We don’t need heroes to solve the woes of the world. We need organizers. We need people who can organize goodness, organize kindness, organize generosity, organize gentleness and compassion, organize hospitality.
This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Church of Quincy on October 15, 2017.
You know how there are certain things – sounds, smells, foods, music – that can simply transport you back to an early place, back into your roots, back into home, whatever home is, and it feels good. For me, one of those things is hearing people talk with my accent because no one around me does. When I hear people speak with that Southwest Ontario Canadian accent, I am back home. So in the mornings I often listen to Windsor Morning CBC Radio 1 with Tony Doucette. Windsor was the closest city to our farm, and with the blessing of smart phones and data plans and apps, I get to hear the news, the weather in Celsius, the traffic report, gas prices per litre, and the wait times on the Ambassador Bridge to Detroit – in my accent, every morning, wheverever I am!
You might be surprised to know that Quincy Illinois and Windsor Ontario have a lot in common. Both are regional health centers surrounded by agricultural communities. Both have had to adjust many times to changes in economy. Quincy used to draw most of its wealth from river traffic, Windsor hit pay dirt during prohibition. Both recovered through manufacturing. Both have lost jobs because the decline in manufacturing and most of their young people leave to build careers elsewhere.
For the last 40 years, it seems like Windsor City Council has talked about how to be less dependent on Detroit’s auto industry. When I hear Quincyians talk about the city’s new strategic plan, it feels very familiar. Both talk about how to develop their river fronts to bring in tourists. Both also have a strong homegrown arts community and a symphony and a small university, and really good down to earth people.
So last Thursday morning, I’m listening to all those voices with my accent, and they feature this story about Billie Jo Werner, a woman who owns a house in downtown. Like Quincy, there is a stigma in Windsor regarding the downtown area. Anyone who can lives in the newer suburbs by the big box stores, and like many downtowns there are a lot of homeless people. It’s where the services are, where the public transportation is, where the main library has internet access and large supplies of couches and public bathrooms.
It’s not unusual for Billie Jo to wake up and see someone sleeping on her front porch. The homeless presence in downtown Windsor is a common story and one reason why many homeowners are getting out and turning these beautiful majestic old homes into rooming houses. Not unlike here.
Now I imagine that many of us would be pretty upset if we woke up and a stranger was sleeping on our property. We might feel a sense of violation. We might be scared of that person. We might call the police. If you have experienced homelessness, you could respond in any number of ways, depending on the experiences you had on the street – you might want to get as far away from it as possible, or you have no fear of approaching those who still live as you used to.
Billie Jo consistently chooses to see her community as a place of sanctuary for those needing shelter. She refuses to call the police when homeless people show up in her yard. She walks out her door and introduces herself to whoever has camped out that night. She asks for their name, she asks if they slept ok, she asks if they know where they’re going to get breakfast, and she asks what help might look like.
Now I have no idea if she works fulltime and how she would have the time to do all that if she did. They didn’t talk about that in the interview. But what I did notice is how the interviewer tried to make her into a victim, in danger because of the homeless presence. She didn’t buy into that. She said she was glad to live downtown, and that moving to the suburbs would mean turning her back on the people in her neighborhood. She wouldn’t be part of the flight to the suburbs.
The interviewer also tried to make her into a hero, to make the story about her and how great she was, and she did her best not to let them get away with it. She didn’t want to be a hero for being willing to get close to homeless people and treat them like human beings. She wanted the story to be about how people found themselves so desperate that her front porch looked like a sanctuary. She wanted an end to homelessness and how we treat homeless people, and an end to the assumption that homelessness is an unsolveable problem.
When I reflect on it now, I think there is a connection between our need for heroes and this idea that poverty and homelessness are problems that can’t be eradicated, that it’s just too big to take on and that we are ultimately helpless to end it.
I’ve always had a hard time with the idea of a hero because when you make someone into a hero, you put them on a pedestal and that puts them farther away from you and puts the good things they do also farther away from you. It makes the good things they do something special and out of the ordinary.
What heroes do is individualize goodness and I can say in all honesty is that I don’t believe individualized goodness can save us. It can’t save the world, can’t save homeless people, can’t save sick kids, can’t save people who don’t have health insurance, can’t save us from war, can’t end poverty. So when we look for heroes, we set them and us up for failure because of course no one person can take on the big problems that we struggle with.
I’m not saying that what we do as individuals doesn’t count. That’s where it starts, but it can’t be where it ends or it will never be enough. That’s why I don’t like heroes and honestly, I don’t really like movies about heroes, even super heroes like Wonder Woman that were supposed to be game changers. It’s not a fantasy that is particularly helpful.
And that’s why I’m glad that woman in Windsor pushed back against being turned into a hero. We don’t need heroes to solve the woes of the world. We need organizers.
We need people who can organize goodness, organize kindness, organize generosity, organize gentleness and compassion, organize hospitality.
