What Happens, Hafiz
What happens when your soul
Begins to awaken
And your heart
And the cells of your body
To the great Journey of Love?
First there is wonderful laughter
And probably precious tears
And a hundred sweet promises
And those heroic vows
No one can ever keep.
But still it is delightful and amusing that
You once tried to be a saint.
What happens when your soul
Begins to awake in this world
To our deep need to love
And serve the Friend?
O the Beloved
Will send you
a wonderful, wild companion.
The Story of Sara and Yusra Mardini, swimmers on the Olympic Refugee Team
Last year, two teenage Syrian refugees named Sara and Yusra Mardini had to swim for their lives when their boat broke down on their way to Europe.
Yusra, who is a member of the first ever Olympic refugee team, told how she and her sister Sara feared they might drown after their overloaded dinghy started taking in water as they crossed the Mediterranean to Greece.
They jumped in the sea and pulled the boat for three hours through the water, saving the lives of 19 others. “When I was in the water there was fear.” said Yusra. “You don’t know whether you are going to live or die.”
The two sisters, who now live in Germany, left their home in Syria’s war-battered capital, Damascus, a year ago and headed to Turkey. One evening they boarded a dinghy on the Turkish coast along with 20 others – around three times as many people as it was designed to carry.
“Before you go on the boat, people tell you that you are going to die,” Sara said. “So the first thing you think about when you get on that boat is death. You don’t think of anything else.”
Sara, also a swimmer, told her sister that if their boat capsized during the journey they should just try to save themselves as it would be impossible to help everyone else.
But when the engine stopped and the boat started deflating she realized she could not let the others drown.
“We needed to have less weight on the boat and nobody else besides us could swim … When I first got into the water my whole body was shaking like it does just before competition,” she said. “At that very moment I felt that life was bigger than me alone. All the people on that boat were part of me.
“I thought it was my duty to jump in the water … if I (had left) them I would feel bad with myself for the rest of my life.”
Sara described how her father’s friend cut off her trouser legs in the sea to stop her clothing weighing her down. After two hours she was battling exhaustion and knew she risked falling asleep and drowning.
“It was getting dark and cold, the wind was blowing and I was freezing. I could not open my eyes any more, they were full of salt water,” she said.
They eventually arrived on one of the Greek islands in the middle of the night.
About her olympic opportunity, she said. “I think about making my parents proud and everyone who supported me.”
We’re all in this thing together
Sink of the life raft: I mean, think of the life raft. Open sea, children on your lap, adults on your lap, using the soaked bodies near you for warmth. Perhaps your hand rests obsessively on the inflated side of the raft, squeezing to try to measure how long you have. Eventually, you would be sitting in water, lost at sea in a measly little craft barely able to keep everybody in it.
I imagine that I would be thinking, how did I get here? How did the world get so small that there’s nothing left but dark salty nothingness pressing in? How did this life get so out of hand that my only two options were to stay and watch my motherland be torn asunder, or, step onto a boat while people shout at me that I’m going to die on it.
Yes, people get pushed into pretty scary places by this world. Even we, who will likely never face the incredible, scalp-tingling vomit of a sea escape, even we know that the world is a place to get lost in. A place where one’s can lose oneself, where we sometimes come up against the end our options.
We’ve all come up to these moments, the how did I get here, how did we get here, moments. I see it every day in those around me. The confusion turned to fear turned to anger in the face of a woman who’s just been cat-called, the glass-eyes of someone in a hospital waiting room, the warry jadedness that I sense in so many people who live on the street. And, I see it in my own self! When black people were being beaten at Trump rallies, I took to the bed. I languished, I had to put my face into a bouquet of fresh cut flowers to sensorily cleanse myself of that horror. It may be the sea of rolling grass on the Kansas prairie, but we are lost at sea as well. We’re in a good little bit of trouble here on this earth. We’re fitting more people on this little blue green vessel of ours than it’s designed to hold.
So many people in our world are coming up against the end of their options.
So, what did these girls do? At the end of their options? They decided that, when push came to shove, they were going to create another option. They went from being a passenger, adding weight and pressure to the problem, to using their strength to push everyone to safety. They were the only ones on the boat who could swim. They had a skill, a resource, a privileged life story that allowed them an outlet to safety. They could have left. That was the original plan, in fact! One sister said to the other, if this dingy sinks, then we should just swim to save ourselves.
