To Transform Ourselves and the World (June, 2014)

My father was a dentist. He really used to enjoy the aspect of his profession that involved relationships with people—colleagues, staff, and patients alike. I remember one conversation he told me about, with a long-time patient who was also a friend. The topic of the Unitarian Church came up. We had been attending services as a family for just a few months. When the friend remarked that “they're more of a political party than a church,” my father took offense. Turned out, this man and his wife were members of the same church! Political action and advocacy were certainly part of the congregation's mission. The minister, the Reverend Harold Schmidt, not only inspired us from the pulpit, but he also modeled social action as a marcher for civil rights in Selma, Alabama and with farmworkers in Delano.

After I came of age and left home, it was many years before I found my way back to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. My parents, I believe, were initially attracted to the church by its creedlessness: in those days, it was described as “a church where you can believe whatever you want.” I came back for the children's program, for ongoing conversation about things that matter to me, and for the radical message of love and justice I had heard at the Unitarian Church in Stockton when I was a teenager.

Social justice work is integral to our mission at UUSM. We are a religious community of open hearts and open minds working together to transform ourselves and the world. “Transforming ourselves” is not a separate activity from “transforming the world.” We are not just in the world, we are of the world. We work to transform the world by means of transforming ourselves. This is spiritual discipline: we are all connected with each other, with circles upon circles of other people, and with “the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

As a religious community, our role in social transformation is different from that of an organization—or a political party—that works for specific justice goals. As a religious community, we are committed to the work of shifting broad cultural norms in ways that political, legal, or legislative justice activities are not. Our commitment is grounded in relationships and powered by vision. Preaching about slavery in the 1850s, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker cast such a vision:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe;

the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways;

I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure

by the experience of sight,

I can divine it by conscience.

And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

However passionate we may be about social causes, we find our efforts at transformation thwarted in many ways. I've noticed a number of themes that come up consistently in conversations among Unitarian Universalists and in other liberal circles. First, how often have you heard one topic of concern arise, and then be countered with the comment that “this is important, but what I'm really concerned about is [fill in the blank]”? Then, other issues may emerge, hydra-like, also competing for air time. There seems to be an implicit assumption that our concern about one thing precludes spending any time, talent, or treasure on something else.

Another common theme I've noticed is a sense of overwhelm. So much suffering, so much fear, so many problems urgently calling for our attention. The criminal justice system. Money in politics. Income inequality. School shootings. Immigration. Health care. Education. Privacy. Racism, sexism, ablism, homophobia. Climate change....and so on and on and on. We can't possibly move forward as individuals on all the issues at once, and we find it difficult to choose a limited number of causes to support. Many of us are frozen to numbness by the number and magnitude of justice and environmental issues that confront us daily in the media.

Then of course, often we find ourselves trapped in webs of activity and responsibility with jobs, family, neighborhood, and household—not to mention committee meetings—that leave precious little time and energy for self care, spiritual practices, or social action. This can make us feel discouraged or even powerless in the face of the world's needs for service, resources, and transformative activism.

It shouldn't surprise us that these conversations are not unique to our community. In fact, many wonderful people have been discussing similar concerns in their teachings and writings. At the risk of seeming to suggest homework, I'll mention three of them.

Frances Moore Lappé is one—you may be familiar with her as author of Diet for a Small Planet (1985). In fall of 2011 she published Ecomind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want. After attending a conference on the global environmental crisis, she went home feeling depressed and discouraged by the gravity and urgency of the problems we face. She wrote the book in response to the question,

Might it be possible to transform something

that can feel so frightening as to make us go numb

into a challenge so compelling

that billions of us will eagerly embrace it?” (xii).

The book addresses “thought traps” Lappé teases out of dominant cultural assumptions: that humans are greedy and selfish by nature; that endless exploitation of the earth is inevitable; that we're beyond the point of no return. To help ease the prevailing sense of scarcity and limitation, the book offers a reframing of the facts in the language of ecology. And by the way, Frances Lappé's father, John Moore, was a member of this congregation years ago.

