I delivered this sermon Sunday, September 27, 2015 at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver. The weather was hot and the service long, yet the music, words, and energy shared made for a moving morning. Photo credit: Daniel Sauvé
“Which side are you on?”
It’s a controversial question—and, in this time of Black Lives Matter banners being ripped down and vandalized, it feels like the right question. So I’ll do the one thing I can do—share my story of how I’ve come to say ‘Black Lives Matter’—and believe that mine does, too. It’s a story of self-hate turned to activism and hope.
After leading a Black Lives Matter UU training in New York on Thursday, I went out with three other black UU young adults—yes, there a few others out there—I see you, Maníge–into a bar that, well, wasn’t in Harlem. We were nearly the only black folks in there, even as other folks came and went, and we were loud. We cut loose. The four of us—employed by mostly-white, UU institutions—got loud. We laughed loud, we commiserated loud, and we hoped and strategized loud. It got intense, the sharing and
I mentally stepped back and realized I was at that table: the table of loud black people. It was the table that, as a teenager, I feared and tried to hate, but just couldn’t. I looked into the face of my close friend Raziq Brown, and of my two other friends. I excused myself and went outside. I made it to the front door before the tears came. I wept.
The tears came because of how much younger me had learned to hate my blackness, to play it down when possible. No one person really said the words, yet the message sank in over time. As a child I heard from many about about the civil rights movement, in past tense. “We had problems and now they’re fixed,” basically. Though I had some teachers and religious educators say different, that was the biggest message.
My black family’s education level and success got used to put other black people down. “All it takes in this country is hard work—look at the Stewart-Wiley family!”
As a teen I learned that it was easy for me to navigate white spaces. My diction was “perfect”—I asked for things instead of aksing for them. I could “take a joke” at UU youth group instead of “being all social justice-y.” I got good at the art of making sure white people around me were comfortable. Eye contact. Smile—a lot. Good handshakes.
I was “impressive.” “Articulate.” “A refreshing young man.” “A credit to my people.” Supremacy teaches us that black lives matter only if—if we are respectful, if we are exceedingly educated, if our records are clean—then denies most black people the resources to make new realities. For awhile, I bought in.
But things kept happening. I kept reading and kept listening and other black folks seemed to be insisting, “Yeah, actually, the cops still harass us and too many of us are in jail and there’s this thing called mass incarceration and schools are still segregated with wildly unequal resources and LISTEN TO US.”
I started listening—to them and to myself. And over time I realized that other folks were starting to wake up. The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement is often referred to as a new movement. And it is. Yet it is also old. Some of you have been to marches and you’ve heard old freedom songs like ‘Wade in the Water’ combined with the chant “black lives, they matter here.” This work is old and new together because a new wave of folks, young and not-as-young, are fighting old battles.
The road to that moment at the bar—to finally being okay with being at the loud black table, to finally not worrying so much about what white people might think of us—has been long, and it has everything to do with Black Lives Matter, a movement that’s saved me—and Unitarian Universalism—my religious home, a faith that’s both wounded and healed me.
Sometimes it’s asked, “What is the history of Unitarian Universalists on racial justice? Have we been good? Have we been bad?” The only answer is “yes.” The equivocation that challenges me—from “But all lives matter!” to “Well yes, racism is a big deal, but…”—has always been there. Yet throughout our religious history, there have been Universalists and Unitarians willing to resist the status quo, and willing to disrupt things so we might build a more inclusive world.
In 1965 Dr. King asked, “Who killed James Reeb?” Reeb was a young Unitarian minister from Boston who answered the call to go to Selma. King said, “a few sick and misguided men.” Indeed. For being white and supporting black folks’ freedom struggle, Reeb was viciously, and fatally attacked. Dr. King kept going, though, asking, “What killed James Reeb?” …The blame is wide and the responsibility grows… He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice…
So, in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike—says that we must substitute courage for caution, says to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the philosophy which produced the murder.
Today, friends, we are told that the “sides” are pro-police or anti-police, and that saying Black Lives Matter means you are anti-white. It’s not true. What is being of us is what was asked of James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, a white UU woman whose life was also taken in Selma: will we choose courage or caution?
This faith, this Unitarian Universalism, it is imperfect. I shared some of my wounds and struggles with you, hurts this faith helped foster. Yet I continue to believe in us. I believe in its possibility because it was as a Unitarian Universalist that the tears fell down my face when Trayvon’s killer went free, when they shot Rekia Boyd, when Michael Brown laid in the street for 4 and a half hours.
This was the faith that brought me out of my house and right here to the capitol steps thirteen months ago to say “this must stop.”
This is the faith that has helped us do great work, needed work. This is the faith that said, “We will marry you and your same-sex partner.”
This is a faith that said, “our children and teens need real health and sexuality education.”
This is a faith that says, “You can be depressed and we want you here.”
This is a faith that says you don’t have to have all the answers.
This is the faith that brought Viola Liuzzo to Selma.
This is the faith that got dozens of UU youth marching down Colfax last January with and for black lives.
This is a faith that calls us to do more, to be more.
Will we be a faith that says, “Whatever your education, whatever your criminal record, whatever I have been taught to fear about you—black lives are worthy and holy”?
I don’t know. I hope so.
I know that this question: “Which side are you on?” is not an easy one to answer, until it is. I know that finding my answer—that I am on the side of liberation, that I am on the side of blackness, that I am on the side of Unitarian Universalism, that I am on the side of love—has saved my life over and over and over again.
May we use that question—“Which side are you on?”—to be able to mean that chant: “Black lives: they matter here.” And here. And here. Amen.