Does Saying I live in a White Supremacy Culture make me a White Supremacist?

The short answer is no.

But let’s put this into a much larger historical context.

In 1452, Pope Nicholas V authorized King Alfonso V of Portugal to place Muslims and pagans into “perpetual slavery,”  thus beginning the slave trade from Africa.  In 1455, he wrote King Alfonso authorizing Catholic nations to claim dominion over any “discovered lands” allowing for seizure of the lands and placing the non-Christian native peoples into slavery.  Then in 1493, Pope Alexander VI stated that one Catholic nation did not have claim to lands previously claimed by other Catholic nations. These papal bulls created what is now known as the Doctrine of Discovery. This doctrine opened the door for imperialism and heavily influenced the formation of Manifest Destiny which stated that the US had the divine right to expand its lands across the Americas. Doing so meant subduing the indigenous people and stealing their lands.  The American people, those in power, were white Northern Europeans (Eastern and Southern Europeans were not considered white until the mid- 20th century).

The Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny had in its core the belief that the white race was superior to any other culture or race. It is what justified the slave traders and the slave owners in the Americas. It is what justified the genocide during the forced removal of the indigenous people known as the Trail of Tears. Both of these policies reduced people of color and the indigenous people to objects, non-human status. This is White Supremacy Culture.

White Supremacy Culture was in the very backbone of the forming governments in the colonies. Benjamin Franklin wrote that only those of English descent were of the white race and specifically noted that Germans were of inferior stock. Jews were not considered white. Irish were not considered white. And as I mentioned earlier those of the Eastern and Southern European countries (Italy, Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Hungary, etc.) were not considered white.

Our national history is one of white supremacy.  The obvious examples are the violent subjugation of Blacks into slavery and the violent, often genocidal, removal of the Indigenous people from their lands to reservations. Their cultures were considered savage, their religions dismissed, and their languages denied expression. This is an understatement.  It is still happening today.  The violation of sacred burial lands of the indigenous people at Standing Rock in order to build a pipeline that was moved because it was too close to a white community is a flagrant example of white supremacy.  The needs of White people trumps the needs of any other group.

Two Supreme Court cases regarding immigrants being white occurred.  In 1922, The Naturalization Act of 1906 stated that those eligible for citizenship included “free white persons.”  Takao Ozawa and Takuji Yamashita, two Japanese immigrants filed for naturalization claiming that Japanese had white skin.  The Supreme Court ruled that the designation of white was reserved for caucasians only.  In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh, being of Aryan descent in northern India and therefore caucasian applied for naturalization. The Supreme Court denied him because he did not fit the “common understanding” of what determined one to be caucasian.  Living in the United States means one is living in a White Supremacy Culture.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of the United States, does this mean I am a White Supremacist?

The Alabama State Constitution of 1901, still  in force today, was created specifically to establish a White Supremacist State. And while many of the worst aspects of the constitution were struck down by Supreme Court rulings in the 1950s and 60s, it is still a white supremacist document that ensures that people of color are oppressed. This is done through more subtle laws such as denial of home rule of municipalities. (One example is the recent law passed that nullified Birmingham’s minimum wage increase for its residents, harming its 74% majority Black community.) This is also done by gerrymandering districts to create white republican majorities. This is done through voter suppression laws in the state of Alabama. Shelby County v Holder removed the discrimination protection of voters in Alabama. Immediately after its removal, the very argument used to defeat it (Alabama learned its lesson over the last 50 years and will never suppress voters again), was shown to be false and voter suppression occurred. The State of Alabama is perhaps the clearest example of a white supremacy culture because the examples are so very stark and plain to see by any who examines even slightly what is beneath the surface of this constitution.

In 2011, then Senator Beason, was caught on wiretap as joking about the economic development of the residents of predominantly Black Greene County. He stated those running the Greenetrack Casino as being “aborigines.” Beason was looking to shut down this gambling site which was at the time the largest employer in Greene County. If you live in Alabama, you are living in a White Supremacy Culture. This is simply a fact codified in its constitution.

So, because I live in the White Supremacy Culture of Alabama, does this make me a White Supremacist?

There are active White Supremacy hate groups that advocate for the return of the Jim Crow era or worse.  In Alabama there is the League of the South, whose goal is to have Alabama and other southern states secede from the US, deport all people of color, and restore the south to its former White Supremacist glory to protect the purity of the white race. There are other hate groups as well like the KKK and neo-nazi nationalist groups who also advocate white supremacy. These individuals would indeed be supremacists because they sincerely believe their superiority over people of color and indigenous people. And they use violence against people of color to intimidate and to oppress.

However, there are also predominant white groups, organizations that may publicly disavow racism and yet have policies, both formal and informal, that inadvertently hold people of color back.  The recent hiring controversy that rocked the Unitarian Universalist Association, my faith, is an example of one such predominant white group. There has been pushback from white Unitarian Universalists regarding using the term White Supremacy Culture to describe the culture of Unitarian Universalism.

Let’s unpack the culture of Unitarian Universalism. Neither our Unitarian or Universalist ancestors have a squeaky clean history when it comes to interactions with people of color. In fact, the American Unitarian Association acted in very white supremacist ways. Mark Morrison-Reed in his book, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination writes: “In 1907 when [Ethelred] Brown wrote to inquire about theological school and financial aid, denominational officials discouraged him.  Unitarians feared that their system of belief might be corrupted if embraced by the mass of common men and women, much less by blacks.” White supremacy culture combined with class structures hindered our ability to support those people of color who wanted entrance into the Unitarian faith. Universalists were not any better. Recent research done by Ministerial Intern, Monica Dobbins, found that a white Universalist minister who felt a calling to reach out to the Black community in Birmingham in the early part of the 20th century was told by his Universalist headquarters to end his ministry.

In an out of print (2009) book entitled The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary, we find the following history of White Supremacy Culture in Unitarian Universalism.

There was the Black Empowerment Controversy in 1969 following the successes of the civil rights movement involvement, Unitarian Universalism was unable to keep its commitments. Of this controversy, The Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force reported: “How could we have known at the time that the model of racial assimilation and integration for which we had fought so long was inadequate to address the newly felt needs for empowerment?” 

An institutional racism audit was conducted in 1980/81. This audit defined racism as “attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values reflected in institutional policies, practices and procedures which deny to members of racial minority groups access to goods, services, and resources on the basis of race.” 

The following imperative was adopted by the UUA board in 1981: “Recognizing the fact that institutional racism is still embedded in American society in 1981, the Unitarian Universalist Association shall seek to eliminate racism in all its institutional structures, policies, practices, and patterns of behavior so that it will become a racially equitable institution and can make an effective contribution toward achieving a similarly equitable society.” 

There were thirty-two recommendations of which the board decided to implement twenty-five.  The top recommendation was affirmative action in staffing. This was placed as the highest priority and should have been visibly addressed by the start of the 21st century.

Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyon wrote in 2006:  “.. Imagine then our dismay to hear that when the questions of people of color and the ministry were at one time put before the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, a response was characterized with the following words: Do ‘they’ fit the mold? Are ‘their’ backgrounds, and experience typical of our usual placement requirements? Will we have to lower the standards?” 

This history points to a white supremacy culture that is long and deep in our heritage. Placing the current hiring controversy in the context of our Unitarian Universalist history, it becomes very clear that eleven years after Rev. Santos-Lyon wrote these words nothing has effectively changed. Stories have surfaced from former UUA staff of the history of discriminatory hiring practices at the UUA. In the 1980s and 90s we called it institutional racism. The definition of racism used in 1980 could also be used to define White Supremacy Culture.

Our denomination’s people of color organizations, Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective (BLUU) have asked us to name these policies and procedures within the UUA as being part of “White Supremacy Culture” because the analysis of the history of the UUA and of congregations shows repeated shortcomings in the very areas that have been promised to be addressed, not just in recent years, but consistently promised over the 50 years since the civil rights movement. Our siblings of color continue to report the experiences of microaggressions and the informal and formal policies in our faith congregations and institutions as being on the continuum of White Supremacy Culture. They also are challenging us to reflect on how white privilege and racism has shaped our denomination and have kept us from living our principles as fully as we can.

In a position paper calling for an 8th principle; BLUU highlights the following:

  • If, as stated in the 1997 resolution, we are committed to “an ongoing process for the comprehensive institutionalization of anti-racism and multiculturalism” within our faith, where is the demonstrable commitment to explicitly dismantling white supremacist norms within our Association’s hiring practices? Within the culture of our member congregations? Within the hearts and minds of those who identify as Unitarian Universalists?
  • The 1997 resolution affirms that “all Unitarian Universalist leaders, including ministers, religious educators, leaders of associate and affiliate organizations, governing boards, Unitarian Universalist Association staff, theological schools, and future General Assemblies [are] to engage in ongoing anti-racism training, to examine basic assumptions, structures, and functions, and, in response to what is learned, develop action plans.” As such, where is the consistent and demonstrable effort on behalf of the Association to protect UUs of color especially from harm by moving beyond action plans into a demonstrable effort around dismantling white supremacy in the structure, culture and liturgy of our faith community?

