This is the text of a sermon I gave yesterday at my congregation. The title is taken from a line in the poem "A Litany of Survival" by Audre Lorde. If you were there, the bracketed sections were ones I excised in the interest of time.
We Were Never
Meant to Survive
A Sermon Delivered to Unitarian Church North October 7, 2018
[To be a good sermon writer you need to pay attention to what happens around you and bend it to make sense in a sermon. To be a great sermon writer you just need to pay attention and write it down, whether it makes sense or not.]
Friday morning, just after my wife left for work and I was settling in with a book, she called me to say, One of the cats got outside and there are a couple people in front of our house trying to change a tire. I popped my head out and let the cat inside and saw a pair of young women. I said Hi and they said, Please, do you know anything about changing a tire, because we don’t. They were practically crying. I said, Yes, I do know how to change a tire, because that’s something my mother taught me many years ago, saying If you’re going to drive, you need to know how to do this. [Now, in a good sermon I would tell you that] I changed their tire and they went happily on their way and I’d say something about how we all need to help strangers in need and that would be that.
But [I’m going for a great sermon, which means I need to tell you,] try as we might, we could not get that flat tire off. We just didn’t have the right tools to take the lugs off the flat. They called friends and came back later to fix it.
Kinda anticlimactic. But what makes this worth telling you about is why they stopped at my place with the flat tire. They weren’t sure what kind of reception two early-20s Hispanic single mothers with a flat tire, a trunkful of their kids’ clothes, and the wrong tools on the street of a mostly-retired white neighborhood would get at 8 in the morning. Then, they said they saw this sign [holds up “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign] on our front lawn.
We live in a nation—and probably a lot of you knew this already, and for some of you this may have always been the case—where we have to advertise our willingness to help strangers. In the last two years we’ve developed other, sometimes subtler (shows safety on shirt) ways, sometimes not (pulls out pink pussy hat) of showing strangers we’re on their side, or at least willing to listen to them.
Fred Rogers famously said in an interview, When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
· "Separations from their parents, especially in moments of extreme distress and displacement, has a very negative impact on a child’s wellbeing, mental health, and development…And I don't think that we want to be a society that does that to children." Dr. Lisa Fortuna, director of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Boston Medical Center
There are a lot of scary things in the news nowadays, and a lot of it scares adults. One thing is called Zero Tolerance and it refers to the program put into practice by the current president and his administration to prosecute everyone entering the United States illegally. Now, this type of program isn’t new itself—it’s long been a staple of Republican and Democratic administrations that, when families entered the country illegally and were caught, they were detained or returned to their origin country or paroled into this country. But the difference is that they remained together throughout the ordeal. The Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy of separating parents and children, something very costly in time and money and considered by previous administrations as “unnecessarily harsh”, was begun earlier this year. Its stated purpose was providing a greater deterrent against people trying to enter the country illegally.
This sort of news leaves adults looking for the helpers too. You realize one day that If you can’t find the helpers, then you have to be the helper.
· [“Separating children from their parents contradicts everything we stand for as pediatricians…So many of these parents are fleeing for their lives…So many of these children know no other adult than the parent who brought them here.” Dr. Colleen Kraft, president, American Academy of Pediatrics]
As we’re here in a Unitarian Universalist church I think we can count on everyone’s beliefs in the first and second UU principles: That is, there is inherent dignity in everyone and a commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. The Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy promotes neither. If anything, it promotes the idea that some people are more worthwhile than others, with immigrant children at the bottom of whatever list someone might create.
It is, at bottom, an evil policy that does evil to the people least able to defend themselves.
· “The food was often expired, the milk was spoiled, and we weren’t provided with snacks for our children between meals. When we saved food for snacks, it was taken from us and thrown out because of concerns about rats in the dorms. Children went to bed hungry. And we could get water between meals only by asking the officers. Sometimes they wouldn’t bring any. The water we did have made us sick… When our children were sick, we waited days for medical attention. When one mother whose daughter had asthma informed the officers that her child needed medical care, she was told that she should have thought about that before she came to the United States. Another mother asked for medical assistance for her son, but it never came. She was deported, and her son died just a few months later.” Anonymous woman at a family immigration center, New Mexico
Shame on them. Evil is ubiquitous, it’s everywhere, so much that we sometimes are blind to it. You know it when you see it. Evil is hurting other people or animals when you don’t need to. Evil is treating other creatures as if they don’t exist, or if they do exist, they don’t matter. Evil is treating other people like they’re means to an end. Evil is pretending they don’t have people who love them.
· “The expectation [of officials in the Trump administration] was that the kids would go to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, that the parents would get deported, and that no one would care.” Anonymous immigration official quoted by Jonathon Blitzer
As an example, those two girls I mentioned at the start, the one’s with the flat tire. Would it have been evil, given that I feel we all are connected whether we know it or not, not to have put out that sign that led them to believe they were safe if they stopped? I don’t know. But I can tell you it would have been evil for me to have that sign up and then to look out the window, see them struggling with their tire, and pretended they weren’t there. That would have been to pretend they weren’t us.
