May 7, 2020
as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston's online service for May 3, 2020
This month in worship we are focusing on the theme of perseverance. Today’s sermon is titled “How Can I Keep from Singing?” The title is a nod to our closing hymn, “My Life Flows On in Endless Song.” Each verse of the hymn ends with the same question: “How can I keep from singing?”
The question often comes after words juxtaposing the injustices of the world with the promise of better days. The opening verse runs:
My life flows on in endless song,
above earth’s lamentation.
I hear the real though far off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
The hymn tells us that if we listen we will hear strains of “a new creation” sounding above the “earth’s lamentation.” It is a comforting message. It certainly reflects something that I would very much like to be true right now, those old words from Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
But the news of the hour has me mistrusting such theistic promises. Behind each set of words sits a divine deity who assures us, in the words of great poetry, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And reassures us, in soaring rhetoric, truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.
Now, I love this hymn. It is one of my favorites. But right now I am not finding comfort in such hopeful narratives. I find myself profoundly concerned about our human future. I am straining to catch any hint of “the music ringing.” And so, in this sermon, I do not want to offer you false hope. Nor I do I want to give you metaphysical reassurances that all shall be well. Instead, I want to follow the French philosopher Albert Camus’s injunction to “use plain, clean-cut language” when discussing the pandemic and horrors it has unleashed.
I am going to offer you a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice. It is built around an observation about the impermanence of things. “Cambia todo cambia... Cambia la superficial / cambia tambíen lo profundo / cambia el modo de pensar / cambia todo en este mundo,” sang the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Everything changes. The superficial, the profound, the way we think, everything in the world changes, runs my hackneyed translation.
Everything changes. This leads to two simple claims about the pursuit of justice. First, no victory is forever. Second, defeat is rarely permanent. No victory is forever. Defeat is rarely permanent. Such words lack the melodic comfort of hymns to the new creation. And my challenge--or perhaps it is our challenge--is how do I make such claims and yet still cling to the refrain of our closing hymn: How can I keep from singing?
Before I turn to a humanist approach to the pursuit of justice, I offer two contextual reflections. The first, a discussion of Unitarian Universalism and religious pluralism. It could alternatively be described as a response to the query: Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church? The second, some observations about our political and economic moment. We might name that section a response to a Marvin Gaye’s question, What’s going on?
So, Dr. Bossen, why are you talking about humanism in a church?
I offer this rhetorical question for all of you who are watching this video and are not members or regular attendees of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston or another Unitarian Universalist congregation. I know there are a fair number of you. As I mentioned in my welcome, right now we have people from all over who are watching these videos. If this service is anything like our previous online services some of you are listening to me in your homes in places as far away as Maine, Michigan, and Minnesota. I even know of a family who has been joining us from Brazil and someone else who is connecting with us from Prague.
And, so, for all of you who are unfamiliar with Unitarian Universalism, let me hone on in one particular phrase that we offer each week in our welcome statement, we need not think alike to love alike. It is attributed to the sixteenth-century Transylvanian Unitarian theologian Francis David. He lived in Transylvania which was then situated at the border between the Ottoman Empire and what used to be called Christendom--the lands in Europe that were then under control of political powers affiliated with one kind of Christianity or another.
Transylvania at that time was a religious diverse community. The practice then was that people more-or-less had to follow the religion of the local monarch. If the king or queen was a Catholic, then the people were expected to be Catholic. And if monarch was Protestant then they were supposed to follow the teachings of whatever Protestant church the resident royalty belonged to. Now, this created all kinds of problems. Frankly, it led to all sorts of stupid wars. The advent of a new monarch brought with them the threat of a religious realignment. Crudely put, if the previous monarch was a Protestant and the new one was a Catholic then the new king or queen would expect all of the people who lived in the country they ruled to convert.
Faith is a deeply held. Few people wanted to switch religions just because the palace had a new resident. And so, there were all sorts of horrible conflicts. In the United Kingdom, just as an example, Mary Tudor executed Protestants for their religious beliefs and then her sister, who succeeded her, Elizabeth the First, executed Catholics.
