Always a Voice Rises


Reading: Excerpt from “Theology in the Work of Anti-Racism”
By Rosemary Bray McNatt in Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialog

When UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt was being considered as a possible co-writer for Coretta Scott King’s autobiography several years ago, she met with Mrs. King.  These are her reflections on that meeting:

During an hour of wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned to Mrs. King that I was in seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.  What frankly surprised me was the look she gave me, one of respect and delight.

“Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin,” she told me, explaining that she had been, since college, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which was popular among Unitarian Universalists. “And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

What surprised and saddened me most was what she said next, and though I am paraphrasing, the gist of it was this: “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

It was a statement that pierced my heart and mind, both then and now. I considered what this religious movement would be like if Dr. King had chosen differently, had decided to cast his lot with our faith instead of returning to his roots as an African American Christian.  And what troubled me most was my realization that our liberal religious movement would have utterly neutralized the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century.  Certainly, his race would have been the primary barrier.  In a religious movement engaged until the 1970s in the active discouragement of people of color wishing to join its ministerial ranks, Dr. King might have found his personal struggles to serve Unitarian Universalism at least as daunting as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

But even if race had disappeared as an issue, Dr. King might have found the barrier of theology insurmountable.  Though from the very start of his theological training he revealed a decided bent toward liberal religion, by the time his faith had been tried by the Civil Rights movement Dr. King had said no to the sunny optimism of liberal faith, an optimism frankly untested in the heat of the battle for liberty and dignity for African Americans.

Sermon             Always a Voice Rises    The Rev. Emily Melcher

Audio File of Sermon

Something happened a few of years ago that I’d like to share with you.  I was engaged in conversation with several of my seminary cohort, and we started talking about the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  I said “It’s the first time we’ve understood that it could happen to us.” One of my African American colleagues reached his hand out and gently touched my arm.  “No,” he said, “it’s not.”  I turned toward him, curious, and he quietly said, “The lynchings.”

In the moment my illusion might have made him invisible, Jabulani’s voice rose to speak his truth, and to correct my illusion.

Perhaps it’s natural that I perceive the world from my place in it.  I suppose we all do.  But I was surprised by my own blindness, which assumed that my experience was universal.  In fact, my experience is not universal; I’d just grown so accustomed to moving in circles of people whose experience was much like my own that I’d forgotten everyone else.

In the process, I’d forgotten a vital part of myself, too.  Let me explain: For years now, I’ve carried a fortune in my wallet.  Better than that, though — I’ve carried two fortunes in my wallet.  They represent two positions I occupy in the world.  This morning I’d like to show you those two fortunes I carry in my wallet.

The first fortune is the one that says I’ve made it to the center.  I have privilege as well as enough money and power to be an agent in my own life.  That fortune includes a wad of cash; a driver’s license I may never need to show to a police officer because no matter where I drive, my skin color makes it unlikely that I’ll be stopped without cause; a few credit cards I pay off every month; a couple of debit cards; a health insurance card – a health insurance card!; a prescription drug coverage card; a debit card that’s attached to a Flexible Spending Account for Health Care; a library card; Costco and BJ’s membership cards (well, I’ll let you decide if that means I’ve made it anywhere at all); and emergency information, with reliable contact information for numerous family members and friends whom I can reasonably expect will be alive as long as this paper lasts, because they share, to varying degrees, the unearned privilege that accompanies this so-called white skin.

The other fortune is at least as valuable.  It came from a fortune cookie at a Chinese restaurant.  It says “People on the edge have a different perspective.”

When I was a child, I sought the perspective of those on the edge: My childhood hero was Harriet Tubman, the woman who had escaped slavery, and who guided as many as 300 other enslaved people to freedom.  I read every book I could find about Harriet Tubman.  Stories of her faith, resolve and courage were inner companions that fueled my imagination for many years.

And children who were “different” in some way — perhaps they were blind, or got around in a wheel chair, or were adopted — they were my other favorite literary companions.

In my interaction with people, I was often drawn to those who were on the edges of society: several of my friends lived “on the other side of the tracks,” and I often found friends in people who by circumstance or choice marched to a different drummer.  In school, when I’d finished my lessons, I went to help in the special education classroom, and being there always felt right and good to me.

