This morning we welcomed the Rev. Dr. John Selders to the pulpit. John is the minister of Amistad United Church in Hartford, and the leader of Moral Mondays CT, along with his wife Pamela Selders. John and Pamela traveled together on our most recent Tree of Life Journey, and John will be one of the leaders on our upcoming journey in January 2018. We were privileged to have John with us today!
Click below to hear his sermon, No written text is available.
On what do you depend? On whom do you depend? What is it within your life that you cannot live without, that you gives you reason to be? What is it that you depend upon for a sense of well being in the world? What do you depend upon in order to stay alive?
Those are questions with an old lineage, extending back to antiquity, and perhaps beyond that as well. But it was in the early 19th century that the question was given its fullest expression in the writing of one of my heroes, a man named Friedrich Schleiermacher. He’s relatively unknown in American churches, but he deserves to be enshrined in every progressive congregation throughout the land, for he is the architect of liberal Christian thought. He was a theologian and philosopher at the University of Berlin, but he was also a pastor of a large and thriving congregation in the city. He was one of the founders of that great university, and he carried on a friendship with some of the most vibrant poets and novelists in the Romantic period. He was a lover of music, a family man, and a dedicated friend to many. When he died in the 1830’s, a parade of some 20,000 people followed in his funeral procession. Schleiermacher was a giant of a man, and he deserves to be known by those of us who navigate the streams he charted. Specifically, he deserves to be known for a formulation embedded in his theology. Religion, he says, springs from the feeling of absolute dependence. He builds everything upon that foundation. Religion begins from the feeling of absolute dependence.
It’s a formulation that still resonates, even after all these years. We need theologies of dependence and absolute dependence – rather than theologies of autonomy or independence. Such a theology resonates with the deepest knowledge of what it is to be human. We come into the world as tiny infants, absolutely dependent upon others for our well being. If we’re not held, if we’re not touched, if we’re not spoken to, let alone fed or clothed, something within us withers and dies. We come into the world as dependent creatures. But it’s also true that we leave this world as dependent creatures, whether that happens in old age or sometime before that. We leave the world much as we enter it, requiring care and support, and a good deal of love. In between, we grow toward greater degrees of freedom and autonomy, something worthy of celebration. Even so, we forget our earlier dependence, and we bury the knowledge that such dependence will, one day, come again. Not only that, too often we ignore the ways we actually are dependent, even in the prime of our adult autonomy.
Schleiermacher would have us become aware of how dependent we are within the world, how each of us is a fragile, delicate, and beautiful node within a complex and systematic web of planetary interdependence. He would have each of us trace and map those webs of dependence, beginning with the most elemental things. We depend upon food. We depend upon water. We depend upon air. We depend upon shelter. But we depend upon far more than those basic elements. We depend upon love and the nurturing care of at least several important individuals throughout our lives. We depend upon those older than us to teach us things. We depend upon our bodies, to do the work we need to do, to remain healthy. But we depend upon more still. We depend upon institutions, governments, universities, businesses, to create a stable framework within which we can live. We depend upon an economy – but not just one economy, but many interconnected economies. We depend upon the knowledge and skills of other people, to grow our food and to build the things we use, and to fix those things when they break. Beyond that, we depend upon culture, to provide expressions of emotional depth that somehow resonate within us – culture is that which keeps us from killing ourselves, Cornel West tells us.
But then we can keep spinning the web of dependence farther and farther out, this complex and organic system of interdependencies that extends past physical and biological dependence and into the very cosmos. It’s here that Schleiermacher leaps, pushing farther still, asking if even that complex system of interdependencies extending into the cosmos is itself dependent. He wonders if even that complex web might be dependent upon a transcendent reality, which we call God, a reality that somehow and in some way holds that delicate web together, even as that transcendence bends back, becoming interlaced within that delicate web. To be confronted not only with one’s dependence, but absolute dependence, is to be humbled, for humans are but small nodes within a complex whole. But it is also to be empowered, for humans thus become integral to the functioning of that whole. It means that everyone and everything plays a part in the cosmic drama.
In the 21st century, I can think of no greater symbol of absolute dependence than that of a simple cup of water. Water is something that most of us in affluent communities in North America take for granted. But water is also that upon which each and every one of us is absolutely dependent. Indeed, water pollution, or water scarcity, is something that will likely affect all of us at some point in the not too distant future. For many, it’s already a dire threat, or an ongoing predicament affecting everything about their lives. And it’s poised to become one of the major drivers of geopolitical conflicts around the planet, as communities compete for water resources and water security. Some years ago, Kofi Annan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, stated that “fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.” 85% of the world’s population resides in the driest half of the planet, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 1 billion people across the planet do not have reliable access to clean drinking water, and between 6 and 8 million people die every year as a result of water born diseases. Water is that upon which every one of us depends, but it’s also that which exposes the massive inequalities that bedevil our planet.
