“My Social Action Practice”
First Parish of Watertown – Lay Service
March, 25, 2012
Call to Worship – from Jean Vanier
A community becomes truly and radiantly one when all its member have a sense of urgency. There are too many people in the world who have no hope. There are too many cries which go unheard. There are too many people dying in loneliness. It is when the members of a community realize that they are not there simply for themselves or their own sanctification, but to welcome the gift of God, to hasten the coming of the kingdom and quench the thirst in parched hearts, that they will truly live in community. A community might be a light in a world of darkness, a spring of fresh water in the church and for all people. We have no right to become lukewarm.
First Speaker – Will Twombly
When Johanna first asked me to speak this morning, I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly say that would be of any interest to anybody. How could I inflict such pain on all of you, my friends? Even our dogs hid their heads under a blanket when they heard the idea.
But after thinking about the purpose of this service, I realized that what I want to say really isn’t about me at all – it’s about each of you, this church, and the Watertown community.
But first, just a little background. My great grandfather, grandfather, and father were ministers. My great grandfather was, for a time, a chaplain on the battlefields of the Civil War. My grandfather was a leader of a citizens’ group fighting organized crime in Lancaster, PA during Prohibition. Unfortunately, I never knew either of them. But I did know my father.
When I was young, I was a pretty weird kid. There weren’t many normal people my own age who wanted to be my friends, so I ended up hanging out with my father a lot. In some ways he was my best friend.
Naturally, I got to see a lot of what he did every day. And what he did was to live out his spiritual beliefs by helping people in quiet, but often immeasurably important ways. He made almost daily trips to the hospital to visit those who were sick. People came to the door seeking help regularly. There was the single mom who had killed her abusive husband in self-defense, and was now raising a son who was in trouble everywhere he went. And there was the family of the former church custodian, also a firefighter, who was killed in a horrible crash on the way to a fire. And hundreds of other people in need of emotional and spiritual support. Giving this help on a daily basis was a way of life for my father, as he lived his faith as best he could. His example of generosity and caring left a lasting impression on everyone who knew him.
In college, I was undoubtedly one of the least distinguished students ever to squeak through all four years. Academics and I mixed like oil and water. Looking back on those days, only a few experiences made a lasting impression. They included meeting Sue and falling in love with her, mastering the art of drinking beer from a fish bowl, making some wonderful friends with whom I laughed a lot, and volunteering in two social service programs. One of these was at a dismal, old-style state hospital, where I visited regularly with a lovely old man named Ike Ames. He was a prince of a fellow, and we became fast friends. The other program involved giving swimming lessons to children with cerebral palsy. I can still here my little friend warning me as I helped him get on his underwear after the lesson, “Please don’t snap the elastic!”
I remember these experiences because they involved real people who needed and appreciated the attention and friendship we college students were able to offer. For the time we were with them, we made a difference in their lives. They gave us a badly needed sense of purpose. I cannot say the same for the rats in the psychology lab back on the campus.
After college, Sue and I joined VISTA, the domestic Peace Corps, and were sent to work with impoverished Hawaiian kids in Honolulu. It was a tough place to be, but we knew someone had to do it. We learned so much from those children – they truly changed our lives. I finished the year convinced that I wanted to be a social worker.
Our second year in VISTA was spent in East Somerville, Massachusetts. It was hard to say which setting was more scenic, but at the end of the second year I concluded that I did NOT want to be a social worker.
Fast forwarding to 1980 when our son was two years old, Sue and I realized that we both wanted some sort of ethical and moral influence for him beyond what we could provide at home. With the help of our next-door neighbors, Roger and Judy Kamm, we discovered First Parish. What we found was a church in which the ethical values that we held dear were at the core of an amazingly supportive community. Over the intervening years we have seen again and again how the First Parish, its building and its people, have played a part, often in a larger context, to affect change and do good things in Watertown. Like the work I saw my father do, it’s often done quietly, a little at a time, and without newspaper headlines. But over time it makes a huge difference in many lives.
Almost all of the social action groups I have been involved with over the years have either met in this building, included members of this congregation, or both. Among them are the Marshall Home Fund, the World in Watertown, and the Helen Robinson Wright Fund. As our guest minister, Ana, said a few weeks ago, it’s hard to accomplish meaningful change alone, but working as a group anything can be done. One of the qualities I value most about this church and this town is that there are so many opportunities to be a part of those groups that are working for change, a little at a time. In fact, all you have to do is show up and the chances are that you will be asked to do a job you’ll like. But not to worry, even if you don’t make a meeting, those who do will unanimously elect you to do the job no one else wants. So to be on the safe side, you’d better show up!
