I am in preparing to leave for my Thanksgiving vacation.  This year instead of my traditional route of traveling north or south on the eastern coast where my Mom’s family are gathered, I am going to have Thanksgiving with a dear colleague from seminary in Indiana.  I am most grateful to have this connection continue to grow after seminary. 

I think that is what Thanksgiving has come to represent for me and perhaps the reason why it has become my most important Holiday.   Connections to friends and family are what sustain us in healthy ways.  It is an opportunity for us to celebrate these connections.  To honor those whose lives have intersected with ours in significant ways. 

Even if there is pain in those connections and woundedness, those connections help shape us into who we are.  At some point in our lives, the woundedness needs to be transformed from that which hinders us to that which empowers us to make a different choice. 

On the Our Home Universalist Church grounds there is a Magnolia tree that was planted there several years ago in memory of one of the members of that congregation.   Last year a major windstorm came through the region and a huge thick branch of an oak tree crashed into the Magnolia, cutting off its lead point and stripping many of its branches from its trunk.  It was not known if the Magnolia would fully recover.  Less than a year later, the Magnolia is fuller than ever and it even provided the much needed cover for a bird’s nest to be built there.   As painful as the event was at the time, new growth and vitality came forth from it.  So too could that be our lives when painful things happen.  We can be grateful, perhaps not for the event itself happening, but for the positive responses to the event that follow.   

It is the intersections of all of these events in the form of people, places, and things that add to our life story as it unfolds mysteriously to a conclusion.  For that I feel the deepest of gratitude.

May we offer thanks and gratitude for all our days, the good and the not so good because all can lead us to a fuller experience of life.  Blessings,

Jimmie Lee Jackson Justice Delayed

Jimmie Lee Jackson, whose untimely death in 1965 in Marion, AL during a protest march over the arrest of Civil Rights and Voter Registration activist James Orange, still has not found justice.  It was his death that led to the March on Selma which resulted in Bloody Sunday and the deaths of Unitarian Universalists Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo.  And ultimately to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

James Bonard Fowler, the state trooper who states he only shot Jimmie Lee in self-defense was indicted in 2007.  Interestingly this incident and another death of an African American male a year later in Fowler’s custody never show up in his personell records.   The trial which was supposed to begin on October 20, 2008 was postponed pending an appeal filed by the prosecution.  It is unknown when the appeal will be settled.

It is hard to have a murder trial 40 years after the event.  Memories are always distorted.  Truth is tarnished with each passing day.  The real question is after so many years can Justice finally have its day in court?

Published in: on November 18, 2008 at 3:27 pm  Comments Off on Jimmie Lee Jackson Justice Delayed  
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Standing on the Side of Love

Sermon: Blessing As a Spiritual Practice

Blessing as a Spiritual Practice a sermon given by Rev. Fred L Hammond November 9 2008 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

As I picked up my package and began turning to leave the store, I heard the sales assistant say “Have a blest day.” I looked at her and saw her face smiling brightly, she meant what she said. This was not just a polite phrase her momma taught her. I hear this phrase a lot in the south, “Have a blest day.” It is not something I heard often in other parts of the country.

There is a difference between the phrases “Have a good day” and “Have a blest day.” Having a Blest day implies something more than just good. It signifies to me a day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered.

These are days when I feel confident in who I am from the very core of my being. These are days that regardless of what events occur I can rest assured that the integrity of me is in tact and cannot be undermined in any way. But where does this come from this assuredness of integrity; this self confidence of my being. It is more than just someone in a store saying “Have a Blest day.”

This morning we celebrated a Blessing ceremony for one of our youngest members. You heard from Tyler’s parents and sister their blessings, their best hopes and dreams for him. You heard from family friends offering their blessings on Tyler as well. And then we as a congregation chimed in with our blessings.

This blessing ceremony was done in a style used in pagan circles. Where the energy of the individuals and the group focus their best thoughts and wishes on the one they wish to bless. The blessing according to pagan beliefs then acts as a spiritual shield for the child. It becomes a grounding point for the parents to remember and reflect on when parenting may stretch their skills. And it becomes a touchstone for Tyler to always know that he was born into a home of love and care for his best unlimited potential.

The blessing does not originate in a vacuum but is grounded in the ongoing relationship of the person being blessed and the person or persons offering the blessing. The fruition of the blessing may not be seen in the near future but may take decades to unfold as Tyler’s life twists and turns with the wide variety of experiences to be had. There may along his path be apparent defeats that might crush a blow if it was not for the grounding his parents and this congregation offered him today to hold fast to the promise of a fulfilling life of purpose and meaning.

