Posts Tagged witness

Liberal Religion in the Public Square

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“Ways of life we are all enmeshed in — economic systems, our whole patterns of living, our whole established world — are not adequate for the quality of life we know we ourselves capable of and that we want for the Earth’s people.  We must become capable of offering religious leadership to a society called to change its fundamental ways of living.”
— Rebecca Parker, “Rising to the Challenge of Our Times” (1997)

For the last few years, Unitarian Universalists everywhere have been invited to read and discuss a book selected as a “Common Read”.  As such, it “can build community in our congregations and our movement by giving diverse people a shared experience, shared language, and a basis for deep, meaningful conversations.”  Recent Common Read books include Margaret Regan’s The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories…

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From Selma to Raleigh

(I preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on February 2nd 2014.)

On March 8th 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to religious leaders around the country.  That telegram read as follows:

In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America.  No American is without responsibility.  The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden.  I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma.

One hundred and thirty one Unitarian Universalist ministers answered that call, as well as twice that number of UU laypeople.  Joining about two thousand African American laypeople, many of them women and children, there were, in all, some four hundred and fifty religious leaders in that second march to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 9th 1965.  In other words, nearly a nearly a third of the clergy who were there were Unitarian Universalists.  In fact one out of every five UU ministers answered Dr. King’s call to Selma, and in the days that followed more joined them.  The UUA’s President and Board of Trustees even adjourned their scheduled meeting, flew from Boston to Alabama, and reconvened in Selma.  As Victor Carpenter, who was serving as minister to the Unitarian Church of Cape Town at the time, summarized it:

These ministers had been called to perform a profound religious witness. It filled them with purpose and hope as well as fear and uncertainty. They were marching with America’s greatest civil rights leader of the twentieth century in a struggle against an unambiguously evil system of racial hate. Their lives were on the line. For many it was the most thrilling and personally ennobling time in all their years.

In just about every account of Unitarian Universalist history, you’ll find that the response of UUs to Dr. King’s call to Selma has consistently been a huge point of denominational pride.  “We were there,” we tell ourselves.  “When it mattered most, we showed up.”

It is not, of course, a story without tragedy.  And it’s embedded in a considerably larger story as well, a story that all Americans would do well to know better.

Records show that in 1961, Dallas County, Alabama was home to some 15,000 African Americans, representing more than half of the county’s population, many of them living in the county seat of Selma.  Of those 15,000, however, only 130 were registered to vote.  In other words, less than 1% of African Americans in Dallas County could vote, and that wasn’t unusual for Alabama and other parts of the South.  Efforts to help more African Americans register were frequently blocked by local and state officials, by a white supremacist organization called the Citizens’ Council of America, and by the Ku Klux Klan.

That blocking manifested in ways that included literacy tests, economic pressure and outright violence.  Organizers with the Dallas County Voters League were beaten.  African American school teachers who tried to register to vote were fired by the all-white school board.  Local ordinances were passed that made it illegal for civil rights groups to meet even to talk about voter registration.  President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 might as well have happened in another country for all that it made a difference in Selma.

Then the Dallas County Voters League asked for help from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which had been leading successful campaigns of boycotts and non-violent protests across the South.  The Selma Voting Rights Movement was launched on January 2nd 1965, when Dr. King and others defied the anti-meeting ordinance at Brown Chapel.  Along with activists from the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, they organized protests and voter registration drives there and in other counties.

On February 18th, one such protest took place in Marion.  Alabama State Troopers had been ordered to target the organizer, and many of the protesters fled when the troopers rushed them.  Jimmie Lee Jackson tried to hide, with his mother, in a nearby café, but a trooper followed them and shot Jackson.  He was twenty-six years old and the only wage-earner in his household.  He died eight days later from an infection.

The leaders of the Selma Voting Rights Movement called for a march to Montgomery to demand answers from Governor George Wallace.  With so much pain and anger, the march was intended to provide a non-violent focus, something that Dr. King supported.  The governor, on the other hand, called the march “a threat to public safety” and promised to do whatever he could to prevent it.

On March 7th, some five or six hundred protesters set out from Selma, led by John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Rev. Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  When they reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they found Alabama State Troopers waiting for them, blocking the bridge.  The troopers’ ranks were even supplemented with conscripts, thanks to the sheriff’s order for all while adult males in Dallas County to be deputized that morning.  The protesters were told to disband, but when Lewis and Williams went forward to talk to the commanding officer, the troopers attacked, knocking protesters to the ground, beating them, firing tear gas at them, even charging them on horseback.  Seventeen protesters were hospitalized, though many more were injured, and television coverage sparked national outrage over what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”.

That was when Dr. King sent out his telegram, organizing a second march that would go at least as far as the bridge, for a time of prayer on the bridge itself, given a new court order prohibiting a march all the way to Montgomery.  This time there were about two and a half thousand protesters.

