A black man n a patterned blue shirt faces the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, AL, at sunset.

Who Are My People? A Black Unitarian Universalist on Selma and Ferguson

“Man, I don’t have any people. I’m with everybody, Julius.”
–Louie Lastik, Remember the Titans

Wintertime in Houston sneaks up on you. As children we sweated in our Halloween costumes and, some years, played the big Thanksgiving Day basketball game in shorts. That first 40-degree day in early December alerted us it was time to ask our parents for money for Christmas shopping.

It was such a 40-degree day in my ninth year, a Sunday, when an adult said words that still stick with me.
“It means so much that your family worships here with us, Kenneth. It shows how far your people have come.”

Baffled doesn’t quite say it.
I thought the folks at church were my people.

I am a proud lifelong Unitarian Universalist. My roommates will tell you that some days I sing Spirit of Life to myself as I make breakfast. Coming of Age and YRUU summer camps brought me ever-mingled comfort and stress.

I am also black. The struggle for black freedom has long held a grip on my soul. In adolescence not even complicated high school romance got me feeling quite like Toni Morrison and Lorraine Hansberry could.

I love being Unitarian Universalist—I think.
I love being black—I know.

During college I joined a great UU congregation. They were thrilled to have me, and I them. Older adults had me over for dinner and looked out for me on campus. When my mom died, church staff and members alike wrote cards and weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing.
There were also only two black men active in the church, and the other gentleman’s first name was my last. Though he was older than my father, it took some folks two years to stop getting us confused. Sometimes it was funny and sometimes it hurt, but it always reminded me that I was not fully at home.

In Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue, UU minister and scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt relays the story of the time she talked for an hour with Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. King.
Mrs. King told Rev. Bray McNatt, “Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin. And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

Mrs. King continued, “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

The first time I read that, during my failed attempt to do seminary and become a UU minister, tears came down my face like a mighty stream. Night after night I read that passage from Rev. Bray McNatt’s chapter in the book. Night after night I wept.

I cried because I understood. I understood why they would choose to root themselves in a black church, and with a suffering God who could help black people and tell them He would never forsake them or give up on them, even in death.

I teared up also because I’ve often wished I could leave UUism. Sometimes I feel so alone because of race. I need church, though; almost by default, this faith is my religious home. I believe in God, but don’t call God ‘He.’ Unless Jesus somehow finds me, I cannot in good conscience join a Christian church.

Experience has taught me that being black and UU means feeling great most of the time, yet waiting for the next microaggression, the next moment of non-belonging. It is to feel profoundly uncomfortable in the midst of the familiar.

Growing up I needed to figure out how to navigate a mostly white society that accepted me quite warmly, so long as I did little to rock the boat. I had no real black community to help me out, save for a few friends and two extended family members. Talking about race with many white UUs too often means shouldering their insecurities, patiently answering their questions, making the fight for racial justice appear warm and inviting.

It isn’t.

On Facebook I am quite active; on Twitter, I have few followers and mostly listen/read. I follow young adult activists who fight for racial equality, champion black feminism, and struggle for change. Mostly they are people of color, often also members of the LGBTQ community. They are not conciliatory. They regularly call white people out, challenge PoC men’s sexism, and support one another.
They live out theologian Allan Boesak’s words from The Courage to be Black: “No one person has the right to take our life into their hands, and to exercise the power to give our life to us or to withhold it from us.”

For them the way is clear and straightforward, albeit difficult. For them white people, even (or perhaps especially) well-meaning white liberals, mostly get in the way, re-center themselves, and derail conversations. These folks are mostly done with the mainstream society that blindly trusts conventional authority. I mostly agree with their analysis and support them with favorites, retweets, and small financial contributions.

All the community they need is with each other.

Nothing is so straightforward for me. Most people in my life are white. I cannot so easily dismiss them, nor do I want to. White individuals have caused me stress, and others have been there for me. White people have told me awful race jokes I never again want to hear, and white people have marched alongside me at rallies and protests.

Some may read this as internalized racial oppression. It is. I am shaped by my upbringing. Many privileged black folks revel in being accepted by white America, in opting out of blackness (see: Raven Symone and Pharrell). I want no such thing. I am black and proud; being authentically black, for me, means something a bit different.

When Mike Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri in August, something fundamentally shifted within. I felt called to act, to organize rallies and vigils in Denver.

Planning those rallies terrified me, but not because I feared the inevitable white backlash. I worried that I wasn’t “black enough.” I thought my being a Unitarian Universalist would put me on the margins of the movement.

I was wrong.

A black, Christian pastor I met at a Denver rally said to me, “As long as you’re not ashamed of your blackness, you can be one of them and one of us at the same time.”

And so it is.

At rallies for racial justice in Denver, UU ministers and laypeople have shown up. I have looked out and seen “my people.” They are black folks and white UUs.

This is, it seems, less true nationally. Our faith has a complicated racial history, and a less than stellar record on race presently. St. Louis-area UUs put out a call for ministers and UUs to come to Ferguson, to be present for Ferguson October. Some, like Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley and Rev. Julie Taylor, were there and proved vital. But not enough.

Hundreds of UUs are planning to go to Selma, AL in March 2015 for the fiftieth anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march. Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed writes in The Selma Awakening that, after years of absence, UUs came through and journeyed to Selma. Rev. Morrison-Reed argues that in Selma, “Unitarian Universalists’ values in practice snapped into alignment with their espoused values.”

