She was as a matriarch of old. She had erect posture with refined ways. Even when she was doing physical labor she remained perfectly groomed. Her manner was calm, and her speech was erudite with a strong dash of authority. She came from money and married a lawyer which increased her status. She viewed herself as one of the people and yet she dined with the other crowd.
There was nothing wrong with her. She had a conversion of sorts that had made her leave the Baptist Church during the sixties. She was uncomfortable with their stance on integration. She had noticed the Unitarian Universalist Church was active in the Civil Rights movement. So one Sunday she walked out of her Baptist Church leaving husband and children behind and joined with the Unitarian Universalists. This would be her great act.
One day she called upon me to mediate the meeting. I was told I was there to work out a negotiated reconciliation between the two parties. A member had caused quite a ruckus with his persistent and unnecessary confrontational way. She and the wife of the other party had agreed to me as the grand mediator. The matriarch and the wife had been friends for many years. The wife was hurt and angry. But at the crucial moment of reconciliation the matriarch balked. The conversation turned on whether she could agree that even though wife's husband was a pain and wrong that he still had value as a person. Her back stiffened and the words were chosen carefully. She had morphed into the frozen chosen before my very eyes. She could not say anything of the sort. He was to take the consequences and if he did not like it he could stay away. I am sure she was in her mind acting as the mother hen protecting the church. But to the wife she had proven a statement she had made at the beginning of the conversation that when they had disciplined her husband ‘there was no love to be found in the room.’ And now all she asked was a recognition on the matriarch’s part of the worth and dignity of her husband. Yet this was a bridge too far.
It was then I realized that even though her professed reason for the meeting was reconciliation with an old friend it really was to put closure so she and her church would no longer have to deal with this problem. Love of any kind was not going to be in the air. I felt used. In essence I was to make it easy for her to be cold-blooded but to ensure that her cold-blooded was not too much. She needed me there to make sure she was not too inhumane and to pick up the pieces that she left broken on the ground. I was to be sure that the wife remained loving even when she offered stones for bread.
This was a new finding for me. The matriarch would always choose authority and the church over love. Love was a quaint emotion that left you weak and not with what you wanted. After the meeting the matriarch looked at me as I was locking up the building and said, ‘I thought that went well.’ I looked at her astonished and said, 'I did not think so.’ She smile in her paternal way ‘you have so much to learn’ she turned and left. She was right I had a lot to learn.
Another time she insisted she wanted to be part of a meeting to work out the details of a gay group’s use of the church building. No one thought anything about it and I thought it would be good to have the matriarch at the meeting. But at the meeting she had an agenda that disagreed with the board’s decision. The board in a long but civil discussion had voted unanimously to accept the group’s money. Money it appeared was more important than their fears and the urge to do right.
But the vote was the vote and everyone had come on board. That is why I was astonished that I was listening to her tell the leaders of the gay group that there were many who did not want to rent to them. In fact if they accepted it might split the church. She noted that they could find a better building. I noted vehemently three times it was a unanimous vote and our only job at this meeting was to welcome them and to in essence close the deal. I was once again caught unawares by the matriarch. The vote apparently had not gone her way so she thought she would ‘chase’ the group away. Her love for the church was truly amazing.
After the meeting I called the church president of the board and told him what had transpired. He was a little unsettled but in the end asked if I could set up another meeting with the group. At that meeting he stated as president that there was no internal dissension and they were welcomed with open arms. The meeting was a celebration of the new relationship we were forging with each other. They elected to come. The relationship between the gay group and the church was a good one. The church never had a complaint. Regretfully, this was only two of the times I was to experience her matronly style.
The matriarch through the years always projected an image of openness and love. She had made a decision long ago to do the right thing as the narrative was told. But the conversion as they seldom are was not complete. The head had accepted a liberality but the heart was stuck in an old way. The matriarch is admired and thought of highly for her actions are always for the good. Even if behind the loving mother is cold steel.
