Fifteen years ago, I opened up my newspaper to read that the great civil rights hero Rosa Parks had died. “Until December 1955,” went the tribute in that newspaper, “a soft-spoken department store seamstress could not have imagined being placed at the forefront of any movement. Rosa Parks, who died Monday at age 92, was destined to become known as the mother of the civil rights movement after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her simple but very brave act would lead to a 13-month boycott of the bus company, a Supreme Court decision barring segregation of the public transit system and the identification of a new national leader: Martin Luther King, Jr. She was the spark that ignited a nonviolent revolution that quickly began burning through the thickets of segregation and Jim Crow laws that had been in existence almost 100 years.” That’s what the tribute said.
Now, I am grateful for the life of the mother of the civil rights movement. I bow to her living memory, and I know you join me in that.
But here’s the thing: I was troubled by the way that newspaper told Rosa Parks’ story. The title given to the tribute was “One Person,” and throughout the article that individualistic, “one person” mentality was a constant drumbeat. One person taking on the whole world. One person acting alone, seemingly coming from out of nowhere. No mention of those who came before and loved her into her courage. No mention of activist ancestors like Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass or Ida B. Wells or Fannie Lou Hamer whose words and deeds were a fierce love. No mention of her family who taught her that she was beloved despite the fact that society said otherwise. No mention of the activist network that supported her in her labors, which trained her and activists like her in what to do and what to say in all sorts of situations. Nothing at all hinted in the newspaper story about the church services or prayer meetings or hymn sings she went to, that encouraged and inspired and loved. Nothing at all suggested about the committee meetings and the coalition building and the strategizing and the small gains and the setbacks. Not once: acknowledgment of all the anxiety and uncertainty and the mistakes which required loving forgiveness because if we can’t cut each other some slack and love each other in the midst of our mistakes then we are dead in the water.
I wasn’t asking the newspaper for a complete Rosa Parks biography! But it was simply destructive for the article not to mention anything about those who came before and those who were walking with her and loving her into her activism. This “one person” mentality is destructive. It makes it sound like love and justice activism requires someone who is morally superhuman, and that pretty much disqualifies everyone. We find ourselves defeated before we even begin.
Only perfect people need apply.
That’s why Harvard philosopher and social activist Cornel West, in his amazing Ware Lecture, given before a whole host of Unitarian Universalists at the 2015 General Assembly, says “unequivocally” that “I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me…. Any serious talk about struggle for freedom and struggle for justice has to radically call into question any conception of ourselves being self-made.”
“We didn’t give birth to ourselves,” he says. “Somebody had to inject some love inside of us.” True of himself, true of John Lewis, true of all of us.
Just the other day we heard Michelle Obama say something similar, in her amazing speech at the Democratic National Convention. “That’s the story of America,” she said. “All those folks who sacrificed and overcame so much in their own times because they wanted something more, something better for their kids.” We need to honor their struggle. Cornel West calls this “piety.” It’s their work we’re joining, as we keep on “chipping away at injustice.”
“We didn’t give birth to ourselves.” It’s so important to hear these words as a needed corrective to the way the activism story is usually told and how it can intimidate us out of doing anything, or we do things and burn out because we think we’re being asked to do it all, go it alone, be superhuman.
Impossible and unnecessary.
Rosa Parks became the mother of the civil rights movement because she walked hand in hand with a whole host of ancestors and family and fellow workers, and she joined her brilliance to theirs. Somebody loved her.
So, we’ve got to rewrite the activism story and recognize the love that has brought you and me to the present moment in the work for justice that we do.
And we’ve got to learn to love each other better, so that the work can be magnified and move in the direction of the boldest dreams of our ancestors, joined with our own.
So let me ask: who has loved you into this present moment?
For one person I know, it’s their mother. They grew up hearing their father say hateful things about people of color, but then they saw their mother push back and this went a long way in leading them, today, to fighting racism.
Another person I know grew up in a single parent household, and that parent read them stories about caring for the earth. As often as possible, they would go together into untamed natural places. That’s why, today, they honor the planet and they recycle and they do what they can to combat climate change.
That right there is the ideal story of America, just as Michelle Obama says.
Parenting and grandparenting and step-parenting and being an aunt or an uncle and any and all other ways of influence and education happening in one’s family are powerful forms of relational activism.
You teach a growing person to love what is right, and they will live in that light.
And as I say this, I just want to come clean—I feel sadness. I feel loss. Justice issues were not talked about in my family. There was a big silence around all of that.
One memory stands clear. It’s the mid-1970’s, and I’m living with my mom and dad and two brothers in northern Alberta, way up there, just 300 miles south of the Northwest Territories—a region that, like the rest of Canada, had been stolen from First Nations tribes. Where I lived, the Cree Nation had originally been plentiful, but contact and conflict with white people over land rights and religious identity had decimated them.
