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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The High Cost of Indifference

What is the opposite of Love? I don't believe it's hate. Hate is passion. Hate is obsession with the object of hate. Hate is thinking about the object of hate.

The opposite of love is indifference. Indifference is the lack of passion, obsession and thought. Indifference can cause severe destruction. Recently, indifference severely impacted my life.

I live at 41 Arlington St., in Fitchburg. Recently, the property was foreclosed upon and bought by the bank at auction. Last March the bank auctioned and bought the property itself.

At the time I had three roommates including Stevie Germano. Stevie was severally disabled and on S.S.I. Because of the extreme pressure of the foreclosure and eviction, Stevie suffered a break down. Shortly after that Stevie was seriously injured in a fall down the back stairs where the bank had shut off the lights and left the hall dark. Stevie injured his head where he'd already had a metal plate. He injured his spine and broke his arm. He was unconscious and in intensive care at a hospital in Worcester for several weeks and then in a regular hospital for several more weeks. On October 13, 2010 at about 6 p.m., Stevie died from the injuries sustained in his fall down the unlighted hallway.

During this entire process I kept the offices of the Governor, the Attorney General, our loca Senator, our local Representative, the Mayor and the Fitchburg Health Department informed about these events. The Mayor and the Senator spoke with the Health Department to no avail. None of the other public representatives responded.

Out of shear desperation I wrote to the Governor and reminded him that he was running for re-election in six weeks, and then I got a call from his office. The public relations representative told me about a recent law signed by the Governor protecting landlords in foreclosures. This law does little to help tenants.

During the foreclosure, eviction, the violation of human rights, and the law, the attitude of the bank was, "This is how we do things." Agents for the bank come and go and don't communicate with us.

If we think of church as a place we go to for only one hour on Sunday, the parish will die. Every week, we say love is the doctrine of this church. Does that mean we commit to dismantling indifference?
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This testimonial was written by Fred Hutchings, a member of First Parish, Fitchburg.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Cost of Indifference

Some of you may have read this recently in the New York Times:

Dec. 17, 1933, in The Canton Repository newspaper, a donor using the pseudonym B. Virdot offered modest cash gifts to families in need. His only request: Letters from the struggling people describing their financial troubles and how they hoped to spend the money. The donor promised to keep letter writers’ identities secret “until the very end.”

What captivates me about this story is that in the midst of the Depression, an economic plague of such enormity it has become the definitive event against which to measure all other economic crises, one man responded in a profound and personal way. He did not gaze into that roiling sea of need, shake his head despairing over the fact he could not rescue everyone. He placed one ad in one paper in the place where history had set him—and he asked people to tell him their story, to name their specific need. Now this may sound a bit patronizing: a bit like Santa asking children to line up, but I read it differently. I see a man who took the time to listen to individual stories, who took on the responsibility to witness and hear firsthand the effects of the Depression on strangers. Stories he could have easily overlooked.

He could have simply mailed a check to a charity, but instead he engaged. He remained anonymous through a pseudonym and though he promised the letter writers he would not disclose their identities, he didn’t consign them to the kind of anonymity that leaves people to suffer unnoticed. “At a time when accepting charity was seen as a moral failure, [his] promise of anonymity shielded the letter writers from shame.” But before he ever mailed a check, he lifted them out of the silence of their despair. The people who penned letters were no longer the faceless masses flattened by the Great Depression. “J. L. White, father of seven children, wrote in his thank-you note … he was considering suicide just before he received the gift.…In many cases these were individuals with their backs against the wall, watching their children go hungry every night.”

B. Virdot turned out to be Samuel Stone, a Romanian Jewish immigrant who prospered in United States by opening a chain of clothing stores. The children and grandchildren of his beneficiaries laud not just the financial value of his gift, but his attention: the fact that he cared. [note: I refer below to a congregant’s testimonial about the bank foreclosing on the house he lives in and his housemate’s fall down the stairs in an unlit hallway.]

When the bank foreclosed on the house at 41 Arlington Street in Fitchburg, people didn’t lose their home: Fred and Stevie did. All across this country banks have foreclosed on houses. A few weeks ago, Sarah shared a testimonial about the foreclosure on her brother’s house. Maybe we hear or read so many accounts the details begin to blur; the numbers are enough to make our eyes glaze over.
But as Fred so eloquently asked, if love is the doctrine of this church, and indifference is the opposite of love, how can we as a congregation dismantle the indifference that enervates love? What is required of us to “stand on the side of love,” as Unitarian Universalists now have a campaign to do? Admittedly, the campaign with that name, “Standing on the Side of Love” began as a vocal movement to support marriage equality. But this morning I invite us to re-conceive it in broader terms. To stand on the side of love as opposed to lining up with indifference. Does standing on the side of love mean we find out whose house is being foreclosed upon and show up in solidarity to bear witness, to offer condolence and support? Does it mean we take these Guest At Our Table Boxes and put quarters or dollar bills in and return them in a few weeks? Or does it entail a bit more? Does dismantling indifference mean more than writing a check? Does it ask of us something else?
If you go to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee website, you will find a list that enumerates what a donation in varying amounts will buy. For instance:
$40 buys materials for a woman in Northern Uganda to make her own groundnut sheller[which] helps to reduce … workload and generate needed income for families, as residents return home after more than 20 years of war.

