Keep on Moving Forward
UU Church of the Palouse · January 20, 2019
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Earlier this month, a friend of mine (Heather Rion Starr) invited us to offer up one-sentence summaries of our life’s mission. Hers was, “energetically participating in & carrying forward a Unitarian Universalism that is a vibrant, meaningful, substantive component of people’s lives in the communities I serve and a force for good in our larger world.”
Not bad. But I struggled with it, and finally explained that for me, it wasn’t big enough. While I love my job and I love my faith, I see the work I do here as my unique piece of the true mission, which is to create a world with peace and justice for all. I am working toward a future where all people, regardless of their identities or experiences, know they are whole and precious, and treat everyone they encounter as whole and precious…and where we treat the earth and its non-human inhabitants as precious, too!
It’s a lofty goal, an ambitious mission. It won’t be accomplished in my lifetime, and I’m okay with that. If we get there, it will be because everyone gets on board.
I like feeling like a small player in a grand evolutionary process. If, as Theodore Parker put it, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, (and I believe it does), I want to be one of a multitude standing on the far end of that arc, pushing or pulling as hard as I can. More to the point, I want to be there with all of you.
Crowd sourcing life’s mission looks like divvying up the different pieces according to our gifts and priorities, laughing and offering each other encouragement, and knowing that we’ve got one another’s backs. It means taking turns resting when we need to, and trusting that the work will go on without us.
This is my last Sunday in the pulpit before I leave on Sabbatical. I’ve worked really hard for the last six years, and it’s my time to lay the burden down and replenish. I know you will keep moving forward without me, keep working for peace and justice in our community and in our world. Today’s service will, I hope, offer one last gust of wind for your sails, from my heart to yours.
Meditation “Inside/Outside” by Laura Bogle click here
Readings “Don’t Preach King On King Sunday” by Kim Hampton, January 2, 2019 click here
“Singapore” by Mary Oliver click here
“Whatever happened to Jimmy?”
Settle-in, breathe deeply, close your eyes if you want. We’re going on a trip. We’re traveling back to the Dixie of 1959. I’m your guide, and you’ll be safe, but you’ll see things and hear things that may offend you and dismay you. For comfort I offer only a moment of magnolia blossom flavored grace, at the end of the trip.
Smell the air? It’s warm and gentle, full of plant life, humus, rebirth and decay.
Picture a tree-lined street with single family houses, built not all at once but over decades. There’s my house, the one with dogwoods at the curb and oaks at the property line.
Come around back. That little shack you can barely see through the hedge? That’s a slave quarters belonging the columned Civil War mansion, whose backside you can see peeking through the redbud trees.
We’re not out in the country, we’re smack in the middle of Athens, Georgia, a college town not unlike Pullman/Moscow. Yet our house sits in the woodlot of that former plantation big-house, on land my parents bought from the maiden sister survivors of the Carlton clan.
That other sweet, fruity smell? That’s an untended scuppernong arbor. Came with the woodlot.
I’m a twelve-year-old child, and slavery’s ghost is everywhere.
I absorb it and its Jim Crow stand-in through my every sense.
I see the shacks and I see the mansions.
And I feel it. A few years back when I was littler, I held slavery’s legacy is in my hand. Literally. My hand was in the maid’s hand. And even after my family slid into genteel white poverty we still kept her on. Not to look after her, but for her to keep looking after us. We could afford it. Her wages were small.
She is black. For me an of course statement. Twelve-year old me still thinks all maids are black. It will take me years to start picking that apart.
I hear the ghost in the music around me. Ray Charles creates What’d I Say, Alvin and the Chipmunks sing Ragtime Cowboy Joe.
I taste the pepper in Lula Mae’s cooking.
I smell the fatback in her greens.
She serves me in our dining room with mahogany table, lace tablecloth, and china. Grace is said. Lula Mae comes from the kitchen when Mom rings a little silver bell. When the family is done, she eats her meal outside on a splintery unfinished picnic table.
All the requisite attitudes seep into me by osmosis. By twelve I know black people are different from white people. I’m supposed to call them colored people because we’re polite. In a few more years some whites will call them nigras. These are well-meaning people who haven’t got a clue, who don’t want to seem low-class, but also don’t want to be ostracized by their friends for being overly egalitarian. I’m one of them. Cut this?
Elderly black sharecroppers I pass on downtown sidewalks step down into the street gutter when I approach. Kids my age show off a new knife and proudly call it an alliterative-digger. They don’t say alliterative.
Kids my age laugh and point at a black man in a past-its-prime Cadillac, especially if it’s flying a foxtail or raccoon tail from the radio antenna. Meanwhile they admire the fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror of a white teenager’s ’40 Ford, and say “When I get my license…”
I’m one of those kids, too.
What happened to me?
A black teenager jumped a fence in the summer of 1963. A fence both real and metaphorical. They watched two white kids play tennis on the whites-only high school’s whites-only tennis courts. They can’t attend that high school although they live just across the street. The more mannerly of the two boys playing asks the newcomer if they’d like to play. I’m left on the court with the black kid.
At game’s end we lead the new-comer to the hose spigot for water. Georgia. July. Hot. Humid. A dance ensues. White southern people are notorious for our drinking fountains. One for white, an inferior version for blacks. Here there’s only the hose. We do not drink from the same fountain.
Who drinks first? My friend Stan offers first drink to Willie. He declines, I decline, Stan declines. I say I’ll do it, just to save us time.
Conversation erupts. Surprising me. I’ve never talked with a black kid my age. The topic turns to bowling. Willie asks “Y’all ‘ever been bowling?”
Stan and I look at each other in amazement. Everybody bowls some. (Everybody to me only includes white kids.) They teach us in PE. Take us in school buses out to the new alley.
