Saturday, April 9, 2016

New York for Bernie, 2016

There are some times when we need to become our own media. One of those times is now.
The Bronx, the United States, and the World need Bernie. And right now, Bernie needs New York.
New York, let's show the world that New York City is not the center of the universe because of Wall Street, but because of its humanity.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend Congressman Bernie Sanders' presidential rally at St. Mary's Park in Mott Haven, the section of the South Bronx where I have lived for the past five years.  The rally was a huge success and drew between 18,500-20,000 people - people of all backgrounds - the working class. And today, Bernie came to a second rally in the Bronx, this time at Bronx Community College - another success. The library auditorium was filled with college students and others - real Bronxites and other New Yorkers - listening to this Vermont Senator from Brooklyn who gives us hope.

I was grateful to hear New York State Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda standing up for Bernie at both rallies. Sepulveda says he did not endorse Bernie from the beginning, but wanted to look at the issues first. Once he did, he realized there was no other candidate he could stand with other than Bernie Sanders.  This is line with previous meetings I have been in with Assemblyman Sepulveda, where I distinctly remember leaving feeling impressed with how principled he was.

Some major news outlets have been starting to pay attention, giving more airwaves to Bernie Sanders and the issues that he is talking about, rather than the rhetoric and contradictions being spewed by other candidates. Yet there are still a lot of doubtful people, and people who say Hillary is going to win New York, she has all the superdelegates. Well, that's precisely the establishment we are working to deconstruct, that Bernie has been talking about.  He walks the walk in his opposition to money in politics, the need to repeal Citizens United, and the need for campaign finance reform. That is the first step to a true democracy. He has been consistent on his messages about the need to hold the banks of Wall Street accountable, invest in living wages ($15/hr) for working class people rather than war, make college education affordable, have a healthcare system for all, accept the human-induced causes of climate change and take responsibility for addressing them, bar for-profit prisons, and address the plight of urban communities across the country.  Political actions that demonstrate that he upholds the human dignity of all, especially the most disenfranchised.

Bernie spoke eloquently about religious coexistence - what matters is not if a person is Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, or other - but that there is love.  My good friend Jonathan Reid shared a video on my Facebook page the other day of someone giving out Free Hugs at a Bernie Rally and a Trump Rally.  It goes without saying, there was a lot more love at the Bernie rally.

Man offers free hugs at Sanders and Trump rallies and gets shockingly different responses Free Hugs Project
Posted by Salon on Thursday, March 31, 2016

Actually, Bernie has received an invitation to speak at the Vatican next week.  Though, he is not the first progressive socialist Jew to be invited to the Vatican; last year, the Vatican invited Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

A friend of mine made a flyer comparing Bernie Sanders' statements on climate change, war, and economic inequality to those of Pope Francis, even before the announcement was made about the Vatican's invitation.  It is really not hard to figure out why someone like Bernie Sanders would appeal to the Vatican.  He speaks up about addressing wealth inequality and other injustices that keep people oppressed - issues that fit squarely within the realm of Catholic Social Teaching. His spiritual convictions - that we are all in this together - are also very much in line with the church's teachings.

Besides the superdelegates, the other significant concern regarding the primaries is all of the support the unions are throwing at Hillary Clinton.  Bernie supports unions too - why wouldn't he?  He's for the working class.  The Working Families Party has already enthusiastically endorsed Bernie Sanders, though unfortunately the votes don't count in the primaries.  But the unions are endorsing Hillary.  What's even sadder is they are unethically using staff time to support Hillary. A friend of mine who works for a union told me they were going to make him go canvas for Hillary.  I told him to just talk about the issues.

Through Bronx Health REACH, I am working with the United Federation of Teachers to bring nutrition education into schools in the Bronx. The UFT is a big help in this regard, certainly they play an important role in society. But one role they should not play is endorsing candidates, especially if those wishes go against their employees.  That role is what the Working Families Party is for.

I had a wonderful time at the Bernie rally today. I met real New Yorkers, with incredible stories to tell.  I stood online next to a retiree currently serving on a Bronx community board who said of his career working on Wall Street: "If you want to see cocaine, go to Wall Street."  He had become addicted to drugs working on Wall Street, not from living the Bronx.  I also had a fascinating conversation with the guy sitting next to me during the rally, an actor named James McDaniel, who lives in Harlem, saw the gentrification that happened around the time Bill Clinton moved his office to the Harlem State Office Building, and has been invited to dinners at the White House on numerous occasions.  He told me the one time he got to speak to President Obama, he said, "This country doesn't deserve you."  I would have to agree with him. It made me sad, actually, to hear Bernie today saying the same thing Obama said during his candidacy, that he needs the American people to work with him.  Because the thing is, Obama and Sanders are telling the truth.  Things will not change unless we the people are working together with progressive elected officials to create the change we want to see. 

This election, the primaries are an opportunity for Americans to vote with their values. The Democratic ticket can go to Bernie or Hillary. It is not about who will beat who later on. We are talking about nowNow is our opportunity to create a revolution, as Tracy Chapman's voice sang out through the loudspeaker at the end of the Bernie rally.

