The building of my home congregation is wedged between three worlds: a funeral home, where people bring their grief and mourning; an old home subdivided into a surprising number of small, crowded, but affordable apartments for those who make little in the tourist industry; and an extraordinarily large, recently constructed stone mansion, complete with gatehouse and dog runs, owned by a couple desperate to make their mark in society – going so far as to shop around a reality show about their life to various cable networks. Down one street is an elite college and equally elite neighborhood, a combination of old and new money, and predominantly white. Down another is a poorer neighborhood, where low-income housing and homeless shelters exist in the predominantly minority neighborhood. Down a third is the thoroughbred race track, a symbol of opulence – hiding the oppressive conditions of living quarters for the migrants who are employed by the track (called the backstretch workers).
Depending on the door you look out, you might think the most pressing social justice concern is emotional pain, or income inequality, or immigration, or the war on workers, or homelessness, or racism.
And the truth is, they are all the most pressing social justice concern.
At General Assembly 2013 in Louisville, I attended a workshop by Rev. Beth Ellen Cooper entitled “Occupy Your Faith.” Rev. Cooper spoke about ways to make our faith real and active; like the Occupy movement, she said, our faith isn’t anarchical; rather, it is immediate and active, not an idea with manifestos and declarations. The call isn’t to declare what issue we want to tackle, but to get out there and tackle it. She challenged us to consider “who is our neighbor, and what is their pain?”
Since General Assembly, I have been thinking about this charge, and have been challenged by it. At Union Theological Seminary, we are in a beautiful, upper class institution, on the edge of Harlem – between the opulence of Columbia University and the struggles of 125th Street, between comfortable middle class apartments and people sleeping on benches in Riverside Park. And that’s just our neighborhood; inside the ‘castle’ we have people and organizations who speak about and work toward justice in a variety of areas – from the Poverty Initiative to the Edible Churchyard, from the Black and Latin@ Caucuses to the Institute for Women, Religion, and Globalization, and more – each group speaking loudly about the call to action our faith demands. Every issue is important. Every concern is vital to people’s lives. Every injustice – to people and to the earth – requires full and immediate attention.
And the call is clear; as Frederick Buechner writes, “There can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
The call is clear: as Rabbie Arthur Waskow wrote in The Freedom Seder:
For if we were to end a single genocide but not to stop the other wars that kill men and women as we sit here, it would not be sufficient; If we were to end those bloody wars but not disarm the nations of the weapons that could destroy all mankind, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to disarm the nations but not to end the brutality with which the police attack black people in some countries, brown people in others;
Moslems in some countries, Hindus in other; Baptists in some countries, atheists in others; Communists in some countries, conservatives in others—it would not be sufficient;
If we were to end outright police brutality but not prevent some people from wallowing in luxury while others starved, it would not be sufficient;
If we were to make sure that no one starved but were not to free the daring poets from their jails, it would not be sufficient; If we were to free the poets from their jails but to train the minds of people so that they could not understand the poets, it would not be sufficient;
If we educated all men and women to understand the free creative poets but forbade them to explore their own inner ecstasies, it would not be sufficient; If we allowed men and women to explore their inner ecstasies but would not allow them to love one another and share in the human fraternity, it would not be sufficient.
How much then are we in duty bound to struggle, work, share, give, think, plan, feel, organize, sit-in, speak out, hope, and be on behalf of Mankind!
The call is clear. And it is enough to paralyze a person. The list of injustices is so overwhelming , we can be paralyzed in deep anguish so we can’t even register the thousands of ways, big and small, our world is hurting. As Rebecca Parker says in Blessing the World, “our despair keeps us from being able to see.”
So what can I do? How can I engage every social justice concern in my ministry, knowing that alone I cannot solve every problem, knowing that every problem is dependent upon every other problem? It goes back to Rev. Cooper’s challenge: Who is my neighbor, and what is their pain?
