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Sermons at First Parish Church

Three Reflections for Martin Luther King Day

Sunday, January 19, 2014
Sara Woods
Brenna Mayer
Steve Boczenowski
First Parish Church of Groton

Sara Woods

Some of you might be wondering, “What would a kid know about service to others?” Well that’s why I am standing in front of you today.

There is no minimum age requirement for “service.”

If you were to look up the definition you might find a simple answer: The definition of service simply means — Help. Or …contribution to the welfare of others.

When I was around 4, I participated in the Earth Day clean-up that was organized by my local library. My mom and I took a wagon and several empty trash bags. We walked around the neighborhood, picking up as many pieces of trash as we could find. We just kept going til our bags were full. At 4 years old, I helped. I continued to do the Earth day clean-up every year. It wasn’t long before I was throwing away found trash and it wasn’t even Earth Day. I did it because it needed to be done and I was there to do it.

Now I am 12 (13 in April!) and “service” is a part of my everyday life.

On Wednesdays, at my school, I am working on my own Youth Venture. For my venture I am trying to make Parker greener and more sustainable. I’ve started with a survey for the entire student body to see what they want to happen. Once I gather all of the information, I will be able to build my team and take action. Once we are done sustaining the school, we will hopefully move on to the surrounding community.

Some of you already know that I am a Girl Scout.

What you might not know is that I am working towards my Girl Scout Silver Award. I am partnering with another girl from my troop to create a self esteem project for girls. We will encourage girls our age and younger to find role models… role models such as Marion Stoddart — real people who have done brave and amazing things. Marion probably didn’t think she would be a hero one day. She simply wanted to do something to help.

This is more than being like a Disney Princess. This is real life.

For my future, like Martin Luther King Jr., I have a dream.

I know that Elea was recently asked a question. She was asked: “If you kept a wishlist in your left hand desk drawer of all the things you might dream of having our congregation do or create or lead, if money and volunteer power were not issues, what would be on that list?“

A few of Elea’s answers include, and I quote, “A First Parish Mini Bus (which would be painted with a sign saying “The church has left the building”) and which would be used for things like delivering food for Loaves and Fishes Pantry to those who are home-bound or don’t have cars so can’t get to the pantry. Also we would buy or lease the Prescott School from the town and create something amazing there — I don’t know quite what yet but I bet you will have ideas. Maybe a community arts center with studios and a gallery and a performance space and a little independent movie theater. And/or a youth center with a very cool indoor/outdoor skateboarding park and a swimming pool. Also we could create a fabulous kitchen and dining area in the old cafeteria and move the Groton Community Dinner over there and make it a weekly program. And plant gardens in the back yard and a really good playground with those fabulous public bathrooms like they have on the streets of Paris. Or we could create the Center for Grief and Healing and a residential hospice… What do you think?”

She said,


So I thought about it.

Here is what I think…

I think this can be more than a wish list. I think our dreams can turn into reality.

I think — I — can do this.

I think — together — we can do this.

We can pick one thing to start… like maybe finding a bus that we can use to transport food and we will paint “The Church has left the building on that bus. I think… just like when I was about 4, with my mom, and started to pick up trash… If we do it together… maybe we can do… Anything.

Brenna Mayer

When Tim and I joined as members of First Parish, I was very pregnant with my second child, Henry. I joked at the time that I must have to be 8 months pregnant to join a church, because I was also very pregnant with my older son Sam when we joined our church in Pennsylvania where we lived for 9 years. Other than allowing me to join while massively pregnant, though, I found this church had little in common with my old church. Elea was different, the people were different, the joys and concerns were different, the pews were crazy different. Many of these differences made me happy, including this old New England building that was as familiar and comforting as an old sweater to this Massachusetts native, compared to the sleek, modern architecture of the church we came from. So, there were lots of differences, but what made a difference to my life, was the community we found here.

