My favorite month is here again – April, when, thanks to the Academy of American Poets, which founded National Poetry Month in 1996, we celebrate poets and poetry. I love poetry, as anyone who knows me knows. I begin and end almost every Sunday platform address I deliver with a poem, and a bag of poems hangs from my office door with an invitation to reach in and take out a handful. Poem in Your Pocket Day is on April 18, so be sure to stop by. On this day, the Academy suggests that you select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others at schools, libraries, parks, workplaces, street corners, and on social media using the hashtag #pocketpoem. I learned about this practice from my children’s elementary school and remember them gleefully telling me, “You can even stop Principal Heaney in the hall and ask him to read you a poem!”
Here are some ideas from the Academy of how you can get involved:
- Start a “poems for pockets” giveaway in your school, workplace, or apartment building
- Urge local businesses to offer discounts for those carrying poems
- Post pocket-sized poems in public places
- Memorize a poem
- Add a poem to your email footer
- Post lines from your favorite poem on the social media of your choice
- Send a poem to a friend
For some people, poetry is challenging, which is to say they just don’t like it or understand it, especially if it doesn’t rhyme. There is a fear of poetry that poet Jane Cooper suggests is “Because it demands full consciousness; it asks us to feel and it asks us to respond. Through poetry we are brought face to face with our world and we plunge deeply into ourselves, to a place where we sense, [as poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote] ‘the full value of the meanings of emotions and ideas in their relations with each other, and. . . understand. . . in the glimpse of a moment, the freshness of things and their possibilities.’”
In his essay, “How to Read a Poem,” Edward Hirsch writes “Reading poetry well is part attitude and part technique. Curiosity is a useful attitude, especially when it’s free of preconceived ideas about what poetry is or should be. Effective technique directs your curiosity into asking questions, drawing you into a conversation with the poem.” First, we look at the title, which may give us an image or association; then the shape of the poem, how long the lines are and how they are grouped. When we finally read the poem, word by word, Hirsch suggests we do so aloud. “Listen to your voice, to the sounds the words make.” Reading aloud can be uncomfortable because of the misconception that we should understand a poem after we first read it.
In his poem, “January Morning,” William Carlos Williams wrote a verse addressed to his wife:
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
if you can’t understand it?
but you got to try hard—
He speaks to the poet’s dependence upon his reader to enter the conversation and make a connection.
It is that connection that I find “spiritual.” Recently I met with a student at Columbia University where I serve as Humanist Religious Life Adviser. We were discussing different experiences of spirituality, and I heard myself telling him that, as much as I love walks in the park and listening to music, it is poetry that goes beyond the mundane for me, making it a transcendent experience.
Give it a try this month. Stop by my office and take home a handful of poems.
Section 1: Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3: This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.
We women have been working for a long time to ratify this amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and we are running out of patience. Gaining suffrage in 1920 with ratification of the 19th Amendment did not guarantee us equal rights. Nor did the 14th Amendment, although it has sometimes been used for that purpose. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia reminded us of its inadequacy. We comprise the majority of the citizenry and still do not enjoy the full benefits of citizenship.
Alice Paul, a women’s rights activist with three law degrees, wrote the original amendment in 1923. It was introduced that year and reintroduced at every congressional session for half a century. She rewrote it in 1943 (per the above text) using the language of the 19th Amendment. This version passed the Senate and House of Representatives by the required two-thirds majority on March 22, 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification. When the extended deadline of June 30, 1982 expired, only 35 of the necessary 38 states had ratified the amendment.
The text of the traditional ERA bill in the House of Representatives was changed in 2014 to specifically name women in the first section and to add “and the several States” in the second section to affirm enforcement by both federal and state levels of government. In the current session of Congress, bills have been introduced to override any deadline and affirm ratification when 38 states have ratified. These are related to a non-traditional route called the “three-state strategy,” advanced since 1994.
Based on this strategy, Nevada became the 36th state to ratify the ERA in March 2017, and Illinois the 37th state in May 2018. One more state is needed. Only one.
Why do we need the ERA? Because without it in the U.S. Constitution, statutes and case law advancing women’s rights are vulnerable to being ignored, weakened or reversed. Congress, the Administration, and the Supreme Court can all permit sex discrimination, and they have. Without the ERA, the words engraved above the entrance to the Supreme Court, “Equal Justice Under Law,” ring hollow.
An historical irony is that our constitution, based upon the confederacy formed among the Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois) nations of what is now New York State and the Canadian province of Quebec, excluded women, who were the leaders of these Indigenous people. This exclusion was highlighted in the first Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY on July 19 and 20, 1848. Earlier that summer Lucretia Mott had witnessed women involved in decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized its governmental structure. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage specifically described the rights accorded Haudenosaunee women as proof that the subordinate position of white women was neither natural nor divinely inspired.
