Reparations: A Sermon

here is the whole Sunday service – below is the text of the sermon (in 4 parts)

Introduction

The opening skit  for Saturday Night Live back on April 11, was a morning news show in Minneapolis with four anchors, two Black and two white. This was days before the Derek Chauvin verdict for murdering George Floyd.  Banter reveals the white anchors have more confidence in the judicial system than the Black anchors.  The white anchors are insistent on finding common ground, which their Black counterparts are willing to be a part of as far as that goes.

One Black anchors says “there’s a glaring discrepancy in the way that Black people are treated by police,” both white anchors, with relief in their voices, confirm their agreement. 

The other Black anchor says, “and we need concrete solutions to fix the problem,” to which the white anchors, momentum picking up, nearly shout, “no argument there!” 

Then first Black anchor offers, “And we start with reparations.”

To which the white anchor says, incredulously,

“Now wait just a minute!”

The Black anchors are not surprised – it was clearly a set up. They laugh at their pseudo-attempt to get their white co-workers to follow the logic of their own words, knowing that at the point of consideration of reparations, common ground would disappear yet again.

Reparation means “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”  When when it comes to cultural reparations, the concept raises some intense reactions. Dismissal. Incredulity. Rage.  Fragility. Scorn. Denigration disguised as hyper-rationality. Condescension. Whitesplaining. 

And more and more lately: Possibility.

There was a time when talk about reparations was on the fringe.  Even in fringe times, it was a legitimate conversation, but was relegated to the margins. No more. Wider American society is engaging this concept more and more and so is Unitarian Universalism. We’re going to spend some holy time this morning exploring what is calling on us to engage our best moral imagination, one of the ways we ask ourselves, “Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Part I: History

In 1783, before the birth of this nation’s constitution, freedwoman Belinda Royall petitioned the commonwealth of Massachusetts for reparations. She had been Kidnapped as a child from what is now Ghana, then sold into slavery, she survived fifty years of enslavement, then sought a pension from the family that enslaved her.

Hers was one of the earliest successful attempts at reparations (in part because the family that enslaved her were British loyalists) in this nation. As Ta-Nehisi Coates concludes after sharing this story (and I’m paraphrasing here): the idea that Black people might be owed something after 150 years of enslavement might not have been national consensus, but at least it was not outrageous. Reparations is not a modern idea. 

Not a modern idea and not a theory from the elites, as we well see from Jordan Anderson’s response to the offensive request from the man who had previously enslaved him to return to work for him.  What a response from Jordan Anderson: full of truth-telling, demands for accountability, and not a small amount of satire!

Reparations in this nation does not revolve solely around race-based chattel slavery. Sometimes talk of reparation relates to harm that is not slavery, but is still race-based. Think of this weekend’s marking of the 100th year since the Tulsa massacre, when the most affluent and productive Black neighborhood in this nation was bombed, 300 Black people were murdered and thousands left homeless.  The three remaining survivors of that massacre recently testified in Congress.  One of them, 107-year-old Viola Fletcher said this:

“I will never forget the violence of the white mob when we left our home. I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot….I am 107 years old and I have never … seen justice. I pray that one day I will.”

We can think reparations in the U.S. context for other cultural arenas – for instance, reparations for the displacement and genocide of Native peoples of this land. Not just payment, but return of lands stolen from them. Or to those Japanese Americans who were imprisoned in camps during World War II.

It’s a bigger issue than a single sermon can do justice to, so I make my humble, circumscribed attempt, sticking to reparations as it applies to the legacy of forcibly bringing Africans to this nation as chattel slaves and the ever-renewing ways in which white supremacy embeds itself in our institutions.

Part II: Practicality

One way to bring the conversation about reparations to a standstill is to acknowledge how many groups could be legitimately considered due some form of reparations – displaced Native peoples; descendants of those stolen from Africa; Japanese-American interred during World War II; our Mexican-American siblings in the Southwest living on the land of their ancestors which was claimed by the USA as war winnings.  The argument goes: if it’s not feasible for all, it’s not fair for one.

Yet, the U.S. provided reparations for the Japanese American internment – signed into law by President Reagan in 1988. Ultimately paid, it paid out $1.6 billion to just over 82,000 Japanese Americans. 

Another way to undermine reparations is talk of how impossible it is to go all the way back to slavery.  I find Ta-nehisi Coates response compelling. In his 2014 article, “The Radical Practicality of Reparations”, he wrote,

Even if one feels that slavery was too far into the deep past (and I do not, because I view this as a continuum) the immediate past is with us. Identifying the victims of racist housing policy in this country is not hard. Again, we have the maps. We have the census. [or] We could set up a claims system for black veterans who were frustrated in their attempt to use the G.I. Bill. We could then decide what remedy we might offer these people and their communities. And there is nothing “impractical” about this.

Another way is to undermine reparations is white backlash, plain and simple. The New York Times reported about a week ago about quite recent legislation that provides a “$4 billion federal fund meant to confront how racial injustice has shaped American farming.” The article details how white farmers, feeling they are being unfairly excluded from this fund, are claiming racial discrimination against them, rather than acknowledging the systems of white privilege that have reduced the number of Black farmers from 14% a century ago to less than 2% now. White farmers seemed to have had no problem when the financial equations were unfair in their favor. 

We see our own dynamics with white backlash in Unitarian Universalism, too, with too many people – both lay folks and religious professionals – undermining efforts to attend to the legacy of the dominance of white cultural markers and power dynamics within our own faith movement. 

