Jul 16, 2019
On Bastille Day I took my son and Judith Walgren’s son on a day trip to Marseille. We didn’t see much of the city. We really only had two destinations in mind: the Chateau d’If and Ratonneau, a small island off the coast. Both are part of an archipelago a short ferry ride from Marseille’s Old Port. The boys wanted to go swimming—it was pretty hot—and a trip to the chateau and then Ratonneau afforded us the opportunity to see one of Europe’s most famous sites and take a dip in the Mediterranean.
First, we had to get there. We took a commuter train from Arles to Marseille. The trip was a little less than an hour. Afterwards we took a taxi to the Old Port to catch the ferry. As we walked along the wharf to buy tickets, we saw numerous fishermen selling their catches. I saw mackerel, octopus, sea bass, lobsters, and a good half-dozen other things I didn’t recognize. There was also a metallic painted man who moved when paid a euro and puppeteer with a skeleton marionette.
Once we had our tickets, we discovered we had to walk all the way across the wharf to find the dock for our ferry. It took about twenty minutes. Midway through we stopped at one of the many little bistros that line the street. I had a whole sea bass cooked in parchment and served with rice and a salad. The boys had cheeseburgers. The meal was a bit less than fifty euros.
After lunch we got on the ferry and rode it out to Chateau d’If. The chateau is probably most famous as a setting for Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. I have always loved Dumas—I have read the entirety of the Three Musketeers saga, Queen Margot, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It was a fun imaginative exercise to go on a literary pilgrimage. The chateau wasn’t exactly like I had imagined it. I’d always thought that Dumas’s hero Edmond Dantes was locked in an underground dungeon. In fact, the chateau had no underground level and many of the prisoners were kept in cells on the second and third floors.
Dumas is an interesting literary figure for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he is revealing of the way in which the Western canon—whatever it is and whatever it actually consists of—hides a certain amount of racial diversity within it. White supremacists and some misguided liberals often assume that the cannon is entirely white. This is not true. A great number of the foundational Christian theologians were actually North African—Augustine and Origen to name two—and some of the authors that people sometimes assume to be white were in fact people of color. Dumas, for instance, was black. His father Alexander-Thomas Dumas was the first person of color to serve as the general-in-chief of a French army. He was probably of sub-Saharan African descent.
How much does this matter? It depends. How much do the stories we tell about ourselves matter? I happen to think a lot. Actually, I think that one of the key distinguishing human features is our ability to create narratives about ourselves and our communities. Understanding that European art, literature, and philosophy have always been in some sense multiracial or multicultural lays lie to the notion that there is some kind of racially pure European society that innately superior.
After tromping around the old castle for an hour so—its interesting features include stone graffiti carved by both political prisoners from the 1848 uprising and the 1871 Marseille Commune—we caught the ferry to Ratonneau. It is a beautiful Mediterranean mixture of chalky cliffs, stony hills, and jagged fjords surrounded by clear cool water. After a fifteen-minute walk we found a stony beach. The boys practically leapt into the water. It was a joy to watch them. There is something about the unbridled joy of children that is contagious.
We swam for about two hours—I read a bit of James Baldwin in between dips in the ocean—and then made our way to the ferry. We caught a taxi to the train station and would have been at our hotel by eight o’clock if our train hadn’t ended up being delayed by an hour. It was an imperfect end to an almost perfect day. However, there’s something to be said for European candy. A small dose of it kept the boys happy while we waited an interminable time for the train to start.
Jul 14, 2019
One of the joys of travel has always been the moments of pure connection that arise, seemingly out of nowhere, along the way. Tonight I had one of those experiences walking behind the city hall in Arles. I was headed to get an evening drink--my parents were watching my son--when there they were: a half dozen and three singing, dancing, and strumming a guitar. Two young women pulled me in, walked up and asked me where I was from, and invited me to join the impromptu party of strangers: a old French woman missing teeth, three young Arab immigrants, an Irish republican (who later explained, “Bastille Day is when they gave the king and queen the chop, like we ought to do with Queen Elizabeth. No more nobles!”), the two art school students from the Alps who beckoned me to stand with them, a retired drunken Canadian woman, and a slightly bearded young guitarist. The Irishman was singing “Dirty Old Town” by the Pogues. When he finished the guitarist began to strum a rhythmic tune. One of the young Arab women--she couldn’t have been more than seventeen--took off her shoes and began to dance--an energetic, imperfect, ballet, a poem in motion, dark blur of bending, twisting feet, leaping against the cobbles of the street before coming to rest bent upon the ground. Soon it was the art school students turn. One of them, a blonde with a floral tattoo on each arm, took the guitar and in a thin voice that grew bolder, thicker, with every passing syllable began to sing American pop songs, Nirvana, Sting, and then French ballads. There was love and a bit of comedy--a cowboy song from the Alps with the lyric “Yippee ki yay.” I even shyly shared a couple of folk hymns, “Simple Gifts” and “Down to the River to Pray.” Everyone was dancing.
