The Premise and the Promise

Building the World We Dream About

By Roberto Padilla

Delivered at First Unitarian Church of San Jose, CA

On February 24, 2008

Please allow me to start by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Today I have a dream that all children of God, white men and black men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestant and Catholics, will be able to join hands together and sing with the words of the old black spiritual: “Free at last!” This was Rev. King’s dream and it is also our dream. It is the premise that we have, to become multiracial and multicultural UU communities.

¿But how are we going to achieve that? The answer is, applying the UU principles.

We, covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Acceptance of one another, and encouragement to mutual spiritual growth in our congregations. These are the basis of the premise for ‘Building The World We Have Been Dreaming of’.

Many years ago, our then senior minister, Rev. Lindi Ramsden, started the experiment to build here in San Jose, a multicultural, multiethnic, and bilingual community. The idea seemed good. And it did fit perfectly well with our UU principles. She was talking about the fact that our community where our church sits is a community where the BMW’s meet the supermarket shopping carts. In other words, in the Silicon Valley, there are the upper middle class people that belong to the High Tech world and those on the fringe who live in the back streets.

The idea was to work with both groups together but, How and where to start? There were a few obstacles to overcome. Some members of the church did not like the idea and left. Some of the people that remained also had fears of mixing with another culture. If we invite Latin people to our homes what can we talk about? How are we going to understand each other in two different languages, two different ways of being and acting?

Initially, the idea was to integrate our community with the unprivileged group, but we had the language barrier. We started by translating into Spanish, sermons, prayers, songs, poems, brochures etc, for all those who did not speak English. And then, after some negotiations, the UUA authorized the translation of the book “Our Chosen Faith” which was translated by Ervin Barrios. Also, Rev. Ramsden took several Spanish courses.

We also had the social and economic barriers. The income level of the Latino people was very low and they also had to be integrated into the productive world. Then we created the ESL and Computer courses. Behind it all was the idea of creating personal relationships, because that way it would be easier to integrate both groups.

Talking about personal relationships, privileged and unprivileged, it reminds me that I was privileged enough to be born in Mexico City, surrounded by different universities, different options. My parents, although not from a wealthy class, allowed their children to attend school, we had the privilege of studying without worrying about where the money for our food and for our books came from. I had the privilege of all city children. This privilege gave me the opportunity to go to school, to get an education and to pursue my dream of becoming a doctor, because I wanted to help the people in need. The day I graduated I swore that I would dedicate myself to those in need. I was going to use my knowledge for that purpose, the privilege that I had. That was my promise.

Privilege can be defined as an advantage that one has, one which one has not had to earn. I did not ask to be born in Mexico City, I did not ask to have the family I have, for me it was a privilege, but I also had the responsibility, of using that privilege I had. After I went to the university and in my quest for helping those in need I chose to go and work at a small village in the Sierra of the state of Veracruz. My privilege of being an urban, middle class, and well educated person, I took that with me. I was going to follow thru with my premise and my promise. On my way to that village I got lost in the middle of nowhere because I with nothing but my privilege of having studied at the university, with my knowledge, but that would not take away my hunger or my being cold, nor the fear of being at an unknown place.

When I finally reached that village, I came to a modest medical office with my knowledge and my dream to help. I came into a society that had never had a medical doctor, they all spoke Spanish (supposedly there was no language barrier) and my first patient said to me, “doctor, I feel ugly”. Ugly?, we were talking the same language but I could not understand my patient; I who had passed all my biochemistry tests, and I just could not understand what this man wanted to tell me when he said, ‘I feel ugly’, I who had written long essays with perfect spelling, could not understand what he meant by ‘ugly’. I had to ask someone from the village to help me in order to understand what he was saying to me. (he was feeling sick)

In this village, besides the health issues, they had some education issues; the only school they had was 1st to 3rd grade only. If they wanted to continue studying, they had to go to another village that was two hours away. Then, how was I going to achieve my goal of making my dream come true, with my premise and my promise of helping them? I started to talk to them, to come into their homes, to understand their language, their culture, their costumes and traditions. I took my doctor’s robe off and went to the field with them, I also went with them to milk the cows and get the milk that I would later drink. Besides being fun, I learned new things, started to build new relationships, to be part of their community. Instead of waiting for them to bring the food to me, I decided to go directly to the person who was cooking for me and wait patiently until the food was ready, having the opportunity to talk with the people about their own dreams, their own longings, but in their own terrain, where they felt more comfortable, in the heart of their homes. And people started to appreciate it.

