The Big Chair
January 22, 2017
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words – from Shirley Chisholm
My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else. All we want is for that trivial difference to make no difference. …. You have looked at us for years as different from you that you may never see us really. You don’t understand because you think of us as second-class humans. We have been passive and accommodating through so many years of your insults and delays that you think the way things used to be is normal. …. All we want is what you want, no less and no more.
Reading A Vision of Beauty, by William Watterson, Brown Alumni Magazine Fall 2016
“None of my teachers believed I could get into college,” says Shruti Nagarajan. “My friends laughed. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. I hope that I can be that one person to tell a young person that they can do it.”
Nagarajan, who is originally from the U.S. territory of Guam, won the Miss Rhode Island contest in May with a platform of “Upward Mobility: College Access for Low-Income and Minority Students” and a talent for Bollywood fusion dance. She is the first woman from Guam to participate in the Miss America Pageant.
The road from Guam to Miss Rhode Island started with a mango tree.
When Nagarajan was a high school freshman, her mango tree died. “I was very young and very upset that my tree had died. Guam problems.” She laughs. But she wanted to figure out what had happened to her tree. So, Nagarajan cut the mango tree open and found that it was hollow. This led her to discover that the problem was a borer insect infestation. She devised a novel pest management system that would control the borer population. Her system not only worked but was a finalist at the Intel International Science Fair in 2007.
For her college essay two years later, Nagarajan wrote about her mango tree. Brown was one among many colleges she applied to. “From Guam, all U.S. schools sound the same,” says Nagarajan, “and I couldn’t afford to visit.” The Brown admission officers were so taken by her ingenuity in fixing her tree that they wrote her a personalized acceptance letter. This impressed Nagarajan, and in 2010 she arrived on College Hill.
Nagarajan says it had been only by chance that she’d written about the mango tree. No one guided her to the topic. She had no college adviser and neither did her peers, most of whom would never leave Guam, much less attend an American university.
When Nagarajan started at Brown she was shocked by how far behind she was. She had achieved honor roll status at her high school on Guam, but there was no parity with her new classmates. She studied public policy and education because she “wanted to know why [she] was different” and why geography and socioeconomic status affect access to college.
After graduation Nagarajan took a job with an investment advising firm, but started to feel it was taking over her life. Struggling with a lack of balance and self-confidence, she needed a positive outlet, and went back to one of her favorite past-times – Bollywood dancing. She ended up jumping into pageantry after discovering that two Brown women had won the past two Miss Rhode Island pageants. With zero pageant experience, Nagarajan took the leap – and won.
She is using her platform as Miss Rhode Island to boost college acceptance of low-income students. She works with a nonprofit providing advice and resources to low-income and first-generation college-bound students to help them enroll and persist; to claim their place in the world.
Sermon – The Big Chair
If my grandmother had not died in 1986 – long before I married and had children — , she would turn 119 on Thursday. Lately, my youngest son has begun referring to her father as “the Evil One.” This was puzzling. My son did not know this man. In fact, I never knew him, and neither did my own father. Levi Greenwood died in 1929, while still in his fifties. We don’t talk about him, really, because the connection is tenuous. It consists primarily of a few visits to an enormous chair, sized for a giant of beyond Biblical proportions. Kids and other adventurers can climb the 21 foot chair, although it cannot be done alone. You need a boost up; some helping hands. But if you get to the seat, the name Levi Greenwood can be found; a commemoration of the family furniture business, of which he was the president when the chair was erected.
My oldest son, as some of you may know, is named Levi, and all three of my boys have Greenwood as a middle name. I liked the name Levi, which means “joined,” and of course the Levites are the priestly tribe. That seemed appropriate for the poor doomed son of two ministers! So I thought maybe Asher was referring to his brother. Why do you call him the Evil One?, I asked.
And Asher explained, well, Mom, the guy was a creep, he hated women, and that’s why he lost his job. Would that it all worked that way. So, we have Wikipedia combined with my son’s personal interpretation to thank.
