A Passion For… (Social Justice Presenters)

Tony Stringer / Opening

We gather this Sunday to celebrate passion.

The word “passion” evokes numerous reactions and interpretations. As I often do, in preparing to write a sermon, I began this one by searching the Internet to see what kinds of hits would result from entering the word “passion” into the search engine. That was a mistake.

Half of the hits I received were in French. Now I can parley vous a little francais, but the words that came up on the Internet were not included in the vocabulary we had studied in my high school French class. Among the web sites that were in English, about a third were from perfume manufacturers. The rest were—-well, you know what the rest of the hits were, don’t you? That’s right, soccer. Apparently passion is very closely connected to the sport of soccer on the Internet.

It didn’t take me too long to realize that the Internet was not the way to go in order to get ideas for this sermon. Webster’s Dictionary proved far more helpful. The word “passion” is derived from the Latin “passus,” meaning “to suffer.” In its original use, the word passion was connected with suffering. As it made its way from Latin to French, and finally to English, passion took on additional connotations. Today we use the word “passion” to mean fervor, enthusiasm, zeal, energetic and unflagging devotion, and also to mean love.

The passion that we celebrate this Sunday is a wedding of both the modern and the ancient meanings of passion. We celebrate this Sunday the fervor, the zeal, the devotion, the love that springs from us in reaction to the suffering of others.

This is a passion inspired by many concerns. Concern for the environment: the over-fishing of our oceans, the degradation of our reefs and forests, the 1 in 4 mammals that face extinction within the next 30 years, a level of extinction unrivaled in the previous 65 million years of geologic history.

It is a concern inspired by human suffering: the 800 million chronically undernourished people, the 2.2 million who die annually from drinking contaminated water, the 60 million infected with AIDS worldwide.

It is a concern that arises from growing strife and intolerance: the 17% of Americans who admit to holding strongly anti-Semitic beliefs; the public declaration of the Southern Baptist Convention a year ago that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was in their words “a demon-possessed pedophile.” And those ultimate acts of intolerance that result in the madness of suicide bombers in Israel, planes crashing in New York, and our own bombs falling in Iraq.

And it is a passion that grows from our caring and concern over those most precious to us—–our children.

We celebrate a passion rooted in deep, serious concerns, but one that is never extinguished, never overwhelmed by those concerns. Hear, in the words that follow, the passion of this congregation and the fruit born from that passion as our members work to change our part of the world.

Kitty Meyers

My name is Kitty Meyers. When I began coming to UUCA more than 20 years ago, ENS & Outs was one of the first groups I joined. I had done a little hiking and camping prior to that but knew little about the environment.

Membership in that group changed my life. For about 10 years, I hiked with E&O almost every weekend. And I quickly became involved in the work E&O does to protect the environment. Here in Atlanta – working for clean air, clean water, our urban forests, greenspace preservation. Around the state – working to protect Cumberland Island, the Okefenokee Swamp, the north Georgia forests.

The list of issues and actions is long. Some of the ways we try to make a difference include writing and calling legislators, participating in and contributing toward other environmental groups like Georgia ForestWatch, The Nature Conservancy, and The Georgia Conservancy, and attending and giving input at Forest Service public comment meetings.

Ens &Outs’ activities to protect our “interdependent web of all existence” aren’t the sum total of environmental efforts here at UUCA. The 7th Principle Project and the Green Sanctuary Project promote conservation and sustainability within these walls. Outside, below our parking lot, along the banks of Fern Creek, the Fern Creek Project monitors the creek’s health, and has restored the creek bank, replacing trash and jungle with rescued native plants to create an area inviting peacefulness and mediation.

You may say – “Under the current Administration in Washington, there is nothing I can do to protect the environment.” And it’s true that many important protections are being rolled back every day. But you would be wrong to give up. Preserving our environment, the beauty of the world we live in takes every one of us trying every day, over and over again.

