Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Challenges of History

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, May 27, 2018 -- Memorial Day.

The 21st Colored Infantry along with the 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops
held a celebration on May 1, 1865, the first “Decoration Day,”  
which later became Memorial Day

In April of 1865, at the end of the Civil War, Union troops entered the city of Charleston, S.C.  A great many of the white residents of Charleston had left the city in advance of the soldiers, but the Black citizens remained, welcoming the troops to the city where it had all begun four years earlier.  Among those troops was the 21st Colored Infantry (later joined by the 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops).
Near the war’s end, the Confederacy had erected a makeshift prison for Union soldiers in what had been the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club.  The conditions were horrendous, and it is recorded that 257 of them died of disease, all hastily buried in a mass grave.  David Blight, a history professor at Yale, discovered archival records which showed that in April of ‘65, Black workmen from Charleston disinterred the remains of those soldiers, re-buried them with proper respect, and then built a tall fence around this new cemetery.  On its archway entrance they placed a sign that read, “Martyrs of the Race Track.”
According to the records Blight found, including a contemporary report from the New York Tribune, on May 1st they dedicated this cemetery.  10,000 people paraded along that racetrack in what the correspondent called, “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”  (I’m going to quote the rest of this from an article Bob Gross originally pointed me toward)
The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.
After all this pomp, this “Decoration Day” continued on much as Memorial Day does today:  picnics, speeches, and the enjoyment of a (hopefully) beautiful spring day. 
Yet that’s not a story that most folks in the U.S. know.  Most of us – perhaps particularly those of us who identify, or are identified, as white – probably learned a different origin for Memorial Day (although I’d wager few of us actually remember the lesson).
On May 5, 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of an organization of Union veterans, Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, established Decoration Day as a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the more than 620,000 soldiers who died during the war, “whose bodies,” he wrote, “now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land.”  He said that Decoration Day, as he called it, should be observed each year on May 30. It is believed that date was chosen because by the end of May flowers be in bloom pretty much all over the country (although there is the alternative explanation that he chose the date because it wasn’t the anniversary of any battle fought during the war).
That first “official” Declaration Day was celebrated in more than 27 states, with more than 5,000 people at Arlington National Cemetery alone. By 1890, every state that had found on the Union side celebrated Declaration Day on May 30th.  For more than 50 years, however, so, until 1918, the holiday was dedicated just to those who’d died in the Civil War.  It wasn’t until we entered World War I that it came remember those who’d died in all of our wars, and it didn’t wasn’t until the ‘70s, in the midst of the Vietnam War, that it became an official holiday across the U.S.
In 1968, the date of Memorial Day, as it was by then called, was changed from May 30th – regardless of what day of the week that was – to where it is now, the last Monday in May.  Ever since, though, there has been opposition to this change, with some veterans’ groups worrying that doing this just turned it a three-day weekend and the signal for the start of summer.  Even as recently as 2012 when he died, Senator Daniel Inouye reintroduced a bill each year to put Memorial Day back where it used to be on our calendar and, hopeful, back to what it was meant to be in our national psyche.
Boalsburg, Pennsylvania claims to have been the first place to celebrate a “Declaration Day” in 1864 when a there was a gathering of women to mourn those who’d recently died at Gettysburg.  Carbondale, Illinois argues that it’s the birthplace of today’s Memorial Day because of a parade John Logan led there in 1866.  There’s a city in Mississippi, and one in Georgia which also claim to be first, and, as we’ve just heard, Charleston, South Carolina is also in the running as to the place where it all began.  Congress, however, attempted to definitively settle the matter when, in 1966, it declared Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of Memorial Day.
Do you remember how, a few weeks back, I told the story of the origins of Mother’s Day, which either began with Anna Jarvis’ mother, Ann, or with Julia Ward Howe’s called for a Mother’s Day for Peace?  Here we see that again, competing narratives which claim to tell the story of “What Happened.”  In other words, competing histories.
“History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill famously said, and this is a sentiment that you hear time and time again.  The reason that our nation’s history, for instance, has been told overwhelmingly from the perspective of straight, white, cis-male folks of means is that straight, white, cis-mail folks of means have held the power to write the history that would “stick.”
And yet it’s not entirely true that only “victors” write history.  “The victors,” as it were, get to write the “official” history, but we have the journals and other writings of some of the estimated roughly 3.9 million enslaved people who formed the foundation of this country (even those these writings were only relatively recently “discovered”).  Women have always written about their experiences, even when no one else would listen.  (The #MeToo movement is not the first time women have told the story of how pervasive sexual harassment, abuse, and assault is in the dominant rape culture.  It’s just the first time they’re stories are being heard in the mainstream.)