Last summer I went to Selma as part of a moving road trip through the South. With a friend I walked from Brown Chapel to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a muggy June evening. On the way we stopped at the marker honoring Rev. James Reeb, the white, Unitarian minister from Boston who was killed after answering Dr. King’s call for clergy to come to Selma.

Kneeling in front of Rev. Reeb’s marker drove me—to tears, and to an understanding of history’s importance. Finally, after ignoring the race problem for years, we showed up in Selma. But fifty years later, if we UUs show up in Selma in 2015 but not in Ferguson right now, and not for all those black and brown victims of police violence in the sadly inevitable future, we will not have learned from our past.

The harrowing truth is that I could be the next Mike Brown. My household had two parents. I have a college degree and a job. My pants don’t sag. When I’m out protesting or canvassing, though, none of that matters. I cannot opt out of blackness, and I do not want to. In the wrong situation, though, my respectable nature may not save me—from a racist police officer or citizen, nor from the ensuing character assassination. I would go from the decent, reasonably friendly guy some of you know to a mentally deranged (I have depression) Harvard dropout who was “no angel” and deserved what he got.

I know some of my people—black people—would come to my defense. Some UUs and other friends would, too. But would there be a broad movement on my behalf? Or would faith members send my dad and sisters thoughts and prayers before moving on?

These questions keep me up at night.

There are so many things to fight—and fight for—in the world. We mostly do a great job on climate justice and immigration. Our LGBTQ work has saved and changed lives. Black lives, too, are worth fighting for. When the next Ferguson happens—and sadly, it will—we can and must do more. We have to show up, be willing to follow others, and be willing to change ourselves.

Unitarian Universalists, you are my people. And UUs, my ‘other’ people—of which some of you are—need you. We need you to show up. We need you to listen and go beyond platitudes. Not everyone can travel hundreds of miles, but we can all do something—something beyond what we thought we could do. Oct. 22 is National Day Against Police Brutality, and several cities are hosting events.

The next call to action for racial justice has arrived. My people: Will we answer?

My people want to know.

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race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

Denver vigil

Moving Beyond ‘I Feel So Helpless’

Mike Brown, Ferguson and Injustice

Moments away from addressing the crowd of two hundred, I panicked. Who could I draw upon for inspiration? My mind turned briefly to MLK–which made me feel even worse. Wow, Kenny, I thought to myself. You tweet a few times, co-organize a couple vigils and rallies and now you’re Dr. King. Real humble there, buddy.

Okay, so that wouldn’t work. I went over names and faces in my head. Fannie Lou Hamer. John Lewis. Ella Baker. Bayard Rustin. Dorothy Day.

Names flew by faster and faster. Two hundred-ish of my fellow Denver residents had joined together to honor Mike Brown and other victims of police violence, and to rally for justice and racial equality. I had volunteered to co-organize and to emcee the vigil itself.

Why had I done that again?

I’m just some guy who works at a Unitarian Universalist church. I’m not an ordained minister. I’m not a pastor. I’m not a professional organizer. I have no clerical collar or stoll or robe on—just jeans and a shirt that says “DENVER.”

Many of us, at least in childhood and adolescence, learned narratives about the civil rights movement that went something like this:

There was slavery. Then there was Jim Crow. Thurgood Marshall and Linda Brown challenged school segregation and Rosa Parks stayed seated on a bus. Dr. King led a boycott. Then Dr. King had a dream and led marches in Alabama. He wrote a letter in jail. He was killed for his dream, but segregation died, too.

 Too often we credit a handful of people—Dr. King and Rosa Parks in particular—for the work and sacrifice of untold thousands, even millions, who strived for equality.

This has terrible consequences.

We watch the news or our Twitter feeds and feel horror—horror that another unarmed black person was killed, horror that the deplorable actions of some black youth were used as justification to essentially create a police occupation of a St. Louis suburb, horror that too many of our colleagues and former classmates and even family members seem more interested in focusing on what Mike Brown might have done to ‘deserve’ being murdered than in the killing itself.

We watch yet another slander of a dead person of color and we are filled with frustration, filled with anger, filled with rage.

And then that vicious thought bubbles up, the thought that sends us back to the other room, back into our seats, back onto our Netflix queue:

There’s nothing I can do. I feel so helpless.

We think this because somewhere along the way we internalized the notion that a few people make history happen while everyone else watches. And so we scroll through social media and flip through newspapers, waiting for official statements from our ministers, from our elected officials. We wait for someone to ‘fix it.’

We don’t have to wait.

While many around the country waited for President Obama and Governor Nixon to make statements on the situation in Ferguson, local leaders like Alderman Antonio French spoke out and documented events on the ground. A hundred years from now, schoolchildren will know Obama’s name. They probably won’t know French’s name.

But this week, to that community and to those following the developments around the world, who has been more important? Whose actions have mattered more?

And so moments before the Denver vigil began, as my legs shook and the media members’ cameras prepared to roll, it was on Antonio French—and the protestors and mourners in Ferguson, Denver and nationwide—that my mind landed to glean inspiration. Antonio French cared about his community and did what he could—document and witness the events on the ground. The people who showed up at #NMOS14 vigils in Denver and all over the country, we did what we could: we showed up. We made signs. We answered questions and spoke our truths into the cameras.

