Archive for October, 2016
“I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts” by Jolie Olivetti – October 30, 2016
“Are you a monster? Like Ursula Monkton?”
Lettie threw a pebble into the pond. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things that people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.”
I said, “People should be scared of Ursula Monkton.”
“P’raps. What do you think Ursula Monkton is scared of?”
“Dunno. Why do you think she’s scared of anything? She’s a grown-up, isn’t she? Grown-ups and monsters aren’t scared of things.”
“Oh, monsters are scared,” Said Lettie. “That’s why they’re monsters. And as for grown-ups…” She stopped talking, rubbed her freckled nose with a finger. Then, “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
-Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
“For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
SERMON: “I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghosts” by Jolie Olivetti
My sermon title is a lie. I am definitely afraid of some ghosts. I even had to brace myself for the Ghostbusters remake that came out this summer. Parts of this campy, goofy movie totally spooked me, especially in the beginning when they find a terrible ghost haunting a mansion. I was proud of myself for resisting the temptation to hide behind my friend’s shoulder during that part. The scariest part for me is the anticipation of something horrid or unhinged happening – the soundtrack building up the tension while someone walks around the corner of an old house… during these movies, I’m barely actually watching, maybe just peeking through my fingers every few minutes. I might as well stay home. Skipping all the scary movies means I miss out on a lot of fun, especially this time of year, but I just can’t handle the spook.
What about real-life scary things? I used to not be able to read the poem, “For The Anniversary of my Death.” It’s in a Poem A Day book that my mom gave me, which I actually read quite dutifully, almost daily. But I used to skip this poem because I didn’t want to consider that I will die on an actual day, someday, and that day comes around each year. I couldn’t read beyond the title and the first line, “Every year without knowing it, I have passed the day…” This idea made death too close. I felt like it tainted my whole calendar with death. Considering my death anniversary was too much, so I’d shut the book and shudder, poem-less for a day.
I was a hospital chaplain this past summer. In the hours leading up to my first few overnight on-call shifts, I would be out of my mind with fear. The anxious feeling began somewhere in my belly, made my limbs weak, and worried me to distraction. The sound of pagers going off throughout the day that day made my heart race.
Gradually all of my colleagues would head home, until about 8 pm when I was the only chaplain serving the entire 900-bed hospital. The on-call chaplain has to visit pre-operative patients during the evening, and respond to any urgent pages throughout the night. I had a very complicated relationship with my beeper. Especially towards the beginning of the summer, I willed it to stay silent, but I also dreaded its silence as a sign that it could go off at any time.
Even though I would be a jittery mess on my way to meet with a patient, as soon as I knocked on a door, entered a room, and began talking to people, I would be completely present and calm. As for the pager, as soon as it beeped its unbelievably loud beeps, I became purposeful and focused, calling the nurse or whoever had paged me to find out what was needed, and taking it from there.
Just like in a scary movie, the anticipation of the scary thing can be worse than the scary thing itself. And unlike watching scary movies, we often rise to the occasion of the real scary things in our lives, not hiding under a blanket but taking a deep breath and facing it head-on.
As a chaplain, I quickly went from fearful and nervous to calm and collected. Of course, patients and families were also going through their own rollercoasters of emotions. I had some of the most transformative experiences with patients who were not in the least bit afraid of death. One woman with very advanced cancer explained that she was ready to die, that she was fully at peace with her death, whenever it would come. She told me she was not struggling with the end of her life, but rather with what her husband was going through. He would become angry and refused to talk whenever she tried to bring up what was coming.
This was not uncommon. I met several people who were not afraid to die, but who had turned their attention to the difficult matter of how their families’ were dealing with impending loss. I sat with a man who had declined further treatment for his cancer. He was ready for hospice. When I entered the room he was too upset to talk to me, so I stood by him and spooned ice chips into his mouth, since he was unable to do this himself. I inquired gently about his sighs, and eventually, I learned his distress was not about the move to hospice, but rather about the strife among his family members, who fought bitterly over the situation. Almost all of them were desperate to continue the treatment and felt he was not in his right mind to make this decision. One daughter was up against the rest of the family, trying her best to support his wishes. We talked about his anguish over what she was going through to advocate for him, and how everyone in his family must love him very much, and were dealing with it in very different ways.
I first entered his room gingerly, fearful of what it would be like to spend time with someone so close to death. Prior to this summer, I had been at the bedside of very few dying people. This man taught me a great lesson: that it is perfectly human to die. When I went to see him, it was just about an hour before his scheduled move from hospital to hospice. We watched the clock together. He was not just waiting for transport; he was also waiting to be formally released from this stage of his life, to be done with “treatment,” and to have permission to let go. Though it was unfamiliar to be a chaplain to someone so close to death, somehow it was also familiar. This man was simply weary, somewhat impatient, and waiting. Suddenly I had the impression that death wasn’t only frightening and otherworldly, it was also as everyday as worrying about family drama while watching a clock for the minutes to pass.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge something that’s perhaps unsettling about this narrative. I know there are many people here who have accompanied loved ones on their deathbeds. I hope it is not hard to hear that this was a relatively new experience for me. In some ways, it’s a matter of random chance that I have lost few family members and close friends. I recognize that it’s also related to my age. And, it’s a particularly painful way that race and class advantage play out in our society, with fatal illnesses, violence, and barriers to health care access disproportionately impacting poor people and people of color. So it’s all the more important for me to learn something about death, since I have been relatively sheltered from it in my lifetime.
I’ve gained a new appreciation for how artificial and strange it is that this society attempts to cordon off death from the rest of life. My initial rejection of that poem is a great example. I felt this poem about death was an intrusion in the poetry of my life, rather than a poignant acknowledgement of the way death truly is a part of life.
Earlier in the service, Asher read to us from Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this book, the narrator recalls his boyhood battle with a nanny who turns out to be a terrible monster. The story includes his friendship with a mysterious and magical girl named Lettie, who helps save him from the monster. Lettie sets him straight when he claims grown-ups are not afraid of anything:
“I’m going to tell you something important,” she says. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
I’m fully in agreement with Lettie here. I don’t know about you, but I often feel just as confused and uncertain now as I did when I was a kid, or maybe more so. Part of the deal with adulthood is not that we have everything under control, but that we often have to act like everything is under control. We have to keep going, even when we are afraid.
