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Youth ‘pilgrimage’ to GA opens eyes and hearts

Minnesota youth group took winding spiritual journey to Phoenix to prepare for Justice General Assembly.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Nolan Watts

Nolan Watts looks out over Kolob Canyons at Zion National Park, a stop on the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka’s youth group pilgrimage to General Assembly. (Leslie Mills)

Watch “Youth group pilgrimage to Justice GA” from UU World on Vimeo.

Leslie Mills knows how a profound personal experience can change someone’s life. On July 29, 2010 she was arrested in Phoenix and jailed along with scores of others for protesting Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law, SB 1070.

Two years later she came back to Phoenix for General Assembly 2012, the “Justice GA” that was focused on immigration, racial, and economic justice issues. This time she brought some friends, hoping they’d have their own life-changing experiences. Mills, the ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, in Wayzata, Minn., until mid-July, brought 10 members of the congregation’s youth group.

The youth got the full experience of GA. In addition to attending youth events, workshops on immigration, and worship services, they were among the 2,500 UUs who attended a candlelight vigil at the Maricopa County sheriff’s “Tent City” jail.

General Assembly, June 20-24, was only part of their experience, however. The youth and four adult sponsors, including Mills, made an indirect pilgrimage to Phoenix. A week before GA they set out on a tour of western national parks, visiting the Badlands, the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. Along the way they camped or stayed with UU hosts.

Mills said the trip was designed “to be a spiritual journey across the face of our land.” She could have chosen a more direct route, she noted. “But I wanted to give our land a chance to work its magic in the hearts of our pilgrims. I wanted them to see the Badlands and Black Hills erupting out of the Great Plains, and to see the wonders of the geysers at Yellowstone. I wanted our young people to feel awe at the sight of mountains and canyons, and to experience the arid expanse of the desert.”

This pilgrimage was also about borders. “When we journey across the land in a way other than flying, we begin to see that boundaries are only significant to those who seek to enforce them,” said Mills. “How easy it is to cross a state line without realizing it. So how much more difficult could it be to cross a national border? When the people in a neighboring state are recognizable as Unitarian Universalist kindred, how much easier it becomes to recognize our foreign brothers and sisters as kindred as well! These were the reflections I was hoping to evoke before we ever set foot at Justice GA.”

In reflections they wrote after they were back home, the youth seemed to take those images to heart.

“This trip made me look at people in a different light,” said Alana Sundby, 17. “I learned that there will always be people out there with different views than mine, no matter how right I think I am. I learned to appreciate everything I have—freedom, a home, a family, an education, a job. I learned to take more chances, like camping for example. I changed because I saw so many people brought together for the same purpose using love instead of violence. Being part of that was something that can never be replaced.”

Lainy Von Bank, 16, wrote: “GA had helped renew my passion for social justice and my desire to continue to work to be a good person. However, the biggest thing that I took back from the trip was that life is life, and the life that runs through me is the same life that runs through the old Navajo women selling jewelry on the side of the road, and the animals and plants that make up Yellowstone forest and the migrant worker families from Mexico. We really are all connected, and if I don't want to take my own life for granted, I shouldn't take anyone else's either.”

Even the simple act of traveling with 13 other people led to some insights, sometimes laced with humor. Said Nolan Watts, 17: “Me singing to myself in the car, that’s fine. Anyone else doing it, they need to stop. And you don’t always get to decide whether the A/C or heat is used and how much.” At GA he led their group in the banner parade on the opening day.

The Tent City protest left a lasting impression on him. “While counter-protesters called us communists we held our candles and LOVE signs up high. Latinos shook our hands and thanked us when we left. I could tell we were helping a community, not just the inmates,” Watts said.

Conner Demchuk, 15, said he didn’t have any big revelations, but that he changed in many small ways. “I’ve gained more faith in people throughout the world after going to GA. When I went to the witness and saw how many people had come to protest Tent City . . . [it] made me realize that together we could make a difference. The trip also gave me confidence in myself. I realized it only takes one person to start a movement.”

After GA the group traveled home, again by an indirect route. With permission, it visited a mesa on Ute tribal lands in southwest Colorado. Said Mills, “I showed them a ritual of offering water—something precious and life-giving in the desert—to the ancestors, asking for the conflict in the spirit world to be cooled and calmed so that we can work toward peace and reconciliation in this world. We rattled blessings into the earth and asked those dry stones to lend us their strength and relieve us of the burdens we were too tired to carry anymore.”

For Mills, the trip to Phoenix for GA was vastly different from her other visit when she was arrested. She did not visit the “scene of the crime” from 2010, the street outside the Wells Fargo tower where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has his office. “Phoenix was different this time. It wasn't until we were on the buses coming back from the vigil at Tent City that I looked out the window and saw the yellow letters along the top of the Wells Fargo building. I always remember my arrest every time I see a Wells Fargo building anywhere. This time I blinked, and realized it was the Wells Fargo building where I had been protesting until the police took me away. "There," I murmured to the woman beside me. "That's where it happened. That's where it all began."

She added, “It filled my heart to see how deeply the experience of the candlelight vigil moved the members of our group. The speakers from our community partners had powerful words to share, and when that assembled crowd raised their voices in song or in cheers, I could feel the power of love connecting all of us, the way it had in 2010—because the power of love never changes. Love calls us out of our isolation and into community, and once we've been truly called, we can never go back.

“And that, I think, is the price of our pilgrimage; we have been called by love, and we can never shut our ears to that voice again. As our young people grow into adults, I can't help but wonder how that love will manifest in the world. All I know is that it will be a beautiful thing. A journey like this changes people, whether they wanted to be changed or not. I know our youth and our adults are each struggling with the ramifications of this trip, and in many cases the lessons from this journey will not be apparent right away. I expect that much of what we've been given during our time together will reveal itself over years, even decades, to come. The work of the journey is just beginning.”

Leslie Mills wrote about the youth pilgrimage to GA on her blog, Leaping Loon. This fall, she begins her final year at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.

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