Dismantling Racism: Let’s See What Love Can Do

There were some tech glitches in parts of this service. We are posting the full text of the readings and sermon in addition to the available video.

Readings — Abi Sessions

Our ancient reading is one of just two passages from the Biblical book of Genesis that our denomination retained as a readingfrom older hymnals when it published is in the current hymnal, Singing in the Living Tradition, in 1993.

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”..And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Our modern reading is part of a dissent written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and supported by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opposing a 2014 Supreme Court decision in a case called Schuett v BAMN. The is one of a growing number of cases in which the increasingly conservative Supreme Court has chipped away at the legality of laws and policies that wholly or partially dismantled the impact of various forms of racism, past and present. In this passage, Justice Sotomayor addressed the argument that the issues in the case turned on the political rights of states and individuals, not race. She also commented on the position argued by some political and judicial conservatives that racist thinking is reinforced by analyzing and addressing economic and social issues in terms of race.

In my colleagues’ view, examining the racial impact of legislation only perpetuates racial discrimination. This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.

Sermon “Dismantling Racism: Let’s See What Love Can Do” by Rev. Barnaby Feder

Last week at our Water Communion worship service, we enjoyed a beautiful few minutes during the Milestones and Passages installing the current Board and thanking them for taking on that leadership role. And I told you of the plan the Board and I have agreed on that, barring unforseen circumstances, I will be retiring two years from now at the end of my 11th year as your minister. I was thinking this week that maybe we should also have reinstalled me too, to recommit ourselves and re-energize us for the good work we still have before us.

Looking over the my installation program from that beautiful October day, I was struck by a number of inspiring elements. Abi did the Welcome and Call to Worship for that service too.

The first hymn that day was Fire of Commitment, which speaks our hands and hearts and spirits being guided into “faith set free from fear” and of demanding “deeper justice built by our courageous choice.”

Jim Burnett was President of the congregation at the time. And speaking to me for the congregation, he said “We would have you demonstrate by your example, as well as by your teaching, the way of calm and courageous life. We would have you call attention to the evils and failures of our lives. We would have you lead us in a mutual quest toward a greater understanding of the religious life.”

None of it — not the hymns or the spoken words — said “unless there is a pandemic.” None of it said, “in case of pandemic, it will be enough for you to help us comfort each other in worship, fashion some moments of beauty and gratitude, and give us a break from the stresses of daily life.” And so today I’m going to take a chance that you still want me to push you — to push us together — to courageously try to make the world better. I’m going to bring us back to talking about racism. Like Justice Sotomayor in our second reading, I’m going to say, “Folks we have to talk about this and we have to address it. It’s in our history and it’s in all of our lives today. It’s there no matter how often people try to disguise what’s going on, even from themselves, by saying “that’s not the real issue here” or “it’s racist to even talk about racism.”

Thanks, Abi, for reading Justice Sotomayor’s words and for those from the Bible. It’s wonderful to have you here after all these years, still welcoming all of us and now serving as head of the worship team. Your on-going service to the congregation, like that of so many people here, is what gives me the strength to say what I believe needs to be heard. It gives me strength even when I know some people are going to hear it as an accusation that we aren’t doing enough instead of a loving, hopeful reminder of the kind of thing we pledged to do together.

The first reading is an excerpt from the story of Jacob, who has just awoken from a deep sleep in which he has dreamed of a ladder reaching to heaven. In the Bible story, angels are going up and down the ladder. And Jacob has dreamt that the God of his father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham, is right there beside him. This God has promised that his offspring will spread across the Earth in all directions and be a blessing to all families. And this God has promised to keep Jacob company at all times to make sure this amazing vision of the future is fulfilled.

Jacob is overwhelmed. The dream is so vividly fresh in his mind and such a contrast to fairly barren land around him. And perhaps Jaco is also a bit groggy having slept on open ground with a stone for his pillow. That’s where our reading begins with the words:

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!”… And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Now I had Abi mention that this passage is in our hymnal, but that’s not quite true. The version in our hymnal in the section titled “Opening Words” leaves out the words “And he was afraid and said”. In other words, it goes straight from “Surely the LORD is in this place — and I did not know it!” to “How awesome is this place!” There is no hint that those who published our hymnal in 1993 felt that UU’s reciting opening words should feel so awed by the mystery of what we are called to in church that we should be uncomfortable, even afraid.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that. As a lifelong UU, I can assure you that our denomination was ambivalent about the uses of the Bible in worship and God language in general long before the 1990’s. When UU’s trot out the Bible, the goal is usually to welcome and lift us up by emphasizing the positive. But I think leaving the fear out of this part of Jacob’s story is a good example of unintentional truth telling about us. We are all too often a religion that is soft to the point of dishonesty. We are not being gentle with ourselves out of compassion, but out of fear we will drive too many people away by being honest about the demands of our lofty aspirations.

