A couple more short readings:
From THE INVISIBILITY OF WHITENESS By john a. powell
White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.
So they live in white space and then they don’t have to think about it. First of all, they think about race as something that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos have race; maybe Asians have race. But they’re just white. They’re just people. That’s part of being white.
from the Rev. Karen Quinlan,
But more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.
Culture is simply everything that’s around us. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are other ways of being. Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs.
When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we’re looking.
We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”
She also says, ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start.’ The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’ So that is where I am going to start. I am going to tell some stories about how I, as a white woman, learned about race and about white supremacy. Just to be clear, white supremacy is the system we all live in, you don’t have to be a racist to participate in it, or, if you are white, benefit from it. As I tell my story, you might want to reflect on whether your own is similar or not.
I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a relatively small, primarily agricultural town. Unlike many white people who grew up in racially segregated suburbs, the town was very ethnically diverse and I was aware of that from an early age. Many of my friend’s parents were first generation immigrants and English was their second language if they spoke it at all. Our next door neighbor, who took care of me while my mother worked, spoke mainly Portuguese. I remember my mother explaining, when I was very young, that the town was settled by waves of immigrants who came mainly to work on the farms. Italians, Slavonian’s, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Okies, and Mexicans were the groups she mentioned. I asked what we were, and she said Okies. Everyone had an ethnicity of some sort in my mother’s opinion, and she used it to describe virtually everyone we knew.
Phyllis was my Chinese friend, John was Slavonian, David was my Jewish friend, and I was named after my mother’s German friend, Theresa.
I remember asking her what we were. She said we were Okies. She’d moved from Texas to California in the 1930’s to find work as a waitress in Hollywood.
I have been thinking about Jordan Edwards a lot this week. He was the young African American teenager who was recently killed by the police in Texas. He was only 15 and had been at a party with his brothers and some friends. When someone said that the police had been called, they got in their car and tried to leave. An officer shot at the departing car, and Jordan was killed by a bullet to his head.
I have been thinking about it a lot, partly because when I was a teenager I went to a friend’s party. Some of the kids were drinking and her parents called the cops. We all got in our cars and tried to get away. In a panic, my friend David backed his car into a muddy field and we got stuck, but finally managed to get the car out and get away. We were scared, but because we were white, our lives were not at risk. The worst case scenario would have been a phone call to our parents and being grounded. That was white supremacy at work although I did not realize it at the time.
I was not totally unaware of racism as a teen, however. My US History teacher in high school, Mr. Hashimoto, had been interned with his family during WWII and talked about that on more than on occasion.
He also told us that it was because of racism that the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan rather than on Germany. He taught me to question things.
In college, although I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobbie Seale and other Black Panthers speak during those turbulent times, it was also the first time I was exposed to a pretty monolithic white middle class culture. Almost everyone in my dorm was white and most of them came from upper middle class white suburbs. White supremacy became the water I swam in.
I saw the class issues, because I was a scholarship student, but my social life was almost completely white and I was clueless about it. We were all for racial justice, but we didn’t really know any black people at all. One thing I have learned over time, is that while ideas and values are good things, you can’t really know someone else unless you take the time to listen. You can’t live our first principle without a deeper understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of all, which is so much more complicated than just accepting the sometimes very self-centered individualism of people with a lot of privilege.
I learned so much during my 25 years working for Social Security in Richmond CA. With almost 2000 employees when I started, it was something like 40% African American with a good mix of other ethnic groups. White people were not the majority, although something like 60% of the management staff was white.
What that meant is that people of color felt safe enough to talk about race and racism openly.
During the OJ Simpson trial, there was a clear racial divide and people argued about it. Most of the white folks thought he was guilty, and most of the black folks wanted him to be freed. When the verdict was announced, the black people cheered. A black man accused of killing a white woman was declared innocent. It was an historic event, something that rarely happens when you live under the thumb of white supremacy. I learned something very real about the reality of black lives
I shared with a black co-worker, a lay sermon I wrote about how Anne and I created our family as lesbian parents. (It was my very first sermon.) She cried when she read it, and told me she thought her church was wrong in how they treated gay people. She then told me of going to a sleepover camp where she was the only black child. She was 9 or 10 and could not swim very well. All of the other kids had swum out to a platform on the lake and she was left on the shore. She gathered her strength and her courage and swam as best she could out to the platform. She was exhausted when she got there, but when she tried to get on the platform to rest, the other kids wouldn’t let her. I am not sure if they used the “N” word or not. She did not say, but she cried again as she told me of almost drowning as she made her way back to shore. I was so honored that she trusted me enough to share that story. I did not make any excuses for the kids who had been mean to her. I just cried with her.
