Labor of Love

Opening song:
The opening song, sung by Lewis Santer, was “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin. See note (4) for the lyrics.

The readings, chosen and read by Rev. Mary Ganz, were the following poems:
“What I Learned from My Mother” by Julia Kasdorf
“What Work Is” by Philip Levine
“Heart Labour” by Maggie Anderson

Sermon: Labor of Love

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Notes appear at the end of the sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

I thought I’d speak with you this morning about whether you can find a job you love. One legacy of the Protestant Christian tradition which has deeply influenced United States culture is an assumption that our jobs should be both personally satisfying and good for the world. That old Protestant Christian tradition taught that each one of us had a vocation, a calling: it wasn’t just priests who were called by God, every single person in the Christian community was called by God to do their bit to make this world a kind of heaven on earth.

This morning, on the day before Labor Day, I thought I’d question this old Protestant Christian assumption. So let me offer up an old story, supposedly told by Jesus of Nazareth, and first written down about the year 70 C.E. by a member of the Jewish reform movement that later became known as Christianity.

As the story begins, a crowd has gathered around to watch that radical rabble-rousing rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, debating with the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. At that time, the Roman Empire ruled Jerusalem and the rest of Judea, a land which not so long before had been an independent Jewish country. When the Romans took over Jerusalem, the chief priests, scribes, and elders had to learn to get along with the Roman overlords; and at the time of this story, they derived much of their power and authority from their association with the Romans.

These chief priests, scribes, and elders are debating Jesus because they desperately want to get Jesus to say something, anything, that can be taken as critical of the Roman regime. If they can do that, then they can get the Romans political leaders to arrest Jesus and execute him. Avoiding all their verbal traps, Jesus proceeds to tell them a story, which goes like this:

A man goes out and plants a vineyard. He puts a fence around it, digs a pit for the winepress, and he builds a watchtower. Then the landowner rents the land to some tenants, and he goes off live in another country. [At this point, the crowd listening to Jesus tell the story realizes the man must be quite wealthy, since he can afford live abroad.]

Harvest season comes around, and the landowner sends a slave to go and collect the rent from the tenants. The tenants grab the slave, beat him, and send him back to the landowner empty-handed. So the landowner sends another slave; same thing happens, except the tenants also insult the slave. The landowner sends another slave, and this one the tenants kill. The landowner keeps sending slaves to collect the rent, and the tenants beat some of them up, and they kill some of them. [The crowd is getting a better sense of how wealthy the man his: he has so many slaves, he can afford to let some of them get killed.]

The landowner finally decides to send his son, thinking: Surely the tenants will respect my son. But when the tenants see the landowner’s son, they say to each other: This is our chance, if we kill the son, the landowner will give up, and the land will be ours. So they kill the son, and throw his body out of the vineyard. [The crowd is now confused: are the tenants the heroes of this story, or have they just gone too far?]]

Jesus ends the story by saying: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” [Mark 12:9] The crowd is thinking: Wait a minute, what is Jesus saying here? We thought this was an allegory of the evil Roman empire taking over Jerusalem. We thought Jesus was telling us to resist the Roman overlords. Is Jesus now telling us that “Resistance Is Futile”?

And then Jesus quotes the Hebrew scriptures, Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” Many of the people in the crowd are good observant Jews who can fill in the rest of the Psalm from memory, including lines like “All nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” and “With the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?” So Jesus is NOT saying that resistance is futile after all!

And indeed, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, all willing tools of Roman empire, know that Jesus is talking about them. Jesus is saying they are like the evil landowner who extorted too much money from the tenants, provoking the tenants to open rebellion. When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, it sounds to them like he’s calling for open rebellion. They dearly want to arrest Jesus, but they fear the crowd, so they do nothing.

As for the crowd, Jesus has gotten them thinking.

On the one hand, the image of the tenants killing the landowner’s son, then throwing the body outside the vineyard — that’s a pretty disgusting image. That’s the trouble with armed rebellion: you have to kill people, and you are not going to respect the dead bodies of those you kill.

On the other hand, since they are Jewish, the crowd knows about Sabbath years, and about Jubilee years. (1) According to the book of Leviticus, every seventh year is a sabbath year, when you are supposed to let the land lie fallow. Everyone in the crowd would have known that the book of Leviticus was written by Moses, and they would have known that Moses wrote down the actual words of the god of the Israelites. The god of the Israelites told Moses: “When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord.” This was, by the way, an ancient Jewish practice for promoting ecological sustainability.

So every seventh year is a sabbath year. Then every seven-times-seven years is a jubilee year. In the jubilee year, the god of the Israelites charged human beings to do the following:

— let the land lie fallow, to encourage ecological sustainability;
— proclaim liberty throughout the land for all inhabitants and free those held in bondage;
— any land that was sold must be returned to the original human owners (this was because the God of the Israelites really owned the land, not humans).

When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, he gets the crowd thinking about jubilee years. The crowd knows the Romans will never abide by the rules of the jubilee year; the Romans had their own gods, ignoring the god of the Israelites. And the crowd knows that the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of Jerusalem — those among the Jewish people who should above all others uphold the laws of their God — the crowd knows that these Jewish leaders have been co-opted by the Romans; they are no longer serve truth and righteousness, they serve Rome. The Roman empire rules Jerusalem with their military might, ignoring the Jewish laws of ecological sustainability and human freedom.

