Anne Klaeysen's Blog
First, the announcement: Judson Memorial Church is hosting a retreat on Monday, June 8, with a rolling agenda from 3 to 8 pm, to reflect upon our shared values and bring Moral Mondays to New York City. Please join me for as long as you can and spread the word. I participated in a planning meeting for this retreat with interfaith and secular colleagues on May 18. Together we aired our outrage over the many injustices New Yorkers endure and framed our discussion in terms of developing a culture of organizing, intersectionality of social justice issues, and articulating a moral vision. We agreed that we experience “a multiplicity of belonging,” embodying different identities in different communities, and are brought together by an understanding that we are all human beings with worth and dignity. That understanding moves us to work for justice for everyone. Whether or not we personally experience injustice, we must stand alongside our sisters and brothers who do – and fight for their rights.
The issues we readily identified in NYC included economic and educational inequality, mass incarceration and racism, homelessness, affordable housing and healthcare, voting and immigration rights, gender and LGBTQ rights, domestic violence, and climate change. The list, of course, goes on and on. Our emphasis was on participatory democracy. How do we support the empowerment of people whose voices are neither heard nor heeded? Can a coalition as wide and deep as the one that gathered for the People’s Climate March gain traction around moral issues? What does it take to sustain a moral movement in a diverse population?
Our inspiration is the Moral Mondays movement organized in North Carolina by Reverend William Barber II, pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro and president of the state NAACP chapter. For him, it began a few days before Easter 2013, when the North Carolina Republicans, who in November 2012 took control of the state Legislature and the governor’s mansion for the first time in more than a century, “chose to crucify voting rights.” They pushed through changes to election laws, including reducing the number of early voting days, ending same-day voter registration, and requiring ID at the polls. “That’s when a group of us said, ‘Wait a minute, this has just gone too far,'” Barber said. Singing “We Shall Overcome,” a group of clergy and activists marched to the state legislative building in Raleigh and blocked the doors to the Senate chamber. On the following Monday, more than a hundred people gathered, and over the next few months the weekly crowd grew to hundreds and then thousands, spreading from Raleigh across the state and to other cities and states across the country.
We agree with Dr. Barber that this is a “deeply constitutional, deeply moral” battle against the worst forms of injustice. And that is why we are holding a retreat on Monday, June 8. We share his hope that the Moral Mondays movement can shift the culture of repression, inequality and exploitation.
A participant in the retreat planning meeting said, “Mortality is our deepest connection to one another,” and recalled past crises when New Yorkers, without hesitation, came to one another’s aid, sharing hardship and embracing goodness. That is what we are called to do now. In the words of the late Ethical Culture Leader Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter, “Some day each one of us will die. . . The only tragic element lies in lives unlived; lives that never made a commitment; lives spent without generosity; lives of hoarding instead of sharing. . . Life is not endless, but what we engage upon honorably, that will last.” To which I can only add: Amen.
On May 15, 1876, a 25 year old teacher stood before a packed auditorium in Manhattan and founded a new religion. What was it about the religion into which he had been born and the synagogue he was trained to serve that moved him toward this decision? I’ve often wondered, and I think it was because his overwhelming need to experience life as being “all of a piece,” connected to all that he knew and loved, wasn’t realized in a religion that excluded others unless they converted to a specific creed. His radical notion was to place deed above creed.
“Believe or disbelieve as ye list – we shall at all times respect every honest conviction. But be one with us where there is nothing to divide – in action. Diversity in the creed, unanimity in the deed! This is that practical religion from which none dissents. . . . This is that common ground where we may all grasp hands as brothers, united in mankind’s common cause.”
Felix Adler witnessed great human misery in Germany where he studied to become a rabbi and return home to take his father Samuel’s place on the pulpit of Temple Emmanuel. He walked the streets of Berlin and learned how the labor movement was addressing workers’ issues. He came to believe that religion must play a role beyond charity and reach out to people in need who weren’t adherents and weren’t required to convert to a belief to receive help. Surely we all belong to one human family, not separated, but enhanced by our differences.
Acting so as to elicit those unique and essential differences, and thereby contributing to the “ethical manifold” of humanity, became Adler’s ‘supreme rule.” Ethical engagement with others elicits the best in ourselves. We are fully realized as human beings in ethical relationships.
