Friday, May 22, 2015

The Open Door

The Open Door
Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta
May 17, 2015

It was probably this time of year - 6th grade in Mrs Gavalas’ class, at Bayvale Elementary here in south Augusta. One day we were told we had some students visiting our classroom, and 2 black girls came and sat at the round table where I was sitting. I found out they were twins, June and Joan. They were there because at last – in 1965 – schools in Richmond County were being integrated. June and Joan looked scared and a little confused, but I got to know them when they started the next school year – and, when we went to Glenn Hills Junior High School together, their older sister Janet, who was a genius student and scooped up lots of academic prizes during her years there. June was a good friend, she was a real goofball and wore her Afro as big as she could! She became our daughter Molly’s godmother; today she is a successful psychiatrist who practices in Atlanta.

G.K. Chesterton writes (“Xmas Day”),
“Good News: but if you ask me what it is, I know not;
It is a track of feet in the snow,
It is a lantern showing a path,
It is a door set open.”

The door set open for June and Joan and Janet in the integration of schools here in Augusta was still firmly shut when Kay Sutherland moved here from California with her family. Kay was very much influenced in her attitudes toward racial equality by the work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. her daughter Madhuri says. In the 1960s the UUs here in Augusta were especially impacted by his writings and speeches, including the Ware Lecture, given by Dr. King to the UU Association’s General Assembly in 1966. Remember what Dr. King wished for his four children: that one day they would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Kay was a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Augusta, where there was a congregation that had already made waves in the Augusta community by writing to the Chronicle about matters of race that didn’t match up with the prevailing conservative – and racist – feelings about segregation.

So in 1964 when a Quaker from New York named Rachel Du Bois came to Augusta to speak about improving communication among diverse groups, there was some difficulty finding a venue for her that would allow both black and white citizens to attend. The UU church opened its building for her and a large crowd showed up to hear her. 

After the meeting Du Bois was persuaded to stay another day, and to meet with a group of black and white women who were leaders in heir communities. These women asked DuBois specifically to help with ways to help their children combat the violence and prejudice from anti-integration forces in Augusta.

Five young women, black and white, all with college degrees and small children, asked to meet again soon. It was at that next meeting that the idea of a kindergarten was first suggested. After the idealistic idea, reality hit when they were rebuffed, snubbed, and rejected by churches turning them away when the group of women asked if they would host the kindergarten. 

An additional concern was financing the idea; the women were determined for it to be an independent school, with no sponsorship but also no fees that would prevent those families applying that could not afford to pay for their children to attend.  An affordable place that had the facilities and standards for a kindergarten was another concern – until Kay and her husband negotiated the UU building for a nominal fee. And so Open Door Kindergarten was founded in the spring of 1964.

The group of five then found two other women to become teachers – Jane Lester and Ella Stenhouse, and then formed a board of Trustees with Kay as the Chair. Lois Greenberg and Freddie Jackson were also board officers.

When we look back, the interfaith aspect of this nonsectarian, multiracial endeavor is so impressive – Jewish, Christian, Quaker, and Unitarian Universalist – and it was supported financially by many families of Augusta, both black and white. The Augusta Chronicle even ran an article about the kindergarten with a photo of the interracial board.

The day that the group decided to hold an Open House for preregistration turned out to be the same day of the march on Selma! Still, both classes filled up, and there were so many parents there that they ran out of punch, cookies, and application forms. When the day ended, 22 children, racially an even split, were enrolled.

This sermon comes 50 years after the first graduating class of the Open Door Kindergarten. Not only was the door to interracial education open to those children, when this first class graduated they all went on to complete their studies in local schools and many of them went on to college.

In the case of the kindergarten, another metaphor would have been just as appropriate for its name – a bridge instead of a door, because the exercise of creating the kindergarten built a sturdy, supportive bridge between diverse communities.

The women who asked for the extra meeting with Rachel DuBois were concerned about how to bring up their children in an environment that was poisonous in its institutionalized racism, but also concerned about the purpose of education itself. This desire to prepare their children for the changes and challenges of American society comes through in an early brochure for Open Door: “In keeping with the rapidly changing world, we felt Augusta needed a kindergarten which would reflect the continuing advances in education while building upon the heritage of the past.”  Building a bridge between the past and the future is the function of education, as they saw it. Also crucial to the founders was building a bridge between races: “In our rapidly shrinking world, the child who has experience in working on a give and take basis with persons, from backgrounds other than his own, has distinct advantages.”

Another bridge that the kindergarten built slowly but surely was between its children and the wider Augusta community. In a 1997 Friends Journal article by Faith Bertsche, several examples of the reaction of local people to the kindergarten give a flavor of just how radical the interracial school was:

One field trip the children went on was to the local fire department, and Bertsche says that her “heart stood still” as they arrived, because the firemen were lined up in a row to keep them out of the facility. But as the children got out of the cars and ran towards the firemen, they began to smile, and began lifting the children onto the fire trucks. Another time the children went to Bush Field airport, and were shown the inside of a real plane. It was a hot summer day and the teacher forgot to bring containers of water, so they went to a motel next door and asked inside if they could drink from the water fountain near the door. The motel manager told the teacher to leave and take the black child with her. People who were registering at the motel overheard, and immediately canceled their booking, picked up their luggage, and followed the teacher and child out of the motel. And one of the motel workers who had heard the manager’s remark met them outside with a drink for the child.

