The Importance of Being Syracuse

14 Jun

A lot of people want to leave this place. It’s a post-industrial city, a rust belt city with high unemployment and one of the ten poorest zip codes in the United States. To the unseasoned eye, it looks ugly. The sky is grey a lot of the year. We get more rain than Seattle. Most winters, it snows. A lot — enough to consistently win New York’s Golden Snowball award. The city is divided in four and one learns quickly what it means to live on the South/West/North/East sides of the city. There’s racial and class division, and a real tension between the so-called “red” and “blue” state worldviews. Our lake, Onondaga, is a toxic super fund site.

(Wanna move here yet?!)

Still, somehow, Syracuse has exerted a spell on me. I continue to fall in love with the place and I continue seeing the ways in which this city and this region contain the seeds for renewal, not just for itself but for the world. I know this sounds hyperbolic but I also think it’s true.

I’m reminded of something I read last year, part of my peak oil obsession that precipitated this whole DFR idea.  The quote was something along the lines of, “peak oil is already here; it’s just not equally distributed yet.” And in relation to Syracuse, I want to say to those who would rather flee than stay, “you can run but you can’t hide.” At some point, no matter where you are, you’re going to have to deal with all the nasty things that I mentioned above: environmental destruction, loss of jobs, poverty, division, and increasingly brutal weather patterns. You probably live somewhere where these things are already happening. Maybe you’re “lucky” enough not to have to deal with them on a daily basis. You probably will, someday. 

I don’t know: maybe I’m a masochist but I guess I’d rather engage in the struggle than run somewhere where I can pretend there isn’t one.

I said in a sermon a few weeks back that I get frustrated when I meet assistant professors and med students new to the city who introduce themselves by saying something along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s better here in Syracuse than we thought it would be but we’re probably heading back to [fill in the blank].” And then in the sermon I rattled off a list of what I called “the bubble bath” cities because of how relaxing and enjoyable they are for people who call themselves progressive: “Amherst, Ashland, Asheville, Austin, Boston, Boulder, Brooklyn, Chicago, Ithaca, The City, North Hampton, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle.” As I said in the sermon, I’ve never been a fan of bubble baths. I find them a little boring. 

I’ve never been anything but proud to say that I was born and raised blue-collar. My Dad was a chain smoking boilermaker. When he came home from work, he smelled like grease and smoke. I want to work. I like to work. And while I don’t pretend that there’s any American city that doesn’t need people fighting the good fight on behalf of those who find themselves on the nightmare side of the American Dream, I can guarantee you that every one of those Bubble Bath cities has plenty of people there already doing the work. It’s places like this, like Syracuse — these ugly, blue-collar cities — that could use a few more people sticking around to contribute to the kind of critical mass needed to uplift a place. 


The Revival on Sunday night was a culmination of sorts. We hit our stride for the first time after 9 months of trying. A birth, I suppose. It wasn’t perfect but it was damn good. We sounded good. We looked good. We added some social comedy that worked. The invitation to testify produced just the right kind of aspirational testimony from the audience. And Ebenezer finally found the right balance between civic freedom and spiritual freedom. And between levity and weight. Between sincerity and self deprecation. I’m clear now that the whole message, if we’re to adhere to the origin story, has to find its footing in the spiritual/democratic philosophies of the Haudenosaunee. These contain the seeds of renewal. The seamless marriage of the civic and the personal, of individual responsibility and a concern for the common wealth, of the political and the spiritual — this is a path forward. From many we are one. Freedom for all. Spirit in all things.

I asked the congregation the other night, after making note of the Great Peacemaker’s power to bring five warring tribes together: who’s in your tribe? How big is your tribe? Who is in and who is out? I do believe that human beings want to come together. The impulse to be separate is a perversion, something resulting from some deformity or abuse, whether of gene or mind or body or spirit. I believe the natural impulse of a healthy human being is to be in communion, to belong, together. And I believe that there is a path toward saving this planet and toward saving ourselves in the face of gross, pointless, and selfish accumulation, in the face of environmental degradation, in the face of a politics of cruelty, and in the face of a mind numbing war apparatus.

That path is one upon which all life is considered sacred, and where responsibility is asserted not only for ourselves, our families,and our communities but for the seventh generation after ours. It is a path of “attachment citizenry” that demands we bring our wayward neighbors, friends, and citizens closer to us, not hold them further away from us, when they “act out,” when they succumb to the impulses of their conditioning. It is a path upon which we have the capacity to see all as one — to see all as members of the same tribe.

The language of civic freedom is simply a codified version of the language of true human freedom, which is to say an instinctual and primal desire to be in our natural state. We are free, but we experience our freedom only insofar as we recognize and honor the inherent freedom in all. And further, to see all in ourselves and ourselves in all. Without the ability to expand the tribe until all belong in it there can be no experience of freedom and there can be no peace. This is our message from Syracuse, Central New York, Onondaga Nation.

From many we are one.

And thus concludes DFR: Season One. We’re taking the summer off to work on a few things. Next show is at Feel the Pulse of Syracuse: Saturday August 25th, 5-7pm, somewhere outside, near Armory Square. Hope to see you there.

Have a great summer, everyone. Peace!!

5 Responses to “The Importance of Being Syracuse”

  1. Gregory Carrico June 15, 2012 at 8:59 am #

    “We are free only insofar as we recognize and honor the inherent freedom in all.”
    Amen! and again!
    I’m greatly looking forward to August 25th, and will very soon stop punishing myself for missing your previous sermons.
    In Liberty,

    • Ebenezer Abernathy July 17, 2012 at 10:15 pm #

      Awesome, Greg. And let me get back to you on the 25th… I THINK that is still happening but some technical issues have arisen! more soon, and thanks for reading! k.

  2. Gregory Carrico June 15, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    ”We are free only insofar as we recognize and honor the inherent freedom in all.”
    Amen! and again!
    I\’m greatly looking forward to August 25th, and will very soon stop punishing myself for missing your previous sermons.
    In Liberty,

  3. Michael September 26, 2012 at 10:44 am #

    I’ve read this post several times by now, each time finding it more and more inspiring. It sums up my fondness for this area and my appreciation of community; however, more eloquently than I have in the past. Thanks Kev. I’m looking forward to catching the next DFR!

    • Ebenezer Abernathy September 26, 2012 at 10:48 am #

      Hey, thanks Michael. That means a lot. Sorry I barely saw you at the Fair the other day! Would love for you to see a Revival. Next one after NYC will be on October 28, late morning, I think, at Plymouth Church.

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