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Sunday Closing Worship

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General Assembly 2007 Event 5024

On Becoming an Ancestor

On Sunday, June 24, 2007, following the close of the final Plenary of the 47th General Assembly, the Unitarian Universalist Association GA attendees gathered for a closing worship service led by Mark Slegers, Minister of Music, First Unitarian Church, Portland, Oregon; Ysaye Maria Barnwell, founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock and member of All Souls Church Unitarian, Washington D.C.; Rev. William Sinkford, UUA President; Rev. Hope Johnson, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau, New York; and Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, Connecticut. The huge Oregon Convention Center hall in Portland was nearly filled to capacity for the service, with many attendees gathering from nearby Unitarian Universalist congregations for worship with the nearly 6,000 GA attendees.

Ingathering music for the service was led by Mark Slegers: "There's a River Flowin' in my Soul" and "Blue Boat Home."

Sweet Honey in the Rock's song, "We Are..." was led by Ysaye M. Barnwell.

Rev. Sinkford delivered the welcome and invocation, which echoed Barnwell's words: "For each child that's born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are, we are our grandmother's prayers, we are our grandfather's dreaming, we are the breath of our universe, we are the children of God..."

"We come into this space," said Sinkford, "some with joy in our hearts, some with sorrow. Here may we find both salvation and solace. We come to be reminded of our commitments, and history. Here may we find strength for the journey ahead. May we know that we are not alone. By our presence we make this space holy. Come, let us worship together."

Combined choirs from the First Unitarian Church of Portland sang the Introit, "Sanctus" from "The Jazz Mass" by Steve Dobrogosz. The piece showed off the more than 100 voices of the Unitarian and Chalice Choirs of this large congregation.

The chalice lighting was offered by Rev. Sinkford and Rev. Hope Johnson. They said, in part, "We light our Unitarian Universalist chalice and flame, symbol of faith, hope, and love. May this new light illuminate a just path, may this light burnish a common vision, may this new light make manifest beloved community.

In the presence off this flame let us remember, we could not find our way without those who cleared the path before us.

"In the presence of this chalice flame let us remember: it is our time to make manifest a just community.

Johnson then offered this Covenant:

Love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law
This is our great covenant: To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love, and to help one another.
—James Vila Blake

Barnwell spoke about the piece of music, "No Mirrors in my Nana's House" which is, she explained, a companion piece to another, "Wanting Memories." She said, "No Mirrors" is based on a true story told by a friend who talked of growing up in a home with no mirrors. I asked her, "How did you know how you looked, how did you get dressed." She said something that never left me." She said, "My grandmother described in great detail how I looked: my skin color, my nose, my eyes, all the way down to how I was dressed, right down to my feet... so that no matter what anyone said about how she looked, Barnwell said, she knew from the inside how she looked, and that was how she created the image of herself."

Barnwell explained that another song, "Wanting Memories," is "a reflection of what we have learned as we grew up: those who have inspired us, taught us, given us our values, skills, and knowledge that we carry as adults. It is an asking for the memory that we have to carry us forward so we now are seeing life through our own eyes and not those who came before."

Barnwell taught the chorus, "There were no mirrors in my nana's house, no mirrors in my nana's house, and the beauty that I saw in everything the beauty in everything was in her eyes, like the rising of the sun was in her eyes," to the worshippers as they sang the piece with her.

Rev. Joshua Pawelek then shared some of the words to "Wanting Memories": "I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty of the world through my own eyes..."and reflected on the yearning expressed in that song.

