as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, April 30, 2023
I have been in Houston almost five years. I have gotten to know the city pretty well, the congregation better, and the state of Texas somewhat. In that time, I have come to appreciate the role that Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalist communities can play in a state governed by what I sometimes name the politics of cruelty. The onslaught of legislation targeting the LGTBQ community, the refusal to expand Medicare, the blatant disregard for the lives of migrants, the legislating of forced birth, the indifferent attitude towards the climate crisis, and the incessant worship of guns is but a partial list.
On that last point, it feels necessary this morning to acknowledge the horrible mass shooting that took place in San Jacinto County this weekend. And it seems important to list the names of the victims:–Daniel Enrique Laso, age 8; Jose Jonathan Casarez, age 18; Diana Velazquez Alvarado, age 21; Sonia Argentina Guzman, age 25; and Julisa Molina Rivera, age 31–and pause for a moment of silence.
Their deaths are as much a result of the politics of cruelty–which centers gun rights over human rights–as the more than 240 people who died as a result of the political mismanagement of the state’s electric grid during the February storms of a couple of years ago.
In a place governed by the politics of cruelty, it seems like an act of dissent to assert the first principle of our Unitarian Universalist Association: the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In such a place, a task of our religious community becomes clear. We are called to proclaim that there is a better way. We are called to lift up an alternative vision. We called to ask, as the sometime Texas songwriter Woody Guthrie did in the original version of his song: “Is this land made for you and me?”
Name it as you will: the kindom of God where all acknowledge that we are each members, siblings, of the great family of all souls; the good society where everyone has what they need to thrive and flourish; or the beloved community where we do not suffer under the separations of race, class, gender or other human divisor. It is Unitarian Universalism’s role, in the face of the politics of cruelty, to invoke what Stephen Fritchman named that “religious word,” solidarity.
Solidarity, described by the naturalistic philosopher Peter Kropotkin as “mutual support … for … preservation, … welfare, and … development” and observed by him as an element in the evolution of all of the social species: bees in their hives, ants in their nests, birds in their flocks, wolves in their packs, and deer in their herds. It is as much a part of nature as the red tooth and claw competition described by Charles Darwin.
Solidarity, the truth, spoken of by Benjamin Franklin, that in the struggle against the powers and principalities of the hour, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Solidarity, I lift up this word for us today because I have come to believe that in this state of Texas it is important for Unitarian Universalists to speak in favor of the labor movement. You might not agree. I might not convince you. But in this right to work state, where more people die from workplace injuries than in any other state, where there is more employment discrimination than any other state, where working people have a higher tax burden than in almost any other state, where only four percent of the workforce belong to unions, uplifting the inherent worth and dignity of every person means celebrating the power of working people to come together to form unions so that they might have more power on the job and in their lives.
We do so in observation of May Day. The workers holiday, it was originally celebrated in Chicago as part of the struggle for the eight-hour day. It became an international holiday–recognized by more than a hundred and fifty countries–after the state of Illinois jailed eight union leaders for supposedly throwing a bomb at police officers during a strike. Four of the men were executed, a fifth died in prison, and shortly after their deaths John Peter Altgeld, the Governor of Illinois, reviewed the evidence against them and concluded that they were innocent and pardoned the survivors. Outrage at the union men’s unfair trials and gruesome deaths transformed George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Albert Parsons, and August Spies into martyrs to the labor movement.
Martyrs to the labor movement, their deaths are an enduring reminder that so much of what working people have–as Caty Jones testified earlier–has been earned through great struggle, through brave acts of solidarity. It is a truth that sits uncomfortably enough with the captains of industry that the federal government has all but made May Day illegal–overwriting it by declaring the first of May Law and Loyalty Day and moving the observation of Labor Day to September where it has no overt connection to the union dead.
I anticipate that many of you do not know this history. It is barely taught up North in a relatively labor friendly state like Michigan. I remember my high school textbook covering it in about two paragraphs. I doubt it is taught at all in Texas, even though Albert Parson’s widow Lucy Gonzalez Parsons lived enslaved in Waco before the Civil War. She was such a powerful force for worker’s rights and the cause of collective liberation that the Chicago police once described her as “more dangerous than a thousand rioters” and illegally banned her from speaking on the streets. But that is a story for another Sunday.
This Sunday I will observe that we are probably the only church in the city of Houston, and possibly the only one in the state of Texas, to mark May Day. But the day has long had a place in Unitarian Universalist pulpits. The Community Church of Boston has often played a leading role in organizing the city’s May Day celebrations. When I was a seminarian in Chicago the then minister of the First Unitarian Universalist Church there was actually the great great niece of the martyred August Spies. One of our readings this morning came from a sermon given on May Day by the minister of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, Stephen Fritchman.