Eventually it ended. This person had to go to bed. That person had to meet their friends. But while it lasted it was a moment of pure connection: beyond the horrors of the hour, beyond the difficulties of language, beyond... just beyond the ordinary.
If there is hope for humanity I am pretty sure it lies in such moments. Instances where the boundaries that separate people disappear in the experience of common connection: shared music, dance, and unexpected joy.
Jul 13, 2019
The crisis in the United States keeps getting worse and worse. Today as I wandered through Arles members of my congregation in Houston participated in protests against President Trump’s planned ICE raids. His administration’s anti-human and anti-immigrant policies are part of the larger global crisis. I have been thinking about the crisis a lot since I have been in France. Much of the photography at Les Rencontres d’Arles is focused on the crisis. And my intention is to make it the major focus of congregational life when I return. I think that the moment we are in requires religious communities to confront it if they are to be faithful to humanity, God, and nature.
Right now, though, I am spending my time in beautiful cafes in Arles drinking rose with my family. I guess that’s what privilege really is in the end, the ability to step outside or away from the world’s crises. And at this age, with my Harvard education, my many trips to Europe and on vacation in other parts of the world, my more than modest income, my significant cultural resources, and, of course, my skin color and citizenship status, I feel quite privileged.
When I return to the United States I will do my best to weaponize that privilege: preaching about the rise of totalitarianism, writing about white supremacy, organizing and attending protests and marches, attempting to develop and articulate spiritual practices and theological resources for confronting the intertwined economic, ecological, social, political, and, well, really spiritual crises humanity faces in these opening decades of the twenty-first century. But now, I just feel my privilege.
I feel it when I attend an exhibition like Philippe Chancel’s. His work emphasizes the global nature of the current crisis: the Republican destruction of the city of Flint’s municipal water system is seen as part of the same cycle of ecological destruction that is decimating parts of Africa or China. It is revealed to be a symptom of a political and economic class that is more interested in its own self-interest than in serving the needs of the vast majority of working people. While the conditions and the political systems are almost incomparably different Chancel is on point in his implicit comparison between a Michigan governed by Rick Snyder or a North Korea run by Kim Jong-un. In both situations the rich and powerful--the most privileged--are fine while poor and working people suffer.
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.
Jul 12, 2019
The entire reason why we’re in Arles is to attend Les Rencontres d’Arles. It is a three month long international photography festival, now celebrating its fiftieth year. Throughout the festival, the city is awash in photography. There are photographic images, photographers, and photography students. Street art of a very special kind springs up on almost every wall of the ancient city--digital prints of photographs wheat-pasted to the stucco, plaster, wood, and brick. Every little cafe or shop seems to have its own show. And throughout Arles there are major exhibits featuring some of the most important figures in the history of photography.
So far, we have been almost half a dozen shows. Yesterday I went to Germaine Krull & Jacques Remy, Un Voyage Marseille-Rio 1941 and La Movida, Chronique d’une Agitation, 1978 — 1988. Both were in or adjacent to the Cloître Saint-Trophime, a magnificent 12th century cloister featuring exquisite stone carvings surrounding a beautiful courtyard.
The Germaine Krull exhibition chronicled the voyage and exile of a group of French political dissidents and European refugees. They fled Paris on the eve of the Nazi invasion. They boarded a freighter run by Vichy partisans and eventually ended up in a penal colony in the North of Africa. The photographs themselves were not particularly interesting. They more-or-less looked like snapshots that someone took of their friends. But as historical documents they are incredible. They show the conditions under which important dissidents like Victor and Vlady Serge lived during the opening years of World War II. And they emphasized that the existence of stateless or semi-stateless refugees is not a recent problem. It dates from the instant that states acquired the necessary technology to demarcate people along the lines of citizenship.
As La Movida exhibition paired beautifully with Libuse’s exhibition. The bodies of work were roughly contemporaneous. And so was the subject matter. While there were many aesthetic differences, the primary difference was the political environment under which the photograph’s were taken. Most of Libuse’s photographs are intimate personal documents chronicling people on the margin’s of society efforts to privately find freedom under a totalitarian regime. In contrast, the four photographers whose work is featured in La Movida lived in a society where people were beginning to publicly pursue freedom after the collapse of a fascist state. Their work generally lacked the intimacy of Libuse’s. It captured the hunger for freedom that people have after freedom becomes possible—as opposed to the way people create free spaces, autonomous zones, in their efforts to privately resist.
