“There”

I wrote this poem for my “African Americans, Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists” class at Meadville Lombard Theological School, Fall 2015.

“There”

Feels like we’ve been traveling forever
but we’re still not there.
Lord knows we’ve tried – each in our own way – to get there,
wherever “there” is.

Working groups, task forces, coalitions, allies.
Resolutions and programs.
Catch acronyms and fancy names.
We think and think and talk and talk,
then think and talk some more.
Lord knows we’ve tried – each in our own way – to get there,
wherever “there” is.

They try so hard to include me.
But I thought I was already included.
Now I feel like an outsider.
Lord knows we’ve tried – each in our own way – to get there,
wherever “there” is.

I know it’s better than it was.
But it still feels like I’m supposed to
set aside a piece of who I am
in order to belong.
I won’t do it.
My Unitarian and Universalist ancestors worked too hard
for me to give up now.
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper whispers softly in my ear,
“Keep going, child.”
Yes, ma’am.  It’s a struggle sometimes but
I don’t feel no ways tired.

We’ve made some progress and we’ll make some more.
We’ll keep trying.  We’ll get there someday.
Wherever “there” is.

 

Copyright © 2016 CMSimon. All rights reserved.

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My Life Matters – Being a Black UU

This sermon was delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on January 3, 2016.  This printed text includes the excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that was read by the Worship Associate between the two halves of the sermon.

 

“My Life Matters”

Just before Christmas, Rev. Susan asked if I would fill in for her today. I was planning to be here today anyway so of course I said yes. When I asked if there was a particular topic, she said, well…we’ve started talking about a Black Lives Matters sign…

Let’s get to it. How much do you know about Black Lives Matter?

Black Lives Matter was founded in 2013 by three African American women, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. The movement, which is decentralized and has no hierarchy, describes itself as an “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.” Its guiding principles are diversity, globalism, restorative justice, collective value and loving engagement. It is intergenerational, queer affirming and transgender affirming. It is unapologetically Black and committed to Black women, Black families and Black villages.’ It seeks to “build connections between Black people and our allies to fight anti-Black racism, to spark dialogue among Black people and to facilitate the types of connections necessary to encourage social action and engagement.”

While some consider its purpose unclear and its tactics questionable, there’s no denying that Black Lives Matter has become a rallying cry for many and a prominent presence in our society. There are Black Lives Matters protests and events all over the country and indeed the world every day. We just saw them at the Mummers parade on Friday. Black Lives Matters demands recognition by public officials and political candidates. Individuals and organizations of every race and ethnicity are involved – not just Black people.

Critics of Black Lives Matter often reply that “All Lives Matter” which, while technically true, misses the point according to movement organizers. As cofounder Alicia Garza explained to a white reporter, “Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important – it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. … When Black people get free, everyone gets free. … When we deploy ‘All Lives Matter’ as to correct an intervention specially created to address anti-blackness, we lose the ways in which the state apparatus has built a program of genocide and repression mostly on the backs of Black people – beginning with the theft of millions of people for free labor – and then adapted it to control, murder and profit off of other communities of color and immigrant communities. … When you drop ‘Black’ from the equation of whose lives matter, and then fail to acknowledge it came from somewhere, you further a legacy of erasing Black lives and Black contributions from our movement legacy.”

That’s what it is. What has been the Unitarian Universalist response to Black Lives Matter? Well, to understand that, we need to take a quick stroll through history.

When we tell the UU story, we’re quick to mention the anti-slavery crusaders of the nineteenth century and UU involvement at Selma. We talk about how welcoming we are and about how we cherish the inherent worth and dignity of all. Those things are all real and all important but they don’t tell the whole story. The whole story is that our denomination’s commitment to ending racism has been, in my opinion, inconsistent at best, particularly on the Unitarian side of our family tree. For example, Unitarian positions on slavery ranged from demands for its immediate end to tolerance of it so as not to disrupt our “social, economic and political order.” Some wanted Blacks to live as free and equal citizens while others wanted to send them back to Africa to live in colonies to be established in Liberia.

In the early 20th century, we turned our attention to “the race problem.” The Universalists established missions to educate Blacks. The Unitarians talked a lot but didn’t actually do as much. My own school, Meadville, devoted its 1915 convocation to race. Booker T. Washington, Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones and Rev. Celia Parker Woolley were among the speakers. Woolley said “the present day problem is one of slow adjustment, patient endeavor and hopeful waiting. It is the white man’s problem as much as the black man’s. The sin of white complicity is … seen in the disposition to discriminate against the colored man, woman and child in every walk of life.” But at the same time, the revered president of the American Unitarian Association from 1900-1927, Samuel Elliot, was referring to Blacks as “more nearly brutes than anything I have ever known.”

After Elliot’s term, we started passing resolutions and creating commissions and issuing reports on racism. There was activity but nothing really happened. We still counted only a handful of Blacks among our membership and almost none in ministerial or denominational roles. We weren’t quite ready for that yet. In 1953, the Commission on Unitarian Intergroup Relations asked “are the scattered non-whites in our church merely tokens with which we quiet our consciences or are they the beginning of more adequate integration?”

We really got engaged during the Civil Rights era. We still talked and issued reports but this time we also advocated and lobbied and protested and marched. We were in Selma. We were engaged. The Black Power movement exploded but the newly consolidated UUA wasn’t ready for what would come next. In 1967, in response to riots in Newark, Detroit, LA and yes, even Philadelphia, the UUA held its Emergency Conference on the Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion. We started talking about what we were really trying to accomplish and whether by “integration” we really meant “assimilation.” You see, members of the newly-formed Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus tended to be educated and middle class – as are most Black UUs today. But back in 1967, they declared that the rioters had “served notice on the middle class that it has not tried hard enough to find new tactics to redress the system which excludes the poor and the blacks from the major benefits of American technology.” This crack in the veneer of UU unity would grow into a huge fissure – one that would see the overtaking of the floor at General Assembly and the walk out of most of the denomination’s Black members and several White ones. Sounds like a Black Lives Matter protest, doesn’t it? I can’t in three sentences even begin to explain the Empowerment Controversy in the depth and detail it deserves. Just know that it caused a significant rift in this denomination, one that hasn’t completely healed almost 50 years later.

