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

Advertisements

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.

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

The Subtext was Racism

Last week, Pastor Thomas Linton of Bethel Baptist Church called for all Christian Clergy to gather in prayer because of the racial tensions in the city and in the nation.   Tuscaloosa News reported the following:

Linton, the Rev. Schmitt Moore and William Scroggins say they fear racial tensions in Tuscaloosa might be on the verge of exploding.

So the three preachers — two black, one white — are asking their fellow clergy and Christians in Tuscaloosa County to pray not once but in a ceaseless and unified prayer for all of Tuscaloosa.

They said they believe through the power of prayer, race relations in Tuscaloosa County will finally be what they should.

“Fifty, 60 years ago, we were facing similar problems as we are today,” said Linton, 83, the pastor of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. “The Lord reminds us, ‘if my people turn from their wicked ways and come to my house to pray, I will heal their land.’ I think too many times we leave him out. He’s depending on his people to unify this division. We’re hoping that the government, the president, Congress, the mayor, or someone does it. But God said if ‘my people come together, I will heal their land.’ ”

Last night, about 50 clergy and lay people gathered to pray at Bethel Baptist Church.  And while I am not Christian Clergy, I decided in the spirit of unity to join them in prayer.  I am not sure they accomplished what they set out to do.  Racial tensions were not mentioned once in the prayers offered from the pulpit.  I am not sure why they feared to address it head on–it seemed to be subtext. There were good things said and to see a group of white and black clergy together in one room praying was huge.  HUGE.  The most segregated hour is still Sunday morning.

Rev. Joel Gorvette of First Wesleyan Methodist spoke and gave a good analogy of the Christian body.  He spoke of the pro-bowl games where the best players play a game.  They each wear the same jersey but their helmets are different.  The helmets reveal their true allegiance to the team that pays their way.  He asked where were our allegiances.  Since this was a Christian crowd, he said the jersey people wore declared they were on team Jesus but the helmets revealed their denominations–First Wesleyan, Bethel Baptist, Church of God, etc.  All with different doctrines and beliefs.  But the jerseys worn declared something else.  Were we going to play with our full heart on this team or were we going to hold back because our allegiance was to our denomination?    I understood this to mean that we had to place our values, our core values, our core faith, above our doctrines if we were to come together and end racism.  This was stated explicitly but the purpose for our gathering and the reason why we needed to focus on Team Jesus was  buried in the subtext.

Rev. Randy Fuller of New Beginning Family Worship Center spoke.  This man.  He started out well, “Where is our [clergy’s] burden?  Where are our tears in what is happening in this city, nation? What has to happen to get us to pray–we don’t cry out anymore–we don’t rend our hearts / our garments.”  I was right with him.

If the clergy are not crying out against racism then how can we expect our congregations to cry our against racism. Again, no mention of racism but it was in the subtext, right?   We have not cried out as a community regarding the atrocities against young black men.  We have not stormed the gates of heaven or city hall for racial justice in our criminal justice system.  A report recently came out that stated black jurors were 82% more likely to be dismissed in Henry and Hale Counties in Alabama when the death penalty was a possible outcome.  We have prisons beyond their maximum capacity and the majority are disproportionately black.   Where are our tears!?  Our burden?  We, whites, are seemingly unaffected so it does not occur to us that families are in deep emotional turmoil over the blatant racism against their members.  There is an air of resignation/ of acceptance that violence is the way of the world. How many times have we heard folks state, “They must have done something wrong otherwise the cops would not have shot them.” How many times our silence gave assent. We must become affected by the plight of others being trampled upon.  We must feel the burden and the raw rubbing against our necks caused by the yokes of white supremacy and privilege. If we do not feel the pain and the heart wrenching that racism has caused in our nation then how can we pray?

But that is not where Randy Fuller was going.  He then stated the unconscionable. He called our trans-children confused and tormented by Satan.  He called them tools of Satan and demon filled.  Tears welled up in my eyes. My heart broke.  Here is my burden.  Children created by a loving God being called demon possessed.  I thought of Jesus’ saying, “Let the Children come unto me.”  I thought,  how do we love the least of these?  How do we create unity when we are quick to tear down and demonize those we choose not to understand?

