Feb 14, 2020
On February 9, 2020, Aisha Hauser was the guest preacher at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, Museum District campus. Her sermon was very well received and, with her permission, I have posted the text of it as a guest blog post:
I want to thank Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen for inviting me to return to preach today.
What does it mean to lead with love while centering liberation?
Dr. Cornel West, scholar and public intellectual often says that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
If we can work toward and create a more just and equitable world, we will be demonstrating how love manifest itself to all.
When I am talking about love in this context today, I don’t mean the flowery words of greeting cards or shallow platitudes of niceness. When I invoke love in this case, I am talking about what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as “agape.”
To quote Dr. King:
Agape means understanding, redeeming good will for all people. It is an overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object…Agape is disinterested love. It is a love in which the individual seeks not their own good, but the good of their neighbor. Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving others for their sakes. It is an entirely “neighbor-regarding concern for others,
To be clear, Dr. King in this context was preaching nonviolence. Influenced heavily by Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau, he hoped to inspire African Americans and their allies in the fight for justice and freedom to hold fast to non-violent protests as a way to dismantle the oppressive systems in place.
I invoke the spirit of “agape love” here in the hopes of offering a framework for how we affirm each other in our speech and how we can center liberation, through our language and ultimately in our actions.
I want to share a story of my own learning process about how powerful turning to love when centering liberation can be.
In 2016, General Assembly, the annual gathering of UUs from across the globe was held in Columbus, Ohio. During the Service of the Living Tradition, the service that celebrates religious professionals entering ministry, ordained clergy, religious educators and musicians are included in this celebration. That year was especially memorable, not only because former President of the UUA Rev. Dr. Bill Sinkford was preaching, but because of an awareness that was lifted during his sermon. A few of the fellowshipped clergy sitting on the stage held up signs saying “OUCH,” every time ableist language was referenced.
When the word “stand” was said, the signs were lifted, if the word, “see” or “hear” was said, the signs were lifted. The organizer of this awareness campaign was the Rev. Theresa Ines Soto.
Rev. Soto is now one of my dearest friends. At the time, we had only met socially, and I found myself wondering why they would be so offended by metaphors. Sure, Rev. Soto has had accessibility issues since they were born. I knew they were a teacher and attorney, surely metaphors were something that could be allowed in a religious setting.
I found myself wanting to defend the use of metaphors and to want to explain to those holding signs that we can’t just give up on beautiful language.
Before I engaged in any of these discussions, I returned home and started reading the ways that ableist language excludes so many.
I started to ask myself, “What is it that I am holding on to by arguing and fighting to continue “saying” what I “want.”
Considering being informed that what I “want” excludes and is painful.
I then thought about the sayings I no longer use because of their origins.
For example, I don’t use the expression, “rule of thumb” because it harkens back to an old English law that allowed a woman to be beaten by her husband as long as the stick was not larger than his thumb. Hence “the rule of thumb.”
Once I learned that history, I simply never used it again. If I learn that my use of the word “stand” to mean affirm was hurtful and exclusionary, why hold on?
I realized that one of the ways I want to show up in the world as a person of faith, is to listen and respond in ways that are loving. I found that love, rooted in liberation, in this case was to learn ways to minimize my use of ableist language. The UU musician and songwriter, Jason Shelton changed the title and lyric of the song “Standing on the Side of Love” to “Answering the Call of Love” I like that even better. We are moved to answer the call of love rooted in liberation for all.
Another way to answer the call of love rooted in liberation, is using the pronouns a person asks you to. Don’t argue about singular or plural, for the record, Webster’s dictionary now recognizes “they” as singular. We do not have any reason not to show respect and love by listening and responding to what is asked of all of us. Studies indicate that using a trans/non binary person’s correct pronoun and name, lowers their rates of suicide and depression. You are engaging in love speech when you listen and affirm, rather than argue about the “correct grammar.”
Now, at this point I’m going to guess that at least one person in this sanctuary is thinking of “politically correct speech.” I want to name that I find the whole notion of “PC” speech as nonsense and even the term is absurd. There is nothing correct about our politics. Our politics are not the place to look for inspiration or ways to treat each other.
What we are talking about is our humanity and the humanity of all those around us who are naming pain.
We continue to work at the great human experiment that is the United States. A place where, I would guess, that every country on earth is represented.
Where we live together in a way that we attempt to form an identity that is both common and yet unique.
In order to accomplish this herculean task, we must be intentional and be willing to decenter our own narrative and our own point of view. This is especially true if your identity is part of the dominant culture.
