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Episode 1205

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  Coming up, should the rules about what makes meat kosher extend to how the workers in meat-packing plants are treated?

And a Unitarian minister who is terminally ill says the love we give others lives on long after we are gone.

Reverend FORREST CHURCH:  The greatest of all truths is that love never dies.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Welcome.  I’m Bob Abernethy.  It’s good to have you with us.

As Congress and administration officials wrestled over what to do about the financial crisis, religious leaders also weighed in.  The U.S Catholic bishops wrote to government leaders urging them to consider the moral dimensions of the crisis.  They said priority must be given to the poor and most vulnerable. The Christian anti-hunger group, Bread for the World, cautioned that solutions focused on the U.S. economy must not derail progress in fighting poverty overseas.  And Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said the situation shows what happens when societies neglect the common good.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  There was renewed debate this week over politicking from the pulpit.  More than 30 pastors around the country defied the Internal Revenue Service rule, which bans clergy from engaging in partisan politics from their pulpits.  One of the pastors was Ron Johnson, Jr. in Crown Point, Indiana, who believes clergy have a right and a duty to speak out.

Reverend RON JOHNSON, Jr. (Living Stones Church, during sermon):  I have absolutely no problem telling you as a Christian who you should not be voting for.  Senator Barack Obama’s positions on the critical issues of life and marriage are in direct opposition to God’s truth as he has revealed it in the scriptures.

ABERNETHY:  Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed complaints with the IRS.  He said churches are supposed to tend to Americans’ spiritual needs, not get involved in partisan politics.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  White evangelicals have been a key part of the Republicans’ winning coalition for the past 20 years.  But RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY has released a new survey showing that younger evangelicals are less supportive of John McCain than their parents are.  Our managing editor Kim Lawton is here.  Kim . . .

KIM LAWTON (Managing Editor, RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY):  Evangelicals are the single largest voting bloc of religious voters.  They make up more than a quarter of the American electorate.  So they’re very important to Republicans and the Republicans in the last few elections have needed every evangelical vote that they could get.  Our survey found solid support for John McCain among white evangelicals — about 71 percent say they are going to vote for John McCain, compared to only about 23 percent who say they are going to vote for Barack Obama.  But when you look at younger evangelicals, those under 30, that margin closes.  So about 62 percent of young evangelicals say they’re going to vote for John McCain and 30 percent say they’re going to vote for Barack Obama. So they’re still Republican but not as Republican.  And in a close election that could make a difference.

ABERNETHY:  What do the younger evangelicals think of Sarah Palin?

Ms. LAWTON:  Well, our survey was conducted the first several weeks of September and there was a lot of energy in the evangelical world around Sarah Palin.  They liked her very much.  Our survey found overall older white evangelicals very favorable toward her; younger evangelicals less favorable toward her.  And we found a really surprising gender difference as well.  Younger female evangelicals were dramatically less favorable towards Sarah Palin than older evangelical women.  Less than half of evangelical, white evangelical women under 30 felt warmly toward Sarah Palin and well over 60 percent of the older women like her.

ABERNETHY:  And what about on the social issues, particularly abortion?  Any differences there?

Ms. LAWTON:  Well certainly evangelicals, many evangelicals, have traditionally based their vote on two key issues — abortion and opposition to gay marriage.  But we found that younger, white evangelicals aren’t quite so tied to those issues.  They’re solidly pro-life on abortion, about the same as their parents.  But when it comes to gay issues, we found that younger evangelicals were more tolerant.  More than half of the younger white evangelicals we talked with support some form of a legal recognition of civil unions for same sex couples, or even gay marriage.  That’s a big difference with older evangelicals.

ABERNETHY:  And what do we take away from this?  What are the implications?

Ms. LAWTON:  Well, this has been a key part of the political landscape that evangelicals were solidly Republican.  If in the future that changes, that could have really big political implications.  Now what we don’t know is whether these numbers are tied to this particular election — to John McCain, Barack Obama.  And we also don’t know whether these younger evangelicals may become more conservative as they get older, maybe get married, have kids.  Maybe their views will change.  But certainly if the future of the evangelical movement is more moderate, less conservative, that could have a big impact.

ABERNETHY:   Kim Lawton, many thanks.

Ms. LAWTON:  Thank you.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  Major holidays for Jews and Muslims coincided this week.  Security was on high alert in Israel as Jews began observing their high holy days and Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan.  For Jews, Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, began a 10-day period of reflection that culminates on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, next Thursday.

Meanwhile, Muslims around the world celebrated Eid-al-Fitr, the joyous festival completing the Islamic month of daylight fasting.  But in several places the festivities were marred by sectarian violence.  In Baghdad, dozens were killed when suicide bombers targeted Shiite mosques where people had come for Eid prayers.