Another wise teacher currently grappling with these questions is Joanna Macy, a scholar of systems theory and deep ecology grounded in Buddhist thought and practice. She leads workshops around the country helping people deal with the grief and despair they feel to restore their hope for the future. The welcome page of her web site reads

The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth

is not that we are on the way to destroying the world

— we've actually been on the way for quite a while.

It is that we are beginning to wake up,

as from a millennia-long sleep,

to a whole new relationship to our world,

to ourselves and each other.

Joanna Macy was the featured speaker at last year's Starr King School for the Ministry Symposium entitled “Loving Our Earth,” hosted by the Oakland UU congregation.

Now, I want to lift up the teaching of Grace Lee Boggs this morning, two days after her 99th birthday. Boggs attended Barnard College, and received her PhD in philosophy from Bryn Mawr in 1940. As a woman and the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she faced significant discrimination in her search for an academic post. In 1953 she moved to Detroit and married auto workers union organizer James Boggs. For much of her life, she has focused her activism on economic and racial justice. She still lives in Detroit, and recently published a new edition of her book, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-first Century. A documentary about her life premieres as a POV film on PBS tomorrow: American Revolutionary. It will be available for viewing online through the month of July. Bogg's work in post-industrial Detroit serves as a model and an inspiration for activists world-wide. Her contribution includes analysis that makes sense of the paradigm shift currently underway. She helps frame the needed social transformation with both clarity and optimism.

I encourage you, each of you, to pay attention to the responses of your spirit. Working for justice can be challenging, but it doesn't have to be punishing. Don't hesitate to celebrate progress...and there has been progress! When you feel overwhelmed, examine your life and take note of what you already do—in education, witness, advocacy, organizing, or service. It might not be extracurricular—it might be part of your work in the world. Remember we are working together—which means we aren't individually responsible for bringing our shared vision to life. This is a team effort! Keep in mind that justice issues are interrelated, so that your work in one place ultimately contributes to progress everywhere.

Dedicate yourself to the projects that animate and inspire you. The work we're called to may tire the body, but it lifts the spirit. [cf. Mother Pollard during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.”] Spend time building relationships with companions on the journey—those who think like you do, and also those who oppose your efforts. We are all in this together! Build connections that nourish you within and beyond these walls. Don't forget to appreciate and cultivate beauty [add specifics, e.g. rainbow banners, poems by Mary Oliver, social justice brownies]. It can be subversive to engage rest and play [e.g. “Over the Edge” at Providence GA]. And if you find hope and encouragement in the writings of wise elders such as Frances Moore Lappé, Joanna Macy, or Grace Lee Boggs I encourage you to explore them further.

Thanks to Martin Luther King, the words of Theodore Parker still ring out. These two ancestors call us to imagine the “arc of the universe bending toward justice” through our collective transformative action.

Thanks to the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, the language of Beloved Community moves us to action, again and again. Belonging to religious community, the sense of being part of something greater than ourselves gives us hope. Moving forward involves all the social action efforts we currently embrace at UUSM—advocacy, witness, education, service, and community organizing. Moving forward also requires us to embrace a new vision, to imagine the world that is possible, a “world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.” Moving forward requires a new paradigm, a new story in which we are not divided by interests, not loaded for bear, not focused on what's wrong with the world we live in, but on love and beauty and our vision of the world that is possible.

I close with these words from The Next American Revolution:

… we believe everyone in their daily practice—
as parents and children, 
as politicians and voters, 
as teachers and preachers, 
as artists and scientists, 
as neighbors and friends, and so on—
[everyone] has both the ability and the responsibility 
to change the way we relate individually and collectively 
to each other and to our social world.... 
Revolution... is not a one-time, D-Day event 
that will happen when a critical mass of forces 
takes the correct action at the proper time. 
It is a protracted process tied to slower evolutionary changes 
that cannot be dismissed. ~Scott Kurashige,

And now to celebrate our renewed commitment to a vision of the world that is possible, let's sing together.... [“Never Turning Back”]