as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus, March 8, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on compassion. Rev. Scott got us started last week with a sermon in which he affirmed the psychotherapist David Richo’s claim, “Compassion is love’s response to pain.”
“Sympathy is the ability to recognize that a person is in pain,” Rev. Scott told us. “And empathy is the ability to… experience some [of] their feelings,” he continued. But compassion is putting “those thoughts and feelings into action.” We demonstrate compassion when we move beyond simply worrying about other people, or the state of the world, and try to do something about it.
Compassion is a core Unitarian Universalist value. Our tradition claims that love is the most powerful force in human life. Love beats hate. In theist terms, we argue, God is love. Love is God. God loves everyone, no exceptions. In humanist terms, we recognize that love, more than anything else, is what knits human life together. And as Unitarian Universalists we strive we be a loving community, instantiating among ourselves what Josiah Royce, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. after him, called the beloved community. We struggle to be a space where everyone, without exception, can find their place and be encouraged, and supported, in living into their full human potential. And then we work to take that vision of the beloved community into the wider world.
Compassion, having sympathetic thoughts and feelings for others and then seeking to put those thoughts and feelings into action. Compassion, love’s response to pain. Compassion, it is something I suspect we are all going to be called to exercise in significant amounts in the coming weeks. The coronavirus is spreading throughout all of humanity. It is here in the United States. It has reached Houston. And our religious tradition calls us to be compassionate as we, collectively, respond to the viral outbreak.
This compassion should take several forms. We should demand that our public officials allocate adequate resources and take shift appropriate action to slow the spread of the coronavirus. We should not stigmatize or shun particular groups of people–people of Asian descent, for instance–because we irrationally blame them for the virus. The virus has the potential to impact everyone and people of all ages and ethnicities have been infected with it.
And we should each do our part to limit the rate at which the virus propagates. Wash your hands frequently, with hot water and ample soap–hum Happy Birthday twice the way through. Do not shake hands, I have been encouraging people to bump forearms instead. Cover your cough with a kleenex and then throw that kleenex away. If you feel ill stay at home–we offer paid sick leave to our employees here at First Church, if your workplace does not and you are sick and worried about missing a paycheck contact me or Rev. Scott and we will see how we can help you. Clean surfaces like doorknobs that people frequently touch. And hardest of all, avoid touching your face.
They might seem banal, but these are compassionate actions. They are ways we put our concerns for others–concerns that they might be stricken by the virus–into action. If the viral outbreak reaches epidemic portions here in Houston the staff and I are prepared to continue to offer Sunday services and pastoral counseling online as part of our compassionate efforts to help the community weather the viral storm.
Compassion, looking around our sanctuary am I sure you have noticed that it looks a bit different this morning. We have close to sixty photographs on our walls here and in the Fireside room because of my belief that art can stir sympathy, empathy, and, ultimately, compassion within us.
This year our congregation is part of FotoFest. FotoFest is the longest-running international Biennial of photography and lens-based art in the United States. It is one of the largest photography festivals in the world. It has an audience of around 275,000. We are serving as a Participating Space. That means that we are one of about eighty venues from around the city who have chosen to be part of FotoFest and exhibit art throughout the festival. Some of the other venues include the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Menil Collection, the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University, the Houston Museum of African American Culture, and the Houston Center for Photography. So, we are in pretty good company.
FotoFest opened yesterday. That is why, I should note, that we are focusing on it today and not Women’s History. We will observing Women’s History throughout the month by drawing our readings exclusively from women. With the exception of today, when Zsófia invited us to support the International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women, we will be supporting Planned Parenthood through our shared offering for most of the month. And at the end of the month, I will give the sermon drawing explicitly from feminist and womanist theology that I would normally have given on the Sunday nearest March 8th.
