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“Bearing Witness”

It doesn’t happen that often, but there we were, a thousand or more strong, gathered on the heels of the Supreme Court decision that overturned the long held basic rights of women to reproductive freedom, to reproductive justice, to agency over their own bodies. And we could not sit still for that. We marched in Portland, Oregon, letting our voices be heard, bearing witness to this egregious attack on human rights. It doesn’t happen so frequently that one of the selected Actions of Immediate Witness garners such an immediate response in our midst!

Photo credit - UU's March in Portland - Jessica Clay

“We Do Not Consent: Rejecting Legal Challenges to Abortion” was one of three Actions of Immediate Witness voted favorably upon by the delegates at the Unitarian Universalist Associations General Assembly this past June. Penned primarily by two UU women ministers and endorsed by the UU Women’s Federation. UU Class Conversation, Black Lives UU and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, it was put forth prior to this decision as a part of the AIW process that our Association undertakes each year.

So – “What exactly is an Action of Immediate Witness?” you may be asking! Whether you are or not, I am here today in part to tell you! The process has evolved over the years, but basically this is what happens. The Commission on Social Witness, a committee of the Association per their by-laws, presents this opportunity for UU’s to collaborate and plan action across the nation, across diverse groups who might not otherwise work together. AIW concepts are first envisioned by individuals or small groups and presented to the Commission in early spring after which the Commission connects like ideas and likeminded folks so they can collaborate on a draft statement and action plan. An AIW needs to pertain to an action that requires immediate action (hence the name!), to call on UUA member congregations and groups to take specific meaningful action, present opportunities for them to build partnerships or act in solidarity with marginalized groups within and beyond the Association, be grounded in UU theology and practice and be written using anti-oppressive and inclusive language conducive to justice. They can’t duplicate a recent AIW or be focused primarily on issues within the UUA. Drafts are submitted by mid-May and receive feedback by the end of the month. Early June is a time of centering, growing connections and incorporating that feedback. The final revision is due mid-June. All the AIW’s are posted for delegates to GA to review and ultimately to vote upon. And there are chances for discussion online and in person along the way among interested congregations and members. A total of three are adopted each year.

This year there were seven put forth to look at – Anti-Racism and Reparations via Restorative Justice, Breaching the Snake River Dams, one on Addressing the Climate Impacts of Military Emissions, and one on justice in education, there was universal as opposed to selective respect for human rights and international law, the stopping the Privatization of Medicare, Labor Union Support and Rejecting Legal Challenges to Abortion. As you can see, these subjects span the spectrum of justice concerns! As your delegate, I voted for Anti-Racism and Reparations considering our study last year of Widening the Circle and our intentions following that. I voted on the climate issue because I know that climate change is near and dear to your hearts here in Chatham. And I voted in favor of reproductive justice because I could not do otherwise. Two of the three I selected passed the final vote, with Medicare taking the lead over the climate one, perhaps because of its specificity rather than a broader reaching climate focus.

Passing these is only the beginning! Each one contains actual action steps suggested for congregations. It is an opportunity for individual congregations to work together in concert with others to make a difference in our world. And even if we do just one or two of the things listed, it is good to know that we are part of something larger that has the potential to tip the scales.

I read recently about a mock conversation with the American writer and professor Joseph Campbell whose work focused on mythology and story as it relates to human interaction. He believed that all the world’s myths arose from one great story, having observed a common pattern existing beneath all our various tales. In the fictional conversation I read between a seeker and Campbell, he came to the conclusion that we, humanity as a whole, are lacking in the present, a common myth to pull us together even in times of disagreement. The claim is that throughout the ages this common myth has always been present, but that it has drifted away as humanity has become more individually focused. If we think back over our lifetimes, I bet we can identify an underlying story that we have told ourselves which has served to connect us rather than to tear us apart as peoples who inhabit this earth home. Our current polarization fights against our hope of a common story and the work toward such a binding myth is harder than ever it seems.

