Posts Tagged commitment

Long Haul People

I preached this sermon (via Zoom) at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on March 29th 2020.  I had intended to preach on the long journey ahead of us, given the congregation’s decision on March 8th to seek a new, bigger facility, but in the space of just a few days, the coronavirus pandemic made us change all of our plans!

I had intended to use the poem by Rudy Nemser, because it’s such a great poem praising those dedicated members of a church who are the backbone of a thriving congregation:

Long haul people[, Nemser writes,]
upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
and daylight/night-time hours)
a church is built and maintained
after the brass is tarnished and
cushions need re-stitching.

These members understand that their commitment really matters, and they don’t need to like or approve of every single aspect of congregational life to do what needs to be done.

They pay their pledges full and on time[, Nemser notes,]
even when the music’s modern;
[they] support each canvass
though the sermons aren’t always short;
[they] mow lawns and come to suppers;
[they] teach Sunday School when
there’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.

And long haul people understand that what really matters endures, too, and that it’s important to take the long view rather than get too distracted by what’s happening at any given time.

Asked what they think of the minister, [Nemser says,]
or plans for the kitchen renovation,
or the choral anthem, or the Christmas pageant,
or the color of the bathroom paint,
they’ll reply: individuals and fashions
arrive and pass.

The church — their church — will be here, steady and hale,
for a long, long time.

Of course, Nemser, who served the mission of UU congregations in Massachusetts, Virginia, New York and New Jersey between 1950 and 2000, never imagined the sort of situation in which we now find ourselves, unable to meet in person and relying on such technology as this to practice community!

And so I decided in this service to also include the more recently written poem by Margaret Weis, who currently serves the mission of the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca. Entitled “The Church Has Left the Building”, Weis begins by making something as clear as she can:

The Fellowship is not a place; it is a people.

Yes, Weis explains, there are buildings with walls and foundation stones and doors, but what really makes a congregation is people, connecting to one another, working for healing and justice, opening up to the world’s possibilities, calming fears and soothing heartache, and offering hope and love. The Fellowship is not a place, Weis explains:

the Fellowship is us — each and every one of us — together,
a beacon of hope to this world that so sorely needs it.

What these poems by Nemser and Weis have in common is their declaration that what makes a congregation thrive — regardless of the color of the paint on the walls or whether there even are walls — is the people, people who are willing to commit to the journey ahead and offer hope and love to a hurting world.

Now, I could get theological at this point. I could talk about the spiritual resources our faith offers us in our on-going efforts to offer the wider world our very special blessing. I could examine each of our Seven Principles, as well as the Five Smooth Stones. After all, the fifth of the smooth stones is the joy of knowing that the human and cosmic resources for meaningful personal and social transformation justify ultimate optimism. And maybe I’ll give that sermon at some point, but for today, as we enter week three of this social crisis that feels like it’s been going on for much longer already, I want to be more pastoral. Today I want us to think about what will help us get through this, what will help us to be long haul people for one another, so that we can offer the wider world our very special blessing. So here’s my list of what can help us.

First, breathe. In fact, breathe with me now, if you would. Breathe in, and breathe out.

Many years ago, the best advice I ever got from a yoga teacher was: don’t stop breathing. It’s easy — and we’ve all done it — when we’re trying to do something difficult, when we’re really focused on what we’re doing, to hold our breath while we’re making the effort. I don’t know why we do that, because it doesn’t help. Breathing is essential. In fact, the more effort you’re making, the more you need to breathe. So, don’t forget to breathe.

Breathe in, and breathe out.

Breathe in peace, and breathe out love.

Next, be patient. Be patient with one another. Be patient with yourselves. We’re all faced with a really big learning curve. This is like nothing we’ve had to do before, learning how to practice community when we can’t do that in-person! And so we’re figuring out how to use Zoom, for instance, to offer services and programs, and to hold the meetings we still need to hold. It’s going to take us some time to get to some reasonable virtual semblance of congregational life, and there will be mistakes along the way. So remember that we’re all human!

Along with that, take it one step at a time. I am amazed by how many artists, musicians, authors and entertainers are now making free videos available, particularly for children. (And I know we parents are very grateful for that!) One such author is Mo Willems — my daughter loves his books — and in one video he recorded, he showed how he designed and created a three-dimensional cardboard set so that photographs could be taken for one of his books. In that video, he gently explained to the children that the idea of creating something so big and detailed can seem overwhelming if you try to take in everything that needs to be done, but if you break it down into steps and take them one at a time, it becomes much more manageable. Willems was not just talking about his art, of course, but also the current situation. When we’re faced with such a big and complicated situation, it helps to take it one day at a time.

