All posts by Kenny Wiley

I am a religious educator working at a Universalist church in the Denver metro area. I am passionate about black feminism, politics, faith, history, and contemporary social issues. Follow me on twitter: @kennyswiley

Sermon: Which Side Are You On?


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.

Lifting UU Voices: Anger Welcome

The voices raised. We weren’t just singing–we were feeling.
I’d never sung like this before. For once, those words—Lift every voice and sing, til’ Earth and heaven ring—felt neither like intrusion or performance.

I gazed around the room and at the twenty other young faces of color, along with our mostly white hosts, the folks at the Lucy Stone Co-op in Roxbury, Mass. I was 1950 miles from my bed in Denver, and nearly as far from my hometown of Houston, Texas—but I found myself feeling at home, for the first time in a long time. And the sensation I felt within wasn’t sadness or joy—it was anger. I allowed myself to be mad—at the fact that we learn new names of those killed by state violence every week, and that in that room, was the most truly Unitarian Universalist I had felt in years.


As a preteen and young teenager, depression and anger swirled within, and came out at the most inopportune of times—during a sporting event, in the midst of a discussion with my parents, or before a big test. I expressed it only to my parents and my sisters. Between the ages of twelve and fifteen I screamed, wept, threw things, and occasionally tried to hurt myself.

Many teenagers feel anger. Many teenage boys feel rage—particularly because men are so often conditioned to see it as the only allowable emotion. I didn’t grow up that way—though we had to drag my dad into The Lion King, Mufasa’s death caused him more tears than anyone else in the theater. My family permitted sadness and welcomed discomfort. But as I became a teenager, the sometimes-public outbursts of rage began, clearly, to terrify my mother. I was becoming a black adult, and this nation has never had much tolerance for black anger.

White therapists and friends did help me figure out my depression. I was a person who, even when things were “going well,” sometimes just felt down out of nowhere. The therapists helped me understand that things couldn’t always be fixed, that sadness doesn’t always just go away because you ask it to.

My anger—my rage, really–was different. Nobody seemed to give me answers that helped. The white adults who helped advise youth group at my mostly white church loved me, but they didn’t get it. My mom knew how dangerous my anger could be, but didn’t know where it came from. The rest of my family understandably just wanted it to stop.

So I hid it. I buried it—not in the ground, but in our upstairs book collection, where books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Lorraine Hansberry’s play Raisin in the Sun, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X just sat on the shelves, waiting for me. Morrison took me on an exploration of self-hatred, and I wept. Hansberry’s examination of racism in the north and dashed dreams filled my eyes with tears and more rage. These books felt like the answers nobody else could give me.

As I got older I learned how to hide my anger. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans just as my junior year of high school started. Though I had many friends in high school, it was with black authors—and other stories of helplessness, however seemingly unrelated, like Orwell’s 1984 or Tim Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate—that I “talked” out my disgust at what the news fed us every night.

Wasn’t anyone else noticing that white Louisianans were “stocking up” while black residents “looted”?
Yes, of course. I just didn’t know them. I felt alone, which fueled both my anger and my shame over such rage.

I was one of the Multicultural Leadership School’s oldest participants this past weekend, where we ostensibly learned about becoming more effective leaders but, more vitally, built community of youth and young adults of color through raucous singing (including renditions of ‘This Little Light of Mine’ on the subway), loud laughing, and purposeful sharing.

I’m a lifelong Unitarian Universalist. I’ve sung hymns in church my whole life, held hands in circles of 150 by Lake Murray in Oklahoma, and been moved to chills with thousands at General Assemblies. I’ve never sung like our gathering of twenty did all week long.

For me, I was singing my rage, singing my anger, singing my frustration that it took 27 years for me to find spaces like that, one where I feel neither theologically dishonest so black culture might accept me, nor isolated racially.
In white groups, singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has sometimes felt like a performance, a putting-on of what the so-called Black Experience might be. Hearing “let us march on ‘til victory is won” from a group of people who have never marched alongside me—alongside us–can feel like cultural tourism at best, and emotional violence at worst.

