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. [firstname.lastname@example.org] 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 [email@example.com]
Christina Rivera, Director of Administration and Finance [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Rev. Wik Wikstrom, Lead Minister [email@example.com]