That story was a hard one, and I have more like that, but I have a few funny stories too. My assistant manager Hazel was complaining that I got internet access at my desk before she did. She said it was racist, that all the black managers were going to be last. I looked at her with a straight face and said, maybe, but maybe they are just giving the internet to all the gay managers first, because everyone knows how good we are at technology. We laughed for a solid half an hour about that one.
Conversations about race can be difficult. They can be uncomfortable.
The history is full of pain, and too often white people can get defensive because they don’t want to feel guilty. The very term, white supremacy, is one that is particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and certainly not racist.
But you don’t have to identify as a racist in order to acknowledge white privilege and that we live in a culture, a system, where white people and white culture is what is most highly valued. It shows up in all kinds of decisions, including hiring, including within Unitarian Universalism, including in our headquarters, our regions and our congregations. Despite principles and written commitments to diversity, the white candidate is often seen as just the “better fit.” My friends who are ministers of color know that they are less likely to be called to serve a UU congregation than are their white peers.
Straight white cisgender men are also still the most likely to be called to serve our larger churches.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are unfortunately very much alive within Unitarian Universalism. It isn’t always blatant, and the specific instance can be complicated, but if we were really who we say we are, who we want to be, the end result would be different.
Driving home to Utah from the Phoenix General Assembly I was stopped at the Arizona border in what was clearly a speed trap. The state trooper was almost apologetic to this older Anglo woman who maybe looked like his mom. I got a ticket, but he did not call immigration to see if I could be deported. I wasn’t shot and killed as so many people of color are during traffic stops. I did not have an Arabic sounding name so I wasn’t a terrorist. He didn’t ask to search my car looking for weapons or drugs.
I was white, so I was automatically one of the “good people” the “safe people.” The system of white supremacy took care of me. Every day of my life I have reaped the benefits of being white.
And every day, I have suffered from it too. It has kept me separated from other people me so that those moments of sharing across racial lines are as rare as they are precious. I can’t really be free until everyone else is free too.
This is too long already, so I am going to end by asking you to think some about your own lives and how you learned about and understood racism and white supremacy. You might want to share those thought with others during coffee hour.
This work will take a lifetime, but it is what will finally save us. We can all find some of the amazing grace we will sing about in our closing song, one that was written by a man who earned his living as a slave trader. Blessed Be
The genteel become surreal
When white supremacy is named
Clash and slash
It’s a real whitelash
Why can’t we white folks
Its not about us
Our ideas our feelings
Center on the whole
And remember to breathe
Our advice is not needed
Our opinions are fluff
We can cheer brave folks on
Offer support and yes love
This whole world is a mess
But enough is enough
Resistance is reality
Breaking through at long last.
The winds howl in outrage
As the rain pounds down in pain
Our mother sobs
As her body turns to mud.
The oceans rise in protest
The glaciers melt in despair.
We can hunker down
But we cannot hide
Umbrellas are not enough
To clean the poisoned water
To heal our wounded earth.
Our prayers may help
If they inspire us
To turn this storm around.
Is anyone else stressed out about the election? I know I am. The changing poll numbers and the “October Surprises” have made it hard for me to stay centered and hopeful.
As a minister, I am pretty much a professional optimist. Sometimes that is one of the hardest parts of the job.
Democracy is just stressful at its core. I have been nervous before every election I can remember. Who knows how the votes will turn out in the end? And the issues are much more significant than flavors of ice cream. What if our country elects a president that would be as life threatening to some people as peanuts are those who are allergic? Peanut butter looks kind of orange, so don’t laugh, it could happen.
As scary as elections can be, part of my religious practice is to carefully study candidates and issues and then to vote my values in every single election.
I have opinions about methods and policies, about what might work better than something else, but bottom-line, it is values I care about. Does a policy or a candidate promote the inherent worth and dignity of all? What about liberty and justice for all or world community? Is there an element of compassion contained in the plan? Is there some respect for diversity as well as the realization that we are all connected? How do our religious values relate to the death penalty? To the plastic bag ban? To support for schools and libraries?
