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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lessons from Haiti

Let me begin by saying this is not the sermon I wrote coming home on the plane. That attempt remains un-transcribed from my chicken-scratch penned in a pocket-sized Moleskine notebook. All week I struggled with what to share and wondered why I felt no impulse to write. I went to Haiti expecting to be transformed. I went to wash feet, to be humbled by that moving ritual of intimacy, and in so doing, to serve. I went to bear witness to a ravaged nation, to a people who persist in the face of extreme deprivation. I went expecting to come back less at peace with my abundantly comfortable life. And though I rinsed many feet—- of women and men, children and babies, and bore witness to the ruins wrought by an earthquake and a far more complex set of problems, I return with the understanding that I may have helped but I did not serve.

In her book My Grandfather’s Blessing: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging, doctor and teacher Rachel Naomi Remen writes:

Unlike helping and fixing and rescuing, service is mutual. . . True service is not a relationship between an expert and a problem; it is far more genuine than that. It is a relationship between people who bring the full resources of their combined humanity to the table and share them generously.…Service is a relationship between equals.…Over forty-seven years of illness I have been helped and fixed by a great number of people. I am grateful to them all. But all that helping and fixing left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.

I wish in no way to diminish the value of help in the form of a pair of shoes that arrives unbidden. I agree with Remen’s assertion, “When we bless others we offer them refuge from an indifferent world,” and while mission trips intend to offer refuge from indifference, the catch is in the word “blessing” which Remen defines “not [as] something one person gives another [but] a moment of meeting, a certain kind of relationship in which both people involved remember and acknowledge their true worth.”

The truth is without humanitarian aid many people would starve, die even sooner, and suffer more. But the other concomitant truth is that relentless aid creates a relationship of dependence that keeps us from coming together in our shared humanity because after a while, the donor becomes a dollar sign and the recipient a manifestation of need. Then it is not one’s true nature and worth being recognized, but rather a pre-determined role. Whether we want it to or not, charity always maintains imbalance.

For the most part, the blessing I experienced in Haiti happened with my wonderful tripmates and our local liaison John, a soulful man who moved to Haiti twenty-two years ago. We spent all day and evening together sharing our stories, our experience, our faith, our questions. We played cards and laughed, ate meals together. John offered his vast knowledge of Haiti and our group leader Katie afforded us ease of travel. Both provided a rich opportunity to experience a glimmer of Haiti viewed from several facets. I found value in every moment of the trip and returned so grateful but in all honesty, my encounters with Haitians could not constitute blessing because the interactions lacked “that certain kind of relationship” Remen writes of where “both people involved remember and acknowledge their true nature and worth.”

The people who sat across from me with a basin of water between us understood they were there to receive shoes not share their gifts. The shoes no doubt will be helpful and as much as I want to believe those folks felt my presence and desire to rinse their feet as a gift, the fact that they had no opportunity to offer theirs, and had no role other than recipient kept the moment from blessing us. I suspect some, perhaps a few, would have preferred to rinse their feet unassisted. Having me pat their feet dry as a mother might do for her children may have been an indignity quietly endured instead the tenderness I meant to give. Because of the language barrier I could not ask their preference.

The year I volunteered as a jail chaplain during a time of tremendous upheaval in my life, I knew every time I got buzzed through the massive electronically controlled door, that I wasn’t there to help; I was there to serve. Every visit I brought with me my unspoken brokenness. I have told the story many times of a day I arrived feeling fragile, grateful for the distraction of another’s woe. I sat with a man I met with every week named Darrick who was a fervent Christian. As usual I asked if he wanted to pray. He caught me off guard by responding, “Yes, Leaf, I’d like to pray for you.” That he recognized my humanity—acknowledged my true nature and worth—was the prayer. The words he offered up to God were proverbial icing on the cake. What made that encounter a blessing is that Darrick saw me in my full humanity, as a pastor and person with sorrow of my own, and in return, I gave him the gift of pastoring to me.

Allowing someone to meet us in the valley of need is a gift when shared. The gracious patient Haitians who accepted free shoes allowed me with my good intentions and big heart to express my desire to “offer refuge from an indifferent world.” But in a world punctuated with charity the imbalance of every sentence suggests a grammar of indifference.

Remen writes, “Service is free of debt.” It is devoid of obligation or imbalance. In Haiti the children we visited at an orphanage, and the women with babies and the students and teachers at an elementary school who received shoes didn’t get to bring anything other than their need.

Our religious impulse, lo, our very humanity, calls us not just to do all the good we can, but to do better, and with the least harm. Fostering dependence causes harm. That’s why the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo entitled her first book Dead Aid.
So as we give away shoes, how might we invite local folks who receive them to share their gifts with us? The resourcefulness, patience, persistence, and abiding faith evident in Haiti makes it clear the Haitian people have much to share: be it through singing together, or teaching well-meaning missionaries to cook, paint, sew, carve figurines, or make jewelry as they do.

