This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/25/18 as part of a service for Black History month. This kid-friendly homily talks about the complexity of the stories of Selma in the US and Apartheid in South Africa.
Today, I’m going to talk about some short personal stories. Some of you might remember parts of them, because I’ve talked about them before in various ways. But I haven’t shared them when our children and youth were present. As part of Black History month, as a nation, we have to do a better job of telling the wholeness of our stories – including the uncomfortable parts. There’s a lot in our history that I didn’t learn till I was an adult, and that didn’t serve me well – that doesn’t serve us all well. I think, in part, it leads us to where we are today – where so much of our nation is divided because we didn’t learn the same histories. It’s one of the reasons why having good schoolteachers, is so important. They nurture good citizens. And these days, our teachers need all the extra love and support we can give them.
Three years ago, I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act. I got to hear the stories from the people that were there. (We have one Selma veteran in our congregation as well.) I’ve heard Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory.
One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was about 6 or 7 years ago, when I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Rev. Clark Olsen to travel and represent his congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. None of us are too young, or too small, to make a difference. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings. You are part of that, too.
Unitarian Universalism often sees itself as on the right side of history when it comes to social justice, but we’re still human, and we’re far from perfect. When I was in Selma for the anniversary, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. To paraphrase the thinking of the time – ‘Why would the congregation risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma.’ We think of the issue being so clear cut these days (at least most of u do), but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.
We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years?
Earlier, we heard a quote from Nelson Mandela. A shorter part of it went, “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” I hold that with me when I get exhausted from all the work we need to continue to do to make the world a more loving, just place. Because there is more to do, does not mean that we are failing – there are many more hills to climb – and there probably always will be on the path to the promised land.
Nelson Mandela lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal South African regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages. We never know where we will go, or what changes we can affect.
I once got to see Nelson Mandela. It was just a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of President Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. (When we hear people say it’s too soon to talk about some tragedy in the world, I remember Mandela and how the only way that nation could move forward, was to talk openly and honestly.)
… And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating alongside. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His life was a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What a difference. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years?
These stories are important. When we hear folks say that racism is over, or people are playing the race card, or all the bad things are ancient history – they’ve forgotten our history – the good and the bad. Ruby Bridges, who we heard about earlier, is only 63 years old. Now to some of us that sounds young, and to some of us that sounds old. But her story is one that happened in many of our lifetimes – right here. Many of use lived in a world that was segregated. That’s not ancient history. And the story of Nelson Mandela happened in my childhood. I was a kid, when our then President called this future Nobel Peace Prize winner a terrorist. That’s not ancient history. And every one of these stories of hardship is also a story of hope. In everyday people, doing their part, to make the world a better place.
let folks know to stay for the the Equal Exchange short video. #1018 Come and Go with Me