Decolonizing Faith: Some Reflections on the Canonization of Junípero Serra

Rev. Josh Pawelek

My announcement for this sermon said “from Columbus Day to Thanksgiving, images of Native Americans flow in and out of the national consciousness.” They actually flow in and out of our consciousness, culture, language and media every day, but at least for me as a non-Native American person, I realize I am all-too-often unaware not only of the images, but of the actual people, their history, contributions and justice struggles. This has something to do with the legacy of colonization.

In this season we are reminded of the story of the first Thanksgiving, a story of peace between the Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoags.[1] We know also that the colonial New England clash of civilizations was ultimately catastrophic for First Nations people. Frankly, I’m not aware of any experience of colonization anywhere on the planet that was not catastrophic in some way for First Nations people. I’m wondering this morning about the way whole societies continue to rationalize, excuse, justify and, most insidiously, forget the catastrophe part. I’m wondering how faith communities play a role in that rationalizing, excusing, justifying and forgetting and what spiritual impact it has on the people in those faith communities. I’m wondering about this because I see the legacy of colonization at work. I see it in opposition to Syrian refugees. I see it in anti-immigrant policies and calls for mass deportations. I see it in white supremacists shooting at a Black Lives Matter vigil in Minneapolis, shooting at mosques, shooting at churches. I see it in the continued experience of state-sanctioned violence against people of color. I see it in income and wealth inequality. I see it in our materialistic culture, and in the relentless corporate assault on the earth. In all of it I see an impulse to protect the prizes of the colonial era, even though they are no longer sustainable and so clearly unjust. So, I’m asking what it means to have a collective practice of decolonizing faith. As Unitarian Universalists who proclaim the principle of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” I believe we are called to discern the truth of our nation’s colonial past, the way it persists not only in our national life but in our faith, and how we can work at overcoming its legacies.[2]

I hold deep admiration for Pope Francis.[3] I admire his clarion call for the decolonization of faith, which begins with apology. In his July address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, sitting on the dais next to Evo Morales—the first person of the indigenous Aymara people elected President of Bolivia—Francis not only named the violence, poverty and exploitation that result from unbridled capitalism and continue to be the legacy of European colonialism globally, but he also apologized for Roman Catholicism’s role in that legacy. He said, “Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God…. I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”[4] In an era in which it is so difficult for public figures to apologize for anything, let alone account for the historical sins of their institutions, I find the Pope’s request for forgiveness revolutionary, a critical step towards decolonizing faith in the Roman Catholic context and a model for all religions that share in the legacy of colonialism.

It was mystifying when Francis elevated the 18th-century Spanish missionary Junpero Serra to sainthood in Washington, DC in September. Serra essentially founded the Spanish mission system in California, one of the central institutions of Spanish colonialism.  In his homily, Francis spoke of Serra as separate from the abuses of the system he created: “Junípero Serra … was excited about blazing trails, going forth to meet many people, learning and valuing their particular customs and ways of life. He … made them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”[5]

This is not the view of Serra among many Native Americans. To anyone who was listening, the outcry from Native America was deafening. Two days prior to the canonization, Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Native American Morning Star Institute, urged the Pope not to proceed, stating that “Serra’s canonization is a symbol that reverberates through time as anti-Indian…. It is incomprehensible that the Pope could apologize for [the crimes of colonialism], yet confer sainthood on a leading perpetrator of those very crimes.”[6]

In a statement in July, Valentin Lopez, Chairman of the Amah Mutsun tribal nation said: “Over 100,000 of our ancestors died as a result of the mission system. We have endured generations of trauma and abuse and we are still suffering the results in our families and in our Tribal Nations. At the end of the mission system, the Catholic Church needed an alibi for the intentional enslavement, torture, rapes, theft of our lands, cultures, and languages…. The Church created the myth that we wanted to be at the missions… they said we wanted a better religion, a better way to tend food crops. These are all lies.”[7] In an open letter to Francis, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians said: “In just one generation, the total population of all [Luiseño] villages suffered a greater than 90 percent population loss through disease and abuse brought by Fr. Serra’s missionization…. This rapid population loss in such a compressed time frame triggered a collapse of our indigenous societal structure and way of life and set into motion the atrocities and hardships that our people endured for nearly two centuries.”[8]

Historians tend to agree with the Indians’ assessment. Serra biographer Stephen Hackel[9] says, “If one looks at the legacy of Serra’s missions and what he was trying to do in California, there’s no question that his goal was to radically alter Native culture, to have Indians not speak their Native languages, to practice Spanish culture, to transform Native belief patterns in ways that would make them much less Native.”[10] California historian Robert Senkewicz offers a less oppressive view of Serra, yet agrees that “coercion and force were part of the mission system.”[11]

Regardless of his intentions and the love he claimed to feel for “the unbaptized,” Serra set in motion a system that had horrendous consequences for First Nations people. I don’t pretend to understand the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church, but I think this canonization was wrong. The idea of “Saint” Serra conflicts with Francis’ bold critique of colonialism and capitalism. This was rationalization, excusing, justifying, forgetting. A truly decolonized faith could not canonize the architect of a system that destroyed countless indigenous lives and cultures.

I have a strong opinion here, but I want to confess something I observed in myself that underscores for me the need for decolonizing faith.  Since the canonization there have been four acts of anti-Serra vandalism—three at historic mission churches in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel and one at a Serra statue in Carmel.[12] Paint has been thrown on church doorways, statues have been overturned—one decapitated—gravesites have been desecrated, graffiti proclaiming “Saint of Genocide” has been spray-painted. My first reaction to hearing this news was, “Well, of course. This is how people feel. Catholics need to understand the symbolic power of this canonization—how much real anger and pain it generates among Native Americans and their allies.” I had a very different reaction in October when I learned that black churches in St. Louis were being burned. I organized the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association Board of Trustees to write a letter expressing solidarity to all seven churches that had been burned. But the thought of writing a letter to the three Californian Catholic Churches never occurred to me. I moved into a species of black-and-white thinking: Some are victims, some are perpetrators. Catholics need to understand their legacy and atone for their historical sins.

I am such an expert on what Catholics need to do! When I finally examined why I didn’t have a letter-writing impulse in response to vandalism at Catholic churches, I discovered a set of assumptions in me that boiled down to “they deserved it.” Realizing this made me sad, embarrassed and uncomfortable, not only because of the lack of compassion that lay behind it—I know nobody deserves to have their house of worship vandalized or attacked—but also because in that moment I was engaged in my own forgetting. Remember: as Unitarian Universalists, we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans who did essentially the same thing to indigenous people in New England as the Catholics did in California. Our spiritual forbears fought wars against the indigenous people, divided nations against each other, infected them with diseases, created missions to Christianize them, forced them to adopt European culture and language, forced them into slavery and indentured servitude, forced them onto reservations. It’s just as horrendous a history. And if someone were to throw paint on the doors of any of our churches in New England and then spray-paint graffiti saying “church of genocide,” it wouldn’t be all that different than the recent vandalism at Spanish mission churches. No, we are not holding our colonizing forbears as saints, but the rationale would be largely the same. In this light, my gut-reaction judgement of Catholics was not only shallowly self-righteous, but it also missed a larger point: there’s an opportunity for Catholics, UUs and Protestants to work together on decolonizing faith.

I’m not ready to preach on what I think such interfaith work might look like, but I can say that this work begins with remembering and telling the truth about the past. After remembering and truth-telling comes activism that confronts the legacies of colonialism—racism, environmental injustice, corporate abuses of workers and the land, unjust immigration policies, state-sanctioned violence, excessive war-making and even nation-building. Perhaps our support and presence at yesterday’s “Say ‘Yes’ to Syrian Refugees” rally in Hartford can serve as an example of an large, interfaith group working together to overcome a legacy of colonialism. 

Right now I want to name a way to position ourselves spiritually as individuals and as a faith community for entering into the work of decolonizing faith. I call it living in shades of gray. Colonization succeeded and lives on to the extent the colonizers and their heirs could and can demonize an ‘other.’ Historically it used strict, black-and-white racial, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender and class categories to exploit and enslave the other, to steal, plunder and rape, to build fences, walls, and prisons, to justify genocide. If you want to see it at work today, look for black and white thinking: Some people are welcomed in, others excluded. Some are rewarded, others punished. Some are saintly, others sinful. Some are legalized, others criminalized. Some are enlightened, others ignorant. Some are saviors, others need saving. Some peoples’ experience matters, others’ doesn’t. Some people get letters of solidarity, others don’t. The colonized mind and the colonized faith make hard distinctions between ‘we’ and ‘they,’ say “if you’re not with us you’re against us.” They do so in a flash, from the gut, without thought. Consider all the voices demanding that Syrian refugees be barred from entry into the United States, or demanding that all undocumented people be deported, or demanding that walls be erected on the borders. It feels to me like an effort to protect some outworn prize of the colonial era–a United States for people of European descent.

To counter this colonial mindset, we need a practice of living in shades of gray where black and white have nothing to cling to, have no hold over us. We need a practice of living in shades of gray where we can hear different stories, sing different songs, discern different truths; where we can imagine new possibilities, new futures; where we can learn to withhold judgement and embrace humanity in its fullness; where we can learn to be forgiving and forgiven; where we can remember and name all those false pieces of ourselves, those pieces of us imposed from beyond us, those labels that keep us from being our true selves, that keep us from being fully human.

