During this month of November, we’re reflecting on the theme of Memory. This morning I’d like to spend some time thinking with you about memory and how it shapes us. About how the stories that we tell about ourselves and our experiences shape our sense of identity and self-understanding.
Last week, we touched on the personal, on remembering the sources of our strength. And as part of that sermon, I suggested that if we can look back and remember from our past a time when we were challenged, and struggled, and prevailed, or at least survived…if we can remember ourselves as strong and brave, or centered and grounded, or resourceful…we are better able to be strong and brave, centered and resourceful in facing our present-day challenges.
I believe that is also true for congregations. If we can look back collectively at previous struggles and see how we came through them, acknowledging and celebrating our strengths, it will serve us well as we move forward into an unknown and ever-unfolding future.
How we remember our past is how we make meaning. It is how we make sense of who we are.
This raises some interesting questions though, doesn’t it? Like, what do we do with those things from the past that we’d rather not remember? What do we choose to remember? What do we choose to forget? And how do both that remembering and that forgetting shape our present and our future?
About ten days ago, at the beginning of this month, as you may have heard, the White House issued two proclamations on the same day. Have you read them?
The first was the Presidential Proclamation on National Native American Heritage Month. Presidents have been making such proclamations since 1990 when George H. W. Bush initiated the practice. Among other things, Mr. Trump’s proclamation honors the sacrifices made by Native Americans in defense of our nation, their military sacrifices. There is, however, no mention anywhere of what previous administrations’ proclamations referred to as the “unfortunate chapters of violence, discrimination and deprivations that went on for far too long” or the “effects of injustices that continue to be felt.” No mention of that whatsoever.
On the same day, Mr. Trump also issued a Presidential Proclamation on National American History and Founders Month, in which he called upon the nation to honor the quote-unquote “founders,” specifically the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “those who’ve defended the principle that all men are ‘endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.’
This second proclamation goes on to say that, “to continue safeguarding our freedom, we must develop a deeper understanding of our American story. Studying our country’s founding documents and exploring our unique history – both the achievements and challenges – is indispensable to the future success of our great country.” The Proclamation even extols the virtues of a “more educated citizenry.”
I could preach a whole sermon on this, but that wasn’t what I had planned for this morning. The point I do want to make here, once again, is that it matters how we remember our history. It matters who and what we include in its telling, and who and what we exclude. And the current administration is well-aware of that. They are, I dare say, trying to shape our nation’s future by selectively ignoring some parts of our past and selectively remembering others.
This is the dilemma whether we are re-telling the history of a country – or a denomination. Will we tell the truth? Will that truth be whole or partial? What will we do with the painful pieces? Will we include them in our retelling? Will we acknowledge the shortcomings, the mistakes, the abject failures?
This morning, I want to spend what time is left reflecting on some of the history of our own denomination.
When we think of the history of Unitarian Universalism, it is likely that those we remember are mostly if not exclusively white people, and more often than not, they are men. They are puritans and New England transcendentalists. They are William Ellery Channing, Hosea Ballou, Emerson and Thoreau. Theirs are the stories we most often hear retold. Theirs are the stories we tend to remember.
But it’s important to stop and remember those we all too often have forgotten; those who were part of Unitarianism and Universalism even before modern-day Unitarian Universalism came to be. This morning, I want to share some of the lesser-known, less often told stories.
Because, you see, it matters who we honor and what stories from our past we lift up, just as it matters which ones we don’t and how they then get lost, and with them a part of who we really are and who we could be
And I want to lift up the stories of two of our African-American ancestors not only for who they were and for what they accomplished, but also to invite us to begin to imagine what might have been if our white Unitarian and Universalist ancestors had responded differently to their presence, their passion, their gifts and their vision.
Joseph Jordan (pronounced Jerden) was born in Virginia in 1842. Although the institution of slavery was still in force, he was born free, and he learned to read and write as a child. Like many of those in his community, he began harvesting oysters as a youth in the estuary near his home. When he was 21, he moved to the city of Norfolk, VA, where he worked first as a laborer, then as a grocer before becoming a skilled carpenter.
Eventually, he married a woman named Indianna Brown, and together they had three children. He made a living by buying land, building houses, and renting them to other black families. During that time, he became a Baptist minister and led a small congregation. And it is said that when he preached on Sundays, he “sometimes spoke of the sins of the white oppressors, and how God would surely punish them by sending them to burn in hell for all eternity.”
But then, one day, a friend introduced him to Universalism, by giving him a book. And in that book, Joseph (Jerden) Jordan, “read of God’s promise of salvation to all: the powerless and the powerful, the oppressed and their oppressors alike.” Because, of course, “Universalism said that everyone, no matter who they were or what they had done, was a child of God. [And] Joseph also knew that Jesus had said: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ So Joseph stopped preaching a message of vengeance, and he began preaching a message of respect and love.”
After his conversion, Jordan travelled to Philadelphia to study with a Universalist minister, and in March of 1889, at age 47, he was ordained. He was, in fact, the first African American to be ordained by the Universalists.
