Act Together…By Moving Upstream

EcoFaithBy Robyn Hartwig, for EcoFaith Recovery’s Practices for Awakening Leadership

Community Dimension: We nurture relational cultures, identifying common interests and public issues affecting our communities, so that we are ready to act together to promote justice and healing for the whole community of creation.

From childhood through adulthood, the faith communities I have belonged to over the course of my life have been good at certain kinds of “acting together.” We are good at worship which is certainly a kind of public action. We are great at potlucks. Jello salads and hot dishes used to be some of the favorite offerings when I was growing up, but with well over a hundred people having participated in Simply in Season small groups within my current faith community, salads with locally grown vegetables are now much more common. We are also great at collecting socks, coats, care kits, blankets, discretionary funds, and food for those in need. We collected over 10,000 pounds of food during one Lenten food drive!

But until now, we have not been very good at the kind of public action that changes the conditions that are creating more and more people who need socks, coats, care kits, blankets, discretionary funds, and food. But the congregation I serve has recently been inspired by an old story variously told as “Bodies in the River” or “Babies in the River.” It was brought to us at a “Waters of Justice” retreat by Pastor Terry Moe, and it raises the question as to how communities seeking to follow God’s call to healing, justice and peace in our world feel led to address symptoms of injustice, cruelty and violence. It invites us to imagine what our community would do if we saw bodies or even babies floating down the river through our community? Would we simply pull them out or would we begin to ask who or what was throwing them into the river upstream? The latter of these two approaches is typically more risky than the former.

A seminary professor once invited my class of would-be-pastors to consider that the challenges Jesus sought to address and the way he sought to address them got him killed. The same was true of Jesus’ earliest disciples. So this professor challenged us to consider whether our own proclamation of the Gospel was simply “nice” or whether it agitated “the world as it is” to become more like the “world God says it should be.” He implied that if we were faithfully engaged in the latter, that would, at times, put us at some kind of real risk. I confess that the charity I participate in does not usually put me and my community at much risk. I am not likely to have to go to jail or put my life in jeopardy when I engage in such actions. Like me, the religious leaders whose actions Jesus criticized likewise engaged in charity. Participating in such works of charity leaves the systems in place that exists to privilege white skinned, middle class people like me over many others whose skin color, class, national origin, or gender identity puts them at so much greater risk every day. It would appear that I get to alleviate my guilt by serving others. In the process I leave the system in place that benefits me (to some extent) and benefits the most powerful and privileged (to a large extent).

Still… there is something so compelling about that call to follow God in the world. It is so compelling that more and more people in my congregation are feeling led to consider a kind of engagement with the issues of our time that might indeed put us at greater risk. Perhaps we are moving towards it because it offers us the opportunity to make a lasting difference in the world. Perhaps we are moving toward it because it seems capable of enabling us to live into the promises of God more fully now.

Good stories are worth repeating again and again. So in case you want to share it wish others, here is that story of “Babies in the River,” that has invited many of us to reconsider how we are called to act together today. (Thank you to the Unitarian Universalist Association for sharing this particular version of the story):

Once upon a time, there was a small village on the edge of a river. Life in the village was busy. There were people growing food and people teaching the children to make blankets and people making meals.

One day a villager took a break from harvesting food and noticed a baby floating down the river toward the village. She couldn’t believe her eyes! She heard crying in the distance and looked downstream to see that two babies had already floated by the village. She looked around at the other villagers working nearby. “Does anyone else see that baby?” she asked.

One villager heard the woman, but continued working. “Yes!” yelled a man who had been making soup.

“Oh, this is terrible!” A woman who had been building a campfire shouted, “Look, there are even more upstream!” Indeed, there were three more babies coming around the bend.

“How long have these babies been floating by?” asked another villager. No one knew for sure, but some people thought they might have seen something in the river earlier. They were busy at the time and did not have time to investigate.

They quickly organized themselves to rescue the babies. Watchtowers were built on both sides of the shore and swimmers were coordinated to maintain shifts of rescue teams that maintained 24-hour surveillance of the river. Ziplines with baskets attached were stretched across the river to get even more babies to safety quickly.

The number of babies floating down the river only seemed to increase. The villagers built orphanages and they taught even more children to make blankets and they increased the amount of food they grew to keep the babies housed, warm and fed. Life in the village carried on.

Then one day at a meeting of the Village Council, a villager asked, “But where are all these babies coming from?”

“No one knows,” said another villager. “But I say we organize a team to go upstream and find how who’s throwing these babies in the river.”

Not everyone was in agreement. “But we need people to help us pull the babies out of the river,” said one villager. “That’s right!” said another villager. “And who will be here to cook for them and look after them if a bunch of people go upstream?”

The Council chose to let the village decide. If you were a villager, what would your vote be? Do you send a team upstream?

*Click HERE for all of the beautiful blogs Robyn wrote for EcoFaith Recovery.

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