“After Diligent Search…”
Sermon and Worship Service for
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of
Columbia, South Carolina
Sunday, May 7th, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.”
First Reading: Erich Fromm’s View of Human Nature; from his, The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil:
“Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. The longer we continue to make the wrong decisions, the more our heart hardens; the more often we make the right decisions, the more our heart softens– or better perhaps, [the more our heart] comes alive. . . . Each step in life which increases my self-confidence, my integrity, my courage, my conviction also increases my capacity to choose the desirable alternative, until eventually it becomes more difficult for me to choose the undesirable rather than the desirable action. On the other hand, each act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost. Between the extreme when I can no longer do a wrong act and the extreme when I have lost my freedom to right action, there are innumerable degrees of freedom of choice. In the practice of life, the degree of freedom to choose is different at any given moment. If the degree of freedom to choose the good is great, it needs less effort to choose the good. If it is small, it takes a great effort, help from others, and favorable circumstances. . . . Most people fail in the art of living not because they are inherently bad or so without will that they cannot lead a better life; they fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. They are not aware when life asks them a question, and when they still have alternative answers. Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road, often only because they have to admit that they must go back to the first wrong turn, and must accept the fact that they have wasted energy and time.”
Second Reading: “Kindness,” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
Special Music “Saints and Sinners,” written and performed by David Francey
The Morning Sermon: “After Diligent Search…”
When I was a little kid, in south Suburban Boston, everybody around me was always talking about Whitey Bulger. Since I was only a little kid, it was hard to tell if Whitey Bulger was a real person, or if he was a villain in a movie or comic book. Sometimes we felt as if he was only a few neighborhoods away from where I lived. But frequently, he disappeared without a trace, such that no one, including law enforcement, could find him. There were even games that children in the Boston area would play, pretending to hide from, or seek out, Whitey Bulger. “Did you hear that he’s on the lam again?” a grown-up would ask. “Oh, no,” [another would respond] “Someone saw him in Las Vegas– Or maybe it was Arizona…” The way people sounded when they talked about Whitey Bulger was as though talking about him felt somehow simultaneously creepy and thrilling.
Well, Whitey Bulger, as many of you know, was a mob boss, the head of the Irish Winter Hill Gang. He was a major figure in South Boston’s drug deals, bookmaking, loan sharking, and money-laundering. And he had people murder people for him. Yet when I was a little kid, people talked about Whitey Bulger almost as though he were a relation, or a public figure in our city whose behavior was sensationalized. It took me years to realize that Whitey Bulger was a thug. And recently I realized that the way everyone talked about him way back then normalized actions which are, in fact, crimes– abhorrent crimes.
I do not know if it is true that anyone in political office in our nation now has engaged directly in drug-dealing, money-laundering, or had people murder people for them. But there are people in political office in our nation now who admire and idolize people who have dealt in drugs, laundered money, and had people murder people for them. How much of a difference is there? There is a difference, yes. But these are crimes that are abhorrent, they are not normal, and we must not normalize them, nor anyone who tries to talk about them as benign.
When I was almost a teenager, all of the grown-ups around me started talking about “Tricky Dick,” and his “Plumbers,” trying to stop all the leaks from the Administration to the Press, and his “Enemies List,” and Watergate. “Watergate,” it turned out, was several things: a hotel, the location of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters, a break-in, and a crime that scandalized our nation. There were long hearings on television which my parents and their friends actually watched, riveted. And I remember the Doonesbury cartoons, lots of Doonesbury cartoons, every morning in our copy of the Boston Globe. The one for August 12, 1974 had four frames of a stone wall, being built up, increasingly higher, by an invisible official, whose voice said, “I want you all to Stonewall it. Let them plead the Fifth…” And a time came when the adults around me intentionally said to me, “What we are witnessing is the peaceful transfer of power, without violence, without revolt. That is an awe-inspiring thing for our Nation.”
When I was a young adult, I worked as a legal secretary and paralegal, in law firms in Portland, Maine. Often, the lawyers would engage a sheriff to try to find someone. Maybe that person could benefit from a lawsuit, or be a witness, or legally had the right to know about litigation that was underway. I would open up the mail we received from those sheriffs. And the letters from them would say, “After diligent search, I was unable to locate [fill in the name of the person the sheriff was trying to unearth].” With my overactive imagination, and background in mystery novels, theatre, and creative writing, I would envision those sheriffs going down dark alleys with flashlights, fording the rapids of rivers, and scaling fences with barbed wire at the top, all in an effort to find the lost stranger. After processing many of those sheriff’s letters, I finally said as much to one of the lawyers. “The letter makes it sound like an episode of “’The Rockford Files,’” I suggested. The lawyer laughed, not unkindly, but said, “No, the sheriff’s efforts aren’t like that. The phrase, ‘After diligent search’ is simply what they certify that they have done, having made every reasonable effort to locate the person we asked about.”