After this episode, we were broken and our interest in racial justice waned again. It took years before we could begin the work again – but begin we did. We’d lost a significant number of Black UUs over the Empowerment Controversy but were starting to attract others. In 1940, there were two black Unitarian ministers. Today, there are many Black religious educators and denominational leaders. A Black man, William Sinkford, was president of the UUA!

But we’re not there yet. In 1957, AUA president Dana McLean Greeley told African American seminarian David Eaton that congregations were “not ready” for a Black minister. On December 3, 2015, UUA Transitions Director Keith Kron warned me that “a lot of congregations say they’re ready for a person of color but they’re really not.”

Yes, as a microcosm of society at large, our denomination’s anti-racism efforts have been inconsistent at best. Our attention (and by “our” I mean “UU”) attention has waxed and waned. But Black people are still here. Still struggling. Still waiting.

Excerpt – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
“…I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; 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 can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

 

What about our congregation? Are we ready?  We know the story of William Henry Furness delivering anti-slavery sermons in the pulpit at our old church while armed members surrounded him to keep him safe. But Furness didn’t start off that way. Rising mob violence in Philadelphia that culminated in the burning of the new Pennsylvania Hall in May 1838 jolted Furness into action. In July he preached his first anti-slavery sermon. He said it “required all the nerve I’ve got. … It was not pleasant but painful.” Can you imagine? We had members who owned slaves. Several weeks earlier we were collecting funds for the back to Africa American Colonization Society. Not everyone supported Furness. Author Elizabeth Geffen says “reactions ran the gamut from reverence for the status quo to fear of physical violence, from desire for public approval to anxiety of fear over possible economic losses.” But Furness took a stand and held it. This was a very big deal for a man who typically avoided public involvement. And it almost cost him his position as minister when there was a serious effort by certain members to remove him because of his strong anti-slavery views. Thankfully for us, that effort failed and he remained in the pulpit here for almost another 40 years.

Again, there’s more to this story than we have time for today. I mention it to illustrate a trend that runs throughout our history. Furness didn’t want to be out front in the anti-slavery movement. He didn’t particularly care for denominational affairs either. We’re still like that today. As a congregation, we’ve always “gone our own way” and have been “inward gazing.”

We weren’t really involved with UU activism during the Civil Rights era and the Black Empowerment Controversy. We were doing our own thing in our own way. We had some Black members and there was no internal racial strife. Even today, we’re not particularly active in the Greater Philly Cluster or at the district level. We still don’t have much interaction with the UUA. We go our own way and, for the most part, we all get along.

I was asked to preach about race at the UU Fellowship of Lower Bucks.   When I mentioned to friends that I was going to preach about Black Lives Matter, the response was invariably “Let ‘em have it” or “give it to them good” or something to that effect. That bothered me. Alot. Racism is real. My lecturing them about white privilege wasn’t going to get us anywhere. Instead, I told them just what I told you about Black Lives Matter and then I told them what it’s like to be a Black UU and let them connect the dots for themselves.

Let me share a little bit about what I told them. To me, being a Black UU is great most of the time but sometimes it feels LONELY. It’s lonely being the “only” one at events or as one of my classmates put it, “being the only chocolate chip in the cookie.”

Sometimes as a Black UU I feel UNIMPORTANT. This is the flipside of feeling lonely. Often, in our eagerness to be inclusive, we say we “don’t see color.” We say we’re “all the same on the inside.” We’re not all the same anywhere – inside or out. I want you to see my blackness. I just don’t want that to be ALL you see. My blackness is part of who I am – just like my hazel eyes. Don’t treat me any differently because of it but don’t ignore it either. It hurts when you tell me to my face that you are colorblind. It tells me you don’t view me as a whole person. When you refuse to see ALL of me, you see none of me.

Sometimes I feel WARY. As I shared earlier, Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist attention to anti-racism has waxed and waned over the years. We happen to be back “up” again with Black Lives Matter.   I’m afraid that this is only a trend and that it won’t last. I’m afraid that whites will lose interest again in racial equity. I don’t want to jump on this bandwagon only to have my heart broken.

Sometimes, I feel FRUSTRATED. There’s more to the race problem in this country than police violence, which sadly is what some people think is the only issue. It’s about more than “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.” This is about generational poverty, inferior schools, financial illiteracy, unemployment/underemployment and lack of opportunity. What about those things?

This frustration isn’t particular to me as a UU – this bothers me as a Black Person Period.   Systemic racism runs deep in our society. Sometimes it’s very subtle and nuanced. I think of those little micro-aggressions that happen every single day. I was stopped by Mississippi State Police while driving from Memphis to Atlanta. The officer said, “That’s an awfully nice car you have there…where you going?” Or the time I was stopped by police in my own neighborhood in suburban Denver and asked “what I was doing there.” A classmate of mine, a young Black man, told me he wears glasses to “soften his face”, so he won’t look so “scary” to white people. He wears a dress shirt every day so that he won’t look threatening. That breaks my heart.

