No One Leaves Home Unless.... (Audio Available)

Sermon by Rev. Diane Rollert, 25 October 2015

My friends, where do I start? There’s so much that I know you know already.  All month, we’ve been exploring the meaning of integrity in our lives. So much of that is personal, right?  As C.S. Lewis said, “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” How do we live with integrity as Unitarian Universalists, when it’s just us out there in the world, when we’ve left this sanctuary and return to the little things that keep us from seeing the big picture? 

Our seven principles begin with the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person and end with respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. In between, we call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations, and lift up the dream of world community. How can we possibly be true to those aspirations? How can we live up to them with integrity and not just give them lip service?

Earlier, we read together words from the Charter of the United Nations. It’s amazing to remember that the UN was established 70 years ago, on October 24, 1945. Happy birthday, UN.  It is striking how much our principles are echoed in the words of the original charter.  It’s no accident, given the many passionate Unitarians and Universalists who supported the creation of the UN. We share lofty goals for peace, harmony and human rights in this world. And we all know how far we are from fulfilling those goals, from living with global integrity.

At the beginning of this month, I invited you to consider how integrity plays out in our lives through these words from Frederick Buechner: We are called “to the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I wrote this in the newsletter, so in case you missed it, I’ll say it again, in the spirit of Buechner: God, Love, or the Spirit of Life calls us “to the place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Those words once beckoned me into the ministry. I knew that I had found my call to integrity, to this place where I could serve others well in ways where I was truly needed. It was my own deep hunger to live a life of meaning that helped me to find my deep gladness through the work I do.

Now I hear these words in a different way.  The world’s deep hunger hits me hard.  My own deep hunger hits me hard.  My deep gladness is still here, but it feels incomplete.  I have a deep hunger to transform the world, to remove the world’s pain, to save millions of people who are living with deep hunger for food, for freedom, for security, for warmth and a new home.

In September, as world leaders were gathering at the UN General Assembly, UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres told a reporter that, “Only when the poor enter the halls of the rich, do the rich notice that the poor exist.”  He said that the response to the worldwide refugee crisis has come too late as millions are fleeing Syria and elsewhere.  Today there are more than 4 million registered Syrian refugees in camps or on the move, thousands dead or missing, hundreds of thousands risking their lives by sea.  As international assistance in Syria has declined, more and more people find themselves in dire circumstances.  As Somali poet Warsan Shire writes,

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

(You can find the full poem that was read during the service here: http://seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/)

It is shocking to learn that the UN Refugee Agency (the UNHCR, United Nations High Commission for Refugees) must raise its own funds to meet the needs of refugees.  Member nations are not required to provide funds to support this crucial work. It’s just not part of the deal, and it’s something that has to change. Not surprisingly, the UN Refugee Agency is overwhelmed by demand and the magnitude of the crisis simply can’t be met by gifts from private donors. All UN humanitarian agencies are facing significant financial crises.

In September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told world leaders that cooperation in today’s highly interdependent world is the only answer to the refugee crisis. He said, “If we don’t take that course, then the winners will be those who seek to undermine society and the rule of society which we all claim to wish to uphold. In the context of migration, the winners will be smugglers, traffickers and unscrupulous employers. Those who lose will be the dispossessed, the hungry, the vulnerable, the defenceless --  and the children.”

We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We respect the interdependent web of existence. We call for justice, equity and compassion in human relations. We lift up the dream of world community.  Our own deep gladness meeting the world’s deep hunger. Our very integrity as a people is at stake.  But how do you get from here to there?

There are the political actions we can take – calling on on our governments, our institutions, the United Nations,to forge just relations with the people experiencing the daily reality of this crisis. Many of our hearts were broken when we saw pictures of Aylan Kurdi, a small lifeless Syrian toddler, washed up on the shores of a Turkish beach. Did he remind us so much of our own children, that we finally found ourselves responding? At least two years ago, several people in our community lobbied us to sponsor a Syrian refugee, but we weren’t ready. We can look back with regret that we didn’t respond then, (and I admit I that I do look back with regret), but regret isn’t useful now. Action is.

