Toward the end of October, I joined over 150 other religious educators for a week of service and learning in New Orleans during our annual liberal religious educators’ Fall conference. We broke up into groups of 15 or 20 to spend a day working in the fields, gardening, weeding, sorting books for kids who have few or none, among many other projects. We spent days in classes on music, local culture, personal stories. We explored angles of racism and classism. We learned how youth and adults collaborated to affect change. We witnessed how individuals from all financial backgrounds worked together to heal the corners of the blocks in which they dwelled. We went down primarily to serve, to help make things better down there; and we came away realizing “down there” had a lot to offer us to help out “back home.”
Blurring the lines between down there, and back home, was a main goal of the planning team for the annual conference. They were challenging us. They were asking us not to feel hearts full of charity, overflowing; but rather to experience solidarity at our core with the struggles of our fellow neighbors on this spinning orb we call home. The communities in New Orleans were asking us to come down and lend a hand, and in return, they’d show us their ways of making things better so that we could bring home the tools they’ve crafted, sharpened to excellence, and put to good use. We can serve with them, and in return, they’ll serve with us.
The personal transformation asked of us by this ethical stance, is central to Unitarian Universalist theology. I can recall the words of a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, previous Senior Minister of All Souls in NYC, who was known to teach that “we spring from a common source (Unitarianism) and that we share a common destiny (Universalism) and that both source and destiny are grounded in love.” I love that message. It feels very simple to say that we all spring from this living world, and we all share this road, this walk together. But it’s just as easy to forget this truth in our daily lives.
It’s just as easy to say we’re somehow better, or somehow above, the plight of others. It’s easy to come into a place of struggle and feel superior in our charity. It’s easy to impart our wisdom to a friend or family member who can’t seem to get their dating life, or their career, or their educational path together. Ok – with a show of hands, who here has ever given advice to a friend about how poorly they were managing their dating, or work, or school life? Now keep those hands up, if you weren’t able to follow your own advice. (mmm hmmm!)
We can laugh at ourselves (hopefully) for these foibles and everyday follies. But those are the little ways every day we commit acts of charity that lift ourselves up, without opening ourselves to the learning potential of mutuality, or solidarity. They’re some of the tricks we use to forget that we all spring from one common source and share one common destiny. Acts of solidarity, the moments we seek to serve while learning from those we aid, remind us of the truth of our origins and the nature and direction of our shared path. They humble us, and in our humility we come to realize how amazing this gift of life truly is. The big acts of service, of traveling across this country to help heal our brokenness, need to transform the little every day brokenness in our own lives, or we missed half the point and the wholeness of the message.
One of the lessons we learned in New Orleans, is that the community couldn’t do it alone. Individuals needed to work together. Non-profits, and congregations needed to work together. Congregational walls needed to open up to let more in and create collaborative opportunities. How much of that do we do locally? Do we work well with our fellow congregations in NYC? Where do we intersect with community groups in our neighborhood and our small town of Brooklyn? In some ways we excel, like the awesome reality of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) that meets every Wednesday in our downstairs Chapel, and in some ways we have room for growth. But we have a good deal to learn from our Louisiana neighbors.
We’re trying to do more of this in the months to come. For example, many of you may know that our Senior High Youth group will be traveling to New Orleans the week preceding Easter to have a week of service and learning. Following the good modeling of the groups in New Orleans, we’ve reached out to our neighbors in Staten Island. Our Staten Island UU youth group will be traveling with us; they’ll be fund-raising with us; and we’ll be getting to know one another more and more over the year to come. In fact, about 15 of us spent an evening full of pasta and conversation just two nights ago thanks to the delicious cooking of Becky Huffman and Paul Eisemann. Their youth group, Religious Education chair and Senior Minister came to visit us in the first of many steps toward building community. I sincerely hope and pray that this will be a real opportunity for our two congregations to get to know one another better. I know our Weaving the Fabric of Diversity committee is also seeking to expand their collaborations with our sister congregation, and I commend them for their work.
