© Jeremy D. Nickel 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
October 3, 2010
Listen to Audio Exerpts from the Service (mp3)
As the taxi slowly crept through the cramped and darkened back streets of Prague, it never occurred to Martha that she was being followed. She was thinking only of the task at hand. But when she heard the eerie creaking of the brakes as the car slowed and stopped at the deserted corner, she was suddenly newly aware of the extra man sitting in the front seat.
She hesitantly swung her door open and paid the driver. As she walked away from the car she was painfully aware that it remained idle where she had left it. Every hair on the back of her neck sent her reminders of the lack of movement behind her. And then she heard a noise that was unmistakably the passenger side door opening.
She heard footsteps, and she could tell even without benefit of turning around that they were slowly coming her way. She quickly ducked around a corner and slid hard against the shallow enclosure of a doorway, pushing her body as deeply into the space as she could. The footsteps turned the corner and gained speed. It was becoming impossible to imagine anything other than that she was indeed being followed.
Through the darkness she could make out the form of the man, and now she could see that he wore a uniform. He walked past her makeshift hiding place, pausing a dozen feet away, turning left, then right. After shrugging his shoulders, he turned and she felt he was looking right at her. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he disappeared back around the corner, and she listened as he spoke to her cab driver. She heard the noise of the door creaking again as the uniformed man got back in the cab, and then listened with relief as the car drove off into the night. It was then that Martha Sharp realized exactly how high the stakes were in her actions.
This is our history. This is our hope.
In 1938, the American Unitarian Association was becoming increasingly distressed at the news out of Europe. When it reached the States that a group of democratic governments in Western Europe had agreed to appease Hitler by ceding the Sudetenland, formerly of Czechoslovakia, to Germany, the AUA decided it was time to get involved.
The true level of horror that was unfolding inside Germany was not yet apparent to the rest of the world, but the AUA's interest in the region was predicated on several factors. Besides having several Unitarian congregations in the country, the AUA felt very invested in the spread of democracy, and it is clear in the writings of both the Unitarian and Universalist denominations of the time, that even before any reports of genocide emerged, the destruction of the democratic process was already quite disturbing. So the AUA decided to send someone they could trust to see firsthand what could be done.
The initial request to a Unitarian minister to travel to Prague was made less than a week after the transfer of the Sudetenland and was met with a resounding 'no' from their first choice. Undaunted, the AUA moved down the list to their next choice and were likewise met with a polite but firm 'no.' Further and further down their list they went, past their fifth choice, their tenth, and fifteenth. After having asked sixteen Unitarian ministers and being turned down by every single one of them, the denomination turned its failing hopes to the young and relatively unknown Rev. Waitstill Sharp.
Waitstill, the pastor of a small congregation in Wellesley MA, had a burgeoning family, a young wife named Martha, and two children under the age of five, making him an unlikely choice for a mission that would take him away from home and church for several months and put him smack in the middle of the most dangerous conflict in the world. But Waitstill was not alone. His wife Martha, a very active social worker in Boston, was every bit the kind of person you would want to send on such a journey. Smart, creative, practical, confident to the point of brave, she quickly convinced Waitstill that this was not only a journey they should take, but a call to action that they simply had to answer.
Just a few short months later, with their children safely cared for by supportive members of their congregation, Waitstill and Martha embarked on a journey that would change the lives of thousands of people they had yet to meet. Sent off with high hopes and short dollars, the Sharps immediately went to work creating a network of people they met on their journey from Boston to Prague. Ships captains, diplomats, visa clerks, innkeepers, restaurant owners, rich and poor, the Sharps not only befriended all they met on this journey, but they also connected them to each other.
On that journey, the Sharps created a network of hundreds of ordinary individuals who would work together, most without ever knowing the names of those they worked with, who would help move thousands of Jewish children and hundreds of other political refugees safely to the United States over the next several years.
The Sharps established an office in Prague and over the next 6 months strengthened the network of ordinary people that would help them smuggle so many refugees to safety. On the night that the Nazis took control of the city, instead of fleeing, Martha and Waitstill went to work burning files. Shortly thereafter, with Waitstill in Switzerland meeting with other international groups, Martha took the solo journey in the taxi that I described earlier. The danger to them was becoming all too clear. Martha departed Prague a week later and reunited with Waitstill in Paris. It was there, through their contacts, that they learned that Martha had escaped capture by the Gestapo by one day.
This is our history. This is our hope.
After leaving Prague their work changed, but continued. They helped formally create the Unitarian Service Committee as the organization for the work they were doing and opened several offices across Europe, which were in turn staffed by other Unitarian ministers who were now lining up to help with the effort. One such man was the Rev. Charles Joy.
It was the end of another long hard day in Portugal. It was becoming increasingly frustrating to do the work he was called to do in the Lisbon office of the Unitarian Service Committee. Sneaking refugees over borders with faked visas and counterfeit passports was a hard enough job for well-established organizations, but for an upstart like USC, it was almost impossible. In this cloak-and-dagger world, instantly establishing trust across languages, nationalities, cultures and ethnicities could mean the difference between safe passage and death or imprisonment. The problem was that the nature of this work made it hard to spread their name, meaning that every encounter had to be renegotiated and a new trust formed. He knew he needed help. He needed something that could communicate all of this quickly and wordlessly. What he needed was something that would be immediately recognizable as a symbol of freedom, of trust, of hope. What had him up late this night was an idea.
