Rescue Swimmer

Thursday was a tough day for Occupy Burlington, Vermont, as it was my great good fortune to be be in a position to offer the resources of our UU congregation in service to peace, justice and healing.

You can read what happened here:|mostpopular|text|FRONTPAGE
and here:

“Providing Sanctuary” is not the same as “Redeeming People.”  When I was in training for designated ministry, supervisors of both Roman Catholic and Unitarian Universalist theologies repeatedly tried to break me of the tendency to rescue. I rescue animals, I rescue people, I rescue situations. It’s the way I go through the world, and every time I consider getting cured of it, I ask myself whether I prefer to let somebody get hurt. The answer is always “no.”

Ironically, both the Catholics and UUs criticized me for “playing God.” The Catholics thought the person should be left in God’s hands,while the UUs didn’t usually believe there was a God, so playing God is a false calling.  I agree with the statement that I should not hope to become somebody’s God, but I’m fully committed to a life as God’s ever-present human hands. And that is why redemption is not the same as rescue. Redemption assumes that one party is pure or whole and the other impure or broken. I do not assume a difference between myself and whomever I’m trying to assist. There just seems to be a temporary balance in favor of my assets and away from theirs. I do not assume that mine are infinite or theirs are miniscule, it’s just a case of what happens to be useful at this moment.

And that is the second thing about rescue: both parties are in the same moment. The Redeemer sits in some clean, eternal heaven, reaching out with only a small part of Itself, while the rescuer jumps into the water with the drowning person, runs into the fire to find the coughing person, crouches on the floor to breathe into the silent person. Rescue is intimate, dirty and transformative.  And it’s scary: you are extending yourself to the point of risk.

When it’s over, the rescuer will be as much in need of restoration and healing as the person who benefited from the assistance.  The strength and goodness of the beneficiary will not be any gift from the rescuer, but a resumption of the good and powerful being they were before. I hope Occupy Burlington understands that nothing that was done for them in that rainy evening crisis overrides the good they were already doing for us and for me, by their constant and faithful witness. They own the identity of their goodness, and I am happy I was able to help protect that ownership.


What the Redeemer and rescuer have in common is a treasury of larger assets that empower them to operate in the crisis. The rescue swimmer confirms their links to the helicopter or shore-team. The person administering CPR is listening for other folks dialing their cellphones and calling 911.  On Thursday, when I stood with Occupy Burlington, I knew exactly what congregational and collegial covenants and bylaws had authorized me to do. When I arrived, the Society Administrator was on site, making sure legal and other necessary invisible work was in place, and that the Board President was on his way.  Her partner transformed himself into Security Staff to make sure I was safe and had someone from the congregation with whom to make decisions about space use until the Board President arrived.

Beyond that, the rescue I linked up was made possible by everyone in the First UU Society who has paid their pledges or given to our capital campaigns in order to maintain this state-of-the-art facility. It was made possible by all our ministers who have prioritized community support as part of our work, going back to the original charter as a town congregation. It was confirmed by all the parishioners who have supported our many social justice committees and efforts, most recently the successful effort to achieve full equal marriage rights by adding legislative votes to judicial rulings.

Even the likelihood that I, on Thursday night, was *a* (NOT *the*) right person at the right time can be traced to many other people and experiences, any of which at the time I chose without wanting to make a full commitment to major dramatic efforts. Not one of them was unique to me, nor was this general sequence a lonely journey. My training in nonviolence dates back to a long-ago peace movement much larger than myself. I learned community policing from lots of community work — again with congregational commitment –in a much tougher time and place, where visionary work in community policing was being designed out of desperation.  The coincidence that I had served this congregation as Director of Religious Education meant I had already set up and supervised a district Youth Con and knew the key legal and safety policies for hosting an overnight. My ability to stand in the rain for three hours traces back to the fact that our excellent government-funded health care has got many of my systemic weaknesses under good control, so I need not worry about asthma attacks and broken bones by walking around on a dark, rainy night.

This is the fundamental message that a rescue swimmer brings: “You are not alone, because I am not alone. Without all these connections, resources and even my prior self-strengthening,  we are just two folks drowning together. Don’t think of me as a hero, because I’m only a to0l for linkage.  The connection we have right now is just as intense and vulnerable for me as it is for you.  I am praying and working for its success as much as you are, because the pain you were in when we began is hard to feel, but it’s even harder to witness and walk away from.”

It is taking me several days to come down from the heady rush. Yes, I checked the media for public recognition. Yes, I have crowed to my family and patted myself on the back one time too often. But even in those prideful moments, huge knots in my stomach were reminding me that I had not been anything more than human. If I had really been by myself, a true lone wolf for goodness, I would have failed.

Worse still, I would not have been in a position to even try. So if you are wondering why to get up on your designated sacred day and enter some institution organized to name and call for goodness, if you are calculating your pledge, or asking whether you have enough energy to volunteer, just remind yourself of the good work that is being done as people stream out of their mosques, synagogues, temples and sanghas, churches and meetinghouses — as well as from the many secular organizations all faiths have spawned — in order to do the good work of rescuing others so they can get back on the path to achieving their full, best selves.


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