“Who Do I Belong To?” by Mark W. Harris – September 20, 2009
Who Do I Belong To? By Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 20, 2009
Call to Worship – from Margaret Keip
As surely as we belong to the universe
We belong together.
We join here in community to overcome our feeling of being alone,
To know ourselves to be at home,
Here on earth, under the stars,
Linked with each other.
Reading – “Woodstock” by Joni Mitchell
I came upon a child of god
He was walking along the road
And I asked him, where are you going
And this he told me
I’m going on down to Yasgur’s farm
I’m going to join in a rock n roll band
I’m going to camp out on the land
And try and get my soul free
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog
In something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who l am
But life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song
And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation
We are stardust
We are golden
caught in the devils bargain
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
I am a member of Woodstock Nation. Forty years ago in the summer of 1969, eight high school friends wedged themselves in a Chevy van, and headed west for a remote location in New York State, near the fabled hometown of Bob Dylan. Yet Woodstock, New York had rejected the proposed festival, as did another town, but finally a dairy farmer named Max Yasgur made arrangements for the giant concert on his amphitheatre like cow field in Bethel, New York. My mother was probably a little naïve about what her youngest child was getting into, and yet so was I. For one weekend this remote pasture was Mecca, as 500,000 youth went on a rock pilgrimage to it. It became a logistical disaster. As the MC announced at one point, “the New York State Thruway is closed, man.” It is true that my little entourage ran into a traffic jam of immense proportions. We ended up parking eight miles from festival, and then walking. We tried to shop for food in one town we passed through, but the grocery shelves looked liked a plague of locusts had descended. Then it began raining, and it never stopped. We arrived in the downpour to hear the beautiful strains of Joan Baez’ voice, then slept fitfully in the rain, only to awake to a massive mud pie. One of the books recently issued to commemorate the 40th anniversary said 30,000 to 80,000 sleeping bags were left behind because they were so mud encased, they were too heavy to carry. One of those was mine.
On Saturday we made our way to a location half way up the hill, staked out our spot, and sat. There was little food available for sale, which is probably good, because there were no bathrooms either. Well, let me clarify, there were a few port-u-johns, but by Saturday afternoon, this city of half a million had ended their functional usefulness. And the smell. Let’s just say I avoided portable toilets for years to come, because they all conjured up images of Woodstock. The cornfields had to suffice. I was being very green. And the music, of course was mostly, spectacular. We danced all night long. Ever since, people have tried to comment on the meaning of it all. The mud faded from memory, and people instead have remembered the tremendous sense of community and harmony fostered there. It is true that faced with a dearth of material comforts, we did not take it out on each other, instead we took care of each other. For some it defined the 1960’s as a call for peace making in response to wars and violence, a time of unity and harmony in response to racial hatred and divisiveness. Many of us sang about a generation gap, saying hope I die before I get old, but now most of us are aging, and know our children will be the inheritors of Iraq and Afghanistan.
When Abbie Hoffman spoke at the trial of the Chicago Eight, he told the judge his place of residence was Woodstock Nation. He represented a nation of alienated young people who rejected competition in favor of cooperation, and stated that there were better means of exchange than property or money. This longhaired rebelliousness against the establishment gave me a sense of identity for a long time. Many of us belong to our times. We identify with a particular cultural or political expression, and it gives us a sense of rootedness where our beliefs about life and our vision for the world are grounded. For me, this sense of belonging to a sub culture which wanted the world to allocate its resources more fairly and treat our neighbors more equally, had a dramatic effect on my choice of profession and on my political and economic perspective on the world. We belong to those parts of our life, which bring us meaning. They are the things we are most connected to. It may mean family, or friends, or church, or town, or nation. Whatever it is we feel we belong to, it keeps us from being adrift, and provides meaning and focus for our lives.
Finding a sense of rootedness in times of change and upheaval becomes crucial for our well- being. The major stories of the Bible reminds us that life is marked by dramatic traumas that often make us leave the home and land, and even the family we love, and we are forced to create a sense of belonging elsewhere. Abraham is told to “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” Out of this a new community, or Israel, will emerge. But more importantly, the covenant with God is not just for Abraham, but also is meant as a relationship with other people and cultures. This call to separate is so that he can learn, in that new place that the blessing of belonging to God is for all of us.
In a way I found my sense of belonging in Woodstock Nation because I saw its peaceful, cooperative ways as the embodiment of what the Hebrew prophets might have called God’s blessing in the world. We should all belong to this kind of loving, caring community. But how far did the caring extend? Like most things in life that provide a sense of belonging, it had a restricted focus. I found my anti-establishment, liberal, hippie group meaningful, but we also had our enemies, and one of the major targets of that enmity was the police. From the experience of arresting demonstrators, the police were an embodiment of an oppressive establishment. While this youthful suspicion and distrust of police mellowed over the years for me, it never completely left my consciousness, and I have tried to keep the police at a distance because a part of me still saw them as authoritarian, control freaks who could morph into the enforcers of a military state.
