This message and accompanying reading was delivered to Eliot Unitarian Chapel on March 20, 2022.
Prayer Ballot by Rev. Luke Stevens-Royer
(written for the Presidential Election, 2016)
I walk in, as on pilgrimage.
The altar cloths are red, white, and blue
the ushers are the women
who have been running these things
who have been running everything
since before I was born.
I’m handed the ballot
like a scroll
because the questions
seem that important—
ancient and modern
of what my God and country
ask of me:
Who—for commissioner, mayor, president—
who—for district 8, ward 7, school board—
who—will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly?
I make my mark
with at least a shred of hope
that something good will come from this.
And regardless, I remember:
the world won’t be destroyed, entirely, by this;
the world won’t be saved, entirely, by this.
Marking my vote
is like kneeling in prayer
because neither will accomplish
anything right away—
but the purpose of both
is to remind me
of my deepest hope
for the world that I’m trying to help create.
So I rise from prayer,
and turn in my ballot
and remember the who is me,
and us, and we the people—
and again I set to the task that is mine:
justice, mercy, humble service
in my small corner of the world.
In the early 2000s, my home was Toronto, Canada – a very cosmopolitan city, diverse, with a fabulous arts scene, public transportation and a huge LGBTQ community. It had everything I wanted and I planned to stay there my whole life. Then I had to go and fall in love with someone in Springfield Missouri – the city of Bass Pro, huge pickup trucks, sprawling plazas, Branson down the road, and no guarantee of a sidewalk anywhere!
I felt like such an outsider and that experience grew when the first election came. It was the first time as an adult that I couldn’t vote. My family discussed politics all the time. Our parents never missed an election. My dad ran for township councilor and served a term. They always shared their voting choices so we’d understand what was important to them. As my brothers and I each turned 18, it was an event to join them at the polls. It was also really important to my grandparents, who fled Ukraine as young people to escape communism. I’m so glad they’re not alive to see what’s happening today. Being in a democracy was a dream come true and they never wanted us to take our freedom for granted.
My partner, bless her heart, offered her vote as our family vote. The next election, we printed out a sample ballot. I was shocked to see how long the ballot was! In a parliamentary democracy, you have one vote on a piece of paper, about the size of a playing card, for who will represent your riding. Whichever party wins the most seats, their leader becomes the head of the government. Municipally you have 2 choices – your council member and your mayor.
But here, we vote on judges, prosecuting attorneys, school board members, county commissioners, sheriffs, and fire chiefs. Then there are all those propositions which sometimes look like something they aren’t and often have a history you need to understand to know why they’re on the ballot in the first place! It takes a lot of work to research your choices, but we did it, and decided how she would cast our family vote.
Sometimes I went with her to the polls and watched while she completed our ballot. It was a lot like what I’d experienced at home. There was the same quiet intensity, like the sacred lull which happens just before a prayer and you know it’s time to pay attention. To use the woeds of our reading today, “I’m handed the ballot like a scroll because the questions seem that important—”
But there was one time I went to the polls and that sacred lull was broken. It was the first election since the Affordable Care Act passed. Tensions were high. A poll worker asked for my ID and I said, “No, I’m not a citizen. I’m here to support my partner.” She asked where I was from, I told her, and she launched into this tirade about how thankful she was not to live in a communist country with public health care! I was so blindsided that I reacted strongly. I blurted out that her sources were lying, that the Canadian health care system was strong, and that she should get her facts straight before spewing this misinformation. She escalated. Everyone was listening.
What would you have done in that situation? Be silent, or respond? What would you have said? If your kids or grandkids were with you, how would that change your response?
Later, when I calmed down, I realized that she had compromised that polling station. Some of you have been poll workers. You’ve done the training. You know that you are supposed to be completely neutral to ensure that the polls are a safe place to vote. She broke that rule. I also shouldn’t have taken the bait because I made it worse. We should have found her supervisor and filed a complaint because that poll worker had abused her authority.
I’ve thought about that experience many times over the years. It’s left a significant mark on me, and it came back when Russia invaded Ukraine three weeks ago. Here we have a democratic country that finally gained its independence when the Soviet Union crumbled and has been determined to make its own decisions about who they are and what kind of relationship they want with Russia and Europe. Obviously, there’s a difference in scale between a disruptive comment at a polling station and the attack on Ukraine. But underneath is a common fear about what happens when “we the people” claim our power. We see it here with restrictive voter ID laws, gerrymandering, purging voter rolls, limitations on absentee and mail in ballots, and limits on early voting. If anything should prove to us how much our vote counts and how much our vote is feared, you don’t have to look far. The bombs falling on Ukraine and voter suppression here are about accomplishing the same thing – separating “we the people” from our power.
What is your relationship to voting? Did those who raised you vote? Did they talk to you about voting? Did they take you to the polls?
Do you vote at every election, or only the big ones? If you have kids or grandkids, do you talk to them about your choices and the values behind them?
Several years ago, when the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act, Unitarian Universalists across the country mobilized. For us, voting is a sacred act. We elect our settled ministers, our board members, and our nominating teams. We use the democratic process in our meetings, in our classrooms, and in every team in our congregation. If we had stations of the cross, trust me, a voting booth would be one of them!
