Centering as Spiritual Practice, continued….

In March many Unitarian Universalist transgender and non-binary people were angry and hurt after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s UU World magazine published an article entitled “After L, G and B.”[1] The article was written by a cisgender woman about her struggles to understand and love transgender people in her family and within our faith. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term cisgender, it refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex.) Many cis UUs—and some trans UUs—wondered why the article generated so much negative reaction. After all, don’t we expect our denominational magazine to feature stories that challenge our understanding of gender? Given that most UUs are cisgender people; doesn’t it make sense for a cisgender person to write an article about her struggle to learn about, accept and love transgender people? Doesn’t that help the cause?

It doesn’t—not at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

In late March, two Muslim UUs, one an ordained minister, the other a seminarian, published an open letter entitled “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists.”[2] The letter expresses anger and pain at the way UUs relate both to Muslim UUs and to Muslims in general. They contend that “Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.” They ask: “Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry” that are welcomed? Upon reading this letter, some of us might wonder, “with all the Islamophobia in the wider culture, with all the attacks on Muslims, mosque burnings, threatening phone calls, FBI surveillance and the President’s Muslim ban, why criticize us? We connect with and support Muslims in the wider community. We support Muslim immigrants and refugees. This congregation is hosting a very public forum on Islam in America next Sunday. Aren’t we doing a good job?

Not good enough. This sermon is about why.

Both of these stories come amidst a backdrop of calls throughout our denomination to confront our own White Supremacy culture. Although this call has been with us in a variety of forms for decades, we began encountering this specific call to recognize, confront and transform our own White Supremacy culture in the late winter of 2017, after revelations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters.[3] People understandably ask, does this challenge really apply to us? Afterall, as a denomination, we’ve made a very public commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, to immigrants, to sanctuary for those facing deportation, to indigenous peoples’ struggles over water rights. We’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In an era when avowed racists are organizing across the country and online, how is ours a culture of White Supremacy? How is that even possible? Well, it is—even at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

A common thread unites these stories. People on Unitarian Universalism’s institutional margins are demanding a genuine place at the institutional center. Further, people on the margins are demanding the power to redesign the center so that it serves their interests as well as it serves the interests of those of us for whom it was originally designed.

This sermon continues a sermon I preached last September entitled “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Except I’m editing the title. I read to you earlier from Theresa I. Soto’s meditation entitled “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival).” Soto says “no one can rename you Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift of being and saying who you are.”[4] No one can rename you Other—but that’s exactly what the title of my September sermon did. “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Soto inspires me to reflect on how I use the word ‘other’ when I address these issues. I don’t really want to use it anymore, mainly because so many of those historical others aren’t other at all. They’re right here, members of our congregations: trans people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. As gender-queer UU religious professional and consultant, CB Beal wrote in March, “We’re right … here.”[5]  Imagine a congregation where we notice and celebrate the differences, but no difference or set of differences makes a person “other.” As Soto says, “it can’t stick.”

Here’s what I said last September:

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation….  If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited or no English may experience themselves as marginal…. [if mental illness is unspeakable,] people with mental illness may feel marginal. [If sexual violence is unspeakable,] survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution…. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community … our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins…. We must be willing to center that which is marginal.[6]

One could argue that in publishing a feature article about how to understand, welcome and love transgender people, UU World was centering transgender people. Transgender UU leaders emphatically said “No!” They said no because the article contained certain factual errors and unexamined assumptions, for example, the assumption that it’s OK to ask trans people about certain body parts when, for anyone else, such questions would be an invasion of privacy. They said no because the article failed to fully name the violence to which so many trans people are now exposed given the Trump Administration’s determined attacks on transgender rights; and it failed to name at all the ways in which trans people continue to experience marginalization within our faith.

But perhaps most significantly, they said no because a cisgender woman wrote the article. UU World centered her story, not the stories of transgender people. CB Beal wrote: “When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.”[7]

Furthermore, UU World’s editor had given an early draft of the article to a leader in the UU transgender community, Alex Kapitan, and asked for feedback. Alex said, ‘don’t publish this article,’ and provided alternative suggestions. The editor chose to ignore Alex’s feedback, even though he’d asked for it. That’s not centering. That’s marginalizing. (Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement). Alex Kapitan was offering a way to reshape the center. The center said no. That’s why people were angry and hurt.[8]

Institutional centers don’t want to, don’t like to, and don’t need to change. They are inherently conservative, predisposed to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” Even when they say they want change, they have many tools at their disposal—some conscious, some unconscious—to help them not change. They can go on receiving open letters about anger, hurt, disappointment in perpetuity, and if they don’t really want to change, they won’t. But our Unitarian Universalist institutional centers have been saying for a generation that change is necessary—that our ongoing relevance and even our survival as a liberal religion depend on it. Our institutional centers have been promising change, and some real seeds have been planted in fertile soil. Now, with increasing frequency, visibility and courage, people on our margins are calling for the fulfillment of those promises. The uproar over the UU World article was one such call. The letter from UU Muslims was another. The demand from People of Color organizations to confront our White Supremacy culture is yet another. Such calls are becoming more and more central to our collective spiritual lives.

Change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And this has implications for any of us with identities that reside comfortably at the center of our UU institutional life: white people, straight people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, middle-class people. What do we do? In the wake of the UU World article, the Transforming Hearts Collective—a group of four trans and queer faith leaders that supports congregations in becoming radically welcoming spiritual homes for queer and trans people of all races, classes, abilities, sexualities, and ages—published a list of behaviors that will help transform the center of our institutional life in relation to transgender people. They said: Believe trans people; listen more than you talk; be willing to remain in discomfort; have hard conversations, with love; value relationships over perfectionism; don’t expect every trans person to want to educate you, but honor those who do; stay in your heart rather than your head; don’t ask a trans person anything you wouldn’t ask a cis person; comfort those who are hurting and build awareness with other cis people; uplift trans voices.[9]

I urge you not to encounter these suggestions simply as “things to do.” I say this because all too often, when those of us who occupy the center learn there’s a problem, or that someone’s been offended or hurt in some way, our impulse is to do something to get past the pain and anger as quickly as possible, to fix the problem, to make it go away—so we can return to the status quo. That’s not what this list is for. This list is not for doing so much as it is for being. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, it’s a ‘to be’ list.

Similarly, in her book White Fragility, Robin Diangelo offers a list of behaviors for White people to engage in when confronted with their own racism. Her list includes: Don’t just dismiss feedback. Don’t get angry. Don’t make excuses. Believe. Listen. Apologize. Reflect. Process. Engage.[10] Again, it’s not a ‘to do’ list. It’s a ‘to be’ list. It describes a way of being that is open, receptive, spacious, ego-less. This is how people on the margins need people in the center to be in order for them to come fully into the center and begin their work of redesign.  

A note on apology. Mindful that people at the institutional center, people with privileged identities will inevitably make mistakes as we undergo these changes, apology is an essential skill. The UU World editor, Chris Walton, offered a powerful apology. He wrote: “I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.”[11]

Centering is immensely difficult work. But I believe we are close to or at a tipping point. I suppose there are many who might disagree with me, but I see our various centers (congregational, regional, and national) learning not to dismiss the margins. I see reflection happening, apologies happening, structures evolving, new practices are emerging, and accountability shifting. Yes, this transformation is painfully slow, but I see us tipping.

Theresa Soto promises “we will find the people ready to be / on the freedom for the people way.”[12] I really want Soto to find those people at the center of our UU congregations. I believe we—and by ‘we’ I really do mean all of us—are the people ready to be on the freedom for the people way. I pray that we may be those people. I challenge: let’s be those people! I encourage: we can be those people. And I eagerly anticipate the day when we can say with confidence: we are those people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] French, Kimberly, “After L, G and B,” UU World, March 1, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/after-l-g-b?fbclid=IwAR3qQ-2rO9yhMpcx_O_LloGxwZGGZ5qsuXCrnEkK9pYP4w9PB7hqJ6VQh8Y.

[2] Hammamy, Ranwa and Saeed, Sana, “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists,” unpublished open letter, late March, 2019. See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J9ccz9cmg2mmLu9hbVQqOYkYcoyUxL7YfmvpnqPIeNw/edit?fbclid=IwAR1zkpRxCzSzjE8GM4R4SKK0dCxmvcbR4AJBmdN2l5MHf5cKhVu6f1-Kwxk.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.XQQjx4hKhPY.

[4] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival)” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) pp. 12-13.

[5]Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[6] Pawelek, Josh, “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, September 30, 2018. See: http://uuse.org/centering-the-margins-as-spiritual-practice/#.XQQotohKhPY.

[7] Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[8] Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement at Kapitan, Alex, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article,” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dailogue, March 6, 2019. See: https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/.

[9] “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article,” Transforming Hearts Collective, March 8, 2019. See: https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article?fbclid=IwAR3a3AgGXiiwn7OerWOXV3645Pe5Qh4ZeiaHQQEXqAfwFNy8i5Xzl8g1n8s.

[10] Diangelo, Robin, White Fracility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) p. 141.

[11] Walton, Chris, “Our Story Hurt People,” UU World, March 6, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/apology-spring-2019.

[12] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans…” Spilling the Light, pp. 12-13.

On Pilgrimage

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Scene from the Edmund Pettis Bridge, March 2015

In March of 2015 I travelled to Selma, AL for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the day—March 7th, 1965—state and local police brutally attacked voting rights marchers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activists organized that first march in response to the February 17th, 1965 police shooting of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson in Marion, AL. Martin Luther King, Jr. began a second march on March 9th but halted it at the bridge. King then led a third march beginning on March 21st and completing the 54 miles to Montgomery on March 25th with 25,000 people—including my father—joining by the end.

