Rev. Jane Page
This is the second in my Fall 2019 sermon series addressing the question, "What are we here for." (Here at UU.) One reason folks come here is to work with others in responding to injustices in our community and the world.
Now admittedly, we may view “injustice” differently depending on our backgrounds and worldviews. For example, a large group of senior citizens in Bulloch County recently proposed and pushed for an exemption from paying school taxes for anyone over 65. They saw this tax as an injustice for senior citizens because they had no children in the schools – or because they had “already done their part.” Some did speak of financial hardships, but they wanted the exemption for ALL people over 65, whether or not they faced financial hardships.
Well, there were others of us who saw this in a different light. We saw this as an injustice for the children in our schools needing good financial support for their education, as well as an injustice for younger folks in our community who would have to assume the burden for this exemption through the raising of their own taxes, and an injustice for folks who rent rather than own property, because their rents would be raised as school taxes were raised for their landlords to make up for the lost revenue. So, we organized ourselves through a Facebook group and showed up to speak up on the day these seniors were presenting to the board. And it was pretty clear before the meeting was over that age-based exemption was off the table.
What is the difference in these two views? One view is from a personal perspective – the view that this tax is a burden for me. The other is a view from a larger perspective – the view that the age-based exemption would hurt a lot more people than it really helped – and in fact, many of those folks needed no help. When most of us sitting here think of justice, we are thinking from that broader perspective of advocating for others and providing a better life for all, especially those who have been oppressed by our patriarchal, white supremacist system.
I do sometimes think that older folks – like myself – are so influenced by this system – so unaware of our own privileges, etc. – that we can’t SEE some of the problems and injustices in the world as well as younger folks – and especially as well as folks who have lived with many of the injustices of the world can see them. It’s like that picture you look at and you see the woman – but there are actually two women (a young one and an older one), and it takes a while for some of us to see both.
I’ll give a personal example rather than point fingers at someone else. A few years ago, I was at General Assembly at a worship service. Now that’s somewhere we certainly try to lift-up injustice and become motivated to do the right thing. And I was trying to pay attention to the songs and the speakers. But something kept getting in the way. It was the Service of the Living Tradition when newly fellowshipped ministers as well as those receiving full fellowship or retiring are all sitting up on the stage. And one of the ministers was in a wheelchair. Of course, we UUs have ramps and stuff – so we were providing for her needs, right? So while I’m trying to enjoy that worship service and listen to those good speakers and singers – she is continually lifting up this OUCH sign – every time a word like “stand” or “walk” is used in some metaphorical sense – like singing “Standing on the Side of Love.” It was very disruptive – and I thought – surely there is a better way for her to make her point than ruining this worship service for the rest of us. But as it continued to go up and down ALL during the sermon, I realized – dang – this is what she deals with all the time, and many others as well – and here I sit in my able body form and feeling frustrated with HER rather than frustrated with US. Thankfully, my view shifted while I was sitting there to one which could BOTH take in the service and it’s good meaning – while at the same time – noting how frequently we used able body language to make our points.
And, indeed, her actions of protest made a difference. It opened many of our eyes and helped us to begin a process of rethinking some of our language. And that’s a good thing. SO, we who are in privileged positions – and most of us are privileged in some ways if not in others – need to LISTEN and really LISTEN and become more aware of problems that may be difficult for us to understand and may SEEM petty or minor to us. The folks dealing with these continuous microaggressions can assure us they are not minor – they build up and up over time. We have much work to do within our congregations and our association.
BUT – we can also come here to work together and respond to many of the injustices throughout the world – not just in our own home. What are these?
I could have asked you before I prepared this sermon – but alas, I have been busy tending to a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old while their mom recovered from gall bladder surgery – and just didn’t have time. So, I looked online to see what others said. I was glad to find a list of what millennials had to say about problems in the world – for reasons I stated earlier. The results come from the World Economic Forum annual survey which was given to more than 31,000 18-to-35-year-olds across 186 countries. I could preach whole sermons or series of sermons on each of these – but today, I’m just going to list them for you and perhaps make a couple of comments about them as I share them.
Here are their top ten:
10. Lack of economic opportunity and employment
9. Safety / security / wellbeing
8. Lack of education
7. Food and water security
6. Government accountability and transparency / corruption
5. Religious conflicts
3. Inequality (income, discrimination)
2. Large scale conflict / wars
1. Climate change / destruction of nature
Now THIS sermon is not just about being aware of the injustices of the world – but the premise is that THIS is a place for us to come to RESPOND to the injustices of the world. Why is that?
Well, first – we Unitarian Universalists have a strong history of responding to injustice.
In terms of the abolition of slavery – the Universalists had a statement against slaveholding in their Articles of Faith and Plan of Church Government composed and adopted on May 25, 1790. Then Universalists were silent on slavery for the next half century before they began to pass anti-slavery proclamations at the state and national level.
The Unitarians were not as vocal as a denomination as they were individually.
