Friday, December 30, 2016

Message from Paul Ward, Dec 30, 2016

Greetings Members and Friends of 1stUUPB,

As we approach the end of the year and prepare for the new year, it is a time for reflection, letting go, and intention setting. In terms of our Congregation, the year just ending did not unfold as many of us expected, or even hoped for, but now is the time to let go of the past and begin thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead.

The Ministerial Selection Committee has begun its work and I am grateful for a highly capable team representing our Congregation on this journey. In my interactions with UU congregations around the country, I have found many congregations going through ministerial transitions. We are not so different and we are not a difficult Congregation. We are a diverse Congregation with wide ranging opinions, as the recent survey results showed, but we value our community. My intention is to come from a place of possibility and be the best I can be in support of this Congregation.

Thank you for your comments, feedback, emails, and telephone conversations. I am listening! I am in England for New Year, returning to Florida on January 9th in time for our next board meeting, but the channels of communication are still open.

Thank you to members of our Board of Trustees, members of our committees, our staff, and everyone who contributes to the smooth running of our Congregational activities.   

I wish you a new year filled with hope, happiness, peace, and prosperity.

With love and gratitude,

Paul G. Ward
President, Board of Trustees

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Bearers of Light

It is perfect timing for us to consider how we might be bearers of light.  We are in the darkest time of the year.  Both literally and metaphorically. Pagans will celebrate returning light with Winter Solstice celebrations, Hanukkah is the Jewish Festival of Lights celebrated in countries all over the world. Diwali, meaning array of lights, is a Hindu light festival. It symbolizes the triumph of light over darkness. During the 9 days prior to Christmas, Mexican families march from house to house with candles looking for a room at the inn. Kwanzaa begins on December 26th to honor African harvest traditions. It was created in 1966. Candles representing the seven principles of Kwanzaa are lit each night for a week. Family and friends come together to take pride in their unique culture and to celebrate their common heritage. And of course we have our own candlelight ceremony here in this Congregation on Christmas Eve. We must be bearers of light. We must be light in the lives of people around us as we navigate these desperate times.
When I was little we lived in a double house on the Canadian border.  Our family lived in the back of the house while my grandmother lived in the front. It was a house my grandfather bought for his sons when they married after the WWII. Rumor has it that my grandpa did pretty well bootlegging whiskey during Prohibition.
But that’s another sermon. My dad’s family was a close-knit Scottish/French Canadian clan. We were always together. Maybe it was because we lived in the same house, but we ate together many nights a week and always on Sunday. My dad’s family was loud and passionate, and they could yell at you one minute and hug you the next. One time our neighbor asked me why my family argued all the time, which was a great puzzle. We didn’t argue we were… well, colorful!
In March 1989, our color was surely drained when my father died suddenly. He was 48, and I had just turned 20.  I remember my dad’s smile, his wicked sense of humor, and his laughter; it could light up a room.  When he died, my mother went into mourning. As was the custom, the bereaved wore black as a sign of loss. I think it was a way to say to the world, “Be easy with me, I’m grieving.” My mom said she did it out of respect, but I suspect it truly represented her deep sorrow. She wore only black for a long while.  She hung on to her sorrow and her mourning clothes; it seemed as if she was stuck. She eventually began wearing her regular clothes again.
Now our close-knit family also included our neighbors Alphonsine and her clan. Alphonsine, a feminine and French name meaning noble and ready, was my mom’s best friend. Our houses were so close; you could stand at the kitchen sink and wash dishes at our house and talk across the driveway to Alphonsine as she stood in her kitchen washing dishes.  In the summer of 1989, Alphonsine decided it was time to help my mother move beyond her black mourning clothes. I don’t know how their conversation went at all. But I remember the day clearly, as if it were yesterday. My mom left the house wearing black and returned hours later in a cloud of lavender. I can see her walking toward me, a big smile on her face and lavender beads around her neck. But more than dressed in lavender, or the even the beads, my mother looked different because she had her light back, a light that had been dimmed by her tragic loss.
In a book by artist Jeanne Dobie called “Making Color Sing,” the author introduces the idea of mouse colors. That’s right, mouse colors…m-o-u-s-e. They are subtle pale colors. When they are brushed up against a darker color, they illuminate the painting. They are almost imperceptible when you look from a distance, but their impact on the painting is profound. Mouse colors create a setting where it is possible for the brilliant color to come into its fullest bloom. Mouse colors are like the bit players who support the stars.  I believe there are people in the world who are like mouse colors; they bring light to our dark places. They are most often subtle. If we are lucky, they come to us with presence and gentle influence at the exact time we need them. I think of them as light bearers.
Our friend Alphonsine, in the story about my mom, was a light bearer. She cared for my mother and their relationship by showing up when needed and finding the right path that led my mom back to the color of her life.
In 2006, one year after Hurricane Katrina decimated Louisiana, Rev. Marta Valentin offered a sermon to the UU congregations of New Orleans. Those congregations suffered immense challenges, but most congregations struggle with difficult times and change. I think her words are relevant to all of us. In her sermon she described the bearers of light who showed up with aid and support during a tragically dark time for the congregations. This is what she said: “To be a bearer of light is to hold in the highest esteem the building of relationships.  Bearers of light are not concerned with what they can take, but with what they can give to any situation, even one that might rile them. It can be a commitment one makes to lighten an experience that might seem heavy, to share an insight even when it might scare you to do so. It can be a commitment to remain calm, when all around you the world is spinning, to remain grounded when the urge is to take flight, to remain loving when the devil is knocking on your door, pushing you into the abyss that is misdirected anger.”
