Another View of Hope (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward
We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”


We have spent some time in worship and our small group reflection this month playing with this interesting notion introduced by the novelist David Foster Wallace. Speaking to the graduating class at Kenyon College in 2005, he argued that there are “default settings” that operate in our thinking. He described them as the kind of ideas about which we are absolutely certain, but that, all the same, are, in his words, “totally wrong and deluded.” And chief among these, he said, is the deep belief that “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Of course, he said, we rarely think such things because, in his words, “it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down.”

Wallace’s words echoed in my mind earlier this year as I read news reports about the South African leader Nelson Mandela lingering near death, as he still does. Now, two decades since his release after 27 years in prison, Mandela has been lionized on the world stage. He has been celebrated in films like “Invictus” and widely praised by world leaders, including our own President Obama.

It’s worth remembering, though, that at the time of his release there was much uncertainty about what Mandela’s new freedom would bring. The collapse of Apartheid in South Africa, the 40-year-old system that had codified racial oppression in every way that country’s white leadership could conceive, left a vacuum that no one knew what would fill. Mandela himself was in his 70s and long absent from the politics.

And so it was all the more amazing that from the moment he emerged Mandela took his place not only as a vigorous leader of an anxious and expectant nation but also as one of the world’s preeminent advocates for racial reconciliation. Despite a lifetime under the heel of virulent racist oppression, Mandela opened a path for healing and renewal for all people, one that adroitly took account of just the sort of default settings that Wallace pointed to.

We Unitarian Universalists have made a practice at this time of year at around when the United Nations was founded of widening our vision a bit and considering what the larger world has to teach us about the possibilities for peace and freedom. So, today, as we near the 68th anniversary of the UN’s founding, we turn to the story of Nelson Mandela and the hope his life offers humankind in its long walk to freedom.

Mandela writes in his autobiography that he began his life feeling that he was free, or at least, in his words, “free in every way that I could know.” He grew up in villages in the Transkei, a South African province bordering the Indian Ocean, many miles from the major cities of Pretoria, Cape Town, or Johannesburg, and was raised in relative privilege. His father was a local chief and advisor to the king of the Thembu tribe.

Seen as a boy with promise, he was sent to a Methodist boarding school, where he was given the name, Nelson. But shortly afterward, when he was 9, his father died, and he was sent to live with a family friend who was the area regent. He attended classes at a British boarding school – which helped make him a lifelong Anglophile – but he counted some of his most important education as witnessing the regent, his protector, as the leader of area assemblies.

These were occasions of great ceremony at which any man, rich or poor, was given the opportunity to speak – sad to say, woman weren’t given this privilege. Issues were discussed, and when a consensus was reached, the regent would sum up the results, a poet would deliver a song full of both praise and satire, and the evening would end with the regent leading the crowd in a roar of laughter.

Mandela headed off to college at 19, seeing a future for himself in the government’s Native Affairs office, and got involved in student government. On returning home, though, he found his protector had arranged a marriage for him to a woman who he knew was in love with a friend of his. He fled to Johannesburg, but later reconciled with his protector, completed college by correspondence course, apprenticed himself to a law office and later entered law school.

Friends counseled him against getting involved in politics, but he was drawn in all the same. As he wrote later, “it was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion . . . that I began to hunger for it.”

The African National Congress had been organized in 1912, and as early as 1918, the year of Mandela’s birth, at the Versailles peace conference, it had voiced the grievances of African people. By the 1940s, when Europeans adopted an Atlantic Charter asserting the dignity of each person and arguing for democratic reform, the ANC responded with a similar charter calling for full citizenship of all Africans, the right to buy land, and the repeal of discriminatory legislation.

In 1944, Mandela and his allies, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, helped organize a Youth League of the ANC, to advance its goals. But in 1948 Afrikaner Nationalists came to power and brought with them the policy of Apartheid. Blacks in South Africa were already essentially non-citizens in their own country, without the right to vote or hold property. But Apartheid codified that oppression as never before. It regulated who could live where and forced blacks to move from some areas. It restricted who could hold what jobs and who would receive what education and instituted a policy of police terror and political persecutions for those who opposed it.

Mandela and Tambo worked as lawyers to help people navigate the system and helped organize the ANC response – a Defiance Campaign that broadly challenged the Apartheid system. The results were thousands of arrests and ultimately an epic trial for treason against Mandela and 29 others that lasted from 1955 to 1960 that resulted in their acquittal. Later that year, though, police in Sharpeville fired on a massive protest demonstration, killing 69 and wounding at least 180 others.

