A refrain that has been in my mind, over and over.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I have finally noticed it this past week, but really it has been insisting itself into most of my sermons these past few months, perhaps the whole year or more.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I felt it as I planned for today’s service and helped give input into last night’s fellowship fest: a yearning for the children and youth of this congregation to be folded safely within our embrace. A yearning for their utter and absolute safety, a yearning I know that each and every one of you share and one we try – oh, do we try – to craft and conjure and cajole with our insistent breath, despite what the world has been handing us.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
It is where, in lighting this rainbow chalice, we honor Transgender Awareness week here in New Jersey, knowing that tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance. TDOR a day to mourn those who have met violent ends and renamed by some within the trans community as Transgender Day of Resilience, as a way to remember not just victim status, but strength and beautiful survival.
This is why we are doing the small, and yet so big, thing at our Congregational Meeting to make wide the welcome and be explicit in our inclusivity by the choice of signage we use for our bathrooms. We want folks who are trans, folks who are gender non-conforming, to know this place as a safe, as a people who sees them as whole.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
It has to do with the heartrending cause behind in this week’s message about being more careful when we answer the door here during the week, how each of us no matter where we live or work, wonders and fears in new ways, living with the reminder that security is never guaranteed, and still we go on living and loving.
This is why we support refugee settlement, knowing that everyone has the human right to be free of war, violence, torture and the traumatic legacy of these horrible things. This is why we should continually find ways to support those congregations who offer sanctuary and who already are doing so, shielding fellow humans from persecution by this nation’s government, trying to protect families and keeping them whole. This is why we gather food throughout the year, and today for the upcoming holiday, for families who experience not enough.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister, to be with you as you seek safety and wholeness for yourself, as you seek safety and wholeness for your family, as you seek safety and wholeness in this wide aching world.
And I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister as I seek these things: in my own life, for my family, for and with you, and in this wide aching beautiful chaotic resplendent voluptuous tumultuous world.
Let me begin with gratitude to my colleague, the Reverend Peter Boulatta, as I borrow from his sermonic playbook.
How many of you remember phone booths?
How many of you have used a phone booth?
How many of you have used a phone booth in the past week?
Does that mean that you have not made a call outside your home in the past week? Unlikely. What is more likely, is that the phone you use to make calls in public is the same one you use to make calls in private. It is, more than likely, a little computer that fits in your pocket or purse. It is, more than likely, a device that even if you watched the original Star Trek, we could not imagine would be so deeply integrated into our daily lives here on this planet in your life time.
Things are changing. While this is the very essence of life, there is empirical data to suggest that change is happening at a faster rate, posing innumerable challenges. This means, among all the other changing things, that congregational life is changing. What was once a reliable reality for one generation is no longer even a point of reference. And I mean this literally: there used to be a phone booth in this very building! And it’s long gone.
There are many contributing factors for this, and there are many implications. Today, I am hoping to touch on the rather narrow topic of what this means for Unitarian Universalist congregational life in the 21st century.
Nick, will you help us set the stage?
Nick is going to play parts of four songs. When you hear a song that you recognize as coming from your generation, however you understand that, please rise in body or arms up so that others can see you. If this experiment works as I hope, you will only rise for one song. Nick, can you play the first one?
Okay, Nick: our second song.
Once more: our third selection.
And lastly, our final piece.
Thank you for taking part in our little musical experiment.
Just so we are fully informed, the first song, made popular in the year 1939, was “In the Mood” made famous by Glenn Miller. The second song was “I want to hold your hand” by The Beatles and came out in 1964. The third song’s title is “(I’ve had) The Time of my Life”, made famous in the film Dirty Dancing, and came out in 1987. And lastly, “Home,” was the final song, made popular by Phillip Phillips, who came to be widely known by the American public because he was “discovered” through American Idol, a television talent hunt show.
Nick and I chose these songs to represent four primary generations that have emerged in American culture and that generational theorists have recognized, though there is some wrangling around the edges about exact start and ending years for each of these generations. Most of what I am going to refer to in this sermon comes to us from Strauss and Howe, interpreted for me by my colleague, Reverend Kimberly Debus. Should you want to know more about this, in the lobby there are hard copies of a handout that Reverend Debus put together if you are interested in this topic.
In the Mood – is for what has come to be called “the Silent generation:” folks born 1925-1942 and who are currently ages 75-92. Who is here from the Silent generation?
The next generation – Boomers, a much more widely used term than the one for the generation before them — was born, according to these particular theorists, between 1943 and 1960. Not all theorists, professional or lay, agree; but I’ll stick with the years and ages based on Howe and Strauss, just to provide a coherent reference point. The current age of Boomers is 57 -74. The song we chose to represent this generation was I Want to Hold Your Hand. Who is here from the Boomer generation?
The song from the movie, Dirty Dancing – Time of My Life – was chosen to represent Generation X, folks born between 1960 – 1982 (though some place it later, like 1984-5). This is my generation. Anyone else out there who identifies as GenX?
The fourth song, Home, is for the Millennial generation (originally called GenY because it’s the generation after GenX — but that name didn’t take hold). These are folks born from 1983-2004. They range from those just entering high school to those who are in their mid-thirties and already raising children of their own, which may well be a single generation but covers several developmental stages. Do we have any Millennials in the room?
There is another generation, the one that comes after the Millennials. These are folks born after 2005. There are names that theorists have suggested for this Generation Z (comes after Y?), but none of caught hold yet – Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Digital Natives, etc.. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with Pew Research has been using the term, “post-Millennial” to describe this youngest demographic cohort.
Our reading today, the Mindset List, gave us a window into the reality of a subgroup within the Millennials – folks born in 1998ish, so the younger half of the Millennial generation. There are some interesting facts there, but I raise them here because they are more than facts: they influence how one experiences reality, as well as cause confusion for those of us who have not experienced some of those realities. They influence how that generation sees the past, what ideas they carry with them, and what images they conjure for the future. This is, of course, true for all of us: what happens in our lifetimes influences the new paradigms we can imagine, based on what we carry and what we have let go and the ones we are still carrying around with us.
How can we not notice, given last Sunday’s mass shooting at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the observation by the Mindset List that
[quote] This year’s list observes that entering college students will generally not find “Columbine” to be an infamous and iconic name, yet for an older generation it was the first and most evil of all high school massacres. Is it true that they have little knowledge of “Columbine,” and if so, what are the implications? That school shootings have become so frequent that we have become dangerously numb to their enormous consequences? [unquote]
What does it mean to one’s sense of what is normal, if mass shootings have been the norm your whole life? And for those of us for whom this has not been true, who cling desperately to the attitude that such a reality should never be the norm, what does it mean for the future we are trying to shift and shape?
Things are always changing, right now they are changing fast and they are changing in ways that make relatively ineffective reliance on any toolkit of past solutions to problems or responses to needs. Take, for example, our response to the faith formation, otherwise called religious education, of our children – one of the primary focuses of this congregation’s mission statement.
Last month, the chair of the Religious Education Committee, Lynn Mayfryer, and the Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, and I attended a day-long conference in New York City, along with other UU ministers, religious education leaders, and lay folk interested in the future of faith formation. The presenter, Kimberly Sweeney, had published a paper provocatively titled, “The Death of Sunday School.”
Provocative, yes, and also apt, given trends that have been emerging for decades or have already taken hold. And while that provocative phrase may have its reality, so, too, does this one, paraphrasing a French idiom:
Church is dead!
Long live the Church!
Sunday School is dead!
Long live the next version of faith formation!
You are invited to learn more about this when Jillian holds a town meeting in March – in addition to that one-day workshop, she is attending over the next few months a series of webinars to explore these trends, to brainstorms responses, and to imagine religious education for children transforming from a phone booth into … into… well, I don’t think anyone knows quite yet.
There are shifting trends in UU congregations across the continent; we see it here, in this congregation. It’s not just about religious education for children and youth. These shifts impact nearly every aspect of congregational life. For instance, in surveys on church healthy and growth, one measurement looks at attendance. What was once considered “regular attendance” — three out of our weeks per month – is now, once per month (at least for many non-ethnic churches and congregations). Fewer people are going to church (or synagogue, any congregational setting, really) as American society becomes more secular.
This particular aspect of the changing landscape makes it challenging to have enough kids in RE on any given Sunday to facilitate an engaging class. It impacts other aspects of congregational life, like how how lay leaders make congregational life hum. Not all that long ago, it was understood that to be both inclusive and effective, committees and boards should be big. But this only works if there are people to fill those seats.
While the number of Millennials is equal or slightly surpasses the number of Boomers, what we are finding is that Millennials are willing – more than willing – to do work, they are less interested in serving on committees and attending meetings – they are more interested in project-based work – or so say the social scientists out there who are looking at these things.
