Building Walls, Building Community

My name is Janet Onnie. Your Board of Trustees has asked me to spend the next few months as your Consulting Minister. That means I will be here with you most Sunday mornings to preach what I hope will be words of healing of the present and hopes for the future. The central story – the central metaphor -- will be the Hebrew Bible story of Nehemiah and re-building the walls of Jerusalem. I like it because it’s a true story, confirmed by historical research and scientific discovery. I also like it because it holds all the elements of building a community: how to define our parameters, how to extend hospitality, and how we maintain and deepen community during the inevitable conflicts and hurts that arise when people live together.

But the story of Nehemiah is not the only story we’ll hear. I’m also going to spend time here listening to your stories. This congregation has a rich history that speaks to me of challenges overcome through a generous spirit and deep love of this church. You have been sorely tested over the years, and have endured loss and disorientation. Here’s my story about loss and disorientation.

In September 2009 Hurricane Ike scored a direct hit on Salt Cay, the tiny island in the Turks & Caicos Islands I’ve called home for the past 22 years. This three-square-mile piece of land was devastated. So were the 43 people who huddled in the corners of their cottages watching their roofs fly apart, their walls crumble, and the stuff of their lives whirl off at 140 mph to perish in the raging ocean. When I got there 4 days after the event I found the roof of my home caved in, and my own stuff missing or damaged beyond repair. But through the shock of the loss I began to notice that people who had previously kept pretty much to their own racially, culturally, and economically defined groups had banded together in their common shock and grief to share what was left of their food, water, and clothing and to hear each others’ stories. For a short time -- in the aftermath of a disaster -- Salt Cay had become Beloved Community.

Here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs you are reeling from the aftermath of a different kind of hurricane: A hurricane where what was shaken was perhaps the most important thing we humans hold dear – trust in and for each other. I am here to walk with you through the loss of relationships and broken covenants and to remind you that you are a beloved and courageous people. I am here to give witness to a fact we all know -- the world can be a scary, unpredictable place. Specifically I want to speak to our natural tendency to respond to our fright and disorientation by building walls and huddling behind them.

There’s different kinds of walls. After the attack on the World Trade Centers America threw up a wall called “homeland security.” I hope you now feel safer than I do. After hurricanes we build our buildings to stronger and stronger specifications. Until the next one. We repair the levies. That hold until the next flood. After our personal boundaries have been breached by illness, broken relationships, or other kinds of losses we build walls of self-reliance. When our institutional boundaries are shaken, we formulate policies.
Progressive theologian William Sloan Coffin said, “Love seeks the truth, but fear seeks safety.” And seek safety, we do. Walls have been the preferred method of protecting and defining ourselves for millennia: The Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, the Wall of Famagusta, the Walled City of Lucca, the walls of the Benin Empire in Nigeria, Nehemiah’s walls of Jerusalem. Since the beginning of time people have crouched behind physical barriers and hoped that people with agendas different from theirs would be kept out. Think gated communities.

We Unitarian Universalists, who suffer disproportionately from our national plague of individualism, do the same thing. Our psychic walls are manifested in phrases like, “it hardly hurts at all”, “thanks, but we’ll manage”, “it’s no bother”, “don’t worry about it”, and my personal favorite, “I’m fine”. These nice phrases we’ve cultivated calm the fear of the listener that he/she will be asked to DO something to address our lack of control or our weakness or – heaven forbid – our need for each other. Episcopalian Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori notes that there is some degree of wariness, or caution, or fear, in most of our relationships with each other. “Can we dream of a world”, she asked, “where all creatures, human and not, can meet each other in a stance not tinged with fear?”
What I’d like us to do this morning is dream about a church community that reflects a stance of curiosity, tolerance, and openness that is free of fear of each other. Because most of the time our fear that we will be called upon to ‘fix’ a situation – to change something -- is unfounded. Most of the time we are acting out because we haven’t found anyone to listen – truly and deeply and non-judgmentally listen to us. Job might have been better served if his friends – his community – had just quietly sat with him.

The Jewish Reformed Prayerbook expresses our situation this way: “Standing on the parted shores of history we still believe what we were taught before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot; that wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt -- that there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.” So, until we can meet each other without fear, we have the comfort – I might even say, the imperative, of living in community.

