Mother’s Peace Day

Sermon copyright (c) 2023 Dan Harper. As delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. As usual, the sermon as delivered contained substantial improvisation.


The first reading was the “Mother’s Day Proclamation” by Julia Ward Howe:

Arise, then, women of this day!

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

The second reading was from “Gitanjali 35” by Rabindranath Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom… let my country awake.

Sermon: “Mother’s Peace Day”

It appears that the very first mention of Mother’s Day dates back to 1870. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian and author of the popular Civil War song “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” had grown horrified at the actual results of war. She was horrified by how many young men were killed or disabled by war, but she was also horrified by what war did to the moral character of those who fought. A mother herself, she wrote in her proclamation for Mother’s Peace Day: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.” Thus she issued her historic call for all mothers everywhere to come together in an international congress of women in order to promote world peace.

After that initial proclamation of Mothers Peace Day in 1870, the idea of a day for mothers to take action together was forgotten until 1907. In that year, an Episcopalian laywoman named Anna Jarvis organized a worship service for mothers at her church in West Virginia. She did so in part to honor her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who had been a peace activist who had worked with Julia Ward Howe, and had supported Howe’s original idea for a Mother’s Peace Day. So our modern Mother’s Day began with a worship service in 1907, which had been inspired by Julia Ward Howe’s original vision of Mother’s Peace Day.

Since 1907, Mother’s Day has continued to evolve. By the mid-twentieth century, Mother’s Day was not centered on a church service. It had become a holiday that upheld a view of women then permeating American society: a woman was supposed to get married young, have lots of children, and subsume her identity in motherhood. This mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood ignored all the women who chose not to marry, or who were unable to have children, or didn’t become mothers for whatever reason. Unfortunately, when Mother’s Day became a day to uphold that old mid-twentieth century myth of motherhood, the original purpose of the day was forgotten. No longer were mothers actively taking control of the destiny of the world. Instead of mothers coming together as peace activists, mothers were supposed to be passive recipients of cards and flowers from their children and husbands. If they were lucky, mothers got taken out to lunch; at least then there was one less meal they had to cook and clean up after.

During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s, some feminists began to criticize Mother’s Day: why should women be reduced to being mothers? Why couldn’t we value women for all their contributions to society? These were needed criticisms, helping society to understand that women could be more than stereotypical mothers. At the same time, it turned out that many feminists happened to like Mother’s Day. We liked the thought that there might be a special connection between a mother and the children to whom she had given birth. We liked giving cards or flowers to our mothers. We liked the thought of taking our mothers out to lunch — although in my family, my mother, being a thrifty New England Yankee, was resistant to buying lunch in a restaurant.

In the twenty-first century, Mother’s Day continued to evolve and change. We began to re-evaluate the American myth of motherhood. We began to expand our understanding of what it meant to be a mother. We had already heard from women who had adopted their children, who had pointed out that their connection with their children was just as special as that of biological mothers. At the start of the twenty-first century, increasing numbers of same sex couples began having children, and male couples began to point out that they provided the mothering that their children wanted and needed. In the past decade, increasing numbers of transgender and non-binary people began having children, and they too have pointed out that mothering is not limited to just one gender.

And in the past half century, we have also learned to adopt the the perspective of children when we think about motherhood. For some children, their fathers provide more mothering than their mothers. Some children have cold or distant parents, and get their mothering from people who are not their parents. There are of course a great many children who do get mothering from their biological or adoptive mothers, but we began to understand that those children can get mothering not just from their mothers, but from other people in their lives — fathers and aunts and older siblings and teachers and so on.

We have expanded our understanding of motherhood, and this has come about in part because we have expanded our understanding of gender. It used to be that our society took it for granted that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role were all the same thing. Indeed, some conservative Christians still believe that if your biological sex is female then you are female, and many states in the South are passing laws that uphold this conservative Christian notion of sex gender. Many of those conservative Christians also believe that all women should be ruled by biological males, and should stay at home to raise children; these conservative Christians want to go back to that mid-twentieth century stereotype that the only appropriate role for a biological female is to be a mother.

However, the rest of our society has come to understand that biological sex, gender identity, and gender role can be quite separate. For example — and this is an example that gets the most press these days — our society is coming to understand that there are transgender people whose biological sex happens to be different from their gender identity. But our society is also coming to accept that people can take on a gender role that is different from their biological sex or their gender identity. We are coming to understand that man can be nurturing and can even take on the role of mothering; we are coming to understand that people who do not have children of their own can take on the role of nurturing and mothering.

