This sermon has been brewing in me since January 28th, of this year. It is fueled by what I feel is a personal spiritual crisis. It began by someone asking me a simple, curious question. Here is how it started.
Just after the Martin Luther King holiday and march to the capitol steps a person that I knew stopped me and said “didn’t I see you walking in the march? … Why? Why were you there? Why not, I asked. His subtext was; you are white what does that have to do with you? Eventually I came to understand that he meant… You are white; you have all the privileges that society has to offer so why are you identifying with Black issues. That was a different racist voice than what I was used to hearing. Internally part of my identity was insulted, why would a person ask me that when I have experienced the cruelty of Jim Crow at an early age, done voter registration in North Carolina, Marched in Selma, Taught in all black schools, fought red lining in real estate, supported fair housing laws…. On and on.”
The spiritual crisis that I have been dealing with was triggered by a simple question. Why were you marching in that parade? The answer that I would have given in 1965 was not a suitable answer for 2015. In fact, my answer was a non-answer. “Why Not”
But first, why is it a spiritual crisis that I face? The answer to that question lies in the first two readings that Kathleen read this morning. First, As a UU my spiritual identity is informed and defined by the values inherent in the principles stated in the front of the hymnal. Second, as Frankl points out in the second reading this morning: “We need to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not (only) in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the task which it constantly sets for each individual.” And St. Paul put it this way, “by their works you shall know them.” In other words all the things I have done in my life to be in solidarity with the civil rights struggle are locked into my perception of what is good and just in me. If my deeds are not seen by what I do then maybe the spiritual identity that I have of myself is out of whack with contemporary reality. Why didn’t that guy know why I was marching in the Martin Luther King Day Parade?
So that is my spiritual identity, someone who tries to make decisions and live by the 7 UU principles, someone who belongs to a community that covenants to be loving and serve justice, someone who has a history of consciousness raising and acting on the values that drive right action and right conduct.
What causes this spiritual dis-ease today? It comes when I juxtapose my self-identity with the craziness in the world that feels like the 60’s all over again. For example: In 2014 – 304 Black boys and men died at the hands of law enforcement. In that one year 2014, that is 1/10th the number that died at the hands of the Klan and White Supremists during the 20 years between 1945 and 1965. When you do the math that is a 100% increase in black deaths without due process. It is 304 of the 18 million who won’t be able to vote in the next election because of gerrymandering and new voter registration restrictions. It is 304 people who won’t be joining the disproportionate number of black males in our prisons for profit.
So, why is this Spiritual Crisis? Why do we feel so on edge? Why do we long for a “do over” — a spiritual awakening? – Our spiritual identity is tied to strong beliefs in the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; The right conscience and the use of the democratic process in our congregations and the society at large; The goal of world community with peace and liberty and justice for all; Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The spirit of these beliefs is imbedded in the US constitution and Bill of Rights yet we see them ritualized in different non- compassionate ways throughout society without deference to a foundation of love and compassion for all. The juxtaposition of how we act on these principles with how we see them being executed by white institutions is the root of our spiritual dis-ease.
When our bodies feel sluggish we get up and go for a walk, when our minds mix everything up we meditate, when our values feel disconnected we must act.
Rather than becoming paralyzed by the nightly news we can regard the insanity as moments of grace that move us to action, that move us to consciously exercise our principles at home, at church, in our social relationships and in our white dominated institutions where we spend most of our time.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to go into a long period of self-examination, meditation, study and writing to assist me in understanding this crisis. Looking at a piece of my personal history became the back bone of the speech I gave on Black History day earlier this year.
So, because I was still ruminating over that simple question I attended a meeting……. It was a few weeks after the Martin Luther King Parade that I sat there all “solidarity acting” as a socially conscious Cheyenne citizen and Unitarian Universalist Church member at the Love and Charity Black history day planning meeting. There was no keynote speaker available and after hearing the outline of the youth pageant celebrating the 50th anniversary of Selma, my Pastor jumped in and said (pointing at me) “He was in Selma 50 years ago.”
What the Afro-American women on this committee really wanted for their speaker was the Police Chief to assure them that Cheyenne would not become another Fergusson. That option was closed so the only credential I had for being their keynote speaker was that I was in Selma on March 9, 1965.
Think about it…. Everyone who is going to be there has just seen the movie Selma, and the kids are doing a play on voter registration and the events that led up to the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge just before I was to speak.
Thanks again Rev. Audette; but as it turns she gave me a gift, another grace event, painful as it was. During this month I was obsessed with what I had to contribute as a white person to such a momentous event as the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the March to Birmingham and the institution of Voter’s Rights Legislation.
The first step in deciding what to do meant confronting the words that Kathleen read a few minutes ago. “To be human is to become aware of our separation.”
