Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Olympia Brown Unitarian Universalist Church. If you are a guest, we offer a special welcome to you this morning. Parts of the worship service today were taken from “The Promise and the Practice of Our Faith” worship guidelines, in which the writers and the musicians are persons of color. Part of stepping away from our centering of whiteness in worship is intentionally using words and music by Black People, Indigenous People and People of Color. Because this resource asks us to decenter white voices, I will be using a reflection by a woman of color, rather than using words of my own.
CALL TO WORSHIP written by the Rev. Viola Abbot for “The Promise and the Practice of our Faith” Worship Guidelines
We are Unitarian Universalists. When we lift up our Seven Principles, some of us think of them as a form of theology—but they are more important to our collective than that: they do not tell us what we should believe; they tell us how to be. They tell us how we should act in the larger world and with each other.
We are brought here today by the fact that Unitarian Universalism has fallen short of the image that was presented to the world, and to many of those who embraced this religion. But we are also brought here today by the truth that Unitarian Universalism has shifted course to move toward a place of wholeness: a place that perhaps never existed for us as a denomination.
It has been a long, and sometimes unforgiving road to today. But we are here today because we are mindful of that past, and because we have hope for the future. We want the practice of this faith to be a fulfilling manifestation of its promise.”
These words, by Viola Abbot, can also be found in the study guide for the document, “Widening the Circle of Concern,” a study that we will be asking many of you to take part in in the coming months. At a gathering convened by UUA co-presidents in 2017, UU leaders of color were asked to share their insights into how the Association could continue moving forward in the midst of another racially challenged moment in our denomination. Many lamentations and learnings were identified by Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color. The study looks at what has changed since then and what remains the same. It is a study that will help us to understand that, as a “living tradition,” our faith’s survival depends on its relevance, and relevance depends on accepting and addressing the truth of the findings and taking action not only in our churches and within our denomination, but in our larger community and beyond.
You will hear more about this in the coming weeks, as we prepare to engage with this study.
But now, come, let us open our hearts. Let us seek new ways of understanding. Let us worship together.
PRELUDE “Make Them Hear You” from “Ragtime” by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, Sung by 150 West End and Broadway Stars in support of #BLM
KINDLING THE CHALICE FLAME by the Rev. Rebekah Savage
We light our flaming chalice as a beloved people
united in love
and thirsting for restorative justice.
May it melt away the tethers that uphold whiteness in
May it spark in us a spirit of humility.
May it ignite in us radical love that transforms our
energy into purposeful action.
This is a chalice of audacious hope.
This chalice shines a light on our shared past,
signaling our intention to listen deeply, reflect wisely,
and move boldly toward our highest ideals.
Our chalice is lit.
HYMN NO. 1008 “When Our Heart is in a Holy Place” Performed by UUSGU music directors: Bob Nicoll and Barry Hall
GESTURE OF FRIENDSHIP
MESSAGE FOR ALL AGES “Black is a Rainbow Color” by Angela Joy, Illustrated by Ekua Holmes, Read by Leann Pomaville
READING by Ijeoma Oluo from “Be wary of things that are purely symbolic:” How to join the conversation on race.”
In an article/interview, Ijeoma Oluo is asked the question: “So what is your advice to those white people who want to talk about race right now?” Her answer:
“Right now you need to be running two tracks at the same time.
You have to be running your track of education, asking why didn’t I know about this? Why wasn’t I doing something sooner? Where am I lacking? What words are confusing me? Start reading up and start learning.
At the same time, look at being of use. Look at what your local protest leaders and resistance leaders are doing. Do they need donations? Do they need masks? Do people need certain messages amplified? Start looking at conversations you can be having in your cities, your towns, your school districts, in your offices to bring those issues forward.
It’s not just that we deserve to not be killed. We deserve to thrive in this country, just like everyone else.
Look how you can be of use to the people who have been struggling for justice and for black, indigenous, and people of color to really thrive in this country. And how you can help make sure that it’s something people actually want and can feel.
