Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Desire to Build a Better World

This is the text of the sermon offered at the congregation I serve -- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist -- on Sunday, February 21, 2016.  It consists of three parts -- an introduction and conclusion that I delivered, and a middle section written by one of our lay Worship Weavers, Jeanine Braithwaite.  As always, you can listen if you prefer.

Opening Words:  "Those of us who are alive in these times have a clear and evident mission. We have a compelling moral purpose that can direct our lives and our energies: We are about saving the world. So what is our part? The place is to begin at home- that is, with ourselves. Notice what is life-denying and resist it. Live with the moral authority that comes from compassion and non-violence. Form communities of people who will sustain you in living as you wish to live, whether they are study groups or alternative living arrangements or socially responsible, sustainable businesses. Our congregations must be central gathering places for such community."

Marilyn Sewell, "Reclaiming the American Dream," in A People So Bold

Place names can provide interesting glimpses into history.  Some are pretty obvious:  Charlottesville, for instance, was named after Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.  Others are a little more obscure.  I can’t imagine how Boring, Oregon; Dismal, Tennessee; Hell, Michigan; or Looneyville, Texas got their names.  (I’m not sure I really want to know.)  And then there are places like Hopedale,Massachusetts.

Hopedale got its name back in the mid-19th century.  The famous Universalist, Rev. Adin Ballou (third cousin once removed of the even more famous Hosea Ballou), his wife Lucy, and two of their friends invested in 600 acres of land and created what they called, “Fraternal Community Number One.”  Today we might call it an intentional community, or a commune.  The Fraternal Community’s less formal name was Hopedale, which means, roughly, hope in the valley, or the valley of hope.
Hopedale came into being during a time when Utopian Communities were popping up all over the place.  Places like Brook Farm, Fruitlands, New Harmony, Oberlin, Oneida, Reunion, as well as a number of communities based on the teachings of the French philosopher Charles Fourier.  This is when the Shaker communities were established, too.

And I mention all of this this morning because this month we’ve been exploring what it might mean to think of ourselves, we Unitarian Universalists, as “a people of desire.”  This morning, specifically, we’re asking ourselves what it means to be a people who “desire to build a better world.”  So it’s worth noting that many of these intentional, utopian communities were founded by Universalists, Unitarians, or people who’d been influenced by the spirit of Transcendentalism – people who believed that a better world was possible and set about building it.  (I think it’s kind of funny, though, that some of the rock star Transcendentalists like Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau were too invested in the individual to join any community, however utopian.) 

This impulse, this drive, this desire to build a world that is more fair, more just, more economically and ecologically sustainable, that is, simply put, better than the world we see around us, is part of our genetic makeup as UUs.  And it’s still alive today.

In 2008, for instance, a group of Unitarian Universalist young adults began discussing the idea of creating an intentional community, and in February of 2011 they moved into the house that is now called the Lucy Stone Cooperative.  A second co-operative house, the Margeret Mosely Cooperative, is up and running as well.  These young adults are, as it was put in article in UUWorld, “living the values and traditions of Unitarian Universalism and focused on sustainability, spiritual practice, and social change.”

Of course, many of us here are only a few degrees of separation from Twin Oaks or its local sister communities Acorn and Living Energy Farm.  Several of us are involved right now in one way or another with either Eco-village or Emerson Commons.  This desire to build a better world runs deep in our veins.

