There are stories from all over the world that prompt people to consider different ways of seeing the world, and living in it. Sometimes these stories can remind us of similar stories we grew up knowing even though were created far across the globe from each other. Perhaps this story will remind you of one you already know.
Callaloo is a thick green soup. It’s eaten in places like Jamaica and Trinidad where people say that learning to make Callaloo soup is a little like learning to live.
The soup goes way back in time, to the days when the ports of Trinidad were full of tall sailing ships. The local Carib and Arawak people weren’t sure what to make of them. Some had sailed from Britain, and others were from France and Spain. The new arrivals included people from China and India, Ghana and Mali. They came from Syria, Portugal, and Venezuela, too. Each of the groups arrived on the shores of Trinidad with their own language and songs, their own clothing and food, different from each other and from the people who’d lived on the island forever.
People are people; we’re most comfortable with what we know. So even though Trinidad is not a very big place, people stuck closest to their own kind. The Arawaks and Caribs retreated to the forests. The Chinese avoided the French, who avoided the Indians, who mixed as little as possible with the Venezuelans, and so on down the line. Trinidad was a divided nation.
Things might well have stayed that way. But one rainy season, the hurricane trail took a turn toward Trinidad. The storm raged like a beast trampling over the island, tossing and turning everything up.
When the beast finally moved on, all of Trinidad was a terrible mess. Crops were drowned, houses flattened, trees uprooted, and boats smashed to smithereens. The people who survived were scared and hungry.
You know how it can be when there are shortages—the ugly in us can come out. Sure enough, people grew greedy. It was hard for them to find food, and when they did, they hoarded it for themselves and their own kind. Worry, anger, and jealousy hung over the island like a great black cloud. And the island was even more divided than ever.
It might have stayed that way, but an elderly woman happened to notice something glinting beneath the ruins of a house. What was it? She was curious. She began to pull away the boards and rubble. They were heavy. She had to work hard.Finally, there it was, a great huge cooking pot. The woman looked at it. “Mmmmmh?” she thought. As she began to hatch a plan, a big smile came over her face.
She lit a fire with some of the boards and rubble. She filled the pot with water, added some salt, and began to stir and chant.
“It may be a little bland, but the soup I’m cooking is for every child, adult, every person.”
Her chanting was heard far and wide. People grew curious.
“It may be a little bland, but the soup I’m cooking is for every child, adult, every person.”
No one wanted soup that was bland! Those who heard hurried home to search through their store of goods.
A Carib family arrived in the square with sweet cocoplums and starchy cocoyams. The woman smiled as they peeled and then plunked them in the pot. Ans Arawak family followed suit, with fine bud peppers and slices of sweet squash. A family from Mali brought bunches of green okra pods that had survived the storm. A British family delivered salt-pork. And Indian family had found coconuts knocked to the ground; they cracked them open and poured the sweet milk and shavings into the soup. Syrians added cumin, while the Spaniards and French came with garlic, onions, and thyme. A Chinese family contributed the big green leaves of dasheen. They tore the leaves into strips that gave the soup its beautiful deep green color.
Soon the aroma coming from the pot caused people to hum and smile. The smart woman stirred. Her soup was almost finished.
She paused for a few moments, curious about the clamor of children she could hear down at the beach.
A short time later, a big giggling mixed group arrived—they were all colors and shapes and sizes. They’d been too busy helping one another capture crabs to pay attention to cultural differences.
They had buckets full of rich-tasting blue crabs to add to the soup. The smart woman stirred. As last she announced, “The first ever Callaloo.”
The old woman ladled out scoop after scoop of the mysterious mixed-flavor soup into people’s bowls and calabashes and cups. It was delicious and hearty! Once their bellies were full, they began to talk and tell stories from their different cultures. Then they began to sing.
After a while, some of them looked up. They saw that the big black cloud that had been hanging over Trinidad had parted. The skies had opened up and the sun was shining again.