I told my terrified, pre-vigil self: I’m not Dr. King. I’m not Fannie Lou Hamer. I’m not an ordained pastor and I don’t organize for a living. My co-organizers and I can sing okay (or okayish, in my case) and give decent TV interviews and take down emails.

And that’s okay. I’m somebody, and I care. 

Not all of us can plan or attend rallies. Not all of us want to chant. A good close friend said to me after the vigil, “I care about inequality too, but fighting racism isn’t my leading cause. Mine is battling stigma around mental illness.”

Everyone—everyone—can do something about racial injustice, in their own ways. My friend, when he becomes a therapist, can understand that the black woman who schedules an appointment with him may be battling not just depression, but also sexism, racism and the damaging stereotype that all black women can handle anything and don’t have problems.

We can challenge our friends. We can practice empathy. We can pay attention. We can educate ourselves about inequality. We can learn that ending racism is not black Americans’ fight or Latino/a Americans’ fight or Asian Americans’ fight but must become America’s fight—especially white Americans’ fight. We can review hiring practices and seek out different information sources. We can challenge our own notions.

And we can keep our gaze on the situation in Ferguson and connect it to a broader system of injustice. We can channel the anonymous elderly woman who, when a car driver during the Montgomery bus boycott offered her a ride, declined, saying “I’m not walking for me. I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.”

She did what she could.

So can we.

How Long is 50 Years? My Civil Rights Trip Through the South

“Darnell! It’s so good to see you, honey. Give me a hug.”
My plate of collared greens, cornbread and two kinds of casserole still minutes away, I had only the glass of sweet tea to feebly distract me from the table to our immediate left.
Darnell, a young black man, had emerged from the kitchen, cleaning supplies and all,  at a popular diner in downtown Oxford, MS–much to the delight of the middle-aged white woman I’d only been vaguely aware of thirty seconds prior.

had previously noticed the man who turned out to be Darnell. He’d looked tired, even bored–but now his expression looked intimately familiar, as though he’d studied my face to learn its proper form. As the woman talked excitedly to him and introduced him to her group, tears approached my eyes. Her warmth and her friendliness reminded me of my now-deceased mother, and, at first glance, showed how far America has come from the days of Jim Crow. Fifty years is a long time, I thought.

And then I kept looking–at the woman, at her table, at Darnell, at the patrons in the restaurant, at our nation–and the question, sitting everywhere and waiting to be acknowledged, found me.

How long, really, is fifty years?

I left Denver Monday morning, June 2, with my friend Jen. We stayed a night in Oklahoma City before driving to Arkansas and beginning our tour through the South. Jen and I–twenty-somethings, a white woman and a black man–started with a pretty specific itinerary and ideas about what we’d find.
Over the ensuing thirteen days, we walked through parks and museums, looked at statues and rivers, and wandered small towns and big cities. Our reasons for going were complementary yet not identical, which worked for us.

I grew up “southern-ish,” spending my first fourteen years in the Houston metro area and my college days at the University of Missouri. Living in Denver and Boston helped teach me that neither the history of racial discrimination nor its present effects are limited to the South. Yet I suspected that I might find in Montgomery and Birmingham answers, and questions, that I wouldn’t find in Houston or Columbia.

And so we journeyed. The question–how long is fifty years?– proved omnipresent.

We didn’t need to travel the South to know this, but even so: America has changed. A young black man and a young white woman toured the South without major incident. We clicked with a white historian at the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery and danced to an unforgettable cover of ‘Proud Mary’ with an integrated, middle-aged crowd on Beale Street in Memphis.
We toured famous black Baptist churches, large UU congregations, and worshipped at a black Bible church. We walked the elaborate, glitzy National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and stood alone in Money, Mississippi, at the marker where Emmett Till was abducted and killed in 1955.
We stayed with a white mentor of mine in Oklahoma City and a black mentor of mine in Little Rock. We took photos for white families in Athens and black families in the Smokies. We stayed with a black rower in Clemson and a white basketball stud in Atlanta. An older white woman offered me a tissue as I teared up inside the elder King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

And fifty-two years after James Meredith overcame a violent scene to become the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss, Jen and I sat in the Oxford, MS diner with white and black Ole Miss football players eating together on one side of us, and, among others, the woman who so liked Darnell on the other.

I looked at Jen and knew she, too, had her eyes on the scene. We’d found it: the personification of post-racial America. Then I shook my head and looked around. Patrons filled nearly all the restaurant’s tables, yet the only visibly black folks in the place were Darnell, myself, and an Ole Miss football player. I again looked at Darnell’s face, and again registered the familiarity of his facial expression.

His expression was a mask, a mask I put on too often.
At once, I understood: fifty years is a long time, but it’s not long enough.

The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery did not start right at the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, famously the site of Bloody Sunday. They began less than a mile away, at Brown Chapel A.M.E. church.
The marker at the church reads:
The demonstration that led to the most important advance in civil rights for millions of Black Americans began here March 21, 1965…This is a tribute to those who planned, encouraged, marched, were jailed, beaten, and died to change Black Americans from second class to first class citizens.

Brown Chapel stands in a mostly black housing project on, predictably, MLK Street. The walk hundreds made for freedom fifty years ago is now littered, metaphorically and otherwise, with evidence that the march both lifted millions up, and left millions behind. So many of us in suburbia grew up looking at pictures of the Brown Chapel steps in textbooks. Freedom was won there, we were told. The view out from the steps narrates a far more complex tale.