Unitarian Universalism can be a reflection of the United States culture. I say, can be and not is a reflection, because while we do have ethnic and racial diversity within UUism, the majority of our brick and mortar spaces, remain predominantly Eurocentric.
This is not a good or bad thing; it is simply limiting.
There are those who believe that Unitarian Universalism is not broken and is fine just the way it is. Those voices have named feeling marginalized and silenced as a result of the events of the spring of our enlightenment, in 2017.
The folks that I would say want to make Unitarian Universalism “great again,” decry the “limits” put on their speech. After all, what about the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”
Doesn’t that mean we can say whatever we want?
The answer is yes, you can “say” whatever you want. That has always been true.
AND what has always been true is that there are consequences to all kinds of speech.
When engaging in speech claiming to defend the rights of the already powerful and the rights of the dominant culture, the consequences are that oppressive systems are maintained and voices of the marginalized are silenced.
When our speech is unkind and hurtful, we cause harm.
When engaging in speech that centers love rooted in liberation, the consequences can be positive and life affirming.
Because unkind speech gone unchecked- turns into hate full policies and laws, as the history of our country and current events today demonstrate.
The hateful speech and disturbing rhetoric that is rampant on social media and from the current occupant of the White House is having devastating effects on the lives of Black and Brown people. It is hate speech turned into action in the most dehumanizing ways.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are called on to affirm the humanity of every person.
Not only the ones deemed worthy. Who is worthy and who is worth--less and who gets to decide?
In July there were demonstrations all over the nation protesting the inhumane and unconscionable concentration camps that are being maintained FOR PROFIT on our southern border. Thousands of people of all ages, including infants and toddlers, youth, adults of all ages are being held in detention centers for the supposed “crime” of not waiting in some imaginary line.
The fact is that it is not a crime to seek asylum.
However, the speeches and rhetoric that this administration chooses to name is an inaccurate one that deems human beings “illegal.”
Words matter. No human being is illegal.
These centers are overcrowded, and the people in them are being treated worse than any animal is allowed by law to be treated.
What is happening to us and what have we become?
We Unitarian Universalists love our words, and our intellectual discussions. Let’s take a moment to talk about the word, “theology.”
The word “theology” means “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” For Unitarian Universalists this understanding and study of the “nature of God and our beliefs” are rooted in how we relate to each other and the world around us. As a covenantal faith, we enter into agreements of how we will love, honor and affirm each other and all living beings and our living earth. In my frame of reference and how I understand and live my UU faith, there is no separation between our theology and social justice.
I grew up in a strict Muslim home. One of the mandates that my mother passed on to me is that God will judge us by how we treat the poor. My mother made no secret of her disdain of the Saudi Arabian and United Arab Emirate Governments who, with their vast wealth, have not had a hand in solving the problem of hunger and poverty in the world.
To me, there has never been a separation between theological grounding and social justice. The two go hand in hand.
We are invited to turn to Love Speech rooted in liberation, Agape Love to affirm the humanity of anyone crossing thresholds, “borders” seeking a better, safer life for themselves, for their families for their children. Working for social justice and equity is an integral part of our theological mandate and it is part of turning Love into loving action. It is integral to our understanding the nature of all that is Holy and what is larger than any one of us individually. We cannot know or understand our theology without knowing and understanding that we are mandated to use our privilege to fight for equity and justice.
The Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen, the Interim Senior Minister at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, wrote a blog chronicling his recent trip to Europe this past July. While there, the news of what is happening here in the United States weighed heavy on him. He posted on July 12th:
In the midst of the global crises, I think that the for challenge someone like me is partly about holding onto my own humanity. In the end, privilege contains within it the possibility of shedding one’s humanity. I believe that there is only one human family and that we are all, ultimately, part of the same earthly community. Privilege is based on separation. The ability to... [step] away from the experiences that most people have. And, well, in a world filled with refugees, economic exploitation, and many other kinds of discrimination and systematic violence, I feel quite privileged--which is to say separate and insulated--here in the South of France.
We do not have to endure the continued chipping away of our humanity.
We have it in us to prioritize and affirm the humanity of those with target identities.
We always have the choice to remain engaged and informed in ways that help us to form coalitions and move in solidarity with those who are working to dismantle oppressive systems.
We always have the choice to center love rooted in liberation.