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BOB ABERNETHY: Tragedy also struck during a major Hindu holiday in India.  More than 200 pilgrims were killed during a stampede at a Hindu temple in northern India. Thousands had gathered there to celebrate the beginning of Navaratri, a nine-day festival dedicated to the Hindu mother goddess Durga.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  We have a story today about a question facing many Orthodox and Conservative Jews who eat only kosher food.  Meat is kosher if it has been prepared according to Jewish law, and certified so by a rabbi.  But what if the plant managers were accused of unfair labor practices?   Should kosher certification depend not only on how an animal is slaughtered but on how workers are treated?   Lucky Severson reports from Iowa, where a kosher meat packing plant is owned and run by Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn.

LUCKY SEVERSON:  This was the scene in the early hours of May 12, when authorities staged a commando style raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa.  They arrested hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants.  But then they uncovered evidence suggesting serious safety violations and child labor abuse by plant officials.  People in this small town are still in shock, and the reverberations have rattled and divided the American Jewish community.  It’s a debate not so much about the raid itself, but what it uncovered.  Rabbi Morris Allen.

Rabbi MORRIS ALLEN (Beth Jacob Congregation, Minneapolis, MN):  The Jewish community is going to have to ask, “Is it, is it enough for us to be satisfied that we have kosher food on our plate?  Or are we also concerned that in the fulfillment of the laws of kashrut, which is a fulfillment of a way in which we bring holiness into our lives that there has not been a desecration of people’s dignity in allowing me to fulfill my holy, my holy act?”

SEVERSON:  It was an odd match in the beginning in 1988 when orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, New York showed up in rural Postville and bought the defunct meat packing plant on the edge of town.  But over the years, Christians and Jews lived side by side and both sides seemed to prosper  Agriprocessors grew into the largest producer of kosher food in the U.S.   Including the slaughterhouse, the plant employed over a thousand workers, with rabbis supervising the actual killing to make sure it’s done in keeping with Jewish law.

MENACHEM LUBINSKY (Spokesman, Agriprocessor, Inc.):   It has to be done by a “shochet,” by a kosher slaughterer who is a God fearing Jew.

SEVERSON:  In fact, kosher rules are so strict rabbis like Yosiede Lstein work in kosher restaurants and markets to make certain all foods coming in meet biblical standards.

Rabbi YOSIEDE LSTEIN (Caravelle Restaurant):  A kosher animal is delineated in the Bible, Chapter 11 of Leviticus.  God says in the Bible what animals may be eaten.   For example only certain types of animals and those animals are kosher only because they have split hooves and chew their cud.  Why these are the signs for kosher, we have no idea.  God said it.  We believe it — simple as that.

SEVERSON:  It’s believed that almost 90 percent of orthodox Jews eat only kosher food and around 20 percent of conservative Jews adhere to the tradition.  Consumers look for the kosher label much as they do the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.  So they were taken aback when the animal rights group PETA took this video and accused Agriprocessors of not slaughtering in a humane way.

ELINORE EHRLICH (Kosher Customer):  I do a lot of my kosher meat shopping at Shop Rite.  And I have spoken to the manager of the butcher section and I said I was really very upset and very disturbed about what I had heard about the plant, the Agriprocessors plant in Iowa.  And he too was very upset and very disturbed.

SEVERSON:  But the consternation over the kosher slaughter and processing of animals has grown into concern over the ethical treatment of humans — of workers.  And there are some rabbis now who want to expand the meaning of kosher.

Rabbi ALLEN:  We believe that most consumers, when given a choice between a product that says it’s ritually kosher, and a product that says it’s ritually kosher and it’s been produced in an ethical fashion, we’ll choose the latter.

SEVERSON:  Nearly 400 immigrants were charged with immigration violations.  The men are still in prison or have been deported.  The women, mostly mothers, wear electronic monitoring bracelets.  And it’s left to religious leaders, like Father Paul Ouderkirk of St. Bridget’s Catholic Church, to feed and care for the moms and kids.

Father LLOYD PAUL OUDEKIRK (St. Bridget’s Catholic Church):  The more I talk about it, the madder I get, because we’re going into our fifth month of this.  They have these women with no money, no income.   Plus they need food, and shelter, and so on.  So immigration is asking us to pay for their being incarcerated right on the streets of this town.

SEVERSON:  Father Paul introduced us to Rosa Samora, mother of two daughters whose father was taken to a Missouri prison.  For five months she has been wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet, leaving her unable to work or to leave town.

ROSA SAMORA (speaking in Spanish)

Father OUDEKIRK:  She said “There isn’t much I can do because I, because I depend so much on the charity of the church here.”  So even if her husband were deported, she wouldn’t have enough money to go with him.

SEVERSON:  The Agriprocessors raid was the biggest of its kind in U.S. history.  Company spokesman Menachem Lubinsky questions the government’s motives.

