Generous and Alive

Generous and Alive.  A sermon preached to the good people of the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL on October 8. 2-17

“Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life.”  

 

Story for All Ages

Sophia’s Guest

http://www.uua.org/worship/words/story/sophias-guest

 

Reading

Love After Love by Derek Wolcott (98 words)

https://onbeing.org/blog/love-after-love/

 

Sermon

 

Like many teenagers, my dad taught me to drive, and given that I was deep into that adolescent time of self-differentiation where my dad could do absolutely nothing right, I really wasn’t looking forward to spending hours in the car with him telling me what to do! But I was a country kid, and for country kids a drivers license is your ticket to a social life on Friday night. It seemed like all that time with my dad was a sacrifice that would pay off pretty quick!

 

Dad started my teaching with a hard jolt. I’d had my learners permit for two hours. He piled the whole family in the car, and said, “You are driving me, mom and your brothers to Oma’s for dinner. Our lives are in your hands. If you make a mistake we could die. Let’s go.”  His first lesson was that every time you drive a car, other people’s lives are in your hands.

 

In the days to come, we spent hours crawling at slow speeds on the gravel roads around our farm, graduated to the undivided highway, mastered rush hour in Leamington Ontario with its population of 15 000, and parallel parked all over town. But the road that scared me most of all was the expressway.   On the day we finally approached the on-ramp to the 401, the busiest expressway in Ontario, I could feel myself shaking and he asked me to pull over when the onramp came into sight.

 

“Freeways are easy to drive once you’re on them,” he said. “But the most dangerous place on a freeway is where the onramp and the highway merge. When you are going up the onramp, climbing in speed, you have to keep an eye on the end of the onramp, you have to keep an eye on who is in the lane that you are going to merge onto. Are they slowing down or moving over to let you in?  If they do, you’re set. If they don’t, you have to slow down and wait for your chance, eyeballing how long you have before the onramp ends and moderating your speed. When you have a chance to safely merge, go for it. That’s lesson 1.

“Lesson 2 is just as important. Once you are the one on the highway, it’s your job to watch every onramp that you approach.   If someone is merging, don’t make it hard for them. You will move over or slow down so they have a safe entrance to the highway. Do you understand?”

 

I didn’t. “So you’re telling me I have to be ready for other people not making room for me but I always have to make room for them? Why should I make room when they don’t?” I wonder if my annoyance is similar to the annoyance that Sophie felt when she got that letter from God, someone who she wasn’t sure existed, and if they did, probably didn’t write notes and leave them on her desk. Why should she offer hospitality to an invitation she didn’t trust?

 

“Well,” he said, “You can choose to be a selfish driver and I can guarantee you that you will be dead sooner than you should be. You can be selfish and dead, or generous and alive. When you respect everyone on the road, even if they aren’t respecting you, then everyone is safer. You are more likely to come home at night and so are they. I want you to always come home.”

 

At that moment, he was no longer the father I lived to rebel against. His words were passionately energized with love. He was a fully embodied human being lovingly teaching his eldest child not only how to drive safely; he was teaching her values that he wanted her to live by, values that weren’t just for the road but for her whole life: be aware of who is around you and what their needs are; we hold each other’s lives in our hands; everyone, including you, needs their space; respect everyone. If you live like this, everyone gets home alive.

 

He was teaching his child the art of hospitality which is not only the art of being polite, but also the art of respecting the intricate and interdependent web of life. Hospitality is the art of being lovingly and generously engaged with all of life around you so that everyone gets home.

 

The theme of our services this month is hospitality. It might be stretch to think of hospitality as an approach to driving or as a life saving spiritual discipline. We think of hospitality as being kind to strangers, or asking people how their day, or offering a nice meal for those we care about. Hospitality is seen as a gentle art with a gentle impact. And this is absolutely true. All these gentle acts are vitally important.   And, we can never underestimate their impact. They may brighten someone’s day for a moment or save their life. Just like Sophie, we rarely know exactly what is needed or wanted. Sometimes we have to guess and hope that our efforts will bring comfort and not unanticipated suffering.

 

The working title of this sermon was “My home is yours until I believe it.” And what I am hoping to question is this idea that each of us has our enclosed separate reality that is exclusive to itself, like our homes where we lock the door behind us and separate off from the world, like the idea that the only part of the highway that is important is the lane that we are occupying or the destination of our individual journey. Driving is an act of sharing the road and hospitality is an act of sharing this world.

 

Every culture is unique in the particular balance it creates in how we draw the lines between ourselves and others. In America, we have a high level of individualism. We have expanded the parametres of what is deemed personal and shrunk the parametres of what is deemed collective and shared. You can see this in the way we drive. We ask for a lot of personal space and personal power in how we make our driving decisions. In Germany, by comparison, a country which has a different balance between the self and others, zippering is legally mandated. The line of cars on the onramp and the line of cars already on the highway must work together so that they merge one by one, with cars on the highway leaving room for merging and merging vehicles understanding exactly when their turn is to get on the autobahn. Merging is a shared responsibility and a shared risk.

Here in America, leaving room for a merging vehicle is a personal choice. We can choose or not whether we leave room for each other. The law places the risk entirely with the person who is merging, which ironically is also the person who is most at risk already. If an accident takes place, they will be responsible.  This is a direct manifestation of the heightened importance of the individual. Your car, your space, your issue. If you look at other places in American society, the risks of living are continuously downloaded onto the individual who most experiences the risk, like with health care and the way we address poverty.

 

I’ve lived in two countries, the United States and Canada, and what I have experienced in America is a lot more social anxiety because there is a lot less to catch us if things go really wrong. Because risk is highly individualized, the burden is on us, and life is really more precarious.

 

So my question to us is this: what is the spiritual and existential cost of putting the burden of risk on the person who is needing the space more than on the one who could be providing it? What is the cost to those of us who should be providing hospitality and what is the cost to those of us who have to keep asking for it, and sometimes even fight for it. How many of us have taken the risk of pushing the nose of your car into a lane because you’re running out of on ramp and you are hoping that you’re not going to be in an accident and hoping that the people coming up behind you will brake and not hit you? The result of the balance we’ve created in America between self and other creates a higher level of risk and uncertainty for us all.  It also creates a culture of distrust. We don’t know when to trust each other and what we can depend on each other for.

 

For those of you who drive, I be you have had the experience where you are making room for someone who is merging and they don’t believe you! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve experienced slowing down for a merging car because there isn’t room to move over, and the person merging does not believe that there is actually room being made for them. They hang back and hang back, and that leaves the person making room for them to make a difficult choice – do they slow down to keep making room, or do they rush ahead? I’ve made both choices, and it neither ever feels satisfying because it is hard to not be trusted. Not being believed when you offer someone hospitality is a disconcerting experience. What did your generosity mean if it wasn’t accepted?

 

In Unitarian Universalism, we have grappled with the relationship between the self and the whole.  Our  faith has developed in response to our cultural context. We have swung between the polls of extreme individualism andcollective identity, and it’s been a struggle for us. We are the faith that affirms and promotes the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but sometimes we have held up the individual at the cost of community and our congregations have not been very effective. In response, we have evolved into a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises that we make to each other. Unitarian Universalism is a highly relational faith and living responsibly in light of the interdependent web of all existence is an operative principle. In fact, if you look at our 7 principles, (https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles), every principle includes both what we should be able to expect for ourselves and what we are called to offer others. So our first principle – the inherent worth and dignity of each person – tells us that we should be able to trust that our worth and dignity will always be recognized, and that we are called as well to recognize the worth and dignity of all others.  We are called to offer each other justice, equity and compassion in our relations with each other.

