Times of Challenge and Controversy (1.20.2019)

I got a question for you people: of all the recent Marvel movies, who is your favorite superhero? Ironman? Black Panther? Groot?

Does Groot count? Is he a tree or a superhero?

I have a confession to make, my friends. I have not seen all the Marvel universe movies, I’ve seen three or four of them in no sensical order- my understanding of this film series juggernaut is pasted together from scrolling through social media, conservations I overhear in the grocery store and from friends. A toddler’s macaroni art project is put together more succinctly than my knowledge. Yet despite this, I am aware that more so than ever, we live in an era of entertainment that displays narratives of chaos and destruction which are redeemed by people bitten by radioactive spiders or from different planets. Much like the generations in the Great Depression whose love of sappy and bright musical comedies soothed the wounds of the economic destitute and despair, our own tendency to love superhero sagas- these epics of unparalleled destruction stopped by a one or a group of determined heroes in an hour and an half or two is balm for us seeking an antidote for an unjust world.

2019 marks the 51st year since the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Decades since then, his vision for Beloved Community, for a world without racism, oppression and violence, it feels like there is none. In the Age of Trump, white supremacy is on full display. Emboldened by the president’s actions, proponents of this vileness no longer speak in dog whistles. Their ugliness is there, for all to see. This modern age needs a superhero more than ever.

Now before you go looking for a spider to bite you, I want to tell you a story of my favorite hero: the Fighting Dentist.

Ok, the branding needs a little work but hear me out:

The Fighting Dentist, or if you want to be specific: Winchester’s Fighting Dentist was born Errold D. Collymore in 1893 in Barbados. He came to the US at the age 19 and put himself through college and dental school. He started his career of vanquishing activities as the first black dentist in White Plains, NY in 1926. In those early months, he struggled to find housing and when he finally secured a place, it charged him $80 dollars a month not including the cost of heating. His neighbors, all white people, had to pay only $30, which included heat.

Housing was not the only issue black people faced: like all across the country, black people in White Plains were barred from working as police or firefighters and clerical positions. Those who were able to find employment with white people were paid less than them. And injustices went on to their young: black children were often abused by teachers and principals and banned from swimming and playing in public parks and pools. Injustice existed in every institution black people came in contact with, including the church. In 1927, Dr. Collymore and his wife Rene found the White Plains Community Unitarian Church, a segregated church. This church was founded in 1909. Almost twenty years after its founding and 63 years after the Civil War, only with Dr. Collymore and his family’s arrival and moral urging did the church integrate.

Dr. Collymore had a precedence for being a catalyst for white people. Realizing that addressing injustice started with ensuring black people had the most basic of rights: a roof over their heads, Dr. Collymore started the fight for fair housing in the town. He moved to the Highlands, an all white neighborhood and then like the Hulk awakening, in his own words: “All hell broke loose.”

A giant seven foot cross was burned in his front yard. Newspapers ran headlines declaring “A Black Invasion in the Highlands.”

Dr. Collymore responded by laying topsoil and planting flowers.

Newspapers urged him to flee. The good dentist planted more flowers.

The dentist fought against discrimination in all its faces in White Plains, in housing, jobs, schools, theatres, swimming pools and in all these battles, he persisted

Dr. Collymore took the Community Church out of itself to face the monsters that lurked outside their doors. MLK once said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Because of Dr. Collymore and because of the unrelenting battle against discrimination and the choice of them not to choose comfort over challenge, the church transformed from just a building to holy ground.

In a sermon entitled “A Common Faith by Which to Live” which he delivered at the White Plains Community Church on October 1, 1944 he concluded: Personally, I want a religion to live by. I want a faith to work by. It is because I have found a conscious effort to find the good life here at the Community Church that I have continued for these sixteen years to work among its people.

Really, now it can be told – you have been the guinea pigs in my laboratory of faith.

Here we have a veritable oasis of faith. Let us continue to build; – let us try to make it grow so that its example in brotherhood and faith in the essential decency of man might spread across the land and usher in the good life even beyond where we can see “far down the futures broadening way.”

I tell you the story of Dr. Collymore on this day for two reasons: one to bring attention to the often forgotten early Black Unitarians and the experience of Black Unitarian Universalists within our congregations: Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed wrote in the UU World in 2017: “In 1956 a survey reported that eighty Unitarian congregations had African American members, and in forty-nine of those congregations African Americans were active as officers. That means sixty years ago nearly 10 percent of Unitarian congregations had African American members holding positions of leadership.

This is not common knowledge, be it 1969 or 2017.”

Dr. Collymore and stories like his such as Ethelred Brown who started a Unitarian church in Harlem, Lewis McGee who founded one in Chicago in 1947, and William H. G. Carter who founded one in Cincinnati in 1932, black superheroes of their eras now rendered invisible in the echelons of the telling of the stories of our faith. It looks the wellspring of gifts our people of color in the mouth. If we white people ignore the legacy of the Black people of faith before, it is a sign to the black people of our faith today that black lives don’t matter.

Our faith calls us to Beloved Community, to affirm the worth and dignity of each person. By learning these stories, we learn about each other. We weave our tapestry of faith into something stronger and more beautiful.

We have done some of that work here at UUCSS. With the combing of the Racial Justice Task Force and the Diversity Taskforce, you all showed that you understand that anti-racist work is internal work. You realized that dismantling the overarching system of white supremacy in our country requires dismantling of the status quo, realized that complacency is as dangerous as outright injustice.

The second reason I told you the story of the Fighting Dentist because for us white people, it is a story of humility, it is a story of us listening to black people and the urgent need for us white people to cultivate both skills. Dr. Collymore came to the White Plains church. It was segregated still. It was a lesson for the people at that church to realize the system that they were in, the system of segregation, were hurting the very people who shared their community. It was a realization for them to stop, reflect and change. None of these people were superheros. They were ordinary people who listened to the people most affected by their systems and changed.

In these times, it is up for us as white people to listen to black people. Us white people must remember that we are not the only population in the congregation. Deep listening to black people opens us to humility. By being quiet, we learn. We counter our own internal prejudices and failstops. We learn that we still have so much to learn. For us white people cultivating humility is a spiritual practice to deepen our own faith.

This is constant work but worthy work.

White people, please remember: we are not saviors. We are not the heralds. There is nothing that makes a white person better equipped to solve the problems of racism and oppression. We must listen to our friends of color in addressing these issues and follow their lead. You are there in all your glories, your strengths and limitations- this can be painful.  Talk with your struggles deprogramming the white supremacist programming in your mind with your fellow white people. This is not the work of our friends of color. This deprogramming is awkward, painful, difficult and my friends, that is good. It is like moving again after an operation, I remember getting back on the treadmill for the first time and tears were streaming down my eyes. Minute by minute, day by day, the pain lessened. We move together, we are destined for that promised land of Beloved Community if we listen and work together to get there.

In these times of challenge and controversy, we are not all superheros a la Marvel. We understand there will be no ultimate actions of Deus Ex Machina that saves us all in the final act. We are all people linking arms with each other, each movement forward a movement away from fear and the lull of the system that urges us to ignore the suffering of our friends of color. We are building the Beloved Community each moment we white people stop and listen, each time we reject the programming of whiteness that lies and denies the rights and ignores the history of people of color, each time we come together to pull apart this messiness of being human and be together; we are building the way forward to MLK’s dream of a new society coming true. Together, we believe; together we will.

Blessed be, my friends.