Joined in Giving is a small non-profit I helped start a few years back. It is centered around the concept that people like to eat and socialize, and when they have a meeting (which most people hate) they like to go away from the meeting having accomplished something. So we meet once a month to eat and socialize. After dinner, we have a meeting where two members present a non-profit in our community and we choose one to whom we give money. We have, up to this point, given over $25,000 dollars away. We are a small group but when we join our resources together we can give more money. We also give more intelligently as we learn from our study and discussion of various non-profits in our community.
It is a simple concept. Yet somehow we want it to be more complex. Humans often feel as though something is not important if we can understand it. So we have had great discussions about how it is too much of a contest between the two presenters and how else can we do it. We have had several discussions about this. Amazingly people who serve on other boards or organizations would never question the fairness of their methodology. I guess those organizations are complex enough. We want Joined In Givine to be the perfect one. Another time a member said how do we ‘really’ know what these agencies are doing? The presenter, who happened to be an award-winning investigative reporter, said “Well their website was wonderful.” The other member then said, “Well anyone can have a good website.” The Presenter said I also interviewed the director. He scoffed at this too, even after I reminded him that she does investigative reporting for a living. This was not the best case scenario for his argument. Finally, he announced he was leaving JIG, giving the impression somehow we did not measure up to his standard. I guess we were not complex enough. After our first two years we had our first tie vote. We had no rules for this. I laughed at the situation of why we had never considered this possibility. People seemed perplexed over what we should do. There proceeded a long discussion over what was fair and what should we do. Many thoughtful and complex ideas were discussed. I thought it was 1787 at Independence Hall by the serious tenure with which we all were endowed. In the end we divided the money between the two groups. We have not had a tie since.
As for myself I keep trying to make us a little bit more complex with new programs but the group is not that interested in expanding. We have an “invite a friend” event twice a year. Someone once discussed having these “invite a friend” meetings\dinners in some big locale and invite everyone. It sounds good on paper but did not make sense in the particulars. So we keep meeting and keep giving; it’s quite simple. Sometimes people have ‘better’ options and do not make a meeting, and we are barely able to have good cash flow. We never have over $2,000 in the bank at one time. Our bank account is quite simple. The board meets twice a year and we do not discuss a lot but we enjoy our time together.
And this is the funny thing we sometimes forget because it is a simple thing: how what we do is a good thing. We forget how we enjoy the meals together; how it is fun to leave feeling we made a contribution to our community at large. We forget how it feels so good to present the check to a non-profit and say we have noticed the good thing you are doing and this is a small token of our appreciation. Oftentimes the non-profit did not even know they were under consideration. All of this is so simple. To give and to create community is simple; we only need to quit making it so complex.
I first met Jan many moons ago. She was a cohort in many misadventures in the world of social justice. She was born in a family of privilege. But she would not be privileged with good health. She would become legally blind at an early age. Though this would be a hardship for her the blindness may have been her salvation. She remarked that at an early age, even though she grew up in the South in the Jim Crow era, she knew racism was wrong. Her own suffering made her more understanding about the suffering of others. The fight against racism would be the passion of her life.
When she was a teenager medical science developed the technology to give her sight. Because of her privilege she could avail herself of this new program and once again she could see. She was able to drive and have a career as a nurse and educator in the prevention of diabetes. She married a government lawyer and life was good. And although the good life continued for her, she continued to advocate for a better life for all. She would hold a reception for a recently married gay couple many years before gay marriage became legal or even popular. She worked with various groups through her church and community to help advocate for civil rights for all.
But then her sight failed once again. She was no longer able to drive or be as independent as she had become accustomed to. This almost broke her spirit. She became pessimistic, even needy for a while. Her words always had a tinge of self-pity and ongoing complaint to them. She was angry at the universe. She was scared how dependent she became on her husband. She would up, to this day, chase sight. She would have surgery and rejection of the cornea implants and surgery again in an endless cycle. The cycle would improve her sight but she would always be legally blind.
