“Relief, Ambivalence, Fear and Resolve – UUS:E Virtual Worship, November 8, 2020

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Relief, Ambivalence, Fear and Resolve
Rev. Josh Pawelek
Unitarian Universalist Society: East
Manchester, CT
November 8, 2020

News outlets across the country have declared Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. and Kamala Devi Harris president and vice president of the United States. I want to talk about feelings. Mindful that we as a congregation, we as residents of the greater Manchester and Hartford communities, we as Americans were already on edge, already emotionally raw, already feeling depleted and drained from the pandemic, from the sputtering economy, from the nationwide racial reckoning, from the bitter campaign season, it seems really important to me to name the various emotional responses that have crystallized since election day. I want to get my feelings out. I want you to get your feelings out if you aren’t doing so already. I don’t want unnamed and unexpressed feelings to weigh us down, mute us, make us sick, as they can and often do. I want us to have our feelings, not to be had by them. I want our feelings to be of service to us as we enter into the next chapter of life in the United States.

First and foremost, in response to the Biden-Harris victory, I feel immense relief. The Trump presidency has been divisive, chaotic, and destructive. It has destroyed—or attempted to destroy—cherished American values, critical environmental and business regulations, and public trust in essential institutions and journalism.  It has destroyed or attempted to destroy our longstanding international relationships. It has destroyed, or attempted to destroy, our faith in each other. It has been heart-breaking, painful and, for many, traumatic. More than relief, knowing this divisive, chaotic, destructive person will be leaving 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a source of excitement, enthusiasm and joy.

This election easily could have gone the other way. The margins were incredibly close. I’m mindful that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s nonpartisan voter turnout campaign, UU the Vote, reached over 2 million voters in battleground states. Members of our congregation participated and reached over 5,000 of those voters. Thank you to everyone who participated in that effort. I am proud of you. I am proud of our denomination. Those efforts are a testament to the power of our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” I am proud.

I feel relieved, joyful, proud. I also feel ambivalent. Frankly, I feel ambivalent about what Biden and Harris can actually accomplish. I’ve been struggling to put into words what the Biden / Harris victory means. I am grateful to UUS:E member Jeannette LeSure who sent me a message yesterday to remind me what it means. I have her permission to adapt her words and share them with you. She said this victory brings a president

  • who has translated life-threatening illness and overwhelming loss into tremendous compassion and a genuine desire to help people;
  • who knows how to listen;
  • who understands unifying our fragmented, divided country is a top priority;
  • who will rebuild longstanding international alliances;
  • who will bring knowledgeable, committed people back into government;
  • who will work to find bipartisan solutions to our most pressing problems;
  • who will put addressing the horrors of the pandemic front and center.
  • Who knows how to apologize when he makes a mistake.

This victory also brings a vice president

  • who gives ALL daughters the knowledge that every woman—white, Black, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx—daughters of immigrants, daughters from poverty—can imagine themselves at the height of power in United States society;
  • who has tremendous legal and government experience;
  • who joins her compassion with strength;
  • who is the daughter of immigrants;
  • who is healthy and young and ready to lead if circumstance require it;
  • who has a sense of humor.

Jeannette concludes: they will be a true team. And we will not have to feel shame and fear about their behavior all the time, all day long, hour upon hour.

Nevertheless, I cannot escape ambivalence. For example, I trust Biden is committed to the flourishing of a multiracial, multicultural, pluralistic United States, but I don’t experience him as the leader who can fully, effectively cultivate that flourishing. I hope I am wrong. I trust he’s committed to worker rights, to rebuilding the middle class, to limiting corporate excess and rising income inequality, to strengthening the Affordable Care Act, to protecting women’s full reproductive rights, to rebalancing the tax code, but I don’t see him in a position to overcome the challenges of a painfully, polarized nation. I hope he can meet those challenges—I hope, I yearn, I pray—but I remain ambivalent.