Shortly afterward, to avoid being arrested, Mandela went underground. During that time he even went on an international tour as an ANC leader and was chosen to head an offshoot group called the Spear of the Nation. That group led a shift in the ANC’s tactics, for the first time organizing acts of sabotage in the hope of weakening the state’s resolve. After two years in hiding, Mandela was captured and put on trial for crimes against the state. In 1963 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was 45 years old.

Social scientists argue over the origin of racism, but I think a credible claim can be made that it originates in something like the default setting that David Foster Wallace identified: “I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” Carried further, it’s easy to see how this way of thinking morphs into an attitude that sees my interest as trumping all others. So, I need not concern myself with others’ welfare, even their humanity.

It’s not something we’re likely to confess, as it is, as Wallace observed “so socially repulsive.” Ugh! I hate to confess it, but I think Wallace is right. It’s an impulse that each of us struggled with. I can certainly find it in myself. And Nelson Mandela could see it, too, not just in his oppressors but also in himself.

In an interview with Oprah Winfrey after his release, he said that it was certainly a tragedy that he spent most of his adulthood in prison. But, in his words, “if I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life, and that is changing yourself.”

Yes, sitting in a narrow cell or breaking up stones in the prison yard on Robben Island, he thought deeply about the future of his nation and how he would like to change it. But he also gave attention to what he considered the flaws in himself: his impulsiveness and pride, the hunger for vengeance. To help temper that, as the grind of prison life went on, he began to get to know his jailers and study the Afrikans language and history as well as that of his own people. He came to appreciate the fear that underlay that racist state that oppressed him, and to see something else: another and very different default setting within us.

“I always knew,” Mandela wrote, “that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. (Human) goodness is a flame that can be hidden, but never extinguished.”

Two decades after its demise, it’s hard to fathom how oppressive the Apartheid state was, how hard it worked to demean, even to deny the humanity of every non-white resident, but mostly blacks. Leaders who emerged were intimidated or assassinated, and reform groups, both black and white, were infiltrated with spies and troublemakers who worked actively to undermine them.

And still by the late 1980s the state itself, one of the most poisonous purveyors of racist oppression ever to have arisen, recognized that its days were numbered. So, in a remarkable turn of events it turned to the man it had demonized as the chief agent of its woes to negotiate a way forward. And he, despite enduring a prison term that snatched away a third of his life, agreed.

The iconic event of Mandela’s release in February 1990 was just a start. It took another four years to negotiate a new constitution and arrange new elections, which resulted in Mandela’s election as president. Soon afterward Mandela appointed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to investigate many decades of human rights abuses. The years since have seen the disbanding of the National Party, which had created Apartheid, and the continued success of the ANC, but political turmoil, grinding poverty, corruption, and the country’s many intransigent divisions make South Africa still a work in progress.

As Mandela put it in his autobiography, “when I walked out of prison, my mission was to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case.

“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficulty road. For, to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

It may have been because Mandela’s words were ringing in my ears, but I thought I heard them again just this past week in a very different context. The occasion was the Campaign for Southern Equality’s latest action at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds to end the state’s discrimination against same-sex couples seeking to be married. It was shortly before 10 same-sex couples accompanied by about 80 of us supporters were to walk over to request a license to be married and, for the first time ever, not be denied.

Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, the campaign’s executive director, was talking to the group gathered in the sanctuary of First Congregational United Church of Christ. “I look around this room,” she said, “and I see people who are willing to go a step farther, to say this law is wrong and I know it, and I’m willing to believe that something I do in my life can help change it.

“I see people who believe that if we stand up against these laws again and again and again and return to the counter again and again and again to say I am equal, I am human, this is who I am, this is who I love, that it will change things.”

“We dare to believe what we know in our hearts, that those truths are more powerful and transcend the brokenness of laws that treat any people as inferior to other people.”

The circumstances may be different, but the end is not. It is simply the language of liberation that calls to us across cultures, across decades, across the world, language echoed in religious teachings from the parables of Jesus to the dharma talks of the Buddha.

We cannot be free, we cannot be whole if we would countenance the oppression of others. It may be, as Nelson Mandela observed on his inauguration as president that, “there is no easy road to freedom,” but in the end it is also the only path to peace. Nelson Mandela’s life and work embodied that, the combination of steely resolve and undying hope in what is possible among us, hope that the fear within us can be quelled and the love within us can be stoked: that the world’s liberation can be our own.

Entering Another Story – Native American People’s Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


So, today we return to this month’s worship theme of “default settings,” an opportunity for us to examine some of those untested assumptions and routine ways of thinking in our religious lives that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace.

In that context, many of us grew up learning a narrative of history that told of plucky European explorers who came to this continent in the 15th and 16th centuries on voyages of discovery, finding a new world, which they then settled and civilized. Of these figures, Christopher Columbus was singled out for special status as early as 1792, the 300th anniversary of his arrival. Columbus was not the first European to arrive, but his travels established the first lasting European contact with North America. Celebrations of his arrival culminated with President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision in 1937 to grant the request of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal group, to create a federal holiday in his name on the second Monday of October, tomorrow.

