Hope Grows Here

Hope Grows Here

October 03, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

            The dove was as tired as any of them. For 150 days she had been roosting on the ark with her mate. It was crowded and their dovecote was too small, tucked into a corner of the hull. At night, her small bird heartbeat too fast thinking of the predators close within those walls. Of course, she could fly, but never very far and never with joy: for everywhere she went during the flood it was only water, as far as the eye could see. After each flight, she could do nothing but return to the arc, that temporary and inadequate home. Until the day that Noah sent her out with her mission: find dry land where we can be free again.

            We are tired like that dove: tired of the pandemic, tired of upended plans, tired of fear; tired of the inequality that makes our suffering worse, tired of ignorance, tired of partisanship. We want to be off the ark and return to our lives, to work and friendships and church the way we remember them. We want to be able to plant our feet on the ground, take a deep breath, and live our lives again. We are tired like that dove, but we also have reason to be hopeful like her. There is a meaningful way to be human in this world, and this church helps us find it.

            It all began with the flood: for the dove and for us. Noah had some warning and built the ark; but we can’t imagine that the dove knew what was coming. That’s what I remember from the beginning of the pandemic. One weekend at the beginning of March we were hearing about an outbreak of the new disease in a nursing home in Washington. Surely it wouldn’t come here. Our youth groups went to Skyzone, and it was full of jumping, yelling children. Now Skyzone is closed. The following weekend, no one would shake my hand at the church where I guest preached. The movie our family went to that afternoon was empty. The next weekend was our last in-person worship service here for months. That was the flood, even if we didn’t quite know it yet. The waters of pandemic covering everything we loved, emptying us of our familiar and comforting routines and filling us instead with the cold dampness of fear, uncertainty, disruption, and loss.

            Yet we banded together to come through it. Volunteers called every member of our church to make sure people knew they were loved and cared for. We helped our neighboring church reopen their food pantry. We moved our worship services online and gathered together by Zoom. Our women’s group began hosting Zooms three times a week; our men’s group found deeper connections than they ever had before. As the weather improved and the pandemic let us breathe in the summer, groups met for walks and outdoor gatherings. Last year, our youth groups met all year outdoors. Slowly a few people began to attend worship as a kind of “studio audience;” we improved our broadcast; we completed our Coming-of-Age curriculum and celebrated the young people who were part of it. We moved screens, wires, and cameras so that the sanctuary looked once again more like our beloved home and less like a television studio. The choir performed remotely. We reopened in May while faith development classes remained online. People began to be vaccinated. Slowly the flood waters ebbed.

            If you have experienced a real flood, you know what is left behind: mess. Flooded flooring has to be ripped out and replaced, flooded electrical systems rebuilt, flooded cars totaled. When First Unitarian Church suffered a fire in 2000, the flooding from the water used to put it out caused more damage than the fire itself. But when the flood waters receded for Noah, and the ark shored up against a mountainside, the green earth was still there, under the waters. In the logic of the story, the olive tree’s branches grew green leaves, and the world was ready for people and animals to live on it again. So which kind of flood has the pandemic been for us? Are we ready to return, or is the hard work just beginning?

            Well, I think about that olive tree. For me, a tree is a symbol of who we are as a church. When newcomers ask me about our traditions as a church, about our progressive values and our organ music, the Lord’s Prayer, and comprehensive sex ed for youth, I use the metaphor of a tree. Our roots are planted in the rich soil of our traditions. They go down 235 years and more, into the deep earth of liberal religion. Our branches are the people here now, rooted in that soil but each their own person, reaching out into the world. And the fruit is what grows from that combination. So really, we have lived through both kinds of flood. Our church is not physically damaged—it’s in good shape, and through our commitment to maintaining our building and the amazing leadership of Rick Silva, our kitchen is looking better than ever. In many ways we can pick up where we left off. But people’s hearts have been hurt in this pandemic. People have lost jobs and loved ones. We couldn’t be together when we needed to be. Maybe we have forgotten the importance of gathering. We may not yet feel safe. The tree is strong, but there is work to be done to keep it healthy for generations to come.

            And it’s not just about the tree. It’s about the garden we plant in the world, a garden for hope and equity, a garden where, when people walk its paths, they can hear more clearly the voice of their deepest values and highest calling. The whole garden has been flooded and needs some tender loving care to bring it back. People need companions as they seek to quiet their anxieties and reconnect to their purpose. People need physical and emotional support in returning to school, finding work, affording a home, managing their risk of illness. We have reconnection to do within these walls with people we love and have missed for the last 18 months. We are also called to tend the garden of our larger community. This church helps us do it.

            When the ark first came to rest, and the flood waters began to go down, Noah first sent out the raven. He sent the raven, and it didn’t return. Ravens are the largest songbird. They are highly intelligent and social, living together in large groups. Noah is said to have every animal on his ark; but there must have been some more ravens out there somewhere, because the raven didn’t return. Ravens roost high in the treetops—the Talmud supposes that the raven found some high tree and didn’t return. The raven was an early adopter of post-flood life.