Our exhibition is called “Now is the Time: Leonard Freed’s Photographs of South Africa’s 1994 Election.” My father, Dr. Howard Bossen, and I curated it together. My Dad is with us this morning. And I would like to thank him and my Mom, Kathy, for their tireless efforts to make this exhibit happen. I would also like to thank First Church’s fine staff. Alex, Alma, Carol, Gustavo, Jon, and Scott all put in–and continue to put in–an extraordinary amount of work for “Now is the Time.” Tawanna, our wonderful Business Administrator, deserves special mention since, on top of all of her other duties, she served as project manager. We also had help from the staff at the Libraries of Michigan State University, CrateWorks Fine Art Services, and Artists Framing Resource. We owe Bill Harrison thanks. Bill printed the images and then he did a rush job to print a second set after UPS lost the first one. And we owe Justin Griswold from CrateWorks particular gratitude. He was here until 11:30 p.m. on Wednesday evening hanging the show. And, of course, none of this would have been possible without our funders: Michigan State University, Thorpe Butler and Rita Saylors, and Lindley Doran and Charles Holman. And showing the exhibit would not continue to be possible without the assistance of all our volunteer docents. We have a lot of shifts to cover and if you have not volunteered to be a docent there is certainly still the opportunity to do so.
Before we move into the rest of the sermon I want to tell you how the show came about. A key part of FotoFest is its portfolio review program. This is where artists and curators, editors, gallery owners, publishers and other industry professional meet with photographers to look at the artists’ work. My father is a Professor of Photography and Visual Communication at Michigan State University. He has been one of FotoFest’s reviewers for close to twenty years. When I moved to Houston, FotoFest’s Executive Director, Steven Evans, asked my Dad if he would ask me if we would be willing to serve as Participating Space. Apparently, the folks at FotoFest have been interested in partnering with our congregation for many years. My Dad put us in touch and Steven paired First Church with a curator.
This was back in June of last year. We spent about five months working with this curator. And then in late November, I got a call from that curator. They had been unable to raise the money they needed for the exhibit that they were planning. They were backing out. I asked Steven what to do. He told me it was way too late to pair us with another curator. All of the deadlines for Participating Spaces are in early autumn. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do something with your Dad? We would really like First Church to be part of FotoFest. I can give you a week to figure something out.” A week is not a long time to come up with a plan for an exhibit. But, I called my Dad, and well, here we are.
I am excited that are we able to be a venue for “Now is the Time.” Leonard Freed, whose work we are featuring, was a major American photographer. He was a member of Magnum Photos, the world’s premier photography collective, and for more than fifty years he travelled the world documenting major events. He used his art to stir sympathy and compassion and, during the 1950s and 1960s, break the “almost complete isolation between the races.” His work is in the collections of places like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum, in Los Angeles.
Freed is best known for his photographs of the civil rights movement, particularly the set of images that were included in his 1968 “Black in White America.” It is a beautiful book. It documents African American life in the last days of Jim Crow. And it documents African American life right after the end of legal segregation.
There are lot of powerful pictures in that book. One of the most effecting is of a line of eight or nine African Americans standing in line to vote in a federal election for the first time in Washington, DC. They are in one those utilitarian spaces that often serve as polling places–I imagine it is a school gym or cafeteria or, maybe, a church basement. They are all ages. There is a tall distinguished gentleman wearing what looks like a tweed jacket, well pressed slacks, and perfectly shined shoes. There is a young woman in a long coat and knee length skirt with a large purse under her right arm. In her right hand she is grasping a white slip of paper, presumably documenting that she is eligible to vote. Everyone in the photograph looks like they have been waiting a long time–which, of course, they have been. They have been waiting however long they have been waiting in that line. And they have been waiting however long they have been alive. For this is the first that any of them have been able to vote in a national election. It does not matter that the man is probably over eighty and that the woman is most likely under thirty. They have both been waiting precisely the same amount of time: their whole lives. And they look tired–because I bet that line is a long one–and they look determined–because winning the right to vote was not easy.
Viewed from the vantage of Houston, Texas in the year 2020, the photograph is actual quite disturbing. It could have been taken on Tuesday. It could have been taken here in the Fourth Ward. It could have been taken in Third Ward. It could have been taken in almost any community of color in the state of Texas. Since 2012, the state’s Republican leadership has worked to close 750 polling places throughout the state. The vast majority of them have been closed in communities of color.
