Author: Carl Kline

Climate Change

I wrote to my friend in India yesterday asking about the welfare of relatives and friends he has in Houston. He replied that they were scattered but safe. Then I realized he probably also had friends if not relatives threatened by the flooding in South…

Rubble

There was an article in the paper the other day about how the Pentagon was being asked to explain a recent purchase. They had purchased new uniforms for the Afghan Army at a cost of $28 million. A major problem is, the uniforms have a proprietary fores…

The Uninhabitable Earth

There’s a new apocalyptic article on climate change that deserves a reading by all those concerned about the future. Written by David Wallace-Wells, it’s called “The Uninhabitable Earth” and first published in New York Magazine. You don’t have to belie…

Music & Terror

I came home tired from church a few weeks ago. I thought I might take a nap. The television was on to the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. This was the second concert, “One Love Manchester,” not the first one where so many were killed and …

Answering with Our Presence

Presente, Hineni, I am here
It was a raw and rainy day as we gathered in the wind-swept plaza that stretches between Boston City Hall and the JFK Federal Building. Called to be there by the needs of the hour, hundreds of people gathered, drawn there for the sake of three, and many more, the untold and alone. We were there to support Zully, Enrique, and Alex, all undocumented, arrested in the weeks before, seeking “Milk with Dignity” in the Vermont dairy industry, held without bond in a New Hampshire jail. There was something fitting to the harsh weather, a reminder of the struggle itself, so much love needed to punctuate the gray, and so we did. We were the sunshine, warm and bright, basking in each other’s glow, each one’s presence a ray of light to shine upon the way, commitment and hope palpable.
Surrounding an inner circle of huddled masses beneath an overhang of the massive building, a large format photocopy of a petition to release the three we gathered for, rolled out and held up like a Torah scroll, a sacred scroll of names held by loving hands. Among the columns of names unfolding, stronger than the building’s columns of stone, intimations of the weekly Torah portion, God’s voice calling, Vayikra/And God called…, as to each one of us. The desert sanctuary just completed, all its details come together as one. We are the sanctuary, there and then and all across the land, each one counted, each one needed, each one called to say presente, hineni, I am here….

