Monday, June 20, 2016

Junteenth: a sermon

This is the sermon I delivered on Sunday, June 19, 2016 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You listen to it if you'd prefer.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of “Juneteenth” until relatively recently.  I keep discovering just how much American history I never learned and, perhaps even more disturbingly, that no one ever thought important enough to try to teach me – all that history that gets lifted up each February, for instance, as though Black history and American history are not the same thing.  We don’t have a White history month, or a Straight, Cisgender Male history month, because as far as the wider society goes, that is American history.  Everything else is relegated to appendices and footnotes.
So:  “Juneteenth” is a fusing of “June” and “Nineteenth,” because it was on June 19, 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of a prominent building in Galveston, Texas and read aloud “General Order No. 3,” which said, in part:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
Can you imagine what that would have felt like for the, now, formerly enslaved population of Galveston?  They hadn’t yet heard about President Lincoln’s Proclamation of their freedom some three and a half years earlier, so this was a day that would cry out to be memorialized.  Juneteenth celebrations became annual events throughout Texas and, eventually, throughout the United States.  By 2008, nearly half of US states observed the holiday.  As of May of last year, 45 of the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have formally and officially recognized the observance of Juneteenth, even here in Virginia.
Juneteenth is a really big thing, and I had never even heard of it.  Maybe this is new to some of you, too.  I would ask how that is possible, but we all know the answer, don’t we?  The dominant culture in which we live, the dominant narrative that defines us as a country, does not have time, or energy, or focus, or interest, really, in anything other than itself.  That’s why we have Black History Month in February, and Women’s History Month in March, and LGBT History Month in October, and Transgender Awareness Month in November (just to name a few).  This is one way that our culture – and by “our culture” I am referring to the dominant culture made by, for, and about people who look more or less like me – can recognize the undeniable fact that ours is not a homogeneous society while simultaneously reinforcing the “otherness” of everybody who … doesn’t look more or less like me.
One dimension of this dominant culture’s narrative is a mindset of what I’ll call “been there, done that, cross it off the list.”  Here are two examples of I mean by that:
·       Slavery was terrible, awful, heinous, but we fought and won the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation put an end to slavery.  Been there, done that, cross it off the list.
·       The Jim Crow era was terrible, awful, heinous, but the Civil Rights battles of the 50s and 60s won equality for all.  I mean look, today we even have a Black President!  Been there, done that, cross it off the list.
But that’s not how it works, of course.  The truth is that there is a river of pain that runs through our nation’s history, a river of torment and torture, a river of separation and segregation and dehumanization and demonization, a river that has never stopped flowing.  Ever.  We – and right now I’m really talking to people, like me, who’ve been raised to think of ourselves as White – we would like to think that at least it has gone underground, or slowed to a trickle, but it hasn’t, except, perhaps, in our own mind’s eye.  But we need to think this, we need to believe this, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to go to sleep at night, so wet would our sheets be from all our tears.  Yet we – and here I do mean “we,” inclusively and collectively, meaning “we” as in “all of us” – we need to see together the truth of things as they really are.  We need to see those things that some of us try so hard not to see and some of us are so continually forced to see.  Here’s one such thing that seems appropriate to see on Juneteenth 2016:
The slaves weren’t freed when Lincoln declared their emancipation, nor when General Granger stood on that balcony, nor when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nor when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the same United States in which his wife’s ancestors had been enslaved.  Certain freedoms, yes, have been grudgingly conceded, but real freedom?  The freedom to be and be seen as whole, as the individual you are and as part of the human family?  The freedom to have your value and worth affirmed and celebrated?  That has not yet been won, not yet wrested from the slaver’s fist. Not been there, not done that yet, nothing to cross off the list.
The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray is one of the largely unknown and unsung heroes of the struggles for African American rights, and LGBT rights, and women’s rights.  She was the first female African American Episcopal priest, the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School, a civil rights activist (fighting against both Jim Crow and what she called “Jane Crow”), a poet of profundity and power, and a friend of my mom’s.  She referred to herself as, “America’s problem child.”  (“I have never been able to accept what I believe to be an injustice,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is because of this I am America’s problem child, and will continue to be.”)  In many of her poems Pauli gave voice to the experience of what another great African American poet, Langston Hughes called, “a dream deferred,” this experience of the ongoing denial of the fundamental right to be seen as more than three-fifths of a person.  In the face of that, how can you keep on hoping for things to change?  What can hope mean when time and time again you have seen your hope whipped, and lynched, and set upon by dogs and firehoses, and denigrated and sneered at by what passes for politicians these days?  Here’s one of Pauli’s poems:
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.

