State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minntonka
July 2, 2017

First Reading: From “Willing to be Made a People
By Victoria Weinstein

Second “Reading” – Video Clip: President’s and Staff Report (from 30:48 to 34:51)
Unitarian Universalist Interim co-presidents: Dr. Leon Spencer, Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Sofia Betancourt

Third “Reading” – Video Clip: Black Lives of UU report (from 14:33 to 18:50)
Passing the baton from Mel Hoover and Paula Cole Jones to Lena Gardner and BLUU

SERMON
State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
July 2, 2017

Friends, it is good to see you again. After a month away on Study Leave and attending General Assembly, our denomination’s annual business meeting, this year in New Orleans, it is good to be back here, it is good to see you all again, it is good to share with each other stories of our time apart, and it is good to be home.

Though I must say, with all the recent transition in our lives on so many levels, the notion of “home” seems to keep evolving. As many of you know, I am wresting with and moving through a divorce that has shaken me deeply, and challenges my notion of family and of home. And of course, as a congregation, we are now a month in to living in and worshipping in the beautiful new space. This transition has been a great joy and relief, but it has also involved some hard conversations and interactions, which are inevitable in a transition like this. And this new building is also a space that will likely takes us many months, if not years, to actually and deeply call this place our spiritual “home.” And on the denominational, hoo-boy, there has been a lot going on, which I’ll get into in a few moments…and then there’s all the incredibly disrespectful, mean and even downright brutal things going on in our nation and our world.

The stereotypical notion of home conjures up images of safety, refuge, security, and of close family who love us no matter what. But the reality is that the notion of “home” brings up painful, or even traumatic feelings or memories in some people. And when we talk about a church community, our congregation or any Unitarian Universalist congregation, a group of people who voluntarily join together in covenant to share values, faith, and action, we are far too varied to hold here the stereotypical notions of home.

The truth is that being in relationship, being a people of covenant, is that we can’t always be in a safe space. Especially if we have any value of growth at all, we don’t grow and transform seated in a comfortable easy chair. Too often we talk about needing to create a “safe space” so that people will feel accepted or feel heard, but too often when we say “safe space,” what we really mean is something like “I want to say what I want to say without getting challenged on what I’m saying.” So I’ve appreciated the new phrase I’ve heard in Unitarian Universalist gatherings over the past few months, that rather than create or enter into “safe space,” that we enter together into “brave space.” Because “brave space” is what allows us to both share our truths as well as hold each other accountable through our covenant to our deepest communal values and highest communal aspirations. So let us enter now into some “brave space.”

This sermon, on the first Sunday in July, is Sunday when I return from General Assembly, our annual denominational conference and business meeting, and report on what I experienced and learned, in an attempt to bring all that home to you. It is always an impossible task, because there is always more learning from a week of experiences that can fit into a 20-minute sermon or a one-hour service. But I do my best to condense that experience to give you at least a bit of a sense of what is going on in the larger UU world.

If you don’t know, or have not been following denominational concerns, this year there has been a flurry of heartbreaking events. And I want to give you a warning here that some of these may be a trigger for some people, and I want to let you know I will be available after the service if you want or need to talk more about any of these. At the Unitarian Universalist Ministry Days during the three days prior to General Assembly, we addressed seven major issues or responses in both worship and in conversation:

  • First there was the redaction of the Barry Street Lecture given by a female minister last year, after she called out clergy sexual misconduct from some older male ministers, and one of the named ministers threatened legal action;
  • Next there was the arrest of the Reverend Ron Robinson on child pornography charges. Ron was a well-respected minister doing powerful ministry in Oklahoma for some of the most disenfranchised people there;
  • Later this spring we unmasked white supremacy in our Unitarian Universalist Association when a white male was chosen for a top level UUA position by other white males over a well-qualified Hispanic woman;
  • Subsequently, and in an unprecedented move, this resulted in the president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, Peter Morales, resigning from his post only three months before the end of his term; following him two more top-level white men resigned, who it was later discovered had been given some $500 thousand severance packages, which was over four times the allowed amount for firings – yet these men had left voluntarily;
  • Fifth, in response, the Black Lives of UUs (BLUU – also known as “blue”) called for a denomination-wide White Supremacy teach-in;
  • Sixth, Don Southworth, a white male and the Executive Director of the UU Minister’s Association, sent out an open letter on Easter Sunday calling out behaviors by the UUA board he did not agree with, and hurt a lot of people of color, and white allies, in the process;
  • Finally, there was the response to Don’s letter by the board of the UU Minister’s Association, and their range of responses within their letter.

So, as you may imagine, there was a lot of tension and anxiety among both  ministers and congregants as some 4,000 of us descended upon New Orleans.

For my part, one way I decided to address the tension and anxiety in both my personal and professional life, was to ride my motorcycle from here down to New Orleans and back.

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It was a journey that took me 2,830 miles through seven states…

…retracing parts of a bicycle trip I took in 1984, and included a breakdown in Mississippi on my return trip, rides through a couple of rain storms and a near miss with tropical storm Cindy.
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But on my way, I discovered an amazing little road, off the side of a side road in the middle of Missouri. I was headed down this main highway when suddenly I saw a road I just had to take, no matter where it was going to lead. It was, of course, Highway UU.
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So I turned off the main road and began to follow Highway UU, but what do you think happened barely a mile or two later? Of course, even given what you’ve heard this morning, that road turned to gravel and dirt. And that road crossed a few streams on bridges without any railings.

But here’s the thing. You want to know where that road ultimately took me? Well, ultimately it took me to New Orleans, but in that moment…and you may not believe this but I’ll be happy to show you on a map after the service…but that road dumped me out into the little town of Humansville, population 1,048.

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I don’t know about you, and I don’t know where that town got that name, but I can’t imagine a better metaphor for what we are doing this year, or perhaps any year, or all the time, as Unitarian Universalists. And for this morning, I intentionally did NOT subtitle my sermon, “The Road TO Humansville,” I subtitled it, “The Road THROUGH Humansville.” I wrote the title that way because being human is not a destination. It’s a process. It’s a matter of entering brave space in order to grow and expand and transform. And this year, more than any year in my memory, and in every area of life, from personal to professional, congregational, denominational and national, we have dragged ourselves through dirt and across spans without railings in our fumbling attempts to be human and move through our humanity.

On the hills and valleys of the remainder of my ride down south, on one day I mourned the acquittal of Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philandro Castile. I heard the news through friends and colleagues on Facebook, but I could only mourn in solidarity from a distance.

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And then in a complete turnaround, the next day in Mississippi I discovered the birthplace of Kermit the Frog (Leland, Mississippi), and continued Onward to my destination, General Assembly in New Orleans.

 

For those of you who have never been, and for whom this congregation is your only experience of Unitarian Universalism – and even for someone like me who has been to many of them – it is an amazing experience to walk into a great hall with some four or five thousand other Unitarian Universalists.

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So let me share with you a little more of what we did.

