by Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa 16 May 2010 ©
Reading from the Christian Scriptures: The Acts of the Apostles chapter 2:1-8
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?”
Just over one hundred years ago on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, a group of men and women gathered to pray in a revival. This was an old fashion, bible thumping, hands up in the air, glory hallelujah kind of revival. And then something happened. People began to speak in what sounded like strange languages. But what also was unique is that this revival in 1906 was integrated. One account reports, “African-Americans, Latinos, whites, and others prayed and sang together, creating a dimension of spiritual unity and equality, almost unprecedented for the time.”
This event is heralded as the beginning of the Pentecostal movement in the Christian church. From this beginning several Pentecostal denominations were born, such as the Assemblies of God, Church of God, and Pentecostal Holiness Church. Pentecostalism is rivaled only by Islam as being the fastest growing faith in the world today.
Now there is one major difference between what happened on Azusa Street and what happened in the Christian text we just heard (Acts 2). The difference is this: each one heard them speaking in his own language. In Pentecostalism and in the Charismatic Movement that occurred in the 1960’s and 70’s, people who heard others speaking in tongues could not understand each other unless the hearers were supernaturally graced to do so.
There is only one place that I know of where people speak in other tongues and others are able to understand them. That place, my friends, is right here in a Unitarian Universalist Congregation. And it is a gift that we often fail to cultivate to its fullest potential.
What am I talking about? Did I suddenly say words that seem incomprehensible? I am going to do what many Pentecostal ministers do when preaching and refer back to the text of the day. The text states that when all of these Jews who came from all over the known world to worship in Jerusalem heard the disciples speak, they heard them speak in their own language and were amazed. The men and women, who had gathered still in grief over the death of their teacher, began to speak in words that others could hear and understand.
And who are we? We are a people who gather together professing no specific creed. Right here in this congregation we have people who profess a Christian faith, a Hindu faith, a Jewish faith, an atheist faith, a pagan faith, or possibly a New Thought faith. We are a diverse people who speak many different tongues. Yet here we are, covenanting together to create a community that welcomes, promotes our differences. We have chosen to dialogue together about our various creeds so that when we meet a person who has a creed that is different than our own, we can be open and affirming with that person. Because we have learned, some better than others, to hear those beliefs and creeds in our own language and at the same time honor the unique differences of their faith.
My spiritual journey includes the Catholic Charismatic movement. And I remember prayer meetings where softly in one section a person would begin to sing in tongues, and then another, and another. Suddenly the whole room would be singing, some would seem to have a melody line, and others carried the harmonies. The voices would rise and fall easily like waves on the ocean. And then as if conducted by an unseen maestro, the singing would stop. It was a very beautiful experience of harmony. But one can only have harmony if different notes are being sung.
And here we are, singing our song together, a Humanist voice joining with a Hindu voice, a Christian voice, and a Pagan voice. And what is more, we are coming together in understanding. We understand that each of us is needed to make the beloved community.
Several years ago when I was in San Diego, I served as coordinator for an anti-war initiative called Faith Leaders for Peace. It was an initiative with 75 clergy from various faiths which sponsored events to support the end of the Iraqi and Afghani wars. We held two interfaith services during my time there, one on the anniversary of the Iraqi war and one on Memorial Day. The services were coordinated by Unitarian Universalists. We know how to do interfaith services. We know how to include voices that on the surface might seem to have disparity and find the common thread that weaves us together. At the same time we know how to honor the differences of those threads.
A comment frequently heard from those who do not understand this aspect of our faith, is how are we held together as a community when we are diverse theologically? Ask any weaver and you will hear that silk is spun from the most delicate of threads made by the silk worm and yet when woven together is a strong fabric. And so too are the threads of diversity that creates our faith of Unitarian Universalism.
In honoring the diversity of beliefs within our hallowed walls we have discovered that diversity of beliefs adds to our humanity and understanding of life. We have discovered that it is our diversity that makes us stronger spiritually and gives us increased insight into the mystery we call life.
Later this month, Buddhists will be celebrating Buddha Day. It is a day to honor the life of the Buddha. There is one story that the Buddha told that reflects this truth of diverse perspectives.
Four blind men were asked to describe an elephant. One blind man felt the legs of the elephant and said, the elephant was like four huge trees, sturdy and strong. A second man felt the side of the elephant and said, No that is not so, the elephant is like a huge wall, tall and wide. A third man after feeling the trunk of the Elephant said, No you are mistaken, the elephant is like a snake, able to coil and strike. The fourth man after feeling the tail said, you are all wrong; the elephant is like a whip. The Buddha said that we are like the four blind men only able to see from our perspective but not able to see the whole.
