Monday, March 25, 2019

Why Am I Sitting Here?

This is the text of the reflections I offered at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Sunday, March 24, 2019.

There is a story in the Hebrew Scriptures about a man named Nehemiah.  You might be expecting me to tell the story of Queen Esther and how she outed herself as Jewish just after the King declared his intention to exterminate all of the Jews in his kingdom, saving her people.  That’s the story that’s the basis of Purim, which was celebrated this past Thursday evening through Friday, and which the Gill family will celebrate here after each service.

You might expect me to tell that story – and it is a great story, really – yet I’m going to tell a story from the book of Nehemiah (and if you haven’t yet guessed why, I’ll be telling you shortly).

In chapter 5 of Nehemiah, which most scholars think is historically reliable, Nehemiah says that “a great cry” rose up from the people in Jerusalem.  The 1% were really sticking it to the lower 99% .  There was a famine going on, and the people cried out that the rich were taking advantage of the situation, and they the average person was having to take out mortgages on their homes and farms just to buy food.  (Price gouging in the 5th century BCE!)  And the bankers and other power brokers were charging usurious interest on these loans, leading to bankruptcies and foreclosures.  (Sound familiar?  “The more things change, the more they remain the same,” right?) 

One translation says that the people cried out, “Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children.”  It makes me think of that famous extemporaneous speech Sojourner Truth gave on May 29, 1851 in Akron, Ohio in which she asked, “ if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can't she have her little pint full?” and it’s powerful refrain, “Ain’t I a woman?”  We’re no different from you, the 99% cry out to the rich.  How can you treat us so badly?

The story tells us that Nehemiah heard the outcry of the people and he was incensed.  Maybe it was the inescapable awareness of the injustice of it all.  So he called “a great assembly” of the people and confronted the rich and powerful.  Remember, most scholars believe that at least this section of the book of Nehemiah actually happened.  Nehemiah called out the people of power, the people who had the power to make a difference, and he did so in the presence of “a great assembly” … in front of everyone.

One of the things that I find so fascinating in this story is that Nehemiah was one of the movers and shakers in Jerusalem at the time.  In fact, he was governor!  Installed by the King, with letters from the King declaring the King’s support of him and telling people to listen to him.  Even so, Nehemiah knew that his one, lone, voice was not enough.  He knew that, by himself, even he didn’t have enough power to make a real change in the status quo.  And he wanted change.  He wanted an end to the inequities, the injustices he could so plainly see all around him.  So he gathered together a “great assembly” of the people so that, in addition to his political and economic power, he had with him “people power.” 

In front of that crowd, with the obvious, undoubtable power of the people behind him, Nehemiah confronted those people who had the power to make changes, and they did:  properties that had been foreclosed on were returned, interest was eliminated on all loans from that time on, and the interest that had already been paid on those loans was reimbursed in full.

Around this time of year there is an intense, well-nigh inescapable inescapable push by a few members of our congregation to get a whole lot of the members of our congregation to attend something called “the Nehemiah Action.”  The Nehemiah Action is the largest public gathering in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area, and is one of the, if not the, biggest interfaith gatherings in the entire commonwealth.  It is, you might say, “a great assembly.”  (See why I told Nehemiah’s story?)

The Nehemiah Action is the culmination of a year’s – and sometimes more than one year’s – work done by IMPACT – Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.  IMPACT is an example of congregation-based community organizing, a form of coalition building that leverages the fact that a large number of people are already gathered together in faith communities.  27 different faithcommunities from within the Charlottesville/Albemarle area make up IMPACT -- Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Methodists, Quakers, Muslims, Presbyterians, non-denominational Christians, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Lutherans, … and us Unitarian Universalists.   In fact, we’ve been part of IMPACT, and IMPACT has been a part of our social justice ministries, since the organization’s beginning – thanks especially to the work of one of my predecessors in this pulpit, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi, we were one of IMPACT’s founding congregations!

Each year, through an extraordinarily democratic process, the congregations that make up IMPACT select one concrete example of a real injustice experienced by real people in our community.  It’s an issue that can be clearly articulated and for which a practical solution is possible.  People spend the year researching the issue, learning how other communities elsewhere have tried to deal with it, and working with stakeholders and the people with the power to make a difference to come up with a solution that will work here in our community.  If you want to talk about problems, if you want to create a committee to set up a task force to write up a report that then joins all of those other reports gathering dust wherever such reports end up, then IMPACT is not for you.  If, on the other hand, you want to help develop real solutions to real problems experienced by real people, IMPACT is one way to actually have … well .. an impact.

