Thursday, December 15, 2016

Statements of Support and Solidarity

The situation of Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy and his tweets continues to be a rather heated topic of conversation for people in the wider community and, I know, among some within ours.  It is a situation which would appear to put different values at odds with one another.  There are those who are very solidly pro or against; there are others who don't know quite what to think.

I stand with Wes.  I recognize that not everyone in TJMC will agree with that position, so it is good that "we need not think alike to love alike."  I respect those with different perspectives.  And while I cannot -- and will not -- speak for the congregation unless I have been directed to do so, I will always speak my understanding of truth whenever and wherever I believe it needs to be heard.

A couple of weeks ago I took the step of writing a letter of support to Dr. Pamela Moran, Superintendent of the Albemarle County Schools.  This morning I wrote a letter to the Daily Progress.  In both I spoke for myself alone, yet it seems to me that you all ought to know what your Lead Minister is saying and doing in the community, even when doing it in his own name.  So here is the text of my two letters.  

Dr. Moran, 
I am writing to you concerning Wes Bellamy.  I imagine that you’ve been receiving a lot of letters, emails, phone calls, and probably even comments in the grocery store!  To say that the issue of whether or not Mr. Bellamy’s past tweets disqualify him to serve as a teacher has engendered many strong opinions would be a serious understatement.  Nonetheless, I would like to offer own opinion for your consideration.  I write as a local area pastor, a white man who is committed to the work of confronting and dismantling oppression, a husband, and the father of two multi-racial children (currently in 6th and 9th grades). 
I do not know Mr. Bellamy well.  He and I have a passing, mostly professional, acquaintance.  I know him primarily through what I’ve seen of him in his public life, as well as the “feel” I get from him when we have talked face to face.  I join with others who agree that what he wrote in those tweets is unacceptable. Homophobic slurs, anti-white prejudice, and misogynist rhetoric are all symptoms of deep societal ills, and their propagation only exacerbates the problem.  As I said, I do not know Mr. Bellamy well, so I do not know him well enough to say with certainty that he has, indeed, changed his thinking.  Yet I also don’t know him well enough to know for certain that he hasn’t.  
There are two things I do know, however, without any doubt: 
The man who unearthed and then publicized these tweets is motivated by his own racial animus.  His racist opposition to Mr. Bellamy has been made clear before the blog post that gave rise to this situation, and he and many of those who are supporting his “cause” have made little to no attempt to hide their contempt for who he is (a strong Black man), and the work he has dedicated himself to (creating a more just community for people of color, to be sure, but for all who call this region home).  Their motivation does not absolve Mr. Bellamy of his responsibility for his past actions, of course, but it does provide a context for their efforts.  The outrage being expressed is largely not at what he said but, rather, who he is, because who he is is anathema to them and their world view. 
The other thing of which I am certain is that the work Mr. Bellamy has done, and is doing, are antithetical to the positions represented in those tweets.  Whatever his motivations then for writing them, his actions now are anything but misogynist, anti-white, homophobic, or in any other ways derogatory and divisive  He shows up wherever a voice for inclusion is needed, and he, himself, is often a driving force for creating such opportunities.  I know for certain that he has made, and is making, a real difference in the lives of many and, in truth, in the life of our community. 
I do not write on behalf of the congregation I serve, yet as an ordained clergy person I believe in repentance and redemption, and in the power of transformation.  How could I not?  And, so, how can I not hear Mr. Bellamy’s powerful words of apology, and his acknowledgement of a willingness to be held accountable for what he said in his past, and not be willing to believe he has changed?  Especially in light of the good works he has been doing.  I find myself thinking of the passage from the Christian scriptures, James 2:18 – “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”  You could easily substitute the word “beliefs” for “faith,” and I would say unequivocally that the works Mr. Bellamy does demonstrate beliefs far, far different than those he expressed in the past. 
Your job, though, does not end involve deciding whether Mr. Bellamy has changed, or deserves a second chance.  The decision you must weigh is whether it is appropriate, given those past sentiments, for him to be teaching the young people of our community. Obviously I am writing to encourage you to resist the pressures I can only imagine you are under to remove Mr. Bellamy from his teaching position.  As I said earlier, I have two children in the Albemarle school system, and I would be quite pleased if a man like Mr. Bellamy were one of their teachers.  My boys live in a world where the kinds of things expressed in those tweets are part of common parlance.  Perhaps increasingly so right now.  The example of a man who has apparently left such beliefs behind, and who condemns such a way of thinking through his every public utterance and action – that is the kind of role model I would want my boys to emulate.

If I can be of any service, please do not hesitate to be in touch.  Know that you are in my prayers during what is no doubt a difficult time.

And here's my letter to the Daily Progress:
As a member of the clergy I believe in redemption.  I believe in transformation.  And I believe in Charlottesville's Vice-Mayor, Wes Bellamy.  In no way do I condone the language and thoughts expressed in the recently discovered tweets.  They are, simply, hateful.  And Mr. Bellamy has said as much.  But I believe him when he also says that they are the thoughts of a young man, a man who has since matured in his thinking as he has had more life experience.

In the Christian Scriptures, the author of the book of James challenges, "Show me your works, and I will show you your faith."  Put another way, "let me see how you act in the world -- that will show me what you believe."  The actions of the Wes Bellamy of today demonstrate a radically different world view than the one he expressed in the past.  The angry words of exclusion have been replaced by works dedicated toward loving inclusion.  His previous "black and white" thinking has been replaced by actions committed to celebrating and expanding our multi-color reality.  And his call for radical inclusion embraces not just differences in skin color, but also ethnicity, religion, class, gender identity, sexual orientation -- wherever we are divided, he can be seen at work today calling for unity.
Some say that since the tweets continued until just a few years ago, there is no way his apparent conversion could be real.  In the Christian tradition we are told that Saul of Tarsus went from persecuting Christians to promoting the faith in just three days.  Within the Zen tradition it is said that enlightenment can occur in an instant.