A deluge of calls and letters, many from Ens &Outs members, just convinced the GA House not to act on legislation that would have allowed off the road vehicles to run rampant over gravel roads in the North Georgia forests. All of us together convinced enough legislators in the US Senate a couple of weeks ago to reject an amendment that would have opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in the House. But we can make a difference if we’re willing to make the effort. Think of all of the lands preserved and protections put in place by the 6 or 7 outstanding environmental groups we in Georgia are so lucky to have – and their members are many of us and other people like us.

Yes, working to protect our environment may mean having to speak out over and over again – how many times do I have to urge the Park Service not to destroy Cumberland Island? Or the Forest Service not to turn our Georgia forests over to the timber companies? But that’s what it takes. From every success we achieve, you’ll benefit – so will your children – so will generations to come.

As for me – I read a comment somewhere recently that if you can enjoy the beauty of a single flower in bloom, you’re a religious person. So I consider myself a religious person. UUCA is my religious home. And I value Ens & Outs – the many close friends I have in this group, the strong and committed efforts they make to preserve the beauty of our natural world.

For this church – for this group – I can’t begin to tell you how deeply grateful I am.

Mary Root (Verse 1)

Wake now my sense, and hear the earth call; feel the deep power of being in all; keep with the web of creation your vow, giving, receiving as love shows us how.

Carole Galanty

Good morning, my name is Carole Galanty. When I was asked to write a speech on mental health, I thought why would anyone want to hear my story? I, like many of our speakers today, could talk for hours about our commitment to our special cause.

First, I wanted to tell you about a couple of light bulb moments that describe how my journey got started. The Rev. Suzanne Meyer talked about moments in our lives during a recent Vespers Service. She said that sometimes we have a kairos moment. Kairos is defined as “the right time,” the sacred moment, the moment when God breaks through time and changes us. Sometimes the kairos moment is a beginning, a move, a new career, a choice, a self discovery that leads an individual to take up a cause.

I had a kairos moment back in 1978 when my brother returned from another state. This wasn’t just any moment, it was a moment I will never forget. Our family did not know his whereabouts since he was hitchhiking around the country. My brother had dropped out of college, Harvard University, his freshman year and expressed a desire to travel. He was diligent about sending postcards weekly and an occasional phone call; then no communication for weeks and months. Our father reported him missing. Finally six months later my brother was found. He was in a state psychiatric hospital diagnosed with a mental illness. Dad made arrangements for him to come home.

From this my story begins.

Harry came back to Atlanta drugged up, overweight, and he seemed different. Like his whole persona had changed.

Dr. Phil McGraw has written a book, Self Matters, that illustrates how to understand life. He has developed a series of questions that relate to journeys in one’s life.

He begins by asking, “What are the ten most defining moments of your life?” As you can see my brother’s hospitalization and his demeanor afterwards was a fundamental moment that affected my life as well my family members’ lives.

The second question Dr. Phil asks, “What are the seven most critical choices you have made to put you on your current path?” I have made several significant choices [aka kairos moments] in this area. When I found out my brother had a mental illness I talked with doctors and hospital staff in the beginning. I thought to myself there’s got to be some kind of support out there for families. I was feeling hopeless for my brother. He needs help, but I need help too. I was crying a lot and worrying about his future. Eventually I found a support group of dedicated, devoted families now known as NAMI – the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. They have support groups all over the United States and the world. If it wasn’t for these special people I wouldn’t be where I am today.

I have searched and have learned a lot about this important subject of psychiatric illnesses and how this disease impacts families. In return over the years I have given back to the community. I have given encouragement to loved ones, facilitated support groups, and became a friend with someone with mental illness through Compeer Atlanta. Compeer is always looking for volunteers as friends.

Last, but not least, I was fortunate that my avocation became my vocation when I started working at the National Mental Health Association of Georgia. Now I was getting paid to do what I’d been doing as a volunteer. Another kairos moment.