In past years, through the work of IMPACT, and the “people power” behind it that’s on full display at the “great assembly” of the Nehemiah Action, there is now extended service on area bus routes, and an entirely new route to serve the needs of underserved neighborhoods.  There is now a free dental clinic, with a full-time dental assistant, resulting in the first year a 1,165% increase in the number of people who previously had to go to an emergency room for their dental care because they couldn’t afford anything else.  (That wasn’t a typo.  An 1,165% increase in the number of people able to receive dental care.  That’s real change; that’s having an impact.)

Even a behemoth like the UVA Health Service was moved by the “people power” of IMPACT, and they now have a program through which otherwise unemployed youth can get free training to become Certified Nursing Assistants, and get on the medical career ladder.  During the first two-year pilot program, UVA planned to train 40 people.  In January of 2017 they expanded the program, so that it now trains 80 people per year!  And 76% of students from the pilot program are now working full time as CNSs.  

Not a report.  Not a wish list.  Not an ephemeral hope.  Real change for real people facing real injustices.

While I continue, folks who’ve been involved with IMPACT are going to walk down the aisle, distributing tickets for this year’s Nehemiah Action (which is on April 11th at 6:30 pm at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center).  If you would like to show up and be counted, if you would like to join the “great assembly” and show community leaders – the people with the power to effect change – the “people power” behind making real changes, please take one of these tickets.  (Or take more than one and invite a friend to come with you!  You don’t have to be affiliated with this congregation – or any faith community – to make a difference.)

Two years ago IMPACT saw the need for a women’s residential treatment center here in Charlottesville.  In 2015 we learned that each year there were 3,150 people in our regional jail who struggle with addiction to drugs or alcohol in our regional jail. A majority of these inmates who are women are also survivors of sexual abuse or domestic violence.  Residential treatment centers are considered the best way to provide real help, yet women had to go at least as far Richmond to find such a program, leaving their friends, family, and support networks behind.  They had to leave their kids behind, too.  Working with Region Ten and both City and County leaders, spurred on by the “people power” evidenced by the Nehemiah Action, the Women’s Center at Moores Creek opened on June 1, 2018.  Now women, with their children under 5, can receive the care they need in ways that just weren’t possible before.

This year, IMPACT turned its attention to the issue of affordable housing for seniors. Did you know that 900 senior households in Albemarle County are having to choose between paying for medical care and making their rent payments? In the city there are generations of families that can't keep the roof over their heads thanks to Jim Crow-era zoning and land use policies that are still in place. Over 4000 people in the Charlottesville urban ring pay half of their income toward housing!
IMPACT is seeking ways to increase land availability, consistent long-term funding of local housing funds, and rezoning of space, as a way of addressing the need for increased availability of affordable housing for low-income seniors in Albemarle County and low-income renters/families in Charlottesville.  On April 11th – 6:30 – 8:00 at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center – a “great assembly” will be gathered to speak to those with the power to make change, calling on them to commit to doing so.  I’ll be there, and I hope many, many, many of you will, too.

If you’ve been involved with IMPACT in any way this year, would you please stand or make yourself known?  (And keep standing or holding your hand in their air.)  If you have been actively involved with IMPACT in the past, would you join them?  If you have ever attended a Nehemiah Action, would you please stand or raise your hand?  And if you plan to attend the “great assembly” we call the Nehemiah Action this year, will you join this holy host.


Folks, this isn’t just “power to the people,” or “power for the people,” it’s “people power,” one of the most powerful things there is!

pax tecum,


P.S. -- I feel that I should note that the story of Nehemiah's time as governor is problematic in some respects from today's perspective.  In addition to the justice-minded reforms noted here, and his successful efforts to rebuild Jerusalem. he also sought to "purify" the city, leading him to ban marriages between Jews and non-Jews, and prohibiting non-Jews from working within the city.

