NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED
Rev. Kit Ketcham, March 12, 2017
I have never thought of myself as a persister. I was an adventurer, as you heard in the story I read to the kids about a moment of adventure in my childhood. These were mostly safe adventures, though I did have that setback with the Tale of the Girl who was Stuck on a Clothesline Pole.
Then there were other setbacks involving boys I liked and horses they fell off of, or that I fell off of in front of them. Events in my life that made me a bit hesitant to persist in that particular adventure.
I did love reading about other adventurous girls. There was Nancy Drew, for example. And Louisa May Alcott was a favorite author of mine who wrote about Jo March, that adventuress of the 19th century book Little Women. I wanted to be like Jo March. At least up until she got in trouble for some misdeed, because I was a good girl and didn’t like getting in trouble. And I was a PK, which meant I would let my Dad down.
But here I am, almost 75 years old, and in the UU ministry, the fifth career in my history, so I must have persisted at something! When I look back at my life’s trajectory, I can see that each of those first four careers was preparing me for ministry in my later years, but my brand of persistence was just putting one foot in front of the other and going from one interesting career to the next.
I started out as a welfare caseworker in Klickitat and Skamania counties in the Gorge; from there, it was off to Denver to be an American Baptist home missionary at a Christian community center in the inner city.
At a meeting of the Denver Young Democrats, I met a cute guy who was a Unitarian and after our marriage, I earned teaching credentials and spent 25 years in public education, working with junior high age kids, as a Spanish teacher and as a guidance counselor.
As I approached early retirement age, however, I wondered what the heck I would do with my retirement years. I was sure burned out on public education. And then came that moment at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden CO when our minister turned to me from the pulpit after I’d delivered a brief homily about the congregation’s recent ups and downs.
“Kit,” he said to me as I sat in the front row of the sanctuary. “You missed your calling; you ought to be a minister!” This was 1992 and I has just turned 50 years old.
Enrolling at Iliff School of Theology a few years later at age 53, I was one of the oldest students and one of a handful of women. If I had tried ministry as a career right out of college, I would have flamed out, not persisted, gone on to find something tamer, easier, less serious, as many of my Baptist college friends had done, unable to draw upon a treasure chest of life experience to sustain their calling.
Recently Senator Mitch McConnell told his colleague, Senator Elizabeth Warren essentially to “sit down and shut up” when she began to read into the Senate record a letter from Coretta Scott King. His exact words have become a social media meme, and spread rapidly throughout pop culture as a warcry for the women’s movement.
“She was warned, she was given an explanation, and nevertheless, she persisted.” Women all over the world have delighted in Mr. McConnell’s words and, like the infamous “cat” hats, women have taken that expression and have run with it.
I got to thinking about all the women in history who have been warned, explained to, and who, nevertheless, persisted. There are countless stories in history---many of them unwritten, only preserved through family legends. I’ll bet you know some of these women.
Perhaps they were your mothers or grandmothers, your Scout leader or your neighbor. Your sister, your aunt, your teacher. Who do you count among the persistent women of your life? I invite you to call out their names! Let’s celebrate them!
(Adapted from the website “Judaism 101”) This is the month that the Jews celebrate Purim, one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination. It’s a scary story and it’s the Biblical story of Esther, a woman who did what she knew was dangerous and likely to result in her own death. But she did it anyway.
The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his daughter.
Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become part of his harem. King Ahasuerus loved Esther more than his other women and made Esther queen, but the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her identity when she was taken to the harem.
The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people.
In a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, "There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them." The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleased to them. Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.
Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned.
Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman and his sons were hanged on the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.
This legendary and important story in Jewish history begs a vital question: what would have happened if Esther had failed to petition the king? How would history be different?
I ask myself that question every time I watch something like “Defying the Nazis” or listen to a story like Esther’s. Or any of the millions of women who, over the millennia past, took action, listened to the warnings and persisted. I ask myself “what would I have done? And what would have happened had I not taken a stand or an action? Could I live with myself?”
