One Small Kindness in a Time of Evil

It’s so great to be back at Midcoast!

I’ve had a different career every time you’ve seen me – hashtag: Millennials. If you’ve been here any of the last three years when I spoke from this podium, you may be wondering what I’m doing now. For almost a year, I’ve been supporting fundraising for HIAS, the only Jewish refugee resettlement organization in the United States. It’s also the oldest resettlement agency, started as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in 1880 to help Jews arriving on Ellis Island find homes, jobs and community in New York City, where we still work today, and across the expanding country.

Fortunately, there aren’t very many Jewish refugees in the world anymore, so for the last twenty years, HIAS has expanded its mandate, in a couple dozen countries and all across the United States, to also resettle refugees and support asylum seekers from all over the world – now, we do it not because the refugees are Jewish, but because HIAS is Jewish.
HIAS takes its motto, “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” It comes from the Old Testament, which exhorts the Hebrew people,

You shall not oppress a stranger and the refugee, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were refugees in the land of Egypt

The Old Testament doesn’t just give this commandment to the Jews once, but six times across the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Historically, the rabbis have held this to be among the highest of callings for the Jewish people. Rabbi Tarfon, in The Wisdom of The Fathers, says,

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

That quote from Rabbi Tarfon is one of my favorites, a constant mantra for me. Likewise, these words of the Transcendentalist Unitarian Rev. Theodore Parker, and adapted a hundred years later by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said often,

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

The words of Rabbi Tarfon and Dr. King speak to us of hope and perseverance and eventual justice. They also speak to the overwhelming scope and weariness of the task before us, grounding us with the acknowledgement that the problems are bigger than any of us, bigger even than all of us together; what’s wrong with the world cannot be solved in our lifetimes, no matter how hard we strive or how long we live. Rabbi Tarfon and Dr. King exhort us to keep on anyway, to keep working towards tikkun olam, towards the healing of the world.

Maybe you feel this, too. The weight of national and global politics, of cultures of white supremacy and anti-Semitism, of the crumbling of democracy in the face of oligarchy and kleptocracy. It feels like an impossibly steep mountain before us, shrouded in dark thunderclouds, going steeply up and up forever, and obstacle that we are compelled to climb if we are to make the future better than the present.

So, with all of this as context, when I was invited back to here at Midcoast, I was vacillating between several ideas. My partner was helping me talk through what I might speak to from this podium today. We hashed out a couple ideas, and he kept pushing back, kept repeating:

There’s really only one thing for you to preach about in 2019, and that’s kids in cages.

But it’s just so overwhelming. I find myself again at the foot of that mammoth mountain, facing down the wrath of Zeus. I feel so insignificant in the face of all the evil roaring at us every day.

I don’t want to dwell on that mountain today, though. I want us to focus on one tiny pebble right in front of our feet.

But first, for reference, here’s the particular slope of the mountain that lies immediately before me and my colleagues each day at work:

At a time when refugee resettlement is harder than ever here in the U.S., the global numbers of refugees and other displaced persons are at an all-time high. The latest U.N. report last September shows an unprecedented total of almost 71 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including almost 26 million refugees, and 3.5 million asylum seekers.

A big part of our work in the year I’ve now been with HIAS has been mobilizing support for the men, women, queer and trans people, children and families seeking asylum on the southern border. Eighteen months ago, we weren’t doing anything at the border, and now we’re operating in several pairs of cities that straddle the border, like San Diego in California and Tijuana in Mexico. That work is always evolving, now at the bewildering speed of constant new injustices, but over the last year HIAS’ work has always included two kinds of mission trips.

There are legal missions, in which cohorts of pro bono attorneys visit border communities to provide legal services. And there are witness missions, bringing rabbis, cantors and other religious and civic leaders to the border to hear asylum seekers tell their stories, bear witness to conditions, and then share those experiences back home in order to move Americans to action in their own communities.

Last March, HIAS happened to be leading one of those witness missions as reports of terrible sanitary conditions and flu epidemics in those child detention centers swept the news. Rabbis who had been to the border with HIAS helped tell that story, and the term “concentration camp” returned to public conversation. During a June witness mission, Donald Trump responded by tweeting about upcoming ICE raids in ten of the country’s largest cities. My colleagues returned deeply shaken to our New York offices.

I should use the singular, “our office,” because it’s mostly just one room where we all have desks. When I started there a year ago, it was uncomfortable. I was painfully aware that everyone in the office could hear every word I said; I practically whispered into the phone answering donor questions. But I quickly came to appreciate the opportunity to listen in on my colleagues’ phone calls about the work we do and, often, why it’s so moving to be doing this work at this time.