One of the reasons that Unitarian Universalism has evolved into a religion of covenant, or a faith of sacred promises, is that we have recognized that there is an imbalance in how we live with each other.  We need a framework to untrain ourselves from the incessant teaching that we can be completely self sufficient, that our needs come first, that hospitality is individualized charity, and that we can survive without caring for others. When I say that we are a faith of covenant, it means that as covenanted congregations we make sacred promises to each other that elevate our responsibility for each other. We recognize that the spiritual and physical cost of an excessive individualism is hurting us all. In fact, lives are being continuously lost.

 

Think about what happened in Las Vegas last Sunday night. One person was able to amass an arsenal of weapons that gave him the power to kill and injure hundreds within minutes. In our country, we have valued the right of a person to own a gun over the right of others to be safe from gun violence. Despite all the mounting evidence that easy access to weapons increases the rate of mass murders, increases successful suicides, and increases the rate of homicides, our country keeps feeding its addiction to weapons that are intended to kill human beings, and this costs us about 30 000 lives a year. That’s almost the size of Quincy.  The result of this continuous loss is that we are nation and a people traumatized by ongoing tragedy. We keep having to absorb more and more loss, more and more death, more and more fear and helplessness. What happens when people are repeatedly pushed to their limit, or beyond it, is that we start to close in, we start to try and make our worlds smaller, our homes impenetrable, the lane on the highway solely ours. The result then becomes more fear, more distrust, more loss, more loneliness.

 

So when I say that hospitality is much more than the gentle art of being kind to each other, do you see what I mean? Hospitality is literally the art that will save us from our fear of each other, it will save us from turning each other into threats that can be dehumanized and dismissed, it will save us from being a people who keep killing each other. Hospitality is how we keep ourselves open, open to love, open to being changed, open to growing more deeply connected to life.   That is why Unitarian Universalism has become a faith of the covenant, a faith of sacred promises we make to each other so that we have the strength not only to resist a culture that separates us from each other and dehumanizes us, but to become, together, the means of a path forward, a path towards healing, a path towards wholeness and new life.

 

You know what I’ve learned from driving on our interstates? Sometimes you have to do something a little extra so that people know you’re leaving room for them. It’s not enough to simply hang back and wait. They will be unsure what the space you’ve left for them means. I’ve learned that if you blink your lights, people are more likely to realize that you are actually leaving that room for them.  They can trust what they’re seeing in the mirror and hoping is true.  This practice has resulted in an almost 100% rate of people taking advantage of the space I’ve left for them.

 

We have to keep finding ways of providing the reassurance that if someone offers you an act of hospitality, it’s real.  If you are offering an act of hospitality, you aren’t going to take advantage of them in that vulnerable moment when they choose to accept your kindness. So my question for you is what would that look like for you? What can you do in your life that sends the message to those around you that you are prepared to offer that room. Who is it that you are needing to reach out to? Is there someone whose hospitality you need to build up the courage to accept?

 

This has become a matter of survival for us, I believe. Let’s take that into our hearts, let’s make hospitality our gift to our continuously traumatized country so that we can be part of the journey out of fear, out of hatred, and into hope, compassion, and trust.

 

Amen and blessed be.

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What I couldn’t see unless I saw it through another’s eyes

I have 3 strong handsome kind brothers. The four of us live across 4 time zones and still, my brothers are part of the beating of my own heart.
I have never in my 47 years gone to bed worrying that my brothers wouldn’t make it home because they would be pulled over by a police officer.
I have never doubted that if they were pulled over it would be for a good reason and that the police officer with whom they engaged would treat them with respect and stay within the limits of the law as they dealt with whatever the legitimate reason was for having pulled one of my brothers over.
And if my brothers were in trouble, I would never have thought for a moment that the police might use an unreasonable amount of force that could lead to injury or death. It would never have crossed my mind.  Nor would I have thought that a police over who did cross the line would ever get away with it.  I trusted the law to be impartial.
I have no doubt that my assumptions about my brothers’  safety are right because my brothers are white.
If I were to base my estimation of the police only by my white family’s experience, I would have a high valuing of the police, which I did until three years ago.
What I knew intellectually before the murder of Michael Brown has now become emotional knowledge because of the growing number of people of color who are in my life, because of the countless actions that I’ve been privileged to be a part of where I met and listened to people of color in my city talk about their experience of the police.
If I measured their truthfulness by my brothers’ experience, I would say they were lying. A lot of whites measure the truthfulness of the black experience by their own personal experience. That would be a mistake.
Being truly in solidarity means acknowledging the limits of white experience in providing the raw matter to attain a larger truth. Our own experience shadows the truth rather than reveals it.
Learning to decenter your own experience hits against the wall of everything we’ve been taught as whites. We have been taught in a million ways that what we perceive is right because we perceive it.
This is especially true in Unitarian Universalism, where we have been taught that our own experience is the bedrock of authority. This is what we have taught our children.
This is a partial truth and it is rooted in the culture of white supremacy, where white experience is given more truth and value than the experience of people of color. Yes, we Unitarian Universalists do give great authority to our own personal experiences, but those experiences must be anchored in a racial consciousness to give those experiences their true meaning. For whites, that cannot happen until whites listen to and center the stories of marginalized people. Only then can we understand our own story. Only then can we be complete.
I am so grateful that I do not have to worry about my white brothers. But I know why that is the case. I know that my confidence is a privilege that is denied to others. My prayer is that every sister can someday have the assurance and confidence that their brothers will be alright, that their brothers will come home, that their brothers will have long rich lives filled with joy, dignity, meaning, and purpose.

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When the veil dropped for white people, a recap.

In the days leading up to the resignation of Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales, white leaders in our movement were challenged to speak up.  I answered the call and developed a series of Facebook posts.  Because things fade on Facebook so quickly, I’ve gathered them here for those who have been wanting to access them.

March 30, 2017

As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life almost doubled.
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typically white middle class, to try and avoid the comments and be able to do her job.
She often experienced being spoken to as if she were a child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.
Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.
I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.
After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.
But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.
This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.
It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.
What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color.

Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.
What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.

March 31, 2017

This is where I have come to regarding the abrupt resignation of Rev. Peter Morales, President of the UUA, following sustained criticism regarding racial bias in hiring decisions and his problematic response.

I wish he had not resigned but rather offered an apology and committed to the institutional work and his own personal growth as a model of leadership. But he didn’t. I am going to take him at his word that stepping aside was the right thing to do and would help clear the way for the work to be done. Our spiritual task is to accept his choice and to use the vacuum remaining to continue the work of dismantling the white supremacy culture that is alive in our beloved faith.

We have three presidential candidates, one of whom will take office in less than three months. How we engage with them and the UUA will set the tone for how we move forward. And move forward we must. Peter’s resignation should not be an excuse to stop. It should not become a distraction.

Thank you for your leadership Peter. I respect your decision. Like any minister who leaves a position under less than ideal circumstances, and many of us have, may you find peace, healing, and new life. In the years to come may you deepen through the hard lessons offered in this ministry.

