Saturday, January 24, 2015

Black Pioneers

This morning, as we once again devote this third Sunday in January to honor and remember the great legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must do so in the terrible and divisive shadow of what is happening in many other angry communities all across the country. King’s leadership in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama is a well-known event of 1965. Imagine the South in 1964 and earlier, strategies and tactics to promote voter suppression, innocent youth murdered and justice never arriving, and systematic racism permeating the culture.

Oh!  Did I say 1964?  I meant 2015.

I’ve spent a lot of time in reflection on the legacy of King this month.  I recently re-read the book Black Pioneers written by the Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed. I had the pleasure of spending three days with Reed last fall and our time together has changed my ministry.  Reed tells stories of his black family arriving at a white Unitarian church in the 1960’s.  The book chronicles the lives of black pioneers in a white denomination.

He writes, “The Unitarian Universalist church and others like it will remain largely segregated until there is a twofold transformation: one in society, the other within the church. First, on a societal level, it is essential that Unitarian Universalists and other liberal religionists never forget that political and economic freedoms are the mainstay of intellectual freedom, and that inequities and injustice subsequently undermine all freedom. This realization presses us to take seriously the cliché that until all of us are free, none of us is truly free. It is a 'moral imperative,' then, that we commit ourselves to the establishment of a just society. The result of this endeavor will be the evolution of a society potentially more responsive to Unitarian Universalist values. Second, within the liberal church, the transformation would begin with the strengthening of our spirituality through an enriched story –- a story that exposes our commitment to freedom, shakes up our class bias, sensitizes us to the needs of others, strengthens our sense of human connectedness, and, finally, inspires us to struggle with others for freedom.“ 

Unitarians and Universalists haven’t always been on the cutting edge of racial equity.  There is a dark moment in our past that is labelled “The Walk Out.” First, some history.  Two events shook the Unitarian Universalist Association soon after its formation in 1961.  Both were related to the struggle for racial justice, but while one unified the denomination, sustaining its self-image of being on the right side of the struggle, the other shattered this easy assumption and inflicted wounds that still have not healed.

First, in 1965, came the murder of the Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, while he was in Selma, Alabama, demonstrating for black civil rights. Second, only four years later, many black delegates and their white supporters walked out of the General Assembly in Boston to protest what they considered a racist vote. What had seemed so obvious after Selma -- that in the fight for racial justice it was “us” (the good guys) vs. “them” (the racists) -- suddenly wasn’t so obvious after all. The line between “us” and “them” no longer seemed so clear.

Why? What had happened?  We’re still struggling with these and related questions. Perhaps the search for answers can help us build on the things we have done right and improve on the things we have done badly since the UUA was formed. The national revulsion at the Selma murders –- Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a UU from Detroit, was murdered in a separate incident in Selma -- led Congress finally to pass long-delayed civil rights legislation. Thus the Reeb martyrdom became enshrined as proof of our racial sanctity, along with the famous story of how the Rev. Theodore Parker kept a pistol in his desk drawer to fight off anyone trying to recapture the fugitive slaves he was harboring. Parker, renowned as the most charismatic Unitarian preacher of the mid-19th century, said of the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, a supporter of the fugitive slave law -- which required the capture of runaway slaves who had fled to free states -- “He is calling on his church members to kidnap mine.” What we recall less often is that Gannett, too, was a Unitarian.

Clearly our hyped unity on the issue of race is not the whole story. Even Reeb’s death did not evoke the same emotions from all UUs. In 1968 Heyward Henry, chair of the newly formed Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus said, “We Unitarian Universalists like to keep saying, ‘But we went to Selma with you ... why are you [blacks] rejecting us?’ he continues, “In Selma, a black man named Jimmy Jackson was killed and at that time you could count the number of Unitarians in Selma on your fingers. A few weeks, later a white man was killed, and all Unitarians ran to Selma. Racism, that’s what it was.”

The legend of the 1969 UU General Assembly Walkout goes something like this.  Black UU’s issued demands to organize a Black Affairs Conference and to be funded to do the work of the Council.  The demands were accepted but the General Assembly voted down the funding.  Chaos ensued.  Black delegates left the assembly and their were protests, aggression, and hatred on the floor of a UU General Assembly.  What happened in the following years is chronicled in Reed’s book.  Black Unitarian Universalist leaders seeking equity in our denomination. The history is more complex than I can now summarize but it was a painfully polarized era of the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy. It was also the high-water mark of African-American participation in our churches. Nonetheless, many well-meaning white Unitarian Universalists, some of whom had devoted their lives to racial integration, were deeply offended by black UU’s who caucused separately and, with many white allies, demanded that the UUA do more to address racism within both church and society.

