Trickle-Up Justice

Dave Dunn, Intern Minister
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
August 16, 2015

I have an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. Although Friday nights and Saturdays were mostly study-free, I did a lot of studying in college. Sunday was my big study day and on most Sundays, I’d typically study from 10AM to midnight. Not fun!

One warm Sunday during my junior year while I had the windows open in the off-campus -fixer-upper I lived in, I heard this coming from the house next door. {Play from phone the first 10 seconds of the song “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor.} Many of you might remember this song from your disco days….and nights. And this is a song we all know and love….except I really don’t like this song very much. Nope, I’m not a fan.

About 10 seconds after the 4:25 minute song ended, I hear this. {Replay 5 seconds of the song}. Ok. Listening to a song you don’t particularly like is one thing but having to listen to it a second time is quite another. Then, about 5 seconds after the song ended {Replay 5 seconds of the song.}; and then {Replay 5 seconds of the song}. This went on and on and on and on. The song played over and over and over and over and over. I took a lunch break while it kept going.

The interesting thing was that the time between the songs was variable. It might be just a few seconds or as many as 10 or 15 seconds. This was the age before ipods and CDs where you could re-cue a song at the press of a button. The variability of the time between the songs meant that whoever was cueing the song was doing it manually on a turntable - over and over.

Since the song continued to play after lunch, I packed up and went to the library for the rest of the day.

The person playing the song was no doubt the working class 50ish woman who lived next door. I saw her occasionally coming out of her house or passing her on the street. She always had this expressionless look on her face. She seemed uninterested in acknowledging me and frankly, I, wrapped up in my college studies wasn’t particularly interested in her either.

One day, on the way back from the township library to my house, I stopped into a diner-like coffee shop. There she was; working the counter. We recognized each other and said a real hello to one another. We chatted while I drank my coffee. I found her to be open and warm…almost motherly. I left the coffee shop feeling that I had had a real conversation with someone – a conversation not about college drama, but a real conversation.

A few months later I was chatting with a neighborhood friend my age on the front porch of my house when the song came on again. “Ok – here we go,” I thought. “What’s up with this?” I said to my friend.

Then he said something that reoriented me. He said that her husband had abused her emotionally and physically. He had tormented her for years until he finally left, or she threw him out. Either way, she was left with raising two children who were now older teenagers. One of the children was severely developmentally disabled and required significant care and attention.

So the “I Will Survive” song now took on new meaning. Likely, it was a little something she needed to hear simply to survive – a little something she likely needed to hear over and over and over in order to replenish confidence and self-respect that likely had been, well…and I hate to say it but…that had likely been beaten out of her.

I began to see her in a new way.

Here’s another story that I hope to relate it to the first story and to the theme of this service:

I read an interview recently of this guy who has essentially spent his life living in the wild. He’s lived in a cabin in the woods in Montana or Wyoming. He’s made a simple living leading wilderness expeditions, writing and lecturing, but he’s essentially lived in the wilderness for the past few decades.

One day after giving a lecture, a young woman approached him and said something like, “Your work has inspired me to dedicate my life to saving wolves.”

“That’s wonderful,” I’m paraphrasing, “tell me about your work with wolves.”

“Well,” says the woman, “I’ve never actually met, or even seen a wolf; but I want to save them.”

So hold on to these two stories for a moment.

When I was toying with the idea of going into UU ministry, I wanted nothing less than to “Save the World!” (I think that many UUs want to “save the world.”) I show up for UU seminary at the Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago ready to learn about ministry, theology and other stuff that will equip me to accomplish this task. But Meadville-Lombard has other plans for its seminarians who want to “Save the World.” Essentially what happens is that when I get there, the first thing they want me to do is to stop, turn around, go back to Washington, PA; and volunteer in my community for eight hours a week with some type of non-profit organization serving the marginalized…and I have to do this for an entire year!.....”And don’t fix anything,” they say, “just show up.’

“Well,” I think to myself, “what a buzz-kill!....Hey, weren’t you listening? I want to Save the World!!!”

So I go back home and begin working with this organization serving the homeless called Family Promise of Washington, PA.

During my first year of seminary, I spent eight hours a week at various churches that would temporarily be housing the homeless. With this work, I got to know all kinds of families caught up in all kinds of horrible, but ordinary, situations. I got to know all kinds of people who had such bright optimism despite difficult circumstances. I saw some dysfunction, but not as much as you might think.

On a typical evening, I’d eat dinner with the families, say grace with them, play with their kids, read them books, watch the Super Bowl, participate in birthday parties and simply listen to story after story over cup after cup of bad coffee.