Matthew Fox, theologian, speaks of what he calls Original Blessing. Before there could be any fall from grace, there was first and foremost an Original Blessing. Fox tells us that blessing is found in the metaphorical creation story. After each day, God “Looked at what he had done, and it was good… all of it was very good!”

Matthew Fox states that the creative energy that created the heavens and the earth, call it god, call it source, call it by what ever name, continues to create and invites creation to participate in its creating. There is a relationship in the bestowing of the blessing. Fox further states, “Blessing involves relationship: one does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality. And if it is true that all of creation flows from a single, loving source, then all of creation is blessed and is a blessing, …” (Original Blessing p 44)

In this creation story is the investment of the creator in bringing about the creator’s best wishes for creation. The story tells us that the intention of creation is to be something of worth, to be something good. And if Matthew Fox is correct in his theorem, then ongoing creation is also something of worth, something good.

According to the Abraham myth found in Genesis, God said to Abraham, “…I will bless you and make your descendants into a great nation. You will … be a blessing… Everyone on earth will be blessed because of you.”

This was done in the context of a covenant established between god and Abraham. Covenants are relational contracts between people. They convey how a people is to be in relation with one another. Covenants when followed convey how the people will be perceived by others. For the Children of Abraham, the covenant they made with God was to be a blessing to others, even if the others did not embrace their way of life.

From this covenant and from the stories of a people of faith in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have modern concepts of justice between people. It took the evolutionary journey of these ancient people to develop these notions of equitable justice but we do find them rooted in this tradition. Concepts such as those found in Leviticus, that book of law that is oft quoted by those seeking to repress others also has some of the most liberating verses on justice. Such as this one in Leviticus 19:34: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: ….”

Elsewhere in Deuteronomy (10:18) talks about showing justice to the orphan and the widow through providing food and shelter. The prophet Micah reminds the people of his day that God had already showed them how to know what is right…It is to love mercy, to act justly, and walk humbly with your god.

These are acts of blessing bestowed on another. It is through the ongoing covenant, the ongoing relationship of these people that blessing is bestowed. This is a daily process with a promise woven into the fabric. How that fabric is later to be used may still be unknown but its cloth will be a blessing to others.

Sometimes it is in the keeping the covenant to work towards justice that future blessings are finally realized. It is in the laying down of the groundwork that future blessings are able to sprout to their fruition.

There is the story of an elderly man who decided to plant fruit trees on his property. His neighbors chided him for doing this because it was evident that he would never live long enough to be able to benefit from his labors in planting these young saplings. The elderly man responded and said that he planted the trees not for himself but for those who would come after him and be blessed by the bountiful fruit these trees would offer. He was bestowing blessings into his future. He saw a vision of what could be and wanted his life to be a blessing towards that future.

Forty-three years ago, a young African American by the name of Jimmie Lee Jackson, ordained a deacon by his church, sought for four years to register to vote. He was denied. He knew that voting was his right as a citizen and he knew that it was a right for every citizen. He was determined to work towards voting rights.

When another young man, James Orange was arrested for assisting and recruiting potential voter registrants, Jimmie Lee marched in Marion, AL with hundreds of others in protest of the arrest. The police began to beat up the protesters and chased Jimmie Lee, his mother and his 82 year old grandfather into a café. The grandfather was beaten and when his mother attempted to get the police off of him, she too was beaten. Then when Jimmie Lee came to her aid, he was shot at point blank range by a State Trooper. It was Jimmie Lee’s death that provoked the march on Selma. Jimmie Lee’s belief that all people deserve the right to vote was a blessing that laid the foundations for what was to come. His untimely death was not in vain towards that goal.

In March of that year hundreds of ministers joined Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march on Selma to again protest not only the inequity of the voting laws that kept African Americans from voting but also the extreme measures used to enforce this injustice. One Unitarian minister by the name of James Reeb was struck down while walking on a street. He went to Selma with the conviction that all people have inherent worth and dignity and therefore should be afforded equal rights.

Forty-three years ago, a young mother from Detroit Michigan, came down to Alabama to assist in voter registration efforts of African Americans. She knew that the promise of this country was that all of its citizens were created equal and had a voice in how this nation should be governed. She came and bestowed her blessing of knowing what was right and just for America. She had covenanted to work along side those who did not have the vote.