The other thing I was reminded of in La Movida exhibition is that I am now old enough to have lived through periods that are now historical. I was an early teen—almost precisely the age my son is now—when the late photographs in both Libuse’s exhibition and the La Movida exhibition were taken. Looking at them I was also reminded of my friend Todd Sines’s photographs of the 1990s techno scene in Detroit--another moment that is both increasingly historically distant and important.
Jul 11, 2019
We spent the majority of our first day in Arles with Libuse Jarcovjakova. She’s an old friend of my parents and for years she’s met with my father’s students in Prague to show them her work and give them a lecture or two on photography. Today was not much different, except that we were in Arles rather than in Prague.
After breakfast we all gathered in the hotel’s conference room and Libuse gave her talk. It was more of a dialogue between her, my father, and Judy Walgren than a formal lecture. I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about the difference between social documentary and personal documentary photography. She said, “When I am doing some social documentary photography, I have done some research... Personal documentary, I use it like self-help. Sometimes I was involved in very complicated situations. I used photography to get some distance for myself and to make some sense of the situation.
Another short note, it is mostly about very ordinary life. It is mostly about something that is very close to you, which is very obvious. Doing photos of such normal ordinary things seems like it might be boring but photography changes things. Life is changing so fast that this ordinary thing will be very important. You don’t need to have some extraordinary adventure. You just need to be present to every day, normal, ordinary life. That is very special.”
One of my father and Judy’s students asked Libuse a question about selfies. This was her response: “I spent five years in West Berlin from 1985 to 1989. There was an exhibit there last year of my work. In the exhibit there were over forty selfies. Living in West Berlin in the 80s I felt very lonely. The selfies were something that helped me to find myself. I was never thinking about my looks. I just wanted to document. I hate myself in many of them. I am just ugly there. I felt horrible. I had no money, no friends, no language. It was a historical moment. But perhaps a good example of what the selfie can do.”
Immediately following her lecture we walked down to the church in the center of town where her exhibition is. It is one of the best exhibition spots in Arles and they had something like two hundred of her images--stretching from the mid-seventies to the late eighties--on display. I bought the exhibition catalog. The images form a remarkable archive of people on society’s margins in Communist Czechoslovakia.
While we were there Libuse gave a second talk. Again, I imperfectly transcribed a few of the things she said. She began by talking about taking photographs in the factory where she worked as a teenager. She said: “At the factory they didn’t care that I was taking pictures until they realized that I wasn’t taking photos of the heroic worker. That was what the Communists wanted. I was taking pictures of people goofing off, sleeping on the job, not working.”
She continued: “In those days, I was very adventurous. I was regularly moving into groups of people that were totally different from me and trying to be accepted. Step-by-step I worked with them and that opened doors. With Vietnamese and the Cubans I taught them the Czech language and I was living with them. They suffered from racism. We teachers were the only Czechs who would spend time with them. And so they wanted me to photograph them. And I took the photographs. I was inside their community. It is necessary to have empathy to join a group like this.”
Reflecting on her body of work she observed: “I had the good luck that I didn’t work on assignment. I had a free hand.”
In response to the question: “What made you ready to show the work?” Libuse said: “Ten or eleven years ago I was unknown. I was always unknown. When I went to my studio I felt a sadness. I had all this work that I hadn’t shared. And so, little-by-little, I began to share my work with some professionals. Then a professional wanted to see both my journals and my images. I felt like it was too personal. I felt like it was gossip. But then I read somewhere that the most personal is the most universal. And I shared more of my work. And I got feedback, especially from young people. They felt like they were reading their own stories.”
In response to the question: “How do you feel now?” Libuse said: “Every morning when I wake up I’m totally empty. I’m very happy. I know it is amazing. People are approaching me and I am know that I have touched their hearts. It is very important for me now not to be in the archives but to be making new work.”
When one of the students asked her how she got her start, Libuse replied: “I am from an artistic family. I got visual art as a heritage. Being in touch with visual culture was very important. My father was a painter and so was my mother. My father had a big personality. I decided I couldn’t be a painter because of him. So, at the age of 13 I got my first camera. At the age of 15 I started to study. Everyone hated my work. And I was very shy about showing it to people. That changed when I started working at the factory at the age of 19.”
When asked, “Were you influenced by punk at all?” Libuse said: “I had almost no influence of contemporary photographers. I knew Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. I had never heard of Nan Goldin.”
That was the last question that she answered during her talk with my father and Judy’s class. After that my family, Judy, her son, Libuse, and Libuse’s niece and grand nephew all went to lunch. We had dinner together as well and then went our separate ways for the evening.
