Service of the Living Tradition: “Sounding the Call”, General Assembly 2018
General Assembly 2018 Event 249
The Ministries and Faith Development Staff Group invites you to join us at this service where we honor those who have died, recognize those who have completed active service, and welcome those who have received fellowship, credentialed or certified status in the past year.
Download the Order of Service (PDF, 8 pages).
“Sounding the Call”
In this climate of uncertainty, heartbreak, and doubt we move to empower faithful living in unexpected places, through unsung heroes, while bearing witness to a love that encompasses all.
The sermon will be delivered by the Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Assistant Professor of Theology and Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry. Her work as a religious educator, parish minister, and seminary professor provide well-honed leadership qualities that prompted the UUA Board to appoint her Interim Co-President of the UUA for the Commission for Institutional Change on April 10, 2017.
Our Music Director, Amanda M. Thomas, is the current Director of Music at Second Unitarian Church of Chicago and a member of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Oak Park, Illinois. She serves on both the UU Musician’s Network Board of Trustees, and the UUA’s Music Leadership Certification Committee. She earned a B.A. in music from Saint Xavier University of Chicago, where she specialized in voice and choral conducting.
The following final draft script was completed before this event took place; actual words spoken may vary. Unedited live captions (TXT) were created during the event, and contain some errors. Captioning is not available for some copyrighted material.
Song Leader, Sarah Jebian and LeLaina Romero
Good evening and welcome to the 2018 Service of the Living Tradition! I’m Amanda Thomas, your music leader for this service. While folks are still finding their way in, we will sing a bit to get this worship experience started.
Our first song will begin with the ostinato, “though we’ve broken our vows, a thousand times”. We will need some folks to continue on the ostinato, and the rest to join in later on the round. Come on choir, let’s help them get started
“Come, Come, Whoever You Are”
Adapted words by Rumi, melody by Lynne Unger
“Kum ba yah” / “Come by Here”
Amanda: In the words of Ysaye Marie Barnwell: “Kum ba yah,” or “Come by Here” in the Gullah language, has become snarky shorthand for feel-good or weak-minded groupthink. A soulful cry sung by the Georgia Sea Island slaves, the song was carried on by Southern blacks in the time of Jim Crow and lynch mobs, and later by the Freedom Riders when they learned that three of their workers had been murdered by Klansmen. “When people say, ‘It was a Kum ba ya moment,’ it clearly was not a Kum ba ya moment.” “It’s actually an invocation for God to come by here now because things are needed. If you hear people use it mistakenly, please gently correct them.”
Let us sing it together now, as the Georgia Sea Island slaves and southern blacks in the time of Jim Crow sang it. Let us sing it with hope for something better in this life as we continue to fight racism, ableism, classism, and all other isms.
“Profetiza, Pueblo Mio” / “Prophecy, Oh My People”
Rosa Martha Zirate Macias, arr. Kenneth Herman
LeLaina: Rosa Martha Zirate Macias uses her rich musical talents and courageous leadership in championing the rights of the Mexican and Latinx communities in this country. She migrated to this country from Mexico in 1968 and currently stands as the artistic spokesperson for the Hispanic as she has a strong commitment to building a new world order.
Sarah Jebian reads translation.
Lelaina Romero leads.
“Love Will Guide Us”
Amanda Thomas leads.
Reverend Sarah Lammert and Jessica York
Sarah: Time and time again, there is a call:
Jessica: a call to lead the work of transformation…
Sarah: a call to help heal…
Jessica: a call to testify…
Sarah: a call to disrupt…
Jessica: a call to create something new…
Sarah: a call to help others see their potential, their role in crafting a world that is always pushing towards more justice, more peace, and more love.
Jessica: We rejoice that some choose to live out their calling in the name of Unitarian Universalism. These include the certified music leaders, credentialed religious educators, and newly and final fellowshipped ministers whom we celebrate tonight.
Sarah: It includes the retirees whose years of service we honor, and the leaders we lost this year through death, and whose lives we mourn.
