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September 22, 1963
The Moral Dimensions of Poverty
Rev. Ernie Pipes
Usually when the pulpit turns to the subject of poverty it is concerned to treat the life of the spirit and the impoverishment that can afflict it if one is insensitive to the concerns of the soul, if one lives on a plane of awareness that ignores the deeper faith that a.lone can bring gladness and peace. Such a sermon might, for example, point to the resources of a "vertical" relationship with cosmic forces as a pathway to spiritual enrichment and contrast this higher way with a "horizontal" involvement in the ways of the flesh and the world, with its certain impoverishment of soul. There are truths to be told in such a sermon and one of these times I'm going to have a try at it - but not this morning. Today I want to take a different view of poverty and survey it along some different dimen­sions, and I take as my text the admonition from the Old Testament: "What mean ye who crush my people, who grind the face of the poor?"
In the past the customary views of poverty have been either that it, like death and taxes, is inevitable or, like syphilis, is the just reward for imprudence. By either view, those so afflicted have been expected to bear the visitation up­ rightly and, above all, without resort to evil, by which has usually been meant any challenge to the economic arrangements of the status quo. A growing body of literature is accumulating, however, which reassesses the foci of responsibility for poverty, freshly illumines some of its personal dimensions, and makes a case for certain social therapeutics to relieve it. I was a little surprised to notice how many books on the subject chanced to be in my library: Oscar Lewis' THE CHILDREN  OF SANCHEZ which is a sociological work of art as a study of one family in the slums of Mexico City. Similar to it is REPORT FROM PALERMO by Danilo Dolei - a documentation of the hideous poverty and corrupt:i:on in one part of Sicily. Then, next to Steinbeck's GRAPES OF WRATH is the incredibly beautiful book, already a legend, LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN by James Agee and Walker Evans - a documentary about share­ cropper families in the South during the 1930s. Each of these books examines the nature, the texture, the human consequences of poverty in various parts of the world over the last 30 years. But last year, 1962, may well be remembered as the year poverty was rediscovered in America. In that year several profoundly significant studies were published: Michael Harrington's THE OTHER AMERICA: POVERTY IN THE UNITED STATES and Gabriel Kolko's WEALTH & POWER IN AMERICA.
Each of these books, along with a Dept. of Commerce compilation called INCOME AND WELFARE IN THE UNITED STATES, and a study "Povertyand Deprivation in the U.S." - issued by the Conference on Economic Progress, Washington, D.C., have served to shatter the illusion, cherished by so many of us, that 'r.lie Affluent Soci­ety, which Professor Galbarith tells us about, describes the whole of America. The net conclusion of these iconoclastic but well documented studies is that in the year of the nation's highest level of employment and highest gross national product, no less than one fifth of its families, roughly 35 million people, "enjoyed" a bare­ subsistence standard of living. This is the Other America which four-fifths of us have been overlooking. In America there is the amazing phenomena, hardly recogniz­able by the middle and upper classes, of the invisible poor ; a massive affliction affecting 1/5 of the population, but lost to view amid the affluence of the majority and, worse, lost as a matter of concern These books and reports and studies are shocking and dismaying: American poverty is unnecessarily massive, persistent, critical and shameful - we must be brought to an anareness of it, its dimensions, its human meanings, its social causes and consequences and, finally, to some of the methods of olving it.
First there are the facts which must be forced into our awareness before they can touch our concern. When Franklin Roosevelt told the American people, 30 years ago, that 1/J of the nation r1as 11i l l housed, ill clad, ill nourished," we were shocked. In the intervenginyears the proportion has been reduced from 1/3 to some­
:'-herebet"'leen 1/5  and a  1/ 4,   most of which progress was made during the v,ar and cold
·.mr years. But now we are av1akening,rubbing our eyes like Rip Van  Winkle,to the fact that mass poverty persists and that it is one of our t o gravest social prob­ lems. (The other is related: while only 11% of our population is non-white, 25% of our poor are non-white.) Now to talk meaningfully about this persistent mass poverty, which is a grave social problem and a. heartbreaking personal one, we must first de­ fine carefully what we are talking about. Please notice the meaning of our terms.