Several years ago, when I asked a religious education class to draw the pictures the blind men described in order to draw an elephant, the result was a very silly looking picture. Something was still missing of what an elephant looks like.
We have this understanding of truth that our individual perspectives are valid and yet only when we combine them can we even begin to gain a glimpse of the whole. Yet, we also know that even combining our perspectives might still lead to a distorted and perhaps silly picture of what the elephant of truth might look like. It is this perspective that needs to be heard in our land today because we know that in dialogue, in using all of our gifts that the hard rough boundaries of these images begin to soften and transform allowing the true essence and shape of the elephant to come into focus.
It is not only the ability to understand and bridge the diverse theology in this nation that Unitarian Universalists are capable of providing. We have an opportunity to assist this nation in embracing the diversity of ethnicities in our land as well. Paula Cole Jones, UUA consultant spoke at the Mid-South District Annual Assembly and offered us this statistic. “75% of people in this country aged 70 and above identify as white, 75% of people in this country aged 10 and younger identify as people of color.” This means that in our lifetimes America will become predominantly a non-white culture for the first time in its history.
Shirley Chisholm, first African American woman elected to Congress and first African American woman to run for president, once said, “We Americans have the chance to become someday a nation in which all racial stocks and classes can exist in their own selfhoods, but meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically. We can become a dynamic equilibrium, a harmony of many different elements, in which the whole will be greater than all its parts and greater than any society the world has seen before. It can still happen.”
Remember what happened at the Azusa Street revivals where African Americans, Latinos, and whites came together to pray in one worship service. It was remarked as being unprecedented for the time. Sunday mornings at 11 AM is still considered the most segregated hour in America. Now this integration did not last because William Seymour, the African American minister of Azusa Street, had as his mentor Charles Parham a white minister from the segregated south who thought this integration was an abomination. Parham sought to divide the congregation which he did effectively; the result was the formation of predominantly black Pentecostal and predominantly white Pentecostal denominations in the Pentecostal movement.
There was for a brief moment during that 1906 revival for whatever else it may have represented religiously, a dissolving of racial tensions. It was an opportunity that others, specifically Parham and his ilk, could not condone nor accept. At this point in our American history we seem to be at a similar fork in the road. One road leads to a broader appreciation of our multi-cultural diversity where ethnicities other than Anglo will be the majority by 2030 or there about. The other road leads to increased polarization, increased racist behavior, increased attempts for white supremacy to rule.
With the passage of two laws in Arizona and a third bill working its way up the legislature, it seems that some people in this country want to travel down the road leading to increased polarization and increased racist behavior. Other states are already looking to follow Arizona’s lead.
The Arizona governor may protest that the new immigration law does not target native and Latino descent people but that argument falls silent in light of their other new law which is a blatant attack on two cultures of our citizens. This new law states that teaching ethnic studies are to be banned and that teachers who speak with an accent will be banned from teaching English. The reason given for banning the courses is because they “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment of a particular race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
First, this country was founded on the principle of overthrowing an oppressive government; it is written into our Declaration of Independence. The closest we came to doing this in the United States was during the civil war. A war that did not successfully end the racial oppression in this country yet is representative of this principle. Since this war we generally have sought other means to over turn injustices through an election to remove the officials not representing the will of the people or Supreme Court rulings. But it is a people’s right to change the government that is oppressive to the liberties that are fundamentally endowed to us.
Second, understanding the place in history a group of people played in shaping our country is important. Arizona, like many states in the southwest was once part of Mexico and before that belonged to the native peoples. How Arizona came to be a United States territory was through the Mexican- American war of 1846-1848. Texas had laid claims to the northern territories of Mexico when it declared independence from Mexico ten years earlier. So when the US annexed Texas, we sent troops into the territories that Texas claimed, including parts of Arizona. Mexican Americans even though technically citizens as of 1848 were not recognized as citizens for decades. Their allegiance to the United States remained under suspicion even after statehood was conferred to Arizona in 1912. This is the albeit brief history that Arizona no longer wants taught to its Mexican American citizens in its ethnic studies because it places Anglo America in a bad light.
Our history is our history whether we agree with what our ancestors did or not, it is still our history. Being aware of that history and how it shapes current attitudes and policies is important to an informed electorate.
