exploring our beliefs, living our values, changing our world

Archive for the ‘Sunday Services’ Category

Deus Ex Machina and the Ghost in the Shell

This sermon is the completion of a trilogy (I suppose I could call it a three-part series but the former sounds better) Around James Luther Adams concept of the Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion. I preached this sermon on the first Sunday In December 2016. Upon  rehearing the sermon (during editing) I had to admit that I was having a lot of fun but wasn’t sure where I was going, but then my goal is not to arrive before I get there. If you find yourself wondering where I am going throughout this sermon just let yourself go and experience the path, but don’t think about it as a conclusion, maybe more of a resolution.

Before preaching the sermon I posted this summation:

I wish you could have been along for the ride while I debated back and forth about this title through inner dialogue. Deus Ex Machina is Latin for God out of the Machine a common narrative trope found in stage and screen also in books and even theology. Ghost in a Shell is a story about a marionette created by an old man named Gepeddo, that came to life after wishing on a star… wait no… that’s Pinocchio. Either way, I want to talk about something that binds us together, I will be continuing through James Luther Adams’ Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Region. Today’s topic, hope.

Love Letter to Mississippi

Dear Mississippi, how should I begin? As a Unitarian Universalist, I can only speak my own truth, which is informed by a deep relationship with the elements.

Water: In heavy rain, cats yowling, the lightning in the sky giving me a glimpse of the Chunky River’s churning. A sudden doom fell upon my shoulders: I was moving somewhere they would name a river Chunky without a trace of irony. Hot on the heels of a life-altering breakup, storm season in Mississippi was the perfect accompaniment to my unraveling. I moved here for love, a love lost 19 days before my entry to the state. I would stand in the rain or at the edge of the Reservoir howling, crying big fat tears, not yet realizing that I had freed myself.

A year later, the rains rolled in, and I was a different person: worn like riverstone, I stood in the deluge, trading kisses. While we adamantly told everyone we weren’t dating, we were slowly building a marriage.

 

Fire: I lived in Miami, where I would burn through long sleeve tee-shirts, I lived in the Dutch Oven of pollution that encapsulates Atlanta. Nothing prepared me for Mississippi’s summer swelter. I suddenly understood the concept of braising on a whole new level. I was able to truly appreciate my newfound friends’ investments in deep, covered porches. Fire: do any mosquitos burn quite like Mississippi?

Mississippi is where I took my anger and turned it into passion. I have always been outspoken, but Mississippi helped me to hone my candor into a useful tool. I have always been opinionated, but Mississippi made an advocate out of me. I had aways written, but Mississippi made a writer out of me.

I had carried so much anger within me, that proverbial hot stone, and in Mississippi,  the hottest part of the forge for so very many social struggles, I shaped that anger into an instrument for activism and growth.

 

Air: As a child, I would spread my arms wide and let the wind catch my whole body like a sail. I still do this. Everyone notices the wind in Mississippi: I think everyone holds deep gratitude for the breeze that slices through soupy August, just as we steel ourselves for the icy barrage that whips through January.

The lightning in Mississippi is superior to any other place I have seen: the way it splits the sky, that primal beauty, laden with wonder, awe, and fear. Unburdened by decades of old habits and reputations, I let the lightning split me, let the air move me, spiraling me deeper into my own self. I came to an accord with my intellect, embraced my nerdiness, and allowed the air to bear away the tatters of an old life long outlived.

 

Earth: I had grown plants, but never had a garden. I am still in no hurry: the trees in Mississippi are incredible. Jackson is an anomaly: after years of asphalt, limestone and pure red clay, to be able to have wild animals afoot, and sensory reassurance of happenstance nature around me in the middle of a city was overwhelming. During a nasty storm, a wild goose took refuge on my apartment porch: we weathered the storm together, he on one side of the glass, me on the other. I sighted a deer across the street from the mall. I have seen a living armadillo trundling alongside Pear Orchard Road.  In Fondren, there is a tomato plant that crawls out of a crack in the sidewalk each year, bearing fruit against all odds. I have seen a red-tailed hawk snatch a jay out of the sky, and a community of bluejays rise up to exact vengeance. All my life, I would listen to Stevie Nicks and sway: she made me feel like a gypsy, a stray cat. I wanted to be untethered, easy to transplant. I put down wide but shallow roots.

Suddenly, I had a home. When my love and I bought a house, we knew it was ours because of the massive grove of trees… the trees that bent nearly to the ground, but did not break in Katrina… but played dervishes in a tornado and dropped most of their branches in a large, interlocking spiral. We thought we had lost them, but in the end, their deep roots saved them. They taught me that we must be willing to root deeply and reach out to one another to have security; that others will shelter your broken, tender body with their own limbs.

 

Mother Mississippi is no doting mother. She exacts a hefty toll from each of us. The rivers… they go where they want. Tornadoes rake our land like animal claws. The sun is brutal, and Yazoo clay is a trickster spirit of its own. Let’s say Mother Mississippi challenges the concept of your ownership.

I have an elevator speech for the many people who ask me, “WHY MISSISSIPPI?”

I tell them i live on a dead volcano beside a living serpent of a river. I stay because of the black earth streaked with red clay and the blood of civil rights heroes; the impossible green of sweet potato vine; the fossilized epic log jam just outside the city; and the Ragnarok-levels of lightning breaking through the storm outside. Jackson, my slice of earth, is an elemental convergence.

But there is more. Mississippi is a great teacher. I stay because the heat reminds me to kindle my own blazing courage; I stay because the air reminds me to use my breath as fuel for the body and lasting change; I stay because the water reminds me that we ourselves are ever-changing, capable of changing course; and I stay because the earth reminds me that we who choose to stay are interwoven, inextricable… sovereign unto ourselves, but supported by so many.

Today is not Earth Day, but we celebrate it anyway. We can choose to celebrate it daily, to remind us we can make tiny changes in our lives to live more gently; that we can revel in the beauty even as we mourn the injustices done to our habitat and the souls of our neighbors; and that we can fall in love with a place that is prickly, harsh, and perhaps difficult to love…

It is a complicated relationship, and I cherish it.

Freedom’s Consequences

–Message delivered by John Pepper on July 21, 2013

You never know where life will take you, and frankly I never anticipated going to the seminary. While I truly enjoyed the overall experience, the most rewarding aspect of my six years was meeting a professor who became my mentor and a dear friend. This particular professor taught classes on Preaching and Worship. He was also minister emeritus at one of the larger United Methodist Churches in Houston so he had a wealth of practical experience.

Several years ago I approached him and asked if he would be my mentor. This request began a dear and treasured friendship. Sadly, in the summer of 2007 he passed away after a very short and unexpected illness.

His passing is not what I want to focus on today but what he attempted to teach me is. He and I were both theologically and politically very compatible and we had similar, though not exact beliefs. Above all else, he loved his family and his devotion to them was without question.