How does it feel to be a black UU? Most of the time it’s great but sometimes I feel TIRED. I met a young woman online in August. We chatted when I responded to something she’d posted online. I wasn’t trying to strike up a racial conversation but that’s what happened and it was ok the first, second and third times. The trouble was…that was ALL she ever wanted to talk to me about. I was getting instant messages every day about white people’s reaction to Black Lives Matter. I’ve had classmates preface their comments to me by apologizing for their white privilege. It’s tiring. I get that this is new for some of them and they want to talk about it all the time. But I can’t do it.   Talk to me about tennis. Ask me about my work. Let’s talk about dogs. I love dogs! It’s ok to talk to me about something besides race. I understand that white people have their own issues and feelings about race that they need to sort out. I want them – you – to feel safe in coming to me to talk about anything. I will always be here and will never turn you away. That is who I am. I only ask you to be aware that sometimes I just get TIRED.

I’m still sorting out how it feels to be a Black UU and about my own involvement in Black Lives Matter. The movement’s not perfect. It can appear disorganized and unfocused. I don’t always agree with its tactics but I understand and respect them. After all, protesting at the Mummers parade Friday and at shopping malls during the holiday was no different than what civil rights activists did 50 years ago.

I don’t always agree with their rhetoric. Black folks have suffered for years because of institutionalized racism and systemic oppression. But I don’t blame all our problems on White people. We, as Black people, have some work to do in our own house.

The Black Lives Matter movement is part of that work. It’s our movement but there’s a role for you, too.   As a denomination, UUs passed an Action of Immediate Witness at GA last summer calling upon member congregations to: (1) engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice, (2) work toward police reform and prison abolition and (3) recognize that the fight for civil rights is as real today as it was decades ago and to become involved in collaborations fighting for racial justice.

It isn’t easy work and many congregations are struggling with it. Some disagree as to what their involvement in the movement should be, with many members leaning toward an “All Lives Matter” stance. Congregations that do take a stand often find themselves as targets of those who oppose the movement.   There have been many stories in the news about banners stolen and vandalized at various UU churches. Congregations have posted and reposted signs. They’re holding vigils and participating in protests. They’re hosting and attending conferences, preaching sermons and attending workshops. Here in Philadelphia, the Unitarian Society of Germantown and the Church of the Restoration are particularly active in the Black Lives Matter movement. If you want to know more, please visit. I’m sure Rev. Kent and Rev. Kathy would welcome you.

So, “First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, established in 1796,” what are you going to do? I say, “Hang the sign.”

Do it because we really do believe in the inherent worth and dignity of Black lives.

Do it for those Black men and women who lost their lives to senseless acts of police violence.

Do it in affirmation of the genuinely loving interracial friendships and relationships we’ve built over many years in this church.

Do it because my life matters.

Hang the sign.

It’s time to take action – to fling open the doors and join Restoration and Germantown and UUs all over the country in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

In this New Year, we’ve got to stop navel-gazing. We’ve got to look up, look out, and look around. We’ve got to become engaged with the outside world. Hang the sign.

I’ve shared a lot with you today. Some of it might have been hard for you to hear. But I think it’s important that you hear it.   I want you to hear one more thing: I am a Unitarian Universalist to my core and I am very proud to be a member of this congregation. When it comes to racial matters, we have to admit that our history is not perfect. Our present is not perfect and we probably won’t be perfect in the future. But we’ll keep trying. One step at a time.

Let’s hang that sign.

 

Copyright (c) 2016 CMSimon.  All rights reserved.

New Beginnings

You probably noticed that I made quite a few updates to my LinkedIn profile.  That’s because I’m making some major changes in my life.   If you know me even a little bit, you know how committed I am to combating issues of economic injustice in our society.  Unemployment, underemployment, discrimination in the workforce, inadequate training and education and financial illiteracy have a chokehold on many of our cities and towns.  The generational poverty and hopelessness I’ve seen in the urban areas of Philadelphia and Wilmington break my heart.  People lack the education and skills to get a decent job that pays a living wage.  Neighborhoods are plagued by crime and drugs.  Schools are underfunded and, in many cases, unsafe.

For many years, I’ve tried to help through my volunteer efforts.  It’s not enough.  I can do more.  The late Dr. Stephen Covey said, “[v]oice lies at the nexus of talent (your natural gifts and abilities), passion (those things that naturally inspire, motivate, energize and excite you), need (including what the world needs enough to pay you for) and conscience (that which assures you of what is right and actually prompts you to do it).  Engaging in work…that taps your talent and fuels your passion – that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.”

I first read those words in 2004 but I don’t think I fully understood them until these last few years.  My family background, every job I’ve had, my education, my time spent practicing law, being unemployed and underemployed, my volunteerism, my health and financial struggles, my music, my teaching experience and my religious study – all of it was for the purpose of bringing me to where I am today.  I’ve found my voice.  I am called to be a Unitarian Universalist minister and to use my energy working in the community to heal our world both from the “inside-out” and the “outside-in.”  This means meeting people wherever they are on their journey and helping them find their way to their personal truth.  If people are spiritually healthy from the inside-out they can do the outside-in work our communities so desperately need.  It means leading a congregation in its efforts to promote peace, justice and love in our world.  It means working one-on-one with those who most need help and joining forces with other people, other congregations, corporations, organizations and government to build a global Beloved Community.  That is my soul’s code.

I’ve spent the last 18 months focusing on my health, getting my mind and body strong again.  Through meditation, reflection and counsel with trusted friends and advisors, I’ve refocused professionally as well.  Now, I’m ready to take the next steps.  I was accepted to the Master of Divinity program at Meadville Lombard Theological School and begin classes this month.  Next week, I will start my new role as Director, Center for Employment and Training at the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia (http://pec-cares.org).  I’m honored and excited to be part of this amazing organization that’s been a pillar of the community for more than 20 years.  I’ll also continue to make speaking appearances in the Delaware Valley and, of course, will remain an active Toastmaster, helping others find their voice and communicate their message to the world.