The Voting Rights marches hold a special place in the heart of our faith because so many of our ministers heeded King’s call for clergy to join him in Selma; and because White supremacists murdered one of those ministers, the Rev. James Reeb, on March 11th, 1965, as well as UU layperson, Viola Liuzzo, on March 25th.

While walking in a mass of 100,000 people through downtown Selma, I came upon the Reeb memorial, an 8-foot thick granite monument with a bronze image of Reeb in his trademark bow tie and glasses. There it was. There he was. A Unitarian Universalist martyr. There’s no other word for it. I felt I needed to do something with my body—kneel, bow my head, pray. I stepped over to it. I read the text. I looked at Reeb’s image. I touched the granite. I bowed my head and offered a silent ‘thank you.’ Then I rejoined the march.

Being present in Selma for the 50th anniversary observation was a peak spiritual experience for me, an awe-filled moment, a moment of knowing and trusting I am on a good path in my ministry and my life. This was a pilgrimage—a journey to a sacred site—a site where something momentous happened. Stumbling across the Reeb memorial was an unanticipated pilgrimage within a pilgrimage—a visit to a sacred Unitarian Universalist site within the larger sacred history of the Civil Rights movement.

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Our March ministry theme is journeys. Two weeks ago I spoke of the vastness within each of us, and offered a set of pathways for journeying into that vastness. This morning I’m addressing the vastness beyond us. I want to share my reflections on outward journeys, specifically the practice of pilgrimage.

I remember in seminary studying journeys as a phenomenon across religions and cultures. We likely began with one of the more ancient recorded journey stories, the late third millennium Mesopotamian poem, the Epic of Gilgamesh. First, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, seek fame and renown. They journey to the legendary Cedar Forest—the realm of the gods—where they slay its guardian Humbaba and then cut down a swath of the sacred trees. In retaliation, the gods kill Enkidu. Distraught, Gilgamesh undertakes a second, much longer journey in search of eternal life.

We likely discussed Gilgamesh’s journeys along with those of the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, and his Roman counterpart, Aeneas, in Virgil’s Aeneid. These stories are examples of the “hero’s journey,” in which, in the words of scholar Joseph Campbell, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with [newfound] power.[1]

We might have compared these mythological journeys to various journeys in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, in Genesis 12, God promises land, national greatness and blessings to Abram—eventually Abraham—who departs with his family from Haran in Mesopotamia, journeying west into Canaan in search of that promised land. We might also have talked about the story of Moses as a possible example of the hero’s journey. Whether or not Moses fits the model, it is certainly true that, from the book of Exodus on, the Torah describes the Israelites’ 40-year period of wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. In this sense, the Torah is the story of the Israelite’s journey toward fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.

In the Christian scriptures, Jesus, at the outset of his ministry, journeys into the wilderness for forty days where Satan tempts him. Then, for approximately three years he conducts a travelling ministry, moving from village to village around Galilee. He eventually journeys south to Jerusalem where authorities put him to death.

Turning eastward, before becoming the Buddha, Siddh?rtha Gautama, who lived a privileged, sheltered, royal life, desires to see the world beyond the palace and journeys out along the royal highway. The gods of the Pure Abode conspire to reveal the reality of human suffering to him. On three, successive trips he witnesses old age, illness and death, revelations which launch him on his path to enlightenment. There are easily thousands of such stories about the journeys of heroes, saviors, divine figures, and founders of religions. They are often origin stories—as in ‘this is the story of how Rome was founded,’ or ‘this is the story of how the Israelites came to the Promised Land.’

Pilgrimage is a different kind of journey—not the journey of the hero or founder, but the journey of the follower. Pilgrimage is a visit to a site after the hero or founder has made it sacred—for example, a site where Abraham is said to have once set up his tent; or where Jesus is said to have performed a miracle; or where a martyr gave their life for their principles. Some pilgrimages require the performance of certain rituals upon arrival. Journeying to consult the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece or to make a Passover sacrifice at the temple in ancient Jerusalem come to mind.

In Islam, there is a fairly unique occurrence in which the founder of the religion, the Prophet Muhammed, makes a pilgrimage. In this sense, the founder is also a follower. Remember that Muhammed, at the urging of the Angel Gabriel, recited the verses of the Koran over the last third of his life. A number of verses mention the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael laying the foundations for their house. Islamic tradition identifies the house as the Kaaba in Mecca, the most sacred site in Islam. Tradition holds that Adam originally built it, but it was destroyed. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it. People had been making pilgrimages there for ages before the founding of Islam.

At some point, Muhammed recited the verses that call on all Muslims to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. In the Koran’s third sura, known as “The Family of Imran,” an English translation says: “Indeed, the first House [of worship] established for [humanity] was that at Makkah…. In it are clear signs [such as] the standing place of Abraham. And whoever enters it shall be safe. And [due] to Allah from the people is a pilgrimage to the House—for whoever is able to find thereto a way.” [2] Knowing this verse, Muhammed knew he needed to make the Hajj. For many years Mecca’s non-Muslim leaders prevented him from entering the city; but he finally completed shortly before his death. Muslims refer to it as the “Farewell Pilgrimage,” after which he delivered the farewell sermon, which is notable for many reasons, one of them being his assertion of the equal worth of all people. One modern translation says: “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab.”[3]

We hear echoes of this sentiment when Malcolm X describes his 1964 Hajj in his autobiography, one of the more famous pilgrimage stories in American literature. It transformed him. Among other things, it altered his view of White people. Previously he had assumed all White people are devils. What shocked him during the Hajj was his experience of White Muslims. “There were tens of thousands of pilgrims,” he said, “from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to back-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity … that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist.”[4]

Later he says, speaking of how the Hajj transformed him, “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.”[5] He hadn’t changed his views about the power and violence of American racism; but his pilgrimage experience expanded his understanding of humanity. It also deepened and sharpened his Muslim faith, gave him a global perspective, and led him to organize internationally.

****

Unitarian Universalism has nothing like the Hajj. Given our eclectic theology, that makes sense. Yet, pilgrimage is a valuable spiritual practice. It deepens faith. It affirms, inspires, and strengthens connections to spiritual ancestors. Because it involves following—followership—it emphasizes humility. So, I wonder: what qualifies as a UU pilgrimage?

The teachers in our middle school Building Bridges class taught a session on Islam in which they discussed the Hajj. They asked the kids what a ‘UU Mecca’ experience might be. Their response? “A cruise near a rain forest with yoga and coffee,” which tells me that our children are paying attention and we have some work to do.

Our Affirmation class makes a pilgrimage to Boston. They visit historical churches, like King’s Chapel—the first American congregation to declare itself Unitarian; and Arlington Street Church, whose congregation in 1803 called the Rev. William Ellery Channing, perhaps the most important preacher of Unitarian theology in that era.

Greater Boston is filled with UU pilgrimage sites as so much of our early history happened there. The Gloucester UU Church, founded in 1779 as the Independent Christian Church, was the first Universalist Church in America. Its minister, the Rev. John Murray, had been branded a heretic in England for his Universalism. Its members refused to pay taxes to support the state church. In 1786 they won a landmark court ruling declaring they could not be taxed to support a church to which they did not belong.

Concord, MA was the center of the Transcendentalist movement, which grew out of the Unitarian churches and, in time, became highly influential on Unitarian and Universalist theology and spirituality. In Concord one can visit the home of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walden Pond, where Henry David Thoreau wrote his modern scripture, Walden; or the Orchard House where Louisa May Olcott wrote Little Women.

I’ve mentioned Selma, where James Reeb was murdered in the midst of the Voting Rights marches. Viola Liuzzo’s memorial is along U.S. Route 80 between Selma and Montgomery. Other sites that come to mind include the Lewis Howard Latimer House in Flushing, NY and the Whitney M. Young Birth Place and Museum in Simpsonville, KY. Latimer, a founder of the First Unitarian Church in Flushing, was an inventor who prepared the mechanical drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application. He was also the only African American who worked in the original engineering division of the Edison Company. Young, a member of the UU congregation in White Plains led the National Urban League through the 1960s and was one of the “Big Six” organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The forest spring — a sacred site at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East

Further afield, there is a rich Unitarian history and a thriving network of churches in Transylvania, Romania. There are similar histories and networks in the Philippines and in the Khasi Hills of eastern India. These are all locations to which American UUs make regular pilgrimages.

This is only the beginning of a list that answers the question, ‘What are sacred Unitarian and Universalist sites—sites where we can follow our founders, our heroes; deepen our Unitarian Universalist identity; expand our view of being human; and find inspiration to continue in the struggles to which our faith calls us?’ What sites might you add to the list?

A concluding thought: Many of you travel to different parts of the United States and Canada—for work, for vacation, to visit family. You sometimes visit the local UU congregation. Any time you do this—even if you are visiting the nearby congregations in Hartford, West Hartford, Meriden, or Storrs, you are making a pilgrimage. You are entering a sacred site, participating in its rituals, touching its history—the history of people who cared deeply about their faith and worked to sustain it for future generations.

May we all have the opportunity, at some point in our lives, to make pilgrimages – to be faithful followers, to deepen our faith, to find inspiration, to bring it all home for the flourishing of this sacred site.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Campbell, Joseph, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949) p.23.

[2] Sura 3: 96-97.

[3] View the full text of the final sermon at http://www.cyberistan.org/islamic/sermon.html.

[4] Malcolm X and Haley, Alex, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 2015 edition) pp. 346-347.

[5] Malcolm X, Autobiography, pp. 373.

Rally for Income Equality in CT! April 4th

Josh, join the Democracy, Unity, Equality (D.U.E.) Justice Coalition as we honor Dr. King’s memory and fight for income equality in CT!