Democracy is a spiritual practice in Unitarian Universalism because we have this conviction that something transformative happens when everyone has a say in the decisions that impact their lives. When the collective will shows itself, it could very well be the closest thing we have to an understanding of the holy that moves in and through us. It is the ultimate valuing of the our first principle, the inherent worth and dignity of all, infused with our seventh principle, the interdependent web of all existence, and brought to life by our 2nd principle, affirming and promoting justice, equity and compassion in all our relations. A solid democratic process means that we don’t always get our way, but if we know the decision was fair, we can usually live with what prevailed.
But since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, it is harder to trust that the process is fair, that the will of “we the people” is shining through. Out of this concern, UU the Vote was created at the national level. Eliot signed on and we’ve had a UU the Vote team ever since. In 2018, we collected signatures and phone banked for the constitutional amendment to change Missouri’s redistricting process so that it was non-partisan. That’s been unfortunately overturned in another election, but we put our heart into it. In 2020 we collected signatures for the Medicaid Expansion, which passed. We also made hundreds of calls, and sent 1000s of get out the vote texts and postcards to voters most impacted by voter suppression.
And that brings us to today. We’re in what many would consider a boring election year. We don’t have mid-terms. There’s no flashy presidential election. This year it’s about towns, cities, and school boards. We’re voting on propositions about paying county employees from one budget rather than another, taxing out of state purchases, and whether a school gets to rent a county park building. Some of us are voting on parking lots, building contracts, and sewer lines! It’s pretty hard to imagine a sewer line proposition as lofty and spiritual, right? And yet, what is more connected to life than water, or how we use our common lands, or who makes the decisions about what our kids learn in school?
There’s a really big drama unfolding in all our local school boards. Back in 2014, many of us will remember the mass protests when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. People from all UU congregations in the St. Louis Region, and all our ministers, were involved. We have folks who showed up night after night, who were tear gassed or arrested in the protests that went on for over a year. This was a watershed moment because it lifted up that Unitarian Universalism is hollow without a strong commitment to racial justice, because racism touches everything we care about.
One of the places we started giving our energy to was school reform. We wanted school curriculums in which children of color and LGBTQ kids could see their lives reflected in what they learned. We found some great partners to work with, and in all the school districts that we are part of, history curriculums have changed to tell the truth about slavery, genocide, and racism in our country’s history. Our kids are learning what racism looks like and what they can do about it. There is more room for LGBTQ kids to be who they are. These changes are saving lives, and we have been part of that.
But we knew the resistance would come, and it has come fiercely because racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of this country. A vocal minority started organizing, complaining that their white children are being shamed and abused, that systemic racism is a lie, that diversity, equity and inclusion priorities are abusive, political and partisan. They are pushing to go back to the silence about racism and slavery. They want to ban lists of books, many by people of color and sexual and gender minorities. Out of state money is flowing into their coffers. School board meetings now have a permanent police presence because meetings have become so disruptive and sometimes violent.
On every one of our ballots, regardless of what district we live in, are school board candidates whose goal is to dismantle diversity, equity and inclusion. There are also candidates who are doing their best to protect what we’ve done for our children, all our children.
As a church we can’t tell you who to vote for. But we can hold up that diversity, equity and inclusion is a core UU value. Our faith revolves around it. How many of you came into this congregation because you could finally be accepted for who you are? None of us can be whole, we cannot experience the profound connection between all of us if we don’t understand our world and its hard truths. If our schools go back to teaching white washed history and to being silent about racism and sexual and gender minorities, there will be great harm to all our children and to all of us.
What I can do, though, is share code words to look for when you’re researching your candidates.
“Parental Control” is often code for parents having the right to determine whether their kids can hear about slavery or the words gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer or transgender.
Going back to “Core Curriculum” means that anything about racism or social issues is deemed a soft class, not essential to real learning.
“Getting politics out of the classroom” means silencing anything that is deemed controversial, especially race and human sexuality.
These are all code words for the goal of dismantling diversity, equity and inclusion in our schools.
“Valuing ALL our children,” is code for ensuring that all children, including children of color and sexual and gender minorities have full inclusion in our schools.
“Trusting our teachers,” is code for understanding that our teachers are professionals who shouldn’t be micromanaged.
“Using science and fact” means following the science about COVID and telling our children the truth, in an age appropriate way of course, because our teachers are professionals!
Our faith’s commitment to democracy, education, and full inclusion is why our UU the Vote Team set the goal to get every Eliot member and friend to vote in the April 5th municipal election. We’ve been providing information on candidate forums, how to vote absentee or by mail, and how to get a copy of your ballot. We are also arranging rides to the polls. Thank you to everyone who volunteered to give rides. If you need a ride, email email@example.com.
Our second goal is to support communities that are most vulnerable to voter suppression. We have postcards in Adams Hall for two municipalities to help get out the vote.
In 2015, I finally became a citizen of the United States. The ceremony was surprisingly moving. But what really touched me, is that the League of Women Voters was right outside the court doors ready to register us to vote. It’s the first thing I did as an American citizen. And I can tell you, that after not having the right to vote for 11 years, I simply can’t skip an election. My whole being won’t let me, and I keep hearing my grandparents whispering in my ear.
Claim your vote. Make your voice heard. Infuse your choices with what you believe to be most sacred. Let us be “we the people.”
Amen and blessed be.
Copyright by Krista Taves. May be used with attribution to the author.