Sara Ting’s “Sun Poem” continues to shine light in Boston and around the world

“Are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone? Black, brown, yellow, red and white – the sun makes no difference.”

Boston activist Sara Ting authored The Sun Poem in 1985 in a campaign to recognize and promote racial and ethnic harmony through words. Sara, a Chinese American, has given strength to people across the country with these words. She even received credit for “The Sun Poem” in a resolution passed unanimously by the Boston City Council.

It also inspired the creation of World Unity Inc., a nonprofit organization that has championed diversity since 1994 and aims to change Boston’s reputation for unwelcoming people of color. In 2020, then-Mayor Marty Walsh went so far as to declare racism a public health crisis.

In this week’s Joy Beat, Ting sat down with All Things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about The Sun Poem and the work of World Unity Inc.

Arun Rath: You said The Sun Poem was born in Boston, so let’s go back to 1985 and the making of the poem.

Sara Ting: It was actually written in a personal journal in 1978; it did not become public until 1985.

The poem came about during a journey I was taking at the time to try to understand the meaning of God. There are different camps of people in life: those who believe in God, those who don’t, and those who are unsure. I was among the groups that were unsure and I said, “Let me find out if God really exists.” I thought the best way to do that was to find a place of worship.

I thought this was going to be an easy trip. It wasn’t. When I first walked up at the end of the service, I thought someone would greet me and say “Good morning” – a word of appreciation that I stand before you. Not a single person spoke to me. Not one person said, “Good morning, welcome.” It was like I was invisible.

Well, I didn’t let that affect me too much. I thought, “Well, that’s not the only church in Boston. I’ll try another one.” The same thing happened again. I said, “Well, I’m going across the river.” Unfortunately, the same thing happened, nobody spoke to me. And then I thought to myself, “I’m a kind person. I don’t need someone to come up to me and say “good morning” and “hello”. I’ll do the public relations.

So I went back to Boston and there were about 200 people in that place. At the end of the service I kind of looked around to see if maybe there was a friendly face. I picked this couple, introduced myself and thought, “Great, I can have an interesting conversation.” It wasn’t.

At this point I’m feeling really, really down. When the bus came, I got on the bus and saw no passengers. As the bus pulled away, the sun broke through, the clouds shone on my face—the sun’s rays—and I heard this voice inside me: “I don’t shine just for you, Sara. I shine on everyone.” And the poem was born. “Are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone? Black, Brown, Yellow, Red and White. The sun does not discriminate.”

Rath: That’s wonderful. Tell us about the journey from there to World Unity Inc.

Ting: So what inspired the founding of World Unity Inc. was this poem. It was part of a charitable campaign in 1985 and I was hired to produce a 4 by 8 poster for the YWCA because their number one priority is the elimination of racism.

I’m at an event and a young lady comes up to me and wants to tell me what the poem has done to her. I said OK.” Apparently she was a member of the YWCA, and when she first saw this poem, she couldn’t ignore it. She said she actually hated the poem. I knew she wasn’t malicious; she wanted to tell me what this poem did for her.

Seeing the poem apparently opened her wounds and brought back memories of being discriminated against in Boston as an Asian-American woman. After watching this poem over and over again, over time she realized that she needed to let go and forgive the past.

The moment I heard the word “forgiveness” came a vision of building an enduring landmark expressed in this poem and the need to create an organization whose mission will not only be equality , to promote diversity and inclusion, but to build landmarks.

Rath: You know, we’re in Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month right now. I was just on a panel discussion this week speaking about some of our common heritage, so it seems this conversation is particularly timely. We are also in a context of a new kind of anti-Asian hatred. Talk about that context right now because I feel like we really need The Sun Poem right now.

Ting: Let me say this: there are no laws, policies or technologies that can take away anyone’s prejudice or hatred. The change we need has to come from within the person. The poem can help initiate the change; It is up to each individual to become a better person and to develop personally and professionally.

The beauty of the poem is that there is no judgement; It simply invites each of us to answer this simple question: are you greater than the sun that shines on everyone?

So we have to think again: How do I treat someone who is different from me? What it requires of each of us is to be honest with ourselves and have the courage to face ourselves and agree to take responsibility. On the other hand there is growth and the opportunity to have a larger circle of friends and to live a life far richer than you could ever imagine.

The poem actually inspired a song and a wonderful program called “Singing Equality Across America and Around the World.” The song was performed by children at the United Nations in 2015.

One child said when they sing it they feel like they can do anything. We want all children to feel this way. You look at the world with fresh eyes and a pure heart. The words they told us about the impact of the song and poem speak the truth to me.

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