Yet, thankfully, there are also concrete social justice efforts that are grounded in a reparations approach. Many of our older congregations, established when slavery was still legal in this country, have looked to see how they may have benefitted from the owning of slaves.  Several congregations in Boston, a collaboration between the UU congregations in Rockport and Gloucester Massachusetts; efforts in Needham and North Andover, Massachusetts, and others. There is the memorial at the Unitarian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, honoring the enslaved workers who built the church building, using original bricks that they made with their labor.

At First Parish Brewster, on Cape Cod, one of the members learned that his ancestor, a founder of the congregation, had owned enslaved people. The congregation has a Reparations Task Force that is recommending for a congregational vote next month. The task force’s recommendation is that the congregation commit “a portion of their financial resources — endowment and operating budget — to reparations.”  They understand this to mean acknowledging harm done by their founders, apologizing for that harm, and growing community and congregational awareness.

***

In every Congress since 1989, H.R. 40 has been introduced – first by Congresspersons John Conyers Jr and Sheila Jackson Lee.  In the Senate, there is a companion bill, sponsored by New Jersey’s own Senator Booker.  This proposed legislation isn’t to provide reparations.  It is to establish a commission to study reparations.  For 30 years, it never made it out of committee.  Didn’t see the light of day, basically.  Until this past April when it passed out of committee for the first time ever.  The conversation is changing. Possibility!

Here in New Jersey, S322 was introduced in this legislative session on January 14 of last year.  Successful passage of the bill would not mean New Jersey is obligated to pay reparations to Black descendants of enslaved people. Instead it would establish a task force to “research, write, and publish a report that will make the case for state-based reparations” and “outline policy recommendations that seek to repair the harm” that resulted from slavery in the Garden State, according to current language in the bill. UU FaithAction NJ, a UU social justice organization of which this congregation is a member, recently formed a special task force to support the passage of S322 – members of our congregation could add their energies to ensure a Unitarian Universalist voice is part of this important conversation at the state level.

Another small, yet meaningful act of reparations is our congregation’s involvement in building the Lost Souls memorial. The National African American Reparations Committee published a ten-point plan for reparations, with number 9 being “Sacred Sites and Monuments.” Though our congregation isn’t directly implicated in that 1818 slave ring, our shared geography invites us to accept the invitation to make amends for this whitewashed history and help others to do so as well.  

Part III: Moral Imagination

illustration by Sammy Newman

A Black friend recently suggested that I need not feel guilty about past racial atrocities.  I understand why she might say this to me: liberal white people have an earned reputation for not just your garden variety of guilt, but white guilt.  It seems to be a developmental phase most of us who are white go through and many of us stay in for much or all of our lives.

The white writer, Eula Biss, has noted that in German, the word for guilt is schuld which is the same word for debt. She encourages white people to move out of a sense of guilt to recognizing a state of debt.  This resonates strongly for me. I’ve long been done with white guilt, having spent considerable spiritual, emotional, and personal energy moving out of that useless space.  But debt?  And accountability?  And reckoning?  These are relational concepts, informed by my understanding of our interdependence, which I embrace and feel called to engage.

If you are white, I encourage you to do the same: to take on the practice required to rid ourselves of guilt and move into relationships of accountability, because there is a life-affirming generativity that exists in that dynamic space and in this newest era of racial reckoning, offering opportunities to act through a lens or reparations.

As Unitarian Universalists, in addition to whatever may be happening locally, there is the UUA’s ongoing commitment to fund Black Lives of UU, including the commitment to make amends for how we removed funding from Black organizations in the late 1960s. The UUA Board committed to ensure funding, repaying what was $1 million in 1968 and in modern times (with inflation) was $5.3 million. The UUA Board paid that debit in full, a few months early, last year. While reparations are costly, leaving the unpaid debt is even costlier.

There is the opportunity to adopt the 8th principle (a topic on which I am preaching next week). And so much more.

In 2019, before the murder of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed, the Associated Press found that the vast majority of Black Americans — 74% — favored reparations, but less than a fifth of white Americans did.  Which brings us back to the Saturday Night Live opening skit.  Which brings Unitarian Universalism, with its predominantly white make up and its commitment to racial justice, to a yet another threshold, pondering where we came from and where we are going, pondering what new way we are building.

Ta-nehisi Coates

Ta-nehisi Coates has written that, “The problem of reparations has never been practicality. It has always been the awesome ghosts of history.”

Let us liberate ourselves from those awesome ghosts of history. 

Let us be wiley enough as inspired by the clarity, courage, and candor of Jordan Anderson, still speaking to us from more than a century and a half ago.

Let us engage the practice of our first hymn: knowing where we come from in order to get a sense of where are we going.

Let us use this Memorial Day weekend to remember that the roots of Memorial Day come from enslaved people mourning civil war dead in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. 

Let us observe the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, giving witness to the testimony of Ms. Viola Fletcher and her heart-breaking request that there be justice in her lifetime.

Let us do the necessary weeping before we rebuild the glorious Beloved Community.

Let us be brave enough to face our histories so that our futures are not contorted by the worst of the past, but buoyed by the best of our present efforts.

Let us exercise the best of our moral imaginations when it comes to the case for reparations.

Amen. May it be so.

