Harnessing Love’s Power
to Stop Oppression


Torture and Rescue

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Imam Baga Leigh and UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts

Imam Baba Leigh with post author and UU-UNO Director Bruce Knotts.

I met Imam Baba Leigh in 2003 within days of my arrival as Deputy Chief of Mission at the American Embassy in The Gambia. The day before, I’d told the press that under the current government, there had been improvements in the national economy. The next day, I met Baba Leigh and he immediately lit into me about my comments to the press. I knew that I wanted this man as my friend because he would always tell me the truth as he understood it. I learned he was the only independent Imam in the Gambia. The rest did the bidding of Yahya Jammeh, president of the country since he took power in military coup d’état in 1994.

Early in 2012, I learned that Yahya Jammeh’s government had arrested over 20 gay men and ordered all the Christian and Muslim clergy in the country to preach sermons against homosexuality. All complied except Imam Leigh. To be clear, Imam Leigh continues to feel that homosexuality is a sin, but he also refuses to target gays as having committed a worse sin than any other. Later in the year, Yahya Jammeh started executing prisoners in his jails (many of whom are there for political reasons). Imam Leigh began preaching sermons against the death penalty. On December 5th, 2012, agents of the Gambian National Intelligence Agency took Imam Leigh to a secret location and began torturing him–never charging him with any wrong doing nor granting him access to his family or legal representation.

I learned of this almost immediately and, even though it was after 5 PM, went one floor downstairs from the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) to the Amnesty International United Nations Office and asked for their help. They immediately got into gear and their London Office and Dakar, Senegal investigator did all they could. I called every mission and every office I knew to get Imam Leigh released.

In the end after more than 5 months of torture and isolation, the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union demanded Imam Leigh’s release and he was set free. With help from many sources, Imam Leigh is now in New York City seeing medical doctors and restoring his health.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon delivers a keynote address against the death penalty.

On Friday, June 28th, we visited the Amnesty International UN Office and thanked them for their amazing work to get Imam Leigh released. Then they invited us to a high level meeting at the UN where UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon gave the keynote address against the death penalty. The meeting was chaired by UN Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonović. Imam Leigh got a chance to tell his story. He explained that while the Holy Quran says, “A Life for a Life,” it also says that Allah will reward forgiveness. Imam Leigh also said that Islamic jurisprudence calls for compensation be paid to the family of the victim and forgiveness is recommended. He also told the meeting about his detention without charge and torture.

As Chair of the NGO Committee on Human Rights, I am working together with the chair of the NGO Committee on the Freedom of Religion, Matt Cherry, to organize meetings and opportunities for Imam Leigh to talk about his experiences and his view of Islam as a humane and tolerant religion.

This post was written by Bruce Knotts. Bruce is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and the current Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office.

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Katherine’s Parents Could Be Deported, Can You Help Keep Them At Home?

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Katherine and her family.

Last year, many of you joined us in Phoenix for Justice General Assembly as we learned firsthand about the destruction that Sheriff Joe Arpaio has wrought on immigrant families. You may already be familiar with the story of Katherine Figueroa. Katherine was 9 years old when she came home from school and watched her parents get arrested on live television as Sheriff Arpaio raided a carwash.

Please help keep Katherine’s parents at home. Click here to sign and share the petition.

Katherine immediately began to fight back, for both her own parents and for other families facing deportation. She organized children’s marches and gave testimony in DC, successfully getting her parents released from detention and drawing national attention to Arpaio’s racial profiling. She starred in the documentary Two Americans, sharing her story as a powerful counterpoint to Arpaio’s reign of terror in Maricopa County.

Katherine is now 13 years old and continues to fight against her parents’ deportation. While her organizing got them released from detention, their next court date is July 17 and they could be deported despite all of Katherine’s brave work to keep them home.

How can you support the Figueroa family and make sure that Katherine grows up with her loving parents, in the place they call home? Click here to sign and share the petition.

Even though Sheriff Arpaio was found guilty of racial profiling, his victims are still suffering the consequences of his targeting. Taking action for the Figueroa family is a way to speak up for all those facing deportation due to Arpaio’s raids. Katherine is a powerful role model for us all—boldly standing up to keep her family together to make sure that no other kid has to experience what she has.

Now is the time to join with Katherine and her parents and urge ICE to keep their family together.

Not one more deportation,

Susan Leslie
Lead Organizer
Standing on the Side of Love

PS: Check out our Road from Phoenix workshop from General Assembly 2013 to learn more about how we are continuing the work we started last year at Justice General Assembly.

The message above went out on Wednesday, July 10, 2013 to Standing on the Side of Love supporters. You can sign-up for these emails here.

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Still Unpacking It All

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Post author Rev. Kären Rasmussen, center, at the Supreme Court as the Prop 8 and DOMA decisions were announced. Also pictured are Rev. Amanda Poppei and Rev. Paige Getty.

I’m still unpacking it all. The public, the personal, the private.

The public was the experience of standing outside the Supreme Court waiting for the marriage equality rulings. I was so nervous and hopeful. “Wow.” That was all I could say for hours after we heard the wonderful news. Literally, just, “Wow.” I was full of joy and numb at the same time!

The personal hit. Here I am with my clergy collar on, open and gay, wondering how this will affect my partner Barb and me. We need to read, study, and understand the legal aspects of it all. Marry? When and where? We just don’t yet, but the highest court in the land rules that we are equal.

