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Rowing Amongst the Stars

In the early part of the 20th century, crew was one of the most popular spectator sports in the America, along with boxing and baseball. Major races were covered by the newspapers and regattas were radio broadcast. The major teams were from the East Coast, with the notable exceptions of University of California at Berkeley and the University of Washington.


The premier rowing event was the eights with – eight rowers and a coxswain who determined the level of stroke. A typical race is about 5 minutes or so and those five minutes are at maximum effort, or more. It is grueling and precise, and beautiful. When it works, it is grace and strength combined.

In January of 1980, I became the intern minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Arlington, VA. It was, and is, a large church. I was not sure then whether I wanted to be a minister or really if I was even a Unitarian Universalist. I had been working on Capitol Hill for an Iowa Congressman and did not like the work. I had been living out in Maryland at the edges of Rockville and it was a quite a commute down to Virginia, on the wrong side of the Mason Dixon line. So I moved out and looked for housing closer to the church.

At Christmas in 1979 I went home to Wisconsin to be with my family, and drove with a friend from Milwaukee to Washington DC. We drove straight through partially because my car, a 1968 Saab 96, died easily unless it kept on going. We hit a blizzard in Pennsylvania but drove on and made it, finally, after many, many hours. The Saab was a tank in the snow.

I was offered a room in the basement of a member of the church, but that was not good, and so the three young people who lived in the parsonage next door to the church – the church rented it – were asked if I could move in and rent a bedroom. They said yes and two of them remain two of my closest and dearest friends to this day. Wonderful people.

It was a couple (they are the friends – she was raised a UU in upstate New York) and a single man. The two men were members of the US Olympic eight man rowing team. One was a graduate of Cornell, the other of Rutgers. They were both 6’5”.

They were in full preparation for the 1980 Olympics that were to be held in Moscow that summer. They were up before dawn and, if it was not too cold, put in several hours on a rowing machine in our basement. At lunch they usually ran up and down a set of stairs in Georgetown (the famous stairs of the movie The Exorcist); then rowed on the river as often as they could – sometimes in the bitter cold. They ate an enormous amount of food.

The Olympics that year were, of course, boycotted by the US in response to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Russia boycotted the 1984 Olympics here in LA in retaliation. President Carter invited the whole Olympic team to Washington that summer and our house hosted a party for all the paddle/oar athletes. Huge, strong men and women – great people. My two friends won a silver medal in 84 at Lake Casitas, .02 behind the gold medal winners.

Chip took me out on the Potomac in a two person scull, and if you have ever rowed in a scull you know how really hard it is to do it right, to get the blade in the water smoothly and take it out, to rotate the oar and bring it back, to lean back as you pull and slide forward after that, to keep perfect balance in the little boat. It is physically demanding and the coordination is significant.

I was not very good. And to multiply the two of us by four, and increase the strength by many multiples – the eights which is as difficult a competition as anything.

The book, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown is about the University of Washington boat that won a gold medal in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It is a really good book and tells the story through the life of a couple of the athletes, the coaches involved and the boat builder. The Germans were a good team and the German Olympic committee stacked the deck against the Americans, but the US boat won in a thrilling race. Remember, this was a premier event in the Olympics then and Hitler expected a German victory. Thank goodness we did not boycott those Olympics – there would be no Jesse Owens, no Mac Robinson, no University of Washington stories. Read the book.

The reading I shared earlier is the conclusion of a section about Joe Rantz. He is the central figure in the book. He grew up very poor, separated from his family and found a home in rowing. He moved back and forth between the varsity and junior varsity team. He was an excellent rower and he was a poor rower. The boat builder, George Pocock, took Joe under his tutelage. Pocock built most of the boats used by universities in the 20s and 30s, so his boats competed against each other. He was an artist.

So this is what I want to say to you today – it is in the passage I read earlier.

“What mattered more,” Pocock told Joe, “than how hard a man rowed was how well he harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crewmates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about the crew.” “It has to matter,” Pocock continued, “to you whether he (maybe someone Joe did not like) wins the race, not just whether you do.”

Pocock told Joe he had learned to row past pain and exhaustion, past the voice that told him it was not possible. He concluded by saying “Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.”

It is an apt metaphor for this beloved community, this congregation. We are in this boat together – all of us, members and friends and staff – we are in this together. We might not all like each other, but we have to trust each other; we have to open our hearts to each other. Whether we get just what we need, we have to care that others find what they need. We have to open our hearts to each other, to pull together. If we do, there is a power here that is greater than any one of us has by him or herself.

