Surrender: A Path to Power

 

Rev. Josh Pawelek

Our ministry theme for March is surrender. In reviewing my past sermons on this theme, I notice a tendency in me—and not only in me, but among Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general, among at least some of the American Buddhist and Yoga bloggers, and certainly on self-help bookshelves —a tendency to speak and write about surrender as this wonderful, liberating act that fills you with peace and joy. All you have to do is let go. All you have to do is be present, be in the moment, go with the flow, let what is yearning to emerge emerge, let the world be the world, accept that you don’t have control over outcomes, be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet.[1] It’s all good advice—solid, sound spiritual wisdom. I often ground it in a reference to the ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, who writes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching “To yield [i.e, to surrender] is to be preserved whole.”[2] But there’s a risk in offering this advice. The risk, always, is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly easy. The risk is that we provide a kind of false hope. How does one let go when holding on for dear life?

I am thankful to Penny Field for coordinating last week’s service on addiction. To the addict, the advice to just let go, just be present, just accept that you don’t have control over outcomes isn’t wrong, but on one level it’s laughable, because surrender in the context of addiction is so exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just addiction. Surrendering to illness is difficult. Surrendering to loss and grief are difficult. Surrendering to the need to work on a relationship or to accept the reality of a broken relationship: difficult. Surrendering to the need to make major life changes—career changes, retirement, relationship changes, moving to a new community, becoming a parent: difficult. Surrendering to the need to accept and be and proclaim who you really are, even when the people in your life don’t accept you and won’t support you: difficult. The advice is always good—just let go, be present to what is, let what is yearning to emerge, emerge—but the risk is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly simple.

Prior to my mini-sabbatical this past month, Mary Bopp and I were talking about how to address surrender differently, how to speak about surrender in a way that accounts for how difficult it can be. Mary reminded me that engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is an act of surrender. People who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience have made a decision to accept the consequences of their actions, including—historically and today—harassment, harsh language, having people spit in their face, beatings, firehoses, police dogs, bombings, jail time, death threats and even, at times, death. As they accept the consequences of their actions without retaliating, they are committing acts of surrender. And the hope at the heart of their surrender is that their actions will dramatize the injustice in a particular social, economic or political system, and thereby create conditions that will force that system to change. Change comes as a result of someone—or some ones—engaging in acts of surrender. Hence the title of this sermon, “Surrender: A Path to Power.”

This idea of nonviolent civil disobedience as surrender came home to me a few years ago, when Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of Moral Monday CT—a leading Black Lives Matter organization in our state—and a good friend to this congregation, was talking about why a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was necessary now. I’m not quoting him exactly, but he essentially pointed out that we all move through our lives and the world in the midst of profound injustice. We can identify a thousand different—though often related—injustices in the wider world when we put our minds to it. It’s not as if we who can identify injustice don’t try to do anything about it. We do. Many of us are quite willing and able to call or write a letter to an elected official, attend a city council meeting, participate in a rally or march, testify at the legislature on an important bill, make a donation, help settle a refugee family, etc. But even when we take these actions, so often their ultimate outcome is much less than we’d hoped for. So often we take our actions in good faith, month after month, year after year, and find ourselves still living in the midst of profound injustice. Bishop Selders was making the point that the way we engage matters. He was noticing that too often we take our actions in such a way that we maintain our own standing in society. We stay respectable. We express our concerns to those in power but we don’t hold them accountable. We don’t create any real tension. We don’t take genuine risks. And nothing really changes. He said—and this is a quote—“I can’t live like that anymore.”

It’s relatively easy to talk to a legislator about a bill. It’s relatively easy to march. We can do these things without too much risk to ourselves or our way of life. It is something else entirely to use one’s body to break a law in order to dramatize an injustice and, as a result, risk physical harm, fines, jail, etc. Moving from a willingness to engage in low-risk actions for social justice to a willingness to engage in high-risk actions for social justice requires surrender. The person who is willing to use their body to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience surrenders their attachment to whatever comfort they have in life, to whatever standing they have in society, and to the possibility that they will suffer violence in retaliation for their actions. That’s essentially what Bishop Selders was saying: I don’t want to live my life in a way that ultimately supports the status quo. I am ready to take bigger risks. I am ready to surrender for the sake of a more just society. And I am trusting the counter-intuitive proposition that through acts of surrender I will gain the power to change society.

I began reading up on people who famously organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. As I read, I noticed a common dimension in those campaigns that is rarely discussed when we recount the histories: self purification. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” When he later described how they conducted self purification as part of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’”[3] He doesn’t indicate that they prayed together or sang together as part of self purification, but I suspect both prayer and song were part of the process.

I looked for examples of self purification in the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. I haven’t yet found instances of Gandhi using that term specifically, but he clearly engaged in disciplined spiritual preparation before taking action. In a book entitled Prophets of a Just Society, the historian and political scientist, Jake C. Miller says about Gandhi’s movement that “while there were many who gave lip-service to the doctrine of nonviolence, fewer were willing to undergo the suffering that was involved in its implementation. Although it was easy to talk about replacing hatred with love, some protestors were not able to meet the challenge when they came face to face with grave provocation. Thus, in order to ensure the success of civil disobedience as a weapon, it was necessary to prepare would-be-protesters for the difficult role they were expected to play. Self purification was regarded as essential in this process. Fasting, meditating and praying were essential components in Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. He perceived fasting and similar acts of discipline as a means of self-restraint, but he insisted that if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”[4]

Self purification—this preparation, this getting ready, this praying, fasting, meditating, singing, studying, this fortifying oneself, steeling oneself, bracing oneself, grounding oneself—this is not itself an act of surrender. Self purification is prelude to successful surrender. Self purification produces surrender that is more likely to result in change, more likely to have power in the world.

I wonder: in our various discussions of all the other ways we need to surrender at certain times in our lives, do we speak of a distinct self purification component? I usually don’t. But how radically would it alter the typical spiritual advice on surrender if we spoke first of self purification? Instead of the usual catch-alls—“just let go” or “just go with the flow” or “just be present to whatever happens”—how different would it sound and feel if the spiritual advice focused on practices of self purification before acts of surrender? Mindful that letting go, going with the flow, being present can be enormously painful, frightening, overwhelming, might we more effectively approach that real pain and fear and stress by engaging in self purification first—by praying some kind of sacred prayer, making some kind of sacred vow, bathing in some sacred waters, singing some sacred song, dancing some sacred dance, sitting in some sacred silence first? We surrender old ways so that we may take on new ways—new ways of living, thinking, feeling, being. We surrender not for petty reasons but because we desperately need to make a change. So instead of the catch-alls, which, the more I contemplate them just sound trite and platitudinous, what if the person seeking surrender were advised to perform a ritual of self purification, a symbolic emptying out of the old and a welcoming in of the new, an enactment of the transition to a new reality as a precursor to actual surrender?

I read to you earlier from the Buddhacarita, the chronicles of the life of the Buddha written by the first century Indian priest, Ashyaghosha. I read the passage in which Siddh?rtha Gautama sits beneath the Bodhi tree with the goal of attaining enlightenment. In this passage he is on the verge of a deeply profound act of surrender. He is surrendering his attachment to his experience of having a self. He is letting go of his self, literally going with the flow. What stood out to me reading the passage this time is that he didn’t just sit down and surrender. He sat down and made a vow. He fortified himself before his actual surrender. This vow feels to me like an act of self purification. And looking at it through that lens, there’s also a resonance with the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, especially the practice of the sit-in. Ashyaghosha writes “He then adopted the cross-legged posture, which is the best of all, because so immovable…. And he said to himself: ‘I shall not change … my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do!’”[5]

I am also mindful of Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions and his ministry, wracked with fear and anxiety, preparing to surrender not just to the authorities but to his death on the cross. What does he do? He prays. Matthew 26: 39 in the Christian New Testament says, “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” This prayer is not the act of surrender; it is self purification prior to surrender.

In the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and notices the flames do not consume the bush. He wants to look more closely. If you know the story, you know God is about to call him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from bondage. Moses eventually surrenders to this call. But the burning bush is prelude to surrender. And what does he do? He takes off his shoes because this is holy ground. For me, this is an image of self purification prior to an act of surrender.

When you find you can no longer “live that way,” whether we’re talking about no longer living a life that tacitly supports injustice, no longer living a life mired in addiction, no longer living a life that is unsustainable in some way, a life that needs to move in some way, a life that needs to grieve, to accept some hard truth, to stop fighting whatever it is you’ve been fighting for so long, a life that is too rigid, too controlling, too in charge; when you can no longer live that way and it’s time to surrender, be wary of advisors who urge you with platitudes to let go without first guiding you in the ways of self purification. Our lives are too short for going through motions that leave us essentially unchanged. Purify first. Pray, fast, meditate, sing, dance, take off your shoes, study, make a vow. Self purification comes first. Then, and only then, attempt to sit in that immoveable way. Then and only then, surrender, and change your life. Then and only then, surrender, and change the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] This list is quoted from my March 2, 2014 sermon, “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT.

[2] Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 22, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.

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

[4] Miller, Jake C., Prophets of a Just Society (Nova Publishers,   2001) p. 35.

[5] Ashyaghosha, “The Buddhacarita,” in Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 48.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not: Reflections on Mental Health Ministry

Visible and Speakable

Our congregation has conducted a Mental Health Ministry for the last six or seven years. Sharon Gresk was the original visionary behind this ministry. She remains one of our in-house experts on offering pastoral support to people with mental illness. The current leaders of this ministry are Sarah Karstaedt and Christine Joyner. I am grateful for their ongoing commitment. The Mental Health Ministry has sponsored a variety of programs and activities. We’ve held affinity groups for people with mental illness, for people in recovery, for caregivers. We’ve taught courses on mental illness. We’ve sponsored forums like this afternoon’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) event. We’ve hosted performances of the Free at Last Players. We’ve sought continuing education for ourselves. We’re connected to an emerging network of faith communities, mental health chaplains and mental health care providers exploring the role of religion in addressing mental illness in the greater Hartford region. Twice a year we hold a Mental Health Ministry Summit when we gather for community, spiritual practice, continuing education and planning.

