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A Migration of Innocents

24 January 2016

Candace Damon & Dorothy Read



Welcome and Opening Words – Candace


            Good Morning!  Welcome to the Walpole Unitarian Universalist Church.  Today’s service is one of our lay-led ones, that we have when

our halftime minister Lisa is away.  My name is Candace, and my co-conspirator this morning is Dot.


            The inspiration for this service was Dot’s, and sprang from a conversation she and I had one Sunday after service over coffee:  a conversation that began with my remark that the 1M refugees that the world, mostly western Europe, accepted this year, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes with love, were a drop in the bucket compared to the movement of peoples that we are likely to see as the pace of climate change accelerates.  A conversation that ended with Dot suggesting we turn our conversation into a service. 


            So here goes. 


            Now I am going to ask you to keep some numbers in your head.  Maybe take a pen out, jot these down, and start doing your own arithmetic. 


            In Elizabeth Kolbert’s, as usual, brilliant, article in the holiday edition of the New Yorker, she reported that, worldwide, 100M people are believed to live within 3’ of mean high tide, and another 100M within 6’.  The most widely accepted projections of near term sea level rise suggest that by the end of this century, 85 years from now, when Otis may still be alive, but certainly his children and grandchildren will be, sea levels will have risen 3-6.5’.  However, other thoughtful projections suggest sea level rise by then may be as much as 10-30’.    


            Simple arithmetic suggests that, on average then, we should expect to see at least the level of human migration that we saw this past year, every year, for the foreseeable future.  We humans are highly unlikely to simply stay put and agree to be drowned.  Plus the 100-200M people who live in th epath of inundation are the tip of the iceberg.  As we saw this year, climate change will disrupt food production further inland and destabilize countries, driving other populations to pick up stakes and seek more hospitable locations.      


            Today’s service is about that movement of people, which will be unprecedented in the history of humankind. 


            Dot’s brilliant idea was to try to create a narrative arc for this service that is temporal.  I will begin by talking – and we will sing and reflect – about past human migrations, a portion of the service that will significantly deal with fear.  Then Dot will lead the portion of the service that is concerned with the present day facts of climate change and begin the final portion of the service, which I will conclude, that is concerned with the future and our hopes for



Call to Worship – Dot


            There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective on human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures.

            This was written in a United Nations document “The Promise of World Peace” 30 years ago, wise words still for leaders and individuals alike in our efforts to solve the problems of today by first seeking to identify the spiritual principles involved and then be guided by them.


Chalice lighting: Otis

              May the light of this chalice give light and warmth to our community, when we are joyful and when we despair. And may we feel the warmth spread from our circle to wider and wider circles, until all know they belong to the one circle of life.                                                   

                                                                                    ~ Betsy Darr

Story for all ages – Naamahs stewardship of the plants   Antonia


Responsive Reading #505


The Past:


Readings: Genesis 6:3-6, Psalms 127


Our first reading is one of the many retellings of one of the earlier great human migrations.  From the King James version of the Bible:   


There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men, which were of old, men of renown.


And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.



And our second reading, also from the Bible, this time the American King James version, speaks of the terrible costs of human migration.  A version of this reading will be our second hymn, so this is warm up.  As is usual these days, I have omitted the brutal final 3 verses of Psalms 137.


By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps on the willows in the middle thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember you, let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth.



Reading #505


Let us be at peace with our bodies and our minds.

Let us return to ourselves and become wholly ourselves.


Let us be aware of the source of being,

common to us all and to all living things.


Evoking the presence of the Great Compassion,

let us fill our hearts with our own compassion—

towards ourselves and towards all living beings.


Let us pray that we ourselves cease to be

the cause of suffering to each other.


With humility, with awareness of the existence of life,

and of the suffering that are going on around us,

let us practice the establishment of peace in our hearts and on earth.

~Thich Nhat Hanh

Hymns in this service...


#123 "Spirit of Life"

# 1042 "Rivers of Babylon"

#134 "Our World is One World"

#1064 "Blue Boat Home"


Marcia Oster, accompanist


Additional selections:


"Wake Now my Senses" Irish melody

"The Wordless mountains Bravely Still,"           by Franz J. Haydn

"Sarabande" by George Handel

"Oh Zion, Haste, Thy Mission High                     Fulfilling," by James Walch


Reflection: The Past – Candace


            The great human migration that is coming is not the first time our species has taken to the road.  Far from it.  Probably most of us know that the Noah and the Flood Story that is told in Genesis 6 and 7 is believed to have been about an actual great deluge, and we know or will be unsurprised to learn that scientists believe that that deluge was climate-related.  But Noah and Naameh and their menagerie were not the first great migrators either. 


            Those first brave pioneers were, of course, the humans who left Africa to populate the rest of the Earth.  Their journey, beginning perhaps 60,000 years ago, was also almost certainly climate-precipitated, a choice of verb that turns out to be both a pun – sorry! – and not a very accurate one.  Let me explain:  the amount of water that is on the planet is finite and continually recycled and redistributed.  At the peak of the first great Ice Age, some 60 or 70,000 years ago, vast quantities of the earth’s water were bound up in the northern ice sheets, leaving more southerly areas arid and increasingly difficult for humans to inhabit. 


            National Geographic reports that the human population may have dropped to as low as 10,000 at one point, barely a large enough population to sustain the species, before we began to move out of Africa. 


            Noah and Naameh’s journey is thought to have come some 55,000 or so years later as the last Ice Age ended and the great ice sheets began to melt.  Interestingly, again according to Elizabeth Kolbert, the meltoff of the last Ice Age is supposed to have occurred, not steadily, but in four great waves.  Noah and Naameh’s ark-building and animal husbandry adventure may have been associated with the third of those four waves and the consequent huge increase in the water volume of the Black Sea.      


            In between the African pioneers and Noah and Naameh were multiple waves of other human migration, almost all climate-driven, including that which resulted in the population of the North and South American continents, made possible by lower sea levels and the rising of a land bridge between Asia and North America.  We will return to the fate of the people who made that land crossing at the end of this service.   


            But I want to move from prehistoric to historic times to make a different point about mass human migration.  As our understanding of genetics has increased, one consequence has been a much better understanding of how truly genetically diverse most human populations are and to what a great extent that diversity has been a function of human migration.  Several papers that I read to prepare for this service suggest that the relative level of genetic diversity that results from migration is a function of the size of the incoming group and the population density of the receiving group.  So, successive waves of invasion of early Europe by various “barbarians” had relatively little impact, but the incursions of Angles and Saxons into Roman Britain had a huge impact, as did the invasion of Central Asia by the Mongols.  In the latter case, Otis was the happy result.


            Well, happy for us.  Hundreds of years later.  Probably not so much for his great, great, many greats ago grandmother.  Nor for her people, who are believed to have been an Aryan group, whose physical features and culture have been eradicated, but for a very small number of artifacts.         


            And that is where we will conclude this part of the service … with a meditation on fear. 


            I ask you to consider the terror of those early African expeditions, those few thousands of early humans, starving, desperate for water, setting off with their families to who knows where.  The fear of the later day boat builders, desperately trying to escape from the new surfeit of water.  As the human population expanded across the globe, the fears of wave after wave of migrants desperately hoping for welcome from people they did not know, in places they had never been, but even more desperately afraid of the terrors they left behind.  Most recently, the fears of Middle Eastern and Central Asian young men, some daring enough to bring their families, hoping to build a new life in Western Europe.     


I ask you also to consider the fears of the people who chose or were forced to accept the migrants.  Ancient peoples and cultures that in many cases no longer exist.  Toltecs and Mayans and Aztecs and a multitude of North American tribes and, yes, the people of Otis’ great, great, many greats ago grandmother.  And also the fear of the young women in the public square in Koln this past New Year’s Eve. 