We will stand in solidarity and urge our elected leaders to pass a MORAL BUDGET that supports all CT residents and asks the wealthy to pay their fair share.

A Tale of Tragedy; a Tale of Possibility

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On Sunday, January 13th, we began celebrating our congregation’s 50th anniversary year. For our service the following week, ‘Martin Luther King Sunday’—which we cancelled due to inclement weather—I had planned to preach this sermon on what was happening in terms of race and racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) fifty years ago; and to name parallels with what is happening within our faith today. I’m grateful to Martha Larson who agreed to postpone the service she’d been planning for this morning so I could bring this sermon. It’s an important 50th anniversary reflection with implications for who we are as Unitarian Universalists today.

A caveat: the story I will now tell you focuses on relationships between White UUs and African American, African Diaspora and Black UUs. That is, the racial dynamics in the story have to do with the place of African Americans in our larger White denomination in the late 1960s. The risk in telling this story is that we forget that Black people are not the only People of Color within Unitarian Universalism. There are Native American, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, South Pacific Islander UUs, not to mention biracial and multiracial UUs. Their stories aren’t in the story I am about to tell. I’m naming this simply so that we don’t forget our denominational story about race is not an exclusively Black-White story.

The story of race in our faith from 1967 to 1970 is complex. It’s the story of a historically White denomination encountering its own institutional racism when it wasn’t prepared to do so. It’s the story of people dedicated to a vision of racial integration and the nonviolent principles of the Civil Rights movement coming into conflict with people dedicated to the Black Power movement and the principle of Black self-determination. It’s the story of the democratic principle at the heart of our faith coming into conflict with the justice principle at the heart of our faith. In the words of the historian of African American Unitarian Universalism, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, it’s a tragic story.

During the “long, hot summer of 1967,” more than 150 riots broke out around the country. The rioters were primarily Black people, angry at institutional racism, at entrenched poverty, at police violence; angry that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had not fundamentally altered the racist structures of American society. They rioted out of deep pain and frustration. I’m mindful of Dr. King’s phrase, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”

Over the first weekend of October,1967, the UUA convened an “Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion.”[1] 140 delegates from around the country gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. 37 of them were Black. As the conference got underway, 30 or so Black delegates withdrew into a private room, forming what eventually became the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. They created a list of nonnegotiable demands which they presented to the Emergency Conference, asking that they be accepted or rejected without debate. The core demand was that the UUA create a Black Affairs Council and fund it for four years at $250,000 /year (that’s over $7 million today). The Black Caucus would select the Black Affairs Council members who would have complete control over the money.

What began as a racially integrated (though largely White-led) effort to outline a UU response to the 1967 riots ended as a Black-led action against the UUA. “Divisive” is an understatement. Black UUs had never organized in this way, had never made all-or-nothing demands, and had never demanded this level of funding for programs they would control exclusively. Black Caucus participant Henry Hampton later described their experience as tense, exhilarating and passionate. “Black UUs … long accustomed to the role they played in their congregations explaining The Negro to the white majority … for the first time … were exploring their identity as religious liberals with one another, black to black.”[2]

As for the remaining Conference participants, some left in dismay. Many who were used to certain norms for the conduct of meetings were unnerved that the Black Caucus had upended those norms. Many who, just a few years earlier had joined Dr. King in Selma for the Voting Rights march, and who had dedicated their lives to the Civil Rights movement, were bewildered that young, Black UU activists critical of Dr. King and the limits of nonviolence had overtaken their agenda. Some of those Black delegates who refused to join the Black Caucus reported feeling criticized and pressured for their decision.

Nevertheless, the tactics worked. More than two thirds of the conference delegates supported the demands and agreed to communicate them to the UUA Board. Black Power had arrived in Unitarian Universalism. UUA President, Dana McClean Greeley, wrote “They wish to form a Black Power organization … within the denomination. This will not be a perfunctory or easy discussion.”[3] Sure enough, later that fall the UUA Board rejected the idea of a Black Affairs Council and proposed a much less ambitious approach to Black empowerment. The Black Caucus countered with a call to congregations to stop paying their denominational dues. Tension grew throughout the year, but the Black Caucus never altered its demands. The following May, at the 1968 UUA General Assembly in Cleveland, just seven weeks after Martin Luther King’s assassination, after extensive, painful debate, delegates adopted a resolution creating the Black Affairs Council and funding it with $250,000 a year for four years. The vote was 836-347.

This was an extraordinary victory for Black Power within Unitarian Universalism. Once it was established, the Black Affairs Council began funding black-led organizations around the country that were addressing political repression, economic exploitation, and what they called educational and cultural nondevelopment. The list of organizations is long: the Black Community Fund of Philadelphia, the Center for Black Education, Washington, DC, the Coordinating Committee of the Black Community, Lawrence, KS, the Malcolm X Center of Los Angeles, Malcolm X Liberation University, Greensboro, NC, National Democratic Party of Alabama, the National Association of Afro-American Educators, the Congress of African People, and many more. Through the Black Affairs Council, Unitarian Universalist money and people reached deep into the heart of radical Black America.

The victory didn’t last. There were countervailing forces. UUs who were committed to pursuing racial justice work in a more traditional, racially integrated way had established their own organization in early 1968, Black and White Alternative or BAWA. They also wanted UUA funding. Black Caucus leaders understood this trend, I think correctly, as the unwillingness or inability of some White UUs and some Black UUs to embrace the goal of Black Power and Black self-determination; or worse, as the need of some White UUs to maintain control over racial justice efforts. The Black Caucus warned that if BAWA received funding, they would disaffiliate from the UUA. The divisions were bitter. People describe strong-arm tactics, name-calling, even spitting in opponents’ faces.

The 1969 General Assembly in Boston was highly contentious, including allegations of racism, the commandeering of the microphones and a walk-out by the Black Caucus and its White allies. In the end, delegates voted to continue funding the Black Affairs Council but not BAWA. The margin was slim: 798 to 737. Too slim. As Morrison-Reed has written, Black Power “won again and, in that moment, lost.” The UUA could not “move ahead when half [the delegates were] moving one way and the other half another.”[4]

Later that fall, facing a funding crisis, the UUA Board reduced the Black Affairs Council annual allocation, spreading it over five years. In response, the Black Affairs Council disaffiliated. At the 1970 Seattle General Assembly, delegates voted to discontinue funding entirely. Although the Black Affairs Council received funding from other sources and functioned for a few more years, the promise of the 1968 Cleveland vote went unfulfilled. Many people of all racial identities left Unitarian Universalism in response to these events. The pain, anger and heartbreak still reverberate through our faith fifty years later.

In 2012 Morrison-Reed wrote: “all sides felt victimized and misunderstood; they defended principles while others betrayed them. Integrationists felt they were being asked to repudiate their earlier actions and long-term commitment to equality…. They were shocked that there was no longer room to hold a different opinion and follow another path, and still be in fellowship. Institutionalists felt they were staving off ruin and preserving the democratic process. The BAC and its supporters felt as though whites were unwilling to put justice first or to trust African Americans with power…. The result and further tragedy is this: No one who was involved feels understood or appreciated, much less honored.” He then says “It is time to honor the passion, fervor, and commitment to principle of all who were involved—and to thank them for caring so deeply.” [5]

I don’t know how I would have responded had I been there. It would have been excruciating to witness the disruption of our democratic process. It also would have been excruciating to recognize that Black UUs felt so frustrated and enraged at the lack of vision, urgency and engagement on the part of the larger institution that they needed to assert themselves and demand Black Power.

For such excruciating moments, Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail has become scripture for me. To the moderate clergy who were urging him to be patient, King said: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”[6]

Democracy is a deeply-held, sacred principle for us. That doesn’t mean the democratic processes we use are perfect. There are times when our processes may actually limit our vision, curtail our thinking, and exclude certain voices. Sometimes it takes a disruption to realize this. When people who live under some form of oppression gather together, organize and say ‘this is what we need,’ even ‘this is what we demand,’ I’ve learned not to react defensively but to remember MLK’s words. “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’” If we’re being called to act for justice now, let’s act now. There are risks, yes. But for me, that’s accountability. That’s solidarity. That’s honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person. That’s justice, equity and compassion in human relations. And though it may disrupt our current democratic process, hopefully it will inspire us to evolve our process, to make it more responsive to the pain, suffering, needs and demands of oppressed people.      

That’s my interpretation of what happened at the 1968 vote; and what essentially failed to happen in 1969 and 1970. That’s also my interpretation of what happened on October 14th, 2016, when the UUA Board of Trustees agreed to provide $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU (BLUU).[7] BLUU’s mission is threefold: To expand the power and capacity of Black UUs within our faith; to provide support, information and resources for Black UUs; and to promote justice-making and liberation through our faith.[8] The Board did not explicitly state that its 2016 decision was an attempt to fulfill the promise of the 1968 Black Affairs Council resolution, but 1968 was in the room. Board member Greg Carrow-Boyd acknowledged “we are fulfilling a promise [the General Assembly made] fifty years ago.”[9]

The BLUU story is still unfolding. In critical, if uncomfortable ways, BLUU is impacting power dynamics within Unitarian Universalism. It’s raising an important question: Can White UUs and White UU congregations truly hear and respond to the aspirations of Black UUs and other UUs of Color? And at a deeper level, BLUU is building a visible, robust, faithful, exciting, and permanent home for Black Unitarian Universalist identity and spirituality. 

Here’s how I believe we here at UUS:E are called to respond:

First, let’s continue our work with Moral Monday CT, our primary Black Lives Matter organizing partner.