The heart of this ministry has been making mental illness visible and speakable here at UUS:E. Visibility and speakability are not easy qualities to measure, but when people speak openly about their mental illness, their medications, their addiction or their path to recovery; when people speak openly about family members or friends struggling with mental illness; when people arrive at our summit and find a vibrant, supportive, welcoming community; when people are not afraid to share, “hey, I’m having a bad week,” “I’m feeling down,” “I need help”—it says to me the heart of this ministry is alive and well.  

This is how it should be. Mental illness is a difficult, painful reality in the lives of many people and their families. In past services we’ve invited you to stand if mental illness has touched your life, the life of someone in your family or the life of a friend. Virtually everyone stands. Yet, despite the reality that mental illness is very common, there is still enormous stigma attached to it; still subtle, but widespread discrimination against people with mental illness; still a lack of parity in funding for mental health treatment compared to treatment for physical illness. Faith communities are not innocent when it comes to perpetuating the stigma. In fact, faith communities are some of the worst offenders. For a variety of reasons faith communities are, more often than not, fearful, silent and unwelcoming toward people with mental illness. The reasons might be theological, cultural, social, economic. Whatever they are, it is my firm conviction that faith communities cannot claim to be welcoming to all, cannot claim to be ‘for all people, cannot claim to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every person if mental illness remains invisible and unspeakable. Has our Mental Health Ministry been perfect? No. But have increased the visibility and speakability of mental illness? Yes, absolutely. Whenever a member or friend of this congregation with mental illness tells me this place feels like home to them because they do not have to hide this particular part of themselves, it is a moment of immense pride for me as the congregation’s minister. But it’s not perfect, and thus I’d like to share a few reflections on broad future directions for our mental health ministry based on what I’ve learn from people who participate in it.

Where the Wood Drake Rests Not, or

Let’s Not Confuse Spiritual Care with Medical Care

Our hymnal includes beloved words by the poet Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water…. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”[1] I have preached from these words many times; I will preach from them again. They offer a remedy for fear and despair, for angst, anxiety, worry, panic, hopelessness, sorrow, melancholy, desperation, dispiritedness, despondency, depression. So often in response to any of these feelings the remedy we offer as Unitarian Universalists is some version of “go and lie down where the wood drake rests.” Reconnect with the natural world. As one of the Mental Health Ministry participants described it: “Go for a walk, smell the roses, write in a journal, visit a beach, be in nature, etc.”

Sylvia Plath was an American poet who committed suicide in 1963. Here death came just a few weeks after the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, which is widely understood as the story of her struggle with mental illness.  Earlier I read her 1961 poem, “I Am Vertical.” It offers a very different take on ‘lying down’ in the natural world—a provocative contrast to “The Peace of Wild Things.” Where Berry offers ‘lying down’ as a spiritual practice to center, calm and reconnect oneself, for Plath ‘lying down’ is fraught. It reminds her, “I am not a tree with my root in the soil / Sucking up minerals and motherly love.” It reminds her, I am not “the beauty of a garden bed.” She craves that sense of connection and identity but it never happens. “Tonight, in the infinitesimal light of the stars, / The trees and flowers have been strewing their cool odors. / I walk among them, but none of them are noticing.” There is sadness here, a sense of distance and isolation. The hardest thing about this poem, which we dare not miss: she imagines she is closest to connection when she is asleep, when her “thoughts [have] gone dim.” Only her death will bring anything close to the peace of wild things: “I shall be useful when I lie down finally: / The trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me.”[2]

Reading Sylvia Plath next to “Peace of Wild Things” reminds me to stay vigilant about the difference between ministry and medicine. Neither of these poems make this distinction, but the contrast between them points to it. “Peace of Wild Things” offers a spiritual remedy. It says, “do something to connect with a reality larger than yourself.” For many people it is an effective remedy, especially if the angst, anxiety, or despair they’re experiencing is primarily spiritual in nature. But is it sufficient for a person with mental illness, especially a person whose mental illness is chemical in nature—not emerging from spiritual disconnection, but rather from an internal neuro-chemical imbalance? Spiritual dis-ease is not the same thing as mental illness. The two conditions may appear the same, may overlap, may occur simultaneously—spiritual dis-ease is often a symptom of mental illness—but they are not the same. Spiritual leaders and faith communities must be careful not to inadvertently offer spiritual remedies as treatment for mental illness. It can be quite problematic to gloss over mental illness with a purely spiritual assessment.

For example, sometimes medication is the only treatment that keeps a person’s mental illness under control. In my experience, the more severe the illness, the more this is true. If clergy and congregations only ever address mental illness in purely spiritual terms—which, in a more fundamentalist setting might be the assessment that one is possessed by demons; and in a more liberal setting might be the implication that really all you need is a dose of the great outdoors—there is always a risk that a person on medication may hear the message that their medication is unnecessary. If they’re looking for an excuse to not take their meds, there it is. Go lie down where the wood drake rests. My instinct is that this kind of lack of compliance will be relatively rare here, but it happens. We need to send a clear message: spiritual remedies complement, but do not replace, medical treatments. As a church we don’t and can’t provide medical treatment, but we can make sure the spiritual remedies we offer support and affirm the  medical treatment people are receiving.

Another example. A person living with mental illness might take the minister’s spiritual advice to heart—might take that walk, spend time outdoors, lie down where the wood drake rests, pray long and hard. It might even have a positive impact. But their mental illness remains unchanged. The risk is that they may begin to feel they aren’t doing their spiritual practice right, that there’s ‘something else’ wrong with them, that they aren’t faithful enough, that they aren’t a good Unitarian Universalist. Because this is hard to admit, they may not talk about it. They may pull away, become more isolated at precisely the time they need their congregation most.

Another example. Sometimes spiritual practice just isn’t an option. As one caregiver said, “I can’t stop and smell the roses, I can’t go for a walk, I can’t take time to myself.  Every single moment of our existence is about keeping everyone safe and managing the disaster.  The roses might as well be on fire, and who has time to care if they are?” Again, the result is disconnection and isolation.

Hearing and understanding these concerns brings much more nuance to the way we address mental illness theologically and spiritually. I’ve learned that mental illness can make access to some of our typical theological language and spiritual practices difficult. Not everyone can lie down comfortably where the wood drake rests. Mental illness challenges all of us to think more broadly about the scope of our welcome, the limits of our inclusion. It pushes us to examine the gap between our words and our actions. It demands that we pay close attention to its medical dimensions as we address its spiritual dimensions. I don’t yet have answers to this challenge. But in the coming years I’d like to see us think and talk and pray our way into theological language and spiritual practices that take the reality of mental illness more fully into account. Spiritual practices for those who are verticle!

Weep–You Are Not Alone

I’ve been hearing the first line of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem “Solitude” my entire life. “Laugh, and the world laughs with you.” I never knew the rest of the poem until this week. “Weep, and you weep alone…. / “Sing, and the hills will answer; /Sigh, it is lost on the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But shrink from voicing care. / Rejoice, and men will seek you; Grieve, and they turn and go; They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they do not need your woe.”[3] Apparently Wilcox was not writing from a place of compassion for depressed people. She was a proponent of ‘positive thinking,’ and with this poem she was essentially saying, “don’t be sad, because no one wants to be around sad people.” I don’t agree with her, but she’s speaking a hard truth. Most people don’t readily choose to spend time with those who are depressed, down, anxious. We do it when someone we love feels this way. But it’s not typically our first choice. We want the full measure of all your pleasure, but we do not need your woe.”

Nobody knows this truth more keenly than people who live with mental illness—their own, or that of a family member or friend. When I asked participants in our Mental Health Ministry what message they wanted the rest of the congregation to hear about mental illness, by far the most common response was isolation. Some comments stand out:

“Mental illness is not something people like to talk about because you can’t tie a pretty bow on it and make it better.  People often have advice like … ‘take time to myself, [go for a walk, smell the roses] … I just need to be able to take a shower…. I need company. I’ve had to give up so much. I am still isolated.  I am afraid to rejoin things because I know it’s going to happen again.” Another members says, “not talking about mental illness increases the stigma and makes those living with it feel invisible, unworthy, and left out.” Another says, “the isolation can be painful and dangerous. Isolation caused by shame or even by simply not knowing where to find like-suffering people compounds the problems.” Yet another says, “as a caretaker is that the situation is very isolating. Caregivers really need time with non-ill people, and I think you could remind the congregation of this simple fact.”

Visibility and speakability are important but not sufficient. A more robust compassion and presence come next—Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Building a congregational practice of deep compassion and presence at the heart of our Mental Health Ministry will lessen the gaps between our words and actions, and reduce peoples’ experience of isolation. Mindful of that, I felt called to write a new version of Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s “Solitude,” a version that has at its heart compassion for and presence with people with mental illness, a version that welcomes the full range of human emotion and human psychiatric realities, a version that meets us fully not only in our joy but in the mess, the disaster, that sometimes unrelenting, unfixable despair. I call it “Multitude.”

Laugh, and the world laughs with you; / Weep—you are not alone; / For the good green earth, though it knows great mirth, / adopts your sorrow as its own. / Sing, and the hills will answer; / A sigh rides high in the air; / The echoes bound to a joyful sound, / But they’ll come around voicing care. / Rejoice, and all will seek you; Grieve, still they won’t let you go; / They want full measure of all your pleasure, / But they’ll not abandon you in your woe. / Be glad, and your friends are many; Be sad, and you’ll lose not one, / There are none to decline your nectared wine, / But they’ll stay through your bitter draft’s run. / Feast, and your halls are crowded; / Fast, and the world is not shy. / Succeed and give, and it helps you live, / And dear, tender souls help you die. / There is room in the halls of pleasure / For a large and lordly train, / And that is why we’ll all tarry on, / Together in our deepest pain.

Of course this is aspirational. We are not there yet. But it is time for Mental Health Ministry 2.0. Let’s move beyond visibility and speakability to a more tangible compassion and presence, a more nuanced theology and spirituality, an in-depth understanding of the medical dimensions of mental illness, and an ever-expanding sense of home for all who enter these halls.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Berry, Wendell, “The Peace of Wild Things,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: UUA and Beacon Press, 1993) #483.

