Patchwork People

Audio File:  

Opening Words

 Quilt Sunday is a time honored tradition here at the UUCP- organized by the Purple Paisley quilters, whose beautiful work we just raffled off.  I love quilts- especially crazy quilts- as a metaphor for how diverse people come together in community to create a whole that is greater and more beautiful than the sum of the parts.  It’s also a powerful way to think of the way our diverse experiences in life get stitched together to create our story and our identity.  We are, each of us, a work of art.

I’d invite you to cast your gaze around the room, taking in the quilts that are here, and beginning to open to the way the metaphor might apply in your life, as I share these words from my colleague, the Rev. Bets Wienecke:

“As We Gather Together this Morning”
available at


Excerpts from “A New Perspective on How, and Why, to Embrace Cultural Diversity,” TEDxBismark, Lea Black (Humanitarian Photographer), available at:

“Patchwork” by Eavan Boland, from Outside History: Selected Poems, 1980-1990 (W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), available at:


Imagine, if you will, a quilt made of perfect, 6” by 6” squares, all exactly the same color.  It has a certain Zen appeal, but it would never win a prize at the county fair.  In quilting, as in life, what makes for beauty is contrast and complexity.  If you look at these quilts, they have lots of different colors, lots of different patterns, lots of different shapes.

At the same time, a pile of diverse fabric scraps isn’t very interesting either- unless you are a quilter, with a vision of how to turn those scraps into something beautiful. Quilters have a super power- they are able to imagine how to combine these disparate shapes and colors into a unified whole, a work of art.  What does it say on our money? E pluribus unum…out of many, one.

We humans have super powers, too.  We are meaning makers, with the capacity to take the diverse experiences and relationships and stories in our life, and combine them into a unified whole.  E pluribus unum.  We each hold multiple identities, and we bring those identities to a community.  There, we learn from one another how to be better, kinder, and wiser.  E pluribus unum.

We are patchwork people, living in a patchwork nation.  And we have cause to be grateful for the abundance of diverse experiences and diverse relationships that make our lives interesting and beautiful.

Look around this room.  Which quilts appeal to you?  Some of us, I imagine, prefer the ones that have a more subtle color scheme, and a more regular pattern.  They’re beautiful!

But when it comes to our lives, when it comes to creating meaning, if we try to keep it tame and subtle, we have to ignore or suppress parts of ourselves. Like the author of our first reading, I know people who avoid feelings and experiences that are uncomfortable.  Fact is, I’m one of them!

We stuff our grief.  We bury our anger.  We shy away from experiences that are outside of our comfort zone.  It’s normal and human.

But when we do this, we limit ourselves.  The lives we create wind up being flat; when we deny ourselves the depths of grief, we also deny ourselves the fullness of joy.  Our lives are richer and more beautiful when they include a full range of experiences and feelings.  Rather than trying to force our lives into neat and tidy designs, we’re able to take the natural messiness that is real and sew it together, somehow, into a pattern that makes sense.

When I was in my early thirties, I had a bout of depression.  My kids were little- a baby and a toddler, and I was mostly able to hold it together for them, but as soon as my husband got home, I was in bed, hiding from the world.  I talked to my doctor; she prescribed an anti-depressant.  And about a week after starting on it, I began to have suicidal ideation.  The kids were in day care one day, and I went out to Great Falls national park.  I remember, as clear as if it were yesterday, standing on the edge of a cliff looking down at the Potomac and thinking, “It would be so easy to just step off.”  It took every ounce of inner strength I had to step away from the edge.

That’s not an easy memory to call up, nor is it an easy memory to share.  It’s one thing for me to preach about how damaging the stigma against mental illness in the abstract.  It’s another thing to confess my own history.  But here’s the thing- that piece of me, that experience of deep depression- helps me connect with and support people who come to me for pastoral care in the midst of their own depression.  That part of my story is an important part!  It made me more compassionate and, ultimately, stronger.

