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January 11, 2015: “Spheres of Influence”

Reading From the Eulogy of James J. Reeb, by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.1  (Ron)

One day the history of this great period of social change will be written in all of its completeness.  On that bright day our nation will recognize its real heroes. 

They will be thousands of dedicated men and women with a noble sense of purpose that enables them to face fury and hostile mobs with the agonizing loneliness that characterizes the life of the pioneers. 

They will be faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, who have temporarily left behind the towers of Negro women, symbolized in a 72-year-old Negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with the people decided not to ride the segregated buses; who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” 

They will be ministers of the gospel, priests, rabbis, nuns, who are willing to march for freedom, to go to jail for conscience’ sake. 

One day the South will know from these dedicated children of God courageously protesting segregation, they were in reality standing up for the best in the American dream, standing up with the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby carrying our whole nation back to those great wills of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  When this glorious story is written, the name of James Reeb will stand as a shining example of manhood at its best.

Reading From Selected Writings, by Dorothy Day2 

What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world.

We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.

I’d like to invite you now to please rise in body or in spirit for Hymn #34…

Personal Reflection,  “You’re a Brother,” Ron Prosek

When I was in my early twenties, I was dating a young woman, Mary Lee by name,  who was a newly minted social worker.

Mary Lee had some interesting connections, including friendship with some of the local Black Panthers.  In fact, due to this, Mary Lee found out she was on some kind of subversives list kept by local police departments and I think even the FBI.  Her phone had been tapped, and so she had it removed.

Mary Lee was deeply committed to helping others.  She liked crossing barriers to engage folks who might be vastly different from people like us who came from white middle class backgrounds; and, in general, she liked to engage many people of many varying opinions and ideologies. 

As a young social worker, one of Mary Lee’s undertakings was to have some of the children of her clients spend the weekend with her, during which time, she would take them to museums, concerts, nice restaurants, and other events that they might not ordinarily be able to enjoy.  This was on a one-at-a-time basis.  (Needless to say, this kind of visitation would never occur today due to fear of child molestation and fear of being accused of the same.)

Further, you have to bear in mind, this was all happening in Cleveland in the years just following the Hough riots.  There was a lot of racial tension and a lot of fear. And I was afraid myself.  There were certain things you just wouldn’t do.  For example, as a white person, you wouldn’t drive into the Hough area for fear you might be harmed or killed.  At least that describes the fear I had even though I didn’t hate Black people and was raised not to hate people of other colors or races. But I did have the fear nonetheless.

One day Mary Lee, contacted me and told me that she had promised to take a young eight year old boy for the weekend, but for some reason I can’t recall, she couldn’t keep this commitment.  She was embarrassed that she had to break her promise and asked if I would go with her and explain to the mother of the boy in person that she could not keep her commitment that weekend but that she would make it up another time.  The plan was to drive into Hough together and for me to walk up to the house, knock on the door, and speak to the mother.

Yikes!  Drive into Hough and approach the door of someone’s home?  This sounded and felt risky.  But I agreed to do it, and so off we went.  As I expected, the homes in Hough looked rundown and in need of repair. I left Mary Lee’s car and, with much trepidation, walk up the steps to the boy’s home.  I braced myself.  Would I encounter hostility, perhaps even anger or worse? 

The door opened almost right away.  I remember the face of the woman who answered, who was the boy’s mother.  She was calm, quiet, tranquil.  I explained Mary Lee’s situation.  She remained calm, quiet, tranquil.  She responded with  something like “That’s okay.  I understand.”  Whew!  I was relieved.  I had survived the encounter, but I was blown away by that woman’s kindness, courtesy, and dignity.  I had met this “other” and found her not only to be like me, but, I thought, better than me.

I got back to the car, and Mary Lee asked “How did it go?”  And I replied “Great.  She completely understands.  It’s okay.”

I think Mary Lee could clearly see my relief, and she replied “Well now, You’re a brother!”

Sermon  “Spheres of Influence,” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

Maybe you’ve noticed.  I am commitment to making my sermons accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or their vocabulary.  That means using language that doesn’t require a dictionary to understand, avoiding what my mother calls fifty-cent words, or specialized jargon.

So, I want to start this morning by defining the word soteriology.  Technically, it means a doctrine of salvation.  In a Christian context that could mean understanding how a person gets into heaven, but in a more general sense it means studying what it is that saves us; what it is that saves any of us – or all of us – from anything that puts us in danger.  A soteriology can be expressed by an individual, a creed, or a nation’s policies and procedures.

Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square is a book by Unitarian Universalist Theologian Paul Rasor.  I’ve quoted from it a couple times already since August, and will continue to do so for a bit longer. It’s our association’s common read for the church year. 