An example of how groups affect positive change is found in the story of the Marshall Home Fund. The Marshall Home was, for nearly 93 years, a highly respected rest home for seniors in town. It was widely known for its caring staff and family-like atmosphere. But little by little demographic and economic factors way beyond the control of the home changed to the point where the home could no longer survive financially. After much soul-searching and hard work, the painful decision was made to close the facility, ending a tradition of care that spanned nearly a century. It was indeed a sad day. However, with a visionary and dedicated board of directors that included several First Parish members, the building was sold to non-profit developers who have created ten wonderful units of affordable housing for low-income seniors with supportive services. And with the proceeds we have established a new entity, the Marshall Home Fund, that to date has provided approximately $200,000 in grants to agencies serving the elderly in Watertown, as well as to individuals in crisis. The MHF board and committees meet here at First Parish regularly, and Susan Flint, Carole Berney, Bob Shay, and Mark Harris have all taken key roles in this effort, as well as our former member, Harold Bejcek.
Although I would never pretend to have a green thumb, I like to compare social action to gardening. One flower does not make a garden, just as one person may not be able to affect social change. But put a whole bunch of different kinds of flowers together, and presto, you have something that’s really beautiful, and really has an impact on all who see it. But gardens don’t tend themselves – much work is required, just as much work is needed to keep a social action movement alive and on track. There can be a drought, when everything turns brown and stops growing. This can happen in a group when everyone becomes discouraged and looses energy and focus. There can be invasive species in a garden, which try to take over and choke other flowers. Group dynamics are always an issue, even when everyone has the best of intentions. Group leaders, like good gardeners, must work to make sure that everyone is given their own space to bloom and grow. Sometimes even the best gardeners get poison ivy, or begin to think that they have actually created the flowers. Sometimes group leaders become worn down, feel that they are indispensable, or feel that they deserve more credit or recognition than they’re getting. These are sure signs of the need to step back for awhile. But in the end, when gardens are loved and cared for, their collective beauty is beyond description. And when groups of committed people, like those of you who are here, set about doing good work, the power of community is unstoppable.
Today so many of you – members, staff, and former staff – are working to build a stronger community that is better able to take care of everyone. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to walk in this First Parish garden, and to be continually inspired by the compassion, energy, and commitment that you show.
Second Speaker – Sue Kuder
Bobbie Kennedy was my hero. Words from his bother Teddy’s eulogy still inspire me. “ My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”
Before I continue, I want to point out that, whatever I have done, I have received a thousand fold more than I have given. That you will see as I tell my story.
Ever since I was a little girl, I had this feeling deep inside me that there was injustice in the world. I saw racial injustice and I saw economic injustice, and even as a child I knew they were intertwined. It wasn’t until after college, however, that I acted on my convictions. The summer after my first year of teaching, I worked with the UUSC in the south side of Chicago. (This was long before I became a UU. ) There were eight of us, young men and women, from all walks of life and from all countries, sent to a housing project to work, but with no program and no real guidance. So, we offered tutoring services, we offered outdoor activities and games for the kids, and we tried to earn the trust of the community. One day we took a group of youngsters to the local municipal pool. A little girl under our care drowned. No one saw it happen. But it happened. When we returned to the project, I went over to the girl’s house, and tried in a very clumsy way to comfort her older sister. Then her mother came home. She looked at me, the honky, with centuries of hatred in her eyes, and said “What happened to my baby?” That summer I learned the pathos of poverty, the huge cultural divide between classes, and my impotency in bridging the gap.
Two years later, I spent the summer working with the children of migrant works in rural New Jersey with the American Friends Service Committee. If I thought my summer in Chicago was unstructured, this was chaos. Under the direction of a compulsively controlling woman, three of us worked in a storefront, trying, once again, to provide activities for kids, but being thwarted at every turn. We lived in an apartment that was so infested with cockroaches that the only safe place was bed. However, I formed close friendships with two of the older kids, teenagers, Roberto and Jesus. When Jesus was asked by a gringo what his name was, he reveled in saying “I’m Jesus”. We hung out together, embarrassing and angering Marta by giggling and carrying on at the most inappropriate times, including, I am embarrassed to say, evangelical church services, but thoroughly enjoying each other’s company and each other’s humor. Our friendship transcended race, class and economic status.
The Peace Corps was conceived and created when I was an undergraduate. From its inception, it was something I dreamed of doing. It spoke to my wanderlust as well as my urge to help “ make the world a better place”. And, I had always wanted to go to Africa. So, finally, nine years after graduating, I was sent to Togo in French speaking West Africa. That suited me perfectly. I knew it would be an adventure, but I never dreamed how life altering it would be. I was unprepared for the totally different way of living. I was unprepared for a vastly different value system. But I was also unprepared for the love, friendship and guidance of the Togolese people who took me under their wing and taught me how to behave. What I learned was that what I had taken as absolutes here in America were not absolutes at all, but determined by the culture we live in. I saw firsthand, for example, that while in the U.S. efficiency and mastery of skills are high on the scale of values, they come last in Togo. What is important is establishing rapport and warm human relations. Togolese greetings go on for hours… How is your mother, your father, your children, your wives, your brothers, your sisters, your aunts, your uncles, and so on. Individualism is a foreign concept. It is the community, the group, and your part in it, that is of value.
