Shifting Grounds Beneath Us: Facing White Supremacy (sermon)

I never met Margaret Maurer, founding member of this congregation. She died in 2011 at the age of 101. Despite having never met her, I have benefitted – we all have — from her legacy.

Margaret Maurer, 1910-2011

Thanks to an incredibly generous bequest she made upon her death, The Unitarian Society has a solid endowment. It is thanks to her that we have new stairways (built last year) that bring folks from the parking lot up the hill. It is thanks to her that sometime in the (near?) future, we will have new flooring in the lobby and new doors more appropriate to a worship setting than our current accordion doors. We also have, thanks to Margaret, a history of social justice at this congregation, from its inception in the mid-fifties, up until 1980, when the document was written.

This morning, I want to share with you some modern history of our faith movement, how it came to be embodied in this congregation and how it is very much alive and electric today. Originally I had planned to talk about the rise of authoritarianism; instead the sermon today will still be about the shifting grounds beneath us, but from a different, related angle: the systems that center the white experience, building walls that preclude full involvement by people of color, as well as about how we must dismantle it – continuing to try, falling short, and hearing the call to try again.

~~

If you look around the room at the faces of your fellow congregants you will notice, or notice for the thousandth time, that we are a congregation that is majority white with some faces of color. Though Unitarian Universalism comes from a historically segregated tradition, we state over and over again that we are committed to ending oppressions in general, and eliminating racism in particular. How do these two realities co-exist?

Over and over, we fall short of living our faith out loud. We showed this yet again with the recent hiring of the Regional Lead in the Southern Region of our Association. There were two finalists for the position, both of whom have long pedigrees of serving our faith movement, including both until recently, serving on the UUA’s — that’s the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregation’s board. The UUA hired the white male minister who doesn’t live in the geographical region and does not plan to move there over the candidate of color, a religious educator, who lives and serves in the region, who was told she was qualified for the position, but that they were choosing based on “a good fit for the team.”

From listening to my colleagues and friends of color, I have learned that phrase, “right fit for the team,” is code for preferring to prioritize, or center, those skills, styles, and approaches that typify white culture, and often white male culture, and therefore white candidates. It’s a form of – and I’m going to use a strong phrase here, so notice your own reaction to it – it’s a form of white supremacy. Not the cross-burning KKK kind, to be sure, but a dynamic that perpetuates white and male culture as the measurement by which we measure preferred leadership.

White supremacy. For some, it is an immediate reason to defend against any other information that comes. If that is your reaction, I ask you to notice, breathe, and set it aside. Particularly for white people, our tendency to react to criticisms about race, criticisms about race from people of color, bring a defensive reaction.

I ask you to listen to this definition, offered by Kenny Wiley, one of our current, most engaged, powerful religious leaders of color. He wrote

Why “white supremacy” as the term here? It conjures up images of hoods and mobs. Here, we mean: “White supremacy as a set of institutional assumptions and practices, often operating unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.” (FB post, March 29, 2017)

You don’t have to be white to be defensive — as the letter from the recently-resigned-as-president-of-the-UUA Reverend Peter Morales, shows (he’s Latino). But the white version, or the male version, or the heterosexual version, when it comes to having persistent patterns of oppression pointed out to us, are particularly problematic. It’s like having someone helpfully raise a mirror to our face to show us the dirt there, and our responding with denial, or hurt feelings, or blaming the messenger, or an aggressive manner, rather than saying, “Yep, there’s that dirt again. Thought I took care of that. Thank you for telling me. Let’s clean it off together.”

On a side note, if I am ever talking to you, and I have something between my teeth, like broccoli: please tell me. Save me further embarrassment. After an initial moment of awkwardness, I will thank you.

On a real note, if you see a pattern emerging that concerns you as racist, please tell me, please tell leadership, what you are seeing. Help me, help us, see it too.

So here are some key facts of the last few weeks in the UU Universe:

  • In response to that hiring decision for the Southern Regional Lead, some UUs of color were clear-sighted and called for all our attention to hiring patterns at the UUA as one of many indications that racial justice is not alive and well despite our declarations otherwise. As Christina Rivera wrote,

The most recent census data available (2015) tells us that 83% of the service workers at the UUA are people of color. It also tells us that of the 49 positions of UUA Executive and First Management level, 42 are held by white people (86%), almost the exact inverse.

  • While still president, Morales responded in a letter that used the word, “hysteria” to describe those expressing criticism of the patterns and systems in the UUA. That did not go over well.
  • Letters and public statements – from ministers, from white religious leaders, from ministers of color, from the organization Black Lives of UU which called this a “moment of crisis for our faith;” as well as from individuals who care about the future of our faith movement, from all three of the presidential candidates – came along at the rapid pace that social media allows for quick, wide dissemination.
  • The UU World gave a summary online last Monday – it was linked in the email I sent to the congregation on Friday night.

And so what? What to do with all this? What does it mean for our lives here at TUS? What can we do about any of this? That is, if we are at all interested?

[Sadly, these next three paragraphs did not make it into the spoken sermon, but I include it here because it’s important.] The late 1960s was a racially charged time in our nation’s history, much like today with attention to concerns about racial justice as a dynamic topic within our faith movement. Two groups emerged on the national UU scene. One focused on integration as a strategy; the other group, called the “Black Affairs Council” or “BAC,” focused on Black empowerment.

The two groups and the wider UUA leadership imploded with lasting injury to our denomination. Much has been written on what is called “the Black Empowerment Controversy,” but one of the long-term legacies was the loss of a significant number of UUs of color, especially, but not only, Black UUs. They left with a sense of betrayal by their faith. 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.

Our written social justice history documents efforts over the first three and a half decades of this congregation. When she is relating the situation here at TUS during this larger controversy, she wrote about TUS’ initial support of BAC, then an active vote to suspend support. Out of this, the history documents reports, “With great regret, we lost some of our Black members at this time who felt we were giving inadequate support…”.   The report goes on to say that after a decade of engagement on racial justice issues, the Society did not engage any further major efforts in this area until seven years passed. This was the early 1970s, folks, when this was very much on our nation’s heart and mind. But not here. This happened here and it impacts our experience of Unitarian Universalism and this Society to this day. It impacts who we see here. Given this moment of crisis in our faith movement, what will we choose today?

Gini von Courter, former UUA trustee Moderator, recently wrote this:

The UUA is drowning in a sea of whiteness, and we don’t even notice. This is an attribute of white supremacy culture. (Facebook post, March 29, 2017)

More often than I’d like to admit: that’s me. Not noticing.

A few months after I began serving here, I mentioned to a friend that in the first month I was here, that I was part of hiring three new staff (of a staff of three, if you don’t count me). My friend spoke of how I must have used my anti-racist values to impact that process. It was then, and only then, that I realized the obvious: we are a staff of white people. Not the Montessori School, but the staff of the congregation: we are white. And we can say, like the comic Seinfeld used to say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that” but I have to acknowledge, I didn’t see it. Not at first.

And if I didn’t see, then how could I, as Head of Staff, as Minister here, pay attention to how that impacts our collective lives – how that continues a way of seeing things that perpetuates white-centricity – white supremacy? How that impacts people of color when they worship here, whether just once and do not return or those who choose this as their spiritual home?

So I think, given that we will be hiring a new Music Director, we might want to think about how we can learn from the mirror being held up for us as a denomination and us as a congregation.

As Adam Dyer, the author of our earlier reading today, wrote,

Once again, we are being asked to look deeply at the self perpetuating patterns of white supremacy that continue to dog our efforts to be “multi-cultural”.

Or as Rev. Erika Hewitt – who will be giving the sermon at our installation – wrote:

“When our congregations, our leaders, and our governance structures reveal themselves as riddled with walls that keep people of color away from power and authority, our agency as white people arises from the humility to understand their truth as our own, and to make all necessary changes to live” our values out loud. (Pastoral letter, published on FB, March 31, 2017)

So what can we do? How can we build a new way? That’s the hashtag that is being used for all these calls for justice: #BuildingNewWay, which is a hymn in the teal hymnal: We are building a new way / getting stronger everyday / we are building a new way. It just so happens to be one of the hymns we will be singing at our installation. Good timing.

We can ask the TUS delegates to General Assembly, where the vote for the new president will be held, to pay attention to each candidate’s plans to address systems of white supremacy at the UUA and in our wider faith movement. We can plan to have folks who attend GA as delegates – either on- or off-site – report back to the congregation later in the summer about how all this played out.

We can support efforts to keep the UUA accountable for the promises it makes, paying attention after the fires of crisis have died down. We aren’t so good at that, but we can get better because accountability is one of the hallmarks of a healthy covenantal system.

The UUA is actually the UUAoC – the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It can only do what congregations allow it to do through our attention or inattention, and through our paying our fair share of due to ensure a robust national association that serves its congregational members.

We can commit to attending to issues of racial justice, of patterns of white supremacy, in our own front and backyards. Yes, we can look at it in our neighborhoods, in our work places. But we must look here.

What does it look like in our worship choices – the music we play, the sources we use, the topics we choose.

