Rev. Bethany Russell-Lowe
4831 E. 22nd Street, Tucson, AZ 85711
Delivered on November 24, 2019 at the UU Church of Tucson
Prelude - “The Eye” by Brandi Carlisle
Opening Hymn #6 - Just As Long As I Have Breath Offertory - “Never Leave Harlan Alive” by Darrell Scott Anthem - “Travellin’ Alone” by Jason Isbell
Closing Hymn - Somebody’s Been Hurting My Brother
Responsive Reading #464
And then all that has divided us will merge
And then compassion will be wedded to power
And then softness will come to a world that is harsh and unkind And then both men and women will be gentle
And then both women and men will be strong
And then no person will be subject to another's will
And then all will be rich and free and varied
And then the greed of some will give way to the needs of many
And then all will share equally in the Earth's abundance
And then all will care for the sick and the weak and the old
And then all will nourish the young
And then all will cherish life's creatures
And then all will live in harmony with each other and the Earth And then everywhere will be called Eden once again
Sermon “Our Hearts, Broken Open”
A courtroom in downtown Tucson, Arizona was filled to the brim these past two weeks. Our government has been trying Dr. Scott Warren, a volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, which is associated with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. Dr. Warren was arrested in January 2018 for providing food, water, shelter, and medical care to migrants moving across the Sonoran Desert. What Dr. Warren and other humanitarian aid workers do is life-saving work.
When I say “life-saving” I mean that literally. Over 2,500 human remains have been found in the Sonoran Desert since 2000. Thousands more have not been discovered, because the landscape is virtually impossible for civilians to monitor. No More Deaths, alongside other humanitarian aid groups, puts water, food, and medical supplied out in the deadliest parts of the Sonoran Desert. This work, quite literally, saves lives.
And our government believes this constitutes harboring. So we went to court.
The courthouse was overflowing these past few weeks with humanitarian aid workers, desert dwellers, clergy, press, law students, and family of Dr. Warren. For some time, I was one among them. Collectively, we spent hundreds of hours in court. Listening as kindness was ripped to shreds. Listening as the impulse to compassion was openly questioned. We sat in silence on hard benches for hours. Taking in the deception and the lies. The arguments and counter arguments.
We listened to all the pain. We took breaks when it was too much for us. Others listened when we couldn’t anymore. We sent some out to drop water in the desert. We asked one another to care for themselves. We listened for the truth. We amplified the truth. We did not let our hearts break.
We let our hearts break open. So when the hour came, right after the flurries of texts and emails about a verdict. As we power walked back to the courthouse, we could feel hope begin to fill in the places where our hearts had broken open to the pains of the trial.
Hope began to fill in the cracks. Began to stitch up the gaps too big to fill.
I was filled with hope before I even heard the verdict. Because I’ve been in church my whole life. And I know that a group of twelve strangers does not come to a big decision unanimously in two short hours! Not unless they are choosing to Side with Love.
In the courtroom, we held our breaths together. And as the judge read the verdict, “Not guilty,” we gasped. The gasp that comes before shouting for joy. And then, again, “Not guilty,” another gasp. Smiles. Tears. The press ran out of the courtroom.
In that moment, our hearts, which had just that morning broken open to the pains of corruption, aggression, and xenophobia -- were welded back together by joy.
It was because we let our hearts break open, not break to pieces, that we were able to have such joy that afternoon. That we were able to laugh. And sing. And feel the fullness of joy in that moment.
As we gathered, some jury members of Latinx descent came and joined us. They said the work that No More Deaths and so many others do is “Fabulous.”
Rev. Mary Katherine Morn, President and CEO of the UU Service Committee, wrote in an op-ed in the AZ Star this morning: “It may not be possible to prevent all of those deaths, but it's well within our power to reduce them...Warren and the other volunteers with No More Deaths believe it is not only possible, it is what must be done.”1
Humanitarian aid is never a crime. Kindness won. Love wins, in the end.
And the next day, RAICES paid our $2.1 million to bond out 200 migrants from the deadliest detention centers in the United States.2
More joy to propel us forward. Into a world where we know there is more suffering ahead.
1 Morn, Mary Katherine. “Local Opinion: In Warren Trials, Humanitarianism Emerged Victorious.” Arizona Daily Star, November 24, 2019. https://tucson.com/opinion/local/local-opinion-in-warren-trials-humanitarianism-emerged-victorious/article_6ff33473-437b- 5dfd-b501-3d912a824869.html.
2 Shoichet, Catherine E. “Why One Group Is Paying $2.1 Million to Free about 200 Detained Immigrants.” CNN. Cable News Network, November 21, 2019. https://www.cnn.com/2019/11/20/us/raices-immigrant-bond-payments/index.html.
