as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, May 1, 2022
I want to begin by thanking everyone who contributed to last night’s fundraiser. It was a wonderful celebration of First Houston and our musical program. Thanks to Dr. Rocke and Chelsea, the choir, the string band, Paige Powell, Jim McGehee, Karoline Mueller, Traveler, the Clear Creek Girls, Rev. Scott, Alma, Tawanna, Christian, and everyone else who either helped put on the event or attended and made a donation.
It was great to have so many of you turn out to support the congregation, listen to some wonderful music, and share fellowship. The event was a great reminder of that worn but true adage, the people are the church. After the difficulties and sorrows of the last years, it was so good to be together again. I look forward to many more opportunities in the coming months. And if you missed this one, do not worry! You can still go online and watch the recording.
One of the other opportunities for gathering that we have been offering is a program that we launched at the end of March. It is a yearlong effort called Religion in Houston’s Pan-African Community. How many of you are familiar with it?
We received funding from an effort organized by Princeton University called the Crossroads Project. This is a program that brings together scholars, artists, and community organizers from across the country to do research and public projects on Black religious histories, communities, and cultures.
Sadé and I were named fellows to conduct, as a collaboration between First Houston and her farmers market, a series of ten public oral histories with community leaders from the city’s Third, Fourth, and Fifth Wards. We are talking with them about the relation between religion and Black radical politics.
Half the conversations are taking place here in our sanctuary. The other half are being held at community centers, universities, and religious institutions connected to the people we are interviewing.
Our first event took place at TSU. We spoke with John “Bunchy” Crear, a former member of the Black Panther Party. He worked closely with many of the party’s leaders–he even served as Bobby Seale’s driver for a year-or-so–and was active organizing in the Panther’s free breakfast program here in Houston. That took place at the Mt. Horeb Baptist Church and, incidentally, we will be interviewing the congregation’s longtime minister, the Rev. Samuel Smith, Jr., next month. At the age of 92 he still preaches almost every week.
Our second event was held here a week ago last Tuesday. We spoke with Baba Ifalade. He is an Ifa priest, storyteller, master gardener, jazz musician, and practitioner of, amongst other things, New Orleans Hoodoo and Voodoo. It was a pretty amazing conversation and, if you were not here for it, I highly recommend going online and watching the video of the livestream.
Baba talked with us about a number of different things. One that made a particular impression on me was his discussion of ancestor worship. You might know that for a lot of the world’s traditions, ancestor worship is a significant religious practice. You probably also know that many Christians have historically objected to it and sought to stamp it out, to claim that it is something of the Devil.
So, Sadé asked Baba about ancestor worship. He responded by telling us, “our ancestors are our connection to the spiritual world.” And then he expanded on the practice.
What he said is really worth listening to and so, if you bare with me, I am going to read to from a section of the transcript.
He told us that people are calling up spirits all the time. And then he said:
“You are calling up spirits when you say the name Houston. ‘cause it is Sam’s last name. You calling up spirits when you say Austin, ‘cause that was Stephen’s last name. You calling up spirits when you look at the money are realize that the images are people, not objects but people. Their names are… featured there so you don’t forget who they are… There is ancestor worship going on around you constantly. If you’re trying to figure out why our people are so powerless… It is because we are not praising our ancestors. We are not praising the works that they did, the sacrifices that they made. We are not tuning into them and calling their names and thanking them for the sacrifices that they made. You are the beginning of your own descendents but you are the sum total of your ancestors.”
The ancestors… I have been thinking about my ancestors this week as I have been preparing to preach this sermon. I have been thinking of them for two reasons. First, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, took place earlier this week.
My father’s family immigrated from the region around Odessa in the early twentieth-century. Not all of them came over. Some stayed behind. And, as far as anyone knows, all of my relatives who stayed in Ukraine were killed by the Nazis in the various massacres of Jews that took place in and outside of Odessa in opening years of World War II.
I will be honest that I do not even know these people’s names–these great aunts and uncles, these cousins of mine who perished during the Holocaust. But I have been thinking of them this week and all that was lost with them. I have been thinking about them because of Yom HaShoah and because of the horrors that are taking place in Ukraine right now as I speak.
The war crimes being committed there, the Russian invasion, the ruins of cities, the bleak and desolate pictures of collapsed buildings, body bags… The phrase heart breaking is entirely insufficient. The awfulness of the last century seems to be being repeated in this one.
Yom HaShoah is not the only reason why I have been thinking of my ancestors. The other reason has to do with the announced subject of this sermon, May Day, the workers holiday.
I am what used to be called a red diaper baby. Both my parents come from families with long lines of political dissent. My mother’s people were involved in Amana Colonies, which were a set of utopian communities devoted to a form of Christian socialism in Iowa. My grandparents’ generation left the colonies, but they retained a lot of the communities’ values. Neither my grandfather nor my great-grandfather, both named George Norris and both being draft age during World War II, served in the military during the war.