Jessica: Yet we come together tonight not just to celebrate. We come not just as witnesses but as co-creators of this faith’s Living Tradition. We ask ourselves, “How will I support these religious professionals in their calling?” and “What will become of this faith they are called to?”
Sarah: Every action has a reaction. Whether or not you are a religious professional, you play a part in how these callings are lived out. As we recognize their achievements, let us also acknowledge how much we need each other. As our President, the Reverend Susan Frederick-Gray says, “We cannot do this alone.” Tonight is not just about them. It is about all of us and our shared role in co-creating Unitarian Universalism. It is about who we have been as a people of faith, and who we are all called to be.
Jessica: Welcome to the Service of the Living Tradition!
Calling Forth Preliminary Fellows
Jesse King: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have received Preliminary Fellowship as Unitarian Universalist Ministers:
- Aisha N Ansano
- John B Ballance
- Amanda Beal
- Jacqueline Cantey Brett
- Julie Brock
- Terri A. Burnor
- Rita Antoinette Capezzi
- Leslie Chartier
- Jonathan Coffee
- Terry Cummings
- Erin Margit Dajka Holley
- Diana K. Davies
- Donna Dolham
- Megan R Dowdell
- Adam Lawrence Dyer
- T. J. FitzGerald
- Valerie Freseman
- Kali Fyre
- Stephanie Gannon
- Mary Mangione Gear
- Debra Guthrie
- Jan Hutslar
- Elizabeth Ide
- Monica Diane JacobsonTennessen
- Kevin W. Jagoe
- Claudia Liliana Jiménez
- Kellie Kelly
- Ellie Kilpatrick
- Alix Klingenberg
- David Miller Kohlmeier
- Sadie Camp Lansdale
- Bob LaVallee
- Elizabeth L'Éclair
- William Levwood
- Danielle Lindstrom
- Erica Rose Long
- Edith Amanda Love
- Jason Lydon
- Natalie Malter
- Tania Yadira Márquez
- Johannah Margaret Murphy
- Otto O’Connor
- Jolie Olivetti
- Kayla Parker
- Jennifer Peek
- Lisa Perry-Wood
- Cynthia Pincus
- Sarah Prickett
- Mark S. Richards
- Beth Robbins
- Craig Anthony Rubano
- Bethany Russell-Lowe
- Misha Sanders
- Connie Simon
- McKinley L. Sims
- Diana Leah Smith
- Elizabeth Sollie
- Kristina E Spaude
- Cynthia Stewart
- Karen Van Fossan
- Jennifer "Jo" VonRue
- Amanda Jean Weatherspoon
- Elizabeth Louise Weber
- Kimberly Wootan
- Jami Yandle
Calling Forth Credentialed Religious Educators
Sara Lewis: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have been certified as Credentialed Religious Educators Master Level:
- Sheila Schuh
I call forth from among you, these persons, who have been certified as Credentialed Religious Educators:
- Kirsten Hunter
- Claudia Liliana Jimènez
- Katy Siepert
- Lauren Strauss
I call forth from among you, these persons, who have completed their careers of full-time service
As a Credentialed Religious Educator:
- Jeanette Ruyle
As a Credentialed Religious Educator,Master Level:
- Patti Withers
Calling Forth Music Leaders
I call forth from among you, this person, who has successfully completed the Portfolio Path of study and is now a Credentialed Music Leader:
- Keith Jay Arnold
I call forth from among you, these persons, who have successfully completed the program of study and are now Certified Music Leaders:
- Sara Brandt-Doelle
- Alane Brown
- Scott DeVeaux
- Pam Siegler
Calling Forth Final Fellows
I call forth from among you, these persons, who have received Final Fellowship as Unitarian Universalist ministers:
