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.