I shared this at my Unitarian Universalist Fellowship November 8, 2015.  It created a robust conversation about shared responsibility, compassion and community.

Positive reinforcement word Compassion engrained in a rock

Opening Words:

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said,

“By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle… by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”

Living the 2nd UU Principle in a world filled with fear, hatred and violence.

Yesterday I remembered that the last time I stood up here to speak I talked about Domestic Violence.  I’m afraid my topic today isn’t much lighter, but I promise that if you ever invite me back to speak I will choose a happier subject.

Its just that rainbows and sunshine don’t often make us think deeply.  Not in the way that the dark corners of our world do.  Some people avoid the heavier topics, pull back from thinking or discussing the tragic, painful, sobering underbelly of humanity. I am not one of those people.

I think all the time.  I can’t make my brain stop.  I have never understood when someone responds to the questions, “What are you thinking with “Nothing”.  I grapple with every topic imaginable, inside my head.  So this opportunity to put some of my grappling down in a coherent way (Hopefully) allows me to share a little bit of what has been going through my head for the last three months.

I believe in the 2nd UU Principle:

JUSTICE, EQUITY AND COMPASSION IN HUMAN RELATIONS:

According to the UUA Website, Principle #2

“Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations points us toward something beyond inherent worth and dignity. It points us to the larger community. It gets at collective responsibility. It reminds us that treating people as human beings is not simply something we do one-on-one, but something that has systemic implications and can inform our entire cultural way of being.

“Compassion is something that we can easily act on individually. We can demonstrate openness, give people respect, and treat people with kindness on our own. But we need one another to achieve equity and justice.

Rev. Emily Gage, Unity Temple, Chicago, IL (read more from Emily in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, ed. Ellen Brandenburg)

I’m also a firm believer in restorative justice.  To me, it is the essence of what the second UU principle is aiming for. Essentially restorative justice is the belief that whenever someone commits harm towards another they should make reparations.  They should restore their relationship, put things right.

Our current justice system treats crime as the breaking of a law, and the State files the charges against the person.  The victim gets left out of the process until almost the end.  Restorative Justice focuses on a process for accountability and obligation to the person (or people) who are harmed.

People live in the shelter of one another, not alone.  No matter who you are, you depend on the relationships that you have for survival. That is just who we are as a species. We develop relationships at all levels, from the person you interact with at the grocery store, to the friend you meet for lunch, or the person that you partner with in life.  Everyone that we come in contact with we have some kind of relationship.  Even if the relationship is harmful in some way.

And when someone commits a crime, or does harm to another person, that harm has a ripple effect.  It not only harms the individual, but those around them. And I believe that we should approach both with compassion.  That the person who does the harm, also deserves our compassion.  Thich Naht Hanh says,

“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.  He does not need punishment, he needs help.”

My beliefs were challenged on August 7, 2015, the day that Lara Sobel, a VT social worker, was murdered.

I have been a social worker since I was 21.  My family might tell you I have been a social worker my entire life, always the one trying to get everyone in the same room talking to each other, wanting everyone to “get along” to “Make things right”. I am driven to help others, to be a good listener, to help find solutions to problems that can feel overwhelming. Over the years these listening and solution-focused skills have served me well in connecting with youth living in residential settings, parents struggling to provide protection and safety to their children, individuals coping with mental health challenges, and as a trainer and a coach to other social workers in the field. These days I use these skills with my own children as they grow into healthy, functioning adults, and with my husband, family and friends.  And I work hard to use these same skills as a manager.  I’m not in the field doing direct practice any longer, but I am a social worker.  As a humanist, it’s in my core. I resonate with the 7 UU principles because they are part of who I am.

When Lara, a colleague and part of my social work family, was violently shot to death on August 7th, the world immobilized, as it did for all of my colleagues around the state, and across the nation.  For those of us who have committed our lives to the work of child safety and strengthening families, this assault went much deeper than the slaying of an innocent colleague.  It was an assault against our belief that there is good in every person, and that change is possible.  This act of violence shook my faith in one of my core principles, compassion.

