Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets
10 April 2011 © Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?” This powerful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock asks some tough questions and in further reflection asks more questions. What does this word imply? What are we wanting in a harbor? What are we looking to offer as a harbor? The word can be a noun or a verb. As a noun, it is “a place on the coast where vessels may find shelter, esp. one protected from rough water by piers, jetties, and other artificial structures” or “a place of refuge.” As a verb, it is “Keep (a thought or feeling, typically a negative one) in one’s mind, esp. secretly” or “Give a home or shelter to” or “Shelter or hide (a criminal or wanted person)” or “Carry the germs of (a disease)”or refers to the crew of a ship that “moors in a harbor.” [i]
The harbor can be a place where sailors get some needed R and R, where boats are built or rebuilt, where ships can weather the storms. The question becomes for what purpose do we use harbors? Are they places where we are to remain for evermore?
The word Sanctuary also has similar connotations. It is a place set apart, made holy for worship but it was also a place of safety, of refuge, of asylum. In the middle ages a person could enter a sanctuary and receive immunity from being arrested or executed.
The most recent example of the word Sanctuary in this regard was in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s. This was a civil initiative of some 500 congregations including Unitarian Universalist to enforce the federal law of offering asylum to refugees from war torn Central America. The law stated that a person would be granted asylum if they could prove well founded fear of persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The United States refused to acknowledge the proof of persecution because to do so would also mean acknowledging its role in arming the Juntas against their own people.
The goal was not to house these individuals forever in various congregations but rather to move these individuals into Canada where they could obtain political asylum and rebuild their lives until such time as they could return to their homeland or become naturalized as Canadian citizens.
The word closet means a place where to store things or hang clothes. But in England a closet was a small room where a person could read in private and in India, a closet referred to a toilet. The term water closet referred to a room with a flushable toilet. The word began to take on figurative meanings as well, such as a place to hide things like family secrets. I once dated someone who described his family by saying, “Not all of the skeletons in my family’s closet are dead.” He was born into the Mafia. And for those who were gay being in the closet was a form of self preservation.
When I was first starting Interfaith AIDS Ministry, the office was in a converted church closet with louvered doors that I would unlock and open wide. One of my volunteers made a sign when I was not in the office that stated “Fred has just left the closet.” The agency spent its first five years in that closet. Somehow this beginning all seemed very fitting.
So back to our question: What do the words Harbors, Sanctuaries, and Closets imply for us here? Here we are living in the Deep South where the words Christian and Baptist are conflated as one and the same. All other denominations are suspect of heresy and are surely going to hell. And when going to hell is the starting point for every other Christian denomination, then what about the person who does not even claim the Christian nomenclature but perhaps is Jewish, or Muslim, or Unitarian Universalist, or even something all together different?
When I lived in Mississippi, I would be invited to Southern Mississippi University in Hattiesburg to speak with the social work students about Unitarian Universalists. The professor wanted to make sure that her students knew that not everyone was a Baptist. So I would sit on a panel with other clergy representing Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, and Wiccan. Many of the students had no idea that there were Mississippians who practiced another religion other than Baptist. I am not being ugly when I say this; they admitted never having met anyone who was not Baptist. It was as if we had all been under lock and key, hidden away to not embarrass the company like Harry Potter at his aunt’s house.
So when we come here on Sunday, are we coming to leave our closet to be with others who are in some ways like us? When I was in the gay closet my best moments were when I was with friends where I could simply relax and be myself. These moments were so refreshing, so rejuvenating like removing a tight corset and being able to breathe even for a little while. And so is this place like that for you? A place where you do not have to watch every liberal word that comes out of your mouth in conversations. A place where Baptist platitudes will not be heard and do not need to be politely ignored or defended against? I fully understand the attraction.
When I came out of the closet, I had a cousin claim that he did not know any gay people and so I would be the first. Well, it turns out that we have another cousin who is gay so that makes two. While I did not entirely believe my cousin that he did not know anyone who was gay, I did believe that those who were gay around him might stay in the closet because they are unsure of how he might respond. I believed that his knowing at least one openly gay person who, if I may be so bold, does not fit the gay stereotype and the negativity it generates would in time erode whatever homophobic milieu he absorbed from his environment. In short, his knowing me and later our cousin might begin to make it safe for others around him to also come out of the closet.
I am frequently told by people in the Deep South that they either have never heard of Unitarian Universalists or of the parent faiths of Unitarians and Universalists that begat us or what they have heard is grossly misinformed. This is not the case in New England where Unitarian Universalist congregations are almost as common as Baptist congregations here.
What I also discover when talking with these individuals is that they frequently do indeed know Unitarian Universalists in their lives or Unitarians and Universalists from history but for whatever reason the living Unitarian Universalists in their lives did not feel safe to come out to them. Much like my cousin, they claimed they did not know any Unitarian Universalists when all the time we were working side by side with them but hiding in our closet.
