Monday, February 25, 2013

"A Prayer for Reproductive Justice" - Sermon

A Prayer for Reproductive Justice

         We Unitarian Universalists are a justice seeking people. And for the next two years, we will reorient some of our justice concerns toward reproduction. That’s because at the 2012 General Assembly our national faith community selected reproductive justice as our Study Action Issue. What that means roughly, is that congregations across the country are encouraged to study and learn about the topic. They are invited to reflect on how their faith calls them to respond to the question. Perhaps more importantly, in the midst of that discernment we are called to act in large and small ways, to bring about justice by acting in our world.
          We Unitarian Universalists have actually been vocally supporting a woman’s right to choose abortion for a very long time. We passed resolutions at our General Assembly in 1963, 1968, 1973, 1975, 1978, 1980, 1985, 1987, and 1983. Having sat through a few General Assemblies myself, I can assure that that getting a few thousand Unitarian Universalists to agree on anything is a tremendous accomplishment.
         We have done a great deal to advocate for abortion rights as a faith community. And that is what comes to most of our minds when the topic comes up. But reproductive justice is about much more than one particular choice. Yes, abortion is an important choice, but it is only one piece of a much broader struggle. Reproductive Justice is a multifaceted movement. It is about empowering every person to make decisions about their own sexual well-being, and women having the resources to choose how and when they will birth children. It is having awareness and courage to say yes to the sex that you want, and no to the sex that you don’t want. It is giving youth and anyone who wants it, accurate and helpful information about sexuality, including support for the moral, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of sexual activity.
         Reproductive justice means taking seriously the experience of poor women and women of color, and offering the tools that they need to make choices about reproduction. And it is interwoven with our continuing work for immigration justice, as we fight against laws that tear families apart, and endanger the safety of migrant women.
         As you can hear, there is not single legislative agenda that we are after. Reproductive justice is a much broader scope than the individual right for women to choose to have an abortion. With the full scope of the topic out on the table, I want to explore how some of our Unitarian Universalist beliefs inform our perspective on reproductive justice.

         The first of these is the belief that I think most UUs resonate with. That is the belief that every soul is sacred and worthy. I know at first glance this sounds like a pro-life poster. But we as Unitarian Universalists believe that every soul is sacred and worthy, and that means more than defending the potential life of a fetus.
         First of all, it means a sincere investment in the health and wellbeing of young people. We owe it to them to provide good information about sex. And I don’t mean information about the basics of physical health. Yes, that is essential, but we also owe it to them to have real opportunities to discuss decision making about sexual practices and issues of self worth. Perhaps most of all we owe them a real conversation about what to do with the fact their lives are swimming in a hyper-sexualized world. In advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines, music, everywhere they turn sex is promoted as the primary means for human intimacy.
         And then there is the internet. You may not know this, but you should. Anyone who has access to a computer and the ability to use it, let’s say anyone above the age of twelve years old, has access to a virtually endless supply of pornography. If they look for it, whatever it is, they can find a video of it on the internet. To be totally clear, I’m saying anyone with access to a computer can find an endless supply of graphic pornographic. This is the world our children are coming of age in, and we have to respond to it. If we cannot shield them from it, then we at least owe them an opportunity to make sense of it.
         The issue at hand isn’t that sex is dirty, or that our kids are ill inclined. The issue is that we love and respect our youth. And we owe it to them, and to everyone else to have the tools to make sense of the over sexualized world that we all have to navigate. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Every soul deserves the opportunity to develop into a sexually healthy adult.
         But youth are not the only people who are vulnerable in this regard. We are also called to remember that women, particularly poor women and women of color still in our world are disempowered. They often do not have the ability or the right to choose how and when they will have sex. I know in our community that is bracing to hear. But there are still many women in our country who are coerced into having unprotected sex, not as prostitutes, but as women who survive in a patriarchal culture. Affirming the worth of all people, and helping to empower the historically marginalized means helping them to take charge of their reproductive choices. Every soul is sacred and worthy, every person is entitled to decided if they want to have sex and how they want to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs.
         There are two other groups of people whose worth and dignity we are called to remember and protect. The first one is women struggling with unintended pregnancies. The religious right is quick to mention the rights of the fetuses and embryos. I personally share a small portion of that concern for a potential life. But the key piece of this equation is that word “potential.” Yes, there is potential for those cells, those fetuses to develop into meaningful lives. However, the women who carry them are already in the midst of a meaningful life. They have careers and school to handle. They have pressures from family and society. Every soul is sacred and worthy, this includes the brave women who have faced the very difficult decision to have an abortion, and the countless women in the future who will need to exercise this critical right.
         And finally when I say that every soul is sacred and worthy I speak also of the countless children who are born every year to mothers and fathers who are unable to care for them. Many of the fortunate ones like myself, and some of the children in our congregation, get adopted into loving, supportive families. I can tell you that even is no cake-walk. Many others get left behind in a foster care system that is simply overwhelmed and underfunded. Nationwide, more than 463,000 kids live within the foster care system. 463,000 children do not have a permanent home. Many of these children are available for adoption, but the right family has not yet come along. Every soul is sacred and worthy. Every child born into this world is entitled to a safe and loving home environment. But the hard fact of the matter is, our society is not equipped to provide homes for the many, many children who are in desperate need. How, in the midst of that reality can we possibly force women with unintended pregnancies to risk their health, risk their careers, risk their social stability, to bring another child into this great mass of children in need. It simply does not add up. Every soul is sacred and worthy.
         Another truth that we hold dear as Unitarian Universalists is that there is a unity that makes us one. Beyond all the differences that appear to divide us, our fates are interconnected. What affects one being, invariably affects the others in an intricate web of life.
         It is rarely talked about in our world, but many, many women have faced the difficult decision to have an abortion. Most likely a woman that you know and care about has struggled with this dilemma. By the age of forty-five, nearly half of all women will have an unintended pregnancy. And, nearly one third will have an abortion. Let me repeat those numbers because they are big. Nearly half of all women will have an unintended pregnancy. Nearly one third will have an abortion in their life. It is also important to note that the rates of abortion among poor women and women of color are significantly higher than the rest of the population.
         Abortion is not a bizarre rare thing. It is a very hard thing, but the women that we know and love face this difficult reality with bravery and courage. While preparing for this sermon I ran across an amazing short film called “The Abortion Diaries.” It is a collection of interview with women of different backgrounds who had had an abortion. They share candidly what that experience was like, and in so doing they break a silence and support one another. Hopefully we can show the film sometime soon here. As a man I found it very insightful and helpful.
         There is a unity that makes us one. Abortion is a reality that impacts the psychological and spiritual well-being of the women in our lives. It therefore affects us all. And while it feels chilly to bring up money in a conversation so anchored in our core values, we are all connected financially to the impacts of reproductive justice. When women are empowered to make their own decisions about when and how to have children, they tend to have fewer of them. It is in all of our interests to have fewer children growing up in poor families. It is in all of our interest to have fewer children landing in the foster care system. By providing our children with accurate and helpful information, and by empowering poor women and women of color, we can save both tremendous heartache and tremendous sums of money in the long run. Again, I know it feels chilly to talk about money in this conversation. But our economy is just one of the many ways in which we are very, very connected to one another.
         There is a unity that makes us one. That means that this conversation and the struggle for reproductive justice is not for women to engage alone. We are all touched by this. Saying that this struggle is for women alone is like saying ending racism is up to people of color to take care of. I know it is precarious to say that men have a voice in this discussion. I have heard from some of you, and I have read many, many suggestions that the only people who should be deciding about matters of abortion are women. I understand that inclination, I promise you I do. I have felt the urge to tell straight people, even the well intended ones that they just don’t get it. But, I also understand that we work together to create change. There is a unity that makes us one, a unity that calls us to listen deeply and work together while we bring more justice into our world.

