Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Making an IMPACT

This is the text of the sermons given at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, April 12, 2015.  The service was created collaboratively by Adam Slate and myself.  If you'd like to listen, the podcast will be available here.

IMPACT Opening Words
TJMC is part of a CBCO.  (Don’t you love acronyms?)  What I mean is that our congregation – Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – is part of a congregation based community organizing effort:  IMPACT.  IMPACT’s name serves dual purposes.  On the one hand, it describes what we aim to do – make an impact.  But it’s also another one of those wonderful acronyms – Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.  And for the past nine years, under the auspices of IMPACT, 27 faith communities have worked together to create action for justice in the greater Charlottesville Area.

In the fall each of these congregations hold a series of listening circles (house meetings) in which participants are asked to identify needs they see in our community, and every contribution is recorded.  These lists are then given to IMPACT’s staff who sift through them all, looking for themes and commonalities.  This consolidated list is then presented to a gathering of representatives of the congregations (a gathering we’re all encouraged to attend), and a prioritizing exercise brings one issue to the top.  That will be IMPACT’s focus for the coming year.

Research teams are formed – and, again, anyone can participate—and the issue is explored:  how can the need be most clearly defined; what are possible workable solutions; who might have the resources to put those solutions into effect.  Those people are met with – often repeatedly – and collaboration ensues.  At the end of this year-long process a proposal is presented at a large meeting and those “power people” (for want of a better term) are asked publically if they intend to commit to making things happen.  This last meeting is the Nehemiah Action, the thing we’ve been encouraging you to attend, the meeting that happens on Thursday, April 30th, at 6:30, at the John Paul Jones Arena.
In past years issues tackled have included: transportation, dental care, pre-K education, language access/translation services for folks in the criminal justice system, mental health services for children and youth, affordable housing, and youth unemployment.

This year some 350 people participated in those listening circle/ house meetings in the fall.  Again and again people shared stories about friends and family who have become entangled in a web of addiction, crime, and abuse. It was decided that crime and drugs should be this year’s focus.  During the research process we learned that 70% of Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail inmates, about 3,150 people, need substance abuse treatment each year. A majority of inmates who are women are also survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.  And when these women and men are released from jail there are virtually no treatment options available that can address all of these interrelated issues.  This year IMPACT’s goal is to get commitments for the creation of a plan to develop residential treatment facilities right here, close to home, to help these members of our human family who so desperately need help.  (As of now there are no residential treatment facilities for women, and the men’s facility can serve only ten people at a time.  There are more options for people with means – as there always are – and people can go to Richmond or even further afield, but there is a real need right here.)

The annual Nehemiah Action is the time when people with the power to make things happen come face to face with people whose power is their numbers and their will.  People representing 27 diverse faith communities – Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and even us Unitarian Universalists – all gather together to speak with one voice in the name of justice.  It’s a powerful thing to behold.  It’s a powerful thing to be a part of.

At this time I’d like to invite anyone who has ever been to a Nehemiah Action in the past nine years, as well as those who are already committed to attending this year, to come to the front of the sanctuary.

Making an IMPACT (Adam Slate)

Part 1
In a service intended to highlight IMPACT, it might seem odd to start the sermon talking about eliminating programs that help people. However Erik posted an article recently about a church that’s doing just that—getting rid of programs like their food pantry and clothing ministry that help people in need, in order to begin thinking about those constituencies as potential resources of the church, rather than people needing assistance.

Reverend Mike Mather of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has said, “The church… has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

Instead, the church has been hiring staff to be “listeners” in its neighborhood, to learn who people are, what their talents might be, and how the church can be a good neighbor. I pictured us here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church doing that. I pictured us going out into the communities we traditionally help and getting to know those constituencies as partners rather than beneficiaries of our generosity. I suspect some of you who read the article might have imagined the same thing.

But Broadway United Methodist didn’t seek out or hand pick the neighborhoods where its listeners were assigned. It went into its own neighborhood, where its church physically resides. Remember that their goal wasn’t to help people, it was to be better partners with those in their immediate community.

