today I will rebuild, writes our poet…
a living root bridge that lasts five hundred years

I encourage you to look up root bridges at some point today and take in the magnificence of these structures. They offer a powerful image– living bridges, stretched roots, laid with stones so that we humans might cross chasms and riverways.

This week, knowing that I would be Holding History with you, the image of the root bridge came knocking through Jonina Kerton’s beautiful poem “Reconciliation”. A poem that speaks to her reconciliation of two disparate root systems that represent her experience as a mixed-race woman, two sets of roots finding their way toward one another. Forging a strong and lasting bridge that offers reconciled passage between the two.

And it’s a compelling image when we as a people consider from whence and where and whom we come. What chasms and disparate root systems exist in these ancient genealogies of ours, where might we draw strength from–what roots are deep and lasting, and where are the weak and dying places? And Who, who has bequeathed the stories of our peoples to us? Do they hold? Enough to build lasting bridges on?

Before I go on, I need to name that I am a white woman, of European descent, who does not carry the lived experience of someone who identifies as mixed race, like our poet does. So, I am committed to treading carefully here. White people have historically borrowed, in the name of meaning making, borrowed from the cultures and experiences of people of color in ways that perpetuate so much harm.

I will be looking to the powerful symbolism of the root bridge to help guide us this morning, and my intent is not to conflate Jonina Kerton’s lived experience with my own.

Trees and their roots, however, strike at something universal. We even trace our families on them. Our family tree. We write names on branches that sprawl out and up. But what of the roots? Often our trees seek to trace our ancestors back by getting taller and wider, but it’s interesting that the farther back we get we then shift our attention, and vernacular, to the depth of our roots, right? It’s interesting. When I consider the roots of my own family tree, I think about my ancestors that are beyond census records and ship logs. That’s where those branches end. These are some of the peoples I spoke about last week in our service about Samhain–our Earth-based ancestors who pre-date Christianity by thousands and thousands of years, and whom even pre-date ideologies like: colonization, patriarchy, white supremacy. All oppressive systems born up and out of a model of living founded on domination and conquest. War and power. There was a time before this. And I am going to speak about it more in a minute here.

The great grief that I live with is that I don’t know who my people are. Not really. I mean, I can guess–my European ancestry takes me to the land we know today as England, Ireland, France and Italy. But I have no idea if I am related to, for example, the Stone People of England–builders of Stonehenge in 3000 BCE or the indigenous tribes of Italy who can be traced back to 40,000 BCE. Their names and ways lost completely.

And what of before this time?

Modern science tells us that all, ALL human beings alive today have DNA whose originating source can be traced back to Africa–as far back as 315,000 BCE. Latest published studies argue that there is clear evidence that the Botswana salt flats are the ancestral homeland for all modern humans today.

Take that in. The hymn we sang and heard earlier, We Would Be One, takes on a whole new meaning when we really consider this.

Four years ago, I took a course called, Roots Deeper than Whiteness, which was offered through an incredible organization called White Awake–I highly recommend you taking the time to get to know them if you don’t already. This particular workshop was designed for white-identified people who were interested in doing anti-racist work together. And I thought we were going to spend those intense six weeks learning how to dismantle white supremacist systems as white people. And We did. But it was not what I thought it was going to be.

We began by working to trace our roots. From where, from whence, from whom did we come. And we researched indigenous peoples of the world, and migrations. Many of us took those DNA tests to get some kind of sense of our homelands. And one of our first assignments was to build an altar for these our lost ancestors.

I placed some photographs, and a few remnants that were my great-great grandmother’s on it to get it started. Then I added some stones meant to represent, MAYBE, my stone people? But then I got stuck. Because I just don’t know who my people were and what they would want me to put on there to represent them. The emptiness of that altar became more of a place of honoring than anything object I could conjure up. And it brought up a lot of sadness for me. And most of the others in the workshop shared in this grief as well.

And this was the beginning of our work together, a good and right place to start, for if we as white people were going to understand, trace and HOLD the complicated histories that we then moved through in this course–ones of conquest and colonization. Harm and oppression perpetrated by many of our relatives. We had to start with the before, so as to reckon with the after. Not to justify or deflect. But to begin to build some kind of bridge.

