Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Life as a White Person

This sermon was presented by Doug Trenfield on Sunday, February 28, 2016

I’ve been white my whole life. Many of you have been too. The awareness of my whiteness, though, has evolved slowly. As a white person, I have had the luxury of letting that awareness evolve slowly. Because I, like a large percent of white folk, I imagine, did not grow up or ever live in environments where my not truly understanding my place as a white person put me at risk, physically or in any other way. Not like the black woman I sat next to at a convention luncheon, a woman about my age from Galveston. She told me ­­ and told me like it was just a well­-processed funny story, one she often traipsed out at convention luncheons when sitting next to white folk ­­ that her mom taught her at an early age that when she goes into a room of people she doesn’t know, to find the white people and figure out who they are. Her life, her prospects for her future, her profession could depend on how well she did this, her mom told her. I was stunned. I’ve told this to friends who are people of color, and they have not found this remarkable. And I found that stunning as well.

Turns out, stories like this are common among those of you (not me) who identify as people of color. After the horrible murder of Trayvon Martin by a self­appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida, we’ve heard a lot about the talk, when a black father sits down with his son and tells him how to act around white people he doesn’t know, around police. Ta­Nehisi Coates writes about this in Between the World and Me. There’d be real fear in his parents, fear that someone would take away their children’s bodies, enough fear that his father would beat him if he misstepped, hurting the very body he feared losing.

And all my life, I’ve gone blithely into that room, not knowing that the eyes behind the darker faces took me in, measured me, judged me quickly because I might judge them quickly, and if I didn’t like what I judged, that I would bring harm. I’ve gone blithely into that room, aware only of prospects ­­ friendships, jobs, maybe romance ­­ and never was afraid. Well, not in the way people of color speak of it.

I’ve never thought of teacher’s judging my academic abilities based on my skin hue. Tim Wise in his memoir White Like Me writes of this. He was raised and schooled, thanks to happenstance and, for the seventies, fairly enlightened parents , in a multicultural neighborhood in Nashville. He had done little to distinguish himself academically, but apparently his whiteness was his ticket to advanced classes. The skin hue of his black friends, many of whom he admits were probably more capable than he, was there ticket to remain in regular ed or, sometimes, to go to special classes.

I’m sure this sort of thing happened around me in school. Even now, 41 years after I graduated from high school, the U.S. Department of Education reports harsh disparities between ethnicities in how discipline in schools is doled out, and multiple studies (for example, one by the Applied Research Center, suggesting racial bias when schools determine who will take Advanced Placement courses) show how race can influence educators’ judgments of students’ academic abilities. I’m sure it did when I was in school, but I didn’t witness it, because I was that well insulated. My parents were liberal college town folks, supporting vociferously the civil rights movement (though showing some disdain for the uglier side of that movement [I remember my mother, a supporter of Martin Luther King, saying that in a way he “asked for it”]). They didn’t set out to insulate me. But the system insulated me nonetheless.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this, race from a white viewpoint, for years, literally for years. I think it began when I discovered literature, and found myself drawn to the literature coming from people of color. They had something to write about. My people, white people, abdicated our ethnicity when we were accepted into the white club. We were no longer English­Irish­Scottish­Dutch­French­Italian­German, we declared. We were white, void of color and void of histories that reached further into the past than two generations. People with similar ethnic heritage to mine and with my skin hue (yeah, I mean white people) who cry out about reverse racism have never held sway with me. I’m more inclined to white folk like comedian Louis CK, who a few years ago was doing lots of bits on race from a white vantage. He said the following in one:

'Here’s how great it is to be white. I could get in a time machine and go to any time, and it would be f­ing awesome when I get there. The year 2? I don’t even know what was happening then. But when I get there, ‘Welcome, we have a table right here waiting for you, sir.’

Language and images get a little dicey here, so I’ll summarize. He said he would not go forward in time in his time machine because, “We’re gonna have to pay for this sh!+.” And it gets dicier. You get the idea.

But if you’re not familiar with how white privilege functions, and you’ve never been around people of color, when you hear of measures to bring people of color to our bounteous table ­­ affirmative action, for one ­­ something like reverse racism, as poorly coined as the term is, comes to mind. A student at West Virginia University, responding to charges of reverse racism at another southern college, wrote:

Reverse racism does not and cannot exist by definition. While racial minorities can certainly hold prejudices against white people, they cannot be "just as racist as white people" or "just as discriminatory as white people" because they do not hold the same economic, institutional and political power.

A friend of mine, a former student who’s working on her PhD at Florida State, would agree. She wrote, responding to a post on my FB feed: Yes, racism is systemic, but it's not bilateral. In other words, it only goes in one direction, and it always favors Whiteness. People of Color cannot be racist; we can be prejudiced and biased, but we are not evoking racism. That is because racism is anchored in systemically conferred power­­power being the operative notion. In racism, only White people have power (just like in sexism, cis­men have power, and xenophobia/nationalism U.S. citizens have power­­you get the point). Power is unearned influence that benefits one group (i.e., White people) over another group (i.e., People of Color). A simple example of power is as follows: You can hate your boss, and your boss can hate you. Certainly, you can hurt your boss' feelings, but only your boss has the power to fire you­­not the other way around. Likewise, when People of Color pit against one another, it's not racism­­it's internalized oppression. Because when we pit against one another, we pull each other down, thereby anchoring White supremacy.

For a long time, I wouldn’t talk about race, but ethnicity. I think most of us know by now, from any scientific standpoint, there is no race. The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has eschewed the idea of race. They wrote, in a 1996 position paper, "Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past." But the word race has crept into another very useful word, racism, which I’d hate to have to drop out of our discussion. Besides, our prejudices toward peoples are not just about ethnicity, but also appearance, specifically, and tragically for a large percent of our population, those features associated with people of African heritage.

