Brave Space and the Buddy Bench

Brave Space and the Buddy Bench ©

preached* for the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
in Grass Valley, CA

by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert

September 17, 2017


I wish I could say all the things I could say… my favorite line from our hymnal I think.  Perhaps because it’s my job to be saying things Sunday after Sunday.   No matter how many times I’ve spoken in public, I always feel inadequate to the task.  Words are just words, after all.  They mean what we agree they mean, and no more.  And they are also our biggest tool for communication, for building relationship, for being together.

It is great to be with you this morning.  What an honor it was to give the charge to your minister yesterday at his installation and to be with you here this morning.  As Kevin told you, I’ve recently returned to the Pacific Northwest, to Vancouver (Washington, not BC).I’d been in the Midwest for nearly 20 years, serving a congregation in Michigan for the last 15 where we were so fortunate to have Kevin on staff one of those years.  Though the Pacific Northwest is the land of my birth and my heart, I have to admit to a tear falling down my cheek when Kevin poured water from Lake Michigan into the common vessel at the installation yesterday.  Like Kevin, I have been adjusting to a new place, a new people and this new climate.

It seems we are all adjusting to a new climate these days.  When I was in Vancouver for candidating week, they all told me how unusual their winter had been – how very long and cloudy and rainy it was.  How they got feet of snow when they never get snow.  When I arrived in late June, there were these glorious sunny days I remembered from long ago summer trips to the coast when I could have been persuaded that it was always sunny and beautiful in the Pacific Northwest.

But more recently, the mountains have disappeared with the white haze of wildfire smoke.  A week ago Tuesday, if it hadn’t been so hot, I would have believed it was snowing with the ash blowing around Vancouver.   Western wildfires, Hurricanes Harvey and Irma all give us painful, concrete images of how global climate change may be affecting us from here on out.  As astrophysics professor Adam Frank says,

“It’s never been about politics or ideology…“What it’s always been about are the truly awesome powers inherent to planets and the real human consequences of altering the balance of those powers.”

The balance of powers has been altered in many ways since last year’s presidential election.  The climate has become less welcoming – to immigrants, people of color, Muslims, those who are transgender, or disabled or gay, well, the list, as you know, goes on and on and on.  Though I cannot blame the current administration for the changes in our planet’s weather patterns, (though they are not helping)  I can and do fault the current president for his hateful and hurtful rhetoric and actions which further divide the country, encouraging the most racist elements of our society to spew their vitriol and kill the innocent.  Words, as I said as I began, are just words, but they do have consequences.  As our best tool for communication, they should be used to help and not harm.

Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  She wrote an op ed piece for Krista Tippet’s show On Being.  The article is called the Power of Welcome in an Age of Loneliness.

She begins with these words:

“We’re living in what’s been termed “the age of loneliness”: we’re more connected than ever before, and simultaneously, more isolated. We rely on social media in place of face-to-face contact. We bemoan the deterioration of conversation as we spend more time looking down at our screens than up at the people we’re talking to. But, really, the problem is that we do not give ourselves permission to talk about the things that truly matter.”

In order to give people space and permission to talk about the things that truly matter, Jennifer Bailey and a couple of friends began the 100 days 100 dinners movement.  Did you know about these?  For the first 100 nights of the new administration, they launched this project where people all over the country were invited to host or attend dinners with people they knew – to encourage belonging and healing – or with people they didn’t know – to try to bridge political, ideological and identity differences. Though each conversation took a different turn, they all began with the same set of questions.  The questions were each designed to elicit stories from guests about times they felt unwelcome and times they felt at ease.  They began each evening with the recitation of the following poem written by her friend and colleague Mickey ScottBey Jones:

“Together we will create brave space
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We exist in the real world
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
In this space
We seek to turn down the volume of the outside world,
We amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere,
We call each other to more truth and love
We have the right to start somewhere and continue to grow.
We have the responsibility to examine what we think we know.
We will not be perfect.
This space will not be perfect.
It will not always be what we wish it to be
It will be our brave space together,
We will work on it side by side.”

I love this idea of “brave space.”  Creating brave space is something we can all participate in together, by talking with one another about things which really matter, by risking the awkward moment by raising a question that may not seem “polite,” or talking about taboo subjects like race or gender.

Safe space, on the other hand, seems to be something we try to create for others – we try to create safe space in the classroom, in a worship service, in a soul matters circle.  But the truth is – there is no guarantee.  As long as you’ve included some human beings in your group, we can’t guarantee that confidences will be kept or your feeling won’t be hurt by the words of another.  We must try, but we must also expect – that in the real world – we will be disappointed from time to time.

And so I like changing the focus from promising safe space to creating brave space.  If I am brave enough to share my truth, I might encourage others to do the same. I take responsibility for my own feelings, rather than expecting others to not hurt them.

Rev. Bailey goes on to say that: “One of our biggest sources of resilience in combating loneliness is what psychologists call “common humanity”: the degree to which you see your struggles as part of the human experience. “To feel less lonely in your stress, two things help,” writes Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal. “The first is to increase your awareness of other people’s suffering. The second is to be more open about yours.”

We exist in the real world.  We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.  Welcoming the awareness of our own vulnerability, our own suffering and the suffering of others.  Welcoming the knowledge that we have all caused wounds and we all carry scars.  These can be hard to welcome, hard to acknowledge.

Sometimes children, who have accumulated fewer wounds over fewer years, can be better at this than more experienced – more wounded – adults.

Enter Christian Bucks and the Buddy Bench that Chuck told us about this morning.

That buddy bench where you can go sit on if you don’t have anyone to play with.  You have to display vulnerability and courage, in a school playground, to volunteer to sit on a bench that declares to the world that you have nobody to play with!  I would call it a brave space.  And yet, that’s what kids can do, and it can work.

