Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Reflections on the story, "Grandmother's Courage"

On Sunday, September 10, 2017, the congregation I serve celebrated its annual Balloon Sunday.  We heard the story we called "Grandmother's Courage," and my reflections were an exploration of its message.  (Although the story is not included in this post, I think the lessons are clear even without knowing it.)

In seminary I was taught the skill and the art of exegesis.  Exegesis is a word that describes the interpretation of a text – usually a passage of sacred scripture.  It comes from an ancient Greek word that means, “to lead out.”  To do exegesis, to exegete, is to “lead out” the deeper meanings of a text.  Now … like I said … you normally exegete a passage of sacred scripture, but this morning I’m going to exegete the story Leia read a little while ago.

It all starts at midnight.  In many myths and stories midnight is a time of mystery and magic; it’s the transitional point between the day that has been and the day that is coming.  I think it’s important to recognize that Grandmother doesn’t realize that it’s midnight.  She think it’s her normal time of waking, 3:00 (which, for me at least, is not a magical time at all).

Because Grandmother doesn’t realize that she’s at this magical moment – she doesn’t realize that there’s anything out of the ordinary – and apparently neither does her horse.  Smart just plods along the way he always does, and Grandmother is so used to her routine that she’s even able to fall asleep!
But then, as in all good hero myths, something dangerous comes.  Smart and the Grandmother can tell that it’s coming, can sense its approach – it doesn’t suddenly appear.  This, of course, gives them both time to get pretty scared.

What does come suddenly, what does appears as if from nowhere, is that hare.  It just pops up, jumps up onto Smart and then into Grandmother’s lap, and without even pausing for a moment to think about what to do, Grandmother acts.  She acts to save the hare.  It’s just the right thing to do.  She may be scared, but she’s strong.

And then that scary rider comes up.  She can’t make out what, exactly it is, but she knows that it’s dangerous, and she knows that it’s bad.  Have you ever just had a feeling about something that it just wasn’t … right?  That something was wrong, even though you couldn’t put your finger on just what it was?  Well, that’s where the Grandmother found herself.  But even though she was scared, she persisted.

Now I want to pause here for a minute.  It was a hare.  It was a little bunny that she was putting herself in danger for.  It was just a rabbit that she was quite possibly risking her life for!  A lot of people would think that a hare is too small, too unimportant, too insignificant to take such a risk for.  I just wanted to make sure that we all recognized that.

Now my absolute favorite part of the story is the way the Grandmother answers the scary rider.  She doesn’t lie; she answers his question completely honestly.  She gives him the answer he’d asked for, but in such a way that she kept that hare safe.  I love that.  She didn’t lie; she didn’t forget about her values in order to save herself.  She stayed true to who she was, even though it was dangerous to do so.

And then we find that that small, unimportant, insignificant little bunny was something else entirely.  She did a good dead without knowing the full extent of its impact.  She just did what she thought was right without knowing, really, what it was she was doing.  If she’d known that that hair was really a bewitched woman, cursed to run eternally from the pursuit of that rider, it still would have been a good thing that the Grandmother did what she did, but it wouldn’t have been quite so … heroic … would it?

The grandmother did nothing extraordinary, she just “carried on;” she just did what she’d normally do, what her instincts, and her values, and her way of being in the world led her to do each and every day.  But this day, carrying on, simply being herself, made all the difference in the world.

I want to make one more point about this story.  But first I want to remind people of what we talked about last week.  We talked about pots – pots, and bowls, and cups, and people like us that have cracks in them, weak spots, broken places.  And we said that those very cracks, those very weak and broken places, might be the source of some of our greatest strengths.

That was a very individual-focused reflection.  It was intended to remind each of us … each of us individually … you, and me, and everyone else, that we have more beauty in us that we know, and more strength than we can imagine.

But the individual is only a part of the picture.  Because we’re not just a group of individuals here.  We’re a community.  We ritualized that truth when we poured our individual containers of water into that one, communal bowl.  But we didn’t really talk about it much.  We didn’t really focus our attention on it.

I want to focus our attention on it this morning, because the importance and power of the community is also something we need to remind ourselves of over, and over, and over again.  It’s so easy to forget.  It’s so easy to get caught up in the realities of our own lives as individuals, that we can forget the realities of our lives as part of something larger than ourselves, the realities of our lives as part of a community.