Speaking of days, keep a routine. This can be a challenge if you’re working from home or otherwise spending most of your day at home. Try to get up at your regular time, get dressed, have a decent breakfast — it is the most important meal of the day! — and read the newspaper or do a crossword puzzle or something to get your brain to wake up, too. Keeping some sort of regular schedule helps to avoid that feeling of being adrift and not knowing what day of the week it is. And if something happens to interrupt your routine, what small rituals do you have to center yourself, to re-center yourself when you need it? (Remember to breathe!)

Now, I did mention reading the newspaper as part of a daily routine, but I want to acknowledge how easy it is to be overwhelmed. A newspaper only comes once a day, thankfully, but then there’s the local news and twenty-four hour cable news on television, not to mention the infinite quicksand of social media. I pretty much stopped using Facebook back in December, when there was a protest about the masquerading of paid content as unbiased material, and frankly I was quite happy not to be drowning in bad news anymore. Now that we have no choice but to rely on social media, I’ve had to start using Facebook again, but I’m trying to be more careful in how I use it, paying attention only to what I need rather than getting sucked into scrolling down the unending “news” feed. So when it comes to knowing what’s going on, pick a few sources that you know are reliable. I know I rely on the radio show 1A, even though I’m still sad that Joshua Johnson left it, and there are the briefings that the governor holds each day at 2pm. Figure out where you can get your news in ways that don’t make your head explode in outrage or implode in depression, and limit yourself to them.

And as part of that, keep a sabbath. It’s so easy, now that we’re moving so much of our lives on-line, to be on 24/7. But we need time off. We need breaks from focus and effort for the sake of our own mental hygiene. Build them into your schedule, if you need that to remind you to take some time for yourself. (And don’t feel guilty about that, either!) Like most ministers, I take Mondays “off”, and that’s particularly important now. I can always be reached in an emergency, of course, but I need to set aside some time to slow down and rest, or else I know I won’t be any use to anyone.

Finally, in my list of what can help us to be long haul people for one another and the world, there’s the Serenity Prayer. Whatever your particular theology of prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr’s words remind us that we have limits, and so it is upon each of us to seek “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There’s a lot that’s wrong right now, from the harmful action and disastrous inaction of the White House to the manifest shortcomings of our society when it comes to taking care of the most vulnerable, and it’s easy to get caught up in everything that’s wrong. And yet, spending all of our emotional energy on things we can’t really change is just going to make us anxious and powerless. As I’ve learned when it comes to my own anxiety, focus on something you can do. Maybe it’s doing the laundry or cleaning the kitchen. Maybe it’s making sure that an elderly friend has groceries. Maybe it’s going for solo walk or a bike ride. Maybe it’s organizing an on-line study group. As psychologist Eileen Feliciano put it recently, “Find something you can control, and control the heck out of it.” For one thing, you’ll be getting something done; for another, you’ll feel good that you did get something done.

Okay, just one more thing. Check in with one another. Have you been wondering about someone you haven’t heard from in a while? Perhaps you’re not sure if you’ve seen them in this on-line service or if they’ve posted to Facebook recently? Well, give them a call. Send them an email. Write them a note and mail it. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it, and they’ll be glad you thought of them.

Breathe. Be patient. Take it one step at a time. Keep a routine. Limit yourself to reliable sources of news. Keep a sabbath. Remember the Serenity Prayer. Check-in with one another. If you’ve found other ways to keep going during this difficult time, other ways to support us in becoming long haul people for the journey that we have ahead of us, please do share them, because we’re all in this together.

For the Fellowship is us, each and every one of us together, a beacon of hope to this world that so sorely needs it.

For long haul people bless a congregation — and the world — with a very special blessing.

May it be so.

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The Meaning of Membership

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on September 7th 2014.)

For many congregations, today is known as “Ingathering Sunday” or “Back to Church Sunday”.  Well, this week has been “Back to School”, it’s true, with public schools at least here in Virginia and other places on the East Coast waiting to start until after Labor Day.  But I can’t say that we’re now “Back to Church” with any sincerity, given that we’ve been here all Summer, going strong with a full slate of worship services and religious exploration programs every Sunday throughout July and August.  After all, we can’t come back if we didn’t go away.

What’s more, we weren’t just here in August: we were busy in August.  We’ve had lots of newcomers, many of them families with children, doing their Summer “church shopping” before the busy-ness of the school year starts.  A good number of you who are here this morning, in fact, came to services for the first time one Sunday last month, and I’m so glad that you made the choice to keep coming back.  And naturally, many of you who are newcomers have had questions, about the congregation, about our programs, about becoming a member.

