Yes, We Can!

Yes, We Can!
Written for and Delivered to
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland
December 15, 2019
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry


One of the great blessings of living in North East Ohio is the number of barns one sees. It may seem like a bit of an odd thing to say, but keep faith.

Every barn is the result of what’s called a Raising Bee. The term must be related to things like Quilting Bees, so at some point in our language a bee was a collective action. Something we do in concert with others. A labor made easier or even possible, by the help that others offer.

Every barn is the result of a Raising Bee, which means that a community got together to help someone raise a barn on their property. So that in your barn you could keep your livestock, food, equipment, what have you.

In return, of course, you also attended other Raising Bees in your community.

When we moved here I was surprised and delighted to discover that we would be in close proximity to not one, not two, but three pre-millennial religious groups. The Shakers that were here around Horseshoe Lake, now gone, the Mormons at Kirtland and of course the Amish. Each of these three groups has their own understanding of exactly how this is supposed to happen, but each of these religious groups believe that with the second coming of Christ, a new era, a 1,00 year golden era, will arrive. Each of them has developed a culture around their beliefs.

I have always had a respectful fascination with the Amish. Perhaps like many of you, I wonder what it’s like to live in so close a community, a community that interacts with its neighbors, but is really very separate. A community that has to compromise with the modern world in order to sustain itself.

This week as I pondered the power of collective action my mind turned toward the Amish and all the barns that we see around us, and so I did a little research into the process.  To my great delight, I found a video on Youtube. Scott Miller, with his new camera, filmed on May 13, 2014, an Amish Barn Bee here in Ohio. He took 10 hours of footage, and compressed it down to about 4 minutes, of a barn being raised by an Amish community. He later shared the video with some of the men who built the barn. He even took off a day from work to help them do the work.

He set up his camera for 20 second intervals, and the camera took 1600 images in the 10 hours it took the men to build the barn.

Though I rarely do this, I read the comments below the video, and found this from a woman who uses the name TheGeekiestWoman:

When I was a farmer’s daughter, around eight years of age, or close to sixty years ago…. our community of farmers did the same thing for a local farmer whose barn burned down with all its contents (hay/feed, animals). Two days later, dozens of farmers from 50 miles around, showed up right after morning chores were done with their tractors or trucks pulling their hay wagons loaded with not just wood and nails but also with pigs, sheep, chickens, and hay/feed for the animals. We contributed a cow and her calf. The womenfolk setup a cooking area, and also helped to build a new corral fence, that had also burned. By the end of that long, long day, there was a new barn full of feed and animals. Our farm did not have electricity, btw, nor indoor plumbing. Barn raising is nothing new, farmers, small farmers, not the ‘corporate kind of farmers’, always work collaboratively with their neighbors, praising the Lord all the time, because Jesus is palpably present at every barn raising, always.[1]

When Mark and I sat down to talk about this morning’s service we talked about the many ways that Collective Action can be employed. The obvious ones, to us, were things like unions, and political action. Both of which are extremely valuable to our lives, but also very large.

This barn raising and this comment by TheGeekiestWoman show us that the power of collective action is real, and that the project doesn’t have to be so large as to be unwinnable in one’s lifetime.

This message can be especially salient in a time when our nation is embroiled in such shocking and regular controversies, like those surrounding the Office of the President. Just this past Thursday, Donald Trump posted 123 tweets. It is hard to thoughtfully respond to 123 missives in one day, and the stakes are very high when the tweeter is the sitting President of the United States.

There is no way for an individual to respond to a community wide, city-wide, nation-wide or global crisis.  No one of us has enough power and resources to do that.

To make the world a better place takes all of us, working together.

Sometimes, though, that doesn’t take tens of thousands of people.

Last week, for example, about 30 people worked together to bring us a phenomenal worship service that was steeped in music. Mike Carney, the choir and Judy Guinn, guest harpist, brought us a service that was more than merely pretty music. Allan Georgia sang with the choir and offered a reflection during the Time for All Ages about his experience in a boys’ choir.

What we were gift last week was the result of the work of many people.  Not only Mike and the choir, but the work of the composer, and all of his teachers and their work.  The work of the publisher of the music, and all their employees.

Every artistic event is the happens because of countless hours of people working together, often completely unknown to each other, acting in good faith. One of the most fascinating examples of this came from 2011 when the YouTube Symphony was created.

101 musicians from 33 countries submitted auditions via YouTube in 2009, and after 2 years of work, gathered for 1 week at the Sydney Opera House to create a 2-hour concert.

Yesterday, I saw a documentary in draft form produced by the Rev. Dr. Leah Lewis called Black Buckeye: A Tale of Two Cities. Some of you may remember Dr. Lewis as a regular guest preacher at the Society. While there, I learned about the collaborative and sometimes divisive work it took to elect Carl Stokes to be the first Black Mayor of a Major American City. The documentary itself is an example of how collective action is required when one wants to educate a people.

The difficult part about being in a collective action is that it requires compromise-by all parties. The person who first had the idea, who had the vision, will have to compromise along the way so that the vision can go forward. Those of us who are helping this vision have to compromise because maybe only like 90% of the vision, but we know that the vision is important.

In the end, no project is perfect. There is always something that could’ve been done better. That’s a result of human engagement. None of us is perfect.

I worry that sometimes we let the perfect be the enemy of the good, particularly in the circles in which I travel.  Time after time I have seen in liberal politics, in liberal faith, in the BGLTQ+ world, I have seen an ideological purity test applied against leadership by people who themselves won’t come forward to be leaders.

An ideological purity test is poison. None of us is pure. None of us is without error, sin or flaw. To expect a person, be they a someone kind of far away like a political candidate, someone nearer to you, like a member of the Board of your own congregation, someone underpaid and working a hard job such as a teacher…

These purity tests are a tool to tear down, not to lift up. They are a self-congratulatory way by which we can separate ourselves from compromise, which is required for all collective action.

The liberal purity test causes paralysis in progress because it is applied without mercy, without grace offered to our fellow human beings.

Collective action is, like the Barn Bee, a group of people coming together to help. They know that the project is more important, and bigger than each individual. Whether he be the man swinging the hammer, or the woman making lunch, each person in the system understands the power of coming together.

Now we know that instead of making lunch, women are capable of swinging that hammer, and some men are very fine cooks. But if we spend our time in that discussion, at the needed moment of action, instead of grabbing the tools needed to complete the barn, then the barn won’t be built, the livestock won’t be sheltered, etc.

I want to be clear, I don’t mean that women and men should stay in their separate spheres in any way, shape or manner.

Sometimes on the way to making a better world, we have to consider what is best for the collective, have faith in the people we are working with, and do the work.