Rev. Charles Joy was a man of deep faith, and he felt it was no accident that he had just that morning received a letter from a refugee working in his Lisbon office. His name was Hans Deutsch and he was an accomplished artist from Austria. He could hear in the letter that something was blossoming in Deutsch, and his instincts told him that within this man's talents lay the answer to his fledgling organization's need.
He again picked up the letter and unfolded it. He wanted to read it one more time before he put pen to paper to propose the idea that he knew was waiting to burst forth from him. He returned to the passage that gave him such hope:
"There is something that urges me to tell you how much I admire your utter self-denial and readiness to serve, to sacrifice all; your time, your health, your well-being, to help, help, help.
"I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith - as it is, I feel sure - then that religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and - what is more - to active, really useful social work. And this religion - with or without a heading - is one to which even a 'godless' fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!"
Yes, Rev. Joy thought to himself, his faith was becoming active and useful, and with this man's help, it could possibly reach new heights of effectiveness. He set down the letter and effortlessly wrote the words that would forever change his work and his denomination.
Hans Deutsch, I would ask you to create a design for our papers "to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work.... When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important."
He felt the words fell far short of communicating the importance of the task, but trusted that this man would understand, and he was right, for this is the story of the creation of our flaming chalice design. The symbol of the flaming chalice was born in a time of oppression but stood for hope and service. To this day, this symbol represents faith in action - and the good work of people like Martha and Waitstill Sharp.
This is our history. This is our hope.
I want to conclude today by telling one final story. It begins with a little boy named Artemis who, like many junior-high school students, was tasked with the assignment of writing a short biography of one of his relatives. Artemis decided to write about his grandmother, because he loved the way she told him the most incredible stories before he went to bed when she visited, and he wanted to know more about her.
At first when he asked his grandmother to be the subject of his report, she resisted. He thought at first that maybe this was because she didn't have much of a life story to tell. But Artemis was persistent, and eventually she agreed.
The next time his grandmother came to visit, they sat down at their kitchen table, Artemis with his little notepad and recorder at the ready. He asked a few questions to start off with, but none of them seemed to be leading anywhere, and he began to fear that his initial doubts about her having nothing worth telling might have been true after all. Finally he asked her, in the way only a child could get away with, if there was anything interesting about her life that she wanted to tell him. Little did he know she would then go on to tell him the most fantastic story he ever heard, and it would all be real. Over the next several hours Artemis' little hand would struggle to keep up with what he was hearing as his grandmother Martha unearthed the forgotten and dusty details of her work in the late 1930s, and with every new bit of information his eyes grew wider and his jaw dropped a little closer to the ground. His grandmother was a superhero!
As he grew older, Artemis began to dig deeply into the boxes his grandmother had left up in their attic. Under layers of dust he found amazing documents: lists of names, fake visas, birth certificates, journals, letters, hundreds of priceless artifacts that fleshed out a most amazing story. This is the true story of how the lost legacy of the Sharps was rediscovered.
I was present along with family members of the Sharps, UUA President Bill Sinkford, UUSC President Charlie Clements, and members of the House and Senate the day all of these artifacts were first displayed at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. In speech after speech that was given that day, one message was repeated over and over again. It was said in many different ways, but what everyone kept focusing on was the amazing power of ordinary people linked together to accomplish extraordinary things.
And that, more than anything, truly is our history and our hope.
And I think that this is an especially important message for us to hear today. It is now almost accepted as fact that the problems of the world have gotten so large that it is relatively impossible for any one person to make a difference. But it is just this kind of apathy and hopelessness that the story of the Sharps and the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee responds to. Waitstill and Martha are historical accidents: the 17th choice of a small religious denomination, under-funded, inexperienced, with young children back at home. This is not, on paper, the dream team anyone would assemble to save thousands of people from a force as powerful as the Nazis seemed then. Yet despite these long odds, Waitstill and Martha are two of only three Americans ever to have been recognized by the state of Israel for their work saving Jewish refugees.
And as it turns out, our flaming chalice is not the polished work of some slick New York marketing team, but rather was the inspiration of an overworked and over-his-head minister and a refugee artist fleeing evil. Together these two created a symbol that instantly communicated hope in a time ripe with fear. Together these two created a symbol so powerful and enduring that still to this day, every one of our churches begins their services by lighting a chalice.
So how then can we make a difference as individuals? I am certainly not advocating that anyone here should jump on a plane tomorrow and head off to Darfur. We cannot all be just like the Sharps, but we can all be like the people who helped them. As much as this is a story about an ordinary couple that accomplished extraordinary things, it is also the story of the hundreds of ordinary people who helped them. Nelson Mandela, quoting Marianne Williamson, once said,
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."
This is our history, this is our hope.
May it be so, ashe.
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