Who doesn’t need people like this often in their lives, people who love us and value our relationships and our community and are committed to hold the lantern when life seems so very dark? I think we all know that our body craves light. Any one who lives on the Canadian border in February knows that. Light stimulates our neurotransmitters; we produce more serotonin. It improves our mood, and lightens our life.  But I believe our spirit craves light too. We are hungry for illumination, enlightenment, the mystical experience, or…in Universalist language -- a gentle stirring of love in our hearts.  The presence of spiritual light offers us a sense of healing in difficult times. Our ability to see this light makes it possible to feel a sublime connection to one another. We blur our separation and our ability to see deeply into each other’s hearts opens us to true communion. When we do that, we become bearers of light for one another.
Now we all know there are times in our lives when we live in the light and our world is in technicolor. And other times we live in the dark, when the black hole of circumstance sucks us in. Like post-election season. Times where there is no light, and we see no color, even as we look out at our vibrant world. Perhaps we lose someone we loved, we end a relationship, or we simply experience life changes, and we can get drawn into a dark lonely place. At such times of struggle, it is difficult even to see our own light. We find ourselves living in the shadows. We can become frightened and sorrowful and angry.  As a young adult I thought the idea of mourning clothes was silly and outdated. When my own mother died, I wore a green suit with a lavender tie; it was her favorite color, after all. But in the months following her death, I felt so deeply and profoundly sad. I remember feeling as if I needed to wear black, because the wound I carried was invisible to others but wide open and gaping to me. I lived in the shadows; I went through my days taking care of my young family with little joy or brilliance.
I think we all have such shadows. They are sorrow and pain we don’t want to see; they are our lesser qualities -- our meanness, our stinginess, or our judgment of others. They are our inadequacies, the parts of ourselves that just don’t measure up to our self-expectations. Like a dormant virus, they sneak out, especially during hard times, political and otherwise.  And it wouldn’t be so bad if we just waited for the virus to pass, but I’m afraid all too often, we project our shadow onto others, ascribing motives to them that simply aren’t true and that have more to do with us than with them. These are the times we need light so we can honestly and openly see our hidden selves.
There is a Sufi teaching story about a character, the Mulla, named Nasrudin.  A man was walking home late one night when he saw the Mulla Nasrudin searching under a street light on hands and knees for something on the ground. “Mulla, what have you lost?” he asked. “The key to my house,” Nasrudin said. “I’ll help you look,” the man said. Soon, both men were down on their knees, looking for the key. After a number of minutes, the man asked, “Where exactly did you drop it?” Nasrudin waved his arm back toward the darkness. “Over there, in my house.” The first man jumped up. “Then why are you looking for it here?” “Because there is more light here than inside my house."
It’s pretty clear Nasrudin is looking for something very important, a key. And the key could easily symbolize an aspect of himself. Aren’t we all looking for that key? But in this case, the key is in the darkness of his house, so that is where he must look. This is also true of finding the shadow parts of our selves; it requires us to look in the darkness and uncover the key to our behavior.  Perhaps there is a way to bring light to those dark places, our shadows. Perhaps that’s where the light bearers come in.
To explain that, I’d like to borrow the concept of light from the Quakers. They believe that there is a light in each of us that is more than our intellect or conscience. The light within is like a flickering flame deep in our souls that when responded to and tended, grows to fill our entire lives with light. When the internal light is dim, and our shadows are long and dark, another person who sees us and sees the light can make all the difference in our lives.
That is the work of the light bearers. They mind the light. They pay close attention to all that connects us. They see beyond the shadows and hold a vision of us in the light. They see us as whole and perfect, exactly as we are, even when it’s hard for us to see that.
Now some people are gifted with that ability; I can actually think of a few people in this Congregation who have the gift, and believe me, we are lucky because communities need such people.  But most of us are more ordinary, and we need practice. Seeing the light and minding the light in others is in fact something we can learn. It takes willingness and commitment, because seeing the light in others is easy when they are pleasant and so much harder when they are not. It is really hard to feel connected or to see the light in other persons when they are disappointed in you or you them.  But that’s when they need it the most.  If only we could wear black mourning colors when we are lost, or perhaps red when we are enraged at life, or maybe green when we are too tender to touch. If we had an outward sign of our innermost circumstance, maybe then we could tell the world around us, “be easy with me, I’m hurting, and I’m scared.” But life isn’t like that; there are no uniforms.
So maybe the key is to invoke the spirit of love or if you like, the spirit of — God. When we see others in the light of love, we find their challenges are probably no different from our own. We see beyond their shadow to the deep light within, and holding them this way we ensure that we are touched by their lives, by their pure humanness. The distance between us lessens, and our concerns become each other’s.  And in that way we become bearers of light…we see and mind the light in one another…and by doing that our own light grows brighter, and together we bring understanding to the shadows between us. Perhaps we simply say Namaste–the light in me sees the light in you…

May it be so.

"Bearers of Light", a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor, at 1stUUPB, on Dec 4, 2016.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Hurricane Matthew passed us by with limited impact but not before we readied our campus for the worst. Thanks to our Sexton Willie Nelson for ensuring our security and to Ben Juhl and Sylvia Ansay for guiding the preparation and clean up.

The board approved the appointment of Maria Cristina Gonzalez-Lopez as the new Religious Education Committee chair. Thank you to Maria for stepping up and to Richard Keelan for your leadership over the past few years. 

Rev. CJ has announced his decision to leave the Congregation. The board strongly supports CJ’s desire to complete his contract, which runs until the end of April 2017. I know many of you are disappointed that CJ has decided to leave us, but it is his decision and we must move forward.

