Where Do We Go from Here?
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
January 19, 2020
Personal Share by Nans Rieser, Westminster Member
As some of you know, I’ve been a part of the race discussion group here at Westminster for several years. My involvement in the activities we sponsored made me realize how LITTLE I knew about racism in this country. When I learned of the Alabama Living Legacy Pilgrimage from Rev. Barbara Fast, I KNEW that one day I wanted to be a part of it. So, in March of 2019, I signed up for this spiritual journey and the opportunity to meet veterans of the movement, hear their stories, and visit sites that made the Civil Rights Movement an event that rocked the world.
Sister Simone Campbell, in her 2014 Ware Lecture at Providence General Assembly, shared that she “Runs Toward Danger”. Civil Rights Leaders like Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, John Lewis, Rev. Shuttlesworth, Jimmy Lee Jackson, MLK, and those whose names we may never know, all ran toward danger in pursuit of their belief in equality for all. Bethel Baptist Church never canceled a service after multiple bombings, and parishioners continued to attend!
People came together, putting themselves on the path toward danger, for their hopes, dreams, and beliefs—and some of them died.
Most meaningful to me were the moments our group spent together in silence and song before leaving a site. At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we gathered around the fountain bearing names of 40 people slain in the Civil Rights Movement. Among those names was James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister. At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, we walked among the monuments with inscriptions naming the person and on some, the reasons for the hanging or persecution. One monument, in particular, read “a lynch mob of more than 1,000 men, women, and children burned Zachariah Walker alive in Coatesville, PA, in 1911. This town is very close to where I grew up!
Gathering in the garden at this memorial, to sing together and reflect on what we observed, was deeply profound for me. It was impossible to hold back tears when I thought about the thousands of men, women, and children treated with such injustice and I DID NOTHING TO HELP! I was in college, enjoying what I now realize was a privileged life, oblivious to the inhumane way people of color in the south were being treated. Where was I? Why was I not aware of what was going on, and if I had been aware, would I have acted? These questions still haunt me.
For the black people fighting oppression, Music created a bond and music was an important component of our pilgrimage as well. Hearing the words of Civil Rights Movement songs, helped me to internalize how these brave, scared individuals must have felt as they marched together for their freedom.
How much I take for granted as a white person about the privileges I have!! How would my life had been different were I black? Would I have traveled south to march with the freedom fighters? Would I have walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge facing lines of police with their night sticks drawn, and snarling dogs waiting to attack me? Would I put my life on the line for something I believe in?
So now the pilgrimage is over. What did it REALLY mean to me? I read books on white privilege, join in discussions, but what am I doing to help effect real change? It’s easy to make monetary donations to organizations fighting racism, but what have I personally sacrificed toward this end? What more can I do? These are questions I struggle to answer.
We’re in a mess. Income inequality is continuing to rise, dis-proportionally impacting people of color, I just learned yesterday that the median net worth for African-American households in the Greater Boston region is $8. Racism continues to evolve in ugly ways. Broadening the picture, middle east is unnerving and part of a larger picture of upsetting situations world-wide, climate change is manifesting in new and frightening ways, displacing people, and migrants face inhumane conditions here and all over the world. And we can easily miss the way all of these things are connected.
As UU’s we are an environmentally minded people, a peace-seeking people, a justice focused people, and right now it does not seem like that’s where the world is headed.
We need leaders we want heros.
Heros like MLK – who was such a strong voice, but also rational voice, nonviolent voice. We want people like him who are strong, courageous and wise.
More than once I have heard the cry, the wish, for someone like MLK to return, to lead us, in our present day.
Martin Luther King who, as Nans noted, ran toward danger. Who, again and again, put himself in high stakes situations surrounded by people wishing to do him harm. He went right on leading and guiding and loving people anyway, changing the course of this country’s history, laying the groundwork for healing, improving circumstances for millions of people.
MLK was a leader and an inspiration, certainly to me, and every time I learn more about his leadership I gain a little more courage and a little more insight and a little more willingness for my next steps.
And even as we want, desperately want, good leaders, people like MLK to look up to, I don’t need to tell you we are, everywhere, finding our heros and leaders to be irreparably flawed. Not just the ones that some love to hate, but, all of them.
Including MLK who, like any human being, was not perfect. Not always brave. not always wise. The movie Selma pointed to some of his sexual indiscretions. Some have implied his character flaws disqualify him from his place as the civil rights icon of the 60’s. He was not always the model leader he has been made out to be.