· [“I was forced to flee my country because of violence and threats of violence against me and my family. When I was a teenager, my father and I witnessed a murder by local gang members. In 2005, my father was murdered for having testified. The gangs threatened me as well, but since the murder case got dropped, I was able to continue my life and found a job in law enforcement. However, several years later, they threatened to kill me too. That’s when I decided I had to leave and bring my son and my 16-year-old sister with me. If we had stayed, they could’ve killed us all.” Anonymous woman at a family immigration center, New Mexico]
Evil is knowing this is happening to people, and when they tell us about it, to pretend maybe they’re not telling the truth, or worse, if they are telling the truth, that it doesn’t matter because they don’t look like us, they don’t sound like us, they don’t eat the same things we do, they don’t care about each other the way we do. It’s okay to separate them because, well, if they really loved their kids they never would have taken them on such a long, dangerous journey. They’re not like us.
Now you may think the “us” of Audre Lorde’s poem we read earlier includes us, and it does, but only if we use that second principle, justice and compassion. Compassion. Looking at situations or events as if we are living it too. For most of us, certainly for me, living on the shoreline is a good thing. I hear Lake Michigan in my dreams, see it even as I step out the front door for work. But this shoreline is metaphorical, it’s a line where on one side there is solid ground and on the other is deep, unfathomable unknown. To treat someone like he’s not us is evil. Because ultimately there is only us. Evil is pretending not to know it’s because immigrant parents love their children like we do that they were desperate enough to take them on such a long, dangerous journey.
· [“There were people there who only spoke English, and they always said to us, ‘No touch, No touch’…You always had to be ‘an arm’s length’ from everyone. Un brazo de distancia. Un brazo de distancia.” Leidy Veliz, 9, from Guatemala. “No touch, no touch” is a phrase repeated by nearly every former child detainee]
· "I couldn't hug my mom because the official didn't allow us to touch. Physical contact wasn't permitted…They took us to another cell, and we were talking there, whispering, because they didn't permit us to speak.to one another. They put ankle monitors on us and were going to drop us off at the bus stop. All I want is to live with my mom, go to school, get an education, and when tomorrow comes, be somebody…I know everything in life costs something. Nothing is easy. And whatever is easy isn't worth it." Alejandro, 13, on being reunited with his mother after 2 months separation
· “Just take me back to jail. You’re not my mom anymore.” Jenri, 5, after being reunited with his mother Anita after a month’s separation
Evil is hearing these reactions from kids and pretending we don’t have anything to do with it. Or that there’s nothing we can do. Or that it just plain doesn’t matter.
Evil, see, isn’t just doing something bad, it’s also not doing something when it’s possible for us to do. It’s dumping a kid’s lunch into the trash at school because he doesn’t have enough to pay for it. It’s delivering a pizza and seeing a woman with a black eye mouthing, Help me!, and not calling the police as soon as you’re able to. It’s seeing a guy on the street asking for your change, and even though you have some, not only pretending you don’t but pretending you don’t even see him. Evil is not doing anything when you could do anything.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
Every once in a while, we get a glimpse of that peace and tranquility. That Anne Frank, one of a swiftly vanishing handful of people who could legitimately tell God that She had messed up mightily, could still say this about Hitler, a man whose policies killed so many people including Anne that we refer to him only by one name, like Voldemort, as if that will keep him from returning.
Hitler’s policies and practices were evil. But there were still helpers. People like Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, who, after the family was arrested and sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland where all but Anne’s father died, returned to the hidden rooms and retrieved, among other things, Anne’s diary. I will share a secret with you. In spite of everything, while they did evil, the Germans were not evil. The Nazis, even when they were sifting through the ashes that had once been people, looking for gold teeth, were not evil. What they did was evil and what they believed was evil. But if our first principle is to mean anything, it means Nazis had dignity too.
There are evil acts, evil ideas, evil practices, and I am convinced that the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy is among them. But do I believe that anyone who takes a child away from his mother and father because of where they come from, from agents to supervisors to administrators to cabinet secretaries, is, in spite of everything, good at heart? Yes, I do. Does that mean I believe that Stephen Miller, who has argued most successfully for the implementation of Zero Tolerance and who has overseen its practice, is, in spite of everything, good at heart? Yes, I do. Do I believe that Donald Trump, in spite of everything, is good at heart? Yes, I do.
If our principles mean anything, they mean that we have compassion for the people we know are doing evil things, even if they don’t see it that way, and we afford them the dignity they deny others. Most of you know that I work with people who are dying, and you might be surprised at this, but in their last days or hours they don’t ask me where I think they’re going, either heaven or hell. I couldn’t answer that anyway. But the question they ask me is as hard to answer. They ask, in one way or another, if what they did in their lives was the right thing.
Boy, if that isn’t the hardest thing for anyone to answer. Here’s the thing I’ve come to understand about the end of life. At the end of it all, we must face our parents and our spouse and our children and our friends and ask them, Did I do the right thing? Now, if those are the only people we ask, maybe we can say, Sure, for them I did the right thing. But we also have to turn to other people’s parents, other people’s spouses, other people’s children and the friends of strangers, and ask of them, Did I do the right thing?
This is maybe the best test of whether we have done the right thing, because helpers can answer, even if it’s only tentative, humble, or a whisper, I did the right thing. In the absence of helpers, in the face of someone hurting, us are the helpers. (Touch chest) Us. (Indicate congregation) Us. (Indicate the world)