“What Needs to Die?”

This was the title of the November 4 sermon by Executive Associate Pastor, Rev. Meghan K. Gage-Finn, at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church’s “Gathered at Five,” a casual, conversational worship service at 5:00 pm. The location: Westminster Hall in the church’s new addition. Below are photographs  of Rev. Gage-Finn and the Hall.

 

 

 

 

Sermon

(This sermon commented on All Saints Day, which was celebrated in the regular morning worship service with Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s “What Endures?” sermon.)

“This morning in worship we celebrated All Saints’ Day, remembering the names and lives of those in our congregation who died in the last year. We paused to recall their faces, their voices, their service to Westminster and community. The celebration of All Saints’ Day in the church began in the 9th century, but today in our context it is less about honoring the Saints (with a “Capital S”) and more about giving glory to God for the ordinary, holy faithful ones of our time whom we remember and love. It is yet another chance to declare and rejoice that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love, as we pray that God’s good purposes would be worked out in us, that we would be helped in our weaknesses as we await the redemption of all things.” (Emphasis added.)

“It is a day when we think and talk about death and when we name the courage and hope with which others have lived, and imagine how we might model our lives of faith in the same way.”

“[For someone with a conflicted relationship with one of our deceased, All Saints Day was a] reminder that the final death of that relationship in life opened up something, created space for something new to emerge and begin. It was almost as if the death made way for a waiting change that couldn’t otherwise take shape.”

“This [observation] has pushed me to wonder about what we hold onto or are trapped by in our lives, and what happens when we are released from these burdens. In the context of All Saints’ Day, it led me to the question of, ‘What needs to die?’” (Emphasis added.)

“[The Ruth and Naomi story in Isaiah shows] cultural and religious norms at play for [them], which both women push back against. Both have to let these die in a way Orpah cannot, and because of this a new way forward opens up for them. They embrace each other and find healing and genuine friendship. [1]

“Dutch priest and theologian Henri Nouwen observed, ‘The dance of life finds its beginnings in grief … Here a completely new way of living is revealed. It is the way in which pain can be embraced, not out of a desire to suffer, but in the knowledge that something new will be born in the pain.”[2]

“The women of the book of Ruth certainly didn’t desire to suffer, but in their journey of letting go, of letting expected structures and frameworks die, they found knowledge in the birth of something new.”

For about the past 8 years I have been involved in a progressive movement of the PC (USA) called NEXT Church, which . . . seeks to build the relational and connectional fabric of the denomination, by cultivating leaders and congregations to serve a dynamic church in a changing context. About 4 years ago I came onto the leadership board of NEXT, [which] . . . set a goal of having representation of 50% people of color around the table.”

“I was in the meeting when this was decided, and I am pretty sure we all thought we could say it, wave our magic white privilege wands, and sprinkle the same old Presbyterian power dust, and so it would be. We quickly found it was going to take more intentionality than that to build any type of appreciable change, and that, of course, bringing balance to the leadership board needed to be based on relationships. And in a denomination that is 95% white, nurturing lasting relationships between white people and people of color takes a whole lot more than wand waving, magic dust, and good intentions.”

“I can report that now, in 2018, we have achieved the goal set 3 ½ years ago, but we find ourselves as a leadership board in a very tenuous and precarious situation. We have called people of color from across the denomination and country, but what we haven’t done is change how we are organized, how we communicate, how we make decisions, how we raise money, and we haven’t brought about change to any other critical structural framework within the organization.”

“And that has created an environment where trust and welcome haven’t been properly established, openness and safety is lacking, blinders are on and assumptions are prevalent. Frankly, it feels like a mess, but we are doing our best to wade through it together.”

“We are reading as a board Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility, and discussing it in small and large groups. Personally, Diangelo’s book casts a harsh light on things I have said and silences I have kept, decisions I have made and systems I have benefited from since before I was even born. I thought I had some understanding of my own privilege and whiteness, but I have so much work to do.”

“As for the state of our board community, it is complicated, but I hope it is akin to what happens when you clean out your closet or basement or garage, any place that has old, outdated pieces of you and your history, things you have carried around that weigh you down, or maybe you even look at them all the time, but you hardly even realize they are there. Letting go, letting things die in order to create space for newness of life — sometimes it has to get worse before it gets better.”

“It is All Saints’ Day, and death is, and can be all around us, if we would but recognize it.”