I have a favorite person to eavesdrop on in the office. That’s Merrill, our Vice President for Community Engagement. I learn an enormous amount from her phone calls about where HIAS is focusing our energies, and how we respond to what seems like a daily barrage of new threats and abuses leveled at refugees, asylum seekers, and the American Jewish community.

One particularly difficult day, Merrill had just returned from that incredibly difficult late June mission to the border. I couldn’t help but overhear Merrill processing it with a colleague, “I can’t stop thinking about what’s happening on the border. I’m just absolutely heartbroken all the time. I have a five-year-old at home,” she said, her voice rising, “and there are kids in cages at the border. What are we doing? I’m just so heartbroken.”

I felt it, too. The absolute mountain of evil being perpetrated in our name as Americans, and the ineffectual puniness of what I could do to chip away at that mountain. But I was also feeling a profound gratitude for HIAS’s work in that moment.

I stopped what I was doing to write an email to my colleague Merrill. I wrote,

Hi, Merrill,
I can’t stop myself from listening to you on the phone while I work, and today in particular (but every day, really) I’m so very proud to be raising money for the work you make possible! Keep up the good work!
with gratitude, Maryah

And then I hesitated. I couldn’t hit Send.

Who am I, really? I thought, to send this email? She’s a Vice President, and I’m an entry-level newbie. She’s not even in my department. I look like I’m sucking up to the boss. Not even my own boss. And look at all the exclamation marks in this email! I don’t look like professional; I look like an emotional woman. This self-doubt is what it is for many of us, to be a woman in the workplace.

I circled around and around in my head. Should I, or shouldn’t I? Was this really appropriate? But also, what does it matter how I feel about her work? Or anything, really? There are kids in cages on the border, and one silly email can never budge the looming mountain of tragedy and helplessness that we’re facing.

I set aside the email in my Drafts folder and went back to printing thank you letters. I reopened that email draft several times during the afternoon. Do I send it? What message does that send? How will my colleagues judge me for this?

Finally, as a last 5:00 act before I left for the day, I just made myself do it. Don’t be an emotional woman. Just hit Send. What’s the worst that could happen? I took a deep breath, sent it, shut down my computer, and got out of the office, quick!

In the morning, when I fired up my computer, I had my colleague Merrill’s response: brief, but enthusiastic. I looked up the exact language to write this sermon:

This is the nicest email I’ve ever received and I’m saving it forever. Thank you!

I had to walk past her desk a few minutes later, and my boss’s boss’s boss was leaning over Merrill’s shoulder. “I hope you don’t mind,” Merrill said, “that I’m showing this to your boss. This is seriously the nicest thing, and I just forwarded it to my mother!”

Merrill’s at least a decade older than me, a VP and a mother herself, and I was struck by the idea that she wanted her mother to see my email, and wanted me to know it, too. It told me how important my email was to her. It reminded me that I’m not the only one who suffers from insecurity in the office. It also reminded me that we’re better together, supporting each other.

Two sentences. My email was just two sentences and a parenthetical aside, and here it was circulating to my boss’s boss’s boss and our VP’s mother…?

I didn’t move any farther up that mountain. I just shifted a small pebble right at my feet. I mean, how hard is it to send an email? I did it full of doubt and trepidation – in fact, I almost didn’t do it at all! – and it made an impression. It meant something. It didn’t make Merrill’s job any easier, but maybe it made her next step up the mountain a little lighter.

There’s so much in my head in recent weeks and months that’s dark, and threatening, and angry, and frightened, and when I’m struggling to face the mountain bearing down on us, those powers of darkness at work in our country today, I have to remember that there is also light. There are also still important, oh-so-brief moments of powerful human connection, moments of hope and awe so strong, you just have to write home about them.

While this is not true for everyone, I find a great deal of hope and support in these difficult times from my Facebook networks – today’s reading and prayer come from Facebook memes – and I want to end on two memes that are helping me a lot right now.

Don’t let hopelessness trend in your head.

Each of you has a humanitarian or justice issue that’s important to you. It doesn’t have to be refugees or asylum. Black Lives Matter, gerrymandering, income inequality, veterans, LGB-, queer-, trans- and nonbinary communities, women, climate change … whatever it is.

I’d like you to take a time of silence to think about someone you know who is doing work on this issue, a friend or a colleague. What can you do for that person to bring them a moment of joy, of relief, of accomplishment, to ease the burden of the important battle they’re fighting?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., says:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

The Talmud and the Qur’an say,

Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.

Rabbi Tarfon says,

It is not your responsibility to finish the work of tikkun olam – perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Go out into the world, my friends, even if you’re full of doubt and trepidation, and do one small gesture of service this week for someone fighting to perfect the world.  

Amen. Shalom. Blessed be.

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