April 15, 2017

There’s been a lot of talk about safety in our congregations, with some white Unitarian Universalists saying they no longer feel safe in their congregations because they don’t feel comfortable stating contrary opinions regarding race and racism.
Right now many people of color in our association are holding white people accountable for the state of our faith. They are holding our systems accountable. They are holding up the disconnect between what we say and do as a movement. A lot of white UUs are using their privilege to intentionally amplify the voices of UUs of color. All of this is making a lot of white Unitarian Universalists uncomfortable. Some of those whites are saying they no longer feel safe.

The cry for safety from so many whites is the cry of those who have experienced the centrality of whiteness as normal. As white experience ever so slightly moves away from the center, white discomfort is interpreted as no longer being safe. It really means that we are no longer being protected from our internalized racism and we are finding it harder to ignore the many ways that our white perspective is at the center of Unitarian Universalism.

As more voices of color attempt to come into that center, whites are likely to feel unsafe. The reality is that we are detoxing from the withdrawal of privilege. The cry for safety is really a power grab. It’s an attempt to return whiteness to the center.
For whites in our movement who want to move into this significant moment, we can’t let our guard down. If we misinterpret our discomfort as losing our safety, we will not only do harm to ourselves, we will do more harm to people of color who are taking huge risks right now. They are in a lot more danger than we are.
#faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

Let’s just get clear about something. The “crisis” we are in now isn’t because the white centering of Unitarian Universalist institutions has been unearthed. People of color, once again, spoke truth to power, for once enough whites listened and amplified their message, and that’s got a lot of other whites acting out. We are in a white entitlement controversy here. This isn’t a crisis. It’s a breaking through. And breaking throughs are messy. #faithoverfear

April 20, 2017

I get why there is so much pushback about using the term “white supremacy” to describe the culture in Unitarian Universalist institutions. We have been trained to see white supremacy as an overt expression of racism, replete with burning crosses, white hoods, confederate flags, lynchings and angry white people in black and white footage shouting racist epithets at black children trying to enter white schools. This allows liberal whites to distance themselves from racism and believe that we aren’t part of it. At least we aren’t calling people names, threatening their lives, or muttering under our breath.
I admit my stomach turned when I first heard the term “white supremacy” used to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism and our institutions. But I’ve reconsidered that response.
White supremacy is way bigger than the way we’ve been trained to understand it. White supremacy is a way of thinking that devalues the experiences, insights and lived reality of people of color. The consequences of this thinking goes beyond an abstract state of mind and has the real life impact of denying people of color a real voice with real power. Rarely is this culture explicit or even conscious in liberal white communities. It is implicit and unconscious. This is why I totally believe that those responsible for the latest hires are fully convinced they did nothing wrong and were not acting out of racial bias. However they were unconsciously acting out of racial bias.
Naming this as an act of white supremacy is pretty scary but it is the right thing to do. It sure has shocked a lot of whites into paying attention. Calling what happened “implicit bias” gives it a pass. It makes it softer than what it actually is, the devaluing of people of color and the denial of authority and power to people of color.
We are being very brave to call it what it is. In fact, it sets us apart from most liberal institutions which are in complete denial about the power of racism to shape their decisions and their processes. There is not one institution in this country that is not shaped by white supremacy, and that includes institutions run by people of color. We have all been indoctrinated into white supremacy thinking. Therefore there is no reason to feel shame or fear. It is not your fault. You are not stained. We are not irredeemable. Our Universalist heritage says that no one is left behind. Let’s anchor in that promise. I implore you to resist your urge to run away or to distance yourself from the term. Stay with us. Bend into the task at hand. Dare to be vulnerable.
Are there people who will stop giving financially because we are going down this path? You better believe it. They already are. Accept their decision and move on. Are there white people who will leave our churches over this? You bet. Accept their choice and trust that they will be held somewhere else. Are there people who will choose not to visit UU churches because of this difficult road we are walking? You bet. Not everyone is up to the task at hand. Unitarian Universalism was never for the faint of heart and that is as true today as it has been throughout our history.
But if you want to journey into wholeness, if you want to live into the transformative pain and possibility of this one incredible life you are living, if you want to experience a community that doesn’t shy away from calling truth to power, then Unitarian Universalism is for you and I welcome you into this time, this place, and this faith. This is an incredible opportunity we have and I want people like you sitting at the table of compassion and justice. #faithoverfear

June 22, 2017

I’m reflecting on the difference between saying your sorry and asking for forgiveness. Just saying you’re sorry means you get to keep your power. You decide when you’re going to do it and what you’re going to say.

Asking for forgiveness means being vulnerable and taking the risk that the person from whom you’ve asked forgiveness isn’t ready to give it. It means being ready for an answer that you may not have expected, an answer that may continue to ask something from you in addition to what you’ve offered and asked for.
We have multiple people in our association who expressed apologies on their way out the door. The apology is appreciated and I’m going to trust that the apology is sincere. But there is a next part, and that is asking for forgiveness.  It means staying at the table, even if your place at the table has shifted, and taking the risk of staying vulnerable and open to the ones you have harmed and the unpredictability of their response. It means giving away your power.
Asking for forgiveness is way risker than saying you’re sorry.  This is what it means to anchor in a brave space, rather than a safe space.

#faithoverfear

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Memorial Day for Pacifists

This is the sermon preached to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse WI on Memorial Weekend, 2017j.  Thank you to Bob who gave me permission to share his story as I understand it.

Children’s Sermon

This weekend is Memorial Day, when we traditionally remember American soldiers who died in combat, meaning they died on the battlefield.  Memorial Day started after the Civil War, when this country went to war with itself and they fought about the future of the country and the future of slavery, when Blacks were enslaved by Whites, meaning they were owned by whites and worked for free for whites.

 

The Civil War lasted a long time and was a horrible experience   America was 31,000 000 people at the beginning of the Civil War.

There are estimates that 650 000 soldiers died in that war, and that 210 000 non-military people, meaning women, men who didn’t fight, and children, also died as a result of the war, usually from hunger or disease. This means that 1 in every 36 people in the United States died during the Civil War. Everyone loved someone who didn’t make it.

After the Civil war ended, it felt really important not to forget those people and they were looking for ways to grieve them.

Do you know what it means to grieve? It means that you are hurting inside because someone you love has died. It’s a special kind of hurt. When someone dies because they were killed in war, that is a special kind of grief that hurts the same and different.

After the Civil War, everyone was grieving someone.  No one wanted that kind of war to happen ever again on American soil. When it started, no one thought it would last that long or that so many people would die.

That is how Memorial Day started, because no one wanted to forget and everyone wanted to find a way to come together and be sad together and find hope together.

Traditionally Memorial Day is a time to remember American soldiers who died in war. But we are also a nation of immigrants, and if we are going to respect all the different kinds of people who live here, it’s also important that we remember that many Americans have people they loved who died serving other countries. And, because as Unitarian Universalists, we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of a country, we also need to remember that people all over the world are dying in war. Every day.  We need to remember those people too.

And there’s more. The way we fight wars has changed. It used to be that the different armies met each other on a battlefield and fought each other until one army surrendered.   But in the last 100 years, most wars are fought where ordinary people live, in their towns and their neighborhoods, in public spaces, on public transit, at concerts and festivals, and that means that in many wars, more civilians are dying than soldiers.  We need to remember them too, because they are also casualties of war.