Today we’re continuing our month long exploration of hospitality. Two weeks ago, Andy Grizzle, a Unitarian Universalist seminarian, talked about how he had to claim a radical hospitality to be in community with those holding a very different theology than him, and how that helped him hold onto his sense of self and honor his classmates. Last week we talked about individual acts of hospitality, how we engage in the sacred practice of making room for each other on an individual basis. Today we’re shifting to collective hospitality. We are talking about family and church, community, and town, and county and state and nation and world. All that layers that are bigger than our own private individual reality, all forms of human organization that are bigger than we are but created by us, for us, of us.
We are in a time when the question of who is included and who is excluded is right out there, and not in a good way. Fear of who is getting in to this country is the energy in a lot of the policies that are being passed. There’s all kinds of ways that who we are as a nation is being made smaller – immigration restrictions, deportations, the prison industrial complex, removing protections for LGBTQ people, dismantling the Affordable Care Act, criminalizing poverty – if you look at the policy changes coming being put before us, they are rooted in a particular way of understanding our collective identity. You don’t go to the front porch and offer sanctuary to whoever shows up, no matter how hungry they are or how desperate they have become. You get them off the porch and put up a gate.
All of these changes, this smalling of the nation, has been carefully organized. It’s not a lone individual making any of this happen. It’s not one president, or one senator, or one representative, no matter how those individuals may flex their muscle. The forces making this happen have been carefully organized over decades and the fear that fuels it has been organized for centuries. Racial segregation was a product of organized fear. Organized fear of the Japanese created the context for internment during the World War 2. Slavery was a product of organized greed and so was the forced relocation of Indigeneous people. The prison industrial complex is a product of organized dehumanization. The anti-abortion movement is a product of organized sexism. So the policies we see emerging are a very effective way of organizing the power of those who are feeing threatened by the way this nation has been changing and want to pull it back to some idealized vision of what used to be.
So the question before us is, what does it look like to organize with the goal of collective hospitality, which means organizing with the operative principle of inclusion and expansion, where we collectively walk out the front door, see who’s on the front porch, and offer sanctuary?
Many of us have read the stories of people who are being detained and deported. The deportations never stopped under Obama, and they have grown under Trump. There has been a new wave of organizing, called the New Sanctuary Movement, to offer concrete aid to those being threatened. And as Unitarian Universalists, who say that service is our prayer, there are some congregations that have been doing an awful lot of praying.
The Unitarian Universalist congregation in Columbia MO took a congregational vote and became a sanctuary church. In August three Unitarian Universalist congregations – Austen TX, Akron OH and Colorado Springs – took in undocumented immigrants and 12 more are preparing to become sanctuary congregations.
So what does being a sanctuary church mean? It means offering a 24/7 place to stay for someone who is being threatened with deportation. Once the people you are harboring enter your building, they can’t leave because as soon as they walk out the door they could be taken into custody. The reason churches are doing this is because immigration officials are very hesitant to search a house of worship, even to get a warrant. So as a church you create a home for them in your building, with all the things a person needs to live. A member of the church must always be there because if the police knock on the door, someone needs to answer and someone needs to protect those who are being harbored. It is a significant commitment. And if by chance the current administration is successful in passing legislation to make sanctuary churches illegal, or if they decide to push the issue and order ICE to target those churches, the boards of trustees and the ministers of those churches could face legal consequences, even jail. This isn’t a risk free hospitality. And in truth, is hospitality true if there isn’t any risk in offering it? Would that women in Windsor be offering hospitality only if she had every assurance that the people sleeping on her front porch were harmless? If we aren’t willing to become vulnerable as we reach out, if we offer hospitality only with guarantees, it is a shallow hospitality.
What these sanctuary churches are living is collective organized hospitality. No one person can do this on their own. You on your own aren’t a strong enough entity. It has to be a community organized around the value of inclusion and expansion of the whole. And religious communities are perfectly situated to do this work.
Professor Sherman Jackson writes the following:
“The challenges of the current moment–including climate change, corporate greed, mistrust between law enforcement and communities of color, among others–could offer an opportunity….
“In fact, given these contemporary challenges, now might be the time when religion in America… is best positioned to demonstrate its value as a contributor to the common good….
“For religion can stand up to the state, the market and the dominant culture, by equipping its followers with an independent moral identity with which to analyze and assess the activities of government, ‘the economy’ and the dominant culture, instead of looking upon the state as essentially the god of the nation, the economy as a divinely predestined order, or the dominant culture as the ultimate, supreme value that is too lofty to be subjected to critical examination.”
So who better than us, religious communities that have been organizing compassion for centuries.
The central purpose of religious community is to instill in us a deep understanding that we are all connected and that we need each other and then every decision we make is influenced by that undeniable reality. So, when human beings in our midst are being threatened with losing their families, their dignity, their safety, their lives – we can’t turn away. Our own well being depends on staying present. Just like Billie Jo who refuses to pack up and leave. We can’t pack up and leave, can’t hide behind our stone facades. It is our moral responsibility to say, over and over again, and live as if our lives depend on it, “Do we see ourselves in the people who are sleeping on our front porch?”