It’s not just your money, but if you can, give money to causes. But give your time. Amplify voices. Open doors. If someone’s saying they’re having trouble at your office talking about the issue of race, can you add your voice to back that person up? If your school board is not talking about the ways in which their disciplinary systems are set up or talking about getting police out of schools, that is something that you can bring up. And you can bring your friends in. Start looking at how you can be of use, and then also, at the same time, keep your personal education going.”
And in response to a question about symbolic gestures, like Blackout Tuesday, she says, in part:
Be wary of anything that allows you to do something that isn’t actually felt by people of color. Be wary of things that are purely symbolic; they are not helpful. We are not dying because of lack of symbolism in this country, so question who benefits from that . . .
Just always be aware. I always ask myself when I’m trying to do solidarity work, can the people I’m in solidarity with actually feel this? Can they spend this? Can they eat this? Does this actually help them in any way? And if it doesn’t, let it go.”
HYMN NO. 1040 “Hush” by Church of the Larger Fellowship
CENTERING WORDS “Caged Bird,” a poem by Maya Angelou
The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill for the caged bird
sings of freedom
The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing
The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
As we move into a time of stillness and reflection, let us think of the myriad years of songs, sung both to cope with suffering and to express a longing, always, for freedom. How many on that distant hill have had the ears to hear?
TIME OF STILLNESS AND REFLECTION
I play this moment over and over again in my head: the day I heard of the Thomas Jefferson Ball, hosted by Unitarian Universalists in 1993. As a person of color, raised in a UU congregation, I felt a shiver down my spine as I learned something new and unsettling about the faith that I call home.
You may be wondering why this gathering of UUs in 1993 struck me as a profoundly memorable and painful moment. Beloveds, this is why: attendees were encouraged to wear period clothes to the Ball to celebrate Thomas Jefferson, who attended Unitarian churches. In the spirit of welcome, those who conceived of this social gathering did not take into account the centering of whiteness by asking people to attend in period dress. The organizers forgot or ignored the fact that in Jefferson’s time, we black and brown UUs would have been slaves: property to traded and sold, brutalized and subjected.
The matter was taken up at General Assembly when delegates challenged the appropriateness of holding this event. During a plenary session, delegates voiced their concerns by reading a statement of protest. In response, the organizers and other leaders gathered to consider how to proceed and came to a decision: the Thomas Jefferson Ball would proceed ahead as planned.
I ask myself: What would I wear? Would I be a house slave, favored for my lighter skin and “good hair”? My skin is a light brown that my daughter refers to as cinnamon, a product of a beautiful multi-racial family history. Would I catch the eye of a white man who could leverage any opportunity to take my body as his property?
What would I wear? Would I have had shoes on my work worn feet? Would I have stretch marks across my belly from babies that were taken from me to sell to other plantations? Would I sing to myself faithful, mournful songs of liberation, dreaming for the day when I can taste freedom for myself and my family?
What would I wear? Would I be allowed to come through the front entrance or directed to the back, to enter through the kitchen with the other slaves and servants? Would I be allowed to drink from the same punch bowl, eat from the same platters? Would I sit with the other people of color, in a separate room or at the back of the gathering? Would I be permitted to look a white person in the eye or even speak their name?
What would I wear, dear beloved UU’s? Tell me: what I would have worn to attend this ball? What period clothes would represent who I would have been in Thomas Jefferson’s time?
When we feel something deeply and are still finding the words: OUCH.
Why do I raise this deeply wounding moment in our shared UU history?
Because this isn’t just a reflection about my lived experience as a person of color in a majority-white denomination. This is also part of the story of how people of color experience sharing worship and community within our faith. It’s a chapter in the story of who we are as a people, living in this country, swimming in the waters of white supremacy and centering whiteness, supported by centuries of indoctrinations and institutional structures.
I grieve for the hurts that this time in our history caused. I grieve for those who left our communities because of how this event was handled, which broke their trust in finding spacious rest in our congregations from the pervasive, violent racism in our country. I grieve for those who, at the time, were unable to traverse the gaps in their spiritual understanding of justice and belonging. I grieve that it has taken this long to have this level of conversation about centering people of color.