That, of course, is the natural progression.  A first-time visitor enjoys what they experienced or likes the people they met — hopefully both! — and plans to come again.  That makes them a newcomer, when they get to know the place a bit more and figure out if this is where they feel they can belong.  And, in time, they receive a letter from me, inviting them to a Membership Orientation, like the one we have planned for late October.  That’s where we talk about what it means to be a member, what’s involved in joining us in creating a dynamic community that celebrates life and searches for truths, and why that matters.  (For those who cannot attend an orientation given their schedules, there’s also the option of meeting with me.)  And then for those who choose to become members, who have made the decision to embrace the rights and responsibilities that come with that commitment, they demonstrate that by signing the membership book.

Now joining a congregation is rather different from joining almost anything else.  It’s not like being part of a book discussion group that meets at Barnes and Noble.  It’s not like being on a mailing list or Facebook.  It’s not like going to talks offered by the Sierra Club nor is it like sending a nominal contribution to the World Wildlife Fund and getting a newsletter.  It’s not like dropping children off at an after-school program at the Y nor is it like being part of a life-long learning course at CNU.  It’s not like having dinner or coffee with friends nor is it like getting together to watch a TV show and then talk about it.  It has aspects of all of those things, of course, but it’s rather different from all of them, and with more and more of the people who find themselves here never having had much prior church experience, we’ve found ourselves being very intentional, when it comes to membership orientations, to explain what it really means to be a member.

I want to give you a couple of perspectives on why this matters.  Here’s the first.

Back at the beginning of May, I began my sermon on the topic of understanding ourselves in relation to those around us by reflecting on how many non-members benefit from the presence, here on the Peninsula, of this congregation.  Between those who pledge their financial support as if they were members without actually being members, those who participate in programs and put money into the offering basket but have made no formal commitment otherwise, those who might only come to special services such as on Christmas Eve or to special events like the Luau, as well as those who might simply visit in the course of a year, there are, by one estimate, something like four hundred non-members as compared to some 160 members.

Beyond that, of course, if we guesstimate the number of people we serve at St. Paul’s or PORT, the number of people we impact through our Share-the-Basket partners like LINK, and the number of people we reach through other outreach efforts, we may well be talking about a few thousand people whose lives benefit from the presence of this Fellowship, from what this congregation is and from what it does.  That’s something in which we should all feel quite a bit of pride.

So here’s the obvious question:  If it’s possible to be almost as much a part of the life of the Fellowship as a member without actually being a member, if it’s possible to be connected to or supported by the congregation without even being here in person, then what does it mean to be a member?

Here’s another perspective on why this matters.  Whenever I’m at another Unitarian Universalist church, whether to preach or just to be part of their services, I like to check out the materials they give to visitors.  I know I’m not alone in this.  One such item I came across recently was this bookmark, produced by the Unitarian Universalist Association and sold to congregations in packs of twenty-five to hand out to newcomers.  It’s entitled “Ten Good Reasons for Joining a Unitarian Universalist Congregation”, and I was intrigued to see what those were.  Here are some of those reasons.

Because here we join with open hearts and minds to worship together, seeking what is sacred among us.

Because here we honor our Jewish and Christian roots, and also reach out to know the great truths found in other religious expressions.

Because here we nurture our children’s enthusiasms and encourage their questions.

Because here we join our strength with others to create a more just society.

Because here we encourage each other to be true to ourselves.

Now, without doubt, those are all good reasons to participate in the life of a Unitarian Universalist congregation.  They’re all great reasons, for that matter, why such things as UU churches should exist.  But reasons for joining a congregation as a member?  Compelling, necessary reasons?  I’m not so sure.  Again we come back to the obvious question:  If we welcome non-members to come to worship services, to learn about our tradition as well as other religions, to give our children a religious education, to work with others to make a better world, even to help one another become our best selves, if we welcome non-members to all of that, and we do, then what does it mean to be a member?

Now some might say that the reason to be a member is to pay for those services and benefits.  That’s a reasonable claim, particularly since that’s the way our culture works as a whole.  After all, in almost all other areas of modern life, it’s the case that you get what you pay for.  So let’s think about that for a moment.