May we practice living in shades of gray, slowly remembering and naming those histories of genocide and war, those traumas, those unjust systems, those economic inequalities, those assaults upon the land, those enduring sources of violence that keep all of us from being the beloved community. May we practice living in shades of gray, where we can act in solidarity with all those who struggle for justice for people and the earth, where we can admire a leader despite a decision we’re convinced is wrong; where we can slowly remember and name and apologize and prepare, so that when the light returns—when the gray that has turned to dark turns finally back to green—we will be ready with new selves—decolonized selves—working to create a more compassionate, just and peaceful future—a truly decolonized future.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Tirado, Michelle, “The Wampanoag Side of the First Thanksgiving Story, Indian Country Today Media Network, November 21, 20122. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/11/22/wampanoag-side-first-thanksgiving-story-64076.

[2] I originally titled this this sermon “Decolonizing Our Faith, Part II” because I offered a sermon entitled “Decolonizing our Faith” in 2012: Pawelek, Josh, “Decolonizing our Faith,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 19, 2012. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/decolonizing-our-faith/.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “Pope Francis, Inverted Funnels, and Big Hearts Open,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, October 6, 2013. See: http://uuse.org/pope-francis-inverted-funnels-and-big-hearts-open/#.VkNNa7erTrc.

[4] Pope Francis, “Address at Expo Fair,” World Meeting of Social Movements, Santa Cruz, Bolivia, July 9th, 2015. See: http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2015/07/10/pope_francis_speech_at_world_meeting_of_popular_movements/1157291.

[5] The text to Pope Francis’ homily at the canonization mass of Junípero Serra is at: http://www.cruxnow.com/papal-visit/2015/09/23/pope-francis-homily-at-canonization-mass-of-junipero-serra/.

[6] Harjo, Suzan Shown, “Suzan Shown Harjo to Pope Francis: Don’t Canonize Junípero Serra,” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 21st, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/21/suzan-shown-harjo-pope-francis-dont-canonize-junipero-serra-161825.

[7] Quoted in Deetz, Nanette, “Sainthood for Genocide Leader? Amah Mutsun Ask Pope Francis to Stop Junipero Serra Canonization,” Indian Country Today Media Network, July 16, 2015, See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/07/16/sainthood-genocide-leader-amah-mutsun-ask-pope-francis-stop-junipero-serra-canonization.

[8] Quoted in “4 Native Entities That Opposed the Canonization of Junípero Serra (to No Avail),” Indian Country Today Media Network, September 24, 2015. See: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/09/24/4-native-entities-opposed-canonization-junipero-serra-no-avail-161878.

[9] Hackel is the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013).

[10] Gaynor, Tim, “Sainthood for Founder of California Missions Angers Native American Groups,” Aljazeera America, May 28, 2015. See: http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/28/sainthood-for-california-missions-founder-angers-native-american-groups.html.

[11] Quoted in Reese, Thomas, “Junipero Serra: Saint or Not?” National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 2015. See: http://ncronline.org/blogs/faith-and-justice/junipero-serra-saint-or-not.

[12] “Vandals Splatter Red Paint in Fourth St. Serra Attack,” Ventura County Star, November 4, 2015. See:  http://www.vcstar.com/news/state/vandals-splatter-red-paint-in-fourth-st-serra-attack.

UUS:E Members Stand on the Hartford City Line for the Black Lives Matter

 

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

Photo by Rev. Heather Rion Starr

On Monday, October 5th, several members of UUSE joined a hundred others at a Moral Monday CT rally for racial  and economic justice.  The rally began at the Unitarian Society of Hartford. Unitarian Universalist Association staff from Boston were in attendance.  Particiapants marched out to the corner of Bloomfield and Albany Avenues under the banner “Black Lives Matter”, where about 30 of us moved into the intersection and stopped traffic for approximately 20 minutes.  Four members of UUS:E were among the City Line Dozen arrested: Al Benford, Sue McMillen, Joan Macomber and Christine Joyner.

In addition, Rhona Cohen and Lisa P. Sementilli, Co-Chairs of the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee were there along with Rev. Pawelek, Polly Painter, Nancy Parker, Gene Sestero, Bob Hewey, Carol Simpson and many others.

Why the Hartford City Line? We were there to dramatize the stark economic difference between Hartford and the surrounding suburbs. Hartford is Connecticut’s capital city—the insurance city—and yet one of the poorest cities in the nation.  Hartford is 84% black and Latino.  Per capita income is less than $17,000/year and about half of the city’s children live in poverty. The corner of Prospect and Albany is the dividing line between wealth and poverty, a potent symbol of racial and economic injustice in Hartford. That’s why we stood there for this particular action.

If you didn’t make it but want to help:

There is more to come. Moral Monday CT leader, Bishop John Selders said, “we will continue to carry the gospel of justice beyond the City Line.”

More coverage: 

http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/12-Arrested-in-Black-Lives-Matter-Protest-in-Hartford-330770352.html

http://foxct.com/2015/10/05/protesters-chant-black-lives-matter-at-moral-monday-rally-in-hartford/

http://www.courant.com/breaking-news/hc-hartford-protest-1006-20151005-story.html

 

Stretching Our Hearts

Rev. Josh Pawelek

6-21 Stretching hearts“What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” asked the Rev. A. Powel Davies more than half a century ago.[1] I love this question. I love the image of our hearts stretching. Of course, there’s nothing extraordinary about a religious leader asking a question like this. It’s a version of the question that lies at the core of so many religions. It’s the question of ethics, of justice. How shall we live? How can we bring love and compassion into the world, into our encounters with family members, friends, strangers? How can we live peacefully with others, especially those who are different from us in some way? How can we break down the strange and foolish walls that divide the human family? How can we stretch our hearts?

Indeed, the strange and foolish walls were very real half a century ago, and they are very real now. We didn’t need Thursday morning’s news of a white supremacist mass shooting at Charleston, South Carolina’s “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Episcopal Church to be convinced of this. But there it was again, a gut-wrenching and profound failure of “love your neighbor”—not only in the small heart of the killer, but in the small and atrophied heart of the social, cultural and political systems that produced him.  Despite all the progress humanity has made over centuries—despite its enlightenment, its knowledge, its scientific advancements, its faith, its modern conceptions of human rights and social justice—despite it all, the human family feels, to me, as divided as ever; as if we are somehow fated to revert back to a fight-or-flight limbic response to conflict; as if we’ll never be able to overcome the allure and the power of simplistic and false dualisms—‘us vs. them,’ ‘good vs. evil’—whether we’re talking about international, national or local conflicts, or conflicts within the intimacy of our own families—conflicts that seem intractable despite our earnest desire to see them resolved. Despite all our achievements, love—deep abiding love—seems so difficult to sustain. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” though still a potent ethical principle, seems worn down, battered, beaten. Our collective heart seems small and ineffectual.

Maybe it’s always been this way. Maybe every age has its insurmountable conflicts. Maybe the goal of a more peaceful, just and loving society always feels elusive to those who care about it most. Maybe each of us struggles to be more loving and compassionate and never quite meets the mark we set for ourselves. In ancient Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Ephyra, was for eternity compelled to roll an immense boulder up a mountain, only to watch it roll back down again and again each time he approached the summit. Maybe we each roll our own boulders; and maybe collectively we roll boulders; and we almost get where we think we’re going, and then suddenly, in a flash, we lose our grip—a mass shooting in a church or an elementary school tears through a town, a loved one’s life falls apart, a foreign war we thought had ended suddenly begins again, a suicide rips through a community, a school system fails, a chronic illness debilitates, entrenched poverty crushes—and in a flash the boulder rolls back down the mountain. Maybe there’s always a layer of human existence that is like this.

Maybe, but that’s no excuse to give up. There is also in the human heart a yearning to do better, a yearning to not let hate destroy kindness and compassion, a yearning to make love—deep, abiding love— real in the world. Those families of the nine who died in Charleston, when they faced the killer in court, said, essentially, “you’ve hurt us; we forgive you.” So let us ask the question, and keep asking it, and never stop asking it: “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?”

The heart in this question is, of course, a metaphor in which our physical hearts which pump our blood refer to our spiritual hearts—our center, our grounding, the source of our passion and compassion, the place inside where we commune with what is sacred to us, the home in us of love and warmth and joy. It’s the thing that soars when we fall in love, and the thing that breaks when a loved-one dies. How do we stretch that?

My heart has been stretching and growing and breaking and healing and stretching and growing and breaking again all year long, and I sure hope some strange and foolish walls have begun to crumble as a result. I want to say a few words about the way I experience my heart stretching, because it may be more or less the same—or radically different—than the way you experience your heart stretching. One thing I’ve always known about myself, but which I’ve had to contend with at a much deeper level this year than ever before—is that as much as I think I want to stretch and grow and change—as much as I preach the value of stretching and growing and changing—as much as I proclaim that we come to church to be transformed and to tear down those strange and foolish walls—my body doesn’t like it. Some bodies love it. Mine doesn’t. When my heart starts stretching, my body usually says, “wait, before you do that, here’s a slight headache,” or “here’s a backache for you,” or “here are some allergies you’ve never had before,” or, my least favorite, “here is some unexplainable dizziness. Enjoy!”

I’ve spoken about this before. The reasons why some people have somatic reactions to different kinds of stress are always complex. My simplest understanding of why it happens to me has to do with being raised in a family with an alcoholic parent. As is the case with many adult children of alcoholics, there is, in me, a deep-seeded impulse to not “rock the boat,” to keep the peace, to not create tension, to please others, to accommodate others. I know some of you know condition well. The challenge here is that stretching one’s heart in order to overcome strange and foolish walls inevitably creates tension. Stretching creates tension. It’s good tension, productive tension, creative tension, justice-seeking tension. And it’s necessary: the change we seek won’t come without it.