Left out of that narrative, of course, were the stories of the peoples who occupied the land that the Europeans claimed to have “discovered,” people who lived in rich and complex cultures that were thousands of years older than those of the European settlers. Also left out of the lesson plans was the depravity of those early settlers, men like Columbus who murdered, raped and enslaved native peoples for the sake, not of discovery, but of enriching themselves.

In recent decades as the stories of indigenous people have finally begun to surface in our Western culture and the true history of those early days is being told, a window has opened on a different way of marking those days. It began with events in October 1992 – the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival – that was celebrated in some places as Indigenous or Native American People’s Day, and has been honored since. Today, we ally ourselves with that movement, recognizing the old Columbus Day narrative as a default setting in our culture that we need to abandon for the sake of our own ethical integrity.

As a religious movement with its roots in Europe, we recognize that we are part of the culture that has benefited from this narrative at the expense of others. So, we have some catching up to do. We need to learn the larger history that embraces the full story of those indigenous peoples as well as our European ancestors. But to make ourselves available for that story we also have to open ourselves to different ways of seeing and being.

The deeper default settings that challenge us here are bits of the cultural patrimony that we carry unknowingly, settings that, for example, depict humankind as the crown of creation, given the natural world to exploit as we choose, or as rootless creatures whose destiny is not of this Earth.

Today to assist in that opening we will center our service on some of the stories of our neighbors, the Cherokee, people who have occupied these hills longer than white people have occupied Europe.

We’ll invite you to enter those stories, not as quaint myths of another time but as living testimony to a way of being present to the world while remaining in relationship with it, with a sense of place and deep time that our hyperactive culture works against. There are surely lessons in that testimony for people like us who seek to live fully and responsibly, who hope to know this world we occupy as sacred and our lives together as blessed.


Long, long ago people lived in the world with animals. They could talk to one another and everybody got along. But one day, as people will do, they started to fight. One thing led to another, and this person wasn’t talking to that person. Somebody wasn’t very nice to someone else, or stole from someone else.

They got so angry that the Creator was afraid they were going to kill one another. So, he divided them up into four groups and sent then off in different directions – the north, the south, the east, the west – to the four corners of the world. When they got there they were confused because they didn’t know how to live there. They didn’t know the plants, didn’t know where the water was and didn’t know what the seasons would be like.

The Creator felt sorry for them, so he sent them dreams that told them about each of the animals, what to eat, what to do, what the plants were for, and so on. They began to learn and grow, and then he sent them another gift so they wouldn’t forget. He sent them legends about all these plants and animals, and the world, so that each time they told the legends they would know how to be with the plants and the animals, and how to be with each other.


It’s hard for us to know what to make of Cherokee stories. To our ears they have the sound of children’s fables, and yet they are likely older than our European fairy tales, with roots perhaps older, even, than Genesis.

Last week I joined our adult education class on “Discovering a Sense of Place” on a trip to Cherokee, where we were hosted in a visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian by its education director, Barbara Duncan. In seeking to learn more about the Cherokee, she told us, it is good to begin with stories, since historically among the Cherokee stories served as both school and religion.

Stories held lessons for how people got along with each other and the larger world. So, the message behind them often boiled down to simple advice like don’t be greedy, don’t steal, don’t brag: lessons for getting along.

Years ago Joseph Campbell argued that the motif for legends in the west was the hero’s journey, the individual prevailing over daunting odds. For the Cherokee, the motif is different. As Barbara Duncan put it, the typical end of a Cherokee story is not the triumph of an individual, but an achievement for the community. Individuals may be sacrificed along the way, but the community prevails.

Stories also communicated a world view. There is no corresponding Cherokee word to the western word “wild,” referring to things outside of our control, in a natural state. Instead, the Cherokee see themselves as part of the world’s natural state, living in community with plants and animals, and responsible to them.

Nor is there any a separation between the sacred and the profane. Some places are considered especially holy, such as village mounds or places where community fires are kept, because of how they are used or what legend or history says has happened there, but every part of land is to be cared for.

In foraging, for example, when looking for a particular kind of plant, one would pick only every fourth one, assuring that more remained for future foragers. A river was called a “long man,” with his head in the mountains and his feet in the sea; people were prohibited from soiling them, assuring that the water would be clean.

The ethos underlying Cherokee stories is finding balance, implied in the Cherokee word Duyukta translated roughly as “the right path.” But the feeling in the community was that no instruction, no preaching was needed to learn this. It was something that everyone knew if he or she just paid attention.


