This service was inspired by and adapted from the
sermon, "Bearing Witness - ...and knowing the beauty of human
difference" by the Rev. Barbara Hoag. Her beautiful and poignant
original sermon can be read in its entirety at the link: www.uua.org/world/2001/03/commentary.html
Setting: The staging shifts
during the presentation. The presentation begins and ends on a train
platform and goes to a concentration camp, to the city of Vienna, to
Props: Some overcoats, carry bags,
binoculars, etc. Robe for Norbert to appear ministerial, old
radio, baskets to hold flowers, flowers for flower communion.
Theme: It is important for
us to know our history and see both the inspiring and the unpleasant
within ourselves before we can begin to build community with the
inspired and unpleasant parts of all our brothers and sisters.
PROCESSIONAL HYMN –
"There’s a freedom, freedom, freedom train a
comin’, comin’, comin’. (3x)
Get on board. (2x)"
(Setting: A few people in light overcoats with carry
bags and purses, binoculars, etc. like tourists.)
The whole time, I had my notebook open so that I could
write down my thoughts which seemed too painful to remember, but too
important to forget. The closer we came to the station, the tighter I
held onto my pen. The train pulled up to the platform and a collective
dis-ease was felt among the passengers. I felt the lump in my throat and
the sluggishness within me. I had a difficult time convincing myself to
get off the train and see what was waiting for me there.
But as I stepped out onto the platform I was surprised
at what I saw. The sky was a picturesque blue. White puffy clouds
floated by. Birds sang. Stately brick buildings stood firm adorned with
dignified and artfully crafted wooden doors. A younger man, dressed for
gardening knelt in the distance against the far wall. He was placing
freshly cut flowers and small candles. I learned later that this was a
common sight. I guess it made sense. This was Auschwitz. And people –
just like me – came to remember, and to grieve, and to pay tribute. I
didn’t expect it to be anything beautiful. But there it was.
People stood all around me - 130 of us. None of us had
met until a few days before. We had all signed up for this week long
retreat. We had already shared a few meals and some of us talked of our
fears going in: Can I handle this? What should I feel? Why am I here? I
liked some of the people I talked to. Others, I didn’t like so much.
But before we got off that train something shifted. Everyone suddenly
seemed incredibly dear to me. Brave. Understanding. Connected. Suddenly,
I felt very grateful for them. I was sure I could not have gone to such
a place – or understood its meaning – on my own.
What stood before us was the remnants of a
concentration camp, one of the worst ever. Hundreds and thousands of
people were brought here in the 30’s and 40’s under Hitler’s Nazi
regime during World War II. The people sent here had been captured and
brought as prisoners. They were, unfairly, labeled as ‘unworthy’ and
considered dangerous because of their religion, or the color of their
skin, or for the way they thought or their lifestyle. Most of the people
who were sent here never left. They died here.
Some of us, from the train, had come to see this
horrible place because of being Jewish. Some, because we had parents or
other family members who had died there. Some were people whose families
survived the camps. Some had missed being sent there by a stroke of
luck. Some were Polish, whose families complied with the Nazis, or
resisted, or lost their homes when the town was cleared out for Nazi
officers. Some were Germans whose parents had participated in the Nazi
movement, or worked in the resistance, or were too afraid to do
anything. Some, like me, had no blood ties to what happened here. As I
looked around, I reached out and touched my flaming chalice necklace. It
helped me to remember the Unitarian Service Committee, and the many
women and men who spent years helping prisoners escape from Nazi
occupied Europe beginning in 1940.
We watched a short film made around the time of
liberation, showing what the Russians saw when they arrived at
Auschwitz. And then we walked together, all 130 of us, under the wrought
iron sign that said, Arbeit Mach Frei: "Work Makes You
We moved through the exhibits on the grounds while our
tour guide -- a smartly dressed young Polish woman -- explained the
meaning of what we were seeing.
"This is where they held roll call… This is
where they punished prisoners who tried to escape… These are the gas
chambers… The gas used in the gas chambers was called Zyklon
…she explained. She showed us what the pellets
looked like. She explained to us how they were used, who made them --
Bayer, of Bayer Aspirin. She explained what they did and how efficient
they were. Many people cried during her explanations.
We walked out into the sunlight and I already felt
myself crying out for freedom – wanting to be far away from the
knowledge that such a place could have once existed. That it did exist.
I wondered what it was like for those who knew the horrors first hand.
