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A Struggle for America’s Soul: A Message from Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Peter Morales on Immigration

Dear Friends,

I have never felt as proud of being a Unitarian Universalist (UU) as I did in Phoenix on May 29. I joined nearly 500 UUs, more than fifty of them ministers, in a long hot march to protest Arizona’s SB 1070. This law is clearly anti-immigrant and aimed at Latinos. I have attended many public witness events. What made this one special was the fact that the 30,000 people at this march were overwhelmingly Latinos, most of Mexican ancestry. I marched with my fellow UUs, many of us wearing brilliant yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts. We also had large banners and hundreds of placards. We not only stood on the side of love, we stood out. No other faith group had the presence that UUs did. What an act of commitment!

Our congregations in Arizona, especially the four in the Phoenix area, did heroic work in preparation. They worked closely with Puente (“Bridge”) and the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), the Latino organizers of this event. Our fellow UUs in Phoenix arranged for transportation, lodging, food, and worship services. I send them my congratulations and my heartfelt thanks.

Phoenix Isn’t About Phoenix

The Phoenix march is special for another important reason: Phoenix isn’t about Phoenix. SB 1070 isn’t about Arizona. In fact, the entire issue of immigration is not ultimately about immigration. We are in a struggle for the future direction of American society. How we treat immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, is today’s equivalent of the Civil Rights Movement. This is a struggle for America’s soul.

The real issue for us is how we are going to live in an America in which Anglo-Americans (“whites” or “Americans of European descent”) are in the minority. That day will soon be with us. “White” Americans are already the minority in a number of states. The prospects frighten many people.

Living into this new America is an enormous challenge for our UU movement. Our American roots are in New England. Our movement has always struggled with issues of race, culture, and class. We have also struggled to move beyond our ethnic roots. The issue of immigration, especially Latino immigration, involves people who are racially, culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically different from most UUs.

Ultimately this issue will affect each of us, no matter whether we live in Arizona, or Vermont, or Oregon, or Iowa. The question is whether we can embrace the changes that are coming, whether we can thrive in this new America.

Our Choice About General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012

Our Association faces an important choice about whether to hold our General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix in 2012 or to boycott Arizona. The Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees has submitted a resolution that will be debated at GA later this month. I want to share my thoughts on this issue with you all.

We UUs have a long history of advocating immigration reform. The vast majority of UUs believe Arizona’s new law is wrong. We need to remind ourselves of how much we agree as we debate this decision. We must be civil and realize that those with a different opinion from ours share our commitment to justice. The real question before us, therefore, is not a difference about the goal we seek, but rather a tactical question about how we can make the greatest difference.

People who are passionate advocates for immigrant rights and for immigration reform have different opinions about what we should do. Some are adamant that we boycott Phoenix; others are convinced going to Phoenix presents an opportunity for public witness. The fact that we disagree indicates how much uncertainty exists and how complex this decision is.

Those who advocate a boycott, including a number of my friends, believe we can help force change. They also believe that we must show solidarity with the many groups, especially Latino organizations, that have called for a boycott. They feel that some UUs would not feel safe in Arizona. These are powerful points.

Those who believe we should go to Phoenix have strong arguments as well. They think SB 1070 will be ancient history in two years. They want to build upon the foundation laid at the May 29 march. The UU ministers, religious educators, and other religious professionals in Arizona, the people who have been in this struggle, are unanimous in their conviction that GA 2012 should be held in Phoenix. We cannot dismiss their perspective. There is also the matter of having to pay more than $600,000 in penalties to two hotels if we do not go. If the purpose of a boycott is to exert economic pressure, then sending more than $600,000 to two hotels reduces our impact.

A Historic Opportunity for Unitarian Universalism

We do not have to make this difficult choice. There is another option—an option that presents Unitarian Universalism with a historic opportunity to partner with the affected people in Arizona and to lead the faith community.

We have received an invitation from Puente and NDLON to partner with them and to make our General Assembly in 2012 something far more than a normal GA. Together with them we can make GA in Phoenix an opportunity to stand on the side of love once more. We can stand on the side of love in Phoenix in 2012. We witnessed for love and justice May 29, and we will do so again July 29, the day SB 1070 goes into effect. Below is a portion of the letter I received from Pablo Alvarado, Director of NDLON, and Salvador Reza of Puente in Phoenix:

The boycott of the state is a key piece of the overall strategy to turn the tide in Arizona.  At the same time, local movements call for solidarity from partners across the country. We welcome people who answer our call to come to stand with us against injustice and the criminalization of our communities as we did on May 29th, as we will do again on July 29th, the day the law goes into effect, and throughout Arizona Human Rights Summer.

There will still be much to witness about in 2012. While SB1070 may be overturned by then, we anticipate that there will still be a terrible situation to deal with here in Arizona. The Ethnic Studies legislation that was recently passed needs to be overturned and there is currently proposed legislation that would mandate that children born in the U.S. of undocumented parents not be accepted as citizens. Meanwhile Sheriff Joe Arpaio and others will continue to deputize volunteers eager to enforce immigration law and terrorize our community. We need the faith community here to stand in solidarity with our movement and to galvanize others to condemn this growing human rights crisis and create a climate that welcomes and supports migratory families.

We ask that your 2012 General Assembly here in Phoenix be a convergence in cooperation with us and that together we design the best ways that UUs can witness, learn from, take action, and serve the movement here.

I have invited Salvador Reza to come to the 2010 GA in Minneapolis and deliver an invitation in person. I believe we are compelled morally to accept this invitation. I recognize that the decision on where to hold GA belongs to the UUA Board of Trustees, but I believe we are called to go to Phoenix and create a GA like no previous GA. I want us to experience much more than the convention center. I want us to experience the reality of life for immigrants. I want us to learn and to bear witness. I dream of a GA where we reflect theologically upon what it means to be a faith that can cross the borders of race, class, and culture. I would have us explore together how we make connections with marginalized people in each and every community, in each and every congregation. I imagine a GA that begins a long overdue transformation of our movement.

We have never had an opportunity like this. You have heard me say that “we can be the religion for our time.” We can play a pivotal role in this critical moral issue. We can take a leadership role in the faith community. The memories of our witness in Phoenix on May 29 will remain with me forever. The power of our combined voices, raised in a call for justice, will inspire me for a lifetime.

I believe we must return. Our work there has just begun. Let us stand together on the side of love. Todos somos Arizona. We are all Arizona.


Peter Morales

Read the full letter from Pablo Alvarado, Director of NDLON, and Salvador Reza of Puente in Phoenix.

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Last updated on Thursday, June 10, 2010.

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