Francis David was a man of peace. He thought all of this religious conflict was ridiculous. The king in Transylvania was then a man named John Sigsmund. Like David, the king was a Unitarian. David had no idea what the religion of Sigsmund’s successor would be. And so, he, and the king’s mother, Queen Isabella, convinced John Sigismund that rather than make Unitarianism the state religion, he should pass a law proclaiming religious tolerance. It is called the Edict of Torda and reads, in part: “Preachers everywhere are to preach the gospel according to their understanding of it; if the parish willingly receives it, well: but if not, let there be no compulsion on it to do so, since that would not ease any... [person’s] soul.”
Religious tolerance, the idea that each person’s faith, their relationship to the divine, is their own, gradually expanded in Unitarian Universalist circles to an acceptance of religious pluralism. If the preacher can “preach the gospel according to their understanding” then there is no reason why parishioners should not have their own particular understandings of the gospel. The word gospel essential means good news. I use it here not to offer a particularly Christian account of religion but as a way of speaking of the thing you understand to be most important about your relationship to the whirling dance of mass and light, the earthly mess of water and dirt, that which we might call the cosmos, or gaia, or God, or the spark of human reason, or love or... whatever you might name the all of this which we are each a part of and enmeshed in.
Over time the emphasis on religious tolerance, led Unitarian Universalism to be somewhat unique among the Western religions. It became pluralistic. Its adherents came to understand, we need not think alike to love alike, and realized that what the religious community did together was more important than what its individual members believed.
At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, and in other Unitarian Universalist communities, we celebrate people’s ability to uncover their own relationship with the, well, I will just call it all this--the light that filters green through the leaves of trees, the virus that is spreading among us, the lush blues of Henri-Edmond Cross’s canvases, the damn rent that is due at the beginning of the month, the beauty and the horror of existence--and, at the same time, ask each other the question: How shall we live together?
We are a community. We cannot all agree upon what we believe. But, maybe, just maybe, as a community we can figure out how to live together. We need not think alike to love alike. It is the hope, the gospel, the good news, if you will, of Unitarian Universalism.
Our embrace of pluralism is why we have humanists in our churches. Humanism is this a worldly focused tradition. Its adherents argue that there is no transcendental force outside of human history--no God or divine force--that is bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice. Anthony Pinn, a leading humanist and Unitarian Universalist, suggests that humanists recognize, “we’re dependent upon a world that doesn’t bend to our will and doesn’t prioritize the criteria for our well-being.” We are the ones who make whatever meaning we find in the world. And we are the ones we who will bring whatever justice we find into the world.
Alongside humanists, we have people of a variety of religious perspectives who participate in the life of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. There are theists, Christians, Jews, pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and even many atheists and agnostics. Some of our members hold onto multiple religious identities or even belong to multiple religious communities.
For my part, I identify primarily with humanism but I find myself drawn to the symbolism and stories of both Christian gnosticism and Jewish mysticism. This partially due to the fact that I was raised in a Unitarian Universalist congregation by a mother who had been born into a Christian family and a father who had been born into a Jewish one. It is also rooted in an understanding that religious language is metaphorical. We use religious symbols to represent that which is greater than ourselves. Humanist philosophy, gnostic Christian symbols--the resurrection of the living and the politics of the living--, and mystical Jewish parables are all attempts to put into words that which ultimately escapes language--my relationship, and yours, to the all of this of which we are each part and parcel.
Why, humanism in the church? What we do together is more important than what we believe. Why, humanism in the church? We are a pluralistic tradition which invites us to draw upon many sources for our understanding of our relationship with all that is. Why, humanism in the church? We need not think alike to love alike.
And, now, my second contextual reflection, What’s going on?
The state of Texas started to re-open yesterday. I took a walk through my neighborhood. There was more traffic than there had been in weeks. There were people noisily sitting at bars and restaurants. Very few of them were wearing face masks. The day before Texas reported the second highest number of new cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The pandemic is far from contained. It is only getting started. And, yet, the governor and his allies want people to get back to work and to get the economy moving again. What’s going on?