[2] Plath, Sylvia, “I Am Vertical” in Hughes, Ted, ed., The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath (New York: Haper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008) p. 162. See: http://www.neuroticpoets.com/plath/poem/vertical/.

[3] Wilcox, Ella Wheeler, “Solitude.” See: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45937.

Something My Grandfather Seemed to Know About Race and Class

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to share with you some stories about my father’s father, Stanley J. Pawelek.  Grandad Pawelek seemed to know something about race and class that feels extraordinarily important for this moment in American history.

He was the oldest of nine children born and raised in Thorp, Wisconsin. He was the son of Polish Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English. Thorp was a farm town, and the Paweleks were subsistence farmers. They owned two acres of land and some animals—mostly chickens. My father remembers visiting Thorp with his parents when he was young. He loved Thorp. He loved the land. He loved eating fresh eggs for breakfast. He says his extended family was lovely in the sense that they were tight-knit and still practiced Polish culture and traditions. I get the impression from my father they were ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people. When he was with them he was one of them. He belonged. He felt loved. But there was a shadow side. They were racist. Like so many European immigrants who would eventually lose their hyphens and become White Americans, the Paweleks very quickly picked up American racism towards Blacks and other people of color. In fact, picking up and expressing that racism was part of becoming White. My grandad was no exception. My father remembers him using racist jokes and slurs. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites. He didn’t have much contact with Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Native Americans; but I suspect if he had he would have held racist beliefs about them too.

My grandad also held deep admiration for what he called “the working man,” specifically people who worked with their hands. “A man doesn’t need a college degree to achieve the American dream,” he would often tell my father. A man could work with his hands—build things, manufacture things, repair things—and earn a good living, good enough to support a family, purchase a home and retire with enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living. He saw the working man as the proud, heroic heart of American society.

Oddly, he did not possess the gift of working with his hands, which may be why he developed a very specific vision for his life. He wanted to be the director of an industrial arts program for a major urban school system. He wanted to help train the next generation of working men. He knew this by the time he reached high school. He went to college to learn how to teach industrial arts and eventually earned a Ph.D. in vocational education from the University of Minnesota. In the early 1940s the Baltimore, MD board of education hired him as Supervisor for Industrial Arts, a job he held for over 30 years. He retired in the mid-70s for health reasons related to diabetes and died soon after that.

Baltimore desegregated its schools soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As was the case in many towns and cities, White parents boycotted. They kept their children home. Grandad Pawelek refused to participate in the boycott. He went to work and he sent his kids to school. My father has vivid memories of White parents lining the walkway to the school entrance, taunting and spitting at him and the small handful of White students whose parents weren’t boycotting. We aren’t sure what my grandfather thought about integration or the boycott. The message to my father was crystal clear: your education is more important than whatever I may think or say about Black people.

In the pre-segregation era when my father was in elementary school, he and my grandad had an interesting Saturday morning routine. They would visit the schools under Grandad’s supervision. They would drive first to a White school, get out of the car, enter the shop wing, remove the best tools and equipment, load up the car, drive it across the city to a Black school, and replace what my father calls the ‘crappy’ tools and equipment at the Black school with the high quality tools and equipment from the White school. While they did this, my grandad would talk to his son about the working man. He didn’t talk about the White working man. It was just the working man. As Supervisor for Industrial Arts for the City of Baltimore, he understood it was his job to insure that every student received an education that would enable them to take their place in that proud, heroic heart of American society. If the Black schools under his supervision did not have adequate tools to successfully educate Black students, it reflected poorly on his leadership and he would do what he could to make things fair.

What I find so fascinating and confusing about this story is that despite his racist beliefs, he behaved in a principled way. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but somehow his racism did not eclipse his sense of obligation to every school, teacher and student under his supervision. His racism did not eclipse his commitment to equality of opportunity. His racism did not eclipse his vision of who America is for, who could enter the working class, get a good job, support a family, purchase a home. His principles were bigger than his racism. His America was bigger than his racism.

The original title of this sermon was “What About All That Rage?” There are two underlying sources of White rage in the United States. The first is legitimate and the nation—including communities of faith—needs to address it: rage at rising economic inequality, economic neglect, the disappearance of traditional blue color jobs, a related deterioration of communities where those jobs were prevalent, and a prevailing sense of alienation, cynicism and loss in those communities. Though this rage is most closely associated in the public mind with White communities in the American rust belt—the declining manufacturing centers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—it exists everywhere in the country. It existed long before the 2016 presidential campaign, and people feel it across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders spoke to this rage on the political left as much as Donald Trump on the right. During the party primaries it was fascinating to note a significant overlap among Sanders and Trump supporters. On the Democratic side in particular, often voters weren’t choosing between Sanders and Clinton. They were choosing between Sanders and Trump. In my sermon on the Sunday after the election I said if this election result was truly “a cry for economic renewal; if President-elect Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity … that’s a movement I want to be in.”[1] Principle, not party.

But there’s a second source of White rage which dashes my hopes for this movement: the rage of White supremacy, White nationalism and xenophobia mingled with an alarming embrace of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This rage is also not new, but it has been given new life with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I do not believe everyone who voted for Trump supports White supremacy. I am heartened when I see Trump voters, Republicans and conservatives trying to distance themselves from White supremacy and from Trump’s more egregious statements. Nevertheless, this rage is misguided, dangerous and un-American. It is a form of evil, and the nation—including communities of faith—need to counter it resolutely.

These two sources of White rage became entangled during the campaign. Trump’s rhetoric enabled the entanglement. Legitimate White rage over the effects of globalism, factory closures, job losses, workplace automation and income inequality became entangled with illegitimate racist calls for border walls, Muslim bans, law and order, stop and frisk policing and the continuing roll-back of voting rights. Illegitimate and immoral White American racism hijacked legitimate, moral anger at the nation’s economic condition. White American racism trumped America’s principles of fairness, justice and equality. It will be enormously important in the coming months and years to disentangle these two sources of White rage. The church must send us forth to engage with the rage for economic renewal, and to confront, challenge, and turn back the rage for White supremacy.

Grandad Pawelek said racist things and held racist beliefs. But from what we can tell, his racism didn’t become entangled with his vision of who could occupy that proud, heroic working class heart of America. While his racism was wrong, his understanding of the working class was right. Even before desegregation, even before the civil rights movement was in full gear, the American working class was never a purely White class. It has always been multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic. And it has always included women. It has always experienced racial tensions. It has its own history of racial and gender segregation, but it has always been a diverse class. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a White working class. There is. It has a history, culture, traditions, expectations. But when politicians and the media use this term to refer to a racially-identified group of voters with current and historic ties to American manufacturing, it gives a misleading impression of how diverse the working class really is. A brief glance at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals there are Black, Hispanic, Asian and women workers in virtually every type of working class job.[2] And a 2016 study by Valerie Wilson, [3] director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, estimates that the American working class will be majority people of color by 2032.[4]

I’m pointing this out because it’s not just White workers who are angry about the impacts of globalism and income inequality. People of color workers have been enraged about these problems far longer than White workers have. Industrial manufacturing jobs left cities first, decimated Black and Hispanic communities first.[5] The Movement for Black Lives economic justice demands call for economic renewal designed primarily to benefit Black people, but if implemented would actually benefit all working class people. They’re calling for, among other things, a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state jobs programs that provide a living wage, the right for workers to organize, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks, renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities, and protections for workers in unregulated industries—domestic workers, farm workers, tipped workers and incarcerated workers.[6]

It was weird. Donald Trump kicked off his Presidential Campaign on June 16th, 2015, and even then I could sense the White working class rage he was channeling. Exactly one week prior to that I was arrested in Hartford at a Black Lives Matter action. I remember thinking, first, Donald Trump, you’re the 1% of the 1%–you don’t get to be angry. We’re angry. Black Lives Matter is Angry. Immigrants’ rights activists are angry. Voting rights activists are angry. You don’t get to be angry. But then as that legitimate White rage at globalism and “the rigged system” became more clear, I kept wondering, perhaps naively, why does the White working class like him? Why isn’t the White working class supporting the Black Lives Matter economic justice agenda? Why isn’t the White working class making the connection to all workers, to what’s happening in urban centers, on Indian reservations, to the environment, to militarism? Why can’t all of us who care about these things be angry together in a multifaceted movement for black liberation, gender justice, worker rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, demilitarization, criminal justice reform, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights?

Why? Because, in this case, Donald Trump made racism bigger than America. He entangled legitimate White rage with White identity politics, with racist dog-whistles, with xenophobic fear mongering, with the degradation of women. He didn’t strengthen the White working class. He isolated the White working class from its natural allies. He played the White working class, and in so doing, he is now poised to reverse years of civil rights gains, years of environmental gains, years of gains for women’s rights, years of health care gains, and years of regulations intended to protect the very workers for whom he claims to speak. That’s how racism rolls. It’s also how the rich get richer.

In his farewell speech Tuesday, President Obama made the argument that there will not be economic progress for working people if working people remain divided along racial lines. He said “Blacks and other minority groups [need to tie] our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who …has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change…. White Americans [must acknowledge] that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…. They’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised….  Native-born Americans [must remember] that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles—[they] were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” [7]

Let’s take his words to heart. Let’s imagine an America for everyone. And let’s fight for it: in the streets, at the marches, in the legislative halls, in the schools, in the media, and maybe even on a Saturday morning when nobody’s looking and the good tools need to be moved. Let’s make America greater than its racism!

When my grandad died, our family made the trip to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I vaguely remember arriving late. And I vaguely remember for a moment thinking we were in the wrong church. Our white Pawelek family walked into a church filled with Black people. Most of them were the teachers and students who had worked with Stan Pawelek over the years. Working men and women. The proud, heroic heart of America had come to pay its respects.

His racism was real. His America was greater.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Josh M., “Sending Forth: Six Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 13, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/sending-forth/.

[2] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” at https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[3] See biographical information for Valerie Wilson at http://www.epi.org/people/valerie-wilson/.

