Unitarian Universalists and other people of faith gathered in April 2017 for a whirlwind 3-day conference in New York City. The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office’s annual Intergenerational Spring Seminar this year was centered on the theme “Arm in Arm: Interfaith Action to Disarm Our Planet.” From the youth arriving in the evening on Wednesday, April 5th until the concluding activity and group departure in the afternoon on Saturday, April 8th, participants of all ages from high schoolers to senior citizens experienced the rich rewards of intergenerational dialogue and action-centered learning. The conference included workshops, panel discussions, worship, and small group conversations to allow the participants to explore the topic of disarmament from a variety of perspectives.
“Left of Boom: Interfaith Action to Disarm Our Planet”
Keynote speaker Rev. Chris Antal
The Rev. Chris Antal, in his keynote address, introduced participants to the issues surrounding disarmament. He highlighted that the goal for our disarmament activism is to stay “left of boom.” He showed an incredible video recreation from BBC of what happened in Hiroshima Japan on August 6th, 1945. The people who survived the blast are known as “hibakusha.” Rev. Antal showed part of a video interview he recorded with Tomiko Morimoto West, a hibakusha he knows, who shared how she experienced the bomb dropping on Hiroshima as a thirteen-year-old. She told the story of how she lost her parents and her home in the explosion, and how she and her injured grandfather fled the city to the mountainside where she herself had to bury him when he died shortly after.
Rev. Antal then demonstrated how nuclear weapons technology has developed since the time of Hiroshima. Using a website called NukeMap, he demonstrated the casualty count and reach of the bomb (nicknamed “Littleboy”) that was dropped on Hiroshima, if it were dropped today in Manhattan, compared to the largest bomb in the US’s current nuclear arsenal. The devastation was horrifying to see in the map of a city we were familiar with, and this made the issue feel so much closer to home. Rev. Antal’s keynote presentation is one of two events from the Spring Seminar that were recorded and are available to watch on the UUA International Office’s YouTube page.
“Global Efforts to Disarm Our Planet”
Theme panel at Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Center
The cornerstone of the 2017 Spring Seminar was a panel discussion at the Rissho Kosei-kai Buddhist Center near the United Nations Headquarters. The discussion emphasized how various types of weapons have impacted the world and its populations in a variety of ways. While much of the panel focused on how we can come together to work for change, we also learned about the factors that have contributed to the rise in the number of arms present in our world, and how arms are tied to many other social problems.
The event started with an opening in which participants were warmly welcomed to the Buddhist Center and learned a bit about the close partnership between Rissho Kosei-kai and Unitarian Universalism. The former Ambassador representing the Permanent Mission of Palau to the United Nations, Ambassador Caleb Otto, then painted a picture of an island ransacked by war. The island of Palau is still suffering from the effects of nuclear testing, and the remains of heavy artillery can be found in various spots across the island. Today, Palau is advocating for disarmament at a global level, but due to the island’s limited size and influence, its voice is often lost amongst the crowd of diplomatic powers. Palau knows that the fight is far from over and promises to continue lending its voice to the effort.
The next speaker, Ray Acheson of Reaching Critical Will, proposed legislation that is being advocated for right now at the United Nations. Unfortunately, there is often political backlash and tension preventing disarmament from being achieved. Ray spoke of how civil society plays the biggest role in passing legislation; when organizers are able to pull off events such as rallies and marches, their voices are harder to ignore. Collective action and executing our right to vote is how we can make a difference.
As we sat in Rissho Kosei-kai, we were constantly reminded of how interfaith partnerships help to make our voice stronger and our actions more noticeable. Hiro Sakurai from Soka Gakkai International spoke of the imperative of the religious community to work together and engage youth, in order to keep the momentum high toward making change, and to foster the next generation of experienced advocates. Through intergenerational mobilization, we are able to showcase how nuclear and small arms impact everyone, rather than a select grouping. As we continue to advocate for change, it is necessary that we understand the power of education and personal connection.