As I leave New York City for the warmth of Key West, Florida, and my ministerial internship at One Island Family, I know my first step is to learn who my neighbor is. I already know there are issues of homelessness in Key West, as well as a similar question of income inequality in a tourist town. I already know people come to Key West for a variety of reasons, but that one of those is escape from personal pain. But that’s just what I know from some discussions with Rev. Dr. Randy Becker and a short visit in March. I imagine that in Key West – much like any location I find myself in – the first months will be exegeting the community and learning who these people are and what they face.
The second step, of course, is action. How can I help ease their burdens? And how can the congregations and communities I find myself in help others? We don’t have to take on large tasks – I think of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s comment that “the good news to a hungry person is bread.” If we can offer food to someone who is hungry, or a roof to someone who is homeless, or child care to someone who needs help in order to work, or medicine to someone who is sick, then we should do that first. The letters to politicians, the marches and protests, the large fundraising efforts – those are important too. As Margaret Mead rightly said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Our most pressing social justice concern is the one in front of us – we fail as ministers if we do not act.
One of the limits of WordPress, I have discovered, is that it hates too many iframes, and thus is unwieldy to edit. So I’ve instead put up this followup post… it includes a link to the audio from August 21, as well as the words of Rev. Linda Hoddy’s blessing.
The audio – click here to listen – picks up at beginning of my formal remarks – right after “Song of the Soul”… it includes Linda’s blessing, closing words, extinguishing the chalice, and the postlude.
Linda’s words of blessing are below:
Spirit of Life,
We give thanks for this beloved community, this congregation,
where a call to ordained ministry can be felt and nurtured.
We give thanks for the one who is now being called to deeper service, and for her Yes,
We ask your blessings for her journey, and grant our own.
May Kim continue to be attuned to things of the spirit,
open to and heedful of the subtle signs and messages by which you will guide her into
the service of humanity and a better world.
May she be accompanied by wise and gentle souls
who will help her discern and refine her ministry.
May her academic preparation be excellent.
But more importantly, may her heart and mind be continually opened to your guidance and will.
May she increasingly know the divinity present in all creation:
in nature, in work, in play, in other human beings,
and herself and her call to service.
May she never doubt her own worth as a child of God, with gifts intended for the blessing of humanity.
May ministry not only be something that she does, but may it
deepen and mingle with the roots of her being, until ministry is the very essence of who she is.
May she find joy in the sacrifice and surrender that ministry requires.
We are grateful for all that she has shared with us in these few years:
Music and theater,
Laughter and tears,
Tenacity through conflict and tumult,
Warmth, wisdom, insight and friendship.
These gifts have enhanced our life together.
And now, as we release her to greater service, we wish her well.
May she know in times of doubt and struggle, as well as in times of joy,
that our prayers are with her. We will hold her gently in our hearts, forever.
Sometimes it isn’t enough to just share the text of a sermon. Sometimes it’s important to hear the music and the other words that form the entire service. Thus (and in lieu of recordings that feature the actual musicians from my congregation), I have included links from YouTube and other mp3s. Please take the time to listen to them as you read my story of getting to the yes.
Lighting the Chalice
Words for Gathering
by L. Annie Foerster
Come we now out of the darkness of unknowing, out of the dusk of dreaming.
Come we now from far places, from the unsolved mysteries of our beginnings.
Attend our journey!
Come we now into the twilight of awakening, into the reflection of our gathering.
Come we now toward the light that beckons, toward the oasis that summons.
Harken the gathering!
Come we now all together.
We bring, unilluminated, our dark caves of doubting, filled with the rocks of our foreboding.
We seek, unbedazzled, the clear light of understanding, born of the fires of our attending.
May the sparks of our joining kindle our resolve, brighten our spirits, reflect our love, and unshadow our days.
Come we now. Come we together.
Come we now all together to begin.
Let us begin with Amen.
I went to Girl Scout camp for the first time when I was 9 years old – which would make it the summer of ‘74. It was an amazing time – in an amazing place, up at Camp Little Notch in Fort Ann. Our counselors were young women fighting for equal rights, proudly wearing the label ‘feminist.’ Our lessons were of self-reliance, strength, and independence. Our music was a blend of traditional camp songs and new songs from the new world of women’s music – Meg Christian, Margie Adams, Holly Near, and Cris Williamson. We sang “Gentle Angry People” and “Beautiful Soul” and the “Unicorn Song” and “Song of the Soul”… mostly “Song of the Soul.” A hundred little girls singing this song at the top of their lungs, finding harmonies, not knowing how deeply this song would later resonate.