As a chaplain, I would say to patients and their families, “You must be very strong to be going through this,” or, “you must be very brave to be going through this.” And they would say, simply, “nope.” It was out of necessity that people faced the hard things they faced. No one was an expert; no one was a perfect “grown-up” about the messy and difficult processes of sickness and recovery, healing and death. Even nurses, doctors, personal care attendants… even they were perfectly imperfect humans, applying their skills and knowledge in the best way they could, and still being scared sometimes, or worried, or upset. Still doubting, still learning.
Is it only adults who can face hard stuff like that? The epigraph of the Neil Gaiman book is a quote by the children’s author Maurice Sendak; it reads, “I remember my own childhood vividly… I knew terrible things. But I knew I musn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Right. Kids are no strangers to terrible things. Remember how downright disturbing some of the old school fairy tales can be? I used to read from this series, The Red Fairy Book, The Green Fairy Book… these weren’t all princesses and puppies and happy endings. These stories featured gloomy forests and wicked spirits, tales of betrayal and revenge. And I got it; I knew that death and fear are parts of life, and not just for grown-ups. Grown-ups and kids alike know that life can be terrible and scary sometimes. And both grown-ups and kids can be brave out of necessity.
I tasked myself with developing my own theology of death this summer. What I came up with is not groundbreaking, but it is an honest and personal belief that comes from what I experienced. It is now more important than ever for me to recognize that our exit from this world is as mysterious as our arrival into it. And, one simple fact is now charged with holy meaning for me: before we die, we are alive.
Neil Gaiman wrote a series of comic books called The Sandman. One plot line bestows immortality on a man named Hob Gadling, and then follows him over hundreds of years. At first he seems smug and unstoppable, but through the centuries his existence is a rollercoaster of success and failure, evil-doings and better-doings. He keeps outliving loved ones, family members… everyone around him, generation after generation. In his final appearance in the comic book series, Hob Gadling is still unwilling to die, even after six hundred years of life. I don’t buy it. Perhaps few of us really want to die. But can you imagine the alternative? Maybe the fact that it will end one day is what makes life so unbelievably sweet. Before we die, we live a precious life, however long or however short. There is no death without life. There is no life without death.
Of course death is scary. But when we move past the fear, we learn from the other emotions that this sacred process might bring up: like grief and anger. I can imagine hollering in protest, disbelief and indignation if I was told my time was coming real soon. I am not ready to die. But I am trying not to be afraid to know that I one day will.
If we can move past the fear, we can focus on other things. We can tell our loved ones how much they mean to us, we can relish every moment with them. We may find that the fact that we’ll die one day doesn’t ruin the calendar, like I thought that poem did, but rather that it enriches our days with a sense of the preciousness of something that will someday end.
I’d like to end this sermon by reading the poem once more, because once I am no longer afraid of it, I can be moved by its beauty. I can recognize the feeling of simple astonishment at being alive amidst rain, and birdsong, and holy mystery.
“For the Anniversary of My Death”
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
I have learned that a single human life is the most precious entity in all of God’s creation, not to be bartered for a wish or a king’s fortune.
I have learned that our mysterious existence on earth is too much filled with petty thoughts, with trivial concerns, and with meanness toward our fellow creatures.
I have learned that it is good to live with a knowledge of our own finitude, to live as if each moment is our last, so that what we do is a new kind of doing.
I have learned that the fear of death, which arises largely from our personal fantasies and cultural anxieties, is more to be dreaded than death itself.
And I have learned that the human being is a marvelous construction, with the strength, and the courage, and the faith to confront any power in the universe – even the Reaper, whose name is Death.
-David O. Rankin, from his book chapter “Is the Reaper Really Grim?”
“Me and Kareem Abdul Jabbar”
The First Parish of Watertown
October 23, 2016
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
Opening Words Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
I feel like I have always been a full time historian, but nobody knows it.
Reading the inner dialogue of an anonymous minister, Sunday, 9 am
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things . . . . , clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. ..And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” That’s the passage for this morning…
Better find myself some clothes…. Maybe a skirt? A skirt for preaching shouldn’t be too short or figure-hugging. So a long skirt. But it would still need to look current or it could communicate a kind of Puritanism, a disengagement from the culture that may cause members to disregard me as irrelevant. So a long but current skirt it is. But this skirt doesn’t have a pocket for the wireless mike pack. Oh, and there is a large window behind the pulpit. Sun behind a skirt is not good. …
Hmm, maybe trousers are better. But will trousers say, “Boss Lady”? Or other “B” words? There’s a reason why people say, “Wear the pants” when they mean, “Take control.”
There is a book that advises women like me not to wear anything remotely suggestive of things men wear and that if they really have to wear pants they should soften the “masculine effect” with a “ladylike blouse of feminine color and fabric, preferably chiffon, lace, satin, fur or angora.” Okay then … So now what kind of pattern and cut says, “Respect me but also find me approachable. My insight is relevant and I definitely, definitely don’t remind you of either your mom or that girl on the beer commercial!”?
Do male preachers spend so much time thinking about what they wear? I can think of a few who would tell me I’m fussing too much, I’m paranoid, I’m over-thinking it or making it all about me. After all, I’m supposed to be preparing to deliver the Word of God to the People of God. As a professional communicator, I put a lot of thought into what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it. Surely the amount of thought I give to how I dress should be insignificant? But clothing is also a form of communication. Whether I like it or not, people make assessments about me and my message and my church based on how I look.
So what do I want my appearance to say? That I know the culture but am not a creature of it. I want to be true to who I am. Which means it needs to acknowledge I’m a woman. But not in a way that trips off any negative stereotypes associated with that (too emotional, sexy, sentimental, girly, insecure, or matriarchal). I want to say that I am strong, confident in God’s ability to use me, but not in a way that is threatening or comes across as masculine or ambitious.
I wish I was in a tradition where I could just wear some kind of clerical vestment. It would communicate, “This is not about me. Stop looking at what I’m wearing and listen to what I’m saying.” But in my tradition, something made to not draw attention would draw attention. Plus it wouldn’t feel like me.
While ministry is not about me, ministry happens through my life, shared with the people, but most of the women I know in ministry do their best to use their clothes as invisibility cloaks. Our goal is to be present without being noticed. How many male ministers have that in mind?
Was it Coco Chanel who said, “Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
How does a woman dress so they remember Someone Else entirely?
Funny, my passage today says, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” I’ve just spent the past half hour setting my mind on earthly things.
Or have I?