Friday, March 22, 2019

We Can't Resist What We Refuse To Acknowledge

This week both Charlottesville and Albemarle High Schools were the target of online threats.  Parents were notified that the schools were taking precautions to keep our kids safe.  A spokeswoman for the city schools, "acknowledge[d] and condemn[ed] the fact that this threat was racially charged."  "Racially charged" does not begin to capture the truly heinous nature of the threat.

I submitted the following letter to the editor's of our local paper, The Daily Progress:

Whenever someone says, “Black Lives Matter!” you hear, “shouldn’t that be ‘all lives matter’?”  Yes … void of any context.  Yet we do not live in a world that is void of context.  This is a world where black and brown lives have regularly been, and are still, treated as mattering far less than the lives of those who identify as white.  “Race-neutral” and “color blind” ideals obscure the very real inequities still present in our so-called “post-racial” nation.  Yet simply choosing to pretend there is no monster under the bed doesn’t mean there is no monster.  It just allows me to feel safe beneath my covers, while allowing the monster unfettered freedom to do as it likes.
Parents were recently alerted to an online threat made against Charlottesville High School.  School officials wanted to assure all of us that they and the police took seriously their responsibility to keep all of our children safe.  What they did not want us all to know was that this wasn’t a threat of random violence, but violence directed specifically at children of color.  The anonymous poster was very specific, describing their intent as “ethnic cleansing,” using ugly racial slurs to describe the African American and Latinx students who would be their targets.  “If you white … you better stay home,” the post said. 
What was gained by the “whitewashing” of this pointedly racial threat?  Only the comfort of white folk in Charlottesville who want to keep saying that “all children matter,” so we can continue refusing to recognize the ugly reality that some of our children are treated as if they matter more.  Meanwhile, those African American and Latinx students and their families are left wondering if anyone really cares that they were the ones being threated, and only because of the color of their skin.  When those of us who are white refuse to affirm the racist nature of such a threat, we also refuse to affirm the importance of those who were being threatened.  That’s why we need to keep saying, “black lives matter” … until they do.
Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom

The signs outside and inside the congregation I serve have been up for years, and I hope will remain up until they are no longer needed reminders.

P.S. -- I am pleased to report that The Daily Progress is now reporting that arrests have been made in both cases, and are noting that the threat in the Charlottesville High case described "ethnic cleansing."  I believe that the point of my letter remains valid and worth saying.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Be Here Our Guest

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 18th, 2019 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

What makes you feel at home?  What makes you feel welcome? That's not a rhetorical question.  Really ... what makes you feel welcome and at home?

I read an article this week in which the author pondered this question.  She came to the conclusion that she felt most at home, most welcome, when the place looked like someone lived there. 

“The homes in which I’ve felt the most at ease have been the homes that feel lived in. They are the ones that are not perfectly clean or perfectly decorated. Now don’t get me wrong; they aren’t filthy either, but a little dust on the furniture and a few stray items cluttering up the counter top almost make me breathe a sigh of relief. The house is inhabited by real people! On the other hand, when I enter a house that looks like a show piece, I spend most of my time holding my breath, worrying about ruining something, especially if the kids are with me! It’s stressful enough to bring your children to someone else’s home without having the added stress of perfection to deal with.”

Then she asked herself what she did to try to make people feel welcome.  You might have guessed that she cleans the place top to bottom, making sure that there is no dust anywhere.  She puts away everything and sets the pillows on the couch “just so.”  (I added that last part, but I feel certain that she does.)  My paternal grandmother, Maria Quanstrum, put those plastic covers on all of the fabric covered furniture, and kept them on even when company came.  My dad said that that’s one of the reasons he never brought any of his friends over to the house – he knew they wouldn’t feel comfortable, wouldn’t feel welcome.

What makes a person feel welcome?  How can we make a person feel welcome?  How can we actually be welcoming, as we say we strive to be?

It had been my intention to dance with those questions as they relate to our lives as individuals, and as a community.  Yet recent events have led me down a different path.

The other day my son said to me something I never said to my father, “Did you hear that there was another shooting?”  Mass shootings happen so frequently today that they’re in some ways becoming part of the background noise of his life.  “Did you hear that there was another shooting today, dad?”
It wasn’t like this when I was growing up.  Oh I am sure that it was more like this than I knew.   There wasn’t the same kind of from-every-direction-at-once 24/7 coverage, and in those days (“the Before Times” as my kids call it), parents tended to shield their kids from the ugliness in the world in a way that not all parents do today.  Nonetheless, I do think that there’s been a real change.