Rev. Fred Schuckert of Grace Church spoke about the need for repentance.  He echoed that we had to know our burden in real heart rendering ways before we could repent–turn to go in a different way. And since I was focusing on the subtext, the true text that shall not be named aloud in this forum, my thoughts went to Martin Luther King who stated we  become adjusted to the injustices. We must become maladjusted to our religious bigotries.  We must become maladjusted to white supremacy.

Martin Luther King called out to people to stop being adjusted to the civil rights injustices of his day.  We have our injustices today.  And it is easy to be adjusted, to think these are normal acceptable behaviors from our police shooting unarmed black men to the dismissing of black jurors, to the extraordinarily harsh and prolonged sentences in prison.  It is easy to be adjusted.  But we must be maladjusted to these injustices.  We must see how our being adjusted to religious bigotry and hatred is harmful to our beings as well as those we inflict it upon.  We must see how our indifference to the violence committed by our police  system has contributed to increased violence in the streets. We must not adjust to this as the new normal.  We must not seek to silence those who speak up about our being adjusted to this systemic onslaught against Black America.  We must listen to our present day Prophet Amos’s, and Jeremiah’s and Elijah’s who come in the form of Black Lives Matter, Presente, NDLON, SONG. We must listen.

As Rev. Schukert stated in order for us pray from the heart of our beings, we must repent [subtext: of our own complicity to the system]; only then can we truly intercede in prayer to find the solutions in word and deed to heal our city/our nation.  And I believed him.

Making a Case for Darwin Day as a Recognized UU Holiday

I recently attended the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Oxford, Mississippi.  The theme of their service was Darwin Day. Charles Darwin, Unitarian, is credited for developing what is now known as the theory of evolution.  He wrote the book On the Origin of Species in 1859 which revolutionized our understanding of creation.  During this service, I came to the realization that Unitarian Universalists could embrace the idea for a recognized holiday in honor of Charles Darwin, if not in the secular world, then certainly in our faith tradition. Just as Unitarian Universalists celebrate Christmas to honor our Christian heritage, Darwin Day would celebrate our Humanist heritage.

Since 2006, Michael Zimmerman has been the proponent of the Clergy Letter Project which seeks to have congregations hold  a service that would highlight that science and religion are not opposed to one another.  And more emphatically that the theory of evolution can be embraced by people of faith.  Michael Zimmerman recently wrote an article for the UU Humanist Association urging Unitarian Universalist clergy to sign on to the UU Clergy Letter; which is parallel to the Christian Clergy Letter.  I am a proud signatory of this letter. There is also a Christian Clergy Letter, Rabbi Letter, and Buddhist  letter.

The Unitarian Universalist version of this letter begins by stating:  As Unitarian Universalists, we draw from many sources, including “Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life,” and “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” While most Unitarian Universalists believe that many sacred scriptures convey timeless truths about humans and our relationship to the sacred, we stand in solidarity with our Christian and Jewish brothers and sisters who do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. We believe that religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

I am in full agreement of this letter and I urge my colleagues to consider adding their signatures in support of Michael Zimmerman’s efforts to demonstrate that religion and evolutionary biology are compatible.

But the reasons given in this letter are not the reasons that dawned on me as I listened to the speaker at the Oxford congregation on Sunday that we need to create a UU holiday honoring Charles Darwin’s work.  The reasons given above are certainly  a part of my reasoning. But what began circulating around in my brain as I listened on Sunday was how important and relevant a holy day such as Darwin Day would be for Unitarian Universalists given our nation’s shift towards religious fundamentalism. Such a declaration would sharpen the contrast of where we stand on matters of faith and science in a culture that is increasingly anti-science.  And to be clear, being anti-science is not just reserved to conservative religious fundamentalists, the recent outbreak of measles at Disney Land is the responsibility of anti-science liberals.

In addition to the sources and the principles of our covenanted association, Unitarian Universalists have proclaimed that truth and revelation is forever unfolding. Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson we propose that not one book can contain the whole of wisdom and revelation for all time.  Here in the works of Darwin is evidence of that unfolding revelation.

For Unitarian Universalists to embrace Darwin Day as a holiday not only honors the compatibility of science and religion as the Clergy Letter Project seeks to do but also highlights one of the unique distinctions of our faith–the belief that  revelation is unending and is revealed through a variety of sources–including scientific study. Our faith is based on a heritage of revelation from its earliest days to the current day. From their earliest beginnings, Unitarians and Universalists have evolved in their understandings of truth.  Today we have a statement of principles and sources for our faith which we have amended and changed as new revelations have become known.

