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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, given on May 3, 2009

From Providence to Katmandu and Back Again: Reflections on a Spiral Path

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

—23rd Psalm

One of those books that had a lot of significance for me as I was trying to sort things out in my youth was Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East. If you’re not familiar it is about an ancient fraternity called the League, one branch of which takes a journey to the East in quest of “ultimate truth.” There are two things that I really got from it. One was a lesson buried in the fact the protagonist kept failing every test. Every test. And yet still things happened. Over the ensuing decades, that was an observation about walking a spiritual path I would become very grateful to have had pointed out so strongly. The second was that the journey itself was a full presentation of that ultimate truth the companions were seeking. This took even longer for me to fully appreciate. But it is the biggest lesson of all.

Last week I mentioned those moments in our lives that set up possibility for new direction while on this path. In fact there are numerous such events in our lives, and often they build upon each other. Taken together we find these moments become markers on our journey toward wholeness. Often we have no idea we’re walking a path, certainly not that the steps we take are on a spiritual journey. One reason we tend to miss this about our lives is that the journey we’re on isn’t in fact a straight line.

The spiritual path usually more resembles a spiral, that is we circle around not quite to the same place over and over again. But that place is always just a bit different than it was the last time. Whether upward or down, pick your own favorite geographical reference. I prefer the metaphor of traveling down, down to our truest depths.

Now it can be just a circle. We follow our anger or we follow our greed or we follow the certainties we’ve crafted about the world. And if we do, things don’t change, at least usually they don’t. If, however, we engage what we encounter, then the shifts happen. And truthfully sometimes it happens even as we resist, even in spite of our best efforts to not engage our lives and the world. Grace happens. But we have a better chance for healing for ourselves, for the world, if we don’t turn away as the world presents.

Today let me give you an example. Most of us know Marcia Lieberman. Her highest profile activity here is probably our annual letter writing campaign presented in collaboration with Amnesty International. But there’s more to Marcia and her path. Marcia was born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Bensonhurst. She mentioned to me how her corner of Bensonhurst was a mafia neighborhood. Not as shorthand for Italian, but rather the actual real mafia. One consequence of this was that it was a nice place to grow up. No crime in that neighborhood.

While in High School Marcia became editor of the school paper. The paper’s photographer, Philip, thought she was cute and maybe she had similar thoughts about him. While they didn’t really go out during High School they did keep doing the same things together. Then, at sixteen, Marcia was off to Barnard College. Not long after, Phil went to MIT. While throwing themselves into their academic lives, they also kept in touch and things gradually got serious. At twenty-one she earned her masters in English at Columbia and with that degree in hand, she and Phil, who just completed his undergraduate degree, married. Phil continued on at MIT, taking his doctorate there. Marcia earned hers at Brandeis.

Phil began teaching at the University of Connecticut, launching what would become a distinguished academic career. Marcia also taught there, but began to experience the difficulties all too common at that time facing women trying to make their way in the academy. It’s a long a difficult story, one too many of us have heard from that generation.

When Phil took a position at Brown and they settled into Providence, Marcia couldn’t get a teaching position. The only job she could find here was as an assistant to the kindergarten teacher at Hebrew Day School. She reports that her major tasks were tying kids’ shoes and pouring orange juice. However she was able to focus on their boys, Benjamin and Daniel, both of whom would follow in their parents footsteps, Ben today teaching at Fitchburg State and Dan at Harvard.

Marcia, deciding she was a recovering academic, joined a group of women with an interest in writing. This was a critical pivot point in today’s sermon, and I want to hold it up. Rather like that line “buying the tie” last week. She ended taking a master’s degree in creative writing at Brown as well as beginning to find various adjunct positions around the area. But her direction, even if she wasn’t actually aware of it at the time, was shifting.

Marcia and Phil loved hiking in Switzerland. Looking around for a guidebook Phil found one, declared to all who would listen it was lousy, and suggested that Marcia could write something way better. She did. Walking Switzerland the Swiss Way went through two editions and numerous printings. And it launched a career. Marcia would end up writing four books about exploring the Alps.

But it set something else up, as well. They were in Switzerland, again, doing research for a book that actually never was written. Marcia was interviewing an older guide who asked her, it seemed out of the blue, “Have you ever been to Nepal?” Thinking that was a singularly strange question she replied, “No. Why do you ask?” He went on to say when he was in Nepal he felt as if he was experiencing how his parents and his grandparents and his great grandparents had lived.