The earth was a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault. All of the animals were in the sky place, Galunlati, but it was very crowded, and they needed more room. They wondered if there might be something on or under the water. So, the Beaver’s grandchild, Dayunisi, the little Water-beetle, offered to go and see what it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then, it dived into the water, swimming down and down and down, until it came to the bottom and found some soft mud, which it brought to the surface. Immediately, the mud began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth.

This earth was still fastened to the sky with four cords in the cardinal directions. At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to come down, but they didn’t want to sink in the mud. They sent out different birds to see if it was dry, but they found no place to land and came back again to Galunlati. Then the buzzard had an idea. He flew down close to the land and flapped his great wings, which started to dry out the mud. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and flew still lower. His wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.


The Cherokee origin story is set here in the mountains because as far as they are concerned they have always been here. Kanati and Selu, first man and first woman, were said to have made their home in the Shining Rock Wilderness near where we gather blueberries these days, as the Cherokee did before us, at Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Archaeological records date human occupation in this area back at least 10- to 12,000 years ago. When Cherokees emerged as a separate tribal identity is unclear, but the Cherokee language appears to have appeared distinct from other tribes around 3,500 years ago and permanent, well-built villages date back at least 1,000 years or so.

Historical records say that the Cherokee nation once encompassed a population of some 36,000 over more than 140,000 square miles – covering much of what today is Kentucky and Tennessee as well as western Virginia and North Carolina and northern South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. This nation, though, had no central government, but instead consisted of a federation of towns.

One of the nation’s “mother towns” was at Kituhwa, near present day Bryson City, the site of a prominent mound. Unlike in the burial mounds of some cultures, there are no bodies buried in these places. Instead, they are said to be places where members of the community brought soil in baskets or even turtle shells to a common location in the center of a village as a symbol of their coming together, and because of that they are held to be holy. The mound was also the site of a sacred fire that was always kept burning, symbolizing the presence of the Creator among them.

Another important location was what the Cherokee called Kuwahi, or Mulberry Place, which we call Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. As John mentioned earlier, this was also the location of the Gall Place, the magic lake that to human eyes looked merely like clouds filling a valley, but was where sick and wounded bears, and other animals, could go for healing.

During the forced removal of Cherokees in the mid 19th Century, it was also said to be a place where people hid away from the soldiers, seeking healing of a different kind.


At the dawn of time, the first man and the first woman set up their home together by the side of a great broad river. They had everything they needed for a blissful life: fruit, meat and fish, plenty of wood and fresh water, and, of course, each other. They lived as happily as any man and woman have ever lived together, until they began to quarrel. First it was the small things, like “Why didn’t you cook this?” and “Why didn’t you tidy that?” But then the insults, and a few wooden plates and bowls, began to fly.

The first woman was so upset that she decided to leave the first man. At the break of day, while he was still asleep, she set off down the valley, heading towards the rising sun. She walked and walked, always looking straight ahead of her, and not once turning back. When the first man woke up and saw that she was gone, he waited for her to come back. She did not come back. He found her tracks along the valley, but she had a long head-start on him, and she did not stop or look round.

The sun was now high in the great blue sky. It looked down upon the first man, as he followed after the first woman, and it saw that there was sadness on the face of the world. The sun asked the man what had happened, and when the man told him, the sun asked if he would like to have her back. He said that he would. So, the sun took pity on the first man and decided to help him. His gentle rays touched the ground along the woman’s path, and a huckleberry bush sprang up. Its fruit was shiny and enticing, but as she passed her eyes remained fixed on the distance, and she did not see the berries.

And so the sun shone again on the ground up ahead of the woman. And he caused a clump of blackberries to grow up beside her path. She refused to even glance at them.

And then the sun thought that he must create something entirely new: something so vivid, fragrant, and delicious, that even the first woman would not fail to take notice of them in her resolute and unhappy mood. And so he shone his rays, and the first patch of strawberries spread over the ground.

Their sweet scent filled the woman’s senses, and her mood became lighter. She began to look around her, and she saw the bright red fruit hiding beneath he leaves. She picked one and ate it, and as she tasted the strawberry on her tongue, she began to remember the happiness she knew when she first set up home with her husband. She found she no longer felt the pressing desire to leave him. She sat down on the ground and wondered what she must do. At last she gathered a bunchy of the finest berries and started back along the path to give them to him. He met her kindly, and they went home together.


It is said that one of the greatest shocks that westerners faced when they came to negotiate treaties with the Cherokee was that women would be among the leaders of the negotiating parties. From the Cherokee perspective, though, this would be expected. In the matrilineal culture of the Cherokee, women had control of the houses and fields. Men traditionally were away hunting and fishing, which left the women to tend the gardens and run the family. They were the ones who passed their clan affiliation to their children. Unlike the nuclear families of the Europeans, Cherokee families were often large, embracing many layers of relations.

