Tag Archives: Racial Justice

faith on a plane.

25 May

Talking with a colleague recently, he asked about the increased travel I am doing as a Congregational Life Consultant for the Southern Region of the Unitarian Universalist Association. I told him I enjoyed it, and that I had worked out most of the details – what processes work for me, what hotel chains I like, when to fly. At that last point, we talked about how difficult it can be to fly as clergy – as soon as our seatmates ask what we do for a living, it opens all sorts of doors for conversations we may, or may not, want to have.

When I told him that, for the past 9 months, I have been wearing my clerical collar whenever I fly, his face took on a shocked expression. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked me.

I shared with him that I was bothered by the increasing violence that is occurring on planes, and that I wanted to be prepared to be a force for good if something happened in my presence. I know that people respond differently to me when I wear a collar. If I were to witness something violent on a plane, in a collar I could stand up and be a witness in ways that are more powerful than I could as a mid-40 year old woman. Especially if I then started singing or praying.

I also want people to know that I am a safe person – that I am willing and able to try to de-escalate a situation, or be a good ally if that is needed. So in addition to my collar, I also wear my Black Lives Matter/Pride Flag/World Religions safety-pin (which I wear every day). Needless to say, the combination of my pins with my collar have brought interesting conversations, a few frowns, but mostly I get smiles and “Thank you” comments.

I completely understand why some of my clergy colleagues prefer to travel anonymously. But for me, this public witness is a part of my spiritual practice when I travel. It is a away to claim my religious authority and put my faith in action and declare that I am on the side of the marginalized. As a white minister, I have so much privilege. This feels like a good way to use it. I hope I am never needed in such a way when I travel, but if something does happen, I am ready.

safety, comfort, law and order.

22 Apr

As conversations around racial justice and white supremacy (both covert and overt) dominate our culture and my faith tradition, I have found myself thinking about the difference between safety and comfort.

In the past few months, I have been approached by numerous white people who want to share with me their discomfort over something a black or brown person has shared, usually (but not only) on the topic of police violence. “Is this a safe place for ME?” the white people are usually asking, even if there are only a few people of color in the room.

When white people do this, we put our own comfort ahead of the safety of people of color.

A while ago, Reading While White had a great blog post about this:

let’s stop worrying so much about creating comfortable spaces and worry more about whether our spaces are truly safe for all….creating a space that is truly safe for people of color and First/Native Nations people often necessitates making that space uncomfortable for White people.

Read the whole post. It’s a quick, powerful read.

What I really want to share with you today, however, is a connection to safety and comfort that I made while reading Chris Hayes’ new book A Colony in a Nation. Hayes uses his experience in Ferguson to discuss the concept of the second part of the phrase “Law and Order.” In Ferguson, Hayes experienced no law breaking, but the people in the street, backing up traffic, making a lot of noise, created a lot of disorder. Disorder that white people found uncomfortable. Worthy of having a police presence. Even though there was nothing unlawful happening where he was.

Hayes writes that over the 50 years since Nixon referred to black Americans as “a colony in a nation,” we have built just that. We have created “a territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than within. A place where the mechanisms of representation don’t work enough to give citizens a sense of ownership over their own government. A place where law is a tool of control rather than than a foundation for prosperity. A political regime like the one our Founders inherited and rejected. An order they spilled their blood to defeat.

He says that in the Nation, which is made up of white people, “there is law; in the Colony there is only a concern with order. In the Nation you have rights; in the Colony you have commands. In the Nation, you are innocent until proven guilty; in the Colony, you are born guilty.”

Law and order are not the same thing.

Safety and comfort are not the same thing.

May our desire for order not outweigh our need for justice for people of color.

May our desire for comfort not outweigh the need for safety for people of color.

As we confront systems of oppression, I encourage those of us who are white to step into the discomfort, step into the disorderliness. Because it is there that we will begin to make progress.

a letter to Democratic Party leadership.

19 Dec

Power to the People

This letter was written after I sat in the Kentucky Statehouse today (12/19/2016) with my teenage kiddo as the Electoral College voted. In that room, I heard the Governor say he didn’t understand why people were protesting. I heard the head of the GOP party in the state talk about how Republicans have a mandate in the state. I watched the old white men who were the Electors (one woman out of 8) sign away our future as my child asked me what happens now. When I reached my car, I broke down in tears, and then wrote this letter.

Dear Democratic Party Leadership,

What happened? Where did you disappear to?

When HRC was running, you seemed to be all over the place trying to defend her. But since the election, it is as if you have been sucked into a vast black hole.

We need you. Our children need you. The entire country needs you.

We need you to be on the TV news, on the radio, and in the papers, boldly asserting that THIS IS NOT OKAY. It is not okay that HRC won by nearly 3 million votes and Trump is proclaiming a mandate. His selections for cabinet positions are not okay. His business conflicts of interest are not okay. Bringing his children to State meetings is not okay. Not getting intelligence briefings is not okay. Being infiltrated by Russian propaganda is not okay!! Having election results stand, knowing the Russians tampered with the election IS NOT OKAY!

Others have written about this – about how, if the situation were reversed, the GOP leaders would be pitching a fit. They would be everywhere: they would be filing lawsuits, they would be gathering committees to examine WTF is going on, they would be giving press conference upon press conference stating and restating ad nauseam their horror, disgust, and how THIS WILL NOT STAND.

And yet from you, crickets.

I know you are shocked. I know you don’t understand what happened. And I don’t care. YOU MUST LEAD US.

For years now, you have been moving to the middle, thinking a centrist position would serve you best. And now you know how wrong that is. Now you know that we are well divided between left and right and the center is kinda lonely. So get out of there and come to where your people are!

I hear the cries for leadership amongst our people. We are afraid. Immigrants are afraid of being deported, whether they are here legally or not. Black people are afraid of not being able to vote, and of continued violence. Muslims are afraid of having to sign up for a registry. Same-sex couples are afraid to lose the rights they have gained in the last decade. Trans people are afraid they will be beaten or killed for going to the bathroom. Women are afraid of being treated as incubators for lives that are apparently more important than ours. The working poor are afraid they will never achieve a livable wage. College graduates are afraid that they will never be able to pay off their educational loans*. And across the board, we are afraid that our government has been usurped by the Russians**.

Progressives have a compelling message, if you would just claim it. Claim your voice, proudly. Claim your values. Stop being so wishy-washy-wait-and-see because there is an army of us who are behind you and who will put our bodies on the line for our cause.

And if you realize that maybe we are actually too bold for you, if you find yourself confused by how upset we are and how scared we are and HOW ANGRY we are, or if you don’t have the courage to speak up, then may, just maybe, you need to get out of the way so that others can step up.

Sincerely,

Me, and probably a whole lot of other progressives desperate for leadership

 

* College enrollment has been steadily dropping since 2011.

** Russian popularity among Republicans has been skyrocketing, as shown in the tweet below.

when compassion seems like a stretch.

19 Jun

The Opposite of Compassion
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on June 19, 2016

Listen:

Back in April, when we sat around the table at our Worship Planning meeting for this month’s services, there was a lot we knew, and a lot we didn’t know. We knew the theme for the month was compassion. We knew we wanted to integrate that theme into the service each week: we had Linette kick off the month by connecting our flower communion to the Flower Sutra in Buddhism, which links compassion and mindfulness. Last week, we had a sort of primer on compassion that got us thinking and reflecting about it in our own lives. For today, we planned on presenting a service on the opposite of compassion. And then we decided to round out June next week by having the chance to practice embodying compassion for youth across the sexual orientation and gender identity spectrums.

We had no idea that there would be an immediate example of the opposite of compassion that I could utilize today. And no idea how urgently our service next week for young people would be needed.

947a732ac5e8f78f057f5328d70b50baacb1f551But now we know. Last Sunday, in the early morning hours, a male, American-born citizen – raised in our country, claiming allegiance to ISIS, choose a holy time of day, in the holy month of Ramadan, to go to gay bar that was celebrating Latinx night – a gay bar which the shooter had frequented many times and at which he was known. He went in with an assault weapon and pistol – and he proceeded to kill 49 innocent people and injure more than 50 others before he was finally brought down and killed by police.