Nowhere is the disparity of water scarcity and water abundance more clear than in Palestine. If you’ve traveled with us on any of our Tree of Life journeys, you’ll know that many villages in the West Bank receive no more than two hours of flowing water every week. If you want to know whether you’re looking at an Israeli settlement or a Palestinian village, you just look to see if there’s a dark cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. If there is, you can know for certain that it’s a Palestinian village, for every drop of water that falls must be collected and stored. A normal occurrence throughout Palestine is to shower, if you can, with a bucket at your feet, to collect runoff water so that it can be used for other ordinary tasks. Meanwhile, it’s possible to gaze across the walls of Israeli settlements that have full swimming pools, and to see sprinklers keeping plants irrigated. The Negev desert has been made to bloom with agricultural crops, all of which consume immense amounts of water. It’s a microscopic version of a global pattern, by no means limited to Israel and Palestine, where wealthy countries control and consume water supplies with profligacy, while poor or dependent countries suffer the consequences of that profligacy.
The prophet Amos writes that justice will one day flow down like water. But in our time, justice is flowing water. The planetary dependence that we all participate in can be demonstrated by no better symbol than a cup of water. That cup demonstrates how each of us depends upon clean water to survive. It reminds us of the human solidarity we share with others for whom water is scarce. It reminds us of our planetary obligation, of our global interdependence with people and cultures unlike our own. The cup of water that we share in communion today reminds us of the fragile and interconnected web that we participate in. And the cup warns of the consequences of failing to appreciate our interdependence.
When Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, wine became a reminder to look for the risen Jesus in the common elements, the common dependencies of life. Water is such an element today, a reminder of all we share in common on this World Communion Sunday, and of all we stand to lose.
But the wider question, rooted in the engagement of a 19th century theologian, remains: on what do you depend? On whom are you dependent? In what ways are you absolutely dependent? Learning to answer that question well is at the heart of what it means to be human in the world. On what, and on whom, do you depend? May the water we share today guide you in your own reflections on those questions
I conclude with words from Green Grass, words from the Standing Rock Camp, where water became precious: Mini Waconi. Water is Life. Amen.
What Plato is to philosophy, what the Sistine chapel is to painting, what Shakespeare is to drama, what Tolstoy is to the novel, what the Beatles and Dylan are to rock and roll, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is to opera. It belongs to the immortals. It belongs in the pantheon of the best that has been written or composed or thought in human life. Goethe wrote to his friend Schiller that it was a singular achievement, never to be repeated in the history of opera. The composer Charles Gounod spoke of Don Giovanni as “that unequalled and immortal masterpiece,” and he let it be known that the opera had, for him, thrown open the gates of heaven. For Pierre Jouve, the French poet and novelist, Mozart’s opera “ascended to the highest plane of revealed truth, the threshold of the world beyond.”
Theological writers have joined that chorus of praise over the years. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians in the 20th century, listened to Mozart every day before beginning to write volumes of theology. Of Mozart, Barth wrote: “(He) created music for which ‘beautiful’ is an inadequate expression; music which is not entertainment, nor pleasure, nor edification, but flesh and blood.” Don Giovanni stood at the summit of Mozart’s creative output. But it was Soren Kierkegaard, nearly a hundred years before Barth, who wrote the most impassioned and rapturous praise for Mozart in general, and for Don Giovanni in particular. “Immortal Mozart,” he writes. “You to whom I owe everything—to whom I owe that I lost my mind, that my soul was astounded, that I was terrified at the core of my being—you to whom I owe that I did not go through life without encountering something that could shake me.” Kierkegaard went on to devote more than a hundred pages of writing to Don Giovanni in his philosophical and theological masterpiece, Either/Or. Those pages rank as one of the most powerful pieces of music criticism ever written. They stand as one of the most important theological treatises of modernity.
It’s our great good fortune that Salt Marsh Opera is starting a run of performances of Don Giovanni in the next several weeks. And it’s our great good fortune to welcome Adelmo Guidarelli to our service this morning, and to be able to hear a small fragment of the opera in our worship. You could do well to meditate on Don Giovanni in this particular moment of American, and indeed, world history. You could do well to meditate on all that Kierkegaard writes about the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure in his reflections on the opera. But more than that, you could do well to think about such things on a Sunday given over to questions of stewardship, which is to say, to questions about what it is we actually value and love as human beings. My wager this morning is that Don Giovanni is the perfect entryway into questions of eros and desire, love and meaning, God and life.