We are planning to hold a series of cottage meetings next month to seek input from the Congregation on bringing in a new minister. We have a number of possibilities to consider:

We could call a settled minister although, because of the timing, that would not be possible until 2018.

Other options include an interim minister, a consulting or contract minister, or another developmental minister.

I was at the UU Ministers Association meeting on Thursday, presenting a leadership workshop, and met Kenn Hurto, our UUA regional executive. Kenn told me that the rules for developmental ministers have changed and would, in effect, be like a long-term interim minister. That would be for up to 5 years, but without the option to be called to settled ministry. Kenn is seeking more information about it.

The Transitions Team will lead the selection process. If you were invited to be a member of the Transitions Team last month, the goal has now changed, but the role is perhaps even more important than before. I hope you will agree to be part of the team.

I would like to clarify the situation with our intern, Claudia Jiminez. Even with CJ’s departure, Claudia can continue her internship with this Congregation for the next two years and I am very much hoping she will. Claudia and I are meeting to discuss possibilities.

I look forward to supporting this Congregation through the transition. Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns about the transition. As always, I am ready to listen.

Paul G Ward
President, Board of Trustees 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Water is Life

I have a solid memory of being five years old and surveying our northern New York land with my father. He was trying to find the best place to dig a well. One thing, however -- I'm not sure if I'm imagining it -- but I think he might have been using a branch to find the groundwater, which is called dowsing. Coming from 18th century superstition, while using a branch as you would a metal detector on the beach you search for groundwater and supposedly the branch would shake if you indeed found water. I wanted this part of the memory to be true, but alas every study over the last century agrees that dowsing remains a superstition. I remember my father choosing a spot and breaking ground with a shovel. In fact, he and a few other men dug this well mostly using shovels. They extracted a few boulders out with machinery which when clustered became a playground for kids and a hiding spot when we stole a few moments to smoke cigarettes as teenagers. Those boulders remain in the same spot today.

At 5 years old I understood that the well and water was central to our livelihood. The well was vital not only to my family, but to two neighboring families. You see, the wells that had been used for a couple of generations had gone dry. Water had been a great concern for my family and our neighbors. The digging of the new well and access to water meant sustaining life for the people, land, and crops and animals on the land.

After my parents died, the land and property were sold. My brother and I received much grief from the other two families using the well. The thought of water scarcity made them do and say things I would have never expected. You see, the new owner of the well could have cut the other families out leaving them without water, without the resources they needed to live. Eventually we nailed down an agreement and all was settled. Perhaps one of the earliest water summits. Over 40 years later the well still supplies water and hasn't once gone dry.  I’d like to give credit to the supposed branch.
This success story is becoming more uncommon these days.  I recently watched a video titled A Four Year Old Bucket List. In that video we see a 4 year old Kenyan boy who has been granted the opportunity to do everything he has on his bucket list before he dies.  He goes to the ocean for the first time, he plays soccer on the national field, and he has his first kiss, among other things. The boy isn’t terminally ill. His reality is that most children where he lives die before they are 5 because they have no access to unpolluted and quality water and that water is already in short supply. The boy doesn’t complete his bucket list.
I've learned firsthand, through my ministry, and study that water is life and when that resource is absent or threatened, relationships fall apart, conflict arises, people are oppressed, threatened, hopelessly die, or are even killed.

We don't need to look far for the threat to life. We have our own battles to fight right here in Florida to ensure water is life giving.  I’m talking about the Everglades. The two biggest threats to the Everglades is water quality and water quantity. Development on the coast calls for an increased demand for water, but the problem is that the quantity of water isn't growing as demand grows. Man-made structures don't allow water to flow to the Everglades as it should. Often the water that reaches the Everglades is not quality. Runoff from expanding urban centers and unsustainable farming practices are polluting the water supply which is already limited. Not unlike the well of my childhood there is tension around the issues of quality and quantity. Stakeholders such as Native American tribes, park services, fish and wildlife services, the Audubon Society, water management, concerned citizens, religious groups, and others are all players in the Everglades issue and all have varying opinions, resources, ignorance, and ideas which create conflict over life-giving water. Will we see results before we have to make bucket lists for our loved ones and we see our environment continue to suffer and die? 

I’ve shared with you that after Hurricane Katrina I traveled to the 9th Ward of New Orleans a few times, which had been the most devastated part of the city. I realized after being on the ground for only a few hours that my project of gutting and rebuilding homes was secondary to landing in the middle of a human rights conflict. Residents desperate to return to their homes and communities were being blocked by local and federal officials. In order for a community to be restored, that community needs health facilities, food, and water. All human rights in my book. Just ask Canada. Residents wanted to return but resources were held up and denied. The water remained muddied both figuratively and literally. Some did return to find that the mayor had ordered the demolition of their home where generations have lived. No access to water, food, or shelter. Basic human needs stomped on. I forgot to mention this was a black neighborhood where people were challenged socio-economically. If you were asking yourself, "why would officials do that?”  I just gave you your answer.

Perhaps the most recent water and land conflict on our radar -- if it isn't perhaps it should be -- is the conflict in Standing Rock in North Dakota. Earlier this summer I began hearing about something happening near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. A few people from Standing Rock on horseback were trying to stop the construction of an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, that would cross the Missouri River just upstream of their community. Many were arrested. The next I heard, they had been joined by people from the other six Lakota Sioux tribes, then by the Cheyenne, traditional enemies of the Sioux, and then tribal people from across the country started getting in their cars and trucks and driving to the camp on the banks of the Missouri River.  Now, in September, there are flags of 300 indigenous nations flying at the Camp of the Sacred Stones, and there are several hundred to several thousand people (depending on the moment), of all races, at three different camps, all gathered in support of nonviolent resistance.