How could I find compassion for Jody Herring?  A known heroin user, who had reportedly gunned down, not just Lara, but her own Aunt, and two cousins.

How did I come to live in a world where I have to ask myself this question? Where a tragedy of this magnitude could happen 50 miles from my front door, in our sheltered little state of Vermont.

Almost weekly it seems that there is another mass murder in our country, and daily lives are lost at the hands of another person.  If I truly believe in compassion, equity and justice, must I find compassion for those doing these heinous acts against innocent people?

It is easier to have compassion for their families, and their children.  I ache for Jody’s children, who have lost, not only an aunt and two cousins, but also their mother, not through death, but through a justice system that will lock her away for the rest of her life, with no reparation to her children, or to Lara’s children.  If she is convicted she could serve four life sentences.  And part of me can live with that.  The part that is supported by a culture that thrives on crime & punishment.  “You do the crime, you do the time.”

But there is another part of me that believes we are missing a huge opportunity for healing when we simply lock people away without an opportunity for repairing that harm.

Will Jody’s children grow up filled with the shame of what their mother did?  Will they carry her legacy into their own lives?  Our current justice system will not consider them victims, but a restorative justice process would.

And the social workers who continue to fear for their safety after bearing witness to their colleague’s death. In the past three months’ threats to DCF social workers has risen. Caseloads are untenable, and the opportunity to have time to develop good working relationships with families is diminished, because the workload is so high.  What will it take for them to heal?  When will our community ever see child protection as the responsibility of all, not just the few that chose to become a DCF social worker?  If restorative justice is about relationships, there are many that we can and should repair, in the aftermath of Lara’s death.  If justice cannot be achieved without community, then it is up to us to step forward and help to repair the harm.

  • We can begin by advocating for more social workers, you can call your representatives and express your concern with the workload that social workers are carrying and the need to add more positions.
  • We, as a fellowship can become a community that offers support, spiritual healing and compassion towards all those that are committing their lives to this work.
  • We can continue to serve as PINS partners, helping children and families in need.
  • We can teach our children about restorative practices, and how to help our community heal after a tragedy such as this.

In my own life as a parent I have tried to practice these principles of restoring harm, as I’m sure many of who have as well.  When our daughters committed a harm, minor or not so minor, Scott and I expected them to make reparations, hold themselves accountable, and make it right.  Letters were written to parents of friends apologizing for indiscretions, research papers were assigned to learn why it is not okay to download illegal music.  Will it matter?  Will my children also believe in a world that seeks to hold people accountable and heal the harms committed?

This past week friends of ours visited, un-expectantly, from Maine, and after a wonderful meal, driving home Sandy and I started talking about this young generation, the Millennial’s.  Sandy firmly believes that they will save our world, that they care and are passionate about the environment, peace, justice and equality in a way that other generations have not.  I want to believe this is true as well.  Perhaps they will see the value of creating a more compassionate system, that seeks to elevate the voices of the minority, and truly seeks the inherent dignity of all people.

In this world where so many people feel entitled to do and say whatever they want, with little regard for other’s… be it on social media or making comments on a news story, I am challenged to dig deep and recommit myself to compassion.  I find myself frustrated with the blatant disrespect and fear-mongering that is present not just on-line, but even in our presidential debates.  We seem to have accepted a level of disrespect that is disappointing to watch as a fellow human being.

Yet, there is wisdom in our youth, who have witnessed, first hand the impact of social media, and use it as a tool to move their world forward. To challenge their peers to be innovative and compassionate.  To discard the labels that have kept us segregated from one another.  I have to believe that the good will outweigh the bad, that we shall overcome.

I am recommitted to our 2nd principle, perhaps without my rose colored glasses, and a bit of apprehension, but not without the sense of community that our fellowship has to offer, and the ability to make change.  I will close with words from Anne Frank.

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Benediction

Lead me from death to life,

From falsehood to truth.

Lead me from despair to hope,

From fear to trust.

Lead me from hate to love,

From war to peace.

Let peace fill our hearts,

Our world, our universe.

-Project Ploughshares

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