Tikkun Olam: All Lives Mattering in a Wounded World

            What does it mean to be a community of healing?

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

UU Community of the Mountains

Delivered October 9, 2016

(during the Jewish High Holy Days, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur)


Time for All Ages

In the Jewish tradition, there is a famous story of Tikkun Olam, which means “the repair of the world.” Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed wrote this story almost 500 years ago, and he told the story this way:

At the beginning of time, God’s holy presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring this world into being, to make room for creation God first drew in a breath, and in so doing, became smaller.  In that new space made by God getting smaller, darkness was created. And when God said, “Let there be light,” the light that came into being filled the darkness, and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with that bright first light.

God sent those ten vessels out into the universe, like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. If all those containers had arrived unbroken, the world would have been perfect. But the containers weren’t strong enough to hold such a powerful, holy light. They all exploded, and holy sparks were scattered like sand, like seeds, like stars. Those sparks fell everywhere! (But more fell on the Holy Land than anywhere else, said Rabbi Issac.)

Our job, he said, is to gather the sparks from all over the world, no matter where they are hidden, and to keep putting the light back together. When all the sparks are back together, the world will be repaired, and perfect.

Rachael Naomi Remen tells the story a little bit differently, based on how her father told her the story. She says:

… that the holy light came out of a holy darkness, the source of all life, and that when the containers broke, and sparks of light scattered everywhere, the sparks fell into all events and all people, where they remain hidden to this day.

Each one of us as some of the light in us, she says, and each one of us has the ability to find the hidden light in all things and in all people, even in the person right next to us. We can help those sparks shine and so restore the world. She says this will take all of us, every person who ever lived, every person who lives now, and every person who ever will live. We are ALL healers of the world.

Tikkun Olam is not about making a huge difference, Rachael Naomi Remen says, it’s about healing the world right around you, the world that touches you.

It’s up to you to figure out how.

A True Story       

[A congregation member told a story about a young male family member who is black, who while walking down Mill Street twenty years ago was picked up by police as a possible suspect in a crime in Grass Valley. The perpetrator had been described as a white man in his 50s. When the person who had given the original description pointed out that this person they had brought in was not a white man in his 50s, the officer said, “I just thought we should check.”]

Instrumental Music    

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child – African American Spiritual


Tikkun Olam: All Lives Mattering in a Wounded World        

Rev. Kevin Tarsa

The Black Lives Matter banner that this congregation had hung on its outside wall has been vandalized and/or stolen three times now. This congregation is still deciding what step to take next. This service/sermon is meant to set a context for that decision making.

My goal today is not to make the case for getting behind the Black Lives Matter movement, though I would, and I may, another Sunday. Meanwhile, my column to the Union names some of the reasons why I believe that’s important.

The story we just heard about a young black man in Grass Valley speaks powerfully to its importance. What does it say and what consequences does it have that right here in Grass Valley, one is forever treated as suspect for no reason other than the color of one’s skin? Except for being male, this man did not match the given description at all. What he matched – and only because of his skin color – is our US culture’s description of a criminal, of a person to be feared.

Addressing that often unconscious reality will require deep and sustained emotional, spiritual and political work. So today my goal is not to name a singular answer, but to help prepare us for both individual growth, and for this congregation’s effective, courageous and compassionate engagement with the wider community, knowing that intelligent, thoughtful, kind people can hold views that are very different from mine or yours.

Let’s begin by taking as a given, that yes, of course, we believe that all lives matter. And then to get us out of some either/or expectations, I want to share with you the basics of something I’ve found helpful, the Intercultural Development Continuum adapted from Dr. Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity. The question it addresses is, “what is [our] capability to accurately understand and adapt behavior to cultural difference and commonality.” What is our capability to accurately understand cultural difference and commonality, and what is our capability to adapt our own behavior to cultural difference and commonality?

As long as two or more are gathered we’ll have chances to work on those questions, for as one of my teachers, Mark Hicks, points out, every two-person conversation is at some level a multicultural conversation, especially if the two people are not from the same family. Couples know this. Its evidence can be as simple as differences in expectation regarding how one celebrates a holiday appropriately: Is the “right” way to open Christmas presents on Christmas Eve or on Christmas morning? Is 4:00 the correct time for a Thanksgiving meal, or is it noon? Is it okay to watch football that day? Is it okay to bring up touchy subjects, to raise your voice, to have a messy house when company arrives?