But first, a brief word about the opera itself. It is, of course, a retelling of the legend of Don Juan, drawn from source material dating from the early 17th century. The Don is a wealthy aristocrat, wholly devoted to the pursuit of erotic pleasure. His life is centered around seduction and erotic conquest. Early in the opera, in the piece we heard earlier, Giovanni’s servant Leporello enumerates Giovanni’s conquests. “This is the catalogue,” Leporello sings: “640 women and girls in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain 1003.” Yikes. The plot itself centers around a murder that takes place as Giovanni is attempting to seduce a young woman. When her father appears, Giovanni kills him with a sword, and then escapes into the night, in search of further adventures in seduction. Shortly after that, he seeks to disrupt the wedding of a young couple in the countryside, attempting to lure the soon to be bride into his embrace. But even as Giovanni pursues his conquests, those he has hurt unite to stop him from creating further damage. It is, finally, the ghost of the murdered man who intervenes, appearing at a banquet feast to drag an unrepentant Giovanni into the fires of hell.
In truth, however, it’s not the plot or the libretto that has proven fascinating over the years. It’s the music, combined with the spectacle of a man wholly immersed in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure that has captivated audiences, critics, and philosophers. And here, Kierkegaard becomes especially insightful. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t simply a rake or a libertine who deserves to be punished, though he is most certainly both of those things. Giovanni is, rather, a failed existential hero, on a doomed quest in pursuit of the absolute. He becomes a symbol of the person wishing to be consumed by immediacy, wishing to be immersed in the eternal present, wishing to become lost in a moment of ecstatic rapture. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t merely a figure of vanity or sexual addiction. He becomes a figure for the person wishing to become totally and fully immersed in an experience of beauty. It could be the beauty of another body, or of a piece of music, it could be the beauty of a painting, or a piece of architecture – it could be immersion within anything that heightens human awareness and desire. What makes Mozart so thrilling to Kierkegaard is that he created a fully immersive piece of music that demonstrates that truth, creating an aesthetic experience for the listener and viewer that mirrors the aesthetic immersion of Giovanni. To submit to the opera is to yield to that experience of sublime beauty.
For most people today, it’s not opera that produces such an experience, though it might be if more people bought tickets to Salt Marsh. To judge by the style section of The New York Times, these days ecstatic experience is often sought in travel, or a fussy meal, or an article of clothing or jewelry. If you’ve ever scrolled through someone’s Instagram account, you’ve likely encountered a version of Giovanni’s quest in the pictures of meals or clothing or exotic destinations or drinks or beautiful bodies or urban splendor, all of it testifying to that desire Giovanni represents, which isn’t finally for sex, but for immediacy, for ecstasy, for an eternal present. To read the style section of the Times, to scroll through Instagram, suggests a Giovannian quest for immersion in an aesthetic experience is alive and well for many of us today.
That quest for beauty and fulfillment is a noble one, up to a point. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni becomes a demonic figure only because his quest turns in upon itself. What begins as something inherently good becomes an experience of consumption and waste, where beautiful experiences are simply tallied up, and then discarded. Instead of opening to a greater, or a wider sense of communion, Giovanni’s quest collapses into the fleeting pursuit of the interesting, the titillating, the thrilling. Giovanni’s greatest fear isn’t death, but boredom. The threat of punishment or retribution is far less compelling than the threat of the dull or uninteresting. Giovanni thus becomes an inverted saint, a distorted apostle, a disfigured prophet who fails so completely only because his quest was itself so nearly divine.
What I find compelling about Don Giovanni, and about Kierkegaard’s analysis of him, is how contemporary Giovanni feels, how close he remains, even 230 years later. He is, in a way, the ultimate representation of the individual in the throes of consumer capitalism. Giovanni ultimately becomes a man without weight, without substance, without depth. His only special quality is a greater or lesser discrimination of what he wishes to enjoy. His life’s theme is a simple one: carpe diem, seize the day, enjoy oneself. But he is unreflective, uncomplicated, unattached to anything or anyone beyond himself. He knows nothing of struggle. He confronts nothing of substance within himself or the world around him. He knows nothing of the weight of decision, of having to stake one’s life on a truth or a reality greater than himself or his own vanity or his quest for personal fulfillment. We can all probably supply the names of those who conform best to that description. I’ll leave it to you to supply your own. But what makes Giovanni so captivating for me is less the way he resembles other people, but rather how he resembles a dimension of every human being, latent within some, manifest within others. What makes him captivating is how we can recognize portions of ourselves within his tragic quest. I know I do. There is a little of Don Giovanni living in my soul, just as there is, perhaps, a little of Don Giovanni living in you. But I think there’s something more within us as well.