Over this past year, I have noticed a few changes in how people are living in the world, as they return from the Pandemic. For instance, this summer, while I attended our denominational meeting, General Assembly, Susan Fredrick-Grey, the Unitarian Universalist Association president, stopped during her President’s Report to show us her shoes. She said she would no longer be wearing uncomfortable shoes; she was wearing tennis shoes. She made this decision during her time in COVID. I applaud her decision as I too have been wearing tennis shoes or sandals since the beginning of COVID. I’ve come to realize it’s not about my image as a professional, it’s about my comfort as a person. It only took a pandemic for me and Susan to realize this.
We each are entering the mostly post pandemic world in our own way, at our own rate, with newness and normal mixing around in our lives. For some of us, wearing a mask in crowded indoor spaces is a new normal that may continue indefinitely. For some of us, wearing comfortable clothing whether at home or out in the world, is a new normal that may continue indefinitely. We’ve realized that our true effectiveness isn’t predicated on what’s on our backs or on our feet, but by what’s in our minds and in our hearts. For some of us, fist bumping rather than handshaking or hugging is a new normal that may continue indefinitely. And respecting each other’s choices of how we interact with one another—some still keeping distant and some not ready to touch at all-- is an important component of this new normal world we live in.
As I have been thinking about this new normal, I have been wondering about how I’ve been impacted by my choices and how my choices impact others. And this led me to the story of Callaloo soup.
As it turns out I was at a rotary function Thursday night and the man across from me happened to mention Callaloo soup—I had just read the story two days before. I had never heard of Callaloo soup before that. He talked about how as a 4-year-old child, his aunt got him to eat it. He looked at this green thick and slick soup she put before him, and asked her, “What is this!” He was not going to eat this strange and vile-looking substance put before him. But his aunt somehow persuaded him to try it and it was delicious, even if the okra in it was a little slimy. He has loved this soup ever since and his wife makes it for him on special occasions. It was so odd, having just read the story about Callaloo soup, and this friend telling his own story about Callaloo soup not 48 hours later, I thought “hmmm maybe I should explore what metaphors this Callaloo soup might offer me.”
As we return to the world, to a new normal, I believe that we’re like the people in Trinidad after the hurricane. For those of you who were here during and after Hurricane Andrew, you probably know exactly what I’m talking about. We are unsure how to engage with others, even how to be with one another. Before the disaster—Andrew or COVID-- we may have been in our own silos and perfectly comfortable in our own silos—of religion, culture, race, gender, work—perfectly comfortable even if our silos were in one way or another kind of a bad fit—a patriarchal, white-supremacist culture, with gender norms that weren’t comfortable. Silos with abusive managers or unsafe work environments. Silos where gender differences were not always acknowledged and/or work often didn’t provide a living wage. These were all normal. Now we enter a world in which the new normal seems to include more time for self-awareness and more awareness of others – resulting in, for some of us, an unwillingness to go back to the old normal--the silos or culture we had become blind to—and thus some people have reacted to this new normal time by participating in the Great Resignation. This new normal also seems to include many of us fighting to hold onto rights that we thought were a done deal – reproductive choice, being able to teach about the racist history and cultural norms in our country, and affirmation of Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender fluid rights and recognition.
I wonder if I am breaking the law here in Florida by making you uncomfortable telling you all this, by acknowledging our White Supremacist Culture, by talking about gender issues in our country. As you know “Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that aims to regulate how schools and businesses address race and gender, the state’s latest effort to restrict education about those topics. The law, which has become known as the ‘Stop WOKE Act,’ prohibits workplace training or school instruction that teaches that individuals are ‘inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously’; that people are privileged or oppressed based on race, gender, or national origin; or that a person “bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress” over actions committed in the past by members of the same race, gender, or national origin. The law says such trainings or lessons amount to discrimination.” (Time Magazine, By Katie Reilly, April 22, 2022). The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami is a business, isn’t it? So wouldn’t this law regulate what I can say in this pulpit? In the classes I teach? In the counseling I provide? Does this law make our free and responsible search for truth and meaning less free? And what does Callaloo soup have to do with all this?
