from my July 31, 2016 sermon:
Reading: Jesus Calls His First Disciples (Luke 5:1-11)
5 One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret,[a] the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.
Two years ago when I first moved here I was trying to figure out what the Topeka community response to Ferguson was. I heard Pastor Gordon Glenn ask Interfaith Topeka whether other communities of faith were talking about it. The conversation began and then faltered, partially caught in people’s desire to see themselves and their community as blameless and just; and I have seen this dynamic over and over again. We did plan a vigil that fall. But we did not figure out how to stay organized. I felt too new and too white to lead the conversation so I just kept listening for the questions, the anger, the demand for racial injustice to be addressed. I tried to listen for the narrative of Topeka and understand where race and discrimination were as pieces of this puzzle.
As home to Brown v Board and as a state that has a history of rejecting slavery, I heard pieces of a story about a community that wanted to reject racism. But the truth seems to be more like this–when Brown v Board happened, white families put their kids in private schools and moved to create new places to live and build schools away from the people of color. I can remember the first time I realized that the story of so-called integration was one in which in most cases black children were in schools that had been abandoned by most of the other pupils and teachers. And over time we see that our neighborhoods and schools are still mostly, de facto segregated. We don’t even try anymore. So it’s no surprise that resources and opportunities are still unequally shared and available and that the punishments and rules are also unequally applied; people of color still face housing, employment, health and educational barriers in addition to higher rates of incarceration and victimization via police misconduct or brutality.
But the story we want to believe doesn’t square with this. We are comfortable with the idea of the Rosa Parks bus because we think it represents so much positive change! This makes us feel good. Black Lives Matter slogans remind us that racism didn’t end when Rosa Parks became a national hero whose life we could revise in order to make her seem less like the activists we see today, instead of the clear antecedent to the work being done now. Do you imagine that Rosa would not be standing with BLM? Because if so, you have accepted the white washed version of her work and her power. It might not feel good to admit that instead of lynching people of color we are now allowing POC to be shot and killed with immunity. But…this is really happening. Has been happening. Keeps happening.
Since Ferguson I have been struggling with how I could be a meaningful ally to people of color in Topeka and KS. Partly I have been struggling with the difference in my role as a minister of a congregation that is part of denomination struggles to attract and welcome POC, versus my previous role as an educator in an urban community college setting where the majority of my students were not white and their future success was my focus. And partly I am out on my boat, looking for new teachers and a new way to fish. Even if I was still working at El Centro College in downtown Dallas I would still be in this boat: listening to people of color and looking for people to do this work with, people to follow and support.
Fundamentally I believe that I am diminished by the oppression of other people, as a person and as a member of a community.
Many, many congregations have decided to put up banners that say Black Lives Matter, which have been vandalized and stolen over and over again. While I support the idea of having such a banner here, I guess I hesitate to do this first. I think there is something else that needs to come first. I want each of you to have an answer for “why did you put that sign up?” when you get asked by friends and neighbors. And frankly, I doubt that anyone who questions this statement is going to be so nice. Even in KS. So if you are white, I want you to consider first wearing a BLM pin.
I want you to consider wearing it all day every day during your waking hours and no matter where you are going. I want you to notice when you want to take it off and when people say or do rude things because you’re wearing it. And every time you consider taking it off or obscuring it from view, I want you consider that people of color never get to choose to not be black or brown. They don’t get to fly under the radar of a racist neighbor or check out clerk or police officer by changing their skin tone.
I have been especially thinking about this with the whole “blue lives matter.” The thing is–cops in the US have a chosen a profession where it is no secret that Americans are generally armed to the teeth. That Americans have guns and feel like they have the right to use them is not news. So, if you choose this profession, you know you are likely to get shot at. I am not saying this makes it OK to be shot at, but this is different from waking up everyday as a person of color and having no way to retire, or choose something else. Cops choose a risky profession. Being born black or brown should not carry the same risk as choosing to be a cop.
Just choosing to be a policeman alone doesn’t make a person honorable. That distinction is earned by how you show up in the world. But I think the truth lies even deeper than this in our struggle with the idea of “blue lives matter.” Fundamentally what has happened is we are beginning to realize that people of color and other marginalized groups have a different experience with law enforcement. The worst things most white folks worry about when they get pulled over is getting a ticket, and frankly most of us are worried about that because we knew we were speeding and deserve the ticket. Most people of people of color are worried that at the very least they will be detained and harassed in a way that is humiliating and unnecessary, and worst they are scared they will be killed. What we are afraid to see is the reality that a profession that acts honorably toward one group does not have that same track record with others; we walk in parallel universes blind to the others’ experiences. We have yet to see a cop facing real consequences for murdering unarmed people of color.
So I say, Black Lives Matter. And if you really want to say Blue Lives Matter, you will support widespread and deep changes to our gun ownership laws. Because cops in other countries don’t face the same level of threat from guns that U.S. cops do. And you will ask for accountability for lives lost in circumstances where shooting to kill, or driving to kill, or choking to kill or ending the life of a person seemed like an OK option, easier than writing a ticket or de-escalating a situation. Other countries teach cops to shoot folks in the knee; we teach cops to aim for the chest, because it’s easier to hit.
Don’t get me wrong. I felt sick to my stomach and I cried hard when I realized that someone was purposely shooting cops in Dallas (and later, other cities.) But I felt equally sick knowing that it was happening in a college I used to work in while students and other citizens protested yet another set of cold-blooded murders of two African- American men. I knew that we were going to struggle to remember those deaths with the same attention and intention, with a depth for empathy.