This had changed as a result of my work with the World in Watertown, Watertown’s human rights group. Over the years we had partnered with the police on a number of programs, and I had found there was certainly room for moderation of my rigid view of the thin, blue line. This especially changed for me this summer over the flag incident. As most of you know vandals first stole our rainbow flag, and then burned it twice, so that on the second occasion, it was completely destroyed. For some liberals, like myself, who might at first suspect that the police would be completely homophobic, and dismissive of the burning of our flag, I was wrong. Instead they were ever present, helpful and courteous to me. They offered additional patrols and increased surveillance. Moreover they were a like a supplementary organizing team for the rally we had in Watertown Square, and subsequently stopped traffic for our march back to the church. To witness their support when someone was trying to subvert our message was heartening. I suspect that having an enemy to project our dislike or upon helps establish a sense of belonging, but ultimately it destroys our sense of trust. And if there is some level of distrust then it mars our feeling of belonging in a community. In my comments I tried to imply that our welcome of the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender communities to First Parish was an extension of Watertown’s historic efforts to welcome immigrant communities, so that everyone would feel a sense of belonging here.
We also know that those things we once felt like we belonged to such as voluntary organizations or schools can betray our sense of trust because no human institution is perfect. This happens to many of us with our families. In the bestselling novel Olive Kittridge, Olive and Henry’s son moves west, and after he is divorced announces that he plans on staying there in his new home. Henry is sure that the Maine coastline is where he belongs. Then Olive and Henry try to prove to themselves the power of the sense of belonging the family heritage has upon their son. “They traced their genealogy, driving to Augusta to work in the library there, going to old graveyards miles away. Henry’s ancestors went back eight generations; Olive’s went back ten. Her first ancestor had come from Scotland, was indentured for seven years of labor, and then started out on his own. The Scottish were scrappy, tough, surviving things you’d never dream of – scalpings, freezing winters with no food, barns burning from a lightning flash, children dying left and right. But they persevered, and Olive would be temporarily lightened in spirit as she read about this.” Yet, for some reason, their only offspring no longer felt like he belonged on the east coast. Times and circumstances change, or perhaps we are betrayed by those we once trusted, but in any case, our new lives no longer afford us the opportunity or perhaps even the inclination to feel like we belong to this past. Often a death changes that sense of belonging. Perhaps the parents held the family together and gave it its sense of belonging, and once they were gone, the glue or locus of shared meaning is gone. I saw this in the movie “Summer Hours” which I watched a few months ago. It is French film where the children must make a family decision to sell the old country house that had generated many meaningful moments for them, but their obligations make it impossible for them to give the time or energy to relive that former sense of belonging together there as a family.
Whether we stay with the sense of family or group rootedness we have nurtured in our lives or not, we know we feel a need to cultivate a source of steadiness and strength. While the Bible stories provide an archetype of finding a sense of belonging in a new place after being uprooted, America has also embodied this in its mythic stories of moving west and finding freedom here. This summer Andrea told the story of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s family. These Welsh farmers and many of their family members all migrated to Spring Green, Wisconsin. They had also been Unitarians back in Wales. No matter what happened to family members, there was still a family sense of belonging to the place, or the land in Wisconsin. There was something about the place and the people that made Wright feel at home. While this combined a family legacy of both faith and land, others must create this sense of belonging either through new connections or new family relations. I certainly feel this with the land in Maine. There is belonging to the ocean, to the rocks, and to Andrea’s family that was once rooted there. There is the nurturing memory of going to college there. There is a song by Bryan Adams, which embodies this about places where we feel this sense of connectedness. “I hear the wind across the plain, A sound so strong – that calls my name. It’s wild like the river – it’s warm like the sun, It’s here – this is where I belong.” Perhaps it is the sheer beauty of a spot; perhaps it is the connection of trust we feel for the people. We just kmow it. This is where I belong.
Religiously speaking, most Unitarian Universalists are unique because we choose our faith, rather than inherit it. Perhaps we chose the Unitarian Universalist church because we did not feel like we belonged in the church of our parents. We found the guilt free church – no sin. It was the church that made sense – no irrational ideas about God or Jesus. It was the accepting church – because it had a tradition that God loves everybody equally, and wants us to be happy. It was the church that asked us to live our religion rather than talk about it – because it was a open friendly community where members are encouraged to help build a just world. So we walk through the doors, and see the compassionate, like minded people, and the hip minister who went to Woodstock, and we say, this is where I belong.