Jul 10, 2019
We met my parents, Judy Walgren, and their students at Charles de Gaulle to catch the train to Arles in the afternoon. The morning was uneventful, we both slept in, and we arrived in time to get a bite to eat before we all got on the train—McDonald’s again for my son and the French pastry chain Paul’s for me.
It turns out that I speak the best French of the group—a rather pathetic statement given that I can only muster enough French to ask for directions, order food, and buy something. Nonetheless, it came in helpful as we traveled. The train ride to Arles consisted of two trains. The first a high-speed train from Paris to Lyon; the second a local train that went from Lyon to Arles. There was a lot of difference between the two trains. The first was modern. It had assigned seats and air conditioning. The second was an artifact from perhaps the 1960s. There were no assigned seats and the car was broken up into a series of cabins of eight.
The most challenging part of the trip was the transfer between the trains. We had exactly 13 minutes to do it. Thirteen minutes to get the luggage of sixteen people—and Americans generally don’t travel light—from one train to another. My French came in handy. I got off and asked directions from a train agent. He answered in English—a fairly common phenomena since many people speak much better English than I speak French—and I was able to steer the group in the right direction.
We barely made the train, but we did, only to discover that without assigned seats many of us had to stand. My son went off with his grandfather and I made my way into a cabin with a handful of extra seats. It was partially occupied by the largest Frenchman I’ve ever seen. He was probably seven feet tall and occupied two seats. The cabin was quite small which gave the whole experience a somewhat surreal feel, especially once people had crammed into all of the seats around him.
The rest of the trip to Arles was uneventful. We saw some beautiful countryside—lavender fields and vineyards—and some delightful towns filled with buildings with stone walls and clay roofs. We arrived exactly on time—8:00 p.m.—and made our way through the streets of the city to the place where we are staying. It is directly across from the Roman coliseum and smack in the center of town.
After checking-in and depositing our bags we went to a pizza place, that also serves Provençal food, for dinner. The service was slow—they managed to forget my son’s order and he ended up eating some of my Dad’s pizza. The waiter was impatient with our lack of French. But overall, the food was quite good. Most people had pizza. I had Provençal style tuna, which was served with a baked eggplant covered in a cheese sauce, some kind of vegetable terrine, a baked tomato, and rice. Towards the end of the meal Libuse Jarcovjakova and her niece and grand-nephew joined us. She and my parents had a long conversation about her sudden success. In addition to pieces in the New York Times and the Guardian, she’s been covered in Le Monde and several other French and Italian publications.
Tomorrow we’re supposed to spend most of the day with Libuse. She’s giving a gallery talk to the students and we’re all having lunch and dinner together. I suspect we’ll spend most of the time in between settling into our apartment.
Jul 9, 2019
We arrived in Paris mid-afternoon. Our flight was delayed by more than two hours. I am not certain why—no consistent explanation was given—but our plane sat on the tarmac at JFK for quite some time. During that time, before I fell asleep on the flight over, I watched a couple of movies: Captain Marvel and the Man from U.N.C.L.E. My son watched a bunch of movies too. He was having such a good time with the inflight entertainment system that I basically had to threaten him to get him to rest for a bit prior to landing.
Our friends Gilles and Nicole have a place across from the Cite de la Science on the edge of Parc de la Villette. Nicole let us in, and my son crashed. Nicole fixed a salad and offered me some baguette for lunch. The salad was simple and delicious—lettuce, a bit of tuna, some egg, and smidge of carrot tossed in olive oil and lemon. Whole books have been written about baguette. Anything I have to say on the subject would be trivial. So, I will pass over the baguette to just note that it was the perfect post-flight meal. Shortly afterwards, I fell asleep.
Someplace the writer Tom Wolfe has a comment about radical chic. It is a phrase he used to describe the New York Review of Books and the left-wing, well-educated, well-off, group of writers who surround it and use it to promote radical politics. Staying with Gilles and Nicole made me realize that the phrase is probably apt for my parents and their friends as well. Many of them share a similar distinctive aesthetic and left-leaning politics. Gilles and Nicole’s apartment has much in common with my parents’ place in Michigan and Marketa Luskacova’s and Libuse Jarcovjakova’s apartments in Prague. In each place there’s the same art filled walls; postcards from friends; copious books; and mass of well use kitchen implements. Some of the art is political. Some of it is satirical. Some reflects a particular affinity with a national culture—the Czechs or the French—but overall the feeling is overwhelmingly international, with a heavy, but not exclusive tilt towards Europe. At my parents’ place there is a bit of Asian art from my Mom’s time with the Peace Corps and some stuff from Mexico—an accumulation from my stints in Chiapas and Oaxaca and my family’s stay in Mexico City when my father was on a Fulbright. At Gilles and Nicole’s there’s a fair amount of African art, particularly masks, acquired, I imagine, from their travels to Africa to photograph people at work.