In my home state of Michigan, the scenes from the state capital this week were chilling. Men with rifles stormed the capital building demanding that the governor “Open the Economy.” One member of the state legislature tweeted, “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them.” That is right, politicians in Michigan are wearing bulletproof vests for fear of getting shot while deliberating on legislation. What’s going on?
Oh, did, I mention, that the governor of the State of Texas is a white man? And that the men with rifles who invaded Michigan’s state capital were all white men? Excuse me, I must have forgotten. But then, there is a tendency in this country’s culture to take whiteness as the great unspoken norm. What would have happened if the men who had stormed Michigan’s state capital had been black or brown? How would they have been treated? What’s going on?
The philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois once cheekily described whiteness this way: “I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” And right now, once again, the consequences of this doctrine appear to being laid bare. The white men with rifles and the governor of the State of Texas are trying to re-assert their ownership, their control, of the world while the viral pandemic rages. I do not think it is a coincidence that the plans and demands to re-open the economy came soon after it was discovered that the virus was disproportionately impacting communities of color. I do not think it is a coincidence that many of the people being forced to go back to work right now--and forced is the right term because if the businesses they work for re-open and they stay home then they will be ineligible for unemployment--are people of color. It is the logic of system that has built generations of white wealth off of the exploitation of people with brown and black bodies.
Two illustrations from national politics. First, we have the President’s decision to invoke the Defense Production Act to force meatpacking plants to remain open. This move is accompanied by two refusals. The first is a refusal to offer any national regulation on the safety standards that businesses are to follow during the pandemic. Instead businesses are to employ whatever safety regime business managers and owners think best. Business managers and owners do not have a particular interest in keeping employees safe--at least not big business owners and managers--they have an obligation to make the most money possible. That’s the core logic of capitalism. So, in refusing to provide national safety regulations during this time of pandemic the President is basically telling working people that they had better keep working and that they are at the mercy of their employers.
The second refusal is the President’s decision to not invoke the Defense Production Act to produce either personal protective equipment or ventilators. He is willing to invoke it to force people to work under unsafe conditions. He is not willing to invoke it to make sufficient equipment to save people’s lives. Perhaps I should mention that the vast majority of workers at meatpacking plants are migrants and people of color? White wealth built upon the bodies of black and brown people.
My second illustration from national politics comes from the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to block any significant emergency funding to state governments. This is an effort to bankrupt state governments and destroy many of the gains that working people have made over the last generations. If state governments are forced into bankruptcy then they will not be able to pay unemployment benefits. They will not be able to honor the pensions of public workers. Should I mention here that unemployment is disproportionately impacting communities of color? Or that the path for many people of color into what gets called the middle class has been through public service jobs? Or that it has been an objective of Southern white supremacists since before the Civil War to weaken the federal government so that they could have greater ability to exploit black and brown bodies?
What’s going on? The President of the United States, the governor of the state of Texas, and the white men who invaded the Michigan state capital believe that black and brown lives do not matter. What’s going on? White wealth is once again being built off the bodies of black and brown people. What’s going on? Maybe should we take out the old Marvin Gaye track--I recommend the vinyl if you’ve got it--and listen to the words: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way / To bring some lovin’ here today.”
What’s going on? I may have offered too much of the political for those of you who turned to this service for a bit of comfort and connection. However, I told you that I would be offering a humanist account of the pursuit of justice. And that pursuit is an earthly pursuit. It rejects the claim that we should only hope for Heaven when we are dead. Let us now move towards to my humanist account of the pursuit of justice.
Justice is not best understood in the abstract. It is about the actual lives of actual people. And right now, being real about justice means recognizing that the United States has long been a racialized order. And right now, it also means listening to the words of Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and so-called sage of Omaha. A few years ago, he said, “There’s class warfare... but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
My humanist account of justice draws from these real dynamics. No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. Instead, there is constant struggle between all the different communities in society. In a society that has historically been white supremacist, that struggle is partially between those who wish to proclaim that whiteness is mastery of the earth forever and forever Amen and those who have more multi-racial vision. And it is also between those who wish to maximize profit and those who work so that they can simply provide for themselves and their families.