Repentance, atonement, and reconciliation are themes found in every religion we humans have ever developed.  I believe in these ideas, and I believe I have seen them at work in Wes Bellamy’s life.  I have two multi-racial children in the Albemarle school system, and I would be pleased to have a man like Mr. Bellamy be their teacher.

I am happy to speak with anyone who would like to talk about these public statement of supports.  I'd be particularly happy to speak with people who disagree with me.  Our ability to respect differences of opinion is one of the hallmarks of our Unitarian Universalist faith.

Pax tecum,

Rev. Wik

“We are one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Water We All Swim In

One of our members, Laura Wallace, wrote to me a few days before the election to express these thoughts.  They are all the more pertinent now, after it.  The Talk of TJMC was created to be an avenue for communication within (and beyond) our community -- a place for people to publish poetry, reflections, and other types of writing.  If you are interested in having something you've written posted here, or have an idea for something you'd like to write, contact me at

I wish sexism in our culture were an ongoing, specific and clarion theme of our worship, our communications, and our work. What we're doing against racism has been moving and encouraging. We've had Beloved Conversations, learned about white privilege and micro-aggressions, and have embraced Black Lives Matter.

But during a season in America during which underlying contempt for women has reached (or been revealed) at such acute levels, why isn't anti-sexism work also a audible religious imperative? Top-down solutions such as more female ministers are great, but that doesn't fully take care of the pews. I know women have been reliving moments of objectification (at the least) lately, over and over. And many men, too, who know what bullying and abuse are about.
Church doesn't take political stances, but speaking about sexism is a religious imperative, imo. Politics has brought more of it recently to the surface. It continues to distort and limit life for women and girls, especially when internalized, and also damages men and boys. Privilege can harm, too, especially when internalized. Blame isn't the answer, open dialogue and education is.

When a comedian like Seth Meyers talks so naturally about male privilege and male entitlement, and progressive young men and women routinely express feminist values--I often wonder why church does not. That silence is loud. It reminds me of the silence about racism in Charlottesville as I grew up. There was a clamoring dissonance between politesse and gender-based oppression. Now, it's more subtle in rarified communities, but that doesn't mean it's gone.

TJMC could be talking about sexism all the time. It rules the world and harms everyone. I hope it will become a larger topic for TJMC and not be relegated to small groups or Facebook, or separated out as a "social justice topic." It's not a topic. It's the water we all swim in.

The term "intersectionality" is going to become much more familiar in the days ahead.   It refers to, "the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage."  As the well known saying puts it, "none of us is free until all of us are free."

There are many ways to act, among which are supporting organizations that work to achieve truly justice for women in our male-dominant, misoginistic culture.  Four such organizations are:

You might also look into the work of our own Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation which is dedicated to, "advancing justice for women and girls and promoting their spiritual growth."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Hug Remembered

One of the great gifts of serving a congregation is the opportunity to hear people's stories.  Because I am, "a minister," people share things with me -- often things that are very personal, and very profound.

One of our members, Jan Bernhard, has, from time to time, shared with me some of her writings.  She doesn't refer to them as "memoirs."  To her they are stories.  To me they are among the loveliest of sermons (if sermons touch your heart and open you to seeing the world in new ways.)

Last August, in response to a blog post I'd written about the Black Lives Matter movement, Jan shared with me something she'd just finished writing that seemed apropos.  I was moved.  In thinking about the upcoming congregational vote this Sunday on whether or not to affirm and endorse the public witness statement "In Support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Racial Justice," her story came to mind again.  It seems appropriate for this to be The Talk of TJMC.

It was about 8:30 PM on the night of April 4, 1968.  I was attending an evening class at Howard University, a largely black institution in a predominately black neighborhood in Washington, D.C. I was studying for my Master’s Degree in Social Work.  About half way through the lecture, I began to hear an initially soft, but then progressively louder and more ominous rumbling of disturbance coming from the back of the large hall in which we were gathered.  People had begun talking, and there was a note of anger and panic as students, now out of their chairs, clustered around a young man who had brought a short wave radio to class. Suddenly someone cried out, “Martin Luther King has been shot!”  The class erupted in confusion, fear and rage and students began streaming out every available exit. I realized I had to get out quickly and get to my car which was parked some distance away.

Crowds were forming everywhere and milling about in the streets.  I was concerned because I had to drive all the way across the District of Columbia to reach the safety of my peaceful suburb in Bethesda, Maryland.  I rolled my car windows up and locked the doors as the radio reported fires set, buildings aflame, and stores looted. I was afraid that the angry crowds, seeing a white woman alone at night, might begin to pound on or climb on and rock my car.

None of this happened, and despite the chaos in the streets, I arrived home safely. The next morning, a photo, covering half the front page of the Washington Post, assaulted my eyes with the unbelievable sight of helmeted troops, rifles at the ready, massed on the steps of the United States Capitol, - a show of force to maintain an uneasy peace.


We had moved to Washington, DC in 1954, after Berl had graduated from Yale Law School.  From the beginning, he was closely involved with civil rights issues, and as a result, I began to meet some of the leaders of this growing movement.

