Our Mission: Seek Justice
July 14, 2019
Rev. Maddie Sifantus
RESPONSIVE READING SLT 588 Isaiah 58
SERMON Our Mission: Seek Justice Rev. Maddie Sifantus
I don’t often read from the Scripture—the Bible—in our Sunday services but I have long believed that we UUs do ourselves a disservice if we leave that part of our heritage out completely—especially the words of the Hebrew Prophets like Isaiah which we just read or these famous words on your Order of Service this morning, paraphrased from Micah which inspired Martin Luther King Jr., among many others: “What more is required of you than to act justly, love mercy and to walk humbly.” (Micah 6:8). Frankly, those three phrases could be a mission of our congregation, which today I am looking through with the lens of addressing our official Mission as a congregation, revisiting it, as I said last month, as is the Best Practice to do with any Mission Statement for any organization or congregation.
You may remember I asked on June 2, how does our mission address what happens within our walls, in our larger community and across the continent? And you may remember that we started talking about Mission and Vision at our Annual Meeting back in January, I preached about it that morning, and have touched on it here or there since. Your Board had its retreat focusing on it in April and we are kicking off all manner of meetings, focus groups, circle dinners and whatnot over the next year or so to look at the Mission and think about what we want to look like/be like/act like in a year, five years or more. Each of our committees will look at it with their particular lens. For instance, the first one will be the Worship Team at the end of this month. Those of us who will be looking through our “Faith Formation, Religious Education and our Spiritual Growth Center” will have their lens. The choir will have their lens, as will the Social Concerns Action Committee. And so on.
We will ask: “Who are we called to be in 2019? Does our Mission still fit us? What does it call us to do?” Who remembers our mission? (XXXX) Hint: it has three parts.
“Practice Inclusiveness, Seek Justice, and Foster Spirituality.”
So today I am focusing on the second phrase, “Seek Justice.” What is it we mean by that? It’s pretty important, methinks, if is one of the three phrases, even in the center of the three. What justice do we seek? How do we agree in our priorities in justice seeking? How does this part of our mission inform our activities and how we walk our faith? What does it mean for how we spend our money and plan our budget? Who is in charge of “seeking justice” here? What does seeking justice look like? Perhaps, on this Bastille Day, we look at justice making through the history of revolutions and I could burst into Le Marseillaise of my Francophile bent that came with acquiring the Sifantus surname upon my marriage in France years ago. However, I am looking at justice making closer to home and our times.
As I often do, I started my thinking about this with my dictionary. First I looked up the verb, to seek. Dictionary.com gave me these definitions to think about:
to go in search or quest of: for example, to seek the truth.
to try to find or discover by searching or questioning: such as, to seek the solution to a problem.
to try to obtain: to seek fame.
to try or attempt (usually followed by an infinitive): to seek to convince a person.
to go to: to seek a place to rest.
I like to think that UU congregations are a place where we seek things. Perhaps we are seeking the truth, the solutions or at least coping mechanisms for the challenges and vicissitudes of life. Last Sunday I filled the pulpit in our small, lay led congregation in Cambria, up the Central Coast, just north of Harmony, population 18. In that sweet congregation in the town that I have taken to calling my “happy place” on the left coast, they have car magnets and bumper stickers for sale. I am not really a bumper sticker gal but I picked up this one with a saying I love, “Unitarian Universalism: Where all your answers are questioned.” That’s the kind of seeking we do here, it seems to me. We are always questioning, as we gather to ask the big questions and even as we choose to address what a few or many or all of us consider to be the injustices around us. We maybe don’t seek fame but we do seek recognition to be noticed here in Santa Paula, inspired by our stained-glass skylight with the scripture from I John: “Beloved let us love one another.” (I John 4:7). And we try to convince our members and our community through example and education to join us in solidarity and awareness as we come to terms with the injustices around us. Finally, I like to think that we follow our dictionary example of seeking a place to rest, that this is a place of spiritual renewal where we can find comfort from our discomforts brought on by things like the state of our democracy, climate justice, immigration, homelessness, you fill in the blank. Our job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” but all of us need to rest from our labors.
And what does the dictionary say about the noun “justice”?
the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness: such as to uphold the justice of a cause.
rightfulness or lawfulness, as of a claim or title; justness of ground or reason: to complain with justice.
the moral principle determining just conduct.
conformity to this principle, as manifested in conduct; just conduct, dealing, or treatment.
the administering of deserved punishment or reward.
the maintenance or administration of what is just by law, as by judicial or other proceedings: a court of justice.