There is more than a grain of truth to the characterization Asher gave us. Levi Greenwood was the President of the Senate in Massachusetts, back in the early part of the 20th century. Despite the fact that he seemed poised to rise in the ranks of government, he did not last long in that position. Because he was against women gaining the vote, suffragists organized in protest, got a rival candidate, and threw all their support to him. Mr. Greenwood lost his senate seat. Thus a new president had to be elected. That man was Calvin Coolidge, who of course went on to much bigger things. Not so for The Evil One. He went back to managing his banks and newspapers and his furniture company.
Since there was no such thing as Wikipedia 22 years ago, I did not know these details when Mark and I chose the name. Family lore passed down an edited version of the events. And even now, when I look at the entry, what strikes me are not the biographical details, but the picture. It looks exactly like my father, who also died while still in his fifties. When I first saw the photo online, I thought someone had made a mistake, and that it WAS my father. And what had seemed a distant and fragile connection suddenly is much more complicated. What do we inherit from the past? What do we carry forward without even realizing? The information we have, and our relationship to it, shifts. The grand story is never a straight road.
Last weekend, I was highly aware that it was the last Sunday of official public service for Barack Obama. The church where I am filling in for a colleague on sabbatical uses a prayer book, and among the rote words are prayers for the President of the United States; for our senators and the governor of the Commonwealth. I can’t decide how I feel about this. On the one hand, the new president most certainly could use some prayers. And I know that there are countless people who work for the common good all over our country – on Town Councils and School Committees and Commissions on Disability and as Library Trustees. These people deserve to be remembered, and held up. But there is something to be said for a sacred zone, too – a place not permeated with anxiety about a new world order, or dominated by a political talk that divides. So the key is learning how to talk about prayer as an activity that brings our deepest values to bear; as a way of building beloved community. Our prayers must not be limited to a protest against misogyny and racism and xenophobia. We have to live the unity and inclusion and peace that we claim.
Trump believes in the prosperity gospel; the idea that wealth is proof that God favors a person – which means that if you live in poverty, it is because God wants it that way; that you are not favored. Obviously, this means it isn’t likely that much change will happen in any power structure. And so my prayers for the good of the nation are directed not so much at the powerful, in hoping that they will open their eyes and hearts and become wiser and better; but instead are with those who have been disparaged and disenfranchised. We pray for inclusion, for empowerment, for the will and the strength and the might to cause change. We pray not to be reconciled to the way things are. We pray that a moral voice will matter as much as gold. We pray that we be guided not by fear or anger or hatred, but by love.
Although it was barely mentioned; given only a line or two, Shruti Nagarajan’s love for her mango tree completely captivated me. The point of the profile about her was giving kids from economically depressed and marginalized areas a real chance to go to college, but I loved how it also upended the assumptions of what Miss America contests are for. The article never once calls it a beauty pageant. There is no imagry of parading in a bathing suit and high heels, or leering judges. Instead it is about how Nagarajan felt a bit lost and disconnected, and went back to dancing to get out of her own head – to recover some of the sense of self she felt as a kid. And she was working in investment banking, but wanting to help other kids like the one she had been; one that no one fully believed in.
What propelled Nagarajan forward was love, and the recognition that something she loved was imperiled. There was no straight road from Guam to New England. But she loved her mango tree, and couldn’t just move on when the tree died. Love motivated her to dissect the tree; to cut it open and figure out what went wrong. Hollow at the core, she then wanted to know why – what caused the middle to be emptied out? Something had bored into the trunk of her tree and robbed it of life, and she was determined to learn how to make sure that did not happen again. Maybe along the way this work ended up meaning she got science awards, and accepted to college; she moved far away and became interested in public policy; that she got a job making lots of money, and was able to help other kids with backgrounds like her – but the thing that made her who she was and that carried her through all these experiences was that she loved her mango tree. Hollowness at the core doesn’t have to mean bitterness and emptiness. It can mean there is room to learn; room to grow and to change. But we have to understand and see the truth before that can happen. Laying reality bare is not about assigning fault or claiming blamelessness. It is about moving forward together.
Years and years ago, I remember my history professor telling me that Louisa May Alcott – whose mother once declared “I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me” — was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts. It was three years after her mother had died, and 35 years before my ancestor lost his job for failing to support woman suffrage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a law that allowed women to vote, but only in elections that had to do with children and education. Therefore, women were allowed to vote for local School Committee members beginning in 1880. Alcott seized the chance and tried valiantly to register other women. Who mostly had less than zero interest. In her journal, she wrote about trying to stir the women to action, but they were, in her words, “timid and slow.” She motivated them by scolding, and then almost forcibly corralling them into her carriage so she could drive them to the polls.
