© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
June 26, 2011
Long ago, in a time lost to all knowing, lived the first two people, our ancestors. These two people I refer to are not necessarily our ancestors in terms of the physical evolution of our bodies, but rather they are the ancestors of the stories that we tell to each other as we struggle to understand who and what we are. Many cultures have stories like this, and one is about a woman named Eve and a man named Adam. This particular first couple lived in a place called Eden. The most important thing to know about Eden was that it was, in every way possible, as different from where you live now as a place could be.
Eden had no strip malls, no stops signs, no fast-food joints. And the ever-present sounds of other people didn't exist there either. Rather, Eden was populated by lush tropical flora and fauna of all kinds; wide-trunked trees and dark green plants pregnant with ripe, delicious fruit, and the cleanest and purest water a dry mouth has ever drunk. Eve and Adam innocently danced around Eden, adorned by only the covering of their flesh, warmed by the sun by day and hugged by the innocence of each other's love by night, free from worry and full of the joy that a life free from any knowledge of evil can bring.
One of the reasons we tell the Eden story is to explain to ourselves why we are no longer carefree and innocent, why we no longer live in such perfect and loving relation with each other and the earth, why we hurt each other, and compete for the resources we need to live. Because one of the implicit messages of this story is that when Eve and Adam left the perfect-goodness of Eden behind, when they traded their lush garden for a path that led to noisy, polluted highways, and pulled clothes on over their nakedness, life became too complicated, and so evil entered the world. It became so complicated that one could no longer enjoy such right relations with the rest of creation. This too is part of the Eden myth: that every step away from the golden age is a step towards ever more complicated and bad relations.
If only we could return to Eden, this myth says to us, then everyone would be happy and at peace once again. For in Eden, everything is easy and everyone is good. Our time is certainly not like that. But does that mean that we are doomed to live in poor relation with each other? What if the Eden myth were not true? What if instead of seeing this world as the inevitable result of an unstoppable move away from simple goodness, we rather began writing a new story about who we are and where we are going? What if we wrote the Eden story in reverse?
If we did, our new story might start with a fruit seller in Kenya named Francis. Unlike Adam, Francis was born into a family. Francis had not only a mother and a father, but sisters and brothers in his home as well. And also unlike Adam, Francis had to work to feed not only himself, but all the members of his family. Francis did not have a lot of choice in his occupation, but he had access to some of the same delicious fruit that grew in Eden, and he had a loud, clear voice. So Francis spent his days in the orchard and his evenings pushing his modest wooden wheelbarrow from market to market, calling to any with ears that he had the most wonderful mangoes, the freshest pineapples, the sweetest oranges and the ripest bananas.
It was hard work, but it was honest work, and Francis could arrive home proudly each night with enough money to help support his family, and get his wheelbarrow ready for another day of selling.
It all sounds so simple, but this is not Eden. No, this is Eden in reverse and so it is anything but easy for Francis. Because in Kenya, times are tough. You see, in Kenya, where Francis lives, the government has been unstable lately, which is actually not something Francis is used to. Kenya had long been one of the most stable countries in Africa. But since January of 2008, after an election that ended with both sides feeling wronged and plenty of violence, the economy was deeply wounded. And those informal workers, who lived as important members of society but worked on its economic margins, felt the strain the hardest.
Literally overnight there was more competition for the fruit that Francis harvested to sell in the markets. As a result, he was able to get less fruit to market every day. And the sellers with stalls in the market, who were also feeling the strain, had begun to look at him and the other cart sellers with anger and even to turn a blind eye to the harassment Francis received from the local police, harassment that seemed to come more and more every day.
Recently, the harassment had reached a new level, when the authorities took his wheelbarrow away from him, with no reason ever given. And now this. Yesterday Francis was pulling his new wheelbarrow into town, when he stopped for just an instant to catch his breath. When one works on the margins, such a moment is all it takes to give the crooked authorities all the excuse they need to swoop in and take advantage. Francis was arrested and thrown in a local jail, charged with obstructing traffic and all kinds of other trumped-up charges such as resisting arrest and selling his goods without a license.