During the middle part of the last century, Fritchman was frequently seen on Los Angeles’s picket lines. I suspect that his presence on them had something to do with why during his ministry that congregation grew to be one of the largest and most diverse Unitarian Universalist communities in the country. It was a place where autoworkers and janitors rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars and Nobel Laureates. It was a place where one Sunday it was possible to hear a sermon in which “the historic Jesus” was uplifted, on another the service might focus on the relationship between science and religion, and a third on the imperative of religious communities to support the labor movement.
Fritchman grounded his union solidarity in the Unitarian Universalist understanding of salvation. Now, many religious traditions point to salvation as something that is found outside of human history. “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through, / My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue,” is how a well-known hymn summarizes the evangelical Christian perspective on the matter.
Salvation in such a tradition occurs someplace else than here. Unitarian Universalists take a different view. Rather than escaping human history, we understand that salvation is to be found within this world.
Salvation, just by mentioning the word, I suspect that a few of you are now glancing around for the exits. You might be wondering if you wandered into the wrong church. Salvation is not a word that we use often. It might even be triggering for those of you who are refugees from more conservative traditions.
The philosopher Josiah Royce, from whom Martin Luther King, Jr., and by turns us, got the phrase the Beloved Community, understood the salvation narrative to be fundamental to religious communities. In his somewhat convoluted early twentieth-century prose, he claimed that the need for salvation was based on two ideas. “The first,” he argued, “is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims … The other idea is this: That … [humanity] is … in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render … life a senseless failure …”
Royce’s tangled prose might be rephrased as this: There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. There is a purpose to life. We are ever in danger of missing it. Such a perspective is found in the words of labor organizer Jane Street, who urged that we find meaning in life in something more than just work:
Oh, life is nothing
Unless something is worth
More than life!
The version of salvation that Fritchman taught, and which is found throughout much of the Unitarian Universalist tradition, is that the purpose of life is to be found in solidarity. We find our purpose, he believed, when we unite “in the work of building a better house for the children of the earth.” We miss it when lose ourselves in the myth of pure individualism that haunts our society. We humans, after all, are profoundly social creatures. We might not like to admit it but so many of our individual achievements and so much of what we have and do are actually the products of collective endeavors.
Think for a moment about something simple like your journey to church this morning. You probably experienced it as either a solo activity or something you engaged in with only the other members of your household. And yet, you traveled with thousands–and I am not talking about the incessant gridlock on the city’s highways. If you came by car, your transit was only made possible by the people who assembled your automobile, who made the highways and roads on which you drove, who sourced the energy–be your vehicle electric or gasoline powered–that animated the engine and turned the wheels… A similar statement could be made about the bikers, bus and train riders, and even walkers amongst you. Few of us, I suspect, poured the sidewalks upon which we trod.
Connecting with the social reality of our existence challenges us to be open to the practice of solidarity. There are a lot of different ways in which we, as a religious community, attempt to live out that practice. This past week we had pupusa making workshop as a way to support the migrant community. A few weeks back, more than a dozen of us went to Austin to oppose anti-LGBTQ legislation and support a bill to expand Black maternal health care. This morning, though, I would us to consider how this congregation might practice solidarity with the labor movement.
I admittedly do so from a biased perspective. I grew up in a union household and was a union member for almost twenty years. I am conscious of the benefits of union membership firsthand. Twice, I have had a union intercede between me and an abusive employer. And having had a great many friends who worked the assembly line or practiced a trade, I am also quite aware that union membership is one of the best paths towards a middle-income lifestyle. Did you know that the difference in lifetime earnings between a union member and a non-union member is $1.3 million? That is about the same value in lifetime earnings that a working person gets from earning a college education. It is a commonplace to encourage young people to get a degree. It should also be a commonplace to encourage them to join a union. Who wants to be a millionaire? Join a union and get a million dollars.
It is perhaps a risk to make such a statement from the pulpit of this congregation. We have more members who are small business owners, non-profit managers, and doctors, lawyers, and professors, than we do who are union members or blue collar workers. I would not be surprised if a few of you are opposed to labor unions or have had frustrating experiences dealing with them from a management perspective. Nonetheless, I think it is important we include the labor movement in our view of the good society. It has done much to build the world we dream about. The United Autoworkers Union helped fund the civil rights movement. When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated fifty-five years ago he was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting a group of striking sanitation workers. One of the unions I helped organize, the Harvard Graduate Students Union, is playing an important role in confronting faculty members who sexually exploit graduate students. In doing so, the union is making the university a safer place for people of all genders, most especially women.