Thank you to the friends, family and colleagues who’ve supported me and continue to encourage me on this journey.  I love you all.

Connie

May 8, 2015

Langston Hughes – I Dream a World

Thank you, Google, for showcasing one of my favorite poems as today’s Doodle:

I Dream A World

by Langston Hughes

I dream a world where man

No other man will scorn,

Where love will bless the earth

And peace its paths adorn.

I dream a world where all

Will know sweet freedom’s way,

Where greed no longer saps the soul

Nor avarice blights our day.

A world I dream where black or white,

Whatever race you be,

Will share the bounties of the earth

And every man is free,

Where wretchedness will hang its head

And joy, like a pearl,

Attends the needs of all mankind –

Of such I dream, my world!

Word for ME Today!

I’ve gotten into the habit of reading “The Word for You Today” (WFYT) each morning as part of my routine.  Some of the more hard-core biblical messages are a bit off-putting but I usually find some value in the readings.  Yesterday, Sunday, I got up and read what I thought was the entry for January 18th.  It was something about dating.  I’d love to be dating a nice man right now but WFYT wasn’t going to help me find someone. (That’s a story for another post.) I went about my day and didn’t think anything more of it.

This morning I woke up in a funk. I’ve actually been feeling this way for a few days – criticizing myself for poor food choices, wasting time, not getting everything done, not being involved in community affairs as much as I could be, etc.  Then I looked at WFYT.  What I read yesterday was actually the message for today so I went back a day.  The message for January 18th was “Don’t Be So Controlling.” It was written with husband/wife relationships in mind, talking about how two “become” one and that the process takes love, patience, kindness and hard work.  You can’t “influence the outcome’ by fixing, judging, nagging, scolding, arguing, criticizing and regulating.  Then it hit me – this message was brought to me today because I needed it today.  It was about my relationship with myself!  I’m making all kinds of changes in my life right now – I applied to seminary, I’m looking for a new job, I’m 2/3 of the way to losing 100 pounds, I’m healing my finances and I started training for my first 5K race.   I’m doing well.  I am becoming a new person.  The use of the gerund here is intentional.  I’m still a work in progress.  So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.  I’ve come a long way.  No more self-judging, self-nagging, self-scolding and self-criticizing.  I will be more patient, loving and kind with myself.

Music as a Spiritual Practice

This is the text of a worship service at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia on October 27, 2013.  It was a non-traditional service that I led from the piano.  It combined recorded music, spoken word, live musical performances, readings and congregational singing.

Music: James Brown, “Doin it to Death”

“Some songs make you feel good. Some songs make you feel bad.  Some songs just make you ‘feel.’  You may not understand all the words, but your heart truly understands the feeling.”  Those words are from R & B singer Peabo Bryson – the “real” pre-Disney movie theme Peabo.  In 1981 he released a live version of his 70s hit “Feel the Fire.”  I started playing it on my then-new Walkman cassette player before every exam, every trial and every big presentation. I played it the day I was sworn in to the United States Supreme Court.  I played it two months ago in July the day of my surgery. I played it today.  It’s always among the Top 25 played songs in my iTunes library.  There’s something about the energy of that particular version that makes me feel invincible.  The song you just heard is called “Doing it to Death” by James Brown, the Godfather of Soul.   Nothing can make you “feel” like a James Brown song.  Young or old, black or white, I’m sure that song made you feel something.  I hear that song and instantly feel good. Hopefully it made you feel good, too.  But maybe it didn’t and that’s ok.  That’s what today’s service is about – the power of music.  Eight simple notes.  Arranged in various combinations, played on different instruments, sung by humans or animals.   Whether it’s funk, opera, jazz, easy listening or heavy metal, it’s all the same eight notes.

For those who do not know me, my name is Connie Simon and I’ve been a member of this church since 2009.  I’ve been on the Ministry Leadership Team, the Membership and Multicultural Ministries, the Bylaws committee and am proud to be your Moderator this year.   Some of you know that I come from a musical family.  My mother and her sister were the organists of their respective churches. My sister sings in the church choir.  My niece Suzanne Burgess is a professional singer here in Philadelphia.  As a kid I sang in the choir and all the school choruses, played the saxophone and clarinet in marching band and have played the piano in all kinds of venues since I was eight years old.  Over the past few years, I’ve filled in for Jen Heyman, our previous music director and performed here with Cory Walker many times.

Even though I’ve made my living in law and business, music has always been the constant my life.  It’s my solace and my comfort.  It’s the one thing that is always with me.  No matter how I’m feeling – happy or sad, sick or well, fragile or unbreakable, loved or unloved, I turn to music.  It’s my “spiritual practice.”  It can calm me, excite me, motivate me and sometimes in its beauty even move me to tears.  Bach, Beethoven, Bryson or Brown, there is an arrangement of those eight notes for every occasion in my life.  I feel their vibrations in my soul and use them to heal and sustain me.   Today, I’ll share with you the power of music as a means of spiritual practice – as a vehicle to ground you, to carry you to a higher place or simply to take you home.  I hope you don’t mind but today will be a little bit different – a cross between a summer service and a Music Sunday.  With Reverend Nate as my worship associate, Cory, Suzanne, Joy, Zemoria, Dan and Schelly assisting, I’ll lead the service from the piano through Wonder-Joy, Prayer, Gratitude, Presence, Reverence and Hope.   My mission is for you to leave here feeling good.  I hope you enjoy and have a funky good time. So, let’s begin the way we do every week by saying simply “welcome home.”

Wonder-Joy

What exactly is a spiritual practice?  Ask 10 people and you’ll get 10 different answers.  The Spiritual Science Research Foundation defines it as “honest and sincere efforts done consistently on a daily basis to develop Divine qualities and achieve everlasting happiness or Bliss…. It’s “our personal journey of going inward beyond our five senses, mind and intellect to experience the Soul (the God) within each one of us.”    I’ve also seen it defined as something that “moves a person along a path towards a goal.”

