State of the UUA 2017: The Road through Humansville

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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Bryan Stevenson’s four points for the night were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hawaii Journal – Day 1 and 2: Race, Shame and Motorcycles in Paradise

Arriving in paradise is more complex than I thought it would be.  My wife and I have been planning this trip for quite some time, so we’re very excited and thrilled to be in Hawaii.  In my life I’ve lived in many different places and traveled extensively throughout the United States so that by the time I was 24 I had been to 48 states, and 49 states by the time I was 30.  So I’ve been waiting two decades to finally get to my 50th state.  When we married, my wife really wanted to someday give me the gift of traveling together to my final state.  When our ten-year wedding anniversary arrived in August 2014, she said we needed to go over spring break this year to celebrate.  So finally, after many decades of waiting, here I am!

After leaving Minnesota at 33 degrees (F) in the morning, it was a thrill to arrive in Honolulu in the afternoon where it was 80 degrees.  The lei garland our shuttle bus driver gave us smelled beautiful.  I don’t know what flowers they were but they smelled like “lily,” but even more delicious.

But the first two things that skewed my expectations – or perhaps I should say corrected my previously skewed preconceptions – were the large amounts of traffic on narrow highways, and large amounts of what appeared to be low-income housing on our way to Waikiki Beach on the shuttle bus.  Paradise is not supposed to have traffic jams, and it is certainly not supposed to have poverty. But then I had that “of course” moment, realizing once again how those without means around the world are the ones who serve those with means.  And this time around, I am one with means.

That is jarring for me.  I grew up in a family with very little means in a blue collar Milwaukee neighborhood, and after college worked with teenagers in jobs that kept me at the poverty line for a decade before entering seminary. In my 40s I’ve finally attained the aspirations of so many of the lower middle class, and it leaves me feeling both proud of myself and uncomfortable.

On the bus, looking out the window, seeing those run down homes and apartments reminded me of many places I’ve lived.  And then, crossing the Ala Wai Canal, it was night and day – not quite as stark but similar to driving west to east in the Hyde Park area of Chicago, crossing Cottage Grove Avenue. Within the span of one block, it’s a drive from run down and boarded up homes and businesses to clean streets, thriving businesses and reasonably upscale homes. Here it is glimmering glass hotel towers, Louis Vuitton, Coach, H&M, and more…and I recognize that this place may not be a paradise for everyone, and I understand once again what a privileged place I am in, even to buy the ticket to get here.  So when I show up in this way at a place like this, I feel a tearing inside between despair at the inequality, and a need to block out some of the flood of inequity so I can walk down the street and buy myself breakfast on a morning, and to notice and enjoy the beauty that is here, the beauty that has nothing to do with me, was here before I arrived, and will be here long after I’m gone.

And then, on the morning of our second day there (of our first full day), we went to breakfast at “Bill’s Sidney,” an Australian place. It was a very good place to eat. At one point I looked around, and saw all the people eating on the porch with us and all the people eating inside the restaurant were Asian.  I heard a lot of what sounded like Japanese to me, though I am not well versed in the differences between Japanese and Chinese and Korean, and others.  But I did see that my wife and I were the only Caucasian people eating breakfast there. In jest – and partly because I know I would be one of the people sleeping in if it weren’t for the five-hour time difference that allowed me to “sleep in” until 5:00 am (which was 10:00 am Minnesota time) – I posted on my Facebook page: “We’re the only Caucasians in this restaurant for breakfast. Lazy Americans.”

I meant that other people like me…that is, other people who *looked* like me, that is, Caucasian…were such lazy people to sleep in. I meant it as a playful derogatory slam against myself and other white people who sleep in. It wasn’t until a little later in the day that a friend of mine, another white, North American male, wrote me a private message on Facebook saying:

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You posted “we’re the only Caucasians in this restaurant for breakfast. Lazy Americans.” Woah! White much? You meant lazy whites. Many of those non-Caucasians may be non-lazy Americans.

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And then the shame hit me.  I am involved in racial anti-oppression work back home, and I do my best to be aware, show up, and speak up about race and inequality…and yet there I went, making assumptions based on appearance, stumbling into one of my more insensitive blunders.  A simple written essay cannot convey the depth of disappointment I had in myself.  I am grateful, though, that the lesson was taught to me by another white male. We white people do not always need to learn from people of color about issues of race and oppression.  As I heard one time, we white people do not need to have people of color do all our domestic anti-oppression work for us.  It is possible for white people to understand, and to teach other white people, for us to call one another to account when we step over the line, when our deeply embedded social bias and dysfunction seeps out sideways.

I contemplated deleting my Facebook post – not to pretend I didn’t say anything, but so it wouldn’t cause any more confusion or hurt.  Instead, I decided to leave it there, a bit like a wound, a public acknowledgement of imperfection, and offer an apology.  I wrote in response to my own comment:
“I stand corrected…lazy *white* people…as it could be there were lots of Americans there. My apologies.”

Through my spiritual work, with myself and with others, I know shame is not a very useful emotion.  Some religions use it with great skill, and it sometimes even works to motivate some people in the short term.  But in the long run I believe it is an extremely destructive place to live.  Living in shame does not allow space for healing, forgiveness, grace, growth, or transformation.  I’m OK dealing with, hearing about, and feeling pain – both mine and others – but I do not want to live in or disburse shame if I can help it.  So in this blog space too I apologize for my blunder, for assuming that some Asians in Hawaii were not American. And I ask my friends and others to continue to call me to account in the future when I screw up.

When I could let go of the shame, the rest of the day went beautifully.  My wife and I each rented our own motorcycle.  She just got her motorcycle license on Mother’s Day 2014, so we’ve had fun riding together for the past year.  Now we got to ride together in Hawaii!  We rode from Honolulu through Pearl City, and then on up H2 to the Birthing Stones (near the town of Wahiawa) where women from the royal native Hawaiian families would go to give birth.  Even today it is still considered a sacred site.

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From there we stopped briefly at the Dole Plantation then went to Haleiwa on the north shore to try to see sea turtles (we didn’t), and then rode west to the end of Hwy 930 to Ka’ena Point State Park. From there we hiked two miles out to the end of Ka’ena Point and saw a couple of Monk Seals sunbathing on the rocks, and a rare species of Albatross nesting and mating under groups of bushes.

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From there on the northwest corner of Oahu, it was a fairly uneventful ride back, all along the north coast and down the east coast, except for the incredible number of cars and traffic on all the two-lane roads and the slow speed limits all around the island.  It was a spectacular and dramatic drive though, with ever shifting clouds coming in off the ocean and dancing up against the mountains that rose, in some places, almost directly out of the sea and straight up next to the road…and occasionally dropping sprinkles of rain on us.  It is amazing how fickle the weather can be.

We had three hours to go 60 miles in order to get our motorcycles back on time. But with one short stop, 35 and 45 mph speed limits, lots of cars, and one accident where a car had taken out a telephone pole and power line (we never did find out any details) and all the traffic was diverted at a snail’s pace through 10 blocks or so of a side neighborhood and I just about lost all feeling in my left hand from squeezing the clutch in and out for 45 minutes, we made it back at 6:02 pm, in time not to have to pay any late fees!

It was a spectacular day in Hawaii, exploring, learning, enjoying one another for hours at a time in ways we don’t get to do in our regular lives back home.  Many times that day, at the Birthing Stones, at Ka’ena Point, even in a sprinkle of rain, even stopped in a traffic jam, Heidi and I would turn to each other and say, “Hey! We’re riding motorcycles.
In HAWAII!”

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