We walked silently from the church steps down MLK Street, past the James Reeb memorial and over to the Pettus bridge. Walking over the river and under the bride’s infamous sign, the font unchanged in fifty years, brought me more than goosebumps and tears. Darnell’s mask–my mask–swam to the front of my mind. The mask and the shoddy neighborhood surrounding Brown Chapel; the bridge and the simplistic tale of civil rights permeating our country’s racial discourse; my own racial frustrations and the disdain some people in my life have for me whenever I mention them–everything felt connected.

We grow up being told that racism is a matter of the mind and heart. Being racist is an individual action. Racists are somewhere, and someone, else. Racism, and racists, are mostly a thing of the past. And we grow up learning that Rosa Parks and Dr. King challenged white folks’ hearts and changed them. It’s clear that things are different, and we must acknowledge that. Jen and I can travel together, tour SEC campuses together, and sit on the steps of the Alabama state capitol together. Fifty years is a long time.

Fifty years has gotten us here: to the mask I saw on Darnell and know well myself. We are welcome, conditionally. We’re welcome in mainstream society, and welcomed, if. We’re welcome if our diction is like mine. We’re welcome if we smile a lot. We’re welcome if we don’t show anger. We’re welcome if we assimilate, if we don’t speak up too much or talk too loud. So many black folks are never given the tools to learn or the education to make it, and then people ask why they never made it, why they won’t do anything with their lives.

The next fifty years won’t automatically bring improvement. Contrary to popular belief, racism won’t end “one funeral at a time,” as ‘old racists’ die off. The next fifty years won’t be about the racial prejudice in our hearts or in our minds. The next fifty years will be about the racism in our policies, in our housing laws, in our school zones. Most of us don’t hate each other anymore–we just don’t know each other. We don’t understand each other.

And as someone who spends a lot of time as the only black person in spaces, I wear a mask. I wear a mask that talks sports and The West Wing, 90’s TV shows and Star Wars. My mask smiles often and patiently explains why something hurt me. My mask loves ultimate and doesn’t mind that I’m one of a handful of black players. My mask isn’t a lie, but it’s far from the whole truth.

I wear the mask to hide my loneliness, my weariness at always sticking out, my sadness that my attempts to change things get cast as race-baiting or ‘holding onto the past.’ I wear the mask to get along, to get through the days and weeks. I wear the mask because, in a strange way, it’s comfortable. I know it well, and it knows me.

The mask, which some black folks know well and I suspect Darnell at Ole Miss had on, gets to come off sometimes. It comes off when I talk with a handful of friends, most of them black. It comes off when I call my Aunt Michelle, a professor in California. And it came off in Selma, halfway between Brown Chapel and the Pettus Bridge, as I wept in front of the memorial for Rev. James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister who was killed trying to help the march.

What we have to fight–redlining, police brutality, microaggressions, sexism, educational inequality, mass incarceration–it is different from what Rev. Reeb and others battled. It may feel less urgent to many.
Kneeling in front of Reeb’s marker just steps from the Bloody Sunday bridge allowed me to feel my purpose. In my own way–with patience and clarity and love of all people–I am supposed to continue the struggle. I am supposed to continue the march. Luckily, there are plenty of people from all races and backgrounds, gender identities and personality types, who are already walking.

We all have our roles. Mine is to ask, and try to answer, again and again:

Just how long is fifty years?

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For Every Mountain: A Young Man’s Spiritual Longing

It started with chills. Goosebumps.

It began when he walked through the church parking lot. For once, he didn’t stand out. He was just another new face, complete with a mediocre #2 haircut, scuffed dress shoes and slightly wrinkled khakis. He could be a one-time visitor, never to be seen again. He could be a future member, a young man who would grow and change with the church. For now, though, he was just another new face.

For waking me up this morning
That’s why I praise You
For starting me on my way
That’s why I praise You

The usher, a warm middle-aged man in good shape, directed his aunt and uncle into a row on the right side of the church, and he followed.

He thought he knew what would happen.

Already, he felt at home. On his way in, every man he passed shook his hand and said, “Welcome.” Five women had hugged him. As he settled into his row, an attractive young woman about his age glanced at him—or maybe it was at the wrinkles in his shirt. He couldn’t tell. He sat down next to his uncle, but then he realized that everyone was standing and singing.

You see so many times 
You´ve met my needs
So many times, You rescued me
That’s why I praise You

He stood up, glanced around the sanctuary, and started clapping along. He looked at the faces as he did so. 
He saw sturdy men in their fifties; teenagers–some shabbily dressed, others in their Sunday best; kids in athletic shorts; wives and husbands, grandparents and grandchildren, entire families together.

He looked to the front and saw the choir: twentyish smiling, intense faces swaying, clapping, praising.
Most of the faces, both in the choir and in the crowd were black—like his.
It started with chills. Goosebumps.

Actually, it had started before that, in his classes at grad school. In one of them, he and his classmates had read James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” They read Langston Hughes’ short story “Big Meeting.” The professor had read aloud Hughes’ account of his own pretend conversion. Those three stories brought him here, he thought. He felt trapped somewhere among all three. The story of the black church, of the struggle for equality—it was his story, and yet it wasn’t his story at all.

