Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 11, 2016

Our Unitarian Universalist religion is a faith based in optimism. This optimism particularly arises from the Universalist side of our heritage. One of the more famous stories comes from over 200 years ago from the Universalist minister John Murray who reported a conversation with a deacon who approached Murray, saying he heard that Murray preached Universal salvation. A conversation ensues where Murray describes his Universalist faith based on scriptures that that tell how God sent his son [Jesus] not to condemn the world, but that through Jesus the world might be saved – while the deacon refutes that theology.

Then Murray pulls out the passage from 1 Corinthians 15, that “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive.”

The deacon wants to hold on to the notion that yes, because of Adam and Eve, all people are born in sin, so that’s why people need to believe in Jesus, so that they can have eternal life.

And John Murray said it doesn’t work that way. He said if you’re going to follow the words and the lessons of scripture, it’s either gotta be that only believers are born in sin and only believers who can be saved by Jesus, or it’s gotta be that everyone is born in sin, and that everyone was saved by the arrival of Jesus. And since the scriptures say, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ are all made alive,” that pretty well determines it’s the second meaning, that everyone is saved. Or as the old joke goes, the Universalists believe that God is too good to damn anyone, and the Unitarians believe they are too good to be damned.

The resulting theology and the resulting belief behind all this is in the basic goodness of humanity. Where other more traditional religions believe in the inherent evil of humanity – that everyone was born in sin – the Unitarians and Universalists generally have held a more positive view of humanity, that of inherent goodness. Down through the ages and generations this positive view evolved first into the original and slightly naïve Humanist slogan of “Humankind: Onward and Upward Forever,” and then into our modern and current phrase found in the wording of the first of our seven principles: that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of each individual.

Because of this foundational theology, in the most positive spin some have called us a religion or a faith of hope. Now I don’t struggle so much with the notion of the inherent worth and dignity of each person as much as I do with the notion that we are a faith of hope. The “inherent worth” piece is a little easier for me because in humanity, I see inherent worth as different from a person’s actions. We may readily call someone to account for their words or their actions, but our faith calls us to honor their inherent worth.

I struggle, though, with the notion that we are a faith of hope for a number of reasons. First of all, in all the most famous and foundational writings upon which we base our beliefs, including scripture from the Hebrew and Christian bibles, we don’t talk much about hope. Even now, in our seven principles and six sources from which our living tradition draws, you will find mentioned justice, equity, compassion, truth, peace, liberty, love and reason…but no mention of hope!

Secondly, and more deeply and more to the point, I struggle with the notion that we are a faith of hope because I simply struggle with the notion of “hope” itself. Now it may be that others use the word “hope” but mean it in a different way than the way I generally understand it – so it may be that I’m just wallowing in semantics, and that when I don’t want to use the word and others do, that even so we both still really mean the same thing. But a primary reason I try to avoid using the word “hope” is that it gives the connotation – if not a very real request – of a desired outcome. And because rarely in life do we get what we want the way we want it, in my experience hope generally really only brings heartache.

I don’t claim to know a lot about Buddhism, but some of what I do know revolves around the first three teachings of the Four Noble Truths, that (1) life is suffering; that (2) suffering is caused by attachment to desires; and (3) that suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases. As I understand it, attachment isn’t simply about attachment to desire. We can also have an attachment to outcomes. When we hope for something, we desire a specific outcome of an event or happening. When we play a game, we hope we win. When we go on a trip, we hope we come home safely. When someone gets diagnosed with an illness, we hope they get better. In all of these, we are attached to an outcome in the way that we want it to be an outcome. The problem arises when either the outcome isn’t what we wanted it to be, or doesn’t occur at all. Once again, hope brings heartache.

Another reason why I struggle with the notion of hope has to do with our theme for this month, “presence.” Presence is a state or fact of existing, of being present in a place or thing. Presence is about awareness, attention, and existing in this very moment. Hope, on the other hand, pulls us out of the present moment and toward a desired outcome that is not in this present time. We may even get addicted to hope: hope that doubt and mystery will go away, and accompanied by fear that it won’t, robbing us of the present moment. Our December theme of “presence,” then, invites us and calls us into this very moment, not just when beauty abounds, but when pain and sorrow are in the room as well.

