Hope Has Human Hands and Human Fallibilities
This sermon, “Hope Has Human Hands and Human Fallibilities,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on August 6, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Nichole Sajdak
For those of you that don’t know me, I am a transplant to the Cincinnati area. We came here about eight years ago and grew up in the Detroit area. Growing up there shaped my views about hope, about progress, and about faith in a better tomorrow.
This is serious love-hate relationship that goes on with Detroit. There’s a new movie out that’s ripping off some old scabs for the city. This topic alone can fill a few hours, which we really don’t have time to get into today. The important part is that Detroit is the chronic underdog.
You know when you go out and you’re visiting other places, and people ask, “Where are you from?” When I respond that my hometown is Detroit, people apologize to me: “Oh, I’m so sorry.” As a member of the community, you know its shortcomings, and you just live with them. You survive the economic cycles and there’s a certain sense of pride that makes you stronger, tougher. You can either choose to embrace that strength or you can choose to turn your back on it, and deny where you come from.
Old vs. new points of view
There were plenty of people with an “old” (and I don’t use that term in age group) mentality in Detroit. Those who would say “you don’t want to go past 8 Mile Road,” referring to the state highway that has long represented the city’s physical and cultural dividing line. They meant not to cross the border between the wealthier, mostly white northern suburbs of Detroit and the poorer, mostly black city population. I always saw that as kind of an older view that people had in the area. I chose to believe they were wrong. I wanted to embrace the city.
To me, hope meant believing that despite the evidence of yesterday, with all its fallibilities and negative headlines, tomorrow was going to be better. It meant a sort of naive optimism that everything’s going to be fine someday, whether that’s tomorrow morning, next week, or next year. It was going to get better. So whenever that new day came, no matter how downtrodden the city was at that point, a better day was just around the corner. It was coming.
This was hope in my young mind. And I have to say, that hope was rooted in the privilege I had. I had two parents who wanted and loved me. I had a nice home, food on the table, and good schools. And so for me, tomorrow was a promise of something better than what I had. Why wouldn’t it be better?
And the sun was always going to rise. Spring would always follow winter, and seeds would grow in the city eventually. And that next generation—my generation—would do things better. And I honestly don’t know how you reconcile that sentiment and viewpoint with what was going on. I guess I figured even hope had to take some time off once in a while. It took some time to mature and grow. And sometimes that means years or decades that you’re waiting.
After the 67-68 riots, there was a new hope in the Detroit area. Coleman Young was the first black mayor elected into office and he had insurmountable obstacles that didn’t move. Sometimes I look back and realize he was in power from the time I was born to the time I graduated high school. During that time frame, I think it’s easy to lose hope and it’s easy to go from that point of hope to someone that was more entrenched in ideology.
It came out that he had a very scandal ridden administration towards the end. And I think in the end he’s got a lot of flamboyant quotes out there. I’m surprised that was his rallying cry. I wonder how much hope he lost over the course of his time in office.
And just so you don’t think that I’m putting all the troubles of Detroit on one man, the same can be true if you wanted to talk about the labor unions in the area. Organizing labor meant safer working conditions, more job security. But over the course of time, the unions also brought complacency and ended a lot of growth and redevelopment in the area.
Quite honestly, growing up, my husband had to fight his parents to be able to find a college. The mentality was that when you grow up, you work on the lines. And that’s what’s expected, to bring the money in.
I grew up in a Catholic church and one thing I heard a lot is that people were praying for change. Many of us in the room know that hope really isn’t too intertwined with religious belief. That prayer thing might not resonate with a lot of us.
Over the years and especially in BYOT (Build Your Own Theology) here, I examined my spirituality in light of my own experience and I was really looking at what is hope? Where does hope come from and how do I define it for myself? And I know that if someone said we hope for good news, the next act has a point. And if someone’s dying, we hope that an unexpected sudden cure or a peaceful death is there. We hope, as I often do, that the words we speak to our kids that morning were heard and listened to.
