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?

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$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)

Beyond Dreaming

Martin Luther King had a dream for this nation. It is an important dream. The dream was more than voting rights for people of color. The dream was more than desegregation of lunch counters, buses, and schools. The dream was more than little black boys and little black girls holding hands with little white boys and little white girls. These are all wonderful aspects of Martin Luther King’s dream but it is not the whole of his dream.

His dream included ending the terror of living in America as a black person. And that is a much nobler dream than all the other pieces of the dream that people speak about when they talk about King’s dream.

The emotional history of African Americans in our nation is one of terror . The dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. was to rid this terror from the experience of people of color in this nation. The world that Martin Luther King, Jr. was born into included this fact: If an African American even so much as looked at a white person, that African American might at best have been beaten unconscious or worst lynched from a tree. With no consequences to the white people who committed such heinous acts. No person should live a life where fear is the norm.

The gift Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to African Americans in the 1950s/60s was to no longer be afraid of the consequences of seeking to do what is morally the right thing. When confronted with the morally right thing—sitting at a lunch counter, remaining seated on a bus, requesting voting registration, confronting Jim Crow laws, refusing to be humiliated—white America responded with violence to put African Americans back into their ‘assigned’ place of subjugation. When people stand up for their rights and are willing to absorb violence and not strike back, not defend their bodies, then those people are free. They have reclaimed their agency to self-determination in a society that denied this basic human right.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was expanding his dream beyond racism to include classism. King was speaking up about the effects of poverty in America. He was speaking up about the effects of exploitive work practices on the white and black poor in America. His last days were to apply pressure on the city of Memphis regarding the work conditions and poverty wages of sanitation workers who were on strike for better treatment. His assassination on the 4th of April 1968 brought an end to the focus on poverty in America. The status of the average American worker has deteriorated ever since. The class divide in this country has not seen such a widening gap since the eve before the Crash in October 1929.

I believe that if King had lived, he would have achieved the same for people of poverty that he had for people of color. He would have instilled the ability to face their own fears of not being able to provide for their families by organizing and demanding justice in the work place.

It has been fifty years since King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Fifty years to take his dream and move it beyond dreaming and into reality. But it hasn’t happened. The time is now.

The march had a list of goals that are still relevant today as they were then. Here is a sampling of the goals for the March on Washington that may not be well known:

• A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
• A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide;
• Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens;
• A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas

Do any of these issues still sound familiar? In 1963 the federal minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. In 2014 dollars that pay scale would purchase the same as $9.58. Our federal minimum wage is $7.25. This amount does not allow a family of four to afford the average rent. The proposal in 1963 was to increase minimum wage to $2.00 an hour or in 2014 dollars–$15.33. There is a current push to raise the Federal minimum wage to $10 an hour. This is a start but it still does not even bring the middle class back to the purchasing power they had in 1963.

Alabama does not have a state minimum wage. The federal minimum wage only applies to businesses of over $500K, businesses that involve interstate commerce, and hospitals and schools. Domestic workers are only covered if they work 8 hours or more a week for one or more employees. Therefore there are many people, such as farm workers, who may not even be earning minimum wage because their jobs fall outside of the purview of the federal law.

I recently saw a poster that said The Middle Class is too big to fail. If the Middle Class fails in our nation, then all our ideals collapses as a failed experiment. It is time for us to move beyond dreaming and address minimum wage for all workers, including restaurant workers whose minimum wage of $2.13 has remained static for 22 years.

The business community has lobbied successfully against such measures. They are only looking out for their shareholders, those people who are in the top 10% of controlling the wealth of the nation. A recent report came out stating that 85 people control the same about wealth as half of the world’s population . We are approaching 7 billion people on this planet.

Winnie Byanyima, the Oxfam executive director stated, “Without a concerted effort to tackle inequality, the cascade of privilege and of disadvantage will continue down the generations. We will soon live in a world where equality of opportunity is just a dream. ” Dream in this case means fantasy, not feasible goals like Martin Luther King’s dream.

But the argument against a rise in minimum wage is that it would take money from the shareholders, approximately $11 Billion dollars based on a 2007 study so this is a dated figure, but only $1.6 Billion of these dollars would benefit the working poor. It is argued that the Earned Income Tax Credit would be a better way to go as it can be adjusted upwards, cost $2.4 Billion of which $1.4 billion would benefit poor families. But if we as a people of faith even have an inkling of considering remediating income inequality and improving the quality of the lives of the poor, then we need to consider doing both; raise the minimum wage and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit.

A recent empirical study of what happens when poor people get cash showed something rather amazing. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino when it opened in 1996 decided to proportionately share its profits with its 8,000 members. A professor from Duke University had already been following the rural children with a good percentage of them being Cherokee. A substantial baseline had been established over a course of four years prior to the casino opening.