The insight I’ve had about myself this year is that my body actually mistakes good tension that will lead to good change for bad, unproductive, uncreative tension that will lead nowhere. As a child, perhaps it made sense to avoid tension of any sort and my mind and my body were in agreement: keep steady, keep the peace, keep out of trouble, keep, keep, keep, keep, keep. But now, as an adult, I’ve changed my mind. I’ve changed it for good reasons. I understand some tension is necessary. My mind affirms my heart’s desire to stretch, but my body still says “no, we can’t do that.” It’s unnerving when this happens, but it’s also become for me an important sign: my body feels a certain way because my heart is trying to stretch. And while I have to take my body seriously and attend to how it is feeling, my personal challenge is to teach my body to work with my heart. I can’t let my heart stay little. None of us can. The world needs deep, abiding love. These strange and foolish walls must come down.

Perhaps my most potent experience of intentional heart stretching has been my participation in Moral Monday CT which, as many of you know, held a Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on June 8th, which included nonviolent civil disobedience—the blocking of a busy, rush hour intersection—for which 17 people were arrested, including me and three other members of our congregation. That didn’t just happen. It required months of heart-stretching. I started telling you the story in my MLK sermon in January. I said then that, given the high visibility of police killings of unarmed people of color—Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, etc.—on top of what we already know about racism in the United States—mass incarceration, health disparities, educational disparities, income disparities, wealth disparities—it was clearly time to do more than talk. The powers that be will listen to talk, but talk alone doesn’t produce the kind of tension needed to subvert racism at its roots. We recognized that we need to use our bodies in a different way, that we need to occupy public space in a different way. I said in that sermon that nonviolent civil disobedience is coming, though I still wasn’t sure what that really meant. I was beginning to stretch my heart, and in my body I felt anxious, dizzy, achy. My body was not intending to do anything differently. As far as my body was concerned, we had a good thing going: “Just keep talking. You’re good at that. People like when you talk. But you in a street at rush hour? They might not like that!”

There is too much at stake. I was determined to stretch. We prepared ourselves to do what we needed to do. We conducted nonviolent civil disobedience training here at UUS:E in early February. That was stretching. Then we did a trial run on Monday, February 23rd in Hartford, stretching further. My body came along—still didn’t like what we were doing, and it let me know.

We picked June 8th as the date for our first major action. We conducted a final training here the night before. And then around 5:00 pm on the 8th we walked into the street. My heart soared. In that street was where I needed to be in that moment, more than anywhere else in the world. My body hated it. I became so dizzy after a while that I walked off the line to talk to our medics. They checked me over, gave me some sugar and water, and said it looked like stress. So I walked back out into the street, heart soaring, body still protesting—“we’re really rockin’ the boat now”—and got myself arrested.

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

Picture by Rev. Cathy Rion Starr

My body is still trying to figure it out. It’s going to take a while. But my heart has stretched. And if I had any misgivings about what I had done after the fact, they vanished on Thursday morning with the news from Charleston. Black Lives Matter. These strange and foolish walls must come down. Deep, abiding love will bring them down.

As momentous as that particular experience has been for me, there has been so much more. My heart has been stretching around multigenerational community here at UUS:E. My heart has been stretching around new directions in our music program as we integrate Mary Bopp onto our staff. My heart is beginning to stretch around new growth strategies for our congregation. My heart has been stretching in response to having a teenager in the house. There’s been a lot of good tension, a lot of good, slow, measured change, and more is coming. My body still wants nothing to with it, but I know where that comes from, and I trust its resistance will eventually fade. I don’t want a little heart. I want a loosened, supple, open, expansive, generous heart. I want to be a vehicle for deep, abiding love to come into the world.

Rev. Davies asked, “What can we do to stretch our hearts enough to lose their littleness?” What can we do to bring more love into the world? What can we do to assure we are loving our neighbors as ourselves? My response is to start small. Start simply by naming the strange and foolish walls in your life or out in the wider world that that you feel must come down. Name them not just to yourself, but to others. Naming them out loud is the beginning of commitment. Name them, and then ask yourself what you need to dismantle them. Find others who’ve stretched in the way you aspire to stretch, and ask them how they did it. What preparation do you need? What training? What support? Where can you practice before you take your action? Who will work with you? Is your body on board?

And here’s what we also need to remember: as much as we prepare ourselves, as much as we stretch, as much as we love, there will be moments when it falls apart. Events, often beyond our control, will crash through our lives. We’ll lose our grip on the boulder. We’ll tumble down. We’ll find ourselves at the base of the mountain looking up, tired, sad, angry, demoralized, wondering how to get back up again. I’m thinking, of course, about Pawel Jura’s death by suicide in late winter, which deeply impacted this congregation, brought so much of our congregational life to standstill. I’m thinking now also about the death of Carol Shapiro, whose bodily remains were finally identified last week, after eight years. Receiving this news brought me back to the time she disappeared. It was similar to Pawel’s death in the sense that everything came to a halt—boulders tumbling down the mountain.

Our hearts stretch differently in moments like this. No preparation, no training, no practice, no warm-up. They stretch too quickly. They stretch beyond their capacity. They stretch to the breaking point. They break. When Pawel died I found a reading from the late Rev. Elizabeth Tarbox about what happens to love in the wake of loss. She wrote, “Oh, my dear, do not despair that love has come and gone. Although we are broken, the love that spilled out of us has joined the love that circles the world and makes it blessed.”[2] Looking back on that time now, looking back at all those broken hearts—including mine: so much love spilled out. Deep, abiding love. Whatever strange and foolish walls might have existed among us, they melted away in the presence of that love. They melted away as you held each other, ministered to each other, carried each other, cried with each other, sang with each other.

This isn’t an answer to A. Powell Davies’ question about stretching our hearts. We don’t wish for broken hearts. We don’t wish tragedy upon ourselves or anyone. But strange and foolish walls have a tendency to vanish in the wake of tragedy. We saw it after 9/11. We saw it after Sandy Hook. We saw it after the Boston Marathon bombing. We see it in the outpouring of love for “Mother Emanuel,” for Charleston, for South Carolina. We hear it in those powerful, loving words, “we forgive you.”

In the end, it shouldn’t take a tragedy to get there. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for love—deep, abiding love—to come pouring out, every day, all the time. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to wake us up to the littleness of our hearts. Yes, we are up against so much. The strange and foolish walls are multitudinous and well-fortified. In Sisyphusian style we lose our boulders down the mountain. And maybe this is an enduring part of the human condition. But it can’t be an excuse for giving up. It can’t be an excuse for not stretching our hearts. Stretching is part of their design. I’ve learned that this year. So, my counsel is for all of us to name our strange and foolish walls, and start stretching—warm-up, practice, get training, talk to those who’ve done it before. And then do what we need to do to make that deep, abiding love real in the world, to let it circle the world, to let it bless the world. We have it in us. Stretch, and keep stretching. No wall can stand forever.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Davies, A. Powell, “Strange and Foolish Walls,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #662.

[2] Tarbox, Elizabeth, “Legacy,” Evening Tide (Boston: Skinner House, 1998) p, 56.

Moral Monday CT

June Black Lives Matter! Activities

1) Nonviolent Civil Disobedience Training, Sunday, June 7, 5:00 to 8:00 PM

In advance of a June 8th Moral Monday CT action in Hartford, the UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee is hosting a nonviolent civil disobedience training at UUS:E, Sunday evening, June 7th from 5:00 to 8:00. Bishop John Selders will be our lead trainer. All are welcome regardless of level of commitment. Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

Hartford-area clergy protesting anti-black police violence

And then…..

2) Moral Monday Connecticut, Monday, June 8th beginning at 4:00 PM

Old State House Square, Hartford

There will be a Moral Monday Connecticut / Black Lives Matter rally in Hartford on Monday afternoon, June 8th. The rally will begin at 4:00 PM at the Old State House Square. More information to come. Questions? Contact Rev. Josh Pawelek at (860) 652-8961 or revpawelek@sbcglobal.net.

Moral Monday

 

#BlackLivesMatter — a 2015 MLK Sermon

Rev. Josh Pawelek

MLKTomorrow the nation pauses for its annual observation of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It will also be day 368 in Houston, TX, day 355 in Southfield, MI, day 337 in Bastrop, TX, day 332 in Iberia Parish, LA, day 186 in Staten Island, NY, day 170 in Baltimore, MD, day 167 in Beavercreek, OH, day 163 in Ferguson, MO, day 160 in Los Angeles, CA, day 160 in San Bernadino County, CA, day 153 in St. Louis, MO, day 60 in Brooklyn, NY, day 58 in Cleveland, OH, day 48 in Phoenix, AZ.[1] You likely aren’t familiar with all of these references—I wasn’t aware of most of them until I looked them up—though I suspect Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland stand out to you. These are references to police killings of unarmed People of Color—almost all of them Black men and boys—over the past year. Some of these cases, we know, ended with grand jury decisions not to indict the officers who fired the shots or performed the choke holds. Other cases are under investigation or pending. Some of the officers are on administrative leave. In the Bastrop, TX case the officer was indicted on a murder charge. The U.S. Department of Justice is looking for possible civil rights violations in some of the cases. Some of the families of the deceased have filed wrongful death suits. In Ferguson, MO, where community activists have been protesting daily in various ways, in various places since the death of Michael Brown on August 9th, they mark the days. This is day 162. Tomorrow is day 163.

These police killings have exposed the often harsh reality of daily life in urban and even some suburban Black communities that years and years of books, new stories, statistics, documentaries , sermons and newspaper editorials have not been able to communicate fully to people who don’t live or work in these communities. Perhaps we know, intellectually, about mass incarceration, about the war on drugs, about poverty, about failures in the education system, about race-based health disparities, about how all of it impacts People of Color communities negatively—but suddenly on television, or streaming across smart phone and computer screens, is disturbing video evidence of a profound callousness toward people in these communities, an apparent disregard for life, a too-easy-willingness to ‘take him down,’ a too-easy-willingness to shoot and, in some cases, a horrifying lack of interest in obtaining medical care once the “suspect” is lying prone in the street, bleeding, not breathing, dying. Maybe finally we’re ‘getting it’ not just in our heads but in our hearts.