I believe we are ready now.

On Wednesday night, our Board of Management agreed to form a refugee sponsorship task force to propose and manage a course of action enabling this congregation to sponsor a Syrian refugee family. The task force has already sent out a letter of explanation and a resolution to be approved by the congregation. The vote will happen on November 22, during our congregational budget meeting, set to start at noon. I encourage you to mark your calendars for that day and join us for a critical meeting.  An information session will be organized soon to answer questions arising before the November 22 meeting.

A core team has been formed, led by Marlean Martin, with John Inder, and David Rollert. They’ve done their research and they feel confident that this is something we can do. Sponsorship would be a big commitment on our part — because of the emotional and spiritual support that will bel needed to help a family get settled and established in Montreal. Our legal and financial responsibility for the family we sponsor would be limited to one year but I know that our human commitment and connection would potentially continue long after that year is over. We understand from groups that have already sponsored a family that there are always surprises along the way, but the rewards of the relationship are priceless.  

We’ve been told that the costs will be anywhere from between $20,000 to $40,000 depending on the size of the family. I have already promised to provide much of the start-up funds. Let me explain:

For the past ten years, I have had the honour of being able to provide funds to women in need through the Cordner Fund, a fund set up at the bequest of Caroline Parkman Cordner, the daughter of our first minister, John Cordner. Caroline Cordner never married or had children.  She died in 1940, at the age of 83, and, in her will, she specified that, upon the death of her heirs, the remains of her estate would go to the church to create a permanent fund to be known as the “John Cordner Fund.”  The income of the fund would be administered by the minister of the church in order “to aid ladies living in or near Montreal who may be in reduced circumstances, and especially single women or widows over fifty years of age without male relations able to support them…”

Over the years, the fund has supported many women over the age of fifty as well as women in reduced circumstances who were younger, some single, some with partners who were not able to support them at the time.  If there is income left at the end of the year, the previous ministers and I have always distributed what we can to local organizations supporting women, such as Chez Doris, Auberge Madeleine, the Native Women’s Shelter, Elizabeth House, and others.  Last year we gave $12,000 to Chez Doris to support a program for aboriginal women and some much needed repairs for their building.

This year, I have agreed to set aside $14,000 from the fund to begin the process as a community to sponsor a female Syrian refugee and her family to settle in Montreal. While I can’t promise the age of the woman (over 50? under 50?), I believe that this is in keeping with the spirit of the fund.  Rest assured that this gift will not impact the women who are currently being supported.  I will still be able to provide emergency support, as needed, and also provide some support to local organizations.  I feel that we have been good stewards of the Cordner Fund, and I am grateful that I am in a position to administer this support to such a critical cause.

We don’t know how long it will take until we will be matched with a family, but if you, the congregation, agree, we will begin preparing as much as we can.  We’ll need lots of volunteers to help with all kinds of tasks.  This will be a commitment we will share together in a very concrete, hands-on way.

After the task force notice was sent out, we received a commitment for 10% of the costs from someone who wishes to remain anonymous.  Money is not the biggest issue we face, although there will certainly be a need for additional fundraising down the line — such as concerts and other events.  What will really matter is our willingness as a community to emotionally and spiritually support a family that has been through great trauma. We will be taking action and putting the welcoming and nurturing aspect of our mission to the test.  We’ll be challenging ourselves to live up to the integrity of our faith.

One family:  It’s a small drop in the sea of millions who are fleeing Syria and elsewhere.  Yet we will not be alone.  There are other religious communities here in Montreal, and many UU congregations across Canada, including the Lakeshore UU Congregation, which are preparing for sponsorship.  We can learn from each other in this effort.  Each drop we add begins to fill a cup that can overflow with deep gladness.  I really believe we can do this.

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