In fact, those who have been marginalized, disenfranchised, have always found ways to remember and tell their stories.  Those stories, though, have almost universally been drowned out by the dominant narrative.  More and more, though, these long-segregated histories are being told in the mainstream, and the dominant history, the one written by the victors, is being seen as missing something vital.  Do you remember how after the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened a few years ago, there was a huge backlash?  People were calling it out for that mythical crime of “reverse-racism,” because the museum was telling the history only of African Americans.  I remember hearing a white man being interviewed after coming out from the museum, asked what he thought about that critique.  He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “This is my history, too, as a white American, as an American.  It’s a part of the history I’d never heard before, a part lots of people would rather not see and hear, but it’s part of the whole history of this country.”
More and more these other stories, these other histories, are being heard by the mainstream, yet they’ve always been told.  And as these stories are coming to a more widespread consciousness, those of us who’ve known little, or nothing, but the dominant history are being faced with the need to recognize that there is more than one way to experience something, more than one way to remember something, more than one “history,” if you will, of events.
This doesn’t just happen on the national scale, either.  A couple of months ago my oldest brother retired after 30 years.  My family and I attended his retirement party, and our middle brother went down for the weekend too.  A few of us were sitting around the table at some point, and somehow the conversation turned to who’d had surgery and why.  (Not really all that unusual for the Wikstrom boys, actually.)  Pat, the oldest, said that he could remember when I’d had my tonsils out and what a traumatic experience it’d been for me.  He said that my recovery was really rough; he could remember it so clearly.  I said that, actually, I’d never had a tonsillectomy, and our middle brother, Paul, joined in, saying that he’d been the one who’d had that operation and the difficult recovery Pat remembered. 
Another time we were talking about our parents, and the time my mom and dad separated.  I had no memory of this at all.  Paul said that it had been for a few weeks.  Pat said that it’d been for a few months.  We each had a different story to tell about our parents.  We each carry a different understanding of history, even though in many ways you’d think it was a shared history.
Life is hard.  Life can be really hard.  And relationships can be really hard.  I once heard someone somewhere say, “If you’ve never been betrayed, wait a while.”  In the first church I served – during my first year, as I remember – I got a phone call from a man who had once been tremendously active in the congregation but who had, for years, completely cut it, and everyone, off.  I’d heard about him, and people’s wondering why had had made such a decisive break, so I was surprised to hear from him with a request that I visit.  I went to his house that afternoon.
He told me that he was in real turmoil, and just didn’t know what to do.  He had, as I said, been really active.  He had been on every committee – most more than once – and was involved with pretty much everything you could be involved in.  (He said that he’d been a part of everything but the Women’s Alliance.)  When his mother died, though, not one person sent a condolence card.  Not one simple person cared enough about him, apparently, to do such a simple thing.  And, so, he left the congregation and never looked back.  This man had held on to this hurt, this sense of betrayal for years.  After all he’d done …
Earlier in the day that he’d called me, he said, his sister had called him.  She was moving out of her home of many years, and was packing things up.  “What do you want me to do with this box that I found in the attic?” she asked.  “It’s filled with all those cards your congregation had sent after mom died.”  It turns out that people had reached out.  Everyone had sent a card.  As the custom was in that time and place, they’d sent their cards to the funeral home, and after the service the funeral director had accidentally given the box to his sister instead of to him.  She apparently hadn’t really thought anything about it, and put the box away in the attic. 
“What am I supposed to do now?” he asked me.  He said that he’d judged and condemned all those people for all those years, and had just now come to learn that the story he’d told himself, the history he’d known all those years, wasn’t true.
I’ve seen this over and over again.  You may well have too, if not in your own life then in the lives of those around you.  Long-running feuds between old friends; siblings who’ve turned their backs on one another; parents and children estranged from one another; all because each has a memory, a sense of their history, that’s different than the other.
I want to be clear here.  I want to be very clear, so please listen.  I am not saying that, for instance, someone who has a painful, traumatic memory from their past is “wrong” even if others remember things differently.  I’m not saying that at all.  Often, in fact, the stories, the history we know about the wounds that have been inflicted on us by others in our lives are contradicted by those very people.  I am not saying that those who have been abused, for instance, need to give equal weight, or even credence, to the stories our abusers tell of “what happened.”  That’s not what I’m saying.
I am saying, though, that it can be important for us to remember, when we find ourselves in conflict with someone else, that they may be operating from within a sense of history that is different from, and perhaps even contradiction to, the history which we know.  When this happens, the conflict we’re having may well not be about the specific incident (or incidents) that we think it is; it may actually be about the fact that we don’t share the same history, even if we both lived through the same events.  In cases like that, the only way to resolve the issue is for each to listen to the other; to accept that we do, in fact, often interpret the same thing in different ways, and to try to come to a better understanding, together, of the experiences we have shared.  To see the world through the eyes of another is to expand our own understanding of the history of our lives, and to come fully into that “truth and meaning” we Unitarian Universalists are committed to seeking out.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

It's the little things ...