In community our walls of caution serve a useful purpose. We need to have boundaries – to know where “I” leaves off and “You” begins. Without walls, ‘the world is too much with us’ and we sacrifice our place of safety and calm where we need to retreat so we can recharge ourselves. If you don’t feel safe, it’s unlikely that you can help anyone else feel safe. We are passengers on that airplane where the oxygen masks drops and you’re told to put yours on first. Why? Because you can’t be useful to anyone else when you’re gasping for air! So why would you care if you’re useful to someone else? Because you may have occasion to desperately need the help of that person sitting next to you. And you’re out of luck if she’s gasping for air, too! So let’s put on our masks – let’s examine the kinds of boundaries we have in place to see if they’re constructed so they allow us to participate in the world while feeling safe. Let’s figure out how to use our walls to build community.
The central story of my ministry is the mostly-true story of Nehemiah found in the Hebrew scriptures and corroborated by modern historians and scientists. Briefly, about 587 BC, the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, along with Solomon’s temple. This was the third of three campaigns into that region. On all three occasions the Babylonians sacked the temple, burned the city walls to the ground, and took a number of Israelites as captives and resettled them in Babylon. But the Babylonians’ fortunes changed and they were conquered by Cyrus, king of Persia. King Cyrus gave the Babylonian Jews permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and some of them did. For awhile it looked like Israel was on the verge of becoming a blessed nation again, but these Jews were fixed only on restoring the building. Without integrating into the social fabric those unique practices and rituals that set the community of Israel apart – in other words, without developing their communal identity, the building effort failed. The political, social, and spiritual conditions of the Jews in Persian-controlled Jerusalem reverted to the time of the conquests.

Meanwhile, back in Persia, a Jewish fellow named Nehemiah heard about the plight of his homeland and it captured his imagination. He had a vision of rebuilding Jerusalem and, over a period of months, negotiated a leave of absence from his position as cupbearer to the king to do just that. Arriving at the city, he found his worst fears realized and set about to building the city walls.

To start reconstruction of a city by building walls strikes me as a curious choice. Why not re-build individual homes. Or the temple. Or the infrastructure. Why did Nehemiah start with building walls? Well, Nehemiah had a vision that restoring the walls would somehow restore the community of Israel. By defining the parameters, he was also defining the community. He was so persuasive that the people caught that vision as well.

So, in spite of building materials that consisted of heaps of fire-damaged stone – in spite of a workforce that had been totally demoralized by their occupiers -- in spite of mockery from the local authorities that eventually turned to threats of bodily harm – in spite of all these negative factors, the people of Jerusalem built the walls. And as they were bound together in their common hardship and uncertainty of the wall-building, they also built their community. This laid the groundwork for Ezra to exhort them to reclaim their lost identity as God’s chosen, thus re-establishing their Jewish-ness in the midst of a majority of non-Jews.
The walls on my decimated island of Salt Cay are a lot like those walls around Jerusalem. They’re made from the materials we have at hand – stones. Lots of stones of all different shapes and sizes. We stack them together so that they interlock. (Some people are better at this than others. We call them masons, but they have the same eye for what fits where as do people we call leaders.) We build them so they’re strong enough to lean on and chat with those on the other side. But best of all, like Nehemiah’s walls, we construct our walls with gates.

Let’s face it: walls are a paradox. They keep people in and they keep people out. Gates are how we relieve the tension of the community-wall paradox. Gates are the mechanism by which people can come into the safety of beloved community and go out to be engaged in the world. Gates are the portals by which strangers enter, signifying their peaceful intentions. Think about it. With whom will you feel more at ease? Someone who comes through your front gate or someone who climbs over your wall?

To me, gates are a metaphor for the way in which you view your relationship with your community. Are your gates of the flat steel variety or the open picket variety? Do you need a key to get through the gate or is it loosely tied with a piece of old rope? Is it tall or can you see over it? Is it hinged so that it easily swings open and shut, or do you have to make a real effort to move it? Does the color of the gate reflect who lives behind the walls? Does your gate say, “come on in” or does it say “keep out”?

Let’s make a gate with our hands to illustrate the point. First, turn the knuckles of your hands so they’re facing each other. Then interlock your fingers. Now move your wrists so that the palms of your hands are facing each other. Your fingers should be on the inside, and your thumbs are parallel. Next, try to wiggle your fingers. It’s not easy is it? Imagine them as people inside a small, dark cramped enclosed space. Now move your thumbs – the gates – in opposition. Roll your wrists back so the backs of your hands are facing each other. Now wiggle your fingers. Isn’t that easier? The gates are open, exposing the people inside to a wider world of sunlight and space and freedom of movement. You could probably even touch your neighbors in this open position! Go ahead and try it.

As we start our rebuilding project here in Tarpon Springs I’d like to encourage us all to not forget the gates. Make them wide, make them low, make them easy to open and hard to close. Next week we’ll talk more about gates and what is found inside the walls. But for now remember that wall-building takes time. Two years later we’re still re-building the walls in Salt Cay, just as Nehemiah rebuilt the walls in Jerusalem. Just as you all are rebuilding the walls of your community here in Tarpon Springs. We are told that Jerusalem was restored because ‘the people had a mind to work’. The people had a mind to work. Does the Tarpon Springs community have a mind to work? May it be so. Amen.

  © Unitarian Universalist Church of Tarpon Springs, 2015