Among these, in those early days, were our friends, lawyer Harris Wofford and his wife Claire.  One night, Harris, who later became President of Bryn Mawr, invited us to his Chevy Chase home for a relaxed and intimate meal.  He wanted us to meet a friend of his.  There, across a small table, sat a young black man who, with Harris’s encouragement, had recently returned from India and a visit with Mahatma Gandhi.  Harris had felt it was important that his friend meet Gandhi in person, as Harris had already done, in order to learn, first hand, the principles of “satyagraha,” or passive, non-violent resistance. Harris believed that his friend should learn from the Master how to lead, using passive resistance as a guiding principle, in the cause that they both foresaw as the coming, massive Civil Rights Movement.  As I sat across the table from this polite young man, while he spoke quietly of his meeting with Gandhi, there was something about his presence and bearing, and the relaxed yet clear intentionality of his manner, that caused me to take particular note of him, and to file away in a special corner of my mind this ostensibly casual meeting. His name, which meant nothing to me at the time, was Martin Luther King, Jr.

The next and last time I saw this now more confident and mature young man was a number of years later, on August 28, 1963.  Berl had by then been appointed by John F. Kennedy as Staff Director of the new Civil Rights Commission.  On that hot August day, together with thousands, we walked down Constitution Avenue as part of the peaceful March on Washington.  We stood together on The Mall in the broiling summer sun, part of the enormous, yet quiet and respectful crowd, as, from the podium, this same man eloquently told us that he “had a Dream.”  Little did we dream that just a few years later, Martin Luther King, too, would be assassinated, as was his non-violent model and mentor, Gandhi.  And as I anxiously drove back home from Howard University, through the agitated crowds on the night of his death, I reflected with sorrow and wonder on that initial, uncanny impression this unknown young man had made on me, years ago, in the home of a friend.

There was to be another young black man who would make an equally lasting and even more personal impression on me as well.  He was a classmate of mine at Howard. Sadly, I did not then, and do not now, know his name. I thus have no way to thank him for the brief, spontaneous gesture of simple loving-kindness that he made to me,- a gesture I have never forgotten over the more than forty-five intervening years.


My road to Howard was indirect.  In my mid-thirties, as Peter turned ten, Robin eight, and Andy at six was just old enough to stay in school until the middle of the afternoon, I began to make plans to get my Master’s Degree in Social Work.  My mother’s little sister, my special Auntie Margie, who had read me Greek Myths instead of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, had  persevered despite her handicap of a severely malformed spine, and become our family’s first social worker. She had then chosen to work with the “drunken bums’” who congregated and lived underneath the elevated train trestle in New York’s tough “Bowery” district. Reportedly she was able to walk there alone, unharmed, respected, and even welcomed. I admired as well as loved her, and I think there was always the thought in the back of my mind, that one day I would become a social worker, too.  I thought that maybe now was the time. 

However Life had other plans for me, and a short while later I discovered I was pregnant. I revised my previous blueprint for where my life was going, and decided that, with four children, I would be a full time mother for the foreseeable future!

But little David, who looked just like Peter and Andy, was born on September 1st. 1965, with a life-threatening anomaly. His esophagus opened into his trachea, or windpipe, instead of into his stomach. This meant that food went directly from his esophagus into his lungs, causing him to choke.  He could not live with this condition.  Corrective surgery was attempted at Children’s Hospital in D.C., but he did not survive it. The surgeon called me at 12:30 a.m. to tell me he hadn’t made it and to ask for permission to autopsy, which I gave. He had died on September 5th, 1965, when he was just four days old.

I spent the next year recovering from my grief, picking up the threads, and planning my life anew. In the fall of 1966 I attended my first class at Howard University School of Social Work.  I was then 36 years old.  There was a sprinkling of other white students in that class of about seventy-five, but not many, and I was concerned about being perceived as the “rich, white bitch from the suburbs.” I tried to keep a low profile, and for the duration of my time at Howard, I put away my engagement and guard rings. Though  fairly modest, I felt they might serve as indication of my privileged economic status in comparison with most of my classmates. I wore only my wedding band for the next four years.

 As one of the two schools in the area offering the Master’s Degree in Social Work, I chose Howard over Catholic University because, as a predominantly black institution, Howard seemed to be more attuned to the needs of working parents.  Accordingly, Howard’s students were allowed up to four years to complete what was essentially a two year program.  At that time, Catholic did not offer this alternative.

Though my life was full, I could by no means be considered a ‘working parent’, as I was not employed outside the home. We had a spacious house in Bethesda, Md., and my three young children were all in school. Nevertheless, I took this back-to-school step with considerable trepidation. My live-wire, professionally and politically active husband had a demanding law practice in the District of Columbia which involved late nights and frequent out of town or out of country trips. Always active in civil rights, one of his longer trips was an extended “Goodwill Tour” of Africa, with soon-to-become Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.

And when he was home, there was considerable, supportive social and political entertaining to be done on my part. Producing a seemingly effortless series of cocktail and dinner parties was, at that time, routinely expected of any good Washington wife. However, this was not really my cup of tea. I recall once anxiously standing by my open front door, fearful that I would not remember the names of the well over one hundred  cocktail party guests that I was then expected graciously to introduce to all assembled. Given these continuing expectations, I was concerned about being able to complete a demanding program requiring the usual academic courses, papers and reports, plus all the additional, essential, hands on “field work,” even being given four years to do so!

As it turned out, I eventually took a step then unprecedented in our family, and for the last two, most intensive years at Howard, I hired a live-in “nanny,” to cook, clean and watch over my children when I needed to be in classes or out in the community doing field work. I did not advertise this luxury to my classmates.   