Yet through this personal turmoil she never gave up her advocacy. She was chair of her Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Committee, she participated in the Interracial Interfaith Community, she was on the board of Parent University that worked with poor parents to be better advocates for their children in the school system, she helped to start a Unitarian Universalists church that was social justice oriented, she belonged to a neighborhood community group in a predominately black neighborhood, she helped start a non-profit group called Joined In Giving. She was everywhere one could hope a social justice advocate could be.
She was always present bringing her attitude: sometimes caustic, sometimes plaintive, and sometimes pessimistic. But she became inspirational that even in her great personal loss and physical difficulties she was always pushing for a better world. She refused to slow down on her quest. She knew she would never in full see it. But maybe what she could not see was that she was continuously surrounded by those who she advocated for and a semblance of groups and communities that were living out the world she wanted. Her life was emblematic of the perseverance of the movement toward a just world. Her life was full of disappointments, anger, pain, but also a deep seated need for the beloved community.
Aging stops for no one so she has slowed a few steps but she can still be seen most weeks in a meeting giving her money, offering her opinions, and forever chasing a glimpse of the world a child once dreamed of.
I stopped ending my prayers by saying “we pray these things in Jesus’ name.” It was not that I did not believe in Jesus anymore. It was the presumption of Christians that unless you included these words at the end of your prayer it was somehow invalid. A similar thing happens with Christians’ sermons: unless you shout and quote scripture you have not preached. So I went from preaching to speaking without even knowing it. I stopped doing prayer always on bended knee and decided to sit and listen to my breath to clear my head and heart so I could hear God’s voice, only to find out I had stopped praying. I stopped going to church and started immersing myself in the glory of God found in nature only to find out this made me godless. I decided not to belong to places that were the poor man’s country club, nationalist cultural associations, or self-improvement societies. I decided to meet with people to do good things and expand my mind and somehow I became a dreaded humanist.
That, in part, tells my spiritual journey. I am now a godless, humanist who does not pray and speaks occasionally at gatherings of people who want to hear truth and grow in spirit, mind and body. This is my lot in life. But that is okay. I feel more honest and have less spiritual hubris. I will always have that good ole time religion in me though. On long trips as I drive along by myself I started singing old hymns in the voice my daughters mock as my “preacherly voice.” Loud and pronounced. I even preach to myself and report, since I am godless I will have to say to the universe, all my failures, successes and complaints. I must look quite the fool as people pass me on the road. This is of course is my version of a revival service.
But I have a lot of new-fangled religious ideas too. I believe truth can be found in all sorts of places, not just in Christianity. I love me some Jesus but Buddha, Gandhi, and atheists have a few things to say too. I do not think God cares one iota about sexual orientation except maybe as one of the varieties of life that “she” appreciates. If sexual orientation was so important would not Jesus have had something to say on the subject. These two ideas are considered heretical to some.
I have learn that loving your brother and sister around you is more important than loving a God you cannot see. And that is where I spend most of my time these days: trying to love people. I have learned I am not a natural at this. I want to love people but my head wants to judge or fix them. I am a little selfish in that I prefer my company to others. Certainly I enjoy the company of a specific type of person but all others I have to strain to bide time with them. I work on this very hard and fail quite easily at it.
I would imagine most people think I am a little pious if not an all-out prick. But more than likely they do not think of me at all. It is odd to be thought of as pious and godless at the same time but is what it is. When I enter debate with people with opposing views from me it is me who is always striving to grow more deeply and widen my knowledge of things. It is me who, though I am usually the most confident about things I believe, will question and obsess over: was I kind and am I right? They probably never think of it again except remembering how disagreeable or wrong they think I was.
I grow older. The stardust of which I am made has lost most of its star and is mainly dust these days. But I am convinced that this salvation I seem to be working out is my call. So in an age where the laws of immigration rule over compassion and the alt-right is determined to demonstrate hate I will think logically but will demand I love greatly. At least that is my prayer, but who knows, maybe that is not valid anymore.