Prayer for Michael Brown

People of all racial identities are waking up to this harsh reality, to the point where there is now an active, organized and growing racial justice movement in the United States. I don’t call it a ‘new’ movement, mainly because there have been racial justice movements ever since Europeans first began colonizing the western hemisphere. This movement isn’t new, but it is in resurgence. It has been re-catalyzed. People all over the country who were silent six months ago are now saying, “no more.” St. Louis and Ferguson, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Washington, DC, Oakland, Los Angeles, New Haven, Hartford and many more have witnessed vigils, marches, rallies, nonviolent demonstrations, disruptions of commerce, especially retail commerce around the holidays, disruptions of traffic—the ‘taking’ of streets—disruptions of campus life, actions at police stations, at city halls, at state capitols, at federal buildings.

The movement has a name: Black Lives Matter. Of course, many Americans now recognize this phrase as one side in a war of competing social media hashtags, with #BlackLivesMatter on one side and #BlueLivesMatter (or #PoliceLivesMatter or #CopLivesMatter) on the other; while at the same time the more inclusive-sounding #AllLivesMatter asserts itself as well. [For those of you who aren’t familiar with hashtags, just know that typing a hashtag (a pound sign) in front of a particular phrase in a message directs that message to a common online space—for example, a common space on Twitter or a common space on Facebook—where anyone following that particular phrase can find and read your message. I find it fascinating—and I suppose it makes sense—that in our era a social media hashtag like #BlackLivesMatter can become synonymous with a social movement. About the creation of this hashtag which is also a movement, Alicia Garza, a community organizer in the San Francisco-Oakland area wrote: “I created #BlackLivesMatter with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, two of my sisters, as a call to action for Black people after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder and the killer, George Zimmerman, was not held accountable for the crime he committed. [Remember, that was 2012.] It was a response to the anti-Black racism that permeates our society and also, unfortunately, our movements. Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[2]

There’s a lot more to this story, and I commend to you Garza’s article, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement.” My point here is that #BlackLivesMatter is a liberation movement emerging in response to Black peoples’ collective experience of oppression in the United States today—not fifty years ago, but today. Although this movement is immediately focused on reforming the ways police relate to urban Black communities—calling for an end to police use of excessive force, calling for justice for the victims of such force, calling for greater citizen oversight of police departments, better cross-cultural and antiracism training for police, body cameras for police, an end to police racial profiling, and an end to the militarization of police—the movement is about much more than police. Garza says, “when we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about [all] the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence. It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people … locked in cages in this country—one half of all people in prisons or jails—is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence.”[3]

As such, #BlackLivesMatter is fundamentally different than #BlueLivesMatter, which is not a liberation movement, but an understandable social media reaction to the criticism police have been receiving in response to the deaths of Brown, Garner, Rice, etc. Blue lives do matter. It is a tragedy every time a police officer is killed or wounded in the line of duty. No reasonable person disputes this. It feels really important to me to name that today is also “day 30” since New York City officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were murdered in Brooklyn by a man who had posted earlier on his Instagram page that he was seeking revenge for the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. It feels really important to me to name that 121 police officers died in the line of duty in the United States (including Puerto Rico) in 2014—47 of whom were fatally shot in encounters with crime suspects.[4] And I am mindful that many people who live and own businesses in neighborhoods where police violence is endemic are themselves victims of crime—robbery, rape, etc.—and thus they still appreciate and desire a strong police presence in order to feel safe where they live. #BlueLivesMatter.

BlueLivesMatter

Having said that, it wouldn’t make sense to suggest that police are somehow an oppressed class, or that police are ‘targeted for demise’ in some systemic way. ‘Black’ is a racial identity. Blue is the color of a uniform worn by people of all racial identities. Black people and other People of Color experience elevated incarceration rates, elevated unemployment rates, health care disparities, educational disparities, housing disparities and a long history of state-sponsored, vigilante and drug war violence. Police don’t. #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter aren’t equivalent and don’t belong on opposite sides of our national discourse on race and racism. In fact, I’m convinced that the vast majority of police do not want to perpetuate racism through their policies and procedures. And I’m convinced that including police in concerted and sustained efforts to address racism will ultimately decrease tensions between police and people in urban Black communities, and will thereby make police work safer. Alicia Garza puts it more succinctly: As “Black people get free, everybody gets free.”[5]

Similarly, #AllLivesMatter is not a liberation movement. It’s certainly a true statement. I hear it as equivalent to the first Unitarian Universalist principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” or, as we said earlier with the children, “each person is important.” It’s the principle at the heart of the Biblical admonition to love your neighbor as yourself.[6] But all lives aren’t under assault. All lives don’t have to deal with racism the way Black lives do. The critique of #AllLivesMatter is that, while true, when inserted into the struggle against racism, it erases the unique experience of Black people, and it erases White society’s role in perpetuating racism. Garza says, “Progressive movements in the United States have made some unfortunate errors when they push for unity at the expense of really understanding the concrete differences in context, experience and oppression.  In other words, some want unity without struggle. As people who have our minds stayed on freedom, we can learn to fight anti-Black racism by examining the ways in which we participate in it, even unintentionally, instead of the worn out and sloppy practice of drawing lazy parallels of unity between peoples with vastly different experiences and histories.”[7]

A dear colleague of mine—a Black minister pastoring a Black church—summed it up for me when he said, “I’m tired of #AllLivesMatter, and I’m tired of people telling me how everyone’s justice issues intersect with mine. I was with women on reproductive rights. I was with gays and lesbians on marriage. I was with Hispanics on immigrants’ rights. But when we see young Black men being gunned down or otherwise killed by police, vigilantes or gangbangers, by poverty, a broken health care system or the drug war, who is with me? Right now, it’s time—long past time—for #BlackLivesMatter.”

I am committed to the principle that all lives matter. And I am committed to the principle that blue lives matter. But when I prioritize my personal social justice commitments, and when, as your minister, I prioritize the social justice commitments I envision our congregation making, as well as the social justice commitments I envision Unitarian Universalism making; and when I prioritize the social justice initiatives I am committed to supporting, promoting and, when asked, leading in the Greater Hartford region, my accountability is to #BlackLivesMatter.

What might that mean over the next few years? For one, it means that we as a congregation ought to continue the antiracist social justice work we’re already engaged in through the leadership of our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee. We ought to continue specifically with our efforts to reduce the mass incarceration of People of Color through drug policy and criminal justice reform. We ought to continue our work on environmental racism which culminated a few years ago with the passage of Connecticut’s environmental justice law. But what stands out to me the most—and what is new for us as a congregation—is that we can count on organized, nonviolent civil disobedience coming to Hartford, and possibly some of the surrounding towns. It’s just around the corner. Our region has its share of racial disparities. In fact, the Hartford region has some of the worst racial disparities in the country when it comes to education and poverty. It has its own history of police violence against young Black men. And it has young people in urban areas and college campuses, as well as local clergy and community activists, who are beginning to organize. Nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience is coming here.

When I first learned of this I admit I was surprised, and initially resistant because I have invested so much time and energy over the years in working “within the system,” talking to legislators, talking to city leaders, talking to police, advocating for changes in the law, testifying, witnessing, lobbying, organizing prayer breakfasts, holding public meetings, talking, talking, talking, talking. I suppose I have a passion for talking. But someone asked, “with all our talking, have we really made a dent in racism in our region?” Have outcomes for People of Color—Black people in particular—changed in any appreciable way as a result of all our talking? I didn’t have a good answer. I still don’t have a good answer. And because I don’t have an answer to that question, I’m persuaded that non-violent civil disobedience may be precisely what we need at this moment. I’m persuaded that figuring out creative ways to disrupt ‘business as usual’ can make a difference, can bring the right pressure to bear on the people who have the power to make change real.

Civil Disobedience

Large-scale, nonviolent civil disobedience like the actions we’re seeing in other parts of the country would be new for our region, something we haven’t seen in recent times—certainly not in my memory—though we have seen it on a small scale with the “Fight for Fifteen” movement. As a predominantly White, liberal, suburban congregation, I hope in the very least we can understand why reasonable people would to move in this direction, to cause disruptions, to take arrest if need be, to send a message that all is not well in Black America and we are no longer willing to play the talking game. I would hope in the very least we can understand that far too many Black people and other People of Color feel unheard, disrespected, forgotten, marginalized and penalized by our larger social, political and economic systems and they don’t want to live that way anymore. And not only do I hope we would merely understand, but that, mindful of King’s first principle that nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people, we would be actively supportive, figuring out the best ways possible for us to participate, for us to be part of this resurgent racial justice movement, for us to say clearly, proudly and courageously—not only in word but also in deed—Black Lives Matter.

The movement is here friends. May we care—I know we care. May we understand—I know we understand. May we be supportive. May we find ways to participate. May we be courageous.

Amen. Blessed be.

[1] Juzwiak, Rich and Chan, Aleksander, “Unarmed People of Color Killed By Police, 1999 to 2014,” Gawker.com. See: http://gawker.com/unarmed-people-of-color-killed-by-police-1999-2014-1666672349.

[2] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[3] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[4] See Officer Down Memorial Page at http://www.odmp.org/search/year/2014?ref=sidebar.

[5] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

[6] Mark 12:31a.

[7] Garza, Alicia, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement,” The Feminist Wire, October 7, 2014. See: http://thefeministwire.com/2014/10/blacklivesmatter-2/.

Upcoming Events in Response to Ferguson, Staten Island, Hartford

For all those who’ve been feeling the need to show their support for the people of Ferguson, MO and Staten Island, NY, there are a number of events coming up that may be of interest to you. 