The white experience of becoming racially conscious is different from the black experience. I can know about the black experience, the afro American experience but I cannot know it the way I know and learn from my own experiences. All I can talk about is my experience of growing up in an environment in Southern California, in the white suburbs where the language and stereotypes were very racist in the 40s and 50s.
From understanding and analyzing the separation I could try to build the Bridge to Wholeness. So after much soul searching I decided that the only thing I had to share is what took me to Selma. It was more than a bus. How did I move from potentially growing up racist to being in Solidarity with the movement in Selma?
Selma in 1965 is not where my story begins or ends. So, let’s go back for a minute to 1950. I will retrace some of my personal encounters and lessons from that road full of sign posts and intersections that led me to Selma fifteen years later.
Eenie, meanie, minie, mo….. In the 3rd grade playing kickball we divided into two teams. Two captains would choose their team by saying einie meanie miney mo catch a ……. Using the N word ….by the toe. I grew up and left kickball and those words on the playground. They were also in my subconscious. 16 years later in my 3rd grade, 100% afro American, class we I needed to choose monitors. So I started einie meanie, minie, mo…..catch a…. I did not know the next word, I only knew that it wasn’t the word I knew….quickly on beat I pointed to the class and they chimed back “tiger by the toe.” Thank God! I knew at that point I had a learning curve to master. That year I spent about 4 afternoons a week in the neighborhood bar with my fellow Afro American teachers, I was the only white person on the faculty. For nine months I immersed myself in the black experience of the educational process in South Philadelphia.
Another story: When I was 8 years old I was a cub scout and I had a badge to earn and it involved putting together a collection of something, displaying it and labeling everything. My father always bought a huge bag of mixed nuts at Christmas time and since we did not have I-Pods in 1950 we sat around the fireplace and cracked nuts. I had a readymade collection of nuts that I added to and labeled them all with pictures of the corresponding trees drawn in the background. Really a nice display and oh by the way these collections would be judged and awarded at the pack meeting. I was sure I was going to win until the Den Mother came up and told me that someone asked her to withdraw my collection because I had mis- named what I soon learned to be a Brazil nut. In our house the only name I knew for that nut had to do with the toe of a black person and it wasn’t the correct name for that nut. 67 years later I can still see the people, the tables, the people milling around, and hear the buzzing of conversation and smell the popcorn in that room.
Recently, when I applauded the actions of OU President for calling out the SAEs
I thought of these two experiences and regarded them as acts of grace. Had they not happened at an early age I could have been that Frat boy.
In August of 1955, between the Supreme court striking down “separate but equal” in Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas — AND Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat at the front of the bus. I also got on a bus. It was an old intra-city bus.
It was a hot summer when 15 – 15 year old boy scouts, from working class families, decided we wanted to go on a trip from Southern California to the Boy Scout Jamboree near Toronto. Our families didn’t have the money to fund our journey so we opened a fireworks stand and made $3000. We bought the bus, recruited a couple of Dads and had enough money left over for a three week tour of the US.
After a few days of travel we stopped somewhere in Tennessee. It was hot and humid, we were sweaty and much in need of cool showers. After cleaning up we were ready for an adventure. We had passed a county fair on the way into town so we took off for the fair grounds. To save our money for New York we decided to sneak in under the back fence. Back by the carney trucks we reassembled and headed toward the midway. Here we were, 15 James Dean look- a-likes in Blue jeans and white tee shirts with rolled up sleeves, we were ready for fun. We strolled along, as one does at fairgrounds, tried to blend into the crowd. When we were almost at our destination 4 security guards snatched us up by the back of our necks. Squirming and struggling…..
WHAT? How did they know we snuck in? They marched us straight out to the front gate, turned us around and pointed to the sign.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT – COLORED ONLY
Evidently we hadn’t blended in….
We stomped around protesting…”That’s not fair. ” Meaning.. it’s not fair that we cannot even have the privilege to pay to get in. Darn, it is our only night in town we protested. Jimmy, for some reason was a little more socially conscious and he flipped our protestations. “Guys, this means Negroes (that was the correct term in 1955) can’t get in the other six days.” Now… forget about school integration…..”separate but not equal” took on meaning for a few white teenagers that night. Oh… and never mind that Scouting was not integrated for another 19 years. Forever more, injustice was not something that was out there.
Of course we didn’t know it but 6 months later Rosa Parks was to get on a bus and not give up her front seat. The gift I received in 1955 was the awakening of a social consciousness about civil rights. 10 years later I was in Selma to peacefully demonstrate solidarity with the Civil Rights Movement. The rest is history.