Then, BLUU has asked that UU congregations provide space to Black-led social justice organizations. Let’s take this seriously. I’m proud to announce that we are beginning to build a relationship with the Manchester-based Minority Inclusion Project, an organization that helps non-profits address institutional racism.[10]

Then, to reach the $5,3 million funding goal for BLUU, the UUA has asked all congregations to participate in a program called “The Promise and the Practice of our Faith,” which raises $10 per congregational member. We began our participation in that through our community outreach offering in January. We’ll need further conversation about how to fully meet this goal, which the UUA understands as a commitment to countering our own White Supremacy culture.[11]

Then, for the fiftieth Anniversary of the Black Affairs Council, Mark Morrison-Reed has written a new book called Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy. As part of our fiftieth anniversary year, let’s read this book as a congregation this spring. I will also recommend, at the suggestion of Ollie Cohen, that we read the Beacon Press book and New York Times bestseller, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.

Finally, I’d like to help establish a People of Color Caucus at UUS:E. It would admittedly be a small group, but with the right support and funding, I think such a caucus could generate some amazing ideas for the future of this congregation. It would be a shame for those ideas to never come to life.

The struggle continues. Let’s be in it. Amen. Blessed be.

[1] I’m basing my retelling of this story on the UUA’s 1983 Commission on Appraisal Report, “Empowerment: One Denomination’s Quest for Racial Justice,” and Carpenter, Victor, “The Black Empowerment Controversy and the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1967-1970, both in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice (Boston: UUA, 1993); Ross, Warren R., The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2001) pp. 41-56; and Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy,” UU World Magazine, January 16, 2012, see: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/empowerment-tragedy.

[2] Quoted in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice, p. 26.

[3] Quoted in Unitarian Universalism and the Quest for Racial Justice, p. 102.

[4] Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy.”

[5] Morrison-Reed, Mark, “The Empowerment Tragedy.”

[6] King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. See: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[7] McCardle, Elaine, “UUA Board of Trustees commits $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU,” UU World Magazine, October 17, 2016. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/board-commits-5-million-bluu.

[8] Explore the BLUU website at http://www.blacklivesuu.com/.

[9] McCardle, Elaine, “UUA Board of Trustees commits $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU.”

[10] Explore the Minority Inclusion Project website at https://ctmip.org/.

[11] Learn more about “The Promise and the Practice of our Faith” at https://www.uua.org/giving/areas-support/funds/promise-and-practice.

Screening of Brittany Packnett’s Ware Lecture at the 2018 UUA General Assembly

Join the UUS:E Social Jutice / Anti-Oppression Committee for a viewing and discussion of Brittany Packnett’s Ware Lecture at the 2018 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Kansas City, MO.

Tuesday, October 30th, 7:00 PM at UUS:E.

Brittany Packnett is an unapologetic educator, organizer, writer, and speaker. Known as @MsPackyetti on social media, Brittany has become a sought-after voice in the work of social change and empowerment. A former teacher, policy expert, and non- profit executive director, Brittany has committed her life and career to justice. She currently plays many roles, all focused on freedom. Brittany serves as Teach For America’s Vice President of National Community Alliances, where she leads partnerships and civil rights work with communities of color. Beyond Teach For America, Brittany was a Ferguson protestor and continues in activism as, among other things, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence. She is a contributor to the Crooked Media network, most notably contributing to the weekly news roundup on Pod Save The People, a Video Columnist for Mic News, and writes for many publications. Recently, Brittany launched Love + Power, a hub created to inspire, empower, and outfit everyday people to seismically shift society. Brittany was an appointed member of the Ferguson Commission and President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Today, she continues to advocate for urgent systemic change at critical decision making tables and through national and international media.

The Ware Lecture has been in existence since 1920. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) President, in consultation with the General Assembly Planning Committee, invites a distinguished guest each year to address the General Assembly as the Ware Lecturer.

Less Distant from the Hope of Myself: Reflections on Sanctuary

Our ministry theme for October is sanctuary. For my remarks this morning I had planned to take a break from talking about being a sanctuary congregation. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we as a congregation relate morally to larger social and political realities. I had planned to take a break from talking about how we have the capacity to provide care and shelter to people whose lives have been or are being upended in tragic ways by governments acting immorally. We’ve actually talked a lot about that over the past two years. As a congregation you are familiar with many of these themes. I was going to take a break. I had planned to talk about sanctuary in a more general, and perhaps a more personal spiritual way. I had planned to say that regardless of our life circumstances, regardless of our relative privileges, no matter who we are, there’s a human need for sanctuary, for places of safety and protection, of retreat and reflection, of beauty and creation. We all need sanctuary from time to time.

As I read in our meditation from the Rev. Ann Willever, Just for this moment / let me be still / let me rest / in the quiet of this sacred place / in the presence of the spirit gathered / held gently, yet mightily, by the threads of love / that bind us together.[1] She’s describing that kind of sanctuary we all need from time to time.

That’s still what this sermon is about—with a first caveat that this happens to be the week we are, for the first time, welcoming a guest into our sanctuary space; and with a second caveat that the dynamics of this situation are different—though not entirely—from the scenario we originally anticipated. This situation is easier in some ways, because our guest is not confined to our building. But it is still hard, because his life is so clearly at stake if his asylum claim fails.

For me, it has been a difficult week. It has been difficult because the work of bringing a guest into our building is highly detailed; it requires the input, insight, organization and commitment of many people. I want to thank Judi Durham and Rhona Cohen, who co-lead our Sanctuary Congregation Team, along with all the members of the Team who’ve had a hand in making this transition in the life of our congregation go as smoothly as possible.

It’s been a difficult week because the reality of a human being moving into our building impacts all of us who use the building. It is disruptive, especially for our staff. Gina, Jane, Annie, Mary and Emmy have all prepared for this moment—and yet nobody can fully prepare for something like this until it happens. I am so appreciative of their willingness to stay open, to be flexible, to raise questions we haven’t yet raised, and thereby support all of you in making this transition.

It’s been a difficult week because some of you, appropriately, have expressed concern about our decision-making process, because this situation—providing sanctuary to a person whose deportation order has been put on hold while he’s pursuing an asylum claim—is different from the situation that drove our deliberations last spring—providing sanctuary to a person who has an open deportation order. Those of you who’ve spoken or written to me about this difference, please know that I deeply value your willingness to raise questions. Having disagreements about this is hard, but if we can’t raise questions and be in dialogue, then in my mind we are muting our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle, ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.’

It’s been a difficult week because we’re still trying to figure out what details about our guest’s story are shareable and how best to share them. Transparency is critical in the healthy functioning of a congregation—and yet we have to be careful in this situation: if our guest’s asylum claim fails and he must return home, we don’t want our public sharing here in the United States to inadvertently make his situation at home more dangerous. As a reminder, he is an atheist, and what he calls a free thinker, from a country where atheism is a crime punishable by death.

Having said that, this is a church, and we have never been under any illusions that it would be possible to keep our guest’s presence here a secret. Though we will not hold a press conference, the Manchester Police and Fire Departments are aware that he is living here. There’s no way around that. So what we can say is that our guest comes from a country in the Middle East. He arrived in the United States in mid-September and immediately presented himself to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and requested asylum. ICE detained him at a facility in Greenfield, MA. After ICE background checks and a briefing in the case a federal judge in Hartford determined he was neither a threat nor a flight risk, and allowed him to be released from detention as long as there was a place for him to go. This is where we come in. We are providing a place for him to stay while he pursues his asylum claim. On average, such claims take about 3-4 months to complete—though there are no guarantees.

It’s been a hard, stressful, taxing week. I know during such weeks I am not at my best—not as a minister, not as a pastor, not as a husband, not as a father. Some lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” resonate with me. I am so distant from the hope of myself, / in which I have goodness, and discernment, / and never hurry through the world / but walk slowly, and bow often.[2]

There have definitely been times this week when I’ve felt distant from the hope of myself.

That could mean many things. I wonder what it might mean for you. It could be the feeling that accompanies a hard week, a week in which you know you aren’t at peak, aren’t your best self. It could be the feeling that accompanies a difficult diagnosis, or a recovery from surgery or illness that is taking much longer than the doctors predicted. It could be the feeling that accompanies the breakdown or loss of a relationship that really matters to you. It could be the weight of the world bearing down, those feelings of overwhelm that come in response to so much unwelcome, disconcerting news. Contemplate, for a moment, those times when you’ve felt distant from the hope of yourself.

[Musical Interlude]

I’d like to say I hope none of you will ever feel distant from the hope of yourself. It would be nice to never feel that way. It would be nice to always know your own goodness, to always have discernment, to never hurry through the world, to walk slowly, to bow often. But we know the world and our lives don’t work this way. We have hard days, hard weeks, hard years. Some moments in our lives are grueling. This is inevitable. What I do hope, for myself and for all of you, is that when you come to those grueling moments, you will also have sanctuaries—places to which you can you can for rest and respite, for comfort, solace and peace—beautiful vibrant places, tranquil, colorful places that soften life’s hard edges, that make living not only bearable but joyful, meaningful, useful.  

That is the idea of sanctuary I want to offer you this morning: places that matter deeply to you; places that help reduce the distance between you and the hope of yourself; places that help you remember your goodness. That’s what a sanctuary does. The poet speaks of the trees as her sanctuary. They call out, “Stay a while.” / The light flows from their branches. / And they call again, “It’s simple, they say, / “and you too have come / into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled / with the light, and to shine.[3] That’s a good statement of the place I’ve been trying to get to this week, a place where I can go easy, be filled with light, shine. I don’t want the hardness of this week—or the hardness of the laws that led our guest to flee is home country—or the hardness of our larger world, our polarized and often hate-filled politics—I don’t want any of it to change me. I don’t want any of it to change you, or to lessen your courage, to dampen your conviction. Where can you go for affirmation that you, too, are filled with light; that you, too, shine.

