Posts Tagged Black History Month
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
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Gather us this hour as a people of hope,
in the face of adversity,
as a community of justice,
where we see inequity,
as a faith for healing,
in a world struggling between hardship and beauty.
Knowing the world is not yet what it could be,
teach us to not trip over the small wants and grievances,
when so many need us to be so much more than our smallest selves;
we need to be more than that.
Mother of Grace,
open our hearts where we are closed;
widen our vision where we have become short-sighted;
and open our mouths where silence has dominated our spirit.
For too often we have learned to be complicit where there is pain.
In the struggle of the long arc of the universe bending toward justice,
may we regain strength in the soul-saving work,
of living faithfully into our humanity,
and in love.
Spirit of Stillness, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Help us to find the lessons among our village filled with snow and ice.
The greens are hidden, the tree branches are burdened hanging low,
and for a time – the roads – are not passable.
But this is true for but a time;
the snows will melt,
the earth will green,
and color after color will spring into newness soon.
Life was always there, beneath the earth, waiting to be seen.
May we come to find it once more with new eyes,
after a long cold season.
Mother of Hope, we know that rightly, some of us find joy in the play time,
sleds, and snowmen, and winter hikes.
May their joy inspire us; reminding us to play and not always toil.
Others among us are worn down by the season,
from illness or sadness, missing the long days of sun and warmth.
May we honor this difficulty, while grounded in the truth that although hidden, life surrounds us all the time.
At the close of Black History month, may the winter months draw us to the truth,
that in all things, the world bends toward justice.
Though we may find ourselves returning to the month of Winter in the march toward wider freedom, again and again,
Spring always follows the ice.
Life will triumph over the weight covering it,
one story at a time.
May we remember that the challenges before us today,
are not entirely the same as those we struggled with generations past.
Much work must be done,
and we are the hands to do it,
but the work of the generations before,
brought us forward along the rough road.
May we keep going forward.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Fellowship on 2/22/15. It is the second in a series of reflections on the words of Sister Simone; where we explore how hope does not rest solely in our individuals actions and choices.
For years, I attended a Unitarian Universalist summer camp called Star Island. It’s an island about 6 miles off the coast of New Hampshire and Maine; think New England and rocky shoals. On the edge of the island there’s a pier. It juts out maybe 50 feet and one side of it allows boats and ferries to dock. The other side of it creates a man-made mini-harbor that protects swimmers from the pull of the ocean due to it’s L-shape.
At one point during the week, there’s a culminating celebration of the younger grade-schooler’s and their science projects. The land version of this is the point where we see groups of bottle-rockets launch skyward; each group competes to see who can send the bottle rocket farther away. But the ocean version of this are duck-tape boats. Teams or individuals build cardboard boats sealed only with duct-tape. Kids get points for who finishes first, but they also get points for sportsmanship. One kid has to be in the boat, and the rest of the team can swim along around the boat to help it go faster. Parents and friends are cheering them along, and it’s a major accomplishment to even finish this race. I’m reminded of the earlier story today about the geese getting farther along working in formation than alone, even though, I’m sure, the physics is a bit different for duct tape boats in the ocean.
But one time in the five years I’ve witnessed this boating celebration, an individual kid finished the race first (which never happens normally), and then swam back to the middle of the run to help a competing team out of a jam where they were slowly sinking into the water. He took up a supportive role in the back and helped them stay above water. They still came in last, but they got to succeed when it otherwise looked like their boat was doomed. If you thought the parents were loud when they cheered him finishing the race first, know that they went crazy with joy when he went back to be a helper with the team in last place.
Summer camp can teach us a lot of things. The difference in the cheers from the parents and friends told me something really important. We can be really excited for the lone athlete finishing first. That’s going to happen every time in every race – right – someone will always win; but it’s stunningly noteworthy when we see someone go back and help another team succeed. It’s been years since I saw that race, and I still remember what that grade-schooler showed me.
Individual achievements are great. They encourage us to persevere, or to succeed, or to better ourselves. The singular win may inspire others to try things they otherwise never would; it’s the nature of one type of role modeling and it’s a good thing. But the drive to ensure everyone gets to finish is more remarkable in my mind. We can’t all win every time, but maybe we can all succeed. Maybe, crossing the finish line in our slowly sinking duct tape boats, is attainable for each of us, when we work together.
