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Gracias a la Vida!

August 6, 2013

Joanne BrownJoanne Brown is a writer, poet, teacher and member of the First Church community. She spends her time in both Oaxaca, Mexico and Berkeley, California. She shares her reflections and poetry on her blog Transitions and Transformations: the beauty and the terror.

Joanne also teaches writing workshops using the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) method. She will be starting a new workshop series Write for Your Life” at First Church on September 9, 2013.

She wrote this entry “Gracias a la Vida” in May of 2012.

………………….

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco …

Thank you life, you have given me so much
You gave me two eyes which when I open them
I can distinguish perfectly between black and white …

– Violeta Parra 

Last evening a friend and I went to see a play about the life of the late Chilean singer, songwriter, folklorist, and visual artist Violeta Parra. She’s known as the mother of the New Chilean Song Movement, and she revived the Peña, a community center for arts and political activism. I never knew that La Peña on Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley owes its name and mission to Violeta.

Just before her suicide in 1967 at age 50, Parra wrote the beautiful song Gracias a la Vida  (Thank you life), which has been popularized by Joan Baez (watch Joan sing it!), Mercedes Sosa, Luciano Pavarotti, and many others. It played as we waited for the drama to begin, and my friend said to me, “I don’t always feel grateful for what life has given me, and I wish I did.” Her longing played across my dreams last night …

By dawn I asked myself, Am I grateful for what life has given me?

In my mid-forties, when I was lonely in my marriage, on the brink of leaving it, and desperate to find a spiritual home, the people of First Church Berkeley lifted me up. There was community, new friends, song; a way to see the commonality in all beings, and the truth that we need each other to live. In all of this, I recognized something so much bigger than my one life. First church planted in me the seeds of gratitude!

Surely gratitude for a difficult childhood or divorce doesn’t come easy. But I suppose what I’ve been given has made me who I am at this moment and who I may yet become.  I’ve traveled beyond past miseries with the help of so many friends, and they, like a loving family, live always in my heart (and on Skype!) though I make my life now in Mexico and they are far away. And even with so much distraction, violence, and treachery in the world, I know if I can sing, pray, watch the beauty of a sunrise, a child’s smile, or a hummingbird’s dance, I’m on my way to gracias a la vida!

According to Gratefulness.org, the practice of gratefulness moves people “to live in the light of all we’ve been given.” They say that can be a force for personal change — inspiring compassion and generosity — as well as for world peace.

Heady stuff! May gratitude and peace be with you.

More reflections and poetry from Joanne Brown…

More about First Church Berkeley…

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Human Trafficking: Ten Ways to Respond

October 2, 2012

On Sunday, September 30, 2012, Shelly Dieterle, Young Adult Minister at First Church Berkeley, preached a sermon at the 9 am service that included an exploration of the US and global issue of human trafficking. It was part of a series of sermons under the theme “Caring for Each Other, Caring for the Earth.” The subject for the morning was “Seeking Justice and Reconciliation.”

In the sermon, Shelly offered 10 different ways one might respond to this troubling issue:

  1. Learn more at slaveryfootprint.org and talk with others about what you learn
  2. Speak up and insist that the clothes you wear, the food you eat and the products you buy are made free of forced labor
  3. Shop responsibly. Learn what companies to avoid and which ones are moving toward economic, social, and environmental responsibility
  4. Become a pen pal to the girls in Mark Pham’s Bocochiem Project, emchi.org, in Southern Vietnam. Mark is the nephew of Louise Halsey and visited with us that Sunday. The Em Chi Initiative prevents young girls in rural southern Vietnam from exploitation.
  5. Openly and actively endorse Proposition 35, A Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery, and work towards its passage in November
  6. Support Mark’s Bocochiem Project, EmChi, through FCCBs Alternative Gifts catalog this Christmas
  7. Pray for the girls, the women and the boys and men who are held captive in bonded labor throughout the world, and for their oppressors
  8. Join the Not for Sale campaign e-distribution
  9. Become a Big Brother or a Big Sister
  10. Review, support and circulate petitions on change.org

Watch a video of Shelly’s sermon…

First Church member Barbara Grady-Ayer has also written a series of articles on the local aspects of human trafficking right here in the East Bay that appears on the Oakland Local website.

