Posts Tagged Social Justice

Sermon: Wind Shear

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 9/21/14. It looks at the People’s Global Climate March, the nature of change and social justice work.

 

This week I spent 48 hours in Chicago consulting with our UU Seminary, Meadville Lombard, on a team worship crafting project. Come mid-January the seminary will send out the first of many annual “Sofia Fahs Sunday” packages to congregations, ministers and religious educators to be used for a multigenerational service on a Sunday of the congregations’ choice. It’ll also include some multigenerational preparatory activities for congregation’s to use ahead of the service, and likely some curricula to follow the service. It will be a collaboration between many UU voices in parish ministry, education, music and social justice work from across the continent. I really look forward to bringing it here in the Spring, and am grateful for the opportunity to work with all these wonderful people! You’re sure to hear more about it in the months to come.

On my way home, I flew out of O’Hare and into JFK. Although I have a fear of heights, pretty extreme in fact, I have almost no fear of flying. I can gleefully check out the landscape 30,000 feet above the ground, but I have a hard time looking over the railing on the second floor of a mall. One of the running theories is that fear of flying is about not being in control or not trusting someone else to be in control – in this case, the pilots. And fear of heights is not trusting in my own ability not to trip over my own two feet.

As we were about to land, looking out the window maybe 20 feet above the ground, I could see the swamps around us and was thinking how pretty they were. That was right before my stomach went into my throat. The plane quickly reversed direction as it began to rapidly shake. The big guy in the neighboring seat had had his eyes shut for the landing, and almost jumped out of his seat when he realized we were all of a sudden going up again. Now the brain can think about a remarkable number of tragedies in the two minutes between an aborted plane landing and the time it takes for the pilot to explain what just happened. The brain is a true gift that way. The plane is falling apart. The ground is not safe for whatever reason – terrorist, riots, zombies. (Well, maybe not zombies – but that would be our reptile brain at its finest.) We’re going to have to fly to another airport. We’ll run out of gas. The wheels have broken off.

Two minutes later the pilot announced that we had experienced wind shear. It’s apparently when the wind direction or pressure changes significantly over a short distance. It was the source of the 1985 crash of Delta Flight 191. Improved technology has reduced the risk caused by wind shear to one accident every 10 years, but in the 60’s through the 80’s caused 26 major traffic accidents and over 600 deaths. None of this was anything I had any idea about. In fact no one around me did either. You could hear the muttered questions of “wind shear?” all about.

It would be another 10 minutes before we could attempt the landing again. And I was once more reminded of one of Jesus’ teachings about worry. He admonishes his disciples not to worry. If the bad thing never happens, you put yourself through it once for no reason. If it does happen, you put yourself through it twice for no reason. Worry doesn’t change anything and it doesn’t add a day onto our lives. I often quote him when I advise people how to handle possibly very difficult news, and the waiting and not knowing becomes unbearable. I am glad to say that the teaching actually helped me to manage my stress in the face of the aborted landed. I remember thinking in the moment, “oh wow, this advice actually helps.” In case you were wondering. The second attempt at landing was smooth. We made it. I’m still alive.

Fear of flying is sometimes about not trusting the professional in the cockpit when you don’t have control yourself. Trust in others can sometimes insulate us from fear. Fear of heights is often about not trusting ourselves when we don’t feel in control. Trust, fear and control.

Changes in balance over short distances is central to the meaning behind the seasonal change to Autumn this weekend. The air becomes crisp. The humidity disappears. Some flowers bloom for a bit longer, others come into their height, and as it hits 55 degrees we’re faced with the existential crisis of Sweaters or Shorts. (One More Week Please!) I usually get a sinus cold as the temperature changes rapidly. 20 or more degrees in either direction will do that to me. With all the changes with our global climate, that head cold came three weeks early this year. where the north east has experienced a few years of record colds (both in the winter and the Summer), most of the rest of the entire planet has been experiencing record heat and droughts. It’s the difference between “local weather” and “global climate.”

It’s why many of our members are not here today. Several of us are in NYC taking part in the largest climate march in history as the UN gathers to meet and decide global initiative. I’m glad that many of our members, and many UU’s across the country, have traveled to NYC for this purpose. When 97% of scientists agree that we’re experiencing a global climate crisis, choosing to do nothing is tantamount to sticking our fingers in our ears. And we no longer have that luxury as a species.

In some earth-based religious traditions, the Autumnal Equinox has a religious counterpart to it – the holiday of Mabon. For some, it’s an opportunity to focus on how we have balanced our lives. Work, hobbies, attitudes, and learnings. For others it’s a holiday celebrating the second harvest where the gifts of our garden are shared with the wider community. From our place of bounty, we return the favor – we pay it forward. I hope the energy that comes from the climate march I’ve been speaking about will reignite change for the better. Maybe our members who went on that religious pilgrimage will return renewed for the work ahead, and share their gifts and lessons with all of us.

