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.

1

 

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.
7.png

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.
8

 

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.

11

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.

12

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.

16

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.

17

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.

18

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.

25

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.

26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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