Seeking Safety in an Unsafe World (sermon)

October 28, 2018

The Unitarian Society   East Brunswick, NJ


Here is what I have been learning as we face the new normal of increased violence in our midst.

  • First: Of the emergencies that happen at houses of worship – the violence that erupts – only 1% are about an active shooter. So many more are about medical emergencies, or the aftermath of weather-related disasters.  So, while we need to take seriously the risk and reality of human-spawn violence, we must also put it in proper perspective.
  • Secondly: more often than the media would have us understand, violence at houses of worship is often rooted in domestic violence, a societal and individual disease that can be traced back to many of the mass shootings in this country.

[and I feel the need to say here, in case that any one of us is feeling smug, that Unitarian Universalists we are not immune from that kind of violence, either being a victim, survivor, or perpetrator. ]

  • Thirdly: there are things we can do to increase our security (hint: we need a different key and lock system to our front door!), but there are no guarantees, no iron-clad contracts we can sign, no perfect solutions that we can buy or barter, that offer absolute security, that give us complete safety. Humans are complex animals – the ones out there and the ones in here.  That complexity allows for inexplicable beauty.  And that complexity allows for gut-wrenching violence we cannot fully guard against.

All that and there are things we can do that are worthy of our time and treasure, worth of our efforts, worthy of the great love that wells between us and among us.

In one of the materials that FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency – puts out to help houses of worship prepare for emergencies, they have this useful four-word advice, presented in linear and chronological order:

  • Connect
  • Plan
  • Train (which I take to mean: learn and teach)
  • Report

We spent yesterday in a workshop, ably led by Rev. Aaron Payson, our guest today, who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry.  It was the planning of a small group that is relatively new to the congregation –so new, that our name didn’t make it onto the updated list of committees and task forces (though we fixed that) – called the Safety Task Force, that brought that training to fruition and will take on the work of making what we learned operational.

Thank you, too, to all of you who brought that workshop into being and all who attended.  We were over thirty in the room, including some folks from the UU congregations in Hunterdon County and in Montclair.  We had invited other UU congregations and some of our interfaith neighbors to attend – knowing that our faith calls us to share our resources whenever we can.

So there’s two of the four FEMA points: plan and train, teach and learn.  And plan some more.

When it comes to report, I think FEMA means: talk with each other, talk about the worries and the fears, don’t keep them inside, where they fester, where they can take on the worst aspects of what fear does, sometimes coming out racialized, sometimes coming out as distrust of a stranger without clear basis, sometimes as isolation.

[Okay, that’s probably not what FEMA meant by report, that might be my generous, spiritual, optimistic of what they mean. I’m willing to acknowledge that possibility.]

What about that first bullet point?  Connect. The most important.  I think of as both the first and the last, for I don’t see this list as linear or chronological, but circular: we start with connection and we end with connection.  And repeating: we connect throughout, as well as training (or learning) and planning and yes, even reporting (talking), over and over and over again.

What FEMA means when they say “connection” is not all that far off from what I might say: attend to and nurture connections with other houses of worship and with first responders.  FEMA suggests that we invite someone from the nearest house of worship to be on our safety task force and, if invited, someone from here serve on theirs.

[Think of that!  I just met one of the pastors from the closest church to us.  Do any of you know where it is or what its name is?  This is a little bit of a trick question because they don’t have their own building yet.  They rent at the Y, just a little bit down Tices Lane. Some of our older members and those who keep our own history will remember that is how we started, too, meeting at the Y, meeting in school classrooms.  Their name is Point Community Church.]

