If you received a phone call from Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales or Moderator Jim Key asking you to assist Ugandan gay refugees to flee that country into South Africa or the United States, would you say yes? Would you say yes, if it meant you had to volunteer your time and depend on whatever resources you could raise? Would you say yes, if it meant leaving your 2 year old daughter and 5 year old son behind?
These are dangerous times to be gay in Uganda and Gambia. Now to my knowledge, Peter Morales or Jim Key has not asked anyone to go into Uganda to assist the Unitarian Universalists there in helping sexual minorities and those suspected to be sexual minorities in fleeing the country.
But such a phone call occurred for Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp prior to World War II. They were asked to go to Czechoslovakia to provide support to the Unitarians of that country. The Unitarians had already been making inroads for an underground network but now there was a need to have someone or someones to move people through that network to safety.
Some background. The Rev. Norbert Capek had established the largest Unitarian congregation in the world in Prague with 3800 plus members. Unitarianism because of its inclusivity as a creedless faith became a safe refuge for Jews in Czechoslovakia. In 1938, the Munich Accord gave Germany the region of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. Refugees were being tortured and shot by the Nazis as they fled for Prague. When the Sudetenland fell to German control in 1938, the American Unitarian Association sent ‘commissioners’ to assess the needs of the refugees and the Prague church.
The phone call came to the Sharp’s towards the end of 1938. When Waitstill questioned why them; he was told that 17 people were asked first. Waitstill asked if his understanding was correct that 17 people were asked and said no to this request to assist Unitarians and refugees in Czechoslovakia. Would you be one of the 17? It is a very hard question to answer.
Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp were distraught over what was happening in Europe. ‘These were our friends’; Waitstill would state later and something needed to be done. While reluctant to leave their two young children, the Sharps set sail for Prague on February 1st 1939, on March 15th the Nazis marched into Prague. The Sharps escorted Jews out of Prague and across Germany to freedom in England. They were followed by the gestapo. They burned their notes and documents to protect the people they were helping. They found their offices ransacked and furniture thrown onto the streets. And when they left in August 1939 to return to the States, they discovered afterwards that they were days away from arrest by the Gestapo.
The following year, they were called again by Unitarian President, Frederick May Eliot, to go to Paris to set up offices to assist people escaping Europe. Unfortunately, when they left for Europe this time, France fell to the Germans before they arrived. They moved their office to neutral Portugal. From Lisbon, among the many tasks they undertake, they managed to arrange for the escape of some 29 children and 10 adults to leave Nazi-occupied Europe to the United States. It was while they were in Portugal that the flaming chalice became a symbol for their official documents. The Sharp’s work combined with the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee ensured the rescue of 3500 families from Nazi controlled Europe. The Sharp’s became known as the ‘Guardian Angels of European children.’
Waitstill and Martha Sharp were posthumously honored as Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel. Of the more than 20,000 non-Jews who risked their lives on behalf of Jews during the Holocaust, only four Americans have received such distinction to date.
Flash forward to February 1965. These were dangerous times to be in the south. Jimmy Lee Jackson had been shot in attempts to stop the beating of his mother by police during a non-violent protest in Marion, AL over the arrest of a Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader. There was outrage over Jackson’s death and a march was planned to carry his coffin from Marion to the capitol steps in Montgomery in protest of his wrongful death. This march was re-routed to begin in Selma and as the marchers crossed the Edmond Pettus Bridge they were brutally beaten by Alabama State Troopers. The horrendous force used by the police christened this day as Bloody Sunday. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr. issued a call to clergy from across the nation to come to Selma, AL to join them.
One young Unitarian minister, James Reeb in Massachusetts heard this call. He had been working as a community minister in the inner city of Boston. While the issues facing people of color in Boston were not the same as the issues facing those in the Deep South, the core roots of the issues were the same: institutionalized racism. James Reeb spoke with several people about leaving for Selma that day. He was reminded of the dangers but he decided this is where he needed to be. He tucked his children into bed and caught an 11 PM flight for Atlanta and then another plane to Montgomery. By morning, he was joined by some fifty other Unitarian Universalist ministers who also answered the call.
The day of the march, there was an injunction against it and Governor Wallace was not going to lift it. The question was clear, obey the injunction or obey the moral call? King announced his decision to the people who assembled: “I’ve made my choice this afternoon. I’ve got to march. I’d rather have them kill me on the highway than butcher me in my conscience.” (Mendelsohn, 1966)
King led the march over the bridge where they were met by State Troopers who told them they could proceed no further. Could they pray, King asked? So there were prayers for those injured on the previous Sunday and prayers for those who caused the injury, the very police standing there blocking their passage.
King explained the reasoning for what happened to those participating: “We decided we had to stand and confront the State Troopers who committed the brutality Sunday. We did march and we did reach the point of the brutality … and we had a prayer service and a freedom rally. And we will go to Montgomery next week in numbers no man can number.” (Mendelsohn, 1966)
Later that evening, James Reeb with the Reverends Orloff Miller and Clark Olsen went for dinner at an integrated diner not far from the gathering place. As they left Walker’s Café, they hear four white men calling them the infamous derogatory slur. They quicken their pace, and Clark turns around just as he sees one of the men swing a club or a pipe as if aiming at a baseball.
James Reeb is struck down. He is incoherent and in pain. The ambulance gets a flat tire just outside of Selma. They wait for another ambulance. The police surround the second ambulance and question them. They refuse to provide escort. The nearest hospital that will treat him from Selma is Birmingham. His injuries are too great; he is removed from life support and dies two days later. His death became the lightening rod President Johnson needed to pass the Voting Rights Act.
In the eulogy that Martin Luther King gave he attempted to answer the question of not who but rather what killed him. He states: “James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice.”
