Shiny, Happy People

March 18, 2012
Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein

Rev. Dr. Victoria Weinstein Ten years ago this week was a magical time for me. I remember it very well.

I drove up here from Maryland and stayed in a local B & B in Scituate in a room that overlooked the harbor. Meredith Emmons was the innkeeper and she knew that I was here for the week to meet the congregation, that I would have full days and evenings, preach twice, and be voted thumbs up or down by the congregation as the grand finale. She was a wonderful hostess, checking in with me every night and generously inviting me to chat about my day, about my impressions of the church and the area, and helping me to feel less alone in the candidating process. I had met the Search Committee several months before, and fallen immediately in love with their energy, humor, and spirit. That group of people was Marcia Babcock, Virginia Bartlett, Len Cole, Bob Detwiler, Mary Eliot, Carol Neeley and Sue Robinson as the chair: is there any question of why anyone would connect with this group?

But it is one thing to feel strong chemistry with a Search Committee and another to make the acquaintance of a broader church community and a church staff, which at the time was June Gustafson (who took over for Norma Cariglia for a year before we were lucky enough to get Stuart Twite as Director of Religious Education), Karen Pritchard and Chris Solari, Bernie Nadeau… and we were in transition with the Sexton position and hired Paul Frongillo soon after I arrived.

I knew what I was coming into. On one hand, a congregation with an amazingly stable and good ministry for 31 years under Dick Fewkes, a much beloved pastor leaving to retire with a much beloved - and invaluable - wife, Ellie. The leadership was known to be strong and good here, the endowment healthy, the buildings in good condition. The interim minister, Jan Knost, had done a good job, challenging church practices that had gone on unexamined and unquestioned for many years, ruffling feathers. That is an interim's role. It was Jan who began to insist that the congregation pay serious attention to how much unnoticed work Ellie Fewkes had done for the church, understand that that kind of clergy spouse was a thing of the past, and impress upon the church that it should not expect their new minister to come equipped with a perpetually helpful, present, available partner (I'm still looking!!). He and Lorna did a lot of other things to make the congregation ready for a new minister. I have much to thank them for, and they have much to thank the church for, which was so supportive to them when their son Keith was gravely and permanently impaired by a motorcycle accident during their time here.

And so it was in the end that you called me, the first woman to serve the then 360-year old congregation and the only single minister to occupy the parsonage (the Rev. Howard Gale was single, but he lived with his parents and his mother provided for his domestic needs). The first woman and the first single minister - already two huge departures from tradition - and… let's face it, a woman who, despite being raised in preppy New Canaan, Connecticut, has a personal style that is much more New York Jewish than Boston Brahmin. I still see the name Weinstein on the exterior of this building and I get tears thinking about what my grandparents would have said: "This is what America means." I also came to you a lifelong Unitarian Universalist who is a self-identified Christian. Friends said, "Don't unpack all your boxes." I was advised by everyone to prepare to be what we in ministry call an "unintentional interim." It was entirely possible that I was going to be too much of a shock to this system to last more than a couple of years, or maybe not even a year! That is not uncommon when congregations call radically new types of people to serve them as the minister.

But not only did I trust the Search Committee and the process, I believe that when we act out of love, hope and a sense of creative possibility, the Spirit is present in that. Harness that energy to talented, committed people and you can always transcend negative expectations and fear. The Spirit moves. It moves on, it pushes on, and it dissolves a lot of obstacles in its path. Human intelligence and the movement of the Spirit is a potent combination. There was one obstacle that someone tried to throw in my path on the way here, however, that was intended to keep me from serving this congregation but which actually helped me better understand why I so much wanted to come here. It was "good advice" given me by a colleague that he intended to steer me right off of Route 3, but which actually had the opposite effect. Here is how it began. This colleague sat me down over coffee and said, essentially, "You're going to be miserable if you go to Norwell. You know you'll just be babysitting a bunch of rich, white people."

This was a conversation over coffee, it wasn't an e-mail I could ignore or a phone call I could get off of fast. This was a caring, respected elder colleague who knew me and knew the South Shore, or thought he did. It was one of those moments where you are in the presence of someone who assumes that you share his or her biases and prejudices. It is a very difficult situation to be in, because you find that you have dual loyalties. You have a loyalty to the person with whom you are in relationship, the one who is sitting right in front of you saying things that they presume will be in alignment with your own thoughts. And then you have another loyalty, and that is to yourself and your own truth, which is based on experience and knowledge, and deeper insight. And the moment comes when you have to choose which loyalty you will honor. You have to honor one; you cannot honor both. The comfortable and easier thing to do in this situation is to murmur something fairly neutral and change the subject. The noble thing is to confront the prejudice and challenge it right there, in direct and clear terms. What I did was sit in stunned silence, and then register a protest softly and mildly while looking into my coffee cup. I don't know if he even really heard me.