In that window of time, a little less than two years ago, when I was sorting through and packing up my belongings to move from Little Rock, Arkansas, to here, I was anticipating my brother’s birthday. But on that day, when he called me, instead of our having a lighthearted conversation, he said, “You had better turn on the news. This is huge and horrible. And it’s in South Carolina. There’s been a shooting, in a black church in Charleston. And the killer is from Columbia.” After committing that heinous crime, Dylann Roof began driving north from Charleston, up into North Carolina. And we all continue to live in the midst of the emotional effects of his sinful acts. They are still an open wound.
A florist, a heavy machine operator, and an international model, all watched the news. They each had an inner sense of justice, and were able to recognize injustice when they saw it. And they each had a sense of duty, as a citizen of the United States, to do what they could to be part of effecting justice. In seeing a way that justice was needed, and a way that they could help, they each picked up the phone. In doing so, they all had a sense of confidence, trust, and faith that someone on the other end of the phone would partner with them in righting wrongs in their midst.
Though Whitey Bulger had been “on the lam” several times in his life, by the mid-1990s, he was a fugitive, being sought by the FBI, on their Ten Most Wanted List. Years went by, and the FBI couldn’t find him. They were starting to feel embarrassed. Then, in 2011, they tried a novel approach. Their goal was to reach out for help from a wider and distinctly different group of people than those they usually interacted with. They launched a public service campaign aimed at older women who might recognize Bulger’s partner, Catherine Greig. They publicized Grieg’s picture, and said that she loved animals and frequented beauty salons. The FBI ran this campaign during the day on shows like “The View” and “The Dr. Oz Show.” Other media channels picked up the coverage, including cable news. Anna Bjornsdottir was an international model who had lived in Santa Monica for several months of the year, but also resided in Iceland. In June of 2011, she was watching CNN, and saw the FBI’s public service ad. She recognized Bulger and Greig as a couple she knew in Santa Monica as Charlie and Carol Gasko. She would chat with them when they fed a stray tiger cat. Ms. Bjornsdottir called the FBI’s tip line and left a message, saying the name of the apartment building, and the apartment number. Then she called back and left another message. Then she called back and left another message. The FBI followed up on her calls, apprehended Whitey Bulger in his garage, and arrested him. He was tried and convicted and is now incarcerated in Sumterville, Florida.
In June of 1972, a security guard named Frank Wills was doing his routine rounds at the Watergate office building. Mr. Wills was a young black man from Battle Creek, Michigan, trained and experienced as a heavy machine operator. The security job at the Watergate Hotel was considered to be low risk. In the year that Wills had worked there, there had been only one attempted break-in. And security officers were not issued a gun, only a can of mace. On the evening of June 17th, while making his first round, Frank Wills noticed a piece of duct tape on one of the locks of the door to the DNC headquarters. He removed the tape, thinking that someone had put it there to ease the opening of the door while their arms were full, and continued on his rounds. Thirty minutes later, Wills noticed that there was more tape on the door. Without hesitation, he called the police. He had to use a phone in the lobby, since people didn’t carry around cell phones back then. The police were then able to apprehend five men, wearing suits and ties and hiding in the DNC office: Bernard Baker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez, James McCord, Jr., and Frank Sturgis. The actions of Frank Wills led directly to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
On the morning of June 18th, 2015, a florist named Debbie Dills was driving to work in Kings Mountain, North Carolina when, at a stop light, she thought she recognized the car next to her. It was a black Hyundai with a South Carolina plate and a white decal on the front. Then she did recognize the driver, with his blond bowl haircut. So she began following Dylann Roof’s car, while she called her boss to say that she would be late to work. Keeping Debbie on the phone, her boss called a police officer he knew. Her boss, Todd Frady, of Frady’s Florist, relayed the information between Debbie Dills and the police. Ms. Dills continued to follow Dylann Roof for several miles until the police were able to set up a road block, apprehend Roof, and arrest him.
I believe that Whitey Bulger might very well have gotten away were it not for the intervention of Anna Bjornsdottir. He had been travelling back and forth to Mexico to get medication for his heart condition. And many people have said that, were it not for the quick and responsible response of Frank Wills, we would never have even known about the Watergate burglars. Might Dylan Roof, also, have gotten away, successively hidden as a fugitive for years, had it not been for the brave and daring intervention of Debbie Dills? Anna Bjornsdottir received two million dollars in reward money. Frank Wills, tragically, lived out his life in poverty. People with the power and privilege to assist him in improving his employment opportunities and quality of life did not do so, I am ashamed to say. Debbie Dills, Anna Bjornsdottir, and Frank Wills are all heroes. And we honor them best when we strive to embody their example of courage, risks on behalf of our nation and, especially, their persistence. They are each an example of how one person can make all the difference.