It's no secret that I love comic books -- the Batman, especially, and other DC characters, but Marvel heroes as well.  I've collected a pretty large number of them now, but I'm not one of those collectors who seal them away in plastic and never take them out unless wearing gloves so as not to leave any oil on them.  Well, I mean, I do have them in plastic, but I open them up all the time and take them out of their protective sleeves.  I like to read comic books.  I like the stories.  

There's a four-issue run of JLA (#50-54) that's part of the larger, "Divided We Fall" story arc.  In this tale, the characters who make up that iteration of the Justice League  -- Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, the Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman -- are each split into both their superhero identities and their alter egos.  So there's a Batman and a Bruce Wayne; a Clark Kent and a Superman.  Only Wonder Woman and Aquaman are unaffected, since at that time neither had a "secret identity."

While an interesting premise, it's where this story goes that so interesting (and cool!).  Who is the Batman without Bruce Wayne's anger and grief?  Who is Superman without the tempering influence of the so-very human Clark Kent?  Bruce Wayne becomes consumed with rage he can't process or direct; the Batman becomes ineffectual because there's nothing really driving him.  Superman becomes cold and brutal because he is nothing but a Kryptonian, while Clark Kent becomes frozen in fear.  Throughout these books the notion of identity is explored, and the need for not just these heroes but for all of us to learn to integrate the different, sometimes contradictory, aspects of ourselves.

I could name other story-lines that offer a great deal more than impossibly proportioned women and men in tights duking it out.  I'll give just one more example.  The Amazing Spider-man # 36 came out in the wake of 9/11.  The entire story consists of Spider-man's inner monologue as he responds to the horrors of that day.  It remains one of the most poignant and moving essays I've ever read on the subject.  "The sane world will always be vulnerable to madmen, because we cannot go where they go to conceive of such things."

One of the things I really love about comic books, though, is the character development which at least some authors bring to their story telling.  If you have years of history with, for instance, the Justice League, or even just with a single character, you're rewarded with little details, seemingly throw-away elements, that can speak volumes for people who are really listening.  In one Batman story line, Jim Gordon, the Batman's friend and ally on the Gotham City Police Force, has been seriously injured.  The Batman and his loyal butler Alfred are in the hospital room, and the Batman says, with vehemence, "Jim will pull through."  "Or what, Master Bruce?" Alfred replies.  "You'll dress up like a bat and haunt the night for the rest of your life?"  In the next panel the two just stubbornly stare at each other.  Volumes about the (albeit fictional) history of these two men are revealed in this little exchange.

There's another such moment when the Batman, Superman, and Catwoman have been given a hard time (to put it mildly) by the super-villain Poison Ivy.  Catwoman knocks her out and Supermans asks, "Was that really necessary?"  In the next panel Catwoman and the Batman look at each other, silently, and then they both turn back to Superman and say in unison, "Yes."

Each of these seemingly insignificant exchanges might seem at first glance to be mere "filler."  I would think that this would be especially so for the casual reader, who doesn't have all of the background that's embedded in these moments.The Batman and Superman have always represented two different approaches to this superheroing business, and each has at times critiqued the other for their way of doing things.  All of this is contained in Superman's question.  Catwoman and Poison Ivy have been both opponents and partners at various times, and the hell Ivy had just put Catwoman through, and her sense of betrayal, is part of that punch.  And, of course, the Batman and Catwoman have had an on-again, off-again relationship, a  ... complicated ... relationship, which is beautifully depicted in that look and their unison response.

I'll mention two more.  (Not so much because I think I really need to give more examples, but because I love these so much!)  There's a story line in the Justice League in which the team is battling "white martians."  (Just go with it.)  Wonder Woman has taken the one she's fighting, Primaid, up into the stratosphere until the martian passes out from lack of air.  As she returns to earth, she says, "Can't believe how long she held her breath up there."  Green Lantern asks, "So how long can you hold your breath?"  "Obviously longer than Primaid."  Wonder Woman replies.  And then she adds, "What a strange question.  Why should anyone know how long they can hold their breath?"  Meanwhile, the Batman comes into the scene, pulling the martians he's defeated, and he just jumps into the others' conversation, saying, "Three minutes, fifteen seconds.  You'd be surprised why."

