Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Many Layers of Confinement

The Many Layers of Confinement
A sermon by The Rev. Connie Yost
for West Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
April 19, 2020

The truth is, however, that the oppressed are not “marginals,” are not people living “outside” society.
They have always been “inside” – inside the structure which made them “beings for others.”
The solution is not to “integrate” them into the structure of oppression, but to transform that structure so that they can become “beings for themselves.”
                                                                  -- Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Welcome, it is good to be with you today. I am The Reverend Connie Yost, one of the community ministers affiliated with WHUUF.

Little did I know when I was asked to share a reflection with you about immigration and liberation that we would all be experiencing our own confinement due to the coronavirus pandemic. This pandemic has affected us all – worldwide – in varying degrees. We all worry about health, ours and others. We all grieve and experience loss, some due to death of loved ones and some due to loss of income. We all are having to reinvent ourselves in confinement and find ways to stay healthy and stay connected. We struggle to find meaning in this invisible microbe which has stolen our freedom, livelihood and has changed life as we know it, forever.

What has sustained me during this difficult time is the cycle of life, noticing all the new life in springtime, and doing my part by planting seeds in my garden. I am also sustained by this holy season, this time of Lent and Easter, Passover, and soon, Ramadan.

All three of these holy traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – were born out a quest for liberation from oppression. Rabbi Michael Lerner says that Jews have been telling the Passover story of the Exodus for 3200 years. This is the story of the Jews who were enslaved in Egypt until a series of plagues convinced Pharaoh to let them go.

Let my people go.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum writes that

“This year, it is impossible to tell the story and not see the parallels with our present day United States. She says, Our government has willfully recast itself in the image of Pharaoh. The innocent have been imprisoned, put to work, and persecuted. Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (ICE) has taken on the role of today’s Egyptian overseer.”

She reminds us that “At any given moment, thousands of immigrants are locked up just because they can’t afford the bond—ransom—that a judge has determined their life is worth. Even during normal times, detention facilities are hot spots for infectious disease outbreaks. They are crowded, unsanitary, and lack access to proper medical care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these centers have become a public health crisis.”

It is estimated that 61 detainees and 19 detention center staff members have tested positive across at least 13 detention centers. Rabbi Kleinbuam writes that “Given the lack of mass testing, the real numbers are almost certainly far higher. As millions of us shelter in place from coast to coast, detainees are left with zero control of their fate. They wait in fear of dying in prison, separated from their families.”

Let my people go.

Passover is a story of liberation, of freedom that is a fundamental human right but can never be taken for granted.

Ours is a world in which the powers of greed and profit too often overrule human rights. Let us remember that the people in detention are poor people. Let us remember that many of the newly recognized “essential workers” in this country are poor people.

I am the President of Farm Worker Ministry Northwest and serve on the board of the National Farm Worker Ministry. We have always known that the people who do this hard labor in often dangerous conditions are essential workers – they keep us fed, while often not being able to feed their own families. Having been deliberately left out of labor law back in the 1930’s because the farmworkers in those days were black, they continue to be left out of labor law. Racism and exploitation, even slave labor, abounds in the fields. And now, the coronavirus comes to these poor people who live and work in crowded conditions, often lacking even the ability to wash their hands.

Many of our farmworkers are poor people who are living in our country without papers, and though they toil in the fields year after year, they are given no path to citizenship. Now it is recognized that they are really needed, they are essential, yet not essential enough to be given any help through the recent $2 trillion federal relief legislation. Even their US citizen children do not qualify for any benefits, and now the federal administration wants to cut farmworker wages as a way to bailout farm owners. Granted, farm owners are hurting in this crisis, too, but why is it even considered any kind of a solution to take away even one penny from the poverty wages of farmworkers?

It seems that if we can’t blame the poor for the trouble, then we have to ask them to make outrageous sacrifices.

Let my people go.

I hope you will ask your state legislators to support the Oregon Worker Relief fund which would give benefits to our undocumented neighbors – more on that later in the service.

These holy times, and this pandemic, call us to community and transformation. No more business as usual. No more lack of financial regulation that lets corporations buy up their own stock to inflate the stock price so the CEO can make over 800 times what the average worker at their corporation makes. No more inequality and wealth being extracted from the labor of poor people. No more governments more concerned about their own authority and image than in ensuring the well-being of the people.

Let my people go.

It may be tempting for some to call the coronavirus pandemic an “act of God.” It is not an act of God. It is not an act of humankind, either. It just is. Part of how the universe works.

But the way we deal with the pandemic, and the way we deal with the people who were on the edge before the pandemic and have now fallen over the cliff – that will be an act of humankind. And it will require each of us to participate. We will have to stretch ourselves to be more loving, kind and generous than we were before.

In his Easter address, Pope Francis said that he hoped this time of danger will shake us from our sleepy consciences. He said that this is not a time for indifference because the whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic.

These times of crisis often open our eyes to the struggles of people we were not aware of. Hurricane Katrina showed us people living in third world conditions in the USA. COVID-19 shows us poor people dying at a rate much higher than the more privileged.

But many of our immigrant neighbors lead invisible lives, whether toiling in the fields or construction or other low-wage jobs. They are invisible, locked down in detention centers or languishing in dangerous conditions on the Mexican side of the border. We may not ever know how they are doing through this pandemic, but we know they need our love and care.

You have already stretched your generosity as a congregation. The offering taken a couple of weeks ago here at WHUUF raised $1400 for Western Farm Workers Association which is going to help provide needed food for their low-wage members. I have worked with Western Farm Workers Association for many years now through my nonprofit, Friends Stay Warm, which provides emergency cash assistance for immigrants and low-wage workers. I know that the economic hardship of this pandemic will not go away soon for our lowest paid workers.

Let my people go.

Let us work towards a world of dignity and equality and justice for all.

Rabbi Michael Lerner reminds us that when Moses asked God, what is your name?
God said, I don’t have a normal name. I shall be whom I shall be.
I am the principle of transformation.
I am what can be.
I am the possibility of possibility.

Another world is possible. It is possible that this time of “shock” could suddenly make us do the things and enact the policies that so many said couldn’t be done.

It is possible that we can even come together across the great political divide, using well-being of people and the planet as our rule of thumb for good policies, rather than profit.

Let my people go.

Whom shall we be? Let us be the embodiment of the god who says I am the possibility of possibility. Even when I am hurting, let me choose to bless the world with all that I am and all that I have.

Amen and blessed be.

Copyright 2020 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.