Sunday, June 14, 2015

Talking About God and Religion with a 7-Year-Old

Dear Jack,

            Your mom tells me you have some questions about God and religion. She says you and your grandfather have been talking about God. Your mom asked if anyone who has had little boys like you has any good ideas on how to talk to someone who’s 7-years old about God and religion. I said I’d like to try. I’m a grandma and have had my own little boy and little girl who are all grown up just like your mom.

            Even though you’re only 7-years old, you are already beginning to learn how to think about things for yourself. You are learning how to read and to listen to teachers show you new ideas and introduce you to new things that you can learn more about. As you keep growing up, you will also learn how to figure out if what people tell you is true and makes sense or not.

            Sometimes you will not be able to figure things out right away. That is when it’s helpful to talk with the adults in your life and ask lots of questions. The helpful adults in your life will try their best to explain things to you, and they will tell you when they don’t know the answers. Then, maybe, you and those adults could do some study together and learn what the answers might be.

            One of the things about this great country that we live in, the United States of America, is that we have freedom of religion. That means we U.S. Americans think that everyone should be free to make their own choices about whether or not to believe in God and to participate in a religion.

            Religion is the way that people worship the God they believe in and the way that they get together in groups with other people who believe in God as they do. Christianity is one kind of religion, and there are many other kinds of religions. We can’t really say that one religion is better than another, although people sometimes talk that way. Each religion is important to the people who participate in it, and we are acting in a bossy way when we put down someone else’s religion.

            The first questions people ask about God are usually “Is God real?” and “Does God exist?” There are many good people in the world who truly believe that God is real and that God is active in their lives. There are also many other good people who do not believe in God and think God does not exist. People who believe in God and people who don’t believe in God sometimes argue with each other and even say and do unkind things to each other based on their beliefs or unbeliefs.

            It is too bad that people treat each other badly based on their beliefs or unbeliefs, because what is most important of all is that we treat each other as we want to be treated. The Golden Rule, which is part of every religion, says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That means be as nice to others as you are nice to yourself and as you want others to be nice to you. In other words, don’t be mean to someone else, because you wouldn’t want them to be mean to you.

            You may have noticed in talking with the adults in your life that some of them feel very strongly about their ideas about God and maybe even try to get you to believe what they believe. It is confusing, isn’t it? One of the important things you are doing as you work on growing up and learning lots of things in school and at home talking with your adults is that you are learning to think for yourself. You are learning ideas that make sense to you and ideas that you have to spend more time learning and thinking about before they make sense to you. Your mom’s goal for you, and every mom’s goal for their little boys and little girls, is that our children learn how to learn new ideas and to think for themselves.

            For many people God is real and an important all powerful, all knowing, influence in their lives. They believe that God, through important books written about God, teaches them how to live their lives as good people and how to treat other people in a kind way. They go to a church or a temple to hear religious teachers tell them about God and what God hopes for their lives. And when they are in church or in temple, these people who believe in God also spend time praising God for the things that they think God is doing in the world for human beings. That kind of praise, when done together with other believers in God, is called worship.

            When people who believe in God “talk” to God, either silently or aloud, that is called prayer. An example of prayer is someone who believes in God having what they think of as a personal conversation with God, telling God things and listening for God to tell them things in ways that make them feel like God is talking to them. Some people feel that God is talking to them by changing the way that they feel about things, or they believe that their nighttime dreams and daydreams are ways in which God talks to them. This is how some people believe in God, and it is not our job to say that they are right or wrong.

            For other people who don’t believe in God, they learn about how to become good people through the adults and teachers in their lives. A person can grow up to become a very good person without believing in God and without going to church or temple. It is a personal choice that a person makes after hearing different ideas about whether or not God exists. Each person gets to choose for himself or herself, and believing in God or not believing in God does not by itself make you a good or not-so-good person. Here, also, it is not our job to say that these people who do not believe in God are right or wrong.

            One thing that is important for good people to do is to treat in a kind way the right of other people to have their beliefs as long as those beliefs don’t interfere with the way that the other people live their lives. So, if I believe in God, it is important for me as a good person to treat people who don’t believe in God just as I want to be treated. Likewise, if I do not believe in God, I should not belittle or make fun of people who do believe in God, because I would not want anyone to make fun of me or make me feel small.

