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).