Ostracism is a common form of punishment. I befriended a neighborhood child, a girl of about 10, who would come over to visit me quite often. One day she showed up in tears. Her mother had sent her to the market, and she had somehow lost the money her mother has given her. She was banned from her house. This was her punishment. There are many more examples of cross cultural differences, but time is limited. In short, the Peace Corps for me was a humbling, eye-opening, and life altering experience that I carry with me to this day. I gave practically nothing, and in return got everything.
Since the Peace Corps, like so many of you, I have remained active in the community, constantly feeling enriched by the people I meet and enjoying a sense of fulfillment and purpose. At First Parish, I have found sanctuary, but I have also found a springboard for social action and social justice. I think it fitting to close with the words of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Third Speaker – John Portz
Good morning. The question: Why do I do what I do? I have to admit, this question prompted some new reflection on why I’ve spent so much time in the past 20 years involved in public service and, particularly, town politics. As the biography in your materials indicates, for 8 years I served on the town council, which is like a city council, but we keep calling ourselves a town, and for the last 6 years I’ve been a member of the school committee, which is the Mass. term for school board.
Did I get involved in local politics as an expression of myself as a UU? Not really… But there is a connection. If I can borrow the heart and head metaphors — I think my heart – my emotions and feelings – brought me to this church, but it’s my head – my thinking and learning – that first put me in town politics. Any yet, they’ve come together. Let me elaborate.
Before I came to Watertown in 1988, and I was 35 at that point, I was not involved, in any way, with local politics or community service. There’s no family history of sitting around the dinner table talking political happenings, and I was not an astute observer of politics. In fact, one of my first memories as a child is wondering why the US and the Soviet Union, in 1959, disliked each other so much, since they had the same political leader – a man with a bald head (that’s Eisenhower and Khruschev, for those in need of a history lesson).
But the truth is, in college I was drawn to the study of government and politics. I was a history major, then earned graduate degrees in political science. But I always wanted to have one hand on the side of experience and “doing” government rather than just studying it. I studied in graduate school for a few years, but then seeking a more concrete and hands-on experience, too a job in state government. But then, after a few years, it was back to graduate school. I slowly realized that my way of learning needed a combination of doing and thinking…. some experience in the trenches, as they say, along with the books and writings of academia.
That was my path. I finished graduate school and moved to Watertown and to the job I still have at Northeastern University. I teach about government and politics, and I’ve always wanted to keep one hand in the ‘real’ world. I soon became involved in local politics. I met people like Alex Liazos, who many of you know, who connected me to the local political scene. I was involved in the early days of the El Salvador sister city project, but more to the point of town politics, I volunteered to serve on a town Task Force on Economic Development, which at that time, was my primary area of academic interest. As an academic I was considered a neutral party and, to the surprise of many, was appointed by the then town manager, Joe Painter, to chair the task force. Within a few years I was on the Arsenal Reuse Committee, then running for the town council.
At some point in this story, my heart started playing an important role. I teach about public service and came to believe in the human value of helping others. Being engaged in government and politics was not just about my own learning, it was also about giving back to society. My parents didn’t talk about politics or engage in public service, but they did instill in me a sense that we are all part of a larger community, and that it is important to give back to that community, in whatever way we can. Public service became an important way for me to give back.
But where’s First Parish in this story? Meredith and I first came to this church in 1992 — I wore a tie that day — and became members in 1995. Our focus was finding a place – a spiritual comfort zone – for raising a family. My growing ventures into town politics were not a part of the motivation.
However, I soon learned that First Parish was, and continues to be, very active in the community and politically, in the broadest of terms. There is common ground here for people seeking to make a positive difference in the world. My commitment to public service, and the challenges that come with that, is nurtured and reinforced here. I still may follow my own path, but I know First Parish provides a comfort zone not only for my family, but for this part of my life as well. This is a community of like-minded souls that will support you, even when you stumble.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite Dr. Seuss stories, Oh, the Places You’ll Go.
Today is your day.
You’re off to Great Places!
You’re off and away!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
Who soar to high heights.
Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.
I’m sorry to say so
But sadly, it’s true
Can happen to you.
First Parish is a community that cares about others. Even when you hit “bang-ups” and “hang-ups,” this community is there to support you. Public and community service, and all its trials and tribulations, are central to what First Parish is all about. I’m thankful to the community, and I applaud the work of Will and Sue and all in this congregation. For me, it’s simply a good match. My heart and my head are comfortable here.
Closing Words – from Martin Luther King, Jr.
Everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. Your don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.