What Does America mean to you?
Rev. Joe Cherry
Adult Classes and Groups
Faith in Action
FAQ for Visitors
History of UUFSC
Rev. Joe Cherry
Rev. Grace Simons
Tours of our:
Why I Joined
Comments, questions or problems? E-mail our Web Wizard:
A liberal religious voice in the Central Valley since 1953.
[This morning five of our members spoke to the question, in honor of the 4th of July.]
My father came here from Italy in the 1930's. America could never compare with Italy, in his mind.
When you talked about Italian Music, you meant Caruso singing Verdi in an opera house to a crowd of 2,000. When you talked about American music, you meant a cowboy strumming a banjo out on the prairie.
Italian food was the best in the world; Italians invented fine dining, and they'd been making wine to go with it for 3,000 years. Italian bread was a real loaf, something you could sink your teeth into and use to sop up the last bit of sauce. American bread was a soft imitation with no taste.
When you see an historical marker in California, it was a hole in the ground where some '49er had broken his heart trying to find gold. In Italy, it would mark where Hannibal had tethered his elephants.
So one day I asked him, "Dad, why in the world did you come here?"
He said, "Let me tell you a story."
"I was in the park one day in New York City. I saw two talking dogs; one was a purebred Italian greyhound, the other some American mutt. The greyhound was telling his friend about the old country.
"Back in Italy I had a Carnelian marble dog house. I had a liveried servant who brought me food and water. Every morning the servant would take me to a huge park to chase rabbits until I was tired. Every evening I had a choice of milk-fed veal or herb-roasted chicken. After I ate, I'd sit at my master's feet while he read a book, until it was time to go to sleep.
"So why did you leave?" asked the mutt.
"Sometimes," said the greyhound, "I like to bark."
America is a great country. That doesn't mean there aren't things to bark about. We should all bark more often.
What do people think of you - as an American, I mean? What do you think people in other countries think of Americans? If you're like me, you imagine we Americans are greatly disliked pretty much everywhere. If you travel to other countries, you may even dread letting on that you are an American. It's like we belong to AA; you know, Americans Anonymous. "Hi, I'm Pam, and I'm . . . (gulp) . . . an American."
We liberal Americans want so badly for our country to live up to its highest ideals that, when it doesn't, we often express our disappointment by focusing almost exclusively on our negative viewpoint, on what's wrong with America. Then we assume that almost everyone else in the world does this too. We really have a cultural self-esteem problem.
So today I'd like to help us re-focus on what's good about America. And I'd like to do this through the eyes of someone who is not an American.
My friend Silvia is from Argentina, but she has lived in Paris for the last 30 years. She is an expert in intercultural relations. Her life's work has been to study world cultures and give workshops in intercultural understanding and communication. She knows the America culture well. And while she dislikes the American government, she loves the American people. Let me say that again - she loves the American people.
So I want to share with you today 3 things Silvia particularly loves about Americans. Three things it would be good for us to remember, and appreciate, about ourselves.
The first thing Silvia loves about Americans is that, as a society, we are incredibly friendly and helpful. We generally are not the "Ugly American" we often hear about. We are wonderfully friendly, likable, polite, and warm. We are an outgoing, extraverted society. We reach out to people, we like to get to know new people, we talk readily, we are quick to laugh, we smile at strangers, we warmly welcome people into our homes.
We are also amazingly helpful. Silvia says that Americans are always ready to help, even total strangers, and that we do this more readily than almost any other culture. On her last visit here she drew my attention not only to the many store clerks, waiters, service people, and people on the street who really were friendly and helpful, but also to the woman in San Francisco who smilingly interrupted my erroneous directions to give us correct directions to Union Square, and the gentleman in Modesto who took it upon himself to make sure we took the safer route into Yosemite. As Silvia said, "You see how friendly and helpful Americans are. They don't do this in France."
The second thing Silvia loves about Americans is that we always give second chances. And third, and fourth, chances. In America no one's life path is set early on, no one's future is irredeemably fixed by unwise decisions, mistakes, or immaturity. In much of the world one must live forever by the choices (wise or foolish) one makes in their youth. But that is not the case in America. Here, we always have numerous chances to do things over, to try again, to start anew.
And finally, the third thing Silvia loves about Americans is that we are dreamers. We dream big, we are visionaries. We have this wonderful optimistic attitude. We do believe we can do anything, or become anything, we set our mind to. We are full of confidence that something better is just ahead and that we can make it happen. The pioneer spirit really is still alive in us. I want to give you an example of this from our own fellowship. A few weeks ago we voted to build the new classroom building, option one, the whole package, the one we don't yet have the money to pay for, with no guarantee of how we're going to do it. So why did we do this? You know why - because somehow we just know that we can do it. If Silvia were here, she'd smile and say, "You see how you are. That is so American."
When I was a kid, I absorbed most of what I believed about America through the repetitive practice of the rituals of America's "Civil Religion": standing in the presence of the flag, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and singing the National Anthem. In school, I read about American heroes and struggles. And like most other folks, I believed in the reality of "American Exceptionalism", the idea that the United States had a special, positive role to play in the world and was surely guided by Divine Providence. I dutifully obeyed authority figures always received "good citizenship" marks at school.