- Summer Albayati
- Karen Armina
- Charlotte Arsenault
- Robin Bartlett
- Carol Bodeau
- Lara K-J Campbell
- Cathy Chang
- Joseph M Cherry
- Mary Frances Comer
- Heather Concannon
- Patrice Kimberly Curtis
- Beth Dana
- Kelly Dignan
- Susan Margarete Stine Donham
- Peter Farriday
- James Foti
- Rebecca Heather Froom
- Lynne D Garner
- Carl Gregg
- Fiona Heath
- Christiane Heyde
- Rebecca C. Hinds
- Katherine A Jesch
- Chris Jimmerson
- Jeremiah Lal Shahbaz Kalendae
- Celie Katovitch
- Jay Libby
- Jim Magaw
- Justin Michael Martin
- Stephanie May
- Douglas E McCusker
- Lisa McDaniel-Hutchings
- Andrew MacDonald Moeller
- Elizabeth Buffington Nguyen
- Jennifer Nordstrom
- Sarah Cristine Oglesby-Dunegan
- Allison Palm
- Gregory Pelley
- Joseph Santos-Lyons
- Catie Scudera
- Sally Elizabeth Shore
- Eve M Stevens
- Kevin Tarsa
- Maria Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa
- Gretchen E Weis
- Margaret L. Weis
- Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe
- Leslie Freundschuh Woodward
- Judy Zimmerman
Calling Forth those Completing Full Time Service
The Rev. Judy Welles: I call forth from among you, these persons, who have completed their careers of Full-Time Service:
- Joy Atkinson
- Vern Barnet
- Lindsay Bates
- Peggy S Block
- Bruce A Bode
- Karla Brockie
- Jack D Bryant
- John A. Buehrens
- Lyn Stangland Cameron
- Mark W Christian
- Lilia Cuervo
- Earl K Holt III
- Fritz Hudson
- Paul G. Hull, Jr.
- Myke Johnson
- Christine Jones-Leavy
- William Kennedy
- David Keyes
- Rick Klimowicz
- Barbara McKusick Liscord
- Beth Miller
- Peter Morales
- Mark D. Morrison-Reed
- Madeline Lyn Oglesby
- Lee P. Page
- Deane M. Perkins
- Suzanne Redfern-Campbell
- Geoffrey Rimositis
- Donald E Robinson
- Thomas Rosiello
- Michael A Schuler
- Stanley Franklin Sears
- Bruce Alan Southworth
- Yvonne Schumacher Strejcek
- Elwood R Sturtevant
- Barbara Whittaker-Johns
- Thomas D Wintle
- Constance Yost
- Philip Zwerling
Opening Hymn: “Rank by Rank”
Amanda Thomas: And now, please rise in body or in spirit as we sing Rank by Rank
Chalice Lighting: “Bridging Seniors”
Words by the Rev. Theresa Soto
Reading: Nina Clark
Lighting: Miranda Allen, Christopher Twombly, Ian Pallares
Introit: “For You I Sing”
Margaret Nes, arr. Melanie DeMore
Sofia Betancourt, LeLaina Romera, Amanda Thomas
Remembering Those Who Have Died
Susan: Each year, as we have for generations, we honor the religious professionals of our living tradition who have died during the last year.
Into this sacred space we lift up the names of these loved ones and dear colleagues. We honor with the speaking of their names the lives they lived, the ministries they offered, the difference they made to the people and communities they served, the lives they touched with their leadership, their care, their wisdom and their faithful presence.
As we remember these religious leaders, we hold in our hearts their families, communities and dear friends and the grief that accompanies so deeply and tenderly our gratitude for the love and the life shared.
Please rise in body and/or spirit
Reading the Names
- Richard L. Allen
- Sarah Barber-Braun
- Rebecca M. Blodgett
- Marguerite “Peggy” C. Clason
- Beth Ellen Cooper
- Alan G. Deale
- E. Bonnie Devlin
- Elizabeth A. Foster
- Homer "Jerry" A. Goddard III
- Katherine “Kay” A. Greenleaf
- Alfred J. N. Henriksen
- A. Phillip B. Hewett
- Daniel G. Higgins Jr.
