Faith of the larger liberty –
Faith for the people everywhere, whatever their oppression –
This majestic old hymn tune, #287 in our hymnal, has had many lyrics set to it over the years, and these words were written by Vincent Silliman, a UU minister, in 1944.
One way to think of the larger liberty is to look at the foundations of our own country. Our constitution begins: “We the people.” Our bill of rights states that we, the people, have freedom of religion, freedom of speech and the press, and freedom to assemble and to ask for redress of grievances.
Faith of the free! Whate’er our plight,
thy law, thy liberty, thy light
Shall be our blest possession
In so many ways, our country was founded on the principle of the people speaking out. This song, “The Great Correction” speaks about the foundering of some of America’s cherished dreams.
The Great Correction by Eliza Gilkyson
Whole lotta people tryin’ to turn it around
Gonna shout ‘til the walls come tumblin’ down
And the great correction comes
Our UU tradition calls us to promote justice, to search for truth and meaning, and to use our conscience and the democratic process.
In this month of focusing together on Prophecy, we’ve heard the questions: Which truths are you willing to speak? Which truths are you willing to hear? But as many of us have experienced, truth is often unpopular.
Pete Santucci says, “The Prophetic role is such a tough one…It’s annoying and unsettling. It points out hypocrisy and the intentional self-deception we engage in. Who wants that?”
Cornel West puts it more bluntly. “A leader is somebody who has to jump in the middle of the fray and be prudential, we hope, rather than opportunistic. But a prophetic person tells the truth, exposes lies, bears witness and then, usually, is pushed to the margins or shot dead.”
Societal sanctions, and peer pressure, have taught many of us to keep our mouths shut rather than voice the truths of our conscience.
Last week, Rev Kevin invited us to build our truth telling and truth hearing capacity by first speaking truth about ourselves, then listening to truths we don’t see, when they are told to us.
Today, in this Tapestry of Faith service, three of our members share their stories of listening to their own truth, and the truths of others, and then speaking out to those who were willing to receive.
Gail Johnson Vaughan will talk first about finding and speaking her truth as an advocate. Then Frank Lawrence will talk about confronting management about wages. Finally, Karyn Packard will talk about speaking up to administration about budget cuts.
Gail Johnson Vaughan
I have a clear memory, now 47 years old, of telling my cousin that I believed that if anyone, anywhere, whether I knew them or not, did not like me, I would cease to exist and diffuse into the universe.
20 years later I found myself showing up, and speaking up, on behalf of children languishing in foster care. Lots of people, right in front of me, did not like me because of what I believed and said. I threatened the status quo, what I suggested seemed impossible to them; it couldn’t be possible, because if it were they would have already been doing it.
12-year old Libby had a lot to do with this change in me. Libby was in my son’s 6th grade class where I volunteered each week. When she found out I worked in adoption she cornered me at recess, told me she’d been in foster care for six years, been in four families, and left behind when her two brothers and sister were adopted by a family that did not take her. She wanted a family, she told me – would I help her?
I explained that most people thought that kids her age were too old to find adoptive families, but I would try. She told me the name of her county and of her worker and left with a wisp of hope on her face.
It took me three weeks to get through to her worker. “I met Libby,” I told her. “If I found her a family could she be placed for adoption?” The answer came quickly, “No, she’s unadoptable.” I sucked in my breath of disbelief and tried again. “I mean, if I found a family that wanted her and had the skills to meet her special needs, is there any reason why she couldn’t be adopted?” “You don’t understand,” she replied, “she’s unadoptable.”
It took me no time to identify the right family for Libby, but it took me five months to get permission from the county to place her. When the big day arrived, she and her new family stopped by my office. Libby brought me flowers and a balloon that said “Thank You.” She said, “If it hadn’t been for you this wouldn’t have happened.”
“If it hadn’t been for me…” That struck a deep chord in me, and my career as an advocate began. As I pushed forward with as much grace as I could muster, many of the county’s child welfare staff pushed back. When ultimately we had to play hardball and go to the board of supervisors, the adoptions unit showed me who had the power – they boycotted our agency. For three years we got not one referral.
I could go on and on about how that formerly skittish, needing-to-be-liked young woman worked for decades confronting the powers that be, and amazingly influencing sweeping policy and practice changes that have resulted in permanent families for thousands of children in California and beyond, but the power of bureaucracy, and the political system are wimpy compared to the Goliath that still shows up in my life today. That Goliath lives inside of me, masquerades as me, threatens to annihilate me if I question its authority.
Goliath – or actually, a long time ago I named her Maud – served as the internal guardian of my little girl survival strategies. She’s the one that taught me that I’d better hide my true self so everyone would like me, especially mommy and daddy, or the kids in the new schools when we moved every 2 years, or the teachers, or anyone, anywhere.