In any other setting than a church, what would you pay, if you’re a parent, for someone to not only look after your child for an hour, but to teach them about what it means to have an open mind, a loving heart and a helping hand?  Even if it were just baby-sitting, it might be ten dollars for the hour, probably more for actual teaching, and more still for youth.  For Sunday school over the course of a year, then, and assuming all but one Sunday each month, that’s at least four-hundred dollars a year.  That’s probably a good ballpark figure for an hour or so a week of quality adult programming, too, such as the Sunday Morning Forum that takes place over in the Office Building.  For comparison, registration in the LifeLong Learning Society at Christopher Newport University is $235, and that’s with CNU’s own subsidies and the sponsorship of some local businesses.

Or what about coffee or tea plus assorted snacks, sandwiches, cakes, fruit and other food?  Well, those are unlimited here as part of hospitality, and though some places might offer free refills, go to Panera or Starbucks for coffee and a brownie and you’d pay $5 or more.  Again, consider being here more often than not each month and that adds up to a couple of hundred dollars each year.  And what about the price of Sunday service?  Well for the music alone, a professional musician could reasonably expect to be paid, so Robin has told me in the past, at least a hundred dollars per service.  And the going rate for a professional speaker, according to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, is somewhat more than that, making it in all, again, a couple of hundred dollars per person each year.  Add it all up, for the average person, and we’re talking about something like a thousand dollars each year if you went somewhere else and paid for what we offer here, freely to everyone and gladly to everyone, every single Sunday morning.

Now for those of you checking your calendars, no, it’s not pledge drive time, and no, this is not the Sermon on the Amount.  I’m simply offering you these back-of-the-envelope numbers to show you that the idea that someone become a member in order to pay for the services and benefits they receive, well that idea is hogwash.  We’re not here as consumers, and in most cases we’re not getting what we pay for: we’re actually getting much more than we pay for.

So if someone isn’t a member because they must be a member in order to participate in our services and programs, and if they’re not a member in order to simply pay for those services and programs, then what does it mean to be a member?

Well I put it to you that being a member means wanting this to be a place where those services and programs are and will always be available, not only to members but to everyone.  It means a commitment to this congregation so that it can be a place where, member or not, anyone can join in seeking the sacred, in learning about religion, in nurturing our children’s souls, in striving to make the world a better place, and in encouraging one another’s authenticity.  It means promising to make that possible through the direct contribution of volunteer hours and, yes, volunteer dollars.  It means investing one’s mind, one’s body and one’s spirit in the vision of this congregation as a safe place for spiritual diversity and individual growth through lifelong religious education and service to the wider community.

That’s no small order, of course.  As I say on those occasions when we welcome our newest members of this Fellowship, “joining is easy, but membership is not”.  Joining is, after all, a matter of attending an orientation, or otherwise meeting with me in person, and then signing the membership book.  Sure, the orientation is three hours long and takes up a whole Saturday morning, but we feed you a great breakfast!  And there are plenty of congregations out there that have a much more involved process of joining, in one case that I know taking one whole year to be accepted as a new member.  But if joining only takes a Saturday morning, membership takes a lifetime.  We do expect our members to actively participate in the life of the Fellowship, in whatever ways are appropriate, and to contribute financially, to whatever extent is reasonable.  That’s the easy part, though: something else that I say when we recognize new members is that “a member accepts responsibility for continuing and sharing the faith journey that brought them to this place, and also covenants to live in community with others whose journeys may be different.”  And that is the work of a lifetime, because it’s what life is actually about.

Now from time to time, you’ll hear on a Sunday morning a member testimonial.  Though they tend to be associated with the aforementioned pledge drive, for obvious reasons, we ask those members who give testimonials to speak to the same matters regardless of whether they’re doing so at pledge time or not.  We ask them to speak about why this congregation is a special place.  We ask them to speak about what it means to them to be a member.  We ask them to speak about why it’s important for them to be here.  We ask them to speak about how they have been transformed by being part of this Fellowship.  What I’ve noticed is that rarely do any of these members describe membership as a static state, where they joined, met some nice people, liked the music, and they’re done.  Rather — and of course this is particularly noticeable when, over the course of a few years, a member gives more than one testimonial — being a member is a dynamic reality, where there are always opportunities to grow our own souls while also growing the soul of the congregation so that together we may grow the soul of the world.

So if you are one of our many newcomers who first visited over the Summer, or perhaps even before that, and you’re interested in becoming a member here because you’ve found that this is a place where you feel you can belong, then I encourage you to continue asking questions about what it really means to be a member.  Or if you’re one of our newer members, who, within the last few years, attended an orientation and signed the membership book and was welcomed by the congregation one following Sunday morning, then I encourage you to think beyond your current participation in congregation life to consider some of the many ways in which you can get the most out of becoming a member.  And if you’re one of our members who’s been here for some larger span of years, who has served on some committees and taught some classes and led worship from time to time and taken on any of a thousand responsibilities large and small, I thank you for being one of our “long haul people” but I also encourage you to reach out to our new members and to our newcomers, to bring them into the work of making this congregation a spiritual home for our common endeavor.

