A sermon by Claudia J. Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, August 23, 2009
Voyage of Discovery
“If you would travel farther than all travelers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.”
— Henry David Thoreau
When Jim and the Worship Committee asked me to give a sermon this summer my first question to them was “Why?” Jim’s response was, “Well, you know, you have led a pretty interesting life, and we enjoyed hearing about your travels on Family Day, and the theme this summer is the spiritual journey. Would you talk about your journey?” Okay. Sure. Thank you for inviting me back to the microphone.
Marcel Proust said, in 1923, “The only true voyage of discovery, the only fountain of Eternal Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds, that each of them is.” Today I would like to share with you such a voyage of discovery. I would like to take the next fifteen minutes to re-imagine the actual experience of strange lands, to envision a brief sojourn through the hundred universes that I have had the privilege to behold while seeing the world through the eyes of the hundreds of women, men, and children who have walked with me a moment on my passage.
I could speak for hours about the admittedly fascinating parts of my 55 years worth of journeys – the physical, get-on-the-airplane-arrive-someplace-else parts of the journey and the equally interesting and decidedly more difficult passages of spiritual crisis and reawakening; embarking on distinctive vehicles of transportation – hours and days of meditation and yoga, prayer and trance – and unquestionably arriving Someplace (capital S) Else (capital E), a sometimes welcomed and often not so welcomed transformation, indeed transportation, of my head, body, and heart.
For the next few minutes I will share with you just some highlights from these two types of journeys – the peripatetic mom on the road journey, and the spiritual warrior inner journey. Mostly I hope to talk about the moments of intersection of these journeys, the physical travel and the spiritual voyage. The remarkable crossroads where the excursions meet, and weave in and out of one another. The moments when Bengali rickshaws flying down Monsoon threatened mud paths in between endless emerald green rice paddies dissolve into metaphors of connection and understanding; when flying into a Rwandan refugee camp over the tops of banana plantations in the midst of a tropical thunderstorm, sitting in the co-pilot seat of a two-seater United Nations plane becomes a space of conversion.
I will start at the beginning, and like a good never-ending story -- because I am so blessed to stand before you today and say the story and the journey have not yet ended -- I will come back to the beginning again.
So. I am a life long UU. What does that mean? Well it starts with being taken to Religious Education class – then still called Sunday School -- on a sunny Sunday morning in 1959 in a classic New York City brownstone at Community Church, 40 East 35th Street, off Park Avenue in Manhattan. I was five years old, my brother was seven, this was the year Castro liberated Cuba, Alaska and Hawaii became states, Barbie dolls went on sale, Abe the rhesus monkey and Miss Baker the squirrel monkey went to outer space and came back alive, Swiss women were denied the right to vote, the young Dalai Lama fled Tibet, and despite the inerasable memory of the lynching of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955 everything below New Jersey was still dangerous and racially segregated.
And this sojourn to the Unitarian church was the most radical personal spiritual act that Vivian Ford, my African American mother of southern Baptist roots could possibly have made. From my politically limited but personally empowered point of view as Vivian’s child, it just could have been the very action that singlehandedly ushered in the consciousness expanding spiritual, political and sexual revolutions of the entire decade of the 1960s.
You see, my mother was of the lower working class holy-roller speaking in tongues sitting in church for five hours type of black Baptist church. Meanwhile, my father was of the higher working class -- later euphemistically called by my brother and me the perspiring, as opposed to aspiring, middle class -- citified or sidity black Baptist church. With enough family tension worthy of the Hatfields and McCoys my mother had temporarily acquiesced to send my brother and me to my father’s church as babies.
Oooppps! In a six-month period Vivian had a spiritual crisis, and she spent every weekend traipsing in and out of the doors of New York City’s mosques, churches, temples, and meeting houses from Jewish to Quaker to Buddhist and of course it makes total sense to us here today that she felt safe landing and transplanting my brother and me to Community Church. She dragged my father kicking and screaming – the only reason John Ford stayed was the opportunity to sing, and the music program led by a famous New York organist and musician.
The UU church was more than partially responsible for my developing itchy feet. Let me lay the blame where it belongs, on the ample shoulders of Donald and Vilma Harrington. I read from Community Church Senior Minister Bruce Southworth’s biography of Donald Szantho Harrington, “Embracing a vision of the Church (capital C) Universal (capital U), Harrington began special worship celebrations to honor the insights, spirit, and wisdom of various major religions. These included a High Holy Day Sunday (during the Jewish Days of Awe) plus a Seder with universal Haggadah (my brother and I hunted matzos in the meeting house); a Good Friday Tenebrae service adapted from Christian traditions; Hinduism’s Divali Festival of Lights (my mother and I learned to wear sarees – how prophetic for the four years I spent in south Asia 30 years later!); and Buddhism’s Wesak (my brother and I first learned to meditate) that commemorates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha.
Denominationally, Harrington served on the last Board of Trustees of the American Unitarian Association and the first Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association. His sermon, “Unitarian Universalism—Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” at the service of merger in 1960, articulated an inclusive vision of the Church Universal. Although controversial at the time for some of the Humanists and Christian Unitarian Universalists who expressed concern about a syncretistic approach, this inclusive theological stance received wide embrace in the following thirty years.”
And finally, also from Reverend Southworth, “His long-standing commitment to civil rights included marches and voter registration action in Alabama and Mississippi (my parents were on those buses that left from in front of our church). In 1961 with the Ministers’ Vietnam Committee, he led the first anti-Vietnam War picket line outside the White House in Washington, DC during the Kennedy Presidency. One of the most dynamic ministers of the last half of the 20th century, Donald Szantho Harrington’s prophetic voice and his leadership in worship, theology, and the wider community (including a pivotal role in the anti-apartheid movement) have helped to shape the liberal religious path and institutions (and people) of today. Sometimes controversial because of his strong stands, he has exemplified a life of religious commitment, spiritual growth, intellectual inquiry, and social action with an exceptional depth and breadth in his ministry, and with few peers in our history.”