You can define it any way you choose.  My spiritual practices are those things that keep me sane and guide my steps through this life and into the next.   My spiritual practices are tied to my core values and to the fundamental principles by which I live my life – honesty, kindness, knowledge and service.  I always speak my truth from my heart and I don’t compromise my integrity.  I believe in showing kindness and compassion to the other creatures with whom I share this universe.   I strive to learn something new every day.  And I truly believe in service.  In the words of one of my favorite authors, SARK, when asked what I do or who I am, I say “I am a creative spirit.  I just came here to help.”

Honesty, Kindness, Knowledge and Service are the outward manifestation of my spiritual journey.  Today, we’re going to talk about those practices that reflect internally and guide me on my path.  I’m going to use music as the medium through which I’ll explain what I mean.  Understand that I’m using “music” in the broadest sense.  I’ll introduce each spiritual practice with an explanation of what it means to me and then share with you a few songs, poems and stories that illustrate that practice and that are personally very important to me.

I’d like to start with the practice of “Wonder-Joy.”  Initially, in my mind, these were two different things with “wonder” suggesting amazement and appreciation for the things around me and “joy” referring simply to happiness.  And then I read “Experiencing Tears of Wonder-Joy: Seeing with the Heart’s Eye” by William Brand.  And finally, all those times I found myself stopped dead in my tracks by something I’d seen or heard made sense to me.   All those times I’d felt that indescribable feeling in my chest and the tears welling up – finally made sense.  Braud says “My skin erupts in gooseflesh, hairs standing on end.  Something literally takes my breath away; I gasp, involuntarily.  Chills run up and down my spine.  I feel a tingling around my eyes, my head, and the back of my neck.  The tone of the experience is positive.  Toward the end of the experience, or afterward, there may be some sadness.  In the midst of the experience I feel love and compassion.  My heart goes out to what I am witnessing.  I feel gratitude.  I feel a yearning, a poignancy, an intensity.  Around me, and between me and the provoking event, there is what I can only describe as a thickness, as though the surrounding air somehow has a greater density.  The experience comes up me – unexpected, spontaneous.  My attention is focused strongly upon what I am witnessing, what is provoking these feelings.  Other things fade from my attention.  … The rest of me pauses, shuts down temporarily.  I must cease, and allow the feelings to subside before I am able to continue.”

Wonder-Joy isn’t something you can look for; it’s something that’s already inside you, always waiting to be released and anxious to be set free.  As children, we’re taught that we have to “grow up and get serious.”   Sure, we all have responsibilities and obligations but we also have to keep our hearts and minds open to the world around us. Robert Fulghum says, “Surprise is the core of existence. It’s true. You never really know what’s coming next.”  Even the most mundane things can be amazing.   It is said that “Wonder begins in the senses, comes alive in the imagination, and flourishes in adoration of the Divine. It arises from our natural curiosity about the grand adventure of life. It increases our capacity to be a bold inner space tripper and an avid explorer of the physical world. … [it’s] all right here, a feast of epiphanies and astonishments in the daily round of our spiritual lives.  Put very simply by Ted Kosser, “I delight in the things I discover right within reach.”   I’ve experienced Wonder-Joy many times in my life.    In January 2009, I had a pretty good ticket for President Obama’s first inauguration.  The crush of people around me was incredible.  It was freezing cold.  But when we got to our seating area, I saw those thousands of people all there for the same reason I was.  We were one.  We were there to celebrate not just a new president but a new president who looked like us.  All at once the hopes and dreams of my ancestors were realized and in an instant – I was overcome by Wonder-Joy.  This summer I was driving through my hometown and spotted some cows hanging out on an Amish farm.  The sky was a perfect blue; the grass was verdant and plush.  When I stopped to admire the scene, one cow looked up at me as if to say “Nice day, huh?”  That’s Wonder-Joy.   Then there’s the song you’re about to hear.  My brother Doug introduced me to Chuck Mangione back in the 1970s and his soundtrack for the movie “Children of Sanchez.”  The movie, starring Anthony Quinn, didn’t do well at the box office, but the soundtrack is amazing.  One particular melody, “Consuelo,” which you’ll hear in a moment, is so haunting and beautiful in its simplicity that it always moves me to Wonder-Joy.  But first, you’re going to hear a poem by English poet Adelaide Anne Proctor about an episode of musical Wonder-Joy.  This 1858 poem was set to music by Arthur Sullivan in 1877 as a death-bed tribute to his brother Fred.  When I was young my mother used to play and sing it to me.  Even now, when I sit down at my piano at home, it’s one of my favorite pieces to play.

Poetry Reading: “The Lost Chord,” Adelaide Ann Proctor read by Dan Widyano

Music: Medley – “Consuelo’s Love Theme” and “Children of Sanchez” by Chuck Mangione, arranged by C. Simon performed by Suzanne Burgess, Joy Wiltenburg and Connie Simon

Prayer

Poetry Reading:  “The Old Slave Music” by Sarah Piatt read by Rev. Zemoria Brandon

Much of the “old slave music” referenced in that poem came from the anguish and despair of the slaves who had been torn from their homes and families only to be worked like animals, bought and sold like crops and often beaten until they died or escaped.  Many of their songs were pleas for help and deliverance from the hell in which they found themselves.   Sometimes we find ourselves in our own personal versions of hell.   Sometimes it’s poverty, hunger, loneliness, danger, poor health – or sometimes all of the above.  We cry out sometimes aloud and sometimes in quiet silence for help.  That’s what prayer is.

