This is How We Change the World
November 01, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
It's a sign of how broken things have become in Washington, that even issues, where both political parties and almost all Americans agree, can't be moved forward in the current political climate. And this isn't just since coronavirus, and it's not just since this presidency, even though you would think that we would be able to agree on a stimulus package or relief for suffering Americans. This problem goes way back in our government. We have needed a comprehensive immigration program for decades. Presidents have been trying to move something forward since the end of George W. Bush's presidency. Of course, we need pandemic relief now. But even on much less political and very basic needs that our country has, our government can't agree. For instance, take medical residencies, in this country we have a doctor shortage, that's why if you try to get a physical appointment with your doctor it takes six months to wait. And one of the reasons we have a doctor shortage is that there aren't enough residencies for doctor trainees in the United States. So, if you're going on to become a doctor, you go to school, you get your MD, and then you need to practice; you need a residency, where you learn hands on how to be a doctor. Residencies are paid programs, and the payment comes largely from federal funding from the Medicare program, and that federal funding has not increased since 1996. So, every year doctors graduate from medical schools all over the country, and there is not enough funding for all of them to find the residencies they need in order to continue their training and become doctors. This is why almost 30% of doctors in the United States are foreign born. We are so happy to have these immigrants who come and help our health care system function in the United States. We really need them because we can't fund the training for doctors on our own. This, despite the fact that young people want to become doctors, they go to medical school, the hospitals want to train them, all that's needed is the funding from a federal level. And both parties agree that this is needed and that we ought to have a fix, but they can't work together to find a solution. They try and it gets caught up in other things. “Well, if we're going to spend this money, where is it going to come from?,” “what are we going to layer on top of this funding, so that we can get something of what we want; some partisan agenda, in addition to this funding for residencies.” There's a desire, but there's not a real political will, to make a useful, necessary, but fairly small change, in this issue. If it's that difficult to fund medical residencies as something we all agree we need, it's no wonder it's difficult to find a comprehensive immigration policy. It's no wonder it's been difficult to pass a second stimulus bill to provide relief for Americans facing unemployment, to allow people to stay home again, as we need to do, during this second bitter wave of the coronavirus. Polarization and an inability to cooperate, it seems like they're at an all-time high in Washington. Everything from doctors’ education to mask wearing during COVID has become politicized and divided along party lines. It's hard to find any common good, that we have as a country, a common goal, that we're working toward. Moderates find themselves without a home and are pushed to extremes; that's what it's like at the national level. But in our communities, here in Worcester, in your town, in the work that this church does with other churches, and in how we live our lives as citizens. There are ways that we can work across these barriers of division and make real change.
I think liberal religious communities have a unique role to play. To show a way forward to our commitment, to actions over beliefs. You know, we don't have a creed here at First Unitarian Church, Unitarian Universalism in general, along with some other liberal religious communities, we don't put much stock in needing to say words, where we all agree to believe exactly the same thing. We don't have a test of belief here: what we have is a covenant that says how we will work together, how we will walk together as people of faith in this world. And that covenant gives us the opportunity to work in concert with other people, other religious communities, to get things done. The best work, best things that happen, come across these lines of difference, come when people realize that the strict beliefs they had in their mind might not necessarily always need to dictate their actions. I want to tell you a story about an evangelical pastor named Bob; this is a story that Eboo Patel tells, Eboo Patel is a Muslim leader and an interfaith work leader in our country. Bob grew up hearing his father preach fire and brimstone sermons about the truth of following Jesus and the truth of being an evangelical Christian, and often these sermons, in the middle of the 20th century, were against Catholics. Bob grew up hearing that Catholics were not really Christians, that they were evil, that they were wrong. He grew up in America during the Cold War, and he learned that capitalism was good, and communism was bad, in the same way that he learned that two plus two equals four. So, by the time he graduated from high school, he knew these truths inside of him; communism is bad, Catholicism is bad; but as an adult, Bob’s evangelical faith took him to Vietnam. He traveled there after the war to bring humanitarian aid to the people of that country. It wasn't possible to preach or to proselytize, he couldn't spread Christianity, he was just there to help people. And in Vietnam, Bob found that the Christian churches doing the most good were the Catholic churches, planted by French missionaries generations before. So, here was Bob, called by his faith to partner with Catholics in order to provide compassionate aid to communists. He developed a youth exchange with Vietnamese communities, which continued for years, so, already Bob is beginning to feel the cracks in his beliefs that in order to do the good work he's called to as a Christian, he has to work with people he grew up thinking of as enemies. In 2001, Bob self-hosted a young Vietnamese man as an exchange student. And that young man was sitting at his family's breakfast table when the news that two planes had flown into the World Trade Center in New York came on the television. Bob prayed for many things, peace, comfort, for the family of his young guest, whom he knew would be filled with worry and concern. In those following weeks, Bob felt a hatred for violent Muslim extremists who had carried out the attacks well up inside of him. But, alongside that hatred, he realized that he was also praying for the well- being of his Vietnamese guests’ Catholic parents in a communist country. And he knew there had been a time in his life when he had hated them too, without even knowing them, he had hated them, and now he realized he was praying for them. So, he began to question the hate he felt in his heart right then. He began to wonder what he could learn from Muslims, and what the response of Muslim communities was to the September 11 atrocity. He reached out to the Muslim community in his area, and he eventually became a leader in evangelical and Muslim bridge building and interfaith work. His voice has been strong for peace and cooperation during a time when many conservative leaders adopted a knee jerk opposition to Muslim faith, and Islam, as a whole. We know this to be true in our own life together as a church. We don't need to let religious differences stop us from living out our values and doing what we are called to do in the world.