When Cree people speak about themselves in their own language, they call themselves “true people.” But I saw something troubling when, one day, with my family, I was entering the McNamara Café, our favorite restaurant in downtown Peace River. I saw a “true person” near the entranceway, sprawled on the ground. I saw his long hair, tangled and dirty, half-covering his snoring face. I saw his clothes, stained and disheveled. I smelled a pungent sour smell on him. What was this? I had never seen this sort of thing before. I asked my parents, What happened? Is he OK? They clucked their tongues, said he was drunk, and hurried me into the restaurant.
Out of sight, out of mind.
It could have led to a Truth and Reconciliation moment where I was led into the insight that a “true man” and his Nation had been hurt by the same historical laws and social arrangements that benefited me.
It could have led to a Transformation moment where I learned that people who suffer in your community may be out of sight but can never be out of mind, not just because their pain is unacceptable to any good human being, but also because any society that creates such intense pain in some of its members can be counted on to twist up and distort the humanity of all of its members.
Greed harms everyone.
The need for Truth and Reconciliation—the need for Transformation—the need to become fully human by being a love and justice activist—would not emerge for me from family. It just wouldn’t. And a big part of the reason why is that a lot of our energy went into coping with my mother’s mental illness. It took a lot of energy to manage that and to keep it a secret from the world. It really did.
But there’s another reason why my curiosity about and concern for the man from the Cree tribe was met with silence–why I was left to fend for myself. I’m convinced of this. It’s the child-rearing philosophy that basically says, Let children be children. Don’t trouble children with issues of social justice. Let childhood be comfortable, free, and easy, as far as possible.
This, of course, is a child-rearing philosophy that is impossible for indigenous families and families of color, because these children face social violence from the start and they don’t have the privilege of living in a bubble. The privilege of living in a bubble—well, that’s for middle-class white families. White children of white middle class families living in the bubble… And I am saying that if and when middle-class white parents enable that bubble—when they respond with silence or distraction to honest questions from their middle-class white children who are trying to understand and respond, that is not love. That is not love. I speak as one who got an education in ignorance. But when you are ignorant, how can you join with others of the human family who are already fully acquainted with suffering? For years, my ignorance was an impediment. For years, I did not believe what indigenous people and people of color said about their experience. My ignorance only added to their pain. I was way behind and they were way ahead.
How are we going to do this justice work together if some of us are way behind and others are way ahead in their knowledge? We’ve got to work hand-in-hand, side-by-side, resolute, together.
If you love me, help me understand the truth as far as possible, no matter how old I am. Answer my questions honestly. Don’t keep me ignorant. Don’t think you are protecting me.
But I am here today to say, even so, somebody loved me.
Somebody loved me.
He took the form of a friend I met at seminary. He was practically the first out gay man I’d ever met, and I was 30 years old. I had grown up sheltered, in conservative communities. That changed, I met him, I have learned so much, and we have loved each other like brothers for years. I am fierce for GLBTQ justice not just because it’s right, but because I know his life and I know his dreams and if God hates him then God hates me.
Somebody loved me, into the activism I do.
Do you have somebody like this, if not a family member, but a friend or a teacher who has, as Cornel West says, “injected love inside of you”?
Sometimes it may even be someone you’ve never met before in your life.
Writer Brian Resnick explores this in an article entitled, “How to Talk Someone Out of Bigotry.” Intriguing title, right? “What does it take,” asks Resnick, “to divert someone away from prejudice and toward greater acceptance of others in order to build support for progressive causes? ‘Deep canvassing,’ a relatively new technique, is showing promise — and is backed by rigorous testing from researchers and activists in the field.
Resnick continues: “One such activist is David Topping, who decided, along with other LGBTQ activists and allies, to try deep canvassing in Massachusetts in 2018, when transgender rights were on the ballot.
“Massachusetts voters could choose to keep or throw out a law that banned discrimination based on gender identity. Topping, who’s nonbinary, and others, went door to door. If they met a voter who wanted to get rid of the law, they wouldn’t call them out for prejudice. Instead, they did something more radical: They listened, nonjudgmentally, and began a conversation.
The article goes on: “It’s not easy to confront people whose votes would seek to hurt you, and then try to change their minds. [Topping says,] ‘I came out two years ago now, and one of the hardest things for me has been talking with folks who don’t understand [gender identity], and not immediately writing someone off because they don’t immediately get it.’.
“Topping calls this ‘giving them grace.’ It’s a powerful idea: ‘Giving grace … means being able to hear someone say something that can be hurtful, and trying to think about how to have a real conversation and connect with them.’”
The article’s author adds this: “The new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them fill-in-the-blank-phobic. Which makes it feel like a big departure from a lot of the current political dialogue.”
