One of the highlights of my summer was attending a lecture where Sister Simone Campbell was speaking. You might remember her from “Nuns on the Bus.” Campbell said when she was on the first Nuns on the Bus social justice tour, a full-time videographer came along. Near the end of the trip he said, “It seems like whenever there is trouble, you seem to walk towards it; most people run away.” She said: “I realized that all of our spiritual leaders, when there are broken hearts or pain in our world, they have walked towards it. They walk towards the pain in order to embrace, touch, heal. If the high level leaders do that, isn’t that the witness that we all try to follow?”
Campbell looks at our society as a pluralistic society. Campbell explained, “Where we meet is in community. Where we meet is in the first three words of the Constitution, which is ‘We the people.’ It is an unpatriotic lie that we’re based in individualism, and we’ve got to cut it out. It’s we the people that are going to make something happen because we can create the vision.” She challenged us, as described in the UU World, to do “grocery store missionary work”: talk to people you don’t know about things that really matter. Talk to people in line at the store, she said; ask them what they think about immigration reform or raising the minimum wage. Her experience has been that people have thought about it and have something to say, but no one asks them.
She tells us “that if you walk towards community, we become deeply aware of the truth that we’re in this together. That we are not separate, that there is no real discernible difference when you get right down to it. … We may have different stories to tell, but it’s the same hunger, the same desire, the same passion to make a difference in our world, to be who we are called to be.”
As Unitarian Universalists we have a history of walking toward trouble. All the way back to Michael Servetus, the anti-Trinitarian who went underground, but eventually visited John Calvin’s church on October 27, 1553 in Geneva and stood face to face with him. Calvin burned Servetus, along with his writings. Servetus knew what he was doing. He was walking toward trouble. Walking toward becoming a martyr for the sake of freedom. The religious freedom of Unitarian Universalism. The best example of Unitarian Universalists walking toward trouble in our history might be when in 1965 Unitarian and Universalists joined the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama.
The Unitarian Universalist Association was not quite four years old when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent an urgent telegram to its Boston headquarters on March 7, 1965, asking religious leaders and concerned citizens to join him in Selma, Alabama, where African-Americans, when marching for their right to vote, had been brutally attacked. The President of the UUA at the time was Dana Greeley who arrived for work that morning and found the telegram on his desk marked by a staffer who had already begun getting the word out. That telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King ultimately inspired the UUA Board of Trustees and more than 200 other Unitarian Universalist laypeople and clergy to go to Selma, Alabama. That famous telegram can be viewed in Harvard’s library and reads:In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all America. No American is without responsibility. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call therefore on clergy of all faiths to join me in Selma. (Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., telegram, March 8, 1965)
Two of the Unitarian Universalists who responded to King’s appeal paid with their lives. In a way that few deaths do, the murders of the Rev. James J. Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo helped change the course of history. James Reeb had been in Alabama less than a day when white assailants attacked him and two other white Unitarian Universalist ministers on a Selma sidewalk, fatally injuring him with a blow to the head. Reeb’s death on March 11, 1965, inspired a wave of nationwide protests, memorial services, and calls for federal action, transforming Reeb into a martyr. I am proud of this instance where Unitarian Universalists walked toward trouble. I often wonder what we will do when we receive a telegram. Last week Unitarian Universalists showed up in Ferguson, Missouri to join police brutality protests. Several were arrested and some injured.
What is it that would allow us to walk away from trouble? Isn’t it true that if we stand by with our heads in the sand we become complicit? Research points to a few reasons why we might walk away. The first is pluralistic ignorance. One of the first steps in anyone's decision to help another is the recognition that someone is actually in need of help. To do this, the bystander must realize that they are witnessing an emergency situation and that a victim is in need of assistance. When we are in an ambiguous situation we often look to others to see how they are reacting. We assume that others may know something that we don't, so we gauge their reactions before we decide how we will respond. But if those around us are not acting , then we may fail to recognize the immediacy of the situation and therefore fail to intervene.
The second is diffusion of responsibility. People may fail to intervene if they do not take personal responsibility for intervening. The problem is that the more bystanders there are, the less responsible each individual feels. When you are the only eyewitness present, 100% of the responsibility for providing help rests on your shoulders. But if there are five eyewitnesses, only 20% of the responsibility is yours. The responsibility becomes defused or dispersed among the group members. In these situations, people may assume that someone else will help or that someone else is better qualified to provide assistance. But if everyone assumes this, then no one will intervene.
The third and last is fatigue. We’ve seen all of the issues needing our attention before. It seems we have now become immune to that which ails the world and it takes more for us now to contribute, react and support.