My brother-in-law has been asking me a bunch of questions about what this church is like.  Last Saturday he asked me if we were going to pray here.  I answered “yes.”  Whether it’s in our meditation/moment of silence, our sharing of names or the songs we sing, we do pray here.   Think about the lyrics of some of our hymns.  “Help of the helpless abide with me.”  “Roots hold me close, wings set me free.  Spirit of Life, come to me.  Come to me.”  “Precious Lord, take my hand.” [Opening line only sung a cappella by Suzanne Burgess]    Each of those songs is a prayer.  A Mahalia Jackson recording of that last one plays continuously at site of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  I can’t tell you how many big strong men I’ve seen reduced to tears when they walk down that hallway and hear that song.

That song is a frequent prayer of mine.  When I first started coming here, I noticed that the words “God” and “Lord” had been removed from many of the hymns I’d learned as a child.  I didn’t quite know what to make of that at first.  The invocation of “God” and “Jesus” used to bother me because I didn’t accept Christian beliefs.  Then one day I realized it was all ok.  As Unitarian Universalists, we value and appreciate the wisdom to be found in other faith traditions.  It’s ok that I sometimes pray to my “Creator” using Christian songs with lyrics that mention God.   It’s all about the feeling of the music and the sincerity of my heart.  If the song moves me and stirs something in me, then it works.  And this next song definitely works for me.  It’s another one of my “go to” songs.  I have a lot going on in my life right now and sometimes it just gets overwhelming.  But as this song says, “after you’ve done all you can, you just stand.”

Music: “Stand,” by Donnie McClurkin performed by Cory Walker and Connie Simon

Gratitude

Gratitude is the simplest of the spiritual practices, yet it’s also the easiest for us to mess up.  Scientist Robert Emmons says that gratitude is not just about acknowledging the goodness in one’s life but also recognizing that the source of this goodness lies at least partially outside the self.   It’s more than just saying “thank you” for the things you receive – that’s the “simple” part of gratitude.  Where we mess up is in being greedy and wanting more, better or different.  We mess up when we feel “entitled.”  We mess up when we become jealous and envious of others.  I overheard someone say that you can’t be grateful while you’re coveting what somebody else has.

But what if that thing you are coveting is life itself? I was privileged to witness true gratitude as my mother was dying of cancer.  One day in her room at Lankenau, she said to me “It’s ok because I’m going to go be with my husband and my parents.”  I would have been angry – really pissed off – that after fighting so hard, was there really nothing else that could be done?  It just wasn’t fair.  But instead of railing against the injustice of it all, she truly was grateful for the life she had been given but understood that it soon would be time to go.  To me, that’s the ultimate express of gratitude and something to which I can only aspire.

I was given just that chance in April when my brother Rick died.  He had survived 23 years after a traumatic brain injury that should have killed him.  Sure, he missed driving and riding his motorcycle and playing with his kids.  But with the use of just his left arm, he built a new life for himself that was more active than that of many people I know. Even though he was still ornery as cat dirt as my niece would say, Rick was now gaunt and weak and his organs were failing.  My sister-in-law and I made the decision to let him go.  I didn’t want to, but I remembered back to that day with my mother.  I was grateful for the time I had with my brother but I knew he was tired it was time for him to go.

It’s not easy to let go of someone we love.  We get angry and upset at what their absence will do to us.   And that’s only natural.  Yet somehow, despite our sadness in their passing, we have to find a way to be grateful that their suffering has ended and pray that their soul found peace.

Music: “Safe from Harm,” by BeBe Winans performed by Suzanne Burgess and Connie Simon

Presence

We talk about presence a lot in this church.   When I first started  coming here, I didn’t quite get it.  I knew being present was more than just raising my hand and saying “here” but I didn’t understand how one could not be “present.” Then one day it hit me. I realized that I wasn’t living my life – my life was just happening to me. Sure I had moments of focus and clarity but I was not “present” on a consistent basis.  I’d “lose” whole hours of time during the day because I was always thinking about the next task, the next appointment, the next thing to be done.  I wasn’t living each moment.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this in the past tense as though it’s something that I’ve overcome.  I DO struggle with presence.  Think about how many more moments of Wonder-Joy I could have experienced had I just been present!  I made a promise to myself yesterday to slow down and stop letting my life live me.

When I walk through the sanctuary doors each Sunday, I make a serious effort to leave everything else outside so that I can truly worship and recharge for the week ahead.  This one hour each week is my time to lay it all down as Rev. Nate says and be still.  I come here to feed my heart and my soul and to spend time with each of you.   “Presence” for me is sitting quietly in the pews and feeling the essence of the members past and present who have attended this church since its founding in 1796.  Presence is getting my weekly hug from Barbara Higgins and seeing the latest pictures of Harvey’s grandchildren.   I enjoy being present for these moments – they nourish my soul and make me feel good.

What about our collective presence?  Each spring we do our flower communion.  We bring so many different kinds of flowers!  Each person adds his or her flower to the bucket and we make the most beautiful arrangement.  Our collective presence is reflected in the floral arrangement that we create together.

We light and extinguish our chalice each week with words spoken in unison.  Sometimes we get distracted in church – it happens to everyone.  I will admit that I have checked sports scores on my phone during service once or twice over the last few years.  But when it comes time to light and extinguish the chalice, we are all focused, together and collectively present.

In keeping with today’s theme, let’s talk about our collective presence as we sing together – our voices in unison.   Maybe it’s a hymn you don’t know very well, or one that’s too high or too low for you to sing – it doesn’t matter.  We’re all singing together.  Collectively present musically.