Which is to say, we cannot invent the next response to our children’s faith formation needs – and frankly, our adult needs as well – based solely on what has worked before. We need to change our mindset. We need to expand our mindset. We need to become more aware of our mindset and then use this awareness to feed curiosity so that we can notice generational assumptions that likely do not apply in the same ways as they used to, or at all.
On the first Tuesday of each month, you are invited to take part in a book and dinner group that is exploring how to sustain the vibrancy of congregational life in the midst of all this change. We had our first meeting this past week. We read a chapter each month – so not too much homework – and we connect with each other in person and reflect together. On a side note, if I were to guess, getting together to eat will always be something we do in congregational life, at least I hope so.
In the introduction to the book we are reading, the author, Mike Durrall, writes this somewhat daunting, somewhat painful, and exciting sentence: “The hopeful tomorrow will require discarding a sizeable number of practices that have outlived their usefulness.”
When I hear that, it sounds like we are going to have to stop carrying all sorts of metaphorical phone booths, just like we decided, however many years ago it was, to discard an actual phone booth in this building. If you notice, where the phone booth used to be, we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with the space. These things take time.
But we will figure it out; metaphorically or literally, we will. For this is a place and you are a people determined in your vibrancy, resolute in your scrappy approach to the world, and unwavering in your efforts to help and heal the world, and each other.
Not to mention, that when we all are In the Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we have our closing circle and say to each other I Want To Hold Your Hand Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we’ve just spent the morning together Having the Time of Our Lives Mood [Nick play a line or two] , we’ll be sure to make this place Home Mood [Nick play a line or two] for us now and for those generations into the future.
Sister Simone Campbell, Ware Lecture, 2014, image from UUWorld
Sister Simone Campbell, the 2014 Ware Lecturer at our own General Assembly, known as one of the Nuns on the Bus, spoke in that lecture about how essential doubt is to faith, for without doubt, faith becomes something altogether else: it becomes certitude. You can see one of her quotes written on your order of service.
It’s interesting that this is a Catholic woman religious speaking of faith and doubt this way. Interesting for two reasons. The first is – and this is for the many folks in the room who grew up Catholic and walked away — because it is likely not what you felt were the lessons you were taught. And secondly, what she has to say is so similar to what the Western Buddhist Sharon Salzberg has to say about faith.
Salzberg, one of the co-founders of the Western iteration of Buddhism called Insight Meditation, which is the stream I swim in, wrote a book, published in 2003, called Faith. In that book, Salzberg writes,
In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt. In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern truth.
Sounds like Sister Simone.
Let me back up just a bit to talk about what Salzberg means by faith and what are the stages of faith that she identifies. First of all, Salzberg defines faith as independent of any presence or absence of a deity, or as independent of one’s belief system, and as “an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
Especially for those in the room for whom the word and concept “faith” is a trigger, for it has been a source of spiritual wounding for many, I’ll say that again:
Faith is independent of any deity
It is not about a set of beliefs
It is an inner quality of trust
According to Salzberg, in Buddhism there are three stages of faith, related to each other with increasing elegance: Bright Faith, Verifiable Faith, and Abiding or Unshakeable Faith.
Bright Faith is like being crushed out on someone. It’s intoxicating. An idea, or a teacher, sparks the imagination. There is a sense of new possibility and openness to a new engagement of the world. While it can be exhilarating, like infatuation of any kind, it cannot and does not last forever.
Next is Verified Faith, which relies less on external sources, and requires more effort because it is fed – and verified – by one’s own intentional seeking and experiences of reality. We move from believing what we are told, no matter how charismatic or wise or persuasive the source, to confirming the truth by our own seeking and examination.
In the transition from Bright Faith to Verifiable Faith, doubt plays an essential role. This is where the skeptics in the room will do a little happy dance. This is where the Buddhist directive to figure it out for yourself resonates with the Unitarian Universalist principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Listen to what Salzburg says about this:
“It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives.”
But not just any doubt – it must be skillful doubt. This kind of doubt is curiosity, engagement, trying it out, trying it on, seeking to know it by your own experience rather than become someone else, not just intellectually but experientially – that quality of doubt, moves us out of bright faith into verified faith, moves us out of being crushed out into something sustainable over the long haul, over decades, perhaps even over a life time.
The third, and most elegant, is Abiding Faith. This is a kind of faith that personally, I have not often touched, though I have met people – of all different spiritual traditions – in whom I sense this kind of faith resides. This faith remains deep in one’s bones so much so that there is no need for an external reference. I imagine it being a source of comfort and grounding in times of deep uncertainty and distress.
There is a fourth kind of faith – I’m not sure if “stage” is the right word – that Salzberg calls “blind faith.” This can be associated with unthinking devotion or be confused for the fulfillment of a faith journey. This is the kind of blind faith we most often recognize, and sometimes arrogantly, in others. But it can also be fed by unskillful doubt – a different kind of doubt, one that I think we often seen in Unitarian Universalist circles — that takes the form of cynicism, subtle apathy, and undiscerning intelligence, as well as a lack of willingness to venture from our own entrenched way of seeing the world. This kind of unskillful doubt leads with a dismissive edge. As Salzburg says,
[Unskillful doubt] is actually an excuse to remove ourselves from a situation and not put something into practice. We can then stand back and judge, speculate, not commit ourselves, not take a risk, not see what happens if we practice. But all of this is a process of intellectualization; it is not at all from our own experience.
I ask you to hold these ideas about faith and doubt, that faith requires active, skillful doubting, which I think is an easy thing for many in a room of Unitarian Universalists to accept. But I also ask you to accept what is likely harder, again in a room full of UUs to honor: that skillful doubting requires us to try out concepts and ideas by experiencing their possibility, rather than outright dismissing them.
Part II: #metoo
Who recognizes the source of the title of these reflections? I believe. Help my unbelief.
It’s one of my favorite lines in the Christian scriptures, from the Gospel of Mark, one that feels close to my heart.
I couldn’t deliver a sermon with the title containing belief/unbelief, focusing just on the spiritual issue of faith and doubt. Not at this time, given the national conversation around sexual harassment and assault, and generalized-yet-ever-so-harmful misogyny.
Some women, and some men, and genderfluid folx, have been brave – which only means they – we – have faced our fear, not vanquished it – and come forward to say #metoo, a hashtag movement, first started in 2007 by an African American woman named Tarana Burke, and one that came alive in the past month after allegations about Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, finally found a full public hearing.
In the past five years there has been a positive deluge of victims speaking out — an uncountable number that represents not just the acute trauma of an unwanted touch or a dehumanizing comment, but the invisible ripples of confidence lost, jobs quit, careers stalled, women’s influence diminished, men’s power entrenched.
This is not the first time our nation has been here. Those of you who remember the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, and what Dr. Anita Hill went through to tell her truth, to speak the truth of so many women, facing the race-tinged misogyny of elected (male) representatives as they interrogated her, not him.
Not enough has changed since then, given the ever-expanding list of powerful men who are being called out for misusing their power in highly gendered and sexually aggressive ways. Not enough has changed, given the ways in which so many forms of cultural dominance are used to exclude, or marginalize, or harm, and even kill. I am thinking here of the inequities and outright harm (including violence and loss of life) within our criminal justice system disproportionally visited upon communities of color. How the numbers of trans women, particularly of color, who die violent deaths continues to grow each year. Last year 23 trans women met violent deaths in this country; already this year, with still nearly two months until the calendar’s end, 24 have been killed.
So, if failure to take as true these victims’ realities is a symptom of cultural disbelief, then what might it look like if we were to practice believing? And while, yes, I mean this when it comes to those trans women’s lives cut short, and what so many communities of color have been saying for way too long about how they are mistreated, I am also talking about any women close to home, ones known to you, perhaps loved by you: women and girls and people who born into girl bodies. What if we were to turn the Gospel of Mark, particularly for those of us with privileged identities, such as being white, or being heterosexual, or male, or cisgendered — on its head and say, “I have unbelieved. Help my belief.”
What might the world look like? What might our world look like? Can we imagine it, a world without sexual harassment? Without implied or realized violence based on gender? Can we create it here? Can we create a space where belief is what we offer, not unbelief? A whole-hearted, public unbelief that just might heal the personal shame, the individual stigma, that too many women have taken as our own, have internalized?
One thing, small but not small, when it comes to sexual violence, is to stop using the passive tense. Instead of asking how we can stop women from being harassed or raped, we can start asking, how and when will men stop harassing or abusing or raping? When will some men stop other men from doing these things?
If thoughts taking shape in your mind are these: — not all men harm; not only women are harmed – I ask you to slow down, notice, and stay with me. While true statements, I ask you to practice that skillful doubting that Sharon Salzberg introduced to us – instead of countering the question with cynicism or skepticism, try curiosity, like asking yourself why the discomfort? why the need to defend or dilute? Instead I ask you to choose to make space for this particular hurt that women are naming at this moment in time.