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Like the boys in the boat, we are put down in a beautiful yet fragile craft. This congregation is not held up by anything other than by its members; we build it and we care for it, and then we climb in and pull together. If we don’t care for it, it will fall apart.

Like the boats George Pocock built, this is a beautiful boat – our grounds, the people here, the programs we offer, the care we give each other, the music we share and offer, the words of poetry and hope. These flowers each Sunday, the chalice in the labyrinth, the great canary Island Pines, the memorial bricks, the Heritage Society sculpture, this chalice, the ushers and greeters and RE teachers, the programs like Jericho Road that serve the world, the choir and hand bells, coffee makers and cheesecake providers, children and the elderly and those of us in between. These are all things of beauty.

And to make it go, we have to pull together. We have to trust each other and open our hearts to each other, and want everything to succeed whether we like a particular thing or not. We are in this boat together.

It is time to pull a bit harder now. This is our Pledge season, time to make your financial commitment to the church for the coming year. We get some money in rent, but the rest – all of the rest – comes from us. Nowhere else. Our success is up to us.

I want to challenge us to increase giving by 8% this year. That may be a stretch for some of you; it may be too much for some; some of you can do more; some probably much more. 8%. That is all. It is really not a lot.

This is, after all, an exciting time for this congregation. Building for Tomorrow is the theme this year and indeed that is the task. I know that the better this pledge drive is the better you can do in your search for a new senior minister. It is time to pull together. It is an exciting time. It is time for new leadership and new energy, time to lay the foundation for the next chapter of Neighborhood’s story. It is time to pull together, and time to pull hard, not time to coast.

There are costs coming – the cost of the Search, the cost of moving someone here, the increasing costs of health insurance and maintenance of our buildings and grounds. It is time to pull together. 8%. That will bring our pledge total to around $760,000. Just enough. More would be better.

“Great congregations,” Peter Marty says, “form where people with a dizzying variety of backgrounds and experiences take an interest in the mystery and the mess of each other’s lives.” Is that who you want to be? A great congregation? It is there for you.

As you can imagine, I have been thinking about these past ten years and I had a great conversation with Lee Barker when I was in Chicago in January. Lee, for those of you who do not know, was my predecessor and was here for 9 years. That’s about 20 years together. Before Lee, Brandy Lovely was the minister, here 24 years. In some way two generations worth – 20 being thought of as a congregational generation.

Lee and I agreed that Brandy worked with the members to create a congregation that was uniquely Unitarian Universalist. You moved to this site when Brandy came. During Lee’s time, Neighborhood became an institution, well and professionally run and led; the program building was completed, and in these past ten years you have become a community, and we added the courtyard.

That is a simplification of sorts but essentially accurate. And now another generation is in front of you. It is time for something new. What an exciting time. A great congregation. Time to pull and pull hard.

The University of Washington crew was a motley group. They came from a variety of backgrounds and had a variety of temperaments. But they learned, in spite of their differences, to work together, to pull together, to dig deeper when it was needed. In the time trials for the Olympics, the coach, Al Ulbrickson, rested the boys, just enough rowing to keep in shape but not enough to tire them out. Then, as Brown writes:

“Late on the night of the final time trial, after the wind had died down and the waters calmed, they had begun to row back up the river in the dark, side by side with the freshman and JV boats. Soon the red and green running lights of the coaches’ launch disappeared upriver. The shells passed under the two bridges draped with shimmering necklaces of amber lights. Along the shore and up on the palisades, warm yellow light poured from the windows of the homes and shell houses. It was a moonless night. The water was ink black.

“Bobby Moch [the coxswain] set the varsity boys to rowing at a leisurely twenty two to twenty three. Joe and his crewmates chatted softly with the boys in the other two boats. But they soon found that they had pulled out ahead without meaning to, just pulling soft and steady. Soon, in fact, they had pulled so far ahead that they could not even hear the boys in the other boats. And then, one by one, they realized they couldn’t hear anything at all except for the gentle murmur of their blades dipping into and out of the water. They were rowing in utter darkness now. They were alone together in a realm of silence and darkness. Years later, as old men, they all remembered the moment. Bobby Moch recalled ‘You couldn’t hear anything except for the oars going in the water … it’d be a ‘zep’ and that’s all you could hear … the oarlocks didn’t even rattle on the release.’ They were rowing perfectly, fluidly, mindlessly. They were rowing as if on another plane, as if in a black void among the stars, just as Pocock had said they might. And it was beautiful.”

This is your time, Neighborhood. This is your time to open your hearts to each other, to trust each other, to build for tomorrow, to pull together, to row together. And if you do, it will be like rowing among the stars, and it will be beautiful.



Rev. Dr. Jim Nelson
Neighborhood Church