Sermon “Me and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar”
Last spring, I got an email asking if I could fill in on one of three dates for a colleague in a nearby town. If so, I was to call him. So, I did. When he called me back, I was making dinner and my son Dana, who years ago introduced himself to a new teacher by writing an autobiographical poem with the repeating line, “I am a boy who loves basketball,” was in the kitchen with me.
After my colleague secured the date with me, he said, “what about topics?” and I said, well, most people who call me want me to talk about faith and children’s literature, but he interrupted me to say “Oh, god no. We don’t want anything with kids, that wouldn’t be good here. What else ya got?” I pictured him hunched into the phone, chomping a cigar, searching for my skills, like a talent scout with a fist full of stats.
“What’s your schtick?” he said. “Who are you, anyway?”
Confused, I said, “Um, you called me.”
“Oh, I just picked your name because I thought it would be good to get a woman in while I’m gone. Who are you?” At this point, Dana was actively listening instead of just waiting for dinner.
Feeling weirdly disoriented, I started rattling off credentials. “Well, I’m a born UU,” I said. “I went to Meadville, I’ve been in ministry 25 years”
“Okay, yeah, but what do you do; I mean what do you preach about besides kids stuff?”
My attempt to clarify that sermons about children’s literature were actually for adults fell on deaf ears, and then I said that before I went to seminary I was a historian, and I mentioned that I was married to Mark Harris –
“Mark Harris! I know him.” Ah! At last, we are talking the same language!
Or so I thought.
He continued: “You calling yourself a historian when you are married to Mark Harris is like me calling myself a basketball player just because I’m married to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.”
Dana’s eyes got big, then he put his hand over his mouth, then dropped his hand and said, “Oh my God!” Then, “Mom, just hang up.”
I guess I will never know if I didn’t hang up because I am too slow to figure things out, or if I am too curious about what drives people, or too polite, or what. But I was able to give him a topic that was deemed acceptable, get off the phone, and finish making dinner while Dana roared with laughter and disbelief. “As if Kareem Abul-Jabbar would marry him!” he said.
We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of this story in the parsonage. Mark revels in knowing that he is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in this scenario – winner of six National Basketball Association titles, scorer of almost 40,000 points, teammate of Michael Jordan. My kids think it is hysterical to have the utter cluelessness of the clergy on display. But of course, it is not actually a funny story. I could list all the obvious ways in which it is problematic, and perhaps draw some associations with events in the larger culture, but instead I will say that the insidious part is the elevation of my husband coupled with the denigration of me – a person this guy admittedly knows nothing about except that I am female. Despite the fact that I don’t think he was intentionally being horrid, it is a painful reminder of the culture. It is true that my husband is a more accomplished historian, but that does not make him a better one, or the only one. As an English professor and single mother of a child with autism once said during her tenure meeting, when asked why she had published so little, “I’ve been doing other things.” You can probably guess how that went over.
It strikes me as odd to use Kareem Adbul Jabbar as a way to humble another person; to shame me for calling myself a historian when it is clearly my HUSBAND who claims that hat. This conversation took place last spring, so it was before Colin Kaepernack knelt for the national anthem at a football game, incensing some people and starting a debate about what patriotism looks like. Abdul-Jabbar was one of the first to point out that a player who still had ideals, and who wanted us as a country to live up to them, was exactly what we want – a loyal American who believed in our promise. He hadn’t cynically given up, and he wasn’t pretending that it was all just a show. He knows we can do better – that draping ourselves with the flag is not the same thing as being clothed in compassion, kindness and humility.
Abdul-Jabbar has long been someone who wants a new way, wants things to be better, wants there to be substance and wholeness to the stories we tell. I know that my colleague chose Abdul-Jabbar because of his basketball record, not his personality or his values. He’s a legend. I get it. Nevertheless, it is ironic, too – because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar really did say that he feels like he has always been a historian, but no one knows it. This minister was holding him up as a basketball superstar, and limiting him at the exact same time.
In a typical history book, Abdul-Jabbar points out, black Americans are mentioned in two contexts: slavery or civil rights. But he is interested in the real account of our lives– the day to day choices and unknown back-stories that define and quietly shape us. His book Brothers in Arms is about an extremely high-performing WWII tank battalion, which, because our armed forces were segregated, was made up entirely of black men. In a riff on the German Panzers; the armored tanks that provided the striking power, this battalion was known as the Black Panthers. They worked cooperatively, strategically, and secretively, and when they came home at the end of a war fought about racial identity in Europe, these Black Panthers were instrumental in organizing a new kind of civil rights movement in America. One of Abdul Jabbar’s points is that the achievements for a culture, and in a society, are often made by the people who are doing their duty, working for the common good; not, as he said, “throwing hook shots in the public arena.” He argues for multidimensionality. We can all do many things, and do – even when the world tells you otherwise.
Eighty years ago, Frances Perkins was invited to give a speech at the University of California Berkeley. As President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Perkins was the first woman ever appointed to the Cabinet, and she would go on to become the longest serving secretary of Labor in our nation’s history, largely responsible for setting up the social security system. In 1935, though, she had only been on the job for two years. It was Charter Day at Berkeley, a celebration of the school’s founding, and somehow Perkins was asked to speak at the event. But the person who was supposed to host the celebration refused to do so, offended by the choice of Perkins. Of course the news was full of this little drama, of the Berkeley chancellor publicly snubbing the United States Secretary of Labor. At a press conference, Eleanor Roosevelt was questioned about this rebuke to the White House, and she said “A snub is the effort of a person who feels superior to make someone else feel inferior. To do so, he has to find someone who can be made to feel inferior.” Eventually that morphed into the phrase, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” (1940 Readers Digest) which is a sentiment that sounds very much like that of the founder of Unitarianism in America, William Ellery Channing. In an essay called Self Culture, a hundred years earlier, Channing wrote, “No power in society, no hardship in your condition can depress you, keep you down, in knowledge, power, virtue, influence, but by your own consent.”
I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Is it true, this idea that no one and nothing can hurt you without your consent? Perhaps. We are responsible for ourselves, our choices, our responses to the hardships thrown our way. But I think this idea overlooks the role a culture can play in victimizing people; blaming people who are kept down, set apart, not included, not given the same rights. I can choose to laugh when I am insulted. But it doesn’t erase what was said, or the fact that we live in a world in which making such statements is still considered okay by so many people. The World War II battalion can triumph, and bring their skills home, but it does something to know you were considered less than; set aside; even when you don’t agree. You can hold on to yourself internally, but it is hard when the world says something else.