Bennet said that as we learn to understand and navigate cultural difference and commonality, we typically go through a set of developmental stages – “developmental” indicating that people tend to move through these stages in a predictable direction and order. Like any model, it’s a framework for our understanding, not a cage for who we are.

Developmental Stages In Our Intercultural Capabilities

Our early orientation, the model says, is DENIAL. After we are born, for a time all we know is our own culture, the world right around us. As time goes on we might notice obvious and observable cultural differences, like differences in food, clothing, language or religious rituals, but we might not notice deeper, less immediately visible cultural differences, like conflict resolution styles, notions of leadership or expectations around privacy or gift giving or spirituality.  In this stage, we are aware of the tip of the iceberg, but unaware of the significant cultural differences beneath the surface.

Two storiesThe Eyes Have It

In college I was in Munich Germany, walking down a street, when I realized that I was looking primarily at the ground as I walked. This is not very friendly, I thought. I don’t want to appear to be a disengaged American, I should look people in the eye more often. And so I did. The very next people I encountered were a group of young men about my age. I held the gaze of the first person as we approached one another, radiating my gentle friendliness all the while. Except that when that person reached me, he started screaming at me and beating on me. A leader of a gang (a white gang, in case you pictured otherwise), he had taken my unfaltering gaze as a challenge to his authority. For him, lowering my eyes submissively would have been the appropriate stance.

More recently, a young African American man arrived at the congregation very distraught and seeking assistance. Not wanting to appear uninterested, wanting to convey, “I see you. I see your pain. I’m not treating you as invisible,” I pulled up a chair and looked him in the eye, a gaze he did not hold in return. I watched him as we spoke. After a while he communicated to me that this felt disrespectfully intrusive. As if I had the right to stare at him (from on high) in his pain.

In each case I acted from my own assumptions and expectations, wanting to do something kind and good, but in each case my behavior registered as hostile. I expect that you may have your own stories of differences in cultural expectations.

When we move forward from denial, we tend to move to an orientation of POLARIZATION, where we recognize cultural differences, and we judge them. We think in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ One is right or better than the other.

Now the interesting thing is that this takes two forms:

In one form, our own cultural way is right, and others’ cultural ways are not: “If they would only get their act together and do it our way, things would be better.” “Why can’t they arrive at meetings on time?” OR “Why are they so uptight about starting a meeting at a certain time?” “Why do black people have to choose names like Shaniqua. Can’t they choose normal names (ie. names from white culture)?” “Why do the Italians need to talk so loudly and forcefully, can’t they be quieter and not get in people’s faces?”

In polarization, we critique other cultures’ practices and values, but not our own.

But for some people there comes a reversal of the us/them poles: to “Another culture has it right. Mine does not.” “Oh, Native Americans have it right, always so peaceful and spiritually enlightened and in tune with the earth. White culture is all screwed up.” Stereotyping, we put an entire culture on a pedestal and critique our own, wanting to distance ourselves and become ex-patriots from our own cultural landscape (culturally disengaged) and become a part of the culture that has it right. It’s still an us/them stance, but in favor of the “them.”

When we move forward from Polarization of either kind, we move toward MINIMIZATION, in which we focus intently on cultural commonality and universal values. “Really, we’re all the same. We all have the same needs underneath. We all bleed red. We’re color blind, we don’t see color.” It’s a very Universalist notion and moves helpfully toward great inclusion, but thinking that we’re all the same means thinking that we’re all the same like me! I universalize my perspective and believe it applies to everyone.

This is where most progressive people, where most Unitarian Universalists are, in minimization.

I want to celebrate that getting to minimization is wonderful progress, important and necessary movement forward from denial and polarization, from us/them, to it’s all us.  This is just what some people need to move toward. But those of us in minimization tend to think that we’ve arrived at the final answer. “What could be better for the world than focusing on what we have in common? We’re all one.” It sounds beautiful. “All lives matter. Isn’t saying that Black Lives Matter a racist message, I thought we were beyond race?” But minimization is not the end of the journey. We are not all the same, not even underneath.

