13 december 2018: grief comes in advent

This week our hearts are broken. Doubly, if that's possible. This week, we've experienced the death of two faithful Woodsiders, one of our longest-tenured and one of our newest. 

Jim Abbott was a life-long Woodsider, baptized in the old chapel on East Court Street when he was a child, more than 50 years ago. He was a former treasurer and finance chair, a perpetual usher and greeter, making people feel welcome when they walked in the door, and often the one to call when an emergency required a key to something. 

Kat Morgan joined by Affirmation of Baptism just this year, November 4, All Saints Sunday, during our very first worship in our new Garland Street tire store. She participated in the adult forum, reading and pondering important social issues. Often the first to arrive and among the last to leave, she would help with whatever needed to be done, to help us worship well. 

Kat and Jim both brought light and joy to the congregation; both lived lives of saying yes, stepping up and helping out, finding family in the grace and fellowship of this congregation. Both recently joined a Woodside pilgrimage to Alabama, a Civil Rights retreat. Or reckoning. 

In the days before death became evident, Jim talked about his thankfulness in knowing that he could count on Woodsiders to care for him, to help him tend to errands, to provide for daily needs during a difficult time. He felt the congregation's love. 

In our membership classes in September, Kat talked about finding home at Woodside, safety and comfort, when life otherwise wasn't all that comfortable or safe. She found it possible to be herself, and found unconditional love which is maddeningly scarce in communities of faith. She posted a photo of her membership certificate on her facebook page the day she joined, so happy was she to belong to this congregation. 

Blessed by us, they blessed us in return, in all the ways we felt loved and tended by them. 

We spend a lot of time being joyful here at Woodside. Righteously indignant, sure, but even in our political frustration and social justice annoyance, we find joy in being together, being on a path together. Part of that joy is knowing that we are able to be a place of welcome for others. Part of the joy is being surrounded by this community of grace. I cannot tell you how much that means to me; I hear from you that you feel it, too. 

But this week, joy is hard. 

When death happens, I often hear in my head the scriptures that are so common at funerals: 

Jesus said in God's mansion there are many rooms. "I'm going to prepare a place for you." 

John wrote in the Revelation of the new heaven and new earth, and how God will wipe every tear from our eyes.

Isaiah imagined a feast of rich wine and fat foods on the mountain of God, and death being swallowed up forever. 

The psalmist sang that God is our shepherd and we will not live in fear, but we will live in God's house forever. 

In these weeks of Advent, we hear other scriptures, too, especially my favorite, Isaiah: Comfort my people, says God; tell them that their war is over.... Those who wait for God shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Consolation is hard to come by. Not only because we've lost Jim and Kat, but because of all that can get out of whack or cause us pain: parents and jobs and friends and relationships and broken promises and broken dreams. But even as we grieve, we hope. Sometimes walking without fainting is the most we hope for. Just being on our feet one more day. Such is the season of Advent.  

I know we are all over the place in imagining what life beyond death might look like. I am too. I personally find hope and comfort in a particular passage from Romans; it seems enough to me that "nothing can separate us from the love of God that we experience in Jesus." Sometimes, in my mind, that looks like death pitching us into an abyss, when we then we fall into the arms of God. Or walking a path accompanied by a most comforting presence we cannot name. Maybe it means our spirit joins with the One Spirit that animates us all, our breath becomes someone else's breath; perhaps we become life for someone who is struggling to breathe. But I don't know. 

I do know that I trust God. I find great comfort in knowing that we have each other, this community of hope and grace. Today I offer you this traditional prayer, which I've said for Jim and for Kat, and now for you, for us: 

O God, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done. Then, God, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last. 

Breathing, walking, hoping, falling, resting, feasting, weeping. 

With you on a journey to peace, 

- pastor deb

18 Oct 2018: about the "promote the vote" referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. This is third in the series, as we review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot here.

Last week, I reviewed proposal 18-2, about gerrymandering, the way that elected officials rig the system to design districts in which they are assured reelection. It's pretty awful, and you can read that essay elsewhere. But gerrymandering isn't the only tool in the election-rigging toolbox. 

Georgia, for example, is a mess. We've been reading about how the Secretary of State there has been disqualifying registered voters, putting their registrations "on hold," or cancelling existing registrations due to inactivity. No surprise that this is mostly affecting people of color. 

Secretaries of State are elected officials, members of one or the other of our political parties. It is in their job description to oversee elections, but in worst cases, officials are using their office to keep away from the polls people who may vote against their party. This is mostly a war fought against black and other minority voters, as in Georgia this week. The Secretary of State there is also a candidate for Governor, and he is working mightily to disenfranchise folks not inclined to vote for him. (His opponent, who would be the first black female governor of Georgia, has been a community organizer for a while, and she has spent the past five years registering people to vote.) The Sec of State has frozen tens of thousands of voter registrations for reasons that mostly seem bogus or designed to intimidate, including a rule he made called "exact match." If your state i.d. isn't exactly the same as your voter registration — including spelling, typos and placement of hyphens -- you are considered to be voting fraudulently and can be turned away. 

Several years ago, I changed my middle name. You can do that for about $8 and a trip to the courthouse. Afterward, I changed all the right legal documents — social security card, passport, driver's license, living will. All that. And my voter registration. But for years afterward, really, years, my old name appeared on the docket when i went to the polls. If the Georgia Sec of State had been in charge, I would have been turned away. 

