The Arc of the Universe–MLK Jr. Day (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister
The figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Civil War colonel who collected this beautiful spiritual you just heard the choir sing, evokes the kind of story that we Unitarian Universalists like to tell ourselves about our historical engagement with civil rights.


From “Justice and Conscience” by Theodore Parker

“Look at the facts of the world.  You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but a little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure that it bends toward justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long.”


The figure of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Civil War colonel who collected this beautiful spiritual you just heard the choir sing, evokes the kind of story that we Unitarian Universalists like to tell ourselves about our historical engagement with civil rights.

A crusading abolitionist and Unitarian minister, Higginson made his churches in Newburyport and then Worcester, Massachusetts focal points in the fight for freedom for America’s enslaved blacks. He helped harbor runaway slaves and was a member of the Secret Six in Boston who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Theodore Parker, author of the quote at the center of our service today, was another member of that group.

When war came, Higginson joined as an officer. Then he got word that the Union was looking for a leader of its first regiment of freed slaves, the 1st South Carolina, and even though he had little military experience, he jumped at it. He joined the regiment in November 1862, and it set off for its first engagement the following January. As the regiment was leaving, Massachusetts Governor John Albion Andrew – another Unitarian – furnished Higginson with a supply of copies of Lincoln’s newly signed Emancipation Proclamation. Higginson later wrote in his memoir, “Army Life in a Black Regiment,” that many in the regiment couldn’t read, but that, in his words, “they all seemed to feel more secure when they held it in their hands.”

The regiment took part in no major battles. Instead, it was assigned to raids to capture supplies, but even then they engaged in some sharp combat and, Higginson reported, acquitted themselves well. It was the first time in the Civil War that blacks had taken part in combat, and their success persuaded the Union to muster more black regiments. Higginson later recalled in his memoir, “it was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.”

You see what I mean? Great story!

And then there’s Theodore Parker, whose words recast by Martin Luther King Jr. became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement. In that sermon on justice and conscience, he declared that there is a moral law in the universe as inexorable as physical law and that justice is its demand. It is something, he said, that we feel like a physical tug on our conscience. We may falter, we may quail, we may turn aside, but there it remains. And when we pay attention, in Parker’s words “in (our) cool and personal hours” when we are most ourselves, we cannot help but acknowledge that we “love justice with a firm, unwavering love.” It is, he said, the “natural fealty” of our conscience.

It was both the spirit and the theology of Parker’s words that appealed to Dr. King: justice was not a convenient or conditioned concept. Its demands are woven into who we are and ever have been, and it will out, it will push relentlessly to be realized. In Parker’s words, “things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

Inspiring words, inspiring story. And yet, it turns out that even Theodore Parker had his personal reservations about just what abolition might bring. Toward the end of his life, he wrote “an Anglo-Saxon with common sense does not like the Africanization of America; he wishes the superior race to multiply, rather than the inferior.”

I have been reading Theodore Parker for years, but I only read those words in the last year or so, and I have to say that when I did my heart sank. Really? Even Parker, the radical, arch abolitionist whose 3,000-member congregation in the 1840s was the most integrated Boston had seen, underneath his defiant public stands was privately mired in prejudice?

But let’s be honest, in that time how many weren’t? Even as Thomas Higginson cut across the grain in his defense of African slaves, there was a noblesse oblige to his crusading, and even then he was regarded as a renegade among Unitarians. Both of the churches he served before the war eased him out after just a few years in favor of preachers who were less inclined to rock the boat.

We cast about for figures whose purity makes them idols to emulate and find that they all have dirt on their hands. And that makes it all the easier for us to throw up our hands in defeat. “See, even Parker was a racist. What hope do we have of changing this?” What hope?