“I recently read Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. [3] Gawande is a surgeon in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School, an accomplished writer, and he also runs a non-profit organization that strives to make surgery safer across the globe. And for his work in public health, he is a MacArthur Fellowship winner. He is one of those people who causes you question if you are really making the most of the 24 hours you are given each day.”

Being Mortal explores the relationship we have with death, both as individuals as our bodies fail us, but also as a society, as generations age and needs change and death approaches. He speaks of the experience of one patient, Felix, who said to him, ‘Old age is a continuous series of losses.”[3]

“I think in NEXT Church right now the white folks are feeling the reality of that necessary series of losses- the way we are accustomed to doing things, the loss of hiding behind our cult of whiteness, the default of not sharing, the posture of being the experts in the room. And since so much of this is deeply ingrained and largely unconscious, letting it die means naming its life in us first. In some ways, maybe even these losses are what is hardest, or as Gawande reflects: ‘It is not death that the very old tell me they fear. It is what happens short of death—losing their hearing, their memory, their best friends, their way of life.’ For many of us, our way of life works really well for us and for people like us, at the cost of the way of life of so many others.”

“Luther Seminary Professor Karoline Lewis, in writing on All Saints Day, says, ‘We allow death to have its way and a say before it should. We allow death to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God, in our midst. And finally, we allow death to have more power than resurrection.”[4]

“The same could be said of racism and the other social evils and ills of our day–  we let them have their way and say and we allow them to determine a way of being in the world that has acquiesced to a matter of factness, an inevitability that truncates the power of the Kingdom of God, the presence of God in our midst. We allow racism to have more power than resurrection.”

“[Gawande also says,]’Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?’”

“So once we name the things that need to die–racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity, the fracturing of our political bedrock, we must ask ourselves these same questions:

  • What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding ?” [5]

“Just as Gawande emphasizes the concept of being an active participant in mortality and the dying process, so too must we be active participants in bringing about the death of the social sicknesses and diseases which are killing our children, our communities, our siblings of color, separating us from the Good News of Jesus Christ in the world, and separating us from God’s beloved.”

“So I close by giving us space in silence to ask ourselves these questions–what needs to die and in that dying and rising, what are your fears and hopes? What is the course of action that best serves this dying and new life? What new creation might God work through that death? How can you make room for the power of the Kingdom of God, the power of resurrection life”

Closing Prayer

“This is the Good News we know–you are God with us and you are here. By the power of your Spirit, help us to name what needs to die, help us to grieve the losses, but push us to move forward in the hard work ahead, to change ourselves and the communities you have created, that we might be repairers for the world. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen”

Reflections

This sermon had a surprising and different slant than that of Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen’s sermon (What Endures?) at the morning service.

Rev. Gage-Finn focused on societal beliefs and actions that need to die: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, classism, heteronormativity and the fracturing of our political bedrock. These beliefs and actions, she says, should prompt us to ask these questions:

  • “What is my understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes?
  • What are my fears and what are my hopes?
  • What are the trade-offs I am willing to make and not willing to make?
  • What is the course of action that best serves that understanding?

This concentration on societal and political problems, while understandable, can lead to reading and studying about the problems and to a sense of hopelessness. What can I do as one individual to combat such large problems? Instead, I suggest, we should focus on what can I do in my everyday life to combat these problems? And is there at least one of these problems where I can get more deeply involved by studying and getting active in a group that attacks the problem?

For me, blogging about law, politics, religion and history is one way to study and advocate for change on these and other issues. I also am active in various Westminster programs that address some of these issues.

And I make financial contributions to groups that concentrate on these issues, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law organization that has challenged mass incarceration, excessive punishment, imposition of death penalty, abuse of children, and discrimination against the poor and disabled; Advocates for Human Rights; Center for Victims of Torture; American Refugee Committee; immigrant Law Center; Amnesty International; Human Rights Watch; Center for Constitutional Rights; American Civil Liberties Union; and Center for Justice and Accountability. I urge others to add these groups to their charitable contributions.

In my everyday life, I seek to smile and greet people, regardless of race, I encounter while walking downtown.

The Isaiah passage also poses even more challenging personal questions: What am I trapped by in my life and what happens when I am released from these burdens?

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[1] Wines, Commentary on Ruth 1: 1-18, Preach this Week (Nov. 1, 2015).

[2] Henri J. Nouwen & Michael Ford. The Dance of Life: Weaving Sorrows and Blessings into One Joyful Step. (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press) 2005, p. 56.