There are a few things that a congregation like ours can do to support the labor movement. The first is to do what I have been doing this morning: cast an alternative vision to the politics of cruelty. The first principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is the affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person. The cruel presently seem to be trying to undermine the inherent worth and dignity of the LGBT community with an unprecedented deluge of legislation targeting them. It does not seem to me to be a coincidence that this legislation is being pursued in states where working people have the fewest rights and receive the worst treatment. Nor does it seem to be random chance that those pursuing the politics of cruelty in the state of Iowa are attempting to roll child labor laws back to the nineteenth-century. Their proposed legislation would allow children to work in meatpacking plants, on assembly lines, and limit employers’ liability if kids are injured or killed on the job.
The politics of cruelty is based on division. It casts some members of our society–transgender folks and drag queens, for example–as a threat so that we do not focus on the sort of things that would benefit everyone. If people are fighting against each other, they are not going to unite to demand better workplace legislation or support unions.
It is an old strategy. The nineteenth-century captain of industry Jay Gould was bragging about its effectiveness when he said that he could hire “one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
An alternative vision is to proclaim that our understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of every person means that we are better together than apart. This is something that we regularly teach in our religious education program. All year, the middle school youth have been working on a project called “Soul of the Family.” They have interviewed twenty-five different families in the congregation to get a sense of the diversity of ways people form families. You can view their project over in the Fireside room after the service. I think of it as example of solidarity. When people of a diversity of backgrounds come together, we can have something wonderful, like this church.
Unions, not incidentally, function under the same principle. They are effective when they bring together everyone in a particular workplace–whatever their race or gender–to cooperate and improve their working conditions. They rarely succeed if they fail to follow that principle.
A second thing that a congregation like First Unitarian Universalist can do to support the labor movement is to make our resources available to it. We shared this morning’s offering with Starbucks Workers United. But we have more to offer than money. We can open our campus as a space for organizing.
The Unitarian Universalist theologian Sharon Welch is one of the preeminent living social ethicists. That means that she has spent a great deal of time researching, writing, and teaching about how religious communities live out their values in the public sphere. She has observed that Unitarian Universalist congregations like ours have enormous potential to fuel social change. We have, she notes, “a measure of social and economic power.” And we “can use our power responsibly and collaboratively to work for a genuinely inclusive democracy.”
This means even if we cannot join a labor union, we can speak in favor of the labor movement and use the skills we have to encourage it. If we are in management positions this might mean not taking a hostile view to workers who want to form a union. It might mean pledging not to cross a picket line when folks like Starbucks Workers United call for a day of action. It might mean, if we are lawyers, sharing expertise on employment law or offering a bit of pro-bono advice.
Most of you do similar things for other communities targeted by the politics of cruelty. We could make a difference in lives of many working people if we did the same for the labor movement.
Finally, we can strive to be a fair employer. We have a grievance procedure that runs through the Board, not the Senior Minister, and offer whistleblower protections so that employees with workplace issues can have them addressed without fear of retaliation. Through the generosity of our members, we are able to follow the Unitarian Universalist Association’s fair compensation guidelines. Your pledges allow us to offer our employees who work twenty hours or more a week health and dental insurance, a ten percent contribution to their 401(k)s, generous paid time off, and salaries consistent with the UUA’s best practices. When you make a commitment to widen love’s circle you are making a commitment to help ensure that First Unitarian Universalist is the sort of place where people want to work. To those of you who have made your pledges already, I thank you for helping us to live our values in this way. To those who have not yet made a pledge, I hope that you soon will since your commitment enables us to honor the inherent worth and dignity of everyone who works here.
In the state of Texas, one of the callings of Unitarian Universalists is to proclaim that there is a better way than the politics of cruelty. This Sunday before May Day, this unobserved workers holiday, I have offered you a portion of that vision by suggesting that Unitarian Universalists should include solidarity with the labor movement in our vision.
In that spirit, I close with an adaptation of a prayer that Stephen Fritchman sometimes shared with the congregation in Los Angeles:
Spirit of Truth and Love within our living hearts, we pledge our faithfulness to all who toil that we may eat our bread. We rejoice in human power to shape the stuff of earth into things of usefulness and beauty. May our hands and minds add their portion to the common treasure of a world more fair. We would find our place among the workers of humanity, proud of honest labor done, and rest deserved, and wages earned. We would pay our tribute to the task well-done of tailor, teacher, carpenter, and nurse; of surgeon, painter, sailor, chemist, homemaker, typist, farmer and chef; and for all of those whose work is little known and rarely seen, yet daily given, that our lives may be far happier and safe. May this be a time of kinship among the toilers of every race and clime.
That it might be so, I invite the congregation to say Amen.
This is a wonderful May Day sermon. I totally agree that supporting workers who are organizing was important historically and is still important. I know how much I benefited from being in the UAW when I worked at Chrysler in Detroit. I wish I was still living in Houston so that I could participate in such a supportive community as First UU Church.