The people there say they are not “protesters,” they are water protectors, and they are doing this for all of us. Many faith and environmental communities have joined their voices in support, including Rev. Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, who called on Unitarian Universalists to support the Standing Rock Sioux. The fight by the Standing Rock Sioux to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline has emerged as one of the defining climate justice fights in the United States.  It has also become a central focal point of the ongoing worldwide struggle by indigenous peoples to have their treaty and land rights respected by other governments and corporations.  

Indigenous people are among the most vulnerable communities on the front lines of the climate crisis, and are leading the fight. Corporations have repeatedly used force to extract fossil fuels from their lands with approval from government attorneys and military forces. Major pipeline projects invariably cut across Native lands while bypassing white suburban communities. We must follow the lead of indigenous communities that have protected their land for countless generations, and work together in solidarity to ensure a thriving planet for future generations and all living things.
I tell you all of this to help you understand that the situation in Standing Rock is yet another event in a series of events of oppression. Native Americans have been here before. Columbus and colonists have cheated, raped, murdered, oppressed and were at the wheel of genocide from the very beginning. If you doubt genocide will be a consequence, you’ll need to explain to me why dogs with gnashing teeth are being allowed to tear at the flesh and spirits of protesters and why poisoning an indigenous people is considered with no feeling or conscience. The Sioux Tribe protecting their land in North Dakota aren't simply greedy. They understand that if a pipeline is built it will be sparking genocide. Water is precious and a pipeline would contaminate that life-giving resource, leaving a community to die. They become dispensable once again.

This people are also protecting the sacred. Their ancestors are buried within the land, which is treasured, revered, and has significant and sacred meaning. I know if the construction of a pipeline that would run through the cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried I would be equally as outraged and afraid that that sacred land would be defiled. I can breathe easy. That won't happen. My ancestors and I are white.

The dogs growl, the pepper spray bites, the bulldozers tear up the soil. “Water is life!” they cry. “Water is life!”  The presence of suffering in this cry of outrage is profound. We are called by our faith to say, “No more, no more. You will not poison our water or continue ravaging planet earth: mocking its sacredness, destroying its ecosystems, reshaping and slowly killing it for profit.” As the Green Party insists, the North Dakota authorities should instead be pressing charges against the real vandalism taking place at the Standing Rock Sioux reservation: the desecration of sacred burial sites and the immoral use of vicious attack dogs, calling on our government to halt the Dakota Access Pipeline company that is endangering drinking water.

As I watched videos, read updates, and talk to my colleagues who had been to Standing Rock over the past weeks, I could feel my heart turning toward North Dakota, almost as if a part of me was already traveling there, longing to bear witness to something extraordinary, something never before seen on this continent or perhaps anywhere, the rising up of the tribal nations to protect water and land. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in The Guardian: “What’s happening at Standing Rock feels like a new civil rights movement that takes place at the confluence of environmental and human rights awareness.”  And the protectors have been clear that they need the support of everyone, that without many witnesses, they could be silenced, just as they have been intimidated and silenced before, for these last 150 years.  I watched a video of 13 year old Tokata Iron Eyes, talking about why she was there as a water protector.

I felt I needed to be in North Dakota.  But how could I go? It seems wild to just pick up and go to North Dakota. I have sermons to write, committee meetings to attend, and family and financial responsibilities. But I kept thinking of the UUs in 1965 who heard the call from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma, and how many of them, certainly many of the ministers, had responsibilities that could have kept them home: sermons to give, committees to attend. And yet, and yet…they got in their cars, got on airplanes, got on trains to travel to Selma to support those who were struggling nonviolently for basic civil rights, against enormous odds and overwhelming police presence, threats, and brutality.  How is this different? In North Dakota there are people who have also been oppressed for generations, rising up courageously, facing their own fear for the sake of their culture and community and for the rest of us, and calling for people of conscience to join them. And native people from the Northwest and around the country have answered that call. How can I not?

I wondered if I had the audacity to do this.  It is part of my call and it will benefit this congregation too. I am going to Standing Rock. Stay tuned for the details.  As Unitarian Universalists we must challenge ourselves to imagine things differently, to be brave enough, creative enough, to birth a way of life that does not bring so much death in its wake. My friend and colleague the Rev. Kathleen Matigue writes, “We have to do this. We live still in the illusion that we have a choice, but we have no choice. It’s like believing that in the ten seconds between now and the moment your car crashes into the wall, it’s optional whether or not you turn the wheel. It’s not optional. We either turn the wheel or we crash. Turning that wheel means focusing intently on how we can live differently, how we can reduce, and reduce again, the enormous amounts of everything that we misuse—but especially life giving water.”

Not only will I follow my call to Standing Rock, I will offer ways that you can contribute from Florida. As one of our greatest leaders, Chief Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota, once said, ‘Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.’ That appeal is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago.” The beauty of the earth, the necessity of the earth, call us. We have to answer.
May it be so.

Water is Life, a sermon delivered by the Rev. CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 18, 2016.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Black Leaders, White Allies

In the last few weeks I've been challenged by my white privilege on two occasions. In the first instance I watched two black youths walk down the street on their way to school in Lake Worth. On their backs they had backpacks. The backpacks were what you might call “see-through” because the material used was clear. I could see all the contents being carried in the backpack. I didn't think how innovative it was or that it may be a new fashion trend. No, because the youths were black I thought what a good idea because the police could see inside the backpack and the youths might be less likely to get stopped, searched, or even killed. My white privilege was challenged, because had the youths been white I would have never thought of the advantages of a see-through backpack. I simply would have thought about the fashion trend. I wouldn't have worried about whether a white youth might have a greater chance of survival using such a backpack.