If you leave here with any message this morning, let it start with this: You don’t have to believe in the God of Genesis, or any God, to accept that any place where we encounter an immense, clear vision of a glorious heaven — a world that has dismantled racism, for example — is also a place where a wise person should feel fear. Who, or what force, is going to be with us in the journey toward fulfilling this dream? What a sure failure and disaster it would be to embark if, deep down, we really believed we were essentially alone.

We aren’t alone. We are part of a congregation that calls us to wear aprons rather than bibs in its relations among us and with the wider world — a congregation that calls us to service with words “Well, let’s see what love can do.” Those of you who attended the High Holy Days service two weeks ago will recognize the reference. These are the words of a wise mother in Julia Alvarez’s novel Afterlife, which I spotlighted in that sermon.

It’s all part of our theme this fall about how we nurture community during a pandemic that is restricting what we can do together and separating so many congregants from all active participation in our gatherings. Our only way forward in such circumstances boils down to seeing what love can do when we get creative. And I truly believe one of the things it can do is help us confront our fears, so, in the words of Fire of Commitment we live in “faith set free from fear.” We need to make this a brave space despite our longing for less stress, not more. We need to say that our fears about the biggest problems facing humanity may be both justified and overwhelming, but let’s see what love can do. We need to say, “I know you don’t feel up for one more thing that is bound to be draining and upsetting at times, but let’s see what love can do.”

It comes down to this. CVUUS will survive the pandemic, but it won’t thrive — and it won’t deserve to thrive — if it doesn’t double-down on its mission of helping us lead lives of integrity. Lives that address fearful problems unsolvable in our lifetime, like climate change and racism.

To be clear about this, I don’t believe racism is more important than climate change, income disparities, or any number of other issues. The biggest threats to our well-being are all inter-related anyway, enough so that you can’t talk about racism without bumping into the others. I’m going to focus on racism because UU’s have been actively struggling to do so for long enough that we’ve learned a thing or two worth highlighting this morning.

First, I want to talk about the Eighth Principle project. This should sound familiar to those of you who have been attending CVUUS for the past couple of years. Work on it started way back in 2013. But I will bet a thousand dollars no one listening to me can correctly recite the proposed words.

That’s part of the problem. It’s currently way too long compared with the other Seven Principles our congregations are already committed to affirming and promoting. Instead of the First Principle’s pithy focus on “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”, or, say, the Second Principle’s spotlight on “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” or even the slightly wordier pledge of “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part” in the Seventh Principle, the Eighth Principle really rambles. It talks about “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

This language, or something like it, is going to come up for approval at the UU General Assembly in 2023 and 2024. Many congregations have already adopted it locally. Poppy and I made a commitment to each other last spring to make a real effort to lead CVUUS in that direction this year.

Let me break it down for you. What are we affirming and promoting? First, that we are “journeying toward spiritual wholeness” in a specific way. That way is building a “diverse, multi-cultural Beloved Community” — Beloved Community being the shorthand version of the world Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned for the future. So, already, this proposed principle is doing something radical in the history of our overwhelmingly white denomination — centering a vision of what we are for that was first popularized by a Black man viewed by many as increasingly subversive at the time he was assassinated.

But this proposed principle is just getting started at this point. It goes on to prescribe how we will build Beloved Community — we will do it through “our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions.” In other words, we are clear about what we are against: not just racism but also all the oppressions to which it is related. That might include, for example, the impact on all poor people, including marginalized poor whites, of oppressions that tend to hit black people harder because of the injustices baked into our lives by racism, like climate change or limitations on women’s control over their pregnancies. And finally, it says that we will do this “in ourselves and our institutions.” In other words, we have learned that racism festers differently in individuals than in institutions and needs to be dismantled in both in different ways.

So there you have the whole proposal: our congregations are to affirm and promote “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”

I skipped over one word that is probably the most potent we need to consider if CVUUS is going to get serious about this approach to fighting racism: “accountably.” It means something very specific in this context. White people and a white-dominated institution like CVUUS can’t be relied on to set the standards for whether we are actually doing the right anti-racism work and doing it to a meaningful degree. There is too much we can’t currently be counted on to see about how racism impacts black people, or, for that matter, indigenous people or other people of color.

But who can CVUUS be accountable to? It is not fair, kind, or even reasonable to ask any of the small number of our congregants who identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color to judge our progress toward the actions called for in the Eighth Principle, or any other kind of anti-bias work. If our black congregants were to take it upon themselves to organize into a group to guide us in anti-bias work, I would be be supportive but very worried about their welfare. The BIPoC people I know find painful to be asked to center their personal experiences as guidelines for how whites should behave, or to be addressed as if whites take it for granted that being a black member of the group somehow obligates them to do that. That form of disregard of their dignity, privacy, and individuality is itself a form of racism.

