We find ourselves once again at the threshold of a new month. Tomorrow is the first day of June, which means the beginning of Pride Month. When we met for our staff meeting on Tuesday, we thought we might focus this morning on Pride and on this congregation’s commitment to being welcoming and inclusive of LGBTQ+ persons.
That afternoon, I started watching the documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” It sounded timely given our current state. It recounts the story of AIDS activists in the 1980’s and 90’s who began organizing, educating themselves, and advocating for advancements in research and treatment options. Dr. Fauci was there, his hair still dark brown. Larry Kramer, the activist and writer who died this week, also featured prominently as a founder of ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. It was he who famously referred to AIDS as a “plague.”
One thing that stuck with me most from the film was a question posed by one of the activists who fought and then succumbed to AIDS. He asked:
“What does a decent society do with people who hurt themselves because they are human, who smoke too much, who eat too much, who drive carelessly, who don’t have safe sex? I think the answer is that a decent society does not put people out to pasture and let them die because they’ve done a human thing.”
Those words resonate for me whenever I hear someone say, “COVID only kills the old, and people with pre-existing conditions. As long as you’re young and healthy, you’ll be fine.” Or when I hear someone suggest that grandparents should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the economy…because they’ve done the very human thing of growing old. Or when I read about COVID’s unequal toll on people of color, who are more likely to have underlying conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma because they’ve done the very human thing of being poor and in a society that is stacked against them, a society in which they are disenfranchised because of the color of their skin.
I started watching this movie about AIDS, but it didn’t take me long to realize that we need to talk about another plague this week, as well: The plague of systemic racism and white supremacy. Because on Monday a black man named Christian Cooper had the cops called on him by a white woman in New York City because he’d asked her to leash her dog in an area where dogs are required by law to be leashed. And a black man named George Floyd was killed by a Minnesota police officer after allegedly writing a bad check.
By mid-week, peaceful protests had started in Minneapolis. By the end of the week, we saw property being destroyed by what appeared in most instances to be white provocateurs. We heard condemnations of violence and calls for peace. And all of a sudden, “protest” became the theme for this week instead of “pride.”
Not that they are unrelated. After all, Pride month and Pride parades commemorate the anniversary of the Stonewall riot in June of 1969, when the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, was raided by police…and the police met fierce resistance led by black transgender women who were joined by others from the LGBTQ+ community. The protests, which some called “riots,” lasted and grew over many days, and marked the beginning of what we now think of as the “gay pride movement.”
Almost two decades later, the fight for life-saving treatments for AIDS was led by gay activists and others in the LGBTQ+ community who formed ACT-UP and staged powerful protests at the FDA, the CDC, the NIH, on Wall Street, in hospitals and Catholic Churches, at the White House and at Senator Jesse Helms’ house. Many condemned their tactics. There were many cries for ‘peace’ and ‘patience.’
Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.” Martin Luther King once said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” And Beth sent me a great quote this week from Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who said: “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless.’ There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”
There is a story in the Bible, in the book of Genesis…the story of the Tower of Babel. It is an “origin myth” which explains why there are so many different languages spoken in our world. According to the story, the human race was once unified and powerful. Everyone spoke the same language. They were able to hear and understand one another and to work together. And they became so powerful working together that God felt threatened. And so, in order to retain power, God scattered the people and gave them all different languages, so they couldn’t understand one another or work together anymore.
There is also another story in the book of Acts, the story of Pentecost, a story that is being read in most Christian worship services today. In that story, it is said that all of Jesus’s disciples and followers were gathered together 50 days after his murder by state authorities. And suddenly, there was a mighty rush of wind, which was said to be the Holy Spirit. And tongues of fire appeared on each one’s forehead. And they started speaking in strange languages, which we now often think of as “speaking in tongues.”
There are all sorts of interpretations of this story, as you can imagine. But according to Harvey Cox, who was my advisor at Harvard Divinity School, the miracle of Pentecost wasn’t that people spoke in tongues; it was that people came speaking different tongues, different languages, and yet suddenly were able to understood one another. The message of Pentecost, as Harvey Cox and other liberal Christian theologians point out, is that God’s good news of liberation is not just for one race, for one language group, or for one way of being human. The good news of liberation is for everyone. In that telling, it is a story of diversity and inclusion.
And, it is important to note, Pentecost is thought to be the birthday of the Church, the day the Church was born. And so how one interprets the story of Pentecost has everything to do with what kind of church you think was born that day. There are churches that divide and there are churches that include. There are churches that side with justice for all and churches that would obstruct it.
Unitarian Universalism is among the churches that include. Sometimes imperfectly, of course, for we, too, are human. But we are among those who believe in Emily’s wonderful idea from our story this morning, Emily’s Idea, that each person is different, but also the same…that we are all meant to be connected, friends and strangers alike. And as in her story, there will always be some people who don’t understand. They will rip. They will belittle. They will do everything in their power to destroy.
As for us? We will do our best to maintain connections and side with love. May we continue to listen to the voices of the marginalized, those deliberately silenced, those preferably unheard. May we learn not only to hear them, but also to heed them. And may we continue to pray not first and foremost for peace, but for justice.
So may it be.
©2020 Rev. Wendy L. Bell