When Change Seems Impossible, or at Least Overwhelming

Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton



(An excerpt from the book ‘Just Mercy’ by Bryan Stevenson. For context, it’s the late 1980s and Bryan has working more and more closely with those facing execution. (p72-74))

‘We relocated to our new office in Montgomery in the shadow of these two executions. The men on death row were more agitated and unnerved than ever. When Herbert Richardson received word in July that his execution was scheduled for August 18, he called me collect from death row: “Mr. Stevenson, this is Herbert Richardson, and I’ve just received notice they will execute me on August 18. I need your help. You can’t say no. I know you’re helping some of the guys and y’all are opening an office, so please help me.”

I replied, “I’m really sorry to hear about your execution date. It’s been a rough summer. What does your volunteer lawyer say?” …

“I don’t have a volunteer lawyer…My volunteer lawyer said he couldn’t do any more to help me over a year ago. I need your help.”

…I didn’t know what else to do but be truthful. “Mr. Richardson, I’m so sorry but I don’t have books, staff, computers or anything we need to take on a new case. I haven’t hired lawyers. I’m trying to get things set up –”

“But I have an execution date. You have to represent me…” … “They’re going to kill me…”

“I know what you’re saying, and I’m trying to figure out how to help. We’re just so overextended — ”  I didn’t know what to say, and a long silence fell between us. I could hear him breathing heavily on the phone, and I could just imagine how frustrated he must be. I was bracing myself for him to say something angry or bitter…But then the phone suddenly went silent. He’d hung up.

The next day he called again, to my relief.

“Mr. Stevenson, I’m sorry but you have to represent me. I don’t need you to tell me that you can stop this execution. I don’t need you to say you can get a stay. …Just say you’ll do something and let me have some hope.”

It was impossible for me to say no, so I said yes.’


Our reading from Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy began, “We had just moved our office to Montgomery.”

At the time of Herbert’s call, Bryan Stevenson was a few years into his work of supporting those trapped in (his words) “the furthest reaches of the justice system.” His earlier work had been in Georgia and his focus moved to cases in Alabama. Efforts in Alabama began with a Tuscaloosa office, and then a decision to be in Montgomery. He and colleagues needed to be closer to the capital.

It matters where we locate our center. Our local context matters. Our lenses matter. For Bryan Stevenson happenstance (of a sort) brought him to the challenges of the Alabama justice system – an overwhelming role. As he got closer to the stories and struggles, he got clearer about how the ways he could most effective.

The book has a longer version of Herbert Richardson’s story. It is a heart wrenching in its gaps. Between the date of the crime and his execution in August 1989, many chose not to, or felt they could not, take the time to hear his full story. There were gaps in representation, frustrations of inefficient bureaucracy, and consequences of resources spread too thin. It is in this skewed system of justice that Bryan Stevenson has lived out his call for the last 30 years.

How many hear have heard of Bryan Stevenson? He wrote his book Just Mercy in 2014, and since then his efforts in Alabama have brought him into the national spotlight.

I had a chance to hear him speak at the UU General Assembly in New Orleans this summer. Speaking to an audience of 4000 for over an hour, sharing his story and wisdom – both sermon and lecture rolled together – held the room in awe. He was born in the late 1950s and he grew up in segregation right here on the Delmarva, in Milton, Delaware.

When Bryan Stevenson received that call from Herbert Robinson, he was clearly overwhelmed. Being overwhelmed happens to us all. In that moment, Stevenson rationally responded to Richardson, ‘I’m sorry – I just can’t help.’ This was not a bad response. It’s not a bad thing to say ‘no’ – Good boundaries and saying ‘no’ are often what I might advise an overwhelmed congregant.

Somehow though, and not the day of the first call, but the next day, Stevenson was then open to the desperate pleas, said agreed to assist.

How I wonder did Bryan Stevenson make that choice, when so clearly feeling overwhelmed? How did he choose to help with Richardson’s case, almost certainly trading-off other priorities and pressing needs?

He was in his late 20s and led with heart and head, refining his responses to these core question time and time again. There is no perfect response – just next steps and best guesses.

These times of feeling inundated happen to us all at some point. It may be in vocation, or with family, or as a citizen. Times when our ability to effectively deal with any more input – and to do so with any semblance of effective thought and effective action is cooked.

Been there?

We need to reminder one another we can’t do it all – there is a season for actions and happenings. We hit these moments of ‘can’t do more’ and may freeze. Our meditation reading this morning, ‘Saved’ by UU minister Theresa Novak, talks of the pause to recover, and then she guides us to re-engagement.

As we dust ourselves off and ask, ‘What’s next?’ some might find some reassurance in the words from social activist and political radical Dorothy Day, used often by UUs:

People say, what is the sense of our small effort.

They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.

A pebble cast into a pond causes a ripple that is spread in all directions. Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that.

No one has the right to sit down and feel hopeless.

There is too much work to do.

Day is clear. Do what you can do, and trust that what you can do will matter.