A total of twenty women voted that year. Once the women voted, the judge presiding motioned that the polls be closed, and so not only had these twenty women voted – they were the only ballots cast in that election. There were some men present, who had planned to vote, and were not necessarily happy to have been shut out of the process. Alcott responded that for nearly two centuries, men alone had been able to vote, and so one day in which the opposite was true might provide the beginning of a balance.
But of course, that is not balance. It’s retribution. We have to learn how to include everyone. Justice does not mean going back to how it was, or asserting our power over others. It means we cannot stay broken and fallen; alone in pits of despair. We have to be gathered in. There is no winning or losing for sides or factions; there is only being whole, or being broken.
Three years later, only seven women voted – Louisa, her sister Anna, and five others. Alcott was bothered by such a poor show from a town so proud of its culture and intelligence, but she kept insisting on the importance of participation all her days. It is not clear that she ever connected her tactics with the response of the women.
The road is never straight. It is peopled with those who hold on to ideals, and who stick firmly to convictions, but it is not usually clear which of those we will come to see as right. We have to search our hearts, and lead with love –of truth, of justice, of each other – and then pray that sets us in the right direction. My youngest son asked me, “Can you imagine what Levi Greenwood would have thought about his great-granddaughter becoming a minister?” Well, no. I really can’t. But you know, it was completely normal in his day to think the way he did. Massachusetts was generally anti-suffrage – a 1915 popular vote on the subject was defeated, and that was the year AFTER Greenwood lost his seat. Voting was considered a responsibility that women shouldn’t burden themselves with; an imposition that they didn’t consent to, and a grand set up – if women were given the right to vote, and then didn’t, they could be called shirkers. Their character could be impugned. We can laugh at this now, and wryly note the various ways so many different kinds of human beings have been denied their full humanity, but while events are unfolding it is usually only the prophets who can point the way forward; who notice the perversions of justice.
I do not know why my forebear was against women getting the vote, except that most of the people around him felt that way. I like to imagine that there was something personal about it — he was from Gardner, and Lucy Stone famously first preached her women’s suffrage message from her brother’s pulpit in that town. The Reverend Stone lived on the same street as my ancestors, and maybe it was irksome that the Congregational Church – far more conservative than the Unitarians – was hosting abolitionist meetings and letting a woman preach. But I have no idea, really. Maybe he just didn’t think his wife and daughters would vote for him.
My grandmother once told me that when her father died, her hair turned white overnight. I always took that to mean she adored him; that grief hit her at the root. But maybe that is not what she meant. She did not seem the type to put up with anything less than full freedom for herself. She was what most people described as a formidable woman; independent, quirky, smart. But who knows when she became that way? She was 31 when her father died; still living at home, taking music lessons and drifting about the rooms. She was in her 80s when she told me these stories. It strikes me now that she grew up in a country and a family where she had no expectation of ever voting, and then suddenly, just as she turned 22, all that changed.
And, in fact, in a way we can credit her father for that fact. It isn’t because he changed his mind. Rather, his stance on suffrage invited organized resistance, and the Boston Equal Suffrage Association formed in order to oppose him, and this association evolved directly into the League of Women Voters. Perhaps a similar change is happening right now. Last week, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops announced that they have formed a new working group to advocate on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Revealing the hostile environment; exposing the hollow core allows us to start treating the disease.
The grand story is never a straight road, and the servants are often unlikely. Humility comes in many forms, as we serve purposes that we might never have intended. Let us pray that this be true for those with great power, and let us also remember to lead with love and kindness, to show the way.
Our struggle is a struggle to redeem the soul of America. It’s not a struggle that lasts for a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It is the struggle of a lifetime, more than one lifetime.
Young people can understand, and must understand, that we had success, we had failures, but we never gave up. We never gave in. We never became bitter. We didn’t hate. We continued to press on. And that’s what we’re saying: There are some ups, there are some downs, and when you’re not down, you must have the capacity and the ability to get up and keep going. – John Lewis