Our annual All Souls service. It reflects on our theological response to the refugee caravan traveling north from Honduras, and the threats against Transgender folk in the US. 10/28/18
Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.
Telling our stories is a powerful form of ministry with one another. And the stories we tell matter. It’s one of the reasons at our memorial services, we put such a focus on the community sharing their memories of the deceased. Their legacy and their love continue on in the impacts they made while they were alive. Storytelling is honoring that life. Even the painful stories are important to share; there is a healing in the telling, and there is an ethical component as well. Sharing our struggle is a way to foster compassion, and compassion builds community. In traditional Universalist theology, all souls are saved. And on this day, we remember who came before, but we also remember that we are part of that beloved community of all souls; that allsouls are part of our community.
Remembering this fundamental sanctity of life; that our theology affirms the inherent worth of people, I’m going to tell three short stories about our world today. I’ll ask you to keep in mind this essential theology of Universalism affirming all souls. Before I begin though, I offer these words from Joanna Macy as a frame (she’s is an environmental activist, author, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.) “Thus do we realize ever again that the simple eloquenceof telling the truth liberates us to find insight,solidarity, and courage to act, despite rapidly-worseningconditions. When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation, but—on the contrary—in the letting go of old defenses, truer community is found. In the synergy of sharing comes power. In community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.”
My first story. All Souls, and this time of year is associated with Hurricane Sandy for me. This part of the world was hit rather hard. Some of us in our Fellowship lost their home. Neighborhoods in the wider area were destroyed. The recovery took well over 2 years in some parts. I remember at the time, I was living in Manhattan, in Stuyvesant Town. They were 12 story towers for middle income folk, stretching for at least 6 city blocks, and 4 avenues. The week of Sandy, had been both emotionally exhausting and incredibly fortunate for my home. Being in what NYC called zone B, we were not asked to evacuate ahead of time, so we hunkered down, stored up supplies, froze extra water in zip lock bags just in case, and prepared for a night of computer games and a good book.
We lived two blocks from the Con Edison station that had a transformer blow. I personally missed the great flash of white light that lit the sky – I was busy staring at my computer shutting down.
The East River, typically 2.5 avenues away (or the one half mile from our front door) in Stuyvesant Town where we lived, became our neighbor for a night and part of a morning. It landed on a Monday. Although the East River receded by the next day, the streets were wet through that Thursday. The power was out, hot water was gone, and running water came and went for up to twelve hours at a time. Some of our neighbors were out of gas, but we were fortunate. Our building did not suffer that level of damage. The next one over did.
Over the next few days, we would climb down the ten flights of stairs with our flashlights to grab some bread from bodegas that were getting rid of the last of their supplies before they went bad – and we were very grateful that no one was price gouging their goods. More food wasn’t coming in yet.
Many eight story stall trees were dead on the grown. Twelve foot lengths of pier, giant rivets and all, were as far in as Ave C – leaving wreckage to the cars they rested upon, amidst other cars literally tossed about by the East River.
Traffic in Manhattan, usually a bitter affair, was pedestrian friendly, almost devoid of any honking horns, and civil in a way I could never imagine.
In our community, neighbors and resident staff were taking turns visiting each of the 30,000+ homes without power to make sure folks were alright. Letters were circulated asking us to check on our neighbors who were elders – who had no hope of climbing down, let along up, ten flights of stairs. We were a community of all souls that week.
One café brought out a generator to the street, and set up a power strip so that strangers could recharge their cell phones and laptops. This may seem small, but when you have no ability to tell anyone that you’re fine – this was a great act of charity and relief. For those that follow me on social media, you know how prolific I am. When we finally had access to power and a signal, my Facebook wall was inundated with friends, congregants and colleagues asking if we were alright; folks knew how close we were to the worst, and not everyone lived through that Hurricane. In the US alone, 106 people died. When we finally had cell coverage again on Wednesday, I was heartened to hear of the stories of outreach and support organized by the congregation in Brooklyn I was serving at the time. I know our own Fellowship here made sure to take care of one another as well. I felt cared for knowing others were taking care of one another, even though I couldn’t be reached yet.
We finally did evacuate on Thursday to the magical land of “Park Slope” which was high, dry and heavily caffeinated. We felt very blessed. We are were lucky to be able to return home by Sunday afternoon.
That hurricane was serious, destroying so much; though in comparison, we were fine. And I still remember it this time of year, every year. And for those among us who lost our homes, it’s left an indelible imprint upon our psyche. The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis, is the spiritual and human response to tragedy. It’s healthy; it’s normal; and it defines civilization. That is what we should do; that is who we should be; and that should be our marker for decency. As Joanna Macy said, “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.”
If that one storm was so significant, that congregations around this area would remember in our pastoral prayers or our sermons, annually going on five and six years now, let’s extend that truth to even more serious moments of crisis and tragedy. What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse?
Here is my second story. It’s about the refugee caravan heading north from Honduras; a caravan also of all souls. Again I ask, what level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse? Just this week, our UU Service Committee “in partnership with SHARE El Salvador and in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy, participated in a delegation to Honduras to bear witness to social and political dynamics that have contributed to civil unrest within Honduras as well as a mass exodus of civilians from the country. This delegation heard numerous testimonies of government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.”If you want to learn more about the causes, and what can be done, you can head to our Facebook page, or directly to UUSC.org for the full report and actions that can be done.
There’s far too much political rhetoric being irresponsibly thrown around – particularly the lie that there are terrorists and gang members amidst the refugees. It’s another racist dog whistle, plain and simple. All reporting, on the ground, indicates this is a blatant lie. The Washington Post had an article the other day detailing what Mexicans are doing as the refugees travel north. It reminded me of how New Yorkers came together after the Hurricane. “The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. “These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.” To me, that’s the basic level of compassion one should at least extend people fleeing from “government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.” That’s the basic level; not play pretend they are actually terrorists. And both US law and International law are clear – refugees can seek asylum at our borders. These are refugees; they are doing nothing illegal.
It is a malicious theology that seeks to carve up the beloved community of all souls – between us and them, with the “us” forever shrinking and shrinking till it looks more like “me” than any “us” that ever were. “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.” (Joanna Macy.)
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”I want to turn toward some words my colleague, Rev Jake Morrill recently blogged. Here they are: “Years ago, the literary theorist Elaine Scarry wrote a book called “On Beauty and Being Just.” She says beauty is that which awakens in us a longing for creation and fulfillment. She says that, when we fall in love with beauty, we want to share it. And—whether it’s a painting or a person or a culture or a region of land—when we fall in love with it, we want to defend it. She says we’ll fight to preserve it. And what we seek, in the name of beauty, is justice.
A friend of mine says that the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we’re at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
Thank you Rev. Morrill for that gorgeous re-centering during these difficult times. Falling in love with one another, loving the beauty in one another, and bearing witness to the other. Being seen for who we are, as we are, is the next step in learning to love one another enough to defend and protect and nurture our neighbor, whether it’s a storm of the natural world, or a storm of the political world – we can respond with beauty to lift us all up.
I’ll come to a close with my third story. This week we learned that the President is seeking to change the definitions of gender, to remove it as a protected legal status as a linguistic gambit to erase Transgender and Non-Binary people from sight. You can well and easily imagine the repercussions to rights, and to safety that will come of this deeply cynical move. Calls to the National Transgender Hotline doubled this week in light of this news. It’s another way to carve out who gets seen in the caravan of all souls, and our faith teaches us otherwise. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines gender identity as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” That’s not complicated to express or really to understand. And there are many people that need us to understand; to see them as they are, and to learn to love their beauty enough that we care to defend them and nurture them. In the end, this cynical move sounds to me like another way that our current administration has something in common with Honduras, namely, “the dehumanization of large groups of people.” What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to the dehumanization of large groups of people? What stories will we learn to hear? What lives will we hold close to our hearts to live on in us; carrying their humanity unto our humanity? Dehumanization leads to pipe bombs being sent to your political opponents and journalists; dehumanization leads to gunman storming our synagogues on shabbat.
The author Neil Gaiman says that, “A book is a dream in your hands.” Well, a book, or the stories of our lives, held in beauty in our hands, are each the dreams of another life and that is a holy thing to hold. May we hold one another, our dreams, and our suffering, religiously in care.
Rev. Jake Morrill