Homily Part 1:
Our theme this month is beloved community. Which is a nice term. Building the beloved community has a nice ring to it. It’s got the word love in it. It’s got the word community in it. It seems to describe a place you feel welcome, right, a home, a home base, where you are loved.
Building the Beloved Community. Rev Dr. Martin Luther King talked about this. I’ve talked about this.
But what does it mean – what did King mean? What did he say? He had a dream right? That all children regardless of the color of their skin would be treated equitably. He dreamed of a world in which all people could share in the wealth of the earth, where poverty would not exist because human decency would not allow it. He dreamed of an end to racism and all forms of discrimination, to be replaced by an inclusive spirit of kinship.
He dreamed not just of a beloved community, as in, a place to go where you feel loved and at home, but of the beloved community, a world, a renewed world, where everyone is loved and at home, everywhere.
His dream has not yet come true. When I was growing up, I thought it had. That was the message I got – segregation was over, racism is gone, everyone has equal opportunity now, we’re good.
No one explained to me why, if King’s dream had come true, so many of the unpleasant, menial jobs in my community were taken care of by people of color.
No one explained to me why, if King’s dream had come true, so many black people said it had not come true
No one explained to me why, if King’s dream had come true, the black neighborhoods were so poor and run down. I didn’t understand the history and the impact of uneven wealth and the lasting impact of racial bias on schools and people and opportunities and options.
It was all a world away from me. Literally, I don’t think there was a black person in my town when I lived in New Jersey in the early 1970’s.
These days some things are different. Some people are waking up. Some institutions are making changes. The death of George Floyd and the aftermath has led to an awakening among some white people that is moving us forward.
But some things are not different. Towns like East Greenwich are almost as segregated as they were before the civil rights movement. For many white people, the lived realities of people of color, while on the news, are not part of our day to day lives. People of color, black and indigenous people in particular, tend to get the worst of all kinds of societal problems, from pollution to poverty to prison time, to COVID cases, not to mention all the new expressions of explicit racism we are witnessing on the news.
Beloved community has not yet arrived.
That can be discouraging. Especially when we know… that no one leader can fix it. No one administration can set everything right. If that were possible, things would have been resolved quite some time ago.
But, just because something just is, does not mean that justice is impossible, to misquote Amanda Gorman’s powerful inauguration day poem.
Just because things are, and have been, a certain way for a long time, doesn’t mean they always have to be that way.
Just because we may not know exactly what to do to make things better, doesn’t mean there isn’t hope.
Hymn “There is More Love Somewhere” Sweet Honey in the Rock
Homily Part 2
There is more hope right now, right here. In this time, in this town, in this congregation.
But it doesn’t happen on its own. There is a man, Bryan Stevenson, who, like King did in his day, is fighting for equal rights in ours. Stevenson is a famous author and lawyer, he has saved many innocent black men from unfairly being given the death penalty, and he is a powerful and impressive figure. He also tirelessly promotes equality and understanding.
But he also understands that he can’t do it by himself. While a great leader can make a big difference, it is on all of us, in our daily lives to make the difference.
Stevenson has a few simple phrases that he shares with audiences when he speaks, practices any of us can do, to help create the beloved community, wherever we are.
Number 1: Get proximate. That’s a fancy word for, get close, get in there. Jump into the fray. It’s hard to fix a problem from the other side of the world or the other side of town. You have to go to where the difficulty is, where the suffering is, so you can help.
Number 2: Change the narrative. That’s a fancy word for, tell a different story. A lot of times, we hear stories of discouragement – like, people are just bad, or things won’t ever change anyway, or there’s nothing I can do. Changing the narrative means telling a new story, a story that implies people are good, there are things we can do, that implies, there’s hope.
Number 3: Which leads right to number 3. Stay hopeful. We get to practice looking for hope, even when it’s hard to see. Because even when things don’t look so good, if we stay in it, and change the way we look at things, we might feel differently and stay energized.
