Sunday, January 28, 2018: The Welcome Table

THOUGHT FOR CONTEMPLATION:

“I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ( * )

PRELUDE: “Lament in Tremelo form” (by Laurindo Almeida) ( * )

WELCOMING WORDS

CALL TO WORSHIP:

Our worship service this morning calls to those of us who identify as white to listen, humbly and perhaps with some discomfort, to the lived reality of black Unitarian Universalists.

Our listening is a gesture of respect for those voices that have not been heard enough, and a sign that we are open to growing in the right direction.

INTROIT: “Hush! Somebody’s Callin’ My Name!” Spiritual ( * ) (arr Brazeal W. Dennard) ( * )

LIGHTING OF THE CHALICE: Lily R.

OPENING HYMN: “Guide My Feet” (#348) ( * )

OUR COVENANT:

Love is the doctrine of this church,

The quest for truth is its sacrament,

And service is its prayer.

To dwell together in peace,

To seek knowledge in freedom,

To serve humankind in fellowship,

To the end that all souls

Shall grow into harmony with the Divine.

This is our great covenant,

One with another, and with our God.

SONG OF ASPIRATION:

From all that dwell below the skies,

Let songs of hope and faith arise,

Let peace, good-will on earth be sung,

Through every land, by every tongue.

Amen.

CHILDREN’S TIME: Katie Camire

SINGING CHILDREN TO THEIR CLASSES:

Go now in peace, go now in peace;

may the love of God surround you,

everywhere,

everywhere

you may go.

CANDLES OF JOY AND SORROW

MEDITATION AND PRAYER

MUSICAL MEDITATION

RACE, POWER AND PRIVILEGE: “Why It Matters to Me” (Anne N.)

The Race, Power, and Privilege planning group has been using the metaphor of the table over the past several weeks, and you may have noticed that the title of today’s service is “The Welcome Table”. At first I thought I could talk about an actual, literal table of racial justice work that I get to sit at, as a member of the Working Group for Racial Justice at Salem State University, where I work as a psychology professor. But I realized that it would be more authentic if I talked about why it took me so long to get to the table. Why did someone so interested in social justice wait until her 50’s to really start thinking about racial justice? So I want to talk about two reasons I arrived at the table so late. The first is a concept known as White fragility, and the second is my initial resistance to some of the terminology of anti-racism work: words like privilege, Black Lives Matter, and White supremacy.

I first heard the term White fragility about a year ago, when I enrolled in a White People Challenging Racism class in Cambridge. In class one night, someone mentioned the term, so I looked it up as soon as I got home. I learned that White fragility theory is the work of Robin DiAngelo, who’s a scholar in the area of Whiteness Studies. And her description of the theory was disturbing familiar to me. Here’s what she says: “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds White expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”

She continues: “White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

Let me take a slight detour here and say that I’ve done lots of work in my career that might be called social justice work. I’ve worked in immigrant and refugee services, comprehensive sexuality education, and gender equality. I’ve worked on research studies of frail urban elders, older workers, same-sex couples deciding whether to marry, and urban adolescents’ experiences of economic opportunity. But, as I look back on my resume, at every point I can remember a moment of being challenged by someone that maybe I wasn’t thinking deeply enough about race, and about how race intersects with all those other identities: gender, social class, age, and so on.

So this idea of White fragility forced me to ask myself some really tough questions. Had I spent lots of my adult life insulated from racial stress? Yes. Was I able to walk away from racial stress any time I wanted? Pretty much. Did I enter conversations about race expecting a “safe space” for me, without considering how unsafe it might be for people of Color to talk about race with White people? Yes. Had I ever become defensive, angry, guilty? Of course. Had I ever become argumentative? Definitely. Had I ever just shut down? Yes. In other words, had I walked away from the table of anti-racism work?

Yes, I had, time and time again. I walked away from that table because I found the work on anti-racism so uncomfortable. It threated my sense of myself as someone who cared deeply about equity. It threatened my identity as a liberal, as a progressive, as a UU, as a psychologist, as a good mother. It came after my belief in myself as a fundamentally good person. In fact, more than once, being challenged to think more deeply about race had made me think: How dare youHow dare you play the race card with me?