At the orphanage we visited, a girl about seven named Vanessa asked not that I take her picture as so many of the children did; she asked that I let her take pictures herself. She made a series of self-portraits and happily went about photographing images arresting to her eye, to her sensibility not mine. That was a moment of blessing when she escaped the role of an orphaned, deprived child with legs so bowed she could barely walk and I escaped the role of benevolent white do-gooder with a pocket full of toys to bestow like Santa—and the two of us became photographers together.

What I learned in four days is that Haitian people don’t want to beg or rely on endless aid. They hustle every day to just to exist; they sell used shoes or clothes or quart jars of gas, components harvested from used electronics, colorful pills in blister packs and a host of products that come from somewhere else. The once fertile fields lay fallow, woodlands have been cut, factories sit empty. Charity and missionaries pour in offering compassion and relief but Haitians like any people seek self-determination. As nice as it is that the shoe company Teva gives away shoes I paid over a hundred dollars for, wouldn’t it be even better for the folks receiving the give-away shoes to choose them?

I love the Teva’s I bought last summer but I chose them after looking in no less than a half dozen stores. I passed up several other models of sensible waterproof hiking shoes in search of the perfect pair for walking my dog in the woods. I couldn’t help but think as the women at our first distribution slipped off their simple black lightweight loafers or flip-flop style sandals, would sporting a pair of thick-soled leather lace-ups perfect for mountain trails suit their urban tropical life?

We’ve all heard the phrase “Beggars can’t be choosers” but these were not beggars; they were women who waited patiently for hours because they could use another pair of shoes. When we get shoes we select them. As adults we pay for them which affords us dignity because we get to exchange something we have for something we need.
What if we were to multiply the good we do donating dollars and gently worn shoes by participating in a longer range vision as well so that there can be an end to charity and a regeneration of Haitian agriculture and manufacturing? What if in addition to the microbusiness Soles4Souls promotes by helping folks in Haiti (and elsewhere) sell used shoes as street vendors or even shopkeepers, it partnered with investors to recapitalize local manufacturing? Why not work toward Haitians producing the shoes, new or used, others Haitians sell?

One of the women on the trip is a shoe designer who wants to go back to Haiti in April. She told our group leader she feels she has so much more to give. And as loving and light-filled as she was shaking hands with the women whose feet she washed, what if she were eventually able to teach a score of Haitian women how to design shoes? What if the CEO of Soles4Souls shared his vast entrepreneurial and management skills with future Haitian shoe company executives instead of just asking American ones to donate shoes?

What if the droves of good-hearted missionaries arriving daily in Port-au-Prince were to preach a gospel of agency and self-determination?

As Unitarian Universalists we respect the interdependent web of life and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, which is to say we understand the limits of self-reliance and value the importance of participation and co-creation. We all rely on a host of beings and elements other than ourselves. In some ways the very notion of an individualized self is illusory. We share DNA not just with chimps but mice and breathe the same air. We survive not by dint of our own grit and innovation, but by the heat and light of a distant star and a watery mineral-rich earth we mine to keep the forges burning and cell phones ringing. We endure because our forebears resisted giving up, and because the bees continue to pollinate and the rivers still run. We overpopulate the planet not simply from our procreational zeal, but because we haven’t yet managed to deforest all the trees.

There is a vast difference between inter-reliance and dependence, hubris and humility, self-sufficiency and charity.

Each week in our worship we recite as part of our covenant “Love is the doctrine of this church, the search for truth its sacrament and service its prayer.”

Service, as Rachel Naomi Remen suggests, “is a relationship between people who bring the full resources of their combined humanity to the table and share them generously…a relationship between equals.” A relationship between a chaplain and inmate where both get to offer a prayer. A relationship between a young Haitian girl who longs to shine her light capturing it through a lens and a middle-aged privileged American who longs to be of use. A relationship between a graceful surgeon who came to Haiti as a young man to help build a church and school, still there two decades later, and the baby in the orphanage who naps peacefully on the man’s chest as he stretches out on the floor of the nursery also in need of a nap.

“Service,” Remen writes, “connects us to one another and to life itself. When we experience our connectedness, serving others becomes the natural and joyful thing to do.” As we know from compassion fatigue, “fixing and helping are draining”— not just to the helper, but the help-ee. Always being the recipient is tiring, while service—which is mutual—renews and sustains.