Our all-POC group of twenty—kept on singing. We sang on the T and at First Parish Cambridge and at Lucy Stone and just about everywhere else. We sang, I think, because we needed to. We sang together, a group who saw our faith for the beautiful, doomed mess it is. I sang to let my rage out. It was not until I allowed my anger out that I joined the Black Lives Matter movement. I wasn’t just hurt that Mike Brown got left in the street for over four hours—I was enraged. I was furious at how many of my friends didn’t (and don’t) seem to care. I’ve been incensed at the way black women too often get left out of leadership structures, and of of National Conversations On Race

I am angry. I know now, thanks to spaces like MLS and others, that anger is okay. Black people are often called on to be superhuman, to forgive in a way and at a rate that  white Americans are not asked to do. The same folks who tell us to “get over” slavery and redlining and Jim Crow are allowed their hurt.

I am angry. Finally allowing myself to feel maladjusted to state violence and gross inequality–to feel the rage that had always been there–is what spurred me to finally act last August.

At UU Multicultural Leadership School, we sang. Some sang because of sadness, and others due to joy. Often the music was loud and festive. I sang because of anger. Whatever the reasons, twenty youth and young adult Unitarian Universalists of color lifted our voices and sang—and my heart, at last, rang.

Statement from UU Religious Professionals of Color RE: Baltimore

The following statement comes from individual UU religious professionals of color, and reflects the views of the undersigned.

We, the undersigned Unitarian Universalist religious professionals of color, wish to express our support and solidarity with those who have been marginalized, brutalized and systematically oppressed by the government agencies of Baltimore, MD. We firmly denounce the institutionalized systems of racial and economic violence–including police torture and mass incarceration–that has targeted black and poor communities in Baltimore for decades.

The uprising that has come from the senseless death of Freddie Gray results from years of a pattern that, sadly, is not only seen in Baltimore, but in other cities with large black and brown populations such as Oakland, New York, Sanford, Tulsa and Chicago. This pervasive, vicious system operates in every state and region. Our hearts are broken like the system in which we live, and we seek to respond to the unrest with compassion, love, and a commitment to systemic change.

While we gather in solidarity with the oppressed, we are also deeply troubled by our own Unitarian Universalist Association and any religious body that has little or no response to Baltimore.

We honor our individual colleagues who choose to show up in their communities with minimal national support. We particularly call on the UUA to reevaluate its national prophetic voice after participating in the recent commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the events at Selma. Sanford, Ferguson, New York, Baltimore… these are our Selma. The time is past… we people of faith must gather with the beaten, the murdered and the oppressed.

We gather together with all of the people who protest, march and cry for freedom and we honor the memories of all those members of our human family: Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mya Hall, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and too many others whose names do not make the sensationalist media; who have died at the hands of racist oppression. You have not died in vain. We Stand, March, Resist and Fight FOR and ON the Side of LOVE.

Here is the link to UUA President Peter Morales’s statement on the uprising in Baltimore, which quotes this letter:

In faith and love,

Amanda Weatherspoon
Rev. Sofia Betancourt
Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt
Kamila A. Jacob
Aisha Hauser
Rev. Danielle Di Bona
Adam Dyer
Yuri Yamamoto
Kenny Wiley
Rev. Maricris Vlassidis Burgoa
Rev. Angela Henderson
Rev. Marisol Caballero
Om Prakash
Ranwa Hammamy
Rev. Joan Javier-Duval
Rev. Jamil Scott, I.O.B.M.
Rev. Alma Faith Crawford
Kimberly R. Hampton
Rev. Leela Sinha
Theresa I. Soto
Michael Macias
Rev. Sunshine Jeremiah Wolfe
Rev. Mitra Rahnema
Rev. Leslie Takahashi
Rev. Chris Long, Madison, WI
Lindasusan Ulrich
Kevin Alan Mann, Starr King School for the Ministry MDiv Candidate
Clyde Grubbs, community minister, Boston, MA
Jorge Espinel, Ministerio Latino, CLF

Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti
Rev. Pamela Wat
Rev. Qiyamah Rahman
Rev. Wendy Pantoja
Rev. Summer Albayati-Krikeche
Rev. Archene Turner
Rev. Addae Ama Kraba
Rev. Lauren Smith
Rev. Abhi Janamanchi
Rev. Bill Sinkford


A Unitarian Universalist ‘Black Lives Matter’ Theology

“If, while I hear the wild shriek of the slave mother robbed of her little ones, I do not open my mouth, am I not guilty?”
–Lucy Stone

In the Denver community I strive to be a racial justice activist. Whenever I introduce myself in justice circles, I say that my Unitarian Universalist faith informs my work. “My faith,” I have said, “calls me to proclaim that black lives matter—that my life matters.”
Deep down I’ve been asking myself: Is that true? I knew that I felt called; was it Unitarian Universalism calling me here? The questions lingered even as dozens of UUs joined me at Denver’s ‘Selma Sunday’ gathering of 275, and as hundreds descended upon Alabama to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Viola Liuzzo, and James Reeb.

The doubts remained because of the hateful and/or ignorant comments some Unitarian Universalists have sent my way since I joined the racial justice movement. The doubts remained because of the silence and seeming indifference I’ve felt from some of my fellow UUs, even as others have gotten quite involved.

I needed a Unitarian Universalist Black Lives Matter theology. I needed more than the First Principle—I needed to dive into our history and our theology and find the deeds, words, and voices that could help me feel theologically grounded in racial justice work. In The Larger Hope, Russell Miller writes, “When Universalists opposed to slavery first undertook to launch a campaign to [stop] it, one of their first steps was to cast back over their own history to find support.”

The first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism reads: Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Some UU religious educators refer to the first principle as “the principle we remember.” Indeed, it’s the one we so often invoke as we tell confused friends about our faith. We believe every person is important! It’s beautiful, and simple, and too often not quite true. The story we tell about ourselves, the story we have told about ourselves, and the story we tell ourselves, all have a deeper, more somber truth.

They are stories we have been telling for centuries. In 1846, the periodical Universalist Miscellany said that belief in the brotherhood of all humanity was “one of the distinguishing excellencies of Universalism.”
“However remote we may live from each other, however different our complexions, we are family,” the Miscellany contended. Despite such rosy proclamations, nineteenth-century Universalists and Unitarians were largely reticent about involvement in abolitionist work.

When confronted with white, privileged Unitarian Universalists derailing the ‘Black Lives Matter’ message with statements like “all lives matter!” or “I don’t get why black people are so angry all the time,” the first principle starts to feel like a lie. A deep dive into the archives of our Universalist and Unitarian ancestors—and of our nation’s history—unearths a more profound explanation.

Like the Declaration of Independence and the preamble of the Constitution, the first principle of Unitarian Universalism stands as an unrealized promise. It is a map of the work done centuries and decades ago, and a map of the work yet to do. The first principle operates as what UU and Harvard Divinity professor Dan McKanan calls “radical hope.” “Radical hope,” McKanan writes in his book Prophetic Encounters, “transcends the institutions of present-day society, but it does not transcend the laws of physical or human nature. It looks to the future, not to heaven.”

In America there have always been those willing to follow the roadmap, to look, as McKanan says, to the future–beyond immediate comforts–and insist that the statements held in our founding documents meant more work needed to be done. In the nineteenth century Frederick Douglass asked, “What, to the American slave, is the Fourth of July?” Sojourner Truth, who fought for rights for black men and all women–and encountered exclusion from both–insisted: “Ain’t I a woman?”