Dancer Story

A few years ago I read a story that challenged my notion of human commonalities in a very simple but memorable way. A child somewhere in the vicinity of Papua New Guinea was recognized as a very talented young dancer and someone offered to pay the child’s way to a dance school somewhere else. The child had a very difficult time for the first year or so, unable at first to follow the teachers instructions. The teacher would say something like, “Please take two steps to the right.” But in the child’s culture, a person orients oneself to the cardinal directions – north, south, east, west – not to oneself.

In that culture one might say “Please take two steps to the east, or one step north.” To move right or left relative to oneself had no meaning. Even when they figured this out, the child had to learn to orient north, south, east, west in a new physical location. In that child’s culture, the self is not the center of the universe, not the point of reference. How different from our culture, and what a profoundly different way to see oneself in relation to the world.

You would think that we could safely assume that all humans share an understanding of moving right or left, by whatever name. But NO! Not even that can be assumed!


The next step in the journey, if one is in minimization, is to recognize and appreciate patterns of cultural difference AND commonality, to reach an ACCEPTANCE of both/and. We are alike in some ways, and not in others. Important others.

If we don’t see a person’s color, we are not really seeing the person. If those of us who are white we don’t understand that a black person will have a very different experience walking down Mill Street than we will, we are not seeing what we need to see.

In acceptance, we learn look at our own culture and how it is different from and similar to other cultures, without assuming that ours is the universal norm. In terms of race, it means that no, we are not color blind, and for those of us who are white, it means that we learn to see and better understand our own whiteness. The term “people of color” is used in our culture to refer to everyone who is not white, as if white is not a color. If those of us who are white don’t see our whiteness, if it is the invisible standard by which we gauge life, we are not seeing all that we need to see and accept.

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

Though I’ve long loved the African American spiritual, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” for a time I did not sing or play it, though it had been a powerful song for me. In UU music circles, a now decades long conversation has been underway among musicians regarding cultural misappropriation, and in this case, whether it is okay for white (dominant culture) musicians to sing or play music from other cultures. Is it okay for a white choir to sing an African American spiritual, for example?

In the midst of that conversation (a conversation that has followed the developmental stages I’m outlining), not wanting to do something harmful, I stopped singing and playing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” …until I read the book, Learning to Be White by Thandeka. In it she looks at the ways we in America, all of us, of any skin color, learn to devalue everything and everyone associated with darkness of skin. We are taught in myriad and mostly unconscious ways to be white. She helps white people look at the costs of learning to be white, and the ways our culture betrays us through the people closest to us, parents and family and community who often unknowingly perpetuate the culture’s norms and so lead us away from our original authentic, true, loving and open selves. We have to deny aspects of our true self in order to learn to be white. Becoming aware of this is a powerfully painful experience, she says.

The moment I finished reading the book, having taken it deeply to heart, I had no words. All I could do was sit down and start improvising on the piano to try to express and process what I was feeling. In the hour of playing, what gradually surfaced was “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” For the first time I felt that I could sing that spiritual for myself from inside of the song. Not from the same place someone whose ancestors had been enslaved might sing it, but from a place that recognized our common source of harm.

As part of Minimization earlier, people are likely to say that there are many paths to the mountaintop. It’s a wonderful and important way to move from us/them to inclusion of difference. However, that still assumes that we’re all going to the same mountaintop. In Acceptance, we start to come to terms with the fact that there may be more than one mountaintop.

In the final but never ending stage of ADAPTATION we take what we have learned about our own and other cultures, and learn to become flexible, able to shift our cultural perspective and change our behavior in culturally appropriate and authentic ways. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, not in superficial imitation, but in ways that recognize, respect and honor the ways of Romans while remaining authentic to who we are. It’s a move from the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” to the Platinum Rule of “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

 “I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”

– Mahatma Gandhi

In Adaptation, we learn to adapt our eye contact behavior to match the people we are interacting with, to let a meeting’s start time or length be flexible if need be, to adjust the tone of our voice or our expectations about who and how someone should be in charge when there is a task to do. We adjust our language, and still stay true to who we are.