Dr. Phil’s last question is “Who are the five most pivotal people in your world and how have they shaped you?” Obviously, my brother, Harry, has been one of those special people. I have had many mentors in my life, but I didn’t know Harry would give me a just cause, among my other passionate interests. He has made a difference in my life.

I have been on this journey for over 25 years now. My brother has given me many challenges and experiences especially moving him to a number of personal care homes after being dismissed.

Although I was laid off from my blissful job over a year ago, I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been in such a humane line of work. I have met many giving, kindhearted people in the mental health field.

UUCA’s Access-Ability Oversight Committee has come together to address issues of many types of “dis-ability” – to have a greater understanding of who we are. It is important to learn about mental illness since there are so many myths and misunderstandings prevalent today especially in the media. Mental Illness does not discriminate. Psychiatric disorder affects everyone.

UUCA has provided the opportunity to raise awareness in the community within the Social Justice Council. I’m not afraid to discuss this subject and choose not to keep it hidden behind closed doors. I am grateful UUCA recognizes that mental health is an important health issue too.

The subject of mental health is still stigmatizing and hurtful. The statistics show that one in five people have a mental illness – there are individuals among us with mental illness: in our congregation, in our families, in our circle of friends, among our colleagues. People diagnosed and undiagnosed with mental illness live in community, and participate in everyday activities. Some people want to be identified and some want to remain anonymous.

You will be pleased to know Harry is presently living in his own apartment and even has a significant relationship at this time. I still have hope for my brother’s continued recovery.

I hope you will join me on my journey to help alleviate stigma, educate others about mental health, and accept and appreciate the differences of people with special needs. Why not work to make a difference? Who knows ? you may have a kairos moment too!

Mary Root (Verse 3)

Wake now compassion, give heed to the cry, voices of suffering fill the wide sky; take as your neighbor both stranger and friend, praying and striving their hardship to end.

Jim Kelley

I’m Jim Kelley. Why do I care about the “separation of church and state” and ?religious tolerance??

These are, after all, rather abstract terms most often used by enlightened philosophers like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Locke. Much deeper thinkers than I claim to be.

I was raised in a blue collar Methodist church in North Carolina. Everyone around me was a white Anglo-Saxon protestant. I did not know anybody that was Jewish until high school. When I was growing up, there were no known Muslims in my hometown, very few Catholics and nobody even talked about Unitarians.

This was the South of Jim Crow where segregation was mandated by law. It was also a South in transition. The civil rights movement was in full swing and Viet Nam starting to heat up. It was a time of massive social upheaval and change.

Sometime in college, I began to drift away from my religious background.

Later, I moved to Miami. While living there, I went through a culture shock when I realized that everyone around me was not a white Anglo-Saxon protestant.

Living and working with people of a different faiths and backgrounds taught me a lesson in the need for tolerance, a lesson that I learned in two ways.

Before, the Holocaust was something that I had read about in history books. Now I met people who had lost relatives in the gas chambers and who lived with the fear that it could happen again, and that it could happen here, in this country. That was an eye opening experience.

Also, I was now the minority for the first time in my life. Not something that I had ever been taught to experience. There were no other southern rednecks like me in the predominately Jewish area in which I lived.

After moving to Atlanta, I drifted for many years in the wilderness without a faith of my own. Then, one day I drifted through the doors of this church. I immediately felt at home, met my wife, and have been here ever since.

Government and religion are both very powerful institutions. History has shown that when they become too close and when they have too much influence over each other, they begin to corrupt each other.

The past decades have seen the rise in the political power of the “Radical Religious Right”. Conservative religions are now one of the most the dominant political forces in our country.

During this time, we have seen hate crimes, gay bashing, and the murder of abortion doctors all committed in the name of religion. Some people think that forcing children to pray in school will solve the world’s problems. Others think that putting the “Ten Commandments” on public buildings will do the same.

