Grace and Tortillas

A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Sermon Audio

To listen to this sermon, click on the arrow in the player box below:

I got a new cell phone recently, and the phone and I, we haven’t entirely settled who’s running the show.  I’m willing to admit it; in our competition for authority, I don’t always win.  Sometimes the phone wins, and one of the ways it likes to highlight a victory is that occasionally when I get in the car, my phone starts to play music over the car speakers, without my setting it up to do that.  This doesn’t always happen, and I can’t predict when it will happen.  Often, once my phone is on a roll, it plays the same song, over and over and over again, each time I get in the car and start it.  But sometimes the phone doesn’t play anything at all – as if it’s taunting me – and sometimes it plays a different song each time I start the car.

This happened again a few days ago. I got in the car and started it up, and Nina Simone’s song “The Family” came on.  I don’t know if you know that song.  It’s off her 1995 album Baltimore.  The song is about a family that gets beaten down and pulled apart by a tidal wave of trials that come their way.  Over and over again, she sings a refrain with two lines:  ‘Looks like even God can’t save the family.  Looks like only God can save the family.’

I hadn’t heard that song in a while, and it immediately got me thinking about Sanctuary.  We Unitarian Universalists are, of course, mixed on the nature of God: whether God exists, and how God operates if God does exist.  But one thing we tend to come together on is that we, us mortals, have an inevitable and inextricable role in the fabric of things.  Because if God is working out there, it’s partly through us.  And clearly the way things are going, God needs us to do our part.  And if God isn’t out there, or just isn’t set up to intervene in things, then our own capacities for goodness, justice, compassion, and love are all the more important – because we are all there is to make those real in the world.

In the context of Nina Simone’s song, that means when someone’s struggling in the riptide of life, it’s up to us to help, to help save another, to help save each other.   And while that sits fairly comfortably in Unitarian Universalist theology, that take is not only ours.

Dr. King offered the same conclusion, when he said “Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”

Grace is our theme this month, and it aligns so powerfully with the faith of Dr. King, whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow.  He was a great man – and a flawed man, as all men, all of us human beings, are.  Nonetheless, his greatness gave him, I think, the capacity to be an embodiment of grace for this country.  We needed him, and we arguably didn’t deserve him, and we certainly didn’t always honor him in life. But his death, his assassination, woke many people up from their distraction or their dissatisfaction or their complacency, and tragically we have done better honoring him after we lost him than we did before.  But that’s also why he was an experience of grace – as a whole nation we didn’t earn him, and that’s what the nature of grace is.  It is a gift that comes to us unbidden and un-earned.  We can’t compel grace, or entice it, or strategize for it.  It comes when it comes, and if we’re lucky, it comes when we really need it, and I think that’s when we see it as such a sacred gift — when we’re desperate, or drowning, or failing, or falling — and this gift comes, not just luck, it feels like more than luck.  It’s a blessing. It feels like a bridge, as the folk singer Peter Mayer puts it, a bridge that’s built to us from the other side.

Rev. Carlton Pearson, formerly a Pentecostal Bishop now serving at our Unitarian Universalist congregation in Tulsa, OK, says this about grace:

The idea of grace tends to trigger religious thoughts of a God who measures grace through sympathy and a kindness. In a non-religious sense, grace is one reflecting the same traits of sympathy and kindness as entirely human, evolving and including benevolence, simple elegance, and refinement of movement or mind. Grace and graciousness is a culture and a characteristic” that he says can be, should be, part and parcel of spiritual community.

Part of what Carlton Pearson is talking about here is Beloved Community.  Now that’s a term we hear – and use – often, but it’s not just an appealing synonym for “congregation.”  Beloved Community is a very specific term, charged with theological and cultural understandings and commitments.  The phrase was first used by Josiah Royce in the very beginning of the 20th century to counter what he saw as the extreme individualism of 19th-century leading theologians and thinkers, including our own Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Where they were focused on the individual’s capacity to be more, Josiah Royce believed that our lives are meaningless unless we are bonded in community, with an alignment of feeling, thought, and will.  (  For Josiah Royce, Beloved Community was an aspirational ideal, where the members were “fully dedicated to ideals of loyalty, deep truth and reality.”  In Beloved Community, individuals were still individuals, with full selfhood, but also individuals were part of a greater whole – a cohesive, larger self, existing in a greater sense over time.