  • There was a push to amend our first principle, to reword it so it would say “we affirm and promote the inherent worth of all beings” instead of “the inherent worth of every person,” so as to include animals and our natural world. Many people argued that the seventh principle, that we are part of an interdepended web of existence, already covered that. But more importantly, the people who brought this amendment forward asked that it be tabled in order for us to focus on the Commission on Institutional Change, a newly appointed group, to explore the work around creating an 8th
  • The Black Lives of UU (BLUU) Organizing Collective encourages all Unitarian Universalists to advocate for the formal adoption of an 8th principle, articulating a commitment to the dismantling of white supremacy, within the stated principles of our faith. According to a statement from BLUU: “It has been 20 years since the 1997 General Assembly, where delegates voted that the Unitarian Universalist Association commit to intentionally becoming a multicultural and anti-racist institution. Notably, this act came some 5 years after the passage of the 1992 Resolution of Immediate Witness which, in part, affirmed the “vision of a racially diverse and multicultural Unitarian Universalism.” The proposed 8th Principle was written by Bruce Pollack-Johnson and Paula Cole Jones…and states:

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

  • In a plenary session of General Assembly, we did resolve to send this 8th principle to the study commission to bring it back next year.
  • We also made a resolution to change the name of the justice campaign “Standing on the Side of Love,” to something more inclusive, in the way that composer Jason Shelton has already changed the title and lyrics of the song to “Answering the Call of Love.”
  • We had the first of two votes to amend the wording of the sources of our faith to be gender-neutral (so changing phrases like “prophetic women and men” to “prophetic people”), though we won’t officially amend them until the vote at next year’s GA.

For about four or five years at General Assembly we’ve been working toward more and more inclusion and access for people who have physical challenges getting around, and for those who are non-gender-binary by having designated bathrooms around the convention center that allow use by all people.

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As General Assembly continued, the Exhibit Hall housed all kinds of great books, clothing, jewelry and resources for sale, while workshops continued on all levels.

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On Thursday night we held the Service of the Living Tradition, the annual service that honors ministers, religious educators and music directors. And this year, after it was over, the Reverend Jason Shelton conducted a jazz band and a combined choir in the “Ruby Bridges Suite,” a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of music that honors Ruby Bridges, who was six years old in 1960 when she was the first black child to integrate the New Orleans school system.

 

And on Friday, Andrea Heier and I participated in a march through the streets of New Orleans and a rally for “Love Resists” with several inspiring speakers, most of whom were local.

And then on Saturday night, the man who spoke at the Ware Lecture was Bryan Stephenson, who wrote the book “Just Mercy,” which some people in our congregation read and discussed last year. He gave an hour-long speech without notes, that was more captivating because it was full of his personal stories of service, learning, and growth.

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Bryan Stevenson’s four points for the night were:

  • Get proximate – that is, get close to and in relationship with the people who need justice the most;
  • Change the narrative under the policies – that is, change the dominant story so that it includes the experiences of those who live at the margins
  • Maintain hope; and
  • Be willing to get uncomfortable – as he said, “We can’t change the world until good people make the choice to do something uncomfortable.”

Finally, at this year’s General Assembly we also made another historic “first.” We elected our first female president, the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray (though Sofia Betancourt, as part of the three-person, three-month interim presidency was actually the first female president to serve our denomination). It was the first time with electronic voting that included an instant run-off process, and this time she will serve for one six-year term, rather than a four-year term with a chance at re-election. This is also the first time we have ever had a president who was not a baby boomer. The significance of this, if any, has yet to be seen, but many feel this is a significant shift in a good way.

So now I’d like to introduce the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray to you through this video of her accepting her new role on Saturday afternoon:

UUA Presidential Election Results: Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray
Clip from 10:20 to 18:25
GA2017 Video #443a

It was a wonderful night, celebrating the new presidency of Susan Frederick-Gray. Unfortunately, and horrifically, one of her first acts as president later that night was to visit the bedsides of two UUA staff members who were brutally attacked and beaten in the French Quarter, and then share that news with the entire General Assembly before worship last Sunday morning. One of the men was released from the hospital quickly, while the other remains in a New Orleans hospital in serious but stable condition, and it is believed he will recover.

After reporting on the attacks, “The Advocate” online newspaper continued: “Meanwhile, members of the liberal religious organization for which both victims worked appeared in court during the bail hearing to spread a message of mercy… Unitarian Universalists packed a row in Magistrate Court as the four men accused of taking part in the attack appeared in court. Several of the observers wore “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts. After the hearing, one of the Unitarians said they had hoped the young men would receive lower bails. “We wanted to show up for restorative justice. We wanted to advocate for a reasonable bond for all four,” said Jolanda Walter, 43, of New Orleans. “We don’t want these young men thrown away.”

In the wake of this attack, some may question our stance on racial justice and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But friends, we are committed. As my colleague the Reverend Jordin Nelson Long says, “and in those commitments we learn what those covenants are made of, and indeed, what *we* are made of, when it’s hard.”

Friends, our little UU Highway through Humansville can turn to dirt and gravel, and get bumpy and full of potholes sometimes, and lead to some unexpected and even unwanted detours, especially this year. But we ARE a people of covenant, a people of promise, made by our promises. On this road through our humanity we know, even if we don’t always want to admit it, that our faith calls us to greater love, to honor the promises we make through our covenants, that it calls us to remember and to know that the line between “good” and “evil” is not between you and me. That line is not between any group we consider “us” and any other group we consider “them.” No friends, that line between good and evil runs right through the middle of the human heart. Each one of us is capable of meanness and cruelty. But we are capable of so much promise and love too. This is how we honor anyone who is attacked and brutalized. Choose a willingness and commitment to stay at the table. Choose love. Honor who and what we are by demanding that the world become a better place by navigating the road that takes us through the larger, harder, and more challenging love.

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To Transform and Redeem: Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
September 20, 2015

FIRST READING: from “Justice without Violence”
By Martin Luther King, Jr., April 3, 1957:
It is necessary to boycott sometimes but the non-violent resister realized that boycott is never an end within itself, but merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor. The aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of non-violence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for [people] to live together…in a community, and not continually live with bitterness and friction.

SECOND READING: from “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
By Martin Luther King, Jr., April 16, 1963:
My friends…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see…that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

[So] I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

THIRD READING: from “Courage for Black Lives Matter: A Love Letter to White Unitarian Universalists (and other White Folks too)”
By Chris Crass (a white heterosexual male Unitarian Universalist)
September 11, 2015
Our commitment to living the values of our faith is being tested….With FOX News leading a media frenzy denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement as a hate group, as terrorists, as anti-white, some of us are retreating from wearing Black Lives Matter buttons and some of us are questioning whether or not to take down the Black Lives Matter banners from our churches.

It would be easy for me to say all of the white UUs who are faltering are just falling back into their white privilege, are sinking back into their liberal white racism. It would be easy for me to distance myself and feel superior. It is much harder for me to say, that I too, as a white Unitarian Universalist, have been scared. After months of wearing my Black Lives Matter button, I found myself second-guessing whether to wear it.

What if I am challenged at the grocery store or walking in the park with my son? It was much easier to wear my button after the latest police murder of an unarmed Black person. Filled with anger and a desire to “do something”, I wore my button with defiance to racism and a commitment to racial justice.

I held my button in my hand, and I knew that all of this is much bigger than buttons and banners. This is about breaking a centuries-old code of white silence and white consent for anti-Black racist violence and institutional white supremacy and its legal and cultural dispersal of white privilege and white entitlement. Entitlement to safety and comfort, at the expense of people of color having the same. Entitlement to our [white] children not needing to think about the color of their skin or [not] wondering if the color of their skin puts them at risk of socially- and state-sanctioned violence.