[3] Atul Gawande, Being Mortal (New York: Picador) 2014, p. 55. [See also these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: Another Perspective on Dying (Oct. 6, 2014); Comment: Review of Dr. Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” (Oct. 7, 2014); Comment: Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 17, 2014); Comment: Yet Another Review of “Being Mortal” (Oct. 21, 2014); Comment: Interview of Dr. Gawande (Oct. 26, 2014); Comment: Dr. Gawande’s Conversation with Charlie Rose (Oct. 30, 2014).]

[4] Lewis, For All The Saints, Dear Working Preacher (Oct. 29, 2018).

[5] Gawande, p. 259.

 

 

 

Minneapolis Clergy Call for Compassion for All People

This December a group of 17 Minneapolis senior clergy published a half-page advertisement entitled “A Call for Compassion” in the city’s leading newspaper, The StarTribune. These Christian, Unitarian, Universalist, Jewish and Muslim clergy asserted the following propositions (with explanations):

  • We “abhor and condemn violence perpetrated in the name of religion. No faith tradition, including Islam, condones hatred and injury toward others, except as distorted by extremists.”
  • “We are compelled to stand up and speak out.”
  • “Interfaith dialogue is the antidote to religious violence.”

An image of the complete advertisement is available online; it includes a photograph of some of the clergy at this Thanksgiving Day’s Interfaith Worship Service at Westminster Presbyterian Church, which was the subject of a prior post. I urge all to read this important proclamation.

This Call for Compassion is addressed to all people of good will, and as a Christian and member of Westminster, I urge others and myself to do at least the following:

  1. Never utter comments of hate or derision at another person or his or her religious faith..
  2. If someone else makes such utterances, say: “Your comment is hurtful and objectionable. You should immediately apologize and never say such things again to anyone.”
  3. Greet strangers with a smile and a “Hello” or “ Good morning.”
  4. During Ramadan, when you see someone in what appears to be Muslim attire, say, “Hello, have a meaningful Ramadan.”
  5. Learn more about religious faiths.
  6. Learn more about the history and law regarding refugees.[1]
  7. Learn more about the current plight in 123 countries of 32.2 million refugees and other persons of interest to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.[2]
  8. Get to know the refugees and Muslims in our midst and their concerns.[3]
  9. Object to proposals to restrict U.S. receptivity to refugees.
  10. Let your elected officials know your thoughts on these issues.
  11. Make financial contributions to organizations that seek to protect refugees, including Minneapolis’ own Advocates for Human Rights and the American Refugee Committee.

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[1] This blog has discussed that history: Refugee and Asylum Law: The Pre-Modern Era (July 7, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: The Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011); U.S. Process for Screening Refugees (Nov. 24, 2015).

[2] A World of Refugees (March 30, 2012); Global Forced-Displacement Tops 50 Million (June 22, 2014); UNHCR, Global Report 2014 (June 2015); UNHCR, Global Appeal 2016-2017; António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Remarks to U.N. General Assembly (Nov. 20, 2015).

[3] Smith, Minnesota Muslims talk of backlash against them, StarTribune (Dec. 15, 2015).

Update on Congressional Actions Regarding Cuba 

A June 12th post reviewed the status of appropriations bills relating to Cuba in the U.S. House of Representatives. Now we look at what happened last week in Congress on these and other measures.

National Defense Authorization Act FY 2016[1]

On June 18, the Senate passed its version of the spending authorization for the Department of Defense for Fiscal Year 2016.

The White House threatened to veto the bill. The main bone of contention is the bill’s continuation of sequestration of funds and use of so-called budget gimmicks. The White House opposes also opposes the bill because it contains language that it claims would make it hard to shutter the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. It calls the process for winning congressional approval of closing Guantánamo “unnecessary and overly restrictive.”

The same day, however, Senator John McCain (Rep., AZ) said that Defense Secretary Aston Carter had pledged to come forward to Congress with a plan to close the Guantanamo prison facility. Even if the administration hands over a plan to close the facility, however, it’s unclear if it could get passed through Congress. McCain’s proposal divided Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he faces opposition from House lawmakers.

Now the Senate and House have to confer and negotiate a bill that can pass both chambers. One of the major challenges are the different provisions regarding the Guantanamo detention facility and detainees:

  • The Senate’s version of the bill provides the President with a path to close the prison in Guantanamo if Congress signs off on the plan.
  • The House version does not include an option for closing the prison, but instead would maintain restrictions on transferring prisoners. The House bill also adds additional certification requirements, bans detainees from being transferred to “combat zones” and blocks any transfers of prisoners to the United States including for medical purposes.