When I talk with white Unitarian Universalists, they are quick to acknowledge that they have white privilege.  They state that they are sometimes blind to how white privilege operates in their lives because they recognize that it is insipid in our culture. I have been told by these same white Unitarian Universalists that using the term White Supremacy Culture is offensive and will turn people off. That the term White Supremacy Culture labels white liberal Unitarian Universalists as supremacists.  A term that is often used to refer to the hate groups I mentioned above.

Where is white privilege grounded?  How have we come to receive the privilege of being white in our culture?  If we can recognize the pervasiveness of white privilege in this culture, then why can’t we recognize that white privilege is grounded in White Supremacy Culture?  How is that we cannot make the connection that white privilege is the benefit conferred to white people in a white supremacy culture without somehow being personally offended?

Yes, this is uncomfortable work. Yes, It is challenging our perception of who we are. But to acknowledge that the culture we live in is White Supremacy Culture does not mean that simply by living in this culture makes one a white supremacist.  Living in the Deep South means that I live in a Christian Culture.  Yet, that does not automatically make me a Christian.  If I lived in a Muslim Culture, it would not automatically make me Muslim. So how does recognizing that I am living in a White Supremacist Culture automatically translates into being a White Supremacist?

It doesn’t.  But it does imply that there may be white supremacist norms of behavior going on.  White privilege being one.  Having Whiteness be the default in my thinking is another. It also does not give me a free pass from my responsibility to do the work to dismantle the white supremacy culture that I see impacting my siblings of color. If I do not actively and with humility challenge myself to see how policies, formal and informal, hold my siblings of color from being fully embraced by this faith that has saved me, then I am complicit to holding the white cultural norms that have been established by our spiritual ancestors of this faith.

Why wouldn’t I want to reduce the pain our Sibling UUs of Color have experienced in our faith?  Why wouldn’t I want to decenter whiteness to enable our Siblings of Color to grow in this faith with the same enthusiasm as I have experienced?  Why would I want to hold on to a culture that inflicts such pain others?  How does that negative attitude embody our beloved principles?

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, Michele Alexander’s The New Jim Crow; Rev. William Barber’s The Third Reconstruction; I see plainly how White Supremacy Culture has manifested itself in our country in the 21st century. How can I then deny this is where I live and breathe?

We, White UUs, can easily say, well, we are not a part of the society that causes these levels of racism/ supremacy; and that might be very true. But we are a part of this culture where these things are happening, and therefore can either be part of the antidote or part of the ongoing infection that is causing pain. Our Sibling UUs of Color are asking us to see the log in our own eyes before we can effectively address that which we see in society. Our Sibling UUs of Color are not calling us supremacists.  They are calling us complicit in supporting the culture we live in. There in is the difference.

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Craving Salt in a Saltless Society

Reading:

Mark: 9-49-50:  For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you restore its saltiness? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

 

This is perhaps one of the most difficult passages in the Christian Scriptures to understand.  Theologians for literally hundreds of years have tried to ascertain what exactly did Jesus mean by these words. Salted with fire?  Salted with salt? Restore saltiness? Salt in yourselves? Be at peace?

I am sure that my words today will not unravel the mysterious meanings that others before me could not unravel.  But there are some things that others have explored that I believe, are important for us as Unitarian Universalists to grasp an understanding.

To put this passage in context, In the Mid-1800s German Theologians and later Methodist Theologians[i] recognized that this passage begins with the disciples arguing who is the greatest among them. Jesus’ response to them was whoever wants to be first must be last and servant to all.  Jesus uses the example of welcoming the child as one welcoming Jesus.  In other words, one was to give equal attention and affection to those without power as they might to someone, in authority, whose actions could benefit their standing in the world.  The passage continues with disciples telling Jesus that they stopped a stranger from exorcising demons in Jesus name, because the stranger was not a follower of Jesus.  Jesus said, whoever is not against us is for us.  In other words, just because a person does not look like us, does not mean they do not share the same values we share.  Jesus then goes into an exhortation of things that would lead a person to burn in hell: placing stumbling blocks in the way of those without power; Hands, feet, and eyes causing us to stumble. Would be better to chop off or pluck them out and enter the realm of heaven; than to have both hands, feet, and eyes and be thrown into hell where the fire is never quenched.

All of this context is placed directly before Jesus says, For everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost is saltiness, how can you restore it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.

The passage comes full circle referring to the beginning when the disciples were arguing who was the greatest.

Most conservative Christians believe this salt passage refers to the fires of hell and damnation. Fire is all consuming, it destroys. Salt preserves, therefore will be a protective from the fires of hell.  If you do not have salt, ie belief, then you will perish in hell. The difficulty with this interpretation is the use of the word Everyone or literally in the Greek, All. Which may have a larger connotation than just people.

Some Roman Catholic theologians have believed this passage refers to the concept of purgatory because it says “everyone will be salted with fire.” Fire also is used as a means of purification. We have the phrase refining fire to refer to this process of purification. Fire is used to purify ore to extract the metal from it.  But this is also a difficult reading because if the person has lost their saltiness, how can they be purified?

The phrase every sacrifice will be salted with salt, refers directly to the Mosaic Law of salting the sacrifices before they are presented to God.  Salt was used as a preservative against decay and corruption. The salt of sacrifice refers to the covenant that was created between the people of Israel and God. The covenant between Israel and God was also considered “incorruptible, undecaying, indissoluble.”

When they sacrificed animals and birds, they would salt the carcass to draw out the blood before it was burned on the altar. This ritual made the sacrifice holy to God.  This salt of sacrifice declared the covenant holy, declared the people holy in relationship with their god, who is holy.  Be holy for I am holy. Salt symbolized this holiness with its character to preserve from decay and corruption. It also denoted the ability of salt to cleanse, to purify.   Salt has been used to cleanse wounds.  And today, sterile saline solution is used to irrigate wounds and kill infesting bacteria at the wound site[ii].

Salt, in the Middle East, has long been a symbol of friendship, harmony, and of covenant agreement. We also have the idiom of saying someone is the salt of the earth, which implies a person of integrity, of sound character.

A few years ago, while I was visiting family in Florida, we visited a restaurant that placed on the table a variety of different dishes of salt.  They were of different colors and each had a distinctively different salt taste. There was a Hawaiian sea salt which is red, and Himalayan salt which is pink, a grey sea salt and Portuguese sea salt which is a very fine grain white salt. There were others that I do not remember. We were told that certain salts would enhance the flavor of certain foods.

The last 70 days or so, our nation has seen some major saltless changes. Our president has created a cabinet that is majority white male. The executive orders he has signed has ended services for the poor, removed anti-discrimination protections for transgender youth in schools; LGBTQ in government employment; rounded up non-criminal immigrants; removed water protectors from Sioux lands; ended student loan forgiveness programs; removed funding at healthcare centers for women, and repealed anti-pollution regulations allowing for coal ash to once again defile our water supplies.

This was going to be the bulk of my sermon.  I was going to spend most of this sermon on how returning to 1930s invisibility of the broad diversity of people hurts our society. How our palate is better when we can taste the diversity of humanity and find ways to respect our individual and collective stories.

Then an announcement of a Unitarian Universalist Association Southern Regional Lead hire was made and they were not moving into the region. Then it surfaced that there was a qualified person of color within the region who was not hired.  There was talk about “best fit” which has been seen by people of color over the decades as code for “people who look like us.” Stories started to surface about the decades long pattern of favoring whites over people of color. Our denomination had made a commitment to become an anti-racist, anti-white supremacist organization and here was evidence that this was not happening.  There was a letter from our President, Peter Morales, a person of color, who used language in the letter that called those who were making the claim, hysterical. Again, terms that are traditionally used in a white supremacist culture.  People responded poorly to this letter.  And then on Thursday, Peter Morales, resigned from his office with only three months left to serve in his term.  He apologized for his insensitivity and stated that he no longer saw himself as the leader who could lead us forward through this process of reviewing hiring practices. You can find his letter on our congregation’s group Facebook page, as well as several other letters.

Everyone will be salted with fire and every sacrifice will be salted with salt.

With all that is happening on the national scene what happens in Boston might not seem like it is worth attention.  But it is precisely because of what is happening on the national scene that makes what is happening in our denomination take on a far more urgent status.  It is far more urgent because this congregation is a microcosm of the larger whole.  As Captain Obvious would say, this congregation is predominantly white.

As we see more and more people who had gained visibility and protections in our nation begin to lose those protections, what happens within our congregations becomes vital as a form of resistance. This nation is less safe today for people of color, women, and LGBTQ people than they were last year. How our denomination and our individual congregations responds to the national storm that is brewing is urgent.

