Thank you for inviting me- and for the reading of Desiderata-
“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
You’ve had a Month about Stewardship and what it means in practice. And you heard Caroline Lucas last week- so I have a hard act to follow!
There are lots of definitions of Stewardship but essentially:
It is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, service provision, information, theology and community development…
I have never described myself as a Steward but I do believe I have a responsibility to do my best to use my skills, knowledge and experience to make the world a better place. This is sometimes exhausting as well as empowering and my approach and relentless determination to ‘do good’ can be irritating to other people and to myself especially when I’m trying to juggle too many plates!
We are all shaped by our families, background, culture, education, religion, environment, history and so much more.
I was lucky to be born into a loving Irish working class Roman Catholic family with strong cultural and religious roots. My parents came from rural Ireland and came to England during the second world war to work as a nurse and a navvy- guess which one was which? My dad was illegitimate and spent much of his early life in the poor house and my mother had 9 sisters and 3 brothers and the boys inherited what little property there was. They met in Birmingham, moved to St Albans, Hertfordshire where mum worked in a large psychiatric hospital until she had children and my dad eventually started his own successful landscape gardening business. They had 5 children- we thought that was a small family compared to some of our cousins. I’ve got 3 brothers and 1 sister and am particularly close to my sister, Ann who lives in Sheffield and my brother, Martin, who is gay, lives with his husband in Brighton as well as London and is also involved in the international LGBT+ choral movement. He got an MBE for voluntary services to the LGBT+ community.
I had a happy but not idyllic childhood- there were times of hardship, illness, alcoholism, sadness, disappointment etc but our home was always open to anyone needing a meal, or a bed for the night –or even longer or just someone to talk to. We didn’t have much but what we had we shared and the visitors came first. Not just to newly arrived Irish people, but lonely men dad met in the pub or elderly neighbours who needed a cuppa or their shopping done. There was little money and I remember well the humiliation of queuing separately for free school meals.
Despite, or maybe because he had very poor formal education my father’s favourite book was the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. And my mother was forever organising jumble sales, door to door collections, committee meetings and social events and was an active volunteer for Oxfam, AlAnon, Mencap, the Catholic Women’s League and many more.
Both my parents helped people and instilled in all of us children a belief that caring and being charitable are good things. They were both determination to make sure that we had what they didn’t when they were children- a good education and good shoes. There was also lots of singing and parties.
It was no wonder that I trained to be a social worker and community worker. I was the first person in my family to get a degree and my first job was in Glasgow just up from the Gorbals. I was 22 years old trooping round rat-ridden streets in my long red tapestry coat and was sectioning people with mental health issues and taking children into care from slums – they didn’t stand a chance.
I soon rejected one to one casework and became a group worker and community worker. My passion for setting up systems and organisations that help people to empower themselves felt right. There was nowhere better to look at the bigger political picture than Glasgow- the home of the 7:84 theatre company- named to acknowledge that at that time 7% of the nation owned 84% of the country’s wealth- I think it may be even worse today. In Glasgow I had the best time and made some friends for life.
I moved to London in 1977 and worked in Harlesden Community Project in Brent for 11 years until I was made redundant as part of radical local government cuts under Maggie Thatcher. I was an active Trade Unionist and had negotiated maternity and paternity agreements as well as avidly defending workers rights. I worked up the road from Grunwick’s, Racism was rife and sexism endemic. Disability rights weren’t on the agenda and sexuality still pretty closeted. Trans and non-binary awareness was non existent.
I’m aware that I’m describing my life through the jobs I’ve had- as we so often do- and know that I’ve been fortunate to have been employed for most of my adult working life.
Without spelling it all out I continued to work in 4 London Local Authorities- as a Fostering and Adoption worker and as a Women’s Officer in 3 different borough’s. A note of historical sadness- I was the last head of the last Women’s Unit in the country (in Islington). Some had merged into Equalities Units and others had just disappeared. We were all equal now…
I then joined Camden and Islington Health Authority and later Islington Primary Care Trust as a senior manager shaping and commissioning services across health and social care and encouraging whole systems thinking and planning. They were astounded by the notion that if people running services talked to each other and to the communities they served creative solutions could be reached.
I took ill-health retirement after my first bout of breast cancer and did not think I would ever be fit enough to do paid work again- but some years later, after my second lot of cancer and after myself and my partner, Liz, had moved to Worthing I returned to work for the Carers Centre in Brighton to support carers of people with dementia. I then worked for Age Concern and Community Service Volunteers developing and managing the LifeLines volunteering project based mainly at Patching Lodge empowering older people to self organise. I retired when I was 60.
Over the years I’ve done all sorts of things In a voluntary capacity from being a school governor to supporting Asian women’s groups to running street parties. I’ve been an active feminist and equalities campaigner especially around women’s and LGBT+ rights.