The image may seem silly, but I imagine some of us here, right now, feel like we’re in a duct taped boat just trying to tread water – and finding the successful end in sight is all they’re focused on. As a community, as citizens, as spiritual seekers, we are best to remember that. Sometimes our individual hopes get fulfilled by communal effort. It can take courage to hope, especially in our western society that so often focuses on the singular wins of the person in the lead. It takes courage because we might not fulfill our hopes by ourselves, and we might need to start that race knowing that we’ll at some point need to rely on someone else. Can we be the people, can we be the community, that ensures the hopes of the world are realized? Can we teach one another to do our best while lifting one another up – and not think the two are mutually exclusive?
Our religious tradition reminds us that despite the values of the dominant culture around us, just like we don’t hope alone, we also don’t strive alone, and we certainly don’t achieve alone. Many of our world’s problems are rooted in the mistake that we’re solitary islands in a sea of otherness.
That same pier the kids race their duct tape boats in also doubles at a swimming inlet when the weekly race isn’t happening. At low tide you can wade amidst the water-worn rocks and grounded kelp. But when it’s high tide it can feel rather deep. I love the ocean, and I’m a huge beach goer, but swimming in waters that I can’t see the bottom to, is mildly terrifying to me. The island is something like 10 miles off the coast of the mainland. You are actually swimming in the ocean. And knowing that little kids can blithely race their duct taped boats isn’t reassuring – frankly it’s a bit demoralizing that they can do it and I’m terrified!
One Summer day the heat was so oppressive, and we were on shower rations, that I just had to jump in. The 6 year old nearby is swimming and laughing. I hit the water and think I’m going to die. My heart starts to race and race. I’m certainly not going to play in this death trap, but I tell myself I can at least swim the 50 foot length of pier back to the island. Twenty feet in and I know in my heart I’m doomed. Meanwhile, the backdrop sounds are a grandmother chatting with her friend while a few little wee tykes do body flips, giggling.
The bigger picture here is instructive. When we get fixated on our weaknesses, or our fears – we can get very lost. Reminding ourselves of the community around us can be grounding. The toddlers can do this. The elders wisely know this is safe for those toddlers. The very-in-shape life guards are 10 feet away. And so far, kraken don’t come this close to humans. Evidently, I did not die, and I did make it back to shore to tell the harrowing tale. Hope and courage take markedly different tones when we’re doing so in community than when we’re going at it alone. The people around us change the story from being lost as sea, to swimming at a pier – whether we’re still terrified or not, the reality we may or may not be able to see – changes.
The title of this sermon comes from a quote in a talk given by Sister Simone Campbell, most known for her work “Nuns on the Bus” which toured the country to help educate around poverty and workforce development. All this month we’re looking at some of the learnings from last year’s UU General Assembly which is an annual gathering of 4 to 5 thousand UU’s – a week of learning, worship and social justice. I want to encourage anyone here who is able to make the trip at the end of June to our next Annual Assembly to seriously consider attending this energizing week of learning and justice work. Registration opens up in one week on March 1st. More info will be available via the weekly email-based Flash and the monthly Beacon Newsletter. It takes place in Portland, Oregon this June 24th-28th.
Here’s the short story she shares from her talk to 4000 UU’s last June. The story is about a time when Sister Simone met a young women in her 20s named Robin, at the White House. Here’s the short excerpt:
She, “had been invited to be there for when President Obama signed the executive order to raise the minimum wage for the federal contract workers.
And Robin was there. And she grew up in Virginia. And she had walked by the White House, and this young woman in her mid 20s could not believe she was inside the White House. It was so exciting. And she had her cell phone, and so she took a picture of the chair she was sitting in. And we were going to be two rows back from where the president was going to sign the executive order. So having taken the picture of her chair, she said, would you take a picture of me? Sure. So I take a picture of her sitting in her chair. And then we take a selfie about us being together. And we’re doing all this, she is so excited, she could not sit still for anything. And so I asked her, was she going to benefit from this executive order? She goes, oh no. But a good friend of her’s was. And so she was really excited for her.
She works for minimum wage at a national clothing store chain, and she said she gets to work full-time, she’s really excited about it. …We talked a little while longer, and then she said to me, kind of quietly, you know, by looking at me, you would never know I have to live in a homeless shelter because I can’t afford rent in this DC area. It’s just way too expensive.