In Tom Schade’s article for the current issue of UU World magazine, he writes that UU churches shouldn’t be satisfied with simply being supportive and loving of one another; rather, we should reach outward, bringing our principles to bear in the world at large. While I find this community supportive and loving, for sure, we never got off that easy! From the minute we stepped into this building, there was always something going on here, some action to reach out to others — helping, fixing, urging, leading the way. As a new member with, by then, an infant and a Kindergartener, I have to say it was a little daunting. But it was also inspiring. It showed me in no uncertain terms that I was needed, that you were all patiently waiting for me to pitch in and help sustain your efforts to be a blessing to the world.

We started small, joining in with the sandwich making service, then the Loaves and Fishes food drive, then City Reach, the Refugee Project, Growing Places Garden Project — it kind of snowballed. But as we got more involved in each endeavour, we became more and more aware of just how much was needed, yes, but also just how much we could help. Just how capable we were of making a difference in the world.

Last week, Elea preached on the Judaic concept of Tikkun Olam, or repair of the world. She talked about the mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria who tells the story of how god contracted part of himself into vessels of light to create the world and the vessels shattered into fragments. He says the job of humans is to gather up the shards of light and put them all back together. She said “The divine sparks are everywhere. The spark of light is in each one of us and it is our task and our calling to recognize it, to reteach one another of our sacredness, our loveliness, and in so doing to create Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world.”

So, for me, this community is what rekindled my spark. In the late fall of 2008, many people who are here in this room as well as people from other churches and community groups gathered in Elea’s office. Many sparks of light, gathering to piece together a community dinner program. I joined in, because I’d shared with Elea some vague ideas I had for a soup kitchen, and she suggested I join this new group. The group met through the winter and into the spring of 2009. We identified priorities, defined our mission, visited other dinner programs, and decided that we wanted to provide something more than a hot meal to those in need of it. We wanted to provide a celebratory experience, a warmth of spirit as well as food. And we wanted it to be for the entire community, not just for those who were strictly in need of food to eat. We decided to do this for a few reasons, but the main reason is that we wanted this dinner to be more than a way to stretch groceries through the end of the month or get a hot meal. We wanted it to be a gift. We wanted this gift to be something that was created by the community and given to the community. Groton Community Dinners held its first dinner in May of 2009 — almost 5 years ago — in this very church downstairs in the vestry. Many of you were here to help then, and you continue to help as we have served dinners in this church 11 months out of the year for almost 5 years now. That is some gift!

Being on the Board of GCD, I’m around at most of the dinners doing one thing or another. And I have seen a true representation of our community walk through those doors — old and young, families, single people, couples, and groups — all of them people in need. People in need of food or company, in need of a night out or a night off, in need of a way to give their gifts, to shine their light. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in these last five years. I’m proud of the delicious meals and warm atmosphere we’ve created, the connections we’ve made with area farmers and community groups, the opportunity for service we’ve provided to countless people — young and old, and the support we’ve given to other community endeavours. I’m proud of our steadfast adherence to our mission. And I’m proud of this church community — all of you, wonderful sparks of light that kindle the flame of Groton Community Dinners and the blessing of service and connection that we strive to promote.

When Martin Luther King, Jr., talked about poverty, he said, “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality… we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God… and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

This community, in this gorgeous old building with the impossibly high pews, this community of light and meaning inspires, challenges, and supports me. It is for all of you, and from all of you, that I’m able to persevere in my commitment to Groton Community Dinners and to the larger community of this town and the world.

As Elea said last week, “In every moment, with every act we can heal our world and us. When we meet and talk and work and play and disagree with holiness in our eyes seeing god everywhere, our brokenness will end… As we repair the world together, we will learn there is no place that is not god.” When I heard her say this, it reminded me of the part of a poem by Mark Nepo that we read at most of our planning meetings for GCD. It’s kind of our motto. Nepo writes, “We cannot elminate hunger, but we can feed each other. We cannot eliminate loneliness, but we can hold each other. We cannot eliminate pain, but we can live a life of compassion.”

By shining your light and guiding my way, you all have taught me that what’s needed to help, to be a helper, is just to be willing to stand up and dig in. We are — all of us — gifts to one another and to the world.

