Gratitude and Responsibility
Sermon shared November 27, 2016.
Good morning. My name is Lynne Marie Wanamaker. I am a long time member of this congregation. I serve on the Worship Committee, and have also served on the Safe Relations Team and the Religious Education Council. Some of you may also know that I am the Deputy Director of Safe Passage, a Northampton-based agency committed to creating a world free of domestic violence and relationship abuse. Safe Passage supports survivors and their families, engages our community, and advocates for systemic change.
I mention this because this morning I want to share some observations drawn from my experiences working at Safe Passage. I hope these reflections have relevance to you. I also want to alert you that our work, and therefore my words, acknowledge the existence of interpersonal violence. I will not describe this reality in very much more detail than I have just done. But I am aware that those of us who have been affected by interpersonal violence -- as victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators -- are present in every gathered community. And so I invite you to be present to this sermon and to your own emotional and spiritual well-being in whatever ways are best for you.
I’m going to end this content note with a spoiler of what’s coming later: Just so you know, one of the things that is most healing to human beings when we are hurt, or when we are remembering past hurts, is loving human connection.
In my work at Safe Passage, I do not have a lot of direct client contact. But I do get to hear stories from our staff about the people they are privileged to serve, and the work that survivors and advocates do together to repair the effects of interpersonal violence.
And I want to say right now, that talking about the direct service work of Safe Passage is not a “savior” story. It is not about an amazing organization rescuing unfortunate others who have been damaged by violence.
Because in my experience and observation, those of us who have been hurt by interpersonal violence do the majority of the impossibly hard work of healing our own selves. It is not fair that those of us who have been hurt should have to work so hard to repair the damage done, but it is the truth.
And it is also the truth that one of the things that helps most in that work of healing is loving witness and genuine human connection.
In the stories my colleagues tell me about providing legal services, or housing assistance, or helping folks figure out how their kids’ school could be more supportive, I have heard a theme that resonates with my own experience of help-seeking and -receiving. This is the twining of gratitude and wonder.
People are grateful when someone helps them get what they need. But what is often most astonishing to the folks who come to Safe Passage is having someone listen and believe them.
Do you know that feeling of being absolutely dissolved by someone showing up for you? By knowing that they are really listening? That they believe you, that they see you, and want the best for you? It’s a feeling of humility, of being wrong in the most wonderful way. When you realize that the painful outcome you didn’t know you were expecting -- that you would be disappointed, that you would be alone -- has not come to pass.
I hear this sometimes through my colleagues’ stories. I recognize it because I have known its power in my own life. We are grateful for help, but we are healed by loving witness.
In my own life, I have found this to be nothing short of miraculous.
And what seems paradoxical about this to me is the fact that, for the helpers, the showing up is rather ordinary. I don’t mean to say that the people who have helped me, or my colleagues at Safe Passage, don’t work hard. Or that they don’t carry a burden from bearing witness to the hurt of the world.
But they do this work willingly, and as a matter of course. And in many cases they prepared for this work intensively, through study and professional formation.
Because we are a people who have invented professions of caring. And I wonder, what kind of people do that? As a culture, create professions such as “domestic violence counselor/advocate,” “social worker,” or “minister”?
We do. We humans do.
We are hardwired to love and care for one another.
When I told one of my colleagues that I would be preaching Thanksgiving weekend, she said, “Don’t forget to tell them to watch out for racist colonization.”
We also talk like this at Safe Passage. We talk about the systems of oppression that undergird the hurt that people do to one another.
It is for me a deeply shameful irony that the very holiday during which my culture -- my North American, New England, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture -- invites me to meditate on gratitude, is itself a testimony of a racist, genocidal, colonization. A colonization that continues this very day -- this exact moment -- in the repression and resistance of the Standing Rock Sioux at the Dakota Access Pipeline.