It is a somewhat crude analysis but certainly it seems to be borne out by the struggles of the hour. On the hand, we have those, who appear to be demanding that the lives of working people, particularly those with brown and black bodies, be sacrificed so that they can continue to make profit and have comfort. And on the other, well, Friday was May Day, the international holiday celebrating the workers struggle for justice. It was marked by strikes or sick-outs--that is people calling into work sick as a form of protest--at many of the largest companies employing so-called essential workers--who, in many cases, are being treated as expendable workers.
In the last several weeks, the wealth of richest people in the country--Jeff Bezos particularly comes to mind--has been increased at dizzying rate. At the same time, many working families are in a state of complete crisis. More people are out of work now than at any time since the Great Depression. And the solution is not, as the governor of Texas would have it, to get back to work. It is provide them, as many other countries are doing around the world, with the necessary resources to safely shelter in place. But that would impact the ability of the richest amongst us to make profit.
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I offer this humanist account of the pursuit of justice as a way to remind you that almost all the good things in life that have come to the majority of working people have come through struggle. The New Deal is under assault right now via Mitch McConnell’s refusal to fund state governments. It was not granted on high by the largess of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It came about because in the midst of crisis of the Great Depression working people organized, went on strike, withheld rent, refused to participate in an economy that was not working for them, and put enormous pressure on politicians and business leaders to make sure that the economy actually provided them with something.
Unemployment, Social Security, workplace protections, they are all under threat right now. No victory is permanent. And defeat is rarely forever. Following the Civil War there was an effort to build something like the New Deal. It was called Reconstruction. And it turned back the tide, for a time, of white supremacy and built much of the country’s public-school system and offered both black and white people some protections and provisions. These looked a bit like those found in the New Deal and that were later won by the civil rights movement. Those victories were worn away over the decades until the crisis of the Great Depression and then World War II provided an opportunity to rebuild and build upon them. And now... What’s going on? Will the pandemic bring about further destruction of those gains? Or will folks organize to lay the groundwork for working people to have more of the good things of life?
No victory is permanent. Defeat is rarely forever. I am afraid that through this sermon I may have focused too much on a narrative of social salvation for some of your tastes. Where is the song in all of this, you might be asking? You might not be an essential worker. You might be someone who has the resources to continue to shelter in place. You might hear your life reflected in the words of Dorothy Dow’s poem “Waiting,” written shortly after the 1918 flu pandemic:
If you should walk in the park and not find me,
Or go in the market-place and not see me,
Would you not search further?
Does not your heart tell you I am somewhere?
Go out on the long roads--I may be at the end of one.
You might simply be sitting at home safely, waiting for all of this to end so that life might return to something like it once was. You might be wanting a more hope filled message. If you are, I invite you to listen to me as we turn to the end of the sermon and a reflection on Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague. It is a novel that I am inviting you to read with me this month as part of my discussion group Texts for Troubled Times.
Camus’s novel is set in an Algerian town immediately following World War II. The book centers on the question: In the midst of a pandemic how shall we, as individuals, pursue justice? It is often read as a parable about life under totalitarianism. Camus was a committed anti-fascist. He fought in the French Resistance against the Nazis. When he wrote the book, he was more concerned about the rise of totalitarianism via the Soviet Union than he was about plagues. But then, he argued, through his book, that totalitarian regimes--those who organize the world around the politics of the dead and seek to marginalize the lives of working people for their own ends--are a lot like plagues. They come on slowly and then blossom in full force. They are endured. They are resisted. And then, when the necessary immunity has been built up, they begin to go away. That, at least, is what Camus thought.
