Four Lessons on Hope

[Sermon Preached at First Parish Lexington, May 2008]

My very first day of Divinity School was the day that Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I remember because at community lunch that day, before we ate, we prayed for all the people who were in need. We thanked God for our blessings and we prayed for hope.

I'm not sure about you Tim, but my first week of Divinity school I was wondering if I was crazy going into the ministry. What was I thinking??? But on that first day, surrounded by people who took time out in all their abundance and excitement for their own new beginnings to remember that there were people struggling, to take time out in the midst of tragedy to pray for hope, it felt like I was finally in the right place.

Three years later, this hurricane and its aftermath have continued to be a big part of my ministerial formation. Three years later, Hurricane Katrina and the people of the Gulf Coast have taught me quite a lot. And so today, I pass on just some of what has been given to me through my experiences working in New Orleans. Today, I offer four lessons I have received about hope.

So often, when I think about the word hope, that thing that we prayed for at lunch on my first day of Divinity School, I think of Emily Dickinson's poem of that name. The first line just pops into my head. She wrote,

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Hope is a thing with feathers. I love that. It seems like an embodiment of my definition of hope. Hope is having faith in the good in the midst of the bad, knowing that the light will come even though you are sitting in the darkness. Hope is not giving up. It feels to me like giving hope feathers means that hope can fly us up out of our despair, that it can sing in our darkness so that we do not lose heart. And yes!, hope is sweetest during the storm. Sweetest in those times when you wouldn't think it would be there, but it is.

In the Spring of that first year of school I traveled with a group from my church down to New Orleans, to see for myself the devastation that the hurricanes had wrought. It was worse than I ever could have imagined. We drove for miles through the lower ninth ward, staring in silence at the rubble heaps that had once been people's homes. We saw houses on top of cars and boats in trees. We saw people's belongings poking up out of the debris. We slept on air mattresses at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, where there was still no electricity, even though it was eight months after the storm.

We worked each day on the church building, which had sat for weeks with five feet of water in it. FUUNO, as they call the church down there, has an impressive building. Coming from an urban church where meeting space is rare and closet space doesn't exist, we were amazed by the seemingly endless rooms in this enormous structure. But although we could see the vestiges of a large and active church, the floor plan after the storm was depressing. The pews had been destroyed. The hymnals and the bulletins and the paintings ravaged by water. By the time we got there, all the walls on the first floor had been taken down to the frame because of mold, and we spent time tearing down the ceilings and lugging wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of trash out to the curb where we hoped FEMA would pick it up.

And yet each time I made another trip outside through the side door to dump that heavy load, my eyes would rest for just a moment, as I turned and went back in, on the front door. My eyes would rest on the enormous sheets of plywood covering what used to be the entrance to the sanctuary. My eyes would rest on a mural of brightly colored flowers with words painted in black curly writing, "Rebuilding! Get ready for a UU Center for Spiritual and Social Justice Renewal in New Orleans!"

Out of this tragic experience…out of the devastation of their building and the disbursement of their community, the first UUs of New Orleans were making a plan. And they were planning big. They weren't just going to rebuild the way they had been. No. They were going to rebuild the way they dreamed they could be. They were going to rebuild as a center for spiritual renewal and social justice work that was not just for them, but for their whole community. They were going to heal, and they were going to thrive. They were in the dark, they were in the storm, they were in despair. But they could hear the singing. And it was that voice, among all the others, that they chose to listen to.

And so YES, Emily, I am willing to take the words of my first lesson in hope from you when I say lesson number one: hope is a thing with feathers.

I have to admit, I came home from that trip on a sort of high. I had seen a lot of brokenness and sadness, but the overwhelming feeling was one of hope and rebirth. I shared my stories with friends and family, wanting to spread the word of what was happening in the Gulf. And I started making plans for my next trip.

The next trip happened in October. 13 months after the hurricanes. I was eager to see what changes had been made since May. I was eager to continue the rebuilding work at the church (I thought maybe they would be back in the sanctuary by this time) and also to work out in the community. The eagerness, the excitement, did not last long. No, FUUNO was not back in their sanctuary. No, progress was not visible from our last trip. No, things were not better. Not by a long shot. Yes, we worked out in the community, but I could see pretty quickly that not all the damage had been done by the storm. These houses had crumbled long before the wind and waters did their damage. There were other forces that had gotten their first… poverty, racism, bad schools. The storm just made things worse. And now, over a year later, I was having trouble finding hope at all. I saw the storm alright. I felt the darkness. But I didn't hear any singing. And that's when I got my second lesson in hope.

One day, stewing in our anger that our government was spending billions on war and in our sadness that nothing seemed to have changed since May, a few of us spent the afternoon cleaning up a street in the Broadmoor neighborhood so that they could finally have one of their famous street festivals again…the first since the storm. Even though it was October, I can't tell you how hot it was out there, with no shade to hide in. We seemed to be covering very little ground, because there was just so much trash to stuff into our black garbage bags. Basic city services had resumed by this time but trash on the streets was not their agenda. It was an entire city full of trash. We were getting used to the view but knew it wasn't safe for children to be running around at this festival with so much debris littered everywhere.