[4] Wilson’s study is entitled “People of color will be a majority of the American working class in 2032: What this means for the effort to grow wages and reduce inequality.” It was published on June 9, 2016. View it here: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/.

[5] William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage Books) is a definitive resource on this issue.

[6] Study the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform here: https://policy.m4bl.org/economic-justice/.

[7] “President Obama’s Farwell Speech: Full Video and Text,” nytimes.com, January 10, 2017. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/obama-farewell-address-speech.html?_r=0.

“13th”

On Saturday evening, January 14th, at 6:00 PM, in partnership with Moral Monday CT and the Industrial Workers of the World, UUS:E will show the Netflix film, “13th ” about the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and how it provides the foundation for the mass incarceration of people of color in our era. Bishop John Selders of Moral Monday CT and Rev. Josh Pawelek will lead a discussion of the film. We will also conduct a letter-writing session to current inmates who are attempting to unionize in order to end the exploitation of their labor by the prison-industrial complex.

We’ll provide pizza at 6:00 PM.

If you are planning to attend, if you’d like childcare, or if you’d prefer something to eat other than pizza, please contact Rev. Josh at revpawelek@sbglobal.net.

Thanks!

 

 

Living Principles

Public Witness In my sermon following the election of Donald Trump as United States President, I said “the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly.” But I offered only a very general suggestion of what that might mean in this historical moment. The more I spoke with members and friends of the congregation, the more it felt important to continue this morning exploring what this means, rather than preaching on the sources of rage in American culture and society as I had originally planned. I think this is important. I think the post-election narrative about rage in the nation is far too simple. It ignores many sources of rage, many longstanding grievances that continue to go unaddressed. I’ll preach that sermon on January 15th.  For now, what does it mean that our congregation sends us forth to live our Unitarian Universalist principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly?

Rehearsing the Beloved Community[1]

I don’t expect any of us, myself included, to know how to live our principles just because we say they are our principles. As we read through the Unitarian Universalist principles on the back of the order of service, we say, “yes, these are my principles, they speak to me, they resonate with me.” But that doesn’t mean we automatically know how to apply them to our lives. We certainly aren’t born knowing how to live them. We have to learn how to live them. And, in fact, we have to constantly relearn how to live them as the world changes. How do we learn and relearn? We practice. We practice here at church. This is, in fact, one of the purposes of church. Rehearsal. Heaven may not have come to earth, but we can rehearse for its arrival here. We may not experience beloved community out in the wider world, but we can rehearse it here. Practice, practice, practice.

Practice respect here. That’s our first principle. Practice acceptance here. That’s our third principle. Practice respect for and acceptance of people who are different from you in some way: people who believe differently than you; people with religious, cultural or geographical backgrounds different from yours; people whose age, ability, gender or sexual orientation is different from yours. Learn another’s perspective, then practice encountering the world from that perspective.

Practice compassion here—that’s part of our second principle. Practice approaching and being present to people who are suffering or in pain. Practice being attentive. Practice listening. Practice caring. Practice empathizing. Practice being supportive and nonjudgmental as others share their vulnerabilities in your presence. And, while you’re at it, practice asking for help from others. Practice accepting help from others. Practice being vulnerable, sharing your fears, your concerns, your anxieties in the presence of others who love and support you.

Practice democracy here. That’s our fourth principle. If you know the congregation is holding a meeting and taking a vote, learn what the vote is about, and then vote. But democracy is more than voting. Practice finding common ground. Practice building consensus. Practice letting everyone speak who wants to. If someone expresses a concern, practice pausing to address the concern, even if it means we might not finish everything on the agenda. If you’re typically quiet and reserved, practice speaking up. If you’re typically vocal and always offer ideas, practice waiting until everyone else has spoken. And if you are a person of privilege, practice making room for those with less privilege.

Practice justice-making here. That’s the heart of our second and sixth principles. Practice being fair. Practice peace-making. Let’s practice together not perpetuating sexism here, not perpetuating racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism and classism here. We’ve made some wonderful strides in recent years, so let’s also practice not taking our success for granted. If we want to move the wider world toward more justice, equity and compassion, then let’s practice moving ourselves toward more justice, equity and compassion.

Practice earth stewardship and sustainable living here, our seventh principle. Practice searching for truth and meaning here, our fourth principle.

Learn what living these principles feel like in practice here. Let the visceral experience of them here seep into your consciousness, your psyche, your heart, your bones. Let the experience capture your imagination for what your community, your town, the nation, the world can be. Begin looking for such experiences in other parts of your life. Begin to notice where they are present in the wider world, and where they are absent. Where they are present, name them, celebrate them, encourage them, build on them. Where they are absent, begin to introduce them, just like you’ve been practicing at church. Let church be rehearsal space for beloved community.

Don’t Take the Bait: Thoughts on the Second Unitarian Universalist Principle

Injustice and inequality don’t happen because individuals hold and profess extreme views. Injustice and inequality happen because those views operate in institutional structures and culture. Here’s an example of what I am talking about. If a company with a sexist culture fires a sexist boss, will that make sexism go away? No. A company with a sexist culture can’t make sexism go away simply by firing a sexist boss. A company with a sexist culture can reduce the impact of sexism by changing institutional structures and culture, by mandating equal pay for equal work, a fair and transparent path to promotion for all employees regardless of gender, a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, a trustworthy reporting process for victims of sexual harassment, and so on. Firing the sexist boss is relatively easy. But changing structures and culture takes time, education, organizing. It takes endurance, resilience and creativity. Firing a sexist boss might feel good—it might feel like a triumph for our values—and it might be the right thing to do, but there’s no guarantee anything will be different afterwards. Changing sexist structures and culture will reduce sexism in the company regardless of any individual’s personal views and behaviors. For me, living our second principle has rarely meant focusing on the things extremist individuals or groups do and say. It has always meant working to change structures and culture.

That’s become a very difficult line to parse recently. Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump would offer controversial, hateful statements into the crowd, then sit back with a smirk as the nation spun like a pinwheel around his words. We reacted. We took the bait. He would let it go on for a few days then walk the statement back. “No, we won’t punish women who get abortions.” “No, we won’t commit war crimes.” Later he would criticize the media for continuously replaying the first thing he said but not the second thing. “That’s unfair. You’re being biased.” The end result was nobody knew what he was proposing. The pinwheel ride continues. He’s still using this technique. And now some of his extremist supporters are using it too—provoking, testing, discerning what hateful words and actions they can get away with. Liberals are living in a state of constant reaction. Of course, some of this hate is more than mere provocation. Some of it poses a real threat and we need to respond. But we also need to learn how to recognize the difference between a real threat and an action intended just to get a reaction. The line is admittedly blurry, but we need to stop taking the bait.

Since November 8th I’ve never heard so many people—here and elsewhere—say “I want to get involved” or “I want to crawl out from under my rock and work for a more just society.” I think it’s great that people want to live our second principle more forthrightly. (I hope many of you who feel newly motivated will join our Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee at its next meeting on December 6th at 7:00.) But a word of caution: The principle is “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” not “earnest reaction to Trump’s latest tweet.” We’re not taking the bait.

The church sends us forth to dismantle the structures and culture that hold injustice and inequality in place. For more than a decade we’ve been advocating for more humane treatment of undocumented immigrants, civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, health care reform, criminal justice and drug policy reform, an end to mass incarceration of people of color, and a reversal of the policies and practices that drive income inequality. More recently we’ve committed ourselves to the Black Lives Matter movement and refugee resettlement work.  Let’s stay focused on these issues that have defined us, rather than reacting to the provocations of extremists. We sought justice, equity and compassion in human relations throughout the Obama presidency. We would be doing it throughout a Hillary Clinton presidency. We will do it throughout the Trump presidency. In the words of the old civil rights song, “keep your eyes on the prize!” Don’t take the bait.

Loving the Haters: Thoughts on the First Unitarian Universalist Principle

Love yourself fiercely. I say this because it truly is difficult to extend love outward if you cannot extend love inward. If you struggle with self-doubt, if you carry feelings of guilt or shame, if your confidence and esteem are low, if you feel you don’t deserve the love of others, if you’re wrestling with your privilege, if you’re angry, frightened, immobilized, lost, remember: the inherent worth and dignity of every person applies to you too. I know it can be incredibly difficult to move from self-doubt to self-love. It’s not a straightforward path. There may be wounds that run deep, that have never healed, that still hurt. It may be easy for me to say, but I feel I must say it: Love yourself fiercely. That is the foundation upon which we can offer genuine love to others.

Our first principle has been—and still is—for me, the starting-place for a liberating, anti-oppressive vision of the world. It focuses our attention on the oppressed, the impoverished, the most vulnerable. It calls us to love and support undocumented people, not because we all agree that it’s OK they entered the country illegally, but because they are our fellow human beings, the vast majority of whom are seeking to fulfill the same promises in life so many of us seek—honest work, a chance to succeed, safety for their families, education for their children, peace. It calls us to love and support the transgender teenager before they feel so hopeless that the only path they can imagine is suicide; to love and support Black lives before another young man lies dying in the street or incarcerated for nonviolent crimes; to love and support Muslim women who face the excruciating decision whether or not to wear the hijab and invite ridicule and violence, or to take it off and deprive themselves of a source of spiritual strength; to love and support the combat veteran struggling with PTSD; to love and support the Standing Rock water protectors; to love and support the opioid addict, the person living with AIDS, the homeless person; to love and support everyone now living in fear that their life-sustaining health care coverage is going to vanish.  

This vision of love and support for the oppressed and the vulnerable is the right vision; and it is difficult enough to make real. But it does not exhaust the scope of our first principle. It actually gets more difficult. Respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person requires us, also, to love and support the neighbor or the family member with the political lawn sign that disagrees with our political lawn sign; to love and support the person who wrote that insensitive letter to the editor, not to mention the troll comments further down the page; to love and support those White working class voters who feel not only forgotten and neglected but full of rage; to love and support the police officer who fired the fatal shot; to love and support the people who propose policies that threaten your rights or your well-being; the gun manufacturer who just produced a weapon that will be used to murder; the prison guard who abuses the prisoners; the drug dealer who peddles death in shiny little bags; the oil driller, the pipeline worker, the coal miner, the factory farmer, the rain forest logger—all those people whose livelihoods depend on industries and practices that destroy the earth; the 1% who hoard the wealth of the nations. And yes, it calls us to love the haters, the people who suddenly feel they have license to spread hate and division, to harass and bully—the avowed racists, the homophobes, the sexists. Love them. Love their families. Love their children.

