Hope in Solving Border Issues

by Ron Cammel; a freelance writer and journalist. These are his reflections after participating in the Southwest Conference/United Church of Christ Border Immersion and Convergence events with his partner, Designated Conference Minister Bill Lyons.

Last weekend I witnessed American citizens join with undocumented immigrants to demand humane treatment for migrants. I heard stories about migrants who tried to escape violence or extreme poverty and then were jailed in the U.S. and deported. I heard stories from tearful migrants who were trying to reunite with their fathers or husbands who were locked in detention centers unsure of their fate.

I haven’t paid enough attention to the issues of illegal migration, refuge, deportations and border security. Migration is probably the world’s largest humanitarian crisis right now. Arizona is a hot spot. Now that I have connected more faces and stories to what I casually followed in the news, I find myself questioning the conventional thinking about securing borders and controlling immigrant numbers.

Also affecting my thinking is a place: Nogales, Arizona, where a formidable wall divides the city from another part of the same community in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. A military-like presence of towers, huge lights and guards is nearly inescapable on the American side. It’s a lovely town in its own character-filled way, though not wealthy. The people seem friendly and cheerful. The tacos are awesome. The water, drinkable.

The day I visited, Mexican children stuck their smiling faces between the rusty steel beams of the wall, hoping for any reaction from those nearby. In the evening, young people sat on each side conversing. Traffic moved steadily through the one border crossing, a gateway between nations but a single road connecting an oddly divided community.

The wall continued forever in both directions through the desert, over the scrubby hills and down the grassy valleys.

I know some of the reasons for trying to “protect” the nation’s borders this way, but soon after I reached that wall I found myself praying for its destruction. It was like a subconscious reaction. The wall is so wrong, so anti-community, so anti-peace. I envisioned the city with a linear park, instead, along the border – a wavy pathway meandering both sides where children could run along and shout, “I’m in America! I’m in Mexico! I’m in America! I’m in Mexico!”

I envisioned the grey-green desert without its current blockade, where wildlife could move freely to maintain healthy ecosystems.

And I envisioned border residents moving more freely, as I assume they did before the wall went up. (I learned of ranchers unable to hunt now and homes stuck south of the wall but in the U.S.!)

communion served by Southwest Conference Minister Rev. Dr. Bill Lyons at the border immersion and Convergence eventsDespite the wall’s imposition, it doesn’t work well. Yes, it does keep many people out. Illegal crossings are way down after many controls – sensors, more guards, more walls, etc. – were added in the past 10 years. But many people still make it to America. Drugs are transported. Human trafficking continues.

The wall fails to promote any American value, such as freedom, human dignity, equality, inalienable rights. We’ve spent $132 billion on securing the Mexican border the past decade to promote a rigid idea of security and have not addressed the reasons people are willing to leave their families and homes, risk arrest, risk dehydration and heat exhaustion and live in practical hiding in a foreign country. The security efforts have led to about 200 deaths per year in the desert. Others live in fear and are unable to reach their potential as a person because of the deportation risk.

Congress even waived 37 laws so contractors could extend the wall without pesky hindrances such as protecting water, respecting land rights and saving archaeological sites.

Could some of that $132 billion have been better spent to solve the root problems? Peace-making and true problem-solving require creative minds.

I learned last weekend about the sanctuary movement. Similar to the Underground Railroad from slavery days, it helps desperate people find work and shelter. Sometimes it helps them get to Canada, where they can live more freely. Churches, colleges and even entire cities take part. There is nothing illegal about these activities. We have come a long way from the Fugitive Slave Act.

I learned of other creative efforts to help our neighbors in need, or “the least of these.” These efforts contrast with actions like sending undocumented immigrants caught in domestic disputes to a land they barely know anymore, and taking young men caught in drug offenses to the border and ordering them to cross over where drug workers will seize upon their vulnerability. I learned of one deported man who didn’t even speak Spanish – his parents had failed to do the paperwork when he was little, and now a crime that would land a fine for most resulted in banishment from his homeland.