Visiting with Gilles and Nicole made me aware of my own culture. A number of the women I have dated have said something like, “I’ve never met anyone like you before.” As I have gotten older, I’ve realized that being raised in this milieu of radical chic is not at all a common experience. And so many of the things that I take for granted, including how I think about much of the world, come from this sensibility that is, well, far from the usual American experience.
I anticipate more reflections on culture and radical chic throughout the course of the trip. But for, now, I’ll turn to describing Parc de la Villette. I dragged my son there after we woke up from too long post-airplane naps. It is in my estimation one of the great urban parks of the world: a masterpiece in urban landscaping. The park is a magical mixture of large public spaces and tiny half-hidden gardens. We stumbled into a set of hanging gardens, inspired by the hanging gardens of Babylon; a multiple layered bamboo garden that created a private, quite, meditative, almost other worldly, space in the midst of Paris; and a selection of upright mirrored stones that felt like a modern rendition of menhirs.
I am sure there are other gardens tucked into the Parc waiting to be found but after exploring for about two hours we went back to Gilles and Nicole’s. My son went to bed after a dinner of French McDonald’s. I had another salad with Gilles and Nicole. The aperitif was a delicious mixture of cognac and wine. We spoke a mixture of English and Spanish and they tried to help me with my rather pathetic French. A good portion of the conversation was about light. I have noticed over the years that when I am with photographers they tend to talk about light. They are in the midst of a commercial shoot for Christmas. Apparently, lit candles are very difficult to photograph—they are both a source of light and generally need a source of light to illuminate, a difficult problem.
Tomorrow we meet my parents and my father’s class at Charles de Gaulle airport to catch the train to Arles. This year my father is co-teaching the course with the photographer Judy Walgren. She is a new colleague of his at Michigan State and her son, whose is about the same age as my son, will be accompanying her.
Jul 8, 2019
The rest of July and through early August I will be traveling in Europe with my parents and son. My son and I are tagging along on my father’s study abroad class for Michigan State University. He has taught the course on-and-off since 1980. My mother has accompanied him all but one time. When my brother and I were children we went together with my parents as a family. Since graduating from high school, I have joined my parents on four of their trips to Europe. One of these trips was with both of my children and my then wife. Another was with just my son. My daughter has also traveled with her grandparents on her own.
My father’s class is on photography. As a professor of journalism and a photographer, he has taught two generations of students photography through a combination of portfolio projects, gallery and museum visits, lectures and tours. The lectures and tours are frequently given by leading European photographers--many whom became, over time, some my family’s dearest friends.
This summer my son and I are again joining my parents. My son is now twelve which means that he is old enough to really appreciate aspects of such a trip in ways he wasn’t able to before. Along the way we will be visiting many of the family friends that we have made over the years. These will include artists and art critics, friends of mine from my time at Harvard, childhood friends, and members of the international anarchist community. After reading Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books on the French New Right I attempted to contact a number of people he describes. So, there’s a slim chance I might also connect with some young French right-wing intellectuals.
This year, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to publish excerpts from my journals on my blog. My blog posts will generally be unpolished first drafts--taken almost straight from my journal. They will include not only my reflections on the trip but my thoughts on what I am reading and, possibly, both the profound ecological, economic, political, and social crisis humanity is in the midst of and my thoughts on the role that the Unitarian Universalist church might play in confronting it. In general, when I write about people who are public figures, I will use their names. When I write about people who are not, I will use initials.
My son and I arrive in Paris on July 8th. We will be spending our first night in France at the Paris apartment of family friends Gilles Perrin and Nicole Ewenczyk. On July 9th we meet up with my parents and travel to Arles for the Rencontres d'Arles. I have been to Arles once before and I am particularly excited about this year’s festival because family friend Libuse Jarcovjakova’s work is being highlighted. On Friday it was featured in the New York Times and Guardian. On the 16th we head back to Paris for ten days. We will be visiting with a host of folks there before heading on July 26th to Sers, a village in Nouvelle-Aquitaine where Gilles and Nicole have a home. We will be there until August 2nd when we fly to London. We will spend six nights in London, including my 43rd birthday, before flying home to Houston on the 9th. I am back in the pulpit on the 11th with a question box sermon.
Jul 7, 2019
I will be on vacation and out of the country from July 7th to August 9th. During this time the work of the congregation will continue. It is an important reminder of a central truth of our religious tradition: the congregation belongs to its members and not its ministers.
