Mary Beth Writes

 I recently preached on the topic of Integrity. I had this sermon completed before Christmas because I wanted to not stress about it. Good for me. 

The day after Christmas I realized it wasn't "right."  I wasn't sure what was wrong, but as I do when I'm looking for more than I have, I delved into quotes by people I think know what I'm trying to figure out.  James Baldwin amazed me.  

Then I watched the movies I reference in the sermon. 

Then I wrote the sermon that is here. 

The day before I preached, Marcia notified Jennifer and I that Maria Hamilton would be visiting our service to express her thanks for holiday offerings given to her organization.

Maria is the mother of Dontre Hamilton. She is warm, gracious, and a good speaker. She only talked a few minutes ... but if you belong to a local congregation that wants to fight racism - consider connecting to Mothers for Justice United

If you don't know who Dontre Hamilton is, start here.  

I am grateful for the difficult and beautiful lives and spirits of  James Baldwin and Dontre Hamiton, who visited this sermon and service to bring us challenge and grace.


Integrity is a Path

 In the 1973 movie Paper Moon, Ryan O’Neal plays Moses Pray, a handsome, clever drifter-grifter.  It’s the early 1930’s and everyone is on the make for dinner, security, and shelter from the devasting crisis that is the Great Depression. 

Mose stops by a Kansas cemetery for the funeral of a woman he once, ahem, knew. One thing leads to another, soon he is “saddled with” the woman’s orphaned 9-year old daughter Addie; he’s delegated to drive her to her aunt and uncle in St. Joe, Missouri.

Is Addie actually Mose’s daughter? Maybe… 

Addie quickly picks up on his scams – the main one being that he reads the newspaper when he comes to a small town, he has a box of bibles and an engraving press in the backseat of his car. He then stops by the home of a newly widowed woman with, he says, the engraved Bible her husband ordered for her as a gift before he died. In most instances, the bereaved widow will buy the ridiculously overpriced Bible. Addie is soon using her own fast wits to assist him in this dubious scheme.  

Though there is a moment when Mose says to Addie that he isn’t going to do something that she thinks he ought to try because, he says, he “has scruples.”  She looks at him, narrows her eyes. “I don’t know what scruples are, Mose, but if you have them, I bet you stole them from someone.”

As the movie progresses Mose, surprising even himself, begins to care for Addie in ways a parent cares. He tries to shield her from ugliness and violence. He buys her some clothes. He holds her hand when things get dicey. He begins to make decisions based on caring for and protecting her.  At the end of the movie he finally delivers her to her aunt and uncle’s nice, stable, white picket-fenced home. He leaves her there with adults who are obviously way more skilled at this parenting thing than he is.

The last scene is Addie in his rear-view window, running up and over a hill, chasing his beat-up truck. He stops, gets out, opens the door for her. They grin at each other and she hops in and they take off.

He is finally arranging his life around his love for this kid– and he is, against his instincts, beginning to become a man of some integrity.  Interesting integrity - but integrity none the less.

Here’s another Great Depression story, this one from my family. It was the dark days of the depression, early 1930’s, and my grandmother was newly widowed with two children. She had an 8th grade education, no job, no stable place to live, no source of income or food – this was before the safety net of social security.  She and her boys - my dad and uncle – were often hungry and their living situation precarious.

One Christmas she learned that because of a job her husband once had, she was entitled to a food basket distributed by that company… but to get it she would have to go to a place known in the community for the charity it extended. My grandmother wouldn’t go because she refused to accept “charity” or to even look as if she was receiving charity. That’s the tale I was raised on, anyway. Pride and Integrity.

My grandmother was a smart and loving woman and by the time I came along her years of dangerous poverty were far behind her. Yet as James Baldwin would write. “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” I’m sure I don’t know the whole story of why she wouldn’t go get that food basket.

Integrity is this month’s theme in the Unitarian Universalist lexicon of things to ponder. Integrity is interesting. These two stories I just shared – Paper Moon and Grandma Laura – show us the era in which so much of our American idea of Integrity was forged.  Through the Depression people were hard-pressed and at-risk. The belief that one could respect themselves even when times were lean was a way to keep going. Don’t cheat, don’t steal, hold your head high, keep moving. 