In his novel, he offers advice on how we might live when no victory is permanent, and defeat is rarely forever. He does not suggest that justice will reign forever. “[T]here are pestilences and there are victims,” he tells us. Humans are not able to fully control the natural world. Plagues will come and go and come again. Tyrants and dictators might be restrained for a time but they, like plagues, continue to re-emerge and reassert themselves. That is what happening now, in this time of pandemic, across the globe. How shall we live, then, Camus asks?
By “not to join[ing] forces with pestilences” he answers. By pursuing, what I have called in other sermons, the politics of the living. Choosing, through our individual actions, the things we can do to slow the spread of pestilences of COVID-19 and white supremacy. We should not act, Camus, suggests with the assurance that our actions will bring about an end to the plague. We should persist because we can and because in doing so we might make things better for ourselves and for everyone else.
Here in Greg Abbott’s Texas, we can continue to practice social distancing. We can be in solidarity with essential workers. Or, if we are working, we can strike in demand of safe working conditions. It is clear the federal government is not going to provide them to working people and that safe conditions will only be won through struggle. We can boycott the big chains that are making money while small businesses starve. If you look online you can alternatives sources for almost anything that Amazon sells. But most all, we can each ourselves the simple question: What can I do to not join forces with pestilences?
That question may unexpectedly lead to another. Camus found joy in life. He sought to bring more beauty into the world through his novels and stories. In his reading of Camus’s novel, humanist Anthony Pinn, suggests that its lesson is that there is joy in the struggle. He closes some recent reflections on Camus and COVID-19 with these words:
We struggle with our own task, work against the threat of this virus… simply because we can. COVID-19, some day, will withdraw--and we will leave our homes again, gather with family and friends. But the virus won’t be gone, the threat is ever present. Things are “well” not because the threat has been tamed, but because we persist. We should work to make life better, and in so doing we imagine ourselves... happy.
I close my reflections with a gesture towards our closing hymn. I find greater truth in its final verse than in its first:
When tyrants tremble as they hear
the bells of freedom ringing,
when friends rejoice both far and near,
how can I keep from singing!
To prison cell and dungeon vile
our thoughts to them are winging,
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?
If we persist in our efforts to be in solidarity with each other and not cooperate with the virus then we will look back on these times without shame. If we persist in the struggle for justice, knowing that no victory is forever, and defeat is rarely permanent, we will be able to make tyrants tremble with the bells of freedom. The tyrants might win and they might not but our peals of liberty will cause them to quake. If we do what we can to slow the spread and to help, and dare I say love, each other then, we will look back on these times, these strange days, with the question: How can I keep from singing?
I have spoken. You have heard. And, as Francis David and I both would have you do, ask yourself: Does this humanist gospel speak to your heart? How can I keep from singing?
May the congregation, absent in body but present in spirit, say Amen.
Feb 26, 2019
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 24, 2019
At the outset of this morning’s sermon, I would like to invite you to turn in your grey hymnal and read the first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association with me. You will find it about five or six pages in, right after the Preface. Let us start with the phrase, “We, the member congregations” and read all the way through to the end of the first principle. “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The idea that each person has inherent worth and dignity is one of the core theological ideas of our religious tradition. We find it articulated in the words of early nineteenth century Unitarian preachers. They taught that we contain within us “the likeness to God.” They urged each of us to always remember that, as one of them put it, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” I invite you to say that with me, “I am a living member of the great family of all souls.” And now, I want to invite you to do one last thing, turn to your neighbor and look at them for a moment. If you are comfortable, look them in the eye and, “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
We are all members of the same human family. We each have inherent worth and dignity. These are radical ideas in our society. And they challenge each of us. I struggle with them. I struggle with them when I grow frustrated with friends and loved ones. Sometimes, I even question whether I am capable of honoring each person’s inherent worth and dignity. I question myself when I walk by a homeless person and ignore their plight--as I do often in this neighborhood. And I question myself when I pay attention to the world of politics. I admit that there are some political leaders whose membership in the great family of all souls I find myself challenged to acknowledge. What about you? Do you find it easy to always honor the inherent worth and dignity of every person? Are you able to recognize the worst of us as members of the same human family as easily as you accept the best of us?