So many have said, “No, I will not do this. I will not love people who hate. I’m sick and tired of the appeal to understand their perspective when they have never respected my perspective. I’m sick and tired of being asked to make nice with racism.” I keep saying some version of “When you hate I have no obligation to love you.  You don’t even want my love. You mock my love. So why should I bother?”

That’s how I feel. It’s an impasse. But I also know that if someone else’s hate has the power to define the scope of my principles, then hate wins. And that cannot happen. The impasse is real, but the power of love is greater. Someone else’s hate may be frightening, saddening, demoralizing, infuriating, anxiety-producing, but that doesn’t mean it has to weaken your capacity to love yourself, your neighbor, a stranger or your enemy. That doesn’t mean you must reduce the scope of our first principle from ‘every person’ to ‘only some people.’ I confess I don’t know how to love people who hate. I know I don’t have to accept hate. I know I still have to hold people accountable for their hateful words and deeds. I may have to forgive, but that does not mean I have to forget. So what do I have to do? I’m not sure yet. This dimension of our first principle requires an examination most of us haven’t done. But right now there is an abundance of hate, so it’s time to relearn how we live this principle. It’s time to come to church to practice loving the haters. That may sound elitist and arrogant to some listeners, but I’m not sure what choice we have. I principles require it.

In the very least I know this: as I am sent forth into the world, I will not let hate determine how I live my principles. Abundant love will determine how I live my principles. And abundant love has no limits.

Earlier I read to you Annette Marquis, “Deliver Us to Evil.” I’ll conclude my remarks this morning by sharing her re-working of the Lord’s prayer, a reminder to let love guide us in how we live our principles. She prays:  “Spirit of Life, which exists wherever there is love, / Blessed be all Your names. / Strengthen our will / To create heaven on earth, / And help us embody a peace-filled world. / Give us all our daily bread. / Teach us to forgive ourselves for our failings, / And to forgive those who have failed us. / Deliver us to evil / And give us the courage to transform it with Love. / For Love is the power, and the glory, / For ever and ever. / Amen.”[2]

Blessed be.

[1] This language of “rehearsing the beloved community” is not original to me, though I am not sure who to credit. I first encountered it at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City. Since then, I have heard numerous clergy around the country use this language to describe the purpose of the church.

[2] Marquis, Annette, “Deliver Us to Evil” in Montgomery, Kathleen, ed., Bless the Imperfect (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2014) pp. 75-76.

Sending Forth: Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election

Reaching Out to Those with Whom You Disagree

chalice-usaLast Sunday I stood in this pulpit and spoke of the way the United States presidential campaign had been traumatic to people all across the political spectrum—how so many different groups of people felt triggered by things that were said, done, hidden, revealed, denied, leaked, alleged or tweeted throughout the last eighteen months. Everyone, regardless of party, had their ‘ouch’ moment after moment after moment. The triggering was relentless. Anger on all sides grew and grew. My prescription for the resulting spiritual scarcity or, to use Cornel West’s term, “spiritual blackout,”[1] was—and still is—to cultivate spiritual abundance, which begins with practices—personal and collective—that connect us to realities larger than ourselves. The campaign seemed to stifle connection and thus has led to a widespread experience of spiritual scarcity. Spiritual abundance begins with connection.

I said the campaign revealed and exacerbated already extreme divisions along racial, geographic, educational, social, cultural, religious and political lines. Finding unity after the election will require extraordinary spiritual abundance on all sides. I said something needs to give, something needs to change. I said: “from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith.”[2] That was last Sunday.

I had, and continue to have, very mixed emotions when I counsel you “to reach out to someone who disagrees with you.” I believe this is ultimately what we must do, but I know that for some the act of reaching out feels like, and in all too many cases is, reaching into potential danger, into violence, into micro-aggressions, insults, bullying. Reviewing last week’s sermon now, I realize the reason I felt confident pronouncing those words prior to the election was because I, like virtually everyone else, was operating under the unexamined assumption that Hillary Clinton would win.  I was assuming our reaching out would happen in the wake of a national, electoral repudiation of the blatant racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, climate change denial, and anti-intellectualism that Donald Trump and Mike Pence deployed in order to motivate voters. It’s one thing to reach out when you feel an election result affirms your values—that’s hard enough. But it’s quite another thing to reach out when an election result rejects your values, rejects everything you hold dear, rejects the core principles that, for you, comprise the foundation of civilized society, and promises to destroy social and political structures that make you feel safe and fully included in the body politic. After the 2016 election, I’m not sure what reaching out looks like, at least not yet. I believe it is ultimately what we must do, but I have mixed emotions.

Principles, Not Parties

I am mindful that there are times when Unitarian Universalists speak in public about our faith and what we feel called to do in the world, and a criticism is offered—not a friendly one: “you sound like the spiritual wing of the Democratic Party.” A version of that criticism this week might be, “No wonder so many Unitarian Universalists are so upset about the election results—the Democrats lost.” I’ve always resented this criticism. I want to set the record straight.

First, yes, Unitarian Universalists tend to line at the liberal end of the political spectrum. We are majority Democrats. We vote Green. We vote Working Families Party in Connecticut. Some of us are Libertarians. Some of us are Republicans, though admittedly few. Unitarian Universalists are upset about the 2016 election results for many reasons, but party affiliation is not high on that list. One of the fundamental reasons so many of us are upset is because the result is a repudiation of the principles we hold dear, the principles on which we construct our religious life together. That is as true for UU Republicans as it is for UU Democrats. As Unitarian Universalists, and as Unitarian Universalist congregations, we covenant to affirm and promote: the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large; the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Based on what they have said through the course of the campaign and on what they have done through the course of their careers, the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence to the highest offices in the nation repudiates these life-giving, life-serving, life-celebrating, life-saving principles. That is upsetting.

Shocked, Not Shocked

All across the political spectrum people were shocked at the Trump/Pence victory. What was shocking about it? That Hillary Clinton lost when so many pundits and pollsters predicted she would win. To be fair, Clinton won the popular vote as predicted with just shy of 60.5 million votes to Trump’s approximately 60 million votes. But Trump won in the electoral college. That outcome was shocking because virtually nobody saw it coming.

I notice, however, that many on the political left are talking about their shock not simply at Clinton’s loss, but shock also that so many people voted for a candidate who expressed extreme views, racist views, misogynistic views, constitutionally dubious views, and so on, and a running mate who has worked hard and successfully to weaken worker’s rights as governor of Indiana and who signed into law a bill protecting companies that discriminate against same-sex couples. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard questions like “Who are these people?” “Where did they come from?” “What are they thinking?” “How do they not understand what Trump is saying?” But that mass of 60 million voters shouldn’t be shocking. While it pretty much always appeared that Clinton would win, it also always appeared that the election would be close, especially over the past few months. For those of us who fear President Trump is going to govern in a way that rejects our principles and reverses decades of what we regard as progress on civil rights, environmental protection, industrial regulation, health care, women’s rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and on and on, it makes sense that we feel troubled, concerned, frightened. But if we’re shocked that so many people voted for Trump/Pence because of or despite the views they’ve professed in word and deed, then we haven’t been paying attention. It may be deeply troubling, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Keep in mind that had Clinton won as predicted, that same mass of 60 million Trump/Pence voters would still exist and some moment of reckoning would still lay ahead of us.

Are There Really 60 Million Racist, Homophobic, Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Woman, Anti-Muslim Americans?

Putting the election outcome aside for the moment, what does it mean that nearly 60 million people voted for Trump/Pence? Specifically, does that mass of voters actually agree with and affirm their most egregious statements and policy proposals? I don’t think so. And on my best days, I assume no. Absolutely not. I tend to trust the notion I first saw expressed in a September article in The Atlantic that a high percentage of Trump/Pence voters took them seriously but not literally.[3] On my best days I assume that the Trump/Pence vote, especially in rustbelt heartland states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin was not an affirmation of racism, misogyny, homophobia and xenophobia, but rather a cry for economic renewal, a cry of frustration with the government, a cry for help. I said last week that significant numbers of Trump supporters are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. All this is true. Their traditional sources of economic security have disappeared. Their life expectancy is declining. Their communities are crumbling. Their health insurance premiums and deductibles are sky-rocketing. Heroin, meth and prescription pain-killers are ravaging their neighborhoods. Neither major political party has been able to stop this decline. Some will argue this is intentional. Others might call it benign neglect. The time had come last Tuesday for them to vote for a candidate who listens to them, who takes them seriously. Whether Trump actually takes them seriously remains to be seen, but on election day he—not she—fit the bill.

And on my best days, if that’s what this vote was really about—a cry for economic renewal; if President Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity—and if he and they can understand that he needs to do this in a way that benefits all Americans because the working class is not only White, it is in fact a highly racially diverse class—that’s a conversation I want to be in. Sign me up for that movement. Remember: principles, not party.

Stomper in Chief

I will never overlook the people Trump felt he could stomp on to win the election. He stomped on Mexicans and other Hispanics. He stomped on immigrants. He stomped on Black people. He stomped on women. He stomped on the queer community, especially in his selection of Pence as running mate. He stomped mercilessly on the American Muslim community. I’m tired of going through the list of all the people he stomped on. I don’t personally fit into any of these categories, but I know and love people who fit every identity Trump insulted, maligned and threatened during the campaign. People with those identities are beloved members and friends of this congregation. They are our partners in the community. I know their stories. I know something of their pain, their fear, their longing for peace and prosperity for themselves and their families, and I know their love for the nation. I signed on long ago to be an ally, to work in solidarity with oppressed people for their liberation, to work ultimately for our collective liberation, to build the beloved community.