No need for a deity. No need for religion – unless you feel, as Adler did, that religion is worth saving, worth experiencing as a non-theistic and ethical transformation. He used words like “holy,” “sacred,” and “divine” to express “reverence” about this life that we all share, not in terms of worship and thanksgiving to a supernatural entity, but in recognition of the accident of life that brings us into communion with one another.
As we celebrate Founder’s Day, along with every Ethical Society and the Ethical Culture Fieldston Schools, let us remember what was revolutionary about Adler’s vision. He saw diversity as cause for celebration, not an insurmountable barrier. He chose to see that which others used to separate humanity as a means to connect human beings. Humanity’s purpose is only fulfilled when it embraces the wholeness of human experience.
A young man left his family to study abroad. He missed them and wrote home often. He knew they were counting on him to study hard and follow in his father’s footsteps. He learned his rabbinical lessons well and also learned that he was a member of a larger family, an infinite constellation of beings that shared the living world. He felt an ethical obligation to all of them. On Founder’s Day, we thank him for opening that vision up to us.
Because it is the breath of life
given form in words, punctuation
Because it reaches our deepest core
and carries us to another place
both familiar and foreign,
connects us to human experience
both universal and unique,
so that we know ourselves better than we did before reading it.
when you least expect it –
and need it most –
it appears at your feet,
embedded in a NYC sidewalk.
Plaque on Library Way on 41st Street between Park and Fifth Avenues, Manhattan
If you attend Sunday platform regularly, then you know that I often begin and end my talks with poetry. It is a form of prayer to me, sacred text for an ethical religion.
When I turn on my computer in the morning, a poem awaits me, courtesy of the Writer’s Almanac (http://writersalmanac.org). I scan it first, taking in the form and shape of it; then read it aloud to decide whether to add it to my collection, now nearly 800 pages. What qualifies as a “keeper”? A poem that I’ll want to read again and again, one that I can use in a Sunday platform or that may inspire a future platform address, a poem that I can use as a Humanist invocation at an interfaith or social justice event. The others I delete. . . Because while I love poetry, I don’t love every poem.
April is National Poetry Month (http://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/home). I learned about this when my children were in elementary school. P.S. 321 was a haven for the arts, and in April everyone – students, faculty, administration, maintenance staff, and parents – carried a poem in her or his pocket. What’s more, you could stop anyone (“Even Principal Heaney, Mom!), and ask to hear the poem read aloud.
After many Sundays together, I have converted a few of you. Here’s an invitation: Stop by my office, room 502, and on the inside knob of the door, you will find a bag hanging, with a sign above it the reads:
Reach in and take out a handful of poems.
Tuck them into your pockets,
stuff them in your purses and briefcases,
put them in different rooms of your home,
hide them in cupboards and drawers,
forget about them.
one day when you least expect it –
Read it out loud,
let the words roll around in your mouth and savor them.
Carry the poem around with you all day,
share it with a friend,
fall asleep and dream about it.
Wake up and live better than you ever imagined possible.
You bet there is! According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), this terminology “describes the legislative and rhetorical attacks on women and women’s rights taking place across the nation,” including “a wide-range of policy efforts designed to place restrictions on women’s health care and erode protections for women and their families.” Although an overwhelming majority of Americans favor choice in reproductive decisions, the goal of Republicans, at state and federal levels, is to deprive women of their rights and to make access to facilities where women receive health and reproductive services prohibitive. Here are just a few examples: restricting contraception, cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, state-mandated ultrasounds, abortion waiting periods, forcing women to tell their employers why they want birth control, and prohibiting insurance companies from covering abortions.
But this war on women is not limited to reproductive justice; we experience misogyny on college campuses and in the workplace, on the streets and in our homes, even in the world of video gaming. Although an argument can be made that conditions have improved for women since gaining suffrage in 1920, the 14th amendment is more often used to help corporations than women, and the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment remains uncertain at best. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia famously said, “Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn’t.” Legislation and legal cases have rectified some inequities, but created others; also, legislation can be repealed and court cases overturned.
