Where Race and Class Unite

First, let me bring you greetings from the larger family of faith of which you are a part. The Unitarian Universalist Association is the coming together of, now, 1055 free, liberal religious congregations in North America. We come together for common purpose, to support one another and to proclaim the Good News of this liberal faith in this hurting world. And our faith community is growing, not only in numbers, but in our willingness to witness outside our walls.

The interest in our faith has been extraordinary these last four months, but the interest in my person was something I was not prepared for. "First Black leader of a traditionally white denomination." "Black pastor, white flock" was the sound bite. Literally hundred of newspaper articles, led by the New York Times, saw in my election the possibility of reconciliation across the divide from race. How different would the headline have been if the it had said, "Unitarian Universalists elect seventh Harvard educated president."? Race and class, oppression and privilege are woven tightly together in our consciousness.

Then came September 11, and it changed the landscape in which we minister in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. I am deeply proud of our congregations. They, you, have provided comfort and caring for your members and your community. You have reached out the Muslim and Sikh and Arab communities with the simple words that you will stand with them. The UUA staff and I have worked hard to provide as much support for you as we could. It seems a strange world in which young African American men are no longer the scariest people around.

The Rev. William Sinkford during the benediction for the service at First Unitarian Church in Portland.

September 11 has, for many of us, changed everything. But for those on the bottom of the economic ladder, little has changed, except that there are more of their number.

I promised to talk with you about our faith community and race and class. They are such big words. Talking about either is sensitive enough at any time. But the fear and anxiety in which we now live makes this preacher's task difficult. Perhaps one of the blessings of Sept. 11 is that enough of the illusion of safety has been striped away to make us more open and available for some honesty.

But this is a sermon I don't want to preach. I'll have to tell too much truth, not just to you but to myself as well. The pastor in me would rather comfort you, applaud your ministry. I would rather tell you that it will be easy for us to be a force for good. I'd rather tell you that we live our theology enough to see us through, that there is reason for hope.

But the only sermon I have for you this morning will ask you to know who you are, and who we are. Because unless we are willing to do the hardest work, that of knowing ourselves; unless we are willing to hold in check our natural inclination to jump to solutions, we are at great spiritual risk as we approach the reality of race and class, and the making of justice in our world.

Both of my parents were light skinned African Americans. That means that through both love and violence, my lineage is at least as much from European Americans as from African. You don't get to be this color without intimacy across the divide of race.

My father was born into a family of relative comfort, clearly middle class in income. Father Sinkford, as he was known, owned a successful funeral home in Bluefield, West Virginia. He provided well for his children. Dad, my father, was beautifully educated, another Harvard man, who spoke seven languages with some fluency. Words were his passion. But when he met my mother, in his early forties, he was driving a cab on the streets of Detroit. The jobs for which his training prepared him, were simply not available to him at that time. For persons of color, class always needs to be seen in the context of race.

I spent my youth in Cincinnati, Ohio, as my father had died when I was young. My mother had little formal education. What money there was in her family had gone into educating the only son, her brother. We lived very modestly. Mother took the work she could find, as a clerk in shops…she sold encyclopedias door to door for a while. We were working class at best. But she gave me a love of learning and I excelled at school. We joined the Unitarian Church, and our minister badgered a judge he knew until finally my mother was given a professional job in the juvenile court system. We became middle class.

I went on to Harvard, and some success in business. I remember the Personnel Director of the first company for which I worked sitting me down and showing me the Affirmative Action chart. There was my name, proving that a person of color could be in management. I had become a token.

In my life, though I have many scars from the operation of racism in this culture, it can be argued that I have benefited at least as much as a result of my race as much as I had been punished. My education, my income, my acceptability to the white community, had isolated me from the racism of others. Race needs always to be viewed through the lens of class.

Unitarian Universalism, through several actions of the General Assembly, has committed itself to becoming an anti oppressive, multi cultural faith. Our work here, as all human work, has been imperfect, but work we have done. A good part of that work has made it acceptable to talk about race in this company and to begin the development of a common language that makes that possible.

And we are about to embark on a concerted effort to address issues of justice, of class. To be honest, I expect that this will be our most difficult work, the work we want to avoid. We are mostly privileged, and we know how fragile our privilege is. We have tales of triumph, but we must also tell the story of injustice.

There are those who want to argue about which of these issues— race or class—should be addressed first. This argument reminds me as nothing so much as the disagreement among friends of my teenage daughter about who is right, as if we could think our way into heaven without knowing who we are and with precious little experience to ground our thoughts.

This is not an idle argument. Persons of color know a kind of paranoia when our issues are treated second. Our fear is that our issues will not be treated at all. But I, and we, are willing to commit to a broader conversation about the making of justice.

Who are we? Can we know and share that with one another? What do we bring to the issues of justice making? What impels us to this work and will support us in the areas where we do not want to go?