As a congregation are we a safe place for people of color? We have a few people of color in this congregation but does that mean we are a safe place? There are people of color in our denomination who despite their vast accomplishments, despite their degrees, despite their standing in the community, despite their years as a Unitarian Universalist, still find their voices dismissed within their congregations. Members should not have to work at justifying their being one of us and valued for who they are. Their accomplishments, their degrees, their standing in the community, or their years as Unitarian Universalists should not even matter to their value to the congregation. Would we welcome a shift in culture if this congregation began to mirror the nation’s population?   Would they know they have a voice within these halls? Would their voice carry power? Or would they be met with a white centered culture and find their voice silenced and dismissed?

As a congregation are we a safe place for those who are struggling to make ends meet?  If they lose their federal or state assistance, SNAP, TANF, VA benefits, medical coverage, would they know they have a voice within these halls?  Would their voice carry power? Would they be able to invoke cultural change here to ensure that this place is safe for them? Or would we simply shake our heads and minimalize their experiences, their concerns dismissed, or worse tell them to raise themselves up by their bootstraps.

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison in response to Rev. Peter Morales letter wrote:  We must be constantly vigilant that our culture and practices are consistent with our core values and not overshadowed or coopted by other forces that have great cultural power. White supremacy, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, and other forms of power-over are constantly disguising themselves. Our movement is rooted in BOTH the ideals of religious freedom and justice AND the culture of privilege and supremacy. To assert that there is an unassailable core that is immune from critique is just plain wrong and flirts with dogmatism. There is no more important work than the careful cycle of work and reflection … We must all be open and willing to reflect on our mistakes and the ways we have become complicit with injustice. If we do not do this, we risk all credibility when we tell others that our values call us to counter oppression and injustice[iii].

To be a congregation where everyone truly feels safe will mean that we will need to create an even more inclusive culture.  A culture where no one “cultural, ethnic, or racial group dominates the church’s style of ministry[iv]” in music, structure, or activities. It would mean that whiteness is not in the cultural center but off to the side to allow Black, Latino, Asian, and Indigenous people to rise as equal and strong pillars of the congregation. It will mean that we will need to examine where our stumbling blocks are that would hold others back from being fully embraced in community.  It will require more listening to others and holding their words, their experiences in our hearts and not responding with white fragility.  That uncomfortable feeling that somehow hearing about another’s experience is a personal affront that needs defending.

It is craving salt in a saltless society; the salt that each person uniquely and collectively brings to the table.  A desire to affirm the diversity and plurality of our many paths collectively. It is a reaffirmation of our covenantal faith, that we[v] walk together in the ways of truth and affection, as best we know them now or may learn them in days to come, that we and our children may be fulfilled, and that we may speak to the world, in words and in action, of peace and good will.

The salt of sacrifice is our willingness to uphold our covenants with one another as a sacred trust.  It is our striving to be holy as life is holy.  It is to have salt in ourselves so we may be healing balms to cleanse our wounded-ness and short comings, as preservatives of all that is just and right, and creating a covenant of relationship so that we may be at peace with one another.  May it be so. Blessed Be.

[i] The Methodist Quarterly Review, Volume 32; G. Lane and P.P. Sanford, 1850

[ii] http://woundcaresociety.org/salt-water-make-wounds-heal-faster

[iii] https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5XxfpPKfHEkaU5jdm1uQi04Nkk/view

[iv] http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201201/201201_ejo_multicult_ch.cfm

[v] From UUCTuscaloosa’s Membership recognition service

Finding Courage

In the early evening on December 1st, 1955,

a woman leaving work sat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired woman leaving work

sat down on a seat on a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, a tired black woman left work

and took a seat in the “colored” section of a bus in Montgomery.

In the early evening, after a long day of work,

a tired and weary black woman

took a seat in the “colored” section

behind the white section on a crowded bus in Montgomery.

 

In the early evening, on December 1st 1955,

after a long day of work making clothes for white people,

a tired weary black woman took her seat

in the “colored” section behind the white section

on a crowded, standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

this tired weary black woman was told to stand

so white people could sit down.

 

In the early evening, on December 1st, 1955,

after a long day of work making clothes for white people,

a tired weary black woman took her seat in the “colored” section

behind the white section on a crowded,

standing room only bus in Montgomery.

When all the white seats were taken,

she was told to stand to make room

so white people could sit down,

this tired weary black woman,

named Rosa Parks, said

“No.”

 

 

Four days later, the Women’s Political Council initiated the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott lasted 381 days and when it ended, the buses were no longer segregated.  Rev. King’s home was fire bombed shortly after the boycott began which led to the decision to not just overturn Montgomery’s Bus policy but to seek the overturn of the Alabama segregation law. On December 20 1956, the US Supreme Court upheld the state’s ruling that this state law was unconstitutional and Rosa Parks then sat in the front seat of a bus.

This was not a random act that Rosa Parks took. Her finding courage to remain in her seat was not done on a spur of the moment in the vain hopes that her community would rally to her side. No, Rosa Parks was already active in her community.

The Women’s Political Council formed 9 years earlier precisely over this issue of black people being arrested because they sat down in empty seats that were not designated for black passengers. This event was 9 years in the making building coalitions across Montgomery.   In March of 1954, The Women’s Political Council meets with Mayor Gayle about ending the pay-in- front-and-enter-in-the-rear policy of the bus company. With no response from his office, they write to warn him that there are 25 organizations preparing for a city-wide boycott of the city busses.

Jo Ann Robinson, president of the Women’s Political Council, in 1987 wrote about the Montgomery boycott and said: We organized the Women’s Council and within a month’s time we had over a hundred members. We organized a second chapter and a third, and soon we had more than 300 members. We had members in every elementary, junior high, and senior high school. We had them organized from federal and state and local jobs; wherever there were more than ten blacks employed, we had a member there. We were organized to the point that we knew that in a matter of hours we could corral the whole city.[i]

When she told her chapter heads that Rosa Parks had been arrested, she was told, “You have the plans, put them into operation.”  She stayed up creating the stencils to print out 35K flyers calling for the boycott to begin on the 5th.  There was no social media in those days to make an instant announcement—there were mimeographs.

Rosa Parks joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the 1930s.  She served as secretary of the chapter. She and her husband would have meetings in their house.  These were dangerous times with numerous executions by the KKK. Young black men were falsely accused of raping white women and were given the death sentence.  The chapter fought to assist these individuals. She is quoted as saying, “I remember 1949 as a very bad year. Things happened that people never heard about because they never were reported in the newspapers. At times I felt overwhelmed by the violence and hatred, but there was nothing to do but keep going.[ii]

As a member, she attended the Highlander Center in the summer of 1955 to receive training.  Rosa Parks once remarked to Studs Terkel that this training had “everything” to do with her ability to remain seated on December 1.  The form of training was called Popular Education which is defined as the empowerment of adults through democratically structured cooperative study and action, directed toward achieving more just and peaceful societies, within a life sustaining global environment.[iii]  

She was invited back to Highlander in March of 1956 to talk about the boycott her arrest sparked.  She was asked by Myles Horton, co-founder of Highlander Center, this question.

What you did was a very little thing, you know, to touch off such a fire. Why did you do it; what moved you not to move? I’m interested in motivations – what makes people do things. What went on in your mind; Rosa?

Rosa Parks answered: Well, in the first place, I had been working all day on the job. I was quite tired after spending a full day working. I handle and work on clothing that white people wear. That didn’t come in my mind but this is what I wanted to know; when and how would we ever determine our rights as human beings? The section of the bus where I was sitting was what we call the colored section, especially in this neighborhood because the bus was filled more than two-thirds with Negro passengers and a number of them were standing. And just as soon as enough white passengers got on the bus to take what we consider their seats and then a few over, that meant that we would have to move back for them even though there was no room to move back.[iv]

How would we ever determine our rights as human beings?  Parks in her autobiography would later state she wasn’t overly physically tired that fateful day, as she was more tired of giving in.

 

Donny Hathaway—wrote a song Tryin’ Times. The version I remember is the one by Roberta Flack–

Tryin’ times. That’s the world is talkin about. …

folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love for your brother
But these are tryin’ times …

A whole lot of things that’s wrong is going down,

I don’t understand it from my point of view
I remember somebody said do unto others
As you would have them do unto you

Then folks wouldn’t have to suffer
If there was more love
But these are tryin’ times,

 

Today, we are in need of courageous hearts again.  We need those who are willing to sit down, when told to move to the back; willing to stand, when told to sit and obey; willing to organize, when told to wait and see.

These are tryin’ times. Different perhaps from the days when Rosa Parks decided to sit, but as I look around me, I smell those days rising again.  It is intoxicating and like the field of poppies on the way to the Emerald City, it will lull us to sleep.

Unless we mobilize and organize now, we won’t be able to protect ourselves or our friends—who are immigrants, who are queer, who are black, who are Muslim, who are water protectors. The safe thing, the safe thing is to carry nosegays so we cannot smell the stench and blinders so we cannot see what is happening.  And being white and silent means we could squeak by at the risk of losing our soul.

Do this and our silence makes us accomplices in the hateful cloud that is swirling around us.  Already, Mosques have received threats of genocide coming their way. There have been threats in our schools, and in the market place against those who are marginalized.

