The sermon I delivered today.
Reading: The Service of Life by Rachel Remen. http://www.rachelremen.com/service.html
This sermon is about how we channel our hunger to make a difference in this world without falling into the seductive practices of helping and fixing, which are so prevalent in white middle class culture. How do we become true servants of love, mercy and justice, one with the spirit of life that calls us to its service?
When I moved to Toronto 18 years ago, I learned pretty quickly what parts of the city to avoid. “Don’t go there,” a white friend said to me when I was looking for my first apartment, “And don’t go here, and don’t go here.” No need to say more. When I moved to Louisiana to serve the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, I asked the interim search team for someone to accompany me on my apartment search. The lovely white woman I spent the weekend with scanned the classifieds, circling the apartments she deemed to be in appropriate areas. As we drove through various neighborhoods, she would say, “Don’t even drive down this street,” or “Get to that neighborhood this way, not that way.” I want to honor the good intentions of all these people. Their desire was for my safety, the safety of a white woman in a new city. But their caring also told me where I belonged and where I didn’t.
When I moved to St. Louis, everyone assumed, including me, that I would live close to Emerson Chapel and that the things that happen in the city don’t happen here in the county. I heard vague comments about families moving out of the city because of the school system. I lived here for five years before stumbling into an area of the city that I would probably have been warned about had anybody thought to tell me. What a different universe. Hardly anyone was white. More payday loan storefronts than grocery stores, crumbling pavement, abandoned lots, and barred windows. When I accompanied a friend of mine to Civil Court a few years ago because she needed a restraining order, we were the only white people in the court room, besides the judge, the lawyers, and most of the staff. I was reminded of the recently released book, “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, who argues that America never left behind segregation or the racism that fuelled it, it just changed its form.
In both cases, the unsuspecting drive into north St. Louis, and the hours spent at the St. Louis Civil Court, I left feeling relieved and guilty and sad: relieved for being able to leave; guilty for being able to leave; and, sad about how easy it is to be unaware and blind to the poverty that is a few miles away from my home.
Crossing that barrier between what I knew and what I didn’t know, or maybe didn’t want to know, opened up the reality that the racial and class segregation that so defines this city has enabled my blindness, and it would be so easy to give into feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, to walk away saying that there’s nothing we can do anyways, and go back into that protected place. One thing I’ve come to realize is that in this city, very little that successfully crosses the barriers of class or race happens by accident. This city is designed to keep us in our little pockets and its taxation system is designed to keep our money in our little pockets. The only way to cross those barriers is to decide to cross them, and even then, it is so very easy to fall into that seductive trap of fixing and helping and become one more example of a well-intentioned person, often white and middle class, trying to save the world, and instead doing a lot of unintentional damage.
As I’ve grown in my understanding of how race and class function in this city, I’ve been waiting for some sense of when we as a people, as a congregation, will be ready to cross that barrier, a barrier defined by race and class, and I say that knowing that there are barriers within our own congregation. I know that there are people in this congregation who live in poverty, or on the edge of poverty, and others who are in danger of going into poverty, and that it is, for the most part, hidden and not talked about. That is the dark side of primarily white middle class suburbia. There is such pressure to pass, to be stoic, and look o.k., even if things are falling apart.
When I was approached by 8 women of this congregation saying that they want to address families and poverty in St. Louis, I was so pleased and cautiously exited. And then, Ronald McDonald House and The Little Bit Foundation were chosen as our partnering groups. I think these are strong choices. Ronald McDonald Houses provide lodging and meals to families from out of town who have a seriously ill or injured child. In a country where health insurance is a privilege and not a right, and where Family and Medical Leave do not require an employer to pay for sick leave, illness can mean financial ruin for the whole family. Ronald McDonald Houses help families get through really difficult times. Our church will put together several intergenerational teams to provide meals at one of the houses in our city.
The Little Bit Foundation engages the poorest of the poor, schools where more than 90% of students live under the poverty line. Sadly, most of these students are African American. This organization is working to break down the barriers to learning and succeeding. Little Bit isn’t about “us” coming in with our ideas of what “they” need. It takes its lead from the people who are most involved in educating those children – the teachers, the principles, the staff, even the children themselves. The schools identify the need, and Little Bit works to respond to the need in a way that affirms the worth and dignity of everyone involved. Little Bit works through relationship, where the schools are equal partners with the organization, and the children are equal partners with the volunteers who serve them. This isn’t about charity, it’s about loving children and giving them the tools to pursue an education.