We’re 11 weeks into 2019, and already there have been 58 mass shootings (defined as more than 3 people being shot in the same place at generally the same time).  58.  And there have been 11 times when there was more than one mass shooting on the same day! On January 26, on that one day, there were 4 separate mass shootings – in Georgia, New Jersey, Indiana, and Louisiana – that left 12 people dead.  On one day.

Shopping malls, movie theatres, outdoor concert venues, schools, churches, synagogues, mosques – these were places of relative safety when I was a kid.  I say “relative” because the places I, as a white person, felt safe were not always safe for women, people of color, homosexuals, trans people …  Yet even taking that into consideration, I do believe that there has been a quantitative shift, and a qualitative shift in life in the U.S.

I’ve talked with a number of you over the past few years, and you’ve told me – not exactly in these words – that you just don’t know, just don’t understand, what’s going on in the world anymore.  That the world as it is today doesn’t make sense to you, and that it doesn’t feel like “home” anymore. 
Just a few months ago a gunman opened fire in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding another 7.  This past Friday a gunman shot and killed 50 people in two mosques this past week, shouting words of hatred as he released destruction and death.  He filmed the whole thing, streaming it on Facebook live as it happened.

Two summers ago there were actual tiki torch carrying, robe wearing, klu klux klan members and other white supremacist marching in our streets, rallying in our parks.  There is a man in the White House who will not come out and directly, explicitly, and unequivocally condemn white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, trans-fobia, anti-Semetism, Islamo-phobia … And not only doesn’t he outright condemn these hateful ideologies, he seems to actually embrace and encourage them with winks and inuendoes.  Deniable, of course, yet all too disgustingly visible.

Hard won protections for the environment; equal rights for women, people of color, trans people, gays and lesbians, people with physical or mental disabilities, immigrants (just about anyone who isn’t white and well-off); peace on the planet; religious freedom; our country’s relationship with other nations and place in the world; worker’s rights; income inequality … in all of these areas where progress has been made over the past decades (however slowly and incompletely), there is currently regression to former, less fair, less safe, less “welcoming” times.

Mr. Rogers, spiritual father and grandfather to several generations, famously said this:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

It is so easy to become focused on the shooters in public, private, and sacred spaces; focused on the Islamo-phobes, and the people who desecrate Jewish cemeteries and synagogues with swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti; and those servants of the people who leave unarmed black youth lying dead in the street; and those venomous politicians (and preachers) who spew hate; and those men who prey with impunity on women and children …  I could go on.  It’s so easy to become focused on them.  Yet they do not represent humanity.  And while I need to stay aware of them, recognize their reality, and actively work against their agendas, I do not have to let them to define the world in which I live.  Neither do you.  We can follow Mr. Roger’s mother’s advice and “look for the helpers.”

This summer a man name Mamoudou Gassama came across a small crowd of people in the streets of Paris, looking up at an apartment building.  When he looked, and saw what they were looking at, he didn’t just stand there.  He started running toward the building, because what everyone was looking at was a baby dangling precariously from a balcony.  Gassama ran to the building and started to scale it.  You can find videos of it, and what he does is really amazing.  In almost no time he was at the balcony, and he brought the baby to safety.

Mamoudou Gassama could have stood with the others, staring at the infant’s precarious predicament.  Instead, he instinctively ran toward the danger.  Especially as an undocumented immigrant from Mali, in France for only six months at the time, he might have wanted to maintain a low profile.  But he couldn’t.  He was a helper.

The National Public radio program “Radio Lab” devoted an episode to the topic of “heroism,” and there was a story that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.  I guess I really don’t want to, because it’s a reminder of the helpers in the world.  A man was standing on a subway platform, when another person nearby began having a seizure and fell onto the tracks.  The first man, without hesitating, jumped down to help the other one up.  When he couldn’t, and when it was clear that a subway was coming, he laid down on top of the other man, holding him down on the track.  The subway cars passed over the two men, just grazing the top man’s back.  The two men were strangers, yet one risked his life for the other without a moment’s thought.