As a people of faith, we have often been at the vanguard of liberal thought and social change–even while the majority of our members may have resisted these very changes. But individuals began with an idea, a revelation if you will, that grew into a movement that not only transformed our faith but the society in which we live.  Whether it was abolition of slavery (Theodore Parker), women’s equality (Judith Sargent Murray), Transcendentalism (Ralph Waldo Emerson),  women’s suffrage (Susan B. Anthony), or ending racism (Mary White Ovington); Unitarian Universalists have been at the vanguard of these transformational movements.  Given that Charles Darwin was a Unitarian, places Unitarian Universalists at the vanguard of the revelation that all life on this planet has a common ancestry and origin. Our faith has added to wisdom of the ages.

The movement to have Darwin Day recognized as a holiday is also an international one. International Darwin Day will inspire people throughout the globe to reflect and act on the principles of intellectual bravery, perpetual curiosity, scientific thinking, and hunger for truth as embodied in Charles Darwin.  This mission is spearheaded by the American Humanist Association.  Darwin Day is celebrated on every continent with various events.  This year’s observance of Darwin Day during the week of February 12th, the 206th birthday of Charles Darwin, has 151 events registered at their website. The mission statement of International Darwin Day is a statement that succinctly reflects Unitarian Universalist principles.

The Clergy Letter Project–Evolution Weekend has 459 congregations registered as participating in their event.  Sixty eight of these congregations were Unitarian Universalist offering an impressive 15% of the congregations listed. Impressive because we are such a small association in comparison to other faiths listed.  But if my experience at the Oxford, Mississippi congregation is any indication, there are many more UU congregations celebrating Charles Darwin’s ideas than are registered on this site.

Attend a Darwin Day event, honor our Unitarian Universalist faith by declaring that revelation is unending and new truths are being made known about the universe in which we live and new truths are being revealed as to how we might live justly with our neighbors on this planet.

Is Justice a synonym for Vengeance?

Our second Unitarian Universalist principle reads We … covenant to affirm and promote:  Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. On Sunday, I visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tupelo, MS; a small lay led congregation.  The speaker was discussing this principle by asking questions about the meaning of these words.

One comment made was that when we hear people in society demand justice it is usually in the context of condemning the person who has grievously wronged another. Is this justice?  We want justice for Michael Brown.  We want justice for Eric Garner.  We want justice for the hundreds of others unarmed men and women whose lives were cut short by police officers.  Is it justice, true justice, to bring the cops to trial and seek condemnation for their actions?  I understand the emotional surge behind these cries for justice.  I understand the racism behind these brutal acts of violence.  But will prosecuting a handful of police change the system that targets young black men?  Will it bring justice and healing to the heart of the families who lost their children, husbands, brothers, too young and too soon?

I have read that when families watch the murderer of their loved one executed the pain of grief is not abated by the justice meted out.  I have read they feel a bitterness take firm root in their hearts.  Justice in this manner does not always yield to peace of heart for the survivors of such violence.

I believe the police need to be held accountable and prosecuted for their disregard for another’s life. I simply do not believe that doing so is going to create justice with a capital J because condemning others is not a healing justice. When we scream we want justice, we want those who have committed heinous acts to suffer a severe consequence for their actions. It is not justice we want.  We want blood for blood.  It does not prevent another mass shooting, or terrorist bombing, or even another police officer from exerting excessive force (a twisted euphemism for torture and murder) on an unarmed person. Prosecute yes, but this action does not necessarily create Justice in the system.

My heart grieves that in this country we incarcerate nearly 7 times more blacks than whites. Roughly 9% of our Black young men are in prison. Our nation incarcerates 23% of the world’s prisoners. This is a horrendous wrong that needs to be addressed.  But how do we address it so that not one more young black man is targeted simply because he is wearing a hoodie or walking in his family’s neighborhood with his friends? How does this nation of laws enact justice when the system itself supports injustice?