Mr. LUBINSKY:  I’m not going to be the one to accuse anyone of being that selective to pick on that company because of the way they look.  Maybe they look like Hassidim, maybe they’re Jewish.   I’m not going to deny that their very entry into Postville, Iowa wasn’t under the most friendly terms.  I believe that there was something here that just didn’t add up.

SEVERSON:  But Rabbi Allen, who leads a conservative congregation in Minneapolis, says he doesn’t think Agriprocessors was targeted because it’s operated by orthodox Jews, but because they treated their workers poorly.  He points to the over 9,000 criminal misdemeanor charges authorities have filed against the company for, among other things, hiring underage workers and putting them in hazardous jobs.  Rabbi Allen visited the plant before and after the raid.

Rabbi ALLEN:  People shared with us unbelievable stories of, of pain and suffering that they endured because they had no choices.  If they raised their voice, they could have been deported back, and they really didn’t have any place to turn to.

Mr. LUBINSKY:  The government’s going to have to prove that the management knew every day that these people were, were of underage.  Remember, the imperative for these people was they wanted to make money.  They wanted to help their families.  And as in every immigrant group, they’ll do anything under the sun to get those jobs and to bring money into the house.

SEVERSON:  Rabbi Allen says Leviticus details kosher laws, but there are equally important laws about the treatment of workers in Deuteronomy, Chapter 24.

Rabbi ALLEN:  You should not abuse the needy and destitute labor, whether a fellow countrymen, or a stranger in one of the communities of your land — and one text telling us what kind of meat to eat isn’t written in boldface, and another text telling us about how to treat the worker isn’t written in small print.

SEVERSON:  Rabbi Allen is pushing a plan to add an additional symbol to the kosher certification — a “justice” certificate that says the kosher product meets biblical, ethical standards as well.  He says he’s received enthusiastic support for his justice certificate from rabbis across the religious spectrum, but certainly not all.

Mr. LUBINSKY:  I think it’s more that the Orthodox feel, “Look, we are — we’re the basic customers.  We buy this product 365 days a year.  We’re interested kashrut the way it was for 3,000 years.  We’re not interested in redefining it.”

Rabbi LSTEIN:  In America there are plenty of labor laws to deal with that.  And if the government is not doing enough to enforce it, then you just have to step up what the laws are doing already.

Rabbi ALLEN:  It’s a religious concern.  And we should never leave to the government those issues that are the responsibility of a particular religious community to address.

SEVERSON:  Even though some Jewish leaders are opposed to the notion of a ‘justice’ certificate, the idea may be gaining steam among Jewish consumers.
Ms. ERHLICH:  I discussed it with my rabbi and he’s not happy about putting this into a solid written down kind of thing.   Certain things should be done without having to put them down. And yet behind, behind this movement I think there is something worthwhile.

Rabbi ALLEN:  This is a major undertaking.  This is the first time that a religious community has staked — has set out to say that it is possible to demonstrate that good corporate citizenship is something that can be rewarded from a religious point of view.

SEVERSON:  The Agriprocessors plant has hired a new person to run its operation with promises to make things better.  The plant itself is not operating nearly at capacity because not enough people can be found to do the unpleasant work.  And the illegal immigrants are still waiting to learn their fate.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in Postville, Iowa.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  In other news, the Dalai Lama made his first public appearance since being released from the hospital last month.  The spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism taught at a retreat in Dharmasala, India, where he lives.  He was hospitalized in early September for abdominal pains.  Aides say the 73-year-old leader had been exhausted from his busy schedule.

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BOB ABERNETHY:  The Vatican is going a little more green.  Workers began installing solar
panels on the roof of the papal audience hall in Vatican City.  Rome gets a lot of sun, enough, according to engineers, to illuminate, heat or cool the hall.

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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  We have a profile today of perhaps this country’s best known Unitarian-Universalist minister, Reverend Forrest Church of New York.  He has a new book out called “Love and Death.”  Last week, Church’s congregation gave him a 60th birthday party.  But it was a celebration with great sadness just underneath the joy.

It was a love fest at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side of New York.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN:  Happy birthday, happy birthday!!

ABERNETHY:  The members honored Reverend Forrest Church, their pastor for 30 years, on the occasion of his 60th birthday.  His wife was there and their children, and his 85 year old mother.  The covers of his 24 books were on display.  But there was a great poignancy to the festivities because everyone present knew that Reverend Church is terminally ill.  He has incurable cancer of his lungs and liver, and he guesses he has less than a year to live.

Reverend FORREST CHURCH:  I’m being gifted a month at a time, and rejoicing in that.  But eventually the treatment will lose its valence, and the barbarians will storm the gate.

