“Black Lives Matter”
For the Rededication of our
Black Lives Matter Banner
Worship Service for
Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, Illinois
December 3, 2017
The Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister
First Reading: Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing to his teenage son:
“It was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. I tell you now that the question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in a false Dream, is the question of my life, and the pursuit of this question, I have found, ultimately answers itself.”
“Fear,” by Raymond Carver
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive.
Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep.
Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight.
Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite.
Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend.
Fear of running out of money.
Fear of having too much, though people will not believe this.
Fear of psychological profiles.
Fear of being late and fear of arriving before anyone else.
Fear of my children’s handwriting on envelopes.
Fear they’ll die before I do, and I’ll feel guilty.
Fear of having to live with my mother in her old age, and mine.
Fear of confusion.
Fear this day will end on an unhappy note.
Fear of waking up to find you gone.
Fear of not loving, and fear of not loving enough.
Fear that what I love will prove lethal to those I love.
Fear of death.
Fear of living too long.
Fear of death.
I’ve said that.
Sermon: “Black Lives Matter”
“Black Lives Matter” is complex. –as a banner to choose to put up, and then put up again; for the challenging conversations it prompts when it is worn as a button; on tee-shirts, and in blog posts, and websites, and books; on yard signs, that are taken down, or defaced, and then replaced, faithfully; and as a rallying cry at marches and demonstrations; “Black Lives Matter” calls us to humble ourselves, and stretch ourselves to go deeper and learn more. The slogan, “Black Lives Matter” insists that we, individually and collectively, acknowledge that systemic racism is a wound in our nation that we must not simply walk passed and ignore.
The hashtag, “Black Lives Matter” was created in 2014 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Through it, they, and people of color, and their allies, are hoping and praying that attention be paid to our nation’s history of racism, from its early days of slavery, to this present day when people who are black or Latino are, statistics overwhelming prove, stopped while doing nothing wrong, frisked, harassed, detained, and treated with deadly force, far more often than people who are white. Our nation’s history around race has, within it, brutality, and the treating of people of color as less valuable. We Unitarian Universalists hold, as our first principle, the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. And so, this morning, we are rededicating our Black Lives Matter banner. In so doing, we are recommitting, both on an individual level and as a whole congregation, that we will not sidestep the challenging, humbling conversations about racism and white supremacy. And we will continue our social justice work and advocacy to dismantle systemic racism, consistently and faithfully.
“Black Lives Matter” is complex. But we Unitarian Universalists can handle that, and we are engaging with that, openly, vulnerably, and earnestly. In recent years, when our congregations have put up Black Lives Matter signs and banners, Unitarian Universalists have responded by asking, “Shouldn’t they say, ‘All Lives Matter’?” And if we pause for a moment, we can understand where they are coming from in asking that. Unitarian Universalists, especially in our Universalist theology, are inclusive. In our UU history we have constantly reminded ourselves and stretched ourselves to learn more about, and be respectful of a diversity of worthy religious and philosophical beliefs, and all peoples who are marginalized and discriminated against, and a variety of sexual orientations, including the rights of transgender people. So, yes, of course it is true that All Lives Matter. But advocating for human rights is not a zero-sum equation. Advocating for the rights of one group of people who are marginalized and oppressed does not diminish our advocacy for other groups. And it is also true that we in our nation have more work to do, much more work to do, for years to come, to learn and understand and undo and heal from America’s history of racism.
Greater minds than mine have asserted that this is the case. One of the greatest among them is Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote:
“…anyone’s dignity can be violated [by the humiliations of unconstitutional searches]. But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny. For generations, black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’– instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger– all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.”
Justice Sotomayor’s words are part of her dissenting opinion in the case of, Utah, Petitioner v. Edward Joseph Strieff, Jr. [June 20, 2016], a case of an illegal, suspicionless stop and search. She writes that Edward Strieff “just happened to be the first person to leave a house that the officer thought might contain ‘drug activity.’” I encourage you to read her dissent in its entirety. It is available online.
[This is the link.] https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/15pdf/14-1373_83i7.pdf
I found it in, The Best American Non-Required Reading, 2017. Her opinion convinced me of the ways illegal searches and suspicionless arrests can irreparably harm an innocent person’s life. She writes in part:
“Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful ‘stops’ have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name… The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal. The officer may next ask for your ‘consent’ to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline… If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or ‘driving [your] pickup truck… with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter… without [your] seatbelt fastened.’ …Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the ‘civil death’ of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check… This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but. I dissent.”