The other reason why it took me so long to get to the table was my initial resistance to some of the terminology of the movement. First, that word privilege. I understood the term in an intellectual sense. I could see how some people walk through life with unearned advantaged. But because my economic background was so decidedly not privileged, I resisted the word. It was much easier to see the parts of my life where I didn’t have privilege, and harder to see the parts of my life where I did.

And here, being a UU helped with my understanding. I started to connect the idea of race privilege with the UU belief in the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” I came to see that being a White person in the U.S. automatically reduced the number of times, in a given day or week, that I would feel that someone was diminishing my dignity as a person. I could spend most of my challenging days without the added challenge of people coming after my “inherent worth and dignity” because of skin color.

This dignity issue got me to listen more deeply to my students, at first in their written assignments about their identities, and, increasingly in person. Here’s the thing about Salem State students. They can be very forthcoming about their challenges and struggles. They disclose. And I can guarantee you that all of my students have stories of feeling diminished. That goes for the students for whom Salem State wasn’t their first choice. That goes for the students who are first-generation college students, the Gulf War veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, the transgender students, and the students who are middle-aged or older.

But the more I listened to my students of Color, the more I realized their stories about being diminished were different. I don’t mean different in an “oppression Olympics” kind of way (my pain is bigger than yours), but in a way that suggested that we as a country hadn’t yet shed the legacy of allowing one group of people to own another group of people. Their stories were more about being put in their place, or put back in their place, and this became especially true after the 2016 election. And I heard similar stories from my colleagues of Color.

Sometimes these attacks on dignity were large manifestations. Just this academic year alone, our campus has been hit three times with racist and “Whites only” and “White America” graffiti. But, more often, these students and colleagues experience smaller challenges to their dignity, the microaggressions that some scholars talk about. Or, in Derald Wing Sue’s words, the “brief and commonplace … indignities.”

That word was, and still is, haunting to me: indignities.

And, finally, there’s that phrase Black Lives Matter, and the term White Supremacy. A few years ago, some faculty in the Massachusetts university system created the Black Lives Matter Teach-In. Faculty were challenged, during one week in February, to talk about this social movement in our classes. So, would I participate?

I guess in some ways I always knew that I would. But I wanted to go into it fully informed. I checked out the Black Lives Matter website, and that old discomfort of mine reared its ugly head. Was this movement too radical? Was this movement too exclusive? Was I really ready to do the work of “dismantling White Supremacy?” This was a term that had always taken my breath away.

I had always thought about “White supremacy” as an extremist ideology of hate, which of course it is, and that’s where my resistance to the term lived. That wasn’t me. But reading more helped me see that another use of the term was “me.” I started to understand White supremacy as a system, a centuries-old system of privilege for one group and disadvantage for another. Or, as a centuries-old system that conferred dignity upon me, but indignities upon others.

After getting my head around the words White supremacy, I still worried: What would this Black Lives Matter work actually be like in the classroom? Would my White students feel attacked: Don’t All lives matter? Would my Latino students feel slighted: What about Brown lives? What about my students who are military veterans or Criminal Justice majors: What about Blue lives? So, professor that I am, I started thinking about the issue as an exam question. I challenged myself to think about the question of Black lives mattering not as an essay question, not as a short-answer question, and not as a fill in the blank: Yes I believe Black Lives Matter, but …

I allowed myself only a “yes” or a “no” response. Did I believe that Black Lives Matter? Yes or No? No qualifiers, no addenda. Did I believe that Black Lives Matter? Yes or No? My answer was and continues to be an unqualified “yes.”

Let me close by saying this. That “yes” answer hasn’t brought me any magic. It hasn’t given me automatic skill or automatic comfort in talking about race. It certainly hasn’t put a hero cape on my shoulders. But it does give me the fuel I need to return to the table, and stay there as long as I’m welcome, even when the going gets tough and the space doesn’t feel so safe. It gives me the fuel to stare down my fragility and keep trying to be the White person I want to be.