In the early days of my ministry I was officiating the memorial service of an elderly member of the congregation.  During the eulogy his son mentioned that his dad had gotten a purple heart because during a battle he had run out to pull back a wounded comrade.  “That’s not what happened!” a voice shouted from the congregation.  A little while later, during the open sharing of memories, this man took the microphone.  “I’m sorry I caused a commotion,” he said.  “But that’s not what happened.  He didn’t go out under fire to bring back a wounded member of our unit.  He brought the first boy back, and then went out again!”

And on Friday Abdul Aziz ran outside and toward the gunman, shouting “Come here!”  He threw the only weapon he could, a credit card machine he’d picked up on the way out.  After the shooter had gone back to his car to get another gun, Aziz ducked and weaved among the cars in the parking lot as bullets whizzed by him.  He saw a gun that the gunman had dropped, but it was out of bullets, so Aziz threw it like a spear at the shooter’s car, shattering the windshield and scaring the killer away.  But Aziz wasn’t done.  He ran after the speeding car, stopping only when he couldn’t keep up.  Because of him the shooter never got inside the second mosque, which is why the carnage was so much less there.

“When I […] would see scary things [going on in the world around me] my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers.  You will always find people who are helping.’  To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

The haters, the demagogues, the killers, the oppressors, the ones who deny another person’s humanity, the ones who push people to the margins so that they can have the center for themselves, the ones who seem determined to make this world a living hell … they’re real.  They exist.  And we must do all that we can to see to it that they don’t win the day

The helpers are real too, though.  They are just as real.  And we must never lose sight of that.  We must keep them in their minds and hearts, drawing strength, and courage, and hope from their examples.

One last thought:  while reading for this reflection I came across an article in which the author said that Mr. Roger’s mother’s advice is not good advice for us today.  He had several reasons, a couple of which I found neither compelling nor convincing, yet there was one that struck me as both true and important enough to share it with you this morning.  He noted that simply looking for the helpers is not enough.  We need to be those helpers to the extent we can, wherever and whenever we can.
Friends, we can work to make this a world in which all people are truly welcome, a world which all of us can truly call “home.”  And not only can we … we must.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Science Fiction of Social Justice

This past Sunday, during the first service, I realized that I needed to trim my reflections before going in to the second.  The proverbial "cutting room floor" is often home to passages that, for one reason or another, were important or intriguing enough to include yet, ultimately, are not enough of either of those things to remain in the final draft.  Thus it always is for writers.

I remember once, early in my preaching career, emailing a sermon to a friend for her opinion.  Something just wasn't right about it, but I really couldn't tell what.  After reading through it she wrote back, "Erik, that's two of the best sermons I've ever read."  One of them ended up on that floor.

Still, that second sermon found its way off the floor and into the pulpit at some point, and today I want to expand on one of the things I didn't get too on Sunday.

This summer I read a fascinating book –  Octavia’s Brood: science fiction stories from social justice movements.  

Octavia E. Butler was a science fiction author -- the first science fiction author to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.  She was also something of a rarity in the world of science fiction literature for another reason:  there haven't been a lot of African American science fiction writers.  Her Wikipedia article notes that,
"Butler began reading science fiction at a young age, but quickly became disenchanted by the genre's unimaginative portrayal of ethnicity and class as well as by its lack of noteworthy female protagonists.  She then set to correct those gaps by, as De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai point out, "choosing to write self-consciously as an African-American woman marked by a particular history"—what Butler termed as "writing myself in".  Butler's stories, therefore, are usually written from the perspective of a marginalized black woman whose difference from the dominant agents increases her potential for reconfiguring the future of her society."
The editors of Octavia's Brood -- Sheree Renée Thomas and Walidah Imarisha -- dedicate their anthology to Butler:
"To Octavia E. Butler, who serves as a north star for so many of us.  She told us what would happen -- "all that you touch you change"--and then she touched us, fearlessly, brave enough to change us.  We dedicate this collection to her, coming out with our own fierce longing to have our writing change everyone and everything we touch."
The 23 contributors are, as Thomas describes them in her Introduction, “artists who in their other lives work tirelessly as community activists, educators, and organizers.” Imarisha notes in her Introduction that one of the things that makes this project so fascinating and exciting is that, "many of the contributors [...] had never written fiction before, much less science fiction."  She writes,
"When we approached folks, most were hesitant to commit, feeling like they weren't qualified.  But overwhelmingly, they all came back a few weeks later, enthusiastically, with incredible ideas and some with dozens of pages already written.  Because all organizing is science fiction, we are dreaming new worlds every time we think about the changes we want to make in the world."
That idea is what intrigued me and led me to include a reference to this in my last reflections.  I realized, though, that I could make the point I was trying to make without this reference and that, actually, this deserved more room than I could have given it there.