Despite this external support, I found my years at Howard very challenging. To my knowledge none of my fellow students enjoyed as many privileges as I did. As a graduate program in a big city, the School of Social Work drew students from a wide age range, not just recent college graduates, as well as students from across the economic spectrum.  Many, if not most, also held paying jobs, all the while going to the same classes, writing the same papers and doing the same kind of hands on work in hospitals and other community organizations as I did.  Many were also parents themselves, single parents, or caregivers for their own extended families. I don’t know how they did it, and they did it by and large gracefully, with good humor, and without obvious complaint.  Though I’m sure they were well aware of it, I tried hard not to draw attention to the economic gulf that I felt probably lay between me and many, if not most, of my classmates.

Throughout the next four years my relationships with my classmates were friendly but not really intimate. This was partly because the minute classes were over I felt I needed to return as quickly as possible to my home and my family responsibilities. But as far as I could tell, this was also true of just about everyone else. They all seemed, like me, to have other pressing responsibilities that needed attention.  Nobody seemed to be hanging around after school fraternizing, and there didn’t seem to be a great deal of partying or extra-curricular social life. My classmates, both men and women, seemed to have other fish to fry, and I respected and admired the way they juggled their priorities, and the effort they expended to do so.

In the final semester of the year of my graduation,1970, the School of Social Work introduced a new conceptual framework, - that of systems theory. This approach was intended to underlie the entire academic program, and tie together in a dynamic and interdependent whole, the previously disparately conceived areas of individual casework, group work, and community organization. Traditionally, one had chosen to specialize in one of these three areas; I had chosen casework. .

Using systems theory, however, the social worker, while still specializing, could be trained to function effectively in all three areas. A graduate was thus prepared to work with individuals, groups, or community organizations, instead of being more narrowly defined and identified with a single discipline alone.   

As a graduate of one of the leading women’s colleges in the country, and having majored in sociology, systems theory and its concepts were familiar to me. Not so to the majority of my classmates, who were initially flummoxed by what was to many of them a completely new approach to their future work.

At the end of our final semester, and as a prerequisite for our upcoming graduation, we were assigned a major term paper using systems theory, with examples to be taken from our own field work.  This important assignment was designed to demonstrate our competency in all three areas of professional endeavor, using this new and more comprehensive approach.

 It was obvious that this final paper caused considerable consternation among my class mates as they struggled to complete and turn in this assignment.  Then one day, shortly before graduation, the professor announced that she would read, to my entire casework class, a term paper which she described as “the perfect model of the systems theory approach.”  To my great dismay she identified the author. The paper was mine.

I don’t really remember much of what happened after that, except that, embarrassed at being singled out in this way, I wanted to leave as quickly as possible after the class was over! I do remember though, that a particular young black man with an open, friendly face, relaxed manner, and smiling eyes was there.  He was probably in his early thirties, and had been in my casework class all year.  We didn’t really know each other, though we had recently begun to have some quite pleasant conversational exchanges after class.  I remember especially wishing that he, in particular, had not been there!  I did not know his name, but now, he knew mine.


Shortly after this, on May 4th, 1970, the country was electrified by what came to be known as “The Kent State Massacre.”  While peacefully protesting the Viet Nam and Cambodian Wars along with hundreds of their classmates, four Kent State College students were gunned down and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard.  In that initial spray of bullets nine others were injured and one permanently paralyzed. Resultant outrage swept the country and four million college students across the nation went on strike. Many administrative offices were stormed and functionally disabled by students in largely non-violent sit-ins. Hundreds of colleges and universities were closed. Eventually, the nationwide student movement came to represent unrest and grievances that went far beyond the initial protest at Kent State, and to the best of my recollection, the administrative offices at Howard were temporarily occupied.

What I do remember quite clearly, however, and in fact what I will never forget, is what happened when the day at last came for final exams at the School of Social Work.  Many students from across the campus, as well as from the School of Social Work itself, peacefully picketed this event by lying on the ground to form a human chain of prone bodies that circled the entire Social Work building. Students coming to take their exams then had to make the decision about whether to honor the picketers and their basically liberal causes (with which I largely agreed), or step over them to take their final exam. What hung in the balance was:  no exam, no graduation, no diploma.

I just couldn’t do it.  I just could not risk giving up what I had spent four years working for:  my Master’s Degree in Social Work. But, as with great trepidation I prepared to cross the line, I looked down in disbelief and chagrin. The body I was about to step over, and was, in fact, stepping over, was that of my friend, the young man with the open face and smiling eyes who had heard my final paper read to the entire Casework class. He was lying on his side.  Our eyes met and locked, as I stepped hesitantly and awkwardly over his hip.  His eyes that day were non-committal; I could not read them. I don’t know what message my own eyes sent as I violated the picket line of his body, but I know that my heart was saying, “Please forgive me.” 

About two weeks later Graduation Day dawned hot and sunny, - a typical Washington summer day. I don’t really remember the outdoor ceremony, but I do remember standing around on the lawn afterward with my family, not knowing quite what to do. Then I saw someone making his way toward us, threading his way through the milling crowd toward the suburban housewife standing there with her husband and three children.  It was my friend of no name over whose prone body I had so recently stepped. He made his way toward us, smiling. When he reached us he opened his arms to me and enfolded me in a strong embrace, saying firmly into my ear, “Congratulations!”  Before I could recover he moved away and was lost in the crowd.

I was dumbfounded.  I am still dumbfounded. From where in his heart did he find the amazing grace that impelled him to make that unforgettable gesture of forgiveness and pure loving-kindness?

Where is he now, my friend, as I write of him?  How many times have I wished I could thank him?  What he doesn’t know is that he crafted the legacy of my years at Howard: the endearing, enduring legacy of that hug, so freely given, and so long remembered.

Jan Bernhard, August, 2015

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Messages We Send ...