My father’s family, on the other hand, they were Jewish socialists. My great-grandfather David was part of the St. Petersburg Soviet during the 1905 revolution. My great uncle Isidore was an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. Family lore has it that he was the one of the so-called agitators who the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory were trying to keep out when the workers inside the building. Do you know that tragic story?
It is one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. In 1911, in New York, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire. The workers who worked there were in the middle of a union organizing drive. The factory owners had barred the doors to prevent anyone from leaving during their shift and to stop people like my great uncle from coming in and encouraging the workers to join the union. When the fire broke out the workers–mainly young Italian and Jewish immigrant women–were trapped inside. More than 140 people died.
May Day, the workers holiday, is for sharing stories like that one. It is a time to lift up all of those who have struggled so that ordinary working people might have more of the good things of life. It is a time to declare that working people across the world have much more in common with each other than the great lords of wealth. It is a holiday to celebrate the workers organizations, the unions, and honor the labor movement, “the folks who brought you the weekend,” as one old adage goes.
It is an opportunity to engage in a form of ancestor worship. To remember the people who struggled and sacrificed so that we might have things like minimum wage and health and safety laws.
Of course, here in the city of Houston, where working people have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage of any major city in the country… and here in the state of Texas, a so-called right-to-work state, where unions are weak and, in most cases, practically nonexistence… and here in the United States where minimum wage has not increased in over a decade and an hour’s work will barely cover the costs of a single meal… and here on a planet where men like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have accumulated fortunes so vast that they are wealthier than whole mid-sized countries–each of them individually is worth about as much as the entirety of Ukraine’s economic output… it can be hard to feel like there’s much to celebrate on May Day.
Inequality is rising. Many of the gains that the labor movement made in the last century have been worn away.
This is all the more reason to celebrate the holiday. By doing so, we can remind ourselves that, against great odds, people have come together to improve their working conditions in the past. By honoring them, we can learn from them and perhaps find the inspiration we need to improve our own lives.
One of the most important things in life is figuring out who you owe. Each of you listening to this sermon have benefited from innumerable, often unnamed, people who came before you. Sitting in this sanctuary, or listening to this sermon online, we are the beneficiaries of the generations that came before us and built this church–both metaphorically and physically.
We should be grateful not just for the members, the staff, and the ministers who worked hard to raise the funds to build our campus. We should be grateful for the bricklayers who carefully placed brick upon brick and cemented them together. We should appreciate the woodworkers who carved the wall behind me–shaped as it is to provide excellent acoustics–and made the pews. We should have gratitude for everyone who placed a steel beam or an electric wire or a wooden plank so that we might have our sacred space.
May Day is an opportunity to remember that our world has been made by human labor. Labor is a cooperative exercise. It is not something that ever happens in isolation. Take this sermon as an example. It is actually a fantastic collective effort. I am not speaking of the act of preaching–which a conversation between minister, congregation, world, and tradition. I am talking about the deceptively simple act of writing my text.
I am not even thinking about all of the books I have read, all the education I have received, all of the experiences I have had that put me in place where I can write a sentence, then a paragraph, and then a whole text that, hopefully, communicates something that moves you, that, in this case, gets you to think about your ancestors and the people who you owe–the way in which the good things we have, have come to us through the struggles of our ancestors. No, I am just thinking of all the work that went into creating the computer which I typed it on.
That single object is the product of the work of unfathomable millions of people. The circuits had to be designed. The monitor, the keyboard, the mousepad, the input jacks, all engineered using the findings of generations of scientists and then constructed from materials that were mined–that’s the work of miners–and then shipped to the factory–that probably involved sailors, longshoremen, railway workers, truck drivers, and loading dock workers–before it was put together on the assembly line, packaged, shipped to a warehouse, and then, eventually sent to me when I purchased it.
I know I skipped some steps. Any piece of technology–any appliance, washer, dryer, automobile, refrigerator, bicycle, piano–is the result of the collective labor untold thousands and the result of generations of human ingenuity.
May Day is an opportunity to honor all of that labor–the ancestors and the living people who made what we have possible–and at the same time say that ordinary working people should have more of the good things in life. Jeff Bezos should not be able to go into outer space when working conditions in Amazon warehouses are so bad that they can have as much as 100% turnover in a single year. Elon Musk should not have almost as much money as the entire pre-war economy of Ukraine when many working people do not have enough money to rent an apartment that is big enough to comfortably house their family or when the child poverty rate in this country, the richest country in human history, is almost 15%.
When historians recount the origins of May Day–when they encourage us to honor the labor movement’s ancestors–they typically do so in two parts.
They begin by reminding us that the holiday has ancient pagan origins. “Once upon a time, long before Weinberger bombed north Africans, before the Bank of Boston laundered money, or Reagan honored the Nazi war dead, the earth was blanketed by a broad mantle of forests,” Peter Linebaugh begins his powerful essay, “The incomplete, true, authentic and wonderful history of May Day.”