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Ritual for Re-Opening Space

As all kinds of folx move into re-opening space that was closed during the pandemic, it can help to bring intentionality, and even ritual, to this process. We have all been exposed to trauma in the form of a global pandemic.  This trauma has different manifestations depending on one’s social location and context, but no matter where you are or who you are, the impact of this collective trauma is real.  And this means finding and creating means for healing from it are necessary and can be real. A congregant who is a psychotherapist sought me out, asking about ritual before they begin seeing clients in-person. The following was crowdsourced from Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues, and brought together by the sacred, synergistic energies that occasionally flow through me.  It can be used, in whole or in part, in many contexts ~ perhaps it can be used in yours?   Please feel free to share it widely. I strongly advocate against cultural appropriation of sacred rituals from communities to which we do not belong. For instance, I do not burn sage since its origins is from people native to this continent and mine are not. I encourage others refrain from similar acts of misappropriation. Center Yourself Before entering the space, remove your shoes and connect with gratitude. Sit for as long as you need to be present and to leave the logistics and distractions of the rest of your life aside. They can learn to wait patiently for you while you do this thing. Embodiment: Bow to the pandemic out of respect and humility for its power as an adversary. If the concept of bowing is distasteful, consider it as an act of “touching the earth.” (This idea comes from Joanna Macy, who adapted it from Catriona Reed, an ordained senior member of the Order of Interbeing.) Honoring the limits of your body, raise hands high to the ceiling at each wall and sweep down. Do over and over to experience the power of repetition and the possibility of groove. Exhale audibly and comfortably with each sweep of your arms so that the breath that we’ve been afraid of is now helping move things. Use a broom (I like cinnamon brooms myself – it’s one of the few scents I can tolearate) and ritually sweep, starting at the center of the room and moving toward openings (open windows, doors, vents) Bring music into the space.  Singing or playing recorded music. Some ideas include    Cleanse: If you do this, do it first: sit in the room and allow that which you are inviting to be released to take the form in your mind: words, images. Go holy slowly; some may be timid or wiley and take their time to be known. Write them on slips of paper.  Burn them in the space – perhaps in a cast iron pan. If you cannot burn them in the space (think about fire detectors and safety), go to a nearby outside space to do it. Using water (homegrown holy water, water from a source sacred to you, or salt water representing tears of joy and sorrow), dab this stuff of life in those places that speak to you as in need: thresholds, places where people regularly sit, wherever else calls out to you. Bring in a green plant that will thrive given the conditions of the space (access to natural light, for instance).  A jade plant, perhaps? Not only is it an ongoing filter of the air (cleansing), it is a segue to the next phase for it represents life. Renew & Affirm Life Instead of cut flowers, can you bring into the space a living plant? Set new intentions by writing them down on colorful slips of paper.  Place them in a beautiful container that sits in the room. Perhaps the container is transparent, providing a visual reminder. You could also write new intentions/blessings on flat rocks with a permanent marker, leaving them throughout the space. If you use a version of this ritual, I’d love to hear about it.  Please feel free to contact me at kjohnston (at) uuma (dot) org.
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Living Within Our Means

The Unitarian Society

East Brunswick, NJ

May 16, 2021

Today, I am here to encourage the congregation as a whole to go boldly into uncertainty; to live boldly within our means; to invest boldly in our future. 

Even as the personal and societal winds of scarcity whisper, and sometimes shout, their pernicious persuasion in your ear.

I ask you to engage Rev. Jake’s concluding question: Which trade-off will we make?

***

We are not living within our means when teachers in our school aren’t being paid a living wage. It cannot be on the backs of the staff of the Montessori School that our congregational budget is balanced.

It’s already not right that we don’t help to fund health insurance for our employees except for the Minister (me), though that is far more complex – perhaps even impossible – for us to remedy, except to overhaul the whole damn healthcare system and bring Medicare for All.

It’s not right that we are considering not paying the recommended compensation for guest ministers for the second year in a row, after there was no increase to that standard fee for nine years.

At today’s Annual Meeting, our members are voting on a budget that will remedy the living wage issue for the Montessori School. While the recommended budget has a monetary deficit budget, in this particular sphere, there is no ethical deficit. That is good. Very good.

***

I recently heard someone remark proudly that we haven’t yet touched our Endowment.

This does not fill me with pride.  It fills me with worry.

Worry, because I believe that it could be detrimental to leave the Endowment “intact” instead of accessing its abundance to nourish the congregation during and after this long pandemic austerity. 

In the five years of our shared ministry, I have found that one of the roles is to remind you of the abundance in your midst: that you own a parsonage outright; that you own a School that brings a profit more years than not; that you have a very healthy Endowment (thank you, Ones Who Went Before Us!) – an Endowment that was made to get us through scarce times not just by looking at it.

Living boldly within our means doesn’t necessarily mean accessing our Endowment abundance. It could be accessing our human labor abundance, such as clearing part of the property to create space to safely meet outside in the wooded oasis that is our grounds, as one lay leader recently dreamed aloud with me.

***

In the early 1980s, I took Driver’s Ed class as part of my high school curriculum. Not sure if it was for credit, but my parents didn’t have to pay for it (like I did when my kids were growing up).  I remember there were seatbelts, but only lap belts.  I know some of you remember those days. 

The name of our Driver’s Ed teacher was Slick. That’s what we were allowed to call him.    His nickname matched his slicked back hair so perfectly. I thought he was a wannabe Elvis.  I remember learning from him how to navigate curves:

reduce speed before entering the curve

when you reach that point where the car is closest to the inside of the curve line – called the apex, just BEFORE the curve is about to straighten out —

speed up to successfully pull out of the curve

It was counter-intuitive. Go FASTER inside the curve? It didn’t make sense at first. With practice, I experienced the power of following that guidance. I have been wondering if this applies to our current situation. 

The pandemic put the brakes on – for everyone – kind of like reducing the speed with which we entered the very curve we were trying to flatten.

Here we are now, soon to exit the too-long pandemic curve.  We’ve been driving it longer than any of us hoped we would have too.  Or it’s been driving us.  We’re tired.  We want to put the cruise control on and just coast.

Yet, soon, it’s time to pull out of the curve.  How will we choose to do it?  Coasting along, losing momentum?  Or giving it a bit more gas, so that we can successfully pull out of this doozy of a curve.

So that we can … ease on down, ease on down the road.

