Things That Matter
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
January 14, 2018
First Reading A Prayer of Good Intention
So far I’ve done all right.
I haven’t gossiped,
haven’t lost my temper,
haven’t been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish, or overindulgent.
I’m really glad about that.
But in a few minutes, God,
I’m going to get out of bed.
And from then on,
I’m going to need a lot more help.
Quotes from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King jr, connected to the theme of intention and racial justice.
“The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Before I begin, I want to note that we’ve been hearing a lot about certain racist comments in the news. And, regardless of the specifics of what was or wasn’t said, we are seeing, broadly, a resurgence of outspoken, explicit racism in our time. What we are seeing out there is variously, surprising, shocking or appalling.
But today I want to look at another side, a more personal side, less brash, less outrageous, but closer to home.
The fact is, this issue is older than any of our leaders and any of us. The question I sit with is this: what will we do, in our particular lives and circumstances? Where are we, in the picture?
I start with me, and mine.
My grandfather was a hunter. He loved to hunt. Pheasants, ducks. He had paintings, and exquisitely carved figurines of dogs on the hunt, as well as small sculptures of sleek, beautiful, wild ducks. It was many years before I was even able to see the disconnect between loving them as in loving the experience of hunting them, and loving them as in going to visit them together in the little stream near my grandfather’s house. It absolutely never occurred to me that there was a contradiction. My grandfather loved ducks. Period.
He’s gone now, he’s been gone for nearly 30 years, but I had a big big heart for my grandfather.
He was distinguished, with a beautiful head of wavy grey hair, kind, openhearted, generous, warm. I have memories of walking into town with him as a little girl – his hand in mine – visiting the shops in his small town in the Netherlands – the the fruit stall, the butcher, the baker… The butcher would give me a little piece of sausage – the baker a little cookie. Everyone in the town seemed to like him. He was so friendly. I was so pleased to walk through the town holding my Opa’s hand.
I was thinking about all this as I was remembering something in particular about my grandfather. And a word he used to describe a local bakery item. Neger zoenen. Is the word in Dutch. The name of a chocolate confection. Negro kisses is the name in English I remember being startled one day, maybe I was 10, or 11? I was beginning to understand more about racism, how it shows up, and most importantly, how bad it is – taboo. When I heard him say these words I knew instantly it was not okay. But I couldn’t square my beloved grandfather with what sounded like a racist term. My grandfather would never, ever, say anything hurtful.
Part of what’s striking to me about that now is that I never asked about it, or talked about it with anyone. I’m not sure if it’s because I didn’t want to embarrass him, or if it’s because I was so convinced of his goodness that I blocked it out, or if I had already learned, somewhere, that this was a subject that was not to be discussed.
It was years before I understood that this troubling term was just the tip of the iceberg. And that my reticence to talk about it was part of the ice.
Now, some 40-ish years later, I look back and see that dichotomy – see how two apparently contradictory things can still live side by side in the same person. My grandfather hunted ducks and he loved them. My grandfather used a racist term and he was a kind man. I said nothing about the racism I saw around me and I am still a good person.
There have been times, too many times, that I either didn’t see, or didn’t want to see, the racism around me, or didn’t want to address it, or felt confused by it, or just turned away.
Even as, there have also been many times, since that very first incident, that I’ve stood up to it, learned about it, shared about it, been willing to have uncomfortable conversations about it, and have stepped up to do more.
I see, in myself, good intentions that I follow through on, and good intentions around which I need a lot more help, to quote our first reading.
Which is one reason, I think, we do this kind of work in community. Let alone the fact that none of us can be fully reflective of ourselves, by ourselves, we just can’t look at the back of our own heads. But even beyond that, the fact is, we move forward best together, encouraging each other, nudging each other, teaching each other, dialoging with each other…
We set an intention, and then, together, we grow.
Take our mission statement. Welcome, Connect, Serve. One of the ways we intend to serve others, it says, is “by leading in promoting a just world for all regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity or class within our church and in the wider community.”
What does that intention mean? What could it mean? What might it actually look like for Westminster to lead in promoting racial justice? And just as importantly, what, will that take?
We, as UU’s have a powerful, inspiring history when it comes to promoting racial justice. Maybe you’ve heard the iconic stories about Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister from the mid 1800’s who harbored runaway slaves in his house, writing sermons with a loaded pistol on his desk. Not to mention financing slave insurrections and delivering fiery antislavery sermons. I heard that when an antagonist threw a rock through the window of his church, he responded coolly that while that argument was solid, it was not convincing. He was only one of many UU abolitionists including those with names you might recognize like Samuel J. May, and Julia Ward Howe.
A hundred years later, during the civil rights movement, UU’s again rose up to answer the call of justice in Selma. As Mark Morrison Reed puts it: “While the beating of African-American citizens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the deaths of black Jimmie Lee Jackson and white UUs [James] Reeb and [Viola] Liuzzo galvanized Americans and led to congressional action, Selma marked a sea change in Unitarian Universalism. Five hundred UUs participated, over 140 of them UU clergy—representing 20 percent of the ministers in final fellowship. Across the country, many UUs organized or joined protests and marches. The intensity of the experience transformed them. The consensus about racial justice sharpened. The level of commitment rose. While UUs had been promoting integration and equality of access since the 1940s, Selma signaled the seriousness of the UU concern for racial justice. And it made a difference.
We can be justifiably proud to belong to an organization with this kind of history.
And, at the same time, the road turns out to be long, and complex, with unexpected twists and turns.
Rev Bill Sinkford, past president of the UUA, was a young man in the middle of the civil rights movement. He describes his breathtaking experience of hearing Dr King preach the well-known UU “Ware Lecture” in 1966, right after the events described above. Reading his description I picture a large hall, packed with spellbound UU’s, hanging on Dr’s Kings every word…. Ringing in thunderous applause at its conclusion.
