In March of 2002, the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association held its every seven years gathering in Birmingham, Alabama. I was excited to go to Birmingham, partly because it would be my first convocation with a thousand or so colleagues, but for another reason as well.
My first husband, Ted, was from Birmingham... a black man who as a teenager had been sent north by his mother after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963. We had long since been divorced, and he had died in 1996. Indeed, I had found out quite by accident a few years later that he had died. It felt to me as though there was some unfinished business. I decided that while in Birmingham I would track down and visit his grave, for a final goodbye. That turned out to easier thought than done. I had nothing but an obituary from the newspaper in Syracuse, which stated only that he was to be “buried in Birmingham.”
So a friend from seminary and started out on foot on March 7, beginning our search at the City Hall Information desk. No, I was told, there is no cemetery department; try the courthouse. Off we went to the courthouse, and asked to security guard... No, no cemetery department, try probate. To probate, no, not here, try the health department. It was too far to walk, so we got the phone number and called. No, we do not give out such information over the phone. So we sat on a bench and pondered for a few minutes, and then looked up and realized we were near the public library. Aha! ... Let’s try that!
Librarians, being not only knowledgeable but helpful people, set to work with me. We found a local obituary on microfilm—hopes were raised, maybe the name of church or a funeral home? No church, but lo and behold, the name of a minister, a cemetery, and funeral home was given! Three big clues... . hot on the trail.
Well, I wanted to attend some things that afternoon at convocation, so I gave up for the day. I picked up the trail the next morning—Friday. I started with the phone book. No listing under the minister’s name. So I called the funeral home. Is there a record... I had a name and a date... is there a record of where Ted is buried? No, no records, and the cemetery is in bankruptcy, so all records are at the City Attorney’s office. I call the City Attorney’s office—the receptionist says that the person who handles bankruptcies is out until Monday. I explain that I am only there for the weekend. The receptionist suggests that I come to the office and ask to speak to someone named Sonny.
So off I go with another friend from seminary. Sonny is not available. The secretary, a young African American woman, tries to be helpful when I explain my mission. She is extremely sympathetic, but says there is nothing she can do. My friend and I go out in the hall, and start trying to think about what to do next. The secretary can see us through the door. After a few minutes, she comes out and invites us back in. She calls someone on the phone—Sonny, maybe? I’ll never know—and hands me the phone. I explain, again, what I am doing. The gentleman confides that he is going to tell me something that he shouldn’t. There probably are no records, he says. The cemetery was poorly run and there had been a huge scandal a couple of years before, probably fraud ... gravesites being sold over and over again, no plot plan, in fact, graves being what is called “churned”. Every few years being dug up and resold. That is why it is at the City Attorney’s office.
Except it wasn’t. As it turned out, it was anything but a dead end for my spiritual journey.
First came the realization that such things happen in poor neighborhoods... This privileged white girl from the north, whose family has a private cemetery, and who only knew of well kept ones, had never heard of such a thing happening. Yet it is common. I stood there stunned for a while, but also flooded by memories of other moments of stunned, raised consciousness that had come with being in an interracial relationship in the early 1970s. So I was in a very odd state of mindful grief about Ted in particular and racism in general.
And in that state of mind... it was almost a trance-like state of grieving memory, my friend and I walked over to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It is located very close to the 16th Street Baptist Church. In that trancelike state, I stood and looked at the church—the bombing of which had sent Ted north. The trance went deeper. I entered the museum, and began a journey ... through the mid-twentieth century, in some ways living Ted’s childhood, by seeing those years, the late 40’s, 50’s and early 60’s through the eyes of a young black boy in Birmingham. Segregation, protests, bombings... all of it. I could not stop crying—my friend, being a good pastor, saw that something was happening, and left me alone to go through whatever it was I needed to go through. Through room after room, event after event, I cried my way through the years... living a different life than the one a privileged white girl had lived in the north. Through room after room, event after event, Ted was there helping me understand. When I emerged, the trance lifted, and something had changed, my vision had cleared. My friend was waiting, and we walked back to the conference center in silence.
One of my colleagues who likes to play with numbers figured out that it will have been 45 years, four months and 23 days between August 28, 1963 when Dr. King proclaimed his dream for the United States of America and January 20th, 2009 when Barack Hussein Obama will take the oath of office to become President. He also calculated that it is 1.9 miles from the Lincoln Memorial, across the national Mall to the steps of the U.S. capitol. That is a speed of 7 inches per day, oh-so-slow, yet possible within many of our lifetimes.
But... it is not a final destination. It is but one station stop on a collective journey of this nation, as every one of us keeps experiencing awakenings about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, civil rights work of all kinds. It is but one station stop on a journey that included non-violent protests, violent retaliation; it is but one station stop on a journey that has included changes in the law, but is only just beginning to produce changes in hearts and on to changes in practices. It is but one station stop on a collective journey of this world toward open, honest and experienced inclusion.