If you’re not a person of color in America you might not need to worry about such things. Black Unitarian Universalists and their allies across the country gather on a Facebook page to organize and support one another. They call themselves Unitarian Universalists for Black Lives. I received a notice of a post from the page. The post annoyed me. It read:

We find ourselves particularly dismayed by the willingness of UU congregations and ministers who have shown support for the Movement for Black Lives and now feel compelled to signify their allegiance to police officers and policing itself. As members of an over-policed and underserved constituency targeted by the police for harassment, economic exploitation and random violence often resulting in death, we wonder:  Who does this allegiance to law enforcement serve?  How does it undercut the messaging of the Movement for Black Lives and take focus away from the need for fundamental restructuring of law enforcement, if not the altogether abolition of law enforcement as we have known it?  What are Black Unitarian Universalists to make of their congregations’ and their ministers’ public affirmations of an institution known to oppress and kill them from its inception?

I responded to the post writing that I was tired of groups assuming that all cops are bad cops and that if we are truly going to resolve race relations with people we need to create relationships and collaborate.

I didn't sleep after writing that message. I lose sleep when something isn't right or I believe I haven't challenged myself to do the right thing by looking at all the sides of an issue or problem. The next morning I sat up in bed and thought "white privilege!" You see, as a white person I can’t remember an instance, an experience, a situation where I couldn't trust the police. In fact, I was raised in a culture where police were my friend and helpful. If I had been born black it would've been a different story. I would have been born into a world where policing was invented to control me, deny my rights, cause physical and emotional pain. I haven't had an instance or experience that would lead me to mistrust police. I am now suspicious of police since racism in America has had a brighter light shed on it. Not being in touch with my white privilege allowed me to write that post where I was asking people who are black to get over it and move on where police were concerned.

I'm not ashamed of my white privilege. It is what it is. It is when I don't check my white privilege, identify it, own it and how it shapes my actions and reactions that I should be concerned. Had I done that work before making a decision about the backpacks and the message I sent, I likely would've never allowed my ego and privilege interfere with what is right, just, and true. We should all think about as Unitarian Universalists what we are called to do. Whether it be the Everglades, climate change, poverty, homelessness, or race relations, as Unitarian Universalists our faith and tradition calls us to respond in an informed and compassionate way. Both of the examples I shared this morning left me asking what do black leaders want from this white ally?  I bet you've asked yourself a similar question.

One thing I know, that our Justice Action Ministry knows, is that blacks need to lead and white allies need to listen and to learn.  Blacks need to control the narrative because whites have controlled it for far too long and look at what this is come to in our history. The answer to the question, "what do black leaders want from their white allies?" has varied.  In fact over the past couple of years the black narrative has changed.  Take for example the case of Cornell West. He is a black professor at Princeton and an extremely influential activist. West has been criticized that his view of race relations no longer works or is what the black community needs to progress.

Some compare him to the boxer Mike Tyson. Once great, once dominant, once feared, he is now a faint echo of himself.  American academic Michael Eric Dyson tells us, "Like Iron Mike, West is given to biting our ears with personal attacks rather than bending our minds with fresh and powerful scholarship. Like Tyson, he is given to making cameos — in West’s case, appearing as himself in scripted social unrest, or playing a prophet on television in the latest protest. He has squandered his intellectual gift in exchange for celebrity. He’s grown flabby with disinterest in the work needed to stay aloft: the readiness to read, think, and recast thought in the crucible of written words."

I am disheartened by such criticism. I admire Cornell West. However, the black community is expecting something different in their modern leadership and modern movements. That causes white allies to ask, "What is expected of me?" We should listen to the answer and learn.

It is an important question. Whether Unitarian Universalists should be allies to and involved in the modern black justice movement is not a question but a given. But what qualifies as an ally, from black and white perspectives, isn’t universal. “I think a white person can only be a true ally if he or she works from the desire to dismantle white supremacy instead of merely being fueled by white guilt,” says Katrina L. Rogers, the communications manager of an advocacy organization in New Orleans. Rogers tells us “never be under the assumption that if a white person identifies as an ally that they’re invested in my well-being.” “Labels mean little,” she says and “if you’re not working with us and taking our direction, you’re not an ally.” While some argue that institutional change happens only when white people get out of the way, seeing white people participate in the cause can lead to awareness. When white people see white people brutalized it stirs up the same fears and anxiety that black people have had to contend with on a daily basis for centuries.

While the role of white participants in Black Lives Matter shouldn’t be left to black organizers to figure out -- black Americans have had to contend with racism and it isn’t the responsibility of blacks to show whites how to be good allies and comrades -- white activists and sympathizers with the Black Lives Matter cause should take a page from white activists of the civil rights movement: that black people are the leaders, that the movement is centered around them, that glorifying white participation in a black-led movement is gauche and unhelpful, that it isn’t about white people.

There’s no clear path or prescription for how white allies should operate in a movement led by black and brown people -- that’s part of the work. But one refrain expressed among white activists is the idea that the freedom of white people, of all people, is tethered to ending injustices for people of color.  One thing is for sure: it’s the responsibility of whites interested in ending racism to sacrifice their comfort, ask questions, and take cues and orders from black people without relying on them to show you and tell you how. It’s not the usual order of things, but it’s the way forward. Groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice, which began after black leaders approached a group of white organizers during the Tea Party’s rise in 2009, are thinking and talking about how to be effective white allies and organizers against racism. Their goal “is to get millions of white people in the movement,” says Andrew Willis Garcés, SURJ’s regional resource organizer. He says, “We actually want to ask white people to step into that messiness and tension.” When it comes to organizing, Garcés says that SURJ has developed relationships with black- and brown-led organizations, but doesn’t expect to be told what to do or say. 