And here I think religion becomes helpful. We do long for beauty. We do wish to experience ecstasy. We do yearn for immersive and total experiences in which time stops, if just for a moment. We are shaped by a desire for rapture and transport. But absent some sort of attachment or commitment to something outside of ourselves, to something greater than ourselves, we become little Giovannis, tossed about by every wind, chasing this or that teasing fancy. In so doing, we become insubstantial. That’s why Kierkegaard describes an ever steeper ascent into beauty, where a desire for the aesthetic eventually gives way to a desire for the ethical, and where a desire for the ethical eventually gives way to a desire for the transcendent, which we dare to name God. To become fully human, to become fully alive, on this account, requires each of us to say yes to something bigger than we are, to commit to something larger than the pursuit of this or that pleasure. To become fully alive, we’re asked to root ourselves in the concrete particularities of this or that relationship, this or that vocation, this or that struggle. To become fully human and fully alive is to have to work at something, to invest yourself in something, to attach your energies to something worthy of your attachment. For Kierkegaard, and for many others far wiser than me, to become fully human and alive is to exist on a ladder of ascent, where we’re little by little invited out of ourselves, out of our individualistic pursuits and pleasures, and into a greater and wider experience of the world. To become fully human and alive is to encounter ourselves not simply as pleasure centers in search of aesthetic adventures, but to encounter ourselves as dependent – dependent upon the kindness of strangers, dependent upon the relationships that sustain us, dependent upon meaningful work and activities to keep us grounded, dependent upon the institutions and traditions that form us, dependent upon art and culture to articulate our depths, dependent upon the natural world for air and shelter and water, dependent upon faith, upon God, to nourish our spirits. To become fully human and alive is to experience oneself in a state not of independence, but of interdependence. At its best, the experience of beauty leads us to form greater and deeper bonds of attachment and affection that make us interdependent.
I’ve entitled this sermon after a series of Psalms that begins with Psalm 120 and continues up to Psalm 134. They’re called the Songs of Ascent. They’re poems that were recited or sung as pilgrims traveled up to Jerusalem during holy days – if you’ve ever traveled to Jerusalem with us on one of our Tree of Life trips, you know that on the way to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the road takes a sharp incline, for Jerusalem is built upon high ground. “I lift up mine eyes to the hills,” Psalm 121 begins, and we can imagine ancient travelers reciting those words as they made their way through the hills that lead toward Jerusalem. I think we need songs of ascent, of the sort the Psalmists celebrated, but also of the sort that Kierkegaard outlined in his philosophy. In this era that seems to celebrate the Don Giovannis of the world, where humans are simply bundles of appetites, where individuality is prized above all else, where isolation and loneliness seem to be of pandemic proportion, where cynicism about public service or about institutions of any kind is all too easy to succumb to – in such an era, I’m interested in visions that allow us to ascend toward something larger than our appetites. We need it in our political leaders. We need it among civic organizations at all levels. We need it in our universities, in our high schools and middle schools and elementary schools. We need it in businesses and corporations, and God only knows that we need it in our religious institutions. I’m amazed sometimes at the way religion has been privatized, so that Christianity becomes a matter of me and Jesus and nothing else. That’s one more way of turning us all into little Don Giovannis, absorbed in a private experience of bliss. That’s not the Christianity I believe in, or belong to. I believe in a gospel that leads us in a song of ascent, moving us toward ever greater and wider visions of God and of the world than ourselves alone.
That’s why I continue to believe in this thing called church. And it’s why I continue to believe not only in some abstract vision of a thing called church, but in the particularity of this community, of our community here in Old Lyme. It’s why I believe the work we do around here matters in a very real way. The work we do with refugees and immigrants, the relationships we build with our Muslim neighbors, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The food we serve in the food pantry and at the New London soup kitchen, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The journeys we make to Palestine or to Haiti or to Green Grass matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The prayers that we pray and the songs that we sing matter, because they remind us of that beautiful truth, that we are dependent upon realities that far exceed our comprehension. And the money we give, the money we give, matters. That too is an expression of beauty, a demonstration that we are not our own, that we exist in ever widening spheres of connection and grace, of love and support. This church, this community, is a reminder in a world of Giovannis that there exist dimensions of beauty and of life that call us to ascend beyond ourselves, into a wider world of connection and interdependence. I don’t know that we do it perfectly. I don’t know that we always even do it well. But I believe that’s a vision worth dedicating yourself to. I believe this is a place worth being a part of, worth giving yourself to.
When you receive your pledge card in the mail, I invite you to sit with it for a little bit. I invite you to reflect upon what it is that calls you out of yourself, what it is that leads you in a song of ascent, what it is that helps you to become more connected and interdependent, more gracious and whole, more fully alive and fully human within the world. And I invite you to consider giving some of your time or your money to whatever that something is. I hope you have such places in your life. And I hope our church is among them. If it is, consider giving generously. If it’s not, then I invite you to come and find me, and share how we can do better. Because this is a song of ascent that I wish to keep learning, a vision that I wish to keep perfecting, lest we all become little Giovannis in the world. We don’t need any more of those right now. And so I think it’s worth it to make this ascent together.
Oh, and one last thing: when Don Giovanni takes the stage in another couple of weeks, go see it. Absorb yourself in the performance of one of the wonders of human expression and creativity. Enjoy it in all its splendor. May it help to shape your own song of ascent through the world. Amen.