Those are the questions I asked myself before I voted.
You might consider asking yourself some similar questions.
Please note that I am not telling any of you how to vote because I really do believe in our fifth principle, “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” People should have a voice, a say, in what affects them. You all need to make up your own minds about how to vote.
Mark Twain said that, “In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from others.”
Mark Twain was not a member of a Unitarian Church, but he did have a lot of Unitarian friends. He clearly thought that people should examine their beliefs and convictions for themselves, and not take them on second hand authority. It is what our faith asks us to do. Our principles call us to examine our beliefs, to test them against our reason, our experience and our hearts. This is true in matters of politics as well as religion.
We are a liberal religion, by definition, because we promote that first hand authority of the individual conscience, because we don’t expect everyone to agree about everything, particularly when it comes to theology. There should be room in this congregation for atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, and followers of just about any other religious tradition.
To be comfortable here, however, most folks find that it is important to at least be open to the idea that spiritual traditions and practices other than their own just might be very valid for other people.
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion, but that doesn’t mean we are all liberal Democrats. There are many thoughtful and faithful Republicans in our churches.
A little history: Unitarian Universalism is deeply rooted in American cultural values. There is a reason most people agree with our seven principles the first time they hear them. Liberty and justice are words contained in the pledge of allegiance after all.
There have been 5 US presidents who either attended Unitarian churches or professed Unitarian beliefs: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore and William Taft. While he did not specifically identify with any organized religion, Abraham Lincoln had Universalist leanings. Some of you may also know that our current president, Barack Obama, attended a Unitarian Universalist church as a child.
But let’s talk about William Taft for a minute. He was president between 1909 and 1913, and he was a Republican.
His great-grandson, John Taft wrote an article a few years ago where he said he was a genetic Republican, claiming that 5 generations of Tafts have served our nation as unwaveringly stalwart Republicans.
In his article he also says this:
“Throughout my family’s more than 170-year legacy of public service, Republicans have represented the voice of fiscal conservatism. Republicans have been the adults in the room.”
He went on to say:
“The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party. The Republican brand is (or should be) about responsible behavior. The Republican Party is (or should be) at long last, about decency.”
The Republican values he speaks of are quite consistent with Unitarian Universalism.
But here is where it gets a bit more complicated. Clearly, there have been, and are, a lot of politically liberal Unitarian Universalists. If we did a survey, I suspect most of our members vote for Democrats most of the time. I also suspect that the number of Democrats among us is increasing over time and the number of Republicans is declining.
I don’t think it is anything that we are doing, however. Instead, I think the right wing of Republican Party has been systematically driving religiously liberal people away.
Marriage Equality should not be a partisan issue, but it has become so. A plan for compassionate immigration reform should have nothing to do with whether someone is a Republican or a Democrat. How to deal with global climate change is a scientific problem. Science is not a left wing conspiracy. The right of a woman to control her own body should have nothing to do with whether or not you are a fiscal conservative.
It started years ago, when economic conservatives began wooing religious conservatives. They became the “family values party,” but they were very restrictive in how they defined a family.
When you have agreed to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people, it becomes difficult to demonize others, no matter who they are. Immigrants, gays, poor people, Muslims, women, people with disabilities, have all been demonized or mocked. This is in clear conflict with our values.
But listen to me now, many on the left have cast all Trump supporters as racist sexist bigots, – it isn’t a moral equivalent as angry white men aren’t an oppressed group, but it still isn’t OK.
It is hard not to hate your political opponents. It is hard not to hate those you are afraid of. I do think fear is at the root of much of the political discord these days.
“America as we know it will end if the other party gains control of the presidency and gets to appoint justices to the Supreme Court.” Both sides are saying that. Some people really hate Clinton; others hate Trump. Very few people are really completely evil; they just have very different views of the world and sometimes serve different interests.
This is where liberal religion can help begin a dialogue. Open hearted, open minded, curious as to what the other thinks and feels. It doesn’t always work, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
Listen for the middle ground, listen for where you might agree, or at least have something to learn. Speak with bravest fire, but hold love at the center of it all.
It is how we try to do theology here. We listen to each other. Christians, pagans, and atheists really can get along, and form an awesome religious community together. So why can’t Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Libertarians get along in the political sphere?