It’s a question that resonates in my mind this Martin Luther King Sunday. We have each struggled in our own ways with the pall of what has been called “America’s original sin,” racism that is marbled so deeply into American life that none of us escapes its stain and its wound. And we Unitarian Universalists are not exempt. It has taken us some time to accept that. To see that even nice, liberal-minded folks live amid, benefit from and sometimes inadvertently advance practices that demean and oppress other people.

It is a hard learning. It’s not the way we want to be. And yet, there is a release in coming to terms with it, a chance for us to shift our perspective, to open our eyes to things we previously chose not to see, to shed our hubris and open our hearts.

Many teachers are available to help us in this work. Today I want to tell you about two who have been helpful to me. I begin with a professional colleague, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed. Mark has told his own story of growing up in Chicago and ultimately entering our ministry as, in his words, an “integration baby.”

His most recent book, Darkening the Doorways, collects stories that answer the puzzling question of why we Unitarian Universalists learn so little of African Americans in our movement. The answer is not that African-Americans have not been among us, but that most of their stories have been lost or never told. And so Mark has made it a practice to seek out and raise up those stories. It was in Mark’s book that I read that dismaying quote from Theodore Parker, a common opinion at the time that may help explain the result of an early encounter.

In October 1860 at their annual meeting Unitarian ministers were joined by an African-American Baptist minister, the Rev. William Jackson. Jackson had been active in the abolitionist movement and likely had come to know Unitarian ministers in that way. But even more he had found himself drawn by the message that he heard from them.

So toward the end of the day, Jackson stood and declared that from what he had heard at that assembly he had been converted to the Unitarian perspective and stood ready to preach it. When he was done, one of the Unitarians, William Potter, rose to say that the ministers should raise money support Jackson and his congregation. A collection was taken that garnered $49, a respectable sum at that time, but there the matter ended. As historical accounts put it, “Mr. Jackson was sent on his way.” That ended his contacts with the Unitarians.

Sad to say, for much of the next 100 years while African-Americans still came, that chilly reception was pretty much the norm for aspiring clergy. Even though as early as the 1840s black candidates were graduating from the Unitarian seminary in Meadville, the trick was finding congregations that might ordain and settle them. And, aside from a few abortive attempts, that didn’t happen. Exceptions included churches in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Harlem, New York, both founded in the early 20th century by determined African-American ministers. Neither one, though, was fully recognized by the denomination, and both closed after a matter of decades.

Universalists also attracted interest from African-Americans, who were among the charter members at congregations in Philadelphia and Gloucester, Massachusetts. But with the exception of a long-standing mission settlement in the Tidewater area of Virginia, Mark reports, the movement’s appeal to African-Americans proved limited.

The story of our denomination’s struggle with race in the 1960s and 70s is a bigger tale than I have time to tell today. Still, Mark Morrison-Reed offers one telling anecdote that opens a window on it. Shortly after our two movements joined in 1961, the denomination embarked on creating a new hymnal intended to represent our radically inclusive faith.

Unfortunately, that hymnal, while innovative and expansive, failed to include, as Mark puts it, “one word or song written by an African American or reflective of that experience.” Our current hymnal, printed in 1993, corrected that omission.

Still, that incident speaks to a blind spot that has haunted us. Deeply and authentically committed as we are to racial justice, we have not always done a good job of living it, of making room for experience beyond our ken. These days, anxiety over how we respond to racial oppression tends to focus on the relative lack of diversity in our congregations. I’ve heard it raised in this congregation.

Mark offers counsel on this point that I find helpful. We are caught in a paradox, he says, because while we say we want diversity, the truth is that emotionally we really don’t want to change. We like our congregations as they are, the people we know, the things we do. Promoting diversity involves welcoming and even seeking out people who are different from us, and that will change our community – perhaps in good, even necessary ways – but change us all the same, and it’s bound to be uncomfortable.

So, why do it? Not to meet some self-appointed authority’s notion of what is morally appropriate for a liberal religious congregation. No, we seek out and welcome diversity because of who and how we understand ourselves to be.