Intelligence Authorization Act, FY 2016 (H.R.2596)[2]

On June 16 the House passed, 247-178, the Intelligence Authorization Act FY 2016 (H.R.2596). It outlines policy for 16 federal intelligence agencies, including the CIA and .the National Reconnaissance Agency. After the vote, John Boehner (Rep., OH), the Speaker of the House, said, “This bill sustains and strengthens our capabilities to combat terrorism, cyberattacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, while making every taxpayer dollar count.”

The bill’s sections 321 would ban the transfer of certain Guantanamo detainees to the U.S.; section 322 would ban the construction or modification of U.S. facilities to house certain Guantanamo detainees; and section 323 would ban transfer of Guantanamo detainees to combat zones. Sections 331 and 333 would require certain reports to Congress regarding such detainees.

Rep. Adam Schiff (Dem., CA), the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, criticized the bill’s banning the government from transferring such detainees to the U.S. or a recognized “combat zone.” Schiff said, “We are not safer because of Guantanamo’s existence. In fact, it makes us more vulnerable by drawing more recruits to the jihad.” Moreover, the definition of “combat zone,” Schiff added, is “so broad as to include allies and partners such as Jordan.” An amendment from Schiff to eliminate the new restrictions failed 176-246.

Before the vote, the White House said, “While there are areas of agreement with the committee, the administration strongly objects to several provisions of the bill,” and “If this bill were presented to the president, the President’s senior advisors would recommend to the president that he veto it.”

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016[3]

On June 17 the House Appropriations Committee approved the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act FY 2016 on a straight party-line vote, 30 to 20.The Committee’s press release states the bill provides $20.2 billion in funding for “critical national programs to enforce U.S. laws , maintain a fair and efficient judicial system, and help small businesses grow” while reducing or eliminating lower-priority programs and cutting “poor-performing agencies—including an $838 million reduction to the Internal Revenue Service.”

One of the most controversial provisions of the bill was the temporary blocking of the newly implemented net neutrality rules, which was criticized by the White House without a threat of a veto.

As noted in a prior post, according to the Committee’s press release, the bill contains prohibitions on (a) “travel to Cuba for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program;” (b) “importation of property confiscated by the Cuban Government;” and (c) “financial transactions with the Cuban military or intelligence service.” I, however, am still unable to find these provisions in the bill. I solicit comments identifying these provisions.

In the Committee Rep. Nita Lowey (Dem., NY), the top Democrat of the full committee, offered an amendment that would have removed what she called “20 veto-bait riders” or policy provisions, including these Cuba-related measures. The proposal was blocked on a party-line vote.

Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (S.299)[4]

A prior post discussed the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 that was introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ). In addition, it now has 44 cosponsors: 36 Democrats, 6 Republicans and 2 Independents.

A recent New York Times editorial endorsed the lifting the ban on travel to Cuba. It said, “The ban — the only travel prohibition American citizens are currently subjected to — never made sense, and it’s particularly misguided in an era of broadening engagement between the United States and Cuba.” Now, “the trajectory is unmistakable. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Cubans on the island and Americans favor engagement. Congress should wait no longer to do its part.”

Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489)[5]

On June 3 Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) introduced the Cuban Military Transparency Act (S.1489) with seven cosponsors (Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Orrin Hatch (Rep., UT), Tom Cotton (Rep., AR), Ted Cruz (Rep., TX), Cory Gardner (Rep., CO), David Vitter (Rep., LA), Mark Kirk (Rep., IL). It was referred to the Committee on Foreign Relations.

The bill would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transaction with or transfer of funds to: the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba or the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba (or any of their subdivisions); a senior member of such Ministries; any agency, instrumentality, or other entity that is more than 25% owned, or that is operated or controlled by, such a Ministry; or any individual or entity for the purpose of avoiding a prohibited financial transaction or transfer of funds that is for the benefit of that individual or entity. Excluded from these bans are the sale to Cuba of agricultural commodities, medicines, and medical devices; remittances to an immediate family member; or assistance in furtherance of democracy-building efforts for Cuba.

The bill would also require (a) the U.S. Attorney General to coordinate with the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) in order to pursue the location and arrest of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, including current and former members of the Cuban military and (b) the U.S. President to provide reports on the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba and the return of property that has been confiscated by the Government of Cuba.