But why has this been my obsession? If I want to vaunt my goodness, I’d say it’s because I want to do my part to understand and right centuries of wrongs. And though I do, I don’t think that’s why I’m obsessed. Is it guilt? I think, yeah, though we ­­ you others of my skin hue and having similar heritage (oh yeah ­­ white people) ­­ should do what we can to right wrongs, for the most part, I’m sure, we’ve done nothing consciously to further these wrongs.

So I don’t know. I don’t have any memorable encounters that would lead me to this.

These are the encounters with people of color as I was growing up that I remember. In 4th grade (yes, it took that long for there to be a memorable racial encounter), my nice little suburban neighborhood had its first black family, the Greggs. Kevin Gregg was in my class. He was fun to play football with, which is all I wanted in a friend at that age. The next year, he and his family were gone. Mom told me later that many of our neighbors made life difficult for the Greggs, so the Greggs up and left. At that time, 1966, black families were concentrated in, unironically, two areas of town ­­ Whiteley and White City.

Sixth grade. My sister Gail, five years older, the hippie in our family, brought home a black friend who was a boy. My father ­­ as I’d said, a staunch advocate of civil rights ­­ had never had race relations be so personal. The young man left. I remember there was yelling and stomping. And I remember my father standing over a seated Gail, looking as though he wanted to hit my sister. He didn’t. He wasn’t like that. But that’s how mad he was.

High school, ninth grade. I started at Northside High School in Muncie, Indiana, in 1971. The school opened a year before, rumor has always had it, to give a neighborhood school to the mostly white end of town. Town wasn’t big enough that Northside could exclude all black students, though. I had black students in my classes, but they seemed to have no interest in talking to me. But to be fair, I and my friends had no interest in talking to them. Or about them. Odd, but there was no friction that I knew of. Black and white just lived in skew, though unequal, worlds. At lunch, the blacks ate at one end of the cafeteria. So far as I knew, there were no rules that mandated this. It just happened. After eating, they played on their own end of the gym.

Eleventh grade, at a different high school, Larry Wilkerson broke my nose. No, no drama. We were playing flag football in P.E. I mention it only to bring up Larry, who was a thin bridge between the small group of black kids and my group of white boys (mostly boys). He had good weed. And was open to some good­natured kidding around.

I could go on, but not for very long, and it wouldn’t get more interesting. My point is that I ­­ and I think I’m typical, a type ­­ do not have much to say about my experiences with race, 4 even though, as I was growing up, the U.S. struggled with it mightily (and among whites, mostly unwillingly), and even though the black kids in my town would probably put race close to the center of the stories of their youth.

So I’m almost done with my sermon. And I haven’t given you a lesson, a homily. I don’t think a lesson or homily would be appropriate. I think it’s presumptuous that I, a white guy raised in suburban Muncie, Indiana, would have a lesson to give about race. My purpose in speaking today is to start a conversation. Would someone else like to speak on race? It’s hard to talk about, I know. What’re intended as observations can be taken personally, yes. But I think it’s important that we ­­ by we, I do not mean exclusively we at UUFHC, but all U.S. humans ­­ that we do talk about it. No one needs to presume to give lessons, but I think it’s important that we talk. Since I did not grow up around people of color other than African­Americans, I did not talk today about white­Latino relations. How are those different? How are they similar? Since I’ve spent almost all my adult life as a minority ­­ still white, though, so still a member of the more powerful class ­­ here in the Valley, I could talk about it. But so could most of you, white or Latino. And I’d love to hear the Winter Texan perspective on race here in the Valley.

The first reading today, Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B” ­­ it’s connection is pretty easy to see. I’ve loved that poem since I first read it as a young teacher. Hughes, I think, gets at the subtler tensions between white and black, even though at the time of its writing there were much less subtle tensions between the races. He says:

Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

The second reading, the sermon at the end of the novel (and movie) A River Runs Through It, is about what we can do when we don’t know what to do. Maclean writes, “And so it is that those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them ­ we can love completely without complete understanding.” We may not understand one another because of our various differences ­­ gender orientation, race, ethnicity, social class. We can work toward understanding, but until we get even close to understanding, we can still love. And when we love, we listen.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

The First Principle: Our Inherent Worth and Dignity



This service was presented by Rachel Alvarez on Sunday, January 31

Reading #1:  Reflection on the First Principle
“Reverence and respect for human nature is at the core of Unitarian Universalist (UU) faith. We believe that all the dimensions of our being carry the potential to do good. We celebrate the gifts of being human: our intelligence and capacity for observation and reason, our senses and ability to appreciate beauty, our creativity, our feelings and emotions. We cherish our bodies as well as our souls. We can use our gifts to offer love, to work for justice, to heal injury, to create pleasure for ourselves and others.
“‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy,’ the great twentieth-century Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote. Unitarian Universalists affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person as a given of faith—an unshakeable conviction calling us to self-respect and respect for others.”
—Rev. Dr. Rebecca Ann Parker, minister, theologian, and author




Reading #2:
The following quote was written in the wake of September 11, 2001, by Rev. Sean Parker Dennison of South Valley UU in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In a time like this, it is important to remember that "inherent worth
and dignity" is not the same as blamelessness or freedom from
accountability. If we uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every
person we are not saying that whatever they choose to do is somehow
okay. What we are saying is that unlike the people that planned and
carried out these horrific events, we value human life—every human
life. When people behave cruelly and with hatred we will intervene,
but we will do so in ways that protect and preserve life. Even when
we are enraged and seek to redress a horrible wrong, we will measure
our acts by the standards of dignity, honor, and justice. Even in the
face of tragedy, we must not forget that every life—American, Arab,
Persian, Afghani—is precious. May we not waste a single one.
Inherent worth and dignity is not something we confer upon people
when they are good and rescind when they are bad. Inherent worth
and dignity is not something that resides in the other, but

something that is demanded of us.