A year before I began my ministry here with this congregation I worked as a chaplain resident for a year at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park. Many times that year I entered a room or sat with a patient or their family when they were in pain from a surprising diagnosis of cancer, or were sitting in shock and uncertainty after an accident that involved a daughter or husband, or were aching and empty after the death of a partner or parent. Some found their way through slowly, allowing the feelings to wash over them, and taking each bit of news in each moment as it came and then letting it sink in before they made a decision. But others would want a prayer for their loved one would be healed, or would use some form of the cruel trite sayings like, “when God closes the door, he opens a window,” or worse, “everything happens for a reason.”

In times like those it is important for people to stay in the moment, to process what’s happening, because if they don’t, they often live with regrets and truncated emotional responses for much of their life. But I then discovered two things: the first was that even my desire for them to stay in the painful moment and not wash it away with a trite saying was my own hope, my own desire, my own attachment to an outcome that had little or nothing to do with what the patient or family wanted. Secondly, because my own agenda would begin to loom so large, I discovered in those moments that it was a challenge for me to remain present with them. So I had to learn how to enter a room, and remain in a room, with no agenda other than to learn – learn where the patient or family was emotionally and spiritually, and then learn what they felt would help them most in those moments.

It was not my role in those moments of pain to change their minds or argue with their theology – but if it seemed necessary for processing or healing, or even to avoid a promise I was not able to keep, I could, in some ways, challenge their theology even as I remained present with them. It could be a simple question that brought them back into the moment, like, “what scares you the most about this new diagnosis?” Or if they asked me to pray that their loved one would be healed, I would pray instead for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing.

In my own life, I was disabused of more traditional notions of hope early on. Just a couple weeks before Christmas in December 34 years ago, when I was in 11th grade, I came home from high school one day to discover that my dad had been admitted to the hospital because of some unusual signs. It took a few months for the doctors to determine what was going on, but eventually they learned that it was a rare illness called sclerosing cholangitis, a disease of the bile ducts, which carry the digestive liquid bile from your liver to your small intestine. In sclerosing cholangitis, inflammation causes scars within the bile ducts, and the scars make the ducts hard and narrow. The disease progresses slowly and can lead to repeated infections and liver failure. The only known cure, even today, is a liver transplant.

Two problems exist, though. First, the body has to accept a new transplanted organ, and the doctors gave my dad only a 50% chance that his body would even accept a new liver; second, the body’s whole system is what makes the liver fail, so even if the body accepted a new liver, they gave that a 50% chance that the new liver would acquire the same disease. And in the meantime, after attempting to recover from those major surgeries in his weakened condition, his quality of life would be next to nothing. Since he had a better chance of living, and living longer, without the transplant, my dad opted not to have a transplant surgery. So at age 16, I got the news that my dad was going to die, and that he had no more than 10 years to live. He endured with his disease for eight years, dying in February, the year after I graduated from college.

A big challenge in dealing with a terminal illness, especially as a relatively inexperienced 16-year-old, is finding anything that passes for hope, when the only real thing to hope for is less pain or fewer maintenance procedures to unblock a bile duct, but never a longer life with more time with my dad. People would even say dumb things like how my dad’s illness and death would make me more compassionate and understanding toward others, and my reply was always that if I had a choice, I’d rather be a less compassionate person and still have my dad.

With that experience so early in life, hope was something I mostly learned to live without. Sometimes that made life pretty hard, but it also created two other realities in my life. The first was living more in the moment. I had a tendency to do that anyway, but my father’s long illness caused me to take fewer things for granted and learn to experience things more fully as they happened. The second was learning to take chances when they arose – so one thing I did as an 18-year-old high school graduate was take a bicycle trip across the country, from coast to coast.

In some ways I’m still not very good at it, but when I’m able to do it well, living without hope is a gift. I can take out my worst fear and look right at it, and then begin to look around to see what options, support and resources I have. Hopelessness is a gift. It helps us look around in the present moment, and rather than looking for something we want, we look around for what needs to be done.

It’s important to understand that living without hope is not the same shutting down or retreating. In fact, it’s the very opposite. I’m not at all saying “don’t work for justice” or “don’t work for outcomes.” It’s more about not being consumed by the outcome. As I experience it, the life work around this topic is to not be “tricked” by hope – that is, getting lulled into the false notion that if we just work hard enough and are diligent enough and faithful enough that we’ll get what we want: a job we applied for, a better marriage, a longer life, a healed child. Because in this life there’s not much we control and sometimes life just doesn’t give us what we want no matter how honest and faithful and genuine and diligent we are.