So ends this old Christian story. You will notice that there is no real resolution to the story. And here’s how I understand this story:

The chief religious idea of Jesus of Nazareth is what he called “the kingdom of heaven.” But for Jesus, heaven meant something different than it does in today’s United States, where our religious culture is dominated by Protestant Christian ideas. For Jesus, heaven did not mean — to quote Joe Hill — “pie in the sky, bye and bye”; for Jesus, heaven is something that exists here and now. Heaven is, in fact, what we today call the “Web of Life,” that is, the interconnected relationships that bind together all human beings, all living things, and many non-living things. When we damage those interconnected relationships, when we damage the Web of Life, we are damaging what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. (2)

In the story, the landowner set up his vineyard and rented it out to some tenants and then left town so he could live in some exotic foreign place. By doing this, landowner damaged many relationships of the Web of Life. As an absentee landlord, he damaged his direct relationship with the tenants. Because he did not live on the land, he damaged his relationship with the land, and he demanded that his tenants produce more from the land than the land could sustainably yield. He was a slave-owner, which damaged many human relationships; worse yet, he sent his slaves to do his dirty work so that he didn’t have to face up to his tenants.

This story, then, is a case study in damaged relationships: damaged relationships between people, and a damaged relationship between human beings and the land. This is a case study in how human beings damage the Web of Life.

Now let me say the obvious: this case study comes from two thousand years ago, from a place with a very different economic system than we have now. We probably can’t draw exact parallels with Silicon Valley today, much as we might be tempted to do so.

But what we can say with certainty is that most of our jobs damage our interconnected relationships with other human beings, and with other living beings. Take my job as an example: being a Unitarian Universalist minister is all about strengthening relationships between people, and between humans and the rest of the ecosystem. That’s on the plus side. On the negative side, statistics show that ministry as a profession is correlated with a higher rate of substance abuse, and a higher suicide rate, and strong anecdotal evidence suggests that many ministers work long hours to the neglect their immediate families. Ministry as a profession may strengthen some of the interconnected relationships that make up the Web of Life, but it does damage to others. And this is a good job.

You can do this kind of thinking about your own work. To get you started, I’ll give you three examples of how your work might damage the Web of Life. If there’s institutional sexism present in your workplace — and that is true of far too many workplaces in Silicon Valley — your job is doing damage to the Web of Life. If your work is not carbon-neutral — and that is true of most jobs in the United States today — that damages the Web of Life. If your workplace shows evidence of institutional racism — true of most workplaces in the United States — again, damage to the Web of Life.

Now I do believe there are some jobs, a very few jobs, which are true vocations. These rare jobs provide a balance between several things: they benefit the world, provide an adequate salary to the person holding the job, allow you adequate time for family, the democratic process, and social service; all this, without burning you out. Mind you, I don’t happen to know anyone who has one of these rare jobs, although I like to believe they exist.

But most of us have to compromise in one of these things. For example, many Silicon Valley white collar jobs provide an adequate salary and may even do good in the world by providing needed products or services; but when those jobs require you to work such long hours that you have little time to spend on democratic process, social service work, or even your family, then those jobs are damaging the relationships that constitute the Web of Life.

When you consider the vast array of jobs that you could have, a Silicon Valley white-collar job is about as good as it gets. So you see, if even though a Silicon Valley white collar job is as good as it gets, no one should count on such a job to make life fulfilling.

And this brings us around once more to that old story told by rabbi Jesus. He lived in a world where there were wealthy landowners who made their fortunes by exploiting the land, and by exploiting their tenants. When he told his story of the wealthy landowner and the rebellious tenants, Jesus did not give us a neat, tidy ending. He did not solve the problem for us. But one thing is clear: those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the human relationships around them are so strained. They are never going to find their work fulfilling as long as the land is owned by wealthy business owners who are accurately described by Psalm 17, in this translation by the eighteenth century poet Christopher Smart:

They’re swollen with fatness, as their days
To sumptuous banquets they devote;
Their mouths are filled with pompous phrase,
As on their wealth they gloat. [3]

And it is clear that those tenants are never going to find their work to be fulfilling as long as the relationship between humans and the earth is so out of balance.

By now, maybe you have come to the same conclusion I have: those tenants are us. Many of us are like the tenants in the story: we toil in a kind of voluntary servitude, while someone else coins our life blood into gold. We are forced to live our lives out of balance with the Web of Life.

Instead of placing all our hopes and dreams into a job, then, let us place our hopes and dreams and love into a vision of what our lives could be. Our real work is, as songwriter Ralph Chaplin puts it, to build a world in which “we claim our Mother Earth, and the nightmare of the present fades away, [and] we live with love and laughter.” And how might we do that? How, to use the old Jewish phraseology of Jesus, can we live to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth? How can we stay in balance with the Web of Life? Here are three possible answers for you to consider:

First, remember the Jewish concept of the sabbath and the jubilee year, which promote ecological sustainability by letting the land rest. Humans need rest, too. Therefore, we can promote our own sustainability by letting ourselves take a sabbath and lie fallow, every now and then.

Second, remember that the Web of Life already exists all around us — the Kingdom of Heaven is already here, in that Web of Life. We are already a part of an interconnected web of relationships that binds together all human beings, and binds humans together with non-human beings. So give thanks and praise for that web of relationships of which we are already part.

Third, strengthen our relationships with other humans, and with non-human beings. Devote our best energy to family and friends and community. Spend time outdoors with non-human beings. Build wider relationships by participating in democracy, and volunteering our time.

If we can manage to do these things — to find time for rest, to give thanks for the Web of Life of which we are part, and to strengthen our relationships with all beings — if we can do these things just a little bit, we may find the beginnings of true fulfillment.

