[Sermon Preached at First Universalist Church of Essex, April 2007]

Perhaps some of you have heard of the game "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." The idea behind the game is to try to link an actor or actress, through the movies they've been in, to one of my favorite actors, Kevin Bacon, in less than six steps.

Here is an example from the book The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. "O.J. Simpson was in Naked Gun with Priscilla Presley, who was in Ford Fairlane with Gilbert Gottfried, who was in Beverly Hills Cop II with Paul Reiser, who was in Diner with Kevin Bacon." That's four steps.

Amazingly, this works with even the most far removed actors you can think of. Another example from the book… "Mary Pickford was in Screen Snapshots with Clark Gable, who was in Combat America with Tony Romano, who, thirty-five years later, was in Starting Over with Bacon." That's three steps.

Although I am a big fan of Kevin Bacon movies, I'm not very good at playing this game. Your mind has to think as a spider's does, making web-like connections extending out from the original focus, weaving in and out through names and films, making intricate and delicate patterns. It's just far too complex for me to follow. But I do like to think about this idea, that all these people are connected, if you think about it long enough.

Of course this phenomenon of "six degrees of separation" does not apply only to actors. Many of you are probably familiar with Stanley Milgram's experiment in the late 1960's that has made "six degrees of separation" a household phrase.

Milgram experimented with this "small world" phenomenon through the use of a chain letter. He got the names of 160 people who lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and mailed each of them a packet, along with the name and address of a stockbroker who worked in Boston and lived in Sharon, Massachusetts.

Each person was told to write his or her name on the packet and send it to a friend or acquaintance who would be able to get the packet closer to the stockbroker. The people in Omaha sent these packets out to cousins, college friends, ex-co-workers… anyone who lived closer to Boston, and would be more likely to know the stockbroker. They, in turn, sent the packets on to others. Finally, 24 letters reached the stockbroker at his home in Sharon. Milgram found that most of the letters reached the stockbroker in 5 or 6 steps. Thus the concept of six degrees of separation (Gladwell, The Tipping Point, 34-35).

Again I am reminded of the spider's web, again I am awed by the threads connecting us all to each other. This image of the web has become important to me this year at the Boston University School of Theology, and in my internship as the Mass Bay District Social Action Coordinator. At school it has been useful as I work out my understanding of God as the interconnected web of life. And as social action coordinator I have used this image of a web to help congregations feel more connected to one another in their social justice efforts. We are not working alone. We are working within a network, a web. And it is this ever expanding connection to others which serves not only to make us a more powerful force for change in this world, but also as the reason we do social justice. We are all connected, and we must tend the web. But it is not enough to be vaguely aware of these connections in an academic sense.

In my life, it is not particularly meaningful to know that I could, if I wanted, get a letter to a stranger in Oklahoma in less than six steps. What matters is the recognition that we are connected to others in our lives—so many others. We are connected statistically, yes, but we are also connected emotionally, physically, importantly. With our minds, yes, but also with our hearts, with our hopes, with our needs and dreams.

The seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism is "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." Growing up, I thought of the seventh principle as the "You'd better recycle" principle. It was the principle that reminded you not to litter, and invited you to feel connected to the trees and rivers and stars.

I still do see those lessons in this principle, but I see other lessons, too. That we are not solitary beings making our way through this life. That our connections to others are a responsibility, yes, but also a privilege, and, at times, a saving grace.

A few years ago a young woman named Angela Shelton set out to make a documentary. She was interested in filmmaking, had a summer free, and decided it would be exciting and educational to survey women in America. The challenge was to get a true cross section of Americans. Angela Shelton had an idea. She decided to capitalize on the most basic of connections—her name. Angela traveled all across the United States, looking up, calling, and visiting all of the other Angela Sheltons that she could find. As is the way with these webs, she had no idea where it would lead. She had no idea.

"Is this Angela Shelton?" she would start her phone calls. "THIS is Angela Shelton." She had a few hang ups. She also had successes. 40 of them. The Angela Sheltons she met that summer truly were a cross section of America. They were wealthy and poor, young and old, black and white. They shared only a name. At least that's what they thought.

The other connection that many of these women shared was one that the filmmaker was not prepared for. It was a silent thread that connected them strongly. What Angela Shelton discovered on this cross-country journey was that, like herself, 24 out of the 40 Angela Sheltons she spoke to had been raped or molested.

This is what Angela writes:

"My name is Angela Shelton and I am not alone. I went 'searching for Angela Shelton' when I made my documentary of the same title and found that more than half of the women I spoke to shared more than just their name. They were all survivors of rape, incest, or domestic violence.

"I found that connection to be oddly sickening, especially because I also had been molested and raped during my life. In hearing all of their stories, I felt that I was not alone in my pain and suffering, but making the film did not affect me personally, or so I thought, until I found an Angela Shelton who was tracking sexual predators. That particular Angela lived in the same town as my father, who molested me from ages 3 to 8. The woman tracking sexual predators who happened to share my name lived five miles from my father, and we arrived on Father's Day.

"After hearing all the stories of each Angela Shelton, I was not only faced with my own story, I was faced with my perpetrator. With the Angela Sheltons as angels on my shoulders, I decided to knock on my dad's door for the first time in 12 years.

