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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