Hopefully Waiting

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on December 11, 2016

Gail and I have an enormous Ginkgo tree in our front yard. I’m not good at estimating heights, but I think this tree towers at least 40 or 50 feet over our lawn and house.

The Ginkgo is usually the last tree in our yard and in our neighborhood to shed all of its leaves. Once all the maples and poplars and oaks have done their business, it seems that the Ginkgo brings up the rear and ends autumn with a flourish.

In a matter of just a couple of days – usually just a few weeks before the winter solstice – the tree lets go of all its beautiful, fan-shaped leaves, dropping them massively and silently to the ground.

Our Ginkgo’s last-in-line approach to fall happened again this past week. And so yesterday, when I went outside to retrieve the morning paper, I walked across our lawn and shuffled my slippers through a thick carpet of gold that extended in all directions.

I live in an old, in-town Atlanta neighborhood where tall native trees and exotic non-native ones (like our Chinese Ginkgo) are commonplace. And, while I’m grateful to have such a stunning tree right outside my window, I was recently reminded that my lovely view is indeed a privileged one.

The reminder occurred last Saturday morning as I was driving from my neighborhood to Ms. McKibben’s home in West Atlanta. Ms. McKibben and her son Jaydan comprise the family whose house I and others from Northwest volunteered to help complete as part of Habitat for Humanity’s Interfaith Build.

Ms. McKibben’s neighborhood is located 10 miles and a world away from mine.

To get to it, I drove through one of Atlanta’s most blighted neighborhoods . . . a part of town west of the Georgia Dome, where graffiti-stained apartment buildings, crumbling concrete sidewalks and burglar-barred windows are common . . . and trees of any kind or size are not.

It was cold at 7:30 AM when I started out to the Habitat build site. As I made my way across town, the scene of urban neglect that was unfolding before me made me feel even colder.

And, then, something happened. I passed a green City of Atlanta sign planted firmly in the ground at a street corner. It announced that I was entering Washington Park, a historically black neighborhood that was built in 1919. A little distance further and a left turn, and I was driving along a tree-lined street of small, older brick and frame homes – some in good shape, some not.  

A few blocks more, and I turned onto Scott Street, where cars were parked bumper to bumper and groups of people were walking toward a tidy and brand-new frame bungalow with gray and white trim. I knew I had reached Ms. McKibben’s house, and so I got out of my car and joined the other volunteers.

If you’ve ever worked on a Habitat for Humanity build, you know that this organization has homebuilding down to a science. Ms. McKibben and Jaydan’s house – like all Habitat homes – was scheduled to be built from the ground-up in just seven days, using mostly volunteer labor. The day I had volunteered to work was the seventh and last day of the build, and so the house was nearly complete except for landscaping and final touches.

Ms. McKibben and Jaydan were there, as were volunteers from several Atlanta faith communities. There were also people at the build who were ready to put in the work hours they needed to qualify to purchase a Habitat house. Habitat’s program is one that emphasizes sweat equity and partnership rather than charity.

So, prospective homeowners must help build their homes, put up a modest down payment, and take a financial management class before they can assume ownership and take over the mortgage.

There were four of us from Northwest. We greeted one another, got a cup of coffee, and then joined the group assembled in the muddy front yard as our site manager Cynthia got things started.

After introducing the McKibben family to us and giving us some background on how the Habitat program works, Cynthia began divvying up the tasks for the day.

“Who here is good with a hammer?” she asked. A few hands went up. I stood waiting, hoping something requiring less skill would come along, like spreading pine straw.

“Right this way, stand here next to me,” Cynthia said to the hammer volunteers.

“Okay, what about power tools?” Cynthia shouted next. “Think carefully about this one,” she warned, raising her left hand and showing us her own missing digit.

Okay, definitely not me, I thought, as other people stepped forward. I waited again.

Cynthia next shouted out “indoor cleaning” and “shrub and tree planting”, but really got my attention was when she asked, “Who here is anal retentive?”

With a sheepish grin, I raised my hand and so did a young woman standing next to me.

“Perfect!” Cynthia exclaimed. “You two are in charge of touch-up painting. Come with me!”

And, so after getting a few other volunteers going, she led us to some cans of paint and brushes and then proceeded to show us the miniscule nicks and tiny missed spots on the house siding and front porch railing that needed our attention. We got down to work.

As I made my way around the exterior of the house, dabbing gray paint here and there, I took a look around at the volunteers who were busy helping Ms. McKibben get her house move-in ready. There were at least 35 or 40 people swarming inside and outside that tiny two-bedroom, two-bath place.

I also noticed a man standing on the side porch of the house next door, which was only a few feet away. He was leaning against a battered door, quietly watching us, and smoking a cigarette. We made eye contact and he nodded a silent “hello” as he watched me work. I smiled and said “good morning.”

And, as I did, I felt discomfort and sadness rising up inside of me. Here we were, 35 or more volunteers, working on one, small, brand spanking new house nestled within an entire block of older houses that each were in some stage of disrepair. Despite the positive feelings I had about helping Ms. McKibben and Jaydan finally get a decent home of their own, in that moment I was also reminded that there are so many other people who also need decent homes.

And, here was one of them, watching us from right next door, whose own house looked like it could use some hammering and painting and landscaping, too.

Frustrated, the thought crossed my mind of taking my paint can and brush and asking him if I could touch up his house. It immediately felt like a foolish and inappropriate idea. Thinking back on it, I believe what I wanted wasn’t just to touch up this neighbor’s house. Rather, I wanted to paint a whole new world . . . one where no spots or houses or people were missed . . . one where everyone had access to good homes, a good education, good healthcare, and good jobs . . . where no one would have to stand on the side porch or on the sidelines and watch others get the basic things we all deserve.