What we need is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states simply and succinctly:
“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.”
This amendment, first presented by Alice Paul in 1923 at the 75th Anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, and introduced in every Congressional session between 1923 and 1972, when it was finally passed by Congress, was ratified by 35 states, three short of the 38 needed by the 1982 deadline. Since then, the ERA, which polls indicate is supported by more than 90% of Americans, has been reintroduced in every Congressional session, but never once come to a vote.
If those people insisting that there is no war on women, that it is merely a political stratagem, are serious, I invite them to join the ERA Coalition (http://www.eracoalition.org), where they can sign a petition and donate to the cause. They can also purchase and read Jessica Neuwirth’s book Equal Means Equal that tells the story of legal cases that highlight the need for an ERA and contemporary cases where women’s rights are threatened.
Another Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recently said, “I would like my granddaughters, when they pick up the Constitution, to see that notion – that women and men are persons of equal stature – I’d like them to see that is a basic principle of our society.” I want my daughter to see herself in the Constitution. I want every woman to be treated equally under the laws of our country, and every man to recognize her equality. How about you?
On November 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday as of January 20, 1986. The proclamation read, “This year marks the first observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a national holiday. It is a time for rejoicing and reflecting. We rejoice because, in his short life, Dr. King, by his preaching, his example, and his leadership, helped to move us closer to the ideals on which America was founded. . . He challenged us to make real the promise of America as a land of freedom, equality, opportunity, and brotherhood.”
Today there are myriad ways to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., including interfaith commemorations, service projects and marches. This year, I chose to join a group of young activists and community organizers who drew attention to issues of persistent racial injustice, especially in police enforcement and criminal justice. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, and the decision of the respective grand juries not to indict the police officers who killed them, brought together, under the banner of The Gathering for Justice (http://www.gatheringforjustice.org/), a social justice organization founded in 2005 by Harry Belafonte, a diverse task force calling themselves Justice League NYC, whose demands include passage of transparency rules called the “Right to Know Act,” an end to NYPD’s “Broken Windows” policing tactics, and juvenile justice reform.
These young civil rights activists, here in NYC and across the country, are unlike traditional leaders, having more in common with the Occupy movement than with the NAACP. While they respect Dr. King, most don’t see him – or his movement, with its oratory, top-down organization, misogyny and Christianity – as a model to be copied. The people I met, including Carmen Perez, a protégé of Belafonte’s who helped form Justice League NYC; Tamika Mallory, Community Affairs Director for local Radio 103.9; and Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of NY, inspired hundreds of people to join them on January 19 for a march from 110thStreet and Lenox Avenue to United Nations Dag Hammarskjold Plaza on East 47th Street. We were young and old, of many origins, faiths and colors; united in the hope of realizing the dream Dr. King expressed in 1963 of judging people not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” The day before, at NYSEC’s annual MLK Remembrance platform, we welcomed Kira Shepherd, newly appointed Executive Director of The Black Institute, another young civil rights leader whose interview with me you can view at
According to Peniel Joseph, director of Tufts University’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, “There’s no one iconic leader now. Instead you have thousands of young people who brought other people into the street. They’re Millennials [defined as being born between 1977 and 1992]. They didn’t come through a conventional civil rights organization.” As the rapper Tef Poe put it at a St. Louis rally: “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” This younger generation communicates through speeches, as well as art, music and social media. They are impatient with the spotlight-grabbing of their elders, choosing to organize direct and peaceful actions that call upon diverse coalitions.
To answer “life’s most persistent and urgent question” of what I am doing for others, I stand with today’s young leaders. I support them and will give them a platform. With their inclusive and horizontal organization structure, with their creative devotion to human rights, they are inspiring not only their generation but all generations. They are our hopeful future.
As the Humanist representative at interfaith vigils, I am often called upon to speak. Sometimes I reflect upon the person or situation, but I recently found a poem by Rebecca Parker that I revised as a call and response. It affirms the responsibility to use one’s gifts to serve humanity
Social Justice Call & Response
“Choose to Bless the World” adapted from a poem Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
Choose to Bless the World
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
Choose to Bless the World
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Choose to Bless the World
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
Choose to Bless the World
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
Choose to Bless the World
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.