This is not a smooth road. Despite our best intentions we will commit faux pas, and put our foot in our mouths, and look in someone’s eyes in a way we think is kind but that feels disrespectful to them.

The path is to learn whatever we can, to expand our understanding and awareness, and then, in good faith, to interact in genuine, authentic ways with people who are different from us, with hearts open to learning what we need to learn.

Why am I telling you this, as we ask together, “What does it mean to be a community of healing in the wider world?” and when this congregation has on the table an unanswered question about what to do regarding it’s third Black Lives Matter Banner being stolen?

In part, I hope this is an invitation to some personal awareness and curiosity and growth.

In part I hope it is an invitation to understand that all our congregational conversations are intercultural conversations, even when everyone in the room is of white, European descent, and that knowing this will help members learn to navigate difference.

And I believe that this congregation’s ability to be an effective facilitator of healing and its ability to make wise decisions about what to do about the Banner, depend on members’ ability to understand that people inside and outside this congregation are in different places in this developmental journey. There are layers of right answers about what to do.

If we go into our congregational meetings or meetings which engage the wider community thinking we have THE answer and everyone else just has to get up to our speed, we will miss the mark.

The goal – if we want to build the world we so deeply desire – is to help as many people as possible to move forward from wherever they are. And what people need in order to move forward, depends on where they are in the journey:

If in Denial – what one needs in order to move forward is to be exposed to and to learn to notice cultural differences.

If in Polarization, recognizing differences but:

…demonizing other cultures – one needs to discover and focus on commonalities with “them” and to engage in cooperative activities that help make connections.

…idolizing other cultures – one needs to discover what’s valuable in one’s own culture and to notice when we are stereotyping.

If in Minimization – in order to move forward one needs to look more closely, and to learn and discern what really is the same between cultures, and what is not. At first, reading books about black experience by black authors, for example, or watching movies from and for other cultures, or listening to speakers name the cultural differences for you. Then, personal experience with people who are different is key.

If in Acceptance – deep learning and direct practice navigating difference is what’s needed. Experiences in communities not our own, finding pressure points and discomfort zones. Learning to navigate other cultures authentically and respectfully.

If in Adaptation – which never ends, because there is always more to learn and new differences to encounter, the need is to keep learning, and, having made the journey,  to become a guide for others, perhaps teaching others how to travel their road forward.

The people who work with this model say that it takes 40 hours of focused work/experience/learning to move one developmental stage forward. The good news is that moving forward is possible. The sobering news is that our work is cut out for us. It will take much more than a single meeting or speaker or book or event.

Our next congregational conversation about the BLM banner, to make recommendations about specific, concrete steps to take, will be held in two weeks, on Oct 23, after the second service. [noting the list of stages] To whom are you intending to speak when you decide what to do about the missing Black Lives Matter Banner, and to what end?

As you are preparing for that gathering, I invite you to think about where you might be in this developmental journey yourself. I’ll also note that very consistently people identify themselves as one stage farther in the journey than they actually are.  (Note for this written sermon edition: There are good reasons for this. Ask me.)

I remind you that Rachael Naomi Remen says to start tikkun olam, the repair/healing of the world, not with something huge, but by healing the world right around you, the world that touches you.

What’s the world that touches this congregation?

What are the (cultural) differences and commonalities here in Grass Valley and Nevada City and Nevada County that people are not seeing, or are denying, or polarizing, or minimizing, and what can this congregation do to help as many people as possible, including us, move forward in this developmental journey, toward ever greater understanding, acceptance, compassion, kindness, justice and love, as our faith tradition asks of us. 

My hope is that we can learn to practice tikkun olam, the repair/healing of the world, with courage, strength and conviction, yes… AND humility at the same time, in order that we can make a meaningful difference, and gather more pieces of the light.

I’m not expecting that we will ever reach a perfect world, but together we can take some powerful progress toward that ideal.

So may it be.


The Intercultural Development Research Institute


Intercultural Development Inventory


Bennett, M. J. (2013). Basic concepts of intercultural communication: Paradigms, principles, & practice: selected readings.