This Ball was conceived by well-meaning people, beloved kin of mine and yours, who were able to identify welcome only through the eyes of white privilege. That is the insidious nature of centering whiteness: it denies personhood and the God given right for all to be fully accounted.
To put primacy on whiteness as the default setting in how we see and experience our world means that we are being theologically inconsistent. We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, and yet we have devalued the full inclusion of too many.
In small ways, this trend emerges when music and readings for worship draw primarily from Anglo-European composers and writers and the paintings that hang in our congregations disproportionately represent our white foremothers and forefathers. We see this trend when congregational leadership is cultivated without honoring the diversity in our midst as a rich source of inspiration and prophetic messaging. We see this in considering that people of color have been a part of our living tradition for centuries — but our voices have been overlooked, silenced, or outright rejected with hostility.
I ignite my flame of justice and shine a light on this scar because the healing is not done. The healing is not done because we are still called to do the work of dismantling white supremacy culture and decentering whiteness from our bones: from our congregations, from the ways in which we interact and support each other. We are called to fulfill the promises once made in the name of faith and proclaiming Beloved Community. We are called to match our words with our actions, to bring the holy into our midst by truly and without fear honoring the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
This is a beautiful time of opportunity, Beloveds, born of truly listening to people of color and beginning to repair the fabric of community that has been torn. Ripped asunder by years of broken and empty promises: words of good intention, unmatched by purposeful action.
I love being a Unitarian Universalist. I was birthed into this world with the calling of service on my heart; I was shaped and molded in our congregations. I also know that, as Dr. Cornell West shared with us in his 2015 Ware Lecture at General Assembly, if I have white supremacy in my heart because I was raised in this country, so do we all.
While I grieve, I also have much reason to claim hope. I celebrate where we are as a people of faith because we are bravely facing the devastation and illness of “othering” people. We are looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeking a new way. I celebrate that we have the moral and spiritual courage to listen deeply to voices that have been marginalized. I celebrate that beloveds are choosing to move back humbly, to make space for an evolution in leadership and consciousness. The spark of working towards the greatest good is seen in every moment of insight as so many are waking up to our participation in centering whiteness.
Beloveds, now is our time to lead with love and make right the ways our denomination has fallen short of our shared principles. We are a powerful, aspirational covenanted people and we are being called to account for our historic moral and spiritual failings, in order to move into authentic Beloved Community.
Now is our time to harness our ability to reflect inward in order to reemerge with a power greater than ourselves that gives rise to a new day. Beloveds, with love and peace in our hearts, may it be so.
RESPONSE HYMN NO. 95 “There is More Love, Somewhere” by Jason Shelton Choir
Especially now, in this challenging and anxious time, your generosity is what keeps this community as vital as it is.
Each month we share the generosity of our collection with a local partner. Our outreach partner for November is the Root Pike Watershed Initiative Network:
Root-Pike WIN, as it is known, Inc. restores, protects and sustains the Root-Pike basin by building partnerships to advance projects that benefit some of the most degraded Lake Michigan watersheds. Support for Root-Pike WIN brings clean water projects, programs, and public outreach in our community where they would not have occurred otherwise. For more information on how to donate to OBUUC and Root Pike WIN, please visit our church website.
OFFERTORY MUSIC “Glory (From the Motion Picture Selma) Performed by the Detroit Youth Choir, dedicated to Rep. John Lewis
BENEDICTION “Equality” by Maya Angelou
Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you’ve heard me crying,
and admit you’ve seen my tears.
Hear the tempo so compelling,
hear the blood throb in my veins.
Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
and the rhythms never change.
Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.
And now, we extinguish the chalice flame, but the fire and the light continue in us. Let us go forth to bring our love and our commitment not only to the work of Widening the Circle of Concern in our own churches and denomination, but widening that circle within our neighborhoods, our city and beyond. Peace, and if ever there was a time and a need for it: unrest.
This morning’s chalice is extinguished, but our connection to one another in beloved community remains.
POSTLUDE “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” Arr. by Nalini Calamur and *Z* McClelland, Sung by the Stanford Talisman Alumni Virtual Choir