The Reverend Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
Unitarian Universalist Minister

Dignity Rising

A Sermon for Justice Sunday 2011: Rights in Humanitarian Crises

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Catskills, Kingston, NY
Rev. Dr. Jan Carlsson-Bull
April 10, 2011

Chapter 1.

My guess is that just about everybody here this morning has had the hiccups. Some of us have probably had hiccups that we thought would never go away. Nothing else matters except getting rid of those persistent spasms and embarrassing “hics.”

“Have you ever seen a brown cow?” asks the stranger sitting next to you on the train. “Yes!” you reply, startled. “Have you ever seen a brown and white cow?” she asks. “Sure!” you say, mildly annoyed. “Have you ever seen a black and white cow?” “Of course,” you say, intrigued. “How about a black and white and purple cow?” she asks. You pause. “No, of course not!” “How about a black cow?” “Yes,” you say, into it now. This can go on for a while. Then comes the question: “Do you still have the hiccups?”

Chances are you’re cured. Chances are you can’t wait to try this on somebody else.

No matter how serious your malady, it’s sometimes the most unconventional approach that proves effective. If only all our maladies were as mild as a stubborn case of hiccups and our cures as simple albeit unconventional as a few cow-color questions.

Darfur, Uganda, Gaza, Kenya, Pakistan, Haiti, and now Japan all bring to mind maladies escalated into humanitarian crises. From Darfur to Haiti to Japan, these humanitarian crises continue to play out — disasters wrought by human folly and debilitating spasms wrought by the indifferent rhythms of our natural world. In the wake of the realities ravaging our local and global neighbors, it’s the unconventional approaches that have proved most effective for ensuring relief, countering the inequities that spawn selective relief, and forging strategies for immediate and long-term needs.

Imagine you’ve moved from your comfy seat on a train annoyed by a sudden onset of hiccups. You’ve moved in time and space and identity. It’s a Tuesday morning in early January. The year is 2010. You’ve risen early. As a farmer just outside the capital city of Port-au-Prince, you rise early every morning. Your wife prepares the coffee, nurses your four-month-old son, calls to your two little daughters to hurry up, hurry up, or they’ll be late for school. You’re among the lucky in Haiti. Your children go to school. So many in your country are poor, desperately poor. You struggle to make do for your family, and your wife works hard embroidering the most exquisite wares for wealthy tourists. You’re among the luckiest of families.

All day long you work alongside your neighbors. You’re accustomed to working together, helping each other out. Through a local organization, the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), you’ve learned skills to help you farm the land more effectively. Rainfall is iffy. The soil doesn’t cooperate. But you know the benefits of organizing locally to cut through the challenges of unpredictable weather and an equally unpredictable government. You’ve been inspired by the MPP’s leader, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. He keeps telling you that you can’t survive alone.

It’s been a long day. The sun begins to dip. You think about cleaning your tools and heading home. Then you feel the ground tremble under your feet. You shudder. The earth beneath you shudders. Suddenly everything is chaos. It’s an earthquake. Oh my God, it’s an earthquake! You’ve known earthquakes before, but your sense of the land tells you this is like nothing you’ve ever known. You run for home, terrified for your wife and children. You hear your baby screaming. You hear your wife wailing.

It’s late January 2010. Your world has turned inside out. You survived. Your wife survived. Your baby survived, but not without two broken legs. He cries like he’ll never stop. Your darling little girls were crushed beneath the rubble of their school, the school they were so proud of. Your wife cries like she’ll never stop. You’re too numb to cry. Water is scarce. You’ve heard that food is being hoarded by the government. You watch planes come in from so many countries. You hear they’re carrying food and medical supplies and workers to help you out. Where does it all go? you wonder. Where do those on the planes go? Your belly aches. Your head aches. Your heart aches. What can you do?

You saw a truck go by with a familiar sign on the side, one of the big relief organizations. The foreigners set up tents and talk among themselves about what to do. Why don’t they ask you? Why don’t they ask you and your friends in the Papaye Peasant Movement? You’re the experts. You know Haiti. You know what you need. You know what you don’t need. You know how to organize to get things done. You’ve already organized and are getting done what most immediately needs to get done.