***

A lay leader in the Town Hall back in February told those gathered that if every one of our 80-something pledge units were to contribute about $3300, we would meet our annual pledge goal (which doesn’t even cover half of our budget).

I’m thankful to this lay leader for doing the arithmetic.  Someone did that once in my home congregation, back when I was a single mom raising two kids. They said it cost some big sounding number, PER KID, to fund the Religious Education program.  I was shocked. I had no idea.  That information inspired me to increase my pledge, gradually, within my means. So, in that way, it was good to know.

Yet it can also be problematic to know such arithmetic. Not every family could afford to pledge that per-kid-amount.  Plus, it’s not just the responsibility of parents to pay for Religious Education; it’s everyone’s.

Similarly, it can be helpful AND problematic to know this congregation’s arithmetic. It’s just not true that each pledge unit has equal responsibility for meeting the budget.  Some can afford $3300. Some can afford three times that. And some can afford one-tenth.  From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

It can be discouraging for those who cannot afford that arithmetic – so much so that it feels like a message that they don’t belong here.  Not the intention, but can be the impact. I never, ever, want that message of unwelcome for any of you. I don’t think any of us do.

Here’s another problem with that arithmetic: it continues us on our current path of what is the smallest amount we can squeak by on. The what-we-can-squeak-by-on amount does not nourish our imaginations. It does not strengthen the now-foundation now for the future-congregation. 

***

Members AND friends are welcome – invited, encouraged – to attend the Annual Meeting that will be happening after a short break when this worship service is done. All will hear about the extreme challenges the pandemic has brought our congregation and the heroic leadership of the Board, the Finance Committee, the Leadership Development Committee, in fact all the committees, in helping us get through. As a Member, you will get to vote on an imperfect budget given these impossible times. 

Should members choose to approve the budget at the Annual Meeting, you will have used your moral imagination to start UMS teachers’ pay at $15/hour, which is an ethical step worth celebrating. 

In the coming months, we will face the ethical quandary of what to pay guest ministers. The recommended feels outside of our reach.  Yet, if we use our moral imaginations, there is a solution close at hand: we can choose to pay that recommended rate, which would mean fewer guests and more wonderful lay-led services.  This, too, is a way to live within our means.

It seems important to mention that it’s possible if we do not pay the recommended rate, some ministers won’t preach for us, which goes back to Rev. Jake’s question: which trade off will we choose?

At the Annual Meeting, you will also hear about the imagined vision, and steps already taken to make it real, of what it will look like when we return to in-person worship services.  Our commitment is to do so in a multi-platform, or hybrid, way: allowing folks to sit in the sanctuary and folks to attend online, living into our values of deep and wide inclusivity. In addition to imagination, this plan will take significant financial resources – a chance to accelerate into the curve so that we can successfully pull out of it. A choice to be Kellogg’s, not Post.

I want to thank you in advance for bringing your questions even if they feel obvious (someone else in the room will be wanting the answer to your question, I promise you). 

After the meeting is over, I hope you will reach out to individual members of the Board, the Leadership Development Committee, and Finance Committees to thank them for their hard work.  It shouldn’t be a thankless job. As you thank them, consider letting them know they have your support to go boldly into uncertainty, because there will be many times in the coming months and years, when they will face challenging situations, choosing one trade-off for another.

Let us live boldly within our means, silencing the whispers of scarcity.

Let us think long and hard what our answer will be to Rev. Jake’s question: shall we be Post Cereal or shall we be Kellogg’s?

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Mothers, Lost & Found

May 9, 2021

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Rachel, 22 and Rozenah, 6 weeks

Sarah, 22, and Diannah, 7 months

Hagar, 39, and Augustus, 4; Mary, 2

Christeen, 37 and Diana, 9, Dorcus, 1

I say these names of some of the Lost Souls of 1818 – some stolen from their home and families; some deceived by false promises of money and indentured service, not slavery and sold into the Deep South by a corrupt Middlesex County judge – Jacob Van Wickle, who lived in East Brunswick, home of our congregation.

Claussie, 22, and Hercules, 2

Lidia Ann, 22 and Harriet Jane, 3

Nancy and her son, Joseph, 2 days old when brought before the judge, 10 days old when place on the boat out of Perth Amboy

Jane, 25, and John, 4

These are the mothers who sacrificed their own freedom and would not be separated from their children when the judge took the children’s cries as consent to be sent far away.

Juda, 26, and Samuel, 2

Phillis, 25, and Charles, 1

Silvey, 30, and Jacob, 18 months

There were 137 Lost Souls, sent by boat out of Perth Amboy down to the port of New Orleans.  Likely there were more lost mothers than the names I have just spoken.  These are the ones we know went with their children.  No doubt there were more lost mothers. Lost fathers, too.  Lost being the wrong word: stolen.

I tell you the story of the Lost Souls every so often because this congregation has chosen, upon hearing this horrendous history in September, 2017, known for centuries, but often whitewashed into erasure, to become one of its stewards. With our institutional support, and in partnership with two local Black community groups, the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project was launched.

In this era of racial reckoning, of demanding a true justice system, rather than one rooted in slavery and white supremacy; in this era of tearing down statues to that history and choosing new monuments and more accurate narratives, the Lost Souls Project is intent on building a memorial that commemorates the Lost Souls; is committed to building it with leadership and perspectives of Black folks at the center.

I invite every congregant to the 4th annual Recitation of Names – held each May, when we solemnly recite the names of those stolen away.  Some of you who have attended past Recitations know how powerful this event is. Feel free to speak to your experience in the chat. 

