October 2016: Heart Problems - Rev. Sarah Richards, Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship

What does it mean to be a community of healing during a political election season that seems to find new depths of divisiveness, disrespect, fear and loathing every day? How can we live into our principles of inclusive love and interdependence in a time of distrust and enmity? Speaking for myself, I am sorely tempted by escapist fantasies (O, Canada!) and avoidance behavior. But looking away to avoid the ugly political discourse is one thing, giving up on the whole political system and the realities of injustice and inequity obscured by the ugly discourse is quite another. Giving up does not result in healing, giving away our voice as people of love, reason, and respect is not healing, and it’s not right. We Unitarian Universalists are not alone in our despair and anger and we are not alone in taking action. This morning we will explore how a community of healing means joining with other communities who share our vision of inclusion, compassion, and liberation for all people.

Before we go further, though, I want to address a fear that I’ve heard expressed here in the fellowship that we cannot be political or express political views. That is a misconception. We should not advocate for particular candidates, because that would risk our tax exempt status. We must not be partisan for a deeper reason: we are welcoming to people with a range of political views, just as with theological perspectives and differences in income, race, sexuality, gender, we strive for inclusivity…but what unites all of this wonderful diversity is our shared values and principles. Our fifth principle in Unitarian Universalism is to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large… and in society at large. UU minister Parisa Parsa explains:

“In our religious lives, the democratic process requires trust in the development of each individual conscience—a belief that such development is possible for each of us, as well as a commitment to cultivate our own conscience. We could call it a commitment to the value of each person. In the words of Theodore Parker, ‘Democracy means not “I am as good as you are,” but “You are as good as I am.”’ My connection with the sacred is only as precious as my willingness to acknowledge the same connection in others.[i]

So which comes first, the moral or the political – or is this a false separation to begin with? Reverend Dr. William Barber II writes,

“As much as the human being is a political animal, I know that each of us is also a spiritual being. We have learned in our work… that, whatever our religious traditions, we cannot come together to work for the common good by ignoring our deepest values. Rather, we grow stronger in our work together as we embrace those things we most deeply believe, standing together where our values unite us and learning to respect one another where our traditions differ. We cannot let narrow religious forces highjack our moral vocabulary, forces who speak loudly about things God says little about while saying so little about issues that are at the heart of all our religious traditions: truth, justice, love, and mercy. The movement we have witnessed—the movement we most need—is a moral movement.[ii]

That quote is from his book, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. And that’s what I mean by saying we’ve got to be unafraid to express our political views as Unitarian Universalists – ours is not the politics of division and fear, but of inclusion, diversity, and love, and if we don’t speak up, if we don’t take action to express our values and principles, what good are we?

I first heard Rev. Dr. William Barber II speak at the UU General Assembly in Columbus Ohio last June. Rev. Barber is the North Carolina NAACP director, and the architect for the Moral Monday Movement for voting rights there. Maybe you saw him on tv, speak at the Democratic National Convention in July issuing a call to “revive the heart of our democracy” and push elected leaders to advance morally just policies.

To form the Moral Movement, he has joined with other faith leaders, including Sr. Simone Campbell, of Nuns on the Bus fame, national social justice organizations (The UU Social Justice movement, “Standing on the Side of Love” is one of them) now collaborating and connecting with local organizations and organizers in 30 states and DC to first make the Moral Declaration to elected officials and candidates—I made a few copies of the declaration and put them on tables in the commons–and then to launch a Moral Revival tour that quote “centers five key issues areas: the economic liberation of all people; access to quality education for every child; healthcare access for all; criminal justice reform; and ensuring historically marginalized communities have equal protection under the law.

Last month, Rev. Bill Sasso and I participated in the Moral Declaration Day of Action in Springfield, and Jess Jobe and I attended the Moral Revival tour stop in Ferguson, Missouri. At both events, we heard testimonies from people directly impacted by policies that are opposed to our UU principles.

Testimony from Springfield Moral Declaration Day of Action, September 12:

I am Gladys Sanchez. To my proud African American 7 year old son, i am a strong Filipino woman who served as both his mother and father. To many rich middle aged white guys with fortune 500 companies: I am an undocumented, low income single mother that should accept cheap labor or be deported back to the country I haven’t seen since 7 years old.
To my colleagues, my sister and brother and my church friends. I am a graduate student working towards a Masters degree in public administration, balancing 3 jobs, and serving as a Director of Religious Education for my home church. The democracy that I envision should simply identify me as a heart beating human being.
How is it that with a college degree, I still have to juggle three jobs? Is it a democracy to put me in a category in which I run the risk of going back to my home country where I know no one?
Is it fair, equal, or just to have single minority women like myself make 79 cents for every dollar earned by men when I am the head of the household?
My dear friends in order for us to work towards a democratic society. We must reframe, reform, and recreate our definition of a fair, Just, democratic society.[iii]

Ms. Sanchez is the DRE at the UU Fellowship of Dekalb, IL

Hearing testimonies from folks like Ms. Sanchez, folks in our communities, in our congregations, in our families help us to remember we are part of the interdependent web, and that what touches one touches all. Including these testimonies is a hallmark of all of the Moral Movement events. They say “Our goal is to support state-based fusion movements to combat extremism in state and national politics, and to be a catalyst for a resurgence of political activism in order to end poverty, racial inequalities, and the most pressing issues in our country. Too much of our national political discourse has been poisoned by the dominance of attacks on the poor, people who are ill, children, immigrants, communities of color, and religious minorities.[iv]

The term “fusion” as in fusion movement and fusion politics is new to me, but it really makes sense to me as a UU, fusion with diversity – working to advance different issues and including people across difference, recognition and valuation of interdependence are all linked in our principles and thus our attitudes and actions. This is beautifully described by UU minister Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of Shalom Community Center, Bloomington, IN:

“Our seventh Principle, respect for the interdependent web of all existence, is a glorious statement. Yet we make a profound mistake when we limit it to merely an environmental idea. It is so much more. It is our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. It is our solution to the seeming conflict between the individual and the group.