The choir picked up the pace, and the congregation followed suit:

For every mountain, You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through
For every blessing
Hallelujah, for this I give You praise

Murmurs and shouts of “Yes,” “Thank you, Jesus,” and “Amen” filled the sanctuary as the choir sang. All at once, he was no longer just a body in the sanctuary: the choir was challenging him. It was like they knew what had been on his mind.

For every mountain, You brought me over.

The tears began.

How he wanted to join in. If anyone had asked (and during the greeting time, they did), he was there because he was visiting his aunt and uncle. That was technically true, but really, he agreed to join them at church because he wanted to know what it felt like to blend in, to be just another dark-skinned face. At school—in elementary, in high school, in college and now in grad school out by the coast—he stood out. At work he stood out. In discussion section he stood out. In church especially, he stood out: the lone black face. Of course, sometimes that wasn’t completely true, but he was almost always in the minority. What would it feel like for him to be able to let his guard down?

For every mountain
You brought me over
For every trial you’ve seen me through

He lived a fortunate life, but lately, that was hard to remember. His mother, the person who knew him best, loved him most and whom he loved most, had died, a year and a half ago. A few weeks later, his college buddy and roommate died suddenly. He had picked up and moved halfway across the country to start a new adventure on the coast. He craved and feared connection, friendship, and love. He couldn’t sleep because he kept having nightmares about other people in his life dying: his siblings, his father, his long-time friends, and his new best friend. He felt broken, beaten down, and insert-other-cliché-about-sadness-here; as the song goes, he was tired, he was weak, he was worn. More than anything, though, he was lonely.

He wanted—no, needed–to feel at home somewhere. He thought back to when his mother was still alive. During college, trips home had meaning mostly because it meant that he got to hug her, have long conversations with her, and work in the yard with her. But where was home now? He thought of his religious communities: the one he grew up in, the church he went to during college, the worship group at school now. Each one felt like a best friend’s home—familiar, warm, he knew all the traditions, and he could open the refrigerator to make sandwiches without asking permission–but there was always that unspoken awareness that it wasn’t home.

Was it the race thing? He didn’t know. Maybe everyone feels like an outsider for one reason or another. He just knew that he wanted—no, he needed–to find out. He had a lot of “best friend homes” in his life, and he felt lucky for that, but he needed to find his home again.

The tears kept falling.

How he wanted to join in with the choir and the congregation. As they sang and praised, he felt something in the sanctuary. He felt connected to the people worshiping in the room. Almost.

For every mountain, You brought me over

The choir belted out the song’s refrain. The congregation repeated it, some murmuring, others singing, still others shouting. But he couldn’t sing along. A beautiful, dark-skinned woman in her forties standing three rows in front of him fell to the ground, her tear-filled face overcome with the Spirit. He was so sad, so pained, so tired. 

He wanted—no, he needed—to do the same, but he couldn’t.
Because he just.
didn’t.
have it.

He thought of his mother, who taught him to look for the Divine in everything and everyone. As a kid, he’d meditated with her every morning. He thought of his father, who taught him to take the teachings of Jesus and Scripture “seriously, but not literally.” The church he went to taught that Jesus was one of the greatest, wisest men in human history, but not the literal Son of God. He had always believed in some kind of higher power, but never in the kind that would interfere. All those nights in the hospital with his sick mother, and still he had never asked God for anything—because somehow, he knew different. Not better, just different.

He thought of Langston Hughes’ conversion story his professor had read to the class. The professor cried that day, and he did, too.  He, too, wanted to feel the Spirit, wanted to be truly included in this wonderful church and in this powerful feeling.

I want to thank You for the blessing
You give to me each day
That’s why I praise You
For this I give You praise

He needed a place like this; a place where people hugged and clapped, where they prayed and swayed, where they trusted in the community and Jesus to support them–to help bring them over the mountain. He inhaled books and scoured his favorite TV shows in search for answers to his grief, his loneliness. He read the Bible and watched sermons online, practically daring himself to believe, to submit. And finally, his pain had led him here, crying silent tears in a room of strangers who looked like him and weren’t afraid to love, to weep, or to hug a complete stranger.

For every trial
You’ve seen me through

The choir held the final line, and the shouts in the room reached a fever pitch. He could feel the congregation releasing its collective sadness and pain one by one. He saw pain from divorces, money problems, struggling children and more being sung and shouted into the waiting arms of Jesus and God the Father. He himself had so much to remove.

As the song ended and the building roared, he looked up into the portrait of Jesus behind the choir and made a decision. He didn’t really believe as (presumably) everyone else in the room did, but he would try, because he needed them. He needed a place like this. He saw his future, if only he would believe. He would have a place where he wouldn’t have to stand out or be the spokesperson for a group of people. He’d meet a beautiful, brilliant, black (or whatever; he didn’t care) Christian woman and they’d raise successful, God-fearing children. He wouldn’t feel so alone—he’d have church brothers and sisters, and people to pray with and to pray for. The sense of family and community overwhelmed him.

The song ended, and the pastor came to the front.

“God is so good today. Thank you, Jesus, for filling the choir and this hall with the love and mercy of God. This is the time in our service where we ask: who in this hall is ready to commit to a life following our Savior, Jesus Christ? Who is ready?”

A bespectacled woman in her late thirties stepped out into the aisle, and the sanctuary erupted.

His mind turned again to Go Tell it On The Mountain. If he just went out there into the aisle, he would have an experience, just like John, the boy preacher. He would succeed where Langston Hughes did not. He would be filled with the spirit and finally, finally, some of his pain would leave him behind.