I talked about this with one of our great resident scholars, Dr. David Crockett, Professor of Marketing at U.S.C., with specialization in sociological aspects of consumer behavior and the consequences of social inequality. I said to David, “One person can make all the difference. But they have to have back-up– They have to have support for their efforts at effecting positive change.” “Exactly [David said]; it’s all about “the strength of weak ties.” This was a new concept to me [which is why scholarly conversations with David Crockett are always so stimulating and helpful]. So I looked into the concept of the strength of weak ties. Originated in 1973 by Mark Granovetter, it is essentially the fact that, in order to accomplish something [including getting a job after graduating from college] you should reach out beyond the inner circle of people you always associate with. And in their paper about this phenomenon, Daniel Levin, Rob Cross, and Lisa Abrams write that some elements must be present for the weak ties to be effective: competence, and benevolence-based trust. In order for a person to help and/or be helped by someone with whom their ties are weak, they must be able to feel trust and faith that that person is competent, and that he or she has their best interest at heart. Debbie Dills, Anna Bjornsdottir, and Frank Wills all had enough trust and faith that law enforcement would connect with them and help them. I, as well, have trust and faith in law enforcement because of the individual people I have known who are police officers, or who have worked for the FBI or the CIA. But we all also know that, as systems, law enforcement agencies can be corrupt. So that brings me back to the importance of persistence, and the necessity that we keep trying to reach out until we do connect with someone competent and benevolent who can help us, our communities, and our nation.
The last story I’ll share with you this morning is from Anne Lamott, from her memoire called, Traveling Mercies – Some Thoughts on Faith. I read it many years ago, and have never forgotten this story. Ms. Lamott is now a widely popular author of spiritual writing, commentary, and novels. And she teaches creative writing. Her book, Bird by Bird, is one of the best books on writing in print. Most helpful to so many people have been her honest admissions of her struggles to overcome addictions. In her teens, Ms. Lamott was an accomplished athlete, fit and trim and muscular. As a young adult, she could not adjust to and accept that her weight and body type had changed. She developed eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia. Her health was severely at risk. Recognizing this late one night, she opened the phone book. She found the name of a specialist in eating disorders, Dr. Rita Groszmann. Anne Lamott called Dr. Groszmann, who answered the phone. She asked Anne to come in the next day, because she was afraid that Anne was going to die. Dr. Groszmann then suggested that when Anne was feeling lonely and overwhelmed, she could choose to put off binging, and call someone up. Anne could then ask them to go to a movie with her, or go for a walk, or share a meal with her. After trying this for a few weeks, Anne slowly began to get better. Dr. Groszmann then helped Anne get in touch with what it feels like to be hungry. That was an entirely new sensation for Anne. But Dr. Groszmann encouraged her to try to sense when she was hungry, and then practice feeding herself. Anne started with Cheetos. And frosting and cookies. Then, she writes, “One day I woke up and discovered that I also felt like having some oranges, then rice, then sautéed bell peppers… It is, finally, so wonderful to have learned to eat, to taste and love what slips down my throat, padding me, filling me up, that I’m not uncomfortable calling it a small miracle. [And to people who aren’t comfortable with that word, I say] Listen! You must not have heard me right: I couldn’t feed myself! …Something happened that I had despaired would ever happen… But whatever it was, learning to eat was about learning to live– and deciding to live; and it is one of the most radical things I’ve ever done.”
Like Erich Fromm, the author of our first reading this morning, I do not believe that people are born evil. I think that they, including the people named in this sermon who committed criminal acts, make choices, upon choices, and then more choices, which cumulatively isolate them from the help, nourishment, and development of their selves, their spirits, and their souls, such that, eventually, they become alienated from so many possible sources of help and nurturance, and alienated from humanity itself. Counteracting that takes vigilance, awareness of injustices, and courageous action, from individuals of good faith and benevolence and from their strong and weak ties. But it’s possible– It’s happening all the time, many times a day, all around the world. Maybe it also takes some luck. But as people in law enforcement are fond of saying, “A fugitive has to be lucky all the time. We only have to be lucky once.”
I’ll close with these words from Anne Lamott’s book called, Operating Instructions – A Journal of My Son’s First Year [she writes]:
“I’m learning to call people all the time and ask for help, which is about the hardest thing I can think of doing. I’m always suggesting that other people do it, but it really is awful at first. I tell my writing students to get into the habit of calling one another, because writing is such a lonely, scary business, and if you’re not careful you can trip off into this Edgar Allan Poe feeling of otherness. It turns out that motherhood is much the same. I’m beginning to believe what I always tell my students, which is that someone, somewhere, is always well, if you’re just willing to make enough phone calls.”
Let us seek to be a conduit for a saving grace for the world.
*Closing hymn: #93 To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
*Benediction [R. Buckminster Fuller]
“Never forget that you are one of a kind. Never forget that if there weren’t any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person. ”