By far my favorite of these little, character moments comes in the last book of the incredible series Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Jim Lee.  (Trust me, if you read only one comic in your lifetime, let it be this one.  The story is wonderful, and the artwork is amazing.  Seriously.   Trust me.  Read this ... and then read Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns.)

Anyway ... the story takes place in the future.  I won't spoil the story, but let's just say that there's world-threatening hell breaking out, and Superman flies into the Batcave, desperate for Batman's help.  Batman refuses, and begins to explain to Superman why.  When he's done with his speech he turns around and realizes that Superman had left, unnoticed.   (Something Batman is known for doing, much to people's consternation.)  The Batman returns to what he was doing, with a little smile on his face, saying to himself, "So that's what that feels like ..."

Great, right?

But why have I devoted an arguably overlong post to all of this?  Two reasons.  The first is that I really love this little moments and ... well ... wanted to share them.  And since I can't invite everyone over to my house to sit on the floor and read comics, this post will have to do!

The real reason, though, is that our lives are made up of such moments.  Oh, there are large dramas and full-on dance numbers from time to time.  Occasionally our lives require green screen or a team of stunt doubles.  Most of the time, though, it'a these little moments, things that others might not even notice, that matter most.  And like these moments in the comics, it takes some knowledge of the backstory, of the history, the context in which they happen, that gives these little details such emotional power.  Yet even for those who are living these lives, whose life experiences are the context, such little moments are nonetheless all too easily overlooked, far to easily disregarded as merely "filler" between The Really Important Things.

If we miss these moments, though, we miss our lives.  It's that simple.  So keep your eyes, and your ears, and your hearts open, my friends.  And when you become aware of being in one of these moments, in your own life or in the lives of those you love, take delight.  Paying attention to things like these is a little like knowing how long you can hold your breath.  You'd be surprised at how important it can be.

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 14, 2018

The Earth Is Our Mother

This is the text of my reflections on Sunday, May 13, 2018 -- Mother's Day -- at the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Like so many things, there are deep roots to Mother’s Day (and yes, the placement of that apostrophe after the “r” and before the “s” is important to story). 
During the 19th century, there have been several attempts by women’s peace groups to establish a holiday which celebrated peace, rather than war.  It was not uncommon, for instance, for mothers whose sons had fought or died on opposite sides of the Civil War to gather and speak out against the horrors of war.  Getting more specific, in 1868 a woman named Ann Jarvis sought to establish a “Mother’s Friendship Day,” which was intended as a day to “reunite families that had been divided [by the war].”  (Jarvis had previously organized “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” which worked to improve conditions for both Union and Confederate encampments.)  She wanted to expand Mother’s Friendship Day to become a celebration of all mothers, annually, but she died before she could do so.
In 1872, Julia Ward Howe led a “Mother’s Day for Peace” rally in New York City.  Howe – author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and a Unitarian (I might add) – gave a speech that has come to be known “Mother’s Day Proclamation” (an excerpt of which can be found in the back of the hymnal at #573).  In it she rails against, “the ambition of rulers [that] has been allowed to barter the dear interests of domestic life for the bloody exchanges of the battle field.”  She’s clear about whose fault that is.  She continued,
“Thus men have done. Thus men will do. But women need no longer be made a party to proceedings which fill the globe with grief and horror. … [T]he mother has a sacred and commanding word to say to the sons who owe their life to her suffering. […]