We are slowly expanding our understanding motherhood to include a wider range of actual experiences. Of course we still celebrate biological females who give birth to new human beings. But now we can also celebrate those biological females who do not fit comfortably into the gender role of nurturing female, and we can also celebrate the biological males who take on the role of a nurturing mother. We can celebrate people of any gender identity, of any biological sex, who take on the gender role of mothering.

This helps us to expand Julia Ward Howe’s original idea of Mother’s Peace Day. Howe knew that anyone who had been a mother would not want to send their child off to war. Anyone who had been a mother would not want to see their child killed or maimed or traumatized by the horrors of war. That is why she ended the original Mother’s Peace Day Proclamation with these words: “I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.” Howe’s idea is quite logical and straightforward: If she could just gather all the mothers of the world together in one great room, surely they could find a way to put an end to war. She was thinking about just those biological females who happened to have given birth, but why not include in that gathering all those who people who have filled some sort of mothering, nurturing role? The more people we can find who have filled a nurturing mothering role, the more people there are who will feel committed to ending war.

This might include people who would never be called mothers. Take me, for example. I’m a biological male, my gender identity is male, I’ve never had children of my own. Yet I spent a couple of decades doing religious education, and in my own way I helped raise two or three generations of young people. And there are quite a few people like me, people who didn’t exactly do any mothering, but who wound up doing a lot of nurturing. When add together all the mothers with the non-mothers who did a lot of nurturing, that adds up to a great many people who have put a lot of effort into helping the next generation grow up. And we would all prefer it if the next generation were not killed or maimed or traumatized by war.

I like to think that Julia Ward Howe would have welcomed no just women but nurturing people of all genders to her “general congress of women without limit of nationality.” I suspect Julia Ward Howe would have given the women and mothers the seats of honor in the front of the congress. But she would have welcomed anyone dedicated to keeping our children safe — people of all genders; teachers and social workers and doctors and anyone who nurtured others; aunts and uncles and cousins and older siblings and anyone who didn’t happen to have children of their own but helped raise and nurture children — anyone who has contributed to raising up the next generations. I think Julia Ward Howe would welcomed us all to her great congress.

And to me, this remains the central meaning of Mother’s Day. Not that any of this should interfere with your traditional celebration of Mother’s Day. Do whatever it is that you usually do on Mother’s Day: call your mom, let your children take you out to lunch, take your spouse out to lunch, ignore the whole thing. I don’t mean any of this to interfere with your celebration of Mother’s Day, but perhaps the thought of Julia Ward howe and Mother’s Peace Day will add to your celebration. If we were all better at mothering, perhaps the world would be a better, more peaceful place. If our world leaders learned some mothering skills, if they allowed themselves to be more nurturing, perhaps we would have fewer wars. Maybe that’s too much to ask — it’s hard for me to imagine that Vladimir Putin knows what it is to nurture others. But what if he could change? What if he could become empathetic? What if he could forget his own egotistical ambitions and learn to how to selflessly nurture those people who are not as strong or powerful as he?

What if all our world leaders learned how to be empathetic and nurturing? That is, what if all world leaders lived up to the late nineteenth century ideal of motherhood? What if Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers had actually gathered, and had actually taken on real power? We can imagine that such a congress would have focused on how to nurture and raise the next generation. And if our governments were formed with the goal of nurturing and raising the next generation, perhaps we would finally put an end to war.

Of course Julia Ward Howe’s great congress of mothers was not able to take control of world affairs in 1870. Given the rampant sexism of the time, it was too much to expect that a congress of mothers could in fact take over the world. Nor are the chances for a great congress of mothers much better in today’s world.

That does not mean that we should lose all hope. We can start small. We can honor and support empathetic nurturing wherever we may find it. We can honor every person in our lives who nurtures others with empathy. There are people of all genders who nurture others with empathy. There are people of all ages who nurture others with empathy. Both parents and non-parents can be nurturing influences in the lives of others. We can honor all these people, and we can support them in their efforts to raise the next generation — to raise up a generation that in its turn will be more nurturing and empathetic than we are today. Perhaps one day, everyone will know the central skills of mothering — nurturing, empathy, and kindness.