On the evening of March 9th, however, three of the Unitarian Universalist ministers who had gone to Selma — Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb — were attacked outside by white segregationists.  Reeb was hospitalized after being struck on the back of the head and he died two days later.  On March 15th, Dr. King gave the address at Reeb’s memorial service, which was held in Brown Chapel, and UUA President Dana Greeley offered the prayer.  And with protests outside the White House and in cities across the country, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act.

There were, of course, other victims.  Viola Liuzzo was a UU layperson from Michigan, who was killed by Klansmen as she was driving to Montgomery to pick up protesters participating in the third march from Selma.  And Jonathan Daniels, an Episcopal seminarian from New Hampshire, was killed by a deputy sheriff after a week in jail for participating in a protest.  And when the deaths of the white activists gained more attention than had that of Jimmie Lee Jackson, well, that drew understandable complaints.  As a 2001 UU World article about the dedication of a new memorial to Jackson, Reeb and Liuzzo at UUA headquarters put it:

Many African Americans noted bitterly at the time that Jackson’s death did not generate a sympathy call from the President of the United States, but that Reeb’s death did.  The President himself announced the arrest of four Ku Klux Klansmen charged with shooting Viola Liuzzo as she drove back toward Montgomery to pick up more weary marchers, but no one was arrested for the gunshot that killed Jackson.

It wasn’t until 2007, in fact, that the Alabama State Trooper who had shot Jackson forty-two years earlier was charged with murder; he pled guilty to manslaughter in 2010 and was sentenced to six months in prison.  Back in the 1960s, at least, the UUA had used some of the money donated in memory of James Reeb to buy a house and establish a fund to help support Jackson’s family.

I relate this decidedly unhappy history for a few reasons.

First, it hasn’t been even fifty years since these events took place.  Some of the people who took part in them are still alive, from John Lewis, who now represents Georgia’s fifth district in Congress, to Clark Olsen, who a few years ago I heard address the UU Ministers Association on the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  These events are very much a part of who they are.

Second, we should be proud of how Unitarian Universalism responded to Dr. King’s call.  Our version of a denomination had, after all, only just come into existence with the 1961 consolidation of the Universalists and the Unitarians.  Moreover, as Victor Carpenter and others would have us always acknowledge and remember, the white UUs who went to Selma acted at the direction of the Selma Voting Rights Movement and its African American leadership, something that represents what was, for the times, a remarkable suppression of those UUs’ own white privilege.

Third, knowing this history gives us more than enough reason to be thoroughly outraged that the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last year.  As if it wasn’t bad enough that it took forty-five years to convict Jimmie Lee Jackson’s killer, it’s an insult to his memory and to James Reeb’s memory and to all those who put their lives on the line to ensure that everyone could have access to the most basic tool of citizenship and democracy.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Attorney General Holder gives new depth to the word “stupid”.  I could use a few other words that aren’t appropriate for a Sunday morning, too.  Objecting to the part of the Voting Rights Act that determined which states and counties had to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department to change their voting laws, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the court’s majority opinion as “things have changed”.  You know, we have a black President, and racism has magically gone away.  Yeah, right.

Now Justice Roberts did try to explain how “things have changed”, claiming that the country could no longer be divided into states and counties that embrace Jim Crow and those that don’t, and that maintaining such a division on the basis of history was unreasonable.

Well, he ignored the fact that jurisdictions can prove to a court that they meet certain criteria for getting themselves off the list needing Justice Department pre-clearance, just as counties in Virginia have done.  He also ignored the fact that Shelby County was incapable of meeting those “bail out” criteria because it continued to try to disenfranchise African Americans.  And as Justice Kagan put it, “You’re objecting to the formula [used to determine coverage by the Voting Rights Act], but under any formula Congress could devise, it would capture Alabama.

Well, now we have “things have changed” as a legal precedent.  Only in most places, they haven’t changed much in fifty years.  As Justice Ginsburg noted in her dissenting opinion, “Jurisdictions covered by the pre-clearance requirement continued to submit, in large numbers, proposed changes to voting laws that the Attorney General declined to approve, auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the pre-clearance remedy eliminated.”  And yes, she was right.  Within hours — not days; hours — of the Supreme Court decision, officials in Texas and Mississippi — both states subject to pre-clearance — announced that they would begin enforcing voter identification laws that the Justice Department had rejected as discriminatory.

The champion of disenfranchisement, however, is North Carolina.  One month to the day after Shelby County v. Holder was decided, North Carolina passed a whole package of changes to voting laws, including just about everything that’s been tried to suppress voting, from rejecting student identification to shortening polling hours, from restricting provisional voting to making illegal paid voter registration drives.  Such changes are claimed to be necessary to combat voter fraud, where somebody shows up at a polling station claiming to be someone else, but no evidence of such in-person voter fraud has ever been found.

It’s not about any such thing as combating voter fraud, of course.  That’s just how it’s being packaged and sold in the hopes that the public will let it slide.  Rather, it’s about voter suppression, particularly suppression of the voting rights of African Americans, women, students, the disabled and the poor.  The sad thing is that apparently it doesn’t take much to get someone pushing these changes to voting laws to admit that.  North Carolina elections official Don Yelton was even fired after bragging about voter suppression tactics on The Daily Show last Fall.  During the middle of the interview, Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi actually interrupted one of Yelton’s racially offensive tirades to ask, “You know we can hear what you’re saying, don’t you?”