I’m going to close with a reading I happened to rediscover this week.  Talk about good timing!  It was written by Unitarian Universalist minister Clarke Dewey Wells, and was read right here thirty-four years ago, as part of the service dedicating this very Sanctuary building in 1980.

This is the liberal church:

a place to go where you know you belong;

where the mind is free to soar beyond the coercions and crudities that inevitably beset all orthodoxies;

where the heart is free to extend that larger love to all, unencumbered by notions of dogma, tradition, race, religion, country or class,

where the rights of individual conscience and action are guarded with vigilance, out of belief in the fitness of diversity, the liberty to be different, out of eternal hostility to every form of tyranny;

where the hands are free to work and create for the cause of community and the hope of peace;

where the soul is free to open, stretch, discover, develop, change and grow, always, continuously and progressively;

where human promise is nurtured, supported and blessed, and never cursed, degraded or despaired of;

where people are invited to be themselves in joy, in sorrow, in the struggle of the deeper self to be born, in the resolution of some great issue, in the witnessing to high ideals, in living and dying, seeking, finding and serving.

A place to learn, to grow, to sing, to stand.

A place to encounter, reckon, judge, accept, and be accepted.

A place to be challenged by new insight, and be reminded of what one already knows.

A place to go where you know you belong.

This is the liberal church.

To these words I would add the following:  This is the liberal church that was built by those members who were part of that building dedication service thirty-four years ago.  This is the liberal church that those members here today are building through the dedication of their minds, their bodies and their spirits.  And this is the liberal church that will continue to be built in the years and decades to come, in ways that we expect, in other ways that we may only dimly see, and in some ways that will surprise and delight the world.  This is the meaning of membership: to be the past, the present and the future of the liberal church, a place to go where you know you belong.

So may it be.

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We’re All in This Together

20141228 BlackLivesMatter sign(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on December 28th 2014.)

Video: “Five Tips for Being an Ally” by Franchesca Ramsey

Franchesca Ramsey describes herself as an actress, a comedian, a graphic designer, a consultant and a natural hair geek, but not always in that order.  She is perhaps best known as a video blogger, and has two YouTube channels with over 150,000 subscribers and over 23 million views.  Chescaleigh, as she is better known on-line, published this video last month.

Sermon: “We’re All in This Together”

Since my daughter was very young, we’ve been teaching her that she doesn’t need to be afraid when she hears sirens.  Not that she’s exactly old now — she’ll be two-and-a-half in January — but her level of comprehension and articulation is much greater now than when we first started telling her that a siren meant that somebody was going to help someone.  “Help” was the operative word, back then when she could only say a word or two at a time.  “Help” was something that she understood, given that we had to help her do a number of things that she couldn’t do for herself at the time.

Nowadays, of course, my daughter’s an active, curious toddler who talks non-stop except when she’s asleep.  I’ve already apologized to our Director of Religious Education for what she’s likely to do during the children’s story once she starts coming here with me on Sunday mornings.  It does mean, though, that we can now talk about how an ambulance, for example, helps someone get to the hospital for the medicine they need.  She’s seen and even sat inside fire trucks a couple of different times, even though, in her mind, the main reason for being of a fire truck is to rescue cats that are stuck in trees.  And we’ve continued to reinforce the idea that police cars are there to help people.

But then, we’re the white parents of a white child.  If my daughter were not white, we know we’d be having a different conversation.  We’d be having a conversation much like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife have been having with their son.  As part of a speech about the Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner, Mayor de Blasio said the following:

Chirlane and I have had to talk to Dante for years about the dangers that he may face.  A good young man, a law-abiding young man who would never think to do anything wrong.  And yet, because of a history that still hangs over us, the dangers he may face, we’ve had to literally train him — as families have all over this city for decades — in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.

Now for most white American families, the idea that you’d need to warn your otherwise good, law-abiding children against the very people we know are also there to protect us from real criminals, well, that idea seems very foreign.  But the fact is that it is far from foreign for black American families.  I first heard about it following the death of Trayvon Martin, the advice that many African-American parents feel compelled to give their children, and their sons in particular, even before they become teenagers, advice that has been passed on for generations, advice that is often named “the talk”, as follows:

Pay attention to where you are and who is around you.  If you go into a store, lower the hood on your sweatshirt and keep your hands out of your pockets.  If you buy something, put it in a bag and be sure to get a receipt.  If you’re confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, don’t argue or run away or put your hands anywhere but up.  Always address them as “sir” or “ma’am”.  Do not make any sudden moves, even to reach for identification.  Do not raise your voice or resist or run.  As Dana Caneday, a senior editor at the New York Times, described it, it’s a “nausea-inducing discussion” to need to have with your eight-year-old child.