“Pax” and “esperanza,” someone painted on a wooden cross that activists tied to the wall. Peace and hope. There is much hope for change. Even when we can’t seem to get away from the word “illegals,” as if a human being can be reduced in such a way, a movement is stirring to preserve dignity and to challenge the powers that be to act more humanely and morally responsible.

featured image courtesy of  ©2016ScottGriessel/Creatista

Are Followers of Jesus the Kind of People Who Put Someone to Death?

by Ryan Gear with Greg Parzych, Esq.

In the most recent Democratic debate, Rachel Maddow asked Hillary and Bernie if they support the death penalty. Each, an agnostic and a Methodist, presented thoughtful but differing answers. As we approach the season of Lent, Americans who desire to practice a Jesus-inspired spirituality are once again presented with the opportunity to consider whether or not we should support the death penalty.

The U.S. is among the last countries on earth to retain the death penalty. Of the 195 countries in the world, the United States is one of only 36 countries (18 percent) still enforcing the death penalty in law and practice. In 2013, the U.S. was the only country in the western hemisphere to carry out an execution. Pharmaceutical companies in the European Union are no longer supplying U.S. states with certain chemicals after they discovered their medicines were being used to put inmates to death.

We are known by the company we keep, and the list of 10 countries executing the most persons annually is one many Americans are not proud to make. The U.S ranked fifth in the number of executions worldwide in 2013, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The other countries rounding out the top 10 are Pakistan, Yemen, North Korea, Vietnam, and Libya.

The majority of executions in the U.S. take place within a small number of states. In 2014, U.S. states executed 35 persons, with 80 percent of these executions taking place in Missouri, Texas, and Florida. Texas has executed, by far, more inmates than any other state (522 since 1976), comprising 37 percent of all executions in the U.S. Since 1976, 81 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in the South.

It is worth noting that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, as do most mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelicals, not so much. The National Association of Evangelicals continues to support capital punishment.

There is a difference between denominations and the people in the pews, however. As of November 2014, 67 percent of white evangelicals and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support capital punishment, compared to 36 percent of Black Protestants. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 41 percent of death row inmates, calling into question the racial fairness of the entire justice system.

Among U.S. Christians who support the death penalty, however, there is a startling disconnect. When asked, “Would Jesus support the death penalty?” only five percent of Americans said He would. This means that a significant portion of Christians in the U.S. approve of doing something they don’t think Jesus would do.

In addition to this, there is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty —

Jesus, Himself, was executed.

The cross was the Roman equivalent of our electric chair or lethal injection. Rome wanted to be tough on crime, and Jesus was a poor man from a nowhere town who noisily cleansed the Temple as an act of protest against religious corruption. Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as a disruption of his iron-fisted order and quickly handed down the sentence of death. What killed Jesus was a lethal cocktail of politics and religion.

My friend Greg Parzych is a criminal defense attorney in Arizona. Greg regularly feels the weight of another human being’s life in his hands, as he often represents clients who are facing the death penalty. He feels the burden of knowing that a jury will decide whether his client lives or dies based (hopefully) on the evidence and mitigating circumstances he presents to them. Therefore he has a unique, up-close-and-personal view that many of us will never experience.

I asked Greg to share his thoughts about capital punishment, and I’m thankful that he obliged:

Renewed discussion regarding the death penalty is occurring in the United States after the botched executions of Clayton Darrell Locket on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma and Joseph Rudolph Wood III on July 23, 2014 in Arizona. Death Penalty discussion often focuses on the possibility of the execution of the innocent, or the method of execution, or the pain and suffering of the condemned vs. the pain and suffering of the victim.

However, any discussion of the death penalty cannot ignore two factors that have always been involved in the imposition of the death penalty — politics and religion. Both play a major role, and both present inherent dangers.

In 1972 the United States Supreme Court, in effect, suspended the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty was wantonly and freakishly imposed, comparing it to being struck by lightning. The suspension of the death penalty was short-lived, however.

In 1976 the Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, held that the state of Georgia’s new death penalty scheme was constitutional. Since Gregg v. Georgia, the United States has executed over 1,400 individuals. Georgia’s revised state statute in Gregg legislated objective criteria to direct and limit the imposition of death and allowed consideration of the character and record of the defendant. It is in this consideration of the character of the defendant where the inherent danger of religion and politics is most prevalent.