My experiences at camp – the music, the women, the lessons – were in sharp contrast to the more conservative environment of the rest of my life, which was much more enmeshed in knowledge and education – not surprising, as my father was an educator and my parents were both non-practicing Unitarians.
But as a child – with my siblings much older and long gone out of the house, and living in an isolated corner of southern Rensselaer County – I spent many long hours reading and thinking and wondering about God.
At age 12, I read a book describing meditation, and it suggested creating a picture in your mind of a place to go, a sanctuary. In my mind, I built a beautiful stone cloister – several stories high, with a beautiful courtyard in the middle, and arched windows along the inside where you could look out into the courtyard. That image – that sanctuary – has been with me ever since, and has provided a place of safety.
These are some of the earliest signposts that I remember seeing on this long journey that brings me here today. As I began preparing to tell you about my journey to the Yes, I realized that it wasn’t something that happened in a short, defined period of time, but rather a journey I’ve been on since my childhood. And that journey hasn’t been on a straight, paved, well maintained road… it has taken some concentration to stay ON the road, and it’s in the retelling here today that I can begin to map it out.
At the very center of the road – whether I recognized it at the time or not – is my spiritual path.
Through my childhood as a Unitarian in a Methodist Sunday school, and through my young adulthood immersed in a full gospel Pentecostal community, and long afterward, even into my agnostic phase, I still talked to God. I thought of myself as “spiritual but not religious” and felt I had a pretty decent relationship with the Divine. I found a place of expression in the pagan community, and I liked the connection to the earth and the ancient mythologies. But as connected as I was to the ideas and the people, I grew further and further disconnected from God.
And then I lost my partner to a needless death.
And then I had a major financial crisis.
And then I had a nervous breakdown.
And then a pedestrian ran in front of my moving car and was killed.
And then my back went out and I required several surgeries.
And then my mother passed away.
At every turn, God was missing. I continued to talk ABOUT God, and to help others find their voice and nurture their spirits. But I was angry. And hurt. And lonely. And I had long since stopped talking to God. I was certain – absolutely certain – that I was God’s punching bag.
Linda Hoddy talks about the time after her brother’s death, arguing with “the god in whom she did not believe”. I don’t know that I ever stopped believing in a god of some form, but I know that I got tired of arguing, and declared a schism. I decided Nietzsche was wrong: that which does not kill us does NOT make us stronger, it makes us angrier. I needed to be away from that conflict. God didn’t like me, so I didn’t like God.
And I felt even lonelier.
The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that “Life is to be understood backwards, but it is lived forwards.” I’m not sure of the source now, but in one of his books, Kierkegaard expanded on this idea: he said that we are all walking toward the light of God, but that because it is blinding, we walk backward. We look at where we have been, and gently nudge others so as not to trip on a root and avoid the rocks, all the while feeling gentle nudges from behind us making sure we don’t trip or stumble.
I like this idea – I like the idea that we’re all on a journey, that we see in retrospect the lessons and messages we encounter. David Roche, in his book The Church of 80% Sincerity, calls it the Principle of Delayed Understanding.
But whatever you call it, it is only in looking back that I can understand the messages that God, and my fellow travelers, had been sending. In preparing for today, I have remembered many friends from former covens, guilds, and congregations – hundreds of moments that have led me to this place. But of course it wasn’t until recently that I realized that they WERE messages.
Looking back, I see hints I left for myself, in journals, in letters, and in sermons. I look back at my talks on waiting, and faith, and being open to possibilities, and I now can see that while I was sharing some ideas that I hoped would help you, I was also leaving myself messages about my relationship with God and a possible future path.