Weeks pass. Another meeting has been called at the MPP training center, a tent raised from the upturned earth. Chavannes is there. He talks about “Haitians building Haiti.” You know he means you and your neighbors. He talks about the dignity of survival. Next to him stands a woman whom Chavannes introduces as Martha. She’s from an organization called the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Chavannes has explained that UUSC is partnering with the Papaye Peasant Movement to bring relief right away and to address the long-term needs of you and your neighbors. Martha is different from other aid workers. She asks you about your needs. She listens. Chavannes speaks of UUSC and MPP as “brothers and sisters working together.”

Your grief is fierce, but you have your dignity. You tell your wife about what you’re doing. You look at your baby son who’s finally sleeping through the night; you know that he’ll be proud of you for taking action. You’re being heard.

When the earth itself has turned inside out in a cataclysmic spasm, when hundreds of thousands are left dead, injured survivors struggle to make their way, and others stare into space, when government leaders are all but mute when asked what’s next, even an international flow of aid doesn’t work. Thanks to well-intentioned funders, giant cargo planes filled with food and medicine stanch the flow of suffering in the short term; but our neighbors in Haiti, our neighbors in northern Uganda, our neighbors in Gaza, our neighbors in Pakistan, and now our neighbors in Japan who are surviving humanitarian crises know whom they can rely on for the long haul — each other.

For our neighbors in Haiti, reliance on each other has served them well for generations. From the time Christopher Columbus walked ashore the island in early December 1492 and promptly called it La Isla Española (“the Spanish Island”), wave upon wave of colonial oppression followed, layered with wave upon wave of indigenous resistance. The French turned Haiti into a slave colony; the slaves revolted and, on January 1, 1804, declared independence. Haiti was the name resurrected for this new republic, an indigenous term meaning “land of mountains.” When the not-quite-United States was moving through the throes of slave states and free states, decades before the Civil War, Haiti inspired abolitionists in this country while chafing the white privilege that has fueled so many shameful chapters of our history. These realities, coupled with Haiti’s rich natural resources, positioned Haiti for long-term abuse by U.S. leadership, with only a few exceptions.

There are humanitarian and historic grounds for our nation to respond generously to the crisis that is Haiti. This “Land of Mountains” that is home to nine million neighbors has suffered fracture upon fracture. While independence was declared over 200 years ago and Haitians breathed hope, tyranny from abroad and incompetence from within have conspired to render Haiti among the poorest nations of the world.

Yet Haitians are resilient. The same cooperation that made indigenous resistance possible hundreds of years ago makes the most effective streams of recovery possible in the wake of what our farmer friend, his family, and millions of Haitians experienced that Tuesday afternoon of January 12, 2010, on into today. Expertise resides within Haiti — experts do not fly in; experts are already there.

Where does that leave us? With nothing to do in the continued wake of suffering known to our neighbors to the south? On the contrary, we can help by honoring the dignity of the Haitian people through the empowering model of solidarity at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Remember the woman named Martha working with Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of the Papaye Peasant Movement? That was Martha Thompson, manager of UUSC’s Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program. Martha was one of the first UUSC staff members to venture to Haiti after the earthquake, to assess needs by consulting with indigenous groups already organized, already responding.

What followed was a thoughtful selection of additional grassroots partner organizations through which UUSC could channel funds and skills both to respond to immediate needs and cooperatively forge strategies for long-term recovery. Because of Martha and Chavannes and the farmer and his wife and women and men and, yes, the children of Haiti, we can make a difference together. Because of the funds you have given and the volunteer ventures now underway through our UUSC, we make a difference together.

It’s an unconventional approach, linking with indigenous partner organizations for immediate and long-term responses to the travesty that is poverty and the devastation wreaked by the rhythms of nature. Local organizations that have already earned the trust of the local populace can reach Haitians bypassed by larger relief organizations that deny the fault lines of race, class, and gender and fail to consult with the real experts. It’s an unconventional approach that works no matter where humanitarian crises erupt.

Have you ever seen a black and white and purple cow?


