“Keeping The Dream Alive” delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa on 17 January 2010 © Rev. Fred L Hammond
“I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed—we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal… I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, that one day, right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today!” (Martin Luther King, Jr. I Have a Dream)
These words of Martin Luther King, Jr. resounded loud across the mall from the Lincoln Memorial and they still echo today, I have a dream. I would love to be able to stand before you some forty plus years after King’s words were shouted from the roof tops of injustice and tell you that the dream has been fulfilled. But fulfilling the dream is not simply declaring through legislation that all people are created equal or by having little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls. Nor is it in electing the nation’s first African American as President. Nor is it by marching tomorrow in the annual Unity March that honors the life of this great man, a prophet for our times.
No, these are only the symbolic and surface acts that either mirror what is within our hearts or act as a deflector away from what is in our hearts. We have learned the hard way that racism is more complicated and more insidious than the behaviors that are displayed publicly.
Towards the final days of King’s life, he too was beginning to realize that racism in America is more than just black and white relations. He was beginning to talk about racism as it is tied into economic justice and war. King in his famous speech, “Where Do We Go From Here?” stated “it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.” I want to tell you today that even this realization of King’s is too simplified regarding racism in America.
Over the last forty years our denomination has also learned that racism is more than just the symbolic act of marching. We learned that the hard way. Our History in relation to the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s is a proud one. We joined King in the fight for voting rights, for desegregation, for employment opportunities. We marched with him in Selma and we even lost lives there. We thought we understood racism fairly well.
But after the marching was done, after the civil rights act was signed, riots broke out across this land, and we as a denomination sought to respond to this crisis and found ourselves to be complicit in racism. The consequent Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960’s and 70’s became a painful moment in our history that few want to revisit. To define the Empowerment Controversy with all its complexities and nuances simplistically, the question being asked was, were African American UU’s on an equal and level playing field with white UU’s for projects to address the justice issues in the Black communities? Whites, privileged with power and in control of the money sought to define what power, what self-differentiation African American UU’s could or should have within the denomination. Dr. Norma Poinsett, a former member of the Black Concerns Working Committee, a group that was formed in the 1980’s said at the 2001 General Assembly, “…We argued that black people should take charge of affairs affecting black people. We argued that only we could determine what our values should be and what was good for our communities. We were experts on our chaotic condition, we contended, because we faced racism daily both north and south.” (P12 The Arc of the Universe is Long [TAUL]) The answer that appeared to arise resulted in disaster. We are talking painful, gut wrenching disaster that nearly ended our faith. The UUA backed away from its commitments, African Americans left the denomination en mass. It was a painful time in our history. A moment in our history that made us realize that as a faith group we had our work cut out for ourselves.
After many years of licking our wounds, we started again to address the issue of diversity and race within our congregations. We began to revisit the issues with an Institutional Race Audit in 1980-81. This audit gave 31 recommendations to the UUA. Included in the audit was a cultural phenomenon they called the Liberal Syndrome. An example noted “while talking about racism, many UU’s assumed the liberal church to be enlightened and therefore, not needing to do anymore in the way of action.” (p 20 TAUL) The UUA board adopted to implement 25 of the audit’s recommendations yet the UUA was slow to act.
In 1983, the Commission on Appraisal released its report, Empowerment: One Denomination’s quest for Racial Justice 1967-1982. It took a hard look at the controversy that nearly destroyed the denomination. The result of this appraisal was a task force on racism. The task force recommended the establishment of the Black Concerns Working Group with the charge “to eliminate racism within the Unitarian Universalist Association” and gave the working group a budget of $5,000 to do so. This was a high expectation and scant resources to meet it. It seemed as if the true expectation to be put in place was failure.
The work that this group began would continue over the ensuing years to evolve and morph into other models and groups for dialog. The work would suffer push back. The work would engender anger within the denomination. The work to change the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations into an anti-racist multi-cultural institution has proved to be long and hard. We made mistakes. We learned some things as well along the way.
One of the lessons learned was the mistake of taking on an anti-racist program steeped in Lutheran Christian theology and applying carte blanche to UU’s. The program in its first incarnation known as Journey Towards Wholeness contained in its theology an approach of guilt. Jacqui James, religious educator stated that the message was, “You’re guilty, you’re racist… the whole approach of guilt. We didn’t spend much time helping people think about their identity and that’s important. Racism affects all people of color but our histories are different and it took us a while to understand that.” (p 379 TAUL )
The current programs and trainings on anti-racism focus more on listening where people are at, sitting with them attentively as they discuss how racism impacted their lives growing up. We have all been impacted by racism because our societal structures were created with one group of people in power over and above all others. Whether we are viewed by others as being a member of a certain race or we identify as being a member of a certain race, we are all impacted by racism. Therefore the current programs on anti-racism include learning how to recognize and let go of the behaviors that are unconsciously ingrained into our repertoire.