In this congregation we need radical visionaries willing to take some risks, but we also need fiscally conservative financial stewards. Our country needs more people willing to listen to others, whatever their party affiliation.
I believe there is an important role for religion in politics. Gandhi said that “those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”
Gandhi was a Hindu, but the Judeo-Christian tradition is also full of calls for the faithful to be engaged in social and political issues. To love all of creation, but in particular to be concerned for those who have the least power in the wider culture.
Virtually all of the Biblical prophets spoke out for justice for the weak, for the poor, and for the oppressed.
From the prophet Amos who said let justice roll down like waters, to Isaiah who said that the spirit of God sent him to bring good news to the oppressed, to the prophet Jesus who told us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and to, in modern times, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King who led a faith based movement against racial discrimination, the religious voice has been a powerful and important one.
That is the prophetic tradition, and one that I think Unitarian Universalism identifies with very strongly. We have always spoken out against unjust laws and argued for just ones. From opposing the fugitive slave act to working with Black Lives Matter, we have been a tradition that championed the rights of the oppressed. Respect for the inherent dignity of all is our first principle. The key here is that this prophetic tradition is about religion and religious people working to protect the weak, to enhance life, to care for all of creation. This type of religious activism serves democracy well because it is fundamentally about caring, respect, and love. It is not about restriction and punishment.
There is another Biblical tradition, however, one that most of the prophets I listed above were in direct opposition to. There is also a priestly tradition that focused on religious laws. The scribes and Pharisees that took Jesus to task for violating the law were a part of that tradition. Leviticus, with its long list of rules, many of which are a little weird to our modern sensibilities, is another example.
This priestly tradition is very dangerous to democracy, I think, especially when it argues that religious laws should be enforced by the state.
Some Muslim countries follow Sharia law, and most Americans find that appalling, but Leviticus is the primary reason that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people still do not have full civil rights in this country.
It is one thing to follow your religious values by asking for help for the vulnerable, and it is quite another to ask the state to promote your religious values over those of others and to create legislation to ensure that it is your rules that are followed.
So what do we do? How to we hold on to hope?
I love the following poem by ee cummings.
It is called “dive for dreams,”
Dive for dreams
Or a slogan may topple you
(trees are their roots
and wind is wind)
trust your heart
if the seas catch fire
(and live by love
though the stars walk backward)
honour the past
but welcome the future
(and dance your death
away at this wedding)
Dive deep for your dreams, trust your heart. Live by love though the stars walk backward. No matter what happens on Tuesday, there will be work for us to do. Love can guide us on our way. Amen and Blessed Be.
We value our freedoms
Sometimes more than our lives
The martyrs are many
Who have died just for words.
What does this mean
For the Pulpit and Pew?
What does it mean for me and for you?
Words sometimes hurt
Bringing pain from our pasts
Swirling to memories
Of being abused
Those same painful words
Bring others great joy
A longing for comfort
A longing for peace.
How can we balance
Such contrary needs
When freedom for some
Causes others to weep?
Our spirits are hardy
This I believe
Compassion is called for
And gentle support
We’ll find a way forward
Both caring and free
If our faith is a building
Open hearts are the doors
We welcomed new members today. Becoming part of this church community will change them. It will also change us. Our sacred water is a symbol of this. We collect it each fall from whoever attends worship that Sunday, just as has been done each year since this church was started. We add the new water to what we had before, creating an ongoing link from the past and to the future. During our offering, we drop stones into this water, also symbolizing that this living community holds us each, no matter who we are, no matter what gifts we bring, or what burdens we carry.
There is more than one thing about our faith tradition that sets us apart from many others, but one important characteristic of Unitarian Universalism is that we are always changing. Change can be difficult for people. Crash helmets really are a good idea.
Let’s go back to our reading for a minute:
Unitarian Universalist Minister, Tom Schade, named four different conceptions of our churches. (For reference: Click here)
One – our churches are places where smart people gather for the intellectual exploration of life issues, in an atmosphere freed of religion dogma.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. You are all smart people, by the way. I don’t care how much formal education you may have had.
Two – our churches are places to connect to the rebellious and counter-culture trends in society, a place to meet more radical, committed and interesting people there than anywhere else in town.
Is that part of why you are here? If so, raise your hand. Interesting.