Who either were sent here, or spent their lives trying not to be sent
here, or who tried to help people escape from here. Or had to live
without knowing the people who died here. And I watched the man in the
distance gathering the flowers. And I thought about how horrible it all
must have been… and how his work was trying to help make it holy by
asking us to remember the people who died because there wasn’t any
freedom. Certainly, even in this place, amidst the horror, there must
have been something beautiful. As he placed the flowers against the wall
I thought about how important it is to remember what happened here. I
decided that if I am ever going to appreciate what it means to be free,
I have to know a little about the price that has been paid for my
Service Leader: Please join
me in speaking the unison chalice lighting which is found in your order
– We light this chalice to remember that the
courage to face evil outside often comes from our willingness to admit
it exists inside. And to see that all the love and understanding we have
within often comes from acknowledging the times, places and people who
Service Leader: Good
Morning! My name is Randy Blasch and I am a member of this
congregation. This morning, along with Pat Waring, Rev. Greg Ward,
Karen LoBracco, and DeeAnne Clowes I welcome you to the Unitarian
Universalist Metro Atlanta North Congregation – a place we
affectionately call UUMAN.
We are a community of individuals from all walks of
life. In this room we welcome a diversity of histories, habits, beliefs
and perspectives. But yet, we are united in that we all come with a
commitment to love – ourselves, one another, and the world around us.
We welcome the breadth and new ideas of people who visit or who are
interested in becoming members. If you are new here and wish to worship
with us as friends this morning – or, if you have come with a friend,
we invite you to stand and say your name so that we may welcome you into
the warmth of this community.
There are a few announcements…
Now, I invite you to join together in singing our
hymn, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." The words are printed
in your order of worship.
HYMN – Where Have All the
HAND OF FRIENDSHIP
Service Leader: Let us all
now learn to cherish the beauty of community and reach out to the
those closest to us with a hand of friendship.
STORY PART II
It’s hard to believe a place like Auschwitz was ever
built. Ever even thought of. Where freedom and dignity were denied by
very mean people. But it is important that we remember.
It is also important that we remember that there were
many who tried to stop it. Who reached out to people during this
frightening time. Who wanted to remind them that even in a time so
horrible, something noble, beautiful and inspiring could be found –
and shared – in the hearts of good people who cared.
Nobert Capek was one of those people. On this memorial
day we remember him for the courage and kindness he offered people in a
time of war and unthinkable evil. Capek was a Unitarian minister in
Prague Czechoslovakia and it is his Flower Communion that many UU
congregations celebrate at this time every year. This is his story.
Norbert Capek was born in 1870 in South Bohemia. He
was named Norbert because his family was Catholic and he was born on St.
Norbert’s day. While young, he was sent to live with his uncle Victor
in Vienna for the opportunity to live in a big city. His uncle Victor
believed everyone had to be Catholic to be good. But Nobert didn’t
like the Catholic faith. He wanted to go to the Baptist church where
they sang and the services were in his own language, instead of in
Latin. So, Norbert quietly went to the Baptist church instead. And he
was secretly baptized. When his uncle found out, he was outraged. He
kicked Norbert out of his home. But instead of going back to his
parents, young Norbert became a missionary for the Baptists, going
instead to seminary and selling Bibles on the street.
But it was not easy for Norbert to be Baptist in a
place where everyone else was Catholic. People were sometimes mean to
him because he went to a different church. He didn’t understand why
and felt sorry for others who were treated unfairly. He collected
stories of these people and published them in a book called,
"Fragments of the History of Persecuted Christians."
He worked for many years as a Baptist minister in
Moravia and Slovakia. He was sad to see that many churches taught a
religion that was divisive and exclusionary instead of unifying. He
believed that church should be different. Instead of being about
doctrine and dogma it should be about love. This was very different than
what it had always been like and many people called this thinking,
The Pope, who was the head of the Catholic Church,
didn’t like this ‘modernism.’ In 1907, he condemned modernism as
wrong and said that it would lead to "the annihilation of all
religion." As a result, many Catholic priests considered leaving
their ministries. Capek could see that many in his country were unhappy
with the way things had been and were ready for something new: a faith
without dogma, a free Christianity. He didn't know what it would
ultimately look like, but he wanted to help the people discover more
love and freedom in their religion.
He contacted a very smart man, Professor Tomas Masaryk,
who understood the Czech people and what they were looking for. When
they met, Capek told Masaryk that he prayed for a religion with more
freedom, where all people are welcome. It is a legend among Unitarian
Universalists that upon their first meeting Masaryk told Capek,
"Why, Capek, you're not really a Baptist, you're a Unitarian."