Remember Chescaleigh’s first two tips for being an ally?  (And I’m taking it as a given that we want to be allies, but I’ll come back to one big reason why — other than simple human decency — a little later.)  They were, first, understand your own privilege and, two, listen and do your homework.  Actually, it’s hard to do the first without doing the second, and that’s because privilege is almost always hidden to those who have it.  I’m not aware of my male privilege, for instance, until I hear from women about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  I’m not aware of my hetero privilege until I hear from lesbian, gay and bisexual people.  I’m not aware of my cis privilege — “cis” meaning that my gender identity as a man lines up with my anatomy as a male — until I hear from transgender people.  And I’m not aware of my white privilege until I hear from people of color about the ways that our society puts them at a disadvantage.  And when they tell me they have experienced disadvantage to the point of oppression, I need to listen to them and believe that that is what they have experienced, rather than automatically trying to explain it away or getting defensive as if I were singlehandedly to blame for the way our society is structured.

And when news reports describe the same pattern of events over and over again, and when the profit-driven media fails to report many similar events, too, then it’s clearly time to pay attention.  The conversation we’re now having about race is about much more than Ferguson.  Ferguson may have been the place where the conversation erupted, but while that was triggered by the death of Michael Brown, it was caused by the decades-long predation of the suburb itself on the majority black population, using the mostly white police department to gather much of the city’s revenue rather than going after, say, actual crime.  As Reuters reported, “Traffic fines are the St. Louis suburb’s second-largest source of revenue and just about the only one that is growing appreciably.  Municipal court fines, most of which arise from motor vehicle violations, accounted for 21 percent of general fund revenue and, at $2.63 million last year, were the equivalent of more than 81 percent of police salaries before overtime.”  With budget shortfalls following the recession, Ferguson is literally criminalizing its own residents in order to fund itself.  In 2013 alone, the municipal court issued an average of three warrants per household, raising an average of $321 in fines and fees, in a city where the crime rate is about the national average.

Then there’s the fact that some of the conversations about Michael Brown and Eric Garner have focused on how they were breaking the law and otherwise resisting arrest.  The case was made that police officer Darren Wilson was genuinely afraid for his life when he shot and killed Michael Brown, but that certainly wasn’t true for police officer Daniel Pantaleo when he put Eric Garner in a chokehold that is forbidden by his own police department.  And then there’s the question of how resisting arrest deserves being put to death on the spot.  Or, in other situations, not resisting arrest. Or not even having a chance to resist arrest.  A video shows that John Crawford III was fired upon just seconds after police encountered him; he had been holding an air rifle that was for sale by the Walmart in which he was shopping.  And then there was twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot within two seconds of police arriving at his location; he had been playing with a toy gun.

In these two cases, there was an obvious common factor, namely something that looked like a real gun.  But another common factor was the state in which those events happened.  John Crawford III was killed near Dayton and Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland… and Ohio is a so-called “open carry” state, meaning it’s completely legal to openly carry a gun whether you have a license for it or not.  But during all the commotion over “open carry” in Starbucks and Target and other places, how many of those white people brandishing very real guns were killed?  How many of them were even charged with reckless endangerment for leaving their guns on shelves where anyone, including children, could get at them?  (What about the two white men who took guns off a Walmart’s shelves, loaded them and started shooting?)

But guns don’t need to be involved to show how differently people get treated on the basis of race.  Looking at some of the things that people have tweeted recently under two particular hashtags is quite illuminating.  Here are some examples of one of those hashtags.

What this says to me is that if you have a story about some interaction with law enforcement where nothing bad happened to you, and if you’re white, then your story doesn’t prove anything, because “nothing bad happening to you” is the norm for white people, even if they’ve been committing a crime.

Here, by contrast, are some examples of the other hashtag.

I worked with someone in Connecticut, a white woman who was married to a black man.  She had a number of stories where they were pulled over while out in their car — her husband in the driver’s seat, her in the passenger seat — and the first thing the police officer would do is ask her if she was okay.  In short, all of this is why African-American parents need to have “the talk” with their children.

And actually, being a police officer yourself is no protection if you’re black.

