The Measure of Success (Dr. Valora Washington)

Good morning. Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that:

To laugh often and much
to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children
to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends
to appreciate beauty
to find the best in others
to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a
redeemed social condition
to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

In a world in which success is often measured by our income, our occupation, our social position or our zip code, how wonderful and how humbling it is to be reminded by Emerson that the ultimate measure of success is that you’ve made life better for someone. The bard tells us that there are many ways to succeed in making this a better world. One of the most expansive, enduring ways is through social justice advocacy and service or, according to Emerson, helping to bring about a redeemed social condition.

As Unitarian Universalist, many of us look to our UU Service Committee to help us make the world better than we found it. Through UUSC, we affirm the human rights and dignity of all people and know that every hour of every day one more life breathes easier because our Service Committee lives. We, proudly, we are part of its legacy.

When Waitstill and Martha Sharp the founders of the Service Committee began their journey to Nazi-occupied Europe in 1939, they didn’t know exactly what awaited them. But their faith impelled them to action, action on behalf of those struggling for human rights, for their very existence, for OUR existence as a civilized and just society and world. They put their own lives on the line to leave the world a bit better place. And they succeeded in creating a legacy that impels each of us to measure our own success by the achievement of all women, men, and children to live in dignity, free from oppression.

Like Waitstill and Martha, this congregation and has long supported the struggle for justice. This is evident in the active, vital Social Justice Council that you have and in your long history of partnership with UUSC. Your dedication is exemplified by the James Luther Adams award that you received from UUSC this past year for making a budgeted, congregation-wide commitment to our work for justice. It is also reflected in the recognition of your congregation as a UUSC Creating Justice Banner Society Award recipient for increasing individual membership in the Service Committee. Your participation in programs like Guest at Your Table and Membership Celebration not only provides us with the resources to protect and promote human rights but also acts as a catalyst for advocacy projects in your own community.

You have worked hand-in-hand with the Service Committee in other ways, continually showing your support of our efforts. Thank you for consistently responding to our legislative action alerts, organizing support for the International Women’s Rights Movement with the Gender Justice curriculum, and for the many other ways you enhance UUSC’s ability to make a difference where it is needed. You put UU faith and values into action. You make the world a better place to live in by affirming the worth, dignity, and human rights of all people and by recognizing and respecting the interdependence of all life by all that you do.

I am also here this morning to thank this congregation for sharing so many of your talented members with UUSC. You have provided UUSC with not one but two of our board presidents: our current president Nancy Bartlett and Mary Ann Oakley, who, as co-chair of our Endowment Campaign, is now helping us to exceed the goals we set for the campaign. You have also shared two very talented members with us who have become regional coordinators: Maggie Setcliff and Tricia Stultz. Tricia has also been an ardent, effective advocate for children and families living in poverty in this region. And like mother, like daughter, Buffy Stultz, has been an equally ardent supporter of social justice as a UUSC local rep.

Your own Partnership with Hope School project, now 10 years old, began as a Service Committee Promise the Children program. This initiative, originally under the leadership of Nancy Bartlett, is a model for others in our movement and has continued to grow and thrive under the leadership of Joyce Borra and now Diane Gorrell. And people like Ann Olson and Eric Jacob are but a few of your members who are raising women’s rights and human rights issues in the wider community.

Your example has challenged others in Metro Atlanta to measure their own ability to make a difference in the lives of others in need. Nancy Nowak is a current board member and national co-chair of our volunteer network. Janie Foy has also played a vital role in our social justice movement. And, of course, many Atlantans have attended UUSC workcamps.

We are strong because of the efforts of congregations and individuals like you. You go that extra mile to advance justice where ever and whenever the need exists. All of us know how important it is to fight social injustice, and all of us know just how difficult is to gather the courage and strength to make personal sacrifices in order to make the world better for someone else. But all people have that courage and strength if they look deep within themselves. Take Stephanie for instance.

When high school English teacher Stephanie Lohmeier left her home in Chicago to participate in a workcamp on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota this past summer, she planned on staying for just one week. She was part of a group rebuilding recreational facilities in Pine Ridge, often described as one of the poorest communities in the United States.

After the week was up, however, Stephanie traveled with other workcampers to the nearby site of the Massacre at Wounded Knee and was inspired to remain for the second week of the two-week workcamp.

Although she had been studying Native American history and culture for four years and had started teaching her students about the culture, Stephanie found her firsthand experience on the reservation overwhelming. “Every single day I was crying, I was so taken with everything that was going on in the community,” she explains. “I kept thinking, there’s so much that can be done, if only, if only?”