In his press release about the bill, Senator Rubio said, ““It is not in the interest of the United States or the people of Cuba for the U.S. to become a financier of the Castro regime’s brutality. The Cuban Military Transparency Act would prevent U.S. dollars from getting into the hands of the Cuban military and would demand accountability from the Obama Administration regarding fugitives of American justice in Cuba, the return of stolen and uncompensated property and the role of the Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior in Cuba.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas opposes this bill. It admits “that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those . . . are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry. Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade [the U.S. Treasury agency] they spent their money in Cuba some other way.” But “how could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military?”

Therefore, according to the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the true purpose of this bill is “to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.”

Conclusion

These latest congressional developments reinforce the need for continued vigilance by supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation to pay attention to what is happening in Congress and to continue to express their opinions on these issues to their representatives in that body and to the larger community.

I take pride in the strong support for such reconciliation in the State of Minnesota, so far away from Cuba. A recent article in MINNPOST explored this apparently strange phenomenon. Eric Schwartz, Dean of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and a non-native Minnesotan, believes there are three main reasons for this fact. First, two of Minnesota’s biggest industries — agriculture and medical devices — have massive potential exports to Cuba. Second, Minnesota’s lack of a large Cuban-American community and its distance from the island mean our lawmakers are not subject to the same pressures as representatives from states like Florida and New Jersey. Third, many of Minnesota’s federal legislators are reasonable people.

I concur in that opinion, but believe Schwartz has missed the fundamental reason for strong Minnesota support for this reconciliation. Many people in this State are interested in what goes on in the world and are actively engaged with the rest of the world through their churches like Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, the Center for Victims of Torture, Advocates for Human Rights, the Minnesota Cuba Committee and various programs at the University of Minnesota and through Minnesotans’ welcoming immigrants and refugees from around the world, especially from Somalia, Viet Nam and Laos, and through major multinational corporations headquartered here like Cargill, which is leading the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba,3M, Medtronic and General Mills.

I was pleased to read about the change of heart of a prominent Cuban-American Republican who was U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the George W. Bush Administration, Carlos Gutierrez. In an op-ed essay in the New York Times, he said,” it is now time for Republicans and the wider American business community to stop fixating on the past and embrace a new approach to Cuba.” He added, “Some of my fellow Cuban-Americans insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy. I wonder if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

Gutierrez concluded, “America must look to the future instead — and pursue this opportunity to assist Cubans in building a new economy. There is a lot of work to do, and progress will be slow. However, the business community and my fellow Cuban-Americans and Republicans should not ignore the possibilities ahead. The Cuban people need and deserve our help.”

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[1] Matishak, White House threatens to veto Senate’s defense spending bill, The Hill (June 18, 2015); Carney, McCain expects Pentagon plan on closing Guantanamo, The Hill (June 18, 2015);Carney, Five challenges for the defense bill (June 21, 2015).

[2] This section of the post is based upon Hattem, House passes intel bill over White House objections, The Hill (June 16, 2015).

[3] This section of the post is based upon the following: House Appropriations Comm., Press Release: Appropriations Committee Approves Fiscal Year 2016 Financial Services Bill (Jun 17, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Financial Services Appropriations Act FY 2016 (June 9?, 2015); House Appropriations Comm., Report: Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill, 2016, No. 114- —( 2015);Trujillo, House panel advances rider to block Internet rules, The Hill (June 7, 2015); Trujillo, Obama administration knocks net neutrality riders in funding bill, The Hill (June 17, 2015)  Shabad, Bill with $838M IRS cut advances in House, The Hill (June 17, 2015).

[4] Library of Congress THOMAS, S.299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015 (Cosponsors)

[5] This portion of the post is based upon the following: Library of Congress THOMAS, Cuban Military Transparency Act; Rubio, Press Release: Senators Introduce Bill To Deny Resources To Castro’s Military and Security Services (June 3, 2015); Center for Democracy in Americas, The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act (June 19, 2015).

My Vocations

The words and music about vocation at the January 26th and February 9th worship services at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church have inspired my general thoughts about vocation set forth in a prior post. Now I reflect on my own vocations.

Until I was in my early 40’s, I had no religious beliefs after high school and no sense of vocation.

That started to change in 1981 when I joined Westminster and embraced what I now see as my first vocation: serving the church as a ruling elder (1985-1991) and over time as an active member of several of its committees (Spiritual Growth, Communications and Global Partnerships). More recently I joined its Global Choir. After all, a new member covenants to find “a definite place of usefulness” in the church.