He moved his left foot a fraction of an inch forward, ready to give it a shot, but–
He felt familiar eyes staring him down from right behind him. He whirled around.

It was his mother. His dead mother.

She wore her trademark church clothes: the dark blue sweater, and the long, flowy skirt; she also wore an uncharacteristic look of concern.
As the applause and cheers for the woman carried on, she leaned in and asked, “Son, were you about to—?“
“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t know what else to do.”

“I know you’re sad, Son, and I know you feel alone. You know that I always wanted you to figure things out on your own, so I won’t ruin the mystery about what happens when you die. But I have to ask…what are you doing?

“I need something or someone to save me from feeling like this. I’m so tired, and so lonely.”

“I know, Son. I know. I won’t tell you to become a Christian, or not to become one. But do notinsult these folks. Jesus is with them—don’t you dare move forward unless Jesus is really and truly with you, too. Just remember that the Divine is everywhere. It’s here, yes, but it’s in your church now and in the church I raised you in, too. I’m just going to tell you what I told you when you meditated with me when you were little.

Listen.”
“To what?”
His mother stared at him.
He stared back at her.
“What if I can’t hear anything right now?”

“Keep listening, Son. You will.”

She smiled an encouraging smile at him, and then turned around and walked past the newly committed woman, humming one of her favorite hymns, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” As she did so, his mother stopped, turned back around, and pointed up towards the choir. She winked and then left the sanctuary.

Three more people pledged their lives to Christ, but he wasn’t one of them. The tears had stopped, but he felt every bit as alone. He barely heard the call for prayers or the announcement letting people know that youth group would be meeting after the service. He was still straining to listen to his mind when he noticed that the choir had gone back up to the front and was twenty seconds into the closing hymn.

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light

Despite his sadness, he laughed to himself. He didn’t turn around, because he knew his mother had gone, but he understood: today wasn’t the day for answers. It wasn’t the day for conversions. Today was the day for struggle. There was only one thing to do.

He listened.

Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home.

 

An Open Letter to Male Ultimate Players, From a Guy

Hey, guys.

I’m writing to you because the sport you love, ultimate, is also the sport I love. It’s more than my favorite sport–I consider it my spiritual practice. Ultimate has helped me in times of grief, sadness and depression, and in times of anger.

I play ultimate because it’s a game one can’t win alone. I play because I get lost in the moment. I play ultimate because I get fired up watching a teammate’s huge layout D. And I play ultimate because, at most levels, it’s up to the players to hold themselves, and each other, accountable.

I believe that the sport we love, while growing overall, harbors troubling sexism—and men, I think we are responsible. I see sexist behavior coming from some of us, both on the field and off. I contend too many of us don’t take female players seriously, and we don’t respect women’s ultimate more generally. We can, and must, do better.

I am a good, but not great, ultimate player. I have played in lots of sectional tournaments. I will never play at nationals. Despite my limitations, I have, like many players–including many men—often been told I’m a natural leader. For too long I thought that meant I needed the disc all the time, and that my voice needed to be heard for my team to win, whether “my team” meant a competitive team I practiced with regularly, or the random group of people at a pick-up game.

As men, we have been conditioned to believe that we matter. We’ve been told that we are great. We think we can make the huge throw or the big defensive stop. It is our job to make the big play.

So we show up to ultimate, and many of us play the hero. Some of us give unsolicited advice, shout about how open we are, throw contested hucks, and, all too often, we ignore the women on the field–especially at pick-up games. Maybe we throw to them once. Twice if we think they’re really good. Too often we never even find out whether they’re skilled, because we never give them a chance–as though the chance was ours to give in the first place.

Men: ultimate does not belong to us. The disc is not ours. The game is not ours. Being male does not give us a right to ignore our teammates. When it comes to sports, we are privileged. Women must prove themselves worthy, while men must prove themselves unworthy.

Some of us believe the disc belongs to us because, in general, we are taller and run faster than women do. I contend that those of us who believe that are wrong.

Of course, there are exceptions to the above statements. Some games and teams are more inclusive than others. Some women play gladly at pick-up games, get the disc whenever they want it, and captain competitive mixed teams with few issues. Yet the presence of gender equity in some spaces does not mean all is well across the board.

I’ve brought this up with men before and heard variations of the following counter-arguments:

-I would throw to women if they got open.
-I throw to women if they’re good.
-Sports are meritocracies, and guys are faster and taller than women.
-It’s about winning, not social equality.
-Why are you lumping all men together? I throw to girls all the time.

I have gone to pickup games and watched talented female players get ignored on the field so guys can repeatedly huck it deep to one another. I’ve played in mixed-gender leagues with women who get the disc only a few times a game—and not because they’re never open.

If you don’t want to throw to women, play for a men’s team. If you want to play mixed, then play mixed. And if you play pick-up, throw to open people. Period. Every time we neglect a player on the field, I argue we hurt the game we love. Self-officiated at most levels, it’s up to us to create the culture we want. I seek an ultimate culture in which open players get the disc—and new players, regardless of gender identity, are warmly welcomed and nurtured–for even the best players were once novices.

I didn’t write this “on behalf” of female players, as though they need a man’s protection. I wrote this because I, and several players I know, both women and men, believe there’s a widespread problem about gender relations in ultimate. And I believe that sexism in sports comes from men. It is not due to women’s “genetic inferiority”—it is due to our learned overconfidence and prejudice.