When I first came to Unitarian Universalism I was so impressed with its penchant for diversity of thought and opinion and its efforts in the arena of justice making, building right relationship in our world. It is one of the things that drew me to this faith tradition and will always be a focus of my life and ministry. I was drawn to the fact that this tradition made a place and a way for people from the ground up to express what was most important to them, to cast a wider circle that brought our values – these Principles and Purposes we hold close – brought these into the mainstream of our living alongside others who were part of our movement and those who shared similar values with whom we could become allies and supporters. And while our democratic process is fraught with the same inequities that our world is, we at least had a method to aspire to and were trying desperately at times to bring to fruition. The Actions of Immediate Witness are a piece of this larger whole. And they ask us to join with others in the creation of a more just existence for all – ask us to look to our values and what undergirds them – a common myth perhaps that we share with some portion of the rest of humanity, always expanding, evolving, and becoming.

In response to the AIW’s we have already taken some of the suggested actions! We have heard more than once from this pulpit about reproductive justice. A few of us attempted to learn about a congregational assessment of readiness for immediate actions when called upon by circumstances. While the process is an interesting one, we decided that our own decision making about our future needs to come first, this Cusp of the Future that we heard Dave speak about this morning, but I can see a place for such an assessment as a part of our future planning. If we come to see justice work as vital to our existence, a deeper understanding of our capacity would be an important next step. What are we willing a ready to do? What level of risk are we willing to engage in? To know these things up front helps us to respond in a timely manner. Later in this church year, the Social Justice Committee will offer an opportunity to financially support through our monthly Community Outreach a Massachusetts based organization that provides services to women seeking reproductive health services from states that no longer allow such basic human rights, as well as local women.

When we finished our study of the Commission on Institutional Change’s report “Widening the Circle of Concern” we talked about partnerships and reparations, and I hope we can return to these ideas for a further fleshing out of ways to move forward. I spoke recently about reparations as supporting organizations and businesses run by people of color here on the Cape – not so much a digging into our history and finding a family who was harmed, making restitution to their progeny, but being an ally with local people of color who have traditionally been marginalized, providing support so that they can move forward in ways they determine are best.

In September our Community Outreach will provide for the Refugee Support Team of the Nauset Interfaith Association in their efforts to support a local asylum-seeking family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, familiar to some of us who recall their story being told from this pulpit a few years back. Their asylum application is still pending. They are recent residents here in Chatham due to sudden changes in their rental situation this summer and while they are working three jobs between them, the increased expenses are formidable. The RST has determined to assist each month with donations from local churches and individuals and we will do our part to make a way in this world of inequity for them. I commend the continued care of this beautiful family to you and ask for your generosity when the time comes.

We are looking at partnering with UU the Vote and their sister organizations in helping to get out the vote this fall in places where recent changes in election laws make it harder for people of color and other marginalized folks to be heard. Opportunities to do some letter or postcard writing are forthcoming! I hope you will take the time to participate.

In all these ways we are responding alongside other Unitarian Universalists and like-valued organizations in real time justice making in our midst. Maybe we think that we are small and aging and what can we do to make a difference! But as you can see, there is a lot that we can do. There are right-sized actions available for congregations like ours. It feels good to take part, to be a part of an ongoing effort to bring our values to bear on the injustices we see around us. Tania Marquez, in our opening words today said that now is the time to witness, mend, change and restore. Whether we stand with those who are suffering the most, or advocate for change through our local, state, and national legislatures, or provide forums for education around important topics, or fundraise for those in need we are participating in life changing work for people beyond our walls and for ourselves. This is the treasure that Amy Brooks was talking about, marching until the barriers are lifted, the work of far-reaching liberation. Justice work is transformative in so many ways!

I have shared twice this summer on how we can be meaningfully involved with our larger Association, based on my own participation through the annual General Assembly. In part I did so to report back given that you sent me. But in part I hope that I have sparked some interest in being connected to a much larger movement aligned by common values and goals – building a Beloved Community in which all of humanity can thrive – the rebuilding of a common myth worthy of our efforts. May we be open and ready, purposed, and confident in our contributions. May we know ourselves as a people of faithful action in a world so in need of healing and love.

May it be so and blessed be.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, August 28, 2022



​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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