Our Unitarian Universalist Seven Principles call to us to make a positive difference in the world, in particular our Sixth Principle: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
Our forebears can seem like social change and social justice giants to many of us. “Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was a prominent abolitionist, defending fugitive slaves and offering support to American abolitionist John Brown. Other reformers included Universalists such as Charles Spear who called for prison reform, and Clara Barton who went from Civil War “angel of the battlefield” to become the founder of the American Red Cross. Unitarians such as Dorothea Dix fought to “break the chains” of people incarcerated in mental hospitals, and Samuel Gridley Howe started schools for the blind. For the last two centuries, Unitarians and Universalists have been at the forefront of movements working to free people from whatever bonds may oppress them.” (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/who-we-are/history/faith)
Today, we can still find ourselves in dire need of prophets, reformers, defenders, affirmers and promoters of peace, liberty, and justice for all. I would be one of them. But there are times when I am overwhelmed and weary, I stumble and struggle with how to make a real, tangible difference. How many of you feel the same way sometimes?
Last week, I attended MCCJ, the Miami interfaith leaders dialogue group. I was excited to meet many of the long-time leaders in Miami’s interfaith community. After socializing, there was a presentation by Sylvia Heller, Co-Chair of the Human Trafficking Awareness and Prevention Committee of the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove. She is also a member of the Human Trafficking Committee of the National Council of Jewish Women. She is working in collaboration with the Office of the Florida State Attorney, the South Florida Human Trafficking Task Force and the Events Committee for the Anti-Trafficking Campaign for the Super Bowl 2020 in Miami. She read quotes from women who had been trafficked for sex. She told us of people as young as 3 months abducted for the slave trade. She told of the documented increase in sex slavery that occurs in any city that hosts the Super Bowl and of incidents of children and women abducted and put on a plane with hours transported to another city or country, and forced in the slave trade. Sylvia described the process of grooming and the various forms of torture to break the spirits of children and women. She pointed out that young men and women in our country are increasingly learning about sex through pornography, learning unhealthy attitudes and practices about sex that in turn supports sex slavery. Sylvia told us that Florida is one of the three worst human trafficking states in the US; California and Texas round out the top three. By the end of her presentation, I was angry, overwhelmed, depressed and sad. I wanted to get involved, to do something, anything, to make a difference. And so I talked with her about helping local children and youth by starting Our Whole Lives, OWL, Lifespan Sexuality Training in this area. I went on to discuss how this program helps teach children and youth to respectfully and honestly talk about healthy sexual attitudes and behavior, along with getting a clearer understanding of what consent means.
After the program, still feeling overwhelmed by everything Sylvia had shared, I got in the car and turned on National Public Radio and heard about the Environmental Protection Agency rolling back water quality protection standards, which would allow industry to pollute our drinking water. And I heard about Trump wanting to roll back standards on light bulb efficiency. And I heard a debate about the Supreme Court letting the new asylum restrictions go into effect, limiting people from being accepted as asylum seekers in this country if they had passed through another country before coming here. It was just after lunch, yet I wanted to turn my car around, go home, and crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head.
So many things to do, so many needs, so many atrocities, and there’s only one me, and I have limited energies, limited focus, limited resources. I want to help; I want to make a difference; however, the needs just keep piling up: more and more assaults on human rights and on our planet. It would be so easy to give up, sit back and watch Jeopardy, and lower my expectations of myself. I can’t do it all, so I won’t do anything. It would be easy to give up and just let it all go to hell anyway because “What can I really do about any of it?” What can one person do? What can a congregation do? And how is it possible for a person or a congregation to keep up the energy, emotional resilience, and motivation to make one difference after another after another, day after day, after day.
Unitarian Universalist Reverend Elizabeth Nguyen writes “Our faith teaches us two truths: That we are always enough…. And that we are responsible for bending our small piece of the arc [of the moral universe].” She goes on to say, “When we find our [personal] front lines, we find not only our hope, but we also find our most effective action.” These are heartening words, but let me tell you, after Thursday morning, I’m not sure I would have been able to hear them, much less write them on my heart.
There are those of us in this room who try do everything we can to be enough until we burn out. I remember a time in my life when I spread myself out as wide as I could serving on the Board of Planned Parenthood for Eastern Iowa, being on the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission, leading the Inter-Religious Council of Linn County, serving on the Board of the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa and traveling across the state of Iowa for marital equality, all at the same time. Oh and I was the full-time minister of the local UU church, too. I finally realized I couldn’t do it all. That I had to choose my small piece of the arc to bend. Perhaps some of you have had that experience as well.
I had to choose my own personal front line, where I could dig in and offer my most effective action. A single area that touched my heart, my life, my experiences most authentically, and where I could make a difference. That is not to say I wouldn’t continue to offer my presence and my experience and expertise to other causes, but I couldn’t do everything for everyone. I chose one social justice area that I personally could put energy into, and also reserve some of my personal resources to support whichever social justice initiative the congregation I served chose to get involved in. In choosing to refine my focus, I have more energy to support the causes I choose. And one thing I have come to realize, in stepping back from so many leadership roles, I was given the opportunity to trust that others can and will take on the other issues, causes, needs that I cannot.