True leadership is about lifting others up as we climb. It means stepping up at times and stepping back at others. I see specific things we can do to build towards a better ultimate.

We can refrain from calling people off the disc at pick-up games. We can huck to our guy friends less and throw to open people more. We can remember that we’re probably not as great a player as we think. We can yell less and encourage more. We can talk about women players and women’s teams with respect. And, if we’re on a competitive mixed team, we can learn from the best teams, who say that people who feel valued and valuable create a team of winners.

I invite you to observe the games and leagues in which you play. Who gets the disc, where, and how often? Also observe your own behavior. Am I dominating the game, cutting off other players when I make cuts, or ignoring open players? Do I assume female players need advice and male players don’t?

Lastly, and perhaps most crucially: If I’m not one of those guys, am I calling out those who routinely exclude or trample on others?

I ask myself these questions, and others, every time I cleat up—for fun and in competitive games. I repeatedly fall short. It’s a lot to unlearn. I identify as a feminist athlete, and I believe in ultimate, so I think it’s worth it to keep working.

USA Ultimate describes Spirit of the Game, or the ethos of ultimate, this way:
Highly competitive play is encouraged, but never at the expense of mutual respect among competitors…or the basic joy of play.”

Not ‘mutual respect among only male competitors, but “mutual respect among competitors.” That means every person who steps on that field deserves respect, and every player deserves to feel the joy of this beautiful game. May we work together to ensure ultimate’s bright future–for everyone.

Kenny Wiley
#35
*A/N: This letter has now been published at Skyd Magazine: http://skydmagazine.com/2014/04/open-letter-male-ultimate-players-guy/
Around 4,000 reads thus far as of 9:04 AM Mountain Time 4/29. Please feel free to comment below, and share your own experiences with your ultimate communities!

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*Thanks to former teammates and terrific players Amory Hillengas, Joe Baz and Meg Gatza for their edits, suggestions and counsel.

Lincoln’s Melancholy: A Sermon

I delivered this sermon at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, where I serve as the Director of Faith Formation.

Lincoln’s Melancholy

Sixteen months ago life, it seemed, was good. I was in my second year at divinity school, my time as Ministerial Intern at First Parish in Cambridge was in full swing, and I had it all figured out.

Graduate from Harvard Divinity School, do well, get a ministry job at a sweet church, do well, travel coast to coast preaching our faith’s message of radical love and justice, become known nationally as a great leader in Unitarian Universalism, turn thirty.
I’m not really kidding, sadly.

Sixteen months ago, if you had told me I would be here working at Prairie UU, I don’t think I’d have believed you. Yet here I am. And thank goodness. Well, for me. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t!

In 2005, historian Joshua Wolf Shenk published Lincoln’s Melancholy. It was, and is, a groundbreaking book not merely because it introduced to a wider audience Lincoln’s struggle with what we now call depression, but because its thesis is that Lincoln’s depression fueled his greatness. Shenk suggests a reframing of depression towards something more than an illness to get over, but something that can, if we go through it, lead us to great things.

I bring to you Shenk’s account of Lincoln’s lifelong struggle with depression because it resonates with me personally, and because, whether the term ‘depression’ is something near or far from your experience, Lincoln’s difficulties with self-inflicted pressure, expectation management, and search for vocation are painful realities many of us navigate.

One of the most detrimental thoughts one can have in one’s depression is some variation of this: “I have a good life. I shouldn’t feel this way.” Similarly, friends and family alike, trying to be helpful, can list off sixteen good things about your life—to which we might reply, “Yes, that’s great, but how does that help us get out of bed?”

Here, I want to make a distinction that is key to the rest of our exploration of depression. There are two phrases—the dark night of the body, and the dark night of the soul, that speak to distinct manifestations of depression. Some depressions are chemical, having little to do with circumstance. Other depressions and times of deep sadness relate more to “the dark night of the soul,” or discontent with one’s present reality. Many, of course, have elements of both. It should also be said that depression is a tough thing to talk about, and is even tougher to analyze. As with any sermon from a UU pulpit, all I can do, or would ever want to do, is speak my own truth.

To continue, Shenk argues that Lincoln’s talent and ambition, combined with genetics, teamed up to bring him down in a series of what we’d call “severe depressive episodes” in his early thirties. Shenk writes: “The very irony of Lincoln’s situation…is that the very successes that could prop him up also exerted an equally powerful force that could tear him down.” And for a time, it did tear him down. Sufferers of depression such as Lincoln wonder if their moods will ever lift.

Psychologist Lauren Slater continues the point: “These fears are fifty percent of what it is to be melancholy. If you were to be really, really depressed but knew that it would end in five days, it wouldn’t be depression.”

So it isn’t just that things are bad, but also that it feels like there’s no way out.

So it was as I waded further into my second year at Harvard Divinity. Somewhere along the way last year, I began caring more about the perception others held of me and less about actually doing good work, or of actually serving others. I cared more about seeming great and less about being great. I got involved in every committee, every school activity, and just lost my way.

I took on more and more responsibilities. Of course, the more I took on—student government, preaching opportunities, leadership positions—the less well I did any one thing. I lost all perspective.

The things (aside from economic and academic privilege in my upbringing) that got me to Harvard—healthy friendships, listening to my inner voice, and family bonds—fell by the wayside in favor of a desire to feel important and successful. I let down my friends, mistreated those closest to me, and rarely spoke with my family.