Dignity Rising – Chapter 2

Imagine! Imagine that you’re a doing your job as a day laborer. You’re in your mid 50’s and have been doing this for many years. It’s not your ideal job—no benefits and no guarantee that you won’t be replaced tomorrow—but it keeps food on the table for you and your family. It’s a Friday afternoon in mid-March. You’re going about your work, when suddenly you look up to see a crane—not a bird, but the kind of crane that rises on the premises of a nuclear power plant; and it’s swinging in all directions. Everyone starts shouting; one of the voices is yours. You race to the exit gate. A security guard demands your IDs, conditioned to follow standard procedure. “Are you out of your mind?” you shout. You spot an ominous shadow out at sea. “A tsunami is coming!” you scream to the guard. He finally lets you out.

Stop imagining. The person you momentarily became is Masayuki Ishizawa, whose story is told by Hiroko Tabuchi, writing for The New York Times. Mr. Ishizawa is a former contract worker for Tokyo Electric Power Company. Once allowed to escape the terrifying confines of the plant, he ran to his home just a mile away. The next day he and his family and neighbors evacuated their homes and fled to safer ground. They are survivors.

Mr. Ishizawa is one of thousands of “untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers” relied upon to do the dangerous work of maintaining nuclear reactors. They are being touted as the heroes of meltdown prevention at the Fukushima nuclear plants. Not unlike coal miners in this country, Mr. Ishizawa and his co-workers have endangered their health day after day, year after year for considerably less pay and fewer benefits than “an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies.”

“’This is the hidden world of nuclear power,’ observes Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor and longtime advocate for fair labor policies in Japan’s nuclear industry. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant whose reactors are still in danger of meltdown, close to 90 per cent of the more than 10,000 workers during the previous year were contract workers, not employees. The contract workers who have returned to do the desperate and dangerous work at the Fukushima Daiichi plant are kept strictly away from reporters.”

Remember the two workers injured just weeks ago after stepping into radioactive water? They were also contract workers. Mr. Ishizawa has received offers of close to $1,000 a day to return. He has refused.

From the earthquake off the northeastern coast of Japan that struck on Friday afternoon, March 12, to the devastating tsunami that followed, to the breakdown of four nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi plant that lay in the wake of the tsunami, our neighbors in Japan have known and continue to know a disaster barely imaginable. Close to 30,000 have been lost to the tsunami. The fear of radiation poisoning has driven the evacuation of hundreds of thousands from the most contaminated areas.

Japan has one of the world’s wealthiest economies; Haiti has one of the world’s poorest. Japan’s architectural infrastructure is second to none; Haiti’s was close to non-existent. The earthquake that struck off Japan’s coast registered 8.9 on the Richter scale; the earthquake that struck in Haiti registered 7.0. If Japan had not had such a strict building code, far more than 30,000 would be dead. Haiti had no such code; hundreds of thousands perished. Japan was sufficiently wealthy and power dependent to draw 34% of its electricity from 55 nuclear power plants. Haiti had none; it couldn’t begin to afford them. Yet our neighbors in and near Japan are in danger of long-term radioactivity, unleashed by the breakdown and possible meltdown of nuclear reactors built perilously close to one of the most earthquake-prone sites on the planet and dependent for their maintenance on unskilled, poorly compensated contract laborers. For our neighbors in Haiti, poverty and the whims of nature conspired to wreak such widespread devastation. For our neighbors in Japan, technology, corporate privilege and the whims of nature conspired to wreak devastation whose extent is yet to be determined.

There is wisdom in Haiti. There is wisdom in Japan. The survivors, and commonly the survivors who don’t count for much in political or corporate power structures, hold the wisdom of working together. Such is the case in Haiti through the Papaye Peasant Movement, one of the grassroots organizations with which our Unitarian Universalist Service Committee continues to partner to bring relief and affirm dignity. In Japan Unitarian Universalists have historically close ties with progressive Japanese religious groups, often through the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF). In Tokyo there is a Universalist Church whose members are Japanese. Unitarian Universalists visiting Japan from this country have often been hosted by progressive Buddhist and Shinto groups. Our Unitarian Universalist Association’s longtime partner groups in Japan include “Rissho Kosei-kai, Tsubaki Grand Shrine, the Konko Church of Izuo, the Tokyo Dojin Church, and the Japan Chapter of the IARF.” For the past weeks, these ties have been tapped to support relief and recovery.