The stories of women who persisted are often hidden, depending on the culture they were part of. Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures cite a number of women who dared to buck convention and behave in ways that were not typical of women of the Middle Eastern patriarchy:
The stories of some of the Biblical women’s deeds have become legendary, in the way that truths often make the best story: Rahab, a prostitute according to the scriptures, helped the Israelites conquer the city of Jericho; Judith, an Israelite woman, killed an Assyrian general who was bent on conquering the known world—by luring him into her tent and beheading him; Miriam, the sister of Moses, who hid him in a floating basket in the Egyptian bulrushes where an Egyptian princess found him and rescued him; and the so-called prostitute Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ disciples, whose story has been invented and reinvented in a dozen ways by those who were suspicious of her relationship to Jesus.
Over the intervening centuries since the birth of Christianity out of Judaism, the patriarchal culture has succeeded in downplaying the importance of women’s contributions to human life. Whether religious doctrine demanded it or women’s biological attractiveness to men and the power of masculine strength over the less-brawny female body were factors, nevertheless the stereotype persisted, that women were less capable, less rational, dumber, weaker, you name it.
And yet, women of every century have defied that definition, found ways to circumvent the deep hostility some males have felt toward strong women, a hostility that prevails today in many corners of American society.
A social media group entitled “A Mighty Girl” has taken on the task of celebrating women and girls who have done notable things, like Malala, who was targeted and shot by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating for girls’ schools, Sally Ride the astronaut, and many lesser known “mighty girls”. They have celebrated hundreds of notable women and girls in this way.
We UUs have lots of female spiritual ancestors. On one website the first entry chronologically is Anne Bradstreet, a poet and writer and freethinker in the 1600’s.
A little farther down the lengthy list of our religious foremothers is Margaret Fuller, who was an originator of the Transcendentalist movement in literature.
There are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragist, organizer, co-author of The Women’s Bible. Maria Mitchell, astronomer. Julia Ward Howe, author of Battle Hymn of the Republic and the promoter of Mother’s Day for Peace. Florence Nightingale, nurse and mathematician, who made nursing a modern profession. Susan B. Anthony, reformer and suffragist, who appears on a US dollar coin. Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. Louisa May Alcott, author, poet, best known for her book Little Women. And the Reverend Olympia Brown, first woman ordained to the Universalist ministry, also a suffragist.
As I was making this list, I realized I was not even half way down one page and had already listed a dozen or so notable Unitarian or Universalist women over a course of a few decades.
So let’s time travel to the 20th century and consider Martha Sharp, wife of Waitstill Sharp, Unitarian minister, who together with him and also separately, made numerous voyages across the Atlantic and into the heart of Nazi territory, arranging safe passage for victims of the 3rd Reich, providing visas and money and finding jobs and housing for hundreds of refugees, working for the Unitarian Service Committee.
Then there are the women of Hidden Figures, the movie which introduced us as a nation to women we’d never heard of but who figured large in the development of the Space Age, women who were brilliant mathematicians, engineers, and computer experts and yet consigned to back rooms, bathrooms on the far side of the NASA campus, and social indignities---because they were black.
You have named other women who persisted in making important contributions to human living---some women in your own families and neighborhoods, others more publicly recognized as having broken gender barriers to succeed in previously male-only fields, and women of all races and sexual orientations and abilities. We celebrate their influence on you.
And now I’d like to digress…
Last weekend I had a chance to sit down with the other organizers of the Astoria Women’s March in January. We ranted about the new administration for awhile and then turned to the topic of how being part of that momentous event had affected us. I have been thinking about this myself ever since the March in January.
Stepping back and taking as long a view as I can, from the perspective of almost 50 years of activism, I see a structure, a framework to build on for the future, a moral, values-infused, people-based framework.
My generation---Baby Boomers and older---found our moral compass activated by Viet Nam. We learned that protest works, that it could be dangerous (remember Kent State), that it could be co-opted and corrupted by outsiders (witness the damage sometimes caused by violent opportunists), and that the Viet Nam issue was part of a systemic virus of racism, sexism, homophobia, and an authoritarian fundamentalism that permeated American life.
