"From You I Receive" (Everyday Heroes 1)

A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Donna Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 5 January 1997


Fred and Bonnie Cappuccino are my heroes. Fred is a Unitarian minister who delivers the sermon here about once a year. Last spring Fred and our worship convenor engaged in a bit of a tussle after Janine explained our new guidelines for sermons at Toronto First and asked Fred to forward to her a draft of his words three weeks before the service. My hero's draft did not meet our criteria. I knew that might happen. To be honest, Fred is fun to listen to, but he does tend to wander around. He likes a good joke even if it isn't exactly to the point. He is prone to ranting in a vague kind of way about global concerns and has a hazy sense of time that might carry him over a half hour. Janine was a model for me when she gently insisted upon our guidelines. Even heroes need help sometimes.

Bonnie and Fred have twenty-one children, nineteen of them adopted. Fred disavows any responsibility. "I thought we had enough children," he says. "But somehow Bonnie would keep finding one more child somewhere and bring it in, and the family just grew. The thing that happened is she knows I'm totally enchanted with her so she took advantage. She'd say 'Here are some papers I want you to sign. Don't read them.'" In 1971 the Cappuccinos bought a 100 acre farm near Maxville Ontario for $8000. In the late 1970s for a brief period, they looked after twenty-five children when their farm became a shelter for unaccompanied minors among the Vietnamese boat people. In 1985, with their own children grown, Fred and Bonnie founded Child Haven International, a charity that provides 24-hour care to 340 children in four homes in India and Nepal. They run this charity from their farm, and four times a year Bonnie goes over with the money and visits each home for about a week. Bonnie and Fred have been presented with a UNESCO award for the teaching of human rights, Canada's Baha'i Race Unity Award and just last year were appointed members of the Order of Canada.

Fred and Bonnie are not my heroes because of Fred's sermons, nor because of the awards they have won. Neither are they my heroes because they helped me personally like Barb's hero. Nor are they my heroes because I am likely to follow in their footsteps. I would make a horrible mother if I adopted nineteen more of the little critters and India is much too far away. Any heroism on my part will definitely happen closer to home.

No, Bonnie and Fred are my heroes because their life offers me a model of risk taking and courage, of daring to dream and then finding the nerve to follow that dream one step at a time. They are a model of how a single life can make a difference, of the power unleashed when one finds one's life work. Not everyone loves children, but Bonnie and Fred do. Over the years they found they had the capacity to love a lot of children, and they discovered a way to turn that capacity into a healing force within our world. Bonnie and Fred Cappuccino are my heroes because they inspire me to try to live my life with the same kind of integrity and focus and courage. According to the dictionary, a hero is one "distinguished for valour, fortitude or bold enterprise; any one regarded as having displayed great courage or exceptionally noble qualities; one who has done a deed or deeds showing him [or her] to possess such qualities." Bonnie and Fred stepped forward into the great unknown with a vision, a great love, a sense of humour and a considerable degree of common sense to guide them. Peter Gzoski recently asked Fred: "Do you ever feel a sense of sacrifice? You want a warm coat or a new Honda" but the money just isn't there? Fred answered, "Oh no, Peter. Not at all. Not at all. We feel blessed. ... When you look in the face of a child, ... when you see the children ... so excited, ... it makes it all worthwhile." Fred and Bonnie do not live a conventional lifestyle. But they have found their life work. When you think about it, who could ask for more?

When Fred was the Unitarian Universalist minister in Silver Spring Maryland, he went to Selma to join Martin Luther King in the fight for racial justice. When King came to Washington, Fred took all his children to hear the "I Have a Dream" speech. King was influenced by Gandhi's vision of non-violence, and the Cappuccino's admiration for King and Gandhi ultimately led Fred and Bonnie to choose India as the site for their work. Volunteers with Child Haven are specifically asked not to push Canadian values but to teach the children to love the ideals of their own land, to admire the example of Gandhi, for Gandhi is Fred Cappuccino's hero. Fred says Gandhi "was able to achieve the reconciliation of warring groups in a way that I think is sorely needed. ... His ideas are important not only for India but for the whole world. ... We became Gandhian, the followers of Mahatma Gandhi's ideas of non-violence, and that's the basis upon which we started Child Haven."

On Tuesday I fly to San Antonio Texas to take part in a leadership conference for Unitarian Universalist ministers. I have been writing a paper on "my theology of leadership", "my style of leadership", and how it serves this congregation both well and poorly. Over the holiday I often found myself wondering, "what makes a good leader?" Not such an easy question when it comes time to actually sit down and write.