And lastly number 4: Learn to be uncomfortable. Facing problems is hard. Most people feel like we have enough to deal with. But much of life is hard. In fact, some of the best things in life include times of discomfort. When we learn to be uncomfortable, we open up our world.
Now, none of this is easy, but these 4, shorthand, simple, practices, I think, could just change everything.
I want to share a story with you about one grandmother, and one little boy, and some real world examples of some getting proximate, some changing the narrative, some getting uncomfortable and some staying hopeful. In everyday life.
The story is called Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt de la Pena, produce by the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library. And what we’re about to show you is a video of the author, reading the story, in a setting that recreates the story, right in front of his young audience’s eyes – and ears.
See if you notice any of Bryan Stevenson’s 4 practices in action, as we watch — see if you notice any getting proximate, any changing the narrative, and staying hopeful or any learning to be uncomfortable in this story.
Story Video: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, produced by the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n4irkUDbaIA
Homily Part 3
So, I’m really curious if any of you noticed any of the 4 practices. This isn’t a test, but an invitation, or a dare?? 🙂 (if you’re up for it!!) — please post in the chat.
- Where did you see the little boy and his Nana getting proximate? Where did you see them getting close to where things are hard? [I can flip through slides to find the one each person might refer to]
- Where did you see the narrative getting changed? Where did you see an attitude shift? A different story getting told?
- Where did you see the characters learning to be uncomfortable?
- Or where did you see them staying hopeful?
Ellen to share some but not all of these, depending on what people do or do not say…
On the bus – they don’t just keep to themselves but they talk to people, interact, even make friends
And, why are they on the bus in the first place – they’re there to go to the soup kitchen. They’re there to serve, but also to be in community with Bobo and the Sunglass man and Trixie, the woman who just got a new hat.
Like when CJ talked about not liking the rain “why do we have to wait for the bus in all this wet?” “Trees get thirsty, too,” his nana told him.
Or when CJ is upset because they don’t have a car. She imagines the bus breathing fire and remind him the bus driver always has a trick for him
Or when CJ asks why the man with the cane can’t see — what do you know about seeing, she tells him, some people watch the world with their ears
Learning to be uncomfortable:
I think it would be fair to say CJ was uncomfortable right from the start – from being out in the rain, not wanting to go anywhere in the first place, wanting something you can’t have – like the ipod one of those 2 boys must have had.
And it’s uncomfortable to go to a part of town with crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores
But even though CJ was never really comfortable, you could say CJ’s grandmother was helping CJ stay hopeful at every turn.
Helping him feel the magic of the guitar player’s music.
By reminding him that he likes bobo and the sunglass man and trixie and all the people he’s gotten to know at the soup kitchen.
By helping him see that when things are broken down and crumbling, what’s beautiful stands out more clearly, like, rainbows for example…
So that’s a very nice story. But how does this all relate to this place, to our trying to build beloved community, what does this mean, for us?
When Sarah and Beth and I were first talking about beloved community we all started brainstorming all the wonderful ways this community is full of love. About what a welcoming place this is. About the ways we show up – that is, get proximate, to each other. Even when it’s hard – like it is right now, during COVID. And we talked about all the ways we already express the values of beloved community. Like, for example, that everyone contributes – we all pitch in, like the bus driver who found a coin behind CJ’s ear, we all give what we can when we can, to help create a community of kindness and caring and warmth. Like King’s dream, we ask each to do what they can, and strive to offer to each what they need. Even our pledge drive reflects this – no one has to pay more than they can afford to be part of this community, but all have equal access to everything. We went on for quite a while about how this community is a home. And all the things all the committees and individuals and teams do to make it happen.
But we also realized that because of this very old history… because of the effects of racism in Rhode Island and the towns here, the church is located in a part of the state where in fact we are segregated, separated, from parts of the state where a lot of people of color live. And we realized that because of the effects of racism on income and wealth, the places where life is hardest are also mostly not close to where the church is.
We realized that… some of our members know what it’s like to have really hard times in life financially and have grown wide, wise spirits because of it. But some of us struggle to know what to say to people whose backgrounds and education might be very different from our own.