She makes $15,000 a year, gross. About $12,000, net. And has not enough money for rent, though she works full time. Quite frankly that broke my heart. And here she was celebrating the fact that her friend was going to get a raise. And she said, well you know, if it happens for some of us, it’ll eventually happen for all of us. We have to celebrate the progress. And I thought, wow. What wisdom. When you walk towards trouble, there you find hope. Because it’s in the relationship, it’s in the connection, it’s in hearing the stories that hope, the communal virtue, is nourished.”
Sister Simone’s story of Robin is sort of the flip side to that everyday phrase we use, “if it makes you feel any better…”. You know, the one where someone knows you’re down over some painful thing in your life and they go on to share with you the woes or misery someone else is going through; as if another person’s pain should ever lift one’s spirits. Robin from the story knew the truth, another person’s joy or success or good fortune after a long period of adversity, should be a source of hope for us in times of adversity. If it can go well for them, it can go well for me. Celebrating the successes of those around us is certainly a better ethic than being relieved by their loss.
If hope is a communal virtue, and witnessing others’ new successes are fuel for hope, then learning from others’ past accomplishments over adversity reminds us that present and future challenges can be overcome. When we look out in the world we see tragedy after tragedy. A world torn by war abroad, and domestic terror at home. Just over a week ago, we learned of three young muslim students attending UNC Chapel Hill, murdered in their home by a white “New Atheist” male neighbor. The NY Times would describe the victims as, “a newlywed couple and the woman’s sister. They were young university students, Muslims of Arab descent, and high achievers who regularly volunteered in the area.” Heart-breaking. A new marriage ended, three lives lost, and a family now must mourn three of its children at the same time. I can’t imagine the horror.
The alleged murder’s professed faith of “new atheism” is a sobering footnote to our nation at a time when our national media is fixated on the non-debate over whether Christianity or Islam have had violent pasts and presents. Any ideology can carve room for hate and violence if we let it, even non-religions. And if time and investigations determine that the sole rationale for these young adults’ deaths is due to an argument over parking, I think we’re in even a more tragic place.
We as a nation have work to do. A family, a community and a university must mourn the loss of three young adults with huge potentials and generous hearts. We must continue to strive to teach the values of diversity – religious and racial. Justice must be served and communities will need to learn to feel safe again. We must seek to instill a sense of temperance in our people, so that small disagreements about mundane things do not become life threatening; that something besides our stressors and petty inconveniences matters more to a healthy society.
Despite the seemingly perpetual stories of strife, loss and difference the road that brought us here has shown us that there is ever a way forward. Although people are not yet fully equal, and much more work must be done, there have been many successes in civil rights. Grassroots black leaders taught us in the 1960’s that despite having seemingly little apparent power individually, people can organize collectively and affect massive change. We can look to the successes of the activists in the 60s and 70s to teach us, that just like Robin showed in Sister Simone’s story, other people’s successes in building the world we dream about can offer us meaningful hope that we too shall one day do the same. The march of history flows ever onward from the strength of those before us. The people in this room today, all of us, are each in our own way keepers of that trust should we let ourselves be. Friends, will you continue to hope with me? Will you continue to carry the work forward from the hands that came before and the hands that are still striving? There is much work to be done, and we are the ones to do it.
Prayer for Black History Month – 2/19/12
Spirit of Abundance, God of Grace, Mother of Hope,
We pause now to remember those stories that are all around us,
But so often passed over,
Those stories that when told are shared because
Of what someone is, not who they are.
This month in our nation’s character
Is Black History month.
Help us to realize that Black history is
All our histories.
May the day come when these stories
Are so wildly taught that no month need
Be separately divided.
We know this day will not come until we as a people
Make different choices.
We pray now for those new choices.
May we come to see a day where the prison system
Becomes redemptive, not punitive.
A day where the legal system learns to focus more squarely on the facts,
And the not colors of our skin.
A day where our schools are as well funded, as the needs demand.
May our role models be allowed to excel when they thrive,
And not be taken down for their rich heritage.
We know this will require a shift in power.
And this can be scary for some.
Give those full of fear – hope.
May we come to know grace,
So that our hearts will not be hardened to the pain around us.
There are so many beautiful stories needing to be told.
And we need to get the chance to hear them.
Widen our vision so that the history that is shared this month,
And every month,
Come to be known as our history too.
We are most human when we see the humanity in others.