My understanding of what American means and of my role as a citizen grew as a result of an incident that occurred when I was about 14 when my father and I decided to attend a football game in Spokane, Washington between Gonzaga University and Washington State. This was in the early 1950's, America was well into the "Cold War", and a sense of nationalism was pronounced. In those days, I used crutches and braces, using a wheelchair for longer distances. We parked my wheelchair at a landing in the stands and I walked down a couple steps to a bleacher seat, slid my crutches under the seat, and sat down. As usual, when the colors went by, everyone stood and saluted the flag. In order for me to rise, I had to bring up my crutches, push down on the bleacher seat, lean forward and snap my braces into locked position. I sometimes opted not to go through this maneuver because it often meant butting the guy in front of me with my head.
Apparently, the man behind me had failed to notice that I was disabled, and, perhaps thinking that I was an unpatriotic "Red" or, at the least, just another obnoxious teenager, poked be in the ribs with the toe of his shoe. I ignored his action, but, unfortunately, my father, through the corner of his eye saw what had happened. Lacking a certain amount of impulse control, and always delighted in displaying his pugilistic skills that he learned in the CCC, my father spun around and proceeded to pummel the guy.
Luckily, a policeman, who had been standing on the landing, quickly interceded. He gave us the choice of either being charged with disturbing the peace or leaving the stadium. We chose the later and driving home, my father was still fuming, uttering absolutely ingenious cuss combinations. At one point, he turned towards me and said, "Even if you could stand up, by God, you don't have to . . . this is America!" That was the beginning of new, broader view of what America means to me which eventually included what Senator Margaret Chase Smith called the "rules of fair play": the right to criticize; the right to hold unpopular beliefs; the right to protest; the right of independent thought.
Dissent became for me the very essence of good citizenship, and it continues to be of supreme importance, especially during the recent unpleasantness of the past four years. The sense of pride and affection that I feel when I see the flag or hear the National Anthem is enriched by the fact that we are free to dissent, to resist, to go against the flow. As my father said, "If you don't want to stand up, by God, you don't have to . . . this is America!
Martin J. Zonligt
As a refugee and member of an immigrant family from Belgium in 1941, I appreciated America's welcome and acceptance. Though a child when I came my acceptance was full. My family settled in Salt Lake City, Utah as there were many Dutch families there; though we learned all were Mormons. As secular Jews my family joined the UU Fellowship.
America to me is a complicated country with great ideals and many pitfalls. While my family was accepted, Jews were discriminated against in employment, admission to leading colleges and universities, and housing. West Coast Japanese-Americans were driven into detention camps. African-Americans were being lynched. As to gays and lesbians, they were persecuted. No one spoke of them in public.
America is a beautiful country. As I grew up in Utah I had many opportunities to enjoy the out of doors, to experience camping in the Uinta mountains and in the deserts. Currently the Bush administration supports drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge; the Central Valley is becoming another San Jose. President Clinton was burned in effigy for establishing the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument in Southern Utah. The locals wished to strip mine the area for coal.
America is a country of law. I have participated in demonstrations and union protests, as well as marches against going to war in Iraq. I have taken unpopular stands and have been heard if not appreciated. We have the Bill of Rights, which is being threatened by the Patriot Act that allows snooping into individual reading habits and other violations of individual rights. The Fresno County Sheriff admits to spying on Peace Rallies. Americans are guilty of torture in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere.
I am proud to be an American of Dutch-Jewish descent and am proud of my ability to fight to right the wrongs that besmudge my chosen country. America is a complicated place. Let's right its wrongs and strengthen this wonderful and welcoming country!
America means a lot to me because I matured here. I spent the first 20 years of my life in Europe; I was born in Italy, spent time in France, then spent my school years in Germany.
Those school years were under the Nazi or Hitler Regime. I felt safe there and wherever I have lived - mostly because I feel safe within.
The war and all the exterior happenings did not happen to punish me - they just happened, and we dealt with them.
I moved around a lot, abandoned friends and belongings on the way - so, always on the move, it was nice to come to rest in the US starting in 1951.
America did not represent a haven to me. I was not running away from a bad situation in Germany, on the contrary, I hoped to return after 4 years, which would end my mother's commitment in San Francisco, helping to reopen the German Consulate there.
A lot what I have learned, makes me understand why Americans are not revered in Europe: our attitude really isolates us.
Our diversity is more and more becoming a problem for me. What I first admired as wonderful has degenerated into dislike of groups of ethnic people. I am becoming more and more judgmental and prejudiced.
Whereas the Germans, for instance, melted into the community about 50 years ago, today other ethnic groups keep apart by worshipping and keeping their difference and distance in their religion, culture and family. They do not integrate any longer - but they use the system.
We isolate ourselves more and more from each group and I see conflict coming out of our apartheid. The America I knew 50 years ago has changed and I am afraid for its future.
[Delivered 31 July 2005. Each speaker is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Stanislaus County.]This is a (copyrighted) Guest Sermon from our collection. If you enjoyed it, or if you'd like to use part of it, please contact us via E-mail:
We also have sermons by
Rev. Joe Cherry, our Interim Minister.
Rev. Grace Simons, who retired in October 2011.
Thinking about writing a sermon? Read Rev. James Kubal-Komoto's Worship and Sermon tips.
2172 Kiernan Avenue
Modesto, California See a map
We have no mail service on Kiernan;
PO Box 1000
Salida, CA 95368
We are a liberal church and the only UU congregation in Stanislaus county. We serve Ceres, Denair, Escalon, Hickman, Hughson, Keyes, Manteca, Modesto, Oakdale, Patterson, Ripon, Riverbank, Salida, Turlock and Waterford. We welcome Agnostics, Atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Deists, Free-thinkers, Humanists, Jews, Pagans, Theists, Wiccans, and those who seek their own spiritual path. We welcome people without regard to race, physical ability, ethnicity or sexual orientation.