What is your sanctuary? What is the place that saves you again and again and again; the place where you find room to breathe and stretch, the place that shelters you, if only for a time, from the hardness, the madness, the cruelty of the world? Two weeks ago I asked the members of the Small Group Ministry I facilitate to respond to that very question. It was a wonderful sharing. I remember stories of homes, or certain rooms within homes, of ponds and rivers nearby, of baseball parks, of the powerfully, comforting memories of loved-ones who’ve died, of this place—this Unitarian Universalist meeting house, here atop Elm Hill, on the Manchester-Vernon line, east of the Connecticut River.

Contemplate, for a moment, the sanctuaries in your life.

[Musical Interlude]

I’m offering you the idea of sanctuary as a spiritual resource. Just as taking a sabbath—a day of rest—is a spiritual resource; just as prayer and meditation are spiritual resources; just as yoga is a spiritual resource; just as being together in worshiping community on Sunday morning is a spiritual resource, so is having a sanctuary, a place where you can go for rest, respite, renewal.

The Rev. Kathleen McTigue tells the story of the small hole-in-the-wall café near her office. She describes the café as a sanctuary for her. “It was a wonderful thing just then, to be marooned on this little island of calm amidst the impatience, irritability, and general craziness of life, in a pace where someone makes her living by patiently shaping and then serving two of the world’s most basic and nourishing foods.”[4]

I love the healing imagery at the heart of McTigue’s experience in the café. “It’s easy to believe,” she writes, “that some small corner of the world’s fabric is being patiently, lovingly stitched back together—and that something more gets carried out the door than a bag of bread and warm soup.”[5]

That may be what’s happening here. In providing space for our guest to live, to prepare his asylum case, to engage in activities that will keep him well in mind, body and spirit, perhaps we too are patiently, lovingly stitching some corner of the world’s fabric back together. Indeed, some small bit of fear and loneliness and desperation ebbed this week when our guest came here. His journey is far from over, his fate far from certain, but the fabric in his corner of the world, and in ours, has been strengthened.

Of course, there are many holes, tatters, and runs in the fabric. The edges are worn and frayed. My prayer is that in those moments when the holes and tatters and runs touch our lives, cause us to grow distant from the hope of ourselves, that we have place to go for renewal; that we have sanctuaries in which our small corner of the world’s fabric can be stitched back together. I leave you words from Rev. Willever’s “Autumn:” May whatever pain or sorrow or loss I feel today /be eased / if only for this moment /even as I feel tossed and turned by the wind / a fallen leaf, blown about / with no seeming direction / may I abandon the illusion of control / if only for this moment / and sense the love surrounding me / and the strength of he love within me.[6]

Amen, blessed be.

[1] Willever, Ann, “Autumn” in Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 40-41.

[2] Oliver, Mary “When I Am Among the Trees,” in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006) p. 4.

[3] Oliver, “When I Am Among the Trees.”

[4] McTigue, Kathleen, “More Than a Cup of Soup,” Janamanchi, Abhi and Janamanchi, Abhimanyu, eds., Falling Into the Sky (Boston: Skinner House, 2013) pp. 4-5.

[5] McTigue, “More Than a Coup of Soup.”

[6] Willever, Ann, “Autumn.”

Remembering and Imagining: Time Travel as Spiritual Practice

Rev. Josh Pawelek

On your program cover there’s an image of the sankofa bird. Sankofa comes from the Twi language of Ghana in West Africa. A common English translation is “go back and get it.” The sankofa bird is an example of adinkra. Adinkra symbols make up a highly symbolic language—similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics. They are common among the Akan people of Ghana, and have made their way into the wider African diaspora. The symbols express complex thoughts and proverbs. The sankofa bird’s head faces backward as it attempts to catch its lost egg in its mouth. Its feet face forward. One translation is, “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have lost,” or “that which was taken.” Learn your past so that it may guide your actions in the present for the purpose of shaping the future. Another translation: “remember the past to protect the future.”[1]

Past, present, future. This sermon is about time travel. In the absence of an actual time machine, how do we visit the past? How do we visit the future? The sankofa bird isn’t a time machine. It is an assertion that the act of visiting matters.

****

I am an admirer of UCONN physics professor Ron Mallett, who convinces me time travel is possible—in theory certainly and, perhaps one day, in practice. I want to share with you a clip from a lecture he gave a few years ago. The lecture outlines his book, Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality.[2]

[While preaching this sermon, I showed the following video until 3:45, though the entire lecture is worth viewing.]

I love Professor Mallett’s questions: “Who of us has not wondered what’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen next? Or thought about the past, maybe to visit some significant historical event, or … to change something in our lives?”[3] These are human, spiritual questions. They might emerge in us from any number of sources: curiosity, wonder, anxiety, fear. For Professor Mallett they emerge out of a ten-year-old’s potent grief, a desire to see his father again, to maybe save his life.

There’s a sankofa dimension in Professor Mallett’s pursuit of time travel. Go back and get it. Go back and retrieve what was lost, that precious egg. Throughout his career he has been looking back—while his feet have faced forward, while he’s studied the impact of black holes on time, the intricacies of circulating light created by strong lasers. He’s produced no time machine, but his backward look has motivated him to advance human understanding, thereby shaping the future, and possibly inspiring some as-yet-unborn savant to build the machine he longs for. Who’s to say his father’s life won’t yet be saved?

Go back and get it.

****

In May Rolling Stone magazine featured on its cover singer, composer, actress, filmmaker and founder of the Wondaland artists collective, Janelle Monáe. The article, entitled “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” was helping to promote her new album Dirty Computers. If you aren’t familiar with Monáe’s music, you may still know her as the actress who played Teresa in Moonlight, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best picture; or Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, the story about the black, female NASA mathematicians during the 1960s space race (also a 2016 best picture nomination). I knew Monáe was a musician. I was not familiar with her music. What I’d heard about the Rolling Stone article before actually reading it seemed strange. It seemed to be introducing Monáe as a human being—as if she’d never been one before. There was something to that. “‘Let the rumors be true’” trumpeted the opening paragraph. “Janelle Monáe is not … the immaculate android, the ‘alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face’ she’s claimed to be over a decade’s worth of albums, videos, concerts and … interviews—she is, instead, a flawed, messy, flesh-and-blood 32-year-old human being.”[4]

Wait, what? Android?

I have been exploring Monáe’s music all summer, including the videos (she calls them ‘emotion pictures’) that accompany her songs with an amazing science fiction story. In a sense she really hasn’t been human until now. She’s been writing, performing and appearing in emotion pictures as a rebellious, time-traveling, messianic android named Cindi Mayweather. In the futuristic city of Metropolis, sentient androids serve humans—they’re essentially slaves—an explicit metaphor for racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression in our society. Cindi Mayweather becomes fully aware of her oppression when she illegally falls in love with a human, gets caught, and is slated for disassembly. She fights back, leading a nonviolent rebellion against the Great Divide, a secret society that uses time travel to suppress freedom and love across eras. Deploying the weapons of music, dance, inclusion and love, her rebellion seeks to unite androids and humans as equals.[5]

To give you just a taste of how Monáe tells these stories, here’s a quick clip from the emotion picture for her 2013 song, “Q.U.E.E.N.”

[While preaching this sermon, I showed this video until 0:55.]

About Monáe’s 2010 album, ArchAndroid, the writer Charles Pulliam-Moore says: “While time travel is established as being an integral part of the album’s story, it’s unclear specifically how you [as the listener/viewer are] supposed to string its timeline together or whether you’re meant to at all. At various points throughout the [album], Cindi’s staring down death at the Droid Patrol’s hands, wandering through an asylum for folks whose dancing is a subversive form of magic, or imploring people to join her as she’s slipping into the time stream…. She weaves in and out of moments throughout time, all the while spreading her messages of love, raging against her oppressors, and encouraging you to do the same.”[6] I call this hyper-sankofa. Cindi Mayweather goes back to find what was lost, but she also goes forward, sideways, up, down and around. She appears in multiple times and spaces at once, always fighting the forces of oppression with love, music, dance, creativity, individuality. Earlier you heard an example of this hyper-sankofa time travel in the reading of the cybernetic chantdown from in the song “Many Moons.”[7]

While all these temporal boundary-crossings are happening in the emotion pictures, Monáe’s music seamlessly crosses boundaries between styles and eras. She combines the sounds not just of R&B, soul, hip hop, funk, spirituals, jazz and big band which we associate with Black artists, but psychedelic rock, Broadway, European classical music and movie soundtracks. The opening song on her new album is a collaboration with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys[8]–possibly the whitest band of all time!

She wants her audience to cross boundaries as well. She used to hand out a pamphlet at her concerts called “Ten Droid Commandments.” The seventh commandment read: “Before the show, feel free to walk about the premises impersonating one of the many inspirations of the ArchAndroid Emotion Picture: … Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Outkast, Stevie Wonder, Octavia Butler, David Bowie, Andy Warhol or John Williams.”[9] Artistically she goes back again and again to recover the past, weaving it into a present expression that envisions a compelling future. In a sense, she doesn’t need a time machine. She is a time machine, driven by a potent yearning to manifest humanity’s interconnectedness through music—and to invite her audience to manifest it with her. It’s another version of sankofa: redeem the past by transcending its divisions in the present. In so doing, create a future that enables people to exist beyond labels and stereotypes, to freely live multiple, intersecting identities, to be creative, to be whole. There is much at stake in the act of visiting past and future.

