The Complexities Of Life

Born Jan 4, 1813 (two hundred years ago), Elisha Atkins is memorialized in our Tiffany Window.  As can be said of anyone, his was a complex life.  The legacy he leaves us is complex as well.  Some thoughts on Mr. Atkins, on our beautiful window and on the lasting effects of actions and institutions.

Elisha Atkins, born Jan 4, 1813–(two hundred years ago this past Friday–is memorialized in our Tiffany Window.  He died in 1888, about two years before this window was made.

The portrait of the person who appears in the glass is Elisha Atkins.

He is portrayed as a weary pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain—a famous pilgrimage spot where Saint James is believed to be buried. 

The angel is said to be cheering him at nightfall with the assurance that the rocky path of life leads to eternal day.  (That comes from a sermon by Diane Miller in 1988 who cited the church archives of 1890.)

The beauty of window is quite stunning, and it has worked its way into the consciousness of many in this congregation. 

It has become quit meaningful for people here; and it is displayed prominently on our website, on so many of our materials.

People have told me how much they love this window, and it is interesting to hear peoples’ varied thoughts about what it means.  That is one of the more fascinating aspects of art: the plasticity of its meaning.

I know that many people stare at it and find comfort as they drift away into their own thoughts during the preaching of sermons.

The window is a Tiffany, entitled “Guardian Angel” and the designer was one Will Hicok Low.  

As most of us know, the watercolor from which this was made put on long term loan just last spring to the Museum of Fine Arts which hung it in the Art of the Americas Wing.  It is now being stored until it is put on display again in ten years.  A copy of that watercolor is hanging in our upper gathering hall.

Elisha Atkins lived most of his life in Boston and spent summers in Belmont.  He was never a member of this congregation, though his son Edwin was; in fact, he (Edwin) served as chair of what was then the Parish Committee when this building was erected and he was a major funder of the congregation.

        Elisha Atkins was a self-made man of sorts.  He built a shipping company that took part in a small triangular trade, bringing finished goods from Boston to Central America, then bringing goods from there to Cuba, and shipping sugar from Cuba back to Boston.  Later he became the Vice-President of the Union Pacific Railroad.  His son, Edwin, took over the family shipping business and later also became a Vice-President of Union Pacific.

Importing sugar from Cuba.  My first thought about that was: so that involved slavery.  Unfortunately, it did.

When Elisha Atkins began importing sugar from Cuba, he made deals with plantation owners whose workforce consisted of slaves.  Of course, this was at a time when the United States also had slaves, and sugar basically came from plantations in the Caribbean or from plantations in the south.  If you lived in Boston and you purchased sugar, you funded the practice of slavery.

There was a slave uprising in Cuba called the ten year’s war which lasted from 1868 to 1878.  The peace treaty that was signed granted immediate freedom to those slaves who had rebelled.  The ones who had not joined the rebellion were renamed “patronato” and were guaranteed freedom in ten years.  They were actually freed in 1886.  In the meantime, because of debts owed to them, the Atkins Company became the owner of a number of plantations and therefore the owner of the patronato on those plantations.

So the Atkins family made much of its money from sugar, that is, from the profits made by the use of slaves.  And they funded much of the costs of this congregation.

I take a dim view of slavery.  And it is somewhat disturbing to think that this window and this building are in part the product of such an evil institution as slavery.

Even though slavery officially ended in Cubain 1886, we as a congregation benefit today from the profits of that slavery.  We benefit because we have the physical existence of this Sanctuary to provide us a place to meet and worship; and we benefit because we have the beauty of this window to stir our minds and hearts.

That is to say, the effects of slavery still exist.  We see their physical manifestations around us right in this moment.

And if the benefits to us of slavery still exist, it is also true that the detriments to others of slavery also still exist in our time.

The effects of slavery are not over.  It helped to establish the economic stratification that still exists today.

So the first point I would make is that the after effects of slavery still live, and any assumptions that people should just “get over it” and view it as long in the past are false assumptions.

It is also the case that slavery still exists today.  Just this past Monday there was an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “How Many Slaves Work for You?”.   The piece was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation here in the United States.  The piece points out that there is still human trafficking in the world, including here in the United States.  And it points out that forced labor around the world benefits us.  Us.  You and I. 

The United Nations estimates that worldwide there are twenty one million people living in conditions of forced labor, and that one quarter of those are children.   