In response to the emergence of what is being called the New Jim Crow, people began organizing, just as they did fifty years ago.  In North Carolina, their efforts coalesced in the Moral Mondays Movement, led by the Rev. William Barber II, President of the North Carolina NAACP.  Nine Unitarian Universalist ministers serving congregations and communities in North Carolina even made the commitment to engage in civil disobedience as part of the Movement, resulting in their arrest.  And on December 18th, they sent out this message:

Here in North Carolina, we have known no vacation from the struggle for voting rights.  And now, we find ourselves in the midst of an ugly battle for democracy.

As ministers and citizens of North Carolina, we’ve felt compelled to respond to this threat.  We have borne witness to a movement across our state that is resisting the immoral and undemocratic actions of our legislature and governor.  With many from the congregations we serve we’ve taken part in Moral Mondays[. …]

We went because we knew that to suppress the vote is to suppress the spirit of a person.  We knew that any attempt to erode our democracy is rooted in a desperate history of paralyzing, painful politics that would serve none of us.  We knew that our own history, and the sacrifices made by those before, called us to this struggle.  And we knew that democracy is not simply a type of governance, but is a spiritual value. […]

We have continued to show up in Raleigh and across North Carolina.  We are committed to resist laws that aim to suppress the voice of the people by reducing early voting, requiring unnecessary government-issued identification (in a state with no evidence of voter fraud) and ensuring that our students are penalized for voting on campus.  It’s unconscionable.  It’s immoral.  It’s dangerous.

We know North Carolina is being viewed as a test state to unleash these regressive chains of injustice across the country.

That is why […] we ask for you to join us in Raleigh on Saturday, February 8th, when the NAACP will host the ‘Mass Moral March on Raleigh’ as part of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street. The NAACP has a vision that this will be the most massive moral rally in the South since Selma.  And we need it to be.  We write to you to ask you urgently to come join us […] as we respond to the spiritual call to engage in the struggle.

When I read this, back in December, I knew that I had to go.  Knowing what I do of our history, I knew that I had to go.  The letter from the North Carolina ministers was drawing of course, upon the legacy of Dr. King’s telegram.  Their letter was rather longer, of course, given that the cost of a telegram was per word whereas an e-mail costs the same regardless of length or content, at least until Verizon gets its way.  But the spirit was the same, and they knew that when they wrote it, and it’s had the effect they intended by it.

Perhaps more importantly, I’m not going alone.  Around twenty of us from the Fellowship are going, and I think that includes some children.  That’s a fabulous response from a small congregation like ours.  And we’ll be in Raleigh with several hundred of our fellow Unitarian Universalists and several thousand of our fellow citizens on Saturday morning, when we march from Shaw University to the North Carolina State Capitol.

Thankfully some things really have changed, though that probably has more to do with cell ‘phone cameras and social media than it does with legislation or judicial opinion.  We won’t be confronted by armed state troopers with orders to attack us with tear gas or charge us on horseback.  So far as I know there aren’t any plans for anyone to engage in civil disobedience, either.  The worst hazard we face, in fact, is the rain that’s currently forecast for Saturday.

Not everyone can go, of course.  Not everyone wants to go.  And that’s okay.  But whether we’re going or not, I hope we all realize that we are at a turning point in history, just as we were fifty years ago.  And by “we” I mean not only the United States as a nation but Unitarian Universalism as a faith, too.

In one of his final sermons, which was given at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC, James Reeb said that “We are going to have to really take upon ourselves a continuing and disciplined effort with no real hope that in our lifetime we are going to be able to take a vacation from the struggle for justice.”  Well, that’s just as true today as it was fifty years ago.  And it’s part of our heritage, part of the living tradition that we begin to embrace when we join a congregation like this one.  We may not do it perfectly.  We have made mistakes — as a congregation, as a denomination — and I can guarantee that there will be mistakes in our future.  But by taking part in public witness and advocacy, or by supporting and affirming those who do, simply by being here in this imperfect microcosm of the Beloved Community that we hope to realize, we are all of us lending the weight of our souls to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice.

So may it be.

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To Be Good Stewards of Our Own Power

Changing the World @ the UUFP

For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle

I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action.  Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.

Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives.  I’d…

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Knowledge, Access, Advocacy

(I delivered this part of a shared sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on April 28th 2013.)

During the last few months I’ve shared services with representatives from some of our Share-the-Basket partners.  If you’ve been here more than a few times, you’ll have noticed that each and every Sunday, we share the Offering with one of a number of worthy causes that actively promote what we recognize as Unitarian Universalist values.  The Fellowship has been doing this for a few years now — and, in the case of the Living Interfaith Network (or LINK) of Hampton Roads, doing it once a month for much longer — because we recognize that it is important to practice the abundance to which our faith makes claim, particularly once we recognize that how we use our money and other resources says a lot about who we really are.

