Recording of our July 18, 2021 online worship service
Good morning, and Welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church!
I am Bill Fox, your Worship Leader this morning and will be assisting pulpit guest Kimery Campbell. We are joined by our accompanist Forrest Howell and cantor Chris Slon, with technical support from Sara Constantankis and Zoom greeter Mary Jo Ebert.
BUC is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Even in our virtual format, we are a thriving community with a place for everyone. Social justice is an essential component of our church life.
We are a “capital W” Welcoming Congregation and a Green Sanctuary Congregation. Our social justice work, this year, is focused on environmental action, economic inequality, civic engagement, and racial inequality.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook. After the service, we invite you to stay for a virtual coffee hour.
Today we extend a special welcome to our friends from Northwest Unitarian Universalist Church in Southfield, as well as anyone else who is visiting.
We have no announcements today.
Thank you for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
This morning’s service is about the experience of being in the Peace Corps and how it changes lives, sometimes in unexpected ways
And now our service will begin.
"Connected through the Web of Life" by Jennifer Gracen
read by Bill Fox
We light this chalice,
symbol of our purpose
to bring more love
and justice into the world.
We light this chalice,
knowing our congregation
as a church dispersed
not bound by walls
through the web of life.
To those of you who have travelled the world
To those of you who are afraid to get on a plane or a boat or a train
To those of you who are committed to helping humanity
To those of you who are afraid of committing
To those of you who want to help the world be a better place
To those of you who need help to live in a better place
And now we will have the offering:
The mission of Birmingham Unitarian Church is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service, and joy.
The weekly offering serves as an ongoing reminder of this mission. Sharing in this weekly practice of generosity also strengthens the bonds between congregants and our high purpose. So let there be an offering in support of this Beloved Community and our good works.
A portion of today's plate collection benefits Voters Not Politicians, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization founded as a ballot initiative to end gerrymandering in Michigan. VNP has now expanded to become a voter-led, pro-democracy political reform movement in Michigan with thousands of volunteers who are engaged, empowered, and committed to do more to strengthen our democracy. As part of BUC’s Civic Engagement efforts, we plan to work to assist VNP in fighting legislation and other efforts to suppress voter involvement. Half of the plate collection during the six weeks in July and August will go to VNP to help preserve democratic values and strengthen civic engagement.
Contributions can be made through our website, bucmi.org; Venmo (user name @BUCMI), or a check in the mail. However you choose to give, please do so with a heart of gratitude and for each other.
Before we have the Offertory, James Brown will say a few more words about VNP.
And now we will have the Offertory.
Joys and Sorrows
We have come to the time in our service we set aside for prayer, reflection and meditation. We pause the recording now for Joys & Sorrows.
Each Sunday we recognize the highs and lows of our lives. For those joys and sorrows, shared or unshared, know that we hold you in our hearts.
"A volunteer reflects on the hospitality of his host community in Mali" by Sanjay Mathur, Peace Corps volunteer in Mali (1991-1993)
read by Bill Fox
I cut myself with a sickle,
The blade was so sharp
I scarcely knew it at the time,
Until I saw the drops of bright red
On the green stalks of grain clutched in my hand.
Standing up, I exclaimed “I cut myself” to no one in particular.
A companion whose name I forget now, twenty years later,
And almost any Malian in that setting would have known
Looked at me and said simply, “Na yan,” come here.
Taking a machete, he found the grass he wanted to cut.
Cutting it, he asked that I stretch out my hand, and
He squeezed the juice from the grass onto my little finger:
The bleeding began to stop.
Come here, he said again, leading me to a tree,
And cutting into it sideways, a white sap oozed out.
He placed my finger below it:
The swelling began to go down.
Cutting a strip of cloth, he tied it onto my finger,
And said, “An ka baarake,” let’s get back to work.
It is not that I am proud of the scar.
I never look at it, because I do not need the scar
To remind me of people I once knew, and carry with me still,
Who took in a stranger like me, a citified young American,
And taught me so much about their land and their way of life,
Almost making me one of their own.
They might say I helped them, with the wells and water supplies,
With the matrône and maternity or the mill to grind grain,
But it is the servant who is healed and forever enriched,
In this case by village hospitality, generosity, and kindness,
Villagers whom wealthier societies would think have little to give
Yet who give everything they have
From the journals of Kimery Campbell
read by Bill Fox
18 November 78 Samedi [In training.] Je suis arrivee! I am in Haute-Volta! French lessons begin on Monday. Most of us are recovering from the effects of jet lag, a typhoid shot, change of food and water, and the general shock of everything different! This morning we walked down to the market and watched the masses of people selling and buying. Many of the local people know only one French expression-- “Ca va?”- and so that was the extent of our communication.
