Hope While Waiting

(Sermon at Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River, Dec. 3, 2017)

Sometimes we find ourselves ‘between things’ and we wait.

Recently my plan was to pick up our take-out food on my way home from the gym. I pictured a smooth swing by the restaurant. My husband texted food would be ready at 7:05. Not wanting to wait, I arrived at the pick-up counter at 7:10. Sweaty, thirsty and anticipating a laid-back evening, I paid and was told our order would be ready in a few minutes. The place was busy. I waited. I reminded them I was there. I waited. I contemplated going to the car to get my water bottle – but it seemed silly – another minute or two (I thought). I waited. After 30 minutes, I left with our food in hand, as well as some unplanned crankiness, mumbling, “What a waste of my time.”

I’m usually a creative ‘waiter.’ I read, or do a puzzle, or nap. I usually find some way to be ok ‘between things’ but not that night. There is that kind of waiting.

We can also wait to pay bills or wait to get our holiday shopping done. This type of ‘waiting’ often finds us pressed against life’s deadlines. ‘Waiting’ before acting – deferring or delaying. Maybe there are a few fellow procrastinators out there? We ‘wait’ in hopes something will shift and make the task easier. A new idea for that gift will present itself, or the drip in the faucet will self-correct. Maybe we’ll win the lottery and the bills will be covered.

Of late my heart has been drawn to yet another form of waiting. In the recent revelations of sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases we have a pattern. Many of the situations happened some time ago. Whether news tied to the firing of Matt Lauer, or Alabama candidate Roy Moore, or Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein’s (and there are more), time and again we hear, “Why did she wait so long to come forward?”

“Why did she wait?” It’s a good question. It’s a question which can even be heard as almost an accusation. Why did ‘she’ hold back? Why didn’t ‘she’ just stand-up and call the creep out?

Maybe in this season of waiting, these dark days before the winter solstice, might offer some insight. From Pagan solstice rituals to Advent and many other traditions, rituals approaching the shortest day have been formed around purposeful waiting. In her opening words today Annie shared these were times of preparation.

What has the role of waiting served for these many women – what did they need to prepare for?

There is no simple answer. The realities of gender and power structures are complex. As we open the conversation, it’s easy to go down many trails. Interesting, maybe even important threads, but often trails which are deflections and diversions – paths which take us away from the core issue of sexual harassment and abuse.

For the next hour, my hope – my ask –is that together we can put to the side several layers of a complex conversation and together ask one question, “Why did these women wait?”

A first layer to put aside – Not all sexual harassment and sexual abuse are the same. Some instances are more violent and blatant than others. We don’t and won’t know the full circumstances of every situation. For now, let’s lay aside debates and doubts of what qualifies as wrong or over the line. Put aside the temptation to say, ‘But in that specific case, I don’t think anything was that wrong.’

Over the last 6 weeks millions and millions of women have posted on Facebook that they have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or assault. The women sharing vary from young to old. This groundswell is rare. Trust there is a major concern.

A second layer to put aside – The ‘how’ of corrective actions being taken by government agencies and corporations. We’re seeing action in some cases at lightning speed. For now, let’s not focus on whether these the right processes, the best processes.

Institutions are scared. There is clarity in these actions. Trust something profound is going on.

Women have held their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse close for years or decades. After waiting, some are sharing. It’s beyond the high-profile cases making the news. Many everyday women are sharing.

“Why now?” It could be that women who never thought they’d be heard or believed have some hope now they may be heard, and maybe, just maybe, believed.

Maybe now women are seeing a glimmer of hope. In the darkest of times it’s hard to find even a flicker. The lights of hope are a bit brighter. These women see possibility in ending the waiting and purpose in sharing their stories.

Is it power in numbers? Likely. Has social media encouraged a breakthrough? In part.

This October the ‘#MeToo’ movement generated millions of women coming forward. Actor Alyssa Milano encouraged posting “#MeToo” stories in October 2017. The movement is not new. Ten years ago, Tarana Burke, who is black, created a nonprofit organization to help victims of sexual harassment and assault, especially young victims and she coined the Me Too term. (Source: ‘The Woman Who Created #MeToo Long Before Hashtags, New York Times, October 21, 2017.)

Something critical is being heard. Hopefully something critical is being believed.

I hope so.

I’ve wondered myself over these last weeks, is this groundswell – this ‘MeToo’ campaign – helpful to women? Will it actually help decrease instances of abuse and harassment? Could it somehow make things worse?

I’ve long wanted to prove that women can be competent, creative leaders. I came of age on the cusp of women more commonly entering certain professional fields. I was hired into the Bell System in 1978, one of many women hired as a part of a court settlement reached to begin correcting AT&T’s long history of unfair treatment of women. I was hired into engineering, and later worked in financial and regulatory positions. One of my friends, also on this path, had a grandmother who noted her granddaughter did ‘man’s work.’ She was so proud her granddaughter even made ‘man’s pay.’

I’d had a break then, and for an almost 30 year-long career I worked to prove all obstacles were surmountable. Work hard, be credible and be effective – represent.

