“Pilgrim Fortitude” by Mark W. Harris – November 25, 2007

“Pilgrim Fortitude” by Mark W. Harris

First Parish of Watertown – November 25, 2007

Call to Worship – from Hildegard of Bingen

I am the one whose praise
echoes on high.

I adorn all the earth.

I am the breeze
that nurtures all things
I encourage blossoms to flourish with ripening fruits.

I am led by the spirit to feed
the purest streams.

I am the rain
coming from the dew
that causes the grasses to laugh
with the joy of life

I call forth tears,
the aroma of holy work.

I am yearning for good.

Reading – from Learning to Fall by Philip Simmons

Sermon – “Pilgrim Fortitude” Mark W. Harris

Senator Larry Craig from Idaho has been publicly denying that he’s gay since 1982. He became the subject of many jokes in September when he denied “any inappropriate conduct” in a men’s room at the Minneapolis airport. And then, he declared “I am not gay and never have been.” His enduring denials and blatant hypocrisy are indeed sad commentary on what we might wish was the personal character of anyone who holds the honorable title of United State Senator. A recent New York Times book review article juxtaposed Craig’s pandering and posturing around the US Capitol with an exhibit at the Smithsonian just down the street. Here behind glass was a display of two picket signs that had been carried by homosexual rights protesters outside the White House in 1965, four years before the famous Stonewall clash. These signs are now national treasures, shown beside the hat that Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night John Wilkes Booth ended his life. Last week when Elizabeth Tappan-deFrees and others read the text elucidating the legality of Same sex marriage, we were all reminded once again of the enormous historic significance of this event. While we can celebrate this in Massachusetts, we also realize the continuing battle in 49 other states, many of whom have passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. When will it be that civil marriage is a civil right in all states?

A lying Senator and picket signs remind us how difficult it is to keep on keeping on, as they used to say in the 1960’s; surviving and being true to yourself over decades, centuries, even millennia as you are relegated to the status of heretic, freak, sinner, slave, imbecile. How can anyone live from day to day when others want to keep you out of their neighborhood, out of their church, and out of their lives? These are stories of people shunned and persecuted, locked up in chains and locked up in institutions, manacled and shackled in some way, but always told that what they are is inferior, wrong or misguided, or worse, deserves death. And yet some survived, and some broke those chains. To do so, took what we sometimes call fortitude, or the courage to never give up. It is the fourth of our sometime series on the seven virtues – Justice, Temperance, Prudence and now Fortitude – to be followed by the three theological virtues; Faith, Hope and Love.

On Thanksgiving most of us sat down to a large feast. We also carry in our minds and hearts a mythic story about this celebration that is tied up with our nation’s origins, and how we conceive of ourselves as a people. We have even greater reminders of this here in Watertown when we see the Arbella in the entry way, and realize we are one of the oldest congregations in America, or when we celebrate Thanksgiving and retrieve the ancient silver from the MFA, and see and touch the vessels that are symbolic of the faith of our 17th century ancestors. School children still make floppy paper hats made of brown construction paper, and recite the bravery of a people who were persecuted in their homeland, and fled here to find religious freedom. Other children construct some kind of feathered headdresses to signify the Native American heritage, whom we designate as helpmates to these weary Pilgrims, extending a hand in friendship and teaching them to plant corn. Two cultures coming together in friendship.

There is some truth in that myth, and as Nathaniel Philbrick shows us in his bestseller Mayflower, the Natives and the English learned and absorbed much from each other over the first fifty years of coexistence. But despite the support and protection that had existed, both began to have different visions of what the future was going to be. Young natives saw more and more of their lands being taken over, and the young English settlers began to anticipate a day when poverty and disease would annihilate the natives. Philbrick shows us that the dynamic, diverse cultural interplay that did play a role in Plymouth self-destructed with King Philip’s War, population wise the most devastating war in American history. That Pilgrims and Natives alike had the fortitude to survive the first fifty years, and maintain the peace was founded on their ability to see what kind of obligations they had to each other or how much they needed one another. When they lost sight of this, one culture was virtually destroyed, and the other ended up fighting more Indian wars for nearly another century, before the fight for independence from Britain itself took over.

While most of us have some vague idea of Pilgrims and Natives celebrating the first Thanksgiving feast, we probably also reflect on what we are each thankful for. It may be at a ministerial prompting in church, or simply a family sharing as we go around the table at dinnertime. This was true for the gathering I attended. What was interesting is that the youngest person there, a vibrant first grader, and the oldest person there, an almost 80 year old man who can barely speak due to a stroke, both echoed the same sentiment. The six year old saying, “I am happy to be alive,” and the older man, “I am glad just to be here.” Most of us usually think of family and friends, food and loved ones to be thankful for, and probably continue our mythic idea of the first Thanksgiving with the idea that the Pilgrims were thankful for the bounty they enjoyed. Perhaps there is some truth there, but it seems to me after they survived that first year where half of them died due to sickness, and the others made some misguided initial contacts with the Natives, that they were lucky to be here at all. So perhaps they gave thanks not for what they had, but that they had survived at all.