While not bad advice, in some ways it falls short of the deeper questions that swirl for us when we’re overwhelmed – Where should I lay that first brick? Isn’t there a rough blueprint? Are we building a house or a store? Fine about pebbles and ponds – But, which pebble? Which pond?

If honest, I can see that Day’s ‘keep going’ message might feel at time like a bit of admonishment, or at least maybe empty advice when we’re the most overwhelmed.

For Stevenson, when he made his first visit to a prison in law school he didn’t know he’d be laying bricks – one brick at a time – on what ultimately became his mission. He got close to the need – physically and emotionally – and in time founded the Equal Justice Initiative, ‘a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, those wrongly condemned and those trapped in the system’ which is still active today.

Now in his late fifties Stevenson does have lessons learned and advice to share about making a difference. Part of his advice is about the getting started, especially when overwhelmed. One of his major lessons: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance. You have to get close.”

We each see so many challenges – some personal, many in community – locally, nationally and globally and ‘overwhelmed’ happens. Of late, the news has images of hurricanes, earthquakes and fires. We know of refugees and those worried for insurance. Our county is colored purple, bringing attention to addiction and we know this is but the awareness phase, not the solution. And the deep challenges of racial justice and the poor continue.

At times, there are deep calls from many directions – for our attention – for our resources – for our care. We are one, and we are only one, so where do we turn? Where to start?

I sense Stevenson would say look in a direction – not all the directions, but look and feel and walk toward a place with the most powerful draw of your attention. “You have to get close” he’d say. Sister Simone Campbell in her Ware lecture in 2014 at GA called us to ‘walk toward trouble’ – similar advice.

From up close, Stevenson learned stories and could understand the pain. In time, he could also sense his role and his power. With this focus, sometimes able to say ‘yes’ and other times needing to say ‘no’ he eventually could see a larger blueprint, and the path to impact. As this got clearer, he built partnerships, raised funds, and increased the capacity so more people and resources were in place to say ‘yes’ more often to the Herbert Richardson’s who needed to be heard and represented.

From these points of intimacy and understanding he committed to, and has succeeded in, helping change the rules, including a Supreme Court victory in 2012 regarding sentencing of juveniles.

I’ve been serving this congregation a while now. I’ve shared my own passion for racial justice often and many here have done so for years, showing up in the community, and learning, and making commitments. You’ve also shared with me the sense more is needed. We’ve also been clear that just imagining what we’d like to see changed is not the same as doing the internal and external work that needs to happen to be effective. I know I have felt overwhelmed, and you have, but together we keep trying.

We did some ‘next brick’ work here at UUFE yesterday. A group of UUs – most from this congregation and a few from other congregations met here for a full day of reflection, and conversation around how UUs address racial justice.

A full day. Time spent learning, including a review of UU history on racial justice – reminders of the broad response to the call to Selma, and then a multi-year set of missed and botched efforts and broken trust.

Yesterday was a mix of grounding and exploration. For me in 2017 two questions feel in the forefront for UUs current work on racial justice –

  • What holds patterns of racism and white supremacy in place – in the world – in the local community – in UU congregations?

(Note: I use the term white supremacy here to look at power structures which reinforce hierarchy and oppression – a ‘white supremacy’ broader than the bigots carrying torches.)

  • What could we as a congregation do to move toward real and sustainable social change to dismantle racism and white supremacy?

A long day. Big questions. UU leader Paula Cole Jones travelled to be with us and facilitated the day. She challenged us to take a fresh look at what holds the status quo in place, and what skills are needed to move toward true transformation. Some was review, some was new learning. We each processed the learning and conversations through a lens of September 2017 – our current context matters.

I encourage you to ask those who spent the day here what is turning over in their heads and hearts today? Those participating included Ken, Maggie, Mary, Ann, Jim, Martha, Larry, Carol, and Jean plus the members of other congregations.

While it was not a day of answers, or even specific blueprints, one proposal we considered was the current work on a possible 8th UU principle. The 8th principle on antiracism has been under review for four years and states,

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

Why add to the principles? Part of our slowness in achieving social change – as a country and as UUs, even with best intent, may be that we make the seven principles into our aspirations, rather than making the goal of loving, accountable, truly inclusive communities our goal – what we’ve talked about as Beloved Community.

Ask those who attended yesterday, where is their hope this morning? Where are feelings of being overwhelmed?

For me, my hope – my less ‘overwhelmed-ness’ – comes in having a shared base of new information and the common experience of a day. I woke up feeling less alone in finding a path – hope in the sense of readiness and willingness to be overwhelmed together, and then to find next steps that aren’t overwhelming – likely small efforts that will pull (and push) the world closer to Beloved Community. I come this morning ready in more explicit ways to help this congregation live into a clearer vision for itself and to the ways we may be a force for change in the world…and here in the local community.

I’m convinced that it is in the relationships we’ll find the path.

We need to explore commitments together – to hold one another accountable. We need to work together as we decide where we might try laying the next brick. We need to work together when we need to choose a pond for our next pebble. And importantly friends, we need to remind one another to stay close enough to the pond to make the throw.

May It Be So

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