And so you see, this is our real labor, and it is labor of the heart. For our true calling, or true vocation, is not to have a fulfilling job; our true calling is to love and be loved in return.

(1) My interpretive methodology here is based in part on John Shelby Spong’s recent book Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (New York: Harper One, 2016).
(2) This interpretation from theologian Bernard Loomer. See, e.g., “Unfoldings: Conversations from the Sunday Morning Seminars of Bernie Loomer” (Berkeley, Calif.: First Unitarian Church, 1985), pp. 1-2.
(3) Reprinted in The Poet’s Book of Psalms, ed. Laurance Wieder (Oxfor: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 25.
(4) Lyrics for “Commonwealth of Toil” by Ralph Chaplin: Continue reading Labor of Love

A Black Universalist in the 1830s

Readings: The readings were three poems by Lucille Clifton, including:

A prose poem from Generations: A Memoir

telling our stories



Sermon: A Black Universalist in the 1830s

The sermon below was preached in honor of Black History Month by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Notes appear at the end of the sermon. Sermon copyright (c) 2016 Daniel Harper.

One of the best things about being part of a congregation like this one is that you get to hear other people’s stories. If you join a men’s group or women’s group, if you become a Sunday school teacher, if you simply open yourself to others during social hour, you will hear people’s stories: “When I first met my life partner…” someone will say; or, “When I was in eighth grade…”; or, “When I lived in Virginia….” So begin the little stories about someone else’s life.

No one is going to publish a big fat biography of an ordinary person’s life. Usually, the only time we get to hear the story of someone’s whole life is after they die, at their memorial service. Mostly we hear little pieces of other people’s lives; but if you listen long enough, over the course of years, you will hear enough to piece together — not a biography, but a sort of patchwork quilt of that person’s life.

So it is we can piece together the lives of ordinary people of the past; people who are not powerful, famous, male, white, and highly educated all at the same time. With such ordinary people, we mostly can know only pieces of their stories. But we can fill in the holes between the pieces with questions, and stitch it together, like a quilt, into a whole.

Now I would like to tell you the story of Nathan Johnson, a Black Universalist who lived from 1795 to 1880.

About Nathan Johnson’s early life, we can only ask questions. Who were his parents? Was he born free, or did he emancipate himself from slavery? How did he learn to read? How did he get to the north? He was born about 1795, perhaps in Virginia; [1] or perhaps in Philadelphia, either enslaved or free. [2] The first real fact we know about Nathan Johnson’s life is in 1819, when he was in his twenties, he got married in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

New Bedford in that time was a city with a surprisingly enlightened racial outlook. The Quaker residents of the city had been helping enslaved persons run to freedom since at least the 1790s. [3] The city was a terminus for the Underground Railroad. And in New Bedford, a person of color could do quite well financially: by about 1800, one black man, Paul Cuffee, of African and Wampanoag descent, had amassed a small fortune through shipping and international trade. [4]

Nathan Johnson married Mary Mingo, a free black woman born nearby, in New Bedford on October 24, 1819. Mary, better known as Polly, was ten years older than Nathan, and had been married once before. [5] She had at least two children from her first marriage: Rhoda who was an infant, and Mahala, who about seven years old in 1819. [6]

After their marriage, Polly and Nathan worked as domestic servants for Charles W. Morgan, a young man who had come from Philadelphia to marry the daughter of a wealthy ship owner; perhaps Nathan even came north with Morgan. [7] As was true of many Quakers and ex-Quakers, Morgan was probably involved with the Underground Railroad.

When they began working for the Morgans, Nathan was about twenty-six years old, and Polly thirty-six. What was it like for Polly and Nathan to live and work as domestic servants in the house of a wealthy newly-married white couple? How did Polly take care of her own children, a baby and school-aged child, while also attending to her duties as a domestic? What were their day-to-day lives like? As is so often true of the lives of ordinary people, we know little of their daily life.

We do know something of their religious lives. Polly became a member of First Baptist Church in 1820, a church with a white minister. [8] Presumably Rhoda and Mahala went to church with their mother.

But not Nathan. In February, 1822, he asked to be admitted into membership of New Bedford Friends Meeting, the Quaker congregation. His employer, Charles Morgan, described the scene in a letter: “… my black man Nathan sat during [meeting for] business and towards the close, rose & informed the meeting that he had no wish to intrude, but believed it his duty to become a member of that Society … speaking very well & properly, the request received due notice, and is under care of overseers. I was entirely ignorant of his views or intentions — though he is quite plain & has been very exemplary in every respect for a long time … Frank says they will have a new light in a dark lantern….” [9] I have to explain this last sentence: when Charles Morgan says “new light in a dark lantern,” he is referring to a brewing controversy among New England Quakers between the Old Lights or more conservative Quakers, and the New Lights or liberal faction which included Morgan and his family.

Morgan’s letter tells us that Nathan was well-spoken and articulate; that at age 17 he was treated as an adult; and that he had been attending Quaker meeting long enough to know the ways of the Quakers. It sound like he wore the characteristic plain dress of the Quakers. Finally, we learn that Nathan probably counted himself a part of the faction of religious liberals. For some reason, Nathan was not allowed to join New Bedford Friends Meeting, perhaps because he was black, or because the conservatives didn’t want to let another liberal in. Or it may be that he was already engaging violent anti-slavery activities, in opposition to Quaker pacifism. [10]

It seems unlikely that Nathan continued worshipping with the Quakers for much longer. By about 1824, Charles W. Morgan had joined the Unitarian church in New Bedford, and perhaps Nathan followed his employer to that church. This Unitarian congregation had had a black member as early as 1785. [11] But by 1824, the Unitarians were no longer welcoming towards African Americans: although there were abolitionists in the pews, the congregation was not racially egalitarian. [12]

In this same year, 1822, Nathan first became active in antislavery efforts. [13] In November, he attended a trial where a white slave catcher from the South was trying to prove that a black man was an escaped slave. Nathan saw how the anti-slavery activists protected the rights of the black man: “A person stood behind [the slave catcher] with a heavy pair of tongs in his hand ready to brain him” should he try to abscond with the black man. [14] From this time on, Nathan allied himself with the more active antislavery activists.

