This Freedom Commands (2.24.2019)

Unitarian Universalists often try to explain ourselves through history. Sometimes we say that we are a religion of deeds, not creeds, and so it falls to us to explain what kinds of deeds we’re talking about that demonstrate the power and possibility of our faith. We tell the stories of prophetic people of all genders who, as it says in the the UUA bylaws about the sources of our tradition, “challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” We remember poets, activists, scientists, healers, and teachers who worked toward liberation, who dedicated their lives to justice and compassion. These are the examples we give about the heritage we claim and the values we are trying to equip ourselves to demonstrate in these times.

When it comes to Black History in Unitarian Universalism, there are omissions and incomplete stories. Since 1785, when Gloster Dalton helped found a Universalist congregation in Gloucester, MA, there have been Black Universalists and Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists in America. Yet the numbers of Black UU’s have not been and are not representative of the American population at large, and some of that trend was by design from white Universalist or Unitarian leaders who failed to support Black UUs. On the other hand, there are stories of Black UU’s that we don’t hear about. In our living tradition, we hold so much promise in our aspirations toward justice. In our history, there are mistakes as well as achievements from which we can learn.

I’m going to attempt to be clear in this sermon about what I mean when I say “we.” There is a “we” that includes all Unitarian Universalists–Black and white and Indigenous and People of Color–all of us who share a living religious tradition that has attempted to move toward justice and has sometimes failed, a living tradition with life left in it, a living tradition that carries hope and possibility for being some of the people who bend the arc toward justice. And sometimes there is a “we” that focuses on the work that is particular to white people, such as our responsibility to un-learn the ignorance that comes with privilege, ignorance about the experiences and contributions of People of Color. The “we” of Unitarian Universalism and of this congregation does not mean white people alone. But among those of us who are white, we have a lot of catching up to do in our education. I believe we can worship together, and still realize that love, justice, heritage, and this living tradition will ask different things of different people.

In the reading we heard earlier (“The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche,” from UU World Magazine, Fall 2017), the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed writes that “we have embraced a false narrative about who we are.” This false narrative is harmful. Black UU’s miss opportunities to celebrate UU ancestors who share their heritage and experience. All of us are operating with an incomplete understanding of our tradition. We cannot completely undo this damage in one sermon, or in one Black History Month series. One thing we can do is continue to study with curiosity and humility.

We delved into history a bit last November, in a worship service about Deeds That Beckon. Catherine Boyle added another piece to our understanding in her sermon last month about everyday heroes like Dr. Errold Collymore. We’ll learn more about what we can do next to dismantle white supremacy when the Racial Justice Task Force leads worship in two weeks.

White supremacy has hidden part of our history from many of us in several ways. Racism has often pushed Black UU’s and UU’s of Color to the margins of our movement, redirecting resources and denominational attention away from life-saving ministries that blessed the world, and could have done more with support. There are stories of ministries and projects that never reached their full potential, histories of what could have been, and positive stories with unsung successes.

Furthermore, the perfectionism that is tangled up with white supremacy culture is another contributor to the problem of history that is told incompletely. When those of us who are white notice the absence of stories about Black Unitarian Universalist forbearers, and when we notice that our congregations do not match declarations of justice with lived diversity, we white UU’s might feel shame or confusion, and that might lead us to remain silent rather than do more research. We might be reluctant to talk about the histories we do know of Black Unitarian Universalists because we would have to talk about the racism that white UU’s demonstrated in those stories.

White supremacy is one of the dynamics in the story of the Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown, whose poetry I quoted last week. He started a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica in 1908. In 1912, he was the first Black man to be ordained as a Unitarian minister. He founded the Harlem Community Church in New York City in 1921. The American Unitarian Association was ambivalent toward this ministry, and removed Rev. Brown’s fellowship in 1929. But he kept going. The Harlem Community Church was sustained for thirty-five years, and though the membership was never large, it was an important center for debate, especially among the community of immigrants from Jamaica. Rev. Brown does not show up near the top of the list of famous Unitarian Universalists, and when his name does come up, the whole story about how badly he was treated by the leadership of the American Unitarian Association does not always get mentioned. Perhaps in the mistaken belief that only large congregations are important, we fail to give proper credit for the lives that were transformed and the organizing that was done and the words that comforted and inspired people in the Harlem Community Church.

