On July 15, 2012, I gave my first sermon at UUCG. I had been thinking a lot about the work I do and the first principle of Unitarian Universalism. I decided to give a talk on the intersection of my family background, my current work, and the 1st principle. The sermon is below. It was hard to get through without crying but it was worth it.
“Today I’m going to tell you some stories about my life I haven’t told many other people but I believe I can finally tell them here, to you, my chosen family. This story starts with my current work, weaves back to my childhood, and then does a full circle back to my Unitarian Universalist faith.
I work at the SERVE Center at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Within the SERVE Center, I work for the National Center for Homeless Education. The National Center for Homeless Education works to make sure that children who are homeless can stay in school and receive a free and appropriate education. We give support to people on the state and local level to help them understand and apply a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act. The Act requires that all children experiencing homelessness can remain in the school they were attending when they became homeless. There are other benefits received through the Act as well but the most important part of the Act is the way it defines homelessness.
The Act defines homelessness as not having a fixed, regular, or adequate residence. The word fixed means stationary, it cannot move; regular means that students can go to the same place every night, and adequate means that it is adequate to meet their physical and psychological needs. In addition, it also applies to families who are sharing the housing of others due to financial hardship or similar reason, families living in shelters, or in places that were not designed for people to live, such as abandoned buildings and bus stations. The part that throws people the most when explaining the law is the part about sharing the housing of others which is referred to as doubling up. Families can become doubled up due to financial hardship, loss of housing, natural disasters, fires, or family crisis. Each case is determined individually on its own merits because the law is very complex and we want to make sure that all children who qualify are served.
When we think about homelessness in this country, we tend to think of it in terms of adults standing on street corners with signs asking for money. Sometimes those signs mention the person’s children. However, most of the time we never see these children. But I assure you, they are there. Children and their families become homeless for many reasons such as foreclosure or eviction, domestic violence, an unstable family life, mental illness, and parental incarceration, to name just a few. Students can also be what is referred to as “unaccompanied youth” when they are not living with a legal guardian. This can happen when parents decide that they can’t support them anymore and they are told to leave, when gay/lesbian/bisexual or transgender children come out to their families and their families don’t accept them, or due to any other conflict or difficulty that the family might be facing. Regardless of how or why children are homeless, they have the right to remain in school.
My role at the National Center for Homeless Education is to assist with webinars, help create documents, fill in on the national helpline, give presentations, and give assistance to anyone who calls us so that they can better understand the law. Our job is to listen, give information, and help both families and school personnel understand and apply the law.
When I began working for the National Center for Homeless Education, I did what anyone does when they start a new job. I read all the documents, briefs, and research I could get my hands on. I wanted to understand the law and how it is applied. I wanted to better understand how I could help school personnel so they could serve children and families. I read about the research that led to the creation of this law and the ways that being homeless affect children’s ability to do well in school and the way it affects their behavior and relationship to the world around them.
During the course of my reading, I came to the realization that as a child there were times when I experienced homelessness. Of course, I knew that I had a chaotic childhood, that wasn’t news to me. What I didn’t realize was that under the law, I had experienced homelessness. The truth is that sometimes I would sit in my office and cry. The first time I went to our national conference I had a hard time making it through because the stories were so real and so close to my own experience.
My extended family is from Oklahoma. My father served in the military and was stationed in Fayetteville, where I was born. While in the military, my father was introduced to religion and he decided to enter a seminary in northern Indiana because there is a seminary there my father wanted to attend. It turned out that my father was barely literate so he was not able to complete seminary. However, we stayed up north and I grew up next to Chicago.
My parents had financial and emotional instability. They were barely adults themselves when they became parents. In addition, my father was physically abusive to my twin brother and my sister. For whatever reason I did not bear the brunt of his anger but it did impact me in other ways. My mother tried to get help from the pastor’s wife at the church we were attending at the time but she was told that “sometimes men get angry” and to try to live with it. Believe me, it was not something we learned to live with.
At one point while my parents were still married we were evicted from our apartment due to financial reasons and we lived with another family. This was the first instance where we lived “doubled-up” with others. We lived with several other families before we became stable again, at least financially.
When my parents finally divorced, things got both better and worse. My father was no longer around to beat my siblings but my mother couldn’t support us. We ended up moving in with various family members (again, doubling up), and then we moved in with my father who by this time was living on his father’s ranch in Oklahoma. Well, as most people know, a geographic change does not change behavior. My father continued abusing my siblings. In less than a year my mother decided that we needed to leave. We moved into a domestic violence shelter in Oklahoma City while everything got settled out in court. We then moved back to northern Indiana and stayed in a domestic violence shelter there until my mom could get into an educational program and we were able to get an apartment of our own. I have lived in two domestic violence shelters as a child. It’s pretty stunning to think about as an adult but that was the reality of my childhood.