As Mark puts it, this drive is spiritually rooted in an intuition central to our religious identity: that “we are deeply and inextricably connected to one another and all that ever was or shall be. We want one another. We yearn to feel connected – and whole.” And in the end, it’s not about who we hope to bring in our doors. “It’s about healing ourselves.”

So, that brings me to my second teacher – actually not just one teacher but many involved in precisely the sort of work Mark was talking about.

Shortly after moving to Asheville, I was looking for ways to get oriented to this town, and several people encouraged me to consider signing up for a program that would introduce my to a side of this city most people don’t see.

It’s a gathering where people of many different backgrounds and experiences, white and black, talk about their experience with racism and the effect it’s had on their lives. Building Bridges, it’s called, and over each nine-week session participants learn much about how racism works – about the stereotypes we all carry, the privilege that we with white skin live with, the way racism is promoted through institutional practices and how it appears in schools and housing and even the simplest economic transactions.

There are readings and presentations, but the heart of the program is found in small groups, each facilitated by two people, one white and one black, who invite participants to share their own stories, their own struggles.

It is a place where white people like me get to hear for the first time what it’s like to have store clerks follow you around with suspicious eyes, to have landlords lament that they have no openings, to have police officers pull you out of a car and search you for no apparent reason. And it changes you to hear it.

Building Bridges took shape here in the early 1990s. Our member Sue Walton, one of the early organizers, says there was a lot of skepticism, especially among black leaders, that Asheville was ready for this. But one of the African-American ministers offered his church for a starting place. That first night, she says, the organizers were overwhelmed with the turn out, scrambling for space wherever they could find it. They were off and running.

Our member Dawn Klug, a long-time small group facilitator, says the program appealed to her because it taught her Asheville’s unique story around race. “As a white woman, I grew up never talking about race,” she said. “It’s helped me start to learn.”

Jackie Simms heard about Building Bridges while attending this congregation. She and her husband, Fred, had been in Asheville a few years and were feeling isolated, wondering if they had made the right choice. The program, she says, gave her access to people she never would have met, and also a new vocabulary and a constellation of friendly faces that made opening and exploring feel safe. Asked at the time to say something in a service here about her experience, she wrote and delivered this poem:


A Bele Chere Festival some years ago –

My husband, my daughter, my mother, me –

Genetically sun kissed all.

Having fun, Exploring this possible new home.

Very hot July day, A cool drink – good idea!

Hmm (yummy). A frozen fruit drink,

Small paper parasol in it.

Good drink.              Cold, refreshing.    Slowly sipped.

The last few sips.                The drink gone but enjoyed.

The parasol – pretty. Bright colors, tiny.

I wear it in my hair.                     No one knows me here.

More to see.  More to eat.                        Tired now. Let’s leave.

Hmm. A single guy – white face, black pants

black shirt, black motorcycle helmet.

Does he have on a black leather jacket, too??

Stay away.  Stay away.

A gust of wind. Parasol swept away – toward the guy!

Don’t go near him – Hell’s Angel.

He stoops to reach parasol. Now what??

Parasol inches from his hand! Another gust.

Parasol swept farther.      Far away.

He looks at me. . .  Kindness in his eyes!

Realization: He wanted to retrieve it for me!

I’m touched. I thank him for his kindness.

His caring – more important than the parasol.

Parasol gone. It’s OK. Caring stays. I hope he knows. . .

He walks forever – chasing parasol.

In his clasp – returned to me. Emotion rises –

Tears fill my eyes.

Prejudiced, me?     Wrong, me?     Touched, me?

A lesson here. How to live it.

A need for bridges.

You see, I happen to believe that Theodore Parker, flawed and fallible as he may have been, had it right when he is said that there is a moral force for justice that is inherent to our nature, something that works on us and will not let us go. The only error in his great metaphor – the arc that bends toward justice – is that it omits the benders.