When we talk about sharing what we have extra of, we often think in materialistic terms. We’re raised in a culture that tends to focus on consumption and production, and we think of gratitude in those terms. What if we thought of justice work in terms of bounty and sharing? What if our lessons in building the beloved community on earth were seen as the tremendous gift they are toward finding a life of wholeness, and from that place of justice-centered abundance, we gave it forward as the gift it is. When we’re exhausted from the work – whether you’re one of our members who have been struggling to get more affordable housing built in our area for 30 years – as many of you have – or you’re a conservationist that remembers we’ve been able to save animals from extinction and close up the Ozone layer when it was riddled with holes in the 80 – but exhausted by the enormity of what we must now accomplish – remember that your lifetime of learning what makes the world a more just, a more balanced place – can be a source of nourishment, not despair from inertia.

The seasons will come and go. Gardens will be planted every spring, and need to be cared for over and over before seed will bear fruit. And once it’s grown, it’s gone. We need to return again and again. We can be worn down by the effort required, or find grounding in the practice itself. What if the practice of justice work was as renewing a spiritual discipline as tending to our gardens are for some, or meditation is for others? As Unitarian Universalists, I find this to be possible if we can learn to relate to it in the same way we relate to other spiritual disciplines.

It’s also very necessary. A friend of mine recently pointed out to me how in so many ways, each generation learns from the advancements of past generations. (The discussion came about from an article he had read and misplaced the name so I’m sorry I can’t give it worthy credit.) Technology improves at a radical rate thanks to the bedrock of past insights. The same is true for specializations in medicine, transportation and a whole host of science-related progress. However, it’s not necessarily true for social progress. Each generation seems to need to have to relearn the lessons of past generations. I’ve heard many of you recently lament having to protest issues that you thought were resolved in the 60’s or the 70’s. That’s largely due to the fact that it’s not easy to collate and quantify a book or guide that can clearly and scientifically list out what’s socially right or moral since it’s inherently based upon opinion and values. How we define freedom or empowerment or equality will differ from person to person all the while each individual may be espousing what they’re saying or doing lifts up freedom or empowerment or equality. Sometimes we’re rehashing old struggles because the other viewpoint never gave up, or never died out, or simply believes they’re fighting the good moral fight and if you’re on the side of morality – never say never. I’m sure that as religious progressives, we’re each guilty of this from time to time, and are each the targets of this from time to time. It doesn’t mean we throw our hands in the air and give up; but it does mean that we need to approach our justice work with a sense of awareness and humility lest we ever be guilty of what so often frustrates us ourselves.

But since each social progress lesson needs to be relearned every generation, instead of feeling despair or exhaustion from it, we can view it as the seasonal work of the spirit. Gardening for a new yield. As Unitarian Universalists it’s just the work we do. Every heart that’s turned; every sorrow that’s mended; every turn toward wholeness in our society, is a gift of the work of our spirit, if we let our hands and our hearts lead with compassion – generation after generation. It’s something worthy of being renewed by – not exhausted from.

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A Theology of Social Justice Ministry

This presentation was given at Ministry Days in Phoenix, AZ, preceding the 2012 Justice General Assembly of the UUA. It was on a panel looking at the theologies of justice work of the newest generation of clergy. On the panel facilitated by the Rev. Colin Bossen, were Rev. Allison Farnum (FL), Rev. Rob Keithan (DC) and myself.

 

I was sitting by the poolside at the Hyatt yesterday afternoon, wanting to be outside but not wanting to be too far from the inside with all the heat. I saw a small brown bird land a few feet from me. He had his beak open for a while. Waiting. As if someone were going to put a little morsel in his mouth for him. It brought to mind two kinds of social justice praxis I often see in the ministry. One is where we the clergy see our congregations as that bird. Members are anxiously waiting for our leadership, our assistance, our nourishment. With it, they’ll go out and change the world from our ideas. It’s a bit egoistic, but let’s be honest. It’s a typical mode for many of our sermons. “I had this insight, this experience. Let me share it with you. Fly now, and do something with it.” It also, often, works. People do get inspired. Their lives sometimes change. And sometimes the world changes with it. If it didn’t work, we would hear much less of it. I mean no derision toward it. We see it in lone clergy on the forefront of a movement, inspiring those behind them. We see it in bloggers who rarely interact with other bloggers. We know it’s happening, for example, when you’re the only person from your congregation at an interfaith gathering.