I was asked for my thoughts concerning the question our city is asking itself concerning the Civil War monuments (particularly those of Lee and Jackson).  I said that I could offer no clear solutions, but that I did have some thoughts.  Here's what I wrote:

As I understand the issue, there are four “positions” in this conversation:

1)      There are those who don’t understand why anyone would even raise the possibility of removing the statues.  Some are irate; others simply confused.  If I understand this position correctly, the statues in question represent this area’s history, of which they are proud.  With ancestors who fought – and died – for the Confederacy, these statues represent heritage, and the idea of removing them represents the removal of this important connection to the past.  At the extreme, this whole issue is seen as “an attack” on their identity as White Southerners, and another example of “PC culture gone wild.”

2)      There are those who are troubled by the racist history celebrated in the statues, particularly because of their prominence and the lack of any balance. 

3)      There are those who are hurt by the presence of the statues and this constant reminders of the brutality of racism in both our history and our present.  The statues are seen as an intentional celebration of the racist past.

4)      There are those who’ve never given the statues much thought, and who can’t see what the problem is.

While I fully understand the last category, and believe that I’m able to understand the perspective of the first, I am somewhere in and among the second and third positions.  Statues are symbols, and while it’s true that we imbue symbols with their meaning, it is also true some meanings for some symbols have become anathema to our evolving consciousness (e.g., the Confederate flag hanging above a government building).  Likewise, actions are symbolic – in this case, leaving the statues in place sends a message, as does removing them.  A question, then, is what message we, as a community want to send.  We do have some choice in that.

If we leave the statues in place, while also erecting other monuments and markers, we will be taking an additive approach.  Yes, we’d be saying, there is something to the critique of the commemoration of this history in such a grand way, but we can address the problem by adding other public displays that will reflect the larger context and narrative.  This could include informational plaques – even by the statues themselves – that tell the bigger story, and other monuments that lift up an alternate vision of what matters to us as a community.  This is an understandable inclination, yet the prominence of these other monuments and markers (in location and size, for instance), should be considered.  Will the statue of Lee, for example, tower about the informational plaque that puts him, and the statue’s veneration of him, into context?  Will markers appear around town in more or less out-of-the-way places which someone would have to actively look for to find?  What would it mean to have Lee and Jackson retain their grandeur and “pride of place,” if the intended counterbalances do not, in fact, balance?

Alternatively, the statues could be moved to another, perhaps more appropriate, site where their role as representing history could continue without that role taking such a prominent place in our community.  I have often wondered about the celebration of men who were, after all, enemies of the United States.  We’re in an odd position, here in the South, because it is simply true that the Confederacy fought against the United States military and, so, were our country’s enemy.  “Treason” is, I believe, a historically accurate description of their actions.  It is, of course, also true that the Civil War was an “internal” struggle, with one part of the country at war with the other, and this is an extremely unusual situation.  There are present-day US citizens who are descendants of these “enemy combatants,” so there is a perhaps understandable desire to honor the soldiers of the Confederacy.  Yet I wonder how many statues there are in France or Poland honoring Nazi-collaborators?  The analogy may be somewhat stretched, yet I personally don’t believe it’s all that much of a stretch.  There may well be people in both those countries who can point to family members who acted in what they thought to be the best interest of their communities, yet history has decided that they were not acting in the best interest of the country as a whole.  How is this any different?

If the statues are moved, new monuments could be erected in their place.  Monuments to the struggle of our nation to grow into its founding assertion that “all … are created equal.”  With this approach there could be markers that lift up “heroes” of the Confederacy and the bravery and sacrifice they made in support of a cause they thought to be just, yet that bravery and those sacrifices could be put in the context of the larger narrative, and they could be appropriately “dwarfed” by larger commemorations of the history that truly is our history.

So … I think I have worked my way to a conclusion – apparently I am not as “on the fence” about this as I’d thought.  I believe that the statues should come down and be relocated to a more suitable location where their commemoration of a piece of the South’s history can be appropriately, and more fully, contextualized.  I would also encourage the placement of markers throughout the city (and county) that lift up pieces of this area’s role in our national story – not the story of the (white) majority alone, but the more accurate and rich tapestry of stories of all of us.  Finally, I can imagine the erection of a larger monument (or two) that commemorates efforts to achieve the multicultural reality our founders pointed toward.  That, I believe, would send a message I’d be proud of.

Two reminders:

1) Tonight, at 6:00 pm, at Buford Middle School there is a public forum with the Blue Ribbon Commission that's been charged with considering this issue.  I'd encourage you to attend, whether you have thoughts to share or just want to hear what your neighbors are thinking.

2) The Talk of TJMC is intended to be an open forum, as well -- a virtually meeting place for discussion of ideas.  My opinions are mine.  It'd be wonderful to be able to read yours.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Should We Respond?

Outside of our building, facing Rugby Road, there is a sign that announces our weekly religious education and sanctuary worship times.  Each month it also has an image and some text related to our theme for that month.  This is often called a “wayside pulpit,” which has been a staple of a Unitarian Universalist congregation’s outreach since the Rev. Henry Hallam Saunderson, minister of the First Parish Church (Unitarian) of Brighton, Massachusetts, introduced the idea in 1919.  (Saunderson was also secretary of the American Unitarian Association’s publicity department from 1915-1921.)  A Wayside Pulpit is a time-honored way of catching the attention of passersby, and inviting them to take a moment for reflection, even if they never then pass through the sanctuary door.

Some may be surprised that this is the sign for the month of August.  Many of you will no doubt be wondering, "Why did this take so long?"  (After all, a great many UU congregations throughout the country have had Black Lives Matter banners hanging outside of their buildings for a long time now.)  You may be asking, "How did this finally get approved?"  