This is a powerful moment and the momentum is building. This is not just glamorous movie stars, or ones wishing they could be. This is women in every walk of life and for those women
with added layers of vulnerability due to marginalization, like women of color, like women who are economically disadvantaged, like women who are disabled, we must acknowledge and believe the hazard is higher.
The more who share their experience, the more can see themselves in this act of courage, in your act of courage and survival, and add their voice and their story.
Change can come. Change will come. The more we coax it along, the more likely it is to be the arc of the universe bending towards justice. It was only after the public spectacle of those hearings with Dr. Hill that complaints of workplace sexual harassment began to be officially filed in strong numbers. Collective visibility, while painful, can also be empowering. It reminds us that none of us is ever alone.
For folx who identify as men in the room, you can read and add your name to a document created by Rev. Rob Keithan, the UU social justice minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, who co-founded a response to the #metoo movement called, #wecommit, which is a “Declaration of Response and Responsibility from the Undersigned Men.” The declaration begins
To all the people–and especially the women and gender nonconforming people–who have publicly self-identified as experiencing sexual harassment or assault: We hear you. We believe you. We support you. And we know that there are countless others who choose not to or who cannot safely self-identify as having survived harm and violence. We understand that you should not have to share personal stories or re-experience trauma in order for men to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating sexual harassment and assault. And we know that we must do more than just acknowledge your experience with our words.
How powerful to hear those words from the mouth of a man – a co-worker, a lover, a brother, a friend:
I believe you.
I want to support you.
What can I do?
What else is there to do? All of us can learn to be upstanders – when we see or hear something with an ick-factor directed at a woman – it need not even fit some hard-to-define category called “abuse” – we can say something. If you cannot interrupt the act or words, reach out to the person who was its target. Too often, and without our intending it to be so, our silence comes across as endorsement and we become complicit. This is true about misogyny, but also racism, assumptions about heterosexism as the norm, and other forms of cultural hegemony. Instead of being a bystander to this, you can be – we all can choose to be — an upstander.
We all have the power to create an environment for victims of sexual violence and harassment that will meet them with empathy and support, and help give them the confidence to speak their truth without fear or shame. This is not theoretical. After the musical interlude, it is the time in our service for prayer and meditation. Today, this prayer will include an invitation to women in the room who understand themselves as part of the #metoo movement, to come forward and be seen and believed in this place that is your spiritual home. The invitation will include one to men to be our witness, to hold these realities in the spirit of belief, offering that powerful validation that amplifies healing, that is part of building the world we dream about.
Part III: what if?
The most powerful invitation of faith I have been exposed to this past year – not requiring me to believe, but asking me to trust, offering up inspiration, delivered with contagious confidence – came in the form of poem from the Sikh lawyer and community organizer, Valerie Kaur.
I share this poem with you today as a way to bring together Parts I and II, the first on the symbiotic relationship of doubt to faith, the other on the mandate to believe in the midst of societal unbelief. I offer it here, in part, because it names this era’s divide not only between political stances and ideologies, or faith and doubt, but also hope and despair. I offer it here, because it asks some powerful “what if” questions.
In a speech Kaur gave last New Year’s Eve (see video above), with such heartbreak in her voice, she reflected on her experience as a parent:
I am leaving my son a world more dangerous than the one I was given. I am raising – we are raising – a brown boy in America who may one day wear a turban as a part of his faith. And in America today, in an era of enormous rage, as white Nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high, I know that there will be moments – whether on the streets or in the school yard – where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist; just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls still seen as someone else’s property, and when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, incarcerate them, to kill them.
And then she spoke her poem, only an excerpt of which I offer here:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?
What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?
What if all the [ancestors] who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave.
What powerful images: not doom, not tomb, but womb. That these increases in hate crimes, that these ever-continuing assaults on women, that these might be, cause for eventual hope, rather than for ultimate despair?
What if this movement of #metoo and #sayhername and Black Lives Matter and naming white supremacy in our midst and backlash against the browning of America is moving our whole society toward a long overdue tipping point?
What if we might be able to leave behind all forms of our unskillful doubt and exchange it for the skillful kind that engages curiosity, suspends disbelief of those different from us, and allows us to see a new world that is in the midst of being born, that is asking us to be midwife to it?
Let this be the time and let it be our task to join the midwifing of this moment.
Remembering to breathe and to breathe deeply and then once more, to take the breath in and let the breath out, we pause, poised as we are, at a point of risking, at a possibility of courage: #metoo.
Risking being known
Risking being not believed
Risking being believed
Risking so much, including leaving the shadows behind, and stepping into healing light.
Risking being brave.
I invite any women in the room who understand yourselves to be included in the #metoo movement, this moment in time when women are stating publicly that we have been sexually harassed, or sexually assaulted, or sexually harmed, any one of these or all of them. I invite you to come forward and be with me, and stay with me, and if you are so moved, to add your stone to this well of tears.
I add this stone – larger than the actual one in my hand — for those in the room who are not yet ready to come forward, but know the truth of their story and are a part of #metoo. We honor your choice to not come forward at this time.
I invite anyone in the room who knows someone, loves someone, regardless of their gender, who has been sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, sexually harmed – any one of these or all of them. I invite you to rise in body or raise your arms, adding your committed witness to those who have risked coming forward, who have risked being brave.
I will try to be brave. And if you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine. And if I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours. We will add our brave together, add it all up so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.
Let us bring intention to this act of courage, of witness, of solidarity. Let us notice and see, truly see, the pain in this room,…and the possibility. Let us commit in the quiet of our hearts to do what you can to stop any future harm. And may we build and ever rebuild the world where safety, equality, and justice, wholeness and integrity, are the air we breathe.
(this sermon was delivered extemporaneously, though written in full ahead of time; the content is substantially the same, though minor changes exist between this text and the one preached)
Place is important. Where we are informs who we are and who we become. When we are rooted in our place, we can expand our wings and feel our fullest power. It’s part of why I am excited for our children today – their One Room Schoolhouse is outside on the grounds, connecting them to this place in a way that being inside the building cannot do, connecting them with our Seventh Principle in ways that only Nature can help make real.
To grow my roots here, in this place of all places, one focus of my study leave this past summer was getting to know New Jersey better. Of course, everyone has an opinion about how to do that. Read Junot Diaz or Phillip Roth. Go to Patterson. Watch the Sopranos (which I did not do, have never done, and don’t plan on doing – that’s not the New Jersey I want to get to know).
Aside from my field trip to Steelmantown Cemetery, and reading more about icon Bruce Springsteen, my New Jersey study leave time led me to a heart-breaking piece of local history that I mean to share with you today.
But let me back up a bit. Back to a workshop presented by UU religious leaders of color in New Orleans this past June.
During the Q & A time, a white colleague asked what she can do to address racism since her congregation is not only majority white, but was 100% white. The response came from religious educator of color, Aisha Hauser, who has been an important voice in our faith movement for a long time, and who gained more visibility in this past half year as we have more actively struggled with patterns of racial bias and white supremacy in our own midst. Aisha said, “If you are anywhere on this continent and in a space that is white-only or white-majority, it wasn’t always that way. Start there. Start with that story. See where it takes you.”
It wasn’t always that way. Start there. Start with that story. See where it takes you.
Even though our congregation is by no stretch all white, this piece of advice stuck with me.
There is a story of this place, this here. Pieces of it have been made public in academic history journals and by local history efforts. When I learned this story about East Brunswick, I heard the echo of Aisha Hauser’s admonition – start with that story, see where it takes you — I knew that I had to share it with you.
This story speaks of a place desecrated by the forced removal to slavery of human beings, done so for profit, done so by abuse of judicial power. It is a story of white supremacy and it is a story of our place’s white supremacy. As such, it belonging to the same place we belong, it makes it our responsibility how we respond, it makes it our responsibility how to change a place that has been desecrated back into a sacred place.
New Jersey was the last of the Northern states to abolish slavery, voting in 1804 to do so in a gradual way – so gradual that there were still 16 slaves in this state when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1865. Until 1812, New Jersey law that allowed the removal of slaves and apprentices out of state (and into the Deep South) with their (or their mother’s) assent. This is important because six years later, Judge Jacob Van Wickle, who lived here in East Brunswick and served in the Middlesex Court of Common Pleas, used his corrupt court to falsely claim the consent of children and their mothers to being sent to Louisiana, promising them pay, promising them safe return to New Jersey, promising these things all falsely, and benefitting financially.
We heard some of their names when Marie read them earlier:
Rosinah, aged 6 weeks
It is my understanding that Van Wickle brought these people, either under false circumstances or against their will, into his court. In one case, in Rosinah’s case, he placed her in his courtroom, asked if she – a six week old — would like to go to Louisiana and when the infant cried, he announced to the court that cry was the cry of assent. Then, with that child’s mother next to her, Van Wickle basically said, “Your child is going to Louisiana. Where would you like to go?” In this devious way, Van Wickle stole the real or promised eventual freedom of those people, consigning them and their next generation, to a life of slavery. Despicable.