 Quotes in the following two paragraphs taken from Naugle, David, “Søren Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni : An Appraisal and Theological Response,” http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/kierkegaard_dongiovanni.pdf
Texts: “Let the Trees Be Consulted,” and “We Have Forgotten Who We Are”
Stand by Me
I’ll conclude our series of reflections with what, to me, seems an improbable but true occurrence. One of the traditions that’s emerged in our Green Grass visits these past several years is to host a karaoke night. We set up a tent just beside the little church, and then someone arrives with sound equipment and a database of several thousand songs. As dinner is served, people take turns at the microphone. Some take the task of singing very seriously. Some treat it lightheartedly. Some have good voices. Some have less than good voices. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s become an annual, and improbable, ritual of connection, where folks from a Connecticut village and those from a Native American Reservation sing Johnny Cash and Elvis and Guns n Roses songs together. People drift in and out of the tent over the course of the evening, kids are run around outdoors, and some folks listen from their cars, honking their horns at the end of each song as a means of applause. The crazy thing about it is that it works. Karaoke helps a group of disparate people with widely varying stories to find their commonalities, and to find joy with one another. I give props to Stephanie Kenny for hatching such an idea.
But this year a very poignant moment took place during the karaoke night. One of the residents of Green Grass, a woman who’s been with the partnership for many years, dedicated a song to all of us here in Old Lyme. It was Ben E. King’s classic song “Stand by Me,” from 1961. “When the night has come, and the land is dark,” the song begins, “and the moon is the only light we’ll see. I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t, be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” In its original form, it had been a gospel song, a plea to God to stand by some lonely soul. King’s version took it out of the church, and turned it into a love song between individuals. But on the Dakota Plains, it took on another meaning entirely. It became a plea. It became a declaration of fidelity. It became an acknowledgment of pain. And it became a touching testimony to what our partnership has become over the years. I stood in the doorway of the Green Grass church, just listening, and marveling at the relationship that so many of you have cultivated over the years. Stand by me was the plea, for the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see. Stand by me.
It’s a theological virtue embedded in that song. To stand by someone is to exhibit what some of the biblical writers call steadfastness. It has to do with a kind of steadiness and unwavering commitment. It has to do with a sort of longsuffering. It has to do with accompaniment, being willing to live and operate amidst challenges. It has to do with having the interests of the other at heart. To stand with someone, in the sense implied by Ben E. King’s song, is to exist in lonely and dark spaces with another, and to find mutual reassurance and comfort that the other is present, is there. That’s what it means, I think, to be steadfast. In places throughout the Bible, the writers describe the presence of God with each one of us as precisely that, as steadfast. Those same writers often celebrate those who possess a steadfast heart. To be steadfast, I believe, is to be one who stands with another. “When the night has come, and the land is dark…stand by me.”
We’re called to do that, to continue to do that, with our friends from Green Grass. But we need them to stand with us every bit as much as they need us to stand with them. It might be that we need them more. We tend to see the world through the lens of material goods and either abundance or privation of those goods. But I think we tend to forget how spiritually and culturally thin our lives are. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power of ceremonies and of ritual. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power and art of storytelling, of living by stories. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to be people of prayer and sacrifice. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to honor land and trees and ancestors as living presences within our lives. We don’t understand what it is to encounter the world from the underside of history, to encounter the world as the vanquished, the forgotten, and the overlooked – such realities open an entirely different perception of the world. When we visit Green Grass, or any of our partnerships, we must never forget that as often as not we are the impoverished ones, poor in spirit, poor in soul, poor in understanding. It is a great gift that our friends at Green Grass have stood with us, even as we’ve stood with them. We’ll continue to do that, I hope for a long time to come.
Let me finish with a more general, and perhaps also a more particular question, for each of you. Where are you being asked to stand right about now? Who in your life needs you to stand by them in the dark of night, when the moon is the only light you see? Where are you being asked to exhibit steadfastness, in the biblical sense of that word? There are, at times, relationships or settings that require us to part ways for the sake of health and well being. I recognize that and offer no judgment about it. But I’m interested in the opposite of that these days. Where are you being asked to double down right now? With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand? Maybe you’re a parent, wishing you could escape the confines of your domestic life. Maybe you’re a spouse, tasked with caring for an ailing partner. Maybe you’re in a job that’s burdening you, but at which you’re needed. Maybe it’s to a project or to research that you’re asked to stand. Maybe it’s to this church, to this community, and to the precious work that’s been entrusted to us, that you’re being asked to stand. I don’t know, and I won’t answer for you. But to stand by someone, or something, the way our Green Grass friends have stood by us, the way we’ve stood with them, is to slowly become fully formed as human beings, to slowly become formed as people of faith, shaped and molded by this reality we dare to name God. With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand?
“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon, is the only, light we’ll see. We won’t cry, we won’t cry, no we won’t, shed a tear, just as long, as we stand, stand by one another.”
