Sermon: Catching Fire

 

READING

From Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? … Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.”

SERMON

         Annie Dillard offers a good reminder of what is at stake in worship, if we take what we are doing here seriously. If we take it as our task to name and shape that which is of worth, then we should be prepared to be challenged. Our purpose in gathering, after all, is not to hear a pleasant talk and edifying music. We come to wrestle with the deepest and gnarliest concerns that are pressing on our hearts and minds.

 So, I guess I should have expected when we chose the theme of Transformation for worship and small group ministry for the month of April that I would be invited into transformation myself. I offer that by way of explaining why I have decided to abandon the focus I intended for this sermon and instead turn my attention to a troubling concern that has arisen in our movement just in the past few days.

 It centers on one of the most frustrating, befuddling concerns that lie before us as Unitarian Universalists – race. And this time it’s not an incident somewhere out there, but right in our own backyard. Let me set the stage.

 It began as a concern raised about a hiring decision. Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States are organized into five regions, each staffed with people who work with congregations when they need help or are in transition. We are part of the Southern Region, which stretches from Texas to Virginia. Some months ago, the person serving in the lead position in the Southern Region, our region, announced that he would be retiring at the end of June. So, a search was announced for his replacement.

About a week ago the UUA announced that a new regional lead had been hired for our district. He is a minister with some 16 years experience and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees. But the same day the hire was announced a group of 121 ministers and other religious professionals issued a letter saying that they were troubled by one important attribute of this person: he is white. (I was not one of the signers. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the controversy or the letter.)

Why should that be a concern? Well, the signers noted, every other regional lead is also white, as is every person who has ever held that job. Not only that, but so are 10 of the UUA’s 11 department heads. They urged that the UUA to examine its hiring practices, warning that as loudly as we Unitarian Universalists criticize white supremacy, we risk perpetuating it in its hiring practices.

As it happened, the news of this hiring also made its way to an annual conference of UU religious professionals of color called Finding Our Way Home. This group has been exploring ways of supporting ethnic minority UU professionals. There, one of the attendees, a woman who is Chicana Latina and is also a member of the UUA Board, announced that she was a finalist for the regional lead job, but had been told that she was not hired because she was not “the right fit for the team.”

An organizing collective calling itself Black Lives of UU also urged examination of the UUA’s hiring practices. It noted that at the Finding Our Way conference, when UUA President Peter Morales was asked why so many high-level positions were white replied that the UUA needs more qualified minority candidates “in the pipeline.”

What exactly counts as “the right fit,” they asked, and why is it that so often that those deemed “qualified” for higher levels positions are so often white, male, heterosexual clergy? Soon the controversy began to spread across social media. All three candidates for UUA president issued statements calling the controversy “a crisis.”

Morales responded with a letter acknowledging that, as he put it, “we are not where we ought to be in the diversity of staff” but also arguing that the complaints failed to note how much progress had been made in improving the diversity of UUA staff. He also argued that the controversy was a distraction from, in his words, “the larger issue,” which is the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in our congregations.

Morales said he was disturbed to see UUA staff treated as, in his words, “the other.” He accepted that staff should be held accountable, but, in his words, “I wish I were seeing more humility and less self-righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.” He added in an interview that he was bothered that critics described the UUA as a “white supremacist organization.” “If you call us that,” he said, “what do you call the Aryan nation?”

Among the flood of replies on social media were letters from two groups of clergy, one white and the other those of color. The white group repeated their concern with the hiring process and criticizing Morales for seeking to discredit and shame his critics with words like “hysterical” and “self-righteous” while seeking to deflect and diminish their critique.

The ministers of color, who included senior ministers and a former UUA president, said the controversy points to pervasive patterns of behavior at the UUA that, in their words, “favor those who look and act like the majority white culture within Unitarian Universalism while creating disadvantages for those who do not.” This pattern, they said, particularly affects high level positions and is “endemic and fundamentally systemic. It is also heart-breaking.”

The next day, this past Friday, Morales submitted his resignation as UUA President effective the next day, Saturday. He apologized for responding to the criticism in a way that made a bad situation worse, saying, “It is clear to me that I am not the right person to lead our Association as we work together to create the processes and structures that will address our shortcomings and build the diverse staff we all want.”

To place this event in context, this is the first time in the 56 years that the UUA has existed that its president has resigned. That alone could argue for my breaking in and making it a subject of worship. But what makes it worthy of a service centered on transformation is the tough knot at the center of it: white supremacy.

It’s a disease that sits at the center of American society, and, we might as well confess it here, remains deeply entrenched in our faith tradition. And, yes, heart-breaking is the word for it. How can it be after all this time, after all the proud social justice work we’ve accomplished we are still caught up in this? The fact is we are.

And it’s something that at some level I think we all know. We’re quick to deny it when the charge is made because we’re ashamed to acknowledge it. I hear that shame in Peter’s Morales dismissal of the charge that it applies to us. The Aryan Nation, maybe, but us? Well, white supremacy isn’t just Klan sheets and burning crosses. It’s all the ways that white people like me and many of us seek to control the narrative and retain the privileges that keep whites in charge.

