Mar 2, 2020
as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, February 23, 2020
As you know, we are in the midst of stewardship season. And I want to thank all of you who have made your pledges to support First Church so far. We had a really lovely early pledgers party last night. The stewardship team put on a great event with good conversation, good food, and, my favorite, good dancing. It was a pleasure to proverbially cut a rug with some of you. I think we may have to do it more often. And I want to lift up Dick Doughty for bringing his DJ skills to the party. I very much enjoyed the mix of World Beat infused electronica he provided us--and the bit of Chicago house he played to humor me. It was a lovely reminder that we humans share a universal need to, as the adage runs, shake what your mother gave you. As the funk anthem goes, we are one nation under a groove.
The poet Rumi wrote:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.
I sometimes think that the field he was talking about was the dance floor--that space where we can come together beyond words and just experience the pleasure of connectedness through sound and movement.
So, thank you stewardship team and Dick for creating that space. I hope that the early pledger party will become a tradition. It is something that can be open everyone who contributes to sustain the beautiful community that is this congregation--an opportunity to celebrate the joy, compassion, and love that bind First Church together.
Speaking of stewardship, one of the many things that your gifts to this congregation allow us to do is bring fabulous guest preachers. This month, we have had two talented religious leaders come and bless us with powerful messages. My dear friend Aisha Hauser came and gifted us with a sermon challenging us to lead with love and liberation. And Duncan Teague, who is something of a new friend, brought us a story from his life about a time when his imagination failed him and what he learned from that experience. In their own ways, each of them called us to imagine the liberating power of our Unitarian Universalist tradition. Each of them called us to imagine a Unitarian Universalism big enough for everyone, a Unitarian Universalism where we truly live into the vision of our religious ancestors: God loves everyone, no exceptions.
Their words painted pictures of what we might, following the historian Robin Kelley, call freedom dreams. These are, in his words, visions of “life as possibility” in which exist “endless meadows without boundaries, free of evil and violence, free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
We dream freedom dreams when we are called, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., to trust in “a power that is able to make a way out of no way.” Freedom dreams are the paths--paths which often seem impossible--that lead us to a way when we are stuck in no way. We open ourselves to them when we realize that imagination is one of the most powerful forces on this Earth. Imagination enables us to bring things into being that do not exist. Every human creation that exists--microwaves, computers, violins, soccer balls, teacups, cutting boards, bundt cakes, brick sanctuaries, or well-tailored suits--began in someone’s imagination.
Imagination uncovers hidden paths when all the roads seem closed. Imagination lets us find a route through the forest when we reach the end of the trail. Imagination is trusting that there is a power which, no matter how difficult the day, how drear the hour, will help us to find more love somewhere, more hope somewhere, more peace, more joy. It might not be right here, we might not see it before us, it might not be present in the brutalities and disappointments of our daily lives, as we suffer, as so many of us do, from an exploitative and extractive economic system, but we can imagine that there is a power which, if we keep on keeping on, will enable us to find more love somewhere.
It is one of the purposes of this religious community to help each of us discover and uncover that power. It resides within each of us and surrounds all of us. It comes in many forms. We can call it by many names. Some of us might choose to label it God. Others might find that language limiting or oppressive and prefer to call it human creativity. For my part, I find this power runs beyond my human ability to describe or understand in its totality.
Sometimes we cry out and only encounter its absence. Not everyone is able to find a way out of no way. That is a reality that is heavy on my heart this morning. It is the last Sunday of Black History Month. Black History Month was conceived by the historian Carter G. Woodson as a time to celebrate the achievements of the African American community. A time to lift up: great abolitionists like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; great scientists including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Daniel Hale Williams--the first surgeon to perform an open heart surgery; great athletes such as Muhammed Ali and the Williams Sisters; great musicians like Nina Simone and Beyoncé; great writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin; great artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kara Walker; great spiritual leaders like Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer...
