16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Making a Difference: The UULM in Action
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley & Bob Geiger
Sermon Date:Sun, 11/15/2009
A couple of weeks ago, we had a two-day event here at Sugarloaf called the Ministerial Start-up Workshop, which many of you attended – and thank you for doing so. And during one of the activities of the workshop, we talked about which parts of my job here -- which of the overall tasks of ministry -- do I particularly love, and which do I – if truth be told – rather dislike.
(In case you missed it, the short answer was – I love anything to do with worship, and I don’t particularly like to talk on the phone.)
And one of our wise members, noticing a gap in the list, spoke up. “How do you feel about social action?” she asked. Ah, I thought, what a great question. How do I feel about social action, or working outside our walls to make a difference in our community? And immediately, the truth bubbled up: I neither love nor hate social action work. Or, from another perspective, I both love, and I hate, social action work. And I’d like to talk about why – why I love social action work, and also why I hate it, and what this all has to do with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland.
First, what I hate about social action work. In my early 20s, I worked for a small non-profit grassroots environmental organization in Massachusetts. I was pretty sure, at that tender age, that if I lent my hand to the work that so many good people were doing in the world, that we would soon be able to fix all the problems there were. I was quickly disillusioned, I have to say. The world’s problems are really big, and really complicated, and while we might make a small difference here and there, my youthful ideal of SOLVING the problems handily were not very realistic.
It seemed to me at the time that I was playing an emotional game of Whack-A-Mole – you know, that arcade game where you hit the mole on the head every time it pops up? -- and every time I whacked one of the problems that surfaced in some small way, I would metaphorically look out and see a hundred more moles surfacing. So it seemed that the work would never, COULD never really end. And how could I devote myself to work that would never end, I wondered? I felt exhausted just thinking about it, I felt exhausted doing it, and eventually I stopped.
By the way, I’ve read recently that this is a very middle-class way to approach social justice work, and I bring that comment to you all because we tend to be a very middle-class organization, so perhaps we can all learn something here.
One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, Sharon Welch, currently part of the faculty at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, writes that it is primarily the well-off who have the luxury of deciding that fixing problems is optional, to be done only if the fixing goes the way we planned. Furthermore, many middle-class activists don’t even want to start fixing something unless they can solve it entirely, make it perfect. If the fixing doesn’t go the way we want, we in the middle class often feel we can just give up and wait until conditions are more favorable. So it is then the world’s needy, those who face serious issues in their dailylives, who are then left with the hard, constant, small-bit-at-a-time work that lends to the improvement of lives but doesn’t permanently, perfectly solve the world’s problems. The poor do this work because they can’t afford not to. Middle class “activists” such as myself, meanwhile, have the option of deciding it’s all too much, and dropping out of the effort, which is exactly what I did.
Still, to this day, I am easily overwhelmed by all the world’s problems, and have a hard time figuring out what to do about them. Some UUs address this situation by trying to do something about all the problems there are, all at once. Those people are usually very tired. I subscribe to the idea that one should pick the one or two things that speak to you the loudest, that fill you with energy or compassion or action, and do what you can on those one or two things.
And this is the doorway by which I encounter what I LOVE about social action work. Because I love social action work when it dovetails with my theology, my Unitarian Universalist faith, my belief about why we human beings are on this earth, and what we are called upon to do here. I subscribe to a practical theology that states that every single one of us is needed here on earth because each one of us is so individual that we can do something or say something or create something that no-one else on earth can do or say or create in the same way. And this theology lends itself to social action, as far as I am concerned, because in a hurting and broken world there is ALWAYS a way that we can turn who we are into a way to help someone or something else.
Edward Everett Hale says it far better than I when he writes, “I am only one. But, still, I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do1.”
As true as this is for individuals, it is even more so for Unitarian Universalists as a whole. In a hurt and broken world, what are the things that Unitarian Universalismstands for, or says, or does, or creates? How do we create change as a community, despite our many clear differences? The UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland has settled on three clear areas of consensus where UUs might be able to push for change in the laws of our state government, change in the state of Maryland. These areas are health care reform, marriage equality, and the issue of global warming, which we’ll hear more about today. The UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland empowers task forces to go out to support the work that advocates are doing on these fronts. And, even more importantly, the membership of UULM – which includes me and Bob and could include you all, if you sign up using the form in the back of that brochure in your order of service – the membership has the advantage of getting regular updates that tell us when our well-timed, individual action, our personal effort, might really make a difference in areas that you most likely care about as a Unitarian Universalist and a resident of Maryland.
The actions that the UULM might recommend to members could include showing up at a local march or a rally, or holding an information session at church, or taking the time to testify in front of the General Assembly in Annapolis.
The work that I love the most, though, the work that I think is so simple and so powerful, is contacting targeted state representatives who are deciding whether or not to support or reject a particular bill during the Maryland legislative session. The UULM alerts you, the member, and asks you to tell your delegate or senator that you, as a Unitarian Universalist, stand for accessible health care, or equal opportunity for marriage, or for responsible climate legislation. And you don’t just stand for it in the abstract, but that you support or reject this or that bill in front of the Assembly this year, and you want your elected representative to also support or reject that bill. You can do it by phone – if you like that sort of thing – or you can email, or you can write a letter.
It’s simple, it’s neat, and it’s effective. And it’s such an easy way to see our UU values set into law at the state level. Every letter we write to our state senator or delegate speaks for thousands of those Maryland residents who didn’t bother to write, and your state representatives really do treat your letters that way – as if you speak for thousands, because you do. Every letter you write makes a huge difference, especially here at the state level. We don’t have to sit in our round houses andwish for a better world. We can help make it happen, and UULM membership is one rather easy and straightforward vehicle by which to do it.