And so we add another chapter to our country’s stories of sanctuary being defiled by gun violence: the sanctuary that the GLBT community finds in these few, rare spaces, that are theirs, where they can dance, hold, and enjoy their loved ones without fear of reprisal.

The cynical side of me supposes that was to be expected. There really is no safe place – senseless violence occurs anywhere these day – schools, churches, movie theaters; and now gay bars. What’s next? Hospitals? Plays? Concerts? Sporting events? Probably.

Meanwhile, President Obama gave another anti-gun-violence speech. Trevor Noah, host of the Daily Show, pointed out that Obama has hosted 12 state dinners but has had to give 16 mass shooting addresses during his tenure.

Meanwhile, after sending thoughts and prayers to Orlando, the GOP House Chair blocked an LGBT protections bill. And even after a filibuster, there’s still no deal for either gun control proposal on the table right now – one that keeps people who are on terror watch lists from obtaining guns, and another that requires background checks for sales at gun shows and online.

Meanwhile, much of the media ignores that the victims were mostly people of color. This tragedy is a poster-child for intersectionality, a concept used to describe ways in which social constructs like -isms & -phobias are interconnected and not magically separate issues. The reality is that queer people of color still have the highest fatality rates for transgender murder, HIV/AIDS, and youth homelessness. They are often rejected by both communities.

The blaming has been intense, if not surprising. Blame guns, religion, sexual orientation. But there are some things we don’t want to look at – like the fact that the shooter was raised in this country. He was one of ours, a byproduct of our culture, our educational systems. The reality is that it’s very difficult, and complicated, to have conversations that look at all the intersecting factors in this tragedy. But as Chris Hedges points out, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, and fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Have we reached the point where our civilization is condemned to die? My colleague, The Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, summed it up beautifully on her facebook page: “Let’s be clear: In our current national climate, Islamophobia, Xenophobia, White Supremacy, Misogyny, Homophobia, and Transphobia are at a loud, fever pitch. One of our presidential candidates explicitly spouts all of them and STILL BECAME A MAJOR PARTY NOMINEE.”

And not only has hatred personified become a major party nominee, but there are tens of millions of people in this country willing to vote for him. Tens of millions of people to whom his message of hate appeals.

Mr. Rogers, in the moment for all ages, said that in scary times, to look for the helpers. There we will find hope, and comfort.

And I love Mr. Rogers – I really do. I was shaped by his theology as a young child and continue to be inspired by him today.

But looking for the helpers is not cutting it for me right now. I don’t think it is enough for any of us. Fred, I want to ask him, that is great, but what about after the urgency of a crisis? Then what? Where do we find hope in the ongoing struggle? And, more importantly, how can we fight this rising tide of hate, of dehumanization, of oppression?

Now, here is the point where you might expect me to get all ministerly and say that we need to be more compassionate, that we are called to love even our enemies. Yadda yadda yadda. But frankly, right now, that type of response feels trite. Insufficient. Unrealistic.

The reality is that there is no one single answer, no one theological exercise, no one piece of legislation, no one solution that will bring all this pain and suffering towards healing. As Rev. Gordon points out, “We cannot, cannot, cannot decry one [of these forms of oppression] without actively and passionately resisting all of them. They are inextricably linked and rooted in a basic failure to recognize both our common humanity and the beauty of our unique differences.”

But for many of us right now, the idea of passionately resisting all of them, heck maybe even passionately resisting one of them – well, it makes us want to crawl into a cave. But there is something we can do that is not as overwhelming as compassion or passionately resisting, and not as insufficient as crawling into a cave. And that is this: we must not allow ourselves succumb to the hate and dehumanization of those who brought us to this point.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, and I know many of you know this quote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We often focus on the last part – that we need love to drive out hate. But if we are not in a place of love, then, perhaps we can be in a place of not hating.

I am not talking about hate in the way I would say, I hate beets, or I hate predictable movies. No, I am talking about hate that dehumanizes. Hate that is born of judgmentalism. Judgmentalism that is, at its root, the opposite of compassion.

Judgmentalism tells me that I am better than someone else. That I am more worthy. It leads to a belief that my rights are more important than your rights.

Terry D. Cooper, in his fabulous book “Making Judgments without being Judgmental” lists a number of characteristics of judgmentalism.

When we are judgmental, he says, we are not concerned for others. We presume to know people’s motives without reasonable evidence rather than trusting someone else’s motives unless we have reason to do otherwise.

When we are judgmental, we cling tenaciously to moral and religious concepts with disrespect and intolerance for those who differ, rather than being respectful and tolerant of differences.

When we are judgmental, we denounce the personhood, the humanity, rather than the behavior of those to adhere to erroneous ideas or destructive behavior. We refuse to recognize problems or limitations with our own viewpoint and we insist on absolute certainty rather than having humility.

It is judgmentalism, in part, that leads fundamentalist Christians to focus on the passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that peripherally deal with homosexuality rather than focusing on Jesus’s call to love one another, and to judge not, lest ye be judged.

It is judgmentalism in the form of white supremacy that allows Trump to say that Mexicans are rapists, and that we are going to build a wall to keep them out.

And it would be judgmentalism to blame all Muslims, or all gun owners, for what happened in Orlando.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely believe my morals are superior to those of the shooter. And I absolutely believe that our liberal religious values are superior to those who preach or teach hate.

But while we can condemn behavior, if we are to condemn people, to see them as less than, or unworthy as human beings, then we are likely to fall prey to the same dehumanizing behavior that we find so troublesome. Cooper points out that “Reactivity begets reactivity. It’s hard to keep our balance when we’ve been clobbered by [someone else’s] judgmentalism.” And so, rather than calling for compassion or love, I ask that we combat the judgmentalism in ourselves that might leads us to hate. The judgmentalism that is the opposite of compassion.

Perhaps, if we are able to not succumb to judgmentalism and hate we might find a way forward that works for us all. And, one day, we might better embody the compassion of the Samaritan, who helped out a broken man on the road, simply because another human being was in pain. For there is a twist in this ancient story – one that not many people realize. Jews and Samaritans – they did not get along at ALL. For generation upon generation, over 500 years, the two cultures were at odds. And so it was absolutely relevant that Jesus, a Jew, talking to a Jew who asked who our neighbors were, told a story in which other Jews passed the injured man by, but it was a Samaritan, a despised Samaritan who not only stopped to help, but paid for the injured man’s care out of his own pocket.

If we cannot be compassionate, then at least may we not succumb to hate, to judgmentalism. For perhaps, as we heal, as we seek comfort, we might eventually get to that place of compassion after all. As Rev. Gordon writes “It is each of our job to listen to the experience AND the pain of others, and to stay open to the pain that we ourselves feel- not to harden our hearts in fear or defensiveness. It is only then that we can collectively turn our pain into resistance, solidarity, compassion, and a more just community.”

I give the final word this morning to Greg Zanis, who built 49 wooden crosses then drove 1,200 miles from Illinois to Florida to place them outside the Orlando Health Medical Center. “My message today is love your brother, love your neighbor. Don’t judge ‘em.” May it be so. May we make it so.

the bruise that never heals.

21 Feb

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016

 

Derby City Roller Girls

Bruises are a part of roller derby. A celebrated part. So much so that it’s not uncommon for players to take pictures of their biggest, most colorful, most interestingly shaped bruises and post them online for the admiration of other players (really – look it up!). Bruises on your shins from where another player’s skate smashed into you. Wheel-shaped bruises on your thigh where you sat down on a pair of skates. Bruises on your hips and shoulders where you were hit or blocked by players on the opposing side. These are bruises that go deep into your tissue, and come out in amazing blues, purples, and blacks that eventually fade to greens, browns and yellows.

It is not uncommon to find bruises on top of bruises, especially on a skater’s hips or upper thighs, which get the most abuse in the game. A few of my teammates even had bruises that never went away – they would get worse and worse, becoming super-sensitive, where even just getting dressed hurt because the area had been mangled – not by one big hit, but by the constant barrage of small hits in the same place, over and over. What was strangest is that sometimes, these most sensitive bruises were invisible, lacking the loud color of bruises that would heal – as if the skin itself has resigned itself to injury.

For one of my teammates, this invisible bruise that never went away eventually hardened into a lump. She ignored it for a while, thinking it was just forming a protective barrier that would eventually heal, but when it didn’t go away even after she stopped playing, she got it checked out. It turned out to be cancer. A cancer caused by repeated minor trauma.