Now I’m told that, whenever we’ve done a straw poll, at about this time of year, regarding our possible Share-the-Basket partners for next year, Planned Parenthood, if it is on the ballot, gets the highest number of votes.  A large number of you, in other words, believe that it is important for this congregation to support Planned Parenthood’s vision of “a society where all adults and teens have the ability to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives.”  And so this year, I’m pleased to remind you, one of our Share-the-Basket partners is Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.

A couple of other factors make this a timely partnership.

One is that, at last year’s General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona, the delegates from the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association selected “Reproductive Justice: Expanding Our Social Justice Calling” to be the new issue for study and action by UU congregations over a four-year period.  Stepping up to challenge the “racial, economic, cultural and structural constraints on women’s power” as well as supporting “the right to have children, [the right] to not have children, and [the right] to parent children in safe and healthy environments”, this is only the most recent stage of our association’s “fifty-year history of reproductive rights advocacy of which [Unitarian Universalists] should be very proud.”  The first resolution by Unitarian Universalists was passed fifty years ago, in fact, at the 1963 General Assembly in Chicago; it called for the legalization of abortion, ten years before Roe vs. Wade made that a reality.  That made Unitarian Universalism the first religion to officially endorse a woman’s right to reproductive choice; since then there have been at least two-dozen association-wide resolutions and social justice statements on the topics of abortion, women’s rights and sexuality education.  This is a history of presenting a strong progressive religious voice — our Unitarian Universalist voice — of which we should definitely be proud.

Another factor is that Virginia is the target of too many jokes on late-night television when it comes to our Commonwealth’s nineteenth century sense of sexual morality.  Actually, the nineteenth century might be giving Richmond too much credit; perhaps fourteenth century would be more appropriate.  In any case, I’ve only been living here for three years, so I don’t know how long Jon Stewart, David Letterman and the rest have been laughing at us, but good grief!  Whether it’s requiring trans-vaginal ultrasounds as part of abortion “counseling” or reinstating Virginia’s anti-sodomy law, it’s all too easy to make fun of us.  Never mind that, when it came to a challenge to the sodomy law in 1975, the court justified it by quoting Leviticus, the fact that Governor Bob McDonnell excused his support of the ultrasound bill by saying that he didn’t understand what “trans-vaginal” means is the best argument in favor of comprehensive sex education that I’ve ever heard.  It’s a shame we can’t require every elected representative to have taken the same “Our Whole Lives” curriculum that we teach to our middle-schoolers.

Now in introducing the Adult Religious Education curriculum that was created in support of the “Reproductive Justice” study/action issue, the authors explain that the current debates about all of these issues — including, incredibly, the availability of contraception — “is not as much a political argument over information and misinformation as it is a conflict of values about life, sexuality and religious freedom.”  (And I shouldn’t need to note that religious freedom does not mean the freedom of churches and other religious organizations to oppress their own employees or those they serve.)  As promoted in particular by coalitions of women of color such as SisterSong, Reproductive Justice is a framework that promotes individual rights in many intersecting areas, including reproductive choice, the eradication of violence against women, comprehensive sex education, discrimination based on race and sexual orientation, economic justice, environmental justice, and immigration justice.  These are all areas in which Unitarian Universalists have developed progressive positions based on our religious understandings of life, sexuality and freedom.

Talk, of course, is cheap.  It’s doing something with our beliefs and opinions that makes a difference.  All of the time spent at General Assembly debating and passing resolutions and statements of conscience and actions of immediate witness is worthless unless we actually act upon them afterward.  And since it’s congregational delegates who do all that debating and passing of resolutions, it’s the responsibility of congregations to put them into action.  So, on the fortieth anniversary of Roe vs. Wade back in January, Lauren F—, Tret F—, Tom H— and I went up to Richmond to take part in a demonstration at the Capitol in support of reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortions, and in opposition to the persistent efforts to chip away at those rights.

I realize, of course, that taking part in such a demonstration — even had it it been at a warmer time of year — isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  Moreover, there are limits to what we, as a single congregation, can reasonably expect to achieve.  This is work we must do in coalition, and we’re doing just that in at least a couple of ways.

For example, the Gathering of the Tidewater Cluster that took place in Williamsburg last month marked the first step toward creating a Unitarian Universalist network for legislative advocacy in Virginia, something that is being facilitated by our own Mason M—.  This is something that’s been talked about since before I got here, and I’m so glad that it’s now getting off the ground.  I encourage you to talk with Mason to learn more about it.

And, of course, we’re working with Planned Parenthood as one of our Share-the-Basket partners.  You’ll hear more about their work in a moment from two of their people who are here today, but before I introduce them, I just want to frame the value of our support of their work in terms of the three words that provide the title of this sermon — knowledge, access, advocacy — words come from the mission of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia itself.

First, knowledge.  If all people have the “right to make informed and responsible choices about their reproductive lives”, they need to be empowered by receiving the knowledge they need to make those choices.  And so, much as we teach “Our Whole Lives” to our middle-schoolers, Planned Parenthood “provides comprehensive, age appropriate sex education to schools and organizations around Hampton Roads.”

