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.
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