Inequality of ,;realthis    not our subject here today; neither is it a major social problem, as such. Poverty is. It is only when a sizable segment of the pop­ ulation falls to and below a subsistence level of living, and this over a long period of years, that inequality of ,·ealth becomes a  serious issue. The problem, always, is poverty.
But r1hat do we mean by 11poverty?11     It is anhistorically relative concept and calls for a responsible definition Mr. Harrigntonr1r ites: 11Thosewho suffer levels of life ell below those that are needed for the necessities as construed here and now, even though they live better than medieval knights or Asian peasants, are poor. To say that American poor are nell off -.,henv:e compare their plight with that of the much more desperate peoples of India, China and South America is to tranquil­ ize our concern and deaden our responsibilitfyor the American poor. Poverty should " be defined in terms of those v!ho are denied the minimal levels of health, housing,  food and education that our present stare of scientific kno ledge specifies as neces­ sary for life as it is noir: lived in the United State0s11 His dividing line follows that proposed by virtually all the recent studies: $4000 a yea:r for a family o.f four and $2000 for an individual living alone.
Now the point is, betueen 1/5 and 1/4 of the American population, depend­ ing on how the statistics are read, and this means between 35 and 42 million people, are not simply below the level of comfortable living, but poor in the old fashioned sense of the ord that they are hard put to get the necessities, beginning with enough of the proper food to eat, and ranging through housing, health and education. Th§. fil:!a S8riou Jv dAnrjv . This is difficult to believe in the U.S. of 1963, but one has to make the effort if he intends to face squarely the realities, and a wealth of data now sharpely focuses those reaJ.ities..Let 1 s · l ook at them again,f:.:-om several an­ gles. The reports and studies no coming into print differ only a few percentage points in their estimate of poverty in America,and the differences among them are of the sort that cannot be rendered arithmetically. For example, a childless couple with
$3000. a year income is not poor in the way an elderly couple might-be with the same inc me. The young couple's statistical povertymight be only a temporary inconven­ ience if the husband is a graduate student and there is the prospect of later afflu­ ence. The old couple can look forward only to diminishing earnings and increasing medical expenses. So also geographically:A family of four in a small town nth 4000. a year may be better off than a like family in a city. It is not, therefore, surprising to find disagreement about just hoVJ many millions of Americans a:re  seriou·s• ly poor; the point is that all studies agree that Americanpoverty is still a mass ,,----..,_ phenomenon, and no matter how you interpret the figures, between 1/5 and 1/4 of the population, i.e. between 35 and 42½ million individuals, are, not underprivileged, but poor in the sense of deprived of the elementalnecessities in 20th century AmericB,
The term underprivileged, incidentally, statistically refers to those 37 million ad­ ditional persons whose family income is over 4 and less than 6 thousand and the 2 million singles ,;;hose ircome is over 2 and less than 3  thouasnd0 These latter are the 11deprived11   segments in the population, and most of the authors define deprivation as 11above poverty, but short of minimum requirements for a modestly comfortable level of living." It is a sobering note, then, that 77 million Americans, or nearly half the population, live in poverty or deprivation. The significant point, I think, is that the 31% whose incomes are bet een $7500 and $15,000 and the 7% at the top have been blissfully unaware of the mass poverty and deprivation that afflict their in­ visible neighbors, and being unaware, have been unconcerned. About of America is economically comfortable, in other words, the other half is not, and half of this lower half are not just uncomfortable but in real need.
Who are America's invisible poor? Who are the one-fifth to one-fourth? They are not a homogenous group and are widely dispersed geographically and across the age scale. They have no single face, no single voice; the poor are politically invisible, which is one of the reasons their plight is so chronic - only the social agencies have any direct involvement witb this other America. Over the nation they comprise Negroes and Puerto Ricans in East Harlem; Negroes in the semicircle of slums embracing Chiagots Loop - and comparable areas in virtually every large city in
.America; idle miners and steel workers in Tiest Virginia, poor white and Negro share croppers in the south; a million families of mig atory laborers moving from crop to crop - underpaid, rootless, ostracized, unhealthy American nomads; they include the American Indians, Spanish Americans along the l·':exicanborder; aged people abandoned by family and society. We pass them unnoticed on our hip-hv1ays, fly over them in our jets, virtually never think of them in our rsstaurants, theaters and comfortable homes. But they comprise at least a fifth of our fellow citizen0s
The most obvious citizens of this Other America are thoqe whose skins are the wrong color. The folk slogan ttlast to be hired, first to be fired" is accurate enough, and wage differentials continue to be shocking. In 1939 the non-white work­ ers wage averaged 41%  of the ,1hite·v,or-kers, a bit than half; 20 years later some progress had be n made; in 1959  the non-white ,,,orker v:as making 58% of what the­ white worker maQe, a bit more than half tha earning opportunity on the averag,e.
