“Reflections on Neighborhood”
Inaugural Sermon for
Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, Illinois
August 20, 2017
the Rev. Jennie Barrington, Interim Minister
First Reading: from, Grounded – Finding God in the World – A Spiritual Revolution, by Diana Butler Bass [from her chapter on, “Neighborhood,” p. 222]
“In the twentieth century, Jewish theologian Martin Buber explained that most arenas of human activity –politics, economics, and education– actually alienate us, because they treat human beings as objects. Modern culture has trained us to distance ourselves from one another, seeing others and the world itself as something to be observed, examined, and critiqued. Essentially, we view everyone and everything as problems to be fixed. When we know others only as objects, what Buber called the ‘I-it’ relationship, it precludes the possibility of community. There is, however, an alternative. If we encounter our neighbors with empathy, remembering that others are subjects, we can enter into an ‘I-Thou’ relationship. Seeing others as ‘Thou’ opens the possibility of real affection and mutual responsibility. True neighborliness can be described as being mutual subjects, acting toward one another with respect and understanding. Buber said that modern society is an ‘it’ world. But he also claimed that a ‘Thou’ world, of connection and compassion, was the only path toward a healthy human future. Buber’s vision easily translates to the possibility of neighborhood– ‘Thou’ is another way of talking about empathy, a connective source for community. If we want good neighborhoods and to be good neighbors, we must be able to treat both places and people as subjects, not objects.”
Second Reading: from, The Spirit of Community, by Amitai Etzioni
“Some time ago I was driving home in snow that had snarled Washington, D.C., and was forced to abandon my car and hitch a ride with someone whose car had four-wheel drive. When I finally arrived at my home in Bethesda, Maryland, neighbors were standing in my kitchen– crying. I found out that my wife had been in a serious car accident. My young son had been taken to an emergency room with her. Two of my neighbors offered to drive me to the emergency room, despite the icy roads (we did spin out of control on the way), and others simply stated that they were going to stay in my place to wait for my other sons to arrive. My wife did not survive the accident, and in the weeks that followed, my neighbors took care of me. They brought over food; one couple spent the entire evening with me, although it was one of two evenings their son was home from college. Another dedicated his only day off from work to go to the car wreck and retrieve some documents, a task I could not face. They called on me frequently for weeks on end.
I know, as clearly as one can ever tell about human motivations, that they did not calculate how much I had done for them in the past or would do for them in a future moment of need. It was quite evident that they did what they could to help out of a sense of compassion. True, there is, quite properly, in any relationship or community some vague sense of appropriate reciprocity, of the need to contribute to a climate of mutuality. But basically people help one another and sustain the spirit of community because they sense it is the right thing to do.” [p. 145]
Musical Message “Won’t you be my Neighbor,” by Fred Rogers
The Morning Sermon: “Reflections on Neighborhood”
Good morning, and welcome, and may I say again how honored and delighted I am to be starting up as the interim minister for your very caring and fun congregation, in this beautiful neighborhood known affectionately as Lakeview. While I was considering coming here to be your new interim minister, I talked with many people familiar with “2U” and Lakeview. Those people included ministers and seminary students, and other Unitarian Universalists who once attended here, or who have family who either attended here, or lived here. I also talked with realtors, and people from the moving company, and I googled a bunch of things. All of the feedback said some variation of: it’s a wonderful congregation, with a long, rich history, and what a great neighborhood! I had an especially helpful conversation with the long-time staff person from your congregation’s UUA District and Region, the Rev. Ian Evison. He told me how nice you all are, and talked about the ups and downs 2U has had over the decades– how there were a few times when the number of members dwindled, and the congregation might have closed its doors, but it rallied, and asked for and received help from other Unitarians and Universalists, and rose up to flourish once again. And they he said, “It’s a really hip neighborhood!” Another person I talked to, shortly after I said yes to coming here, was your Congregational Administrator, Andrew. I told him that I had begun looking into possible apartments, some of which would necessitate talking the El or the bus every day. Andrew said, “I think you should live in this neighborhood. Everything you’d need would be within walking distance. It’s a great neighborhood.” So that’s what I decided to do, and happily so. I also wanted my first sermon for you to be about something that you could relate to, and which would feel meaningful to you. And everyone says that “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.”