Now, you’ve all likely heard of the term “trickle-down economics.” One day back in the ‘80s, I was driving in my green ’78 Dodge Omni and listening to NPR, I heard this interview with an economist talking about trickle-down economics. Trickle-down economics is based on the idea that if those at the top are successful, that success would trickle-down to those at the bottom. Most UUs find this model problematic as it is simply too easy for those at the top to siphon off far more than their share leaving nothing for those at the bottom – or even those in the middle in today’s version of trickle-down.

The person being interviewed was saying that this model seemed backward to him and that maybe a trickle-up approach might be better. In trickle-up economics, if the people at the bottom have access to capital, they can spend it on the goods and services that they deem most worthy. Those at the top would be rewarded if they provide such worthy goods and services. “Trickle-up!”

Recently, I started thinking about our…and my…social justice efforts. Are my justice works top-down or bottom-up? Are they trickle-down or trickle-up?

For instance, say I’m reading the newspaper and I read that the governor has removed a substantial portion of state funding for public schools and that the removal of such funding will likely hit those schools in lower-income neighborhoods or districts hardest. I decide to call my representative and maybe I get others to call their representatives to restore the funding. Is this trickle-down or trickle-up?

If one day, I realize that I am troubled with homelessness in my community and I try to do something about it. I call my city councilman to insure that homeless shelters obtain necessary funding to help address the situation. Is this trickle-down or trickle-up?

If I go to a black lives matter rally and I raise my voice to the powers that be regarding the situation of racial profiling in my community, is this trickle-down or trickle-up?

My intent is not to knock these initiatives or approaches, they can be fine, but what I’ve asked myself to think about, and what I’d ask you to think about is the CONTEXT of these initiatives.

Have I ever seen a wolf? Do I have a relationship with the woman next door who has to listen to “I Will Survive” thirty times a day simply to get through that day? When was the last time I was in a public school? Do I know any homeless people; have a relationship with any homeless people? Do I have a relationship with black people; or people who can tell you what it feels like to be followed through grocery stores on a regular basis? Or pulled over for failing to signal a lane change? If the answer is no to any of these questions, then I am likely following a trickle down justice model.

What does the arc of trickle-up justice bend toward? What does the arc of trickle-up justice look like? I believe it bends toward relationships and that it looks very similar to what my seminary asked me do to in my first year. Stop, turn around, go back into your community and be present with and in relationship with those who are damaged, forgotten, unseen, invisible. Start by not trying to fix anything. I need to restrain myself from that impulse; restrain myself from my very ego that thinks it knows how to solve others’ problems; that knows what’s right for everyone…and that deep down, might simply feel uncomfortable, or perhaps even guilty about the suffering of others; an ego that simply wants to eliminate that feeling from itself at whatever cost.

This year, as a new Adult Faith Development initiative (open to youth as well), I will be spearheading, here at First Unitarian, the same initiative that my seminary initiated with their first year students. Together, we will be working in; being present with those in the community for two hours each week. That’s a commitment. Work where the spirit moves you; hospice volunteer, East End Cooperative Ministry, Food pantry, homeless shelter, mentor to prison inmates, suicide prevention hotline, big brother/big sister; English as a second language teacher, school volunteer, drug rehab volunteer counselor; choice is yours. This program requires commitment; but it won’t be a commitment to the homeless, the drug-addicted, the powerless. You’ll discover that it will be a commitment to yourself. You will not save the world but I can guarantee you will change the world; and that change will start with you

You will find that when you do this work; over the course of the year, the barriers you have between yourselves and others, invisible barriers that you don’t know exist, barriers that separate “you” from “them”, will begin to melt away. You will begin to see yourself in others and others in you. This is what I’ve discovered. That there is no “other” ; that there is no “them” and as the Buddhists maintain, there is no “self”; there is no ghetto, there is no hospice, there is no food pantry – it’s all us; it’s all one and the same; and despite the desperate circumstances, it’s all beautiful in a strange way.

Removing invisible barriers: I don’t know if there is anything more important in ministry. (I’ll have to talk about that with Rev. Herndon.)

This relationship and breaking down of barriers, realizing that there is no other; no other to be saved, fixed, helped brings authenticity to any social justice initiative you may then undertake. It breathes a wholeness, an “us-interest” as opposed to a “self-interest” into such efforts. With this, what needs to be done, from a social justice perspective, I believe will appear out of the fog, it will seem obvious and simple.

We have to do this work. We have barriers folks – invisible barriers we cannot see. I still have them too. So this year, we’ll be undertaking this initiative at First Unitarian and I would love, love, love for you to be a part of it. You can register at:

Again, You may not save the world - saving the world is actually the wrong way to even look at it. Those who want to save the world don’t see the invisible barriers; but I can guarantee you will change the world; and that change will start with you.

Let this work, this commitment, be a healing gift to yourself.

In the words of JK Zinn “Initiate giving, don’t wait to be asked…see what happens…especially to you.”

May it be so.

© 2015 by David Dunn.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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