This year, we are unveiling a bronze plaque marking the home of the future memorial. The Recitation is on Sunday, May 23 at 4pm. You can attend in-person at the East Brunswick Community Arts Center or you can attend the livestream online. We are one of the few houses of worship taking part in the Inaugural Annual Faith Offering and will be recognized as such. It would be thrilling to have a quarter of the congregation ~ or more! ~ show up in some way.

***

Last Sunday, our congregation sponsored the third annual MLK@TUS. We had a strong turn-out, which was a great feeling!  Thank you to all who brought it into being, most especially Edie Grauer and Patrick Connelly.

For the third time, we partnered with the Meta Theatre Company, a local multi-racial social justice theater company. As they introduced members of their troop, they included those currently behind bars.  It was a powerful moment, one that nearly-almost erased the institutional barriers and brought those three women into the space where we were re-imagining policing together.

What does it mean to listen to the Mother’s Day Proclamation, written 151 years ago and to claim it as part of our history because its author was Unitarian? What does it look like to apply it to our modern circumstance?  I think of this line in it:

Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take council with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace,…

I think of the Mothers of the Movement – I preached about them last year.  Black mothers, reluctant prophets, whose children have been murdered, either by police or vigilantes. The Mothers of the Movement travel around the country and educate the community about their experience of the injustice system.

I think of the mother of Trayvon Martin, of Michael Brown, of Sandra Bland, of Daunte Wright. Even the ancestor-mother of George Floyd, to whom he cried out as he was publicly murdered last May.

Nafeesah Goldsmith, lead organizer, Ain’t I a Woman? Mother’s Day vigil organized by NJ Prison Justice Watch

I think of how I spent yesterday in Clinton, New Jersey, invited by a community activist to join with her and others who have begun vigils outside the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women and held the one yesterday in honor of Mother’s Day and all the mothers who are spending it inside, incarcerated.  I think of the words of her invitation arriving in my email inbox:

I come to you Sisters as your sister in need of your strength and support….At this time, we are embarking upon unprecedented opportunities to build and destroy systems that constantly control, and oppress us and our people. We must seize the day! As Mother’s day is approaching it is difficult for me to celebrate when we have mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, wives, grandmothers, cousins, friends, WOMEN being tortured behind prison gates. 

Cookie Rivera, lead organizer of Ain’t I a Woman: Mother’s Day Vigil outside the Edna Mahan women’s prison

If I am to honor our ancestor Julia Ward Howe and bear the legacy we so proudly proclaim with the Mother’s Day Proclamation, I could not say no. Not given that at least 20 women have come forward about sexual abuse while incarcerated there. Not given claims of severe beatings this past January that has led to at least 8 officers being charged

When she said torture, she meant it.

There is little integrity in saying words on a Sunday while declining to bring my body to bewail not the dead, or those whose freedom has been taken in a system we know to be steeped in systemic racism.

I asked Charlene Walker, the Executive Director of Faith in New Jersey and a UU herself, one of the organizers of yesterday’s vigil what action our congregation could take to make Mother’s Day responsive to the mothers incarcerated at Edna Mahan.  She said to call your state legislators to ensure that the Dignity for Incarcerated Primary Caretaker Parents Act is being fully implemented.

This Act makes it easier for incarcerated parents to keep in touch with their family members and specifically improve prison conditions for incarcerated pregnant women. It also ensures inspection of facilities for abuse, neglect, and other violations. If truly implemented we hope the women of Edna Mahan would not be facing the abuse they have been subjected to inside.

***

What is our place ~ as a congregation ~ in the national racial reckoning that has been happening this past year since George Floyd was murdered? this past nearly decade since the murder of Trayvon Martin (yes, next February marks one full decade)? And with his murder, the founding of the Black Lives Matter movement? A movement, which calls us all to collective liberation, not the freedom of one at the cost of another. 

What is my place?  What is your place? What is our place?

As a congregation, we are growing our involvement in the justice side of racial reckoning:

  • a single anti-racism book group that has blossomed into two;
  • our third year in a row sponsoring MLK@TUS;
  • two community events exploring how to reimagine policing;
  • our involvement with the Lost Souls Project;
  • intentional changes to sources and topics for our Sundays together.

Yet much of this is happening in silos. What if we were to cultivate synergy? What if we were to bring intentionality to these efforts? What if we were to find our place in Unitarian Universalism’s engagement with racial reckoning, which has growing numbers of congregations studying and adopting the 8th principle, as well as implementing recommendations from the report by the Commission on Institutional Change, as well as exploring other timely topics like the alternatives to traditional policing.

At the end of this month, on the 30th, I will be preaching on reparations. The following Sunday, I will be preaching on the 8th Principle Project, as more and more congregations are voting to adopt it, the language of which says this:

“journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

There is great potential for us to unleash if we meet and vision the possibilities together!

***

This morning, I have preached about lost mothers.  Mothers lost to the abominable business of a local slave ring.  Mothers lost through incarceration.  I have prayed about lost mothers – parents choosing not to have children given the outlook of the climate crisis and all the mothers lost during the pandemic, no matter if our love for them was simple and strong or complicate and jagged.

They are not the only ones lost. They are not the only ones in need of being found. We are all some measure of lost.  We are in need of some measure of being found. We do this not by focusing on our personal salvation but by following our Universalist theology points us to collective liberation: that none of us are free until all of us are free; none of us are found until none of us is lost.

May it be so. Amen.

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V’ahavta by Aurora Levins Morales – video interpretation

The pandemic has brought to me is learning how to edit videos and create worshipful art in this way. Here is one of them. The powerful, mind-blowing, heart-breaking, heart-making poem, V’ahavta, by the powerful, down-to-earth, radical Aurora Levins Morales. Support her powerful self through Patreon or as she describes on her web site.

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Five Senses Meditation

What is your ground?  What is your horizon?