Reminding you of this truth has been an important part of our work together during the past year. Together we have revitalized lay leadership in the congregation by launching a new Worship Associates program, reimagining and increasing the adult religious education program through our new Connections effort, engaging members of the congregation in the vital work of stewardship and facilities maintenance, forming a new religious education leadership circle, and strengthening our welcoming of visitors. This is only a partial list and elides the significant work consistently done by Board members, the Thoreau Campus Advisory Team, Religious Education teachers, the Care Team, our volunteer A/V techs, and many many others. Singling out individuals or teams for praise is not the point. The point is the strength of First Unitarian Universalist Church lies foremost in its members.
This is something that comes into strongest focus during a transition ministry. But it is a vital lesson to remember even during times of settled ministry. First Unitarian Universalist Church has had many ministers over its more than one hundred years of existence. Its resilience and vibrance throughout the years have in no small part been due to its members. In some very real sense, First Unitarian Universalist Church really is all of you.
While I am gone, the Rev. Dr. Dan King will be serving as acting head of staff. He will also be the primary point of contact for pastoral care. I would also like to inform you the Rev. Dr. King is retiring at the end of August. His last two sermons will be in July and his last Sunday with us will be on August 18th. The congregation, the staff, and I all owe the Rev. Dr. King our gratitude for guidance over this summer and over the past many months. The Rev. Dr. King is a talented minister and has served this congregation well. I hope you will join me in a celebration of his ministry after the service on the 18th.
As always, I close with a fragment of a poem. It comes from the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi. He lives in exile in Paris and his words speak to me of the moment in which we live:
I would like
a mythic bird
to snatch me up
fly me across the sky
and set me down in the country
where the valley of roses
has swallowed the valley of tears
PS – During my vacation I will be regularly updating my blog. I will be in Europe with my son and parents visiting friends. If you would like know what I am up please visit www.colinbossen.com.
Jul 5, 2019
I want to begin our sermon this morning in what might seem to you as an odd place. I want to begin with an apology. This week marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Unfortunately, I did not have this important anniversary on my calendar when we sat down to plan the June worship services. What was on my heart was figuring when to conclude our occasional series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We have done seven services on the principles as they currently exist. I wanted to make sure we had service as part of the series on the proposed eighth principle before too much time had passed. The wording for it reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
We will engage at greater depth with the principle in a moment. But first, I want to return to my apology. We should have devoted the entirety of our service to marking the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall. And we did not. If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, if you love someone who is part of that community, if needed your church home to honor the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall and if you feel that I have given that momentous event short shrift, I am deeply sorry. You are a vital part of this community. I see you. I love you. You are loved by this church. And we will do better in the future.
In the spirit of loving heart of our tradition, I offer you this poem by the Rev. Theresa Soto. They are a minister and transgender activist. They are also a leading voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism. Their poem:
--dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer
and gender-expansive friends and kin
(and those of us whose gender is survival):
let me explain. no,
there is too much. let me sum up*.
you are not hard to love and respect;
your existence is a blessing.
your pronouns are not a burden or a trial;
they are part of your name, just shorter.
someone getting them wrong is not a
poor reflection on you. it is not your fault.
your body (really and truly)
belongs to you. no one else.
the stories of your body
the names of your body’s parts
your body’s privacy
the sum of your body’s glory.
it is not okay for anyone
to press their story of you
back to the beginning
of your (of our) liberation.
we will find the people ready to be
on the freedom for the people way.
we will go on. no one can rename you
Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift
of being and saying who you are.
mostly, though, your stories belong to you.
your joy and complexity are beautiful
however you may choose to tell it (or not
tell it). some folks (cis) may take their liberty
for an unholy license. you are beloved. please
keep to our shared tasks of
Let me repeat those last three lines:
keep to our shared tasks of
Whatever the topic of the service, whatever the message of the sermon, that is what it is really all about. It is why we gather. It is why come together and create community. It is why there is currently a discussion within the Unitarian Universalist Association about adding the eighth principle. So that we might:
keep to our shared tasks of
Again, the proposed principle reads: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
There is a certain sense in which my thoughtless around the anniversary of Stonewall emphasizes the importance of the eighth principle. The eighth principle calls us to be accountable to each other and to work on dismantling systems of oppression not only out in the world but within ourselves and within our institutions.
And central to that work is recognizing that individually and institutionally we occupy certain spaces within society and have particular identities. You see, I was able to forget about the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall because of who I am. I am a heteronormative cis-gender white male. And even though I have plenty of friends who are part of the LGBTQ community, even though I have read texts on the history of sexuality, queer theology, and gender theory by people like Gloria Anzaldua, Leslie Feinberg, Michel Foucault, Pamela Lightsey, and Audre Lorde, even though some of my favorite musicians include gay icons such as the Petshop Boys, Frankie Knuckles, and Sylvester, even though I know how to strike a pose and vogue, my our consciousness is rooted my specific social location. And that social location makes it possible for me to forget to put something as important as the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall on our liturgical calendar.