Until that time comes, may we continue to honor the mothers among us. Those of us who had empathetic nurturing mothers can honor their roles in our lives, and if our mothers are still alive we can send them a card or maybe even take them out to lunch. Those of us who have a spouse who is a mother can honor our spouse. All of us can remember and honor all those people in our lives who helped to nurture us.

And so may I wish all the mothers among us a happy Mother’s Day. May you be honored for all you do, and all you have done. And in the spirit of the original Mother’s Peace Day, may your example of mothering be an inspiration to the rest of the world — so that together we may, in the words of Julia Ward Howe, “take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace.”


This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is half of a very short story by Grace Paley, titled “Mother”:

One day I was listening to the AM radio. I heard a song: “Oh, I Long To See My Mother in the Doorway.” By God! I said, I understand that song. I have often longed to see my mother in the doorway. As a matter of fact, she did stand frequently in various doorways looking at me. She stood one day, just so, at the front door, the darkness of the hallway behind her. It was New Year’s Day. She said sadly, If you come home at 4 a.m. when you’re seventeen, what time will you come home when you’re twenty? She asked this question without humor or meanness. She had begun her worried preparations for death. She would not be present, she thought, when I was twenty. So she wondered.

Another time she stood in the doorway of my room. I had just issued a political manifesto attacking the family’s position on the Soviet Union. She said, Go to sleep for godsakes, you damn fool, you and your Communist ideas. We saw them already, Papa and me, in 1905. We guessed it all.

At the door of the kitchen she said, You never finish your lunch. You run around senselessly. What will become of you?

Then she died.

Naturally for the rest of my life I longed to see her, not only in doorways, in a great number of places — in the dining room with my aunts, at the window looking up and down the block,… in the living room with my father….

The second reading this morning is from a poem by Lucille Clifton titled “the mother’s story”:

a line of women i don’t know,
she said,
came in and whispered over you
each one fierce word
she said, each word
more powerful than the one before.
and i thought what is this to bring
to one black girl from buffalo
until the last one came and smiled,
she said,
and filled your ear with light
and that, she said, has been the one,
the last one, that last one.

Sermon — “Mothering”

Mother’s Day is a perfect day for us religious liberals to reflect on mothering from our theological viewpoint. We know that motherhood and feminism are perfectly compatible. We know that same-sex couples can serve as both mothers and fathers to their children. We know that gender roles are far more fluid than the religious right admits. We know that love is a central value of our religion. Given all that, I’d like to reflect with you on what mothering means to us religious liberals.


1. Now I don’t know about you, but I find that I have a pretty clear idea of the stereotypical perfect mother. The perfect mother, according to the stereotype that I know best, is warm and welcoming; she is always dressed in an understated but attractive manner; she dispenses freshly-baked cookies at the drop of the proverbial hat; and she also dispenses kind and heartfelt wisdom whenever you need it. I suspect that my stereotype of the perfect mother comes pretty much directly from the television programs I used to watch as a child.

That is the stereotype of the perfect mother that I find lodged in my consciousness, but I know perfectly well that real mothers do not correspond to this stereotype. Take my mother, for example. My mother was a New England Yankee, and by the standards of Yankee culture she was within the norm of warm and welcoming, by any other standards she appeared cool and even a little standoffish; she was more on the prickly end of the mothering spectrum than the cuddly end of the spectrum. My mother was always sensibly dressed, but she did not dress like those mothers on the television, she dressed like the sensible New England Yankee that she was. She did bake cookies; but she was far more likely to dispense high ambitions for her children than to dispense cookies. As for dispensing kind and heartfelt wisdom, this was not something my mother did; her wisdom was thoughtful, stark, true, occasionally painful, and nearly always right.

My mother was not the stereotypical television mother that we are all supposed to dream of. But then, whose mother is? Maybe some of us here this morning had stereotypical television mothers, and if you did I would love to hear about your perfect mom during social hour. Or maybe some of you here were in fact the perfect wise and warm cookie-baking mom, in which case I would also love to hear from you, and maybe even borrow some of your warmth and wisdom — Lord knows, I could use some. But every mother is first and foremost a unique human being. Some mothers might be able to be a stereotypical warm, welcoming, cookie-baking mom. But all mothers are first and foremost their own selves, unique individuals with unique personal and cultural characteristics that may or may not allow them to fit into the stereotype of the perfect mom.