Already, gays and trans folks have been warned that whatever rights they have achieved will be removed. The very first bill pre-filed for this next Alabama legislative session is a bathroom bill aimed against our Trans gender friends. With Trump in the White House, Alabama will feel emboldened to pass this and other hate filled bills against its citizens.

The mainstream media will fall in line. In fact, it is already happening. If you look at what mainstream media is reporting it is based on allegation driven news rather than evidence driven news[v]. So instead of making the lack of evidence the news, they are making the allegation the news, which when repeated over enough times is accepted as truth.  We saw that when FBI chief Comey announced there were emails connected to Hillary found on Weiner’s lap top. It was an allegation that proved to be absolutely nothing and the media dug into the allegation and fueled that pile of sticks hoping there would smoke and fire. There was nothing. We have seen people repeat the allegation as fact and do not care there was no evidence for it.  The new word of the year is Post-Truth. Or as one Trump surrogate stated on NPR, there are no facts, facts no longer exist[vi].

We have already seen Trump threaten the media. His tantrum regarding his meeting with the New York Times was both informative and a warning.  Do not cross him as President.  He will retaliate.

So we are living in a different kind of world where Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are no longer fictional pieces but the new reality—where white supremacists can call protesters un-American, and allegations can be called truth and evidence is called falsehood. We cannot sit back and watch like this is a football game, where we cheer the witty comebacks of our favorite team and then gnash our teeth when they fumble.  No, we need to find the courage to be engaged in this Brave New World.

We need to find the courage to be willing to risk our freedom like Rosa Parks did when she chose to remain seated.  Her action had consequences.  And in this new world order, our actions will have consequences but we must be willing to stand strong to the hate-mongering that is increasing around us.

But finding courage is not done in a vacuum.  Rosa Parks did not do this without any forethought, she did this because she had been prepared for that moment. She was surrounded by a community that supported one another—that mobilized around her action. She educated herself on the issues to understand the power dynamics of what was happening. Others were educated as well.  They worked together to prepare for the opportunity to resist.  We need to be studying up on how to live under a demagogue.  We need to be educated just as Rosa Parks was educated in popular education so when she resisted, she could do so with conviction and moral integrity.  And inspire others to follow her lead.

Describing that first day of the boycott, Martin Luther King writes During the rush hours the sidewalks were crowded with laborers and domestic workers, many of them well past middle age, trudging patiently to their jobs and home again, sometimes as much as twelve miles. They knew why they walked, and the knowledge was evident in the way they carried themselves. And as I watched them I knew that there is nothing more majestic than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for their freedom and dignity[vii].

May it be so.

[i] http://www.crmvet.org/info/robinson.htm

[ii] https://the-spark.net/np762801.html

[iii] http://www.reimaginerpe.org/node/1172

[iv] http://www.crmvet.org/disc/parks_mbb.pdf

[v] https://storify.com/jayrosen_nyu/evidence-based-vs-accusation-driven-reporting

[vi] https://www.rawstory.com/2016/12/trump-booster-scottie-nell-hughes-gets-blasted-on-npr-after-saying-theres-no-such-thing-as-facts/

[vii] http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis55.htm#1955mbbholt

(c) Fred L Hammond 2016

Moral Integrity

There was a recent story in the news about Republican Governor Baker falling in line behind Trump’s administration by not condemning the appointment of Stephen Bannon, a so-called Alt Right politico whose media group publishes white supremacist and white nationalist articles. Governor Baker had previously condemned Trump’s racist rhetoric and now is dutifully falling in line. His defense was that the commonwealth of Massachusetts depends on federal grants and contracts.

I posted this story on my facebook page with the comment that this should not be surprising.  In my comments on this post I stated, “Very few people have the moral integrity to hold fast in the face of evil.”

I want to expand on this notion of moral integrity and why it is vitally important to fortify it in order to save American democracy.  Moral integrity is not a solo action. It is not developed in a vacuum and it cannot be maintained in an isolated realm.  Those who attempt to do so are betrayed, imprisoned, and ultimately killed–sometimes figuratively–sometimes literally.  You can begin to see why Governor Baker reversed course in his stance of condemning Trump’s racist rhetoric to taking the more supportive desire “to have an open dialog” with Trump’s administration. He caved to save his political standing in the new regime that is coming to power in less than 90 days.  He knows that this is an administration that will retaliate with vengeance against any who stand in its way. His response is self-protective.

After the cast of Hamilton spoke out to Mike Pence for their hope in the future of America, Trump condemned such a statement as “harassment.” Once Trump is in power, expect Nixonian style enemy lists and attempts to decimate them. Governor Baker’s cave in was in realization of this new reality, where civil discourse is harassment.

Remember when Jesus was arrested not one of his disciples remained except John, Mary his mother, and Mary Magdalene. Maintaining moral integrity in the face of evil is difficult even for the founders of the Christian faith. The Roman Empire was a cruel and evil force that crushed any who exerted self-differentiation.  The disciples only found their footing again by supporting one another, by affirming their values and nurturing one another to remain firm.

This is the only way one can maintain moral integrity. Just as they supported one another, we must support one another. Just as they met with one another, we must meet with one another. Just as they loved one another, we must love one another. They became the resistance and showed the world another way. That is our task today. To love one another with a radically subversive love that transforms hearts. It means we form collectives and coalitions of love to resist the authoritarian fascism that we see happening.

And even doing all of that, maintaining moral integrity is a hard road to travel.  We only need to look at the history of Christianity to know that most of its 2000 year history has been anything but moral. So to maintain moral integrity also means being willing to call out and call in those who break covenant with one another. We must align ourselves with truth tellers not those who promote truthiness or post-truths; those things that we want to hear and believe because they feed our bigotry and biases. But truth tellers that remind us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Truth tellers who remind us that actions that hurt people who do not look like us, do not act like us, do not live like us; those actions also hurt us as well because we are all one body, called the United States of America.

There is truth in the Christian Scriptures, when my hand is cut, am I not going to grasp it and tend to its wound? I am not going to say, it is only my hand, I can live without it. The leg cannot say to the eye, I am not an eye so I do not need you. We are only strong when all of our different parts are working together, and we are only a force for good when we have the courage to speak up against evil in all of its forms.  Right now we have a section of our body that is hurting and is diseased with hatred.

The hurt is real. The pain is real.  But to appease the pain by supporting the gangrene of white nationalists to move into power is not the way to move forward. That only teaches those in pain that their acting out is validated.  It only reinforces their hateful rhetoric and amps up their behaviors to attack others who are different than they are. We need to be able to resist their attempt to make us cower in fear and rise up to say this behavior is not acceptable in a nation that proudly proclaims, E Pluribus Unum –Out of Many, One.

And that is going to take all of us to strengthen our moral integrity so it will remain strong to act in the dark days ahead. And it means contacting those in political office, who often look to expediency and compromise rather than moral integrity, telling them that we have their back when they act with moral integrity.

All of our bluster today must not disappear when Trump is in full power. That is the temptation awaiting us on January 2oth. The temptation for us to also fall in line and succumb to the new reality of a white nationalist government. We must not, the lives of too many people are at stake. Protecting and strengthening our moral integrity is the order of the day. We must encourage one another to remain strong in the face of evil.  We must encourage one another not to hide and act as if nothing is happening.  We must encourage one another to continue to love one another and support their moral actions of resistance.

What Now

 

How goes it with your spirit?  I have to say that I have been crushed by this election.  And when I say crushed I don’t just mean disappointed.  I mean my spirit has been pulverized and left gasping for air.  I am still struggling to catch my breath and absorb what has happened.

Last Sunday I stated this election was not about electing a man or a woman, or even about electing a republican or a democrat to the office of the presidency.  It was about ratifying and affirming our nations most sacred values—E pluribus Unum—Out of Many, One.  Our unalienable birth rights of Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty and justice for all.

Apparently, America no longer wants to be an America that celebrates E Pluribus Unum. That value was okay to proclaim when America was 90% white in 1950.  It apparently is not okay when America’s white people reflects 61% of the population in 2016 and is projected to be 49% in less than 30 years.  When America finally begins to look like E Pluribus Unum, Whites get nervous because it will mean they will need to share their power.

I shouldn’t be surprised given how White America treated our first Black president who probably will go down in history as one of the all-time great presidents.  Not by this generation but by future generations.  Abraham Lincoln was hated when he was president[i].  I mean states seceded from the union and millions of people died because he became president. Not exactly how one wins and influence friends.

I still believe these values were the heart of this election.  I still believe that this nation was given an opportunity to make a deliberate choice to embody the values on which this nation stood, albeit imperfectly.  We were given a choice to turn away, even if ever so slightly, from our nation’s original sin of racism.  We were given a choice.

And we chose white supremacy.

I think what stung me the most was the realization that the only demographic that overwhelmingly voted for Trump was the White vote. Of the 70% of White voters, 58% of them voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic overwhelmingly voted for Trump.  No other racial demographic comprised a majority in their support for Trump. Not one.

