Monday, July 16, 2012

Bumbling Our Way to Beauty

Sermon given at Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, in Chandler, AZ, July 17, 2012

When I set out to write this piece I wasn't sure how it would turn out. I wasn't even sure exactly what it was I wanted to say. I wasn't sure of the structure, or the contents, or even the stories I wanted to include. In fact the only thing I did know was the title: Bumbling Our Way to Beauty. And so, I hope you’ll indulge me as I bumble my way through this. Perhaps, by the end, we’ll find a little beauty along the way.

The first time I remember hearing the term beloved community, was in a sermon during the Sunday service at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in Minneapolis, Minnesota in June of 2010. I was taken by the phrase, “beloved community.”  To me it evoked the very ideal of what a community of spirit and love could be, a community in which all are valued, all are worthy, all are recognized and all are loved. In other words, the kind of community we hope to model within Unitarian Universalist congregations and outward into the world beyond.

I was also taken by a kind of blind allegiance to the phrase itself. It seemed, at the time, as though the speaker took for granted that everyone he was talking to would immediately understand it, would know without any explanation, what he meant and would not have any of their own preconceived notions about the meaning of the phrase. It was almost jargon, or cult-speak.

I thought at the time that using the phrase in that way worked against the very idea of inclusion and recognized worth inherent in the beloved community. It was almost as though since everyone knew what the phrase implied, we could just move on, and anyone not already on that same page was just a little “less than”...

I retrospect I am sure I have heard the phrase beloved community before because in researching the term for this piece I found it over and over in the writings and speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and even further back into early christian writings.

Those who've studied Dr. King of course recognized the phrase from his writings, and will surely know the goal of which he spoke: a just society of equals “where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” and, moreover, a society built through Redemption and Reconciliation.

In an essay written in 1957 Dr. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that...”

He spoke about the beloved community again in an address given to the Conference on Christian Faith and Human Relations in 1957 entitled: The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma, saying:

“...the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.”

Woven throughout Dr. King's writings when he speaks of the beloved community is a call to action, a call to create the beloved community. I don’t believe that Dr. King thought beloved community would simply manifest after enough speeches had been given or enough sit-ins had been staged, that after one last march on Washington America would rise up as a body and declare an end to hate. Nor do I think that Redemption and Reconciliation meant only with our enemies.

In his essay Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom, Dr. King said:

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

I believe Dr. King understood that creating a beloved community begins with ourselves. It begins first with accountability to others and ourselves. It begins by seeking first to focus on people through trust, engagement and empowerment. It begins by acknowledging that beloved community is not a destination, it's a journey of constant learning recognizing that even best intentions are sometimes hurtful and that when those hurts happen we need to return to King’s principles of reconciliation and redemption, that forgiveness is holy and so is asking for it.

I went to that General Assembly in 2010 full of what I thought were good reasons. In April of 2010, while my wife Carolina and I were attending the District Assembly of the Pacific Southwest District of the UUA, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. The next day the board of the PSWD made a motion to ask the UUA board to instruct the General Assembly planning committee to move General Assembly away from Phoenix in 2012. It seemed at the time, to both my wife and me, that the vote was taken in haste and without much room for debate. In fact, the only person to speak against the motion was Carolina. As many will know, the motion passed.

She and I talked about the vote the entire drive home from Santa Barbara to Phoenix. We felt that a boycott, two years out, would be meaningless, too late to matter and too small to be noticed. Wouldn't it be better to bring several thousand UUs to Phoenix instead and protest the law, to stand in solidarity with those most affected by the law? We thought so.

And so, we started a lobbying campaign. We lobbied our friends. We lobbied the board of our congregation. We lobbied the congregation itself. We lobbied on Facebook, and twitter, through blog posts and email. By the time of the General Assembly in Minneapolis, in June of 2010, we had, through the contributions of many people in our congregation, received a mandate in the form of a congregational resolution, buttons to hand out to anyone who would take them, and, for the first time in the congregations history, a full boat of delegates with a mission to keep the 2012 General Assembly in Phoenix.

When we got to GA the lobbying started all over again. We left our hotel rooms each day in a block, matching t-shirts, pockets of buttons and talking points at the ready. We talked to anyone who would listen. We spoke in the mini-assemblies, and anywhere else we thought it would matter. We drafted a counter resolution asking the delegates at GA to instruct the planning committee to keep GA in Phoenix. And after a LOT of hard work and partnering we were able to be in the room and have an influence when a new compromise resolution was drafted.