Obsessed with success, I failed.

I realized my life was crumbling, and depression took over. I fought and fought to hold on to the life I had, but to quote from The Replacements, the harder I fought, the deeper I sank.

I looked up and it was August 2013. No longer on the ministry track, no longer a Harvard student (with no Masters), and no longer in Cambridge, I’d seemingly lost everything. I had no job and little hope things would improve.

I couldn’t get past seeing myself as a failure. So many people rooted for me and helped me, yet there I was, Ivy League dropout, lying on the couch, hopeless and pathetic.

William Stafford wrote, “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” It is with these words that spiritual leader Parker Palmer begins his book Let Your Life Speak. I really think half of my religious friends—or the ones who knew how down I was—recommended this book to me. We talk a lot about Parker Palmer here at Prairie.

Parker Palmer helped me understand part of why I was so down: what I had been doing at Harvard was not my life. Palmer believes that the self seeks wholeness, and that to try and live the life others think we should lead is a recipe for deep sadness and profound despair.

“True self,” he writes, “when violated, will always resist us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor its truth.”

Lincoln, in that “most miserable man living” 1841 letter, said, “I must die or be better, it appears to me.” He wondered if he would make it. Eventually, he emerged, and turned to the question of how he would live. It is this question that haunts many of us. How will we live these lives of ours?

Depression and melancholy aren’t easy things to talk about. It’s kinda hard to give a fiery, passionate sermon about deep sadness.

But I have to say, Prairie, that I do feel fired up about this topic, that I do feel passionate about these hidden struggles, that welcoming them can actually inform the work we do here.

I think there are three main lessons we can take from Lincoln’s journey. The first is, as my mom advised concerning my preaching: “Tell more jokes.” Lincoln joked all the time. It became a healthy deflection of his sadness.

The second is that Lincoln didn’t go it alone. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, there were weeks where Lincoln’s friends went everywhere with him for his own safety—from himself. His friends kept an eye on him, wrote to him, and let him know, again and again: “Abe, you are not alone.”

The third lesson—and this is where I want to spend the remainder of our time together—is that Lincoln’s depression helped him be a great president and, more importantly, a courageous and empathetic human being. I’m not saying that you need to go through real struggle to be either. But the depth of Lincoln’s sorrow afforded him extraordinary gifts of bravery and understanding.

On December 23, 1862, in the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln took the time to write a letter to a young woman whose father had died. The letter is filled, not with empty condolences, but with real empathy. Lincoln understood her sorrow because had been there. He wrote: “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You ca not now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

The first time I read that letter—and our middle and high schoolers are reading it in full in religious education today—I cried. The second time I read it, I cried again. In the heart of one of our country’s ugliest hours, Lincoln took a minute to truly be with someone who felt sorrow would never leave her. That’s power. That’s leadership.

And it is this message I want to leave you with today. I’m still getting to know all of you, and you’re just getting to know me. One thing people have said some is that I have a lot of energy—that I have a lot of passion for this job. And it’s true. But there’s a reason. I have a little energy because I want, in my own imperfect ways, to help make our children and youth’s lives a little better. When I was a kid I struggled with depression. I struggled with depression as a teenager, and depression knocked me out of Harvard.

But no longer do I run away from my past. No longer do I run away from my struggles. And I want to encourage you to do the same. It isn’t depression for everyone. For some, it’s the grief of losing a love one. It’s divorce. It’s physical ailment. It’s kids who frustrate us, or parents we still battle. Sometimes it’s several things all at once.

Lincoln’s example tells us that yes, getting better matters, of course, but that in a way, we ought not think of struggle as something to get over. Instead we can carry a piece of hardship with us, so we are reminded that we can use our experience to help others. Our struggles, whatever they have been, can help us in our work.

In August 2013, as I lay there feeling miserable and hopeless on my dad’s couch in Houston, Lincoln’s words from that letter reached out and found me. “Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better…[but] you are sure to be happy again. I have had experience enough to know what I say.”

Lincoln didn’t run from his pain—it fueled him. And my pain fueled me to apply for this job, drive to Denver, get it, and my pain fuels me now as I work with our young people and all of you.

So friends, I urge you: don’t run from the sadness. Don’t run from the grief. Don’t run from the frustration, the despair. These, too, are a necessary part of the battle, for the time will come when you can use them, when they will fuel your work—fuel our combined work as Unitarian Universalists.

That is why I believe so strongly in the power of religious community, of having a place and space full of people who say, “You don’t have to be better right now. I am with you.” And so don’t run from your struggle, whatever it is. Pack it up and take it with you. Lincoln’s words to Fanny in the letter reminded me of that Harriet Tubman refrain, what she would tell the slaves she helped free on the Underground Railroad: “Keep going.”

We can remind each other of that.

If life is good right now, keep going.

If stress is taking over, keep going.

If raising a child or three children or five has you overwhelmed, keep going.

If it feels like love has left you, keep going.

If love has found you, keep going.

If grief has taken you, keep going.

If joy is coursing through you, keep going. I

f you are lonely, keep going.

If you wish you could ever, just once, feel lonely, keep going.

If your body is in pain, keep going. If your body has never felt this good, keep going.

If you need someone, keep going. If you are in demand, keep going.

Keep going, friends.

Keep going.

Let your struggles be your fuel.

Amen.

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