But just because we learn how to not be attached to hope and how not to be attached to outcomes doesn’t mean we don’t work for outcomes. Living without hope is not to be confused with working toward something we value. So yes, be diligent, be courageous, show up, be faithful, work hard, pull in allies, read and learn and grow and evolve and transform. In this new political and social climate of more brazen hatred and fear, do all you can to work to create more love and justice in the world…I’m just saying that all that work doesn’t guarantee the outcome you or we want. It’s like being back in the hospital and not praying for healing, but praying for the doctors and nurses to use all their knowledge and care to do what was in their power to bring healing. It’s a little like when teams pray before a football game. It’s pretty dumb to think that God chooses one football team over another, so it’s a pretty empty prayer to say, “Please God, make us win this game.” But it’s a more powerful and more faithful prayer to say, “Give me the strength to play my best today.”

Being present in the moment to what is happening, to what we feel and what we know is a basic way to begin learning how to move through the world in authentic and meaningful ways. The poet Mary says, “This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of our attentiveness.” And the writer Henry Miller says, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

We rarely get to learn the consequences of our actions, and most of the good work we do in the world emerges after we’re gone. As my colleague the Reverend Jill Jarvis says, “Deeds and words and choices which seem from our perspective to have no impact all, may prove to be the small change that moves history in a new and unexpected direction.”

We Unitarian Universalists balk at the notion of definite hard and fast answers to the deepest religious values. We say we value complexity and nuance and ambiguity. So here’s our chance to take the bull by the horns and live in ambiguity. I know it is hard to imagine how we can work toward a future without feeling our actions will make a difference. But in the long run, rarely is history written in four-year increments. It may be that feeling insecure, even groundless, like the teachings of non-attachment in Buddhism, will increase our ability to be present, with ourselves and each other, and stay in the work.

* * * *
I want to close with a few readings on finding strength and presence without hope:

[SARA] Thomas Merton: Do not depend on the hope of results…you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself…you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people…In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.

[KENT] Women working against a violent dictatorship in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s:

  • How we’re going is important, not where. I want to go together and with faith.
  • I feel like we’re holding hands as we walk into a deep, dark woods.
  • In my grief I saw myself being held, us all holding one another in this incredible web of loving kindness. Grief and love in the same place. I felt as if my heart would burst with holding it all.

[SARA] Rudolf Bahro: When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.

[KENT] Vaclev Havel: Hope is a dimension of the soul…an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart. It transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons…It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense regardless of how it turns out.

[SARA] Gail Brenner: In a nursing home I spoke to a charming 92-year-old woman faced with possibly never returning to her home. When I asked how she felt, she responded, “I’m not attached.” She proceeded to tell me that as a young girl, following the death of her mother, she learned that being attached brought her suffering and being open to the comings and goings of life brought a sense of ease. This understanding enabled her to live life to the fullest – she had many wonderful adventures – as she was no longer afraid of what she could lose or gain.

[KENT] T.S. Eliot: in the Four Quartets:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.


In the Bleak Midwinter: A Sermon in Response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings on December 14, 2012

Author’s note: In the fall of 2012 my son began kindergarten. On December 14 of that year 28 people were killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, most of them children in kindergarten and first grade. Now my children are in 1st and 3rd grade and I walk them to school every morning. And because of that Sandy Hook shooting, to this day, every morning – every single morning – a small fear still raises it’s voice in my head, wondering if this will be the last time I will see my children.  Yesterday, October 1, 2015, yet another mass shooting (more than four victims) occurred at  Umpqua Community College in Oregon. In the almost three years since Sandy Hook there have been 142 mass shootings. 142. With at least one school shooting per week during that time. And still no laws have been enacted legislate gun use. Nothing has been done. I despair that if our murdered children don’t inspire us to act, then I don’t know what will. But two days after the Sandy Hook shooting I wrote and gave a sermon describing both my anger and despair, yet also pleading that we not become numb to violence, but keep our hearts open to love. Today, after yet one more mass shooting, I’m posting this sermon as a reminder maybe even more to myself than to others that the same thing is still true: being numb will not create change; but keeping our hearts open to love will.   -Kent Saleska

In the Bleak Midwinter
A response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, December 14, 2012
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 16, 2012

READING: Matthew 2:12-18
Having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, [the Magi] returned to their country by another route.