The history of this nation -- its founding through the process of racist colonizing; its economic foundation grounded in kidnapping, family separation, and enslavement; and current voices of xenophobia and religious intolerance, make me wonder:
What kind of people put their own self-interest over the dignity, humanity, and very survival, of others?
We do. We humans do.
Because if I am honest, I can think of many times when I put my interests over someone else’s. Because I was afraid. Because I felt unrecognized. Because I felt desperate.
Because it seemed like there was not enough of something to go around, and if I didn’t grab my share, I would be left out.
Because it felt like a matter of my own survival. Because these feelings felt so big inside my body and inside my brain, there wasn’t any space left to notice what someone else might be feeling or needing.
We humans are inclined to “other” people, to sort ourselves into “my people,” and “other people.” But I think as a white citizen of the United States marking the anniversary of our ancestors’ invasion of North America, I don’t really have the luxury of considering people who disregard the humanity of others as unlike myself.
And I wonder if the humility of this truth offers some illumination of the dark time we are in. I wonder if copping to this suggests a way out of the extreme division and conflict we are experiencing in our nation right now.
I want to finish by telling a story about loving witness across difference, and a blessing of hope.
Last month, Safe Passage hosted two professional Fellows through a partnership with Smith College and the U.S. State Department. Nancy Apiyo of Uganda and Verdiane Nyiramana of Rwanda were selected through rigorous competition to join a cohort of African Fellows studying conflict resolution through a cultural exchange and executive internship at American NGOs.
Verdiane is Executive Secretary of Benimpuhwe, which translates as “compassion”. Benimpuhwe helps women and youth to “work and rebuild their lives and their country as well.”
Nancy is a Project Officer for the Justice and Reconciliation Project. She is a social worker, researcher, gender advocate and transitional justice practitioner who has been working with communities affected by war and extreme violence for the last eight years.
I met Nancy and Verdiane when I co-facilitated a training session for them on domestic violence and the LGBTQ community.
At Safe Passage, we know that people of all genders experience interpersonal violence as victims, survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. We also know that there are dominant patterns of violence. We know that women and transgender people are at sharply elevated risk of violence. We also know that relationship violence often follows the stereotypical pattern of a male battering or controlling his female partner.
We hold these paradoxes in the work we do. And we remain especially committed to working with those whose experience follows the non-dominant pattern -- lesbians, bisexual women, transgender people -- because we know that holding a marginalized identity amplifies the effect of interpersonal violence. We know that marginalization contributes to isolation. Even in tolerant, queer-friendly Northampton. Serving LGBTQ survivors, for Safe Passage, is an issue of access and a matter of justice.
All of this was extremely new to our African Fellows. And in the discussion that followed our training, Verdiane was especially adamant that while it might be relevant for Safe Passage, it was not relevant to her work. Because she had never met a gay person.
I wish I could remember more clearly the words of our conversation. But I think the words were not the most important part. Instead, I want to tell you about the feelings.
There I sat, my lesbian self, across the table from a colleague in the struggle against interpersonal violence who was telling me, “I do not know any gay people. I do not work with gay people. The concerns of gay people are not relevant to me.”
And I felt in my body that despair that is the opposite of loving witness. I felt the fear of being invisible, of having one’s lived experience dismissed, of having one’s hurts denied.
I also felt the presence of my Safe Passage colleague. A person with straight privilege, whose commitment to LGBTQ people is unwavering. I felt her concern for me personally, her commitment to justice, her solidarity.
And I felt my privilege. My white, North American privilege. My power and leadership in our agency. I felt the responsibility I held as host to our African guests to truly welcome them, to hold space for a real exchange between us.
I felt all of those feelings at one time. And I also felt my personal commitment to bravery. My belief that fear is a perfectly reasonable emotion, but it need not be the force that drives my actions.
I took a deep breath. I leaned into my courage.
And I felt myself soften to Verdiane’s perspective. I tried to hear what she was really telling me:
That she could not shift her understanding of gay people until she had a personal connection to a gay person.
What else could I do? I have been out since 1986. I came out again.
