“Daring to Envision”

Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken
Sunday, January 31, 2021
The First Parish in Bedford, Unitarian Universalist


Opening Words

excerpts from “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes
and “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman


A Visit to the Future
   excerpt from the Flash Forward podcast hosted by Rose Eveleth


Reflection                               “Daring to Envision”         Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken

I heard about that podcast, Flash Forward from a friend of mine. We went on a walk and he was telling me about the episode about giving land back, where the imagined future is a future in which land has been returned to Indigenous stewardship. And I listened to that episode and it was really interesting. The podcast is not just scenes from an imagined future it is interviews with various types of experts and people working on proposals here and now that move us toward those visions.

I wanted to check out the housing episode and I put it on while I was watching dishes. And as I listened to that role play we heard the first half of, I started to cry. And I wondered why. Housing justice is not my primary justice issue, I’ve never faced eviction or homelessness. What was it about that that triggered so much feeling in me? And I realized that it was because I could hear in the voice of that actor playing the mom looking for housing, over and over a question:

Am I worthy? Am I good enough? Do I deserve this?

And over and over from the person playing the hotline answerer, yes this is for everyone, for everyone, for everyone.

And it is one thing to SAY that housing is a human right, to advocate, even to go out to a protest with City Life / Vida Urbana, an organization in Boston I used to rally with back when crowds of people was a safe thing. In fact the first chant that Moira learned was a chant against City Reality Management Company who owns many properties in Boston and exploits many of its tenants. When she was just barely forming words she could chant: CRM! You can’t Hide! We can see your greedy side!”

It is one thing to do that but it is somehow another thing entirely to really imagine this scene so mundane, so simple. Am I worthy of housing? Yes it is for everyone.

It reminds me too much of some of the calls and emails the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network gets, people trying to prove their worth so we will pay their bond or their family members immigration bond or their clients immigration bond. And we say yes!  We pay bonds for everyone with a connection to MA, we do not need you to tell us that you are not a criminal or that you have changed your ways or that your children depend on you. It is for everyone in our community.

That’s what I mean when I say that I am an abolitionist, when I say that I am a universalist. What I mean is that I am trying so hard to affirm and promote that first principle: the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

It is so easy to forget, so easy to believe the lies society is feeding us with frantic advertising and convoluted meritocracies, so easy to fall into the trap of believing that WE are not worthy or believing that THEY are not worthy, or believing that if THEY are worthy then we are NOT worthy. It’s so easy we often don’t even notice it happening.

When I was 13 I developed an eating disorder. Because going to middle school was a hard transition and because my grandfather’s sudden death the year before had pulled a loose string in the fabric of my family and the whole warm cozy sweater I had gotten used to was rapidly unraveling and because I needed something to control other than my grades which came too easily for me and because despite my at home media consumption being limited to PBS kids shows and overhearing my parents listening to NPR, our insidious culture had still found ways into my brain.

For 8 years off and on I moved in and out of periods of disordered behavior, sometimes better, sometimes worse, always managing to stay functional and healthy enough to participate in my very many activities: cross country, speech team, theatre, orchestra, then at boarding school more theatre, dance, volunteer tutoring, then in college leading the UU club, more theatre, more volunteering, work study in the chapel and then in the civic engagement center.

It was my sophomore year roommate Molly who pushed me into treatment, risking our friendship and ending our roommate relationship. And it was the Emily Program in St. Paul, MN that provided the therapists and programming and it was my parents who footed the bill. For all of that I am still deeply grateful.

And it was a vision that kept me moving through the recovery process. A vision I found initially more scary than beautiful, but still deeply compelling.  I don’t remember if the vision came from me, from Molly who had recovered from an eating disorder in high school, or from a therapist, but I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to go to a meal, out to dinner, maybe to a holiday like thanksgiving, and to just eat whatever I felt like without stress or shame or disordered behaviors. To just enjoy food and company.

This vision seemed like an impossible fantasy. It seemed so far away. And it also terrified me. Who would I have become if I could do that? Someone who had no self-control? Someone who was lazy or selfish or bad? Could I really be worthy of pleasure, could my worth really be inherent and have nothing at all to do with calories, clothing sizes, or numbers on a scale? And if worth didn’t have to do with those numbers, what about grades? What about my bank account? Would everything all fall apart if I actually believed the things I proclaimed to believe?

I was scared, and it seemed laughably unrealistic, but I inched toward that vision anyway. A day with no disordered behavior. A week without looking at a scale. An outing to get ice cream with no panic attack afterward. Ordering a regular non-diet soda. Getting seconds at Thanksgiving without making elaborate internal agreements about the next day. Inch by inch until I had arrived in my vision. There was no single moment and no big reveal. Nothing had fallen apart and I maintained good grades the whole time, though it would have been ok if I had not. I did accidentally severely overdraw my bank account though during my senior year. You win some you lose some.

