As You Love Yourself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

A Tale of Two Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen and blessed be.

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

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

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