When I first heard about the experience of microaggressions, I immediately related them to bruises in roller derby. Derald Wing Sue, who has studied microaggressions for a decade, defines them as:

“the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

A person from any marginalized group can be the target of microaggression from someone from a dominant perspective: people of color experience them from white people, women experience them from men, people who are transgender experience them from cisgender people, people who are differently abled experience them from the able-bodied. You can experience them based on your sexual orientation, your religion, your social class, and more. What is common to all microaggressions is that they contain a hidden message that is experienced as invalidating, dehumanizing, and demeaning.

Some examples:

  • When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes her, the hidden message being sent is that the Black or Latino man, and others like him, are criminals.
  • When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English”, the hidden message is: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.
  • When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the hidden message is that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles, or that women are less capable than men.
  • When a person uses the term “gay” to describe something they didn’t like, the hidden message is that being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.
  • Or when the outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy” the hidden message is that lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.

These are all examples of microaggressions. And there are many, many more. What they have in common is that they say to someone “You do not belong.” And because these are small, everyday things, the effect of their hidden messages is one that builds up over time. Someone who regularly experiences microaggressions becomes more and more aware of them. The bruise gets bigger and bigger, and more sensitive, until even the slightest touch is experienced as excrutiatingly painful. Sue points out that “These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as ‘small slights,’ but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.”

Now, I suspect that we would all like to believe that we are too enlightened to engage in this type of harmful behavior. But we do, often without realizing it. Sue shares that it is those of us who are well-intentioned who actually engage in the most harmful of microaggressions. Because of course, those who are not well-intentioned are often fin being experienced as racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic.

When experiencing a microaggression from someone who is well intentioned, the target person is placed into what Sue calls a “’damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation. That is, if the person does nothing, [they] may suffer from a sense of low self-esteem, a feeling of not being true to the self, and a loss of self-integrity. Yet, to confront the perpetrator or to raise the issue may result in negative consequences.” Negative consequences like further microaggressions.

Because what often happens when a person confronts the perpetrator of a microaggression is that the perpetrator tries to explain it away, or encourage the target person to “let go” or “get over it.” This results in further microaggressions by giving the message that the target person is off base in their experience, and by indicating that the perpetrator’s intent is more important than the impact it had on the target person.

One can see how this builds up over time. Say I experience a microaggression from someone I care about or work with, I may not say anything. And then it happens again, and maybe again, sometimes from this same person, and maybe sometimes from others as well. And then, because it is weighing on me, finally, I do decide to share my experience. How will I feel if I take this risk, only to be told that it is nothing? Most likely I will feel even worse, more invisible and invalidated.

Personally, I experienced this as a woman in technology prior to entering the ministry. But in truth I got it even worse from other Unitarian Universalists when I had won a sermon award and was constantly introduced as the “young minister” even though I was rapidly approaching 40. Yes, I knew that perhaps I was young compared to the vast majority of people in the room, but if that is what I experienced at nearly 40, what do people who are just out seminary at the age of 25 experience, and how often do we dismiss or overlook “young” ministers? Because that is what it felt like – a dismissal. I got to the point that I would constantly be sharing my age with people to try to prove I wasn’t as young as they thought so that I wouldn’t be so easily dismissed. And they would often laugh it off. It was extremely frustrating.

Of course, this type of microaggression did not carry the threat of danger. It was belittling, and it hurt, but it wasn’t scary. This is not the case for many other people who experience these everyday slights, snubs, and insults.

So how did we, as people who want to respect one another in word and in deed, get to the point where it is our good intentions that have inadvertently allowed us to engage in behaviors that “oppress and engage in prejudicial actions that harm others?” Sue says that “The answer seems to reside in a dominant culture that values ways of being, thinking, and acting that reflects the reality of a primarily Eurocentric, masculine, and heterosexual worldview that is imposed upon racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities.” And because we are a part of our culture, not separate from it, we have picked up on these same traits. Sue points out that whether intentional or not, “oppressors…[feel that they] do not need to understand the thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of various marginalized groups to survive…therefore it is not surprising to find that those who are most empowered are least likely to have an accurate perception of reality.” Indeed, he says, it is this obliviousness that “allows people to misperceive themselves as superior and other groups as inferior; it allows oppressors to live in a false reality.” A reality that we seldom interrogate as rigorously as we should.

It is clear from the the data that our good intentions often contribute to the experience of microaggressions for those who are in a minority. And the effects are far reaching. Sue has found that the “cumulative nature and continued day-in and day-out experience [of being the target of microaggressions] have been found to…contribute to a hostile and invalidating campus and work climate, devalue social group identities, lower work productivity and educational learning, perpetuate stereotype threat, create physical health problems, and assail mental health by creating emotional turmoil, low self-esteem, and psychological energy depletion.” Those who experience microaggressions suffer biologically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

This is where the metaphor of derby bruises and microaggressions breaks down, however. Unlike in derby, where the wheel or the floor suffer no damage when causing a bruise, it is not only the targets of microagression who are hurt in the process. The perpetrators are hurt as well. Sue explains that:

“None of us…would consciously and willingly consent to [perpetrating] such heinous actions. In order to assure the continuance of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, and to keep such injustices hidden…it is desirable to perpetuate a ‘culture of silence’ among oppressed groups as well as perpetrators. When the oppressed are not allowed to express their thoughts and outrage, when their concerns are minimized, and when they are punished for expressing ideas at odds with the dominant group, their voices are effectively silenced. [And] This allows perpetrators to hold on to a belief that they are good, moral, and decent human beings.”

Wherever we intersect with the dominant culture, whether it is because we are white, or male, or cisgender, or heterosexual, etc., we silence the oppressed that are not part of that dominant culture, and this allows us to maintain the illusion that we are good, moral, decent, and even superior whether we consciously believe it to be so or not. And there are costs to us when we perpetrate this type of oppression: cognitive costs, emotional costs, behavioral costs and spiritual costs.

The cognitive costs are demonstrated in the form of cognitive distortion and a false sense of reality. When we become aware of our biases, we often experience “debilitating emotional turmoil” and so we begin to deny our behaviors or rationalize them away. We try to “engage in denial and live a false reality that allows [us] to function in good conscious.”

Emotionally, Sue points out that “the harm, damage, and acts of cruelty visited upon marginalized groups can only continue if the person’s humanity is diminished.” This means that “oppressors lose sensitivity to those that are hurt; they become hard, cold and unfeeling to the plight of the oppressed; and they turn off their compassion and empathy for others. To continue being oblivious to one’s own complicity in such acts means objectifying and dehumanizing [marginalized] people.”

As perpetrators, we may also experience guilt – guilt for being in a dominant group and the realization that we are partially responsible for the pain of others. This guilt can cause us to be defensive, and we may try to deny or diminish the experiences of marginalized people when they share their experiences with us, so that we might avoid further awareness and guilt.

As we begin to feel fear and guilt, we may choose to avoid marginalized people or people who are different from us. We don’t want to continue to cause harm and so we choose to stay away. These are the behavioral costs. We may not go somewhere for fear of what we might do or say that harms others, intentionally or inadvertently. When we avoid such situations, growth becomes difficult to impossible, and as Sue indicates, it “deprives oppressors the richness of possible friendships and an expansion of educational experiences that open up life horizons and possibilities.”

Finally, there are spiritual costs as well. When we oppress, whether intentionally or not, we lose our own humanity for the sake of power, wealth and status. This causes us to lose our spiritual connection with others as we try to dehumanize them. Sue writes that “To allow the continued degradation, harm, and cruelty to the oppressed means diminishing one’s humanity, and lessening compassion toward others. People who oppress must, at some level, become callous, cold, hard, and unfeeling toward the plight of the oppressed.”

I know this is not how I want to live, and I would wager that you don’t either. So what can we do about it? How can we change, and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Sue13 indicates that there are seven things that we can work towards that will help create conditions that make change possible. He says that each of these are required – none of them are sufficient on their own:

First, and foremost we must have regular, prolonged “contact with people who differ from us in race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” We can seek out friendships with those who are different. This doesn’t mean choosing someone as a friend just because they are different, but finding someone with whom we can bond, one of whose characteristics is that they are different in some key way.