In a normal guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, jurors are to determine facts, and, from those facts, determine if the state has proven a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the sentencing phase of a death penalty case, however, jurors are to determine life or death.

In doing so, jurors are instructed to consider aspects of a defendant’s character to determine if there are any factors in fairness or mercy that may reduce the defendant’s moral culpability.

Determining who should live and who should die is a moral decision, an individual and personal moral decision. And as such, religion plays a major part. Unlike a guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, in the sentencing phase, jurors are told that they should not change their individual personal beliefs solely because of the opinions of the fellow jurors. Each individual juror must make his or her own moral decision. Terms and phrases such as fairness or mercy and moral culpability inevitably invite religion into the life or death consideration.

The problem in death penalty cases is that a person whose moral and religious beliefs forbid them from imposing a death sentence cannot serve on a death penalty case. Yet those whose religious and moral beliefs allow for the imposition of death routinely sit on death juries. “Death qualification” as it is called, stacks the deck for death. “An eye for an eye” may not necessarily prohibit you from serving on a capital case but a belief in the sanctity of all human life most certainly will.

Despite the use of objective criteria in determining who should live or die, the decision of who lives and who dies is obviously subjective. The question becomes, “Should we as a society be making the decision of who lives and who dies?” Who is smart enough to not only decide life or death, but to decide what should be considered in making that determination?

Research is actually being conducted to determine a “Depravity Standard” in an effort to give jurors “guidelines” to help them make the life or death decision. Researchers are actually trying to quantify and qualify “evil” to aid jurors in imposing death sentences. In effect, they are trying to give scientific validity in death sentences and thereby add a level of comfort to those who impose a death sentence knowing “science” backs their moral decision.

Politics, of course, also plays a major role. The death penalty has and always will be politicized. It can certainly be argued that the higher the media attention in a murder case, the greater chance the state or federal prosecutor will seek the death penalty. “Tough on crime” wins elections, from local elections to presidential elections. In 1992, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas returned to his home state in the middle of his presidential election campaign to make sure the execution of Ricky Ray Rector took place.

Many in Arkansas opposed the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, not because of what he did, but because of who he had become. Ricky Ray Rector was convicted of killing two men, one of whom was a police officer. Before being apprehended, Rector shot himself in the temple. He survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, which in effect destroyed his frontal lobe and severely impaired his mental capacity.

For his last meal, Rector put his dessert, pecan pie, aside, telling guards he was saving it for later. Despite Rector’s clear impaired intellectual mental capacity, he was executed on January 4, 1992. Then Governor Clinton used the publicity of the execution to show he was not “soft on crime.” Many believe that this may have been a turning point in the presidential election.

The debate and discussion of the death penalty must continue as long as the United States continues to execute its citizens. But the debate and discussion must be an informed one. The debate must include the practical effects that politics and religion play in the imposition of the death penalty — and the inherent danger of both.

As we approach Lent, Americans who claim the Name of Jesus must ask ourselves how the crucified Lord views capital punishment. When considering the use of the death penalty, perhaps the question is not, “Does the convicted deserve to die?” Perhaps the question is, “Are followers of Jesus the kind of people who will put someone to death?”

Gregory T. Parzych, Esq. is a graduate of Marquette Law School and has practiced criminal defense in Arizona since 1992, representing capital defendants for two decades.

Bad Theology, Good Riddance

by Davin Franklin-Hicks

I have loads of bad theology. It’s rotten. It reeks. It’s spoiled. It’s bad. I came by it honestly, though. I wasn’t rooting around in another person’s garden to get it. I lived amongst it and couldn’t even tell that it was so rotten. I don’t think it would behoove us for me to display it here as though I am posting my lunch on Instagram. I think it would help to just say, “There is a lot of rotten stuff here and it needs to be cleared out for some new life.”

Back in 2008, I spent a week at Desert House of Prayer in Tucson, Arizona. I like to call it DHOP and borrow the tagline, “Come hungry, leave happy”. I chose to enter into silence for that whole week with not really any agenda besides an openness to God. I brought some books along, primarily Marcus Borg and Shelby Spong. Their words merged within me, creating space for questions I had long stopped asking. I prayed a great deal that week. I hiked, even getting on top of a huge rock that was next to impossible to get down from easily. This is  indicative of how I have lived much of my life, actually, setting out for a stroll and encountering unexpected “adventure”.