I will leave you with these words from San Francisco area artist Sandra Bass she declares:
Now is the time to unleash our collective imaginations to till the soil, nourish the seeds of change with our aspirations, and bolster fledgling shoots promising new possibilities with ageless wisdoms, compassion, and courage. Not because we’re certain that our labors will bear a harvest, but because we know that it is only through daily acts of loving and serving with and for each other that we live into our boundless, sacred humanity. Constant gardeners we must be, ever preparing the earth for full and abundant life.
Mar 25, 2019
This is the third sermon in our series on the seven principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The seven principles are not a creed. They are not a statement of belief. One way to understand them is that they are a covenant--an agreement about the promises Unitarian Universalists make to each other about how we will live together. Covenants are at the heart of Unitarian Universalist practice. We use them in the place of a set of beliefs to which all members of the community must subscribe. They are one of the oldest customs among our congregations. In New England there are Unitarian Universalist churches whose covenants date back to the seventeenth century. Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker offers a concise description of where covenants lie within our tradition. She writes, “In place of a hierarchical church authorized by tradition and governed by priests, bishops, and popes, [our religious ancestors] ... insisted congregations should be organized by people coming together and making a covenant to ‘walk together’ in their spiritual lives. Covenanted religious communities rest on the authority of their members...” This last point is especially important. The world changes over time. And, as I recounted a couple of weeks ago, the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association--the covenant we promise to keep between our congregations--have changed in response to shifts in society and our understanding of the world around us. We been able to change them because have given ourselves the authority to change them.
This week we are tackling the third principle: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” I want to make a deceptively simple claim about this principle. It offers us a basic formula for our life together. As Unitarian Universalists, we promise to accept each other. We promise to encourage each other towards spiritual growth. And we promise to do so as part of a congregation.
My claim about the third principle is deceptively simple. None of these things are easy. If we engage with them we will find ourselves transformed. But then, is that not a purpose of religious life? To transform ourselves and equip each other to transform the world? This morning I want to take us through each part of the formula for life together that the third principle offers us. And I want to suggest to you how following it can be transformative. But before I do, a couple of painfully bad jokes.
In a big elegant Unitarian Universalist church up in New England, a visitor was making a ruckus in the back pew. After every sentence the minister spoke, the visitor shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!”
As the service progressed, an usher approached the visitor and spoke to them quietly. “Uh... excuse me... we just do not do things like that here.”
“But I got religion!” the visitor exclaimed.
“Well,” the usher said, “You certainly did not get it here.”
One evening, a Unitarian Universalist was at a cocktail party with a bunch of people from other religious traditions. After a little while, the Unitarian Universalist realized that they could tell the religious tradition of the other guests by the first question someone asked them.
The Methodists wanted to know, “Where do you go to church?”
The Congregationalists queried, “Did your family come over on the Mayflower too?”
And the other Unitarian Universalists said, “Where did you go to graduate school?”
Acceptance of one another
Those are pretty bad jokes. I told them to offer to two observations. First, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the kinds of behavior that are appropriate in our churches. Second, many of the members of most Unitarian Universalist communities have certain, usually unspoken, expectations around the type of people who are attracted to Unitarian Universalism.
First observation... expectations for behavior...
When I speak of behavior I am not talking about the question of ethics. I am not asking, how must we act in the world if we love justice and love goodness? Instead, I am talking about culture: the implicit assumptions people make about how to conduct themselves in certain situations. This brings us back to our first joke.
Unitarian Universalist churches are not known for our ecstatic religious celebrations. Bob Fazakerly, our musician emeritus, told us when he retired that people used to come to First Church for a classical music concert and a lecture. Neither classical music concerts nor lectures are genres known for their ebullient audience participation. If anything, it is precisely the opposite. In symphony halls and lecture venues the audience is supposed to sit quietly and absorb the powerful music or the stimulating message.
When I have preached at various congregations I have tried to shake this up a bit. I have invited people to talk back to me or to each other during the sermon. The results have sometimes been... well... humorous? Responding immediately to the sermon, offering an “Hallelujah” or an “Amen” in reaction to whatever the preacher just said is not something that happens in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A discomfort with saying “Hallelujah” I can understand, at least on a theological level. The word is Hebrew. It roughly translates to, “Praise God.” A lot of Unitarian Universalists are humanists or atheists. They are not usually comfortable praising God.
“Amen” is another Hebrew word. It translates to “so be it.” Unitarian Universalists say it fairly often throughout the service. I invite you to say at various points on Sunday morning. When you say it you signify your rough assent or agreement with the offered prayers or sermon. You are not indicating that you agree with every word spoken. Instead, you are indicating your support for the general spirit of the message or prayer.