Not all of us are able to take part in this kind of “building” project.  Not all of us would want to live in this kind of an intentional, cooperative community.  Yet all of us can be involved in making this world we live in more like the world we would want to live in.  Jeanine signed up to weave this morning because this topic of building a better world is near and dear her heart – she has spent her professional career trying to make a difference.  I think we should hear her story:
Our dream is a world free of poverty. These words appeared over the main entrance to the World Bank in Washington, DC in the early years of James Wolfensohn’s presidency of what insiders call “the Bank.” The Bank was chartered in 1944 as the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development, and was set up primarily to help Europe rebuild from World War II and only secondarily to assist countries to grow and develop. At that time, most developing countries were still colonies, but with the wave of independence for former colonies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, that development mission of the Bank became its major focus. Robert McNamara, president from 1968-1981, shaped the Bank to focus on poverty reduction, rather than investing primarily for economic returns. (Surprising many who protested him during his time as US Secretary of Defense in the early years of the Vietnamese war). I joined the Bank in 1994 and James Wolfensohn became President in 1995. 
Wolfensohn was a charismatic leader who recommitted the organization to poverty reduction as its primary goal. The Soviet Union had collapsed in December 1991, and the Bank, along with other international organizations like the UN and the international Monetary Fund, had 15 new countries in the FSU—the former Soviet Union, six new countires from the former Yugoslavia, and a lot of work to integrate Eastern Europe and the FSU into the world economy. A Sovietologist and economist who had lived in Moscow in 1987-88, worked for the US Census Bureau on technical assistance after that during the end of the Gorbachev years when the USSR opened up, and written about the income distribution in the USSR, I joined the Bank to help the FSU join the world community of prosperous and democratic countries. 
Margaret Mead famously said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” In the Wolfensohn years, it was a heady experience to be part of a small group of Bank staff, trying to help the FSU and Eastern Europe to “transition.” Some countries succeeded at this while others did not. Russia is not a democracy now and never has been one, but changing the world is not that easy a thing to do even though I do believe deeply that it can be done, and I know it has been done.

The life of a World Bank staffer is not a commitment that everyone can or should make. The frequent international travel meant a lot of nights weeping in hotel rooms after talking to my children on the phone, causing me to reflect on trying to save the children of others while leaving my own behind. My older daughter Vivienne would tell me “I don’t like that Russian, I don’t like it when you speak that Russian” as she rightly associated hearing Russian on the phone meant another trip there. My younger daughter Kelly would cling to my leg as I tried to leave the house for the taxi waiting to take me to Dulles, begging me not to go. I would cry all the way to Dulles, then for another 16 or so hours on the plane or transiting airports.

But I kept getting on those planes, because I felt that I could both mother my children and help the children of others through setting up social programs to identify and help the poor. And the advent of video-chatting and finding the right partner who could be with our three children in our blended family while I traveled helped a great deal. I branched out to work on Latin America and then Africa in addition to the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) region.

I managed to team with others to do some great projects. I wrote a lot of good analyses of poverty and social protection in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Hungary, Moldova, Kosovo, Swaziland, Botswana, South Africa. There’s a program in Turkey for the mothers of poor children to receive a small cash payment provided their kids stay in school and pre-schoolers go to health clinics. This means that 5 million children are living a better life there, and the original idea for this conditional cash transfer program came from me. But that spark would have gone nowhere without key people on the Turkish side, and required a huge number of Turks to implement as well as a small Bank tema.

Once Jim Wolfensohn left the Bank’s presidency in 2005, subsequent Presidents failed to follow his legacy. My own career stagnated along with the Bank, and the frenetic excitement of the early transition years faded as I worked on countries that had been poor since independence and were still poor. I was as committed as ever to the dream of a world free of poverty, but I did not like the direction the Bank was going. Its new slogan is now “end extreme poverty within a generation and boost shared prosperity.”

In 2009, the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy graduated its first class of master of public policy (MPP) students, and in August 2010, I resigned from the Bank and began teaching 80 percent time at “the University” as a commuter. And in August 2014, we moved and I transferred my membership from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rockville to TJMCUU.