Others may have concerns, and questions like, "Won't this be potentially divisive?" and, "Don’t we have policies that govern what can (and can’t) be said in the name of our community, and ways to ensure that what is said really is the voice of TJMC?"  

It wouldn’t take more than a cursory look at the events of recent months (years) to convince someone that our country is coming apart.  Whether the horrific mass murder in Orlando; the wave of vitriolic, racially-charged, misogynistic xenophobia flowing from Cleveland; or the indelible image of a police officer confessing that he didn’t know why he had just shot the unarmed Black man who was now lying, handcuffed and bleeding, at his feet; to say that we live in troubling times is to seriously understate the way things are.

Your senior staff are wrestling, no less than any of you, with how to respond to all of this.  As religious professionals, the three of us know that there are times when it is imperative that individuals and congregations be pushed beyond their comfort zones and be encouraged to take risks.  And there are times when we are called to take risks ourselves, as religious professionals. 

Last year TJMC's racial justice group initiated our long-term public witness process, asking us as a congregation to affirm and adopt a statement that is virtually identical to the one approved by our 2015 General Assembly, a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and a reiteration of our commitment to the cause of racial justice.  This has nothing to do with banners; it has to do with discerning whether we can speak with one voice about our commitment to dismantling the systems of racism that infect our country.  Our version of this statement was introduced at the annual Congregational Meeting in May.  (If you missed their dynamic and informative presentation you can read the transcript on our website.)  After getting the required number of signatures on a petition, introducing the idea at a congregational meeting, and then holding a series of cottage conversations for input and discussion, the final step in the process is to bring the statement to a second congregational meeting for a vote.  [That meeting will be immediately after the 2nd service on Sunday, October 2nd.]  This process is completely separate from the question of whether we will (or should) hang a Black Lives Matter banner on our building as we did with the banner supporting marriage equality.

We do also have a process for approving a short-term public witness, for things that will last less than 30 days.  (You can learn more about our policies concerning various kinds of public witness on our website.)  Putting a sign on the outside of our building for a brief period – even in the Wayside Pulpit – would arguably fall under this policy.  We freely acknowledge that we did not follow this policy when deciding to use this as August's poster.

The story is told that in September of 1963, following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in which four young girls were killed, the minister here at the time, Rev. Roy Jones, draped the church in black crepe as a sign of mourning.  This was a risky and extremely controversial move on his part, yet he felt that the seriousness of the times called for some risk.  So do we. 

Rev. Jones was told by the Board of Trustees to remove the crepe because he had not gotten the permission of the congregation or even the Board before taking such a public stand.  Our sign is intended to remain up for the month of August, but are aware that it is possible that we could be told to change it before then.  Yet we believe that the TJMC community of 2016 is more courageous than it was in ’63, and more open-minded – that rather than say “no” to something that we think we disagree with or may question we will say, instead, “let’s learn more about this together.” 

We know our decision is a risky one, and we know that there are many who, for a variety of reasons, will disagree with our action.  Please believe that we do value your feelings and want to hear you.  We invite you to contact any of us so that we might talk face-to-face and respectfully listen to one another.  If you prefer, email the Committee on the Ministry. []  It exists to receive feedback from congregants who would rather not talk directly with a staff person. 

UU congregations around the country have heard the call to respond to these dangerous times, and have declared their commitment to ensuring that all lives really do matter by allying themselves publicly with those who have been, and continue to be, demonstrably treated as if theirs don’t.  We think it is past time that TJMC do the same.

Together in the work of justice,

Leia Durland-Jones, Director of Faith Development  []
Christina Rivera, Director of Administration and Finance []
Rev. Wik Wikstrom, Lead Minister  []

Friday, July 8, 2016

When does a heart stop breaking?

This is the text of the letter I submitted to the Daily Progress on July 8th.

It has happened again.  Alton Sterling was shot and killed outside the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  Philando Castile was shot and killed in the small city of Falcon Heights, just northwest of St. Paul, Minnesota.  And these shootings remind us of all of the recent examples of young black men and women being killed by police in situations where young white women and men would not have been.  A complete listing would easily fill the entirety of this paper.

And those with an awareness of history will see here echoes of the lynchings under Jim Crow, all that way back to our country’s founding on the institution of slavery – all visceral demonstrations that throughout our history all lives have not been treated as if they matter equally. 

I am not making a blanket condemnation of the police.  I know that on Thursday night 12 police officers were shot, five killed, in Dallas, Texas by one or more snipers who appear to have been particularly targeting police.  And we cannot forget the recent murder of 49 people, and the wounding of another 53, by a gunman in Orlando, Florida.  Yet despite how unconscionable such acts are – the taking of any life should be abhorrent – I cannot lose sight of the painful truth that is becoming ever more inescapable to white folk like me:  black lives have never been treated as if they matter as much as white lives.  Never.  And this must stop – for the sake of our nation’s soul, and for each of us.