So that’s what FEMA says about connection.  I want to add to it that the solutions at hand, imperfect and limited in scope as they are, are very much like the poet Mark Nepo says, “Everything I could need or ask for is right here— in flawed abundance.”  The strategies for connection are ones we have known all along:

  • Know each other.
  • Weave tighter the tapestry of our covenantal life together.
  • Show kindness and care for one another beyond what is easy or quick. Such kindness is the gift that keeps on giving, good and right at the time and also a seed that sprouts and blossoms in times of emergency and dire need.  There is a sudden, urgent, choiceless trust that emergencies demand of us – this becomes more available if we cultivate the ground with kindness and generosity well ahead of time.  Often and early, they say. Often and early.

And I mean this among ourselves for sure.  I mean this for today.  At coffee hour.  Get to know someone unfamiliar to you, deepen your polite surface relationship with another, reach out to someone whose absence has become bigger than their presence lately.

And I mean this among our neighbors and fellow residents.  Ones with whom we feel an immediate resonance and ones with whom we might fear that there is no common ground.

Let me share a story of why I think this might be worth the effort and any discomfort.

In one of my seminary classes, we had two guest speakers.   A minister from Newtown, Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook mass shooting took place, and the minister at Old South Church in Boston, which stands next to the finish line of the marathon. She had been in the church tower when the bombs went off.  The minister from Newtown – several years after the massacre — spoke of how in that town they don’t much like the term, “healing” but speak of “continuing the journey.” The minister from Boston shared the story of area clergy going out to check in on folks who were homeless and living in the area, people already quite vulnerable, making sure they were not lost or losing it.

Each minister shared their perspective on what helped them to help their communities and congregations.  Both tragedies were quite different from each other: different causes, different communities, different impacts. Yet both clergy affirmed that their interfaith connections and connections in the wider community served them well in the aftermath of the traumas.  It made quite an impression on me.


Just last month, we had the great fortune to have Rev. Kimberley Debus facilitate a workshop for us and then preach from this pulpit.  You might know this, though I am not sure why you would, but Rev. Kimberley is a HUGE fan of the old television show, The West Wing.  Are there any West Wing fans in the house?

By huge fan, I mean she recently helped organize the very first convention of fans of West Wing, where several hundred people gathered in a hotel outside the DC Beltway, to gush and swoon over the show.  Rev. Kimberley preached on Sunday morning, using one of the episodes – the one titled, “War Crimes” from season 3 – as her scripture.  The sermon is utterly fantastic; I will post a link to it in next week’s eblast.  Her sermon was so motivating that I re-watched that episode.  It made me think of us gathering today, a day after taking a training about how to protect ourselves after a worst-case-scenario.

You see, one of the threads in the show, which aired 17 years ago, is a church shooting. I don’t know about you, but sometimes my memory can lead me to a certain kind of amnesia. I seem to remember only the most recent horror, in this case, even though I know about the other too many shootings in houses of worship: Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.

And there is the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008 – the facts of which share at least one echo with the West Wing story, as well as in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year: a white man with a history of domestic violence came seeking to do violence to his partner (or ex-partner) and brought that violence into that congregation’s sacred space.  Which, as I mentioned earlier, is what the data tells us, too.

The other thread of the show, intertwined with the first one, is President Bartlett’s interpretation of a passage from the Christian scriptures, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “be subject to one another.”

The show’s message, and mine here too, is that the strongest and best antidote we seek when seeking safety in an unsafe world: be subject to one another. Know one another.  Be beholden to each other.  Be accountable.  Be in relationship.  Go out of your way for each other.  Be in covenant with one another.  Connect, connect again, and then re-connect.

It is a short quote from the Christian Scriptures, which I don’t often use as a source for my sermons, but I offer it here now because I think there is deep wisdom for us to take up if we are willing.  If it is a struggle for you to gain wisdom of that particular set of ancient texts, then I encourage you to source it from the Church of the West Wing, a people who might not revere, but do appreciate, the not-quite-prophet-but-damn-fine-television-writer, Aaron Sorkin.

Be subject to one another. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that there is an abundance of home-made French fries, or whatever comfort food we need, enough to help all of us navigate these stressful and distressing times.

May it be so.  Amen.

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