An Invitation to Brave Space
by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
October 15, 2017
Reading Courage by Sri Chinmoy
Reading Empower me by Ted Loder
Sermon (Listen to the sermon here.)
There are some issues that, simply when mentioned, raise tension. There are some words that have the power, when spoken, to tighten the energy in a room. Actually, it doesn’t even always take words, sometimes it’s body language, facial expression.. Or tone: not the words themselves, but how they are said. Or who says them. Either way, the experience in a room like that can feel a little like sticking your hand in a electric socket.
It takes courage, to enter a space like that and stay there.
I hadn’t heard this term before just a few weeks ago.
Brave space, where we call each other to more truth and love, where we are willing to examine what we think we know, and become open to changing our minds, literally changing them, and in so doing, changing ourselves. It may not always be what we wish it to be – we may not like it, but we can work in it, as our opening words/reading suggested, we can work in it side by side…
Brave space. Leon, my friend, didn’t know he was entering a space like that, that day.
He thought, he was going to go hear some good music.
I heard Leon tell this story when I was on Star Island over the summer. Star Island is a conference center for UU leaders and others and I was there to soak up the latest and greatest thinking about faith development and religious education. And that week, an underlying theme – woven in and through the offerings, was around decentering whiteness, understanding racism, fighting racism, working to dismantle it in ways we simply aren’t, yet. On my mind were recent events in Charlottesville, the acquittal of Philando Castille, the call and cry within our association for us, as Unitarian Universalists to deeply take to heart our calling to be anti-racist in our own institutions. So I was thinking a lot about race and racism – a topic about which I’ve read many books, had many conversations, watched many films, and one in which, I know there is still so much I do not yet understand.
So I was glad that Leon was the minister of the week that week, a black minister with a thoughtful, open way about him. Although I’ve known him for some time – we’d actually met at Star Island years before and bonded over playing guitar… I never had the opportunity, or maybe the nerve, to talk about race with him. So I was glad would get to hear him preach. I was hoping he might offer something to help me wrap my brain – more importantly, my heart – around this complex, painful topic.
One day, that week, he led morning chapel. We’d just sung the hymn “Hush,” and the words “somebody’s callin my name” were echoing in my head as Leon launched into this story.
He was going to church, he said. Not to go to church, he confesses, but to go hear the band. Apparently this band was fantastic, amazing, not to be missed. They had a reputation that preceded them. But it was a reputation that included an admonishment – don’t come to church just to see the band. If you’re gonna come to church, come to church for church.
So, Leon went, though a little sheepishly, because he was going to see the band, at this old, black church in Wilkinsburg PA.
Here’s the rest of the story, from his own words, edited a little for brevity.
“I’m sure that the band was very good,” he said, “but to be honest, I don’t remember a thing about them other than the reputation that preceded them, […] What I do remember is that the congregants were all extremely well-dressed—ties and jackets, skirts and sweaters, shiny shoes for everybody. […] It was like going back in time. […]
And they came ready. Game ready. […] They brought with them their time-worn Bibles and yellow and pink highlighter pens. It seemed like no one wanted to even miss a single detail that might end up being on the final. [..] They were vigilant.
The pulpit was beautiful and elegant, marked by a large and golden cross. And projected on either side of the chancel were Bible quotes about the theme of the day: forgiveness.
The band started winding down and there was nervous movement in the front part of the sanctuary—whispered conversations and the nervous shaking of hands.
Then, a middle-age white man stood before us all and said that the minister who regularly served the church had taken ill—nothing serious, it was a stomach virus but it had come on suddenly. He’d been asked to minister to the congregation [in his absence].
So, he climbed behind the pulpit […] looking uncomfortably small and unnervingly bright as he stood before us.
He began. […]
“How y’all doing?” he said, in negro affectation.
It was as if he was speaking the language that he assumed that we would recognize, be more comfortable with or something.
[But,] it was bad. And it got worse. He [continued], “I said, ‘How y’all doing out there?’” even more emphatically.
“I started looking for the door.” Leon said.
The elegant ladies […] [in the front] — started giving orders [to those behind them]. The silent kind … that keep foolish, white men from getting hurt in situations like this… […]
We were [barely] two lines into the sermon and I was already thinking, Leon told us, that this service was going to be interminable.
[But the minister continued], canvassing an affirmative response. “I can’t hear you!!”
“I couldn’t figure out what was going on with this guy.” Leon shared with us […] “[…] I really wanted him to go away.
In his annoyingly annoying voice, he [finally] started into his sermon.
“If I broke into your church,” the preacher began, “broke your minister’s leg and tied him to the pew, would you forgive me?”
[Now] Folks were outraged. [Their] minister was much loved. The image of this annoyingly foolish preacher striking down the normal-day minister of the church was […][simply] a bridge too far.
And he went further. “I can’t hear you,” he said, ‘If I broke into your church, broke your minister’s leg and tied him to the pew, would you forgive me?’” The elegant ladies let slip the controlling elements of their facial expressions. The minister was no longer under their protection. It was an awful feeling of impending doom.
[Meanwhile] the minister’s question [hung] in the air. Answering, yes, and allowing him to finish was the quickest and most merciful of responses. “Yes,” we answered through the gritting of our teeth.
