“Our Place on the Journey”
Reality check!!! Take a look at the screens or flip your Order of Service over. Take a minute to absorb the graphic presented there. Maybe some of you have seen this image or one like it before. Anyone? It is a progression – a journey I would say as we view the scenes and read the captions from left to right as is the custom in our culture, following a path that to my mind takes us from right to left.
Fascinating!! But the inner adventures of my mind are a topic for another day! Let’s follow the journey along and dive into the signposts we encounter.
Reality first. Here we are in the year 2024. We are coming up on the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Landmark legislation. It has been one hundred and sixty-one years since the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in our nation; two years prior to the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. On paper anyway. This is Black History Month, so designated by every President since 1976 as a way to ensure that we acknowledge the achievements of African Americans. Tomorrow is the anniversary of the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and later this week we remember the birthday of Frederick Douglass. We have come a ways in the two hundred thirty one years since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act on February 12, 1793 allowed free and freed people of color to be returned to enslavement. That’s a long time and one could travel quite far on a journey of that magnitude; which spanned that amount of time.
So, when I look at the graphic and that pile of crates beside the single crate or no crate at all, I can’t help but wonder what’s gone wrong. I am not naïve; I know what’s gone wrong! And you do too! The difference between the view from the top and that of those without the benefit of the “crates” is vast. And it is a widening gap in our times. History is moving backwards! And we here in Chatham are largely in the position of having many crates. Yes, we are mostly elders and women; there is a smattering of folks who identify outside the heteronormative binary, some disability among us, so we could slide out a crate or two from the stack, but by and large we are of the privileged class. I don’t point to this to cast judgment on us or to lay blame. But as Unitarian Universalists who espouse the Principles stated in our UUA bylaws, most notably the inherent worth and dignity of all persons, I believe we have a responsibility to even things up.
So, let’s move on to the next panel: Equality. This is a fine idea – equal rights under the law, although we have never gone so far as to formally ensure such rights for women. Equality means that everyone gets the same size crate to stand on. We all start from the same place. And that would be great if we really did all start from the same place. It is forward thinking but doesn’t take into account the truths about who got how many crates from the beginning. It is careful about that, I think, so as not to inflict shame or guilt on anyone. It says, “Yes, we made some mistakes along the way, but now we are going to change that and going forward, everyone will have the same number of crates to stand on.” But you can see in the picture that not everyone comes to the crates at the fence with the same opportunities in their back pocket. The course of their lives and their ancestors’ lives has not afforded them the same set of realities. They arrive as if their crate was in a bit of a gully along the fence line.
This is where the concept of equity comes into play. Some people don’t need a crate to stand on because their privilege puts them in a place where they have access from the ground. Another person may need a crate to stand on for the simple reason that history has not been kind to them and the accumulated barriers to access are such that they begin from a place of deficit. And still another person shows up and needs more than one crate because of the intersectionality of obstacles that they have experienced in our culture. You get the idea!
The final stop on the journey is Liberation! We talked about this last month. There are no crates in this image. And most importantly, there is no fence! Everyone shows up to the game just as they are and there is no impediment to their view. This panel speaks to the oneness of all of humanity. It says that no matter how we come into the world, how we evolve over time, we are loved and accepted and encouraged in our living. It says that there is enough for everyone and so no one needs to hoard up the good stuff that is necessary and, honestly, the extra stuff because there is enough that there will always be extra. Incredible! Simple! One would think so, but alas, it is not the case.
Back to reality we go. What is it? Fear? Of difference? Of not having enough? Greed? The desire for power? Likely a bit of all of these things if we are truthful about it. So, what are we going to do about it? We who have the box seat view of the game. Short of tearing down the fence – and by no means, don’t let me stop you if that’s what you have a mind to do – is it possible we could get to equity on the journey?
Bryan Stevenson has been a voice for our times. An American lawyer, social justice advocate, professor of law at New York State University, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of Just Mercy, the 2015-16 UUA Common Read that I know some of you took up alongside First Parish Brewster. And he says some things about the need for proximity. I quote:
“I think sometimes, when you’re trying to do justice work, when you’re trying to make a difference, when you’re trying to change the world, the thing you need to do is get close enough to people who are falling down, get close enough to people who are suffering, close enough to people who are in pain, who’ve been discarded and disfavored — to get close enough to wrap your arms around them and affirm their humanity and their dignity.”
He goes on:
“We cannot make progress in creating a more just society, healthier communities, if we allow ourselves to be disconnected from the people who are most vulnerable — from the poor, the neglected, the incarcerated, the condemned. If you’re trying to make policies in the criminal justice space but have never met someone who’s in a jail or prison, you haven’t been to a jail or prison, you’re going to fail.”
I feel like he has hit on a key point here. Because if we are in the position of doling out crates, how can we presume to know who needs how many if we never get close enough to them to hear their story, let ourselves feel a little of their pain? How do we know, for that matter, if they want the crates or are after the same view? We are not going to get anywhere on this journey without engaging in relationships with people. Many of you have lived a long time on this earth and have done some of this connecting over time and I don’t want to negate that, but I also want to say that we are not there yet. We are getting on in years and we are tired – tired in general and tired of the struggle but think for a moment what a privileged place that belies. We have the comfort of place that allows us to be tired of the struggle. Move a little out from the center and you will find that the struggle is real and that there isn’t a lot of choice in it. Can we muster the energy and the compassion necessary to meet folks where they are, learn about their lives and hopes, their joys and their pain? This is what my colleague, Stephen Shick, was talking about in our reading this morning.
Author and Jungian psychologist, Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote that,
“Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts . . . it does not take everyone on earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.”
Dear ones, we are at the hundredth gale! Let’s not give up now! Gather your courage, your wisdom, your hearts, and hands as we near the potential tipping point.
This is a critical year in our country, this time of choosing leadership and directions forward. There is perhaps no greater privilege than that right to choose, to search our hearts and minds and souls and to cast our vote. It is not a perfect system and part of what makes it less so is the truth that not everyone has equal access to the polls. Not everyone believes that their voice matters because they have been fed the lie that they don’t matter. Believing alone doesn’t shift things because there are places in our nation where good people of conscience desiring to express their right are prevented from doing so. Talk about a reality check!
What can we do here from our place on the hill? What is within our reach? Who can we partner with to widen that reach? Other local UU churches are working to ensure that folks living in voter suppressed areas of the country are empowered and encouraged to let their voices be heard. Cape Cod organizations like the Nauset Interfaith Association who we are collecting for this month, specifically for their MLK Action Team, are doing good work raising awareness about the racism and marginalization that occurs here in our local towns. Can we join in those efforts? Is this a place from which the truth of our national reality can ring out? In short, are we seeking after equity and justice like our mission says, or are we not?
It's critical right here, too, as we move through change and think about our own leadership and our direction ahead. Does this image apply on the smaller scale? Of course it does! How we distribute the crates shows up in how we choose to organize ourselves, who we are accessible to, what we prioritize, where we show up – what we do with what we have speaks to who we are as a people. Let’s not be fooled into thinking that what goes on behind the fence isn’t visible beyond our walls. Are we walking the talk here at home?
Most weeks I bring you a topic like this and then I offer a gentle invitation into some practice or way of thinking that might serve to deepen your relationship to our faith or our world. Today I am bringing a challenge instead. What is our place on the journey? Where are we on this continuum as individuals and as a faith community and as a wider association. Let’s get busy really thinking about this and moving the needle. It is well past time for us to have figured this out and done what is necessary to ensure equity and justice in our world. That’s the reality.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, February 11, 2024