Through public witness, education, and introspection, our faith is coming to understand that
fighting white supremacy means both resisting its most blatant forms “out there,” and disrupting
its systemic manifestations within. On this 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King
Jr., we consider how racism continues to affect us as a movement and a society.
As a new year dawns, everything is the same –
The world bound into its history and struggles, as we ourselves are bound.
Yet it’s also true that we stand at a threshold, 1
the new year not yet shaped,
leaving a great forming power in our hands:
what shall we do with this great gift of Time, this year?
May we remember that whatever justice, whatever peace and wholeness
might bloom in our world in the new year,
they will be brought about by the hands, hearts, and minds
of ordinary people: frail and fallible,
determined and courageous,
who move forward together, shaping the world we dream of.
The new year offers new ground for the seeds of our vision.
May we plant our dreams well, faithfully, and in joy.
READING Leslie Takahashi
Walk the maze
Within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.
This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.
Listen in the twists and turns.
Listen in the openness within all searching.
Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you
and in that dialogue, lies peace.
This has been a time, sure enough. We lived through the fire and smoke of December.
We have been reeling with the news from Montecito and our hearts are broken open. It seems
like we cannot turn on the television or radio or look at the news feeds in our computers without
some latest outrage from our government in Washington, this week unbelievably racist
statements which I will not repeat here, but juxtaposing those statements next to the fact that it is
Martin Luther King Jr. weekend sticks in the craw.
It has been a time for our whole movement, the Unitarian Universalist Association, this
past year, since the controversy over hiring practices erupted last March, when yet another white
man was hired in a leadership role at the UUA, when there were other qualified candidates—and
that is the short story. That resulted in all the repercussions that followed, with a new call to
action to what folks began calling white supremacy in our movement, how to address that,
educate ourselves about that or even get our minds around that phrase which I never before
would have associated with our faith, with my faith. And it has been a time for our UU initiative
of some years, Standing On the Side of Love, which this week changed its name to Side With
Love, in response to our active disabled rights folks’ concerns, which they have been expressing
for years, since the initiative took the name of a popular hymn from our teal hymnal, Standing
On the Side of Love. Last year Jason Shelton changed the name of the song he wrote from
Standing on the Side of Love to Answering the Call of love, which we have addressed here on
several Sunday mornings. You may remember changing its name right in our hymnals with pen!
In the 1930s, Florence Reece, who was a white union organizer, wrote the
song “Which Side Are You On?” amidst a violent struggle for the rights of miners in Harlan
County Kentucky. Versions of it have been sung in the streets ever since, most recently renewed
and updated by the Dream Defenders, and other organizers in the Movement for Black Lives.
They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there
Which side are you on my people? Which side are you on?
We answer that question with our lives. Our friends in the formerly Standing on the Side
of Love organization, one of our most active social justice groups in recent years, now say, “May
we Side with Love.”
As I try to grapple with the difficult topic of racism and white supremacy on this MLK
Jr. weekend which marks 50 years since his murder, may we Side With Love. May we keep our
minds open and know that “there are no neutrals there.” May we know that this conversation is
for all of us, especially for those of us who identify as white. It is our job to inform ourselves
about what is meant by white supremacy, our own place of privilege, and learn how to side with
love. And, no, it is not a comfortable topic for any of us, you nor me. It can be difficult topic and
will result in changes…including small ones like what to do with my Standing on the Side of
Love stole that I am wearing right now. Do I change it with pen? Dr. King often said, quoting
our Unitarian minister Theodore Parker from the 1800s, “the arc of the moral universe is long
but it bends toward justice.” And I believe that that arc needs our hands and feet to help it bend.
And that is not always comfortable.
My colleague, Kate Lore posted this on Facebook this Friday:
“To my fellow White folks:
When we focus on racism as an individual problem that ‘bad’ people have, as opposed to a system
of social control that implicates us, we limit our growth and understanding. We also set in place a
hair trigger by which we experience any challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to our
very identities as good, moral people.
The truth is that ‘good’ White people often do and say racist things, myself included. We
can’t let that fact shut down our willingness to ‘do the work’ and ‘stay in the conversation.'”