Experienced inclusion. That’s a hard part of those of us who are white. I want to talk to you this morning as white people: as racial beings who are white. Those of you who are not, are of course welcome to eavesdrop. It is so easy for those of us who are white, the majority race to date in this country, though not in the world, to think of ourselves as race-less. As “the norm.” Other people have race. We’re just white, the color/race against which all the others are measured.
It is easy for us to think theoretically about race. It is easy for us to nod vigorously when we read academic tomes that tell us that there is no such thing as race—which is technically, scientifically true, except that our historic practices tell us that practically it is a crock. Of course there is race, because major social, political, and economic decisions have been made based on it for generations. This is a case where falling back on science is a major cop-out. It is a spiritual challenge to get past race, all the way to science.
It is easy for us to listen to a Baptist preacher speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—whether we heard it live, or recorded, or have only read it in the history books, and believe that we share that dream. But Dr. King did not die ... did not sacrifice his life by having a dream. His ultimate sacrifice was because he began to implement that dream, to turn the other cheek, to take direct, non-violent action, with hundreds and thousands of others, and not back down. He kept walking forward no matter what. And those whose “norm-ness” was challenged didn’t like it.
Twice in my previous life running agencies, where I had authority for hiring, we got to a place where staffing reached 50/50 white and people of other colors. And when that happened ... have any of you been in such situations? ...white people get all weird. No matter how many equal opportunity workshops we attend, affirmative action consciousness raising training programs, anti-racism, anti-oppression programs ... call it what you will... we get all weird. It feels different. It feels funny. It feels “off.”
It feels “weird” and “off” because suddenly we are aware of being racial beings... we are the “other” the “stranger.” The norms have shifted
Even socially engineered communities like Columbia were originally designed to keep the proportions “just right.” Was that a progressive move, or was it blatant racism? If we live in a place like Columbia, are we off the hook? Have we made our concessions to inclusion, or is there more work to do? Two generations in, is it working? Why not? (Which is a clue as to how I answer that question!)
Day after tomorrow the first African-American President will be sworn in. And it is important to pay attention to how he got to where he is, because how he got there just may be the answer to how the rest of us continue the journey past the steps of the capitol. It may be the answer to ensuring that we don’t think the work is done just because we have an African American President.
He is there because he understood, from a very young age, the importance of personal relationships. The community organizing that he did—under the same organization that Howard County PATH is part of, by the way—was done by tireless development of one-on-one and small group relationships. Talking to people, but more importantly, listening to people, and taking them seriously. He brought that genuine, authentic interest in people in listening, and in heeding into his campaign, and we all heard.
He is there because he is not afraid of direct action. When people talk to each other, listen to each other, they discover what they have in common, and form relationships, and join together, and are able to take action. To walk together, one mile, two miles, three miles... hundreds and thousands of miles, sharing their cloaks, turning cheeks, creating non-violent, constructive tension which is necessary for growth.
He is there because of an impeccable character, which has shone through all of his actions. He is flawed, as all of us are, but he has been judged by his character, rather than by the color of his skin. Deep in our Unitarian history is the idea of character as salvific—in the nineteenth century there was a brief period when many churches adopted a creed-like statement: the fatherhood of God, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the progress of mankind onward and upward for ever. The whole statement never “took” in this creedless faith of ours, where we do not agree on what God is or who Jesus was, but throughout our history the idea of salvation by character has been a binding quality. Everyone—Universalism—is capable of salvation by taking on good character.
And we have to remember that President Elect Obama is not a Savior. I worry that many people think that he personally and he alone will move this nation forward. Not going to happen. All the rest of us ... of all races, creeds, and colors, all faiths, or sexual orientations, physical and mental abilities must keep moving. Must keep listening. Must keep walking far beyond the steps of the capitol and into other neighborhoods, other churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples; other homes, schools, community centers, and civic halls and many other places where we may never have been before. Must form one-on-one and small group relationships—“I-Thou” relationships as the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber calls them... with people different from us. They must flow in all directions. Syracuse must go to Birmingham as much as Birmingham goes to Syracuse. That is our charge as President Obama is sworn in.
It is a spiritual as much as a physical journey. We have to open our minds and hearts to new states of being... walk through history... and present... and future... with new states of mind... and emerge with clearer vision. That is hard, and requires deep, difficult, sometimes painful work. That is what religious community is for. To walk with you as you walk with others in the spirit of mutual love. Walk with you, and with others, when you feel “weird,” when you feel “off,” when you feel fearful.
Universal salvation is the just world that is created in all of those relationships developed along the way; universal salvation is the just world that is created when people join together in direct action; universal salvation is the just world that is created when you open your eyes to see, when you open your ears to hear, when your hearts are open to heed, and when your hands open to take on each other’s burdens.
It is religious community where we are nourished by spiritual bread for this journey... all religious communities, or, to borrow one more time from Dr. King, we will be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century... and now the 21st.
Go and make meaning... don’t just search for it, as our principles call you to do. Search passionately, yes, but it is a creative process, done in the depths of the soul and in the company of others. Go and do it... always in the spirit of mutual love.
- Reverend James Kubal-Komoto, Saltwater Unitarian Universalist Church
- Letter from Birmingham Jail