There is a second social justice praxis this bird evokes for me. When we look at the bird whose beak is eagerly open, we see ourselves. It’s those clergy who follow the lead of the spirit of a congregation. I don’t mean to suggest that they always wait for someone else to tell them what is of value. That would be a tepid prophetic ministry at best. I mean that they feel out where the breath of the congregation is moving; where God is active in the life of the community; where the fit of their house of hope meets the needs of the world. From a place of humility, it may sound like I’m suggesting this is preferable to the more egoistic mode. In some ways it may be, and in some ways it’s more slow. It’s less daring. It might even be less visible.

I think in the short term, the minister as sparrow, is a less inspiring mode that may reach less people. But in the long run it’s far more enduring and likely more effective. I also think that it’s the mode that more and more of our clergy are growing up in. I wonder if it may lead to less burnout as well. It’s a generational shift in the ministry that’s not so much about age as about when; when were we trained in seminary. I have clergy friends who are only a few years older than me who were in seminary earlier than I who thrive with the first model. And I have friends who are 25 years my senior who were concurrently trained half-way across the country who share my same preference for the collaborative second model.

Brooklyn just completed a very successful search for her new senior minister. If you look at the surveys, folks largely wanted a minister who will inspire them to prophetic works. They want this on paper. In practice however, its been the messages that bubble up in tandem with the congregation that have actually been successful. Occupy Wall Street is one example of this.

With First UU of Brooklyn being the closest UU congregation to Zuccotti Park, OWS made a lot of contextual sense for us. But how to inspire the congregation was another matter. Our membership ranges from teachers and social workers to financiers at Goldman Sachs. So this topic is complicated for us. Our membership is progressive across the range, but the politics of finance is a matter that we don’t have one voice on. I was involved in a quiet way as a chaplain at Zuccotti Park early on in September when it started, but couldn’t seem to bring others along with me. The shift happened when I learned (through social media) that one of our congregants was “that one” that was doing weekly large clothing drives for the Park, and another was doing regular large food collections for the Park. When the next sermon included the stories of our own people doing their own ministries, the congregation was able to find ways to be involved in a sustained manner that had meaning and sustenance for them. I could preach a prophetic message with effect, that made some uncomfortable, because it was clear to the community that it reflected the center of the spirit of the community – and not just my opinion. Then our members were processing with Judson and the Wall Street Golden Calf. More joined the clothing drive. More joined the food drive. Our youth group spent a learning/serving day at Zuccotti. Then I got interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for our work. UU’s who were occupying full-time started coming to our congregation – until they were evicted at least.

With the eviction of the park, our connection to the movement has become much more tentative. It was part of our neighborhood for a while. And now it’s not. We’re adapting – making connections with other faith based groups working to end racial profiling. Others show up on days of action with Occupy Faith. I continue to blog about various angles of the Occupy movement for Huffington. And of course we continue all the food and clothing work, the housing work, the homelessness work, the education work we’ve always done. But without there being a “there” there any longer, it’s much harder.

My theology of social justice is that my voice as a minister is grounded in my call. My call is grounded in the action of the Spirit in the community in and around me. Whether your faith is grounded in God, as is mine, or in the highest ideal of community, as is mine as well – I believe our prophetic voice must speak to the subtle experience of the broadest swath of humanity it can. And it must do so not as an expression of our wisdom first, but as a reflection of the conscience we speak for. A social justice theology that lifts up our ego in the process, can not solve the problems of the world that were caused by other human egos. With this sense of theology, we can’t go it alone; we can’t solve the problems of the world ourselves; we can’t be the shiny hero ahead of the crowd.

More succinctly, my central theology of social justice, my central UU theology for that matter is this: There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for the forgetting of our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world.

Of course, individuals will always interpret this in varied ways. I feel that my community as a whole agrees with this theology. But we have at least two schools of thought on how to apply it. Much like the sparrow metaphor of social justice ministry for our clergy, it applies to our lay leadership as well. For Brooklyn, we have a large generational gap in view and praxis. We have a huge young adult population for a congregation of our size. With 200 adult members, over 100 friends, and about 100 children and youth – we have a young adult community of about 130. About half are members and the rest are split between friends, newcomers, and repeating visitors. So when I speak of the young adult view, I speak of a large portion of our community.

We have Young Adults who are very involved and inspired by the OWS movement. We also have elders who were marching in Selma. For Brooklyn, those two mindsets best describe our modes of social justice. As a caveat, know that I personally believe both modes work. Both modes are powerful. Both modes could learn something from the other. And both modes include aspects of each other. However, as a whole OWS is the classic collaborative model.  Zuccotti Park had almost daily General Assemblies. There was the “human microphone” since no electronic equipment was allowed (people repeating what was said for those behind them.) There was process for those with less privilege to get to the forefront of the mic. How can the broadest swath of humanity gain access to voice? How can we reinvigorate the public dialogue to deal with the issues we won’t deal with? How can we simply witness in a peaceful manner to name the sins of the day? Let’s do all of that without having a single public spokesperson. And the voice of the people still became clear over time. Unlike the Selma model, there are no names to record. There is no central person speaking to the cameras. There is no central there there.