Second, we can work together “a cooperative rather than a competitive environment” understanding that when we combine our resources rather than compete for them, there is plenty for everyone.

Third, we can “share mutual goals as opposed to individual ones.” This is a shift in thinking from what I need to what WE need.

Fourth, it is important that learn “accurate information rather than stereotypes or misinformation” – this means questioning, interrogating, things that are presented as true even though they aren’t. For instance, the majority of people who receive food stamps are white, but if you watch the media you will often see a black person pictured when there is a story on the subject. We need to confront such stereotypes and misinformation in search for accurate information.

Fifth, we can work towards “sharing an equal status relationship with other groups instead of an unequal or imbalanced one.” Marginalized people are just that – shoved to the margins, where there is not much strength or power. I am reminded of a school that showcases boys sports, even though the girls teams are winning championships. The microaggressions that the girls experience when constantly seeing the boys teams on the front page of the paper or website can be addressed when leadership understands how this perpetuates inequality and they can work forwards a more equal, balanced status.

Which leads to the sixth characteristic for promoting change, we can choose leadership that is supportive of group harmony and group welfare. At the ballot box, but also in other areas of our lives, we can demand and support leadership that understands these mechanisms of power.

And finally, we can work on feeling a sense of unity, a sense of interconnectedness with all humanity. Even, especially, with those who might seem so different from us.

For more information on what these all look like, I recommend reading Sue’s book “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” or one of the many internet articles he has authored.

In roller derby, the bruise that builds up over time can become cancerous, eating away at the victim and causing them harm. Microagressions are like these derby bruises, building up, causing a person harm, impacting their physical, emotional and spiritual health over time. But unlike in derby, the perpetrators of microagressions also suffer harm, cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and

If we believe in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Then we must put in the effort to face our own failings. It means learning about how we may cause harm to people, even unintentionally, and then working to make it right. It means using techniques such as “oops” and “ouch” when we have erred. It means recognizing that the impact of our words on others matters more than our intent. It means listening to the stories of others with humility and an open mind and heart. This requires constant effort, and does not come easy. And with so much other work of this nature, we will break each others hearts and fail over and over again. But, if we let it, this is what will allow us to grow. May we choose to face the difficult truth that we are each sometimes unwitting perpetrators that cause pain to another, and may humility, love, and understanding allow us to be a part of the healing process whenever possible. Blessed be.


FYI, My teammate with cancer has since recovered.

Footnotes removed, but quotes are from the following sources:

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

from Selma to #BlackLivesMatter

22 Mar

Listen here:

Though the song does have its detractors, when Glory won the award for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards last month, not many people were surprised.

When Legend and Common performed it during the award ceremony, they featured a replica of the Edmund Pettus Bridge – a bridge iconic for the events which occurred there fifty years ago and which are brilliantly captured in the movie Selma, for which the song was created.

Coretta Scott King,John Lewis,Fifty years ago yesterday, on March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. led thousands across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a march that spanned from Selma to Montgomery, AL. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, would not provide protection for the marchers, so President Johnson sent in thousands of Army and National guard soldiers, FBI agents and federal marshals. On March 25, over 25,000 people entered Montgomery in a show of support for African-American citizens to be able to exercise their constitutional right to vote – a demonstration that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later that year.

The march was the culmination of events that started, really, before even the colonization of this country, but was brought to immediacy by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson , in nearby Marion, AL. Jimmie 03Lee had been participating in a peaceful march for voting rights, when police attacked marchers. When his mother was being visciously beaten, he tried to get the state trooper to stop. Instead, the trooper shot Jackson in the stomach and began beating him in the head. Jackson’s death outraged the black community. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, came into town and gave the eulogy for him, and local organizers decided to funnel that outrage into action.

The successful march of 50 years ago was actually the third attempt. The first attempt occurred on March 7. John Lewis led the gathered crowd across the bridge where they were met by state troopers 04who attacked them brutally with clubs and tear gas. When I was on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage a few years ago, a poignant moment for me was being on the bridge and listening to a woman describe how the marchers were chased down by police on horses, riding even up church stairs miles away hunting people down. The day became known as Bloody Sunday.

Martin Luther King, Jr, assessed the situation, came to Selma, and put out a call for clergy to come. 05On the 9th, he led another march, but as they got to the line of state troopers, King stopped and prayed, and then turned the marchers around. This became known as “Turn around Tuesday.” That evening, three white Unitarian ministers were attacked and beaten on the street by white segregationists. 06The Rev. James Reeb died of head injuries two days later. Again, King delivered a powerful eulogy for Reeb at the memorial service.

Between March 9 and March 21, King worked hard to get protection from the federal government for the marchers. Reeb’s death had shocked the nation in a way that Jackson’s had not, and so eventually President Johnson relented and provided the protection, which allowed the march to finally be successful.

Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama, Sasha Obama, Amelia Boynton Robinson, John LewisTwo weeks ago, on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, an estimated 80,000 people crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. President Obama and his family were there, and he spoke at the event. “Fifty years from Bloody Sunday,” he said, “our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

08There is a French proverb that says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. On the Friday before the commemorative march, Tony T. Robinson Jr.,  an unarmed 19-year-old black man was shot dead by a white police officer in Madison, Wisconsin, sparking protests.

09Earlier this week, Martese Johnson, a black University of Virginia student, was bloodied during an arrest near the campus. Johnson’s attorney relates that “Just before handcuffing him, police took Martese to the ground, striking his head on the pavement and causing him to bleed profusely from the gash on his head. ” The lawyer continued by listing the numerous leadership positions on campus that Johnson holds, ending his statement with “He has no criminal record.”

“He has no criminal record.” His lawyer had to share this with us, because time after time, for each story heard of a black man brutalized by police, white people sit around and look for excuses. “Oh, he was drinking” or “Oh, he had a criminal record” or “Oh, he was a drug addict.” because, apparently, these character flaws somehow make it okay for someone to be the victim of police brutality?

We see this in the death of Otis Byrd this week in Mississippi. He was found hanging by a tree, a bedsheet wrapped around his neck. Some reports indicate that a skull cap was pulled over his head, and that there was nothing nearby for him to stand before taking a suicidal step forward. The FBI is investigating and should know more in the coming days whether this was a lynching or a suicide, but in the meantime every report the news has made has been sure to share that Byrd was convicted in 1980 of murdering a woman and had served almost 26 years in prison before his release. Because, I guess, if he was lynched, then this would make it less horrible???!!!

10Kenny Wiley is the director of Religious Education at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church in Colorado, and a senior editor of the UU World magazine. Writing in response to Johnson’s experience earlier this week, Wiley wrote on his facebook wall:

Over time the illusions of black respectability I grew up believing–that if I was smart enough, nice enough, nonthreatening enough, that nothing could go wrong–has been shattered.

In general, that’s a good thing. I needed to wake up to the racial realities of the present. But I need to say publicly that all this violence hurts. It hurts to know that, if any violence ever happened to me, the first question some would ask is what I did to deserve it.

Listening to a podcast just yesterday, I heard a mother talking about how she is teaching her 5 year old son how to properly pronounce certain words because she wants people to know he is human. She wants people to know that he is human! I have never, ever, not once had to worry about whether my children would be considered human. And I am betting that neither have most of you. But mothers of black sons do. Constantly.

The black experience in the United States may be better than it was 50 years ago, but it is still an extreme experience. The recent Department of Justice report on the situation in Ferguson, 11MO, where Michael Brown was killed in August, illustrates this numerically. With a population of only 21,000, 16,000 in people in Ferguson had outstanding arrest warrants. This means over ¾ of the population were wanted by police! 12Though African Americans represent only 66% of the population, police used force in their arrests much more often than in the case of other races. 85% of the people subject to a vehicle stop were African American, and 93% of all people arrested in Ferguson we African-American! Ferguson issued 9000 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 2.3 citizens. For comparison purposes, Boston, with a population of over half a million, only issued 2,300 criminal arrest warrants, or one for every 280 citizens.
Now we can say that Ferguson is an anomoly, but with over 19,000 municipal governments in our country, “the chances that Ferguson happens to be the worst are extremely slim.

We know that it is not just police brutality from which blacks disproportionately suffer:

  • African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.
  • One in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.
  • 5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites.
  • African Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense (58.7 months) as Next bullet whites do for a violent offense (61.7 months)!!
  • Every 28 hours a black man, woman, or child is murdered by police or vigilante law enforcement.