As in Haiti, the expertise of relief and recovery lies in the wisdom of grassroots partners such as these. It is made possible in part by you and by me, through the UUA-UUSC Japan Relief Fund, established days after the plates shifted, the tsunami struck, and the unimaginable happened as nuclear reactors malfunctioned and began to release radioactivity into earth, air, and water.

Life can be beautiful. The sun still rises in the east. The water off these island nations still shimmers in the moonlight. The glance of a loved one warms your heart. The smile of a little one brings a smile from your soul. Life can be beautiful, radiant even. And life can be cruel. When the earth erupts and wreaks havoc on your home and your nation, life is cruel. When workers like Masayuki Ishizawa face the conditions that they do and speak out at their peril, life is cruel. When cruelty visits, radiance is blocked. In the words of Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the job of UUSC, “with your help and on your behalf, is to combat cruelty in order to set radiance free.” This happens through the unconventional approach of partnership, of solidarity, of honoring rights in humanitarian crises. Through UUSC’s Rights in Humanitarian Crises work, we can continue to partner with grassroots groups worldwide, including here at home.

Since its founding in the bleakest hours of World War II, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, then the Unitarian Service Committee, has resisted cruelty and fueled hope, as courageous women and men fought Nazism and ushered Jews and gypsies and gay people to freedom. Our flaming chalice was born during that time as a readily recognized symbol of sanctuary to those who had every reason to suspect the motives of strangers who promised a way out. The radiance that lived through the actions of women and men risking their lives is freed again and again when rights are honored and dignity rises amid the most horrific of humanitarian crises.

Consider the prayer of Mother Theresa: “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.”

We usually don’t pray for a broken heart; but when so many lives are broken, how can our hearts not break? And if our hearts break, let’s fill the fault line not with pity, not with one-shot charity, but with a lived proclamation of human rights amid the deepest rubble. From such rubble, dignity rises.

Many of us continue to give to the UUA/UUSC Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund. This morning’s second offering is for the newly established UUA/UUSC Japan Relief Fund. May this offering be an offering of money, yes, and of heart and soul and mind and strength, of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, knowing that each and every creature, each and every survivor, is our neighbor.



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Alther, Gretchen and Wendy Flick, “Individual Stories: Cristella Antenor, female, 20 yrs old, in the Mariani Camp, Carrefour,” Trip Report: Haiti, May 2010.

Cirillo, Nichole, “Empowering Haitians to Cope with Trauma,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, September 23, 2010,

Cirillo, Nichole, “The Resiliency of Tires: The Road to Life Yard in Haiti,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, September 23, 2010,

Buschschluter, Vanessa, BBC News, Washington, “The long history of troubled ties between Haiti and the US,” January 16, 2010,

“Conditions remain critical in Haiti,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, January 15, 2010,

Duncan, David James, “Let the Whole World Fall In,” Orion Magazine, July/August 2005.

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“History of Haiti,” from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,

“In Wake of Earthquake and Tsunami, Our Thoughts Are with Japan,” a blog posted by UUSC’s Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program staff, which includes Manager Martha Thompson and Senior Associate Gretchen Alther, March 15, 2011,

“Japanese Workers Braved Radiation for a Temp Job,” Hiroko Tabuchi, - Kazo, Japan, The New York Times, Asia Pacific, April 9, 2011, and in The New York Times, April 10, 2011, A1.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” sermon preached at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 31, 1968, in “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle,”

Klein, Naomi, “Aristide in Exile,” The Nation, August 1, 2005.

Neil, Maxine, “Help Us Meet the ‘3 for 1 for Haiti’ Challenge!” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, October 18, 2010,

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Smith, Kara, “Standing in Solidarity as Tomas Approaches Haiti,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, November 4, 2010,

“Status of the Nuclear Reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant,” The New York Times, Asia Pacific, updated April 7, 2011,

Taylor, Cecily, words and music, “Our World Is One World,” in Singing the Living Tradition, The Unitarian Universalist Association, Beacon Press, Boston, 1993, 134.

Thompson, Martha, “Basic Needs in Haiti: Why They Are Still a Challenge,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee,” July 26, 2010,

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“UUSC Joins UUA in Responding to Japan Disaster,” Date this position was adopted by UUSC: Monday, March 14, 2011,

“UUSC Partner Working to End Gender-Based Violence in Haiti,” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, October 29, 2010,


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