Long ago in ancient times, people belonged to tribes, and it was difficult for the people then to distinguish themselves from the tribe because they did not know where one began and the other ended. It represented their truth about life, and there was no individual course of action outside of the tribe, or you were lost. While that time has long ago receded into history, and if anything, we liberals often represent the extreme opposite as advocates of freedom and individualism, there is still that longing in us for connection, and so we seek places of belonging like this church because we need them. Here we are reminded that there is a timelessness to the creation and to life, and a longing to belong to some stream that is part of that whole. My wife Andrea was dedicated in this faith of ours, and despite our tendency to focus on those who are come outers from other faiths, and our tendency to let personalism and individualism run amok, while fearing any authority, she insists that no bureaucratic failings, will take her faith away from her. This is where she belongs.
Who do you belong to? It is hard to feel a sense of belonging because our culture teaches us self-sufficient individualism. In June, Jill Lepore wrote an article in The New Yorker about parenthood. A century ago most people lived with children around them all the time. Aunts and uncles lived around babies, and older children, too. I was startled by her statement that a not uncommon experience today is a mother, who upon first holding her newborn, realizes that this is the first baby she has ever held. Once upon a time everyone knew how to take care of a baby. Jobs are made for people who aren’t taking care of children. Fewer of us are around children, and we don’t understand how hard a job it is raising them, and how important it is. Let our first day of church school remind us of the importance of a community where all ages belong. And let it also be a reminder that the church is one place where we all belong to each other.
This may be at the heart of who feels a sense of belonging, and the importance of our own liberal religious message. Right now there are many strangers n the land, as all of western society is being transformed by the presence of Islam. Years ago when we were in London, I remember doing a double take when I saw a woman in a full burqa. Now Muslim women are asserting their right to wear them in Paris. How do we keep the world we feel we belong to whole, while there are increasing waves of immigration that are transforming things? These are not easy questions. Which has primacy, the nation we live in and call home, or the religion that holds our hearts and minds? We live on an edge, and it is not easy feeling that border because it challenges us to change and embrace something greater to belong to.
Yet that has probably always been at the heart of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Last Saturday I took part in Charter Day, a special historical celebration marking the naming of Watertown, Boston and Dorchester in 1630. After I gave a talk at the library, we came here to First Parish for the first leg of a walking tour. On Friday, I received an email from a Watertown resident who had attended the event. He wanted to know why we did not display an American flag, and yet we made a big deal out of the burning of a gay flag. He wanted to know what was wrong with us. I have not had a chance to write back. But I may well say the rainbow flag represents not gay rights, but is symbolic of universal rights, and that a flag representing all people or the earth is probably more appropriate then an American flag. Most of us love America and what it stands for, but what we understand theologically is that there is a deeper loyalty than town, nation or even specific religion, and it is our loyalty to the earth, and to humanity as a whole.
My rebellious Woodstock days gave me a vision for the world, but I am afraid I saw it as a rebel who found pockets of belonging in politics, single parenting and even in the way I perceived Unitarian Universalism, as an exclusive enclave for individual expression, but hardly a community that had a true vision for healing the world. It was a bunch of liberals who enjoyed their little community, but were not going to claim the religious implications of their message. I won’t go so far to say I had an epiphany this summer with the police, but rather than wallowing in memories of Woodstock’s summer of love, it brought me to another memory of that same summer. The walk on the moon forty years ago allowed everyone to see earth from afar for the first time. We could truly see ourselves. It is one thing to like myself and what I want, and feel a sense of belonging to those people and things that nurture us or we enjoy, or are related to. But it is quite another to embrace a Muslim who changes my whole world, or maybe even a police officer who threatens my world. From the moon landing to the reality of global warming, we come to see we are all in this, and there is a fundamental need to change and adapt to a new world. It is the opportunity to see Abraham’s vision come to fruition. And in our own time, it is also your vision, our Unitarian Universalist faith that we need to share with the world. It is why we have rainbow flags and sing of feeling identification not merely with our country, but with all countries. It is our theological truth that one love unites us as a people, and as a planet, and we need to help the world realize that love. That is our religious calling. I hope you join me in feeling as though you belong to this people, and will give your heart to this faith that wants to see the entire world as one.
Closing words – from Eileen Karpeles
As we part now from one another, let these be our thoughts: If that which is most holy lies within the human person, and if the greatest power in the world shines flickering and uncertain from each individual heart, then it is easy to see the value of human associations dedicating to nurturing that light: the couple, the family, the religious community.
For the power of good in any one of us must at times waver. But when a group together is dedicated to nurturing the power of good, it is rare for the light to grow dim in all individuals at the same moment.
So we borrow courage and wisdom from one another, to warm us and keep us whole until we’re together again.