For 10 years (2003-2013) I served as chair of Global Partnerships, which supervises the church’s partnerships with churches and other organizations in Cuba, Cameroon, Palestine and for a time in Brazil. This lead to my going on three mission trips to Cuba, one to Cameroon and another to Brazil. As a result, I established personal friendships with people in those countries as part of our collective, and my personal, vocation of being present with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world and standing in solidarity with them. I also learned about the history, culture and current issues of those countries. This in turn lead to a strong interest in promoting reconciliation between the U.S. and Cuba and Cuban religious freedom, and as a U.S. citizen I have endeavored to do just that.

This sense of religious institutional vocation also encompassed my serving on the Board of Trustees of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities for another 10-year period (1988-1998). In my small way, I helped nurture future ministers of the church. In the process I got to know interesting members of the faculty, administration and board and about the life of U.S. seminaries.

I, however, initially struggled with how to integrate my newly reclaimed religious beliefs and my life as a practicing lawyer, and over the years found ways to share this struggle with others, especially with my fellow lawyers.

One way I discovered a vocation in the practice of law resulted from experiencing the bitterness and lack of reconciliation between opposing parties in litigation and, too often, as well between their lawyers, including myself. This experience lead in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s to a personal interest in, and writing and speaking about, alternative dispute resolution (ADR), one of whose objectives is resolution of such disputes more amicably, and to my active participation in the ADR Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Another and more powerful vocation involving my professional life emerged when a senior partner of my law firm in the mid-1980’s asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church (“ALC” and now the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). The problem: how should the ALC respond to information that the U.S. immigration agency (INS) had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible-study meetings at ALC and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that provided sanctuary or safe places to Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars.

The conclusion of this engagement was the ALC and the Presbyterian Church (USA)—my own denomination—jointly suing the U.S. government to challenge the constitutionality of such spying. Eventually the U.S. district court in Arizona held that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment “free exercise” of religion clause protected churches from unreasonable government investigations.

U.S. immigration law was in the background of this case, but I did not know anything about that law. I, therefore, sought to remedy that deficiency by taking a training course in asylum law from the Minnesota-based Advocates for Human Rights.

I then volunteered to be a pro bono lawyer for a Salvadoran seeking asylum in the U.S. because of his claim to a well-founded fear of persecution in his home country because of his political opinions and actions opposing its government. Again, my initial motivation for this action was to be a better lawyer for the ALC.

I discovered, however, that being a pro bono asylum lawyer was my passionate vocation while I was still practicing law and continued doing so until I retired from the practice in the summer of 2001. In addition to El Salvador, my other clients came from Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma and Colombia. I was able to assist them in obtaining asylum and thereby escape persecution. In the process, I learned more about asylum law and other aspects of immigration law as well as the horrible things that were happening in many parts of the world. I was able to use my experience and gifts in investigating and presenting facts and legal arguments to courts and officials and came to see this as one of the most important and rewarding vocations I have ever had.

In the process of this asylum work, I also learned for the first time about the humbling and courageous ministry and vocation of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in March 1980 because he repeatedly spoke out against human rights violations in his country. He now is my personal saint. I also learned about the important and courageous work in that country by the Jesuit priests and professors at the University of Central America, six of whom were murdered in November 1989 for the same reason, and they too have become heroes for me.

Another Salvadoran I met on my first trip to that country enriched my sense of the potential for vocation in practicing law. He was Salvador Ibarra, a lawyer for the Lutheran Church’s human rights office, who spoke about the joy he experienced in his work.

After retiring from the full-time practice of law in 2001, I served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Minnesota Law School (2002 through 2010) to co-teach international human rights law. I thereby hoped to encourage law students to become interested in the field and to include such work in their future professional lives. Thus, this became another vocation with the side benefit of enabling me to learn more about the broader field of international human rights.

I chose another retirement in 2011, this time from part-time teaching, in order to start this blog about law, politics, history and religion. I came to see it as yet another vocation. I think it important to share my religious experiences and beliefs in the midst of active consideration of legal and political issues and demonstrate that it is possible for an educated, intelligent individual to have such beliefs.

In 2011 as a member of the planning committee for my Grinnell College class’ 50th reunion. I thought we should do more to remember our deceased classmates than merely list their names in our reunion booklet. I, therefore, suggested that if each committee member wrote five or six obituaries, we would have written memorials for all of our departed classmates. However, no one else volunteered to participate in this project so I did it all myself except for a few written by spouses. After the reunion, I continued to do this when the need arises.

