Church pews with window light illuminating
Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

Don’t you ever doubt that a small but thoughtful delegation
Can change the world—indeed that’s all that ever could!

John Pitney
“Keeping the Garden” 2004

I’m writing this one day after participating in the Earth Day worship service of the Fresno Unitarian Universalist Church, a denomination often called “the UUs.” I’m still high, although now quietly so, and I hope to unpack the good news from that experience by telling you about it.

At risk of misrepresentation, I see Unitarians as people who have taken the message of Judeo-Christian religions and many other faiths and worked to see the unity behind, underneath or within all of them. They not only preach inclusiveness, they practice it, and the openness of most UU congregations is a wonder to behold.

I respect their search for universal truth because that is my native belief as well. But since I met John Pitney and experienced the event he convinced me to join 30+ years ago, the Forum on Church and Land, I’ve reentered the world of organized Christian religion. I’ve immersed myself in land theology, studied the portions of both Old and New Testaments which speak to that, and pestered pastors to tell me why they don’t preach about it. I’ve found the roots of our most treasured American values there. I’ve also found where those Testaments have been used to pervert the messages of equality, justice and freedom. It’s been a valuable effort.

About a year ago, my friend Tom Willey, one of Fresno’s first organic farmers and leaders of the community-supported agriculture movement, said “We should get you to speak to the Unitarians,” where he and his wife Danesse are members. Apparently it took a little convincing of the leadership, but about 6 months ago they contacted me and said they had an opening for April 21, the Earth Day service. Their pastor wanted a little vacation and they needed a sub. Not good at planning, I said “If I’m still alive then, I’d be glad to.” As April 21 grew closer, I began to dream about what I would sing to this choir.

The outpouring of stories and information that began to flow from my heart and mind almost swamped me many times. Around Thursday I discovered that I was writing the book I’ve had back-burnered for five years, not a sermon, and that helped. After 9 edits, I’d cut away the parts that didn’t absolutely have to be told, but Saturday morning it was still 50% too long, so I prayed. For the rest of the day and into the night, the spirit that lives in all of us but especially folks like John Pitney and Tom Willey, that spirit stood beside me while I turned sentences made for reading into sentences crafted for hearing. By 3 a.m. Sunday morning, it was as good as it was going to get.

With only three-plus hours of sleep, I got cleaned up, ate and then climbed into my 1996 Ford Ranger, leaving Lindsay with just enough time to get there before the service. I popped a tape of John’s Church & Land songs into the truck’s cassette player and let him sing to me all the way up. In times past, I would have been starting to lose steam by that time and getting too weak to carry the message. What I found, however, is that the message was carrying me.

It was faith, hope and love I was trying to tell them about, and how we might lean on them to face our current challenge over groundwater: to assert the needs of the common good over the supposed rights of the moneymen to take whatever they want. At the sermon’s beginning and end I sang snippets of Pitney songs, with words jammed in between telling the story of my life proselytizing for even distribution of land. Here’s the good news: from the looks on their faces and their enthusiastic response afterward, I believe the message hit home. I think it’s because we are finally ready to hear it, and that it’s a reprieve from what looks like a hopeless situation.

A quote from Thomas Jefferson that got edited out of the fourth draft might be fitting here. Writing to James Madison in 1785, Jefferson said “It is not too soon to provide by every possible means that as few as possible shall be without a little portion of land. The small landholders are the most precious part of the state.”

In our current struggles to manage groundwater, the small landholders are the ones most vulnerable to being wiped out of our farm economy. The costs to them are drastic, but the costs to us will be even worse. I proposed to the Unitarians that we study and speak up about these things, and I have hope that a small but thoughtful delegation will begin to form. It is not too soon.

Trudy Wischemann is an ecumenical Christian who fights with words. You can send her your battle inclinations c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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