As Dot turns to a consideration of the present, I ask, “will we let fear govern our consideration of the future?”


Time of Meditation


The Present:


Reading: “The Spirituality of the Earth,” Thomas Berry

            It is obvious how significant the title Mother Earth is, how intimate a relationship exists, how absolute our gratitude must be, how delicate our concern. Hopefully, too, the long period of our mistreatment of earth is being terminated. If it is not terminated, if we fail to perceive not only our earth origin but also our continuing dependence on our earth, then our failure will be due in no small measure to the spiritualities that have governed our own thoughts, attitudes, and actions.

            In this mother-child relationship, however, a new and fundamental shift in dependence has now taken place. Until recently the child was taken care of by the mother. Now, however, the mother must be extensively cared for by the child. The child has grown to adult status.

            The mother-child relationship needs to undergo a renewal similar to that in the ordinary process of maturing. In this process both child and mother experience a period of alienation. Then follows a reconciliation period when mother and child relate to each other with a new type of intimacy, a new depth of appreciation, and a new mode of interdependence.

            Such is the historical period in which we are now living.       Development of this new mode of earth-human communion can only take place within a profound spiritual context. Thus the need for a spirituality that will encompass this process.


Reflection: The present – Dot


            We’ve made a mess .

            But we’re sharpening our pencils, finally. We’re sitting up straight, flipping through notebooks, peering at our maps and computer screens, taking measurements, and some hard looks.


            Planet Earth has got our attention, even the attention of most of the doubters, and it’s about time.


            Stabilizing the global climate is one of the greatest scientific challenge of present-day earth; reacting to the human consequences, the greatest spiritual test of our commitment to each other.


            Temperatures are rising, and the impacts are already being felt around the world in the form of extreme weather; we’ve heard it all, melting polar caps, rising sea levels, droughts, wildfires, floods, and, of course, the resulting displaced persons.


            There are approaches and technologies available now to overcome this global challenge, and there is dialogue. Intertwined with this, the spiritual community of all paths is coming forward with intelligent questioning, believing that with the best motives and compassionate work, we can take care of each other and the planet as well.

            Pope Francis has called the global warming crisis “The cry of the earth, which is also the cry of the poor,” and many of the places that are feeling the first problems, hold populations already vulnerable to the natural extremes of weather, Africa, Pacific island communities, places where dependence on the land or poverty put them at risk with any change.

            At the recent Paris conference, progress was made, not enough for some, too much for others, but there is a beginning of a plan of cooperation, and we’re still digesting all the ramifications. We will be for some time.

            In a piece written for the Brookings Institute, Timmons Roberts and Romain Weikmans, said the conference “offered up a sense of both optimism and relief. While we may have proven we might be up to the task of addressing climate change,” they said, “it’s still a mixed picture, and at present we are still weighing the strengths and weaknesses of this new agreement.”


            At that conference, dozens of world spiritual leaders added their voices, presenting an approach to tackling the problems of climate change and human migration from a unified human effort. It was not just the scientists speaking, and the world was listening.


            The relatively new field of “Spiritual Ecology” seeks to combine religion, conservation, and academia, recognizing a spiritual facet to all issues related to earth stewardship and environmental impacts of our actions, public and private.


            Proponents of Spiritual Ecology, including the late Thomas Berry, recognize a need for contemporary conservation work to include spiritual elements, and for contemporary religion and spirituality to include awareness of and engagement in scientific ecological issues.


            We have to talk to each other.


            People are already being displaced by climate change, whether in the ever-growing deserts of Africa or the vulnerable island nations of the pacific, the “what-if” is already a fact.  The future is now.


            Perhaps more than in any other region, the populations and governments of Pacific Island countries are keenly aware that they face the first and worst risks as a result of climate change. Their lives and livelihoods are linked to the ocean; rising sea levels and other effects of global warming already threaten their way of life, and perhaps their national identities.  What happens when an island disappears?