It seems to me that real-life mothers rarely fit the idealized stereotype. I sometimes find real people who seem to fit most of the characteristics of the idealized stereotypical mom, but not quite all those characteristics. I know someone who has five kids, all adopted from difficult settings, and all the kids are dearly loved and go off to school and come home, and he’s there to fix them a snack and help them with homework. Yes, I said “he’s there to fix them a snack,” because this is a family with two dads. He’s far closer to the ideal of the stereotypical mom than my own mother was. Or let me give you another example: I used to work with a guy named Larry, and his mother died when he was quite small (this was back in the Great Depression). Larry’s father realized that he was “a one-woman man” (those were his terms, according to Larry), and so he raised Larry and Larry’s brothers and sisters all by himself, serving as both mother and father to the children. Mothering and fathering blended together in that family; for Larry, his father was really the only mother he remembered.

Maybe we can begin to come up with a better definition of “mothering.” Maybe we want to say something like this: “Mothering” is a human activity where a caring adult makes sure you’re going to survive until adulthood, and while most mothers are women, there are plenty of men who serve as mothers too. Of course we know that under a strict technical definition, motherhood is a biological fact related to human beings who can bear children, but remember that some biological women are not able to bear children, yet they too can be mothers. Mothering is a human activity that transcends the biological equipment that an individual may happen to have.

So we can say this about mothering as a human activity: Mothering is when a caring adult makes sure a child survives until adulthood. Mothering is most often done by women, but it can be done by men. Mothering and fathering may blend together at times. And there are very few people who are perfect at mothering; even those moms we see on television make mistakes sometimes.


2. In recent years, I have begun to realize that mothering is not limited to adults who have children in their immediate family. I began to realize that every once in a while I got mothered by people to whom I was not related. For example, I was at some political meeting, and I got mothered by someone who is no relation to me. This woman, who is both a mother and a grandmother, greeted me with a big hug, welcomed me, made sure I was comfortable, and then went on to mother someone else.

Human beings are essentially social, tribal animals. Under the leadership of the religious conservatives, contemporary American society tries to tell us that the nuclear family, with a mom and dad and 2.5 children, is the only place where “real” mothering can take place, but of course that’s complete nonsense. There are many other family structures where good mothering takes place: extended families where several generations live together; blended families; families with two dads or two moms; and so on. And indeed, because we are social, tribal animals, mothering can go on in other human institutions, not just in families. I already told you how I got mothered at a political meeting. But what I’d particularly like to talk about is how good mothering can go on in churches.

When I was the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Universalist church in Lexington, the assistant minister there, a woman named Ellen Spero, decided to hold a Sunday evening vespers service, and she got me to help out, and we held these vespers service for the next year and a half, until we both left that church to go on to other churches.

If you attended one of Ellen’s vespers services, the first thing you would notice when you walked in was that all the chairs were in a circle. Once the vespers service started, you would find that it seemed very much like the worship services we have here on Sunday mornings: listening to readings, and singing hymns, and lighting a chalice, and sharing candles of joy and sorrow, and so on. The main difference would be that the sermon might be a sermon, or it might be a short play; or there might be an activity to go along with the sermon, such as drawing with crayons or listening to jazz.

If you were very observant, you might notice some other important things. There was always food at these vespers services. Ellen was a great believer in what she called her “ministry of food,” so she always brought lots of delightful and comforting food. The food was right next to the circle of chairs, and if you arrived early you could have something to eat and drink during the worship service. As a mom and as a feminist, Ellen knew that you have to take care of people’s bodies at the same time you take care of their spirits.

There was always a place for children at these worship services. As the religious educator, I would make sure there was a big rug included in the circle of chairs, with quiet toys and games and crayons and paper. That way, if you wanted to bring your children to the vespers service, they could play quietly on the carpet while you sat next to them. This, too, was an idea that came out of Ellen’s experience as a mom and as a feminist. As a feminist, she knew that many Unitarian Universalist churches have been influenced by the dominant patriarchal culture to think that children are bad, so she fought that by making sure that children were welcomed and seen as good. And as a mom, she wanted to have a worship service that her five-year-old son could attend.

With all the mothering that went on in these vespers services, Ellen was tapping into an old line of Unitarian thought. Back in the 1870s, a group of women Unitarian ministers, mostly based in the Midwest, built vibrant congregations around the idea of the church being like a home. These women, who are often called the Prophetic Sisterhood, felt that when you come into a Unitarian church, it should feel like you’re coming into someone’s house, where you are greeted, and welcomed, where your physical needs are acknowledged, where you can have some cookies. Here in our own church, where we have absolutely no historical connection to the Prophetic Sisterhood, we still live out these ideals. Even here in this room, which is a far more formal architectural space than that used by the Prophetic Sisterhood, we live out these feminist ideals. We acknowledge that people have physical needs: you may notice that lots of people come in late to the worship service, and we don’t mind because we know the reality is that life is complex for many of us, and we get here when we can get here (although I have to say I would prefer to be here early because I would not want to miss Randy’s preludes).