“I can’t hear you?” [he said, yet again]
I had used up just about all of my patience. Leon told us. […] I was…weary. I wondered if I had fallen into the very hell in which my faith tradition, our faith tradition, does not believe.
“Yes,” came the eventual response, … cackles raised, … brow furrowed, … jaws fully clenched… “Yes, we would forgive you.”
That was when [the minister] broke his tone.
In a voice that was clearly his own, he said, “Well, you know what? You really shouldn’t. You shouldn’t forgive me. That’s not what the Bible means.”
I felt more relieved, Leon said, and redemptively Christian in that moment than I had ever before or have since. That minister continued, “If I had only broken into your church, broken your minister’s leg and tied him to the pew, I would not yet be worthy of your forgiveness. I’m not an excellent craftsman but I could certainly handle a door. I could repair the damage that I had caused by breaking in. I could not heal your minister’s leg. Only God can do that. I could, however see that it was properly set and, at the very least, I could untie him from the pew. If I have not done this, I would not be worthy of your forgiveness.”
I don’t know if the minister of the day intended to stir the pot with his put-on “negro affect” accent. I don’t know if he was thinking about the long, brutal, history of oppression by white people against black people, of the long history of oppression by people who looked like him, against people who looked like the congregation he was there to serve. I don’t know if he was thinking about any of that, but I was. As Leon told that story, I found myself thinking about MLK, who was killed. I thought about Malcolm X, who was killed. I thought about Michael Brown and Philando Castille. I thought about the black ministers and leaders and regular black people who have been killed or hurt, and I thought about the call, the cry of Black Lives Matter.
Don’t you get it, I hear those voices saying with urgency. The break-in damage hasn’t been repaired. The minister’s leg is still broken. Bodies are being broken. Lives are being broken. Still. The door hasn’t been fixed, the leg hasn’t healed. We do not have redemption. Black Lives Matter. Please, hear us. Black lives matter.
I don’t know if that minister’s illustration about the door, a broken leg and a pew was meant to be just a straightforward illustration about forgiveness. Or if he was making a statement about systems of oppression that are crying out to be fixed, and healed. And I wondered, yet again, what, as a white person, I am called to do.
I thought about my friend Leon, and the window into his thoughts he shared with us in telling that story. I could practically hear him gritting his teeth, looking for the door, almost feel his rising indignation, picture him appalled and disappointed as once again it seems that some well meaning white person just doesn’t get it. I can imagine him just wanting out.
And I think of us. Engaging with this topic, for us, has felt I gather, uncomfortable. Some of you came and talked with me after the sermon on white supremacy I preached last spring. It didn’t feel right or didn’t feel fitting, it felt just too harsh, or touched a raw nerve. I so appreciate the ways you have already grappled with this. Those of you who came to talk with me had clearly, were clearly, taking this to heart. And, I can imagine just wanting out.
But we have to stay. We have to stay in it. We have to get in it. We have to be willing to enter brave space and stay there.
This is about us.
I hear this again and again: white people have the choice about whether to engage with racism and its effects. But people of color do not.
We may have a choice not to engage, but I urge us to stay.
To learn, to read, to engage, to challenge ourselves and to open ourselves. Sometimes it feels, oddly, like the hardest thing is to carve out the time, But I urge us to come to the films our social justice committee is showing, to engage with this month’s spiritual exercise on how to be an ally, to check out the resources that will be listed at the end of this sermon when it goes up on the website.
The book group studying the book waking up white is full which is wonderful. I know social justice would like us to get a Black Lives Matter banner, to make a public stand against racial injustice – I hope you’ll come to the conversations about it, I hope we’ll all learn what it stands for and take to heart what it represents.
What’s your next step today? What’s our next step toward making real redemption possible?
MLK wrote in 1963, and I know he was talking to me, that he was disappointed with the white moderate. Who prefers a “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; Shallow understanding from people of good will,” he said, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
White people have the choice about whether to engage with racism and its effects. Let us choose to deepen our understanding, let us choose to engage.
Together, let us create brave space
Where we recognize our scars and wounds, but do not let them stop us from acting for justice.
Let us create brave space where we turn down the volume of the outside world,
And amplify voices that fight to be heard elsewhere. The voices of our marginalized siblings of the world.
Let us call each other to more truth and more love.
To examine what we think we know.
And continue to grow.
We will not be perfect, this space will not be perfect,
But let us create brave space, here, together, and work in it, side by side.
* * *
Resources for white people on engaging with racism and its effects
An act of courage to follow? http://tinyurl.com/WUC-ally7
“How I learned to love discussing race”: http://tinyurl.com/WUC-ally8
Robin DiAngelo at General Assembly: http://tinyurl.com/WUC-Race (excellent talk)
On the “Take the Knee” Controversy:” http://tinyurl.com/WUC-Race2
On White Supremacy: http://tinyurl.com/wuc-race3
Waking Up White by Debby Irving
White Like Me, by Tim Wise
“White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Jesus and the Disinherited, by Howard Thurman
Dear White America, by Time Wise
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
America’s Original Sin, by Jim Wallis
American Denial (contact Rev. Ellen at [email protected] if you would like to borrow her copy)
Race: The power of an illusion
12 years a Slave
Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North