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Theodore Roosevelt once said that it is “only through the gates of struggle and painful effort and by grim energy and resolute courage that we move on to better things.” Say what you might about Teddy’s Roosevelt’s chauvinism both in gender and empire, he was also the founder of the American park system, and the first to take up the charge of a better America beyond the woes of his gilded age. Like his distant younger cousin, FDR, who take that vision and enlarge it into the New Deal, Teddy Roosevelt knew the cost of change. Power is never willingly given up as every revolution has shown. The revolution to overcome the injustices to labor in this country is just beginning.
We can enliven our spiritual dimension by walking alongside those who are struggling through the gates of hell to a new beginning. It’s not always possible to see that new beginning but it’s there. At least I think it is. As Ellen DeGeneres put it “In the beginning there was nothing and God said, “let there be light”. There was still nothing there but you could see it whole lot better.” No one said the path to righteousness would be well marked.
I first came to Chicago as a graduate student just after Harold Washington won his second term as the first African American Mayor of Chicago. I can remember the powerful feeling of this victory, all the sweeter since no one thought he would win the first time, defying as he did the powerful political machine of the Daley family. The University of Chicago is located in the heart of Chicago’s south side, except for the neighborhood of Hyde Park where the University and its many schools sits like an oasis in the black sea of poverty, the South Side is home to some of America’s gutsiest politicians, including Harold Washington. Washington came to office defying the machine by telling it like it is. They didn’t want to hear from a black man, telling them they were corrupt and broken. He won his first term by a margin, his second by a landslide. Harold Washington had defied a political machine to raise the hopes for a city, half of whom were African American. Four days after his second inauguration, Harold Washington died of a heart attack at his desk. Harold Washington was prophetic in many ways. But before he died he had shown that we can move beyond our struggles and begin to climb the great mountain of hope. (Climbing a Great Mountain: Selected Speeches of Mayor Harold Washington edited by Alton Miller)
We have come a long way since then. Now there are many more African American mayors than before, now we have an African American President of the United States. If Harold Washington or even Martin Luther King were still alive though, I know they would be worried because we are still a racist nation.
Struggles whether they are towards a group of people or for us individually, is part of the human condition as the Buddha observed 3000 years ago. Struggle born of not having enough, struggle born of worrying about the future, struggle born of disease and heartache. Struggle is real but it is not the totality of our existence. Spiritually Teddy Roosevelt was right, struggle is the gate we pass through in order to make ourselves anew. I think too often we see our future as the gate itself instead of what lies beyond it.
Anne LaMotte put it this way: “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don’t give up.”
You wait and you watch and you don’t give up. That’s what moving beyond the gate of struggle looks like. Over the past year over a dozen cities have increased the minimum wage for hotel workers to over $15 an hour, the highest in the country. You think that just happened? Nope. That was the result of thousands of people storming the gates of struggle to get to the other side.
I think here, inspired by Anne LaMotte who overcame childhood abuse, and alcoholism to be the inspiration she is today, I recall a good friend from my days in Los Angeles, Dr. Mattie Mae Walker, the god mother of the great bass player Mr. Kevin O’Neal. Dr. Walker grew up dirt poor amid abuse and extreme prejudice. She went on to nursing school as a single African American woman, she decided to enter public health nursing and became a district school nurse for the LAUSD. While helping mostly poor children, find immunizations and health care, she also started her own fund to help kids and families afford health care in the racially charged areas of South Central Los Angeles. She went on, despite hardship to earn her masters and doctorate degrees, moving to assistant and full principal of Los Angeles’ adult learning program. She was an inspiration to thousands. Even up until the very end of her long and often hard life, she was championing women’s rights and doctors without borders.
There are dozens of these stories right here among you. I could pick any of the 100s of people in this church that have been memorialized here and show how they walked through the gates of struggle to envision and create a better world. Any number of those gone and still here realized the great spiritual truth, became prophets in the own right and lived out the second of the Buddha’s great teaching, that struggle and suffering can be overcome by not being attached to the outcome of that struggle.
Last week I participated in a final phone conference for those ministers who want to create new entrepneurial ministries in our world. I met with colleagues who are doing some amazing work, but one stands out as inspirational to me in a very special way. Tandi Rogers, who heads up the UUA Beyond the Call network of ministers hoping to engage people in a radically new vision of our world. Tandi suffers from degenerative back pain which she has for years and yet, she has found that her sanity, her life depends upon moving beyond that pain and working on a new vision of Unitarian Universalism. Just last week she talked about making all of us into Ministers of Abundance, by which she meant that each and every one of us, each and every one of you has a ministry inside of you that needs to be set free. I realized as we talked that I need to return to that original charge that I brought with me ten years ago, we each do have a ministry in inside of you, despite our struggles. Today and throughout this month and invite you to share with us what gives you hope despite the struggles you have. We have a board out in the foyer and sticky note to write down what gives you hope. Let’s start this new year, one I am sure will be full of challenges and share the hope we find on the other side of struggle.
And if we have enough of a critical mass around hope, we will see our congregation change. It’s time we got beyond the gate of our struggles. We can do this. I know we can. Beyond the gate of our struggles is our calling to ministry.
It will take us renewing our call to, as Harold Washington would say “climbs that great mountain of hope.” What will it take to hold up what Dr. King called the “network of mutuality”?
Standing down fear comes to mind.
We are morally responsible for questioning how the world is; not as a right but as a responsibility. And if you think well, that my personal life is mess, try protesting and see how it helps you cope with your own life. We are all of the same cloth. It just depends on where you look at the pattern. You can look at the individual threads and see they are frayed or you can look at a piece and see that it is bright and worth fighting for.
This is the right of conscience and the true use of democracy in our congregations: to work towards the freedom of all people to be whom they are, to express their truth and to have their consent. Our moral laws call us to freedom. Calls us beyond the gates of struggle to a new world.
The day before he died Dr. King spoke in a Mason Temple in Memphis, TN during the sanitation workers strike, not so unlike the struggle of our port drivers today. There Dr. King pronounced: “..I’ve been to the mountaintop…..I would like to live a long life…..I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know….that as a people we will get (there).
We are still climbing. It’s a tall mountain. While I share Dr. King’s vision, I am tempered by the more down to earth words of Harold Washington “We are climbing a great mountain and we’ve taken the first firm steps. We may not reach the summit in our lifetimes, but men and women of good will a century from today will look back on …this movement and say: ‘I wish I had been a part of them. They had the courage to fight. The will to win. The sought goodness and they did good.”
I pray that it can be said of us, that we to had that courage, sought goodness and did good.