Coming home to you all today has me feeling as if I’m tripping over myself, eager to talk with you about so many things. I want to hear how much you loved finding your generosity and enthusiasm with our Living Generously team, and how deeply you were touched by Pennie Hunt’s powerful message that you are good enough right now. I want to tell you all about the Living Legacy Project’s worship and workshops, and of course, try to explain how it felt to stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands upon thousands of people who stepped out of their daily lives to show up for an historic occasion that has resonance for all the days ahead. It’s a lot to try to fold in, and we can’t do all that in one Sunday.
Some of you are here this morning with things much on your mind – like divorce, or illness, or wonder at some deep personal joy – work worries or concerns about children. Every Sunday we gather is first and foremost about strengthening one another for the days ahead; seeing where we can find hope together, discovering what opens our hearts and allows us to love more. This morning is no different. Although it springs from specific moments in history, what we’re going to be talking about today is “how can we make our days upon this earth better?”
While I was traveling, I spent an evening with one of my oldest friends. Amy was my friend even before Amanda, and Amanda and I have been best friends since 7th grade. Amy and I were friends back when we were about 9 years old. She’s a high school English teacher now, and handles the AP classes as well as the yearbook, literary magazine, AND the school paper. There’s something really special in discovering that you had marvelous taste in friends as a young child; the adult Amy – with whom I only connected again in the last few years – is witty and sharp as a tack, has an incredible artistic touch and mothers in a way that deeply resonates with me. We were talking at one point about my trip, and she confessed that she really didn’t know much about what had happened in Selma, or what the events of the weekend ahead would represent. We had gone to school together, and we had not been taught anything about this history. While there are institutional issues to consider in that, Amy and I were taking our history classes within 10-15 years after these events; they scarcely were even history, certainly hadn’t made it into history books yet. So there are many people whose knowledge of what happened on the Edmund Pettus bridge, or why it mattered, is limited at best. To learn it, I do recommend the film Selma – or for you to join us the next two Sundays as we show two films about this history. But the long and short of it is that Dr. King’s group, the Southern Leadership Council, saw Selma, Alabama as a place where it was very likely that direct action would trigger a strong negative response from people in power, and thus provoke a reaction. It was legal for Black people to vote at this time, and yet Jim Crow laws like the so-called “literacy tests,” which could include anything from counting bubbles on a bar of soap to naming every sitting judge in Alabama, were used effectively to keep Black people from registering. The SLC was right: Selma, Alabama was a perfect place to take action. They announced their intentions to peacefully march from Selma to the capitol in Montgomery, and, dressed in their best Sunday clothes, began that march on March 7th, 1965 – a day that would come to be known as “Bloody Sunday” when Alabama state troopers attacked, gassed and beat the marchers mercilessly – while millions watched on national television. The marchers persisted, and many – including many Unitarians and Universalist clergy and lay people like our own Ken Vernon – joined Dr. King’s call to join them. A pivotal moment occurred a few days when the Unitarian minister, originally from Wyoming, the Rev. James Reeb, was beaten to death by white supremacists. Things moved quickly after that, with President Johnson announcing the creation of the Voting Rights Act. This rough outline isn’t much of the story, but that’s the thing: today isn’t about the history. It’s about what happens now, and what’s next, and even, how does this affect our daily lives?
I went to Selma because, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I felt that, especially in the face of all that has happened in the last year and a half with race relations in this country, I couldn’t not be there. It’s just in the DNA of who I am as a minister and what I think ministry must be and do. And it was powerful in many ways, to march across the bridge with thousands of people who came together to say, “This matters. The history, and the future.” It was especially powerful to me see the response of our UU community. We had 9 full buses join the hundreds gathered in the park; yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts were everywhere. It was hot that day, and beautiful. There were huge screens projecting a presentation of interviews with leaders still living who were at the originally march. We made our way so slowly; Jesse Jackson made his way through the crowd, and I passed right next to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, interviewing people on the bridge. There was both a stateliness and a carnival atmosphere, and in the end, after crossing the bridge and then turning to make my way all the way back to where we began, I felt there was also a hollowness to it. Crossing a bridge, even in the footsteps of history, is only a symbolic act. Now comes the weight, and what matters. What do we bring home? What do we do differently? How do we talk about any of this, especially in a way that creates more love, more eagerness for change, more connection?
Dr. King’s last book was titled Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? And for me, that question remains as the essential one. It is the essential one for us as a community here in Cheyenne; it’s the essential one for us as a nation; it’s the essential religious question of any age. How will we create community? Who will we see as neighbor? Who as friend, who will we make “other?”