Although this project required a lot of work, I came to see it as pastoral work and rewarding as I learned about the lives of people, many of whom I had not really known when we were together as students. I drew special satisfaction when I learned that a classmate who had died in his 30’s had two sons who had never seen the College annuals that had a lot of photographs of their father as a physics student and co-captain of the football team, and I managed to find a set of those annuals which were sent to the sons. I thus came to see this as a vocation.

Many of these vocations resulted from invitations from others to do something, which I accepted. Initially the invitations did not seem to be calls for a vocation, and it was only after doing these things and reflecting upon them that I saw them as such.

The concept of vocation often seems like doing something for others without any personal rewards other than feeling good about helping others. I, therefore, am amazed by the many ways I have been enriched by these endeavors. I have learned about different areas of the law, different countries and the lives of interesting people, living and dead.

I feel blessed that I have discovered at least some of the work that God has called me to do, in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the work that I need most to do and that the world most needs to have done.”

Or as Rev. Hart-Andersen said on February 9th, “When Jesus calls we get up and go, stepping forward in the direction of the one calling us. Being a follower of Jesus is not a destination . . . . Being called to follow Jesus is a way of life, a pilgrimage on which we embark together.”

What’s next?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Somali Immigrant Meets Star of “M*A*S*H” TV Show

Tonight, June 21st, a Somali immigrant, Ifrah Jimale, met Mike Farrell, the actor who played Captain B.J. Hunnicutt on the long-running, popular U.S. TV series “M*A*S*H.”  The occasion was the annual fund-raising dinner and celebration for the Minneapolis-based Advocates for Human Rights.

Ifrah Jimale

Ms. Jimale told her amazing and moving personal story to the audience of 1,000 people.

In the Somali nomadic tradition, she was sent by her family to the U.S. to see if it was a place where the family could live in peace and security.

Her initial impressions of the U.S. were not positive. At the Cincinnati airport, when she told a U.S. immigration agent that she was a “refugee,” Ifrah was immediately detained and jailed and forced to wear a red jump suit. After a considerable period in a Cincinnati jail, she was told that she was being transferred to another immigration detention facility in Atlanta. She had no idea where that was; she thought it might be in Mexico. In Atlanta she was kept in that detention facility for another period of time. Finally she was released into the care of a relative.

She then came to Minnesota, where she was put in touch with Advocates. The organization provided her a pro bono (no fee) attorney, who helped her obtain asylum in the U.S.

Ifrah was illiterate when she came to the U.S., but she found a Minnesota teacher who taught her how to read and write. Eventually Ifrah obtained a college degree at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She now is a journalist with a blog for the Twin Cities Daily Planet called “Ask a Somali.” Earlier this month the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists awarded her blog second place in the independent news blog category.

Her June 12th blog posting is a good example of her writing. The question was, “I keep seeing Somali women with cellphones tucked into their headscarves. Is this a common thing?” She answered that it is now common in the Twin Cities, but she advised her Somali sisters to take a lesson in looking ridiculous from Somali men, and walk around with a bluetooth headset everywhere you go.” In an aside that was educational for we non-Somalis, Ifrah said, “If you don’t think that women wearing hijabs care about fashion, take another look at all of the beautiful colors and ways of wearing them.”

Ifrah with a big smile thanked Advocates for helping her to find her life in the U.S.

Mike Farrell

Mike Farrell, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, was this year’s recipient of the Don and Arvonne Fraser Human Rights Award. I discovered that he is a long-time activist for human rights and social justice, especially against the death penalty.  He is the President of Death Penalty Focus. It “is one of the largest nonprofit advocacy organizations in the nation dedicated to the abolition of capital punishment through public education; grassroots and political organizing; original research; media outreach; local, state and nationwide coalition building; and the education of religious, legislative and civic leaders about the death penalty and its alternatives.”

Farrell concluded the program with an eloquent, passionate call for everyone to stand up and take action to protect human rights. (I hope that the speech will be published and that I can add it in a Comment to this post.)

My May 20, 2011, post, “Two Women “Shakers” Rock Minneapolis Dinner,” reported on last year’s annual dinner for Advocates for Human Rights.

A World of Refugees

As discussed in a prior post, a “refugee” under international law is “any person who owing to well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The principal U.N. agency concerned with such refugees is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which was established by a December 1950 resolution of the U.N. General Assembly. Its purpose is to safeguard and protect the rights and well-being of refugees and the right to seek asylum. Over time its mandate has broadened to include internally displaced people (IDP) and stateless people. Every year it publishes detailed statistics on all of these people of concern to UNHCR.

