Call to Worship (Rev Denis)
As you settle into this space
This nurturing, embracing semicircle
Beneath this beacon that shines down upon us
As we shine our light out into the world through it,
I’d like to welcome you here with an invitation to transformation
An invitation to move toward a vision of a new world:
The words, Frederick Buehner:
Listen to your life.
See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.
In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness:
Smell your way to the hidden holy heart of it
Because in the last analysis
All moments are key moments
And life itself is grace.
May this time,
May this place
Be filled with the grace that allows us to transform ourselves and each other.
Reading Joan McDermitt
Our reading this morning is from a speech by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that has come to be known as “I Have A Dream.” It was delivered at the march on Washington DC on August 28, 1963.
We have … come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality -- 1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.
Prayer for Yom Kippur (Rev Denis)
The Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Tuesday. Yom Kippur is the highest of holy days for Jews, a day in which adults fast and atone for their sins…their personal sins and their communal sins.
Sarah Barasch-Hagans is a Rabbi affiliated with Rabbis Without Borders.
She is part of the Reconstructionist tradition of Judaism, which, it might surprise you to learn, is so similar to Unitarian Universalism that for a while back in the 70’s, the two were talking about merging into one faith. The sticking point was what the name of the new faith would be.
Rabbi Barasch-Hagans offers this racial justice prayer for Yom Kippur. I share it with you this morning knowing that the God described in the prayer is not a God that most of us believe in.
But it is offered in a spirit of seeking to understand the faith experiences of those whose work in the world is so closely related to our own:
For the racism we allowed because we felt compelled by fears for our safety if we acted,
and for the racism we allowed willingly, with no justification offered.
For the racist statements we said in private
and for the coded language we said in public.
For the racism committed accidentally
and for the racism committed intentionally.
For the racism that we allowed by failing to take proactive steps to end oppression
and for the racism that we allowed by failing to speak up after violence was perpetrated.
For the racism we committed through our actions
and for the racism we committed through our inaction.
For our racism of which we are conscious
and for the racism that lives in our subconscious.
We have already told You of our racism that we have the awareness to recognize,
And you already know of our racism that we still cannot see.
As it is said, “Adonai our God knows all that is difficult for us to see,
and what is clear to us, and to our children forever.
To do all of these mitzvot in this Torah.” (Deut. 29: 28)
And David your servant said before You:
“I cannot understand all of my mistakes.
Please cleanse me of the sins in my subconscious.” (Ps. 19:13)
God, you are merciful and receive those seeking to become allies.
From the beginning, you have promised us that we could do teshuvah.
So we plead with you to accept our return—
That, for all the people who commit to justice
and to leaving their racism in the past,
you will forgive them
so that they may keep turning
inward and outward, and always toward truth.
“Ridding Myself of the Scourge” Joan McDermitt
I grew up in Cleveland Heights in the 1940s and 50s in an atmosphere of benevolent white privilege. My mother would not tolerate overt racism by pointing out things not to do or say when we were exposed to racist remarks or actions of others. On the other hand my exposure to minorities was primarily through occasional domestic help. They were always called by their first name but treated respectfully with appreciation. Mom would serve them a hearty lunch at the table with the family.
As a young adult I took a class in 1970 at the University of Pittsburg from a black professor who could have been a clone of Barak Obama on the sociology of race relations. He explained how the police in Pittsburgh isolated the black communities from one another after the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 which prevented riots in that city. This class raised my awareness of racism and I became fascinated by its role in our history and culture. I soon began to recognize examples I had not noticed before in my everyday life.
As I continued my pursuit of an MA in history at Cleveland State I was given permission to take a seminar class in American Black Literature in 1973. When I arrived the first day the professor was standing in the middle of a common area handing out the syllabus to about a dozen students diverse in age, sex and race. He was a very large and very black man with a bushy beard wearing a dashiki and sandals. He did not even assemble the group or have us sit down together. He just provided the assignments and scheduled or first discussion. His parting works were: “ By the way I just want you all to know I hate white people.” Stunned I walked away anguishing over how I could possibly get an “A” in this class. I needed an “A”.
I was dropped into a world I never imagined, an authentic American world totally alien to my own. Black American literature vividly took me there by intense reading of authors like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Eldridge Clever and Malcolm X as well as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King. Lively discussions stretched my vision further twice a week.
By the time I finished this class I knew racism was the responsibility of my white American community. I asked my professor, who had claimed to hate me that first day, what I could do to help. He emphatically stated I needed to work within my white community. I have spent the last forty plus years working on this as I had the opportunity. I created and taught a class in white Bay Village High School for ten years on African American History, being a hands on aunt to my six biracial nieces and nephews which included defending my sister’s choices to the rest of my family, going out of my way to be kind and welcoming to members of the black community as well as expressing my disagreement with racist comments made by friends and family. This has been the most difficult of all these efforts. I thought I had rid myself of the scourge of white privilege.