The biggest reason I enjoy going to South Dakota is that I get to see old and new friends. It was good to see my friends Angel, Jessie, and Aspen again. We had fun beading together, playing kickball, and hula hooping. I was really excited about Morning Start camp with Kylie and Morgan. I liked making our tee shirts. Travis taught us how to draw buffalo and eagles. I also liked having my cousin Anna with me. It was fun to do Karaoke night with everyone. One special thing I remember this summer happened on buying day. Aspen and I took care of a little boy named Liam during the busy day, and Aspen’s aunt gave me a gift of some earrings that she made for buying day to say thank you.
Sabina Jungkeit’s Green Grass Reflections
If you’ve ever been to a summer camp twice in a row, you can easily tell that it will be different the second time around. It will always change. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. And that’s okay. Green grass is an amazing place to visit. This year was different in a good way. My cousin Anna was with us. It was amazing to see my friends there after a year. It’s kind of hard to stay in touch when you’re so far away from them so seeing them was one of the best parts of my summer. Also I was really interested in the ways the Lakota People have been protectors of the water, especially at the No DAPL protests. I hope they find ways to resist the black snake (the oil pipeline). Even if some things changed, this trip was as amazing as ever.
I’m so glad that I got to return to South Dakota again and I hope that I’ll get to go last year.
Stephanie Kenny’s Green Grass Reflections
Last Saturday, I had an interesting experience that brought me way outside my comfort zone, skydiving. Now, I won’t get into the details, but falling 125 miles per hour from 14,000 feet has a way of “waking you up”. I am happy to be back on the ground with my feet firmly planted but it did get me thinking about today and what I would share with all of you.
There are so many amazing moments when we travel to Green Grass, I always find it hard to pick just one story to reflect on. But, seeing as it’s an anniversary of sorts, let’s jump outside of our comfort zones for just a moment shall we?
So there is a plane outside… don’t worry, I will not ask you to skydive, but simply to join me in a little call and response. When I say Mni Wiconi you all say as loud as you possibly can Water is Life! Ready? Let do it!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Do you feel that, that energy stirring in the room right now? This was the energy we felt out at Green Grass. The call of the water protectors was thick in the air and the stories shared from Standing Rock kept the fire burning.
One year ago, this very weekend, Mary Tomassetti, Mattie Renn and myself packed a van filled to the brim with supplies donated by all of you, friends and members of this congregation. We drove for 30 hours to deliver those supplies to a protest camp that had formed in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Our friends from Green Grass took part in this monumental gathering against an oil company, the Dakota Access Pipeline or DAPL, that was set to burry a pipeline underneath the Missouri River.
After months of enduring unprovoked arrests, tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and direct hits from rubber bullets, the Trump administration, just days after inauguration, gave the go ahead to build that pipeline.
On February 22nd at 2pm water protectors were made to leave camp, the only home they had come to know for nearly a year. A camp that had become a sustainable community, with no money exchanged; a camp that had become a place of healing for many of our friends; a camp that provided purpose to those that were lost.
And without a place to go, many were left homeless or stranded. Deserted and beaten by the very government that is supposed to be protecting them.
However, it was not the end you see, but merely the beginning. Their legacy and their stories continue on. Our friends are known as water protectors and water protectors are known as heroes.
Travis Harden, who many of you know, spent months out at Standing Rock. One day he found a red cape and mask amongst the piles of donated clothing. He became the true physical representation of a hero. His superpower, spreading joy and inspiration through his music and stories through-out the camp. You can imagine that Super NoDAPL Man quickly became an internet sensation!
This year, as 23 of us descended upon Green Grass, it became clear, the water protectors, the energy and the spirit were everywhere. Men, women and children each with a story to tell about their time spent at the camp and what it meant to them.
At each social gathering, at every shared meal, the water protectors were there. At the Morning Star day camp, while singing Karaoke, even at our sunset communion service, the water protectors were there.
They were also present at this year’s Tribal Crafts buying day, many now living on the powwow grounds in Eagle Butte. They brought with them flags and knives used at the camp, dream catchers, beadwork, quilts and more.
For those of you who don’t know, Tribal Crafts in a non-profit incorporated in 1987 through hard work and dedication of a few of our very own church members.
Every Year, Tribal Crafts schedules what we call buying day where artists come from all over the reservation to sell their goods. On this day we sit and visit with all of our Lakota friends, old and new.
Anyone that has had the opportunity to take part in the Green Grass partnership knows first-hand the value in meeting with these artists. Their stories and traditions come alive in their artwork and they are more than happy to tell you what’s new in their lives and what they are working on next.
We had 54 people walk through our doors that day, and nearly all of them water protectors. Not only did we hear stories of their artwork, but of the camp, keeping that spirit alive and the sacred fire burning.
You’d hear the call, Mni Wiconi, and fists would raise in the air as if to say, this story is only beginning.
Our friends out at Green Grass are working hard to build a sustainable community to reflect what they discovered at the protest camp. Oscar High Elk and his friend Marla have been pouring sweat and energy into this venture, digging a well, building a storm shelter and dreaming of what it will be.