One leadership "guru" is Robert Greenleaf, the man who coined the term "Servant Leader". Greenleaf's contribution to the literature was his turning the idea of leadership around: not leader as boss but leader as helper; not leader as the one in charge, receiving all the glory, but leader as supporter, able to inspire a group to accomplish great goals. A number of decades ago, in writing about the difference between coercive and persuasive leadership Greenleaf offered a perspective on Gandhi that differs markedly from Fred's:

Early in his work Gandhi made an effort to persuade the British to accept his view about justice for India. They didn't buy it so he decided they were unpersuadable and opted to use coercion. It was non-violent coercion, but coercion it was none the less. And it got what he wanted: independence. And it ultimately brought down the British Empire and ended colonialism nearly everywhere. All good, you might say. But let us look at some of the other consequences. By gaining independence that way and at that time, he took India down the road of nationalism at a time when sovereign national states were becoming an anachronism and he set the pattern for the proliferation of such new states among the territories of former colonial empires, which will be the source of much bloodshed as long as any of us are alive. Then the Muslim minority in India decided to play Gandhi's game too, so two nations emerged and an estimated million lives were lost in the process of partition. Ultimately Pakistan split after another disastrous war. And the whole area has become a tinder box with little promise of the peace that Gandhi hoped for. Gandhi's personal method was non-violent, but the consequences were exceedingly violent because, I believe, his method was coercive rather than persuasive. The fact that it was non-violent and that Gandhi had a great dream did not save it from being coercive. As a consequence an ordinary quarrelling state emerged -- not Gandhi's dream at all.

What makes a hero? Not the ability to deliver perfect sermons, and yet do we not hesitate to uphold our guidelines when a hero stands in our pulpit? Not someone whose work results in uniformly unqualified good, and yet do we not hesitate to put forward a candid perspective with a saint like Gandhi? Not someone so elevated they no longer need anything buy idolotry from others, and yet do we not respond with statues instead of our own visions and dreams? A hero is not a saint, not perfect in every way, not one who is impossible to live up to, not even someone whose actions result in only unqualified good.

Too often we do our heroes a great disservice with our idolatry, when we shower them with awards in life and statues in death. And we do it, because we want to distance ourselves. We want to perpetuate the myth that heroes are another breed altogether, somehow beyond our simple mortality. We do it, because we want to let ourselves off the hook. If the Queen came to deliver a sermon at First Unitarian, I am very proud to say that our worship convenor would insist our guidelines be followed.

A hero is someone whose life inspires. Fred Cappuccino's hero is Gandhi and he used the inspiration of his hero to found Child Haven International, not at all something Gandhi himself would have done. Bonnie and Fred are my heroes, and though I am quite certain we will never start our own Child Haven, none the less when Mark and I take a sabbatical next year our first month will be spent with Bonnie touring Child Haven's homes in India. A hero is someone we look to, not as a mirror, not as an impossible-to-ever-reach idol, not as a never-to-be-questioned saint, but as an inspiration. A hero shows us one human life lived with courage and fortitude, an example of bold endeavour despite terrifying risk, one whose life helps us step outside our everyday ways of seeing and doing to live the life we were meant to live.

In my talk with the Unitarian Universalist ministers later this week I will tell them that I am a minister because I believe in the power of religious community. When I say religious community, I mean any community that is welcoming and safe, non-partisan and forgiving, predictable and trustworthy, empowering and participative, where souls are nurtured and people are encouraged to reach beyond themselves to transform the world. I am a minister because I believe that religious community, more than anything else, saves lives. Ministers are not the focus in religious community; the community is. Individuals are healed not by some form of therapy, but by the challenge of living and working with others. In religious community every individual is challenged to grow and change, every individual is called to leadership and every individual is inspired to be a hero. To be a fully participating member within religious community, to be a leader, to be a hero, these are not different.

Each of us, in order to be that hero, that leader, that inspiration, we must find the source of our strength, take care of our souls, learn to trust our inner voice, clarify our values, and develop and nurture the support we need. I will tell the ministers in San Antonio that I try to do those things and that I believe the purpose of a religious community is to call each and every one of us to do them as well.

Religious community is nothing but a society of everyday heroes, none of us perfect but each called to full humanity, none knowing whether our actions will result in unqualified good but each called to leadership, none guaranteed awards in this life or statues after we are gone but each of us called to be a hero for the sake of others and our world.