On one issue, however, he differed from several of his grown children and that was over politics – they were on one side and he was often on the other. I find myself in that same boat with many of my own family members, so at one point I asked him how he dealt with it.

I of course was hoping for a spiritually enlightening solution that would offer clarity and insight and he obliged by sharing a story. He recalled one particular holiday meal when an in-law began talking politics. The opinions shared by the in-law were totally alien to his way of thinking and personal beliefs. He said his daughter looked terrified, afraid of what he would say.

He indicated that he listened politely and then when the time was right, without any hesitation whatsoever, he asked for someone to please pass the wonderful mashed potatoes. He went on to comment how delightful and delicious the meal was and that he was so glad to be there with all of them.

Commenting on that event, he said it simply wasn’t the time or place to confront or address the issues where they differed.

The fact that he was in his daughter’s home and the respect and love he had for her, far outweighed his need to share his beliefs or his particular version of the truth. I had wanted something deeply spiritual to help me deal with similar situations and instead he brought me back to Earth. Sometimes there are no easy answers, and related to politics, there are no simple solutions or silver bullets. There is only patience and above all else, respect and love.

He knew what was important. At the core of his being the love and respect he had for his family was one of the essential elements that made him who he was. When differences arose, that same love and respect demanded acceptance of a liberal range of beliefs coupled with a form of charity, where the charity I’m talking about is defined as a leniency from judging others.

This was not to say that he avoided all confrontations. There were times and places for those confrontations and although we are free in every sense of the word, he knew it was not an unbridled freedom that allowed disrespect for the beliefs and rights of others.

He was not shy about his views and opinions and they often surfaced in his sermons and even in his lectures as a professor. But they were never weapons used to bludgeon those with differing beliefs.

The lesson I hope we can all take away today is rather broad. It is that we must use our freedoms rightly with both love and respect. We must look for that which unites us and when we differ, we must employ an ethic of both liberality and charity. And finally, when we must share our deeply cherished right to the freedom of speech, we must look for the right time and the right place. This lesson is not simple. Life is not simple. If you want easy answers you may need to go elsewhere. Honestly, I believe the simple answers are often the wrong answers, so please be careful. We are free, free to make bad decisions and free to alienate those we love. The choice is ours.

As I was contemplating this sermon, I began to reflect long and hard on my professor and the phrase that came to mind over and over again, was not actually from him.

The phrase was, “In Essentials, Unity; in Non-essentials, Liberty; in all things Charity.” That phrase actually came out of a time that was even more politically charged than our own.

For many years, Christianity struggled with very contentious issues. I wonder if you can possibly imagine a time when there were in fact several competing factions and each side thought they were absolutely right on all the contested issues.

The other side was undeniably wrong. During this particular period in history, their differences revolved around religious issues of doctrine and creed and no side was willing to listen to the other side, much less negotiate a mutually acceptable middle ground.

All sides had access to brilliant, articulate, and highly educated theologians and they knew the issues backwards and forwards and could defend their positions to the death, often using the Bible to back up their particular views.

In fact, the disagreements got so bad and so vicious, that they actually went to war. People died and killed for their religious beliefs.

The battles raged on for years and years, in fact the battles went on so long historians now call the period the “30 Years War.” It lasted from 1618 to 1648 and engulfed most of Germany but many other countries as well, including the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and France. Some historians claim the truces that ended the war created the first secular society – one where competing and rival religious communities and their state governments somehow managed to craft a ceasefire in order to live together in peace.

I am not sure I’d call what they accomplished as living in harmony, but they were able to live together without continuing the previously long and devastating war.

During the war, one of their earnest and brilliant religious minds tried to come up with a position or a creed they could all accept and that would allow them to move beyond their rigid and deadly convictions. The individual was a theologian by the name of Peter Meiderlin. He attempted to craft a principle that could balance the claims between the various salvation theologies through a moderate position.

His principle was, “We would be in the best shape if we kept in essentials, Unity; in non-essentials, Liberty; and in both Charity.”

This attempt at finding common ground was just that, an attempt, and sadly, it failed. It satisfied few and did not provide a method for determining exactly what was essential. It did, however, provide guidance when there was no obvious consensus and that was to be both liberal and charitable. Even though it didn’t work for them, I believe it can be a tool for us today.

Even so, the peace established at the conclusion of the 30 Years War was only between the Catholics, Lutheran and Reformed movements. If you had differing beliefs from them, you were out of luck. Secular society was new and not as advanced as it would become much later. Essentials were defined strictly in terms of Christianity and liberality and charity did not extend beyond those three religious affiliations. But at least it was a beginning.

Today we are used to a great deal more freedom and our liberality and charity extend to vigorous debates often resulting in vast differences of opinion.

We take this right and freedom almost for granted. One of the ways this particular freedom came to fruition in our society was through the associational dimension articulated in our earlier reading by James Luther Adams, one of our UU leaders from the 20th Century. We are all free to associate as we see fit and we are similarly free to disassociate as well, but the same is not true everywhere. Adams wrote his essay in 1969, but many years earlier he was influenced by events in Germany. In 1927, six years before the Nazis came to power, the events he witnessed foreshadowed the dark times ahead.

He says, “I was watching a Sunday parade on the occasion of the annual mass rally of the Nazis. Thousands of youth, as a sign of their vigor and patriotism, had walked from various parts of Germany to attend the mass meeting of the party. As I watched the parade, … I asked some people on the sideline to explain to me the meaning of the swastika… . Before very long I found myself engaged in a heated argument. Suddenly someone seized me from behind and pulled me by the elbows out of the group with which I was arguing.

In the firm grip of someone whom I could barely see I was forced through the crowd and propelled down a side street and up into a dead-end alley. … At the end of the alley my uninvited host swung me around quickly, and he shouted at me in German, “You fool. Don’t you know? In Germany today when you are watching a parade, you either keep your mouth shut, or you get your head bashed in.”

I thought he was going to bash it in right there. But then his face changed into a friendly smile and he said, “If you had continued that argument for five minutes longer, those fellows would have beaten you up.”

“Why did you decide to help me?” I asked. He replied, “I am an anti-Nazi. As I saw you there, getting into trouble, I thought of the time when in New York City as a sailor of the German merchant marine I received wonderful hospitality. And I said to myself, ‘Here is your chance to repay that hospitality.’ So I grabbed you, and here we are. I am inviting you home to Sunday dinner.”

This unknown man’s respect for the essential dignity of Americans perhaps saved Adams’ life.

Adams’ penchant for speaking the truth as he saw it and the freedoms he enjoyed in the U.S. were not consistent with the Germany he had come to for religious study. He did not realize the potential consequences of his actions, but another charitable soul did realize the consequences, and rescued him from a potentially tragic situation. Adams was indeed fortunate on that particular day and he learned and he grew from that experience.

