by Rev. Terry Davis
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on February 19, 2017
Barbara says that when she first reflected about the subject of courage, all that came to mind were moments of fear. She distinctly remembered those times when she wished she could have summoned the courage of her convictions and do the thing she felt in her heart was right: defend a childhood friend who was being bullied . . . confront an adult about her suspicions of child abuse and perhaps take further action.
I think it’s safe to say that Barbara is not alone in harboring memories of times when she wishes she could have found her courage and responded differently. I have mine and I imagine many of you have yours.
And, while self forgiveness for a past incident may be difficult, it seems that life is always giving us a shot at redemption. It seems that many of us encounter plenty of additional chances over the years to claim and live our values, thereby making a kind of living amends for past harms.
We might all agree that fear of losing something, plain and simple, is what holds us back from doing the right thing . . . including fear of losing time, money, relationships, power and influence, and even our lives. What perhaps isn’t as clear is what finally takes for us to find our moral guts. What is it that can help us go from cowardice to courage?
Family systems theorist, therapist and rabbi Edwin Friedman suggests that a key component to courage is a willingness to dispense with keeping the peace. Friedman, who has studied numerous organizations – including congregations of various faith denominations – believes that those organizations and systems that emphasize peace and conflict avoidance over creativity and individuality squelch courage and leadership.
In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true 100 percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger.
I gather from Friedman’s theory, as well as my own experience, is that what may be needed when times call for courage is not peace and politeness, but, rather, some rough and tumble impatience. Perhaps it’s when we allow ourselves to get in touch with our angry impatience that we’re finally able to get in touch with our nerve.
Impatience is not often thought of as a virtue in our culture. Rather, it’s more likely the flaw we point out in our leaders and others as a sign of self-centered immaturity. Impatient people are pushy people, are they not? They tend to have a clear agenda and seem to be more interested in pushing it forward than they are with listening to the ideas of others.
Does that sound about right? It takes one to know one, I suppose.
But perhaps pushy, focused, uncompromising, impatient people are exactly the kind of people that are needed when confronting the persistent issues of racism, poverty, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia. Thinking about the history of women’s rights in our country, for instance, I’m reminded of pushy and impatient female pioneers like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony. It’s hard to imagine that peace and politeness enabled them to help fight and win the causes of slavery abolition and women’s suffrage.
Overall, it seems that these champions of change and justice began as people who were fed up. They were folks like you and me who got sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I think of this kind of impatience – anger, frustration, and a willingness to break the rules of civility to achieve a greater good – as holy impatience. For me, it’s holy because it’s behavior that has the power to transform circumstances, change lives, and achieve a breakthrough, greater good.
As Unitarian Universalists who work for peace, pray for peace, and who embrace the democratic process and consensus-building, what might holy impatience look like? How might it help us find our anger and frustration and use it to unleash the courageous action that is needed in our personal lives, at Northwest, and in our wider world?
If we aren’t prepared to be on the leading edge of change, do we have the willingness – and the courage – to support the Rule Benders and Breakers and the Brazen Leaders among us, trusting that we might get the out-of-the-box thinking and brave ideas we need for transformation?
Please know when I suggest this, I’m not proposing it’s okay to support those who threaten and abuse others and trample on human rights. That’s not holy impatience. That’s meanness and coercion. I’m talking about being willing to get behind leaders who push the envelope with creativity and persistence and who aren’t afraid to lay some Sacred Cows to rest.
I had a chance to meet two such persons in San Antonio, Texas this week. They are people who are acting with holy impatience on behalf of some of the most vulnerable people in our country – undocumented immigrants. One was Jonathan Ryan, the Executive Director of RAICES, which is the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. The other was Eddie Canales, the founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center.
Both Jonathan and Eddie are working for the countless men, women and children who arrive in South Texas from what is known as the Northern Triangle of Central America, which include the countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. These immigrants are fleeing poverty, gang violence, domestic violence and unstable governments. Their desperation has emboldened them to make a difficult and very dangerous journey to the United States, where they face criminalization and an unknown future.
Jonathan and his staff of attorneys at RAICES work to keep these vulnerable people from being deported. They help them seek asylum status and they fight inhumane laws and practices.