OFFERTORY: Prelude No. 2’Poor Mourner’s Got A Home’ (by Wallace McClain Cheatham) ( * )

READING: from the UUA’s “The Promise and The Practice” by Rev. Carol Thomas Cissel ( * )

Diverse. Multicultural. Inclusive. Welcoming.

If I made a list of every single Unitarian Universalist congregation I have served, visited or worshipped at, they would have a few things in common – including the use of these words.

Perhaps on the front of the Order of Service? Or scrolling across the home page of their website? Maybe they’ve been emblazoned on a rainbow-colored banner hanging in the sanctuary? Wherever they are, more often than not, the words are proudly combined with another expression that has been embraced in everyday UU vernacular: “All Are Welcome Here!” The congregations, churches, and fellowships on my list, all have one or more of these words proudly on display.

I know why they are used so freely. Initially, I feel embraced by them. There’s a warmth of recognition when my eyes first catch, capture their sight. A sense of being acknowledged and valued moves from heart to head and then a smile settles on my lips. My heart blooms. I feel like the Welcome Table has been set for me, and I am eager to pull up a chair.

All of this takes place in an unmeasurable instant. In the next moment, it is tempered. I remember past experiences and unconsciously recalculate and measure my response. The petals of my heart close a bit, protecting the delicate stigma and stamen that lie within. Fear of disappointment rises within me like the sun.

I love those words. I want what they promise. But I have been repeatedly disappointed. It is simply not enough to print them on an Order of Service or in a newsletter; they must have meaning and intention at their core. A desire for multicultural worship is wonderful, but it will not flower if that seed of yearning is not nurtured by a commitment and a plan.

Longing for diversity (of race, gender or age) is only a beginning. It calls for caring and creative programming. Our congregations are primarily white, female and over 60. If we are to serve into the future that must change. I believe that we can transform first ourselves and then the world. I am injured repeatedly when we do not. When we use words just for the sake of using them I am hurt.

Without true resolve, planning and measurable goals behind the things I see, my trust and hope are broken anew.

Why does it hurt? Every time I see those words I feel the possible revival of Unitarian Universalism germinating in the warm soil of Spirit. I’ve seen the transformation begin to take place in Washington State, Washington DC, and California. Congregations in Oklahoma continue to push our faith forward. So, yes: I am hopeful – hopeful but wary. On too many occasions and in too many places, these words and the ideals which they carry are given lip-service. 

Words matter. They lift and hold us. They illuminate the future and shower us with possibilities. When misused, they hurt. Verbal cuts and abrasions sting. Language leaves wounds that become scars.

Words matter. If you and your congregation are not ready to meet the promises you craft, and then share with the world – stop publishing them. Please don’t invite me to sit at your table unless you have a warm, satisfying meal to serve. It doesn’t have to be a gourmet feast; a potluck is fine. The soufflé may only have risen halfway. The cookies might be burned on the edges. The pasta can be overcooked. That’s okay. I’m starving. What it must be is full-filling, real, made with love and ready to be eaten.

Remember: I believe what you say and write. Words matter.

HYMN: “I’m Gonna Sit At The Welcome Table” (#407) ( * )

READING: “Moving Beyond ‘whites-only’ UU theology” (by DeReau K. Farrar) ( * )

It is no secret that a dominant voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism is one that believes the existence of any God is irrational. For many, even entertaining the possibility by mentioning God in Unitarian Universalist worship is downright offensive. We are, after all, “smarter” than that.

The function of reason as a means by which Unitarian Universalists process possibilities is an extremely important characteristic of the faith, and has been so since at least the nineteenth century, when Transcendentalism swept through New England and forever changed the course of liberal religious thought in America. It is this function of reason that now calls us to see that of course people of color, women, immigrants, queer people, genderqueer people, poor people, and refugees deserve the same rights and opportunities as educated, middle-class, cisgender, straight, white men.

Scientifically speaking, though we are all different, we are all equal. It is science that persuades us to advocate for the care and protection of our earth home, securing its healthy existence for generations ahead. The use of reason is critical to Unitarian Universalism.