Both of the authors of the two readings we heard this morning have reflected deeply on the concept of neighborhood. Diana Butler Bass, in her book, Grounded – Finding God in the World, devotes a whole chapter to “Neighborhood.” Some of her other chapters are called, “Roots,” “Home,” and “Commons.” At the beginning of her chapter, she writes:
“The English word ‘neighbor’ comes from the Old English words neah (or nigh) for ‘near,’ and gebur, meaning ‘dweller.’ By 1600 or so, the word ‘neighborhood,’ which had meant the ‘state or condition of living in a neighborly fashion,’ came into its modern usage as a noun for a community of people who dwell near one another… Put simply, people create neighborhoods when they gather together beyond family ties, live close to others, and choose to share certain resources (in the contemporary world, those resources include, for example, electricity, schools, roads, places of worship, stores, and often a park or some other commons). Neighborhoods are born when people settle in a certain geographical space and turn it, in common effort with others, into a habitable place.”
There’s a delightful example of people “living in a neighborly fashion” right in our neighborhood. I pass it as I walk between my apartment and the church. It’s the Margaret Donahue Park. If you don’t know who Margaret Donahue was, you should look into her and her remarkable life and career– especially since she was a Cubs Fan. She started out doing secretarial work for the Cubs, back in 1919. But she soon rose to working for the Cubs in an executive capacity, and became their vice president in 1950– the first woman in that role in the major leagues. She introduced many innovations to the way baseball was managed, including reduced price tickets for children. The Margaret Donahue Park was created in our church’s neighborhood through a collaboration with the Chicago Park District, the School Advisory Council, and the Chicago Cubs. I love seeing all the lively activity brimming over in that park every time I walk passed it. There is sharing of healthy food, attention to physical health, healthy competition, friendships being nurtured through social networking, anti-bullying initiatives, and understanding of ethnic and cultural diversity. And the adults in the park are engaging in all of those things, too :)! Our congregation should notice, nurture, and support hubs of multigenerational interaction and enrichment like the Margaret Donahue Park.
Dr. Butler Bass’s description helps us visualize the many positive attributes at the center of a lively and collaborative neighborhood. But what do the edges of a neighborhood look like? And how are they defined? A bit later in her chapter, she writes about her neighborhood in Alexandria, Virginia. She says that she found a web platform that helps neighbors share and communicate. What her neighborhood’s formal association had been using was a list of people’s email addresses. She talked with the administrator of that list. He was open to the idea of using the web platform instead. He sent out email requests to the people in the neighborhood association inviting them to join. But Dr. Butler Bass wanted to include households on streets that were adjacent to the association. She wanted “all those who considered themselves neighbors to be able to access the platform.” The administrator of the list raised concerns about people’s safety and privacy. “’What [he asked] should be the appropriate boundaries of the neighborhood?’ [Dr. Butler Bass wrote] We needed to find a balance between inclusion and order, between welcome and security. We finally negotiated a map of neighborhood that best fit with my desire to include and his need to trust.”
In next week’s sermon, I’ll expand on the concept of neighborhood, to reflect on ways we engage with the wider community. Between now and then, we can give some thought to who the people in our neighborhood are —all the people in our neighborhood. And we should give some thought and have some conversations about that. It’s always harder to notice the people around us who have less power, privilege, and voice– people in need of our support and advocacy. I welcome hearing your thoughts on who, in our church’s neighborhood, we might notice more, learn from, and form friendships with.
The author of our second reading, Amitai Etzioni, describes the concept of neighborhood at its very best, and most compassionate. In 1993, he wrote his book, The Spirit of Community – the Reinvention of American Society. Dr. Etzioni is a communitarian. I would interpret that term to mean he is part of an organized effort to urge communities to live in a more intentionally compassionate and principled way. I heard Dr. Etzioni speak at a Unitarian Universalist General Assembly several years ago. He was the distinguished Ware Lecturer. And I still recall how moved I was by his address. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with all of his ideas. But it is a fact that his ideas about building better communities have been very thoughtfully researched, discussed, and developed. In short, he writes that community life has deteriorated in the United States, and we cannot expect communities that are caring and responsible to simply pop up on their own. Facilitators of many types of community groups should be trained to lead those groups well. That takes time, money, and other resources. But it is necessary to end the isolation and neglect of so many people’s needs. I think he is simply saying that we all must take more responsibility for both ourselves and for others. In Dr. Etzioni’s view, first of all, “people have a moral responsibility to help themselves as best they can.” He then says, “the second line of responsibility lies with those closest to the person, including kin, friends, neighbors, and other community members.” He feels that “as a rule every community ought to be expected to do the best it can to take care of its own [and] Each community must be expected to reach out to members of other communities that are less well-endowed and hence less able to deal with their own problems. The ways are almost endless, from sending food, blankets, and volunteers when a neighboring community is overwhelmed, housing ‘refugees’ from a hurricane or earthquake, to sharing equipment such as snow plows. Last but not least, societies (which are nothing but communities of communities) must help those communities whose ability to help their members is severely limited.” [pp. 144-147]
