Sally Metcalf

This week – the week following Remembrance Day – is recognized as YMCA Peace Week in Canada

In 1987 – when I had been with the Y for only two years – the International Committee of the Fredericton YM-YWCA was given responsibility for developing the resources for that year’s national Peace Week activities. I and a handful of volunteers (Carole Cronkhite, May Whalen, and Lucie El Khoury) met with Bob Vokey of YMCA Canada to discuss the matter. Before the meeting formally began, Bob gave us an overview of the growing lack of interest in international development matters not only within the Y but among volunteers in other NGOs as well. One of the factors causing this was that celebrities and political figures who allowed their names to be associated with certain causes were lauded for their endorsements while often the volunteers who did most of the on-the-ground work labored anonymously and with little recognition of their efforts.

I suggested that the Y should institute an award to recognize individuals like these, people who – without any special resources – could be held up as exemplars of the types of things all of us could do if we chose. Celebrities and political figures, specifically, would not be eligible. While their activities were valuable, because they had access to special resources they could not be effective models of the contributions ordinary people were capable of making.

The YMCA Peace Medal continues to be awarded by associations across Canada and occasionally in other countries as well. It was, doubtless, the most significant contribution I made in my 27-year career with the Y.

When Genjo Marinello Roshi of Chobo-ji in Seattle learned that I was working on a book about the impact of Zen on practitioners, he advised me to interview Sally Metcalf of his sangha. Sally is a sensei, but she is quick to point out that the title is largely honorific. She tells me that Osho – as she calls Genjo – awards the title as a way of “acknowledging certain people in this sangha who are not ordained but who have done forty sesshin and are active helping the community. It’s his way of acknowledging people who’ve been doing the forms for a while so that other people can rely on them. As you know, there’s a lot of form in Rinzai; so that’s quite helpful.”

“Do you have specific responsibilities in the community?” I ask.

“No. Basically we just wear brown rakusus, and we’re just somebody people can watch who know what they’re doing – ’cause usually we do things correctly – and somebody people can talk to. So that’s what Osho does, if you’re not on ordination track – which has different hoops you have to jump through – it’s his way of acknowledging senior people.”

When I ask her what contributions she makes to the community, her response is modest.

“I’ve got kind of a small life,” she tells me. “I don’t mean that in a deprecatory way. But I’m not like the Dalai Lama who can reach millions of people. Which is pretty incredible. I live this small life. I don’t get around much. I have a job with a small non-profit. I shop at my grocery stores, and I have my much-loved sangha. I wash the laundry, and I wipe the dishes, and I clean the toilets, and I greet people at the door, and so this is my life. And I don’t touch millions of people. I don’t even touch thousands of people. But, that being said, way, way, way, way back, when I first took a Course in Miracles in the Unity Church, there was a prayer that began, ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ And that really struck me. ‘I am here only to be truly helpful.’ That just went out to every cell in my body.”

When she began Zen practice, she encountered the same concept in the Bodhisattva Vows. “In the shorthand form we use, it’s to ‘care for all people, everywhere, always.’” She adds that she told Genjo Osho that when Zen practice no longer helped her realize that goal, she would quit it and look elsewhere. “And Osho said, ‘Good. That’s the way it should be.’

“It sounds kind of funny, but I used to row this boat out on Puget Sound. And when you’re rowing slowly, you leave a wake. So I and my dog were out in Eagle Harbor, and we’re going along, and there’s our wake. But what kind of wake am I leaving? When I’m in a coffee shop, I don’t want to just say, ‘Give me my latte’ and get out.” Instead, she wants the encounter with the barista to become personal. So that they treat one another with respect. “We appreciate each other. And I’m trying to do that in my sangha. You know, when a member comes in, I ask them how they are. ‘How are the difficulties you were telling me about your job?’ So, this is my practice. Everywhere. Always. With everyone. This is my practice. Am I helping people on the scale of the Dalai Lama? No, I don’t think so. But am I leaving a good wake? I think so.”

Sally is precisely the kind of person I had in mind when I came up with the concept of the YMCA Peace Medallion.

Further Zen Conversations: 104-05.

Published by Rick McDaniel

Author of "Zen Conversations" and "Cypress Trees in the Garden."

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