Decades later, as Jim Crow coalesced in the South and the privileged entrenched economic inequality in the North, W.E.B. Du Bois wondered aloud, “How does it feel to be a problem?” In the wake of the civil rights movement, Dr. Vincent Harding said he was “a resident of a country that did not yet exist.”

It is on the shoulders of those willing to strive for what the Constitution’s preamble calls “a more perfect Union,” and those Universalists and Unitarians who strived for a more perfect faith, that I find a ‘Black Lives Matter’ theological framework.

In 1812, the Universalist Magazine wrote vehemently that it was “utterly impossible to reconcile slavery with the pure doctrines of Christianity.”
In October 1845, 170 Unitarian ministers signed the “Protest Against American Slavery,” published in the abolitionist newspaper “The Liberator.” In it the ministers condemned their own reticence to engage, referring to harm done “by the long silence of northern Christians and churches. We must speak against [slavery] in order not to speak in its support.”
Lydia Maria Child said of systemic racism, slavery, and segregation, “The removal of this prejudice is not a matter of opinion—it is a matter of duty.”

The nineteenth-century Universalists and Unitarians who worked to denounce slavery fought three battles: the battle to end slavery, the battle against silence from within the congregations, and the battle against their own prejudices. We fight the similar struggles today.
In the early and mid-nineteenth century, the majority of Unitarians and Universalists were not actively engaged in the abolitionist movement. Those willing to attempt fully living out their espoused values pushed their colleagues and religious siblings to eventual understanding and greater action. Taquiena Boston and others call this “leading from the margins.”

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought Jim Crow segregation and, again, silence from too many churches. Neither stopped black woman and Unitarian Fannie B. Williams from saying, in 1893, “It should be the province of religion to unite, and not to separate, men and women according to the superficial differences of race lines.”
Denominational fear and ambivalence in 1953 did not stop the white minister A. Powell Davies from proclaiming, “I shall myself…not eat a meal in any restaurant in [Washington D.C.] that will not serve meals to Negroes. I invite all who truly believe in human brotherhood to do the same.”

Tragic indifference from fellow clergy about Jimmie Lee Jackson’s February 1965 murder did not stop James Reeb from traveling to Selma. Finding some of her religious siblings unaware of the horrors facing blacks in America did not stop Viola Liuzzo from making the same journey.

In 2014, that many Unitarian Universalists had (and have) yet to dive into the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement did not stop Elizabeth Nguyen from joining a Christmas Eve vigil against police brutality across from the Beavercreek, Ohio Walmart in which unarmed black male John Crawford was murdered. It did not stop UU teenagers in Denver from marching down Colfax Avenue and demanding justice.

It has not stopped Leslie Butler MacFadyen from organizing nationally to assist protestors from Oakland to Ferguson to Philadelphia. It did not stop the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland from calling the nearby, historically black St. John Baptist Church about co-planning a vigil against police violence. It has not stopped Raziq Brown from challenging a racially biased police system in Fort Worth.

To fight for black lives now is to participate in radical hope. It is to battle for salvation on this Earth. It is to fight for life, for love, for justice. It is to demand more out of the first principle. It is to demand a more perfect faith.

Most of us in the faith are here because we felt welcome—at last–here. Some of us were too agnostic somewhere else. Some of us weren’t vindictive enough somewhere else. We were too working-class somewhere else. We were too lesbian somewhere else. We were too nerdy somewhere else, too introverted somewhere else, too gay-married somewhere else.

Many of us are here because this faith and the people in it affirmed: you may not be perfect, but your life matters just the same.

That’s what’s on the line now. Through racism and posthumous victim-blaming, through silence and bullets and indifference and vilification, black people are being told that our lives do not matter—or that they matter only conditionally. Black lives matter if. If we are educated. If we are respectful. If.
And sometimes, not even then do our lives matter.