Looking back, I recognize the metaphors – from the idea that my life was a tapestry, waiting to be woven so others could see the story, or that I was a wounded healer, telling the stories of my own woundings in order to help others heal.
Looking back, I understand the dreams I dreamed in significant places – at a women’s spirituality retreat in San Francisco, at my first UU Musician’s conference in Denver, and a notable one, in upper Michigan on Midsummer. I dreamed of being in a spa of some sort, where I was being nurtured and pampered. As my nails were being manicured and my feet being rubbed – I told you it was a dream – a handsome man came behind me as though to kiss me on the cheek, but instead whispered in my ear “not yet.”
Looking back, I learned that some messages came via Eeman’s Law, which states that half of life is figuring out what NOT to do. In my case, I had some false starts, seeking some greater way to serve, which never panned out. In the late 90s, I had an opportunity to take an intensive priestess training, but somehow the money never appeared. In 2006, I began the program to achieve a Credential in Music Leadership through the UUA, but this was cut short because of my back. About a year ago, I pursued some positions within the UUA – none of which panned out.
Now of course, in my state of schism, I saw each of these failures as further proof that God was not on my side.
But something happened in the spring of 2009. I met a former Lutheran minister who would later become my boyfriend. In our conversations, I told Carl about my schism with God, and he brought up the book of Job. Now I’ve heard all about Job, how God tests him by causing all manner of tragedy. I was pretty unimpressed – ‘cause if people aren’t quoting Nietzsche, they’re talking Job, as though they think that’ll help.
But Carl brought up something I had not heard before. “After all of the tragedy in the first three chapters,” he said, “Job spends the next 39 complaining to God. Loudly. Forcefully.” Hmmm. “It’s okay to complain,” he continued. “In fact, it’s what you are supposed to do.”
Now this is something I’d not considered before. So, I started complaining. I began to argue, and yell, and list in painstaking detail the many grievances I had.
But it was not until later that summer that I got the feeling that God was talking back. Carl and I were driving through New England, and while I navigated the rolling turns of Route 7, Carl viewed the beauty of the Green Mountains through his eyelids. In the quiet, I began humming some of my favorite spirituals: “Over My Head, I hear music in the air” … “there is more love somewhere.” I got to a piece from our teal hymnal, called “Comfort Me.” Now the way Mary Neumann wrote the song, the third verse goes “speak for me, speak for me oh my soul.” But that day, I began to sing “speak TO me”…. And God said “I have been. I never stopped.”
Yeah, okay, I know many of you are skeptical of spiritual experiences, or of God, but I have no other way to describe it except ‘God said.’
And God said, “I never stopped talking to you. You are the one who stopped.’ And so I asked her, “I haven’t heard you. How have you been speaking to me?”
The answer came immediately, as the napping Carl let out a loud, forceful snore.
Which made me realize that God had been speaking to me, through the divinity in each of us. Through the long conversations with Carl, and Linda Hoddy, and Brent Wilkes, and Nikki Ferguson, and Aaron Broadwell, and others… through the poetry and music that has made me weep from their beauty… through the many quotations from books and movies that I’ve collected… through the little moments of grace I’ve witnessed and been blessed with. All of them, messages from the Divine, all of them hoping that in the spirit of Kierkegaard, I would recognize them in retrospect.
Looking back on the road I traveled, with its broken pavement when there’s been pavement at all, with its twists and turns and steep hills and narrow bridges, I realize that the long and winding road has led me to the door of ministry.
And its road signs all say “Yes.”
“Yes” echoed first during a service where I served as worship associate. Linda asked me to read a poem by Edward Hays as the meditation. The poem, about being open to the divine, is based on a Sufi saying that reads “don’t invite an elephant trainer into your living room unless you have room for an elephant.” As I read the poem, in front of you all, I heard “yes” so loudly that I barely got through the reading.
“Yes” echoed when Linda invited me to join the Wellspring spiritual deepening group, although I believe I only expressed my interest in passing. And, “yes” echoed over and over again during the year of sessions with other seekers on the journey.
