Part I: The Cloud of Witnesses
“Remembrance Sunday” has been an evolving tradition over the past two decades in our congregation, and throughout our movement various churches observe their own versions of this tradition. It is fit that in the turning of the year we pause and mark time and remember. We take this time to remember the year past, to recall the pains and losses the year gone has stitched to our hearts, and to remember some of the people no longer with us.
Each year it has been our tradition to put together a list of some of the people who died in the previous year. The list, at its essence, captures a part of the diversity of the human experience. It includes religious leaders from across the spectrum of faiths, politicians from both sides of the aisle, activists, organizers, visionaries, athletes, scholars, and inventors. It includes diverse representatives from the world of the arts and entertainment. It includes many long lives well-lived and many whose lives were lost far too young. It includes people who lived deep and sucked the marrow out of life, for as much life as they were given. It includes those who used the life they had to bless others and improve the world. And, it includes a few people who squandered the great gift of life, who lived meanly and made choices in their lives to harm rather than to help or to heal. There are lessons here.
And there are lessons beyond lessons. The lives remembered can inspire in us a holy reverence for life as well as awed bemusement for the human condition. Mary Travers died this year and if you’ve ever gotten a bit of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” stuck in your head it is because Peter, Paul, and Mary made that song famous. If you or your children or your grandchildren grew up with those plastic toys with absurdly spherical heads (I’m not sure I can describe it any better than that) it is because of Hans Beck, the creator of Playmobil toys. He died this year.
Both I.J. Good and Shaun Wylie died this year. They were two of the last of a diminishing number of mathematicians who gathered at Bletchley Park and worked to crack Nazi codes during World War II – a moment in human history when advanced mathematics and heroism were one and the same. If you’ve taken out a student loan or received a higher education grant, your life has been connected with the life of Claiborne Pell who died this year. The Rhode Island Senator helped to expand government assistance of those pursuing higher education. If you’ve ever enjoyed rock & roll music you can thank Les Paul who died this year at the age of 94. He was the inventor of the solid-body electric guitar and recording techniques like over-dubbing, tape delay, and multi-track recording.
It is an amazing thing indeed, I say. There is human life behind every song, every technology, every invention, as well as every idea or concept or understanding that reaches us. They all were once attached to a flesh and blood person who loved, who lost, who struggled, who screwed up (often over and over again), who failed, and who sought meaning and the opportunity to use well the talents and gifts with which he or she was blessed. How wondrous is life!
Of all the people I neglected to include on the list, the one whose omission I regret the most was 107 year old Ann Nixon Cooper, a remarkable woman who gained international fame when Barack Obama told the nation about her life during his victory speech on November 4, 2008. “She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons -- because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.” Born in 1902, she moved to Atlanta with her husband in the early twenties which were also her early twenties. Her more than 80 years of community service included founding a youth club for young African American girls in the 20s and, because the Boy Scouts of America was a segregated organization, starting Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops for African-American boys in the early 1930s. Ann Nixon Cooper was a personal friend of W.E.B. Dubois as well as the historian John Hope Franklin, who also died this year.
In researching her life I found an interesting digression. Apparently, after Obama named her in his victory speech several news outlets reported that she was, at age 106, the oldest voter. That is not true as the researcher corrects. The article then goes on to list ten voters aged 109 or older and for whom each of them voted, which I think you have to admit must have been an interesting thing to research.
In the New Testament there is a very noteworthy passage in the eleventh and twelfth chapters of the letter to the Hebrews. The eleventh chapter provides a litany of those who lived faithfully: Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Joseph, Moses, and so on. Then the twelfth chapter of Hebrews offers the exhortation, “Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight… and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.” For those who approach religion liberally, which is to say generously and expansively, we might also say that the great cloud of witnesses (I love that term) includes all those who partook of the human spirit, all the saints who from their labors rest.
Part II: Prophetic Deeds of Women and Men
As Unitarian Universalists we hold that one of the sources of our religious understanding is “the prophetic deeds of women and men.” In the first part of my sermon, I celebrated the human spirit in general. In the second part, I want to celebrate the human spirit in particular. In trying to decide on one person to speak about at greater length several options came to mind.