Sadly, Germany was already sliding down the slippery slope that resulted in the horrors of World War II. Germany enforced their version of Unity and both liberality and charity were thrown out the window and were tragically burned in the real fires of oppression.

That particular Sunday was not the right day for Adams to speak out, but the right day did come. A few years later during World War II, Adams was tasked with lecturing on the Nazi faith to a large group of U.S. Army officers. The officers were preparing for service later in the occupation army to be stationed in Germany. Adams writes, “As I lectured them I realized that together with a just resentment against the Nazis I was engendering in the students an orgy of self-righteousness.”

Before I go on here, let me pause and say some of what I’m about to share is hard to repeat. In fact I will edit the text, but its overall poignancy is hard to miss.

Adams goes on to say, “This self-righteousness, I decided, ought somehow to be checked. Otherwise, I might succeed only in strengthening the morale of a bumptious hundred-percent “Americanism,” and that was not the faith we were supposed to be fighting for. Toward the end of the lecture I recapitulated the ideas of the Nazi “faith,” stressing the Nazi belief in the superiority of the Teutons and in the inferiority of other “races.” I also reminded the officers of a similar attitude to be observed in America, not only among the lunatic and subversive groups but also among respectable Americans in the army of democracy.

Then I posed one or two questions to be answered by each man based on his own conscience. First: “Is there any essential difference between your attitude toward the (Black) and the Jew, and the Nazi attitude toward other ‘races’ – not a difference in brutality but a difference in basic philosophy?” …

“If there is no essential difference between your race philosophy and that of the Nazis, a second question should be posed: ‘What are you fighting for?’”

“I blush when I think of some of the responses I received. I was immediately besieged with questions like these: “Do you think we should marry the (and Adams uses the N word)?” “Haven’t you been in business, and don’t you know that every Jew is a (and Adams uses an equally offensive word for Jews)?” Questions like these came back to me for over an hour. I simply repeated my question again and again: “How do you distinguish between yourself and a Nazi?” Seldom have I witnessed such agony of spirit in a public place.”

So, what can we learn from Adams today? Sadly, I seldom have the composure, the patience, or even the intelligence to similarly tease out the often painful truths in an equally respectful and deliberate way. All too often I use my own freedom of speech, rather clumsily, and end up alienating rather than enlightening.

Adams, however, was able to appeal to those officers’ intelligence, an essential element common to each of those present, and through that inherent intelligence he was able to illustrate the flaws in their rigid faiths that had caustic similarities to those of the Nazis. Hopefully, through Adams’ patient and respectful demeanor, some liberality and charity developed with regard to the officers’ future approaches to a conquered Germany.

In our other reading this morning, Kahlil Gibran takes a very different approach and reminds us of the inherent difficulty of separating the good from the evil. If you were listening to his profound words and his amazing metaphors, and if those words resonated with you to some degree, then you may agree separating the good from the evil is often difficult if not impossible. There are simply no easy or mystical answers, only hard work.

One of the last century’s greatest leaders knew how difficult the problems were and his overall approach applied here as well. He said, “Whenever you have truth it must be given with love, or the message and the messenger will be rejected.”

Mahatma Gandhi made that profound statement and we should all listen. Sharing the truth, whatever you believe that truth to be, must be done with love or the message will be lost.

In our own time, this truth seems to be more important than ever. One particular place where there seems to be more conflict than almost ever before, is in the Middle East, where there is apparently only one right and one wrong and all sides claim they have exclusive knowledge as to exactly what is right and what is wrong.

Sadly, that same single-mindedness has infected many of us here in the U.S. resulting in simple and often incomplete or inadequate answers to far too complicated problems. There seems to be little unity of purpose and thought and a fear of both liberality and charity.

Our freedom of speech is not currently in jeopardy but our need for civil conversation and respect for other views that differ from our own, certainly seems to be in danger of disappearing altogether. For me, the consequences of that loss are staggering.

The events in the Middle-East seem to be compounding all of our problems. Primarily in response to that conflict comes a man who has experienced the extremes of hatred and violence and instead of embracing one particular ideology, to the exclusion of all others, his own personal beliefs have evolved into wisdom we can all share. This very well known and influential Jewish rabbi has stated the problem far better that I can. In his recent book, You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right, Brad Hirschfield says, “Even if honestly held views are based on ignorance or delusion, they have to be addressed for at least three different reasons.

“First, is that these views define the beliefs, worldview, and frame of reference of the person or people whom I hope to engage. My telling you that something you believe in is wrong isn’t going to help the conversation; you have to meet people where they are.

“Second, failing to meet them where they are demeans them in precisely the same way we think they are demeaning us. If a person or group holds a view we find repugnant, they probably feel our views are repugnant as well. If we don’t take them seriously, why should they take us seriously? You can’t be someone else’s teacher until you’re willing to be their student.

“And third, they may be right, at least partially. After all, if we are not prepared to consider that it is we who may be ignorant or deluded; our thinking is as closed as theirs. Our fear of moral equivalence first keeps us from appreciating the importance of emotional equivalence; it keeps us from understanding that, ultimately, we each want the same thing. We need to begin talking to each other. Without that conversation, people will keep on dying.”

Hirschfield provides us with three reasons why we need to truly listen and relate to other people and groups alien to our own. As he says, if we don’t, people will keep on dying.

It seems that in each age, someone comes along and attempts to be heard above the noise, the anger, and the fear and reminds us of our common humanity. They remind us of what is essential.

Peter Meiderlin tried during the 30 Years War and James Luther Adams attempted the same in the aftermath of World War II.

The Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran, the spiritual father of India, Mahatma Gandhi, and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield did as well.

All of these individuals, and many others, including my own beloved professor and mentor, Dr. John Fellers, attempt to inspire each of us to use our freedoms to look for that which unites us instead of that which divides us.

I wish life were easy. … I wish there were simple solutions to complicated problems. … I wish we could all get along.

And I wish there were spiritual solutions to all of the many complicated issues that bombard us all on a daily basis.

But sadly, there are no easy answers and no magic solutions, only the hard work of trying to understand and accept one another.

Our freedoms are precious and maybe through our own demonstration of respect and love for those with similar freedoms who speak in tones and with feelings different from our own, maybe we can foster an atmosphere of both liberality and charity, an atmosphere that is desperately needed in our own free and secular society.

However, as I continue to repeat myself here today, there are no mystical solutions to our many problems so this hope and dream of mine is not assured, so please keep in mind something Clarence Darrow, the famous lawyer once said.

“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.”

The Chalice and the Flame or There and Back Again

A sermon by Justin McCreary Preached at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, in Jackson Mississippi on July 7th 2013.

I drove nervously to Louisville, not knowing what I would find, never knowing what I would see. This was my first step into the national Unitarian Universalist church I was to be birthed from the womb of the UUCJ and take part on the national stage. And it was daunting, people moving everywhere, old friend and comrades, coming together, renewing relationships from years past. I could not know what to expect, I could not know what to see, I could not know what I would feel or even if I would be able to “Play well with others.”