Three – our churches serve as a place for community, a community perhaps more welcoming and supportive than you have found anywhere else.
I think Rev. Schade was wrong to label these “stages” as if they are something that we move through and leave behind. Instead, they are not only part of what we once were, but they are part of what we still are today and part of who we will be in the future. They are in the water, so to speak.
But, what of his fourth so-called stage? Do you have your crash helmets on? Should we issue them to our new members in addition to a flower and a book?
How many of you come here to be challenged, to wake up, and to be a little off-balance? How many of you want to discover a way to change and improve your own life and also the world around you?
OK, if that rings true for you, please raise your hands. We have some brave souls here!
There is a lot of conversation going on right now about where Unitarian Universalism is going. Are we the religion for our time or are we going to fade away like most of the mainline denominations seem to be doing?
The Reverend Christine Robinson talked about this a lot as the keynote speaker at our regional assembly last month. You can find her full address on-line. Her main point was that the religious landscape of America is changing, that the fastest growing group of people in America are those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.
People used to come to us because “We honor your religious freedom,” but that is not bringing many people any more. Now, when people decide that they don’t believe what they were raised to believe, they often go for years without belonging to any congregation, and in the new religious ecology, there’s no pressure to join one. When they decide they want to go to church again, it is not because they want freedom; they’ve had freedom. They come looking for something that they can’t get in the secular world. They want spiritual instruction, not freedom. They want a safe place to explore what happens to them when they start to deepen their lives.
They come to us because they know their beliefs are not orthodox and because they would feel hypocritical in an orthodox church…. in this they resemble their elders. But once here, they want to do very different things.
Here’s my guess at a slogan for this part of the religious ecology; a place we can call our very own and serve with integrity and thrive: “Spiritual growth in a theologically diverse community.” (For reference: click here)
She also called it, “Spiritual not dogmatic.”
Rev. Robinson did not go into it in detail, but an important part of spiritual growth is sharing that larger spirit into the world, serving others and creating a more just world. Yes, we should be issuing crash helmets.
Another thing we need to be clearer about is our theology. This congregation handles our religious diversity well, but in our larger association a debate is going on about how we use religious language in our congregations. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell tried to define a common Unitarian Universalist theology and listed the following: (For reference: Click here)
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.
We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.
We believe that God is One.
We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.
We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.
We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.
We believe that love is more important than doctrine.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.”
Now, those work really well for me. I agree with them. But then again, I believe in God, although my understanding of God is nothing like the understanding of clergy from more orthodox traditions. Some of the atheists had a huge problem with her use of the word God. They felt like they were being excluded from what was stated to be a theology held in common. I think if her ideas were simply rearranged, and a small phrase added, then there would not be the same level of controversy about them.
Listen again, and see if they work for you.
“We believe that human beings should be free to choose their beliefs according to the dictates of their own conscience.” Agree? Raise your hand. It is our fourth principle somewhat restated.
“We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.” Raise your hand.
Then for the next five, let’s add the words, “if we believe in God or if we were to believe in God,” The addition of those words should be helpful for the atheists and agnostics among us.
“We believe that God is One.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that revelation is ever unfolding.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that the Kingdom of God is to be created here on this earth.” Raise your hands.
“We believe that Jesus was a prophet of God, and that other prophets from God have risen in other faith traditions.” Raise your hands.
We believe that God’s mercy will reconcile all unto itself in the end.” Raise your hands.
And finally, and this one is I think the most important of all:
“We believe that love is more important than doctrine.” Raise your hands.
None of that was 100%, but it was pretty close, and it really is a distinctive theology, particularly among denominations that are part of the Christian tradition, as we have been and still are in many ways.
Those of us that believe in God believe in a merciful loving God, not a judgmental or punishing one.
Those of us that believe in an afterlife do not believe in a hell where people are punished after we die.
I could go on, but being a Unitarian Universalist, is not a “believe whatever you want,” kind of religion.
So my hope for our new members, and for our longer-term members as well, is that you find here not only what you are looking for, but also what you might need.
I hope this church makes you think, and I hope you find the ideas and the other people here interesting. I hope you feel welcome and supported in this community. And I hope that you sometimes feel challenged, surprised, and maybe even a little off balance. I hope you discover ways to improve your own life and to make this world a better place for all who share this planet with us.
What do you want? What do you need?
Feel it. Imagine it. Make it so.