During her second week in Pine Ridge, Ms. Lohmeier began talking with Kevin McNamara, UUSC’s on-site project manager, and Chick Big Crow, proprietor of the nonprofit Visions of SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club (where the workcamp was based and which was refurbished by the volunteers), about how she might be able to make a longer commitment to the work she was doing.

As a result, when the workcamp ended, she returned to Chicago, requested a one-year leave of absence from her teaching position, and moved back to the reservation to accept a newly created position of teen program director at the Boys and Girls Club, a 1950s-style restaurant with indoor and outdoor recreational facilities. It was established in honor of Chick Big Crow’s daughter, SuAnne, an outstanding high school student and athlete whose dream was to organize a program for young people on the reservation. Tragically, SuAnne was killed in an auto accident several years ago before her dream could become a reality.

Stephanie has now moved to another position on the reservation, returning to teaching English. “This is just a drop in the bucket, my being here,” she modestly says, but added that it was an opportunity for her to continue to learn and understand another culture while taking advantage of an opportunity to make a positive difference. Stephanie has redefined the meaning of success for herself, understanding that her own success lies in helping scores of Native American boys and girls achieve the academic success that can literally change their lives.

Like the tens of thousands of UUSC members and volunteers who came before her, Stephanie was not motivated by what she could get through her actions but by what she could give, how she could leave the world a bit better through her work with the Service Committee. She was, and continues to be, inspired by UUSC’s legacy of making difficult choices to give hope to the hopeless and voice to the voiceless.

It was this commitment to truth and justice that inspired the founders of the Service Committee to take the controversial and dangerous stand against oppression during WWII at a time when others were afraid to speak out. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Unitarian and Universalist men and women watched — with apprehension — the rise of Adolph Hitler and Nazi fascism in post WWI Europe.

At General Assembly, the American Unitarian Association passed several resolutions condemning the persecution of Jews in Germany and I quote “the suffering of victims of religious and civil oppression.”

The AUA’s calls for action went unheeded in an isolationist America, an America not unlike the one to which some of our leaders would have us return today. The AUA sent two of its staffers to Europe to monitor the situation between 1934 and 1938. And in 1938, when Hitler seized Czechoslovakia, the Sharps sailed to Europe to help the victims of oppression and human rights abuse. Coming together with other courageous individuals and organizations, the Sharps helped well over a 1,000 people escape Nazi tyranny, oppression and death. The AUA, establishing the Unitarian Service Committee in 1940, came together as a group and with others to take a provocative and proactive stand for human rights, for humanitarian relief. Indeed, UUSC board member Mary Ella Holst recently took trips sponsored by the Japanese and Czech governments.

The ideals and legacies of our courageous founders still prevail today throughout the world through the Service Committee and congregations like your own. The Sharps? humanitarian work continues today through our partnership with the International Rescue Committee, an organization doing work on the ground in Kosovo and continuing operations in neighboring countries with ethnic Albanian refugees. We believe — as the Sharps did — that the first step in achieving peace with justice is sufficient food, clothing and shelter. Affirming the worth and dignity of all people; service to all people; to make the world a better place. This is to have succeeded.

We are proud to bear witness to the service and success of the UU communities. Because of your support, UUSC, with the support of its 25,000 members, supporters and volunteers, works to advance human rights and social justice in many corners of the world. And we do this by empowering women, supporting children, fighting for rights of indigenous people, and responding to emergencies. But the rights of children, women, and indigenous people are not threatened only in faraway lands. We must realize that we need to alleviate injustice here, too.

In the United States, the UU Service Committee works to end poverty, violence and discrimination that stunt the achievement and potential of children, youth and their families through the Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project. Over 3,500 volunteers can have a tremendous impact.

Take the case of Lorna, the widowed mother of four children, one of whom is severely disabled. She lost all welfare benefits before an advocate stepped in thanks to the UUSC Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project. We have countless examples like this one.

UUSC is advocating on a national basis for an end to inflexible time limit, policies that force recipients to give up training and education programs that lead to living-wage employment, and systems with conflicting regulations.

Another Service Committee project that is making a difference for U.S. citizens is Just Works, the program that brought Stephanie Lohmeier to the Native American reservation and the students to Stephanie. Since its inception four years ago, Just Works has brought nearly 1,300 UUs to Alabama, South and North Carolina, South Dakota, California, Florida and other locations to rebuild firebombed Black churches, restore housing and community buildings on Native American reservations, fight toxic waste dumping by corporations in inner city neighborhoods, provide disaster relief to hurricane ravaged communities, and re-forest sacred lands of indigenous peoples. Nearly half of the participants have been young people. UUs tell us that these opportunities for service are among the richest experiences of their lives.

There are countless examples and stories to share:

1. It was a UUSC grant that made it possible for three Burma democracy activists to play a key role last May at The Hague Appeal for Peace, a major end-of-the-century peace and human rights conference. More than 2,000 activists and activist scholars from both the South and the North attended. The gathering offered the UUSC-sponsored activists an opportunity to promote the Free Burma cause among attendees, as well as to build global alliances with fellow activists who are working on other national and international campaigns.

2. Here at home, through our Welfare and Human Rights Monitoring Project, UUSC provided policy-makers and the public in 23 states with a series of recommendations that would allow families to more effectively make the transition from welfare to work.

3. Twice last year, UUSC helped bring Mexican activists to the United States to provide firsthand testimony about Mexico’s human rights situation to U.S. and international policy-makers. UUSC arranged meetings in which its partners briefed U.S. State Department officials responsible for a human rights dialog with the Mexican government. UUSC’s partner, the National Network of Human Rights Groups La RED, was the only human rights group to meet with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan during his trip to Mexico.

4. UUSC is working with partners in South Asia where Lalita is trying to ensure that her children’s lives are better than hers. Married to a man 16 years her senior when she was only 11, she was abandoned by him when she refused to become intimate. She took work as a maid too ashamed to return to her family. When her employer needed some extra money, he sold her to a brothel where she was beaten and starved until agreed to “work off” her purchase price. Thanks to the UUSC partner group in the region, Lalita, once too shy to speak except when spoken to, or to be seen without her face covered, is a spokeswoman for untouchables and their children.

I just returned from a trip to India where I met several of our program partners who are helping women like Lalita, including the women’s team of a remarkable group called Sahanivasa. Organized to fight for the right of severely marginalized farm workers, these women struggle against all odds including the devastating impact of the caste system, dowries and dowry-related violence as well as women’s restrictions to own property in their own names. They are literally in bondage for their labor. Thanks to your support, specific quantifiable community impact has been measured in increasing land ownership, supporting micro-business, and even arresting the increase in the spread of AIDS.

You have no idea how proud I was, while in India, to be a part of a movement that is helping so many people in so many places to reclaim justice for themselves, their families, and their communities. And the people that we work with appreciate that we, as UUs, do not try to impose our beliefs or ways of doing things on them. They appreciate that we instead help them to develop local strategies that will provide long-term solutions to the challenges that they face.

I was inspired and encouraged by the courage and sacrifice of our partners in their struggles to combat sex trafficking, protect children and strengthen democracy. Their struggles bear an immeasurable connection to the Service Committee history of advancing justice. Through this work, we live the legacy of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, our founders. For over 60 years your completely voluntary commitment to UU principles and values has caused this work to grow and flourish. Yes! We have reached a new century. And what a great privilege we have as heirs to this profound legacy! As UU men, women and children, as people of faith, with the chalice as our symbol of hope, we will measure our success by our ability to advance human rights within the wider world.

These are just a few of UUSC’s current endeavors. The Service Committee currently has projects in more than a dozen countries. Each is instructed by UUSC’s mission and grounded in UU principles. As an independent membership organization, UUSC is not a department of the UUA and receives no funds from the Association, nor do we accept government funding. Most of our support comes from individuals and congregations like you.

But we know we can count on your support, your service. We are grateful for that. To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, this is to have succeeded. I ask you to continue to re-define success in this way in our world. Volunteer at your local soup kitchen once a month. Tutor a child with special needs. Become a big brother, big sister, or family partner to a child in a single parent home. Help remodel a battered women’s shelter. Maybe just call a recently divorced friend or visit an elderly person during these cold winter days to see what she or he might need. Help an unemployed friend or family member network to find employment. Work in your congregation’s Social Justice Council.

And consider becoming a volunteer of your Service Committee. Become involved with Just Works or our women’s rights advocacy program. Join one of our action alert groups and write your elected officials about human rights issues that we notify you about at least three times a year. And most of all, join UUSC with an individual or family membership. Come together with UUs from around the world who have made the choice to promote and protect human rights for all in our interdependent web of existence.

This is the 60th birthday of UUSC — and we can be enthusiastic about the future. We are confident that because of your faithfulness and commitment to service, we will be able to grow and to have an even stronger impact on the world. In the years ahead, we intend to find new ways to strengthen our connections with you to succeed in the broader world, to build our partnerships and have an impact on public policy. We consider our opportunities to serve to be a great privilege and an honored trust. Thank you for your confidence and your steadfast loyalty to the calls to support justice and human rights.