Our seventh Principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.[v]

At the Revival that Jess and I attended in Ferguson, Missouri, we heard a powerful sermon by Rev. Dr. Barber, and I remember at the end, he repeated “we have a heart problem in this country” and gave examples like those from our litany: “we have a heart problem in this country” when 45 million are poor in the richest country in history, we have a heart problem in this country when 1 in 3 black men will spend time in prison, when people are denied access to health insurance and are forced into poverty from medical bills, and on and on. I might add that this state has a heart problem when our top elected officials can’t put aside their own egos and lust for power for the needs—and rights–of their constituents. People, we DO have a heart problem, when so many people are suffering, but their suffering is not what spurs our elected leaders to act. We UUs have a heart – and a head problem–when we do not work to change that injustice, when we do not call on ourselves and our elected leaders to act in accord with principles of interdependence—based in recognition of humanity rather than divisiveness based in fear of the other.

We have a legacy of healing those heart problems. Unitarians Rev. Waitstill and Martha Sharp dedicated – and risked — their lives to that interdependent web/source of meaning in 1939. Those of us who watched the recent documentary on PBS, Defying the Nazis learned that at a time when few Americans – including Unitarians – were willing or able to see and act on the truth of our connection with “the other,” the Sharps left their young children for Czechoslovakia just before the Nazi occupation, to help Jewish refugees escape. They were named Righteous Among the Nations by the nation of Israel for all of the lives they saved. But they wouldn’t have achieved anything acting apart from individuals and organizations of diverse nationality, religious and political affiliation.

More commonly known is the participation of Unitarians in the Civil Rights movement, among them martyrs Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—and some of our own members played roles in the movement. Obviously that movement’s great majority of leaders and participants were African American Christians, but it united people and groups across race, income, education, faith and age difference on a variety of civil rights issues. It was an example of a fusion movement, to be sure.

We are again at a moment, what Rev. Dr. Barber calls, The Third Reconstruction, where we UUs are called to raise our voices and dedicate ourselves to our principles, to that source of meaning that is the interdependent web of all existence. And we are answering the call, here and across the country. This morning we witnessed how our CUF youth have made that connection with “the other” spending a night outside in cardboard city, learning about the realities of homelessness in Carbondale, and then raising their voices to raise our consciousness–and money–for this moral cause.

Just this week, the UUA Congregational Advocacy and Witness Director, Susan Leslie, sent an email:

“We are hearing from UUs around the country who are raising a moral message during this electoral season, working for voting rights, registering people to vote, phone banking, and making plans to get out the vote. UUs in Arizona and from the Southwest are travelling to Phoenix to stand for immigrant rights and engage in door-knocking with unlikely voters, All Souls Unitarian Church James Reeb Voting Rights Project in DC travelled to Pennsylvania and are phone banking to North Carolina, UUSJ is registering formerly incarcerated people in Virginia, and North Carolina UUs are working with the NAACP Souls to the Polls Project. All over the country UUs are participating in the Moral Revivals and Revive Love tours to speak out and organize for justice. Congregations across the country are working with the PICO National Network Together We Vote and the WeSayEnough! campaigns.

She ended her message, “It’s all out now to work towards the fulfillment of the promise of our democracy.[vi]

Friends, one of the meanings of being a community of healing is to listen underneath the bombast and salacious political discourse for the stories of suffering. It is to look for the wounds inflicted by political policies that do not recognize the worth and dignity of the poor, of racial minorities, of immigrants, of marginalized people of any kind, and seeing those wounds, give help. And it is working to change those policies that continue to wound the most vulnerable among us.

And so: May we lift up our Unitarian Universalist principles and join with those – and there are so many—who believe in the right of conscience and use of democratic process for all. May we be a community of healing the heart and head problems that come from creating divisions within our own congregation, and in our wider community. May we work towards a democracy that sees each and all as heart-beating human beings. Amen.

[i] Rev. Parisa Parsa, executive director of the Public Conversations Project https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles/5th accessed 10/13/16.

[ii] Barber, William J. II, 2016. The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. With Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Boston: Beacon Press, xv.

[iii] Gladys Sanchez, Testimony given 9/12/16 at Moral Declaration Day of Action Rally, Springfield, IL. Provided via email by author 10/13/16.

[iv]https://static1.squarespace.com/static/571fc22260b5e9fe973121d2/t/57d614e86a49635bed56888d/1473647849038/PressKit_9.11.16.pdf accessed 10/10/16.

[v] Rev. Forrest Gilmore, Executive Director of Shalom Community Center, Bloomington, IN https://www.uua.org/beliefs/what-we-believe/principles/7th accessed 10/13/16.

[vi] http://org.salsalabs.com/o/1272/t/0/blastContent.jsp?email_blast_KEY=1353085 received 10/13/16.