There was another reason I was drawn to people on the edge of society: Because of both circumstance and choice, I, too, belonged there, at least some of the time.  Although I grew up with many wonderful creative and educational opportunities, there were times when violence reigned in our house.  When my dad was drunk and words and fists and a variety of other objects were flying in our house, I would crawl out my window with my suitcase looking for anywhere but here.  I’d go, singing my prayers:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, help me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

You see, for people who live with that “anywhere but here” experience, especially for people whose life circumstances take them to the very edge of what a human being can tolerate, the hope of something better, somewhere beyond here, is a not an empty comfort; it’s a lifesaver.

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

For a human being who has no safety, or even comfort, the experience — not the thought, but the lived experience – of a transcendent source of love and comfort is not superstition or ignorant foolishness; it’s a lifeline so powerful that to be cut off from it is to be cut off from all that is sustaining and hopeful, from the very strength one needs not only to survive, but to overcome.

My friend Jabulani’s gentle reminder made me realize that somewhere along the way — somewhere between climbing out my window with a packed suitcase and singing my prayers to the God who loved me even when my parents didn’t or couldn’t — between then and that discussion about 9/11, when I imagined the whole world from the center that is so well exemplified in that first fortune I carry around with me — somewhere between the edge and the center, I’d lost track of a vital part of myself.

How had I gotten to the place where I so readily attributed my own experience and perception to all of America?  “We,” I said, sitting in a room where half the people didn’t share my skin color or the unearned privilege that goes along with it.  “It’s the first time we’ve understood it could happen to us,” I said, believing it, until one of my African-American colleagues said, “No, Emily, it’s not.”

UU Minister Danielle Di Bona notes that “the power and privilege of the white community include the reality that their story is the story.”[i] And that’s exactly where I started that day.  Obviously I haven’t had the experience of being black in America, but I have known the reality of violence and the threat of violence.  It feels like such a distant memory for me now that I rarely think about it.  So in asserting that 9/11 was the first time we’d realized it could happen to us, I not only failed to recognize the realities of my classmates, but I denied a part of my own reality, too.

A marvelous poem by Safiya Henderson-Holmes, entitled “Failure of an Invention,” uses these words to describe the cost of attempting to move from the edge to the center for an immigrant with dark skin, thick hair and thick lips, trying to fit in America.

begging entrance through
the needle of your eye

some of me broken
in the squeeze…[ii]

Jabulani’s reminder showed me one of the places where I’d been broken, where I’d lost the child’s innate ability to relate to and bond with others, an ability that transcended race, class, age, gender, religion, and every other marker by which we are inevitably taught to separate ourselves from one another.  It showed me what I’d lost since my tenth birthday, when the only person I invited to my birthday party – beside my family – was Jim West, an African American, male, young adult who had befriended me at the YMCA, when my circus practice overlapped with his basketball games.  In my story about that evening, we had a really nice time.

When I was in my mid-twenties, my mother thanked me for always leading her into new territory.  I had no idea what she meant.  Then she told me that Jim West was the first African American they had ever had in their home as a guest.

I don’t know anything about Jim West’s life beyond the connection we shared, beyond the kindness he showed me and the interest he took in me, beyond the fact that he played basketball at the Y, and that he came to my birthday party.

So, I guess I don’t actually know whether my birthday party was really nice for all of us, do I? My parents, who had both been raised in homes where African Americans were servants, not guests, were entertaining an African American man for the first time.   I don’t know how comfortable they felt.  I don’t know how comfortable my friend Jim felt, and I have no way of finding out.  What I do know is that I felt connected to him, and I had a really nice time.

According to UU minister, theologian and teacher Thandeka, European American children are taught to separate themselves through a process she calls “racing,” in which a child “learns to think of herself or himself as white.”  She maintains that “Children learn how to internally destroy their own ability to relate and bond with those who are not acceptable to their parents or authority figures”[iii]

That process is the needle of someone else’s eye, through which white children beg entrance, only to be squeezed and broken in the passage.