In 2001, when each Cherokee was receiving an additional $6,000 in income a year, the poverty level of the Cherokees had dropped by half. But what was also discovered is that the frequency of behavioral problems within the poorest of these families dropped by 40%. It was also discovered that the earlier this money arrived in their children’s lives the better their children’s mental health. What was also discovered is that the supplemental income saved money in the community in the long run. The children were one third less likely to abuse drugs or to have psychiatric issues as adults and this reduced community costs. On schedule Highschool graduations increased as there were fewer children repeating classes. This means that students were able to focus on their studies and not worry about their next meal.

The amount of money the casino disbursed amongst its members was not enough for anyone to not need employment but it was a substantial unconditional cushion. As a society, we might not be able or even want to provide what King advocated for which was a guaranteed minimum income to abolish poverty in this nation. But if we were to raise the minimum wage and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit, we would be offering the same type of assistance as the Cherokee Casino. Just as the members received a lump sum check disbursement, the income refund check would be a similar boost. We would give back personal control to those who are desperately poor in this nation. It is time to move beyond dreaming and working towards creating the society that we know we can be.

The 14th amendment was as much an issue in King’s day as it is today. In fact, it may be even argued that the problems this amendment caused in our society have only compounded in the years since the March on Washington in 1963.

The 14th amendment which was written to grant full citizenship to emancipated slaves is now being used to enslave all of American workers. It is said that a law has no real influence until it is faced with litigation. It is in the litigation that the law comes alive and develops teeth. This amendment was litigated 150 times between its passage and 1896. Only 15 of these cases had to with the citizenship of the African American, the remainder had to do with the personhood rights of the corporation. We have seen the devastation this gross misinterpretation of this amendment has caused throughout the 20th century and now with the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United four years ago; our very democracy is at stake. Citizens United has created the ability for Corporations to have the privilege to create and purchase passage of laws that benefit solely the shareholder’s profit and not serve their purpose of serving society’s welfare. As we observe our society today, it is clear that corporations do not have society’s welfare best interest at heart.

We have created a protected class in giving corporations personhood. They are able to poison our water supply, cause irreversible environmental damage through oil spills, and destroy the economic lives of thousands without assuming any accountability for their actions. We have allowed corporations to become too big to fail which has placed the very quality of our lives at risk when they violate laws and are allowed to continue to do so after paying what amounts to a mere penny of a fine.

We have seen corporations in the form of for-profit prisons make contract deals with the government that turns people into nameless quotas to be filled. This requires the creation of laws that change misdemeanors into felonies and condemns a class of people to a life of perpetual dehumanizing institutionalization. Our nation represents 25% of all incarcerations in the world, yet we only represent 5% of the world’s population. Contrary to our national myth we are not the land of the free; we are the land of the incarcerated.

The 5th and 14th amendments should be ensuring due process and equal protection under the law. But instead we are feeding our corporations quotas by creating laws such as stop and frisk. Minorities are disproportionately singled out for stop and frisk in direct violation of the 14th amendment . It is time to move beyond dreaming and reclaim the 14th amendment for its intended purpose, strip it of its litigated purpose and assure that all citizens, born or naturalized, have equal protection under the law.

We live in a state that still allows discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. We shame our young LGBTQI teens by teaching abstinence until marriage and ignore the realities of their lives. We still require our Alabama schools to teach homosexuality is a criminal offense and do not consider the ramifications of such a statement on our gay children. Housing and employment discrimination against the queer community is still a reality. Homophobia is still an acceptable behavior in the state. We need to support pending legislation that will protect their rights and limit the damage that homophobic religions in our state spew on these innocent lives. We need to move beyond dreaming and stand up for our siblings of sexual and gender diversities.

We need to move beyond dreaming that things were different and begin embodying our values in our daily lives. T. E. Lawrence also known as Lawrence of Arabia stated “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible. ”

How we decide to move beyond dreaming is open for discussion but the issues that Rev. Martin Luther King sought to address are still with us today. We must not be afraid to speak out about them. If we move together in community to address these issues we need not be cowering in fear. Sister Simone of Nuns on the Bus said, “The antidote to fear is community. In community, we know we are not alone and that someone has my back. This shared responsibility calls us to exercise our civil obligations. In fact, community can only exist if everyone contributes to the shaping of our society.

Let us as a community move beyond dreaming of how things might be into the light of day of making it so. Blessed Be.

[Sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa  on January 26 2014 (c) by Rev. Fred L Hammond

Sources:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/08/29/1011562/-Most-of-you-have-no-idea-what-Martin-Luther-King-actually-did

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/20/oxfam-85-richest-people-half-of-the-world

http://modeledbehavior.com/2010/10/26/why-the-minimum-wage-should-go/    The link for this study actually sent me to the Congressional Budget Office’s study from 1986 and not to the 2007 study it reportedly was quoting.
http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/18/what-happens-when-the-poor-receive-a-stipend/
http://www.progress.org/tpr/martin-luther-king-on-guaranteed-income-social-dividend/ http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/stop-and-frisk_tactics_by_new_york_cops_violated_fourth_and_14th_amendments

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/t/t_e_lawrence.html

http://standingonthesideoflove.org/blog/day-8-the-antidote-to-fear/