It helped me to pair the definition for justice with their definition for the noun “injustice”:
the quality or fact of being unjust; inequity.
violation of the rights of others; unjust or unfair action or treatment.
an unjust or unfair act; wrong.
This is where we may find ourselves seeking justice with one another when we do not all agree on the “quality or fact of being unjust” or inequity, inequality, or unfairness. And if we may not agree with each other within these walls, we certainly may not agree with many outside these walls about the violation of the rights of others, unjust and unfair actions or treatments and unjust or unfair wrongs. One only has to look at the news in California and across the nation with the Lights of Liberty vigils that took place Friday evening and the threat of ICE raids taking place today, with the attendant fear in our immigrant and farmworkers community. There certainly isn’t consensus locally or nationally. But I hope we do seek justice; our faith as UUs demands it.
What DO UUs think about Social Justice. For a number of years, the UUA has put out Pocket Guides, edited by the President of the Association. The latest, completely updated version was just published, edited by our President, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray. It covers such things as Our Faith, Worship, Our Ministry, Our Religious Education, Our Communities, Our Roots, some of our Songs…and a chapter on Social Justice written by Rev. Elizabeth Ngugen who I knew back in Boston and until recently worked for the UUA. Here is a little of what she wrote:
“The UU feminist and peace activist Margaret Moseley called social justice work moving mountains, one stone at a time. Margaret was born in Boston in 1910. She dreamed of being a nurse, but being African American, she was turned away from all the nursing schools in the city. She went on to help found Cooperative Way and Freedom House and to lead the anti-McCarthyism movement and the Community Church of Boston.
“We move mountains, one stone at a time; as UUs, our journey is to transform the big and the small, to transform ourselves and to transform the world. Universalism means no one is outside the circle of love and no one is disposable….Interdependence means none of us is truly free until we are all free, and our thriving is bound up in the earth’s thriving. We struggle for liberation from the violence of white supremacy, sexism, ableism, classism, and heterosexism. Our covenants mean we make promises to our communities to honor love and justice above all else….
“UUism is for those who have seen the arc bend toward justice and those who doubt it will ever bend but know we must organize as if our lives depend on it anyway, because they do….Our theology says we are all saved, and salvation is what we strive to build now, for each other. So we resist any laws, policies, or practices that deny anyone their humanity.”
All that is a tall order, and probably more than many UUs signed up for when they walked in the door to their congregation or that was explicit or implicit in the culture of their particular community. For those of us who have experienced a number of our congregations, we know that there is a large spectrum of the premise and practice across our association that affects all areas, from worship, theologies, music…and social justice. In some congregations, classical music is the name of the game, with horror expressed at what I have heard called “camp fire songs” or pop music used on Sunday mornings. In other congregations the horror is expressed towards Bach, Mozart and the like, with electric instruments being the name of the game. And some congregations are more focused on what they perceive as the social justice issues than on anything else…and still others don’t touch on what they consider to be the political, trying to “keep nice” to not upset anyone.
So what about us? As we have already seen, “seek justice” is the centerpiece of our Mission Statement. How do we carry that out? The first part of the answer to that question has to be our Social Concerns Action Committee, which is a committee approved by our Board of Trustees. Here’s what it says about our committee on our new website:
[The mission of the Social Concerns Action Committee] is to promote the principles of democracy by working for a sustainable, just, and fair world. Grounded in Unitarian Universalist principles that affirm the worth, dignity and human rights of every person, and the interdependence of all life, we believe our faith calls us to giving support, educating ourselves and our community and taking action.
Our Social Concerns Action Committee meets monthly on the second Wednesday of every month at 4:00 PM. All are welcome. Our Affiliate Community Minister for Social Justice, Betty Stapleford, and I usually attend along with committee chair Audrey Vincent, Margaret Wilson who spearheads our documentary film series effort and others among us.
