The year began with the House Speaker votes being taken over and over, with the newly elected victor only to be ousted shortly thereafter. A former president was then indicted, over and over. A spy balloon is shot down, a submersible machine implodes, Maui was plagued with wildfires, while Barbie ruled the big screen. Hamas brutally attacked Israel, igniting intense violence in Gaza, while the vilolence in Ukraine waged on.
The biggest stories weren’t usually ones of inspiration. Over the months that I’ve been with you, numerous ones of you have said you don’t even like watching the news any more, so difficult it is to be exposed to.
There is much in the world to grieve, including losing some phenomenal people this last year. Perspective is always so important, though. Today we don’t grieve those losses, but instead celebrate the lights that they brought our beleaguered world, reminding us of the choice we always have towards optimism.
There are far too many to cover in the span of 20 some minutes, so this is but a smattering. Some names you’ll likely recognize, most you won’t. All, nonetheless, were beacons of hope.
Let’s get started…
Pope.L, was an uncompromising conceptual performance artist who explored themes of race, class and what he called “have-not-ness.” He was best known for his 2001 performance involving crawling the entire length of Broadway in New York, which he entitled “The Great White Way: 22 Miles, 9 Years, 1 Street, Broadway, New York.”
His first “crawl,” as he called them, took place in Times Square in 1978, when he moved on his belly across 42nd Street in a pinstriped suit with a yellow square sewed to the back.
These crawls dramatized the experience of subjection particular to Black Americans, and the incongruity of a man in business attire sprawled out on the sidewalk, drawing attention to the unhoused and disenfranchised people that the average upright citizen habitually ignored.
The impact of his work came primarily from his willingness to say and do things others wouldn’t. Especially when performing, he used his own bodily presence to shock viewers back into their own.
Scott Rothkopf, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, said about Pope.L “He had a brilliant capacity to distill difficult, even horrifying truths about American society. It could be funny, but it was never easy.”
We all know this half of a duo that created “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a variety show that made its debut in 1967, and courted controversy as it addressed Vietnam, religious fundamentalism, racial strife and recreational drug use.
“During the first year, we kept saying the show has to have something to say more than just empty sketches and vacuous comedy, so we always tried to put something of value in there, something that made a point and reflected what was happening out in the streets.” Words such as “breast” and “heterosexual” were censored, creating frequent disputes with the CBS network.
Smothers said, “It was the ’60s that we reflected. The country was going through a revolution — a social revolution, a political and consciousness revolution. We tried to reflect that.” The show was canceled after three years, but their presence in the public was continued in other venues.
Richard Hunt, a Chicago native, was a prolific sculptor whose metalwork became a mainstay in our country’s public art scene. He was the first African American sculptor to have a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971.
Richard was 19 years old in 1955 when he attended the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, the young Black Chicagoan who grew up near Mr. Hunt and was tortured and killed by white men, helping to ignite the civil rights movement. That experience helped shape Mr. Hunt’s career, which at base focused on representing freedom.
Using unusual methods, Hunt would scrounge in alleys for scrap metal or pick up parts left over from car crashes to use in his art. He was quoted as saying, “Sculpture is not a self-declaration but a voice of and for my African American people.”
Even as his work drew the attention of art collectors and political leaders, Mr. Hunt spent much of his adult life sleeping on a mattress on the floor of his Chicago studio, with few amenities and huge piles of scrap metal with which he and his colleagues would build.
Dr. Gao Yaojie
Gao Yaojie was a Chinese doctor who defied government pressure and exposed an AIDS epidemic across rural China, which occurred due to careless blood collection. Officials concealed, ignored or played down the outbreak for years, and infected villagers received little help until the furor that had been inspired by Dr. Gao and other experts prompted the government to offer medicine.
Her relentless efforts to expose and halt this epidemic among poor farmers in the late 1990s brought her fame. Even in exile and in failing health, she continued to speak out about the hundreds of villages where tens of thousands died from AIDS.
Dr. Gao said, “AIDS not only killed individuals but destroyed countless families. This was a man-made catastrophe. Yet the people responsible for it have never been brought to account, nor have they uttered a single word of apology.”
Pablo Guzmán gained widespread attention in the early 1970s as a leader of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group based in East Harlem, New York. This group grabbed New York’s attention with high-profile street actions intended to highlight the deplorable condition of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
They built walls of garbage across city streets to protest ineffective sanitation; they took over a church and used it to offer free breakfast to school children; and they briefly occupied a Bronx hospital, turning it into a free clinic.
Despite these humanitarian efforts, the New York City Council called the Young Lords “terrorists” and both the F.B.I. and New York Police Department spied on them.
Ultimately Pablo became an Emmy-winning television news reporter.
We all know that Rosalynn was the spouse of President Jimmy Carter. What you might not know is that at birth she had been delivered by Mr. Carter’s mother, a nurse. And a few days later Jimmy’s mother took little Jimmy, then almost 3, to Rosalynn’s house, where he “peeked into the cradle to see the newest baby on the street.”