This Sec of State has been making voting rules stricter since he was first elected in 2010; he says he is trying to prevent fraud. This year he also tried closing multiple pollling places, mostly in poor black precincts (ostensibly to save money or because he said the toilets weren't wheelchair accessible). And yesterday, the first day of early voting, government officials ordered Black senior citizens off a bus that was taking them from a county Senior Center to a voting location, calling the shuttle "political activity" not allowed on county property. The intention is clear — keep away anyone who would vote for the other person. 

The record of the Right, overall, is one of trying to keep people away, enabled powerfully by the US Supreme Court, which decided in 2013 to gut the Voting Rights Act, the 1965 legislation that had kept badly-behaving racist states in check for decades. We don't need it anymore, said Chief Justice Roberts; and, before the ink was dry, the GOP-controlled states began living large. 

Georgia isn't the only one. In North Dakota, the state passed a law to require home addresses on state IDs; but Native American culture doesn't support street addresses; plus, we know that a lot of people simply don't have homes. Nevertheless, a federal court upheld the requirement. Kansas, led by Sec of State Kris Kobach (now also candidate for governor), made a rule requiring proof of citizenship beyond a state ID, which most folks don't have. Before the law was struck down, 31,000 potential voters had been turned away from registering. 

They say they are trying to reduce fraud. But we do not have a voter fraud problem in the U.S. According to my math, based on a variety of reports, about 1 ballot in every 30 million may be fraudulent. That is actually a remarkable show of integrity and trustworthiness. However, voter fraud and election fraud are not the same thing, and there is a great deal of evidence that the people who run the elections are working hard to sway those elections by voter suppression and intimidation.  

Only people afraid of democracy or hungry for power would want to keep you from voting. Some say voting is our most sacred American right. It seems to me that anything that we can do to make it easier is an immunization against tyranny. 

It is open season on voting rights. So, Michigan voters are trying to put some things beyond the reach of power-hungry political parties. The measures of Prop 18-3 will change our state Constitution to ensure easier access to voting: easier registration; more accessible absentee ballots; and the ability to vote a straight-party ticket, which is currently banned — and which will shorten lines at the polls (long lines penalize people who cannot wait) and allow voters to make clearer choices. Amending the state constitution to enshrine these will ensure that, whoever is in the seat of power, the vote still belongs to the people. 

So, I recommend yes. Let's keep electoral power where it belongs. 

With you on the way,  — pastor deb

11 oct 2018: about the gerrymandering referendum

November 6, in addition to all the pivotal elections of leaders in our nation, Michiganders will see three referenda on the ballot: 18-1 legalizing marijuana for recreational use; 18-2: requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commission rather than the party in power; and 18-3: relaxing voter registration and absentee ballot rules to make it easier for people to vote. For the next three weeks, we'll review those in this space, to help us think through what is at stake. You're welcome to submit your own thoughts, if you'd like. And find your ballot and read the full text here.

In 1812, Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed off on a bill that created a weirdly shaped congressional district, a district intended to change the party imbalance in his state's delegation. It worked, but he was widely ridiculed for the district's shape -- it looked like a salamander, said one leader. No, said another, a gerry-mander. 

Since then, the practice has grown more prevalent and more poisonous with each census, as the party in power seeks to solidify its hold on the US House of Representatives. (The number of House districts is always the same, 435, but divided among the states based on population, so it all gets reassessed after each 10-year census.) The party in power has the right to draw districts, and both parties have tried to do this to their own benefit, though the Republicans are more blatant and better at it. 

This has not been good for the US. With gerrymandering, plus the constitutional rule of two senators per state regardless of population, and then the electoral college, we have now realized a "minority majority," a Congress that does not reflect the general party alignment of the populace. 

In West Virginia, for example, a third of voters voted Democratic in the last election, but all the 3 Congressional seats are held by Republicans. In Kentucky, more than 1/3 voters are Dems, but 5 of 6 districts are GOP. North Carolina has 12 districts, only 3 of which are reliably Dem, and one of which looks like a river snaking through 4 other districts. Folks have said we are letting elected officials choose their voters, rather than have voters choose their elected officials. The result has been that the House of Representatives, designed to represent people more directly than the Senate, and elected anew every two years, has become entrenched, with a "incumbent success rate" in 2016 of 97 percent. This means a lot of people are left with no representation of their values or ideas in the halls of Congress, and newcomers are at a tremendous disadvantage in even gaining entry into political processes. (The math on how all senators or votes aren't equal is another mind-boggling reality, but we'll save that for another newsletter.) 

Maddeningly, for example, while districts in North Carolina were described recently by the Supreme Court of the US as targeting African Americans with "surgical precision," SCOTUS has consistently refused to make this better. So it is up to the states. Specifically, it is up to voters. 

This year, Michigan organizers have worked really hard to try to change this. This ballot proposal is probably not perfect, but it is really good. It would change the way voting districts are drawn, by taking away money and political power from the process. It would assign the task not to political parties, but to an independent commission, which would intentionally exclude elected officials, family members or lobbyists. It would comprise equal numbers of folks affiliated with the two major parties, but then more people who aren't part of either party. And it would be randomly selected, so, if you're registered to vote, you could be chosen! 

Getting it on the ballot wasn't easy. It took 400,000 signatures (Leslie collected about half of those, we think. -ed.), and then a lawsuit, backed principally by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, that went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. The Court decision wasn't unanimous, which means even the progress we make is fragile. And that the Chamber of Commerce is against it reminds us how much the moneyed people want to control the way we vote -- not by persuading us but by manipulating us. But we can't change any of the rest unless we can freely choose who represents us. 

I recommend we vote yes, and let's find our voices again. 

With you on the way,  - pastor deb