What do we do at our meetings? We plan for many things on behalf of the congregation. We choose the recipients of our first Sunday offering plate, which changes quarterly. As you heard last Sunday, this quarter’s recipient is the Spirit of Santa Paula which serves the homeless in our community. We coordinate the collection of non-perishable food the last Sunday of each month for CASP, the Community Assistance of Santa Paula. We plan for the monthly Dinner and a Movie showing documentaries and films to educate ourselves and the community on pressing issues for our community, our nation and our world, from Climate Justice to Nuclear and Peace Issues. And we are involved in planning events like One Billion Rising which addresses gender-based violence, the Martin Luther King Jr. Jazz Requiem, and most recently Cesar Chavez week, collaborating as much as we can with Latino Town Hall and other community partners. Each Thanksgiving we kick off a Guest at Your Table effort to raise money for the UU Service Committee, also educating our families and ourselves about the work the UUSC does on our behalf and in response to the great needs in the world. Finally, The SCAC has long been concerned with issues around immigration, detainees, DACA, Dreamers, Farmworkers Housing and other issues experienced by the Farmworkers living among us and providing food for the tables of America. We would love to do more if we had more hands and feet.
Many of us as individuals respond to the needs we perceive around us. In the current hostile climate for asylum seekers, immigrants and the detainment of men, women and children at our borders and in ICE detention centers, several of us respond by visiting or corresponding with detainees. Some of us attended vigils on Friday night. I know that Kate English brought the LGBTQ youth group which meets in our church building to the one in Camarillo. Pascale, Sebastien and I attended the one in Ojai. And Betty went out to the Adelanto Detention Center where she visits regularly and I do as time allows.
Some of you donate to the work of Interface here in Santa Paula and Ventura County. Others support the UUSC and other organizations financially. And others of you—and myself—let our UU faith and sense of justice lead us to support a variety of causes, attend events and try to educate ourselves. This past year saw five of us do an in-depth series created by the Fahs Collective of the Meadville Lombard Theological School named Beloved Conversations, having difficult conversations about race, white supremacy and structural racism. We plan to offer that series again if there is interest. It is not an easy subject…but then nothing about showing up for justice is. I know I need to keep educating myself, which is why I have recently read How Not to Be Stupid About Race by Dr. Crystal Fleming. Stay tuned for a sermon about that work sometime in the next six months.
Our seeking justice includes those of us who would like to be better about our environmental impact on the planet but most especially within these walls. Let’s rid ourselves of the plastics that don’t biodegrade. Many of us could walk or ride our bikes to church. Our seeking justice means that some of us participate in the UUA’s Common Read, which we call our All Church Read, joining with UUs across our Association in consideration of one book, which this year was Justice on Earth edited by Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom. It speaks to our times when racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice are seen as issues competing for time, attention, and resources, Justice on Earth explores the ways in which the three are intertwined. People and communities on the margins are invariably those most affected by climate disaster and environmental toxins. The book asks us to recognize that our faith calls us to long-haul work for justice for our human kin, for the Earth and for all life. It invites us to look at our current challenges through a variety of different perspectives, offers tools to equip us for sustained engagement, and proposes multiple pathways for follow-up action. I am waiting to hear what the UUA’s Common Read for 2019-2020 will be.
Our seeking justice means that we chose a company for the investment of our Capital Fund which specializes in responsible investing. Our seeking justice means that we are renewing our Welcoming Congregation Status, supporting our LGBTQ members, friends and neighbors. And I could go on. And we could do more. And some of you do more that we don’t know about.
And as we do this seeking of justice, what if we don’t agree with each other about what justice to seek? Elizabeth Nyugen writes, “It happens all of the time. You have probably [heard] some things here that you have disagreed with. We know that our religious ancestors disagreed. Communities fractured over the abolition of slavery and integration, just as others were strong and united in their conviction. Our spiritual communities are full of big and little disagreements—from what to put on our banners to what role religious people and communities should play in the work of justice.” If you want to talk more about it, especially as it relates to our July theme, Freedom and Responsibility, join our Reflections group after coffee hour in my office today. And I will be moving on to the third phrase in our Mission, “Foster Spirituality”, in September.
As Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, the current President of the Star King School for the Ministry has written, “The truth is this: If there is no justice, there will be no peace…if we cannot bring justice to the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. Nothing that UUs need to do more is more important than making justice real—here, where we are.” I hope that you come and go with me to that land, knowing that you—we—have companions on the way and that we foster spirituality to stay the race and transform lives. May it be so.
CLOSING HYMN 1018 Come and Go With Me
BENEDICTION Bets Weineke
May we leave this place seeking an uncharted and freely chosen way to wholeness, knowing we have companions along the way.
 Frederick-Gray, Susan, ed. UU Pocket Guide, 71-72.
 Frederick-Gray, 78.
 Frederick-Gray, 79.