Already in his young life, despite the unfairness
around him, Capek believed in something beautiful - in himself and the
people around him. He believed that his hope was greater than his fear
and he summoned great courage to chase this dream that seemed to tell
him there was a better way.
HYMN – "I Know this
Rose Will Open"
I know this rose will open
I know my fears will burn away
I know my soul will unfurl it’s wings
I know this rose will open.
JOYS AND CONCERNS
Now is the time in the service where the love that
binds us together is spoken aloud. If you have a joy or concern that by
sharing with this community might bring a measure of healing or a moment
of hope, we invite you to come forward, light a candle, speak into the
microphone, say your name and the joy or concern you would have us carry
in our hearts for the coming week.
…We light this final candle for all the joys and
concerns still in the silent sanctuary of our hearts. May we keep one
another in our care for this coming week.
STORY PART III
Capek’s friend, Marasyk, agreed with him that
their country wanted a religion based on freedom and the dignity of
all people. He urged Capek to come to the International Congress of
Religious Liberals – what is now the International Association for
Religious Freedom. The group met in Berlin and Capek attended along
with Sikhs, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews and every sect
of Christianity imaginable. On a small scrap of paper he wrote down
the words from a speech delivered there. It read:
"We dream of the day when
the nations of the West, discerning the nature of God's … Grace,
shall be ready to accept this message--the message of One Religion
in all religions, the One Logos in all prophets, the One Word in
all churches, the One Soul in all scriptures, the One [God]
immanent and operant in Universal Humanity."
Marasyk, seeing the similarities between Capek’s
thinking and Unitarian thought, arranged for Capek to meet with the
Unitarian Association’s minister of foreign relations. Capek asked
them if they would be willing to fund a church in Moravia. But the
talks didn’t not lead to any support. Marasyk later commented sadly
that the Unitarian church was often like "a mother unwilling to
nurse her own children." He asked Capek to be patient.
Capek although disappointed, continued to write. He
tried to encourage the Czech people to cherish and protect the
freedoms they had and he began to sound a good deal like many
Unitarians. This is what he had to say in one letter to the Czech
"We do not favor dogmas,
they are but lifeless formulas. We love reality, whatever moves
the mind, the heart and the muscle [of the human spirit]. Let us
do away with all numbness, all dying ideals. We seek new ideas and
new kinds of mental effort. Freedom: that's something we get
enthusiastic about! Let's free ourselves from superstition and
prejudice and then truth in its full beauty will appear.... Let us
inscribe on our banner: "Freedom of Conscience" and let
us win battles with it everywhere."
But Capek and his fight for freedom seemed to be
losing more battles than he won. In 1911, he was forced to leave his
Baptist congregation. The government was also becoming very suspicious
of him and the Catholic church was on the verge of declaring him a
heretic. In 1913 war broke out. When a friendly police commissioner
warned him that he was on the Austrian blacklist he thought it was
best to leave the country. But, by this time, it was quite difficult
because Capek had a wife and many children. Nevertheless, he led his
family out of fighting and escaped to the United States. There he
served as a Baptist minister of a congregation in Newark, New Jersey.
But misfortune followed him. Shortly after he
arrived, his wife died. And after a few years his new Baptist
congregation accused him of heresy saying he was too liberal,
preaching too much about freedom. Although he was declared innocent,
it was very disheartening for him. But despite his struggles he
continued to believe in the need for freedom – and his own ability
to help them find it – for people everywhere continued to be
punished for being different.
PRAYER (adapted from Norbert
Spirit of Life,
[Help me be reminded that] …it is worthwhile to
live and fight courageously for sacred ideals. [though evil winds
may blow] into my body's fire, my soul, [will] never unravel. Even
though [I have been] disappointed a thousand times, [even though I
have] fallen in the fight, and everything from time to time appears
worthless, I know I have lived amidst eternity. Be grateful, my
soul. And know your life is worth living. For it is he who has been
pressed from all sides and still remained victorious in spirit - who
is welcomed into the choir of heroes. Amen.
HYMN - "There is More
STORY PART IV
When the war ended it brought about many changes.
Peace returned to Czechoslovakia, and his friend, Marasyk, had been
elected president. Millions of Czechs – no longer required by law to
worship in the Catholic church - were looking for a new religion.
Back in New Jersey, Capek’s life saw changes as
well. He had a crisis of faith in his Baptist faith and sought a new
affiliation. He began to write more and explore new ideas. He also met a
woman who became his wife.