"All organizing is science fiction."  Think about that for a minute; let it sink in.  Whenever anyone works for justice, whenever anyone strives to help transform the world from what it is now into what we know it can be, we're essentially painting a picture of a world that does not (yet) exist.  That's the work of science fiction -- to show us alternatives to the reality we know.  Imarisha says,

“Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction.  All organizing is science fiction.  Organizers and activists dedicate themselves to creating and envision another world. […]”

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a great deal more about Middle Earth than showed up in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings.  One of the reasons the world he created feels so rich, so full, so real, is because he knew more about it than what he needed to tell us for his stories.  And you can sense it.  You can feel it.

He even wrote his own creation story for this world.  The Ainulindalë is a really beautiful and profound myth; it's actually my own favorite of all the creation myths I've ever encountered.  It is the one that feels most "true."  Simply put,  Eru Ilúvatar, the One, creates the universe and all that's in it through music.  
"The story begins with a description of the Ainur as "children of Ilúvatar's thought". They are taught the art of music, which becomes the subject of their immortal lives. The Ainur sing alone or in small groups about themes given to each of them by Ilúvatar, who proposes a "great" plan for them all: a collaborative symphony where they would sing together in harmony."  (Wikipedia)
There are a number of important details, meaningful nuances, that I would hate to rush past.  I encourage you to get a copy of The Silmarillion, which collects much of this "backstory," or Google around until you find a copy of the text online somewhere.  

The reason I bring all of this up is the way the story ends.  After the "collaborative symphony" is complete, Ilúvatar invites the Ainur to look at what they'd created together.  They do, and it is beautiful.  It is good.  And then everything vanishes.  Void.  Emptiness.  And then Ilúvatar tells the Ainur to go into that emptiness and bring into being all that they saw.

I get shivers -- The Ainur are shown not just the blueprint, but the total, finished reality of all creation, and then they're tasked with actually making it real.

When I read Thomas' and Imarisha's words about organizers and activists being engaged in science fiction I immediately thought of Tolkien's myth.  Those who work for justice are those Ainur who have seen this not-yet world right here in the midst of the world as-it-is, and they have set upon the work of bringing into being what they've seen.  In another way they are Ilúvatar, showing their vision to anyone "with eyes to see" (as Jesus is remembered as putting it), and engaging them in the work of world building.

Perhaps all this talk about myths and science fiction seems trivializing of the real life-and-death struggle that is this world for far, far too many.  We don't need pretty stories.  We need action!  That later part is right, but the former misses an important truth.  Walidah Imarisha explains in her Introduction the importance of engaging the imagination in the work for societal transformation:

“[T[he decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is:  for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born.  Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

Sheree Renée Thomas adds one fascinating thought:
"[T]hose of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs.  Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us."
As someone from a historically centralized position, this reminds me that I have to listen not so much to the dreams of my ancestors, to the science fiction that comes out of my history.  Why?  Because that's the world we're living in.  The world that was imagined, the vision that was dreamed and worked for by straight, white, cis-male folks with good educations and incomes has already been brought into being.  It's the world that's so in need of transformation into something new.

This doesn't mean that my ancestors have nothing of value to offer, that their vision offers no beauty or strength.  It does mean, though, that if we're serious about bringing a new world into being then the movers and shakers of this world need to start listening to new stories, new dreams.  Or, rather, new to me.  These stories, these dreams, this visions have always been here; they've just been largely displaced by those that brought us to where we are.  Reading the stories collected in Octavia's Brook opened for me a library the existence of which, I confess, I was only faintly aware.  There is so much more to read, and it pains me that I'm only discovering it at 56.  (At least I'm not first discovering it at 57!)