So here’s the last thing I want to lift up about the story “Grandmother’s Courage,” the last truth I’d like to lead out of it for us to consider:   the Grandmother was not alone.  She didn’t do the things she did all by herself.  She was in a relationship.  She was part of a community – a community of two, but a community nonetheless.  She was in a relationship with her “faithful companion for close to forty years.”  And when the Grandmother was asleep, Smart was “trembling all over,” and “his mane and tail were still with fright.”  But as soon as Grandmother woke up, as soon as Smart was no longer feeling alone, as soon as that old horse was once again in relationship with his community, he calmed down.  And when the Grandmother’s “heart was pounding [and] palms sweating” from fright, it was Smart who was able to give her the strength to do the heroic thing she did.  Or, rather, the heroic thing that they did, because neither of them did it – neither of them could have done it – without the other.

And we, too, need community to be our best, most true and authentic selves.  We need this community, which so many call their spiritual home, to be as strong, and as beautiful, as we are meant to be.  Only in community can we have the courage “to relax and trust our hearts to guide us even when we don’t think we know what to do,” because only in community can we be sure that we are held in loving hands, with care-filled hearts.

Pax tecum,


Sunday, September 03, 2017

Of Cracks and Flowers

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, September 3, 2017, at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA.  This was our annual In-Gathering Water Communion celebration.

I have always loved the story Leia just read.  I first heard it years and years ago, and it touched me then.  All these years later it continues to move me.

One of the reasons I so love that story is because I am that pot with a crack in it.  I know only two well what it’s like to be so aware of the places that I have cracks, weaknesses, deficits, brokenness, less-than-ness … where I don’t think I’m good enough (or at least as good as that other person over there).  I have a friend who used to say, “I don’t want to be perfect … just better than everybody else.”  I know only too well those places where I’m not.

There are people who are better preachers than I am.  There are people who are more compassionate and better listeners.  There are a whole lot of people who are better organized.  There are even people who know more than I do about comic books and the Batman.  I know only too well the places where I’m cracked, where I can’t do something as well as I’d like to.  As well as I think I should.

This being for many of us here the beginning of a new school year, I’m thinking back to how it felt to worry that I might not be able to do the work this year.  To worry about whether or not this year I’d fit in.  I know enough teachers to know that it’s not just the students who worry about these things.  See … all of us have cracks, and all of us know it.  Even if we pretend to ourselves, and try to convince others, that we don’t … we do.  And all of us, all of us at least some of the time look at the people around us and wish we could hold water as well as they can.

Does anybody know what I’m talking about?

And sometimes … sometimes … we feel that those cracks are such a problem that we want to give up, or we do give up.  We think, “I’m not good enough, and I’m never going to be good enough, so why bother even trying?”  A lot of people stop drawing after a certain point, or singing, or dancing, because they don’t think they’re any good and won’t probably ever get any better.  My dad couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket even if it was stapled to his forehead.  But he loved music.  He loved music.  And he had three very musical sons, and I think he really, really wanted to be able to make music, like we could, instead of just listening to it.  So later in his life he bought himself a keyboard, and a couple of “how to play the piano” books … and he never did anything with them.  They sat in a closet.  And I think he never even tried to learn to play because he was so convinced that he couldn’t.  He saw that crack so clearly.  He saw that crack so clearly that it was hard to see anything else.

Does anyone have a crack they’d be willing to share?  Something you wish you could do, or think you’re supposed to be able to do, that you think you’re not good enough to do?  <...>  Yeah.  We know only too well where we’re cracked, don’t we?

But I said that my empathy for the pot with the cracks was one of the reasons I love this story.  The other is the wisdom of the water carrier.  Because the water carrier knows that the pot’s cracks are just part of what makes that pot what – who – it is.  The water carrier knows that the cracks aren’t anything terrible, aren’t anything to be ashamed of.  The water carrier knows that the cracks are just … cracks.

Even more, the water carrier can see that the cracks can be a good thing.  Yes, it’s true.  The pot with the cracks can’t carry a full amount of water.  But it can water the flowers along the path, and that’s something that the pot without the cracks can’t do.  You might even say that that pot’s lack of cracks is, itself, a crack.  And if I know what it feels like to have cracks, and to feel bad about it, then I have to also be willing to acknowledge that there might be something good in them, as well.