No longer Baptist, Capek was interested in finding a
church for his family to attend. Each week he sent his children out to
explore Sunday schools with their friends. Each Sunday they would come
home and he would ask them what they had learned. Each time he seemed
disappointed and each time he would encourage them to go out and seek
some more. One day, however, they came home from a Unitarian Church and
what they had to say impressed him so much that he and his wife
accompanied them the following Sunday. They ended up joining the
Unitarian Church of Essex County, New Jersey. And with the inspiration
and support of the minister and members of the congregation, Capek tried
again to solicit the help of the Unitarian Association to fund the start
of a congregation in his homeland. This time, he was successful.
So, with a promise of $200 a month for ten months from
the AUA, Capek sailed home to Prague and began the task of starting
something new. He formed the "The Prague Congregation of Liberal
Religious Fellowship." In April, 1922, they had their inaugural
service, and a year later, to celebrate their first anniversary, Capek
wrote the Flower Communion Service as "a new experiment in
symbolizing our liberty and brotherhood." Each member was to bring
a flower to symbolize the individual character of the human spirit. The
flowers, placed in a vase, became a symbol of one spiritual community of
many individuals. Then, Capek wrote,
"When they go home, each is
to take one flower just as it comes without making any distinction
where it came from and whom it represents, to confess that we accept
each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or
other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a
human and wants to be good."
Capek's message was well received. His congregation
grew tremendously. But as it became well known so did his problems grow.
For it was around this time that the Nazis moved into Prague and they
didn’t like people like Capek who preached that it was okay to be
different. He and many of his parishioners were persecuted.
Though invited to come to the United States as a
minister-at-large for the AUA, Capek declined, choosing instead to
minister to his people in those terrible times. He preached against the
Nazis but he had to do so very carefully since there were always two
members of the Gestapo who attended his services and reported back to
headquarters. Besides his preaching, he helped further the work of the
Unitarian Service Committee which helped people escape the concentration
camps and flee to the United States. Throughout everything he did, Capek
kept his message of optimism alive in the darkest times and his
On his seventieth birthday, his congregation gave him
a radio. It was against the law to listen to foreign broadcasts, but
Capek did anyway. Every morning in secret, he would tune into the BBC,
and share what he learned with his congregation. His youngest daughter
innocently let slip this information about having a radio to her doctor,
and on March 28, 1941, the Gestapo raided his apartment as he was
listening. He and his daughter were arrested and taken to the
concentration camps. Despite two trials which recommended minimal
sentences, Capek was sent to the concentration camp with the notice
stamped on his passport: ‘return unwanted.’ Capek spent fourteen
weeks there, wrote seven letters and numerous hymns, and worked to keep
the spirits up of the prisoners he met. Eventually he was one of the
people who died.
OFFERTORY – Collecting
of the flowers
Service Leader: Norbert
Capek is important to our history as Unitarian Universalists because,
like him, we know the importance of freedom. We know that religion is
about love. That differences in people are not a threat but part of
their beauty. That our lives are a gift with which we can encourage and
brighten the lives of the people around us. And that the best way to
spend our lives – before they are taken from us – is in the pursuit
of what we believe in. Though we are fortunate not to have to live
within the dire times that Mr. Capek lived, our call is no less
compelling. The need is just as great and we have just as much to offer.
We give to support these ideals within and beyond our walls. We will now
receive this morning’s offering.
ANTHEM – "Rainbow
Connection" - children
in the 3rd grade on up
Service Leader: For the work
of this church which is weaving a tapestry of love with our lives, we
are grateful for this offering and the people who make it possible.
"We sing now together in joyful thanksgiving
acclaiming creation whose bounty we share;
both sorrow and gladness we find now in our living, we sing a hymn of
praise to the life that we bear."
TEACHER RECOGNITION CEREMONY
Karen LoBracco, DRE:
This morning, as we walked around the concentration
camp, we gathered around an oddly shaped pond. It was a spot where the
Nazis burned the bodies of their victims. Ashes still remained there.
Some people lit candles. Father Tchaikofsky, a priest from a nearby
Polish order, made a formal apology on behalf of the Catholic church
that went much, much further than the Pope's. He spoke of the way the
Gospels had been distorted and used for evil purposes, how the church
had colluded and evaded its responsibility, how it had helped the spread
of anti-Semitism that exists even today in Poland. "Indifference is
a sin," he said.
Jews wept, saying they had been waiting their whole
lives to hear something like this. Germans wept, Poles wept, for the
shame and the secrets and the guilt that they carried -- even though
many were not yet born when it had happened. Then all of us wept -- even
those of us who wrestled with the powerful urge to say that this wasn't
our fault - that what happened here had nothing to do with us.