By the time Nathan was in his early twenties, he and Polly were doing well financially. They owned a house and several commercial properties; Polly opened a confectionary shop on the other side of their house. [15] Their businesses kept growing; by 1829, they had added a bathing house and rental apartments to their holdings. [16]

In his prosperity, Nathan was also becoming more radical. In April, 1827, he was accused, along with several other men, of entering a house at night, and severely beating a person of color named John Howard, who was visiting New Bedford. At Nathan’s trial, no one would testify against him, so the charges were dropped. The white abolitionist Samuel Rodman told his diary what was really going on: John Howard was hardly an innocent victim, but rather someone who had come to New Bedford “to get information of run-away slaves.” [17] Nathan had come far from Quaker pacifism. By 1833, Nathan had become a Universalist, who met in the old Quaker meetinghouse, which he now owned; the New Bedford Universalists at that time were mostly radical anti-slavery activists. [18]

At the 1830 U.S. census, Nathan, Polly, and Polly’s daughters Rhoda and Mahala were the only ones living in their house. [19] For Nathan and Polly never had any children of their own. Did Nathan regret not having children of his own? What sort of relationship did he have with Rhoda and Mahala? — he would have been the only father Rhoda ever knew, but what about Mahala? Once again, we have no answers to the most important questions.

Though we know so little of Nathan’s family life, we know more about the confectionary business. The wealthiest families in the city — and at this time, New Bedford was the richest city in America — purchased sweets from the Johnsons. Polly was rumored to have learned some of her cooking secrets in France, and charged accordingly. Her molded ice cream alone was worth two dollars a serving — at $45 each in today’s dollars, that was expensive ice cream! [20] For his part, Nathan carried on an international trade in sweets and nuts to supply the business. One of the items that they sold was “free-labor candy,” that is, candy made by free black workers, as opposed to slaves. Nathan and Polly were doing so well from their business ventures that they rode to and from anti-slavery meetings in a horse and carriage. [21]

And then, in September, 1838, came a most momentous occasion, though probably Nathan and Polly Johnson didn’t realize it at the time. Some white anti-slavery activists brought a young couple who had escaped from slavery to the Johnsons. [22] The man was named Frederick Johnson, but because there were so many Johnsons in New Bedford, Nathan suggested this man change his name to Douglass. [23] Yes, the famous Frederick Douglass got his new name from a Nathan Johnson, a black Universalist!

Frederick Douglass described his new friend thusly: “I will venture to assert that my friend Mr. Nathan Johnson … lived in a neater house; dined at a better table; took, paid for, and read, more newspapers; better understood the moral, religious, and political character of the nation,– than nine tenths of the slaveholders in Talbot county, Maryland.” [24]

At some point, Nathan brought Frederick to the Universalist church. One day, Rev. John Murray Spear, the white minister and radical abolitionist at the Universalist church, discovered Douglass debating the doctrine of universal salvation in the church building; Douglass, I am sorry to say, argued for the existence of eternal damnation. [25] But Spear saw that this young man had exceptional rhetorical ability, and was one of those who encouraged Douglass to become a public speaker. [26]

It should be noted that few Universalist churches were as egalitarian and racially tolerant as the one in New Bedford. Indeed, the New Bedford Universalists sometimes became frustrated with their co-religionists. When the Universalist Anti-Slavery Convention, of which they were founding members, proceeded more slowly than they liked, they shrewdly invited Frederick Douglass to accompany them to a meeting of the convention in the fall of 1841, and Douglass’s oratory convinced the delegates to censure the Southern Universalist churches that supported slavery. [27]

In 1841, John Murray Spear resigned as the minister of the Universalist church, because the congregation was unable to pay his salary [28]. The congregation’s poor financial situation was probably due in part to the Panic of 1837, a serious recession that lasted through the 1840s. Nathan and Polly’s financial situation also grew slowly worse through the 1840s. By the late 1840s, they were in debt to creditors. [29]

In the midst of this ongoing financial malaise, gold was discovered in California. In the Dec. 21, 1848, issue of the New Bedford Mercury, an article appeared that must have electrified the African American community of New Bedford, telling how an African Americans had become rich in the gold fields of California. [30] Nathan Johnson joined a mining company, the Belle Company of New Bedford, left New Bedford on April 3, 1849, and arrived in San Francisco on September 27. [31]

When he went to California, he left Polly in control of real estate valued at $15,500, and personal property valued at $3,200; [32] for a total value of $540,000 in today’s dollars. Yet in another three years, Johnson was declared insolvent, and Polly had to sell their house to a white anti-slavery activist.

I have been unable to find any record of what Nathan did while in California, or where he lived and worked. [33] Where did he live while he was in California? One place he might have lived early on is along the Yuba River, in a racially mixed community of men called “Negro Bar”; many of those men were from New Bedford. [34] But that is just a conjecture.

