"To Be a Citizen"

Delivered by: 
Rev. Dr. James Kubal-Komoto
Saltwater Church
Sunday, November 4, 2012


            I voted earlier this week. I sat at my desk at home, paged through my voter’s guide, and carefully filled in the ovals with a black pen.

            To be truthful, I didn’t do it all by myself. I have fond childhood memories of standing in line with my mother, accompanying her into the voting booth, and watching her fill out her ballot, so when I sat at my desk, I invited Kai, my six-year-old son to sit down with me. For the choice of President and Vice President of the United States, I let him read the names and mark the ballot. He said something about not wanting anybody to kill Big Bird. Then we walked outside to the mailbox and carefully slipped the ballot into the outgoing mail drop.

            To me, it felt like a sacred moment. Of course, it always has. I haven’t missed voting in an election since I turned 18, even when I lived in Japan. To me, voting feels me with a sense of deep reverence, perhaps similar to what some Christians feel participating in a sacrament or what followers of other paths feel participating in other sacred rites.

            I’m not exaggerating or poking fun here. Even as someone who is a minister, voting - - to join with my fellow citizens and make a decisions based on our most deeply held values about our common future - - seems like one of the most sacred things I do. I also like the sense of power I feel when I vote. In the moment that I slipped that ballot into the outgoing mail slot, I was as powerful as any other citizen in determining the shared future of my city, my state, and my nation.

            Of course, I sometimes get cynical about how much my vote really matters, especially since billions of dollars, most of it from people a lot richer than me, have been donated to campaigns this election cycle, and only a fool thinks somebody donates money to a political campaign without expecting something in return.

            On the other hand, as much as I disagree and dislike the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision about campaign finance laws and worry about its effects on our democracy, nobody had any undue influence over me when I filled out my ballot. Nobody held my hand as I filled in those ovals. Despite all the very just indignation  about Super PACs and the blatantly racist Voter ID laws, there is a part of me that believes that in general, we who are citizens of the United States pretty much get the government that we deserve, no more or no less, and this sometimes scares the hell out of me, especially when I consider how much apathy, ignorance, and misinformation dominates our national political life.

            I make no assumption this morning about how any person in this congregation will vote and I do not stand before you to try to influence your vote. Among the people I love and care about most in this world are people who will vote differently than I have, and I don’t believe any choice during any election is a litmus test of any person’s worth or decency as a human being.

Having said that, I care very much about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, especially the presidential election, and I am doing my best not to be overly anxious about its outcome.

            On the one hand, its outcome may affect whether millions of Americans have healthcare, or more simply put in the starkest of terms, whether many Americans will live or die. Its outcome may affect whether women will continue to have the right to terminate a pregnancy safely and legally when they believe that is the best choice for their own lives. Its outcome will certainly affect the future of the U.S. economy and whether Wall Street speculators will continue to be allowed to play roulette with my retirement. Its outcome may affect whether the United States goes to war with Syria or Iran. Its outcome may affect how the U.S. deals with environmental degradation and the challenge of global climate change. These are all things I care very much about.

            On the other hand, the presidential election is not the only decision on the ballot, and some of the other choices on the ballot will likely have a more direct influence on my life. To be really boring, the outcome of the Federal Way School District levy will probably affect my life directly more than anything else on the ballot. To be much less boring, the passage of Referendum 74 would grant the right to marry to same-sex couples, including many in this congregation for whom I deeply care.            

            When I am being more self-centered - - or perhaps just trying to rationalize my feelings of anxiety - - I remind myself that none of the outcomes of Tuesday’s election will likely affect my own life and my family’s life quite as much as our own attitudes and our own efforts. When I wake up on Wednesday morning, deciding whether to exercise or not, deciding whether to have oatmeal or a donut for breakfast, and deciding whether or to help my son with his reading after school are decisions that will most likely have a greater effect on my personal long-term happiness that whatever is decided on Tuesday. Is this situation partly a result of the unearned privileges I enjoy as a professional middle-class, straight, white male? Absolutely.

            But I would like to suggest for your consideration this morning that no matter who we are, that no matter how much we care about the election, it would be unwise for any of us either to sink into a swamp of morosity or to abandon ourselves to rapture-like bliss as a result of anything that happens on Tuesday. Our own attitudes and our own efforts are what matter most in our own pursuit of happiness. So sometime on Wednesday of this week, I encourage you to walk away from the endless post-election chatter and aftermath analysis that will be streaming forth from your TVs, radios, computers and other assorted electronic devices, go outside - - raining or not - - look up at the sky, and give thanks for the mystery and miracle of all creation as well as the precious gift of life in which you take part.

            There’s something else I would like to suggest for your consideration this morning. The title of my words with you this morning are “To Be a Citizen.” As much as I consider voting to be a sacred, reverential act, and as much as I really do care about the outcome of Tuesday’s election, I sometimes fear that in our common understanding, the broad concept of citizenship has been boiled down and reduced to the mere act of voting.