Yes, justice is imminent in the world, but agents are needed to bring it into being. I think that he knew that; indeed, he was a great bender himself. But it needs to be said. We cannot wait for justice to happen. We need shoulders brought to the wheel, and they may as well be ours.

I have told you about Building Bridges, a good place to start, and the group’s next session begins next Monday. Check the flyer in Sandburg Hall for details. If you can’t make this one, another starts this fall. And there are other opportunities for good work that you can learn about at our social justice table.

My colleague Rosemary Bray McNatt was right: it is hard work, but in the end if there is no justice, there will be no peace. We can read and applaud all the good and noble thoughts of inspiring leaders, but if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe.

So, I close with her admonition: Nothing that Unitarian Universalists need to do is more important than making justice real – here, where we are.

Sermon from January 20: Parting the Waters (text & audio)

Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister–

As you approach Kelly Ingram Park on the outskirts of downtown in Birmingham, Alabama, there is nothing much to distinguish it. Filling a full city block, it’s planted with trees and crossed by meandering paths. It’s not until you enter and catch sight of the sculptures planted along the paths that you get a hint of the tumultuous events that were centered there, now half a century ago.

One depicts two children, life size, on one side of the path, looking stolidly through bars representing a jail on the other side of the path. Another depicts a water cannon on a tripod aimed at two children against a wall, one crouched over, the other facing the wall with her arms held in front of her, her back turned to the cannon.

The most arresting may be the sculpture that appears on the cover of your order of service depicting guard dogs leaping aggressively from walls on each side of the path with barely enough space for a person to walk between.

Last fall this park was the first stop on the Living Legacy Tour of Civil Rights sites of the South that I took part in. As one for whom most of the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s were mostly snatches of news clips reaching my pre-teen eyes or ears, it was a good place to start. Fifty years after those formative times we have lost many of the concrete reminders of what was going on and what was at stake then. But Kelly Ingram Park remains a place where history in its most graphic form is in our faces demanding to be known.

So, in this month of beginning when we also celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. I wanted to focus our reflection on Birmingham, a place where the Civil Rights struggle was reborn into a movement that transformed our nation and continues to challenge us today.

Protests against racial discrimination had their beginning in Birmingham in the early 50s, when a petition seeking the hiring of blacks as police officers was denied. In 1956, a newly formed Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, headed by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, following up on the successful Montgomery bus boycott launched an action to integrate city buses there. It got nowhere, though. The leaders were arrested, and the powerful council headed by Bull Conner ruled that continued segregation was necessary to prevent “friction” between the races.

A high profile racial killing and repeated Klan cross burnings made many wary of going further. Over the next six years 17 black homes or churches were bombed with no arrests made, giving the city the nickname of “Bombingham.”

It wasn’t until January 1963, the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, that national civil rights groups came together to build a coordinated strategy for dealing with segregation in Birmingham. Most actions up until then had taken place in small towns. Birmingham was a complex and vibrant city, a center of the steel industry, and, despite small town ways, more cosmopolitan. Birmingham also posed a challenge in logistics – the recruiting and directing of many people – and enlisting allies. The local black clergy association, for one, was deeply suspicious of the group.

But the issue was heating up. The arrival of Freedom Riders in May 1961 brought renewed attention to segregation, and in May 1962 college students conducted a voter registration drive and “selective buying” campaign that severely reduced black purchases. Determined to move forward, a gathering that King chaired in Savannah, Georgia launched what became known as Project C, for Confrontation – a campaign of boycotts, marches and nonviolent resistance to start in Birmingham that spring.

Birmingham itself, though, was in transition. The city’s three-member council was being replaced by a nine-member council and mayor. Many moderate whites and their black allies saw this as a moment to end the Bull Conner era.

In the March election, just as the desegregation actions were beginning, Conner and his opponent, Albert Boutwell, were tied in the election for mayor. The moderates urged King to delay any actions, fearing a blow-up that would work to Conner’s favor. In the April run-off, Conner was defeated, but incredibly he and the other two commissioners refused to step down, leaving a divided government and Conner still in charge of the police.

