Monday, March 02, 2015


This is the sermon delivered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday March, 1, 2015.  If you'd like, you can listen to a podcast.

This coming Saturday, March 7th, is the 50th anniversary of the first of three marches from Selma, Alabama to the state capital in Montgomery.  This first one didn’t even make it fully over the Edmund Pettuss bridge because State troopers attacked the peaceful marchers so viciously that the event came to be called “Bloody Sunday.”  Two days later, on March 9th, a larger crowd marched again, this time turned back without violence.  And on March 21st the third and final march took place – this time with the protection ­of law enforcement, and this time making it all the way to Montgomery.  This history is the basis of the movie Selma, which didn’t win the Oscar for “best picture.”

It’s also the focus of Mark Morrison-Reed’s newest book, The Selma Awakening: how the civil rights movement tested and changed Unitarian Universalism.  For those who are unfamiliar with the Rev. Dr. Morrison-Reed’s work, he is a historian and a prophet, speaking truth to power.  He tells our Unitarian Universalist story as it is – the good, the bad, and the ugly.  His focus has largely been on our history with regards race and, as the subtitle of one of his books puts it, “black trailblazers and missed opportunities.”  His work is both profound and powerful – profoundly inspiring and powerfully depressing.

In The Selma Awakening, he takes up one of Unitarian Universalism’s proudest moments.  After “bloody Sunday” Dr. King sent telegrams to religious leaders around the country, calling on them to come to Selma and stand in solidarity.  And people did.  That first march consisted of about 600 women, children, and men.  Two days later, when the second march took place, there were 2,500 people walking together.  This number included approximately 500 Unitarian Universalists – nearly one-fifth of all UU clergy were there, as well as a large number of lay people.  The UUA Board, which was meeting in Boston at the time, suspended their meeting and reconvened in Selma.  We showed up.

That wasn’t easy.  It was a frightening, dangerous time.  One of the clergy who went – the day after his ordination, actually – remembers being advised, “Don’t go to Selma unless it is more important that you go than that you come back.”  And not everyone did come back.  After that second march three Unitarian Universalist Ministers were beaten savagely.  One, the Rev. James Reeb, died from his injuries.  His death sent shockwaves not only around the country, but around the world as well. 

Hundreds upon hundreds of African American women and men had been murdered in the south, of course.  In fact, the Selma marches were a response to the beating and shooting, on February 25th, of an unarmed man named JimmyLee Jackson – a beating and shooting at the hands of Alabama State troopers I should add.

But – as awful as it is to say this out loud – James Reeb was white, so the reaction to his death was outrage instead of indifference.  The reaction, I should hasten to clarify, of white America.  It was one of our own, if you will; his death had a galvanizing effect.  There were 25,000 people in that final march to Montgomery.

There were actually three martyrs from those marches – Jimmy Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist lay woman who was also murdered in Selma 50 years ago this month.  Often only Reeb is remembered, but there is a memorial plaque with all three of their faces on it in our headquarters in Boston.

I won’t go into all of the ways that we UUs are interwoven with those events in Selma, but I will say that reading about it makes me proud.  It would make you proud.  When the call went out, we responded.

Yet reading The Selma Awakening is not entirely an uplifting experience.  For us to have “awakened” at Selma suggests that before that we’d been asleep.  And in some very disappointing and discouraging ways, we had been.  If the story of our actions in Selma would make you proud, then the stories of our inaction beforehand will make you angry. Mark does a very good job of putting our courageous involvement in Selma into the context of our much more convoluted history regarding race. 

I won’t go into all of the details here either, but there’s a passage that particularly struck me.  Mark is making a kind of summary statement of our movement and its predecessors.  He says:

“Unitarians and Universalists celebrated an exclusively Euro-American worldview that was implicitly racist, while convinced that their congregations were open and accepting.  Unable to imagine anything else, they championed assimilation while calling it integration. […]

Unitarian Universalist behavior was shaped by white discomfort:  ignorance and anxiety about people and cultures that seemed different from their own; an inability to step too far outside cultural norms; and a fear of ceding control which venturing into unfamiliar situations would have required.  In their complacence, Unitarians and Universalists unwittingly continued to support American apartheid.  The liberal’s version was just white supremacy-lite.”

What got me as I read that is the strong certainty that if you change the verbs from past to present tense, it’s still largely true:

“Unitarian Universalism celebrates an [almost] exclusively Euro-American worldview that is implicitly racist, while convinced that our congregations are open and accepting.  Unable to imagine anything else, we champion assimilation while calling it integration.”

Some of you are no doubt beginning to feel a little defensive.  (If not a lot and for a while now.)  But let me ask this:  why is it that we can’t seem to attract African Americans, Latinos and Latinas, and other people of color?  Even more importantly, I think, why is it that we can’t create an environment that is so truly welcoming that those who do come feel like staying, and inviting their friends?

Well … let’s begin to answer that question by looking at the question itself.  Put another way, what I’m asking is:  what is it about Unitarian Universalism, or the way it’s embodied in UU congregations, that gets in the way of being truly multicultural?  It’s a good question; an important question.  One well worth asking.  Yet when I ask it the way I chose to originally, the way I’ve heard it asked so many, many times before – not only here but around the country – I’m doing something besides asking the question.  