I got pretty good at following Maud’s advice, guessing who people in my life wanted me to be and being it. But the mask got heavy and it didn’t work so well as a young woman moving into marriage. I did a great job convincing the 1st husband, and the 2nd, that I was exactly the woman they wanted… but after a couple of years the real me got tired of hiding behind Maud, contorting myself to fit into the required disguise.
It took a lot of work, a lot of tears, a lot of courage to begin to speak my truth louder than Maud. I was often terrified. I remember having my first truly genuine conversation with my 2nd husband. The only way I could do it was to sit back-to-back 4 feet apart, so I could say what I really thought without seeing the reaction on his face. It was a long journey, but over time I could stand up to Maud and tell her that she had no power. I thanked her for helping me when I was little, but I didn’t need her anymore.
When I met John, my real husband, he was recently widowed, and perhaps even worse, had survived the death of his 19-year old daughter, killed in an accident involving a drunk driver. I was drawn to him, but knew I couldn’t do the old unconscious bait and switch – being who I knew he wanted and then revealing, later, the true and unacceptable me. I had to be kind to his heart. I took the risk and showed him who I really was. He loved me, not Maud. And if he hadn’t, that would have been okay because at last, I loved me too.
Pema Chodron says: the point is not to change ourselves, the point is to make friends with who we already are. I recommend it.
When Annie and Gail asked me to speak today, I first thought about a college experience. I was an Editor at City on a Hill, the U.C. Santa Cruz newspaper. A Women’s Studies professor was up for tenure. She was an outspoken progressive and an out lesbian. Both the internal and external review committees unanimously recommended tenure. The Chancellor denied tenure. The campus erupted, and we wrote a series of scathing articles and editorials. One night at the paper’s office, I got a call – “Frank, the Chancellor’s wife is on the phone for you!” Every phone extension in the office was muted and lifted, and I picked up. She cussed me out at full volume. I managed to stay calm enough to ask if we were on the record… We were not… The newspaper staff dinner at the Chancellor’s house was pretty interesting later that year.
Reflecting on that incident, it seems to me that I was not really speaking truth to power. She did not have power in that situation. We ran the newspaper with no financial support from the University. More to the point, she had done nothing substantively unjust – it was her husband who had denied tenure.
Then I remembered a time when I worked as a reporter for the People’s World, the Communist Party’s weekly newspaper. Conn Hallinan, of the famous SF progressive Hallinan family, hired me. The staff included Pele De Lappe, an artist and writer who had befriended Frieda Kahlo and Diego Rivera during their time in the Bay Area. Billy Allen had spent half a century reporting on the labor movement. In 1936 he covered the Flint, Michigan sit-down strike from the inside, sneaking past GM’s armed goons in the middle of the night, manual typewriter under his arm – the same typewriter he was still using in 1985 – again and again. He’d walk to a pay phone, read his story to his editor, then turn around and do it all over again for the duration of the month-and-a-half occupation of Fisher Body Plant #1. So the People’s World was staffed with wonderful folks whom I respected greatly.
I covered major strikes by the California Nurses Association and SEIU. Billy took me to interview Harry Bridges, the key organizer of the Longshoremen’s’ Union in SF (as I mentioned last week, a Bridges’ speaking tour in the early 1940s brought my father into a Unitarian Church for the first time). The People’s World was a pretty good gig.
There was only one problem: they paid me about half of the minimum wage. The hypocrisy of the situation gnawed at me. I turned it over in my mind for a long time. I knew I was a 25-year-old, privileged, white, college graduate, with no family to support. I knew the paper didn’t have much money. I had a lot of respect for the staff and their many decades of struggle. More selfishly, I was afraid that if I raised the issue I’d be shown the door.
But I could not shake my disquiet. Finally I found the courage to speak up at a staff meeting: an organization that advocated so passionately for workers’ rights should pay its own workers minimum wage. A few folks let me know that if I truly believed in “the cause” I would gladly accept the hardship of low pay. But I also earned respect from others for speaking up. I was not fired. Of course, I did not get a raise.
That experience has stayed with me. I still feel good about having spoken up. It reminds me again and again that we need to treat others fairly and with respect, not regardless of the “cause” but because of it. It reminds me that I’m good at imagining bad consequences, and that they almost never come to pass. It reminds me that I have the strength to speak up even when I’m afraid. And it reminds me that, even if I can’t remedy an injustice, when I do speak up, I change myself a little, by gaining courage and confidence to do the right thing.