This is the still unfulfilled promise of Junteenth – a song of hope, and a world in which it can be sung by everyone; a song of faith, and a people who will truly believe it; a song of kindliness and a country in which it can be lived out; and a song of hope and love without having to give up who and what we are.  Hope is a song in a weary throat.  [This, by the way, was the original title of Pauli's autobiography, Song in a Weary ThroatSomeone at the publishing house, no doubt, decided that for the second printing the title should be changed to Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet.  It might be more descriptive for people who'd never heard of her, but oh what poetry was lost!]                               

One year ago this past week Dylan Roof walked into a Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered 9 people, at least in part because he did not see African Americans as fully human, at least not in the way he saw himself.  He apparently had not heard about the “absolute equality” affirmed by General Granger in Galveston one hundred and fifty-one years ago today, or he’d heard but didn’t believe it, and so he could believe that murdering these people was a justified and acceptable act.

This past week Omar Mateen walked into the nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people (wounding an additional 53), at least in part because he did not see people in the LGBTQ community, or the Latino community as fully human, at least not in the way he saw himself.  And whether it was this blind and blinding hatred, or the distortions and perversions of a twisted religious ideology, Mateen was able to believe that his murdering these people was a justified and acceptable act.

When you can deny the fundamental humanity of someone, you can justify doing just about anything to them.  It doesn’t count if they don’t count.  Fifty-three years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all […] are created equal” to be a “promissory note” that had not yet been made good on.  It still hasn’t.  And so the weary throat must keep singing.

Someone else who knew and beautifully expressed that song was the poet-queen Maya Angelou.  She speaks of it in one of her most well-known and oft-quoted poems, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,”

The free bird leaps
On the back of the wind
And floats downstream
And dips his wings
In the orange sun rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
Down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through
His bars of rage
His wings are clipped
And his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of the things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
And he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of the things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

Oh the throats that sing this song may indeed by weary, yet the song remains strong.  This song has many variations, yet still it is one song – the song of freedom and a long-ago made promise fulfilled.  But here’s some good news:  Dylan Roof didn’t silence it; Omar Pateen didn’t stop its steady beat; Donald Trump and his crowds can’t drown it out. 

But there’s work to be done.  We – those of us who have been taught that we are White – need to take it up, add our voices to those who have been singing so long that their throats are weary – oh so weary – of singing this song that should never have had to be sung.

the song of hope, and a world in which it can be sung by everyone; the song of faith, and a people who will truly believe it; the song of kindliness and a country in which it can be lived out; the song of hope and love without having to give up who and what we are to sing it. 

May it be so.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Love Always Wins

I wrote this as a Letter to the Editor for Charlottesville' paper, the Daily Progress after attending a candle light vigil on our downtown mall in response to the shootings in Orlando.

I had just finished leading worship in the congregation I serve when I learned of the atrocity that had taken place in Orlando just a relatively few hours before.  The topic of my sermon was love – that no matter how simple it might sound, wise teachers from every religious tradition have stressed that “doing unto others,” that “loving our neighbor,” is the only needed guide for how to live in this world.  Rabbi Hillel the Elder famously said that everything else in the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets was simply commentary and explanation of this central teaching, and Jesus (a near contemporary of Hillel’s) said much the same, as did the Prophet Muhammad.  Every religious tradition we humans have ever created has its own version of the “Golden Rule.”  And yet, in the aftermath of the mass murder of 49 people, the serious wounding of 53 others, and the devastation to  countless lives of families and friends and all those touched by this tragedy, this message of love seemed not just simple, but simplistic.

What a gift, then, to gather on Monday night with hundreds of others at the Free Speech Wall to mourn, express our shock, give vent to our outrage, and recommit ourselves to one another and to the vision of Beloved Community.  And we were a beautiful representation of that Beloved Community – we were gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, cisgender, Latino/a, African American, Asian American, White, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Atheist, Unitarian Universalist, old, young, radical, reticent, and virtually every other description of person you could think of.  We were what the United States looks like at its best – a beautiful, swirling rainbow of differences that came together to reveal an even more beautiful unity.  The acts of hate-filled violence, and the violence-tinged hate speech that is all too prevalent in our political discourse lately, may cause us to question our faith in humanity.  The vision of community made real on Monday night restored my faith, and renews my hope. 

Pax tecum,


While at the Freedom of Speech Wall we were told that following each of the annual C'ville Pride Festivals
there have been reports of someone being fired from their job because their boss or employer had seen their photograph
in the next day's paper.  This, then, is a photo (from the back) of a small portion of the hundreds who attended the vigil
and then walked with lighted candles to the Federal Courthouse building.