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A young Cambodian orphan smiles while waiting for English class to begin

Following my moral compass

We all navigate through circumstances at the limits of human experience.
By Erika Nonken
Spring 2014

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The sweltering classroom is full of young men, all refugees or asylum seekers and eager to learn. Silence pervades as they contemplate a picture on my laptop screen: a winter view of Main Street in my tiny New England hometown. I am the refugee center’s English teacher; the students’ task is to describe what they see.

More silence. I think maybe they are too shy.

Finally one says, “Teacher, where is this place? This is a beautiful place.” All agree: “Yes, very beautiful.”

I let them guess, and they rightly determine it is my home.

Not shy, then, but rapt. Their descriptions pour forth: “Quiet, many trees, I think there are not many people there, quiet, snowy, cold but nice, these are stores, those are houses, quiet.” They are grasping at something with “quiet.”

A young Burmese man addresses me, tentatively. “Teacher, I have only known life with war.” The other students nod. “But I think in this place there is not war, there has not been war for a long time.” I nod. “Teacher, is there a word, a describing word, that means not-war?”

“Peace,” I tell them. “Peaceful.”

They nod and smile, liking this new word. They try it out on their lips: “Peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.”

One young man in the back, from Iraq, says, “This word is good, is right. The more you are in a place of war and angry and hating and not nice, the more you are empty inside. The more you are in a place that is safe, the more you are full of peace.”

A former Tamil Tiger child soldier in the front row responds, “I am like a blown-out eggshell, empty inside because of fighting. I would like to be full of peace, in a beautiful place like that.”


I know that hollow feeling. It is unique—different from burnout, apathy, and even from grief. It is a feeling of spiritual exhaustion, a component of long-term PTSD that can affect aid workers. While the challenges I have encountered are only ghosts compared to war, I feel a great resonance with my students and with people serving in the armed forces: We all navigate through circumstances at the limits of human experience. We all have to negotiate traumas, face plague and floods and coups and systemic poverty, encounter the resulting dead bodies, navigate corrupt systems, work alongside people who are broken inside. We are left asking how people can do such harm, individually and systemically.

I grew up Unitarian Universalist in the ’80s and ’90s, my spiritual and moral self shaped by my quietly radical mother, the stern Yankee farmers of my hometown, and the soup socials and awkward drum circles of the UU congregation a few towns over. I sat cross-legged in religious education classes, soaking up stories and cheery hippie songs, celebrating bold women and men who questioned authority and confronted injustice. I was told to follow my heart and heal the world. I planned to become a minister, but my values demanded immediate, hands-on roles in the global quest for justice. My wife and I have lived and worked in Australia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Zambia, Cambodia, and Thailand. We have not traveled as tourists, but have lived and worked as international development and humanitarian professionals. For us, this is the purest embodiment of the UU values in which we were both raised. And it has brought us to places of challenge and heartbreak.


I stand in the steaming, stinking, tropical courtyard of the Thai refugee center, staring at the uniformed official in front of me. He smiles what I can only call the Devil’s smile, evil incarnate. I have just learned that for months he has been raping some of my students, and that because of loopholes in the prostitution law we have no legal recourse to stop him. He knows I know, and he loves my powerlessness. I have never known such rage, as if I am made of dizzying lava, the top of my head exploding and a churning beam of pure emotion shooting a mile into the sky. My hands clench against my pacifist’s will. I quiver and make a small inarticulate roar. He taps his billy club and makes a tsk-tsk sound. His evil is all the more devastating because I don’t believe in the Devil.

The harder truth is that this man is fully human, and so deserves to be treated with humanity. Unitarian Universalism is very clear on the foundations of human interactions, but to say I found it hard to respect his inherent worth and dignity is a vast understatement. I found it difficult, speaking theistically, to believe that he was made in God’s image. In that moment, every fiber of my being longed to be created in the divine image as well: the Old Testament God of the Hebrews who could smite the wicked and tear down whole cities of corruption. I felt that Unitarian Universalism had propelled me down the path to where I stood in that moment, but left me bereft of the spiritual tools I needed to cope with it.

The outrage I felt at the official, and my desire to build peace for my students, were both direct results of our UU values. We consider action the obvious response to injustice, but such a response assumes an understanding that the refugees are people of worth and value whose current conditions are untenable, and a sense of personal responsibility for enacting change. My wife and I often felt very alone in holding these sentiments. The people with whom we were close knew either our values or our current context, but never both. Evangelical Christians, abroad to do God’s good work, were often our closest moral allies. Though I greatly respected much of their ministry, our theologies chafed in important ways.

