How do we put value on lives? There is a movement in our country called “Black Lives Matter.” Our Unitarian Universalist Association has a web page devoted to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which continues to build as more and more awareness of systemic racism is raised. Trayvon Marin, Michael Brown, Jr., Eric Garner. How many more Black men have to be killed before America wakes up to the racial injustice inherent in our daily lives? What will it take for us to stand up as white allies and speak truth to power?
(Unitarian Universalist Association voted to support the Black Lives Matter movement: http://www.uua.org/statements/support-black-lives-matter-movement)
In the book Soul Work: anti-racism theologies in dialogue, Reverend Patricia Jimenez writes: “Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Paul Rasor has suggested and others have affirmed [that] racism [and oppression are] problems of “othering” people, of holding some up as superior and putting others down as inferior. It is embedded in our way of doing things in this country and gets played out in many ways, including personal disdain and hatred, institutional discrimination, and cultural domination. All of these represent power-over—domination, which is a fundamental evil, a theological problem that we [Unitarian Universalists] are seeking to address.”
I have heard some people, some liberal voices say, “Instead of promoting ‘Black Lives Matter’ why don’t we affirm that ‘All Lives Matter’. Making the movement about ‘All Live Matter’ would raise everyone’s worth and value to the same level, rather than focusing just on people of color.” Well, before I answer that, let’s hear from Peter, a white man: “Here and now, I don't feel affirmed living out issues of race. This is a dirty business willed to us by people who looked like me. However, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, and I can do nothing without doing some harm. I am moving from being an etherized White man ignorant of race to being a European American man discomforted everywhere...My participation at a self-consciously diverse Unitarian Universalist church dismantling racism in fits and starts has offered consolation. Despite my being and my action, my brothers and sisters remain authentically engaged with me in things that I get right and things that I get wrong. Like an unreformed drunk (since my culture will not yet allow me to live one hour, much less one day at a time, privilege-free), I must lean on the good will of my fellow travelers in this religious community I have chosen to join. It’s their good will and its reflection of their perception of my good will that offers affirmation.”
The voices you will hear throughout this sermon are those of Unitarian Universalists struggling with racism and oppression—none of them are from our church. I will also share some of my experiences and insights. My hope is something you hear today will touch you, reach you, and perhaps motivate you to look at racism and oppression differently. Our faith calls us to intentional work to dismantle racism and oppression, in our churches and in our world. Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and our heritage as change agents in society call us to do this work. However, we need to remember as we do this work that we are human, and humans have blinders. Even Unitarian Universalist humans have blinders. We don’t always recognize when racism or oppression happens around us, even when it happens in our denomination or in our church. I know it has happened in our churches.
This voice is Cathy, an African American woman involved in a Unitarian Universalist church.
“Throughout all my years as a parent and teacher in the Religious Education program at my home congregation, I felt the need for inclusion of materials that were culturally and racially relevant for my children. All the curriculum materials are from a dominant culture point of view. I felt that people got tired of my asking for alternative points of view to be represented by someone other than myself. I felt that some White adults were uncomfortable around my children. A number of times I felt that the Religious Education volunteers were afraid of my African American son. There were unconscious racist remarks made. Over the years my children were often the only Children of Color in their RE classes. One Sunday, in the Youth Group, an adult advisor said to my child, ‘When you wear those glasses you don’t look Black.’…I did connect my children to the wider UU community so that they could have an experience of more diversity, but I still worry about the effects of being isolated from a larger African American community of faith has had on my children.”
“When you wear those glasses you don't look Black.” This is seemingly an off-hand comment, but one that strikes deep into the heart of the person hearing it. Certainly the person making this comment was unaware that they were being racist. They did not intend any harm. We all carry within us prejudices, blinders, biases, incorrect knowledge of others—all of us. Part of our role in changing, in transforming, is awareness. If we are unaware of our actions, if we are careless with our words, we are likely to cause pain to others.
Listen to the voice of Sojourner, another African American woman:
“While experiencing racism within Unitarian Universalism has been painful, the reaction of UUs when I tell them my story has been even more disturbing to me. Usually most White listeners will want to hear the particulars of what happened to judge for themselves whether they would have named the incident as racism, instead of trusting me. I have to repeat time and time and [time] again the what, where, and how, and relive the pain. It feels like I am being judged as to whether our first Principle should be applied to me. Rarely does this trial occur when I share other stories of oppression around the multiple identities I carry. Thank goodness for listeners of Color and White allies. They hear with their hearts and believe me without the nitty-gritty. When I receive this affirmation it helps me heal and move on. My pain is transformed.”
I admit that I have struggled with racism and oppression. When I was younger I was verbally threatened and physically intimidated by African American boys in Junior High. And for many years, avoided interacting with African American boys or men, thinking they too would be aggressive toward me. When I was younger, I made fun of people who were fat, at least fatter than me, who I thought were not as smart as me, who looked geeky, I mean geekier than me. Fortunately, I came to realize some of what I was doing and changed my behavior. From that point on, I reached out to people who were different from me which helped me begin to work through my fears and prejudices.