No, we would need to form relationships with other groups in which black people set priorities if we are to be accountable in the sense the Eighth Principle intends. What we owe our non-white congregants, just as we owe our non-straight congregants, and our differently abled congregants, and other members of marginalized groups, is persistence in welcoming them into all congregational activities. That includes leadership positions. In other words, equal opportunities to put on the aprons and derive the satisfactions and fellowship of living out UU values together. But that’s not as simple as it sounds.

It also requires whites to learn more about the day to day lives of marginalized people. Ideally, that learning comes through developing personal relationships. But it can also come through being accountable to groups of such people who are willing to teach us. Only with that kind of knowledge and guidance will it become second-nature for us to change behaviors that have racially unequal impacts we might not otherwise recognize. With out accountability to marginalized groups for our actions, we will have trouble making sure that what are advertised as equal opportunities really are.

Here’s an example. If black folks attracted to UU’ism are more likely than whites to be financially stretched, as is true in the wider society, offering paid child care to all members who serve on the Board helps to dismantle systemic racism in our congregation even if most of the beneficiaries are not black. Here’s another example. Favoring organizations focused on sustaining black families in our donations is a form of reparations, but it might also be intentionally done in ways that help dismantle racism in ourselves and our institutions.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a roadmap for how to really engage effectively and continuously? It turns out that we do. Here it is: Widening the Circle of Concern: the report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change. It’s gotten less notice than it deserves because it was published in 2020, just as the pandemic took off. It’s not a great road map for CVUUS. A lot of its focus is on the regional and national level of our denomination. But a lot of its explanations of the challenges and many of its solutions aren’t that hard to translate to the local level.

There are some fascinating bits to this book. For instance, the committee wanted to be accountable to Black UU professionals — ministers, directors of religious exploration, directors of music and so on — but soon discovered that many of them feared that speaking their truth could cost them their jobs, or future jobs. So the researchers combined anonymous interview results into published testimony by fictionalized individuals it called avatars. Some of its recommendations were based on that testimony. Is that an ideal representation of the experiences of Black UU’s? Probably not. But it’s a creative way to avoid being stymied when doing something is better than doing nothing about accountability.

I’m going to lead a study group on this book in the coming months. And Poppy and I are going to be offering ways for you to engage in helping us write a children’s version of the Eighth Principle. We figure that we don’t really get it if we can’t come up with a way to convey its meaning to our children.

If we get serious about nurturing community in this way — by working on something tough together — I can guarantee you a few outcomes. Some of you will hate it. You will hate the inevitable conflicts that come out of saying harmful things, however inadvertantly. But the truth is that we have a lot of work to do about how we call people in — that is, gently show them what’s a better way to say something — rather than calling them out and making them feel defensive, ignorant, or victimized. Some of you will be frustrated by how much talk there appears to be before actions result. You might be tempted to drop out of CVUUS and work more actively with a group like the Rutland chapter of the NAACP or our local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, better known as SURJ.

But I also think that if we keep at it, we will see racism at work so constantly that we will become less paralyzed with shame and guilt. We will instead start feeling more grateful that it’s our moment and our responsibility to help change things for the better. We will say to ourselves somthing like what chaplains say to themselves when they encounter families grieving over recently lost love ones, “That’s what grief looks like this time.” Unique but universal. We will say “That’s what racism looks like this time.” gather ourselves, and walk into the trouble reminding ourselves “Let’s see what love can do. Maybe this can become a gate of heaven.”

If we can do that, no pandemic can keep us down. May it be so…

Order of Service

Entire service outdoors (please mask OR distance). 

Bell: Land Acknowledgement   Abi Sessions

Music: Ronnie Romano, Music Dir.

Welcome & Pathways to Connection:  Abi Sessions, Worship Associate

Chalice Lighting/ Call to Worship: Abi Sessions

We hallow this time together by kindling the lamp of our heritage.

Song for All Ages: Learning about singing/humming What Wondrous Love (gray hymnal #18) led by Ronnie Romano

Offering: Rev. Barnaby. Our donee for the month of September is Vital Voices Global Partnership, an internationally active backer of programs to educate and empower girls and women that is administering an emergency fund to rescue endangered women and families in Afghanistan and lobbying the US and other governments on their behalf. Contributions can be made at https://cvuus.breezechms.com/give/online.

Milestones & Passages: Rev. Barnaby.  Future ones can be shared at https://cvuus.breezechms.com/form/YellowCard

Prayer/Meditation: Rev. Barnaby

Readings: Abi Sessions

Ancient: Genesis 28:16-17

Modern: Schuett v BAMN (Dissent excerpt) by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Sermon: Rev. Barnaby

Music:  Ronnie Romano

Benediction: Rev. Barnaby

Postlude: Lay Down My Sword & Shield (#162)   Ronnie Romano

Credits:  Thanks to our worship associate Abi Sessions; Margy Young, Sherman LaRose, Rich Wolfson and Richard Hopkins for technical support; Marnie Wood for flowers, and all who helped set up, usher, and greet.

Thank you for joining us for worship!