What does it look like in our religious education? How are we serving our children of color? How are we equipping our white children to be able to engage in a multi-cultural world? For that matter, how we are equipping our adults, especially our white adults, to be able to engage a multi-cultural world without defensiveness or fragility, without sitting on past laurels or outdated ideas of what achieving racial justice or white supremacy looks like?

Black Lives of UU has put out a call to congregations to hold a #WhiteSupremacyTeachIn. A growing group of congregations is committing to shift worship programming to cover racism and white supremacy. Though the call is to do this on either April 30 May 7, our service today is a response to that call. Still, might someone here agree to look at the resources offered soon on their web site and host a conversation about this worthy topic?

Yesterday, several of us attended the livestreaming of a forum of the UUA presidential candidates – we drove to our sibling congregation in Lincroft to be able to watch among other UUs. I was struck by what one of the candidates said about all this. It resonated strongly for me. She said, “I believe in our ability to make this moment valuable: a turning point….[yet] If we miss this opportunity friends, I doubt our ability to survive. Now is the time.”

So what can we do as these grounds shift beneath us? At the very least, and at the very most, we can be open and willing, as the song tells us, for to be hopeless would seem so strange. It dishonors those who go before us. So lift me up to the light of change.

Blessed be. May it be so. Amen.

Posted in Justice, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Befriending Death: An Excursion (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Our reading can be found here.

Dylan Thomas’ most famous lines are these:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I come today to vanquish Dylan Thomas. At least those lines of his. I come today to ask you, encourage you, plead with you, do go gentle into that good night.

Not the old age part: that part I hope that you all, that I, that we all, burn and rave and be alive while we are alive.

But also for the dying of the light part: I ask you, beseech you, entreat you: do not rage against the dying of the light; do not resist.

Instead, turn to it, bring with you curiosity, see it, rather than your preconceptions.

Do the work now, in light, that allows you, in the dying of the light, a final, magnificent opportunity to be awake.

There is a famous lesson from the Buddha called The Two Arrows. This can be found in the original teachings of The Buddha once they were written down, in this case, the Sallatha Sutta. In it, the Buddha noted that an untrained person feels pain and that this is like being shot by one arrow. It hurts. It may cause injury. All this is true and real. However, the untrained person – that’s you, that’s me, that’s most of us – we do not respond to the pain of one arrow, but react as if we have been hit by a second arrow: bringing fear, bringing anger, bringing all sorts of secondary emotional responses that amplify the pain, turning it into suffering. The Buddha said – and in this lesson, he was teaching monks wishing to gain enlightenment – with training, one can learn to feel just the one arrow, not invite the second. Our modern interpretation has boiled this lesson – and perhaps all the lessons of Buddhism – into this: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

~~

Death scares us. Dying scares us.  Even when we say we are not scared, even when we think we are not scared, we are like Woody Allen’s joke: I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

We turn away from the fact of death and its inevitability. We build vast and robust economies on its denial. We flood our senses with all sorts of speculation, all sorts of preconceived notions and longings and in so doing, we invite second arrows rather than preparing ourselves for the one.

It’s worth our while to reflect on what we actually mean when we use the word death. Yes, there is the literal level whereby we recognize physical indications of death: heart no longer beating, cessation of breath. But you might be surprised how what seems obvious and empirical is culturally bound and open to argument. For instance, while the medical establishment says that brain dead is dead dead, that state does not involve the stopping of systole and diastole or the termination of the inhale and exhale. Among indigenous Tibetans, as well as modern Westerners who follow Tibetan Buddhism, there is an understanding that the death of the body happens as a process, taking more or less three days.

Judith Lief

Beyond the literal understanding of death, there are a host of murky thoughts and disturbing emotions, not to mention a crowd of theories and preconceived notions, some available to our consciousness, others not readily. They all tend to be mixed up with hopes and fears. Wise people – in particular, one of the wise people I go to for my own befriending death practice, Judith Lief – tell us that if we do not surface these attitudes and bring our awareness to them, it is to our own detriment. Not because we miss out on a so-called “correct” view of death. But because these preconceptions have real effects on our lives.

According to Lief, and I agree with her,

They determine how we relate to death ourselves and how we relate to other people who are dying. When our experience is distorted by speculation, it is difficult to see clearly. We lose the ability to distinguish what we know directly from what we have heard secondhand, what we believe on faith, what we cook up out of fear, and what is wishful thinking. So it is important to bring our own personal assumptions to light and find out what they are.

They impact not just our attitude towards dying, our experience of death, but they impact our appreciation for what it means to be alive in this very moment.

~~

A poem from Mary Oliver, When Death Comes:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

I think that line in the poem is one of my life goals:

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

I don’t seek to die earlier than I am supposed to. I do not court death.  I’m happy to be here now, be here alive. My curiosity does not draw me closer to that date in the future when I exist this life. But whenever death happens, it is my hope that rather than turn away, I turn toward, full of curiosity.

Candidly, I kinda expected that we would have an emptier house than usual, given that folks can know the content of the sermon ahead of time. This is not the easiest topic. In the past, my husband has sometimes called the degree of my interest in this topic “on the morbid side” with a wee Yorkshire accent.

Befriending death has been part of my meditation practice for many years. On and off. I like to think that besides making me a better person, it makes me a better minister. But to be clear, I am preaching this topic not because I already got this befriending death thing down. I don’t. By any stretch.

I am preaching this — and planning for great things in the fall — because I do not have this down. Because I’m not ready to die and yet I could any day. Because when I get a little bit sick, I’m amazed at the unbidden fear-based stories that occupy my mind and send my imagination to places I did not know were part of my psyche.

My hope is that you – all of you, some of you – will accept my invitation to we walk this walk together, learning and delighting and comforting and coping: together.

My mind is bright with ideas, not all of which will come to fruition. One of our decades-long Friend of this Society and retired geriatric social worker – she and I have been hatching plans and we are looking for a few more accomplices.

  • I’d like for TUS to host a Death Café, a simple event concept that started in France and takes place all over the world, where people come together, gather in small circles, and talk death and – this is the important part — eat cake.
  • Esther is hoping that everyone will read the book, When Breath Becomes Air.  She thinks it inspires the reader to face death in order to live a more vibrant life. Maybe the monthly book group would be willing to make that happen.
  • I’ve had conversations with too many of you discovering that you do not have Advanced Directives – also known as health care proxies. This means that if you are in a serious medical condition, your loved ones and your medical providers won’t know your wishes. Not okay. So I think we need to host a workshop where we can learn about these things and make promises to each other to get them done.
  • Perhaps you know this, but it turns out there is one – and only one — green burial cemetery in New Jersey. It’s in the Pine Barrens – I plan to visit it and I like the idea of a congregational field trip.
  • Maybe a workshop on Writing Your Own Obituary. I think that would be fun! I guess that is a strange sense of what fun is. I guess that’s a minister’s version of fun.

Again, we need a few more accomplices to make this happen, so if you are interested, please let me know.

Last month there was a piece in the New York Times called, “First Sex Ed, Then Death Ed.” It was written by a medical doctor, Jessica Zitter, in the Bay Area who had taught sex ed to her middle school daughter’s class and years later taught a death ed class to a different daughter, this time in high school.

What a concept! I had never thought about riding the coattails of our amazing Our Whole Lives – OWL – sexuality curriculum with a curriculum on death. What a great idea! Here’s some of what Zitter wrote in that article:

Many of the patients I have cared for at the end of their lives had no idea they were dying, despite raging illness and repeated hospital admissions. The reasons for this are complex and varied — among them poor physician training in breaking bad news and a collective hope that our technologies will somehow ultimately triumph against death. By the time patients are approaching the end, they are often too weak or disabled to express their preferences, if those preferences were ever considered at all. Patients aren’t getting what they say they want. For example, 80 percent of Americans would prefer to die at home, but only 20 percent achieve that wish.

Many of us would choose to die in a planned, comfortable way, surrounded by those we love. But you can’t plan for a good death if you don’t know you’re dying. We need to learn how to make a place for death in our lives and we also need to learn how to plan for it. In most cases, the suffering could have been avoided, or at least mitigated, by some education on death and our medical system. The fact is that when patients are prepared, they die better. When they have done the work of considering their own goals and values, and have documented those preferences, they make different choices. What people want when it comes to end-of-life care is almost never as much as what we give them.

The moment of death, the moments of dying and the physical and emotional discomfort that come with it, these are much harder to not be overwhelmed by, unless we have spent time in the days and years and decades facing toward, rather than away. This is the thing that is one of human existence’s deep paradoxical truths: for most people – I will not say for all – for most people, facing and engaging with death now brings an unparalleled sweetness and awareness of life as you are living it – an awareness of life and its precious qualities unavailable any other way.

So this practice is not morbid, as Tony once thought but has come around to think otherwise, but a gift. A gift to yourself, a gift to those whom you love when they are close to death, a gift to this death-denying culture, and in my opinion, a necessary act of political and spiritual resistance.

~~

May we all find the ability to cultivate what the poet Mary Oliver so beautifully described as wanting to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness. And let us end with those beautiful words from Mark Morrison Reed:

So let me die laughing, savoring one of life’s crazy moments. Let me die holding the hand of one I love, and recalling that I tried to love and was loved in return. Let me die remembering that life has been good, and that I did what I could.