That’s the article from Brian Resnick, about “deep canvassing,” which gives grace and truly changes minds and helps strangers find ways to connect.
What do you think about that?
I mention it because these days we are struggling with the biggest challenge there is to activism that is relational: pushing back against what’s wrong without pushing people away. To actively resist injustice–because to stay neutral means you side with the injustice–but to do so in a way that stays lovingly connected with the people you vehemently disagree with.
We’re all living this big challenge these days.
I know I am. I am struggling so deeply with it. I remember a trip to Canada in the days before the pandemic and while there I bought Justin Trudeau socks. I did. I will wear his socks. He is a world leader I respect.
But when I thought about his counterpart in the United States: ugh. I was sad unto despair. I will never buy Donald J. Trump socks. I would never wear them.
But I and we have to find a way to live in the same country as him and the people who voted for him and will vote for him again. Some of those people might be us. Definitely there are family members and friends of ours who did and who will.
Michelle Obama touched on this too, in her speech this past week. “Over the past four years,” she says, “a lot of people have asked me, ‘When others are going so low, does going high still really work?’ My answer: going high is the only thing that works, because when we go low, when we use those same tactics of degrading and dehumanizing others, we just become part of the ugly noise that’s drowning out everything else. We degrade ourselves. We degrade the very causes for which we fight.
And then Michelle says this: “But let’s be clear: going high does not mean putting on a smile and saying nice things when confronted by viciousness and cruelty. Going high means taking the harder path. It means scraping and clawing our way to that mountain top. Going high means standing fierce against hatred while remembering that we are one nation under God, and if we want to survive, we’ve got to find a way to live together and work together across our differences.”
That’s it! That’s it.
Moving forward, I want to pledge myself more deeply to the humanistic essence of our Unitarian Universalist faith that affirms, with the ancient Roman playwright Terence, that “I am a human being; nothing human can be alien to me.”
Will you join me in that?
It means that when we encounter a point of view that says, “build a wall,” we will resist, but we will do that in a spirit that affirms that the “build a wall” perspective is not alien to me. There are no supernatural demons we are dealing with. Only natural human beings, and everyone has a story. So we will ask, What were the life experiences that make “building a wall” reasonable for the person in question? What are the issues that deeply concern them? What’s their story?
Giving grace disrupts the forces of demonization in our world with love.
Giving grace silences the ugly noise drowning out everything else.
Giving grace is the harder path, but it’s the only one that builds bridges, not walls.
But now as we come close to the end, think with me again of the mother of the civil rights movement: Rosa Parks: who was brilliant and bold because somebody loved her. Not just her family and friends—but her church community and her community of activists. All the worship services and prayer meetings and hymn sings she went to, that encouraged and inspired and loved. All the committee meetings and the coalition building and the strategizing and the trainings. All the anxiety and uncertainty and the mistakes which are also part and parcel of communal life together, requiring loving forgiveness because if we can’t love each other in the midst of our mistakes and cut each other some slack then we are dead in the water.
The somebody who loved Rosa Parks was also community.
So, this is the last thing I want to say: There by the grace of this community, we go. This West Shore community, and the larger community of Unitarian Universalism.
I will never forget Justice General Assembly in Phoenix in 2012, which my colleague the Rev. Taryn Strauss describes so well: “We rode in school buses, and General Assembly organizers had appointed ambassadors for each bus, who would answer questions and lead us in song. Riding into the night, we lifted our voices in song, singing about letting our little lights shine, and that we would take one more step. Our UUA President gave a rallying cry, as did the president of the United Church of Christ, who was also represented. They spoke about how our faith called us to name the abuses going on in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tent city, and to rise up and advocate for refugee’s human rights, and to protest with our bodies, our voices, and our power to stop the violent injustices.”
She goes on: “At one point, as the lights in tent city flickered on and off, the people in captivity were telling us they could hear us, and they knew we were there. They were not alone anymore.”
This is what it feels like to be Unitarian Universalist.
Unitarian Universalism loving us into activism.
You and I: here’s exactly what we are like in this world, in this year of 2020, when the problems are so numerous and so difficult: we are like skydivers about to jump off the plane. We’ve got to lovingly lock arms, as we work up the courage to jump, for justice. For, as Leslie Ahuva Fails asks,
What have we got to lose?
A poverty of the spirit?
The lie that we are alone?
What wonders await us in the space
between the first leap
and the moment our feet, our wheels
however we move our bodies
across this precious earth
touch down softly on unknown soil?
What have we got to lose
that we can’t replace with some
previously unimaginable joy?
Blessed are you, Spirit of Life
who has sustained us, enlivened us
and enabled us to reach this moment.
Give us courage in our leaping,
and gratitude in our landing.
And share with us in the joy of a long
and fruitful ministry together.
So may it be, AMEN.