Second, access.  It’s no good having rights in theory if you can’t exercise those rights in practice.  And so, to support people in making informed and responsible choices about their own lives, Planned Parenthood provides access to “high-quality, affordable reproductive health and family planning services”, with facilities located on the Peninsula and southside.

Third, advocacy.  In recent years we’ve witnessed a resurgence of efforts to suppress and prevent both knowledge of our own sexuality and access to services including abortion and contraception, not just in Virginia but nationwide.  And so, Planned Parenthood leads the way in calling for responsible public policy that supports “the rights of all women and men to make their own choices about their [own] reproductive health, to have access to comprehensive sex education and and to have access to affordable reproductive health services.”

I’m very pleased, then, that sharing the pulpit with me this morning are Kim Barbarji and Dan Rice from Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia.  Kim is the interim program director in the education department at Planned Parenthood.  In that role, she manages the education department and oversees their Newport News public school program.  Before coming to Planned Parenthood, Kim was the Deputy Director of Avalon, a Center for Women and Children which serves victims of domestic abuse in Williamsburg.  And Dan is lead educator at Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia, teaching their program in the Health I classes at all six Newport News public high schools.  Dan is a gifted sexual health educator, who has written and taught a wide variety of health curricula for Rutgers University.

[Kim and Dan speak.]

Thank you, Kim and Dan, for being with us this morning.  I hope you’ll take the opportunity to talk with them following this morning’s services, when our Social Justice Committee will facilitate an informal question-and-answer discussion with them.  Our partnership with Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Virginia is a critical part of our work for Reproductive Justice, part of our larger commitment to grow the Beloved Community that is fundamental to both Unitarian Universalist theology and identity.  When it comes to knowledge, access, advocacy and all of the ways we do this, may we be courageous in living our shared aspirations.

So may it be.

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Doing Justice as Faith-in-Action

(A sermon delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Peninsula on October 28th 2012.)

Reading: from “When Love Speaks in Public” by Kate Lore, from A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists

My sermon theme this month has been “Works”, given the simple message expressed in the Biblical Letter of James that “faith without works is dead.”  For me the takeaway message from James is that “faith should be neither quietly hidden nor displayed ostentatiously, that salvation isn’t something that happens privately, individual by individual, but only happens when faith leads to service to the greater community and when such service is a natural expression of that faith.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

For its part, “Unitarian Universalism[ …] draws a distinct contrast between deeds and creeds[ precisely because, when you get into the nitty-gritty,] everyone believes something different, [and yet] it is possible to come together with common goals such as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry.”  Moreover, if we are able to live our “commitments to see past the specifics of creedal differences and to participate in good deeds,” we find that “Unitarian Universalism doesn’t really distinguish between faith and works.  We recognize that it goes deeper than the truth that ethical action must be based on faith for it to be effective, so we speak of the hyphenated ‘faith-in-action’ instead.”  “This is neither faith as a list of prescribed beliefs nor works as a set of empty observances,” I said, “but faith-in-action that calls us all into salvation in this life, bringing heaven into being here on Earth.” [from my Oct. 7th sermon]

Well, that’s all well and good.  It sounds nice, it rings the right bells, but how do we actually do it?  “Justice is what love looks like when it speaks in public” makes a nice bumper sticker, but what does it mean for how we actually live our lives, how we work together as a congregation, how we grow the Beloved Community?  It needs to be fleshed out, and put into practice, to actually make a difference.

Now Kate Lore is right that “a set of best practices”, an extensive collection of detailed recipes for what has worked in some other place, isn’t much use outside of the congregation in which they were developed, any more than the weather forecast for Portland, Oregon is helpful for deciding what to wear here in Newport News, Virginia.  (And vice-versa: nobody in Portland should be preparing for a hurricane!)  There are ways, though, in which we can think about faith-in-action that can help congregations and their social justice committees to figure out their own practices, without trying to shoehorn in some other church’s policies and procedures.  There are, as it turns out, some types of ways of putting faith into action that, when congregations take a balanced approach to all of them, can help produce the sorts of social justice programs that make First Unitarian, Portland the envy of the whole denomination.  There are, in fact, six such ways, and I remember them using the acronym S-E-W A-C-T, only “so” is spelled “S-E-W” not “S-O”.

The “S” stands for Service, something that generally comes pretty naturally to churches and other religious organizations.  Service is about meeting the immediate needs of people facing hardship.  It’s about the obvious ways in which we can alleviate the symptoms of poverty, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless, things that we do here at the Fellowship through the Weekend Meal Ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church as well as the Winter shelter program known as PORT organized by the Living Interfaith Network or LINK.

Service also includes efforts such as after-school tutoring, teaching English as a second language, and visiting the elderly, hands-on activities that address a particular social need while also affirming the inherent worth and dignity of those we are serving.  For that reason, the most effective forms of service are those where the people providing services are accountable to those being served, as is the case at both St. Paul’s and LINK where past and present clients are involved in running the programs.

