“There isn’t only one story here, anywhere, not among the law enforcement, not from the Ferguson community, not from Black Americans, not from other people of color, not from white people, not from our politicians, not from the media, and not in this church. There are many many stories, and we need them all.”
This sermon was delivered to the good people of Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Chesterfield MO, a western suburb of St. Louis, on Sunday, August 24, 2014. Any portion of this sermon may be quoted or adapted provided the author is credited.
This past Thursday, I went down to Ferguson with 7 other Unitarian Universalist ministers, all of us members of the Bi State Unitarian Universalist Ministers Society, who wanted to make sure we did our part, to make sure that Unitarian Universalists were present to our city and to our people. We let the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition know we wanted to come and they let us know that we would be made useful when we got there.
When we showed up at the Delwood Recreation Center, there were lines of people waiting for food, waiting to speak to someone about help with their utilities, waiting for emergency supplies like diapers and toilet paper. I noted the patience of the crowd, even for those who had been standing for hours in the heat. The United Way coordinator asked me to stand outside, watching for signs of anyone getting overheated and dehydrated. Be there to talk. There were lots of opportunities to do that. Some people just needed someone to listen. Others had run out of things to say, except that they wanted it all to be over. But not “over” in terms of forgetting everything that happened and just moving on. Rather, “over” in terms of having their community back, “over” in terms of seeing some real change in their lives and in the community.
Like many of you, I’ve been watching the news every night, watching my twitter feed and facebook posts, thinking deeply, and wishing for change. This isn’t just about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson anymore. It never really was. We don’t know what happened that Saturday afternoon. That remains to be seen and my hope is that we will see justice, especially given the involvement of the FBI, although I realize even as I say that, one of those men has a future of some kind, and the other one doesn’t. And I think that’s what sets off the people of Ferguson. They won’t get Michael Brown back, just like they won’t get back the many other young men who have died too young.
What I think is most important is what the death of Michael Brown set off in the Ferguson community and in the psyche of our nation. Whether that particular shooting was justified or not, the anger and the pain that sparked up told a deeper truth. It brought to the surface in such a painful way the daily reality of living with a deep unfairness that affects your life every day. What’s happening is really about the racial realities of the American nation. It’s about the truth of how separated the races are from each other, and how that separation is reinforced by things much bigger than us, that we created but are also beyond us . It’s about the day to day conscious and mostly unconscious ways we all decide who our people are and who counts. It’s about the differences in power we have to determine who gets in our private world and who doesn’t, and who has influence over our private life, and who doesn’t. And who the pays the price for that.
So many thoughts have swirled around my mind these past two weeks. I’ve thought about how I have changed, for instance, since moving to this city. I lived for ten years in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. Now, I’m beginning my 10th year here, and I notice everyone who isn’t white, when I go to the grocery store or the gas station, or when I drive by the bus stop or pull up to a car at the stop light, I notice. I’m self-conscious about the fact that I notice, and sometimes I’ll overcompensate to make it look like I didn’t notice. How did this happen to me? Is this what happens to you when you live in a place where 95% of the population is the color you are? Is this what happens when you live in a former slave state? Is this what happens when you start to learn more about how race works and you start questioning, and noticing stuff you maybe didn’t notice before, and being uncomfortable with what you notice about yourself and about other people and then wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to go back to not noticing? I think part of being an ally is to have the courage and maturity to notice, and then to admit what that noticing means. For me, it’s been about noticing, in a very uncomfortable way, my own privilege. And then working not to be become paralyzed by my guilt about it, and instead trying to figure out what that asks of me. How do I change who I come to see as my people? And how do I invite other people into that same place?
I know these have been a very very difficult weeks for all of us. It’s been so hard for the people of Ferguson, hard for African Americans, hard for white people. Hard for people of color who aren’t black but can relate to some of the experiences they’re hearing about. It’s been exhausting for the clergy who stood every night between the protesters and the police, trying to diffuse the tension. What has it been like for those who know their loved ones are down in that mess, and wondering, when they see on the tv screen or twitter feed the tear gas spreading through the streets, if that’s what their people are breathing?
I can’t imagine how hard and frightening this time has been for those in law enforcement and for their families who send them off every night wondering what could happen. Whatever your position on how the police have engaged the protesters, can you imagine being pelted with water bottles, shot at, splashed with body fluids, can you imagine facing the anger of that crowd night after night, an anger that is actually directed at you, and then to become the focus of so much criticism across the nation and internationally? If there was a time when an officer could crack, this might be one of those times.
One of the things I’ve learned is that no one grows and no one learns from being shamed. If we want law enforcement to change, we have to affirm the common humanity and noble intentions of those who commit to protect the safety and security of all of us. This is one reason so many Black leaders are trying to reaffirm the teachings of Martin Luther King, that non-violence is the only path to freedom.