And with all the nervousness and fear that I felt walking into those first meetings I have to admit, it was a little boring. Registration started at noon on Wednesday and the line was very long, orientation was informative in the same way that the safety instructions on an airplane are. Very important but… well lets at least say very important. The Regional Welcome took an hour and a half to introduce people I’d never met in a room that sweltered in standing room only space, and I was worried about getting to the banner parade booth on time, to not only register my banner but buy one of the few banner carriers they had. Of course when working within a church that takes pride in it’s polity I was not surprised, nor was I disheartened, for all orientations are boring but important, it is important to thank the people who helped put on events, and lines, no matter the size will always seem long.

We had been warned during orientation that it would be important to “give ourselves permission” to take breaks and to miss things… so in the honor of missing things I cut out early, walked to my hotel, and reapplied deodorant, because after running around in long sleeves all day and slow roasting in room 110 for the regional welcome I could smell myself, which, caused more anxiety for me than it was worth.

But therein lied the nervousness, I was making my first impression within this group that I would wish not just to fellowship with, but to be a part of. Finding friends and making contacts so that years pass and I will look forward to seeing those whom I had not seen in years. I had to curb my introversion, and be the person, you all know me, after a year and a half of connection and friendship, to be, the person you sent, while having to ignore the one who was trying to hide in the corner, and take a nap.

We waited for what seemed like hours in the hallway, for the banner parade to start, banner poles resting on the ground, The banner from my home church hung limp, moving when I did, but mostly motionless in the stagnant air of the hallway. I took some pictures, joined in on a little chit chat, then we started to move and once we started, everything moved fast.

By the time I made it into Plenary Hall an easy hundred banners had already past and many still snaking through. Bluegrass music played from a live band on stage and I…

I was met by cheers.
Not just a few woots and claps, but by a grand assembly of 4 and a half thousand people clapping and cheering, taking pictures, our faces were broadcast on the grand screens in the hall. I couldn’t help but give into a wide smile that quickly broke into a broad grin as I carried the banner for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson into the hall. I did not have to try to be excited at that point, I did not have to try to stay positive, and I did not have to try to fit in. As I snaked through the hall I couldn’t help but feel the pride of being a Unitarian Universalist, and as I relinquished our banner, to be hung with the others, in the hall of banners, I could barely catch my breath.

In that first night many good things were said, many good songs were sung, and I was inspired but if you ask me what those things were and what songs they were I couldn’t tell you. The rest of the night was a blur, and I returned to my room that night exhausted, and proud to have carried our banner through that explosive hall.

I called my wife then went to bed tired, knowing we would start early the next day. I was excited, well… I was tired but after the night before I was looking forward to 7:30 worship. I love worship, I love church services, I think it is never why I can be spiritual not religious, I love the religious aspect too much, the words, the songs, the prayers, and the gathering. The pomp and circumstance is my lifeblood, my comfort, my hope. So this week regardless of anything else I would do I would see how other UU’s worship together. How, on a national scale, we can bring together those who believe in God as male and female, there and not there, true and false, Lord and Devil, Humanist, Pagan, Atheist, Christian, Buddhist, and the general “ah whatever,” under one grand banner, or better said, under one flaming chalice.

I indulged in every worship experience they had, and as I left the week and began driving home, words echoed in my head…

Sung
Come come whoever you are
Worshiper, wanderer, Lover of leaving
Ours is no caravan of despair
Come, come again, come

We engaged the song on Friday morning. We had been talking about covenant, about what it means to call ourselves UU, what we promise when we wear the moniker. Because when we choose this identifying name we choose something else. I won’t say we choose all the things that the UUA chooses but we make a choice and a promise. We sit in the chairs and listen, we sit in the chairs and experience, we sit in the chairs as worshipers, wanderers, and lovers of leaving. But we can only sit apart for so long before connection starts to build between us.

The added a refrain to the song… it is in the original poem but it’s left out of the hymn…

Though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times come come again come…

That morning I thought a lot about vow breaking, I thought about the vows I broke that brought me to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson. I thought again of the heartbreak that brought me in the door. And emotion welled up in me, corked like a bottle corked so that the pressure stays, I felt the pressure moving against the cork, pushing, and I fought to keep the cork in place. I must not have been alone in the auditorium because we were asked to share with our neighbor our personal broken vows… I was sitting alone, no one around me… so I thought about leaving the auditorium early… no one would notice, then Jennifer from Buffalo sat next to me.

And in 5 minutes we shared, we shared our heartbreaks and broken vows. It was open and easy because I knew I would never see her again. Then after a final chorus of “We’ve broken our vows a thousand time, come come again come,” we left the auditorium, and I never saw Jennifer from Buffalo again, but I carried absolution, not from her, not from the church, but from myself.

But worship is many things isn’t it, sometimes it is the academic articulation of cultic behavior that signifies we are a community, sometimes it is the Wild Rumpus from Where the Wild things are, sometimes it is just the time we spend between coffee and lunch, and sometimes it is the heart that breaks and needs mended. Regardless of what it is there is something that connects us within it, a covenant, a community, a vow. A vow that we will break a thousand times and more, yet we still come together, make our vow again and work toward the promises only equality can keep.

I couldn’t help but notice the worshipers around me. Teenagers, young people, older people, people in the middle… It reminded me of the youth rallies I went to as an evangelical teenager, chapel service during college, and the worship we had during conferences. Hands raised in the air, eyes closed, hips swaying, some people in the isles dancing. There was a look of joy on all the faces. I stood listening to speakers and singing songs, we did a lot of standing, of course the chairs were so hard it was okay.

Worship was like a tide to be swept away in. I remember listening to the choir sing, and at one point it made complete sense that I should be standing and clapping… and thinking about the theological ramifications of being the first to stand I missed the opportunity that was tied to a specific feeling. I resolved that I would have to stop second guessing, I would have plenty of time to theologically deconstruct what was going on, but at the time I found it was more important to be a part of it, that if I were to go down to the river to pray I might as well jump in and let the waters wash over me in a new kind of baptism.

And what I realized as the choir sang, and as the singers sang, and we stood in the raging sea waving our hands and clapping, children of all ages dancing in the isles was that these people worshiped, sang, prayed, and danced differently than I had known them to in my evangelical history.

As evangelicals, we worshiped for salvation, because we were redeemed from being a part of this broken world. We sang to that same theme, of course we never sang and our hips seldom moved. But I remember the old hymn “This world is not my home I am just passing through,” but that is not what I sing now.

And it is not what we sung there or that we sing here, we sang and danced because this world is our home, and yes very broken, but we have the opportunity to fix it. Our singing was not a song of salvation from Hell, but the action of redeeming Hell. We sang, and we sing because we can make a difference, we can change the world, fix the breaks, and heal the wounded. We do not worship as sheep hiding behind a shepherd, but human beings with the opportunity allotted to us by God to make this world heaven in its own right.