Van Wickle was able to do this with the help of at least two other primary co-conspirators, both of whom were related to him by blood or marriage. They all benefitted from this financially, as payment for slaves in Louisiana was high. However, they were not able to get away with this for long. Once this slave trading ring was made known, there was public outcry. There was the founding of the Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping – and the eventual legislation to prohibit the “exportation of slaves or servants of color” which shut down the slave trading ring within six months of its inception. Van Wickle’s co-conspirators were eventually indicted. Van Wickle never was, though it was his home that was used as headquarters. He continued to serve as judge, and histories stopped paying attention to this dastardly deed. And in the way of things, particularly in the way of white supremacy, it was erased from our collective knowing. It was only in the 1990s, when this history was recovered, that we can now know it.
Just off Old Stage Road, here in East Brunswick, near the border with Spotswood, there is Van Wickle Road. The people in the 1970s or 1980s who named that street did not know this history, did not know that Judge Van Wickle had done such a devious thing. The tarnish on Van Wickle’s reputation had been polished by the whitewashing of history. No one knew at the time of the street naming, but now it is known.
More to the point: now we know. Now you know. What are we going to do with the information? How do we become faithful stewards of this history? Given that this is our place – it does not matter if you reside in East Brunswick or not, your congregation exists here, and thus our roots are here, a source of your authority and power is here, a place of your accountability is here – what are we called to do?
This has been my question ever since I learned this history this summer during my study leave. I did not go looking for this history, yet in the course of a conversation, I came to know this horrendous history. And I cannot unknow it.
The East Brunswick Township Council next meets on September 25. It is my intention to attend that meeting, to find the courage to speak during the public section, and to add my voice to those who have asked the Council to remember the deeds of this slave trader judge and to change the name of the street. I will ask them to do so before the end of 2018, the 200th anniversary of act wherein he sent those people – let me again say their names: Harriet,Susan, Mary, Augustus, Rosinah, Dianah, Dianah again, Dorcas, Hercules and others with names unknown to us — into permanent slavery.
We have a Racial Justice Team here at TUS. We met earlier this week to reflect on the question, “Given our Unitarian Universalist principles by which we seek to live, what is our obligation as a good citizen of this Township?” That team came up with some ideas and they are all invitations to you – to all of us:
Read the brief summary of information in the order of service;
When next Wednesday’s email comes out, read the information provided there – it will be more in-depth, including written materials and some video links;
A link to today’s sermon will also be there;
As an individual, consider signing a joint letter to the East Brunswick Township Council, asking them to change the name of Van Wickle Road. That letter will be available next Sunday for you to sign – so that it can be presented to the Township Council;
Consider attending the Council meeting on Monday, September 25 at 8pm – any and all of you are invited, but especially if you are an EB resident. Personally, I welcome your company, even if you don’t speak. My confidence will be stronger if I have your good company. More importantly, the more of us who show up, the more powerful of a message it sends to the Council.
Last week, I drove the short length of Van Wickle Road. It’s lined with homes. I wondered about the folks who live there. I wondered how many know this history. I’m guessing not many. I wonder if there has been any attempt to inform them. I wonder, once they do know, what it will mean to them? There is something powerful about place and knowing its history, knowing one’s connection, and thus becoming the steward of that history.
I am struck by the powerful convergence happening here. Our nation’s active grappling with Confederate monuments these past few years, but especially these past few months. The ugly uprising of white supremacists with torches in hand, no hoods to hide their faces in Charlottesville last month. And now history — how a corrupt East Brunswick judge sold away a hundred people into slavery and how he has a street named after him; how this happened 200 years ago next year – 1818 to 2018; how there was a public outcry then; how there can be a public outcry now.
As Unitarian Universalists, as people of conscience and people of faith, as people of this place, of this “beautiful neighborhood” as Nick sang earlier to our children, we can be a part of making once again sacred, a place and a history desecrated by human trafficking in African American slaves.
Let’s start here. Let’s start with this story. Let’s see where it takes us.
** Deep gratitude to the extensive historical research conducted by Richard Walling on this subject and for his persistent advocacy to have this wrong made right.
I don’t remember ever needing or wanting a burial spot, though I do remember thinking about it from an early age.
When one looks at my family, there are many ways to respond to the dead human body and the human desire to mark one’s death by location. My father’s ashes were spread near and in a river that he had loved to fish as a young man. When my Great Aunt Ruth was buried in one of the Jewish cemeteries in Sharon, Massachusetts, I found it powerful to shovel dirt onto the casket. The plan for my mother is to have her ashes interred with the ashes of her mother and father, in the valley where generations of her family lived out their lives. My husband cares less about what ultimately happens to his dead body as that we try, in the first three days after his death, to have his spiritual community be able to do the proscribed rites and rituals required.
I did not grow up with religion and so, was not raised with dogmatic admonitions of what would be necessary at the end of my life, either ritually or salvifically. As a young adult, when I learned of the cost involved in a typical burial, cremation seemed to be the way to go. Then I learned about the excessive pollutants thrust into the air when human bodies burned. I knew that if I could avoid it, I would. Thus entered my interest in the green burial movement.
I recently visited Steelmantown Cemetery, the only green burial preserve in the state of New Jersey. What a beautiful and peaceful place.
There are black iron gate that marks the entrance. After walking a short distance into the space, it becomes clear that this is a special place. The shape of an old cemetery becomes evident. Then there is the reconstructed chapel, built originally in 1910, it was vandalized and burned in the1950s. It is simple and sweet, with natural light through the windows or from lamp flame. It also holds an old pump organ. There is a small outdoor seating area with stone benches that suggest sitting there would be a good idea, just not for long periods of time.
There is an outhouse (a two seater) in recognition that those of us still among the living still have bodily functions we must perform.
The cemetery is old. The oldest section dates back to the 18th century and contains people who died in the Revolutionary War. There are more recent – 19th through 20th century – traditional grave sites with cement or stone stones with names and dates, perhaps a word or two about the person.
There is the section that includes 138 markers for “boys” (really, these were men, some of them dying in their seventh decade) from a local home for the “retarded.” Each of these markers has a name, the year of death, and the age of the man at his death. I appreciate that each of these deaths is marked and named; where I last lived, there was a potter’s field where the graves were unmarked for the hundreds of dead from the local once-mental asylum.
And then there is the natural section, the section that is growing: the green burial preserve.
The cemetery’s mission is “to provide a place of sanctuary, open to all, and preserve its unique history and the pristine environment it encompasses.”
The cemetery has a long history, which I won’t go into here. Most recently, the Bixby family, with ties to the cemetery already in place (families members are buried there), decided to save it from neglect and disrepair. Then, struck by inspiration, they decided to turn it into a green burial preserve. For this, I am – and we all should be – deeply grateful to Ed Bixby Jr. and and Ed Bixby Sr. whose company I was blessed to have as I toured the cemetery.
Burial sites are in the midst of a forest, with a former cranberry bog nearby. The paths are covered in a carpet of moss. Graves are dug by human effort and shovel. It takes two people about six hours to dig. Given the forest setting, graves can be dug in all seasons. Bodies are brought from the iron gates at the entrance on a large-wheeled wagon, pulled by human effort. All this reminds us that none of this is a new innovation. It is, in fact, how it used to be done, for centuries. Most likely for millennia.
The gravesites that already contain a human body are the same general shape. Depending on how long ago the burial took place, there are varying degree of mounded-ness. More recent gravesites peak above the surrounding ground. Ones from five years ago or longer seem more level. This is the natural consequence of not having a cement vault that keeps hidden the effects of decomposition. Here, in this green burial preserve, we get to observe the natural processes otherwise hidden from view.
All gravesites are marked by a large stone. You can choose one from the collection, gathered over the years by Ed Sr. or you can bring in your own. Only natural markers are allowed. There are stone markers on sites that have been bought but not yet used. You can purchase sites side by side, or for whole families to be near each other.
There are stone markers on those sites that already have occupants. Some of the stones – more than not – are etched with words. Some are the name of the deceased, their birth and death dates, perhaps a message to or from them. Some stones are etched but do not have the name of the person, but a message related to their life.
My favorite marker not made of stone. It was made of wood. It topped a mounded grave site that showed the most active wear from earth settling. This seemed aptly-suited, given this person had chosen a marker, but one that would give way to the natural processes of decomposition, just like his body. He was a surveyor – had been, in fact, the surveyor for the cemetery, so I imagine that he had a deep affection for the land and its ways, and wanted to join it as fully as possible. No stone carved with human attempts to leave our mark. But a small sign that would exist for a few years, possibly a decade or two while his relatives are still on this earth, then it, too, would go the way all organic matter goes.
