Thank you First Parish Band! Beautiful.
Those words that Rev. King offered, closed his ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’ speech, given on April 3, 1968 at the Church of God in Christ headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. The mountaintop that King drew from came from the Hebrew Bible in Deuteronomy. Moses, the great prophetic liberator of the oppressed Israelites, leads his people through the desert, urging them to follow him, follow him for life and freedom waits in the Promised Land of Canaan. But right before they get there, God speaks to Moses one last time: “Then Moses went up to Mount Nebo…and the Lord showed him the whole land…saying, I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there. And then Moses died there…his sight unimpaired and his vigor had not abated…”
And Rev. King, he too a prophet and liberator of the oppressed, followed across the proverbial desertlands, urging all peoples to follow him, follow him for life and freedom waited in the Promised Land. His closing words, his last words to the people were: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything.”
I believe he knew in his bones that this was his Moses moment. The next day, April 4, 1968, was his last on Earth. Rest in peace Rev. King.
And what is this ‘Promised Land’ anyways? It’s Rev. King’s vision of Beloved Community that’s what. The sheer beauty of the thing which is Beloved Community, for that is how he described it. As beautiful. That which makes manifest a radical Love and Connection and Welcome that heals all, reconciles all, redeems all, and frees all from the bondage of hate and bitterness and emptiness. All, mind you. ALL peoples. It IS a beautiful thing, the most beautiful thing. It’s important that we not forget this beauty. Particularly in days such as these. When so much can seem so very…ugly.
And we as Unitarian Universalists use the words Beloved Community a lot right? Have you noticed? Our larger association and congregations everywhere are putting it in their missions, their covenants of right relation, on their websites, on banners outside their church buildings…Why? Because revisioning what welcome means and committing to be accountable to it, what belonging, love, care, the dignity and worth of every human soul, committing ourselves to this, keeping it ALIVE, this is at the core of our faith. That’s why. I know you can get behind this. Many of you are members of this church, or call yourself UU because of this.
And. And. We have some serious work to do. You might have noticed that I said Beloved Community means RE-visioning what welcome means, what belonging, love, care, the dignity and worth of every human soul…RE-visioning what this means. Because we haven’t arrived at Beloved Community yet. We haven’t figured this out. We are not at the Promised Land.
Paula Cole Jones, who served as the Director of Racial & Social Justice for the UUA’s larger Central East region, developed the idea of the existence of two different paradigms in UU circles: the UU 7 Principles, these are the touchstones to how we live and breathe our faith, and Beloved Community. After working with congregations on these issues for over 15 years, she realized that a person can believe they are being a “good UU” and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level. At the systemic level.
Let me unpack this a bit. This is so important. Racism describes the marginalization or oppression of individuals because of their race. And we can zoom out here, and say that this marginalization or oppression of individuals isn’t just about race. Discrimination against a myriad of identities exist in our culture: trans peoples, indigenous peoples, disabled peoples, poor peoples, women, the gay community…BUT. People of color face, hands down, the highest level of discrimination and oppression. So. Systemic racism and oppression describes what happens when cultural institutions, systems and ideologies reflect that individual racism and oppression.
A few examples: our education system, the health care system, the criminal justice system and more. It’s when prejudice and bigotry are baked into the operations of these cultural institutions. And the consequences of this are insidious and vast — from the racial wealth gap, mass incarceration, immigration policies, racial profiling, disparities in health, education, employment and housing….” And because our culture takes its cues from all of these systems we can say that systemic racism and oppression exist everywhere. It’s everywhere. Baked in.
And we the people, who move in and out of these systems all day, have been baked into it as well. This is the insidious-ness of systemic oppression. NO one is untouched here. But white-identified people, no matter what other marginalized identities we might hold, white-identified people, we, are the beneficiaries of this systemic oppression. And one of the greatest privileges that I and my white siblings reap the benefit of, every day, is complete ignorance to most oppressive cultures and systems. We don’t see it, we don’t feel it, we don’t notice it. We feel welcome, so every else must as well.
And again, it gets complicated when one holds other marginalized identities. As a woman, I know this well. AND my whiteness still offers me privilege and currency everywhere I go. So this is really complex.
And Dear Ones, our UU congregations are not untouched by systemic racism and oppression. Our churches are baked into it too. And, yes UU’s have done a wonderful job fighting racism and oppression in the world, and I do not doubt, for one second, that each of you deeply care about these issues and our siblings of color. But we white folk also, and most often unintentionally, continue to center whiteness and other dominant identities in our faith and in congregational life. Some examples: the way we were taught and continue to teach our white centered, white archived, white celebrated UU history–and history in general; our buildings and the aesthetic white stories they tell, how we worship, and the countless other areas of church life that center the narratives and needs of those who are white.
Take a breath with me church family. It’s okay. This is happening everywhere. It’s what we all have inherited. The legacy we have been left with. And we are waking up to it now.
And this is what Paula Cole Jones observed in her work with countless UU congregations all over this country. That this stuff was baked in. And She realized that an 8th Principle was needed to get at this. In 2013, she began working with UU people of color and local anti-oppression activists to draft this principle and formally recommended that the UUA adopt it as well. Since this time, a growing movement, now called the 8th Principle Project is underway. 145 UU congregations, including many of our neighboring churches, have voted to adopt it. And this sends a powerful message to our UU Association, for they too are in the process of adopting it. So, this is a call to action. And it’s exciting. RE-visioning is always exciting!
And our First Parish 8th Principle Task Force: Jeri Bayer, Danielle England, Izzy Tappan de-Frees, Ben and Roma Jerome, and Beverly Smith, they have been working tirelessly to find good and meaningful ways to begin these important conversations here at First Parish. This is not something that we adopt and call it a day. Over the next months you will see and hear more and more from them as we prepare ourselves to consider voting in the 8th Principle. A principle that explicitly names our commitment to antiracist/antioppression work, acknowledges that this stuff is baked into our system and us, and also helps us to hold ourselves accountable to the dismantling of it. To revisioning and reckoning and reconciliation. Let’s read it again:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
Rev. King once preached about freedom “never coming on a silver platter.” He said, “freedom is never easy. It comes through persistence. It comes through despair and disappointment…but that this is the long story of freedom.” “That’s the beauty of the thing” he said. Because working towards it–freedom, the Beloved Community, where every human being is loved and cared for, centered, and welcome: this is the vista where we too glimpse the Promised Land. The place of spiritual wholeness. Where we ALL get free. But we are going to have to cross some deserts. WE are going to have to do some interior reckoning. Get lost in the wilderness together. And many of us won’t get to the Promised Land. But those who come after us will. Our kids. Let us, here at First Parish, consider the legacy we want to leave for them.
Listen, I have so much to learn and unlearn. I am no expert. I miss the mark all the time. Sometimes it leaves me exhausted, overwhelmed, and hopeless. But this spiritual wholeness part, my attempt to get to this, it depends upon this work. And, church family, so does yours. Rev. King knew it. Moses knew it. Every last prophet, and those who continue to move among us…they know it. Our UU Black, Indigenous, People of Color, they know it. And they are begging us to know it. Believe it. And get to work.
And let us not forget, that this work is a thing of beauty. And joy! Liberation is always a thing of beauty and joy. And our hands, your hands, your arms, your heart, your light are, like Lea Morris sang at the top of the service, strong enough and good enough, wide enough and big enough, bright enough to give and be Love. YES! They are.
And it is an honor to be in this with you.
Let’s sing and rejoice, and honor Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy today with music in our hearts, hope in our bones and liberation on our tongues.
May it be so!
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.