According to a recent poll commissioned by the ERA Coalition, 94 percent of Americans support equal rights for women, with support among young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans as high as 99 percent. Alas, 80 percent mistakenly believe that the Constitution already guarantees us equal rights.
We, women and men, must support passage of the ERA. We can do that by targeting the states that have not yet ratified it. Only one more is needed. Visit the National Organization for Women website at https://now.org/nap/era to learn more and take action.
Last month I saw “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a film directed by Barry Jenkins based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same title. Published in 1974 and set during that time in New York City, it felt contemporary. A young Black man is framed by a white police officer for a crime he didn’t commit, spends time in jail while his family tries unsuccessfully to mount a defense, and finally accepts a plea bargain that commits him to years in prison. This 45-year old story is still today’s reality: an estimated 98 percent of criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains; an unknown percentage of the incarcerated are innocent.
My companions were two dear friends: Lisa, the mother of my son’s elementary school friend, and Victoria, my daughter’s high school friend. We had all decided that we wanted to see the film, but not alone; we would be there for each other. I wept but my friends, having grown up Black in Boston and Brooklyn, did not. “That’s our life every day. We can’t afford to get emotional. We have to stay strong.”
Victoria drove home, and I walked with Lisa to her front door where over twenty years ago her son was stopped after school and accused by a phalanx of police officers of having stolen a car. “This was before I had given him ‘the talk’ that my brothers had at an earlier age,” she told me. “But I figured that he wouldn’t need it in this neighborhood.” (We both live in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Lisa’s family home in Boston was firebombed twice, and she and her siblings were often brutally harassed.) It wasn’t until a tenant in their building, a white woman, identified her son and challenged the police that he was released and allowed to go inside.
As we consider criminal justice reform, in light of the passage of the Bipartisan Revised First Step (Formerly Incarcerated Reenter Society Transformed Safely Transitioning Every Person) Act of 2018 (S.3649) in late December, we need to take a close look at our history. This law targets federal prisons — which incarcerate more than 180,000 individuals — and would allocate more funding to anti-recidivism programs, make certain offenders eligible for early release, reduce mandatory-minimum sentences for some drug crimes and apply the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 retroactively. It also bans, under most circumstances, the shackling of pregnant inmates and mandates that individuals could not be incarcerated more than 500 miles away from their immediate families. Because most crimes are prosecuted locally, this law barely makes a dent in the country’s overall prison and jail population of almost 2.2 million, but it could help to set a standard. (By the way, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners.)
Elizabeth Hinton, author of From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016) and one of the nation’s leading experts on the history of criminalization and mass incarceration, said in an interview: “Consistently, and across political and ideological lines, policymakers have been unwilling to disrupt the racial and class hierarchies that have defined the United States historically. The view of black poverty as the product of black cultural pathology—the guiding principle of domestic urban policy beginning in the 1960s—limited the War on Poverty’s possibilities. And throughout the 1970s, even when community-based law enforcement programs and alternatives to formal incarceration proved to not only be cost-effective, but to also respond to the problem of crime far more effectively than the dominant strategies policymakers embraced, officials cut these initiatives short or installed them in rural and suburban communities.”
The NAACP has documented the racial disparities in incarceration:
- African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.
- The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
- Nationwide, African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested,
42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially
waived to criminal court.
- African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites.
Paul Butler, author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men (The New Press, 2018), wrote “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do. The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” He agrees with Hinton that short-term reforms haven’t brought about long-term change and concludes that “In order to halt this wretched cycle, we must not think of reform — we must think of transformation. The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew.”
The day after seeing the film, I read Baldwin’s novel. It is poignantly narrated by Tish who, in the opening pages, tells her boyfriend Fonny, who is in jail, that they are going to have a baby. “I’m glad,” she tells him. “Don’t you worry. I’m glad.” They are facing each other through a wall of glass and speaking through telephones. I was struck by her words in both the novel and the film: “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”
In this month designated as Black History Month, let us work to make sure that history does not again repeat itself, to think of transformation, and to keep people from looking at someone they love through glass.
One day a student asked me to give the class I was teaching a blessing. I was taken aback, stuck on that word: blessing. The class was called “Humanist Spirituality,” and we were in a classroom at Union Theological Seminary. My students were candidates in the Master of Divinity program, and we were discussing a passage in an excellent book by philosopher Robert C. Solomon entitled Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life.
I often teach classes on humanism to self-identified humanists; this was the first time my students were theists. I had suggested the course to the seminary because I suspected that I would find some “not-yet-unidentified as” humanists there. What I found were “humanistic theists” or people who had a transcendental, not a supernatural, sense of deity. Throughout the semester, we compared theology and philosophy, shared our own experiences, and sought a common language.
