My name is Rona Goldensher and today is a big day for me. A few moments ago, in Shawn’s office, I officially became a member of the congregation, as I was not able to be here last week for the joining ceremony. And I am quite excited to have the opportunity of speaking with you about my experience volunteering with Amnesty International.
When I thought about why I am drawn to human rights work, I realized an aspect of my motivation that hadn’t been as clear to me before. The fact that people have collectively channelled outrage over past ills and atrocities into developing codes for the rights of individuals is something that I find deeply reassuring. I also realized that having this feeling about human rights ideals is helpful in a fight that can be pretty daunting. Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, written as a reaction to World War II atrocities, reads “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. I think my blood pressure goes down a couple of notches just from reading that statement. It might be a long way from the way reality often looks, but what a relief to have a shared belief about what is right and to do be able to do some small amount of work toward it.
I had a similar reaction when I first read the shared principles of Unitarian Universalists and the list started out with, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”. A big part of what drew me to this congregation is that UU members are constantly working to make these principles a reality in a number of ways. To welcome new members into the congregation without requiring that they are born into a particular group, fit a given lifestyle or believe a given creed. To grant ourselves and each other the freedom to exercise our individual conscience and our reasoning faculty in our own spiritual search. To participate in the democratic system of our institutions. To continue the long tradition of UU involvement in human rights work in the world at large. And the very fact that we have an Amnesty Sunday here pretty much blows my mind.
Those people who do the hardest work, amid the most horrifying conditions, in order to advance human rights are people who risk imprisonment, torture, and even death for the sake of these rights. Prisoners of conscience – the phrase used by Amnesty -a poetic phrase if I ever heard one. These are the people that we Amnesty members write letters to support, to try to free from prison, or to try to protect their life. I am in awe of their courage. They are my heroes. To be able to do the smallest thing to try to support them and their work is a tremendous honour and satisfaction.
I can’t possibly begin to imagine what a prisoner of conscience goes through or to really relate to the conditions in the often faraway places where they live. But I believe that many of us, to some degree or other, have experienced the sting of our rights being violated, and conversely, the peace and vitality that results from being in an atmosphere in which people are treated with respect and dignity. Maybe we’ve experienced a rights violation in the workplace, even in the family setting, or some type of discriminatory violation. And maybe we have experienced firsthand how silence, isolation and denial of harsh truths are the breeding ground for abuses, while openness, commitment to speaking the truth, and solidarity against them are the only way to fight them. Sometimes, the pain of a betrayal experienced by oneself or someone we care about can powerfully bring home for us how vulnerable one can be at times, as well as the sanctity of these rights and the universal need for these rights to be protected.
It is very gratifying to be involved with an organization that is striving day after day to advance these rights around the world in the gravest situations. I continue to benefit from the work I do with Amnesty. I learn so much about human rights issues in very different parts of the world as well as in my own backyard here in Canada. Writing letters to appeal for human rights in urgent action campaigns is a very satisfying process. For one thing, it’s easy and I never complain about things that are easy. The urgent action tells you how to frame your letter so off you go. It’s a satisfying exercise in polite assertiveness, as you are coached to use phrases like “I call on you to’ or, “I urge you to”, etc. It is also refreshingly apolitical; politics does not enter into it, it is simply a matter of supporting the agreed-upon rights of individuals. I am deeply moved and inspired by the work being done by courageous individuals against great odds all around the world to perpetuate human rights. I never know if my voice expressed in my little letter will help. But I know that, along with all the other voices of ordinary people politely and firmly asserting themselves over and over again, my voice has a chance.