We are faced now with a crisis of moral conscience that will affect all of us if not resisted and redirected. We of my generation have seen the world change through technology, careless stewardship of resources, casual destruction of ecosystems, and a greed for wealth and power that has subsumed the moral character of the power elites.
We are faced, in my generation, with this responsibility---that we have ourselves been tempted into laxness about the prevailing winds of change; we have not responded quickly enough to forestall the consequences of reckless habits, and we now realize how serious the crisis has become.
We see that it will affect our generation less than it will affect our children, our grandchildren, and those children yet unborn.
But we still have the capacity to make things change for our heirs and their children and for the planet. We have been both moral activists and reckless consumers. We know how easy it is to succumb to consumerism.
We are now, as elders, the foundation upon which our younger generations stand. We have done what we knew how to do, learning from our own national crises. We have not been perfect engineers as we created that foundation. It has weak spots; we have struggled with racism and sexism, homophobia and fundamentalism ourselves.
But in the process of struggle, we have learned to persist, we have learned to find hope in small successes. We have fought discouragement and losses. And here we are today.
Today our younger generations are fighting battles which have morphed somewhat. Racism exists in somewhat different forms than it did in the 60’s; many of us now clearly recognize racism as systemic, not always overt but covert, oppressing minorities by underground, unseen methods.
The same can be said for sexism, homophobia, and fundamentalist thinking: I hope we have been instrumental in teaching our children through our mistakes with these oppressive issues.
Our younger generations, born between 1965 and 2010 (known popularly as Generation X, Generation Y (or Millennials), and Generation Z, are standing now on the foundation we have tried to create, imperfect as it is.
What is now our role in the struggle for justice, equity, and compassion, one of our chief principles as UUs? What will we do in this crisis? How will we persist?
As I think about what I learned from my participation with others planning and carrying out the Women’s March in Astoria, I realize that as an elder, I have more influence than I expected. My encouragement means something important to our young leaders coming up. My example must be honest and transparent.
Each generation learns from the generation gone before. Our children learned from us; our grandchildren learn from their parents and grandparents. What are we teaching them? What are our generational responsibilities?
As part of the grassroots Indivisible North Coast organization, I watch our younger leaders with their high energy and their deep commitment to make a difference as they forge new pathways of American courage and passion.
Young women are particularly influential in those leadership roles. We elders cannot rest, but our role has changed. We are now the cheerleaders for the moral athletes who are now on the playing field of democracy. We are the coaches, helping them learn from our mistakes. We are those who listen to their concerns, support them in their efforts to do what we could not.
Our role now is to clear the obstacles from their path, as we can, by using our influence, our stories, our understandings of life to combat the forces of anti-democracy, the forces that would roll back the many opportunities that progressivism has established.
We as a generation of women and men in our 50’s and older can teach our young aspiring leaders the value of strategic organizing, the strength of institutions such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union, the wisdom of those who inspired us---the Jimmy Carters, the MLK”s, the artists and freethinkers who illuminated our path.
We can help them fend off the despair that inevitably creeps in from days and weeks of exhaustion and frustration. For, as Bernie Sanders recently said, “despair is not an option” in these times.
In the words of Abby Brockman, in her essay “Despair is not a Strategy”, she outlines several principles of hope. Quickly let me review:
Hope can co-exist with other feelings. People have power no matter how bad the situation looks. Our actions are not worthless, whether they accomplish what we want or not. Success does not always correlate with approval. We don’t need to persuade every opponent for change to happen. Change is rarely straightforward. It’s always too soon to quit and too soon to assume victory. Small actions matter. We have changed the world before, many times. Hope is a basis for action. If you embody what you aspire to, you have succeeded. Total victory is not the goal. Do more before you give up hope. Remember that our minds have a Negativity Bias and fight it. We stand on the shoulders of giants who have shown us the way. Let’s keep on keeping on. Let’s persist---together.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
CLOSING HYMN: #108 “My Life Flows on in Endless Song”.
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 our strengths and our roles in this critical time in our nation. May we, as women and men who have faith in our principles and in each other, strive to inspire and encourage each other in this important work of democracy with justice and compassion. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.