I had the honor to be a speaker, the most important words spoken just before, voice strong and pleading, Lymarie, wife of Alex, “me and my daughter, we need him home.” Her voice made my own tremble as I began to speak. Hers is the timeless voice the Torah heard so long go when it said, you shall not oppress a stranger, you shall not impose restrictions…, for you know the soul of a stranger/v’atem yadatem et nefesh ha’ger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20, 23:9). It is the voice heard by Caesar Chavez, whose birthday is today as I write. It is his voice, one with his people, his spirit living among us. I held up a copy of a yellowed and tattered leaflet issued by the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis more than forty years ago proclaiming in Yiddish and English non-union grapes and lettuce to be non-kosher, “if it flows from the oppression it is not kosher.” It is the voice heard today by the Mass Board of Rabbis, heeding the call of those who came before, Vayikra. It is the voice heard by the rabbinic human rights organization, T’ruah, organizing for migrant workers and immigrants throughout the land. Created in the image of God, every human being is documented. Bearing the mark of God in all the ways of its human appearance, wherever we travel throughout this world, there is no such thing as an undocumented human being.  Compassion for those who cross our borders does not deny national sovereignty, but acknowledges a greater sovereignty that encompasses all. Knowing no boundaries, God’s compassion needs to infuse immigration policy and the way we speak of other human beings. From the valleys and vineyards of California, to the tomato fields of Florida, to the Green Mountains of Vermont and the pastures below, we call for freedom and hope for all, for Zully, “Kike,” and Alex.
As the throng spread out in one great circle of song, round and round in the rain, an impromptu marching band to lead, I made my way with close family and friends of the three to a small federal courtroom in the building. Along with Rabbi David Lerner, president of the Mass Board of Rabbis, and a minister who had come from Vermont, we were to be clergy witnesses for the bond hearings of our friends, and for the hearings of others whom I tried to hold in my heart as well, that at least in spirit they not be alone. It was surreal in the courtroom, none present of those whose cases were to be heard. In turn, they each appeared by video link from the New Hampshire jail, the screen facing only the judge, a glimpse of loved ones denied to family and friends in court. 
We heard the other cases, of human lives announced as numbers, bureaucratic missteps endangering the outcome, the heartbreaking details of a father of four young US citizen children, husband of a legal US resident. The judge scowled at the arrest record, “driving well over the speed limit,” he noted. The lawyer pointed out with all deference that the record actually said the opposite, “driving well under the speed limit.” Amidst the fragile web of details, a glimmer of hope, perhaps, his bond reduced from $5000 to $3500. Another repeatedly answered “no” to whether he had any family ties in the US, no family, no leeway, no reduction of bond, no compassion. Another said he had a brother in the US, their father having been murdered in Guatemala, a carpet layer, arrested in a co-worker’s car; bond reduced from $7500 to $5000, still a small fortune for him. I had to keep remembering that this was just the bond hearing to determine whether each would remain in jail, their ultimate fate held in waiting until the immigration trial yet to come. 
Of our friends, Alex’ hearing was the first of the three, song rising up from the gathering still circling below. To the old labor song, “We Shall Not Be Moved,” words were added, “Free Zully, free Kike, free Alex.” Sitting two rows in front of me, Alex’ wife turned toward the window and smiled at the calling of her husband’s name, stroking her four year old daughter’s hair as the little girl snuggled into her, held between mother and grandmother, trying to make sense of it all. A text message surreptitiously sent, the crowd came alive, aware that Alex’ case had begun. The judge said the sound was distracting, the lawyer smiling in response that they were exercising their first amendment rights. The judge fixed on an earlier arrest for driving under the influence, a case the Vermont courts had dismissed. There was to be no bond and no release for Alex. The court unmoved by the sobbing of wife and mother, by a little girl burying her face into her mother’s lap, by a frail grandmother trying
to hold them all, a recess was called.
As the prosecutor walked past me in that heart-wrenching moment, I wondered how she would be able to sleep that night. I struggled to redirect the anger welling in my heart, to find a place for all the negative feelings, somehow to hold all that swirled. Later, I shared my feelings with the lawyer, and he said with both amazement and respect, “she believes in what she is doing, as do I.”
Each of them so young, all in their early twenties, my struggle continued as Zully’s case was called. The prosecutor urged that no bond be granted, that Zully had left her phone on to record at the time of her arrest, endangering the officers with the possibility of a crowd gathering, pointing then to the window, “like the one here today.” For both Zully and Kike, the lawyer place a large stack of support letters in front of the judge, emphasizing the love and respect for these two in the community. Commenting on the letter from Bernie Sanders, the judge was clearly amazed by the degree of support that surrounded these two, the degree of respect for their efforts to help workers, to improve the lives of others. Noting that he doesn’t usually see such support, the judge referred, without a trace of irony, to the large number of people appearing lately in his immigration court. Zully and Kike’s bond was set at $2500, an amount easily raised. Their release came on the efforts of so many who answered the call, Vayikra, a reminder that each one of us has a role to play and that what we do matters.      

It is all contained in the very first word of the Torah portion, in the word Vayikra itself, always written with a very small letter alef at the end, as in VAYIKRA. Taught positively as a reflection of Moses’ humility, it is also taken as a teaching not to diminish our own importance in the struggle for justice, in the collective effort to create a better world. For all his greatness, for all the praise for his humility, the rabbis imagine God becoming exasperated with Moses for stepping to the side, for not acting in the urgency of the moment. Through the lens of midrash, when God calls to Moses now, Vayikra, that exasperation shows, if you do not redeem them, no one else will redeem them. As Moses becomes each of us, God then says, how long will you diminish your self? The hour is waiting but for you/ayn ha’sha’ah m’tzapah elah lach (Vayikra Rabbah, 1:5). In the layers of Hebrew nuance, the call is clear, the times need you; the needs of the hour depend on you.

The needs of the hour depend on each of us. Circling round in the cold and rain, we are warmed in each other’s presence. The bond hearings for Alex, Zully, and Enrique were only the first step, as they are for so many, most all alone and without support. The greater challenge, even as Alex remains in jail, away from his wife and daughter, will be the immigration hearings yet to come. Each of us is needed, becoming all together the sunshine of justice breaking through the leaden skies. Hearing God’s call, Vayikra, we answer with our presence, presente, hineni, I am here.