Presentation
            As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have specific creeds that we must all agree upon and follow.  Instead, our Seven Principles provide guidelines for us to live by.  Growing up, when friends would ask about the church I attended and our beliefs, I would struggle with how to respond, but usually, I said something related to the importance of “being a good person.”  In my opinion, the Seven Principles are the foundation for UUs to be good people.  Knowing that UUs may have different beliefs than me about the existence of a god or gods, heaven, hell, etc…  I generally understand that UUs share the Seven Principles as a common foundation, which is comforting to me in a very diverse religious community. 
          Today’s presentation will be kicking off a second cycle of a series discussing our Seven Principles.  To begin, I wanted to discuss the Seven Principles in general, before specifically focusing on the First Principle, promoting the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
          In preparation for this sermon, I found an article that resonated with me and made me think of the Seven Principles in a slightly different way.  I would like to share some excerpts from it.  In the Summer 2014 issue of UU World, in his article titled “I don't 'believe in' the Seven Principles: I don’t think of them as beliefs at all…” Doug Muder writes, “The absolute worst of the common answers [to the question of what UUs believe] is “[that we] can believe whatever they want.” In fact the exact opposite is true. Maybe more than any other religion, Unitarian Universalism pushes us to ask: “Is that really true or is it just what I want to believe?  Precisely because I am a UU, I question ideas whose primary virtue is that I want to believe them.  Once you step around that pothole, discussions tend to gravitate towards the Seven Principles. As a list of things that our congregations are committed to affirm and promote, the Principles have at least a formal resemblance to the creeds of Christian churches; we teach them to our children, introductory books are organized around them, and so forth. So if someone comes to a UU congregation looking for the Unitarian Universalist creed, the Principles seem to be it.  But if you’ve ever tried to present the Principles to creed-seeking newcomers, you’ve probably seen their disappointment. “And?” their expressions seem to ask.
          I can relate to this feeling.  In telling my friends that my religion promotes “being a good person,” I feel like I fall short of some deeper meaning.  Is “being a good person,” really such a great feat for us to strive for? Do we really need a religious community to remind us and encourage us to be good people? 
          Muder continues, “The Principles fail as a creed because they’re too easy. Billions of people who literally would not want to be caught dead in a UU church can nod along with them. Take the Second Principle: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” Does some other religion take a bold stand for injustice in human relations? People may argue about what “justice” means, but everybody is for it.
The Principles are littered with feel-good terms like that: “spiritual growth,” “democratic process,” “search for truth and meaning,” “world community,” “peace,” “liberty.” If all Unitarian Universalism wants you to do is approve of such concepts, that’s not very demanding, is it? In addition to thinking that they describe a really wimpy religion, I have an even more serious objection to the Principles as a defining set of Unitarian Universalist beliefs: I don’t believe in them.  In fact, I don’t think of them as beliefs at all. I think of them as visions.
          “The point of putting the Principles in the front of the hymnal and teaching them to our children isn’t to assert their truth, or even to encourage you to nod along with the idea that they should be true. Unitarian Universalism is a commitment to envision a world in which the Principles have become true, to envision it so intensely and in such detail that it becomes a genuine possibility, and to join with others in making that possibility real.  That’s how the Seven Principles turn into a challenging spiritual path.  So, do I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? No. I am committed to envisioning it. Together with others, I hope to imagine it so well, so convincingly, and so beautifully that the vision becomes viral and takes over the world.
          “That’s much harder than just believing the First Principle is true, because truths can take care of themselves. The difficulty of our task is why Unitarian Universalists need each other. If the point of Unitarian Universalism were just to believe the Principles, I could do that on my own. But the path of not believing—or believing that the First Principle is not true yet—is more challenging. I can’t do it by myself. If I’m trying to envision the Principles into existence, then I need my congregation and all the other congregations and all the help they can muster.  So what do Unitarian Universalists believe? We’re not committed to beliefs, we’re committed to visions.  That’s much harder.”  [End quote]
          So, looking more specifically at our first principle, we as Unitarian Universalists we “covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  According to Merriam-Webster, “inherent” can be defined as “belonging to the basic nature of someone or something,” “involved in the constitution or essential character of something,” or “belonging by nature or habit.” The definitions of “worth” include “the value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held,” “moral or personal value,” or “usefulness or importance.” Finally, “dignity” is defined as “the quality of being worthy of honor or respect.”  Putting all of these terms together, the first principle, to me, means consistently and deliberately recognizing and promoting the importance and value that is essential to each person’s very being.  According to our first principle, each person is unconditionally worthy of honor and respect.  Building off Muder’s assertion, this may not be true in our world yet, but we are envisioning a world in which all people are treated with unconditional honor and respect.  That is, indeed, much more challenging than just believing that it should be the case.
          Even this can potentially be a struggle for some of us when we encounter stories of crime, racism, terrorism, or even just a difficult co-worker.  How do we reconcile the inherent worth and dignity of people with their sometimes careless, hurtful, or downright tragic actions?  How do we treat people with respect, honor, and compassion, when we don’t feel they are offering the same treatment to others?  To skip ahead a bit, I’ll tell you now that I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle with thoughts like these.  When challenged by a person I can’t seem to understand or with whom I cannot find common ground, I want to make a greater effort to treat that person with kindness.  I try to remind myself of the quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  By acknowledging that every person is complex and that any number of factors can contribute to his or her beliefs or behavior, it is slightly easier to remember their inherent worth and dignity.  Beyond this, how can we commit to building a world in which this is, undeniably, the case?  I don’t know, but I feel that in coming to our services here and reading more about UUism, I feel closer to that reality.
          Finally, part of honoring every person’s inherent worth and dignity must be applied to the ways in which we perceive ourselves.  On the UUA website, a downloadable cell phone wallpaper reads, “Remember your inherent worth & dignity.”  I love this message.  Sometimes, we are our own worst enemies and critics, and UUs who may be extremely forgiving and compassionate toward others may put themselves down or be too hard on themselves.  In addition to treating others with respect, it is arguably more important to consciously remember and reinforce our self-respect. 
          As I think about raising my own daughter, who will be arriving in just two months, I remind myself of the messages I want to teach her.  I want her to be self-confident, curious, open-minded, and compassionate.  I hope that she learns to treat herself kindly, which has not always been easy for me to do for myself.  I also hope that she treats others with respect and kindness, no matter their gender, race, ethnicity, age, or background.  And I hope that she doesn’t just nod along in agreement to the first principle, but that she strives to contribute to the building of a community based on that vision of each person’s inherent worth and dignity.


Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stone Soup Sunday

This service was presented by Rachel Alvarez on November 29, 2015.
 
 

Reading #1:  GARDEN MEDITATION by Reverend Max Coots

Let us give thanks for a bounty of people, for children who are our second planting, and though they grow like weeds and the wind too soon blows them away, may they forgive us our cultivation and fondly remember where their roots are.

Let us give thanks for generous friends ... with hearts ... and smiles as bright as their blossoms;

For feisty friends, as tart as apples; for continuous friends, who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we've had them;

For crotchety friends, sour as rhubarb and as indestructible; for handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn, and the others, as plain as potatoes and so good for you;

For funny friends, who are as silly as Brussels sprouts and as amusing as Jerusalem artichokes;

And serious friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as delightful as dill, as endless as zucchini and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter;

For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time, and young friends coming on as fast as radishes; for loving friends, who wind around us like tendrils and hold us, despite our blights, wilts and witherings;

And finally, for those friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might have life thereafter.

For all these we give thanks.


Reading #2
Strange and Foolish Walls by Rev. A. Powell Davies

The years of all of us are short, our lives precarious.
Our days and nights go hurrying on and there is scarcely time to do the little that we might.
Yet we find time for bitterness, for petty treason and evasion.
What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?
Here we are -all of us- all upon this planet, bound together in a common destiny,
Living our lives between the briefness of daylight and the dark.
Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious, flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are not kindred in all things else?
How strange and foolish are these walls of separation that divide us!
 