But today, just remind me that I am dying so that I can live, savor, and love with all my heart.

 

Posted in Buddhism, Death, Sermons, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Compass, Not a Map (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

March 19, 2017

 

 

A compass, rather than a map.

Last week I told you that I have been reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Its subtitle is “Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a botanist, an academic, and poet. Her storytelling is exquisite.

A compass, rather than a map.

That’s how Kimmerer describes the difference between indigenous spirituality and Judeo-Christianity. With its ten commandments, she suggests that the Abrahamic religions provide a map, with clear directions for right and wrong. What she was taught, is more like a compass: pointing folks in a direction, but then they have to find their way, each generation anew.

A compass, rather than a map.

When I heard that, a spark of recognition touched me. Unitarian Universalism also aims, in its essence as non-creedal religion, a religion without dogma, to be more of a compass, than a map.

Unitarian Universalism has its seven principles, one of which states that we have “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”  So rather than a map, or even a GPS to tell us exactly where to go, recalculating as we take wrong turns, we have this principle that aims for an resilient balance between an individual’s free search and the responsibility we all hold within our covenantal community.

This is our work: using the compass of Unitarian Universalism to create a map for a life of integrity, a life in service of a greater good, a life that is whole and holy.

And this is where I believe that wisdom enters the picture.

What do I mean by wisdom? How do we distinguish between it and garden variety knowledge?

Where is wisdom to be found? Is it inside us? In our hearts?

Is it outside us? In our laws? Scriptures?

There are books in the Hebrew Bible that have been given the name, “Wisdom Literature:” the Book of Job (my favorite), Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. If wisdom resides there (and I happen to think some does), our Unitarian Universalism holds that it is not, by far, the only source.

To try to learn what wisdom is, I could have turned to the social sciences, perhaps an article from Psychology Today, based in research, attempting to quantify the qualities of wisdom. Such data-driven exploration would tell us that wisdom is

  • Not correlated to age, but to the capacity for reflection
  • connected to the ability to see shades of grey, rather than either/or
  • balances self-interest and common good
  • willing to challenge the status quo
  • aims to understand, rather than judge

And does not guarantee more happiness: people considered by others as wise do not score higher on scales measuring happiness. Wisdom does strengthen one’s sense of purpose in the world.   For a wise person, that would be enough.

Yet that was not the first place I turned. I turned to the poets. I can’t share with you all the poems from my research, but here is an excerpt from Mary Oliver’s In Blackwater Woods:

Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

Wisdom strikes me as knowledge saturated with humility, knowledge with its certainty tempered. This idea — of humility, of curiosity, of recognizing the need to learn — fits with botantist Kimmerer’s ideas:

“In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as “the younger brothers of Creation.”

We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”

I have wondered about the role of generosity when it comes to wisdom. Is wisdom some form of knowledge shared generously? like Spider learned (the hard way)? Shared without attachment, knowing that it will evolve, that it is a process of ongoing co-creation, and will come to serve purposes beyond our current kin or ken?

Perhaps John, from today’s reading, with his generous idea of what it means to attend church, was a wise man. Since John Eric was one of the first people I met when I walked over the threshold of my first Unitarian Universalist congregation, lo these 22 years ago, I would have to say yes, he was. Certainly his efforts seemed informed by a balance between self-interest and common good, as mentioned by that social science data.

I have also wondered if wisdom is the capacity to see beyond the apparent, to see the sacred nature of a person or a thing or a place or a moment; to see interconnection and interdependence where others might only see individualism and competition? I think here of the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh and his teachings that we are here on this earth to awaken from the illusion of our separation. This, too, is an aspect of wisdom.

When I look at the wise ones whom I have encountered — in person or through stories — I find that they are people who can hold paradox loosely in their hands. They do not fall apart from the strain of contradiction, but are invigorated and inspired: moved to laugh with delight, or weep at its beauty. Their lives are lived-out versions of Walt Whitman’s declaration: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself.  I am large.  I contain multitudes!”

There is the old story of Rabbi Simcha Bunim. It is said that in each pocket, he carried a slip of paper. On one he wrote: for my sake the world was created. Such grandiosity! On the other he wrote: I am but dust and ashes. Such humility! He carried both messages as a constant reminder. Holding paradox, loosely.

A compass, rather than a map.

Kimmerer explores the relationship between scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom, not seeing them as contradictions, but existing in reciprocal relationship. As a botanist and someone very much grounded in her spiritual heritage as indigenous person, she values science, though takes a dim view of “the scientific worldview,” which she does not believe can co-exist without harm.

I appreciate the distinction between these two concepts – Science and “the scientific world view.” While Science is key for Unitarian Universalists and our understanding the world, and is affirmed as one of our faith movement’s six sources, we must tread here carefully, for we have not always done so. Many late 19th and early 20th century Unitarians, like many so-thought forward thinking white folks at the time, were part of the Eugenics movement – full of science, but science that served racist belief systems, and became the breeding ground for Nazi ideology.

Kimmerer is eloquent about the distinction between those two concepts. She writes

Science is the process of revealing the world through rational inquiry. The practice of doing real science brings the questioner into an unparalleled intimacy with nature fraught with wonder and creativity as we try to comprehend the mysteries of the more-than-human world. Trying to understand the life of another being or another system so unlike our own is often humbling and, for many scientists, is a deeply spiritual pursuit.

Contrasting with this is the scientific worldview, in which a culture uses the process of interpreting science in a cultural context that uses science and technology to reinforce reductionist, materialist economic and political agendas.

The practice of Science, at least as Kimmerer speaks of it, is one that raises up curiosity as a virtue, valuing it equally, and perhaps even more so than certainty.

So yes, we need to support Science, particularly when we see it under siege as evidenced by climate denial or being erased from our public schools. Yet we must also be cautious, for we can confuse Science for “the scientific worldview” and make the latter our god so much so that it prioritizes knowledge over wisdom, leading us like a GPS hellbent on arrogance and exceptionalism as our final destination.

A compass, rather than a map.

One last thing: in writing this sermon, I knew that I should try to answer the question of what wisdom looks like right now: early 21st century; a divided nation; lived experience of increasing climate constriction all over the globe and right here at home; unprecedented challenges to this American experiment in democracy; and the impact of all of these things on the most vulnerable among us. A compass, not a map, for every generation anew. I cannot and do not claim to be wise, so the following should be taken with that stipulation.

For me, wisdom looks like the following:

  • Seeing proposed budgets not just as financial documents, but as moral and ethical statements, and acting accordingly.
  • Living into the truth, quoted here by Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Every view is valued, as long as it does no harm.”
  • Despite warnings from those who would subvert our most cherished values, persisting.
  • Embodying the deep and abiding reality of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part by showing up for those who are most vulnerable among us.
  • Lastly, and by no means, leastly, remembering this: we were made for these times. Do not lose heart. None of us is alone.

A compass, rather than a map.

Blessed be. Amen.

Posted in Earth, Hope, Resistance, Sermons, Spiritual Practice, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Honorable Harvest: A Canvass Sermon (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

March 12, 2017

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of [church], to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world? (adapted from Robin Wall Kimmerer)

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist who currently teaches Environmental and Forest Biology at the State University of New York. She is a citizen of the Potawatomi nation and a compelling storyteller. For the past month, I have been listening to book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.

There are many stories in the book. For instance, she describes a field trip — well, to be literal, it’s a marsh trip — with her students. Five weeks away from the wired world to transform the students to field biologists. As part of this annual expedition, they build a round house as their shelter and classroom.

They built it not from a kit that they have brought along, but from what was found there: starting with a frame made of bent saplings. The next step includes a “shopping” trip not to a home improvement big box retailer, but at the cattail marsh. Kimmerer does compare the cattail marsh to Walmart, but only in that “they both sprawl over acres of land.”

After overcoming initial reticence, these budding field biologists come to see how much a cattail marsh has to offer:

  • fibrous rhizomes that taste like a potato, edible roasted or as porridge or made into a flour;
  • cattail leaves as an easy source for creating twine;
  • at the bottom of many layers of leaves, a slimy substance that is antimicrobial, and soothes sunburn from a day of harvesting on the marsh;
  • there’s spongy and waxy material, both serving the plant well, but also serving humans, providing superb water repellant and insulating material for a shelter, not to mention a softer ground upon which to sleep;
  • under the leaves, and slime, and spongy material, and waxy outer coating, there is a white pith, sometimes called Cossacks’ asparagus, that tastes – so the book says — like cucumber.

This short list doesn’t even include that the cattails themselves can be dipped in fat and used as torches, or that their pollen can be captured as a source of protein. In the end, given all that they were able to find on their “shopping trip,” they don’t consider it a Walmart, but someone does joke that perhaps they have just been to the Walmarsh

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of education, to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?

More and more, folks often choose their religious affiliation, rather than inherit it. Out of this, the notion of church shopping has emerged. For some, this is part of a temporary discernment process, having felt a spiritual longing or a yearning for community, you go “shopping,” visiting several congregations, perhaps even differing denominations, seeing what is on offer. Some people do it all their lives – never choosing one place to get their religious and spiritual needs met, never setting down roots, never making a commitment of reciprocity to one place.