In The New Jim Crow, published in 2010, Michelle Alexander says:

If Martin Luther King Jr. is right that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, a new movement will arise; and if civil rights organizations fail to keep up with the times, they will be pushed to the side as another generation of advocates comes to the fore. Hopefully the new generation will be led by those who know best the brutality of the new caste system—a group with greater vision, courage, and determination than the old guard can muster, trapped as they may be in an outdated paradigm.

Enter the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM-text-logo1-1024x116Thanks to social media, particularly Twitter, racially unjust events are being dragged from the shadows into the light of public scrutiny. Originally started as a twitter hashtag, the Black Lives Matter movement “was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime… Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist [their] de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.”

Today, Black Lives Matter is an organized movement “working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” They ask those of us who are non-black to stand with them in solidarity.

I know some of you have trouble with Black Lives Matter. To you, I gently, but firmly remind you: This is not your movement. As white people, we are being asked to be allies to a powerful claiming of black humanness. We are not being asked to lead. We are not being asked to weigh in. We are being asked to listen, to show up, to walk, to stand shoulder to shoulder, and to speak out against injustice when we encounter it.

Because, in this country, we have proven time and time again that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Because Jimme Lee Jackson’s death was not enough to bring the world to Selma, but James Reeb’s was.

And so we protest against those who act like Trayvon Martin’s life didn’t matter because he was wearing a hoodie and “acting suspicious”,

We protest against those who act like Michael Brown’s life didn’t matter because he did not obey the police officer or because, heaven forbid, he was walking down the middle of a street,

We protest against those who act like Tamir Rice’s life didn’t matter because he shouldn’t have been playing with a toy in a playground (??!!)

We protest against those who act like a black life only matters if they have never committed a crime, speak well, are educated, and whatever other new bar gets set that denies their inherent worth and dignity.

We protest against all those who act like black lives don’t matter. We say no: All lives matter, and because of this, black lives matter, too. We make it explicit, so that there can be no confusion.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR, sitting in the Jefferson County Jail, in Birmingham, Alabama, 11/3/67. Everett/CSU Archives.In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in the Birmingham, Alabama jail and wrote a famous letter. He was not allowed pieces of paper, so we wrote it on scraps, on whatever he could find. A part of that letter reads:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

As white people, if we sit still and nitpick the name of perhaps the most important movement in our country right now, or, even worse, if we counter it by saying we should instead hang a banner that says “All lives matter” we become the white moderate over whom King lamented. We effectively would be paternalistically saying “We know better than you what you should name yourself.” We would be acting as white supremacists.

As white people, if we are not stepping up in white society to challenge racism and racial prejudice when we see it, we are, by defacto, agreeing with the status quo rather than challenging it and are aligning ourselves with white supremacists.

As white people, if we are waiting for Black people to tell us it is okay or to give us clear instructions, “The reality is, Black people have been calling on whites to step up for decades.” As Unitarian Universalist author of Towards Collective Liberation and recent White Privilege Conference speaker Chris Crass wrote recently on his facebook page: “In all my years of working alongside Black organizers and activists, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘we’ve got too many white people fighting racism’.”

This is why we have our new Black Lives Matter candle at First Unitarian Church.  This is why we are talking about replacing our “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right” banner with a #BlackLivesMatter banner when the Supreme Court hopefully legalizes same-sex marriage this summer: Because it is, and will be, a symbol of our humility. Of our willingness to listen. Of our willingness to follow. Of our willingness to stand in solidarity. Of our willingness to speak out, and lend our bodies to the cause of justice.

Much has changed in fifty years, though much has remained the same.

In his concluding remarks two weeks ago at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama reminded us that what happened fifty years ago proved “that love and hope can conquer hate…that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals…We know the march is not yet over,” he said, “We know the race is not yet won. We know that reaching that blessed destination where we are judged, all of us, by the content of our character requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth…Fifty years…our march is not yet finished, but we’re getting closer.”

Hard fought inch by hard fought inch, we are getting closer. It isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. In fact it is pretty messy. We will fall short in this work. We will fail at times. And we will break each others hearts over and over again. But we know that if we remain in the struggle, this is what enables us to grow. May we not have to wait another 50 years to get to the glory.

Race and Religion.

18 Jan

Race and Religion
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church on January 18, 2015

Those of you who have been around First Unitarian for a while know that today represents a first for me here: the first time getting to preach on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. Because I usually take January as a time of renewal and study leave, I have watched from afar as others fill the pulpit. But since my sabbatical ended at the beginning of January, this is the first time in my years here that I have had the pleasure of being around during this cold month, and thus the first time that I have the privilege of preaching on this auspicious day.

And what a year for it!

With the horror of the murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and countless more black boys and men demanding that we pay attention, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With a fox news commentator lamenting how hard it is to tell if one is a terrorist if one is wearing a face-mask that hides their skin color, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

With the contoversy around the movie Selma centering on the portrayal of a white man, and with that controversy derailing an amazing movie from being nominated for awards, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

When thousands chant “Je Suis Charlie” in response to the terrorist murders of17 people in France, and no such solidarity is shown for the hundreds killed by terrorists at a marketplace in Nigeria, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

And when some people respond to the #BlackLivesMatter movement by claiming that “All Lives Matter” , which is true but misses that black lives have always counted less than white lives in this country, that it is enshrined in our founding documents, and that the #BlackLivesMatter movement is about naming the lives that have not mattered as a corrective to this historical context, we are reminded that we do not live in a post-racial world.

Nope, no we don’t. We do not live in a post-racial world. But how did it get this way? How do we live in a country, in a world, that has allowed continuing oppression based on the color of one’s skin? Why skin color? Why not something else, like height, or eye color, hair texture, or any of the other multiple random characteristics that distinguish human beings one from another?

Though the concept of race as simply a distinguishing characteristic goes back much further, our more modern view of race as a way of assigning value to a human being can be traced back to the time of Columbus, to a worldview and set of laws called the Doctrine of Discovery. Not only have these laws been used, and continue to be used to justify the conquest of land, it is in this doctrine that we find theological justification for the concept of race.

In 1493, after many an exciting adventure, Columbus returned to Europe and told people what he had found. The stories sparked visions of greed and expansion in the eyes of those in power. In order to increase the spread of the church, Pope Alexander VI declared that Catholic Kings had “natural law and right” to claim any lands not already claimed by another Christian monarch. Furthermore, the pope said that lands that were inhabited by non-Christians were to be considered as having been discovered when found by Christian explorers. This set of rules came to be called the Doctrine of Discovery.

In his paper We’ll Build a Land: The Invention of Race as a Tool of Empire, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Michael Tino shares that “The Doctrine of Discovery was used to subjugate, enslave, and slaughter non-Europeans all over the globe in the name of Christianity, claiming the authority of God for monarchs hungry for empires to mine and exploit. The legacy of this Doctrine in the United States includes not only the lingering effects of centuries of slavery and the theft of a continent from Native Americans who became subject to campaigns of mass murder. The Doctrine of Discovery also became the legal justification for European monarchs—and their sovereign heirs in the United States, Canadian and Mexican governments—to draw borders by mutual agreement through the lands of indigenous peoples, and to enforce immigration restrictions on peoples who for thousands of years had freely roamed across those borders.”

But a problem arose with the doctrine, and that was that missionary priests had begun converting indigenous peoples to Christianity. According to the Doctrine of Discovery, this meant that the lands could not then be conquered. So a new category had to be created to continue to justify the conquest, genocide and enslavement of people. And so the concept of race evolved – skin color would be the means to classify who had worth and who did not.

On the white end of the spectrum were Europeans and those considered suitable for conversion to Christianity such as the Chinese and Japanese. In the middle of the spectrum, depending on what was wanted from them at the time, fell Indians from Asia and Native Americans. On the black end of the spectrum were those who were considered to be incapable of salvation through Christ – Africans, Muslims and Jews. Now, salvation is supposed to be available to all people, so by saying that Africans, Muslims and Jews were incapable of salvation, the church denied their very humanity.