****

Some critics and scholars classify Janelle Monáe’s art as Afrofuturism, an artistic movement that imagines Black people and culture in the future. One might think there’s nothing extraordinary about that. Of course there will be Black people and culture in the future.’ But that doesn’t account for a historic lack of Black and other People of Color characters, world-views and stories in our most culturally prominent future visions, especially in science fiction and fantasy. In her book, Afrofuturism, scholar and sci-fi writer Ytasha L. Womak says: “Even in the imaginary future—a space where the mind can stretch beyond the Milky Way to envision routine space travel, cuddly space animals, talking apes, and time machines—[when] people can’t fathom a person of non-Euro descent a hundred years [from now], a cosmic foot has to be put down.”[10] Afrofuturism puts that foot down.

Womak discusses various lineages of black artists—sci-fi and fantasy writers like Octavia Butler; musicians like Sun Ra, George Clinton and Janelle Monae; visual artists, poets, deejays, film-makers, museum curators, conference organizers—people who imagine Black and other peoples of color in the future through their artwork. This comes in response to dominant culture futurism’s failure to imagine Black and other peoples of color in the coming centuries or in imaginary, fantasy settings. In populating the future with Black people, Womak says “Afrofuturism unchains the mind.” It liberates the imagination, liberates creativity. When a person can imagine themself in the future—even a wild, seemingly impossible future, or a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested future—it generates hope, resolve, and action.

But Afrofuturism also looks back. Womack points to artists who refer to their ancestors, or to the ancient histories, mythologies, and cultures of the African continent. She quotes poet Khari B., who says, “It’s the sankofa effect…. One step into the future while looking back…. We’re evolving using the strength and characteristics of things that [brought us to where we are today]. We … pull from our past to build our future.”[11] Go back and get it!

****

I want to leave you with three thoughts regarding how Afrofuturistic time travel might influence a historically white culture Unitarian Universalist congregation.

First, as a person descended most recently from White, European ancestors, it feels critical to me to approach Afrofuturism, as well as sankofa, deeply aware of the ways in which White, European culture historically has—and even today continues to—misunderstand, misrepresent, belittle, denigrate, appropriate, steal, and at times, destroy the cultural expressions of non-European cultures. The short-hand for this is ‘cultural racism.’ Mindful of it, I’m digging deeply into Afrofuturism, stiving to do so with the utmost humility and reverence.

Second. We live in the future’s past. contemplate that for a moment. Since we live in the future’s past, what is our responsibility for creating a future worthy of our principles—one that corrects the flaws of white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism and environmental injustice? One that is inclusive, loving, joyful? Womak says “the idea of time travel, oddly enough, reemphasizes the present.” That is, given the future we imagine, how should we act now? Who should we be today so that a loving, inclusive future becomes a reality? I read to you earlier from the hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros’ story, “Lalibela.”[12] Teodros has a spoken word piece called “Colored People’s Time Machine,” in which he acknowledges, “I’m the future ancestor to my unborn seeds.”[13] He means we need to be conscious, aware, accountable to the people who are coming after us. We want them to come back and get us, to bring us into their present so that our example can help them shape their future. That’s time tavel.

Finally, I talked about the way Janelle Monáe collapses the boundaries between past, present and future in her music. Gabriel Teodros makes a similar statement in “Colored People’s Time Machine.” He says “Everything’s happening at once, right?” [14] The more human beings consciously travel in time—remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining, remembering and imagining—the more the boundaries between past, present and future actually disappear. Maybe they were never real in the first place. Maybe they are just illusions our minds create to make sense of our existence. Teodros continues: “ I see it in moments and I feel it in dreams  / and it would be so easy If I could let go of me. / It’s a constant process unravelling / You call it hip hop, I call it colored people’s time machine. / Made of music you feel what you don’t see, / I ride the vessel, the vessel is also me.” Arriving at that kind of enlightenment—that sense of oneness in time and space—is the goal of many spiritual practices. Sankofa suggests yet another approach. Go back and get it. Bring it forward. Shape the future by living well in the present. Ride the vessel, knowing you are the vessel.

Go back and get it.

Amen.

Blessed be.

 

________________________________________________________

[1] For a general statement about Sankofa, see the article “Sankofa, What Does it Mean?” at the blog Sankofa: Filling the Digital Divide, Feb. 15, 2013: https://lnwatsonblog.wordpress.com/2013/02/15/sankofa-what-does-it-mean/.

For a general statement about adinkra, see the article “Adinkra Symbols” at the blog An Afroetic Narrative, 2016: https://afroetic.com/adinkra-symbols/. Also see reflections on sankofa and the sankofa bird in Womack, Ytasha L., Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2013) pp. 160-161.

[2] Mallett, Ron L., Time Traveler: A Scientist’s Personal Mission to Make Time Travel a Reality (Basic Books: New York, 2009).

[3] UConn Talks, “Time Travel Fueled by Love,” with Professor Ron L. Mallett. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etJv4yTY4Ig.

[4] Spanos, Brittany, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself,” Rolling Stone, Issue 1313/1314, May 17-30, 2018, pp. 34-36. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/.

[5] Sterritt, Laura, “Janelle Monáe’s Hidden Sci-Fi Epic,” Transchordian, October 24th, 2013. See: http://www.transchordian.com/2013/10/metropolis-janelle-monaes-hidden-sci-fi-epic/. Also see Womak, Afrofuturism, pp. 74-76. View further analyses of Janelle Monáe’s work at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RMqng3HmPOA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdylle_hPgQ.

[6] Pulliam-Moore, Charles, “From Metropolis to Dirty Computer: A Guide to Janelle Monáe’s Time-Traveling Musical Odyssey” at io9 We Come From the Future (Gizmodo), May 2, 2018. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/from-metropolis-to-dirty-computer-a-guide-to-janelle-m-1825580195.

[7] View the emotion picture for Janelle Monáe’s “Many Moons” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHgbzNHVg0c.

[8] Listen to Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer” featuring Brian Wilson on Yutube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFK6k-pvXmI.

[9] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 75.

[10] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 7. Incidentally, Ytasha Womak is the creator of Rayla 2212—a multimedia series with music, books, animation and games that follows Rayla Illmatic … a rebel strategist and third generation citizen of Planet Hope, an Earth colony gone rogue some two hundred years into the future. Check out: http://rayla2212.com/welcome-to-the-world-of-rayla/.

[11] Womak, Afrofuturism, p. 160.

[12] Teodros, Gabriel, “Lalibela,” in Brown, Adrienne Maree and Imarisha, Walidah, eds., Octavia’s Brood (Oakland: AK Press, 2015) pp. 123-133.

[13] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

[14] Tedodros, Gabriel, “Colored People’s Time Machine.” See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cuIxAkZXsKI.

As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

A Tale of Two Churches

In the summer of 1984 my family spent two weeks in Poland. We arrived a year after Poland’s communist government had lifted martial law, which it had used to cripple the nearly ten million member Independent Self-governing Labor Union, Solidarity. Although it had been banned and political repression was widespread, Solidarity continued to operate underground. Most people we encountered were openly critical of the government. They were extraordinarily hopeful that not only the Polish government, but the Soviet Union would soon collapse under the weight of the human yearning for freedom.

Whenever we would discuss the political situation with Poles, the conversation would inevitably turn to the Roman Catholic Church. With the full support of the Polish Pope, John Paul II, the Church provided unwavering support for Solidarity and, by extension, the Polish people, in their struggle against communist oppression. The Catholic Church was wildly popular. Even the most scientifically-minded atheists loved the church for its brazen defiance. When we asked, ‘what keeps you hopeful?” always the answer was “the Church.” When we asked, “how can we give money to Solidarity,” always the answer was, “donate to the Church.”  

On our last weekend in Gdansk we worshipped at St. Bridget’s, whose priest, Father Henryk Jankowski, had famously served the Eucharist to striking shipyard workers. Inside that sanctuary you would never know the country was facing political repression. The standing-room-only congregation was on fire, spiritually alive, vibrant, free. I will never forget that congregation singing its closing song, every right hand raised in the air, making a V for victory. It was as if the kingdom had come.

I learned a very specific lesson away from that experience: At its best, the Church—Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Unitarian Universalist, Quaker, Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness—fights for justice and freedom, speaks truth to power, sides with the people, loves the people. That’s what it means to be a church. In the language of our Unitarian Universalist principles, the church promotes “justice, equity and compassion in human relations” and draws on the “prophetic words and deeds of people which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”

Later that year, October, 1984, this lesson deepened as the world received news that secret police had murdered Poland’s most outspoken anti-communist priest, Father Jerzy Popieluzko—a sobering reminder that in siding with the people, the church and its leaders may become victims of the very oppression they seek to resist.

Fast forward a decade to my first year in seminary. I registered for a class called “The Church and European Revolution,” imagining it would give me insight into the historical trends that informed the Polish Church in the 1980s. I wanted to understand more fully how churches have been involved in struggles against oppression over the centuries.

What I learned, instead, is that the Polish model is exceedingly rare. It seemed that through all of modern European history, the church, whether Catholic or Protestant, was inevitably in league with the ruling powers and resisted revolutionary impulses rising up among the people. The church executed—or sanctioned the execution of—its own priests or ministers if they took revolutionary stances. A notable example comes from the German Peasants War of the mid 1520s. While the towering Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther, sided with the German princes and called on the peasants to cease their uprising, the radical, apocalyptic preacher and theologian Thomas Müntzer became a leader of the peasants’ revolt. He was eventually captured, tortured and executed.

In those countries where revolutions succeeded in toppling the ruling powers, most notably France and Russia, the churches were so thoroughly linked to the ruling powers that they became the primary targets of revolutionary violence.

It’s a tale of two churches. On one hand there is the church of the struggling people, the church that seeks liberation, justice, freedom; the church that reads the Beatitudes—‘Blessed are you poor”—and takes them to heart; the church that encounters the Hebrew prophets’ call to “loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free”—and takes them to heart.