So I am struggling. I know when we vote for candidates it doesn’t mean that we agree with everything they say or do. But it would make me feel so much better if there were some statement, some indication that the people who voted for Trump/Pence really don’t take them literally when it comes to border walls, climate change denial and ‘locking her up.’ I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that sexual assault is categorically wrong, and brushing off a confession of a pattern of sexual assault as mere locker room talk rather than condemning it actually helps to normalize it and makes the problem worse. I’d like to hear some acknowledgement that “stop and frisk” is not only unconstitutional but also a demonstrably racist practice that cannot possibly heal the racial divides in our nation. I would like to hear some acknowledgement that discrimination against people based on whom they love is wrong and does not belong in federal or state statutes. I would like to hear some acknowledgement of the fact that the vetting process for refugees to be resettled in the United States is the most thorough process of any nation on the planet. It takes on average four years for a Syrian refugee family to get from a camp in Jordan or Lebanon to home in the United States because the vetting process is so thorough; and, most importantly, no act of terror on American soil since 9/11 has ever been committed by a refugee. There is absolutely no evidence that Syrian refugees are terrorists.

You won the election. If you don’t take them literally, please let the rest of us know. It would help immensely in fostering unity.

Spiritual Abundance

Why do you come to church?

I’ve been asking this question in various ways throughout my eighteen years as a minister. It feels really important right now. The answers I hear are good answers, but I wonder now if they are sufficient answers. The answers we give include: my friends are here. I come for community or I love the community. I come to learn, to be challenged, to have something to think about for the week after Sunday. I come for my children so they can be accepted and loved and nurtured for who they are, invited into faith, not frightened into faith. I come for the music. I come because when I’m here I can breathe. I come because when I’m here I can cry. I come because when I’m here I feel connected. I come because when I’m here I can actually be myself. I come for support. I love the energy. I love the minister. I know that the minister loves us.

Each of these answers warms my heart.

But what I don’t hear is this: I come to be sent forth. I come to be sent forth into the world to love my neighbor. I come to be sent forth to love the stranger, the immigrant, the homeless person, the hungry person, the prisoner, the person who just lost their job. I come to be sent forth to love my enemies. I come to be sent forth to bear witness to suffering, to oppression, to injustice. I come to be sent forth to be present to suffering, to comfort, to heal, to resist and dismantle the systems that hold oppression in place, to build a more just and fair society. I come not simply to be reminded of my principles, but to be sent forth into the world to live my principles. I come to be sent forth.

Friends, I don’t think I’ve ever quite understood this until this week: the church is not serving you fully if it is not sending you forth into the world to live your principles proudly, resolutely, urgently, lovingly. The church is not a source of spiritual abundance in your life if it is not sending you forth.

If it wasn’t clear before Tuesday, it should be abundantly clear now. None of us can rest. Your age, your race, your work, your immigration status, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, your economic class, your theology, your political party, even your health to some degree—none of it matters in the sense that none of us can afford to come to church on Sunday and not take to heart the message that we are sent forth into the world to meet cynicism and despair with hope, to meet violence with peace, to meet hatred with love . . . and to organize for a more just and fair society.

From the sanctuary of my heart I promise I will always meet you here, and this place will always be a sanctuary for you. And I promise I will also meet you—and I will ask you to meet me—out in the world where the principles and love we celebrate here are desperately needed, and will make a way. They will make a way. They will bless the world.

I send you forth. Amen and blessed be.

 

[1] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016,” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

[2] Pawelek, Josh M., “Given Inches, I Take Yards,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT, November 6, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/given-inches-i-take-yards/.

[3] Zito, Salena, “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally,” The Atlantic, September 23, 2016. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/trump-makes-his-case-in-pittsburgh/501335/.

Given Inches, I Take Yards

bird“I know my soul will unfurl its wings”[1]—words from Unitarian Universalist minister, Mary Grigolia. As I sing these words I conjure an image of me rising up, me soaring, me flying, me pursuing my passions, my calling, my dreams; and an image of us rising up, us soaring, us flying, us pursuing our passions, our calling, our dreams. This image affirms for me that we are indeed, as the Sikh chant says, “bountiful, blissful, beautiful.”[2] A similar image and a similar affirmation come to mind as I encounter Naomi Replansky’s poem, “Housing Shortage.” “Excuse me for living,” she writes, “But, since I am living, / Given inches, I take yards, / Taking yards, dream of miles, / And a landscape, unbounded / And vast in abandon.”[3]

Our November ministry theme is abundance. I read Replansky’s poem as a description of the movement from spiritual scarcity to spiritual abundance. She begins in a place of limitation and constraint: “I tried to live small. / I took a narrow bed. / I held my elbows to my sides. / I tried to step carefully / And to think softly / And to breathe shallowly / In my portion of air /And to disturb no one.” Yet something in her cannot be held back. She says, “see how I spread out and I cannot help it.” She resolves to live big, to take yards, to dream of miles and a landscape unbounded.

Spiritual abundance means different things to different people, and I don’t want to offer a definition that might limit what it means to you. But for me, this morning, a sign of spiritual abundance is a strong and joyful sense of self. I witness it in the way a person smiles, the way they glow, the way they light up, the way they immerse themselves in a conversation or a project. Spiritual abundance fires in the heart a desire and willingness to live not behind masks, not within armor, not inside closets, but outwardly as your strong and joyful self. Spiritual abundance brings clarity about your vision for your life and a desire and willingness to pursue that vision. It brings clarity about how you want to live and then striving as best you can to live that way. It brings clarity about your values and principles, about your passions and gifts. It is Henry David Thoreau proclaiming, “I wish to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. I wish to learn what life has to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I have not lived.”[4] It is Rev. Grigolia singing “I know my soul will unfurl its wings.” It is Naomi Replanski saying “Excuse me for living.”

Spiritual abundance springs from our experience of connection to realities greater than ourselves: connection to family and friends; connection to communities—like this congregation, your neighborhood, your kids’ school, the senior center, the yoga studio, the choir, the singing circle, the Kirtan, the sangha, the book group; connections to the earth, a garden, the land, the planet; connections to Nature, the seasons, the sun, the moon, the stars; connections to spirit; connections to God, the gods, the Goddess; connections that pull you out of yourself, provide a greater perspective on what matters, and give you flashes of  insight and intuition into the mysteries of life; connections that reflect back to you the purpose of your life, making you feel strong and joyful, making you feel bountiful, blissful, beautiful. That’s what I mean by spiritual abundance this morning.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is somehow my normal state or that it is most peoples’ normal state. It doesn’t just happen. It takes work to get there. Experiencing the kinds of connections I’m referring to takes practice, intention, discipline. It takes worshipping, reading, prayer in all its forms, meditation in all its forms. It takes bending, bowing stretching, moving, rising, reaching. It takes dancing, singing, chanting, journaling, drawing, painting, sculpting, composing; not to mention organizing, advocating, demonstrating, marching, witnessing, serving, healing, feeding, housing and getting your hands dirty in the nurturing dark, brown earth.

Most days I’m ready for this work. I’m disciplined. I set the intention. But I have been struggling to get there in recent months. I have not been my best self. I have not been rising up, soaring, flying. If you have been experiencing a similar difficulty in recent months or over the last year, I am not surprised. I’m hearing it from lots of people in many different contexts. And it has everything to do with the campaign for United States president.

votingI haven’t spoken much about the current campaign from the pulpit, in part because so much has been said about it in so many forums; in part because I—and we as a congregation—do need to be careful not to endorse, either directly or indirectly, a candidate for any office; and in part because Unitarian Universalists vote whether the minister discusses the campaign or not. There is such a thing as the “pre-election” sermon where the minister urges the congregation to vote—the “Souls to the Polls” sermon. I’ve never given that sermon. A 2008 study revealed that 90% of Unitarian Universalists are registered to vote, which was well above the 76% of the general population who are registered.[5] I suspect more than 90% of you are registered and planning to vote on Tuesday. Our fifth Unitarian Universalist principle is “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” It has always been my impression that the people in this congregation take that principle very seriously when it comes to voting in civic elections. For that reason, I’ve never felt a strong call to preach a pre-election, get-out-and-vote sermon.

But I’ve also never felt such a strong sense of personal and national spiritual scarcity because of a campaign. I’ve experienced ugly and disheartening campaigns before. I’ve felt cynicism rise in me in response to things I’ve observed in previous campaigns. I have witnessed campaigns where the actions of one side seemed unfair and even abusive to the other side—the infamous “swift-boating” of John Kerry in 2004 is an example. But this is the first time I’ve ever felt that a presidential campaign was actually abusive to the electorate. So many things that have been said and done in this presidential campaign, from the primaries to today, have been painful to different groups of people. Survivors of sexual assault have been triggered. Women in general have been triggered. Blacks and Hispanics have been triggered. Muslims have been triggered. Immigrants have been triggered. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have been triggered. People with disabilities have been triggered. Christian Evangelicals have been triggered. Catholics have been triggered. Police have been triggered. Gold Star families have been triggered. White, working class men have been triggered. People without college degrees have been triggered. Traditional conservatives have been triggered. Bernie Sanders supporters have been triggered. Nasty woman. Basket of deplorables. Ouch. This campaign is causing pain.

Anxious voters will go to the polls on Tuesday with fear, rage and disbelief in their hearts. We’ve witnessed verbal and physical violence at campaign rallies, and there is still the possibility of violence at polling places.  We’ve heard appeals to intimidate voters. We’ve heard constant claims that the election is rigged. Just recently we’ve watched the FBI Director insert himself into the campaign in a way that, though technically legal, certainly violated the spirit of the law. Through criminal computer and email hacks we’ve glimpsed a variety of dubious, ‘behind-the-scenes’ interactions between people who aren’t supposed to be interacting—again, nothing blatantly illegal, but certainly violations of the spirit of the law.

On Wednesday morning a radio commentator on National Public Radio said, “it’s less than a week away from election day and there’s still time for several more stomach-churning events.” On one level she was being funny, but I take her words literally, because this election is making people sick. I’m not speaking metaphorically. I’m not speaking about the damage being done to our democratic traditions, which is sickening enough.  I’m speaking about the fact that people all across the political spectrum are literally sickened by what they are witnessing. I’ve certainly encountered it here at UUS:E. Many of my colleagues report the same thing. I spoke to a colleague the other day who said so many people had come to her for pastoral care in relation to the election that she felt the need to go into therapy just to get through it. I don’t feel I’m overstating this: The 2016 presidential campaign is abusing the electorate.