We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. [Here’s my favorite part!] Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country, to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. […] As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of council.”
I’d like to see Hallmark make a card out of that!  I imagine that on the front would be a picture of a woman, sitting on the edge of her bed.  Inside it would read, “You shall not come to me, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. … Happy Mother’s Day!”
So … how did Hallmark get involved?  Well, remember Ann Jarvis and her desire for a day to honor all mothers?  After her death in 1905, Jarvis’ daughter, Anna Jarvis, picked up the cause.  She campaigned mightily, and in 1910 Mother’s Day was declared an annual holiday … in West Virginia.  Four years later, Congress designated the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day, and President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation calling on American Citizens to show the flag in honor of all the mothers whose sons had died in war.  (Again, an anti-war theme that doesn’t show up in the card aisle of CVS.  But maybe PAUN– our Peace Action / United Nations – group might want to create an annual event here.  Hmmm ….)
That apostrophe after the “r” and before the “s” is important, because Jarvis envisioned the holiday a little differently, she wanted it to be a day to honor “the best mother who ever lived [singular] – yours.”  Yet soon this day to celebrate our own, individual, mothers became commercialized – fancy cards, expensive flowers, candy, gifts, became de rigueur.  
And if you think we, today, want to push back against Mother’s Day’s over-the-top commercialization, you should have seen Anna Jarvis.  She wrote,
A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world.  And candy!  You take a box to Mother – and then eat most of it yourself.
The woman who organized a petition to get Mother’s Day recognized as a national holiday organized a petition to put an end to Mother’s Day as an official holiday.  Apparently she did a little civil disobedience, too, because she was arrested – more than once – for making a public disturbance.  All of this seems to have been too much for her, and she was placed in the Marshall Square Sanitarium.  She was kept in the Marshall Square Sanitarium by people connected with the floral and greeting card industries, who paid her bills.  (And, again, let’s see what you can do with that, Hallmark!)
So … with all of this history about Mother’s Day, how does Mother Earth come in?  Why is this service dedicated to Mother Earth rather than, you know, actual mothers?  Well, Mother’s Day can be a hard one for a lot of folks.  Some of us had a great relationship with our mother; some of us still do.  Yet some grew up in abusive homes, and have nothing to celebrate.  There are children who are estranged from their mothers, and mothers who are estranged from their children.  Some of us wanted terribly to be mothers – some of us want terribly to be mothers – yet for any number of reasons motherhood has eluded us.  Some mothers’ children have died – whether in the womb, during childhood, or at some time after that.  Some of us have had abortions, knowing it was the right thing to do, yet mourning all the same.  And, of course, some of us have never wanted anything to do with motherhood.
Like I said – Mother’s Day can be a hard one for some folks.
Yet I think that on days such as this, while there may be an element of specific particularity to it – “the greatest mother who ever lived, yours” – there is also a way that we’re tapping into the archetypal – “The Mother”.  We all – all of us, and all things that have been, are, and ever will be – come from somewhere.  We say that great ideas are “born.”  There is a “maternal” dimension to our existence, and even when we’re thinking of our own, human – maybe “all too human” – mothers, we, perhaps even unconsciously, measure them, and ourselves as mothers, against that yardstick.  And it is this understanding of “the maternal” quality of existence, of the Archetypal Mother, that allows us to recognize that there are all kinds of mothers, all kinds of mothering, that has shaped us, and through which we shape others.
Perhaps the most fundamental vision of The Mother is what we might call “The First Mother” – Gaia, Mother Earth.  “The earth is our Mother / we must take care of her / the earth is our Mother / we must take care of her.”  We just sang that primal understanding.  “Her sacred ground we walk upon / with every step we take / Her sacred ground we walk upon / with every step we take.”
The Mother – the archetype of Motherhood, the fundamentally maternal aspect of reality – gives birth to us and to everything that is, ever was, and ever will be.  It nurtures us, gives of itself, offers us opportunities to thrive and grow, and makes of us, truly, one human family.  As anyone who’s ever sought out the beach, or the mountains, or the woods during times of confusion and pain can attest – we can turn to our Mother Earth when we have physical, emotional, or psychic “boo boos” that need a kiss to “make it all better.”  The earth is our Mother / she will take care of us / the Earth is our Mother / she will take care of us.”
But we’re not doing such a good job of taking care of her, are we?  A week ago Saturday, climate scientist announced that, “the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached its highest level in at least 800,000 years.”  This isn’t the highest level of CO2 our planet has seen. In what is sometimes called “the warm period” during the mid-Pliocene 3 million years ago, CO2 levels were also around 400 parts per million.  But we know that at that time the Earth's sea level was at least 66 feet higher than it is today.  Scientists tell us that over the past century, our planet’s Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) has risen by 4 to 8 inches.  And it’s speeding up – the annual rate of rise over the past 20 years has been about twice the average speed of the preceding 80 years.  Coastal cities in the US are making contingency plans, and smaller islands around the globe have already experienced devastating consequences from the rising seas.
“The earth is our Mother / we must take care of her / the earth is our Mother / we must take care of her.”
In 2010, a Green Sanctuary Task Force was created here, and through the hard and persistent efforts of a number of members – some of whom are here in the sanctuary this morning – our congregation completed 14 major projects and became a UUA certified “Green Sanctuary.”  [If you were involved in any of these efforts, would you please rise or raise your hand?]  Like so many things in a congregation’s life – in all our lives, probably, actually – a great deal of sweat and dogged determination goes into an achievement like that … and then that energy gradually dissipates and isn’t there to sustain that work.  Oh, many of the things our Green Sanctuary Task Force led us in doing are still being done – and I strongly encourage you to go outside at some point during the social hour and check out our Green Sanctuary Arboretum! – yet so much has been forgotten.
So let us try to remember.  Gaia, Mother Earth – whose “sacred ground we walk upon with every step we take,” whose holy breath we breathe with every breath we take – is very, very sick.  Dying, some same.  And we, her children, can’t be satisfied with the ecological equivalent of sending cards, and flowers, and candy (most of which we end up eating ourselves) once a year on Earth Day.
To all those who celebrate, or are celebrated on, Mother’s Day – Happy Mother’s Day.  And to our sacred Mother Earth, from whom all things come, we’ll try to recommit ourselves to not simply celebrating, but truly honoring all the gifts you’ve given us – including the lives we now live – and to do so in every way we can, wherever we can, whenever we can, for as long as we can.