Whatever he did, he apparently did nothing to better his financial situation. But if he wasn’t making money, why did he stay in California? Perhaps, if he was indeed a self-emancipated slave, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 California was safer for him than Massachusetts. [35] Perhaps he was one of the many men who did not succeed as miners, and became financially destitute; the meager evidence we have points to this as a likely possibility. [36]

As far as his religious views, Nathan was no longer a Universalist but a spiritualist [37]; perhaps because so many spiritualists were anti-slavery activists. [38]

Meanwhile, back in New Bedford, Polly continued working as a confectioner. She made enough money without any help from Nathan to get her house back by 1859; she paid off that mortgage by 1870. [39] When she died on November 19, 1871, at 87 years old, she left her estate to her daughter Rhoda and her granddaughter Mary. But she also left a pension to Nathan, provided he came back to New Bedford within two years of her death. And so Nathan returned to New Bedford in early 1873. [40]

Nathan was about 78 years old when he finally returned to New Bedford, having lived in California for more than 23 years. What made him finally return? Was the modest pension enough to bring him back? Or perhaps the thought of seeing his step-daughters and step-grandchildren? Had he finally forgotten the shame of his financial ruin? There is no way to know for sure.

When he returned to New Bedford, he lived in the basement of his old house, while Rhoda and her family lived upstairs. He died on November 11, 1880, in New Bedford. [41]

There you have it: a brief portrait of the life of an ordinary person. Born in obscurity, married as a young man, he helped his wife raise two daughters. He became financially successful, but at age 54, faced with mounting debt, he had to begin again, making a five month voyage in a wooden ship around Cape Horn in the dead of winter, to join the California Gold Rush. He didn’t make his fortune, but stayed in California for 23 years, until he was 78. He finally returned home to live out the last few years of his life in a basement apartment.

The only reason we know anything about Nathan Johnson is because he and his wife Polly happened to befriend Frederick Douglass at the end of his journey on the Underground Railroad. This is often the fate of ordinary people: we only know about them when they brush up against someone famous. But isn’t Nathan Johnson worthy of our attention, even though he was ordinary? Ordinary people are equally human as great people; the old-time Universalists would say: we are all equally worthy of God’s love. And this is why ordinary people like Nathan Johnson fight so hard at great personal cost for true equality — for the anti-slavery movement then and Black Lives Matter now — because we are all equally worthy of love.

I’ll leave you with Nathan Johnson’s own words. There is at least one surviving letter from him, addressed to abolitionist Maria Weston Chapman, in which he tells Chapman that he supports the anti-slavery periodical called “The Liberty Bell,” [42] and then he says:

“I hope its notes may sound till all the People are roused, and gathered in their might, to Battle for Liberty.”


1. Earl F. Mulderink, “‘The Whole Town Is Ringing with It’: Slave Kidnapping Charges against Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, Massachusetts,” The New England Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 3 (Sep., 1988), p. 343.

2. Kathryn Grover, The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), p. 94.

3. Kathryn Grover, “Fugitive Slave Trade and the Maritime World of New Bedford” (National Park Service, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, 1998), pp. 6-7.

4. Robert C. Hayden, African Americans and Cape Verdean Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement (Boston: Select Publications, 1993), p. 67.

5. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, ”Mary J. ‘Polly’ Johnson,” accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Also: Mulderink, p. 343; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.
6. Kathryn Grover and Carl J. Cruz, “A haven for all in need,” New Bedford Standard Times, Feb. 27, 2000.

7. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

8. Mulderink, p. 352.

9. Letter quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 102.

10. Graham Russell Gao Hodges makes this assertion: “At one point, he asked to join the local Quaker meeting and received careful consideration, but his street rowdiness surely disqualified him”; in David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), p. 30.

However, I can find no record of Nathan Johnson’s involvement in more violent anti-slavery activities prior to late 1822, after he would have been rejected by the Friends Meeting as a member.

11. Dan Harper, Liberal Pilgrims: Varieties of Liberal Religious Experience in New Bedford, Massachusetts (New Bedford: Fish Island Books, 2009), p. 56.

12. Harper, p. 75

13. Hodges, p. 30.

14. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 94.

15. Grover and Cruz.

16. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

17. Rodman’s diary is quoted in Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 112.

18. Grover and Cruz.

The extant records of the old Universalist church do not mention Johnson’s name. See: bMS 214 in the Manuscript Collection at Andover-Harvard Library.

The records that do exist from the 1830s are those of the business side of the congregation, called the “society,” which in those days was separate from the religious side of the congregation, called the “church.” It is possible that Nathan was a member of the church but not the society, but the written records of the church (if indeed they were ever kept in writing) no longer exist.

John Buescher points out that “the constitution of the church … had no exclusionary provision.” John B. Beuscher, The Remarkable Life of John Murray Spear, Agitator for the Spirit Land (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006), p. 22. The congregation’s constitution may be found in: Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (2), Andover-Harvard Theological Library.

At the same time, the white New Bedford Universalists who controlled the congregation still harbored racial prejudice. In January, 1837, the society voted “that no transfer of pews shall be made to persons of color” (Record book of the Universalist Society, bMS 214/1 (3), Andover-Harvard Theological Library). Perhaps Nathan Johnson already owned a pew at that time; whether or not he did, after that date, no other person of color could purchase a pew.

19. Grover and Cruz.

20. New Bedford Historical Society Web site, “Mary ‘Polly’ Johnson.”

21. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 138.

22. Grover and Cruz.

23. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton, and Mulligan, 1855), p. 343.

24. Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave (Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1849), pp. 114-115.