In The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, Willie James Jennings (as quoted by Tino) points out “While social or theological ‘otherness’ was not a new concept in the history of humanity…the power given to the category of ‘race,’ as defined along a black-white spectrum, was.” Before it was anything else, the concept of race “was a theological form—an inverted, distorted vision of creation that reduced theological anthropology to commodified bodies.”

And because the core of the argument was theological in nature, it stuck in a way that few other types of laws would. Tino points out that “The stubborn persistence of the category of race in our society, despite the absence of any scientific or biological rationale for it, has everything to do with the lasting power of the original, theological, concept of race—and the power inherent in defining people as inferior in the eyes of God.”

We can trace the damage of this worldview all the way through to today. In their work to bring the issues of the Doctrine of Discovery to Unitarian Universalist congregations prior to the 2012 General Assembly held in Phoenix, the Board of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote: “For more than five centuries, the interpretive framework of the [Doctrine of Discovery] has been institutionalized and used to assert a presumed right of dominance over originally free and independent indigenous peoples. The [Doctrine of Discovery] was used by European nations to justify their conquest of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. It was the justification–theological and political–for the appropriation of the lands and resources of indigenous peoples and efforts to dominate native nations and undermine the sovereignty of indigenous nations and peoples. Among other things, it formed the basis for the slave trade, the partition and colonization of the Near East, the colonization of the Americas, and the genocides of the indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas.”

We are not able to fully tackle the racism in this country without addressing the religious arguments in which it was founded. Religious institutions must work towards dismantling the racist systems they helped create. It is necessary to say yes, black lives do matter. As Tino puts it “In order to work to reverse the damage wrought by centuries of misguided theology, it is necessary to decolonize our theology.”

This may sound like an enormous task. And in the face of this type of overwhelming work, it might be easy to sit and say to ourselves “Well, that wasn’t us. We are more enlightened than the people were back then.” And there is some truth to that. Certainly, as I was watching Selma the other day, I took pride in knowing that both the white civil rights workers who responded to King’s call and were subsequently murdered, the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, I took pride in knowing that they were both Unitarians. And yet, at the same time, our faith tradition has consistently not supported African American ministers – the number of ministers of color is barely above what it was 30 years ago, even as the number of women ministers and gay and lesbian ministers has skyrocketed.

This paradox is found on a smaller scale here at First Unitarian, as well. On the one hand, we are were known as a white church that supported the civil rights movement. But the minister during that time, Rev. Robert Weston, installed his wife as a greeter because the other greeters were suggesting to black people who came that they might be looking for the church down the street.

The damage from the Doctrine of Discovery is built into our very fibers – it is in how our society is constructed and we are, necessarily, a product of that society. And so religious institutions, including our own, must work towards dismantling the racist systems we helped create.

So how do we do that? Where do we begin with dismantling these old, ingrained systems? The first and most important thing white churches, and white people, can do is listen with humility. Truly listen to the experiences of those who are oppressed, even, especially, when it clashes with our own experience or sense of the world. It is not uncommon for whites to think most everything is fine based on our own experience, even while we hear people of color reporting that their lives are filled with daily prejudices and discrimination. When we dismiss the stories of people of color as untrue or exaggerated because we haven’t had those experiences or because they seem so foreign to us, we devalue the lived realities of those with whom we hope to stand in solidarity! We must listen, and accept that our experience has not painted a big enough picture to encompass the experiences of all people.

Listening might sound easy, but oftentimes it is anything but because it challenges our bedrock assumptions of who we are and how things work. If we do not have close friends who are people of color, we must actively seek out stories. And when we hear or read them, we cannot look for reasons to dismiss them, we cannot look for reasons to distance ourselves from them.

How can we hold up James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo as martyrs to the cause of civil rights, and not have our hearts also broken because Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered by a state trooper that same month? Do the deaths of white people mean more than the deaths of 12 year old Tamir Rice, shot and killed while playing with a fake gun on a playground? Or more than John Crawford, the young man shot and killed while shopping for a BB-gun in Walmart? If we listen, with humility, we realize it does not matter whether Mike Brown stole the box of cigars as some people still try to assert. Brown’s character is irrelevant – he does not have to pass a test of worthiness for us to take issue with the brutality of his death. He does not have to pass a test of worthiness for the citizens of Ferguson and beyond to take to the streets to protest the issue of constant over-policing, racial profiling and unfair and unjust treatment. These are policies that come out of our history of devaluing black lives, a history that traces itself back through racial profiling, mass incarceration, Jim Crow laws, lynching, and slavery. Back to the Doctrine of Discovery and the invention of race to justify conquest and annihilation.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Dana McLean Greeley, and Homer Jack, director of the Unitarian Universalist Association Department of Social Concerns, at the 1966 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Hollywood, Florida. Dr. King delivered the Ware Lecture to this annual denominational assembly.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We must listen to these stories, and then we must ache for we know that we are connected to these victims, that we are connected to them just as surely as we are connected to one another in this room. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, in his 1966 Ware lecture, “a world perspective…This is the inter-related structure of all reality.”

Religious institutions have been part of the problem since the beginning, and we must be part of the solution. This is the best task of religion: to connect us to one another and to that which is greater than ourselves. It is religion, at its best, that makes me my brothers keeper.

Our faith tradition is bound up in this messy history, with moments of uplift intertwined with moments of degradation. But a church that stands for freedom must not be shackled by fear of losing privilege. A church that stands for justice cannot stand idly by while justice is denied to so many.

A church that stands for equity cannot be content when people are denied the tools and resources they need to achieve a basic standard of living.

A church that stands for compassion cannot be immune to those who bravely share their soul-wrenching stories of oppression.

A church that honors the inherent worth and dignity of every person cannot stand by while white lives are continuously demonstrated as having more worth and dignity than the lives of people of color.

Instead, we must work towards dismantling the racist systems religious institutions helped create.

In this work, we will break each others hearts. We will fail more times than we can count. We will stick our feet into our mouths, be chagrined, embarrassed, and ashamed. But continue to work in spite of failure is what has and what will allow us to keep growing, to keep challenging the status quo, until such time as we truly honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person, until such time as we can boldly claim that black lives do matter as a counter to years of being told otherwise. May this important work ennoble our lives, and may we not sleep through the revolution. Blessed be.

feeling impotent about Ferguson.

20 Aug

As a human being in general, and as a minister in particular, I am called to pay attention; to pay attention to what is going on in the world around me, particularly when I would rather focus on much easier topics. To bear witness to the highs and lows of human life.

I have been struggling with that this week. I don’t want to pay attention. I am on sabbatical, the kids just started school, I finally have time to myself. I want to work on the book I have in my head. I want to tackle that enormous reading list.

I open the book I am supposed to read for my study group in November, and this is what I see.

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Ferguson, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Ferguson to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Ferguson will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths to join me in Ferguson…In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Ferguson is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.

The original is the telegram issued by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King on March 8. 1965. I changed “Selma” to “Ferguson” because that is what my heart read. And as I read it, my throat closed and my spirit cried out.

Fifty years, and we are still viciously maltreating our citizens, and sorrow rises to contaminate every crevice of our national life.

I know so many of us feel similarly right now. So many of us are hurting, overwhelmed by the issues going on in Ferguson and elsewhere around the country.  We may want to just ignore it, but since it is not going away, we get drawn in.

Our pain is a testament to our interconnection. We hurt, seeing and hearing about these events, because we know we are connected to those who are suffering, in Ferguson and beyond. We have an innate capacity for compassion, to want to reduce suffering if we can. And right now, many of us feel impotent.  “What can I do about it?” we may ask ourselves.

I find hope in the increasing intensity of what is happening – not just in Ferguson, but around the country. The longer people are demanding justice and are showing up in Ferguson and in solidarity in our own towns, then isn’t it more likely that something must change?

This is the start of something big, something hopeful but not without pain. The best way to address that pain is to do something that has meaning. No matter how impotent those of us at a distance may feel, there are things we can do to help out. This list that the Huffington Post put out is the best I have seen.

So hang in there with me. Pay attention, but take breaks. Take care of yourself. Step away from the computer and take your dog for a walk. Hug a loved one. Call a friend. Go see a movie.

Then, when you are rejuvenated, read through that list again and do something about the next item on it. In this way, instead of going out in a blaze of existential impotence, we might keep the flame of justice and compassion burning within us for as long as it takes to see this through. May it be so.

Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington

3 Sep

Reflections on the 2013 March on Washington
by First Unitarian Church 2013 MoW Participants
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on September 1, 2013

Gathering Music “Hush”

Opening Words  

We gather this morning in the struggle to find and make worth and meaning.

We stand in the shadow of history, of a national event that our faith and our country have taken as a foundational moment in our history but which, at the time, was looked at by many with contempt.

We stand, looking backwards, reinterpreting the Dream that a wise man shared, a Dream that our country would make good on its promise of freedom and justice for all. A dream that has yet to be realized, no matter how much esteem in which we hold it.

We stand, looking ahead, wondering if the progress made will continue or if it has been stymied. Wondering if the new legislative and economic systems will disenfranchise and oppress or will empower and liberate.

We stand, at this very moment, listening to the stories around us, listening to that which calls our names and calls us to be a part of the force for love, for good, for justice.

Hush. Listen. Let us worship.

Opening Hymn “We Shall Not Be Moved”

Reflection: The Rev. Dawn Cooley 

Fifty years ago, over 100,000 people gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC to march for jobs and freedom. Over the past week, there have been many events celebrating this momentous occasion. Last weekend, 10 First U’rs boarded busses for the long trip to DC to join with the National Action to Realize the Dream rally and march. It was a trip like no other.

One of the highlights of the weekend, for me, were the speakers. It was encouraging to hear Attorney General Eric Holder say that he will work to ensure that “every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote” and to “ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law” with a goal that “every action we take reflects our values and that which is best about us.”

I was inspired, too, by Medgar Ever’s widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams. She spoke about how she had been unable to attend the march in 1963 because her husband had just been assassinated in their front yard a few weeks earlier. Her inability to attend, she said, was a wound that had not healed after all these years – not until President Obama asked her to do the invocation at his inauguration earlier this year. She was the first woman and the first lay person to do so.

But my favorite speaker was Rep. John Lewis. He had been the youngest speaker in 1963. His story shows how far we have come: to go from being overrun as he tried to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery on Bloody Sunday in 1965, to being a Congress person from Georgia since 1987. Last week, in his speech, he shared a liberal theology, when he said:  “Too many of us still believe our differences define us instead of the divine spark that runs through all of human creation.”

And he shared an enlightened, progressive view of the necessity of justice for everyone when he said:

“The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights…So it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian- American or Native American, whether we or gay or straight — we are one people, we are one family, we are all living in the same house — not just the American house, but the the world house.”

Indeed, it was inspiring. Let’s hear now from some of the other participants and what some of their favorite moments were.

Reflection: Laurie 

While slow to decide on this trip and with numerous practical reasons for NOT going, something kept tugging at me and finally I knew I HAD to go. The opportunity to share this historical experience with my daughter and granddaughter added to the significance. I was 15 and living overseas on an Air Force base when the first March on Washington took place.

Some old friends had expressed concern for our safety while participating in this rally and march. They were envisioning a protest while I envisioned a show of support–taking a stand for those who had marched before and for all that we still hoped to accomplish. Before the trip I had been experiencing a lot of discouragement about our political state but from the moment I began joining others assembling on the Mall, I became infused with a sense of love and harmony and HOPE. I loved the fact that thousands of us, black and white, male and female, young and old mingled and conversed with love and respect.

Inspired by this march, I plan to find positive ways to share my hope and enthusiasm with others.

Reflection: Nancy 

I have regretted not being part of the March on Washington in 1963 all my adult life. I was 16 years old, entering my senior year in high school; and it never occurred to me to even try to join it. While my consciousness was being raised about horrors of segregation, I still didn’t understand how the civil rights struggle affected me.

As I grew up, I learned to appreciate the impact of that event. When I read the announcement about going to this March in the Sunday bulletin, I recognized a second chance when I saw it and didn’t let it pass me by again.

After the end of official march, we had free time before we met our bus for the return trip. Kris Philipps and I ended up sitting outside at a tavern. Our t-shirts attracted the attention of a young woman who we soon realized was a troubled woman searching for some peace and stability in her life. She wanted to know what the saying on our shirts meant and what do UU’s believe. And so, we did some evangelizing right there and encouraged her to check out All Souls Church in DC.

On our way back to the bus, another young woman approached us because she was intrigued by the message on our shirts. Like the first woman, she began talking about her job and family. There was something about our shirts that made us so accessible. People felt comfortable approaching us, and these encounters happened all day. I really believe that those shirts drew us into the spirit of the march because the message of love creates connections everywhere; and we were marching to witness for brother and sisterhood of all of us.

Reflection: Evelyn 

I really liked the sense of community at the March. It was really community-ish.  I think my favorite part, or one of them, was when a woman named Grandma Betty came up to us when she saw a bunch of “love” shirts and had us sign her shirt for her grandson who couldn’t be there because he had to work. She definitely opened up to us and it was definitely different becuase it is not every day that a woman who doesn’t know you comes up to you and asks you to sign her shirt and then tells you a lot about her. It was like “Wow!” Before she left, I have her a big hug. To my surprise she hugged me back.  Then, after the march, there was a woman with a “Free Hugs” sign. She got a hug from me, too. Obviously, I had to hug her becuase she had pink hair.  I normally don’t like hugging people but I kind of wish I could have hugged everyone there.

Reflection: Linette & Jay 

Linette: I had a list of reasons as long as my arm why I couldn’t possibly go to the March. I am just too busy. But when Rev. Dawn said SHE was making the time to go gave me pause. It started to become possible in my mind. After a conversation with Jay, it started to sound possible for us both to go.

Jay: We could make it work. It was important. Before we knew it, we were boarding busses from Louisville with more than 80 other people on an inspiring journey. Marching and talking with people on the Mall was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us.

Linette: All along the way, the love was palpable.It reminded me of this poem by Reinhold Neibuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime;
therefore, we must be saved by hope.
Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
therefore, we must be saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone;
therefore we are saved by love.
~~From The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr

Jay: We are indeed saved by love. We feel incredibly blessed to have had the opportunity to experience that love on such a grand scale, and we are so very pleased to have been there with a group from First U.

Linette: Now, when I reflect on the experience, I realize that my initial reluctance to go on the trip, the long list of reasons why I couldn’t possibly do it, reflects my personal inertia. I haven’t been active in social justice causes in the community since our son was born. I had reasoned that I was just too busy. But the March has inspired me to pause and reconsider. Now, I will be seeking out new ways to live my convictions, and I would love to partner with some of you all on that journey!

Reflection: Kris 

The most memorable moment for me was meeting the 3 women from NJ, one of them was from the 1.7 sq mile town where I spent my junior and senior high school years. Her daughter is a sophomore at the high school, where I graduated in 1967.

Back then, I didn’t know there was such a thing as Unitarian. My parents didn’t approve of my college friends: those thinking, social justice hippies. Then my family moved to Louisville in ’69.

After the march, Nancy & I went to get a cool drink, and got into an inspiring discussion with a woman at another table.
When I talk about my thoughts and attitudes about life with other people, it helps me figure out what it is I think about things. This conversation reminded me of who I am.

Please open your hymnals to #457 and join me in reading my favorite poem, by Unitarian minister, the Rev. Edward Everett Hale:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Reflection: Calvin 

Before going to the March on Washington, I had been thinking intensely about what it means to take action and to live an active life. Much of this has to do with turning 20 just two weeks before the trip and the opportunities of hope and possibility that I have for my adult life. Looking back at my teenage years spent at this church, I believe that I certainly achieved tools not only to live a full, meaningful life of my own, but also to facilitate change for a better world.

At the march, I was inspired by the message of the civil rights activist, Myrlie Evers-Williams, to stand firm in the face of injustice, which is an endeavor that must be taken by the youth of today. This demonstration offered a new spark of hope for me, that Martin Luther King’s dream for the unity of humankind can and will be realized.

I am well aware that I cannot do it alone. Indeed, knowing that some generous soul (probably from our church) had paid for me to go, has deepened my conviction that we must work together for peace. To this person, I say thank you and please know that your donation will not be in vain, as I have gained the inspiration to act.

Reflection: Beverly 

I went to the Washington March with other members of the NAACP. My reasons forgoing were that I had missed the one in 1963, although I was old enough and teaching at Shawnee Jr. High School, in West Louisville. Last week, I went in honor of all those who went before and to support those who fought and continue to fight for justice in this country.