            For centuries, the Pacific Islands have been the victims of natural disasters which occur there with relatively higher frequencies than in most other regions of the world: cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and flooding – and their frequency is increasing, though these nations do little to contribute to greenhouse gases. In fact, they contribute less than .006% of those emissions, but their homes and lives are at the front lines of the effects.


            This threat could ultimately make the tiny Pacific island Kiribati, for example, the world’s newest former state. As a precaution, Kiribati, with a population of around 100,000, has already purchased land on Fiji, even while Fiji experiences its own coastal and social challenges, including those related to accepting new migrants, while they scratch their heads and wonder if there is room for all.


            Some are attempting to set up standard operating procedures for resettlement in larger countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, but the word has been slow to spread. A citizen from Kiribati who applied to be a “climate refugee” in New Zealand was recently denied asylum because his request did not measure up to the standard of “serious harm” required of applicants for refugee status. The door was shut.


            Most countries have statutes regarding political refugees, and victims of natural disasters, but we’ve been slow to amend these to include refugee status before a disaster actually happens, when it could, in all logic, be done most efficiently in an atmosphere without panic and fear.


            The type of panic and fear we are witnessing right now with refugees from the war-torn areas of the mid-east.


            Our earth is ever changing. Our climate, ever changing, and as we contemplate resettlement needs in the future, will the spiritual community provide a safe harbor to those most vulnerable? That is the question for the future:

            “Will our hearts and doors be open, and will we welcome all to the table as we seek to solve the problems together?”


The Future


Reading: “The Future Says,” by Nick Drake – Dot


Dear mortals;

I know you are busy with your colorful lives;

I have no wish to waste the little time that remains

On arguments and heated debates;

But before I can appear

Please, close your eyes, sit still

And listen carefully to what I am about to say;

I haven't happened yet, but I will.

I can't pretend it's going to be

Business as usual.

Things are going to change.

I'm going to be unrecognizable.

Please, don't open your eyes, not yet.

I'm not trying to frighten you.

All I ask is that you think of me

Not as a wish or a nightmare, but as a story you have to tell yourselves -

Not with an ending in which everyone lives happily ever after,

Or a B-movie apocalypse,

But maybe starting with the line

'To be continued...'

And see what happens next.

Remember this; I am not

Written in stone

But in time -

So please don't shrug and say

What can we do?

It's too late, etc, etc, etc.

Dear mortals,

You are such strange creatures

With your greed and your kindness,

And your hearts like broken toys;

You carry fear with you everywhere

Like a tiny god

In its box of shadows.

You love festivals and music

And good food.

You lie to yourselves

Because you're afraid of the dark.

But the truth is: you are in my hands

And I am in yours.

We are in this together,

Face to face and eye to eye;

We're made for each other.

Now those of you who are still here;

Open your eyes and tell me what you see.”

                                                     ~Nick Drake


Reflection: The Future – Candace


            It is worth noting that a close reading of Genesis 6 and 7 indicates that God had no intention of destroying his greatest creation, Earth itself.  Rather, he destroyed most of the flora and at least the land-based fauna of the planet.  Whole species were eradicated, including the unicorns if you believe Shel Silverstein, and the giants if you believe the Bible.          


            It is no different now:  global warming and climate change do not endanger the Earth.  The Earth will be fine.  Once again, it is us and the flora and fauna of the Earth that are at risk.  And while God may honor her promise not to destroy us by flood again, she will certainly test us with flood again, largely, of course, because we have abrogated our duty of stewardship of her creation.  


            Dot and I promised you a final section on hope.  Frankly, it is hard at this juncture to be hopeful, except to observe that we are a mightily resilient species, brilliant in extreme adversity.  Look no further than our far ago great greats, a mere 10,000 of them who sallied forth from Africa. 