When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream.  “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”  So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

*     *     *     *

In the Bleak Midwinter
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska

I am tired.  I am sick and tired.  I am sick and tired and angry of violence in America, of violence in the world.  I am angry at a shooter, I am angry at gun manufacturers, I am angry at the gun lobby, I am angry at politicians who defend and collude with the gun lobby.  In this hour, in the aftermath of this tragedy, I am angry and in anguish like Habukkuk in ancient Hebrew Scriptures who laments:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted.

The perversion of justice shows up so many places in our culture.  I am angry that some of our best computer minds are being used to create ever newer and more complicated and more realistic video games where the players, many of whom are children, rack up more points the more people they kill.  I am angry that violence is both glorified and deemed to be more appropriate to show on television and in the movies than naked bodies making love.  I am angry that access to guns is easier and more available in this country than is access to health care.  I am angry that the National Rifle Association continues to defend their gun manufacturers and their bloodlust with the childishly irresponsible mantra, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”  And I am angry that so many people and so many politicians defend that mantra as well.

I am angry that people like former governor Mike Huckabee get to go on national television and say that we have so much violence in our schools because we have systematically removed God from our schools, and that as a result, we shouldn’t be surprised that our schools would become places of carnage.  These outrageously insensitive words are not just cruel and false, they also victimize the families of the dead with a second round of verbal and emotional violence.

In Friday’s shooting, it was reported that two of the guns found were a Sig Sauer pistol and a Glock pistol.  The slogan for the Sig Sauer gun is: “When it counts.”  The slogan for the Glock gun is, “the confidence to live your life.”  So I am left to wonder what counted at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and what unfathomable form of confidence did the shooter need to have when he went there?

And of course, ultimately, I am so angry and so saddened by the deaths of 28 people, most of whom were children.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wait in a holding area not knowing the fate of your child.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to wake up this second morning since Friday to once more be reminded that your nightmare continues whether you are sleeping or waking.  13 years ago I worked with teenagers and opened the paper to read about Columbine.  I just sat at the breakfast table sobbing.  More than a decade later I have a son in kindergarten, and on Friday, as I kept turning to my computer in my church office to read and hear updates about the kindergarteners in Sandy Hook Elementary School, I had a similar reaction.  I feel like Rachel, weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted because her children were no more.

So that we do not just remember the shooter, we need to remember the children and adults.  For each person – child and adult – I have a candle here.  If you feel comfortable, I invite anyone to come forward and (as Greg plays the music for “O come, O come, Emmanuel” ) light a candle in memory as I read off the names of the people who were lost on Friday:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Madeleine Hsu, 6
Catherine Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Nancy Lanza, 52
Adam Lanza, 20
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto,27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison Wyatt, 6

I am so, so angry, and I am so, so full of anguish.  I am almost at a loss, and I struggle mightily to figure out what to say or do next.  Sitting in my office on Friday listening to the news reports, I suddenly felt I could no longer preach what I had planned to preach.

This afternoon many of us here in our church are involved in the radio play production of the “Miracle on 34th Street.”  Each December I give a sermon that is a letter to a Christmas character.  This year, partly because it’s a character in our show, and partly because I have not yet written a letter sermon to a female character, I wanted to write this year’s letter sermon to Doris Walker, the divorced single mother of the story who is trying to raise her child in the best way she knows how: with as much realism and as few illusions as possible.

I was looking forward to writing that sermon.  A divorced single mother in the 1940s was highly unusual.  Not only is Doris Walker not a sad character deserving our pity or a caricatured character easily dismissed, she is strong and loving.  She wants to raise her daughter in a way that will prevent her daughter from suffering the pain of shattered illusions, and the resulting anger and resentment that inevitably follow.

Sitting in my office on Friday, I felt I couldn’t write that letter sermon.  Instead, I felt the need to somehow address the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Yet as I wrote this sermon and participated in the rehearsal for the show yesterday, I couldn’t help but identify the similarities in Doris Walker’s conflicted feelings about raising a vulnerable child in a world full of pain and disillusionment.