Eighteen years would pass before the two would truly connect. But once they did, they became life and work partners. They shared a fierce work ethic, a drive for self-improvement and an earnest, even pious, demeanor. Their Christian faith was central to their lives.
While in the White House Rosalynn lobbied vigorously for the Equal Rights Amendment and for women to participate at all levels of government, and advocated tirelessly for mental health issues. She regularly sat in on Cabinet meetings to stay informed.
Following the presidency, she and Jimmy traveled the world in support of human rights, democracy and health programs; domestically, they labored in service to others, most prominently building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Here are a couple of her quotes:
“I tell him what I think.”
— Carter explaning how her husband didn’t need to ask for her advice
“I just don’t want to. Not for religious reasons. I just don’t want to. Besides, I’m saving the taxpayers’ money.”
— Carter, about why she didn’t serve liquor at the White House
Ady Barkan, a well-known activist who campaigned for Medicare for all while struggling with A.L.S.
Mr. Barkan was diagnosed with paralysis-causing A.L.S. in his 30’s, and he confronted his mortality by dedicating the rest of his life to changing the American health care system.
His profile and influence grew even as his health deteriorated, in part because he had a knack for blending his personal story with calls to action.
“That’s the paradox of my situation, as my voice has gotten weaker, more people have heard my message. As I lost the ability to walk, more people have followed in my footsteps.” Politico called him “the most powerful activist in America.”
Be a Hero, the non-profit organization he founded, campaigned, among other things, to protect nurses during the pandemic.
Ida Applebroog, was an acclaimed artist who confronted the violence, coercion and mortality that can simmer beneath everyday relationships with a prolific stream of drawings, paintings, sculptures and videos.
She was quoted to say, “I’m more interested in doing something to the viewer, than saying something to the viewer.”
Her work was deeply involved with gender and authority. If her drawings could come across as violent or disturbing, it was only because she was working from life. In her 1983 photolithograph entitled “So?,” a woman saying “He says abortion is murder” is met by a group of men retorting, “Why else did God give us the bomb?”
“It’s hard to say ‘What is your work about,’” she said. “But for me it’s really how power works — male over female, parents over children, governments over people. Doctors over patients.”
Charles F. Feeney, a pioneer of duty-free shops and investor, gave away nearly all of his $8 billion fortune to charity, much of it as quietly as he had made it.
In 2016, with his donation of $7 million to his alma mater, Cornell University, for student community-service work, Mr. Feeney officially emptied his accounts, fulfilling his pledge to give away virtually all of his wealth before he died, a rarity in the philanthropic world.
“Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model, and the ultimate example of giving while living,” his fellow billionaire Bill Gates said. Another of the world’s richest people, Warren Buffett called him “My hero and Bill Gates’s hero — he should be everybody’s hero.”
Mr. Feeney was troubled by an opulent life far from that of his blue collar family and friends in New Jersey.
Unlike philanthropists whose names are publicized, Mr. Feeney’s innate kindness and concern for others resulted in him anonymously giving to universities, medical institutions, scientific endeavors, human rights groups, peace initiatives and scores of causes intended to improve the lives of others.
Mr. Feeney reversed his extravagant lifestyle, and began flying economy class, buying his clothing off the rack and taking subways or cabs.
M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent crop geneticist who fused plant breeding science with keen administrative skills to produce bountiful harvests that ended famine and steadily transformed India into one of the world’s top growers of wheat and rice.
Known around the world as the father of India’s Green Revolution, Dr. Swaminathan helped ward off starvation for hundreds of millions of people through his research, along with training programs he developed to teach farmers how to cultivate more productive varieties of wheat and rice.
For more than seven decades, Dr. Swaminathan steadily built one of history’s most formidable careers in crop science and food production. He got his shoes muddy in farm fields and strained his eyes in laboratories on three continents to do this work.
Carol Robles-Román advanced the causes of equal opportunity and social justice for women, immigrants and ethnic and racial minorities through leading roles in city government, the courts and higher education in New York.
In his own statement, former mayor Bloomberg, for whom she worked, said Ms. Robles-Román had “helped spearhead groundbreaking work to make the city more accessible to our immigrant and disabled communities, and to stop domestic violence and human trafficking.”
Her legacy was that she was someone who above all believed in and fought for equal justice and fairness.
The cargo plane flew in low over southeastern Nigeria, its lights out, its radio off, its pilot navigating by the glow of refinery flares along the coast. The runway, somewhere below, was dark. The pilot dropped his wheels and nosed the plane downward, seemingly into the void.
On the ground, a team of boys suddenly ran out of the bush to light rows of kerosene lamps to guide the craft toward the tiny airstrip, just 75 feet wide and 1,200 feet long. Aboard were 26 tons of antibiotics, flour and salted fish, as well as a 34-year-old Irish priest named Dermot Doran.
It was December 1968, and Nigeria was in the midst of a civil war ,with 14 million residents about to starve.