But you can really get a sense of this in our Parish House. When our congregation built the Parish House back in the 1890s, they made it feel like someone’s home. I walk into the Parish House to attend social hour after the worship service, and you see all that warm wood panelling, and the fireplaces, and the kitchen and dining room, and I feel like I’m at home. And because we have been influenced by feminist ideals, we’ve taken that feeling still further. We like to have the children with us during social hour, partly as a feminist manifesto, and partly because it feels more humane, more human, to have children around. And during social hour, we have pretty good food — homemade soup, and sometimes pizza, so if you need to eat, you often can get a pretty good meal here. And the conversations that take place during social hour are sometimes like those conversations you wish you could have had with your mother: touching on the big issues of life, like who we are, and where love comes from, and what we want to do when we grow up.


3. What I think is most important about churches and mothering, though, is that churches can be places that support mothers (and support fathers for that matter). Being a parent is the hardest thing a human being can do. Parents need support. The nuclear family, so beloved of the religious right, does not provide adequate support, and I am not surprised when I hear that the divorce rate among the religious right is higher than among us: they have placed all their eggs in the nuclear family basket, and it’s a pretty fragile basket. Perhaps if you have absolutely the perfect nuclear family with superhumanly talented parents, perhaps then the nuclear family works. But speaking as a pastor, I don’t know of any nuclear families like that; all the nuclear families that I know need far more support than that. We all need lots of other people in our lives.

To me, this is the most important function of our liberal churches today. We exist as religious communities in order to support families — both families with children, and all other families as well. As liberal churches, we do not place restrictions on who is allowed in our religious community — you are welcome no matter what your theology, gender, sexual orientation, family status, gender identity, race or ethnicity, physical or mental ability. We try to live out our highest ideal, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and we do this without shoving dogma and creeds down your throat. You can some into a liberal church, bringing your whole self, and feel at home. yes, you may be challenged at times; yes, we have internal fights; yes we make many mistakes. But our ideal is that you can be a part of this community and not have to check part of yourself at the door.

So we welcome all mothers, all those who are engaged in the difficult human activity of mothering. We welcome mothers and their children here. We provide support beyond the over-stressed nuclear family. If you’re a relatively new mother, this is a community where you can be supported by , and learn from, more experienced mothers and grandmothers (some of whom, by the way, might be men). We welcome children, and we provide a safe place for children, hopefully while giving mothers (and fathers) time to take care of their spiritual needs. With ongoing vigilance, we make this congregation an emotionally and physically safe place for children, with many safe and appropriate adult role models.

These represent our bedrock moral values. We value all those involved in mothering. We value all those who mother children; and yes, we also value those people who manage to mother adults too.


In closing, my highest priority for a church is that it should be a place that supports mothering. Freedom of conscience and all that is all very well, but mothering is where it’s at. When I say mothering, I do not mean what the fundamentalists mean. For me, mothering is not restricted by assigned gender, not restricted by sexual orientation, not restricted by traditional gender identity: there are gay men who are good at mothering, and there are men who do not fit into standard gender identity who are good at mothering; similarly, there are women who are better at fathering than at mothering. Nor do I have a stereotyped understanding of mothering: mothering does not need to be cuddly. And given who I am, my sense of mothering is very ambitious for the people being mothered.

But you know, mothering is one of the main reasons I stick with liberal churches.

Mom Spirituality

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Distribution of flowers

“We are, in our collective capacities, the imperfect divinity that must make the world over into the kind of abiding place that we know it ought to be.” So it is that on this Mother’s Day, we recognize all those here this morning who identify as women. Very often in our world, it is the mothers, and all women, who have quietly worked to make over the world into the kind of abiding place that we know it ought to be. I don’t mean to denigrate the efforts of those of us who identify ourselves as men — but mothers, and all women, seem to get less credit than is their due. As a small step in correcting that lack of recognition, this morning we give all women a flower, a small, fragile object of beauty in recognition of the work women have done, and are doing, behind the scenes everywhere.