In a lot of religious contexts, people say “Amen” frequently throughout the service. In some congregations there is even something called the “Amen” corner. That is a group of people who get pretty excited throughout the service and support the preacher by saying “Amen” whenever there’s something they like in the sermon. Shall we try it for a moment? Can I get a quick “Amen”?
Most Unitarian Universalist congregations do not have “Amen” corners. One of the first times someone pointed out to me just how closely this reflected the culture of the classical music concert hall and college lecture when I was serving a church in Cleveland, Ohio.
I invited a Black Baptist friend of mine to come preach the Sunday sermon to my congregation. We part of a network of religious communities and clergy devoted to social justice. We socialized together, and I occasionally attended her church on my Sundays off. Their services were boisterous affairs. There was a big gospel choir, a strong “Amen” corner, lots of clapping during the hymns...
So, my friend came to my congregation and gave her sermon. The congregation appreciated her and the service went well. Afterwards, I asked her what she thought. She said, “It certainly was tranquil. Very nice people. Similar vibe to the Cleveland Symphony.”
Similar vibe to the symphony... In the bad joke the usher was telling the visitor that it was not OK to bring their whole self to the worship service. There were to be no Amens, no Hallelujahs, no ecstatic expressions of religion. The visitor might have accepted--they were no thrown out of the church nor where they theologically condemned. But they were certainly not welcomed.
This leads me to a series of questions for you. Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like you can bring your whole self here? If not, why not? Conversely, are there certain behaviors that you expect on a Sunday morning? What are they? How would you feel if we had an “Amen” corner? It is good to talk about our answers to these questions. It is one way that we clarify our assumptions about what it means to do church together. It allows us to make the invisible visible and to challenge our own assumptions. That, in turns, opens up a space for us to engage in the work of collective transformation.
Second observation... expectations around culture...
In my second bad joke, Unitarian Universalists ask each other the question, “Where did you go to graduate school?” This question surfaces an assumption about Unitarian Universalism that many people have. It is often presumed to the educated person’s religion.
As a denomination one of our greatest struggles is around class diversity. The historian Mark Harris wrote an entire book on classism within Unitarian Universalism. He claims that a preference for a more tranquil worship service is tied to the class orientation that many of our churches had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Back then, New England Unitarianism was the religion of the social elite. They rejected the instant emotional conversion to salvation favored by evangelicals. Instead, they thought that salvation was to be found through an educational process that would last throughout life. This understanding of salvation--the slow and steady, rather than the quick--led them to think that churches were not different from universities.
Even though I am myself Harvard educated, I have experienced my share of class discomfort in Unitarian Universalist congregations. While I was working on my doctorate I regularly did pulpit supply. About twice a month, I preached at a different church. Some of them were small and scrappy. Others were large and elegant.
As some of you know, I am a single parent. When I would go preach someplace I would have to bring my son along with me. When he was little, when it was time for the service to start, my son would want to sit up in the pulpit with me. He did not know anyone else at the congregation. And as a five, six, or seven-year-old he was not comfortable sitting out there, in the pews, by himself.
Now those of you who are parents, or know children at all, can imagine how this sometimes played out. Kids squirm. They do their own thing. He would dutifully go off and join the other children when it was time for religious education classes. But he was very clear he wanted to sit next to his Dad until then.
Those big elegant New England churches have huge pulpits elevated over the entire congregation. There is nowhere to hide in them. You can imagine how the presence of my wiggling child next to me in the pulpit sometimes went over. After preaching, on more than occasion, I received notes or comments about how my sermon was very good but it was inappropriate for me bring my son with me when I went to lead the service somewhere. He was too distracting. The underlying message: we do not want single working parents as our ministers. That is about a classist message as they come.
More questions: Do you feel welcomed at First Church? Do you feel like your level of education or economic class matters to other members? Do you have certain assumptions about the level of education or the economic class about other members? Again, it is good to talk about our answers to these questions. When we talk about them we can make the invisible visible and challenge our own assumptions. We can raise the questions: Who is really accepted at First Church? Who do we really welcome here? Do we need to change our congregation to live into our universalist theology of radical love and acceptance.
Encouragement to spiritual growth
Asking these questions together can push us towards greater spiritual growth. That is one of principal reasons for our religious life together: to deepen our own religious sensibilities. Or as I put it at the beginning of the sermon: to transform ourselves and our community. We might think of it is as a process. First, someone is welcomed into our religious communion. Second, they are encouraged towards spiritual growth.