It is an interesting time to examine these issues. We must know by now that there are injustices that do not simply hurt feelings. They have repercussions that destroy lives. People are kept down, and it is not by their own consent. We live in an incredibly individualistic culture, but it is one that assumes that we are all somehow operating from the same base of power – when obviously we are not. We have had separate laws and codes of conduct for African Americans, for women, for gays and lesbians, for immigrants. We have had quotas to determine how many of certain ethnic groups are allowed in. We have tax codes that offer benefits to some and not others. We are exiling ourselves into smaller and smaller self-chosen identities, and then using these little islands as places from which to claim our rights and our status. But we don’t know how to be a whole. There are too many examples – think of the current film telling the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion, purposefully re-using the title of DW Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation, and directed by a man accused of rape. Whose history do we honor? And how? Where do they intersect? Which victim or special interest group matters more? Who, in any of these stories, gave their consent to be traumatized? Is it any wonder that trust becomes extremely challenging for us?
Not that long ago, there was a New York Times Book Review issue in which the section set aside for children’s books was full of comments about the targeted use of stories. So, use this book for a Latino class, or this one if you happen to have a high percentage of kids with special needs. Someone actually wrote in to ask whether the frogs in one storybook were supposed to be black, or white, so she would know which group to use the book with, as if every book is somehow a redemption tale for a different class of people. Meanwhile, the end page of the same issue was an essay about how we are all one world, one community, and we need to have read the same books so we can understand each other.
Towards the end of Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman writes that “As a child, as a teen, as a young adult, I developed a firm belief in my solitude; the not-novel concept that we are each alone in the world. Some parts self-reliance, some parts self-protection, this belief offers a binary perspective – powerhouse or victim, complete responsibility or total divorcement… Carried to the extreme, the idea gives license to the belief that ones own actions do not matter much; that we traverse the world in our own bubbles –.” In prison, Kerman learns this simply is not true. We are very much connected, and what we say and do matters tremendously. She comes to see that “the little kindnesses and simple pleasures we offer each other are incredibly powerful,” and actually, determinative. They may actually be all we have. Even in a place where we have very little in common with each other, we share the most basic operating system, and we are shaped by it.
Last spring, my better half asked me to accompany him to a session of the class he was teaching. The students were predominantly women and wanted to hear the perspective of a female minister. It was a rich and sobering conversation, and one student reported having visited the head of the department of ministry, agitating for a more hospitable environment for women, and being essentially dismissed; told that other denominations are coming to us to see how it is done, because we’ve got it all figured out, this women in ministry thing.
I’d like to say, No, we don’t. It’s difficult to advocate for wholeness while claiming you occupy a different space, but what I’m really saying it that the wholeness envisioned by those in power is not actually the whole story; like the black battalion in WWII, soldiers and heroes at the same time they were victims and invisible. We may think that because we are liberal, or because we have women ministers, we do not struggle with this issue, but we are always more creatures of the culture than we might wish. Rather than talk about my personal experiences, let me say this: Over the years since Mark has been here, we have had eight interns: Three men, five women, all very different from each other in style, in formality, in theology. Only two have ever been subjected to a critique of their appearance, and only two happen to be young women. I will let you guess whether or not you can draw a direct line. What happens to faith when people who love it, nourished by it, and are committed to sharing it, instead are scrutinized about what seem like superficial things?
What is a minister supposed to look like? We may talk about clothes or hair, but what is really being talked about is authority, and who you are willing to grant that to, and why. I think the issue is how we, culturally, look at young women, and how easily we can find ways to discredit them. We may not have a picture in mind about what clergy look like, but at the same time, we know when we are NOT seeing it. Kind of like pornography — I’ve seen people working with our youth completely rejecting anything like mainstream teenaged girl makeup, while being fine with tattoes, piercings, and dyed hair – in what I am sure is an effort to make sure the girls are taken seriously. But isn’t this just a way to legitimize telling girls what they can look like; policing their appearance in ways we do not do to anyone else? We may be coming at the issue from a different angle, but the result is not so different. In a wonderful memoir about growing up Pentecostal, Donna Johnson talks about being a young woman who wanted to be part of the church; to feel loved, to believe in mystery and healing. But she couldn’t understand why the same God that loved the preacher no matter what sins he committed would not love her if she broke the holiness dress code. Why was it so much more important to look holy than to live holy? That question began the slow extinguishing of her spiritual life. As she said, “Doubt is a lot like faith. A mustard seed’s worth changes everything.”
Often as an expression of acceptance, Unitarian Universalists say “Come as you are.” This is a comforting and comfortable faith, where no one is expected to be perfect. We are all flawed, and yet accepted. But lately I’ve been wondering if perhaps we should be tempering that acceptance, just a little. Come as your best self. Shouldn’t we be giving each other our ideals and hopes and genuine aspirations rather than our judgments and reactions? How will we ever make this world a little bit more like heaven if we are not at least trying? Each and every one of us is capable of many things, some of them great or even astonishing. But it is the little stuff that makes a life; the day to day choices and interactions that build faith, and lets us go on, into the future together, clothed in compassion, kindness, humility and patience; bound together in love, so that we may be one.
Closing Words from “Unremembered,” by Stephanie Paulsell
“What we do not remember. That’s most of history, isn’t it? Most names are not remembered, most stories not inscribed on shields or written in books or displayed on walls. Yet the procession of human history depends upon these things: the lives of the unremembered, the relationships they forged, their hopes and aspirations, and their triumphs and their laments. It’s inevitable that we’ll join them one day.
The past is always being swallowed up, and we reclaim it where we can, on shields, on walls, in the stories we tell our children;” in the faith we forge with our daily living, and leave for those who come after.
“Kindness as a Subversive Activity” – Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 16, 2016
Opening Words – from Robert F. Kennedy
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he [or she] sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
2nd Reading – from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – p. 146-148 in paperback edition
Sermon – “Kindness as a Subversive Activity” – Mark W. Harris
I tend to use everything I read as sermon fodder. This means I end up not doing any reading for pleasure. I have been reading a book called Ten Hills Farm by C.S. Manegold. When Andrea asked about using it in a sermon, I said I was not taking notes, but was reading it merely to nourish my love for history. She responded, “That’s unusual.” So it was. The subtitle is “The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North.” I once had the impression that slavery here in New England was a benevolent kind of slavery. Indeed, I had heard slave masters described as being kind to their slaves, unlike the Southern slaveholders who we learned were the owners of large plantations with hundreds of slaves requiring violent bureaucratic control instead of familial affection. Here in New England we learned that slaves were few and far between, and that they lived in the master’s house, and were well clothed and fed. They were cared for by kind people like our New England ancestors.