I’m not sure that OWS would have worked a generation ago. There were different needs, different strategies, and different life and death situations on hand than we have today. The technology, the media, the legal system – and who was considered fully a citizen – all were different.

But 45 years later – when I hear a 60-something who marched in Selma speak with a 20-something who has spent countless hours as part of OWS I hear the same critiques the media first leveled against OWS. Who’s the voice? What are the demands? How can this last. My answer – the Spirit moved in one set of ways in the 60’s. It’s moving in another set of ways now. That doesn’t change or diminish the value of either.

Brooklyn’s adaptations to leadership, power and voice were central to allowing this conversation to even happen in our house. I know some of you are thinking – well Brooklyn’s in NYC. It’s so easy to have a lot of Young Adults. When I arrived 4 years ago we had a marginalized YA population of about 30. The catchphrase at the time was – “I wish we had more young adults. But they can’t afford to live here. That’s why they’re not here.” Even though 15% of the adult membership were under the age of 35 – the view was they weren’t there. The community has skyrocketed, largely in part, because of internal congregational system changes that have become more accountable to issues of generational power conflicts. We are taking an intentionally multigenerational approach that is helping to dissolve some of the power grabs (or clutching) we often see in our religious communities. And it all reflects back on the broader social justice work of our community.

Real quickly – our steps included: 1. Intentionally pair up interests and talents of YA’s to the committees that needed new blood. 2. Seek to have a minimum of 2 YA’s on every committee (that’s taken 4 years) 3. Nominating knows to develop YA leadership so that a new YA can be added onto the Board every year. 4. RE has intentionally reached out to campus ministry and young professionals to broaden our teacher diversity. Half our teachers are under the age of 40. 5. The language of “They’re not here. They’re not living near us. They’re just not committed enough.” have all been challenge on the spot every time it’s said in earshot of leadership. Much like AR/AO work, bias must be compassionately challenged every time. 6. We added a monthly Moment of Witness for youth and young adults in our worship service so that they can share (in 2-5 minutes) why this is there religious home. 7. Lastly, our worship has shifted to be more family friendly with our children remaining for the first half of the service, our youth present for it’s entirety, and monthly fully-multigen services. If the services are more family friendly, more young adult parents find the congregation welcoming. And YA’s without kids, especially life-long UU’s, find the services more alike the few they experienced as kids themselves. In short – doors to voice, visibility and power were opened to the generations that didn’t really have it before. And our YA ministry now thrives.

This relates directly to social justice ministry. If we can’t heal the divides in our own communities, we are weak in doing so outside our walls. We also lack the breadth of vision necessary to accomplish this. We couldn’t have the Selma/OWS conversations 5 years ago with the people we had. We couldn’t adapt to the changes in social media. We didn’t have the mentoring structures in place that allowed mentoring – in both age directions. We were less whole. And our ministry was less whole for it. If there are children in your neighborhoods under the age of 10; if there are colleges within 15 minutes of you; there are Young Adults living by you. If you’re missing Young Adults, take a look at the systems of power that we critique outside our congregations and examine which of them exist within your community. And begin the same prophetic ministry inside.

I’d like to end by showing a video my congregation crafted as an example of multigenerational social justice ministry through our religious education program. Whether you see them on screen or not – we had folks from every decade, from 5 years old to their 70’s involved in its creation. And it was filmed and edited by two 20-somethings, one of whom is on our Board of Trustees.

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Marriage Equality Video

On Sunday, Feb 12th, our Senior High Youth led an educational service project with our children, as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. After teaching our children a bit about love, marriage equality, and justice, we made Valentines to send to the NY State representatives who voted to support Marriage Equality. Being a Brooklyn congregation we sent the cards to Brooklyn representatives. We also included Valentines to our Federal Senators, Mayor, Governor, and the four Republicans (state-wide) who made a stand on personal conscious across party lines. Please watch the video here to learn more!

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“When Did You Hear?”

(Originally preached on June 19th, 2011 at First UU in Brooklyn as part of our annual celebration of Juneteenth.)

A joyous Juneteenth all! “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:[1]”

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.[11][2]””

What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets. We’ll hear very distant echoes of this moment in our block party in less than an hour.

The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity took a step forward that day, and takes another step forward every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the prison-industrial complex is torn down. It’ll take another step forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities and less in retribution. Our humanity will take another step forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living.

I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.

I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to goto college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the randomness of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

Try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.

Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?

I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of Blacks in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 146 years has not yet gone far enough.

It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The steps forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.

So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but its the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of it’s affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them.

What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, not to create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 146 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?

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[1] Wikipedia’s text
[2] Corroborated with the website of the State of Texas and Wikipedia.

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