Church After Ferguson

Sermon/Worship notes
UUCR
September 20, 2015

“…with deep abiding love” I’m thinking Rev. Sekou just might be a Universalist.

So we had a big group of folks from FUMCOG – The first United Methodist Church of Germantown, join us for the Black Lives Matter vigil on Thursday, which was absolutely lovely. But I noticed that they were all standing together on one side of the lawn and all of us were standing together on the other side. I decided that this self-imposed segregation needed to be remedied, so I sidled up to the nearest FUMCOGGER and said – “hey! Methodists and UUs are allowed to comingle. Don’t worry, we’re not contagious.” Without missing a beat, he turned to me and said: “well isn’t that the point! Why are we standing out here if we’re not trying to be contagious? Well played. I nodded with a smile. “I stand corrected.”

And so we comingled. And prayed together. And one of our guests lit a candle for Rudy Gelsey and this community’s history of social involvement. Like us, they are recent members of POWER, Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild. And they will host the POWER training for congregational leadership teams in a few weeks.

Yes indeed. I want to talk with you this morning about being contagious. Now the first dictionary definition of “contagious” related to spreading disease through close contact. The second definition….”an emotion, feeling, or attitude that is likely to spread to and affect others.”

You see, I think the events of one year ago in Ferguson, Missouri are changing the way we do church. Not only the way we do church, but the way we understand church, and the way we experience church. And when I say we, I mean the “we” of Restoration and the “we” of the church writ large, what we might call, for lack of a better term – today’s community of faith. Just like the events in Selma, Alabama 50 years ago fired us up to walk our faith, hope and love outside our sanctuary doors, the events of Ferguson are calling us again right now. Inviting us to and encouraging us to expand our understanding of ourselves as a community of faith and be contagious; to seek out and build relationships, grounded in our values, so that we can make things right.

And a new generation of young leaders are showing us the way. These young leaders are telling us that church hasn’t been there for them. Their schools haven’t been there for them. Their elected officials and their police haven’t been there for them. The American dream has not been available to them. They’re telling us that we care more about how they dress for church or whether they use curse words than we care about their lives.

This is hard to hear. Ferguson is everywhere they tell us. Ferguson is Philadelphia. Ferguson is Mt. Airy. Ferguson is Kennett Square, Harrisburg, Glenside, Norristown.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to be in conversation with several of these Ferguson activists, and a group of 60 or so faith-filled women from all over the country. Most of them seasoned clergy. Most were African American. WomanPreach, Inc. where I did an internship before coming here, was invited by the women activists of Ferguson to do several days of workshops around prophetic preaching. For those who may not be familiar with the term, preaching is considered prophetic when it draws on sacred texts and sacred tradition to demand social justice. When Bernie Sanders spoke at Liberty University this week and quoted the Hebrew prophet Amos in his speech, he was preaching prophetically. Hearing the voices of the Black Lives Matter movement has changed him too.

On the morning before our first official session, the staff of WomanPreach met over breakfast to talk about the upcoming program and the painful question came up. Does the church really have anything to offer to folks who have put their lives, and their bodies and their livelihoods on the line every single day for more than a year? Especially if we have not been there with them?

These activists have accepted imprisonment, persistent harassment from the authorities, and a relentless campaign to discredit and dehumanize them. And in the face of all of this, they not only persist. They are making church in public spaces.

Let me give you an example that was shared with us. This happened during the most recent wave of arrests in Ferguson at the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death. A middle aged, white, woman rabbi and a young African-American Muslim woman were put in a cell together. Police stripped them both of their headscarves, shaming them both. When mealtime came, they were both given bologna sandwiches. Too bad, they were told when they tried to explain that they couldn’t eat bologna. The white woman was given back her headscarf, her companion was not. As it turned out, the rabbi had a second scarf with her and shared it with her cell companion. Both left the jail with their heads held high.

Do we have anything to offer them?

It’s a good question isn’t it?

We can say: we are not their church.

We can say: we cannot be all things to all people.

We can say: economic and racial justice are not the issues I really care about the most. Our environmental crisis is much more urgent. There is no lack of critical problems to address in our world.

We can say: I come to church to center myself in a spiritual space and to gather strength for the week to come. I am too tired and stressed already.

Fair enough.

My response is that this is not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and. It’s a “let’s dare to think big and go right to the heart of this moment in history and see what it can teach us.”

When Selma happened. Most people stayed home. And for a variety of excellent and terrible reasons, right? But enough people took to the streets to make change happen. In our tradition of Unitarian Universalism, it changed the way we think about ourselves, and what our religious life means. We became willing to be contagious.