            Thanks, Jack, for letting me talk to you about God and religion. Perhaps we can talk again soon about other things like the different kinds of religions that people participate in.

Your mom’s friend and your friend,


Monday, June 8, 2015

Who is Your Family?

I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, over the weekend to conduct an anti-racism/anti-discrimination workshop for members of the shared ministry teams at Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, which is a bicultural, bilingual mission with a large contingent of Hmong immigrant congregants. For the workshop, we focused on the Episcopal Church's teachings on race, racism, and racial justice as well as an in-depth exploration of culture--what it is and how it impacts people, discrimination and stereotypes, and ways in which we can all improve the ways in which we show our love and respect for our fellow human beings. I was invited to preach on Sunday, and below is my sermon. The Gospel for Sunday was Mark 3:20-35:
The crowd came together again, so that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

"Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin" -- for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

* * * * * * * * * *
         Good morning. In Cantonese—“Jo sun.” In Hawaiian—“Aloha.” And in French—“Bon matin.” I am very pleased to be with you this morning to share the word of God with you and what it has to say to us today. Thank you to the Beloved Community at Holy Apostles for inviting me to be here this weekend to conduct the Anti-Racism/Anti-Oppression workshop on Friday night and Saturday and to be your preacher this morning.

         I have learned from my Native American sisters and brothers to take the time to introduce myself and where I come from—my family—when I first stand up to speak to a group. It is a lovely way of being present with a new group of people—to honor your own family by sharing stories about them and to honor the people you are with by opening yourself to them, letting them see into your heart, so that they know you trust them and that they can trust you.

         My Chinese name is Lee Cheuck Guin, and my American name is Lelanda Lee. I am the eldest child of a Chinese father who was born in the United States of parents from China and a Chinese mother who was born and raised in China and married my father in an arranged marriage when my father, his older brother, and their mother, my grandmother, went back to China to find wives for the two brothers. My American name is Lelanda, because being Chinese, my family was planning on a first born son, who would be named Leland after my father’s father who was named Lee Lund in Chinese. When I, a first born daughter, came along, my clever father added an “a” to the end of Leland and named me Lelanda.

         I will tell you the story of my family, as I share with you some thoughts about the nature of being family from the words of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which said:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

          In this Gospel passage, Jesus gave us a new definition of family. He said that those people—women and men—who sat around him to listen to him teach, were his brother and sister and mother. They were doing the will of God, listening to Jesus, the rabbi, the spiritual teacher, and Jesus affirmed—Jesus said, “Yes, this is my family”—that whoever does the will of God is his brother and sister and mother—his family.

         You will recall the story of the two sisters, Mary and Martha. When Martha invited Jesus into their home, it was Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet to listen to him teach. Martha became upset that Mary was not helping her with the work of providing hospitality and asked Jesus why he didn’t care that Mary was not helping her. And in the Gospel of Luke, it was recorded:
But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

          The story of Mary and Martha is another instance in which Jesus emphasizes the importance of listening to the teachings of God—to the will of God—and then, following through by doing the will of God. Jesus said very clearly that Mary had chosen the better part by sitting at Jesus’ feet to listen to what he had to say.

          Now, do you remember what Jesus said about Mary, his own mother, and the nature of family when he was dying upon the cross? In John’s Gospel, it is recorded:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

          Jesus named the family relationship for his mother and the disciple whom he loved by saying, “here is your son,” and “here is your mother.” It was not a family relationship based on blood, but a family relationship based on love. The disciple loved Jesus, and when commanded by Jesus to take Jesus’ mother to be his own mother, out of love for Jesus, he obeyed. In a way, you could think of this story as Jesus commanding that an adoption take place—that the beloved disciple should adopt Jesus’ mother, Mary, and treat her like his own mother.

          The same can be said about the family relationships that Jesus described in today’s Gospel. Those who sat around him, listening to him teach, were not blood relations, but they were people who loved Jesus and who followed the will of God and also loved each other. Those were the people whom Jesus chose to be his family.

         Think about that for a moment: choosing who will be your family.

          In the most significant way, each of us in this church today has already done that—chosen who will be our family—by choosing to be baptized into the Body of Christ. As members of the Body of Christ, we are sisters and brothers to one another. The more we love Jesus, the more we must love our brothers and sisters and our neighbors as ourselves.