Your ground is that place outside yourself and that space inside yourself to where you return to ground yourself, to calm yourself, to collect yourself.  Once we ground ourselves, it is easier for us to find our horizon – that place we aim to for, the head and heart space we aim for.

I want to offer you the gift of this meditation that can be a quick way to ground yourself in the present moment.

Settle yourself wherever you are.  Find a comfortable posture, whatever that means to you right now.  Standing. Sitting.  Laying down.  Arms at your side or in your lap or holding each other, holding you.  On your heart reminding yourself, ‘oh, honey’ if you need that reminder.  Who doesn’t need that reminder at some point in the day.  Oh, honey.

This is called a five senses meditation, so you keep your eyes open.   We are going to start to ground ourselves by first looking around the physical space where we are and noticing five things that bring us joy or pleasure.  Large or small, near or further away.  As your eyes land on one of these five objects, count it out loud.  One.  Two. Three. Four. Five.

Next, I invite you to touch four things, there in the space where you are.  It’s okay to get up to touch a thing if it’s not within reach.  But it’s important to actually touch it – with hand, foot, elbow, eyebrow, you choose.  But touch it and as you do, count aloud. One.  Two. Three. Four.

Our third sense is sound. Wherever you are – if you stayed in place, or got up and came back, or are somewhere else than where you started – notice sounds that you are hearing.  My voice might be number one.  Notice two other sounds.  You can name those outloud and count them, also.  One. Two. Three.

What are two things that you can smell in this moment?  One. Two.  Count them as you name them and notice the odor.

And finally, is there something in your space that you can safely taste.  Perhaps it is water nearby. Or a book page.  Your fingertip.  Experience one taste.

I hope that this exercise has helped you to a grounded ~ or more grounded ~ space.  If it didn’t work for you, that’s okay.  If you want to give it another try some other time, that’s good.  Or you can let it go. 

For now, let us breathe together.  I invite you, if you are so moved, to join me in using your hands near the camera to move with the inward and outward breath, creating a collective visual hand symphony of breath.

And now that we have done this a few times, and a few more on top of that, let us spend the next shared moments in silence, to see what horizons present themselves to you.

[silence]

[chime]

** there are many versions of this out in the world; I do not know the origins of this meditation but am thankful for it to exist

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Inaugural Poem Mash Up

In honor of this presidential inauguration, I created this video interpretation, a mash-up of five of the six occasional poems created for the inauguration of U.S. president. Deep gratitude to my colleagues whose embodied delivery of these combined excerpts that come together in unified beauty.

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There Are More of Us Than There Are of Them (sermon)

There are more of us than there are of them.

There are more of us walking with the wind.

In November 2019, I raised to you these prayerful words from Sikh community activitist and author, Valerie Kaur

What if this darkness

is not the darkness of the tomb,

but the darkness of the womb?

For several hours on the 6th of January, it felt like a band of insurrectionists were attempting to put the lid on the coffin of democracy – the darkness of the tomb, not the darkness of the womb. 

With curbing of that event – I am not yet sure we can call it a failure, despite the success of certifying the outcome of the presidential election, for so much of the rot within our system was (once again, if we are willing to look) laid bare by their actions – the glaring disparity in how law enforcement treated these white terrorists – taking selfies with them? – and how Black Lives Matters protestors have been treated in the very same location.  Exposing the rot of white elected officials giving a white power salute and a sitting president telling these seditionists that he loves them.

On the Sunday before the presidential election, you might remember, I preached to you about possible scenarios. One was Biden winning and Trump refusing to leave. 

Part of the scenario included authoritarian-leaning elements using this to their benefit and the presence of violence from the far right.

I said then we must be prepared for chaos. 

Some are calling them terrorists or even white supremacist terrorists. There are questions whether to call it a coup, or an attempted coup, or some other nomenclature. Whatever you choose, please do not give them the label of protestor, that is so so wrong.

Though these rioters were removed from the Capitol building, and the election certified, I believe we must continue to be alert to possible authoritarian chaos.

In that sermon on the Sunday before the election, I worried aloud with you that some of you – not all, I know – might find my words hyperbolic. I said

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that have to eat crow and apologize to each and every one of you for falsely raising your fears. 

And while there have been areas of concern – baseless lawsuits; and elected officials teetering very close to sedition,and possibly over the edge; and last week the head of the Proud Boys was arrested for vandalizing Black churches in Washington DC.

Still, if you wanted to turn away and not see the public, visible, in-our-faces planning by the far right, you could.  It’s a powerful force persuading us to not see the dangers.

I did. I have to acknowledge that. Not completely, but I let the relative quiet and the demands of my own life keep my attention, narrow my vision. 

So much so, I had been teaching myself how to make a rice crispies treat in the shape of a crow, to eat as part of my last sermon before going on sabbatical.  I thought I should make good on my word and eat crow, because I had been lulled into thinking there wouldn’t be violence; that five people would not be dead after the capitol building was violently trespassed.

In September, Ibram X. Kendhi published in The Atlantic of the dangers of denial. 

I fear that this is how many Americans are thinking right now: Routine surgery— the defeat of Donald Trump at the polls— will heal the American body. No need to look deeper, at police departments, at schools, at housing. Are Americans now acknowledging racism, but telling themselves the problem is contained?

Denial is both a psychological defense mechanism and the foundation for wider dysfunction, but it is not part of a healthy spiritual or ethical system.  Yes, part of the human experience, yet an examined life includes a regular practice of illuminating and disarming it.

Our task now – as spiritual people, as ethical people – is to pay attention to how our denial might keep us from seeing the risks and the danger, might keep us from being – as I preached this past August – a stakeholder who defends democracy, rather than just sinking back into our comfortable couches and lives of relative privilege, assuming others will do this work.