In the end, we won. General Assembly 2012 would be held in Phoenix but it would be a new GA, a Justice GA. Instead of only one witness event during all of GA, as had often been the practice in the past, there would be many witness events throughout the week. Instead of a theme that guided GA programming there would be a focus, Justice, specifically around immigration and migrant communities.

We had given the UUA board and the planning committee their marching orders. They were to create something new, something transformative, something inclusive. But we didn’t tell them how to do it. And, as often happens in such cases there was a lot of stumbling and bumbling along the way. As UUA Moderator, Gini Courter, recently posted on her blog:

“Following GA 2010, months passed with little activity toward Justice GA. At the January 2011 UUA Board meeting held in Phoenix, Arizona, and at a pre-meeting border visit with our Tucson congregation, board members heard questions and concerns voiced by local clergy and lay leaders about the lack of Justice GA preparation. I cannot speak for the whole board, but I was personally uncomfortable with the answers our local leaders were given, and I did not have better answers.”

But in the end, come together it did.  The UUA chose several local organizations to work with including Todos Somos Arizona, Tonatierra and the Puente Movement, whose leader, Salvador Reza, had spoken at the closing of the Minneapolis convention asking UU’s to come and help them make a difference.

Several witness events were planned, including a mass protest outside the Maricopa County jail known as Tent City. And workshops were planned, some in conjunction with local movement leaders to highlight injustices in our immigration policies, and others to train in skills and tactics that those attending could take home to their own congregations so that Justice GA would not be a singular event that happened in the desert of Arizona, but a catalyst for change within UU congregations and the communities they serve all around the nation.

For many of the people who attended Justice GA it accomplished all its goals. It was something new, it was transformative, it was inclusive. For them this GA deepened their faith and called them to a new awareness and a stronger level of commitment. For many people Justice GA was a rousing success, a shining example of the beloved community made real.

We had won. But, hindsight being 20/20 and reflection being a part of my spiritual practice I have come to ask myself, at what cost. Did we keep the idea of beloved community foremost in our hearts along the way?

Accountability is, at all times a difficult tightrope to walk. Being in accountable relationship to others means including them in your process, even deferring to them as you strive to put them first, to trust them first, to engage and empower them. First. And so, I ask myself, in hindsight, how did we measure up on the accountability scale? 

Well, we can start with the District Assembly meeting that started this whole thing. In looking back I remember several people speaking about the resolution. All of them speaking for the idea of a boycott. There were people saying things like “we speak with our pocketbooks” and “the only thing those people understand is money”. Around 7-8 people spoke for the resolution, but only one of them was a person of color. She also spoke in favor of the boycott, but wanted some changes in the resolution to highlight that not only Latin@ people would be harmed by SB 1070 but that native people of the area, like her, would also potentially be harmed. A relatively minor change in wording that would have made her community more visible and would have validated her experience. In the end, with very little debate, her motion failed.

I think back to the debates leading up to GA that raged like a wildfire on Facebook and in blogs. Throughout, people of color told us that they wanted to boycott. In fact the largest organization for people of color within the UUA, the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministry (DRUUMM), the largest organization of Latin@ people,the Latin@ Unitarian Universalist Networking Association ( LUUNA), and their sister organization of white allies, Allies for Racial Equity (ARE) consistently told us that they wanted a boycott. It was with these groups that the final compromise resolution was crafted. How accountable were we to them?

Even at Justice GA itself, the UUA planning committee chose several organizations to partner with. But there are MANY voices in the migrant community, many more voices in the Latin@ community and many voices in allied organizations that never got a seat at the table. We could have invited them. Why didn't we? How accountable were we to them?

Move forward to the vigil at Tent City. Many UUs here in Phoenix and and around the country are unaware that some of the groups we had partnered with at protests from the passage of SB 1070 up to just a few weeks before Justice GA came to the protest in solidarity with the local UUs they had come to know and trust and were asked to leave, by representatives from Justice GA. How accountable were we to them? I can tell you they didn't see much accountability. It is only through some hastily called meetings and hand wringing and open, honest mea culpas that local UUs were able to stitch together some level of trust again with these groups. But there will be a lot of work in rebuilding those relationships still to come.

And what about Trust? In those Facebook posts and on the blogs we were continually told that many people of color would never feel safe in coming to Phoenix. They feared for their physical safety and their spiritual safety. I can only truly speak for myself here but I, and I think many others, thought these fears were not only not justified but were a smokescreen and a way of shutting down debate. How trusting is that? I am a white, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, man. I cannot , EVER, claim to understand the experience of someone of color. I can sympathize, but I can’t empathize. I just can’t. I have never had to worry about driving while white or had to endure a stop and search. And, likely, I never will. This is a privilege that comes at no cost to me as a matter of course.