If you consider the recent incidents at the University of Oklahoma, where a white fraternity sang about lynching Black people and never having them as “brothers’ in the frat, and the school’s response – disbanding the fraternity and expelling some of the students, there can be a kind of powerful “right on!” feeling that emerges. As a society, we no longer have a lot of stomach for overt racism or homophobia or other isms. That’s generally speaking; there will be a lot of punitive noise and public declarations of how bad that kind of thing is, and a lot of private consolation and excusing. But people who do anti-racism and community building work tend to have two main points to share in the face of this kind of thing. The first is, exiling people from community does not end racism. In fact, it may exacerbate it. The young men who were expelled for their behavior may, in the way of human nature, see themselves now more as victims of a culture of political correctness rather than as people with genuinely problematic ideas. How would it be if instead, they were taken aside by other white people who, understanding the harms that racism causes, were then engaged deeply in a process of unlearning racism and being held both accountable but also in love in the same community? How about if they had to watch that video in a mixed group with their teammates, and professors, and other classmates, and to explain why they felt it was ok and hear how it makes others feel? What if it was a process, a process of inclusion and change rather than an expulsion and termination of relationship? What might have happened then?
The other thing that good anti-racism and community change work teaches us is that anti-racism work is not for just or even especially for people of color. And I mean that in two ways. The first is, people of color do not need to be educated about racism, and it should not be their responsibility to dismantle racism, which they did not create -either structurally or personally. But the second is this: that we all gain so much from creating community, rather than living in silos or allowing chaos, which God or the Life itself intends only as a passageway for creative change.
This is where joy, community, connection and love enter in. Think about this: what’s your favorite kind of food? Mine is Ethiopian. I didn’t grow up eating Ethiopian food. I don’t think my father or grandparents have ever had any, to this day, though I know in the last few years they have really taken to Thai and Indian food. Having food from different places around the world – learning their spice palate, discovering the new textures and tastes and combinations…what richness that lends to life! Or how about music? Do you like jazz? Have you ever enjoyed reggae, or Calypso, or salsa music? The pop music of any era is undergirded by infusions of cultural stylings from around the world. Any artist will admit that a museum which hosts a collection of art from around the world brings a dynamism to the table which cannot be gotten another way. When we interact deeply with one another, we are changed. This is where the sermon lands. With contact theory. Contact theory says basically, the more isolated we are, remaining in community only with people who are very much like ourselves, not only are we more prejudiced, but more importantly, we are less adaptable, less able to respond to change and challenge. The more we interact with people different from ourselves – in ways that allow us to know one another as people, rather than as generic groups – the more we are transformed; we experience the world as more welcoming and richer, our ideas are broader and we have far more resources to respond to challenge. This means that it’s far more valuable to have dinner with one person who is different from yourself than for, for example, two very different church groups to do one activity together. Personal relationships across difference. These are what transform us.
So what I have learned, from others, from the lessons of history in these 50 years since Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery march are this: that when we make mistakes of any kind, or when people are acting out hurtfully, one group against another, the best and most transformative response is to love them more, insist on right relationship, to try to teach and increase connection, not seek to exile or distance ourselves. So whether it’s an instance of racism or homophobia or sexism or whatever ism, or a crime, we see much better outcomes when we hold people tighter in community and commitment than when we reject and isolate them.
The other thing I’ve learned is that difference is not scary; it is life-giving. If I am grieving, I have learned from other cultures that singing and keening, silent sitting or sweat lodges, fasting or desert time….there are so many healing ways that I might respond, ways that I could not know if I had only one culture or story I was exposed to. Similarly, food, music, art, ways of responding to injustice, ideas about governance and democracy, childrearing, worship…even what mental health looks like or how to be a friend – we are enriched and changed and our communities are strengthened when we are able to include a world of difference in our possible responses. That is not to say it will be easy. There will be baffling points of miscommunication and mistakes; there will be frustrations galore and even sorrow sometimes at letting go of some treasured preference, from time to time. Such is the nature of relationship and community. But the rewards are so profound!
In closing, I want to share with you a relationship I’ve been building for a while now, an opportunity for us, within the context of Unitarian Universalism, to create more connection. I’ve been friends with the Rev. Emmanuel Labos in Nairobi, Kenya, since last spring. Rev. Labos runs a small Unitarian church in Kenya, and is himself an orphan who had to raise his younger siblings, and now oversees an orphanage. Most of the children who live there have lost their parents to AIDS. Rev. Labos does well to work with what he has, and he hopes that our congregation might partner with his, for support and building relationship. He is very eager for folks to go and visit, and will arrange homestays for any who care to travel there. I personally would very much like to go and work with his children for a while, but that won’t be possible for some time. Today, in that spirit of “how shall we build new community” I want to introduce you to Rev. Labos and the children in his children’s home, and to invite you to friend him on Facebook if you are on Facebook, but also, if you can and are willing, will you contribute to his church and children’s home? Perhaps you can imagine the positive power of a Unitarian perspective in Nairobi. Perhaps you also feel how much difference it can make to have ministers in our bright Standing on the Side of Love yellow at work in Africa? Perhaps, too, you can see how receiving a prayer to share here, or even working to invite Rev. Labos to come visit and study here, could make a difference for all of us.
Growing together. Building community. Being transformed, for our own good. That is what I learned after Selma. It’s why I am glad to be here, home with you – a community that works to live covenant, and who knows change is eternal and life can be very good, if we hold tight to one another. May we do so, today and in all the days to come. Amen.