Borg and Spong (who I lovingly blended into the word Bong for that week) made room for me to think, talk and explore who Jesus was to me. I had spent the seven years before unpacking who Jesus wasn’t and I really hadn’t done much more than that since. I thought the church that I came from, for all intents and purposes, owned Jesus. I thought they were right that I was unacceptable. I thought they had the ability to determine insiders and outsiders. I didn’t consciously think these thoughts, mind you, but I lived my life as if they were true.

Now, here I was, in silence, no external voices to tell me if I was right, wrong, or crazy. The last three days I only had silence as my companion. I even refrained from reading more of Bong (it’s growing on you, isn’t it?). I was aware of an aching, deep void that was left in the dissolution of friendships from the church I once adored. The aching deep void that God could not be accessed by me anymore. Here’s the beauty, though. It is in voids that God speaks and creates. It was in that void that I began to ask questions and seek Jesus once more.

Let me be clear that I do not have anything profound to say about who Jesus is after this soul searching. I don’t really think we need to have yet another voice on the topic entering into the “Nah-ah” and “Uh-huh” debate that gets played out all the time. This isn’t actually about the theology that I ended up embracing. This is more about the unexpected grace I experienced when I became willing.

Over the last three days of my time at DHOP, I cried a lot. I wrote letters to people I love and who love me. I wrote letters, too, to the people I loved who rejected me in the name of God. I held space for the really hard stuff and found that as I did, it started lifting. It wasn’t a tangled mess of anxiety, sadness and anger anymore. It was becoming just an experience that I had, not the only experience I ever had which is what it had felt like before. As this clearing happened, I was able to access love, goodness, forgiveness, kindness again. I prayed for the people who had rejected me and  I actually, finally, meant it.

The last evening I was there, I sat on the front porch with my eyes closed, just enjoying the sound of the birds, the gentle breeze, the freedom from city noise. As I sat there, I heard someone gasp. I opened my eyes and not even a foot away from me was a beautiful, perfect deer. The woman who gasped was on the sidewalk about three feet away. Neither of us moved. The deer did not look at all frightened. She gazed back at me gently. I began to cry without realizing it, just silent tears pouring down my face. She moved on from us and went back toward the desert area. I looked at the stranger, made friend by a powerful moment we had just shared, and all she said to me was, “Wow!”

I have found that once I am willing to relinquish the places within that are causing decay and pain internally, there is not much else I need to do except be present with my God and present with creation all around me. When I am experiencing openness of heart, generosity of spirit, kindness of thought things just happen. I become the deer, I become the stranger, I become the silent one in waiting. It feels as though I am bearing witness to my own life in these moments rather than being the agent that controls and launches them.

I have been struggling again with parts of theology that are life-snuffing versus life giving. It comes in an ebb and flow for me, this realization of theology that hurts. A dear friend of mine shared his own experience with recognizing a bad theology he had that was impacting his choices daily. I relate to that, the underlying moral imperative that is neither moral nor imperative. In the spirit of willingness, I get to work on clearing the bad theology out. For me, this means honesty in prayer, honesty in writing and honesty in talking. This work is not easy, there are reasons some may never attempt it. For me, though, it just hurts too much not to work on clearing it out.

Here’s what I do know to be true and it is the driving force behind the hard work of excavation: All it really takes is willingness. That’s really it. A recognition that it hurts and a willingness to simply just let it go. Because you see, dear one, there’s just something about willingness that grace can’t get enough of.

Your Hyphens

by Karen Richter

I am a woman-wife-mother-introvert.

multiple religious belonging - intersectionality
Whooo are you?

I am a democrat-progressive-child advocate.

I am a Christian-universalist-meditator-educator.

We all have many layers of our identity, different roles emphasized at different times or in different settings.

Later today at Shadow Rock UCC, people interested in the idea of people identifying with more than one religious tradition will be gathering.  Some will be folks who themselves identify as Christian-Buddhist or church-attending Jew or Muslim-Christian or Sikh-Wiccan.  Other participants will be religious leaders who want to prepare their faith communities to better meet people of faith who claim a variety of backgrounds.  Some – like me – will be curious and eager, coming with questions and assumptions about what this might mean to the future of faith.