Rabbi Victor Hillel Reinstein

Altars

I’ve been reading a small book called “An Altar in the World.” It’s written by Barbara Brown Taylor, an adjunct faculty at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and a professor at Piedmont College. I’m told she lives on a farm with lots of …

Better Late than Never

“Better late than never” is hardly ever an apt description of reality. Instead, it seems to me a rather trite and tired phrase people use to try and make you feel better. I’ve heard the phrase too often. And I was reminded recently of how “too late” I …

Inclusion

Last Sunday as I sat listening to the bell choir play the prelude at church, I recognized the melody in a medley they were ringing. It was the hymn “Be Still My Soul.” I was moved by the music. I realized I was moved because my soul was troubled. It wa…

Decision Making

     Some years ago I worked closely with an international peace organization that has now been in existence for 35 years. We have always been organized into country groups with active support networks in at least a dozen nations. T…

Walls Don’t Work

So apparently the U.S. is going to build a $12 to $15 billion dollar wall on the southern border. Our newly elected President insists that it will stem the flow of illegal immigration, keep us safer and be part of the economic plan to make America great again. Along with the executive order to build the wall came further directions to stop any refugees coming into the country from several nations, where we have actively or surreptitiously supported the wars that made them refugees. Oh, and Muslims are not welcome.
Apparently it is a secret in some circles that war creates refugees; that war gives rise to extremism; that arming other nations means they often use those arms against the innocent; that interventionist and economic policies on the part of the U.S. give rise to people fleeing their homelands, like from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. And besides, it must be a secret to some that walls don’t work!
The Great Wall of China is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built to keep those barbarians from the north at bay. It had its ups and downs over the centuries but eventually, in multiple instances, the unwanted hordes found ways to break or bridge the wall. 
On the other hand, the wall has often said more about the rulers of China than the potential invaders. Historically, the wall has come to symbolize the resistance of China to outside influence and the efforts of leaders to control the Chinese people. It’s interesting that now, where guards looked out from their towers, tourists scan the horizon in both directions.
Building a wall to keep others out often works against the wall builders and keeps them walled in. There’s an interesting example I came across reading about the origins of the Thanksgiving hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” The hymn was written by Martin Rinkart, a Lutheran pastor in a small village in Saxony during the time of the Thirty Years War. Floods of refugees took shelter within the walled city of Eilenberg where Rinkart lived. The Swedish army laid siege to the city and plague, famine and fear followed. In time, Rinkart was the only pastor left, conducting as many as fifty funerals a day. Eventually, he was the one who left the safety of the city walls to negotiate with the enemy and bring the siege to an end.
But the wall I’m most familiar with, because it’s a symbol from my generation, is the Berlin wall. Here we had a wall separating a country, and separating citizens and families from each other. 
Before the wall was constructed in 1961, over 3 million East Germans ignored emigration restrictions and fled from the Soviet Union to West Germany and then to other Western countries. After the wall was constructed, from 1961 to 1989 when it fell, 139 people were killed or died at the wall. They ranged in age from a 1 year old child to a woman of 80. The wall didn’t work. People risked life and limb to be with loved ones and escape oppressive state government and the wall was eventually torn down with great jubilation.
When our oldest grandson was small, he would watch Veggie Tales on our television set. One of the tales we had was about the way the Hebrew people were able to bring down the walls of Jericho. The walls came down because Joshua and the others followed God’s instructions to the letter. It took seven days with seven priests with seven trumpets leading the Ark of the Covenant. And on the seventh day they circled the walls seven times and the whole people gave a great shout … and the walls came down.
Each time our grandson watched that video, I always had to reverse the tape several times so he could examine that sequence and the falling walls. It was as if he was memorizing the process, fascinated by the magic of it. The walls of Jericho failed in the face of God’s covenantal people. 
I read a wonderful story the other day about 50 women who met on the bridge connecting Mexico and the U.S. They were from both countries and as a symbol of their relationship and connection with each other they braided their hair together or tied their scarves together. Maybe if we provided our U.S. young with goals and life meaning beyond money and drugs, the demand for drugs crossing any border would disappear. And if we treated countries like Mexico with respect, instead of exploiting them with extractive industries that pillage the land and endanger their water; and if we had physically willing and able workers to tend our fields and farms and factories, roof our homes and landscape our lawns, there would be little work and incentive for the “undocumented.”

Maybe with the life affirming wisdom of the women on the bridge and the courage of people of faith called to follow the commandments of God, not governments, we will find a way to break down the walls that some would use to further divide us from our neighbors. 
Carl Kline