Confronted we’ll dismiss, deny and change the subject, or we’ll just pick up our marbles and go home. It’s easy. We have the power and privilege to decide whether to play. We’re the ones in charge. As much as I sympathize with the heart-break that Peter feels, I wish he’d had the courage to stay in the game through just the last three months of his term to help us work through this and prepare for where we go next.

I was talking last week in preparation for the sermon I thought I would give today with our member Eleanor Lane. I was interested to know a little bit about the experience of transformation that she had with UUCA members Susan Steffe and Beth Weegar in the “Mother Read” program they were participating in at Hillcrest Apartments.

You heard them tell their stories last year about the challenge of that work, how hard it was at first to be accepted. The women they worked with were suspicious at first of their motives. It would have been easy to walk away. But they stuck it out and showed up until they were not just accepted but treated as friends. Success story. Yay!

But here’s the thing, Eleanor told me: even after they made the connections, the work continued: mistaken assumptions, cultural misunderstandings, on and on.

But still Eleanor, Susan and Beth have kept at it, and what’s made it possible, in fact not just possible but joyful is the relationships they’ve made. These are not just connections of convenience: these are people, mothers and their families, who they care about. And it’s changed our members’ lives. Now, the experience is giving them the confidence to do more, to bring in other groups to help and try different projects. In all of it, Eleanor said, “the relationship is primary.”

This is the work that our association of congregations is just beginning: the building of significant relationships of trust with people of color. The Black Lives of UU organization I mentioned earlier is structured to provide networking and connections for people of color who are drawn to our faith tradition. A program track at our General Assembly will support their work.

Meanwhile, organizational leadership at the UUA is moving forward. My hope is that breaking open this dynamic will spur some creative thinking, remembering, as UUA presidential candidate Jean Pupke put it in a video she posted online, “The systems of white supremacy and oppression are persistent.” It will take time to sort out all the threads and learn how to listen with open hearts when concerns are raised.

And let us not miss the chance to appraise our own performance as individuals and as a congregation. In the last year here, we at UUCA have tightened our own hiring policies to require that racial and ethnic diversity be a consideration in every hiring decision we make. And we are continually reviewing how we invite and welcome a broad diversity of people into this congregation. I welcome your thoughts on how to improve what we do.

But I think that more than anything what persuaded me to bring this topic before you today was reflecting on my own response to this controversy. I need to acknowledge that my first response was not exactly sympathetic. When I got the first inklings on social media, the response I felt in my gut was that it was a lot of to-do about something of little consequence. Oh, sure, it looks bad, but how bad is it?

The more I listened, though, I shifted. Sure, this hiring decision wasn’t an egregious abuse. I don’t know the person chosen for the Southern Region lead, but he seems a decent sort and probably would perform well in the position. But can we really be so blind to the outrageous history of oppression in this country, a history that we as a movement despair of and pledge to change, not to at least consider for a moment the ways in which we are complicit in it?

Perhaps circumstances are such that for this particular position there are no minority candidates who possess the requisite skills, and once again we white people must tell people of color, “You’re close, but just not quite there yet,” though I doubt it and my colleagues of color say it is not so.

But the outsize response of Peter Morales to the critique he received turned the tide for me. For in it – in the fear, the outrage, the dismissal – I saw the trademark tenacity of white supremacy hard at work: ironic in this case in a man of Latino heritage. And I saw my own complicity as well.

For all the anti-racism trainings I’ve taken, for all the ways I’ve sought to reach out to people of color, for all the ways I am trying to organize my life to be anti-racist, I didn’t see it – at least not at first. I had to await my own little moment of transformation, that “Oh . . . right!” moment, you know?

 The song the choir sang earlier, “Down to the River to Pray,” is not exactly resonant with our tradition. It imagines a baptism that doesn’t fit our theology at all, but the spirit it conveys speaks to what I believe is a universal need: to find a way when we fall short to confess our own fallibility, vulnerability, and transgression.

I am taken with the way Les positioned the choir to sing it: first members standing individually facing forward, then facing each other and turning to face us all. Let’s be honest, the prospect of confession doesn’t thrill any of us, but if we support each other in the work it makes it a little easier. We must first come to terms with the truth that we haven’t measured up. Then, we turn to those in our acquaintance who we feel can hear our confession without judgment. Having been assured, we are then ready to confess it to the world.

Friends, let me acknowledge to you that I have fallen short in this work, fallen short of my own expectations, fallen short of what you might rightly expect of me. But I am open to being changed. I am open to learning, and to recognizing that this learning does not happen once. It is something that I will be repeating, that I will be working at as long as I go on.

Like the king in our story I can pay attention. I can learn to be available to the present moment, to the fellows who are with me and to act for the good.

I am grateful to have your companionship in this work in this community of memory and hope, where we hold each other accountable while we hold each other in love. We have a lot to do, and we can only do it if we can create the space to tell the truth, to hear the truth and accept each other when we have missed the mark. Let us be about it.