In his searing book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates implies that it’s not his job — or, by extension the job of other black voices or leaders — to coach white folks, let alone worry about their feelings. Which it’s not. The whole point is that we white people should be the ones thinking more about black people — their feelings, their experience and their reality, which can be dramatically different than our own. But at the same time, Coates concludes his text noting that structural racism won’t change until white people change. There are already white people who want to change, and want to help spur change in their communities. Many people are reticent to speak out, for fear of misspeaking; others want to do something, but don’t know what to do. Instead of continuing to unconsciously reinforce structural racism in America, there are many white people who want to consciously help deconstruct and dismantle it. But how? 

It is not up to Black Lives Matter, nor any movement led by and for communities of color, to make space for, or articulate a vision for white people. The expectation that black leaders and movements should automatically do so is a subtle extension of the sort of white-centric entitlement that gives rise to the need for such movements in the first place. Then again, we haven’t exactly blazed a path to enlightenment and liberation so far on our own. While doing research for this sermon I found some of the leading voices and activists in Black Lives Matter who shared their hopes, asks and even demands for white people in America today. Each echoed many of the same themes, encompassing both hopes and critiques. Here, in their own words, is what they said:

 "I don't like the term ally.”
 Black folks are never safe, so it’s important for white co-conspirators or comrades to think about the level of comfort — safety — that is assumed to them by sitting on the sidelines and not actively engaging in the movement for black lives because it seems “too risky.” I want comrades who will show up when I’m most vulnerable and be in active solidarity with my struggle as a person in a black body and take some risks, because I’m putting my life out on the line every single day.
•Dante Barry, executive director of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice

“Allies are best as accomplices.”
Be complicit in dismantling racist structures by taking risks, putting your bodies on the line in the streets, sharing access to resources (and releasing agency over them), living in some discomfort with difficult conversations in collaboration, knowing when to listen and organizing other white folks.
•Mervyn Marcano, spokesman for Ferguson Action

“Safe spaces are illusions.”
Racism is an illness that afflicts each and every one of us. It steals our humanity, our capacity for empathy, the righteous indignation that is our birthright. I don’t believe in allies; I believe in the decolonizing power of solidarity. White people ought to challenge themselves to engage in more spaces of risk and difference.
•Umi Selah, mission director of the Dream Defenders

“You can be progressive and anti-black.”
The two are not synonymous. Just because you have progressive politics doesn’t mean you’re not racist as hell, that you don’t think black people are less than; it doesn’t mean you have a racial analysis. Being progressive doesn’t give you a pass. You have to do the work within yourself if you’re going to be in this space.
•Celeste Faison, co-founder of the Black Out Collective and coordinator of Black Lives Matter, Bay Area

“Expand what being progressive means in America.”
The conditions that are taking the lives of black and Latino communities with heart-shattering speed cannot be solved with economic solutions alone. A progressive movement that isn’t organizing to dismantle structural racism isn’t a progressive movement. It’s a movement of white middle-class self-interest, where white people on both sides of the aisle are fighting to retain white privilege in different ways.
•Malkia Cyril, director of Center for Media Justice, co-founder of Media Action Grassroots Network

“Stop saying ‘all lives matter’”
Understand why you can’t say that. Whatever people need to do to understand why that’s not OK, they need to do that. What we’re saying right now is that all lives will actually matter when black lives matter — and black lives don’t matter right now. So we need to say black lives matter to change that. We need to change that individually, we need to change that within our communities and we need to change that systemically.
•Robbie Clark, organizer with Black Lives Matter Bay Area

“It must go beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter.”
I want white people to do the work of pushing Democratic darlings to take more seriously the impact of structural racism…. Beyond saying #BlackLivesMatter, I want to hear more about what each of them will do to ensure a world where #BlackLivesMatter — and that means weighing in for an end to deportations and citizenship for all, fighting to end mass incarceration, ensuring that domestic workers have full rights in and outside of the workplace and on and on.
•Alicia Garza, special projects director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter

“Organize yourselves.”
“White liberals and progressives have a responsibility to organize their communities for social justice using an explicitly anti-black-racism frame. There is no need to hide behind black or people of color organizations. Commit yourself to organizing poor and working class white folks. We are capable of organizing our communities. Our children need everyday white folks to work harder to ensure that black women don’t have to worry about dying after failing to signal properly, walking while transgender or trying to protect their children.”

Let us, black and white alike, do the work to understand ourselves in the context of the anti-racism movement. White allies, it is not enough to say “I’m not racist.” Prove it. Do the work. Understand white privilege without guilt. Black leaders, as white allies we will do the work but need your direction and grace as to what you need. As black leaders and white allies, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a responsibility to one another. The responsibility to love, to be outraged, to act, and to heal.

May it be so.

Black Leaders, White Allies, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Sep 4, 2016.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Season of Malcontents

Are you as moral as you think you are?  Let me offer a test to help you answer this question. This test only has one question, but it's a very important one.  By

giving an honest answer, you will discover where you stand morally.  The test features an unlikely, completely fictional situation in which you will have to make a decision. Only you will know the results, so remember that your answer needs to be honest.

