January 9, 2022

Service Title: Good Without God: Bending the Moral Arc of the Universe
Speaker: Josh Kauppila

Land recognition by Trisha Smith, Maine Poor People’s Campaign

I live in the homelands of the Wabanaki, people of the Dawnland. My house sits on a high ridge above the Piscataquis, the “river of many branches,” a waterway of the Penobscot Nation. For time out of mind, people have lived in what we now call Maine, New England, the United States of America, the New World.  Indigenous people, communities, and nations continue to exist, persist, and thrive in spite of more than 500 years of relentless colonization, genocide, treaty violations, forced assimilation, family separation, and environmental degradation. I encourage y’all to learn more about the land you’re living on and about the people who called it home before it was stolen from them.

Land acknowledgements may seem like a small, insignificant performance with no real impact. I’ve been speaking them now for over a year on our Wednesday Night Lift Up Livestream, and I can say that they have certainly had an impact on me and my thinking. I have had to re-examine stories I learned as a child, stories my parents and my church taught, stories I thought I had abandoned when I left the church. 

I grew up believing America was given to “us” by God, and that as long as we lived his commandments, we would continue to be blessed. I grew up believing America was uniquely favored by God, that it is the literal Promised Land. I was taught that our Founding Fathers and the founding documents were inspired by God. I was taught that Western Expansion was destined by God, and that US imperialist aggressions against other sovereign nations automatically have God’s approval. I grew up believing my faith was the only true faith, and we had a responsibility not only to “Live the gospel,” but also to spread it (mostly in places softened by US imperialist aggression). The “gospel” includes assimilation to standards of dress and grooming set by church authorities. “Living the gospel” looked like striving to embody a picture of wholesome, white America.

Not everyone grows up in a faith tradition so firmly entwined with the US imperial project, but most of us grew up learning a secularized version of the national narrative. The violence of land theft and genocide is romanticized, slavery sanitized. Perpetrators of conquest are held up as heroes and often as models of moral behavior. (Think of “I cannot tell a lie” George Washington, renowned Indian-killer, land thief, and enslaver.)

Land acknowledgements challenge our valorized narrative and take steps toward exposing the lies. This land is NOT my land, from California to the New York island, it was NOT “made for you and me.” The US is NOT uniquely blessed by God, Americans are not exceptional. It can be difficult to tell the truth when what you learned in school (and/or church) is based on lies. You have to realize you’ve been taught lies, and then you have to learn the truth. 

I recommend reading Unsettling Truths: the Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery by Mark Charles and Soon-Chan Rah. It’s an important discussion of the Papal edicts justifying the African slave trade and the exploitation of land and people that characterized the so-called “Age of Exploration.” To move forward together, we need to reckon with the conflation of God and country that has grown out of the lie of divinely sanctioned genocide, slavery, and land theft. The truth will set us free! We’ll be free to end an economy based on extraction. We will be free to abandon the imperialist project and dismantle the enormous waste of human potential that is the US military.

Yes, a Land Acknowledgement is a small action. And it is an exercise in cultural humility and can be a step toward restoration and reparation. Once we’ve begun to see behind the narrative of paternalism, it’s natural to demand our government honor treaties and return sacred sites to the proper hands. For Mainers, it means demanding state recognition of tribal sovereignty and the Penobscot River as part of the Penobscot Nation. Battles continue for territory and other recognition all over the US. Researching a land acknowledgement is one way to learn about current issues for Indigenous people in your area. 

Try incorporating a Land Acknowledgement into your life and see how it changes you!

A place to start: https://native-land.ca/

Josh Kauppila, Greater Bangor Housing Coalition, Maine Poor People’s Campaign

Plight, Fight, and Insight: Housing and Greater Bangor Housing Coalition

“But when you learn to be true to yourself, the truth holds no danger, the truth holds no fear, because you’re right there with the truth all the time.”

-Thanissaro Bhikku

In 2016, I lived in my car, I worked at a nursing home, and put together odd jobs. The lack of address was new. I would joke that my address was 1999 Subaru Outback. In prior years, I had lived on farms without plumbing, cabins without electricity or road access all while navigating the obstacles of poverty, homophobia, childhood / religious trauma, addiction, and lack of reliable judgment-free health care (both mental and physical).