When we target a specific population for alleged crimes, it is no longer justice that is the motivator but rather the motivation is maintaining power over a population. Power over others is how justice becomes twisted and deformed.  It is this perversion of justice that we are seeing in our nation today.  Convicting with inflated felonies and incarcerating a skewed percentage of a population removes the power of the vote from the population.  This is an act of oppression not justice.  We continue to pass new laws that expand the oppressive weight on a specific population.  The unjust revival of debtor’s prison is part of this expansion of an oppressive weight. This is good news only for the for-profit prisons looking to expand their industry.

Creating a for-profit business around incarceration is not providing justice–it is exploitation. For-profit prisons are an insatiable beast that craves more incarcerations.  So those who believe that the answer to our overcrowded prison system would be to be build more prisons, especially those of the for-profit ilk have a very twisted and deformed sense of justice. These corporations have a need to have laws passed that criminalize more people in order to keep their prisons filled to adequate operating levels. This is not justice, this is creating a market for an industry.

When Al Qaeda hi-jacked passenger jets and slammed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon killing 3,000 people.  We demanded justice.  And in our anger the United States of America invaded two countries to bring justice to the lives lost. In the seeking of justice American and coalition forces lost 8,259 lives and the number of Iraqi’s lost is over 206,000.  Up to another 20,000 Afghan citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in that long war.  But was this really justice or revenge?  It was the latter.  The ongoing struggle of this region to stabilize and rebuild is not going to end any time soon.  Again, we did not mete out justice, we meted out vengeance and created enormous suffering that will endure for generations. We are seeing the consequences of our vengeance with the rise of ISIS.  We exacted suffering 78 times greater than what we experienced and upon the wrong countries if there even was a country that deserved such retribution.

What does it really mean in one of my favorite hymns, We’ll Build a Land when we sing  “where justice shall roll down like waters?” Are we seeking justice or exacting vengeance on our enemies?  In the context of Iraq it was surely the latter.  Vengeance was indeed a terrible swift sword and it cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives before we found and killed the person responsible for that terrorist act. If justice is a synonym for revenge and condemnation, then we have to find another word for our second principle because I don’t think it means what we think it means.

However, when I read our second principle, I think of what it might mean to love my neighbor as myself.  What does it mean to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?  What does that look like in my daily encounters with others?  I look first to the macro level. Am I being as loving as I can be in this moment?  Am I being generous in thought and deed?  Am I seeking to understand rather than be understood?  From here, I expand beyond those I know in my circle to those beyond my circle.  How do my actions relate to the neighborhood? the larger community?  How might I expand this notion of loving my neighbor to the larger community?  Then I begin to think about the systems I live in.  How do these systems limit the way we live?  How do these systems expand our ability to breathe?  How might I work to change these systems to be more inclusive in the ability to breathe free?

Justice then is not the exacting of revenge on a wrong committed.  Justice is a humble act of living day to day.  What does Life require of you?  But to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with this gift of Life.    (Micah 6:8 paraphrased)

 

Ethical Responsibility of Corporations

I am reading Lead with Humility by Jeffrey A. Krames.  It is about the leadership style of Pope Francis.  I barely read through the prologue when I came across a quote by Peter Drucker who wrote in his 1946 book, Concept of the Corporation, the following:  “If a social institution operates in such a manner as to make difficult or impossible the attainment of the basic ethical purposes of society it will bring about a severe political crisis…” 

This quote made me pause.  I have long stated that corporations and businesses are to serve the society and not the society serving the corporations and businesses.  There is a moral and ethical responsibility of corporations to use their entities to uplift the well-being of the society.  Corporations do this by using a portion of their income to provide health insurance, generous vacation time, paid family leave, and wages that allow the workers to have dignified employment and access to good education, homes for their families.  Such a perspective increases worker loyalty to the corporation, increases motivation to create excellent products and services for the corporation, and uplifts the community’s well-being in which the corporation is located.

This has not generally been the philosophy of corporations in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Remember the crash in 2008 that if we didn’t bail out the financial institutions we would have spiraled into a world wide depression.  A crisis that is still rocking countries like Greece seven years later.  Drucker’s quote can be directly applied to this crisis because Wall Street’s greed did indeed create a severe political and financial crisis for everyone.