This morning, as citizens of the world, we are going to take some time to name people from our families or friendship circles – military and civilians – who died because of war. It could be people we knew personally, or relatives who died that we may have never met but whose stories were told to us so that we would remember and know who we are. Let’s take some time to honor those people. If you have more than one name, that is just fine. We will welcome all the names.

We’ll start with ringing a bell and then a very short time of silence to gather our thoughts and think about the names we want to share. Then I’ll ring the bell again and we will start. When we’ve finished, I’ll ring the bell again and we’ll have a moment of silence to honor all the names that have been spoken.

Silence and Naming

Spirit of Life, this day remembers and acknowledges loss and so do we remember those whom we have loved and lost. We hold their names and their faces in our mind’s eye. We recall the gifts they gave to us through the strength of their being, the depth of their love, the courage of their dying, and the fullness of their living.

In the Holy Quiet of this hour, their names surround us and they live with us in blessed memory. Amen

 

Adults’ Sermon

 About a week ago, on a southern Louisiana Friday morning, the last of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans was taken down. Hundreds gathered to witness and the crowd was divided, a no mans land between them. The larger group celebrated, sang, cheered, and danced because they believed that the monument of General Robert E. Lee was put up to intimidate African Americans claiming their freedom after the civil war, erected as the white south erased slavery as the central reason for the confederate cause, replacing it with chivalry, loyalty, honor, heritage and pride. This was done even as Jim Crow laws rebuilt slavery as much as possible without actually being slavery.

In the months leading up to that Southern Louisiana morning, Black New Orleanians spoke about driving, every day, by these symbols of the Confederacy honoring those who had fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. They spoke about the toll it took. There was no doubt that the monuments needed to be taken down.

The smaller group, all white, stood mostly silent, angry and bitter, anchored in the mythology of a lost golden age. They said the monuments were about loyalty and pride, honor and valor, heritage and history.

It took two years to get these monuments taken down. The bitterness, the competing loyalties, the different versions of history displayed the divisions of race and power that rule this country. New Orleans Mayor Landrieu, in a speech that went viral last week, emphasized the power of symbols to support or take down systems of oppression while emphasizing that removing symbols should never be confused with the real work.

And you might be asking, what could this possibly have to do with Memorial Day?

It actually has a whole lot to with Memorial Day.

Memorial Day began as a southern observance. There are many stories, some competing, about how it started. One features Charlottesville Virginia Confederate women going to the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers – their husbands, fathers, sons – and laying flowers. Then they also laid flowers on Union graves. The practice grew, spreading north, and Union women went to the graves of their husbands, fathers, sons – and laid flowers on Union and Confederate graves.

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day and became a way to foster unity in a country that was terribly divided. Everyone could grieve, together, the hundreds of thousands of lives lost. In unity, they held up that every soldier who died left behind a grieving family. And, it is certainly true that every soldier who died had years of living and loving stolen from them and their death broke the hearts of those who still lived.

It is also true that this unity was sought by white America – Union and Confederate – by pushing back the overarching reason for the war and raising up that soldiers on both sides died serving their country, serving a noble cause. It supported the rewriting of history happening south of the Mason-Dixon line. Decoration Day minimized that Confederate soldiers had been fighting to preserve the right of whites to brutalize and own blacks. The history of Memorial Day is one more example of how whites minimize the suffering of people of color in the search for unity. In reality it is not unity because it continues the violence against those who bear the brunt of oppression.

So there’s a connection between Memorial Day and those Confederate monuments. North and South both whitewashed the true reasons for the war in the pursuit of unity, whitewashed that the South was fighting for the right to continue the brutal enslavement of African Americans, held up a false unity that ignored the continued brutalization of black communities and black bodies. This positioned the White South to rewrite their loss as a tragedy, with themselves as the deposed gentlemen of a lost cause, while they simultaneously enacted all those Jim Crow Laws. And the White North said nothing, did nothing, believing it had done its duty by ending slavery.

 

So why raise all this stuff on a weekend that is known more commonly as the beginning of summer? The kids are finally out of school, vacation is here, hoards of us take to the great outdoors and the rest of us get the best deals on those Memorial Day mattress and appliance sales! Very few of us actually observe the day as it was meant to be observed. It’s a time for bbq’s, family, and sunshine. So why go there?

 

This is why. As Unitarian Universalists, we are a people committed to integrity and truth telling. We often say that the truth sets us free. Unitarian Universalism values doubt and questioning as spiritual practices that lead us towards truth. There is nothing that cannot be questioned except that we hold compassion and freedom as the essence of being human, and that we must live at all times with respect for that radical interdependence of all things. Everything else is up for grabs, otherwise we turn too much stuff into idols, worshiping what is transient and rather than enduring.

This resistance to dogmas, to creeds, to idols and our commitment to truth as a path to freedom creates a healthy ambivalence towards anything that we are asked to simply accept.

I have experienced, you may have as well, among American Unitarian Universalists, that some of us have a complicated relationship with patriotism. This struggle has become keener since November when white nationalism was used win the Presidency. We have experienced patriotism being used as a tool to harden people against each other. There is tremendous social pressure to adopt a patriotism rooted in American exceptionalism, which disrespects other nations and peoples by loudly trumpeting American superiority. This kind of patriotism is not consistent with Unitarian Universalist values.  It is not rooted in a deep compassion for all of life.

So I have some questions. To what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to honor our Unitarian Universalist faith and love a country? How do we honor those who die in battle and hold up that not all battles are rooted in values that affirm life?

In the interests of full disclosure, let me say where I am coming from when I ask these questions. I was raised Mennonite, and in the Mennonite faith in its purest form, it is forbidden to love a country. Patriotism is a sin against God and we are never to let love of country supersede love for God. So the whole idea of asking God to bless a country? Blasphemy. Pledging allegiance to a flag or putting your hand over your heart to sing the national anthem? Idolatry. When patriotism becomes akin to religion and is then used to stoke public sentiment for military action, it is an abuse of faith. While I am no longer a practicing Mennonite, the teachings are in me and I have brought them to my Unitarian Universalist faith. I don’t believe that patriotism is a sin, I do believe you can love a country, but I firmly believe that no patriotism should ever supersede our commitment to living our principles. There is no nation higher than our core values of compassion and freedom. No nation has the right to demand blind allegiance, to define what allegiance is, or expect us to betray our values in the name of allegiance. Our love of nation should always be conditional.  Our commitment to our values should never be compromised.

At this time in Unitarian Universalism, we are in a place of waking up to how white supremacy culture is embedded in our beliefs and our institutions and our nation. Since the Ferguson Uprising, when black leaders took the streets protesting the death of Michael Brown, police brutality and a racist criminal justice system, Unitarian Universalist people of color are insisting that white Unitarian Universalists, if they are committed to solidarity with people of color, face the truth that whiteness is centered in how Unitarian Universalism happens and that this deeply impacts people of color in our congregations.

Whiteness is centered in the way patriotism happens in the United States, and the white experience shaped how Memorial Day started and what it has become. To be in solidarity with people of color means waking up to these realities and making new choices.

So to what are we called to direct our compassion? What does it mean to love a country that is rooted in white supremacy culture? How do we honor our Unitarian Universalist values, give our thanks to those who have died in our battles and hold up that every battle that has ever claimed American lives has been wed to goals that both affirm life and deny it?