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Celebrating 75 Years of Liberal Religion in Charlottesville

This is the text of the reflection I offered at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, April 29, 2018.   This service was a celebration of the 75th anniversary of the formal founding of the congregation.

Looking Back; Looking Forward
It was the early 1940s, and a woman named Carrie Baker moved to Charlottesville from Montclair, NJ.  In a letter to a friend she said that she liked her new home well enough, except for one small thing – there was no Unitarian church here.  That wasn’t going to be a hurdle for too long, though, because she’d decided to try to start one!
She reached out to the Rev. John MacKinnon, who was then serving the Unitarian congregation in Richmond, and to Rev. Dale DeWitt, who was Regional Director for the American Unitarian Association and Executive Secretary of the Middle Atlantic States Council of Unitarian Churches.  She asked them both what they thought of her idea about planting a new congregation here and they were both immediately … skeptical.  Neither thought that a place as small as Charlottesville was at that time would be able to sustain a congregation; both advised that she move forward – since move forward she was obviously of a mind to do – with … caution.  Even so, Dale DeWitt spent some time while on a visit in the area doing research in the local library and talking with folks at the Chamber of Commerce.  After this additional fact finding, he realized that … he hadn’t been cautious enough!  Yet as a history of our congregation prepared at the office of the Middle Atlantic States Council of Unitarian Churches noted, “He found Mrs. Baker, however, not at all responsive to caution but eager to see what could be done.”
One thing that could be done immediately was to look for other like-minded souls, and so Ms. Baker placed a classified ad in The Daily Progress.  It’s the one on the cover of your Orders of Service: 