Drucker’s quote does not seem to be part of the philosophy of the Koch Brothers or the Walton family.  They use their corporations to increase their self-interests of power and influence to bend society towards their likings and image. Koch Brothers plan to spend 889 million dollars on the 2016 elections. This is to bend the government towards their will, not to benefit the welfare of the people.  Imagine the number of scholarships to colleges this could have created for the working poor. Imagine the number of school lunches this could have provided.  Imagine the number medical visits for veterans this could have covered.

The Walton’s Walmart corporation refusing to pay living wages and reduced employee work hours has forced their employees to be below the threshold of Walmart paying for health insurance.  To add insult to injury Walmart has even taken out life insurance policies on its employees so Walmart will benefit in case of death. Even though Walmart eventually paid millions to employees in a class action suit, this practice continues in many corporations and financial institutions.  It would have been wonderful if the family benefited–tax free- as the corporations do when they collect from such a practice. “St. Peter don’t you call me, cause I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

Now if you’re thinking, this is just how businesses are supposed to run in America.  Profit is their bottom line after all.  Think again. This is not how all businesses run and businesses who run differently still make substantial profits.  Take for example Red Frog Events based in Chicago.   Here is a list of their benefits to their employees:  Full medical, dental, and vision for employee and family; unlimited vacation days (that’s right unlimited); One work from home day per week; matching 401K retirement plan; paid parental leave; one month paid sabbatical after 5 years of full time employment.  Red Frog Events has created a culture where the dignity of the employee is supported.

Joe Reynolds, founder of Red Frog Events states his reasoning for unlimited vacation time this way:

Through building a company on accountability, mutual respect, and teamwork, we’ve seen our unlimited vacation day policy have tremendous results for our employees’ personal development and for productivity. There. I said it. I think Red Frog is more productive by giving unlimited vacation days. Here’s why: 

  1. It treats employees like the adults they are. If they’re incapable of handling the responsibility that comes along with having unlimited vacation days, they’re probably incapable of handling other responsibilities too, so don’t hire them.
  2. It reduces costs by not having to track vacation time. Tracking and accounting for vacation days can be cumbersome work. This policy eliminates those headaches.
  3. It shows appreciation. Your employees will need unexpected time off and some need more vacation than others. By giving them what they need when they need it, you show your employees how much you appreciate them and they reciprocate by producing more great work.
  4. It’s a great recruitment tool. We hire a mere one out of every 750 applicants at Red Frog. When you combine fantastic benefits with a positive culture, it’s noticed.

And his rationale for paid sabbaticals this way:

  1. 1. Everyone needs to recharge. Frogs can disconnect for a full month every five years. A month away allows enough time to come back hungry to tackle the next big project.
  2. Appreciation goes a long way. I give tremendous latitude, sabbaticals included, and it’s appreciated. People who love their job perform better.
  3. They gain worldly perspectives. Learning new cultures only helps bring fresh thoughts to the table on your next project.
  4. Valuable family or friend time. Red Froggers flat-out work hard. A month away every five years allows time to reconnect with a loved one.
  5. Going outside of your comfort zone elicits unconventional ideas. Being away for a month breeds creativity. My best ideas come during extended time away.

Yes, Red Frog is not the norm when it comes to treating employees with respect, but I guarantee that their employees are happy at what they do and are willing to do whatever they can to keep their employer happy; including working hard on insuring successful events across the globe.

But more importantly, not having to worry about the stresses that life will throw at a person enables them to be happy in the society at large. They are less apt to go off the deep end and go on a violent shooting spree or come home to kick the dog to vent frustration.Corporations that take care of their employees well-being will in the long run have products and services that are top notch.

Imagine if this was the norm in our society in regards to how we treat our employees what a positive difference in our society there would be. We would not be pushing up against the edge of another financial crisis–because Wall Street has not learned their lesson.  We would not have corporations using money as speech because they would be using money to support the welfare of their employees, the people who make their products and services.  Crime would be down because basic needs would be met. We would not have the get mine first attitude that is rampant in America.  We would all be able to have a life style that was filled with less stress and worries.

I’m not talking about creating utopia.  Utopia is an illusion.  I am talking about extending accountability, mutual respect, and teamwork beyond the companies like Red Frog Events and into being a cultural norm.  That cultural norm is indeed within the realms of possibility.  If one corporation can do it, all corporations can do it.