8 Dec 78 Vendridi. [During a live-in with a Voltaic family.]
This morning I woke up at some dreadfully early hour because there was a rooster right outside my window who would NOT shut up! I hope somebody eats him. I lay here, willing myself back to sleep, dreading all the little problems getting up would bring: going to the bathroom, washing, eating breakfast, drinking, talking, remembering names. ... Breakfast was pleasant, but Madame Jacques and Esther did not understand when I did not want to take sugar and condensed milk in my coffee. I’m glad I didn’t follow my original impulse to refuse coffee! I finally compromised by putting in sugar but not condensed milk. I tried to tell them that in the good old Etats-Unis lots of people drink their coffee black, but they had real doubts, I could see. Glad I didn’t mention that there are people who hate coffee. Or that I’m one of them.
29 May 79. [Living in the village.] Almost every day I go out to chat with my neighbors and almost every day I conduct the same conversation. (The finite nature of my Moore vocabulary has a lot to do with this.) They say, “Do you eat sagabo?” [Millet paste-- the indigenous staple.] I say, “Yes, I eat sagabo, but today I don’t eat sagabo. Today I eat beans or rice or macaroni,” with variations. After this, the subject becomes a little muddy to me, but I think we’re discussing the fact that I never seem to eat sagabo. Tonight, I came back from my French lesson and stood at the gate, straddling my moped and fumbling with the bolt. The man next door greeted me, asked me something I didn’t understand (I replied in the affirmative anyway) and greeted me again. Then, suddenly, out of the darkness came a determined female voice: “Do you eat sagabo?”
14 June 1980. I’m sitting on a flat rock that was placed beside one of the many shallow, waterless wells that freckle Korsimoro and environs. It’s near a small grove of mangos where I sometimes come to look for birds and a roofless, crumbling one-room house that I like for some reason. Everything is damp because it rained yesterday. Last night it was cool and it is still cool, especially in the shade, but as the sun gets higher, it’ll get steamy hot.
The peasants are all out in their fields, planting furiously. There was the same mass pilgrimage ten days ago at the last rain. They must plant and plant and plant and plant and plant again-- the same ground-- until it rains often enough and the seeds grow. The husband, the wives, bigger children, everyone is out there, daba [a hand hoe] in hand: jab a pockmark in the ground, drop in the seed, move on. They work fast. It is still fairly early but I see already large areas filled with pockmarks, void of people.
14 July 80. I took a walk tonight. Life is flowing once again through Upper Volta’s tired old veins. People trudge home at night with their dabas over their shoulders and their empty sagabo calabashes [gourd bowls for their millet paste lunches] on their head, leaving behind them fields of emerging peanuts or okra or, above all, millet. The millet is beginning to look like millet and is no longer merely represented by a pockmark on the earth.
5 October 80. It is the Time of the Toad. Almost everyone (English-speaking everyone-- the French get it right) calls them frogs. I never get toads and frogs confused. They are very distinct to me and the name of the one is not at all like the name of the other… What a dreadful country in which to be an amphibian! The rains have stopped, the wet places are drying out, and the poor toads congregate wherever they can find a little moisture: in my shower, around my water pots, under my rain barrel [--a desperate attempt to survive as water disappears.] And so the millet, and so the people?
by Kimery Campbell
This is about transformation.
I was in the Peace Corps. I used to give lectures and slide shows and edit a newsletter on the topic of the Peace Corps experience. Decades later, I still reference that time in my life with what is probably tedious regularity. I didn’t think I would have any difficulty talking about Peace Corps life for a church service. What I have discovered over the past weeks, however, is that it is possible to have too much to say. My Peace Corps experience has more layers than an onion and it is, moreover, an onion the size of Toledo.
Growing up during the Vietnam years, but too young to join the anti-war protests, I was very aware of criticisms of the protestors. I remember hearing that “they” were lazy, selfish, and afraid; that “they” didn’t want to serve their country. Being both idealistic and oppositional, I told myself that I was not afraid, lazy, or selfish and that I did think it was important to serve one’s country, even if one felt that war was wrong. I have the impression that, once I had articulated that thought, it was the work of a moment to resolve that I would join the Peace Corps. I don’t think I have ever, at any other time in my life, made a decision so quickly and so irrevocably.
By the time I was old enough to send in an application, other, more adult motivations had joined that early idealistic fervor. Peace Corps service would give me valuable experience that would further my eventual career as a wildlife biologist. As a perk of volunteering, I would earn a year of civil service advantage for government jobs. And I would improve my French. Peace Corps called and offered me a spot in a forestry and geology volunteer group that would be leaving for Upper Volta in November of that year. I said, yes, I’m coming.