Right now we as Unitarian Universalists are being called to act. We are being called by our ancestors–those who insisted, who demanded that we help end slavery, that we fight for suffrage, that we join the struggle to end Jim Crow, that we listen to and honor Black Power. Lydia Maria Child and William Lloyd Garrison are calling us. Lucy Stone is calling us. Fannie B. Williams and Frances Ellen Harper are calling us. James Reeb is calling us. Viola Liuzzo is calling us.

Guided by that principle—that enduring, unfulfilled promise of the belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person–ours is a faith that has said, or worked to say to those who have been marginalized:
You are a woman, and your life matters just the same.
You are gay or lesbian, and your life matters just the same.
You are transgender, and your life matters just the same.
You are bisexual, and your life matters just the same.
You have a disability, and your life matters just the same.
You were not loved as a child, and your life matters just the same.
You struggle with depression, and your life matters just the same.

Right now we are being called—by our ancestors, by our principles, by young black activists across the country—to promote and affirm:
You are young and black, and your life matters just the same.
You stole something, and your life matters just the same.
I have been taught to fear you, and your life matters just the same.
The police are releasing your criminal record, and your life matters just the same.
They are calling you a thug, and your life matters just the same.

Wayne Arnason said, “The way is often hard; the path is never clear, and the stakes are high. Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth. You are not alone.”

Our ancestors, principles, and fellow humans are calling on us to promote affirm, with deeds and words: Black lives matter just the same.

Seeking Home: A Young Adult Gathering

I’m a millennial young adult. Why I still believe in faith community, and in Unitarian Universalism

Fort Worth. Seattle. Denver. Arlington. Columbia, Missouri. Five of us, young adults from across the South and West, huddled in the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church office at one in the morning and strategized for the big Sunday morning service just hours away.

As I looked at each face, all betraying exhaustion yet each still filled with determination, a simple message permeated the room.

We’ve got this.

Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

All weekend our worship quintet, along with the event’s general leadership team and fifty other young adults, had been working to build community at our Winter Gathering—no easy task considering attendees’ birth years ranged from 1979, or the year of Village People and Gloria Gaynor, to 1996, when Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ ruled the airwaves.

In Unitarian Universalism much has been made about the dearth of YA programming, with graduating high school folks feeling they are not being “bridged out” of youth group, but rather “pushed off a cliff,” with little support waiting for them. Youth rallies and “cons” touched their souls; adult worship services too often leave them cold.

Trying to build a young adult worship community—or else a spiritual space truly welcoming to young adults–has always been a challenge. We’ve read the articles. Millennials are less likely to go to church, to identify as religious, and to believe in God. Often our generation gets blamed for our absence from religious spaces. We’re told that we are too focused on our cell phones and individual lives to aim for anything greater.

It’s easy to believe such statements, to accept them as fact—even as members of this generation. Often we are quick to believe the worst about one another, and ourselves. Perhaps, though, we ought to heed wisdom from one of my generation’s favorite movie characters, The Lion King’s Rafiki, and “look harder.”

Four months ago a team of young adults–some of whom had, prior to the event, never met–united virtually and planned worships, justice actions, workshops, discussions on religious covenant, and more. Over fifty people took time away from their families to travel to the Houston area on the weekend after Christmas, and to make a statement: we are about something.

The late men’s basketball coach Jimmy Valvano said, “If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.” And so, for three days, we did. It was an unapologetically spiritual, religious space. We danced, we laughed, we stayed up late. We sang ‘Amazing Grace’ tearfully arm-in-arm at midnight, and ‘I’m On A Boat’ at 1:30 am another night. Both were spiritual experiences for many.

We listened as people found their voices, in some cases for the first time in years. Those who loved their voices were encouraged to use them less. We were called to action, to live out our UU values, and to work for environmental, racial, and economic justice. We struggled through covenant building and then through covenant following. We discussed body image and sexuality and mental health. What most of us found was something profoundly messy, and imperfect, and beautiful.
Many of us, we found grace. We found hope. And through struggle, we found home—or the beginnings of it.

