HEROISM AND INTEGRITY
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 24, 2010
Rev. Kit Ketcham, Oct. 24, 2010
Sitting in a small booth at China City last Sunday night, awaiting my meal, I took out the little notebook I always carry and a pen, thinking I’d make a quick list of the various people I’d considered my heroes and heroines over the course of my life so far.
Let’s see, there were my parents and Ethlyn Whitney, the woman who was my Camp Fire Girl leader when I was a kid, a few professors in college. Oh, and fictional heroines counted---so there was Jo March, the literary creation of Louisa May Alcott, and, of course, Nancy Drew.
And then my list came to an abrupt halt. The next figure on my adult list was my boss at the Denver Christian Center, in 1965, the Rev. George Turner, and his presence on the list marked a huge shift in my hero standards.
George Turner, director of the Christian Center, was a whole different kind of character than anyone I’d known before. He shared some traits with my earlier hero figures, but he was different because his life stood for something greater than I had experienced in a hero before.
Before I go on to explain his presence on my list, I’d like to ask you to tell me some of the men and women who are on your personal hero list. Just call out those names; I’ll repeat as many as I can catch. (cong. response)
Thank you! And now, take a moment to reflect and then call out the chief characteristic that makes this person a heroic figure in your eyes. I’ll repeat as many as I can. (cong. response)
Again, thank you!
As I listened to your responses, I notice quite a bit of overlap in our choices. I hear in many of yours the same traits that I have come to acknowledge as heroic: moral courage, physical bravery, ethical integrity, intellect used compassionately and productively, appreciation for others’ efforts to behave with integrity. And these are only some of those traits.
George Turner’s leadership of the Christian Center wasn’t ideal. He sometimes overlooked important details, he expected our staff to work nights and Sundays and weekends on occasion when we didn’t want to, he was only a so-so preacher. He was quiet and unassuming, not fiery and aggressive. His wife Rae griped about his domestic habits occasionally and his son Georgie Jr. just saw him as Dad.
But he was the first person I knew who had had the moral courage to leave his comfortable life and to participate in the March to Selma, Alabama, when the temperature of the antagonism of the Southern states was in triple digits. He didn’t stay safely in Denver with his family. He went to Alabama to help his friend Martin Luther King Jr. His wife and son were scared for him but they too had moral courage and told him to go.
As Gladys and I were preparing this service, we talked about our own hero figures. Many of her heroes were people whom she knew through her family. As a born and raised Unitarian Universalist, she was personally acquainted with some of our denominational heroes---Charles Follen, for example. But her family background exposed her to men and women who had real moral courage and stood up to the likes of Joseph McCarthy during that era of our history and helped to integrate their local communities, at a time when this was a very risky thing to do.
Moral courage is one of my top requirements in a hero figure. It often looks like irresponsible foolishness to those who don’t recognize it. Jesus had it. Martin Luther King Jr. had it as have many historical figures. A person who is willing to risk the ultimate for an ideal or for another’s wellbeing has moral courage.
It’s as though the person looks into the immediate future and thinks “will I feel better about my life if I take this path of offering help in this crisis or if I take this path of avoiding danger?” It’s less a matter of safety and self-preservation than a matter of doing the right thing and knowing that it is the moral choice, not the choice of fear or apathy.
Our reading today comes from the Memoir in Progress of our UUCWI member Don Wollett. I have had the privilege, for the past seven years, of visiting Don every few weeks and spending time with him and his big old dog Major, listening to his stories about WWII and baseball and union negotiations and family. I’ve spent many a pleasant hour discussing current events and politics and justice issues with Don and I always come away feeling enriched by our time together.
As I have listened to Don’s thoughts and the stories that exemplify his values, I have come to see him as a hero figure for me. Our reading today gives you a glimpse of his values, but I’d like to tell you a bit more.