Eddie and his staff of volunteers work to keep them alive. They set up water stations near the brush-filled ranchlands that cover most of South Texas. And, when these men, women and children don’t survive the harsh conditions, Eddie and his team recover their bodies. They push to obtain DNA samples, and they conduct an exhaustive search to locate family who might be able to identify them.
On my visit to San Antonio, I sat and observed deportation hearings. I watched as frightened men and women appeared before the judge, some traveling great distances, some without attorneys, to learn when their next hearing might be and what they would need to do to keep their case for asylum and their chance for a better life life.
I learned about the deplorable conditions of family detention centers, where women and their children are sent when they are picked up by Homeland Security Border Patrol . . . places so crowded, unsanitary and inhospitable, that they are given the nicknames of “hielera”, which means “ice box” (a reference to the freezing temperatures inside the center), and “perrera”, which means “dog kennel.”
I went to the San Antonio Greyhound bus station, where we dropped off dozens of backpacks filled with water, snacks, toiletries, and small stuffed animals for the women and children who arrived straight from the detention centers, each carrying a sack lunch from the center and not much else.
I traveled 2-1/2 hours south of San Antonio to visit the mass, unmarked graves in Falfurrius, a poor, tiny town near the Texas/Mexico border. I saw the rows of white crosses for the dead, each emblazoned with the word “Desconocido”, which means “unknown.” We visited the mass, unmarked grave in the local cemetery, where the remains of nearly 100 immigrants had been buried in just the last few years. Mass graves in our country! I couldn’t believe it!
We went to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of San Antonio, where the congregation’s members invited us to join them for a delicious TexMex dinner in their Fellowship Hall. During our meal, they shared stories about what they were doing to help.
They told us about volunteering at Casa RAICES, the women and children’s shelter run by this organization. They told us about cleaning and repairing the shelter and bringing the residents food . . . and also about how they were helping do the tedious, but important advocacy work to try and change immigration laws.
The UUs of San Antonio told us how they set up bright blue water barrels in Falfurrius, and about helping locate bodies and answering office phones. One young woman named Brigid, who attends the San Antonio congregation, passionately explained why she and her husband Roderico volunteer several weekends a month.
She said, “When I have children and when they’re old enough to understand this crisis and ask me ‘What did you do to help?’ I want to be able to have an answer that I can feel proud of. I am tired of the way these poor families are treated. We criminalize vulnerable people who are fleeing terrible conditions. It isn’t right!”
Brigid described herself as someone who isn’t usually on the front lines of change, yet it was clear to me that holy impatience is what compelled her to get involved.
Reflecting on my experience in San Antonio, I have been thinking about the times that Northwest has felt a sense of holy impatience and has come together for justice and change.
Many of you, for example, were and are mad about the way women and girls are treated in our country. And, so you knitted pussy hats, you made posters, and you marched at the Atlanta Women’s March last month.
A few years ago, this congregation voiced its frustration about the proposal to build the XL Keystone Pipeline. You voted to pass a resolution opposing the pipeline and you sent a letter of concern to then-President Barack Obama.
Recently, several of you were pissed off about the attempt of our Georgia legislature to discriminate against same-sex couples and women under the guise of religious freedom. You showed up in number at the state capitol to protest the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
My question for you now is this: what are you frustrated and angry about today?
How might we collectively channel our holy impatience for change in the world,
as the members of the San Antonio congregation have done?
Are you tired and frustrated, for instance, about the very real possibility that affordable healthcare in our country may be repealed and replaced with something far less effective?
About the possibility that our Federal government may decide to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood, to the arts, and to public broadcasting, as was indicated by our administration’s recently proposed budget?
About the chronic condition of food insecurity among the Latino/Latina population here in Sandy Springs?
About the possibility that Roe v. Wade will be appealed? That the Religious Freedom Restoration Act will be passed here in Georgia?
That a school-to-prison pipeline exists for too many African American boys?
That we can’t talk about law enforcement reform without being accused of being anti-police?
That undocumented men, women and children are being criminalized and treated in dehumanizing ways?
That any person seeking asylum today would be refused entry into our country?
What makes this congregation good and mad? Where might we find our sense of holy injustice and act with courage? Let’s think about it – but not for too long! Let’s talk about it – but not for too long!
Let’s not be afraid to upset the apple cart and take some collective action for justice.
May it be so. Amen.