          Now, my Chinese family in the U.S.A. was an immigrant family that spoke Cantonese at home and in the Chinatown communities that we lived in, first in New York City and then in Detroit, Michigan. My father worked in Chinese restaurants, first as a waiter and later as a cook, and finally, as a manager, and my mother worked in Chinese hand laundries and later in Chinese restaurants, also. As teenagers, my brothers and I also worked in those same Chinese restaurants and Chinese hand laundries. We had a large, extended family on both my father’s side, where his parents had seven children who lived, and my mother’s side, where her parents had eight children that survived. So, yes, my family had many blood relations.

          But in the U.S.A., my parents and we children also had an even larger family that was not based on blood, but based on relationships of mutual need and mutual assistance. The Chinese immigrant communities in the Chinatowns and Chinese restaurants and hand laundries that my parents worked in were places where we needed to help each other figure out how to live in the United States, how to make a living to take care of our families, how to sponsor other family members still in Asia to come to the United States, and how to get things done where we didn’t know the English language, and where in the middle of the 20th century many White and even Black Americans looked at Asian immigrants as being foreigners invading their land and taking away their opportunities through our humble hard work.

          My father was the Chinese-American man who spoke both Cantonese and English. Even without ever using the word “volunteer,” my father was the person who would go with non-English speaking Chinese immigrants to the hospital or to the immigration office to translate for them. My father was the one who would fill out immigration paperwork and income tax forms for those non-English speaking Chinese people. My parents treated those other members of the Chinese immigrant community like family, and they became family to us. We children grew up knowing the Chinese adults in those Chinatown communities as aunties and uncles and their children as brothers and sisters.

          Jesus said that we must love our neighbors as he loves us, and that is exactly what Chinese people like my parents did, including those Chinese people who had not heard of Jesus and were not baptized Christians. Doing God’s will does not require being a baptized Christian, because God’s great love and grace is given to all human beings—even those who haven’t heard of Jesus and the stories of God’s people. God’s power of love is mysterious and generous. God’s love touches all people, if we let it, if we don’t get in the way.  And God’s love gets multiplied so that more people know God’s love, if we, God’s people, the followers of Jesus, follow Jesus’ example to love other people, especially people who are different from us.

          Now skip down to my generation and how I have learned to think about family. I was baptized at age five and confirmed at age 12 in a very conservative Lutheran church—the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church. From the teachings of the church on the ten commandments, the catechism, and the teachings of Jesus and his parables, and the examples of my Chinese immigrant parents, I learned to volunteer in the community at an early age. At age 12 I could get a work permit to do volunteer work, where I started in the offices of Catholic Social Services.

          I was also a teenager in the 1960s during the civil rights movement and learned about the justice of treating every person, regardless of her or his skin color, as a fellow human being and a fellow member of the Body of Christ. For me, family became much larger than just the people in my blood family. Family also included all the people who had helped my family and who had been helped by my parents.

          My husband and I lived in Honolulu, Hawaii, for 15 years from 1975 to 1990. In Hawaii, there are many descendents of Native Hawaiians who lived and taught a philosophy of loving our neighbors and expanding our families to include people who are not blood relations. The Hawaiians call the extended family the “ohana,” and they call the family of choice—the family of people who are not blood relations that we choose to love as family—their “hana’i” family. That philosophy of a “hana’i” family of choice has stuck with me all of these years, because it reflects the family that Jesus talked about in today’s Gospel.

         Jesus said, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

         Sometimes it is easier to figure out what doing the will of God means than we think. We humans often want to make simple things complicated and difficult, because we think it will show the world how smart we are, or because we think that surely our God who is so all knowing and all powerful must be a God who teaches very complicated and difficult lessons. Yet, the opposite is true. Jesus always taught in the most direct words about some things that we humans find difficult to do, like giving up whatever wealth we have, even if we don’t have very much, and sharing what we do have with others who have even less; like changing our behavior so that we honor not just our own mother and father, but that we also honor all mothers and fathers.

          In the Gospel of John, Jesus said:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’

          What a beautiful lesson our Lord Jesus has taught us in today’s Gospel—that we look around us, see the people who are following Jesus and doing God’s will, and that we not only think of them as our family, but that we love them, honor them, and treat them like they are truly our family in the Body of Christ. In the mind of our Lord, family is all about love and loving each other even when we are not related by blood.