Yesterday, I saw a video online about a Palestinian woman who is striving to be an active participant in the struggle for Palestinian identity and liberation as a woman.  Activists often call this ‘intersectionality.’ I found this definition (thanks Google!) of intersectionality quickly, but I didn’t really need it.  It’s one of those things that you know when you see it.

Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination by examining the complex multiple facets of identity of an individual such as race, gender, class, sex and age.

My best understanding of intersectionality is that society often appears to ask people to choose and prioritize from among their identities.  Are you advocating for families or union workers?  Are you representing African-Americans or women?  Intersectionality pushes back against this phenomenon, instead recognizing that people crave space to be their whole selves… bringing every bit of their identities and experiences to bear on issues and decisions.

So, why are we even a little bit surprised when this idea of wholeness and recognition and valuing unique experiences breaks into religious communities?  Maybe a Christian-Hindu should surprise and challenge us no more than a Native American feminist.  Don’t we want churches to be places where people can be their whole selves and be welcomed?  Don’t we want more genuine people in the world?

These kinds of developments remind me that as a species we are still growing, maturing, evolving.  It’s exasperating!  And it makes me hopeful for the future.

The gathering begins at lunch today.  Join the conversation.

Stop Operation Streamline

by Rev. Randy Mayer and Christian Ramirez

(originally published on thehill.com; reposted with permission)

The clank of chains resonates through the federal courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, as a group of 70 fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers shuffle along with shackles on their ankles linked to handcuffs on their wrists. This was just one of hundreds of draconian, rapid-fire mass trials of individuals, most of whom are only trying to reunite with their families in the U.S. or flee persecution in their home countries. This is the cruel and costly process of criminalizing migration, the most egregious form of which is known as Streamline.

While this version only happens in Tucson, brave people who make the decision to risk life and limb to provide for their families or find safe haven are now charged with illegal entry and illegal reentry nationwide. Nonetheless, the district of Arizona ranks second in the nation for immigration-related criminal convictions.

When lay leaders from the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ, a member- organization of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, first observed these proceedings a few years ago, they were sickened by what they witnessed.  Since then, it has become our spiritual obligation to bring fellow people of faith and conscience to the courtroom to be a quiet presence of solidarity for the migrants who are corralled through this unjust process. Over the years, we have watched the proceedings become worse, with higher charges and longer sentences. Often the scene is unbearable as the hopes of 70 families being reunited or finding safety from persecution unravel with the word “Culpable” or “Guilty” muttered by the individuals to the Judge.  

Migrants referred for these mass hearings meet with their court appointed lawyers for fewer than 10 minutes and make hasty, pressured decisions that impact their ability to reunite with their families and pursue new opportunities. By the glossy look in their eyes it is clear that most, if not all the people facing charges in the courtroom, have not had their rights properly explained and do not realize they are being subjected to a system of excessive punishment. Yet this is the purpose of Operation Streamline, to move so quickly that no one can object, to keep individuals in the dark, and to erode the 5th amendment of the U.S. Constitution which upholds due process as a fundamental American value.

These costly, unjust prosecutions for those hoping to be reunited with family or seeking safety are lauded as a successful deterrent strategy by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and other policymakers.  If politicians took the time to visit border communities and meet eye-to-eye with these family members, as many of the humanitarian groups such as the Samaritans, Kino Border Initiative, and No More Deaths do on a daily basis, they would see how these proceedings violate our nation’s basic principles of fairness and justice. A 2013 study by University of Arizona students, In the Shadow of the Wall, found that people will face any hardship to reunite with their families. Love and family ties know no borders, and criminalizing the basic human right to reunite with loved ones is shameful.

A recent Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General Report on Streamline found that Border Patrol is unable to demonstrate that Streamline prosecutions deter unauthorized migration. The report also found that Border Patrol may be referring asylum seekers for criminal prosecution, a clear violation of the government’s obligations under both domestic and international law.  