In traditional Japanese culture there’s a practice, and a philosophy, called kintsugi.  In the west, if a bowl or a cup cracks, we pull out the crazy glue and try to put it back together so that the crack hardly shows.  We feel great when we can repair it so that the cracks are hardly visible.  Kintsugi is the practice of repairing broken pottery with a lacquer made with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.  Instead of trying to hide they broken places, they highlight them, make them stand out, treat them as something special.  Kintsugi is an expression of the idea that these cracks just show that the object has been used, the idea that the cracks are just a part of the history of the thing.  It’s like someone who is proud of their wrinkles and their white hair because these are signs that they’ve lived and have some experience.

The water carrier knows that the particular cracks in that particular pot are just part of what makes it what it is, just as those parts that aren’t cracked are just a part of what it is.  And I’m here to tell you this morning, to remind myself, that this is true of us, as well.  We may not be “whole” in the way we think we’re supposed to be, in the way we think that other person, over there, is, but our cracks are part of the whole of us.  And we wouldn’t be who we are without them.
And who you are, cracks and all, is beautiful … is powerful … is good.  I mean it when I say each week that each of us – each and every single one of us – is essential for this community being what it is.  Really hear that – you … you specifically … you with your cracks and everything … you are essential for this community to be what it is.  Without you, things would be different … we wouldn’t be who you are.

Each fall we celebrate this truth through our In-Gathering Water Communion.  Each of us is invited to bring a container of water – and if you forgot, or didn’t know, we have some extras up here.   Each of us is invited to bring a container of water, and to come forward and pour it into this common bowl.  Each of us bringing this symbol of ourselves; all of us making this symbol of our community.  We all – each of us – come to this congregation and bring ourselves – strengths and weaknesses both – and we mingle them with one another, and together we create this community (which has its own strengths and weaknesses, of course, which has its own cracks, yet which nonetheless serves to nurture and encourage us all).

The pot only knows its cracks and despairs; the water carrier knows its possibilities.  May we listen to the water carrier’s wisdom, so that we might see more clearly our own possibilities, and so that more beautiful flowers might bloom.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Match or the Dynamite?

This is the text of a Letter to the Editor I wrote for my local paper, The Daily Progress, in response to an editorial they published prior to the events of August 12th, 2017.

When studying the causes of WWI in junior high, my teacher said that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was like “throwing a match into a room full of dynamite.”  In your August 10th editorial, you said the same thing about Councilor Wes Bellamy’s role in the current racial unrest in Charlottesville – “[he] dropped a match onto a gas field.”  

The analogy of the match dropper has one big problem – it absolves the people who filled the room with explosives.   To follow through with your analogy, the systems and structures of white supremacist culture are the gas that has soaked the field of our city and our nation.  To blame Mr. Bellamy for the conflagration is to tacitly approve of the highly combustible atmosphere that has been the status quo for centuries.

The Civil War – celebrated in the Lee and Jackson monuments – was fought to preserve a way of life predicated on slavery.  The Confederacy lost.  Yet from the ashes of slavery was born Jim Crow.  The end of Jim Crow gave rise to our current policies of racially-biased mass incarceration, and the double-standard by which a Michael Brown is shot and killed while a Dylan Roof is safely escorted out, unharmed.  You ask, “how did we get here?”  The answer is plain to anyone who will look honestly at our nation’s history.  To imply that Councilor Bellamy is responsible for the “raging fire” we have been experiencing is to effectively absolve our country’s white supremacist culture that created the explosive conditions in the first place.

Pointing fingers will not “control [this] conflagration.”  We must all – especially those of us who identify as white – recognize the ways we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy, even unwittingly.  The field must be thoroughly flushed.  

There is a saying: “white supremacy is the air we breathe.”   To continue with the analogy, we need to remember that it is not the visible gasoline that is explosive; it is the invisible vapors we must make sure are cleared – the air we breathe.

Erik Walker Wikstrom (Rev.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Standing (Together) on the Side of Love

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, August 20, 2016, to the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville.