There were other graves and stories that caught my attention. There’s the Painted Turtle Man. I might not be getting all the details right, but apparently when he arrived to pick out the spot where his future grave would go, he encountered a painted turtle and decided that was the location where his burial would be. He is buried there, with an etched stone that speaks his truth but does not reveal his name. A real painted turtle — by which I mean live, not a statue as I first mistook it – is also there, right alongside it, and though it moves around, it apparently always returns to that spot. I nearly stepped on it as Ed Sr. was telling me the story.
On their web site, there is a short movie that tells the story of the cemetery and preserve, as well as the poignant story of Cheri Hall Decker. Cheri was an environmental educator who worked with the Bixbys and who, when she died from an acute form of cancer, is buried at the entrance to the forest trail, still keeping company this piece of earth she loved and stewarded.
Cheri was a local, but there are people from all over the country buried in this place. It takes some planning, and if you are far away, an airplane ride for a corpse along with a New Jersey licensed funeral director to pick up at the airport, but it’s possible. Not every state or locale has easy access to a treasure like this. Most recently, I was living in Western Massachusetts where such a thing does not exist, though there are people trying to bring a green burial preserve into existence there.
There are some traditional cemeteries that have sections that allow for green practices. You can go to this link and find out if there are some near you. Yet having a full out preserve, where the natural environment is not only maintained, but sustained, is incredibly compelling. It may not be accessible geographically to all, but it is often much more financially accessible. Unfortunately, that it costs less may lead some in the funeral industry to not share information about green options unless asked.
I am new to New Jersey. I do not know whether I will be here when I die. If I am, Steelmantown is where my body should be laid to rest. This is how I want to do it when I die. I want my body to rejoin the earth. I want my people to take part. I want to co-mingle my atoms with soil atoms and leaf atoms and acorn atoms and moss atoms. I want to decompose directly, without barrier.
A colony that runs independently
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly
Then King George turns around, runs a spending spree
He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free
So there will be a revolution in this century
Fair warning: interspersed throughout this sermon are lyrics from the musical Hamilton.
Just so I know who is in the room: how many of you are familiar with the Hamilton soundtrack? Familiar at the intimate level? Like blast it daily at home or in your car?
In late February, I was at the annual First Year Ministers’ Seminar (FYMS). This meant that for three days, at least twice each day, on my walk from the hotel to the headquarters of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s in Boston, I walked past the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum.
The price of my love’s not a price that you’re willing to pay You cry In your tea which you hurl in the sea when you see me go by
You know you are approaching the Tea Party ship because you hear strains of tin pipe. It sounds like music from the Revolutionary War era. That, what I just sang, is not it. That is the beginning of the song that King George sings as he becomes aware of the revolutionary furor growing in the colonies.
At that floating ship of a museum, there are period re-enactors who hurl crates of “tea” into the harbor. I did not actually go, but as I passed by, I saw rope attached to the crates so that they can retrieve the “tea” and do it all again the following hour for the next set of tourists, rising up against the royal ruler.
Rise up! When you’re living on your knees, you rise up Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up
The Hamilton soundtrack plays relentlessly in my household. We have not seen the actual show nor are we likely anytime soon. This musical has sparked my curiosity in an historical era that has never much interested me. It is brilliant in its depiction of :
the founding fathers and mothers by actors of color, turning this particular paradigm upside down;
the through-thread of the immigrant experience given our time of such flagrant hostility towards immigrants;
the juicy, raw conflict that produced the flawed documents of this nation’s founding; and
the candid truth that this was all an experiment and, in fact, still very much is, with no guarantees of success.
All this has captured my imagination.
Fact is, I’ve never been a particularly patriotic person. Ideologically and theoretically, I don’t believe in national borders. Practically I acknowledge them. I have a passport. Generally, I abide by the laws that define them (except when we took our honeymoon in Cuba six years ago).
Culturally, too. Having lived outside of this nation where I was born and raised, having traveled to several continents – three months in East Africa, Asia, a year and then again a summer Europe – I recognize that this place, this land, and yes, even this country, feels like home to me in a way that no other place does.
Still, despite this belonging, I do not participate in the pledge of allegiance. I think that started in middle or high school; I’m not sure. I raised my kids to choose for themselves. My older one got in trouble in first grade for not pledging, but even at that tender age, she knew her rights and stood up for them.
Typically, when I am someplace where the pledge – or the national anthem – is being done, I stand, facing the same direction as those who are participating, showing respect. Yet, I do not place my hand on my heart. I do not say the words.
Since becoming your minister, I have had more practice at this. At the East Brunswick commemoration of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, they pledged allegiance. At the South Asian Community Outreach Interfaith Holiday celebration they had Muslim boy scout troops bring forward the flag and lead us in the pledge. Same thing when I was one of the speakers at a Town Hall meeting at the Islamic Society of Central Jersey – boy scouts, flag, pledge.
I do wonder who is noticing my non-participation. I don’t want it to reflect poorly on this congregation. I wonder who might be upset or offended. I wonder who might not agree with me, but will defend my right to not participate. I often wonder if there might be someone, perhaps a young someone, who sees me not participating and realizes that this might be possible for them, too.
SANTA CLARA, CA – OCTOBER 02: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneels on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
I am no Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who this past year rose up by taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of unequal treatment Black and Brown people in this nation by our legal and law enforcement systems. He has inspired many young people to connect with our deep democratic and patriotic right to protest and speak truth to power and has opened what is becoming a floodgate of other professional sports players using their status in our celebrity-hungry society to also rise up.
In no way are my small gestures in that same league (literally or metaphorically). Yet this past year since I have been your minister, I have had more opportunities to not pledge allegiance than I experienced in the past five or ten years of my non-minister life. And it has given me cause to reflect on my own choices, particularly given the immigrant-rich nature of this region.
For most of my life, I have experienced American flags as indicative of a kind of aggressive patriotism. Remember, I grew up in rural Oregon. I know that one’s relationship with the American flag can be a nuanced one – for some veterans and their families the flag is a source of honor and a symbol of what they were willing to sacrifice, or did sacrifice. That said, I was raised in a household where my father – who served in WW II – did not hang the flag in our home or express any particular affection for it. Like so many marginalized communities in this country, I do not feel like the flying of the American flag is a particularly friendly act.
But this may be changing for me. Perhaps as they sing in Hamilton
The world turned upside down
The world turned upside down
While attending these community events as a minister, as your minister – in particular, the ones taking place in immigrant contexts, or in Muslim contexts – I am noticing my relationship to the flag shifting. I have been deeply moved by these immigrants, by these Muslim born here as well as moved here, claiming the flag, claiming this country as theirs. I sense how exquisitely subversive and true these claims are: acts of resistance to hate, to xenophobia, to Islamophobia that is being peddled in this land and unfortunately, is being peddled by the current administration.
It is like they are saying what the young Alexander Hamilton sings
Hey yo, I’m just like my country I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!
They are not throwing away their shot at making this place their home. And perhaps I am coming around to not throwing away my patriotism, but instead, to let it rise up, rise up.
I am coming to realize that my refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag just might come from the same source as an immigrant community’s publicly claiming that very ritual that I decline. Depending on who one is — if one is an immigrant in these times of anti-immigrant sentiment; if one is Muslim in these times of mosques being burnt and travel bans being sought and affirmed by the highest court in the land – claiming the flag, making that pledge one’s own, this, too, undermines dangerous patriotism by refusing to cede that oath, or the flag, or this country, to the haters.
As I consider this more, I’m not sure if it is purely patriotism or if it is connected to more deeply held values. Likely it is both. But sometimes, it manifests in me as an impulse to defend this nation – to show up for democratic ideals — and I am surprised more than I could ever fully describe.
Rise up! When you’re living on your knees, you rise up Tell your brother that he’s gotta rise up Tell your sister that she’s gotta rise up
Have you heard of the moves in an increasing number of states to not exactly ban protest, but to relegate it outside of bounds of what it means to be a citizen in good standing? Over 20[i] states have introduced legislation to criminally penalize protestors, or to have them pay for the cost of police presence, as if the right to peacefully and safely assemble and exercise one’s right to dissent is a financial transaction?
It strikes me as patriotic to defend the right to protest, to publicly dissent; it strikes me as patriotic to defend that particular institution of our democracy. In Hamilton, they speak about the American experiment. Everything they do sets a new precedent. One of my absolutely favorite lines is when King George hears the news that Washington is stepping down and not running for president:
George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do
We are living in times when we are called to lend our voices to the success of this experiment in a way we have not been asked since at least the McCarthy Era, and possibly, since the Civil War.
