Monday, January 16, 2012

GA12 Getting Real, with Homily

Omigod. This GA12 stuff is getting real. After an amazing meeting of the GA Planning Committee, we are beginning to see what it will look like, and how it will feel, to go to Phoenix this June. As Walt said in our meeting with the Louisville congregations (we’re also beginning to plan GA’13), our General Assembly is often transformative. Tens of thousands of people have “gotten religion” at our annual gathering. Well, this year could be much more transformative than usual. It is still early, obviously, and I don’t want to set expectations too high. Nevertheless: the structure we’re creating, and the witness events we’re planning, and the work (and fun!) we’re planning with our local partners–we’ve got an opportunity to change our selves, our congregations, and perhaps our movement, as we help to improve the lives of immigrants and marginalized people in Arizona and all over our nation.

So much for setting expectations.

Well, we’re trying to have all the good things that we usually have (the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition, the Exhibit Hall, etc) *and* we’re setting up more witness events (the primary way our partners have asked us to serve their cause), more service, more education, and more concrete ways to take home our learning. We’re trying to make it easy to take our justicemaking best practices back to our congregations and regions.

It still sounds like I’m gushing. I’ll include the homily I preached to the GAPC yesterday morning, to temper and ground this, a bit. And I’ll also say, that if you were working with Debra Boyd, Greg Boyd, Kathy Charles, Gini Courter (Moderator), Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (Arizona Immigration Ministry),Bart Frost, Ila Klion, Tim Murphy, Jill Sampson (District Coordinator, ’13), Carolyn Saunders (District Coordinator, ’12), Jackie Shanti (UUA Board Rep), Jan Sneegas (GACS Director), Sandy Weir (Arizona Immigration Ministry), Rev. Nan White, Rev. Walt Wieder and Jacqui Williams, you would be excited and hopeful, too. They’re great human beings, each working very hard to live up to their best selves. We truly listened to each other; we challenged each other with respect; we earnestly tried to imagine how other peoples’ ideas might work. Each and every person in that room made a vital contribution to our work. I am proud to be among them.

Here’s the homily:

Yesterday morning, we toured the convention center. At one point, we wandered through the giant empty space that will be both Plenary Hall and the Exhibit Hall. I invite you to imagine a room eight times that size—imagine a cafeteria that serves 10,000 people at a time. Now imagine a building that houses twenty cafeterias that big. That would be the manufacturing plant of Foxconn Technology, in Shenzhen, China, which employs 460,000 workers—yes, almost half a million people in one building.

Foxconn employees make the tiny electronic pieces inside our iPhones, and our laptops, and our Xbox games; and many other brands and kinds of consumer gadgets.

Many, many Chinese teenagers work at Foxconn. Some are as young as 13. The company knows this; when western inspectors visit, older workers are sent in, replacing everyone on an entire manufacturing line.

Conditions are not very good in the plant. Repetitive stress does not begin to describe what happens to many of these workers. It could be relatively easily prevented by shifting the workers around, to a different grueling job, every month or so. Foxconn does not do this. By the time a person has worked for a decade or more, so, by the time they are 25, some of them, they can literally no longer use their arm, or their wrist, or their hand. At such a point, the company fires them, and they leave, mangled and jobless.

Belonging to a union is illegal in China. Many workers do report to the rough equivalent of the Labor Relations Board. It’s a rough equivalent, because what it mainly does is compile lists of people who are “troublemakers,” and circulates that list requiring that everyone on that list be fired, immediately.

Some workers *have* gone on strike, and forced the company to make some concessions. Some were promised a pay raise from an average of $220 per month to $275 per month. Much of the time, those agreements are not kept.

In one part of the Foxconn plant, toward the end of the process, workers wipe any fingerprints off the little iPhone window. Here in the United States, we sometimes use an alcohol-based wipe to clean off our fingerprints and grime. But there is another chemical, which dries just a little bit quicker than alcohol, so the manufacturing plant can go marginally faster.

The downside is, that chemical is a neurotoxin, and most of the workers exposed to it, over a decade or so—you know, those 27-year-olds—have hands that shake so violently that they cannot grasp a glass of water.

There are always more workers to replace the ones used up by Foxconn.

Recently, some Chinese workers there have becomes so despondent that they’ve begun to jump off the roof of the giant building. After fourteen such suicides, in 2010, the company finally realized that something was wrong. Foxconn installed nets around the building, to keep their human assets alive, and to minimize bad publicity.

When I heard an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” about these Chinese workers, on This American Life last weekend, I was sick. I have been thinking about those workers, and the egregious conditions in which they live and work, all week.

In our work, here, we’ve shared stories of Joe Arpaio’s Tent City jail, and families deliberately ripped apart by U.S. Immigrations officials. As an undocumented parent is deported, the remaining parent is named a criminal, for having “harbored” hir partner, and some judges send any children into the foster care system, because that is “better” for them than living with a “criminal.”

I wonder how I can possibly help the workers in China. I debate myself about how many actual lives we will improve by holding General Assembly in Phoenix.

Eventually I realize that however small my actions may seem, to me and my ego, those actions are still critically important.

All life *is* interrelated. Dr. King said, “for some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.” In my theology, that “strange reason” is that we are part of the same unity. Each of us in this room, and every undocumented worker in these United States, and every all-too-well documented worker in plants like Foxconn, are all part of one interdependent whole.

Not only *can* I witness to these injustices, not only will I go steadfastly to Phoenix this June, I will do so with an understanding that I am not helping “them,” I am helping *us*.

Although I am part of the global 1%, although, in many ways, I and my wealth and my comfortable lifestyle are part of the problem, I therefore have more leverage to be part of the solution. If I try to help “them” I fear I will only perpetuate the imbalance and injustice.

If I embrace the fact that my liberation *is* bound up with theirs—if I allow myself to be changed by the lives and the stories and the courage and dignity of our fellow human beings, then we are working together and we can all save each other.

One of my colleagues works with the Girl Scouts, and they have some encouraging news about bullying. Their research shows that most of the children around an incident of bullying are uncomfortable with it, and recognize it is wrong. It often takes only one child speaking up, saying, “hey, that’s not cool” to break the tension and allow other kids to voice their own disapproval. Almost always, if two of the onlookers challenge the event, then the bullying stops and the group affirms justice and dignity. It only takes one or two voices.

I am truly glad to work with you all. I am grateful that I have the opportunity to go to Phoenix and raise my voice in witness. I am somewhat astounded that I have been given this chance to help a few thousand others to go raise their voices, too.

So may we be.

(original post, with links, at So May We Be)


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