African Americans were given complicated and sometimes inane literacy tests geared for their failure. Unitarian Viola Liuzzo offered the blessing of standing along side people of color in their quest for the vote.

Forty-three years ago she was shot by four KKK members while driving an African American home after the march in Selma. The police and the FBI conducted a smear campaign to discredit her character enabling her murderers to be acquitted. Three of KKK were later convicted on violating her civil rights. Her family was subjected to all sorts of shame by the government in order to reduce her murder to that of an unfortunate woman who associated with people who did her wrong.

It was the events of these three deaths that resulted in the swift passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you ever get a chance to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Headquarters in Boston, you will see a plaque commemorating the lives of these three people and their efforts to bestow the blessing of freedom and justice for all people.

Rev. Martin Luther King had a dream. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King’s dream was bestowing a blessing on this nation. Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo were also part of the planting of that orchard of which they would never benefit of its fruit. Some blessings don’t always germinate and manifest as fast as we would like them. But blessings do go forth.

This past Tuesday, this nation elected a man based on the content of his character and not on the color of his skin. Now you may not have liked his politics and you may have voted for his opponent, that’s okay. The right to vote is the right to choose what our destiny is in moving forward. This election result could not have happened if the convictions of the promise of this nation were not held fast by these men and women in the civil rights movement.

Their efforts and the blessings they offered us were not forgotten by our denomination. After the election results came in, the UUA sent bouquets of yellow roses to Marie Reeb Maher, the widow of James Reeb, and to the daughters of Viola Liuzzo. Rev. Clark Olsen, who was with James Reeb when he was fatally attacked, helped orchestrate the honoring of their lives and their sacrifice that enabled this day to be possible.

Sally Liuzzo had this to say in response to receiving the roses, (quoted with permission from Ms. Liuzzo) “We have a policy at my job not to talk politics. All that was thrown out the window yesterday. My boss encouraged me to tell anyone that asked my mom’s story, when they questioned why I received yellow roses. …

“I cannot begin to explain the sense of pride I have right now for my mother and all the civil rights activists of that time. I feel like everything they have fought for, has now been realized. Black children will no longer feel like they are ‘less than’ and they will now know….they can be ANYTHING they set their minds out to be, Here I am crying again.

Thank you from my sisters and [me], for never forgetting our mother. The three of us were totally overcome with emotion. I feel like mom’s sacrifice has now been worthwhile. Yes……she made a huge difference. I am so proud of America for getting past the limitations of race, and vote for what is best for our country.

“….Actually we feel like mom reached out…through the UU church…to send those flowers. The yellow roses told us that she had a hand in it. She has a mighty strong spirit….that is alive and well. …”

We may never know the impact our lives may have on another person nor how our actions for justice today will empower the people who come after us no matter what the immediate consequences of those actions may have been. But if we want to have blessing as a spiritual practice then I believe we must do several things.

The person offering blessings holds fast to the best possible potential for the lives of others. The person joins in a covenant which holds each other accountable towards these highest ideals. When the blessing being offered is to right an injustice, the perpetrators of injustice may not believe they are doing anything wrong, therefore the relationship needs to be one gently revealing the untruth they have bought into. It means to be willing to listen respectively and willing to state respectively where the error is found. The person stands firm in their convictions of the vision they see possible even when disappointment and failures happen.

In October 2002, I was asked to join the members of Soulforce to provide support to Lynchburg VA’s first pride celebration. We were also there to follow-up on a meeting we had with the late Rev. Jerry Falwell and his congregation a few years before. I had joined Soulforce to meet with Rev. Falwell asking him to stop his anti-gay rhetoric because it was resulting in untold pain in the gay community. He promised to stop but in the days that followed 9/11 he blamed the gay community and other groups of people for the attack on our country by Al Qaeda.

On the Saturday of my time in Lynchburg, I was to be a peacekeeper, essentially a wall between the local queer community of Lynchburg and the ultra conservative Christians who were there to taunt them. The original plan placed us on one side of the road and the protestors were to be on the other side of the road, a good 25 feet away. However, the police allowed the anti-gay group to cross the road and they were standing with their chest up against my back screaming in my ear all sorts of foul things. Words my grandmother said no good Christian would even whisper let alone shout in mixed company. My task was to stand there silently ignoring their taunts and absorbing their hatred so that it would not interfere with the joy of the hundreds of young people coming out to proclaim who they were. We did not allow these taunts to rile us even though we were emotionally drained by the end of the day. The event with the exception of the loud jeering of hell fire went peacefully.