Hartford Courant photo from the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity Vigil at Center Church, Hartford

Hartford Courant photo from the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity Vigil at Center Church, Hartford

Saturday, December 6th, Noon. “Never Forgetting Ferguson” Solidarity March.  Meet at the corner of Main St. and Albany Ave. and then march to Keney Park. Join Rev. Henry Brown, founder of Mothers United Against Violence, Connecticut United Against Mass Incarceration & others! Facebook users click here.

Saturday December 6th,  1:00 PM. “Journey to Justice!” Join the New Britain branch of the NAACP and leaders and activists of the New Britain and the surrounding region who will march and rally in solidarity with protesters marching from Ferguson to Jefferson City, MO. Meet at the Martin Luther King Jr. monument at the corner of MLK Dr. and Smalley St. in New Britain. Rally at Central Park across from City Hall. More info at the New Britain Herald.

Wednesday, December 10th, 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM. “Drop All Charges Against Luis Anglero, Jr.” Vigil outside the courthouse at 80 Washington St., Hartford.  More info at Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

Here are some resources you may wish to review: 

Showing Up For Racial Justice organizes white people to engage in racial justice work.

“A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement” by Alicia Garza is an excellent article about the origins of #BlackLivesMatter, about why #BlackLivesMatter matters, and about the way queer black women have at times been silenced in the movement.

Standing on the Side of Love, the UU campaign for justice has many more resources to respond to Ferguson, Staten Island, etc.

Black moms Tell White Moms about Race by Aisha Sultan.

6 things White Parents Can do to Raise Racially Conscious Kids, by Bree Ervin.

Hartford Courant photo--UUS:E's Rev. Josh leading  the closing of the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity vigil at Center Church in Hartford

Hartford Courant photo–UUS:E’s Rev. Josh leading the closing of the 11-25 Ferguson Solidarity vigil at Center Church in Hartford

 

Here are some simple action steps you can take for racial justice:

  1. Make a donation to groups working for racial justice in Ferguson and elsewhere. Here is a compilation of suggestions on where to contribute funds.

 

  1. Talk to your family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers about Ferguson, Staten Island and racism.

 

  1. Write a letter to the editor about what the inherent worth and dignity of all people means to you.

 

  1. Come to one of the rallys/marches/vigils mentioned above.
  2. The UUS:E Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meets every First Tuesday of the month in Rev. Josh’s office at UUS:E at 7:00 PM. All are welcome.

 

Epicenter Ferguson (A Poet-Preacher Collaboration)

A Letter to My Unborn Black Son

Christopher D. Sims

pregnant bellyDear son, African American warrior, 
Reincarnation of the people of the

Sudan. I hope you understand why
I am writing you this letter. And 
hopefully, by the time you read it
Race relations in America are a lot
better than what they are now. You 
will understand why I will beg you
not to wear a hoodie when you leave
our home. You will understand why
I ask you to be careful outside these
doors.

 

Maybe your best friends will be named
Trayvon and Michael. And they will be the
namesakes of the young men who died
because of indifference, and because of
hate. Dear son, I know you will relate.
Because I will have read the Autobiography
of Malcolm X to you while you were in
your mother’s womb. You will come into
this life knowing that black youth and men
are doomed in America.

 

Son, I hate to scare ya, but your ancestors
were taken from the shores of Africa. They
snatched ya great great great great grandparents
and brought them here. Took away our language
and culture, and in black women and men 
instilled fear. Son I want you to know the truth
of this place here.

 

Dear son, your skin will be the reason why
they call you nigger, why cops will pull up
to your car with their fingers shaking on the
trigger. Ask Trayvon and Michael. They will
tell you what happened to the people they were
named after. They will tell you tales of hell,
each with a sad, sad chapter. 

 

Black boys and men are being killed and 

We are being treated like we don’t matter. 

Like we don’t even matter.

 

Son, I am preparing you for a world that
focuses on race, that moves at an unhealthy pace,
Where your mother and other black women
like her are disgraced. There are people who
will want you to increase the prison population.
They will start early in your education. Son, this
is all truth, and it’s all real. You will learn when
I read to you what happened to Emmett Till. 

 

I’ll stop here now son, don’t want you to be scared. 

I write this letter to you because I want you to
come into this world informed and prepared.

Not So Rank Speculation

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

GriefLast weekend I heard multiple rumors that the St. Louis County Grand Jury considering whether or not to indict White Ferguson, MO police Officer, Darren Wilson for the fatal August 9th shooting of an unarmed Black teenager, Michael Brown, was about to deliver its decision and that it would likely not indict Officer Wilson. Maybe you heard those rumors too. I tend to think the Grand Jury will indict Officer Wilson, but I understand why so many people believe rumors to the contrary. On Monday the Prosecuting Attorney, Robert McCulloch, called the rumors “rank speculation.” I think there are more sensitive words than “rank” to use in a situation like this. I’ve always used “rank” to describe the smell of my socks after a long run. I hope that isn’t what McCulloch meant.

When a community that has witnessed the broad-daylight killing of one of its own sons at the hands of a police officer begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, such speculation doesn’t strike me as “rank.” After months of living with the bitter, painful memories of that day and yearning desperately for some kind of closure—hopefully a closure that feels like justice—it isn’t rank speculation. It’s grief. It’s part of the grieving process.

When a community that is still reeling from many complicated nights of mayhem in the wake of that shooting—including the deployment by police of an astounding array of military equipment (which has understandably shocked the nation), further police violence, apparent civil rights violations, and violent reactions from some community members, including looting and rioting, though some understand it as resistance and uprising—when that community begins to speculate that the Grand Jury’s decision is coming at any moment and that the decision will go in the officer’s favor, it doesn’t strike me as “rank.” It’s a community-wide expression of anxiety and fear. Are we about to plunge into that same chaos again? Is there any way to prevent that?

Yes, there is. When a coalition of more than fifty organizations—the Don’t Shoot Coalition—holds a press conference to ask police and government officials to agree to rules of engagement for the days and weeks following the Grand Jury’s announcement, such as 48 hours advanced notice of the decision so that they can adequately prepare people for productive, nonviolent protests; such as a demilitarized police presence—no armored vehicles, rubber bullets, rifles, tear gas or riot gear—so that people won’t be provoked into reactive violence; such as respect for safe houses and churches in the midst of protests; such as respect for reporters and legal observers who aren’t part of the protests but who need to be there in order to do their jobs—I don’t think there’s anything “rank” about it. I think the request for rules of engagement displays deeply thoughtful, principled community organizing and a calm attempt to communicate to authorities how they can minimize violence and mayhem.

When a community—and all the people across the country who feel connected and sympathetic to it—all the people across the country who stand in solidarity with it—all the people across the country and across the planet who know the history of American racism, who’ve seen young Black men murdered again and again, who’ve waited for countless Grand Jury decisions, who know this legal pattern intimately—this finding that the young, dead Black man is somehow responsible for his own death and the person who pulled the trigger, often multiple times, was justified in doing so—I don’t think it’s rank speculation when that community names its belief that the decision is coming soon and it will go in the shooter’s favor. We might call it cynical speculation. We might call it despairing speculation. Why might call it speculation marked by a pervasive mistrust of the justice system. But what I think it reveals at its deepest level is a profound experience of betrayal. America betrays young Black and Brown men. It says to them, as it does to all American children, that they can be anything they want to be, but then fails to address social, economic and legal structures that result not only in second class citizenship, not only in a loss of worth and dignity, but far too often in loss of life.

Just because an act is legal doesn’t make it moral. If anything is “rank” in this story it’s the gap so many Black and Brown communities experience between what is legal and what is moral. The Grand Jury may determine that Officer Wilson was legally justified in shooting Michael Brown at least six times—but that won’t mean he acted morally. It won’t mean that the institutions that trained and authorized him have acted morally. It certainly won’t mean Michael Brown deserved to die. Remember, slavery was legal. Segregation was legal. Countless Indian wars were legal. The Trail of Tears was legal. Japanese internment camps were legal. Voter suppression was legal, and there are many who contend the Supreme Court has made it legal once again by gutting significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The War on Drugs is legal. Mass incarceration is legal. None of it, in my view, met or meets any criteria for moral. As long as that gap between the legal and the moral exists when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men, America will continue down the path of betrayal: communities will continue to grieve, to weep, to mistrust, to rage, to struggle in poverty, to struggle against injustice: and poets will continue to write letters of warning to their children, born and unborn.

 I feel called, I feel Unitarian Universalism is called, I feel people of faith in general are called, and I feel Americans are called, today, to close the gap between what is legal and what is moral when it comes to the lives of young Black and Brown men. The nation’s focus is on whether or not the Grand Jury indicts Officer Wilson. But whether they do or don’t, that gap will remain. Can I be a minister, can we be a congregation, can we be part of a larger UU faith, can we be part of an America that looks beyond the outcome of the Grand Jury’s proceedings and works to dismantle the system that ultimately led to the death of Michael Brown and the ruined lives of so many other young people? I have faith that we can.

On Being: Reborn

Christopher D. Sims

breathingArt, the art of expression, through my poetry
Allows me to breathe, to breathe, to breathe.

And what I conceive is the truth, the truth,
the truth. 

This art form helps me become reborn, reborn,
reborn. I reach the highest of highs when I
perform. My world, your world, my world, your
world, is transformed, transformed. 

As I contemplate on what I create, I’ve connected
even more to who I am, what I am, my faith, my
faith. 

It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying to reach
perfection. It’s a spiritual connection. I am trying
to reach perfection. Perfection. What a blessing! 

I am testing the waters. I am swimming in sound.
I am dealing with something that is so profound.
Profound. Profound. Profound. 

It’s like John Coltrane with his tenor sax. It’s
like Miles Davis with his horn. It’s like Thelonious

Monk with his piano. The words have to flow, to flow,
to flow, to flow. Of energy and electricity of the third

degree I am letting go.