So in the process of creating an inclusive atmosphere for educating the children, the kindergarten also helped to challenge the status quo and to change attitudes in Augusta. It was housed here at this church for nearly 2 decades, until moving to the Congregation Children of Israel campus, where it operates today as Open Door Pre-K. It’s had 62 children enrolled this year.

The ‘Good News’ of ‘a door set open’…Opening a door sometimes takes courage – what is a door besides an entryway to another space, a transition between one mode of being to another? One of the ancient customs when a couple is married is to lift the bride over the threshold. It symbolizes protection, both because a bride who tripped over the threshold of her new home would irrevocably bring bad luck to her home and marriage, but also because the threshold of the home was thought to be rife with unattached evil spirits.

The women who founded Open Door were acutely aware that they might be opening a door to something that could be threatening or dangerous for the children, parents, and teachers. Initially the founders of the school were so focused on the commitment they had to the effort that they were not as concerned about safety as they suddenly became when the school was actually opening. Then they realized that they could be attacked or killed. Betty Hostetler, who played piano for the kindergarten music sessions, says that they were concerned that the big glass windows could have been broken by rocks thrown at them.

With violent attacks on churches and schools by opponents of integration a real possibility, the women – according to Bertsche – 

“had a long, prayerful afternoon one hot August day, not about our own safety but about the children’s safety and our concern for their parents… (who after all) were entrusting their children to our care.

"Our decision was to purchase a first aid kit and several pails of sand just in case we were the recipients of a fire bomb. Then it was decided that there would always be 3 women present during school hours. Next, we would take the matter up with all the parents at the first parent-teacher meeting. At that first meeting, the parents agreed with our actions, and the matter never came up again.” (Bertsche, 22)

The ‘Good News’ of ‘a door set open’…Doors can be opened – and they can also be shut. Augusta back in 1964 was full of people who shut the door on equality, who shut the door on justice, on decency and kindness and love for their fellow human beings, because they were a different color. The Open Door family refused to let that door stay shut, and their courage in reaching out and grabbing the doorknob and pulling the door open was a daring act of love.

Socrates writes, “Courage is not only knowledge of what is to be dreaded and what is to be dared, but knowledge of all goods and evils at every stage.” Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, interprets that quote to mean that “the essence of courage…is to pursue a goal that is morally worthy or stand up against a force that is morally repugnant, despite the risks involved. Courage is the knowledge of what is worthy and must be pursued, no matter if the road is long and the path unclear.” (Quest, CLF, March 2015, 2)

The director of the UU Service Committee, Bill Schulz, was once the executive director of Amnesty International. Guengerich recalls hearing Schulz say that, as a result of his work combating torture and dealing with torturers, he felt the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person is a myth.

Now that is hard for a Unitarian Universalist to hear, because that after all is what we affirm in our first principle. But Schulz said that “there are too many malevolent hearts and too many god-forsaken places, where worth and dignity have no presence. Worth must be assigned and dignity must be taught, [and we cannot stand idly by and expect these to spring up magically]. Rather, in order for worth and dignity to exist, we must speak and act in a way that creates a place for them.”

And that is what the founders, staff, parents, and children of Open Door Kindergarten did for our city, our community, and our world – they created a place for worth and dignity to be created and flourish. They have made the First Principle of our UU faith tradition come alive.

We are honored today to have staff and families from the Open Door Pre-K here with us today. I’ve often thought that if our church ever decided to create a name for itself – besides the very descriptive UU Church of Augusta – that The Open Door would be a perfect name.

We pride ourselves on being a Welcoming Congregation. Our door has been open since 1954, welcoming all those who seek a place to grow their souls, where love is our religion, where freedom and reason and respect are values we try to live and embody through our beloved community.

Our own contributors to the first years of the Open Door Kindergarten deserve to be remembered today and always in the history of this church’s commitment to equality, liberty and justice for all. Kay Sutherland and Peggy Kelly are no longer with us, but Betty Hostetler is very much with us still. 

Those women who confounded the common prejudice and the legal framework of racism, in order to give their children the opportunity to enrich their education and their very lives, in a multiracial learning environment, each had an individual strength that connected with the others’ strength.

Together they called forth the best of each other, and their collective courage challenged the silence that held back too many of our citizens, our parents, our religious leaders, the silence that allowed racism, intimidation, violence and hate to dominate in this community.

Audre Lord writes about fear in relation to her own diagnosis of cancer in her essay, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”:

“In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality…what I most regretted were my silences…[times when I had] waited for someone else’s words…Of what had I ever been afraid? I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me, Your silence will not protect you.” (Quest, March 2015, 6)

Thinking today about the times we have been silent in the face of injustice, cruelty, violence, when faced with the threat of losing face or stature or privilege, we can be encouraged by the example of the Open Door founders who summoned the courage to act, who indeed set the door open for others to follow. Their work built bridges, their dedication to their children - and generations of children since - opened doors for us today, and inspires us to a better tomorrow.

I end with a blessing, in the words of Meg Riley:

May you find courage to do the work that is uniquely yours to do on this fragile planet. May you speak when words are needed, and be boldly silent when that is called for. May you know the deep care and connections that are everywhere around you, holding you in place no less surely than planets are held in their orbits. And may you hear the stars sing hallelujah when you dare to do and be exactly what is yours.” (Quest, March 2015, 6)

Blessed be, Amen.

Gaye Ortiz 5/14/2015