When does a heart stop breaking, leaving a heart that is irredeemably broken?  Only when hope for change is lost.  Let us not lose hope.  Yet let us not only hope.  Let us commit ourselves to working for change.
Pax tecum,


An added note:  the racial justice work our congregation is engaged in is critical.  I truly believe what many are saying -- that we are at a pivotal moment in our nation's history.  The evil of systemic racism has been with us, as I said, since the founding of our country, yet with the near omnipresence of cell phones and the instantaneousness of social media, it is being revealed with a stark clarity that even people who have been taught to think of themselves as white have to work extraordinarily hard to deny.  (And yes, I do mean "evil."  Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 I defined evil in a sermon as "whatever distracts us from our common humanity."  With such a definition, systemic racism most definitely counts as evil.)  We have an opportunity to work for the eradication, the undoing of racism in a way that has never before been possible ... not even during the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and '60s.
Our  congregation is being asked to affirm and endorse a “Congregational Public Witness in Support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Racial Justice”  (It was presented for consideration at our Congregational Meeting in May -- a transcript of that presentation is available on our website.)  We will be holding a special Congregational Meeting at 12:30 on Sunday, October 2nd for the purpose of deciding together whether to adopt this statement.  (Between it's introduction in May, with its vote to continue studying the issue, and the final vote in October there have been a series of cottage meetings for congregational discussion and input.  You can find out more about these meetings on our website.)
Some will say that the time for discussion is long past and that debating further "statements" is a misdirection of time and energy.  There is some truth to that.  And yet, a statement such as the one we are being asked to affirm and endorse does two things:  it demonstrates that we, as a community, are agreed on the importance of this work and that we are united in our commitment to having, "a lasting influence on local, national and global programs that promote equity and end oppression."  (As it says in our Mission Statement.)  The adoption of this Public Witness Statement will also give congregational backing and support to the works we do in the community (as well as the ongoing work we need to continually be doing within our own community).
And what are those works?  We are developing a more active relationship with the local chapter of the NAACP.  (And if you're not yet a member you should definitely consider joining.)  We have our deepening relationship with Ebenezer Baptist Church and events like the Back to School Bash.  (You can check out the table about this event in our Social Hall.)  We are creating new partnerships, and enlivening some that have lain dormant.  We are now linked into the coalition of congregations involved with the Richmond-based Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration.  And this year racial justice related programming will be the focus of our Adult Faith Development offerings.  (And this list doesn't include our long-running involvement with PACEM and IMPACT, our First Friday of the Month Food Pantry, the Sunday Soup Kitchen at the Haven, our third Sunday of the month Social Justice Collections, and other projects and programs that have been a part of TJMC's DNA.)

All of which is to say that we are involved in action even while we are still making statements.  If you would like to find out more about our work for racial justice, feel free to talk with me or Sara Gondwe, chair of our Racial Justice Steering Committee (which meets monthly at 6:30 on the third Sunday).

Monday, June 13, 2016

More than ever, we need love to guide us ...

At roughly 2:00 am on the morning of Sunday, June 12th, a 29 year-old man named Omar Mateen walked into Pulse, a gay club in Orlando, Florida, and began shooting.  By the time he was killed by police, at least 50 people were dead, and another 53 had been sent to the hospital, some with life-threatening wounds.  A trauma surgeon at Orlando Regional Medical Center has been quoted as saying that he fully expects the death toll to rise.  Even as it is now, though, this is the deadliest shooting in U.S. history.

What are we – as Unitarian Universalists – to do with something like this?  How are we – as a faith community that has long advocated for LGBTQ rights – supposed to respond?  Pulse is a gay club, and June is Pride month.  Where can we – simply as members of our common human family – look for answers to why things like this happen … can happen … keep happening?

Yesterday morning, unaware of this tragedy, I was preaching a sermon about love, about how “love is the answer.”  That might seem overly simplistic, and yet there really is no other answer to these questions:

What do we do with something like this?  We look to the love in our lives for comfort and strength.

How are we to respond?  By doing all that we can to increase love in the world (“to increase love with justice” as the affirmation of one of our congregations puts it each week).

Why do things like this happen?  Because there is a whole lot of love needed in this world.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  50 people are dead, and countless more lives have been devastated, changed forever, by the power of such hatred.  The only thing that, in the end, has any hope of overcoming it is love.

Tonight C’ville Pride is organizing a rally at the Free Speech Wall downtown, an opportunity for our larger community to come together in our collective shock, our grief, our anger but ultimately, hopefully, in our love.  I hope many of you will be there, too.  (We can gather around our Standing on the Side of Love placard which I’ll be bringing.)  At times like this we need one another; at times like this we remember just how much we need each other.  At times like this our call to live our lives in love, through love, and for love could not be more clear.  May the love of this faith community sustain us as we work to make this a more loving world.

Pax tecum (peace to you),


"Love Will Guide Us" by Sally Rogers,
sung at General Assembly 2014 (June 25-29) in Providence, RI. 
The theme was “Love Reaches Out.”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

An opportunity to show up ...

When people think about our congregation's racial justice programming, one concern sometimes raised is that we do a lot of thinking and talking about racism, but not a lot of doing anything proactive and productive to change things.  It can certainly be argued that, for people who have been raised to think of themselves as white, thinking and talking is doing something, and something quite important.  People who have been raised white have been acculturated in the dominant world view so deeply that we often don't recognize that the way we see the world is not the way the world is but, instead, one of the ways the world is ... and one which intentionally and systematically oppresses people who are not seen as white.  Coming to see this truth is hard work for many of us, and even when we've done so there is always more unlearning to do.  Many racial justice advocates of all races assert that this unlearning is one of the most important people who think of themselves as white can do.  [Tim Wise's book Dear White America: letter to a new minority and Debbie Irving's Waking Up White, And Finding Myself in the Story of Race are two great resources.  Both are available in our Undoing Racism Library.]

All that said, though, there are more concrete, hands-on ways we can be involved.  One is showing up to listen and learn, to be with people of color as they address the issues that affect their communities.  (Issues that those of us who think of ourselves as white often have no inkling about.)