But others – and I’m guessing many, if not most of you, are in this group – after process of discernment (that is what I would rather call it): you decide. You choose a place.

And now you are here, in your chosen spiritual home, done with your shopping. It is time to follow what Kimmerer calls the precepts of the Honorable Harvest:

  • to take only what is given,
  • to use it well,
  • to be grateful for the gift, and
  • to reciprocate the gift

These precepts are a sermon in and of themselves, perhaps even a whole small spiritual practice group, but today I want to just focus on the last one: reciprocate the gift.

Because that is what we are doing this morning: figuring out how we can reciprocate the gifts we have been given by this congregation; how to reciprocate the gifts being given in this moment — shared laughter, pride at seeing young people raised here give back, breaking bread – or pancakes – together, strengthening our sense of shared purpose; and how to reciprocate the gifts that will be given and received in the months, years, and hopefully decades, to come.

What in our shared life is the cattail torch that shines light in the darkness? Is it lighting our chalice? Or the words and music we share in this space we make holy by our gathering, week after week?

What is the slime factor? Maybe it’s different for each of us, but hopefully the discomfort of the slime is balanced by the relief of facing your fear, or tolerating discomfort, or growing your growing edge.

What is the surprising pith that after persistent peeling away of layers, then refreshing nourishment? Could that be being known as whole and holy, held in the embrace of this welcoming spiritual home?

It is up to us to recognize the gifts we receive here — ones we were looking for and ones that catch us by surprise, ones we welcome and ones we’d rather gift back – and then act on that last precept of the Honorable Harvest: reciprocate. Reciprocate in a variety of ways, like Kimmerer’s students with their creative ways to thank the cattail marsh for all it gave them.

But also in the very specific way that is our focus today: through financial stewardship, bound by a covenant of reciprocity, that ensures that The Unitarian Society not only survives, but thrives.

This is our work, to discover what we can give. Isn’t this the purpose of [church], to learn the nature of your own gifts and how to use them for good in the world?

Blessed be. May it be so.

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Lullabies for Our Children, Ourselves (sermon)

February 12, 2017

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

 

When my little ones were little, I would sing as part of our bedtime routine. One of the songs was The Ballad of Erica Levine by the late Bob Blue. I loved Erica’s sense of self, her understanding of gender roles, how she owned her body – how she understood romantic partnership as mutual and inherently egalitarian and I wanted to pass all that onto my children.

I also sang a song that later turned up in our teal hymnal:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

Written by then-Fred Small, now UU minister Fred Small, the official title of this song is “Everything Possible”. At the end of long days, exhausting days, tricky days, delightful days as an only parent, I sang those lyrics so achingly to them, wanting to convey the depth and breadth not only of my love, but my faith-infused, unconditional acceptance:

There are girls who grow up strong and bold
There are boys quiet and kind
Some race on ahead, some follow behind
Some go in their own way and time
Some women love women, some men love men
Some raise children, some never do
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.

You’ve likely noticed that human expression exists along a wide array of everything possible continuums. And while this is true and natural, our human brain, with its need for meaning-making and its limitations, cuts these up into categories. We end up forgeting that how we socially construct the world is not how the natural world actually exists. From this, ensues inequity and invisibility.

Take human sexuality and gender identity. Only recently on the long arc of human history, have we integrated that sexual orientation exists along a continuum, such as that described by the seven-point Kinsey scale, with one side as exclusive homosexual attraction and the other as exclusive heterosexual attraction.

It turns out that something like this is true for gender as well: there are not just two genders, not two “opposite genders.” Remember, gender is a social and cultural signifier, where as “sex” – as in male and female – are biological markers (though, it turns out that there are more than two sexes, too).

None of this is new, nor is it a concept reserved to a single culture or region of the world. In cultures around the globe, from ancient times ‘til now, there has been the presence of individuals and communities that acknowledge, and sometimes even honor, gender identities beyond the binary system with which our society seems so enamored.

~~

Sometimes, no matter how knowledgeable or compassionate or hip we might consider ourselves, we find ourselves outside the loop. This is especially true given the acceleration of cultural change. For some of us, while we have integrated the sexual orientation continuum into our own lives, we just might not yet be so aware of the brave, not-really-new world of non-binary gender identity.   But it’s time for us as a congregation to get inside the loop.

Last week, the Membership Committee rolled out new name tags – thank you to all for your work on this project. With these new name tags we can now know each others’ names without putting small holes in our clothing each week. Praise small mercies.

With these name tags, we have been invited to make a meaningful gesture of inclusivity and justice by writing in the pronouns by which we choose to be known. Just how is this gesture of writing pronouns on a name tag an act of justice and inclusivity, you might ask?

Perhaps your mind is saying – I don’t get this gender or personal pronoun thing – isn’t it obvious what gender I am? Or perhaps your mind is saying – what’s the big deal: aren’t we all humans? Or maybe there’s a little corner of your heart in touch with an inner grammar enforcement officer who is offended by the modern use of “they” for a single person.

Notice what is arising in you. Defensiveness. Curiosity. It’s all okay. But let us follow the sage advice I heard once and try to live my life by: “It’s okay to be ignorant. It’s just not okay to stay that way.”

To help us, we are fortunate because we have OWL. No, not the nocturnal bird known for its big eyes. But OWL: Our Whole Lives, the sexuality education curriculum that we developed in partnership with the United Church of Christ (UCC). It is a science-based curriculum predicated on the belief that we are better humans when we are equipped with knowledge about all aspects of sexuality, not just reproduction, and certainly not just abstinence.

For several years, I taught OWL to 6th graders in the congregation where I raised my kids. I have also been trained in OWL for adults – yes, there is an OWL class for adults – in fact for all ages from Kindergarten through adulthood including in development a version for those in their later decades.

In addition to what I learned in those trainings, I have spent the last few years learning from my older daughter, who is transgender. Add to that listening to colleagues and friends – typically ones younger than myself — my heart has swelled in the best of ways. I will also say that my mind has sometimes been blown, always for the better, but not without some accompanying confusion and awareness of my own limitations which is always humbling and rarely pleasant.

I have learned that there are folks for whom neither male nor female describes their experience. Sometimes they feel like they are some of both, or neither. For some, rather than male or female, the term “genderqueer” or “genderfluid” feels closer to their truth.

While this might be unfamiliar to you, what is of primary importance is honoring the inherent worth and dignity of each person by following that person’s lead as to how they want to be called. Follow what their name tag says. And if the name tag isn’t filled out, we can practice not assuming the person’s gender just based on what we think they look like. It’s hard to do, and I’ll be in the trenches with you, but it’s good practice.

If the name tag says, they/their/theirs, this is a singular pronoun and recognized as such by most everyone under the age of thirty. Even the American Dialect Society, in 2015, chose the singular pronoun “they” as their Word of the Year, recognizing “its emerging use as a singular pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

And to continue being clear about terminology, and shifting cultural norms, gender identity is different than being or becoming transgender. You probably already know this, so I apologize if this is stating the obvious, I’ll say that transgender is when a person knows themselves to be a different gender than the body into which they were born – for instance, when a person is born into a male body and assumed by those around them to be a man, but in fact she knows herself to be a woman.

I count this community as fortunate that we have had congregants who are out as transgender because I think it makes this a richer, more vibrant place. We are fortunate to have families who listen closely to what their children are saying about their own gender, rather than making assumptions or following tradition. We have families here who are at the forefront of this cultural shift that upends the gender binary, as well as honors those who bravely, valiantly tell us that their experience of who they are doesn’t match either their external genitalia or the preconceived cultural norms around gender that are constricting.

Here is my question for us: how can we be the spiritual community they need us to be? How can we be the religious congregation we need us to be in order to live into our values and our faith that grounds itself in holy inclusivity? How can we be the religious congregation that the local community and the wider world needs us to be because there are people out there who are not loved as whole, not loved as holy, and they are counting on us?

Why should you – especially if this is outside your comfort zone — why should you do this? Why do this, if it upends your world in deeply fundamental ways?

My answer, selfishly, is because I am asking you to. Because, truly, I need you to.

Alone, I cannot create a world where, like the hymns says, “everything possible” is, in fact, possible for my child. Despite my very best efforts and the loving power of my heart, I cannot create a welcoming future for my daughter – for either one of them – to be the wholest person she knows herself to be – without help, without a whole wide community of people to bring it into being.

I need you. My child needs you. Children in this congregation need you – whether they are still growing or already adults. And your child – or grandchild, or great grand — no matter their gender identity – needs you, too.

Especially now when we speculate about what might be in store for public education in the coming years, ours must be a refuge of love and inclusivity, of honoring people for their whole selves, of providing science-based, culturally relevant responses when they come seeking information, or are filled with longing because they do not see themselves reflected in their textbooks or in media and still they refuse to conform.

It is important to remember that when we are quiet on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, even if our hearts are full of love and acceptance, our children and youth who are watching us fill in that silence with what the rest of the world is saying and think that is what we are thinking and believing.