This is about choosing what side of justice we put our bodies on. And like other white UUs, I don’t want to be part of this racist society. I want to stand in the tradition of Unitarian Universalist abolitionists and Civil Rights workers, knowing that even within our faith tradition it has not always been easy. I want to stand on the side of love, like we did on Marriage Equality, even when it was illegal in every state and scary for many of us to be publicly out for LGBT rights.

The Black Lives Matter movement is the leading struggle for racial justice of our times. It is a movement led by Black people who are women, queer, youth, working class, including Black UUs around the country….And it is a movement that puts a challenge to every white person who believes themselves a proponent of racial equality, every white person inspired by the Civil Rights movement, every white person who believes they would be on the right side of history if an injustice of great magnitude were taking place.  The movement is a challenge to put our values into practice, not just when it is easy, but also when it is hard.


SERMON: To Transform and Redeem: Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community
By Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

Five decades ago the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a book called Why We Can’t Wait, a book based on a letter he wrote in April 1963 while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail after being arrested for nonviolent action against racist practices in that city.  A statement titled “A Call for Unity” by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods was printed in the newspaper.  In their statement, the white clergymen agreed that social injustices existed, but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought in the courts, not on the streets. The statement provoked King so much that he began writing a response in the margins of the newspaper, and later finished it on a pad of notepaper.  King’s letter was an eloquent and powerful defense of not only the tactics and goals of the Birmingham Campaign, but of the use of nonviolence and the entire Civil Rights movement.

Today much of America venerates Martin Luther King.  Even some conservatives strive for misguided attempts to line up in King’s shadow. In some of the recent news coverage, I even read that Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who is denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples because she says it is against her religious beliefs, was reading Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” while she was in jail for contempt of court.

We need to remember, though, that Dr. King was not the mild and inoffensive figure America likes to make him out to be these days.  He was not just a nice guy who wanted everyone to have equal rights. He was a radical. He pushed the boundaries of white comfort and the white status quo. His philosophy was to take what many people wanted to ignore or sweep under the rug and make it visible by making white people uncomfortable.  The eight white clergy in Birmingham were uncomfortable. They agreed that social inequality existed, and they agreed with his goal, they just didn’t like his means. They didn’t like that he was getting in their faces and marching in their streets and sitting at the lunch counters that were clearly designated for white people only.  Instead, they had some alternate vision where Dr. King and black people in America would protest nicely, and orderly, and in ways that would not offend white people by doing it in ways that white people wanted him to do it – only through the courts.

Yet in events that reverberate and replay today in current events and in the response of the Black Lives Matter movement, black people were being killed and beaten and refused access to voting rights and economic equality and equal educational opportunities.  As Dr. King said at a Memphis rally in 1968:

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”

1963 was an explosive year for Civil Rights.  In his book, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King gave several reasons why. Here are a few of them:

  • As the centennial of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, it reminded black people that they remained oppressed despite their nominal legal freedom;
  • Nine years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case, black people in America were disillusioned with the slow speed of desegregation; and
  • The Great Depression never ended for African Americans; while others enjoyed economic recovery after World War II and while white soldiers reaped the benefits of the GI bill, black unemployment rose and returning black soldiers were denied the educational and housing benefits granted to their white colleagues.

As for the suddenness of what was being called the “Negro Revolution,” Dr. King wrote: “Just as lightning makes no sound until it strikes, the Negro Revolution generated quietly. But when it struck, the revealing flash of its power and the impact of its sincerity and fervor displayed a force of a frightening intensity. Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”

Today we are faced with the replay of events and attitudes pulled right out from the years of Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.  Today, within the past two years or so, we’ve seen an explosion of angry hurting people in America who are attempting to claim their equality and humanity in the midst of a culture that values black bodies on the field in sports, and black bodies in advertising, and black bodies in the military, and understands black bodies as scary and frightening on the streets – but does not value black lives in equal measure to white lives.

Here we are, 52 years after that explosive summer, which was 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50 years after the voting rights act that was depicted in the recent movie “Selma,” and 47 years after the assassination of Dr. King, and we still do not have racial equality in America.  And we have all kinds of parallels between the two movements in the national events, in the fight for equality, and in the reactions and attitudes of white people across the entire religious and political spectrum from conservative to liberal.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King began saying it and Jesse Jackson continued the refrain that “Black is Beautiful!” Today a prominent leader of the Black Lives Matter movement by the name of DeRay McKesson will end every day he is on Twitter with the phrase “I love your blackness. And mine.”

In the 1950s and 60s, when black people marched on the streets or stood in rallies in nonviolent protest, the liberals would often say they agreed with the goals and vision of racial equality but did not like the in-your-face methods of getting there, while the conservatives would physically block the entrances to the voting booths and universities, and would bring out the fire hoses and call out the State Troopers and police dogs to attack the black protestors. Today when the Black Lives Matter movement marches on the interstates or stands up in protest at the Mall of America, the liberals will often still say they agree with the goals and vision of racial equality but not with those methods that interrupt our normal every day lives, while the conservatives will call out massive curb-to-curb police forces that are increasingly militarized in full riot gear and six-wheeled military vehicles due to acquiring the military equipment leftover from a decade and a half of global warfare, and will call the nonviolent group “terrorists,” and in broad sweeping attempts at fear-mongering advocate for the deportation of 11 million immigrants.

Many people would like the Black Livers Matter movement to either change their tactics or to simply go away, either by choice or by force.  But in 1963 Martin Luther King wrote that “Three hundred years of humiliation, abuse, and deprivation cannot be expected to find voice in a whisper.”  And arising from the nonviolent efforts of the Black Lives Matter movement, the same is true today, except that now it is three hundred and FIFTY years.

In 1963, giving voice to his view about why black people can no longer wait for equality, Dr. King wrote to his white moderate clergy colleagues in his Letter from Birmingham Jail “My friends…We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see…that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

And in words to his white moderate colleagues that unfortunately has some similar application to white moderates today, Dr. King continued his letter with what seems to be a mixture of bitterness, encouragement, sorrow and lament:

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I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
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So I wonder today how much we in America really value Dr. King’s vision. And I wonder how much we liberals will put our values and veneration of Dr. King into action.  I wonder which we prefer more – venerating a historical figure or giving weight and action to his teaching and vision?  Take a look at reading #565 in your hardcover hymnal. Clinton Lee Scott writes there that it is “always easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision. / It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than to give weight to their examples.”

I wonder these things and yet I also know we are a people called by love to be love’s people.  We are called by love to love the hell out of the world.  We are called by love to follow love – not to reduce and limit love, but to expand love and compassion so that it will multiply throughout the world.  That’s what we learned when we fought in Minnesota for same-sex marriage. So that’s what we can do as we fight for racial justice too.

We are called by love not just to pay homage to a prophet, but to heed the direction of Martin Luther King’s vision.  “The Beloved Community” is a term that was first coined by the theologian Josiah Royce, but it was Dr. King who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning. For King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal.  Rather, it is a global vision in which all people share in the wealth of the earth, where poverty, hunger, homelessness and discrimination are not tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. It is a realistic, achievable goal that may be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.  In 1963 King wrote: “The aftermath of violence is bitterness; the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of the beloved community; the aftermath of non-violence is redemption and reconciliation. This is a method that seeks to transform and to redeem, and win the friendship of the opponent, and make it possible for [people] to live together…in a community.”

