Sermon offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 8 May 2011 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond. One and a half weeks after the April 27th devastating tornado that rampaged through Tuscaloosa.
“Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child” is a spiritual written by slaves in the Deep South. They are remembering their African homeland that they have lost. They are remembering their mothers, their families that are far from them either back in Africa or those who have been sold to other plantation owners. It is a somber song but it also carries with it a hope. Sometimes I feel implies that there are sometimes I don’t feel like a motherless child. Sometimes means not always but occasionally this is true.
As I look at the devastation that has been wrought on our community and the efforts being undertaken to get through these tough times, I can say sometimes I feel like a motherless child. I can join in and say sometimes I feel like I am almost gone.
But then I recall a few things. I recall that when I felt that I had no friend, friends stepped forward. People stepped forward into that role of friend, of mother, of nurturer, of protector. All the things that we hoped would be there when the tough times come have been here in this place.
Now is the time for us to hang in together and nurture one another. To hold one another in sacred space, to hold one another in holy space where our hearts and voices are heard and validated as vital to making us whole. This is a time of listening deeply, not debating “we should do this or that,” not seeking the fixes which are at best patch a worn piece of cloth which will rip again in the first wash cycle. It is a time of listening. Listening to our stories and holding them close to our hearts and validating that we have heard them. Truly heard them.
Mothers are great at fostering this in their children. When a young child is hurt, physically or emotionally or in any other fashion for that matter, a mother will hold that child. A mother will embrace that child, perhaps rock that child in her arms, perhaps sing to that child softly, and perhaps rub that child’s back. These are all methods of soothing the child. These are methods of calming the child to be in that moment and to pause in that moment.
The question of what we should or might do next will arise out of our listening to each other. The experiences we are living through are offering us a choice as to who we will be in the future. I know the temptation is to make a quick decision which will get the trauma behind us and as far from us as possible. But now is not the time to make life altering decisions, now is the time to simply listen, to simply be in the moment we find ourselves in. The decisions we need to make will come when the time is ripe and their birth is ready to occur.
To be clear, I am talking about the intimate decisions of our lives, I am talking about the personal decisions here. The more collective and larger decisions that need to be made need to be discussed. The city is already beginning to plan out what it needs to do to rebuild the city. And it is right to do so. These plans will take a while to develop and implement but even the city is not yet at the debating stage of these plans. Even they are in the listening stage. They are at the information gathering stage. They have rightfully placed a moratorium on developers in the city to slow that process down so rebuilding can be planned with dignity and with integrity. We as a congregation might have a role to play in how Tuscaloosa gives birth to the new city that will be built. But even here, we need to be nurturing, listening, and hearing the story of our collective lives being told.
When 9/11 happened, everyone in the nation was affected by the horrors of that event. The nation was in uproar and whether you agree with what happened next or not, the nation launched an attack against Afghanistan and Iraq. We as a nation were hurting. One person that I know responded differently. Sarah Dan Jones, Unitarian Universalist singer/songwriter wrote a song that offered a way for us to be held, to be nurtured, to be embraced perhaps by the holy. Perhaps if we had taken what we know from our mothers and held each other and listened with our hearts to each other then perhaps the narrative of our nation following that heart wrenching day would have been different. The song she wrote in response was this:
“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.”[i]
Join me and allow the song to embrace you, to hold you close.
“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in peace. When I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.” Sing four times
We are sometimes mothers to one another. Regardless of gender, providing a mothering, nurturing experience when it is needed is something we all can offer. The movie “The Secret Life of Bees” tells the story of young teen, Lily, who remembers very little about her mother, other than a traumatic incident during a fight between her parents. She carries this pain with her. Her father is abusive and has told her repeatedly that her mother had left them and on the night of her death had come back only for her things. The mother was leaving the daughter. Lily decides to run away from home, and takes the few items of her mother’s with her, including a jar label of a black Madonna with the word honey on it.
The Black Madonna label leads Lily to a house where the honey is produced and she concocts a story that enables her to stay there. The house is owned by three African American sisters, each with their own unique gifts and strengths. In the parlor is a sculpture of a black Madonna with a fist raised to the air. August, the eldest sister, tells the story of this wooden sculpture. It was found by one of her ancestors sold into slavery and once adorned the front of a sailing ship. It is seen by the women as a symbol of their strength to weather the storms of life. These three women and some of their friends would gather to pray around this sculpture and then as a parting ritual would place their hand on the chest of the Madonna to symbolize their drawing strength to endure. The women drew strength from each other and became mother for Lily. In living in the mystery of life’s unfolding path, in sharing in their individual and collective struggles, they were able to offer healing to Lily. They shared a different narrative about Lily’s mother than the one she knew as a young child.
We are able to draw strength from the mothers in our lives. We can help create a different narrative for those of us who are traumatized by the recent events. By gathering together and drawing strength from each other we can also begin creating a different narrative for ourselves in the aftermath of this tornado.
“Gathered here in the mystery of the hour. Gathered here in one strong body. Gathered here in the struggle and the power. Spirit, draw near.” [ii]
Spirit for me isn’t some other worldly entity. I leave the mind open for the possibility of that but when I speak of spirit, it means something else. For me, spirit is that energy that flows between two or more people. The energy can express itself as an emotional energy but it might simply be that creative interchange of ideas that creates something new when expressed by one person and heard by another.
There is a strong connection of spirit between a parent and a young child for example. It is a bond that transforms the other to wholeness. Those who saw the movie, “The Secret Life of Bees” know that spirit can be a double edged sword as it was between Lily and her father. But the spirit that I am referring to is a positive spirit, the spirit that is filled with affirmation. The spirit I am referring to is patient and kind. This spirit does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. This spirit does not delight in harmful actions but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Now those of you who know your Christian scriptures might have recognized that this spirit that I am referring to is love. It is also the best expression of motherhood. This spirit is not just reserved to mothers, anyone can exemplify these attributes.
In the wake of the storm when people are most hurting, most feeling like a motherless child, we are called to be mothering to one another. We are called to extend that spirit of love to one another, just as the slave was able to sing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and add the conviction that this was sometimes; we too can help those who are feeling like a motherless child to reduce that experience to sometimes.
[i] Story and text of song used with permission of composer, Sarah Dan Jones.
[ii] Hymn number 389 in Singing the Living Tradition hymnal.