This week, my congregation like so many others will be celebrating the beginning of a new church year with a water ceremony.
This tradition is relatively new as far as religious ceremonies go. According to the UUA website, it was created in the 1980’s. Wikipedia offers further detail that the first ceremony occurred at a women’s meeting and one of the organizers was Carolyn McDade, composer of the hymn “Spirit of Life.”
The ceremony is simple, and can be incredibly moving and symbolic. Basically, all the members and friends who attend are encouraged to bring water from some place they have been over the summer. Each person then has a turn to speak briefly about where the water came from, what the place or event meant to them, and pour a bit into a common vessel. Thus, the community is gathered together and blended with all its impurities, as well as its life-giving properties. I’m sure over the decades and in the hundreds of congregations where this ceremony has taken place, not even the introduction given by the minister or lay leader has ever been exactly the same twice. Water is such an open-ended metaphor, one used in many faiths. And this year in my home of Vermont, water’s power to both connect and separate people was on prominent display in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
Those who are neither a Vermonter or UU may not understand the analogy, but I feel Vermont is to the United States kind of like Unitarian-Universalism is to most religions. Those who call it home are protective and perhaps overly proud of it. Both are known for being more liberal than the average. Both are tiny compared to the larger population. Both can be kind of naive about the larger issues facing the world because we are so small. Yet, I like to think that both have the ability to shine when it comes to loving our neighbors and remaining those connections to the broader world that could so easily be lost when “you can’t get there from here.”
Irene was a humbling experience for me. It was another life experience of having to admit how wrong I can be when I try to predict the future. My husband and I thought we might even be over-preparing in days leading up to the storm. We altered our grocery shopping to focus on shelf-stable foods and got only enough for a week to avoid having to throw away anything that might spoil without refrigeration. Since the place we rent has an electric stove, we built a little brick hearth over our wood stove in order to cook pizza the night of the storm. We called our teants to remind them that if they were to lose power for a while the well would not be working, so they should have some extra water ready before the storm hit.
As the rain started to fall and the wind picked up, we went about our normal activities until the power went out. I then shifted from computer work to reading a book I had gotten from the library the day before, feeling happy that I had prepared myself so well. A few hours later, after the rain was starting to subside, my husband decided to take the dog out for a walk and survey the neighborhood. It wasn’t long before he returned to tell me that our little hill was now it’s own miniture island, cut off from the Main Street less that half a mile away. The road around us were under water and the water was rising. Had he not gone out, we might not have known about how much damage was occuring right around the corner from us.
Even the next day, as we tried to reach our tenants on their phones and e-mail, the news reports had not quite reached us that less than an hour from where we were happily enjoying electric lights and running water again, our tenants and neighbors in Stockbridge were being airlifted supplies by the Vermont National Guard. The town where my husband and I own a home was one of dozens that literally became islands in the mountains, unreachable when bridges and roads were washed away by cresting rivers.
Yet, over and over again we heard how it was the community that remained, even as the infrastructure and icons of Vermont towns, like our covered bridges were literally washed away only to be replaced by gaping holes. Had we still been living in our home, we might have been among the many residents who got together in the isolated Town’s center to hold an impromptu “clean out your freezer” party and offer each other moral support.
How did I eventually learn all of this? The Internet of course. There’s even a facebook page that was set up just for the small area of my small town that is around a small brook that cause lots of trouble. Eventually, local papers started publishing articles about individual’s reactions to the storm. Perhaps my favorite title was by Rob Mitchell of the Rutland Herald, who wrote: “Cut Off, But Not Alone: Stockbridge Pulls Together.”
Yet, despite being able to see pictures from newspapers and eventually, as electricity was restored, individual’s own facebook pages, my husband and I felt helpless in trying to actually reach our tenants to make sure they had what they needed. We just had to send positive thoughts and hope the National Guard could get the roads rebuilt and the utility companies could restore some kind of normalcy to our town.
The night before Irene we thought we knew what was coming. In the days afterward, we realized just how difficult it was for us to even find out what had happened, let alone what could be predicted for the long recovery we were facing. It’s a sentiment many of us will be reflecting on when looking at the events of ten years ago today.
No one had any idea when they woke up September 11, 2001 the jumble of emotions that individuals and communities would be wrestling with later that day, or even ten years later. Shortly after the terroist attacks, my small congregation got together in a way that turned out to be similar to the water gathering service. A few days after we all witnessed the planes hitting the trade center over and over again on TV, we stepped out of our homes and gathered in the small stone church and took turns saying how we felt, what we feared, and what we hoped. I was surprised that day to learn that one of my friends at the church had a son who worked at the WTC. Luckily his son was one of the fortunate who escaped physically unscathed, relatively. But it understandably shook him deeply. It shook all of us in that small Vermont town to realize there was someone with such a close connection to ground zero among us.
We gather waters and tell stories about where we’ve been to remind ourselves that we have many paths that lead us to our Unitarian-Universalist churches on the first Sunday of a new year. If we’re lucky, we may bring water from some far off place that opens our eyes to a different kind of people, a different way of living. In the ten years since we watch the Twin Towers fall, there have been many people who decided to learn more about the Islamic faith. There was a hope that the grief that united us would cause us to try harder to understand that despite being a country of many different religions, we could live up to the slogan repeated in the PR campaign: e pluribus unum- out of many, one.
If I were going to a water ceremony this morning, here is what I would say: “We’ve seen how water can keep us isolated through the destruction of our roads and bridges. Water is neither inherently gentle or destructive, but it can be both. When we try to tame it, water and nature remind us that they are powers beyond human control. We may also remember how the water of our tears can blind us, temporarily. But, just as bridges can be rebuilt over treacherous bodies of water, if you have the strength, the intelligence, the materials, and the time to do it right, we can continue the hard work of keeping our eyes open to see the connections that run through all of us. We just have to remember that those bridges from my mind and heart to connect to yours take cooperation, strength, intelligence, sweat, and lots of time.”