- Kathryn “Kay” A. Jorgensen
- Joan Kahn-Schneider
- Robert C. Kimball
- Eugene W. Kreves
- Edwin A. Lane
- Sandra G. Lee
- Robert H. MacPherson
- Donald W. McKinney
- Berkley L. Moore
- Martha L. Munson
- William R. Murry
- Marcia W. Schekel
- Peter Lee Scott
- Charles S. Stephen Jr.
- Robert Nelson West Sr.
- Carl H. Whittier Jr.
- Elizabeth “Bets” Wienecke
- Charles L. Wilson
- John B. Wolf
- Jack D. Zoerheide
Lighting Memorial Candle
Let us join our hearts together in a moment of prayer.
Spirit of life, Spirit of love that holds us close in a network of mutuality that extends through the generations, through time, linking us to all who have gone before and those who will come after us. Our hearts are humble in the midst of the great gift and great mystery of life.
We honor these precious lives, these leaders who have gone before. In remembering them, we remember that we are not the first to struggle, to risk, to love, to celebrate, to know anguish and imperfection, to need forgiveness and grace. In remembering them, we remember our own responsibilities in the face of the brevity of life – every moment we are given is precious. May we, in remembering them, live our own lives in faithfulness, in compassion, and in service to the call of love and justice in our hearts.
I invite us all now into a moment of collective silence to be attentive to the prayers, the memories, the longings, the hope, present in each of our own hearts.
Musical Response: “I Believe”
Offering for the Living Tradition Fund
Rev. Richard Nugent: My name is the Reverend Richard Nugent, and I’m honored to lead the staff team in the Office of Church Staff Finances that manages the UUA Health and Insurance Plans, Retirement Plan, Compensation Programs, and Aid Funds.
In December, the Unitarian Universalist faith community lost, not only an extraordinary leader, but so much more. Denny Davidoff was a friend to many of us, and she was also a supportive presence in the lives of her family, a committed lay leader both within her congregation and beyond its doors, a dedicated supporter of theological education, a passionate voice for a more inclusive Unitarian Universalism, and a tireless advocate for a more just and compassionate society.
From lay leadership in her congregation in the 1960s to the Presidency of the UU Women’s Federation in the 1970s, Denny was a tireless advocate for gender equality. Denny served on the GA Planning Committee and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee before getting elected to the UUA Board of Trustees. From 2001 to 2009, Denny serves as the UUA Moderator. In the years after, she chaired the board of the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Outside of Unitarian Universalism, Denny was co-founder and President of the Interfaith Alliance, served on the Board of the Alban Institute, and was active in numerous Connecticut-based nonprofits. In 2006, Denny and Jerry Davidoff, her loving spouse and co-conspirator in so many causes, received the UUA Award for Distinguished Service.
Denny loved to raise money for causes close to her heart. In her later years, her fundraising focused on Meadville Lombard Theological School where she mentored class after class of seminarians who are now ministers. New Orleans was Denny’s 50th consecutive general assembly. At last year’s Service of the Living Tradition, Denny spoke movingly on behalf of the Living Tradition Fund and the religious professionals and other congregational staff who benefit from it. In deciding who should ask you to be as generous as possible in this year’s offering to the Living Tradition Fund, we thought it only appropriate to let Denny, one more time, do what she loved to do so often – ask you to financially support the faith that supports each of us and so many others.
In the program at her memorial service, it was written that Denny “always turned into the wind. There was rarely a strong current, choppy sea, or blistering wind that she would not face head-on.” In some way or another, everyone in this room, or watching electronically, has had their life enriched by the hard work, courageous vision, and endless love of Denny Davidoff. Denny, while you may be gone, you are certainly not forgotten. Your memory is written large on our hearts.