But perhaps the problem ahead of us is not as bad as it looks. Our daily hopes are usually simple and focused on our immediate needs and desires. It seems to me that there’s another level of hope with a capital H that is innate in the human spirit and is more than simply a wish for good outcomes for peace on earth.
Hope is far more than cliches or a wish for miracles. It is not trivial. It’s not fundamental. The definition I came up with from observing my own need for hope and the moments in which to create hope, for me and others, is this: For me, hope is the clear sense that I am a part of the inextinguishable inexhaustible stream of life. For me, it’s a tangible sense of my place in the universe, the fiber of the interdependent web of existence, the connection I have to to all of life.
Setbacks and questioning
There have been times in my life I’ve lost hope. I’ve lost my sense of belonging and connectedness with the universe, to the web of life, so to speak. And quite honestly, I struggled with the topic for this sermon today and I wasn’t really sure what was really speaking to me at the moment. I wanted to talk about how climate change and politics were weighing heavy on my heart.
Some days, I’m struggling to see more good in those around me. It’s getting really easy alarmingly easily sometimes to find the bad all around me. More personally I was recently offered the opportunity to return to Detroit, to move to a new office in my hometown. I realized that my hope for a better tomorrow wasn’t strong enough to overcome the negative, what-if scenarios about the next economic downturn they might be facing.
I didn’t want to expose my family, to move my kids into that situation again. And the hope just wasn’t strong enough for that tomorrow to be that much better. Detroit has seen amazing changes and I’m not trying to tear them down. I mean when you see the central business district—it’s amazing, the differences. It’s absolutely vibrant, with people around after dark down there on Tuesday night. You have to wait in line for a restaurant. The business climate, I will say, is more diverse and the work is plentiful.
So what, really, was my problem? Why was I so stuck? Was it me turning into one of those old spirits who wouldn’t cross that line? Was this a sign that I was losing my hope, losing my connection to the web?
Over the last nine months, I’ve been grappling with my decision. I hadn’t been recognizing those connections as well as I used to. So I’m trying to regain focus and I’m really focusing on the small things. Like when I’m walking in Cincinnati and I see the urban gardens that have been planted in place of some vacant lots. Or when my tomato plants in the front yard start to come in, I’m reminded there’s hope in the growing of the fruit, the budding, the whole process. Even a stranger’s greeting on the sidewalk offers a warmth that can remind me that I do belong here and I’m a part of life.
If religion is defined as the expression of human relationships with others in the universe, then hope is a manifestation of that relationship and a valuable piece of our active faith.
UUs mostly don’t hope for a heavenly home. We hope for an earthly home that is heavenly and we know that it is our job to create it with our thoughts and actions. I remember entering the hospital waiting room shortly after watching a loved one being wheeled down the hall for an operation. I was scared to death and that might have been obvious from the look on my face. My mom was on her way to sit with me, stuck in traffic, and I was completely alone. I felt loose from my moorings, adrift, disconnected, and hopeless.
A stranger sitting in the waiting room got up from her seat, crossed over to me, and took my hand. I felt myself reconnect with life. She gave me more hope than even when the doctor came out a few hours later with good news. It still gets to me, to this day. Feeling that sense of hopelessness and a complete stranger just sitting there with me made such a big difference. In that moment, I knew that hope doesn’t rely on divine intervention, but on human hands. Hope is our job, not God’s.
Life provides with a constant supply of hope, as the sun always rises, spring always comes, snow always melts. Cycles of creation go on and on. We derive great hope from that faithful repetition of ancient patterns. But life also kicks us in the teeth sometimes. Cities will fall into bankruptcy, hurricanes demolish whole coastlines, avalanches wipe out homes. We can’t control it. But we can respond to it and work to mitigate its consequences in the future.
Hope springs eternal in human breast, according to the poet Alexander Pope. Because human beings have an innate sense of hope. When disaster strikes, other human beings immediately reach out to help. It seems inherent in human nature to give aid in times of trouble. I remember there was one time I was reading through Time magazine just after the tornadoes in Oklahoma, and there was one line in that article that angered me above all else.