Our church is located here at the corner of Rugby Road and Edgewood Lane, yet I didn’t envision us going out into these neighborhoods around us, nor do I have any recollection of any significant efforts to do so in the 20 years I’ve been a member here. Why? I don’t really think there’s a reason. Reaching out to fairly affluent, primarily white people just hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Even with our own neighbors.

Why is this the case? Like the church in Erik’s article, our social justice work may be distorting our perspective a little. Our Seventh Principle tells us to respect our connectedness to everyone. But while the message may have started as “Love everyone, with special attention to those who need our help,” the emphasis seemed to have shifted more exclusively toward those groups that are in need. We have become helpers. We’re advocates for the underdog. And while that’s an important aim, and something many of us value immensely about our church, we should be mindful not to make it our sole focus. It’s too easy to hand pick who we let into our community. It doesn’t fully honor the interdependent web. And just between us, it’s not going to save the world.

The Reverend Barbara Prose of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma said recently that "if we don’t change direction, meaning if we continue to insist we can favor some and ignore others, we may end up exactly where we’re heading: toward a more violent world.”

Dr. Martin Luther King warned that we must all learn to live together, or perish together as fools.

Part 2
But we were talking about IMPACT.

When Erik and I got together to talk about this service, we were struck by two things right off the bat. First, IMPACT has accomplished remarkable, transformative, wonderful things. Dental care for the uninsured, affordable low-income housing, more public transportation, pre-kindergarten education, training for law enforcement officers to deal with people who have limited English language proficiency, and transitional mental health services for ex-offenders.

The other thing that stood out was how often people in our church mention that IMPACT events typically include religious language about a personal God that’s not consistent with their own spiritual views. In spite of being part of a church that calls us to respect everyone’s religious path, many of us take pause at this aspect of IMPACT, and treat it as something that must be tolerated in order to be part of the cause.

IMPACT is, by definition, an interfaith initiative. It currently consists of 27 member congregations, 22 of which are Christian-oriented denominations, 2 are Jewish, one is Quaker, one is Muslim, and one is UU. Assuming a rotating assignment of invocations and benedictions at the annual Nehemiah Action event, and an assumption that religious leaders will pray according to their own faith tradition, 80% of prayers will be Christian, and 96% will be in a form different from what we typically see in our own sanctuary here at TJMC.

Let me suggest that this diversity of religious expression isn’t something we can think of as separate from IMPACT. Rather it’s a fundamental aspect of it, and one to be celebrated. The intent of the program is for people of all faiths to come together to solve a problem here in Charlottesville. In fact, it's likely that this broad diversity of belief is what allows the Nehemiah Action event to work. When a Muslim leader does the opening prayer and invokes the name of Allah, or a Christian leader prays in the name of Jesus, or Reverend Wik offers more inclusive language invoking the Spirit of Life... that’s part of what’s so powerful about IMPACT. That IS IMPACT. And if we’re committed to what IMPACT is about, we should love the diversity of religious expression we encounter. It has moved mountains. It continues to move mountains.

So often we get involved in fighting for our causes--abortion rights, marriage equality, even poverty--mainly with people who are like us. We have a good sense of the beliefs of the people with whom we’re aligning before we organize with them. Think about whether this was true for you at the most recent thing you volunteered for, or the last rally you attended.

The IMPACT Nehemiah Action has us join together with other area congregations without making that kind of judgment. So when differences between you and another religious group become evident through their prayer, think of it not as something to tolerate, but an opportunity to do better, to find more love to accept other people. We don’t have--we don’t create--many opportunities like this for ourselves. And this acceptance, this love, is ultimately the only glue that will hold us all together.

When you hear a prayer at the Nehemiah Action that’s outside your faith tradition, say “Amen,” because this is likely the largest truly interfaith event most of us will ever be involved with. And if there’s hope for our world, if there's something that's going to address the misunderstanding, and intolerance, and anger that exists among us... IMPACT is a snapshot of what it’s going to look like.