Video of Denny
It is June 1971. Jerry and I have arrived in Boston early for the 1971 General Assembly early enough for finding a dorm room at Boston university is airless and exceedingly unattractive. We have been able, though it's a bit yawn the budget, to secure an air conditioned room in the nearby Howard Johnson's inn. Unpacked, we are wondering around the edges of GA and we run into the reverend Clark Dewey Wells, who offers to sneak us into the Service of the Living Tradition soon to commence at the Arlington street church. It's strictly for clergy, Clarks tells us, but I'm thinking you two will like it. Oh, my God, did we like it. For Jerry, who basically loved everything about General Assembly, really about the UUA, the SLT, this Service of the Living Tradition, became the annual event in his religious life, maybe the annual event in his entire life. Jerry, lover of ministers, this one is for you. It is September 1963 and the Unitarian church in Westport, the young Davidoff's congregation, is welcoming its very first student intern, a Meadville Lombard seminarian by the name of Ralph Mero. 32 years later, Ralph Mero relocates from Boston Seattle to become the Director of the UUA Office of church staff finances and my education as a Unitarian Universalist fundraiser begins.
Some of you out there have heard me say that everything I know about asking for money, big money, from Unitarian Universalists I learned from Ralph Mero at the Service of the Living Tradition. Mero curriculum lesson one. Warn the folks that if you take out your checkbook any time before this offertory is done, do not fill out the amount.
I can remember Ralph saying this. It will only require you writing another check. I want to speak tonight to my colleague lay leaders. I want to speak candidly. Maybe even harshly, because we all know the truth sometimes bites and stings, and the truth is we mistreat our ministers financially. We call them into our congregations for as little money as we can get away with, get away with, and we blithely expect them to help us raise money that will fund our collective dreams. Please, Reverend, charm the large givers. Please, Reverend, lasso the pledge laggers. Please, Reverend, not the sermon on the amount out of the ballpark. Please, Reverend, inspire the potential capital campaign chairs. We take particular unfair advantage of women ministers. Yes, we do.
Still, and we exploit our ministers of color.
And don't get me started about our abysmal treatment of religious educators and musicians and other staff.
In this regard, we are cheapskates without regard to race, gender identity, national origin. And then there are the interim ministers we love to exploit by not paying them anything.
Like working for free is okay. Sitting behind me are new ministers we are and will be calling and hiring to serve our congregations this year and in the years to come. They are recent seminary graduates and many, possibly most of them, are mired in debt. The price they have paid to follow their insistent call to ministry. Their insistent call to serve us. So please, if you would, stand if you are able and if you are willing, stand if you have student loans and other educational debts.
Oh, yeah. Thanks, guys. Friends, I have stood next to a minister whose child is in terrible trouble. I have stood by while this minister called Richard Nugent, who succeeded Ralph Mero, called in desperation to request financial help from the Living Tradition Fund. And Richard has responded without hesitation. Yes, I'm sending you a check right now. Friends, I know ministers who have faced medical emergencies for themselves or family members that insurance did not cover if, indeed, there was insurance. I have known retired ministers in their nineties whose careers did not straddle our fair compensation guidelines and who were in danger of losing their homes. Friends, I know a seminary student who was ill and couldn't work her partâ€‘time job and was facing eviction from her apartment and I have known seminarians who requested emergency funds without which they could not continue their ongoing coursework. And Richard Nugent, like Ralph Mero before him, has responded with a check. A lifeline. A blessing. We like to say that Unitarian Universalism saves lives. I can attest tonight that the Living Tradition saves ministers' lives. The very same ministers who save our congregations' lives over and over and over and over again. It is June 1988 and I am at General Assembly in Palm Springs, California. I am, in fact, chair of the GA planning Committee, and with evidence of tremendous need present, the delegates agree to create the Living Tradition Fund to provide three types of support for ministry, need based scholarships for theological students who have completed a full year of theological education, new minister assistance to reduce the burden of high educational debt and repayment. This was actually in the resolution. Grants to ministers for emergency assistance. And in agreeing to create the Fund, we assumed responsibility then, as we assume it tonight, we assume the responsibility for funding it generously. Thankfully. Here is my check. I was going to write it for $100, which is a lot for me, but I kept hearing Ralph's urgent voice telling me to do better. So okay, okay, okay Ralph. It's for $200. Do better, my friends. Do better, please. The offering will now be taken.