$65 pays for a small business loan for a displaced woman in Kenya. Which woman, I wonder? What does it feel like to be the anonymous woman who receives help from anonymous strangers? Perhaps there is still a stigma attached to receiving aid, though it strikes me as odd the recipients would feel ashamed instead of the ones responsible for such stark inequity. As much as the woman appreciates the nut sheller or the loan, would it mean more to be known, to have one’s specific reality witnessed. Would it make a difference for a congregation donating money to buy a sheller or underwrite a micro-loan, to learn together about the civil war in Uganda and the post-election violence in Kenya, to understand more fully the impact on individual lives?

What happens when we lose touch with the folks we wish to help? When their reality seems so distant from our own?

I am compelled by the story of Samuel Stone precisely because he acted in a relatively small way in the face of almost inconceivable need. He sent a hundred and fifty checks, most no more than five dollars. A nanospeck in the barrel, and yet, according to The Times, “at a reunion for families of recipients [a]bout 400 people attended. For the older people, it was a chance to remember the hard times. For relatives of the letter writers, it was a time to hear how the small gifts, in the bleakest winter of the Depression, meant more than money. They buoyed the spirits of an entire city that was beginning to lose hope.”

Small gifts that meant more than money—envelopes that contained the powerful message that someone cared about their plight. A person unmet but not unknown. What a powerful way to combat indifference.

Fred spoke of contacting politicians, officials elected to represent constituents, mostly unresponsive to his pleas. We can all make excuses for how busy people are, for the vast responsibilities, personal and professional, that fill their schedules, but I think back to George W. Bush’s unwillingness in 2005 to meet with Cindy Sheehan who wanted to understand the reasoning behind the Iraq war that claimed her son. Sure, the President was busy man and some might argue, entitled to vacations at his Crawford, Texas ranch without interruption from a grieving mother. I haven’t listened much to the former President’s current book tour interviews but I did hear the clip where he identified “one of the most disgusting moments” of his presidency as Kanye West’s accusation that he didn’t care about black people. Mr. Bush resented being called a racist. When Matt Lauer asked Mr. Bush if he accepted Kanye West’s recent apology, the former Present replied, “Yes. I’m not a hater.”
The question is not whether the forty-third President, or any of us here are “haters,” but are we lovers? Do we stand on the side of love or cross the road and duck inside?

None of us here can respond to the enormity of need. We can’t attend every foreclosure or contribute to every good cause. We simply can’t afford it. But neither can we afford to turn our backs, to not notice the cries of those we cannot help. I’m not suggesting we bum ourselves out to the point of immobilization by inundating ourselves with endless stories of suffering three times a day; but I am asking what it means to stand on the side of love. When can we be present? Where? How?

Last year I noticed a man in my home town standing on the side of the road holding a cardboard sign with too much lettering to read as I drove by. I passed him three or four times before I finally stopped, hearing a voice in my head that said you don’t have to care for the stranger but you do need to care about him.
He wasn’t asking for money. He was asking to be heard.

On Thursday, I attended a performance of a new play called “Turning the Tide.” Imagine “An Inconvenient Truth” crossed with modern dance and fable. The message: we can’t afford indifference to the stark realities of climate change, specifically our human complicity. The play did its job. I left thinking I am far too indifferent to the impact of my choices. Sure,I have a moment in the grocery when I buy anything packaged in plastic especially the kind I can’t recycle, but usually I buy it anyway. I shop from the perspective of the boy in the story Marcia read, pretending the ants don’t feel the squish, the oceans don’t choke on the plastic, and ecosystems don’t die from the oil spill. But they do.

When Fred emailed me his story about Stevie’s death and the darkened hallway, the city and state officials who did not respond, I thought about a newsclip I watched a few months ago filmed in Miami where a neighborhood full of people intervened when the sheriff came to evict a family. Where are they going to sleep when you throw them out? The crowd wanted to know? What good will it do the city or the bank to have another homeless family? The neighbors, like the residents, were African American. The sheriff and bank guy, white. With the television news camera rolling the sheriff huffed and puffed. He was not in the mood for resistance but neither was he up for a showdown and miraculously, he backed off. He shrugged and muttered and got back in his car. The family stayed.

How would it change any of our stories if we were to stand on the side of love? If we were to ask ourselves, what will we do today to dismantle indifference?
A light in a darkened stairwell might keep another eulogy from being written.
This holiday season we can fill not only our own bellies, but a little cardboard box that sits on the table in hopes the change we reach for isn’t just coinage, but care. Who are the people pictured on the little cardboard box? What are their names? What do they long for? And how does the fulfillment of our wants intersect with their need?

Like Samuel Stone, we too, live in dire times. We may not notice the leak if we’re standing on the top deck, but everyone down below in steerage knows there’s a problem. The unnamed woman in Kenya shelling groundnuts by hand. The good folks lining the streets of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The people stricken with cholera in Haiti and the other 1.3 million still displaced know there’s a problem.
In 1933, in Canton, Ohio, one man with a chain of clothing stores knew he couldn’t restore economic solvency. But he could put an ad in the paper and stand on the side of love.

So can we.

Amen.

Let us change the world with our love; let our love affirm each other’s meaning; let it not only guide us to the place we stand; may it be the direction in which we move.