On the other hand, there is the church that identifies with the powers that be; the church that shies away from prophetic words and deeds so as not to upset the status quo; the church that looks away from oppression and is, by omission if not commission, complicit with unjust systems that trap and impoverish people.  

Stan and Sue McMillen purchased this sermon at last year’s goods and services auction. Stan suggested a few ideas for me to consider. All of them seemed to be versions of this tale of two churches, in particular what he identified as the “apparent abdication in much of the faith-based community [of the responsibility] to condemn racial, gender and sexual orientation injustice and violence.”

Stan pointed to two recent New York Times editorials. First, in a June Op-ed entitled “Is Your God Dead?” [1] Emory University Philosophy professor, George Yancy, said “I have been troubled by the lack of religious and theological outrage against national and global poverty, white racism and supremacism, sexism, classism, homophobia, bullying, building walls, ‘alternative facts,’ visa/immigration bans and xenophobia.” It’s a scathing criticsm. If your God isn’t dead, prove it. Show me the evidence of people who take the words of the prophets to heart. Do something. He says, “I await the day … when those who believe in the ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob’ will lock arms and march on Washington, refusing to live any longer under the weight of so much inhumanity.”

Second, in an Easter Op-ed entitled “We Forgot What Dr. King Believed In,”[2] Georgetown University sociology professor, Michael Eric Dyson, reminds us how even at the height of the Civil Rights movement, not only did many White churches continue to align with the racist status quo, but Black churches and their leaders also rarely risked the level of involvement and confrontation necessary to bring lasting change. In a speech to black ministers in Miami two months before his assassination, King said “the great tragedy is that Christianity failed to see that it had the revolutionary edge.” Dyson says that same edge is lacking today. He describes how churches of all racial identities have failed to address the crises of our times. He calls us to remember and take to heart what Dr. King believed, that “a commitment to God is a commitment to bettering humanity, that the spiritual practices of prayer and worship must be translated into concern for the poor and vulnerable … [that people of faith must] work to defeat racism, speak out in principled opposition to war and combat poverty.”

So, “Yes!” Of course. You know me. As Josh Pawelek, “Yes!” to the church that works for liberation, justice and freedom. “Yes!” to the church that fights oppression. As a Unitarian Universalist, an ordained minister, a person of faith, a husband, a father—as a human being—

“Yes!” to that church. “Yes!” to the Polish Catholic Church that confronted communism. “Yes!” “Yes!” to Father Popieluszko! “Yes!” to Thomas Müntzer. “Yes!” to Rev. Norbert Capek, Rev. Deitrich Bonhoffer and the German Confessing Church for their World War II resistance to the Nazis. “Yes!” to the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, Unitarian Universalists murdered for their participation in the Civil Rights movement. “Yes!” to Martin Luther King, Jr.! “Yes!” to Archbishop Oscar Romero! “Yes!” to the Black Liberation theologian, Dr. James Cone who died last week. To the church that heeds the cries of the prophets, that works in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, that repairs the breach between what is and what ought to be, I offer a resounding “Yes!”

From one angle, it’s hard to argue this congregation, and Unitarian Universalism nationally, has abdicated its responsibility. This church was deeply involved in Connecticut’s campaigns for marriage equality and legal protections for transgender people. We were deeply involved in the passage of an environmental justice bill in 2008; in campaigns for criminal justice and drug policy reform to challenge mass incarceration of people of color; in campaigns for better health care, domestic worker rights, and educational reform; in the work of refugee resettlement; in support of Black Lives Matter. In that regard, Stan isn’t referring to us when he speaks about faith communities abdicating. If he is, Sue [McMillen] might take issue with him. Afterall, she was a member of the City Line Dozen who were arrested in Hartford on October 5th, 2015. As a person of faith, supported by her congregation and her minister, she was protesting stark income inequality between residents of Hartford and those of the surrounding suburbs.

From another angle, however, one could argue our efforts have been woefully insufficient, our arrests largely symbolic. One could argue our pulpit messages have not adequately moved us to the kind of mass action necessary to change the direction of the nation, nor have they moved us to honestly examine our own complicity in systems of oppression. Now, poverty is increasing; the war economy is escalating; movements against women’s reproductive rights, gay and lesbian civil rights and protections for transgender people are gaining ground; movements to restrict voting rights, to end consent decrees intended to reduce police violence, to privatize and build more prisons are gaining ground; movements to transfer wealth from all economic classes to corporations and the wealthy elite are prevailing; movements to undue years of environmental protections and regulations intended to reduce the scale and pace of climate change are gaining ground.

I know you know this. I know you have many feelings about this—from fear and despair, to outrage, to commitment and resolve, to unquenchable hope. I know so many of you want to be part of the solution, but are unsure of your capacity, of your ability to pursue confrontation. You are legitimately concerned that the more firmly we position ourselves in the breach, the more risky our religious life becomes. Might we become targets of hate?

That possibility is always present. But we cannot let hate win. When leaders of color from Greater Hartford spoke to our leadership last fall in preparation for our work of creating a new congregational vision statement, they told us they need us to lead with love, and to be bold! Now is a time for love and boldness.

This is why I fully support this congregation providing sanctuary to immigrants seeking to avoid deportation. Not only will sanctuary help salvage the lives of individuals who take shelter with us; we will be sending a message to Manchester, Connecticut, ICE and the White House that it is morally wrong to destroy families, communities and local economies through a policy of indiscriminate and widespread deportations.

This is also why I feel called to participate in the relaunching of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. From Monday, May 14th, through to the end of June, the Rev. Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharris of the Kairos Center, and  the leaders of many denominations, including Unitarian Universalist Association president, Susan Frederick-Gray, have called for a massive, nationwide campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the plight of the nation’s poor. Let me quote Dr. Barber’s comments about the campaign in a recent article.[3] Note, as an evangelical Christian he offers a searing critique of evangelical Christian—one that also applies to any church that fails to act on its own principles.

“People are poor not because they are lazy, not because they are unwilling to work hard, but because politicians have blocked living wages and healthcare and undermined union rights and wage increases. Our nation’s moral narrative is shaped by Christian nationalists whose claims run contrary to calls in the Scripture, which is very clear that we need to care for the poor, immigrants and the least among us.

If you claim to be evangelical and Christian and have nothing to say about poverty and racism, then your claim is terribly suspect. There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.

[Our] Moral Agenda demands … major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including restoration and expansion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer healthcare and clean water for all.

To make sure these demands are heard, poor and disenfranchised people from coast to coast are preparing for 40 days of action centered around statehouses and the US Capitol. Over six weeks this spring, people of all races, colors and creeds are joining together to engage in nonviolent moral fusion direct action, massive voter mobilization and power building from the bottom up….

Now, 50 years after leaders of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign declared silence was betrayal, we are coming together to break the silence.”

We will by publicizing times and locations for campaign trainings—including here next Saturday afternoon—and actions in Connecticut. I am planning to travel to Washington, DC on Sunday, June 10th, in order to participate in the campaign on Monday, June 11th. I’m looking for travelling partners!

It’s a tale of two churches. Certainly, we can point in any direction and find churches whose members are failing to heed the teachings of their own scriptures. And we can point at ourselves and discover similar failures. That abdication of responsibility has always been a feature of the religious landscape.

But that other church—that justice-seeking, prophetic church, that inherent worth and dignity church, that welcome the stranger and the immigrant church, that loving church, that bold, courageous church—that’s a part of the landscape too—and it is about to reveal itself, once again, to a nation hungering for its vision.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Yancy, George, “Is Your God Dead?” New York Times, June 19, 2017, See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/opinion/is-your-god-dead.html.

[2] Dyson, Michael Eric, “We Forgot What Doctor King Believed In,” New York Times, April 1, 2018. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/31/opinion/sunday/martin-luther-king-faith.html.

[3] Barber, William, “American Once Faught a War Against Poverty, Now it Wages a War on the Poor,” The Guardian, April 15, 2018. See: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/15/poor-peoples-campaign-systemic-poverty-a-sin?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_Gmail.

Reclaiming Humanism

Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika addressing the 2017 UUA General Assembly

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Unitarian Universalism knew Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika[1] as Hayward Henry, chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC), a Black Power organization within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Under his leadership BUUC advocated—initially successfully—for the UUA to dedicate one million dollars to a Black Affairs Council (BAC) to organize and fund projects for Black self-determination around the United States.[2] This funding was highly controversial. Almost as soon as the 1968 Cleveland General Assembly voted on a plan to disburse the money, the UUA’s board of trustees began backtracking on the commitment.[3] The controversy continued over the next few years, only a portion of the money was disbursed, and as many as 1500 Black Unitarian Universalists left the denomination, profoundly disappointed in the UUA’s inability to fulfill its promises. I had always understood this leave-taking was due primarily to the funding controversy. However, when Dr. Sanyika spoke at the 2017 New Orleans General Assembly, he offered a different interpretation. 