That word—home–undergirded our time together.  For many in our age range, home eludes us. Perhaps we have gone away to school. We are where we grew up, and it no longer feels like home. We may not be fully welcome at home anymore, or we have grown beyond it. We are forging new homes with families and friends of our own.
Oh home, let me come home
Home is wherever I’m with you

It was this exploration of home that brought five Unitarian Universalist young adults together, poring over worship outlines at one in the morning as friends danced the Wobble two rooms over. Our goal was to bring two messages to the suburban Houston congregation the next morning.

The first message, the stated theme of the service, was to lift up the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, to call for more Unitarian Universalists to join the struggle, and to make a case that racial justice has always been about the quest for black Americans, and other folks of color, to find home in the midst of discrimination.
Speaking truths at home, as Jesus did at the synagogue in Nazareth and Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni did/do right here in America, likely means being hated and reviled. We argued that we must combat such hatred with support and love and solidarity.

Our second message—our latent statement of purpose—was, to quote another seminal millennial film, to bring it. Through song and impassioned readings and poems and story and laughter and silent meditation and fiery preaching, we strived to show what multigenerational, multicultural worship can do. Can be. Can feel like. Worship—and faith community more generally– can do more than make us think—it can make us laugh, make us cry, make us sing.

Worship can call us to action, call us to justice, call us home.

Home was never meant to be easy.

Our faith is hard. People who don’t or can’t agree, who struggle to understand one another, nevertheless stay together and covenant together.

Through these experiences—an oft-challenging yet ultimately rewarding young adult gathering, and a YA-led, boomer-musically-supported Sunday morning service full of tears, laughs, and energy—I find myself with some hopes for Unitarian Universalism going forward.

I hope that when we come together, we bring our whole selves, and not just our minds. I hope we heed Emerson’s warning in his 1838 Divinity School Address, about the preacher in the snow storm:

I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more…A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it.

Emerson believed “The true preacher can be known…that he deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.”
May we bring our minds and willingness to reason; may we also bring a willingness to laugh, to weep, to dance, to share our stories. May we truly come alive. May we bring a willingness to listen and be silent together.  May we be willing to make some noise. May we be willing to work for justice and change our ways when needed.
When we do these things, tough as they are, there’s little we can’t achieve.

Home was never meant to be easy. Home is hard work. All over, Unitarian Universalists of all ages and races and backgrounds are working to find home. To build home–together.

The Moderate Protester

Some of what’s said at protests makes me uncomfortable. Why, as a leader, It’s not my job to “police” others’ anger

My maternal grandfather, the late Oscar Stewart, served seventeen years as the chief of police at Texas Christian University. A black man in charge of the TCU campus police force, the flags at TCU flew at half-staff when he died, in 2013. While in college I drove to Fort Worth and spent a weekend with him. We played a couple rounds of golf, his favorite post-basketball pastime; on the course we ran into some of his white former police colleagues. They shook my hand and, laughing, told me to root for Missouri less–and TCU more. I was 20, six feet tall, and black, yet those chuckling white, Texas-accented men on the golf course made no attempt to make me feel less human.

I struggle when I hear protestors chant “fuck the police.” I struggle when all cops get thrown under the proverbial bus. I understand, though, where that feeling comes from. My life experience–having lots of white friends and being treated mostly well in society–must not be used, by myself or anyone else, as a weapon against other black and brown folks speaking their truths.
Since Darren Wilson killed Mike Brown on August 9th, I’ve emerged as one of Denver’s leaders in the fight to end systemic police violence and brutality. We’ve held rallies, forums, protests at grocery stores, and marches through the streets.

You name it, and we’ve heard it. There are those who believe in respectability politics—that “black people must love ourselves before the police or white people can love us.” There are those who want us to “be more like Martin and less like Malcolm.” We are often implored to “stop killing each other first.” Self-proclaimed leaders have called for calm, for us not to show too much passion, because it will scare moderate white people away from our side.

