Back in the 1940s, a man by the name of George Reavis, who was then Assistant Superintendent of the Cincinnati Public Schools, wanted to point out something about expectations–expectations that are institutionalized, expectations that become across-the-board standards. 

Expectations that are also unrealistic and unfair. 

He wrote a fable. Here it is: 

Once upon a time the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of a “new world,” so they organized a school. They had adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming, and flying. To make it easier to administer the curriculum, all the animals took all the subjects.

The duck was excellent in swimming. In fact, better than his instructor. But he made only passing grades in flying and was very poor in running. Since he was slow in running, he had to stay after school and also drop swimming in order to practice running. This was kept up until his webbed feet were badly worn and he was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school so nobody worried about that, except the duck.

The rabbit started at the top of the class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much makeup work in swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing until he developed frustration in the flying class where his teacher made him start from the ground up instead of the treetop down. He also developed a “charlie horse” from overexertion and then got a C in climbing and D in running.

The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, he beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using his own way to get there.

At the end of the year, an abnormal eel that could swim exceeding well and also run, climb, and fly a little had the highest average and was valedictorian.

The prairie dogs stayed out of school and fought the tax levy because the administration would not add digging and burrowing to the curriculum. They apprenticed their children to a badger and later joined the groundhogs and gophers to start a successful private school.

That’s the story from the Assistant Superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools back in the 1940s. And he concluded it with a question: 

Does this fable have a moral?

What do you think? 

For myself, I see several points being made. One is that expectations for success need to be realistic and fair, relative to the limits and strengths of the individuals in question. 

Another is that, if expectations are unrealistic and unfair, people are set up to fail, and they end up hurt in some way. They can even lash out at others, or blame themselves for their failures (as opposed to naming the real problem). 

But thank God for the prairie dogs, and people like them. They do name the real problem. They won’t allow themselves to be put in harm’s way. They say no to the toxicity of unrealistic expectations. They find a way to position themselves for real success. 

And then, finally, we have the school administrators. Their intentions are noble. They perceive a world that is on fire. They must do something heroic, in response. They organize a school. So far, so good. The problem is that they are unreflective. They make key administrative decisions on the basis of unconscious assumptions, namely: that simplicity is best. And, that running, climbing, swimming, and flying are things that all animals ought to be able to do.  

Here’s where they go wrong. 

I urge us, here at West Shore and in all of our Unitarian Universalist churches, to do better than the school administrators of George Reavis’ fable. We, too, face a world that is on fire. We, too, want to do something heroic, in response. 

But we must surface unexamined assumptions. We must take a close look at how we define success for church-based justice work. We must scrutinize the expectations we bring—the expectations that are behind the judgments we make on how we are doing. 

For there are a lot of judgments being made. It’s been this way in every church I’ve ever served. Some folks are perpetually disappointed. For them, the feeling is that we just talk and talk. We talk too much, we just dabble, and we ultimately have very little impact on the state of the world. 

Then there are folks who labor away in our justice committees and programs. Some may wonder aloud about the scant turnout by the rest of the church at various activities and events and then resolve to “publicize what we’re doing more” or “double down and do more, do better.“ Others, more privately, may question the depth of the spirituality of the people who don’t show up. Still others just feel exhausted and aren’t sure we can go on like this for too much longer….

Then there’s the folks who aren’t social justice regulars. They make their judgments too. They can judge themselves for not being more involved. They can feel guilty. At times they might wonder if social justice insiders see themselves as superior compared to other folks. Still others can resent how much visibility justice work gets and how much energy goes to it. Isn’t other programming just as important, or maybe even more important? They can even wonder about whether it is appropriate for the church, as a fundamentally religious organization, to be so engaged in matters of justice work. 

Lots and lots of judgments. They all add up to suffering. Like the duck in the fable whose webbed feet were badly worn. Or the rabbit, who had a nervous breakdown. Or the squirrel, who developed a charlie horse. Or the eagle, whose soaring strengths were misinterpreted as evidence of being a “problem child.” 

When expectations are out of line with reality and with fairness, we tie ourselves and each other up in knots. 