Not only that- but I also know that what brought me to that place- on the edge of that cliff- was the refusal to face feelings of loss and failure, anger and frustration.  I was trying so hard to be the perfect mother (peaceful and loving and cheerful and engaged) that there hadn’t been space in my life to feel a whole bunch of feelings.  Within the space of a single year, my parents divorced and sold my childhood home, I resigned from my first ministry job, turned down a second ministry opportunity to stay home with the kids, and had a hysterectomy.  Then we moved from a place where I had both a strong and vibrant network of friends and a strong professional network to a place where I literally knew no one.  I had lots of feelings!  I couldn’t allow myself to feel them, because then I wouldn’t be that perfect mom.  So they poisoned me- altering my brain chemistry so that I felt like I couldn’t go on.

Once I took the space I needed to process the many losses I’d experiences, they became a part of my story, adding shading and depth.  That year and a half was traumatic and hard.  But it adds to the beauty of the whole that is me.  I appreciate waking up ready to enjoy life so much more now that I don’t take that tremendous gift for granted.  The grey of depression, the raw purple of loss- they provide contrast to the clear gold bits of joy and the soft rose of healing.

Now, I bet some of you are thinking, “That’s all well and good.  But for my sake, I prefer to avoid thinking about negative events.  I think it’s better to just stay positive.”  My mother used to say, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

That’s where the connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm come in.  When we refuse to feel something, it leaks.  It poisons our brain chemistry, and it also poisons our relationships.  Tony Robbins identifies eight common defense mechanisms- ways we defend ourselves from negative feelings.  They are:

  • Denial: simply refusing to experience the unpleasant or uncomfortable event or feelings.
  • Repression: burying the memory of what happened in our subconscious.
  • Displacement: Lashing out at the people who are close to us and so, in theory, ‘safe’ to be cruel to.
  • Projection: imagining our experience onto other people.
  • Reaction: moving to the opposite pole of experience (for example, someone who is afraid of their own sexuality becomes an active homophobe.)
  • Regression: resorting to childlike behavior (hiding in our room, slamming the door)
  • Rationalization: blame and shame game
  • Sublimation: channeling feelings into some other outlet (can be positive…eg. Music or art…or counter-productive and addictive)

If some of these sound familiar, don’t start beating yourself up.  They are normal.  As Robbins puts it, “in the short-term, {these} mechanisms can be adaptive. We don’t dwell. We don’t say or do something with potentially damaging ramifications. We keep ourselves in a better state…{But} in the long run, the effect is actually the opposite, as routine use of defense mechanisms can actually reduce the effectiveness of emotional processing. This is why it is key to become more cognizant of {our} personal tendencies.”

As we become aware of our defense mechanisms, we gain control over when and how we use them.  We also, hopefully, add additional tools to our emotional toolkit.  The goal, always, is to be more capable of accepting all of ourselves and all of life.

Think about the suffering in the world.  Think about injustice- racism, oppression, violence.  I think we can track all of it back to defense mechanisms gone amuck. Denial- people refusing to see race.  Repression- the way we’ve sublimated the history of slavery and violence toward Indigenous tribes.  Displacement- domestic violence grows out of displacement.  Projection- creates stereotypes and conflict.  Reaction- reactivity has created the polarization in our political system.  Regression- the resistance to ‘adulting’ that keeps people from creating healthy and sustainable lives.  Rationalization- blame and shame causes so much harm!  And sublimation- in the form of addiction- destroys so many lives and families.

The microcosm work of facing and integrating our unpleasant and challenging experiences, then, is an essential first step that allows us to move into the wider world with more skill and grace.  Doing the work of stitching our diverse pieces together internally is a key part of figuring out how to stitch our diverse community together.

