Sermon: Not Giving Up By Meagan Henry
Not Giving Up
First Unitarian Congregational Society
December 14, 2016
I distinctly remember the moment when I gave up on some people. I know I’m not supposed to admit giving up on people since I am a leader in a faith community, and we are the ones who tell people to practice an ethic of love and empathy and to build bridges across our differences. I’d like to be able to tell you that I’ve struggled mightily with my decision to give up on some people, but the reality is I didn’t really struggle with it very much. To be fair, there was a lot that contributed to me getting to this point.
One particular moment came after about, oh, let’s say the one millionth time that I was told to “get a job!” People literally screaming out their car widows for me to “get a job!” They were saying this because I was at a protest. What they didn’t know about me was that I did have a job,two part time jobs, in fact. I was also paying my own way through college and raising my young daughter on my own as a single parent.
I think most of you probably don’t know this about me, but for a long time I was a pretty hard core activist. I was involved with both social and environmental justice movements primarily in the Southeast and especially in East Tennessee. I got my start when I attended my first antiwar rally in 1990 in TN to protest against Gulf War I. I’m one of those people who spent the night in trees trying to stop a forest from being cut down. I strapped on climbing equipment and scaled 150 feet up a billboard on the side of the highway in order to drop a banner about mountain top removal. I’ve engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and been arrested for it. The list goes on.
I’m sharing this with you now because of the way my experience as an activist led to me give up on some people. When you attend a rally or protest or march, you quickly find out that there are a lot of people who resent what you’re doing. As someone who did these things quite a bit, I encountered an enormous amount of anger and vitriol from passers-by. Sometimes, people would even come out to counter-protest us. During the early gay pride marches in Knoxville, TN, there were often more counter-protesters than actual marchers.
I would engage in conversations with people who stopped to talk about the issue. On one particular occasion, I was with a group protesting the Massey Energy Company’s mountaintop removal coal mining practices by handing out fliers. A man stopped to take a flier. He wanted to talk and asked me about what I saw as the alternatives to using fossil fuels. Before I could finish answering him, he started talking about lost jobs for people who work in coal mines in Appalachia, and how there weren’t viable alternatives because wind and solar won’t be enough and climate change isn’t a really thing anyway, and on and on. I listened to this man and I matched him point by point. But as so often happened to me in these encounters, he just would not listen.
We kept going around and around until I realized we’d been doing this for about 20 minutes. In that time, easily 30 people had walked right by us. It suddenly hit me that those 30 people were missed opportunities while I stood there talking in circles with a man who genuinely did not want to hear what I had to say. He just wanted to tell me his opinions. So we were talking at each other and getting nowhere. At that moment, another person yelled, “Get a job!” And that’s when I gave up own some people and decided to prioritize my time on those who are willing to authentically engage in a discussion.
So now, here we are several years later and I’m acutely reminded of that I made the decision to give up on some people because I’m reading and listening to political commentators, some of whom I really respect, tell us that Trump won the election because the liberals didn’t take care of white working class people in this country. I hear people saying we need to understand that these folks aren’t racist (or sexist or homophobic or Islamophobic) but that they voted the way they did for economic reasons.
Ok, so even if we put aside the fact that hate crimes against people of color, Muslims, and women have dramatically increased since the election. And even if we put aside the fact that the majority of voters actually voted for Hillary Clinton. Even if we put aside this absurd refusal to see that white working class and rural people are in as much of a “bubble” as the liberal city-dwellers. We still have the reality that 26% of eligible voters in this country voted for their own perceived economic interests in spite of and at the expense of the values our liberal democracy is founded upon.
I come from white working class people and for most of my life I lived in the category know as “working poor” and I lived in rural areas and bounced back and forth between family in the rust belt on northwestern Pennsylvania and rural southeastern region of the US. So, I find it super insulting to lump this demographic into one category. These are my family members that are being insulted, and yeah, maybe my family is different from the majority of rural white working class folks because we’re liberal, but that’s my point. You can be poor, white, and rural and still hold liberal values.
So how do we decide when to give up on someone?
I recently heard a story that’s been helping me work through some of my own conflicting feelings swirling around my urge to cut some people out and my spiritual conviction that love wins, that love really can change the world.