They have plans for a school, a place for traditional medicine, a learning place for sustainable living, a place where drugs and alcohol are not welcome, a place of healing for many that are
sick with abuse or depression. A place where the community can go to find purpose and that moment that “wakes them up”.
Oscar made this dream catcher from fresh willow branches from the Morreau River located behind the Green Grass church. The Morreau is a tributary of the great Missouri which our water protectors were working to save.
The dream catcher is said to catch the good dreams and allow them to rest in its web. For me, something as beautiful and as simple as peeled willow woven into a web, represents what this movement is all about.
Water, life, love and peace. The dream that we all wish for will find its way onto the web of life and into our world.
I’m guessing that Oscar has no idea how much this dream catcher moved me, or that I would be mentioning his name today. In fact, I wasn’t sure until I found myself falling from the sky.
Green Grass is but a small community on the reservation but… I believe in many ways, they are the keepers of the dreams. The renewal and love you feel when you return from a trip like this is hard to explain and often it takes me a while to come back to the everyday norm of work and activity. In fact, sometimes it takes something like jumping out a plane to wake me up from the fog.
I look to the water protectors as a sign of hope and courage and who I should model my life after.
The vision for what this world could be nearly came into fruition at Standing Rock. I for one am ready to continue that dream by living more simply, by living with love and light and joy; by acknowledging the wrong that has been done, not only to our Native American friends, but to mother earth and the plants and animals that live upon her.
So I stand here today and raise my fist up high. I will continue to share the stories to keep that sacred fire burning.
Nancy A. Mol Green Grass Reflections –Messages and Signs
This has been a journey of awakening for me on many levels. So many messages and signs were seen and felt by me on this trip. I drove in a minivan with Mary Tomasetti along with her mother, Mimi. Any trip with Mary is an adventure and this was a double adventure. I say that only with affection. We drove in caravan with Steve and his family. Having never been past Washington D.C, riding to Duluth Minnesota and then on towards Green Grass in South Dakota, was a unique experience. Both in going and returning, I’ve never stopped at so many Motel 6s and Comfort Inns. I’ve heard someone say that “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” This is true. Despite being out of my usual element, I went to a number of James Beard noteworthy, eating spots with the Junkeit and Tomasetti clans. I so enjoyed the comradery while traveling, learned some real gems from Mary and became far more confident with my map and atlas skills. The changes in landscape were amazing. Before leaving on this trip, Don Gerber told me about the expansive skies. He was right. They were breathtaking. The photo below was taken with my phone one night in SD, while riding in Steve’s van.
When we left Rapid City, traveling towards Green Grass, we stopped at a visitor’s site of the Badlands. I could only stand motionless, as Travis played his beautifully, painted drum and sang to his ancestors. How small I felt at this majestic scene and could not help but sense past souls who were there. Earlier, I recall having a similar feeling as I walked along the waterfall and creek at Pipestone, Minnesota. Once we arrived at our lodgings, just outside the reservation, Ginny Speirs and I hunkered down in a hunting cabin. The night before we were to arrive at Green Grass, I felt apprehensive. Will I be of any help to anyone at Green Grass? What can I possible do there, never having been there before? Will I know the right things to do or say? It was a long night but the next morning I had an “ah ha” moment, realizing that I just needed to be me. When I arrived at the church, I was amazed at seeing all the swallows flying around. I looked up what swallow symbolizes and read that it means love of family and friends. This was where I needed to be. The people I met – those living on the reservation, the families, the minister who was just starting to work at Green Grass- seemed all so peaceful and open. I have been working at our Food Pantry for nearly 15 years and I have not sensed those feelings from many of our recipients. Attending to some ceremonies on the reservation opened my eyes to true reverence and respect for another culture.
On the day before we departed from Green Grass, I experienced my first buying and selling day. So many artists and crafts people brought their creations to a large room at a local motel. Coinciding with buffet style lunch and dinner, their wares were presented. How fortunate I was to be able to peruse the room admiring and purchasing treasures.
The morning of departure from the lodge and cabins was a little chaotic. While travelers were packing and moving their luggage and possessions into vehicles, along with the multitude of treasures for our Tribal Craft room, I sensed some tensions rising in the group. I stepped back from the phenomena occurring in front of me and tried to be still. I heard my phone ding and looking down, I saw that I had received an email. I clicked on the mailbox and read that it was a Daily Bible Verse James 1:17. I have never subscribed to Daily Bible Verses and was overcome knowing that this was a message from my husband Jim. I opened the email and read the verse. These are the words I read. “Every good gift and perfect gift is from the above and cometh down from the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” At that moment, I was filled with an incredible sense of abundance and the feeling that I will never be alone.
Right now, I am reading a book titled The Grace in Living. To me, Grace can be a feeling or an action that evokes abundance as well as gratitude and acting through one’s heart, with kindness. I have felt Grace at the Badlands, looking up at the skies, being with friends at Green Grass, with fellow travelers and here with you.