The choice is ours.  Will we stand up for our values?  We have until April 19th to decide. This is our opportunity to embrace hope and our spiritual convictions and build a world we can be proud of. I hope we will choose it. And for those who are still skeptics, may I ask that you seek to really listen to a few Bernie supporters. They probably have some pretty incredible stories to tell.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Soil & Sacrament: Fred Bahnson & Shamu Sadeh - Thurs at St. John the Divine

Dear friends,
I am writing to invite you by a talk by Fred Bahnson, author of Soil and Sacrament, this upcoming Thursday at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.  Fred will be joined by Shamu Sadeh, the Jewish farmer who was featured in the Adamah chapter of Soil and Sacrament.

Thursday, March 10, 2016
7 PM – 8:30 PM, Cathedral of St. John the Divine
1047 Amsterdam Avenue at 112th Street

I first learned about Fred and his work several years ago.  I was impressed by the work of the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, and happened to be searching through the list of Food & Community Fellows when I found Fred's profile and his work on understanding the faith community's role in the food movement.  Not too long after, I learned about a book he co-authored with Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation.

Last year, several colleagues informed me of Fred's Re:Generate Fellowship program through the Wake Forest University School of Divinity's Food, Faith & Religious Leadership Initiative which he directs.  I was accepted to the program, and spent one of the most fulfilling weeks of my life last summer in the hills of North Carolina in true fellowship, learning and sharing and envisioning a "New Heaven, New Earth" with the other fellows and program participants. 

Fred has become a dear mentor of mine, who through profound spiritual conversion has developed a true gift for articulating the inextricable link between "our yearning for real food" and "our spiritual desire to be fed" as we seek to be truly alive.  I feel a deep sense of peace and shalom in the work of bringing people closer to the adamah from which we come, and am so grateful for his leadership in this endeavor.  I still have much to learn from him.

I hope you will be able to come and listen to Fred and Shamu speak this Thursday at St. John the Divine. Please spread the word to others who may be interested as well!

Peace -- and Shalom,

Saturday, November 28, 2015

What is Enough?

It’s two days after Thanksgiving and one day after what is commonly known as “Black Friday” here in the U.S.  Meanwhile, the climate justice pilgrims have just completed their journey from Rome to Paris on foot for the People’s Pilgrimage, bringing the voices of people of faith from across the world to Paris for the COP-21 climate negotiations, with the message that the United Nations must pass a strong climate treaty. 

I find myself joining other OurVoices leaders in asking the question, “What is enough?” 

How is it that we choose to be thankful for a day every year, and then we allow ourselves to continue to live in a society that turns around the next day, with people knocking one another over in the quest to get the best deal on the latest gadget? 

I have always understood that the holidays are a time to be grateful for what we have, for family, friends, nourishing food and the opportunities provided for us in our lives.  A time to sober ourselves to the reality that there are billions of people across the planet who are hungry and living in poverty, subject to the whims of an unstable climate caused in large part by our unsustainable lifestyles.  Given these realities, to me the materialistic frenzy that surrounds the holidays is too harmful to just be written off as shallow.  

I am grateful for growing up with a religious orientation that taught me the love of God for all people, and through which I eventually came to understand the spiritual and ecological interconnectedness of all people and aspects of creation to one another.   My experiences and those of many other spiritually conscious people have convicted me that faith, religion, and spirituality allow any of us to transform ourselves into more compassionate human beings, and that this transformation is exactly what our religious and spiritual traditions were created for.   When we do not pay attention to this reality and instead focus on the inflatable Christmas lawn decorations and long wish lists for Santa Claus and his elves, we are betraying the very purpose of the holi-day.  Americans spend more than $600 billion during the holiday season, causing some to believe Christmas is synonymous with materialism.

How did we get to this point, and what will it take for us to return to the real meaning of the holiday season….and pass strong climate legislation?

I like returning to St. Nicholas, from whom the story of Santa Claus was born.  As legend has it, when Nicholas learned of a poor man who could not afford a proper dowry for his three daughters, he decided help them. He secretly threw three purses filled with gold coins through the window of the family’s house in order to help prevent the women from remaining unmarried, becoming prostitutes or being assumed to be prostitutes.  To me this is far cry from what our society has manufactured, which somehow ties a spinoff of the legend of St. Nicholas together with a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable in Nazareth, into a “holiday” celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike that does more harm than good for God’s creation, or to use the term popularlized by Pope Francis, “our common home.”   Not to mention completely looking past the deeper spiritual messages that Jesus preached about and stood for through his incarnation as the Christ.  

For a moment, let us pause at the wonders of the sacred world we are privileged to live in.  

For me, this is enough.