A few weeks back I quietly celebrated one of the high holy days, if you will, of my own, personal liturgical calendar.  August 8 marks the anniversary of an event that took place in 1974 –  a young, French wire walker named Phillipe Petit strung a cable between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.  At approximately 7:00 am, Petit stepped out onto his wire and began to walk – or “dance” as it was described at the time by one of the Port Authority cops who was sent to retrieve him.  Roughly 1,400 feet – more than a quarter of a mile – above the sidewalks of lower Manhattan, Petit would “dance” on his wire for about 45 minutes, completing eight crossings, including, at one point, laying down on his back and saluting a passing seagull.   He did this without a safety wire; he did this without any kind of net; he did this without … permission.  This was, as you’d imagine, an entirely illegal act, and one which thoroughly captivated my imagination and enchanted my soul.  Even all these years later I find it an achievement that fills me with a kind of reverence – that a person would dream of doing something so audacious, and that a person could do something so impossible.

Except … I’ve come to learn that it never happened.  At least it never happened in that way.  Most years I write a post for my blog on or about what I started calling International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day.  For International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day in 2012, I wanted to use a photograph of Petit as a street performer.  I discovered that the photographs had been taken by Jean-Louis Blondeau, one of Petit’s closest friends at the time, and one of Petit’s accomplices in le coup.  I tracked down his email address, and sent off a letter telling him of my admiration for Petit’s walk all those years ago, and asking his permission to use the photograph. 

To my great pleasure – and surprise, actually – Jean-Louis wrote back.  He said that I could use the image under three conditions:  first, that I give him credit; second, that I provide a link to his website for the rest of his really rather remarkable work as a photographer; and, three, that he be able to have a look at what I was going to tell.  You see, it turns out that the story I had loved for so long was really more of a myth or, as Jean-Louis called it, “a fairy tale made up by Phillipe.” 

I should not have been surprised really.  Myths – especially, perhaps, myths in Western cultures – love the lone hero.  Our limelight seems to be so narrow as to only be able to encompass a person, one singular person, an individual with great courage, or wisdom, or passion, or vision, or audacity, or determination and grit.  Yet very few stories really are about an individual hero.  (Even my beloved Batman has always had at least Alfred and Commissioner Gordon by his side!)  The story of Phillipe Petit’s walk is no different.

counter clockwise from top left: Jean-Louis Blondeau,
Annie Allix, Jean-François Heckel, Jean-Pierre Dousseau, 
Jim Moore, Barry Greenhouse, and Phillipe Petit
The myth is that Phillipe Petit strung a wire in the early hours of Thursday the 6th, but of course he didn’t.  It took a team to get that inch-thick cable across that 138 ft gap space between the towers and, again, it isn’t true that Petit had this dream of walking at the top of the world and made it into a reality.  That, too, took a team.  Petit was, as I have come to understand it, too much of a dreamer, a visionary, an artist, if you will, to work out the mundane details of le coup.  Petit famously answered the question of why he’d do something so audacious by saying, “Why?  There is no why.”  Well, there may have been no why, but there had to be a how, and it was Petit’s dear friend Jean-Louis who largely worked out that how

But this is not a story of two people who, against all odds, performed something of a miracle.  Again, a whole team was needed, a team that grew of necessity but which had at its core Jean-Louis, Jean François Heckel, Annie Allix, Jim More, Jean-Pierre Dousseau, and Barry Greenhouse.  The story I had been so inspired by turns out to have been even more inspiring, because it is the story of a community making the impossible possible.  Jean-Louis says that he has been working off-and-on on a book about the true story of le coup, and I can’t wait to read it.  (Although he has told me not to hold my breath, as these things take time, and, after all, that day in ’74 is far from the only thing in his life.  As I said, his photography is really amazing.)

Why am I taking all of this time telling this story?  Take a look at the cover of your order of service.  You may have seen this image before, but I know you know what it’s a picture of.  There is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., standing before the crowd of more than 200,000 people who gathered in Washington, D.C. on August 28, 1963 for the March on Washington for Jobs andFreedom.  It is here that he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and it is from this pulpit that he changed the course of our nation’s history.