I am deliberately taking a bit of time to remind you of this UU church history. The UU church, and the example of the Harrington’s in their commitment to universalism in religion, and international and domestic social justice in the 1960s were a defining influence on my passion for and career in international development. James, Cathy, adult church members – do not underestimate the role you model to the youngest people of our church today. I am grateful beyond words. And I am humbly reminded of a huge legacy created by my elders, which we must now pass on.
Well, the Harrington’s deliberate and respectful religious syncretism, LRY or Liberal Religious Youth, Star Island, Homestead Camp and the weekly RE seminar in comparative theology given by our Sunday School teacher, Sumatran Taoist, and noted biblical and religious scholar Professor Tek Young Lin were augmented by the first UU children’s book my mother, a kindergarten teacher and later a scholar of early childhood education, purchased for me – From Long Ago and Many Lands, stories collected and retold by noted UU RE pioneer, Sophia Lyon Fahs. Tom Louderback of Kentucky says of this book, “This is a retelling of about twenty old old stories some of which you've heard many times, and others which you haven't heard before. The author, Sophia Lyon Fahs, has a very idealistic purpose in mind. She wants to show us how we can draw great inspiration from other cultures and other times. Fahs lived over one hundred years and died in the late 70's. Her book was originally written as a Sunday School book for Unitarians. It was very popular from the 30s to the 60s and never forgotten.”
Never forgotten. In fact, I still have my original copy. Then, my adventurous mother took me, a sulky pre-adolescent, to Expo ’67 -- the Montreal World’s Fair --my first time out of the US. My vocational and spiritual fate -- to be a seeker of the world -- was sealed.
I realize now, some three-dozen countries later that my peripatetic calling, my passion for touching the world was and is my spiritual journey. What choice did I have given this auspicious combined introduction to international justice and comparative religion?
Let me now switch gears slightly. The global women’s movement stated in its policy declarations in the early nineteen nineties “Another World is Possible.” They were speaking about a world of equity, social obligation, environmental stewardship, and social justice that would rise out of the ashes of unrestrained competition, consumerism, and accumulation of wealth. Arundhati Roy, the award winning novelist and activist, then added many years later, “Another World is Possible. She’s on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”
I have had the unequalled privilege to spend the last thirty years of my life around the globe listening to the rise and fall of the breath of this other world -- hearing her footsteps -- sometimes faint and far away, sometimes marching forcefully and loudly through my consciousness, my work, and my relationships with her many children. Let me share with you what I have heard.
Martin Luther King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is what are you doing for others.” With work and travel as my spiritual journey this has been the motto for all that I have heard, witnessed, and seen over these decades.
Fast forward: I took an anthropology class with Margaret Mead at Columbia University. I became a midwife and delivered 250 babies in the vineyards and farms of northern California. And as most of you know I have four children who have shared the sojourn with me. A thirty-four year old journalist, and a thirty-two year old businessman who started the journey with me in Latin America and south and southeast Asia three decades ago; a twenty-two year old UVA student who lived with me in Belize, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Zambia, Angola, South Africa, and Swaziland; and the infant girl we rescued out of a garbage dump pornographic theatre in Johannesburg eight years ago. That is my family. This is our story.
My spiritual journey has not been an easy or straightforward one. At first I followed my brother into yoga and Buddhism, but did not go as far into Zen as he has now gone. I watched my mother become a Sufi mystic devoted to Eckankar and Paul Twitchell. My father ran back to the Baptists. I travelled. My children and I were welcomed across the threshold into the lives and rituals of Catholics and Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Hindus. I prayed in the Rwandan refugee camps, went into shamanic trance in the healing lodges of rural South Africa, meditated in the foothills of the Himalayas, did yoga in the tropical heat of Angola while the gunshots of the civil war pinged outside our apartment. Mostly, I suffered the joys and catastrophes of single motherhood and isolation.
It all intersects – my unusual, intellectually, and artistically rich upbringing in New York, my spiritual conscientization at the UU church, my insistent aspiration to travel around the world, to see the world through the eyes of a hundred others and to use my privilege to do this purposeful wandering in order to change what needs to be changed, to bear witness to my global family’s tragedies, hopes, and dreams and stories.
I am not at all entirely sure what, over these decades, I have given the world. Yes, I have been fortunate to serve the great and mighty – Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Bono, Archbishop Tutu. I have met Mother Teresa in Calcutta and I have had lunch with Warren Buffet in Dhaka. But the life and spiritual lessons that I have learned, that have served me, benefitted me, humbled me, and stuck with me over time have been shared with me in the hundreds of nameless households in urban squatter camps, down dusty village lanes, and along jungle clotted rivers. My greatest privilege has been to sit on the floor in the hovels, huts, and homes of ordinary, usually quite impoverished men and women – young and old – and listen to their dreams for themselves, their children, their communities.
Umntu, Ngmuntu, Ngabantu. South Africa reminds us that we claim humanity as an individual person only because of our communities, because of our connections to other people and to our biosphere. So, let us, especially as Americans – we who are known as “rugged individualists” -- seek to affirm as a spiritual imperative, as a spiritual certainty, especially in these times of uncertainty, change, and turmoil that our interconnectedness, our community spirit, and our willingness to serve, connect us with our world, with ourselves, and with God.
The Dalai Lama says. “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
Behold the hundred universes that are in all of us. Let us seek to affirm our interdependence with others. Let us seek not to change the world, but to be changed by the world.