Who among us is willing to step outside of their comfortable silo, to be the elderly woman who finds the huge pot, boils some water, and appeals to the people around us with a gentle invitation to share something of themselves to build a future, a world that nourishes all of us? Would you come to the pot and offer some metaphorical cumin, garlic, thyme, crabs, dasheen, okra… along with people from conservative political groups, people from evangelical churches, people who hold very different ideas, beliefs, traditions than yours?
I met with both the Chair of the Board of Trustees and the Director of the interfaith and diversity organization MCCJ on Friday for breakfast. We talked about how to bring interfaith groups together. I mentioned that when I was in Cedar Rapids, Iowa right after the 500-year flood that devastated most of downtown as well as many of the residences in the city. Both evangelical and progressive religious groups worked together to help rebuild and heal the city. I personally worked with Evangelical ministers to provide pastoral care to residents who were traumatized. I worked with Evangelical and progressive religious groups to provide housing, clothing, and furniture to residents in need. We worked together to muck out houses and churches and business. And I also worked with Evangelical and progressive religious groups through Linn County Emergency Management to develop a plan to cope with future Emergency Events. This went well for a while, a year, and we helped a lot of people and made a real difference in the community. But after that year and lots of hard work together and the relationships we built, the Evangelicals pulled out of the pastoral care project and stopped providing needed supplies for those in need with us because a progressive clergy offered a prayer—nothing special, just thanks for those who had done so much work-- at one of our meetings. The Evangelicals felt somehow betrayed because they felt we should have known that they could only worship in their houses of worship and only pray their particular prayers, anything else is an affront to their religious tradition. Perhaps they had been pushing the limits of their beliefs to work with us in the first place. Perhaps they felt that much of the need in the community had been met. Perhaps they didn’t feel the need to continue to meet with anyone outside of their own silo, so they shut the door and tuned the key. The white Evangelical groups had before the flood always refused to participate in any interfaith discussions, worship, or social projects; they were comfortable in that silo. I wondered aloud if the faith leaders here in Miami could make Callaloo soup together. After getting a funny look from my friends when I said this, the Chair of MCCJ wondered if what we needed was a disaster to bring interfaith groups. And I wondered, not aloud, is this really what it takes? A disaster? Really?
So how do we make Callaloo soup without a disaster to motivate people? Can you recall when you experienced a situation where diverse people worked together to create something seemingly out of nothing? Maybe after Andrew? How did that happen? Who was the person or persons who appealed to people with a gentle and/or persuasive invitation to join in the project? How were walls broken down between people? Did people share more than the project with one another—say their personal, spiritual, cultural stories for instance? What changed for those who participated in this project?
What can we take away from the stories of diverse people creating something seemingly out of nothing? How can we live in this new normal time with all those around us, in a way that creates beloved community? I have to tell you that what I keep in mind is my time in Cedar Rapids, you know that year of our truly interfaith work after the flood, with so many successes, creating something out of what seemed to be nothing. I try to think about that rather than obsess about how the interfaith relationships ended. I have hope, but for that hope to be realized in the world I believe that I have to be radically open, ready for other people’s contributions, even the ones that might be a little slimier than I’m used to, and even if that contribution is something I’m completely unfamiliar with. And sometimes, I have to be the person who holds a safe space for all those contributions. I have to be the old lady with the cooking pot.
What will you bring to the safe space I’m holding? To the safe space that is the UU Miami? Maybe you’re a little too salty? A little too spicy? Well maybe that’s what we need to make a big pot of Callaloo soup to nourish and sustain us as we work toward a new normal of justice, equity, and compassion for every single person in the world. Bring what you have; bring everything you are; and be the change you wish to see in the world and when we do we will have some great Callaloo soup together.