          And so, my sisters and brothers in Christ, I share with you—look around you and see who needs your love, who needs your kindness, who needs a family to love them—and make the choice to be family to them. That is the will of God. Amen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Early Morning Reflection

I am looking at a photograph of a Siberian family. Everyone is wearing the equivalent of big, puffy parkas with hoods. The mother has a colorful floral printed scarf over her head. She is pouring steaming hot tea for the children, who appear to be between the ages of 2 and 7 or 8. I am struck by how in their circumstance, a cup of tea is more than just a hot beverage. It may very well be a meal – butter tea, where the main ingredient is butter, meant to supply the calories needed to survive in the cold that surrounds them.

What a cup of tea, indeed!

I sit in the early dawn in my hotel room, bundled up in nightgown and outside jacket, trying to stay warm. Maybe I should crawl back into bed for another hour, before I have to get up and go to my last day of meetings. Afterwards, when we adjourn around lunchtime, I will make my way to the airport and fly home. I’ve been on the road for 21 days, which is unusual for me. The conflation of meetings just worked out that way.

Believe me, I don’t mean to imply I’m any kind of important or anything like that. I’m not important. I’m tired. And I miss my family and my cat.

One of the ways in which my church, the Episcopal Church, does its business and its ministry is that we gather together in groups for meetings, trainings, and workshops to discuss, debate, imagine, plan, agree, disagree, and decide. In the final analysis, it’s the relationship building and nurturing that makes the gathering in person so vital and generative.

When we see each other and hear the stories of what has happened in our lives in the intervening months when we have been apart, we feel connected again. It’s as if no time has passed.

When we hear of the passages that some of our friends and family have made, we are struck by the commonality of those experiences and we are saddened by our friends’ losses. There really aren’t any adequate words to say what we feel about another’s loss. Saying I’m sorry for your loss doesn’t take away its sting or the hole inside you that won’t be filled again.

In the midst of the disagreements and judgments that we make about each other’s motivation, intelligence, and integrity, we also reveal our own motives, wits, and sincerity. I am reminded of the wisdom of the thought that we each do the best we can with what gifts we have. And sometimes, we are lucky enough to have things turn out well in spite of our mucking things up.

You can accuse me of walking in a dream or being a Pollyanna, but I assert that I will always choose to believe the best of you and hope that you will believe the best of me. The burden of believing the worst of you is just too great to carry in my heart. My hope is that my belief in your good intentions will lift you up and cause you to lift yourself up to do more and to do better. That’s the version of parenting and that’s the version of relationship that I aspire to.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A View from Inside: Some thoughts on UNCSW59

A View from Inside . . . What do I mean by that? There was a time some five decades ago when I was a teenage girl in inner city Detroit, Michigan, longing to do something that mattered, longing to be someone who mattered to more than just my immediate family and friends. 
March 13th - the Interngenerational Dialogue from 9:30-6:00 in the 
ECOSOC Chamber. Some 700 people were able to attend the 
Today, I sit in many places of privilege and "importance." The privilege I sit in is exemplified by invitations to give my opinions on camera and in print and to attend receptions where pretty, but not terribly nourishing, food is served and I get to shake hands with other people like me. 

"Importance" is a self-claimed misnomer. After all, according to God whom I worship and serve, we are all equally beloved in God's sight. Important is the meaning we assign to gatherings where we talk about our work and lift it up so others can be influenced to participate. Important is what we must feel if we are eagerly and willingly to continue to do the work that has no end in sight and gets beleaguered in the same way over and over. 

So, why do I do it? Why does anyone do it? 

For me, the answer is that I still believe in the possibility of change and transformation. I still believe that good will prevail over evil. I still believe that there is a core of goodness in humankind - the God Spirit, if you will - that propels us to make life better on earth for all humans. And I still believe that I, in my own small way, can influence that change and transformation to keep on coming towards us. I still believe that my witness to one woman or girl can spark an interest that will grow into a flame of passion that will spark still others. 

Here are some insights from the first week of the United Nations' 59th annual Commission on the Status of Women's gathering in New York City.
This photo exhibition was at the U.N. while
UNCSW59 was taking place. So apropos.