Over and over this is what Dr. King taught: that our work of racial justice through nonviolent action is to create the beloved community, a method that seeks to transform and redeem all of us so that all of us are saved from the hell of bitterness and injustice and inequality and environmental destruction.

A few weeks before his death, William Stafford wrote a poem called “The Way it Is.”  As we imagine the evolution of oppressed people and the struggle for equality from the time of the American Civil War until today, and as we contemplate our liberal values of justice, equity and compassion in human relations that unites and inspires both our action and our veneration of Martin Luther King, listen to these words from William Stafford:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

“Black Lives Matter” means something.  It is not a terrorist group as some people in America would have you believe.  And it is no more lawless or a radical fringe than Martin Luther King and his people were lawless or a radical fringe. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is the thread of racial justice work we hold on to today. In his “love letter” to white Unitarian Universalists, the UU Chris Crass describes the current “Black Lives Matter” movement as “the leading struggle for racial justice of our times.”

Struggling toward racial justice is not easy.  It comes with making a lot of mistakes, of sometimes inadvertently saying things that offend someone, sometimes even being unaware of or clueless about our white privilege and the impact that has on people of color.  Fortunately, though, we do have more and more resources to help us. This year I am hopeful that our congregation will be able to host a new curriculum called “Beloved Conversations.” This is a curriculum about racial justice that is similar to the Welcoming Congregation effort, which was a curriculum developed in the 1980s and 1990s to help Unitarian Universalists become more welcoming toward people who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Questioning. If you are interested in working with me to bring the “Beloved Conversations” workshop here, please talk with me after the service.

Sometimes this effort to address racial justice is filled with a simple challenge to communicate, and sometimes it is disheartening and scary. A few weeks ago a colleague sent out a call on our minister’s Facebook group to support a Unitarian Universalist congregation in rural southern New Jersey that had put up a “Black Lives Matter” banner outside their church.  They were getting lots of pushback from the community with some very aggressive messages on their church’s Facebook page. So the call went out asking us to write comments of support on their Facebook page.  Along with some other colleagues, I joined in – and I began getting attacked for my comments until at one point one man responded to one of my posts with the words, “There’s a new implant that can fix stupid.” And the picture he attached was an image of a bullet.

In 1963 America got defensive and angry when the people of its former slaves began to demand equality and decent treatment. Today America is getting defensive and angry when people of color and white co-conspirators simply utter the phrase that “Black Lives Matter.” But it is apparent that the reaction is proof for why the phrase is needed and is so important.

Our Unitarian Universalist brother Chris Crass shares that the reason this is so important is that “This is about breaking a centuries-old code of white silence and white consent for anti-Black racist violence and institutional white supremacy and its legal and cultural dispersal of white privilege and white entitlement. Entitlement to safety and comfort, at the expense of people of color having the same…This is about choosing what side of justice we put our bodies on…I want to stand on the side of love, like we did on Marriage Equality, even when it was illegal in every state and scary for many of us to be publicly out for LGBT rights.” He goes on to say that “The Black Lives Matter movement is…led by Black people who are women, queer, youth, working class, including Black UUs around the country….And it is a movement that puts a challenge to every white person who believes themselves a proponent of racial equality, every white person inspired by the Civil Rights movement, every white person who believes they would be on the right side of history if an injustice of great magnitude were taking place.  The movement is a challenge to put our values into practice, not just when it is easy, but also when it is hard.”

It was Martin Luther King’s vision to transform and redeem the oppressor, not by capitulating to the oppressor’s timetable or desires, but through nonviolent direct action.  To honor his vision, it is our work in this day to hold on to the thread of justice and love, to put our values into practice, to allow ourselves to be claimed as love’s people, not just when it is easy, but even when it is hard. May we find the courage to be so filled with our faith to be so brave and so bold.

White Males with Feelings of Entitlement are the Greatest Terrorist Threat to America

In response to the recent mass murder terrorist act, the murder of nine black people by a white supremacist, I am heartbroken, I am angry, and I am frustrated at the continued attempts of some conservative people and groups to do everything in their power NOT to label this as a racist act borne of a systemic racial system that supports white privilege, but instead to describe this act as somehow “anti-Christian” or the work of some lone deranged boy.

So today, June 19, 2015, in honor of Juneteenth (the anniversary of the day slaves were freed after the Civil War), and as one small memorial for the murder of nine black lives, and for the record, let us not fool ourselves as a nation, and let us be clear: it is white male shooters who pose the greatest terrorist threat to this nation. White males who feel entitled and untouchable and self-righteous.

While movies and the media portray “gang-banging” black males as dangerous thugs whose only joy in life is creating violence for others, the reality of white male terrorism…reaching back to the earliest moments of the slave trade, to white masters raping their black female slaves, to lynchings and the KKK, to Timothy McVeigh, to the high school shootings carried out by white boys, to the Aurora, Colorado movie theater massacre, to the recent motorcycle gang murders…is much different.

And here we have another one, Dylann Roof, a white male who felt entitled, who was *invited in* to join in with the prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, who sat with these people *for an hour* and then stood up and started shooting, killing nine black people. And instead of being called a “thug” or a “terrorist,” he is called “mentally ill.” Because when a black person commits violence, they are a “thug” (the new socially acceptable term for the n-word) and part of an irresponsible and violent black culture, while when a white person commits violence they are “mentally ill” and are an anomaly, acting as a “lone wolf.” This also stigmatizes mentally ill people even further, by further associating them with violence, when people with psychiatric disabilities are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violent crime.  Because the shooter was white, and not a foreigner, news outlets immediately began using the phrase “mentally ill,” even before he was caught (caught, and not killed, because he is white), even before any proof has been made whether he acted alone, even before he is diagnosed by a doctor.

And after all this violence perpetuated by white people, there are people, largely or *only* white people as far as I can tell, who *still* believe we need to have more guns. When was the last time you saw a black man walking down the street with some sort of automatic or semiautomatic machine gun walking down the street, like white men like to do in Texas, and at Tea Party rallies, and in other open carry states? Because a black man would get arrested or gunned down the moment he stepped out of his house if he carried one, while a white man is just “acting out his constitutional rights.”  There is no such thing as “gun rights” for black people.

As Jon Stewart recently said on “The Daily Show”: “I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount [racism in America]. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity…Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.”

And one of the many sad and painful pieces of this is that as a white male, I am part of the system that enjoys the white privilege this society gives to me, just by an accident of my birth – just as the nine who died in Charleston suffered the greatest loss, simply by an accident of their birth. And so as not to perpetuate white privilege by just listing the killer’s name and article about him, here are the victim’s names as well:
‪#‎RevSharondaColemanSingleton‬
‪#‎CynthiaHurd‬
#‎
SusieJackson
‪#‎EthelLance‬
‪#‎RevDePayneMiddletonDoctor‬
‪#‎RevClementaPinckney
‪#‎TywanzaSanders‬
‪#‎RevDanielSimmons
‪#‎MyraThompson‬

May we find a way to wake up, to see and admit our role in society’s system of privilege and racism, and call terrorism for what it is when we see it, and may we not act in violent retaliation that would perpetuate the violence, in order to prove that violence is wrong. May we find a peace that does not ignore the pain and anger of systemic racism and privilege, and may we find a justice that is not solely based on retaliatory mob rule. May we have communities that hold our pain and anger, and allow us to express it without having everything explode. And may we find a way to a society of sanity and one that, somewhere, somehow, and in many ways, expresses restoration, acceptance and love.