I was born in 1945 just as the second World War was over. When my father came home, ‘tis said that he ran a “tight ship;” he had definite rules and regs. These are ideas that I internalized: Girls were to be “seen and not heard.” They were to “do as they were told.” Orders were to be obeyed! Girls were never to speak back to authority. I learned “to please” and “to comply.” I learned not to speak unless spoken to. In many ways, it actually served me well. As we moved from place to place (15 schools before finishing high school), there was an ever-changing array of “authority figures.” I pleased, complied, kept my mouth shut and worked hard. To the degree a child can succeed, in the eyes of my parents and my other authority figures, I was not a problem. I was predictably acquiescent. I learned to avoid conflict at all costs, to always take the subservient position, to always be willing to compromise. Those behaviors didn’t threaten anyone or upset anyone; people could count on me! I really did not see myself becoming anything other than a secretary, or a store clerk, a job that matched my perceived skills of service.
In the 80’s I cared for my mother, father and husband through their long illnesses and eventual deaths. During that time, I had to take over all of the decision-making. It was heady stuff for me to be in that position. I learned about medicine and how to navigate the system for their care. I was forced to take personal responsibility. I had to be their advocates when they couldn’t speak for themselves. After they all died, I was encouraged by my minister to train to be a hospital chaplain…to be ordained to the ministry. It was rigorous training and I was a good student. In that training, I began to be confronted on my acquiescence. I remember in my ordination service being told that I was now called to be “a prophet.” I knew in my heart that it would be my biggest challenge.
In 1992, I was hired to be the Director of Pastoral Care at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Miller Children’s Hospital. Once again, I was new, and didn’t have directorial experience. I went back to my tried and true role. I learned to please, to comply, to care for others and put my own needs and ideas on the shelf. I carried three pagers, 24 hours a day. I didn’t want any needs to go unaddressed. You guessed it, I was very popular, albeit very tired. But I didn’t threaten anyone, didn’t upset anyone. I took care of others and they appreciated it. It was a meaningful work, and my job was secure. I was now a single mother and that was imperative for my son’s and my well-being.
But things began to change in the health care environment. Administration had supported my creating relaxation rooms for the staff, and we had taken them on retreats to teach them about self-care. They knew they were appreciated. However, I began to see things change. What had been a strong focus on patient care became more of a focus on the bottom line. Staffing was reduced to a place where I felt it was unsafe; I saw staff working through incredibly difficult situations with no time for self-care. I was having to scan every little box of tissues that I handed to family members at the bedside when we were discontinuing life support. It wasn’t right! We all knew it. What could I do to support them? I felt called to “speak up.” How would I do it? Where would I do it?
Speaking truth to power is not the same challenge for everyone. Each of us has to use our own unique gifts. What were mine? I looked inside to see just what came to me when I thought about these financial changes. It was the patient-care stories that had moved my heart. Perhaps they would move others. I used them in my sermons and in my pastoral care teaching. Maybe I could share them more broadly. Where was there a place that these stories could be shared with the fiscal decision-makers? Did I have the courage to ask for a voice at the table? The Chaplain’s role was carefully defined. But there was one place where our spheres overlapped…the monthly Operations Steering Committee. As a Director, I had a recently been given a place at the table. It was a dubious distinction. We met in a room for 1 hour a month to discuss “the budget.” I was at the table and heard the discussions. I seldom said anything, unless directly asked. I was not regularly presenting. Pastoral Care’s budget was hardly worth their attention.
I began to wonder if this executive grouping might possibly be the place for inspirational stories. I believe that change comes when both hearts and minds can be impacted. Maybe I could bring out the “heart” in this “mind” environment. I knew we all were best when we integrated the two.
I had given invocations at various hospital occasions that were well received, so I asked if I might offer one at the beginning of the Operations Meeting. I knew most of them as we had interfaced after a recent shooting at the hospital. Everyone had been impacted in a different way to this incredible tragedy. I was given permission to try. I began gathering stories about our wonderful hospital staff and their work with patients and families, focusing on stories of unselfishness, kindness and commitment to the institution. I wanted these folks who were focused on finance to remember why we were all there. Everyone from the cooks to the CFO wanted to help people. From my perspective, this was about discovering shared values. It worked in patient rooms and so I hoped it would have an impact in this setting.
At the next Operations Meeting, I was hopeful when I noticed that no one arrived late for the meeting. They didn’t want to miss it. After the invocation, there were tears and a natural silence in the room. They told me that it reminded them of why they had gone into healthcare in the first place. They asked me to bring copies and they took them home and shared them with their families and friends. They never ran out of financial crisis, and I never ran out of stories. We were all in agreement that it was a wonderful hospital system with outstanding employees. We did good work. Yes, they still chiseled away at the budget. I can’t tell you that we saved a lot of money or a lot of minds. But I was heartened that they were consistently reminded that excellent care takes time, talent, and resources, and that real care is not always “cost effective.”