The very process of welcoming can be an opportunity for spiritual growth--for personal and collective transformation. In recent weeks there has been a fair amount of discussion in Unitarian Universalist circles around the question of welcoming. How many of you get or read the UU World? It is our association’s quarterly magazine.
In the most recent issue there was an article on how Unitarian Universalist congregations welcome transgender and genderqueer people. It was written by a cis-gender woman and centered on her experience of relating to transgender and genderqueer people. Many transgender and genderqueer Unitarian Universalists were outraged.
CB Beal is a Unitarian Universalist educator who self-describes “as a gender non-binary, gender non-conforming, genderqueer person.” They wrote an eloquent response centering their experience and the experiences of other transgender and genderqueer people in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to consider who feels most welcome in our congregations. They challenged Unitarian Universalists to ask the question: What standards of behavior, what kinds of dress, what identities are expected in most Unitarian Universalist congregations? They write, “When we [Unitarian Universalists] ... speak of inclusion but we only mean that people are welcome among us when their identities do not cause us confusion or discomfort, we are not speaking of inclusion.”
The President of our Association, Susan Frederick-Gray has said to us, “our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love.” “However,” she has reminded us, “we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies--and what liberation means.”
In dialogue with this insight, CB Beal suggests three steps towards living into our theology of radical love and building communities of radical welcome. For someone who is relatively privileged like me, they recommend: “First, to seek the voices of the marginalized and center those voices. Second, not to decenter them when they say something we... [do not] want to hear. Third, if we hear something we... [do not] want to hear or that we ... [do not] agree with...” commit to staying in the conversation.
We encourage each other towards spiritual growth when we listen to and welcome difference. My identity, my theology, my way of expressing myself might be different from yours. We are each transformed when we learn to communicate and, dare I say, love across these differences.
Further questions: How has your life, your spirituality, been changed by being part of a congregation that contains people who are different from you? How have you grown or been transformed by participating in a religious community where there is no consensus on the nature or presence of the divine? Where our theology includes theists and atheists, believers and doubters, pagans and pantheists, and all seekers after religious truth?
In our congregations
One of the great gifts of Unitarian Universalism is the hybrid nature of our religious communities. The covenantal nature of our communities and our commitment to theological diversity means that among Unitarian Universalists you can find different religious identities. There are Christian Unitarian Universalists. There are Jewish Unitarian Universalists, like my family. There are Muslim Unitarian Universalists. There are Unitarian Universalist pagans. There are Unitarian Universalist humanists. There are Shikh Unitarian Universalists. There are Hindu Unitarian Universalists. I would need to continue my list for a list for long time to effectively include all of our theological diversity. What I am trying to do, in my own awkward way, is to highlight the hybridity of Unitarian Universalism.
Ours is a religious tradition that for many years has been open to influence by other religious traditions. Historian Susan Ritchie observes that in the sixteenth century, “European Unitarianism grew up in the soil of a variety of boundary lands in the outreaches of Eastern Europe.” That set of our religious ancestors became Unitarian because they sought to reconcile the theologies of three religious communities present in places like Transylvania and Hungary. Christians, Jews, and Muslims, they believed, were all children of the same God. By rejecting the divinity of Christ, they thought, it was possible to recognize the family resemblance between the different religions of their lands. This, they hoped, would lead to religious tolerance and, ultimately, peace.
I picked Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem “To live in the Borderlands means you” as one of our readings this morning because it is one of my favorite pieces on hybridity--on navigating the challenging, fertile, wonderful, and sometimes dangerous space of living between defined identities. Anzaldúa was a queer Chicana poet from Texas. She wrote her poem to reflect on what means to live as a Chicana in country that stole much of its land from Mexico and seeks to build borders between itself and Latin America. She wrote it reflect on what it means to be LGBTQI in a country that has historically marginalized everyone but straight presenting cis-gendered white men. When she wrote:
Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you’re a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half--both woman and man, neither--
a new gender.
She was not thinking of Unitarian Universalism or our communities at all.
Yet, I think that her poem expresses much truth when it comes to living with a hybrid identity in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. If you have a hybrid identity, you are never fully one thing or the other. You are something in between. And that something is wonderful. You may not always feel welcome. Your identity may be contested. But you are wonderful and you are loved.
And that, is our challenge, when we hear the third principle of our association: “Acceptance of another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.” We are challenged to radically welcome each other. We are challenged to truly accept each other. Regardless of class, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of other human divisor, regardless of education, regardless of worship style, we are called to build a community where all are welcome and all are loved. Our last question: Can we do it together?
And to that, I invite the congregation to say, “Amen.”