Standing in Awe

“May all the people of Israel be forgiven, and all the strangers in their midst, for all the people are at fault.”

This reading from the Book of Numbers traditionally follows the singing of the Kol Nidre, in the heart of the festival of Yom Kippur.

We are in the midst of the Days of Awe, the week falling between Rosh Hashana, the New Year of the Jewish Calendar, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It is a time, the Rabbis say, when the book of life is open, before being sealed for another year.  It is a time to consider the choices we’ve made, to reconsider how and who we will be in the coming year, and yes, to reflect on where we have fallen short.

Tradition holds that before asking forgiveness of G-d on Yom Kippur, we must first ask forgiveness of those we have hurt in this world.  Before being in covenant with the divine, we must be in covenant with the human.  And so on Yom Kippur Isaiah 58 is read: the fast the LORD asks is not one of sackcloth and ashes, but to unlock fetters of wickedness, to untie cords of the yoke and let the oppressed go free.  And so we can speak of prophets calling us to greater commitment to justice in this world, just as Isaiah called for justice almost three millennia ago.

But Numbers says that all must be forgiven, because all are at fault.  Really though?  Are we all at fault?  Must we all be forgiven?  I think this can often be a barrier for Unitarian Universalists.  People have inherent worth and dignity, we proclaim, and we rightly uphold those of us like Martha and Waitstill Sharpe, who have and continue to dedicate their lives to the betterment of the whole people of Earth.  But inherent worth and dignity is not the same as doing no wrong, and even the Sharpes had their own blind spots.

I’ve been thinking of Prophets lately, of hard truths, spoken in love.  This past Jun I was in Columbus Ohio for our yearly General Assembly.  Toward the end of the last day there was a moment I will not soon forget.  Unitarian Universalists of Color took to the stage, along with our Youth Caucus, and presented a resolution recommitting the Unitarian Universalist Association to the cause of racial justice generally, and the work of Black Lives Matter in particular.  When the moderator of the session observed that the resolution would pass by acclimation, the Unitarian Universalists on stage responded that it wasn’t enough, that their voices had to be heard.  Hard truths, spoken in love.  I do not have their statements, but in their place hear these words for Alicia Garza, one of the founding members of what has become the Movement for Black Lives:

When we say Black Lives Matter, we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that 1 million Black people are locked in cages in this country–one half of all people in prisons or jails–is an act of state violence.  It is an acknowledgment that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on our children and our families and that assault is an act of state violence. Black queer and trans folks bearing a unique burden in a hetero-patriarchal society that disposes of us like garbage and simultaneously fetishizes us and profits off of us is state violence; the fact that  500,000 Black people in the US are undocumented immigrants and relegated to the shadows is state violence; the fact that Black girls are used as negotiating chips during times of conflict and war is state violence; Black folks living with disabilities and different abilities bear the burden of state-sponsored Darwinian experiments that attempt to squeeze us into boxes of normality defined by White supremacy is state violence.  And the fact is that the lives of Black people—not ALL people—exist within these conditions is consequence of state violence.[1]

Hard truths, spoken in love.

It is hard to hear that we’ve fallen short, especially when or if we’ve done so with good intentions.  To my ear there are echoes of Isaiah in the words of Alicia Garza, in the frustration and hope of the young people on stage in Columbus.  What must Isaiah’s people have thought, 2700 years ago, hearing that despite their fasting, despite their good intentions, the world was not just, and they were in part at fault?

In August 2014, I stood up to preach at my home congregation.  That week Michael Brown had been shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and as sat on my couch watching the unbelievable images on the news each night, I struggled to put into the sermon I was writing some of what I thought my congregation needed to hear.  Hear is, in part, what I said that morning:

The images and stories coming out of Ferguson this week have shocked us all.  Another young black man is shot and killed, and the ensuing police crackdown looks more like Mosul that Missouri.  I am heartbroken this week.  I am enraged.  I want to pull aside every police officer I see on the street and scream that they are here to protect our communities, to keep us safe, not to hurt, silence, and kill.  It. Is. Wrong.

But I know [I continued that morning], that the police office I would scream at here isn’t the officer who shot Michael Brown, or one of the officers who mount mine-resistant vehicles to patrol a Midwestern suburb.  [We are] a long way from Missouri, and for all I know the officer I see on the street here might agree with me.[2]

I went on to emphasize that, though perhaps not the most appropriate response in that immediate moment in time, our best hope in the long run was empathy and common cause between the community of my city and the Police, who were dedicated public servants.

I was proud of that sermon.  I felt I had threaded the needle between axknowleging what was going on in Ferguson and recognizing that the situation where I was preaching was different.  I was so pleased with that sermon that I included it as part of my application materials to the internship program at Shelter Rock.