Third, ethnic solidarity over individualism is a cultural moré of many Latino cultures therefore to ban a course that might emphasize community is a direct attack on a people’s heritage. Insisting that people are individuals and not part of an ethnic identity is a tactic that repressive regimes have used to break the hold of familial influences. Individualism and ethnic solidarity need not be opposing polarities. Individualism may be as American as apple pie but it is not better than family or ethnic loyalty. It is simply a different perspective.
Fourth, the teachers who teach English but speak with accents, presumably Spanish accents, were initially hired as part of Arizona’s bi-lingual education program which ended in 2000. Since they could not get rid of the teachers they transferred them to teach English and now the law to ban teachers who speak with accents. Sure there is a need to ensure that English teachers have a proficiency in English grammar but there are other ways to ensure this without targeting teachers with ‘accents.’ This law is a discriminatory way to remove Latino diversity from the public schools and increase hostility towards a specific population.
The new Arizona bill, SB1097, which is winding its way up the legislative process, would mandate teachers to identify and report the students in their classrooms who are from undocumented families. The rationale given is to document the true cost of teaching undocumented families’ children. All residents of Arizona regardless of status pay for public education through various property taxes. So this bill is not about undocumented students receiving services not paid for by their families. The result of this bill would move the teachers away from their primary function and make them informants for the immigration authorities. The possibility exists for students to be harassed for not revealing their parents’ status and if the teachers do not believe them, false reporting may result. This will encourage students to drop out of school or not enroll in school in the first place increasing the possibility of unsupervised children on the streets. We all know that unsupervised children will inadvertently find trouble and if the children are of a specific ethnicity already being targeted, what then?
Rev. Bill Sinkford several years ago commented on what he sees in Unitarian Universalism across this country. He comments with joy the willingness of our congregations to tackle the real day to day life challenges from our pulpits. He is thrilled with what he describes as the resurgence of reverence, awe, and gratitude for life as being markers for us towards becoming more of who we can be.
I believe it will take more than reverence, awe, and gratitude to make us more of who we can be. Yes, these are powerful developments for us Unitarian Universalists. However, I see our potential as being a powerful bridge over the great chasm that has cut through this nation. We have an ability to offer our covenantal manner of being with each other honoring our diversities.
We can do what the revivals on Azusa Street began to do but were unable to complete and that is healing the racism in our land. The healing of racism on Azusa Street was only the temporary feel good kind of emotionalism. We know that to heal racism in all its forms in this country will take more than just a feel good emotion that is fleeting.
At the recent Mid-South District Assembly, I proposed a resolution which stated in part, to “Resolve to urge our member congregations to engage in a robust dialog about how both legal and illegal immigration affects their local communities and to support efforts of the United States Congress to enact legislation that addresses, in an effective and compassionate way, the entire immigration issue, and further
“Resolve to urge Unitarian Universalists from local communities to the national level to develop creative ways to bear witness to our commitment to justice, equity and compassion for all, but particularly to the poor and powerless.”
We know to do this kind of work takes the skills to listen deeply to one another, especially to the hard truths that each of us has witnessed. We know that to do this work means we must be in relationship with the other. We know that this work is transformative work where the whole person; the intellect, the emotions, and the spirit of the person are transformed towards acceptance of humanity’s diversity. And we know that to reinforce the transformation of the person, the institutions have to be transformed. To only touch the emotions does not make for lasting change.
We Unitarian Universalists have at our fingertips an understanding and appreciation of the world religions. We need to become conversant in world religions so that we can share our faith of strength in diversity with others. We need to have a better understanding of our multi-cultural and religiously pluralistic society. We Unitarian Universalists have covenanted in our principles to seek this understanding. We recognize the vast wisdom of the world religions as a source of our living tradition that nurtures our faith.
But to make an impact on our society in the 21st century, we as a people of faith must be willing to commit to a better understanding of these living traditions that feed our spirits. We also need to commit to seek to be in relationship with those who still suffer under the racism that binds this nation in xenophobia in order to reveal that another way is possible.
We stand at the crossroads of a new day in America. And what road we as Unitarian Universalists choose to follow will define us as a people of faith. I believe our nation has a desire for a refreshing wind to accompany us on this road. Unitarian Universalists have an opportunity to be a part of that refreshing wind of change that leads us to a place where we “meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically”. Blessed Be.
 Faith Leaders for Peace was started by First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego and was an interfaith coalition of some 75 clergy from San Diego County. I served as its coordinator.