March 29, 2015
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
The twelfth chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian New Testament begins: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
Written before the fall of Jerusalem to Jews who were converts but may have been tempted to revert to Judaism, the letter continually encourages those it addresses to stay the course, not to “give up the pursuit of holiness” in that turbulent time. (http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-hebrews/). Who are these witnesses that surround them? Chapter 11 names them, characters from the Hebrew scriptures, such as Abel, Abraham, Sarah, Moses. According to the author of this letter, the witnesses from the scriptures, “who lived by faith, are encouraging the readers to persevere in their faith” (http://www.biblica.com/en-us/bible/online-bible/scholar-notes/niv-study-bible/intro-to-hebrews/).
Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president refers to this letter when he says,
"The…Scriptures declare that, when we stand for righteousness, when we heed the call to do what is right, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses of those who died – or suffered and died – who have gone on but now sit in glory, and they cheer us on." (http://www.wral.com/wednesday-protest-at-legislature-ends-in-handful-of-arrests/12545831/)
Heeding the call to do what’s right is something that we have been commemorating this month, half a century after the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Wil and I were privileged to attend the UU Living Legacy conference in Birmingham the days before the Re-enactment of the Selma Bridge Crossing on March 8th.
There we heard from wonderful speakers: Dr Bernice King, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Rev. Dr. William Barber, Mark Morrison-Reed. We honored the families of Jimmie Lee Jackson, James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who were moved at the support and compassion that washed over them at the conference, and that has consistently been given to them these past 50 years by the UUA.
And, of course, on Sunday March 8th, in the midst of a crowd that numbered about 80,000, there were 600 of us UUs walking together across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a moving remembrance of Bloody Sunday, when peaceful marchers were met by violence from law enforcement officers. Someone that Sunday said, “they should change the name of that bridge” – Pettus was a Confederate Brigadier general and Grand Dragon of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan; and another person spoke up and said “You can’t change history”.
The people who were in the midst of the historic protest 50 years ago did not always know that they were making history; many of them were afraid, uncertain, and acting without the support of friends, family, and sometimes even their churches. Yet today they are our cloud of witnesses as we do more than just mark an anniversary – we are called on to transform a country and indeed a world that still tramples on civil rights, still fails to respect the inherent worth and dignity of every human person, still puts obstacles in our path while we run our race. In the sacred work of doing justice, we will in turn be the cloud of witnesses to future generations.
Who were the witnesses 50 years ago in Selma? There are indeed too many to mention this morning; but they have to stand in the context of the broader history of nonconformity and liberal religion. Ann Chierenza writes that those who came seeking justice in the centuries before the Selma heroes “were not all Unitarians by faith…but all shared the best humanitarian instincts which characterize now as then the UU denomination. They were free, they were unafraid, their minds were unfettered by orthodoxy, their love of fellows passionate and unconfined. They had in common a curiosity and enthusiasm about the world. They dared all.” (The Liberal Context, Issue 14, p.1)
Mark Morrison-Reed, whose book The Selma Awakening is a must-read in understanding how the civil rights movement tested and changed Unitarian Universalism, says that Selma doesn’t make sense without World War II. The war gave African-Americans opportunities otherwise denied to them in peacetime; black veterans returned from the war with changed expectations, with a changed self-perception, and a different worldview. Morrison-Reed says that “there could be no returning to the Jim Crow world that had existed before the war” (Morrison-Reed, The Selma Awakening, 2014, 72).
Our country fought against the Nazis and their cruel and violent attempt to exterminate sections of society…and when the images of Bloody Sunday burst onto the TV screens of Americans on Sunday March 7th 1965, interrupting the broadcast of the Nazi war crimes movie “Judgement at Nuremberg”, many people saw the awful visual connection right away: the president of the Birmingham UU Church Ethel Gorman wrote, “We felt shame for our state as well as pity for the victims; and fear because law enforcement officers acted like Nazi Storm Troopers” (72).
The day after Bloody Sunday, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr sent out a call across this country for clergy to join him in Selma for a ministers’ march, in a dawn telegraph that contained these words: “The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden.” (IX) Unitarian Universalists were already there, the day before Bloody Sunday. A group of 72 people, who called themselves “Concerned White Citizens of Alabama” marched to the Selma Courthouse on March 7th, and read a statement in support of black voting rights – half of those 72 people were UUs. Once the group made its statement it took a police escort to get the 72 safely back to their starting point, tempers were running high within the white community.
|Photo from Mark Morrison-Reed, The Selma Awakening, 2014|
Sixty UU ministers – then nearly 10% of the total of our active congregational ministry – arrived in Selma within 2 days of Dr. King’s call. Mark Morrison-Reed says that the reason for the strong UU response to the call to clergy is relationship - between each other and to African-Americans. James Reeb had already committed himself to working in the black Boston communities of Roxbury and Dorchester. Another UU minister who came from Massachusetts, Richard Norsworthy, arrived in Selma and lined up for a march the day after Bloody Sunday. He was approached by a man who asked, ‘Why are you here?’ Norsworthy reflected on the question, writing in his notebook, “Why am I here? I have three sons. I just discovered that their backyard bordered on a police state. They have rights and privileges not granted to all their countrymen. Unless all the brethren receive all their rights, my sons may lose theirs. I have three white sons and millions of black brothers. I cannot distinguish between them as to what is most precious in life. I only know: All men must be free!’ (in The Liberal Context, Issue 14, Spring 1965, p. 5)
Relationship – “I cannot distinguish between them as to what is most precious in life”. When there’s a connection, its pull is what compels you to act, Morrison-Read said in his address to us in Birmingham, and he added, “Ideology places right belief before right relationship.” Yes, ideology gives an excuse to terrorize, to harass, to beat, spit and curse at people peacefully assembling, to bomb children in a church, to pull up alongside a car driven by a woman at night and murder her on the highway… The ideology of white supremacy was in full force 50 years ago. And its remnants refuse to die in this country.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber spoke to us twice at the Living Legacy conference – once during the Mass Meeting at Tabernacle Baptist Church, and early the next morning at a Wake Up Session that truly was a riveting wake-up call. He challenged us to become that cloud of witnesses today, to build a stage that lifts the voices of everyday people, to become moral dissenters. He quoted Psalm 94 to us: “justice will once again meet up with righteousness,
and all whose heart is right will follow after.