Pax tecum,


Monday, March 04, 2019

I Dream a World

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, March 3, 2018, to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The Opening and Closing readings were the incredible "Let America Be America Again!" by the incomparable Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes wrote “I Dream a World” in 1929.  34 years before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously talked about his dream in front of approximately a quarter of a million people at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  Another 49 years would pass before the UUA published the Tapestry of Faith curricula, “Building the World We Dream About.”  There’s a whole lot of dreaming going on.

Which should hardly be surprising.  It takes dreamers to imagine a world other than the world as it is, a world where “[one person] no other [person] will scorn, where love will bless the earth and peace its paths adorn.”  As Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, admittedly in a very different context, “You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?”

Yet there’s a danger here – a danger perhaps especially for good-hearted, well-meaning liberal white folk like … well … like most of us here this morning and most of us in our Unitarian Universalist faith.  The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, easily one of my top two or three UU preachers, has recently published her first book – After the Good News:  progressive faith beyond optimism.  The description on the back of the book says, “With humor and humanity, Ladd calls religious progressives to greater authenticity and truth-telling rather than blind optimism.”  There is definitely humor and humanity in this book, and also courage; compassion; boldness; truth-telling (to be sure); history; rebuke; challenge; hope; deep, deep thinking; and oh so much love.  She know us; she loves us; she is us; and from within that knowing, loving, and being she writes:

“For much of the past hundred years, even through wars, devastation, and the insidious persistence of systemic racism, modernist religious liberals in Eurocentric churches [meaning us] have preached about our near-unlimited capacity to fix just about everything that is broken.  We believe in ourselves so completely that the ‘good news’ has become a good word about our own capacity to heal things, leaving little room for honest atonement or our own complicity in brokenness.”

She says,

“[Y]es, with Theodore Parker and Dr. King, we believe that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,’ … [but] why are we so quick to focus on the ‘bending toward justice’ bit rather than honestly addressing the maddeningly long length of the arc – especially for people who live and struggle and lead at the margins of power?”

Because – and these are my words now – religious liberals, including us, have become comfortably complacent and complacently comfortable in our role as the shining beacon, the moral compass, pointing the way to that Beloved Community we “dream about.”  We look around us and see the morass of misogyny, the depths of depraved white supremacy, the incomprehensible income inequality, the xenophobia, the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-transgender, anti-homosexual, anti-Semitic, anti- … well … the anti-just-about-anything-that-isn’t-white, we look around us and see all of that and know with absolute certainty that we offer both an alternative and an antidote.  We look around us “out there” and see all of that, and we look around us “in here” and see all of these beautiful, good-hearted, well-meaning, truly inspiring liberal folk who have in so many cases dedicated their lives to changing that world into the world we dream of.  (The fact that we are mostly white, mostly middle class, mostly well educated is seen as nothing more than a coincidence.)

My parents raised their children to be feminists, non-racists, believers in the vision, the dream, of a world in which all people are welcomed, in which everyone – absolutely everyone – had a seat at the table.  The problem is, as Nancy points out (and I’ll quote her again):

“[T]he table progressive religion invites everyone to, no matter how broad and expansive it may be, is almost always set by people who believe they are white.  Those same white people who set the table have chosen to repeatedly align that white identity with the predominant power structures of their day.

Among the difficult truths we are called to grapple with is the fact that oppressive power structures undergird every single era of progressive optimism in this country.  […] the great institutions of liberal faith were and are inextricably interconnected with systems of supremacy, patriarch, and oppression.”

Last week was the one-year anniversary of a racist attack on a member of our community most likely by a member of our community.  Our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, came in to work, took her mail out of the box on her office door, and found among the bills and requests for rooms an anonymous racist note that was directed not only at her, but at her husband and her kids.  One year ago I responded to this attack, as did the senior leadership of this congregation, strongly and clearly, and holy – or unholy – hell broke loose.  [Here is Christina's own response.]

I had preached on racism before.  I had begun to use the term “white supremacy” before, a term which scholars and activists of color have said is a more accurate description of what had heretofore been called, simply, “racism.”  I said unequivocally that if we’re serious about dismantling the systems and structures of the white supremacy culture, if we’re serious about changing the world “out there” as it is now, into the truly multi-cultural Beloved Community we dream about, then we who identify or are identified as white will need to be the ones who change.  We will need to face, and deal with, the discomfort that unavoidably comes with change.  We will have to become “comfortable with being uncomfortable,” or, as Dr. King put it so marvelously, we are going to have to be “maladjusted.” 