Then on Sunday morning we lined up in single file outside Thomas Road Baptist Church for a silent vigil to sadly confront the broken promise Jerry Falwell had made to us. One of the more touching moments for me was when I was standing in front of a neighbor’s house when a young father with a three week old infant came out to stand with us. He was a teacher at the local school and said he taught in his class room that all people are to be respected for who they are. He wanted the world his newborn son grew up in to be one where people would live their lives with the same inherent integrity that his son was born with. If his son were to be gay, he would want his son to be proud and able to live life as freely and fully as anyone else.

This was the contrast of the two days. I knew I was offering a blessing to those young people at the pride festival by standing there and absorbing the hate so to shield them from those blows. I knew that this young father and infant were being a blessing to me on Sunday, affirming the essence of my being, enabling me to continue to stand tall.

My vision of the blest day that is filled with grace, a day where love is shared freely, where all the traffic lights are green as you approach them and you soar to your destination unhindered is not here yet. There are still people who are seeking justice; justice in education, justice in marriage equality, justice in employment and housing, justice in racial equity, and justice in health care. There are people who are still in pain in the face of these injustices. It is my intention to be part of the blessing that enables justice to roll down like a mighty river. There is much work to be done. Let us begin our blessing work. Blessed be.

Published in: on November 9, 2008 at 2:41 pm  Comments Off on Sermon: Blessing As a Spiritual Practice  
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The Name Obama Cannot be Spoken Here–YES IT CAN

The Mississippi based blog Cotton Mouth discusses an incident that was reported by WAPT of two junior highschool students thrown off their school bus in Pearl, MS for mentioning President Elect Obama’s name.  The Girl’s Basketball coach of the same junior high threatened to suspend any student who also invoked Obama’s name.   Allegedly the bus driver and the coach have been told their reactions were unwarranted and the children not punished. 

It has also been reported that some workplaces in Mississippi will not allow Obama’s name be spoken either.  One of my congregants stated that she saw a racist symbol about our president elect in a business establishment.  She became indignant and angry.   We all knew that racism would not be erased by simply voting into office an African American President.  Our work for racial equity remains a task uncompleted.  Let’s get to work. 

I offer this song by Jim Croce.  It seems to be an appropriate prophetic response. 

Published in: on November 8, 2008 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  
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Let us begin again for up to now it is as if we have done nothing

The heading is a quote from St. Francis of Assisi who forever chided his followers to not rest on their laurels.  Justice is forever unfolding and sometimes it creases over on itself and looks like it is falling backwards before the next unfolding reveals its success. 

20 months ago the thought that America would even entertain the notion of electing an African American as president seemed surreal given its long history of inbred racism.  Yet, today, this is a reality with President-elect Barack Obama.  The possibilities his presidency offers America and the world are great. 

Yet, there is also the plight of equal marriage in this country.  It looks like Proposition 8 in California will be enacted into that state’s constitution and 18,000 same-gendered couples will have their marriages declared invalid. Arizona, Arkansas, and Florida also enacted constitutional amendments barring same gendered couples equal protection under the law.  The quest for equal rights for sexual minorities remains a long journey ahead. A journey in which the religious right continue to impose their faith constructs on millions of people who do not share their beliefs in direct opposition of our nation’s creed of religious freedom. 

The election of America’s first African American President is historic but it does not mean that our quest for justice in this country is now over.  In fact it is far from over.  We have work to do in striving to form a more perfect union where all people are able to experience their “unalienable rights, that among these are life,  liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” 

The election proved that we can succeed in having our dreams become realities if we are deligent and steadfast.  But we cannot afford to bask in our victories when there is so much more to be done in living up to this nation’s promise.

Let’s get to it.

Published in: on November 5, 2008 at 4:39 pm  Comments Off on Let us begin again for up to now it is as if we have done nothing  
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Voting in Alabama: A different experience

My first time experience to vote in this southern state was very different from any voting I had ever experienced in New York State, Connecticut, or in Illinois.  Voting turnout was heavy but the process used left me feeling a bit unsure of the integrity.  It took place in a small elementary school not far from home.  I entered the library which was crammed with people.  There were three tables set up to alphabetically check people in.  It seemed that everyone who lived in this community had a name that began with the letters H-Q.  There was no one checking in at the A-G or the R-Z tables.  The workers had this deer in the headlight stare as they looked at the crowd streaming in.  I got the impression they were not expecting this level of a turn out at 9:30 AM. 