We were ready to redeem the American dream, Sinkford writes, ready to take our place in the revolution. What… was our role to be?
He quotes James Baldwin: If we – relatively conscious whites and relatively conscious blacks, […], insist on, or create, the consciousness of others, […] we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country – change the history of the world.”
Sinkford writes that Uus were ready to claim that role as the conscious ones who could enlighten others. More than ready. Maybe, Sinkford implies wryly, a little too ready. Or rather, a little too confident. A little too sure of ourselves.
Because then, then, it didn’t happen.
It didn’t happen. As a group, we UU’s didn’t enlighten much of anyone in fact the association went through a period in which, in Sinkford’s words, we withdrew from the race conversation entirely. It began with something commonly known as the Black Empowerment Controversy. It had to do with money, it had to do with priorities, it had to do with can happen, when good intentions are put to the test, and don’t make it out the other end.
There’s much that’s been written about it, and I won’t go into all the details here. Suffice it to say that, in 1967, just 1 year after that thunderous response to Dr King’s speech, the question of how to move forward with racial justice created an almost irreconcilable split. We started out well. $1,000,000 had been committed toward Black economic development, a lot of money at the time, a real leadership decision. But the question of who would distribute the funds became contentious – would it be the new Black Caucus? Or would it be an interracial group? Would there be oversight through the UUA? Underneath opposing points of view lay competing values and unresolvable questions… about integration versus empowerment, about loyalty vs solidarity, about democratic process vs the urgency of action. And after Dr King was killed, pain, guilt, anger and a pressing need to act conspired to make reconciliation all but impossible. Many Black leaders left. Many white leaders left. Much of the money was never distributed, and after just a few years, the whole racial justice effort foundered.
As Warren Ross puts it: “What had seemed so obvious [right] after Selma—that in the fight for racial justice it was “us” (the good guys) vs. “them” (the racists)—suddenly wasn’t so obvious after all. The line between “us” and “them” no longer seemed so clear.”
After that, chastened, maybe, by the intensity of the challenge, we backed off. Like a family that’s just been through an unresolved, heated argument, we stopped talking about it. Racial justice issues moved off center stage. Our mostly white organization focused on other things.
Like much of the rest of the country.
In his analysis of the whole episode, African American minister Mark Morrison-Reed concludes that, perhaps, what happened was inevitable. As a denomination we wanted to lead, but we were not prepared to have the kinds of conversations that would have been required. There was too much hubris, he writes, not enough humility, too much defensiveness, and not enough trust to unite in their efforts.
Luckily, this was not the end of the story. Over the years, efforts to educate ourselves have continued. Efforts to understand what went wrong and how we might do this right, have persisted. Curricula have been developed to help us learn how to get better at conversations around race. Congregations all over the country began and now continue working to deepen understanding and help those of us who are white see our role and responsibility in this.
And we are in a new moment with a new need. We, right here, have a new opportunity. A fresh chance. To lead.
What will it take, now? How can we prepare ourselves for what’s required, in our day?
It has to start, I think, with some lessons from those who’ve gone before.
Like letting go of the us/them, racist/non-racist, good guy/bad guy better/worse dichotomy that fueled the infighting of the past.
The fact is, best intentions aside, most of us who are white, maybe all of us, have work to do. My grandfather and me, we spent our formative years almost entirely around white people in a world full of racist messages and we could not have avoided soaking them in. Not just overt ones like the term my grandfather used, but also subtle ones like: racism is not really about me, like: I’m innocent, like: I shouldn’t talk about mistakes I’ve made, or, I don’t want to talk about what it means to be white or black or asian or native american or any of that… Or I just don’t have the time for this.
Racism manifests in subtle ways sometimes.
And the us/them dichotomy can lead us to put our attention primarily on those whose racism is blatant and overt, but when we do that, we miss the chance to change the ones we actually can, ourselves.
And, we need to heed the lesson of humility. Openness. Recognizing that we don’t even know how much we don’t know. Robin DiAngelo, anti-racism educator, recently challenged a room full of mostly white UU’s at General Assembly. If you have not devoted years of sustained study and struggle and focus on arguably the most complex, nuanced social dilemma since the beginning of this country, your opinions are necessarily limited and superficial. Yeah. That’s what she said. At first I was taken aback, a little insulted. And then I thought. Actually, yeah. Right. How can I know what it’s like to be a person of color in this country.
My challenge to you, Robin continued, is to listen [and learn] from a place of humility, rather than from a place of reinforcing the world view you currently have.
Ironically, racial justice leadership, for those of us who are white, isn’t about taking charge, but about following the leadership of people of color. It isn’t about being one of the “good ones,” but about being willing to acknowledge where we still need to grow. It isn’t about having all the answers, but about becoming teachable and staying open.
And in this moment, we not only have an opportunity, but we have an invitation. From your own Social, Environmental and Economic Justice committee… to broaden our understanding of race issues, here. To learn together through events like movies and speaker panels, to engage in dialog to educate ourselves and each other. To, ultimately, pass an official resolution to become an anti-racist congregation. And to hang a Black Lives Matter Banner proclaiming that commitment. I believe we would be the first church in East Greenwich, to hang that banner.
We have an invitation to speak out on our values. Stand up, for what we believe. You’ll hear more from them at next Sunday’s congregational meeting.
We are are part of a long tradition in which advocating for racial justice is core to who we are. We can be proud of that. We haven’t, any of us, lived that intention perfectly. But it’s not over.
Our lives begin again, the day we commit or recommit to speaking out on things that matter.
I urge us to learn, to listen, to grow.
May it be so.