            So to find meaningful hope, I would return you again to history, this time our history.  Of all human migrations to date, the greatest of all, in both numbers and impact, has been the combination of voluntary, forced, and somewhere in between migration that has brought around 40M Europeans, 20M Latinos, perhaps 12M Asians, and 2M Africans to this country over the course of 300 or so years.  


            That migration virtually destroyed the ancient indigenous culture, itself once a migratory culture. 


            That migration also, I would argue, produced the greatest, certainly the most hopeful culture the world has ever seen.  As good Unitarians, we must acknowledge that we invoke American exceptionalism at our peril, but we must also concede that:

  1. We in this country are today, the most responsible for where the world is with respect to present climate conditions.  Even has our contemporary responsibility wanes, as China and India’s economies grow, we will remain a significant percentage of the problem. 

  2. We are virtually uniquely capable of producing workable solutions, both to climate change itself and to its attendant challenges, notably including a certainty of a scale of human migration that the world has never seen before.  Only we have the mix of size, resources, optimism, wealth, entrepreneurship, and political stability required to do what needs doing.  Certainly we have begun doing it, but must redouble our efforts.  


            I believe “doing it” means:

  1. Working at the national, regional, local, and personal levels to limit our carbon consumption, striving for a world in which sea levels rise “only” 3 or 4’. 

  2. Participating in planning for a very different future, in which our physical and social systems must be far more resilient than they now are. AND

  3. Welcoming the new migrants to our country and our communities.  


            That last point is probably the one where we as individuals and as a congregation can have the greatest impact.  By way of conclusion, I will return you to the observation of the geneticists that the actual and perceived impact of migration is a function of (1) the size of the incoming group and (2) the population density of the receiving group. 


            As we absorb that scientific observation, surely we intuit its anthropological and social truth:  New York City will retain its essential New York-ness, virtually no matter how many emigrants it accepts, because of its density and pre-existing diversity.  Smaller, more homogenous places will likely struggle more with their fears, but it is already the case that Utica, NY has reinvented itself as an asylum for those who fled the Yugoslavian conflicts, that northern Orange County, CA has secured its economic health via the entrepreneurial energy of Vietnamese immigrants, and that dying prairie communities are becoming reinvigorated via influxes of “actually-not-so-different-from-us,” family-oriented Mexicans. 


            What role, then, can the small and shrinking, economically struggling, but culturally rich and extraordinarily tolerant communities of northern New England play?  Shouldn’t we – the WUUC - be part of answering that question? 


            Thank you.  Dot and I look forward to more conversation.     


Extinguishing the Chalice: Jaina 


 Closing words – Dot

            Fear is a voice that says: nothing matters more than self-preservation and self-importance. Fear drains the antifreeze out of your heart so your compassion center runs cold; it cuts off the feeding tubes that keep our souls supple and our morality intact.

And fear is what’s at the heart of the stingy fool’s game of deciding which immigrants are “deserving” of asylum.

            Fear says: from my comfortable position of privilege, I will decide whose hell is raw enough to merit compassion.

            What would it be like, I wonder, to choose another path? How much would it cost us to invoke the Principles of our faith, and the beating heart of our ethical lives, by saying:

  • “We’re a single, interconnected human family.”

  • “We make one another stronger and braver by sharing what we have.”

  • “All people have the same worth and the same inherent dignity; but no human being is illegal.”

  • ‘The suffering of people beyond our borders asks us to examine how we’ve created the conditions for its existence.”

                                                                  ~Ysaye M. Barnwell



Fear or Love, that is always the question.

Open the door. Open the table. Open the heart.

May it be so. Blessed Be. Amen.


We all have a responsibility to ensure the welfare of humanity, to try to make this a happier more peaceful world. But we need to find ways to promote an acceptable, universal approach to ethics or human values. Open hearts encourage a sense of security and trust that is the basis of genuine friendship, which is to everyone's benefit.

                                                                                ~ Dalai Lama








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