He’s not the only one on whom a modern light is casting a new shadow. Including some of our own. We like to say that Thomas Jefferson was a Unitarian before Unitarianism was even a denomination. Jefferson, hero of this country and namesake of more than one UU church. Jefferson the slaveholder who was far from impeccable when it comes to questions of race.
Ralph Waldo Emerson – a forefather of this faith, also promoted white supremacist ideas. And we know some of the lesser known leaders of our denomination did not always stand up for what we now consider to be right.
Something is happening, these days [around how we see leaders and authority figures], which includes the “me too” movement, which includes the statues of confederate leaders we’re tearing down in the south. We’re having fresh dialog about what was or was not okay in the past, and there are broad conversations about holding people accountable to new understandings of what true justice could and should look like, today.
Which is good, and laudable. There is much about these new conversations that is profoundly hopeful.
And it’s hard. We’re losing our heros. There is something about human nature that wants to take another person and lift them up. Wants them to be better than us, we want them to inspire us. And then, when we discover they’re not the ideal super-human we wanted them to be, we want to tear them down.
We are losing our heros. And instead must wrestle with human complexity, frailty, flaws. With the questions like, what’s forgiveable, and what could never be, what’s par for the course and what is simply unacceptable. It raises the question of what integrity means for those we have always looked up to, whether that’s famous directors, presidential candidates, or iconic civil rights leaders. And it raises these questions for all of us. What’s okay? Good enough? (do we deserve to be attacked for our shortcomings?)
Leaders and heros and regular people. Flaws and shortcomings and what do we do with them.
One of my colleagues raised the very good question recently, about whether we really want to be putting people on pedestals in the first place. He’s from the north, Halifax nova scotia, to be exact, where, last year, they had just taken down the statue of their city founder, for 18th century acts of brutality against the indigenous Mi’kmaq people. After they took it down the city was stuck with the question of what to do with this very very tall hundreds of pounds of solid metal and concrete that had stood in the center of the town square for nearly a century. When they called for public opinions on that question my colleague suggested they stop looking for places to put it up and instead just melt the thing down. Create something completely different. Like, maybe some new, human sized statues of people just sitting around on park benches. Looking approachable, perhaps. Looking like someone with whom you could sit down, see eye to eye and maybe even have a heart to heart. A way to model getting in there with each other to talk through the stuff we really need to talk through – like our problematic racial history. His city hasn’t fallen for that idea, yet, but I love it.
Stop putting people on pedestals in the first place, where we pretend they’re perfect until we inevitably find they’re not, get discouraged and disengage. Instead, put us next to each other. Side by side, talking to each other, working stuff out, flaws and all.
It’s one of our strengths as Unitarian Universalists.
Working stuff out, one on one or in groups, meeting each other where we are, bringing our diverse views together and sharing and learning and growing.
There’s this great story from the Jewish Talmud that exemplifies this. In the story, a legal dispute between two schools of thought has been going on for years. God eventually resolves the dispute by deciding that while both sides have made arguments that are true, one side prevails because it has made its arguments with humility and good will and has listened to and learned from the truths contained in the arguments made by the other side.
When we are at our best, we do this.
And that kind of openness and humility, that kind of conversation and learning is what the world needs right now. Especially when it comes to race. Especially when it comes to white people and race.
Because I’ve noticed that when it comes to race, white people like me, we have a tendency to do the same thing with ourselves and each other that our society has tended to do with our leaders and heros.
Which is we tend to lift up or put down. We’re either good or we’re bad, racism-free or we’re not. We’re either fine, no problem, no worries. Or we, or more often, they, are not fine, big problems, lots of worries. We can miss the complexity of each individual story. Including our own.
Take me, for example. Growing up, I was taught that there were racists, who were bad, and there was everyone else, who was fine. Racists were people who intentionally tried to hurt people because of race. There was little worse, when I was growing up, than to be a racist. So I have tried hard, all my life, to *not* be that. Which, for many years in my early adulthood, meant, just not talking about it at all. And when I did, choosing my words very carefully.
More recently, I’ve noticed that because I’ve been raised to not be racist, and because I see myself as basically good, there is a way that my brain tells me nothing I say or do can be racist, because I’m good, and racists are not. It’s a little bit of circular logic, this, I’m good so I can’t be racist thing, but nevertheless feels oddly true.
Only more recently have I come to realize that simply believing myself to be free of racism doesn’t mean I am.