In the midst of my own anger, I am reminded that I can get just as angry as the next person – and that if I let it, I can let my anger turn into rage.  And if I allow my self-righteousness and rage to run amuck, then I create defensive walls, attempting to protect my own pain by directing anger at others.  As a result, I develop the capacity to inflict the kind of violence I normally condemn.  This is where I need my religion, my faith, a faith bound together and emerging from both Christianity and Judaism, to prevent the emergence of rampant anger.

Two thousand years ago, much of the Mediterranean world was occupied and oppressed by Rome.  The people of that time in particular sought a savior, someone who would throw off their oppressors and allow them to be free once more.  I believe we are living under similar oppression today – only this time, it is an oppression of the spirit.  The heavy hand of empire is upon us, an empire of spiritual emptiness that lures us into fear, reactivity, consumerism and addiction.

“Your body is so ugly,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be beautiful, or even acceptable, is to lose weight if you are fat, gain weight if you are skinny, straighten your hair if it is wavy, curl your hair if it is straight, dye your hair if it is grey.  And since these efforts will never be enough,” says the emptiness, “spend even more time and money and emotion on these unattainable efforts.”

“Your life is so empty,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can fill it is with more toys, bigger houses, smaller phones, more pills, more alcohol, more sex, more adrenaline rushes.  If you are not happy,” says the emptiness, “then watch more TV, play more video games, drink more beer, get more and more angry and point your finger at someone else as the cause of your unhappiness.”

“The world is such a scary place,” says the emptiness, “that the only way you can be safe is to buy a gun.  And if you don’t feel safe buying one gun,” says the emptiness, “then go buy another gun.”

In the great empire of emptiness, the forces of fear become so powerful and dissonant that they scream for no restrictions whatsoever because for them the protection of gun ownership, the so-called “freedom” of gun ownership, is more important than healthcare, or the education or the protection of our children.  In this Orwellian cacophony, I can almost hear the doublespeak emerging that stops calling them “killing sprees” and instead, begins to call them “freedom sprees.”

I don’t want to live in a world like that.  Do you?  I don’t want to live in a world where doublespeak trumps common sense, where a lie repeated often enough becomes a truth.  Do you?  From my faith, I need to hear the call of deep peace and profound love cut through this nonsense.  It will not help to turn over the responsibility of raising my children by blaming the video game industry, or blaming Hollywood, or even by blaming heartless politicians or inadequate gun laws.  In the bleak midwinter, when everything is gray and rainy and foggy, the future is not clear.  Definition is difficult to determine between near and far, between up and down, between danger and safety.  So in the bleak midwinter, in the fog of our anger and pain, in the mists of our desire for retaliation and blame, when it seems we’ve lost our moral compass and our sense of direction is out of whack, we call for the birth of a savior.  We sing, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

“Emmanuel” means “God with us.”  When I talk about a “savior,” though, I’m not necessarily talking about God, or a god, or any external supernatural being coming to perform magic on us.  I’m talking about how we discover our brilliance and share it with the world.   I’m talking about how we dig deep to find our light that will give us the strength to overthrow the oppression of emptiness, and then walk together, with one another, as images of The Holy for one another, to bring forth that light to live our lives in balance and wholeness.  As the song says:

O come, O come Emmanuel
and with your captive children dwell.
Give comfort to all exiles here,
and to the aching heart bid cheer.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come within
as Love to dwell.

Perhaps this is when, like Doris Walker, we begin to rebuild our faith, or as she says, “Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to.”  This is when we call upon our faith, and on each other, to help us bond together to say to the forces of emptiness that we will not succumb to that lure of fear.  This is when we need to hear once again about the peace of beating our swords into ploughshares; about how faith, hope and love endure, but the greatest of the three is love; about the inherent worth of each person; and how we humans and nature and all the universe are intertwined and interdependent.

In the words of our opening song, “In the bleak midwinter, in this world of pain, where our hearts are open, love is born again.”

In the face of unspeakable tragedy, let us not become numb, but remain open.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, compassion and love always show up only in the way we show up.  May we remember that however we may name or not name God, our hands are the hands that reshape the world, call on our politicians to draft laws of peace, and work to prevent violence in our lives.  May we find ways to hold one another with grace, and to remember to feel and to be present for our children.  May we behave in ways that let them know they can talk to us about anything.  And may we never forget to hug them and tell them how much we love them.

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:

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.

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.

Unabashed Praise for my Wife and our Work to get Where we Are

Since returning from our beautiful vacation Hawaii, I’ve been pondering our experiences there in the context of what little I know about the place and its history.  Personally, for my wife and I, I feel like in the past 13 years of our relationship and 10 years of our marriage we have lived the life Jack and Rose (from the movie “Titanic”) would have lived, had Jack not drowned on that frozen night.  Through a lot of hard work and deep intention, Heidi and I have a deep trust together and great joy in our relationship.

I spent the first 35 years of my life being adventurous, but not very stable.  Like, for example, earning just enough to be at the poverty level and living out of the back of my little Datsun pickup truck as I traveled each year back and forth between youth work jobs in Iowa and Idaho.  I always wished for stability, but didn’t know how to go about doing it.  And frankly, as much as I desired it, I don’t think I was honestly ready for it.  But with a combination of some years of intentional introspection and subsequent changes in behavior – through seminary, through profound soul exploration while serving patients during a year of a hospital chaplain residency, and over it all, through a decade of marriage – I have been transformed.  I’m not saying I’m perfect, or that I’ve got all the answers, or that I’m the kind of person everyone looks to or appreciates or even likes.  I’m just saying I’m finally at a place where, for the first 35 years of my life, I always wanted to be.  And to help me be in that life space, my wife Heidi brings the balance of stability (among other things) to my being – and to hear it from her, I bring the balance of adventure (among other things) to her.

We’ve experienced a lot together: we’ve lived in three different states; honeymooned in Ireland; visited Idaho and Boston and Florida; taken our kids to a cabin in Colorado and road trips to the Wisconsin Dells, Chicago, Iowa and South Dakota; created a stable, loving – and fun-loving! – home in the Twin Cities; and now we’ve celebrated an anniversary in Hawaii.  I know things change.  I know disaster or death or various kinds of pain and loss are always lurking on the edges of life – if not sometimes even the center of it all.  And Heidi and I certainly know from life experience that even while things may be going well in one area, that doesn’t mean things aren’t hard in another area, or that hard times won’t come along again.

But for now, for these past few years especially and this moment in particular, I feel extreme gratitude for Heidi’s perseverance and her expansive grace and support that allow me to be more fully who I am and who I want to be.  She’s told me I hold a similar place for her, and I’m glad to know that.  But really, this is about Heidi and her awesome love.  So thanks, my love, for exactly the kind of ten years of marriage that were the best I could have ever wanted!  I love you.

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:


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.


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.

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

  • 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:

2) Here is the Facebook page of information about the December 20 rally at the Mall of America:

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

Let it Go, But Make it Whole, Elsa

A sermon by Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
December 7, 2014

The sermon was preceded by this, a video clip of the song “Do you want to build a snowman?” from the movie “Frozen.”

Dear Elsa,

I write to you this advent season in the spirit of waiting for something holy to be born.  I write to you because you know what it means to discover your power and to grow into it with gusto and fullness.  I write you, a global megastar, with great admiration and love.  I also write with a troubling in my soul.

I am writing to you now, Elsa, as part of my annual ritual to write to a Christmas character each December.  I know you aren’t exactly a Christmas character, but your story is takes place in winter, and it was brought to our attention last December, so it feels fitting to write to you now.

I don’t know how much you keep up with our news here in America, but there are also some events going on in our country these days that have me feeling angry and heartbroken, and leave me wanting to speak about it.  I see some parallels between your own personal story and the story of our nation.

To begin with you though, your story is incredibly compelling and deeply powerful.  Your story has reached millions around the world.  In the movie version, your story was the highest-grossing Disney release ever and Disney’s first billion dollar film, and was the 18th highest-grossing movie of all time, and is the top Disney film in 27 countries.  The movie won two Oscars in 2013, one for best animated film and one for best song, and multiple other Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Critic’s Choice awards (among others) ranging from directing to music, voice acting, production design, visual effects, created environment, FX and simulation.  The soundtrack to the movie was the number one selling album of 2014 with over three million copies sold, and sat in the number one spot for 13 weeks. This far surpassed the number two album which sold just over 700,000.  And I don’t know if you know this, Elsa, but your story is also a huge hit on social media.  Guys sing it, kids sing it, heavy metal bands sing it, celebrities sing it, and even weather reporters sing it.  And your song, “Let it Go,” as recorded by Idina Menzel, has been viewed 377 million times on YouTube in the past year.

