One Small Thing

Small actions x lots of people equals beg change

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on January 22, 2017

“This won’t hurt. Clench your fist and try to relax. You can trust me.”

That was the guidance and encouragement I received this past Tuesday when the phlebotomist tied a tourniquet around my upper arm and proceeded to draw four vials of blood. I did what I always do during these procedures: I shut my eyes, and I tried to think about something else.

I’ve never been a very brave or a successful blood giver, though I’ve certainly given it my best shot over the years. The first time I ever gave blood was in college. The American Red Cross was conducting a blood drive on our campus. Wanting to do my part, I signed up, thinking I could get over my needle anxiety and do a good deed.

On the day of the blood drive, I screwed up my courage and I submitted to the necessary procedure to give my pint . . . only to pass out cold when it was all done. The volunteer staff did what I gather they usually do with the other blood donor lightweights: they strapped me into an upside-down chair (to help the blood rush back into my head) and started shoving Fig Newtons in my direction.

I didn’t let that fainting experience hold me back from signing up again for the next blood drive, though. Or the next. However, after my third donation – and, subsequently, my third fainting spell – the young Red Cross volunteer (whom I had encountered before) handed me a Fig Newton, cocked his head, looked into my upside-down face, and said, “Uh, maybe you’re not cut out to be a blood donor. Have you thought about doing something else?”

Well, that day was the end of my charitable blood donations. Today, my bloodletting is strictly for me and only in conjunction with my medical exams.

While I no longer am a blood donor, that young man’s question, “Have you thought about doing something else?” has stuck with me all these years. He rightly sensed that it was important for me to make a contribution of some kind to help my fellows. I just hadn’t found the right something yet.


That question “Have you thought about doing something else?” has come up for me several times over the years. This past Friday, I had a chance to reflect on it again.

As some of you know, Friday is the day that I attend my weekly 12-step meeting, which is held at noon in the basement of an Episcopal church in my Virginia-Highland neighborhood. The people who regularly attend this meeting are a diverse lot. In addition to a few clergypersons like myself, there are doctors and lawyers, students and retirees, actors and actresses, real estate agents and musicians.

There are wealthy people and poor people at that meeting, people who are out of work and people who are homeless. We are black, white, Latino, Asian, straight, gay, young and old. We are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist, and agnostic. We are, in many ways, America’s melting pot.

Our meeting that church basement is a place where everyone is encouraged to share how we’re working our program . . . and where we’re all equals in our journey of recovery.

There are many people who volunteer to keep that Virginia-Highland meeting going. Someone makes the coffee. A few others set up the chairs and put out the literature. Someone leads the meeting and someone else often suggests a discussion topic. Getting a 12-step meeting underway is not unlike what we do to make Sunday morning happen: it takes a lot of people, each doing one small thing, to pull it off.

I never thought that being part of a 12-step community might be my answer to the question “Have you thought about doing something else?” But 30 years ago, I found those meetings, and I’m still attending them today. My participation contributes both to my well-being and the well-being of others. And all these Fridays later, I’m grateful that this one small thing of participating and sharing has the power to heal and change lives.


Whether it’s giving blood or giving up an hour on a Friday afternoon, it seems we do these small things with the hope of creating a bigger and positive impact.

Perhaps the impact is achieved by accumulation, such as when one pint of blood is joined by another pint and then another to create an abundant and life-saving resource. Or, perhaps the impact is the result of habit, as seems to be the case among the diverse group of men and women who come together every Friday at our little one-hour meeting and – by doing so – manage to stay clean, sober, and out of harm’s way.

Whatever the reason, I’m convinced that small things do indeed possess big powers and, therefore, should never be underestimated. It seems that some of history’s greatest spiritual and moral leaders felt this way, too. Jesus taught that a strong and powerful faith could start out as tiny as a mustard seed. Gandhi demonstrated that individual nonviolent acts of protests could add up and overturn an oppressive and powerful colonial regime. And, Rev. William Barber, founder of the Moral Monday movement, showed that the presence of a handful of peaceful protestors on the steps of the North Carolina state capitol week after week could eventually grow in number and influence.