All these feelings so far are on the surface. When I peer beneath the surface, I realize I am grieving. The Biden / Harris victory doesn’t erase a profound sense of loss: loss of civility in public life; loss of relationships across political and ideological lines; loss of trust that our leaders can accomplish bold, people-centered, earth-centered initiatives; loss of agreement about what is true; loss of confidence in the future nation and planet we bequeath to coming generations. The pandemic is still raging across the country, bringing a tidal wave of loss – loss of our regular ways of being and relating and interacting in the world; loss of in-person family connections; loss of life; loss of Sunday morning; loss of the choir and the song circle singing together; loss of in-person religious education for our kids; loss of touch and hugs and looking into each other’s eyes, supporting, loving each other in person.


At our post-election vigil on Thursday I read from the writer, organizer and progressive, antiracist American thought leader Adrienne Maree Brown’s book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.  I’ve been clinging to her words in order to engage with my own grief. She says “You are water. Of course you leave salt trails. Of course you are crying…. If there happens to be a multitude of griefs upon you, individual and collective … or small and large, add equal parts of these considerations: that the broken heart can cover more territory. that perhaps love can only be as large as grief demands. that grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life. that grief is gratitude…. that even your tears seek the recognition of community. that the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction…. that your grief is a worthwhile use of your time. that your body will feel only as much as it is able to. that the ones you grieve may be grieving you.” There is no quick-fix answer to our grief. There is only the grieving process. In the very least, let’s grieve our losses together, openly and honestly, trusting that “the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction.”

Accompanying my grief is fear. I tread cautiously into my own fear. As a person with significant race, class and gender privilege I question whether it is reasonable to feel fear. Yet I feel it. President Trump has created space for the flourishing of very specific vision of the United States and, more fundamentally, a very specific vision of what makes for a good person. His vision is racist. His vision is patriarchal. His vision is grounded in White Christian Nationalism which is anti-woman, anti-queer, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and which—it must be said—is not the same thing as Christianity. His governing preference is for autocracy rather than democracy. His idea of a good person is one who wins at all costs, one who believes respect for the opposition is weakness. His good person is arrogant and selfish, suspicious and paranoid, demanding loyalty rather than healthy, constructive criticism. His good person uses chaos, lies and personal insults. His good person is super-wealthy. His good person amasses power in order to punish enemies. 70 million people voted for him. Even if those voters reject Trump’s behavior, those 70 million votes, in the very least, signal a high level of American comfort with his vision and his conception of what a good person is. So yes, I feel fear. I am fearful because white supremacists are “standing by.” I am fearful because the Supreme Court now has a hard right conservative majority with the power to eviscerate a host of health care, voting, reproductive, labor, and civil rights, along with environmental protections that have been the norm for 50 years. I am fearful because there are United States citizens who felt moved this week to gather at polling sites and demand that the vote counters stop counting. How is that not a demand for an end to our democracy? I feel fear.

But please know this: deeper by far than grief and fear are feelings of resolve and hope.

The choir sang: “What does the world require of you? To seek justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly in the world.” I come back to these words, adapted from Micah 6:8, again and again in the wake of national tragedies—those large events, those collective experiences that breed anxiety and fear, that unnerve us, unground us, disorient and disrupt us. In response to all of it I come back to justice, kindness, humility. I add love to the list. Love heals. Love saves. Love endures. Love prevails. Love wins.

Whatever may come, I know we have a solid moral compass grounded in justice, kindness, humility, and love. Whatever may come, I have faith in you, as human beings, as Unitarian Universalists, as citizens and residents of the United States. I know you are patriots who understand the union is not perfect but that it can be made more perfect, more inclusive, more fair, more just through our collective, liberatory actions. In the midst of grief and fear, this knowledge fills me with resolve to continue as your spiritual leader, to continue proclaiming our values from the pulpit and in the public square, to continue organizing, to continue nurturing relationships and connections, to continue building the beloved community.

After coming through this week, through these pandemic months with many more to come, through these last four years, I am grieving and fearful, but I am not trapped in those feelings. I have them. But they serve me. Not the other way around. And because they serve me, I feel a sense of resolve. And with resolve comes hope.

My prayer for each of us is that we can have all our feelings, and in doing so, arrive at resolve and hope.

May we be resolved. May we be hopeful.

Amen and blessed be.