The congregation then joined in singing the hymn, "Shall We Gather at the River," words and music by Robert Lowry. The hymn was followed by a prayer and silent meditation led by Rev. Hope Johnson. She said, in part, "Once again the earth turns its faith northwards toward the sun, and regardless of the temperature outside and the drizzle, young summer calls us away finally from winter's long look inward, so that our lives may settle, slowing into the long days of light. It is still too early to contemplate the final harvest or husk corn, but young summer invites transformation. It demands that we move into the larger world with hearts flung wide open, hands held wide open to this, our new season. Summer is young. We are called to sing and shout our praises with humble joy. Hallelujah, let it be so, now let it be so. Let us pray:

“Spirit of life, spirit of love, dear, dear God.  We give thanks for the community shared in this Assembly. We give thanks for the legacy we have inherited from those who have gathered in summers past. We give thanks for that transformation that changes indifference and hatred into love. We are called to struggle, oh yes we are, through internalized superiority, oppression, unearned privilege, offering, objectifying, denying and missing the mark—yet this comes with knowing and owning our own truth and forgiveness, with reconciliation and healing that has already begun. We are called to struggle through internalized inferiority, disempowerment, illness, pain, suicide, dysfunction, anger, and yet with this comes the joy of claiming and reclaiming our identity, loving self, a giving voice, building community, living life.

"Despite sorrow, despite pain, here is joy in the commitment of staying bodaciously in the struggle for wholeness. We say praise to our ancestors even if we don't know them; we carry them in our hearts to the river for consecration and we fall symbolically on our knees, thankful for and surrounded by our history, a history that is filled with authenticity, triumph, complicity, and resistance. You and summer offer another opportunity to participate in the transformation of a world that is broader than any one faith. You and summer present us with the question, how shall we life? May we answer, by living into our best selves. May we consciously create legacies for generations yet unborn. May we be guided by the vision and dream of beloved community. Blessed be."

The congregation sang Carolyn McDade’s “Spirit of Life” in response to the prayer, augmented by the sounds of the participants of the Parker Handbell Choir (directed by Ellie Hodder) of the First Unitarian Church of Portland.

A reading, of the passage, "Blessing," from the book "My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging" by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, followed. In it, the author wrote:

My grandfather died when I was seven years old. I had never lived in a world without him in it. And it was hard for me. He called me by my special name, nshyme-le, meaning beloved little soul. There was no one left to call me that any more. At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was I might disappear.  But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way, I had learned to see myself through his yes and that once blessed, we are blessed, forever.

The anthem, "carry your heart" (words by ee cummings; music by Gwyneth Walker) followed.

Rev. Pawelek said [excerpted], in his sermon,

I am deeply grateful for the invitation to preach for you this afternoon; it is an honor I will cherish the rest of my life. And of course it has to be said that one does not preach alone. We sang about the throne of God; we always preach in response to and with the most Holy in our presence. We also have a team for which I am deeply grateful: Darryl Grant and the Band. Let's hear it for First Portland for giving us their choir this afternoon. And the bell choir, can we hear it for them?

One preaches with those who are gathered in worship. I thought more people would be gone, but that doesn't seem to be the case, thank you for being here. I want to give a shout out for the internet community, and for all those who are out there in the virtual world, we thank you. For all those who have gone before, the saints, the souls, the forbears, who have articulated and preserved the tradition, the preacher's community that now resides, the prophets who challenged the tradition to transform, the heretics and resisters who said "wait, we're not getting this right"; to all those who through their looks, their spirit, their struggle, their love passed on something of meaning and value. I am talking about the ancestors. We carry them in our hearts because they carried us in theirs. One preaches always to the ancestors.

Before I got further there is a word from the lexicon. It is an ancient Hebrew word or a cry or shout of praise or joy. Some of you already know: it is hallelujah. Let the congregation say hallelujah. [hallelujah] If you have had an experience for which you wish to offer praise, let you say hallelujah. [hallelujah] If you had an experience that brought you joy, say hallelujah. [hallelujah] We have reclaimed and now we proclaim that word.