If there is a shortcoming to the Nehemiah Action, it's not that we have to listen to each other's prayers. It's that even after years of successful collaboration, we still listen to them each sitting safely in our own church's section rather than mixing and blending in the arena to the point that we can't tell one congregation from another. That’s where I’d like to see us end up someday.

Part 3
There’s a movement out there, perpetuated mostly by the Millennial generation, called the Free Hugs Movement, where people advertising with signs in public places offer hugs to strangers. There’s a YouTube video about the movement and its founder that’s gotten 77 million views, and I hope some of you are among those 77 million. I love this movement, because it represents a gesture of acceptance not tied to what someone may or may not believe.

When you’re hugging a stranger, you do it without knowing what they think about God, what kind of family they come from, where they stand on Ferguson, or the environment. You don’t know the extent to which they may struggle with feelings of anti-semitism or homophobia. It acknowledges that we’re all part of an interdependent web that we’re called to honor.

This is what IMPACT is about. So often our support and our energy is directed to specific target groups. But the message of Ghandi, and Jesus, and Dr. King is that love doesn’t work that way. We cannot “continue to insist we can favor some and ignore others.” We have to love before we apply a litmus test to what someone believes, or whether their needs allow us to satisfy our need to be helpful. We must love everybody. And I understand that there are those out there who want to harm people because of their beliefs. But while that is true, this message is also true. We must find more love to encompass everyone. Reverend Prose of All Souls Tulsa didn’t mince words when she said: “We must love each other or perish… We must love each other no matter what is said ... or done.”

I have a friend who recently sent around a picture that someone she knows posted on Facebook. She had let the poster know she thought it was racist, and he disagreed, so to make sure she wasn’t just having a super-liberal knee-jerk reaction, she asked her Facebook friends for their opinion. I won’t describe the picture, but I found it to be terribly racist. It set off a string of tirades against the person who originally posted it, and against everyone who thinks like him. It went exactly the way you’d expect socially-minded people to react. But when someone made the assumption that my friend had unfriended the guy, she indicated she hadn’t. “I am hoping,” she said, “that my acceptance of him will help him understand the folly of his ways.”

I used to think the world would be saved by those who could elegantly argue for what’s right. But now I realize it’ll be saved by people who can teach us how not to. We have to accept each other without first evaluating each other’s ideologies. It’s the only way we’ll ever be one community. And as UUs--we’ve already committed to pray, to work side by side, to seek better mutual understanding, with Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, and athiests, and everyone we meet on their search for truth and meaning. Let’s honor our tradition of embracing diverse beliefs, and be the ones to model that acceptance, with the hope that others will follow our example.

Making an IMPACT (Erik Wikstrom)

Adam’s reflection reminds me of something said by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist who, as a young man, during the Vietnam War, visited the United States asking for our help in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in his country.  When asked what he thought of the U.S. peace movement, he replied that we were very good at writing protest letters but that peace would not be achieved until we had learned to write love letters. That’s still a lesson we need to be learn, and not just in the peace movement.

A few years back the Honorable Louis Farrakhan called for a “million man march” on Washington, DC, and a whole lot of people showed up.  And some of those people who showed up, who participated publically, got a lot of grief for it because not everyone agrees that the Honorable Louis Farrakhan is, to put it bluntly, all that honorable.  I remember, though … I remember one speaker … I don’t any longer remember who … but one of the speakers talked about the grief he’d gotten when he announced that he was going to participate and then said, “but when the house is on fire I don’t care who’s next to me with a bucket.  And friends, our house is on fire.”  When the house is on fire I don’t care who is next to me with a bucket.

During newcomer orientations I say that one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism unique in the religious landscape is that our first question isn’t, “What do you believe?”  Rather, we ask first, “What kind of world do you want to see?”  And if we see that we’re standing together on that line, fighting the same fire, we recognize each other as kin.

Of course, we know that there are people who are out there starting fires, or fanning their flames.  Not everyone is trying to put them out, and that makes this whole “inherent worth and dignity” thing, and this “love everybody” thing really, really hard.  (But that’s a different sermon.)