Some words are rejected as irrational by (or fraught with emotional weight for) humanists. Words like sacred and holy, spirituality and blessing can conjure up an otherworldliness that we eschew. Life in this natural world is enough. It holds enough wonder and awe without belief in an afterlife or the supernatural. But these words can also describe deeply human experiences, ones of connection to nature and other people. Solomon writes “that if spirituality means anything it means thoughtfulness. . . [and], like philosophy, involves those questions that have no ultimate answers, no matter how desperately our various doctrines and dogmas try to provide them.”
One day we were discussing a quotation from Albert Camus’s novel, The Stranger: “I opened my heart to the benign indifference of the universe.” For me, this existentialist philosopher, who confronted the Absurd and also wrote, “I know of only one duty, and that is to love,” is a humanist “saint.” I find in his work a freedom and humor that comfort me. This was, however, not the case for one of my students whose theism was expressed in a purpose to the universe and a special place for humans.
And this brings me back to her request for a blessing. If the universe is indifferent, what does it mean to feel gratitude for one’s life? Is it a blessing to be alive? Should we count our blessings – and bless others?
I thought about the phrase I recited as a child in the confessional box at St. Anne’s Church: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” It is a request to listen and accept the litany of sins to follow. I also remembered Irving Berlin’s song, “Count Your Blessings,” which he used in the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” He credited his doctor with suggesting that he try “counting his blessings” as a way to deal with his insomnia. The final lyrics are: “If you’re worried and you can’t sleep/ Just count your blessings instead of sheep/ And you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.”
I decided to express gratitude to my students. They challenged me in ways that I hadn’t expected, and I had learned as much as I had taught. They trusted me and each other enough to share their personal experiences. They were a blessing. “OK,” she persisted, “but will you bless us?” Had I not been a blessing to them, too, I wondered? And then I really listened and understood. “I bless the journeys that you have undertaken to find purpose in your lives and to engage others with compassion.” It worked, to judge by the nods and smiles I received.
“Blessing” is variously defined as approval, encouragement, a thing conducive to happiness, and a grace said before a meal. To “bless” is to consecrate by religious rite, endow favor, or invoke a wish for good health. It seems to me that we would do well to both count our blessings and bless others. There is much work ahead of us this year to further our social justice mission. Let us also remember that we are blessed with a history of activism that inspires us, a meeting house that holds and supports us, and a community of members that strive to be their best ethical selves.
(By the way, next semester I’m teaching a class at Union on humanist ceremonies.)
Last month I packed my passport and warm clothes and traveled north, crossing the border into a kinder and gentler land. I met many people there who had traveled from near and far to form a community of many faiths and shared values. They warmed my heart, and it felt good, especially when I thought about the murders at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27th. During the first week of November, the city of Toronto hosted the seventh assembly of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. It was the third one that I had attended. Ethical Culture leaders and members have participated in every parliament since the first one was convened in Chicago in 1893.
The theme of this parliament was both inspiring and daunting: “The Promise of Inclusion, the Power of Love: Pursuing Global Understanding, Reconciliation, and Change.” Hundreds of programs were compiled on an app that we could easily access on our cellphones but it was obvious that we would only be able to attend a sample of what was offered. My daughter Emily Newman and I both gave presentations – hers on “Get Ready for a More Inclusive Generation;” mine with colleague Vanessa Gomez Brake, Associate Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California, on “Navigating Secular Identities on University Campuses” – and staffed a table in the exhibit hall sponsored by the American Humanist Association.
Throughout the week, people stopped by to visit and thank us. “We need you here. We’re humanists, too. We hold different beliefs but share your values.” It was clear that humanism offered “the promise of inclusion” in the parliament’s theme. We also connected with members of the Oasis Network, which, like Sunday Assembly, offers “a place for the non-religious to come together to celebrate the human experience.” Whenever and wherever the next parliament meets, we agreed that we must collaborate, together with the American Ethical Union and other religious humanist organizations, on expanding our presence and programming.
Attendance exceeded 10,000 people from 80 nations and more than 200 unique spiritual backgrounds. Presenters included students, clergy, interfaith leaders, scholars, Nobel Laureates, best-selling authors, and more. These were the six ambitious program tracks:
- The Dignity of Women Across the World’s Wisdom Traditions
- Countering War, Hate & Violence with Peace and Love
- Climate Action: Care for Our Earth, Responsibility for Our Future
- Indigenous Peoples: The Spiritual Evolution of Humanity & Healing Our Mother Earth
- Next Generations: Interfaith Has No Age, Youth Voices for Change
- Justice: Advancing Concrete Change Toward a Just, Peaceful, and Sustainable World
If it sounds overwhelming, it was, but a spirit of generosity prevailed. Everyone shared their faith traditions and stories, hopes and dreams for the future, and creativity in the form of art, film, music, and dance. And throughout the week, the Sikhs fed us, as they had at past parliaments. Langar is a free communal vegetarian meal that is part of every gurdwara or Sikh place of worship and education. Funded entirely by donations and served by volunteers, langar provides an estimated seven million meals a day around the world. People often said, “Let’s meet up at langar.” It was a daily opportunity for food and friendship.