 

This is a pilgrimage on the page, a poet on a stage,
an angry man finding peace within his rage. A caged
bird being freed through words, through words, through
words.

 

Preferred is the pen. I write hip-hop rhymes and poetic
hymns. Poetic hymns.

 

The spiritual release makes me want to clasp my hands
in prayer form. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I
perform. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn from

 

The clutches of poverty; the many dreams deferred;

Martin Luther King Jr’s dream hasn’t come true;
In the ghettos in urban communities, we still sing the blues;
The Ebola news on National Public Radio;
What happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown;
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds
I stopped watching television to drown out the sounds.

 

I am reborn through my nieces’ and nephews’ smiles;
I am reborn through a blend of activism and Unitarian
Universalism; I am reborn through universal love, the
hugs of friends and strangers; I am reborn through collectives
of people fighting for justice, because it is still Just Us!

And faith is at the very core of my rebirth – from my
poetical ministry to meeting and marching for Earth.
Faith helps me put this all into perspective. Faith pushes
me forward, faith helps me think of a better future, faith
wraps its arms around me and lets me know everything
is going to be all right. Faith is in everything that I say,
and in everything that I write. Faith is in everything that
I say, and in everything that I write. 

I am reborn, I have found my indigenous soul
Maintaining balance, remaining disciplined and in
control. I am reborn. I perform. I am reborn. I perform.

May We Have Faith

Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek

UU WorldAs many of you know, I serve on the board of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. Along with the boards of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our board has moved the location of its March, 2015 meeting to Birmingham, AL in order to be present during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches. Those marches were a pivotal moment for the Civil Rights movement. As images of police and civilian violence against marchers appeared on countless televisions across the nation, they helped generate massive public support for passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Those marches were also pivotal for what was then a very young Unitarian Universalist Association, as hundreds of UU clergy and lay-people heeded Martin Luther King’s call to join the marchers. Two of those UUs—the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—were murdered during the marches. For more insight into the significance of Selma to Unitarian Universalism, I commend to you the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed’s new book, Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalisma section of which appears in the Winter issue of UU World Magazine. I feel excited, honored, privileged and blessed to have the opportunity to be present in Alabama 50 years later.

A number of people have said—in a variety of ways—“That’s all well and good, but why aren’t you meeting in Ferguson?” I understand the question. For indeed, Ferguson has become the symbolic epicenter of American racism. What Selma became in the late winter of 1965, Ferguson has become in the summer and autumn of 2014. Indeed, the title of the cover story for that Winter issue of UU World is “Selma Then, Ferguson Now.”

If the St. Louis County Grand Jury decides not to indict Officer Wilson—and possibly even if it decides to indict—there will be a call for clergy from across the nation to travel to Ferguson. I plan to do everything in my power to go to there when the call comes, as do many of my colleagues. The reason for going is not only to bear witness to this particular decision, but to bear witness to the plight of young Black and Brown men in the United States of America. Not just police shootings, not just the gang shootings, not just the daily grind of urban street violence, but the criminalization of too many Black and Brown men, the mass incarceration of too many Black and Brown men, the unemployment of too many Black and Brown men, the failure to educate too many Black and Brown men. As Unitarian Universalist Association President, the Rev. Peter Morales, said after the shooting, “Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It is about the systematic dehumanizing of people all over America.” This reminds me of Dr. King’s assertion that “the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.”[1]

Though Ferguson is the symbolic epicenter of American racism today, and though we need to pay attention to what is happening there, we also need to pay attention to the same dynamics as they manifest here, where we are, where we have a more immediate capacity to work for change. We need to pay attention to violence here, mass incarceration here, failing schools here, achievement gaps here, wealth gaps here, environmental racism here. Ferguson is not about Ferguson. It’s about all of us, about every American, about the health of our democracy, about fairness for all, justice for all, compassion for all, love for all.

Chris Sims offered us his new poem, “On Being: Reborn.” It’s a poem about knowing himself, finding his voice through his artistry, finding the sacred through his artistry, and then living in response to it, living in a way that brings more fairness, more justice, more compassion, more love into the world. He calls this faith.

My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—that we may know ourselves, find our own voice, find what is sacred to us, and live in response to it. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith—faith in ourselves, faith in each other, faith in our congregation, faith our nation, faith in humanity—so that we may wake up to the multifaceted human energy coming out of Ferguson—the pain, the rage, the struggle, the persistence, the community, the humor, the love, the caring, the commitment—so that we may wake up to all of it and channel it into our own efforts to make a difference right here, our own efforts to close that gap between what is legal and what is moral in the lives of young Black and Brown men. My prayer for each of us is that we may have such faith, faith  that we—this congregation, our Unitarian Universalist Association, our state, our nation—will heed the call coming out of Ferguson, MO and give birth, finally, to a more just, fair and loving society.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Quoted in Morrison-Reed, Mark, “Selma’s Challenge,” UU World (Winter, 2014) p. 33.

Working to Address Mass Incarceration

For the 2013-2014 congregational year, the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee has been focusing its energies on addressing the problem of mass incarceration. We are working on two projects and hope you’ll want to get involved:

SERVICE: Creating backpacks to help recently released inmates make a successful transition

ADVOCACY: Supporting efforts to pass Senate Bill 259 to reduce the size of drug free zones from 1500 to 200 feet

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

On 4-16, SJAR meber, Nancy Parker, along with Rev. Josh Pawelek, LaResse Harvery of A Better Way Foundation and Brian Albert of the New Britain NAACP met with Senate President Don Williams and urged him to bring SB 259 up for debate.

Sometimes We Fight (or “Drug Free” in America)

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Rebecca Parker urges us to “bless the world.”[1] In her 2006 book, Blessing the World: What Can save Us Now, she tells the story of a time when she and a friend were walking with one of her mentors, the process theologian Charles Hartshorne. She writes, “At the threshold where we would part, Charles turned around, took our hands in his, looked us squarely in the eye, and said, ‘Be a blessing to the world.’ One is rarely given such a direct instruction, and it went straight to our hearts. When all is said and done in my life, I hope that I will have been faithful to this charge.”[2]  Be a blessing to the world.

I’ve been wrestling with a claim I made in my March 2nd sermon on surrender. In that sermon I named a variety of reasons why spiritual surrender is difficult. I talked specifically about how the dominant United States culture is a “fighting” culture that frowns upon surrender, weakness, compromise, etc. I critiqued my own instinct to fight, saying “if and when I try to fight my way through some turmoil, some pain, grief, anxiety, winds, storm—whatever it is—I rarely get there. That is, I might win the fight, but in winning I don’t necessarily gain any clarity about how I want to be, feel and act in the world.”[3] I made that claim with a confidence I still feel. I still feel that in cultivating our capacity for surrender—learning to fall, letting go, yielding, remaining quiet, being gentle, backing off, bowing down—we open pathways to deeper spiritual experience, richer lives, clarity, happiness and peace. But even as I made the claim I felt a tug, a pull, a pin-prick, a nagging at the edges of my words. Since then I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that sometimes it’s essential that we not surrender, that we not fall, not bend, not back off; that we stay and fight. I feel confident about that too. I’m searching this morning for understanding of how and when ‘not surrendering’ is a spiritual act.

I turn to Rebecca Parker’s charge to us to “be a blessing to the world” because, while she doesn’t use the word fight, she leaves room for fighting—fighting for what is of highest worth to us; fighting for what is sacred to us. She says, “And while there is injustice, / anesthetization, or evil / there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.”[4] These are not words of surrender but of engagement. There are times when choosing to bless the world requires a confrontation, an exertion, a protest, an argument. There are times when our choice to bless the world comes legitimately in response to our rage at complacency, at greed, at callousness, at injustice, at evil, and we choose to fight—not fighting in the sense of perpetuating violence, but fighting in the sense of struggling, working, contesting for something that matters. I think our best guide—our measure of when something matters enough to fight for it—is our principles. Do we discern some way in which our principles have been violated? Then we may choose to fight. Can we discern some facet of life where we feel our principles must be brought to bear? Then we may choose to fight. And perhaps more fundamentally, if we’re going to fight for something, does our desire to fight emerge from a deep and abiding love?

I want to tell you about a fight I’ve been party to recently, along with the UUS:E Social Justice / Antiracism Committee: the fight to reduce the size of “drug free zones” in Connecticut. If you don’t know anything about this issue, your first response might be, “what on earth is a drug free zone?” If you happen to know that the term refers to zones around schools, daycare centers and public housing, zones that extend 1500 feet in all directions from the property line of these facilities, zones in which, if you are caught in possession of illegal drugs, you will face “enhanced” criminal penalties including mandatory jail time; and if you happen to know that the laws establishing these zones came into being in the late 1980s to keep drug dealers away from children, then it is possible your first response might be, “Why on earth would we want to reduce the size of drug free zones? Won’t that make it easier for drug dealers to gain access to children? If that is your response then you are not alone: many people have a similar response.

Drug Free School Zone

Like “nuclear free zone,” “drug free zone” has a potent, pleasing ring to it. It sounds like a good thing. It sounds, well, safe, healthy, even wholesome. So, it is somewhat disconcerting to find myself fighting to reduce their size. So why do it? There’s a technical reason. And there’s a moral reason which, for me, has to do with our Unitarian Universalist principles.