If you identify as a woman, please raise your hand — and one of the children from the Sunday school will bring a flower to you where you are seated….


The first reading this morning is is a poem by Grace Paley called “On Mother’s Day”:

I went out walking
in the old neighborhood

Look! more trees on the block
forget-me-nots all around them
ivy   lantana shining
and geraniums in the window

Twenty years ago
it was believed that the roots of trees
would insert themselves into gas lines
then fall   poisoned on houses and children

or tap the city’s water pipes
or starved for nitrogen   obstruct the sewers

In those days in the afternoon I floated
by ferry to Hoboken or Staten Island
then pushed the babies in their carriages
along the river wall   observing Manhattan
See Manhattan I cried   New York!
even at sunset it doesn’t shine
but stands in fire   charcoal to the waist

But this Sunday afternoon on Mother’s Day
I walked west   and came to Hudson Street   tri-colored flags
were flying over old oak furniture for sale
brass bedsteads   copper pots and vases
by the pound from India

Suddenly before my eyes   twenty-two transvestites
in joyous parade stuffed pillows
under their lovely gowns
and entered a restaurant
under a sign which said   All Pregnant Mothers Free

I watched them place napkins over their bellies
and accept coffee and zabaglione

I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
since my father died as a child
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

The second reading this morning is slightly abridged, very short story by Grace Paley, titled “Politics.”

“A group of mothers from our neighborhood went downtown to the Board of Estimate Hearing and sang a song. They had contributed the facts and the tunes, but the idea for that kind of political action came from the clever head of a media man floating on the ebbtide of our lower west side culture because of the housing shortage. He was from the far middle plains and loved our well-known tribal organization. He said it was the coming thing. Oh, how he loved our old moldy pot New York.

“…the first mother stood up… when the clerk called her name. She smiled, said excuse me, jammed past the knees of her neighbors and walked proudly down the aisle of the hearing room. Then she sang, according to some sad melody learned in her mother’s kitchen, the following lament requesting better playground facilities….

    ”  ‘will someone please put a high fence up
    around the children’s playground
    they are playing a game and have only
    one more year of childhood. won’t the city come…
    to keep the bums and
    the tramps out of the yard they are too
    little now to have the old men … feeling their
    knees … can’t the cardinal
    keep all these creeps out’

“She bowed her head and stepped back modestly to allow the recitative for which all the women rose, wherever in the hearing room they happened to be. They said a lovely statement in chorus:

    ”  ‘The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions….’

“No one on the Board of Estimate, including the mayor, was unimpressed. After the reiteration of the fifth singer, all the officials said so, murmuring ah and oh in a kind of startled arpeggio round lasting maybe three minutes. The comptroller, who was a famous financial nag, said, “Yes yes yes, in this case, yes, a high 16.8 fence can be put up at once, can be expedited, why not…” Then and there, he picked up the phone and called Parks, Traffic and Child Welfare. All were agreeable when they heard his strict voice and temperate language. By noon the next day, the fence was up.

“Later that night, an hour or so past moonlight, a young Tactical Patrol Force cop snipped a good-sized hole in the fence for two reasons. His first reason was public: The Big Brothers, a baseball team of young priests who absolutely required exercise, always played at night. They needed entrance and egress. His other reason was personal: There were eleven bats locked up in the locker room. These were, to his little group, an esoteric essential. He had, in fact, already gathered them into his arms like stalks of pussywillow and loaded them into a waiting paddy wagon. He had returned for half-a-dozen catcher’s mitts, when a young woman reporter from the Lower West Side Sun noticed him in the locker room.

“She asked, because she was trained in the disciplines of curiosity followed by intelligent inquiry, what he was doing there. He replied, ‘A police force stripped of its power and shorn by vengeful politicians of the respect due it from the citizenry will arm itself as best is can.’ He had a copy of Camus’s The Rebel in his inside pocket which he showed her for identification purposes….”

[Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, pp. 137 ff.]


It’s Mothers Day today. Mothers Day has become a day when children honor their mothers by giving them gifts or taking them out for a meal; and for some of us who don’t have mothers, Mothers Day has become a day to privately mourn the mother we lost or the mother we never had.

It is worth remembering that Mothers Day began very differently, in the late 19th C., as “Mothers Peace Day.” It was originated by Julia Ward Howe as a day for mothers to advocate for peace. Julia Ward Howe was a well-known poet and hymnodist in her day, and she was also a Unitarian. Let me read you a few excerpts from the original Mothers Peace Day proclamation:

“Arise, then, women of this day!…

“Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.’…

“In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.”