But coming close behind the non-white as the minority group in greatest poverty in Amer:ca are our "senior citizens11   -      those over 65. Half of them, 8 mil­ lion, live in p0verty and the average per-capi·ta income of this group in our nation is slightly ove1• 20 per V1eel{, or plOOO per year. Recall that the stat stical cut­ off line v,here poverty in America begins is $2000 per year fer an individual- which means that the average older person in America is in deep poverty. The aged poor, to be sure, have t o sources of income besides their savings or earnings: contribu­ tions by relatives and Social Security However, a quarter of the old are not cov­ ered by Social Security, and those who are,average exactly 18 per week from that source. The last resort is relief.
Still, we have not described who the poor are; we have only given them a numerical and a social identity. r/hat is the personal meaning of poverty for the  1/5 who comprise the Other America? We can begin r,ith f3. Bureau of Labor Statistics "Msintenance Budget11 for an u:rban family of four with $4000 per year to spend. Three
members of the family see a movie once every three weeks, and one member sees a movie once eve y two weeks. There is no telephone in the house, but the family makes three pay calls a week. They buy one book a year and 1riteone letter a week. The father buys one heavy wool suit every t,,,·o years and a light i:•ool suit every three years; the wife, one suit every ten years or one skirt every five years. Every three or four years, depending on the distance and time involved; the family takes a vacation out­ side their 0'.1n city. In 1950, the family spent a total of 0 80 to $ 90 on all types   of home furnishings, electrical appli nces, and laundry equi mentoo••The family eate cheaper cuts of meat several times a week, but has more expensive cuts on holidays.
The entire family consumes a total of two five-cent ice cream cones, one five-cent car.dy bar, trm bottles of soda, and one bottle of beer a week. 'rhe family ovres no money, but has no savings except for a small insurance policy. This, of course, is an ideal picture drawn up by social workers of how a poor family should live. But the poor are much more human and less provident. Only a statistician could expect an actual live woman, ho ever poor, to buy neB clothes at intervals of five or ten years. Also one suspects that a lot more movies are seen and ice-cream cones and bottles of beer are consumed than in the Spartan ideal. But these luxuries are had only at the expense of displacing other items in the Bureau of Labor Statistics budget..
But the human imprints of poverty are still unknorin to the majority of us. Ernest Hemingway's celebrated deflation of Scott Fitzgerald's romantic notion that the rich are 11differen11tsomehow - namely "Yes, they have money" - doesn't quite tell the story. The poor are different in more important ways than their lack of moneyo Mr. Harrington demonstrates this. For example: Emotional upset is one of the main forms of the vicious circle of impoverishment. The structure of the society is hostile to these people, The poor tend to become pessimistic and depressed; they seek immediate gratification instead of saving; they act out. Once this mood, this unarticulated philosophy becomes a fact, society can change, the recession can end, and yet there is no motive for movement. The depression has become internalized. The middle class looks upon this process and sees '11azy11   people who IIjust don't want to get ahead.ti People who are much too sensitive to demand of cripples that they run races ask of the poor that they get up and act just like everyone else in the societye The poor are not like everyone else•••••They think and feel differently; they look upon a different America than the middle class looks upon.
The poor are also different in the physical sense: they are much less healthy. The statistics bear out the not surprising fact that ch. onic ill-health rises sharply as income sinks. In reasonably well-off families ( >7000 a yr. and up) 4.3% are so disabled; in reasonably poor families, (from two to four thousand per year) the proportion doubles to 8%; in unreasonably poor families (under $2000 per year) it doubles again, to 16½ . An obvious cause, among others, for the very poor being four times as much disabled by chronic ill-health is that they have much less to spend for medical care - in fact, almos nothing.
