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.

In the Waiting Time

Guest Minister: the Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

The Rev. Megan Lloyd Joiner

I am easily hope-impaired.

For whatever reason, I am the kind of person who looks at a glass and is tempted to tell you that it is half-empty rather than half-full.

I tend to borrow trouble long before it happens. Too often, it’s easier for me to play out worse-case scenarios than to hope for the best.

Now perhaps this is not what you want to hear from a minister. Especially not at the beginning of December with the winter holidays on the horizon. After all, we ministers are here to be the “messengers of hope,” aren’t we? Isn’t it our job to call us all ever towards hope, not to admit to our own hope-related challenges? But it is precisely because I can be hope-impaired, that I do the work of ministry. Because your hope rekindles my own. Because we call each other toward hope.

They say that ministers preach what we ourselves need to hear. And especially in this holiday season, do not we all hold out hope precisely because hope is so hard to find? So I confess to you that I am hope-impaired. 

And, I’ll tell you something else, here on what in the Christian tradition is the second Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the second week of anticipatory joy as we pass the deliberate days towards Christmas, as we revel in the wait: 

I really do not like waiting. 

When I’m in a store, I will put something back on a shelf rather than wait in a long check-out line. Better yet, I’ll shop online, choose a different restaurant, come back later, or change my plans altogether to avoid a line. 

I hate waiting for a bus too. Why stand and wait when I can start walking now? Usually, the bus passes me as I am chugging along down the street. This does not phase me. At least I didn’t wait, I tell myself. It’s a funny logic, I know. 

I remember as a child waiting for special days, like birthdays and Christmas, and feeling as though time was moving as slow as molasses. As a teenager, I would count down days until I could visit out-of-town friends or go to summer camp: month after next, week after next, day after the day after tomorrow. It felt like time crawled until finally it was … today! And somehow, the day, the moment had arrived. 

And then something odd would happen, perhaps this has happened to you: we wait. We count down the days, fritter away the time, fill our minds and our hearts and our impatient hands with tasks or TV, with imagining how it will be, envisioning the long-awaited event, and when it arrives, we wonder what happened to that time. Sometimes the event we waited for arrives and passes, and we are left feeling like we missed it all together.

We collect ourselves and prepare for the next count down. 

This time of year, we tell an age-old story of waiting. The Christmas story is the tale of a world waiting for hope, for joy, for the coming of the babe who would bring peace, hold the powerful to account, “lift up the lowly.” As a mother, the person I find most interesting in this story is Mary the mother of Jesus.

And I am incredibly sympathetic toward her: No one else in the story is pregnant! Mary literally carries the weight of the wait. 

The longest wait of my life was the preparation for my own child to be born. And when she arrived just over a year ago, the midwife placed her on my chest, And I whispered to her again and again: “you’re here.” 

I had felt like she would never come; I could barely imagine what her arrival would be like. Though majorly uncomfortable by the end of my pregnancy, I had tried, as so many well-meaning people had suggested, to enjoy the wait, to dwell in the uneasy space of anticipation, of not knowing.

 I practiced breathing in and breathing out, waiting for our family’s life to change irrevocably, for our hearts to be transformed in ways we could not imagine. 

I worked hard to be present in each moment. I was only successful part of the time.

More often than not, I found I was wishing the time away, distracting myself with internet videos and drawn out phone calls and cleaning closets. 

And then, after so much expectation, so much cleaning and organizing and preparing her room, readying our home as well as our hearts, she was here. And our days and our nights were filled with her presence. The reality of our lives was upended – in the most joyful way. 

The first year of a baby’s life, I’ve found, is a blur of moments and days and months and soon a year has gone by, and here we are again at the beginning of the “The Holiday Season” and the season of Advent, an official time of waiting.

The word Advent comes from the Latin, meaning “a coming, an approach, arrival.” In the Christian calendar, Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child at Christmas – the story from first century Palestine tells us that with him comes hope, love, the undoing of the status quo, a new reign of peace on earth.  

The promise of the babe in the manger is the same as the promise of all new babes: that the reality of our lives will be upended – in the most joyful way. The season of Advent provides the opportunity to prepare ourselves for the new reality. “Let every heart prepare him room…” we sing. 

My colleague Rev. Ashley Horan writes that Advent is the “four weeks when Christians the world over try to sit quietly in the midst of chaos, preparing a place in their hearts where the seeds of love and hope can take root.”  

And doesn’t this ring true this year especially? For we find ourselves these days in the midst of chaos with a justice system that is seemingly anything but just: With no indictment in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and no indictment in the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and twelve-year-old Tamir Rice dead on a Cleveland playground. So much pain and heartbreak and grief and tears and rage. 

Each day it seems brings a new story of lives lost (we might say stolen), and fear and suspicion ruling the day, a new story of power abused and the ugliest parts of our human nature exposed. 

And still – whether we find meaning in the Christian story or in one of the many other traditions that mark this time of the longest nights of the year – still we are invited in this season to prepare room in our hearts for the seeds of love and hope. 

We are invited, as weary people have done since the beginning of time, the poet Victoria Stafford writes, to “kindle tiny lights and whisper secret music,” to cradle our hopes like newborn children, to wonder what human love looks like in practice, to await a new era with patience and preparation.  

Now is the time for breathing, for being present, for waiting. 

This year, though, we might not feel like waiting for peace is the best move. We may even feel like waiting or telling other people – especially people of color – to wait for justice feels perverse.  