I want to tell you about a man whose journey, I think, offers a way to walk into these dilemmas and find some of that truth that leads to freedom.

Bob is a member of the congregation I serve in Quincy IL where 25% of the members are veterans or family of veterans. Most of those who served in combat have PTSD. I visit Bob almost every time I’m in Quincy. He’s a Marine. He served two tours in Vietnam as a Staff Sergeant, leading his troops deep into battle. Bob always wears his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. He runs the War Museum at the Veterans Home. His identity is shaped by being a veteran.

Bob also believes that the War was an abuse of American military power. We had no right being there. He is haunted by memories and burdened by the deaths he witnessed. He speaks of the abuses committed by his troops. He struggles with how his valuing of human life changed while he served and the choices he was compelled to make through those mutated values. Vietnam is the raw matter of his life woven into a tapestry of regrets.

Bob returned from Vietnam and served as a police chief, a CIA officer and a professor of criminology. He is convinced of the complete corruption of our government and law enforcement. He struggles to find the good in humanity.

And yet, he comes to worship every Sunday, wearing his Vietnam Vet cap and his Marine jacket. Despite his cynicism about human nature he is loyal to a religious community that celebrates the human spirit and promises itself to compassion, justice and truth. Bob is kind and generous.

What I have learned from knowing Bob is that it is a shallow thing to honor those who have served and be silent about the goals of the combat itself. To raise up Bob as a hero erases his moral struggle and the truth that thousands of Americans and Vietnamese died because America flexed its muscle and couldn’t figure out how to stop flexing it.

This is the thing. Military might cannot create peace, freedom and democracy; it cannot end ethnic hatred or racism, otherwise racism would have ended with the civil war. Military might can achieve strategic goals. Sometimes it can provide a container for change, it can stop people from killing each other, but it does not create justice.  Justice doesn’t happen at the end of the barrel of a gun . It happens in relationships of equals – in council chambers and kitchen tables, in the workplaces and schools, in our friendships and our congregations.

So let’s go back to those Confederate monuments which attempted to honor those who fought on the Confederate side by erasing the truth of their objectives.  Let’s remember that this is the original context for our modern Memorial Day celebrations which hold up the sacrifice of those who died in battle without holding up the complexity of the goals of those wars.

I propose that we continue to hold the utmost compassion for all who lost their lives in war, and that the magnitude of the loss escalates when those lives were lost pursuing objectives that defy compassion, virtue and reason. To be a compassionate people means to center the voices of those most impacted by those objectives. Think of those Confederate monuments, whose story should be centered?   The Confederate soldiers who died protecting slavery, or African Americans who had been held in the terror of slavery for centuries and who are still held in the terror of state sanctioned violence?

This is a different kind of love for country. A different kind of compassion for those who serve. It is a different kind of patriotism, which calls in rather than separates and divides, which carries us into paradox rather than a simplistic unity that erases suffering and inequality.

This is, perhaps, part of the truth that will set us free.

 

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No Longer Business as Usual

In the months of April and May, more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregation have risen to the challenge offered by Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists to explore how white supremacy culture has shaped our faith.  This is what we did on Sunday, May 7 at the Unitarian Church of Quincy IL.  You may use any of my words, with full attribution.

White Supremacy Teach-In, May 7, 2017

The Unitarian Church of Quincy IL

Rev. Krista Taves

Opening Words

We are here to face the truth, about ourselves, about this faith we love, and the ways it presently serves others and the world, as well as to open ourselves to ways it can better, and more joyfully, reflect our potential and core values.

We want to know the ways we are bond to one another, as well as to the larger religious movements normally beyond our sight and vision.

We say we are open and diverse , yet it is too easy to feel stuck in old paths and stubborn habits reflecting not so much tradition as our comfort.

We want to answer the call to service, to a world that needs our message, our hope, our revived energy.

We are gathered to learn, to unlearn, to hear, and to move forward.

(Stephen Kendrick.)

 

Message:

No Longer Business as Usual

Reflection 1 – White Supremacy in Liberal Institutions? How could that be? –

Rev. Krista Taves

Unitarian Universalism is an aspirational faith. We lean into the vision of beloved community that is yet to be. If you look at our seven principles (they are in the front of the grey hymnal), they are a statement of who we are called to become and the world we believe should be. Our deep awareness of the gap between who we are now and who we wish to become, that gap provides the motivating compassion-filled energy of our collective spiritual journey.

Another defining feature of Unitarian Universalism is that we proclaim the transformative potential of humanity, that we, together, have the capability to transform the hells of this world into heaven on earth. This is what we proclaim, so we are an optimistic hopeful religion.

What this means is that we are called to a high level of integrity to look into that gap without blinders, because the gap was created by us. The truth is that we humans do unimaginable harm. We are the authors of the hells on this earth. It is sobering, the cruelty we can heap upon each other and the earth.

But to be honest, historically, this shadow side of humanity is something that Unitarian Universalism really struggles with. We have easily held up our goodness and stopped there, often shying away from looking at the ways we contribute to evil. We have a profoundly inadequate theology of sin. We don’t even like the word. And there’s a good reason why this has come to be.

Many Unitarian Universalists come from shame-based religious traditions that traumatized us. Even if we were born Unitarian Universalist, we were often immersed in a larger culture that was dominated by shame-based religious traditions. We don’t want to hear about sin.   We don’t want to hear about how we’ve fallen short because it so easily brings back those feelings of shame and guilt. This is understandable, in the short run. But in the long run, we end up running from our call to be people of integrity. By running away to protect ourselves from feeling shame, we project sin as somewhere out there and not possibly in us. When we do this, our faith becomes irrelevant and cheap and we are unable to rise to the task of looking into the gaps we have created.

If we are going to be true to our aspirational Unitarian Universalist faith, we have to have the courage to approach the totality of our human condition, and that includes both how each one of us is precious and good, and how we cause incredible harm. We do this by anchoring ourselves in our 7th principle, which is that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence. The interdependent web holds the things that are beautiful and destructive. We can’t ever approach the beloved community until we are willing to engage in a full reckoning with our part in systems of evil that keep wounding all of life.

And that brings us to the subject of today, which is the power of white supremacy culture in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. We are joining more than 660 Unitarian Universalist congregations across America who will dedicate a service this spring to this very challenging and important discussion.

This may seem like a far-fetched suggestion, that white supremacy could possibly live in our liberal religious tradition. Aren’t Unitarian Universalists the good guys? Many of our religious ancestors were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and 2/3rds of our ministers marched in Selma. In the 1960s, members of this congregation became go-betweens, buying homes in white areas of Quincy and selling to black families to try and end housing segregation. Today this congregation has a strong partnership with Teen Reach, which provides free after school programming for children in poverty. Most of their students are black. When state funds dried up because of the budget impasse, we stepped in and have provided financial and volunteer support to Teen Reach. We have a long and proud tradition of being on the right side of history.   So white supremacy couldn’t possibly apply to us, right? The thought is horrifying!

And… seems to pull us back into that shame and guilt so many of us escaped in our churches of origin.

And yet, Black and Brown Unitarian Universalists, our people, are imploring us to consider that white supremacy is much more than confederate flags and white hoods. When we confine white supremacy culture to its most offensive and overt manifestation, we can point to the problem as being over there.   Not also here. And that means we are blind to the ways that we continue the oppression of people of color right in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our church.