Richard Nugent: As your gifts to benefit religious professionals and other congregational staff are collected, I want to acknowledge the generous gift of the Davidoff family to the Living Tradition Fund in memory of Denny’s long-standing commitment to our faith.
Offertory: “Somebody’s Hurting My Brother”
Sofia: Our reading this evening comes from Audre Lorde’s Commencement Address delivered at Oberlin College on May 29, 1989. Audre Lorde defined herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” and as such her wisdom resounds long past the span of her life. Here is the conclusion to her commencement address:
The white fathers have told us: “I think, therefore I am.” But the Black mother within each one of us—the poet inside—whispers in our dreams: “I feel, therefore I can be free.” Learn to use what you feel to move you toward action. Change, personal and political, does not come about in a day, nor a year. But it is our day-to-day decisions, the way in which we testify with our lives to those things in which we say we believe, that empower us. Your power is relative, but it is real. And if you do not learn to use it, it will be used, against you, and me, and our children. Change did not begin with you, and it will not end with you, but what you do with your life is an absolutely vital piece of that chain. The testimony of your daily living is the missing remnant in the fabric of our future.
There are so many different parts to each of us. And there are so many of us. If we can envision the future we desire, we can work to bring it into being. We need all the different pieces of ourselves to be strong, as we need each other and each other’s battles for empowerment.
That surge of power you feel inside you now does not belong to me, nor to your parents, nor to your professors. That power lives inside of you. It is yours, you own it, and you will carry it out of this room. And whether you use it or whether you waste it, you are responsible for it. Good luck to you all. Together, in the conscious recognition of our differences, we can win, and we will. a luta continua [The struggle continues].
Hymn: “We Would Be One”
Sibelius, words: Samuel Anthony Wright
We are on a journey toward redemption.
We have lived a year filled with lamentation… with the promise of generations, the failures of the everyday, and the deep down gritty messiness that is the promise of our salvation.
There is inherent goodness that exists between and among us.
I want to honor the weary, ragged miracle that is our living tradition.
Oh my loves. The last time I got to address you in this great assembly, it was a time of renewed promise, of reinvestment in who we best know ourselves to be. And it was a time when our energy was kindled a bit by fear: fear that we might lose one another, fear that naming our entanglement with white supremacy would prove the undoing of our liberating faith. And we sent ourselves home with work to do, knowing that the struggles in our Association were a small reflection of the larger struggles of our nation. We were called once again to accountability at home, even as we worked for justice in the world.
I have to say that this has been a year of steadfastness in religious leadership. It’s been far from perfect. But there are those among us who have worked beyond all reason to keep us accountable to this journey of dismantling white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism. They have my profound gratitude and respect. And when I say that we have had steadfastness in our religious leadership, I mean everyone who is associated with us. All of you who have heard your values and your dreams of faithful living expressed in our congregations and communities, and chosen to cast your lot among us; all of you who have brought your heartache, your failure, your unbounded hope, and your potential to Unitarian Universalism; all of you most impacted by this work, who have remained in our communities even when we have offered you less than what your spirit deserves.
On this night when we honor those dedicated to the work of our living tradition – we honor each and every one of you.
Now it has been a year when those before you on this chancel have not only responded to the needs of a nation in turmoil, and an Association deep in self reflection, they have achieved the milestones we ask of our professional leaders in the midst of that unending work. We rightly pause to honor this depth of commitment in times when we do not entirely know what our journey will ask of us, only that the work itself is worthy of sacrifice.
In a world where white supremacy and all other forms of oppression that feed on one another, all the logics of domination, are blamed on the most ludicrous things – sleep medication, absent-minded employees, habit, resource scarcity in a nation shaped by greed, religion itself… we are called more than ever to testify with our lives. Poet and prophet Audre Lorde told those embarking on a next great journey that it was their small actions, their everyday decisions, how they moved through this world that not only gave them power, but would define our future. She did not offer them a great redeeming moment, she simply steered them back to the daily struggle. To what we might call faithful living.