The Georgia General Assembly is trying to put the slogan “IN GOD WE TRUST” on our state flag.

The list goes on.

After I was at UUCA for a while, Cobb County passed their infamous anti-gay “Lifestyle” ordinance. I was inspired by the efforts of Edna and Boyd McKeown as they worked for its repeal. I am proud to be a member of a church that stands for INCLUSION instead of EXCLUSION.

During this time, Frank Casper organized a series of classes on the “History of the Radical Right” led by local author and researcher, Dan Levitas. We studied the history of hate groups from the Klan, Neo-Nazis, Posse Comitatus, and the modern Militia movements and their ties to the Christian Reconstructionist and Christian Identity theologies. Dan also predicted that they would try something dramatic.

A few weeks after the classes were over; Tim McVeigh bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. That happened eight years ago this month, April 19, 1995.

During the classes, Frank and I had been talking about what we could do to organize something here at UUCA. Oklahoma City was our wake-up call. We started the “Citizens for the Middle Ground”; which is now called “Citizens for First Freedoms”.

Since our beginning, we have held forums on topics relating to religious tolerance, the separation of church and state and individual rights. Everything from school prayer, school vouchers, hate groups, the Bill of Rights, putting the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and book censorship. The list goes on.

We have had political forums with candidates of both major parties. We have had speeches and book signings by award winning authors. We have published our newsletter with informative articles about the radical religious right. We have organized letter-writing campaigns. We have had some successes, but there is much still to be done.

I would like to close with a quote for the Reverend John Mackey, former Associate Minister of this Church.

“We live in a nation and a world rich in its diversity. This is a blessing. A blessing we should celebrate and work to preserve? There are many ways of teaching about righteous and moral living. It makes me afraid when anyone thinks that his or her way is the only way. There is not one path. There are many.”

Mary Root (Verse 4)

Wake now my conscience, with justice thy guide, join with all people whose rights are denied; take not for granted a privileged place; God’s love embraces the whole human race.

Joy Borra

My name is Joy Borra, and I’m passionate about issues that affect children.

A friend from Russia came to visit us a few years ago and I took her to some of my volunteer meetings – groups working for children both in Atlanta, America and abroad. I wanted Natasha to get a feel for what America was really like. Natasha was amazed at us Americans.

“In MY country,” she told me, “people would never get together to work for people they don’t even know.”

That’s what’s wonderful about America:

  • People do care
  • People do work in groups to make change
  • And more wonderful still, interested people with passion and determination CAN change things? It’s always slower than you want, but we do change things.

I want to share two examples of that from our experiences here at UUCA in the area of children.

First, making a difference for children – one child at a time.

Our Partnership with Hope School has been going on for ten years. It began out of a dream a handful of people had to create an “all-church project” about children. So they found an elementary school in a poor neighborhood, held town meetings, created a steering committee, recruited volunteers, and went to work. We still haven’t quit.

Every day of every week for 10 years, our UUCA volunteers have been there – supporting, mentoring, helping kids one child at a time.. For many years now, UUCA has been truly a part of the John Hope School family? Valued and loved. We have put our members into classrooms in ways that made a difference for the children and for the volunteers, too.

One year Patricia Emerson worked with a child who needed speech therapy. Patricia saw potential in this third grader. She made sure Tim went to summer school at the Howard School for kids with speech difficulties. She got the Howard School to take him and give him a partial scholarship. She made sure UUCA raised enough money to pay the rest. Patricia worked with Tim’s mother to make sure he physically got to the Howard School every day. Tim got a chance to succeed because of Patricia Emerson..

Frank Lindauer was beloved by Mrs. Seay’s second grade class. Frank went weekly for years – sometimes working with kids who needed more challenging work, and sometimes working with the kids who had trouble doing the work they had.