Don captained a ship for the U.S. Navy during World War II and considered stopping Hitler’s march across Europe to be a moral challenge which required his full commitment and participation. Though he came to hate wars of choice, like Iraq and Afghanistan, he saw Hitler as a threat to the safety and preservation of a democratic way of life, a threat to the lives of millions of innocent human beings, and a threat to the concept of freedom for all humanity.
Don served as a negotiator for a number of labor groups during his civilian career as an attorney, including baseball teams, teachers, and transit workers. And at one time, he was the contract negotiator for transit unions in the San Francisco Bay area. Because he worked successfully with the union and management to solve the problem of absenteeism and tardiness among drivers, the result was an improvement in the big picture: service for riders, improved morale among bus drivers, and consumer support.
This accomplishment caused an improvement in public funding, meaning wage increases. He got the union to cooperate with the boss, and vice versa, instead of the traditional adversarial role that unions and management often assume.
Consumers got better service, bus drivers got more money. Don has called this his finest hour. He calls it an example of enlightened self-interest in which adversaries realize the value of cooperation for the greater good.
Helping two adversarial bodies come to terms can be a risky business. There can be dangers from both sides, loss of reputation, loss of career, efforts to buy favoritism, even physical danger at times.
Now, Don’s many acts of heroism are not the kind you’ll see written up in the newspaper; they didn’t earn him a Pulitzer or Nobel Prize. He was rewarded for his service by the US Navy, in the same ways that most veterans are rewarded---an honorable discharge at the end of service and a medal or two.
But a hero he is nevertheless. To me, at least, and perhaps to those of you who also know him well.
Because Don is one of those unassuming, quiet, steadfast kind of guys whose heroism is unremarked but not unremarkable. He stepped up to the plate, both literally and figuratively, and did the right thing, at a time when the right thing might not have been the popular thing, the first choice for those who were only looking out for Number One.
I’ve mentioned from time to time, I think, how sometimes sermons come to write themselves, how occasionally they pay no attention to what I’ve described in the newsletter blurb and take off in a different direction.
To some extent, that has happened here, as I had intended to focus on heroes of our faith---the rock stars of Unitarian Universalism like Francis David and Michael Servetus and all those Transcendentalists, plus the heroes of social justice, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
But as I’ve spent time lately with people like Don---and you here today---I’ve found my hero thinking focusing on ordinary people who have heroic traits and behavior. Maybe not rock star traits like those I’ve mentioned, maybe with warts and feet of clay like our own, but with everyday moral courage and integrity.
A conversation with a friend later this past week helped me see it even more clearly. We realized together that our greatest heroes, it turned out, were people we knew personally: those who could really hear us, who could really see who we were; those who were not ruled by fear; those who were not plowed under by adversity; those who were open-minded and open-hearted; those who acted from their depths and inspired us to act from our depths---and even to help others in the same way.
These were our heroes’ traits and these people are all around us. One need not be a rock star hero, one only needs to be an every day hero, listening carefully to our friends and family members to be sure we understand who they are and what they need; not letting our fears hold us back; rising up from adversity to face it with courage, not despair; staying open to new learnings and welcoming new companions into our lives; going deep within to find strength for every day and helping us to find that strength deep within our own selves.
The Hebrew prophet Micah once wrote: “What does God require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” We might paraphrase this in more universal terms, but the message is the same----what is a human life and what does it ask of us?
We’ve recently been thinking about the wording of our Covenant of Right Relations and the Best Practices suggestions that came out of our September potluck conversations. And it occurred to me that what we are asking of each other is everyday moral courage and ethical integrity.
We are asking each other to really listen, to really hear what someone is saying, to be compassionate and respectful with one another. We are asking each other to be honest and kind, to be generous and faithful, to be forgiving and open to reconciliation.
Sometimes we don’t realize that these qualities, which I think we might agree are basic human niceties, are actually rare enough in human life that when we see them, we acknowledge how precious they are, we call them heroic.