When we seek to know our ancestors' story, what obstacles did they face? How did they achieve liberation? For what were they thankful? What did they pass on to us? If we know more clearly who our ancestors were, we know more clearly who we are. Let us remember and honor the ancestors, those into which we were born, those into which we were adopted, ancestors of blood, ancestors of our generation, people who struggled so that they could pass on something of meaning to us. Let me hear the congregation say Hallelujah. [hallelujah]

Let us also remember and honor the ancestors and Unitarians, those who built our religious movement and our churches of freedom, reason, and tolerance, those who gave us sacred spaces to pray, raise our children, wherein the inherent worth and dignity of people is celebrated sacred spaces wherein the divine spark of all life is that great connection, that interdependent we: we worship with our Unitarian and Universalist and Unitarian Universalist ancestors. Let the congregation say hallelujah. [hallelujah]

And let us remember those ancestors who struggled for justice, those souls who resisted colonization and the colonization and genocide, those who struggled for civil rights, for women's suffrage, those stonewall souls, those wounded knees, those Tulsa race riots, those trail of tears, those Seneca Falls, those United Farm Worker souls, those Highlander Folk Schools souls, those Unitarian Universalist congregation and FULLBAC and BAWA souls, who passed on their strength, struggle and passion, so that we may take up justice in our time, we worship with them and let the congregation say hallelujah. [hallelujah]

This past December we lost an incredible soul, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. We know Marjorie's words [Reading #573, Singing the Living Tradition]:

…If you are black and I am white,
It will not matter.
If you are female and I am male,
It will not matter.
If you are older and I am younger,
It will not matter.
If you are progressive and I am conservative,
It will not matter.
If you are straight and I am gay,
It will not matter.
If you are Christian and I am Jewish,
It will not matter.
If we join spirits as brothers and sisters, the pain of our aloneness will be lessened, and that does matter.

We lost Marjorie too soon; what an incredible contribution she made. I say that we make a promise to Marjorie to keep that vision alive, let us have faith that Marjorie, with her deeds and sprit, she is still with us and she will not let us fail. As we gather on the banks of the Willamette she will not let us fail and let us call her ancestor.

What must I do to become an ancestor? That is not only my question to me, but our question to you.  What must I do to become an ancestor? How must we live so that when people gather at the river they will call our names? How must we live so that our descendants will look to us for strength and courage to meet their challenges? How do we become ancestors?

I have been talking about this in two ways in recent times. We become ancestors by blessing those who are coming after us. To help us we have the reading [we heard earlier] and the music "No mirrors in my Nana's House." In response to the death of her grandfather Dr. Remen writes, "At first I was afraid that without him to see me and tell God who I was, I might disappear. But slowly over time I came to understand that in some mysterious way I could see myself through his eyes, and I was blessed forever." Dr. Barnwell sings, "I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me to see the beauty through my own eyes. And then I know that I am blessed, again and again and again." Both of these stories describe a pattern where a grandparent sees the child. And once the grandparents die, the child learns that they have seen themselves through their grandparents' eyes. And this is a blessing, this being seen, being known, being recognized as fully human, this being loved, this being introduced to God, rocked in the cradle of your arms, this seeing is blessing.

If we want those who know us to gather at the river, shout hallelujah, call us ancestors, let us bless them, let us learn to see them and know them even before they are in our midst. Let us be the ones who bequeath peace; let us be the ones into whose eyes they may look, to learn how deeply they were loved even before they were born.

I would like you to think and reflect on the youngest human being that you know. They may be in the womb, they may be recently born. Ponder their name. And if you don't know their name they can be nameless one, or some special spiritual name that you gave them. I am going to ask you to shout out their name, and repeat it after me and it will be "beloved little soul." Hallelujah.

This is the practice of blessing. We also become ancestors by engaging in justice struggles today. Marjorie was one of many who crafted and helped to direct the UUA's anti racism initiative over the past two decades, and I am mindful that this makes the anniversary of the passage of the resolution of an antiracist UUA and others: this calls us to look deeply at ourselves and deeply transform. This particular resolution issues a challenge to us to dismantle racism and inspires a wonderful vision for the future. Those of you who know me, know that I have dedicated my young ministry toward these goals, and Marjorie was and continues to guide me on this goal.