And the Second Grade Math Club has been going on for years? As educators, Dorothy Schaffer and Alicia and Walter Hodges know that if children don’t develop solid math skills by second grade, they will fall behind later. So they started an after school Math Club where kids would strengthen their skills while having fun with math games. It is the passionate commitment of these three people that still carries the Math Club forward even when they feel tired. And Hope School’s students benefit sooooooo much from knowing us? And we are enriched soooooo much from knowing all of them..

My other example is a story in progress?. It’s a story about changing the SYSTEM.

First you need a little background. Ten years ago, the Georgia legislature passed a bill which mandates that, for 7 crimes, children 13 – 18, must be tried in adult court and must serve their sentences in adult prisons. Hundreds of Georgia teenagers are doing time in state prisons. The minimum sentence is 10 years, no parole. The first young men convicted under this rule will be free next year. They are young adults now. If they were in 10th grade when they were apprehended, that’s where their education stopped, except the education they got from the other prisoners. So that’s the background.

Three years ago, I met Billie Ross, the mother of one of these young men, at a Child Welfare meeting I was attending. Her son was 14 when he was sentenced to ten years. She and three other mothers had set up at group called MAJJ – Mothers Advocating for Juvenile Justice.

And as I talked to Billie, I thought to myself, “Billie, this law is a travesty of justice. It is a tragedy that your son is in prison. But you’ll never change this law. Three of you! Three mothers! I’ll help you as much as I can, and I admire you for trying. But it will never happen.”

Well, it IS happening. This year, in the Georgia legislature, a newly elected, 24 year old African American representative from Cobb County named Alicia Thomas, took it on. She got a group of legislators to introduce HB670 that will un-do much of what the earlier bill created. Billie Ross and the other mothers were joined by several large organizations including the Interfaith Children’s Movement, in which I and many UUCA members are active.

We packed the hearing rooms when the bill came up in committee. We produced hundreds of supporters at press conferences and a rally at the capitol. Members of the House Judiciary Committee and the Rules Committee and dozens of representatives got phone calls and emails.

The legislators have gone home now, and our bill didn’t pass. But next year, we think we have a good chance. We have a whole year to get more people of faith and more legislators educated about our issue. We’ll work smarter! There’s good energy around this issue. Now I know… It WILL happen… And with a bit of luck and hard work, we’ll see it happen in next year’s legislature.

Passion. And dogged determination. That’s all it takes to change the system. To make a difference in the life of one child at Hope School. It’s inspirational to watch. It’s energizing to participate. It’s FUN!. And I LOVE it!

Mary Root (Verse 5)

Wake now my vision of ministry clear; brighten my pathway with radiance here, mingle my calling with all who will share; work toward a planet transformed by our care.

Tony Stringer / Closing

We are, in this church, a nexus. A place where many passions intersect. You have heard but a few: Kitty’s passion for a clean and healthy environment, Carole’s love for her brother and those like him who suffer mental affliction, Jim’s dedication to tolerance and peace, Joy’s commitment to work across faiths and traditions in the interest of our children. Many causes, many concerns, many issues, but one unifying passion. One passion for justice.

For our Christian forebears, passion referred to the sufferings of Jesus from the moment he foresaw his betrayal to his gruesome death. From the story of Jesus’ mock trial, his flogging, his bearing the cross, and his ignoble and painful end, Christians crafted a theology of redemption and salvation. But sadly, such a theology – beautiful and inspired though it may be – such a theology is tissue paper thin in a world such as ours.

Where lies salvation in the world we have made? If anywhere, it lies within us. Within each of us. Though the problems we face in the world have perhaps never been greater, our passion to transform the world has also never been greater. I believe in that passion. Whether expressed locally, nationally, or internationally, I believe in your passion. Many causes, many concerns, many issues, but one unifying passion. One passion that will change the world.

Please join me in the closing hymn, #121 – “We’ll Build a Land.”

Benediction

As M.L. King famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In this congregation, we do not ask you to bear a cross. We do ask that you add your passion to ours, as together we carry that moral arc on towards justice. Amen.