“Yes” echoed in the words of Jim Mihuta, who told me I had a knack for saying the right thing at the right time… in the words of Joe and Sally Russo, who said they never wanted to miss a chance to hear me speak… in the words of Barbara Freund, who said I had the kind of presence, even just singing in the choir, that suggested I should become a minister… in the words of Ashley Friedman, who said she remembered my 80% sermon and that it still resonates with her as she makes her way through her first years at college.
“Yes” echoed the day I went to visit Union Theological Seminary in NYC…. I walked into a large stone building, and after our little tour group gathered, our guide took us into the courtyard. It was the courtyard of my sanctuary… the same arched windows, the same shape, same stone. “Yes” reverberated through the place as I enjoyed an informative tour, an amazing lecture, and a wild and welcoming service led by the Queer Caucus.
“Yes” echoed the evening I ended my meditation with a sudden need to flip through an old Methodist hymnal I own. I opened the book and began singing the hymn in front of me… Open my eyes that I may see…
“Yes” resounded in the song that I had known since my youth, a song I have sung over and over again as the introduction to “Song of the Soul.” “Yes” further echoed as I read the third verse:
Open my mouth, and let me bear,
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with Thy children thus to share.
And finally, “Yes” echoed in early January, when I awoke from a dream… in which a handsome man hugged me and whispered in my ear “now.”
At that final “yes,” I completed my application, and Linda and Murray Penney were among those who wrote recommendations for me. They must have said some nice things, for in April, I was accepted.
I’m five days away from orientation now… five days away from setting foot on this new road – most assuredly, as Robert Frost puts it, “the one less traveled by.” Not surprisingly, I keep finding myself singing “Woyaya”… we are going, heaven knows where we are going, but we know we will…” and I invite you to stand as you are able and join me in singing it now.
The road isn’t completely uncharted, however, and yes, I already know there will be bumps and rocks and uneven pavement just as on the road I’ve already traveled. But I do have some sense of where I want my ministry to go. I joke with Linda that I am keeping a list of reasons not to go into congregational ministry… but I think, at this point, my path is heading in other directions. On the other hand, as the rabbis in the Talmud say: “Do you want to make God laugh? Tell him YOUR plans for the future.” So who knows? I do know that there are some fascinating things happening in our denomination – a resurgence of universalism, a call to spiritual deepening, a sense that now that we’ve reached our 50 year mark, it’s time we figure out who we are now and where we are going.
I feel called to share our religion with a world that I think is absolutely ACHING for a meaningful, active, useful, nurturing faith such as ours. I believe I’m called to help people nurture their souls – to help more people find a home in what our president Reverend Peter Morales calls “a religion for our time.” I am inspired by his words, and those of Scott Alexander…and Kaaren Anderson… and William Shultz… and Deane Perkins…and many more Unitarian Universalists of vision. Their words are calling all of us to make a better world through our faith and actions.
And I know there’s so much to understand, to explore, and to share. My gifts in music and theatre… along with my desire to know and to heal… seem to make for a potent combination in ministry. Will I work with congregations, clusters, and districts? Write and lecture? Do community ministry? Or land in a congregation after all? I don’t know… as my friend Alan Rudnick says, “when working in the business of faith, faith is needed.” I do know that I once I began hearing “yes,” I could not say no… and the continued yesses from friends and acquaintances and newfound colleagues tells me others may be interested in what I may eventually have to say.
As I enter Union – a place brimming with diversity of race, gender, religion, age, talent, and ability – I bring with me the experience I have with love, community, and support that I have found here, from you.
This congregation – you together and individually – you have listened to me and watched me grow. You have nurtured and comforted me through some difficult times, providing not just emotional support, but rides, and meals, and help when I needed it.
When I came here in October of 2004, I was emotionally shattered, in need of spirit, connection, comfort, and community. And you provided – in spades. I never felt so welcomed in all my life; through the many congregations I’ve been part of, I never felt home before. I often find myself thinking of a song from The Wiz, which begins “when I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” This place – this group of people who love each other and work together and drive each other nuts– this place is home.