White Privilege: When Some Animals are More Equal Than Others

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
January 11, 2015

FIRST READING: From Animal Farm, by George Orwell
It was just after the sheep had returned…that the terrified neighing of a horse sounded from the yard…It was Clover’s voice. She neighed again, and all the animals broke into a gallop and rushed into the yard. Then they saw what Clover had seen.  It was a pig walking on his hind legs.

Yes, it was Squealer. A little awkwardly, as though not quite used to supporting his considerable bulk in that position, but with perfect balance, he was strolling across the yard. And a moment later…out came Napoleon himself, majestically upright, casting haughty glances from side to side, and with his dogs gambolling round him…

There was a deadly silence. Amazed, terrified, huddling together, the animals watched the long line of pigs march slowly round the yard. It was as though the world had turned upside-down. Then there came a moment when the first shock had worn off and when, in spite of everything-in spite of their terror of the dogs, and of the habit, developed through long years, of never complaining, never criticizing, no matter what happened–they might have uttered some word of protest. But just at that moment, as though at a signal, all the sheep burst out into a tremendous bleating of–

“Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER! Four legs good, two legs BETTER!”

It went on for five minutes without stopping. And by the time the sheep had quieted down, the chance to utter any protest had passed, for the pigs had marched back into the farmhouse.

Benjamin felt a nose nuzzling at his shoulder. He looked round. It was Clover. Her old eyes looked dimmer than ever. Without saying anything, she tugged gently at his mane and led him round to the end of the big barn, where the Seven Commandments were written. For a minute or two they stood gazing at the tatted wall with its white lettering.

“My sight is failing,” she said finally… “But it appears to me that that wall looks different. Are the Seven Commandments the same as they used to be, Benjamin?”  For once Benjamin consented to break his rule, and he read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS


SECOND READING: From White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (1989)
By Peggy McIntosh
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege…I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

Describing white privilege makes one newly accountable. As we in Women’s Studies work to reveal male privilege and ask men to give up some of their power, so one who writes about having white privilege must ask, “Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?”…

My schooling gave me no training in seeing myself as an oppressor, as an unfairly advantaged person, or as a participant in a damaged culture. I was taught to see myself as an individual whose moral state depended on her individual moral will…whites are taught to think of their lives as a morally neutral, normative, and average, also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us”…

White privilege has turned out to be an elusive and fugitive subject. The pressure to avoid it is great, for in facing it I must give up the myth of meritocracy. If these things are true, this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own….

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions…Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist.

It seems to me that obliviousness about white advantage, like obliviousness about male advantage, is kept strongly inculturated in the United States so as to maintain the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all. Keeping most people unaware that freedom of confident action is there for just a small number of people props up those in power, and serves to keep power in the hands of the same groups that have most of it already…

As we know from watching men, it is an open question whether we will choose to use unearned advantage to weaken hidden systems of advantage, and whether we will use any of our arbitrarily-awarded power to try to reconstruct power systems on a broader base.


SERMON 

White Privilege: When Some Animals are More Equal than Others
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

In August of 1945 George Orwell wrote an allegorical dystopian novel titled Animal Farm, which was a commentary on the Stalinist era in the Soviet Union.  In the novel, all the animals on a farm stage a revolt to run an irresponsible drunken farmer off the land.  The pigs on the farm then take over the leadership, declaring that all animals are equal, and write seven commandments on the back wall of the barn.  In a succession of more and more brutal and dictatorial episodes, one pig, Napoleon, takes over control of the farm.  Eventually the pigs become indistinguishable from humans, even learning to walk on their hind legs and eat at the table in the big house.  The seven commandments are slowly whittled down by the pigs until finally only one commandment remains: “All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.”

I read the book Animal Farm sometime back in middle school or high school and yet, in the preparation of this service, when contemplating the notion of white privilege, this phrase, that “some animals are more equal than others,” was the first phrase that ran through my mind.  Sometimes that phrase has haunted me in more lighthearted ways, like when I take the last piece of fudge from the Christmas tin, and sometimes it hits me more starkly, like when I see white collar criminals who abscond will millions of dollars of life savings of elderly folks end up with the slap on the wrist of two years in a minimum security prison – when at the same time a petty criminal selling a bag of dope on the street gets a minimum required sentence of 20 years in prison.  Always, always, though, the phrase, “some are more equal than others,” raises for me the issue of inequality and injustice.

For the month of January, our overall theme for both worship and religious education is that we are making room for “pain.”  In December we made room for “wonder,” and now in January we are making room for pain.  In particular, and partly to honor the justice work and the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is next weekend, our exploration of pain in these first few weeks of January will focus on issues of race and color and privilege.

By now most of you know that I participated in the Black Lives Matter direct action at the Mall of America last December 20, right before Christmas.  I will focus more next week specifically on why Black Lives Matter, but today I am talking about whiteness, and the particular notion of white privilege.

A lot of us in the United States who are of northern European descent don’t like to hear that phrase “white privilege,” or we don’t know what to do with it.  Or those of us in liberal religious and often socially progressive communities and congregations who are deeply involved in justice issues may want to resist or even deny that white privilege exists.

Some people in America want to believe that we somehow live in a “post-racial” society (that’s the term I’ve heard used), and people like to say they are color blind, and don’t judge people or treat them differently based on the color of their skin. And there are those of us who come from very poor or broke economic backgrounds who may even get a little pissed off when the word “privilege” gets thrown around.  And those of us who are nice white progressives certainly don’t want to be called racists, or to be blamed for a system of oppression simply based on the color of OUR skin…because, why, then that would be reverse racism, wouldn’t it?

Well I don’t believe there is any such thing as “reverse racism,” and I certainly don’t believe we live in a post-racial society, and coming from my background in art and creativity, I sure do notice the variety of colors that exist in the human race.

As a human race, it seems we love to separate and categorize things.  In itself, that’s not a bad thing – it’s just a way to negotiate our way through our lives and our world.  But if we belong to a more painful or challenging end to one of the categories, we may come to believe that we’ve got it worse, or at least just as bad as some other group, and so we may think there is no way we could have privilege.  But there is a notion called, “intersectionality.”  The concept of intersectionality basically recognizes that a person may be privileged in some ways and certainly not privileged in others.  There are many different types of privilege that impact people and the way they move through the world.  And all these are things you are born into, not things you earned, that afford you opportunities others may not have. These are things like the citizenship of the country we were born into, our gender and sexual orientation, our class and our race.

Part of the point of talking about white privilege isn’t to make you or me or anyone feel guilty.  Guilt is not a motivating emotion.  Our Universalist ancestors knew this clearly hundreds of years ago as they articulated our Universalist beliefs in the restoration of all humanity to the kingdom of God.  As Universalists, they did not believe in hell, they believed in universal salvation because they believed in a loving God, a God who embraced and loved and delighted in creation.  Why would this God, their theology progressed, throw anyone, any part of creation, into eternal punishment?  There was no cause for that because the God our Universalist ancestors believed in was a loving God.

