“Opening our Doors” – The Rev. Eva Cameron

On the occasion of the Dedication of our New Building Entry, I want to tell you 3 short stories. First, I must say, it’s great to go through the fun of a dedication without the difficulty of having to raise the money, talk with the architects, or hassle with the contractors. Thank you for doing all that work, and just allowing me to arrive in time to bask in this glory of this moment. So, here’s the first story.

A group of frogs were hopping contentedly through the woods, going about their froggy business, when two of them fell into a deep pit. All of the other frogs gathered around the pit to see what could be done to help their companions. When they saw how deep the pit was, the rest of the dismayed group agreed that it was hopeless and told the two frogs in the pit that they should prepare themselves for their fate, because they were as good as dead. Unwilling to accept this terrible fate, the two frogs began to jump with all of their might. Some of the frogs shouted into the pit that it was hopeless, and that the two frogs wouldn’t be in that situation if they had been more careful, more obedient to the froggy rules, and more responsible.

The other frogs continued sorrowfully shouting that they should save their energy and give up, since they were already as good as dead. The two frogs continued jumping as hard as they could, and after several hours of desperate effort were quite weary. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to the calls of his fellows. Spent and disheartened, he quietly resolved himself to his fate, lay down at the bottom of the pit, and died as the others looked on in helpless grief. The other frog continued to jump with every ounce of energy he had, although his body was wracked with pain, and he was completely exhausted. His companions began anew, yelling for him to accept his fate, stop the pain and just die. The weary frog jumped harder and harder and wonder of wonders! He finally leapt so high that he sprang from the pit. Amazed, the other frogs celebrated his miraculous freedom and then gathering around him asked, “Why did you continue jumping when we told you it was impossible?” Reading their lips, the astonished frog explained to them that he was deaf, and that when he saw their gestures and shouting, he thought they were cheering him on. What he had perceived as encouragement inspired him to try harder and to succeed against all odds.

This simple story contains a powerful lesson. The book of Proverbs says “There is death and life in the power of the tongue.” Your encouraging words can lift someone up and help them make it through the day. Your destructive words can cause deep wounds; they may be the weapons that destroy someone’s desire to continue trying—or even their life. Speak life to (and about) those who cross your path. There is enormous power in words. If you have words of kindness, praise or encouragement—speak them now to, and about, others. Listen to your heart and respond. Someone, somewhere, is waiting for your words. Now is the time to open our hearts to those who would come through our doors, waiting, longing for some words of kindness and encouragement. All too often, religion serves as that gaggle of discouraging frogs. We have a special place in this community with our message of god’s unlimited love.

The fact is, you never really know how much you can affect someone’s life. I was really taken with this story told by a chiropractor, Sheryl L. Tollenaar, D.C. She first met John about four years ago; he came to her office with a low back injury he had suffered while on the job. His treatment period would prove to be lengthy; and as time passed, she began to learn about the real John. He had moved to Texas from the gangs of Chicago with his wife, whom he fondly referred to as “the old lady,” and their two children. He told the story often of why he left Chicago, and she remembers his vivid descriptions of gang life and how he barely escaped with his own life on several occasions.

He had dropped out of school with no plans of ever returning, accepting this as his fate in life. She writes: “In time, I began to realize that John was more than just a street wise man; he had learned something before he quit school. I really believed that John owed it to himself and his family to give school another chance. In many of our sessions, I would ask John if he had considered returning for a GED, and maybe attending college someday. He would always quickly respond by saying ‘Never, I am just too old.’”

When John moved further into chiropractic treatment, many others in her clinic began to see potential in John too. They quickly jumped on the GED encouragement wagon. One day, just before he left, he turned to her and said, “Thanks.” As usual, she said, “Glad I could help you today,” and to her surprise, he said, “No doctor, for more than that—for the encouragement.” John then invited her to go with him to get his diploma. He had passed his high school equivalency exam. She writes, “I was quite shocked, and honored. All of those pep talks had worked. John admitted to me that he did not want to be another dropout statistic. I was very proud of him and of myself for getting to know my patients and making a difference in their lives.”

As his treatment progressed, John found a better job that paid more money. He had a high school diploma and the world at his feet. She hoped that all the encouragement she and her staff had given him would push him to the next level and that he would consider a college education. Though she thought her efforts would be fruitless, it was something positive to dream about. Well, it wasn’t long before John finished his treatments, and was released from my care, and she would never know the fate of her patient John. But, she had tried.