Individuality, self-sufficiency, ego, glory. All the things we’re insidiously taught are so important. But none of that matters if you see that life is bigger than you alone. Not if you feel that all the people on this boat are part of you. Not if when I cry you taste the salt in my tears.
Because, saving ones’ own self only works in theory. It’s a farce. We are all one giant family. That’s what universalism is. Everyone is saved. Only, without a God, when push comes to shove, who does the work? We do. We bear the burden of creating options, but we also get wear that mantle with elegance. Because it is our duty as Universalists to understand that we are all in this together, it is our duty to use our strength. It is our duty to use our skills wisely and with style to push this mysterious floating vessel of ours to a better place.
So, the task now is to hone our skills. To build up our strength. So, what’s your skill? What’s your duty? Where are you strong, that you could do for others what they have no strength to do for themselves? Where are you strong, for you? Then, that’s where you push from. For yourself, too, you push from that strength. For your relationships, you push from that strength. For your work, for your art.
I’m pushing with the strength I have to chart a path for us, to help us navigate our way toward safety. I’ve got a little life left in me yet. I can do for y’all what I know you would do for me. What other people have done for me, when I’ve been lost. Only it get’s huger and huger, because I’m a Universalist. In my mind, I hold a public office, so who’s in my boat? Every single human, animal, insect, and plant on this earth. Because I need it to survive, too. I need this vessel, too. Who knows, maybe those young women wouldn’t have made it on their own. Maybe they needed the faces of their passengers to get them through.
This is why I uprooted my entire life and moved to Kansas. Because I knew ya’ll were down to push! I knew you’d swim! I knew that you were strong and passionate and skillful and wise and were awake in the world to our deep need to serve the friend. Because I knew that you could take some salt in your eyes! Because I saw in you a bravery of heart! One of our young swimmers said that there were children in the boat who watched her while she swam. She didn’t want them to worry, so she smiled up at them while she swam. Because she had a little life left in her, yet.
And I know you do, too! You might be weary, you might be jaded, you might be at the end of your options, but I know you’ve got a little life left in you yet, too. I know you’re strong! And if you can’t feel your own strength, for godsake, let somebody know. What might happen if you do? You might just get sent a wonderful, wild companion, someone who loves you enough to smile at you while they push you to safety.
What I do when I’m weary, when I’m cold and tired and think I might just go ahead take to the bed, I remember one particular night, being called into the death of a 37 year old woman in the hospital. Her peers had gathered around, her brothers and sisters, cousins, and her elders, her mother and aunts. They were a devout family with the religious tools they needed to do the prayers and blessings they felt were required. I sat with them for many hours, and came to see a tender love between them. Just sitting with them, I understood how their prayers worked, and who they were to each other.
Suddenly, a hush fell over the room and everyone looked to the doorway, where a young man stood. He was in highschool, and I knew immediately that he was gay. He was a beautiful person, poised and graceful. The family parted for him, let him come forward to see his mother, but no one touched him or kissed him or held him, he stood, staring glass-eyed at her body. I watched in horror as this elegant boy was held at arm’s length in what must have been one of the most trippy and confusing moments of his life. No one said a word to him, he just turned and left the room and was let to float out to sea, roaming the hallways of the hospital at 3 am.
I went after him. I said, Hi, I’m Rose, I know that’s your mom. He looked hopeful and said, “who are you?” To which I said, “I’m the chaplain,” and his face fell. He just shut down when I said I was clergy, and my heart crumpled. Now, my presence was forcing him into a further remote location, washing him away with big shelves of water, farther into his own alienation. He made to leave, and I decided to just go out on a limb and called, “I’m a Unitarian Universalist.” He turned and literally fell into my arms. We eased down the wall, and all of his sorrow and blech poured out. We spent hours together that night, navigating those treacherous waters, me just riding along, getting out and pushing sometimes.
All I said was Unitarian Universalist, and it was like I’d thrown him a raft. An option opened for him. The presence of our religion in this world changed one lost and abandoned beautiful brown young man’s experience of his mother’s death. See, we don’t even know how far our love seeps out into the world. We don’t know how important our way might be to the course the future takes. For ourselves, for each other, we need to push our love as far out as we can. This world needs our hugeness and our solidarity. Because we’re all in this thing together.