Upper Volta, or Burkina Faso as it is now called, is a landlocked nation about the size of Colorado, located in the belt of sub-Saharan West Africa known as the Sahel. It was (and still is) an incredibly poor country. At that time, life expectancy was 33, average annual income was about $200, and its capital, Ouagadougou, was ninth on a list of the ten hottest cities on the planet. It is flat, dusty, and arid, with little vegetation outside of the rainy season. At the time of my arrival, the Voltaic people were still suffering with the devastating Sahel drought of the 1970s and 80s and the accompanying desertification. The job of the foresters in our group was to motivate and organize the villagers into planting village woodlots and windbreaks to fend off the further advance of the Sahara. Sure. No problem, said the group of college-educated twenty-somethings from the temperate zones of North America.
My beginning was not auspicious. When the Assistant Peace Corps Director tried to deliver me to my village, we discovered that the Chef d’Arrondissment, the local head of government with whom Peace Corps had made the arrangements, had gone off to his home village in order to use up three months’ worth of accumulated vacation time. He may have mentioned my impending arrival to the African officer of the Waters and Forests service with whom I was intended to work, but unfortunately, that gentleman had died six weeks prior to my arrival. He hadn’t mentioned me to anyone else.
Obstacles help us to build strength, right? I returned to the larger town where we had done our training and spent a month going back and forth, trying to find a place to live and trying not to develop an anxiety-induced ulcer. Despite my adolescent bravado, I really was terrified. Eventually I ended up with a very nice house in a quiet courtyard and I began my work.
This is not one of those heartwarming stories in which the city girl moves to the African bush and accomplishes miracles by encouraging the local people to believe in themselves. That would be a bit paternalistic for a UU service. The villagers didn’t need me for motivation, anyway. They knew things had been better in the past and could be better again. What they really needed were trees and acceptable places to plant them. This was tough because, due to the drought, every scrap of even marginally tillable land was being used to grow food and the nearest tree nursery was south of Ouagadougou, which was a long haul for someone who only had a moped for transport.
A further, and for me, unexpected, challenge was that planting trees was a new idea for most of the villagers. Other than a couple of mango trees in the courtyard, very few people had had occasion to grow anything other than food crops. As the pandemic has done more recently for all of us, the devastation of the drought required the villagers to do things differently from the way they had always done them and this kind of change takes time.
The most difficult problem of all I will lump under the general heading of my own inexperience—a topic that would provide three or four homilies all by itself.
Despite the obstacles and the absence of any sort of Hollywood quality to my experience, I had some success. I met people, attended and led meetings, delivered trees, started several village woodlots, and obtained funding for a local nursery that was completed a few years after my own service ended. During the dry season I did troubleshooting for another aid organization’s mobile health clinic. I wrote so many formal applications, requests for permission, and other letters of protocol that the Ouagadougou Peace Corps office brought me in to train new arrivals in the nuances of groveling bureaucratic French.
While I was having a small impact on a small village in Africa, Africa was having a huge impact on me. It was a gradual thing. I got used to the fact that the daytime temperature sometimes hit 110° F. or higher. I also got used to almost nonexistent humidity, which felt very strange to someone who had grown up in the Great Lakes region. I figured out how to feed myself on the foods I could buy locally and how to acquire water. I developed some proficiency in French and what I would call “market-level” Moore. I learned to recognize the signs of dehydration-- and scorpions.
There were a lot of difficult days. I went two years without hearing the voice of anyone in my family. I missed graduations, weddings, and a funeral. Sometimes I experienced an ache for greenness and seasonal change that was almost physical. I got heartily sick of the dust that infiltrated every crack and crevice of my home and my body and permanently stained all clothing.
But, on the day that I moved into my little house, I stopped being afraid. My new neighbors came by to greet me and I realized that they were just people. Furthermore, they were absolutely thrilled to have me there. I had never lived among people for whom the welcoming of strangers was so important that it almost superseded any other action. The next day, I wrote in my journal, “This is going to be hard. But at the moment it seems hard and possible.”
There has been much conversation in UU circles and our society in general regarding white privilege. Although I did not use the term, when I was in Africa, I was keenly aware of both white and Western privilege. I had, for example, always taken communication for granted. In a village in which there was one phone (at the village office) and no personal mail delivery, it was very challenging to schedule tournees, meetings, and other work activities. It was almost impossible to make last-minute changes to any plans.
I was, of course, from the beginning acutely aware how my new neighbors had been shortchanged in the areas of clean water and health care. But having a driver’s license was a Western privilege that took me by surprise. It was rare for ordinary citizens to own cars or trucks, unless it was part of their work, and “chauffeur” was a respected job title because it meant one was part of that small population that knew how to drive. A huge privilege—one that is not as frequently mentioned—is the western practice of generating garbage. I went for two years without waste disposal and it was never a problem in a country where everything was reused, repurposed, and kept until it fell apart. But the Western privilege that probably hit closest to home for me, the thing that made me realize that I numbered among the most blessed beings on Earth, was that, in a country that was at that time about 97% illiterate, I could read.