Today as we have the opportunity to bring that loving Universalist heritage to bear on our efforts with issues of race.  The purpose of our talk about white privilege is not to cause guilt, it is to be aware of it so we can learn what to do with it.  Now, you may not want to believe white privilege exists, but part of the deal with white privilege is that it does not depend on your belief in it.  It exists whether we want it to or not.  It’s a little like oxygen: we don’t notice it until it is gone.

The author Sally Kohn, a white woman, addressed this in a November 28, 2014, article in the Washington Post.  The article was called “What white people need to know, and do, after Ferguson.”  Sally Kohn writes:


Being a constructive part of America’s necessary discussion on race and racial bias means acknowledging how bias and privilege may shape your own life even if you don’t want it to. Responsibility isn’t the same as culpability. It is not your personal fault that Michael Brown was shot and killed or that we have deep and structural racial bias in America. But that bias is nonetheless a reality, and so you do have a responsibility as to whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Just like you’re mistaken if you don’t think white is a race, you’re mistaken if you think you can remain neutral. Benefiting from white privilege is automatic. Defending white privilege is a choice.


To be honest, I don’t know what most of you think about white privilege or black lives or issues of race.  There are certainly things I want you to believe and hope you believe about race in America, but the reason I don’t know is that we don’t really talk much about issues of race here.  This is a national conversation, and we’re not really part of it.

I understand why, and there are even some good reasons for it.  We’ve really been focused on getting our new building, and we’ve really been focused on justice efforts like marriage equality.  But, as Sally Kohn says, if we want to take responsibility for being part of the solution, what do you think would happen if we here in this congregation took the energy and dedication, and our sense of hospitality, and our sense of outrage and injustice that we felt here in our work to create marriage equality in Minnesota, and put it towards a congregational effort to address the issues of racial injustice in America?  Five years ago I don’t think any of us would have believed we’d have marriage equality in Minnesota now.  So, if we put a similar effort into it, imagine what race relations in Minnesota could look like five years from now!

During our offering we heard the rap song, “White Privilege” by the white artist Macklemore.  In his music he does something pretty much unprecedented for a white rapper: he acknowledges that he may be “gentrifying” hip-hop as a white rapper in a black art form.  It’s not so much that he is a white musician in a black art form, it is that while he shares how much he loves the music, he is still self-aware enough to acknowledge the debt he owes.  At one point in his song Macklemore says, “I said I’m gonna be me, so please be who you are, / But we still owe ‘em 40 acres now that we’ve stolen their 16 bars.”

The reference to 40 acres is what the US government promised to each freed slave in the south after the Civil War so that could each have their own small farm, but it was land the freed slaves never got.  And the “16 bars” is reference to a common measurement of poetry and rhyme in a rap song.  So Macklemore shares his love for rap, which is based in political, racial and social empowerment, but he also knows that white society is continuing to steal from societies of color.

Personally, I see white privilege a little bit like a superpower.  We can use it for good or for evil, and I want to be able to learn how to use it for the good.  And as a matter of fact, the understanding that I have privilege and wanted to use it for the good is one of the reasons behind my decision to join in the Black Lives Matter protest at the Mall of America.

That action was an eye-opener for me.  I’ve gone to rallies and protests and marches before, but they were all on public property, and they were all organized by white people, or a mixture of white people and people of color, and they certainly did not have police standing around in riot gear just because of our rally for marriage equality.  This time, we were under the leadership of black people.  And this new movement, this Black Lives Matter movement, is being run by articulate, thoughtful, angry, focused, theologically grounded and experienced black people who are asking white people to join them, and for us to use our privilege to give greater credence and legitimacy to these efforts.  Notice I said “greater credence and legitimacy” because it is already a legitimate movement – it’s just that with our power and privilege as white people, we can make it more so.

Before we went to the mall, the leadership held an hour-long training ahead of time at First Universalist Church.  They told us this was going to be a nonviolent action without arrests, but also told us what would happen and what to do if we got arrested.  They told us the difference between mall security and the police force. And they told us about how to join in the chants (“Mic check!”) and how to stop the chanting (when the leaders raise a fist).

At that point, one white male long-time justice participant spoke up and said, “I would like to sing some different songs.  I think we should sing some different songs because some of those chants just sound so harsh.”  He had hardly gotten those words out of his mouth before one of the women leading the training (there were two women, a black woman and a white woman, and this was the white woman speaking) said, “I’m gonna stop you right there.”  And then she turned to the rest of the group of 30 or 40 gathered around and she said, “The first thing I want you to know is that this is not about you.  This is not about what you want or don’t want, or what you prefer or don’t prefer.  This is an action developed by black leaders who have already sat down and talked with the Mall security ahead of time to let them know we are going to do this, they have already sat down with the Bloomington Police Department to let them know too.  This is a disciplined effort based on the experience and leadership of people who want a the most effective nonviolent action that will produce the best results, and we are asking you to trust this leadership.”

As white people, one thing that often comes as part of our white privilege is the assumption that our input is valid and necessary, possibly even crucial.  We are not used to having black leadership, and certainly not black leadership that we trust.  Or we question the motives, thinking that we know a better way.  I was sure guilty of that when I wondered if we should even be at the Mall of America.  It’s one thing to go to the State Capital, like we did for the rallies with marriage equality.  But the Mall of America?  That didn’t seem like the best choice.  But this was the choice of the organizers and leaders, for very specific purposes, part of which was to make that statement that lives are more important than profits.  Once I heard that ahead of time, and the tremendous leadership in our training about trusting the leaders, I wanted to use whatever power I had to move that action forward – because I certainly believed in and valued everything else about it.

In 1989 Peggy McIntosh came up with the image of white privilege being like an “invisible backpack.”  Dr. Peggy McIntosh is the Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women, and her work on white privilege still influences anti-racist efforts today.  It is a powerful image of what we carry around without even knowing it.  In her work back then, she listed over two dozen ways she benefits from white privilege.  Some of those include:

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
I can choose bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
If a cop pulls me over I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

For me, so much of the work to address white privilege comes down to whether we want to perpetuate a system where some people are more equal than others, or if we want to create a world full of justice.  In Unitarian Universalism we like to talk a lot about freedom: freedom from hierarchy, freedom to believe, freedom of expression, freedom of the pulpit and freedom of the pew.  But the flipside to freedom is responsibility.  In our faith, we believe that people are more than their circumstance.  In our faith, we are in the business of helping people – even ourselves – move through pain and toward possibility.  We are in the business of teaching one another, and the world, to live with courage and meaning.  This business is our responsibility as people who live in the freedom of a liberal faith.

The poet Dawna Markova offers inspiration.  Though her poem, “I will not die an unlived life,” is a response to the death of her father, the poem also offers us a way through as we address white privilege and the work of justice when she says:

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

Mary’s Song of Justice: A Christmas Eve Homily

READING: Luke 1:39-55 (NRSV)

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted [her cousin] Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?  For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Mary’s Song of Justice
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
Christmas Eve 2014

This is a beautiful night.  A bit miserable and unseasonal with all the rain and fog on a Christmas Eve, but beautiful even so.  We are here, we are with family, we are with friends, we gather together at this, one of our most well-attended services each year to be together in body and in spirit as we celebrate the end of the advent season, the season of waiting.  Like those in earth-centered traditions we are waiting for the return of light.  Like those in Buddhist traditions we come seeking enlightenment and the peace that comes from non-attachment.  Like those in Christian traditions, we anticipate the birth and rebirth of peace and justice as in arrives in the birth of each child.