When we look at these turning moments in our lives, we see how they often build upon one another. She took that writing class. It led to a writing career. Then researching for a book Marcia found herself asked a question that would burrow into her heart and take her places she had never thought about.

Sometime later Phil had a sabbatical coming up. They decided to join a Himalayan trekking group. She would later comment about the experience, “I was horrified by the poverty I saw. Horrified.” Toward the end of the trek she wrote in her journal “I would pay to never have to come back here.” But she and Phil did come back, numerous times. They visited many areas, trekking into the high country, going places few Westerners had ever seen. But as amazing as the land was, it was always the people that kept returning to her dreams.

On one trek there was a young man whom Marcia was helping with his English. This is the third turning I want to draw your attention to. He wrote in a paper for her about working in the carpet industry. He mentioned something about children. She read it, and asked him to say more. He said there were children whose fingers were constantly cut by threads, some who turned yellow from the dies. Eventually she and Phil were smuggled into a carpet factory and Phil documented what was going on with his camera. They met a child who was ten years old who worked from seven in the morning to ten or eleven at night. Every day. The report and photographs were published and Marcia testified before congress about this.

And then the fourth turning, happened. She met someone from Hands in Outreach. They asked her if she could help out. She said, “I don’t have time.”

Then the fifth turning: she found the time.

Hands in Outreach was founded by Don Wilcox, a textile artist, who when traveling in Nepal also met these children working the carpet mills. And decided to do something about it. He joined with some of his friends, at first all artists, to do that something. By the bye the current Executive Director, Ricky Bernstein, a UU who lives in the Berkshires, is also an artist. Today Marcia is president of their Board.

Their major project is helping kids go to school. They sponsor about a hundred children at a time, mainly making sure they get scholarships but also some medical and dental attention. They also assure that there is someone on the ground to watch out for the kids. Because they target the absolutely poorest of the poor, they tend to end up serving dalits, that’s the new cleaned up term for untouchables, and girls.

They maintain a staff of two in Nepal; have no formal offices there or here in this country. Overhead is minimal. They have two projects beyond educational support. One is Matiri Griha, a residential training program for boys with cognitive disabilities. The other is Bal Kendra. Bal Kendra presents as a day care program. But it is a clean and safe place for children who are also taught basic literacy and math. They’ve been given a snack each day, but half the funding has been lost. And they’re struggling to offer the children any food.

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this. The whole of Bal Kendra costs about six thousand dollars a year. They serve about sixty children. Most are going on to a public or private school at the end of their time there. We’re talking a country where the cost for a public education is twenty dollars a year and many, certainly the children we’re talking about, cannot afford that without outside help. So, the work is important. And it is amazing how much is accomplished with so little. After our service, go to the table they’ve set up and learn more. You won’t regret it. It might even be a turning moment for you.

But here and now, I want to talk about the spiral path, and where it has taken Marcia. And, how it now also comes to us. There is so much hurt in this world. So much suffering. It takes a lot of willful ignorance for us to not know this, you and I. Sadly, there is also a lot of willful ignorance going on. But, I suggest our path is one of presence, of witnessing. And, on that spiral path we are invited back, over and over again. To presence, to witnessing, to transformation.

We need to attend to the hurt in our neighborhood. I’m so proud that our most significant activity here after our Sunday worship and our second Friday potluck is the Community Share Food Pantry. I’m so glad we encourage spiritual disciplines like Small Group Ministry. And how at the same time we offer a range of possible ways to engage the work of justice for this world. I’m proud to be part of our commitment to look at legislation in our state as understood through a reflection on our principles and purposes. I’m particularly glad to be part of a shared commitment to Marriage Equality as a basic human right that has been denied to too many here. But I’m also so conscious of basic needs for food and adequate shelter and for access to education. And that attention needs to be given to here and elsewhere. We are connected, we are all on this blessed and hurt planet, connected.

Our way is a call to radical inclusion. We are called to see that no one is separate from us. And as we engage this reality as our intimate truth, yours and mine; often we’re invited into the most powerful transformative moments. Marcia has shown us much of the how of that. Things happen. The question becomes how do we engage them?

I think the answer is simple: With all our heart and with all our mind and with all our soul. We do that and the path, the spiral, takes us where we need to go.