Father Doran had been a high school principal who pivoted his role to aid workers during one of the 20th century’s worst humanitarian crises.
Overall, the airlift he helped organize brought 60,000 tons of aid to the region, at the time the largest mobilization of aid by civilians in history. Between 500,000 and two million noncombatants died because of the blockade — but an estimated one million more survived because of the airlift.
Judy Heumann was an activist who spent decades attacking a political establishment indifferent to the rights of disabled people and won one fight after another, ultimately joining and reforming the establishment.
A quadriplegic since childhood, Ms. Heumann began her career in activism waging a one-woman battle to be allowed to work as a teacher in New York City when discrimination against disabled people was not widely understood as a problem.
She went on to become an official in the Clinton administration, a special adviser in the Obama State Department and a fellow or board member at some of the nation’s leading nonprofits.
Charles Silverstein helped persuade the psychiatric association to change the language in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to completely end the profession’s pathologizing of homosexuality…a watershed moment that led to further reassessments.
“I threw back at them their diagnoses over the decades and how funny it all sounds now, and pointed out that their fun had hurt a lot of people,” Dr. Silverstein said. “I ended by saying to them, ‘Don’t do it anymore.’”
This 1973 revision was the beginning of the end of organized medicine’s official participation in the social stigmatization of homosexuality.
Adolfo’s talent was as banal as could be: He knew how to remove supposedly indelible blue ink from paper. But it was a skill that helped save the lives of thousands of Jews in France during World War II.
He had learned how to remove such stains as a teenager working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner in his Normandy town. When he joined the anti-Nazi resistance at 18, his expertise enabled him to erase Jewish-sounding names like Abraham or Isaac that were officially inscribed on French ID and food ration cards, and substitute them with typically gentile-sounding ones.
The forged documents allowed Jewish children, their parents and others to escape deportation to Auschwitz and other concentration camps, and in many cases to flee Nazi-occupied territory for safe havens.
At one point, Mr. Kaminsky was asked to produce 900 birth and baptismal certificates and ration cards for 300 Jewish children in institutional homes who were about to be rounded up. The aim was to deceive the Germans until the children could be smuggled out to rural families or convents, or to Switzerland and Spain. He was given three days to finish the assignment.
He toiled for two straight days, forcing himself to stay awake by telling himself: “In one hour I can make 30 blank documents. If I sleep for an hour 30 people will die.”
Word of the cell spread to other resistance groups, and soon it was producing 500 documents a week, receiving orders from partisans in several European countries. Mr. Kaminsky estimated that the underground network he was part of helped save 10,000 people, most of them children.
Naomi Replansky, a self-taught Jewish-American poet — for decades keenly celebrated yet curiously unheralded — whose work portrayed a world of labor, oppression and struggle but was no less hopeful for all that.
Born and reared in the Bronx, and as at home on the factory floor as at a coffeehouse reading, Ms. Replansky wrote of subjects long considered no fit fare for poetry: manual labor, poverty, disenfranchisement, racism, exile and the Holocaust.
Her work, critics concurred, was not so much standard protest poetry but rather a minute examination of the vicissitudes of social history through the lens of individual lives, including her own.
“Poetry for me,” Ms. Replansky said, “is a way of mastering the world.”
When that joy is gone for good
I move the arms beneath the blood.
When my blood is running wild
I sew the clothing of a child.
When that child is never born
I lean my breast against a thorn.
When the thorn brings no reprieve
I rise and live, I rise and live.
When I live from hand to hand
Nude in the marketplace I stand.
When I stand and am not sold
I build a fire against the cold.
When the cold does not destroy
I leap from ambush on my joy…
Naomi’s will be our last remembrance this morning, and we end with her because of hope. She was nicknamed Poet of Hopeful Struggle, and that’s today’s take-home….hope in the face of struggle.
I saw a billboard on the way to the church this morning that ties in with theme of hope in the face of struggle. It was about Jesus, and it said, “Are you preparing to meet Jesus?”
In the back of the letters was a heartbeat like you see on a heart monitor in a hospital. The implied message, of course, was, are you getting ready, while you have the chance and are still alive, to meet Jesus once you’re not alive?
I think Jesus would say, “You don’t need to prepare to meet me in some realm that follows your earthly death. You can find me now….
See my afflicted face in the Chinese farmers stricken with AIDS, and see my healing face in the doctor who did something about it.
See my face in all the marginalized faces, faces that the people we celebrate today worked tirelessly on behalf of.
And find me in the lives and work of these people, who understood my message of hope, hope for the here and now, despite and in the midst of, the struggle.”
Our work is to not only recognize the holy in these people, but to emulate it in our own lives, as we profess to do every Sunday in our mission statement:
Our purpose is to continue in our time what Jesus began in his – working for the healing of our world as an inclusive, compassionate, joyful (and may I add, hopeful) community.
May we truly live into these words, as we embark on another new year, new chapter of our journey.