I left after worship to write. I penned the thoughts going through my head, a poem that I later read during the Open Mic Poetry Slam and did the other thing I had found blessing in all week, I did the thing I was encouraged to do the first time I visited the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, We are told that if we really wanted to know what Unitarian Universalist’s believe, we would have to ask every individual Unitarian Universalist, so I did.

The conversation is easy enough to start, there were only a few tables in public area and there were never enough tables to have your own, so, I asked, “May I share your space?” I was never turned down, and I would pull out a book, start to read, then wonder, what the people at my table believed. So I asked. And no I didn’t start out with that question, I asked “How long have you been a UU? Is this your first General Assembly?” they would ask similar questions and I would tell them about me. There would be lots of sharing, one wonderful thing I have learned about UU’s is that we are talkers. Over and over this played out, and I met UU’s from all over the country.

I heard the stories over and over again, and I never got tired of hearing them because they were all different. One evening a woman rolled up in her power chair and sat with us. Turns out, she came to the UU through her husband sometime in the 1950’s, he happened to be a GA Junky.

To define a GA junky, one who comes to every GA, and I mean EVERY GA.

When her husband died in the 1970’s she just kept coming because she always had.

I sat down with a young man, 20 years old from North Carolina considering seminary, he was doing a survey for college credit. He was a lifer, meaning, he has been UU since childhood. We talked theology, politics, and life.

One thing I noticed was that everyone wanted to talk, everyone wanted to share their story, and to hear mine. I warned them all, that I was by myself so when I get the chance to sit and talk with people I tend to yammer their ears off. Of course I never ran into anyone who’d mind. Everyone loved to share their stories, and their stories were as different as ours.

People came to the UU and GA for so many different reasons, though we were all connected. We were connected by the flame on stage, and flame in our hearts that shines on the words, we do not have to think alike to love alike. The chalice that was lit inside me when I carried our banner into the auditorium that first night, burned without ceasing throughout.

When I was a kid I always looked forward to loved ones coming home from trips, whether it was my Dad for work, or Grandma on a cruise or bus trip. I looked forward to their return because I knew when they came home they would bring me something. A gift because a trip that I didn’t get to go on was not right if I didn’t at least get a gift out of it.

So I brought something home for you, it is the same thing I took with me, the same gift I received from this church. The gift when I first sat in the back of the church, worn out and broken. I bring the flame, I carried it first from Jackson Mississippi, I deposited it in Louisville KY, then I brought home the flame, the flame that burned first in our chalice, then the flame that burned in theirs. I carried the flame.

For what I realized in Kentucky, is the thing I have always believed when I stop to think theologically about the chalice about the flame that burns atop it. I realized that the International Convention Center in KY was a chalice and we were the flames that danced upon it. I realized that this building, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jackson, is a chalice and we are the flames that dance upon it. I bring home a flame of renewal, a flame of hope, a flame of love. And I realized the flame did not originate in this building, or that building, the flame that I carried and that I still carry originated within me. So what if the chalice is bigger than this building or that, what if the chalice is Jackson, what if the chalice is Mississippi? And we are all flames that burn across it.

What if we leave here carrying this flame, our flame, and we don’t go out to spread our flame but to help this place know, to help these people know, that they carry a flame, that it can burn ever so brightly, regardless of how dim it sets now. What if we feed the flame in others, we remove their blindfold and open them to the idea of unity, that love and hope and acceptance are universal? What happens then? What happens when we beat the swords into plowshares and we come to know the beloved community?

I left my old faith because they believed that only happens in death, but I believe it happens in life. I saw people worship in ecstasy not from the idea that they are saved from this life that they can make this life better. We are the tools to build a better world, but it is easy to get tired when we fight here on the front lines against those who limit human rights, but I bring the flame of renewal, the flame of hope, to be rekindled so that even though we don’t think alike, we can still love alike.

Blessed be

Racism and Spiritual Death in the United States of America

This sermon was delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East (Manchester, Connecticut) on January 15, 2006, by Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek. Used with permission.

Please read this for the next few sessions of Building the World We Dream About.

———————————————————————————————————–

When you were born—if you were born in the United States—and if someone filled out a birth certificate on your behalf, in order to fill out that birth certificate completely, they were required to indicate your race.

Every ten years when the Census Bureau mails out its questionnaires, in order to answer question #6 you must indicate your race. Some might argue that the 2000 census was different because there was a box for “other.” But the question is asking for your race; the box actually doesn’t say “other.” It says, “some other race.”

If your children attend public school, at some point in the enrollment process you must indicate their race. Every public school system in the nation is required by law to keep track of academic performance by race. If you refuse to indicate your child’s race, the school will have no choice but to do it for you. If you want admission to a college or university, or if you’re seeking financial aid to attend a college or university, it is not mandatory to indicate your race on the application, but in many instances checking the racial identity box makes a difference in your chances of being accepted and in the amount of your financial award.

You no longer have to indicate your race to get a driver’s license, a passport, a mortgage, or to register to vote. It is illegal for corporations, governments, and many other institutions to discriminate on the basis of race. But statistically, your race will and does play a role when you are looking for a job, seeking a neighborhood in which to live, attempting to sell a house, expressing an opinion in public, getting an education for yourself or your children, interacting with police, defending yourself in court, facing the death penalty, trying to hail a cab, purchasing insurance, searching for decent healthcare, calculating your expected life span, getting access to and compensation for the natural resources on your ancestral lands, calling 911 for an ambulance, searching for clean air to breathe—even in deciding which house of worship to attend. Race will impact your psychological well-being, your sense of self-esteem, and your overall outlook on life.

Race will and does play a profound role in all aspects of life in the United States of America, which is an extraordinary realization when we pause to remember that race, biologically speaking, doesn’t exist. For hundreds of years scientists assumed race was a biological reality because people look different to the naked eye: different skin color, different hair texture, different facial structure. There must be different races! But literally hundreds of scientific studies in the last forty years have demonstrated there is no significant genetic difference between human beings regardless of differences in skin color, hair, and facial structure. Yes, not all questions about human differences have been answered; some are still under debate. And yes, there are still scientists who contend they can demonstrate race scientifically and that innate racial inferiority and superiority can be proven. Nevertheless, the commonly accepted conclusion in the scientific community is that there is no biological evidence to prove the existence of race.

Yet there it is on our birth certificates, on our kids’ financial aid applications, and within those red lines figuratively drawn around certain urban neighborhoods in the back rooms of banks, insurance companies, and supermarket chains. If you’ve lived in Manchester [Connecticut] for the last forty years and someone says to you in hushed tones, so only you can hear, “this town ain’t what it used to be,” more than likely you’ll assume they’re talking about Manchester’s changing racial demographics. Race may not be real in terms of biology and genetics, but it is nevertheless very real in our lives.