14 words.  14 words!  Only two of them more than one syllable!  14 little words, 4 lines of text (if you count the contact information she gave), and here we are 75 years later.  The congregation Connie Baker was being discouraged from trying to create, which professional church folks had told her didn’t have much of a chance of getting started, is still here three-quarters of a century later!  We have over 400 formal members, and another – what? 50? 75? – people who have not officially “signed the book,” yet who also call this place their spiritual home.
February 28th was the actual anniversary of the charting signing that officially launched this church 75 years ago, and we were going to hold a celebration that night, but circumstances forced us to postpone.  In the service we did hold to address those circumstances, though, I said these words:
“Carrie Baker was not easily discouraged, and throughout the 75 years of our existence this congregation has shown time and time again that we are not “easily discouraged” either.  It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – there have been times when events in the wider world or right here in the congregation have caused real uneasiness and distress; times when the ordained minister or the lay leadership were taking the congregation in a direction not everyone wanted to go; times when support (financial and otherwise) dropped off precipitously; times when even beloved members felt the need to break off their connection to this place and these people; times when we have disappointed one another, hurt one another, damaged one another – and it seemed that the fabric of the community was being damaged, too … perhaps beyond repair.  Yet in looking back over the history of this congregation, it is clear that while we no doubt have been discouraged more than a few times, we have yet to be so discouraged as to truly give up on one another.”
The story of where we are right now as a congregation is just a chapter in a story that began long before most of us got here, and which I have every faith will continue long after all of us are gone.
Over the past year I have had the great pleasure of being able to pour over documents and memorabilia from a stash of congregational history that our un-official church historian Sally Taylor thought should be kept safe, yet still easily accessible.  She saw fit to deposit them in the office you so kindly share with your ordained ministers, and that made it easy for me to spend hours sitting on the floor, looking through file folders and photo albums – some meticulous and some with a more “thrown together” look.  I have gazed on photos of members past, read newspaper articles, annual reports, histories, and even some of the sermons of my predecessors in this pulpit. 
One of my favorites was the first settled Minister to serve this congregation, the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland.  On the 40th anniversary of his installation he was invited back to preach.  The sermon he delivered that day was not entirely a recitation of congregational history, although he did include a few choice stories from our earliest years.  I’m quoting him, because you might not believe them if you only had my word for it!
“Frank Hoffer [one of the founding members] used to drive down Market Street on Sunday mornings and stop in front of students waiting for the bus to take them to their respective churches.  He would offer to take them in his car – then he would drive them, not to their church but to ours!”
It seems that our congregation has felonious roots!
In talking about the purchase of choir robes, even though the Church was meeting in the ballroom of the Monticello Hotel, he said, “Now choir robes may seem to you an unnecessary formality, but our choir robes made it possible for at least one soprano to sing even though she was dressed in her leather clothes and eight months pregnant.  [She and her husband lived in Richmond], and the only way for them to get to our church services was to ride together […] on his motorcycle!”
On a more serious note he remembered, “perhaps the most difficult moment between us was immediately after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision of ’54 outlawing the separate but equal doctrine as unconstitutional, when I joined a small interracial gathering of young people to have a square dance in this church to celebrate the Court’s decision.  Now mind you, there was no advanced publicity.  They did not have a photographer or the press.  There was no thought of public attention because we were not demonstrating.  We were simply rejoicing.  But news of this event, after the fact, put quite a strain on the congregation’s relationship with the minister.” He’s talking about himself, of course.  He goes on to say, “But do not judge them too harshly.  That was nearly thirty years ago and it is an altogether different world today.  Besides, way back then, and this should make you proud, we were the only white-owned building in Charlottesville where that dance could have taken place.
We were, in those days, the only public building in Charlottesville that permitted integrated meetings.  We were also one of the few white congregations that refused to take part in the strategy of “massive resistance,” in which white congregations held formal classes in their buildings for white children so that they could continue to receive their education even though the city schools had all been closed in order to avoid having to integrate.  It was no doubt for these reasons that on August 13, 1956, representatives of the White Supremacist group “the Seaboard White Citizen’s Council” burned a cross on our property.  (That’s 62 years ago almost to the day of this summer’s “Unite the Right” debacle.)
Here are a few more factoids from our rather impressive history:
  • ·       Gregory Swanson, the first African American to be admitted to UVA, apparently attended our church during the time he lived on the grounds, and is remembered by family as saying he’d made friends here;
  • ·       It took roughly six years after moving into this building to get pews in the sanctuary, as well as to complete the parlor, kitchen, office, and minister’s study;
  • ·       The African American opera singer Emma Jefferson Morris made her debut here in our sanctuary, before going on to sing at Carnegie Hall;
  • ·       The Rev. Roy Jones — whose daughter Chris is a member here today — wrapped the church in black crepe in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches, and engendered a petition to have his ministry ended because of how uncomfortable many congregants were feeling due to his strong focus on racial justice, which some felt was too all-consuming and too radical. (For what it’s worth, he stayed another four years.)
  • ·       There was a time when pledge payments fell so far behind, that we had to borrow money for operating expenses (including salaries and our mortgage), yet within a couple of years the Board voted to make a $25,000 — interest free! — loan to the just-forming Charlottesville Housing Foundation, to support its work building housing for low-income families;
  • ·       The radical Catholic peace activist, Fr. Phillip Berrigan, spoke at a Sunday service in 1976, and ten years later Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross spoke from our pulpit … so when Jesse Jackson spoke here he wasn’t our first nationally known guest preacher!

I could easily go on, and over the course of this year, as we continue to celebrate this milestone, we’ll be finding all sorts of ways to tell these stories.
In his first sermon in this then-new sanctuary, Malcom Sutherland identified nine characteristics of a church that would be worthy of this building (he’d begun by noting that the building is not the church, but, rather, the people who gather in and around it).  He said we should be:
  • ·       Beautiful. 
  • ·       Strong. 
  • ·       Significant. 
  • ·       Confident. 
  • ·       Courageous. 
  • ·       Fearless 
  • ·       Devoted. 
  • ·       Sacrificing. 
  • ·       And fueled by faith — an unshakable faith in the promise of the “free mind” — which implies a belief in the inherent goodness of people — and a deep and abiding faith in ourselves and in one another. 