Willie says I’ve never been.
Stan and I look at each other, still not comprehending. Athens is a small town. There’s not that much to do.
Willie says there’s no place I can go.
And I start to bend.
Here’s what confounds me about the work of bending the arc of the universe: I think the most effective work happens on a very granular level. Which is to say, in moments like the one Jim just described, hearts change. As a result of compassion and a genuine connection, we find the courage to admit our blindness or even our fault, and we commit to doing better.
Every heart needs to heal. Every person needs to be committed to the work of unlearning the many bad ideas that have infected our world for the last several millennia…and it can be sad and hard work, so a lot of people choose not to do it. But we here in this room, we choose to do the work. We choose to bend the arc. And to paraphrase part of what I said at the march yesterday, the values that drive this choice aren’t political values or religious values or even American values. They are human values.
It starts with recognition that people are not things, not objects, not labels. They are precious beings. Light shines out of every life, no exceptions. When we see the light dimmed by suffering and injustice, we want see and recognize that light, but we also want to create a better setting, one that allows each person to achieve their full potential, to be the person they are meant to be.
Can I be honest with you? I am kind of tired of people getting upset about how it is sad and hard work. We need to stop valuing the hurt feelings of people who cause harm more than the hurt spirits of people who have been harmed. It’s okay to be uncomfortable. That’s part of this work that we are choosing to do.
Aisha Ansano has written a beautiful reflection on the Black National Anthem, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ She says:
This song deserves to be sung with attention. It is a song that starkly names the horrors and violence of racism in this country, and it is a song that should make us uncomfortable: uncomfortable with the history that it calls upon, uncomfortable with the fact that the struggle for racial justice continues, and has not come quite so far as it should have by now. How can anyone sing the words “treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered” without a deep, deep discomfort?
So when we sing this song, will you join me in singing with intentionality? Will you join me in the deep discomfort that I will be feeling in singing those words? Discomfort with the pain and horror that those words refer back to, and discomfort with the fact that those words do not only refer to a distant history, but also to what is happening now?
Will you commit to sitting with your own discomfort? And then, will you tap into that discomfort and do something?
Will you lift your voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty?
Please open your hymnal to #149, and rise in body or spirit.
You are a very lucky congregation. The Rev. Theresa Ines Soto, your sabbatical minister, who arrives as I leave, is brilliant and compassionate and knows a lot about bending the arc of the universe. Not only do they hold multiple, overlapping marginalized identities, but they’ve done a ton of scholarly work, writing and reflection on these issues. Theresa is one of my teachers when it comes to this work we choose to do, and nothing would make me happier than to come back in August to discover that all y’all have moved past where I am when it comes to the internal work required to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and other oppressive structures that live in our hearts and psyches.
Nothing would make me happier except…if I were to come back to stories of all the ways you’ve gone beyond these walls to dismantle white supremacy, patriarchy, and other oppressive structures out in the world.
There will be lots of tasks to handle around here when I am gone. There will be coffee to make, leaves to rake, dishes to wash. There will be committees to serve on, classes to teach, sermons to write. There will be people to talk to, care about, and help.
What I’m asking is that in all those tasks, you remember why we do this. The church as an institution only has value so long as it’s serving that larger mission. What we do matters because what we do supports the creation of Beloved Community, the realization of these dreams we share.
The very granularity of this work makes it so that it can’t be done by leaders, no matter how great. It might be that we would be further along if Martin Luther King, Jr., hadn’t been assassinated, if that bright light hadn’t been snuffed out. We can’t know. What we do know is that the best way to honor his legacy is to follow his lead and do the work.
That means acknowledging the truth of our history. This nation was built on the blood and bones of indigenous people and African slaves. Remember when the reading suggested we talk about Red Summer? In 1919, whites rioted and killed hundreds of black people. All told, nearly 5,000 people, most of them black but some of them white sympathizers, were lynched in this county. And yes, anti-lynching legislation was passed just last month.
It means acknowledging the truth of our present. White supremacy culture is alive and well, crushing spirits and limiting lives in ways we are just starting to understand. Hate has come out of the shadows and into the light, and while we can hope that this is progress, and that these things are surfacing so that we can face them and heal them, we cannot turn away. Rather, we’re called to keep turning toward the vulnerable and the oppressed, asking, “what can we do?”
It means acknowledging the truth in our hearts. We make mistakes. We say and do things that cause harm. We all do. When someone tells us about the way we’ve harmed them, we need to believe them, and accept responsibility. We can’t get sucked into the blame/shame/denial/defense black hole. Apologize. Learn. Do better.
It means putting our faith in a better future. Yes, the work of unraveling structures of oppression is hard and granular and complicated and messy. But if we keep after it, it will get done. I learned this when I was 14, working in a camp kitchen, facing hundreds and hundreds of gross, slimy dishes. Clean the mess in front of you. Then put it away and get started on the next. Keep breathing, keep going, and at some point, you’ll look up and see the progress you’ve made.
We don’t all have to march and protest. Sitting down with someone who is different than you and really getting to know them is part of the work. Reading books and blogs and watching movies written and made by people with marginalized identities is part of the work. Making mindful choices when it comes to how we spend our money is part of the work. Participating in the political process is part of the work. It doesn’t matter as much what part is yours. What matters is that you identify it and that you do it!
Your light- the light I see in each and every one of you, is so bright, and so beautiful. You are strong and wise and caring. You know that mistakes are okay so long as we learn from them. You know what is right and what is wrong, and I know that you will do what is right.
Keep on moving forward, never turning back. Keep bending the arc. Remember that I love you. Remember why we are here. Above all, remember that in the end, Love always wins.