Mental as well as physical illness is much greater among the poor. The rate of treated psychiatric illness is a1Jout the same from the rich down through decently paid workers - an average of 573 per 100 1 000. But in the bottom fif-i.:.h, the Other America, it shoots up three times, to 1,659 per 100,000. There is even a more striking difference in the kind of mental illness. In the four top income groups 65% had been treated for neurotic and only 35% for psychotic disturbances. In the bottom fifth, the Other America, more than 90% were psychotic illnesses.
An obvious reason, of course, is tbat in the Other America people seek no treatment so long as they can function; they get committed only Tihen they are completely un­ able to function. Therefore, even the threefold increase in mental disorders among the poor is probably an underestimate, for it takes no account of the unreported and untreated neuroses for which the u per four fifths usually seek help.
The poor are different, then, physically and mentally - and in many, many more less tangible ways. The high school drop out r te in the Other America is high­ er than in any other segment of th8 population - ma.king the problems repeat i!! the second generation - and the 3rd and ,+th. And attitudes are notably distinguishable; a Cornell study of this lowest socio-economic group, hich sampled a group that as  99% white, incidentally, and therefore may be presUmad to understate the problem, sa .d bluntly: 11(They are) rigid, suspicious and have a fatalistic outlook on life. They do not plan ahead.,.They are prone to depression, have feelings of futility, lack of belongingness, friendleasne?s··a;nd a·or tru·s!; in others." Only a D;".'0
Pangloss would suspect anything elsa; such characteristics are a realistic adapta­ tion to a socially perverse situation. And, finally, this does not even mention the isolation of the Other America. They are like isQ,lateg sheep Mr. Harrington's com­ ment here is noteworthy:
America has a self-image of itself as a nation of joiners and doers. There are social clubs, charities, community drives, and the like. (One might add organizations like the Elks and Masons, Rotary and Kiwanis, cultural groups like our women's clubs, also alumni associations and professional organizations.) And yet this entire structure is a phenomenon of the middle class; the percentage of people in the bottom class who ware without affil­ iations of any kind was eight times as great as the percentage in the high-income classes.'
Paradoxically, one of the factors that intensifies the social isolation of the poor is that America thinks of itself as a na­ tion without social classes. As a result, there are few social or civic organizations that are separated on the basis of income and class. The "v10rking-class culture" that sociologists have described in a country like England does not exist here••••• The poor person who might want to join an organization is afraid. Because he or she will have less education, less money, less com­ petence to articulate ideas than anyone else in the group, they stay away.
This isolation helps account for their invisibility to us, the comfortable middle and upper class. In the seven years I've been a Unitarian minister here there have not been as many as a dozen families 11-1j_th income under $4000 who joined this church - and not two or three of them have stayed. We are a comfortable upper middle class congregation; there are no poor among us; we do not see them in any of the organiza­ tions we belong to, nor in our neighborhoods nor in the schools our children attend. We the comfortable have isolated ourselves from the uncomfortable Other America - and they from us - , and, to date, .America has not yet organized her vast resources to tackle the most pressing problem of 1/5.of her population. ·
This bottom fifth have remained on the bottom, sharing hardly at all in the ad• vances that the income groups above them have made in an ascending scale, which through the automatic workings of capitalism, is inversely proportionate to need. The hope for this other America, which is so dispersed, unorganized and inarticulate as to be politically unresourceful, is only an aroused public opinion, and some meaningful social programs. Incidentally, most of the measures of the Uelfare State have turned out to be not for the poor. Public housing turns out to be mainly not   for them. These refugees from the bulldozers for the most part simply emigrate to other slums. By the end of t63 there ill be less than 800,000 units of low cost public housing newly available in America. Taft had urged that many be ready by 1953. Those who can least afford to lose pay because of ill health, continue to lose the most. Although they are most in need of hospital insurance, t ey have the least. The poor, ironically, actually pay more in taxes, in proportion to theirincome, than the rich. 28% of incomes under $2000 goes for taxes, as against 24% of the in­ comes of families earning 5 to 7 times as much. Sales and other excise taxes are largely responsible for this curious statistic. The final irony is that the Welfare State, ,1hich Roosevelt erected and which Eisenhower, no matter how strongly he felt about it, didn't attempt to pull down, is not for the poor either. Agricultural workers are still not covered by Social Security, nor are many of the desperately poor among the aged. Most of its·programsare designed for the middle third in the, for the organized workers, and for the organized or big farming groups. The American poor do not fall into any of those groups. Only relief programs really reach them, and these continue to be the most humiliating of welfare measurea. One reaches the conclusion, and it is a political truism, that rewards in any society are according to political power rather than to need, and the poor in our nation have no political power, being dispersed, unorganized, and inarticulate. The hard core of our specially disadvantaged, the 1/5 who constitute the Other America, simply have not yet become politically relevant. This was made obvious when Medicare was not only defeated, but then dropped as an issue by the Democratic Party.