Time after time, sermon after sermon, I preached this same message – we, those of us who identify, or are identified, as white are going to have to shoulder the cross of dis-ease, dis-equilibrium, discomfort – and was greeted with the white liberal equivalent of shouts of “Amen!” and “Preach it brother.”  On that handshake line over there person after person said that I was “brave,” and “bold,” and “saying what needs to be said.”

And then, one year ago, I actually made us uncomfortable.  I had the audacity to disrupt our equilibrium.   I said that we – good hearted, well meaning, liberal white folks who have unquestionably toiled mightily in the vineyards of social change and the movements for justice – that we are complicit in the racism that revealed itself in our own home.  And more than that, I said, unequivocally, that whoever wrote that note is not welcome here.  And boy did people get upset.

In her truth-telling Nancy says, “Those who are accustomed to privilege consider it reasonable to expect comfort and assurance of their own fundamental decency.”  She doesn’t exclude herself from this truth, and neither do it.  Yet when we – those of us who identify, or are identified, as white – really and truly open ourselves up to seeing with new eyes, looking beyond, or through, the veil of the norms and assumptions of our cultural inculcation we will have to acknowledge that we – as individuals and as institutions – often unconsciously participate in, and unwittingly perpetuate those systems and structure upon which our society is built.

In especially potent section of her book, Nancy takes us backward from the liberal church we know today, back through our history, to show us our roots:

“Well past the beginning of the twenty-first century, liberal churches continued to remember the good old days of twentieth-century modernism.  The great modernist churches of the mid-twentieth century were tied to the concept of unending societal potential birthed after the industrial revolution.  That vison of unending societal potential was in turn tied to patriarchal and racially unjust systems that benefited from the oppression they decried.

The prevailing cultural and socioeconomic ethos of this gospel of unending progress was built by and for white men with significant power.  They exercised that power through seemingly benevolent dominion over the earth, its peoples, and its mysteries alike.”
She concludes,

“So, that explains a lot of things.”

We are complicit, all of us are.  How could we not be?  Unless we are consciously and pro-actively creating and living in radically new ways of being in the world, then we are reinforcing the way things are right now whether we want to or not.  Whether we declare our desire to change things.  Even as we work for the transformation of society.  Unless we are willing to live within a transformed reality ourselves while we do so, we are working against ourselves unaware.
This doesn’t mean that we are bad people.  We’re not.  This doesn’t mean that there is no distinction between us and those who carried tiki torches through our city two years ago.  There obviously is.  This doesn’t mean that we should flagellate ourselves with whips of guilt and shame.  We are, we truly are good-hearted, well-meaning folks who put our hearts, minds, and souls into fighting the good fight and striving for our mutual liberation.

This does mean that we need to recognize that if there is ever going to be change in this world, we – especially those of us who identify or are identified as white – are going to have to learn to be “comfortable being uncomfortable” … even when we are actually made uncomfortable!  It does mean that we’re going to have to recognize that some of what we hold sacred, even some of our most cherished ideals and values that we have for so long bravely and lovingly espoused, even these must be examined for their unintended consequences and their role in perpetuating what we are working to dismantle. 

And it means that when we dream dreams, when we see visions, when we strive to build a new way out of the world as it is toward the world as we know it can be, we have to make sure that they’re not just our dreams, conditioned as they unavoidably are by the culture in which we “live, and move, and have our being.”  It means that we need to listen to the dreams of those who have been historically, and who are still, relegated to the margins, to make their dreams our dreams, even when, and perhaps especially when, those dreams challenge our comfort and threaten to upend everything we know about ourselves.

This is scary my friends.  And believe me, it’s as scary for me as it is for you because it’s new terrain for all of us and little in the life I’ve lived so far has prepared me for this.  I do not, can not, know what the future will look like, or the path to get there, because it is a new future we are called to build, unlike, and not simply an extension of what we have known.  Yet if we hold one another in love – whether we see things the same way, or say things the same way, or strive in the same ways – then we can, together, be part of helping that dream become a reality.

I’ll end with the words of one of my predecessors in this pulpit, the Rev. Wayne Arnason:

Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.


Pax tecum,