I have felt angry, frustrated, dumbfounded, frightened. I have been moving through my days with a sense of foreboding, with anxiety, with a pressing desire to just get away from it. I also find myself constantly seduced into a place of self-righteousness because in my Facebook and other social media feeds the other side—they, them, those people—are caricatured constantly as racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, immigrant-phobic and isolationist. They are presented as stupid, mean-spirited, potentially violent, dangerous. The temptation is to laugh, to get angry, to write them off, yet that just creates more anger, hate, and polarization. When I pause to assess my spiritual well-being, I am not doing very well. Outwardly I may be angry and cynical. But spiritually I am small, constrained, limited. Adapting Replansky’s words, I am holding my elbows to my sides. I am trying to step carefully. I am thinking softly. I am breathing shallowly. I am not bountiful, not blissful, not beautiful. My wings are not unfurled. My landscape is not vast in abandon. That is how the campaign has impacted me. I suspect many of you will report something similar.

“How do we come back from this?” is a question many are asking? How do we heal our communities, our nation, ourselves? I have some preliminary answers.

First, go to the polls and vote. However, my challenge to you is to vote from a place of abundance, not scarcity. If you’re imagining going to the polls with anything like anger, fear or confusion in your heart; if you’re one who is ‘holding your nose’ as you vote, how might you approach the ballot box differently? How might you say, adapting Replansky again, “Excuse me for voting!” And instead of voting the paltry inches we’ve been given, how might you vote yards? I say, vote despite the campaign. Vote because you affirm democracy, even as you recognize its flaws. Vote not because you’re choosing the lesser of two evils. Vote because your vote is a manifestation of your voice, and your voice matters.

Second, before you vote, given the abusiveness of this campaign, do something—some practice, some ritual, some artwork, some dance, some prayer—do something that connects you to a reality larger than yourself. Especially if you’re among those who’ve been hurting, who’ve felt sickened, who’ve been unnerved by the revelation of deep divisions in our society, shout it out: Excuse me for living!” And do something to connect yourself to a reality larger than yourself. You’ve been given inches, so take yards. And don’t be content with just yards. “Dream of miles,” says the poet, “And a landscape, unbounded.” And maybe, just maybe that strong sense of self will begin to emerge. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel joy as you vote.

But don’t let it end at the ballot box. If this campaign has any value, it is because it has finally exposed all the hatred, anger, fear, racism, sexism—all the brutal ugliness—that still resides in our nation. We need ongoing wisdom and grace to respond well to this phenomenon, to heal it, to transform it. We need spiritual abundance. With spiritual scarcity we stay in enclaves of like-minded people. We fail to seek out and understand opinions and principles different from our own. With spiritual scarcity we are easily seduced into believing in the righteousness of our own views, and the depravity of the views of others. But with spiritual abundance, with wings unfurled, with a landscape unbounded, there is room to engage, room to listen, room to heal. However, in creating such room, I’m not suggesting that we give sanctuary to racism, sexism, or homophobia. I’m not suggesting that people who refuse to recognize the reality of oppression should not be challenged on their refusal. And I am not suggesting that we tolerate glib affirmations of sexual assault or religious bans or the construction of border walls. But I am suggesting that many, many people who respond positively to such things—or seem to—are themselves hurting, frightened, confused, anxious, dispirited. They feel beaten up, forgotten, overlooked, blamed, and taken for granted. Regardless of who wins the election, these feelings aren’t going away.

I know it’s hard at times to feel sympathetic. It’s hard for me. But it is also clear to me that something has to give. Something has to change. Somehow the masses of people who occupy the different sides of our polarized electorate have to learn to hear each other, have to learn to engage constructively, have to work together. If we could for once take the election year rhetoric out of it, take the insults out of it, perhaps we could get back to being the people, to finding common ground, to governing together, to compromising. I know: it sounds like pie in the sky. It sounds impractical, unrealistic, impossible. But that is only because we the people suffer in a state of spiritual scarcity. Cornel West has called it a “spiritual blackout.”[6]

So excuse me for living! Before we speak of impossibilities, let’s pursue spiritual abundance. Start today. Whatever connects you to a reality larger than yourself, go do it. Repeat it on Monday. Vote on Tuesday. Repeat again on Wednesday. Repeat until the inches become yards become miles become a landscape unbounded. Repeat until your wings unfurl. And from that connected, centered, expansive place—that place of abundance—when you feel ready, reach out to someone who disagrees with you, invite conversation, listen, learn. They may not be interested, but if they are, then discern solutions, solve problems. In so doing, you begin to fulfill the promise of this nation. You begin to fulfill the promise of democracy. You begin to fulfill the promise of this faith. You’ve been given inches. Take yards. Start today.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Grigolia, Mary, “I know This Rose Will Open,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #396.

[2] Kaur, Madeleine Bachan, “Bountiful, Blissful, Beautiful,” Soul Songs, 2006. See: http://www.huemanbeing.com/soul-songs. See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nqFZTmXyddI&app=desktop. See also: http://www.sikhnet.com/gurbani/artist/bachan-kaur.

[3] Replansky, Naomi, “Housing Shortage,” in Marilyn Sewell, ed., Cries of the Spirit: In Celebration of Women’s Spirituality (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991) pp. 34-35.

[4] Thoreau, Henry David, “To Live Deliberately,” Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press and the UUA, 1993) #660.

[5] “Unitarian Universalist Demographic Data from the American Religious Identity Survey and the Faith Communities Today Survey,” 2008, p. 19. See: http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/congservices/2012_uudemo_survey.pdf.

[6] West, Cornel, “Spiritual Blackout in America: Election 2016” Boston Globe, November 3, 2016. See: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/11/03/spiritual-blackout-america-election/v7lWSybxux1OPoBg56dgsL/story.html.

Community Conversation on Black Lives Matter — October 30th, 2:00 PM

dsc_2065The congregation of Unitarian Universalist Society: East (UUS:E) in Manchester will hold a community conversation on Black Lives Matter on Sunday afternoon, October 30th at 2:00 PM at 153 West Vernon St. in Manchester. All are welcome.

The UUS:E congregation voted earlier this year to support the Black Lives Matter movement.  Unitarian Universalists have a strong tradition of social justice engagement and a commitment to civil rights for oppressed peoples.  The national Unitarian Universalist Association has also committed numerous times to supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. 

#BlackLivesMatter is a liberation movement responding to Black peoples’ collective experience of oppression in the United States today. Co-Founder Alicia 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.”

“As majority White Unitarian Universalists, we can at the very least understand that far too many Black people and other People of Color feel unheard, disrespected, forgotten, marginalized, penalized, wounded and, far too often, killed by our systems,” said Rev. Joshua Pawelek in a sermon earlier this year.

At the October 30th community conversation, Rev. Pawelek and others will discuss what the congregation’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement means, and then entertain questions and dialogue.

 

Are You Politically Correct?

wheelchair

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I begin with a trigger warning. If you are a person who is triggered by the concept of trigger warnings, be forewarned: In general I support trigger warnings—in academia, and in sermons. Also, a further trigger warning: if you think political correctness is running amok in the United States, know it is my firm conviction that it is not. I contend most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression.

I want to tell you my experience of what happened during and after the opening worship at Ministry Days in Columbus, OH last June. Ministry Days is an annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist and associated clergy that takes place ever year during the two days prior to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association or UUMA organizes Ministry Days. I am currently serving in the fourth and final year of a term on the UUMA Board of Trustees. During this term I have been responsible for leading the work of the UUMA’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression, and Multiculturalism.[1]

The story begins last winter when the incoming president of the UUMA asked my committee to lead the opening worship at Ministry Days. We designed our worship service around an adaptation of the New Testament story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on water. In the story Peter walks on water briefly, but then becomes frightened and sinks. Many people interpret that story to mean that Peter’s faith wasn’t strong enough. Our point was to say, “wait a minute – he walked on water! Isn’t that amazing?” We selected hymns with a walking theme: “One More Step” and “Guide My Feet.” In our homilies we used the Peter story as a metaphor for our work on antiracism and muliculturalism within the UUMA and in the institutions we serve as clergy. We acknowledged that this is the hard and necessary work of institutional change, that we have to do it if we want to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, that we have to take risks, that we have to get out of the comfort of our boats and attempt to walk on water. And we will only get so far before we sink. Then we tread water until someone helps us reach dry land; and when we’re ready, we try again. Our work continues.

All the worship elements fit together wonderfully … unless you happen to be one of our clergy colleagues who doesn’t walk with ease or doesn’t walk at all. It turns out our constant references to walking were painful to some of our colleagues with physical disabilities. After hearing us speak, sing and pray about walking, stepping, marching, feet and legs again and again, and after hearing it without any acknowledgement that not everybody walks, some of our colleagues started to feel excluded, isolated, and invisible. Some expressed their pain to us directly. Some expressed it on their written evaluations of Ministry Days. Some wrote about it on Facebook. People were upset.

As soon as it came to my attention, which was as soon as the service ended, I recognized what had happened. We had failed to account for the way this metaphor might be received by colleagues with disabilities. We had failed to account for the ways colleagues living with any kind of disability might be wary of, annoyed at, or hurt by the use of any kind of body-based metaphors without, in the very least, a recognition that these metaphors are not universally meaningful. As a result, some of our colleagues experienced a form of ableism. According to the UUA’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry,[2] ableism is the term “used to describe the discrimination against, and the exclusion of, individuals with mental health and physical disabilities from full participation in available community options, such as employment, housing, and recreation.”[3] Nobody accused us of discrimination, but our language made some people feel excluded, made them feel like second class UUMA members. And when you arrive at Ministry Days after a long, possibly difficult year in ministry, when you’re finally together with beloved colleagues expecting to settle into worship and be fed and nurtured, but instead you encounter language that causes you pain? Ouch!