When I use the personal pronoun “we” – instead of the more impersonal noun “Unitarian Universalism” –  I’m making an implicit, if not entirely consciously intended, statement about our faith.  I’m using “we” to represent Unitarian Universalism; asserting that “we” and “Unitarian Universalism” are synonymous.  Right?  That’s what pronouns do – they stand in place of a noun. 

Okay.  So … who is this “we”?  Well … among other things, we’re overwhelmingly white.  And whether we are conscious of it or not – and by “we” here I do intentionally mean us white folk – whether we’re conscious of it or not, when we ask why we can’t attract more people of color we’re really saying that Unitarian Universalism is a white religion and we want them to join us to make it less white.  See how that works?  And see the “us and them” in there?  The very “us and them” that’s been condemned from this pulpit time and time again.  Yet there we are, perpetuating it even as we want to transform it.

So let’s be clear here – Unitarian Universalism has been, and largely still is, a majority white religious tradition.  Often our hearts have been in the right place – Mark lifts up some powerful declarations, especially from our Universalist ancestors, that if we stand for what we say we stand for then we must stand against racial discrimination.  This passage from a letter written to the Universalist Leader in 1942 will give you the flavor.  [You’ll see that I’ve chosen to retain the original language.]

“As applied to our brothers of Negro blood, this ostracism is political, economic, and social – and most deplorable.  We Universalists might well take a leading part in this reform; in fact, as exponents of brotherhood, we must take this stand or else be guilty of rank duplicity and hypocrisy.  In that case, our Church will rot and die, and it will well deserve its fate.”

After this quotation Mark comments simply, “His words were prophetic.”

We – we Unitarian Universalists – we predominantly white Unitarian Universalists – have been struggling for decades – for more than half a century – with how to bring to fruition our vision of “one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”  Yet with virtually every effort we make we undercut ourselves by consciously or unconsciously framing it as trying to bring “them” to join “us.”  And that simply doesn’t work.

So what’s the solution?  Is there a solution? 

First, let’s be honest with ourselves … our Unitarian Universalist faith is as infected by systemic racism as is any other predominantly white institution.  We are, to bring us to our theme for the month and this sermon’s title, we are bound by it and in bondage to it.  That’s a hard thing to admit.  Especially for folks so proud of their liberal identity, it’s a hard thing to admit.  First step though, no matter how hard it is – we need to acknowledge that when we are comfortably complacent we align ourselves with those systems that oppress and marginalize. 

We can’t help it.  It’s like it’s in the air we breathe and the water we drink.  We can’t help it, but we can become aware of it.  We can acknowledge it.  And the more we keep it in our consciousness the more we move out of our comfortable complacency and away from the cultural norms that support racism.  The more we tell the truth to ourselves, the more choice we can have about where and how we want to live in this world.

Next, we need to recognize the limitations of our “openness.”  Despite our assertions to the contrary our actions show that what we’re really after is more of a homogenized soup than a hearty gumbo.  We – again, majority we, white we – want to bring people of different racial, ethnic, and economic groups into our circles, yet it’s obvious to those folks that we also want to keep those circles ours.  As Mark put it, “we champion assimilation while calling it integration.”  People of color have enough places that demand that they assimilate; why would they want to do it at church, too?

So we need to reconsider what it means to invite to the table those who are not there now.  I can tell you some of what it means:  It means that our carefully planned seating chart will be all messed up, and the silverware and plates won’t match anymore, and there’ll be food there that we’ve never seen and aren’t all that sure that we like … and it’ll be this way not as an experiment or as an interesting experience but because this is the way it is now.  We won’t be going back to how it was.  Put simply: we are not a multicultural community right now.  If we become one we will have changed from what we are right now.  To become one we will have to change.

Do we want that?  Do we really want that? 

Sometimes I despair.  Newsweek magazine once described Unitarian Universalism as “the quintessential baby boomer church.”  (I don’t think it was meant entirely a compliment.)  In my time I’ve seen more than a bit of “I want us to do more of what I want and wish we’d do less of the things I don’t” even if we know that there are other people who want to do those other things. We can be a little self-centered.  We’ll have to give that up.

And that feeling we have of walking into the sanctuary and feeling at home?  Yeah … we’ll have to give that up, too.  At least for a while.  Because the homes most of us live in are in neighborhoods that are largely homogenous racially and economically.  If we’re going to make other people comfortable we’re going to have to be at least a little uncomfortable … at least for a while … until we come to experience for ourselves how the Beloved Community is so much more awesome than a gated one.

Freedom from bondage does not come cheap.  On the contrary, it’s costly.  Are we – and let’s say what we mean – are we predominantly white folk who are used to having things the way we have always had them – are we willing to pay those costs?  Are we willing to face the even greater costs if we don’t?  It was true in '42 and it's still true now -- " In that case, our Church will rot and die, and it will well deserve its fate."

I’m going to conclude this sermon with the words the Rev. Phillip Hewett used to conclude a sermon he preached a couple of months after the marches in Selma.  When he speaks of “this tragedy of our time” he was talking about Selma.  We might be think, instead, of Fergusson, or Staten Island, but his challenge is the same.

“Intellectually, we may be ready for the new age into which we are called upon to enter.  But at heart we still have some fundamental adjustments to make.  Some Unitarians made that adjustment overnight in Selma.  All of them came away saying they would never be the same persons again. And somehow or other we have to let this tragedy of our time enter into our hearts until we can say that too.”

Pax tecum,


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