Implementation has been weak.  What an understatement repeated by several of the leaders of UN Women about the status of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action! Most of the signatory nations have enacted legislation to support the Platform for Action. But there is a wide gap between the optics of gender equality legislation and enforcement of those same laws. There is an even wider gap between the legislation and the culture of those nations that remain entrenched in patriarchal systems. Cultural change is the hardest change of all to effect. It tends to happen slowly, in terms of generational time rather than instants in time. We need revolution, not evolution, when it comes to cultural change. 

"When people are busy, that does not mean they are making progress." The truth is that so long as there is an economic and class benefit to men in power to protect the existing patriarchal systems, very little will change. Constant motion around clamoring for change will not necessarily make change happen. Women's hope lies in changing the hearts and minds of boys and girls as they are growing up to see a different choice than patriarchy and to make that choice in how they live as adults. Education beyond the primary level is imperative to lift up the lives of girls worldwide. Educated girls become empowered women. Educated girls develop self-agency that allows them to make choices as adults and to find their own ways towards post-secondary educations, self-supporting jobs, and delayed choices to marry and bear children. 

Stereotypes are our enemy. When anyone has privilege, it is difficult for them to see stereotypes. Instead, they tend to see a status quo which is comforting and satisfying to them. The stereotypes of what a typical girl and a typical women should look and behave like, trap girls and women into roles that have been normalized at a sub-par level. We have normalized the 80%-20% stereotyped levels of girls and women as servers and caregivers versus the 50%-50% level of girls and women being equal, having equal opportunity and equal agency, in society with boys and men. 

Unequal pay, that is, lesser pay for women doing the same jobs as men, means relegating women to remain poor and unable to rise above their poverty. Worst yet is that women do tremendous amounts of work required by many societies -- such as walking miles to carry water home to their families, working hard scrabble dirt farms, and bearing and raising children and caring for the elderly -- without any sort of recompense, much less recognition. The unpaid labor of women contributes to the functioning of all societies, but that same unpaid labor does not contribute to the women's own livelihoods when they are abandoned or widowed. A statistic offered by a UNCSW59 speaker from the World Economic Forum "suggests we’ll have to wait 81 years for gender parity in the workplace." We'll all be dead by then. We can't wait that long.
Soon-Young Yoon, Chair of the International Alliance of Women.
We saw many of the speakers this way, on jumbo screens from a 
distance. It was noted that allowances were missing for women
with disabilities, such as deafness (no sign language interpreters)
and mobility (many stairs with no ramps and spaces for wheelchairs).

Affirmative Action for Women. We have lived in a world that has had Affirmative Action for men for millennia. It's now time for Affirmative Action for women. It is only by paying attention and spending our resources on women that we will level the world playground for women and girls. It is time to favor funding to equalize the gender equality gap. It is time to front-load resources to promote and encourage girls' education and women's economic opportunities in obtaining jobs and becoming entrepreneurs. The fact is, that women, who are used to being at the bottom of the ladder, have a greater tolerance for risk-taking and innovation, because we have historically had so little to lose. Fear of loss is the great inhibitor to innovation and entrepreneurial endeavors. Who better than women to take those risks and achieve the unexpected rewards? Women will bring their sisters along with them.
One of many signs created by young women at UNCSW59.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, raises three foci that are critical to overcoming the thus-far, collective failure of the nations signatory to the Beijing Platform for Action:

  • Unrelenting Political Commitment. We must keep talking the talk and holding our statesmen and stateswomen accountable for keeping their attention focused.
  • Investment in Gender Equality. We must lobby for and hold accountable our government and business leaders to expend resources specifically for the purposes of achieving gender equality whether it is in providing more subsidized educational slots for girls, more business incubators directed towards women, or more industrial internships to attract girls and women. 
  • Strengthen Civil Society. Civil society refers to the numerous non-governmental organizations in every country that aim to do social good and to develop stronger communities. For many NGOs, small amounts of grant monies make big differences, because these NGOs are creative and nimble. Not only do these NGOs need additional resources, but they also need additional outlets where their voices can be not just heard, but listened to; where their messages are not just shared, but adopted and acted upon.
More in blogs to follow! 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

UNCSW59 -- Step it Up for Women's Equality

Hello, Everyone! I've fallen behind in blogging all the wonderful things and people I've seen and heard while here at the United Nations 59th Annual Conference on the Status of Women. Being here is a lot like being at the Episcopal Church's triennial General Convention: many long days filled with uplifting worship, great speakers and panelists, meaningful Q&As and conversation, and meeting interesting people from around the world who have something to say for themselves and their communities and who want to influence the conversations here at the U.N. and back home. And like General Convention, there are caucuses for the various groups who have traveled together and evening debriefs to check in on everyone's day and plans for the next days.