“Black Lives Matter” is complex. In writing about the reality of people of color being targeted by police officers, I mean no disrespect toward any individual law enforcement officer. I have trust and faith in law enforcement because of the individual people I have known who are police officers, or who have worked for the FBI or the CIA. But we all also know that, as systems, law enforcement agencies can be corrupt. What are we to do in the midst of that fact? A few months after the Presidential Election last year, I talked with a leader in the UU congregation I was serving in Columbia, South Carolina. His name is David Crockett, and he is black. A
great resident scholar, in that congregation and city, David is Professor of Marketing at the University of South Carolina, with specialization in sociological aspects of consumer behavior and the consequences of social inequality. He believes that individual people can make a difference in effecting systemic change. I told him that I do agree, but that, from my view, individual people have to have back-up– They have to have support for their efforts at effecting positive change. He then said, “Exactly; it’s all about ‘the strength of weak ties.’” This was a new concept to me. So I looked into the concept of the strength of weak ties. Originated in 1973 by Mark Granovetter, it is essentially the fact that, in order to accomplish something [including getting a job after graduating from college] you should reach out beyond the inner circle of people you always associate with. And in their paper about this phenomenon, Daniel Levin, Rob Cross, and Lisa Abrams write that some elements must be present for the weak ties to be effective: competence, and benevolence-based trust. In order for a person to help and/or be helped by someone with whom their ties are weak, they must be able to feel trust and faith that that person is competent, and that he or she has their best interest at heart. And that’s why persistence is so important– and the necessity that we keep trying to reach out until we do connect with someone competent and benevolent who can help us, our communities, and our nation.
“Black Lives Matter” is complex. But we can each do our part to strengthen our “weak ties,” infusing them with competence and benevolence-based trust, beginning with opening ourselves to new learning, new experiences, and new relationships.
I’ll close with this true story from Dr. Howard Thurman’s collection called, Meditations of the Heart. Howard Thurman was one of the twentieth century America’s greatest theologians, philosophers, and mystics– a black minister devoted to interracial and inter-denominational progress. In his essay, “She Practices Brotherhood,” he writes:
“The telephone rang at seven-fifteen in the morning. And on the other end was a lady whose voice seemed full of years, soft but strong. What she had to say was profoundly stirring: [she said] ‘I am sorry to disturb you so early in the morning, but I wanted to call you before you left the hotel for the day. About ten years ago [she said] (I am now sixty-nine) I decided to examine my life to see what, if anything, I could do to put into practice my own convictions about brotherhood… The first thing I discovered was that I knew almost nothing about other races in my own city, particularly about [people who are black]. I went to the library and was given a small list of books and magazines. I began to work. The things I learned! When it seemed to me that I had my hands on enough facts… I plotted a course of action. Then I was stumped. What could I do? I had no particular abilities, very little energy, and an extremely modest income. But I did like to talk to people as I met them on the buses and in the stores. I decided that I would spread the facts I had and my own concern among all the people whose lives were touched by mine in direct conversation. It took me some time to develop a simple approach that would not be an intrusion or a discourtesy. For several years, I have been doing this on the bus riding into town each week, in a department store where I have made my purchases for two decades, and in various other places. Occasionally, I run into a person in the street who stops to introduce himself and to remind me of a previous meeting. One such person said, “I guess you have forgotten, but about four years ago I sat by you on a bus, and I don’t know how the question came up but we talked about [people who are black]; and you started me thinking along lines that had never occurred to me. You even gave me the name of a book which I noted and purchased. Since then, I have been instrumental in changing the whole personnel practice of our business on this question. Thanks to you!”’ Continuing, she said, ‘I know that this is not very much, and I guess many people are doing much more. But I thought I would tell you this so that, in your moments of discouragement, you may remember what one simple old lady was doing to help in little ways to right big wrongs.”
The overwhelming wrongs in the world are being righted one commitment at a time.
Offering [Share with the Minister’s Discretionary Fund] [Announcements: After the benediction, please join us outside under the Black Lives Matter banner, for brief words, and a group photograph.]
**Closing hymn #1017 Building a New Way
**[I invite you to join hands.] **Benediction: From Kim Hampton
“We name these instances in order to face them; we face them in order to change. Together we must forge a culture of care for all… We need a culture of risk and vulnerability, of speaking truth to power, of paying attention to who is not at the table, and of celebration that also acknowledges our work is not done.”
Words for Outside Under the Banner:
We, the Members and Friends of Second Unitarian Church of Chicago, heartily rededicate our Black Lives Matter banner, today, and for all the days ahead, as this struggle continues. In doing so, we affirm that this commitment is both on an individual level, and as a whole congregation. In the words of the Rev. Louise Green:
“To display the sign, Black Lives Matter, is an act of cultural resistance, of public witness. This action is a symbol of something larger, and a spiritual practice as well—focus, attention, and steadiness. The aim and desire is to keep the spotlight on the complex set of issues affecting Black people in this country, dating from slavery through to (2017). Not since the Civil Rights Era has there been such a sustained commitment to make broad change. Black Lives Matter is a statement about that renewed commitment, a vow to keep looking, watching, and struggling.” (the Rev. Louise Green, Minister for Congregational Life, River Road UU Church, Bethesda MD)
the words of Olympia Brown:
“We can never make the world safe by fighting. Every nation must learn that the people of all nations are children of God, and must share the wealth of the world. You may say this is impracticable, far away, can never be accomplished, but it is the work we are appointed to do. Sometime, somehow, somewhere, we must ever-teach this great lesson.”