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’” Martin Luther King wrote from his cell in a Birmingham jail in 1963. “This “Wait” has almost always meant ‘Never.’” We must come to see,” he continued, “that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” 

Once again there is no justice and there is no peace. And we may find ourselves more angry than peaceful this season, more riled-up than calm.

We may feel more ready to take action than patiently prepare. We may feel ready to cry out in lament for lives taken without account, ready to join our voices with those who cry for justice in an unjust land. And, with them, we may feel weary. We may even feel hope-impaired. 

And so this Advent we are challenged to wait actively.

This year, something is happening, and we choose to be present to it.

This year, what we are waiting for is growing on the ground on which we stand. The seed has been planted. Something has begun.

 A fellow Union Theological Seminary Alum, known in the blogosphere as Brother Timothie writes this week at the website “Theology of Ferguson”: “I used to think Advent meant that we wait patiently for Jesus to be born. The kind of waiting we perform at doctor’s offices. I was wrong,” he says. “Waiting in Advent means to be active in creating God’s Realm, which is always full of justice.” 

This kind of waiting – this Advent kind of waiting – requires that all of us carry the weight of the wait. Like a mother anticipating the birth of her child, we may find ourselves uncomfortable, drawing on strength we never knew we possessed, trying to imagine what the new reality might look like, knowing only that our work is to continue, to push forward, to give birth to something new, to wait, actively, until we can whisper (or shout) “you’re here” to a new age: an age when, in the words of Ella Baker, immortalized by Sweet Honey in the Rock: the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons; a new age where “justice for all” is no longer just a dream, and it is finally true that (#)Black Lives Matter. 

This kind of waiting does not mean never. This kind of waiting says “this moment is the moment.”

//

 “Now is the moment of magic,” Victoria Stafford writes of this time of year. Now is the moment. Not some future date, not the end of the advent calendar, not the day that the days begin to lengthen again, or that long-awaited morning of presents, now is the moment of magic. The magic is in the waiting time. 

Now, it’s not always easy to find the magic in waiting time, even when life is treating us kindly and we have things to look forward to: a blessed event or a joyful celebration. 

In these cases, we are like excited, impatient children on Christmas Morning, filled with anticipatory joy.

(Each year I, being the older sibling, would instruct my brother that we had to wait until at least 5am before we could tiptoe down to see what Santa had left.)  

In this kind of joy-filled waiting, we make our best attempts at waiting patiently; we make it a practice; we focus on the moment, we work on being present. Perhaps we breathe in and out intentionally to ground ourselves, to make our days deliberate, to experience the blessings that already exist. 

And what about when life is unkind, when we wait for justice too long delayed, or, worse, when we wait for yet another miscarriage of justice, another life lost?  

What about the times when we wait for word of an injured friend, or a dreaded diagnosis, when we wait for illness to set in, or for a child who does not arrive?  

Sometimes we find ourselves waiting for something we had hoped would never happen, waiting for the worst. In those times, breathing in and breathing out feels next to impossible and proclaiming a coming age of hope and peace feels naïve, laughable even.  

Patience goes out the window and we find ourselves wishing time would pass more quickly so that we might be on the other side of a nightmare. How do we live in that kind of waiting time? 

// 

Finding the magic in this season of waiting can be difficult for many of us not just this year, but any year. 

The holidays can bring stress, emotional triggers, and family strife along with those tiny candles. This time can be filled with painful or bittersweet memories right alongside cheer, loneliness in the midst of celebration – which is the worst kind of loneliness there is. We might find ourselves waiting with heavy hearts for December to be over, wishing for the sun, feeling like it might never return. We may feel hope-impaired. 

In our home, the soundtrack to the month of December includes Handel’s Messiah which tends to play on our CD player on a near constant loop. When you listen to something that often, you hear different things each time. 

It’s early, but we’ve started, and the other day, I heard a word that I had never really noticed before in the music: “abide.” But who may abide the day of his coming? the tenor sings. The quote is from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible (3:2). The prophet writes to the Jewish people about the coming of the messiah, a messenger who would arrive to usher in a new age of righteousness and justice. “Who will wait for him?”, the prophet asks. “Who will prepare themselves for this new reality?” The Hebrew word translated here as “abide” can also mean endure, or contain. Abide comes from the Old English meaning remain, wait, dwell. 

To abide is to wait actively,

To have faith in the seeds,

To make room in our hearts for a new reality.

And that is the secret, Henri Nouwen tells us.

“This moment is the moment.”

 

This is a holy way of waiting.

 

It happens one breath at a time. In and out. Each moment the moment.

We live our lives on, one breath at a time, giving thanks for the blessings of the waiting time, giving thanks for the magic of each moment, giving thanks for the communities that hold out hope when we are weary. 

We join our lives and our breath with all who are waiting: waiting for justice, waiting for peace. 

May it be so this season, and always.

Sunrise

 

Resources

Dr. Briallen Hopper, “Ferguson Sermon at Yale,” November 30, 2014:
http://briallenhopper.tumblr.com/post/103995200459/ferguson-sermon-at-yale?og=1

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963.http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

Brother Timothie, “What Shall We Cry Out?: A #StayWokeAdvent Lectionary Reflection,” Theology of Ferguson, December 2, 2014 https://medium.com/@FaithInFerguson/what-shall-we-cry-out-a-staywokeadvent-lectionary-reflection-c407e6ffaaab

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, “One Hug Does Not End Racism: An Advent Message,”
The Huffington Post, November 30, 2014 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-dr-susan-brooks-thistlethwaite/one-hug-does-not-end-raci_b_6243670.html

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.