For someone who has been a feminist since my teen years in the mid-60's, this conference feels like a great, big women's rally where sisterhood is palpable. In fact, check out some news coverage on the march and rally that were held in conjunction with UNCSW on Sunday, March 8, International Women's Day here and images from the events here. And we get to experience it in the glorious halls of the United Nations. As a teen, I visited the U.N. each time I came to New York and New Jersey to visit relatives. I would take the visitors' tour in English or in French and imagine myself walking these halls as someone who belonged here. Now, five decades later, here I am! I belong here, and so do all the other women and men who have come to UNCSW59.

The conference is both a review and an update of the CSW held in Beijing in 1995 when the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted. That Platform for Action is one of the major influencers for the Millennium Development Goals which expire this September. It is anticipated that a new set of Millennium Sustainable Goals will be promulgated in September.
This is the handbook for the over 
450 parallel events put on by 
"Civil Society," which refers to 
all the Non-Governmental 
Organizations supporting the
work of UN Women.

In terms of themes, the overarching themes are gender equality for women and women's empowerment. In specific, I have noticed a large emphasis on human trafficking and especially sex trafficking of women and girls and lifting up the voices, perspectives, and contributions of young women, including LGBTQI women. (Did you know that something upwards of 20 to 30 Million - yes, that's right, 20-30 Million - women, girls, and boys are sex trafficked? Sex trafficking operates in the Deep Web or Grey Web, the hidden part of the Internet that accounts for 90% of Web traffic where illegal, unsavory transactions are made and sex slaves are bought and sold. See here and here for more information about sex trafficking.)

The speakers from various countries have been both self-congratulatory as to the advancements in gender equality that they claim and also confessional in lamenting the lack of progress in their countries. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of U.N. Women, in a couple of opening remarks in different settings, noted that not a single U.N. member nation has achieved all of the items on Platform for Action to date. That does not mean that progress has not been made, but it is incremental and deadly slow.
Phumzile Mlamba-Ngcuka

I chose the word "deadly" purposefully, because lack of gender equality can, in fact, be deadly for women in developing countries. It is a fact that women are the farmers, child bearers and raisers, caretakers of the farm animals (if any), and food and water gatherers. Doing all of this work without benefit of vehicles, whether self-propelled or gas-propelled, amidst harsh drought conditions and armed conflict is deadly for the women. Their bodies soon wear out even if their spirits remain rooted in the hope of a better future for their children.

Lack of gender equality for these women means that they don't qualify for the small grants that might be available to help a local farmer and don't get consideration for the few slots in the educational system to gain something beyond a primary education. Lack of gender equality also means that girls are often married off in their early teens, because their families make the choice to feed and raise the boys while gaining a dowry for marrying off their young daughters. One of the cultural paradigm shifts that must happen, especially in countries with rigid and enforced patriarchal systems, is to move to a culture that values girl children as gifts from the Creator who have the potential, with education and nurture, to make a valuable contribution to their societies.

Thus, U.N. Women has created a new nations' initiative. "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality" is a call for nations to commit to doing the things necessary to move towards gender equality by 2030. Presumably, signatory nations will be signing on not only for the prestige and optics of being a signatory, but also as being sincerely committed to changes in legislation, elections, governmental appointments, and tax and subsidy programs to give women the equality that we deserve by virtue of our humanity. As many of the speakers from the podiums have pointed out over the past few days, women's rights are human rights. Women just want to have the same human rights as men do.

I will be posting about what some of the speakers have addressed in a future blog in order to share with you memorable thoughts too good not to share. Stay tuned!

Third Day at UNCSW59 - March 9, 2015

I'm a little behind in posting to the blog about UNCSW59. Each day is packed, beginning with ecumenical worship at the U.N. Church Center, about 5 blocks from our hotel, and ending with a debrief from 6:00-8:00 PM in the Episcopal Church Center, sometimes just the Episcopal Church delegation and sometimes with the women from Anglican Women's Empowerment. During the day the delegation spreads out, attending hearings at the U.N. and parallel events in several other venues. There is a lot of walking and talking together. Everyone is friendly, and we easily greet women from other parts of the world with smiles, "Hi, How are you," and "Can I help take your picture for you?"