Some years ago I was part of a tour at Old Sturbridge Village, when a fellow tourist asked about the trundle like beds that were on the floor just off the kitchen, far removed from the master bedroom upstairs. The guide had no clue why those beds were there, but I suggested they might have been where the slaves slept. She then stared me down with a cold look, which implied how dare you suggest that we once had slaves here. This coming June we hope to visit a Southern plantation outside of New Orleans, which tells the story of slavery from the slave’s point of view. But you don’t have to travel quite that far. In nearby Medford, there is a magnificent mansion called the Royall House, which was the home to the largest slave owning family in Massachusetts, built on property once owned by John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, and passenger on the beloved Arbella. Next to the Royall House is the Slave Quarters, home to the captured Africans who allowed the Royalls to live such a royal life. The Slave Quarters is the only remaining such structure in the northern United States. Sure enough it was an out kitchen, like what I saw at Sturbridge, that was first constructed in the 1730’s and then enlarged to house all the slaves.
Wealthy families then and now often like to show off their wealth, and that was evident from their home, and in the fine silk dresses that appear in a John Singleton Copley painting of two Royall daughters. Even though they made a pampered life possible, slaves were not something families boasted about. The Royalls had 70 slaves on various properties in New England, and scores more on estates in Antigua. But were they kind to their slaves, or was it merely another version of slave life as endured in the West Indies, where slaves were in rebellion, forcing their fearful masters to travel north? Even in tranquil Medford, slave parents watched children they could not protect, husbands lived with wives who could be sold away, and generations lived and died never knowing a breath of freedom. Were the masters kind?
A few years ago, more than twenty to be exact, our son Levi, then a baby, was asleep in our car at the Star Market in Belmont. There is a cross walk there between the parking lot, and the entrance to the store. On this particular day, two elderly women each equipped with her own cane, were trying to cross to go into the store. Andrea was nearby placing her food purchases in the trunk of our car. There was another woman driving a car and trying to tear across the parking lot, using it as a short cut to get to Rte. 60. But the car in front of her had stopped at the cross walk to let the women cross, and was holding her up. She began to lean on her horn. She became quite animated trying to get the stopped car to move. Andrea went over to tell her that the car was stopped so the women could cross, but she would have none of it. She started to scream at Andrea, “this is none of your business. It has nothing to do with you.” But Andrea replied, “oh yes it does, because you woke up my baby.” In one fell swoop the woman stressed out the older women, the driver of the car in front of her, and ruined a baby’s rare moment of sleep, all because she was in a hurry to get through. Was she kind?
In a frequently quoted passage from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Rosewater is trying to prepare a baptismal speech for his neighbor’s twins. How to welcome these babies? The wording gets to the heart of what is important in life. But we also feel Vonnegut’s frustration at people who don’t understand this simple lesson that they need to know. He writes: “Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it,you’ve got to be kind.” But what do we really mean by being kind? Most of us would never use the word kind in reference to a slaveholder. Yet it was a term I heard applied when comparing slavery in different places. Just the very condition of slavery makes it impossible to define their life as filled with any kindness. There is no kindness if your basic condition is servitude. Here there were rebellions, suicides, and tragedy in response to this condition. Is a domestic abuser kind if he does not beat you today, or tell you he is sorry for what he did? Is he kind if he brings you a band-aid for your wounds? Do we say he really didn’t mean it? If I am kind to him, perhaps he won’t hurt me? Of course we have to stand up for ourselves. Being kind to everyone no matter what they do to you is not a healthy spiritual path.
In the Harvard Magazine this summer, I saw that Professor Kimberly Patton was quoted as saying that kindness is not some saccharine kind of sweetness, and not just being nice to everyone, but that kindness is actually a subversive thing. How can kindness be so radical? This is an important question for religious communities because we tend to think that being part of a church is cultivating a culture of niceness. We assume kindness changes people. If we are always nice to someone, they will be nice in return. Yet we all know people in church, in community groups and at work who take advantage of people who are nice to them. They continue to demand their own way or they do not reciprocate. I think of people as givers and users. So if niceness does not convert a user to a giver, how can kindness be a subversive activity, especially if you always feel used? It seems to me that you bring about kindness in the long run, if you place some demands or some limits on the person that is using you. You may say to them you can’t behave like that, or if you want to be part of this group, then you must contribute to it. You use a little of Vonnegut’s frustration and say, Damn it, straighten up and fly right.
This is where Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem on “Kindness” is helpful. She tells us you do not really understand kindness until you lose things, or until your future dissolves. Did you ever take that long bus ride and feel like you would never reach your destination? The streets were desolate and unfamiliar. Did you ever feel completely lost or forlorn, until someone sees that you are desperate for help, and they ask you what they can do to alleviate your obvious dilemma or assure you or show you that you are going to reach the street or town you are seeking. There was a story on the news the other night about a woman from Cleveland, who usually only left her home to go to church. She decided to go to a gospel concert in North Carolina, but got lost on the way home. Desperate for help she asked for directions at a 7/11 store. A man not only told her how to get to Cleveland, he led her onto the highway. This one act of kindness gave her the confidence that she could always find help to get home, and she soon applied for a new job and moved to another city. The white man who helped this African American woman crossed more than one barrier to offer kindness, and they became friends. Can we discover a new friend who will be kind and help us find our way home?
I think of my fellow travelers on Mt. Kathadin this summer who saw me sitting on a rock, bleeding from my cut legs, and exhausted. They offered food, water, and details about who to ask to come help me. Some climbers just walked on by. Some wondered how they could assist me? Do you suppose those who were most kind knew what it was to have gone through such a difficult day? Did that make them more sympathetic? How about the anti-good Samaritans we have experienced such as when I was hit by the ocean wave, and lay crushed on the beach, only to have one set of onlookers, jump in their car and drive away, and the other accuse us of being stupid? What about the one that agreed to help? Do you suppose that having that kind of experience makes me more kind? And does the person who was honking at the older women feel remorse that she woke up the baby or caused such stress? Or do we just presume she feels bad because we would? She might just believe she had the right to behave that way.