Theologians have taken his language and ideas and built on them ever since, including, famously, Dr. King.  For Dr, King, Beloved Community was not aspirational, it was actual, a possible aim, which people could achieve if we deeply commit ourselves to the principles and practices of non-violence.  This could even take on an international dimension, with the peaceful resolution of all conflicts, if we were determined enough.  He said:

“ … the end is reconciliation, the end is redemption; the end is the creation of Beloved Community.  It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.  It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age.  It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

So when we refer to “Beloved Community,” it’s got capital letters implied; there’s a whole lot folded up in it.  Deep loyalty and faithfulness, a larger life when we come together strongly, a commitment to non-violence and healing, reconciliation, and ultimately redemption, – all of this that is not unlike what it might look like to save a family, to save the whole family, the human family.  Living into those principles and practices can take many forms, and one of the forms it has taken, I think, is in the courageous, broad-reaching, deep-hearted enacting of Sanctuary in this church.

This church took a family in sanctuary a couple of months ago — a mother and three children, while the father was being held on a criminal charge.  The family were absolutely sure he wasn’t guilty;  the father believed an investigation would exonerate him.  The family was here because the parents had applied for asylum;  all three children were US citizens, born here.  But when things got complicated and frightening, they lost their hope that the systems in place would keep them safe, and they turned to us, fearful that ICE might deport either or both of the parents, splitting the family and leaving the children unprotected and possibly even separated from each other.  They reached out to us, and we took them in: Milli and her children Vicki, Danny, and Daisy.

We did this to help this family. We did this to help all families and individuals under threat from current immigration practices. We did this as a form of resistance and as a form of advocacy. We did this to remember and to remind ourselves all that we are not helpless. And we did this because our faith is powerful when we lean into it.  We did this to make things better and to help ourselves feel better and to help others.  What we didn’t expect was that we would receive so much — so much that we couldn’t compel, or entice, or strategize for., so much that we didn’t earn, and couldn’t have predicted, so much grace.   I don’t need to tell you what I think this experience was like; you yourselves have spoken about this Beloved Community’s experience of providing Sanctuary in ways that go right back to Carlton Pearson’s words, “reflecting the same traits of sympathy and kindness as entirely human, evolving and including benevolence, simple elegance, and refinement of movement or mind.”

You said:

“1.  I have never been so proud of my community as I watched people come forward to embrace this family.  Whenever a request was made people immediately filled it.

  1. Sitting in the Meeting House shortly after the family arrived I mentioned to Susie Dorr, a recently retired middle school teacher at Wheeler, that there was an 11-year-old boy needing academic support in math.  Within days she was working with him twice a week for the entire time the family was with us.
  2. Jim Esty and Janet Braelove stepped forward to offer academic support to both Danny and Vicki.  Jim gave Danny piano lessons and was working on developing lessons in the area of social studies.  Janet worked with Vicki using preschool Montessori “big works”.
  3. Maia Brumberg Kraus (a reading specialist) from Temple Emanuel and Kai Schwertner (a teacher on maternity leave), the daughter of Kersti Yllo, volunteered to work with Danny in the area of language arts.  Maia worked with Danny on assessing his reading level and comprehension of text, and Kai was just about to start working with him on fluency and comprehension when the family made the decision to leave.
  4. I met, and had some powerful conversations with. members of the congregation, some of whom I’d never talked to before, as well as individuals from different Jewish temples, The Providence Zen Center, the Sisters of Mercy, and others.
  5. The sense of community I felt was amazing.
  6. The staff of this church was exceptional throughout the entire stay of this family.  They rallied around the family and two members of the staff came up to me at different times to tell me how proud and amazed they were that this church had stepped up to offer Sanctuary to this family.  The staff really opened their arms to this family some of them spending time with the both the children and Milli outside of their normal work hours.
  7. I learned how to play cribbage during one of my hosting shifts.
  8. I learned that the water fountains are very loud in the middle of the night when you are trying to sleep.
  9. I remember sitting with Ann Boyd during a shift just listening to Danny play the piano.
  10. I remember watching Vicki get so excited when she came into the office to see the dogs. One day she came downstairs hoping to see Hazelnut only to find Hazelnut wasn’t in that day.  She started crying but then those tears turned to smiles and giggles when she realized Quin was there.
  11. I remain awed and inspired by Daisy, the 18-year-old in the family.  She was able to figure out a way to get her family to a safe place, meet with lawyers on her father’s behalf, be the interpreter for her family, communicate with people about her brother’s education, and so many other things all while working a part-time job to help support her family financially.
  12.  I will never forget the look on Milli’s face when she realized we were offering her family sanctuary.”
         – Cheryl Bartholomew

