I know this is a little late, but I needed a little more time with this piece before publishing. Please forgive me for my lateness, but I hope you’ll think it was worth the wait.
If you have never been to UUA’s General Assembly, it’s like any other CON experience. There are a ton of panels (we call them “programs”), there is a trade show (we call it “the exhibit hall”) and there are even some people who cos-play. You go from panel to panel, grab a quick bite between each and then you are off to plenary (the governance meeting). While you are doing all this, you meet tons of new people and they all geek out about the same things that you do, but instead of geeking out about Star Trek or Firefly, we geek out about religious and spiritual things.
I’m never any good at picking out programs to attend. The descriptions are available a month ahead of time, so I carefully pour over them and whittle the selection down to two or three. At last minute, I ask what other people are attending and if they have seen the speaker before. Despite all my planning and research, the reality of the program never matches my expectations. The good thing is I always walk away with one or two tidbits that I can squirrel away for later.
Dr. Michael Tino
Today (Thursday, June 20th) I decided to go to the John Murray Distinguished Lecture: The Promise Of Universalism. I felt a dual sense of responsibility to attend this lecture: First, because I grew up with a Universalist philosophy, (even though at the time I didn’t know that’s what it was called), secondly because of our congregation’s pastor emeritus, Rev. David MacPherson, a Universalist Pastor before the merger. The speaker, Dr. Michael Tino, spoke of the four promises of Universalism: We are all forgiven, we are all going to the same place, paradise is possible and love is the answer.
You’ll notice that the second promise is not “We are all going to heaven.” When I first heard “We are all going to the same place” my immediate thought was, “Well, he can’t say Heaven because it’s not inclusive speech, but he’s referring to the concept of heaven.” I was wrong. Rev. Tino came to ministry after being a scientist. I can’t remember which exact field he was in, but (and don’t quote me on this) I believe he was a cell biologist. When he said that we were all going to the same place, we was referring to concept that all of us, the humans, the animals, the plants, the rocks, every single last thing, are all made up of the same matter and that this has been around since, if not before, the big bang. To bring this point home he spoke of indigenous tribes on the Hawaiian Islands who referred to all things as “us.” The animals were part of “us”. The rocks were “us”. Everything.
It took inherit worth and dignity to the next level. It blew my mind.
© 2013 Nancy Pierce/UUA
Later in the day was our social justice action. Each year at General Assembly we champion a cause that is especially poignant for the host city. Louisville is coal mining country, so this year’s cause focused on the massive damage the extraction efforts like fracking and strip-mining cause to the surrounding community. At the rally we heard testimonies of slurry spills that polluted rivers and made the ground water undrinkable. My original image of slurry was something like silty water, something that would only cause the water to cloud up for a day or two, like after a heavy rainstorm.
I did not imagine a spill three times the size of the Exxon Valdez catastrophy, but that’s what happened. Why isn’t there a national outcry about it? Some will say it’s because the Appalachians house poorer people, and land that isn’t very valuable by real estate standards. Personally I think people have more sympathy for a baby seal than they do for a human being, especially if that human being is labelled with terms like “Hillbilly”, “Hick” or “White-Trash.” Never mind that the pollution feeds into their ground water poisoning their wells. If those dirt farming hillbillies can’t afford a better water system, that’s their problem. Time they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.
Perhaps the most haunting image for me came from one of the speakers (I wish I got a name). He talked about how his family had lived in that area longer than anyone could remember. When the mining companies began fracking they destroyed the graveyard where his family was buried.
Think about that for a minute. The resting place of your ancestors. Think about that felling of the sacred in that moment as you stand before the memorial of a loved one. The reverence you feel for those who have touched your life. The connection to feel to your past, your history and your identity. Now, imagine that place not just gone, but disregarded. Cast aside to bring cheap energy that so few make an effort to conserve. The memorial to your ancestors erased just to keep the lights on in an empty room.
The debris from fracking is a mixture of soil and toxins. Often, it is disposed into abandoned mining tunnels, where the toxins pollute the drinking water. Our speaker told us how he would turn on the kitchen faucet and muddy red water would rush out. Through tears he told us how this reminded of Revelations 16:4 “And the third angel poured out his vial upon the rivers and the fountains of waters; and they became blood.” Watching the red waters he slowly realized that they were indeed blood, because the debris that polluted his well, was the very same debris that was from his family’s gravesite. He was watching the remains of his family, wash away down his kitchen sink.
We are all made up of the same matter; the rocks, the plants, the animals, the humans. Every single last thing,
In his lecture earlier, Rev. Tino said “When we remove ourselves from others, we are more likely to hurt them.” When we make connections with others, real, face-to-face connections, we create empathy and respect for them. The distinctions between “Us” and “Them” become fuzzy and we start to consider how our actions may hurt others, accidentally or maliciously.
This is our current relationship with the Earth. We don’t think of it as part of us, we think of it as something to conquer, to enslave, to ruin. Something that feels no pain, has no life and no spirit.
But we are all made of the same cosmic stuff. We are all connected.
As I left the action with a few of my congregants, I turned to one of them and said, “I wish we could just give it all back to the Native Americans. They knew how to take care of the land.” I used to think they gave the land spirit, that they personified it. Looking back, it’s pretty clear to me that they understood it to be a part of them and they knew how to take care of “us.” All of us; the rocks, the plants, the animals, the humans.