When Francis was brought in front of a judge, he was not allowed to defend himself, and the judge came down very hard on him. We don't know why this judge treated his fellow man like this. It is not that we lack possible explanations. Perhaps the judge was from a different ethnic group, or assumed that Francis was on the other side of the recent political dispute, which was still fresh on everyone's mind. We don't know why this judge treated his fellow man like this, but I bet that if we asked him he might tell us that he was just doing his job. He might tell us that his punishment of a severe fine is what the system demands.
But this is not justice. No, this is Eden in reverse. This is not the carefree human relations of our first ancestors, but rather a complicated network of people perpetuating the worst aspects of who we are and what we can be. This injustice done to Francis was done to him by the hands of one judge and a few crooked police officers, and yet, it is also the inevitable result of an entire system of injustice.
And just when it appeared that this system would swallow Francis whole and finally and completely destroy everything he had been working so hard for, someone came to the rescue. Over the past several years, the informal vendors like Francis had been organizing amongst themselves. Slowly they had been able to build alliances with other traders, hawkers, and vendors and even to get trained by a national alliance of street vendors called KENSAVIT. And it was exactly this training that Francis's fellow vendors used to get him released, get his fine cut in half, and, most importantly, get his wheelbarrow and fruit returned. His life had been severely interrupted, but thanks to the quick thinking and action of his fellow vendors, this would not be the catastrophe that it had first appeared to be. From the brink of utter destruction Francis was led back to wholeness by regular people who had learned how to take a complicated and broken moment and calm it down and heal it.
Liberal Religion rejects the idea that evil resides in a supernatural being, or even that a person can be defined by this singular characteristic. But this does not mean that we reject it all together. Quite the opposite, we see evil in the structures and systems that prevent people from actualizing their best selves, that keep people from reaping the rewards of their hard work and sweat, that communicate to people that they are of less value and insult their dignity, that keep us out of right relation with all of creation. Thus, our call as a liberal religious community is to work to dismantle these structures, to help people free themselves from these systems that wordlessly keep them from meeting their highest goals and knowing their best selves. This is the Eden myth in reverse - that we can use the complicated networks that we have developed in the world not to perpetuate evil, but rather to dismantle it.
And it is organizations like KENSAVIT, which trained the vendors that came to Francis's aid in his moment of need, that are doing the hard work of dismantling these structures and systems. And it is with pride that I tell you that KENSAVIT, which stands for the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendors and Informal Traders, is strongly supported by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
UUSC doesn't work like so many of the other international development organizations. Rather than taking western ideas and solutions and forcing them upon people deemed in need, UUSC partners with local groups like KENSAVIT in order to empower people to free themselves from the oppressive systems that keep them from liberation.
Currently, KENSAVIT is organizing the vendors so that they can speak with a unified voice as they do this difficult work. One way they are tackling the issue of harassment at the local level is a national bill called the MSME bill, or Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise Bill, which would help build support at higher levels of government so as to protect the vendors from the harm done to them at the local level, where the system is most vulnerable to abuse.
KENSAVIT has also created a revolving loan fund, which supplies seed money at extremely low interest rates, unlike the for-profit micro-finance institutions, which have gained popularity, but charge much higher interest rates. The revolving loan fund will also train the vendors so they will be better able to run their businesses and more likely to pay back the loans, which in turn get re-distributed to others in the community with need.
KENSAVIT is just one example of the amazing partners that UUSC is working with here in the United States as well as across the globe to walk the walk of our Liberal Religious talk. I urge you as Unitarian Universalists to learn more about your Service Committee and the amazing work they are doing. I have no doubt that as you become educated you will feel moved to support UUSC. There are many ways to get involved. A financial contribution, whether through membership or as a gift is always appreciated, and they are also always looking for excellent volunteers to help them keep connected to the local congregations.
Not every story has a happy ending like Francis', but if we don't give in to the belief that the world is simply too complicated, and that the systems and structures that keep people in bondage are simply too strong to be overcome by the hard work of good people, then we can write whatever ending we want. Our ancestors left Eden, but that doesn't mean that we can not find our way back.
May it be so. Ashe.
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