(The section I’m quoting begins at 15:00) “When we were within this denomination,” he said, “ we initiated a dialogue on something called Black Humanism…. When we left in 1969, that was not a walk out. It was an exodus. It was an exodus because we no longer felt we had a home. We no longer felt the love and care. We no longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed…. We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation. We said we can be theist and non-theist—I know some of you want to argue that point…. I don’t mind talking about it, because we were no longer talking about kindergarten theology with no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky…. We were criticizing the church, across the board. Not just UUism…. there can be no Humanism without discussing Black Humanism. It can’t be. Why? Because we are a part of the human family who has contributed to the discourse on what it means to be human. So we invite that conversation with everybody who claims to have some form of Humanism in their background. But you must remember you have a history of Christian Humanism in your background too. So, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water and say there is nothing but humanity, because once you do that you reinforce White Supremacy without even knowing you’re doing it. So, the conversation about Black Humanism is really a conversation about salvation. But it’s about the salvation of all humanity…. Just like Black Lives Matter, Black Humanism matters. But so does all humanity, so does all other Humanism that seeks justice and transformation and peace.”[4]

Dr. Sanyika says the exodus happened not simply because the denomination was unwilling to fully fund BAC. Black people also left for explicitly theological reasons. The UUA, whose dominant theological identity was Humanist, would not make space for Black Humanism. At least some Black UU Humanists were theistic,[5] meaning they maintained belief in God—though clearly not God in any traditional sense—“no spookistic white guy sittin’ up in no sky.” But the dominant form of Humanism in Unitarian Universalism was atheistic. Its theological assumption was, essentially, “there is nothing but humanity.” Black Humanism—at least the strand Dr. Sanyika represents—needed more. “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” Finding no room for such reconciliation in the UUA, they left.

I’d never heard this argument before. It shook me up—in a good way. It inspired me to take stock of my own UU Humanist identity and reclaim it. I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist, yet it has taken me a long time to speak those words with conviction. I have been ambivalent about my Humanism. But we live in uncertain times. We live with a variety of threats to our liberal faith, to democracy, to our health, to our social cohesion, to our planet. This is no time for spiritual ambivalence. I want to tell you about my journey into ambivalence and why Dr. Sanyika’s words have drawn me out of it.

As a child in the Unitarian Society of New Haven, most adults identified theologically as Humanists. I understood that to mean a few things. First and foremost, it meant placing human beings at the center of the religious life, specifically free and autonomous human beings. Humanism prioritized free thought, free inquiry, the free and the responsible search for truth and meaning. It embraced the results of science. It allowed and encouraged people to change their beliefs in response to new evidence. Humanism said the individual arrives at authentic, personal belief through the exercise of reason.

In our church most Humanists were atheists. Our Humanism removed God from the center of religion. The gods remained available to us as objects of study; but God was no longer the object of worship on Sunday morning, no longer integral to the spiritual life of the community. At its best this atheistic UU Humanism stood for human liberation. At its best it replaced the capricious whims of inscrutable deities and oppressive religious and secular hierarchies with individual human agency and creativity. At the heart of the world’s scriptures, it found poetry and wisdom rather than rigid doctrines and forever-sealed truths. It called for social and economic justice in this life on this earth, not in some future new life on some future new earth. It invited every human being to do their own thinking and feeling on spiritual matters rather than accept without question the pronouncements of religious authorities. At its best. I am forever grateful to this atheistic UU Humanism for imparting to me a strong religious identity, for nurturing me, loving me, instilling confidence in me, and sending me forth into the world with a hopeful, committed heart.

So where did my ambivalence come from? We weren’t always at our best. Our atheistic Humanist UU congregation developed a spiritual allergy to any God-talk that approached belief. It got nervous, even angry, around any God-talk that sought to bring God back to the center. We kept our spiritual distance from theism, and although I didn’t recognize it as a child, I learned to not take theism seriously, a message which runs counter to our third UU principles, “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” People who believed in God, especially in a traditional God, were not as enlightened as we Humanists—not as rational, thoughtful, or discriminating in their understanding of ultimate things. We believed believers had been duped, deceived, misled, manipulated. How could they not see it? Their religion was outdated, anachronistic, an opiate, a crutch, a source of ‘pie in the sky,’ but not true spiritual freedom, not liberation. Their God was that spookistic white guy. Wouldn’t they be more happy not having all the answers?

We could be smug. Not always, and not everyone, but it was there. Nor was it unique to that church. Those of you who’ve been long-time members of this congregation report dynamics similar to waht I’m describing. Atheistic Humanism was the dominant spiritual identity in the majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the late 60s and early 70s when my family first became involved—the same era when theistic Black Humanism was asking for a seat at the UU theological table. My understanding is that this ‘not-our-best’ dynamic was denomination-wide, and it likely had something to do with why Dr. Sanyika said “We non longer felt that Black Humanism was on the agenda to be discussed.”

Nevertheless, as a child, and even as a college student, I didn’t recognize the distance between myself and traditional theists—or any theists for that matter. It wasn’t until I entered seminary in the 1990s that I began to question my atheistic Humanism. Seminary was the first time I had to defend my religious identity in a diverse, interfaith community where people with more traditional views of God were visible, vocal, progressive and intelligent. This was the first time I encountered theists who were thinking deeply about God, reasoning, arguing, weighing evidence, not accepting without question, even contemplating atheism. And their faith was flourishing. I began to understand that theism isn’t one thing, that God isn’t only the spookistic white guy up in the sky. In fact, I never meant anyone who believed in that guy. I loved the religious identity of my childhood, but I realized that clinging to it too tightly in the seminary environment might actually prevent me from engaging in the free thought and interplay of ideas I valued so highly. Slowly, I began to suspect that, along with humanity, there might be a place for God at the center.

Through the course of my seminary training and into the early years of my ministry, I discovered truths about the human experience which hadn’t been offered to me as a child, and which ultimately made my atheistic UU Humanism feel inadequate. There were moments wherein my rational mind just didn’t cut it. There were moments of heartbreak and pain, vulnerability and fear—my own and that of others—and there were no adequate words to say, no evidence to weigh, no inquiry to conduct. In such moments all I could do was trust—without any evidence—that I or they would eventually arrive at the other side of heartbreak and pain.

There were moments of decision, moments when I could no longer stay in whatever pattern I was in; moments in which I needed to change; moments in which, no matter how much I prepared, I was not ready. I could not reason my way to an answer, could not anticipate what the full impact of my decision would be. All I could do is surrender, let go and fall into something new.

There were moments of intense joy, hope, love and there were no words! Just energy flowing, spirit animating; the recognition that I was experiencing a reality vastly larger than me.

There were moments wherein I was arrogant, prideful, smug and I needed some power beyond me to sit me down and counsel me on the virtue of humility, to demand that I stop talking and start listening.

There were moments of awe in the presence of beauty, and the only possible response from me was reverent silence.

And there were moments when I thought I was carrying myself, but suddenly realized never in my life had I ever carried myself alone. Communities carried me. Ancestors carried me. The earth carried me. Flowing energy and animating spirit carried me. I realized my life is carried, held, fed, nurtured, challenged by countless realities larger than me. Humanity, I realized, isn’t alone at the center of religion. I became comfortable using the word God to name the totality of these larger realities. I became a theist. I didn’t jettison humanity from the center—that would be folly. I simply put God back.

Our childhood spiritual lessons run deep. For me, Humanism was atheistic. I thought I had to lay it aside. That has been the source of my ambivalence. Of course, my ambivalence isn’t rational. I’ve always known you could be a Humanist and a theist. The Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association states clearly there is room for theism within Humanism.[6] I just haven’t used the Humanist label, perhaps out of respect for my atheistic Humanist UU elders. But my ambivalence hasn’t been serving me well in these uncertain times. It’s as if a part of me is missing, though I didn’t fully realize that until I heard Dr. Sanyika say “We’ve always said human agency is at the center of transformation, but you can’t do it without divine reconciliation.” At that moment I knew I wanted my Humanism back.   

Of course, I cannot claim a home in Black Humanism. That’s not my journey. I am also mindful that some Black Humanists are atheists. And I also am not suggesting that atheist UU Humanists—or any atheists—ought to become theists. I continue to support atheists in this congregation and elsewhere, and I will continue to speak out against the marginalization of atheists in American public life.

But I know this about me: While I need humanity at the center of my religion, I also need clarity about what realities larger than me are carrying me—what communities, what ground, what land, what ancestors, what beauty, what spirit, what visions of the future carry me? Coming to such clarity and letting it guide my life is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but when pain, heartbreak, vulnerability and fear are ascendant, I also need realities larger than myself into which I can place my trust. When life-changing decisions must be made without knowing fully the consequences of those decisions, I need realties larger than myself to catch me as I surrender, let go, fall. Learning to trust such larger realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need sources of joy, hope and love larger than myself. Learning to draw on such sources is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to quiet me, center me, ground me, surround me with silence, beseech me to listen, and keep me humble. Bowing down to such realities is a form of divine reconciliation.

I will always need humanity at the center of my religion, but I also need realities larger than myself to inspire and embolden me to take action for justice and liberation not only for my human siblings, but for the earth and all its creatures. Taking such action is a form of divine reconciliation.

I am a Unitarian Universalist Humanist. I say this with no ambivalence. Knowing that we live in uncertain times and with news of white nationalists and neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, each of us needs every piece of ourselves to remain clear about what’s happening, courageous in our actions, and spiritually whole, so that we respond at our best.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] To learn more about Dr. Sanyika, I recommend this powerful, short 2015 film by Darius Clark Monroe entitled Two Cities: A Portrait of Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika at https://vimeo.com/137993474.

[2] One of the more well-known recipients of an early BAC grant was Dr. Maulana Karenga, the creator of Kwanzaa.

[3] For a historical timeline of the controversy, see: http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/river/workshop15/178882.shtml.

[4] Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika, address to the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, June 23rd, 2017. See: http://smallscreen.uua.org/videos/ga2017-303-dr-sanyika-presentation.

[5] For a relatively recent article on Black Humanism, see Pinn, Anthony B, “Anybody There? Reflections on African American Humanism,” Journal of the HUUmanists Association, vo. 31, #3, 1997. http://huumanists.org/publications/journal/anybody-there-reflections-african-american-humanism.

[6] See the ‘frequently asked questions’ section of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association website at http://huumanists.org/faq-page#n4639.