I was mortified, embarrassed, sad. Among my colleagues I have a reputation for being a person who doesn’t make these kinds of mistakes, a person who anticipates how certain words and metaphors will be received, a person who strives mightily not to exclude, not to cause harm. Furthermore, this was the Committee for Antiracism, Anti-Oppression and Multiculturalism. We’re the people who are supposed to model inclusive, multicultural worship.

But we weren’t defensive. We listened. We took responsibility. The next day, at the end of the UUMA business meeting, I offered an apology.[4] And when my remarks were later published on the UUMA website, I added that, given what had happened, and given other experiences of ableism our colleagues with disabilities and their allies had discussed with us, the UUMA board had decided to conduct an accessibility audit. Over the coming year we would examine all the ways we gather and work together as colleagues, discern how our institutional culture may exclude colleagues with disabilities, and then recommend best practices for avoiding those exclusions in the future, including best practicehttp://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htms around our use of language. 

It was hard to offer a public apology. But I felt good about it. It felt like we were responding from a place of integrity and humility. People who said they felt excluded the day before thanked me for the apology. One even said it ought to be used in the seminaries as an example of a real apology. Healing was happening.

Or so I thought. A firestorm erupted online in response to my apology. It quickly became clear that some colleagues felt the people who complained about ableism were being too sensitive. “It’s just a metaphor.” “It wasn’t a condemnation of them.” “How are they going to survive in ministry if they can’t handle a simple metaphor?” Some argued that I and our committee and the UUMA board had been manipulated into apologizing and committing to conducting an audit—that we were reacting to pain and anger, but not to real substance. Thus, they felt no apology was necessary. No, this was a case of political correctness running amok in Unitarian Universalism. They predicted our audit would lead us to request that UU clergy no longer use body-based metaphors. No more seeing. No more hearing. No more “running this race.” No more “standing on the side of love”­­—the slippery slope to censorship!

I don’t know the origins of the term “Political Correctness” or PC. I remember when the term arrived suddenly at Oberlin College in the late 1980s when I was a student there. Oberlin was and continues to be a very liberal school. Its students have been known for their advocacy for progressive causes for nearly two centuries. I remember liberals using PC to refer in a serious way to holding a set of progressive views. You were PC if you were antiracist, supportive of gay and lesbian equality, supportive of South African divestment, supportive of environmentalism and the greening of the campus. PC also had related to language. We didn’t say Black, we said African American. We interrogated language that equated dark with evil, and light with good. We didn’t say “man” to refer to all humanity. We didn’t say mentally retarded, we said people with developmental disabilities. We learned to use “person-first” language—not that disabled person, but that person with a disability. We tried to speak in a way that was affirming of people different from ourselves, that more accurately reflected their experience, that honored their integrity.  And although some alleged we were becoming “language police,” I remember owning my own political correctness. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t want to hurt people with my words. And truth be told, I didn’t want to sound ignorant of the great diversity of identity and experience all around me.

I also remember that PC was not only a serious label; it was also tongue-in-cheek, way of saying, “yes, we know what we believe in, we know what causes we support, we want to be more inclusive and compassionate in our language, but let’s not take ourselves so seriously that we stop listening to views that differ from our own. Let’s not approach our causes so earnestly that we alienate the people we hope to influence.”

By the time I arrived in Boston in the 1990s, PC was no longer a positive term. It had become a criticism of liberalism on college campuses and elsewhere. Alan Bloom had published The Closing of the American Mind; Dinesh D’Souza had published Illiberal Education—both strong, conservative critiques of liberal political correctness and multicultural education in the United States. Today PC is a purely pejorative term. It’s a put down. People use it as a way of saying, “you’re being excessively liberal in your views.” “You’re being silly, naïve, ridiculous.” “You’re being too sensitive.”

Perhaps the latest version of pushback against a perceived, PC mania is the attempt to abandon trigger warnings on college campuses. A trigger warning alerts an audience that a potentially difficult topic is going to be discussed. It helps people who have a history of trauma in relation to that topic prepare themselves mentally and emotionally to take part in the discussion. It is a compassionate gesture, but compassion isn’t prevailing in the debate over trigger warnings. A University of Chicago letter to incoming freshmen in August stated “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”[5]

As a Unitarian Universalist I am conflicted. Our faith tradition highly values freedom of thought, speech, expression, conscience and religion. We value spiritual freedom. We value the rights and integrity of the individual. We welcome the free interchange of ideas. We welcome debate and discussion, especially around controversial issues. And the idea of creating intellectual or spiritual safe space in which to retreat from ideas at odds with our own would seem to run contrary to our fourth principle, “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and in society at large.” So, trigger warnings, political correctness, safe spaces—all those things that stifle the free interplay of ideas—potentially mute our capacity to learn and grow in the presence of controversial ideas, and thus they seem to be at odds with Unitarian Universalism’s core principles.

But I am conflicted. If I use walking as a metaphor to describe the spiritual life over and over again in my worship services, and a person who cannot walk tells me they feel excluded or invisible, is it sufficient for me to respond, “Sorry, that’s the free interchange of ideas. You’re trampling on my freedom to express myself spiritually. It’s your job—not mine—to translate my metaphor into your life circumstances?” No. It isn’t sufficient. It’s actually quite callous. Isn’t it the case that the person who says, “Wait a minute, you’re excluding me,” or “You’re speaking as if your metaphor works for everyone but it doesn’t,” or “Your comments feel racist or homophobic or sexist and we need to talk about that,” or “Before you preach about rape and sexual abuse, please provide a trigger warning because some of us are living with post-traumatic stress and we need to prepare ourselves mentally and emotionally to hear your message”—isn’t it the case that the person who says any of these things is actually the one inviting the free interplay of ideas? And in not engaging with them, in shutting them down by throwing the principle of freedom at them, by calling them too sensitive, by calling them manipulative—or, worse, bullies—and by charging them with political correctness, aren’t I the one retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own? 

I said at the beginning of my remarks that most allegations of political correctness are attempts to ignore, deny or demean the real pain and suffering that real people feel due to exclusion and oppression. Knowing that, when someone raises a concern with me about how they’ve been ignored, denied or demeaned, or when they offer me a new set of metaphors and different words that are more inclusive of them, or when they pull me aside simply to share that something I said or did caused them pain, I take them seriously. I listen. As my dear colleague, Rev. Mitra Rahnema said at Ministry Days, “I’m not going to argue the existence of oppression”–meaning that if someone is raising it as a concern, we need to talk about it, not shut it out. I take them seriously and I listen because they are inviting a real conversation, one from which I have something to learn. Those kinds of conversations lead to a wider welcome, greater inclusion, more peace, and ultimately more justice. Those kinds of conversations lead more surely to the beloved community than taking refuge in the freedom to say whatever I want without opposition. Call me politically correct. Call me too sensitive. Tell me I’ve been manipulated and bullied. I don’t think so. When we listen and respond with love, humility and, when necessary, apology, we are on our way to beloved community.

Amen and blessed be.

Addendum: “Answering the Call of Love”

For many years, Unitarian Universalists with disabilities and their allies have raised concerns about the song, “Standing on the Side of Love,” by the Rev. Jason Shelton, Associate Minister for Music at the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN. Standing on the side of love is one of those metaphors that makes some people with physical disabilities—specifically people who have trouble standing or who can’t stand—feel excluded. They understand it’s a metaphor, not to be taken literally. But so many metaphors are body-based, and when they are used over and over again without any acknowledgement that they are derived from physical experiences that are not universal, it makes sense that after a while, some people will start to feel excluded.  Surely we can find other words, other metaphors that are more inclusive. And in the very least we ought to acknowledge when they are not.

Rev. Jason Shelton has always been aware of the concerns raised about “Standing on the Side of Love.” He has understood the concerns. He has listened to them. And I suspect he has lost sleep over them. He hasn’t always known what to do about the concerns, in part because the title and the lyrics are published. It’s#1014 in Singing the Journey, “Standing on the Side of Love.” Jason was involved in the conversations our colleagues were having at Ministry Days and afterwards. And I think it’s fair to say that he and I are of like minds on this topic. It matters that we listen. It matters that we engage, even if it’s uncomfortable; and if we can do things differently and even make sacrifices for the sake of inclusion, justice and beloved community, then we ought to do them. Jason preached a powerful sermon on this topic in Nashville on August 14th.[6] In that sermon he said that as much as he is attached to standing on the side of love, love matters more than his lyrics, and he is willing to change the words. He said it came to him in the middle of the night: “Answering the Call of Love.” This word change, he said, is a way of actually embodying the meaning of the song. “What love calls us to do,” he said, “is to be in deeper relationship with one another, to see one another more clearly, to respond to those needs and to let go of our attachments—and God knows I’m attached to those words. But love is more important.” And then the congregation sang, “Answering the Call to Love.” I invite us to sing it now with these new words.

[1] To learn more about the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association’s Committee for Antiracism, Anti-oppression and Multiculturalism, see: https://uuma.site-ym.com/?page=comaraom.

[2] Visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) program website at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim.

[3] Visit the AIM glossary at http://www.uua.org/accessibility/aim/aim-glossary.

[4] Read the full text to the apology at the UUMA website: http://www.uuma.org/news/295634/Response-to-Concerns-Raised-About-Ministry-Days.htm.

[5] Vivanco, Leonor and Rhodes, Dawn, “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces,’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016. See: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html?utm_source=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_campaign=Week+of+8.29.16&utm_medium=email.

[6] Shelton, Jason, “In Body or In Spirit,” a sermon delivered to the First Unitarian Church of Nashville, TN on August 14, 2016. Visit: http://www.thefuun.org/sermons-audio-archives/ and scroll down to the archives for August.

Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War” online now!

sharp-warThe new documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War” premiered on September 20th on PBS.  3.2 million people tuned in, and we hope you were one of them. If not, it is now possible to watch it online. Unitarians Waitstill and Martha Sharp courageously answered a call to go to Europe in the months leading up to WWII. They were instrumental in saving hundreds of lives. This is their story. This is our story!

Watch “Defying the Nazis: The Sharp’s War”.