It was a comment that someone had made about how come all the charitable organizations that are down there were all Christian denominations and where were the secular humanists? It was in print and that was one of the few times that I’ve actually been motivated to write a letter to the editor. I wrote something like, Our numbers may be smaller, we may have a less visible presence, but we’re reaching out and providing hope to others, too.
And it doesn’t mean that all human beings get the gist that we’re capable of it. We just returned from vacation in New York and the number of people asking and begging for help is overwhelming as you walk down the street. In those situations, I found it necessary to close some of my natural inclination just to help and walk right by, ignoring trouble or fearing consequences to ourselves. Sometimes it’s really dangerous to offer help. It’s not always easy to know right from wrong.
The alarming thing I saw, as we were walking the city streets, it was obvious that detaching from the immediate surroundings—through iPhones, ear buds, and avoiding eye contact all together with strangers—is what allows New York City dwellers to function.
This I believe…
I believe it is in everyday human acts of kindness and respect that we find our own hope rekindled, and that others’ hope is also reborn when we reach out to them. I believe that hope is not passive, something we wait around for, but that is created and recreated daily in ourselves and in others.
I believe that hope comes in many forms. It can be as simple as a smile, a hug, acceptance, kindness, respect, patience, listening, forgiveness, and working for justice.
I believe that we need to recognize our own capacity for giving hope and increase our efforts to do so. And I believe that we must recognize our own need for hope and actively seek it out. I believe that hope is the heart of our own religion. We give it to ourselves and others as we live out our principles and purposes. It’s a sense that links us with the interdependent web of existence. The fiber that binds us to one another. Without it we cannot resist evil.
Hope is a human response to tragedy, whether it’s evil brought by perverted human nature or the damage of the disaster. When another human being is injured, it’s up to humans to mend the damage. We might wish that a vengeful god or karma would strike down evildoers or pay back natural forces. But it’s up to our human hands to offer hope when bad things happen.
What does it mean, that we’re responsible for giving hope? We don’t know always in our daily lives just who needs help at any given moment. We have to assume that everyone does. We have to be ready to offer hope to everyone, whether that’s the crabby clerk at the store, the stray cat or dog, a frustrated parent with a toddler, or the homeless man camping in the woods.
We ourselves also need hope and we seek it out for ourselves, whether we do it by taking a walk or talking to a friend, giving money to qualified charities for disaster relief, listening to music. Or just asking for a hug and a listening ear when you need it. Sometimes that’s the hardest part. We give ourselves and others hope every time we reach out to those who need justice and love.
Inspired by everyday heroes
It was not so long ago, just at the end of May, when two young women in Portland were waiting on a train. They has been threatened by a white male who was spewing anti-Muslim hatred and wielding a knife. Three men who were also at the station came to their assistance. They stepped out of their personal comfort zone. Two of the men, Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, were killed for their efforts.
A third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was injured and is alive to share his thoughts after the events. A cynic might look and say that he should have left well enough alone. That he shouldn’t have gotten involved. But Micah Fletcher doesn’t think so. In an interview with a local news station, he said:
“We must stand hand-in-hand with one another and find a way to start ending the anger and the hatred and to not allow anger and hatred to flood our city streets with violence and with the destruction that can come with it.”
I believe hope is active. That we can give hope to ourselves and one another and we have a responsibility to do so. I also believe that our new president is daring us to offer that hope to one another, isn’t he? It’s a vicious cycle. If we turn against one another and extinguish our connections, it is easier to squash hope.
Let’s revisit the definition of hope I’m using one last time: Hope is the conviction, the reassurance that I am connected to, am part of, the inexhaustible, unquenchable stream of life. It is my knowledge that I am supported and nurtured by my place in the independent web of existence and it’s my job to give that others.
Nichole Sajdak is a member of Harmony UU.