Operation Streamline has also drastically increased the profits of corporations that run both federal prisons and immigrant detention centers, some of which have recently started to jail mothers and children fleeing violence and persecution. These private prisons receive about $3 billion each year in revenue. Although the recent OIG report noted that government authorities do not know how many millions of taxpayers dollars are used to fund Streamline, estimates from the U.S. Marshals Service indicate that the incarceration costs in Tucson alone amount to $63 million per year.

In July, more than 170 civil rights, human rights, and faith-based organizations urged U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to end this costly, ineffective, and immoral program that erodes due process, violates human rights standards, and contributes to the unethical practice of mass incarceration for a profit in this country. Communities in the border region and faith communities from around the country are united in saying that this program needs to end.

Mayer is pastor of The Good Shepherd Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona. Ramirez is director of the Human Rights Program at the Alliance San Diego and staffs the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium and the Southern Border Communities Coalition.


It’s About Love

by Jeffrey Dirrim

Ruth 1:16-17 Message (MSG)
But Ruth said, “Do not pressure me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die— There will I be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

On the morning of October 17, 2014, U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick’s ruled on two federal cases, declaring Arizona’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Arizona’s Attorney General Tom Horne advised the state would not appeal the ruling and instructed the county clerks to immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

That evening, there were tears of joy flowing like a fountain at our UCC Southwest Conference office in central Phoenix. Everyone in the packed room and those listening from speakers outside cheered as our then Conference Minister, Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, announced to a standing-room only crowd that he had performed Arizona’s first legal gay marriage ceremony. As is John’s nature, he quickly turned the attention away from himself and focused on the true meaning of that historic day. “It’s about love,” he said.

The Spirit was thick in the room and I feel it now as I recall hearing that simple sermon over and over again. I first heard it on the radio that morning through Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton’s voice as he witnessed a judge marrying a gay couple in his office. I saw nervous brides and grooms at the Maricopa County Courthouse receiving this message when offered free flower bouquets and celebratory bubbles by Dena Covey and other laity. I first heard it in person while taking pictures for fellow clergy members Barbara and Rich Doerrer-Peacock as they co-officiated a lesbian couple’s service on the front steps of that same courthouse. And I read them in a beautifully colored sign waved gleefully by a young daughter as I married her two moms late in the afternoon.

The book of Ruth shares the story of hope through the unlikely pairing of two destitute foreign women. During a bleak famine in Naomi’s homeland of Judah, her family decides to move to the pagan land of Moab. Instead of answered prayers, she finds more misery over the course of the next decade. Her husband dies, her two sons marry Moabite wives, and neither marriage brings her grandchildren. Naomi feels God has judged her too as both of her sons die. It is in the deep grief of these tragedies Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem.

Ruth is the young poor Moabite widow of Naomi’s son Mahlon. She understands the hopelessness shared by the much older and wiser Naomi who tries to persuade her to stay in Moab. But determined to support her, no matter the outcome, Ruth accompanies Naomi home responding “where you go, I’ll go.” There Ruth is working in the fields during the next harvest when a wealthy landowner by the name of Boaz first sees her. Based on the customs at the time Boaz is able to act as a brother to Naomi and eventually he marries Ruth. Like any good soap opera, Naomi’s shenanigans play a part leading to Ruth’s wedding. It isn’t until the conclusion of their misery-filled story we learn they have played a part in bringing God’s plan together for the future of the Israelites. Through Ruth’s and Boaz’s son Obed, father of Jesse, Naomi becomes the great-grandmother of King David and is a direct ancestor of Jesus. It’s a surprise to find that hope can be found in hopelessness.

What is hope? It’s expressed through the imperfect lives of Ruth and Naomi as being faithful, patient, trusting, kind, selfless, and even strong in conviction. It’s believing God will provide in the midst of great tragedy. It’s knowing in those seemingly Godless moments that we have a purpose and we keep moving forward. Hope is God’s love for each of us.

As we celebrate the first anniversary of legal same-gender marriages in Arizona, we’ll be celebrating it with newlyweds Nelda Majors and Karen Bailey. Nelda and Karen were the lead plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit that eventually overturned Arizona’s ban on gay marriage. In fact, Nelda and Karen were the first couple to receive a marriage license in Arizona. Karen told me the nuptials that followed a short time later “were a celebration.” They have publicly shared how they lived their lives in hope, but never really thought they would be allowed to legally wed. Nelda and Karen, like most of Arizona’s lesbian and gay couples who’ve married over the last year, have been together a long time. The State’s recognition of their relationship is simply an affirmation of what God has witnessed for decades.

Their journey began during the late 1950s with a new college friendship. Within the first year they became a couple and have now been together longer than they’ve been apart. Nelda and Karen share a love story of light even in the darker times they spent living in the closet. What I’ve witness in them is a faithful pairing. Two people that stuck together, determined to move beyond the odds. Two people that created a beautiful family. Two people whose heartfelt confidence in each other led to creating a better world for the rest of us. It’s true there are similarities between their journey and Ruth and Naomi’s story. While sweet, that is not what I’m left discerning on this historic anniversary.

I’m wondering why so many couples identify with the Ruth and Naomi story? Is it the early tragedies they feel and/or the hope they seek? Or are they merely wanting confirmation of a happy ending before they promise to stick around through thick and thin? While life is beautiful, the Bible reminds us it isn’t fair. And where do we fit in the story? Is it possible that Nelda’s and Karen’s journey offers us Naomi’s sage wisdom? What a wonderful representation of Naomi that would be today! And If so, does that mean we are Ruth in relationship to them? If our postmodern Christian faith rests in a call to action, what are we supposed to be doing after all the cameras have gone and we start moving toward Karen and Nelda’s second anniversary?

One of the most powerful pieces of the marriage liturgy we celebrate through Rebel & Divine UCC is a moment after the vows when the spouses are asked to turn and face all of those present. They recognize their chosen family of witnesses and realize, sometimes for the first time, who is there to support them. AND THEN the community creates a covenant with them. Through love they promise the newlyweds to be there in both good times and bad. The covenant is supportive, patient, forgiving, trusting, steadfast, and loyal. It recognizes the divinity within love. Acknowledges it is bigger than all of us. Knowing wherever we find love, we find God, and it is holy. Whether straight, gay, or somewhere in between.

Maybe the story of Ruth is calling us to do the hard back-breaking work in the fields as she once did? Can our first anniversary gift to Arizona’s same-gender loving newlyweds be a promise? Can we join with our churches to keep pushing our southwestern states toward full LGBTQ equality? First, by fighting for justice in healthcare, taxes, housing, adoption, and employment? Second, by practicing kindness through intentionally finding ways to recognize the milestones in the lives of LGBTQ families with simple rituals? Third, by remaining hopeful in the midst of great social change? This weekend we celebrate how our diversity makes us stronger. Ruth remained steadfast and loyal while living into a difficult decision and new way of living. Her patience rewarded everyone. Will we follow her lead?

Where You Go, I’ll Go! Ever faithful God of many names, languages, and voices. Help us to move beyond current laws and perspectives as we live into a hope-filled new world. A heaven on earth where we recognize you in our love for each other. This weekend we celebrate the first anniversaries of legally wed same-gender couples in Arizona. In doing so we ask you to bless them and all of the couples (straight, gay, and somewhere in between) whose life journeys are lovingly leading them toward the ever-evolving institution of marriage. Amen and let it be so.


Arizona Education Cuts Amount to a Tax on Women, Children, and Their Families

by Ryan Gear

As a pastor in Arizona, I value one particular book very highly, but I have personally felt the power of education to improve lives. I received an outstanding public school education in my hometown in Ohio, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I eventually earned a Master’s Degree. I believe in education, and even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that the nurture of children is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian values.

Sadly, Arizona children may not have the same educational opportunities I received. Repeated state budget cuts to public education have knocked Arizona to near the bottom of the country in education funding.

As Arizona voters know well, the most recent budget cuts came after a four-day budgeting process ending in a budget passed in the middle of the night. Arizona has cut total education spending by 32% since the recession of 2008, more than any other state in the country.

The cuts have reduced education resources for Arizona’s children, from kindergarten to college. According to the Arizona Education News Service:

In Arizona, 41 mostly small, rural districts were on a four-day school week this school year. Next year, Apache Junction and Coolidge Unified will join them in an effort to cut costs, while Peoria Unified decided against it in early April and approved a plan at their board meeting last week to reduce expenses in other ways.