Steve Boczenowski

I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about TADS this morning. TADS is Teenage Anxiety and Depression Solutions — which is a 501c3 non-profit organization that Deb & I formed in 2011. This activity started as a response to our son’s death. Jeffrey died by suicide on Dec 1, 2009. In the weeks following Jeffrey’s death, a group of friends approached us — actually, they surrounded us in love — and suggested that we organize a community response to this tragedy. What resulted was a forum which we held in May, six months after Jeffrey’s death. That went so well that we all decided to keep working together and we became TADS.

These days, TADS has a ten member Board of Directors, which meets monthly and our mission is to address issues of mental health in our community by raising awareness, providing education, and enabling access to care. We raise awareness in a few ways — through social media, by going out and speaking, and we have even produced a video. I’ve spoken to groups of parents, high school students, college students, teachers, and mental health professionals. We provide education a few different ways also. Again, social media: we have a web page and a Facebook page. If you’re interested in the topic of mental health, especially as a parent relating to young people, I would encourage you to visit our Facebook page, where I frequently post articles on these and related topics. Each year we also provide a training class for a well-known suicide prevention curriculum for middle schools and high schools. The week after next will be the 5th time we will do this and over our two days of training we’re expecting about 125 educators from all around the state — Saugus and Orange, Easthampton and Lexington, Rockport and Medway, Lawrence and Walpole, and several other towns.

Finally, we enable access to care by contracting with the Mass School of Professional Psychology for their mental health referral service called INTERFACE. TADS has brought INTERFACE to Groton-Dunstable and Ayer-Shirley, we’ve helped to bring it to Chelmsford, Harvard, and Littleton, and we’re looking to bring it more still more towns. There is information downstairs in the foyer about INTERFACE, along with business cards with the telephone number on it. If you’d like more information about it, please feel free to ask me about it.

When I go out to speak, my message is basically this: mental illness is a physical illness, just like diabetes or cancer. Mental illness is an illness of the brain, the symptoms of which reveal themselves through behavior — sometimes anti-social behavior. But the problem in recognizing mental illness is that it frequently emerges during adolescence, while a lot of other changes are going on. It is frequently difficult for parents to discriminate between behavior provoked by a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, and the sometimes odd behavior of a child turning into an adult.

I encourage parents to trust their instincts — no one knows your child better than you. If you are concerned about your child, go and get help. Some things to look for in your child are lost interest, uncontrollable emotions, and changes in appetite. Sleep issues are also indicative of depression — trouble sleeping or too much sleep. And then there are maladaptive coping behaviors such as self-medication — i.e. drinking and drugging — and self-harm, cutting and burning, such as with cigarettes. It’s important to remember that these behaviors are not the problem, but rather the symptoms of the problem. If you see some of these signs in your child, it may indicate that he or she needs help. It’s estimated that 25% of high school students suffer from mental illness. Depression and anxiety are the most common, but they are also very treatable. It’s estimated that 80-90% of people who receive treatment for depression show improvement.

I think what we do at TADS is to climb on the shoulders of others. I have been active in the Mass Coalition for Suicide Prevention, which has allowed me to meet many wonderful people from all across the state. I’ve learned from them and have at times been able to leverage their work. Why re-invent the wheel? Another thing we do is to get people together, i.e. form community, to develop solutions. I believe better solutions are achieved when people work together.

I like to tell our Board that TADS puts boots on the ground with our mission, and we provide parents and educators with practical information and useful guidance to help young people. Using Jeffrey’s story to pursue that mission, we also address the issue of the stigma of mental illness. And with TADS reputation growing, I have had the opportunity to advocate for mental health issues: I’ve met with school superintendents, testified to legislators, and just last week I had a meeting with the Dept of Mental Health. But some of the most important work we do is when we meet quietly with a parent who is struggling, worried about the mental health of her child.

In closing, I’ve been asked to talk about why I serve. Well, I suppose part of it is that I believe that by sharing Jeff’s story, I can add meaning to his life. But perhaps mostly it’s that, just like so many people in this church, I believe serving the community is just part of what we do. For most of my years in Groton I have engaged in some sort of community service and I believe that all that was just training for my work with TADS. Sometimes I think that all this was just meant to be.


3 Powderhouse Road … Groton, MA 01450-4700 … 978-448-6307 …   …  

Created 2014-01-19