In the New York Times op-ed piece there was a link to the web site of Slavery Footprint which allows one to take a survey that will tell you how many slaves work for you.   Now I am always a bit skeptical of such things; the creators of the survey have an interest in making the results as dramatic as possible.  But taking the survey is still an awareness raising activity.  The survey claimed that up to 80 slaves work for me. That may be a wildly incorrect number, but it is important to recognize that forced labor is used to produce much of the world’s goods and that it is important to exert pressure on governments and corporations to stop that practice.

It is also important to me to recognize that there is very little purity in life.  Very few people live lives that are either purely evil or purely good.  I certainly do not.  We are more complex than that; life is more complex than that.

Most Americans today–whether black, white or other; whether descendants of slave owners or descendants of slaves, or both, or neither–benefit in some way from the ongoing existence of slavery in the world.  We benefit by paying cheaper prices for goods, whether crops that are grown and picked or goods that are manufactured by forced labor. 

Ours is a less direct connection to slavery in that it is difficult to point to nay one item and say, “this was made by a slave”, but we are connected to it none the less.

Now if I left things there, it would be terribly depressing. 

When I met with the Worship Assistants a few months ago and spoke about my plans for this sermon, one of them said, “please don’t ruin that window for me!”; I have no wish to.

There has been much good that has come out of this congregation, and that can not be separated from the unfortunate fact that so much of our past is tainted by a connection to slavery. 

If that good were just what we do for one another in our shared ministry, that would be good enough; though perhaps it could then be argued that we are self serving and that we ignore the call to justice.  But that is not all that we are and do.

This congregation is where the Unitarian Service Committee was created, an organization that initially helped people to escape from danger in Nazi controlled Europeand that has evolved over the years but always with human rights as a guiding principle. 

In large measure it was by members of this congregation that Belmont Against Racism was founded.

This Church is still the only religious building in Belmont that flies the rainbow flag, welcoming those who are sexual minorities.   

Our Social Action Program strives hard to bring to us issues of importance and to support efforts to achieve good in many ways.

We raise our children to see social justice as a goal to be worked towards. 

And many people here are engaged in social service and social justice work in other aspects of their lives. 

Much good has come out of the existence of this congregation and that good is also a result of the money and the time and effort and caring of people in the past.

We are living proof that good can come from evil; that divine love or human care an transform anything into goodness. 

I want to turn back to the window for a few moments.

First, there is an ironic fact about it: in the evening, as the light changes, the green of the robe of the angel and of the traveler turns to white, and the skin tones of the two figures turn a deep chocolate color.  Perhaps one message of the window is that the angel also cheers on the oppressed people of the world, telling them that there is a glorious day ahead. 

The Camino de Santiago, the road to Santiago de Compostela, is still an active pilgrimage route.  It is really a network of roads that come fromF rance, Portugal and other parts of Spain and that slowly converge on the tomb of Saint James.  Many of them are hundreds of miles long.  The weary pilgrim is justifiably tired.

One message from this window is that just as the Pilgrim Road is a long on, and has many different components to it, so the road to justice is also a long one.  We as a global people have come quite far along it and, really, have done so with remarkable speed over the last two hundred years or so and have moved even more quickly over the past one hundred years.  

In the past one hundred year span of time, traditional colonial Empires have given way to national independence; we as a global people have established the United Nations and declared that human rights are paramount and belong to the individual; and we have begun to tear down the institutions of slavery and other forms of discrimination that have oppressed human beings world wide for millennia.  What has happened over the past few generations has far outstripped the progress made over centuries of previous time. 

We are on the road to a world of freedom and justice.  And while we are not moving quickly enough for my taste, and certainly are not moving quickly enough for the hopes of those held in slavery today or those discriminated against because of their race or ethnicity, their gender or gender orientation, their religion or lack of religion, the fact is that we are on the road to equality.  We, the people of this planet, are the weary pilgrim being cheered by the angel of hope. 

I have said that in reading any story from a sacred text, one of the important recognitions is that each character in the story is us, lives in us in some way.  So both collectively and individually, we are the weary pilgrim slowly making our way to the holy life.

But also, we, the people of this congregation–with all of the work that we do both collectively and individually–we are the angel cheering on the world towards greater justice, towards the ultimate goal of human freedom.

The journey is a long one and we should not be dismayed by how far we have to go, nor should we judge the people of the past too harshly for not being as far along the road as we; especially when we recognize how much like they we are and how far we have to go.  We have our own faults and failings, our own baggage of injustice.  But we are here in part because of the efforts of those who went before us, people like Elisha and Edwin Atkins who have bequeathed to us a home full of beauty and hope and promise.  Let us carry on the journey encouraging one another as we tire.  The pilgrim road is long, but it does reach a glorious goal.