Refining my focus has been a helpful to me, might be helpful to some of you, and can also be helpful to a congregation. What would be different if this congregation, as a whole body, chose one social justice focus? If this congregation focused its energy and resources toward one social justice initiative with one project that bubbled up from that initiative, to make a difference in the world? You, we, this congregation, do not have an inexhaustible amount of energy and endless resources for all the causes out there. The process of choosing a focus for an individual or a congregation takes time, reflection, discernment. In a congregation it also takes one-on-one conversations about our deeply held values and about experiences that have affected how we view the world and the needs of the world. In addition, this congregation would have to vote on a specific social justice focus, then proceeding from there to really educate ourselves on that focus. Book studies, outside speakers, learning from allies, exploring gaps in services, looking for where we can make a difference. This is a tangible way that this congregation, can find and bend the arc in find our personal front line.
Now some of you might say you already have active social justice initiatives and actions going on within this congregation, and I will tell you that is true, especially most recently with the work you have done in Homestead at the detention facility. I honor the work you have been doing and continue to do. I offer my thoughts about social justice because this congregation-wide process has worked for me, for the congregations I have been a member of, and for those I have served. The decision on how to move forward together making a difference in the world is up to you. What I propose is an intentional process. With all that is going on this country and world, many of us feel we need to do something right now. Right now! And what I am saying is that immediate action is one type of social justice initiative; sustained action require we take the time as a congregation to discern and identify the social justice action which speaks to our collective heart. Like so many things in Unitarian Universalism, it is not either or, it is both and.
One more thing, having done social justice work for many years, I have had to learn how to keep my social justice focus while coping with the constant barrage of attacks on people’s rights and attacks on the health of our planet. After the MCCJ meeting the other day, I took some time to meditate and replenish my resources. I encourage you to find ways to fill yourselves back up when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, unable to face another attack on rights and freedoms in this country, to restore your hope when all seems lost. For some of you, it may be coming to this congregation on Sunday morning for an uplifting word from the pulpit, or to be with people who accept you just as you are, who share similar values, and who brighten up when they see your face, just as you brighten up when you see theirs.
That’s how it works for me…when I am paying attention. When I remember to look for, be mindful of, and open up to those things that replenish me. But in order for them to work, I need to pay attention, to look for, be mindful of, be It is so easy for us humans to focus on and be consumed by what repels us, upsets us, and caused us internal conflict, rather than attending to what we need to replenish our hearts and souls. I read somewhere we humans are genetically predisposed to be vigilant to the threats around us, and now in this current age, with fewer immediate threats to our lives that vigilance comes out sideways, as we give our attention to things that bother us, scare us, and cause us discomfort, rather than giving attention to things that fill us spiritually and give us hope.
Reverend Teresa Soto wrote (“When There is no Happy Ending” in Spilling the Light by Reverend Theresa I. Soto): “Hope is the thing inside you that says yes in the face of every no…We find ourselves [today] in a time that is equal parts cruelty and confusion. [And] There are… times when the confusion is a tool of systems of oppression… Our ongoing acknowledgement that each of us is somebody means that we don’t need many finely crafted ways to say that in an uncertain and confusing world, the certainty we offer isn’t that we have all the right answers or even all the right actions. Rather, we present the certainty that no matter what happens, we aim to move forward together…Our hope is not indefinite…Hope is a practice we create. Just as mastering physical skills takes a lot of training and practice, mastering communal hope requires that we stay at it and do the actions that will bring about new states of being and new futures. ‘We are in this together’ means that we choose each other, over and over, as sources and communities of hope. Maybe we will repeat this often. [and we will remember that] Changing our reality often takes more than one try…”
How do you practice hope? Perhaps by being part of a Unitarian Universalist faith community. Perhaps by reminding yourself of the other communities of hope that are in your life. Perhaps by acknowledging that change happens, human systems don’t last, that the administration in Washington will eventually change. Perhaps your hope practice involves doing something to make a difference. When I am witnessing at a rally, lobbying a legislator, when I tell a person who is from a marginalized group that I will walk with them, support them, and bring my resources to bear for them, I feel hope. When I am actively listening to someone tell me about the countless issues in my community, I can find myself slipping back into distress. My hope seems to slip.
And that’s when I turn back to our Unitarian Universalist Principles. That’s when I remember we are a people of the Principles, a denomination founded and grounded on building a new way, and I am not alone in this work. What gives me hope? You do. Hope that shines like a beacon in the world sorely in need of deeds, not creeds. What give me the energy to get us and keep trying to right the wrongs around me? You do. What replenishes my soul? Why, it’s you. You and Unitarian Universalists like you across the world that inspire me to
“go out into the world singing songs that proclaim [peace,] liberty [and justice for all.]
Songs that turn ashes into garlands
Songs that bind up the afflicted and those who mourn.
Songs that, like oaks, have roots that go deep and stand strong..
They are the songs that give us life.
They are the songs that give us meaning.
They are the songs that give us purpose.
[And once again] it is our turn to take these life-giving songs out into the world.”
(from Into the World Singing by Reverend Dawn Cooley)