            When it at least once referred to a much greater participation in public life, for too many Americans, it has become something you do once or twice a year at most in the privacy of your own home.

            When it at least once was a participant sport, for too many Americans it has become a spectator sport that we only pay attention to once every four years, sort of like the Olympics.

            This is understandable, I think. The society in which we live doesn’t encourage us to be active citizens. The society in which we live encourages us to identify mostly with two roles - - the roles of worker and consumer. It encourages us to adopt for our lives the motto of “work-buy-die.” It encourages us to cut ourselves off from an essential part of ourselves, that part of ourselves that yearns to participate in decisions about the common life we all share.

            I have come to believe that to live our lives as fully, deeply, richly and abundantly as is possible for us is in part a matter of learning not to cut ourselves off from any essential part of ourselves.

            When we cut ourselves off from our intellect, as too many of us were asked to do in the religious traditions of our childhood and youth, we cut ourselves off from an essential part of ourselves.

            When we cut ourselves off from our sexuality, as too many us, especially our GLBT brothers and sisters, are still asked to do, we cut ourselves off from an essential part of ourselves.

            When we cut ourselves off from the natural sympathy we feel for others who suffer, we cut ourselves off from an essential part of ourselves.

            And when we cut ourselves off from our natural desire to participate in the common life we share, we cut ourselves off from an essential part of ourselves. As the Greek philosopher Aristotle  once said, “To take no part in the running of the community’s affairs is to be either a beast or a god!”

            Personally speaking, one of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist and one of the reasons I became a minister is because I have always had a desire to participate and play a role in the broader public square, to not leave the responsibility for making decisions about the common good of the world we share to others. At different times, this desire has led me to march and chant in front of the White House, to walk arm and arm with others in protest marches down the streets of Seattle, to meet with legislators in their offices in Olympia, and to testify at public meetings in Federal Way.

            I’ll also say that the times I have participated in some of these activities have been some of the times in my life when I have felt most alive, when I’ve said to myself, “Yes, this is what’s it’s supposed to feel like to be an American, to be a citizen, to stand up for the values I believe in and do something about them!” In the times I have participated in some of these activities, I’ve also tasted a bit of that same power I feel when I vote. Let me also say that experiencing this aliveness and this power is much better than sitting at home on my family room sofa, watching the news on TV or reading about it in the newspaper and falling deeper into despair.

            Why am I talking about this today? In about a month, at our congregational meeting in December, we as a congregation will decide whether we want to do something that could lead many of us to becoming even more active citizens. In about a month, at our congregational meeting in December, this congregation will vote on whether to become a part of Sound Alliance.

            I know some of you were here when a speaker from Sound Alliance was here in June, and I know that some of you have learned about Sound Alliance in other ways since then, but let me go over some of the basics again.

            What exactly is Sound Alliance? Sound Alliance is a regional network of more than 30 organizations, including religious groups, labor unions, and other community organizations, that work together for social change. Those religious groups, by the way, include Roman Catholics, Episcopals, Congregationalists, Baptists, Jews, and Unitarian Universalists. Both University Unitarian Church in Seattle and Northlake Unitarian Universalist Church in Kirkland are members.

            Across the United States, more than 100 Unitarian Universalist congregations are participating in community organizing networks similar to Sound Alliance. During the past several years, they have had successful campaigns dealing with issues such as funding for social services, affordable housing, the mortgage crisis, health care reform, school reform, living wage jobs, and environmental protection. These are campaigns that got real results, making real differences in people’s lives.

            Not only did they make real differences in people’s lives - - which is fantastic - - they also gave all the people who participated in those campaigns a chance to feel like real citizens again, a chance to meaningfully participate in the common life we share, to be a participants and not merely spectators in our country’s democracy.

            So as I said, in December, our congregation will decide whether to join Sound Alliance.

            In talking about Sound Alliance with some of you, some of you have asked me, “What exactly is community organizing? How exactly does Sound Alliance work? What will it look like and feel like for Saltwater Church to participate in a community organizing network?”

            These are good questions. I remember back in 2008, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin made a reference to President Obama’s background as a community organizer. He once worked for the Gamaliel Foundation in Chicago, which is quite similar to Sound Alliance. Palin said she wasn’t quite sure what a community organizer does. The next day, some wit in the blogosphere made the following distinction: “Pontus Pilate was a governor. Jesus was a community organizer.”

            But let me get a little more specific and talk about five things that participants in a community organizing network such as Sound Alliance spend a lot of time doing: (1) Building relationships, (2) identifying common issues of concern, (3) researching issues, (4) acting together on those issues, and (2) evaluating and reflecting together on any action they’ve taken.