On Tuesday, I voted in polling place near Montrose in River Oaks. There were about a half dozen polling places for me to choose from in easy reach of my apartment. Now, I live in an affluent and predominately white area. And when I went to a polling place, I waited about fifteen minutes in line. I have a friend who lives in the Fourth Ward. She waited over an hour and a half to vote. And some people who voted at Texas Southern University–a historically black university–had to wait as many as six hours in line.
Compassion is not just having sympathy for those people who had to wait for hours and hours to vote. It is putting that sympathy into action and organizing to demand that people have easy access to voting.
Compassion, you can find images of people waiting to vote almost anywhere online. And these days, we are inundated by visual images at almost all times. They can overwhelm us. How many of you have a smartphone? And how many of you use Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter? I have them all on my phone. They have a common feature called endless scroll. Endless scroll is what repopulates your phone with images as you move your finger down the screen. No matter how many “friends” you have on Facebook or “followers” you have on Twitter, the social media companies constantly refresh your account so that you never run out of images. Endless scroll is just that–a string that seemingly goes on forever that you can never reach the end of, that is always presenting you with new content, new images, new videos, new sources of stimulation.
Endless scroll can be entrancing. I do not know about you, but I sometimes have the experience of scrolling from image to image on Instagram without even knowing that I am doing it. Sometimes I look up and realize that fifteen minutes have passed. It would be difficult for me to tell you what images I saw or engaged with during that time. They all went by in a catatonic blur.
The social media accounts that I follow come from all over the world. I follow news sources like the New York Times, the Houston Chronicle, the Guardian, and La Jornada–a very fine daily out of Mexico City. I follow a painter from Japan, anarchist labor union activists from Spain, organizers from Northern Syria, photographers from the Czech Republic, historians, philosophers, theologians, and religious leaders, from well, really, almost anywhere. And then there are my actual friends, who, in our highly connected global society, live on every continent except Antartica.
One of the wonderful things about social media is that is it actually can link people from throughout the world together. I have, through my smart phone or computer, access to the words, sounds, and images from people who live in bustling cities and in remote villages. If I want to, I can actually communicate directly with them and find out something more about their human experience. I share with them some of mine. And maybe our digital interaction can open us up to being compassionate towards each other and help us recognize that truth about the human experience–lifted up in the seventh principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association–we are all connected, we are all part of the great web of being, we are all members of the great family of all souls, and what happens to you, in some way, minor or major, happens to me also.
One of the terrible things about social media is that it can make people numb to what is going on throughout the world. I have had this experience myself. I look at my phone and there are images of people dying under Assad’s brutal regime in Syria. I look at my phone and there are images of people suffering from the coronavirus first in China, then in Italy, and now, well, here in the United States. I look at my phone and there’s an image of a young African American man who has been killed by the police. I look at my phone and there’s images of the children who Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have placed in cages. There are images of people who have been deported back to Central America and killed by gangs. There are images of… Well, there are a lot of awful images out there–images that provide a testament to just how terrible we humans can be to each other.
And you know what, I usually think to myself, “I cannot deal with this right now.” And scroll past the world’s horrors to look at pictures of a friend’s dog’s birthday party, a friend drinking beer at the cutest graffiti coated bar I have ever seen, a very nice looking breaking competition, a couple’s anniversary–one partner in a striking red dress, the other in an elegant tuxedo–, a delicious meal of fresh brilliant colored market vegetables, and, of course, cats. Like a whole lot of the world, I like images of cats–running, sleeping, or playing with some kind of improbable object. Cats are cute. Cats are goofy. Cats can easily bring a smile to my face. Cats can help me forgot the brutal things we do to each other.
