On living the dream of justice

This blog was originally a sermon by Rev. Rhina Ramos delivered on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland.

Thank you for your invitation to be here this morning.  At the Ella Baker Center, we are happy to be your godchild. We appreciate the recent collection you did for us.

As you may know, we are named after an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. Ella Jo Baker inspired and nurtured emerging leaders. We live out this legacy today by providing skills and opportunities to strengthen our communities so that everyone can thrive.

This morning, I plan to talk to you about the new venture and dream at the Ella Baker Center, and how my commitment is fueled by personal history.

30 years ago, my brother and I crossed the US border.  My mother had been able to secure a tourist visa a few months before, and was waiting for us in NY. We couldn’t get a visa.  In order to be reunited with her, my aunt Maria, the only relative that we had that could travel back and forth from the US, came to El Salvador, got herself someone who could bring us to the US. As thousands of people who make this dangerous trip, we had to travel many weeks to reach our destination.

All throughout the trip, I feared for our lives.  We got arrested a couple of times by Mexican police, and ended up being transferred to some smugglers who said that they could finish the job of taking us across the border.  They were scary sketchy people who looked at us simply as contraband. In their eyes, we were merchandise. They kept threatening us not to escape because we would be sorry.  They bragged about serving time for killing people.  

Yes, I was afraid. I looked back to that experience, and I know it shaped my life. It often fuels my insatiable thirst to do what is my power to end injustice.

So when at end of last year, the Ella Baker Center set the ambitious goal of reducing the incarceration rate in the US by 50% in the next ten years, my heart said: “Amen, Count me in.”

At Ella Baker Center, we understand that any form of massively caging human beings is just wrong.  There has to be a better way to create safety for our communities.

When we think of incarceration, we mean the locking up of adults, youth, and immigrants.  They are being put away at a high cost to our communities.

Just last year alone, the US government spent 18 billion dollars hunting and detaining immigrants. 

California spends over 100,000 per year putting a young person behind bars, while only a quarter of this goes to educating a young student. We have the wrong math when the bulk of our resources go to building prisons rather than schools.

Martin Luther King, Ella Jo Baker…. All these visionaries planted seeds we have to continue to nurture and harvest.  Maybe this is the mystery piece on our ambitious goal of reducing incarceration by half in the next decade. We don’t know if we will win, but we believe it needs to happen. The mystery, the wonder, is this conviction that something needs to shift.

When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to learn about justice from my own country's equivalent of Martin Luther King.  Growing up in El Salvador during the civil war, I heard Monsignor Oscar Romero every Sunday.  Every radio was tuned in to his homilies. His life was also taken by forces of hate.  My mom took us once to the national cathedral to hear him speak. It was packed, and at the end of every sentence people would get up in standing ovation.

In his homilies, he used to list the places where the army was killing civilians.  He would go over the names of the disappeared and request their freedom.  Romero taught us that: “repressive laws were not divine laws, and these laws didn’t have to be blindly obeyed especially if they meant harm to someone’s humanity.”

I don’t know what your roots, history, your inspiration or role models are. I don’t know what fuels your passion for justice, but I am sure you have something in your life that drives you to take the actions necessary to better the world around you.

It doesn’t have to be a colorful story as mine. It doesn’t have to be the heroic life of people like Martin Luther King Jr.  You don’t need to have walked for hours to cross a border in order to care for what happens to immigrant families.

All is that is needed is for us to risk living with a broken heart. An open heart, that breaks to the sight of injustice and human suffering. I don’t know what you do when you heart is broken, but when I have a broken heart I tell anyone who wants to hear about it.  If the current painful fate of death or prison affecting young Black and Brown hurts you, let’s tell others; let’s walk together to stop it.  All that is required from you and me is to grab on to the mystery that acting in love will create change.