And yet we Unitarian Universalists sometimes struggle with what to do with Jesus.  Most of us believe that his teachings are powerful, meaningful, and still relevant today.  At the same time, most of us do not believe that he was God, nor the son of God, at least not more so than any of us are also the children of an eternally creative and powerful universe.  So then what are we doing here on Christmas Eve, a specifically Christian celebration that honors the birth of a child who will save the world from pain and suffering?

Part of our answer comes in the form of the Sophia Lyon Fahs poem, “The Gift,” the one that Andrea Heier read earlier, with the line that says, “each night a child is born is a holy night.”  It is a belief not just in the potential brilliance and good work that a baby may do sometime in the future, but in our human work to grow in our efforts toward compassion.

In fact the hymn we just sang, “It came upon a midnight clear,” was written by the Reverend Edmund Hamilton Sears, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister who served churches in Massachusetts.  This hymn is remarkable – and appreciated by many Unitarian Universalists – because it does not focus on Bethlehem, and does not mention Jesus anywhere.  Instead, it focuses on today – on the “today” of Reverend Sears’ own time, and on the “today” of our own experience as well.  Edmund Sears wrote the hymn in 1849, partly in response to the recently ended Mexican-American war.  Reverend Sears was a pacifist and abolitionist.  So his hymn does not focus on Jesus, but on the angels who sing their song of peace – if only we will hear it – particularly in the third verse as it is printed in our hymnal:

Yet with the woes of [war] and strife
the world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
And [we who fight the wars] hear not
the love song which they bring;
O hush the noise [of battle] strife
and hear the angels sing.

For Reverend Sears, Jesus was neither a primarily historical figure nor a subject for “theological pugilism.” Instead, because of the consistent message of justice and peace throughout Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Reverend Edmund Sears saw Jesus and his teachings as an integrated experience in daily life.[1]

Mary, the mother of Jesus, has a similar perspective.  In the stories that come down to us, we don’t hear Mary’s voice very often – which is a little bit strange for someone who is supposed to be the midwife of Divine presence.  I suspect though, that that has more to do with later editors than it does with what she may actually have taught.  In fact, there is evidence that an entire Gospel of Mary existed at one time, which was never included in the four-gospel cannon that comes down to us today.  Even so, when Mary does speak, she speaks powerfully.

According to the story, angels appear to both Mary and her cousin’s husband to let them know they will bear special children.  Each time, though it must have been a little frightening to be instilled with a divine vision, the first part of the vision tells both of them, “Do not be afraid.”  Do not be afraid.  Hard to do in a time of great fear and anxiety, but deeply needed.

Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, eventually gives birth to John the Baptist, who foretells the birth of Jesus, and Mary eventually gives birth to Jesus.  But before that, before either child is born, Mary and Elizabeth meet and talk over their excitement and fear about the children they will soon have.  For both of them it is their first pregnancy.  Elizabeth, though, is old, and has been wanting a child for a long time, while for Mary, the pregnancy was quite unexpected, and in her joy, she shares with Elizabeth the song for her child.

We know that in many tribal cultures around the world, parents or tribal elders create a song for each child when they are born, a song that tells them how unique and special and brilliant each child is.  So too, Mary, in her tribal culture, creates a song for her unborn child as well.  This song of Mary’s has come to be known as “the Magnificat,” taking its name from the first line when Mary sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”

The most common interpretation of these scriptures is that this entire song is a praise song to the great Divine presence.  And certainly it starts out that way.  But there is much more to this song.  Remember who is singing.  This is Mary.  This is Mary, an unwed pregnant teenager.  This is Mary, a citizen of country that is occupied by foreigners, the Roman army.  This is Mary, who must travel many days to the land of her ancestors because that occupying Roman army has declared that she and everyone else in her country must do this so that the army can keep track of their subordinates.  This is a pregnant Mary, a person in a country where her people have little to no voice in governing of themselves.  This is a pregnant teenage Mary who must pick up every piece of their daily life at a moment’s notice and travel at the very end of her pregnancy to a far away city where she ends up giving birth in a barn.  I imagine that this Mary just might be a little bit angry.

So yes, as faithful people do in many faiths, and even as people do who reside in the gratitude of simply being alive in a creative and beautiful universe, Mary feels a sense of humility and praises the Divine life and love that moves within and among and beyond all things that created her and chose her for the birth of this child.  But at the same time, she sings a song that is more than just praise.  This Mary, who lives in oppression under an occupying army, sings of the work of justice she envisions for her child: He will show great strength, she sings, and will scatter those who feel pride and self-righteousness in their hearts.  He will bring down the powerful from their thrones, and will lift up those who are downtrodden.  He will fill the hungry with good things, and will send the rich people away empty.

This is not simply a meek and mild mother gazing at her adorable infant son, this is a mother demanding justice in a world of oppression.

This is the season of Advent, the season of waiting and anticipation. But it is not simply waiting, it is a planning and a preparation for the work of justice.  This season for mystery and wonder was never meant to be a season simply for joy and celebration.  It is a season intended to remind us of the birth and rebirth of justice and compassion in a world that so often lacks both.  The “Occupy” movement and the “Black Lives Matter” movement are not just secular distractions to our season of loveliness and quiet contemplation, they are part of the focus that we are called to as people of faith, we who say we value the inherent worth of each person, and who value the interrelated universe of which we are a part.

This baby whose birth we celebrate tonight is symbolic of every child born – which means too, when you think about it, it is symbolic of our own births as well.  This baby in the story had a mother who created a song about him because she believed in him and knew the power and brilliance that existed inside him,  so much so that when he grew up he could later teach, as he is recorded as doing in the 17th chapter of the book of Luke (17:20-21), “When he was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.”

This is Mary’s song for her son, and this is our song for the world: to recognize that the divine power of the universe is within us, and in the words of Howard Thurman, “To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among others, To make music in the heart.”

Down through the ages, this is our song.  And this is the song we sing to our children.  This IS our song.  This is OUR song.

[Motion to the choir to come up and sing Howard Thurman’s words. Note: this video is not our choir, but it is the song our choir sang after this homily]

[1] The information on Edmund Hamilton Sears comes from two primary pages: http://uudb.org/articles/edmundhamiltonsears.html and http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/8732.shtml

An Invitation to Direct Action

This is the text of an email letter I sent out on Friday, December 19, to the congregation I serve, inviting people to join me for direct action regarding #blacklivesmatter at the Mall of America on December 20.

Dear members and friends of UUCM,

I am writing to you today with a request to join me tomorrow, December 20, in a moment of action to honor the fact that Black Lives Matter.

If you have been following the news, you will be aware of the non-indictment on November 24 of police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of the unarmed teenager Michael Brown.  You may also be aware of two more non-indictments of police officers who killed unarmed black men: Eric Garner, and Ramarley Graham, 18, who was shot in his own home when a police officer burst in because he looked suspicious.

