August 17, 2014
Unitarian Society of Northampton & Florence
By Langston Hughes:
* Portrait of Langston Hughes, 1930. Photographer unknown. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
This poem keeps repeating itself in my head and heart these days. Of course, I know why. And so do you.
Our nation has just experienced a huge explosion. Let me take that back: are experiencing, present tense. The violence visited upon Michael Brown is far too common, far too familiar, for anyone to think of this as beyond the pale or highly unusual.
Maybe you have heard and were shocked, or maybe you already knew and are cynical or afraid, but since 2006, on average, in this nation, in this so-called home of the free, twice every week, a white police officer has killed a Black person.
We mourn for Michael Brown. We stand with his family. We mourn all these dead.
We can’t be surprised at this explosion, its force or intensity. It comes as the latest in a much-too long litany of young African American men, men of color and some women, too, who are killed “extra judicially” which is a big, official, obfuscating word for outside the due process of law, otherwise known as murder. Eric Garner last month in Staten Island. Ezell Ford in Los Angeles two days after Michael Brown was killed. The numbers grow: mostly-young, people of color killed, by police officers or citizenry emboldened by cruel laws purporting to be about self-defense, but too often are instruments of racialized fear and violence.
Originally this morning I was going to talk about my experience interning as a hospital chaplain, where I saw more than enough death and violence. Instead, I choose to preach the headlines. We are choosing to preach the headlines. And still I want to preach prayer, too.
UU minister and author Kate Braestrup writes this about prayer:
I can’t pretend to be unconditionally in favor of the practice of prayer. No, I’ve got plenty of conditions. I’ll pray only as long as prayer helps me to be more present, more aware and attentive, and as long as prayer helps me to see the suffering of others. As long as prayer reminds me to deploy both my resources and my generosity, I’ll pray, and I will keep on praying so long as prayer serves as a uniquely potent means of giving and receiving love….
Still, if someone is starving, for God’s sake, don’t sit around praying: Give him food. (The same goes for water, warmth, rest and the Heimlich maneuver.) To assert that prayer is always, under all circumstances, the first thing love should do, or even the best that love can do, is irresponsible at best and a self-serving lie at worst. (Beginner’s Grace, Kate Braestrup)
Still, if someone is being shot dead in the middle of the street, unarmed as they are, with their hands in the air, by police officer, for God’s sake: don’t let it happen (again).
So with that in mind, with all these stories and commentaries about Ferguson, about racial inequality, gun violence in the hands of police, tear gas and rubber bullets, I want to share a story with you about prayer. The power of prayer. Prayer and Ferguson.
Reverend Willis Johnson is a pastor at the Wellspring Church in Ferguson. Apparently there is a photo of him out there in social media land, one I hadn’t been able to locate til recently, of him hugging a young man, Joshua Wilson, one of the protestors, a young African American man he had never met before, in the midst of the protests in Ferguson. When interviewed by NPR, here is what Rev. Johnson said about this embrace:
I just embraced him. Because he was so angry. You could feel it in his body. You could feel it in his speech. And I have a newly turned teenager. I’ve been Joshua before. Something just said grab him, hold him, maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what is really symbolic of the situation at hand. People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt. People who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. Let me say it like that. I needed that as much as he needed that. We kept each other from harm’s way and from doing something that we need not to do.
Rev. Johnson continues,
Well, one of the things I shared with him is that I understand and I know you want to – I know you want – you got to channel this in another way. Not to discourage protest. Not to discourage his expression. That was never the case. If anything, it was to affirm him. And to affirm both of us. Because in that moment, we were being disaffirmed. We were being told and suggested that what we were doing was wrong and it was not wrong. People are feeling, I believe, empowered by the fact that there are others who feel passionate like them. And it’s hard for people who are not there in it to maybe understand or understand why someone would choose or channel that mean or mode to express themselves. I don’t understand it fully. But what I do understand is what it means to be that angry, so I’d rather if you are going to fuss and cuss and be mad, I want you to do it with me, do it in my ear,…
And then comes the prayer part:
…and at the same time, I just began to pray with him, “Give him the strength. Give us the strength, to be courageous enough not do what they expect us to do.”
What does courage look like? I couldn’t hug young Joshua, but Rev. Johnson could. I am so thankful he did.
Let me be clear, though Rev. Johnson suggests, as one Black man talking to another, that courage in that moment is resisting the strategy of violent protest, I do not think this is the only courageous choice at all times and in all places. Sometimes courage is renunciation of violence. More often than not. And sometimes, given imperialism, fascism, given oppression in many of its forms, courage is the intentional and skillful use of it. I say this with what I hope is an appropriately uneasy sense that it is likely right, though not especially desirable.
Either way, as someone who lives a racially privileged life all the hours of my days, it’s not really up to me to measure or judge, and certainly not to dictate. I have entered only recently, and the story line of current violence started long ago in our nation’s racial history, as Ta’nehisi Coates was quoted earlier:
“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘Never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
So if (as one of our readings says) safety, and respect, and equality look different depending on race privilege, upon gender identity, upon class affiliation, then what does courage look like for you, at this moment, in your life here, in your life in the context of our nation on fire?
In an interview just a few weeks before she died, the great sage Maya Angelou said that “courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently. You can’t be consistently fair or kind or generous or forgiving any of those without courage.”
How do we, as Unitarian Universalists, live into the bookends of our Seven Principles, the one that says each person has inherent worth and dignity and that we are all part of the interdependent web of all being? How do we find the courage to do what it takes to not just believe in those values, not just say them out loud, but to live into them, to embody them, especially if our privileges provide protections from the harm of this systematically unjust society that allows fear-turned-to-hate to fester and run, allows it to stink like rotten meat, allows it to be a heavy load on the most vulnerable among us…
So what does your courage look like? How will you notice who matters, and who does not, and change that ~ in yourself, in your neighborhood, in your nation, in this world? Whatever it is ~ and there is a handout attached to your order of meeting that gives you specific ideas, if you would like them ~ may you find yourself praying or affirming or risking your way there.
May we all find our way there sooner, much sooner, because it is already later.
Benediction (by Rev. Wayne Arnason)
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
And the stakes are very high.
For deep down, there is another truth:
You are not alone.