In the book, Rasor explains the soteriology of the United States – our understanding of what will keep us safe from danger — through the lens of Walter Wink:

Like religious mythologies everywhere, its story is ritualistically told and retold so that its explanatory power is continually reinforced. The basic story line is always the same. Think of any western movie or any modern equivalent such as Star Wars, any police or detective story, any superhero story. In every case, “bad” violence, symbolizing the evil we must conquer, is overcome by “good” violence. The good guys bring the bad guys to justice by applying superior force, and sometimes, superior intelligence, either by capturing or killing them. This mythological narrative is repeated in children’s cartoons and video games, many of which are cast in explicitly militaristic terms. Our children learn the salvific power of force and violence at an early age. This deeply engrained worldview seems perfectly normal. “Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be mythic in the least,” Wink declares. “Violence simply appears to be the nature of things.”3 

Rasor goes on to say that as a country we tend to look and behave like schoolyard bullies when we don’t get our way.  And that’s how we’re perceived around the world, as imperialists who use force to get our way. 

This attitude that the world is a violent place whose problem are only solved though violence is so endemic that even in our daily relationships we expect to win arguments by dominating the conversation.  We tend to think that a barrage of facts and figures can win an argument through shock and awe.  To silence our detractors is to win the fight.

Philosopher and social commentator Cornell West describes the American democratic system as being sustained by a “tragicomic commitment to hope.”  For West, “this is not simply about being optimistic, but involves a deeper form of spirituality: the ability to persevere, to continue the struggle for justice even when all seems hopeless. He describes this kind of hope as ‘the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy- to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy- as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair.'”4  

Sharon Welch, a Unitarian Universalist theologian who teaches at Meadville Lombard in Chicago, has been studying the intersection of liberal religion and social activism for decades.  In her estimation, “[our] desire for control can … lead to frustration and resignation. We want to respond to injustice, but in our own way, on our own terms. Welch suggests that this need for control leads to discouragement when things don’t go as planned. The result is that religious liberals often have trouble sustaining their motivation to work for change over the long term.”5  

Basically, what Rasor is saying is that as Americans we measure the success of our beliefs by our ability to win arguments with our detractors.  If we lose, we keep trying the same tactics, convinced that all it will take is persistence, even after all seems hopeless.  We are saved by our sheer unwillingness to give up!  Until we do.  Then, when it’s become undeniably clear that we’ll never win the argument, we just move on to another issue.  And if you do this enough times, it will change you.  The culture remains the same, deeply entrenched in arguing extreme views of issues, but you’re changed.  You close yourself off, sick of the fight.  You stop listening.

Jason Shelton wrote this morning’s opening hymn based on a speech given by then-President of the UUA, Bill Sinkford:

Sometimes we build a barrier
To keep love tightly bound
Corrupted fear, unwilling to hear,
Denying the beauty we’ve found.

Though it may have became apparent to Hafiz way back in the fourteenth century that “Listening to others deeply is vital to human development,” and though we may be reminded of that fact daily, and we have proof that it is true that we only learn by listening to those we disagree with, my feeling is that Bill Sinkford was right. 

My feeling is that in order to avoid the discomfort of conflict, and the disappointment that comes with not winning the fight, we tend to just shut down.  We stop listening.  We stop learning.  We stop growing.  Despite our best intentions.

As much as we may want make it “a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves” as Dorothy Day said, we’re sometimes not really convinced that our little pebbles will make any ripples in even the smallest ponds.  We make for ourselves those little oases “of joy and peace in a harried world.”

Tomorrow we celebrate the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Selma, where James Reeb lost his life.  King had a grand vision for what could happen if “priests, rabbis, nuns … willing to march for freedom [would] to go to jail for conscience’ sake.”  He really believed that we could stand “up for the best in the American dream, …thereby carrying our whole nation back to those great wills of democracy…” He really believed that white religious liberals like Reeb, a Unitarian minister, would stand as shining examples of what could happen if we persisted in arguing for racial equality.

But for decades now, we white allies would like to see more harmony in a nation that we know remains very different for people of different skin tones.  We want to do something to make it possible, but many of us have become disillusioned. 

For religious liberals, this loss of motivation is a common experience, regardless of how we see race.  We continue to try to convince each other as we disagree, even if only slightly about the economy, the environment, politics, education, terrorism, you name it.  And the more we talk, the less things change.  And the less we feel heard. And the more disillusioned we get.

 A few years ago, Keith Kron, the Transition Director at the UUA gave me a model for communicating that I found astounding in its simplicity.  I’ve created a version of it, slightly more stylized, on the cover of the order of worship today.  I forget what he called the model, which used to share with congregations considering a minister who was not an able-bodied, middle-class, straight, white man.  But I’ve come to think of it as “spheres of influence.”  I guess we could even think of it as ripples in a pond.

Imagine an issue you feel strongly about.  Any issue, something that affects you so profoundly, something so core to who you are, that your feelings about it are absolute.  And pure.  Nobody will ever change your mind to the contrary.  Maybe it’s a belief that all women should have reproductive freedom, no matter what.  Or that war is always wrong, period.  Or that capital punishment is the only true justice in some cases.  You probably feel so strongly about this issue because you’ve experienced it first hand.

That makes you a 1.  You’re right smack in the center of that circle.

Now the next sphere, sphere 2, is occupied by people who agree with you.  They might not have the experience you have, so they are not as committed.  They speak less passionately about the subject, but understand where you’re coming from, and agree.  They are your best allies, the people who could share your experience without looking self-serving in the process.

The next sphere, sphere 3, is where the middle of the road folks live.  They’re the ones who haven’t given the subject much thought, and, if approached by a 2 who could speak dispassionately might become an ally.  Or, conversely, if approached by you or another passionate 1, could be totally turned away.

In that case they would become a 4.  They would be so far removed from the subject, and have such a negative understanding of it that they would actively against you.  They’d say, “I tried talking to those people, but they are so self-serving, so angry, so convinced they’re right, they didn’t hear a word I said.”

Basically, 1s can never really communicate with 3s or 4s.

Let me give a real world example.

Any person who wants to marry another person of the same sex is a 1 in the culture war that he or she has labeled “marriage equality.”  In this case, I am a 1.  A person at the other extreme – a 4 – will call himself a defender of traditional marriage.  A middle of the road person – a 3 – will be unsure.  Now, if I approach that 3, and tell her that she is a hater if she agrees with that 4, a person who could be her husband or her teacher or her minister…guess what?  She’s likely to be so offended, so struck by the fallacy of the statement, that she’ll never agree with me.  She didn’t really have an opinion before we talked, but my passionate expression of my feelings of exclusion and oppression may be exactly the thing that convinces her that I’m wrong.  She’ll say something like “I tried talking to him, but he’s got it all wrong.  My husband doesn’t hate him, my husband only wants to preserve our marriage.”

Now if that middle of the road 3 were approached by one of my dispassionate allies, a 2, maybe a person I used to work with who never knew he knew any LGBT people before me, the outcome could be entirely different.  This 2 could say, “Denis is a regular guy.  He didn’t want to take away my marriage, he only wanted to make sure that if he or his partner were to die, the other would have all of the legal rights that my wife and I have.  It only seems fair.”

And how would a 2 come to an understanding of how Joe and I feel?  Well, he’d ask.

Nothing is to say that a single 2 could change the mind of a 3.  But if a 3 hears enough 2’s enough times…that’s when things change.

If you’re a 1, the best 3’s, the most likely to change, are the ones who make a practice of going into things with an open mind, especially when they don’t know anything about the subject.   But openness only goes so far.  A little too much zeal can push them away, easily.  1s can only really talk to 2s.  But 2s can talk to both 1s and 3s. 

The 4’s…you’ll never change their minds, just like they’ll never change your mind.  In those moments when you find yourself with a 4, just change the subject to something you can agree on, even if it’s just the weather. 

Ever since Keith taught me this model, I’ve changed.  When I’m a 1, I only talk to 2’s on that topic, and thereby save myself and everyone else a lot of aggravation. 

When I’m a 3, I try to really live in that space…. I leave myself open to learning more and being changed, rather than staking a claim in the territory of 1 or 4.  Philisophical purity doesn’t mean that much to me. 

Mostly though, I try to find all those places where I am a 2…or could become a 2.  That’s where I know I can create the most change, and possibly help someone who is suffering.  I’m a 2 on the topics of animal rights, domestic violence, gun control.  Those are subjects that affect me – affect all of us – about which I can speak dispassionately.

So my hope for us, in these times of tumult and change, when we’re faced with the ongoing realities of racial strife, when some of us are questioning the effectiveness and the authority of police, when wars in the middle east have no end in sight, when the extremes of religious fundamentalism look more and more like the norm, we’ll find those places where we can be 2’s.  That’s how we can create change. That’s how we can stay motivated and keep from feeling burned out.

Maybe knowing where we fit it the concentric spheres of influence is all we need to stay connected with each other, and to have a real impact in the world, together.

May it be so.

1  Martin Luther King, Jr.  “A Witness to the Truth.” [Eulogy for the Rev. James J. Reeb, March 15, 1965.]  UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001), 20-23.

2  Dorothy Day. “Love Is The Measure”. The Catholic Worker, June 1946, 2. The Catholic Worker Movement.

3  Rasor, Paul (2012-06-15). Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 1436-1444). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition.

4  Rasor, Paul (2012-06-15). Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 1667-1670). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition.

5  Rasor, Paul (2012-06-15). Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square (Kindle Locations 1672-1675). Skinner House Books. Kindle Edition.