Some of our members are people of color and know what it’s like, what it’s really like, to be treated differently because of the color of their skin, know what it’s like to see racism on the news and feel the pain of it in your own heart and body. And some of our members may still feel removed from that reality, focused on other things, closer to home.
Some of our members’ lives are really hard. And, some of us haven’t had to deal with poverty or oppression in quite the same way and which makes it difficult to understand what that’s really like.
Homily Part 4 by Sarah Quigg
I began to mull over a two pronged philosophy for working toward beloved community. I began to think about the “welcome” in “welcome, connect, serve.” Being welcoming is so important, and part of what makes Westminster so loved by many of us is that we take comfort in the knowledge that we are welcoming – we encourage and celebrate being joined by all, regardless if race, gender or sexual identity, economics, or by any other identity that too often divides people. But we can’t get too comfortable with welcoming, for we run the risk of asking those in need of doing the hard work of coming to us. I equated it to inviting someone in need of a warm meal into your kitchen – part of that impulse is grounded in our own comfort in our kitchen and the meal we create in it. Sometimes mac n’ cheese and homemade brownies is exactly the sort of thing someone else was looking for, other times, it’s a meal they can’t eat and it’s of no help at all. Sometimes what is comforting to us, may not be the comfort someone else needs, and we need to leave our comfort zone behind, and meet them where they are.
In our story, Nana and CJ don’t make people in need come to where they are, instead they travel to where the people in need are. And CJ reminds us that isn’t always a comfortable or eagerly anticipated course of action. He’d rather get into a warm dry car and go home, instead of wait in the rain for a bus full of strangers. But with Nana’s gentle guidance, from the loving community she creates for CJ, he finds it within himself to get uncomfortable. It’s not easy to ask a total stranger to play you a song, and it can be hard to decide to ride the bus to a less familiar part of town to work in a soup kitchen on a Sunday afternoon. But from this discomfort, this stretching out from a place of loving safety and comfort to take a chance on something that makes us uncomfortable, beloved community grows. Because often, that thing that initially makes us uncomfortable, can become something that becomes comfortable – CJ gets to enjoy a lovely song, and is ultimately really glad he and Nana came to the soup kitchen. In this way, our loving community of Westminster, which brings us comfort, can become the springboard from which we gain the support and confidence to stretch out, get uncomfortable, and be the help and ally in the places where it is needed. I think this is what “connect and serve” truly means. We don’t give up on being welcoming, but we don’t forget to connect, serve, and get a little uncomfortable.
Homily Part 5
As Sarah and Beth and I were brainstorming about what this kind of getting proximate might look like for us, we invited some folks from the SEEJ Antiracism Team to join us.
We bounced around some ideas. How to get “in there” with people who are impacted the most by injustice. It turns out, by the way, that getting close to anyone right now has its challenges in a pandemic!
But still, there were some great ideas. We can get proximate virtually. We can go to our RI NAACP zoom meeting, for example, or we can go to our local DARE group Zoom meeting – Dare is an organization of people fighting for the rights of prisoners and also advocating for families who are facing eviction.
We can invite another Westminsterite to go with us, and we can listen, we can take a back seat, we can learn, and we can find out how we can help. If you want to do this – I’ll go with you. Reach out to me. Let’s do it.
We can also build on the great work the antiracism team started last year of educating ourselves and opening up *our* culture. There’s a wonderful workshop called beloved conversations that you can schedule. There’s another one called New Day Rising happening on February 27th that looks very good. There’s a great book called widening the circle of concern, along with a study guide, about what we can do to become more aware and welcoming right here in this congregation.
As we get comfortable with discomfort, as we connect more and more with people whose lives are different from ours, as we stretch into new understanding of the problems facing other people, we bring that back here, making our own welcome ever wider, our own connections ever deeper and our service to the world more effective and more meaningful.
Creating truly, deeply, widely beloved community, here, and everywhere we go.