This is the story of Rabbi Michael Weisser. He and his wife and three children moved from NY City so that he could serve as the spiritual leader of the largest synagogue in Lincoln, Nebraska. One Sunday morning, only a few days after they had moved into their new house, the phone rang.
Rabbi Weisser answered the phone and was shocked to hear the man on the other end of the line call him “Jew boy” and proceed to tell him he would be sorry he had moved in. Two days later, a large package of anti-black, anti-Semitic pamphlets arrived in the mail, including an unsigned card that read, “The KKK is watching you, scum.”
Naturally, Rabbi Weisser called the police and they came right away and they told him they had a pretty good idea who the caller was. They also told him to take safety precautions and to make sure his children took different routes to and from school each day. As you can imagine, this was incredibly upsetting for the whole family.
After a few more disturbing voicemails were left by this same man, Rabbi Weisser did some asking around and found out the name of the man who was calling him. His name was Larry Trapp, and he was the leader, known as the Grand Dragon, of the Nebraska Ku Klux Klan chapter. I think for me this probably would have been enough information to know that I wanted to have nothing to do with this man. Rabbi Weisser, on the other hand, got Larry Trapp’s phone number, and began calling him. He started leaving what he referred to as “love notes” on Larry’s answering machine. The thing is, by his own admission, Rabbi Weisser became sort of obsessed with calling and leaving these messages. He would call every week on the same day and at the same time. And from his own telling of what he was saying, these messages were not what I would categorize as “love” notes.
He said things like, “Larry, there’s a lot of love out there. You’re not getting any of it. Don’t you want some?” (click) “Larry, why do you love the Nazis so much? They’d have killed you first because you’re disabled.” (click)
He said this last one because as it turned out, Larry was a double amputee confined to a wheelchair as a result of childhood diabetes. It also turned out that Larry was a fairly complicated guy. Rabbi Weisser figured this out because one day after months of leaving these messages, he called up that number and Larry answered the phone. He said, “Leave me alone! Stop calling me!” By the end of that phone call, Rabbi Weisser got an unexpected invitation to dinner at Larry’s house. Upon hearing this, the Rabbi’s son was worried about his father attending such a meal, saying “Don’t you know when a Nazi invites you to dinner that means you’re on the menu?!” Kids, right?
When Rabbi Weisser and his wife, Julie, arrived at Larry’s house, he answered the door holding two guns with another attached to the side of his wheelchair. They really thought he might kill them. Instead, he invited them in and he broke down crying, saying, “I want to get out of what I’m doing and I don’t know how.”
The three talked for hours, and a kind of friendship eventually formed. The couple’s home later became a hospice for Larry, who moved into one of their bedrooms as his health worsened, and Juliegave up her job to become Larry’s caretaker.
Larry Trapp eventually renounced the KKK, apologized to many of those he had threatened, and he converted to Judaism in Rabbi Weisser’s synagogue.
The first time I heard this story, I was drawn to the ‘love wins’ lesson of it. But now, in the post-election era, I am much more inspired by the courage of Rabbi Weisser to confront Larry Trapp.
I read this amazing quote in an article in the New Yorker by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie where he writes, “Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. Now is the time to speak up and to wear as a badge of honor the opprobrium of bigots. Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility. Hazy visions of “healing” and “not becoming the hate we hate” sound dangerously like appeasement. The responsibility to forge unity belongs not to the denigrated but to the denigrators. The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity; it is an injustice to demand that the maligned identify with those who question their humanity.” ( http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/now-is-the-time-to-talk-about-what-we-are-actually-talking-about )
So for me, for now, I want to focus on doing what Rabbi Weisser did and confront evil when I/we encounter it, even when we know it won’t turn out the way it did for Larry. If there is one thing I think we can learn from what our country is going through right now, it’s that the time for being neutral is over. Now is the time when we must speak up even more loudly for the values we hold. Confronting racism, sexism, Islamophobia, and homophobia is not easy and it’s not to be done lightly, either.
If you are someone who is committed to speaking up in the face of injustice, I encourage you to attend the training for strategies on bystander intervention today after the service. If you cannot attend the training today, find another training to attend soon. There are many being offered around the city. Invite a friend to go with you. Make a new friend at the training. We need each other more than ever now. And although I have given up on some people, I am not, and I will not give up. I hope you won’t give up either and I hope you all will join together in this liberal, heretical faith community in not giving up together.