I wonder what would happen if we were open to listening to our colleagues at work when they begin talking about their faith to gently engage them with talking about ours. What would happen if we came out of the Unitarian Universalist closet and people began to see that we are not the Satan worshippers or the cult they have been told. I wonder what would happen if they began to see that what we value in our lives are similar to the values they share. Perhaps there are differences in expression of those values but for people to recognize that others share similar values is the start towards building a better community.
There are sanctuaries where we are safe from the pressures pushing in on our lives. Sanctuaries do not need to be simply this place but could be the places where we gather. When I was speaking in Montgomery on the recent bills presented to the house and senate, I felt sanctuary knowing that there were Unitarian Universalist clergy and others in the room urging me on. There is a sense of safety when two or more are gathered. This too is a form of sanctuary.
Peter Mayer, Unitarian Universalists singer/song writer has a song that declares everything is holy now. If sanctuaries are places made holy then Peter Mayer is telling us that every where is a sanctuary, everywhere and every moment has the potential to amaze us, transform us, and inform us of the holy. It is not just this place where we gather on Sunday morn but everywhere we gather.
What else happened in the sanctuaries of old? There were prayers, rituals, and means in which to strengthen bonds to one another and to the faith such as the Eucharist also known as communion.
In a few weeks we will celebrate a communion of sorts. We will have a flower communion where we honor the diversity of flowers of our planet as a metaphor to the diversity of our humanity. Each one of us is beautiful; each one of us is an unfolding blossom of great potential to seed the world with love and justice. We will exchange the flowers that we bring with a flower that another has brought to remember that it is in giving and receiving that we are blessed with this love.
These rituals, both traditional and new, happened not just to soothe the heart or release the burdens that press down upon us but also to equip the faithful to go back out and engage the world. Engage the world not just as individuals but as a community of faith.
There is something powerful when a group of people do an activity in the community. When hundreds of Unitarian Universalists went to Phoenix, Arizona last July wearing our deep yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts we were recognized as a religious movement that is making a statement on justice in this country. It was a more powerful statement than if we just showed up as individuals, albeit people of faith.
I am excited that a number of us are participating in the One Tuscaloosa project which is addressing racism in our community structures. But at the same time, I am puzzled that we are not doing this as a group of Unitarian Universalists but rather as individuals where affiliation to our faith can remain hidden, remain closeted.
Could we be meeting here at the church as a group to discuss and reflect upon our experiences that we are having within One Tuscaloosa? If our faith is a transformative faith it is in the sharing of our values to change the world with one another in a manner that is supportive of one another in this journey we are on. There is no shame in someone noticing that as a group we Unitarian Universalists live by our principles and honor the integrity of those we meet.
What makes creating justice important to me as a Unitarian Universalist is not the small hard won victories but rather the reflecting on these experiences either alone or with others. Both are needed. If we do not pause and reflect on how we are supporting our values and simply “rage, rage against the dying of the light” then we will burn out and unable to continue to love our neighbors as our selves. It is in the coming back together again in the sanctuary of our shared mutual hearts, in the sanctuary of where we are safe to cry, safe to laugh, safe to express our grief, our loss, our pain and accept the salve of love from our community that allows us to go back out and engage the world again.
Harbors. Will you harbor me? Will I harbor you? I am beginning to see these words as being much larger and more powerful than before. Harboring someone is more than just providing shelter from the storm. It is also enabling rejuvenation to occur within the person. After being tossed to and fro on the stormy seas of life, it might be expected that there is need to rest, to regain our strength.
Living in the Deep South, we can be bombarded with harsh dogmatic statements regarding all sorts of positions: women’s right to choose, marriage equality rights, Sharia Law, and Separation of Church and State. We can be bombarded with people concerned with our eternal wellbeing while appearing to not care very much for our physical and emotional wellbeing. These statements can wear us down after a while especially if they are colleagues or members of our family.
So coming to a Unitarian Universalist congregation can be a harbor where we will not seek to coerce another to accept any doctrine but rather give each person the breathing room to explore the doctrine and come to one’s own conclusion.
When I first began attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I was still reeling from a charismatic catholic prayer community that I had attended for many years. While I learned a lot from this prayer community being exiled for my sexuality was painful. So I warily attended the Unitarian Universalists. I was allowed breathing room. I could ask my questions without feeling judged or receive comments like “how could you believe that?” And slowly I became more at ease and just like an abused animal who eventually no longer cowers in the presence of others, I began to gain the strength to call this place my harbor, my refuge; a place where I could build my ship for my spiritual journey.
A quote with multiple attributions is “A ship in a harbor is safe but that is not what ships are built for.” It is true for our faith as well. It is safe to be a Unitarian Universalist within this harbor, this sanctuary, and within this closet but that is not what our faith is for. Our faith is to be engaged with the world, to be the salt that adds flavor, to be the beacon light on the hill, to help build the city of joy where all people are honored for who they are on this beautiful blue boat home. Blessed Be.