In those days, all across Europe, “people ‘went a-Maying.’” They went out into the woods and gathered up greens to decorate their homes with leaves and boughs and pretty lively things. Maypoles were erected. There was dancing and music and drinking and festive parties and fertility rites and all of the festivities of spring.
Then came Christianity. Many of you probably do not know how long it took to spread across Europe. There were pagan kingdoms in the North until the middle of the fifteenth century. Well into the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, large parts of the continent remained only nominally Christian, and people celebrated the old pagan festivals as much, if not more, than they did anything organized by the church.
As a result, the ruling elite spent a lot of time during those years repressing those who observed holiday, who danced the May Pole, who held feasts, and parties, and reveled in the joy of spring. Women were burned as witches for honoring May Day. The British Parliament outlawed its games and festivities.
People resisted, of course, as they always have, and the holiday persisted. Sometimes in secret, something braving imprisonment, communities did things like declare one of their members “the Lord of Misrule,” imagined a world turned upside down in which there was no more landlord or factory owner but, instead, the world was held as a common treasury for all.
As more and more factories were built, as the modern working classes came into existence, people began to use the holiday as a rallying point for building the labor movement. In May 1886 workers at the McCormick factory in Chicago were engaged in a struggle for better wages, working conditions, and the eight-hour day. They were led by radicals like Albert and Lucy Parsons.
We heard Lucy’s wisdom earlier. She would have us remember on May Day that the struggles of which we are a part–the struggles of the labor movement, the work of addressing the climate crisis and confronting the resurgence of white supremacy–are by generational struggles. We should always honor those who came before us for the work they did to build a better world for, as she said, “We do not accomplish all in one day, or one generation.”
The movement that the Parsons were part of was an intergenerational one. It was a multi-ethnic one–many of the workers were immigrants from Europe. And it was a multi-racial one–Lucy herself was a woman of African descent who had been born into slavery. Not surprisingly, this early rainbow coalition terrified the factory owners.
On May 4th, 1886, many of the factory workers held a rally to encourage each other in making their demands. Albert made a speech there. So did several other leaders in the local labor movement. And then, as the saying goes, “All hell broke lose.”
To this day, no one really knows what happened. Some things are clear. The police, who were allies of the factory owners, attacked the crowd. Someone–maybe one of the police, maybe an agent provocateur, and maybe one of the workers–threw a stick of dynamite. Several people were killed.
The police and factory owners used the event as an opportunity to try and destroy the labor movement. They convicted eight men–all local organizers and some of whom had not even been at the rally–after a trial that has best been described as “farcical.” Four of them, including Albert, were hung. On the gallows, one of the men, August Spies, said, “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”
Afterwards, Lucy set out to commemorate her husband and his friends by turning May Day into an international day of solidarity for working people everywhere. She travelled to England encouraged union members there to make May Day a holiday. Soon, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, and radical of all stripes were celebrating it.
The 1905 Russian Revolution–the one in which my great-grandfather David played a minor but active part–began on May Day. In time, the holiday came to be celebrated in more than a hundred countries across the globe.
In the United States, however, it has never really been observed on any kind of large scale. The holiday’s radical origins, the ancestors that it encourages us to commemorate, are a reminder of the truth that much of what ordinary working people have was not given to them. It was gained with great struggle and sacrifice by their ancestors.
Now, I recognize that this history, and this holiday, might not speak to all of you. Many of the members of this congregation are part of the professional classes. Others are managers or business owners. I, myself, am head of the church staff. When I became senior minister here, I had to resign my membership in a labor union that I had belonged to for almost 20 years because I had the power to hire and fire. So, it could be, that you have heard all I have had to say about May Day, this holiday for the workers, and thought that it has nothing to do with you. Maybe you even think it is a good thing that we do not celebrate it here, in the United States.
If that is the case, then I hope you will take just one thing from this sermon. Who are your ancestors? Who do you owe for what you have and why? I invite you now to speak their names.
For my part, I will mark the holiday as I long have, by honoring those who came before me and struggled so that we might have a better world: my great-grandfather David, my great uncle Isidore, my great aunt Belle–whose story I have not told–and those who I am not related to by blood but who I am connected to through spirit: Albert and Lucy Parsons, August Spies, Martin Glaberman, whose words you heard earlier and who taught one of my mentors how to organize, and all those people, named and unnamed I wish to honor for doing what they could to give us more of the good things in life.
I end not quite there but with an invocation of a man who Dr. Rocke sang about but who I have not yet honored in this sermon. That is Joe Hill. He was a union organizer, poet, and song writer. Like Albert Parsons and August Spies he was executed by the state of Utah following a trial so heinous that President Woodrow Wilson took exception to it. His last words: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
Who are your ancestors? Who do you owe for what you have and why? Honor them and then, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
This are my words to you this May Day, this workers holiday. May you find within them a blessing and hearing them may you in turn choose to bless the world.
Amen and Blessed Be.