Perhaps you remember what it was like when this congregation became a Welcoming Congregation. Even for UU congregations, it is rarely an easy process. Some folks chose to grow, learning anew, and others chose to leave, not seeing themselves in the direction the congregation was intentionally choosing – the fear often being that it would become “a gay church,” when in fact, you were trying to live into your values of being a loving, inclusive, welcoming congregation. I am so thankful that you all made that decision back in 2004.

I have been curious about this. Our Welcoming status is not particularly visible. We have a little sign just inside the entrance that most people just walk past and never notice. We do host a gay AA meeting — we can be proud of this. We do not fly a rainbow flag inside the building, or outside – even though the sign on Tices Lane would lend itself rather fabulously.

Our pews could be filled with people who, when we say our Bond of Union and get to the part that says, “his or her own,” – an important win in the days when “he” was used as the so-called universal pronoun – recognize that this is not as inclusive as it is used to be.

Our congregation could have – should have, needs to have — more people trained as OWL teachers so that we can ensure that our children and their parents know that we are fully informed. The Religious Education program is looking to have two more people receive training to be able to help with our 7-9th grade OWL class next year. If you are interested, please talk to Jillian right away. And I’m always happy to go on and on about teaching OWL: some of the most powerful – I would call them “holy” — moments I spent at my home congregation were when I was teaching OWL.

And for those of us who have the privilege of being born into the body that matches our experience of gender, we can become more comfortable, more practiced at offering our chosen personal pronouns – like I do at the bottom of all my emails, like on our name tags — as an act of compassion and solidarity with those for whom their sense of wholeness depends upon it and who should not be left on their own.

~~

This is what I know: our children are watching. Other people’s children are watching. And some of them are paying close attention as to whether we will be a source of something even bigger than welcome: a source of hope, a lifeline, a connection to sanity and wholeness.

Our children – yours and mine, whether you raised them in your home or are part of raising them in this congregation – are watching and learning about the kind of inclusive, loving future we are creating for and with them.

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.

May it be so.

Posted in OWL, Parenting, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gratitude Flag Garden along the Mill River

Not long before I left Western Massachusetts last summer, I walked along the Mill River in an area I hadn’t visited for several years. Well, maybe even more than several, truth be told.

 

I was so lucky because I stumbled upon an installation of gratitude prayer flags. Scores of them. Hundreds of them. Hanging from laundry line tied to the trunks of trees. All the flags were varying shades of the same rust/saffron/orange hue. And each one had writing or drawing on it. Different handwriting, different styles, different messages, but all the same: expressions of gratitude.

My eyes awash with this delight, my heart filled with joy and gratitude as I read and came to understand the purpose.

Among the flags, at the base of one of the trees, was a weather-resistant plastic container with pieces of cloth, cut to about the same size and shape as each other and the ones hanging, blank and ready for my expressions of gratitude.

Also there were several permanent markers so that I could write (or draw) them. And instructions, which were really more like declaration of purpose, so that I could understand what my individual gesture meant as part of this collective embodiment of gratitude and impermanence.

I can’t get this photo to sit upright…

It says, “The Gratitude Line was started in 2011, one week before Thanksgiving.  The interest was that it would be a place near the river that people from the community could share their gratitude publicly yet anonymously, a powerful gift for both the givers and the receivers…”

It is signed, “Blessings, The Keepers.”

Given all that is happening in the world, given all that happens in the heart of any given human being, I wish there was a gratitude flag garden in every community — not so common as to become invisible, but accessible to any and all longing for the chance to express both their grief and gratitude (for both are so deeply entwined).

Thank you, The Keepers.  My heart is larger and my imagination sparked by your efforts and your gift to all of us.

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be * LOVE * d (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

February 5, 2017

(written text does not match delivered sermon exactly)

Our Time For All Ages story: click here.

Our reading: click here.

We all want to be loved.

We — likely all people of conscience and faith — wish to be Love. Capital “L” Love.

In general, Unitarian Universalists aspire to embody Beloved Community.

It’s not easy. The way is not always clear.

Be Love. Be loved. Beloved. Just what does it mean – Be Love — in the midst of feeling so relentlessly be-leaguered by the onslaught of the latest news.

What does it mean in the midst of witnessing so many being be-littled? Like that five year old boy, handcuffed at the airport, separated from his mother, a security risk – a security risk?!?

Or the executive order titled ‘Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom,’ …with sweeping plans to legalize discrimination.

Does Love look like the message from the principle at Roosevelt High in Des Moines last Monday? Heck yea.

I have been wondering what that principal felt like while writing that speech? What he felt like, in the moments before he turned on the sound system, asked for their attention? I think there must have been adrenaline coursing through his body, at that threshold where fear and courage meet, and courage decides to let fear be its companion, not its captor.

I wonder what it felt like to be an immigrant student at that high school, head on desk, not listening to the PA system, because – dude, it’s always boring when they tell us what’s for lunch or what the stupid new rule is – but then, the ears prick up, the heart is alerted. He’s talking about me, and a lot of people have been talking about me, about my family, my people, my nation, and it hasn’t been good, but here – what’s this? — a message of love.

What does it look like to be Love? To make sure those who are the focus of so much vitriol, of alarming executive orders, of hate crimes, that they feel beloved? That they feel belonging?

Does it look like Victoria, Texas, where a mosque was burned to the ground last weekend?

Robert Loeb, the president of Temple Bnai Israel in the small town, [was reported to have said]: “Everyone knows everybody, I know several members of the mosque, and we felt for them. When a calamity like this happens, we have to stand together.

“We have probably 25 to 30 Jewish people in Victoria, and they probably have 100 Muslims. We got a lot of building for a small amount of Jews.”

One of the mosque’s founders, Shahid Hashmi, said: “Jewish community members walked into my home and gave me a key to the synagogue.”

To whom do we hand our keys? Our TUS’ keys? Metaphorical or real – or in our case, secret combination — access to this space we steward not just for ourselves, but in service of the vision we have for this world?

There is a call for houses of worship to become sanctuary for those who might need it – for those (my apologies for this coarse term) “low hanging fruit” easily identified by the current administration for quick deportation: the DREAMERS, initially protected by DACA but now made more vulnerable by it; those Muslim men, then aged 16-65 who were required to register with the NSEER program after 9/11 – supposedly that registry, which had not been in use for years, was dismantled before the last president left, but there is now talk that it might be used to identify people; how about those folks whose deportations were stayed before, they are now at high risk, including those individuals who the Reformed Church of Highland Park gave sanctuary to over the past decade and who have become interwoven into our shared communities – they, our friends and neighbors, are at higher risk now.

Is sanctuary what Love looks like? what Beloved Community looks like? Is there an umbrella we share with a stranger?

Organizers in the sanctuary movement speak of “sanctuary behaviors,” recognizing that while not every house of worship can physically host a person or a family, every house of worship can choose other means:

  • supporting those houses of worship that do make that bold choice of hosting;
  • offering free space for workshops on knowing one’s rights;
  • organizing rapid response teams that would shine light when ICE – the Immigration and Customs Enforcement – comes in the middle of the night (that is when they do it, friends) to pick up people for detention and deportation.

Does Love look like the thousands – thousands upon thousands – who showed up at our international airports, across the country, on such short notice, to witness, to decry the chaotic immigration executive order and travel ban, explicitly targeting people from some – not all, not the ones with whom our government has business ties – from Muslim-majority countries?

Now, I didn’t go to Newark airport. I don’t know if any of you did. Blessings upon you if you did. I’d like to hear about it.

I live –what? – only a half hour away. I could have, though it would have been a significant inconvenience given what was going on in my family, but I could have, and I didn’t.   I’m still sorting out how I feel about that choice.   I do know that I am so thankful for those who did. Newark. JFK. Philly. SFO. Dallas. Los Angeles. The list goes on…

I guess you can’t be everywhere all the time, but I think I do have to figure out when I am going to show up in that particular way. Not just for planned and scheduled marches, like happened several weeks ago, but these drop-everything-right-now calls to gather, to be a part of social witness, to resist the encroachment of authoritarianism.   More and more of them are happening because more and more of them are tragically necessary.

But here’s the thing: there is evidence that showing up turns the tide.

Researchers Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have studied major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the removal of a government or for territorial liberation since 1900. Their conclusion? Twice as likely are nonviolent campaigns to be successful than violent ones.   Chenoweth wrote this week in The Guardian, that if 3.5% of a population engages in sustained non-violent resistance – for the long haul presence, a movement not a moment — to an authoritarian leader or government, it will topple.

Some of you showed up last Sunday evening – attending the vigil for immigrants at the Reformed Church of Highland Park. Perhaps that is one way we could choose to become a sanctuary congregation: supporting them if – but more likely when — they choose to once again take in those being targeted for unjust deportation.

Vigils. Protests. Acts of social witness like the Burma Shave Love Your Neighbor signs along our frontage. Crossing the Awkward and the uncomfortable to build relationships with those whom we do not know well, or at all, but are caught in the crosshairs of national tragedy. This. More and more, this is what these times call for.