If we stop and think about it, I’m sure we all could recall being on the receiving end of a neighbor reaching out to help us, and selflessly so, out of their ethical believe that it’s the right thing to do. I’m recalling a time when I received such help and support, a little less than two years ago. Shortly after I moved to Columbia, South Carolina, to serve as interim minister of the UU congregation there, our area experienced historic floods so severe they only happen once in one hundred years. Roads and bridges were becoming washed over, and flood gates and dams were straining, especially around the apartment complex where I lived, a neighborhood called, Forest Acres, through the center of which runs Gills Creek. My next door neighbors were a young adult couple, Chris, and his fiancé, Jennifer. They had a little dog named Optimist, so we called him, “Opti.” Fortuitously for us, Jennifer worked at the office of the Water District, so we were more up to date on the developing floods than some people were. On Monday, October 5th, we really thought that the storm was moving away from our area. But instead it stayed over us and just kept raining and raining. Then Chris knocked on my door and said residents of Forest Acres were being advised to evacuate. I remember he pointed to our neighbors down the hill a ways and said, “See, over there– Those families are packing their vehicles up to evacuate.” So I thanked him and went inside to begin to pull together some essential things. I had just gone to the Department of Motor Vehicles a couple days before. So I had my personal I.D. papers all together in a big envelope. I started putting a raincoat and sweater in a bag when Chris pounded on the door again, really loudly this time. I opened the door and he said, “We have to evacuate, now. They are saying that the Forest Acres Dam is about to breach. If it does, there will be water rushing all over this whole area. You have to get in your car and drive out of here, now.” I told him that I didn’t even know which direction I should drive in. He said, “You should drive toward Lexington. Then you’ll be out of the path of the water.” He then patiently and clearly talked me through which roads to take to get onto the right highway to drive to Lexington. I thanked him again, threw some things in my car and jumped into it, and started driving. I did have a GPS, but I still felt really shaky about it all. I wondered if I could find a hotel room, but I doubted it. While I was driving, our Student Minister called me on my cell. She’d heard that our area had been told to evacuate. She was checking to see if I was okay. I told her which highway I was on, and which direction I was driving in. And she said, “You should just come stay with us.” Then she talked me through how to get to her home. And I spent two days with her, her husband, and their three young children, who were delighted and excited that their minister was visiting them.
Of course I will be forever grateful to our Student Minister, and her family, for taking me in during those historic floods. But it’s the way that my young neighbor, Chris, reached out and helped me, that still fills me with a sense of awe. Why did he do that? Why did he take the time and care to make sure I would be okay? Why didn’t he just get himself, his fiancé, and their dog into their truck and drive to safety as fast as he could? He did it because he was raised with the ethical sense that helping your neighbor in a time of need is the right thing to do. One of the most inspiring things in my lifetime, to me, is when people do something that they do not have to do– something charitable, an exhibition of higher responsibility, consideration that extends beyond their own needs to that which would support, nurture, and comfort some of their neighbors on this planet earth. What my young neighbor, Chris, did for me that stormy day gives me hope for younger generations, and for our world.
I’ll close this morning with a true story of the awe and joy a person can feel when witnessing good neighborliness. It’s from New York Times Columnist David Brooks’ essay of June 2nd, 2017. Mr. Brooks writes, “People are attracted by goodness and repelled by selfishness.” He cites N.Y.U. social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who “has studied the surges of elevation we feel when we see somebody performing a selfless action. Haidt describes the time a guy spontaneously leapt out of a car to help an old lady shovel snow from her driveway. One of his friends, who witnessed this small act, later wrote: ‘I felt like jumping out of the car and hugging this guy. I felt like singing and running, or skipping and laughing. Just being active. I felt like saying nice things about people. Writing a beautiful poem or love song. Playing in the snow like a child. Telling everybody about his deed.’”
Let us all do our part to make our “City of Neighborhoods” a City of Neighborly Love.
Hymn #1021 Lean on Me
Offering (Share The Plate with UUANI)
Closing Hymn #1017 Building a New Way
Benediction [William R. Murry]:
“Now let us go forth with the faith that life is worth living, that defeat and adversity can be transformed into victory and hope, that love is eternal, and that life is stronger than death. And may that faith inspire us to live our lives with dignity, love, and courage in the days and weeks ahead.”