We mourn the victims of mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016. As people of faith, we publicly declare our love for LGBTQ people, especially Latinx and Black queer folk. We embrace our Muslim friends, family and neighbors and wish them a Blessed Ramadan. As we pray for peace, we also recommit ourselves to working for a world without violence and oppression.

We acknowledge that this shooting is part of a larger culture of hostility toward transgender, gender nonconforming, lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. We reject the use of religion to promote judgment or violence toward LGBTQ people. We disavow rhetoric that seeks to devalue and dehumanize Latinx people. We stand in solidarity with the Muslim community against Islamophobia, anti-Muslim bigotry, and the scapegoating of Islam for this act of violence.

As people of faith, we long for a world where love triumphs over hate and fear. Our faith calls us to seek justice. We commit to working so that all people can flourish and live whole, authentic lives. #LoveForOrlando

Four Crosses: Visiting the Borderlands

By Alice Forsythe, First Congregational UCC, Portland, Oregon

A Samaritan leaving fresh clean water in the Sonoran desert

A Samaritan leaving fresh clean water in the Sonoran desert

I had the privilege of visiting the US/Mexico Borderlands with a small group from our church, First Congregational UCC in Portland.  We were there to experience for ourselves this troubled region and carry the knowledge we gleaned back to our wider church community.

A local humanitarian group that meets at Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, AZ, the Green Valley Samaritans, helped shape our itinerary. They generously host visiting groups such as ours, sharing their duties and hard-earned knowledge, but also asking that we go back home and pass the word about what many of them freely describe as a ‘militarized’ border.

The mission of Green Valley Samaritans is to prevent needless deaths in the Southern Arizona desert, and they go to great lengths to meet this goal.  Many of them travel miles of bumpy, dusty back roads to make water drops in the desert, and check on existing water drops.  The group tries to maintain a good rapport with the Border Patrol, some of whom attend Good Shepherd.

Our first morning we went on a three-mile desert memorial walk, which introduced us to the harshness of the Sonoran Desert.  As we hiked the uneven and graveled path, we were often surrounded by thorny vegetation of all shapes and descriptions—a misstep could prove painful at the very least. We came to four stark gravesites, each marked by a crude, white iron cross and the word ‘descondido’, Spanish for unknown.  It can also be a noun meaning ‘stranger.’  At four different times in 2009, the scattered bones of these four people had been found. The last gravesite bore one additional word, ‘adolescente’, meaning that a teenager, probably no older than fourteen, lie buried there.  The surviving families, will never know their fate, or even where they lie.  This is also likely true for many of the 2700 others that The Samaritans estimate have perished in this desert land over at least the past 15 years.

We made a couple of forays across the actual border into Nogales.  The first occurred the second morning at a Jesuit shelter located within a hundred yards or less of the border crossing.  It’s called El Comedor (Spanish for dining room—type the word into google, and it will present images of handsome dining room furniture.) Jesuit nuns, priests and social workers join with volunteers to provide not just food and basic medical care, but much needed listening and morale boosting, both for those who had been deported and for those still wanting to cross into the U.S.  They attempt to warn the latter of the dangers that they face in the form of the vastly increased Border Patrol and the dangers of this desert land, but many have family in the U.S. and will not be dissuaded.

We were asked to carry our stories back to Portland.  It’s a complicated issue, one that is not well served by the human habit of generalities.   We individually study and research, often sharing with others of our group a link or reference.  At different intervals we plan events for our wider church membership.  We talk with each other about what we saw and felt.

Perhaps it starts with those four solitary crosses surrounded by cactus in one lonely patch of the Sonoran desert, but it can’t end there.

More information: Green Valley Samaritan website

What One Church Learned By Hosting a Public Discussion on Race

Over 140 people filled the pews at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ (LOUCC) on a Sunday afternoon in October to experience a service of a different sort: a presentation by historian and author Walidah Imarisha titled “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon? A Hidden History.” This public event was coordinated through Oregon Humanities and hosted by LOUCC and Beit Haverim, a Jewish congregation which shares the church’s space.

The Racial Justice Network, a new working group of the CPC Justice & Witness Ministry Team, provides resources, accountability and support to churches in our conference engaging in racial justice ministry. The Network asked LOUCC what they learned by hosting this public discussion on race, racism and Oregon history. LOUCC’s Beyond Racism group, represented by Jane Lovelady, shared the following insights.

