Whoever You Are (Homecoming)

 

Come, come whoever you are.

There is no more Universalist message. And no more Unitarian Universalist statement of aspiration.

Whoever you are, whatever identities you claim…come.

Bring your imperfections and your failures. Bring your strengths and your dreams for a better world.

Ours is no caravan of despair. Come. Whoever you are.

We liberal religious folks love to focus on pluralism…on our embrace of diversity…racial, cultural, theological. We are all about celebrating the richness of our differences.

Leadership by women is a value. Freedom of gender expression is not to be feared. Black Lives Matter. Rich, poor, Buddhist, Humanist, Hindu…come.

Celebration of diversity is about as close to a creed as we allow.

Let’s be honest, though…that vision of the welcome table is an aspiration, not a reality.

As a faith community, we have made real progress but righteousness is not ground we should try to claim.

I think of how the Unitarians responded when the immigrants began flooding into Boston in the early 19th century. William Ellery Channing, father of American Unitarianism, “knew” he needed to respond. So he raised money from his wealthy congregation and hired a minister to go out and serve the poor immigrant communities. The first Unitarian Community Minister. His name was Joseph Tuckerman.

Tuckerman had failed as parish minister, but he was a natural with the immigrant families near the Boston docks. He visited with them in their homes. Heard their stories and their struggles. We would call it a “needs assessment” today.

Then he, with Channing’s financial support, created the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches, or, affectionately, the Ben Frat. It was one of the first social service agencies in the US. Tuckerman is honored as one of the founders of the social work discipline.

He created more than a dozen…chapels, he called them. But these were not Unitarian Churches. They were schools and social service centers in the poorest sections of Boston.

You know Goodwill Industries? It grew out of one of those chapels. Another became the largest school in the city.

Before coming to Portland, when I left the UUA the first time, I served as minister at the successor of the Benevolent Fraternity. It is called the UU Urban Ministry and it serves the African American and increasingly immigrant Roxbury community, offering afterschool programs for young people. There is also a shelter for victims of domestic violence and support groups of many kinds. I loved the ministry there…primarily because of the kids who were always around.

It is possible to celebrate that groundbreaking effort of service by the early Unitarians. We love to do that. And that is one way to tell the story.

But I can’t forget that Channing created and supported those ministries of service…with the explicit objective of keeping the poor and immigrant population out of his church and the other Unitarian churches of the Boston Brahmins.

It was ok to serve the poor, but not to worship with them.

That is another way to tell our story and to know our history.

So, we cannot approach the work of building Beloved Community with a sense of righteousness.

But we have always fervently believed that the Beloved Community is a possible dream.

Our story is that the arc of the universe bends toward justice, or better said, that it can bend toward justice…with our help.

The Beloved Community is a work in process.

And we have addressed one oppression after another… first abolition of slavery, then the vote for women, dismantling legal racial segregation, Marriage Equality, Gender Identity, ableism…etc. One after the other.

The Beloved Community a bit closer to realization with each success.

We thought we were on a roll. The whole progressive community thought the path was clear…the arc bending toward justice…the Beloved Community coming visible in the distance, its achievement almost inevitable.

Now, of course, we are called to resist a backlash…or a whitelash…that would try to return us to a lost Eden that never existed. A backlash we did not anticipate and did not plan for.

Make America Great Again. The KKK is marching again, with Tiki torches this time. The culture of white supremacy is being celebrated with its embedded patriarchy and heterosexism, with its gender rigidity and its religious bigotry. And violence at its root.

The Answering the Call of Love rally today is an act of resistance. We hope to overwhelm the purveyors of hate with our witness of love.

We will witness non-violently…but this feels like a battle and it is. I am not talking about conflict in the streets…which we will not take part in. I’m talking about the critical battle over which story will prevail. And which story we will choose to live into.

There are strong voices arguing that our focus on identities and the politics organized around those identities have led us astray.

“American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.” I’m quoting Columbia professor, Mark Lilla, who argues for the end of a liberalism grounded in identity.

The liberal obsession with diversity, he argues, has encouraged white, rural, religious America to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group.

His advice? Don’t stress diversity. Stop talking about those bathrooms. Don’t insist on your preferred pronouns. Make it “All Lives Matter.” Reclaim a liberal message that can embrace poor whites…even poor bigoted whites.

Lilla: “…Charlottesville [with its violence and confrontation] is the kind of America that identity politics is calling into being.”

Listen carefully. The argument here is that the focus on diversity, on diversities…has called white nationalism into being.

There are so many problems with his point of view.

White supremacy is not a response to identity politics; identity politics are a response to white supremacy. His argument ignores the reality that white supremacist groups have always been with us, ignores the reality of both the old and the new Jim Crow, the deportation of immigrants and violence against sexual minorities.

Or to say it another way: Whites supremacists have identity politics too. They just call it “politics.”

There are problems with that message in the political realm, even more so in the religious realm.

So, what is our religious message?

Today, ours is a voice of religious resistance. Without doubt. And our commitment to the empowerment of those on the margins could not be more solid.

And as awkward as some of our work on diversity may feel…discussing my preferred pronouns is still not a natural act for me…and some here still wish that All Lives Matter were enough for us to say…

Do you really expect a major change of culture without at least some awkwardness? I will be thrilled if awkward is as difficult as this gets.