Bishop Chilton Knudsen preaching at the Opening Eucharist

The Episcopal Church's delegation with Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori after the opening Eucharist

Digna de la Cruz (Dominican Republic), Coromoto Jimenez (Venezuela), Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Vaike Madisson (Honduras), and Connie Sanchez (Honduras)
Helen Abyei (Colorado), Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Joan Fraser (Provincial Representative from Long Island), and Lelanda Lee (Colorado)
Christina Hing and Inez Saley from the Diocese of New York, part of the Anglican Women's Empowerment host group, organizing snacks and meals during some of our ecumenical gatherings in the Episcopal Church Center's mezzanine gathering space. These women are long-time attendees at UNCSW over the years.

Ginny Doctor and Lelanda Lee. It was great to greet Canon Ginny, from the Mohawk tribe, who is the coordinator of Indigenous Ministries for the Anglican Church in Canada.  
Stacy Walker-Frontjes, a fellow blogger and Tweeter on the Episcopal Church's delegation.

Shirley Greiman, National Vice President for Program of the Episcopal Church Women, and Barbara Schafter, member of the Episcopal Church delegation and President of the United Thank Offering. 

Joan Grimm Fraser making some comments during a conversation in the Mezzanine space.

Gawain de Leeuw (Diocese of New York) and our only male delegate with Stacy Walker-Frontjes. Gawain serves on the board of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and cares deeply about reproductive rights for women, which is a major issue in gender equality and empowerment of women and part of the Beijing Platform for Action. 

Glenda McQueen, Episcopal Church Partnership Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean. Glenda teams with Lynnaia Main, Global Relations Officer and the church's primary United Nations link, to shepherd all of us, and most especially the Spanish speaking delegates.

Helen Achol Abyei (Colorado) leads us in prayer, using her smart phone. 

Jayce Hafner is the church's Domestic Policy Analyst out of our Washington DC Office of Government Relations. Joyce will be teaching us how to bring the advocacy messages of UNCSW59 home to our dioceses and communities. 

Lelanda Lee and Bishop Stacy Sauls, the church's Chief Operating Officer, in a selfie. Bishop Sauls welcomed the delegation to the Church Center in a session directly after the Opening Eucharist.
Helen Abyei and Joan Fraser.

Lynnaia Main and Barbara Schafer in a casual moment in the kitchen of the Mezzanine gathering space. 

Lynnaia Main making remarks in our evening debrief. She is the guide,  mentor, and leader par excellence of the Episcopal Church's UNCSW59 delegation. And she writes the most beautifully inspiring and informative emails that get posted sometime around 1:45 AM each evening. When does she sleep? Thank you for all that you do, Lynnaia! 

Our only "veteran" of UNCSW, Nellie Adkins (Virginia), representing the Native American cohort on our delegation. This is not her first experience with the women of the world interacting with the United Nations.

Reem Fouad El Far of Jordan gave a presentation in the afternoon on the Diocese of Jerusalem, where she serves on their Vestry Committee focused especially on the women of the diocese. She explained the cultural aspects of women's participation in their region in both society and church. She pointed out that the Christians in the region have been Christians for generations and are not converts from Islam as some people in and outside the region surmise.

A view of the audience during a presentation in the Mezzanine.

And another view . . .

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Second Day at UNCSW59 - March 8, 2015

This is a post devoted primarily to photos with commentary from our second day at the United Nations 59th annual Conference on the Status of Women. Day 2 is actually a pre-conference day, featuring a celebration known as "Consultation Day," hosted by the Ecumenical Women NGO at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. The theater is on West 125th Street, and we traveled from our hotel, the Fitzpatrick Grand Central, located on East 44th Street a block from Grand Central Station, one of the two train stations in New York City. Some of us traveled by subway in a group, and a couple of us arrived by taxi, thus avoiding the stairs down and up from the subway stations.

Apollo Theater in Harlem at 8:00 AM! 