About a week ago Elijah Tappan-deFrees visited me in my office to interview me for a school project on the Puritans, although I probably gave him more detail than he ever imagined or wanted. He let me borrow a book on the first Thanksgiving, which explained to me that there were many feasts, not one, that Massasoit celebrated with his Wampanaog followers, when they happened to visit the Pilgrims who were preparing a traditional harvest celebration. The book also reminded me that the Wampanaogs give thanks every day, and in all things. It is a way of being. They give thanks for the ancestors. They give thanks for life. They look forward to the future. These are the touchstones of life – past, present and future. We all hope to learn truths from the past, so that we might live more nobly right now, guided by a vision of what life might be. In a personal context we all hope the children will grow up happy and healthy, and be given opportunities to live rich, full lives, and have children of their own, and grow old with dignity and grace. We envision a natural order of things graced by prosperity and happiness. Then we confront times when that natural order is broken. On Thanksgiving morning we received a call that a woman Andrea and I both know well had suffered the loss of her 18 year old son in a car accident in Lexington. Sad. Tragic. Unfair. Whatever his life was going to bring will never unfold – college, marriage, children, career, who knows? All lost.

This was an ultimate kind of tragedy, the loss of a life in the blossom of youth. In the book Mayflower, Nathaniel Philbrick describes how the Pilgrims discovered they were traveling in time as they walked around southern New England. All along the walking paths the Natives had made circular foot deep holes, not traps, but memory holes to remind people of where remarkable events had taken place. It was every person’s responsibility to maintain the holes, and to tell the stories of what had happened there. It was hallowed ground. It also made traveling less boring because there were these significant places. There was a sense of community and meaning literally dug into the ground. I suppose we try to do this today, when we mark the site of terrible accidents. Don’t forget the loss of life that occurred here. We all have reminders of the losses we endure as our lives go forward. We may mark the places in our heart where a parent or partner or child has died, and we, especially at a Thanksgiving table, note the missing place or person, tell their stories, and then give thanks that we still have life, knowing what we can learn from this memory hole. Those friends and family, bounty and good health we have can be snatched away in an instant. Those Pilgrims and those Natives knew that. Disease had struck down almost all the natives, and half the Pilgrims. They knew every day that life is impermanent, giving reason to say give thanks in all things, all days, all times. Give thanks that you are here at all.

I suspect it is hard to give thanks in those times when we feel life is most cruel. If we have lost a child, or gotten the news about a serious illness, we may respond that this cannot be happening, or ask why is it happening to me. Yet these moments certainly remind us most starkly of all that we have to be grateful for, and so we hug or hold more tightly those dear ones with whom we spend our days, or who are left with us to carry on in the days ahead. In his book Learning to Fall, Philip Simmons, who at the time he was writing was suffering from ALS, and has since died, tells us we must have a realization that all things are transient, and that we literally can’t keep a house, can’t keep anything, and not just because we grow old and lose the physical ability to care for it, but because we will die, and cannot hold on to material things. And then he goes on to say that the only way we can keep a house is not by trying to make it immortal, because it will pass away. The immortality must be found in the work we hallow with the days of our lives. And so we scrape and sand, plaster and paint and beautify and preserve, or hold together as long as we can with what strength and skill we have because it is a joy to be able to do what we can simply because we are alive. Sometimes in the summertime in Maine, I am sore when I get up in the morning, not from age and infirmity but because I have hauled logs, trimmed trees, painted windows or doors, and my body is aware of its labors. My soreness tells me I am alive. And it is good.

Simmons would have us believe that the true keeping of our unfinished houses must occur in the present. I am glad I am alive right now. I am glad to be here with you. I must hallow the work I do right now. But I think that point of view can be misinterpreted. While the present is really all that we have, and we must be fully aware of our gratitude in this moment, I think we must also be guided by the heaven that lies elsewhere. Sure we can be fooled by always waiting for the house to be finished, or waiting to be happy, and a fantasy can consume us. We may be unable to live in the present if we are always thinking of what is to come. I think we must distinguish between fantasy that will never be realized, and how we must still be guided by a vision of how life could be.