The list could go on for hours. But there is a difficult truth behind it. We would not be celebrating Black History this month if it was not for the horror of the TransAtlantic slave trade. We only have Black History Month because one of the most brutal exercises in human history. Reflecting on a need to recognize this dynamic as part of Black History Month, writing in the New York Times, Erin Aubry Kaplan recently argued, “It’s time to acknowledge what black history really reveals — not individual heroism or the endurance of democratic ideals, but their opposites.” Black History Month, in other words, reveals not just the beauty and power of black people but the brutality and danger of white supremacy.
And so, as part of Black History Month, it is important to take a moment to honor all those who suffered as they were unwilling brought from Africa to the American continents. The Caribbean poet Edouard Glissant offers a challenging description of their pain:
“Imagine two hundred human beings crammed into a space barely capable of containing a third of them. Imagine vomit, naked flesh, swarming lice, the dead slumped, the dying crouched. Imagine, if you can, the swirling red of mounting to the deck, the ramp they climbed, the black sun on the horizon, vertigo, this dizzying sky plastered to the waves.”
It is terrifying to imagine that between 1502 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the Caribbean and the 1880s, when the last ship landed with an illegal human cargo in Brazil, some ten to twelve million people--parents, children, friends, husbands, wives, mothers, lovers, elders, and babies--were forcibly moved across the ocean blue. Not all of them arrived. Not all of them made a way out of no way. Some died of illness. Some were thrown overboard by brutal captains who decided it was easier to collect insurance money for lost human cargo than to transport unwilling people from one continent to another. And some threw themselves into murky blue graves rather than endure a life of unfreedom.
The discouraging, disheartening, dismal truth is sometimes it is impossible to find the power that will help us make a way out of no way. But, then, I am not entirely certain that finding a way out of no way is something we are supposed to do on our own. Nor am I entirely certain that we are supposed to be finding a way out of no way for ourselves. I suspect that when we dream freedom dreams, we are often dreaming them for the people who will come after us.
There were people who dreamed freedom dreams in the bellies of those disgusting slave ships. Many of them dreamed those dreams for themselves--dreamed of returning to Africa. Many of them also dreamed dreams for their descendants, for the people who would come after them. They imagined that the world might not be better for them, but it could be better for future generations: there is more love somewhere.
Sometimes when I think about freedom dreams, I think about the last public words of Martin King, the words he left us right before he was brought down by a white supremacist bullet. He told us, God’s “allowed me to go the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”
It is right there. In that passage. The truth about freedom dreams. It is not about your survival or my survival. It is about our survival. It is about us, collectively, together, as a human community, as a community of memory and witness, love and justice, figuring out how to find a way out of no way.
We can only survive together. It is important to remember this when we cry out for a way out of no way. Sometimes we cry out and hear nothing in response. But when our voices are met with silence, we might recall the words of denise levertov:
Lord, not you,
it is I who am absent.
History teaches us that it is always possible to imagine a way out of no way. I might not be able to envision it. You might not be able to visualize it. But the collective we can find it.
This is one of the lessons of Black History Month. Beginning in the holds of those awful freighters, suffering humans began to dream freedom dreams. They imagined that their lives and the world could be different than it was. They imagined no slavery. They imagined freedom for themselves. And that imagination enabled some of them to find it. They found it onboard ships like the Amistad when they rose up and overthrew the slave traders. They found it when they organized and revolted--creating the nation of Haiti and enabling the Union to win the Civil War. And they found it when they ran away.
Carol told the children and youth a story about a maroon. Have any of you heard that word before? Maroon? The maroons were groups of people who escaped slavery and then, using their freedom dreams, built new communities where they could live free. Some of these communities became quite large. They numbered in the thousands and fought against Europeans who wanted to re-enslave.
In Maroon communities people often sought to live and worship as their ancestors did back in Africa. They attempted to recreate ways of life and love that had been disrupted by their forced migration. Some of these communities endured for years. In towns in Jamaica and on the island Barbuda there are communities that were founded by maroons hundreds of years ago and are still governed by their descendants today.