How do we be Love? A week ago Friday, I was on a conference call with 999 other faith leaders across the land, taking part in a conversation about moral resistance. We spoke of a week of concerted actions of solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

You were this Love. Jillian, our Director of Religious Education, made beautiful big cards for the two mosques with whom TUS is in renewed relationship – children signed them, youth signed them, adults signed them.

One of our newer congregants – Laura – she happened to have blank cards with her. Who has blanks cards with them? Well, she did, and they were cards that had followed her, over many, many years.   She told me that she carried the cards from Kansas to California, Virginia, Japan, Italy, and then here, to New Jersey, never knowing why she kept them since it seemed clear she would never use them.

Then she saw a message from me on Saturday night, hoping folks would use coffee hour to write messages. She realized their purpose.

Out of those beautiful messages of love, of friendship, of solidarity, of comfort, we delivered them to two Muslim communities — on Friday with other faith leaders from East Brunswick and Saturday with Linda, Kathy (representatives from your board) and Troy.

So this is indeed Love, gestures meaningful and significant to our interfaith neighbors. In return for our meeting with our Muslim neighbors over on New Brunswick Ave yesterday, they gave us those flowers in the lobby. It was a delightful conversation we had, including talking about the vagaries of unpaved parking lots!

I want to say, as wonderful gestures of love as they were, they were also gestures that remain within our comfort zones. It feels good. It is easy. It does not ask much of us.

These times are calling for us to an ever fiercer love, one that will rarely be comfortable, that will mean adrenaline coursing through OUR bodies, not just the bodies of people whose stories we read about. Perhaps you have already found yourself in such a situation – the fierce love of interrupting someone harassing one of our beloved gay, or lesbian, or bi, or trans, or genderqueer friends or neighbors or strangers. The fierce awkward love of calling a friend or co-worker or family member in on something said that is racist or sexist or plain ignorant.

These times are asking of us, are requiring of us, that we not only write such cards and messages, but that we move out of the house of our own comfort (these walls) and be the deliverer of such messages – that we meet our neighbors not on our turf, but theirs. Or that we do actions not of our own making, but of their request – like perhaps showing support for the East Brunswick mosque’s expansion at the township’s planning board meeting on February 15.

We need not risk our lives (not yet, and pray not ever, though some have already made this choice), or our humanity (pray not ever).  At the very least, perhaps as a starting place, we must risk the current contours of our comfort zones.

This too – living outside our comfort zones – this is part and particle of Beloved Community, of being Love. Being Love is built on a sense of deep connection. And with deep connection – just like with authentic covenantal relationship – it’s complex. It’s not easy because there is discomfort, there is anxiety, there is a certain amount of unknown.

In building Beloved Community we may – we will – find ourselves in community with folks who do not share our politics or theologies, may not even honor our sense of who god is or is not, and yet we are called to Beloved Community, called to Be Love, nevertheless, finding intersections of our common humanity as our starting place. It’s not only possible. Our very survival is predicated upon it.

Be Longing.

Be Love.

Be Loved.

Be Love even with, or especially when, adrenaline is coursing through my veins, as it is likely a sign that I am on a path that requires courage.

We be Love in order to offer “portable sanctuary” with our presence in the world.

We be Love to save our own souls, to save our own humanity.

We choose Love, not because we are guaranteed it will win if we do, but because it is guaranteed to lose if we don’t.

#nobannowall

#resistance

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Rapid Response Call – January 27, 2017

Today, along with 999 other faith leaders (there would have been more, but the conference call capacity tapped out even before the call began), I spent an hour on listening to the leaders of the Groundswell movement, the Moral Resistance Movement, the Revolutionary Love movement, the Shoulder to Shoulder movement: Valarie Kaur, a Sikh woman, mother of a two-year-old, and resistance leader; Rev. Dr. William Barber, of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina and author of The Third Reconstruction; and Catherine Orsborn, community organizer against Islamophobia, sharing their vision of how we might respond to these times.

It was a powerful call, knowing that I was in the company of so many not only longing to be a part of something bigger, but willing to be. It was a powerful call, taking in the wise and grounded information and instructions from these skillful religious leaders in interfaith relationship with each other and the rest of us.

Valerie Kaur

Here is what I heard Ms. Kaur say:

  1. Call your elected officials. Every day.
  2. Exercise your voice in all your spheres of influence: work, family, play, spiritual life.
  3. If you have 650 words in you, write them down and get them out: in an op-ed in your local paper, in a blog.
  4. Take part in this weekend’s actions of solidarity with immigrant and particularly Muslim communities.

The day after the election, Ms. Kaur wrote one of the most powerful invocations from that haunting day. Here it is, in part:

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 mothers 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 if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?

Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”

Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.

Rev. Dr. William Barber

Reverend Barber, powerful orator, compelling political tactician, and clear-sighted prophet, reminded us that “we’re not in the worst time, we’re just in OUR time.” He reminded us that things have been worse in this country – slavery and lynching; indigenous genocide; female disenfranchisement – and that we are wise to remember this and let it inform and inspire us. He reminded us that underneath the impetus for civil disobedience is the clear-sighted moral obedience.

Rev. Barber directed us to do these things:

  1. Go to the Repairers of the Breach web site and learn what it offers – videos, readings – it should take 4-6 hours and remember: this is not just about Trump, but was happening long before he became candidate and won.
  2. Sign up here if you are willing to be trained to use your body in your acts of resistance.
  3. Pay attention for upcoming announcements about tactics and dates.

Do not let this be just a moment. Be a part of making it a movement. All successful movements must have a methodology.

Catherine Orsborn

Thirdly, this is what I heard from Catherine Orsborn:

  1. There is a call for all houses of worship, as an act of solidarity with Muslims, who have been specifically targeted by the current administration’s executive orders and rhetoric, to focus on amplifying the voices of Muslims at their religious services this weekend.
  2. In this week coming, send a note of encouragement to a local Islamic Center – even flowers, or offer to draw chalk message of love, welcome, and protection.
  3. This coming Friday, attend prayers at a local mosque or community center. It’s best if you call ahead of time to let them know of your plans and if you are not already in relationship, to begin that important journey. We are in this together and it is well past time we know each other.

Here is the link to the Rapid Response Guide for People of Faith & Moral Conscience.  There’s alot in this document –powerful stuff.  Perhaps good to sit with others to reflect upon it and better integrate it.  This comes to us from the  which seems to be doing some kick-ass organizing and inspiring!

There is much to do. More than one person can do. More than one thousand people can do. This is so very true and feels at times like a heavy load.

From my own faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism, I offer these words of inspiration and comfort from Everett Edward Hale:

I am only one, but I am one.

I cannot do everything, but I can do something.

And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.

These are our times. They belong to no one else. So with humility, intentionality around rest and laughter, persistence and insistence, let us be the ones who rise up, building not only resistance, but resilience along the way.

#nobannowall

#ourcitiesstandtall

#revolutionarylove

#moralresistance

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You Are the Sixth: The Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, New Jersey

January 22, 2017

 Last May, when I sat with many of you at the Women’s luncheon to interrogate – I mean interview – the ministerial candidate to decide whether to call her – call me — I had the joy to listen to and then answer your questions and to ask you some. It was a sweet, if mildly nerve-wracking, time.

One of the more tricky questions came from Mary Dalton. She asked how I felt about hope. I still remember the sigh in my body before I attempted to answer that simple, not-simple question.

Hope. Optimism. As you heard in the Time For All Ages story, this is one of the five smooth stones of liberal religion, offered here as one-line summaries by Rev. Galen Guengerich, minister at All Souls in New York:

  • Revelation isn’t a once-and-done message from on high; we continue to new learn new truths every day.
  • Human relationships should be mutual and not coercive.
  • Our highest moral obligation is to build just and loving human communities.
  • Good things will happen only if we use our agency as human beings to make them happen.
  • The resources we [need are] available to make meaningful change in our world.

In order to make JLA’s writings more relevant to more Unitarian Universalists, some ministers have distilled each of these five smooth stones into shorter – sometimes even one-word – signifiers. There is no one universally agreed-upon list; in fact, the multitude of lists shows some consensus and a lot of creativity, as well as how a single concept can be interpreted many different ways.

In the Time For All Ages story, I offered up action words, adapted from a religious educator, Karen Fisk, in Amherst, Massachusetts (with her permission). They were:

Learn.

Love.

Give.

Work.

Hope.

Here I offer up not action words, but my own pithy statements of their essential nature:

  • First Smooth Stone: Living Tradition.
  • Second Smooth Stone: Consent. Often spoken of as Voluntary Association.
  • Third Smooth Stone: Justice. There is the much consensus on this one.
  • Forth Smooth Stone: Agency: Good things don’t just happen, people make them happen.  But I also think the phrase, “Have Courage” belongs here too.
  • Fifth Smooth Stone: here are JLA’s words for this stone: “[L]iberalism holds that the resources (divine and human) that are available for the achievement of meaningful change justify an attitude of ultimate optimism.”