Reuters interviewed twenty-five African American male officers on the NYPD, fifteen of whom are retired and ten of whom are still serving.  All but one said that, when off duty and out of uniform, they had been victims of racial profiling, which refers to using race or ethnicity as grounds for suspecting someone of having committed a crime.  The officers said this included being pulled over for no reason, having their heads slammed against their cars, getting guns brandished in their faces, being thrown into prison vans and experiencing ‘stop and frisk’ while shopping.  The majority of the officers said they had been pulled over multiple times while driving.  Five had had guns pulled on them.

Then there’s the conversation I observed a couple of weeks ago on Facebook.  It started when someone who was a couple of years ahead of me in theological school posted a segment from The Daily Show where Jon Stewart expresses such disbelief over the grand jury decision not to indict Staten Island police officer Daniel Pantaleo, even when the video showed him putting Eric Garner in a forbidden chokehold, even when the coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, that, for once, Stewart couldn’t find the words.

Posting that video led to a conversation about the subject that was, for the most part, quite civil.  Now I don’t know most of the people involved in that conversation; I assume they are friends of my fellow seminarian, and I could see from their Facebook profile pictures that they are white.  I also have no reason to believe that they are anything other than “good” people who would never intentionally cause pain or suffering to another person.

So the conversation meandered as Facebook comment threads tend to do, and somewhere along the way one person — I’ll call him Mark — expressed concern that there wasn’t enough appreciation for the challenges and dangers of being a police officer.  At that, another person wrote: “Mark, I agree that cops are badly compensated and have a super tough job, but you can quit being a cop.  You can’t quit being a person of color.”  And to that, Mark responded with this:

Yes, I agree you can quit being a cop, but can’t you also quit being perceived as a target for racism?  The one consistent theme I see in all of these events, is not one of the victims were dressed in button-down shirts or slacks with the appearance of self-respect or responsibility.  […]  If you don’t want to be a target of racism, don’t LET yourself be a target for racism.  […]  All I saw from many of these recent events, were people who were complacent, and downright comfortable being the victim.

There’s something called Poe’s Law that, applied in particular to discussions that take place via the Internet, says that without a clear indication of the author’s intent, it’s difficult or even impossible to distinguish between a sincere expression of an outrageous opinion and a parody of such an opinion.  Unfortunately, from the rest of the conversation, which soon went downhill from there, I’m pretty sure that Mark was being sincere.  But let me get this straight, the reason Eric Garner died was because he wasn’t dressed in a button-down shirt and slacks?  Because he didn’t try hard enough not to be a victim of racism?  Really?  How is that any different from saying that the reason any woman who was raped got raped was because of what she was wearing?  Talk about blaming the victim!

It’s not surprising that most of the conversation about these events has been labeled with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.  The fact is that a black man, woman or child is killed every twenty-eight hours by police officers or self-appointed law enforcement.  It’s also not surprising that there’s been backlash against #BlackLivesMatter.  Some otherwise well-meaning people have said that it would be better to use the hashtag #AllLivesMatter.  Well, yes, all lives ought to matter.  But unfortunately, that’s not what our society looks like to all those parents who know they need to have “the talk” with their children.  The ever-growing list of names — Jordan Baker, Donitre Hamilton, Yvette Smith, Pearlie Golden, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tyree Woodson, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Victor White III, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, and that’s just some of them from 2014 alone — those names prove that our society values black lives less than others.  So insisting that #BlackLivesMatter be replaced by #AllLivesMatter is like, as others have said, crashing somebody else’s funeral and insisting that the mourners put your loss before their own.  Or, to look at it another way, taking offense at #BlackLivesMatter is like being offended that people are working on a cure for diabetes when there are other diseases out there, too.

Of course, it got a whole lot harder to have a reasonable conversation about this when two New York City police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, were killed last week by a man who had that morning bragged on Instagram about avenging the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Without wasting any time, people who had been critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement claimed that the deaths of officers Liu and Ramos were the direct fault of those calling for racial justice, or that New York Mayor de Blasio was to blame for disrespecting the police, or that it was President Obama’s fault, just because.  Needless to say, though, many groups under the #BlackLivesMatter banner have condemned the killings of the New York police officers, and have recommitted themselves to a non-violent movement for change.  The fact is that Asian police officer Liu and Latino police officer Ramos, in being killed by a black man who shot his black ex-girlfriend, Air Force reservist Shaneka Thompson, earlier that day, the fact is that they were just as much victims of institutional racism as any of the black men and women killed by their fellow police officers.

