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A sermon by Ann L. Boyd for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on August 10, 2008

Charity is a Good Thing... Isn't It?

The recent National Public Radio revival of Edward R. Murrow’s “This I Believe” series, a favorite of my father’s in the 1950’s, has captured my attention both on the nationally syndicated level and as presented by local programming here in RI. I’ve been tempted to commit to paper a core belief and wondered … what would I say? My invitation by the Worship Committee to address one of the UUA’s Seven Principles as it relates to my belief system gave me the opportunity, (both enticing and daunting, I might add) to consider and ultimately commit to what I believe about the UUA principles which guide our actions in the world.

I find that I review the seven principles each Sunday as they are printed on the last page of the Meeting House Times and I even carry a small copy of the principles in my wallet. While for me, the interconnectedness of all of the principles is undeniable; it is the Second Principle “a commitment to Justice, Equity and Compassion in our human relations” which resonates most deeply in my evolving quest to better understand the impact in the world of my actions and the actions of organizations with which I align myself. And so, I thank you for the opportunity, both enticing and daunting, to share my thoughts with you this morning.

Justice, Compassion, Equity … On the face of it, I believe we would all agree that to treat all people kindly, equally and fairly would be our overarching goal in our relationships with each other. But, perhaps, there is an even richer layer to our Second Principle. Rev. Emily Gage was invited to describe her interpretation of the second principle for the wonderful UUA publication “The Seven Principles in Word and Worship”. She speaks of the second principle as an article of faith which takes us beyond the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” to the larger community … that beyond our one-on-one treatment of others with dignity and worth, Emily Gage speaks of “a collective responsibility, something that has systemic implications which can inform our entire cultural way of being”.

It is defining the justice piece of this worthy equation of values which has most challenged my thinking. Within the variety of social service and community settings I have been privileged to be a part of, how would I measure whether justice was being served or was in fact, the goal? In the last few years, with an increasing intensity of opportunities to be involved with programs which champion for those in need, several pivotal experiences have shaped my evolving beliefs around “justice in human relations”.

It was an early morning celebratory breakfast at the Radisson Inn in Warwick … there were 200 or so people seated at large round tables, enjoying eggs and fruit … accompanied by speeches, applause, beaming smiles and handshakes. I was there in my role as Manager of a Vocational Rehabilitation program with a local Community Mental Health center. Ten employers from around the state of RI were there to be honored for their role in successfully supporting the employment of people challenged by long-term mental illness. Employers, employees, Employment Specialists; Rehabilitation counselors and state government officials (including the Governor) were all in attendance to uplift these successful competitive employment partnerships. Each employer (along with his/her employee) was called to the podium to receive both a lovely plaque and a round of applause. One of the employers was a chef at a local nursing home, who had adapted his supervisory style to accommodate flexibility of scheduling and restructuring of job duties for a young woman who was proudly celebrating a full year of employment as a dining room server at the nursing home. When asked to say a few words, the employer’s eloquence remains with me to this day. He said he had visited with friends the night before and had told them about the award breakfast taking place the following morning.

His friends’ response was a delighted “Oh, what a nice, charitable thing you are doing by employing this woman”. The young man responded that No, he did not think of what he was doing as charity. As a member of the Jewish faith, he said that what he was practicing was “Tzedakkah”, a Hebrew term which literally means “righteousness” or “doing the right thing”. He described Tzedakkah as a basic human responsibility for all of us to reach out to others in pursuit of justice. The sustained applause which followed his remarks seemed to say “yes, yes THAT is what we have come to celebrate today!” My introduction to the practice of Tzedakkah got me thinking of the distinction between the gift of charity and the “rights” implied by justice.