ABWFThe technical reason is that the zones don’t achieve their stated intent of keeping drug dealers away from children. This past Friday morning, at a legislative breakfast organized by our Social Justice / Antiracim Committee and our partner, A Better Way Foundation, an organization called the Prison Policy Initiative released a report entitled “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss PPI logothe Mark.” The report states: “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law … arbitrarily increases the time people convicted of drug offenses must spend in prison without any evidence that their underlying offense actually endangered children. In fact, the Legislative Program Review & Investigations Committee looked at a sample of
300 [drug free] zone cases, and found only three cases that involved students, none of which involved adults dealing drugs to children…. Except for those three cases in which students were arrested, all arrests occurring in ‘drug-free’ school zones were not linked in any way by the police to the school, a school activity, or students. The arrests simply occurred within ‘drug-free’ school zones.’ All of the other 297 cases in the legislature’s sample involved only adults.”[5] The point is, if the intent of the law is to keep drug dealers away from children, you’d think arrests would reflect that, but they don’t.

Which brings me to the moral reason to reduce the size of drug free zones. On Friday morning, State Senator Gary Holder-Winfield asked a provocative question: If the drug free zones don’t do what they’re supposed to do, then what do they do? He didn’t answer the question, but I want to share my answer here. Drug free zones ensure that an unreasonably high percentage of young, urban people of color end up in prison or otherwise enmeshed in the criminal justice system. How? Schools, daycare centers and public housing are so ubiquitous in cities, and the drug zones are so large (five football fields in all directions) that there is virtually no area in any Connecticut city that isn’t a drug free zone. In Hartford, pretty much the only area one can possess drugs and not be in a drug free zone is the middle of the landfill or the middle of Brainerd Airport. What this effectively means is that anyone caught possessing or selling drugs in a Connecticut city is automatically subject to the drug free zone’s enhanced penalties. Which is not what happens to people committing the same offenses in suburban and rural towns where drug free zones are more rare because schools and daycare centers are not densely packed and there is much less public housing.

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in Hartford, CT (Soure: Prison Policy Initiative)

The Prison Policy Initiative report says “Connecticut’s [drug free] zone law effectively imposes a harsher penalty for the same crime depending on whether the person who committed it lives in a large city or a small town. In practice, the law’s effects are even more insidious: the law increases pressures on urban residents, but not rural ones, to plead guilty solely to avoid the enhanced penalty…. Mandatory minimum sentences, such as those created by Connecticut’s [drug free] zone policy, warp the criminal justice system by steering cases away from trial and toward plea agreements. By creating mandatory minimum sentencing enhancement zones in disproportionately urban areas, the legislature has created a two-tiered system of justice.[6] What the report doesn’t say, but which I will say, is because people of color make up much higher percentages of city populations, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these enhanced penalties, and thus the legislature has created not only a two-tiered system of justice, but a racist system of justice. This is where it becomes clear to me that our justice system achieves outcomes that violate our Unitarian Universalist principles: it fails to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It fails to dispense justice equity and compassion to all people. And it fails to advance the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.

Druf Free Zones in Urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

Drug Free Zones in urban Waterbury, CT, compared to neighboring, suburban Prospect CT (source: Prison Policy Initiative)

I am convinced that one of the United States of America’s greatest moral failures in this post-civil rights era is the mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women as a result of the war on drugs. Just as Jim Crow laws emerged in the decades following the abolition of slavery in order to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color, so mass incarceration has emerged in the decades following the end of Jim Crow fifty years ago to re-establish white supremacy and control the lives of people of color. I hear myself say this and I hear how extreme it sounds, and yet when you look at how our state’s drug free zone laws penalize urban communities of color radically differently than white suburban and rural communities, it’s hard to deny. After forty years of the war on drugs, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and people of color make up a huge percentage of that population in numbers that far exceed their relative numbers in the population.

This phenomenon decimates urban lives, urban families, and urban communities. In a March 10th interview for StoptheDrugWar.org, Ohio State University law professor and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander, said:

There is an implicit assumption that we just need to find what works to lift people up by their bootstraps, without acknowledging that we’re waging a war on these communities we claim to be so concerned about. [Our] common narrative … suggests the reasons why there are so many poor people of color trapped at the bottom—bad schools, poverty, broken homes….

But I’ve come to believe we have it backwards. These communities are poor and have failing schools and broken homes not because of their personal failings, but because we’ve declared war on them, spent billions building prisons while allowing schools to fail, targeted children in these communities, stopping, searching, frisking them—and the first arrest is typically for some nonviolent minor drug offense, which occurs with equal frequency in middle class white neighborhoods but typically goes ignored. We saddle them with criminal records, jail them, then release them to a parallel universe where they are discriminated against for the rest of their lives, locked into permanent second-class status….

Rather than providing meaningful support to these families and communities where the jobs have gone overseas and they are struggling to move from an industrial-based economy to a global one, we have declared war on them. We have stood back and said “What is wrong with them?” The more pressing question is “What is wrong with us?”[7]

What is wrong with us is that we—and by ‘we’ I mean all of us in the United States of America—are allowing the destruction of lives, the break-up of families, the decay of urban communities, the excessive criminalization of urban people of color, the excessive incarceration of people for non-violent offenses when what they really need—and what would be so much less expensive—is treatment for substance use disorder and mental illness. We are allowing an egregious waste of financial and human resources by investing in incarceration at the expense of education, jobs, drug treatment and mental health. I believe this. And I don’t feel comfortable just sitting back and watching it happen, even though I could argue that it isn’t my issue, that it doesn’t impact me or my children, the community where I live, or the community I serve. I don’t feel comfortable as a Unitarian Universalist who affirms and promotes seven principles, many of which mass incarceration violates with impunity. I don’t feel comfortable as a minister whose vocation it is not only to provide spiritual and pastoral support and guidance to the members of the congregation I serve, but to bear witness to injustice in the wider community and do what is within my power and my congregation’s power to address it. And I don’t feel comfortable as a human being who has some semblance of a conscience, some modicum of moral sensibility and, I hope, a basic grasp of what is right, what is wrong, and what is fair—as flawed and as limited as that grasp may be. I don’t feel comfortable.

Reducing the size of drug free zones is one way to arrest the madness of mass incarceration. Connecticut can do this this year. There will be a moment in the next month when the bill to reduce the size of drug free zones will come up for debate in the legislature. That is a moment for our voices to be heard. Our Social Justice / Antiracism Committee will do everything they can to let you know when it’s time to advocate. In the meantime, if you want to be part of this effort, we have sign-up sheets in the lobby. Another related project we’re working on is the creation of supply kits for people being released from prison. The transition from prison is difficult. At times former inmates have trouble getting their basic needs met. These kits include toiletries, super market gift cards, socks and underwear, etc. We’re going to start creating these kits as a congregation. You’ll be hearing more about this project over the next few months.

Sometimes we fight. And clearly fighting and surrendering are contrasting if not opposite spiritual endeavors. Though I wonder, is it not possible that fighting for the right reasons is itself a form of spiritual surrender. Rebecca Parker reminds us “there moves / a holy disturbance, / a benevolent rage, / a revolutionary love / protesting, urging, insisting / that which is sacred will not be defiled.” Is it not possible we fight because we finally surrender to that holy disturbance, that benevolent rage, that revolutionary love—and allow it to guide our actions? Perhaps there are times when our principles demand that we surrender the comforts and privileges of our lives so that we may bring a greater love to bear in the world. Perhaps there are times when we realize we’ve spent our days resisting the call of some great cause, and we finally surrender our resistance begin to struggle. Perhaps this is just semantics. Perhaps. But here’s what know: We care called to bless the word. And there are times when that blessing won’t be realized without a fight. Amen and Blessed Be.



[1] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 163-165.

[2] Parker, Rebecca A., “Choose to Bless the World,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) p. 161.

[3] Pawelek, Josh M., “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” a sermon delivered on March 2, 2014 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/surrender-i-search-of-the-present-moment/.

[4] Parker, Rebecca A., “Benediction,” Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2006) pp. 164.

[5] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark” (Northampton, MA: Prison Policy Initiative, 2014). Read the full report at http://www.prisonpolicy.org/zones/ct.html.

[6] Kajstura, Aleks, “Reaching Too Far: How Connecticut’s Large Sentencing Enhancement Zones Miss the Mark”

[7] Read Asha Bandele’s full March 14, 2014 interview with Michelle Alexander at http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/2014/mar/10/new_jim_crow_michelle_alexander_talk.

Agape Church = Ally Church

Danish King Christian X

Danish King Christian X

In his review of Bo Lidegaard’s Countrymen, a recent history of how the Danish people helped the Danish Jews survive the Nazi occupation during World War II, Michael Ignatieff writes: “There was no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there was just us.”[1] The Danes said to the Nazi occupiers, essentially,“If you make the Jews wear yellow stars, we’ll all wear yellow stars too.” In other words, “you’ll have to take all of us.” I offer this story as a starting place for reflection on what it means to be an ally, specifically what it means to be an ally at church and as a church. The Danish people understood themselves not as frightened, defeated Nazi collaborators, but as courageous allies of their Jewish countrymen. We will help you; we will keep you safe; we will stand with you; we will risk our own lives on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. That’s what it means to be an ally.

Opportunities for allyship abound. Right now there are people in this room who need others in this room to be their allies. Right now, all around us in the wider community, there are people who need the partnership and solidarity of a congregation like ours in their struggle to overcome some injustice, some oppression, some poverty, some ongoing abuse or exploitation. I’m mindful that congregations and clergy can and do say a lot about love. We can be eloquent, inspiring and prophetic about love; and we can also very quickly become boring when all it is is words. We can very quickly become irrelevant when it is unclear how we make that love real in the world. My message is this: Loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship. In other words, agape church equals ally church.

We typically translate the ancient Greek word agape as “unconditional love.” Early Christians used it to refer to God’s love for humanity which they experienced as unconditional. When we use it to refer to human love we translate it in a variety of ways: selfless love, impartial love, all-encompassing love, wholehearted love. It is big, broad, vast, deep love—akin to the love God supposedly feels for humanity. It can refer to love between two people, but for the purposes of this sermon I’m using it to refer to love for people in general, love for all humanity.