Because that’s the thing.  Racism isn’t personal.  It’s certainly not rational.  It’s not about who your friends are or who you’d be willing to share a drink with, because in those situations you have time to stop and think.  And most of us, when we have time to stop and think, can remember that we believe that most people are pretty much the same as us, and so we’d do our best to respect their inherent worth and dignity just as we’d hope they’d offer us the same courtesy.  But Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson didn’t have time to stop and think.  He was afraid for his life, and a combination of police training, human instinct and cultural conditioning kicked in, and he shot Michael Brown without stopping to think about it.  And that’s the point.  When we don’t stop to think about it, then our higher cognitive functions don’t have a chance to overrule the much greater part of our brain that otherwise runs on training, instinct and conditioning.

To demonstrate this, there’s something called an Implicit Association Test, which measures the strength of associations between concepts and evaluations.  One version of the test has you first sort descriptive words into categories such as good or bad and then sort pictures of faces into categories such as African American or European American.  Then it mixes them up so that you’re sorting both words and pictures at the same time.  By running different combinations, the test can determine if you have subconscious preferences one way or the other.  As hosted by Harvard University, more than seven hundred thousand people took the Implicit Association Test with pictures of African American and European American faces over a six-year period, and more than half showed either a moderate or a strong automatic preference for white people compared to black people.  And while the majority of white people who took the test showed an implicit preference for white people, so did about half of the black people who took the test.  Again, this is not about what happens when we stop to think, because the test doesn’t give you time to think.  It’s about how we’ve been conditioned by our culture, by our training, by our upbringing.

And that’s why it’s necessary to be active in addressing it.  Racism isn’t just going to go away if we stop talking about.  That’s not taking the moral high ground; that’s being complicit in a system of oppression.  So it’s entirely appropriate to demand that police departments adopt policies that end racial profiling and prevent the criminalization of people of color, as well as to be much more transparent and accountable when someone is killed.  Some have said that demanding accountability in police actions is anti-police, but that’s like saying that calling for faulty brakes to be fixed is anti-car.  If anything, we should hold something to a higher standard when we value it, and a police force made up of our fellow citizens — and police officers are citizens just like us — who have agreed, on our behalf, to all the risk and danger that goes with the enforcement of the laws that we, the people, have passed in order to protect ourselves, well, that’s something we should value greatly and thus hold to a very high standard.

Of course, the case can also be made that nothing is broken, and that the system is working just the way it was intended ever since Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which took place not far from here in Southampton County, and in the aftermath of which racism was, if not invented, then at least applied as never before in support of class privilege.  But I’d like to think we can do better.  The “Universalism” part of Unitarian Universalism originally meant the belief that all souls would finally reach heaven.  Today, it usually means the belief that heaven on Earth is possible, that salvation can be reached in this life, that the Beloved Community can be brought into existence, that a universal commonwealth of love and justice is attainable.  But here’s the catch: none of that is possible on an individual basis.  It can’t be done piecemeal.  It’s all or nothing, everybody or nobody.  So if entire groups of people are systematically oppressed to the point that their lives are altogether too much like hell, then there’s no heaven for anyone else.  After all, there’s no privilege in heaven.  Until black lives matter as much as white lives, then nobody gets to say that all lives matter.

And that’s why we should want to be allies, because our own salvation, our own wholeness, our own well-being is inextricably connected to everybody else’s.  Some of us may be part of particular struggles already, given one or more identities that mean that the very structure of our society puts us at a disadvantage, but if our other identities mean that we are privileged in other ways, then we have a responsibility to use that privilege to support and empower those whom our society judges as less worthy.  So men can be allies to women by understanding their own male privilege.  Heterosexual and cisgender people can be allies by listening to and taking seriously the lived experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.  And white people can be allies by speaking up in support of people of color, not speaking over them or taking the megaphone from them, but learning to take a supporting rather than leading role for once.  As Chescaleigh explained, we’ll make mistakes in trying to be good allies, and it’s important to apologize when we do make mistakes, because it’s not our intent that matters, but our impact.  And, then there’s the fifth of her five tips: we need to remember that ally is a verb, which means doing something.

So to that end, outside the Sanctuary this morning, there are a couple of copies of what is known as the Birmingham Pledge.  This was created sixteen years ago by an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, to express a grassroots commitment to combating racism and racial prejudice, and it has since been used in anti-racism programs in all fifty states.  I would ask you to take a look at it and, if you are willing to make that commitment, and then live it to the best of your ability, to sign it as well.  Here’s what it says:

“I believe that every person has worth as an individual.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.  I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.  Therefore, from this day forward: I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions; I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity; I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.”

May it be so.

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