This shifted in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when, after recovering from their defeat at the hands of Europeans, they set about to make themselves a “civilized tribe” of farmers and businessmen. With European “civilization” came a patriarchal social structure of disparate households with male breadwinners and women tending the home fires.

With all those transitions, though, what didn’t change was the Cherokee sense of connection to the land. Having been rooted here so long, one Cherokee is said to observed, “even the dust of this place is from our ancestors.”


They say that if you go out in the woods and hear some music or some people talking but don’t see anyone around you might have caught a glimpse of the gentle people, the Nunnehi. One time the Nunnehi came to the Cherokee people and told them, “you’re going to have to come with us now. All of you pack up your belongings, and in seven days you will have to come and live with us.”

“But why?” the people asked. “Where are we going? Why do we have to go?”

“Because,” they said, “Something terrible is going to happen: worse than any flood, or any famine that you have ever known before. You have to leave to save yourselves.”

So, they packed up their belongings and followed Nunnehi for miles until they came to a big stone way deep in the mountains. As they watched, the stone rolled away, and they rushed to see what was inside. It was such a beautiful place. The air seemed to dance with joy.

So without even thinking, many families rushed in. As the turned to close the door forever, they saw a group standing away in the back. The chief asked them, “Why aren’t you coming in? We’re ready to close the door.”

But the people said, “We were born here, and no matter what happens we want to stay.” The chief was torn. He wanted to go in, but he also wanted to be with his people. He decided he needed to stay and help lead his people.

The stone rolled back, and the people who stayed were the descendants of today’s tribe. Those other people have never been heard from again, though they say if you’re out in the woods, you might hear some music or some people talking. It’s the Nunnehi, and they’re reminding us that they’re always with us.


The greatest irony in Europeans celebrating Columbus Day is that for the native peoples of North America the colonization of their land was a catastrophe. This is so not merely because within the space of three and a half centuries Indians were tortured and abased, militarily defeated and driven off their home lands, but also because the diseases the Europeans brought with them cut like a scythe through their numbers. By one estimate, 95 percent of Native Americans were killed by disease epidemics like small pox within a little more than a century after the arrival of Columbus.

The first contact the Cherokee had with these people was an expedition by Herman DeSoto in 1540 in search of gold and slaves. But full blown trade with Europeans didn’t start until the beginning of the 18th Century. There were benefits to the Cherokee from this trade – introduction to new crops like apples and sweet potatoes as well as livestock, and goods like pots, weapons, plows and cloth. But by the end of that century, the Indians also experienced several killing epidemics, warfare with European settlers that included multiple atrocities on each side and in the end wiped out dozens of villages. The Cherokee also saw the loss of 75% of their former territories through treaties with their conquerors.

It was George Washington and his secretary of war, John Knox, who in 1789 proposed a solution to the continuing tit for tat of warfare between Indians and settlers, a policy of what he called “civilization.” Indians would be taught to live like white people, even encouraged to intermarry with them. The Cherokee ultimately agreed and succeeded grandly, developing schools, churches, and businesses, creating a written language, a constitution and a representative assembly.

But the settlers weren’t satisfied. They wanted the Cherokee land and pushed to remove them. The now “civilized” Cherokees responded with the tools they’d learned. They lobbied, petitioned and even filed a lawsuit that eventually won them a Supreme Court ruling allowing them to stay.

It didn’t matter. President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and called out federal soldiers and state militias in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina to drive the Cherokee out. Troops rousted people from their homes, gathered them in rough stockades and drove them west to Oklahoma on what has become known as the “trail of tears.” Some 15,000 Cherokees were driven from their land; between 4,000 and 8,000 died on the journey.

Here in the mountains of North Carolina, though, a small group living along the Oconaluftee River maintained a toehold on their land by persuading state legislators to accept their petition to stay. In time the federal government recognized them as the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. Another several hundred hid out in the mountains and eventually joined them.

Having the right to stay, though, didn’t prevent rapacious logging in the next 60 years or so that clear cut their land twice and left a nucleus of about 1,500 people living in poverty. The 20th Century also saw the arrival of federally-funded boarding schools that punished children for speaking the Cherokee language. In time, the schools closed and the tribe began its own schools that teach Cherokee language and culture.

A shift in the Cherokee’s fortunes came with the Indian Gaming Act in 1988. It gave the Cherokee a source of income, first with bingo and in 1997 with casino gambling, as well as jobs from the attendant tourist industry that has raised the standard of living of tribe members and funded health, education and other support services.

Meanwhile, the stories are still being told. Barbara Duncan from the museum has collected many of them from current day story tellers, people who learned them from relatives and tell them to school and civic groups.