And yes, I feel a little like the bird being pushed out of the nest… or the teenager being shipped off to college. And I will be back many Sundays, but only as a congregant, sitting in the pews, maybe singing on occasion. And of course, my role here will change… I won’t be doing chores anymore, but I will be bringing home my dirty laundry and looking for a good hot meal. What I bring of you to Union is far greater than what I’ll bring home. And even at school, I will have some of you with me, as member Nan Asher has graciously allowed me to stay in her home in Queens, which helps me extend an already very tight budget. But most of all, what I bring is the knowledge that where there is room for growth, space for possibilities, a firm foundation of love and respect, anything IS possible.
A few weeks ago, the lovely and delightful Alie , one of our congregation’s youth who had just graduated from high school, asked me to sing Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” at her service. She was to talk about growing up in our congregation and heading out to the next phase of her life.
Alie is a delightful young woman – the very model of what we wish every child could be. She is articulate, deep thinking, compssionate, active. She has put her faith into action, traveling to El Salvador and Guatemala to work in impoverished neighborhoods. She worked tirelessly to help improve our building by getting a playground installed. She is bright and funny and beautiful inside and out. I have often thought that if I had had children, Alie is the kind of child I’d have wanted to raise.
So when she asked me to sing, the answer was, of course, ‘of course’. What a delight and honor to be asked!
Now I have loved this song for years – but never before did it bring me to tears, until this moment. I spent two weeks listening to the song and trying to practice it, but I could never get through without crying. But, trooper that I am, I bucked up and found ways to distance myself from the song. I figured I was in pretty good shape.
Sunday morning. I read the order of service and it includes more tearjerkers: A Rose in the Wintertime and Let it Be a Dance. Robert Frost’s “The Road Less Traveled.” Andrew Gold’s “Thank You for Being a Friend.”
I was toast.
But… I am a professional, so I cried during the hymn and responsive reading and spent the sermon listening but also girding myself. Alie was talking about lessons she had learned about caring – various events, various people. She talked about Kevin O’Brien, whose organization Nueva Esperanza Del Norte was her entree into international charitable work. And then, she mentioned my name.
She relayed the story of how contentious Joys and Sorrows are in Worship committee; some believe it’s too long as it is. Others think we don’t give enough room for those who are sorrowful to be cared for. And what of the juxtaposition of joys with sorrows? Does it honor or dishonor those who have spoken?
Alie told about a time a couple of months ago when I shared a sorrow. My Uncle Flavio had died – meaning all of my aunts and uncles, along with my parents, are now deceased. Flavio had four children – and sometime in the early 90s, the second son, John, had fallen out of favor with his mother. John had reconciled with his father and his younger sister Cindy, and I think even with his mother before she died. But sadly, oldest brother Marc and youngest brother Robert still harbored ill will… and thus, Flavio’s funeral and memorial service became incredibly painful affairs. My sorrow was not as wordy – I expressed sadness at the loss but also hurt at the pain my cousins are facing. I got choked up – Alie mentioned this – and sat down.
The next person to speak was a man who had a joy (neither Alie nor I can recall who it was). Apparently, I sat and listened, wiped the tears, and celebrated this man’s joy. I don’t remember… I know it was cathartic just to share the concern, to know that someone who had a similar situation might offer some comfort afterwards. But to Alie, it was evidence of something bigger…that when you live in a caring community, we do provide what is needed.
Well..needless to say, that did it for me. She mentioned ME, of all people. Getting through “The Circle Game” was a challenge, offset happily by the congregation singing with me on the chorus and me not making eye contact.
Afterwards, I spoke with Alie’s father – also full of tears at the beauty of the service. I mentioned how honored I was to be asked to sing and to be mentioned in the sermon. He said “Alie really likes you.” I smiled, and he continued. “You don’t understand. Alie is pleasant to many, but she doesn’t like many people. She likes you.”
And this leaves me scratching my head. I didn’t really know her until I joined Worship Associates in late 2008; I have never done anything with youth groups or religious education classes. And yet, just my Being apparently matters.
The lesson? Be. Be true. Be authentic. But just BE. You never know who you’re going to affect.