And, so, on that Saturday morning, after making brief contact with a man who stood a few feet and a world away from me, I did the only thing I could think to do. I turned back to my task and kept on painting.

Ms. McKibben and Jaydan would have a new and move-in ready home at the end of the day. My other hopes and dreams would have to wait.

****

Waiting is one of those human activities that isn’t really an activity at all, which is perhaps why so many of us busy and engaged people can’t stand it. Whether we’re waiting in line, waiting on Christmas, waiting for Gingko leaves to fall, or waiting on our fair shot in life, waiting asks us to live with the hope that “What Isn’t Yet” will eventually become “What Is.“

To patiently wait for “What Isn’t Yet” to become “What Is” is often considered to be a virtue. I imagine that the adage “good things come to those who wait” is one many of us would like to hold on to as a universal truth when we feel like time and our luck are running out. And so we may try very hard to do just that – to hang on . . . to bide our time . . . to soothe ourselves with meditation and distract ourselves with activities as we wait for a hoped-for outcome to materialize.

And, yet, waiting for something to happen or someone to come along can also be a troubling tactic to take – not because it’s personally uncomfortable, but because it shifts the responsibility for action to something or someone else. And, there are some things in life where waiting on change is not only inappropriate, it’s absolutely oppressive.

Take, for example, the persistence of racial injustice in our country. Would it really have been better for someone like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to wait on the attitudes and moral conscience of white America to change?

I don’t think so. It’s hard for me to imagine him standing by while church bombings, intimidation, and public humiliations of African American men and women and children continued. It’s hard for me to imagine him waiting on job, housing, education, and voting discrimination to change.

King, in fact, believed that African Americans had waited long enough. He argued that it was the responsibility of oppressed black men and women to usher in justice and eradicate evil through extreme, yet nonviolent direct action that refused to wait on “the eventuality of time.”1)Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changes the World, ed. James Melvin Washington (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 92.

Martin Luther King was hugely disappointed in white moderates and the white clergymen who urged him to be patient and not use methods of protest that would incite violent responses. Ultimately, he believed the black community must raise the consciousness of whites who had never suffered racial discrimination and, therefore, would never be able to develop on their own the urgency necessary to bring segregation and black civil rights to a head in American society.

And, so King didn’t wait. Instead, he moved ahead with nonviolent demonstrations and other forms of civil disobedience in order to shine a spotlight on unjust laws and the discriminatory and violent treatment of African Americans.

Today, more than fifty years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act ending segregation and banning employment discrimination was passed in our country, it seems that we still find ourselves wrestling with whether to wait or whether to act when it comes to ending racial injustice. Black Lives Matter is an example of a movement that has, perhaps, divided folks into these two camps of Waiters and Actors.

The Waiters may say that Black Lives Matter is too pushy, too violent, too disorganized, and too narrowly focused. I wonder if people in this camp might advocate for a more patient, less in-your-face approach to change.

The Actors might say that Black Lives Matter is the voice of and visibility for change that America needs . . . that the deadly consequences of racial injustice and bias are too costly to rely on polite and patient forms of protest. I wonder if people in this camp might say that racial justice can’t wait, that it needs urgent attention . . .  and that means using extreme tactics.

What does Northwest have to say about all of this? While we may not yet have identified a response to Black Lives Matter, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, of which Northwest is a member, has. Just this past October and in a historic moment for Unitarian Universalism, the UUA Board of Trustees agreed to provide $300,000 immediately to Black Lives of UU, an organization within our religious movement that works to provide support, information and resources for black Unitarian Universalists . . . and supports Black Lives Matter.

In addition to providing $300,000, the UUA Board also committed to guaranteeing Black Lives of UU another $5 million in long-term funding for its efforts to support black UUs and expand the role and visibility of black UUs within our faith.

The decision was historic for Unitarian Universalism because it links back to a similar commitment from decades ago that the UUA never fulfilled. In 1968, the UUA General Assembly committed $1 million to be paid over four years to the-then Unitarian Universalist Black Affairs Council. The UUA provided the first $450,000 between 1968 and 1970. However, acute financial crisis in the UUA and conflicts among UUs and competing UU racial justice groups brought direct funding by the UUA to a halt.

“The $5 million committed today is the current value of a $1 million commitment that [the General Assembly] affirmed in 1968,” said UUA Board Trustee Gregory Carrow-Boyd in a recent interview. “So,” he continued, “we are fulfilling a promise that General Assembly committed us to close to fifty years ago.”

I suppose one can argue that this decision is an example of both waiting and action. I mean, 50 years is a long time! And, yet, the decision to commit these funds now is also a monumental act. It lifts up the importance of black lives in our religious movement and aspires to move racial justice forward in our country.

****

As we go from here, my hope for you and for me is that we will take inspiration from these stories of new houses and new commitments. My hope is that we’ll each continue to do our part for change and justice . . . knowing that, while we may have to wait on outcomes that we desire, we certainly don’t have to wait on taking action.

Our progression from “What Isn’t Yet” to “What Is” will likely unfold slowly and even suffer setbacks . . . but ultimately the transformation of society and self will happen only if we keep at it, one word, one deed . . . even one paint stroke at a time. So, may we act with urgency . . . and may we wait with hope for the outcomes that will set us all free.

May it be so. Amen.

 

References   [ + ]

1. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changes the World, ed. James Melvin Washington (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1986), 92.