As soon as I registered to go on the shoe distribution trip, I expected the experience would be utterly transforming though I had I had no idea how. Each day in Haiti, be it sitting with a toddler in my lap or driving by shanties of deprivation I kept waiting for the transformation. As I conversed with the four generous, soulful women who traveled there with me, as I listened to John recount how he learned to perform surgery prior to medical school from an eminent surgeon who nurtured his skill because he saw a country in need, I felt blessed to be in such fine company. Each day, riding along cavernously rutted roads, whether visiting an orphanage, distributing shoes, or walking amid the rubble of a cathedral destroyed in a city of tents, I witnessed patience, persistence and faith as never before. The transformation I went in search of was not what I could have imagined: that truthfully, much as I wanted to serve, I had helped. There is value in helping, virtue in giving, but service is the prayer.


Closing words: “Service is an attitude founded on the recognition that the World has supported you, fed you, taught you, tested you whether or not you earned it.”(Dan Millman).

“True service is an experience of wholeness, fulfillment, fullness, self-reliance, self-sufficiency for all parties.” (Lynne Twist and Dan Millman.) “The very purpose of life.” (Marion Wright Edelman)

Rev. Seligman & Soles 4 Souls

Of Purpose & Meaning

While I was in Haiti, our local guide John, asked me about Unitarian Universalism. He attended bible college as a young man, studying Hebrew, Greek and World Religions as well as the bible. Not surprisingly, John puzzled over the way not everyone finds God a relevant concept in UU congregations. I gave my one-minute history schpiel on the origins and merger of Unitarianism and Universalism and then sped up to the Transcendentalists in the 1830s with their focus on an unmediated relationship with the divine, touching on the Western Unitarians in the 1860s and the Humanists in the 1930s who left God behind.

“What’s the point of a religious community without God?” John asked. “How does a community worship without a shared faith narrative?” I replied that we seek religious community as a context and container for living out our core values.
No matter what religious tradition one adheres to, the demands of a principled life are great. Living consciously and conscientiously means making ethical choices about how we eat and how we spend, how we parent and relate, commute and communicate, render justice and attempt reconciliation. To truly live out our principles requires stores of patience cultivated within religious community.

Belonging to a religious community affords one the companionship necessary to function without isolation or self-pity when coping with depression, disappointment, anger, or grief. Religious community differs from a social club or professional association by centering on what matters most, not just to the individual but the web of all existence. Like yoga, religious community stretches us into postures of generosity, not just by giving away more, but thinking more about the needs of others.

Religious community turns our view outward, shaping us into communitarians focused on the well-being of the collective and future generations. When we make decisions as a congregation, the central question isn’t “What suits me?” but “What enables us as a community to live out our shared values in a way that honors the interdependent web of life for generations to come?”

When we consider whether to buy the land on Fisher Road, when we discuss how we might re-conceive and renovate this building, we ask and answer in community as community, not as a group of self-directed individuals. That’s part of why we form religious community: to enlarge perspective and possibility by each bringing our conscience, reason, faith, and direct experience to bear. Together we create a mosaic informed by varieties of stone, glass and tile instead of a mural limited to a singular medium of paint.

In the covenant we recite weekly, we uphold the importance of “growing into harmony with each other and the Holy.” That’s not the purpose of a softball team or soccer club. It’s not the purview of a Parent-Teacher organization or a civic league. If religion is rooted in what refastens us, it is not God that is essential to the endeavor but our longing to connect. Holiness comes in many forms, arising in the weave of our interactions. Religious community exists to remind us again and again of the myriad ways we are part of an interdependent web of existence, part of the thrum of life and breathe of the universe. Belonging to a congregation invites us to consider how to live right-sized: sharing our gifts without over-consuming, over-reaching or overwhelming ourselves or others.

Religious community allows us to take risks, to try new roles, to step into leadership and discover ministries we didn’t know we had. Our congregations become gardens where we transform seeds of good intention into the fruit of action. Here we can cultivate patience and compassion by tending relationships we might otherwise not have. Whether we are single or partnered, parents or not, whether we relate to God or we don’t, whether we feel showered by blessing or jilted by life, we come together to find evidence of grace through the salve of presence and power of togetherness.

But frankly, we could use a little better PR. While I was talking to John in Haiti on Ash Wednesday, Stephen Colbert opened his show by pointing to his ash-smudged forehead. As “the world’s most famous Catholic,” he explains he has to give up something for Lent that involves true sacrifice so he gives up being Catholic for forty days. He wipes the ashes off his forehead, sighs, and says, “I feel so empty now. Is this how Unitarians feel all the time?”

The joke works because the perception exists we believe nothing and thus have a well of emptiness inside.

To counter this perception, a colleague is preaching a sermon this morning at his primarily humanist congregation. He is a deeply religious man, and a humanist. He embodies Unitarian Universalism the way St. Francis embodied the gospel of Jesus. In an effort to explain Unitarian Universalism in less time than it takes to say it, he has devised a ten-word summary: Oneness of Being; Oneness of Humanity: An Evolving Faith.