(From Pat McClain Paper) Mark Morrison-Reed recounts the story of Theodore Parker late at night with both a gun and a sword nearby while he wrote sermons, so that he could protect the runaway slaves he was hiding. In fact, Earl Morse Wilbur attributes the slow growth of Unitarianism after 1840 at least in part to the fact that so many “active spirits” were promoting such reforms as antislavery. In 1845, one hundred seventy Unitarian ministers published an antislavery declaration in The Liberator, lamenting both the fact that the gospel could not “be fully preached in the slave-holding states” and the “long silence of Northern Christians and churches.”
And our spiritual ancestors were involved in the anti-slavery movement in other ways as well. Some of these are listed by Rev. Eric Walker Wickstrom:
- The belfry of our congregation in Olmsted, Ohio was a station on the Underground Railroad.
- Our congregation in West Roxbury, Massachusetts gave sanctuary in their building to several escaped slaves and Freedmen. Their Pastor was the Rev. Theodore Parker.
- Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African American woman who drew huge crowds of New Englanders to her lectures on the anti-slavery circuit. Some say she was the most popular of all the abolitionist speakers of her day. She was also a Unitarian.
- The Rev. Samuel Joseph May, who served our congregation in Syracuse, New York, was known to take up collections during the Sunday service explicitly for the purpose of aiding fugitive slaves. (He also encouraged the Free Blacks in his congregation to sit up front rather than in the segregated back.)
- In Pennsylvania, our congregations in Meadville and Philadelphia, along with a seminary the Unitarians established in Meadville, were all known stations on the Underground Railroad, as were the Universalist congregations in Indiana County and Girard.
Not every one of our forebears would make us proud, of course – the President who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, Millard Fillmore, was a Unitarian, for instance.
Many Unitarians and Universalists were active in the women’s suffrage movement as well. Here are some:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (sort of)
Susan B. Anthony (She was a Unitarian and a Quaker)
Actually, Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have been both leaders and the rank and file volunteers in pretty much all the movements for justice in our history including those in our more recent history. We certainly answered Dr. King’s call in the 60’s to show up and lost one of our own ministers, Rev. James Reeb, as well as a UU layperson, Viola Liuzzo (Lee OOZ oh) in that struggle. And today you’ll find Unitarian Universalists on the frontlines for the struggles for immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and racial and environmental justice. Our association is not perfect in our efforts to address injustice – but it’s a good place to be trying – warts and all. Because we are in good company – historically and presently.
But let’s face it – many of us are more like VISITORS in these struggles because we don’t feel the effect of the injustices like others. And AS visitors, we need to remember to listen and learn more. Rev. Aisha Ansano is an African American UU minister that helped me to understand this in a reading she shared with the UUA worship web called “Visitors in the Struggle for Racial Justice.” She writes:
Think about it in terms of this metaphor: You're visiting a foreign country where the customs are very different from what you are used to, and the language is different, and some of the things they do are not only different but make you feel deeply uncomfortable. As a guest in that country, it is not for you to say that the things that people who live there are doing are wrong. Instead, your role is to learn, to pay attention and try to understand how things work, and to adapt. But if you do something that goes against their norms, it's also your role as a guest to not insist that they let you do things however you want to do them. It is your role as a guest to pause and consider what you’re doing.
White people tend to be visitors to the struggle for racial justice, ones that aren’t forced to be there but can choose to come in and leave whenever they like. People of color reside in the struggle for racial justice by virtue of their race. As people who are constantly in the struggle, people of color have the right to make claims on what they find okay and not okay, what they see as helpful and not helpful.
And the same can be said of other kinds of struggles as well. Before many of us can be effective in the struggle, we have to listen more and study more, try our best to see various perspectives and not be so FRAGILE when people point out that we may have a problem – like the woman with the OUCH sign was doing at that General Assembly I talked about earlier.
Our congregation in Brunswick just finished an Adult RE class study of Robin D’Angelo’s book “White Fragility.” How many of you have already read it? I think instead of a Religious Education class, I’m going to encourage us to adopt this as a Common Read this fall – and we ALL can read it. I’ll buy some copies to loan out and encourage those who can afford to – to buy their own. Anyway – at the end of their study in Brunswick – many of them asked – okay we’ve read this – now what? What’s next? And that becomes part of our struggle – to figure out how to address the problems we have ourselves and to work with others in the community to address related issues. But it’s WORK, it’s not easy, and sometimes we get hurt in the process. Yet that’s who we are called to be in this faith! It’s part of our religion. And thankfully, we are in it together – because that’s how we can best work on these struggles.
I’m proud that our congregational members are both aware of the injustices of our community and world and work together with others to make a difference. We don’t always say we are “sponsoring” some of the work – because that sometimes hurts our efforts. But we are there – often leading the planning, providing the resources, doing the work. Yet we recognize that we have more to do- more “out there” and “in here” and “in here” (point to own body).
I encourage those of you who can – to remain after the service for more discussion.
And I’ll close with this quote from Frederick Douglass:
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
May we be here for one another and support one another as we move into the struggle.Amen and Blessed Be.