25. However, for an account of how Douglass’s theological views liberalized to the point of a humanistic theology, see William L. vanDeBurg, “Frederick Douglass,” in Anthony Pinn, editor, By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism (New York: New York University Press, 2001), pp. 89 ff. (Among other liberalizing influences: Douglass went to hear Unitarian minister Theodore Parker preach in 1854.) By 1870, Douglass was espousing a doctrine that placed ultimate responsibility for ending slavery and racism on humankind, rather than relying on God to intervene. For this, Douglass was accused of apostasy; one clergyman wrote, “We love Frederick Douglass, but we love God more.”

26. Beuscher, p. 171.

27. Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 1770-1870 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1979), pp. 592-595.

28. Harper, p. 12.

29. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 209.

30. “On a September day in 1848 a black man was walking near the San Francisco docks, when a white man who had just disembarked from a ship called to him to carry his luggage. The black cast him an indignant glance and walked away. After he had gone a few steps, he turned around and, drawing a small bag from his bosom, he said, ‘Do you think I’ll lug trunks when I can get that much in one day?’ The sack of gold that he displayed was estimated by the white man to be worth more than one hundred dollars.” Rudolph M. Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 12.

31. Passenger lists from the New York Herald of April 7, 1849, excerpted on “California Bound SF Genealogy” Web site, accessed Feb. 12, 2016.

Nathan Johnson is also listed as a passenger aboard the ship America from New Bedford, Mass., departed April 3, 1849, Charles Warren Haskins, The Argonauts of California (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1890), pp. 468-469. Haskins lists 35,000 people who were “the first to venture forth in the search for gold.”

For more about the voyage of the ship America, see the Sea Captains — Ship Passengers: The Maritime Heritage Project Web site, “San Francisco 1800-1899, Charles P. Seabury,” accessed Feb. 12, 2016. This Web site states that the log book for this voyage is now in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The log book takes note that a black preacher was on board who led services on April 8, and that many of those attending the service were also black.

32. Mulderink, p. 357; Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 135.

33. Nathan Johnson is not mentioned in Delilah L. Beasley, The Negro Trail Blazers of California: A Compilation of Records from the California Archives (Los Angeles: 1919). But it is not out of the question that documentary sources on Johnson’s stay in California may someday be found.

34. “In one community of the Yuba River, known at times as ‘Negro Bar’ and at other times as ‘Union Bar,’ several of the members, both black and white, were from New Bedford. There were about thirty whites and ten Negroes in this community, according to William F. Terry, a New Bedford white man who kept a diary.” — Quoted in Lapp, p. 61.

The 72-page William F. Terry diary is in the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley (call number BANC MSS C-F 217); perhaps an interested scholar will read it to see if it mentions Nathan Johnson.

35. “By 1851 the panic over hunters of fugitive slaves reached Massachusetts and the New Bedford Mercury [March 18, 1851] openly advised its black readers to consider California as a place of refuge.” — Lapp, p. 19.

36. For one possibility, we can turn to the downward trajectory described by Mark Twain, once a white man lost his job in San Francisco in the 1860s: “After losing his [job], he had gone down, down, down, with never a halt: from a boarding house on Russian Hill to a boarding house in Kearney street; from thence to Dupont; from thence to a low sailor den; and from thence to lodgings in goods boxes and empty hogsheads near the wharves. Then, for a while, he had gained a meagre living by sewing up bursted sacks of grain on the piers; when that failed he found food here and there as chance threw it in his way.” Mark Twain, Roughing It (New York: Hippocrene Books; replica edition of the first edition: Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Co., 1872), p. 430.

37. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, p. 282.

38. In mid-twentieth century study, G. K. Nelson asserts: “Spiritualism was associated with the Anti-slavery movement.” G. K. Nelson, Spiritualism and Society (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 26.

For a more extended argument on the relationship between spiritualism and various reform movements including the anti-slavery movement, see John Buescher, The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-century Religious Experience (Boston: Skinner House, 2004).

Spiritualists themselves claimed most of them supported the anti-slavery movement: “It is patent to every American Spiritualist that the great majority of the believers, save and except the residents of the Gulf States, were more or less in favor of anti-slavery.” Emma Hardinge, Modern American Spiritualism: A Twenty Years‘ Record of the Communion Between Earth and the World of Spirits (New York: the author, 1872), p. 460.

39. Grover and Cruz.

40. Ibid.

41. Grover and Cruz; Mulderink, p. 357. Grover, Fugitive’s Gibraltar, shows Nathan Johnson’s gravestone in Oak Grove cemetery, p. 282; the epitaph reads, “Freedom for all mankind.”

42. The letter, dated November 14, 1844, is in the Boston Library Rare Books Collection, and is quoted in Mulderink, pp. 356-357.

The Silicon Valley Teen Suicides

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

You may have seen the article in the December issue of The Atlantic magazines titled “The Silicon Valley Suicides.” (1) It was reasonably well-written, but no one article can convey the true complexity of life as it experienced by teenagers here in Silicon Valley. Nor will I be able to convey that complexity in this sermon. But because I am a minister here in Silicon Valley who spends a significant part of my time with teens and their parents, I thought I would offer you my own perspective on Silicon Valley teenagers.

Please note that in order to protect confidentiality, I will NOT talk about any specific individual or family in this sermon. Instead, I’m going re-tell an old, old religious story about a famous religious figure. I’m going to disguise this old, old story by giving it all the trappings of Silicon Valley today. And even though I’m going to have to stretch the details of this old, old story a little, it is a story that can help us gain some insight into what it means to grow up in Silicon Valley today.