Do you ever have the same experience? Where you look at the difficult news of the world and think to yourself, “I just can’t?” A bit more than a decade ago, when she was trying to grapple with the constant barrage of images of the Bush regime’s torture policies that were appearing in the New York Times and other places in the then dominant print media, the philosopher Susan Sontag observed, “An ample reserve of stoicism is needed to get through the great newspaper of record each morning, given the likelihood of seeing photographs that could make you cry.”
I suspect that the constant barrage of graphic images induces compassion fatigue in a lot of us. Compassion fatigue is the anger, dissociation, anxiety, and even nightmares that we experience from feeling powerless to change the world’s ills. It comes from what Sontag called “a quintessential modern experience,” “[b]eing a spectator of calamities taking place in another” place.
Endless scroll offers us the opportunity to spectate endless and exhausting calamities. It can dilute the power of the image to open us to compassion. And that is one reason why I think exhibits like “Now is the Time” and social documentary photography remain important even when we are constantly inundated with images. The framed image, mounted on the wall, allows us, offers us, the chance to stop and consider the human experience–or the natural world–in a moment of time.
Now, of course, all photographs are curated representations of reality. There is always something outside of the frame. The image is always partial and seen through the lens of the photographer. The photographer’s aesthetics and ethics–their choice of what they represent and how they represent it–is always shaping the image. When they produce an image, they are indicating that this transitory moment in time, this flitting bit of consciousness, matter, and experience, is worth preserving.
Freed’s work in “Now is the Time” preserves impressions of an historic shift, the end of apartheid in South Africa. He travelled there for three weeks to document the country’s first multi-racial election. As a white Jewish man from the United States, a white Jewish man who knew about the Holocaust and Jim Crow and the struggle for civil rights, he created his curated representations of the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power.
His images are not the images that would have been made by someone with a different social location–they are not the images of a black South African who participated in the struggle to end apartheid. And they are not the images of a person who had suffered the social stigma of apartheid or Jim Crow. Nonetheless, they are designed to open their viewers to the fullness of the human experience–to remind us that there is joy and friendship and wonder. That human society can shift. That apartheid ended.
The title of the exhibit comes from one of the African National Congress’s slogans during the 1994 election, “Now is the Time.” The slogan is evocative of Freed’s photograph of the people waiting in line to vote. Now is the time for change. It has finally come, after all these years of suffering and struggling and waiting and waiting. Now is the time, it has arrived. Now is the time to be compassionate towards each other and act together. Now is the time, if you want to learn more about the exhibit, my father will be offering a lecture about it next Sunday at 7:00 p.m. And I will be doing at least one gallery talk between now and when the exhibit closes at the end of April.
I hope that you will take time after the service or during the exhibit’s hours to study the photographs. There are a few that we have placed behind a curtain because they are not appropriate for Sunday mornings. But all them will offer you an opportunity to interrupt the endless scroll of visual imagery and look carefully at transitory moments of time, constructed representations, that, will do a little to help you with whatever compassion fatigue you might be experiencing. As you do, I invite you to remember words from Nikki Giovanni that we heard earlier in the service:
we must believe in each other’s dreams
i’m told and i dream
of me accepting you and you accepting yourself
Such words remind us of the possibility of compassion.
As you view Freed’s images, I invite you to consider these words by Nelson Mandela, words that he offered in his inaugural address as President of South Africa:
“We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success.
We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
Let there be justice for all.
Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.”
We would do well to hear Mandela’s word. They challenge us to be compassionate–to take our sympathy and empathy for others, sympathy and empathy that are rooted in our shared human experience, and transform them into the action of compassion.
We would also do well to pause, and look, and see if we can be stirred to compassion by all the rich visual imagery on display throughout the city of Houston during FotoFest. Our faith calls us to be compassionate. And the art which surrounds during these festival months has the possibility of inspiring us to greater depths of compassion–to transform our sympathy and empathy into action.
We are one human family, one world community, whether we like it or not. If we are to survive and thrive we must be compassionate towards each other. Let us remember that and, in doing so, let us recognize that now is the time to act–to work for voting rights, to do what we can to combat the coronavirus (no shaking hands after the service), to seek justice, and to build the beloved community.
Now is the time.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.