            Some of us are like the raven. The minute pandemic restrictions were lifted, we were out the door. A little dry land? That will do, as long as we find a treetop to rest in somewhere. Compared to many Unitarian Universalist churches, First Unitarian Church is like the raven. We were one of the first UU churches nationwide to reopen for in-person worship. We held our Wiogora summer program for children in-person this year—with reduced numbers and COVID testing to keep everyone safe. We are trying to be as brave as we can to serve our mission the best we can.

            But the raven didn’t come back. So, we are called also to be the dove, the bird who can’t be safe until the world is safe. Like the dove, we return to this community with the good news we’ve found in the world. And we look to this community for support and encouragement when we go out and find nothing, when we have to return empty-handed. Here we find celebration when our spirits soar and support when we mourn. This will be a year at First Unitarian Church of rebuilding our ministries of worship, connection and service so that we can share them with the world.

            There are dangers I see for our church as we emerge from the pandemic. One is that we would be tempted to turn inward, to tend our own fires out of our grief that the flood nearly put them out. I would not want us to say, “What we are doing is enough for us,” or “The people who are here already are all the people we need.” First Unitarian Church is a place of acceptance and growth, a place where people of different religious backgrounds and different ways of living their lives can come together in spiritual community. This is a place that welcomes new families seeking liberal religious education for their children. This is a place that embraces its identity as a downtown church in Worcester and asks how we can serve our neighbors. This will be a year of rebuilding, but while we rebuild, our doors will be open—literally and metaphorically. I don’t want us to succumb to the danger of scarcity thinking or hoarding the fruits of this church for ourselves.

            The other danger I see is that we might pull back our support of our beloved church during this year of rebuilding and reconnecting. Even after the dove returns, with that one olive branch in her mouth, there is a lot of work to be done. We are so happy to be back together, but we are still cleaning up from the pandemic flood. This year, we are rebuilding our faith development programs for children, both to promote more COVID safety and to meet the needs of children and families. We are experimenting with moving away from a classroom model of faith development and toward a model of religious community for children and youth. We have several new families joining us already, their children drawn in by a Sunday morning program that’s more like camp than like school.

            We are rebuilding our music program after the pandemic silenced choirs all over the world. After singing as a “virtual” choir last spring, our choir is now regathering to sing in our services. Yet it is still a journey—not every singer is ready to be back, and we’re keeping the choir separate from the congregation in the balcony. In addition, our Music Director of 35 years is retiring at the end of this church year. We are just beginning the process of finding an interim and then a permanent Music Director to lead this vital ministry. This is another way this year is a year of transition that needs our support.

            Finally, we are wondering how we can serve our values in the world. The pandemic brought most charitable work to a halt—everything except fundraising. We had some successes during the shutdown—in addition to working with Wesley to reopen their food pantry, we helped a family in our church find emergency housing to leave a dangerous home, and then supported them as they moved into permanent, safe housing. We raised over $11,000 for homeless families served by Interfaith Hospitality Network, more than double our usual Christmas gift. This year we are exploring how we can do even more to support affordable housing in Worcester, looking at ways we might partner with community organizations to put our resources to work for our values. We will have opportunities, if we want to take them, to build on our experience supporting refugee families from central Africa to help support new refugees coming to Worcester from Afghanistan. There is work to do in the world, and we are called to do our part to plant the garden that will allow all beings to flourish.

            The danger is that, in this year, when we are exploring how we can fully live our mission and serve a post-pandemic world, we would pull back our support. This is Stewardship Sunday; this is the day the church asks for your financial support for next year. After the service today, you can come outside for a lunch with food from Ed Hyder’s and stop by the stewardship table to fill out your pledge card. Then come back in for children’s games in Unity Hall, tours of the newly renovated kitchen, a sneak peek at our “broadcast studio” and a demonstration of the new organ console, a social justice activity, and opportunities to learn more about the committees of the church and get involved. Not everyone has been affected by the pandemic in the same way. If you can increase your pledge, we’re asking you to do that. Andy and I have increased our pledge for next year. Increased pledges help support those people who can’t make an increase, or who even may need to decrease their giving because of the pandemic. Pledges of all amounts support our church, from $100 to $10,000. There are still many unknowns this year, from exactly how much of our PPP grant we’ll have to carry into next year’s budget, to how much we’ll rent our building to the public, to exactly what our staffing costs will be to hire a half-time custodian in this tight labor market. I am so grateful for all the ways you have supported our church over the years, with gifts of money, expertise, and time. We are asking for everyone to contribute to tend our garden after the flood of the pandemic, increasing your pledge if you can, so that we will reconnect and rebuild stronger for the future.

            The flood did not end with the ark stuck on a mountaintop, or the dove and her mate roosting in one lonely olive tree. The flood ended with the world made fair again, and God’s promise that he would never again bring waters to cover the earth. God’s promise was written in the sky as a rainbow. It’s in the nature of a story of cover over all the hard work of cleaning up, rebuilding, mourning what was lost and creating what was to come. We are in the midst of that hard work—but we still see the rainbow and know its hope. We will take the strength we have built during the pandemic and bring it with us back to this community, to plant a garden of hope for all people. We will eat of its fruit and be full and have an abundance to share with others. The promise is written on our hearts: together, love and hope grow here. I love you all. Amen.