There’s a different definition of white supremacy that places it along a continuum. There is a diagram included in your order of service, the one with the triangle. (See the link at the bottom of this post). At the top of the triangle is overt organized white supremacy, and at the bottom the denial of the presence of racism, with most white supremacist culture being in the bottom part of the triangle, often implicit, subtle, and unconscious. In America, it is the air that we breathe and it lives here, it lives in our city, it lives in every institution in America.

This morning, we are asking ourselves to consider that white supremacy culture lives in each of our hearts and in our congregation. The goal is not to make anyone feel guilty. The goal is not to shame anyone by saying, “This is what you are doing wrong!” There is no room in Unitarian Universalism for shame and guilt. They are the tools of oppression and are used to keep us from looking into the gap. But as Americans and immigrants, we are called to understand that white supremacy culture has been done to us. It is a form of violence that we have been taught. This means we are no lesser humans, not tainted, not dirty, not damned because it lives in us. It is a form of violation that has been done to us.

Two years ago at our General Assembly in Portland, Cornel West, an African American scholar and theologian, spoke to us about white supremacy and the work we have to do. This is a short clip from his lecture:

Cornel West.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2iAHrgirE7I , 20:03 – 22:55

If Cornel West, a renowned black scholar and theologian who has been preaching and teaching for decades, can admit before 1000s of Unitarian Universalists that white supremacy culture lives in him, we have permission to approach our own white supremacy thinking without shame, without judgment, without feeling like we are guilty or tainted. White supremacy culture was imposed on us from the time we were born. It was a violation of us.

And, as anyone who is a victim of violence knows, while you are not responsible for what happened to you, you are responsible for your own healing. If you don’t take that responsibility, the likelihood that you will then turn and do violence to yourself or to another human being rises exponentially. If we don’t take responsibility for the wounding that has been done to us by white supremacy culture, we then become the bearers of white supremacy culture and we continue to build hell on earth and frustrate our yearning for the beloved community.

So, this morning, holding tight onto the truth of our preciousness and the tragedy of the many ways we fall short, let us prepare for this journey with a moment of silence and reflection:

SILENCE

Reading:

Kenny Wiley is a Black Unitarian Universalist religious educator. He has been active at the national level in our association for many years and has emerged as one of the most thoughtful and prophetic black leaders in Unitarian Universalism.

“Who are my people?” by Kenny Wiley

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist.

I am also black.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.

I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked with Coretta Scott King.

Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston. …We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

Night after night I read that passage. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up because I’ve often wished I could leave Unitarian Universalism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

I [have figured] out how to navigate a mostly white society that [accepts] me quite warmly, so long as I [do] little to rock the boat. … Talking about race with many white Unitarian Universalists too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. We can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do.

(adapted from the original: https://kennywiley.com/2014/10/15/who-are-my-people-a-black-unitarian-universalist-on-selma-and-ferguson/

Reflection Questions:

1) What was it like for you to hear the experience of one of our people, a Black Unitarian Universalist?

2) What needs to change in our congregation so that people of color can truly become part of the us, and claim this faith and this congregation as white Unitarian Universalists do?

3) What can you offer to make this so? What would you need to relinquish?

 

Let us enter into a time of silence.

 

Musical Interlude – “I Need You To Survive” – The anthem of Black Unitarian Universalists, video clip from General Assembly 2016.

http://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/closing 35:50-43:45

 

Reflection 2 – No Longer Business as Usual. How we build the courage to see white supremacy thinking in ourselves, in Unitarian Universalism, and in our Congregation. Rev. Krista Taves

 

What was it like for you to hear the story of one of our people? Did you know that it is very common for black and brown Unitarian Universalists to have ongoing, painful, shame-inducing engagements with white Unitarian Universalists? There are even support groups for Unitarian Universalist people of color so that they can survive in our faith. It became even more difficult for Black Unitarian Universalists after Ferguson because so many white Unitarian Universalists were in denial about the reality of police brutality which shapes black lives on a daily basis. Black UUs desperately wanted their White UU people to say, “We are with you and will go to the streets for you,” and the response was far too often to question and criticize and doubt their stories.

And again, I want to say, none of this is to create shame and guilt. Nor is it to damn us or Unitarian Universalism. White supremacy lives in every institution in America. Its presence is not the damning factor, but rather a refusal to be truthful about it. We don’t need shame and denial. We need courage and conviction.

Part of the Beloved Conversations Curriculum that we’ve just finished was to help us uncover own white supremacist assumptions so we can experience ourselves, our congregation, and our community in a new light. This is how Mike Flanagan came to uncover a different meaning in the Heritage window, one that does not center whiteness, but rather blackness and brownness. That window was intended to connect this congregation to the founding of America. And yet it sends a message to those who have experienced America as a conqueror. Maybe we need to have a plaque that offers an indigenous perspective on that picture.

Then there is the stained glass window behind the pulpit of the Indian Burial Mound, which is in Quincy. The intent of the window, and a noble intent it was, was to indicate respect for the Native peoples who lived here. It is also true that whites came to Quincy after forced Native resettlement created the room for westward expansion. Perhaps we need to ask if this window, much less one depicting a burial ground which is all that remains of centuries of Native life here, is enough to indicate our respect? We are a faith of covenant and right relationship. Are we in relationship with Native people? What about reparations? Native Americans have the highest poverty, suicide, and unemployment rates of any racial group in America and this is a direct result of centuries of violence to make way for white settlement. This peaceful picture, despite its very noble intentions, erases the cruelty that paved the way for this church to be established in Quincy.

The answer isn’t to hang our heads in shame. That’s actually too easy because then we get to be paralyzed and do nothing. Even worse we might lash back in rejection and do more harm. The answer is to own this history, not run from it or deny it, because engaging the truth of our white supremacy indoctrination with authenticity and an open heart and mind is how we will dismantle it. When we own this history, there is one less barrier for UU people of color to embrace this as home. That is the only way for us to live with integrity.

Here are some other examples of how white supremacy culture lives in Unitarian Universalism. The fact that the first principle is the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the last is the interdependent web of all existence, is a manifestation of white supremacy culture. Whites are trained to see themselves as individuals first and part of a group second. Our privilege allows whites to experience themselves as unique and exceptional. People of color tend to experience themselves as part of a group first and as individuals second. By holding up the primacy of the individual as the first principle, people of color are being told which racial world view they have to accept to be part of us. Imagine how different the principles would feel if we reversed them and read every principle through the lens of the interdependent web.   In fact, this could bring a great deal of healing as we try to respond to a nation that is being ripped apart by rabid consumerist individualism.

Another example is our grey hymnal. Every hymn of European origin is identified only by its author and name. Every hymn from a non-European composer identifies the culture or race. The grey hymnal also privileges traditional classically-based hymns that are European in origin. This sends the message that white is the norm that does not need to be identified and tells UU people of color that they’ll never quite be considered part of the “us.” Imagine how different it would feel for all of us if every white author was also identified by their race.

Again, this is not to create guilt or shame. It’s to help us develop a new perspective and to make new choices. I don’t know that the answer is to stop singing our white hymns or stop admiring our white pictures. It’s to recognize them as a product of our white supremacy culture. This is what it means to live with integrity and love.