In the United Sates of America there are a number of racial categories: Caucasian, African American, Native American, Asian American, Latino or Hispanic and—certainly since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, if not before—Arab American. Some of these categories are under intense debate as to whether they are truly racial categories (which makes me laugh, since none of them actually exists from a biological standpoint). All of them, and a few more, are listed in Census question #6 pertaining to race, although “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” gets its own separate question, #5. You can choose how you want to answer Census question #6—or anywhere else the racial identity question appears. You can choose to write in “none of the above.” You can choose to say “human race.” But let’s be honest: we don’t choose our race. Do you choose your racial identity? “I think I’ll be a white person.” “I think I’ll be brown.” “I think I’ll be black.” Sometimes we wonder what it’s like to be a different race, but choosing a racial identity is not something we do in the United States. It is done for us. We have no choice in the matter. And because we’re usually very young when this happens, it doesn’t take long for us to accept our racial identity as a fact of life and to internalize the positive or negative messages society tells us about our racial identity.

This is what Lillian Smith was talking about [in her book] Killers of the Dream. “A moment before one was happily playing,” she writes, “the world was round and friendly. Now at one’s feet there are chasms that had been invisible until this moment. And one knows, and never remembers how it was learned, that there will always be chasms, and across will always be those one loves.”

I call this sermon “Racism and Spiritual Death in the United States of America” because, although race is not a biological reality, it is a spiritual reality, and it is spiritually deadly to everyone. Unitarian Universalists, I believe, are well situated to hear and understand this message. We are people who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are people whose hymns proclaim “we will all do our own naming.” We are people who believe in free will, in choice, in the sacredness of self-definition, in the holiness of self-reliance, in the value of being self-directed, in the political right and the spiritual necessity of self-determination, in the integrity of the individual, in the inviolable rights of all people to make decisions about who they want to be, what they want to believe, and how they want to live. For us, that is what it means to be spiritually alive.

But we didn’t choose our race. We weren’t part of that decision. We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll live my life out of an identity based on flawed scientific data and assumptions.” We didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll be part of the privileged racial group” or “I’d like an appearance that invites negative racial profiling.” We did not define ourselves racially. We were defined racially. More accurately, racial identity was imposed on us by a power larger than us, a complex power I call demonic. And as long as we continue to live our lives out of an imposed racial identity, we live in a state of spiritual death. In each of us there is an unseen self beyond race, a truer self, a more authentic self, a whole self entirely free of the limits of race. We don’t know that self. We don’t know what we might’ve chosen had a choice been offered. We don’t know how we might be living today had a choice been offered. When we live as if race were real, we cannot know fully who we are. We live, therefore, in a state of spiritual death.

If you doubt this claim, if you find it off the mark, if you find it too big, too provocative, too audacious, perhaps even overly dramatic and unnecessarily inflammatory, I ask you to reflect on it more deeply. And I challenge you to choose for yourself an identity that is free of all traces of race. It cannot be done at this point in our history. This thing, this scientific falsehood, this immense lie used to separate people, used to exploit some and privilege others, this complex, demonic power that has been telling Americans who they are since Europeans first came to this continent has us so deeply in its grip we cannot choose an identity beyond it. How would you sustain such a choice? What would you need to say to people every time they laid eyes on you to communicate to them that you don’t have a race? We don’t have free will in this matter.

Can you imagine white people walking into retail stores or banks or waiting in line anywhere just to be served and saying, “don’t treat me like I’m white; go ahead, serve someone else first because I’m not white; feel free to follow me around as I shop because I’m not white; I no longer identify with any of the people I see in the majority of television shows because I’m not white; don’t have high expectations for my child because he’s not white; you’ve pulled me over officer, I assume, because I’m not white?” Can you imagine white people walking into people of color communities or churches saying, “I know I look white, but I’m not white. Please don’t treat me as white.” It sounds ludicrous and it is ludicrous. The opposite scenario for people of color would seem just as ludicrous except that it is normal, everyday experience. People of color have asked for centuries not to be evaluated based on the color of their skin, not to be pre-judged, not to be discriminated against, not to be profiled, not to be lynched, not to be run off their lands, not to be stereotyped, not to be deported, not to be segregated, not to be exploited, not to be invisible—they have been asking for the very thing I’m talking about—for a social, political, and economic identity beyond race—and it hasn’t yet happened.

No white person can take off white skin. No white person can give up the various privileges that come with white skin. No person of color can take off black or brown or red or yellow skin. No person of color can completely overcome the historical and systemic disadvantages perpetuated by institutional racism. The demonic power of race is a power larger than us. How we see ourselves turns out to be irrelevant. Racial identity has everything to do with how others see us, how society sees us. It is an imposed identity with immense power over us; we can’t just choose to get rid of it. And when we can’t make choices about who we are, about our deepest selves—when our relationships with others are guided by falsehoods no matter how genuine and honest we are—we are living in a state of spiritual death. Race and racism are responsible for spiritual death in the United States of America.

There are, of course, many people who believe they are spiritually alive in the United States—people of all denominations. There are many people who claim to be spiritually alive because they are living a life they believe God has called them to live. I suspect they would be upset and angry at my suggesting their spiritual life is mortally wounded by race. But none has yet convinced me my claim is wrong. Show me in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Christian New Testament, or the Muslim Koran, or the Buddhist Sutras, or the Taoist philosophies, or the earth-based traditions where it says God calls each of us to take on a racial identity or that racial identity is somehow inherent in the human condition. Show me in any scripture where it says white, black, red, brown, and yellow are distinct human categories intended and ordained by God. In those scriptures I see God creating or acknowledging linguistic differences, cultural differences, national differences, ethnic differences. Nowhere is the idea of racial identity consistent with any scriptural prescription for spiritual wholeness. Race and racism do not appear in the Bible. Racial identities are modern identities. People did not start identifying by race until it became embedded in colonial American law during the 1600s. Some of my Christian and Jewish and Muslim colleagues—certainly some of my UU colleagues—will still protest: “My relationship with God is profound!” “My connection to the sacred brings depth and meaning to my life!” I do not mean to suggest that spiritual practice, spiritual endeavor, worship, prayer, and meditation are worthless. In fact, I think the way beyond race and racism in the United States of America is a spiritual way. Nevertheless, I need to ask my colleagues and others who protest, who is it that has the relationship with God? Who is it that has the connection with the sacred? Our false self—our racialized self—has a relationship with God, a connection to the sacred. Our true self beyond the falsehood of race has no such relationship because we cannot access that self. Our true self beyond race is hidden, buried, dead, in profound need of resurrection.

I long for my true self. Lillian Smith said, “There will always be chasms.” I don’t believe that. I believe we can overcome the demonic power of racism that tells us who we are and strips us of our capacity to do our own naming. I am deeply hopeful. I note the lyrics from “Ol’ Man River” … . In the midst of racism, that river, “He must know somethin’, but he don’t say nothin’ / He just keeps rollin’, he keeps on rollin’ along.” The flowing river has always been a metaphor for hope, whether in Broadway show tunes, black spirituals, literature, or poetry.