You are in Florida, Miami to be specific. There is chaos all around you caused by a hurricane with severe flooding. This is a flood of biblical proportions. You are a photojournalist working for a major newspaper, and you're caught in the middle of this epic disaster. The situation is nearly hopeless. You're trying to shoot career-making photos. There are houses and people swirling around you, some disappearing under the water.

Suddenly you see a man in the water. He is fighting for his life, trying not to be taken down with the debris. You move closer. Somehow the man looks familiar. You suddenly realize who it is. It's Donald Trump! At the same time you notice that the raging waters are about to take him under forever.

You can save the life of Donald Trump or you can shoot a dramatic Pulitzer Prize winning photo, documenting the death of one of the world's most powerful Republican men hell bent on the destruction of America.

Here's the question, and please give an honest answer. "Would you select high contrast color film, or would you go with the classic simplicity of black and white?"  

I’ll tell you another story. Hillary Clinton was addressing a group of American Indians in New York telling them all she did as senator and all she plans to do for them as President. At the end of the meeting the chief gave her a plaque with an honorary name, Walking Eagle. After she left someone asked the chief if there is any meaning to that name. He said "A walking Eagle is a bird that is so full of crap, it cannot fly."

Over the summer Claudia, our intern minister, and I discussed how we might prepare you for this season we are about to enter. I call it a “season of malcontents.” Now in Florida, if you are new here, you might not successfully be able to distinguish one season from the other. After living here awhile you’ll notice small changes like Floridians wearing parkas when it is 67 degrees or when the one place you’ll find snow is at the mall on a single December night.
There are changes in the light and the landscape if you pay attention. The season I’m talking about is the season of malcontents and it too brings changes. Politics by way of mudslinging, racism, bigotry, and absolute ridiculousness will be even greater over the next few months and we are at risk. We are at risk of becoming malcontents. That is, you will become increasingly dissatisfied, your anger will peak, your compassion will wane, and you will become increasingly oppositional.  

Our season of malcontents will reduce our spirits to a gruel so thin we will all surely starve. But, have no fear. I stand here today offering a remedy to neutralize the season. It’s a simple antidote and Unitarian Universalists call it our first principle. If you are unfamiliar or need a reminder, our first principle is the understanding that every person -- soon to be every being -- has inherent worth and dignity. It arises out of the Universalist influence on our movement, and reflects the Universalist belief in human goodness, historically, that all people are worthy of God’s love and all will ultimately be “saved” and reconciled with God. Our Universalist forebears (as well as the Unitarians) rejected the “debased” view of human nature espoused by Calvinists, believing that a good and just God created humans who were inherently good, as well. While acknowledging the human capacity for evil, Universalists challenged the faithful to find something of value in every human being and to believe that redemption was possible even for those who had wandered from living an “ideal” life.

Living as a Unitarian Universalist is hard work.  Living our seven principles, which are printed on the back of your order of service, is hard work. We don’t arrive here and handed what to believe, are told how to act, or given a list of bad behaviors and people. We arrive and are encouraged to go deeper in our personal beliefs and we are challenged to live, act, and respond according to our principles which are a guide to justice, equity, and compassion. It will be increasingly difficult to honor our first principle during this season of malcontents. We will resort to living out our shadow selves, the part of ourselves that we wish no one knew about. The angry self. The divisive self. The insensitive self. The uncharitable self. The unhinged self.
Our first principle says nothing about every person having worth and dignity as long as they agree with us. There is no fine print at the end of the principles. Within the foundation of Unitarian Universalism we are told we do not have to think alike to love alike. That is, we will love you because just by being born into humanity you have worth.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear this. Maybe I want to be my shadow self this season. Maybe I want to be a malcontent. Maybe I can’t turn all of the confusion, fear, and downright stupidity of this season into something that will honor my Unitarian Universalist beliefs and tradition.

One of our Unitarian Universalist theologians, James Luther Adams, once said, “If you want to know someone’s theology you need only watch what they do.” As Unitarian Universalists our faith calls us to higher ground, something greater, than being a malcontent. Let’s be honest, we can’t remove all malcontent from our lives. There is such a thing as being human. If we live this season of malcontents, as our shadow selves, we reject our tradition and show those who are watching what our faith isn’t about. We betray our commitment to healing the world. This first principle gets a lot of heat because it is the principle that is the most misunderstood. We respect the inherent worth and dignity of each person but not the behavior of each person.

Everyone has worth -- it may not be evident on the surface. There are extreme cases such as Hitler, for example, that stand outside of that belief. Many Unitarian Universalists feel that one presidential candidate, Donald Trump, is moving his way outside of the circle.  

I ask you, as a Unitarian Universalist, does Trump have worth? Does he have worth simply by being born into humanity? A complicated question if you think about it. You see, Unitarian Universalists believe that the person does have worth, but it is behavior that is deplorable. Unitarian Universalists don’t deny that people are capable of reprehensible behavior, even evil. And, certainly Hitler and others have demonstrated the limits of depraved thought and behavior we may be humanly capable of. Our discernment on this issue, as Unitarian Universalists, is around the person, not the behavior. We can affirm people’s inherent worth while condemning the choices, behavior, and actions of the individual.

Growing up my children would say, “I hate him.”  I taught them to say they hated the behavior and not the person. That's the difficult part. Most of us reject the ideals, the values, the rhetoric, the theology of that individual.

I don’t want to see him dead. I don’t want his wife, who didn’t choose to be thrust into the limelight, to be crucified, and I don’t want the only messages we receive and embrace to be hateful. If we live like that we are not Unitarian Universalists. We become part of the problem instead of the healing. Hate in your heart this season will exhaust your intellect and empty your spirit.