As we return to thinking about the season of gift-giving, wouldn’t we do better to celebrate the holidays by following the example of St. Nicholas, who gave of himself to protect the welfare and dignity of young women?   Given how our actions create ripple effects, our unsustainable lifestyles are directly connected to instances of human trafficking across the world:  as I have learned from Franciscans International, areas where mining of precious minerals occurs are also hot spots for human trafficking.  Instead of asking for the latest electronics or fashion items from the local mall this year, what if we replaced our selfish desires with means of combating instances which destroy the lives and self-esteems of our global brothers and sisters?  This year, for those who insist on buying me gifts for Christmas, I’ll be asking for products and services that help girls get to primary or secondary school safely through Global Girlfriend.   And no gift-wrapping, please.   In the meantime, I’ll be praying for a strong climate treaty at COP-21, with the awareness that we must put our prayers and Pope Francis’ words of Laudato Si’ into action in order to realize a better world.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Faith in Action Food Summit: October 22

Breaking Bread Together to Address Hunger & Health

Faith calls us to be present to the world’s realities: a faith life which is disconnected from the needs of one’s physical body and the world around us is not good for one’s physical or spiritual well-being. Instead, we are called to create communities where everyone is free from disease, no one goes hungry, workers are treated well, and where children are nourished and ready to succeed. In such a community, people can eat with dignity around the table together, and food is affordable and accessible for all. This is the world we are called to co-create with the universal Creator. National Food Day – a nation-wide celebration of real food – is an opportunity for faith leaders to come together to celebrate real food and see what we can do to create a food system that feeds and nourishes with the bounty of the earth, rather than one that harms human health and the ecosystems surrounding us.

The Bronx Multi-Faith Advisory Group cordially invites you to gather for a Faith in Action Food Summit on October 22nd from 10am-1pm at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx NY 10456). This is an opportunity for faith leaders to gain a deeper understanding of the ways people of faith can get involved in creating an equitable and sustainable food system that promotes health and reduces hunger. The Summit will equip participants with messages that can be taken back to congregations the following weekend, putting Bronx-based efforts to create a holistic food system on the map alongside others from across the country who will also be celebrating Food Day, which is held every year on October 24.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Faith and the Environmental Justice Movement: A Franciscan Perspective

Catholics are natural allies in the struggle for environmental justice.  As a Catholic, I have been most drawn to the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who is our tradition’s patron saint of the environment. St. Francis, who followed Jesus’ call to leave everything behind and live a life of intentional poverty and simplicity, lived in a medieval world where people, who had previously enjoyed a more intimate bond with their ecosystems, began to be disconnected from the land as a result of extensive land holdings owned and controlled by the small minority in the ruling class.  This separation of people from the land, coupled with abuse of power, led to oppression and a class of poor deprived of their humanity and dignity.

Francis’ identification with the poor gradually brought him to an understanding of his place as a “little brother” to all humanity and all creation. His famous “Canticle of the Creatures,” which is the inspiration for Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, reveals how integrally interconnected St. Francis felt to all elements of God’s creation. He came to see God reflected in all of creation and therefore sought to maintain the integrity of all creation.

The essence of Franciscan spirituality, then, is a focus on seeing God in everyone, especially the marginalized, and working toward protecting the integrity of all creation. Therefore, by working to maintain the integrity of all creation—with particular emphasis on the poor, vulnerable, and those least responsible for environmental degradation—Franciscan spirituality lends itself to a focus on environmental and climate justice.

Through St. Francis’ commitment to following the convictions of his faith, he consciously joined the “story of power,” which is the story of humans and creation that also “includes a focus on the differences of status, privilege, social class, levels of influence, wealth and political and social power of various groups” (Franciscan Care for Creation).  This is the story that continues through the environmental justice movement today.

Environmental justice communities have a unique perspective on the ways in which consumer culture and differences in societal power negatively affect the health of impacted communities. By tapping into our own spiritual wells and joining the spiritual movement for climate justice, we can help to bridge the knowledge and lived experience of these communities with the moral clarity of our faith traditions – thereby more effectively helping to ensure that policies and systems prioritize the health of people and ecosystems, rather than business interests.

By examining our own tradition’s religious teachings on the environment and engaging in dialogue with congregations about our role in causing harm to – or protecting the integrity of – creation, we are lending our voices to the environmental justice movement. We are moving ourselves and others into a new consciousness about how to live in unity and harmony with the earth and one another.

Some of the ways Catholic congregations and other faith communities are doing this include conducting energy audits of houses of worship, converting to clean energy where possible, starting compost and garden projects, divesting from fossil fuels, and advocating for better U.S. climate policy. The Franciscan Action Network, where I serve on the Board of Directors, is leading an interfaith coalition working to get money out of politics and calling out members of Congress who have been supportive of the Koch brothers’ “No Climate Tax” pledge through a #KochvsPope campaign, among other actions.

Above all, we are promoting the concept of simple living, which allows us to practice a life of ongoing conversion and provides lifelong opportunities to live in right relationship with our world. Catholics in the Franciscan tradition embrace an ecology that keeps humans and all of creation out of harm’s way. It allows us to see the “thisness” – the unique specialness of each particular living and nonliving thing – that is characteristic of Franciscan spirituality.

Written for WE ACT for Environmental Justice,