The celebratory spirit of Consultation Day began as we entered the lobby of the Apollo Theater. An all women mariachi band, Mariachi Flor de Toloache, greeted us with joyful music. 
Those who arrived early by taxi got into the theater as it opened close to 9:00 AM. The theater personnel stamped our hands, just like they do for concerts. The audience was overwhelmingly women with a handful of men scattered around the theater. There were a lot of enthusiastic greetings, hugs, and photo-taking.
First up on the program was the Women of the World ensemble, four women from different parts of the world - Italy, India, Japan, and USA/Haiti - who sing songs from various countries in the countries' native languages. Their short medley of songs roused us to our feet to clap and sway with their music.
The program began with a historical perspective. There have been four World Conferences on Women organized by the U.N.: 1975 in Mexico City; 1980 in Copenhagen; 1985 in Nairobi; and 1995 in Beijing. Since Beijing there have been five-year reviews, and 2015 brings us to Beijing+20. To commemorate the four conferences, four women came on stage individually to give a brief reading from the documents of those conferences.
I admire the confidence, poise, and grace of the young women who have found their core values, developed their voices, and claimed their places among the leaders and decision-makers of the world to speak out on issues that matter to them and their sisters and brothers. It gives us who have become elders in our communities great pride and hope that the work of advocating for human rights for all people has been shared forward with our younger generations. It is only through the vision and persistence of all of us hand-in-hand through the generations that equality, justice, and peace will prevail over discrimination, oppression, and violence among humankind and Creation.

The above photo shows the various chapters of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women that have been instrumental in producing Consultation Day this year. There are chapters in a number of geographical areas throughout the world such as the Arab States, Geneva, and New York. 

Keynote speaker Ruchira Gupta is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and activist from India, who founded the NGO Apne Aap. The Hindi phrase "Apne aap" is translated as "Self-empowerment." Gupta was named the Woman of Distinction by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women.

Gupta spoke on how she came to make the film "The Selling of Innocents" about the sex trafficking of low-caste Indian women to brothels in Bihar and India. I've been involved in heightening awareness of human trafficking for a while and began the Facebook Page "Episcopalians Against Human Trafficking" with several other activists, and Gupta's telling of the stories brought me to tears.

Gupta shared an insightful concept: avoid "skimming the top of the bottom." In other words, we must go deeper than just superficial attention to changing the wrongs of society and intentionally focus attention to change the root causes of evils such as sexual human trafficking. We must practice consistent and persistent activism against violence directed at women and girls. Gupta pointed out that one kind of crime is connected to other kinds of crime, and that violence against a woman of low-caste normalizes violence against all. Gupta said, "We can only walk the last mile if we walk with the last girl."

The Beijing+20 panel "Voices from the Regions" brought together women from eight regions of the world and a discussant (respondent) on a panel to bear witness to the progress or lack of progress and current issues and hopes regarding the 12 action foci of the Beijing Platform for Action. These women raised issues such as how class plays a major role in the gaps in benefits (such as access to housing, education, and jobs and freedom from violence) of women living in poverty compared to women with more affluence. They pointed out it is important to ally with women in other movements besides the particular segment of the human rights movement in which you participate. 

Several of the women spoke against religious extremism that is "distilled and exaggerated," which has become a fault line in all people's lives, having the potential to cause serious harmful consequences in many communities. The panelists cited violence against "women human rights defenders (WHRD)" as something that women must rally together to name and combat. They challenged the audience: "Can we defend women human rights defenders in our neighborhoods?" The panelists spoke forcefully against the political use of religion to achieve political purposes, which leads to dividing the people in communities from each other. They cited the need for accountability in connecting local movements with global movements. 

The women closed with some important reminders for all people who care about human rights:
  • Keep the fire burning.
  • With equality, there is no deadline.
  • Who do you want to be equal to?
    Pictured here is Dr. Gertrude Mongella, Former Under-Secretary-General of the Fourth U.N. World Conference on Women. Mongella spoke after another wonderful panel featuring Young Activists joined by Mary Robinson, President of Ireland (1990-1997) and the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). The young activists shared their dreams and hopes for what the world could be like and how the NGOs which they have joined and started are helping to create a more equitable future for all.

    Mongella helped summarize a packed day at the Apollo Theater, rocking with world music and universal messages of hope and renewal for humanity:
    • Have confidence. Instill confidence.
    • Build teams. You can't go it alone.
    • Remember your constituents. Walk alongside them. Invite them to walk with you.
    • Gather evidence. Do the research.
    • Develop trust as you work with institutions and governments in order to build capacity.
    • Maintain multi-level, multi-faceted relationships.