And we’ve heard that all police are evil, that voting is useless, that black pastors are worthless, that “we should be openly violent in return.”

Never mind that calm protest has never changed anything. Never mind that black people who kill other black people get thrown in jail, unlike cops who kill unarmed teenagers. Never mind that we needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X, and that they were not as far apart as their posthumous caricatures suggest. Never mind that passionate nonviolent protest—and, frankly, the looting—is what made Ferguson into a national story in the first place.

This is not an argument for moderation. We have had enough of that.

Those of us with a propensity towards moderation—towards decorum, towards respectability—I implore you–us–to hold it in. Black people are being killed. This is no time to be calm. This is a time to disrupt, a time to move beyond silence.
Some have called on myself and other leaders to “control the message” at these events. We have our opinions on what works best, but rather than unilaterally deciding, I invite a broader, truly democratic conversation on best practices.

As soon as we in leadership positions tell other people how to feel, we are lost.
If you don’t like “fuck the police” as a chant, get some friends together and start “black lives matter.” If large numbers of people would rather chant the former, be honest with yourself that maybe that’s not the rally for you. That’s okay. There are events at which I don’t feel comfortable.

And lastly, to my white protesting family: By now, you’ve likely read articles about why “all lives matter” isn’t the point. Black lives are the ones in question. I ask you, here, to evaluate how often you take the bullhorn or microphone. If you’re frustrated with black people who don’t seem radical enough, remember that we are more likely to have police retaliate against us and/or keep us in jail longer.

But at an event, I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you want to do that work on your own, it will be warmly welcomed.

It is often said that we have to work together for this movement to work. Indeed. But “working together” doesn’t mean silencing anyone who disagrees with us. Working together doesn’t mean men silencing women. Working together doesn’t mean older civil rights activists running over younger ones. Working together doesn’t mean white people taking the mic or otherwise telling black folks how to respond.

Working together means understanding not just how each of us is disadvantaged but also how we are privileged. Working together means knowing when to talk, and when to listen. Working together means having hard conversations.

I am a moderate protester. It is an honor to march with ‘radicals’ as well as (relative) conservatives. We are showing up, and it’s a start—though we have more work to do, both within and without.

Dreaming of Heroes

“Dad, what in the world am I supposed to say to him? He talks to world leaders!”
“How about ‘hello’?”
I sat at a table with my father at a Washington, D.C. restaurant, but eating felt like an impossibility. Nerves overtook me. I felt sick.

In an hour, I’d be meeting the president of the United States.

Never had I been more nervous. My dad, a former Clinton employee from the late 70s, had received an invitation to the White House from his old boss. All of eleven, I joined him.

As a child my friends read comics; I read little history books. Children’s stories of civil rights leaders, of women like Ida B. Wells and Susan B. Anthony, and American icons littered my room. The women and men in those stories kept me up at night. How did Harriet Tubman not lose hope? How did Rosa Parks get her courage? What gave FDR strength?

Maybe most children don’t pore over books about women’s suffrage, but nearly every young person spends time dreaming of heroes.

Back then I made little distinction between mainstream, elected leaders—like President Clinton—and those who challenged the status quo, often at great cost.

After meeting President Clinton in the Oval Office, I decided I’d go into politics. I wanted to be, I told my mom, a “real-life superhero.” And, as I became a teenager, even through bouts of severe depression, that hope persisted.

In my sophomore year of high school Spider-Man 2 came out; one scene still gives me chils. Many know it as the ‘Aunt May scene.’ Peter Parker asks her why a neighborhood boy, Henry, wants to be Spider-Man. She replies:

He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there flying around like that, saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer.
I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.

“I believe there’s a hero in all of us.” It’s that line that has, over the years, kept me believing. But Aunt May got a couple things wrong.

When a person is truly courageous and self-sacrificing, they draw disdain, even rage. Everyone may love Dr. King now—or, at least, love to quote him, no matter their political views—but in life, many reviled him. When Dr. King spoke out against the war in Vietnam, other black leaders criticized him, and President Johnson felt betrayed.