Forrest Church, writing in the current issue of the UU World, says: "We Unitarian Universalists have inherited a magnificent theological legacy. In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from one source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.

"Given our commitment to pluralism, UUism should represent the perfect laboratory for modeling amity in a world rife with passions that stem from differences of belief. Too often, however, we muster more passion for that which divides than we do for all that unites us.

"Everything (I say) has implications for our commitment to justice. Unless we put it into practice Universalism (and Unitarian Universalism) is frivolous, self denying, and moot."

I know this faith community I love has Good News—our religious pluralism in a world in which religious difference leads to war—we live it every week. We know about empowering the marginalized, at least some of them. Our work on gender justice is far ahead of most institutions, and we affirm gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender persons in an environment where sometimes they are killed for who they love. We know that distance need not divide, and it is powerful good news.

We hold that vision of a world where every child is fed and clothed and has decent medical care—who here does not hold that vision—a world where differences are not curses but blessings; a world that would make real the vision that each of us is a child of God. Our calling is to make that vision real:

To loose the bonds of injustice,
To let the oppressed go free.

Who are we and what spiritual disciplines do we need to cultivate to allow the oppressed to go free? This is a time in our land when humor is risky and satire, I suppose, even riskier. Yet the satire which appeared in a web magazine called "The Long Point National," following my election in Cleveland, illustrates the point that with satire, one is torn between outrage and amusement. And with this, the uncomfortable shred of truth comes just a little too close.

"God is in the details," was the headline.

"The Unitarian Universalist Association, a fuzzy sorta Christian consortium of PBS donors, nonprofit staffers and other people smarter and nobler than you, elected (its first black) president on Saturday with all of the spirited resolution of drafting a pledge to condemn global hunger.

"Following his victory, Sinkford (that would be me) was given a biodegradable ticker tape parade down the main streets of Cleveland, leading a procession of Volvos, Toyotas and the occasional Subaru."

Now, I've edited out the really biting parts, but you see what I mean? It does skewer us. It's just a little too true. And it goes right to the soft spot, "People smarter and nobler than you." And then the "earnest cars."

Perhaps our greatest spiritual danger is our smugness and our unwillingness to know who we are. Most of us are middle and upper middle class white folks with degrees from really good schools (the average education in our pews is at the Master's level), children well above average, and not a shred of political incorrectness among us.

To engage in the work of justice, we need to cultivate an attitude of humility, not arrogance. To claim this, we need to know that what comfort we have is claimed at the disempowerment and oppression of so many. Pogo said, "we have seen the enemy and it is us."

We are not evil people. Our intentions are good. We are participants in a system that we did not create, but that binds us together.

So let us cultivate gratitude together. Let us strive for humility as we work for justice. We will need to develop some new language for this work. Dick Gilbert talks about 'distributive justice,' for equitable justice, but I prefer the language of 'restorative justice.' As a religious community, we are called to restore our relationships. As we struggle, I pray we will not invest all our energy in argument. We can argue about our work on race, on economic justice. Our work is not to debate, although debate we need to do, or about resolutions, although that too we will need to do. Our work is to help the universe bend toward justice, and there is not only one way to do that.

My favorite hymn is "Twelve Gates to the City," for although there are twelve gates to the city, there is one way to approach it. Let us promise us that our first words will be affirmation for one another, not argument.

Do we need to change ourselves, do we have to become something different to make a difference, do we need to attract more persons of color or more of the truly poor into our pews?

My answer is no.

It's OK to be who we are, and even to know who we are and our place in this system.

Who we are is not the question, the question is what we are called to do. How will we show up? As allies. If we work for justice, some other people will join us. But that is not the objective.

Our task it to know a religious life, a spiritual life, which always combines our personal search for God and our rich life within this community, with a commitment to make the Kingdom of God real in our world. Either one without the other is incomplete.

The Poet, Annie Dillard, paraphrasing the prophet, asks:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Who shall walk on that holy ground?

We are the only ones. There is no one but us.

We bring all of ourselves.

Unfinished and incomplete.
Hurt and broken ourselves.
We come fearful of the task, our power too puny and our vision too small.

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?

We also bring our experience of hope and possibility.
We bring our intellects and our passions
And our deep knowledge that there is a universal love
Which has never broken faith with us and never will.

We weave our lives into a tapestry made up of countless stories, where the warp and the woof hold both human triumph and human tragedy. It is our faith that we weave into a tapestry of countless stories and that will bind us together and allow us to see pattern of community which can sustain us all.

We search for a time, and a way, to let hope and history rhyme.

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord? Who shall walk on that holy ground?

We are the only ones. There is no else. There never has been.


Please join with me in prayer:

Gracious Spirit of creation
Dear God.

Be with us in these troubled times.
The way is often hard.
Our fears are too much with us.
The path to justice is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
Help us find that ground of love
Which can support and nurture us.

Help us find that ground
On which we can stand
To help make hope and history rhyme.

Help us to know
That while we are the only ones,
We are not alone.