Recognizing that we each inhabit particular social location is central to the work of liberation. It is one reason why scholars like Pamela Lightsey begin their texts with statements such as: “I am a black queer lesbian womanist scholar and Christian minister.” Lightsey teaches at the Unitarian Universalist seminary Meadville Lombard Theology School. She is the only out lesbian African American minister within the United Methodist Church. Her work focuses on pushing Methodists and Unitarian Universalists to recognize that the majority of our religious institutions were not created by or for queer people of color. She argues that “institutional racism continues to be the primary instrument used to enforce personal racism.” And that if we want to be serious challenging racism in the United States we need to work on it within our own institutions. Her act of stating her own social location is meant to provoke people like me to make my own social location explicit.
Too often people like me often from a space of white normativity. We assume that our own experiences are typical, even universal. And we are oblivious to the ways in which the institutions we inhabit have been constructed to serve people like us. One good test to figure out how much you might operate from a place of white normativity is the “Race Game.” Have you ever played it? Unitarian Universalist theologian Thandeka describes it in her well known work “Learning to be White.” The game is straightforward. It has only one rule. For a whole week you use the ascriptive word white every time you refer to a European American. For example, when you go home today you tell a friend: “I went to church this morning. The preacher was an articulate white man.”
I imagine that I just made some of you uncomfortable. Race is an emotionally charged subject. An honest discussion of the subject brings up shame, fear, and anger. Talking about race can also be revalatory, it can bring the hidden into sight. What the “Race Game” reveals is the extent to which most white people assume white culture to be normative. Thandeka writes, “Euro-Americans... have learned a pervasive racial language... in their racial lexicon, their own racial group becomes the great unsaid.” In her book, she reports that no white person she has ever challenged to play the game has managed to successfully complete it. In the late 1990s, when she was finishing her text, she repeatedly challenged her primarily white lecture and workshop audiences to play the game for a day and write her a letter or e-mail describing their experiences. She only ever received one letter. According to Thandeka, the white women who authored it, “wrote apologetically,” she could not complete the game, “though she hoped someday to have the courage to do so.”
Revelation can be frightening. The things that we have hidden from ourselves are often ugly. In the Christian New Testament, the book of Revelation is a book filled with horrors. The advent of God’s reign on earth is proceeded by bringing the work of Satan into plain light. It is only once the invisible has been made visible that it can be confronted. Thandeka’s work reveals how white people are racialized. It shows that whiteness is not natural, it is an artificial creation. Whiteness is something that white people learn, it is not something that we are born with. Race is a social construct, not a biological one. It is a belief. And it is taught to children.
Thandeka recounts the stories of how many people of who believe themselves to be white learned about race. Most of the stories follow the narrative of Nina Simone’s powerful 1967 song “Turning Point.” I do not have Nina’s voice so I cannot do the song justice. But the words are poetry:
See the little brown girl
She's as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can't you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what'd you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh... I... see...
It is chilling, when Nina sings that last line. She sings it as if it was a revelation. The “Why not? oh why not?” are offered in low confused tones. The “Oh... I... see...” are loud and clear. They suggest a transformation, and not one to be proud of.
I do not have particularly clear memories of learning to be white. Many people Thandeka describes in her book belong to my parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers. I grew up in a somewhat integrated neighborhood. One of my neighbors, I used to mow his lawn when I was in high school, was the Freedom Rider Rev. John Washington. My elementary school had children and faculty of many races.
I do not remember thinking about race until I was in my early teens. I was with my white parents. We were driving through Chicago, the city where my white father was born, when our car broke down across from Cabrini Green. Do you remember Cabrini Green? It was Chicago’s most notorious public housing project, with terrible living conditions and a horrible reputation for violence. My parents told us, their white children, not to get out of the car. I have a clear memory of my white father telling us, “this is a very dangerous neighborhood.” When I asked him what he meant by that he responded by saying he would tell me later. I do not think that he ever did. It was only once I reached adulthood that I realized phrases like “dangerous neighborhood” and “nice neighborhood” or “unsafe failing school” and “good school” contained a racial code.
The effort behind the proposed eighth principle is to prompt Unitarian Universalist congregations to challenge their own unspoken racial codes. The Unitarian Universalist Association’s principles are implicitly anti-racist. Moving from being implicitly anti-racist to explicitly anti-racist might help us to reveal the ways in which our institutions were primarily built for people who believe themselves to be white. And most of them certainly were. All Souls, DC, the congregation behind the eighth principle proposal, has been a multiracial community for more than a hundred years. More than a hundred years ago, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass used to worship there. Yet All Souls includes among its founding members John Calhoun, one of the principal defenders of slavery.