To this day this is what most of us consider as the beginning and end of integrity.  Integrity looks like - insert your own tall, handsome, probably white Hollywood actor here - in a cowboy, astronaut, sheriff, cop, soldier, or spy hero outfit. We see taciturn men who risk their lives to save the rest of us “lesser humans”.  I looked up John Wayne quotes and found this: “I’ve made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it.” His integrity was based on not shooting a guy in the back IN THE MOVIES …  

To know more about John Wayne’s real-life integrity, I guess we could ask his 3 wives, 7 kids, and numerous long- and short-time affair partners.

We live in a different time now, in different circumstances.  What does it mean to have integrity when our society is inundated by climate-killing, materialistic excess as well as the grind of insecurity and injustice? Are we still people of integrity as long as we don’t steal or lie?

I read the story of the Good Samaritan earlier. Let me restate it with more metaphors: “A clever guy asks Jesus: “What must I do to have enough integrity to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replies: “A man, traveling in a dangerous neighborhood, is mugged and left for dead.

Along comes a preacher and when he sees the beat-up man, he passes by on the other side. 

 Next a politician comes to the place, sees the victim and he also passes by.

But then a Samaritan – Jews and Samaritans in Jesus’ time generally disliked each other similar to the tension felt between many Israelis and Palestinians now. The Samaritan - maybe a Muslim woman with a head scarf or a Sikh man wearing a turban? - crosses the road to where the beat-up victim lies. They get their first aid kit from their glove compartment and bandage the man’s bleeding wounds. Let’s assume there was no way to call 911 or it was too desolate and too dangerous to wait for an ambulance. Maybe the Samaritan recognizes that the person who was mugged is likely undocumented and if they are taken to a hospital, they will probably be arrested and/or deported. So the Samaritan puts the stranger into their car and takes them to an out-of-the-way motel and cares for them. The next day they pay the motel owner several hundred dollars and then tell that owner - ‘Look after this person and when I return, I will reimburse you.’

Who is the person with integrity here? We know the answer, don’t we??  It’s not the safe or easy answer.

Last week Len and I watched, “I Am Not Your Negro.” (It’s on many streaming services.) 

James Baldwin was an American novelist, playwright, and activist. He lived 1924-1987 and was gay, Black, born and raised in a difficult family in Harlem.  As an adult Baldwin would choose to live in France in order to escape the toxic racism and homophobia of the US.  

Baldwin was friends with Martin Luther King and Malcom X and Medgar Evers. He was working on a book about his relationships with those men when he died of cancer in his early 60’s. His unfinished book “Remember This House” was turned into a 2016 documentary by Haitian director Raoul Peck. As Len and I watched it –it felt as if Baldwin was dragging us across the road to look at and understand the battered humans caught in calamitous situation they did not create.

Baldwin writes: “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it is not a pretty story.”

“You cannot lynch us and keep us in ghettos without becoming something monstrous yourselves.”

“This is not a ‘racial’ problem. It's a problem of whether or not we are willing to look at our lives and be responsible for them, and then begin to change. The great western house we all come from is one house. My blood, my father and mother’s blood, is in this soil.”

The next night I watched, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” This Baldwin novel was published in 1974 although the movie, directed by Barry Jenkins, came out in 2018. The plot is simply and tragically what happens to an innocent Black man and his wife and child, when he is accused of a felony he didn’t commit.

The public defender has no time to do anything. The families involved hire a young lawyer who believes them but doesn’t have the resources or power to make justice happen. In the end the innocent man takes a plea deal to shorten his sentence for the crime he didn’t do.

This dynamic, this plot, this human calamity is the shiv, the bullet, the explosion in our “justice system.” Yeah, we know there are not enough public defenders, they are often inexperienced, overworked, under supported.  But really, is it so bad?

Yes, it is. This dynamic – of an innocent person of color taking a plea deal to shorten a sentence for a crime they didn’t commit – this is common and why is that? It would not be hard to change. More public lawyers. More law schools requiring students to collect and present evidence. Law enforcement institutions fighting racism in their ranks –- when a career path is famous for its avowal that “we are family” – that’s when and where the rest of us need to be diligent and skeptical.  Don’t harbor racism and injustice and violence and then tell us “I cover for my brother and sisters”

 As Baldwin said. “This is not a ‘racial’ problem. It's a problem of whether or not we are willing to look at our lives and be responsible for them, and then begin to change.

When I worked with inmates in the Racine County Jail - for 10 years I ran an employment-obtaining program for inmates who would qualify for Huber if they had a job – I heard this exact story so many times. “I didn’t do what they accused me of, but I didn’t have the money for a ‘paid lawyer’ so I had to take a plea deal to make the sentence shorter.”  Were all of the men who told me this telling the truth? No. But many of them were. 