When my service ended and I returned to the US, I found it as difficult to get used to my native land as it had been to leave. Some of this I had expected, being due to climatic differences or cultural habit. I think the truly transformative changes were those that were more than habits. These are the changes that have altered the way I see the world.
When I first returned to the United States, I spent several weeks in Washington, DC. Because it was fall and the weather was an icy 65 degrees, I went into a clothing store in search of something warmer than my cotton skirts. The abundance was unbearable. I remember the sensation of being suffocated by the racks of clothing that surrounded me on every side. (I went instead to a drugstore and bought some nylon stockings to add a layer of warmth under my African clothing.)
On the other hand, the grocery store fascinated me. I spent so much time wandering up and down the aisles and simply staring at all the foods that I began to worry that the store’s security officer would start following me around. I eventually broke myself of this habit, although it came back to me vividly in the early months of the pandemic, the first time I ventured into a grocery store. The number of choices we have in this country is staggering.
I am now able to purchase clothing without having a panic attack, but I have not lost that Peace Corps perspective. I pass scarcely a day without marveling over the water that pours from my tap any time I want it and the fact that I can drink it just as it comes. I have never lost my appreciation of the greenness of Michigan, of the miracle that plants grow and are harvested and that the rain always comes. In Africa, I learned to love rain and I still consider that a sky full of heavy dark clouds is a beautiful thing.
So, what am I saying? That being in the Peace Corps taught me how much Americans have? Yes, that’s true, but it’s only one layer of that onion. I also learned a little about what we are missing.
Although a small nation, Upper Volta had many ethnic groups—I was never clear on how many. The “nation” had, admittedly, been created by the carving up of the old French West Africa and the borders did not exactly follow ethnic boundaries, but every Voltaic was accustomed, from an early age, to hearing multiple languages spoken around them and to witnessing a variety of religious and cultural traditions. It was the way things were and everyone accepted it. My tiny village was inhabited by Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and people who followed the traditional animism. My neighbors were not only tolerant of religious difference, they were frankly curious about each other’s faiths. When the Catholic church had an evening mass, the grounds around the building were filled with non-Catholics who would sit outside and listen to the singing and the sermon. It worked that way for everybody.
One morning, my Voltaic colleague came looking for me. He wanted me to come to witness the local observation of Tabaski. Tabaski, which, incidentally, begins tomorrow evening, is the Muslim holiday that celebrates Abraham’s—or Ibrahim’s-- willingness to sacrifice his son in duty to his god. Allah at the last minute substituted a lamb for his son and in an elaborate ceremony, the event is remembered with the sacrifice of a sheep, followed by a grand prayer.
I objected. As the only foreigner for miles in any direction, I didn’t want to act like a tourist. “I am not Muslim,” I pointed out. “I don’t think it would be appropriate.”
Hilaire did not understand this at all. “I’m not Muslim, either,” he said. “Everyone goes.” And he was right. The number of villagers participating in the service and the grand prayer exceeded the number of observers, but not by much. From this I learned—as I learned over and over again-- that one can be very short on material advantages and still be very rich in the ability to be human and to appreciate and respect other humans. I think maybe we could do with more of that around here.
In the end, the experiences I had, the learning I did, the new perspectives I took away, and the many blessings that were bestowed upon me are all still layers, albeit very thick ones. I have been trying to find the central defining point of my Peace Corps experience—what you might call the core of being in the Peace Corps.
At the beginning of this long-winded speech, I listed a few things that I sought by volunteering. There were more. Among those I did not mention was what I might now call a search for truth and meaning. I can’t say if those years started me on the path to Unitarian Universalism—I suspect that I had those tendencies long before. I definitely joined the Peace Corps in order to serve and to give. I learned that I could do something that was hard and possible. But what I took away was not exactly what I expected.
I didn’t end up with the wildlife career or the government job and the French I speak is African French, which is only of marginal use in non-African francophone countries. But I do proudly say that I have served my country and I humbly admit that I gained much more than I gave.
And that, I think, is the answer. Donna Larkin Mohr, in our Living by Heart group this week, read a meditation that ended with the words, “No one has too much light.” Ultimately, I think that I went into the Peace Corps in search of more light. It is what I found. I found more light in living among strangers and finding that they could be friends. That light has transformed me and I have carried it with me for these many decades.
"May Our Lives" by Chris Rothbauer
read by Bill Fox
May our lives be reflections of the beauty, peace, and joy that is possible in the world,
and may the love we find in this place sustain us as we go our separate ways.