"Standing for Something"
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
A sermon by Guest Minister Beth Armstrong, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, October 11, 2015
To be added - watch this space!
When I was about 15 years old, a murder occurred in my old suburban neighborhood in what was then statistically the wealthiest community in the United States, Shaker Heights, Ohio. The story was in the newspaper one morning: an 8 year old boy, John Cremer Young, known as Cremer, had been found in the woods in another suburb of Cleveland called Gates Mills. He had been shot at close range by a handgun. He had been missing for several days and the paper was full of that story already, but when his body was found, it was clear what had happened. The police were able to arrest the killer within days. Marianne Colby, a neighbor of the Youngs, was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Her son Dane and Cremer had been playmates. But Dane was developmentally delayed, and the boys were no longer as close as they had been. Cremer’s parents had actually asked their son to spend less time with Dane, who exhibited tendencies to be inappropriately rough. Also, It came out in Mrs. Colby’s trial that she had, in the previous decade, fallen in love with Cremer’s father, Mr. Young, but her affection was not returned and she had become his stalker, even to the extent of moving a few houses down from the Youngs after both she and Mr. Young had married other people. After her trial, she was sentenced to a psychiatric facility, stayed for about four years, was declared no longer insane, and as far as I know, has disappeared into anonymity in some other part of the world.
At the age of 15, I was just discovering newspapers as containing something more compelling than the Sunday funnies. I was transfixed first by the disappearance of Cremer, and later by the arrest and trial of his killer. I can remember thinking about the gun. The gun, it seemed to me, was the crux of the crime. I remember thinking that Cremer hadn’t had a chance to escape his fate because of the gun. Had she come at him with a knife or her bare hands, he stood a good chance of escaping her, as an athletic, healthy 8 year old. But no one can withstand a .32 caliber bullet aimed at the back of the head at close range. I remember wondering why on earth she had a gun in the first place, and where did she get it? It had never occurred to me that people in my neighborhood might actually own a gun.
I have had a lifetime aversion to guns since that year. I didn’t allow my children to have toy guns, and that included squirt guns. I made Stew remove a tiny gun in a tiny holster that was attached to one of my small ceramic figures, which I collect. We had chosen a guitar-playing cowboy on a trip to San Antonio, and I didn’t notice his gun until after we got it home. The stories in the news in the last, say, ten years, have been especially horrifying to me as I rail against the ready access Americans have to guns. Especially when children are the victims.
Anyway, at the age of 15, I made a decision to clip and save articles from newspapers and magazines that I ran across when there was a story of a death by gun. It was a decision made by an immature teenager and I didn’t carry it out. But I have thought of it many times since, that if I had been keeping such a collection, it would be enormous by now. And I wonder if I could have found any good use for it beyond the macabre one. It occurs to me now, in hindsight, that if I had made such a collection and had been diligent in adding to it, I would have had a chance to stand for something in my life. I could have been a spokesperson for gun control, with statistics as well as anecdotes at my fingers. Now, I have opinions about many things and I am all too willing to share them; I have never missed a chance to vote and I am quite sure what my vote will be before I cast it; I have been a teacher and a mother and a grandmother and have used those roles to impart what I think of as wisdom to young people, and it is possible that some of those young people learned something important from me. But I have not made my life stand for something beyond my personal boundaries. I have not stood on picket lines, I have not written letters to congresspeople or editors, at least not very often, I have not contributed large amounts of money to causes I support. There are pragmatic reasons for this: I have rarely had enough money to live on, much less give away; I have worked hard and long hours to support myself and my family; I have often thought that a particular action would be futile and not worth the effort; and I am very good at rationalizing. The result is that I am not associated in anyone’s mind with a particular cause. I am not apologizing; one makes choices in life and I am not ashamed of my choices. But I certainly admire people I know who have taken up a cause and been willing to stand for it. People like Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, John Muir, Madalyn Murray, our own Ginny Fox, even Ralph Nader.
Charlie asked me to speak on my thoughts after completing a year as president of the Prudential Committee. I think after three years on Prudential Committee here at First Unitarian, and last year as president, I have come to the conclusion that we are best when we stand for something as a church. We have quite a bit of Social Justice energy in this congregation, and we put it to good use in our Food Pantry, our Neighborhood Social Justice Committee, our chapter of Amnesty International, our Standing on the Side of Love Committee, our Girl Effect efforts, and there are more. I noticed a significant increase in that energy during the effort to get Marriage Equality passed in Rhode Island. Our church stood in the foreground during that time and I, along with you, was very proud of us then. But I feel it is time, particularly now in this interim period in which we try to define who we are, that we find a way to create heaven on earth - by attacking one aspect of hell on earth.
Hell on earth can take many forms. I quote from a sermon preached by UU Rev. Pamela Rumancik in 2013, “We do not envision hell to be an otherworldly experience. We recognize that hell exists in the here and now. It occurs anyplace someone is locked into a place of immobility, a place without agency, a place without dreams or escape hatches, or hope. Hell wears so many different faces: intractable poverty, abusive relationships, depression, illness, addiction, isolation, ignorance, fear, judgment. There are so many ways for people to get stuck, mired, lost, and so many ways to lose the hope of a better tomorrow.” This way of looking at hell includes our immediate neighborhood on the east side of Providence, at the foot of Brown University, just as it included Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1965.
There is a UU movement in several of our member churches which is talking about something called the Missional Church. The word “mission” makes most of us uncomfortable, I know. It conjures up images of converting the heathen in third world countries to accept the Lord into their lives, when all they really want is a steady source of food. That isn’t who we are. But what I experience as the primary focus of PruCom is the work needed to maintain our building and our property so that they are safe and accessible. We decide how to raise enough money to continue to pay our wonderful staff. We write policies about health insurance and building use. We receive reports about the annual budget drive. The work is important and has to be done, but I don’t think it is everything that the church should be. In a workshop I attended at a GA by those who are talking about Missional Church, the speaker made the analogy that the church is like an airport. Why do you go to the airport? Perhaps to visit friends; to take a business trip; to get to a resort in a warm climate in winter; to attend an important family milestone event. Do you go to the airport just to be at the airport? Do you want to eat your breakfast at AuBonPain? Do you want to buy your newspaper at the Newsstand there? Is that where you go to get a Rhode Island coffee mug? No, you go there so you can go somewhere else.
Isn’t that what a church should be? A place we go so that we can learn how to go somewhere else where we perceive a need, where we can try to “love the hell out of the world” in some small way. Hell on earth takes multiple forms: cancer, alcoholism, easy access to guns, depression, homelessness, racial bias, climate change – the list sometimes feels endless. Can we go out of this building and attack them all? Of course not. But I suggest that is time for First Unitarian to stand for something that needs our collective energy and resources. I suggest that it is time for our congregation to stop rationalizing, stop only looking inward at our building and budget, and start going out into our little community, whether it be the East Side, or Providence, or the state of Rhode Island, and make a difference. Whittle away at hell, one day and one dollar at a time. And try to create one piece of heaven on earth.
I once heard of a UU church somewhere in the southeast. They had a large, old, crumbling building and they didn’t have a large congregation anymore. All their collective resources weren’t enough to keep the building going. So they put the building, the related buildings like perhaps an unused parsonage, and the land they sat on, up for sale. Someone bought it. I don’t remember who. But the congregation walked away without a building and about a million dollars after they paid their debts. Now they meet in a school building, and once a month, without letting the congregation know which Sunday, they greet the parishioners at the door with a map and a note of explanation. They are instructed to show up at a site in the community that is in need of some help. Sandwich making, school yard cleanup, senior citizens’ home raking, painting for Habitat for Humanity, roadside litter pickup, the list is endless. Obviously, there is someone in that church who determines what their people can do for a couple of hours on a Sunday morning, and makes the necessary arrangements. The rest of the weeks they worship together in a space they don’t own.
I am not advocating something similar for First U. We love our building and treat it with the respect it deserves. However, we do indeed have a building that is in serious need of repair. We have to fix the kitchen exhaust, fix the roof near the upstairs auditorium, where water is obviously leaking in the walls. We will need to replace the leathers on the organ soon. We need to make our parking lot safer with better paving and much better lighting. The exterior and interior of the meeting house are badly in need of a paint job and we haven’t fixed all the windows in here. The front doors need work; they are not up to code, lack panic bars, and don’t fit right. The list is longer than that, but you get the idea. The fact is that in the near future, we are going to have to have a capital campaign to raise somewhere in the area of 2 million dollars. We have increased the size of our annual budget drive by a substantial amount in the last ten years, and we are doing a good job in building and parking lot rentals. Our building is used a lot, it is a busy place, and even though there are structural reasons why we can’t do some of the things people have thought of to raise more money, we are doing our best.
But are we doing our best in loving the hell out of the world? I think it is time for us to choose another issue toward which we turn our collective energy, and stand for that. I think it is time for us to become associated with a particular cause, and do our best to make a small difference in our small sphere of influence, and let others know that this is what we do to love the hell out of the world. I think it is time for us to stand for something, and shout whatever it is from the steeple while ringing the Paul Revere bell.
And I remind you of the reading we had earlier from James 2:14-17. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” And I want to add a quote from Pope Francis. He said, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.”
I want us to present to our new settled minister a congregation that knows what they stand for. A congregation that is willing to go outside of these beautiful, antique walls and love the hell out of our world, however we define it. I want us to say to the world, this is who we are, this is what we believe, and this is our mission. I hope we can talk to each other in a way, this year, that leads us to a decision about what we stand for. I am willing to participate in the discussion and I hope many of you are, as well.
So be it, blessed be, and amen.