Our theological ideas would not be radical if they were easy to live into. This morning, I want to do three things. I want to talk with you about the radical nature of our theological heritage. I want to talk with you about how our Unitarian Universalist institutions have sometimes failed to live up to our theological values. And I want to talk with you about the potential our Unitarian Universalist institutions today have to be nurture our theological values and, in doing so, be part of the great work of collective liberation.
February is Black History Month. As part of our recognition of Black History Month we will focus our conversation on the radical nature of our theology, the disconnect between our religious institutions and our theology, and our present potential by focusing our conversation on the life of an important black Unitarian, the Unitarian minister Ethelred Brown.
Ethelred Brown was not just a Unitarian minister. He was a foundational figure in the theological tradition known as black humanism. My friend Tony Pinn is a Unitarian Universalist, professor at Rice, and probably the leading academic proponent of black humanism. He defines it as: “Black self-control, self-assertion, and concern for the human family...[H]umanism is a statement of humanity’s connectedness/ oneness and need for self-determination, without a conscious discussion of this assertion’s impact on traditional conceptions of divinity or ultimate reality.” Black humanism proclaims that black lives matter, that white supremacy must be confronted, that reason is central to religious life, that human action, not divine intervention, is the tool we can use to solve our human problems, and that this life here on Earth is what is of utmost importance.
Ethelred Brown was born in Jamaica in 1875. When he was sixteen he had an experience that may seem familiar to a number of you. It was Easter morning. He was singing in the choir of an Episcopalian church. The time came to sing the Athanasian Creed--that’s the one that proclaims the divine to be trinitarian. And then, he recounts, “The strangeness of the Trinitarian arithmetic struck me forcibly.” It struck him so forcefully that, he recalled, “[I] decided then and there to sever my connection with the church which enunciated so impossible a proposition.”
Is your own story similar? Many people have recounted similar experiences of rejecting the theological beliefs of the religious community of their youth. The next part of Brown’s story might be one you recognize too. That afternoon he went to visit his uncle. And in his uncle’s library he discovered a pamphlet written by a nineteenth-century Unitarian preacher from Massachusetts. There he found the words, “we believe in the doctrine of God’s Unity, or that there is one God, and one only.” Encountering these words Ethelred Brown realized that he was not alone in the world. That there were other people who rejected the Trinity. The realization that he was not alone in his beliefs led him to visit a bigger library and seek out other Unitarian texts. Soon he “became,” as he put it, “a Unitarian without a church.” Does that resonate with any of your experiences?
After several years of largely keeping his beliefs to himself, Brown felt the call to ministry. He sent a letter addressed “To any Unitarian Minister in New York City.” Eventually, the letter found its way to the President of Meadville Theological School. Meadville’s President sent Brown a reply. Well, actually, he sent a letter of admission to Meadville.
You might think that the story takes a pleasant turn here. And you would be partially right. But you would also be partially wrong. You see, in the early twentieth century the number of black Unitarian ministers was precisely zero. The Universalists were slightly better. They ordained Joseph Jordan, Thomas Wise, and Joseph Fletcher Jordan in the closing years of the nineteenth century.
This is not to say that black people were not interested in Unitarianism. It is rather to say, that white Unitarians were not interested in having their institutions led by people of color. As early as 1860 there had been black people who wanted to become Unitarian ministers. The black Baptist minister William Jackson approached the American Unitarian Association, told its leaders that he was convinced of the truth of Unitarian theology, and asked to be welcomed into the fellowship of Unitarian ministers. They turned him away.
A few years before Ethelred Brown went to Meadville, the seminary graduated its first black graduate: Don Speed Goodloe. While he would later go on to become the principal of what is now Bowie State University, the American Unitarian Association would not find him a pulpit.
So, Brown’s admission to Meadville came with a warning from its president. Brown recounts he was told, “there was no Unitarian church in America for… people [of color], and that as white Unitarians required a white minister he was unable to predict what my future would be at the conclusion of my training.”