For several years on a frequent basis, Andrea and I and the boys have driven to Waltham to swim at the Fernald Center. While our children’s needs meant that we could use their facilities, I became struck by the battle still brewing to close down this facility which houses many severely disabled people, so that the land might be sold and developed. Many of you know that the people who live there have spent their entire lives within this center, and their families hope that they can end their days under the Fernald roofs. As a historian I have more than a passing interest in the Fernald, as it was founded by Samuel Gridley Howe, active Unitarian, and also the first director of what is now the Perkins School for the Blind. The Fernald was America’s first institution for the so-called feebleminded. Howe’s theories of education were and are admirable. He believed that all children should be educated to lead productive and independent lives. He expected everyone would graduate to a life beyond the institution. This changed with the advent of a misguided application of scientific theory called eugenics. Liberals and others began to fear that many social problems were caused by a wildly breeding underclass of people. Its advocates believed that selective breeding would stem the tide of idiocy, which would destroy America. By the early 20th century those who ran the Fernald came to believe that the students there could never be trained to live on their own, and should never be allowed to leave state custody.

Those are the parameters of a sad and depressing book called The State Boys Rebellion, which I am in the process of reading. It is sad and depressing because it tells the story of tens of thousands of children who were locked away and separated from their families because they were deemed deficient, and were said to likely become criminals in society, and if they bred they would degrade the gene pool. There are tales of abuse and neglect, fear and terror, and for many of these relatively normal children who nobody wanted, there was the horrible specter of never being free again. But that very fear of growing old and dying within the Fernald’s walls motivated Fred Boyce and others to never give up. We may think of rebels in Hungary in 1956. We may think of the lone Chinese student who stood before the tank in Tianamen Square. We may think of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Fred Boyce never believed he should be imprisoned at the Fernald. He never believed he was the useless “N” word that others called him, even when he was not sure what it meant. He never believed that he had no intelligence, or that nobody would ever love him.

Fred Boyce’s story reminds me of a 2nd century Christian bishop and martyr named Polycarp. He was confronted with a Roman judge who ordered him to bow before Caesar, and renounce his religious beliefs. Polycarp refused to do so. The judge not really wanting to throw the old saint to the lions, said, “Don’t you know that I have the power to kill you?” Polycarp stared him down and said, “Don’t you realize I have the power to let you?” What he meant was that rather than giving in to the threat and allowing the judge to force him to recant, he had the power to face the beasts while still upholding the principles that gave meaning to his life. He had the power to hold firm to those principles which gave him a higher truth to live by, and the judge could not take that away. He didn’t have to shrink back in fear, he could stand up with courage. His larger vision gave him the fortitude to withstand any threats.

How do you find the fortitude to carry on when your life has been destroyed? This was the enormous task before the State Boys like Fred Boyce. In Fred’s case that hope began to surface by seeing and hearing about the civil rights movement on TV and radio. He came to know why that “N” word had been applied to him. And so he and his friends protested their mistreatment, cried for freedom, ran away, and then ultimately seized a prison ward. They eventually won their freedom, and with minimal training were released into the world. Fred went on the carnival circuit, as his lifelong incarceration meant he could never be confined to one place again. When he worked in Roxbury at one time he connected his own experience with those of his black customers. He wrote, “There was nothing wrong with these guys. They were strong grown men who worked hard but had nothing. They were just black. That was the whole thing.”

What gives us the fortitude to keep going? A vision. Sure we must give thanks that we have our life, but something must continue to inspire us to go on. Fred Boyce and others believed that they deserved to be free. They were inspired by others who were enchained in their fight for freedom. Juxtapose those who stand up for their freedom, for what is right, time and time again over decades, over lifetimes and will not sacrifice their integrity with those who will say anything to win your vote, to please you. At the Fernald School, a handful of boys fought against terrible oppression, and lived to tell the tale. They stood up. They told the truth. They carried on. They survived. Is it freedom? Is it friendship? Is it the search for truth? Is it love? Is it to give the world a more just or peaceful path to follow? Is it one life lived with integrity? We talk about our Pilgrim ancestors making some poor choices 50 years after settlement, and chaos ensured, especially for the Native culture, which was destroyed. But for the Pilgrims, too, who suffered through war after war. There was a way of life that surfaced in these first fifty years. That to really survive in the long run, we must respect our diversity, we must listen to one another, we must realize we are all in this together. This year we are all thankful we survived, but we will do so a lot longer if we remember how much we need everybody, so that when tragedy strikes, we are there for one another, when someone is enchained in some way, we are there for one another. In all things, we are there for another.

Closing Words from Carl Sandburg , “The People, Yes”

“And the king wanted an inscription
good for a thousand years and after
that to the end of the world?”
“Yes, precisely so.”
“Something so true and awful that no
matter what happened it would stand?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
Something no matter who spit on it or
laughed at it there it would stand
and nothing would change it?”
“Yes, that was what the king ordered
his wise men to write.”
“And what did they write?”

Reverend Mark Harris
Minister | + posts

Mark was minister at First Parish from 1996 until he retired in 2019. Mark’s ministry was grounded in the importance of carrying on the traditions of the congregation and the UU faith. He loves congregations like First Parish where everyone ministers to one another, and the community is central. On his retirement in June 2019, Mark received the title Minister Emeritus.