Pope Francis said it this way:  “It is vital that government leaders and financial leaders take heed and broaden their horizons, working to ensure that all citizens have dignified work, education, and healthcare.”  But as the pontiff also noted, it is not enough to just create structural changes, there needs to be new convictions and attitudes that will sustain such a structural change or sooner or later those structures will become “corrupt, oppressive, and ineffectual.”

Published in: on January 28, 2015 at 3:27 pm  Comments Off on Ethical Responsibility of Corporations  
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Expectance

I posted on our Unitarian Universalist Facebook page this question: Imagine that the world never heard of Jesus or Christianity. And imagine that this December 25th is the birth of a special child destined to ‘save’ the world. What would you expect from this child’s life? The posting had been seen at least 27 times but only one person chose to respond to the question.

While the reasons for not posting by the other 26 people are most likely many and multi-layered, I found the lack of response telling. These past few months have been rather harsh on the American psyche. What we thought true has been proved untrue. What we thought honest has been proved dishonest. What we thought valiant has been proved cowardly and dastardly.

There is much happening today to make one’s heart sink with despair. Will we ever get it right? Will we ever as a nation truly embody our values of democracy, freedom, and justice for all? 2014 will go down in history as a violent year for our nation. We were confronted to see how little we value black lives in this nation. And the truth sent us scurrying to our safety net of stereotypes of the other. We were exposed to the truth of our nation committing unthinkable acts of torture to satisfy the morbid curiosity of two behavioral psychologists who wanted to discover how to impose helplessness and subservience in others. And this truth increased our use of euphemisms. Others commit torture we do enhanced interrogation techniques, EITs because even our euphemisms need euphemisms. Horrendous pills to swallow. How can we continue with all of this misery that we have inflicted on one another?

And then the unexpected happens. Members of this congregation announce the birth of their grandchild. In the midst of despair, a baby is born to bring joy. The mystery continues.

What will the generations say about this birth? Will they say it was on the darkest day of the year that a mighty wind blew a cleansing breath across the land when this child was born in the state of Georgia? Angels appeared in the lightning and thunder calling this child forth into life. And word of the child’s arrival spread across the people faster than the speed of sound and all shouted Hallelujahs! For they have seen the one in swaddling clothes who will bring healing to this land. Future generations will speak of this child’s birth from the perspective of knowing the whole story of their life. Just as people speak of the Christ child’s birth of long ago.

Well, we don’t know what their life will be as they grow in wisdom and stature. And we don’t know what stories will be told about their birth decades from now. But within this newborn lies not just a hope but the very real expectation that lives will be changed because of their being in this world. Lives already have been.

And that is where our hope is restored. We tell the story of Christmas because it is a child who comes forth to teach us about loving one another. The presence of children raises the oxytocin levels in our bodies. Oxytocin is the hormone that bonds mother and child, families, tribes together. It is what makes us a gentler people to each other. The presence of children playing reduces stress. It makes us a more generous people. The celebration of Christmas is not just for the children, adults need to celebrate a child focused holiday as well.

And the basis of hope is there because we do not know how any child’s life will unfold when they are born. The hope is in the potential within the coming days and weeks and years offered to this new child. What experiences will this child have that will nurture them into being loving and kind, brave and honest, ethical in their decisions? The experiences to be had are where all of us come in.

I do not believe that Jesus became the teacher and the transformer of lives by some supernatural force alone. To me stating Jesus became the teacher he was, solely because god willed it so, negates the human potential to evolve into moral and ethical creatures. Such a statement places despair right back into the picture and declares that outside supernatural forces are required to transform humanity. And my stating we each are born with the human potential to be more than we are currently, does not negate the power of faith in a person’s life. The truth is Jesus had parents, and siblings, and aunts and uncles, and cousins like John the Baptist, teachers and mentors that helped shape his life’s path. These lives helped give him the fortitude to stand firm and embody the belief that there was a better way to be than to debase and torture others.

So it is with us. If we are honest with ourselves we each have had someone in our lives; be it for a life time, a season, or a day, whose life example offered us a choice in being who we are today. We are the ones who must hold fast to the values inherent in the premise of loving our neighbors as ourselves and teach these values, embody these values in our daily lives to our children. Perhaps one of our children will grasp the mystery to creating peace and goodwill to all and heal our divisive land filled with racism, greed, and torture. May this season renew our expectancy for what could be and offer us the courage to work towards that vision.