The private was the singing of our national anthem with the crowd. The Washington Gay Men’s Chorus, all in red shirts, started softly singing the “Star Spangled Banner.” How many times in my life have I sung that, in uniform, while hiding who I am? Someone waived a large American flag. Land of the free and home of the brave! It was like I heard it for the first time. Being open, gay, and a Navy veteran somehow doesn’t all quite mix for me yet. We’ve had to hide for so long. But this… was beautiful.

My 56 years of life all went before my eyes. What a ride it has been with 20 years of service in the Navy. What a ride to be a minister. What a ride to stand there and think about being legally married. Open and free.

I didn’t know if I wanted to explode or implode!

Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Like it hasn’t been wild already.

I honor our faith, Unitarian Universalism, for we have worked for years to help make marriage equality a reality. Whoever you are and whomever you love, you are welcome here.

This post was written by Rev. Kären Rasmussen, assistant minister at the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, and minister for social justice at the UU Congregation of Fairfax, Virginia, and cross-posted from UUCF’s “Faith Matters” blogKären and her partner Barb Brehm are both retired Navy veterans and have been together for 27 years. They have 46 and a half years of service between them.

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Hope is a Thing with Wheels

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Nuns on the Bus visit Tallahassee

Inspired by faith, ten nuns are traveling the country to gather support for immigration reform. When they visited Tallahassee, they were greeted with a resounding ovation from the standing-room only crowd gathered at First Presbyterian. I, along with other Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee members, area clergy, representatives from Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant traditions, as well as AFSCME, and the NAACP; heard stories about deportations, disrupted families, and racist reactions to reform. But, I also heard hope rising in the presence of these ten nuns.

They came to meet with Senator Marco Rubio’s aide to offer encouragement for his work with a small group of legislators who’ve put forward a bill that will give some undocumented people access to a more secure status. They also came to push the Senator toward being a full-fledged leader supporting the bill in both the Senate and the House as amendments and alternate bills are brought to the fore. Finally, they came to leave–to go on to other Senators–and to leave us with a spirited willingness to continue to engage our Florida legislators on the issue.

Our legislators will need all the encouragement, support, and concerted nudging supporters of immigration reform can give them. Recently, we’ve heard of toxic reactions to ideas labelled with the word liberal. Public officials supporting gun control have had ricin-filled mail sent to them. Senator Rubio is already under verbal attack from opponents of his bill. An author of the Heritage Foundation study on immigration, Jason Richwine, holds fast to his dissertation theory that Hispanics have lower IQ’s than whites. Nothing is certain, and there may be many struggles ahead.

And, yet, ten nuns with gray hair and glasses, exuding their dedication to a life of loving inclusivity, dare to offer themselves as witnesses for those who can not speak for themselves for fear of being deported. Ten nuns found in themselves a willingness to act for human dignity, to call immigration reform a moral issue, to tickle our hopes with their enthusiasm for doing the right thing. Can we do any less?

This post was written by Rev. Robin Gray, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tallahassee. It was cross-posted from the TallahasseeUU blog.

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Keep Weaving the Fabric of Love

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Celebrating the Supreme Court’s ruling on Prop 8. (Credit: Lindi Ramsden)

Last night, across California, we cheered the demise of Proposition 8 and rejoiced in the new federal recognition of married same-sex couples. What a day! I am still gratefully soaking up this new legal landscape.

How did we get here? In 2004, the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California began work on marriage equality. California UU clergy went on marriage equality caravans. “Cottage Conversations” created awareness. We helped to pass groundbreaking marriage legislation and delivered 3,800 handmade Valentines to our governor asking him to stand on the side of love. When the movement turned to the courts, we filed a series of amicus briefs lifting up interfaith voices on behalf of religious liberty.

Finally, love and justice won. In May 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that marriage could no longer be denied to same-sex couples. The weddings began, and same-sex couples gave voice to long-held vows of love and commitment.

Until November… when Proposition 8 passed, and the door was closed.

I know that LGBTQ people are far from the only minority who has been deprived of rights due to the fear of the majority. It was still hard to witness. Dueling lawn signs and arguments over the legitimacy of someone’s family damage us all.

We were in the thick of it. Our UULM Action Network had been asked to manage the interfaith part of the “No on 8″ campaign. From pastoral care for vulnerable families to clergy witness and relentless phone banks, we were put to the test. As people of faith, we refused to demonize those who opposed us.

While we lost the Prop 8 vote, we “lost forward.” We built important capacity for change. Others learned from our loss. State by state, the tide has now turned, creating the conditions for justice. We are so grateful.

Change is incremental. It comes in conversations and court decisions. It comes from young people raised without fear and the bravery of elders. And, it comes by refusing to live in silos – by standing with immigrants, by working for voting rights, by knowing that we are all family.

The Supreme Court rulings on DOMA and Prop 8 provide a huge burst of hope and momentum. Let’s use it. This week, the LGBTQ supportive community is needed to advance compassionate immigration reform so that all families can be safe.

Justice is a shared garment. Let’s keep weaving the fabric of love.

In faith,

Rev. Lindi Ramsden
Senior Minister & Executive Director
UU Legislative Ministry of California

The message above went out on Thursday, June 27, 2013 to Standing on the Side of Love supporters. You can sign-up for these emails here.

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