Brown went to Meadville. He graduated. And he returned to Jamaica where he started in succession two Unitarian churches with minimal support from the American Unitarian Association. The first was in Montego Bay. The second was in Kingston. The services sometimes numbered several hundred people. Despite this, after a few years the American Unitarian Association withdraw its support because, as Brown recollects he was told, “the results were not satisfactory.”
Reflecting on this episode, African American Unitarian Universalist minister Mark Morrison-Reed observes, “The question was, Satisfactory for whom?” Despite preaching a theology of radical inclusion, the American Unitarian Association was led by men--and its leaders at the time were all men--who could be described as white supremacists. Its president occasionally wrote words that I cannot in good conscience repeat from this pulpit. He consistently did not support people of color who were interested in the Unitarian ministry.
The withdrawal of the American Unitarian Association’s support from Unitarians in Jamaica set the pattern for much of the remainder of Brown’s life. By 1920, Brown’s efforts to maintain a Unitarian church had nearly bankrupted him. He and his wife decided to move to Harlem to seek better opportunities. He was part of a wave of migrants from the Caribbean that included seminal figures in black life such as the poet Claude McKay, the historian Arturo Schomburg, and the pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Once in Harlem, Brown set about organizing the Harlem Community Church--a religious community that was designed to be “a temple and a forum.” Its proposition was not different than the one we pursue on Sunday mornings: to lift up the beautiful, to proclaim the transformative power of love, and to celebrate the clarifying power of reason. It was in Brown’s words, “a temple in which we worship the true and good and beautiful, and receive inspiration to live a life of service; a forum where... mind sharpens mind as we strive to plumb the depths, span the breadth, and scale the heights of knowledge.”
Over the next thirty-six years, Brown led a religious community that played a vital role in Harlem’s religious life. He was regularly invited to preach at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. It was then perhaps most important African American church in New York. Its ministers included Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Congressman who tacitly supported Brown’s ministry. The members of Brown’s church included significant labor leaders and journalists. It was also a hotbed of political radicalism. Brown himself was a socialist who actively supported labor unions. A member by the name of Frank Crosswaith played a central role in integrating the American Federation of Labor and building the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first black labor union recognized by the AFL. Another member named Grace Campbell was the first African American woman to run for public office in New York.
Unfortunately, for most of those thirty-six years the American Unitarian Association did little to support the Harlem Unitarian Church, as it was finally known. This despite having an impact in the community that would make many a congregation jealous. This despite promoting a purpose that was clearly Unitarian. Here are Brown’s words:
The Church is an institution of religion dedicated to the service of humanity.
Seeking the truth in freedom, it strives to apply it in love for the cultivation of character, the fostering of fellowship in work and worship, and the establishment of a righteous social order...
Knowing not sect, class, nation or race it welcomes each to the service of all.
And, yet, as I have been saying, the American Unitarian Association had trouble recognizing Brown’s teachings as its own. This should perhaps not be that surprising. The father of black liberation theology James Cone once observed, “theology is always identified with a particular community.” This claim should be a reminder that the vast majority of theology preached from Unitarian Universalist pulpits and nurtured by Unitarian Universalist institutions has been white theology. That is, it has been theology that came from communities in which the majority of members and the vast majority of religious leaders have believed themselves to be white.
Our history might contain men like Ethelred Brown and women like Grace Campbell. It might include abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. It might hold within it American presidents, important scientists, and canonical literary figures but it also includes outright white supremacists. Indeed, some of the very people we celebrate held what we might at best call retrograde views on race. These were not just men like the president of American Unitarian Association who refused to support Brown. They include individuals like the Universalist minister who was also a leader of the Ku Klux Klan and the Vice President of the United States whose racist views were so reactionary that he was once referred to as “the Marx of the master class.”