Solidarity, unlike charity, demands we seek personal transformation. In the words from some of his seminal work, cultural ethicist, Michael Jackson writes, “As I, turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat this wind is blowin’ my mind I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs… I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways and no message could have been any clearer if you wanna make the world a better place…”. The metaphor of the mirror is the clearest symbol of what solidarity demands of us; and what solidarity offers us. We’re not going find more food for kids in the street if we don’t look to our own ways, attitudes, and perceptions first and foremost.
In this spirit of looking first to ourselves, the only people we can ever truly change, let’s reflect a little on our Hunger Communion this morning. I invite you to sit-up, feel yourselves in your body, open your hearts to the emotions that played across your mind during the communion portion of the service this morning. For those of you that had ample access to a nice loaf of bread, how did it feel to see the ample remainder upon the altar? Where did you feel pressure in your body when you turned to see most of the congregation struggling to share bits and scraps? For those of you receiving the opposite extreme, the absurdity of the 30 or 40 or 50 of you sharing one slice, where did the experience sit in your body? What arose in you when you saw someone else’s ample surplus sit upon our chancel? For those of you sitting somewhere in the middle, I challenge you not to make the mistake that the middle ground reflects the situation of the middle-class in the States. The vast majority of us in this room benefit as did the folks in the first three pews this morning. Even if we are relying upon food stamps, we have greater access to nourishment than most of our neighbors on this planet do. (And if you or your family are hungry this morning, come up to me after the service, and we’ll work together to change that. Many of us in the States and this city do go hungry every day.)
Knowing this, feeling this, experiencing this, what do we find in the mirror this morning? How does this annual ritual translate for us? From the safety and danger of this pulpit, I can not answer this question for any of you. We all need to come to that answer internally, but our religious community is a vessel for you to put those answers to practice. This religious home is a place of safety, of succor, where you can risk the glance into the mirror and take the first transformative steps. It’s what we’re all called to do here.
It’s common to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge before us. Helping one person out there, in a charitable way, is a concrete thing we can accomplish so we’re often, though regretfully not always, willing to do it. The guests at our table boxes signify several hundred concrete steps this congregation takes each year to affect noticeable change in the lives of people they touch. Escorting those boxes down to our religious education classes and introducing the plight of others into the awareness of our children and youth are another hundred or so concrete steps we take every year. Food is the focus of this morning’s Communion, but access to clothing, and shelter, and even moments of celebration for young children, are all interwoven in the broader fabric of poverty. Each thread connects to another. Our annual toy drive, our split the plate with Good Shepherd, our periodic days of repainting shelters for our Queer Youth, our clothing drive for Christian Help in Park Slope expand the list. Money, and time, and concern are necessary to affect moments of reprieve, and occasional nudges against systems of oppression the world over. And we as a religious community must do them, because I often fear I’m not sure who else would if ethical gatherings of individuals ceased this work. And yet, they’re not enough alone. Charity is not enough even if it is a necessary point of entry for many of us.
We ritualize the Hunger Communion to transform our hearts and spirits. The internal awareness and the internal transformation are great gifts of solidarity to end the crisis of Hunger. Some of us change our eating habits to reduce our impact. For some this will mean vegetarianism (like myself) or veganism – both diets that reduce reliance upon grain-intensive livestock. For others it will mean supporting Community Supported Agriculture, to reduce environmental impacts while funding local farmers who quite often donate surplus to those in need in our local community. For some, it will mean supporting Community Gardens that teach folks how to grow food, the value of nutrition, and increase access to fresh foods.
Many in this congregation donate funds to build micro-credit banks in Haiti to help combat systems of poverty that reduce women’s access to employment and entrepreneurialism – at their best, these banks are acts of solidarity that empower individuals to increase their own capacity to be self-subsistent. These banks presume, given a fair chance and equal access, people can stand on their own. I agree with that presumption.
And the list can go on and on. I invite you, no I challenge you. If something was stirred in you this morning, seek the ways in which you can affect the change in world you seek to know. Begin with yourself. Begin with the everyday habits. Transformation of this world beneath the glow of justice is possible and it begins at home. It is an act of solidarity over charity. This is the saving message of our Unitarian Universalist faith. There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for forgetting our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world. It is my hope and my prayer this morning, that our service of Communion reminds us of the truth of our interconnectedness. And that this truth stirs within our blood such compassion that we are quickened to act.