We don’t believe that all behavior is appropriate, dignified, or worthwhile. We do believe that every soul is worthy, capable of redemption, and possessing inherent dignity.  We believe that every person has worth, even when their behavior is unacceptable. We believe that it matters that you and I and others were born. Our challenge is honoring people’s dignity and worth while also demanding that they honor the worth and dignity of others. Our work is creating right relationships with one another where we are explicit about what behavior is appropriate and encouraged, and clear about what actions will result in censure from each other because it is disruptive, inappropriate, or disrespectful. My inherent worth and dignity is not more or less important than yours.

All the world’s religions agree as to what it means to be a good person. It means having integrity, to be honest, and above all to be compassionate towards other people. None of us are always good at all three all of the time and politicians are no different, but the candidate I want to focus on is Donald Trump who isn’t good at any of them, apparently ever. If you are like me, you are grateful to the Rio Olympics for breaking up the constant stories about Trump’s latest outrageous statement on your Facebook newsfeed. I can’t wait for this election to be over. I have no illusions that it will end hearing about or from him, but I do hope the world can return to having a life again. Cute videos of kittens will be a welcomed relief. But I do have concerns about what kind of life it will be.

I equate this election with 9/11. The world did not react well to those planes flying into the World Trade Center. From Osama Bin Laden’s sick perspective it was a complete success, not because of the horror of that day, but because of our reaction to it. Bush’s choice to respond by declaring a War on Terror instead of treating the act as the crime against humanity it was has led to two never-ending wars, more terrorism, ISIS, the death of countless innocents, a refugee crisis in Europe, a world willing to give up freedom for a false sense of security, distrust between ethnic groups, hatred of those who don’t worship the same as we do, and the rise of Donald Trump and the politics of hate.

Philosophers talk about a “moral atmosphere.” It is like the air we breathe, only it is the values and attitudes we breathe in that shape our behaviors and relationships. It is no less important to life than oxygen. It is strongly shaped by those we accept as leaders. A recent high profile example is the ousting of Roger Ailes at Fox News for sexual harassment. Apparently he was not only guilty of personal sexual misconduct, he created an atmosphere that made that behavior acceptable and prevalent for over twenty years within the organization. It works in a positive way as well. When the leader demonstrates integrity, honesty and compassion, the behaviors of those in the organization begin to reflect those values.

Donald Trump is polluting the moral atmosphere, not just in the U.S. It is a global climate change. The Boston Globe pointed out this week that there is a hardening of attitudes in America as reflected in our normalizing child poverty. Is this any different than Trump normalizing all Mexicans as criminals and rapists or all Muslims as terrorists? There was a time in our history when we would have been universally outraged that one third of our children live in poverty. In fact, in the moral atmosphere created by former leaders, it never happened. Donald Trump’s hateful, bullying, name-calling, violent rhetoric is not unique to him, but he has taken it to new levels to leverage our worst prejudices, fears and hatreds for political gain. It is language that shreds, not tears, the social fabric. A tear can be mended, shredding can’t be. The damage he is doing will not be undone by his much hoped for defeat.

Most of us likely grew up in a moral atmosphere that warned us to be careful of our speech: Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary? Would you like it said of you? We probably didn’t know that our parents were paraphrasing people like the Hindu saint Sai Baba, who taught that we should ask ourselves four things before we speak: “Is it kind? Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it improve upon the silence? If the Donald remained silent for the rest of the campaign, his poll numbers would probably improve, but it is not going to happen as long as he has a Twitter account. So he is 0 for 4.

Meanness has become pervasive in our western culture. Being mean has become a form of entertainment to be laughed at. You only have to read the comments section on the internet following a story or opinion piece. Donald Trump is making that meanness legitimate. One teacher recently said, “We’ve seen Donald Trump act like a 12-year old and now 12-year olds are acting like Donald Trump telling their Muslim and Hispanic classmates that Trump will deport them.

But the most disturbing thing about Donald Trump is that he has become my spiritual guru. He is forcing me to examine my own values. Do I really believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Do I permit myself to footnote the exceptions?

John Donne is known best for being the renaissance poet who warned, “do not ask for whom the bell tolls,” but his day job was being a preacher. He once explained, “I preach to myself and allow others to listen.” I have often told people that of course I don’t practice what I preach, that’s why I’m preaching it. It is my way of holding myself to the standards and values I say I believe in. So today’s sermon is in that mode, and I invite you to listen to my confession if it seems relevant to you.

Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, once said, “When no one is acting like a human being, you must act like a human being.” In the increasingly polluted moral atmosphere in which we live and move and have our being, I feel less and less sure about how to do that. Donald Trump as my spiritual teacher pushes all my buttons to figure out how to act as Hillel demands. I may have no control over what Donald Trump does and says — I’m not sure even he does —but I can control what I do. Doing so cannot be put off. It is about our survival, no less so than is global climate change.

Educator and author Parker Palmer calls us to cultivate an understanding of the value of otherness. We grow the most in our lives, not by preaching to the choir but stepping outside of our tribes and realizing that “us and them” does not mean “us versus them.” Palmer says that this requires us to cultivate a supple heart. A supple heart is one that can bend, receive and give without brittleness. When we refuse to listen, when we demand that others change their way of thinking to our own, then that is a brittle heart.

We’re experiencing a political season unlike anything we’ve experienced in recent memory, and more seems to be at stake than ever before. I leave you with this: What can we, as people of faith, learn from this moment? What practices can guide us? What new insights can help us build the world we dream of, as we live in right relationship with our fellow human beings, and the planet itself?

May it be so.

Season of Malcontents, a sermon delivered by the Rev CJ McGregor at 1stUUPB, Aug 28, 2016.