Now there are many individual reasons why a person might have voted for Trump.  So when individuals begin giving reasons why they voted Trump, the reason is not because they believe that Whites need to stay in power and oppress other groups. No, they believe there are other reasons, but the aggregate reason is racism.  This is an important distinction.  Let me rephrase this point another way.  Trump’s appeal to individual White voter’s is not because individually they supported his racism, but the systemic impact in this election of White voters is racism.

We need to understand the message this sends to marginalized groups when one demographic votes overwhelmingly for a demagogue like Donald Trump. We need to understand that their fear, my fear, is not unreasonable but is based in the history of events over the last 24 months.

We have seen an uptick in hate crimes against Blacks, Muslims, Trans-fulx, Mexican immigrants over the last 24 months committed by White people who support Trump.  Southern Poverty Law Center reports 200 hate crimes[ii] were documented in the 72 hours after the election alone.

And these are the ones that are documented as hate crimes.  The hanging effigy of a black man off the apartment balcony above OHenry’s is not considered a hate crime.  The poster displaying Trump with a statement saying, “Obama, You’re Fired” in a math teacher’s class in Northridge High School is not considered a hate crime. The American Latino citizen, who was yelled at by a passerby “to go pack because Trump is deporting your ass” is not a hate crime.  The woman at UA who received anonymous rape threats because of her public support of Clinton. Our congregation’s children being told in school by friends that Trump is going to remove all the gays from Alabama. These have all occurred in the last week here in Tuscaloosa. They may not be hate crimes per the current statutes of the law, but they carry with them pain and anguish.

The KKK in North Carolina is planning on hosting a victory parade in Trump’s honor. The Alabama Klan has come out publicly stating they are going to hold Trump accountable for his campaign promises to deport immigrants, ban Muslims, and repeal LGBT rights. But the White nationalists do not represent the White 70% of the 59 plus million who voted for Trump. But the White nationalists have benefitted from the collective vote that supports their agenda for oppression.

If your vote supports the oppression of others even if you voted your conscience for your personal reasons, then your vote supported racism.  It is that simple and that complex.

I need to sit with that information and realize that I as a white person have some responsibility in these election results.  I did not speak to my relatives of my concerns regarding a Trump presidency.  I did not tell my relatives that if they loved me and supported my life as a gay man, that they should consider not voting for Trump.  I didn’t, because if I did, then I would have to contemplate that my relatives do not in fact love me for who I am.  That fact would be too painful for me to face.  Despite all their verbal assurances that they do, their actions shout no.  So I would prefer not hearing them say the words that they would prefer a Trump presidency over the safety of a gay relative. Did you tell your relatives—that a Trump presidency would endanger the life of your gay minister or your trans friends in this congregation?  Or your friends of color?  Or your Muslim friends? Or your immigrant friends?

But the individuals who voted for Trump are not going to be able to hear that a vote for Trump was a vote for racism. Not going to hear it because standing in their shoes, they believe that Trump finally heard their cry for help. They see their ability to earn a livable wage and to give their children a better life than they had, slipping away. Their concerns are not, in their essence, based in racism; they are based in economic realities. The median income finally rose this year to just over $56.5K[iii] but its buying power is still less than it was in 1999[iv].  The hard truth is that for millions of people in this country, they are hurting. No matter what they have done to try to get ahead they are thwarted in their attempts.  My colleague, the Rev. Daniel O’Connell noted that half of the country ‘finally feels heard and the other half feels a deep and anxious fear for their future.’

I also know there is a desire to self-differentiate myself from the 58% of White voters who voted for Trump.  I don’t want marginalized people, who do not know me, wondering if I voted for Trump because I am white.  My age group voted overwhelmingly for Trump.  So I want to differentiate myself. So I get it when others want to send some sort of signal, some sort of sign that says, I did not vote like the rest of my white family and neighbors. Should you decide to wear some symbol as a sign, a blue finger nail or safety pin, be ready to back that symbol up with some actions.  Don’t wear them and then remain silent when the racist or sexist comment is made.  Don’t wear them and then turn a blind eye when you see a person being discriminated against because they wear a hajib or are Black or Brown.  Don’t wear them and then walk on by when you see someone being attacked.

I don’t know what the future holds. I appreciated Clinton’s concession speech.  I appreciated Obama’s comments on the election and the smooth transition of power that he is in the process of ensuring.  I even appreciated Trump’s acceptance speech which, if that was the first time I heard him speak, I would have thought wow, what a classy guy, praising his opponent and all.  But that was not what he shared on the campaign trail. He made threats to prosecute his opponent if he was elected. He made threats against me and people like me, he made threats against my immigrant friends, those here with visas and greed cards and those undocumented, he made threats against my Muslim friends, and he made threats against my black friends.  I can only assume that he now intends to follow through on these threats.

So what now in light of this turn of events in our nation’s history?  We, as a congregation seek to love one another all the more.  We find ways to differentiate ourselves from every other predominant white congregation in Tuscaloosa County so when people come here to visit, know that they have visited someplace unique and special and most importantly safe. That they will know our principles and our personal creeds are not just lip service but is indeed who we are in our most inner being.

As I stated I do not have a crystal ball to predict what is coming down the pike with a Trump presidency. We live in one of the most conservative states in the union.  But every fiber in my being tells me that we are going to need one another more than ever if we are going to thrive in this brave new world.  This means your support is needed more than ever to ensure that this congregation is able to support you in the days ahead.  Support and nurture your inherent worth and dignity. Support your ability to develop justice, equity, and compassion in your relations.  Support your free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Support your right of conscience and the democratic process.  Support your work towards developing community with peace, liberty and justice for all. And support the well-being of your spirit.  Blessed Be

[i] http://knowledgenuts.com/2014/01/02/abraham-lincoln-was-actually-hated-when-president/

[ii] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/11/11/over-200-incidents-hateful-harassment-and-intimidation-election-day

[iii] http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/news/economy/median-income-census/

[iv] http://www.davemanuel.com/median-household-income.php

What Now? 13 November 2016 © Rev. Fred L Hammond  delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa.

We attempted to live stream the sermon and discovered that the internet bandwidth was insufficient.  So the video below is severely pixeled but the audio is relatively ok by comparison.

Minimum Wage address to Tuscaloosa City Council

This was given to the Mayor and City Council on February 9, 2016.

I am here before you tonight because I am confused by the city’s legislative agenda as it pertains to item 16–Minimum Wage Legislation.

It reads: Minimum wage determination should be controlled on a state or federal level rather than the local government level. Local government determinations of minimum wage could lead to unintended consequences for those who are low to moderate income, as well as have negative economic development impacts for local government. 

In order to reduce the likelihood of poverty and keep wage rates current, the City supports adjustments of the minimum wage rate where there is a cost of living adjustment that is tied to the consumer price index. 

This legislative agenda was passed on January 26th

I am confused because when Mayor Maddox and a few members of the council met with the coalition on January 27th; we were told that the city wanted to study this issue by setting up a task force with Northport and the County.  Why would the council state that to us, when there is clear indication in the city’s agenda that the city has no intention to pursue what is in the best interests of the people of Tuscaloosa?

Consider the words of the Prophet Malachi:  I will draw near to you judgment; and I will be a swift witness … against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan…” 

You serve the people of this city.  Now I am not a literalist when it comes to scriptures but I view the judgment as a metaphor of what is coming. Perhaps you are not seeing it as clearly as I do–before I became a minister I was a clinical specialist that examined behaviors.  In my opinion, the judgment comes in the way of a crisis for our citizens.

17,000 people are desperately trying to make ends meet on an hourly wage that does not cover the rent, does not cover childcare, does not put food on the table, does not give them access to preventative health care.  They are forced to seek public assistance in attempt to make ends meet; which in our culture is a shameful act.  The coalition has heard from these families and it breaks my heart, especially when there are city solutions that can be taken.

When people are in a desperate situation that boxes then into a corner they begin to choose options harmful to themselves and to the community.  They steal food.  They steal items to sell for cash.  They resort to violence.  Domestic violence occurs because they are frustrated and angry at themselves for not being able to provide for their families.  They get arrested.  Police are placed in situations where unarmed people are shot.  We have already seen this happen in Tuscaloosa.

A pastor recently said, we are one gunshot away from being another Ferguson. We have a crisis here.  The city agenda speaks of unintended consequences, consider the unintended consequences of passing the buck.  The unintended consequences of passing the buck is more people choosing behaviors that cause physical harm and possible loss of life.  These will continue if the city council refuses to do the right thing for its citizens. It is already escalating. Good people in desperate situations are choosing poor behaviors to address immediate basic needs like food and shelter.

You do have the authority given to you by the state or the state would not be seeking to prevent that authority to act on behalf of the citizens of this community.  You have been given studies that show that raising the minimum wage benefits the local economy with increased tax revenue because the working poor spend their resources locally.  That is increased revenue in  your city’s budget.  It is good for business becuse increased wages reduce staff turnover which any business owner can tell you, it is more expensive to train new staff than to keep staff.  Every single state and city that has done this has prospered.

Further, you have the backing of the US Department of Labor to act on behalf the citizens.

Not acting with your authority will result in increased suffering in this city, in your heart of hearts you know this.  I close with one more quote, this from Apostle James, the brother of Jesus: If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them. 

You are committing a grievous sin against your own conscience by refusing to do what your own words declare is right.

Anti-Racist vs Non-Racist

I came across the following article today:  “I don’t trust white people, even the liberals, and science backs me up.”   It is a good article that exposes the difficulty white people have after 400 years of white supremacy immersion to behave in ways that are non-racist.  The good news is the science this author is citing is behavioral science and not science like the immutable laws of science, such as the law of gravity. This means that white people can change their behaviors and become non-racist.

Non-racist?  I do not see too many people in the anti-racism work talking about being non-racist.  They mostly use the term anti-racist.  So what is the difference?  Actually there is a huge difference.

My taking action as a white ally in a Black Lives Matter protest is an anti-racist action.  I am standing in solidarity against the racism that has been institutionalized in our criminal justice system. (If this statement is new to you; there is a whole body of work out there that documents our criminal justice system as racist, so I am not going to spend time here justifying that statement.)

My reading and researching about institutional racism in the United States of America is equipping me with information to bolster my ability to recognize racism as it has been displayed and continues to be displayed in this nation.  This reading and researching is anti-racism work.  But this work still does not make me non-racist.

As the article points out, there are still unconscious racist messages embedded into my culture that I practice without even batting an eye even as I proclaim anti-racist statements with my mouth and body. To be non-racist in my behaviors means I need to be willing to examine my behaviors in the context of racism. It means that I need to have a wider frame of reference in which to place my behaviors and decisions.

I will give an example.  And it is easier to look at someone else’s behavior than it is my own.  Alabama’s Governor Bentley recently made the decision to close down department of motor vehicles in the most rural counties of the state.  He stated this was for financial reasons because of shortfalls in the state budget. Governors have the unpopular task to make the hard decisions even though it will affect people’s lives. If state budget was the only factor behind this decision, this might seem like a difficult but reasonable decision to make.

However, in the wider context, this decision affects people of color in greater numbers than it does white people.  In the wider context, this decision was made after the state of Alabama passed the requirement that people have to have state issued photo IDs in order to vote in elections. In the wider context, this decision will force people to take time off from work to travel 3 or 4 hours away to wait in line for several hours to get their license and photo ID. In the wider context, the majority of people living and working in these counties do not have positions that pay for personal leave or sick time, so a day off from work is a day’s pay lost.  This may translate in not being able to make rent that month or place food on the table that week.  What first appeared as an unpopular and hard decision to balance a state budget, now begins to look like yet another means to oppress and disenfranchise the poor who also happen to be predominantly people of color.

Now Governor Bentley has stated this decision was not done for racist reasons. On the face of his statements, I believe him. But intention does not negate impact AND look at where he lives. He lives in a state whose state constitution of 1901 was created for the sole purpose to promote and sustain white supremacy. His actions are in line with 114 years of white supremacy codified into the Alabama constitution.

In order for Governor Bentley to be acting from a non-racist place, he needs first to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how the constitution that he swore to uphold is first and foremost a racist document written in such a manner to prevent people of color to fully participate in the governmental process. He also needs to be aware, consciously aware on a daily basis, how his actions affect all of his constituents along racial lines. If he wants to truly be seen as non-racist, then he needs to change his behaviors when making decisions that will negatively impact people of color.

Let me attempt to give a more personal example to distinguish the two terms. I recently shared a sermon with my minister colleagues at our fall retreat entitled:  For Such a Time As This. It was the sermon I gave at the installation of another colleague. In it, I challenge our Unitarian Universalist denomination regarding racism within our faith.  Afterwards, one of my African American colleagues thanked me for stating things that he could not have stated then added ‘with such words comes great accountability.’ My sermon was anti-racist. My accountability to that sermon needs to be non-racist behavior.

It is easier to be anti-racist because that is merely pointing out the splinter in our neighbors’ eyes. The harder work, the aspirational work is to be non-racist, the plucking out the log within our own eye so we can see our own behaviors and change them to be increasingly non-racist. Undoing the ingrained behavior of a 400 year plus white supremacist culture will take concerted effort on all of our parts.

Those who are dedicated to this work need to be both anti-racist and non-racist. The willingness to stand in solidarity with people of color against racism and the willingness to do the hard soul-searching work to change our own behaviors so they no longer oppress others.

 

 

 

For Such A Time as This

The following is the sermon I gave on September 12, 2015, at the installation service of Rev. Lynn Hopkins, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery in Alabama.  May it help inform our faith and help us set the direction for the prophetic witness we are called to in such a time as this. 

Text: Esther 4:13-14

We have the story of Esther in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Born of lowly birth to a Jewish family, there was not much promise for her status in life.  She did have one thing in her favor. She was beautiful.  The king becomes enamored by her and marries her.  But the king also has an adviser who hates the Jews so much that he convinces the king to have them killed.  Esther feels distressed and also helpless in this situation since she is not the esteemed first wife of the king.  But her uncle, Mordecai says to her, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”

For such a time as this.  Haunting words for Esther to engage her destiny and find a way to entice the king to give her an audience and perhaps save her people.

And have we come to our royal position for such a time as this?  Our faith as Unitarian Universalists for nearly 300 years has enjoyed the royal position of privilege—white privilege, white supremacy, class privilege. Our spiritual ancestors not only helped create this nation of white supremacy and privilege but some even held the highest office in the land. Some have been seen as prophets—William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker; even as these individuals whose legacies revolutionized Unitarian faith they did so from the framework of white supremacy and white privilege of their day.

Their lives were imbued in class privilege, in white privilege, in white supremacy which continued to influence the direction the Unitarian faith was to follow.  And it is that unfortunate legacy that led later White Unitarians to view their liberalism and progressivism as holding them at a safe distance in an enclaved haven. They saw themselves as being that beacon on a hill, high above all the rest. While some deplored the injustices in society, Unitarians, for the most part, were content in their position of privilege.  They were arrogant and haughty.

This was evident in the decisions that our American Unitarian Association made regarding people of color who wanted to become ministers of our faith.  Examine the sometimes brutal responses the AUA gave to the vision of Rev. Elthered Brown who founded a Harlem based Unitarian Church and the subdued support to Rev. Lewis McGee and his congregation in Chicago. And it wasn’t just the Unitarians, examine the dismissive and arrogant regard the Universalists gave Rev. Joseph Jordan and then his daughter, Annie Willis in their work in providing an education to African Americans in Virginia.

Our history in standing on the side of love has not always been consistent in terms of dealing with our own complicity in racism.

Today, we like to proclaim that we were good in the early 1960’s when pointing the finger at those white supremacists during the Civil Rights movement but we would rather forget that we were not so good when Black Unitarian Universalists began to hold White Unitarian Universalists accountable to our own inbred racism in the late 1960s.  We have struggled as a faith denomination with coming to terms with our own white privilege and our propensity to use white supremacy to our advantages.   But the process to become not only anti-racist but non-racist in our heart of hearts is going to take an individual commitment of all of our members.

We have seen in recent years, how merely acknowledging the issue is not sufficient to uprooting the weeds of white supremacy in the field planted with Unitarian Universalism. We need to recognize how the wheat, oats, and barley that are also planted in the field support and aid the weeds to flourish.  If we are unable to own our complicity, individually and collectively, then we will continue to miss the mark of becoming the prophethood of all believers that we know can be our destiny. James Luther Adams knew this required “something like conversion, something more than an attitude.” People in our communities need to know that we are the people of the covenantal promise of love made real.

It means we have to become comfortable with confessing our own white privilege and feelings of white supremacy.  It is no longer good enough to have an intellectual understanding of white privilege and white supremacy as it is displayed in this nation.  It is no longer enough to declare we give money to black causes or declare our scorn at those who fly the confederate flag.  We need to have a heart understanding of what every black person in America already knows.   It means we are going to have to begin living our values in ways we have yet to imagine.  It may challenge us.  It may seem uncomfortable but when has deepening spiritual awareness and transformation of lives ever comfortable?

We need to develop a spiritual practice of comfortability. Comfortability is a portmanteau of two words combined to create a new word.  I define the word as having the ability to be willing to embrace the feeling of being uncomfortable in situations in order to confront a held bias or prejudice.  In the context of being confronted on racism, it means not being defensive or deflective in response but able to be held accountable to our complicity with white privilege and white supremacy and then using that skill to transform our hearts and change our behavior.

The spiritual practice of comfortability was recently described by another Unitarian Universalist, Annie Gonzalez Milliken in her blog post entitled, Spiritual Practices for White Discomfort.  She lists these possible steps towards the skill-set needed for comfortability.

Sit with the discomfort and acknowledge it with mindful meditation, the art of breathing in and breathing out.  Instead of judgment turn judgment into a curiosity.  “Where is my discomfort coming from and what can I learn about myself?”  In other words take some time for introspection. Read up on the subject—find out the social context for the action taken that caused our discomfort.  Process our emotions with other committed allies privately.  Focus on the big picture. Practice deep listening and keep quiet.  Unitarian Universalists love to share opinions but that is expressing our own sense of privilege and is not always helpful. In fact such sharing before we have fully processed our own stuff can result in deflection away from the focus of ending racism.  When people of color spend their energy answering white discomfort it can be ‘especially draining.’

White liberals, all whites regardless of political stripe, need to develop the ability to sit in discomfort of how the system whites created serves to oppress, demean, and destroy Black Lives and other people of color. White Liberals need to recognize how they continue to benefit from this system even when putting on the mantle of being progressives with anti-racist rhetoric. White privilege protects white liberals from these feelings of discomfort.

I have heard some white liberals declare their protestations when confronted with supporting the system of white privilege and white supremacy, to deflect ownership by stating their support of petitions, giving money, marching in unity marches, and having friendships with people of color.

All of these actions are good in and of themselves but these actions become distancing tactics meant to make ourselves feel good when confronted with our complicity. They mean very little if we are not also on the vanguard confronting the system that gives one group protection over and above another group.

We have hid behind our principles without living the spirit of our principles.  When Black Lives Matter banners are displayed, the cry from some of our Unitarian Universalist members point to our principle of inherent worth and dignity of every person therefore, the logic goes: all lives matter.  This is a deflection because All Lives Matter is the idealized dream but Black Lives Matter is the living reality that they should yet do not. It is a painful reminder that in our society today, we have the walking dead.  These are the people who are seen in society as already dead socially so when they die physically, there is no further loss felt.  How does a nation grieve the loss of someone who is already dead to society?

But it isn’t just Black lives that are socially dead.  The mentally ill are socially dead.  The elderly are socially dead. The poor are socially dead. The disabled are socially dead.  And now that our society has found the slaughtering of children bearable because our nation has placed 2nd amendment rights as more important than the lives of our children, our children are socially dead.

When the walking dead begin to resurrect and claim their voice; whites with privilege, whites with power, whites who bask in the benefits of white supremacy become nervous and uncomfortable. There is a scramble to enact laws to keep them dead.  Voting ID laws, gerrymandering voting districts, laws to prevent municipalities enacting minimum wage standards, laws to limit or destroy unions, welfare reforms, all are geared towards disenfranchisement and all to keep the socially dead, dead.  Don’t believe me?  Look where we slash our budgets on the state and federal levels?

Medicaid, Mental health services, Aid to families, education services, children services, food stamps. These cuts are allowed because these people are not valued, their lives do not matter.  When we are not outraged when a mentally ill person wielding a serving spoon is shot by police because the police officer feared for his life at a distance of 24 feet; when we are not outraged when a Black person is shot and killed at a simple traffic stop; when we are not outraged when Medicaid is cut and lives are lost then we declare these people already dead in society. We do not fund the dead.  The only thing left for them is to be buried.

What does our faith call us to do?  It certainly does not call us to huddle in our predominant white congregational havens where we can wag our fingers and heads at those outside these doors who shoot Black Lives with impunity.  No, our faith calls us to love mercifully, to act with justice, and to walk humbly in our place in the universe.  This is not a time to act all high and mighty and laud our liberal faith of acceptance yet do nothing to create substantive change.

It is a time to speak up boldly on behalf of those who have lost their voice or are having their voices constricted.  It is a time to stand on the side of love not just along the side of the road in picket line formation but in the office, in the park, in the grocery store, in the daily interactions we have with everyone we meet. Our being in covenantal relationship does not end once we leave these hallowed halls.  Rather it begins. It is time to be an anti-racist anti-oppression faith, not just in the ideal pretty words on a page, but in the hard daily reality.

It comes to this.  Our faith does not require that we all believe in the same God or in any God.  Our faith does not require that we profess a creed of doctrines that would enable us to enter the gates of heaven.  Our faith does require us to love one another as we love ourselves in the here and now.  Our faith does require us to be stubbornly determined in loving life into society’s socially dead—because black lives matter.

That is our resurrection miracle.   Lazarus, a black man, raised from the dead is now seen as crucial to the prosperity and general welfare of the entire community.  To remove the blindness from the eyes of those who would oppress to suddenly see Lazarus’s inherent worth and dignity as vitally connected to their own inherent worth.   Lazarus’s resurrection and liberation is tied into our liberation and resurrection. We cannot be fully alive and liberated without the liberation of Black Lives.

These are the times in which we are found. Do not think that because you are in a white liberal and progressive faith, that you alone of white liberals will be protected from being held accountable. For if you remain silent in the crisis facing Black Lives, relief and deliverance for liberation will arise from another place, but this faith will be found irrelevant and will vanish from society.  And who knows if you have come to this faith for such a time as this?

Sabbath Day Rest

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.”  So begins the Department of Labor’s[i] website regarding the history of Labor Day.  It ends with this statement: The vital force of labor added materially to the highest standard of living and the greatest production the world has ever known and has brought us closer to the realization of our traditional ideals of economic and political democracy. It is appropriate, therefore, that the nation pay tribute on Labor Day to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.”

Only a fraction of workers have Labor Day as a paid holiday.  In Tuscaloosa, over 200 establishments will be open this Labor Day.  In a 2013 survey[ii], 39% of employers nationwide will be requiring their employees to work Labor Day. The tribute offered by the nation becomes only a symbolic gesture; it is no longer a sincere offer of gratitude to the American worker.

I wonder if the life expectancy of Americans ranking 34th in the world, tied with Cuba, Columbia, Qatar, Costa Rica, and Nauru is in part because we do not honor the notion of a Sabbath.  Every nation that has surpassed our life expectancy by years—require employers to offer paid vacation and many of them also require paid holidays.  The US does not. Even Japan with its stricter work ethic than the US requires companies to offer 10 days of paid vacation leave. Their life expectancy is number one in the world at 84 years. Every single nation that excels in life expectancy over the US has a minimum of 10 days required paid leave in addition to paid holiday leave.  Most of these nations total between 25 and 35 days of paid leave a year.

Is there a correlation between paid leave and life expectancy?  I don’t know.  What has been studied is that there is a correlation between income and life expectancy.  An increase of $10K a year for someone who is in the bottom 25% of income does more to increase their life expectancy while a reduction of $10K for someone who is in the top tiers of income has little impact on their life expectancy.

According to National Employment Law Project, 60% of businesses are in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage.  This wage would give the lowest paid wage earners in our country that $10K a year increase and have a positive impact on their health and life expectancy.

The average life expectancy in the US for males is 76 years of age.  The difference between expectancy between a male whose income is in the upper tiers of income versus the lower tiers of income is 6 years[iii].  The argument to make the poor wait for retirement benefits does not make sense when life expectancy improvement is concentrated in the wealthy.  Retirement should not be the only time we get to experience rest from our labors. My hunch is that we would enjoy more and longer retirement years if we are able to take paid leaves throughout our work lives.

The Center for Economic Policy report from 2013 found that 69% of small businesses in the US are less likely to offer paid vacation time.  Only 49% of low wage workers have paid vacation time versus 90% of high wage workers.  The ability to have time off should not be only reserved for those in high hourly wage or salaried positions. Time off is important for our general wellbeing, not only physical health but mental and spiritual health as well.

When I was executive director of a small non-profit, it was important to me that my employees had the ability to take paid time off from work—be it sick, vacation, or personal days regardless of hours worked.  It was pro-rated based on their hours worked.  The work was demanding and stressful enough to have to also worry about a sick child at home.  Every part time employee had a pro-rated equivalent of two weeks off their first year and it increased to four weeks after 5 years of employment.  Our turnover was low in part because of this ability to offer paid leave.  The philosophy I employed was that if the employer can assist in taking care of the basics for the employee then that will translate into increased productivity.  Having the ability to have time off when needed was a vital basic need.

We simply don’t do Sabbath well.  When I was growing up we had in New York State what was called the Blue Laws, there are versions of these elsewhere as well.  But when I was a child, one version of the Blue laws was that stores were closed on Sunday.  End of discussion.  It was meant to be a guaranteed day of rest.

Oliver Sacks describes his family’s Sabbath[iv]:  [The family] mingled outside the synagogue after the service — and we would usually walk to the house of my Auntie Florrie and her three children to say a Kiddush, accompanied by sweet red wine and honey cakes, just enough to stimulate our appetites for lunch. After a cold lunch at home — gefilte fish, poached salmon, beetroot jelly — Saturday afternoons … would be devoted to family visits. Uncles and aunts and cousins would visit us for tea, or we them; we all lived within walking distance of one another.

“Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” Yes, the blue laws of my childhood had its origins in the Jewish and Christian notions of the Sabbath.  But there are benefits of having a weekly Sabbath Rest and our society can’t even tolerate one day a year to be held distinct from all others for all its citizens.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman wrote a book[v] on his practice of Sabbath as an observant Jew.  He writes:  “The benefits of the Sabbath, a Day of Rest, are many. One is just rest. As the Bible says, `Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work: but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God: in it thou shalt not do any work.’ It refreshes you physically and mentally. It gives you time.”

Dedicating a day of rest by making it different from every other day of the week is also a way to honor your own life and the lives of your loved ones.  It is a means to recognize that your life has inherent worth and dignity. It declares your life and the life of your loved ones are worthy of respect and love.  Senator Lieberman buys fresh flowers for his wife every Friday before the Sabbath, not because he is a romantic but because his observance of the Sabbath commands him to celebrate the love between him and his wife.  This simple act sets the day apart from the week.  The Sabbath, Senator Lieberman states, is meant to engage “the senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch—with beautiful settings, soaring melodies, wonderful food and wine, and lots of love. It is a time to reconnect with family and friends—and, of course, with God, the Creator of everything we have time to ‘sense’ on the Sabbath.”

However, we have made it nearly impossible for families to have a Sabbath day rest.  Our low wage earners in order to make ends meet are forced to have multiple jobs.  According to information gathered by Engage Alabama in Birmingham, the poverty level for a single mom with two kids is $19,700 yet a full time position at minimum wage only pays her $15,080.  Keep in mind, 69% of small businesses do not offer paid leave of any kind.  She misses work she loses pay.

Even if she was able to secure full time employment at $8.50 an hour, she still remains in poverty with an annual income of $17,500.  She will still need a second part time job to bring her above the poverty level and the likelihood that position will offer paid leave is even less.  Full time employees should not find themselves living in poverty. They should be able to earn enough to meet their basic needs.

If she was earning $10.10 an hour, she would be making $21,000 a year and would be able to qualify for health insurance for $50 a month through the federal marketplace. If the minimum wage of $1.60 in 1968 had kept up with inflation, the minimum wage would be $10.90 today.

Franklin D. Roosevelt when he introduced his National Industry Recovery Act[vi]  in 1933, stated:  It seems to me to be equally plain that no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By “business” I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as [those] in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level-I mean the wages of decent living.

When the minimum wage was first created nationally in 1938, it was meant to be a living wage.   But that is not how it has worked out.  Minimum wages have become stuck points in time.  In 2009, the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour was set.  To purchase something that cost $7.25 in 2009, today would cost $8.07.  It simply does not have the same purchasing power that it had.

Birmingham earlier this year passed a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour that will go into effect in January 2017.  They added to that ordinance the mandate that every year after that, minimum wage would be adjusted for inflation every January 1st.  This is the common sense thing to do and should have been included in 1968 when the $1.60 minimum wage was set.

There are over 17,500 low wage workers in the top 25 occupations in Tuscaloosa. Imagine what a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour would do for these people who are working hard yet finding themselves stuck in poverty and needing public assistance.

Our single mom would be able to come off of public assistance, spend more time with her children, and have an increased quality of life. She would have more income to buy locally the things she needs for her family.  Raising local wages would put more money into the local economy which in turns generates increased revenue for local businesses.

With the ability to meet basic needs, our low wage workers would be able to take a much desired breath.  For every dollar raise they receive means an additional $150 per month after taxes.  A worker making $8 an hour, making $10.10 an hour would earn $300 more per month.  That $300 would make a huge difference in their lives.

It would ultimately result in lifting all wages in the community. And how does that support Sabbath rest?  If a low wage earner is able to reduce the number of jobs needed to support their family because their rate of pay has increased, it would allow them to have that time with their loved ones.  It would strengthen the family unit.  It would reduce the stress they face that threatens their health and potentially extend their life expectancy.

If we could then convince employers that it is in their best interests to have healthy happy employees by offering health benefits, by offering paid leave—vacation, sick, holidays, and personal days; then we can begin to see how a Sabbath rest, a day dedicated to nurturing our souls and our families souls can transform our society.

Those of us fortunate to have paid leave, or two days off a week, consider taking one day to set it aside for family and friends only.  Choose to not do chores that day so your attention can be focused on your loved ones. Couples, make that a date night.  Families make that a family day of activities that are not chores around the house. If you are fortunate to work for one of the 61% employers that are not requiring you to work Labor Day, then use tomorrow to rest, have that BBQ outside with family and friends.  Finish your shopping chores today so you won’t be shopping tomorrow. Let the other 39% realize that it cost them more money to stay open than closing to honor this day.

Oliver Sacks closed his Sabbath reflection with these words: what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.                                                                                

Oliver Sacks died a few days after writing these words for the New York Times.  May we choose to not wait til one’s last days on this earth to ponder what is living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself but may we instead create that day to reflect, to ponder, to celebrate the life we have been given with our loved ones as part of our weekly practice. Blessed be.

[i] As found September 4 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

[ii] Lieberman, The Gift of Rest, Howard Books, 2011

[iii] http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/ODNIRAST.HTML

[iv] http://www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

[v] As found on September 5, 2015, http://business.time.com/2013/08/30/this-labor-day-much-of-america-will-be-laboring/

[vi]http://www.realclearmarkets.com/articles/2012/10/24/life_expectancy_income_inequality_and_entitlements_why_the_connection_matters_99949.html

$10.10 Wins

When word that Birmingham, Alabama city council had decided to establish a minimum wage of $10.10, people in Tuscaloosa began to wonder can we also establish a minimum wage of $10.10?  The answer is yes.

In a state where the poverty rate is 18.7% and nearly 2.5 times that for single parents with children at 45%, this becomes an easy fix.  35.6% of jobs in the state are low wage jobs. Montgomery, we have a crisis.  It is no wonder that the State is crying broke. Raising the minimum wage would increase the revenues in the state to provide services.

Alabama currently has no set minimum wage and so it is only those positions that are covered by the Federal minimum wage act that are required to pay the current federal wage of $7.25.  But let’s look at that figure for a moment.  In 1968, the federal minimum wage was $1.60.  If this was kept in line with inflation it would today be $10.90.  $7.25 is less than 50% where it should be.

The poverty level for a single parent with two children is $19,700.  If the parent works full time at $8.50 an hour, they only make $17,500 per year.  This means the parent needs to receive assistance from food stamps and other public assistance. No person working full time should live in poverty.

If that parent earns $10.10 an hour they make $21,000 a year and become eligible for health care insurance for $50 a month through the Federal Marketplace.  Every dollar per hour increase equates to $150 per month after taxes to an employee.  An $8 an hour employee will earn $300 more per month at $10.10.  $300 more per month can save a family from relying on pay day loans that charge extortionist interest rates.

Every one of the 29 states and 15 cities where the minimum wage has been raised have been scrutinized and studied and reveals that over 90% of those studies reveal no job loss and no increase in unemployment. In fact a 2014 study by Integrity Florida showed 25 states and 5 cities  had higher job growth than states and cities that did not raise their minimum wage. Raising local wages benefits the local economy as lower wage workers tend to spend their money locally where as corporations take profits out of the local economy to invest all over the world.

But what about Tuscaloosa?  Based on a report by National Employment Law Project (NELP) 73% of nationwide enrollments for public assistance are from working families. 89% of small businesses already pay more than the minimum wage.  60% of businesses support an increase to $12.00.  In Tuscaloosa, 17,570 people are earning less than $10.10 per hour.  The average median wage in the top 25 occupations with the largest number of employees is $8.92 per hour.

Tuscaloosa, just like Birmingham, already has the legal authority to establish a local minimum wage. Alabama has no minimum wage law and has no law prohibiting municipalities from the establishment of said laws, therefore Tuscaloosa has the legal authority under its broad police powers to establish reasonable regulations providing for the general welfare of its citizens. The experiences of other states suggest that such a regulation would survive a legal challenge.

Birmingham’s ordinance makes sense for Tuscaloosa.  It is being phased in over two years, July 2016 the minimum wage raises to $8.50 per hour, which similar to Tuscaloosa, most of Birmingham small businesses already pay wages of about that amount. In January 2017, the minimum wage would raise to $10.10 per hour.  Then every January 1, thereafter, the minimum wage would increase if there is an increase in cost of living.  It is a winning proposition!

It raises people out of poverty.  Removes people from the state welfare assistance rolls because they are able to meet their basic needs. It enables people to qualify for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act. It expands local economies with the additional income being spent locally.

To pass a $10.10 minimum wage ordinance in Tuscaloosa requires a strong coalition.  On Tuesday, September 1, Move to Amend-Tuscaloosa and Work Together Alabama hosted a meeting for interested parties at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Tuscaloosa.  There will be another meeting on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 6 PM to 7:30 PM at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to further this initiative.  The congregation is located at 6400 New Watermelon Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35406.   Please join us!

(Facts in this post are from a fact sheet provided by Engage Alabama, 5184 Caldwell Mill Rd, Suite 204-191, Birmingham, AL 35244)