“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.