Except, of course, that this didn’t happen either.  At least it didn’t happen in this way.  King was not the only person at that dias that day.  Marian Anderson, Odetta, Joan Bayez, and Bob Dylan sang; Daisy Lee Bates spoke, Bates being a civil rights activist who, among other accomplishments, had advised the Little Rock Nine who desegregated the schools in Little Rock back in 1957 (and who was the only woman to speak that day).  Also speaking that day were the actors Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee; the president of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins; the march organizer Baynard Rustin; the president of the American Jewish Congress, Rabbi Joachim Prinz; Whitney Young, president of the National Urban League (and Unitarian Universalist); and SNCC leader John Lewis.  And there were others.  My point is that, once again, what a number of people did has been mythologized as largely the accomplishment of a person, one singular person, an individual with great courage, wisdom, passion, vision, audacity, determination, and grit.

Yet even that is not what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.”  More than 200,000 people filled the National Mall to overflowing that day.  And hundreds of thousands more had been part of the struggle for civil rights and the liberation of African Americans and it was they – all of them – who changed the course of our nation’s history.  I have a book in my office titled Putting the Movement Back intoCivil Rights Teaching: a resource guide for classrooms and communities.  Wendy Puriefoy, President of the Public Education Network has this to say about the book:
Civil rights teaching should lift up extraordinary leaders whose personal courage and sacrifice transformed our nation and our history.  But it should also recognize the thousands of other acts of resistance and civil disobedience – by neighbors, grandmothers, youth, and everyday heroes – that created an unstoppable tidal wave of ethical conscience and human profess.  Putting the Movement Back into Civil Rights Teaching is a unique collection of urgent voices who remind us that true and lasting movements for social, economic, and racial justice begin with you and me.”
You and me.  You and me.  Ordinary people doing mostly ordinary things.  Just this morning a dear old friend sent me an extremely synchronistic text.  She said that she “[has] not marched in Washington or NYC or Boston … [but] thinks the seemingly [unimportant] little things we do in our everyday, normal life are actually exactly what we need to do.”  We do, of course, need people who show up at the front lines, as it were.  We do.  Yesterday, in Boston, roughly 40 members of the Klu Klux Klan had a rally on the Boston Commons.  They were met by an estimated 20,000 people.  That comes out to around 500 people per Klan member.  It is essential that people show up.

And people sure did show up last weekend here in Charlottesville.  And a good number of them were Unitarian Universalists from around the country, including some high-powered folks like Susan Frederick-Gray, the newly elected president of our Association.  And last week they received some praise and appreciation, along with some of the leadership of our congregation.  Yet no one should be fooled into thinking that they are what made the difference last Saturday.  Thousands of people showed up downtown.  Many, many people from this congregation showed up last Saturday.  All were willing to put their lives on the line for what Christina likes to call, “our mutual liberation.”  Just going out that day was putting your life on the line – the risk of arrest and of violence were real and ever-present.

And folks showed up in all sorts of ways.  Some were at Emancipation involved in direct action or public witness; some were at McGuffy Park demonstrating in a different way; some staffed the legal hotline; some distributed water and snacks; some donated that water and those snacks; some provided first aid assistance, or helped clear the way for ambulances and medical personnel when needed; some were here, holding a safe and sacred space for anyone who needed it (and over the course of the day there were several people who needed it); some coordinated home hospitality for out-of-town and out-of-state guests (both UUs and non-UUs who answered the call to come); some opened their homes to provide that hospitality; some stayed home and intentionally put in time learning more about white supremacy; some stayed home and intentionally played with their kids extra hard, or did something special with their partner, their spouse, the dearest friends, so as to put a little more love out into the  world on a day so filled with hate.  Some did those little "unimportant" everyday, normal things we do, and made sure to do them with great love.  So many people showed up in so many ways.

And our Racial Justice Committee, and before it the Undoing Racism Committee, have been showing up for years now – decades – laying the foundations for the understandings necessary for especially those of us who identify or are identified as white to show up.  Even here, among us well-meaning and large-hearted, liberal, sometimes progressive Unitarian Universalists at times our limelight is too small.  The true story, the truly powerful story, the “rest of the story” is that it took all of us who showed up, and all of us continuing to show up, to show that hate and bigotry will not be the last word.  Domestic terrorism, white supremacist terrorism, will not win the day.  Love will.  Love will.