He writes in his sermon:
Obviously, these ten words are just the beginning and lead to hundreds more. …The explanation is a gestalt. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. One of the special aspects of Unitarian Universalism is its balanced approach to living. This explanation implies that instead of relying on an outside source of authority or ideology whether it be a certain holy book or the scientific method, there is a dependence on a free and responsible search for truth which is based on a balance of reason, conscience and direct experience.

Complex religious issues are better viewed from a figurative perspective rather than a literal one. Metaphorical language is a cornerstone of being progressive. Non-literal language allows for many meanings of the same reality to exist. Rigid ideology is rooted within literal language. While words are important, the spirit is more important than the letter, if reaching the heart of the matter is the goal.
Reaching the heart of the matter is the goal of religious community. As far as I can tell, the purpose of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning is to do just that. We don’t gather week after week to arrive at a philosophical conclusion or to prove a theory. We gather to lift up what is worthy and in so doing, be a balm for one another when woe abrades us, when the mystery and randomness of life and death break our heart or stir it. We gather to light candles for the incomprehensible suffering wrought by earthquake. We gather to hold one another in the complexity of what it means to send our sons and daughters to war. And we gather to join our efforts to multiply the common good.

Here at First Parish, when anyone asks about social action, the answer is always our participation with MIHN, the Montachusett Interfaith Hospitality Network, a coalition of congregations that pool resources to provide transitional housing for folks at risk of homelessness. Every couple of months we take a turn hosting, providing meals, and paying utilities for the week. For as long as I’ve been here, Genifer Anderson has coordinated the effort. She enlists volunteers, often the Sunday our week begins, and covers many of the hosting shifts herself. She has been a tireless advocate of MIHN and along with Mark Gilbert, deserves the lion’s share of credit for our claiming this as a church endeavor. Many of you have provided meals, some have hosted, and probably most have chipped in for the utilities. As important as this effort is, it occurs to me if we don’t also expend some energy working to eradicate the causes of homelessness and the conditions that perennially lead to it in this area, we won’t be or bring about the change we seek.

It also occurs to me, that if the congregation indeed wants our involvement with MIHN to constitute our social action, then it’s time for the congregation as a whole to affirm this by working together instead of allowing a few individuals to carry the weight. Instead of Genifer having to ask people for each rotation to sign up, and to avoid anyone feeling put on the spot, if we as a congregation commit to supporting MIHN then let’s have a Saturday or Sunday afternoon cook-in or two where several of us sign up to make all the meals for our week together. Let’s create a team for each cycle we host that divvies up shopping, cooking, delivering and hosting. That way the work gets shared and even if someone can’t commit to hosting, cooking and delivering an entire meal, anyone can participate on a team.

Other folks whose interests and talents lay outside the kitchen or hosting could explore what kinds of action to take to truly tackle conditions that perpetuate homelessness. If we purchase the land on Fisher Road, the gardeners among us might undertake to grow veggies, berries, even cultivate fruit trees so that we can use the harvest for our summer MIHN meals. We might also offer residents at St. Joseph’s the opportunity to garden with us this summer.

There are multiple ways to collectively live out our values and commitment to MIHN and the larger cause of increased housing and food insecurity.

It is in the living that values come to life.

I admire the distillation of Unitarian Universalism down to ten words and I agree wholeheartedly we are a people rich in metaphor. Literalism is not our path. Words, images, events are open to interpretation. That’s why as Bill points out, we have a hymnal that ranges from Holly Near’s late 20th century anthem for gay pride, We Are a Gentle Angry People to the turn of the 19th century spiritual, We Shall Overcome, to the 12th century Carol, Jesus, Our Brother to Peter Yarrow’s Hanukah hymn, Light One Candle. The words we sing are portals to the holiness we seek. All words of course are metaphors for what the body experiences so perhaps the clearest distillation of Unitarian Universalism comes not from a phrase we speak but the actions we embody.

Quakers are known not for their words but their silence, and even more, their peace-making. We recognize the Amish by their forgiveness and horse-powered farming; Shakers by their beautifully wrought unadorned furniture. Jews daven, their bodies swaying like reeds in the wind moved by the spirit of prayer. Buddhists meditate. Sufis whirl. What do Unitarian Universalists do? For what action are we known?
Let this be a time in the life of our congregation when we embody what matters most. Perhaps we will become postern-modern builders of the ark, a vessel that preserves creation while moving forward. In our conversations and considerations let us not lose sight of the land that awaits us, the gardens that summon us, and the fruits that attest to our being.

Perhaps the next time a comedian pokes fun at our emptiness, our fullness will fill the void. And when anyone asks what is Unitarian Universalism, the answer will be simple: How we live. Amen.