On this trip, someone asked me if I thought the trip would change me. I didn’t really think it would since I’ve been involved in civil rights a long time. But it did. The speakers at the rally stressed our responsibility to secure needed services and quality education for low-income children. I felt like they were speaking directly to me because recently, the JCPS School Board failed to raise the property tax adequately to fund programs for disadvantaged children. I’ve known we should be questioning that decision, but I hadn’t done anything.

Rev. Al Sharpton had us chant, “Celebrate”, which we were doing, and then “agitate.” He and others fired me up to return to agitating for adequate education funding for the neediest children in Louisville. I needed to be on that trip.

Reflection: Jozi 

Of course I knew about the “I Have a Dream” speech – or at least that little piece we have all heard often – but it wasn’t real. And then *I* was on the bus and *I* was hearing people’s stories and *I* was standing with thousands of people I don’t know, just as people did fifty years ago. I felt the energy and the certainty that we HAVE to grow equality and justice for everyone. I stood with people who were in that spot in 1963 and with people who weren’t even thought of in 1963, and all of us were together because we believe in the same cause. That speech and the determination it represents still inspires.

What matters most about that speech and about this anniversary is not that it caused a bunch of really different people to go to Washington, but that it can cause all of us to come back home and take action for real change. I loved being there and feeling that energy and excitement, but if I don’t step up now and do something, then it was just a long bus trip and a big crowd of people on a sunny day.

Before this weekend, it was a great speech. But now *I* have a dream, too, and I’m ready to get to work.

Call to Action: The Rev. Dawn Cooley 

Thank you, all of you, for participating and for sharing your stories this morning. It was, indeed, an inspiring experience. One that gives us hope, that renews our dreams of the beloved community. But if all we did was march and then come home and go about our daily lives, in our separate worlds and neighborhoods, in our separate schools and jobs and struggles, then this experience becomes not transformative, but only a great memory.

Instead, we who went are inspired to act. To get involved. To work to be part of the solution instead of, even by inertia or passivity, being part of the problem. How can we do that? And how can those of you who were not there, but who wish to work to create the beloved community jumpstart your work for justice? I want to end with 6 easy ways that any of us can act for justice, whether you went on the march in 1963, 2013, or not at all.

1. I encourage us all to engage in the soul searching that President Obama asked us all to do in the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict. While the verdict may have been legal, do you think justice was served? If you do not understand why so many in the black community were upset, start a conversation with someone who does understand. Look at how dangerous, unfairly applied, and hypocritical “Stand your ground” laws really are.

2. If you are unfamiliar with them, educate yourself about the concerns of the local black community. An easy way to do so here in town is to listen to AM 1350 on Saturdays, when it is all talk-shows. Particularly listen to the 3:30 show presented by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. And pickup a copy of the Louisville Defender, a newspaper by and for the local black community.

3. At lunch today, have a conversation about what it means that this congregation is located in a zip code that is 66% African-American. And what does it mean that this is one of the poorest urban zip codes in the country? And how might that affect our mission? Rather than simply accepting that old adage that Sunday 11am is the most segregated hour in the United States, start a conversation about why there are not more people of color, or more neighborhood people, at this church. If you think that we just would not appeal to such a population, go back to number 1 and engage in some of soul-searching that President Obama encourages – because, as we saw in response to our “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts, our message is one that has great appeal to someone looking for a place where love is practiced and where we focus on salvation in this lifetime.

4. Get some friends together to go on the Anne Braden Institute’s Civil Rights Driving Tour of Louisville, and then go on the Passionist Earth and Spirit Center Environmental Justice Tour. Come back after those and talk about why there is so much overlap between the two tours. It truly is astounding. As Robert Bullard points out in POVERTY, POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL RACISM:

It has been difficult for millions of Americans in segregated neighborhoods to say “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) if they do not have a backyard…Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the NIMBY positions taken against…the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, white communities have greater access than people of color communities when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making.

5. In Kentucky, in the next legislative session in January, work hard for the restoration of the right to vote for convicted felons who have completed their sentences. The KY ACLU says “Kentucky is one of only two states in the country that permanently disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions, barring over 180,000 individuals from voting—two-thirds of whom have fully served their sentence….The rate of disenfranchisement among African-American’s in Kentucky is the nation’s second highest. One in four African-American adults is barred from voting, leaving many communities with severely limited political power.” Work to overcome the new jim crow that is created by the mass incarceration of African-American people by working to restore voting rights.

6. If people perceive you to be white, use your white privilege in a positive way. Start with paying attention and seeing the benefits you get: at the grocery store, when you are pulled over by the police, at the doctor’s office, in a department store. I saw a powerful video clip last week about how a woman who looked white had no questions asked when she went to write a check at a grocery store she was visiting, but right behind her a black woman who had been patronizing the store for years was stopped, her id was checked, and her name was looked up on the “bad check” list. It wasn’t on there. The black woman was humiliated. But the white-looking woman used her privilege to go back and ask “Why are you doing this?” She challenged the status quo. Pay attention and use your privilege in positive ways.

So there you have it. Six easy things that we can do to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice, to work to create the beloved community with peace and justice for all. And there are hundreds more. We cannot be complacent. We must be on our way.

I’m on my way – are you on your way?

Closing Hymn “I’m on my way”

Closing Words 

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This is as true today as it was 50 years ago. Let us never give up, never lose hope, until the beloved community is more than just a dream and is instead, the lived reality of all.

Lift ANY voice and sing…please!!

27 Aug

Along with several folks from my congregation, I attended the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington this past weekend. It was a weekend that had some inspirational moments, some challenging moments, some peaceful moments. But in the entire experience, one thing was strikingly missing: song.

Group singing was an important part of the Civil Rights Movement of 50 years ago. It united people, strengthened their courage and resolve, inspired them. Martin Luther King said ‘‘The freedom songs are playing a strong and vital role in our struggle…They give the people new courage and a sense of unity. I think they keep alive a faith, a radiant hope, in the future, particularly in our most trying hours.

Songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “I’m On My Way” turned a mass of individuals into a united force – a nonviolent force to be reckoned with. They conveyed meaning and helped people stand strong against violence. They provided a sound-track that brought forth emotion, united it in shared purpose, and directed it outward.

So I was expecting lots of singing this weekend: on the bus, in-between speakers, along the march route. I was ready to lose my voice – looking forward to it even. However, during the 40+ hours I was gone, there was only one song that I heard started (during the march) and it was barely picked up by surrounding participants. The few times I tried to start something, I was met with silence. Why was there virtually no singing? I wondered. As I have had a chance to reflect, three possibilities come to mind.

First, the program of the rally did not seem to pay attention to the flow of energy of those in attendance. It went from one speaker, to another, to another.  There were no breaks to reflect or process what the previous speaker had just said. Perhaps the organizers were so concerned about getting more speakers into the time that they felt they had to remove any singing. (Disclaimer: I arrived at the Lincoln Memorial at 10:30 – there might have been some singing before then that I am unaware of).   So singing was not built-into the program of the rally.  But lack of attention from the rally leadership would not prohibit singing during the march.

That leads to a second possibility: social media. Along the march route, I saw thousands of us raising our cell-phones to take pictures and video of the march itself. It must have been endlessly facebooked, tweeted, instagramed and more. On the one hand, social media has been used to connect people to make big things happen – like the Arab Spring. On the other hand, when I am documenting an event in social media, I remove myself from being present in the event. Perhaps with more documenters than participants, there was not a lot of energy to unite in song.

Third, I think the diversity of the march may have been a factor.  Bear with me as I parse this out.  I don’t have the data to back this up, but it felt like there were a lot more white people at this march than there probably had been in 1963.  Which, in many ways, is great!  But where does one learn to sing and learn the power of song?  Church.  And fewer and fewer white people (particularly liberal white people) are going to church, whereas black church attendance remains high.  The increase in unchurched white participation may have been a factor – group singing is not a common language anymore.

As I said above, there were some inspirational moments, challenging moments, and peaceful moments. What there were not were transcendent moments – those moments that come when I feel I am a part of something much vaster, much more powerful than myself. Group singing can facilitate such moments, and its absence at the 50th Anniversary March was felt.

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