Hymn: Blue Boat Home by Peter Mayer

Reverence

The last spiritual practice I want to share with you today is “Reverence.”  One definition of “Reverence” is a “feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.”   Virtue.net says reverence is a combination of “loyalty, deference with love, devotion, honor and adulation.”     To me, reverence is simply remembering where I came from and living my life in a way that honors my ancestors and preserves their legacy while at the same time adding my own contributions for future generations.

As Blacks in America, my ancestors endured, persevered and thrived.  My maternal grandfather’s family were free Blacks as far back as 1820 and, with three other families, settled a town called “Hinsonville” that is now the site of Lincoln University.  They were brave and resilient people.   My mother told me stories about refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner as part of civil rights protests.   That took courage.   This is where I come from.  This is the stuff I’m made of.

As a Black person in America today, I know firsthand that racism still exists.  I know firsthand that there are still people out there who judge me by the color of my skin.  They think they know all about me.  We’ve come a long way from slavery and even from the civil rights era of the 1950s-60s but we haven’t made it all the way yet.  When I first prepared my notes for today, I was going to share with you a story about a time 13 years ago I was stopped by a policeman in my own neighborhood who didn’t believe that I had just purchased one of the new homes there.  But I don’t have to go back that far.  We can pull one of the stories in the news just this week about African Americans at Barney’s and Macy’s who were detained for “shopping while Black.”

In 1900, Florida school principal James Weldon Johnson wrote a poem called “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to be read at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  With his brother John, they set the poem to music.  The song became known as the “Negro National Anthem.”  Today we still call it the “Black National Anthem.”  We are very protective of this song – like the Star Spangled Banner, it must be treated with respect.  That is why we always rise when we sing it.  The first time I heard it sung here as part of a service, I have to tell you it made me a little uneasy.   But it turned out ok.  You see, it’s a very special song.  To me, it’s a WONDER-JOY experience of collective PRESENCE for me every time I hear it.  It is an expression of GRATITUDE for how far we’ve come and a PRAYER for the future.  I sing it with profound awe and deep respect, with loyalty, love and adulation.   I sing it in honor of my ancestors and every Black American who came before me and who will come after me.  I sing it with REVERENCE.

So now, I ask you to rise as you are able and join me in singing all three verses of hymn number 149 – Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Hymn: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson

Benediction

Voice still and small, deep inside all,

I hear you call, singing.

In dark and rain, sorry and pain,

Still you remain singing.

Calming my fears, quenching my tears

Through all the years, singing.

 

Text of hymn “Voice Still and Small” by John Carrado

Why Are We So Afraid of “God”?

This is the text of a sermon delivered August 3, 2014 at First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. 

You’ve heard me refer to this church as “my house.”  I feel a spiritual connection to this place – not just the building but to the people who’ve been part of this congregation over the last 218 years.  I feel “safe” here.  Safe to be my true self, to share what I feel.  Safe to ask questions so I can learn and grow.  That’s why I know I can stand before you today and ask the question, “Why are we so afraid of God?”

For the sake of our discussion today, it’s important that you know I consider myself to be a “strong agnostic” when it comes to God.  As I am today, I cannot know whether God exists.  I do believe in an Ultimate Reality – that every living thing emits energy that vibrates at various frequencies creating a sort of “life force” but I don’t know how it started or whence it came.  I study and draw from religion, philosophy, literature and the natural world as spiritual guides in my life.

When I was a child at Second Presbyterian Church in Oxford, every hymn and anthem we sang offered praise to God with a capital “G” – the traditional Christian God sitting on high in the clouds.    When I came here, I found familiar tunes but often unfamiliar lyrics that often excluded the word “God.”  I sat through many sermons in the sanctuary that celebrated faith traditions from around the world but, other than when we said “Merry Christmas” on Christmas Eve, I don’t recall any that celebrated Christian traditions.  In fact, I heard many messages that seemed to me almost derisive of Christian beliefs.  Both the Unitarian and Universalists faiths had God at their core and today we count among the sources of our Unitarian Universalist living tradition “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.”   It’s right there on the UUA website.  So God’s still part of our denominational mission but not welcome as part of our worship?

I have to admit this has caused me a great deal of confusion and angst.  I want to make clear that I’m not criticizing or questioning those who define “God” as something other than the man in the clouds.   I’m talking about the God in those Christian teachings.   Over the last couple years, I have felt that somehow that God and those Christian teachings were being left out.

Because I haven’t been a UU for very long and I’ve only been to services at a few other places, I don’t have a solid set of factual experiences on which to rest this belief – I only know what I “feel” and that’s it’s been eating me up inside.  How could it be that my open-minded, liberal new faith was somewhat closed-minded when it came to Christianity? This is serious.   It hit me hard after one particular service this spring.  Here I am thinking about seminary and all of the sudden I’m having some kind of crisis of faith?  I needed to figure this out.  I looked at information from other UU churches around the country and the world.  I kept my eyes wide open at General Assembly last month.  To my relief, I found mention of God and principles of Christianity in UU sermons, in prayers, in song and in general worship.  I reached the conclusion that what I was feeling here was the particular beliefs of our former minister.  And that’s ok.  We’re all unique individuals.  I fully support each person’s right to define his own spiritual truth.  Even though I may have perceived bias in some parts of those sermons, I still learned something – even if it was something I didn’t like.

I was encouraged to read and study more on my own.  And as I was doing that research and later preparing for this sermon, I found something quite unexpected.   Instead of just general avoidance of Christianity, I found a disturbing amount of anti-God rhetoric – actual enmity toward people just because they believe in the traditional Christian God.  Here are some examples:

  • Actor and comedian Norm MacDonald was publicly berated in the Twitter-verse for saying that he believed in God and read the scriptures daily.
  • Christopher Hitchens, a Vanity Fair columnist and author of “God is Not Great” draws large crowds at his public appearances. At one such event, he was quoted as saying “I think religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt and I claim that right.” The audience roared and cheered with approval.
  • A Florida Atlantic University student was told by a professor to write “Jesus Christ” on a piece of paper and then stomp on it. The student refused and was disciplined. Once word got out, the school issued an apology and the disciplinary action was dropped.