It may be easy for some to have distain for your story because they see it as merely popular and they don’t want to be seen as lemmings or copycats.  Or perhaps they feel their tastes are far too unique and their standards are far too high to like the same thing that so many millions of other people like.  But I believe part of the reason your story is so popular is because it touches so many people so deeply at the core of our human search for purpose.

I don’t understand it entirely, but I feel it, and I see it everywhere.  One day last spring as I was walking down the main street of my town, I passed by two young boys who were about 12 or 13, and I heard them singing, “Let it Go,” as they roughhoused with each other down the street.

And here’s another piece.  You see, Elsa, I have a five-year-old daughter, and my daughter loves to sing and act – and sometimes overact – as she is drawn to your story like so many other boys and girls around the world.  My daughter has loved this story for the past year.  Last spring I heard the soundtrack about 800 times each week.  My daughter will put on the soundtrack, wrap her blanket around her shoulders like a cape, and then slowly and majestically walk out into our living room and act out the entire song as she lip-syncs the words.  Her favorite part is shaking her index finger as you do in the movie to the words, “Don’t let them in, don’t let them see, be the good girl you always have to be,” as you sing about how you don’t want to be that way anymore.

This is the part where your story is really gripping, to children especially, and to little girls in particular.  For children, I think part of it is about how you are protective towards your younger sister.  But it’s also something about how you access your power for the first time, about finally being unapologetic about who you are and what you can do.  It’s about your passion to go off by yourself and finally learn to use your power to create beauty.  For adults, the phenomenon of your story seems to grip us because it touches on hidden or suppressed powers and violence, and how we are scared of it when we encounter it in ourselves or in others, and will often do anything we can to avoid it, because change and things that are different are too much of a challenge to address.

This is the first part of your story where I feel both a deep sorrow for your lost childhood, as well as a deep frustration over the fact that no one seems to be talking about it, not even you.

I know you injured your sister when you were both very young and when you didn’t know much about your own power.  And I know you felt deep guilt and shame for what you had done, and that you never wanted to do that again.  But the thing I want to raise up and hold in front of you for your full awareness and consideration is that you were born into a context.  You did not choose your gift and you did not create your power, and part of the context you were born into was that your parents were uncomfortable with the challenge you presented, and were scared of your ability to control ice and snow.

In the movie they are shown as caring and loving parents, and yet they were the ones, not you, who told you to hide your power, to conceal it, to suppress it, to put gloves on and pretend that you were like every other little girl, and to not step out of line or look different or act different.  And then, as a little girl, when you accidently injured your little sister, that just confirmed for your parents that you could not be trusted, and that not only your power was dangerous, but that you were dangerous.  It seems to me you may have locked yourself in your room because of your own guilt, but it was your parents who dumped on you the false and fearsome story of your danger to others and your danger to yourself.

When a child is born blind, or deaf, or somewhere on the scale of autism, or with any other issue that places them outside the realm of “normal,” parents will do anything they can to help that child adapt and thrive.  With you, though, your parents couldn’t handle the difference you presented.  Rather than listen to you and see you for who you are, your parents tried to make you fit into what they were comfortable with.

Parenting is hard.  Believe me, I know.  And no matter how good a parent is, we will always do some things wrong, or things we think are best for our children but really aren’t.  That’s just part of parenting.  And I believe that your parents, in their heart of hearts, after seeing how your unique difference could even get you killed later in life, most likely believed they were doing all they could to protect you and keep you safe by having you locked away.  So I don’t really want to disparage your parents as much as I want to advocate for you, and to say that it’s not your fault that you were born the way you are.

In your famous song, “Let it Go,” though, you say, “I’m never going back, the past is in the past.”  Elsa, the one thing I would love for you to know is the difference between running away from your past on the one hand, and embracing your past on the other, but not letting it control you.  That may feel like a fine point now, but in my experience, it is huge.  Even though we may have the urge to only move toward exciting new abilities as we run away from our past, we really only become whole and integrated when we embrace and take ownership of our past as we move forward.

And this is where I am struggling so much right now with events in our country.  I so much wanted to write to you today, accompanied by some beautiful and powerful music this morning.  At the same time, though, my mind has been preoccupied by recent events, and I just couldn’t ignore those events as I write this letter.  You see, just like your parents did not want to hear or see or address your unique qualities and gifts, or hear the pain of your experience with being born differently, there are huge segments of our society, people who have privilege and power, who don’t want to hear or see the challenges and difference and uniqueness of those without privilege and with less power.  I don’t know how it is in your country, Elsa, but the strange thing about the power difference here in our country is that it is based almost solely on the color of a person’s skin – the people with lighter skin with lineage that goes back to northern Europe (the area where you are from) have more power and privilege, and the people with darker skin have little to no power or privilege.  In fact, the difference of a person’s skin color can mean the difference between life and death.