But let’s be precise in our hope. How, precisely, must we approach the problem of race? Clearly, denial of race will not work, for it leads to a denial of racism—and you can’t address a problem if you don’t think it exists. Likewise, living beyond race—as much as that is an ultimate goal and a way of coming alive spiritually—will not work in this time and place.

I hope this sermon has demonstrated how deeply the lie of race holds sway over our lives, and how it is not only premature, but impossible at this point in United States history to live as if we can set our racial identities aside. So the only honest and useful option I see—the only way to begin bridging the chasms that separate people—the only way to tap into the river of hope—is to acknowledge the truth that race holds all of us captive, to acknowledge the truth that our nation, though driven by the promise of liberty and justice for all, still rests on a foundation of white supremacy that steals our birthright and commits spiritual murder by telling us who we are rather than letting us be who we are. Let us proclaim to the demonic power of racism, “We will not stay dead. We will strive to reclaim our full humanity. We will become spiritually alive.” And to say this means we will learn, together, the strategies we must develop and the actions we must take to weaken, subvert, undermine, and ultimately destroy the demonic power of racism and the institutional structures that comply with it… .The way back to spiritual life in the United States of America is to make ourselves accountable for dismantling racism so that it can no longer tell us who we are, so that it can no longer prevent us from naming ourselves, so that it can no longer diminish the inherent worth and dignity of all people as it has been doing for 500 years in the western hemisphere, so that we can know the true meaning of freedom in this life in this country.

Amen. Blessed Be.

Toward Diversity

The 1960s civil rights struggle has had a lasting impression on our congregation. It has affected our institutional identity and in some ways is symbolized by the shape and look of our mission and even what we and visitors see in our church building. I will discuss some of the history of UUCJ, focusing on issues of diversity. I will present survey data from several periods to give you a sense of the thoughts members had on social justice/action, diversity and related issues. Then, I will discuss where we are based on a recent survey many of you completed. Finally, I will suggest what all this means to us in terms of a path forward.

History

From the beginning, people and organizations made life hard for UUs in Mississippi. Our church even had an infiltrator. In the early 1960s, UUCJ had a “long-standing” member who was feeding information to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. As late as 1961 he was the building and grounds person on the executive board. In January 1962, he resigned his post and later on wrote a number of red-baiting and racist columns for the Clarion Ledger. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission’s online archive has a number of electronic files (letters to the commission, UUCJ orders of service, etc.) that the member submitted.

In 1963, the UUA was pushing congregations to open services to everyone, regardless of race. We agreed with the UUA. As a result, about 25 to 33 percent of the members left the church. Later that year Reverend Donald A. Thompson began his ministry at UUCJ. Reverend Thompson, and Power Hearns, a long-time member of the church, were actively involved in the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a closely-surveilled organization.

In 1965, Florence Newman, a founding member, initiated the first integrated head start program in Mississippi. No doubt the church and particular members were discussed at Citizen Council and Klan meetings. Also in 1965, Reverend Thompson was shot by racists thugs and severely injured. The congregation urged him to leave Mississippi for his safety and that of his family. With the Thompsons’ departure there was another decline in membership. This led to the formation of a dedicated core of civil rights oriented members. According to Gordon Gibson, minister to our church in the late 1960s and also in the early 1980s, the church demonstrated “an exhibition of openness: openness to out-of-state civil rights volunteers, openness to housing the Council on Human Relations, openness in membership policy when other Jackson churches were calling in the police to enforce racially exclusionary attendance policies, openness to ‘radical’ members like Bill Higgs (a white attorney who handled some civil rights cases until he too was driven from the state), and so on.”

Our stance on civil rights wavered a bit with our proclamation against the James Meredith march in 1966. The UUA and many of its member congregations supported the event. Maybe UUCJ members were battle weary. How did members feel about the church and facets of church life in the 1960s? Some information is available from a 1969 UUCJ survey administered during the tenure of Reverend Gibson. Five of seven respondents mentioned the liberal/free aspect of UU faith as being most significant for them. Other aspects mentioned were fellowship (especially inclusive fellowship), arts/music, recreation, and solving problems. Diversity, social action or justice was not mentioned.

In a 1971 survey, the magic wand question was asked: ”You have just been handed a magic wand with which you can make the [UUCJ] just what you want it to be. Tell us what you come out with.” One member mentioned having “enough of a black core group would have been attracted so that white members would no longer need to feel that they had to plan outreach to blacks while at the same time there would be no question that the life-problems & life styles of the black community would be represented by the group.” Another mentioned just having “100 paying members who could join together to act as a strong, unified body to attack the problems we face in Jackson in police misconduct, racism & poor schools, low quality newspapers, etc.” In the other camp, however, one member felt that social action was hurting the church: “Listening to the church members and in some cases non-members stress Social Action when the apparent intent is “Help the Blacks,” as if this is the only problem in Mississippi and disregarding the fact that the church came to its lowest position in its history for doing this very same thing.”

In the early 1980s there was some conflict around the issue about providing financial support for the release of Eddie Carthan and a group known as the Tchula Seven. Carthan was the first black mayor of Tchula. One month shy of completing his first term he was accused of assaulting a police officer. This and other subsequent charges, including one that accused Carthan and seven other leaders of corruption, were trumped up. Rallying support from around the nation, the Tchula Seven and Carthan eventually were acquitted. Our congregation’s social action committee voted a motion down to show our support for Carthan and the Tchula Seven.

Given our past, maybe we decided to keep our heads low. In a 1981 survey, 64.1 percent of UUCJ respondents disagreed or held little agreement with the statement “I think that we need greater emphasis on social concerns.” Perhaps as a testament to the way questions are constructed, when the question was worded as support for “social problems in the community” in a 1982 survey, the percentage of members who strongly agreed or agreed was 88 percent.

Addressing diversity from another front—spirituality, one respondent in a 1987 survey wrote “My spiritual feelings and my husband’s astrological beliefs are not acceptable in the local group so I had to refrain from expressing them and get understanding and support otherwise…Since you haven’t paid attention to former surveys I see no need for answering this one.” Twenty one percent of respondents felt “social concerns” were among the more important interests for them.

In terms of church interests, intellectual stimulation and personal friendship (fellowship) topped the list with 22 affirmative responses in a 1991 survey. Religious freedom or religious alternatives ranked 13—the same place as arts and music. Action on social causes, while not at the bottom, ranked at 11. The bottom choices were building and grounds (4) and guidance in daily living (2). Those who did write comments, however, did tend to list topics dealing with “different religious ideas,” “a wide variety of spiritual thought and paths,” and social issues. On a positive note, according to 2011 UUCJ survey, we have a higher regard for social action than during any prior period surveyed.