Those are certainly all qualities that Carrie and Charles Baker, Floyd House, John Varga, Mary MacNeill, John and Betty Beck, and the other founding members possessed.  How else could they have faced the odds that were against them to plant what we now harvest?  And looking back over our three-quarters-of-a-century history it is clear that these are qualities which have indeed marked our ever-evolving community.  They were tested, to be sure.  They were tested time and again.  And it definitely was not always clear at the time that they would triumph.  Yet they always did. 
I’m here to tell you this morning that despite the detours we have taken, we have always remained true to the vision that gave us birth.  And I am here to tell you, too, that even though we may feel conflicted today, that we may worry about our future, that we may fear that our disagreements are too great to be survived … I am here this morning to tell you that this isn’t the first time our congregation has felt this way, and that we, like they, will find our way through this.  Malcolm Sutherland said, “Let no obstacles yet to be overcome, and as we grow stronger the obstacles will become greater, let no obstacles yet to be overcome ever wipe away the spirit of confidence which has marked the early years of this church.”  They never have, and, my friends, I have a firm faith that they never will.
Twenty-three years ago, during my ordination, the incomparable preacher (and person) the Rev. Jane Rzepka asked in her sermon what held us together as Unitarian Universalists, given that we don’t share a common creed. Her answer for our movement is, I think, an answer for our congregation as well.
She referred to a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the book of Amos, in which the character of God asks, as part of a litany of questions, “Can two walk together unless they be agreed?”  That’s the way the King James Version puts it. More modern translations say, “Can two walk together unless they have made an appointment?,” or, even more plainly, “Can two walk together unless they have agreed to?”
That, Jane said all those years ago, is what holds us Unitarian Universalists together — that we have agreed to walk together. Some would say that there’s not a whole lot else that we all agree on, but that, at least, we should. Our faith tradition is based on our mutual commitment to walk together — not to walk away if people disagree with us (even if it’s our clergy or lay leaders); not to walk away if our feelings have gotten hurt; not to walk away if we think the church is going in the wrong direction; not to walk away when it might be more convenient or comfortable to do so.  What holds us together — what will hold us together no matter what obstacles we might face (and remember, “as we grow stronger the obstacles will become greater”) — what always has, and always will, hold us together is our continuing commitment to walking together.
75 years ago, a woman placed a classified ad, consisting of four words, in an edition of The Daily Progress.  75 years later, we are here as proof that the experts were wrong and that she was right – Charlottesville could support a Unitarian congregation.  Even more, we’ve proved time and time again that Charlottesville needs a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  As we rightly celebrate our past, let us equally commit ourselves to our future, so that there will be a Unitarian Universalist congregation here, alive and vibrant, 75 years from now, and so that they will have as much reason to celebrate their ancestors as we have to celebrate ours

 During the service we said together two responsive readings that were spoken by our religious ancestors.  The first was recited just before the sermon, the second served as our Parting Words.

A Responsive Litany (from the service celebrating the ground-breaking this building)
To love justice and strive for the right; to ease suffering and assist the weak; to forget wrongs and remember benefits:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To seek the truth; to rebuke falsehood and rumor; to defend liberty and cultivate freedom’s lofty aims; to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms; to share the promise of our day alike with friend and friendless; to make a happy home, a wholesome community, a neighborly world:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To cherish the beautiful in art, in nature, in personality; to cultivate the mind and share its discoveries; to be familiar with the mighty thoughts genius has expressed; to know the noble deeds of ages past:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To show forth courage and cheerfulness; to enrich life and make others happy; to reflect the splendor of generous acts, the warmth of loving words; to discard error and destroy prejudice; to receive new truth with gladness:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To sustain hope and broaden vision; to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night; to do the best that can be done:
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.
To nobel live, a simple faith, an open heart and hand – these are the lovely litanies which all [people] understand.  These are the firm-knit bonds of grace, though hidden from view, which bind in sacred [kinship] all [of humanity] the whole world through.  [To these ends:]
Congregational Response:  We commit our hearts and hands this day.

An Act of Dedication  (from the service of dedication for the building)
To every worth purpose and noble ideal; to every high aspiration and ever beautiful thought:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To all who have dreamed majestically and wrought mightily; to all who have served their vision faithfully and have wrested freedom from tyranny, wisdom from ignorance, and righteousness from evil:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To the ministry of all people; to the laughter and song of little children; to the search and service of youth; to the wisdom and stability of adults; to those who through a long life have borne witness to that abiding love which overcomes all evil:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
As a fountain of strength for the week; as a source of reassurance for the despairing; as a place of rest for the weary; and a well-spring of courage for those who are afraid:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
As a place of worship where in peaceful reflection and earnest prayer we can consider the things of worth and heart the still small voice within; where cries can be faced, decisions made, and battles won:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.
To the Source of all our being, the Light of all our light, the Truth behind our wisdom:
Congregational Response:  We dedicate this house.

Pax tecum,