The story begins with the birth of a boy named Sid. Sid’s parents were very influential — let’s just say that they were very high up in government — and they were also quite well-to-do. Sid’s mother decided to give birth outdoors in the garden, so her personal assistant arranged everything, and her personal medical staff attended her during the birth.

Sid’s father did not attend the birth, because he was tied up with very important meetings. It was a day or so before he had time to see his wife and the new baby.

“What a good-looking baby,” he said.

“And talented,” she said. “You’re not going to believe this, but he tried to walk almost immediately upon being born,” she said. “And….”

“And what?” he said.

“Let’s just say that we have an exceptional child on our hands,” she said. “We need to start researching preschools that can handle gifted and talented children. This boy is destined for Stanford.” This was the college Sid’s mother had attended.

“Or Harvard,” said the father, who was a proud graduate of that institution.

“But not Berkeley,” said his mother.

The baby’s father then called in various experts to assess the child, who all agreed this was an exceptional baby. The coordinating consultant delivered the final assessment: “In addition to great intelligence, this little boy has exceptional leadership potential,” she said. “I’d say he has the potential to rise to the highest ranks of world political leadership.”

“Great!” said his father. “Fabulous!” said his mother.

“Or he could wind up going into religious leadership,” said the consultant.

“Religion?” said the father. “That’s hardly practical.”

“Forget religion,” said the mother. “He needs to be totally focused on his career goals, starting now.”

Little Sid exceeded even his parents’ highest expectations. He was a total success at preschool, in elementary school, and in middle school. With no apparent effort, he got straight A pluses. When he took the SATs, he got 800s. His sports and extracurricular accomplishments were equally impressive. And the family psychiatrists carefully controlled Sid’s anxiety disorder and clinical depression with appropriate medications.

Being mindful of the predictions of the experts, his parents kept him carefully protected from religion; and from knowledge of poverty, serious illness, death, or anything that might cause him to ask religious-type questions. “Religion just gets in the way of making a living,” said his mother. “Let’s keep him focused on STEM learning,” said his father.

Sid was admitted to Stanford at age 16. His father bought him a house near campus, mostly so his personal assistant would have an office. Soon Sid met a beautiful girl, whose parents were also high up in government, and (with a little behind-the-scenes urging from both sets of parents) even though they were only 18, the young couple got married. It was a storybook wedding in Memorial Church, a dream wedding in Silicon Valley, two motivated, attractive, talented young people in the fast lane to brilliant success.

By the time they were 19, Sid’s wife was pregnant. Being even more brilliant than Sid, she quickly finished all her course work at Stanford and made a start on her graduate study. A Nobel prize winner, with whom she had already co-authored two significant papers, had already asked her to work in his lab. She told Sid, “I’m going to enjoy the baby for six months, then I’ll lean in and finish my Ph.D.”

After the baby was born, Sid felt at loose ends. His wife was completely occupied with the baby. Somehow, he felt dissatisfied with life. He started having panic attacks again. He turned to Channa, his personal assistant, and said, “Let’s go for a drive.”

They got into Sid’s customized Tesla, and drove around the streets of Palo Alto. Suddenly, Sid noticed there were these poorly dressed men and women walking along the streets of Palo Alto. “Geez,” said Sid. “Why don’t those people get some decent clothes?”

“They’re homeless,” said Channa. “They can’t afford to.”

Sid was shocked. He never knew that people could be homeless. Questions began to rise up in his brain, but he didn’t know how to answer them.

Then in the next block, Sid and Channa saw an ambulance parked on the street. The EMTs were giving CPR to someone lying on the sidewalk.

“What’s going on?” said Sid.

They saw the EMTs stop the CPR and pull a sheet over the body. “Well,” said Channa, “it looks like someone just died.”

“Died?” said Sid. Intellectually, he knew what death was, but he had never seen someone dead before. “They died? Channa, I need to ask someone some questions about death. And maybe about homelessness. Where can I go?”

“Turn in here,” said Channa. They turned into a parking lot. “Let’s go find the minister,” said Channa. They found the minister sitting in her office. She invited Sid and Channa to sit down, and asked what was on their minds. Sid told her what he had seen: a homeless person, a dying person. He told her about the birth of his baby. He told her about his questions. She sat there and listened calmly, then after sitting in silence she said, “Those are difficult questions. You will need to find your own answers.”

Sid went home. His mind and soul were in complete turmoil. What was the point of his studies, if people were going to suffer and die? How could that minister be so calm in the face of so much that was wrong with the world? How could he answer all the questions that tumbled through his head?

“I’ve got to find answers to all these questions,” Sid thought to himself. “If I stay here, my wife will tell me to ‘lean in.’ My mother and father will tell me to focus on my career. But I need to know why there are people who have to suffer by living on the street. I need to know why people die. I need to understand better what it means to be human.”

Sid decided the only way he could answer his questions was to leave his comfortable life and wander the world as a homeless person. He looked in the bedroom, where his wife and baby were lying asleep. He reached out to pick up his baby and kiss him goodbye. But then he thought, “If I lift my wife’s hand to take my son, she will awake; and that will prevent my going away. I will come back and see him when I have become a Buddha.” And he left. (2)

So now you know that Sid is actually Siddhartha Gotama, who became the Buddha. In the original story, Siddhartha was the son of a king, but after seeing illness, death, old age, and a monk, he abandoned the royal life to become a wandering religious mendicant. I just changed a few details and transplanted this old, old story to Silicon Valley.