ABERNETHY:  Church says he was astounded at his reaction to being told he is dying.

Rev. CHURCH:  I went straight to acceptance.  I skipped shock and disbelief and anger and resentment.  I went directly to acceptance.

ABERNETHY: The key, Church says, was being able to settle unfinished emotional business.

Rev. CHURCH:  The only way to reconcile yourself, make peace with yourself, make peace with your neighbor, make peace with God, find salvation, is to break through and love — to forgive and to love.  You don’t change the person you forgive. You change your own heart.  So anything that you can do to reconcile also means that at the end of your life when you’re given a few months to live, you can look back without regret.

The two saddest words in the English language are “if only” and they ring with the most poignancy at a time that a person gets word that he or she has a terminal illness:  “if only I had stopped drinking; if only I had dared to change careers when I could; if only I had reconciled with my father when I had a chance.”

ABERNETHY: Church did have time to say goodbye to his father, the late U.S. Senator Frank Church, during his last months.  But he concedes he was slow to realize his duty to his family now.

Rev. CHURCH:  When I was talking about not having unfinished business, my wife quickly pointed out to me, “Well you may not have unfinished business, Forrest, but your children have unfinished business.  And I have unfinished business.  And let’s get down to it.”  I realized this wasn’t about my death.  This was our death.  And that focused me in on them.  This was a time to listen, embrace and say, “I’m so sorry” — and crying together and then singing, singing the old songs.

ABERNETHY: A lot of crying?

Rev. CHURCH:  There was a lot of crying.

ABERNETHY:  During and in spite of his illness and treatment over the past two years, Church wrote two books.  He confessed to his congregation one of the reasons for his productivity.

Rev. CHURCH (during church sermon):  That’s right, steroids!  Every week, the good folks at Memorial pumped me full of steroids.  They helped me tolerate the poison they were pumping into me to kill the cancer.  For two or three days after every treatment I was flying.  I haven’t been so high since the late ‘60s.

ABERNETHY:  Like other Unitarian-Universalists, Church rejects many aspects of Christian doctrine.  He neither blames God for his illness, nor asks God for healing.

Rev. CHURCH:  I don’t pray for miracles.  I don’t pray to cure my incurable cancer.  I receive  and consecrate each day that I’m given as a gift.  I have no idea what happens after we die.  And so, I go with Henry David Thoreau who, when he was asked about the afterlife, said, “Madam, I prefer to take it one life at a time.”

ABERNETHY:  At the same time, Church says he has come to believe that without God there is nothing.

Rev. CHURCH:  God is what sustains me.  I am connected with that grace and power.  God is that which is greater than all and present in each.  For me, Christianity is a faith about love:  love to God and love to neighbor that is right in the heart of my very being. I am a Christian Universalist.  I believe that the same light shines through every religious window.  And it’s interpreted.  The windows are different.  It’s interpreted in different ways.  It refracts in different ways.

ABERNETHY: Church calls what he wrote in his new book a coda to his theology.

Rev. CHURCH:  My lifelong belief that love and death interwoven were the heartstrings of religion.  The greatest of all truths is that love never dies — that every act of love that we perform in this life is carried on and passed on into another life so that centuries from now the love carries.  And that is the work of religion. The opposite of love is not death.  It is fear.  Fear is what armors our hearts.  If our hearts are armored, they’ll never be broken. And I have seen so many people get hurt in love and then try to protect themselves against it.  And when they protect themselves against love, they protect themselves against the only thing that is worth living for.

The secret of it all is that it’s not about me, to the extent that we’re self-conscious, -absorbed, we cannot be conscious of the world around us, of God and of our neighbors.

I have preached on living in the present for my entire career.  Only in the here and now can we love God and love our neighbor, can we redeem the day.

One of the beautiful things about a terminal illness your friendships become stronger.  Your loved ones become more vital and more present.  Each day becomes more beautiful. You unwrap the present and receive it as the gift it is. You walk through the valley of the shadow and it’s riddled with light.

ABERNETHY: At the close of all the other tributes to Church, his wife made hers.

CAROLYN CHURCH:  I want you to know how much at peace Forrest is.  He’s at peace because he’s become the man he wanted to be.  He couldn’t have done that without you.  You have loved him, you have supported him, you have forgiven him and that’s really made all the difference.  So, darling, 60 years.  Happy Birthday!

ABERNETHY:  And if love could heal him, there would be many more.  Even with his uncertain future, Church is scheduled to preach again later this month.

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BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  That’s our program for now.  I’m Bob Abernethy.  There’s much more on our Web site, including my full interview with Forrest Church.  You can find more
details about our new survey on the political views of young evangelicals and additional  political coverage on our One Nation page.  Audio and video podcasts are also available.  Join us at

As we leave you, music from the Living Stones Church in Crown Point, Indiana.


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