What’s more, service not only meets the immediate needs of people facing hardship, but it also meets many people’s need to feel useful, that they can make a difference in the world.  I’ve seen time and again, in congregations of all shapes and sizes, that while visitors and new members are cautious about joining committees — and understandably so! — they will happily sign up to help out at a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  They do it not out of any fanciful expectation of recognition but simply to feel good about doing good.

And there’s nothing like the hands-on engagement of service to gain a much better understanding of social problems.  Spend even a little time with a veteran who’s unable to find work or a homeless person who can’t pay for diabetes medication or a single mother who works two minimum wage jobs but still needs to line up at a food bank to feed her child and, if you’re fortunate never to have been in such a position yourself, you’ll gain a whole new appreciation of the strength of the human spirit in spite of disadvantages and even oppression.

The next way of putting faith into action, then, is education.  Well, this one seems to come pretty naturally to Unitarian Universalists.  Our religious education for both children and adults lends itself quite readily to talking about social issues, and as well as classes we have fairly regular services on topics from marriage equality to environmentalism.  Over the last four months alone, we’ve had sermons on religious freedom, compassion, war and peace, slavery and civil rights, LGBT equality and immigrant justice.  Include M—’s sermon on compassion, which is another form of faith-in-action, and more than a third of our services since July have been about some aspect of social justice.

That trend will continue next month, with services honoring the commitments and struggles of our military service personnel and families, services about the work of the UU Service Committee and a special service in observance of Transgender Day of Remembrance.  Then in 2013 I’m going to be doing some joint sermons with our Share-the-Basket partners, including the Sierra Club, LINK and Planned Parenthood.  We’re also planning a Friday evening and Saturday daytime workshop on Social Justice in mid-January, so keep an ear open for more information about that as it develops.

So imagine you’ve been exposed to the daily reality of some injustice through your involvement in hands-on service and then through classes, sermons and workshops you’ve educated yourself even more about the issue.  What’s next?  Obviously talking about a problem can only take us so far, and there comes a point when we must take action on it.  That brings us to the next way of putting faith into action, which is witness.

Witness is a way of taking what we know about a social issue and expressing our desire to change it.  Going to demonstrations, holding vigils, writting letters to newspaper editors, creating short YouTube videos for Facebook — all of these are ways of bearing witness to our values and speaking up about an injustice that we believe needs to be addressed.  If the media takes note, so much the better.

The more obvious examples of witness, of course, are the rallies and protests that take place each year at General Assembly, particularly the Phoenix GA’s massive vigil at “Tent City” that J— talked about last Sunday.  It’s hard to come up with an image that appeals more to the media than thousands of people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts!  Closer to home, the Fellowship has been a part of public demonstrations on issues such as women’s rights and health care reform and has held vigils right here in response to problems such as global climate change and violence toward transgender individuals.

Now rallies and protests and demonstrations and vigils are great for raising the wider social consciousness, but sooner or later any group that wants to bring about social change must engage in the next way of putting faith into action, which is advocacy.  This is a matter of direct engagement with legislative processes in order to impact public policy, something that is particularly effective when lawmakers receive letters and even delegations from churches that can provide a clear theological basis for their moral positions.  (And, for that matter, when those lawmakers realize that not all people of faith stand for regressive, oppressive social policies.)

This is, though, an area where both congregations and ministers need to be careful, given the considerable privilege that has already been extended to us in the form of religious freedom.  While we, as a church, are free to discuss social issues and to promote particular positions on those issues within our own membership, we are only free to engage in advocacy for or against specific pieces of legislation as an “unsubstantial” portion of our overall activities.  (The IRS doesn’t define “unsubstantial”, but in cases where they have ruled on the lobbying activities of non-profits, the rule of thumb is no more than five percent of money, staff time and volunteer effort.)  In no way shape or form, of course, may we take positions for or against candidates for public office, something that we need to remember at around this time of year every four years!

There is, of course, only so much that any individual person or any individual congregation can do by her-, him- or itself.  And that’s why the fifth way of putting faith into action is community organizing or, equivalently, coalition building.  We can be much more effective in just about every effort, from service and education to witness and advocacy, if we can work with others who care about the same issues of neglect, injustice or oppression.  We don’t have the resources to help every person who comes to our office door asking for, say, money to buy food, but we can help by combining our resources with other congregations in supporting LINK.  We don’t have the resources to do much advocacy for policies that promote environmental sustainability or women’s reproductive health just by ourselves, but we can make a difference by partnering with the Sierra Club and with Planned Parenthood.  There’s power in numbers, but there’s also synergy that comes when different people and groups come together around a common cause.

I’ve now described service, education, witness, advocacy and coalition building.  The sixth way of putting faith into action is the T in S-E-W A-C-T, namely transformation, by which I’m referring to the transformation of ourselves, or our own house of worship.  This is a necessary result of humility — which tends to be forgotten as one of the often core virtues in just about every religion — in that we can’t assume that everything that’s wrong and unjust in the world is only outside our own walls.  So we are called to transform ourselves to live up to our own standards, to walk the talk with integrity.