I don’t know if your local schools have Buddy Benches, but I do know that the trend has spread in this country thanks to this first-grader, who has since turned 11.

To be a people of Welcome, requires both the receiving and giving of welcome.  My first thought of welcome is about giving it – providing hospitality.  Being welcoming.  Scooting over in worship so that latecomers can find a seat, or sharing your hymnal with a stranger.  Wearing your nametag… going over to the buddy bench to see if someone would like to join your game.

But perhaps it is the other side of welcome that needs some practice – the gracious reception of welcome, the ability to ask for help and be vulnerable, to sit on the buddy bench and expose your loneliness.

It may be that what we need to work on is based on how much power we have in the world.  Many people who identify as Unitarian Universalist are used to having some measure of power in the world, and often struggle when they become ill or as they age, or find themselves in the less familiar territory of dependency.  Perhaps it’s not tied to power based on social location, but I have noticed the difficulty people in UU congregations have accepting help.  We can be great at giving it, but accepting it seems to be a bit harder.

Two springs ago, the congregation in Lansing, MI that I served, held worship services in the gymnasium of the local Islamic Center.  We had bought a school that we were remodeling into our new church building, but had already moved out of the old one.   The reconstruction, you won’t be surprised to learn, took longer than expected, so the congregation was temporarily homeless.  The Islamic Center offered us space for a month, no charge, and really wanted to host us.  Only we in the congregation weren’t so good at accepting the hospitality of others.  We were used to being the hosts, not the guests.  Culturally, we came up against each other a bit.  For hospitality is quite important in Islam.  They wanted to be good hosts, and to do that, meant they needed to be allowed to do everything for us.  They set up the chairs, and did not want our help taking them down.  They brought coffee and donuts and did not want us bringing in any food.  My people struggled mightily.

I got emails from congregants who told me that we weren’t being gracious because we weren’t helping them take down the chairs after worship.  I tried to explain, but people have a hard time getting out of our own cultural and class frameworks.  Just being recipients of welcome was surprisingly hard.  In fact, I’d say that was the biggest learning for me from that time sharing space with our Muslim neighbors.

I’ve been thinking about my Muslim neighbors in Lansing, MI lately, so many are immigrants from other lands.  And my new neighborhood in Vancouver, WA where the UU church is located, is also home many people from other parts of the world.  When the Trump administration announced its decision recently to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, I couldn’t help but think of my old friends in Lansing and the new ones I’m making here, and the Mexican farmworker families of children I taught in Central Washington state – apple picking country – before I went into the ministry.  800,000 undocumented immigrants in this country could be affected.

And maybe congress will do something, but given inaction from the past, and the track record of this administration, it’s hard to hold out much hope.  Even though I know this country was taken from Native peoples and many people of color were enslaved and indentured to build this country, nevertheless, with Langston Hughes, I believed we could let America be America again – let it be the dream it used to be.  “America never was America to me,” he wrote, but “let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed.”  I have believed in the words of Langston Hughes and the words on the statue of liberty, the mother of exiles, by poet Emma Lazarus– “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” and in the absence of that welcome, that mission, I am not sure what America is to be.

And yet, we are America, too – and if we in this small world of Unitarian Universalism can figure out how to be welcoming and how to receive welcome, if we can learn to be vulnerable, learn to go sit on the buddy bench and create brave space together… it is my conviction that we can help America be the dream the dreamers dreamed…

You have an incredible opportunity coming up this next Saturday to create some brave space together with your Mission Covenant Renewal Workshop.  As Kevin recently wrote in your newsletter, “Stated most simply, a mission is a statement of reason for being.  At its best, a mission statement is a brief, compelling and inspiring articulation of the primary reason the organization exists.  What is its fundamental purpose?  What is it organized to accomplish?”

Or, as the Rev. Roger Jones, Senior Minister of the UU Society of Sacramento asked you yesterday in his charge to the congregation, “

“What are those few things this congregation does well, those few things you might aspire to pursue next? What are those few strengths of yours, without which this region would be deprived of sustenance? Your spiritual community may be the only source for those few life-changing things, so it need not do everything, just those few things.”

Don’t dismiss this Mission Covenant Renewal work as mundane, rote, or boring – it is not.  In fact, it is quite the opposite.  For, to uncover your fundamental purpose requires the courage of brave space.  I don’t know if this is true for you, but it is my experience that many UU congregations try to do everything – lest we disappoint someone who really wants to lead this project or that project among us.  We avoid conflict by pretending we’re committed to everything any single member wants to do, rather than saying “no” to some things, allowing us to say “yes” well, to others.  This work requires brave space because you will be talking about things that really matter.  And as much as we like to consider ourselves of like minds, we may discover that different things matter to us.  And that is a good thing.  I have been rewarded in the past when I have been able to set aside my own agenda and trust the wisdom of the group – I always learn something new and am constantly surprised.

If we in this small world of Unitarian Universalism can figure out how to be vulnerable, learn to go sit on the buddy bench and create brave space together… If we can learn how to be a people of welcome, by offering and receiving welcome, I believe we can help America be the dream the dreamers dreamed…

As the poets say, “We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been –a place half-remembered and half-envisioned….some place where we can be free.” And it begins when  “we sit together and I tell you things, silent, unborn, naked things that only my God has heard me say and you do not cluck your tongue at me or split my heart into a thousand thousand pieces….I breathe you in and I breathe you out in one luxurious and contented sigh.  In sweet company, I am home at last.”

Thank you for your sweet company, for welcoming me into your home, and welcoming my friend, ‘Rev. Kev.’ into your ministry.  Thank you for being a people of welcome.

* Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written.  I have not edited this sermon to written form.