I tell this story because Siddhartha reminds me of some kids who live today in Silicon Valley. Siddhartha is a LOT wealthier than most Silicon Valley kids; his family was in the top one-tenth of a percent, while most families in our area are not all that wealthy, and where there are plenty of families who are just scraping by. (3) But the high expectations, that reminds me of Silicon Valley culture. The parental drive to make their child succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way the child internalizes the drive to succeed, that reminds me of Silicon Valley. The way work or vocation is more important than family, that reminds me of Silicon Valley.

This brings me to a conversation I had with an adult in our congregation, who gave me permission to mention their remarks in this sermon. When this adult from our congregation was in high school a number of years ago in another part of the United States, there was a cluster of suicides in that high school. At first glance, the young people who committed suicide appeared popular and successful. But, says this adult, what connected those young people who committed suicide in that other time and place was their misery.

Misery is powerful emotion that acts to overwhelm other emotions. When someone falls into the depths of misery, it is hard to feel pleasure, pain, happiness, or hope. Misery is an unpleasant feeling, and when someone is in the depths of misery, they really want to get out of it.

When I listen to the story of Siddhartha, and we get to the part just before he left his family to become a wandering mendicant, I imagine that Siddhartha must have felt misery. Where did that misery come from? I imagine that for Siddhartha, his misery stemmed in large part from the fact that he was valued, not for who he was now, but for who he would someday be.

Here in Silicon Valley, there are young people growing up like Siddhartha, kids who are being carefully groomed to lead lives of power and privilege. We expect these young people to get good grades and do as many extracurricular activities as possible so that they can attend a prestigious university and get a job that will provide them with a great deal of money an influence. We require them to complete a great many community service hours, but we don’t really want them to reflect too deeply on homelessness or illness or death, or what those things mean to them. Our culture does not allow young people the time to find out for themselves who they really are.

If we never let young people think and do for themselves — if we program their every waking hour, just as Siddhartha was programmed — how can they make sense out of homelessness and death? How can they make sense out of global climate change, toxics in the environment, and a war in Afghanistan that has been going on for as long as they can remember? In his reflection, Mike Abraham said: “It can very well feel to [teenagers] like there are few real options when overwhelmed, since they haven’t had the opportunity to learn through small steps how to cope with life.”

The dominant culture tells young people: Get into a prestigious university, so you can get a good job and make lots of money. When we tell teenagers that their main purpose is to be successful sometime in the future, we are telling them that their only value lies in success. We are telling teenagers that human beings are not ends in and of themselves, but rather that humans are merely means to an end.

Notice that I’m not blaming parents of teenagers. Notice that I was very careful to say: “The dominant culture tells young people….” The parents I know love their children very much, and are doing they best they can. But in the face of such relentless pressure from the dominant culture, both parents and teenagers need support as they try to stay centered on love and human value.

I would like to suggest to you that one place parents and teenagers can get that support is in a religious community like ours. Religion is often denigrated in Silicon Valley, perhaps because religions like ours treat persons as ends in themselves, not means to an end. This is in fact a central value of Unitarian Universalism. Historically, the Universalists rejected the concept of hell because eternal damnation implies that some human beings have no value and can be discarded to be eternally tortured and punished. Universalism has changed and evolved over the years, and now we say we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all persons; we have changed the wording, but the value itself remains constant: we treat persons as ends in themselves, not as something to be discarded, not as means to some other end.

Because our religious community affirms that persons as ends in themselves, we are a powerful antidote to the cultural norm that treats teenagers as less than human. Our teenagers do more than feed the homeless in order to get community service hours; that would be treating homeless persons simply as means to an end. Our teenagers cook and serve dinner to people who happen to be homeless, and then sit down and talk with any of the guests who want to socialize; they treat the guests as guests, as fully human. When we treat other persons as ends in themselves, we learn and re-learn that we too are not mere means to an end, but rather we are fully human.

And our teenagers do more than receive services from this religious community. We want our teenagers to be full participants in our religious community. Depending on their interests and skills, our teenagers might teach Sunday school alongside adults, or participate in social justice projects, or serve as worship associates. We have teens who are full participating members on both the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry, our two most important committees. Our teenagers may, if they wish to do so, sign the membership book, which means they can both vote in congregational meetings and make a financial pledge to the congregation. And, as is true of many adults, many teens simply show up, and make a contribution simply by being here. Our religious community does not wait for young people to become something sometime in the future; we consider them to be fully human now, fully able to contribute to and benefit from our community.

The ancient sage and prophet Jesus of Nazareth affirmed that we should love our neighbor as we love ourselves. “Do that, and you will live,” he is reported to have said. (4) I am not so idealistic as to believe we can somehow stop all suicides, but I believe we can at least get our suicide rate down to the national average. We can do this by committing ourselves to loving, and be loved by others. When we place the highest value on loving others as we love ourselves, then success will come, not with academic success, not with success in the future, but with sharing our common humanity together in community. Whether you are over the age of 18, or under that age, we can treat each other as worthy of love for who we are, worthy of love right now, worthy of love simply because we are human.

(1) Hanna Rosin, “The Silicon Valley Suicides: Why Are So Many Kids Killing Themselves in Palo Alto?” The Atlantic, vol. 316, no. 5, December, 2015, pp. 62-73.
(2) My source for Buddha’s early life is Jataka-nidana: The Story of Gotama Buddha, trans. from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
(3) It should be noted that not everyone in Silicon Valley is wealthy or even well-off. “The percentage of students that participate in the Federal free and reduced lunch program is 8.8%,” according to the “Palo Alto High School 2014-2015 School Profile” ( accessed 24 Dec. 2105 11:59 UTC). And for more on the effect of inequality on the lives of teenagers, see Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015).
(4) Luke 10.27-28.