I want to shift gears, now, and focus on the way this same metaphor offers us insights into the way we enter into community- and the way we build the Beloved Community.  I’m fond of saying that people are messy and community is messy, by which I mean we are all complicated and we are all flawed.  We make mistakes.  We hurt each other.  We get offended sometimes.  We step on toes.  Our toes get stepped on.

When we conceptualize community as a patchwork quilt, we gain a framework for embracing the messiness.  We are the cosmic fabric stash!  All of our different colors and patterns exist for a reason.  We can choose to believe that a pattern of great beauty and goodness will emerge as we stitch ourselves together, as we learn and as we love.

In 1989, attorney Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “Intersectionality” in a paper called “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex:  A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” Her paper changed the way we think about identity, and is an analysis that grows out of three court cases filed by Black women under Title VII, the anti-discrimination statute.  It turns out the court system was completely unprepared to understand and deal with multiple, overlapping oppression.

In one of the cases she references, a group of black women wanted to prove that they’d been discriminated against in the workplace.  The court ruled that they had to prove either that all women have been discriminated against or that all black people have been discriminated against, saying:

The prospect of the creation of new classes of protected minorities, governed only by the mathematical principles of permutation and combination, clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box. (in Mosley v. General Motors at 145.)

On the surface, this fear almost seems justified.  But think about it.  If a company hires and promotes black men and uses this to ‘prove’ it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race, and also hires and promotes white women to ‘prove’ it doesn’t discriminate on the basis of sex, they can (and did) legally refuse to hire or promote black women. Crenshaw wrote:

Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sexual preference, age and/or physical ability.  These people are stacked—feet standing on shoulders—with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling.  Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way reside.  In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can way that ‘but for’ the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room.  A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl.  Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who- due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position related to those below- are in the position to crawl through. (p. 152)

Basically, what we need to understand is that all people carry multiple identities, some of which carry privilege, and some of which are disadvantaged.  We can’t interact with only one aspect of one another’s identities.  Rather, we carry all of our identities into every conversation and interaction.  Crenshaw proposes that the work of fighting discrimination would go more smoothly if we started with liberating those at the bottom of the pig pile.  She writes:

It is somewhat ironic that those concerned with alleviating the ills of racism and sexism should adopt such a top-down approach to discrimination.  If their efforts instead began with addressing the needs and problems of those who are most disadvantaged and with restructuring and remaking the world where necessary, then others who are singularly disadvantaged would also benefit.  In addition, it seems that placing those who currently are marginalized in the center is the most effective way to resist efforts to compartmentalize experiences and undermine potential collective action. (p. 167)

Going back to our metaphor of the quilt, what she is saying is that the good and beautiful pattern will appear sooner if we start by listening to those who carry multiple disadvantaged identities.  I have a dear friend and colleague who is a disabled Latinx person who also identifies as queer and gender non-conforming.  This person is also brilliant and creative, with a heart as big as the world.  I pay very close attention to everything they write and say, because I want to live in a world where everyone can benefit from their prodigious gifts.

If we do what it takes to make the world a place that welcomes and celebrates this person in all aspects of their identity, that work will benefit all disabled people, all people of color, all queer folk and everyone who identifies as trans or non-binary.  All of them will feel welcomed and celebrated.  That is the world we want, isn’t it?

This world we envision looks like a crazy quilt made up of billions of little crazy quilts.  Each of the little crazy quilts is a person who has embraced diversity in the microcosm of their emotional life.  The big crazy quilt is a world that has embraced diversity and intersectionality in the macrocosm of our cultural and racial lives.

Crazy quilts are harder to make than the simple, geometric patterns.  In the chaos and in the connections, the seams, something real and true and essential is revealed.  We’re not perfect.  Life’s not perfect.  But somehow, we fit- and we matter. We are part of a larger design that is beyond our comprehension, a design that lives in the deep wishes of our hearts.

2 thoughts on “Patchwork People

  1. Thanks! I love quilts and your metaphor. I’m a UU in Albuquerque with family in Pullman. Hope to visit some day.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s