If you are white, I want to invite you to consider wearing a button so you can begin to hear and see what people of color hear and see all the time–and have to come up with a response that is life-giving and transformative (if possible.) To help people begin to wonder why they are defensive, and what it means to acknowledge our racist system. To hopefully take some of the pressure off people of color to explain systemic racism to white people, over and over and over again. Or trying to avoid having to have that conversation. To notice when you want to chew someone out for their insensitivity and when you want to pretend you didn’t hear what someone said.
If we put a banner up, I want each of us to have the capacity to explain WHY we put it up and WHY we will replace it if it is destroyed or stolen. Why our faith calls us to proclaim Black Lives Matter. And I want those of you who are not white bodied to know that this place, these people, this faith community is yours; that this is your sanctuary, that we fundamentally belong with one another and you have as much claim to being here, to being UU, to being part of this work for change on the terms of your choosing. I want you to know that I am your minister, and I see you. I see you, and I am committed to walking with you. I will set down my nets and whatever I thought I could catch with them and become a fisher of men and women whose lives are diminished by systemic racial injustice. Where you lead, I will follow.
I am committing to wearing a button every day. I currently own one Black Lives Matter T-shirt. I will wear it once a week, and if any of you are moved to help me acquire six more, I will deepen my own commitment to wearing one every day. Maybe some of you want to try out wearing something bigger than a button, too.
I also want to ask all of you to consider engaging a daily practice that brings you joy–something that will renew you in the face of the many tensions that come from living in a context where most people do not share your deepest held values. You may want to write down the moments where you felt tongue tied or reactive–or where you said or did something that opened up new ways of understanding racism and privilege and systems of oppression. Maybe you like having a ready set of statistics or a ready quote–something you tuck in your pocket to remind you that the button represents a reality that you want to change. Be prepared to share with us this fall as you try out what it feels like to be an out advocate for people of color or what it feels like to know that your community stands with you.
Black Lives Matter as a movement embraces all brown and black people–immigrants, american indians, and all of the other identities they may carry–gender identity and sexual orientation, religious identities or not, differently abled and all other identities that may be marginalized by our current cultural context. So when I say Black Lives Matter I am saying that when Black Lives Matter, we will be able to say that All Lives Matter.
Here in Topeka, a group is developing out of the invitation of a young adult who works at Doorstep with Big Brothers, Big Sisters. With each new meeting we have grown in numbers and we have stayed diverse of age, color, and gender; We meet on Sundays at 4 and have moved to this building because we outgrew the first. We don’t totally know what we’re doing yet–we are trying to develop some task forces and to get to know each other enough to trust each other. We are planning a vigil on August 20 to grieve the police murders of African American men Alton Sterling and Philando Castile this summer, and nearly two a week every week, shot by officers throughout the year.
If you watched either or both of the political party conventions this summer you might be left wondering who is actually going to do anything? I want to be clear that while I think voting is VERY important and you should exercise this right no matter how you feel about the names on the ticket, it is even more important to know your community, know your neighbors, and to build networks of mutuality. Last Sunday, as we were finishing our business meeting, I told people they should try to meet someone they didn’t know before the next meeting. Go to coffee, have lunch, something. I spent about an hour this week getting to know two people from the group. I already feel more deeply committed to this group and its work because I feel more connected to them, to their kids, to our shared future. This is not a technical problem with clear steps to solve it. The quest to end racism and all forms of inequality calls us to question our own lives and motives and to reach out to people and situations that call up our own anxieties and fear. In the two meetings I have attended I worked to listen, to follow, to support and to not insert myself everywhere. I offered space for people of color to gather without white folks–to create a space for healing and open conversation without bumping up against my/our unintentional– but nevertheless real–interfering desire to control situations and people.
Social Justice work as a ministry asks us to companion rather than lead–this means I am committed to walk with others, listen to others and support others. Companioning means I don’t decide for someone else–I am not a problem solver or negotiator. Sometimes I will be a partner and sometimes I will be a helper. Being an ally to people of color is not so different from being an ally to the LGBTQ community. It means being willing to listen to my language, to change my definitions, and to show up where and when I am asked to. And it is also just as the grandfather in our story for all ages says it–we must pay attention to the heaven and hell we have already created, to this world, now. One world at a time, one community at a time, one relationship at a time, starting with each of us.
Discipleship, servant leadership–these models for how we might work for justice do not always square with many UU’s vision of themselves. It takes a lot of courage to leave behind a way of being–a way of working together to do new work and answer a new calling. In the story where Jesus sets out on a boat and commences to teach from the boat, which has yielded only empty nets, we learn that after his teaching the nets come up full, and the second boat has to help the first to pull it all in; when these fishermen are overwhelmed by this impossibility, he invites them to consider another: to leave all of it and join him in organizing for justice work and whole communities–to do God’s work. They are not prepared for this. They are just fisherman! They aren’t trained to do this work. But in this moment they have found a leader and have shared the work of a community discovering abundance where once there was scarcity. Many of Jesus’ teaching are about finding abundance where there is seeming scarcity and being called into work on behalf of community. Today we have plenty of empty nets and lost hopes–the challenge is not only to consider whose words are worthy of our attention, but also when we need to reach out and help one another, when we need to be willing to drop our nets and change direction, gather our strength for new tasks. Jesus told his disciples that now they would be fishers of men. In his teaching, before we can go into the world to be change makers, we need to work together and find abundance where once there was scarcity; and we need to be willing to heed the call of action when it comes as well, whether we feel ready or not, whether we have been prepared or not.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLDkYPGgOSg William J. Barber speaks at UUA GA in 2016