Another UU minister, teacher and theologian, Rebecca Parker, writes

When I speak of the ignorance created by my education into whiteness, I am speaking of a loss of wholeness within myself and a concomitant segregation and fragmentation of culture that debilitates life for all of us.  Who benefits from this fragmentation and alienation?  Does anyone?  What I know is that I do not benefit from this loss of my senses, this denial of what I have seen and felt, this cultural erasure of my actual neighbors, this loss of my country.  I become, thus educated, less present to life, more cut-off, and less creative and loving.  Once I recognize it, this loss disturbs me deeply.  It is precisely this loss that makes me a suitable, passive participant in social structures that I abhor.[iv]

A few years ago, I read, and re-read, and re-read a rich, profound, and deeply challenging book called Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialog.  In fact, it has informed much of this sermon. This thought-provoking, perspective-changing book contains the voices thirty ministers, seminarian, theologians, scholars and activists in dialog with one another around racism and theology.

In the essay from which this morning’s reading was taken, African American UU minister Rosemary Bray McNatt explores Martin Luther King’s relationship to liberal religion, particularly to Unitarianism.  She wonders what might have happened had he chosen to join our ranks, and ultimately concludes that:

for him to have answered the call to a liberal religious faith, a faith that clearly resonated with him since the earliest days of graduate studies, would have meant a fatal separation from the sources of his power: a faith in a suffering god who stood with suffering people despite their mistakes and failures, and covenantal love between himself and oppressed African Americans, the people who grounded his passion for justice but did not restrict it solely to themselves.

She goes on:

The notion of the self-perfectability of human beings was an inadequate theology in the face of the sustained hatred and embodied evil of the segregationist south.[v]

More than a decade ago, the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist congregations made a commitment to move toward becoming an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural Association of Congregations.  That’s not something foisted upon our congregations from above; it’s a commitment we made together; it’s the vision we dared to dream of a beloved community.

But that beloved community cannot come into being as long as we believe it happens simply by us opening our doors to people who are, in all respects but skin color, largely like us, or who aspire to be like us, or whom we aspire to make like us.  It can only happen if we open what I call our heart-ears and heart-eyes to the realities and perspectives of people on the edge, knowing that we have as much to gain as we have to give.

Rosemary Bray McNatt questions whether we’ll be able to do it, even as she fervently hopes we will.  She sees both cultural and theological barriers:

Sometimes, a person’s experience is informed by structural oppression.  Sometimes, it’s just life itself that has weighed on them.  But there are many people who have found help and hope and strength from a source greater than themselves in order to endure what has often seemed unendurable.  Do we risk their sharing with us how they survived?  What if they tell us ‘God brought me through’? Do we dare to make room for them to share and to celebrate, to witness to what they have seen and felt and intimately know?[vi]

Unfortunately, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has very nearly become the default position with regard to theology in Unitarian Universalist congregations.  I believe we’ve come to that default position because, as individuals, many of us have been broken in the squeeze of religion, and so we tend create and recreate a Unitarian Universalism that protects and shields our brokenness rather than challenging us to wrestle with it.

There are people in our UU congregations for whom the notion of a “Precious Lord” is sustaining.  Indeed, it happens from time to time during a pastoral visit with someone that I offer to pray with them.  Sometimes people are surprised by my offer or by their deep hunger for something that has been so far from their lives during their participation in a UU congregation.  Sometimes, for some people, prayer is exactly what is needed.  Sometimes it begins to heal something in them that long ago got broken in the squeeze.

If we really are to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural religion, we will need to be genuinely open not only to one another and to all who would join us on the journey, but also to the wide variety of beliefs that nurture, sustain and challenge those of us who are Unitarian Universalists already, and those who, like Dr. King, might embrace liberal religion if liberal religion were liberal enough to embrace – or at least make room for – their beliefs.

When we achieve that, we’ll be co-authoring a new story, one that reflects an “us” we have yet to realize.

[i]Rev. Danielle Di Bona, in Soul Work, 96.

[ii]Safiya Henderson-Holmes, “Failure of an Invention,” in Unsettling America, ed. Gillan and Gillan, (New York: Penguin, 1994) 60.

[iii]Thandeka, “The Paradox of Racial Oppresson,” in Soul Work, 132-3.

[iv]Rebecca Parker, “Not Somewhere Else, But Here: The Struggle for Racial Justice as a Struggle to Inhabit My Country,” in Soul Work, 175.

[v]Rosemary Bray McNatt, in “The Problem of Theology in the Work of Anti-racism: A Meditation,” in Soul Work, 30.

[vi]ibid, 31-2.