She quotes a story that one those tellers, Freeman Owle, told to a group surrounding the trail of tears. Owle notes that, despite all the brutality the Cherokee experienced, the survival of the Eastern Band was due at least in part to the kindness and support of some of their white neighbors.

He concludes by saying, “You know, I came here tonight to tell you that the Cherokee people don’t really hold any hatred or animosity in their hearts for the things that happened in our past. We can take our hats off to the past, but as one great gentleman said, ‘We should take our shirts off to the future.’ The reason the Cherokee people survived is because they loved their neighbors and were good neighbors.”

It is a remarkable conclusion, an act of grace, really, that offers us an opportunity to enter these stories, to see in them links to our common humanity, a glimmer of hope for us all. Even today, the Cherokee are composing stories that end with something good for the people, for all people. And it is cause for us to be grateful.

Two important sources for this presentation were:

Living Stories of the Cherokee, collected and edited by Barbara R. Duncan, University of North Carolina Press, 1998

Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook, Barbara R. Duncan & Brett H. Riggs, North Carolina Folklife Institute, 2003

Photo credit:

We Don’t Stand; We Move – Association Sunday (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister


On a bright fall morning more than a decade ago, Sam Zurich began the day as he usually does with his radio tuned to NPR. As he was getting breakfast together, his ears pricked up to an item on the news: a couple of jetliners that had left Boston’s airport for the west coast were unaccounted for, and authorities were puzzled as to where they could be. Only minutes later, he heard that apparently one of those planes had smashed into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center, and within 15 minutes the other plane had plowed into the south tower.

Sam knew the World Trade Center. For some 30 years, before he and his wife, Elaine, had moved to Asheville, he had commuted from his home in Westport, Connecticut, to a radio announcing job in Rockefeller Center in the middle of Manhattan. The twin towers were unmistakable landmarks, looming in the distance. He and Elaine had celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary only a few years after the towers had opened with lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of the north tower.

As he listened to the rest of that day’s horrifying events unfold – the collapse of the towers, the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, the fourth augering into a Pennsylvania forest – one of his first calls was to the church. Sam had been helping out on the worship team, and he asked what the church would do and volunteered to help in any way he could.

Before long he got a call from the minister, Maureen Killoran, to say that there would be a service that evening and asked him to call local radio and TV stations to let them know. A large poster was prepared announcing the service and propped on an easel in our front yard with the words prominently displayed – “Everyone is invited!”

Sam says he recalls the service that night that packed this sanctuary as the moment he was proudest to be a part of this congregation. And the responsive reading that he led in that service tells why: “We need one another when we mourn and would be comforted,” it began. “We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.”

Seven years later on a late summer Sunday, Chris Buice, minister of the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville, and his daughter were having breakfast with Debbie and me, getting ready for a day at Bele Chere, when Chris’ cell phone rang. The signal was spotty, but he could make out enough to hear: “shooting at church.”

He dashed off not knowing what he would find, and we jumped on the Internet. Before long we learned about the man who had entered the sanctuary that morning with a shotgun hidden in a guitar case, pulled it out and began shooting while children of the church were putting on a production of “Annie, Jr.” Two people were killed; several were injured.

A little later I got a call from Taryn Strauss, our religious education director, who had grown up in that congregation while her mom, Lynn, was minister. She came over, and as we commiserated in shock we resolved that we needed to hold a service in solidarity with the Knoxville church. The service was set for Monday, a time when Womansong usually rehearses in our space, and they not only gave up the rehearsal space but performed in the service. Taryn told a story; we sang “Spirit of Life” and “One More Step.”

I began my remarks by quoting remarks that Forrest Church, minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, gave in their service after the events of 9/11. “I am so grateful to see you, each and every one. How profoundly we need one another, especially now, but more than just now. We are not human beings because we think. We are human beings because we care. All true meaning is shared meaning. The only thing that can never be taken from us is the love we give away.”

So, what is religion about? Many tend to associate religion with edifices of various sorts: edifices like this one of stone, wood, and glass, some grand and some simple. But we also associate religion with edifices of another kind: structures of words that organize the world in certain ways, that separate the world into the sacred and the profane, that outline a prescribed path to peace, to salvation, that state of final happiness that we humans imagine in so many ways.

It is in these sorts of words that most faith traditions locate their identities, words intended to inspire, to frame a sometimes hostile word in understandable terms, to offer comfort and serve as bulwarks in times of doubt and need. And yet, as Monika illustrated in her exercise to begin our service, edifices of any kind resist the natural motion of things. Those that endure must find some way to adapt to that motion.

