Near and Far

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from the Jamaican-American poet, Claude McKay, in his poem titled, “Thirst.” McKay was an instrumental figure and contributor during the Harlem Renaissance.

My spirit wails for water, water now!
My tongue is aching dry, my throat is hot
For water, fresh rain shaken from a bough,
Or dawn dews heavy in some leafy spot.
My hungry body’s burning for a swim
In sunlit water where the air is cool,
As in Trout Valley where upon a limb
The golden finch sings sweetly to the pool.
Oh water, water, when the night is done,
When day steals gray-white through the windowpane,
Clear silver water when I wake, alone,
All impotent of parts, of fevered brain;
Pure water from a forest fountain first,
To wash me, cleanse me, and to quench my thirst!

This past Friday I made my way down to Rowan county for a second time. The news had come in Thursday afternoon that Kim Davis, the clerk for Rowan county, was being held in contempt and the majority of her deputy clerks would agree to issue licenses.

Having seen what the protesters faced in Ashland on Thursday, I knew it would be no different on Friday. I wondered who would be there to support the couples – who would be there to represent progressive religion – who would be there to tell people that they were on the right side of history.

The drive to Morehead was new to me. Rolling hills, fog hanging heavy over the Appalachian plateau, and small towns dotting the landscape – it became blazingly clear to me through the fog and hills that in this drive to Morehead, I was the only settled Unitarian Universalist minister between Lexington and Charleston, West Virginia.

The handful of other colleagues in this area do not have the luxury of stepping away from their jobs to witness to and support marriage equality. I’ve said a few times already in the month I’ve been with you that our message of liberal religion is all the more important here in the Bluegrass and Appalachia. I do not say this as a lofty hope, I say this as a clear and present reality for Unitarian Universalism.

Upon arriving in Morehead, parking my car, toting a standing on the side of love sign and a clerical stole, the chanting and shouting became louder and louder. I at once wanted to cry and start running toward the crowds – I needed to be there quicker.

Cars were laying on their horns, a street preacher was screaming into a megaphone, and the pro-marriage side kept reminding themselves not to engage and chanted Love Wins over and over. I approached them, threw on my stole and a lady with pink hair looked at me, saw my sign and went, Oh Thank God – I was worried when I saw you walking up here. It didn’t help that I was wearing a white shirt, black pants, a dark tie – stereotypical missionary clothes, now that I think about it.

And so we stood. We endured the shouting, the names, the vulgar and vile comments. They were the sounds of victory. And the crowd finally realized yes, I was with them, as I held onto someone’s bright blue umbrella and talked with people. Many of them had no idea that religion could be kind, accepting, and willing to stand for the oppressed.

And we continued to stand vigil, as the 90+ degree heat beat down on us. There was a weariness to the crowd. We had won but we were tired, hot, and just wishing for the other side to be quiet.

When I started to think I was going to faint and joined the growing crowd in the shade, two people showed up with their rainbow shirts, carrying Styrofoam coolers filled with water bottles. They passed them out to us, the other side refused, and we found relief from the heat.

That is when people started to relax. There was suddenly more laughter and, I suspect, a willingness to accept what we had been chanting all morning: Love had indeed won. Those water bottles, for everyone there, were an invitation to refresh, rejoice, and ignore the still vibrant insults being hurled our way. If ever there was anything that could be called balm of Gilead, this was it.

To me, in that moment, it was as close to the idea of a sacrament as I was ever going to get – finding relief and opening up to greater connections with those strangers with their pink hair, rainbow shirts, and signs proclaiming love over damnation. It was in every sense of the word communion – diverse people joined in a unifying and transformative experience.

Over thirty years ago, the Unitarian Universalist Women and Religion Convocation celebrated a ritual that was also transformative – and it became the foundation of what we celebrate today as water communion. But their ritual was decidedly different than common practice today. A call went out for these women to bring water from their homes.

I imagine not much more explanation was given beyond “We’re going to use it for something.” What those women would soon find out is that the water they brought would come to represent all of their collective grief and joy, renewal and transition that they had brought with them as women.

The challenges that women faced then were still significant and sadly many of them are still faced today – income inequality, sexism, violence, reproductive rights, and patriarchy – much of it religious. They brought their water, stood in a circle and began to sing. They sang and sang and then they began to share their experiences. And they shared for hours – with laughter, tears, deeply felt grief, and hope. Upon sharing their oppressions and their joys they joined the water they brought together into one bowl.

And when everyone was done sharing, they went back to the bowl and took some of the mingled waters with them. They carried the collective experience with them from that place. It was the first Unitarian Universalist water communion.

From that gathering of women in 1980, Unitarian Universalism saw renewed leadership from women. That gathering paved the way for the hymnal to be gender inclusive, it also inspired greater participation by earth-centered traditions in Unitarian Universalism…and encouraged such luminaries as Starhawk and Margot Adler to share of their wisdom.

And for me, above all else, that convocation of women was fundamental in seeing our seventh principle adopted: The interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. All of this leadership from the sharing of water – the sharing of deeply personal oppressions and hopes. Ritual indeed has power.

Today, most Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate one form or another of water communion. The practice has stuck, but it has not necessarily remained intact. It has many interpretations. The most common amongst these is the sharing of our summer travels.

As important as the “where” of our journeys matters, I can’t help but feel that the emotion behind the places life has taken or will take us is lost. I also need to name the inherent classism in such a practice. It is not a classism that is mean-spirited, but it is subtle.

Not everyone can afford and maybe can never afford a luxurious vacation. For many families, even tap water is a luxury, and we will continue to see that become a reality for a lot of us as we face climate change.

That was part of the power of that original water communion. Whether the water was from the tap or a hidden pond in the mountains of Tibet, it was valued and honored because it was the gathering and expression of emotional experiences – not a stamp in a passport.

I cannot pretend to know exactly what those women were feeling on that day – I just know what they did. I like to imagine I had a glimpse of what it might have been like –sharing water bottles with people united in a common purpose, but I know it’s not even close to the healing that was done for those women in 1980.

But today we will endeavor to be true to that original celebration. While we don’t have hours to share, we have plenty of time to participate in the joining of many waters from that emotional core that is always with us — in a shared ritual. And while we won’t be taking this water with us, it will remain within this community – much of it will return to the earth as well as some of it being saved for ceremonial purposes, such as baby dedications.

I will likely never see many of those people in Rowan county anytime soon – I may never need to stand before the clerks building ever again. But what I will carry with me is not the fact that I travelled there with all those other people, but we had a shared experience of seeing love prevail over discrimination.

I will remember the people finding relief from the heat and joining in celebration with those crates of water bottles and I will remember being in community. What has united you with others this summer? What has soothed your wounds, eased transitions, or brought joy to your life? Hold on to these questions, for they are the very foundation of what we are about to do.