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa by Rev. Fred L Hammond 24 December 2014 (c). 

A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus

This is a story of mystery and intrigue. All stories, even the story of your own life, begin with mystery and intrigue. For no one knows at the beginning of the story how a story will end, no one, not even those living it.

This story begins in a distant land, across the oceans, across a mighty desert, during the 59th year of the Roman Empire founded by Caesar Augustus. He established rule over all the lands that surrounded a mighty sea. He declared a time of peace across this empire as he had subdued all the peoples and tribes who lived within his empire. But there was one province where there was still great unrest, Judea. The people who lived there were a proud people with a belief in an unseen and mysterious God. These people longed to be free of Rome. They wanted self-rule and they longed for a leader who would fulfill this promise. But any such talk of a leader brought the wrath of Rome, which took many forms in those days. An innocent traveler could be doing Rome’s and Caesar’s bidding. So people were afraid of strangers.

It was during this time of uncertainty that Caesar Augustus called for an accounting, a census of all the people in this region. This census included a tax to further burden the people of Judea and to not register and pay the tax would mean fierce punishment. People were angered and resentful of this decree.

Now Joseph and his betrothed, Mary lived in Nazareth but the census required them to leave their home and travel to the town of Joseph’s ancestors, to Bethlehem. Traveling through the Desert Mountains was treacherous in those days and Mary was expecting a child. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, it was time for her give birth.

They looked for a place to stay. But at every inn they received the same reply—no room. Finally, an innkeeper seeing Mary was in labor offered them to stay in the stable behind the inn where there was hay for bedding and shelter. In the wee hours of the night Mary gave birth to her child, whom she called Jesus.

Now none of this story thus far sounds mysterious. But what happens next is indeed mysterious.

In the hills not far away from Bethlehem there were some shepherds keeping watch over their flock of sheep. And a bright light appeared before them and in this bright light was what appeared to be an Angel. Now most people have never seen an angel so the shepherds were filled with fear and trepidation. That means they were quaking in their boots. But The Angel shouted, Do not be afraid. For I bring you news of great Joy for the people for today born this day in the city of David (the Angel was referring to Bethlehem. Angels often speak poetically.) a savior, who will be the messiah. You will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. And suddenly the whole sky was filled with Angels singing Glory to God and peace and goodwill toward all people. Then the angels vanished, just like that. (snap fingers) The shepherds still very much in shock decided they should go to where the babe was born. When they saw the child just as the angel had said, they bowed deeply before the child.

But that is not all that happened when this child was born. There was yet another mysterious thing to happen. Wise ones known as the Magi were scanning the heavens for a sign to offer them hope in these treacherous days. And a new star appeared in the heavens. They saw this star as an omen of a great person being born who would lead them to new freedom and decided to travel from the east to offer their respects to this new leader. As they drew near this new star in the heavens seemed to rest directly over the place where this new child was born. They brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts they presented to the child. They also bowed down before this child and declared him a king of Kings. How very odd for strangers to give such gifts and to say such things to a child born in poverty, born in a stable.

Word of this child’s birth spread through the region and had reached the ears of the magistrate of the province. He wanted to find this child so he too could pay his respect but Joseph had a mysterious dream which warned him that the magistrates’ intentions were to harm the child. And Joseph, Mary, and the child fled to a neighboring province until it was safe to return. All of these events were very mysterious. Mary, the mother of this child, held these mysterious events in her heart. She wondered what is in store for this child with such a mysterious beginning to summon angels and wise ones. And we wonder today at each new birth what wondrous things will unfold through their lifetime.

Written by Rev. Fred L Hammond (c) 2014

Published in: on December 25, 2014 at 10:43 am  Comments Off on A Retelling of the Birth of Jesus  
Tags: , , , , ,

Michael Brown

On Monday, August 25th, I conducted a memorial service as an act of solidarity with the Brown family in Ferguson, Missouri. Here are the words I shared with my congregation:

I speak as a white man who, while I believe I am fairly well educated regarding racism and white privilege in America, I confess I am not heart educated.  I could tell you logically and calmly the whats and wherefores of racism and white privilege in this nation.  But I could not tell you emotionally the detrimental effects of white privilege, because I am so well enveloped in it. Sometimes, I do not even know I have received it until much, much later. And only if, I am lucky enough to even reflect upon it.  White privilege is like an anti-body that automatically removes any social discomfort that might exist around me.  I don’t pay attention to the anti-bodies in my immune system until they no longer work.  And then, and only then, do I notice that I had anti-bodies working to keep me isolated from dis-ease.