So, how can I, as an accountable ally, come to understand the position and experience of a person of color? I have to trust that the experiences they relate to me are their authentic experiences. That when they tell me that they have reason to fear for their physical or spiritual safety those feelings are built upon their truth. Anything else is dismissive and disempowering.

How well did we do at engagement? Well again going back to the early debates, I don’t remember asking, perhaps we did, but I don’t remember asking DRUMM, LUNNA or ARE, at any point prior to the Minneapolis GA, what, if anything, would make it possible for them to accept keeping GA 2012 in Phoenix. My recollection is that the only engaging we did with them prior to Minneapolis was engaging in debate, sometimes heated debate about why a boycott was a bad idea. In fact, even at the Minneapolis event itself, I don’t think we really engaged with them until Gini Courter, to her credit, realized that bringing competing resolutions to the floor of the plenary sessions would be harmful and that there really was a lot of common ground, forced both sides into a hotel room and told us to hash it out and come back with something we could both agree on. So, not so much with the engagement.

I could go on with many more examples of the missteps we made along the way to Justice GA. But my goal here is not to point fingers. It is not to say “shame on us”. In the end, I think Justice GA was a success. It did empower people. It did engage with the local community. It did transform what some have called in the past "a business meeting with singing", into something new, something bold and something that I hope will not be a unique event for our faith. It really is my hope that GA moving forward has been changed, for the better.

My goal is really to make the point that although the end might have been a success we can always do better. And that reflection, sincere, honest, soul-searching reflection is a necessary part of creating beloved community. And I am concerned, deeply concerned, that we Unitarian Universalists, more often than not, don’t take the time for that reflection.

When things “go right” or at least they seem to be a success we all too often rest on our laurels. We don’t take the time to ask ourselves what could we have done better. What questions could we have asked? Whose opinion should we have sought? Did we listen more than we talked? What more could we have done to engage with others and empower them?

My goal throughout this piece is to prompt that reflection within ourselves and within my own congregation and faith tradition particularly. I know, again from personal experience, that this can be and is an issue right here at home.

One example that leaps immediately to mind is our congregation's participation in the Phoenix Pride Parade this year. In the last three years we have gone from 85 people at our first showing at Pride to over 100 this year (although I might have to chalk that up to our new Minister, Andy Burnett, marching with us).

We also split the cost of a booth at the festival itself with the other valley congregations and had a UU presence there for the entire festival. I think we might have talked with two or three hundred people from around the valley. For many, if not most of them, it was their first experience with Unitarian Universalism. That was a good weekend.

Water is always an issue at an outdoor event in the Phoenix heat. So, to be sure there was enough water for everyone, on the Monday before the march I put a call out via email asking for donations of bottled water. This was a Monday following a Sunday service put on by our Green Sanctuary team where one of the things they talked about was how bad bottled water is for our environment. They talked about the Great Pacific Gyre, an island of plastic in the middle of the Pacific ocean that some scientist say may be twice the size of the continental United States, caused by our reliance on plastics. They asked us all to think about how we could reduce the use of plastics, specifically bottled water, on Sunday, and on Monday I put out a call for bottled water. All in all they were very nice about my misstep. They politely asked if some other means of getting water to the parade goers could be arranged and we found a way to do it.

But it made me think. Why had Green Sanctuary been an afterthought? Why had I not reached out to them early in the planning process to talk about environmental impact and how we could address that in the march? Why, for that matter, had I not reached out to the YRUU group, or to the choir, or to the social action committee and engaged them in the planning process? I can tell you they will be involved this year, at least if they want to be.

Pride was a rousing success. But even so, there were miscommunications, mistakes and perhaps even hurt feelings as a result. For that I am sorry. I can do better. We can always do better. But it’s only by asking the sometimes very hard questions about our process that we can improve it.

Beloved community begins first with accountability to others and ourselves, it begins by seeking first to focus on people through trust, engagement and empowerment, it begins by acknowledging that beloved community is not a destination, it's a journey of constant learning recognizing that even best intentions are sometimes hurtful and that when those hurts happen we must remember that reconciliation is about receiving forgiveness and redemption is about asking for it. These are holy aims.

I close with the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his essay “Facing the Challenge of a New Age,”:

“...the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

Namaste and Blessed Be

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