However, I wonder if by stopping there we are falling short of our broader calling. Are we not also called to be both perfectly inclusive and respectful of others’ searches for and expressions of truth and meaning?

To put it rather bluntly, atheism is a White Thing. That is not to say that there are no atheists of color. We all know at least one. At least, those of us who know people of color do. But, for the most part, atheism lives fairly solidly within “white space.” A 2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study (the same study that reminded Unitarian Universalists of its 78 percent whiteness) shows that 78 percent of American adults who claim to be atheists are white. Further, 11 percent of white American adults say they do not believe in God, compared to 2 percent of black adults and 6 percent of Latino adults.

I contend that people of color have, by and large, clung to their beliefs in God, in whatever form, not because they are insufficiently educated, but because it is God who has given them the strength to endure, resist, and—in some small ways—overcome systems of racism and white supremacy, in the myriad ways it has persisted, for centuries. It takes a certain amount of freedom and privilege to denounce the existence of God. It is, therefore, not realistic for groups of people who have been conditioned to believe they have limited self-worth to suddenly be expected to rely upon their own human potential for success.

For them, a belief in an illogical and supernatural God is absolutely reasonable – because the notion that their races have survived to this point is itself supernatural, even illogical. As far as they are concerned, they trust in the miracle-working God that helped to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity – the God who continues that same miracle work today. The mysteries around the resilience of peoples of color can probably be explained away by scientific terms, but that does not serve to edify people of color, nor does it serve to empower them, despite what we might feel about education.

“Empiricism,” as a term, has been co-opted by scientific purists in recent times, but does it not point toward that which we have witnessed as much as that which we have proven? In this way, one could argue that God exists in the ways oppressed peoples have experienced the impact of God in their lives, whatever that ultimately means for them.

For these reasons, I believe any movement in Unitarian Universalism to make God unwelcome in our sanctuaries is effectively akin to posting “Whites Only” signs on our doors. If we are serious about being inclusive and racially diverse, we are going to have to stop the sometimes violent God-hating in our places of worship. As long as society unjustly favors white lives, people of color will need to lean upon their gods for strength, endurance, and peace of heart. It is our duty, if we mean what we say about pluralism, and if we indeed affirm the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth Principles, to provide a warm home for them, where they can fully express their spiritual selves without being judged or marginalized.

This is not to say that our congregations need to go back to claiming the singularly Christian identity of our faith’s parents. No, our congregations need only to recognize and embrace the concept that, as intentional pluralists, theism is already as much a part of our identity as atheism and agnosticism. Further, this does not aim to ignore the fact that many Unitarian Universalists are living with real trauma related to their spiritual pasts and previous relationships with theistic people and/or institutions. I imagine this pain might make it difficult for those people to relate to theists and welcome them fully into Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

It will take real humility for them to see and accept that many theists need Unitarian Universalism just as much as any religious atheist might. And, I would argue that Unitarian Universalism needs theists just as much—especially at a time such as now, when so much is at stake, and we are being brought to face our own shortcomings around racial inclusion and justice.

REFLECTION: Mary D.

When we started the Race, Power and Privilege Diversity topic, Rev Anita told the Congregation in her sermon on January 7, (which is on the church website) that this topic would be the most demanding and perhaps unsettling of all five topics.

This topic asks a lot of us as individuals and as a congregation. It is not enough to try and understand how being white has made our lives easier in countless ways. It is also important for us to listen to what People of Color can tell us about their experience as UUs.

CHORAL ANTHEM: “Hold Fast To Dreams” (by Langston Hughes ( * ) / Susan Labarr)

MOMENT OF SILENCE

CLOSING HYMN: “One More Step” (#168)

EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE (read by the congregation):

We extinguish the flame but not the light of truth,

the warmth of community,

or the fire of commitment.

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.

BENEDICTION

CONGREGATIONAL RESPONSE:

May the long time sun shine upon you,

all love surround you,

and the pure light within you

guide you all the way home.

POSTLUDE: “In A Certain Church” (by John W. Work III) ( * )

( * ) = indicates the author/composer is a person of color