There were several of my beloved and accomplished colleagues who passed away this year and I thought I might comment on their ministries. There were also some powerful souls who founded amazing organizations. 2009 saw the deaths of Maurice Albertson, who was instrumental in the formation of the Peace Corps and Village Earth, Millar Fuller, the founder of Habit for Humanity, Judith Krug, a librarian who founded “Banned Books Week,” Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who founded the Special Olympics, and Lillian Willoughby, who helped advocate against violence against women by organizing “Take Back the Night” marches on college campuses. Just think of the lives these five people touched.
However, in researching the lives of those who died in the past year, one story grabbed my attention more than any other. I am going to guess that few of you recognize the name Helen Suzman, but I hope that you are impressed by her story. Helen Suzman was a Jewish woman born to immigrant parents in South Africa in 1917. She married a dentist at the age of 19 and pursued her studies in economics and statistics while raising her two daughters. At age 26 she became a professor at a university in South Africa and then gave up academia to pursue politics and was elected to parliament in her mid-thirties. She served for 36 years in the South African parliament. And here is the kicker: for a period of fourteen years, from 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was the only member of parliament who opposed apartheid. For six of those years, she was also the only woman in parliament. South Africa’s Progressive Party suffered devastating losses in 1961 and Suzman, representing a district in suburban Johannesburg, was the only member of her party to keep her seat. Here is how one obituary describes her,
She possessed four qualities in particular. Firstly, she was completely fearless, confronted though she was by some of the most menacing and odious politicians of any parliament ever. Secondly, she seemed to have more energy than anyone else - she often attributed her physical health to the fact that she never drank wine, only whisky…Helen Suzman frequently visited Nelson Mandela in prison. Her visits are remembered fondly in Mandela’s autobiography. Suzman left parliament in 1989, the same year that President de Klerk began to reverse course on apartheid, lifting bans on liberation groups and releasing many political prisoners.
Thirdly, Helen had an unfailing sense of humour, sometimes lovely and light, at other times cutting and caustic. Fourthly, she pursued with extraordinary tenacity the principle that should be inscribed on her tombstone – “let right be done.”
She seemed to regard the ministers with whom she fought as denizens of some primeval forest. Without this humour, she could never have survived. She described how government MPs used to bleat “Mau Mau” when she stood up, or shout “go back to Moscow/Ghana/Israel.”
Helen's reputation was built not on lofty thoughts and resounding speeches, but on hard work. One by one, as they came off the assembly line, she shredded the bills that removed civil liberties. One by one, she tore her parliamentary colleagues apart for their callousness, ignorance and ineptitude. Day after day, she would meet the poor, either in her office, or more often in their own shacks, listening to their tales of sorrow and sadness, of hurt and hatred.
With typical chutzpah, she would accost ministers in the parliamentary lobby or beard police officers in their dens, and demand to know why some nameless person of colour was being deprived of his or her rights.
Between 1973 and 1999 Helen Suzman was awarded 27 honorary doctorate degrees and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though the obituary writer I quoted earlier said that she was not one for masterful oratory, she certainly told people how it was. She once claimed that her true constituents were “the enlightened people of South Africa.” Once when criticized for asking questions that could prove embarrassing to the country, she fired back, “It is the answers, not the questions, that are embarrassing.”
It is important to remember that to take positions like she took was not easy, nor was it safe. It could have gotten her killed. It did get her phone tapped by the government. She responded by blowing a police whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone as hard as she could. We might call her a whistleblower in the less literal sense of the word, a person with the courage to stand up and name the truth when to do so carries immense risk.
But, the image is so striking. For six years the lone woman in the parliament serving with 166 men. For nearly fifteen years the only opponent of apartheid serving with 166 supporters of apartheid.
Sit with this for a moment. Let it sink in. Feel deep down in the center of being what it would be like to walk a mile in the woman’s shoes. Imagine the depth of her conscience. The strength of her commitment. For thirty-six years she dug into the rocky, harsh mountain of racism at its ugliest with a teaspoon of righteousness. Pebble by pebble, stone by stone she carved a tunnel. Take a moment and consider it.
[And also remember, as a member of the church pointed out to me, that her constituents kept voting her back into parliament for those 36 years. In the chambers of government she stood alone but her constituents organized and campaigned to keep her in office.]
When we say that the prophetic deeds of women and men are one of the sources that inform our religious living tradition, we include not only our Unitarian Universalist heroes, but also those whose lives might inspire holier living for us here today.