This extraordinary place never fails to inspire me with its continuing passion for the pursuit of justice …
I did not come to Unitarian Universalism seeking refuge from some painful religious experience. That’s just not my story. And so today’s connections talk will be a little different. And yet, I proudly proclaim that being a UU and part of this Congregation over more than 40 years has had a profound and life-altering influence on me.
I grew up as a secular Jew. Tolerance, humanist values and liberal politics were championed in my home. In fact, my parents found their way to a very small Unitarian fellowship some sixty years ago, and I was actually in RE classes way back then. Imagine that!
I am also a first generation American. My parents both grew up in Austria although their paths never crossed in that country. Both endured frightening and life threatening circumstances as they struggled to escape Europe during the early days of Nazi aggression. Only later did they meet, here, in America. They got married and started a life together on a small farm in rural Pennsylvania. That may sound like happy ending and compared to many European Jews, it certainly was.
But, as I would find out only later in life, starting their lives over in America was anything but an easy matter. Going through their volumes of papers, after both my parents had passed (they never threw anything away), I discovered how they struggled in those early years. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, that new immigrants with German accents in the middle of World War II were not warmly welcomed into a rural American community. Getting bank credit, procuring farm supplies, gaining local acceptance and making new friends were all great challenges.
For me and my two brothers, all we knew was a happy and loving home. My parents rarely spoke of the horrors of wartime Europe and largely shielded us from the challenges of adapting to life in America. Nonetheless, I think I inherited a bit of the immigrant psyche, not quite feeling a part of mainstream American Christian culture, and always feeling a little oppressed. And when you come from that place, you are not inclined to speak out or act on your convictions. You keep your head down and stay safe.
It was only when I came to Schenectady as a young adult, to this congregation, that I found what it was like to be part of a loving community that not only shared my values but lived by them. Here I found role models who dedicated their energies and their money to promoting justice, and sharing their love with the wider community. Being part of this church taught me activism and generosity. And still today, this extraordinary place never fails to inspire me with its continuing passion for the pursuit of justice, year over year, generation to generation. I don’t quite know what makes us that way but whatever it is, it’s infectious. It replicates itself. In a land full of apathy, we grow compassion.
And so, Sandra and I developed a style of living modestly while we committed our energies, our compassion and our treasures to this church and to other organizations that promoted justice, cared for those less fortunate or fought to preserve our treasured natural world. And doing so gave us great joy. It just feels good to see the fruits of that work.
I could speak of many examples, but one that seems most poignant today comes from our work with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. For the more than 75 years, our denomination through the work of UUSC has been advancing human rights, worldwide. We first became aware of this group through its “guest at your table” project. But seeing the results of UUSC’s work is a little harder than for the work we do locally. And so a few years ago, Sandra and I seized upon the opportunity to become members of the UUSC Stewardship Circle. Through engagement in this group, and more recently, as Chair of its Steering Committee, I have had the opportunity to see UUSC’s impact first hand — learning how they thoughtfully and strategically choose initiatives, identify local partners here and in foreign lands and then support their work. I have met some of those partners, heard their stories and how their work drives change. I’ve got to tell you, I am really impressed. As UUs, I think we can all be proud of how our tiny denomination impacts human rights on a global scale. I’m so excited that Tom Andrews, UUSC’s new President will be here to greet us next Saturday evening and will lead our joint service Sunday at Doane Stuart. You shouldn’t miss him.
Despite my involvement with UUSC, it was not until PBS aired the Ken Burns documentary “Defying the Nazis” last fall that I fully grasped the linkage between their work and my own family history. This film, the same one that you can see here at 2:00 today, explores the work of Waitstill and Martha Sharp, the two individuals with whom UUSC’s early days are identified. This young Unitarian minister and his wife undertook extremely risky missions in Nazi-occupied Europe to rescue Jews, dissidents, and refugee children.
When I saw the dramatic depiction of Martha Sharp covertly leading a group of Jewish refugees by train from Prague across Germany to Holland, I was drawn to another story in the same period. A young student, expelled from the university in Vienna because she was a Jew, defiantly left the city of her birth and took a train across Germany, all alone, at age 22. Luckily, she made it into Holland and with help from a generous Dutch businessman she obtained passage to safety in New York City where she could continue her education. That young woman was my Mom.
And when the film showed Waitstill Sharp guiding Jewish refugees across southern France and across the border into Spain, I was drawn to another story. Yes, of course, it was my Dad’s. But he never told me of that part of his life. I think it was just too painful. Only after his death did I learn from his sister that he had escaped from eastern Europe to France where he joined the French army, fighting against the advancing German troops. When France fell under Nazi control, some of his Army buddies, knowing that he was doomed if he stayed, smuggled him onto a ship departing Marseille for Jamaica. But when he got to British Jamaica, with only an Austrian passport, he was jailed as an enemy alien. It was only with the help of yet others that he was eventually released and found his way to the US. And so, you see, I have come to realize that I owe my very existence to brave people like the Sharps who took great risks and stood up to injustice.
I am so glad I found this church. It has profoundly changed me in so many ways. For one, it has taught me commitment and purpose. It has led me to rededicate myself to continue the fight, defying hatred, wherever it occurs, here and across the globe. I do it for my parents, to heal myself of the pain that I inherited and because, for millions of people, everywhere, freedom and justice just can’t wait.