"The Freedom Train"

Rev. Greg Ward

May 26th, 2002

Memorial Day / Flower Communion Sunday

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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 Czechoslovakia.

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.




Norbert Capek


Service Leader


"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 Free."

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 B,"


…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 freedom.


Service Leader: Please join me in speaking the unison chalice lighting which is found in your order of worship

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 are without.


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 Flowers Gone?


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.



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, "modernism."

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."

Service Leader:

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.


Service Leader:

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.



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 people:


"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 Capek)

Norbert Capek:

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 Love, Somewhere"



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 congregation flourished.

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."


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.


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 Train"


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.