In fact, I have come to understand that the definition of racism I grew up with points only to one section of the iceberg of oppression. Those overtly antagonistic people may be the most visible, but it is the stuff that the rest of us, particularly white people do, or don’t do, under the surface (of the water) that keeps systemic racism in place. That includes the stuff I had once thought was explicitly not racist, like genteelly sidestepping the topic altogether. That includes subtle attitudes I have held, like the time I went to volunteer at a mostly-black inner city elementary school to teach them conflict resolution skills. I got to feel like a hero, like a savior, perhaps also because my life looked better on the outside than theirs did on the surface I got to feel just a little superior. I now understand this to be pretty common for white people wanting to “help,” there’s even a name for it. It’s called the white savior complex. I look back and painfully/something wonder just how much of my unaware attitude leaked out with those kids.
But there’s more. I have noticed I tend to be more drawn into news stories about people who look like me and am therefore more likely to give time and money to those causes. I know I have to be intentional about learning and understanding the history of people of color here and in the world because that was not seen as very important when I was growing up. I know I need to be intentional about speaking up and taking action to right what’s still so very wrong because if I don’t hold myself accountable I just get swept up in my day to day life. A life in which most people are white, most people are not thinking about racism and racial injustice most of the time, a life where most of us are, understandably, focusing on just what’s in front of us. But given so many of us who are white live in mostly white areas, that focus often also just happens to leave huge systems of oppression and attitudes and misconceptions frozen in place.
There is a powerful, haunting piece of art – a painting that shows a white family enjoying a picnic on a sunny day. In the background you can just barely make out the body of a black person, lynched, hanging from a tree. None of the characters in the foreground can see it.
Once in a while I get a glimpse of just how much I’m missing. Just how distorted the worldview I grew up with actually is. Once in a while I catch sight of the depth of change that is required in me and in this society to really move this forward. But because of the insidious way racism itself has operated, because of the massive misinformation, distraction, and denial that is everywhere, I often just can’t see it.
It can be tricky for white people raised to not be racist, like me, to recognize that we, you and me, might be part of keeping a racist system in place anyway.
I’ve heard it said that racism exacerbates or is a key cause of just about every social problem we face today.
Or, to put it another way, as we dismantle racism, everything we care about gets better.
Who’s going to lead us out of all of this? What brave, wise, loving leader can possibly move this forward? Possibly begin to heal, dismantle, undo, the overwhelming situations we face in our day?
Well, you know where I’m going with this, of course, which is that those leaders, those brave, loving, wise leaders, are us. We, regular people, with all our flaws, and confusions and distractions. We regular people with our way too busy lives who do not have time for one more thing, we are the ones.
We get to face that question that Nans so poignantly, heart-wrenchingly asked. What on earth do we do now?
There is no simple answer, of course. There is no simple solution to untangle this centuries old devastation of human relations.
But there is a step we can take. Many of you are aware that next Sunday, on January 26th, Westminster will be asked to make a critical decision. Will be asked to vote on an antiracism resolution designed to help us be intentional. That helps us hold ourselves accountable. A resolution that articulates what we see and our commitment to take action. And that takes a public stand so that we might move not just ourselves, but invite others in this majority white town to reflect more deeply on what racism means for them, too.
Passing this resolution would be a milestone, a landmark, a destination. But it would also be a beginning of another chapter. As anti-racist educator Robin DiAngelo writes to white progressives, if we want to move this forward we need to engage in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual anti-racist practice for the rest of our lives.
Within and beyond these walls, we get to sit down together, eye to eye, and have heart to hearts to build a new, better way, for everyone.
Run toward danger Sister Simone Campbell said. This wouldn’t be danger. But it may feel like a stretch. It may feel uncomfortable. The resolution language won’t feel exactly right, the idea of a black lives matter banner doesn’t feel completely comfortable.
But on the 26th you will be invited to vote. At least 70 people need to come for the resolution to even be put forward. I hope you will be among them. I hope you will invite another Westminsterite (who can vote) to come with you.
You will not feel like you have the time. You will feel embarrassed about the idea of asking another to join you.
Yet, I hope you consider it, I hope you will choose to take this one step, as we each weigh what we will do to help make some world-wide dreams come true.
Closing Hymn: #1040 Hush
- Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name. Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name. Hush, hush, somebody’s callin’ my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do? What shall I do?
- Sounds like freedom, somebody’s callin’ my name. Sounds like freedom, somebody’s callin’ my name. Sounds like freedom, somebody’s callin’ my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do? What shall I do?
- Sounds like justice, somebody’s callin’ my name. Sounds like justice, somebody’s callin’ my name. Sounds like justice, somebody’s callin’ my name. Oh my Lord, oh my Lord, what shall I do? What shall I do?