A few years ago, my work with our Community Food Share food pantry led me to be invited to participate in an Anti-Hunger Leadership Institute, a ten week certificate program sponsored by the RI Community Food Bank and the URI Feinstein Center for a Hunger-Free America. I was excited about the prospect of meeting with others from around the state who were also involved in programs to feed the hungry. To be honest, I was expecting (well, not exactly a love-fest), but certainly, some congratulatory mutual pats on the back with, perhaps, comparisons of methodology and demographics among the various food distribution sites. Well, I was wrong. The course facilitators provided a reading syllabus designed to spark our thinking about the efficacy of our programs. It became obvious that we had been invited there to be challenged to find ways in which the pantries and soup kitchens in RI would ultimately find themselves without a single client and, just imagine this: programs so successful that we would be put out of business! We were being challenged to work toward implementing more “just” communities of volunteers and clients working together; as well as to participate in pubic policy advocacy to create social change around issues which contribute to poverty and hunger. We were being asked to shift the common paradigm of communities of people “in need” to focus instead on a community’s assets, capacities, abilities and human potential. This approach to ABCD “Asset Based Community Development” spotlights a community’s assets as the way to empower that community to self-sufficiency and sustainability. ABCD starts with what is present in the community, the capacities of its residents and workers, organizations and networks … not with what is absent, problematic or with what is perceived to be the community’s “Needs”. The concept of ABCD has been implemented in communities around the world since the early 1990’s (and, frankly, since the beginning of time – but, by other names and acronyms), but within the context of providing food to the hungry, it was a new concept for most of us. As we all enthusiastically discussed ABCD it became apparent to me that this approach to community development (and by that I include ANY community working toward self-reliance and self-sufficiency whether it be social, religious, neighborhood, work, a developing country) … that this approach encourages “justice” in our human relations. Each of us, as Anti-Hunger leaders, was asked to imagine: What if clients were invited to serve on our food pantry advisory boards? What if forums were established for the purpose of discovering what it is we can do to help one another, not as givers and receivers, but as fellow citizens? What if our collective food distribution data and anecdotal experience with fighting hunger were used to advocate for public policy around food stamps; a living wage; and protection of the state budget for work-support programs and more? At the conclusion of our course-work, we were left with much to ponder about the effectiveness of our programs to ultimately bring about the changes needed to put ourselves “out of business”. And again, for me, the relationship of charity and justice was the implied conversation.

As the picture of justice in human relations comes into focus for me, I try to imagine what it would look like fully developed. And I have come to realize that, in my own work, I have experienced what justice in human relations looks like. It goes like this: In the 1960’s, the deinstitutionalization of many adults with long-term mental illness to community based settings was but the first step in working toward recovery or recovering a meaningful life. And part of that meaningful life includes for many, holding a job. For years , however, despite a consistent message from people with long-term mental illness that they WANTED to WORK … families, MH professionals, employers and federal law to one degree or another – discouraged competitive employment. Here in RI in the late 1990’s, that all changed, with an innovative program introduced to support the competitive employment goals for adults with long term mental illness, again, as a way to participate – just like everyone else – in one of life’s most meaningful activities … work! RI’s Community Mental Health Centers were given grant monies initially and Medicaid reimbursement long-term to support this breakthrough initiative. As a result of this new program, people who had experienced vocational success prior to their mental illness were now re-employed … and those with little or no vocational experience were now taking pride in gainful employment. As I think of it, the key components of justice in human relations are all present in the design and implementation of this employment program:
  1. Advocacy for public policy changes resulted in a huge paradigm shift through federal legislation to encourage rather than discourage people with mental illness to seek out greater societal inclusion through competitive employment.
  2. ABCD Asset Based Community Development comes into play as each individual’s employment strengths and skills are inventoried to determine what assets the individual can bring to the job market community. And the employment goal becomes an individualized job placement in a competitive setting, with the same wages and benefits paid to a worker without a disability.
  3. And, the essential component of Employers, like the chef at the Nursing Home, who are open and receptive to providing employment supports and accommodations to people whose desire for work is present and whose skill sets match their needs.

So now, what does my belief system look like as shaped by the experiences I have described this morning? How do I define “justice in human relations?”

This I believe … that charity is a good thing, as an emergency service to meet the needs created by social injustice … and that when meeting an emergency need, it is my responsibility, if I am truly committed to justice in human relations, to question “why is this happening” and “how do I prevent this from happening again?” … and that includes taking the challenge or risk to try to change the underlying causes or structures which are at the root of the injustice … because it is the right thing to do.