Kylie Hall Green Grass Reflections
When asked, as a traveler inevitably is after every trip, how my time in Green Grass was, I have always found it difficult to formulate a real answer. Adjectives such as “fun,” “interesting,” or “eye-opening” can always be used in a pinch, but they never seem to encompass the whole experience of the journey. The truth is that the trip has far too many layers, too many meanings and purposes, to be grasped in one or two words. Trying to find even a couple of sentences that would do so is futile and, at times, mildly frustrating.
I first went to Green Grass just after turning twelve, and I have returned every year since. This leads to another difficult question I have often been asked; “Why do you keep going back?” Its answer is one I have never been able to securely put words to. In truth, it’s more of a feeling. A sense of belonging as soon as you step onto the lawn in front of the tiny church placed snuggly between the rolling hills of the South Dakota plains. The feeling of your heart beating faster as you observe a sunset more beautiful than any you’ve ever seen before, every single evening. The perceptible release of the weight of normal, tedious responsibility to make room for the bustle and also the tranquility of a day on the reservation. The suspension of time; to me, it is not so much a deceleration, as I have heard it be described before, but rather a notion in the back of your mind that time is no longer something that really exists, and definitely not something that matters. The immersion into a fascinating culture, so very different from your own. The sense that you are a part of a family including every person you see, although you may not know many of their names. That in particular feels so nice compared to the world in which we live, where the need to put things in organized containers has separated the people themselves. All of these sensations and more make up the one feeling that brings me back to Green Grass every year.
I know that at first glance, the excursion may seem to be composed of mostly idle chit-chatter, while most expect to see a hammer-and-nails mission trip. I myself have described the Green Grass trip to others as our church “visiting friends” on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, because those words feel appropriate on some levels. However, that does not mean our trip is not worth the time, energy, and money that goes into it. Those that have gone on this mission trip have done something that is in some ways less valuable, but in other ways more, than seeing to physical needs. We are showing people in Green Grass that there is someone out there who is still thinking and caring about them. The people of Green Grass and our church are learning from each other, listening to each other’s stories, and opening up channels of communication that may never have been opened before.
Of course, I am by no means saying that the types of mission trips which build houses or feed families or distribute education supplies are not important and necessary. On the contrary, these are vital to making the world a better place, and our trip to Green Grass certainly does some of this too. We prepare lunch and dinner for anyone who drops by the church every full day we spend in Green Grass. We fix up the church, because there is always at least one problem there; an issue with the plumbing, a lack of propane, or perhaps a broken refrigerator. We also organize a day every year during which the Tribal Crafts organization buys as many Native-made crafts as they can from as many people as possible to bring back to Connecticut, where we sell them in order to bring back money the next year to buy more crafts. This helps to give people a small source of money while also expressing to them how valuable their talents are. Tribal Crafts is something I have always been drawn to, partly because each of the hand-crafted pieces has a story and a meaning, but I suspect also because participating in this appeases the part of me that wants to be doing physical things right away and seeing immediate results. Knowing that the money we spend will go to paying water bills, feeding children, and quite simply surviving in this expensive world does make me feel a sort of sense of justification.
However, caring for physical needs should not be the only part to a mission trip. In the modern world, we can talk to the people in Green Grass from across the country in Connecticut, and yet, we are never truly communicating with a person unless we are sitting beside him or her and listening to his or her voice as it really is while they share with us his or her stories. We need to learn from the people of Green Grass just as much as they need our help. They teach us how to sit down and just breathe, how to make connections with people unlike ourselves, and how to absorb every little bit of beauty around us.
This past year, I helped run a day camp for the children of both sides of the relationship in order to help foster new friendships to connect our groups. Through this experience, I have learned that there is a sort of wisdom in young children, evident in their tendency not to flutter around the edges of their thoughts or desires when communicating them to others, but rather to get straight to the point. They are honest—both to others and to themselves. This helped all of the children that attended the camp to make friends in such a short time without thinking about the fact that they speak, look, and live differently, because they see straight to the heart without their vision being blurred with prejudice. Because the children got so close to each other, they were able to teach each other about their cultures, sometimes without even realizing that they were doing so. I believe that this part of the trip is one of the most important parts, as the friendships they make now will one day become the friendships that help change the world. I was honored to provide a setting for the children to begin those relationships.
I believe that my experiences in Green Grass have turned me into someone much more equipped to go out into the world and make it a better place. I believe that I am now someone who appreciates that there are real tragedies in the world, ones that I am lucky enough to never have to personally experience. Tragedies that I now know I can help fix. But I hope I have also become someone who knows of the power of little things- the ability of one conversation to make a whole day brighter, or the importance of one bond between two seven-year-olds. These are lessons everyone deserves to learn, and this, along with so many other things, is the value of the Green Grass trip.
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