Maroon communities were sometimes multi-racial affairs--places where people imagined a continent organized around interracial cooperation not white supremacy. In such places black people, white people, indigenous people, the polyglot of people who lived in the Americas, came together and imagined and built new kind of communities where they could pursue their dreams of freedom. In such places, people held up and held out ways of being that were antithetical to the white supremacist economic and social order that told them they were less than human. In such places, there were ways of being that suggested it is possible to find more love, more hope, more joy, somewhere.
Freedom dreams, some people dreamed them in the holds of slave ships, some people rebelled, some people ran away and started maroons. Freedom dreams, the TransAtlantic Slave Trade ended with the abolition of slavery. Freedom dreams, the legal regime of Jim Crow was ended. Freedom dreams, black people survived and many thrived.
We are lifting up freedom dreams because this is the last Sunday of Black History Month. It is important to take time to center the experiences and theologies of people of color. It is important for at least two reasons. The first is simple: our congregation is on the cusp of meeting the definition of a multiracial religious communities. The vast majority of religious communities in the United States are racial and ethnic enclaves--where one group comprises 80% or more of participants. So, when a religious community is reaching a point where 20% or more of the people do not belong to a single ethnic or racial group it is considered a multiracial one.
At the beginning of the month, Alma and Tawanna reported our congregational data to the Unitarian Universalist Association. They had to tell the UUA how many members we have, the size of our annual budget, the number of people who attend worship and the like. One of the questions that the UUA asks is the percentage of people of color who are members of the church. And Alma and Tawana came up with at least 17%.
So, we are on the cusp of transitioning to a predominantly white church to one that fits that definition of a multiracial one. And experience teaches me that one way we make that transition is being intentional and inclusive about our theology and our community. It is why we have been using more Spanish in the service. And why I have been very intentional about inviting people of color and women to fill the pulpit when Scott and I are not in the pulpit.
And it is why I take time each year to give a sermon inspired specifically by black theology. I want us to live into the vision of our religious ancestors--the vision that said that God loves everyone, no exceptions, and be a community where all people can feel beloved. This is why next month I will also be offering a sermon on eco-feminist theology and another in the autumn on indigenous and Latinx theology.
Second: we are talking about the Black Radical Imagination this morning because I think it is an essential resource for all us--regardless of our racial identity--to find a way out of no way. I know this from personal experience.
I think that many of you know that I grew up in Michigan in the eighties and nineties. Detroit in those days was a musical hotbed. There was always something amazing something going on. It did not matter if you went to a tiny club, a street party, a county fair, or a big concert venue--there was always some funky music to be found. And if you tuned into your non-commercial radio station--college or public radio--you could catch a flash of audio inspiration.
One of my favorite groups to listen to was Parliament-Funkadelic. Have you ever heard of them? They are headed by the fantastic George Clinton, an incredibly talented musician known for his wild, often multi-color hair, flashy and imaginative costumes. The band itself is a large admixture of vocalists and instrumentalists--drummers, bass players, keyboardists, and horn players.
As the band’s name suggests, Parliament-Funkadelic is a funk band. They create hypnotic, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic soundscapes filled with ingenious Afro-centric fantastic and futuristic lyrics:
Well, all right, starchild
Citizens of the universe, recording angels
We have returned to claim the pyramids
Partying on the mothership
Those lyrics appear on their seminal 1975 album “Mothership Connection.” Earlier in the album listeners are informed that the P-Funk is coming from “Top of the Chocolate Milky Way.”
P-Funk’s words offer a vision, in Robins Kelley’s words, of “modern ancients redefining freedom, imagining a communal future (and present) without exploitation; all-natural, African, barefoot, and funky.”
P-Funk made that vision available for everyone. Sure, it came from their experiences and their tradition as African Americans, but it was available to everyone who wanted to turn their dial to radio “station W-E-F-U-N-K” or attend their concerts.