We know that kindness can be an act that turns a situation around from what is normally expected. Take the classic example of the Good Samaritan. For most of us, it is easy to be kind to our kin. We have this responsibility to take care of them. Scientists have shown that we will give aid and even sacrifice ourselves for the common good of the group we identify with, especially if we can defeat an enemy. The classic Samaritan story turns around the expected. Jesus reaches out to a member of a group that would normally be seen as the despised enemy. That’s how we were seen when I was hit by the ocean wave at Pemaquid Point in Maine. The witness referred to us as “stupid Massachusetts people.” I guess because we did not understand the ways of the wild Maine wilderness. We despise others because they are different from us or merely because they are from “away.”. But Jesus says, as a human being your obligation is to create a larger family, a family of humankind that will learn from and embrace those who are different from you, because religiously speaking it will make you a person with a deeper heart and soul. Real kindness then is getting outside your comfort zone. You develop a relationship with the person you normally would be afraid of. When you know the other, they are no longer the other.
In The Secret Life of Bees, Lily, the main character, finds strength, love and a new family through her connection with the Boatwright family, African Americans living in the South during the Civil Rights era. The sisters are beekeepers and she learns about their life and work making Black Madonna honey, after they take her into their home. She becomes August’s bee keeping apprentice to repay her for her kindness. In the conversation from the reading she asks August why the house is painted pink. August provides the answer, but also tells her “some things don’t matter that much.” And then she goes on to say that lifting a person’s heart is something that matters, not the color of their house. Lily says that people often don’t know what matters, but August thinks otherwise. She says they do know, but they just don’t choose it. In fact,“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters.” August concludes by saying “Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” Lily identifies with this secret life because she feels she has one, too. The hive is a community of companions all of whom make the team work. The Queen’s eggs become every single bee in the hive. Driving Lily’s own story is the death of her Mother, and so this story of the source of bee life gives her power. She begins to think of the bees as part God and part Mary, whom August also explains as a spiritual essence that is present everywhere, in everything. What Lily is experiencing is grounded in cultural truths that also must be kept secret. She is a white girl living with black women, a runaway, and a criminal of sorts, and so her life with August must remain a secret—just like the secret life of the bees that goes on inside the hive.
The great religious question is are we going to choose what matters? Are you worried too much about the color of your house? Are you choosing what matters every day of your life? Are you choosing to teach kindness to your children, or choosing to live a life of kindness every day you are alive? The Dalai Lama once said, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” This religion of kindness was once thought of as subversive. It was the religion that the Universalist half of our faith taught based on their reading of the scriptures. They reacted to a Calvinist version of Protestantism, which taught that some people were worthy enough to receive heavenly salvation, but most were sinners who would be condemned to the fires of hell for all eternity. The Calvinists even taught that Christ’s death on the cross was an atoning act to appease an angry God who needed to see a blood sacrifice in order that humankind be redeemed for their sinfulness. But the Universalists asked the simple question, if God is a God of love who creates creatures in his/her own image, wouldn’t that God want the creatures to know love. Hosea Ballou the great Universalist preacher declared, “If God is infinitely good then all beings whom his power produced are the objects of his goodness.” If God is good and kind, and the purpose of life is to bring you closer to God, then this understanding of the divine makes you more empathetic, and results in actual acts of loving kindness. This God does not want you to suffer in the fiery pit. This God wants you to be happy. Conversely if your idea of God makes you unkind, belligerent, cruel or self-righteous, then you clearly follow a God who is cruel.
Long ago Universalist opponents said that God must be able to invoke the threat of hell in order that you behave. In other words, they believed that human beings were depraved and needed the threat of punishment in order to be good. Our Universalist ancestors did not deny that people can be unkind. People can honk at the cross walk and wake your baby because they want to get to their destination no matter who or what gets in their way. People can desert you at the ocean’s edge even as you lay crippled in the sand, because they do not want to get involved, especially with stupid out of state people. They can be abusers. They can be racists. We could go on to say they deserve for God to punish them for their unkind behavior. But Universalists said God wants to be reconciled with everyone because we all have the capability to choose kindness.
Furthermore, we are all connected and what we do to others matters. Think how the woman in the parking lot ruined everyone’s day. What if she were patient and kind? We can all choose what matters. Sometimes we naively hold out hope that people will automatically choose kindness. We expect it of people because the God we have always espoused is a source of love and goodness. But our actions do not have to be naïve. What if someone ignores systematic violence against women, and does not name it for the terrible tragedy that it is. Kindness is not just being nice no matter what. It is feeling compassion for the victim. It is becoming an ally to the victim and speaking out in their defense. It is calling the perpetrator to task, and demanding that they turn toward kindness. The only kindness in slaveholding is when you fight for freedom. The only kindness in oppression is when you stand for justice. Can we make kindness a subversive activity? Can we stop being nice, and truly become kind, so that we could invoke that Universalist spirit of the divine that says, no you are not condemned, but you are meant to embrace kindness. This Universalist God says it is never too late. There is still time to choose what matters.
Closing Words – from Friendship by Ralph Waldo Emerson
We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken. Maugre (Notwithstanding) all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.
“Body Count” by Mark Harris and Jolie Olivetti
October 2, 2016 – First Parish of Watertown
Call to Worship – from James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
We cannot escape our origins, however hard we might try, those origins contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become.
Hymn #1051 – “We Are” by Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell
For each child that’s born a morning star rises,
And sings to the universe who we are.
We are our grandmother’s prayers, and
We are our grandfather’s dreamings.
We are the breath of our ancestors.
We are the Spirit of GOD.
We are …
Mothers of Courage and
Fathers of Time
We are Daughters of dust and
Sons of great visions.
Sisters of Mercy and
Brothers of Love
We are Lovers of Life and
The Builders of Nations.
We’re Seekers of Truth and
Keepers of Faith
We are Makers of Peace and
The Wisdom of Ages.
First Reading –Honky by Dalton Conley
It didn’t matter what they asked for; everyone got dolls. The boys got boy dolls, and the girls got girl dolls. In line with the consciousness of the times, the teachers had made sure that the dolls were ethnically appropriate. The other kids’ dolls looked like black versions of Ken and Barbie, while my sister ended up with the only white doll in her class. … when the other kids saw that Alexandra had a real Barbie, they stampeded her, begging, pleading, and demanding that she trade with them. She clutched the doll to her chest as girls and even boys tried to pry it form her.