We must be wary not only of gun-toting, pelt-clad Viking-wannabes, but also any draconian reactions that might swoop in under the guise of protecting democracy that actually work to undermine it.

You might remember Fiona Hill from the impeachment proceedings.  She had worked in the Trump Administration on the National Security Council as the top Russia advisor. She was one of the people who had been for weeks predicting violence on January 6th.

Ms. Hill spoke in a recent interview, describing Wednesday’s events as part of a long “self coup,” operating in plain sight over a longer time frame, that it was one of multiple “stress tests” to our democratic institutions.

I understand that term – stress tests – as parallel to the concept of “grooming” — what abusers do when they are picking their victims – testing if will they their hair be touched even without permission; will THEY apologize for things the abuser does. If they will turn away; if they will overlook it; if they will say let’s move on.

If Wednesday was an act of grooming by authoritarian forces – and there have been others – such as Trump using the military to clear the crowds so he could have his photo opp with that Bible in hand, that was a stress test (one the military failed, but then came to understand the risks and decided not to do it again) an act of checking if he could count on the military to quell peaceful protesters – then how we respond now and in the days, weeks, months, years going forward is crucial.

I know we are looking forward to celebrating a peaceful inauguration.  And we should. We should eat cake or light sparklers or call our dear friends and laugh and cry and feel relief. 

Just like – and it feels like a thousand days ago – many of you spent Wednesday morning joyful at the results in Georgia: a Jewish Senator, son of immigrants and a Black Senator – the first in that state’s history – a pastor, a Christian who supports LGBTQ+ communities, elected.

Yes, let us celebrate these, and the growing arrests of who fomented insurrection, for they should be held to account.  This is part of how we make real our imaginings of Beloved Community. 

And…

… and those white supremacists who have been flexing their muscles and feeling their oats: they are not going to stop just because their president is out of office. It’s far too complex for that.  I mean, look – leaders of the Proud Boys white nationalist organization include men of color!  Talk about complex!  Proud Boys is a thoroughly misogynist group, yet white women take full part. Our country is too fertile of ground for this complex, confounding version of dominance and white supremacy culture.

We ALL are responsible for what happens next. 

Good thing there are more of us than there are of them.

(Be sure to listen to the song by The Nields, Tyrants Always Fall, linked at the beginning of this post. That is the source of this sermon’s refrain.)

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We’ll Muddle Through Somehow: Christmas 2020 (sermon)

December 24, 2020

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, NJ

Timothy Egan published an opinion piece in the New York Times a week ago, comparing the next three pandemic months to the 1805 winter that Lewis and Clark, and their crew, spent at World’s End (what is now Astoria, Oregon) where the mighty Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean.   He referenced observations from Dr. Fauci’ and Dr. Redfield Centers for Disease Control, wherein Dr. Fauci called this month “a surge upon a surge” and Dr. Redfield said that the coming season had the potential to be “the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”  I’m going to add – at least in living memory.


Frankly, the description of World’s End in that early 19th century winter – only a dozen days without rain – was grim, though no deaths were reported.  Grim, in a different way, different than this pandemic. But still illuminating and offering up its lessons.

Grim.  Certainly seems like the right word for this pandemic. How many lives have been lost?  Here, in the U.S. nearly three and a quarter thousand.  Here, on the planet:  nearly one and three quarters million dead. Those are just statistics – for some of you, those numbers have the name of a loved one, a precious loss during a difficult year that is not finished with us yet.

So, what do either grim history or grim present circumstance have to do with a little old lady lonely in her weather-tight home, knitting warm mittens for school children?   I will answer that question, but want to bring into the mix one more thing: the Christmas classic, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  You know it that song, right?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on
Our troubles will be out of sight

It turns out that the lyrics most of us know, the ones that have become the norm, are much more upbeat than the original ones.  In fact, Sinatra, upon hearing the original lyrics, basically said to lighten it up if he was going to include it in the Christmas album he was making.  So now, thanks to Old Blue Eyes, we have:

…hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself a merry little Christmas now

Written during World War II, the original lyrics, while wishing a merry little Christmas, also stated blatantly, melancholically

It may be your last / Next year we may all be living in the past

Not exactly a catchy tune for a Hollywood hit film.  Judy Garland didn’t want to sing such morbid lyrics. In the end, it was changed for “Meet Me In St Louis” in which she was starring. 

There’s a line that I love from the original.  It’s the one that Sinatra wanted out, the one that was replaced by hanging a star on the highest bough:

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

That’s us. 

That’s us now. 

That’s this Christmas, with its disappointments and distances.   

That’s this year, with its losses of life and livelihoods, purpose and stamina.

That’s us staring down the long tunnel of pandemic in winter when we think we know what it is to live in pandemic times, but now have to learn what it is to do it in winter.

We’ll muddle through relying on each other – not just reaching out and providing support, but also finding our way to receiving it as well.

We’ll muddle through with mutual aid and showing up on Zoom even though we would much rather be together.

We’ll muddle through by making or buying meals for those who are sick; by knitting or purchasing warm items for those who need them; by delivering Christmas presents to families living on the edge, having been pushed there by hostile immigration policies and a xenophobic federal government.

We’ll be like Old Sarah from the story – noticing when there is a need; doing what we can with the skills and capacities we have; giving when we can whether we know the recipient well or at all.  That’s what we have done, in a nearly literal way, by partnering with Elijah’s Promise to create our “Mitten Tree.”  Gratitude to those of you who have donated warm items – not just mittens, but also scarves, hats, gloves – as part of this holiday season.