I want to honor those who would reclaim symbols of this nation – like the pledge – as an act of exquisite resistance. And I know that my true allegiance is less with the nation, and more with the values that undergird a deep democracy. I am far too aware that if I were to wear the American flag on a t-shirt or have it hang from my home, it might well send an unintended message to my neighbors, especially since we are white, and many, if not the majority of my neighbors are people of color.
In fact, we do hang a flag from the parsonage, but it is not the American flag. It is a rainbow flag with the word, “PEACE” written large.
That is the message I want to send. PEACE. Or the implicit message, particularly to LGBTQ folks given the rainbow: SAFETY. I’d be okay with some other messages, like COMPASSION or SOLIDARITY or, particularly right now, RISE UP. Or GRATITUDE. I think all those would work for me, too.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, the author of this morning’s reading about her daughter’s refusal to say the pledge of allegiance, wrote a whole chapter reflecting on the pledge of allegiance – the one the United States of America asks its citizens to recite – and the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address of the Onondaga people. That address is often described as a pledge, but is, according to Kimmerer, “known more accurately in the Onondaga language as the Words That Come Before All Else, [that] sets gratitude as the highest priority.”
Gratitude as the highest priority.
She describes what happens in schools in the Onondaga territory, where all the classes gather together and each week a different grade is responsible for the Thanksgiving Address, reciting it in a language older than English, sending “greetings and thanks to all members of the natural world.” This is one of the reasons that I decline to recite the pledge, though I continue to show outward respect for the collective ritual. This is one of the reasons I supported my own child when they decided not to take part in this communal ritual: I want to pledge myself – I do pledge myself – to something much larger, much older, than this nation. Kimmerer asks,
“What would it be like to be raised on gratitude, to speak to the natural world as a member of the democracy of species, to raise a pledge of interdependence? No declarations of political loyalty… required…”
A pledge, like a world, turned upside down so that it is not about independence, but is about interdependence. A pledge turned upside down so that in order to defend basic democratic institutions, one must rise up. A pledge that allows us to claim and love this country, while at the same time speaking truth to those in power and governance of it. A pledge that acknowledges the existence of the republic, while recognizing that what we honor goes far beyond the boundaries of that, or any, republic. A pledge uttered and offered for that “elusive justice [that just] might be within our reach.”
We are fortunate that here in New Jersey: more protections for the rights and safety of transgender folks have been enacted. In fact, just a few months ago, the Assemblywoman who represents East Brunswick, and is a member of this congregation, Nancy Pinkin, co-sponsored some of those protections that came in direct response to actions taken by our current president that erased protections put in place by the previous president.
These are important strides for which to be thankful and yet there is more to be done. Garden State Equality is New Jersey’s go-to advocacy organization on topics related to GLBTQ+ civil rights. They identify two areas that in need of advocacy. One is the threshold when someone can legally change their gender – right now it is set at an outdated level that is out-of-reach of many trans folks. Secondly is access to health care for medically necessary treatment. In New Jersey, health insurance companies do not have to cover these treatments, so few of them do. I am so thankful that my daughter lives in a state where that is not the case. I can testify that not only is such treatment medically necessary, in some cases, it is life-necessary. I am pretty sure that my older daughter would not be alive right now if she did not have access to this kind of medical care.
And our hearts will open wide to receive. And we will come as children who trust there is enough.
So there is advocacy that remains to be done here in New Jersey. And there is always room for growing our welcome wide within our Unitarian Universalist movement. But we also have reason to be proud. I want to show you a couple of photos of some great folks.
[I’m sad to say that my blog is not accepting new photo media so I can’t include them here.]
These pictures are from last year and from this year – in fact, just a few months ago.
These are members of TRUUST: a UU identity group for religious leaders that advocates for the gifts, safety, liberation, and leadership of trans religious professionals in Unitarian Universalist ministries and institutions.
Look at these beautiful people, some of whom are dear to me, at least one of whom helped to raise my children by being their Director of Religious Education. My life is enriched by their presence within our faith movement. Yours is, too, even if you don’t know it.
And, yes, there is work to be done right here at TUS. We could talk about the language in the Bond of Union. In an early board meeting this year, one member raised the question of whether we might make the language of it more inclusive. Of course, the language has already shifted once in the lifetime of the statement, specifically for that reason: moving from just the word, “his” to the words, “his or her.” So we know how to shift language to be more inclusive and accommodate the changing understanding of what is acceptable language. Today we practiced what that might sound like: using the singular “they” or “their.”
So we could explore that. Instead, today I am going to talk bathrooms.
Bathrooms? But the title of the sermon says it’s not about bathrooms. And that’s true. Here’s what Reverend Miller Jen Hoffman says about that. He’s a minister in the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church) and he wrote a Huffington Post piece:
It’s not about restrooms. It’s about people and our lives and dignity and affirmation. It’s not just about civil rights and safety, but also about pleasure and well-being. We want to go beyond receiving the bare minimum of life and liberty and also demand the pursuit of happiness, go beyond ending discrimination and violence to expect and also lay claim to enjoyment and peace and good fortune.
He goes on:
And all of us who are on the side of gender self-determination and public accommodation, even as we fight for bathroom access and gender autonomy, we must recognize that access to one or two bathrooms will still be inadequate,…We must remember that some folks are genderqueer and nonbinary and agender, … And we must continue to imagine and achieve a world where it is safe for all of us to name ourselves, safe for all of us to express ourselves, and, sure, of course, where it is safe for all of us to pee.
And we will come unhindered and free. And our aching will be met with bread. And our sorrow will be met with wine.
So while it’s about so much more than public restrooms, like it was about so much more than lunch counters during Jim Crow South, it is about the restroom. In many public places in our nation, including in our schools, it is not safe for transgender people. It was getting better, but now there is backlash; things are going backwards. In states like North Carolina (most infamous for this) and Texas and elsewhere, there are laws proposed and being enacted that bar trans folks from using the public restroom that fits their gender identity as they know it.
Here are two people who, with these laws passed, would have to go to bathrooms where likely their appearance would surprise others there. This man would have to go to the “ladies room” and this woman would have to use the “men’s room.” Not right.
It’s not just access to the bathroom at is at stake. While rightwing pundits create ungrounded fears about transgender people somehow being creepers, it is, in fact, trans folks, and gender non-conforming folks who are at most risk of harassment and violence. Just for going about their daily lives and having human bodies that need to use the toilet.
And we will open our hands to the feast without shame. And we will turn toward each other without fear.
How do we create the world we hope for in large and small ways? For those of us who have privilege — in this circumstance, where the sex of our body has always matched our gender (this is called “cisgender”) — isn’t this one of its beneficial aspects?: use for the Good, like a superpower extending protections that come with privilege to those most vulnerable?
This is the thing about Unitarian Universalism: our first principle not only asks us, it is requires of us, that we honor the individual worth and dignity of each individual, and their essence, regardless of our own level of discomfort or lack of awareness. As I have said before: it is okay to be ignorant; it is not okay to stay that way.
If I were to make this decision, then I would have these signs – or something like them — up now. Up yesterday. Up before I even arrived.
And we will give up our appetite for despair. And we will taste and know of delight.
This is where explicit welcome comes in. Where a wider welcome is life-affirming and life-sustaining. This is where we open the table wide. Especially in a world where hostility and physical threat come too often into play, where laws are being enacted and those who are threatened by the presence of trans or queer people are emboldened in their hate. Explicit welcome matters. Open the welcome wider still.
A true story: it was just after the Orlando massacre, just about a year ago – where 49 dear humans had been slaughtered at a gay nightclub. It was the last week of serving at my internship. A request came from the nearby Shriver Job Corps — a no cost education and career training program for youth and young adults. I don’t know about other Job Corps programs, because it’s a national program, but at this one on the former army Fort Devens, this one is made up primarily of youth and young adults of color and from communities experiencing economic impoverishment. This program also had a strong commitment to welcoming to its GLBTQ students, many of whom were reeling and feeling the weight of this act of terrorism. They asked if our church could send a minister to speak at a vigil they were planning the next day.
I was honored to say yes. It was a powerful experience for me: 50-60 people, the vast majority under the age of 22. I was one of two white people. The level of grief and fear was high. As all the logistics were coming together just before the vigil started, there is an impatient energy in the room and not a small amount of chaos. The teacher who volunteered to organize the vigil seemed worried that some of the students might be disruptive or disrespectful – it was clear she wanted to make a good impression on me, which was not my worry at all. I know that grief, especially in young people, takes many forms.
Some of us just want to cry. Some of us just want to lash out. Some of us just want to hide.
I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid.
Yes, these words repeat, but not only those words. These, too, and I say them to each of you:
I am still here.
I am still alive.
Yes, I might be tired.
But I will also be brave.
Brave enough to meet violence with peace; to meet hate with love; to meet shadow with light.