I find that visions of liberation are usually like this. Mundane as eating a meal with friends and enjoying it or calling a housing hotline and receiving a case number, and radical as believing fat bodies are good bodies and people with criminal records deserve a good life. These visions are compelling and terrifying. What do we have to give up to not just say everyone deserves housing but to actually live that vision? Some will have to give up wealth, and we will have to give up our current economic system and most of all we will have to give up the idea that only some of us are actually worthy of housing. We will have to risk the wild notion that even people who are addicted or mentally ill or have done violent harm deserve safe comfortable lodging. We will have to risk the wild notion that we too are worthy if we find ourselves in one of those categories or that we would be worthy even without the job or the education or the money or how very hard we have tried.

What is the vision that scares and moves you? What liberation are you longing for? I know some of you envision a world without nuclear weapons or a world without reliance on fossil fuels. I know some of you envision a world where we never have another name to chant because nobody gets killed by police or a world in which our beloved Sanctuary guest is home safe with her sons. I know some of you envision a Bedford with more trees and public space or a First Parish community where people with disabilities are fully included. I bet some of you envision your own more personal liberation too: days where there is rest and balance and connection, nights where you end the day feeling good about what you accomplished and able to relax, evenings where you do not need to numb out with those drinks, that sugar, those 4 TV episodes in a row.

These are all good visions and they are all scary visions. We might have to give up the idea that power is protection or our ability to eat foods from all over out of season. We might have to give up our current concepts of safety or our sense that playing by the rules is fair. We might have to give the ability to buy control or our own comfort and convenience. We might have to give up the idea that our productivity is our worth, we might have to risk failure and rejection, we might have to face feelings of shame, fear and grief. We might have to admit we need help.

These are scary visions but yes, they are good visions. And I believe we can move toward them. Inch by inch.

Though it is not always easy to know for sure that we are indeed moving toward our visions. Sometimes I find it confusing and wonder if I’m moving toward my beautiful scary vision or if maybe I’ve been tricked into heading for some other vision, something more “realistic” that is not in line with my values.

If I try to get vaccinated right now through this strange clergy loophole that has come to be in Massachusetts am I moving toward a vision of everyone being vaccinated and our state being safer or am I caving into a vision where people with more resources and less risk can get things first because that’s how it goes? If I support a police reform bill that pumps more money into police departments for the sake of making them less biased and I moving toward a vision of racial justice or am I sacrificing abolition for the sake of a world where policing is much the same, just a little less egregious?

Sometimes I worry that every move that is possible in our current reality is a move sideways or backwards, nothing toward liberation in reality. But then I hear about the massive criminal justice reform bill passed back in my home state of Illinois awaiting the governor’s signature, the one that actually abolishes cash bail in a meaningful way, and I think oh. Ok. Then I hear a podcast about housing for all and all the “housing first” programs that work so well to combat homelessness and I think oh. Ok. Yes, we are trying to live into a vision we have not yet ever realized and that is hard. America never was America to me, reminds Langston Hughes, but still he proclaims “America will be!”

When I get very demoralized about the possibility of moving toward visions of liberation I remember a piece of writing by adrienne maree brown. I know I quote her too much, but then again can there be too much of a good thing?

In 2017 she wrote a piece called “Harriet is a north star” she writes

I can’t stop thinking about Harriet Tubman!

I think about all the resources she did not have at her disposal – grants, organizations, markers and post-its, masses, privilege, a copy machine, social media, social norms, a job that could be done with recognition and safety.

She did not have a perfect language with which to critique her oppressors, a quick way to travel, time to suffer fools.

She had a vision (my people are free), a theory of change (I will physically lead to freedom those who know they are slaves), a gift for adaptation (the underground railroad was about finding the next open space in a series of precarious moves across a deadly chess board) and her body.

She had a vision. My people are free. Though her people were literally sold like objects, chained, tortured in every possible way, she had a vision. My people are free. She moved toward it.

So again, what is your vision? Or rather what are your visions? The big ones that are for every person on this planet and the little ones that are just for you? Make sure they are visions of freedom, of liberation. Make sure they are visions that reflect our first principle, visions that grow out of the wild idea that each of us is inherently worthy no matter what.

And then let those visions be your north star. In this cold time of loss and limitations, of grief and crisis, as a new administration and vaccines open up possibilities before us, let us dare to envision what our hearts long for, and let us inch toward those visions, with clarity and purpose, sometimes pausing to catch our breath, to re-orient ourselves, to call for others to come along with us, but never turning back and never settling for some small vision that someone tells us is all that we can have.

In the words of Amanda Gorman:

When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.