I really make every attempt within my own limited awareness of the world to no longer oppress others in order to empower myself and improve my self-esteem. This was by no means an easy process, nor is it a process I do alone. Chad Simmons, an African American friend of mine and the Director of Diversity Focus, a Cedar Rapids nonprofit working with industry to reduce racism and oppression, was one of my guides, a mentor who helped me grow emotionally and spiritually. We attended a workshop together a several years ago called White Men as Full Diversity Partners. This program encourages white male leaders to recognize their privilege of being white and male – of being dominant in our culture, which many in the workshop had never fully considered before. The attendees of this workshop were not just white men; they were men and women of many different races, cultures, and sexual orientations. Part of the goal was to begin building bridges between people and cultures, to share each of our emotional journeys through life, our perspectives on events, and learn that we all experience the world, at least sometimes, in very different ways. After the workshop, Chad and I decided to get together. We shared with one another more deeply, asking those questions of one another that we had no-one else to ask; and in my case was afraid to ask. One of the most important things I learned from our conversations and from our relationship is how differently people live in the same world. How two people can have the same experience, yet how unique meanings of that experience can be, and how some experiences might have occurred for very different reason. As an example, in talking with my African American friends, I hear all of them say that they have stories of being stopped by the police. Now I have been stopped by the police for speeding, and thought nothing of it. Heck, I have often gotten out of tickets because I am clergy. But my friends were primarily stopped because they were Black. Now you might wonder how they know this. But I assure you, they were not speeding; they were not weaving in traffic; they did not roll through or run a stop sign; their seat belts were buckled; they were not under the influence; their cars were not missing license plates or rearview mirrors. They only thing they were guilty of was driving while being Black. They live with this every day. They know that even though they are affluent, well-dressed, well-known in the community, they might still be stopped and accused of stealing, drug possession, or having committed a crime just because they are black. And Chad told me that Black mothers and fathers tell their children that they will be stopped while driving because they are Black; so the children will understand when it happens. Aberjhani, an American historian, columnist, novelist, poet, and editor, put it this way: “the issue, perhaps, boils down to one of how perceptions or misperceptions of racial difference impacts various individual’s, or groups of individuals’ experiences of freedom in America. Some would argue that it goes beyond hampering their ‘pursuit of happiness’ to outright obliterating it.”
I had a conversation with my brothers not too long ago. They are both business professionals. My youngest brother is Vice President of a company, and hires many people. He declared that he was not prejudiced at all. In fact, he hires people based on their ability to do the job—heck, he even hired a Black woman recently, not because she was Black but because she was the best qualified candidate. I asked him if he thought that every person in America had the same opportunities for learning; that every person could gain the experiences they needed in order to qualify for jobs in his company. He’d never considered how poverty or institutional racism or oppression, threaded through every event of a lifetime, impacts a person’s educational opportunities and, in turn, job opportunities. Eventually he did realize that some people do not have the money, the life experience, the available educational opportunities, or even the awareness of what they needed to do to be eligible for any job he might hire for.
Now let me get back to the question of whether we affirm and promote the movement “Black Lives Matter” or whether the “All Lives Matter” movement is really better because it more “inclusive.” I think Unitarian Universalist Reverend Daniel Schatz answered this question well in a letter to someone advocating for “All Lives Matter": “Of course all lives matter. Central to Unitarian Universalism is the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Sadly, our society has a long history of treating some people as less valuable than others. Study after study has confirmed that in equivalent situations, African Americans and Latinos are treated with deadly force far more often than White people, and authorities held less accountable…To say that Black lives matter is not to say that other lives do not; indeed, it is quite the reverse—it is to recognize that all lives do matter, and to acknowledge that African Americans are often targeted unfairly … and that our society is not yet so advanced as to have become truly color blind. This means that many people of goodwill face the hard task of recognizing that these societal ills continue to exist, and that White privilege continues to exist, even though we wish it didn’t and would not have asked for it …As a White man, I have never been followed by security in a department store, or been stopped by police for driving through a neighborhood in which I didn’t live …To deny the truth of these experiences because they make me uncomfortable would be to place my comfort above the safety of others, and I cannot do that …it is painfully evident that a great many people do not believe that they are treated fairly. Healing begins by listening to those voices and stories.”
So where do we go from here? How can we make a difference? At a very basic level each of us can reach out to people who we perceive as different from us in some way. We can get to know them, perhaps even engage in dialogue about how we and they experience the world. And I am not talking about a sort of Starbucks “Race Together” exchange; I mean an in-depth conversation. We can walk alongside people of color and those on the margins to add our privileged, powerful white voices to theirs as they fight for equality and justice, which is different from trying to “help” them get equality and justice. Indigenous Australian, visual artist, activist, and academic, Lila Watson wrote: “If you have come to help me you are wasting your time. But if you recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together, we can walk together.” And we can bring more multicultural experiences to this church—giving us exposure to different ways of believing, different music, different lifestyles, and different values.
Here is one other thing we can do in our church. Radical Hospitality, radically accept all who join us. Not just tolerance when strangers walk through our doors; we must welcome each and every person with open arms, as long-lost family, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here. My life may be different than yours, so please tell me your stories; I want to hear them. I want us to understand each other. I recognize that your liberation and mine are bound up together. Please, may I walk with you?”