And let me tell you, a P-Funk concert in Detroit was an amazing affair. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic brought the whole family on stage in a way that I cannot imagine was possible anywhere else. The stage crafted mothership descended and out came Bootsy Collins with a bass guitar, star shaped sunglasses and fabulous high heels. And then George Clinton was inviting everyone he knew on to the stage. His granddaughter--a starchild of maybe the age of five--was telling everyone, “Make My Funk the P-Funk.” At one concert I went to I think Clinton even invited his accountant on stage. I am not sure my memory is exactly correct, but I do remember an older white man on stage who had no discernable musical talent and was wearing a button-up shirt. Clinton gave him a quick introduction that seemed to suggest the man helped him manage the business of the band.
Such experiences opened the world--opened the imagination to me--in a way that was not otherwise possible. I saw, live and enfleshed, a community that invited everyone to live their own truth, live into own self, a community where people were just free, “free of evil and violence,” in Robin Kelley’s words, “free of toxins and environmental hazards, free of poverty, racism, and sexism... just free.”
These visions are not limited to George Clinton and P-Funk. They are all around us. We can discover them inside ourselves. We can find them in so many voices. They are in music today, just as they were in music from Clinton’s generation. The Grammy Award winning artist Janelle Monae casts her own freedom dreams in songs like “Crazy, Classic, Life.” There she sings:
We don't need another ruler
All of my friends are kings
I'm not America's nightmare
I'm the American cool
Just let me live my life
Just let me live my life. As we move to the close of this sermon, I want to invite you to have space to dream your own freedom dreams. What would it mean if we were all able to truly live our own lives? The exercise I am about to offer you comes from Chris Crass, I have invited you to do it before I am inviting you to do it again now because there are precious few spaces in the world where we can come together and imagine a world organized around love and liberation.
I invite you to get comfortable. Close your eyes. Notice your body. Notice how it feels to sit in your pew. Notice how it feels to sit in this sanctuary filled with people inspired by our Unitarian Universalist tradition’s vision of love for humanity. Take a deep breath. Feel the air as it enters your lungs, bringing with it the force of life. As you exhale, feel your body releasing any stress and any negative emotions you have. Feel that negativity drain to the ground. Stay with your breath and focus on it as you inhale and exhale five times. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Now, give yourself permission to think creatively and expansively about: The world you are working to create. What is your vision for a just society? What is your freedom dream? There is so much violence that exists in the world. It exists in the government. It exists in our communities. Sometimes it exists in our homes. If you could imagine all of that shifting, all of that hate and fear disappearing, what would the world be like? If you left your home a week from now and discovered that white supremacy had been dismantled what would your neighborhood be like? If you went to the grocery store and learned that violence against women, sexism, and misogyny had been overcome, how would the world appear? If you went to work a month from now and found, we were no longer in the midst of a climate crisis what would humanity’s relationship to the planet be like? What can you imagine? What would it look like in family or your home? In your neighborhood? How would people relate to each other? How would people relate to resources and to the planet? In this new vision, what is valued, who is valued and how?
Imagine that the world you dream about has come to fruition. Imagine that the honest world, the fair world, has arrived. Imagine that you encounter it today, after you leave this worship service. When you depart from this sanctuary what do you find outside of the door? As you travel down the street what kind of institutions and resources do you discover? What do they look like? What sort of services are there? What values are the economy based on? As you return to your home, what does it look like? What is your neighborhood like? What kind of activities are going on? How are decisions being made? How is conflict dealt with? Can you think about the rest of the city of Houston? What are other neighborhoods like? What about other cities? What is Dallas like? Or other states or countries? What is California like? Or Ethiopia?
When you are ready, bring yourself back to what is happening in our sanctuary. Hold onto your freedom dreams. As you do, I invite you to recall the advice of our poet from this morning, Angelamaría Dávila. She wrote about being:
un animal que habla
para decirle a otro parecido su esperanza.
An animal that speaks
to tell another animal what it hopes for
Today, after you leave this service, I invite you to find someone you do not know already and share with them some part of your freedom dream. By speaking it aloud you may just bring it closer to being. By speaking it aloud you might just strengthen your own resolve to work towards creating it. By imagining together, we might be able to find a way out of no way. It might not be for us. It might be for those who come after us. But it is there, waiting, in our imaginations. It is waiting for us to envision it.