Bringing the issue closer to home, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout focused his remarks on gun violence and systemic racism. We learned about the high percentage of people with small arms and how cities with high economic inequality and poverty are consistently facing higher numbers of firearm-related deaths. He reminded us that amidst our efforts to draw attention to the need for disarmament, we cannot forget about other major issues and about people whose voices are being silenced by society as a whole.
The final panelist was Chris King from the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs. He gave an overview of the work his office is involved in and the obstacles they encounter. The United Nations defines “disarmament” as the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction, and the strict regulation of conventional arms in accordance with the UN Charter. Chris King began by sharing a number of alarming facts and statistics about the impact of weapons such as that detonating just 100 of the existing 15,000 nuclear weapons would create enough smoke to block out the sun and cause a famine that would kill 2 billion people. He went on to explain how, as we have observed the devastating impacts that access to weapons in conflict has on civilian populations, it is key to recognize how important disarmament and arms control can be as a method of conflict resolution and peace building. Many of the global issues we are facing today exist because we’ve forgotten the important role that disarmament can play. He ended by highlighting how important civil society is to the fight for disarmament, whether through demonstrations in the streets, taking action online, or making a statement through the ballot box.
This panel discussion was one of two events from the Spring Seminar that were recorded and are available to watch on the UUA International Office’s YouTube page.
“Using the Arts to Connect to Peace, Advocacy, and Empowerment”
Art workshop led by Marissa Gutiérrez-Vicario, Founder and Executive Director of ARTE (Art & Resistance through Education)
This interactive workshop introduced participants to how art is used in various social movements and human rights campaigns. In small groups, we engaged in creative brainstorming through the arts around the issue of disarmament, especially thinking of how it resonates in our communities. Each group selected an issue (such as “school shootings” or “nuclear weapons systems”) and a creative action (such as “Create a sculpture” or “Act out a silent movie”) and then they had time to create and present/perform the combined issue & creative action that they’d selected. It was a fascinating and engaging way to connect with these issues and think more deeply about the role each of us can play in taking action to disarm our planet.
Friday morning was the next time we were all together. The day began with a beautiful interfaith service in which representatives from the Quaker, Baha’i, and UCC faiths shared spiritual practices and stories of interfaith engagement. Then, after gathering into collaboration groups for conversation, we went off to three separate workshops – one for ministers, one for youth, and one for adults. Those for youth and adults were led by representatives from the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice.
“Re-Charging to Resist and Getting Grounded to Grow!”
Youth workshop facilitated by UUCSJ Program Leader Marissa Gutiérrez-Vicario, Founder and Executive Director of ARTE (Art & Resistance through Education); Angela Kelly, Sr. Associate for Justice Education at UUCSJ; and Clara Kraebber, Youth Leader at the UU-UNO
In this youth-focused workshop, participants reflected on the linkages between their spirituality and social justice activism that they are or want to be engaged in. With moments of song, creativity, and connection, we co-created a safe space in which to talk about how our spiritual practices help us maintain self-care while engaging in activism, and give us courage to face the fears raised by the current political climate. The youth in this workshop explored their spiritual needs and fears that have come up due to the political climate – understanding that individuals with different lived experiences will have different spiritual needs and fears. The workshop built on shared strength and inspiration, uplifting the power of youth to create social change.
“Exploring Spirituality & Social Justice through Stories that Strengthen and Sustain Our Activism”
Adult workshop facilitated by UUCSJ Program Leader Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, Minister at the UU Congregation of the South Fork; UUCSJ Program Leader Meagan Henry, Director of Education Ministries at First UU Society in Brooklyn; and Lillyanne Daigle, Network Campaigner at Global Zero
This workshop for adults explored a number of different activities allowing them to explore how their own lives have been influenced by activism and by spirituality. Participants shared stories about how spiritual practices have shaped their work for justice and peace and learned techniques for community-building through conversation. One such conversation was a Resonating activity: participants were asked to share a story when they found the courage to take a risk, to challenge something they found unjust, or to persevere through adversity. Through questioning and examining these experiences, we grasped a deeper understanding of the connections we share with other people, growing our own capacity for vulnerability and compassionately listening to another’s story. Then in small groups discussions, we explored faithful resistance to armed violence with regard to the issue of Nuclear Weapons Elimination, Black Lives Matter, and Sanctuary.