Let’s also recognize that white supremacy doesn’t just hurt people of color. We are all violated by it. The cost to people of color is their dignity and far too often their lives. The cost to whites is that we live in fear and shame. I asked some of our Beloved Conversations participants, all of whom are white, what white supremacy culture costs them.

From D: Loss of peace of mind. A sense of separation.  Never reaching full potential.  Limited view of beauty, grace and intelligence.  Intensified narcissism.  Confinement.

From K: My world is smaller and I lose connection to people who could enrich my life because both of us aren’t our authentic selves.

From A: White supremacy culture costs me fear. I have been afraid of black people my entire life. They have so often been portrayed as ignorant, violent, and angry with white people. It is also understood in our culture that black men often prefer white women, especially blondes, which creates more tension (I have personal experience with this). So I have often felt vulnerable and afraid when interacting with black people; I’ve usually felt that I just can’t say or do the right thing. I also felt like a target for assault because as a white woman living alone, I was quite vulnerable.”

From T: White supremacy culture … costs me my awareness. As someone who is white, I don’t always think about how things operate around me. My awareness heightens when I see someone find it difficult to navigate in a setting or situation. The positive thing is that now I am getting better at recognizing and assisting if it is needed/wanted. Earlier in my life and experiences I would have noticed that someone was having difficulty and helped, but I wouldn’t have really thought or understood the ‘why’. It’s also made evident when I am in a setting that is outside the white culture and I have to watch and learn how to operate. However, I always know that when I’m uncomfortable that I can leave and go back to my comfort zone. That isn’t the case for someone of another culture.

What are we hearing here? Loss of relationships. Limited living. Loneliness. Fear. Vulnerability. Misunderstanding the world around us.

I imagine that we are all wondering what can we do to get out of this? How do we rise above this toxic air that we’re all breathing?

We’re going to end our time together with a homily offered by Leslie Mac, who is a leader in the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective. I think she has something important to offer us:

 

http://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/closing

28:15 – 35:34

 

My friends, there is no quick fix. There is no lesson that will teach us how to no longer be hurtful. What we have is our values of integrity, fairness, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, persistence. We need to be patient but determined. Our primary value is Love. To use the words of Leslie Mac, “Love and self-love is what we should strive to practice in everything we do. Love must be the driver of our work and an indicator of its successes.” Love will give us the courage to live with integrity, the courage to stop hurting each other, the courage to move together towards that Beloved Community that we aspire to.

Amen and blessed be.

 

Closing Words

 

Hope rises.

 

It rises from the heart of life here and now, beating with joy and sorrow.

 

Hope longs.

 

It longs for good to be affirmed, for justice and love to prevail, for suffering to be alleviated, and for life to flourish in peace.

 

Hope acts.

 

It acts to bless, to protest, to repair.

 

(John A. Buehrens and Rebecca Ann Parker, Adapted)

 

The White Supremacy Culture Diagram can be found here, about half way through the document: https://radicalcopyeditor.com/2017/04/21/white-supremacy/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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White Supremacy in my beloved faith community

As a white Unitarian Universalist minister I am compelled by our Unitarian Universalist living tradition to speak out about the power of white supremacy in our beloved faith tradition and why I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I not only want more Unitarian Universalists of Color in high level staff positions, I want more Unitarian Universalists of Color at every level of congregational and denominational involvement, particularly in leadership positions invested with decision-making authority.

 
In my 13 years of ordained ministry, I have sadly experienced only one situation in which I was privileged to work with a professional of color in parish ministry. In this one situation, we were fortunate to bring a young biracial woman to serve as our Director of Religious Education. She was in her last year of a Masters of Education and was highly qualified for the position. It became clear that having a person of color in a visible leadership position had the immediate result of more people of color visiting the congregation and considering membership. In one year the number of people of color participating in congregational life more than doubled.

 
However, from the beginning of her tenure, her ability to do the work was compromised by the attitudes and behaviors of whites in the congregation. She experienced ongoing racial microaggressions. There were comments first about her clothing and hair. Her clothing was too flamboyant. Her hair was untamed. As the year went on, she began dressing and styling her hair more conservatively, more typical white middle class, to try and avoid the comments.

 

She often experienced being spoken to as if she were child. Ideas she offered in committee meetings were dismissed and then adopted by others and presented as their own. When she expressed sentiments or opinions using excitement, joy, passion, or urgency, you could see the room grow quiet and uncomfortable, with many eyes averted. The approach to her shifted from patronizing to withdrawal and discomfort.

Mid-year she attended a district sponsored religious educators training and came back ready to quit. She was the only person of color in the training. The trainer’s use of story as a tool of teaching was replete with instances of cultural misappropriation. Our DRE attempted to respond to this and was shut down. Other class participants tokenized her as the only poc in the room and in one painful instance, asked her pointed questions about her racial identity that indicated assumptions about her background and life experience based on racial stereotypes.

I contacted my colleagues and asked for help. I was able to connect her to another religious professional of color to provide emotional support and connect her to other professionals of color.

After the training experience, I noticed a decrease in her work performance. Her continuous experience of being disempowered had taken its toll and she could no longer give the best of herself to the position. To her credit, she was very open with me about her experience and the two of us developed a plan to bring Building the World We Dream About to the congregation in the following year.

But it was too late. She handed in her resignation at the end of the year. As part of processing her departure, I asked those who worked with her to consider the choices made during her tenure. I provided concrete examples of racial microaggressions that she had experienced. While no one outright denied these had taken place, the preference was to focus on her diminishing work performance without an understanding of what had contributed to it. Not surprisingly, after her departure, many of the people of color who had begun attending the congregation left. The congregation was restored to its previous racial makeup.

This is one story but it is repeated throughout our association, in every congregation to one degree or another. In this way our congregations still manifest a culture of white supremacy.

It is critical for the integrity of our faith tradition to intentionally diversify our leadership at all levels. The life experiences of those outside the socialization of whiteness is of the utmost importance for Unitarian Universalism to manifest its full transformative potential. But, without deliberately engaging in counter-oppression and anti-racism strategies and consciously naming and unraveling the power of white supremacy in our liberal religious tradition, our predominantly white membership has, can and will disempower people of color in positions of power over and over. Their leadership will be questioned and deconstructed in ways that whites never have to contend with. This is why it is vitally important that white leaders who are committed to solidarity stay hypervigilant and use our privilege to counter the ongoing stream of racial microaggressions that will be directed at those leaders.

What is most disconcerting to me is the response of the UUA leadership to the challenges that are before us now in the most recent hire to the Southern Regional Lead position. There are attempts to separate the larger systemic issues from the specific hire thereby generalizing the issue, allowing the decision makers to stay in a comfortable unaccountable place and erase the real impact of the recent decision on people of color. Those challenging the UUA to look at its practices as a manifestation of white supremacy have been labeled hysterical and reactive by our president, Peter Morales. This is troubling disempowering language. Furthermore the assumption that our congregations and our associational structures cannot be white supremacy in action because we aren’t the Aryan Nation makes the mistake of defining white supremacy as only present in explicit racism, the kind of racism that we see in footage from the Civil Rights Movement. White liberal racism is just as powerful and just as insidious. Denying its presence is incredibly damaging and sets us back.