On Thursday after we finished our time of service, we ministers decided to have lunch in a local restaurant because so many have lost business. We wanted to leave some of our money in the Ferguson community. Our waiter, a young black man, saw our clergy collars and introduced himself as a youth pastor. We told him where we had been, and asked him how this has been for him? Was he part of the protests? He said that every night he thought about it, but as he prepared to walk out the door, God spoke to him and said that going into those protests would give Satan control. In his theology, there is an ongoing war between Satan and God, and he saw Satan in the violent protesters and the police. He also saw Satan in the anger in him that wanted to get out. The anger in him was Satan and he had to find love. So he stayed home, stayed out of trouble, made sure the youth in his church had somewhere to be. And prayed for peace and justice for, as he said, “my brother Michael Brown.”
I am also trying to imagine what this time has been like for those who are doing the looting. These are the ones it has been easiest for us to judge, and that judgment has come from blacks and whites, towards those who are taking advantage of the unrest.
I’m reminded of something Martin Luther King once said, that rioting is the tool of the truly powerless. It is all that is left to do with your anger. King spent much of his last years trying to hold back the anger of the young men, who then as now absorbed most of the violence that came into the African American community and had the least experience and maturity to deal with it. He begged them not to give in to their rage, to choose instead non-violence, and when he was assassinated, the lid popped off. When you have lost hope, when you see no future for yourself, there is nothing left to lose. All you know is that you’re angry. People with no hope take that anger and self-sabotage. That’s what I see happening. This is the kind of self-sabotage you see in addicts and abuse survivors. It’s the kind of self sabotage you see in those trapped in systemic poverty. I believe that to simply write them off as thugs is too easy. We’re walking from somewhere we need to do. And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to justify the violence. I’m trying to understand it, to not run from it. To stay present to it and to see the pain behind it.
Do we have the courage to look into the pain that has been simmering under the surface for decades and to stay with it? One of the biggest criticisms black civil rights folk will lob against white people is that we run from black anger. As soon as it gets real, we ask everyone to play nice, and it’s really about us trying to stay in control. They encourage us to stay present, to not run, and to not judge because we have no idea what it’s like to live with that anger day after day. I think about that a lot.
I read an article this week by George Ciccariello-Maher that made me really uncomfortable. In part of the article, he talks about black rage and white misunderstandings of it. He talks about how often white people will say that they want peace and justice, but really they want the kind of peace that allows them to feel comfortable with themselves again, the kind of peace that allows them to turn away from the uncomfortableness of black anger. He talks about the power of that anger. If the demonstrators, he said, had not become aggressive, who would have paid attention? If a few peaceful protesters showed up quietly with signs, there would be no media, there would be no world wide attention, there would be no politiclans showing up to make sure they are seen by their constituents as being present to what is happening, there would be no white people following up with their moderate demands. Black anger has changed the playing field, drawn white attention to a problem that is so old. http://roarmag.org/2014/08/ferguson-protests-institutional-racism. I have to admit I did not like some of the article. I did not want to consider the truths in it, that the only reason I’m paying attention is because things are getting hot under the collar. And what he said about the looters, I’m uncomfortable with it. But I think I want to stay with that discomfort. I think we have to.
Those looters have made it easy for many white people to walk away and say, “Well, they’re just doing it to themselves. There’s nothing for us to do here.” I really disagree. I think we owe it to ourselves and to this nation to understand this rage. This isn’t about giving a pass to violence. It is about being in a place of compassion so that we aren’t continuing the violence by writing off those young men and women. We can’t afford to write anyone off anymore, and I know it’s not easy, but it’s what we are called to do, especially as Unitarian Universalists who have covenanted to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
There isn’t only one story here, anywhere, not among the law enforcement, not from the Ferguson community, not from Black Americans, not from other people of color, not from white people, not from our politicians, not from the media, and not in this church. There are many many stories, and we need them all.
In fact, that is the essence of our faith, Unitarian Universalism. This is a faith tradition committed to diversity, and it’s easy to say that when things are quiet and when it looks like we agree on most things. But when the stakes get higher, like they are now, that’s when it gets harder, because the urge to be right is so strong. And I also think that deep down we are afraid that if we have real differences in our community, and real conversations about those differences, we’ll lose what we have, that we will be divided.
Well, welcome to the real world.
There’s something I read this week that really helped me. Sister Simone Campbell, she’s the nun that you see in the news a lot from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, those nuns who had their hands slapped by Pope Benedict because they focused more on poverty than opposing gay marriage and abortion. Well, this Sister Simone talks about something called “Walking into Trouble.” This is what she says:
“Holy doubt is an essential element of holy faith. If we do not reverence our doubt, then we become the measure of control. Of God, of … trying to hold on and control everything that’s happening. …
It is critical in our world at this time that we have the courage to walk into doubt, as much as we walk into faith. Walking towards trouble means we’re willing to open ourselves to the surprise. To the 100% who has a different story. To different perspectives. So the importance of being uncertain means that I live a life that is slightly disturbed.” (http://www.uua.org/economic/ga/295423.shtml)
I hope that my words today have left you slightly disturbed. I hope it’s offered some confirmation for you of your own thoughts and feelings. I also hope that it has caused you to doubt some of your certainties. I hope that as a community, together, we can walk into this trouble. I hope that when the TV cameras go away, which they already are, that we won’t go away, that we won’t, as a predominantly white community, walk away from the anger the first chance we get. I hope that this is just the beginning for us, and that we’re willing to walk into trouble, with each other, with our community, and with the world.
Amen and blessed be.