Like just about everything in life, every story has more than one side, and without a doubt, police officers have incredibly dangerous jobs.  And most of them, much of the time, are decent, rational, and even altruistic people who truly want to “protect and serve.”  At the same time, unarmed black men are dying at a profound rate at the hands of police officers, and a national movement using the heading and hashtag, “Black Lives Matter” has risen up in response.

Perhaps you have been wondering, as I have, what to do in these times to express your anger or your heartbreak or your care.  I have been out of town or otherwise unavailable for action the past few weeks, but I am available tomorrow, December 20.  So here is my invitation to you:

What:   Rally in the rotunda at the Mall of America
When:  Saturday, December 20
Times:

  • 11:00 am – meet at UUCM no later than 11:00 am in order to carpool to First Universalist Church
  • 11:30 am – training begins at First Universalist in Minneapolis (34th and Dupont); training led by direct action leader Liz Loeb, so that we know what to expect and how to conduct ourselves.  Then Lena K. Gardener, a member of First Universalist and local organizer of #blacklivesmatter Minnesota, will go over logistics for the action itself.
  • 2:00 pm – The rally itself in the rotunda at the Mall of America

Personally, I struggle to figure out the best course of action.  Some have said that this protest should not happen on the private property of the Mall of America, including the owners of the Mall.  But then I recall that some of the “original” efforts to declare that black lives matter – the Civil Rights action of the 1950s and 1960s – took place in the south to integrate the lunch counters of Woolworth department stores.  I am also hearing the call from people of color who are both Unitarian Universalist and interfaith, to white ministers and to primarily white congregations, to join in these justice efforts to stand in solidarity with people of color.  Standing on the Side of Love means more than standing on the sidelines, it means that this is a campaign to harness love’s power to stop oppression.

I don’t know if this is the best way through.  And I know each of us has to come to a decision about this action according to our own lives and values, knowing that this is just one of many types of action that exists.  But one thing I’ve learned from doing abstract painting is that what matters is doing *something*.  It is important to begin, and learn from it, and change it or do it differently the next time, with the next layer – but we can’t create anything of beauty unless we step up and just begin to work with the colors.

I know this is late notice – I just heard about this myself yesterday.  But this is something I know I can do now to channel my anger and my heartbreak.  If you are able, I invite you to join me.

Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka
——————

NOTE: If you would like additional information, here are three resources below:

1) A podcast from First Universalist from their December 11 #blacklivesmatter vigil, with member and speaker Lena Gardener:
http://firstuniv.podbean.com/e/december-11-2014-black-lives-matter-vigil-message-by-lena-k-gardner/

2) Here is the Facebook page of information about the December 20 rally at the Mall of America:
https://www.facebook.com/events/390121751156711/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming

3) Here is additional information about the rally from Lena Gardener, member of First Universalist and one of the organizers of this rally.  This information was shared with me and other local UU ministers by Justin Schroeder, Senior Minister at First Universalist:

————
A couple of things I want to loop you into before the training on Saturday and feel free to forward this on to other clergy that you have invited or will.
  • This is a peaceful, nonviolent direct action.
  • There are no planned arrests from the leadership of the action. Any folks agitating the police or security guards are doing so at their own discretion. At every training, planning session, and gathering we have stressed that this is a nonviolent direct action with no planned arrests.
  • Please help white people specifically take a set back and let us lead. By us I mean the myself and the younger Black leaders who have stepped up to make this event happen. Trust that even though it’s not perfect, and we can’t give you every detail of organizing thousands of people, that it is nonetheless planned. And we need your support to follow. 
  • Regarding bringing families and children: We can’t promise that anyone person won’t be arrested. What we do know is that families will be most protected in the center of the group, there is actually, power in numbers and that families and children help de-escalate the police and security guards. 
  • A previous group did an action at the MOA with just over a 1,000 people and had only two arrests (which were leadership that refused to leave when asked). Our leadership will depart when asked, because again this is a no-arrest action. From the previous action we know that the security team will be targeting leadership, not families. Additionally, it is extremely unlikely that the security officers or police will deploy tear gas or rubber bullets since we are in the mall and they won’t want to risk public bystanders. All of that is to say in our best estimation children and families will be relatively safe, as long as when asked to leave they comply with the requests.
  • Lastly! For singers interested if they can come to the Friday night briefing, 6:30 – 8:30/9pm (or any portion of that time) at the RARE space above the Cafe Southside – we need more singers!
Thank you so much for showing up!
– Lena Gardener

On the Day After the Ferguson Grand Jury Decision

This is an edited version of a letter I sent out on Tuesday, November 25, 2014, to the members and friends of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, which is the congregation I serve:


I am writing today in response to the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Missouri, last night, November 24, to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of the unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown last summer. While this decision does not surprise me, I am nevertheless heartbroken. And I am startled, too, and disgusted that this decision does not surprise me. This is one more event where it feels to me that racism wins as the soul of America disintegrates just a little more.

Last night and today, live footage from residents and protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, shows a war zone, with police cars on fire, gunfire and tear gas, armored trucks, and police officers and soldiers in full battle armor. On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights campaign in March 1965, in which marchers were beaten by police officers and attacked by police dogs, the scene tonight in Ferguson echoes with too many similarities.

And all this is in a neighborhood in America where the residents are desperately attempting to proclaim the simple truth that black lives matter.

It is easy to feel dismay, disappointment, or even apathy in what seems like a never-ending stream of people of color, primarily young black men, who are killed by police officers, vigilantes, and neighbors, with little to no legal repercussions.  As W.E.B. DuBois once said though, “A system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.”

And as the Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde said, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.”

Even further back, perhaps the Hebrew prophets still say it best:

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush.”
—– Jeremiah 6:14-15 —–

Today though, and in our days moving forward together, may our dismay turn to outrage at the color and class system in America, may our apathy turn to courage, and may our disappointment turn to renewed commitment as we focus our efforts on the work of justice. We need one another in this effort. We depend on one another’s strength, encouragement, action, forgiveness and love.  And as difficult as it may be sometimes for those of us who are white and in positions of power and privilege in this society, we need to not only hear, but also believe the stories of those who traditionally have little or no voice in the system of privilege and power.

Even as I am heart-broken today, I am also heartened and inspired by these words last night from Michael Brown’s parents, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown, Sr.:


We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions.

While we understand that many others share our pain, we ask that you channel your frustration in ways that will make a positive change. We need to work together to fix the system that allowed this to happen.

Join with us in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.

We respectfully ask that you please keep your protests peaceful. Answering violence with violence is not the appropriate reaction.

Let’s not just make noise, let’s make a difference.


There is much work to do in the coming days and years. Racism is not dead, “even” here in the north, and issues like the recent “#pointergate” in North Minneapolis with the mayor are evidence enough of its existence.   Vigils and rallies are planned at many places around the Twin Cities in the days to come, and if you are able to attend, the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance (MUUSJA) lists several actions.

May we find the outrage, courage, and renewed commitment to work toward racial justice in our time. As Bernice Regan from Sweet Honey in the Rock sings in the video below:

“Until the killing of Black men, Black mother’s sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons,
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

See the video here: “Ella’s Song.”

Indeed, let us not just make noise, let us make a difference.

Standing – and moving – on the side of love,
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska