From Little Things Big things Grow

Presented by Nicoline Guerrier, 6 July 2014

It sounded like something from a tabloid, almost.  The internet post came with a very long and highly confident title: Science Reveals How the Brains of Social Justice Activists Are Different from Everyone Else’s. Really? I wondered to myself as I scrolled through the article.  Are justice activists different from everyone else?  And even supposing they are, does that tell us anything useful about the struggle for justice?  What I want to know is how something infinitely little – like the firing of neurons, say, in an activist’s brain – gives rise to something impossibly huge, like the fall of the Berlin wall.  Or the end of institutionalized slavery here in Canada and the United States.  My intuition tells me that when Vincent Lingiari said ‘no’ to the occupiers of his ancestral land. and when that ‘no’ eventually turned the world upside down, the way his brain fired was only part of the story.

Some of you know that I’ve been away the past year, working as a student minister in Toronto.  One of the unexpected bonuses of doing my internship there was sometimes getting to help my sister out in her restaurant.  She owns a neighbourhood pub: one of those rare places where a lot of the basics - like the pizza dough, or the buns for the burgers - are all made from scratch.  After being there a while, I got to notice that if the kitchen door happened to swing open when the buns were just coming out of the oven, you could pretty much count on a customer or two stopping their conversation in mid-sentence, looking around and asking: what’s that amazing smell?

One day, though, one of the newer cooks came up to me and asked, do you know anything about yeast?  He thought he’d followed the recipe for the buns – only something was wrong: the dough wasn’t rising.

How many of you here know how to make bread?  I have to admit it’s not my strong suit.  Bread-making is known to be tricky, and I’m the kind of person who can get so worried about things going wrong, I can give up before even starting.  But I have had a few successes making bread, and even if you haven’t, you probably know how it starts.

You have your dry ingredients: flour, mainly, but maybe salt, and a few seasonings if you want to change it up a little.

You’ll need some kind of liquid:  water will do, but you can also use milk, eggs, mashed potatoes like my sister does, or even beer!

But then there’s one key ingredient.  If you leave it out, or mess it up, you’ll end up with crackers (if you’re lucky), or more likely, something heavy and stone-like, that won’t create the ‘Ahhhhh …’ effect that results from the first bite into a great piece of bread.

That’s right: yeast.

What’s neat about yeast is, when you’re making bread, it’s one of the smallest ingredients: you’ll need less than a tablespoon of the dry, grainy kind to produce a couple of nicely-sized loaves of bread.  But without yeast, and without just the right combination of conditions, your bread dough won’t rise and grow into something bigger – which was the problem my sister’s cook ran into.  Think about it: too cold?  Too hot?  The yeast won’t grow.  Sugar can be helpful, but not too much.  Drafts are definitely a problem: rising bread needs a warm and sheltered place.  Oh - and don’t let me forget time.  Yeast needs time to accomplish its work – it can’t be hurried along.

The yeast/justice connection isn’t something I made up:  if you were raised in the Christian tradition, you may remember there’s a parable in the bible linking justice to yeast!  And in keeping with yeast’s “tiny, but mighty” character, it’s one of those parables that’s so brief you’ll easily miss it if you’re not paying close attention.  It’s only one line long, and the line says: “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” (Matthew 13:33)  Now, parables are often hard to understand, but when you hear the words ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ you know it’s going to be about justice.  What I find intriguing about the biblical story is the notion that the leaven – the yeast – wasn’t just mixed in:  it was hidden.  But what in the world brings about justice even though you can’t necessarily see it?  What could be the thing, hidden away, that yet transforms everything it touches?

Over the last while, I’ve been asking people to share their own stories about standing up for justice.  I’ve invited people to tell me what they drew on when they had to find strength they didn’t know they had, or what, for them, made all the difference between taking a stand, and remaining silent.

One man I know shared about his years teaching English in a large, city high school to students from all corners of the globe.  He told me that young gay students often confided in him, especially through their writing.  He ended up fearing some of his students would choose suicide over life in this world, a world which in many cases had already shown them so much hatred and violence.

He told me about one moment in particular, where a young woman stood up in class and described how her best friend, a gay student at the school, had just gotten beaten up and kicked brutally.  She described how other classmates had clustered round on cafeteria tables, cheering the assailant on and trying to get a better view.  After she spoke he remembers wanting desperately to say something consoling or wise.  And yet he ended up frozen, speechless: in his words, he became “like an actor in a spotlight who has utterly forgotten his lines.”  And yet, knowing how unsafe the other gay students in the school were probably feeling, he wanted to do something.

He didn’t find anything to say or do at that moment.  But the desire to take action didn’t leave him, and over the next few weeks, as he talked with students and staff, a plan began to unfold.  It culminated in the creation of AHA!, an after-school group called the Anti-Homophobia-Alliance, advertised by day-glo pink stickers posted on the school walls.  When the stickers were

vandalized, he used the event to build publicity for the group’s kick-off meeting, and strategically invited the entire football team – one of whom was friends with the young man who’d been bullied - to be the first people through the door.

One thing led to another: there was a successful tongue-in-cheek play about the persecution of left-handers by right-handers; there was the Triangle Bulletin Board, on which students could post their stories anonymously and offer and receive support.  Eventually, the school board created a policy against heterosexism, and this policy became an important tool in the fight against homophobia in the classroom.

It wasn’t all roses after that: it rarely is. Tragically, there was a suicide at the school: a young Sikh boy killed himself when he felt his community would never embrace his sexual orientation.  And yet (not to minimize this tragic death in any way) there were other gay students who went on to lead lives of confidence and courage.  This teacher knew that in ways big and small, his tiny personal moment of struggle, which finally culminated in the decision to stand up and take action, was part of all this.

What did he draw on, in the end?  As he sees it, his own position of relative privilege gave him strength: married to a woman, and having been a teacher of long standing made it much safer for him to go out on a limb than it would have been for others.  The many connections he’d built with students meant that he knew that acting, or not acting, would have repercussions across a whole network of other relationships he wanted to honour.  Above all, he credited his parents and his Jewish heritage with having taught him to argue back, even with God, when faced with injustice.

There’s a Mennonite peace activist named John Paul Lederach who says that people talk all the time about justice and social change needing critical mass.  If you believe in critical mass, you believe change is just a numbers game.   Convince more people of the need for change, and when the number is sufficiently large: Whoops!  A trend is reversed and the scales of justice tip in a new direction.

But ask him now, and Lederach will tell you he no longer believes it’s about critical mass.  It’s about critical yeast.  It’s about discovering something extremely small, which, when combined with just the right conditions, leads to exponential growth.

I love this concept of critical yeast.  For me, it doesn’t just describe what grows the quest for justice in the world out there.  It also explains how our

own readiness to work for justice grows inside of us.  Because little things are happening all the time.   When I say little, I mean we experience them as just moments, hardly more sometimes than a blink of an eye.  Think of the moment when that teacher was called to respond, but didn’t, at first. That moment became yeast when the boundaries of what was possible and necessary shifted for him, ever so slightly.  Once he acted, those changed boundaries began to expand the boundaries of what was right and normal for many, many others within that school community and probably beyond.

I find it inspiring to think about growing justice like this.

But critical yeast grows injustice, too.  I know this for myself.  I know how I feel when I don’t speak up, perhaps when people make racial slurs, or even when they make homophobic comments, though I myself am married to a woman.

When I don’t speak up a voice inside myself whispers: “It’s only a little thing.” Or, “Saying something or saying nothing: what difference does it make anyway?”

But something grows out of it, nonetheless, maybe not visible in the moment.

My silence grows a small feeling of shame, the knowledge that I didn’t do all I could do.

My silence grows a small feeling of guilt, knowing that doing nothing, I am helping to grow some bigger thing that I don’t at all believe in.

And this little omission?  If it happens again and again, it grows a wide gulf between who I would like to be, and who I am, and knowledge of this follows me out into the world I inhabit with others, in ways that may be hidden, but are no less real.

So, though your own actions may feel as small as grains of sand in a vast ocean of things that matter in this world, see them like grains of yeast; know that in a blink of an eye all that you do – and don’t do – is being mixed, kneaded, and shaped into the bread of life: your own, and the lives of those that surround you.

And, every once in a while, stop what you’re doing and open the kitchen door.

Smell how everything changes when that hot, fresh bread comes out of the oven.

Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself saying it smells like heaven.

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