Our religious tradition has important things to say.

First, you just cannot claim a Universalist identity and accept second class citizenship for anyone.

But you also cannot write off the haters. We can condemn the hate and the hate speech and the hate violence…but we cannot write off those people.

As Universalist Gordon McKeeman writes, “Since we are all going to heaven (that was the original Universalist promise), we had better begin learning how to live to together down here.”

Second, a Beloved Community just for some…is not a Beloved Community. The Beloved Community is, has to be, can only be beloved if it is for everyone.

Third, the focus on diversity need not divide us. Because the culture that we are working to dismantle presses down on us all, including those of us who are white.

The culture of white supremacy requires us, all of us, to deny that the power of love will ever overcome the love of power.

There is a cottage industry among writers, and especially writers on the margins, who give voice to their most profound dreams in letters to their children, to the next generation. I offer you a few voices from the margins.

James Baldwin is remembered best for his prophetic, The Fire Next Time. But he also wrote to his nephew in a piece entitled “My Dungeon Shook: “You were born in a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. “

Unitarian Universalism rejects that violence and raises a prophetic voice that proclaims there is a better way for us all. That the price of that violence is too high…even for the perpetrators. Our faith knows that we are all worthy of respect and love. Our work will not be complete until everyone can feel that the love we proclaim is real for them.

Ta Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, on the night the killers of Michael Brown were acquitted, goes to his 15 year old son who is weeping. “…I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be ok, because I have never believed it would be ok. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”

The Beloved Community is not guaranteed. We know that the choices we make matter…greatly. And that it is for each of us to find some way to live within the all of both the violence and the love.

A new generation of writers is emerging to challenge and lead us. Edwidge Danticat, in a new collection entitled The Fire This Time, writes a “Message to My Daughters: ”Please know that there will be times when some people will be hostile or even violent to you for reasons that have nothing to do with your beauty, your humor, or your grace, but only your race and the color of your skin. Please don’t let this restrict your freedom, break your spirit, or kill your joy. And if possible do everything you can to change the world so that your generation…will be the last who experience all this. Love deeply. Be joyful. In jubilee. Mom.”

In this church we would add other categories of identity…who we love, whether we walk or roll, the language we speak, our immigration status, gender and gender identity, economic resources…we would add all of the ways that can press us down…all of those ways that are somehow bound together in this culture that oppresses even those among us who are most privileged.

We would include the many ways the world tries to break our spirit and kill our joy.

Because it is that attempt to break our spirit…not some notion of political correctness…that our faith speaks to most clearly and rejects.

And we would join in affirmation that we can change the world. We created it, after all. Why can’t we shape it differently? The oppressive structures of this society were ordained by greed and not by God.

Letters to our children carry our hopes. And our hopes for the legacy we would leave.

“My Distant Children,” UU Minister John Cummins wrote in what he called a Letter to People of the Future, “You will look back on us with astonishment at the truths that stared us in the face, and which we did not see. You will look with wonder at the bright toys we created, and used only for the rape of the planet and one another.

…But know this also, you of the future. Know that even in our slumbers, we dreamed. In our fumbling, shadowed search for mistaken glories, even in our clumsy cruelties, it was for you that we dreamed!

In that far age, in the chrysalis of time, it will be your source of pride that your ancestors, born into a universe without justice or mercy, bethought themselves of justice and mercy, and put them there.

Remember us for this.”

Please.

So, we will not retreat from our work on identity. Nor retreat from our dismantling of this culture which holds us all down.

And, in this church, we will accompany one another.

The Theology of Accompaniment comes to us from the Cuban-American theologian Roberta Goizueta. Our work on immigration justice has been an opportunity to practice it. But it applies to us all.

The verb acompanar in Spanish differs in complexity, texture, and weight from the English ‘to accompany’, which can be used for something as mundane as going to the grocery store with someone. The Spanish word connotes a deeper connection.

Fr. Kurt Messick: “the theology of accompaniment… includes a recognition of the value of human beings regardless of gender [class or category]… It is our task, regardless of our starting point, to walk with, or accompany people. To walk with the [oppressed] does not simply mean a geographic relocation. It means becoming intensely aware of their condition—body, mind, spirit, hope, future—and how these things differ from mainstream western culture.”

It is the difference between providing services to the disenfranchised and breaking bread with siblings.

A theology of accompaniment calls us to move beyond “othering,” beyond tolerating, beyond even embracing. It calls us to honor our siblings as the unique and precious beings that we all are—in our fullness, with all of our identities.

Accompaniment is the religious choice.

Come, come whoever you are. There is a love holding us, as we hold each other. We make that love real as we resist and witness and work…together.

Come, let us accompany one another…whoever we are.

 

Prayer

Will you pray with me?

Spirit of Life and of Love. Great Mystery at the heart of things.
Dear God.

These days when our confidence in easy progress has been shaken,
When our vision of the Beloved Community seems clouded in an uncertain future,
Be with us and help us be with one another.
Let us be clear in our commitment to welcome the human spirit
In each of us, as all that we are.
Spirit of Life, move in our hearts and help our lives take the shape of justice.
Move in our hands so that our actions point us toward the Beloved Community.
Move within us and among us
Let our voices sing your song
As we witness with our lives
That the power of love is stronger
Than the love of power
Let our voices sing your song
As we answer the call of love.

So may it be. And Amen