“The Sanctuary Host role was, for me, a rich multi-tiered experience – each and every shift!  Interaction with my co-host over the course of a five-hour shift provided opportunity to either meet someone completely new – often from outside of our church family – or to deepen a relationship with someone I may have known only casually within the church.  …

…Vikki’s energy and personality provided endless entertainment; Danny often played his most recent self-taught version of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”; Daisy demonstrated maturity and graciousness well beyond her 18 years and Millie, always smiling and with expressions of gratitude,  was quick to share samples of her culinary creations from the kitchen!

Sensing that Danny (age 11) might welcome some time spent with boys of similar age and energy, I introduced Danny to my two grandsons who were visiting from Vermont. Their time spent together playing Twister and board games punctuated with lots of laughter proved to be a highlight for all three boys.  Upon hearing that Danny would be leaving the US and relocating to Mexico, both grandsons wrote letters to Danny wishing him a ‘safe journey’.”
     – Ann Boyd

“I was doing the night hours, so I didn’t have much contact with the family. Volunteering did make it all real to me, put a face on the news I read about deportations. Knowing that the family staying in our church were a target of law enforcement twisted to political ends made me hurt for our country and all the people caught in a corrupted system.

I could only do nights, and I happened to pick the last night the family stayed with us. At 5am they were ready to leave for the airport, with Kathy and Steve Ahlquist driving. I hugged Millie and Daisy and had no words, not only because I don’t know Spanish.

I think of three American children who will grow up in Mexico because the only other choice was separation from their parents. I hope we will soon have a national leadership that looks at the reasons people take desperate chances to get here, and live in such precarious circumstances. I hope the new president of Mexico will be able to keep his promises to make life better for the working people, and that we in the United States will stay awake and not stop until we have a just and humane immigration system.”
     – Nancy Green

“My main life/world view is Taoism. The basic idea is that Tao is a type of Life Force, from which we all come….   The basic goal of Taoist practice is to stay connected as strongly as possible to this undefinable Life Force. Among the ways of reaching this goal are good health, meditative exercise, and meaningful activity.  For me, doing Sanctuary Host was, and hopefully will be again, such meaningful activity. It’s essentially a cycling back & forth of energy between giver and recipient. My own experience as host gave me a feel of being more healthful and, dare I say, rejuvenated? I’m pretty in tune with my physical self, and I feel safe to say that while being a host, I also had real feeling of becoming just a little bit younger and more energetic. I attribute this feeling to the fact of doing something deeply meaningful on behalf of our guest family, and sharing my personal energy towards their predicament.

Would I recommend Sanctuary Hosting to another person? For sure! For me, it’s not even a political issue; it’s about doing for people when they have trouble and seeking something better from life.

… I’m very grateful and happy for the chance to have put my energy out like this. If I do this often enough, maybe rejuvenation feelings will make me 20 year old again?”
      – Claude Leboeuf

“I was hosting on Sunday evening and needed to make sure the church was secured at 9:30. The family had visitors earlier, but I had not seen the guests leave the building. I went upstairs to their apartment and tentatively knocked on their door. I can only say that what I experienced when the door opened transformed me. It turned out the guests had left, so I felt a bit sheepish about disturbing the family. Danny, the 11-year-old, opened the door and greeted me with a big smile. I knew Danny and had played dominoes with him. He had been playing with his little sister, Vicky, and she was giggling. I had played blocks with Vicky. Daisy was sitting on the bed, and Mama was standing near her. I knew each of them, but had never seen them altogether. Daisy said in her perfect English, ‘Thanks so much for checking on us.’  They were happy. They were safe.

When I closed the door behind me, I broke down, so emotionally moved to see them altogether in one room. The image of the four of them forever with me… like I was waking up from a dream to find it’s actually happening. My experience suddenly so heartfelt and personal for a mother and her children, for children and their mother…and for their missing father. For the space where they were in hiding. I felt suddenly so vulnerable… Maybe I was suddenly aware of the courage this participation was taking and maybe now wondering if I was up to it. I returned downstairs still shaken, and it took me a day or so to feel a sense of my own resilience and the privilege of being connected to the larger heartfelt courage of this church and the sanctuary experience.

Thank you Kathy and Judy for your courage; I am a better human for it.”
      – Leslie Long

“I found working on the Sanctuary team a really profound way to connect with other members of our community, in the spirit of doing service together and with shared commitments to justice. While the individual moments I spent as a sanctuary volunteer were mundane and uneventful, aside from some delightful conversations with other volunteers, the gravity of taking on the physical safety of other human beings was always present. The implications of what that means for how we care for each other and who we consider part of our world, regardless of what relationship we do or don’t have with the individuals, was a special opportunity to ground my abstract ideals in loving action. I’m very grateful to the UU community for giving me an opportunity to serve in this way.”
      – Love, Eva Agudelo

And, as Kristen Ivy Moses celebrated what we all who tasted them agree, Millie’s cacti tostadas were delicious!

In fact, there was a lot of grace wrapped up with every tortilla she brought round the church, piles of food she shared with Sanctuary hosts, with us on staff, with anyone who was in the church when her cooking was ready.  Millie is a gifted cook, and she brought her food around to us all, and in the sharing of food, community, even communion, with each other and with the sacred, was felt by many.  Judy Ortman spoke to me about the extraordinary range and depth of experience and gifts she received through her work for Sanctuary here, and her words make so much sense:  “I just hope the family received anything close to how much we received in hosting them.”  Our ties to the larger Providence community – Brown students, congregations of all faith traditions, neighbors, friends, along with the strong, caring network within this church – all of it was drawn on, lifted up, strengthened, energized, deepened, by the responsibility of love and what that can mean here, to us, now.

I’d like to invite all those who participated, supported, hosted, supplied, built, advocated, designed, donated, planned, to stand now or raise your hand, so we can recognize everyone who helped to make our vision a reality and to represent the power of humanity against the inhumanity of power.

All of you — members, friends, neighbors, colleagues in faith, collaborators in compassion — have been touched by what you have witnessed and what you have done. James Thurber wasn’t thinking of Beloved Community when he wrote this, and he offered it as a wry truth — but also a spiritual truth and part of the foundation of Beloved Community: ‘Love is what you’ve been through with somebody.”

It’s not for me to say what Dr. King would stand for if he were alive today.  I can only say that from everything I have studied of his life, work, and theology, the Sanctuary movement and Sanctuary at this church is absolutely representative of all he believed in and taught.  It feels so good, on a Martin Luther King Sunday, to not just remind ourselves of the man and what he preached, but to celebrate our living into what he preached.  And not only to celebrate that accomplishment, but to lift up also the deep gifts of grace that we received, unexpected and precious, in leaning into our faith.  We could not offer ourselves – or Dr. King – a better remembrance.  May our work and our faith continue to gain strength and depth, and may we remain committed not only to the work and our faith but also, to gratitude always, for the grace that comes when we lean into love.  Amen.