If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.
“Where are you from?” is certainly a common question when we meet people for the first time. Whether our curiosity is triggered by someone’s accent or appearance, we are always interested in the origins of people we meet.
So we ask them. And they ask us.
Where we are from reflects who we are and where we are going. Our answers are often geographical:
- I’m from a small town in Ohio
- I live on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay
- I grew up in big sky country
Or perhaps organizational:
- I’m from I.T.
- I’m with the League of Women Voters
- I work for IBM
- I was taught by Catholic nuns
- My family is Orthodox
- We’re Southern Baptists.
As we form connections and build community, we sometimes share the not-so-simple answers to where we are from. Some of us have struggled with significant losses, addictions, or abuse. These may not completely define us, but they are part of where we are from.
All of these answers—geographical, organizational, religious, or personal—are just a few aspects of the whole person, of course.
We can relate to, or we try to imagine, what life is like in a different:
- country, religion, job, family
As we form closer relationships, the “where are you from?” connections grow, the picture expands. The background begins to fill in—like a painting. Our likes and dislikes, quirks and family history disappointments and dreams are revealed.
Where we are from informs so many of our daily conversations and relationships with other people. It can also be a powerful tool for self-reflection and for the exploration of our own motivations, experiences, and beliefs. It helps us define who we are.
I’d like to share with you the power of where we are from. Where we are from as individuals, and also as a community connected by our shared Unitarian Universalism.
Let me begin by telling you a bit about where I am from:
I am from an island of skyscrapers
Crowded subways stuck in dark tunnels
Shuddering elevators in old brick buildings
I am from a quiet bay, with a pebbled beach
The sun in August, with a crisp wind
Circling a blue, blue sky.
I am from cigarette smoke and long-lost words in French.
I am from miles and piles of books.
A dog at my feet, a cat on my lap
And always, a cup of hot, sweet, milky tea in my hand.
Before exploring the palette of our shared UU “from-ness” I’d like to sketch in a little background, by bringing Kentucky Poet Laureate George Ella Lyon into the picture. George Ella Lyon is from Harlan County, Kentucky, and she has written more than 40 books for adults and for young readers.
She is probably best known for her 1996 poem “Where I’m From,” which was inspired by a series of poems by a friend and fellow writer.
George Ella Lyon says:
“In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black-and-white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.”
Let’s listen to George Ella Lyon’s poem, “Where I’m From”:
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
I am from those moments—
snapped before I budded—
leaf-fall from the family tree.
The poem “Where I’m From” has traveled:
- throughout the English-speaking world
- in Asia and in Latin America
- to nursing homes, convents, prisons
- at family reunions, professional development workshops, and in classrooms.
George Ella Lyon has been very generous about her poem’s expanded use since it went viral—long before social media!
During the past 20 years, “Where I’m From” has probably resulted in more self-reflection poems than most introductory poetry classes!
It is also part of the Unitarian Universalist “Calling and Discernment” training for ministers, and the Tapestry of Faith curriculum for children.
I found some interesting statements among the UUA webpages for “Who We Are” and “What We Believe” that echo the lines of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Here are a few lines gleaned from the UUA website:
- We are brave, curious, and compassionate thinkers and doers.
- We are diverse in faith, ethnicity, history and spirituality…
- We have radical roots…we think for ourselves
- We need not think alike to love alike.
- We are people of all sexual orientations and gender identities
- We are people of many beliefs and backgrounds: We are Unitarian Universalist and Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Atheist, Theist, Agnostic, and more.
- People with a religious background, people with none, people who believe in a God, people who don’t, and people who let the mystery be.
I believe this poem can be a large, shared canvas for Unitarian Universalists. We each color in our varied backgrounds, our diverse life experiences, and our common goals….
“Where I’m From” is certainly evocative of place. I am struck by something a long-time English teacher noted: “A place identifies us…I am convinced that understanding how we connect to our place is a crucial element in our ability to live well as individuals and as communities.”
Let’s take a glimpse at the importance of place in our UU community:
- We are fortunate to be in this place.
- “Place” for us, here and now, is “the beloved community” of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green.
- Those of us who are new, are finding our way. We may not yet be sure that this place is right for us. What can we contribute or receive here?
- For those of us who have been around a while, we have seen the place change: the building of the Fellowship Hall, a minister at the podium, a new piano in the sanctuary.
- Our Ecological Land Ministry project is the fruit of our labors to positively impact the local environment.
Some of us in the Bowling Green community are displaced, living in a shelter or sleeping on a friend’s couch. Some of us have no place at all. Like many churches, we recognize the difficulties of having no place, and so:
- We have contributed Third-Sunday Beneficiary collections to local charities to help alleviate some of the distress in our community.
- Many of us support Guest at Your Table, the UUA’s fundraising initiative to support human rights work.
- We have become a Welcoming Congregation to offer the LGBTQ community a place to be part of a church community.
- We recently conducted workshops to help us build the path to where we are going.
- We brainstormed lots of adjectives and nouns and verbs to explore our church’s priorities.
- We are crafting our new Vision Statement to guide us into the next five to ten years.
These contributions, small and large, help to define where we are from as a church.
- We can know where we are from—the many rich and varied backgrounds that make up the landscapes of our lives.
- We are individuals, from different places, different backgrounds, and we are each on a unique journey through life.
- Understanding where we are from and where we are going helps us make sense of our experiences.
- This can be a powerful tool for self-reflection and exploring our own motivations, abilities, and beliefs. It helps us define who we are.
- Understanding where we are from and where we are going unites us as a beloved community, as we work toward positive change locally and globally.
As a community, we are from many different places. Together, we are headed somewhere special as our congregation moves forward. Let’s help each other get there, together.
Sermon by Roxanne Myers Spencer for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, August 16, 2015