SERMON
               At First Parish Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, where I grew up, we had an annual tradition around the time of Thanksgiving, called Stone Soup Sunday.  The RE program would participate by acting out the legend of Stone Soup, and parishioners would contribute vegetables to the pot.  After the service, the whole congregation would enjoy a lunch of soup, prepared by the children and the RE teachers.  I always enjoyed this tradition, and it became the inspiration for today’s service, which I hope we can make an annual tradition here at the UUFHC.  At times, I feel like, as UU’s, we lack some of the ceremony and ritual that other religious denominations have, so I find it comforting to establish our own meaningful traditions.
            The story of Stone Soup can be interpreted and retold in a variety of ways, but for me, the take-away is that we, as a community, are better and stronger together than we are apart, as individuals.  As stated in the second reading, “strange and foolish walls” divide the world, as we’ve seen historically as well as in recent events, when unfortunately, we all possess unique strengths and assets that we could share with those around us, if only we could be generous, open, and caring enough to do so. 
            I would like to examine this concept from the small scale, as our congregation, and also from the large scale, as members of the global community.  In considering the small scale, I have been thinking about previous presentations by Laurie, Ashley, and Dale, in which we as a congregation are being called to come together and strengthen this fellowship, and also to consider how we can give of ourselves to others.  I found a relevant sermon, called “Covenant Power,” by Rev. Anthony Makar, which I will read from now.  In “Covenant Power,” Rev. Makar calls the members of his congregation to support one another, and take an active role in making the church community stronger and better.  He explains:
            Just like the [soldiers] in the story, Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Comes to our        village, and like the [villagers], at first we are cautious. “What? Me?” “I’m sorry, I have            nothing in the house.” Now, to be fair, this might not echo absolutely everyone’s experience. You might have grown up in some religious community and it was a good experience for you. You might have been in a place in life where you were ready again for another experience of religious community. If so, you handed over food to the stranger immediately. You already knew what was going to happen next, because you’ve been there before. And since you carried no burdens of hurt or anger, your heart was open and easy.
            For some of you, perhaps. But I suspect that for many of us, especially many people now, Unitarian Universalism came to us and we WERE cautious like those villagers. For one reason, we might have grown up unchurched, so we don’t have any first-hand experience of what we’re getting ourselves into. This is especially true with regard to being asked to make an annual financial pledge. It can take a while to understand what this means and why it’s important. Couple this lack of familiarity with what we hear about organized religion on the news—the way the news often focuses on the negative—and you bet we’re cautious. It’s no wonder it no longer works just to wait for people to find us. People who identify with no religious tradition whatsoever—don’t just show up.   We have to reach out….
            Now, maybe we did grow up in church. But what if the experience we had was not so      good? Was terrible, in fact? God is an Incredible Hulk figure to us. Religion is the last place where we seek out adventure and joy because it was always a scene of terror, no   mistakes allowed, got to toe the line and get it right or you are going to HELL! It wounded us, it hurt us. And like all wounds and hurts, our old experience plays inside us like a broken record, making it nearly impossible to hear a sound that is truly new and sweet. Making it nearly impossible to believe that religion could be anything other than brutalizing and diminishing…
            For all these reasons, and more, Unitarian Universalism comes to us, and we are cautious. What is it? Is it the same old thing as before?
            But here you are. Here we are. The story doesn’t end with caution or with the villagers      saying, “I’m sorry, I have nothing in the house right now.”
            Because what happens is that the soldiers say, “Not to worry. If we just use a few stones and if you will let me put it in a pot of boiling water I’ll make the most delicious soup in the world.” They have a vision. We can create something amazing, if we are all engaged, if we all contribute.
            The most delicious soup in the world. Not the same old thing as before, but something      truly different. That’s why we’re here. We want it! Soul food! Soul soup! Unitarian Universalist style, which tastes of fundamental sacred Mystery and many paths into the Mystery and truth about the Mystery that takes a lifetime to encounter and we are changed and changed again and it is savory, it is just the best thing, it is GOOD!
            Unitarian Universalism says we can have this, and we are curious. Can it be true? So, just like the villagers, we give into the possibility. Someone brings out a big pot filled with water, another brings out potatoes, a third adds tomatoes, then another adds onion, then comes the celery… We do this. It happens because we give our gifts, we create the common meal.   How otherwise can the most delicious soup in the world be made?
            There has to be a vision that makes all the work worthwhile. And then, there must be the power of WE to make it happen. Which is so very different from the very American emphasis on the power of ME. For some things, yes, power of ME. OK. But when you want to bring a little slice of heaven down to earth? When you want to do that? NOT power of ME. It takes power of WE. How do we channel and support the power of WE?
            This big question resounds throughout all aspects of our life together. The most obvious    case of this has to do with our theological diversity. We are atheists and we are theists in         worship together. We are atheists and theists and Buddhists and Pagans and Jews and           Christians and New Agers and star-bellied Sneetches and plain-bellied Sneetches and I- don’t-know-what-I-am-but-I–know-what-I-don’t-like and on and on and on. "Whaaaat?" says most of humanity. Whaaaat? How do we do this? How do we work this miracle?
            How do we get anything done? How does it all hang together?
            The answer is one of our Unitarian Universalist essentials. Covenant. If you open up your hymnal to the pages right before the first hymn, you will see: “WE, THE MEMBER   CONGREGATIONS OF THE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION,             COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE?” See that? “Covenant” is a word you need to know if you are a Unitarian Universalist. It’s one of our essentials. Because it tells us how we come together and stay together, and this way is different from what you might see in many other religious communities.
            Go back to the story. The soldiers want to engage the village community in making the     most delicious soup in the world. But they don’t care what you may believe about God or the afterlife or any of the other key religious questions of life? All they want to know is, will you contribute something good to the making of the soup? Will you protect the space of our common meal? This, as opposed to such things as:
            • bringing something rotten and insisting that you have every right to add it to the pot       (freedom of speech you say! inherent worth and dignity you say!) even though it spoils             everything for everybody;
            • gossiping about what someone else brought, behind their back;
            • if you feel there’s only one way to make the soup and it’s your way, and you aren’t        getting your way, then you take your particular contribution out of the mix and go home;
            • pushing the pot over;
            • getting into fights around the pot;
            • getting so caught up in conversation about the soup that nothing actually happens about actual soup being actually made.
            What the soldiers want—what Unitarian Universalism wants—is not this. We dare not      have this, if we want to channel the power of WE in constructive, creative ways.
            Therefore, we Unitarian Universalists say that the best way for individuals to journey        together in community is through covenantalism, not creedalism. Creedalism basically says that the best way to organize as a group is everyone believing in the same things, down to the details. To this way of thinking, you can’t really have a religious identity otherwise. Identity means uniformity.
            Covenantalism, on the other hand, is when a group organizes itself around the deep           promises people make to each other about how they are going to treat each other and work together, and this leaves the details of particular beliefs to individuals themselves. Thinking alike is not the point, but loving alike is. That’s where we get religious identity from.
            The practice of covenant runs deep in our way of religion. Trace it back, for example, to    1568 and the first and only Unitarian king in history, King John Sigismund of Transylvania.  The reason why Transylvania looms large in our history is that during the 16th century and beyond, Unitarians were pretty much murdered everywhere else in Europe. Transylvania was one of the only safe zones for people like us. This is what he said, this Unitarian king: “In every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel, each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied….” Essentially this says that the preacher in our tradition gets to say what his or her heart moves him or her to say; the pulpit is free. But it also says that the congregant in the pew doesn’t have to swallow it; they are free too. They can agree or disagree, as their own reason and conscience and heart dictate. What gathers preacher and congregant together is not agreement on everything but respect. That is the spirit of covenantalism. That is what makes what we are doing right now work.
            Not thinking alike, but loving alike.
            The answers to questions we have about the future are unknown. But getting to the           answers I think is a lot like making soup. Promising we will all contribute something good. Promising we will protect the common space of our common meal. Don’t bring something rotten. Don’t gossip. Don’t insist that it’s my way or the highway. Don’t push the pot over. Don’t get into fights around the pot. Don’t get so caught up in talking that we never get to doing.
            Unitarian Universalism comes to us. Our congregation comes to us. All there is at first is   a stone. But if we fulfill our deep promises of respect to each other: that is how we can know we are living in the truth of our spiritual way. That is how the most delicious soup in all the world is made.
            On a more global scale, I wanted to share some thoughts from a sermon titled, “Not in Isolation,” by Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray.  She states:
            Obviously, giving is a central part of the holiday season. This is one of the most charitable times. But the story of Stone Soup is not a story of charity, but a story of common wealth, the abundance we have when we work together. The soldiers appear at first as beggars, but turn out to be wise men. They remind the people what they find when they come out of their homes, out of isolation, and raise their concerns beyond their own families, to really share and live together.
            This story is in deep contrast to so many of the stories we are told, and that we tell            ourselves, about how we are to live. Arising out of the American dream itself, we have told (and often tell ourselves) that we need to do everything for ourselves, provide everything to our children, be completely self-sufficient, self-sustainable, in need of no one. This is the success we celebrate as the American dream, money, power, and the idea that we are independent and solely self-reliant.
            Now, some of this is good--self-reliance encourages individual creativity and innovation. It fuels new ideas, new technology, new art. It is a powerful motivator. But it is also not  entirely true. When we move too far down the path of valuing the myth of isolated self-sufficiency, we are deceiving ourselves, and more than this, depriving ourselves.
            Now I’m going to add in a little side note: With the recent events in the news, and the horrifying backlash against refugees, I have been reading and hearing a lot of this rhetoric—that we need to worry about ourselves, our own people, etc., rather than open our doors to those from other corners of the globe, who are feared as threats to OUR security, when in reality, they are fleeing the same violence we also fear.  I won’t get into the politics more than that, at the moment, except to connect this current issue to Rev. Frederick-Gray’s assertion that, “We are all dependent and interdependent on one another and on the larger system.”  She continues to say,
            “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the    universe.  It is the same with our own lives. We are all dependent on one another and on our system of community. To deny the value of the ways in which our lives can be enriched by widening our understanding of independence and common wealth, and turn instead to a one-sided story of independence and self-sufficiency, leaves us hungry as a people for the riches that lie beyond money.
            Fundamentally, when we all try to each have everything we need--our own swimming       pool, TV’s for every person in the house, personal computers for each person, a playground in the each backyard--we have far more than we “need.” When we have all this we rarely have a need to go out and do things with our neighbors. Taking care of all our needs in our own private homes depletes our community’s strength. It minimizes or eliminates our relationships of sharing, socializing and depending on our neighbors.
            At the same time, it has an environmental cost -- and that cost is coming around in such a way that we are realizing we cannot solve the issues of climate change, food shortages, and water and energy issues by each person doing their part. We have to work together, locally, nationally and globally, to really address these issues.
            For my money, the key, the wisdom, the path to sustainable lives and the path to a            satisfied life is a balance: a balance between our individual dreams, desires and concerns and our attention and contribution to common life with our neighbors, our community and one another. One without the other is not sustainable. When each of us feels like we have to provide alone for all our families’ needs, the pressure is intense and we can feel like failures when we can’t do it all. Yet, without nurturing some of that spirit of independence and personal dreams, our spirits languish as well.
            Chuck Collins, and economist, an activist for the commonwealth, a Unitarian         Universalist, and an heir to the Oscar Meyer fortune, who at 26 years old gave his entire trust fund away to charity said:  “Do you build a wall of money around your life to   protect yourself, or do you invest in the commonwealth? You can't be too rigid or ideological. So you put money in a college fund and give to the United Students Association so they can work toward making tuitions lower. I want to cast my lot with everyone else I know. I would rather work for a society where people take care of each other and not one based on whether you can amass a small fortune to provide basic care. I believe you shouldn't have to be rich to have a decent life in this society." From Riches to     Responsibility: Defending the Estate Tax by Kimberly French, UUWorld. March/April 2003, (12.5.09).
            During this holiday season, let us remember our dependence on one another, and the interdependent web of existence.  We must care for one another, and remember our own vulnerabilities.  Our community, whether that be our congregation, our city, our region, our nation, or the whole world, will be stronger if we can work together and share what we have to improve the common good.  In the words of Rev. Frederick-Gray, “In this season, may we all be called out of isolation and into the common life, finding true wealth in common wealth.”
 



Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Who Do I Think I Am?

This sermon was presented by Laurie Ruiz on September 20, 2015.



Hi.  My name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver.  I am a white middle-class Presbyterian from Wisconsin - well I used to be Laurie Hamblin Oliver, but now I am Laurie Oliver Ruiz.  I used to be from Wisconsin, but now I live in Texas.  I guess I’m still middle-class – it depends on your definition and it sure doesn’t go as far as it used to.  Presbyterian – not anymore – now I'm a Unitarian Universalist.  And white - I still am, right? So much of our own identity comes from those words we use to describe ourselves:  religion, race, ancestry.  I consider myself a member of each wonderful, or not so wonderful, sometimes transitional  category.  But, come on, I’m from Wisconsin?  I learned way back in 4th grade that Wisconsin didn’t even become a state until 1848 - OK, I didn’t really know that, I had to look it up.  Better said - I was born in Wisconsin. I have lived in Texas for more than 30 years which is why I no longer consider myself a Wisconsinite but yet can’t, or won’t claim to be a Texan.  I've always considered myself to be part of a broader group – Scottish. Maybe that is part of the reason I have had such a desire - more accurately described as an minor obsession - with researching my family tree. To borrow from the TV show - “Who Do I Think I Am?”

I’ve never really thought about why I can’t seem to stop doing research on my ancestors.  I decided to look for reasons that people do genealogy.  They varied greatly: finding adopted family members, finding stories and pictures before they are lost forever, understanding personal traits, knowing where to travel on vacations, finding connections to people and places in the world, proving and/or disproving family lore, conquering the puzzle, a personal connection to history. Another important reason was for medical reasons - tracing genetically passed on conditions or a pattern of health problems.  For me it’s a combination of reasons and it seems they change as I get older.

     Alex Haley, author of the book and miniseries Roots writes: Young and old alike find that knowing one's roots, and thus coming better to know who one is, provides a personally rewarding experience. But even more is involved than uncovering a family history, for each discovered United States family history becomes a newly revealed small piece of American history. Stated simply: a nation's history is only the selective histories of all of its people. It is only through an unfolding of the people's histories that a nation's culture can be studied in its fullest meaning.


