Anybody Got a Match?
Rev. John Morehouse
March 30, 2013
I was in Chicago again this past week finishing the last of my doctoral courses. The first is to relate again the story of the young woman who had just completed her clinical pastoral education unit. All students for the ministry have to complete several months in a clinical setting to learn pastoral skills. She had done her unit in a trauma center of a large hospital in Rochester. She was a third generation Unitarian Universalist and admitted to being a quiet UU young adult not at all sure how she would respond to gunshot wounds and car crashes.
One night she was called to the emergency room to be with a young man who had been shot by police while he was trying to run. He was all of 19. He was bleeding and handcuffed to the bed. When she arrived a police officer was interrogating him but it was obvious that the young man was near shock. This young woman, not at all sure of herself, sat herself down by his side and held his hand. The police officer was practically shouting at him, “Why did you run?” The boy only cried. Finally, our brave little Unitarian recalled something Channing had once said “Difficulties are meant to rouse our spirit, we grow strong by conflict” and she stood up, brave little toaster that she was and, with the roots of her faith holding her firmly, and said to the cop. “This boy is bleeding and shock. I am his chaplain. You need to leave while I talk to him.” The cop left and she looked into his eyes, and saw only a boy, regardless of race and class, and she said, “Why did you run?” and he whispered to her “Because I was scared.” The good news is that this young lady has now started a chaplaincy with young men and women in the county jail.
Let me be blunt. People are dying out there. People are dying of gunshot wounds, disease for lack of health care and drug overdoses. People are dying emotionally and spiritually due to abuse and neglect. And yes, even in suburbs like this one, people are dying of loneliness, restlessness, and mind numbing mediocrity that shouts for community and purpose. And if they are not dying physically, they are certainly dying spiritually.
And here is the good news: We can change that. We are changing that. Our community ministers can change that. We can change and we will change because we will die as a religion unless we do.
Our forebears were burned at the stake for what they believed. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in 1553 for proposing that Jesus was a man who gave his life for a saving message and that we would do well to follow him. Jon Hus a forbearer to our Universalist heritage was burned at the stake for the audacity to propose we are all the same in the eyes of God. The Rev. James Reeb who was martyred 49 years ago during the march from Selma by white thugs for standing with his African American sisters and brothers in the cause of justice. Viola Liuzzo, one of our most active lay people who was shot by the KKK as she drove to Montgomery to pick up weary marchers. Our people have died to bring a saving message of hope to the hopeless. The Rev. Jason Sheldon recently asked: What would we be persecuted for today? What would we surrender our lives for? How can we save the lives we are called to save?
We save them first by listening to what people need. My church which I have had the honor of serving for nine years has gone through some pretty traumatic times. In 2008 we were a Breakthrough Congregation, having grown by 40% in three years; we gave $75,000 of our endowment to the community church of New Orleans to rebuild. And then…the crash. The Great Recession knocked out 30% of our giving. I made a decision. I decided to stay but we would have to change the way we were doing business. The board and congregation voted on an ambitious plan to grow. We brought on my fabulous colleague Rev. Tamara Casanova Suzuki as our associate to heal and rebuild our RE program. We hired a full time membership director; we started serving a full on, locally sourced luncheon after service EVERY Sunday. We reimagined our social justice ministry not as a study group but as an action group. And we are growing again.
Still though I sensed this was not enough, not enough salvation. Not enough saving lives. I have been asking people everywhere why they are part of religious communities like this one. I asked people to tell me where they were on those cards: What are the roots that hold you close, the wings that set you free, what would you pray for, what needs healing? One woman wrote of having to prostitute herself to support her family. Another wrote about her shattered marriage. Someone asked me to pray for their son who died twenty years ago in hiking accident. Someone wrote about how thankful they were that there was a church like this that welcomed them so warmly after transgendering. She had never imagined such a place existed.