That’s why we worked to become a Welcoming Congregation a few years ago, to begin a process of being more intentionally inclusive toward LGBT individuals, and it’s why we’re working to become a Green Sanctuary, to build environmental awareness into everything we do.  There are two more examples of transforming ourselves that I want to mention as well, both of which touch on matters of accessibility.

Last month, B— and J— installed in this Sanctuary a hearing-aid loop that S— had donated to the Fellowship.  It’s basically a wireless transmitter that allows anyone with the right sort of hearing aid to patch directly into our sound system.  The loop was installed in the overhead light fixture, so the best signal is in the center section of seats within the footprint of the light; then, activating the T-coil or telephone program on hearing aids will let the wearer pick up the signal and hear what’s being said more easily than relying on the loudspeakers.  This means that all of us really need to make sure we use microphones when we speak, not only for those sitting in the library and listening through the loudspeakers in there but particularly for those using hearing aids to listen to the service right here in this room.

The second example of how we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be is part of our effort to pay for the mortgage on the Office Building.  Rather than sensory accessibility, it’s about fiduciary accessibility.  You’re probably all aware that we’re selling mortage bonds, to raise the funds we need to pay off the short-term, high interest, interest-only, private loan on the Office Building, with the bonds being repaid over time at an interest rate quite a bit better than any bank offers.  In other words, we’re asking our members to collectively loan our congregation the money to pay the mortgage, with our congregation then paying that money back to our members with interest.  What you might not realize is that you don’t need thousands of dollars to participate in this.  (Though, of course, if you do have thousands of dollars to invest, you probably won’t find a better place right now to do that than the UUFP!)

You see, there are also bonds available in smaller amounts, amounts like ten dollars, amounts such as a child might get as a gift in a Christmas card from a grandparent.  I remember, when I was growing up, getting Post Office Savings Bonds from relatives, just five or ten pounds that would slowly accrue interest until I received the money a few years later, and it taught me important lessons about patience and the value of money.

When it comes to paying for our Office Building, though, these small denomination “participation bonds”, as they’re called aren’t just for children!  Any of us can be a part of owning our own property here at the Fellowship, since the feeling of satisfaction in being a part of advancing our mission and ministry should not depend on the amount of money we have.  Everything we do is an opportunity to grow the Beloved Community, and it’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.  In fact, compared with creating a dynamic community, being an investment bank would be a walk in the park!  But we’re a congregation, a church, a religious home for diverse spirits, and all of us have an equal right to participate in this community regardless of personal circumstances.  Making these participation bonds available is an important way in which we are transforming ourselves into the people we dare to be.

And, really, that’s the point of the whole shebang.  When we serve others, educate ourselves, witness to injustice, advocate for change, build coalitions with allies, and transform ourselves for the better, we are becoming our best selves, growing the Beloved Community, putting our faith into action, and showing the world what love looks like when it speaks and acts in public.  So let us bring the warmth of community, the light of hope, the beckoning of the holy, the comfort of companionship, the dancing of the spirit, the energy of faithful action, and the fire of commitment to a world that still waits for our good news, for our faith-in-action.  It’s the most difficult, most inconvenient, most important, most life-giving task any of us are called to do.

So may it be.

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The Power of Recognition

From time to time someone I don’t know figures out that I’m a minister.  This is most often in a setting where that’s a safe guess: someone in a jacket and tie asking where they can find a particular patient in a hospital is quite likely to be a minister.  Sometimes it happens elsewhere — at the counter of a fast food restaurant, for example — particularly if the other person has already guessed that the chalice design on my lapel pin is a religious symbol.

There are situations where it’s helpful to be identified as a minister, of course.  I’m more likely to be allowed into the Emergency Room to see a member of the congregation — or to be with the family of that member — if I have a badge with “clergy” on it.  There are also situations where it isn’t helpful, where the other person becomes painfully self-conscious or sees me as a challenge to their own faith or even feels the need to confess what they think are their sins!

Furthermore, there are situations where being recognized as a minister can make a big difference.  When you see clergy at protests, for instance, it sends a powerful message that this isn’t just a secular matter of unfairness but a religious matter of injustice.  My colleague Rev. Jeanne Pupke of First UU in Richmond shared with me her decision to wear a clerical collar at public witness events after seeing photographs of collared ministers at civil rights protests in the 1960s.  The media certainly pays more attention to the presence of people in clerical collars, particularly if they’re being arrested for civil disobedience!

In the July 2010 “Day of Non-Compliance” protests over Arizona’s SB 1070, for instance, many Unitarian Universalist ministers wore clerical collars.  Now few of them would wear such garb in their own pulpits — the stole is standard for an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, even more than the preaching robe — and yet there is power in being easily recognized as clergy, by the media, by those with whom we stand in solidarity, by fellow protesters of all faiths and, yes, by other Unitarian Universalists.  Some of those collared ministers also wore yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts on top of their clergy shirts — demonstrating a willingness to suffer for a good cause in the heat of Phoenix in July! — and helped contribute to the visibility of “the love people”, as the yellow-clad Unitarian Universalist protesters became known.