         The final piece of our faith tradition that I want to draw on today is an understanding that courageous love will transform the world. We Unitarian Universalists are called to struggle for reproductive justice as people of faith. That means our religious values and beliefs inform our commitment and our action in this arena.
         Yes, reproductive justice is a question of faith and values. And we bring our faith and values with us into the struggle. I recently read a story about just that. Rev. Lisa Sargent worked for Planned Parenthood before she entered the ministry. It was hard but rewarding work. Frequently when she cam to work she found the building was surrounded by protesters. They usually were holding signs with religious messages and offering forgiveness through Jesus if only she would reject the work she was doing. But one day Lisa came across a bumper stick that gave her some solace and courage in the midst of all the religious force. The sticker said simply, “I’m pro-choice and I pray.”
         She hung it up in her workspace and within 15 minutes a co-worker was there to talk about it. She whispered, “Do you really pray?” “Um, yes I do,” she said. “SO DO I!”  They had a wonderful moment affirming their work as people of faith. And the day continued with a near constant stream of co-workers who wanted to talk about this simple sign. Rev. Lisa writes “I learned that day that my colleagues weren’t working at Planned Parenthood despite their religious beliefs, but because of them.” In fact it was working for Planned Parenthood for several years that lead Lisa into the ministry. She saw the way that prayer and meditation played a role in women’s difficult decision. And she saw the need for a religious voice that supported rather than shamed people in their time of need.
         Like Lisa and those brave Planned Parenthood employees, we approach the issue of reproductive justice not in spite of our faith, but because of it.
         I want to come back to the title of this sermon, “A Prayer for Reproductive Justice.” We are not praying for more abortions. We are praying and acting to create a world where everyone is empowered to decide what is right for his or her own body. We are striving for a world where poor women and women of color have enough power and self esteem to defend their rights. We long for a world where our young people can grow up with the tools to make sense of this culture obsessed with sex.  And perhaps most of all, we pray for a world with enough compassion for people to sit together and hear the hard stories and tell the hard truths. So that one day we might all know more deeply what it means to love one another.


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