In  my words - Have you ever done a crossword puzzle?  If you have, you quickly learn that one wrong entry can sabotage filling in the rest of the puzzle.  Did you want to “cheat” and peek at the answers in the back of the book - maybe just one or two words that would enable you to then use your brilliant thinking skills to find the answers on your own  - only to find out that the answers are not printed - anywhere?   Now imagine a puzzle that immediately dangles two new questions for every solution you do find. Growing exponentially , taunting you to continue on. That, to me, is the essence of genealogy. Add in the fascinating stories, internet “friending” of relatives and I find myself unable to stop. 


I have always had an interest in my ancestors.  When my son was in kindergarten and Thanksgiving rolled around I figured he would love to share the story of his ninth great-grandfather, John Howland, coming to the New World on the Mayflower, falling overboard, and being one of the original pilgrims. Nah, he didn’t want the attention and never took the carefully printed paper out of his backpack . Now, me, I had gone on this new “internet” to get the Pilgrim details that I had long since forgotten.  Wow - talk about a “New World”. Once I started I didn't stop.   I thought I “knew” my heritage.  I was Scotch and English.  My dad’s parents were born in Scotland and my mom's family were from England of the Mayflower and through the Revolutionary war.  How little I actually knew.

One of the first things that became crystal clear was that I could not choose my relatives.  By the time I looked him up online that pilgrim, John Howland, had racked up some 2 million descendants.  I discovered a distant relation to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christopher Lloyd.  Pretty cool.  But then - you've got to take the bad with the good.  I was also related to George Bush - and I have more recently learned Sarah Palin.  Genealogy research can leave with with some warm fuzzies, but you also have to be prepared for anything. And I mean anything.  Partway into my research I heard from my cousin, a fellow family historian, that some of our ancestors had been slave owners. 


I started searching, back in 1998, with a simple internet search using the few names I knew and I was not finding any results.  This was back when most of the research sites were free, with slow, loud, dial-up connection that worked best in the middle of the night.  I had a hand-written list with names of my grandfather’s parents, his grandparents and some scribbled names for his uncles, Georgie, Scn, Mac - but according to the internet these people were all attached to the wrong families. It was frustrating and I figured my ancestors had all “been gone”  when the census taker came by.  I remember standing in the kitchen late one night and, out loud, asking my grandpa, long since gone - who are these people?  Lo and behold - he answered.  The very next day in the mail I got a letter from my aunt - telling me she had a letter from a cousin of my grandpa.  She lived in New Zealand and was trying to contact the American “Oliver” family.  The letter went on to tell me that her father was George - one of the names from the paper!  The “coincidence” still makes me shiver and I thank - or maybe blame -  my Grandpa for pushing me to research further.  After a few mistakes - like writing a wrong answer on that crossword puzzle-  I was pretty sure that my grandma’s parents had been first cousins - I quickly learned that accuracy and attention to detail and proof is very important.  I also learned to look passed or maybe around the obvious.  A wonderful, detailed copy of an old letter of family information from my new relative in New Zealand explained why the names I had been searching for never matched up.  My great-grandfather was , and I quote “the product of a liaison between William Oliver and a local servant girl”.  He was raised by his father’s family and both parents went on to marry other people.  My first lesson in making no assumptions.  With reference “make no assumptions” another family I found that during a 10 year period between the census records the mother had disappeared,  the kids were living with other families as “wards”, and the father was living with a cousin. I mourned for the kids losing their mother so young.  Just this week I came across a death certificate with her name, correct birthday, but apparently 92 years old, remarried, and up near Houston.  I need to do more research, but it appears I had taken the easy path, not the correct one.

Another interesting experience was one of those late night research endeavors to find death certificate of a particular ancestor.  These documents can be rich with details, including relevant medical information, like the one I just mentioned.  It was one of the few time I was using a paid source and being “Scotch” ( in other words -  thrifty) was used my credits sparingly.  Of course I had the misfortune to be looking for James Stuart in Scotland - sort of like John Smith here in the United States.  I knew generally where, when and with whom he had lived but none of the matches were quite close enough for me to spend the money to open the links.  Finally exhausted from the middle of the night search I decided to sleep on it.  During the night I got up and glanced at my box of old pictures near the bed.  I saw a picture of a woman I had never seen before but at that moment -knew to be Jane Green - wife of the man I had been searching for.  I can still see the details - long skirt with an apron, hair pulled back tight into a bun, black boot-like shoes....so vivid.  She was repeating -”You’re looking in the wrong place, You’re looking in the wrong place.”  I never figured out if it was totally a dream or if I had even really gotten up, but in the morning I cranked up the computer and looked for James Stuart - in a different city, a different place - and there he was. I ordered the document and got a wealth of information.  For me - the connection - real or perceived - to this much greater “web of existence” is a big part of what keeps pushing me. 

I long ago decided that I didn’t want to collect names - but rather collect stories.  It’s a sort of like detective work.  I find a person in the different census reports and imagine the changes that had happened over the years.  A move across the country or the ocean, the death and/or birth of more than one family member, a marriage.  All of these can be pieced together to put together a story.  I knew that my great-grandparents had been married in Terre Haute, Indiana and didn't know why one family married in Indiana when everyone else was on the East coast.  Further research in the census showed me that my great-grandparents had lived a block away from each other in Boonton, New Jersey.  After the death of her mother the family moved to Indiana where her father had relatives.  Within months of the move she married, in Indiana, her beau from New Jersey and was again living on the East coast. I can imagine her emotions at losing her mother, moving away from her true love, and then leaving her father to move back East.  All done in the late 1800’s.  Another example was figuring out how my Grandparents met when they lived at opposite ends of Scotland.  The death certificate of my great-grandfather (my grandma's side) listed his place of death as the city my grandfather lived in – a connection that explains how they may have ended up meeting. Those are the details that I find so compelling.

