Hope: The Communal Virtue

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fellowship on 2/22/15. It is the second in a series of reflections on the words of Sister Simone; where we explore how hope does not rest solely in our individuals actions and choices.

For years, I attended a Unitarian Universalist summer camp called Star Island. It’s an island about 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine; think New England and rocky shoals. On the edge of the island there’s a pier. It juts out maybe 50 feet and one side of it allows boats and ferries to dock. The other side of it creates a man-made mini-harbor that protects swimmers from the pull of the ocean due to it’s L-shape.

At one point during the week, there’s a culminating celebration of the younger grade-schooler’s and their science projects. The land version of this is the point where we see groups of bottle-rockets launch skyward; each group competes to see who can send the bottle rocket farther away. But the ocean version of this are duck-tape boats. Teams or individuals build cardboard boats sealed only with duct-tape. Kids get points for who finishes first, but they also get points for sportsmanship. One kid has to be in the boat, and the rest of the team can swim along around the boat to help it go faster. Parents and friends are cheering them along, and it’s a major accomplishment to even finish this race. I’m reminded of the earlier story today about the geese getting farther along working in formation than alone, even though, I’m sure, the physics is a bit different for duct tape boats in the ocean.

But one time in the five years I’ve witnessed this boating celebration, an individual kid finished the race first (which never happens normally), and then swam back to the middle of the run to help a competing team out of a jam where they were slowly sinking into the water. He took up a supportive role in the back and helped them stay above water. They still came in last, but they got to succeed when it otherwise looked like their boat was doomed. If you thought the parents were loud when they cheered him finishing the race first, know that they went crazy with joy when he went back to be a helper with the team in last place.

Summer camp can teach us a lot of things. The difference in the cheers from the parents and friends told me something really important. We can be really excited for the lone athlete finishing first. That’s going to happen every time in every race – right – someone will always win; but it’s stunningly noteworthy when we see someone go back and help another team succeed. It’s been years since I saw that race, and I still remember what that grade-schooler showed me.

Individual achievements are great. They encourage us to persevere, or to succeed, or to better ourselves. The singular win may inspire others to try things they otherwise never would; it’s the nature of one type of role modeling and it’s a good thing. But the drive to ensure everyone gets to finish is more remarkable in my mind. We can’t all win every time, but maybe we can all succeed. Maybe, crossing the finish line in our slowly sinking duct tape boats, is attainable for each of us, when we work together.

The image may seem silly, but I imagine some of us here, right now, feel like we’re in a duct taped boat just trying to tread water – and finding the successful end in sight is all they’re focused on. As a community, as citizens, as spiritual seekers, we are best to remember that. Sometimes our individual hopes get fulfilled by communal effort. It can take courage to hope, especially in our western society that so often focuses on the singular wins of the person in the lead. It takes courage because we might not fulfill our hopes by ourselves, and we might need to start that race knowing that we’ll at some point need to rely on someone else. Can we be the people, can we be the community, that ensures the hopes of the world are realized? Can we teach one another to do our best while lifting one another up – and not think the two are mutually exclusive?

Our religious tradition reminds us that despite the values of the dominant culture around us, just like we don’t hope alone, we also don’t strive alone, and we certainly don’t achieve alone. Many of our world’s problems are rooted in the mistake that we’re solitary islands in a sea of otherness.

That same pier the kids race their duct tape boats in also doubles at a swimming inlet when the weekly race isn’t happening. At low tide you can wade amidst the water-worn rocks and grounded kelp. But when it’s high tide it can feel rather deep. I love the ocean, and I’m a huge beach goer, but swimming in waters that I can’t see the bottom to, is mildly terrifying to me. The island is something like 10 miles off the coast of the mainland. You are actually swimming in the ocean. And knowing that little kids can blithely race their duct taped boats isn’t reassuring – frankly it’s a bit demoralizing that they can do it and I’m terrified!

One Summer day the heat was so oppressive, and we were on shower rations, that I just had to jump in. The 6 year old nearby is swimming and laughing. I hit the water and think I’m going to die. My heart starts to race and race. I’m certainly not going to play in this death trap, but I tell myself I can at least swim the 50 foot length of pier back to the island. Twenty feet in and I know in my heart I’m doomed. Meanwhile, the backdrop sounds are a grandmother chatting with her friend while a few little wee tykes do body flips, giggling.

The bigger picture here is instructive. When we get fixated on our weaknesses, or our fears – we can get very lost. Reminding ourselves of the community around us can be grounding. The toddlers can do this. The elders wisely know this is safe for those toddlers. The very-in-shape life guards are 10 feet away. And so far, kraken don’t come this close to humans. Evidently, I did not die, and I did make it back to shore to tell the harrowing tale. Hope and courage take markedly different tones when we’re doing so in community than when we’re going at it alone. The people around us change the story from being lost as sea, to swimming at a pier – whether we’re still terrified or not, the reality we may or may not be able to see – changes.