Maybe Ferguson is teaching us that we can do more than focus inward on our beloved church community. What if our ecclesiology, our purpose as church was ALSO to go to where the pain and the need are the greatest, and to offer ourselves in love and solidarity? I don’t mean offer our checkbooks. Although God knows our checkbooks are irreplaceable, especially in a country that doesn’t budget for people.

When we offer ourselves we learn what might we do together that we could not do alone. When we offer ourselves, we learn from each other and with each other. Like Methodists and UUs. Who knew?

It’s not enough to say we have to be more welcoming to people who are different in some way from us. Although that is not a bad thing. More welcoming is always good!

But the way I see things, that jail cell became consecrated ground because a Muslim and a Jew not only saw one another, they affirmed one another’s dignity in a deeply religious way. And they never would have met. They never would have had the opportunity to engage with each other, to love each other, if it hadn’t been for the Ferguson movement that called to them both.

The women in the preaching program did not back down from the tough questions. They questioned the sacred text and they unflinchingly questioned themselves. This was not a conversation about black-white racial relations per se, although clearly systemic racism is what makes the movement necessary. It was a conversation about church and how maybe, in this moment, many among us are recognizing that our eyes need to shift focus so that we can see, and our feet need to go out the door so that we can really start praying, and our ears need to listen so that we can learn what we don’t know, and we can hear what the people who need us most have to tell us. Ferguson is not a humanitarian crisis. Ferguson is calling all of us in this nation to account. In this moment, it is time for us to critique the church politics of respectability, political correctness and exclusion; the expectations and entitlement of privilege, however that shows up. And the presumption of some kind of divinely, or denominationally ordained authority. Then maybe, we can re-imagine how and where church happens.

There are many who do not trust any religious institution. Nothing good can come from such a flawed construct. I don’t blame them. There is no betrayal quite like the betrayal of one’s church. And no, no religious building can ever be all things to all people.

But there’s a lot we can do. And I believe that here at Restoration we have already begun to re-imagine church.

Let me read to you from the recently released Ferguson Commission report. “Faith communities and authorized faith leaders are called to directly engage in networks and tables of policy discussion across the region to shape how we work together and inform the conversation directly. Develop new and provide existing assets to the region with a multi-faith set of resources for racial equity and reconciliation informed by various theologies and accessible for use in diverse communities of faith. These may include statements of faith, liturgical resources, litanies, etc.”

You know why it says that? Because in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder, clergy across boundaries of race, class and religion actually started to talk to each other. Pray together. March together. Weep together. They learned from the young people they came to follow and they learned from each other.

Our partnership with POWER and UUPLAN offer us the same opportunities to connect. To do this work with deep and abiding love.

The author of this book we’ve read from this morning, Leah Gunning Francis led a plenary session during the St. Louis workshops. Imagine my surprise when she started talking about her experience on the streets during the past year and her first story was about a Unitarian Universalist congregation!

You see they started holding a vigil next to an upscale mall every week. And they realized that mall employees, mostly people of color, had to get off their buses at a very unsafe spot and walk across traffic to get to work. This congregation started to strategize how to work with these folks they would never have met and with local authorities to create safer traffic conditions.

There is no rule book for this. We make the road by walking. Stuff happens. Amazing things happen.

This summer, thanks to the urging of Bruce Pollack-Johnson, we became involved with the family and friends of Tyree Carroll, a young Germantown man who was horrifically beaten by police just a few blocks from here. Mr. Carroll is thankfully now released on bail, but his next hearing is scheduled for October 9th. You will hear more about this and how we can continue to support his call for justice. But what happened in July is that we made connections with Mr. Carroll’s grandmother Nancy and his niece and nephew and the community that is fighting for him. We hosted a planning meeting downstairs and I will never forget the look on Nancy Carroll’s face when she saw that we had signs already made that say “Justice for Tyree” She asked if she could take one home. They joined us for a Thursday vigil.

I plan to continue attending open community meetings in our local police districts, and I invite you to join me. You see church can be at the police station too.

Let me close with a particular invitation. I invite you to join me, Kathy Ellis, Chris Crass, Barbara Gadon and many others in our denomination in putting on a Black Lives Matter button. Every day.

Let it be a prayerful and intentional act of resistance. Chris writes that he has created a ritual for himself. I have followed his example.

I take my button in my hands and I pray. For grace, and courage. I pray for the movement to continue growing stronger. I pray for love to conquer fear and hate. And I pray that I will hear and learn what I need to hear and learn each day so that I can better advocate for justice.

There are buttons in a basket on the stones table. Also a sign-up sheet if you want one and did not get one.

Let’s be contagious together.

Amen. Ase and Blessed be.