What is taking place is no different than the silence and discomfort of the leaders in that small congregation as they systemically disempowered the DRE. All serve to continue the spiritual violence. I would demand of the UUA that they stop running from this. Stop making excuses. Stop minimizing. Stop distracting. What you have been offered in the criticism that is coming your way is a gift if you can see it as such. You have the opportunity to demonstrate in your words and deeds that people of color can take the risk of speaking the truth of their experience in the culture of the association you lead and not face continued aggression. So far you’ve fallen far short. It’s not too late to change course.

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An Act of Mercy or Malice? The AHCA and the Republican Mindset

When Paul Ryan introduced his health care bill to the American people, he called it “An Act of Mercy.” US Representative Joe Kennedy III challenged Ryan, saying that the Republican Health Care proposal was an “act of malice.”

Most liberals and progressives implicitly understood the moral underpinnings of Kennedy’s criticism. It’s why the story was retweeted and shared millions of times on social media and has become the subject of countless memes. Here’s how the argument goes:

The Republican Health Care Bill is bad because it will leave 24 million without health insurance.  It will strip away subsidies for health insurance premiums, limit Medicaid funds, and take away many of the price controls and protective regulations imposed by the ACA. 24 million people without health insurance is a bad thing. Increasing premiums for older people is a bad thing. Allowing insurance companies to offer poorer quality health insurance (often called catastrophic health insurance) rather than the high quality health insurance provided through ACA is bad. Having a higher mortality rate because fewer people have insurance is a bad thing. These things are bad because more human beings will suffer and die.  Therefore it’s a bad bill.

For progressives, holding up the inevitable suffering that the Republican Health Care Bill will cause is sufficient and seems obvious.  But, our arguments largely fall on deaf ears and it baffles us.  How, we ask, can Republicans be so blind? How can they be so cruel, we charge?  To use Kennedy’s criticism, how can they be so filled with malice?

The thing is, they aren’t blind. Republicans knew the impact of their health care bill before the CBO crunched the numbers. They knew millions would lose insurance, they knew premiums would rise, they knew the quality of insurance for poor and middle class people would decline, they knew that removing the mandate to cover pre-existing conditions would lead to pre-mature deaths, and they knew that morality rates and medical bankruptcies would rise. But they don’t see these realities as cruel.   In all likelihood they see a bill that strips 24 million people of insurance as a true act of mercy.

The most important thing to remember about the conservative mindset is that most suffering is considered the result of moral failure, especially when that suffering is a result of poverty and financial hardship.  Once you understand this , the basis of their immovability before pleas of compassion becomes clear.

Republicans and conservatives range from ambivalent to outright hostile about social programs aimed at alleviating poverty and inequity because in the conservative mindset, social programs bail out the poor for their bad and immoral choices. This continuous bailing out creates a reward for immoral behavior. It keeps people from facing the consequences of their moral failings.

 

Personal wealth, on the other hand, is a sign that you are of higher moral standing. You are wealthy because you make good moral choices. You should be rewarded for your moral superiority. When you are taxed to pay for social programs, your money is being stolen to support the lazy people who make poor choices.

Let’s play with this moral framework by looking at some of the legislative issues before Congress right now.

  • 24 million people losing health insurance because of the AHCA.  If people need help paying for health insurance, obviously they have made mistakes. The sooner we stop bailing them out, the sooner they will face the consequences of their poor choices. If they can’t pay for medical bills, it’s because they made poor choices. If they can only afford catastrophic health insurance, it’s because they aren’t working hard enough. If they die because they don’t have insurance, the death is acceptable because that person was facing the consequences of their poor choices.

 

  • Cutting funding for Meals on Wheels. Obviously these seniors didn’t save enough money for retirement. It is not our responsibility to pay for the mistakes they made. If their family is not helping them, then that person did a poor job of raising their children. Hunger is the consequence of poor choices. Perhaps the experience of hunger will lead them to make better choices and then they won’t be hungry anymore. It may also shame their families into taking care of them.

 

  • Cutting funding for free school lunch programs. These children are hungry because their parents made poor choices. If we feed these children the parents will be rewarded for their poor choices. Even worse, the children will watch their parents being rewarded for poor choices and will probably make those choices themselves as adults. When parents see their children go to bed hungry they will be shamed to start making better choices so that they can feed their children. When children understand that their hunger is their parents’ fault, they will be motivated to make better choices when they are adults. Child hunger can be a good thing.

 

  • Tax cuts for the wealthy. Inequity in wealth is a sign that there is a moral order at work in society. It is inevitable that some people will be rich and some will be poor. This is not a problem.  The moral order, in which those who make moral choices are rewarded with wealth and those who make immoral choices face poverty, is exactly as it should be.  Tax structures that reduce inequity therefore are immoral.  They punish the morally superior and reward the morally inferior.
  • Citizens United.  Wealth as a sign of moral superiority means that those who are wealthy should have the moral power to make choices about those who are poor.  Any controls on that power simply punish the morally superior.  Those without wealth are already morally inferior and thus are less equipped to lead.  Furthermore, it is the moral right of the successful to hold the fate of those below them in their hands. Any complaints from those who are less financially secure is simply another indicator of their moral inferiority and their addiction to getting others to pay their bills for them. Nothing they say has any value. It is only a function of their poor choices and consequent immorality.

 

  • Cutting funding for public schools. Public schools are for those who cannot pay for private schools. Those who cannot pay for private schools have made poor choices. The less money is put into public schools, the more parents will be motivated to make better choices to avoid sending their children there. Vouchers will help do that. By destabilizing funding for public education poor parents are no longer rewarded for their bad choices. We can instead direct that money to private schools and reward parents who make good choices.

 

By now you probably get the point. Conservatives view most legislation that aims to create equity and equality of opportunity as an immoral bandaid that allows people to keep making poor choices. As you strip away these bandaids, suffering will absolutely increase and is a sign that those who made poor choices are finally facing the consequences of their moral failing. Their suffering, even when it leads to death, is a moral cleansing necessary to create a morally just society. It is, to use Paul Ryan’s words, an act of mercy.

So what can we learn from this?  Holding up human suffering as a indicator that legislation is bad is not going to move most Republican legislators to change their minds. We might as well be talking to a wall.   They see their job as putting in place the mechanisms that help people face the full consequences of immoral choices. They see our complaints as an indicator of our moral inferiority and interpret our anxiety as a sign that we are resisting the moral responsibility to face the consequences of our poor choices.

How then do we lobby Republican legislators about legislation that progressives and liberals find morally abhorrent? At this point, I believe it is about changing the minds of the American people, not Republican legislators or their base. They have become so extreme that reasonable engagement is not an option. The only thing that moves them is the fear of losing political power.

We have to find a way to damage the Republican brand so that voting Republican comes to mean voting for cruelty and selfishness.  They are, unwittingly, providing a lot of fodder for us to do this if we have the courage to really play that hand.   Republicans are seriously overplaying their hand and deeply wounding those who voted for them.  They could face intensive anger at the polls.  If we can channel that anger into a moral framework that helps the American people truly understand what malice is and what mercy is, we have a chance to bring the current political nightmare to an end.

Most Americans are neither far-right or far-left. They are somewhere in the middle. In that middle, fairness is important. Kindness is important. Caring for each other is valued. Human suffering is our shared responsibility.   Only by inviting ordinary Americans into this moral framework can Republican cruelty be unmasked for what it is and stripped of its political power.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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