Supporting Rev. Brown and his ministry was a missed opportunity for the American Unitarian Association in the 1920s and 1930s. We can also remember that a strong Humanist Unitarian faith inspired him, that there was something about a theology of unity and human potential that sustained Rev. Brown and his congregation in their spiritual life and in their activism. We learn from this story that a little support goes a long way, that our faith movement does not have a consistently positive history of anti-oppression, and still that there is liberating potential in the theologies of our tradition that shines through it all.

There are some other ways that white supremacy has gotten in the way of knowing our UU history. Implicit racism de-emphasized the stories of Black Unitarian Universalists, mistakenly giving credit to white people for some of their achievements, and dismissing other achievements as being unimportant. It is only recently that books and resources about UU history have begun to correct these obstacles to the whole truth.

Fannie Barrier Williams is an example of a Unitarian Universalist whose achievements have been overlooked. We heard some of her story earlier in the service, and I mentioned her in a sermon last fall. There was a textbook for Unitarian history published in 1952 called “Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference, 1852-1952.” New textbooks for seminarians didn’t come along all that often in those days, and so this was THE source material for a generation of UU ministers. The author failed to give credit to Fannie Barrier Williams for co-founding the Frederick Douglass Center, an integrated social settlement affiliated with All Souls Church in Chicago. Instead, the textbook focused on Williams’ white co-founder, Rev. Celia Parker Woolley. The “freedom” that was the subject of study was less concerned with things like the freedom to receive treatment at a hospital, the freedom to receive an education, and the freedom from being lynched, all issues that Williams worked on.

Freedom is a value we share, yet there are cultural lenses to the meaning of freedom that are important for us to examine, in history and in our congregation today. Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, in the article that was excerpted earlier, reflected:

There was cultural dissonance between a people who, having political rights, prized “intellectual freedom” in their struggle with orthodoxy and those for whom the struggles for basic freedoms—political and spiritual freedom—were paramount.

When different cultural perspectives are taken into account in the definition of freedom, it becomes more clear that freedom is not an individual project, freedom is a collective project. Having the latitude to consider personal experience and new interpretations of sacred text when discerning an authentic spiritual path, that is one kind of freedom. Yet to exercise that freedom, there must also be freedom to participate in civic life, freedom from fear of harassment and violence, freedom to assemble and to organize. These freedoms are established and protected when people act in solidarity, when we are willing to put aside personal convenience for the sake of our siblings in spirit. None of us is free until all of us are free.

Fannie Barrier Williams, once she learned that her education and middle class privilege opened doors for her that were not open to other African American women, made it her business to open more doors to other people. Egbert Ethelred Brown, once he had achieved a seminary education and leadership in the community, made it his business to see that those who believed in freedom for the whole community had a place to gather and organize, even when that was expensive and risky for his family.

The Congregational Commitment we repeat at the beginning of worship comes through the individualistic, intellectual side of UU heritage in its framing of freedom. We pledge ourselves “to the right of each to believe as mind, heart, and conscience dictate; to accept the responsibilities this freedom commands; and to implement our belief in the essential worth and dignity of every human being.”

With an understanding of freedom that includes all of UU history, including the parts that have been obscured by white supremacy, we can reinterpret this pledge. In order to create a world where none can be compelled against mind, heart, and conscience; we need collective liberation of access to safety, health, justice, political empowerment, and respect. Freedom of belief is built on fundamental, embodied freedoms. In this context, the responsibilities this freedom commands includes the responsibility to work as co-conspirators of liberation, to put our comfort and convenience on the line until we and all of our beloved neighbors are free.

In our study of UU history, it is important to go back and find the stories about collective, concrete efforts toward freedom, because these stories have not always been valued or even told correctly. We study the past, in part, to learn from the mistakes that our denomination has made. The whole story of our heritage matters, because the struggle continues, and we need the wisdom of the ancestors who have already encountered the challenges that come with the responsibilities that freedom commands.

Our faith movement is now faced with and opportunity to know better and to do better. We have opportunities to learn how to have brave conversations about race. We have opportunities to support ministries that center the needs of UU’s of color. We have opportunities to re-frame our understanding of core values such as freedom and spiritual practice in ways that are anti-oppressive, inclusive, and authentic to the whole truth of our living tradition.

Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “We have fallen short and will again, and when we do we need to pause and pray and ask, ‘What does love demand of me?’” Indeed, it is not only freedom, but also love that commands us to continue the work of dismantling white supremacy.  

As we create new chapters of history, let us practice determination, curiosity, and humility. Let us not shy away from learning from our mistakes, nor from celebrating success in all of its forms. May we be so lucky as to have the chance to dedicate our lives and our shared community to a greater purpose, one that is rooted in justice and love.

So be it. Blessed be. Amen