This is how it works. Little Bit opens a boutique in a partnering school. Teachers and school staff are responsible for identifying the needs they see. Maybe a child doesn’t have school supplies, or is coming to school in the same dirty clothes day after day. Maybe the child has been moved into foster care and came to school with nothing but the clothes they wear. Maybe they don’t have a coat, or socks, or their shoes are too small or falling apart. The school communicates the need to Little Bit. Warehouse volunteers package the items for delivery, driving volunteers transport the items to the school boutique, and then school volunteers open the boutique and distribute the items personally to the child. Little Bit also provides books. Every child in a classroom is given a book and a small toy. Over the month, each child shares their book with the class. At the end of the month, they get to take their book home to their personal library. Little Bit is also partnering with organizations like Operation Food Search to provide emergency food supplies to children who have no food for the evenings or weekends.
It sounds so simple – a book, a brand new shirt or pair of pants, new sneakers and socks, a hygiene kit, some food – things many of us here take for granted, but schools report that with Little Bit’s presence in their school, attendance improves, discipline issues decline and reading and test scores increase. In other words, these kids are getting a chance at an education. Little Bit is living the same values that form the core of Unitarian Universalism, which is that we are part of an interdependent web where every person has inherent worth and dignity.
So what’s our part in this? We are going to provide volunteers. Warehouse volunteers, driving volunteers, school visit volunteers. We are also prepared to organize a drive for what they need. Little Bit may need gently used clothing or feminine hygiene products or socks and underwear. There are activities for the little ones to do as well. A child can donate a book, or stuff ziplock bags with books and stuffed animals, or paint a picture to decorate a Little Bit Boutique.
Our hope is that we start will preparing our teams today. You will find in your orders of service a volunteer interest form where you can tell us what volunteer opportunities you can participate in. Fill it out and leave it in the basket by the sanctuary doors as you leave worship. You should hear from Love First organizers within a week. You will notice that most of the opportunities on the form are for adults. Love First will be working with the Religious Education Team as well as the Senior Youth Group to arrange for service opportunities that are specific to them. This may involve whole family opportunities.
But we’re going to do more than volunteer. This isn’t just about helping, it’s about serving, and that means we also have work to do on ourselves. We will use this year to increase our awareness and sensitivity to the issue of poverty. What causes poverty and what keeps people poor? How are race and class, and racism and classism, connected to poverty. Why does our society keep poverty invisible? How is it that we’ve created an economic system that depends on poverty for the economic well-being of others? How do our own assumptions contribute to sustaining poverty? We’ll be working to challenge the harmful understanding that poverty is about individual failure and learn to see systemic poverty as a social and collective failure to create a society that equally values every person.
This is extremely important work to do because most of us who will be volunteering with Little Bit are white, and we have to understand our white privilege and question our white assumptions. We have to develop our own consciousness of how our experience is shaped by our race, whatever race that is. How do you experience your whiteness or your blackness or your brownness or yourself as a multiracial person? We have to understand these things and transform ourselves within those understandings or we run the risk of marching into these schools of mostly African American kids with do-gooder attitudes and behaviors that do more harm than good.
Poverty is a deeply spiritual issue. In almost every religion of the world, more is said about poverty than any other issue, because poverty is the final symptom of many other forms of injustice: sexism, homophobia, racism, environmental destruction, war. These forms of violence have real consequences for the ability of people to share equally in the power that gives us access to resources.
I would go so far as to say that it is poverty that stands between us and true democracy, for you cannot be an equal participant in your society if there are barriers between you and the basic needs of life. A true democracy cannot exist when we sin against the worth and dignity of a single individual or a class of individuals. This is why poverty is such a deeply spiritual issue, because daring to look it in the face, atoning for our part in creating and sustaining it, and committing to undo its life denying power in ourselves and our community is what it takes to be fully human. It’s going to take more than helping and fixing. It is all about serving life. It is about looking to that vision of a day when anyone of any race and any class can live anywhere in this city and be safe and be home.
In the months to come, let us, as a religious community, united in our commitment to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and to practice justice, equity and compassion in human relations, give of our hearts, and our minds, and our hands to the service of life.
May it be so.