“Black is beautiful!” the teachers screamed over the din of crying and yelling.
“We Want Barbie!” the kids yelled back in unison.
Finally, one kid pulled hard at the white doll’s legs and broke the toy in half. Evidently satisfied that she had secured at least a piece of Barbie, she scurried off to a corner to dress up the half-doll. Eventually my sister got the other half back and willingly traded her white doll for one in the black style. She was content. All she wanted was a doll with long hair that she could comb.
At some point the same week, our grandparents called to wish us a Happy Chanukah. My sister recounted the Barbie events to my grandmother, who, in turn, told her the story of King Solomon and the baby. “Two women each said that the baby was hers,” she explained slowly, enunciating each syllable to my sister who, at that stage in her development, paid eager attention to anything involving babies. “King Solomon told them that he would cut the baby in half and then each could have part of it.” She explained that one of the women broke down crying, offering the baby to the other woman. “ ‘You are the true mother,’ the King told this one.”…
“Do you know how he knew?” Grandma then asked, trying to pry the moral of the story out of Alexandra. “What would you say if King Solomon said that to you about your baby?”
“I would take the top half,” my sister explained. “So I could brush her hair.”
In the family annals, my sister’s anwer to the King Solomon question was got told and retold; the issue of black beauty, the other kids’ desperation for the white doll, and the idea that a “real” Barbie could only be white was left for the parents of the other children to sort out. It wasn’t our problem; after all, we were the color of Barbie.”
Conley grew up as one of few white boys in his neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Reading – from Beloved by Toni Morrison (p. 88)
(Baby Suggs,a self-anointed holy woman, preaches for men and women who only recently left slavery)
In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it.
This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”
Sermon – “Body Count” Part 1
I climbed Mt. Katahdin this past summer, a life long goal of mine, while wearing my bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt. It is standard Unitarian Universalist garb, part of a campaign to help us confront exclusion, oppression and violence based on identity. Not long after we started our descent, a woman stopped me, obviously recognizing, not my glowing aura, but this shirt, and said, “I just wanted to thank you and your church for all the work you are doing to make this a better world.”
I returned to civilization to learn that Elie Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who once wrote “The memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil,” had died. It made me think again about the need to publicly express our commitment, to climb those steep peaks of hate that we see in the world. Here at First Parish we want to express that message of love by a broader exploration of issues of diversity, multiculturalism and anti-racism. Today introduces a program that began last Wednesday with a book discussion, and will continue throughout this church year, “Love Out Front.”
The book was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ best seller Between the World and Me, which confronts the long history of racism in our country in a very visceral and painful way. He writes (103): “In America it is traditional to destroy the black body –it is heritage. . .. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden.” He exposes the myth of the American dream, which was built upon shackling the black body, so that ultimately, if you are black, your body is not your own. A black body could be owned by whites, and once that ended, the body was continuously devalued in this culture.
As we dedicate a child today, we are reminded of the physicality of childhood. We remember the body learning each phase of movement, of crawling and then walking. One of the great personal affirmations of my youth was when a friend told me. You were big and slow until your brother taught you how to run. Now you are fast. Remember the wind on your face when you ran as fast as you could? Even now as I age I worry about how long my body will be able to do all the things I want it to. I want to hike and climb mountains, swim and hug those I love. And can you imagine for a minute being told when and how and where you could do those things? Just a few weeks ago I hated being confined to the hospital. All I wanted was to get out. And that was only three days. I wanted my freedom to be able to take my body anywhere I wanted to go without fear.
Coates teaches us that in our history physical features have determined rank (p.7). There is a social concept of beauty; a definitive hierarchy that we all are taught whatever our gender or race or class – Tall, and long straight hair, and blonde with blue eyes and white are the ideals. Coates, like Toni Morrison in The Bluest Eye,, asks us to confront our cultural ideals of what counts as beautiful. Do we conform to the standards of contemporary celebrity culture, or do we recoil? Do we try to change ourselves? And which value do we pass on to our children? We also see, as Morrison writes, “some mysterious all-knowing master had given each [black family member] . . . a cloak of ugliness to wear.” What is the value of this body? Do we assign the face, the hair, the body some kind of category of absolute beauty on a scale that makes up our silver screen of opinion? Contrast this with the preacher Baby Suggs in the reading from Beloved this morning. These slaves have been freed from these white rules of control and the preacher implores them to love every part of their body. Love your flesh, she says.
Today we have celebrated a child dedication in our service. This is our future. All of our hopes and dreams lie in the lives our children will be able to claim for themselves. But can a black child claim a life of freedom, a life of knowledge, a life of hope, or even a life free from fear? Coates writes: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.” What would it be like to worry about your children every time they leave the house? Will they be stopped, accosted, or questioned in some way by the people who swear to protect all children? Coates writes; “We want to be in a place where our children are treated like children and not baby criminals.”
Many of our children will live lives of relative privilege. They will be able to move through the world with lots of opportunities. But not everyone does. We need to raise all children to be able to talk about racism in our culture. We want our children to succeed, but can we also tell them that the success of the American Dream has since the beginning of our history been achieved on someone else’s back? As Coates says: “I believed and still do, that our bodies are ourselves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”
What if those bodies, all those bodies, were truly free?
“There is more love somewhere.”
This spiritual was originally sung by enslaved black people in the American South, and it still rings true: there must be more love somewhere, beyond this world wracked with oppression. And when we sing this song today, we do so with a commitment to do our part to build a world where more love is made manifest.
My older niece once said about the younger one,
“my sister’s laugh makes my heart catch fire.”
I know exactly what she means.
I love my nieces so much, it burns, a warm glow in my heart.
How do we even begin to convey the love we feel for the children in our lives?
We want so much for them: to protect them, to teach them,
And we want to keep bias and hate from their hearts.
In his memoir, Dalton Conley tells the story of his little sister and her white Barbie doll. He explains that his sister’s cute response to their grandmother’s attempt at conveying ancient biblical wisdom is now part of the family lore – “I would take the top half, so I could comb her hair.” And he points out that no one ever intervened in the lesson his sister had already learned from the incident: that white bodies are the valuable, desirable bodies, and Black bodies are not.
During the book discussion at church this past week, we talked about how black and brown families have to have “the talk” with their kids, painful conversations explaining to little children that they might be judged for the color of their skin, heartbreaking conversations with youth about how to act around police.
And we agreed that white people should be having “the talk” too.
My sister and I often talk about how to talk to her kids about race and racism.
They live about fifteen minutes from here, over in Arlington, and so the kids don’t play with very many black and brown kids. Once when my sister and the kids visited me in Jamaica Plain, we went to a playground near my house. My sister reported that on the drive home, the older one asked why so many kids at the playground had dark skin. That was an opening to a conversation that is still ongoing, several years later. It’s never straightforward, but my sister and brother-in-law encourage their kids to explore the assumptions they make about race, who they assume can be their friends, which dolls are their favorites.
I’m sure many of you have stories about how and when race comes up with the kids in your lives, and how you have that conversation with them. I’m sure it’s one thing to be an aunt in these conversations, and another thing entirely to be a parent, and it’s one thing to talk about this as a white person and it’s another thing entirely as a person of color.
But, as an auntie, as a white auntie, I struggle, I find myself cringing when the older one says she doesn’t think the characters from the Wiz “look right” or when both of them lunge for the white fairy stickers first.
Sensing our anxieties about the topic, or our avoidance, our children, especially white children, learn that it’s racist to talk about race, that it’s better to claim that we “don’t see race.”
And, devastatingly, our kids learn from subtle and not-so-subtle messages in the media and the culture at large that black and brown bodies are dangerous, or exotic, or in some way Marked and Other. And black and brown kids may learn from the same sources not to love their own bodies, their own selves.
Instead of cringing when my nieces show their confusion and assumptions about skin color, I have to step outside my comfort zone. I could ask them why they prefer the white fairy stickers, and encourage them to recognize that all bodies are beautiful, not just white bodies.
Little Alexandra’s white Barbie was ripped in half in that story.
But racism does not tear at white bodies in the way it hurts black bodies.
All the same, racism does have a splitting effect upon white people; we may get disconnected from our innate capacity to recognize the human in all other people, whether we recognize it or not, something is torn asunder in our souls.
So to halt the violence done to Black people
And to repair the breach in white souls,
Let’s break the cycle of unconscious racism and teach our kids that all bodies are beautiful
Let’s go there. Let’s keep having these conversations, awkward and difficult as they may be.
Let’s put Love Out Front, let’s show that we believe there is more love somewhere.
Part 2 – Mark Harris
“Duck” Hoggle died this past August. Who might Duck Hoggle be? In the “Upfront” section of last Sunday’s Globe Magazine, there was a picture of a father embracing his two sons, who it turns out were some good ole boys from Alabama, one of whom looked remarkably like George W. Bush. That was “Duck” Hoggle. He was from Selma, the last surviving member of a trio of white men who had attacked three Unitarian ministers in 1965 when they had gathered to march with Martin Luther King after Selma had become the focal point for registering black voters. They attacked James Reeb and his two colleagues, including Andrea’s cousin Clark Olsen. Reeb’s skull was fractured, and he died from his injuries.
I want you to think of the physicality of this incident. These men were clubbed with baseball bats. Reeb did not receive immediate medical treatment because his injured body was treated like a black body. This was the era of Jim Crow, and so they called for the “colored only” ambulance, which broke down because it was a junk mechanically, and they had to call for another rescue vehicle. When Reeb’s attackers had first crossed the street to accost these white northerners, they had labeled these troublemakers with the “N” word. By becoming part of the black protest movement, the ministers had lost the privilege of white bodies. The article goes on to remind us that Reeb’s death helped catalyze the Voting Rights Act that summer, something the loss of black lives, such as Jimmy Jackson could not do. Hoggle, the owner of a car dealership, lived on for five decades, with his family, and his work, and his pleasures, a well-respected businessman. A county sheriff was a pall bearer at the funeral. Justice was not served. Reeb was a body lost to his children and his wife, and his nation, a voice calling for justice, silenced.
A generation later the Supreme Court invalidated the heart of that voting rights act King and Reeb were fighting for, allowing some states to institute voter identification laws. Have we gone backwards with respect to racial justice? Some fear that we have returned to a new racist age, as one of our Presidential candidates makes one outrageous statement after another, and it has seemed that we have regular occurrences of police officers shooting unarmed black Americans. Black bodies are seen as threats to the well-being of white society. A black body makes us suspicious. Is it worse? I don’t think so. The outrageous behaviors against the black body were once taken for granted, and now we see a society that is more willing to express outrage and protest, and film these atrocities and work to prevent these tragedies. Some have suggested that this white backlash is a kind of last gasp of racial hatred, as many more people are willing to declare that black lives matter.
Alan Watts once said that a person who finds their identity in something other than their full organism is less than half a person. They separate themselves from nature, rather than being part of nature. Instead of being a body, we have a body. Being our bodies gives Unitarian Universalists the chance to realize our physical being as the fullest expression of ourselves. As Coates says, our spirit is our flesh. How the body is treated becomes part of the soul, down through the generations.
When I was in the hospital, I finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, the story of the great black migration out of the South. Isabel Wilkerson tells one story of a black family headed West, and they pass through El Paso. The family stopped at one motel, and asked if they took colored people. The answer was no. They knew if they asked again, they might get another no. This was a family that looked white – light skin and straight hair – all the adults, and two out of the three children. One child was dark. The grandfather decided he would stop and ask for a room just like the white people did, and not mention colored. But what would they do about the boy who was dark? They decided the motel must not know about the boy. They would all pretend to be white. The grandfather told all the children to keep their heads down, and be as quiet as possible. The children were all terrified. They were able to register, but what were they to do with Jules? The others walked in to the room, but Jules was wrapped in a blanket so no part of his body showed. The grandfather carried him, like luggage. Perhaps they remained terrified all night, but they were not caught. They had their room. Still, the memory of this stayed with Jules, and the story goes that he was never quite the same after that.
I was 17 during the Olympics in Mexico City, when two American athlete participated in a controversial protest. Track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, were on the victory stand to receive medals, and while the anthem played, they raised their black gloved fists in protest. They knew that the American dream has fatal flaws, and had the strength to help us see this, too. The protest implores us to strive to live with a higher moral standard, and now we recognize these men as paving the way for the black body to be recognized as beautiful and great, just as President Obama did the other day.
May we love the wholeness of our children, body and soul, and pray they will be given all the love and all the opportunities in the world to gain wisdom and peace, just as we impart to them the wisdom we have learned. As we go forward we remember the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “there is meaning in the struggle.”
So may it be.
Closing Words – from James Baldwin
I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.