With this hat on, something deep in me has wanted to distance myself from the impact of so many stories at once. I believe the stories. I’ve had my own encounters. But being a victim, or even having my gender claim victimhood, seemed in some ways counter to presenting as competent, creative leaders ready to take our places with confidence. And too there was (and is) the risk of being second guessed by men, and the risk of women second guessing one another.

So I too have asked, Why now? Will the risks being taken be answered by real change? Is there a flicker of light really there? I picture the lamps coming up the hill to the new church from our earlier story.

These last weeks have helped me clarify what the choice is not. I’d had gotten mired into thinking the choice was either — ‘Claim victimhood’ OR ‘Stay quiet.’ A false binary – the wrong lens. Might instead these stories be the opportunity be to shed light on the stark realities, and be a path to claim power. As the waiting ends, we’ll each find the language that offers us courage. Light over dark will prevail, somehow.

To be clear, not all women waited. Some raised concerns with trusted colleagues, male and female. They told bosses, mentors and HR departments of hostile environments. Some were politely listened to, sort of. Few were heard. A few were appeased with a cash settlement. And then, these women were told to toughen up, to learn to deflect and protect themselves better…to sense when to walk away. I can’t find the right ministerial phrase here to say they were told to ‘suck it up’ – go on with their business, work harder and be smarter. They, and all around them learned the person who we should be talking about –yes, more often than not a man – he will remain in his position, with his full authority, a gentle wrist slap (maybe), and done.

So, many women didn’t wait. They weren’t believed.

In a recent sermon by colleague Rev. Debra Haffner, she reminds us that gay men, and bisexual men, and non-conforming gender men face issues of harassment and abuse as well. Again, as we lay aside some issues for today, it is not to dismiss other challenges, but for today, to focus on those identifying as women.

For those women coming forward now, it’s not without professional and personal risk.

The following #MeToo posting that went viral helped me put words to my questions . (Note: So widely shared I cannot identify the author with confidence.)

“I caught myself wondering, ‘have I experienced anything bad enough to merit a ‘me too’ post? Does catcalling count? Would my participation trivialize the experiences of women who have been through worse?’ And then I realized, that’s part of the problem, the tendency this society has to dismiss someone’s experience as ‘not bad enough,’ ‘not traumatic enough,’ or ‘not real enough,’ to matter. Nothing will change if we persist in validating and believing a few, under certain circumstances, and dismissing the rest. And people who have been abused, harassed, assaulted, traumatized, refrain from speaking up or getting help because they believe what they went through ‘doesn’t count.'”

Respect and empowerment are part of the inherent worth and dignity we as UUs affirm and promote in our principles. Conditioning our children to accept that there is some threshold of being treated otherwise is ‘just part of being a woman’ is not ok.

It’s been over 25 years since Anita Hill testified that Thomas Clarence, who had been her boss at the Department of Education and EEOC, had repeatedly sexually harassed her. She was 35 at the time of the hearings – a direct peer of mine. The risks she took still amaze me. In the discrediting of her story, we heard, ‘Why did she wait 10 years?’ Would she have been believed 10 years earlier? And too, she modeled truth telling, which now, years later, is being lifted up.

Earlier I mentioned Rev. Debra Haffner and I suggest her ‘me-too’ sermon (Oct 29) as homework. (www.uureston.org/sermons/me-too). She is a long-term expert in sexual ethics, offers story and statistics, many reality checks, and hope in her sermon. She challenges us all, especially men, to explore where and how we have interrupted the narrative that women are to be admired and judged on appearance. She asks, what is done when conversations and actions objectify women. I encourage listening to her full sermon – it’s worth the 27 minutes.

“Why now?” These many women coming forward are seeing genuine hope, genuine possibility. On hope, theologian Paul Tillich notes, “There are many things and events in which we can see a reason for genuine hope, namely, the seed-like presence of that which is hoped for. In the seed of a tree, stem and leaves are already present, and this gives us the right to sow the seed in hope for the fruit. We have no assurance that it will develop. But our hope is genuine.”

Genuine hope – engaged hope – meaningful hope –sometimes needs a waiting period to feel real. For the distant light to feel steady enough to take the next steps – to foster sustainable courage, takes time. While the waiting was not planned in these instances, the waiting has served a purpose – to build support, and numbers ready to share, and for enough to be ready to listen – to believe.

The believing role is a part of being collective “keepers of the flame” for one another. When we listen and hear well we make hope tangible – we are the light. At times we might offer the wisdom of a larger picture for those unsure. When we are present to walk with another and not dismiss, this is ministry. It is what professional ministers do, and is what everyone here can do for another.

We are in the midst of a societal turn on sexual abuse and harassment. It’s a turn in progress – a wide turn – a turn started long ago made possible through the hard work and courage of many. A turn with some momentum.

I do believe that all here want our mothers, and wives and partners, and daughters, and granddaughters and friends to be respected and empowered. Behaviors and messages have told women differently. This is what needs to change. Actions need to back up hope.

Let us be aware of the precious gift of keeping the flame for one another. Let us trust that in the listening and holding, and taking seriously the sharing of another, new light will come.

And in this time of anticipating possibility and the genuine hope that comes with the return to longer days, let us especially be aware of the voices of women as their truths are shared in hopes of being believed.

May It Be So

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