"The shock of what I did and the effects it had on me did not hit me until I edited the film and was faced with hearing my story over and over. I went through a lot of pain and self-discovery. The simple documentary I planned on making over the summer ended up changing my entire life. By telling my story over and over it soon lost its hold on me and the angels in each Angela Shelton inspired me to love myself and not only cope but to heal." (www.searchingforangelashelton.com)

It's an amazing story, isn't it? The lessons that Angela Shelton learned on that trip across America have stayed with me ever since I saw the documentary "Searching for Angela Shelton." Strength. Forgiveness. Faith. The power of the human spirit. The power of human connections. And she had no idea. She had no idea that these powerful connections to other women with her same name would affect her so deeply, or that she would find the inner strength to use this documentary to break the silence about the epidemic of abuse world-wide.

Denise Levertov once wrote a poem entitled "Web."

Intricate and untraceable
Weaving and interweaving
Dark strand with light:
Designed, beyond
All spiderly contrivance,
To link, not to entrap:
Elation, grief, joy, contrition,
Shaking, changing, forever
forming, transforming:
All praise, all praise to the
great web.

And how many of you have caught glimpses of this intricate design? How many of you have felt a tug, reminding you of the invisible strands connecting us to one another?

In 1996 my mother found herself at the Park and Ride in Rockland, where she was saying goodbye to friends after spending the day in Boston. As they stood talking, not yet ready to part, a young woman looking very distressed approached them. She was from Uruguay and was traveling by bus from Boston to Cape Cod. She had gotten off the bus in Rockland thinking that she was in Sagamore, where she was to meet a friend for their weekend on the Cape. She had no way to reach her friend, and no way to get to Sagamore now that the bus had departed.

My mother and her friends brainstormed and came up with the solution that my mother would drive this young woman as far as Plymouth, where my mother lives. From there she could get a bus to Sagamore and meet her friend.

As they headed south, the young woman told my mother more about herself. She was 24 years old, and working at an internship in Newton as an industrial designer. There was very little opportunity for industrial designers in Uruguay, especially for women. At first when she came to this country she was terribly homesick. She was lonely and overwhelmed by a culture so different than her own. She e-mailed her parents every day. But as the weeks and months went by, she made friends and gradually transitioned into thinking in English. She started traveling on weekends so that she could see more of the country.

My mother told her that she reminded her of my sister, Sarah, who was then studying abroad in New Zealand. My sister, too, had spent her first few weeks being homesick and e-mailing home daily. Now, like this young South American woman, my sister was meeting new people and experiencing a new culture, across the globe.

When she hit exit 7 in Plymouth, where the bus station was, my mother kept driving. She drove all the way to Sagamore, to the waiting friend at the bus station there.

When the young woman got out of the car, she thanked my mother and said, "I hope nothing like this happens to your daughter, but if it does, I hope someone like you will help her."

Two weeks later we received an e-mail from Sarah, who had been traveling for several weeks on the North Island. Sarah and seventeen of her classmates, along with their professor, traveled in three cars to Gisborne, where one of the students, Fudi, lived on a marae, a village of Maori people. They were to spend some time there, experiencing the culture and studying.

Just a few miles short of their destination, one of the cars flipped over, rolled twice, and landed in a ditch. Miraculously, no one was hurt. My sister, watching this happen from the car behind, was shaken.

Safely at the marae, the students went directly to a welcoming ceremony led by the Maori of the village. After songs and speeches of welcome, each person was asked to introduce themselves. Sarah was first. She said, "I am Sarah Wilkinson and I am from Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA, and I am just glad that we all got here safely." And she burst into tears.

A Maori woman went over to her then, and wrapped her in her arms. In an e-mail to my mother Sarah wrote, "it was the first hug I've gotten since I arrived in New Zealand, and it opened a floodgate of tears." Those two weeks with the Maori people were also the most wonderful and meaningful of her life thus far, she said.

As near as we can figure it, these two events happened on the same day.

My mother recounted this story in a letter she wrote to the residents of the nursing home where she was working at the time. "A triangle of caring occurred between Uruguay, South America, Plymouth, Massachusetts, North America, and Gisborne, New Zealand," she wrote. "A triangle of caring occurred across continents, across oceans, across ethnicity, across very disparate cultures. And once again I am in awe of the interconnectedness of the human web. May we continue to reach out to each other."

Friends, you can call it six degrees of separation, you can call it the interdependent web of all existence, you can call it a triangle of caring. The point is that we are not solitary beings making our way through this life. Our connections to others are a responsibility, yes, but also a privilege, a blessing, and at times a saving grace. We are not all Kevin Bacons, but we are all part of the web, and when we are falling, it catches us.

I'd like to close with a reading by Robert Weston called "The Web of Life."

There is a living web that runs through us
To all the universe
Linking us each with each and through all life
On to distant stars.
Each knows a little corner of the world, and lives
As if this were his all.
We no more see the farther reaches of the threads
Than we see of the future, yet they're there.
Touch but one thread, no matter which;
The thoughtful eye may trace to distant lands
Its firm continuing strand, yet lose its filaments as they reach out,
But find at last it coming back to him from whom it led.
We move as in a fog, aware of self
But only dimly conscious of the rest
As they are close to us in sight or feeling.
New objects loom up for a time, fade in and out;
Then, sometimes, as we look on unawares, the fog lifts
And there's the web in shimmering beauty,
Reaching past all horizons, we catch our breath;
Stretch out our eager hands, and then
In comes the fog again, and we go on,
Feeling a little foolish, doubting what we had seen.
The hands were right. The web is real.
Our folly is that we so soon forget.