So, let’s be like the prairie dogs today, and step way back, and see this church and its justice work again as if for the first time

It is said that a new word or phrase can open up a new way of seeing. So let me introduce a new phrase: “stereotypical social justice impacts,” or SSJI for short. Stereotypical social justice impacts are usually assumed to be the measure of success where social justice work is concerned, as follows: 

  • First: actions of charitable service, as in the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the sick cared for;
  • Second: educational events that raise awareness, as in sermons that address sexism, book reads that explore problems with the criminal justice system, workshops that engage people around issues of white supremacy;
  • Third: collaborative efforts with local service organizations, as in our monthly outreach offering, or our working partnership with Greater Cleveland Congregations, or our partnership with Denison Avenue United Church of Christ;
  • Fourth: participation in public protests and marches, like the one this past January 6th when a couple of us turned out in downtown Cleveland despite the cold to witness to the January 6th insurrection of last year; 
  • Fifth, and finally: lobbying our elected representatives through letter-writing campaigns, phone calls, or visiting with them face-to-face, so as to influence their vote.

Are we fulfilling our potential as a church? When the yardstick for measuring that is the stereotypical social justice impact paradigm, then we must ask: 

  • How many hungry people did we feed, how many folks did we clothe or care for?; 
  • How many educational events did we pull off? How many attended? Is there any evidence that attendance at the event impacted behavior later on? 
  • How many collaborative efforts with local service organizations do we have going on? Which are our oldest partnerships with the greatest resulting impact on Cleveland? 
  • How many folks turned out for this march, or that protest? Again, is there any evidence that attendance impacted behavior later on? 
  • How many folks turned out in our lobbying campaign to influence some elected official? Did the official end up voting the way we wanted them to? Have bad laws or policies been changed—or good laws and policies created—directly because of our influence? 

Notice the emphasis on “how many” or “how much”—on numbers of different programs, numbers of people served, or numbers of participants in activities. Perhaps we are quite anxious about numbers because the even more important metric—evidence that our efforts are directly responsible for saving lives, changing people’s behavior, or getting rid of bad laws and passing good ones—is truly hard to come by. I mean, for example, how could we know if there was a person walking by the Jan 6 Vigil that Meghan Ross, her mom Cathy, and I attended, whose heart was opened by something they saw or heard? 

How could we know that? 

But the main point is this: the SSJI—the stereotypical social justice impacts—are the default gold standard of success. This is the standard most if not all of us bring to church social justice work, whether we are conscious of it or not. 

It’s certainly the standard that social justice nonprofits hold themselves accountable to. Consider a local nonprofit that we are fond of: Esperanza, whose mission is to “improve the academic achievement of Hispanics in Greater Cleveland by supporting students to graduate high school and promoting post-secondary educational attainment.” Go to their website and here are some things you will learn: 

  • Just 10 years ago, Hispanic students in the Cleveland Municipal School District were graduating at a rate of 30%. Today they are graduating on par with their peers. That is a change of 52 percentage points. Those working directly with Esperanza are graduating at a rate of 92% – higher than the state and national average of all graduating high school seniors.
  • Esperanza has provided more than $1.7 million in scholarships to more than 1,000 students since 1983.
  • Esperanza has helped over 1,200 families through Family Engagement programming.

I mean, wow! From the perspective of the SSJI paradigm, Esperanza is a huge success! 

But now I want to say this: measuring our success using the stereotypical social justice impacts paradigm is unrealistic and unfair. It truly is. Because we are what we are: a church. Ducks shouldn’t be required to pass a test in running, rabbits shouldn’t be held accountable for swimming excellence, and the SSJI should not be the yardstick to measure how well Unitarian Universalist churches are doing. 

What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist church? 

For one thing, we, as a church, can’t put all or even a majority of our resources of time, talent and treasure towards programs that directly lead to stereotypical social justice impacts. We can’t do that because we are a generalist organization; we use the resources given to us to support all sorts of programming. Worship is one of them; nothing else in society fulfills the unique function of people coming together to embody their moral and spiritual values in the form of hymns, rituals, sermons, and so on, and so churches invest a lot of their resources in worship. Same thing goes with religious education (yet another critical function of the church, in a time when society is largely secular). Contrast our situation, now, with that of a nonprofit like Esperanza. Esperanza’s resources go towards one thing and one thing only: improving the academic achievement of Hispanics in Greater Cleveland. So, of course their results, from a SSJI perspective, are impressive. 

