- Published Date
- Written by Tim Kutzmark
A sermon offered by Rev. Tim Kutzmark, Minister
Sunday, May 13, 2012 • Unitarian Universalist Church Of Reading
Her hand, shrouded in folds of fabric, reached out like a desperate claw. She was crouched in the middle of a busy street, with traffic passing by her on both sides, close enough to touch. Strategically placed at the speed bump that protected the pedestrian crossing, she waited until each car, or pickup truck, or horse drawn cart slowed to a near stop. Then her hand—scarred but strong—reached out, palm open, insistent. Shrouded inside a blue burqa, she looked like any number of war widows begging in the capital city of Afghanistan. She was just one of the many faceless women slowly starving in the streets of Kabul.
Then, from underneath that frayed blue burqa, a tiny face peeked out—knee-high—so warily at first, then more boldly, finally breaking into a small smile. It was a little girl—the woman’s daughter, hiding—no more than three-years-old. And suddenly, before my very eyes, this faceless beggar woman was transformed into an angel, a loving mother amidst the traffic, doing whatever she could to keep her child alive.
Kay Frazier writes, there are “angels in small places who . . . make a bridge to hope . . . who give love so that we love also.” (How We Are Called, p. 38, adapted)
When we were young and vulnerable, most of us were watched over and protected by women. Sometimes they were our mothers. Sometimes, they were not. But, although perhaps not as dramatically obvious as the street scene I saw in Afghanistan, each one of us is here today because of women who were there for us, women who chose to care for us (perhaps many, perhaps just one or two): mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, neighbors, teachers, coaches, mentors, ministers, church members— all the women who saw in us a future worth shaping. As they say in Mexico and Central America: We are because of todas las madres: all the mothers.
Who were todas las madres: all your mothers? Who were those caring women, those angels in small places who made for you a bridge to hope? Who gave you enough love so that you love also?
In my childhood, one of my angels was Mrs. Cunningham. She was an elegant, warmth-infused, knowledgeable librarian at the Whitehall Public Library. At a time when my own mom was unable to protect me from the abuse raging in my home, Mrs. Cunningham provided a shelter, a safe haven, a sanctuary filled with words. There I could lose myself in books, magazines, and most memorably, the Sunday New York Times. This generous woman gave of her time, mothering me, talking to the skinny and scared blond-haired boy who so desperately needed someone to remind him that he was worthy of love.
Who were the women who taught you that you were worthy of love?
Unitarian Universalist minister Stephen Shick writes: “With hands gnarled with arthritis, my grandmother loved to play the piano for me while I sang. Her skin, transparent and thin, would flex with what must have been her determination to play through the pain. Knowing well the bitter side of life, my grandmother found contentment and smiled. [She taught me] we are all called upon to play through the pain.” (Consider the Lillies, p. 45, adapted)
We learned from their example, didn’t we? We learned from their caring. We learned from their courage. Andrea O’Brien, a poet from Colorado, writes:
I was thirteen when I gave my mother
A small wicker basket of talcum powders,
bath gels and rosewater. Handling each bottle
like a semi-precious stone, she placed them on
the bathroom counter like an altar-offering.
Ashamed of my own body, I was the moon, wanting
to show myself only when the world was black.
I watched her undress and saw her familiar body.
A thick pink scar stretched across
the place where her left breast should have been.
She filled the sink with warm soapy waters,
drowning a sponge until it was heavy with water,
then rubbed her skin clean, sprinkled and smoothed
my gifts onto her body, anointing and preparing herself.
I do not remember if we ever spoke.
I knew only the touch of light on our bodies.
Just two-and-a-half weeks ago I was in South Africa, about to be smacked silly by an angry elephant. It was own my fault, really. Out in the rough wild of the bushveld, in an effort to get the perfect picture, I’d maneuvered myself close to some acacia trees where a large tusked elephant was ensconced. All I saw was a brilliant photo op: a big, beautiful pachyderm. What I didn’t see was her big, beautiful baby. Mamma elephant was not pleased, and protectively raised her trunk, flared her huge ears out wide, and with a bellow, began moving toward me. But there was more than just one mad mamma. Backing her up was the massive matriarch of the herd, and all the other female elephants who looked at any calf as their own. I was messing with a lot of large loving ladies!