What, me? Is she talking to me? Brings me to mind of when I was doing a lot of training
in the early days of the Welcoming Congregation when we were studying homophobia and other
LGBT issues. Trainers used to say something like, “We are all homophobic.” What me? What
me, a straight ally with an abundance of LGBT friends—and now I would add Q to that? We
were living in a homophobic world then. Yes, there has been progress but we know that
homophobia is still entrenched in our systems all the same. We still need to side with love.
And I didn’t used to like the term patriarchy when I first heard it either. Many women’s
libbers I happened to know in the early seventies were what I saw as men haters, and I was
definitely a man lover. But I didn’t get it then either. It took me a while. Patriarchy was how I
grew up. It was the water I swam in. It was where girls were expected to marry and have a
husband take care of her. Women didn’t run businesses or run for political offices… or become
ministers for that matter. It was so engrained that it took me decades to figure out that I was one!
Think about it. We live in a racist society where white supremacy is engrained in all the
systems. It is like the water we swim in; we don’t even see it. It is just there. White supremacy is
a term like “patriarchy”. It is about systems—systemic racism. And for us white folks, we don’t
even really see it, no matter how much work we have done on the Journey Towards Wholeness
and many other initiatives many of us have experienced over time. We still have work to do. And
it is not up to our People of Color to teach us. It is our job. We need to listen to them. We need to
keep learning how to side with love. We need to stay in the conversation.
Thinking back to last spring when the story broke over the controversy over hiring
practices at the UUA, I was caught up short with the language they were using of white
supremacy. What us? What me? Many were—and still are—insulted by that term. But I have
come around to accepting it and in finding ways to educate myself—again—and stay in the
conversation…and start the conversation when I need to. For some of us, it seems that we have
been trying to do the work of identifying and eradicating racism for a long time and the language
of last spring felt to many of us as discrediting the hard work we had done. But there is always
more to learn…and we know, as Dr. King did, that racism will likely not be eradicated in our
lifetimes. And that racism hurts all of us.
The controversy broke while I was back in Boston sitting on the Ministerial Fellowship
Committee of the UUA, our credentialing board for ministers. I have been a member since 2013
and am a little more than halfway through my term. My experience of this committee is that it is
by far the most diverse group I have been on in my extensive denominational work in our
Association, and is increasingly more so each year. It is a large commitment of time for all of us
members and there is continuing education on top of it. Our members include parish ministers,
community ministers, a military chaplain, religious educators, people of color, differently abled
people, lay people, LGBTQ members, and folks from varying socio-economic groups. We try to
be very conscious of any bias we might bring to the decision-making table. We look carefully at
our white privilege, those of us who are white. We are well aware of our power. We have had
teach-ins on gender, on disabled rights, on sexual abuse and much more. But the thing about
white supremacy is that it permeates all the systems around us—that water we swim in. And the
most well intentioned among us get caught short; and we certainly have been caught short as a
denomination a number of times in our past.
So it is on the MLK Jr weekend I am landing on the subject more head on and suggesting
that we continue the conversations we have started with our All Church Reads in recent years
when we read Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy…w hen we read William Barber’s The Third
Reconstruction…and when we read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. We have had
movies in our Dinner and a Movie series that have touched on the subject. Next Sunday after
church I will be leading a Drop-In Small Group where we can go more in depth with the issues,
continue the conversation. This afternoon we all have the opportunity to attend a Tribute to
Martin Luther King Jr. at First United Methodist Church, being put on by the Santa Paula
Ministerial Association with a number of community sponsors. The message is being given by
Roberto Vargas. Don’t miss it! Many ways to keep educating ourselves, to keep deciding “which
side are we on?”
And is it hopeless? Can we ever hope to dismantle racism? I know I have to do my small
part to try. Just as I choose to believe that there is meaning to living, I choose to believe that my
living—our living—can make a difference. Let’s continue the conversation.
I end with my favorite passage from our gray hymnal by Edward Everett Hale, a
Unitarian minister who was also the Chaplain in the US Senate. Much of his life was devoted to
the cause of international peace:
I am only one.
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
That is what will make us all free. And none of us can truly be free unless ALL are free.
May it be so. Amen.
Spirit of the circle that is Love,
as we twirl in this dance that is life
we give thanks for reminding us each day
of our task of ministering to each “other”
with a searching glance,
a safe touch,
a generous smile,
a thoughtful word…
Thank you for reminding us
that we are always building our beloved comunidad.
Thank you for reminding us
that through our covenant with you
we covenant with each “other”
and are made whole.