Here in our country, especially because we have a president with darker skin, people like to imagine we live in a “post-racial” society where we no longer see skin color and where racism no longer exists.  But I believe this imagining is just like the approach your parents took: it is easier and more comfortable to imagine that things are ok and normal because it feels too difficult to see and believe some of the deeper and more painful issues and challenges.

In fact, one of the people I work with to help create worship, Laurie Moser, shared with me a letter from a group of artists in New York group called “The Forum Project” in which they said things about the issues of race in America that sounded like the relationship you had with your parents.  Those artists said:

Privilege is comfortable. Upholding the status quo is comfortable. It’s much more comfortable to stay quiet than to speak up, to play nice rather than challenge, complicate, complexify. But as we say at The Forum Project, being “nice” isn’t the same as doing good.

So, white folk, the first step to dismantling your privilege is being willing to be uncomfortable – to be in uncomfortable conversations and discussions, to be challenged, checked, questioned. Dismantling privilege means to take some on of the burden of these conversations.

You can do this by stepping up, fumbling through, sticking it out even when you feel insecure. You can do this by listening and taking the experiences of people of color as truth over white hegemony, which obscures or denies the experiences of communities of color…

And sure, it means to listen more than we talk, but it doesn’t mean to stay silent….Folk of color are speaking. It’s up to all of us to help spread this message as far as we can.

Elsa, this makes me wonder how different your life would have been if your parents hadn’t been so scared of you and your strangely different powers, and had listened to you more than talked at you.  It makes me wonder how they may have taught you how to exercise your inherent qualities and talents so that you, and the people in their kingdom, could have come to value your difference as a gift rather than a curse.  Sure, they probably would have stumbled and made mistakes, but they would have seen you as a whole person, and not a freak or an outcast.

Here in our country, I wonder what would happen if those of us with privilege and power began to listen more to people of color than talk at them.  I wonder how we would behave if we truly believed that black lives matter.  I know we would stumble and make mistakes, but at least then we would be seeing the variety of colors rather than pretending they don’t exist, and we’d be having the conversation so that people of color would feel heard and valued, and their difference could be viewed as a gift rather than a curse.

Here in our country, I don’t want us to deny white privilege, but to see it as a kind of a superpower, a power we may use for selfish purposes or for purposes that promote the good of everyone.  Remaining silent, or believing we don’t have it are ways we use our privilege for selfish purposes because those are ways it won’t upset the status quo, and we won’t have to face the challenge of transformation.  But if those of us who have privilege admit to having it, then we will be able to understand more how we, too, are part of the system, and we will be able to invite change into our behavior and be able to more fully be the people we aspire to be.

Here in my church, Elsa, when we want to work on changing the structures of power into more compassionate and just systems, we have a slogan that says we are “Standing on the Side of Love,” and in our belief system we also value the “inherent worth and dignity of each person.”  As we hold these values of love and worth, I hope that we will be able to take some lessons from you.  There was a time in your story when you couldn’t take the secrecy and suppression anymore, and you had to run away.  You had to do some learning on your own.  You had to be angry, and you had to let go of all the negative messages from your past so that you could learn how to really use your powers to create beauty as you sang, “My power flurries through the air into the ground / my soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around.”

Right now in our country there are a lot of people who are hurting and angry and heartbroken, people who want the violence against people of color to stop, people who have been ignored and suppressed, and who need the time to be angry so that they can really learn how to use their powers to create beauty.  I want us to learn in this country that we can hold and allow that anger as we learn the difference between what The Forum Project calls being “nice” and being “good.”

In your story, Elsa, true love is what saved both you and your sister, though the love didn’t come from the source we thought it would at first.  In this advent season, as we await and work for the birth and evolution of justice and peace, I desire for us the courage to be uncomfortable as we listen to painful truths, the compassion and generosity of spirit to hold another’s anger, and the strength to believe in the power of love, even from unlikely places.

Thank you, Elsa, for your inspiration.

In faith and love,