More about First Church Berkeley, United Church of Christ

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A Lament for Lynching

July 17, 2012

by Phil Porter, First Church Minister of Art & Communication and member of the Diversity Ministry Team

This piece was originally published in the First Church newsletter The Carillon. It was written in the context of a study the church was doing of Dr. James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

When I was in high school, I had a teacher with whom I worked quite a bit. More than once, when I apologized to her for something I had done, she would say “Don’t be sorry, just do better next time.” I understood and appreciated the sentiment—paying attention to future actions and not repeating mistakes rather than regretting the past. But it also changed my habits around apology. I think I apologized less to her and to others and I’m not that was a good thing.

In my mind, there are a couple of different ways to apologize.  In the first, I may have done something I regretted. I say “I’m sorry” to the ones who were affected by my actions. In the second, I may recognize that a bad thing has happened to someone. I may say “I’m sorry that that happened to you.” The intention is less about my personal regret or responsibility and more about expressing compassion and solidarity.

Sometimes, I find myself  in between the two. I may feel a need to apologize because I recognize that a wrong has been done, but I may not be sure about my own personal responsibility.

Over a period of forty years from about 1880 to 1940, there were over 3400 reported cases of lynching in the United States. Who knows how many more went unreported? This violence and terrorism was brutal and widespread, and went unchecked by law enforcement, government or civic and religious institutions. Its purpose was not only to punish but to “frighten to death.” It was racism most blatant.

I’m sorry that this happened in this country or anywhere. I’m sorry that the pain of this period reverberates in individuals and in the collective body even today. And I find myself in that territory where I’m not sure of my own responsibility. Those events have seemed distant both in time and location, but the more I learn, the more I open myself to this tragedy, the more I wonder what responsibility I carry. Sometimes my sense of responsibility comes from a collective rather than individual identity. I may be at fault, not as one person but as a member of a group, whether that membership is chosen or not. As a spiritual practice, I try not to shirk my collective responsibility even when an inner voice is saying, “but it wasn’t really me that did this!”

As a white person, I feel a need to make my regret explicit for lynching and all the other practices that have terrorized and demeaned black people throughout the years. Otherwise, how with those who carry that painful legacy know that I stand with them? I’m sorry all of that happened.

And because these sorts of things are still going on, I will also try to follow advice of my high school teacher to do better this time and the next.

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Families of All Shapes & Sizes

June 15, 2012

by Rachel Bauman, First Church’s Minister of Community Life

What is family? Who comes to mind when you hear that word?

There was a time in U.S. popular culture when family was always portrayed like that famous Norman Rockwell image in the Saturday Evening Post: mom, dad, children and grandparents happily enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner. The First Church family gathers at Camp CazaderoWhen it was printed in the 1940’s, this was the prevailing assumption among many about just who made up the American family.

But now most of us have a more expansive, or at least more complicated, view of what constitutes family: blended families, single-parent or same-sex headed households; families created through open adoption; transracial and transnational families; middle-aged adults making tough decisions in caring for aging parents; couples with no kids, former couples faithfully navigating the hard work of co-parenting; grandparents raising grand kids; and families of choice created because one’s family of origin may be far away, passed on, or are perhaps emotionally estranged and unavailable. So we become aunties and uncles, sisters and brothers, children or parents to those with whom we have no biological ties but feel deeply accountable and connected to them just the same.

At First Church Berkeley we celebrate and honor all types and possibilities of family. This is one of the reasons I am so happy to be serving as your Minister of Community Life. This community understands that family matters.  It matters to have a place where we are seen, supported and loved fully for who we are.

This unconditional love is the fertile soil from which we grow into who we are created to be. Belonging to a community that reminds us that our identity and value comes from our relationship to a living, loving God is the bedrock upon which we are each able to withstand the inevitable ups and downs of life.  Some of us are blessed to have this type of family surrounding us in our daily life and for others this type of family is hard come by. But the beauty and the challenge of Christian community is the opportunity to be that family for each other.

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President Obama and Marriage Equality

May 10, 2012

First Congregational Church of Berkeley celebrates the personal stand that President Obama has taken on marriage equality. First Church has been an “Open & Affirming” congregation (welcoming all people including those of different sexual orientations) in the United Church of Christ for over 15 years and has taken public positions in favor of equal rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

First Church celebrates marriage equalitySenior Minister Patricia de Jong adds, “Marriage equality is more than an issue of legal rights, as important as those are. It is also about love, commitment, deep caring and human dignity. I was moved by the lines of people who wanted to get married in California during the brief time it was legal. I have performed same-sex marriages for over 28 years. We recognize the importance that the support of a faith community can have in marriage and family life.”

First Church took a clear stand against Prop 8’s ban on gay marriage and worked to defeat it. The hope of the church is that the personal positions of elected officials will translate into policies and laws that protect the rights of all people.

First Church includes members who are directly affected by the lack of marriage equality.  In a service during the anti-Prop 8 campaign, the church celebrated and affirmed the same-gender relationships among its members and friends. Rachel Bauman, who has just recently been called as First Church’s Minister of Community Life says, “One of the reasons that I was so interested in being part of the First Church community is that it so clearly welcomes families of all shapes and sizes. I think it is crucial that faith communities support loving relationships in a world that is full of challenges.”

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The Tragic Death of Trayvon Martin

March 29, 2012

by Phil Porter
Minister of Art & Communication

Trayvon MartinLast Sunday, a photograph of Trayvon Martin and a “hoodie” were placed on the communion tables at both services at First Church. Trayvon was a 17-year-old African American who was shot by a neighborhood watch captain in Florida. The man who shot Trayvon was not arrested based on his claim that he fired in self-defense. Public attention and outrage has grown steadily in the month since the shooting.

This case has touched a nerve for many, inviting us to look not only at instances, but at patterns. This situation is not just about the tragic death of one young man. It is about perceptions of young African American men. Though some may see the murder as out of the ordinary, many are seeing it as something that could easily happen to them or someone they love. Thousands upon thousands of parents are now even more concerned and apprehensive about the safety of their sons.

Philadelphia AP writer Jesse Washington talks about having to give his 12-year-old son the talk about the “black male code.” He gave his son this advice:

“Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.

Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up.

Please don’t assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.”

(Read Jesse Washington’s full article “Trayvon Martin, my son, and the Black Male Code”.)

Trayvon is both a victim and a symbol. The tragedy of his death stands alone, but as we mourn him, we are also mourning many lives lost. We have an opportunity to stop and call ourselves and our culture to account for the ways that young lives are cut short or derailed because of race or class.

One of the things that church can offer is a place where the family is extended. In so many ways, teenagers and their parents need the support of the wider community. We can help hold the lives of our young people during a period that is often fraught with challenge. Perhaps Trayvon’s death can spur us to take even more seriously our opportunity to spread our collective wings over our young ones—those right next to us, those we pass on the street and those we only hear about through the news.

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The Rights of Women

March 16, 2012

by Patricia de Jong
Senior Minister, First Church Berkeley, UCC

Senior Minister Patricia de JongThe Women of the World Summit in New York City this week celebrated the gifts of women and girls throughout the world. Keynote speaker Hillary Clinton spoke about the responsibility of the US as a role model for women around the world by standing up for women’s rights here and throughout the world. She reminded the audience that women should always have the right to make their own choices about what they wear, how they worship, the causes they support and, finally, “the right to control the decisions we make about our own health and our own bodies.”

Her message reemphasized the importance of our nation’s role in the rest of the world, especially with regards to how governments treat women.

At the halfway mark in this extraordinary season of Lent, it is good to remember that Jesus took a similar stand when it came to the role and rights of women in his time. He publicly included women as his disciples, infuriating religious leaders. He healed women as readily and powerfully as he healed men and he even took on the issue of divorce, announcing that men and women had the right to divorce the other.

Walter Wink asserts that Jesus violated the mores of his time in just about every encounter with women that are recorded in all four of the Gospels. Do you remember who was standing at the foot of the cross on Good Friday? And to whom Jesus first appeared after the crucifixion? The Gospels present us with a prophet who turned the expectations of the world as it was upside down, pointing toward liberation for all people, especially the poor, who were often women.

Our Lent journey touches on matters of life and death, not just for ourselves, but for the difficult issues confronting our world and the people who live in it. For women and girls in this country and in all countries, the respect, care and right to make our own decisions about our health and our bodies is fundamental, not only for individuals, but to the life and livelihood of the world.