The personal fight I recognized (through difficult processing) was also a deeply political fight and one that required me to reevaluate my view of what power was and where the most important things happened and critically how I interacted with myself and the world.

I reflect on Mary Oliver’s question: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“Good,” is what I want that answer to be. 

To face the enormity of the interlocking injustices, which connect to exclude and abuse the over 140 million of us poor and low-wealth people, to heal the traumas and habits that fighting for mere survival had left me with I needed to find others and share hope, build power and work through the difficulties of building community amidst hardship.

In July of 2020 unhoused community members, leaders and activists began an encampment at city hall in the biggest city in Maine: Portland. Responding to calls from city officials to move a service provider that served unhoused folks farther from downtown. We in the Maine PPC mobilized to stand with the folks taking that bold action and helped to bring those demands to city council-members directly.

Many other PPC members and I learned a lot from that action and we deepened our ties to members of our community who were struggling against unjust housing policies and the criminalization of basic survival.

Policy makers, elected officials seemed so casual in removing resources, and then defensive or avoidant when faced with the real harm; (pain and death) that their exclusion and expulsion promotes. 

We, up in Bangor, that fall heard another call to demonstrate in our town to protest the recent sweep of the waterfront) an overnight protest, that while it was removed peaceably at 4 in the morning (by cops without masks on…) The organizers and participants felt compelled to do more so we convened on Halloween day the town square by the bus depot to talk with unhoused folks and others about what we need to do to make our community better for those who are struggling.

That conversation began the weekly gathering of what would later be called the Greater Bangor Housing Coalition

  • Listened and gathered demands: observations from folks for weeks as we got started
  • Provided food and supplies, connected with churches and faith groups to provide additional support
  • Getting folks connected to resources; applying for emergency housing vouchers, we are also maintaining a list of hotels that accept them.
  • Mobilized for public comment at city council meetings, to push for more housing, accessible and open public restrooms (which downtown and much of the city lacks) as well as pushing back on criminalizing responses to issues surrounding the lack of affordable housing.
  • Encouraged the developing leadership of those most impacted and empowering them to share their stories in public forums and letting their priorities direct our work.
  • Constituent organizations and groups of the Coalition have worked to change the narrative through listening sessions, op-eds and ongoing organizing around humane allocation of Federal American Rescue Plan Act funds that the city and county is receiving.

Much of the work is listening, learning and being present with that testimony in public spaces paired with organizing ourselves around emergent/urgent needs of the community. My own time being unhoused and the decade of housing precarity that characterized my adult life, left me with a lot of feelings; namely, anger and despair. I seek to build hope and confidence through my actions. 

Buddhism has taught me that “the mind is the forerunner of all things” and that truth to be found in this world is to be “known by the observant for themselves.”

Central to what I’ve learned is both Gratitude (which translates from the Pali directly as “seeing what has been done” and foundational virtue of Generosity and Goodwill towards all. 

I reflect on the teaching that this life is one of many. Since an unfathomable beginning, up and down I’ve been chasing the worldly winds of material gain, praise, status and pleasure and running from the material loss, criticism, loss of status and pain.

Always reacting to the world, I forgot I had a role to play, that the views I held would shape my words and my deeds. And the relationships I build can bring change and transformation, inasmuch as I am willing to be changed.

The only meaning in my life is what I make, so may it be a peaceful meaning. No one hired me to be born, so I am free to choose a noble purpose and worthy pursuit. 

My actions and thoughts create the space for me to meditate, I work so that place will remind me of my goodness not mired in regret or resentment. My spiritual path teaches me that my good deeds meet me like relatives greeting me after a long trip, in a next life.

I know that everybody has a right to live. We should not be separated from the things we need to live by divisive and destructive policies and prejudices.I will stick with that truth and I grow in that truth and I find community meaning and purpose in that truth. Each being loves their life as fiercely as I love mine. It follows that I shouldn’t make my happiness dependent on the suffering of others. And if I have any say in the systems which are dependent on the suffering of the poor, the unhoused, the marginalized, I will seek to change those conditions and build, as equal partners, a better world.