For 2010 there were 33,924,000 people of concern to UNHCR in the following categories:

Category Number
Refugees 10,550,000
Asylum-seekers       837,000
IDP’s 17,621,000
Other   4,916,000
TOTAL 33,924,000

Nearly 80 % of these people were hosted in developing countries, including some of the poorest countries in the world while the U.S. had 271,000. The major sources of these people in 2010 were the following countries:

Country Number
Afghanistan   4,404,000
Colombia   4,128,000
Iraq   3,387,000
Democratic Repub. Congo   2,719,000
Somalia   2,257,000
Pakistan   2,199,000
Sudan   2,185,000
Other 12,645,000
TOTAL 33,924,000

The overall statistics for 2011 should be published by UNHCR in June 2012. Just recently it published its report on one part of this new set of statistics–asylum applications in 2011 in 44 industrialized countries, including the U.S. The total of new applications was 441,300, which was 20 % more than in 2010 (368,000). The 2011 level is the highest since 2003 when 505,000 asylum applications were lodged in the industrialized countries.  With an estimated 74,000 asylum applications, the U.S. was the largest single recipient of new asylum claims among the 44 industrialized countries. France was second with 51,900, followed by Germany (45,700), Italy (34,100), and Sweden (29,600).

There are many ways one may make U.S.-tax deductible financial contributions to organizations that help these people. These organizations include the following:

  • USA for UNHCR, which supports UNHCR’s humanitarian work to assist refugees around the world;
  • U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, which seeks to protect the rights and address the needs of persons in forced or voluntary migration worldwide by advancing fair and humane public policy, facilitating and providing direct professional services, and promoting the full participation of migrants in community life;
  • International Rescue Committee, which was founded at the request of Albert Einstein to offer care and assistance to refugees forced to flee from war or disaster;
  • American Refugee Committee (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which works to provide opportunities and expertise to refugees, displaced people and host communities around the world;
  • Center for Victims of Torture (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which helps torture-survivors from around the world heal and rebuild their lives;
  • Advocates for Human Rights (Minneapolis, Minnesota), which, among other things, provides pro bono attorneys for asylum-seekers;
  • Immigrant Law Center of [St. Paul] Minnesota, which provides quality immigration legal services, law-related education, and advocacy to meet the steadily increasing needs of Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities;

Auditing the International Human Rights Course

In the Fall of 2001, after retiring from Faegre & Benson, I audited the International Human Rights Law course at the University of Minnesota Law School.[1] Although I had gained some knowledge of refugee and asylum law from my pro bono asylum work,[2] I knew very little about the rest of the field. Through this experience at the Law School I started to learn about other aspects of this area of law and developed a continuing interest in trying to keep up with new developments in the field.

Prof. David Weissbrodt
Prof. Barbara Frey

The course was lead by Professor David Weissbrodt, a world authority on the subject and now the first and only Regents Professor at the UM Law School.[3] He was the main author of the book that we used.[4] Some classes were taught by Professor Barbara Frey, whom I had met when she was the Executive Director of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights (n/k/a Advocates for Human Rights) and had taken its training course in asylum law.[5]

The topics for the course were the following: (a) drafting, ratification and implementation of international human rights treaties; (b) state reporting under such treaties; (c) U.N. Charter-based mechanisms to address human rights violations; (d) humanitarian intervention; (e) international human rights fact-finding; (f) criminal liability for human rights violations; (g) regional human rights systems (Inter-American and European); (h) refugee and asylum law; (i) U.S. federal court litigation over foreign human rights violations; (j) use of international human rights treaties and law in litigation over U.S. issues; and (k) causes of human rights violations.

The course used different teaching styles. Some classes were the traditional law school Socratic questioning by the professor. Others were lectures while some involved role playing by the students. One class was a mock hearing before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee on whether the Senate should give its advice and consent to U.S. ratification of an international human rights treaty. The course also had an unusual structure. The class met once a week for two hours on Friday morning immediately followed by another hour when we were joined by an undergraduate human rights class for presentations by outside speakers on various related topics.


[1]  University of Minnesota Law School, International Human Rights, http://www.law.umn.edu/current/coursedetails.html?course=23.

[2] Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011).

[3] University of Minnesota Law School, David S. Weissbrodt, http://www.law.umn.edu/facultyprofiles/weissbrodtd.html.

[4] David Weissbrodt, Joan Fitzpatrick & Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process (3d ed. 2001).

[5] University of Minnesota, Barbara A. Frey, http://hrp.cla.umn.edu/about/people.htm; Post: Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011).