Nearly a century ago, Lewis Fisher, dean of the Ryder Divinity School in Chicago, a Universalist seminary, was struggling with this issue. The denomination had recently celebrated the 150th anniversary of the arrival of one of its founders, John Murray, in America, and launched a campaign to double its membership. In truth, though, the denomination was in decline, split between conservative rural churches and progressive-minded urban ones.

In his book Which Way? Fisher argued that every religious tradition evolves. Words take on new meaning in the light of new circumstances, and denominations must learn to move with them. “Universalists are often asked to tell where they stand,” he wrote. “The only true answer to give to this question is that we do not stand at all, we move.”

This famous quote has a new currency among us Unitarian Universalists with the announcement that our denomination’s iconic headquarters building at 25 Beacon Street, off the Boston Public Garden and right next to the Massachusetts State House, and several other buildings nearby have been put up for sale. Headquarters will be moving to an up-and-coming but less prestigious neighborhood at 24 Farnsworth Street.

There is much to recommend the move. The old buildings are hopelessly out of date, and it would cost enormous sums – more than we can afford right now – to retrofit them. The sale of these buildings during a booming real estate market in Boston is likely to net the UUA a handsome profit to help pay off debts and put us on a strong footing for the years ahead.

And yet . . . it causes some pain to lose that prominent and historic address that has been home to the Unitarian side of our tradition for nearly 90 years. And there are those who see in this move signs of trouble for our movement at a time when we, like other progressive-minded religious, are, again, struggling. But here I want to affirm the UUA’s use of Lewis Fisher’s words, written for a different time but applying to a surprisingly similar circumstance.

It is not a prominent edifice that defines us as a religious body; it is the way we are in the world that opens the path to life-giving hope, that raises us above our self-concern and helps us see the possibility of a greater life, that creates connections among people centered in an affirmation of each person’s inherent worth and dignity and our kinship with all things.

It matters that we are joined, not by unalterable words, but by a covenant of principles and ways to be together that we learn by living. It matters that the sources of our tradition, some of which you heard the choir recite this morning, are a gift to draw on, not iron strictures. It matters that we have room to move, because it gives us space to breathe, to grow. So, it is a good day to join with other UU congregations across the country to mark Association Sunday as we celebrate the future that awaits us.

This month in worship I am inviting you to examine the “default settings” that you find governing your religious life – untested assumptions, routine ways of thinking that get in the way living fully with integrity and peace. And today I want to suggest that attachment to these kinds of edifices I’ve been talking about is one of them.

Oh, we certainly need them. This lovely edifice that we occupy makes possible the gathering of this community in light-filled, aesthetically pleasing space. But we have also seen it evolve and know it will continue to evolve as this congregation and its needs evolve. We also have our own edifice of words – our mission statement, covenant, by-laws, governing document, as well as the wise words of celebrated women and men. All that gives needed structure to our life together, and it, too, continues to evolve over time.

The life of a congregation, though, is something more. It is embodied, not in its edifices, but in its people and how being part of a gathered community has changed them and changed the world: in short, not so much what we stand for, but how we move.

I began today with two stories of such change, of how our way of being in the world opened doors, opened hearts and made possible something life-giving and good. Sam recalled how the 9/11 service made us both a force and a voice for a community coming together. Our service after the Knoxville shootings not only served to offer comfort in the face of meaningless violence, but made room for an interfaith conversation that we hosted on how faith communities respond to violence.

And there are many more stories to tell. So, to make a start at this I invited people who have been a part of this congregation for 10 years or more to share some of their stories. Sam’s was one; here are some more.

Arthur Poultney recalled the camaraderie of growing up in the 1950s when barely more than a couple of dozen people met at the old YMCA and then a large home on Vermont Avenue. An oasis of liberal religion provided a welcome respite for progressive-minded people, and their gathering sparked community involvement, such as recruiting Eleanor Roosevelt to speak to a U.N. Day gathering here, such as serving breakfasts to African-American kids and registering their parents to vote at a time when the schools here were still segregated.

Bob MacPherson recalled his wife, Ann, bumping into UUA President Robert West in a trip to Germany and recruiting him to speak at a banquet before the dedication of this building. Among the 250 or so present at that dedication on October 15, 1972 were Paula Sandburg, whose gift help make the building possible, and Reuben Robertson, who donated the land where it was located, both of whom died within the year. Those present dedicated this building where we sit to “the life universal, that it may bring blessings to many people: guidance to the young, consolation to the troubled, encouragement to all.”

Nels Arnold remembered an all-church project in the 1990s to support the Helpmate domestic violence center, with congregation members taking part in everything from fund-raising, to child care, and building playground equipment.

And in perhaps no other way we have brought about the change we seek than through religious education that, in William Ellery Channing’s words, aims “not to stamp our minds on the young but to stir up their own.” I couldn’t begin to weigh the impact that dozens of volunteers have had on the hundreds of children who have taken part in our classes, yet I see it resounding in the joy of those who have been touched by it. Anna Olsen says she has taught religious education here for 24 years because she gets so much out of it.