We were members of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, the global online congregation for isolated and transient UUs around the world. Its website has a digital chalice you can click to “light,” and at first I rolled my eyes at the gimmick. Mere weeks later, I returned to that website for fellowship, sometimes staring at the flickering gif for hours. My wife, too, kept the chalice open in the corner of her monitor as she pursued her work dismantling human trafficking. It was a balm, a necessary reminder of people who shared our values, helping us to center on our motivation and the importance of our work. The spiritual content of the CLF remains the most relevant to our lives that we have found in Unitarian Universalism. CLF grapples frankly with questions of real sin and evil, with brokenness, with how much is too much to give, and it provides as much of an emotional sanctuary as is digitally possible.

But I was left wanting more. I wanted UUs as neighbors and colleagues by my side in this work, and spiritual guidance from ministers who really understood corruption and poverty and that hollowness. I also wanted a theology that was complex and bold enough to ground me in the extremes of my situation. And I wanted answers, but as a UU I knew those would only come from within myself.

Unitarian Universalism is rooted in staunch Emersonian individualism that requires us to trust our own moral compasses. While the Seven Principles provide guidance about how our congregations are covenanted in religious community, and while they certainly inspire me personally, we each have to be our own moral arbiters.

I remember when I first realized just how hard it is to follow one’s moral compass in a world of conflicting norths. I was 19 and walking through a Delhi market when an emaciated, acid-burned, leprous girl wearing only a filthy tank top grabbed my shin with her one remaining limb, crying while begging for coins. I looked up at my trusted friend, an older man who had lived there for years, my eyes tearing up. Logically I knew this girl was likely a trafficked cog in a begging cartel, and that giving her money would absolutely not be in her best interests. But it was heartbreaking to have to gently pull her loose and deny her.

My friend said, not unkindly, that I’d never get through the world if I didn’t toughen up. I couldn’t help everyone. How tempting his sentiment was. But I remembered the starfish—you know the story, the one by Loren Eiseley that is read to little UUs. We can’t throw all the starfish back into the ocean, but we do make a difference to each one we save. As it turns out, doing good in the world is so much more complicated than throwing starfish into the sea: in order to help that one girl, I needed to understand the entire system of professional begging. I could best help her by supporting new orphanages and alternate livelihood programs and by dismantling trafficking throughout South Asia. Much harder than throwing starfish, and much tougher on the moral compass, which told me with every magnetic quiver to embrace the girl, cherish her, and provide for her.

Following that moral compass, I was guided to work in the international arena. But my moral compass also enjoined me to smite the evil official. It pulled me to want to fill up the fragile hollows in my young students. It left me floundering without magnetic north as often as not, because even when we ask ourselves the tough questions, we too rarely figure out together the tough answers. Individual religious moral authority is exhausting: its magnetism can weaken.

Everyone’s personal moral compass needs some assistance. Religious community, our whole global community of UUs, can help us navigate the world when we feel lost: not because others will have the answers for us, but because together we can each help remember and believe in what we already know, sharing support when we struggle to resist hate, despair, and, most insidious, apathy.

The Rev. Tom Schade correctly argues that religious community is not enough, and that we need to actively live our values in the world. But we also need to preserve, improve, and extend the aspect of Unitarian Universalism that provides a safe haven and an engaged moral community for those who continue to be embattled in places of real challenge (i.e., most of the world). I want to see us build a Unitarian Universalism whose community and theology are not only actively supportive and relevant for people like me, but relevant and supportive for my former students. Unitarian Universalism is a beautiful place, and we have so much solace to offer. We also have a great history of reaching out to isolated religious liberals, and of grappling with really tough issues. I truly believe we have the moral tools and spiritual community we need to succeed in this work; we just need to learn how to use them powerfully. We need to teach ourselves and our young people how to translate our values on the larger, fraught global stage. The next time I step into a dangerous role, I want Unitarian Universalism to really be at my back, filling me up, and pointing the way.


This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (pages 8-11). Photograph (above): A young Cambodian orphan smiles while waiting for English class to begin. He helped compose the picture, wanting to show himself surrounded by the people he loves (Erika Nonken). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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