RJN: What spurred your recommitment to dismantling racism?

LOUCC: We were inspired by articles written by Bruce Poinsette, Jr., member of Ainsworth UCC, describing the racism he experienced as a Black man growing up in Lake Oswego. These articles spurred the formation of an ad hoc group at LOUCC in 2012 that we named Beyond Racism. We began our work by tackling our own roles in perpetuating the systemic institutional racism pervading our state and country.

RJN: What did you do to prepare for this event?

LOUCC: Our Beyond Racism group believes that work to dismantle racism needs to begin with us. We have learned that continued interactions and honest conversations have increased our ability to think about, reflect on, and consider new perspectives as we seek new ways to heal old racial divisions.

Over the last 3 years, Beyond Racism has offered our congregation a “menu” of events dealing with racism in a variety of contexts, including: book discussions; group attendance at films, plays and lectures by authors of color; speakers during worship; participation in efforts to support equality, including supporting the End Profiling Act (Oregon HB2002) and attending workshops like “Stoking the Fires of Justice: A Revival for Social Change” (at First Congregational UCC Vancouver) and “A Conversation On Race” at Hillsdale UCC.

Walidah Imarisha’s program was the first event our group offered outside our own congregation.

RJN: How do you think this event impacted your church and the wider community?

LOUCC: Our event drew 142 multiracial attendees from all neighborhoods of the Portland metro area. In a 2-hour interactive conversation, Imarisha led participants through a timeline of Black history in our state not taught in schools. She facilitated discussions about the intersections of race, identity, and power that continue to impact the lives of all Oregonians today. We heard hidden stories about Oregon’s racist past that belie our state’s progressive reputation. We were shown alarming statistics about racial disparity that are evident today. At the same time, Imarisha held out hope for the possibilities of change, growth, and movement toward equality.

142 attendees (13 to 85 years old) submitted participant evaluations at a 61% return rate. Comments expressed shock, pain, and sadness about some of the information shared as well as awe and admiration of the courage, persistence, and resilience demonstrated by Portland’s Black community over decades.

Several students hoped that the program might be brought to their high school or college. “What can I do?” and “Where do we go to help?” were frequent questions asked on evaluations. Imarisha offered resources to address these questions. Both host congregations are currently offering follow-up events focused on racism.

Samples of participant comments about the event:

An adult member of LOUCC said: “… I keep returning to our presenter’s invitation to be aware that ‘framework determines what you see, know, learn, and therefore the action you take.’ My framework widened as a result of yesterday’s conversation. I look forward to the continuing conversation as a congregation and community.”

A Lake Oswego High School student, responding to a question about the single most meaningful thing gained from this conversation, said: “I need to take action to help change institutions in which racism seems to be ingrained (education, especially) and do whatever I can to change that.”

RJN: Do you have any tips or suggestions for other churches on how to organize an event like this?

LOUCC: We believe a core of 3-5 persons and strong clergy support committed to a community-wide presentation is important. The strong, unwavering support that our planning group received from LOUCC’s Pastor Jennie Ott and Beit Haverim’s Rabbi Alan Berg gave us the courage to move into unknown territory. Pastor Jennie’s sermons, eNEWS and newsletter articles absolutely paved the way for us to go forward with this event.

The Oregon Humanities website gave us excellent tips on publicity. To promote our event, our group wrote “pitch letters” to accompany the press releases we sent educational groups and colleges, made an untold number of person-to-person contacts, mailed letters to every high school history teacher in our county, sent flyers/press releases to community online calendars, eNews, and newsletter publications, posted LOTS of flyers in our community directly (first speaking with a manager to gain permission), made personal appeals to any media contact we knew, and tapped both our Jewish and Christian denominational news outlets for wider exposure.

RJN: Would you recommend Walidah’s presentation to other churches?

LOUCC: We would recommend it without question! We’d also recommend checking out the Oregon Humanities web site for other upcoming programs about racial justice. (Editor’s Note: While Walidah Imarisha is no longer offering her program through Oregon Humanities, she can be scheduled on a private basis through the Racial Justice Network.)