Given that the 2012 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association will take place in Phoenix — and is specifically recast as a “Justice GA” — I’ve been considering buying a shirt with a clerical collar.  I’d wear it at public witness events, at GA and elsewhere, whether protesting racial profiling, worker exploitation, economic injustice or marriage inequality.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, I saw an announcement from the UU Ministers’ Association that a well-established outfitter of church supplies and clerical attire would be selling clergy shirts in the yellow of the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign and with the campaign’s heart symbol on one sleeve.  “What a great idea!” I thought.  “That solves two problems in one go!”

Not all of my colleagues agree with me.  Some dislike the shirts on aesthetic grounds.  Others object to what they see as the corruption of a religious message through merchandising.  Some complain about the self-righteous Unitarian Universalist sense of “terminal uniqueness”, that we’re entirely separate from “mainstream” religion.  Others argue that we are separate and thus have no right to a traditional symbol of Christian ministry.  (“Traditional” should probably be in quotes: the Church of England records that the clerical collar was invented by a Scottish Presbyterian minister in the 1890s, and was only adopted by Catholic priests in 1960s.)

On the other hand, I remember the story (as related by UU minister Dick Gilbert) that in 1917 the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church assembled in St. Petersburg, and while they were engaged in a bitter debate over the color of priestly vestments, the revolution was raging just a few blocks away.  So, I’m buying the shirt and I’ll wear it at protests and other places where I’m a minister who works for justice, because it’s the revolution that really matters, not the debate.

 

I hope you’re enjoying a happy and peaceful holiday season and I wish the best for you and yours in the new year!

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Impressions of a Renaissance

One of the highlights of my Summer as a Unitarian Universalist is General Assembly.  This “meeting of congregations” brings together thousands of people representing hundreds of congregations around the country as well as members of other liberally religious traditions from around the world.  I go for many reasons: to reconnect with friends and colleagues; to worship with thousands of other Unitarian Universalists; to hear inspiring sermons and stories — and the Ware Lecture; to sing in the ministers’ choir; to enjoy workshops on useful and motivating topics; to be a part of the public witness for justice; and much more!

This year, of course, was the fiftieth General Assembly, a full half-century since the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association consolidated.  We spent some of our time together looking back over those fifty years, remembering the highs and the lows — how we stood up to the FBI following the publication of the Pentagon Papers, how we failed to embrace racial diversity and power-sharing, how we led the way in advocating for civil marriage equality — as well as the hymns we’ve sung and the people who’ve served us.  We spent more of our time looking ahead, considering the continued challenges of our non-creedal theology, of race and class, of generational changes.  Since we were meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, a significant thread addressed Unitarian Universalism in the South, celebrating our vitality and projecting a hopeful vision for our entire denomination.

My primary impression is that Unitarian Universalism is enjoying a renaissance.  From superficial indicators such as membership numbers this may be hard to tell, but it’s clear from the culture itself.

For one thing, there’s a wealth of new music being created right now.  Singing the Journey was, in 2005, the first supplement to Singing the Living Tradition in over twenty years; since then, a Spanish-language hymnal, Las Voces del Camino, has also been produced.  The 2008 General Assembly in Fort Lauderdale included the premiere of “Sources: a Unitarian Universalist Cantata”; based on the six Sources that inform our living tradition, it was created by Jason Shelton, a former Franciscan and composer of many of the new hymns in Singing the Journey, and Kendyl Gibbons, one of the leading Humanist ministers within Unitarian Universalism.  This year’s General Assembly saw specifically commissioned pieces by music professor Tom Benjamin and by rock guitarist Bob Hirshon.  There’s all sorts of new UU and UU-friendly music being created by plenty of other people, too, from Judy Fjell and emma’s revolution to Wally Kleucker and Amy Carol Webb.

At the same time, there’s an increased willingness to take another look at Universalism, the half of our faith that was often overshadowed by the louder, more argumentative Unitarian half of the last century.  Modern Universalism seems to be finding its expression in a greater tolerance for poetry and metaphor and ambiguity, recognizing that reason and spirituality are not at odds with one another, but are in fact each other’s essential partner if we are to avoid “idolatries of the mind and spirit”, as our Fifth Source puts it.  Literalism is, after all, a form of extremism; whether religious or anti-religious,  literalism is the enemy of compassion.  Universalism reminds us that salvation — in this life, on this Earth — is something we must all achieve together, or not at all.

Next year’s General Assembly will take place in Phoenix and is intended to focus almost exclusively on issues of justice.  Given the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in Arizona and elsewhere, a large part of that will be in terms of advocacy for humane immigration reform.  More generally, though, we’ll look at why and how Unitarian Universalists engage in justice work, both here in the United States and overseas, as well as within our congregations and within ourselves.  I know there’ll be lots of great music and singing; my hope is that we’ll also approach this work while remembering that, no matter our disagreements and the range of petty human hatreds, there is room for all of us at the well of life.

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