The truth is what killed James Reeb is the same that killed 6 million Jews and 3 million political prisoners and homosexuals in Germany. It is the same that created the genocide in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur. It is the same for threats against sexual minorities in Uganda and Gambia—where homosexuality is seen as a worse threat than hunger, disease, and abject poverty.
If you received a phone call to act on behalf of justice, would you answer yes? These are also dangerous times. Every generation has to answer the call before them. The Sharps and others answered the call in the 1940’s. Reeb and other clergy answered the call in the 1960’s.
And closer to home it is the same people who stand by indifferently as people’s rights are eroded away under the guise of religious freedom in Mississippi to allow businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities or here in Alabama to allow nurses and doctors to refuse to treat a woman who has an abortion, regardless of reason.
There really is no difference between the death sentences for being gay in Uganda and refusal to sell to a gay person in Mississippi. It is only a matter of degree of the indignity suffered. They are rooted in the same ignorance, the same intolerance, the same hatred against humanity’s diversity.
And while we can easily point to the atrocity of what is happening in Uganda or in Syria or in Ukraine as being dangerous times, it is harder, much harder to point out what makes living in America today as also living in dangerous times. We are like the frogs in the pot of water with the water slowly increasing in temperature and when it hits boiling it will be too late for us to jump out.
What makes this time dangerous is the very eroding of the values that we have based this nation upon. The Supreme Court has made it easier to undermine the protections of the voting rights act. The Supreme Court has ruled money equals speech. The Supreme Court has weakened the Affirmative Action mandates. Alabama passes legislation that allows medical personnel to discriminate against patients whose choices offend someone’s religious doctrines. Mississippi passes legislation that allows businesses to discriminate against sexual minorities under the false guise of religious freedom. Yet we remain passive like those frogs in tepid waters. The Democratic process is a core principle to our faith yet we take it for granted and assume it is safe from harm.
I see a lot of feigned outrage in society today. People outraged that the owner of a sports team declared his bigotry. People outraged that a sheriff in New Hampshire called the President the N word. People outraged over the racist remarks of a rancher. A group of students up in arms over the denial of admittance to a sorority on campus but not one ounce of outrage when the student government refuses to officially integrate the Greek system. Feigned outrage over one person’s slight not one protest over the institutional racism that sways power over others. Hypocrites! We as a nation are more concerned about the blatant surface appearances of racism than the hardcore insipid reality of it that courses through our veins. Symbolic rage while the system churns on its racist oppressive policies unabated.
These are dangerous times. We don’t need to travel across the world or even across the country to address it, the call is right here in Tuscaloosa.
Sixty years ago this month we commemorate the anniversary of a major integration victory that declared that separate is not equal in education. Central High School became the pride of post Brown v Board of Education. It was fully integrated with successful students of all races. The school district proclaimed that they were successful for a generation in integration and therefore no longer needed the court mandated integration ruling. Tuscaloosa claimed they would continue integration without being told but Tuscaloosa lied. Tuscaloosa voted to build two high schools and then gerrymandered the district to not only racially but economically segregate Central. The students in Central High School are being prepared not for a better life but for a life of continued poverty and very likely for prison. Central’s top students are not even able to qualify on college entrance exams.
We live in a nation where 1 in 3 black males born today will spend time in prison. We live in a nation where 1/3rd of black students between grades 7 and 12th grade are suspended or expelled from school. Tuscaloosa because of gerrymandered district lines has created a disproportionate number of whites and middle class blacks to attend the wealthier North Ridge and Paul Bryant schools. Central High is 99% black and predominantly poor. 80% of their students qualify for the federally funded school lunch program. Tuscaloosa’s 2012 Demographic study for a school district that told the Supreme Court that they could ensure integration of all of their schools, does not even mention the racial or economic breakdown in this report. Tuscaloosa has lied again. Where is the outrage over this injustice? But keep one pledge out of a sorority and we are up in arms over the indignity.
These are dangerous times not because of the potential of loss of life, though if we continue on this path of oppression it could result in this, but because of the loss of our moral compass as a people.
I never quite understood the scripture verses where it states that our fight is with principalities and powers, until now. It is not the spiritual warfare against demons as our Christian siblings believe, but rather against those human made systems that rob humanity from reaching its full potential. Racism is a power and the system in which it flourishes is the principality.
The principalities and powers of yesterday included fascist governments. Today they include the superficial righteous who parade their holy scriptures with no true understanding of the words or the spirit of love those scriptures contain. They hide behind the feigned outrage over the symptoms of racism while encouraging the real forces of racism and oppression to press on unfettered and unaccounted.
It is up to us to answer the call even in the midst of these dangerous times to call out the false outrage and point towards the heart of the matter. Even to do this takes courage because the temptation is to go with the flow and join the chorus du jour but this is the task before us to root out injustice where ever it grows. From east to west, north and south, we are called to speak to our Unitarian Universalist principles in a nation that has forgotten the true meaning of our founders’ words of inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and which are echoed in the words of our pledge: liberty, and justice for all.
The only way these words can become true in America is if we seek to ensure that our neighbor, regardless of their creed, race, sexual / gender identity or class has at their disposal all the resources necessary to reach their full potential. When my neighbor does not have the resource then I become the poorer for it.
This is the call that the Sharps answered. This is the call that James Reeb answered. They went to ensure their neighbor is treated the way they would want to be treated. This is the way of love. This is the mantle that is laid down before each of us. Will we pick that mantle up in these dangerous days? I pray that we will in our own way and according to our own conscience.
Martha Sharp is said to have asked her grandchildren, ‘What important work are you going to do for the world?’
Dangerous Times was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL by Rev. Fred L Hammond 18 May 2014 (c)