Over and over again we are told – and we see – that big results start with little things.

So, if that’s true, then why is it that I sometimes feel – that, perhaps, sometimes we all feel – so overwhelmed by the oppression that we see all around us? Why do we find ourselves doubting the power of one small thing, one small act? Could it be that we need constant reminders and constant encouragement that our actions, however, small, do indeed add up and matter?

In my Friday 12-step meeting, I once heard a man talk about his “Forgetter” – an imaginary switch inside his brain that automatically and unexpectedly flipped on when he wasn’t doing the small things he needed to do to take care of his sobriety and program.

This guy said that his Forgettor would cause him to lose sight of the fact completely that he was an addict with a serious illness that, if untreated, could and would lead him back down the road to Hell. The only defense against his Forgettor, he observed, was to keep coming back to meetings, keep talking with other persons in recovery, and keep giving back to others in the program.

By staying active and involved in 12-step, that imaginary switch in his brain was less likely to flip on and flip him into the danger zone of despair.

Perhaps it’s that way with us . . . we Unitarian Universalists, who are beautifully idealistic and who long to build a world that cherishes the inherent worth and dignity of every person and that cares for our planet. Perhaps a version of the Forgettor resides in our own brains (or in our UU souls).

Perhaps we remember shameful times in our country’s history . . . times when we had cruel and intimidating Jim Crow laws, for example . . . or when abortion was criminalized . . . or when we locked up Japanese Americans in internment camps . . . or when there was unchecked pollution of our lakes and rivers and air . . . or when our country turned its back on countless men and women who were dying of AIDS. We remember these horrible things and we forget that we ultimately came out on the other side stronger, wiser, and further along that arc of the moral universe.

Well, I’m here this morning to say . . . DON’T! Don’t let the Forgettor – or, more seriously, anything or anyone – flip us into a place of hopelessness . . . a place where we forget how beautiful, powerful and important we each are. For the sake of our world and the sake of our spirits, we must keep Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community in plain sight . . . a vision of a world filled with love, compassion and justice for all people.

And, I believe the only way to achieve this is for each of us – when we’re feeling frustrated, angry, discouraged or even faint – to look closely into our worried hearts and our upside-down faces and ask ourselves, “Have you considered doing something else?” And, then decide what our one small thing might be . . . and do it!


Yesterday, a group of us from Northwest joined over 60,000 others in Atlanta in a peaceful and powerful example of how one small thing can lead to an enormous and amazing thing. In the pouring rain, our group gathered at the Dunwoody MARTA station and rode the train downtown to participate in the Women’s and Social Justice march, which was one of hundreds of similar marches that took place all over the country and world on Saturday.

As we made our way to the Center for Civil and Human Rights and joined the throngs of other demonstrators there, the gray rain clouds weren’t the only thing that started to burn away. My amnesia started to burn away too. All those people reminded me that that we have been through tough times before . . . and that, each time, we came out on the other side of hate and fear wiser, stronger and a little further along the arc of the moral universe toward wholeness and peace.

Yesterday, millions of people decided to do one small thing – they each gave up a Saturday and risked getting soaked to let others know that misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, racism, and other forms of hate and fear will not have the last word in our country.

Northwest member and Unitarian Universalist historian Jay Kiskel was there to document this amazing event. I invite you to see for yourself how we remembered how beautiful and powerful we are when we come together for justice. [Video:]

Those of you that attended the march, how did it make you feel? Inspired? Proud? Excited? Ready to take action? Yes!

I learned yesterday that more than half of you at yesterday’s event had never participated in a demonstration before. I hope that Saturday’s march, whether you were there in body or in spirit, inspires us all to find our one small thing again and again and do it.

As the Edward Everett Hale prayer we heard at the beginning of our worship service reminds us:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
but I can still do something.
And, because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something
I can do.

May we go from here committed not to change the world, but, rather, to do the one small thing we can do . . . and trust that the world just might change when we do.

May it be so. Amen.