That’s part of what Julia Ward Howe wrote in her Mothers Peace Day proclamation. So you see, at its beginning Mothers Day was not about mothers passively receiving gifts, it was about mothers actively promoting peace so their children wouldn’t get killed in a war. Mothers Day was a day when mothers were encouraged to get political — this in a day when women were not even allowed to vote! It was a kind of early feminist holiday.

I’m not saying we should go back to that early version of Mothers Day. If you do have a mother, I’m not trying to talk you out of giving your mom a gift or taking her out to dinner, or giving her a card. And if you are a mother, I hope you are pampered by your children. At the same time, let’s take just a moment and think about the old-fashioned Mothers Day, a day when mothers could band together and take action, and make the world a better place for their children.

In the second reading this morning, the very short story by Grace Paley, we heard a about how a group of mothers who were living in the middle of the city. They grew concerned about the playground where they took their children to play. Junkies were using the playground, sick old men would come around and leer at the children, and bums and tramps would hang out there. Now we all know that junkies, bums, tramps, and the like are human beings too; at the same time we want to keep them away from the children who are trying to play on the playground.

The mothers talk over this problem among themselves. They all know that there’s no money in the city budget for such projects, and besides since when did the city ever pay attention to a playground, since when did they ever listen to a bunch of mothers? Then a newcomer to their neighborhood, a media man from the midwest, suggests that they could go to a city hearing a *sing* their request for a fence.

That’s just what they do — they go down to City Hall, to a hearing of the Board of Estimates, and they sing their request:

will someone please put a high fence up
around the children’s playground…
won’t the city come…
to keep the bums and
the tramps out of the yard…

And then my favorite part, the repeated chorus:

The junkies with smiles can be stopped by intelligent reorganization of government functions.

The mayor and the comptroller and the other men on the Board of Estimates listen to the song, they say ah and oh, and they immediately authorize a fence around the playground, which is erected the next day.

The mothers have triumphed politically! Well, they triumph politically, but not for long, because that very night a cop (of all people) comes along and cuts a hole in the fence so he and his buddies can have access to the baseball bats in the playground locker room.

I had to leave off the very end of the story, where the cop and the reporter wind up having two children together, and a new round of problems begins. There’s a lot of poetic truth in this story, isn’t there? Humanity being what we are, as soon as one problem is solved, new problems arise, generation after generation.

Mothers, simply by virtue of being mothers, find themselves right in the middle of each new round of problems. Partly this happens because mothers tend to find themselves right in the middle of the human lifespan. Mothers often have equal responsibilities both to children and the younger generations, and to parents and the older generations. Of course there are mothers whose parents died young, and mothers who never knew their parents, and so on; but even then, many mothers have older mentors and older friends who stand in for parents, members of an older generation for whom they feel some responsibility. And there are plenty of women who do not have biological children, but who are mothers nonetheless, because they care for younger siblings, or for young protegees, or for other young people.

Grace Paley’s poem “On Mother’s Day” sums up what it means to be in the middle of the human lifespan. She writes:

I am especially open to sadness and hilarity
since my father died as a child
one week ago in this his ninetieth year

Mothers are there when babies are born; mothers are there when elders become increasingly dependent and sink into helplessness and death. Not uncommonly, sadness and the hilarity may come at the same time: a mother might witness a child’s first words or a child’s graduation or a child’s wedding, and in the same day she might witness a parent’s illness or death.

The poem by Grace Paley tells us that mothers inhabit a world where memories of the past and expectations of the future merge with the sad and hilarious present. It seems to me that forces mothers to be flexible and relentless. Mothers have to be relentless: Try to make the world better for the children, and you’ll succeed in one area only to find that there is work to be done in yet another area. You put a fence up to keep the junkies out of the playground, and along comes a cop and cuts a hole through the fence. Mothers have to be flexible: You realize one day that your children grow up and become more self-sufficient, only to realize the next day that your parents and elders are have become increasingly dependent.

I’ve been thinking about how we can make our churches into places that better support mothers. And I’ve thought of at least two things that churches could do that might help support the spirituality of mothers, or “mom spirituality.” First of all, a church can support mothers who need time to find beauty. Second, a church can help build community.