 I've discovered that my mom's mother had been one of the few women Yeoman in the Navy during the first world war and worked a “decoder”.  And that my great great-grandfather had contracted malaria while camped in the Chickahamony Swamp during the McClelland Campaign outside Richmond during the Civil War.  His military pension file is full handwritten descriptions of the conditions, treatments, and lasting effects of the mercury pills they were given to “cure” the disease.    Or another ancestor – a soldier at Gettysburg in the Civil War – who for the rest of his life set an extra plate at the table and left the porch light on for his younger brother who had died  in a confederate prison camp.  For the first time I’m excited about history. I feel like I am a part if it.

Another unexpected benefit of my research was discovering the vast network of individuals who are willing to help each other in their research.  I had people In Scotland look up birth records in Edinburgh, others look up headstone inscriptions in Aberdeen.  The kindness was overwhelming.  Even better was when some of the people I “met” online were in fact cousins.  I have found grandchildren of my grandma’s sisters and brother in Scotland, England, and Australia.  We’ve set up a Facebook page where we can all share picture and stories.  It is an amazing connection.

Fast forward to fast internet and DNA testing.  Talk about expanding my web of existence!  My sister had her DNA tested and shared it with me. The first thing I saw was - 42% Ireland.  It was an odd feeling to see that what I had thought all of my life - who I was - dismissed so easily.  I don't feel a connection to Ireland, the people, the customs. Careful reading of the results explained that there isn’t a specific Scottish, English, or Irish category because they have been so busy conquering each other for centuries.  They do split it into Great Britain(more English) and Ireland (more Gaelic) I was about half and half.  So I was back into my comfort zone, but in the end maybe a little disappointed.  I also had just enough different traces of other European countries thrown in to keep me looking for those elusive “other countries”.  Alas, it's again the unexpected but the first day I looked at the DNA results I connected with a women who shared my great-grandfather, but not my great-grandmother.  It seems that my great-grandfather, an archeologist at Chichen Itza and consul to Yucatan had 3 familes.   One when he first moved to Mexico(about 5 kids), one when his wife moved to Mexico(6 kids – one of which was my Grandpa)and one after my great-grandmother and her school age kids came back to Massachusetts(about 5 kids).  It's been an interesting online reunion with some of the other grandchildren.  Another woman was angry because our trees didn't show an immediate match while our DNA indicated 3-4th cousins. She wanted me to call Ancestry and tell them they were wrong. It's been an interesting journey.

But what if your DNA results really don’t match what you always thought of yourself to be.  Would it make a difference in the way you think of yourself? If we live in the present does it matter where your ancestors came from, how they got here?  How much of our self image is tied to our ancestry?  My husband recently did a DNA test.  For those of you who haven’t met him he was born in Edinburg and is Mexican American.  He’s always know that he had a little bit of European ancestry, although you wouldn't really know it by looking at him.  One grandparent supposedly had some German background, there were some green eyes and fair skin that supposedly came from Spain…  Before his results came back we made some “educated guesses” about what we expected to see.  We assumed a lot of Mexican Indian, some Spain, and maybe a little German.  And, we were wrong.  To make a long story short - his DNA showed his ancestry to be 41% Native American.  It was a little disappointing to not be able to pinpoint which type Native American but it was surprising that it was under 50%. Even more surprising was that 52% of his ancestral DNA came from Europe- and only 15% was from the Iberian Peninsula.  A whopping 28% of his DNA came from Italy/Greece.  We never imagined, never once thought to look there for records.  He had never considered himself to be Greek or Italian, at all.  Then his trace DNA - well 9% Ireland, Scandinavia, Britain, European Jewish - throws a few more ingredients into the soup.  It puts a whole new spin on the 1900 census where his grandfather is apparently the ward of a family living in Brownsville - and the head of the household is Conrad Lawrence Cloetta born 1832 in Livorno, Italy.  Cloetta's obituary states that he came to this country as a young child and chose to live in Matamoros from 1868-1898.  What a story that will be to unravel - if the connection proves correct.

Most importantly, does it affect the way my husband thinks of himself in the world. In a nutshell - Hell, yes.   Suddenly there is a connection to millions of people never before considered.  He now feels compelled to learn about the area, geographically and culturally.  And the thought that he  might have 2nd, 3rd, 4th cousins in Italy or Greece is mind blowing.  The term “Mexican American” no longer seems adequate to describe him. It will take more research until he feels comfortable with any new “label”.

So, who do you think I am?  How do I fit into this world?  Our UU “web” is a perfect description – it's ever expanding and sometimes tangled.  If you look at my family tree and DNA results and put them with my husband's tree and DNA results, which coincidentally makes up my son's ancestry, it will touch, in some way, every continent.  With that connection to history, that connection to so many countries, that many people how can I not continue to do research.  How can I not care about the lives, the stories, the travels that are in some way tied to me, to the life I know.  Again, Alex Haley says it perfectly: Every genealogical researcher shares one frustration that I know I will always live with. Was there something else I should have uncovered? My long curiosity about my family's roots and the twelve years of obsessively pursuing and writing about them surely have not ended my curiosity. Again put simply: I have learned to live with my genealogical addiction..... I can relate, Alex.

So. Hi, my name is Laurie Hamblin Oliver Ruiz and I am a Gaelic, British, a little bit European, Unitarian Universalist living in Texas.  Who do you think you are?