First I had to build relationships at a human level, at a sensible level, in order to use the responsibility that my privilege gave me to help them. I had the ability to speak better than they did, to communicate with higher government levels when ever it was needed. That was part of my responsibility given the privilege that I had. That is how we managed to create a kindergarten, we made the elementary school go up to 6th grade, we created a distance learning junior high school, and introduced the telephone service into their village.

Whenever I needed their help for any public health related project that my job required, they helped me very gladly, because they were no longer working with the doctor, they were working with a friend, with one of them. When I first arrived in that village, I was, of course, afraid. When I left my home, I thought to myself, will I be safe? What will I talk to them about if we have nothing in common? Later, I understood that there was not a great difference between the man that milked the cow and myself. We both were drinking the same milk, we both had the same dreams of growing and seeing our own families grow, they were working in the field and I was working in my own field of knowledge. In reality there was not much difference. The cloths that I was wearing and the ones they were wearing did not make any difference, the difference was in the way we related to each other.

Dr. Marin Luther King Jr. was a doctor who had the privilege of having a father who encouraged him to study, he had the privilege of being born with the gift of being a great speaker, but he went back to the church where the conflict was happening, and he started building relationships. During the time of the boicott against the buses, he walked with the rest of the people, he walked with his friends. We also know that César Chávez, organized all the field workers, but first he created personal relationships with them in order to achieve a common goal. Here we see two different qualities of leadership. This community of San Jose, is a leading community, and all of you who are attending the “Now is The Time“ Conference, are also leaders, leaders in your own communities.

Multiculturalism is not about learning a language or translating some brochures. This goes even further, It means to sit down together at the table of the other people. It means to go and milk the cow and enjoy that process together, without the fear of what people might say. Without the fear of not understanding each other, without the fear of not doing well in this intercultural encounter. Let me ask you now, How many of you have visited the homes of people of different color, race or culture? How many of you have invited someone whose culture, race and color are different from yours to your table?

Most of the Unitarian Universalists in this country have the privilege of being born white. They did not ask to be white, but they have the responsibility that comes with that privilege, which means, figuring out how to use the privilege that one has. How to use that privilege for the common good. Those of us who have that kind of privilege do not have to worry about immigration issues, about language barriers, we know the system, we know our laws. We can become the voice of those who don’t have that privilege, and we can start by recognizing the worth and dignity of every person.

This is the premise and at the same time the promise: to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations and acceptance of one another. With the promise of a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, respecting the interdependent web of all that exists, of which we are a part.

All of you who come from many different places in the country, and us here in San José, we all have a dream. Today we have the dream that in a not so far future, we might be able to see our UU communities converted into communities where blacks and whites, Asians and Latinos, Catholic and Muslims, and Jews, will hold hands like brothers, united by one single faith.

The book of Exodus tells us that Jahve promised to his people to take them to the promised land, to the land where they could be free. They followed him in spite of not being told where that land was from the beginning of their journey, nor they were told how long it would take for them to get there. They only knew that with faith they would be able to make it. We the UUs who are gathered here under this beautiful dome, we know that the road is hard, that there will be some very hard journeys within and outside our own communities, in order to reach our promised land, which is that of becoming intentional multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic communities, and why not multilingual communities too….

Come, come, whoever you are, says the song we sang at the beginning of this service. This song is inviting us all to belong to the caravan of love, no matter what race, color, language, sexual preference, religion or socioeconomic level. In other words we are inviting everyone to become part of this multicultural, multiracial community. Now is the time to start getting rid of our own fears, our personal arrogance, our misunderstandings. Now is the time to work together to make this dream come true.

Let’s pray to whomever might be the God that we worship, keeping in mind that Christ was not a Christian, that Mohamed was not a Muslim, nor Buddah was a Buddhist, nor Krishna was a Hindi, nor Jahve was a Jewish. Lets remember that God is multicultural, multiethnic, multiracial and multilingual.
Now is the time!


(Read this sermon in Spanish.)

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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative