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Over the summer, my life partner, Alan and I went to San Francisco and the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. One of my favorite pastimes is visiting lighthouses. I don’t know why but they just captured my attention a few years ago and I like to get my lighthouse passport stamped. After ten or twenty years, I figure I’ll hand in my passport and get my official badge as a keeper of the light.
On this trip, we visited two fascinating lighthouses. One was at the bottom of a very steep hill. Lighthouse keepers had to haul coal down the hill, some 300 plus steps, the equivalent of a twenty story building.
The coal generated the lights that warned ships about those treacherous waters and jagged rocks. I could imagine how difficult the light keepers’ lives were—alone up there— foggy cold and chill seeping into their bones. In the midst of that unsurpassed beauty, they lived lonely bleak lives and they did much good, saving lives.
Last week, my family visited the National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan. There was an exhibit entitled “Identity by Design” where contemporary Native Americans told how they keep their culture, traditions and religion alive by making traditional and ceremonial dresses now. At one part of the exhibit, they described how a girl would wear a special coming of age dress and that dress symbolized her identity, her unique gifts and her connection to her people. There was a mirror next to the exhibit that asked the viewer—how are your clothes expressions of your identity? That may seem like a superficial question but I think it opens up profound reflections about our identity.
The New Dollars/New Partners team training that six of us are receiving along with about eight other congregations in the Metro New York District, asks us to identify “who we are”—what is our identity as a congregation. It prods us to go deeper—not only determining who we are and our identity but to answer the second question, “what do we do”. The third question, “what do we have”, places us in a larger circle, determining how we can use what we have—the gifts and assets we possess to partner with others in the community. The answer to these three questions keeps spiraling around, enabling us to tell our congregation’s story. And gratitude and awareness of what we have motivates us to social action and creating partnerships in the wider community.
These three questions are also spiritual questions you can ask yourself. “Who am I”—what seeds sown in my life sprouted and took root? What propels me to spread my limbs towards the sky? Through those questions, perhaps you gain awareness of your own gifts and how you can use those gifts to connect with others and bless this world.
Those deep rooted questions and answers can help us individually and as a congregation to create and share our story with others who are potential community partners. They are also theological questions that get at issues of identity, meaning, mission and purpose.
Here on Staten Island, are we like lonely light keepers removed from the rest of the community, enjoying our sacred space here and keeping it to ourselves? Or is our space sacred here because we have a treasured gift that we are called to use to build community partnerships and a sacred sense of community outside of here?
Though each congregation and each of us has a unique story to tell, there are limitless possibilities to form community partnerships with others. It’s part of seeing the glass half full.
Recently, five members of our team went to the second module training for the New Dollars/New Partners for Sacred Places. Our trainer that day began by telling us a Sufi story. Western stories often tell the story and end with the moral but with Sufi stories, the moral is given first. The moral of this story is “you only learn what you already know”.
A group of people decide to consult a wise woman about a problem they are having. She enters the room and says, “Do you know the answer to the problem?” The townspeople say, “why of course not, that’s why we called you.” Immediately the wise woman responds, “I don’t ever work with anyone who doesn’t know the answer. I’m out of here.”
The townspeople are in shock. What in the world went wrong? So they think about her question and their answer and they think “surely, we’ll get it right this time. The wise woman comes back a second time and asks, “do you know the answer to the problem?” And they respond without hesitation, “yes, we do”. She said, “Then, you don’t need me—I’m out of here.”
Well they scratched their heads and thought long and hard about what they wanted to say next. The wise woman came in and asked the group, “do you know the answer to the problem?” and half of them said, “yes” and the other half said, “no.” And that was the truth of it—they learned what they already knew about their shared dilemma.
The secret behind creating sacred spaces and community partnerships is that we just have to learn how to uncover what we already know and work together to get things done that we cannot do alone. We don’t have to be on the lonely shore by ourselves. What we have is something others need and we need what others have.
Last year, people in the congregation talked about the need for more social action work. People also expressed that there was so much happening that they were spread too thin—it was as if everything had equal weight.
Social justice work comes in five main areas and is best done in a balanced way. Charitable justice is something this congregation does most of the time. We bring in food for the hungry, house the homeless and institute programs that fill a prominent need in the community. This kind of work is usually direct and hands on. Charitable work is often done in collaboration with other partners as with our partnership with Project Hospitality to serve as a church-based homeless shelter. Sometimes, need-based programs only put band aids on larger systemic issues. They don’t get to the root of the needs.
Education is another aspect. We hold lectures and forums. Whenever talks are done well, marginalized people are heard. Education can be “all talk and no action.”
Witness gives people a chance to take a stand and draw attention to the public message. Partnerships often result but need to be balanced by focusing on tangible solutions and results.
Advocacy puts the legal process to work for constructively revising policies. Personal stories can change the hearts and minds of public officials though advocacy can lead to divisiveness in congregations if there is not an agreed upon structure.
Community organizing transforms institutions and power bases over the long haul. Commitment to the big picture is a necessary component.
A good social justice program incorporates a balance of these five areas. The Partners for Sacred Spaces program will help us discern our assets, what partnerships we might consider and how to obtain funding to preserve our sacred space here.
There is a real tension between reaching out and contracting inwards. It is politically correct to say that we want to be a force for good in the community; that Unitarian Universalists are all about justice and equality. We say these things and we mean them but it’s difficult to stick to partnerships if we don’t see that the needs we have are really assets that we want to protect and preserve.
The New Partners team is learning to see the glass half full instead of half-empty, to see opportunity and possibility in places where we have seen only deficit and loss. Asset mapping, another tool in this program, sees things from a positive sum perspective—that “your gain is my gain”, ultimately leading to “our gain”. It leads to finding grace, gratitude and the glimmering thread of hope in unlikely places.
Some of the Native American women designed ghost dresses that tell a story about the losses their people sustained in battle. Their spirit shines in their work. Though many of the tribes and nations have almost been eliminated, these women proudly pass on their heritage. They are clear “who they are, what they do and what they have” as skills and assets in their community.
From a Cherokee Feast of Days, Joyce Sequichie Hifler speaks, “Like attracts like…if we decide this is a new beginning, others will take courage. …What we think and say sets the stage for what is to happen…We act like our prayers are already answered and take steps to show we believe it. When the early morning sun breaks through the far side of the woods, the dark places are lighted and much healing takes place. And so it is with us.”
May it be so with us as well. Create sacred space and revel in your connections, old and new. Bless the world with your very presence.
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Last updated on Tuesday, February 26, 2013.
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