We learned that racism is not just a black / white issue, it was also a Latino/a, a Pacific Islander, a Native American issue. And each area and region of the country had slightly different concerns that impacted on how racism was experienced.
For Latino/as culture and language come into play. Rev. Patricia Jimenez writes about how this might affect a congregation. She says, “from my own culture [what] informs my ideas of an ideal religious community … include: a respect for elders; a profound sense of the importance of family and community; the inclusion of children in all activities; and of the need for celebration which includes the joys of both culture and language.” (p 290 TAUL)
Becoming an anti-racist institution requires listening from the heart. And it requires a re-introduction of anti-racist multi-cultural concepts every time the group changes dynamics. Gini Coulter, moderator of the UUA, discovered this when she first served on the board of the UUA, that just when the board agreed to be an anti-racist board—the new people would come to serve new terms. A whole new dynamic with new stories and histories being consciously and unconsciously presented at the table meant starting over again to agree to be an anti-racist board.
And so it is in most congregations where the turnover rate is about 10-15% per year. New people come in who may not be as savvy on internalized racism or homophobia. The work needs to be refreshed and people welcomed in.
What is being learned as the association slowly continues this work to root out racism from the denomination is that we need to learn new skills to live in a pluralist society. And if our congregations are going to mirror that pluralist society, then we have to learn these new skills here as well.
One of these skills I believe is a skill in comfortability. It is a word I coined a few years back at an anti-racist audit for Meadville Lombard Theological School. Comfortability is the skill in being able to sit in our discomfort when topics such as racism begin to hit too close to home. Discussion of racism inevitably if we are honest with ourselves, regardless of our racial identity, will cause a bit of discomfort. It will stir up memories of experiences that we have had that may still be raw in our emotional psyches and may have nothing to do with what the person or persons are discussing specifically. It is hard to look at how our behavior, even those committed unconsciously, affects another person of a different perspective or different ethnicity. If we are not able to tolerate that discomfort then we tend to shut down, tend to stop listening, and tend to become angry. We may even lash out at the speaker without meaning to cause harm because of our unresolved experience or memory. Developing the skill of comfortability allows for us to stay at the table even if what we are hearing is painfully true about our own behavior or painful in the memories it stirs up or simply painful to hear in general.
The work towards racial equity and justice is not easy work. It is not something we can symbolically do once a year and expect to suddenly be inclusive of all people. It is not a check off on a list of things to do in life like passing 4th grade and exclaiming now that is done, I never have to revisit the 4th grade again. This work is relational.
This work is one on one relational and it is also relational in a group setting because we each bring to the table our own histories, our own woundedness, our own successes and regrets. And each group is different from the last because the make up of the group changes the dynamics each time it comes together.
So let’s bring this home for us today. Tomorrow we will be walking with the Unity March to honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It is important that we are there because our faith ancestors marched with King in Selma and in other communities for racial equality. It is important that we honor this history that our faith ancestors had a part in creating with their sweat, tears and with their lives.
But what will we do come Tuesday? Will we say to ourselves that is another check off on our list of things to accomplish in 2010? If it is then we will be fooling no one but ourselves.
I don’t know if any of you saw the paper on Friday where there was a story about an event celebrating King’s birthday at the Hargrove Memorial United Methodist Church. The minister there said the event was aimed at promoting racial reconciliation. I am sorry that I didn’t know about it in advance as I would have enjoyed being there. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were able to sit down at a potluck with members of his congregation and talk about racial reconciliation?
We have already been successful in sitting down with our friends at University Presbyterian Church. To my knowledge nobody died from that experience. We have done some joint programs with UPC and some new joint programs are coming up in the near future.
What if we reached out to Hargrove Methodist Church to get to know them, enter in a dialog to learn from them their experiences of living in Alabama in the 21st century? Share a meal together. And then who knows what might happen. Perhaps there are social justice issues that we can collaborate on with them. Perhaps we already are and don’t even know it.
Imagine what could occur from such a meeting? Imagine the friendships that we could develop. Imagine the difference we could make in Tuscaloosa if our two congregations were able to have this happen.
I imagine that members of this church may be marching tomorrow. I would like to challenge you to begin conversations with the people we meet tomorrow. And if any of you meet people from this church I would like you to ask them if they were at the event their church held on Friday night. Ask them to tell you about it. And just listen to their story and allow things to unfold. Then later, talk to each other about your experiences at this march. The people you met and their stories and more importantly share your experiences in marching. Listen to one another attentively as we tell our stories of the day.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. It is a dream that is unfolding if we keep it alive in our own hearts as each day passes with each person we meet. Blessed Be.