In that last one, you hear JLA’s use of the phrase, “ultimate optimism.” My pithy statement for the fifth smooth stone is Trust, though most choose the single word, “Hope.”

~~~

How do you feel about hope? Is it available to you? Does it come easy, a part of your easy-going temperament? Do you have to nudge yourself to feel it? Does it elude you, not just on a day here or a day there, but far more often than makes living easy?

It is a thought? An emotion? A corporeal feeling? An aspiration?

Is it possible? Is it more or less possible today than yesterday? Than last year? Than you imagine in the years to come?

After yesterday’s marches – across the nation and across the world – as I was marching with apparently 1.2 million of my closest friends in Washington, DC – hope seems a bit more within my grasp.

I have heard said over and over, by mentors and colleagues, that ministers – even over the span of decades – preach only one sermon in their lifetime. They preach it a multitude of ways, a variety of iterations, devising an assortment of ways to enter into the heart of what they are preaching.

(Or at least one hopes that there is a multiplicity, else it gets pretty boring pretty quickly.)

I think Hope might be my sermon.

~~~

The five smooth stones is not the only thing that James Luther Adams – JLA – contributed to our modern engagement with Unitarian Universalism. He spent two decades teaching at Meadville Lombard, one of our two remaining UU seminaries – and then went on to teach ethics at Harvard Divinity School, also for a long time. From all that I read and hear, truly he was beloved by his students and colleagues.

He spent time studying with German theologians, who were the height of progressive theology, during the first third of the twentieth century. In so doing, he spent time in Germany as the Nazis were coming to power, first in 1927, and again in the 1930s, including before and after Hitler came to power. He studied with those who created the Confessing Church, in opposition to the Nazis and in opposition to the Christian Church which had fallen in lock step with national socialist movement.

His notions of optimism, as well as his insistence on voluntary associations, as well as the power of each of our, and our collective, agency in the world, come out of the fires of his first-hand experience with fascism. Before heading to yesterday’s march on our National Mall, a place I hold quite dear from my four years of residing there, I read JLA’s essay, “The Evolution of My Social Concern.” In it, he describes attending in 1927 – six years after Hitler became the head of his movement and six years before he became head of state – a Nazi parade of thousands in Nuremburg.

I knew I was going to a different kind of large gathering of people than the one he described here. But I also knew that I –that we – are living in a time that holds too many echoes to that era, too many similarities in the rise of a national leader using ethnic and racial scapegoats to further his, and his cronies’, hold on power – all through legitimate means.

While in conversation with one of those theologians who were opposing Hitler, Adams found himself asking the following question, ‘If Fascism should arise in the States, what in your past performance would constitute a pattern or framework of resistance?’ “ His response to his own question:

I could give only a feeble answer […]. My principal political activities had been the reading of the newspaper and voting. I had preached sermons on the depression or in defense of strikers. Occasionally, I uttered protest against censorship in Boston, but I had no adequate conception of citizenship participation.

Pretty devastating assessment of his own life. I have been wondering about how my own life would fare.

In his further reflections upon his time in Germany, Adams reports

Repeatedly I heard anti-Nazis say, If only 1,000 of us in the late twenties had combined in heroic resistance, we could have stopped Hitler. I noticed the stubborn resistance of the Jehovah’s Witness. I observed also the lack of religious pluralism in a country that had no significant Nonconformist movement in the churches. Gradually I came to the conviction that a decisive institution of the viable democratic society is the voluntary association as a medium for the assumption of civic responsibility.

Here we see where the second smooth stone emerges – how precious and costly his experience that brought to him the commitment to voluntary association not for its own sake, not as entertainment or good company, but a necessity in the face of authoritarian tendencies and realities. Perhaps here we also see the forth stone: we are not to wait for god, or other people, to do good, but to do it with our own hands, made stronger with the second stone at our side: in community.

And here I want to offer you a little story that speaks to some of our smooth stones, not from last century, but from this past Thursday. It comes to us from the Rev. Dawn Cooley, who took part in an organized visit of constituents going to Senator Mitch McConnell’s in Louisville to share their experience of what losing the Affordable Care Act meant to them.

It was quite an experience. One woman told me how she had been feeling depressed and how this action helped her regain a sense of her power. Everyone had stories about how important the ACA is in their lives.

I’ve never done anything quite like this before – I’m more used to confronting power in a crowd, not in power’s office. But it was a whole lot easier than I thought and I know we made a difference today – maybe not in McConnell’s opinion, but in the lives of those of us participating, and the security guards we talked to, and the poor guy who listened to all our stories and diligently wrote them down.   Totally worth it.                  (Facebook, 1/18/17, used with permission)

And here I want to share my own experience from yesterday’s march in Washington, DC, where my daughter and I ended up spending the day with a ragtag group of UU young adults from NYC, Baltimore, and Cleveland who had not known each other before. In the throng and crush of the friendly, cooperative crowd that involved more “waddling” than marching, we became a temporary congregation, an impermanent sangha, complete with dancing to Madonna’s Express Yourself and singing from the teal hymnal, by heart, “Woyaya,” when we were trying to get through the press of the crowd

We are going / heaven knows where we are going / but we know within. / And we will get there / heaven knows how we will get there / but we know we will.

We held hands not to get lost from each other as we squeezed our way through the tightly-knit crowd; we held each others’ load when it got too heavy, we offered toilet paper when we had extra. These young people gave away buttons of peace when strangers – who looked very different from them, across differences of race and religion — expressed appreciation and passed on coveted posters when another stranger seemed to long for it more than the current possessor. These young people made me proud to be a Unitarian Universalist today. It made me realize that we do these actions not only to achieve some goal, but to embody the world we dream about now.

It seems that these five smooth stones – the ones that helped little David slay the giant Goliath and allow the scrappy Israelite army to win against the Philistines; the ones that we have come to understand as a major theological underpinning of Unitarian Universalism, in particular, and liberal religion, in general – are good company in our spiritual pockets, alongside our seven principles, about which I preached last week. Our responsive reading today weave these together – the five smooth stones, the seven principles, worthy company for us on this intentional journey as Unitarian Universalists.

These five smooth stones need updating for our times. Some have tried to come up with their own five smooth stones. One colleague – inspired by our Universalist side — has suggested that love is missing and would be her first smooth stone. Another colleague has suggested that all five smooth stones together are what make up love. Personally, I don’t want to be bound by the artificial limit of five.

I think we need a sixth stone. I think that right now, that sixth stone is probably rough, likely unpolished. That sixth stone does exist already, though not fully formed, not fully transformed.

That sixth stone is you.

That sixth stone is me.

That sixth stone is we.

Maybe today’s chalice lighting — the declaration of conscience drafted jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee just a few days ago — has something to do with that sixth stone: affirming our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence, to resist the turning back of advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, a pledge to embody compassion and justice in human relations.

I’m not sure what the sixth stone is — but I believe with my whole heart, it is ours to name and to become and to embody together.

May it be so. Blessed be.

REFERENCES

Adams, James Luther. “The Evolution of My Social Concern.”

The text is also found in Voluntary Associations: Socio-cultural Analyses and Theological Interpretation by James Luther Adams

http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/movesus/workshop7/conversion-experience

Landrum, Cynthia. http://revcyn.blogspot.com/2011/05/five-smooth-stones.html

Lorenzen, Tony. https://sunflowerchalice.com/2011/05/09/five-smooth-stones/

Van der Weele, Jim.

http://communitychurchuu.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&catid=24:sermons&id=196:the-five-smooth-stones-of-liberal-religion

 

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Getting Free Together: The Ministry of Joshua Young Still Preaches Today (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

January 15, 2017

(this is an abreviated form of the sermon that received the 2016 Unitarian Universalist History Convocation prize)

 

Imagine the most notorious train cargo of its time.

The body of a man executed for treason.

Imagine half the populace is simmering with vengeance and the other half – or perhaps not even that many – grieving the loss of a hero, whose passion for a righteous heaven on earth had enflamed their own.

And now, he had failed in his tragic, violent mission to free the slaves.

Imagine decoy boxes that look like coffins but don’t contain the body.

Imagine careful attention to routes, even in the North, for even there this man has enemies. Imagine making the slow journey from Charlestown, Virginia to North Elba, New York – in the uppermost corner of the Eastern part of the state, nearly to Canada.

Now imagine that you are an admirer of this man who sought to free the slaves by any means possible as you, too, had done within your own realm.

Imagine you are in Burlington, Vermont, and the train has just passed to the south of you. You     just     might   be    able to attend the funeral of this martyr if you leave NOW.

Imagine with you a fierce friend and a long horse ride.

Imagine a stormy night, that Lake Champlain is between you and your destination, not to mention a ferryman who refuses you passage because of the purpose of your ride.