The social activist Dorothy Day once wrote:
People say, what is the sense of our small effort.  They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.  A pebble cast into a pond causes ripples that spread in all directions.  Each one of our thoughts, words and deeds is like that.  No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless.  There’s too much work to do.
What is the sense of our small effort?  Those small efforts, joined with the small efforts of others, can change the world.  We need those leaders on whom the spotlight shines.  After all, if Phillipe Petit hadn’t stepped out onto that wire 43 years ago, all of the planning and hard work done by Jean-Louis, François, Annie, Jim, Jean-Pierre, Barry, and others would not be remembered.  Yet it is equally true that without their efforts, Petit’s walk would not even have been possible.

One last thought.  Even a leader like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not always the heroic, legendary figure “the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”  One of my favorite books about the civil rights era is actually a children’s book – My Brother Martin by Christine King Farris.  And I love it because only two pages of it have anything to do with the famous Rev. Dr. King.  The rest of it is about a boy named Martin – M.L to his family.  It turns out that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was not always the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was, as we are, just a person who showed up.

So … for all of you who showed up, and all of those who showed up (but just not this morning), thank you.  Thank you.

Yet our work has not ended; there’s too much work to do for us to rest too long.  Yet let usnever forget that we need not do this work alone.  In fact, we can’t it takes all of us.  You and me.  All of us.

Pax tecum,


P.S. -- some years ago I stopped calling the "holy day" I celebrate on August 6th, "International Philippe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day."  I used that old name in this sermon because, well, it sounds so formal and, to be honest, I thought its repetition would be a little humerous.  After my early exchanges with M. Blondeau I have been calling it, more simply, Dance Between the Towers Day.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Return to No Person Evil for Evil

I carry a collection of photographs on this iPad.  Some are of my kids.  (141, actually … pictures, not kids!)  Just edging them out – at 156 pictures – is a collection I call “icons.”  These are images of people – real and imaginary – who in one way or another inspire me.  I’ve got Barack Obama, and Duncan McLeod (of the clan McLeod).  There’s Gandhi and Tich Nhat Hanh, a baby meditating, Ged (from the Earthsea Trilogy), Nellie Bly, Santa Claus, and an icon from the Church of St.John Coltrane.  Two of my favorites were taken during the first and only, extremely brief, meeting of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
I’m going to pause here for a moment and give you a spoiler (so if you don’t want to know how the sermon ends, plug your ears).  Okay.  Here goes:  I don’t know the answer.  I have to admit that I find this one insoluble.  I’m going to have to leave this one in your hands and hearts to find the answer that makes the most sense to you, and for you.
So … (you can take our fingers out of your ears now) … back to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  These men are iconic figures in the struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 60s, and they were seen then, and often still seen, as polar opposites.  One is held up as the embodiment of non-violent resistance; the other is remembered as wanting equality for African Americans “by any means necessary.”
Since for the majority of liberal King is by far the more familiar figure, I want to share some quotes from Malcolm X.
We are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us.
I don’t think when a [person] is being criminally treated, that some criminal has the right to tell that [person] what tactics to use to get the criminal off [their] back. When a criminal starts misusing me, I’m going to use whatever necessary to get that criminal off my back.
And the injustice that has been inflicted on Negros in this country by Uncle Sam is criminal…
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American [black's] problem just to avoid violence.

[Our goal is] to bring about the complete independence of people of African descent here in the Western Hemisphere, and first here in the United States, and bring about the freedom of these people by any means necessary. 

That's our motto. We want freedom by any means necessary. We want justice by any means necessary. We want equality by any means necessary. We don't feel that in 1964, living in a country that is supposedly based upon freedom, and supposedly the leader of the free world, we don't think that we should have to sit around and wait for some segregationist congressmen and senators and a President from Texas in Washington, D. C., to make up their minds that our people are due now some degree of civil rights. No, we want it now or we don't think anybody should have it.


We want freedom now, but we're not going to get it saying 'We Shall Overcome.' We've got to fight to overcome.

Not quite the rhetoric that white liberals were raised on.  We’re more used to the words of Dr. King, which we quote at least around the third Monday in January – (though often out of context).  Malcolm X’s words were not a call to join in the realization of a dream; they were the fiery demand to wake up from a nightmare.