Each day of the retreat, we sat on bright turquoise
cushions where the trains used to unload prisoners. Our periods of
meditation began with the chilling sound of a hand-cranked siren. People
took turns chanting names of those who died here. The siren faded away,
and we were surrounded by the names cast out in all directions.
On that retreat I saw a different side of people. And
a different side of myself. As I tried to understand my place there,
battling the feeling of "not me, not me," I began to see these
people not for their differences but for what we all had in common - a
message, plain and clear came to me: ‘Yes, you. You can't say it has
nothing to do with you.’
As children and grandchildren of those who committed
these crimes, the Germans on the retreat described a very particular
reaction. They said they felt fragmented, that part of them felt like
the perpetrators -- some of their families profited handsomely from the
war -- and part of them felt like the victims; inheritors of an
unbelievable sorrow. They felt blamed - though they themselves had done
nothing wrong. They were here, they said, in hopes of becoming whole. In
listening to them, I saw that they were part of me, too. In speaking the
names, I realized that anyone at Auschwitz could have been my friends.
Or someone in my family -- Jew, gay, political prisoner, hero,
indifferent one, Nazi -- and all are part of me.
That is what bearing witness means. Coming to a place
like Auschwitz, with all of our differences, in all of our brokenness,
we realize that we carry in our own persons the pain of the world, the
pain that we usually do not feel strong enough to face. Only when we
face it together do we summon the courage to become whole.
On one of the final days, a woman who was serving as
rabbi for us, led a worship service to try and help us make sense of
what we saw. This woman had two great uncles and a great aunt die there.
It was clear she was in tremendous shock. When it came time to deliver
the message, she could barely speak. She began singing in a broken
voice. The notes faltering. I found myself whispering, Come on,
sweetheart, you can do it. As clearer and stronger notes crept into
her voice, others began to sing with her. Other religious leaders
stepped forward and joined her up front -- another rabbi, a swami in
orange robes, a sheik, a Lakota Sun Dancer, several Zen masters, a
Lutheran pastor -- all offering chants of mourning, healing, and peace.
Native speakers recited the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, in
Japanese, German, Italian, French, Dutch, English, Polish, Hebrew, and
Aramaic, and we joined the refrain: Hai, Amen, Si, Amen, Oui,
Amen, Ja, Amen, Tak, Amen. Yes, Amen. We ended our
service singing, Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad:
"Listen, O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one."
As a Unitarian Universalist I have always been taught
to believe that there is a unity in our diversity. That in our diversity
is tremendous beauty and strength. I stood in a place that had tried to
crush the beauty of human difference with brutal efficiency. But we, by
our very bodies, were proclaiming the beauty of human difference. And
that our oneness is found in our response. Even in tragedy, we continue
to have something beautiful ready to blossom inside us. Even in tragedy,
we can find beauty in another if we are willing to look. I always
thought unity in diversity was a wonderful ideal, but until right then,
I had never really experienced it in my body, experienced a need for it
like food. I didn't expect it to be beautiful.
I remember when I first got on the train to go to the
retreat I felt alone, frightened, disconnected, fragmented. When I
stepped back on that train I felt different. I had seen how fear can
make people see differences that don’t exist. But I saw there so much
sameness – the ashes were the same. The tears. The grief. The fear.
The loss. The lesson I saw there was that no matter what side of the
fence we once stood, we lost part of our common humanity in that place.
And to bring it back we must come together. For a short time, for a few
people, for a few days 130 of us came together. We learned that despite
our differences – our likes and dislikes - we don’t have to fear one
another. It was a very liberating message that I found in such a strange
place. I thought the train was supposed to take me to a place where I
would feel like a prisoner. But it ended up taking me where I learned
what it was like to feel free.
SHARING OF THE FLOWERS
Service Leader: Now the baskets are
going to come back around. We want you to, as Norbert Capek said,
"take one flower just as it comes without making any distinction
where it came from and whom it represents, to confess that we accept
each other as brothers and sisters without regard to class, race, or
other distinction, acknowledging everybody as our friend who is a
human and wants to be good."
(Hymn to be sung while the baskets are being passed)
*HYMN – "Freedom
Service Leader: Though at times we sing in broken
voices, with faltering voices, the song of humanity will well up from
within, crying out, "Come on Sweetheart, you can do it." So
that as clearer notes come forth from within us, we will be joined by
our brothers and sisters everywhere crying out for love and freedom.
Go in Peace.
GO IN PEACE