Hot and tired and feeling incredibly discouraged, we were lagging a bit as we noticed a woman coming out of her house. She was all dressed up, but as she came closer I saw that she was carrying three bottles of water. We exchanged brief introductions as we gratefully accepted her precious gift of water. We told her we were there with our church, that we wanted to help. The conversation coming to a close, she moved forward to hug me, and I put my hand up to warn her, "I am really sweaty! And you're all dressed up."

"That's ok," she said. "You're sweating for us." And she surrounded me in a big, sweaty, Southern hug. It was in that moment that I realized that hope was not absent. For this woman, we were hope. Three people who came down from Boston to pick up trash on her street meant that she and her city had not been forgotten. We meant that people still cared. So lesson number two about hope: Sometimes, you are the hope. Gandhi said, "You must be the change you wish to see in the world."

Lest I sound too full of myself here, quoting Gandhi about my own efforts, I will tell you that Lesson number three about hope was a more humbling one. I can hear my preaching professor telling me that Lesson number three is really a separate sermon, so I'll save the details. But I need to mention it. Because if Lesson number two is that sometimes you are the hope, lesson number three is that it is not you who gets to decide that. You cannot go down to New Orleans and plant a garden in a poor, black neighborhood and think "I am representing hope." Because sometimes to others you might represent something else entirely. You might represent oppression or racism in ways that you never intended or imagined. To that woman with the water we were hope only because she blessed us with that identity. And so lesson number three was much harder to learn than number two. Lesson number three on hope: you can't decide to be hope for others. It's the one who needs the hope, who gets to name it.

On my last trip to New Orleans, just a few months ago, I got my most important lesson about hope. It was one of those times when the universe needed me to see something so much that it decided to spell it out for me, literally.

It was the end of a really tough trip. With lessons one through three on my mind, I was being cautious about hope. I was being tender and careful with it. We had been working further outside New Orleans than we ever had before…in parishes that haven't gotten much help at all in the last two years. Plaquemine Parish had been almost entirely washed away, and St. Bernard Parish was an earie landscape of abandoned buildings and interior-less storefronts. Picture route 1 completely desserted. My group spent two days "mudding" a house in a neighborhood that looked like a movie set because so few people had moved back in. Kids were playing in the empty streets. Yes, it was a school day. No, they were not in school.

I'm not sure how many of you have spent time doing construction work, but "mudding" is one of the most boring and least rewarding construction jobs that I can think of. It involves spreading joint compound that literally looks like mud over the seams where two pieces of drywall come together. The key is to spread on very thin layers of this mud with large putty knives, which get wider and wider with each application, until you can't see the seam anymore, and you have a smooth wall. You have to let each layer dry before starting the next, and sometimes it's hard to see any difference at all. It's slow going. It's boring. It's hard. It takes forever. At lunchtime on the second day Mark, the choir director at my church, and I went outside to wash off our tools. Although we'd begun the day by changing all the words to familiar songs into lyrics about mudding, we'd lost steam as it became apparent that we wouldn't be moving beyond the bathroom we'd been working on for two days. We washed our tools in silence, wondering if we'd be able to get Melissa and her son into their house by the holidays, the boy's deepest wish for Christmas. Visiting their trailer down the street had made me claustrophobic.

Having cleaned off the blades of our mudding knives we were ready to abandon them to the tool pile. But Mark didn't stop there. "Can you hand me that scrub brush?" he asked? "I think I'm going to try to wash this handle too." I handed him the wire brush and he began to scrub off not just his day's worth of mud, but all the other layers on the handle too, where tired volunteers had given up on perfection. And as he scrubbed, putting in that extra work because in that moment he was able to, letters began to appear beneath the gray suds. Written in black sharpie marker on the handle of the mudding knife, hiding beneath all those layers of mud, was the word HOPE.

So thank you, universe, thank you Camp HOPE, who it turns out lent us the tools for our worksite after labeling them for a safe return, for giving me this latest lesson. Lesson number four: Hope requires something of us. I've learned that I actually disagree with the end of your poem, Emily…when you say that hope never asks a crumb of us. I think hope asks a lot of us. Hope asks us for that extra effort when things don't seem hopeful. Hope asks us to hang in there. Hope asks us to get up in the morning even when we don't think we can. Hope asks us to come back. Hope asks us to wash the handles off of our mudding knives, because sometimes it is the little things that will make the difference, even in a disaster zone. Oh, and I got an e-mail that Melissa and her son made it into their house in time to celebrate Christmas.

I'm sure there is a lot more to say about Hope. And I know I have a lot more to learn about ministry and about life from my trips to the Gulf Coast. But here's what I've learned so far. Hope is a thing with feathers. Sometimes, you are hope. Sometimes, you are not. And sometimes, it just takes a little more work to find it.

Amen and Blessed Be.