I love religious bookstores. They are like candy shops for religion nerds. Every time I pass one I go in, often dragging a complaining friend behind me. I like to wander through the stacks, gaping at the sheer quantity of bibles and touching the prayer beads of different faiths. And I particularly like the children’s section with its illustrated bibles and coloring books of martyrs and saints. I was raised UU, so these coloring books weren’t a part of my childhood, but I had something similar, a big, bound coloring book called the UU kids handbook. This book had our version of Saints, the men and women of our faith who had risked everything to make the world a better place.
I was drawn to the women. I could read the story about Dorothea Dix over and over again. Dorothea, a woman who had privilege and the right social connections, felt a deep sympathy with people who were poor, or in prison. So in the 1840’s a time when well-bred young ladies were meant to stay home and behave themselves, Dorothea raised funds, and went around the country visiting mental institutions. Dorothea campaigned, wrote books, pushed and pushed so that these awful places would be abolished, so that all people, no matter their illness, would be treated with dignity. I could imagine myself being brave like Dorothea, going into places I wasn’t supposed to go to make people’s lives better.
When I wasn’t imagining a career as a pioneering journalist, I could imagine myself like Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman known to get a medical degree in the United States. Elizabeth, who was only allowed to enter medical school because the student body had thought her application was a joke and approved her as a trick, was a trailblazer. She opened the path to a prestigious profession at a time when the idea of an upper class woman having a profession at all was deeply suspect. I knew I could do something like that to; prove that I was just as good for myself and for people like me.
These were my heroes growing up. Men and women who refused to do what they were told. Who made the world a better place for themselves and those who came after them. I was going to be just like them.
When I was little, I wanted to be one of those people in a coloring book. I probably won’t be, most of us probably won’t be. They won’t be mentioning my name as one of those who changed the world in some future sermon. And when you accept that you can’t change the world single handedly, that problems are big, and complex, and take time, it can be easy to give up. There are so many problems in the world, and each and every one of them can feel so daunting, what are we to do, what difference can our small efforts make?
I grew up wanting to be Dorothea Dix or Elizabeth Blackwell. They are aspirational figures, and we should try to follow in their footsteps. But doing that doesn’t mean that we have to be them to make a difference. We just have to try. We don’t have to change the world ourselves, but we do have to help. I would ask us to remember this every time we try to decide if we will go to that protest, or take an hour to read to a child, and wonder if it will really make a difference, if it is really worth the time. It is, it always matters. History may not remember our efforts, but we will. I want to know that we, as a community and individuals, did everything we could, no matter how small, to change the world.
I want to know that we are all standing together. Remind yourself that it matters. Remind each other that it matters. Remind me that it matters. Drag a friend with you to the food bank. Ask each other what you are doing over coffee. Go out and help change the world, and come home and tell us all about it.