I am an unapologetic partisan of the journey toward wholeness, and have always approached ministry with the thought that though we will make mistakes and they will be many, failure is not possible. For me, despite flaws, the Journey Toward Wholeness provides a compelling response to the question, How do we become ancestors?

Easy to say, hard to do. The answer is accountability. My congregation is also used to saying that. As historically white congregations our challenge is to make our institutional power accountable to people of color in our communities, both inside and outside our congregations, who are struggling for racial justice. And this works for all forms of oppression. If we want to dismantle heterosexism and homophobia our challenge is to make our power accountable to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender people in our community. If we want to dismantle oppression to poor people, to people with disabilities, youth who are organizing for justice, we want to make our power accountable. What does it mean to make our power accountable? 

First, UUs must be in relationship with people who have resided largely on the margins of society from the centers of power. When we are asked to show up and exercise our power in a fund raiser, this worship service, that forum, we don't abdicate, we show up, we keep our promise. We stay committed, we stay in the struggle. Now it still may be a little abstract: what am I supposed to do?

In Manchester Connecticut, and there is similar drift in other communities, the public school system is on a watch list. A lot of people call it the "no child left behind act," and it's code for racial segregation. Parents of students of color and staff of color in the system are organizing to bring the schools into compliance with the law and end racial segregation. We need to be in coalition with them, don't we? This is not going to be easy. Already there is tension, anger, anxiety in the community. There is likely to be white flight. The temptation to stay or go—it will be strong, but we need to show up. Our descendants will call us because we stayed in the struggle. Easy to say, hard to do.

What question comes next: Some of you will ask, "What power? What are you talking about, I don't have any power. What power do UUs have in transforming our congregations? What power do we have? The power of our congregations, one thousand plus. The power of our clergy and our lay people and our youth. We have the power of our financial resources, and our UU organization, the faith-based community organizations, our Washington office, Beacon press, Skinner House Books, LUUNA, Interweave, C*UUYAN, and more.

We have the power of our seminaries, our living tradition and its sources, the power of the spiritual teachings of earth-centered teaching…[of all our principles and purposes]….

We carry them in our hearts as we build up earth-loving sustainable communities, we build up spiritual communities…we carry them as we proclaim to a hurting fearful world:  ‘all are welcome—all are welcome, all are saved in the heart of the most holy. We carry them in our hearts so that they will carry us in theirs.

As we go out my hope is that we become the ones who bless again and again and again and again, that we become the ones who become ancestors, and that the sound of our names, in that great cloud of witness, that cloud of names, will echo on the riverbanks for all the days to come. Hallelujah!

Following the conclusion of the sermon, an offering was taken to benefit Village Gardens, the 2007 GA Service Project. It was noted that Village Gardens is a sustainable urban agriculture project providing individual and family garden plots, gardening lessons, and youth education programs. More than $3,200 has already been raised in contributions at GA, and significantly more is hoped for from this worship service.*

The service moved toward conclusion with a rousing version of "When the Spirit Says Do," an African American spiritual arranged by Mark Freundt, which was the closing hymn for the congregation.

Rev. Sinkford extinguished the chalice, saying, "The General Assembly is coming to an end, but we will return to our congregations enriched by the things we have learned. Hold that spirit in your heart. Make what you have learned a blessing to your congregations. Together our tasks are set and we have much to do. Led by the sprit, let us become ancestors and go now in peace, go now in commitments, go now in love. And let the congregation say hallelujah!

As the postlude, "People Get Ready" by Curtis Mayfield played, the more than 5,000 congregants left the hall and the final event of the 47th General Assembly ended.

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

*Following the conclusion of the General Assembly, it was announced that more than $34,000 in contributions was raised to benefit this project.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, March 29, 2012.

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