As you might remember, in addition to being a minister I am also an academic. Over the last several years much of my research has been into the history of white supremacy. It has convinced me of the necessity of adopting the eighth principle. While working on my dissertation, I read thousands of pages of texts from the Ku Klux Klan. I studied the history of the Confederacy and the ideology of chattel slavery. And I learned that until the middle of the twentieth-century white supremacists thought of themselves as liberal. They promoted the values of free speech and freedom of religion. They just thought that these freedoms were only for people who believed themselves to be white. Their position was sometimes implicit--they did not state such freedoms did not extend to everyone. They just refused to extend them to all of humanity.
Each year prior to the Fourth of July I read Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” It is a reminder that so often the liberal principles of freedom have not extended to all people. Their proponents have assumed white normativity. So, let us invoke Douglass, one of the greatest abolitionists, the escaped slave who declaimed, “I shall see this day and its popular characteristics from the slave’s point of view.” Observed thusly the holiday showed, in his words, “America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
Douglass believed America was false to its past because European Americans pretended that the American Revolution was about freedom. The truth differed. The Revolution was about freedom for whites. For African Americans it heralded another ninety years of enslavement. For Native Americans, the indigenous people of this continent, it signaled the continuation and amplification of generations of land theft and genocide. Slavery was outlawed in England, but not the English colonies, in 1772. The English crown was more respectful of Native America nations than most European colonists wished. What to the Slave was the Fourth of July? A celebration of white freedom; a gala for African American slavery. Liberty and slavery were the conjoined twins of the American Revolution. High freedom for those who believed themselves to be white, and base oppression for others, mostly people of color, continues to be its legacy.
For those of you who are comfortable with traditional religious language, let me suggest that white supremacy is a sin. Paul Tillich, one of the great white Christian theologians of the twentieth century, helpfully described sin as “estrangement.” It can be cast as separation, and alienation, from the bulk of humanity, the natural world, and, if you identify as a theist, God. James Luther Adams, one of Tillich’s students and the greatest white Unitarian Universalist theologian of the second half of the twentieth century, believed that the cure for the estrangement of sin was intentional, voluntary association. We can create communities that overcome human separation. He wrote, “Human sinfulness expresses itself... in the indifference of the average citizen who is so impotent... [so] privatized... as not to exercise freedom of association for the sake of the general welfare and for the sake of becoming a responsible self.”
The Christian tradition offers a religious prescription for dealing with sin. First, confess than you have sinned. Second, do penance for your sin. First, admit that you are estranged. Second, try to overcome that estrangement. We might recast the prescription in terms of addiction. First, if you believe yourself to white, admit that you are addicted to whiteness. Second, you try to overcome your addiction, step by small step. First, you admit that we, as a society, have a problem. Second, we try to address it.
The eighth principle is a vital effort to address the social construct, the collective sin, of racism. Racism requires institutions to maintain. The eighth principle challenges to place our institutional commitment to dismantling racism at the center of our faith tradition--not on its periphery. It challenges us to make Unitarian Universalism explicitly anti-racist, not implicitly so.
Frederick Douglass, and other abolitionists, accused the churches of their day of siding with the slave masters against the enslaved. Douglass proclaimed, “the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually sides with the oppressors.” Today most religious institutions, particularly most predominantly white religious institutions, maintain racial norms not out of malice but out of ignorance. Silence is the standard. But, as Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.” The proposed eighth principle calls on Unitarian Universalists to break our institutional silence.
And breaking this silence requires people like me recognize that our perspective is not universal. It is just as vital for me to sometimes say, I speak as a cis-gendered heteronormative male who society has labelled white as it is for someone like Pamela Lightsey to specify her position. Such specificity means that in a country which devalues the lives of LGBTQ people and people of color we make it clear that everyone has inherent worth and dignity. This means breaking assumptions that the experiences of people like me that our experiences our universal, that this country honors everyone’s inherent worth and dignity because it has historically honored the worth and dignity of men who believe themselves to be white.
This is difficult work. It means making mistakes. It means apologizing. It means learning from those mistakes and then trying to do better. And it means committing to stay together in community because we believe that our community can be redemptive. It can be a place to overcome the sin of separation. For we understand that in the face of all of the difficulties and challenges, all the fear and assumptions, there is a higher truth: love is the most powerful force there is. Love can bind us together. Love is stronger than hate. Love can change the world.
In the knowledge that it is so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.