I found op-eds, essays and articles with titles such as “Do Only Dumb People Believe in God,?” “People Who Believe in God are Idiots,” and “People Who Believe in God are F***ing Retarded.”  For those with shorter attention spans, there’s even a list of one-liners they can use that includes such gems as “Religions are cults with more members,” “So many Christians, so few lions” and “God is just pretend.”

The most shocking thing I discovered is the movement known as the “New Atheists,” headed by authors Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  They’re not simply atheists, they are anti-God, anti-all-religion advocates.  They believe that religions “should not simply be tolerated, but should be countered and criticized.”  In an interview with NPR, Sam Harris talks of “exerting so much pressure that it becomes ‘too embarrassing’ to believe in God.”

Reading this stuff blew my mind and made me think:  how would we react if instead of Christians, the statements referred to a different group.  Because of who I am, when I hear something that doesn’t sound right, I ask myself whether I would be upset if they substituted Black people in their statement.  I turn it around and make it personal.  So what if someone said blacks should be treated with ridicule, hatred and contempt?  Maybe someone else would flip it to say homosexuality simply should not be tolerated but should be countered and criticized.  Can you imagine?   We’d be up in arms!  So maybe it’s not really that people are “afraid of God,” (although I’m sure there are some who might be).  Maybe they just can’t tolerate those who believe in him.  They aren’t able to accept those who have a different belief than they do.

Tolerate and accept.  We often use these words interchangeably but they’re really very different.  Quantum Leadership, an anti-bullying organization for school-age kids, describes it best:  “Tolerance [says] ‘I understand your beliefs are different than mine so I’ll just put up with it and put up with our differences.  Acceptance [says] I understand that your beliefs are different than mine and I still love and respect you.”  You and I may not like the same music or the same food or the same books.  We may not support the same candidates for office or agree on issues such as immigration, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or same-sex marriage.  Maybe you believe in a Christian God and I don’t.  It doesn’t matter.  Our world is getting smaller every day.  The times of living in one community your whole life and only seeing people who are just like you are gone.  With television, the internet, Facebook and Twitter we can visit anywhere or talk to anyone in the world in an instant.  People move around the country and around the world without giving it a second thought.  As a result, we’re constantly exposed to people of other nationalities, cultures and religions.  The worst thing we can do is to be indifferent to them.  Both love and hate require intense emotion but to be indifferent to someone, to harden your heart and pretend they don’t even exist, is the cruelest thing you can do to another human being.

Intolerance is only a little bit better than indifference.  When you tolerate a person or group or belief, you at least acknowledge that it exists.  But your heart is still closed.  You acknowledge that differences exist but make no effort to see beyond those differences and to make a real human connection.  I think intolerance is rooted in fear – fear of things that are different, fear that maybe our beliefs or our way of thinking just might be wrong.  We’re afraid to look inside ourselves and challenge our assumptions.

Our goal should be acceptance – recognizing our differences and still choosing to love one another anyway.  You can hold true to your own path and still accept another who is on a very different path.  Author and poet Joana Ukali says acceptance “can be elusive, like a beautiful butterfly darting in front of me.  I want it, I know it will feel beautiful inside when I embrace it fully.  Sometimes the thought of acceptance has me pretend I am willing.  Often, I build a case of reasons why I should not have acceptance of a situation or person. … Then, with nothing but willingness, grace enters my heart and overrides my righteous mind.  It does not matter if I have acceptance or not.  I am transformed by grace and it is the only decision there is to make….I am transformed.”

Looking back, I think what I was feeling here wasn’t intolerance but rather a kind of “acceptance.”  We’re very proud of our open doors – proud that our membership includes people of color, proud that we have a significant LGBT population, proud of our positions on issues of social justice.  We show visitors that we can celebrate Jewish and Buddhist and Hindu and pagan traditions, but  when it comes to embracing Christianity, we sometimes fell short.

We can be welcoming and accepting of Christianity and those who believe in God without compromising our congregational and denominational integrity.  I see three benefits to doing so.  First, we would hold true to our history of drawing on Jewish and Christian faith traditions in an effort to help worshippers determine their own true spiritual path.  We’d be giving them a more comprehensive bucket of tools and resources to reach the conclusions that are best for them.

Second, we would be more in line with the principles of our faith – particularly our third principle, “acceptance of one another and encouragement of the spiritual growth of our congregation,” and the fourth, “dedication to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

Lastly, we would have an impact beyond the walls of this church.  If we all learned to be more accepting and carried that practice with us everywhere we go, we’d make our communities and our world a more peaceful place.

Going forward, I hope we won’t be afraid to include God and Christianity in our worship.  I hope we won’t be afraid to seek acceptance and not just settle for tolerance in our relations with others – whether the subject is God, politics, sexual orientation, race or anything else.

I want to leave you with the words of Quantum Leadership’s JP Butler:

“We are all human. We are all subject to our own truths. We are all subject to our own opinions. So is everyone else. And everyone else must choose his/her own truths just as you have. You are not above others because your truths are ‘more right’. They have struggled, just like you have, to find truth in the world. To block out and exclude everyone who does not share the same beliefs as you do (or even just the ones whose beliefs are TOO far removed from your own beliefs), is to deny the joys and tragedies of the journey we all face as human beings. You do not know how s/he came to his/her beliefs, so don’t judge their truths.

Differences exist. You are free to hold your own beliefs high, but this does not mean you, yourself, are higher than others. And because of this, my challenge to you is to love, respect, and accept all people, because they are just like you…human.”

May it be so.

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