The title of this sermon comes from a quote in a talk given by Sister Simone Campbell, most known for her work “Nuns on the Bus” which toured the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. All this month we’re looking at some of the learnings from last year’s UU General Assembly which is an annual gathering of 4 to 5 thousand UU’s – a week of learning, worship and social justice. I want to encourage anyone here who is able to make the trip at the end of June to our next Annual Assembly to seriously consider attending this energizing week of learning and justice work. Registration opens up in one week on March 1st. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June 24th-28th.

Here’s the short story she shares from her talk to 4000 UU’s last June. The story is about a time when Sister Simone met a young women in her 20s named Robin, at the White House. Here’s the short excerpt:

She, “had been invited to be there for when President Obama signed the executive order to raise the minimum wage for the federal contract workers.

And Robin was there. And she grew up in Virginia. And she had walked by the White House, and this young woman in her mid 20s could not believe she was inside the White House. It was so exciting. And she had her cell phone, and so she took a picture of the chair she was sitting in. And we were going to be two rows back from where the president was going to sign the executive order. So having taken the picture of her chair, she said, would you take a picture of me? Sure. So I take a picture of her sitting in her chair. And then we take a selfie about us being together. And we’re doing all this, she is so excited, she could not sit still for anything. And so I asked her, was she going to benefit from this executive order? She goes, oh no. But a good friend of her’s was. And so she was really excited for her.

She works for minimum wage at a national clothing store chain, and she said she gets to work full-time, she’s really excited about it. …We talked a little while longer, and then she said to me, kind of quietly, you know, by looking at me, you would never know I have to live in a homeless shelter because I can’t afford rent in this DC area. It’s just way too expensive.

She makes $15,000 a year, gross. About $12,000, net. And has not enough money for rent, though she works full time. Quite frankly that broke my heart. And here she was celebrating the fact that her friend was going to get a raise. And she said, well you know, if it happens for some of us, it’ll eventually happen for all of us. We have to celebrate the progress. And I thought, wow. What wisdom. When you walk towards trouble, there you find hope. Because it’s in the relationship, it’s in the connection, it’s in hearing the stories that hope, the communal virtue, is nourished.”

Sister Simone’s story of Robin is sort of the flip side to that everyday phrase we use, “if it makes you feel any better…”. You know, the one where someone knows you’re down over some painful thing in your life and they go on to share with you the woes or misery someone else is going through; as if another person’s pain should ever lift one’s spirits. Robin from the story knew the truth, another person’s joy or success or good fortune after a long period of adversity, should be a source of hope for us in times of adversity. If it can go well for them, it can go well for me. Celebrating the successes of those around us is certainly a better ethic than being relieved by their loss.

If hope is a communal virtue, and witnessing others’ new successes are fuel for hope, then learning from others’ past accomplishments over adversity reminds us that present and future challenges can be overcome. When we look out in the world we see tragedy after tragedy. A world torn by war abroad, and domestic terror at home. Just over a week ago, we learned of three young muslim students attending UNC Chapel Hill, murdered in their home by a white “New Atheist” male neighbor. The NY Times would describe the victims as, “a newlywed couple and the woman’s sister. They were young university students, Muslims of Arab descent, and high achievers who regularly volunteered in the area.” Heart-breaking. A new marriage ended, three lives lost, and a family now must mourn three of its children at the same time. I can’t imagine the horror.

The alleged murder’s professed faith of “new atheism” is a sobering footnote to our nation at a time when our national media is fixated on the non-debate over whether Christianity or Islam have had violent pasts and presents. Any ideology can carve room for hate and violence if we let it, even non-religions. And if time and investigations determine that the sole rationale for these young adults’ deaths is due to an argument over parking, I think we’re in even a more tragic place.

We as a nation have work to do. A family, a community and a university must mourn the loss of three young adults with huge potentials and generous hearts. We must continue to strive to teach the values of diversity – religious and racial. Justice must be served and communities will need to learn to feel safe again.  We must seek to instill a sense of temperance in our people, so that small disagreements about mundane things do not become life threatening; that something besides our stressors and petty inconveniences matters more to a healthy society.

Despite the seemingly perpetual stories of strife, loss and difference the road that brought us here has shown us that there is ever a way forward. Although people are not yet fully equal, and much more work must be done, there have been many successes in civil rights. Grassroots black leaders taught us in the 1960’s that despite having seemingly little apparent power individually, people can organize collectively and affect massive change. We can look to the successes of the activists in the 60s and 70s to teach us, that just like Robin showed in Sister Simone’s story, other people’s successes in building the world we dream about can offer us meaningful hope that we too shall one day do the same. The march of history flows ever onward from the strength of those before us. The people in this room today, all of us, are each in our own way keepers of that trust should we let ourselves be. Friends, will you continue to hope with me? Will you continue to carry the work forward from the hands that came before and the hands that are still striving? There is much work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.

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