The effects of these cuts on our children’s education are devastating, and the cuts were not limited to elementary, junior high, and high school. From the Arizona Republic:

According to the report released Tuesday night by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona is spending 47 percent less this year per college student than it did in 2008, adjusted for inflation. That’s a larger percentage cut than any other state, equating to $3,053 less annually per student.

The budget cuts further reduced funding to college students and actually eliminated all funding for Arizona’s three largest community college districts. In response to the cuts, Arizona college and university tuition has risen more than any other state since the Great Recession, placing the financial burden squarely on lower and middle class students and their parents who were already struggling to afford college anyway.

In addition, the repeated budget cuts have led to a teacher shortage in Arizona. The 2013-2014 school year saw a 29% increase in the number of substitute teachers, as 62% of school districts reported open teaching positions in their schools. Last school year, 74% of Arizona schools had between one and five teacher positions open in September. This school year, a member of the church I serve who is a principal in the Southeast Valley of Phoenix lamented that it was very difficult to hire enough teachers. As to the cause of the teacher shortage, 42% of former teachers reported that the primary reason they left teaching was to pursue a career offering higher wages. Already underpaid Arizona teachers simply can’t afford these cuts.

These budget cuts disproportionately affect women. In 2012, over two-thirds of all public school teachers in the U.S. were female. When public teachers pay, women pay. Not only are the budget cuts impacting Arizona students and their families, the cuts are directly affecting the jobs of thousands of Arizona women.

It may come as a surprise to some Arizona voters that the deep cuts to education coincided with tax cuts given to corporations. In 2011, while Arizona was still recovering from the Great Recession, lawmakers passed a bill giving a 30% tax cut to corporations, amounting to $270 million, more than K-12 received in funds. Prior to the 2011 tax cuts, nearly two-thirds of Arizona corporations reportedly paid almost no state tax. While I understand the need to lure new businesses to create jobs, Arizona’s excellent cities, abundant sunshine, and natural beauty can still help to attract corporations and employees, even if corporations foot something at least in the ballpark of their fair share of the tax burden.

Ironically, the education cuts may actually reduce the number of new jobs produced in Arizona. Phoenix Business Journal recently reported that two companies that would have added 3,000 new good-paying jobs in Phoenix chose to expand to other cities instead. What was the reason these companies took their 3,000 new jobs elsewhere?  One manager explained:

My key managers didn’t want to relocate to Arizona despite the golf and the weather,” said one decision-maker. “They were afraid they would not find good schools for their own children. They also felt that the state’s reputation for poor education would affect the ability to recruit talent from outside.

Along with slower than recent migration to Arizona, the tax cuts actually created the deficit that the education cuts remedied. In 2015, however, the corporate tax cuts remained in place, while the education budget was further reduced. When tax cuts create a deficit, someone has to pay the bill, and the ones paying now are Arizona women and children. So much for “women and children first.” Speaking as a pastor, both the Jewish and Christian scriptures call this an injustice.

While Arizona cut its education budget more than any other state, it is not the only state to drastically cut funding for public education. Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Kansas have instituted deep cuts as well. Voters should be aware that the governors of these states seem to be following a shared pattern of behavior and also share a well-documented connection to the same donors and influencers. The education cuts appear to be part of a multi-state agenda.

How does our faith inform our treatment of vulnerable women and children? The prophet Isaiah does not mince words, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Arizona students may or may not be orphans, and teachers may or may not be widows, but they are now both vulnerable. Forcing them to bear the burden of state budget cuts is unjust.

It turns out that this injustice comes at a price. Arizona voters are practical enough to know that there is a difference between fiscal conservatism and fiscal irresponsibility. Instead of asking corporations and those with means to pay anything close to their fair share of the cost, the repeated cuts to Arizona public education amount to a tax on Arizona lower and middle class families, and especially on women and children.


Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church in Chandler. Ryan is also the founder of openmindedchurch.org, a growing national directory of churches willing to thoughtfully wrestle with questions and doubts. He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, OnFaith, Beliefnet, and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryangear77