A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the North Bay on September 23, 2007.
About three months ago, I walked into a swarm of bees. I was on my way to a medical appointment, and over the trail from the train station to the parking lot hung a black cloud. At first I thought it was a strange, dark dust cloud. As I approached, I could see that the particles were too large and were moving chaotically – not in the spiral column dust moves in. It must have been fifteen feet high and eight feet across – there were thousands of dark, buzzing bees.
I was first stung by a bee when I was about three years old. It flew up my shirt, got trapped, and stung me in the belly. This happened again a year or two later. I remember associating the bee being trapped – a feeling I knew I didn't like – with its decision to sting me. I started tucking my shirt in whenever I saw a bee or heard it buzzing.
Like other kids, I would run away when bees came. I was fascinated that the bees would chase, and sometimes sting, children as they ran. It made sense that bees would sting people who swatted at them – who wants to be swatted at? But if a kid was running away, why wouldn't the bee just leave it alone?
Eventually I learned to try and be still when bees were around, to try and control my response to the fear I felt.
The last time I was stung, I was on the schoolyard, and reached back to brush something – whatever it was – off my neck. The bee got stuck between my fingers and stung me there. My hand swelled up and I went to the school nurse to ice my hand.
As I walked through that cloud of bees, I couldn't help but think about what it feels like to be stung; about how many bees there were around me, and how many stingers they had. I also thought about the so-called “killer bees” that have been in the news in the past few years – notorious for attacking in swarms. But I knew the best thing for me to do was to restrain my body's response and keep walking calmly through the swarm of fear.
As we walk through this world, the Faithful Fools try to remember that we are seeing a mirror image of ourselves – our perception, fed by our judgments, histories, and feelings, colors the way we see things.
When I look in the mirror, I often see fear. Old fears, like my childhood fear of the dark; current fears, like of failing or appearing weak – fears that are strong and thriving, and fears that are conquered – well, they're not really conquered, I've just managed to help install a favorable government.
Perhaps the scariest thing I've done in the past few years was going to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Long Beach. The convention itself wasn't the problem – though trying to pick the right workshops to attend can be daunting. I had committed that year to sleeping on the streets during the week of the convention – alone.
We've all heard stories of violence committed against homeless people – I felt extremely vulnerable sleeping outside in a public place, where all my identities – middle-class, educated, sane – get replaced by the label homeless and everything that means to people: Poor, helpless, worthless, dangerous?
I spent the afternoon in a park where homeless people hang out, hoping to connect with someone so I wouldn't have to be alone.
I wonder now if that's why homeless people are drawn to our church communities – because it is scary to be out there on the streets alone, and it is reassuring to know there are people who know who you are, and might care about you, and about what might happen to you.
I wonder if that's why we all are drawn to our church communities.
Well, I survived the week in Long Beach, and without incident. The worst thing that happened to me was when a pair of local police drove up and told me to leave the Convention Center. I was sitting on the steps with my shoes and socks off – a rare treat on the streets – holding my sign as a group of UUs stood by talking. The cops were confused when I showed them my GA name badge – in the end they told me I couldn't ask for money, and then drove off.
I have now spent the week sleeping alone on the streets during the General Assemblies at Ft Worth and St Louis as well. I go to bear witness to life on the streets of our host cities, and to embody the connection between what goes on in the Convention Centers and hotels – the discussions at the workshops, the decisions in the plenary hall that guide our denomination, the exchanges of money and words between the various businesses and their employees and the conventioneers – and what goes on in the streets, where people's lives are affected by the actions of those with power and wealth.
I also go to prepare for the One-Day Street Retreat. A handful of GA attendees walk out the doors of the convention center and retreat from the busy workshop schedule to spend a day with me, the people on the streets, and themselves. This has grown into a practice for some, who join the Fools on the streets each year to reflect on how they see themselves in soup lines and other places they've been told they shouldn't go.
The Faithful Fools' mission statement says, “We discover on the streets our common humanity.”
This year at the General Assembly in Portland, four of us committed to spending the week on the streets, on a Seven-Day Street Retreat. We camped out in an empty lot two blocks from the convention center. It had signs forbidding parking, but that's not what we were doing, so we figured we'd be okay. Each day we took turns sitting outside the entrance of the Convention Center with our shopping cart which held our sleeping bags, cardboard, and tarp that we used for sleeping, as well as our Fools' Hats and literature about the Faithful Fools.
Our spot on the wall outside the entrance was a real crossroads. UUs of all stripes passed us on their ways in and out of the convention center – some stopped to talk, some seemed to give us disapproving looks. Local Portlanders walked by on their way to and from lunch. And occasionally visible through the center's glass walls, someone in lived-in clothes would come by collecting bottles and cans for recycling, or lie down in the grass under the shade of a tree and sleep – sometimes right next to a bench where a UU sat snoozing with their name badge on.
Ours became a listening post. People would come out from a workshop needing to tell someone about what they had just experienced, and they knew we would be there. Sometimes they would come excited about what they had just heard, sometimes they needed to vent. At an event where so much was going on and everyone is on the move from one thing to the next, we could be counted on to just be there. Isn't that what we all need sometimes, someone who can be counted on to just be there?
On the second day of the convention, some concerned UUs, a few adults and a teenage girl, came and found me at our spot. There was a man on the corner who claimed to have been excluded from GA. The teen, sensitive as most teens are to being left out, seemed especially concerned. They wondered if there was anything we Fools could do to help this man. I didn't know if I could help, but I knew I could try.
A major part of the Faithful Fools work is what we call accompaniment. I see it as similar to the type of support my friends and family have offered me over my life. We take people to doctor's appointments, or go with them to the welfare office, or to drug-treatment clinics, and walk with them through the process of moving their life in the direction they would like to change.
Many people who find themselves on the streets have gotten there, in part, through bad experiences with institutions. Some people who are adept at interpersonal relationships struggle to translate that skill into successful negotiations with the world of rules and regulations, paperwork, long waits and deadlines. Sometimes it helps to have a friend along – someone to turn to when things get stressful; someone to see the way the system that is meant to work for you seems to work against you, and to commiserate over it; someone to speak up for you when your voice feels small in the face of an organization which seems huge, and whose representative is “just doing their job” which is not treating you like a person, but as a “case,” or worse, a problem. Sometimes it helps to have someone who isn't quite as stressed out because it is not their life on the line who can remember that the person just doing their job is a person – who is probably also stressed – and deserves a thank you, even when things don't go perfectly.
So I went over to talk to this man, whose name is Michael, and who stood there on the corner in front of the Portland Convention Center with a sign that read, “UUs said all are welcome, but I am not allowed in.”
This sign, of course, had caught a lot of attention. We UUs like to think of ourselves as welcoming and open to diversity of beliefs, background, and ability. And we feel challenged by the idea that we are not.
I listened to Michael's story, and told him I would see what I could do.
I went into the GA registration office and listened to their story – their were frazzled after registering nearly 10,000 people – they quickly referred me to the Chaplain who had met with Michael the previous day.
I listened to the Chaplain, who seemed to take my concern and offer to help as a sign that I needed pastoral care – which bothered me – and referred me to the “Right Relations Team.”
I listened to a wonderful, compassionate young woman from the Right Relations Team who said, “there's nothing you can do.”
Before coming to stand on the corner holding his sign, Michael had spoken to the GA staff Psychiatrist and Chaplain, and their decision was that “it would be best for Michael and the community if he just went home.” They felt Michael might pose a danger to himself or someone else were he to come to GA.
Beyond that, I feel the details of the story are not important here, and I'll tell you why in a moment.
I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist Church, and spent the first years of my life as a Scientific Fundamentalist – I was successfully taught to believe that all the world's big questions could be explained and understood through scientific principles and use of the Scientific Method, and I tended to ridicule as fanciful spiritual traditions and ideas. By age twenty, I had studied at least a year each of university level Physics, Biology, and Chemistry – the foundations of scientific belief.
I came to understand the human thought process as a series of reactions to stimuli dependent on environmental conditions. I saw each of us as coming to be who we are, where we are, as the result of knowable processes in a larger context of inevitable evolution. Things were as they were, and people were as they were, and there wasn't anything significant I could do to change them, and indeed the natural order of the world suggested that I shouldn't.
A content person was the happy result of the evolutionary process – good parents, good genes - and a suffering person was the unfortunate byproduct of the same process.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, however, lingered a question: “In the midst of all this inevitability, how could I feel like I actually had a choice?”
The scientist within me began asking why I felt like I could make decisions – if thought were the result merely of predictable electro-chemical reactions, what would be the purpose of feeling like I had a say in what I thought or did? And wouldn't this kind of unproductive philosophizing have been naturally selected out? Picture early humans on the plains of Africa: One is thinking, “how can I get that gazelle meat to my family without being eaten by those lions?” The other, “how does my brain get to choose which gazelle I should try to eat?” I've got a good guess which one contributed more offspring to the gene pool.
I lived with this question for a few years until, while taking a comparative religion course, I performed what I consider to be the most important scientific experiment of my life. I committed to, through the course of the class live my life as if I believed the teachings of each book we studied while we were studying that particular book.
We started with the Bhagivad Gita, where I got my first in depth introduction to Karma. I began living my life as if I could change the world, or at least my experience of it, by changing my thoughts and actions. I began acting more generous and patient – acting more generous and patient, even, than I actually felt. I tried to think good thoughts about people – including my boss and the customers who had annoyed me at the store I worked in.
The experiment was so successful that I am still performing it each day, to the best of my ability. And the data show, again and again, that I can affect my life, and even the lives of others by my actions.
I am currently attempting to discipline myself so as to discover if there are limits to the energy produced by generosity.
And this is what called me to offer my help to this man outside the General Assembly – a desire to explore the idea that each of our actions have the potential to transform our own experience of the world, another's experience, and our experience of another. Perhaps it could be stated as a deep curiosity about what it would mean to our community and to this man's life were we to reach inside ourselves and find a way to include him.
What would it mean to him to be accompanied on his journey from outsider to insider, from being labeled “dangerous” to being labeled “welcome”? What would it mean to the GA staff and volunteers to be accompanied on their journey from being “tired and at the end of their resources” to being “able to find a way to accommodate and forgive”? What would it mean to our Unitarian Universalist community to be accompanied on our journey from being “a group of mostly white, mostly highly educated, mostly middle-class religious liberals” to being “the faith tradition that works the hardest to live out our principles and make our message available to all people”? And what would it mean for this man, the staff and volunteers, and the UU community to accompany me on my journey from being “resigned to accept the limits of human compassion” to being “energized by the belief that one committed individual can make a difference”?
The details of Michael's story aren't particularly relevant because, I believe, none of the players in the story acted unjustly. The GA staff were doing what they could to protect the thousands of people who rely on them to do so. They were acting on their best judgment. I was frustrated because I came not just to say “this is wrong, you have to do this differently!” I came to offer a way. I offered myself, and the other Faithful Fools at GA with experience doing so, to accompany Michael while he was at GA. To be there with him to keep him and the community safe.
We put up these boundaries - these windows from which to watch the world pass by, these doors to open and close to those we choose – to keep us safe, and it takes trust to let down our guards and let someone in. I had not yet built that trust with the GA staff.
What does it take to build that trust?
It takes, for one thing, familiarity. The stranger we see out the window becomes less and less strange over time, until one day they are no longer strange. It takes hanging out on the boundary, going back and forth through the doors until no one is sure any longer whether you belong inside or out.
We all live there, on the boundary. We tell ourselves otherwise to make our lives simpler, but we are never really in one place or the other: We are not “young” or “old” we are right between the age we were and the age we are becoming. Even our shared religious identity, Unitarian Universalism, isn't a belief we all share, but rather describes our commitment to come to places like this on Sundays and share the journey from what we once believed and what we will soon believe.
It is our task to walk with each other through the boundaries, the glass doors, the bee swarms, the hard parts of our lives, until the barrier becomes as thin as a light mist.
In his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke writes:
We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last minute are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."
Caroline Casey, who hosts the “Visionary Activism” show on KPFA radio, gives one of my favorite quotes:
“The secular critic holds a mirror to the world and says 'tsk, tsk, tsk.'
With a wave of his hand, the trickster turns the mirror into a window and says, 'This is how it could be...'
With another wave, it becomes a door and he says, 'Let's go there!'
With one more wave, the door disappears, and he says 'It's all a part of the same dream.'”
May we all dream our dragons into princesses.