A hero cannot be in it because she wants people to line up for her, cheer her, scream her name. Whether it’s in comics or in real human rights movements, heroes are not celebrated. Heroes are despised. Heroes are ignored and, so often, unknown. And sometimes, heroes are killed.

To be a hero means speaking truth to power. Heroes advocate for freedom, not the status quo; for hope, not hate; for the presence of justice, not the absence of tension. Heroes call us to be better versions of ourselves.

Here at the end of 2014, I find myself, again, dreaming of heroes. I look around at the public sphere and, at first glance, I don’t see many. The actions of officials—local and state—in Missouri surrounding the Ferguson situation have been troubling. A ‘peace’ “won” with tanks and riot gear is no peace at all. Too many appear more interested in policing the actions of poor and working-class blacks than with working with them to help improve their lives.

While politicians get the credit, they have almost never been the true heroes. The Kennedy brothers and Johnson were good-hearted men—men who waited a long time to get involved in civil rights issues. They did so because they were pushed and prodded, by Dr. King and by thousands of others. Black people (and a few white ones) were being attacked and sometimes lynched, and yet they waited, because they feared losing the South.

I met one of my childhood heroes, Bill Clinton. I later learned he was willing to hurt people by cutting (though he called it reforming) welfare. He was willing to compromise and buy into—or at least not challenge–myths about people, from poor blacks to folks in the LGBT community—to score political victories.
Mr. Clinton was incredibly kind to me in the White House that day in 1999. By most accounts, he genuinely loves people. But is he a hero? Is Barack Obama? Are any politicians? I’m not sure.

I don’t think (most) politicians are evil. Politics is complicated, and messy, and requires compromise. Yet I still dream of heroes.

And if we look harder, we will find them—being shouted at, harassed online, and ignored or shamed or misunderstood by the public. There’s one other thing Aunt May got wrong: heroes need not give up their dreams. Heroes inspire us to join their dreams.

Frederick Douglass dreamed of a day when black folks could truly celebrate the Fourth of July. Sojourner Truth dreamed her society might answer her “Yes!” when she asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” Mary White Ovington dreamed her white people such as herself would join the struggle for racial equality. Ida B. Wells dreamed of a nation without lynching. James Weldon Johnson dreamed we might ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.’ At the March on Washington, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson implored Dr. King to “tell ’em about the dream, Martin.”

And today: sportswriter Jessica Luther dreams of a sports world without intimate partner violence and with people in power who believe the victims. Elon James White dreams that men will take responsibility for their public actions. Anita Sarkeesian and others dream of a gaming community less hostile to women.

The day after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I scoured the Internet every five minutes to see if someone in Denver had organized a vigil or protest to honor Mr. Brown’s life. I checked church websites and searched on Twitter. Nothing. Finally, I saw one. I tweeted out seeing if anyone would join us in a peaceful vigil.

A few people responded. We’d meet near Civic Center Park. I told my roommate Kierstin about it, and ten minutes later, she came downstairs with markers and posters. “Let’s make signs.”

That first night, there were nine of us out there. Numerous cars honked their support. Two people heckled us. Bolstered by Kierstin’s support, we kept tweeting. A few days later, over 100 showed up for a vigil. A few days later we held a march through Denver in solidarity with the Ferguson protestors, at least 300 strong.

On those days, and many since, Kierstin has been a hero. I’ve met many others. They are not famous. Many do not have official titles and positions. But from them I have learned: heroism means showing up. Heroism means pushing officials to do better, to be better, to build a more inclusive world.

Our country, our world–we need leadership. We need heroes. This can be done without hating the “other side.” It can be done through love, even of our adversaries. But it cannot be done without the willingness to be despised, to be heckled, to be ignored.

After all this time, I still dream of heroes. And despite the hateful rhetoric, despite the fear that rules so many, I still believe there’s a hero in all of us.