We are going to follow the sermon with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It is a wonderful piece rooted in the African American tradition that calls us to remember the possibility that we can dream freedom dreams and move together into a better future—move together like the saints.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
Jan 30, 2020
Imagination is the theme for worship in February. February is Black History Month and the month we kick off First Houston’s annual stewardship drive. Imagination is central to both.
First Houston’s initial founding minister was the Universalist circuit rider Quillen Hamilton Shinn. He inspired the people who started First Houston to create a congregation that preached that God loved everyone without exception. It was a bold vision in the 1890s and it remains a bold one today. It provided the spark that started this congregation, a congregation that has done so much to bring Unitarian Universalism to Houston and Fort Bend County. What might our imaginations and our generosity bring in the future?
It is not an easy question to answer. And it is not a question that we can answer by ourselves. Unitarian Universalist congregations provide us with a space to collectively struggle with the question and imagine how we might best answer it. They are unique places where we can both imagine a different world, encounter the spiritual resources necessary to create one, and then come together to work to build one. And that brings me directly to stewardship.
Stewardship is the act of sustaining the community across the generations. We give money and time--sometimes reframed as our talents and treasure--to First Houston because we know that it gives our lives more spiritual depth and increases our collective capacity to love the Hell out of the world. We give money and time to First Houston because we want to see it continue into the future. We have the congregation because previous generations sustained it so that it might be here for us. Which is to say, they imagined that the congregation would have a future and then they set about creating that future through their generosity.
The theme of our stewardship campaign is “Loving the Hell Out of the World.” The phrase comes from the Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford who was inspired by the theology of our Universalist ancestors. In the words of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, “Our Universalists ancestors didn’t believe in hell, except for the ones we create here in this life. What would it mean to show up in the places where hell, where suffering and violence, persecution and inhumanity, prevail and to bring an active, powerful form of love that affirms dignity, liberation, and peace?” What would it mean, in other words, if we devoted ourselves to loving the Hell out of the world?
This brings me to the black radical imagination. Writing about the history of African American social movements, the historian Robin Kelley places what he calls the black radical imagination at the center of Black History. Over the course of last several hundred years, as people of color have resisted white supremacy, the black radical imagination has provided, in Kelley’s words, visions of “spaces where the energies of love and imagination are understood and respected as powerful social forces.” Such visions have been a crucial resource for building communities that are different in character and composition than the predominantly white and capitalist society that sustains white supremacy, is fueling the climate crisis and the global assault on democracy. Such visions are necessary if we are to devote ourselves to the great task of collective liberation.
Visions from the black radical imagination are one of the resources I look to when I attempt to imagine a future in which Hell has been loved out of the world. In Kelley’s words, it offers visions “of new social relationships, new ways of living and interacting, new attitudes toward work and leisure and community.” That is exactly what the world needs now and exactly what First Houston, at its very best, can offer. So, I hope you’ll join us throughout the month as we explore the imagination and begin our stewardship campaign.
Aiding us in our efforts this month are outstanding guest preachers. On February 9th Aisha Hauser will be returning to First Houston to preach “Leading with Love and Liberation.” And on February 16th we will be welcoming the Rev. Duncan Teague. He will be preaching on “‘Houston, We Have a Problem,’ When My Imagination Failed Me.”
During her time with us, Ms. Hauser will be leading two important workshops on February 8th. The morning’s workship will be on microagressions and the afternoon’s will be on bystander training. More information about both can be found on our website. I hope you can join us for both!
Sun Ra is a musician whose interstellar free form jazz invites listeners to imagine a universe where the destructive rules that govern our society have been overturned and hell has been loved out of the world. I offer a few of his words as my closing poem:
Imagination is a Magic carpet
Upon which we may soar
To distant lands and climes
And even go beyond the moon
To any in the sky
If we came from
Why can’t we go somewhere there?
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.