When it appeared the Assembly would not address their concerns and many people of color, hurt and angry, began to leave the floor, Jack Mendelsohn – then minister at Arlington Street Church -- took the podium, announced that he too would leave to commiserate with his sisters and brothers. To consider future options, Jack also invited others to join him at the church.  Therewith, a few hundred distraught delegates -- with tears streaking down faces, walked out. One minister spit in Jack’s face and said, had he a gun, he would have shot him. The events of that assembly were a trauma, the anguish of which is still felt. Many African-Americans, including Bill Sinkford who would later return and became UUA President, left our faith -- many never to return.

I spent a lot of time in airports a few days ago.  I was making my way from the new York/Canadian border to Florida, or from the tundra to paradise.  I sat with the New York times in my lap and on my cell phone and poured over the article and photographs of the  ‘Freedom Journey 1965’ Photographs by Stephen Somerstein of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., from the new exhibition at the New-York Historical Society.  Holland Cotter of the New York Times writes, “Scads of photographers were on the job that day and, inevitably, certain subjects -- political leaders, visiting celebrities -- were the focus of many cameras, including Mr. Somerstein’s. Yet most of the people in his pictures are not stars; they’re rank-and-file participants. It’s from their perspective that we see the march. In one shot, we’re in the middle of it, surrounded by fellow walkers. In others, we’re looking out at bystanders who line the way: white office workers; hecklers; multiracial shoppers; African-American children on porches; women, dressed in Sunday best, on the steps of black churches.  Cotter tells us that “this viewpoint subtly alters a standard account of the event, one perpetuated in “Selma,” which suggests that a small, elite band of high-level organizers were the heroes of the day. They were indeed heroes, but they were borne on the shoulders of the countless grass-roots organizers who paved the way for the march and the anonymous marchers, many of them women, who risked everything to walk the walk.”

When I speak of pioneers I am not necessarily only speaking of those leading, first in line, or those who have their names memorialized.  The pioneers I am speaking of are the people caught in the Freedom March photographs, the people, black and white, walking out of the 1969 General Assembly, the people I marched with yesterday in Riveria Beach celebrating the legacy of King.  These are the pioneers that  operationalized the dreams and the hopes of leaders.  These are the people who were, who are, struck down, these are the people that dare to pursue equality.  Typical, everyday people.  Us.  We are the pioneers in the movement for racial equity today.  I refuse to believe that preaching equality each January, attending a single program on a Thursday night, or a check is enough.  It isn’t.

Young, old, and in between we as Unitarian Universalist have our own legacy to attend to.  We cannot offer ourselves passively.  1965 has returned.  We have replaced the martyrs Reeb and Luizo with Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner.  How will we pioneer?  How will we learn from our mistakes and bring equity to our communities and sanctuary?    We are the pioneers.  We are the liberal voice in South Florida.  Our hope lies not only in the inner strength that our religion teaches us to nurture, but also in the example of those who went before to show us the way. They built a church for us, and it is ours to hand on to our children and to their children.

“Will we forsake this legacy?”, writes Rev. Scott Alexander.  “On this -- Martin Luther King holiday 2015 -- the 29th year it has been officially celebrated in America -- race relations are at least as strained and endangered as they have been at any other time in our recent national history.  Let us therefore promise ourselves -- this day -- that we will each lend ourselves to being (as the old saying goes) “part of the solution,” rather than “part of the problem.”   Let us focus on cultural transformation” rather than cultural “blame.”  And most important of all, let us keep our hearts open to every last of our fellow Americans -- be they black, white, yellow, or brown, or (as I say every Sunday when we gather) “Some other wonderful shade of what it means to be human.”   Martin Luther King Sunday reminds us -- this year perhaps more than others -- that this work is as important as it is difficult.

So let’s once again get about it … now … together … that America can (one day soon) become true to its promise to all its citizens. May the light of reason, the comfort of kindness, the depth of a growing spiritual life, the outreach of action, and the acceptance of our own goodness and potential always be our inspiration and the source of our continuing gratitude to our founders and to those who have carried the torch that we hold high.   May it be so.

Black Pioneers, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB on Jan 18, 2015.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Who Owns the Earth?

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love.

Join me.

When I breathe in, I breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I breathe out love.

When I breathe in, I breathe in star stuff. Star stuff that’s been here since the Earth formed. Tiny atoms hurled this way by the Big Bang;
That have been cycled and recycled by the Earth, and its plants and animals;
And through many many cycles of life that were here long before I was born.

When I breathe out, I breathe out star stuff.
And do I own it? That star stuff? The air I breathe?
Do I own the air when it;s inside me, and a part of me?
Who owns it when I breathe out? Do I own it only when it’s in my own home?