I told the story of my life as a lesbian. The ways that I feel privileged to have been gay in this historical and geographic moment, and the way that homophobia has contributed to victimization in my own life.
And in the thirty years that I have been out, I have never, ever, made anyone so happy by coming out to them.
"I didn’t think it was true! I didn’t think gay people really existed!”
I assured her that we do.
And when I showed her pictures of my beautiful family -- my wife of 21 years, our 14 year old daughter -- her eyes got very wide.
“It is good,” she said. “It is love.”
Later, Nancy said something like this,
“I am a Pentecostal Christian. Homosexuality is against my religion. But I think that there is an essential humanity to every person, and an essence of Love that is God, that cannot be denied to anyone. They are a person.”
Over and over, in our all-to-brief friendship before Nancy and Verdiane returned home, I heard them avow the basic humanity of gay people as a new and steadfast belief.
When I emailed Verdiane to ask her if I might tell our story in this sermon, she wrote back:
“Yes for me am happy with it because even me I will do the same in my country, you are really a family for me. You can be free to share with anyone.”
But the most important part of this exchange is not about how Nancy and Verdiane changed. It’s about how I changed.
I was incredibly privileged to spend time with Verdiane and Nancy following the election. When I was reeling from the unanticipated outcome, from the elevation of voices of hate and bigotry, from the immediate uptick in bias-related violence, from the realization that the divisions in this country are much wider than I had ever understood.
What do we Americans think of when we think of the nations of Uganda and Rwanda? We think of genocide and conflict. We think of racist colonization.
My new friends, from Uganda and Rwanda, told their American hosts,
“Our countries have been through worse than this. You will be all right.”
At the closing ceremony of the exchange program, Nancy said,
“I have wondered why God made the timing of our Fellowship so that we would be here for the election. And I have to think that it is so we could give the American people hope.”
And she also said, of what she learned during her stay in the U.S.,
“I have...learnt that humans have basic, natural approaches to deal with trauma and conflict. These approaches are universal and cut across all societies.”
Conversations with Safe Passage direct-service staff and Smith College academics confirmed what she knew from her work with individuals and communities healing from conflict-related trauma in Uganda: Humans heal through dialogue, storytelling, and connection with others.
How did I come to be close to these women’s generosity and wisdom in such a dark time?
I took a deep breath. I leaned into my courage. I told the truth about myself. I made friends with someone whose words initially frightened me. In doing so, I was reminded of some things I really needed to remember just now:
I was reminded that someone who thinks they have no common cause with me might change their mind if they really knew me.
I was reminded that one tool I have for crossing divisions is my authentic self -- scared and brave, privileged and marginalized.
I was reminded that allies really matter. That I might not have told the truth about myself if my colleague had not been in the room, if I had not felt her silent witness and compassion.
I was reminded that I have common cause with nations and struggles that I thought were far different than the United States. That the darkness we are facing in this moment is not a new force to the world. It’s really not even a new force in this nation. And people who have faced such darkness before are not unlike me. And they are telling me to keep hope.
And I was reminded that dialogue, storytelling, and human connection are healing strategies that need not be left to professional helping relationships. We can, any one of us, listen, believe, show up, and come through for one another.
Sometimes when I am privileged to be in this pulpit, I want to tell you something certain. I want to tell you something I know.
Today, the things I know are tangled in contradiction and paradox. I invite you to join me in the messiness of these paradoxical truths:
We are a compassionate and kind people. Kindness is part of our basic humanity. We have baked it into our culture. It is ordinary, and it is amazing.
We are a selfish and cruel people. Sometimes, when we are desperate, or frightened, or greedy, we put our own self interests above the humanity of others.
Those of us who have been hurt before should not have to repair that hurt. We should not have to make ourselves vulnerable again. We should not have to be brave.
But when we are brave, we open ourselves to connection and transformation.
When we are brave, we open ourselves to hope.
hen we are brave, we open ourselves to hope.