Speakers: the Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of First Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of New Orleans; the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of the Community Church UU of New Orleans
Prepared for UUA.org by: Deborah Weiner, Reporter; Margy Levine Young, Editor
The Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, and the Rev. James VanderWeele, minister of the Community Church Unitarian Universalist of New Orleans, were worship leaders at the June 23 worship service at the UUA General Assembly in St. Louis. Valentin and VanderWeele, whose church buildings were damaged during the flooding that occurred with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, now lead worship for their congregations together at a temporary worship home in the Jefferson Presbyterian Church.
The service, "Rising Out of the Water," began with recorded music of New Orleans including "Over There" by Terrence Blanchard, "Do You Know What it Me ans?" by Louis Armstrong, "Back Water Blues" by Irma Thomas, and the Prelude, "Louisiana 1927" by Randy Newman as recorded by Marcia Ball.
In the Call to Worship, Valentin said,
"I bring deep gratitude to you for your love, compassion and support this last year...
Be still with me as I gather you to this time and place. Wind your thoughts toward the center of who we are this morning as one body and together out in the world. Be still with me and enter into this celebration of resilience and resurrection.
For we are all vessels eternally rising out of the water alive...
Alive...with a purpose and strength not our own.
Be still with me and enter, softly, into this haven of unbound love and gratitude."
Lighting the chalice, VanderWeele continued, in part,
"There is a soulful spot beside each of us to be nourished. The spirit of this flame reminds us of the pathway to nurture our hearts... May the light we see rekindle our awareness to our attention, to rekindle our spiritual growth. May the cusp of the divine enter in us and nourish us in a quiet spot of our hearts, so the light of love can shine into us and through us."
The hymn "Gather the Spirit" was sung, and the homily, divided into sections on resilience, resurrection, re-imagining, and renewal, began.
Speaking about resilience, Valentin said,
"As a young girl growing up in the streets of Spanish Harlem, I was fascinated by flowers growing up in the cracks of the street...the prettiest little flowers...I would lean over them, the sun on my little back and wonder, 'How the heck is that possible?' I had no idea that somewhere under the concrete was dirt, which would allow them to grow... For the rest of my life, I would spot them in other places I lived, and I would say, 'There go those miracle flowers again,' which reminded me that growth can happen anywhere, at any time. They came to be inspired omens, possibilities in the most inopportune places. I have seen them in Cuba and Me xico and the upscale part of Beverly Hills, and I see them now in New Orleans.
"[And] I see them in magnolia trees most people left for dead. A part of the cleanup process is that the trees have said, "I am still here, I ain't goin' nowhere. It ain't killed me, and I am here to bring you a smile.' And the magnolia trees welcomed the bright smiles of sunflowers that are springing up through concrete in the most unusual places...their seeds were blown over the city, and so they are springing up all over. What we call the seeds are actually the fruit, and this fruit will keep bearing."
VanderWeele then reflected on resurrection, saying,
"New Orleans' resurrection has been slow, unsteady, reluctant. The retreat of the water revealed a ravaged city, thousands of ravaged homes, rusty cars still waiting removal, tens of thousands evacuated, gone. And a water system that leaks more water than it delivers. We see a reluctant resurrection. Months have passed since people, like slowly creeping spiders, started weaving a slow existence. Their pace reminds us that this resurrection will last for years.
"We used to have our routines, you know, the hustle and bustle in the local neighborhoods. Our routines, the old routines, are gone. We are searching for new routines. First Church and Community Church greeted our resurrections with cooperation. In a town filled with Catholics, we see connection. We have explored options, we have explored our own church life, even as we joined forces. We are committed to sharing our faith in our home town. As UUs, we hear a paraphrased John Murray: Give them not the hell they can see, give them hope and courage. Our resurrection means we will participate in the agonizing slow steps of progress in our wounded society."
VanderWeele quoted poet Adrienne Rich when she wrote, "My heart is moved by all I cannot save, so much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those who—age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power reconstitute the world."
The congregation joined in singing Carolyn McDade's "Spirit of Life" in both English and Spanish as it is done in New Orleans.
Speaking on re-imagining, Valentin said,
"It has been said that we can not imagine what we have never seen before. However we can take aspects of what we have learned to create something new. In this way, we can imagine our world. At First Church we are re-imagining ourselves as a continental UU church because we are being brought back to life by the hands of UUs who volunteer all over the country. While it doesn't mean that those who become a partner church have to make a pledge, it does mean that you may have spiritual ownership. New Orleans is a city that is a sort of spiritual mosaic, whose food for the soul spans across every boundary that otherwise would divide it. Why shouldn't UUs from around the country follow this example and become part of this identity?
"We are being called to a level of spiritual generosity... that defies borders. Once you come to New Orleans and meet the people, you will understand our desire—our wish—not just to survive, but thrive...you will understand the importance of lifting up our seventh principle. The challenges before us can not be surmounted without the ground that is not physical or intellectual. We are living in a cracked open spiritual arena where the questions are still the same, just more urgent. We have all been handed an opportunity to begin again and fix those places where our own philosophical or theological levees have been breached. We are being called to not hold back any longer, for at any moment, it can all be washed away."
VanderWeele, reflecting on renewal, spoke of psychotherapist John Wellwood's work with the personal process of renewal. VanderWeele said,
"Wellwood believes that many people have an inner critic, or second guesser, inside. Self assessment can be helpful but when self critique dominates our thinking, it inhibits our ability to grow. Wellwood says, 'Saying yes to ourselves opens our heart to ourselves...all of this serves to kindle our love, bringing healing to our core wounds.' We are wounded churches in a wounded in city. Yet on our holy ground, where our speech comes from our hearts, we lose access to our essence when our inner critic disguises and obfuscates our beauty and goodness which lies within.
"The United States is filled with Baptists and Catholics. Sometimes we wish some were more open-minded, but if we believed as they believed, we would join them, but we are here...could it be possible that there is something wonderful about us?
"Dear Unitarian Universalists, gathered here in St. Louis, we as a community not only have a set of values, we have value. Deep within, we find our value. The two UU churches in New Orleans have recognized their individual value. Love flows into us as communities and through us, out into the world, and through us, our healing has begun. And in this healing, from knees still bent, we give thanks, for the UUs of Baton Rouge Louisiana, truly, are our saviors. We embrace the support of our partner congregations, for they have embraced us. We appreciate the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Committee as well as their assistance to gulf coast residents who need their help. We leap up and dance when we receive books, RE materials, reading materials, and we are overwhelmed by your love, your support, your recognition of our value. You have been the cusp of the divine, for you reach out to committed UUs."
VanderWeele concluded, "Our hope is not only to earn your support, but to gain your appreciation, for who we are, and who we can become." Quoting Margaret Me ad, he said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has," and affirmed, "We can do it. We can do it. Yes we can."
The congregation sang the hymn, "Peace like a River."
For words of benediction, Valentin and VanderWeele said,
"If you look more closely into life, you will find that resurrection is more than experience. The return to life from death is something we feel in our innermost depths. We have come back to life, not only when we start to shake off a shroud that has bound us...
"May we be empowered by extraordinary second chances, and as we enter the world anew, let us turn the tides of despair into endless waves of hope. Amen."
Rev. Jim VanderWeele has been minister of Community Church Unitarian Universalist since September 2002. Rev. Marta Valentin began her service as minister at First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans on August 15, 2005.