I’m not a fan of the idea of selfless love, at least not the way we often encounter it: the giving up of oneself in order to serve others. sexism
There are certainly appropriate times for giving oneself up, for self-sacrifice—I think of soldiers sacrificing themselves to save their friends in battle, or parents dedicating their lives to the care of a child with special needs. But I’m also mindful that for too many centuries women were (and often still are) expected to give up their selves in the service of sexist conceptions of marriage, family, society and, it must be said, church. I don’t believe this giving up of the self is good for women; nor is it good for marriage, family, society or church. We each have unique, beautiful, holy selves that add value to the world and ought not to be given up except in extraordinary circumstances. Any system or institution that pressures us to give ourselves up with no choice and no reciprocity is oppressive.

Having said that, in the experience of genuine agape there is what feels like a losing of the self—a merging and mingling of selves in one another, a joining together, a recognition that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. In response to my February 2nd sermon on love, Nancy Thompson offered the words of Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg in our “Dialogue From Your Home” forum. Salzberg says “actual love is the true seeing of our oneness, our non-separateness.”[2] Nancy said further: “I think that’s what’s at the center of existence, non-separateness … you can call it love or God or interdependence or emptiness…. It’s not about you as a distinct, finite being but you as part of being.” Agape isn’t a call to self-sacrifice, though sometimes we do sacrifice ourselves for love; and it isn’t about losing ourselves in our love for others, though it may feel like that. It’s actually an experience of finding ourselves in our love for others—not our discreet biological selves, but our larger, connected, non-separate selves.

Still, I don’t want to get caught up in language and definitions. Love lives beyond words and reason. No amount of mental gymnastics and wordsmithing will get us to a full understanding. What I want to know is not what love is, but what it looks like in practice at church. My message again: loving congregations manifest love through a discipline of allyship.

Hand on ShoulderWe conduct ourselves as allies in two broad ways. First, we respond as allies to what I call natural human suffering—the suffering that is part and parcel of the human condition and which all of us experience through the course of our lives: the suffering that comes with physical and mental illness, with aging, with loss and grief, with despair, anxiety, loneliness and failure, with approaching death. Responding to these forms of suffering is the pastoral role of the church. But I want to suggest that when we respond we are engaging in the discipline of allyship. When you put a hand on the shoulder of someone who has just shared a painful story; when you visit someone in the hospital or in rehab after a surgery; when you cook a meal for a family that has experienced a death; when you provide hospitality at a memorial service; when you give someone a ride to their chemotherapy treatment; when you accompany someone to court; when you go grocery shopping for someone who is homebound; when you give a call just to check in; when you greet someone you’ve never met after a Sunday service; when you sit and talk with someone who is lonely: when you stay present to someone who is hurting for whatever reason—stay with them, focus on them, let them cry, let them rage, let them feel what they’re feeling, let them process their situation, let them be silent, be silent with them, walk with them, get a coffee with them, reassure them, stay with them until they know what they’re going to do next, let them know you won’t abandon them—when you do whatever it is they need done because they actually can’t do it for themselves in that particular moment, you are being an ally.

One of the reasons I love the institutional church is because it provides a space wherein people can manifest agape by being allies to each other in the midst of our suffering. It’s what church is for. Allyship is the central discipline—the primary behavior—in any beloved community.

In practicing allyship it’s always possible that we can feel like we’re giving up a part of ourselves—we’re giving up precious time, energy, emotion, attention, focus. It may feel like we’re sacrificing. It may feel burdensome. And perhaps it is. Perhaps manifesting agape doesn’t always feel good. Perhaps part of the discipline of allyship is learning to accept that there are moments when we must lay aside what we want for ourselves in order to care for and support someone facing more dire circumstances. But in doing so, I contend we also find our larger, connected selves. We find it is not ‘us’ and ‘them;’ it is just us.

In addition to responding to the natural suffering people experience, the church also responds—or ought to respond—to what unnatural suffering—the suffering groups of human beings so easily visit upon other groups of human beings through abuses of power, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, violence, etc. People experiencing such suffering often know exactly what it is they need. They often know exactly what needs to change. They often are willing to fight, struggle, work, strive to make that change happen. They often are willing to lead in the work of change. They they can rarely do it alone. If we’re talking about overcoming racism in the form of mass incarceration or disparities in health care outcomes; or reforming immigration laws so that undocumented people are treated with compassion and given a path to citizenship; or ending gun violence on our city streets; or next steps in overcoming homophobia and heterosexism—whether it’s working to end bullying in schools or working for the rights of LGBT elders; or if we’re talking about exploring our own, unintentional habits of institutional racism, heterosexism, ageism, and on and on, the group experiencing the suffering can rarely do it all alone. They need allies. They need people with privilege and power to agree that the suffering they experience is real. They need people with privilege and power to commit to working for change with them. They need people with privilege and power to take risks on their behalf; to say, We will help you! We will stand with you! We will even risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf! There is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. This is exactly what the Danish people did for their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation. This is allyship. This, I’m convinced, is how congregations manifest agape in their ministries within and beyond their walls.

I want to speak in very practical terms about what it means to me, a heterosexual man, to be an ally to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender—GLBT—people here at UUS:E. Some of you know our Welcoming Congregation Steering Group hoped to hang and dedicate a large rainbow flag out in the clerestory this morning. They decided not to do it because they weren’t sure they had the full support of the congregation. They held a forum and invited feedback in a variety of ways. A small minority expressed discomfort, which is important in a community that values the right of conscience—the minority needs to be able to express itself. So, let’s not hang the flag yet. But why do it at all? Why hang a large rainbow flag at UUS:E?

Rainbow Ally

This is how I think and feel about it. Ever since I’ve been UUS:E’s minister, the members and friends of this congregation—straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, men, women, transgender, questioning, old, young, rich, middle class, working class, poor, Humanist, Theist, Agnostic, Pagan and Buddhist—have been working as a congregation for the civil rights of gay and lesbian people—primarily through marriage equality—and for the civil rights of transgender people—primarily through anti-discrimination legislation. This has meant attending rallies, marches, lobby days, knocking on doors and interviewing voters at polling stations to gage public opinion, testifying on bills, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, sending checks to Love Makes a Family, supporting True Colors and listening to more sermons on the subject than probably any of you cared to listen to. The major political and legislative battles are behind us now. We won, so the level of engagement is not nearly as intense as it was. But this activism was a central feature of our ministry for many years. As a congregation, we were following a discipline of allyship. We were saying to GLBT people here and across the state, not only with our words but with our deeds: We will help you; we will stand with you; we will not abandon you; we will not flinch in the face of opposition; you do not have to fight these battles alone; we will risk our own lives and livelihoods on your behalf; there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;’ there is just us. When I see a rainbow flag, I don’t see their flag. I see our flag. Though I am clear I gain power and privilege in my life because I am a straight man and I will never fully comprehend what it means to be gay, female or transgender, I am also clear that I’ve made my power and privilege accountable to GLBT people because I strive to be an ally. The rainbow flag represents me too. But not just me, us. It’s our flag because we are an ally church.

But let’s imagine UUS:E had sat on the sidelines throughout these struggles and none of us had been involved. And let’s imagine we now want to be more welcoming to GLBT people and we have a Welcoming Congregation Steering Group to help us. And let’s imagine they want to hang a rainbow flag, because even though we have marriage equality, even though we have protections against discrimination for transgender people, even though ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ has ended, even though there has been amazing progress, church is still a dangerous place for GLBT people, even churches that say they’re welcoming. And GLBT young people still face bullying and still have a suicide rate way out of proportion to the population. A large rainbow flag would send a clear, unequivocal message that GLBT people are safe here, able to be out, able to bring their whole selves. There may be good reasons not to hang the flag. But in my view, this is an ally moment. This is a moment where a group of people who experience unnecessary suffering are saying, “We need this. It will alleviate suffering.” Agape church equals ally church.

“We don’t want to be the gay church.” I’ve never actually heard another human being say these words, but I understand people say it. Supposedly even gay people say it. As a consultant to congregations and clergy wondering how to respond to such statements, I’ve always said something like “assure them that you’re not becoming the gay church, but remind them it’s important to extend a clear welcome.” In preparing this sermon it dawned on me: I don’t feel comfortable saying that anymore—not if I mean what I say about being an ally, not if I know in my heart love means there is no ‘us’ and ‘them;” there is just us. Gay church? I would be honored to be a part of that church, because I know it’s not ultimately about being gay, it’s about manifesting our love and being good allies.

Allyship

We have a mental health ministry. We could become the metal illness church. I would be honored to be part of that church too, because I know it’s not ultimately about mental illness; it’s about love and allyship. We could become an immigrant church, a poor peoples’ church, a church for families of the incarcerated, a church for people living with HIV/AIDS, a church for homeless people, a church for children with autism and ADHD, a church for hungry people, a church for youth and young adults, a church for elders—do you see how we become the beloved community through a discipline of allyship? I would be honored to serve as minister of that church and I hope and trust all of you would be honored to be part of that church too. In the end, such a church is not about any of these identities. It’s about love and allyship. Agape church equals ally church. It’s not us and them; it’s just us. It’s our flag. It’s our yellow star. It’s just us.

I would be honored.

Amen and blessed be.



[1] Ignatieff, Michael, “One Country Saved Its Jews. Were They Just Better People? The Surprising Truth About Denmark in the Holocaust,” New Republic, Dec. 14, 2013. See: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed.

 

[2] I can’t find the exact location of this quote, but it appears to come from Salzberg’s 1995 “Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.” See: http://www.amazon.com/Lovingkindness-Revolutionary-Happiness-Shambhala-Classics/dp/157062903X.