Joan Coyne, Joan and Dennis Keane and I just returned late on Saturday night from New Orleans. As usual, we were there to help rebuilding homes with the St. Bernard Project. However, instead of going during our usual April week, we went for the special 48-hour rebuilding marathon to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. It was, as one of our dear friends in New Orleans said, “bittersweet.” New Orleans loves to throw a party, so there was definitely that aspect of it. Three presidents—Obama, Bush, and Clinton—literally dropped by, each for a different afternoon. New Orleans is bustling with activity and with young people, many of whom came to volunteer and decided to stay. You could feel the energy. We were blessed by beautiful weather: dry, upper-eighties, with no sign of the humidity or thunderstorms that mark this time of year. And as usual, we were well fed. I consider it a triumph of restraint that I only gained 2 pounds.
At the same time, the anniversary brought up many painful memories, particularly of those who died and those who had left permanently. We spent a good amount of time listening, as well as working. For the first time, we worked with mostly New Orleanian volunteers. (When we go in April, almost all the volunteers are from Massachusetts.) Most of them were young adults, who were 12 or 13 years old when the city flooded. They grew up in the shadow of Katrina. I witnessed, as we worked together, how every now and then, one of them would be suddenly overwhelmed by a memory and stop and choke up. And then pick up the paint or the mud (joint compound) and continue again.
We worked on the family home of Johnny Jackson, a long-time community leader in the Upper Ninth Ward. He and other members of his family were on site, and we had chance to chat with them and hear their story. They live in Dallas, although Mr. Jackson often returns home to organize and advocate for his neighbors. They hope to be back permanently by the end of September. He described the experience of seeing volunteers working to restore his home as “being rescued in reverse.” NPR did two interviews with Mr. Jackson: one in the immediate aftermath of the floods and one just last week. Here are the links if you are interested:
There is much more I could share, but it is also time to focus on the new church year. I always look forward to our “re-gathering” in September and this year is no different. There is much to look forward to: Steve Zocchi will begin his second year as our permanent music director. Justine Sullivan will join us as our part-time intern minister for the next two years. Dolores, Jill, and the Religious Education Council are planning for an exciting year in the Religious Education Faith Formation program. I am excited to hear our choirs. Most of all, I am excited to be in worship regularly again. I would like to thank the Worship Committee (Jayne Boissonneault, Colleen Leary, Jane Collins, Ellen Ford, and Donna Mitchelson) for coordinating the summer services, and offer my thanks to everyone who led a service and who volunteered your musical talents. The services were well-attended and well-led.
As I think about the coming year, the image of “crossroads” came to mind. Our congregation is at a crossroads with a decision about our building. The Next Steps Task Force is preparing to present the consultant’s report on our capacity for a capital campaign to make our building more accessible. I am preparing to go on sabbatical in January through the end of March. While this does not involve any decisions (no, I am not leaving!), it is a time of exploration for me, and you as a congregation about who we are and what our ministries need to be in the coming years. The Sabbatical Committee will be talking about this more as the year begins. Unitarian Universalism is also at a crossroads. When the two traditions merged in 1961, our Unitarian side— with its emphasis on individual freedom and reason—was the dominant voice. More recently, Universalism— with its emphasis on the spirit and power of love in community—has felts its voice heard. We need both because we are both. We are also discerning how to practice congregational polity in an age where there is just not the individual commitment of time, talent and treasure to religious communities as in previous generations. The demands of work, family, and the myriad of other groups and activities mean that many people don’t give or just cannot commit as much of these resources to church. How do we “do” congregational polity in an age when folks don’t seem to have the time or energy to do it as we have in the past?
Our country is at a crossroads with regard to race and racial justice. Institutional racism continues to eat away at the heart and soul of who we claim to be as Americans: a land of equality and opportunity for all. A new generation of African American leaders is confronting this racism through the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. We will see if we as a country are willing to engage in difficult conversations or whether we will continue in denial that systemic racism is real. Either path brings its own pain but only one will walk us toward healing.
Our planet is also at a crossroads. Despite what some politicians say, climate change is real and we need to learn to be better stewards of our environment. This is complicated by the politics of nations, economics, ethnicity, religion, and culture. At its heart, though, it is simple. We share this planet and we will have to learn how to live together with each other and with the rest of life on it if future generations are to survive.
To stand at a crossroads means choosing a path where all is not clear, taking risks, experiencing unknowns, and leaving things behind. Change itself is not the problem. Rather it is the fear and grief of what we have to let go of. Sometimes, as with a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, we are given no choice. You take what is essential and go. The experience of loss is huge, and some lose everything. However, from what I witnessed in New Orleans, people do find ways to articulate what is essential, what matters most and rebuild from there. It is a bittersweet thing. Other times, we have time to discern what is essential—what we should take with us as we choose our path, and what we have to leave behind, what we need to mourn.
One of the purposes of religion and religious community is to help us discern and celebrate the ties that connect us to each other (at every level), to life, and to what we name as sacred. Sometimes the work is hard, requiring us to ask uncomfortable questions about justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Other times, it is joyful as we invite ourselves to experience gratitude, beauty, and wonder. This is why I believe it matters that we exist: as First Parish and a Unitarian Universalist community of faith. We can stand at the crossroads together and pool our individual experiences into a larger collective wisdom, discerning how to move forward together. That is the heart of our free, covenantal, congregational tradition—a walk together.
This coming Sunday, September 6th, we will have our opening worship for the church year (AT OUR NEW START TIME OF 10 AM) where we will hold our annual water communion. I invite you to bring a little water from somewhere special—whether your kitchen sink, a favorite place to contemplate life and nature, or a summer vacation—to pour into our common bowl. And as you pour, I invite you to share a word or phrase about what you seek or bring to these crossroads. What is essential to you about this community and Unitarian Universalism? What will you carry on this walk together?