Besides being a generalist organization, we are also democratic in nature. No less than one of our Seven Principles declares that. This does not mean that everyone at West Shore gets a say in every decision, no matter how small. As a large and complex organization, if we the people demanded that, we’d be paralyzed. So, we function as a representative democracy. We the people delegate responsibility to the Board, Staff, and Minister for many things, because we acknowledge that that’s reasonable and necessary. That said, there’s still a lot of room left for individuals at the grassroots level to decide what their social justice passions are and to rally other like-minded folks to the cause. Sometimes churches do decide, democratically, to get behind one big social justice issue (forever or for a certain amount of time), but this exists in tension with our commitment to honoring the multiplicity of people’s different justice passions, and welcoming anyone with a passion to set up shop and get busy. 

Speaking of multiplicity–this raises yet a third important characteristic of churches like ours. We are a diverse bunch. We know that that is so theologically, and we must also know that that is so temperamentally. A moment ago we heard our Worship Associate describe herself as not wanting to be out front. She said, “I want to be in the background making other people look good. Probably not the best title for a fast-selling motivational book.” And that is OK! We must affirm differences in personality and differences in life stage, and we must acknowledge what this leads to: that some folks are just more available to accomplish stereotypical social justice impacts, whereas the strengths and interests of others are best suited to other kinds of church programming. It’s just not realistic to expect that everyone or even most people want to jump into SSJI kind of work.

The results of this grassroots, democratic, diverse sensibility are several: one is limited resources divided up even more, leading to a further decrease in impacts (from a strict SSJI perspective). Another result is a need for lots and lots of talking. Anytime democracy is at play, you’ve got talking. Definitely, for this congregation to come together and decide what its collective social justice vision is, we need everyone sharing their individual visions and views, until we can suss out the larger themes that seem to be close to most if not all people’s hearts. 

For reasons like these, I urge churches in general and West Shore in particular to make a conscious choice about the standard it will use to judge how well it is doing as a justice-loving church. We want to be like the prairie dogs in George Reavis’ fable, who resist going along with unrealistic and unfair standards and who seek, instead, a standard that sets people up for success. 

To introduce this standard, I offer yet another new piece of vocabulary: “justice-heartedness.” Justice-heartedness is primarily a quality of character. Justice-heartedness contains within itself all sorts of good things: 

  • Desire to build up what enables human liberation and flourishment
  • A sense of self that is larger than one’s individuality and feels connected to community, nation, and world
  • A sense of agency—that no matter how bad things seem, there is still hope
  • An ability to show up and do one’s part and then let go of results
  • A capacity to work from a place of love and not from resentment
  • An ability to make peace with the world’s imperfection and one’s own imperfection
  • Living a life that balances saving the world with savoring the world
  • Personal development that transforms one’s angers and obsessions so that one doesn’t cause more suffering through one’s actions
  • Ability to bring awareness to times when we are tempted to take a spiritual bypass in doing the work.
  • Growing awareness of the conscious and unconscious prejudices that are barriers to compassion and love.

Justice-heartedness is all of this and more—and notice how we want it to be in place, ideally, before we aim to achieve any of the stereotypical social justice impacts. We want this because of the reason that Richard Rohr gives in his excellent little article entitled “The Activist’s Guide to Contemplation”: 

Over the years I met many social activists who were doing excellent social analysis and advocating for crucial justice issues, but they were not working from an energy of love except in their own minds. They were still living out of their false self with the need to win, the need to look good, the attachment to a superior, politically correct self-image.

They might have the answer, but they are not themselves the answer. In fact, they are often part of the problem. That’s one reason that most revolutions fail. Too many reformers self-destruct from within. For that very reason, I believe, Jesus and great spiritual teachers first emphasize transformation of consciousness and soul. Unless that happens, there is no lasting or grounded reform or revolution. When a subjugated people rise to power, they often become as controlling and dominating as their oppressors because the same demon of power has never been exorcised in them. We need less reformation and more transformation.