The protests began the next day with lunch counter sit-ins, but most of the counters just closed down. Protests in subsequent days sputtered as well. Little was reported about them in the news media, and Boutwell, the new mayor, urged people of both races to, in his words, “calmly ignore what is not being attempted in Birmingham.”

Still, King was determined to go through with his plans. So, on April 12, Good Friday, he joined a protest march, violating a city injunction prohibiting him from leading demonstrations, and was arrested and jailed. In jail, he learned in a phone call to his wife, Coretta, that President Kennedy had called to ask her about him. But he was discouraged to find himself criticized in much of the national media as a radical, with Birmingham’s Mayor Boutwell, of all people, being quoted as calling for “mutual respect and understanding.”

But what really irked him was a letter published on the front page of the Birmingham newspaper from what are described as eight “leading Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish clerics” attacking the protests as “untimely”, saying they would “incite hatred and violence” and that such “extreme measures” were not justified.

These were the very people who at some level King had seen as allies, leaders who had objected to Governor George Wallace’s declaration of “segregation, now and forever!” at his inauguration only four months before. For him, it was an awakening, a moment of clarity. As he began scribbling on margin of the newspaper he discovered a new voice, a more universal, prophetic voice. He framed his indignation as personal disappointment, but the point he made was broader. He was zeroing in on the tamed and temporizing church, the one that affirmed high principle, but stepped away when the principle was most clearly at stake. Against the claims of clerics that he was creating tension, he invited them to observe something that from their place of personal privilege they had missed.

Those who were marching, he reminded them, “are not the creators of the tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive.” And leaving no question of how strongly he felt, he turned to a vivid metaphor, comparing racism to a boil that, rather than be ignored, “must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light before it can be cured.” There was no turning back now. The stakes were too high.

Just how high became clear days after King was released from jail. Other movement leaders had been training high school students in non-violent methods, and when King returned they urged a bold shift in strategy. Rather than seeking to enlist fearful adults, it would be the children who would lead the next wave of marches.

On May 2nd at around 1 p.m. a group of about 50 high school students marched two abreast out of 16th Street Baptist Church singing “We Shall Overcome” as bystanders watched in Kelly Ingram Park across the street. They were promptly arrested by police for violating court injunctions and were loaded into paddy wagons. But no sooner was one group arrested than another group emerged from the church.

And so it continued throughout the day. By nightfall some 600 children were in police custody and the city was running out of places to put them. So, the next day the police strategy shifted from arrest to deterrence. Bull Conner ordered fire hoses brought in and as the children approached he warned them to turn back, “or you might get wet.” They did.

Many of the first group retreated after being soaked, but others just sat on the sidewalk and endured the spray. So, Conner ordered water cannons that forced the spray from two hoses into a single nozzle – devices said to be capable of stripping the bark off trees at 100 feet. Television cameras captured the spray from those hoses propelling children tumbling over and over down the street, as if in a high wind.

Meanwhile, organizers directed other groups of protesting children away from the hoses, outflanking firefighters with hoses. So, Conner ordered K-9 units to rush the demonstrators with dogs. City leaders and pundits criticized march leaders for putting children in danger, but King replied that these people showed no such tender solicitude when it came to the many deprivations these children endured due to segregation.

A couple of days of pandemonium ended with a truce of sorts between the march leaders and the city, but the tide had turned. As the protests continued, white business leaders began meeting secretly to talk about how to end this stand-off, and eventually King was brought quietly into the conversation. After several tense days, a settlement was announced that would integrate Birmingham’s public facilities – rest rooms, water fountains, lunch counters – release prisoners of the movement who remained in jail and set up a biracial committee to hear ongoing concerns.

The agreement left much to be done. Several bombings followed, including the home of King’s brother, A.D., and the motel where King usually stayed, followed by some rioting in response.