I will try to be brave. If you are not feeling brave, you can have some of mine. If I am not feeling brave, I will borrow some of yours. We will add our brave together, add it all up, so that our brave-together light will outshine the shadow.
I am sad. I am mad. I am afraid. But I am also brave.
Afterwards, I asked the teacher who organized the vigil why they reached out to our church – we weren’t in the same town; and to my knowledge, we didn’t have a relationship with the program. It turned out that part of her job was to drive students in recovery to a weekly twelve-step meeting that took place in our church. She had noticed the big rainbow flag in the high church window and faced the town green. [show image] She knew it would be safe to ask us.
Explicit welcome. Open the table wide. To do so is to affirm life, quite possibly to save a life. It may be of people we already know, but it is just as likely to be people we don’t – people to whom we may have no idea that we have sent up a firework into the darkness of their life. A firework, or a rainbow flag. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
I wonder who in our spheres – among our children, among the people who attend events here, who attend the Gay AA meeting that we host here on Wednesday nights – we can be a life affirmer and life saver. We cannot know who might need that life-affirming and life-saving message of a bathroom sign that says, “gender diversity welcome here. You are whole and holy,” but we do know it is needed. And we know that we can be the people who offer that message.
Like I said, I could put up the signs like I insisted for the installation. How many of you noticed the signs on the bathroom at the installation. [show image] How many of you, when you noticed that, felt gratitude or joy? How many of you noticed just a few days later, their absence, and felt – I don’t know – disappointment? Or confusion? One of our youth came up to me the following Sunday, expressing concern that they were gone. It was a youth I had no idea would care or notice but this person was very upset that they were gone. This person felt that the message was an important one and needed to return.
And we will become bread for a hungering world. And we will become drink for those who thirst. And the blessed will become the blessing. And everywhere will be the feast.
You can’t always know who’s going to be touched by these explicit acts of welcome, of inclusion, of living our faith OUT LOUD. But we can be certain that it will touch many and be a life-affirming and in some cases, a life-saving, message.
I could put up the signs. But I truly feel this needs to be owned by the congregation – that a critical mass of people are here to support this explicit welcome and to embody it now and going forward. For some of us, we are already there. For some of us, it requires further education. I ask those of you who might have questions about why such a message is necessary, or wouldn’t feel comfortable using a bathroom with such messaging, or who want to learn more about this whole gender identity thing – which does ask for a serious shift in worldview on something that many were raised to believe was immutable – I ask that you attend the workshop that is taking place here in the sanctuary starting at noon, facilitated by folks who facilitate this kind of workshop for a living and, lucky for us, are TUS members: Lauren Piciano and Pat Connelly.
The decision is not up to me. The decision is up to you. To a critical mass of you to say yes. To a board that has already expressed support for the congregation to engage this conversation about how we can be more welcoming – what is necessary? If we say yes to the signs, are they enough? Is there room for a rainbow flag to make wider our welcome?
And the table will be wide. And the welcome will be wide. And the arms will open wide to gather us in.
Not long after the presidential election, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder published an article that has been republished all over the internet and was turned into a little book. This little book. Originally titled, “20 Lessons from the 20th Century on How to Survive in Trump’s America,” in book form it is called, On Tyranny with a slight reordering and expansion on each of the lessons.
As you can see, it’s small – 126 pages that more or less fit in the palm of my hand. It gives the false impression that it’s a quick read. An easy read. Maybe so. But I haven’t been able to put the book down. I mean, I’ve read the book through; it didn’t take all that long. But I haven’t been able to let go of it. I return to it. Often. Sometimes in my mind; sometimes in hand.
Some of the twenty lessons are what you might expect:
§ do not obey in advance;
§ defend and strengthen institutions;
§ believe in truth;
§ hinder the one-party state.
And some of them take a little more time to understand the connection:
§ establish a private life; or
§ give regularly to good causes.
And then there is #11: “Make eye contact and small talk.”
Seriously? Does this mean that introverts cannot resist fascism, only extroverts can? I sure hope not.
And secondly, doesn’t this lesson kinda seem, well, ummm, superficial and insufficient? Well, Snyder follows up with additional detail:
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.
Dang. He’s not joking around. That’s some serious covfefe. In fact, when Snyder expands on this lesson (moving it from #11 to #12) in the book, he doubles down:
Tyrannical regimes arose at different times and places in the Europe of the twentieth century, but memoirs of their victims all share a single tender moment. Whether the recollection is of fascist Italy in the 1920s, of Nazi Germany of the 1930s, of the Soviet Union during the Great Terror of 1937-38, or of the purges in communist Eastern Europe in the 1940s and ‘50s, people who were living in fear of repression remembered how their neighbors treated them. A smile, a handshake, or a word of greeting – banal gestures in a normal situation – took on great significance. When friends, colleagues, and acquaintances looked away or crossed the street to avoid contact, fear grew. You might not be sure, today or tomorrow, who feels threatened in the United States. But if you affirm everyone, you can be sure that certain people will feel better.
In the most dangerous of times, those who escape and survive generally know people whom they can trust. Having old friends is the politics of last resort. And making new ones is the first step toward change. (On Tyranny)
I could give you the sermon on the fluffy lovely part of community, of how good it feels to build community, to be a part of a healthy community, how it’s just the right thing to do to get your own needs met, just the right thing to obtain “spiritual satisfaction” as our Bond of Union says.
But I can’t.
So I won’t. (Not this year. Not at this time.)
This morning we officially welcome six new adult members – and their families – into this congregation. As I said earlier, even before they joined, we were already whole and yet somehow, by joining, they make us more whole. Each of us and all of us: more whole. What, if anything, does that have to do with resisting tyranny?
In that beautiful song that Patty and Doug performed for us, we get to sneak a peek into the lives of fellow humans who are strangers to us, though less so once we know their story. The song’s refrain tells us that in knowing these folks stories we become witness to their lives and as such, we engage in what some might call, what I call, a spiritual act:
Here we are all in one place
The wants and wounds of the human race
Despair and hope sit face to face
When you come in from the cold
Let her fill your cup with something kind
Eggs and toast like bread and wine
She’s heard it all so she don’t mind
What if that was the case every time we come into this place? What if we were to talk not just to our friends or folks we already know, but were to talk with people we barely know? If those of us without kids, or whose kids are grown, we were to talk with the children, get to know them by name? Or choose to talk with the very people who annoy us? What if we were to share our own and listen to each others’ stories like it was an act of spiritual communion, “eggs and toast like bread and wine”?
Are we already doing this? I hear sometimes yes. I see sometimes no. Can we do better? I know I could do better: I know that sometimes – one of you approaches me and my mind is careening everywhere rather than staying in place with you.
It’s worth reflecting whether we are listening and witnessing with just some people – our friends, our peeps – but not with others, leaving perhaps new folks or visitors to folks on the Membership Committee or who are greeters at the front door or some other “somebody else”? How do we all, each of us, all of us, own that this is not a role or a task, but a way of being in relationship with each other, a way of embodying the interdependent web of all existence, a way of “doing church”?
What would it take right now to act as if the person next to us – whether known for years; known somewhat; known just today — how might we act if that person is exactly what we need to be more whole?
And what if it’s not about our own personal wholeness or even our congregation’s sense of wholeness, but is about sustaining the wholeness of our democracy? What if small acts of making eye contact and engaging not only in small talk, but in deep talk, or in embodying covenantal relationships where we stay at the table in good and hard times, or in strengthening institutions through acts of choosing to become a member of this very congregation, what if these were acts of resistance against the rise of authoritarianism that is in our midst?
Not the only act. One of twenty in Snyder’s case. Gene Sharp, exalted founder of the Albert Einstein Institution and studier of non-violent struggles, created a list of 198 distinct acts of waging non-violent struggle. And Parker Palmer has five habits of the heart to heal democracy.
Parker Palmer is a prolific writer, a Quaker, and the founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal. You’ve heard me mention his name before. He’s written many books, including Healing the Heart of Democracy. He’s friends with another spiritually and politically engaged modern Quaker: Carrie Newcomer, who composed this mornings anthem, “Betty’s Diner.” You might recognize her name; she also penned the anthem that our pop-up choir sang at the installation of our shared ministry a month ago.
In a video conversation between these two friends and collaborators, Newcomer names the question at the heart of her song, and then answers it. “Where does the spirit of goodness move through our lives?” Her answer? “Sometimes it’s in the expected places. But often it’s in the daily and even unexpected places we encounter it. When people come together from all kinds of backgrounds and areas and [from] their stories.”
Parker Palmer adds, “If only we invited those stories out more often, we’d live in a better world.”
He says this as someone who appreciates art, who appreciates humanity, but also as someone deeply committed to democracy. Palmer began writing his book on healing the heart of democracy in 2004 and finished it in 2010 – certainly before the current iteration of the political mess in which we find ourselves, but not before its precursors and roots were beginning to take shape and take hold, as Parker, among many others, were observing.