I think about last spring, when everything closed, and all the churches across Massachusetts had to close their doors, and our Methodist neighbors, just across State Street, here in downtown Worcester, closed their building completely, including their soup kitchen, because they just couldn't see how they could keep it open safely during the coronavirus. But we reached out to them and said we would help. We would help them reopen their soup kitchen. We would help them hand out the food outside, get organized so that volunteers could stay distant from each other while delivering food. Help them organize a drive through line through their parking lot, so that cars could just come and get boxes of food loaded inside. We offered our parking lot, if it was needed, for overflow. With support from us, and from a United UCC church, here in Worcester, that soup kitchen opened, and it's still going today, although now they're able to staff it on their own. Of course, we've got some theological differences with the Methodists, but we didn't even count those, we didn't stop to say “now, wait a minute, do you believe the right thing, can we work together on this soup kitchen?”, and they didn't ask that of us, their coordinator; their soup kitchen coordinator, she said, “this is God's parking lot. It's not about denominations. It's about doing the good work”. Real change and progress towards shared goals happen when people work together across difference, we can't have a purity mentality about it. We can't say, “well, I'm a liberal, and you're conservative, so I'm not sure we can do this”. We can't say “you have to tell me what you believe before we can have a conversation”, that gets in the way of getting things done. Some of the best programs that really tackle sticky problems in our communities try hard not to worry about that kind of purity thinking.
I think of a program in Baltimore, called Safe Streets, to work to lower violent crime, on the streets of Baltimore. The Safe Streets program hires convicted criminals, people who have done their time and come out of prison, and sends them back to the streets to talk to their to their peers, the people they used to run with on the streets, to help bring those people out of the gang life, and out of violence. Now, these folks, most of them young men, these men, who are hired by Safe Streets, they have done bad things in their lives. They were locked up for murder charges or for drug charges, but they have turned their life around, and they are uniquely able to reach people still engaged in a life of violence. Shootings and homicides are down, as a result of Safe Streets in Baltimore, sometimes dramatically. Brandon Scott, the President of the Baltimore City Council, he says “we have to be willing to be uncomfortable, because for many people, they can't imagine a world where we're actually employing people who used to shoot people, to tell people not to do it to other people. But when you can see neighborhoods like Cherry Hill, where when I was growing up, it wouldn't go a month without a shooting, go a year without having a homicide and shooting, you know it works, you know it works. It works because the leaders in that city are able to overcome the challenge they feel when they hear the words ‘city money will pay former felons to help reduce violence’. But because it works, it has been successful. Of course, it struggles to maintain adequate funding. Of course, there are people who want to cut it as a public health expense. But if it works, it's worth the money. It's worth it, even despite the political opposition that can arise”. This is where we can be committed as liberal religious people, we can be committed to that pragmatic vision of what is going to work, to help build the world we dream of. In so many areas of our political life, we need more shared action and less purity thinking. It would help us get somewhere on immigration, to recognize that immigrants are an integral part of the United States economy, even those here without documents. And a solution, something that works, is going to lie somewhere in between mass deportations and open borders. It's how we're going to make progress on policing. To realize that we want some responsible level of policing, and we want racially based violence, at the hands of police, to stop. We need to look for what works, and be willing to move in that direction, to work together on serious policing reform. And in this pandemic, maybe it's clear in the pandemic than anywhere else, we want a solution that works. We want to stay healthy, we want to support those people who have to go to work, like our health care providers and people who get food to our table. We need pragmatic, compassionate and science-based solutions. Mask wearing is simple and effective, and it does not need to be politicized. A mask is for everybody to keep one another safe. We can move activities outdoors, help one another, creatively adapt to these challenges. It doesn't need to be politicized; we can work together as a community to improve our lives together. So, whatever the outcome of Tuesday's election we know something special as liberal religious people. We know that what we do is more important than what we believe. And we know that doing things together builds community. Every two years we have the chance to shape national policy with our vote. But every single day we have the chance to build community in our neighborhoods, our cities and towns, and our state. By doing things together, with our neighbors, in our communities, and in Massachusetts, we can build a better life for everybody. Just think of our local efforts in the last six years, just the work we've done as a church, and with other religious communities in Worcester. We’ve supported refugee families in our congregation. We've joined with other religious people to affirm Worcester as a welcoming place for immigrants. We've been part of ongoing conversations about policing reform in the state, and in the city, and bias in policing. With other religious leaders, we've worked with the school committee to set benchmarks to decrease racial bias and suspensions. Together with religious communities, all over Worcester, we support a family homeless shelter. We bring food to formerly incarcerated men on the road to addiction recovery. We support LGBTQ asylum seekers. We make sure our neighbors, no matter where they're from, including our Muslim neighbors, know that they are welcome in our community. In this church, we've turned out to march for women's rights, we’ve turned out in support of Black Lives Matter, we have affirmed our deepest values of care, compassion, and dignity.
One of our unit list’s forebears is often quoted as having said “we need not think alike to love alike.” Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's election, we are called to love one another, and the world. We are called to work with neighbors of goodwill, to put love into action. We are called to reject thinking about who's in and who's out, who's right and who's wrong, who's perfect, and who has fallen short. We want everyone on board our train, everyone who will work together toward a better world. And we need to act out the ethics we want our leaders to reflect. We are heroes in our nation’s story. Each one of us has only one voice, but still, we have our voice; and together, we can realize our vision of a world made whole. The hero is transformed and so they transform the world. We are transformed by our compassion and our recognition of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Together with our vote, and with our actions, may we transform the world.
I love you all. Amen.