Other Data

It is important to see if we as a congregation are changing over time. In other words, does the church change as people rotate in and out of the church? Here again we can look at survey data to help piece together a picture of who we are. Focusing on marital status, education, occupation, and theological identity, there are a few noteworthy changes to report. In terms of marriage, the easiest way to explain the declines represented in the table is to suggest that there is an increasing tendency to be in some form of a relationship other than single, married, or divorced. Always high, our membership has gone about as far as possible in terms of education. Approximately 96 percent of our congregants in 2011 had a BA or higher. By comparison, BA or higher respondents in the Baylor Religion Survey of 2005 who identified themselves as “theologically liberal” were a little over 69 percent and mainline Christians were nearly 60 percent. Looking at occupational change, I noticed two things: 1) the sharp decline in science/engineering and 2) the increasing dichotomy between professionals and respondents in other occupational categories. It is also worth noting that in 2011, we have a sizable number of retirees. Finally, we remain heavily humanistic in orientation. Christianity, never a high-ranking choice in the congregation, slid farther down the list in the latest survey. Conversely, agnosticism and atheism have increased in appeal.

What does all this mean? In some ways, we have changed and that change will force us to gradually think about diversity in different ways as our demographics continue to shift, even if the change is slight in some ways. Furthermore, what are the implications in terms of dialogue, problem solving, and even recruitment as we become more concentrated toward the higher end of the spectrum on a number of status factors?

Diversity

Turning our attention more specifically at the issue of diversity, how do our members feel about the issue? In a set of questions about various facets of church life, the question “How important to you are the following aspects of attending services and meetings at our church?” Openness to social diversity had the highest average positive response (2.76) followed by intellectual stimulation (2.74) and fellowship (2.61). Group experience of participation and worship had the lowest at 2.16. In another set of questions, we thought diversity was highest with our friends, then our city/town, our workplace, and lowest in our neighborhoods. We tended to agree or strongly agree to “Diversity in schools is important for a good quality education.” and “America’s growing religious diversity has a positive influence on individual religious beliefs.” Finally, a higher percentage of respondents give the church low rather than high marks in dealing with issues of diversity.

The value diversity brings to the congregation was expressed in a number of ways by respondents. One of the most favored views about diversity was that it broadened the horizons for both the individual and the church. One respondent wrote: “It challenges us to see the world in a larger and more complete way. It enables us to be more in touch with the full range of humanity of which we are a part.” Another touched on how diversity made life richer using an example from art: “I see it as the difference of a colorful painting vs. a black and white pencil drawing.” Or my personal favorite: [Diversity] is like Baskin Robbins, the more flavors, the better.”

Tokenism and dissension/Balkanization were two major ways that respondents saw diversity as a weaknesses. Said one member about Tokenism: “we need to be aware of the potential to highlight the pleasure of seeing diversity in our congregation to ensure we don’t make a particular member feel like the ‘token’.” Another wrote: “Diversity that merely makes those in power feel good about themselves is not real diversity; real diversity breaks down systems of homo-social promotion, changes the power structure of the congregation, and makes its culture vulnerable to transformation.” Other members felt that diversity could slow down consensus and maybe even weaken the “forcefulness and effect of the group.”

Discussion/Conclusions

When I was first asked to talk to you about diversity, I wondered how I would deal with such a broad, fuzzy topic. Sociology as a discipline looks at diversity through a number of different lenses—race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. For many people diversity is squarely centered on race or gender. It is not that easy. I’ll give you a quick example. A year or two ago, two men (one white, the other black) found their way to my doorsteps. They asked to see Mckenzie. Both were in slacks, short-sleeved shirts with ties, and looked quite honestly, like Rush Limbaugh. Both asked what church we attended. I told them if they had anything to ask Kenzie they should ask me. I let them know that religion, to me, was a private matter and it was not definitely not something to discuss in the doorway with complete strangers. After returning the religious tract they offered me, they turned to me and said: “Well, we’ll see you in heaven…maybe.”  The fact was that both men were the same in their millennialistic and very exclusionary belief system.

What about classism? Is it a strength or weakness that we have such highly educated congregations around? Our faith has a long history of class friction with the Universalist siding with the common man and emotions and our Unitarian heritage relying on reasoning and being reserved. Are our high levels of education and occupational prestige a blessing or a curse? Our humanism? Our spirituality—oh that is a topic for another time.

I think one of our biggest problems has been commitment—by congregants, friends of the church, and even those in the wider community who would benefit by what we have to offer but for one reason or another do not come. The philosopher Josiah Royce originated the concept of beloved community. In his view, loyalty was at the root of beloved community, and especially loyalty to something greater than ourselves.

Commitment among members is particularly troublesome. In the hundreds of documents I have studied dealing with this church, I have noticed that we tend to be very touchy and are quick to find issue with others. And when we find evidence, and we will surely will, quite a few of us bail ship. In the 2011 survey, most of the statistically significant differences are between respondents who consider themselves members or friends. Those committed enough to be members value diversity higher than do those who identify themselves as friends. Why? And does this mean the more we are committed to social justice and diversity, the more likely our numbers will decline? Especially when we move from passive forms of change (studying/reading/talking) to more active paths?

We do not need to wring our hands, wail, gnash, and put on sacks and ash. We value diversity—some of us think we can do more. They are right. Most of us could do more by enlarging our circle of associations within our towns, neighborhoods, workplace, and among our friends. In our church, we should be more ecumenical and more public. I think that might attract a larger number of more diverse people. We need to highlight our history here in Jackson. I don’t know where the local ACLU and other organizations would be if UUCJ were not here in the 1960s. Why aren’t there more Rainbow Food people here? Why did we cede our liberal heritage? Was it too hard to maintain? Apathy?

To me, church is more than me, it is us. I think we do okay with diversity. Twenty-nine percent of members and friends who thought UUCJ was doing poorly on increasing its racial/ethnic diversity. What do these respondents offer as solutions? Furthermore, would they be willing to spearhead diversity initiatives? Its all about action, not talk. When I looked at the UUA webpage entitled “Congregational Stories About Justice & Diversity,” I did not see stories about how people just complained, sat, or studied diversity. Those UUA stories were about action-not blind action, but action guided by the congregation’s covenant. I read stories about activities that actually lead to diversity. Diversity is enhanced when we pinpoint needed changes to our congregational culture that foster transformative dialogue and action (First Parish Cambridge video, 2011).

Toward Diversity – My Take on Tom’s Talk

I loved Tom Kersen’s presentation on diversity! It was interesting to see how our congregation answered various questions on the survey we took online.

Now, to the chase ~~ I am going to post a number of quotes (or close to what I heard) for the sake of conversation.

Here is number one: “Our relationships are less about race than about culture: how we talk, how we treat each other, how we do things.”

So, let’s see what direction our dialogue will take. Tom K–I would love to see your notes on this blog–could you place it under the “Toward Diversity” category? Thanks!