This is about the journey of redemption.
Now I imagine that some of you are tired of this conversation. The work of dismantling oppression can feel endless at times. In our tiredness we sometimes fear that speaking the truth of our own complicity somehow invalidates the good that we have done in the world. Instead I see it as a sign of our commitment to a task that must rest on our faithfulness if it is ever to succeed. It will take a strength larger than our individual beliefs, larger even than our collective intention to reshape our surrounding culture. We seek to reform Unitarian Universalism because we can never be the bearers of love and justice that the world so desperately needs if the foundation that sustains us is still perpetuating the very problems we long to solve.
I know that we grow weary – some of us because our lived realities rarely require that we build the stamina for staying in the struggle day by day whether we want to or not, some of us because the long haul living with the daily requirement of justifying our humanity is unspeakably depleting, some of us because our faith is profoundly challenged each time we debate whether and how much this work matters at this point in our history.
I want to remind us, myself included, that it is the promise of our faith itself that calls us to this work and it is the integrity of living the values we bear witness to in the world that requires us to focus our energy in this way. Beloveds we are the theological inheritors of teachings on universal salvation. There is no winnowing out of the supposedly unworthy that can be named sacred among us. It is our very Universalism that is at stake when we turn away from the impact that our institutions have on the same communities and groups that society encourages us to dehumanize and make small.
This is not a new story.
When I look for something to hold onto in these days when the death struggles of institutionalized white supremacy and heteropatriachal capitalism are attacking every group thrown to the margins to justify unearned privilege and immoral gains, I turn to the wisdom of activists who have long taught us that our liberation is collective. Many of us know the words attributed to indigenous Australian activist, Lilla Watson, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself reminds us that this wisdom has grown collectively from activists and organizers, so I want to bring us back to one of our own, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, who is remembered for teaching us that “we are all bound up together.” Collective salvation was not a new idea at the time, though Harper predates the theologians in our own tradition best known for embracing this worldview.
In 1866, flanked by white allies Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony at the 11th National Women’s Rights Convention in NY city, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper insisted that “we are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest… of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” Harper, a freeborn black woman who belonged to both Unitarian and AME churches, lived her life using her relative privilege to fight for the freedom of her people. All of her people. This beautifully intersectional abolitionist organized for women’s suffrage alongside the ending of slavery, and civil rights for all. She challenged us on the dire consequences of oppression, and how the violence we inflict on those we convince ourselves are less worthy harms not only those sacredness we dishonor, but irrevocably violates our own souls as well.
I am not going to continue quoting from her speech, because the accepted ableist language of her time has no place in a modern pulpit. But I want us to understand that we are also inheritors of Harper’s insistence that there is a level of immorality worse than the systematic oppression we are giving so very much of ourselves to uproot from our beloved communities. When the poetry poured from this black mother’s heart, she unflinchingly called the nation to account for reaching out to peoples of African descent for help in a time of great need, then utterly rejecting them once again in times of safety. Beloveds, I am not suggesting we are repeating the “depths of infamy,” to use Harper’s words, of Civil War America but I am experiencing echoes that frighten me.
The journey toward redemption includes truth telling and I am going to ask you to bear with me for a minute, trusting that I know that every congregational and communal situation is complex, just as I know that we can do better. That I can do better.
This is a year when we have rightly thanked our gifted religious educators for their compassionate investment in our faith formation through the white supremacy teach-ins. I have heard anecdotally that this is also a year when many religious educators, of a wide range of racial and ethnic identities including white co-conspirators, have struggled with ministerial supervisors who are not as committed to this work. This is a time when more than 800 of our congregations have engaged in communal learning about dismantling white supremacy and it is also a time when we have needed interventions from the UUA and received negotiated resignations from religious professionals of color at unprecedented levels.