Despite this, our theology that each individual has worth and dignity and all people are part of the same human family has sometimes transcended the bounds of our historically white institutions. The great Frederick Douglass worshipped at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC for several years. He recognized that our religious tradition has the potential to, and sometimes does, confront what he called then “the slaveholding religion of this land.” The African American abolitionist, suffragist, and writer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. She urged us to remember, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”
Our work today as Unitarian Universalists is to carry forth the legacy of men and women like Ethelred Brown, Frank Crosswaith, Grace Campbell, Frederick Douglass, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. They understood the liberating potential of Unitarian Universalist theology. It is no accident that they were abolitionists and workers for social justice. That is who we become when we take seriously the injunction to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Bill Sinkford, the first African American president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, has observed that our congregations become more racially diverse when they devote themselves to the work of justice. At a General Assembly right here in Texas he told us, “Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice.”
The current President of the Unitarian Universalist Association has made the same observation. In conversations she has noted that the congregation she served in Phoenix, Arizona grew numerically and in racial diversity as it deepened its involvement in the struggle for migrant rights and worked to stand up against white supremacy throughout the country. A few weeks ago, she told us that “we must reclaim our great historic mission and prophetic role to be the conscience of our nation.” Doing so requires us to recognize the people like Ethelred Brown who were in our midst and who, in many ways, our institutions failed.
Doing so also requires us to recognize that sometimes we fail to live out our theology of radical love and inclusion. Not we failed, but we still fail. And before I close, I want to offer a brief story about such a failure that a friend of mine shared with me a number of years ago. My friend is a black Unitarian Universalist from Detroit. He has been a Unitarian Universalist for a long time, longer than I have been alive.
Some years back he decided to visit a congregation in suburban Detroit. He found the service inspiring. The music was good. The sermon was fine. It felt right. And then, during coffee hour, he had an interaction that chilled his heart. Someone came up to him and tried to be friendly. They said, “What are you doing here? We do not get many people like you visiting us?”
In some ways, his story was exactly the same as Ethelred Brown’s. The person who was speaking to my friend could not imagine that our liberating theology could transcend the bounds of that historically white suburban church.
And here, I want to speak for a moment to the white members of this congregation. It can. And it does. All the time. When white well educated Unitarian Universalists like me make assumptions about who are “our people” we limit and even distort our liberating theology. The work for someone like me does not just include the prophetic work of struggling for justice. It includes the work of self-reflection, of examining when and where I have failed to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of all and made assumptions about who Unitarian Universalists are.
This is why it is important to celebrate someone like Ethelred Brown who declared that our “religion is an emancipatory power ... it... [frees us] from the shackles of theologies which are both unreasonable and dogmatic and from creeds which never change.” And why it is important to also recognize that there are many people who have theological views similar to ours but never join Unitarian Universalist congregations. The writer Alice Walker is one of them. Widely recognized as a contemporary black humanist, she celebrates the natural goodness she believes lies within each human and connects us to the world around us. She tells us, “All people deserve to worship a God who also worships them. A God that made them, and likes them. That is why Nature, Mother Earth, is such a good choice.” There is no transcendence here. Just a reminder that the world around us is the important one and that it is infused with the divine.
And this is why it is also important to support the work of Black Lives Unitarian Universalist. BLUU, as it is also known, is an organization of black Unitarian Universalists that is pushing Unitarian Universalism to be the liberating faith that our theology calls us to be. They have offered the following expansion of the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association. They write:
The Movement for Black Lives calls on the Unitarian Universalist faith -- a faith willing to make the bold proclamation that each person inherently matters -- to live up to that claim by working toward a future in which black lives are truly valued in our society. We call on UUs to actively resist notions that black lives only matter if conformed to white, middle-class norms, and to challenge assumptions of worth centered around clothing, diction, education, or other status. Our value is not conditional.
And in that spirit, whoever you are, wherever you are sitting, in honor of legacy of Ethelred Brown and in the power of black humanism, I invite you to again turn to your neighbor and share these words: “You are a member of the great family of all souls. You have inherent worth and dignity.”
May we be granted the power to always remember those truths.
Amen and Blessed Be.