There’s Baldwin’s novel; there are many other American novels around this one dynamic. A black man is wrongly accused, can’t afford justice, take a plea deal.

‘An American Marriage’ by Tayari Jones came out in 2018, is on Oprah's Book Club, and won Women's Prize for Fiction. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ fits this plot, although Harper Lee presents it as rare. There is a movie coming out soon - “Just Mercy” with Jamie Foxx in it – that is this story.

What I am wrestling with is how often I have walked, we have walked past this story, lying like a beat-up victim at the side of every road in this country. 

Do we understand what James Baldwin, what Black Lives Matter, what Mothers For Justice United are telling us? What Jesus is asking us? Do we see that to be people of integrity – we have to open our eyes to the reality around us, feel empathy and respond respectfully?

Do I know precisely what I should do or you should do?  No. But I know our integrity starts where we pay attention. Where we give respect and money. Where we listen. Where we ask questions.

Maybe some of us will go to court on any average day when people of color are getting their 20 minutes in front of a judge. Sit there. Witness. Tell others what we heard and saw. 

I am so aware as we all are, that there are so many particular points of injustice to respond to in our lives. 

But as we begin to make our way through this January … as we consider what it means to be people of integrity – I know our model is not John Wayne in any movie.

This is epiphany. We are the wise men and wise women, pushing out into our world, looking for light.  Looking to find it, serve it, share it.  Integrity isn’t what we are, it’s the path we are on.

Three more quotes from James Baldwin:

“I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

“A journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find, or what you find will do to you.”

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced. History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”




Just read this today 1/11/2020  Racism in the investigative/jiudicial system. 


I came up to hear Mary Beth preach and It was inspiring meeting Maria Hamilton after the sermon, it was a lovely and unexpected surprise... I enjoyed reading it at my own pace... Thanks for the opportunity Mary Beth...
Mary Beth's picture

Thank for being there. Your presence was part of the integrity of the morning...

Well said, Mary Beth, This needs to be heard far and you have a link ?
Mary Beth's picture

It's on FB and twitter. You can copy the URL and put it anywhere. Thanks.

profound, thank you
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you. It's hard to face the injustice on which this nation was built and which gets perpetuated daily, all around us.

Thank you, Mary Beth, for this meaningful reflection on integrity. This is not the only country that needs to confront the sins of its past and face the truth of what it means to live with integrity. The truth shall set us free, but only if we are willing to re-think everything we have been taught and forge a new path of integrity, atone for our sins and change.

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Love, Communicate, Show Up, & Love.

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube: 

Sanctuary: Safety or Invitation? 10/7/2018

Sanctuary is Our Claim that Hope Can Become Truth  

 Sanctuary is more than a concept. Sanctuary is our claim that the realm of God and goodness is here, now, in this time and place. Sanctuary isn’t the room where we wait for things to get better. Sanctuary is the space where we claim peace and justice, hope and love right now, among us.

In sanctuary - hope becomes truth.


Sermon - Servants of the Quest

The park ranger described the paths one could choose to hike across the island. I picked the that one he said was the easiest.  When he was done talking, I walked to get a drink at a building that was a distance away, behind some trees. When I came back out, I couldn’t quite see what was a path and what was the field, so I walked back to where some people seemed to be hanging out. However, they were photographers and they weren’t going anywhere.

And that is how I got myself separated from all other humans who were going to be hiking across Bonaventure Island that day.

Where & What is Beauty?

This was this last Sunday’s service in the United Unitarian Universalist congregation in my town.  This was entirely written by five of us - the “United We Writers.” I told friends that I would post this on my website. The service was wonderfully received.

"No Felons Here"

I preached this sermon at United Unitarian Universalist /23/2019.

The photo is of the sanctuary of Grace United Methodist in Chicago. It's the church in which Len and I met and then married. We happened to be driving by earlier this year on a Sunday morning. They were voting that day on what to do with their building. I took this single picture with my phone, capturing the affection we all feel for our friends and fellow-journeyers in our congregations. 


Journey to Happiness

(I preached this sermon at my church, United Unitarian Universalist, in Waukesha. 3/3/2019)



One day a young Buddhist on her journey to find True Happiness, came to the banks of a wide river. Staring at the great obstacle in front of her, she pondered and pondered how to cross such a wide and mighty barrier.

  Just as she was about to give up, she saw a Great Teacher on the other side of the river. The young Buddhist yelled over to the Teacher, "Oh Wise One, can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?”

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