This I Believe: Kaari Rodriguez (2021)

Hello, My name is Kaari Rodriguez. I have been coming to White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church since the summer of 2007. At the time, I was at a point in my spiritual journey where I could not in good conscience raise my children, 1 and 5 years old at the time, with the message that Jesus was the only path to God or salvation. I was not even sure there was such a thing as a god or heaven.

When I first came to WBUUC, the beautiful sanctuary was still under construction and the current social hall was the worship space. Like many of you, I felt at home right away. But it was not the opening words or the sermon that stuck with me that first week, it was the coffee. When I saw people cradling their mugs during the service I thought, “this is my place.” Beyond the coffee, I stayed because it provided a safe place for me to let go of the certainty of a creed and discover my own spiritual truths.

I was raised in a loving Lutheran family and benefitted from a welcoming church community that provided a second family of adults and friends. I grew up with stories of Jesus welcoming and even seeking out the people rejected by society, Zacchaeus the tax collector, the sick who were untouchable, the sinners and Samaritans. These stories showed me that every one of us is worthy of love. Jesus said that, “what you do unto the least of these you do unto me.” I was raised by parents who have always taken that message to heart. Not only did I grow up surrounded by unconditional love, I watched my family extend that to everyone around them. My parents have welcomed refugees to our country, exchange students into their home, and expanded our family to include many others over the years. Another reason WBUUC felt like home was that they welcomed everyone, no matter what.

As I learned about the history and principles of Unitarian Universalism, I realized that I had been a universalist since childhood. The first UU principle, a belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a restatement of a truth I have known my whole life; being worthy of love and forgiveness is not something you earn. It is something you are, inherently. I still find truth and wisdom in the message of Jesus that there is something sacred in each of us. I believe there is something sacred, a light, a spark, a spirit, in each of us. Whatever you call it, I have seen this light and believe we need to honor and nurture it, both in ourselves and in each other.

I nurture my inner light by remembering to enjoy everyday moments like celebrating the magical “aha” when I see one of my 5th grade students making a new connection, noticing the beauty of a sunrise or the spring call of the Chickadee. I soak in the feeling of having a good laugh with my family or friends. I pause my lesson planning in the evening to listen to my husband strum his guitar.

Over the years, I have learned how important it is to nurture and value the light inside each of us. While I treasure the happy moments, it is the darker moments that have taught me how precious and strong that inner light can be. I have also learned that we need each other. We need to share our pain, not just our joy.

I have looked into my own child’s eyes and seen no spark or light. I have held their hands and begged them to trust me when I say this darkness will not last, we can get out of this deep hole together. And, with support of those around us, and access to amazing resources, we did. Part of what helped was my own experience with postpartum depression. I too had gone through a time when the world was dark and flat. I imagined not bothering to turn the steering wheel and just letting the car go straight over the edge. I remembered the day I noticed the music on the radio again and it actually gave me a happy feeling rather than just background noise to drown out what was in my head.

I have stood at the window of a hospital with a friend who was standing right next to me, yet far, far away and listened to them tell me how they wished they could jump out onto the pavement below, while I ached to help them see how precious and beautiful their light is and how it is needed in this world. I knew, with all my being that they matter and are precious, no matter how far they were from being OK in that moment.

I have seen a friend lean on her faith as she and her children lost her husband to ALS. I sat in our nearly empty church building and listened to a brave woman who took refuge here tell me the story of holding her husband as they drove to the hospital after he was shot in front of their home and taking the dangerous journey north only to have him sent back at the border while she and her children were left here on their own. I have listened to a loved one tell me how she knew her drinking was a problem and how she decided to check herself into treatment. I have listened to stories of rape and assault. I have learned that sharing in the darkest stories and moments of others is a privilege. In sharing these stories I have most clearly seen the strength of the human spirit.

Thank you to everyone who has shared their darkest moments with me. When you do, it shows me that it is safe to share my own. It is why I am not afraid to talk about surviving postpartum depression or finding therapists for my family. In turn, I regret the times I have hidden my struggles from friends who I know would have helped me. When I do, I miss an opportunity to connect and the chance to show others it’s Ok to not have it all together. When we allow others to see our suffering, we share our deepest selves. We have to trust that others will see our light amongst all the darkness.

Even when the world is full of fear and darkness, I have learned to nurture whatever light I can find. Around four years ago, I realized I could not listen to the news in the car on the way to work anymore. So I popped in the Peter Mayer CD I had in the car. The very song Peter sang for us a few weeks ago. “The Morning,” became my daily meditation. The line that I most needed to hear was: “There is hate, but there is more love. I know, for I am made of the same light that made the morning.”

I still find ways to keep up with the news of the world around me, but I try to balance it with nurturing what brings me joy and things that kindle my own internal spark. This can mean reading or spending time in nature. (It can also mean bingeing Bridgerton on Netflix). I can hardly teach my kids and students to enjoy the world if I don’t find ways to have fun myself. For example, my husband and I started playing Dungeons and Dragons a few years ago, and I found that the monthly gatherings with our group of friends to eat, drink and kill imaginary monsters brought me joy. As we moved our gatherings to zoom this last year, we miss the shared space and food, but still treasure the time together. We share our struggles: How is your mom’s cancer treatment going? Did your folks get the vaccine yet? How’s online learning going for the kids? Then, we escape into a world where we choose what happens, where we join forces to swing swords, shoot fire and save each other.

Having a church community that pushes me to explore my own beliefs has also given me the strength needed to handle the challenges of the world around me. Many Sundays, I sat in the pews, (or this last year, on my deck or at my kitchen table) and have been reminded of what really matters. The poems of Mary Oliver or Naomi Shihab Nye, the songs of resistance, the sermons that bring tears to your eyes all touch on some deeper truths of what a hard and beautiful thing it is to be human and alive in this world.

Taking time to sit with these truths impacts my choices and actions in the world. Regularly being reminded of the inherent worth of every person affects who I am. It has helped me weather challenges in marriage. It affects how and what I teach and my ability to find love and patience on the most challenging days. It has allowed me to walk with my children through struggles with love. When my oldest child told us that what helps their light shine bright is for us to call them by a new name and learn how to use they and them as a singular pronoun, how can I say anything but “yes, of course.”

Being part of a spiritual community helps me stay grounded in a way that gives me the conviction and bravery to speak up and work for change in ways I would not have in the past. We listen to each other’s struggles and hold each other up. Then we too can join together to fight the challenges of the real world. While I don’t think I will ever feel like I am doing enough, I am glad for a congregation that has given me the opportunity to work with the sanctuary committee that housed an asylum seeking family in our building. All of you inspire me to stay informed, attend marches, write letters and work to improve my community and world.

Writing my “this I believe” statement for today helped me see why the poem, ”The Ponds,” by Mary Oliver is one of my favorites. I will close with an excerpt:

Still, what I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled-
to cast aside the weight of facts

and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world.
I want to believe I am looking

into the white fire of a great mystery.
I want to believe that the imperfections are nothing-
that the light is everything – that it is more than the sum
of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.

With people and as with nature, I believe the total is more than the sum of its parts. Not only do we help kindle and rekindle each others’ sparks, I believe that when we share our light with each other, we access something more than we can on our own. Some may call this God, others might say we are tapping into a great spirit that permeates the world. I do not know what it is or claim to have a word for it, but I have faith in our collective light.

Thank you.