I’d like to turn the pulpit over to Bob Geiger, who is a Board member at UULM as well as one of those who runs the task force on global warming and environmental issues, a topic which I know is close to our heart here at SCUU.
Good morning. Thank you for allowing me to come and talk with you today on such a glorious morning in such a beautiful setting.
Rev. Foley tells me that there are two potent strands of thinking within this church related to environmental matters. There’s a neo-pagan group, drawing on traditions that date back millennia, meeting nature on an elemental level. And there’s a scientific community, composed partly of atheists and agnostics, who see the world through a profoundly modern lens, discovering nature through rational inquiry. Yet people from both groups can find spiritual meaning in the natural world. And both groups can embrace the UU seventh principle: respect for the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part. I see both strands of thinking, both approaches to the world, within myself.
A couple of weeks ago, on Halloween, I went out for a late morning walk along Sligo Creek. It was balmy and cloudy, not a ray of sunlight to illuminate the leaves still clinging to the trees. I brought my binoculars, but it was the wrong time of year to discover anything exotic. All I spied were the usual woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals, chickadees, and a few hawks. Nonetheless, the world I beheld was drenched in magnificence. The female cardinals, with their reddish-brown backs and orange beaks, wore the colors of the autumn that surrounded them. When a strong breeze came, the golden tulip poplar leaves filled the air like falling rain. I stood alone on a side path, along a tributary of the main creek, its waters darkened by the tannins from thousands of leaves. As a yellow-brown leaf fell, I watched both the leaf and its reflection in the water, with the reflection rising to meet the twisting, falling leaf, until their collision at the water’s surface sent ripples out in concentric circles. In the day and the season and the creek, there was beauty and wonder, majesty and mystery.
I don’t pretend to understand God, but I know when I sense the divine, and I sensed it along that stream.
Rev. Foley mentioned what she loves about social action – finding a place to focus one’s energies and engaging in a way to do one’s own small part to change the world. For me, spiritual experiences over the course of my life -- hiking and swimming in New Hampshire mountains where I grew up, snorkeling above coral reefs, watching young peregrine falcons learning to hunt -- all played an important role in bringing me to church and then to climate change activism.
But another rational, intellectual impulse lays behind my work on global warming. I was a history major in college. I’m aware that the entirety of human civilization has evolved within a certain environmental context. Now, scientists tell us, we are on the verge of creating a planetary climate in which human beings have never existed.
I’m not going to list all the horrible potential consequences from global warming. But as a UU who takes seriously our seventh principle, as someone who finds spiritual meaning and value in Nature, I do want to reflect a moment on the possible loss of enormous numbers of species. Unless we do something to change our ways, scientists say that we risk exterminating close to half of all species on the planet. For me, that is enough to get me over to Annapolis for a rally in a snowstorm, or to take the Polar Bear Plunge into the Chesapeake Bay in January to raise money to fight climate change, or to march to the White House in a downpour as we did three weeks ago, to do, in short, whatever it takes to try to make a difference.
I believe social action, including advocating for public policy changes, is part of putting our UU faith into practice on a range of issues. But the case for entering the political sphere is particularly compelling when it comes to global warming. For the scientists tell us that we as a civilization don’t have much time to act. Unless we begin major changes within a decade, we are likely to push the Earth’s climate past a tipping point and into a new, and likely very dangerous, climate regime. We need big changes, fast, so we are going to need the power of legislation to help save our planet. Changing our light bulbs and driving a Prius, while important, will not be enough.
Rev. Foley talked earlier about UU Legislative Ministries of Maryland and the role we all have to play in prodding our government. Let me mention briefly what UULM has helped accomplish in Maryland on the climate change front. Within the last four years, we supported and helped push through: the Healthy Air Act, which reduces global warming pollution in Maryland from coal-fired power plants; the Clean Cars Air, which will reduce greenhouse emissions from cars sold in Maryland; and, earlier this year, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Act, which sets Maryland on a path to reduce global warming emissions by 25 percent by 2020.
This progress is really encouraging. UUs have been making a difference and the victories have moved us forward. But Maryland is not going to solve global warming. We really need change in Washington. Indeed, one of the purposes behind the state legislation was to help build momentum for a federal climate law. So for the first time, UULM of Maryland is working with UU legislative networks in other states, trying to coordinate pressure on Congress.
We have lobbied our senators and members of Congress to support bold legislation on climate change and clean energy . Seven of Maryland’s eight representatives voted for the House climate bill. The only Maryland member of Congress who voted against the bill was Roscoe Bartlett, a Republican and a scientist, who indicated days before the vote that he was still on the fence. Parts of Northern Montgomery County fall in Rep. Bartlett’s district, and I suspect that some of his constituents may be in the audience here today. If you live in Rep. Bartlett’s district, I urge you to see me afterwards, for we still have work to do.
Lest you become discouraged by the potential for catastrophe and the daunting task ahead of us, I invite you to see the climate issue from a different perspective: While climate change presents an enormous crisis, it also presents an enormous opportunity. The threat of global warming calls upon humanity to undertake a shared, intentional, world-wide task – together setting aside, in many cases, our immediate short-term interest for the sake of future generations and all the world’s species. It will be humankind’s boldest affirmation of the golden rule and of our respect for the interdependent web of existence. Are we up to the challenge? I’m not sure, honestly. But if we succeed, we will have redefined what humanity is capable of. Our generation has the chance to leave an inspiring legacy for others who, at some distant time, will confront crises we cannot imagine.
Auden Schendler, writing about the prospect of a world running efficiently on abundant clean energy, says,
So, I say to you, whether you are a rational humanist, a neo-pagan, or any other respecter of the interdependent web, come join us at UULM of Maryland. Put your UU principles into practice. Save the planet for our children and their children. And help us remake society in the image of our greatest dreams.