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 (  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.


May 8, 2015

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.

What exactly does “WHOLE” mean?


Complete.  Full.  Balanced.  We know all the buzzwords.  Call it whatever you want.  We all strive for a full, complete and balanced life.  I prefer to call it a “WHOLE” life.  A whole life is one where your health, finances, career and relationships are all in alignment and working together for your greatest good.  When you are whole and aligned, you are your best and most authentic self.  When you are whole, nothing is too big for you to achieve.  You are health and strong, your finances are in order, you’re doing work you love and you have satisfying relationships with family and friends.  Nothing is impossible for the person living a whole life.

 The First Component:  HEALTH

Health is the most important of the four components.  Without your health, it doesn’t matter whether you have money, a career or personal relationships.  Health is always priority one. 

1.    Physical Health

This slice of health refers to the condition of our physical body and the functioning of its internal systems.  Flexibility, blood pressure, cardiovascular endurance and strength are all measures of physical health. 

2.      Emotional Health

Emotional health refers to our psychological well-being.  It is how we feel internally about ourselves.  Emotional health is measured by self-esteem, confidence, hope and contentment. 

 3.      Spiritual Health

This is where we keep the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves in the world.  This slice is the most ambiguous of the health slices because its definition dependents upon the faith of its owner.  For the religious person, it may be belief in a particular deity.  For the atheist, it may be her personal creed.  However, the most important items held in the Spiritual Health slice are our core beliefs, our values and the principles by which we live our lives.  Everyone has these, regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof. 

The Second Component:  RELATIONSHIPS

The relationship section of the pie refers simply to our connections to others.  Imagine it as a series of nesting circles.

1.      Family

The first section holds our relationships with close family – spouse/partner, parents, siblings, children, grandparents and , in some families, aunts uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins.   The Whole person typically views family as a cohesive unit that actually enjoys each other’s company.

2.      Friends

 This middle ring extends beyond the family circle to our friends and coworkers.  The person with a Whole life has a solid circle of friends that you spend time with and who you can call for help or a shoulder to cry on at the end of a failed relationship.  Because of the many hours we spend at work each week, this circle may also contain some coworkers.

 3.      Community

This outermost ring tends to be the most complicated and the busiest.  “Community can be defined very broadly these days and it’s not at all uncommon for a person to self-identifying as belonging to many communities based on race, ethnicity, religion, age, occupation, residence, etc.  For example, here are a few of the communities to which I belong:  African Americans, unmarried women, lawyers, writers, Delawareans, Americans, humans and Unitarian Universalists.  Each of us belongs to many communities large and small.  The slice of this circle depends on how many communities you identify with and how broad they are.  The most important thing to remember is that “bigger is not better.”  She who belongs to the most communities doesn’t “win.”  The key is knowing where you’re comfortable – whether it’s in one group or in one hundred groups. 

 The Third Component:  Finances

The term “money” suggests cash or other liquid funds.  I chose the broader title of “finances” for this section so that it could include all aspects of financial management – cash, credit, debt, benefits, etc.  Each of these items is part of the financial equation. 

1.    Income

 Income refers to money or goods you receive in exchange for work or other consideration or as the result of a gift or inheritance, or as a government benefit without regard to the amount of money received or the desirability or tastefulness of the work performed.  In this regard, a monthly trust fund disbursement, realtor’s commission, cash wages, social security check and government assistance check are all considered to be exactly the same.  They are all income. 

 2.      Spending

Spending refers to how that income is used during any measurable period.  It can be a simple household budget that includes rent, phone and electricity or an elaborate spending plan that includes vacations and the management of multiple homes.  All money spends the same. 

3.      Savings and Retirement

Savings and retirement are actually types of spending and uses of income.  We save a portion of the money we receive to fund our life after we stop working and earning, i.e., retirement.  In a way, we’re “spending” by saving for retirement.  We’re using that income to buy something that we get to enjoy until later in life.  This money may fund travel in our golden years, cover our stay in a nursing home or simply purchase life insurance.  None of us knows for sure what our later years will bring but the WHOLE person has a vision of what she’d like those years to be and what financial steps she should take to achieve it.

 The Final Component:  Career

This section should probably be called Career and Learning.  The WHOLE person has so much more than a “job” in their life.   The WHOLE person has a career that they love and that is fulfilling. 

1.      Formal Education

 In 2013, a bachelor’s degree is the equivalent of a high school diploma 50 years ago.    Many entry level construction and manufacturing jobs now require a basic college degree or some other trade or specialized education.  The WHOLE person recognizes the value of formal education in life. 

 2.      Continuing Education

But the WHOLE person doesn’t stop with the formal education required for her career.  The WHOLE person continues to pursue knowledge. She is continually learning new things – languages, skills, etc., that will stimulate her mind and keep her at the top of her game professionally. 

3.      Career

 It’s no accident that career is the last item discussed here.  Some say it’s the least important element of a WHOLE life.  I’m  not sure.  Some in our society value others based on their career and the amount of income they generate from it.  The WHOLE person evaluates her career by how much she enjoys it, by how much pleasure it brings to her and others and by whether it serves the needs of her family and community. 


Over the next installments, I’ll share my thoughts on each component individually – discuss my triumphs and struggles and offer suggestions to help you get WHOLE.   I’d love to hear your comments and thoughts….please use the links below to respond and share feedback.