This spring coming home from Florida to Ohio I stopped in South Atlanta for the night. I picked a modest motel that did not charge much extra for my cat. After all I was just stopping for the night and leaving first thing the next morning. The young woman at the desk was white with many tattoos, piercings and purple hair. She told me to take the key to check out the room to see if I wanted to stay there. I had never experienced that kind of offer and became wary, but went along with it. As I walked to the room I realized she was the last white person I was to see there. The room seemed fine after I passed a number of people hanging around in a friendly casual way. They did notice me however as I walked by them in the parking lot. I had a little talking to myself as I checked the room. So this is how they feel all their life as they navigate my white world. I resolved to walk the walk of my frequent talk all these years. Everything went fine for the next twelve hours or so and I became a better person.
This work is harder than I thought, but I do believe it is worth it. This opportunity offered us UUs to be on the leading edge in this country to rid it of white racism is an exciting challenge. I do think that America will rid itself of what has been called our original sin when we reach a critical mass of white Americans who will not tolerate the bigotry that occurs around us. This is my vision for our country and we UUs can help lead the way.
Sermon Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul
Hartford, Connecticut in 1966 looked the way a lot of cites did in the United States back then, with expansion in the defense industry around World War 2.
There were basically two kinds of people: African Americans and other black folks; and recent immigrants. Some fell into both categories. And pretty much everyone lived in a neighborhood surrounded by people like themselves, most centered around a house of worship.
Cities, to varying degrees, were in turmoil, still reeling from the Brown v. Board of Education decision twelve years earlier that required desegregation of schools. White flight was in full swing.
My parents were pretty unaware of white flight. If they did see what was going on, they didn’t completely understand it. They came from Quebec, Canada, where just about everybody was white, where social hierarchy had more to do with religion and language than skin color.
The only thing they knew of black folks when they moved was the story my great aunt told about her convent’s mission trip to the southern States: the shock and horror of seeing separate and very unequal public accommodations like restrooms, hotels and restaurants.
We lived on Zion Street in the Roman Catholic parish of St. Anne’s, where all masses were offered in French. When I was a year old, we moved to the working class suburb of Enfield, not to get away from black people,
but to have a little house with a little yard my brother and I could play in. My parents wanted a piece of the pie they came here for. They worked hard for that down payment, and had no idea they were given a privilege black Americans didn’t get: an FHA subsidized loan outside of a redlined district.
My parents worked hard to give me an incredible gift. They sent me to a world class private art school, Rhode Island School of Design in Providence,
where I made friends with people from New York, Singapore, Bangkok, Johannesburg, London and Vancouver.
Providence was an incredible place to be. The East Side neighborhood where Brown University and RISD intertwined had an international feel to it. I shared spaces with the children of Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, and Paul McCartney. The whole city was the most diverse place I’d ever seen, a daily cocaphany of languages and music.
Any day of the week, I could be in my car at a red light and hear the world coming through a variety of radios.
Except on Sunday. Something amazing happened every Sunday. WBRU, the Brown University radio station, aired an all-day program called the “360-Degree Black Experience in Sound.” All day long they played Deniece Williams, Miles Davis, Eartha Kitt, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Cameo.
On Sunday, everywhere you went, everyone was tuned to WBRU.
On the streets, there were so many speakers pumping out WBRU that it was like the biggest R+B concert you’d ever been to. Every Single Sunday.
The only thing I never understood about it was the name. It felt to me like a 180-degree experience in which a whole lot of white people got to venture into a world they didn’t usually get access to. For that one day, the minority got to dominate. It seemed to me then like we all got to do an about face, and move in the same direction.
In my third year at school, I did the of what my parents did, and bought a house in the inner city, in the neighborhood of South Providence, a fixer upper that barely fit on its urban lot. I spent two consecutive summers listening to WBRU, stripping 100 years worth of wallpaper, skimcoating and painting, to the beat of Cameo’s “back back forth forth, back back forth forth.”
It was a funny house. It was built in 1901, the exterior still in the Colonial Revival style of the Victorian Era, with ionic columns, decorative urns,
and balustraded balconies. But inside, it was like three ranches houses stacked on top of each other. It had been stripped of detail, optimistically modernized just before Brown v. Board of Ed, its owners unaware of what was to come. Within a year, there were three of us living in those apartments, the only white people on our street.
It was also a funny neighborhood. Funny isn’t the right word. It was tragic. The schools were terrible, the hospitals turned people away, there were no grocery stores,
only liquor stores and fast food joints. Every block, including ours, had at least one crack house and one abandoned house used on Sundays by people from the suburbs to illegally dump unwanted mattresses fake-leather couches.
When you stopped next to those folks at red lights, they were the ones not listening to “360-Degree Black Experience in Sound,” their windows up and doors locked. They just wanted to dump their junk and get out.
The thing that made the neighborhood hard to live in was guests. In those days before cell phones, they’d call before leaving home, to let me know their estimated time of arrival and request that I be out front waiting to open the driveway gate and escort them into the house.
On schedule, I graduated from RISD. Tired of the sirens and the volume, I moved to the edge of a quiet town in Western Massachusetts, where I was an outsider because I couldn’t afford either of the country clubs. It was isolating. Depressing, despite the manicured lawns and fresh faces.
