Tuesday, 22 April 2008


This weekend I spent in a simple but nice hotel in the Belgian Ardennes, above the town of Spa, at a European Unitarian Universalist retreat. In fact, the spa baths were just below us, a two-minute walk away. The drive there allowed up to take in the grandure of the place. But, as someone said this weekend, they're friendly hills; they're majestic without being overaweing - although the trip downhill to drop some people off at the station was a bit scary.

Just as the magnificence of nature can be an inspiration to us, so of course can people. The people at any Unitarian Universalist meeting or event inspire me, but this time there was one that stood out: Charlie Clements heads the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a human rights organisation, who in the sermon on Sunday reminded up that we shouldn't be frustrated if change through our actions doesn't come fast enough, because we're like the mediaeval builders of a cathedral who won't live to see its completion in decades or centuries to come, but who are essential in its coming to completion.

He also told a wonderful anecdote about bishop Tutu bringing the house down at some forum when he announced that he had to remind the Dalai Lama, who is a very funny and playful man (I believe he shares the twinkle in his eye with that same Desmond Tutu), that he should behave like a holy man!
Illustrating to us the importance of humour and that, though we must help others, we musn't forget to have a little fun along the way.

Martha and Waitstill

Let's look at the history of the UUSC for a while, a most inspiring history it is. As early as the annual meeting of the American Unitarian Association in 1933 the rise to power of Adolf Hitler was deplored. Two years later the Universalist General Convention noted its "abhorrence of religious and economic persecution" against Jews in Germany.

In February 1939 the AUA sent a service mission to Czechoslowakia. The country had been overrun by refugees since Germany had been given permission to annex Sudetenland in the Munich Agreement. Waitstill Sharp was a Unitarian minister in Wellesley Hills, Mass., his wife Martha had a degree in social work. Within three weeks the Germans marched into Prague, but the couple kept on doing their work for months, flying under the Germans' radar.

Conditions for other countries to take up any of the refugees were very strict and required proof of employment. Martha organised an administration of thousands of files (only 300 were ever found later) which they then tried to match as best they could with employers in safe countries. They travelled back and forth for five months, getting many people out this way. Friends urged them that it was really getting too dangers for them now, but the kept going until finally in August they left. When Waitstill returned to the hotel after the war, the clerk welcomed him back warmly and told him they had avoided the Germans coming to pick them up by one day.

They went home to their children, 2 and 6 years old when they had left them behind. In May 1940 the Unitarian Service Committee was formed and Waitstill and Martha were asked to return to Europe, to France, to continue their good work there. There is a sermon by Charlie Clements on the UUSC website from which the following quote is taken:

When you undergo unpleasant and perhaps dangerous medical procedures, you doctor is required to explain the details and risks of what you are about to undertake. It is called "informed consent"; but how many of you really know what you are in for? I didn’t when I volunteered to serve in Vietnam as a young man. But imagine: the Sharps did know what they were in for... they had experienced the Nazi terror up close... and they returned to Europe.

Paris had fallen before they got there, so they set up in Marseille in Vichy France and opened an office in Lisbon. They had the foresight to open an office in Geneva too and eventually fled to Switzerland with the nazis on their heels when all of France was overrun.

It is impossible to say how many they saved, it is safe to say they helped many thousands in one way or another. In June 2006 they were honored by the Israeli Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, a title awarded to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. (This is the Senate resolution paying tribute to them.)

civilized countries

Having said all that and been thoroughly inspired again myself, Dr. Clements also recalled how he would lobby the US State Department in the 1980s on behalf of human rights in certain countries, such as Jemen for instance, who hadn't ratified major international human rights treaties and would be told that the United States didn't deal with those countries because, staying outside the treaties, they were not considered part of the civilized world.

Guess which country won't sign the Universal Declaration of the Rights of the Child? The USA reserves the right to try minors, them wait until they turn 18 to execute them. By their own definition they are not a civilized state.

As shocked as I am at the murder of Lawrence King, I can't bear the thought that a boy who had turned fourteen three weeks before that fateful day can be tried as an adult by a country that dares call itself civilized.

Did you know that there is a number you can call at the White House that is staffed by operators not a computer and the calls on which they are obligated to record and report on? So the White House does know how many calls they get about government-sanctioned torture,

I'm just waiting for any of the people mentioned in my previous post to set foot outside the United States.

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