I took my daughter as an infant to the Northwoods of Minnesota, so the trees that stood in witness to my childhood visits with family could welcome the new generation.
To paddle a canoe in the same lake,
to sit on the same rock,
All the beauty of the lakes and woods,
All the comfort of the sun and the shade,
The water lapping on the shore,
The haunting call of the loons in the sunset,
The experience of all of these things is my legacy to my child.
The greatest treasure I can bestow on her, I do not own.

Ownership is a legal construct that gives a person a bundle of rights in relation to property:
The Right of Possession, the Right of Quiet Enjoyment, the Right of Disposition, and the Right of Use or Control. This last right: The Right of Use or Control allows the owner to use the property for legal purposes like living there, doing business, farming, mining, or choosing to allow the land to remain vacant and unused, and it’s this Right of Use or Control that is in tremendous need of updating.

In 2007 we found out what it means when the regulators of financial markets do not understand the “innovation” in the market.

We are now finding out what it means when legislators do not understand the ecology of the planet. The regulators of our natural resources do not understand the “innovations” in GMO’s and mineral extraction, like fracking.

At current rates of extinction half of all species currently alive on the Earth will be extinct in 100 years. For those of us who did study ecology, this striking loss of bio-diversity is alarming, because bio-diversity is a measure of the health of an ecosystem, and because bio-diversity helps to assure that if there is a cataclysmic event, some of the many species present will have adaptations that allow them to survive. We need bio-diversity to have food security…and we are losing it.

The interdependent web must become a greater part of the dialogue with elected officials, and who better than us to bring it up? With some exceptions, most of our elected officials have been trained in academic silos devoted to anything but science. Many people who hold high office studied law, with its strong emphasis on ownership and property rights.

The hydrology of Florida has been restructured by human hands. What was swamp is now an area drained by canals. The canals were designed to drain by gravity, but, with the sea level rising, 3 canals have already stopped draining. Miami has already spent millions placing pumps on 3 failed canals. And Marco Rubio (with Miami as his hometown) is a climate science denier.

Jupiter has a desalinization plant, and Riviera Beach and Boca Raton have reverse osmosis because sea water has moved through the porous limestone that we live on, and into our drinking water supply. (And the Palm Beach County Commissioners want to allow denser development of the Agricultural Reserve that provides aquifer recharge, and which the residents of Palm Beach County voted to protect in order to preserve our food and water security.)

The problem is that NO ONE owns the Earth.
Billions of people own pieces of the Earth, and now more than ever, corporations with profit as their only incentive, own critical pieces of the Earth.
• It’s this artificial separation of the interdependent web; this divvy-ing up of parcels of the interdependent web to people with competing agendas;
• It’s the different understanding among owners of pieces of the interconnected web that places the management of inseparable ecological processes into separate hands. This is threatening my daughter’s legacy.

The carbonate rocks of the Floridan Aquifer system underlie all of Florida, most of the Coastal Plain of Georgia, and extend for short distances into Alabama and South Carolina. The Biscayne Aquifer flows under the 4 southern counties of Florida. Yet all land use decisions are local. There are permitting requirements through the water management districts in Florida. There is regulation of water use in multiple jurisdictions. But we live in a political system where aquifer recharge zones can be developed, and the primary discussion when their development is being considered is not even about water security! ...It’s about ownership rights. Ownership is a construct of civilizations that divides the control of interconnected pieces of the web of life…to our peril.

If the Earth were an organism, and the humans inhabiting the Earth were considered to be one organism, how would we describe their relationship as it exists today? It certainly could NOT be considered commensalism. In commensalism one organism benefits, and the other is unaffected; like the cattle egrets that thrive on the insects stirred up cows.

In some wonderful places, like parks, botanical gardens, and wildlife refuges, humans are in a mutualistic relationship, where both humans and the Earth benefit, but overall, because human activity is causing shocking environmental degradation, I would have to say that the relationship between humans and the Earth is parasitism. In a parasitic relationship one organism benefits and the other is harmed.

I have reached the conclusion that humans are infesting the Earth. As such, we are collectively harming the Earth. It’s parasitism fueled by fragmented ownership of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part that is robbing my daughter of her legacy.

So, I’m engaged in a battle for the soul of our planet, because I want my grandchildren to enjoy this Earth as I have, and I’m not alone. The fact of the matter is that people everywhere, who have felt powerless to reverse the degradation of our planet, are finding each other. Coalitions are springing up everywhere, to unify the single voices of concern into a chorus in defense of Earth. 400,000 people can march in the streets of New York.

There are many voices in this choir:
• Voices protecting the environment.
• Voices fighting to remove the disproportionate influence of corporations over the environment and over our political system
• Voices in support of immigrant workers, whose work environment is polluted with the chemicals that threaten them on the job before those
same chemicals threaten our food supply.
• Voices that describe a new paradigm, and shine a light on the many possible futures that we might hope to create, so we can find the will and
reach the consensus that can make a new reality.
• Voices that redesign our built environment and speak the language of engineering and design

We need them all to be all in. We need all voices in the choir.

The current methods of regulating the environment (that we all share) allow for permitting exceptions and waivers that are fraught with influence and politics. Corporate polluters have the resources to hire people who understand complex environmental regulations, and how to circumvent them. And the complexity of the regulatory environment makes grassroots efforts a matter of David and Goliath.

But, just as the NAACP worked in the courts during the Civil Rights Movement, there are organizations working within the courts on Climate. One organization is asking the question “Who owns the Earth?” as a matter of law, in multiple states and in multiple jurisdictions. Our Children’s Trust is an organization that brings lawsuits based on public trust doctrine. Public trust doctrine has a long and rich history of precedent, but is not based on the political discretion of government officials, but rather on their constitutionally-grounded legal duty to protect the common property rights of the people.

The work of the organization Our Children’s Trust is to secure the legal right to a healthy atmosphere and stable climate for all present and future generations. Voices in the choir… in court…

When Rachelle Litt from Organizing for Action went to Washington, DC to convince Lois Frankel, Ted Deutch and Patrick Murphy to join the Safe Climate Caucus, she put out the call to all of the members of our Climate Action Coalition. The Congressmen said they wanted specifics: examples and facts about impacts of climate change in their districts. Because the voices in Palm Beach County have formed a choir, Rachelle was able to share videos, pictures and anecdotal stories that The Climate Action Coalition of South Florida had collected from residents experiencing tidal flooding. We sent email addresses and phone numbers for Homeowners Association leaders. We sent information that only a grassroots organization can collect: stories unique to the place where we live. As a result, Ted Deutch, Patrick Murphy, and Lois Frankel are among the 38 members of the House who have made a commitment to end the conspiracy of silence in Congress about the dangers of climate change. Voices in the choir… in Congress….

The key to joining our voices together is the intuitive realization that we all own this planet’s atmosphere and water. We all breathe in, and we all breathe out. Over half of our body is composed of water. The condition of the air we breathe and the water we drink determines if we will live or die.

There are UU organizations that I’m very proud of, and initiatives that you can join to take action. Many of you in this room already have. I’ve joined the Board of UU Justice Florida, which has the interrelated issues of Climate Change, Immigration, and Democracy at Risk as its core issues. There is a lot going on with UUJF:
If you like to go do things:
• On January 15th there will be an Action at USF to counteract the Koch Bros influence on their campus.
• On March 6th and 7th at the LEED certified First United Methodist Church in Orlando, there will be an Interfaith Climate Conference with participation from UU’s and other faith groups from around the state, under the auspices of The Florida Council of Churches.
• If you want to go to Tallahassee to get trained to speak to legislators, and then go DO IT, that will be happening at the end of March on the 23rd and 24th.

If you’re a slacktivist, you can sign up with UUJF’s Action Network to receive Action Alerts, or Google Commit2Respond and sign up with this new UU initiative to unify our efforts on climate with efforts of other groups, and please partner with our Florida Earth Festival this year in April. Last year Marika Stone hosted a poetry open mic at the festival, and several of you attended tours of LEED certified buildings. This year we will be conducting workshops and training to prepare to chalk 15 miles of line marking the high water line in Delray Beach Florida at 3ft or 6ft of sea level rise. It’s a fabulous project that The City of Delray Beach will be partnering with us on. You can find out more about it on the Faithify website, where we have a crowd sourcing campaign to raise the last few dollars we need to carry out our ambitious UU plan.

For me, being a UU is about joy.
It’s about coming together in safe and respectful community.
It’s about sharing the journey with fellow seekers of truth,
And it’s about the strength of standing together in support of values that are the fabric of our being, and that are the stated values of our Unitarian Universalist faith.
I have decided that WE own the Earth, and that those of us who are listening to her need to be her voice in the choir. I have heard it said that if God had a voice, it would be a cello. The Earth has a voice, and it is us. We will breathe in, and when we breathe out, our voices will be hers.
I’m in a battle for the soul of the planet, and I invite you to stand with me whenever and wherever you can.

Who Owns the Earth?, a sermon delivered at 1stUUPB by Jan Booher, Jan 11, 2015.
(The Climate Action Coalition Facebook page is at