Maybe we won’t be exactly like Old Sarah but will be like the unnamed source of new yarn – making sure that good continues in the world, even if we aren’t the direct source of it, even if we remain anonymous.  That’s what we do with our weekly Be The Change donations.  That’s what you do when you donate to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund.

Maybe…we’ll be like Old Sarah, knitting our little corner of the interdependent web of all existence, making it stronger, building relationships within this congregation and outside of it; noticing and honoring all sentient beings; surrendering to the truth that we cannot make our way alone; that we never make our way alone.

Which brings me to the origin story of this holiday.  Not the Pagan one. Or the secular one.  But the religious one.  The Christmas story. 

Let me remind you of it, through the words of Unitarian Universalist poet minister, Lynn Ungar:

It was all so complicated:

The questionable parentage,

the awkward journey,

the not knowing where you will sleep,

or when the baby will come,

or what his life will look like—

even what the world will be like

when he is grown.

Life is usually that complicated.

It was all so simple:

Keep walking. Stop when you can.

Breathe. Through the pain, breathe.

Hold him. Feed him. Keep him warm.

Cradle his head in the palm of your hand.

These are things we all know.

It was, it is, so complicated

and so simple:

Love what does not belong to you.

Love what will be broken.

Love what mystifies you.

Love what scares you.

Love the aching flesh

no more and no less than

the brilliant star.

Love what will die

and what will be born again

and die again

and be born again

in love.

Whichever story you choose – an origin story or a children’s story; a mid-century Christmas song from a movie or an opinion piece in the Times – whichever story we choose, let us light candles that burn the whole year long. 

Candles for love that does not belong to us and that will be broken, despite all our best efforts.  Candles for what mystifies us and scares us.  Candles for this aching mortal flesh.  Candles for a love that will be born again and will die again and be born again, over and over, beyond our knowing, beyond our control, beyond our surrender, beyond our understanding.

Candles of joy despite all the sadness; candles of hope where despair keeps watch.  Candles of courage for fears ever present and candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.  Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens and candles of love to inspire all our living.

Candles to keep us company as we muddle through somehow.

Amen.

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Keep Going On (sermon)

Thanksgiving is not as we imagined or hoped it would be. This will likely be true for Christmas and New Year’s. So much loss, sacrifice, change.  And still, we keep going on.

Some of us have lost loved ones – some due to covid, others due to our general mortality; some of us fear losing loved ones because they are sick, or vulnerable, or both.  It is almost too much to bear.  And still, we keep going on.

There are layers of pandemic pain, of pandemic fatigue – grief, rage, loss, numbness, fragility, edginess. It comes in different shapes and sizes.  And still, we keep going on.

Perhaps you remember Rev. Megan Visser, who preached at TUS in July.  She spoke on Ross Gay’s Book of Delights?  Some of you have shared with me YOUR delight at what she had to share when she led worship that day. Like me, she found delight and wisdom in the Bengsons’ Keep Going song. She used it to explore aspects of pandemic fatigue. I’d like to share her ideas with you.  They come in the form of an ailment with an accompanying remedy.

Number one. “This is Getting Old” – I have said this.  Felt it. Have you? If so, can I get a Zoom amen?  As the song says, they thought they were going to be at Sean’s parents’ house for ten days.  “What did we know?”  Some of us speculated that this was going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Yet, our intellect can forecast, but the experience of nearly anything, is something altogether different. 

We can’t let our response to “this is getting old” be “I’m done with not seeing and hugging my people.” The growing positivity rates tell us: this virus is nowhere near done with us, so we cannot yet be done with it (or with social distancing measures).

According to Rev. Megan, the remedy is finding small pleasures and perceiving genius in our midst, genius that has also been our response to the pandemic.  Is there someone who can teach you something new over the phone or outdoors six feet apart? Go ahead: ask them.  Find ways to make this getting old into something new and energizing.

Number two. Anger. Rage. Mad, edgy, grouchy. Maybe it’s at the governmental response, or the virus, or a particular person.  There’s much to be mad about – the loss of weddings, graduations, deaths, births, holiday celebrations.  Our anger can surprise us, when we unexpectedly lash out, it can hurt others.

Rather than willing away our anger, our turning ourselves away from it, the remedy is that we bear witness to it.  Find ways to express it, to vent it, to befriend it, and to let it move through us, leaving the possibility of relief.  Maybe it’s through scribble journaling, screaming into a pillow, casting a spell or taking part in a ritual.  I’m a big fan of someone listening without trying to fix. 

And smashing crockery.

Number three. Haven’t we all sacrificed too much already? I’m not talking about dining at restaurants or going to the gym.  Lost jobs. Lost security. Not being able to hug those we love.  Not being able to sing together.  Losing our sense of purpose.

We hear Abigail sing the remedy in the song: “What about joy? O boy!”  She wonders and wishes that her joy could pollinate your joy, working it out as she goes along.  “There is no rulebook for joy,” says Rev. Megan.  Yet me must find a way, returning over and over as much as we can, to bring it forth – for ourselves, for each other, for the world.

created by Rev. Megan Ruth Visser at UU Somatics

So three ailments and three remedies:

What feels old requires of us to find something new.

What surfaces anger requires of us to give space and to witness that anger.

And when we feel the burden of all our sacrifices, we must find our way to joy.

While we might want to ask, “When is it going to be over?” we must train ourselves, gently, lovingly, perhaps with our hand on our heart and “oh, honey” in our tone of voice, to ask a different question: “How do we keep adapting?”

That is the rightful question to ask when we want to figure out how to keep going on.

a BRILLIANT dance form of an abbreviated version of the song. Above are Sarah Goeke and Travis Stanton-Marrero. Here they are, without evening knowing it, practicing two of Rev. Megan’s remedies: make something new out of something old AND be joy!

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