In the natural world it is just, well, natural, for a calf or cub or kid to be cared for by a collection of females. Scientist Melissa Siebert writes: “An interesting phenomenon in the animal world is allomothering,” Allomothering is “when individuals who are not the birth mother step in to mother the offspring. This collective raising of young is . . . common among mammals, particularly in group-living species. Female lions run [a cooperative kind of day care system] for their collective children. Lion, brown hyena, monkey, and elephant moms often lactate simultaneously and feed each other’s offspring. In such species, females seem to adopt the adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’” (Wild Magazine, Winter 2009, p. 52, adapted)
Theresa Wrublesky, a registered nurse and doula, first learned about allomothering while on a safari in Kenya. She remembers: “While observing the elephants I noticed how the tightly knit group of females would all participate in the care and protection of the young. What I discovered is that a pregnant elephant will select females in her group to help raise and protect her calf. Because the calf has limited survival instincts, it relies on its elders to teach it. The allomothers watch over the calf so the mother can rest and eat the massive amounts of food she needs to produce rich milk. The allomothers protect the vulnerable calf from being hunted by predators and poachers. Calves that have many allomothers watching over them are more likely to survive and develop into healthy adults. And the experience the allomothers gain by helping to raise the calf provides them with valuable knowledge when it is their turn to become mothers.” (source: http://www.allomotherdoula.com/what-is-an-allomother.html, adapted) There is a reading we Unitarian Universalists often use in church, and it sure rings true in this context: “We need one another. We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose, and cannot do it alone. All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.”
African-American author and poet Maya Angelou knows this well. Raped at age seven by her mother’s boyfriend, Maya Angelou was taken in by her grandmother, Annie Henderson. Grandmamma Henderson looked at that battered and frightened little girl and said:
I have so much I can teach her
And pull out of her.
I could say you might encounter defeats
But you must never be defeated.
I could teach her to love a lot.
Laugh a lot at the silliest things
And be very serious.
I could teach her to love life,
I could do that.
(adapted from a poem by Maya Angelou)
And do it she did!
Maya Angelou is now a great-grandmother. Through the years, she followed the example set by Grandmamma Henderson, and went on to allomother other African-American women. One of those she allomothered was a young, inexperienced television anchor named Oprah Winfrey. Maya Angelou met Oprah when Winfrey was still an unknown, struggling in Baltimore. Young Oprah begged the older world-famous writer for a five-minute interview, and finally, Angelou broke down and said “yes.” At the end of the five minutes [and greatly impressed,] Maya Angelou inquired with a quizzical smile, 'Who are you, girl?'” Much mentoring and mothering followed, and now they “call their relationship a "sister-mother-daughter friendship." (source: Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today, March 26, 2006, adapted)
Winfrey, carrying on the example set by Maya Angelou, herself went on to allomother many young people, most recently founding a school in South Africa for “academically gifted girls who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.” (source: school’s mission statement) In the shadow of apartheid and economic inequality, Winfrey’s allomothering mission, the school’s mission, is to educate and prepare a new generation of dynamic women leaders for South Africa. This is the way the mothering, the allomothering, continues: from person to person, from generation to generation, from them to us, and from us to those who come next. Maya Angelou writes:
To remember your own young years
And look with favor upon the lost
And the least and the lonely
To put the mantel of your protection
Around the bodies of
The young and defenseless
To dare to love deeply
And risk everything
For the good thing
And by doing so
You and your work
Will be able to continue
And so, on this Mother’s Day, may we hold in our remembrance all those women throughout the ages who have done just that: who put the mantel of their protection around the bodies of the young and the defenseless, who dared to love deeply the lost and the least and the lonely: from the beggar woman in Afghanistan wrapping her burqa around her three-year-old daughter to the grandmother aged with arthritis playing piano for her grandson; from the elephant herd in the South African bush to the goodness of Grandmamma Henderson; from Mrs. Cunningham at the Whitehall Public Library to the women from your life, your angels in small places who made for you a bridge to hope, who gave you love so that now you may love also—so that through you—through us—this great love continues.
Amen, and Blessed Be.
May it be so, Amen.