When the Parliament of the World’s Religions met in 1993, a century after the first historic gathering in Chicago, a document called “Towards a Global Ethic (An Initial Declaration)” was one of its most significant outcomes. During a two-year period, more than 200 theologians and scholars were consulted, and the declaration was signed by over a hundred religious and spiritual leaders. More commonly known as the Global Ethic, this declaration states that fundamental to all religious faiths are the requirement to treat all persons, without exception, humanely; the Golden Rule of reciprocity; and the demand for peace and justice. Since its ratification, it has inspired other documents such as the Earth Charter, the Charter of Compassion, and a Charter of Forgiveness.
As hectic as this week was, I found solace. Every morning I woke up to another onslaught of tragic news headlines and despaired. But I walked over to the conference center with anticipation, eager to learn and share. We created a temporary community of inclusion, love, and hope that changed us for the better and will live on in the work that we do. Until the next time we meet, the Parliament organization will keep us connected. For more information, visit https://www.parliamentofreligions.org/.
In a New York immigration court, young children are representing themselves before judges hearing their cases. Last month 2-year old Fernanda Jacqueline Davila appeared before Judge Randa Zagzoug, who in one afternoon had seen over 30 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. More children than ever are being held in government custody for longer than ever before. About 13,000 children who came to the United States on their own are being held for months in federally contracted shelters. Hundreds more who were separated from their families at the border are either in shelters or temporary foster care. They have all been stranded by the Trump administration’s determination to keep immigrants from crossing the southwest border of the United States.
“We rarely had children under the age of 6 until the last year or so,” said Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “We started seeing them as a regular presence in our docket.” A new government policy has made it more difficult for relatives to claim their children from federal custody. Eleven-year-old Marilyn hoped to join her mother in Florida but because relatives are now required to undergo fingerprinting and background checks, it could take months before they are reunited.
Jess Morales Rocketto of Families Belong Together, a coalition of nearly 250 organizations that works “to permanently end family separation and incarceration, seek accountability for the harm that’s been done, and immediately reunite all families who remain torn apart,” highlighted the case of 5-year old Helen, an asylum seeker from Honduras who was detained at the border and persuaded to sign away her rights. “One of the things Helen’s story really showed us is that the Trump Administration never stopped separating children from their families. In fact, they’ve doubled down, but it’s even more insidious now, because they are doing it in the cover of night. We have learned we cannot take this Administration at their word.”
Let us remember these children on November 20th when we observe Universal Children’s Day. This marks the date on which the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and the Convention of the Rights of the Child in 1989. The Convention sets out a number of children’s rights including the right to life, to health, to education and to play, as well as the right to family life, to be protected from violence, to not be discriminated against, and to have their views heard.
According to UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund), which promotes the principles and provisions of the Convention, it reflects a new vision of the child. “Children are neither the property of their parents nor are they helpless objects of charity. They are human beings and are the subject of their own rights. . . Previously seen as negotiable, the child’s needs have become legally binding rights. No longer the passive recipient of benefits, the child has become the subject or holder of rights.” (Visit https://www.unicef.org/world-childrens-day for more information.)
Although this is the most widely and rapidly ratified human rights treaty in history, the United States still has not ratified it. Indeed, ours is the only nation that hasn’t. The treaty has never even been sent to the Senate for consent and approval. What is our excuse?
According to Sarah Mehta, ACLU Human Rights Researcher, “While there is no good reason for the United States not to ratify the CRC, there are several reasons why we urgently need it. Ratifying the convention is not just about saving face in the international community — it will require us to confront some hard truths about the exceptionally bad way we treat children in the United States and to work to bring our laws and practices in line with human rights.”
I couldn’t agree more, and this year I plan to celebrate Universal Children’s Day by petitioning our government to ratify the Convention on Children’s Rights. You can, too, by visiting the Campaign for US Ratification at http://www.childrightscampaign.org/. This volunteer-driven network of academics, attorneys, child and human rights advocates, educators, members of religious and faith-based communities, physicians, representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), students, and other concerned citizens believes that children and youth are our most important resource in an increasingly interconnected global community. Even if the current Senate is unlikely to act, our letters, emails, petitions, and personal visits will keep this issue and our support before them.