Most weeks we end our worship with the same words of benediction:  “Go out into the world in peace.  Have courage.  Return to no person evil for evil.”  And I want to stop there.  Return to no person evil for evil.  Return to no person evil for evil.

On Saturday, May 14th, a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the feet of the statue of Robert E. Lee in what was then called Lee Park.  They had torches, and made their white nationalist worldview and agenda quite clear:  “All white lives matter,” “You will not replace us,” and the Nazi-era slogan, “blood and soil.”  The next night a group of several hundred people gathered in the same place, holding candles and singing.

On the evening of Thursday, June 1st, there was a direct confrontation in front of Millers on the downtown mall, where Jason Kessler and some of his alt-right cohorts were eating.  There was in-your-face yelling; there was, by some accounts, physical contact.  Acouple of weeks later Kessler was on the mall again, this time “introducing” to Charlottesville the group the Proud Boys, and again there was direct engagement – violent by all accounts, even if the violence was only verbal.

This coming Saturday, from 3:00 – 4:00, members of the Loyal Order of the Knights of the Klu Klux Klan will be holdinga rally in Justice Park, what was formerly known as Jackson Park.  And the question on many minds is, “what will our response be?”   Candles and singing, or angry altercations?  What should our response be?

And here’s where we reach the “I honestly don’t know” part of the sermon.  I was raised to value nonviolence.  I was raised to respond to hatred with love.  I was raised to believe that there is good in every person, no matter how crusted over it might be.  I was raised to try to follow the path of reason, and reasonableness. So I am with those who say that there should be no confrontation, no engagement on the 8th.  I understand and agree with those who say that everybody should just stay home; that we should make the klan’s visit to Charlottesville as disappointing as can be; that we just leave them there, by themselves, to “shout their hate to the trees.”

I also understand and agree with those who say that there should be a presence; that there needs to be a demonstration of another way; that there needs to be a witness; and that this presence should be non-confrontational, with no engagement whatsoever.  (There’s been a request sent out that those who feel that they must go to the park should wear all black – to counter the klan’s white robes – and stand in silence, arms linked encircling the klan but with our backs toward them.)

Yet there are others who are saying that there needs to be confrontation, and if it’s loud and aggressive -- even if it’s violent -- it’s necessary.  Things are bad, things are really bad, and things have been bad for far too long – there needs to be a change now.  This struggle isn’t one of philosophy; it’s one of life and death.  Literally life and death.  There simply isn’t time for singing,  Returning to one of those quotes from Malcolm X, “I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American [black's] problem just to avoid violence”

So what are we to do?  I don’t know.  As I said at the beginning, I have to leave this in your hands and hearts.  I know that I will take the nonviolent approach; I know that I will be trying to respond to hatred with love; I know that I will seek, with every fiber of my being, to return to o person evil for evil.

Yet I will also not condemn those who see the need for another approach, who see this struggle as needing a solution by any means necessary.  I have come to believe that there is no one way to respond, and that perhaps all of them have a place.

There is a story told of a time in early 1965, while King was jailed in Selma, Alabama, Malcolm traveled to Selma, where he had a private meeting with Coretta Scott King. “I didn’t come to Selma to make his job difficult,” he assured Coretta. “I really did come thinking that I could make it easier. If the white people realize what the alternative is, perhaps they will be more willing to hear Dr. King”

I cannot tell you what to do; I cannot tell you how to respond.  I have come to believe that there may well need to be a whole variety of responses, including violence.  But I cannot tell you how you should respond.  I can tell you that you have to respond.  And I can tell you that we ought to be intentional about that response.

If you decided to stay home, to stay away, to keep your Saturday “business as usual,” that’s fine.  But don’t do it unmindfully.  Make it a choice.  Make it a response.

If you decide to respond in a non-violent, non-confrontational way, that’s fine.  But please be intentional in that choice.

And if you feel you need to respond through direct, confrontational engagement – even violence – I cannot tell you that that’s not fine, too. But please, please do so as a conscious choice, and not merely an emotional acting out.

I cannot tell you how to respond, but I can tell you that you must respond.  Each of us must respond.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith demands it, as does our humanity.

Pax tecum,


The Charlottesville Clergy Collective is hosting a number of events -- before, during, and after the klan's rally.  Their website outlines these, as well as listing many of the other events that are happening around the city on the 8th.