***Experiences where life paths intersect with History like that, for me, are moments of Grace and I wish that I had time to share all of those moments of Grace that I was given during that 10 year period. Those moments are more cherished than my Baptist baptism at age 12. Those moments during that 10 year period became the grist for what the sociologists call the age when individual values are formed.
I have one more story of Grace…..It is 1957; I was 17 flipping burgers in a small take-out burger establishment. It was 10:30 PM and the fry cook and I were closing up the place when a ’46 Plymouth pulled up and an older black gentleman got out and came up to the window. I could see a bunch of little kids looking out the windows and an older lady sitting in the front seat. He leaned in to the window and asked. “Do you sell butter here?”
Now at 17 there was nothing wrong with my hearing and the question was strange, so I turned around and asked Paul if we had any butter to sell. The big old Texan said no we don’t. So I turned around and told the man “no”. Stooped shouldered he walked across the parking lot got in the car and drove off. I could still see the tail lights and a bunch of hungry kids looking out the back window as Paul said. “You fool, he asked if you serve colored here?”
At that point it felt like someone attached my heart to the back bumper of that old ’46 Plymouth and dragged it down Foothill Boulevard. Now I look back and regard that moment as another intersection where the gift of grace T-Bones me on that path called life. The gift I encountered that night was a deep, life changing emotional commitment to civil rights.
Selma is still seven years away and there are many more intersections with Black History but there is another intersection that sheds light on another role white, privileged, allies need to play. It is called removing the barriers to justice that our white institutions create.
So in November of 1963, four of us seminary classmates decided Biblical studies and preaching classes weren’t addressing the social ferment that was going on. We jumped into my white Ford Falcon with California license plates and headed south from Boston to North Carolina to engage in voter registration. Here, in this story we had to confront our own fears of white people. It was November and right in the middle of hunting season. We drove all night and in the early morning we were in North Carolina on a rural road lined with lots of pickups with gun racks and guys with guns. We thought it best to look like there was only one person in the car. So after a lot of ducking down we pulled into the church where we were put into teams, given some voter registration training, a list of names and we went out.
Before supper we came back and each one of us was met by a black family who took us to their modest and hospitality laden homes. When we went into homes at that time there were always two pictures on the walls, Dr. King and President Kennedy. After a night in clean white ironed sheets and the soft glow from the potbellied stove we had breakfast and started knocking on doors again. Lunch was back at the church and as a few us were waiting there when a bunch of little kids ran into the meeting room yelling, “Dr. King is shot, Dr. King is shot.”
We ran out to the car to listen to the radio and just as we turned it on we heard the news that President Kennedy was dead. Kennedy represented a political ally in the Civil Rights movement and was deeply revered along with Dr. King.
In this story voting rights and voter registration is the recognition that political institutions have to change. Reducing the resistance to change means new representation and new leadership. It now became more apparent that elections meant mending the social fabric in voting booths, city halls, court rooms and law enforcement institutions. Today, gerrymandering and restrictions on voter registration and heavy documentation for licenses are attempts to keep the movement from “keeping on pushing on.”
15 months later I am in Selma. You all have seen the movie Selma, and heard Rev. Audette talk about her experience last month. I am not going to relay that experience except to say three things. One it was different from the March on Washington in 1963, Two, the struggle among the black leaders over tactics was real and took days to come to consensus while we sat around and slept on church pews. Three, it instituted the life-long belief that the process of seeking justice and making our institutions humane comes from external pressure and internal work from the men and women who hold our 7 principles in their hearts and express them with their minds and hands.
I was in a bus that left on March 12, my birthday, and a new beginning in the fall for working for social justice in education. The movement was about voting rights and the right to protest. There were demonstrations all over focused on voting rights.
On March 21, 1965, 3200 people left Selma for Montgomery. Five months later the Federal Voting Rights Bill was signed and I went to work in the all black elementary school in South Philadelphia. One year later I began my work with the Teacher Corps and Title 1 programs in the North Philadelphia Community. One year after that my first grade class, kids that had failed Kindergarten, were reading and carrying signs in a march behind Ralph Abernathy past the burned out Safeway Store across from the school.
I would like to believe that those who stand in solidarity with marginalized people are the allies that work at changing our institutions. I like to think that we are not the ones that require demonstrations and TV cameras before action is taken. I also like to believe that we stand and march in solidarity with those who experience injustice and brokenness when it occurs.
These moments of grace may only be notes in the margins of Black History but for me and many other young white folks the kind of experiences I shared fuel our commitment to the ongoing movement for Civil Rights .
The lessons that I take away from these vignettes are:
- Be conscious of inequality wherever it exists and realize that it different from your experience
- Know that the white experience of privilege is separate from the experience of non-whites
- Become emotionally committed
- Focus on Changing Institutional Racism and Classism where you work
Be Present, Take action, Foster Love. So Be it and Amen.