His remark hurt me far more than he could have ever known. It struck me to the core not only because I was already forming a loyalty to this congregation but because I felt shamed and betrayed as one of those "rich, white people" he dismissed as shallow and somehow not worthy of pastoral love and loyalty. I grew up in a town much like Norwell, in a "rich, white people" setting, and I had desperately needed the healing ministry of the church all my life. Part of why I didn't receive it until so late in life was precisely because of the attitude displayed by my colleague - my own assumption that privileged people should be able to manage life themselves, and excel at all things. No. Privileged people of any color do not have everything they need - even though sometimes they think they do. Furthermore, it is my experience that privileged folks are not so much invested in staying just as they are (although some are); they are invested in looking as though life is perfect. Which means that privileged people are keeping a lot of secrets. All the reasons he thought I shouldn't be the minister to this congregation were all the reasons I most wanted to be the minister of this congregation. He was contemptuous where I was compassionate. But not courageous enough to tell him to take his classist assumptions and take a hike.

"Shiny, happy people laughing. Shiny happy people holding hands." Remember that song? It's an R.E.M. song that came out in 1991 and I always associate it with parties and weddings. "There's no time to cry." The funny thing is, though, is that R.E.M. meant it sarcastically. They wrote this bubbly tune because they were being criticized for writing dark songs with depressing lyrics. This was their ironic response - shiny happy people! - and it became one of their biggest hits. Knowing that R.E.M. wrote it tongue-in-cheek, I have always heard the tinge of sadness behind it. I feel like it is the perfect anthem for people who feel obligated to be always put on a good face. Around here, the common refrain I hear is "someone else has it worse than I do." And that is absolutely true. What is also true is that the burden of secrecy and feeling under pressure to constantly look good and look like you're doing well adds another layer of stress to suffering that I think is unfair, and very, very sad. I knew those things about this kind of community before I moved here to serve this congregation, and the ensuing decade has only validated my beliefs.

I came from a shiny, happy family with a lot of secrets. I remember how I felt when I was about twelve years old and a friend of the family came to the house. I don't remember what had happened exactly but we were in crisis - again. It was the first time I remember any outsider coming into the house during one of the violent eruptions that regularly occurred in my house - and I was shocked that not only was Sue in the house, she seemed up to date on all our issues. I didn't think anyone knew anything about our secrets. But Sue did. She was there to help. My mother or my father must have called her, because they both loved and trusted her. At one point in the evening she and I were alone in the den and she looked at me and said, "There's a group called Ala-Teen that is a support group for children of alcoholics. You're a little bit young to go, and I know you don't drive, but you can call me any time and I'll pick you up and take you." And she gave me a piece of folded construction paper with her name and phone number on it.

Some of you might remember a moment when someone turned to you with great love and care and casually let you know that they were in on a huge secret you had been holding onto. Maybe you were a child. Maybe it happened here, through a church relationship. You may remember the huge physical sensation of shock, as if someone has thrown a bucket of ice water over you. Or as if the bottom had fallen out of your stomach. Or your face was on fire. You have been truly seen, and the initial reaction is one of abject terror, like an animal hiding in the brush whose predator spots and comes after it. That's how it can feel at first. But then you understand that the person who knows your secret is not holding it against you, but holding it with you. And that changes everything. Revealed and vulnerable, we break out of our protective shell and begin to see that we are normal, we are not alone, and we have nothing to hide. Only then can we start to take our first wobbly steps out of the prisons of our own construction and toward honesty and healing. When someone speaks normally about things that we experience as hidden and deeply shameful, our secrets cease to hold power over us. They become part of who we are. Just a part. They can be put into perspective, and they cease to define us. James Russell Lowell said, "Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this - that you are dreadfully like other people."

Those who visit prisoners through our Partakers Prison Ministry have the courage and the commitment to walk into a place that is locked against the world, where men and women who hold many secrets and much pain wait out their time before they can re-enter society. Doing this work, being willing to go through a locked door in order to share someone's life with them, to encourage them in their own liberation and learning, is sacred work. Today, I hope we will remember that there are prisons that were not built by human hands, and that not all those who are locked up in solitary confinement are there as a result of the criminal justice system. They are there because they are held there by secrets, by isolation, and by shame. May love set them free. May you and I be a key.