Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, January 6, 2018.
We just sang, “There is more love, some where… I’m gonna keep on, ’til I find it….” That song comes out of the African American spiritual tradition. It was created and sung by slaves because it helped them have the to have the hope and courage to carry on, when there wasn’t much reason for hope.
When you sing a song, it’s helps to know where it comes from, who sang it, and why—what their experience was, what their lives were like. So you can give that song and those people the reverence and respect they deserve.
Two weeks from today is our annual Martin Luther King Breakfast with our friends from Calvary Baptist Church, and at the end of the breakfast we’ll sing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It’s a beautiful and moving hymn and I love singing it. I hope that more of us will learn it by heart so we can sing it loudly and well when we gather to celebrate Martin’s vision for America, which in spite of the progress that has been made, is still far from complete.
But those of us who are white, we need to remember, it’s not our song. It was written in 1900 as a poem for black schoolchildren to say as a tribute to President Lincoln, who had freed the slaves, and then it was set to music. The invitation is to be aware of the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation and the unfinished struggle for civil rights in our country, when we sing, “Lift Every Voice.”
There’s a growing awareness in our UU tradition that we have our own work to do around race and culture. We wonder why our congregations aren’t more diverse, why more people of color aren’t attracted to a church like this one. “We welcome everyone!” we say. What we often fail to see is that we have a culture, we have habits and norms, that we may be very comfortable with, that others don’t share. We say we welcome diversity, but how wiling are we to change or adapt our culture? How willing are we to welcome a wider range of ways to worship, and wider expressions of theology and spirituality? It’s one thing to say we welcome diversity. It’s quite another to walk the talk, and to put your money where your mouth is.
We have moments to be proud of, like when UU ministers responded to Martin Luther King’s call and showed up to march with him in Selma. But day in and day out, we haven’t done so well at actually working for diversity, inclusion, and justice.
Our UU tradition is coming to grips with the fact that we are a largely white denomination because we have, for far too long, embraced a culture of whiteness and even white supremacy. We have privileged our white-majority culture in most of what we do. We have mouthed words of diversity while standing against any kind of real change. We have been unwelcoming to those who make us uncomfortable. We have argued with those who have a different experience than what we know. We have made it harder for people of color to serve in our faith. This is what Black UUs tell us.
It may be hard to hear. But it’s true. If you’ve done any of your own work around race, then you know the work is hard and it requires you face you own discomfort in order to stretch and grow. You have to move past that stage of defensiveness, fragility, and self-protection where you say, “But I’m a good person.” Our Universalist theology asserts that we are all good people, or at least we have that potential. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t flawed, and don’t have work to do! The UU congregation in Flint, Michigan created a poster that articulates this hopeful and realistic theology. It says, “You are good. You are loved. You could use a little work. We are in this together.”
So once you realize you have a problem, that you could use a little work, the question is, what are you going to do about it? On the national level, our denomination has committed to a program called “The Promise and the Practice of Our Faith,” and our Board chair Bonnie Floyd has written about it in this morning’s bulletin. This campaign is about holding up and centering the history, the perspectives, the voices, and the leadership of Black people within UUism. It’s about providing support for the group Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. It’s about committing to doing more ongoing work to make our congregation more truly welcoming and accessible to people of color. It’s about walking our talk and putting our money where our mouth is.
Our Board has committed to financially supporting The Promise and the Practice, at a minimum of $10 per member, or $1500. When we meet this goal, our donation will be matched dollar for dollar, doubling our contribution to Black Lives of UU. So we are asking you to give to this important effort, to go up to our Board members who will be visible at coffee hour and talk to them, and make your donation. They will be available for the next few weeks, and you can send a check in to the office if you wish; make it out to the church but just be sure to mark it “Promise & Practice” or “Black Lives UU.” If you can give more than $10, then I hope you will. I’d love to see us go way beyond the suggested minimum amount.
Over the last year or two it’s become obvious that our country still has a race problem. The question is, what are we going to do about it? We have an invitation to do our own work, right here. I hope and trust that we are ready and eager to do more. And I have faith that doing our own work will lead us closer to that place we are longing for and hungry for; that place of more love, more hope, more joy. To that end, let’s hear again some of the words and experience of Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, her call to us in these days. She says,
“The modes of black spirituality that are most powerful, nourishing and nurturing for me aren’t the stomp, shout or song. Instead, I think of the rock, the sway, the bend, the moan, the hum. And I think of these things done in community. I marvel that in the midst of sadness and sorrow, in the midst of feeling the effects of generations of trauma wrought by racism and white supremacy, we can still find joy with each other. We are finding joy in each other.
“I call it Black Joy because I am Black and it is the joy that I have been familiar with my whole life. It is the joy that I have learned from Black people. It is the joy created through our collective healing — our laying down of burdens, to be picked up and shared by our people, our community. This is not joy in spite of suffering — a mask put on to hide pain, an armor put on to push through pain. This is an embrace, holding and soothing us in our suffering. This Black Joy, is joy created through our being together. This Black Joy reminds me that I am not alone, that trouble don’t last always, that I am held and carried forward by a power beyond what I can comprehend.
“I call it Black Joy, but I want to offer it—to the extent that it is mine to offer—to this faith. One of my gifts to Unitarian Universalism is the suggestion that joy is ours. We are the people who commit to justice, equity, and compassion. We are the people who aspire to world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. We are the people who affirm our interdependence with each other and the universe itself. I want to challenge Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists to claim Joy.
“Unitarian Universalist Joy will require a different way of imagining ourselves and a different way of being with each other. Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires making space for… surprise… Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires slowing down to hear the talk of the drum—pausing to move to the rhythms of the drum. Unitarian Universalist joy requires opening to the possibility of the mystical encounter. Unitarian Universalist joy requires embodying this faith differently than many of us are accustomed to.”
From my perspective, we have already started on this way of transformation that Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson is encouraging us to. And we have a ways to go. Are you ready? This is what I want—more depth, more connection, more hope, more love, more joy. Less holding back. Less fear. Less playing it safe. What about you? What do you want for yourself, for your church, for your community and world? And what are you going to do about it?