Let me be clear. When we do this work we almost always ask more of the people most impacted by it, project our greatest fears onto them, and allow the system to remove them rather than sustain the deep, culture changing work required for us to truly live our values in the world. And this is not just about race or ethnicity. It is about every disempowered group in our leadership. I would ask you to make it part of your faithful living to learn about the stories of our religious leaders who live with disabilities, who identify as transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming. Learn about how our congregations are treating women, making space for people with a range of class identities, embracing queer religious professionals, or responding to the leadership of people of color. Notice the things our beloveds feel justified in saying to us about our appearances, particularly to those of us who are fat. This list goes on and on.
It is past time that we stop expecting extra help from those we impact the most, then burdening them with the behaviors that come from our own wrestling with grief and dismay in the aftermath. Let us find better ways to care for our souls in times of change.
The journey toward redemption is about truth telling, lamentation, and owning our wrongs, while at the same time claiming the profound possibility that calls us forward. We are the inheritors of the legacies of white supremacy, but also of an unimaginable grace, of certainty in the possibility of redemption, of weaving a tapestry of leadership that may not yet be what we long for but is called to be the richest expression of humanity’s sacredness. We believe in human capacity great enough, a god loving enough, values strong enough, communities dedicated enough, and leaders humble enough to move us toward redemption.
And I think we know that redemption is a shared ministry that means everyone, that elevates all, that seeks out the suffering, neglected places of the world and breathes the Holy back into them. Redemption is a professional religious leadership that is humble, that apologizes, and that limits its own power to move us toward a greater truth. Moving in that direction means trying even when we don't know how it can ever come to pass. Trying because the struggle itself is holy. It means celebrating the successes that do in fact exist among us, elevating them, and putting them to the service of creating even greater success. At the same time it is modeling that the reality of our failings is not more powerful than the inherent goodness that we teach.
We are left asking ourselves what will we risk for this grace?
The thing is, I believe in our callings. Yes, many of us are called to professional religious leadership. We agree to be there in the difficult moments, and in the successes and celebrations, and we promise to wrestle and show up even as our hearts are breaking. But we also promise to understand that every member and friend of a Unitarian Universalist community is also there by calling. We are called, collectively, to this great experiment in communal salvation. Whether we arrived in this faith by birth or by choice, our everyday expression of our values in the world matters.
Friends, colleagues marking profound milestones in your professional service, what will you risk for this grace? Where lies your hope for our interwoven salvation? To my colleagues whose chosen absence we mourn, for all who serve in spite of what has been done to them… is it strange to say I remember you every time I watch Black Panther again? It is during that moment, near the end of the film, when T’Chala tells Nakia, “I think I know a way that you can still fulfill your calling. Please stay.”
Oh my loves. Please stay. I believe in the power of our callings. I believe in saving the soul of our nation and that we cannot show up authentically for that struggle if we ignore the one right here, right in this community of faith. I am asking you to love us even when we don’t deserve you, but not at the expense of your health or well being, both physical and spiritual. Do lean into the fierce and fabulous network of colleagues who share some of your identity shaped experiences, and know that you are never alone.
The good news is that we are in control of what we do with our daily living. If we, each one of us, represent a missing remnant in the fabric of our collective future – then together we can lean into a possibility that we have yet to fully experience in human history. A collective wholeness. An unassailable good. That is the kind of salvation I am here to fight for in the small moments of every single day. Whether you are here in person at general assembly, or participating online, or researching our history at some future date to learn the many ways we held ourselves accountable on this journey toward redemption, I invite you to learn all that you can from this gathering. Immerse yourself, unapologetically, in what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist in these days. Then go back out into the world and live knowing that your faith matters. May the poetry of our hearts set us free.
Amen, Ashe, and Blessed Be.
Choral Affirmation: “Storm is Passing Over”
Albert Tindley arr. Barbara W. Baker
Closing Hymn: “There is a Love”
Elizabeth Norton, Dr. Rebecca Parker
This is not scripted and will be extemporaneous.
Recessional: “Building a New Way”
Martha Sandefer, arr. Jim Scott