But, as Aristotle VJrote, "poverty is the parent of revolution and crime," and, v,hat is much more to the point, is an example of human misery and social injustice that a civilized nation cannot indefinitely countenance. Our poor today are mainly in­ visible, but we are being awakened now to see them. This is the basic reason for this talk today. American poverty is unnecessarily massive, pers:i.stent, critical and shameful - and its toll in human wastage and misery should be heart-breaking. This is the essential thesis for this talk todayo My message, in a word, is that a society which can marshal its resources to master unbelieveably complex technical and scientific problems and can willingly spend 40 billion dollars to put a man on the moon, surely is civilized enough, and competent enough, to marshal its resources sufficiently to make available to all its people, not just 4/5ths of its population, the minimal contemporary requirements for civilized social living. The United Mine Workers, in an editorial, r1rote:
"America is faced here and now with massive, long-term neglect, American Negroes are certainly not the only neglected people in this great nation. But the nature of their condition and tha urgency of their protest....thrusts itself into public view and on a public conscience that seems always determined to back away as far and as fast as possible from the spectacle of neglect in America••The Negro freedom marchers, it seems to us, march for all the neglected of this nation•• They are marching for those who live in slum conditions, whether that slum exists in the heart of a big city or in the mountains of Kentucky.
"They are marching for the hungry1 the jobless, and the untrained of all races. They are marching for better schools for all chil­ dren.
"They are marching for those Americans who, through no fault of their own, have reached the bottom.
11And the rest of us have got to stop arguing moderation; we have got to stop tinkering••••I11assiveneglect demands massive remedy.n
The principle is clear: all must be made a part of the common social existence. 11Tihat mean ye who crush my people and who grind the faces of the poor'?11    the Old Testament thunders - and it non1t do simply to say well, we do it quite inadvertently, that the system can accomodate only 4/5ths of the population. The goods of society must be shared at least to the extent that none shall nant the necessities of food, shelter, medicine and the opportunity to better his lot. William Booth's concept of the lifeboat to save the shipwrecked - is an image to ponder. The only real debate is what sort of lifeboat it is going to'taketo get these people on solid ground againo I might add that every student of the subject I can find agrees an instru­ mentality of the government is the only lifeboat - the only purposeful force that can reduce the numbers of the pcor and make their lives more bearable. A typical quota­ tion of the Conference on Economic Progress said:
11The Federal Budget is the most important single instrument available to us as a free people to induce satisfactory econ- ornic performance and to reduce poverty and deprivation•••"
The only debate really, is around the particular programs best designed to accom­ plish these necessary goals. The cost, 1:i_ke that of public education and public roads, should be the accepted responsibility of any socially advanced people. A people as little socially advanced as the Romans accorded a certain minimal meaning
to citizenship. 11CivisRomanus suml" cried St. Paul when he v.ras threatened with flog­ ging - and he was not flogged. Until our poor can be proud to say 11CivisAmericanus sum!", until the act of justice that would make this possible has been performed by the 4/5ths of Americans who are comfortable - until then the shame of the Other America will continue.
September 22, 1962
Moral Dimensions of Poverty
Monthly Theme: Poverty in America
Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur

Comments based on Michael Harrington's The Other America: Poverty in the United States. 

December 13, 1959
Dilemma of the Idealist and the Limits of Idealism
Rev. Ernest D. Pipes, Jr. ("Ernie")
December 10, 1959
The Relevance of Jesus
Rev. Ernest D. Pipes, Jr. ("Ernie")
Moral Dimensions of Poverty
Rev. Rebecca Benefiel Bijur