For us, at our best, it’s only after we’ve seen that we’re standing on that line together trying to put out the fire that we ask, out of curiosity, in an effort to get to know one another better, only then do we ask about belief.  And some will say that it’s their belief that we are all children of a loving God that puts them on the line.  For others it’s their belief in our shared Buddha-nature.  Still others would say that they believe that there is nothing beyond the world that we can see, taste, and touch, and so if anybody’s going to put the fire out it’s going to have to be us.  So many different beliefs can inspire people to be part of that bucket brigade.  And when the house is on fire – and would anyone disagree that our house is on fire? – when the house is on fire we shouldn’t care all that much about who is next to us with a bucket.
The beauty of IMPACT is that it is, in a sense, such an incredibly Unitarian Universalist thing.  There’s often a critique, as Adam said, that it’s an overly Christian thing, but I think everyone’s been missing the point.  IMPACT is Unitarian Universalist to its core!  See … people aren’t asked their beliefs about vicarious atonement, or transubstantiation, or whether infant or adult baptism is more efficacious.  People are only asked, “Do you want to see real improvement in the lives of real people?”  “Do you want to see inequities addressed?”  “Do you want to see justice increased?”  If so … show up to the Action; with your body, make your voice heard.  We can talk about our differing beliefs while we’re cleaning up after the fire’s out.

I know, many of us have a cause that’s particularly important to us—combating climate change, for instance, or addressing racism, or the ever needed encouragement toward peace between nations.  There is hunger, there is homelessness, there are a thousand and one things that need our attention, a thousand and one fires burning in our home.

So why IMPACT?  For one thing, it’s practical.  Adam and I have already lifted up some of IMPACT;s successes.  As IMPACT’s Lead Organizer said to me once, “There are people in this community – in politics, in business – who could address these problems if it were a priority for them.  IMPACT’s job is to make it a priority.”  And we have.  And I say “we” because IMPACT is nothing but us, and all those other congregations joined together.

We may still feel a little segregated at the Action, as Adam said, each congregation sitting separately in its own section.  But I can tell you that that’s not what the people on the stage see.  They see the representatives of 27 diverse faith communities in one place, and for each person in a seat they know that there are probably ten more people in a pew who are also urging action.  That’s powerful.  That’s power.

Would it be great if we could mix it up and truly be an intertwined and interconnected sea of people where you couldn’t tell who belonged to what congregation because, in truth, we all belonged together?  Absolutely.  But that’s not IMPACT’s job.  That’s our job.  IMPACT’s job is to mobilize communities of faith to act to make a real … well … impact for justice in our community.  And they do that.

Our job is to take advantage of this opportunity to make community, to build on this first step, and to find and make meaningful connections.  Because working together is not only helpful when there’s a fire to put out.  It helps when bridges need to be made.  And we’re in need of a whole lot more bridges in this world.

Adam’s right.  Diversity – of whatever kind – is “not something to tolerate, but an opportunity to do better, to find more love to accept other people.”  As Rev. Prose of All Souls said: “We must love each other or perish.”  We must learn to stop writing protest letters to one another because of our differences but, instead, write love letters celebrating our common humanity.

On Thursday, April 30th, at the Nehemiah Action at the John Paul Jones Arena, we have the opportunity to join with thousands of other folk from all across the Charlottesville area to demonstrate solidarity of purpose.  We need residential treatment facilities here, in Charlottesville, to help women and men who are struggling with addictions and co-existing conditions.  Our community needs this – we need this – and together we can make this a priority for those who have the power to make it a reality.

Yet on April 30th we also have the opportunity to more fully live into our Unitarian Universalist faith and to practice the writing of love letters – love letters to all of those people whose faiths are as important to them as ours are to us; love letters to those who make sense of the world through their own lived experiences just as we do ours; love letters to those who, for whatever reasons, have also put themselves on the line, not caring who’s next to them with a bucket.    Or the blueprints for a bridge.
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