Crossing Over and Coming Back

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, September 29, 2019

A year ago, Diane Brokvist gave me this book of essays by Ta-Nehisi Coates about the experience of black people in America, and our history of racism and white supremacy. I read it this summer, and when I did, the thought came to me: I could preach about racism and white supremacy every month here.

Because this book shook me up; it opened my eyes wider to the vast racial divide in America; the many ways the deck is stacked against people of color. Especially against African Americans, who were brought here as slaves starting in 1619 and even after emancipation, suffered from Jim Crow segregation in the south, and racist laws in the north.

Where I went to seminary anti-racism work was central to the curriculum, because that school understood how our culture of white supremacy shapes everything in our country. But when I started working as a parish minister I wondered how to do this work with folks. If it makes you uncomfortable, or if you find it disturbing, you can just walk away, or not show up! You have that freedom. Where I went to seminary, we had no choice about this—we were told, “If you’re not willing to engage with this work, then do us all a favor and don’t come here.” I’m grateful I didn’t have a choice, because doing that work, having to dive into the deep end, to borrow an image from Sophia’s great sermon last Sunday, it was both hard and liberating.

So I wondered how to get people to do this hard work, when I didn’t have the power to make them! But things have changed lately, and not for the better. The number of hate crimes has exploded; people feel emboldened to be racist again, to be anti-Semitic, to say hateful things and do harmful things against Muslims and Jews and people of color. These days our unresolved race problem, our deep culture of white supremacy, is so obvious, it’s clear we do need to face it, right?

Reading Ta-Nehisis Coates’ book reminded me that people of color have such a different experience than I do. And this is nothing new. We heard that in Langston’ Hughes poem, how, when it comes to people at the margins, this country has never lived up to its ideals: “America never was America to me.” 

At this moment, some of you may be thinking, “This isn’t why I come to church.” If you’re thinking that, then please hear me: I truly believe that to be a person of faith means we have to look at the world around us, we have to see what is broken, and where people are suffering, we have to ask, “What is needed here? And how can I help?”

You may come here primarily for solace and sustenance; for some peace and comfort and the warmth of community. These are all good things, and we offer ample amounts of them here. But I hope you also come to be challenged, to stretch and grow, to be shaken up even. This is a good place for that too; I hope you feel safe enough here that you can take the risk of change and growth. One of our forebears on the Unitarian side, Ralph Waldo Emerson, put it this way: “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” May this be a place where we can practice being unsettled, at least some of the time.

I had a teacher in seminary who liked to encourage interfaith dialogue. He said it’s a risk to engage in conversation with someone who’s different from you; someone from a different culture, religion, background. Because if you dare to get beneath the polite surface of things, if you engage in honest sharing, then you are going to be changed. My teacher had a name for this, he called it “Crossing Over and Coming Back. And this is what I commend to you today; this kind of faithful risking.

There is a kind of spiritual or cultural tourism, where you enjoy the food and the colorful rituals and costumes, but you don’t get beneath the surface; you don’t learn the meaning behind the rituals, you don’t hear the stories people have to tell. You don't get to know these people, you never call them friends. You may visit, but you go home unchanged.

What I’m talking about is crossing over with an open heart and mind, being open to having your assumptions challenged and changed. Seeing that other people view the world differently than you do. This is life-giving and liberating, and worth the risk. Especially if you identify as white, and that is most of us here, I hope you will consider taking the “Decentering Whitness” class, led by Ken Wagner, that we’re offering here, starting on Monday, October 7. If it intrigues you, and even if it scares you, I hope you will sign up!

There are different levels of engaging with the work of racial justice and reconciliation. It helps to start by learning what you don’t know: getting to know the underside of our history, and there are some good books about this. Then, it helps to engage with others in expanding your perspective, like in that “Decentering Whiteness” class!

After some learning, you can look for opportunities for dialogue with people who are different. Opportunities with enough time and space to engage with people and see things from their perspective. Our long relationship with our neighbors at Calvary Baptist Church offers us the potential for deeper dialogue with people of color, but we have to be careful to not be tourists, to not ask them to do our work for us, or make us feel better about being white, but rather, to learn how to be better listeners and allies.

Once we have educated ourselves and make some connections with people and communities of color, then we will be better able to take positive action. Because we will know better what’s needed, and will be mindful of how to be in relationship. I’m so pleased that our Social Justice Resource Committee has made its overarching goal for this church year for us to be “Allying with Communities of Color.” I can think of no more important goal in this time.

A community leader in Haverhill told me recently that he had been in conversation with Katrina Hobbs Everett and asked her, “Who are your allies in the racial justice work you’re doing?” And she said, “The people at the UU church.” So we already have something of a reputation for showing up, for walking our talk. But there is so much more we can do. And now is the time. 

The title of this book, We Were Eight Years in Power, comes from the time o of Reconstruction, the eight years of multiracial democracy that ended with the return of white supremacist rule. Ta-Nehsi Coates draws a poignant parallel to the eight years with our first black president, and to the white backlash that followed. Coates is not optimistic about the ability of white people to change. History shows that we humans have been reluctant to give up our power, to step back from our places of privilege, to share what we have with others.

But that is precisely what our faith tradition calls us to do. Going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets, who spoke truth to power and saved their harshest criticism for those who lived off the sweat of the poor. Like the prophet Micah who asked, “And what does the Lord require of you?” And answered, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).

And our friend Jesus, who, at the start of his public ministry, stood up to read in the temple, and read this from the prophet Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).

I don’t know how hopeful we can be about the future of our nation. Our history is littered with broken promises and plenty of failures by well-meaning people, who lacked the courage and the will to do what was needed.

And yet, there are some who have made a difference, who took the risk of sticking their necks out, crossing over to an unknown land, and coming back changed, who helped us move a bit closer to the promised land, and in doing so, found their own liberation.

And that is what gives me hope, the invitation to be part of this great transformational work, to be builders of that long-awaited glorious golden city, where wrong is banished and justice reigns. Let this be our faith and our calling; let this be our song:

We are builders of that city,
All our joys and all our groans,
Help to rear its shining ramparts,
All our lives are building stones.

Let’s do something with these lives we have been given—while we can.