“Race and Violence: The Role of Arms in Wars Abroad, in American Cities, in our Homes, and in our Justice-seeking Hearts”
Panel discussion featuring Michael T. McPhearson (National Executive Director of Veterans for Peace), Rose Welsch (UN Liaison Officer for the International Action Network on Small Arms), Albert Saint Jean (NYC Organizer for the Black Alliance for Just Immigration), and Charles Haney (Indigenous Activist)
Guns, tanks, and nuclear weapons are utilized to reinforce existing racial prejudices, and engage vulnerable communities in cycles of violence and poverty. The recently publicized mass killings of unarmed black Americans are examples of how the state and hate-filled individuals utilize weapons to subject vulnerable populations to layers of coercion and control. US-facilitated and -led wars abroad have led to the militarization of cities; repressing people then leads to national liberation and progressive social movements. The “war on terror” has been used to terrorize Muslim communities, target young social activists, and result in mass deportations. Beyond the United States the role of guns penetrates deep into the homes of vulnerable communities and fuels domestic violence and gang-related deaths. This workshop broadened participants knowledge about the various implications of arms use and the arms trade, especially for historically marginalized groups at home and abroad, including people of color and indigenous people. Following the panel discussion, there were identity-based caucus group meetings for conversation, providing space to digest the information presented.
A new component of the Intergenerational Spring Seminar introduced in 2017, the Action Fair was an opportunities for participants to take all they have learned over the last two days of the seminar and put it into action. A number of stations were set up throughout the venue and participants were given an opportunity to get their hands dirty and do something meaningful, while also having a bit of fun! Stations in the Action Fair included the following:
- Sign petitions relating to disarmament (either on a clipboard or a laptop open to an online petition)
- Make signs or flyers, take a picture with them to promote issues on social media
- Create a banner to be used in a march or at a rally
- Decorate a square to be added to a drone quilt, honoring the victims killed by the United States in drone strikes.
- Write letters or make phone calls to elected officials in support of current legislation or passing local resolutions (sanctuary cities, disarmament, hate free zones)
- Write messages of solidarity for local mosques, Jewish community centers, and other institutions that have received threats recently.
- Button making where participants made wearable buttons with preprinted slogans or designed their own. Some of the slogans included: “Arm in Arm 4 Peace,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Immigration Justice,” and “Peace Be Upon You” (written in Arabic script)
- Learn about and sign up for opportunities for service-learning, action, and training through the Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice
“Yesterday Teaches Tomorrow: Worship by the Elements”
Saturday Morning Worship Service led by Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout
This innovative worship service made its way through the four elements, drawing from numerous religious and spiritual traditions to seek wisdom and guidance as Seminar participants prepared to return home from two days of intense learning and focus. The service began with singing of familiar African American spirituals. The Fire section included lighting of the chalice followed by a traditional pagan fire chant. The Water section included a water ritual in which, as the congregation sang, each person ritually had their hands washed and blessed with the words “Water washes over these hands. May they become instruments of peace.” The Air section included a centering meditation and then the congregation sang the Buddhist “Meditation on breathing.” During the Earth section, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout shared creation myths from several religious and cultural traditions, and drew from them teachings about how human nature has been drawn to violence and how we must retreat from the racism, materialism, and militarism that plagues our lives.
Read more about the 2017 Intergenerational Spring Seminar, including reading the Seminar Statement written by participants.