After nearly 20 years, it was a big decision to leave my permanent staff position and a very tight community of people who intentionally did development work, but I realized that the best way that I personally could continue to fight poverty was to train the next generation of development workers, and that I did not always have to be the one to get up on the plane, that others (and particularly younger people) could and should.
Okay, I know some of you are saying, “you’re just trying to make me feel guilty.”  I’m not.  I’m really not.  I know that most of us – “us,” me too – aren’t the intentional community type.  And most of us haven’t had the kinds of opportunities Jeanine has had to make a difference.  So what about us?
I asked the Worship Weavers to brainstorm and here’s a partial list of ideas: 
  • Attend a rally (or organize one);
  • Raise your own awareness about important issues (and then help to raise other people’s);
  • Vote (do you still need to register?)
  • Run for office yourself (we’ve had several members over the years who served as Charlottesville’s Mayor, most recently Satyendra Huja);
  • Support the work of the UUSC – the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee – by becoming a member (ask Edith Good if you don’t know how);
  • Sign up to be a UU Chalice Lighter (a program that leverages small donations from UUs to generate large grants for congregations in need);
  • Volunteer your time for a good cause (and you don’t even need to leave the church to do it!  PACEM, IMPACT, the Soup Kitchen, the Food Pantry, the Meal Packets, the Book Bash in the Fall, the Giving Tree … I think you get the idea);
  • Connect with people of other belief systems and cultures (it was really heartening to see how many of us accepted the invitation and experienced the warm welcome of the folks at the Islamic Society)
  • Model in the congregation what we want the world to look like (healthy communication and assuming good intentions of one another are two good examples);
  • Parents – raise the next generation to be better than this one.
Of course, there are as many possible ways as there are people in the congregation!  More, even.

I know that lists like these can be overwhelming – too many possibilities and too many causes vying for the too little time and energy we have.  I get that.  I was overwhelmed as I wrote it!

But Makenna Breading-Goodrich wasn’t overwhelmed by all of the need around her.  She focused in on one thing.  She went door-to-door in her Phoenix neighborhood asking for coats, jackets, and hoodies for homeless people.  This past December 12th she dropped off 1,000 of them at the Phoenix Rescue Mission.  Oh, I forgot to mention, Makenna is in seventh grade.

12-year old Blare Gooch wanted to do something after seeing a picture of a child crying on a news report about the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010.  He used the power of social media and soon was able to send 25,000 teddy bears to the island, with another 22,000 that he gave to other non-profits.  The next year he turned his sights on toys and school supplies.

After Charlie Coons’ older brother returned from volunteering in an orphanage in Jordon, she was moved by the stories he told her of the conditions there.  She decided to make a fleece blanket to send them and asked some of her friends to do it too.  Soon the other sixth graders in her school, as well as some other local volunteers, were able to send off a package of 50 blankets.  She didn’t want to stop, so she founded HELP (Hope Encouragement Love Peace), and that group has now sent over 700 blankets to orphanages in nine countries.  Did I mention that she was 11 when she started this?

10-year-old Tyler Page saw an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show about children in Ghana being sold into slavery for as little as $20 US dollars.  He and some friends put on a carwash and raised enough money to save five children.  Tyler then asked his mom to help him, and the non-profit that he created has since raised more than $50,000 toward rescuing more than 650 Ghanaian child slaves.

Are you noticing a theme here?  I had to eventually stop searching the internet for stories because there are just so many stories of young people who have not yet learned that “really, after all, there’s only so much that one person can do,” or that “the world has so many problems that anything I might do would just be a drop in the bucket.”  Both of these things are true, of course.  But these children didn’t know that that was supposed to be the end of their plans.

There are two things I want all of us – again, us – to notice in these stories.  First, as I just said these kids didn’t worry about any of the things so many of us worry about.  They just went ahead and did something.  They did one thing to try and make a difference.  So that’s a lesson.  Just do something.  Anything.  Just get started and do it.

And here’s the second thing – none of them did these amazing things on their own.  Yes.  4-year-old Alexandra Scott opened a lemonade stand to raise money for doctors like the ones who were helping her with the neuroblastoma she’d been battling since she was 1.  But the $2,000 she raised wasn’t because her lemonade was so good.  It was because people heard about what she was doing, and what they did was to make a contribution to help her out.  Alex Scott died at the age of 8, but the effort she began is now Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation and it has raised more than $1 million dollars for cancer research. 

She didn’t do it alone.  Nobody ever does it alone.  Not really.  And that means that you and I don’t have to either.  In fact, you and I don’t even have to start anything ourselves; we can simply lend our support to those who have.  But in whatever way we can, we can be part of building the better world we so deeply desire.  And this desire is part of our Unitarian Universalist DNA; it's part of what it means for us to be "a people of desire."  This is part of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.

Pax tecum,


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