Who will stand up for me against the wicked?
Who will help me against evildoers?”
We need moral dissent today, just as in every age.
In the South, Barber said, poverty is as high now as in 1968, and there is a racialized perception of Medicaid need, even though we know that whites are the majority of recipients...The strategy of politicians has made poor whites vote against their own interests, leading them - in an appropriate Palm Sunday reference - “to protect what Jesus rode into Jerusalem on…”
Barber referred to the prophet Hosea, saying that our leaders have gone whoring after power; and it is up to us to build a movement that restores imagination, stirs compassion, before talking about how to fix things; we must build a prophetic movement because the heart of our country needs reviving, he said, and it is a job for everyone, because in a hospital when ‘Code Blue’ is called, everybody comes to help.
The worship services during the voting rights campaign 50 years ago at Tabernacle Baptist Church and in Brown Chapel were “joyful, confident, victorious worship” but as much as they were as worship services, so too were the marches and the vigils – “this is what living religion is,” one of the UU ministers there wrote, “The movement cannot be separated from the church. It is the church in action.” (Norsworthy, 6)
And so the cloud of witnesses now has to include each and every one of us. We can imagine James Reeb urging us on, to match his passion and commitment; John Sullivan, a Quaker and a friend and colleague of James Reeb, eulogized Reeb in his home church in Boston 50 years ago and imagined Reeb asking, “Well, what’s the next step? His life can speak to us,” Sullivan states, “and it says: Don’t flee from the sinking schools, get in them and work on them. It says: don’t shrug at the school committee, get out the vote. It says, don’t hide from the poor, embrace them. It says, don’t settle for nice houses in the suburbs and rotten houses in the ghetto, change it through every appropriate way, community organization, legislation, code enforcement. And he might also say, not only is there a killer in the dark and racist streets of the south but there is another killer, and that killer’s name is non-involvement, apathy and lack of interest, it is self-concern. This was the killer James Reeb was stalking and when he found him, he was going to wrap him around with righteousness and justice and love.” ( Sullivan in Liberal Context, 16-7)
We have recently found another killer, a killer of black men in Ferguson, in New York, in Atlanta, across America, a killer enacting endemic, systematic racist violence that reminds us that Selma is not 50 years ago, it is here and now. “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” is the quote from Hebrews – UUs may flinch when they hear the word ‘sin’ but let’s put it in its proper context. In Hebrew the word means ‘to miss the mark’, as when an archer misses the bullseye on a target.
We can see the sin of a person, a group, an institution, a system, as ‘missing the mark’ when it comes to failing to treat citizens of color with respect, with dignity. It is up to us to speak out against the structural ‘sin that entangles’ a law enforcement system, whose officers so easily seem emboldened to take human life; the sin of a system that fines people for not wearing a seat belt, and then sends them to jail when they can’t afford to pay the private probation penalties piled on the original fine. The sin of a system that, in effect, has created a debtor’s prison for citizens right here in Georgia…
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles”.
What is it that hinders us from running the race marked out for us? What will determine whether or not we show up, answer the call, make a statement, witness with action? Is it a lack of relationship to someone in these desperate circumstances?
Because James Reeb was already working in the poor neighborhoods of Boston, his heart already set on fire, his feet already itching to run the race, by the time he got to Selma. Viola Liuzzo’s heart was already full of compassion, a mother of 5, who organized Detroit protests, attended Civil Rights conferences, and worked with the NAACP before leaving her family to go to Selma. And Jimmie Lee Jackson, who lived the discrimination of America, who was a black veteran who had served his country but yet could not vote to elect its leaders, he already had a direct relationship and experience with the structural sin that was, and is, racism.
Now here in 2015 in west Augusta, on the face of it there’s not an obvious way for us to situate ourselves within the narrative of racism. But that didn’t stop that cloud of witnesses who founded this congregation sixty-one years ago, and it didn’t stop those witnesses who 50 years ago founded Open Door Kindergarten, the first integrated kindergarten in Augusta. And it hasn’t stopped that cloud of witnesses in this church from participating for many years now in the MLK Parade and interfaith services, and in Augusta Pride; it hasn’t stopped witnesses today from building real relationships across faiths, across races.
We personally, and institutionally, can begin a systematic analysis of anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism in every part of our own congregation as we build the Beloved Community central to our mission statement. We can initiate, not avoid, conversations about race, privilege, white supremacy; we can engage in multicultural ministries; we can commit to social justice – a term which some people dislike and need to reframe for themselves – everywhere and everyday.
We can raise our voices in prophetic witness which, in the words of Cornel West, “consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.” (Paul Rasor, Reclaiming Prophetic Witness, 92) We are called to show up with a cloud of witnesses that showed up for us. So long as we keep faith with them, we run the race with them - we stand in good company.
May we be the ones who make it so, Blessed Be, Amen.
- Gaye Ortiz 3-29-2015