English poet William Blake once wrote, “Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine. Under every grief and pine, Runs a joy with silken twine.”3
And Pueblo author Martín Prechtel wrote, “Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”4
Joy and sorrow, grief and praise, are all connected. Inseparable. Two sides of one coin. We cannot experience the fullness of one without the depth of the other. We need to feel it all, in order to feel the fullness of any of it.
Unitarian Universalist theologian and professor Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker once wrote, “Evil’s accomplice is anesthetization.”5
Anesthetization, meaning, not feeling.
So to not feel is to allow space for evil to enter our bodies and actions. To feel is to resist the temptation to go against love. To feel is to discern where love resides, and where we find ourselves.
And, what I hear from you every day I serve as your minister, and what I feel in myself, is an overload of feelings. How can we feel it all?
Feeling everything is impossible. Take it from this empath learning how to set limits on how long I hold on to feelings I pick up from others.
3 “Auguries of Innocence,” The Pickering Manuscript, Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2004.
4 The Smell of Rain on Dust, Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2015.
5 A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2010.
We can’t feel it all. We shouldn’t try.
But we should always make sure that we are still capable of feeling. “Evil’s accomplice is anesthetization...”
In order to feel so much pain, and still be able to feel the joys, we must learn to let our hearts break open, without breaking to pieces. We must break our hearts open to the pain, and the joy. To the grief, and the praise.
A heart broken into pieces by grief cannot fully feel joy. A heart broken open is ready to receive whatever may come.
On Wednesday afternoon, as we gathered outside the courthouse, it was because we had let our hearts break open to the pain of these past 22 months that we were able to feel the full joy of that not guilty moment. Our broken open hearts was what allowed the fullness of that joy to reside in us. It is what carried that joy into Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday, and today.
It was feeling the fullness of that moment that allowed us to imagine where we go with all this joy. Back to the desert. Back to the long hikes with heavy gallons of water. Back to the side of love, wherever love is.
Because just that next day, it was announced that the Tucson sector would begin implementing a “remain in Mexico” program, intended to discourage and disempower people seeking asylum.
We must let our hearts break open, to all this pain. Break open, not apart. ~*~
Those of us who were listening, heard another important announcement that afternoon in the courtroom. Judge Raner Collins ruled that Dr. Scott Warren’s sincerely held religious beliefs compelled him to leave water in the desert,
something our government felt falls within the category of “abandonment of property.”
While Dr. Warren admitted to this action, Judge Collins ruled that this action was permissible under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. RFRA is the same law which allows some bakers to not make wedding cakes for same-gender loving couples. RFRA is usually upheld to keep a person’s freedom to discriminate or not do something. In this case, RFRA was upheld to allow a person to show more dignity than our government and laws enable. In this case, liberal religious values, which promote the dignity of all people, were upheld. This was the first time in many years that at RFRA claim was upheld by a federal judge.
What is incredibly distinctive, for me, is that Dr. Warren is not affiliated with a formal religious institution. He has deeply held values which guide his work, and Judge Collins ruled in favor of the RFRA claim because, as he said in his judgement, “I take him at his word.”
We have an opportunity now, to reflect on what our own values call us to do. What does our faith compel us to do? Whether or not we agreed with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, what does this time we are living in call us, as people of faith, to do? What freedom do we have to create the world we dream about?
There is a trial ongoing in Washington whose outcome will impact all of us. And there are people dying in the Sonoran Desert, in the places where desert dwellers recreate.
What does our faith compel us to do in these moments?
Judy Chicago’s “And Then’s” do not flow from a static idea of support, but from an active alignment of our values and our actions. We, as religious people, have an opportunity to imagine, in these very moments, the future we want to create.
We do not yet know what was made possible this week. We have yet to fully realize how our faith will compel us to transform our world.
“I take him at his word,” Judge Raner Collins said this week.
What would you do with your sincerely held religious beliefs, if there was a future promise of a judge taking you at your word?
What future becomes more possible when you align your actions with your faith? What is that world you dream about?
And how can you continue to build it now?
Wherever you go, friends, go with your hearts broken open. Feel the pain and the grief of these times, so that when the times comes for celebration and joy, you are ready to receive those feelings, too. A broken heart needs medical attention. A heart broken open is within the bounds of community to heal. Figure out where love needs you to be. Take your beliefs there and act for more justice.
I will take you at your word.
And I will ask that your sincerely held religious beliefs take you further than they have before. There is a possibility waiting in this moment that we cannot forget. The future is in our hands, and will be determined by the work we do. May we continue building for tomorrow, today.