I’ll start by talking about beauty. Beauty is all around us. Problem is, many of us are too busy to take the time to notice it. I don’t know about you, but I work well over forty hours a week, I try to volunteer for some causes that mean something to me, I try to keep up with my spouse and family, so this past week I had a couple of twelve hour days and hardly any time to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. That’s my life, and I’ve got it easy — my partner and I don’t have children. Most of the mothers I know are far busier than I am: job, volunteer work, plus taking care of kids, and in many households doing the majority of the housework. If a woman is that busy, when will she find time to just sit and appreciate the world?

Ideally, a church should offer a little bit of time each week when a mother can come and sit and just be, just have a moment to appreciate the beauty of the world. It may only be a moment, because some mothers teach Sunday school, and other mothers have substantial volunteer responsibilities here at church. One of our goals for worship services is to try to provide moments of concentrated spirituality for busy people. If you believe in God or the Goddess, it might be a moment at church when you can talk to God or the Goddess without interruption. If you don’t believe in God, it may be a moment of intense feeling or intense concentration. Different people get their concentrated dose of spirituality in different ways — for some people it comes when lighting a candle, for some when offering up a prayer, for some by sitting with an intentional community, for some when listening to music or poetry — so our worship services have a number of different elements to try to accommodate different people.

Since ours is a religion based on reason, Unitarian Universalist worship services also include some kind of thoughtful reflection, usually spoken words — a reading, a sermon, poetry, a meditation or prayer — to help us focus our reason, our thoughts, on what is ultimately good and true and beautiful. So our worship services aim to provide a concentrated dose of thoughtful reflection each week.

(Parenthetically, I will add that I get my concentrated dose of thoughtful spirituality by teaching Sunday school — teaching children makes me think about my religious faith, and I find it to be very healing. That’s why I come in to this church on my Sundays off to teach Sunday school — to get my concentrated dose of religion.)

Grace Paley’s poem about Mothers Day starts off as she is walking through the old neighborhood, thoughtfully appreciating the beauty there — the trees, the flowers. Then she tells about taking her children on the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island, and looking back at the rough urban beauty of the city as viewed across the Hudson River. See the city! she says to her babies, How beautiful!

Just as Grace Paley’s poem helps us to see the beauty in the trees and flowers along a street, the urban beauty of a city, the absurd and hilarious beauty of transvestites getting free pastry and coffee on Mothers Day — so our church can support mothers as they search for beauty in their lives. And if you will be giving flowers to your mother today, or taking her out to eat — or if your children bring you flowers, or make you a card, or cook you a meal — the same kind of thing is taking place: these are all ways that we can nurture a mother’s spirituality, by creating a small space where a mom can a moment of time to appreciate beauty.

This is the transcendent side of mom spirituality. There is also the very practical, down-to-earth side of mom spirituality. On the practical side, one way we can nurture the “mom spirituality” is to build a church that is a healthy community, and that serves as an incubator for the wider spread of community.

In Grace Paley’s story, the way the mothers got the fence put up around the playground was that they banded together in a small community. The mothers in that story served as support group for each other, and a group that worked together to get something done. If Grace Paley didn’t happen to be a Jewish atheist, the mothers in her story might have met each other at church — actually, if it were a Unitarian Universalist church where the mothers met it wouldn’t matter if Grace Paley happened to be a Jewish atheist, you can actually find a fair number of Jewish atheists in some Unitarian Universalist congregations, but I digress. The real point is that our churches should be places where you can find people for spiritual support, friendship, or political action. Not only that, our churches should be healthy communities themselves so that they both nurture and set a good example for smaller groups and mini-communities within them.

This represents the pragmatic, relentlessly practical side of “mom spirituality.” Moms need that dose of concentrated beauty; moms also need practical support from a supportive community. So those of you who have accompanied your mom to church; or those of you who are here because your children told you to go to church; or those of you who are here because you’re trying to set a good example for your mom — you’re doing exactly the right thing on Mothers Day, by helping moms stay connected with a good supportive community.

Mom spirituality needs both the transcendent, and the pragmatic. We should give Moms flowers, but we should also give them the time to attend Julia Ward Howe’s international congress of women to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, and the great and general interests of peace. It’s important to give Moms time to go down to City Hall to get a fence for around the playground, but it’s equally important to let them write a song to sing when they get to City Hall.

“Mom spirituality” is both transcendent and practical, both radical and beautiful. May our church provide both moments of transcendent beauty, and a pragmatic sense of community. In doing so, we will feed the souls of mothers; we will feed all our souls; we will transform the world for the better.