We have evolved under conditions in which our primary concern is to protect ourselves and our families. Son Pham, a writer for the Ottawa Times, tells us “There was no adaptive value in protecting hundreds of thousands across an ocean. Today, technology brings us news of famine and genocide in distant lands, but still we are likely to react as we would have in earlier times.” Psychologist Paul Slovic asks how we can "overcome the psychological obstacles to action." He says, “we must create laws and institutions to enforce appropriate action even when we are not psychologically equipped to act.”
One of those institutions is the Unitarian Universalist congregation. We are compelled to act not because of a compelling pictures or stories, but because it's morally right. Listening to Sister Simone I could tell that this wasn’t just a strategy to instigate action, it was a calling from a place of our shared longing and it was a place of significant risk as she told us, “But what you have to do is you have to let it sink down from the head into the heart. Walking towards trouble means we're willing to open ourselves to the surprise, to different perspectives. So” Sister Simone said, “the importance of being uncertain means that I live a life that is slightly disturbed, if you want to know the truth.”
So as we walk toward trouble, “as we walk to meet the needs of human pain and human healing”, writes my colleague the Rev. George Milarr, “we walk with doubt and with the risk of the unknown and to me that is where we come to the edge. That place where doubt meets faith, that place of leaving certitude behind, that is the edge and the edge is a place where we find discomfort and the edge is the place where we grow. Business as usual is no longer enough. We are at the edge of crisis in how we live together with each other and with the planet.” He describes our living as being at the edge. I am at the edge when it comes to the struggle between fundamentalism vs. reason. We are on the edge of how we practice religion in this world as fundamentalism is growing in opposition to other fundamentalism and the response worries me as much as the original problem. I am on the edge when I think about our government’s inability to come together and solve problems. I am on the edge with how we can learn to live with, let alone love and embrace, difference in our communities. And, I am on the edge regarding Unitarian Universalism as it has been practiced over the past 50 years and its relevancy as we struggle to understand how to meet the needs of a growing discomfort with traditional religious communities and new generations defining community in very different ways than the times and communities that many of our congregations were born to serve.
“We can move away from the edge, says Milarr, “by reaching out in love. Reaching out in love implies moving beyond our places of comfort, including those we have placed around meeting our individual needs, and radically reaching out to those who may be searching for whatever we have found, and what we may be able to offer the world including those who are needing to find help for their human longings.”
Reaching out in love was the theme of General Assembly this year and it really struck me deeply and asks us to think about what does reaching out in love actually mean? First, it is about reaching, reaching out past the edge of our traditional comfort as individuals, and as congregations. It is totally understandable that we look for and hope for a community that wraps us in the comforting blanket of familiarity and reaching out in love can challenge that equilibrium. But radically reaching out in love can also challenge the systems and structures that have brought us all to Ferguson, Missouri, that deny and complicate our climate crisis, that continue the political stalemate the impedes us coming together to solve problems, and that feeds the growth of fundamentalism that threatens long-term peace. Reaching out in love is hard to do and our work is to think about how to crawl back when we get too close to the edge, how to care for ourselves and each other when the edge feels really scary and how to deal with the unknown when we reach the edge of what we know or have known.
When we are reaching out to the world with the values and principles that we cherish to address the threats to our ecosystem, we should be mustering the strength of members throughout the county so more voices can be heard. When we stand with those who are oppressed due to sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity, we should be doing that arm-in-arm and shoulder to shoulder with other UUs, other faith communities or partner organization who may not share our faith but certainly share our values. And, when we stand before a city council with a resolution on gun violence, there shouldn’t be two UU’s in the room, there should be 200 wearing shirts that state that we are willing to stand with anyone on the Side of Love.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed today with the chaos and lack of love in the world, I am encouraged by the incredible efforts being put forth by so many. There is so much good, there is so much love, there actually is so much progress, we have come so far with so much more to go in what may be a shorter time than we think. Find sources of strength and sustenance. Be willing to appreciate your comfort spots and yet, being willing to let go of things as they have always been done. Love still can prevail as we continue to walk towards trouble, reach out in love, and stand together on the edge.
Campbell concluded her lecture by reading “Incarnation,” a poem she wrote in Baghdad, a portion of which was:
Let compassion be our hands, reaching to be with each other, all others to touch, hold, heal this fractured world. Let wisdom be our feet, bringing us to the crying need to friends or foe to share this body’s blood. Let love be our eyes, that we might see the beauty, see the dream lurking in the shadows of despair and dread.
May it be so.
Walking Toward Trouble, a sermon by the Rev. CJ McGregor, delivered at 1stUUPB on Oct 26, 2014.