“My theology is open to self examination,” she says. “My patience is increased, my appreciation of wonder at the small details of life and relationships are experienced.  I become more of the best part of me because that is (what is) expected.  I feel accountable for who I am.”

It is a measure of what a crucial role we play that so many of you have supported this community over the years to preserve a liberal voice in religion in this part of the world. Michael Lord will be returning to his native England within the year, but before going he has contributed $25,000 to our endowment in a bid to help assure that this congregation not only survives but prospers.

Take a look over the fireplace in Sandburg Hall before you leave today to see who else has given or plans to give from the abundance of their lives to sustain the promise we hold for the world. When that list is next updated, you will see my name and Debbie’s there as well. Won’t you join us?

This is important, but in the end we will be measured as a religious community by how we realize our hope for all humankind. It is why our members were key organizers of Building Bridges, a community anti-racism training, and why we are life members of the NAACP. It is why we hosted overnight undocumented workers campaigning for immigration reform, and why we have had teams of visitors, donated books and served as reading tutors to prisoners at the county jail.

It is why our building has been a host of advocacy groups for transgendered people, and gay, lesbian and bisexual teens; for guardians ad litem, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Cathy Agrella recalls one evening more than a decade ago when she was in the foyer outside the church office and heard a group in the RE common area downstairs singing traditional Christian hymns. She says, “I thought, ‘What in the world?’  These songs, filled with references to Jesus and salvation, were certainly not being practiced by our own choir.  And yet, the sound was so beautiful, and so heartfelt, that my eyes filled with tears.  When a staff member came by, I asked about the music, and was told that members of the Metropolitan Community Church were having services.

“At that time, when it was still rare for gay people to be welcomed in Protestant churches, where else but in our building could these singers have felt so free?  We had offered them a safe and open haven for a spiritual gathering. I was never so proud to be a member of our congregation as at that moment.”

And, of course, the welcome that we provide for others makes that much sweeter the welcome we can offer to each other. I offer you these words of our member Carol Taylor:

“This Christmas, Betty and I are flying to Portland, Maine, to get married—because we can. After 40 years together, we figure it’s going to last. Betty says it will turn us from an old couple into an old married couple.

“Maine in December isn’t exactly what I want. I want to be married here, in this sanctuary, where, for 13 years, I have been moved to laughter, tears, and action. I want to be married by Mark Ward.  I want a reception in Sandburg Hall, with champagne and a big cake, surrounded by family and friends, including many in this congregation. I don’t think this will happen soon. When you’re both in your 70s, you can’t afford to wait around.

“When Mark asked everyone who’s been here 10 years what impact UUCA has had on their lives, I had lots of answers. Most of them were about community. This community clarifies my thinking, nudges me outside my comfort zone, draws me out of my shell, brings me friends, and makes me happy. But the clearest and most dramatic impact has to do with who I love.

“When the state of Washington voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a lesbian friend who lives in Seattle said she was surprised by the effect on her, since she had no plans to marry. It changed everything. As she rode the bus, dined in restaurants, shopped in bookstores, she looked around and thought, ‘These people voted me into existence. I’m a citizen of this state. I’m real. I belong.’

“I know how she feels, because I’m a member of this congregation. Oh, this is how it feels to be accepted as just another person. Accepted casually, as a matter of course (“say hello to Betty”). This is what it feels like not to be a category. It’s wonderful to know that if you dislike me, I have earned it. I was rude, or insensitive, or unkind, or stupid, or you haven’t gotten over the checkout lines at last year’s auction.

“When you live in a culture that despises you, it’s impossible not to take that inside. When you belong to a community that affirms you, that brings you in, that accepts you with no particular interest in who you love, you take that inside, too. The hard-edged defenses dissolve, and you can move on.

“In a diverse congregation of 600, there have got to be people who oppose same-sex marriage, and who think that the least I can do is shut up about it. I suspect they don’t talk about it much, because it’s so clearly contrary to the ethos of this congregation. Bless their hearts. In their own way, they’re in the closet. They belong here, too. Community matters. It is comforting. It is transformative.  It is life-giving.”

My friends, never doubt the power of religious community, of this religious community. Never doubt that in how we move we are changing the world, even if one silly brick at a time, even if it takes far longer than it should.

But we can trust in the process, in the hope that, as the crusading Unitarian minister Theodore Parker put it, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” because we can see it at work, slowly moving in the world at large, and moving in ourselves as well.

Moving, with all that has ever lived or will live in infinite space and infinite time, letting go of false assurance and giving ourselves over to possibility: emergent, vital and alive, arising in us now.