyond Borders: Implementing Intercultural Conversations will be held on Friday, June 27th, from 5:00pm-6:15pm, at RICC-Ballroom BC.
The Envoy Breakfast will be on Saturday, June 28th, from 7:00am to 8:30am, at the Providence Biltmore Salon 6.
The Dana Greeley and Blue Ribbon Awards Reception will take place on Saturday, June 28th, from 6:00pm to 7:30pm, at Providence Biltmore L’Apogee 17.
I will also be speaking at the workshop on LGBTQ and Immigration-An Intersection of Human Rights, held on Thursday, June 26th, from 12:30pm-1:45pm, at RICC-Hall D.