…But my home congregation, where I preached that sermon, is the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore.  And less than a year later I was sitting on my couch in my new apartment in the Bronx, watching smoke rising over West Baltimore as police and protestors clashed after the death in police custody of a young man named Freddie Grey.  Two years later, after a DOJ investigation that found officers who blew the whistle on police misconduct had dead rats left on their windshield, after multiple trials with no convictions of the officers who killed Freddie Grey, I read the sermon I wrote that week and taste ash in my mouth.  Just business as usual in the Baltimore City Police Department I had been so careful not to condemn.

I tell this story not for purposes of self-flagellation, but as an illustration that good intentions can often fall short, that talking about race in America is really, really hard, but absolutely necessary.  I lived in inner-city Baltimore for four years.  I worked with and at a West Baltimore elementary school.  I shared an office with a criminal justice diversion program.  I lived and breathed Baltimore City, and thought I could speak about the complex intersection of race, poverty and law that shapes so much of that city.  My intentions were good, I had some experience, and I was still deeply wrong that morning in August.

This is work we are called to do.  The last several years have shown, unambiguously, that systemic racism is real and a force in American society.  At General Assembly, Unitarian Universalist delegates reaffirmed the Association’s commitment to action, to work towards police reform, and to engage in intentional learning spaces to organize for racial justice.

This is work we are called to do despite having fallen short so many times before.  We have done good in the world, as Unitarian Universalists, and we rightly share those stories.  But for the stories of Unitarian Abolitionists, there’s the organ loft of our Baltimore Church, built as a separate gallery for the slaves of the congregation’s founders.

For stories of white ministers heeding the call to march in Selma (my Methodist uncle among them), the is the controversy over funding the Black Affairs Council, only 5 years later at the 1968 General Assembly.  While I cannot do justice to the full history or story of that time this morning, the Empowerment Controversy, as it became known, resulted in many Unitarian Universalists of Color walking out of the General Assemble, and many kept walking out of the Unitarian Universalist faith.  Mark Morrison Reed, a Unitarian Universalist minister and professor of history, whose mother was a member of the Black Affairs Council, wrote reflecting on the period’s impact on us as a faith:

I speak only for myself and about what I have come to understand. I speak also out of disappointment and weariness, anger and amazement that we have allowed this to drag on for forty years. I have come to believe that the only way to move forward is to look upon what transpired as a tragedy. … These were all honorable people responding to cultural circumstances not of their making while in the grip of emotional forces beyond their control. These circumstances compelled them to choose between dearly held values, and they brought to their decision making their humanness: lofty hopes and moral certitude, grim earnestness and inflamed passions, some self-delusion, lots of defensiveness, and as tragedy requires, hubris.[3]

I don’t want us as a community of faith to continue in tragedy.  We are all implicated in the breadth of systemic racism in America, and we are all harmed by it.  But this is work we are called to do.  Despite our failures in the past, despite the certainty of misunderstandings and of falling short, it is work I believe we all can play a role in.  Congregations were asked at the last General Assembly to engage in intentional learning spaces, and that it what I hope to do here at Shelter Rock in the coming months. 

You may have heard about the course I am teaching, starting at the end of the month, on Being White in the Black Lives Matter Movement.  It is a course that was developed by Kate Lore, at the Portland Oregon congregation, to help white congregants understand the challenge of systematic racism and how they can best be a part of the work of dismantling it.  The course will run for four consecutive Mondays, beginning on October 31.

In addition, we will be relaunching the Black Lives Matter column in the Quest.  We’ll fill it with information, but also opportunities to learn and get involved in this work.

Lastly, I hope to hold open conversations within this community over the next several months, to discuss questions raised this sermon, the course, and any other pieces that come up.  Note: Is this practical?  Is it something other ministers and staff could participate in?

There’s a phrase in Hebrew that is often invoked in Unitarian Universalist sermons: Tikkun Olam, the work of repairing the world.  But in order to be in need or repair, the world must be broken in some way, and indeed it is.  There is hurt in the world, whether from systemic racism or the death of a loved one.  And I believe that we are each called to the work of healing a broken world, whether through lay chaplaincy, work to dismantle systems of oppression, or any of the thousands of other ways to build a world that is more just, compassionate, and loving.

The Day of Atonement can be a harsh festival, a day of hard truths, spoken in love.  We are asked in this season to grapple with where we have fallen short in this year and as a people.  But it also holds out hop.  Hope that we can be reconciled, that we can be better this year than the last.  We are left with the hope of Isaiah, that when we have built a just and equitable society, ‘then shall your healing spring up quickly, and your light burst through like the dawn.’


[1] From A HerStory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement, Alicia Garza

[2] From “When the Shield Becomes the Sword,” Oscar Sinclair, FUCB August 2016

[3] Mark Morrison Reed, “The Empowerment Controversy,” UU World January 201