And therein my faithful sisters and brothers lies the tragedy. Our message is saving lives but only if people find us. We can argue until the sacred cows come home about how to make ourselves more visible but I think that is missing the point. We won’t save these lives by advertising. There is just too much competing for attention. No, we have to go boldly out into the world to save lives. We have to move beyond talking about what we believe and get out there to do something. Anything. We are, I believe, entirely too self-absorbed. You know the story about the first grade UU girl who was visiting her friends Methodist church. They were in church school and the teacher asked them to spend some time free drawing. Our little girl is busily at work. When the teacher comes by she asks her what she is drawing. “I am drawing a picture of God”. The teacher frowned “Honey, no one knows what God looks like” “They will when I am done”.
Too often I am afraid we spend time arguing about what we believe when what I believe God really wants us to do, is do something -anything. Too concerned about whether the new branding for the UUA looks vaguely sexual and not concerned enough that it should be calling us to a larger purpose such as when thousands of UUs marched against discrimination in Raleigh NC last month. Too often I am afraid we worry about what our philosophy of social action should be and not actually doing much. After you welcome people in, after you listen to where they are hurting, go about the ministry of actually helping them and, while you are at it, helping others so they will know us by our deeds because – Lord knows – that don’t know us by our creeds.
Go boldly into people’s lives. One of my students and soon to be colleague in Concord, NH told us about how she and her senior colleague were walking in the woods behind the church a few weeks ago only to come upon a makeshift shelter. A homeless man was living on church property. The ministers were a bit perplexed. How should they handle this situation? They talked the situation over with the board and they decided to let the man know he was invited to stay. They then told the congregation. They were quite worried that this would blow up in their faces; what about the liability, others coming to camp on their land, would they be in violation of town codes? You know what happened. Just the opposite. The congregation decided to welcome the man warmly. He became a member of the congregation. And now? The congregation has started a cold weather shelter and outreach to the rural homeless of NH. Somebody lit a match and started a fire.
I realized that families need time to do good together, so our social justice program is evolving to a “plug and play” model. That is why Kim is finding opportunities to finds family friendly action and lets people know they are there. Gleaning farmers markets for food for the homeless on Tuesdays. Marching for environmental justice on Saturday. Today is Justice Sunday.. The day we plant a seed for justice with our partners at the UUSC. The UUSC works with partners around the world to change conditions for garment workers in Bangladesh, and restaurant workers in Los Angeles. Next Saturday, my colleague from the UUSC Rita Butterfield will be with us to propose how we might go to Haiti next fall to work with an eco-village there building a permaculture farm for generations. 1 pm Saturday.
A few years ago a middle aged man started coming as an aide to one of our elders. His name was Roland. He was Haitian and was always impeccably dressed. When I would speak to him his diction was perfect, even though English was clearly his second language. He would listen to the sermons and sing. After some time he asked for an appointment. He came to tell me that he would be leaving his work as an aide and going to law school. I realized I knew almost nothing about him. Where had he gone to college? Boston University, then MIT. He was actually an electrical engineer. I am asked him how this came to be. He became very quiet. “I need you to know Reverend, that this church saved my life. I grew up in Haiti. My father was a colonel in Papa Docs army. One night, a band of armed men came to our house. They dragged my father out and shot him. Then they killed my older brother. My mother and I managed to escape. We travelled day and night to get to the Dominican Republic and from there to the United States. I worked hard, supported my mother and went to school. I did well. I moved to Southern California to work in aerospace. I married but then my wife died of cancer. I decided to leave electrical engineering and take care of elders. The man I have been caring for would have been my father’s age. But for many years I have had nightmares. Terrifying nightmares about my father and brother’s murders. I went to see doctors, I took drugs, and I changed careers. I came close to suicide. But since coming here and learning that we have the power of God within us, the nightmares have stopped. Stopped. So I decided that this is a sign that I should move on. I want to become a lawyer to defend the rights of the politically persecuted. I need to go on. But I want you to know that you Unitarians saved my life. Don’t stop.”
My friends, you don’t get to see how this faith in the power of each other change lives very often. What do we burn for to change? We are tender for the world. Anybody have a match? Amen.