After we got on our feet, there were many more years of chaos for other reasons but that was the last time I experienced homelessness. When I went to college, I told very few people about my childhood. And even as an adult, I like to get to know people before I tell them about everything we went through. My fear has always been that of being rejected because I came from such a chaotic family. My perception was that everyone else came from well put together families and that mine was too embarrassing to discuss. As an adult I’ve learned that my family, while unique in some of its particulars, was definitely not the only dysfunctional one out there.
For many years I would look at how I handled relationships and my inability to figure out what career I wanted as “evidence” that there was something wrong with me. I thought that if I could just figure out what this thing was that I could fix it and be like what I perceived other people to be. I was, as I learned later, comparing my insides to other people’s outsides. I had no idea that we all had the same worries and concerns.
When I began working at the National Center for Homeless Education and began reading about the effects of trauma on children and how it follows them into their adult years I had an epiphany. The reading I did for my job was more helpful than any therapist I ever had. It was the first time I finally got the message that there is nothing wrong with me! I finally realized that I am the way I am because of the circumstances I experienced as a child. I had to come to peace with my childhood in order to be a functioning adult. I had told myself for years that my childhood had no effect on me, that I had turned my back on everything I experienced and that I was fine. I was wrong. I needed to acknowledge my childhood and be patient with myself through the process.
But the bigger realization that I came to was about our first principle: the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity. We Unitarian Universalists tend to think rather intellectually about this concept. We think “those people out there” have inherent dignity and worth. While I was reading and learning, I came to the realization that I too had inherent dignity and worth! That was a complete revelation to me. I began to understand just how powerful those words are and how incredibly radical Unitarian Universalism is. The idea that you can’t earn inherent dignity and worth, that there is nothing you can do to deserve it, that you have inherent dignity and worth just because you exist. For no other reason than that you are alive.
That is one of the most incredibly radical things about Unitarian Universalism. This idea that there is nothing wrong with you and in fact you have inherent worth and dignity just because you are is amazing. The notion that everyone, regardless of age, ethnicity, race, education, income, political leanings or any other way we identify ourselves has inherent worth and dignity is astounding.
A few months ago we had a visiting minister who had us do a call and response type reading. He said a line and we followed it with “And I am a Unitarian Universalist.” Some of the statements were easy and some were hard. It is much easier to identify ourselves with someone who has higher status in our society, such as a college professor, than someone who is a drug dealer, who’s been incarcerated, or committed a heinous crime. But if we honestly believe in inherent dignity and worth, and that everyone has it, it applies to everyone.
Now this is going to get a little more real for you here. Just for a minute call to mind someone you love dearly with all your heart. Can you imagine saying to that person, “you have inherent dignity and worth?” I’m assuming that’s pretty easy. Now think about someone you may be in disagreement with or someone you need to forgive, can you say to them “you have inherent dignity and worth”? What about someone on the opposite political spectrum from you? Remember that if we truly believe this that it applies to everyone.
Take a minute to look around the room. Can you look into people’s eyes, without speaking, and just silently acknowledge to yourself that everyone here has inherent dignity and worth. People you know, people you don’t know, every one of us, has inherent dignity and worth and there isn’t anything anyone can do to change that.
A quote that helps me sometimes when I’m quick to judge others is from Richard Bach:
“All we see of someone at any moment is a snapshot of their life; they’re in riches or poverty, in joy or despair. Snapshots don’t show the million decisions that led to that moment.”
This quote is a good reminder that we each have our stories, and all we know at any one time when we meet someone is how they are acting now. There is so much more we don’t know. I believe that the first principle reminds us to have patience with ourselves and others; it is something we strive for.
Another thing most of you don’t know about me is that Madrone is not my birth last name. I chose the name Madrone. Madrone is a character in a book called “The Fifth Sacred Thing” by Starhawk. “The Fifth Sacred Thing” is a utopian book set in the year 2025. The story is long and complicated so I will spare you the details but Madrone did something really amazing that I think is extremely relevant to the first principle. There was a war going on between two groups. In one of the groups, there was a soldier whose name was 09. In the society he lived in, soldiers were born and bred by the government and instead of being given names they were given numbers. 09 committed several murders because he was told to do so by his commanders but in his heart he was torn up about what the right thing to do was.
Madrone was a teacher and healer. She took 09 into a room and just sat with him in silence. She could feel all the pain and anger he experienced, all of his confusion and doubt. She allowed herself to acknowledge her own pain. And she came to realize that he needed to be “made human” if you will, given a name. She decided to name him Rio, River. She acknowledged his humanity despite everything he had done. And he became a contributing member of the society he was now living in. He came to understand that he had value and worth. I took this name legally in 1999 because I wanted to be that kind of person, someone who could see the humanity in everyone. I’m still working on it but it is what I am striving for.
Sometimes we have to go back to where we came from to understand who we are. Thanks to my work with the National Center for Homeless Education, my understanding of our first principle, and my journey of healing through my childhood, I now know that there is nothing wrong with me. My life is good and I am continuing to heal every day. I encourage each of us to heal our hearts and our lives. Remember in your daily interactions that we each have a story. And we each have inherent dignity and worth.”