One of the many points that Palmer makes is that democracy doesn’t happen just in Congress or just on Capitol Hill, but in the ordinary places of our lives: diners, yes, and also on sidewalks and in schools or at city parks and on the streets and sidewalk cafes, libraries and yes, in congregations: in our daily communities. I’m guessing that he and Timothy Snyder, that professor from Yale, would be in agreement here.
Whereas Snyder encourages us to save democracy through eye contact and small talk (among other quite serious things), Parker advocates that our democracy would be healthier if we all walked more often on urban sidewalks. This suggestion is in direct contrast to walking the sidewalks of suburbia where Palmer suggests that the advent of Suburbia and its sidewalks is part of the wider erosion of our democratic foundation in this country. He encourages us to take up, as a civic, as well as spiritual, practice, the act of walking urban sidewalks, providing us the opportunity to practice negotiating our “life in the company of strangers” and “the dance of public life.” He writes:
“All forms of life together—from intimate personal relations, to the family, the workplace, and civil society—require us to learn to dance with others while stepping on as few toes as possible! Simply walking down a crowded city sidewalk—and learning that we can reach our diverse destinations without slamming into each other IF we know how to dance—is a subliminal lesson in what it takes to make democracy work.”
Of course, this is not this is not sufficient in and of itself. Walking sidewalks, or talking to strangers in diners, will not keep the democratic experiment vibrant, or given the current threats, alive. We must find our ways into engaging what Snyder calls ‘corporeal politics,’ which some of you do, having joined some of the numerous grassroots organizations that have sprung up across the land and across New Jersey. In joining the board of the UU Legislative Ministry of NJ beginning next month, helping to grow our UU legislative advocacy voice in this state, it is my hope to do my part in this regard.
Given his appreciation for Newcomer’s song, I’m pretty sure that in addition to embodying democracy through walking urban streets, Palmer would also praise the choice of eating in diners as a civic and spiritual practice. Given that New Jersey has more than its fair share of diners, what if we were to move our acts of resisting tyranny and strengthening democracy to the diner nearest you: beholding our fellow human creatures and our shared humanity, mustering the courage to start up a conversation and learn a fellow human creature’s story.
I don’t know how realistic it is to consider each of us going out to our local diner and listening to a stranger’s story with compassion and possibly with an eye to strengthening our democratic institutions or following any of the other lessons – stand out, practice corporeal politics, learn from peers in other countries. If you try this out, be sure to let me know how it went.
And as you are trying it out, at the diner, or perhaps at your local Freeholders meeting (and big shout out to Laura Merz who spoke at the Middlesex County Freeholders meeting this past Thursday on behalf of the County improving its protocol for how it interacts with ICE regarding detainment of folks who are undocumented), — or even here at coffee hour while we are here, all in one place, the wants and wounds of the human race, despair and hope sitting face to face after we’ve come in from the cold, keep in mind and in heart not only these lessons and habits of how to strengthen the resilience of our democratic ideals, but also the truth spoken in our reading from Mark Nepo:
I have discovered everything
I could need or ask for
is right here—
in flawed abundance.
We cannot eliminate hunger,
but we can feed each other.
We cannot eliminate loneliness,
but we can hold each other.
We cannot eliminate pain,
but we can live a life
we are small living things
awakened in the stream,
not gods who carve out rivers.
Like human fish,
we are asked to experience
meaning in the life that moves
through the gill of our heart.
There is nothing to do
and nowhere to go.
we can do everything
and go anywhere.
An uncomfortable journey. We have been asked to take one: talking and listening about something that is abhorrent, something that lingers, something that has attached its immoral residue to basically all that we know, sometimes visibly, but mostly not: white supremacy.
You can see the visible and the not so visible on the inside of one of the inserts in your order of service. It’s “the white supremacy pyramid.” Toward the top, above the line, there are unacceptable forms of white supremacy, the kinds we associate with Breibart and the KKK, Storm Front and the American Renaissance. With John Spencer and Steve Bannon. And our current president sees fit to invite these elements inside the White House, they become more socially acceptable.
They are not us and we are not them.
Yet there are other elements of white supremacy, below that line, that are more socially acceptable. That we can see, if we are willing to face them, in our own daily lives. That we can see even here, in Unitarian Universalism.
Here is the definition we are using. “White supremacy is a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.” (Kenny Wiley) If we think of white supremacy in this way, we can see throughout our faith movement and throughout our society how patterns exist and persist that “tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.”
It is easier for a white minister – for me — to be called to serve a UU congregation than it is for a minister of color. There is a pattern of ministers of color getting numerous requests to pre-candidate but then end up not being called, as if congregations are willing to go so far, but no further. Like the issue that sparked our paying closer attention to racist hiring patterns at the UUA, there is a pattern of congregations relying on notions of “right fit” that allow the comfort of the familiar, which means re-entrenching patterns of white supremacy, patterns whose fundamental structure centers white-ness, that makes white-ness so central that it becomes invisible.
This is not easy stuff to consider, especially with such a jarring term. White supremacy. It’s not even the term, “white privilege,” which can be hard enough for some of us to accept. But here’s this incendiary phrase. It’s easy to feel justified in shutting down. Or to focus solely on the phrase, rather than what it points to.
I’m asking you to stay with me on this. I know it’s hard to hear. It is not all that long ago that I hear my own voice declining to use it, finding it too evocative of hoods and burning crosses.
Even if those white supremacists are not us and we are not them, the difference between us and them does not give us permission to turn away from some of the very elements we share. We must choose to face how we swim in the same waters and breathe the same air. That we have in common elements they proudly choose to amplify and advocate while we, when we are our best selves, try to actively counter or extricate.
Sometimes, though, infuriatingly, we spend too much of our time denying elements of white supremacy. Instead of making it untrue, our denial feeds the very thing we loathe.
You might be wondering, what are examples of this more socially acceptable form of white supremacy?
How about: knowing the names of the countries in Europe but struggling to know the names of those in Africa.
It’s hard to see acts of centering whiteness, especially for those of us who are white. Like when we give a form of European ethnic music the title, “classical music,” thereby centering it and raising it above all others, making invisible the ethnic nature of it (for all music has ethnic roots, even as some music is so powerful, it can expand beyond them).
Frankly, it is painful to not do this [go la-la-la with my hands over my ears]. But when I hear my UU colleagues and friends of color telling me over and over how hard it is to be both UU and a person of color; when I hear of stories of raising UU kids of color and the stories UU youth of color bring home of how they are encountered by the wider UU movement as outsiders, as objects of suspicion; when I see our faith movement repeating devastating mistakes of the past, along cultural and social fault lines of race, I have to remove my hands from my ears. I have to confront not only the possibility of white supremacy in our midst, but also unconsciously in choices I make, in patterns I take part in and from which I, as a white person and a white minister, benefit.
The quote at the top of your order of service is one we have used before. It comes from the brilliant James Baldwin:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
So today we are trying something different than denial or invisibility. We are trying, along with nearly 700 other UU congregations and covenantal communities, to acknowledge and confront. We are raising our awareness and in current parlance, becoming, “woke.” We are doing this because we have been asked by leading UUs of color to do so. We are doing this because when harm is done, this is one of the few ways to create possible transformation and redemption, rather than let calcify a growing residue of racism for the next generation.
This is by no means the first time UUs have confronted racism in our midst. Twenty years ago – back at the 1997 General Assembly, delegates voted for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to “commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution.”
Thirty years before that, in the late 1960s, there was the so-called “Black Empowerment Controversy.” The wider faith movement imploded with lasting injury to our denomination, with the loss of a significant number of UUs of color, especially, but not only, Black UUs, folks who left with a sense of deep betrayal. Though Unitarian Universalism has always been a historically segregated religion (as so many Christian denominations were and are), there was a time when we were not as white as we currently are.
It’s true too of this congregation. The late Margaret Maurer wrote in a 1980 TUS history that I referenced in my April 2 sermon. It documents social justice efforts over the first three and a half decades of this congregation including during the time of this national controversy, and how we, too, experienced betrayal and loss. The report states, “With great regret, we lost some of our Black members at this time who felt we were giving inadequate support…”. The Society did not engage any further major efforts in racial justice for seven years after this loss.
This is our history. It impacts who is here and what is now. It need not dictate our future. That is a thing we co-create with choices going forward, choosing to face what might be changed. In 2010, Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt, asked of Unitarian Universalism,
If the answer was in my pocket, I would gift it to you. If the answer already existed somewhere out there, I would invite you to join me in seeking it out. Instead, we must look here [point to heart] and here [point to head] and here [point to congregation] and there [point beyond the doors]. By our very willingness to face these challenges, we create the chance that we might actually be the liberating faith movement we aspire to be.