On Saturday, May 21st, at 4:00 pm, Mt. Zion African Baptist Church will be hosting a panel discussion on race relations, education, and gun control in Charlottesville and the surrounding communities.  Joyce Murrary will moderate the discussion, and the panel will include:  Mozell Booker (Fluvanna County Supervisor), Rev. Dr. Alvin Edwards (Pastor of Mt. Zion), Kathy Galvin (Charlottesville City Council), Steve Harris (a health care professional), Robert Tracci (Albemarle Attorney General), and Alex Zan (a community activist and motivational speaker).  There will be an opportunity for the audience to participate in the discussion.

Do not for a moment underestimate the importance of showing up, showing solidarity, and demonstrating your commitment to the eradication of all that divides us.  This is one opportunity ...

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

An opportunity to deepen your understanding

The group Allies for Racial Equity, in collaboration with the Church of the Larger Fellowship, is hosting a series of webinar conversations to support racial justice efforts, and the next two sessions focus on white resistance.  Youth and adults of all ages are encouraged to participate, whether this is their first experience with this topic or their hundredth.

Getting at the Root: Over Under Around Through...  White Resistance

Wednesday, May 18th, 7:30pm EST
Wednesday, May 25th, 7:30pm EST

"Guided by B.D. Tatum's Racial Identity Development Theory, and our own experiences, we'll talk about how to recognize, address, and work through white resistance.  We hope you will join us for both sessions, but if only one fits your schedule, feel free to attend the one that works for you!"

Connection Info (for both events)
PC, Mac, Linux, iOS or Android:
iPhone one-tap:  16465687788,191532107# or 14157629988,191532107#
Telephone: Dial: +1 646 568 7788 (US Toll) or +1 415 762 9988 (US Toll) Meeting ID: 191 532 107

For additional discussion and resources, join the events on Facebook

The foundational sessions (on White Supremacy Culture) can be viewed here:

Monday, May 16, 2016

TJMC Hosts the NAACP

Last night Dr. M. Rick Turner, President of the Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter of the NAACP, spoke to a group of about 3 dozen people who had come to hear his thoughts about the most serious issues facing Charlottesville's African American community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the best way white allies can really be of help in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.  The impetus for the event was an invitation from our Racial Justice Steering Committee (which holds its regular meeting on the 3rd Sunday evening of each month).  There were people from our congregation, of course, as well as folks from the NAACP (including their Board's Secretary and Vice President), and people from the wider community.  (NBC 29 was also there, and this is how they covered it.)

In his welcome, RevWik noted that part of the sense of urgency the TJMC community feels for the work of racial justice comes from the twin legacies of the man for whom we are named -- Jefferson wrote some of the most eloquent and stirring words about freedom while, at the same time, owning 600 women, children, and men.  Dr. Turner began his remarks by saying that he appreciated our recognition of the "egregious dichotomy" of Jefferson's legacy, and that this recognition, "gets to the core of our common humanity."

The single most important issue facing the African American community today, Dr. Turner said, is unquestionably that of racial profiling.  He spoke of the collaboration of the NAACP and attorney Jeff Fogel in bringing a class action lawsuit against Albemarle County police officer Andrew Holmes, who has been accused of a pattern of targeting people of color.  They are also working together to ask the police force for clarity and transparency about the way the "stop-and-frisk" policies are being carried out.  (He cited the statistic that nearly 80% of local stop-and-frisk incidents involved black and brown people.)
As to the Black Lives Matter movement, Dr. Turner noted that from the Niagra Movement, through the Civil Rights era, up to and including the current Black Lives Matter movement, "if it has to do with Black people it's misunderstood."  He said that, again and again, the movements created by people of color to work for racial justice have been accused of being "anti police" and of "hating white people."  The Black Lives Matter movement is being criticized for not having leaders, but, he added, "that's what they said about us!  They don't have a Jessie Jackson.  They don't have an Al Sharpton.  But they don't want that kind of leadership from the old guard."  He recognized that this movement is reaching out to the transgender and queer communities and, "trying to bring everybody who's on the margins into the middle."  He also pointed out that it is concerned about a lot more than a singular focus on police shootings as it is often portrayed.

When discussing how white allies can be of most assistance he recommended the book Dear White People:  letter to a new minority by Tim Wise.  [There was an AFD book group that studied this book a year or so ago, and we could certainly do so again.  For anyone interested in reading it right away, we have a copy in our Racial Justice library in the church parlor.]  He, said, though, that talking is not enough.  It's important, but it's not enough.  Showing up and lending our support is key.  When asked how we can know about events at which it would be helpful for us to "show up" he suggested, not surprisingly, that a good first step would be joining the NAACP.

The NAACP, of course, is the preeminent institution in the United States involved in the work of promoting racial justice.  And while it is estimated that approximately 75% of its membership is African American -- there are no precise statistics because they do not keep records by race -- a great many members are white.  (In fact, when the NAACP was founded in 1909, W. E. B. DuBois was the only person of color on its first Board.  All the rest were white.)

Joining the NAACP does not commit a person to "being put to work," as Dr. Turner said.  (Although there are 19 standing committees that a person could join, because there is a lot of work to do.)  But joining does demonstrate solidarity, and it is the best way for keeping on top of the various initiates and actions the group is involved with.  When people in our congregation express a desire to stop talking and do something, this is one concrete step anyone can take.  [Sara Gondwe told me about a UU congregation she has heard of in which every member of the congregation is a member of the NAACP!]

If you are interested in joining, here is the link.  If you are interested in knowing more about the NAACP, visit their website (local or national).  And if you are interested in knowing more about what TJMC is doing in the area of racial justice, the Racial Justice Steering Committee meets at 6:30 pm on the 3rd Sunday of each month.  You can also talk with Sara Gondwe or RevWik.  And keep your eyes and ears open for racial justice AFD programming in the fall!