I think most of us are fairly modest about our own heroic actions and qualities. We think of heroes as being those rock stars of history or of current events: the courage of Chilean miners trapped for months half a mile beneath the surface and the persistence of all those who worked to rescue them; the elected officials who accomplish some spectacular bit of legislation; the discoverer of cures for deadly diseases.
Of course these are heroic figures, there’s no doubt about that. They are the rock stars. But for every big name hero, there are hundreds, thousands, of little name heroes, and I don’t want that to be lost in the shuffle.
Being a rock star hero is often just a matter of timing, of being in the right place at the right time. Rosa Parks already believed she was good enough to sit in the front of the bus; Martin Luther King Jr. was pressed into service in the civil rights movement because nobody else was available.
Louisa May Alcott’s family was about to be evicted. Michael Servetus had just written a book. Ralph Waldo Emerson was sick of being a minister who couldn’t speak his own truth. Spiderman got bitten by a bug.
Most rock star heroes didn’t plan to be rock stars. They just wanted to live decent lives, have a few friends, speak the truth as they saw it. But when the moment arose, they fearlessly stepped into the new role and Mrs. Parks touched off the bus boycott in Montgomery, Dr. King led thousands of people in non-violent protest, Alcott wrote a series of classic books whose characters still live today. Servetus challenged the most notable clergyman of his age, John Calvin, Emerson quit the ministry and became part of a world-shaking literary movement based on natural theology. And Spiderman was just an unassuming student at a high school science fair who used his powers for good.
Some of us are tapped for greatness. Most of us just want to live decent lives, have a few friends, speak the truth as we see it. Sometimes a moment appears when we are thrust into the spotlight for some deed---we stop the bleeding of an injured person, we perform CPR on a person who has stopped breathing, we find a lost child, we contribute bunches of money to charity, we organize something that has far-reaching positive outcomes, we save the lives of a busload of people on a treacherous road when the bus driver has a heart attack, we donate a kidney or make the difficult decision to donate the organs of a dying loved one.
These things could happen; most of us are aware that the unexpected moment could fall into our laps. We hope we would respond in the right way.
But there are analogous heroic actions we can take every day: we can tend to the bleeding hearts of those who are grieving deep loss; we can wrap our arms around a person whose breath has been taken away by some great blow; we can reach out to the many lost children in our schools, those who are struggling to learn, those who are defenseless against bullying and harassment, those who are the victims of addiction and abuse.
We can contribute our time and talent to charitable causes; we can invite people over for a holiday meal or just an ordinary supper; we can provide transportation for a shut-in or visit the heart attack victim in the hospital; we can check that little box on our driver’s license that marks us as an organ donor and let our families know that this is what we want.
Every day we have opportunities to be heroes, people with moral courage, people with ethical integrity, people who are not ruled by fear, people who don’t let adversity stop them for long, people who are open-minded and open-hearted, acting out of a depth of character.
What might be the outcome of investing ourselves in everyday acts of moral courage, ethical integrity, fearlessness, respect and kindness? I believe that these acts of everyday courage and compassion are foundational to a life lived fully and satisfyingly, a life of deep meaning, a life which contributes something valuable to both the local and the larger community.
I mentioned during Joys and Sorrows that our dear Baird Bardarson will be receiving hospice care, as he has contracted pneumonia and, as he would wish, this disease, long called “the old man’s friend”, will be allowed to end his life, probably within the next days.
Baird has been a hero for many of us in this congregation, a man with moral courage, passion, vision, and commitment. And his name should be mentioned today as a hero among us. There will be time another day to tell the story of his life, but Baird has contributed so much to us as a congregation that his name must always be included, along with Don Wollett’s and many of your names, in our list of heroes, men and women whose lives are a testament to the best in human character.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we too have heroic qualities, we too can save lives---if not by stopping a runaway bus, then by easing a grieving heart or standing up for someone who is in need. May we have the moral courage to do these simple, everyday acts of heroism, for it is in this way that we make the world a better place. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.