One Sunday, as I was walking my dogs, being ignored by everyone I passed, I realized why that WBRU program was called the “360-Degree Black Experience in Sound,” and not the “180-Degree Black Experience in Sound.”
It may have given me what felt like a full immersion experience in black music, the same way it felt like a full immersion experience to live in that black neighborhood.
I was Introduced to Miles, Eartha and Stevie over the air the way I got to know Charlene and Johnny and Mrs. Whetstone on the sidewalks. But on Monday, I went back to NPR for the rest of the week. And at the end of my two years in South Providence, I went back to the suburbs.
Both were 360-degree experiences, because I went right back to where I had been before. Unchanged. I was unchanged by South Providence, and South Providence was unchanged by me.
Actually, South Providence was changed by me. I fixed up that old Colonial Revival, and sold it to another white buyer.
I was a gentrifier.
And, I was changed by South Providence. Because it forced me to see something that changed me. I saw the injustice of a system that allows people to use predominantly black neighborhoods as dumping grounds for garbage, chemicals, and air pollution.
A system that targets the poor disproportionately as a market for tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. And as a student of architecture and urban design while there, I learned the history of zoning, lending and transportation planning that drew lines around black neighborhoods as containment zones.
I learned that I had choices about where I could go, choices that weren’t available to everyone.
So, I was changed. Not 180 degrees changed, but maybe a degree or two. Maybe my time in south Providence was a 358-degree black experience. If I’m lucky.
But, it’s been thirty years since I left. The world is different, and the way we talk about everything from race to gender to sexuality to poverty to policing has changed. Tarana Burke got men thinking about how men treat women and their own role in violence. Colin Kaepernick got white people thinking about how black folks experience this nation different from white folks and others.
Rev. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech 3 months before Jack Kennedy was assassinated, and five years before King himself was killed. The nation’s cities seemed to erupt overnight into fiery protest of things never changing. Neighborhoods like South Providence were destroyed. That’s when the grocery stores left and the desolation began. The nation returned to business as usual, and the rude awakening has come, but probably not asking imagined. It’s come in quiet protest over taking the knee.
I wonder if you could share with us the poem you shared with the Seventh Principle group on Thursday? The poem is by Andrew Freborg, a US Army Veteran who ran for the Oregon legislature as a libertarian:
I stand to honor the promise the flag represents. You kneel because that promise has been broken. I stand to affirm my belief that all are created equal, and to fight alongside you for that promise. You kneel because too few stand with you. I stand because we can be better. You kneel to remind us to be better. I stand to honor all that have fought and died so that we may be free. You kneel because not all of us are. I stand because I can. You kneel for those who can't. I stand to defend your right to kneel. You kneel to defend my right to stand. I stand because I love this country. You kneel because you love it too.
There’s something very moving to me about this poem. It conveys understanding that there are differences in our experiences that elicit different reactions in us, that we interpret symbols differently
The poem seems to say, “I understand your peaceful protest,” and – I might be reading too much into this – I’ve been changed by it. Even if Mr. Freborg wasn’t changed by the protest, he’s clearly trying to change the minds of others.
Change is happening. Even if it’s small change. 2 degree change like the one that took more than two years to happen in me.
I can’t change making money in south Providence,
or retreating to the suburb afterward. And though I wouldn’t be a gentrifier again, I feel no guilt. I did what I could with the resources and knowledge I had at the time. I learned something in the process, in relationship with my neighbors, even if it was never much more than chatting over the fence as we all shared the same Sunday radio experience.
If I had to do it over again, I’d be more a part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I’d invite people in. I’d show up at the local events.
But the memory of that time in that neighborhood made me very sympathetic the first time I heard of Colin Kapaernik taking the knee, and for that I’m grateful.
I find myself wondering what it will take for all of us to change. I know we can’t all change 180 degrees because we can’t undo the lives that have made us who we are at this moment. We can’t erase history. We can’t change the color of our skin or other people’s prejudices about us, positive or negative.
But we can be in relationship with our neighbors. We can invite them in and show up for their events. And in places like Kirtland, places where virtually everybody seems the same, we can expand our definition of neighbor to include …. Well … everybody, from Mentor to Ashtabula, to Collinwood.
It’s the only way, I think that we can fulfill Rev King’s dream that he described as “deeply rooted in the American dream,” his “dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Whether we rise to honor the promise the flag represents, or kneel because that promise has been broken.
Hymn #169 We Shall Overcome
During the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, the words to many black spirituals were changed to indicate unity and cohesion. “I Shall Overcome” became “WE shall overcome.”
But in early spirituals, sung by enslaved people as they worked and worshipped, “I” was never meant to signify only one person, the singer, but instead to mean everyone who has ever been oppressed and sings the song. As this song was adapted, and set to a different tune named for Martin Luther King, it was meant to include white folks and others who haven’t known the black experience.
Still, there is often a feeling that white people, who haven’t known the same kind of oppression, don’t have the right to sing “We Shall Overcome.” So I invite you this morning to sing this song this morning reflectively, meditatively, aware that we all have different experiences, and that the thing most of us – dare I say all of us – want to overcome is our fear of the other, our long history of only dipping our toes into the lives of those different from ourselves, only to return to our own unknowning.