Can I hear an AMEN? Less reformation and more transformation. Too many reformers self-destructing from within. Social justice activists living out of a false self. Oppression staying in place, though who’s on top and who’s on bottom changes. 

It is critical that people develop justice-heartedness if they intend to go on to create the stereotypical social justice impacts, because those impacts will be infected by whatever the prejudices, delusions, aggressions, and unresolved issues are that the person brings to the work. 

I love Esperanza. I love all the justice nonprofits out there that are busy. But my question is, Whose primary role is it to create justice-heartedness in all those volunteers that go on to work at those justice nonprofits? Justice nonprofits themselves don’t do that. They don’t. 

We do. That is our primary role and our unique role, as a church. That is our gold standard—the degree to which we are doing that

This is my vision for church-based justice work. My “prairie dog” vision. Not that we don’t want programs aimed at creating the stereotypical social justice impacts of hungry people fed, or education on climate change, or collaboration with Denison UCC, or participation in the Jan. 6 Vigil, or calling our elected representatives to let them know we want democracy protected and preserved in our country! Of course we want programs like this, with SSJI aims. 

But we must honor our basic nature and limitations as a church. We are not a social justice agency like Esperanza or any of the rest. And thank God! Because the essential service we offer to all is creating justice-hearted people who can indeed be the change they wish to see in the world and who won’t be a cause of even more problems. 

This vision—my vision—is echoed by a colleague of mine I deeply respect, Dan Hotchkiss, who is also a widely honored church consultant. In his article entitled “What is the Mission of ‘Missions?” he presents an analogy: “The mission of a hospital is to heal the sick. I am suggesting that for many congregations, a better analogy would be a medical school, whose mission is to train doctors and nurses. Medical schools (and their associated teaching hospitals) treat lots of patients; you can’t train doctors without giving them a chance to practice. The purpose of the medical professions is to heal. The purpose of the school, though, is not to heal but to create healers.”

That is our purpose. Create healers. Create justice-hearted people. And note carefully how everything we do is needed for that. Worship, Music and the Arts. Religious Education and Engagement. Caring and Connection. Justice and Outreach, yes. And also the Ways and Means which enable all of this programming to happen: our building, our technology, our fundraising and stewardship, our leadership development initiatives. In my vision, nothing is in a silo. Justice is not in a silo. Everything feeds justice-heartedness, and justice-heartedness feeds everything else. 

When the number of justice-hearted people in the world is increased, of all ages, the church has done its job. 

Let me say two more things. 

The first has to do with that common complaint heard in many churches, not just Unitarian Universalist ones: that we are all talk, no action. Let’s touch on this again. First of all, it’s not true, even if the standard we are using is the stereotypical social justice impact paradigm. But also, the work of creating justice-hearted people involves a lot of talk. It just does. For me, the question is not, Are we talking too much? The question is, Are we talking about the right things? I believe that we need to talk more, but about things like: Who or what is your God? What is the source of your healing and hope? What are the gifts that are uniquely yours to give to the world? 

That’s the first thing to say, and the second is this. Consider again the list of some of the things contained in justice-heartedness: 

  • Desire to critique what is oppressive 
  • Desire to build up what enables human liberation and flourishment
  • A sense of self that is larger than one’s individuality and feels connected to community, nation, and world
  • A sense of agency—that no matter how bad things seem, there is still hope
  • An ability to show up and do one’s part and then let go of results
  • A capacity to work from a place of love and not from resentment
  • An ability to make peace with the world’s imperfection and one’s own imperfection
  • Living a life that balances saving the world with savoring the world
  • Personal development that transforms one’s angers and obsessions so that one doesn’t cause more suffering through one’s actions
  • Ability to bring awareness to times when we are tempted to take a spiritual bypass in doing the work.
  • Growing awareness of the conscious and unconscious prejudices that are barriers to compassion and love.

My question is, Who wouldn’t want to bring this to anything and everything in one’s life? To one’s partner or spouse, to one’s family, to one’s children, to one’s work, to one’s play, to one’s own self?

To anything and everything. 

There are no silos in this vision. 

There is only teamwork, across program areas. All for one and one for all. 

I know the world is on fire. We must do something heroic, in response.

It is, I believe, to create justice-hearted people who are up to the challenge of our times. 

Let it be so.