When I fell in love with my partner, Liz almost 28 years ago, my world imploded and the straight world closed ranks and made my life hell for a while. I had married young to a man I loved- it was the done thing in those days- and I had 2 young children. I’d already rejected Catholicism and Christianity in my early twenties as sexist and oppressive institutions but that didn’t stop the wrath of the established church and family on both sides raining down on me. I lost my home, some friends and my family was split for many years. I was accused of causing my fathers death and harming my children. In my High Court divorce case I very nearly lost complete custody of my children just because of my sexuality. I have never been in the closet since and am loud and proud to be a lesbian.
My children were brought up in 2 loving homes with some very different priorities and beliefs. They are lovely and they have their own issues and are now 35 and 33 and appear to be as straight as anything- so much for my bad influence! Myself and Liz are now grannies- Lily and Lola- and loving it.
Thinking about Stewardship and what we look after and pass on- surely our most valuable resource is our children, not just our own birth children but all the children and young people who are the future of the world. We have a duty to challenge inequality, prejudice and discrimination wherever it exists. We also understand and know what homo/bi/transphobia looks and feels like and it has no place in our lives or communities. We can help to create a world where such oppression is banished.
I am minded of On Children from The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
In some ways I am old fashioned and believe that children – and others- learn by example. People are never too old or young to be challenged appropriately and sensitively. The way we communicate and treat people does have a direct effect on what we get back in return. Actions do speak louder than words and respecting difference is an ongoing challenge for us all.
As some of you know one of the things I presently do is Chair the Rainbow Chorus- at least until tomorrow night when I step down after 5 years. In my time as Chair the choir has more than doubled in size, become a registered Charity and increased the number of community gigs we do. One of the reasons why I love the Rainbow Chorus is because the people who join us don’t just love singing but they want to make a difference too. They want to stand up and be counted at IDAHOBIT, or TransPride or World Aids Day. They want to be part of an LGBT+ choir that welcomes everyone that can more or less sing in tune and they want to support others and to be supported when they need it. They also see the bigger picture and support the work I’m doing with others locally, nationally and internationally to make connections worldwide. So if there’s any men or anyone from the trans or BME communities out there who want to join us let me know! And come along to our Christmas concert on 9th December!
We are lucky in Brighton- I was recently in Warsaw at a European gathering of people representing LGBT+ choirs and the oppression was palpable- LGBT+ people experience overt discrimination, venues get cancelled and they regularly get violently attacked. In these oppressive times it’s even more important to spread our Rainbow message of inclusiveness and diversity.
I’m involved with a number of other LGBT+ organisations in the city. This is an exciting and challenging time for our communities in Brighton and it’s a time of change in the face of adversity and austerity. The choirs are now working much closer together, the Rainbow Fund is supporting many creative and innovative projects, the Trans Alliance is bringing together lots of the trans groups, The Community Safety Forum is increasingly proactive, Working To Connect-the LGBT small groups network- is supporting and encouraging groups to collaborate. There is greater awareness of the issues facing our older LGBT+ population including loneliness and isolation, housing and care needs, depression, poverty, bereavement and more. There are still lots of issues and divisions across our communities but working together we are stronger.
I was going to read out Maya Angelou’s poem A Rock, A River, A Tree as it so eloquently connects our human interaction with the natural world and our abuse of its resources and the consequences as so clearly spelt out by Caroline Lucas last week. It’s long and complex so Mike has photocopied it for you instead.
We are all standing on the shoulders of those who came before us- and paid a far greater price than we do to have stood up for what was right. Not just for LGBT+ people but for all the oppressed and downtrodden in the world. As stewards we must try to leave the world in a better shape for our successors than it was handed over to us. We can all contribute what we can in our own way to make a difference.
I’ll finish on a now familiar, but no less meaningful statement from the late Jo Cox MP- “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than that which divides us”
Finola Brophy, Oct 2017
Maya Angelou: A Rock, A River, A Tree
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Mark the mastodon.
The dinosaur, who left dry tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness,
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spelling words
Armed for slaughter.
The rock cries out today, you may stand on me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A river sings a beautiful song,
Come rest here by my side.
Each of you a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet, today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more.
Come, clad in peace and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I
And the tree and stone were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across your brow
And when you yet knew you still knew nothing.
The river sings and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing river and the wise rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,
The African and Native American, the Sioux,
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the tree.
Today, the first and last of every tree
Speaks to humankind. Come to me, here beside the river.
Plant yourself beside me, here beside the river.
Each of you, descendant of some passed on
Traveller, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name,
You Pawnee, Apache and Seneca,
You Cherokee Nation, who rested with me,
Then forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of other seekers—
Desperate for gain, starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Swede, the German, the Scot…
You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru,
Bought, sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am the tree planted by the river,
Which will not be moved.
I, the rock, I the river, I the tree
I am yours—your passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts.
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out upon me,
The rock, the river, the tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes,
Into your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Desiderata : Max Ehrmann
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labours and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.