White privilege is the anti-body for White people in this nation.   This is something that white liberals can talk about but don’t have the heart knowledge to develop the conviction to act against it.  And it is something that white conservatives deny for the same reasons.  When whites are held in the embrace of White Privilege anything that goes against that experience seems like a contrived falsehood.  Events like this are not in white people’s experience.

It is therefore vital for whites like me to listen to the stories and experiences of my neighbors who are people of color. To hear their first-hand accounts of not receiving the privilege that I am so very accustomed to. That is a struggle because human nature says; if it is not in our experience then it must therefore be false. This explains why people, white people in particular, were so quick to look for evidence, even made up evidence, to discredit the story of Michael Brown’s death.  The experiences of the people of Ferguson are not generally the experience of white people anywhere in the country—exceptions aside. It must be false, white’s state emphatically, because that is not our experience.

Michael Brown’s death is not an isolated event. As some would have us believe.  It is not a localized event as if there is some quirk in Ferguson that gave rise to his death. It is not a justified event as the Ferguson Police have tried to indicate by smearing Michael Brown’s character.

This is a frequent event. So frequent that children of Black parents are taught differently in how to respond to police than children of White parents.

One white mother wrote a blog about her white privilege as a mother of her three male sons.  If you are white, imagine if these statements were not true for you and what would you do about it as she describes her experience of white privilege?

“I will not worry that the police will shoot [my sons].

If their car breaks down, I will not worry that people they ask for help will call the police, who will shoot them.

I will not worry that people will mistake a toy pistol for a real one and gun them down in the local Wal-Mart.

In fact, if my sons so desire, they will be able to carry firearms openly. Perhaps in Chipotle or Target.

They will walk together, all three, through our suburban neighborhood. People will think, Look at those kids out for a walk. They will not think, Look at those punks casing the joint.

People will assume they are intelligent. No one will say they are “well-spoken” when they break out SAT words. Women will not cross the street when they see them. Nor will they clutch their purses tighter.  

My sons will never be mistaken for stealing their own cars, or [breaking and] entering their own houses.” [i]

This is the world that Michael Brown grew up in and it is the world that killed him.  This is our world, too.  The whiteness of your skin does not excuse you from responsibility in this world.  Being White is no excuse for not knowing that this is the reality our neighbors of color experience daily. And not just in faraway communities like Ferguson.  These experiences are happening in Tuscaloosa and across the state of Alabama as well.

When the Valedictorian of Central High cannot pass the entrance exam to enter the University of Alabama, we have a problem that screams injustice. When whites enroll their children into private academies instead of Tuscaloosa public schools, we have a problem that screams injustice. When police follow a group of black teens for no apparent reason in the West End we have a problem that screams injustice.  When a black student states that he dropped out of school at 16 because that was normal and expected of him, we have a problem that screams injustice.

It is up to us to determine what will be the legacy of Michael Brown’s disrupted life.  We can mourn his passing, say it’s a shame, and continue on, hardening our hearts to the reality that is demanding redress or we can get angry like the people of Ferguson have gotten angry.  We need some anger about his death.  We need some anger over the fact that he will not be the last unarmed person to be shot in 2014.  There will be others unless we stand up, Black and White, Latino and Asian, together to say no more.

Black lives matter.

Every faith group in Tuscaloosa should be screaming this from their pulpits as a conviction of their faith principles. We can no longer abide with white privilege and racism in this community, in this state, and in this nation.  Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for non-violent action, he did not advocate for calm as the clergy did in Ferguson.  There is a major difference.  One is an act of moral courage to evoke a response and change in the system of oppression and the other is a numbing drug administered by order of the system of oppression.

Which tact shall we take in honoring Michael Brown’s memory?  May we come together as a community to strategize how we are going to address these issues before another unarmed shooting happens and it is here in Tuscaloosa County.  Blessed Be.

[i] http://manicpixiedreammama.com/a-mothers-white-privilege/