Ahead of me was a young man that I had seen driving in on his motorcycle.  He was wearing a t-shirt that proudly declared his love of the confederate flag.  “Gone from our skies but still flying strong in our hearts.”  

I received my ballot and sent to sit at a table with 4 other people filling in their ballots.  So much for privacy in voting.  In all the other states I voted in, we were ushered to a private place; perhaps behind curtains, perhaps to a screened cubicle where one person and one person only pulled the levers, or punched the chads, or in the case today darkened circles to be read by an electronic machine-the type known for producing major errors. 

My table emptied and an elderly couple sat down next to me.  The gentleman looked at the ballot a little confused and his wife said, “Now mark the Republican slate here.”   

I wanted to speak up and state that no one is to tell another how to vote but I suddenly felt unsure of how I should act in this place. Was I safe here to speak up?  The elderly man looked very confused.  It was apparent to me that he was not sure of where he was or why he was there.  I did not see anyone that I could talk to about this. 

I flashed back to my days of working with developmentally disabled adults and a discussion about having the profoundly impaired adults registered to vote.  While I was a strong advocate for having these people participate as fully as possible in society, I was concerned that any voting they would do would not be from an informed position but a coerced one.   Of course there are many developmentally disabled adults who can and should be able to register to vote. These individuals who operated in the toddler range of maturation and intelligence should not register because their votes would reflect their adult care-givers opinions and not their own.  

Perhaps the elderly gentleman always and consistently voted straight Republican ticket in the years when he was able to clearly think for himself so his wife prompting him was consistent with how he had voted in the past.  But what if this year was different.  What if this year in a moment of mental clarity his opinion differed from his wife’s?  We will never know.  This year however, from my limited perception, his wife voted twice.    

I looked around and there were up against the far corner of the wall a row of screened in cubicles where people could stand and darken their oval choices in semi-privacy.  Every one of them was filled with people.  I looked at the line of people waiting to register their participation and pick up their ballots.  That line filled the small library and wound around and out the building entrance.  There were people leaning up against book cases darkening their choices.  Every table was filled with people. There was no room for a line to even be developed to wait for a screened in cubicle.  It simply did not exist.  I was not convinced that speaking up would have enabled a solution to open up that would limit the low hum of talking between voters as they filled in their choices and perhaps the choices of their neighbors.  It was too late to suggest the gymnasium as a better location for the freedom to vote one’s conscience.

Published in: on November 4, 2008 at 11:50 am  Comments Off on Voting in Alabama: A different experience  
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This Sums It Up For Me

I came across this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book “The Art of Power”  that sums up pretty much how I have been feeling lately about life in these American States; from the economic crisis to Exxon-Mobil’s 2nd record breaking quarter in a row, from the divisive election campaigns to the ICE raids on undocumented immigrants.  This quote offers us an opportunity to finding a way out.  It’s not an easy way out, but definitely a way out.

“We are not elected to Congress to fight only for our ideas. Your idea may be superb, but it might still be improved by the ideas of other people.  Regardless of what party a person belongs to, if she has a real insight, we should practice deep listening to really hear her.  If she is fighting only for her own idea we will know it clearly, but if she has a real insight we must be open to it.  Listening in this way will help Congress become a community where there is mutual understanding, mutual sharing.  Our democracy will be safer.  The integrity of the individual and the integrity of our institutions will be saved; otherwise there is only the appearance of democracy, not real democracy.  When you are not yourself, when you are not operating on the ground of your insight, your compassion, your experience, when you have to speak and vote soley along party lines, you are not truly yourself, you are not offering your best to your nation and your people.  The aspiration to offer our best is there in each of us.  We should help each be our best, because only then can we truly serve our people and our nation.

Just as politicians need to collaborate with those in opposing political parties, businesspeople can learn to collaborate with and learn from other companies rather than competing with them.  Communication is important, not just within a company but between companies.  It is possible to replace competition with cooperation and collaboration. If the leaders of corporations get together and practice looking deeply into the situation of the world to develop the products that best serve society, they will be able to devise mutually beneficial policies and working conditions. If they become sensitive to the suffering of humankind and the suffering of other species, they’ll be able to come together without fighting.” 

May it be so.

Published in: on November 1, 2008 at 11:13 am  Comments Off on This Sums It Up For Me  
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