It wasn’t until some months later that she had a surprise visitor at her clinic. He would not give his name. As she walked out to the lobby, she saw a familiar face. It was John and he was holding some sort of invoice. She walked out to greet him and asked how she could help him. He said he didn’t want to stay long; he just wanted to thank her. She says: “I was not accustomed to patients coming back to thank me with a bill in their hand, so as I looked at him oddly, I said the usual, ‘No problem and glad to do it.’ Then he said, ‘No doctor, you don’t understand, this is a tuition payment for college—for me to attend college.’

Our encouragement can make a difference in people’s lives. Not only in their individual life, but think of the lives that woman affected—John had a wife and children. They surely had more stability in their lives from his education. And beyond that, the children learned the value of working to achieve your dream, the fact that you are never to old to do something you dream about, the knowledge that their father cared so much for education he kept at it—I’ll bet they did, too. Someday, when they have kids, I wonder what the chances are those kids go to college too. Pretty good, I’d bet.

Today we open our doors as a place of encouragement and personal growth. We commit ourselves to keeping the mission of this society alive, and work to make it accessible to all who want to come here. This dedication represents the first step in a multi-step plan to create and sustain a powerful agent for change here in this county. Let us remember we bless these doors that we can walk in whenever we want encouragement.

My last story will be that of a man I heard speak this spring down in Tulsa. He is a Gospel musician and street minister. He turned to street ministry, because he felt it was the best way he knew how to live the message that Jesus taught. He told some amazing stories about his life. The one that stuck with me the most was one that he told about the importance of his work. He said one day he saw a woman in the red light district and from the look of her outfit, her stance, he knew why she was there. He decided to try and connect with her. He stood next to her, and for hours told her that God loved her. She told him to go away, he was ruining her business. He stayed for hours; he went back the next night, and the next. You and I would have stayed home—respected her wishes. He saw the pain and humiliation, the lack of self-love, the lack of any love, in her face. And he couldn’t give up.

He went back for a whole week, and then two. Over and over, he told her she was loved. Over and over, she told him to get lost. He’d sing songs to her, of finding her way, or making it to a better place, of God’s love. Finally, some time in the 3 weeks, she asked him, “Why are you doing this to me?” And he told her that he believed in her, believed she had a better life than this. He knew that God loved her, and he wanted her to know it to. She was angry: “If God loves me, then why am I here?” she asked. And he said: “I am here too. Let me help you.” She didn’t take him up on it right away. I think he had to keep coming back for another couple weeks before she let him catch her as she fell.

And he did. He got her established with his community service organization, followed her as she went to school, and rebuilt her life. He tours the country with people he’s found of the streets as his back-up singers. They are good singers, clean, well-dressed people. You’d never know, until their eyes shine and they glow at him, as he stops singing to tell his stories.

When he told this story, having lived in Chicago, I remembered street ministers. Some of them were obnoxious, and shouted at people from the street corners. And some of them were activists, raising money for an RV to run an AIDS prevention clinic from the parking lots and street corners. But they were mostly white and starry-eyed, and liberal. This guy was big, really BIG, and black and a conservative Christian. I wanted to put him in the obnoxious street-minister category in my mind.

But after I went home, the story of that woman haunted me. It haunted me, because I realized I would never have that kind of conviction, chutzpah, or continuity, to keep coming back. To see the truly deep-buried worth of this human being who had been thrown away by society, and stick with her until the message finally sank in: “You are loved.” His just sticking around, coming back day after day, singing to her, were all signs that he loved her. He loved this street woman so much he was wiling to invest time and energy into her. And you know this is no poor black man with nothing else to do, he’s got more money and a bigger house than you and I well ever have. Don’t dismiss his love. Just let it sit there for a moment.

I tell you his story because for me, it opened a door in my soul. It taught me something about how to be a good UU missionary. His labor was for her soul, but not to get her to accept a particular doctrine. It was for her soul to know any love. And it seems to me that we as a people, we have this mandate, this mission. To begin to see that it isn’t enough to sit here on Sunday mornings and declare the inherent worth and dignity of every being, and not figure out a way to educate those who don’t know any love; they do matter.

When I think about having a building with a brand-new door, with a brand-new look to the side it shows the world, I hope that we will realize it has to be more than the physical stuff of life. We need to find our person. The one person, or one thing that we know we can make a difference for—and keep going back, day by day, week by week, and bring our love to the world, straight through our wonderful, new door that opens so easily—easily for us to come in and enjoy the spirit of love and justice in this covenantal community—easily for us to go out, and live that love out loud.

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