Thirty-four of our youth and adults ventured to New Orleans to help with the work of rebuilding and to provide moral support to folks who feel abandoned and alone in their ongoing time of need. At our services last Sunday each of them shared a personal story to illustrate the meanings that emerged during their week of engagement with the people and place.
Several spoke about person-to-person encounters – stories that stayed with them, experiences that helped them to connect with real people: a young teacher from New York City who hoped to establish a store-front school to provide tutoring and mentoring to children doing home schooling; a 60-year old carpenter who has been doing volunteer work for the past three months; a man whose mother and granddaughter perished in the flood but whose spirit of hope is alive and well; a husband and wife who lost everything and are determined to put the pieces back together.
One young man spoke about the energy they were all feeling on the thirty-hour train ride down, and the subdued, quiet atmosphere on the ride home. “I realized that we spent all that energy during the week, and it was a good feeling to know we did something meaningful.”
Closing words to the service were crafted by David Vita, our Director of Social Justice, capped off with the longer version of words often spoken at the close of a service in our sanctuary, and being used, he said, by the Unitarian congregation where they conducted worship on their first Sunday there: “I expect to pass through this world but once, therefore, if there’s any good thing I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any person, let me do it now, let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
It is our sense of kindness – compassion and pity or sympathy – that makes us more than mere mortals on this journey to the grave.
What’s the source of that sense of caring? Where does human compassion come from? One of the most important sources is our own sense of vulnerability, the wound that allows us to feel what another is feeling. Empathy does not come from exhortations from the pulpit or dinner table, it comes from experiences that inform us, experiences that form us.
It’s about the interior life – the one Plato said we must examine if life is to be worth living. Some experiences dig so deep into our souls or spirits that they cause a radical self-examination, or re-examination, asking ourselves what’s really important.
As I listened to this year’s New Orleans workers I could sense the transformation of character that was happening for each one – that’s precisely what Jamie Forbes, our Youth Outreach Director, had in mind. The economic crisis, and our struggle with it, levels the playing field – we’re all feeling less secure, vulnerable. We all need support and encouragement as we sail these waters.
We value our sense of rationality and individuality, as we should. We also need to develop our capacity for caring. Your presence matters. I hope you’ll plan to participate in the April 3 – 5 weekend when we focus on ‘The Essence of Us,’ both to celebrate who we are, why we’re here, and to think together about moving forward…together!
Yours, with hope,