Imagine you are the Reverend Joshua Young.

~~~~

Unitarians and Universalists have a mixed historical record on the abolition of slavery. We moderns have a tendency to claim our affiliation with those of our religious abolitionist ancestors and keep in the dusty corners those who advocated only gradualism, or who kept silent and profited from the cotton economy just as much as plantation owners in the South.

Among those who supported the swift elimination of the institution of slavery, there were fringe elements. The ultimate embodiment of this was John Brown – not a Unitarian, but materially supported and lauded by many in our ranks, including Thoreau and a group of wealthy Unitarian men called the “Secret Six.”

John Brown is by all accounts a controversial figure – even now, 157 years after his raid on Harpers Ferry. People have strong feelings about what he did – not only in Harpers Ferry, but also about earlier, in Kansas, when he and his followers, fighting against the establishment of slavery in Kansas, he led raids that killed, then denied the extent of his role in it. Brown’s attempt to foment a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry is considered by many, at best, misguided, and at worst, cold-blooded murder. It does not help that the first person to die in this ill-fated effort was a free Black man named Heyward Shepherd.

This sermon is not intended to persuade you one way or another about Brown but to shed light on the man who buried him with honor and dignity, providing pastoral solace to his grieving family.

Reverend Joshua Young’s small part in the John Brown narrative is not widely known. He’s not on Wikipedia and our own online Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography does not (yet) have an entry – though that will be remedied this summer during part of my study leave. No entry for his story can (yet) be found on Wikipedia.

His name is not in the go-to book on the topic of those Unitarians who financially supported John Brown’s quixotic mission (Renehan’s Secret Six). His story can be found in historical records about the Underground Railroad, in primary texts pieced together from the late 19th century, and in the troves of lay historians connected with two of the congregations he served, three of whom I thank: Elizabeth Curtiss in Burlington, Melinda Green and Steve Burne in Groton, Massachusetts.

~~~

The basic facts of his life are these. Born in 1823. Graduated from what we now call Harvard Divinity School in 1848 and a year later, married Mary Plympton. He took his first pastorate in Boston, where he and Mary were co-conductors on the Underground Railroad. In 1852, Reverend Young was called to minister in Burlington, Vermont. The Youngs continued their activity as Underground Railroad conductors, though there were others in the area who were more directly involved. Burlington had become an important location on the path to freedom as it became essential to move once-enslaved African Americans up to Canada, since the North was no longer safe.

This was proved by the rendition of many African Americans who had escaped the South and had come to the North, including Anthony Burns. Anthony Burns was an escaped slave from Virginia who had been living in Boston since March, 1854. Complying with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the authorities in Boston arrested Burns on May 24. Two days later, members of Tremont Temple (a Black church in downtown Boston), members of that Boston Vigilance Committee, involving several Unitarian ministers, and a crowd that swelled to 2,000 unsuccessfully attempted to free Burns from jail. In the melee, a deputy was stabbed and killed. The courts decided that Burns should be returned to his “rightful” slaveholder. On June 2, with 50,000 people lining the streets (hopefully in disgust), Burns was led in shackles to the ship that returned him to captivity.

It just so happened that Young, and nearly every other Unitarian minister in the region, was in Boston for professional meetings and witnessed this unjust act of rendition. Records show that many Unitarian ministers went back to their congregations and alerted them to what had just transpired.

With his long travels back to Burlington, Young was not preaching that first Sunday; his fiery sermon came the following week, preaching that the Fugitive Slave Law was        “wicked and infamous – a dark deed of sin – an act of treachery”      and that disobedience to this human-made law was obedience to God. He preached,

“I have come back to fulfill a vow I then and there laid upon my soul, to plead the cause of the slave – the cause of human rights and liberty, with renewed zeal; to give whatever of talent God has bestowed on me, and whatever of influence I am permitted to exert, to the agitation and discussion of this evil, wrong, crime against man, sin against God – American Slavery.”

[side note] I will let you know – in case you do not know, just to close at least one loop within this larger story — that Anthony Burns’ freedom was purchased by the Twelfth Baptist Church of Boston, a different Black church, for $1300 and within a year, he was back in Boston. It leaves one wondering what role, if any, those Unitarians, so concerned about his return to captivity, played in later, less-public efforts to assure his freedom.

But let me return to Joshua Young as we fast forward five years to 1859…

That Young ended up officiating at the funeral of John Brown contains both elements of fate and serendipity. Like much of the nation, Young’s attention was drawn to the violent drama that took place at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in the middle of October, when John Brown and his band of raiders attempted to foment a slave revolt to bring to an end American slavery. Many of Brown’s co-conspirators, including two of his sons, were killed in the unsuccessful attack.

Those captured alive, including Brown, were brought to trial and sentenced to death. Once Brown was executed, his body was transported to the small community of North Elba, New York, where the Brown family had a farm.

Joshua Young – racing against time, traveling through a dark and stormy night – arrived four hours before the funeral’s appointed time to find himself the only clergy among those assembled. Abolitionist Wendell Phillips enlisted Reverend Young on the spot to conduct the funeral (Phillips did the eulogy). Young offered a prayer and benediction under the shadow of the large boulder that to this day, marks the gravesite.

Word of the funeral spread quickly, including to Burlington, because a newspaper published a transcript of Young’s words, including those spoken directly to the widow to assuage her grief. Reverend Young quoted 2nd Timothy chapter 4, saying that Brown had “fought the good fight,” elevating the mad abolitionist to martyr equal to Biblical Paul.

This did not play well back home.

Numerous prominent families in his congregation took great umbrage. Six left immediately. Others left at a slower pace. Others, according to Young’s numerous memoir-like accounts, practiced social ostracism against him and his wife. Young felt he had no choice but to resign.

Some forty years later, Young wrote a stinging assessment of the reception he received from the congregation he had served for nearly a decade, noting that he made no apology for his sympathy with a “felon” nor bringing solace to that felon’s family in distress. Here are his words from his letter of resignation in Burlington, just a few years after burying Brown:

I rejoice that no graver charge is made against me than that I have pushed the principles of general justice and benevolence too far, further than cautious policy would warrant and further than the feelings of some would go along with me. In every accident which may happen through life, in pain and sorrow, in depression, in distress, I will call to mind this accusation and be comforted.

Generally described as a gentle pastor, in this particular regard, Young was firm and unrepentant for his role in the John Brown funeral until his dying days.

Young went on to serve other Unitarian churches, all in Massachusetts: one in Hingham, one in Fall River, and then finally, in December, 1875, he arrived at what would be his final pastorate: the then sleepy little town of Groton, which I served as an Intern Minister until June of last year.

Towards the end of his long tenure serving in Groton, Joshua Young had another opportunity to say words of honor, solace, and witness in North Elba. Forty years after Brown was buried beneath that giant boulder, in 1899, the bodies of raiders at Harpers Ferry were located and disinterred. The locations of the unmarked graves of these men had been either lost or kept secret to protect them from vandals. The bodies were transported north and buried with respect next to Brown.

Five years later, in 1904, Reverend Joshua Young died.

~~~

As Unitarian Universalists, our faith comes from six sources, the second of which is, “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Words and deeds from over 160 years ago are aptly termed, “prophetic” when they still speak to us, they still preach to us. In 1854, Young preached these words:

To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause, to vindicate your claim and mine to the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (emphasis added)

This is not condescension. This is not Christian charity, though Young understood his abolitionist stance as writ by God and an enactment of his faith.

This is what modern Unitarian Universalists call “collective liberation,” a notion expressed in countless liberation movements over the centuries, uttered, enacted, and embodied right now by those on the cutting edge of continued efforts toward racial justice and liberation from all forms of cultural oppressions.

It is, when it comes right down to it, our seventh principle: respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Or as Dr. King said it much more eloquently:

“All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

The deeds of Reverend Joshua Young, and their consequences, still speak to us, both to inspire, but also to act as warning. That Young’s ministry in Burlington was brought to a close, likely because of his perceived improper – extreme — stance directly related to racial justice in his time, speaks to us now in how our congregations across the nation support or censor or publicly chastise ministers in our faith movement – and other religious leaders – for speaking out in support of #BlackLivesMatter, for risking the perception of being anti-police, when, in fact, such prophetic witness is anti-police brutality. Or when ministers preach the social gospel – bringing ethics and morality to the pulpit – while some express concern about too political of a ministry.

Of course, the struggle for racial justice dwells not in history alone, but is alive right now. For those of us who wonder what we might have done during the civil rights era, we need not wonder about the past, but reflect upon our own actions now, in this time.

It is about our nation now, how systemic racism is breaking hearts metaphorically and bodies, literally.

It is about police brutality that is visited disproportionately on people of color.

It is about the school-to-prison pipeline – “the New Jim Crow” that too many African American people, especially young men, but also young women, experience in our country.

On a much lesser scale, it is the increasing numbers of #BlackLivesMatter signs, hanging from houses of worship, hanging from approximately 147 Unitarian Universalist congregations – many of which have been defaced, vandalized, stolen.

It is how white supremacy does not look like what it looked like in the middle of the 19th century, but it is still very much alive and thriving and requires our urgent and persistent attention, not just showing up for the big public events or the hanging of banners, but for the long-haul that involves relationship building and behind-the-scenes engagement.

Reverend Joshua Young shared his prophetic vision, calling his white congregation to see their own freedom bound up with the yet-to-be freedom of African American slaves:

To plead the cause of the slave is to plead our own cause.

He spoke using the idioms and the social reality of his time. So, with humility in my heart, and not nearly so eloquently, let me update his prophetic words to our modern circumstance:

We affirm that all lives matter through our declaration that Black Lives Matter, knowing as we do, all liberation is bound up together.

May we ever work to get free together. Amen.

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