After his ordination, he returned to Norfolk, and founded the First Universalist Church of Norfolk in 1892. The church began meeting in a rented room. His friend, Thomas Wise, who was the 2nd African American Universalist minister, founded another congregation in nearby Suffolk, VA. Both congregations grew with financial help from other universalist churches, and were able to build church buildings and schools for black children.
Jordan dreamed of founding a Universalist theological school to train African American ministers that would serve black communities. In order to make that dream come true, he needed to raise $6000. He travelled throughout the Northeast, visiting Universalist congregations, trying to raise funds, but in the end he was only able to collect $1500, and the project never came to fruition.
My African-American colleague, the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes, “To put this in perspective, in 1890, Universalists began their mission in Japan. In contrast to the reluctance to fund a theological school for [black people], they contributed $6000 per year to the Japanese mission and up to $275,000 at one point. This sad tale points out the systemic racism which existed in Universalist and Unitarian denominations.”
Morrison asks, “What would we be like know if there had been black Universalist preachers preaching about God’s enduring love? What would our music be like if Black UU preachers sang with their congregations about freedom?”
There was another Joseph Jordan – Joseph Fletcher Jordan – who was the 3rd black Universalist minister. He had been asked to lead the Universalist mission in Suffolk, VA, which included a church and a school. This was, of course, during the Jim Crow era, when the public schools were thoroughly unequal and inadequate for the education of black children, so the Universalist mission school filled a profound need in that community. Black families in Suffolk, as elsewhere in the south, were poor.
This Joseph Jordan’s daughter was Annie B. Jordan Willis. She was born in 1893 and spend most of her life helping with the mission. She started teaching in the school as a teenager. She eventually took over for her father upon his death, and served for many years as the principal of the school.
Before that time, in 1917, the Universalist General Sunday School Association had taken over the school and promised to raise money to support it. This arrangement worked well for many years. During the depression years, the mission made sure that the kids had at least one good meal a day. It continued to educate them and serve the needs of their families.
However, in1938 the white mostly male Universalist leadership decided to change things without Annie Jordan Willis’ input. They decided to close the school. They told her that she should be focusing on providing social services alone, not on education. Because they were funding the mission, she had no choice. The school was closed, despite the fact that the public schools were still inadequate to educate black children. She did, however, continue to run a kindergarten on her own.
In 1969, the UU Service Committee, which had inherited the project, decided to end all support for the mission. Still, Annie Jordan Willis kept that kindergarten going on her own until she retired in 1974.
Again, I ask, in the spirit of Mark Morrison-Reed, “What would we be like know if there had been black Universalist preachers preaching about God’s enduring love? What would we be like if the Universalists had more vigorously supported and funded schools and missions throughout the Jim Crow South throughout the 20th century?
These stories tell of both the gifts, passions and service of 2 of our African American religious ancestors, and of the failures of our mostly white religious ancestors and denomination to support them. There are many more such stories that could be told.
The choices made by our ancestors have become part of our own history, a part that we don’t remember and retell as often as we should.
There is an Akan word, from the people of the Guinea Coast in Africa, that I want to lift up this morning. That word is Sankofa.
“Sankofa is an Akan word that translates as ‘return and collect it.’ [According to Zahra Baitie], Sankofa reminds us of the need to search through the groves of the past and to bring back its lessons, principles and stories as seeds for the future.
“If the adage of Sankofa is not heeded and honored, the victories, developments and successes [of our forebears] …will be forgotten – and so will their Achilles’ heels; and with that loss, our journey to a secure future will be hindered.”
“Sankofa will help guide us so we circumvent the mistakes of our forefathers…”
That is also true of us as a denomination. We have to lift up the less-often told stories to remember our past more fully and more accurately, to remember successes not often enough celebrated, and to remember, too, failures and short-comings not often enough acknowledged and confessed, so that we can avoid repeating them in the future.
Unitarian Universalist, Natalie Fenimore, has written,
Shirley Chisholm was asked why she, a Black woman, was running for president: “You don’t have a chance. Why are you doing that?” And she said, “Because I am in love with the America that does not yet exist,” and that’s how Unitarian Universalism is also. I’m in love with the Unitarian Universalism that does not yet exist. But I have to hold both the love for that thing and the love for the reality. It does not yet exist. It will probably not exist in my lifetime. I don’t think it will in that of my children, but I can’t deny my love for it. You know, wanting to be there in that struggle. That’s why I’m fighting.
It matters what we remember. It matters what stories we tell. In the words of my colleague, Leslie Takahashi:
For those who came before us, may our gratitude be long and lasting.
For those who come after us, may we be the strong stewards of our commitments.
May each of us know the immortality of the larger frame revealed through community.
And may we always remember that its transformational power rests in our actions.
May it be so.
Amen. And blessed be.
*Biographical information on Joseph Jordan adapted from Janeen. K. Grohsmeyer’s writing (http://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/youth/virtueethics)
**Biographical information on Annie Jordan Willis adapted from https://www.uuteachin.org/copy-of-teachin2-education-child-yo, with credit to Gail Forsyth-Vail and Jamaine Cripe.