            At its core, any kind of community organizing is about building relationships among people. A very common practice among congregations that participate in Sound Alliance is one-on-one meetings. What is a one-one meeting? Its two people sitting down together and getting to know each other, sharing their stories with each other, finding out about each other’s joys, sorrows, fears, and hopes, finding out what’s important to each other, and finding out what motivates each other. There are certainly other types of relationship-building activities as well, but one-on-one meetings are at the most common of these.

            If Saltwater Church decides to join Sound Alliance, we’ll end up doing a lot of these kinds of meetings with each other, but also with people in other congregations and other organizations as well. Some of us who have already been participating in some Sound Alliance activities have done one-on-one meetings with Roman Catholic sisters, Pentecostal Christians, and labor union members. This would be a chance for us to strengthen our ties with one another, but frankly, it would also be a chance for us to interact with people we usually don’t get a chance to interact with.

            Anytime any kind of relationship building activity is happening, participants are also looking for common issues of concern, especially common places where our private lives and our public lives intersect. In all of our lives, there’s a great deal of intersection between the private and the public, more so than most of us realize.

            If Saltwater Church decides to join Sound Alliance, we might find that there are certain issues that only we care about and want to act on by ourselves as a congregation– and that would be okay - - but on the other hand, we might find out that there are certain issues that other member organizations also care about that we could work on together. For example, this month Sound Alliance is deciding which statewide issues to work on during the coming year, and these include immigration reform, education reform, tax reform, and clean-energy jobs. If Saltwater Church joins Sound Alliance, we wouldn’t be committing ourselves to working on these particular issues, though we could.

            Once common issues have been identified - - within and across Sound Alliance organizations - - a group of people within Sound Alliance research those issues as thoroughly as they can, which usually includes talking to public officials and others who are knowledgeable about the issues. Part of this process is a power analysis - - finding out, “Who can make this happen? Who can exert influence here?” Part of a power analysis is also asking, “Do we have enough power to influence the person or the people who can change this?” One of the things I like about Sound Alliance is that it doesn’t act on issues it doesn’t think it can win on. For example, Sound Alliance will probably never choose U.S. nuclear disarmament as one of its issues because it probably doesn’t have enough power among its members to make that happen.

            Once a small group within Sound Alliance has thoroughly researched an issue, then the group as a whole may go into action around the issue. This often involves gatherings of several hundred people from Sound Alliance organizations meet with a public official to pressure that official to take some sort of action on the issue.

            Finally, Sound Alliance will reflect and evaluate how it did, so it can do better the next time it decides to act.

            As I’ve said before, I would like us to do this as a congregation. I’m excited about it. I think it’s a way that we could strengthen our congregation, get to know a lot of other people, and do some good in the world. However, I also know that unless there is wide spread support for this in our congregation, we shouldn’t do it. If the congregation decides not to do it, that’s okay with me. I’ll find another way to save my soul and save the world.

            How much support do we need? We need some people who are very interested. We need an organizing team within our congregation of at least five people. The good news is we already have that: These folks are Phil Dindia, Linda Bailey, Lucia Faithfull, Barbara Nelson, Debra Valpey, and me. Beyond this, we need at least 50 people who would be interested in participating by staying informed and showing up at an action sometime, say three or four times a year. Otherwise, this just won’t work. And we need at least half of the voting members of Saltwater Church at least to say, “This is a good idea.”

            Related to this, is the question of dues. Sound Alliance asks for membership dues equal to one percent of an organization’s operating budget. That would be about $2,500 for us, which is a good chunk of change. This money mostly goes to pay the Sound Alliance organizers who would in turn provide on-going training to leaders within our congregation.

            The organizing team and I have discussed this, and since we know that we need at least 50 people who are interested in doing this, we’d like to ask each of those 50 people to pledge $50 to cover our membership dues. 50 people x $50 is $2,500. We figure this is a good way of gauging how much support there is among us to do this. It’s hard for me to take my family of three out to a moderately-priced restaurant for less than $50, so for most of us, I don’t think it’s an exorbitant amount, but we figure, if somebody is willing to pledge $50 toward something, they’re probably also willing to show up at a few meetings a year.

            So between now and our congregational meeting, which will be on Sunday, December 2, if you’re interested in us doing this, I invite you to visit www.saltwaterchurch.org/soundalliance and sign the pledge sheet.

            If you’re interested in learning more before you do, I invite you to attend another showing of the film “The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and his Legacy.” We’re going to show this next Sunday, November 11, after church.

            If you’re interested in attending a big Sound Alliance gathering, there will be one on Wednesday, November 14. See me or an organizing team member for more details.

            But this is the real question I want to leave you with this morning. The big election is almost over. For the next four years, do you want to be a participant or just a spectator in our nation’s ongoing experiment in democracy. Do you want to feel alive again and feel powerful again, or do you want to sit at home on your living room sofa, watching the news, reading the newspaper and sink further into feelings of powerlessness and despair?

            I know what I want to do. We will decide as a congregation on Sunday, December 2. May we choose wisely and well.

            So may it be. Amen.

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