I began to understand that the decimation of my long-lost people was exactly what my later relatives enacted on other peoples.  What a horrible cycle of abuse we are all caught up in.

And this workshop was a huge part of the reason why I took my pilgrimage to the ancient lands of Crete–I mentioned it briefly last week. In 2018 I joined 18 other women on a two-week trek through Crete, led by feminist theologian and scholar Dr. Carol Christ, who has dedicated her life to the study of Neolithic and Minoan civilizations there–it’s a place rife with archeological sites and artifacts spanning as far back as 10,000 BCE. And what I learned there changed me. For evidence shows that these civilizations, while Goddess-centered for that is who and what they worshipped, were egalitarian–peaceful, non-patriarchal. Which means that there was no hierarchy, no ruling class. No war. Archaeologists have come to this understanding by analyzing the hundreds of thousands of artifacts found. Among which, not one weapon unearthed, not one portrayal of kings, or queens or their subjects–not one act of violence depicted. Anywhere. These sites and artifacts instead tell the story of the Goddess depicted as a myriad of animals, the arts–weaving, dance, music–, and a society devoted to an advanced system of agriculture, and care for each other and the earth.

These civilizations–and they didn’t just exist in Crete–point to what many archeologists and historians are calling the partnership model–a social system that understood diversity as not being equated with either inferiority or superiority.

The opposite of this–this is where we are as a global civilization right now–is what is called the dominator model, which ranks one portion of humanity over another. And history tells us that whichever portion ranks highest, is the single story we inherit. For it is told by the most dominant, interpreted by the most dominant, taught by the most dominant, upheld by the most dominant.

The good news here, and this is what gripped me in Crete, is that this is not the model that we, as human beings, began with. Our deep, deep roots, for hundreds of thousands of years, are made up of peoples, our lost ancestors, who lived and breathed a partnership model of existence. Scholar and writer Riane Eisler who wrote The Chalice and the Blade, a book which lays this out beautifully, writes that “our mounting global problems are in large part the logical consequences of a dominator model of social organization,” or what she calls “a bloody five-thousand-year dominator detour.” The hopeful message she offers is that “the present system is breaking down,” we know this–it’s not working–and that as cocreators of our own evolution, for that is what we are, we still have a choice in how we break through this failed model of organization. That we can break through it. We can re-member that which has been forgotten.

Many of you are already doing this work. Tracing your fingers over your complicated family trees. Reckoning with tough truths and inherited half-truths. Single storylines. And I would say Keep going. And keep going Past the branches. Into the roots–touch fingers with the lost ancient wisdom and Indigenous traditions that are yours to unearth. Not someone else’s. YOURS.

And then begin tying these stories–known and unknown–painful and wonderful. Tie them back together, re-member that which has been pulled apart and silenced and severed. Tie the before to the after. Look at it all squarely. Hold the wholeness that is your history. Our history.

Be root bridge-builders. Reconcilers of the disparate.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me feel hopeful.

In a recent essay focusing on ancestral reclaiming and the current uprising of this kind of cultural reconciliation work, Mi’kmaq Elder, the Mi’kmaq are the original stewards of the northeast Canadian woodlands, and this elder wrote: The Ancestors have been waiting for years and years for the songs to come back, for our feet to touch the earth again. Dancing in the sacred circle we are people of the earth, filled with joy to reconnect with ourselves and the ancient spirits again. This was written for all of humanity by this elder.  I find these words to be such a beautiful blessing to close with and to carry forth into this work. The ancestors have been waiting for the songs to come back. And I am going to ask that we take a moment of silence with this. Just breathe that in and out.

today I will rebuild
this time no quick fixes     no steel cables
or wooden planks
no rust     no rot
no nails necessary
but rather the slow growth of twisted roots
from ancient trees
the way across a path
made of grandfather
grandmother stones
I will become a self-sustaining structure
gain strength over time
a living root bridge that lasts five hundred years

May it be so and amen.

Let’s sing and hum and receive the healing balm that is our closing hymn today: My Life Flows on in Endless Song.

Reverend Sophia Lyons
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Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.