But the agreement held, and, what must have been sweet in King’s ears, a month later President Kennedy gave his first address on the subject of civil rights, and his words echoed King’s rhetoric in his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail:

“We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it,” Kennedy said, “And we cherish our freedom here at home. But are we to say to the world – and much more importantly, to each other – that this is the land of the free, except for negroes, that we have no second-class citizens, except for Negroes, that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect for Negroes?” Extemporaneously, he added, “we owe them, and we owe ourselves, a better country.”

In one of the sad ironies of the Civil Rights movement, among those listening in his car radio to Kennedy’s address that night was Medger Evers, a field worker for the NAACP in Jackson, Mississippi. Evers’ wife had let the children stay up late to let them hear what their father thought of the speech. When Evers arrived home, he had barely gotten out of his car before he was shot with a deer rifle; he died shortly afterward.

King went on in August to give his electrifying speech in the March on Washington, but in Birmingham, controversy still surrounded desegregation. In September President Kennedy federalized National Guard troops to protect black students after a federal judge ordered that they be admitted to three public schools.

Only five days later, at 16th Street Baptist Church as preparations were being made for Youth Sunday – “The Love that Forgives” was the topic – a bomb exploded in a stairway of the church leading to the sanctuary and four girls preparing to take part in the service were killed. The city was stunned, and at a service where King spoke remembering the girls, 8,000 people attended, including 800 pastors of both races. A small black marker outside of 16th Street Baptist inscribed with the names of the murdered girls may be the most haunting memorial of the Civil Rights Era in Birmingham today.

50 years later, then, we are left wondering what this transformative time, only about eight months at a pivotal moment in American history, has to teach us.

Audre Lorde’s searing poem serves as a reminder of what was and remains at stake for people in such oppressed circumstances. It’s a perspective few of us here have ever glimpsed, of living on a shoreline where the simplest decisions – where to step, whom to talk to – are potentially life threatening, where fear is wielded by those in power as a weapon to silence, fear, even, of the rising and setting of the sun, of full or empty stomachs, fear that those we love will be snatched from us, fear that our voices will put us in danger or be misconstrued, yet knowing that silence perpetuates the soul-killing reality of their lives.

In the end, as Martin Luther King Jr. recognized, as the students pouring from 16th Street Baptist Church understood, it was better to speak, since as far as their oppressors were concerned, they were never meant to survive.

This is the awakening that King experienced while writing his letter from the Birmingham City Jail. The seeming moderation of the white clergy was in the end a repudiation of the black populace and their claim that their very being was at stake in the segregated South. Their call for order in the face of injustice and humiliation made clear where they stood on this crucial question of survival.

Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.

And what’s remarkable is that facing that existential threat, King elected not to dismiss or demean his critics. Instead, he appealed to them to look to their hearts, to find that vital and hopeful essence within them and then see the same essence in those with standing up to high-power hoses and police dogs, to feel the deep human connection to each of them.

Return to who you are, Return to what you are.

Return to where you are born and reborn again.

By that essential nature – the light of human conscience, he called it – he appealed to them, too, to awaken, to see in these marchers people of dignity and worth, brothers and sisters in a struggle for freedom.

Return again, return again, return to the home of your soul.

Sad to say, it was an imaginative leap too large for most to make. And so, while the genius and moral strength of the Civil Rights movement won many victories for an oppressed people, we are left even today with a kind of spiritual deadness that pervades many conversations around race.

It may be, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, that too few of us have learned the “tender gravity” of kindness. Perhaps it is because we have not experienced or acknowledged the losses and the sorrows that have piled up around us, experiences, she tells us, that teach kindness as the deepest thing inside.

Amid all this tumult, the tragedies that continue to multiply, it may be that it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, kindness that makes no judgment, that simply sees in the other, one like ourselves.

It’s a continuing legacy from the struggles of Birmingham: that we might step beyond our comfort and risk coming to know the larger truth of our oneness as one people.

May it be so.