The Dangerous Work
A sermon given at First Parish Dorchester October 22, 2017 By Rev. Tricia Brennan
In recent New York Times interview* with the Stephen Sondheim, the 87-year-old genius of musical theater spoke of how much he loves to collaborate, that rarely does he go it alone in his creative work, how the spark of creativity came from the connection with his lyricist or director or actors. It reminded me of how much I, too, love to collaborate, how much energy I get from planning worship, for instance, with Lucas and Ana and worship associates and song leaders, how much inspiration I get from working with the lay leaders of this church to help bring First Parish more fully alive. Actually, I don’t just love collaboration, it’s essential. One simply can’t do ministry alone.
Another thing that struck me in that interview with Sondheim was the importance he placed on going into dangerous territory in his creative work. “You have to work on something dangerous, he said, something that makes you uncertain, that makes you doubt yourself. Because it stimulates you to do things you haven’t done before. The whole thing is if you know where you are going, you’ve gone, as the poet says. And that’s death. That leads to stultified writing and stultified shows.”
I think that when white people face the reality of racism, and its attendant white privilege, white supremacy, we’re working on something dangerous. We can’t know fully what we are doing, or what we will have to face or change, or what will be asked of us. We don’t really know where we are going, though we know we’re getting into the land of sin and evil- as the reading describes- into what is often called America’s original sin of slavery. And we have feelings that come up in ourselves around these painful realities- confusion, apprehension, some shame sometimes, some defensiveness, some awkwardness, and all those things can make this work feel scary and dangerous too.
But go there we do and go there we must, because if we call ourselves a people of faith, who believe in something bigger than our own private lives, who believe that everyone has worth and dignity, who don’t want to just say those words but make them true, we have to go there. We go there because the moment we are living in right now in our country and in our communities is a moment of power and possibility for change around race beyond what we have seen in our lifetimes, and so, we go there- we show up, we listen and learn, we learn to be allies, we speak up, we add our voices and resources and all these things because we want that world of equity and fairness, and the full flourishing of every person.
And we go there because we don’t want to play it safe. In life, as in theater, sticking to the same script of how things should be is stultifying, is death. What moves the story forward- is to leave the safe and certain behind, to let go of any vestige of the old story that white makes right, and take the creative risk to make something new.
I speak obviously as a white person, and my sermon today is directed mostly to those who share my skin color in the congregation. I ask the forbearance and patience all people of color here today, acknowledging that this work of examining what’s wrong around race, and seeking to correct those wrongs in ourselves and our institutions is ours to do, not yours. And I speak not as one who is an expert or has all the answers, but as one who is co-explorer with all of you, a collaborator in this work.
The reading* I shared talked about sin, a word we don’t use too much in UU circles, but one that does have its place, I think. Molly Housh Gordon spelled out the difference between individual sin and collective sin, or between personal acts of racism and systemic racism.
You know it used to be that what was new- what was insightful- was to understand racism didn’t exist solely or even predominantly in individual white people who mistreated people of color. Like me, you may have heard friends, relatives, co-workers, even yourself say things like I’m not racist because… I believe all people are equal, I treat everyone the same, etc.— and then the “aha moments” when the same people began to see that even if they do treat everyone with respect and fairness- and of course sometimes we think we do, but we don’t fully-, our society, in very many ways, does not.
As one example- home ownership- the best way to build wealth. In 2015 only 41% of blacks were homeowners compared to 71% of whites, and the rate of black home ownership has been declining over the past 15 years*. One reason is the higher rate of foreclosures among people of color, which can be directly attributed to the high number of brutally expensive sub-prime loans that were made to them, even when they qualified for prime loans with lower interest rates.
Going further back, the GI Bill, meant to assist WWII veterans establish a solid civilian life, didn’t do much for African American vets as they returned. Racism kept blacks out of white neighborhoods, and banks often wouldn’t make loans into traditionally black neighborhoods. Over time, the value of the homes that white veterans were able to buy rose significantly, enabling them to assist their children to buy homes, help them attend college, and funding the veteran’s retirement. Not so, those for whom institutional racism kept them out of the housing market. Currently the average white family wealth is roughly 20 times the average black and brown family wealth, according to the Pew Research Center.
I offer that as a powerful example of how institutional racism hurts people. And I also suspect that what I say may not be all new to you. There is growing awareness that in many areas of life- not just homeownership- things are stacked against non-whites, and agreement that that is wrong and should be changed. And that is a good thing.
The problem is when one takes the wrong-doing out of the personal and lodges it in the large and complex institutions and systems it becomes all too easy for these things to be seem detached from us. All too easy to foist responsibility upon those impersonal systems and, especially if we don’t work in those realms, to feel like they don’t have anything to do with us.
And at the same time, this megalith of corporate, political, systemic powers can serve as an enormous shield that blinds us to the very personal effect institutional racism has on real people. From access to health care, to the new Jim Crow of the prison system, to access to well-resourced public education, to ability to reach a living wage, the effects of institutional racism- living in a white supremacist world- kills people. Kills people.
In a curious way, we can see how this inability to see the effects of widespread historical and current racism plays out in the response to the Black Lives Matters movement. Some of you have joined me at Ashmont Station on the 3rd Thursday of the month for the Standout in Support of Black Lives, and though there is always a lot of affirming car honks and waves and thumbs-up, there is also the passing comment that “all lives matter”- sometimes shouted in hostile tone, other times asked more as a plaintive question- don’t all lives matter?
What gets lost when we conflate the very real lives and needs of particular black people into the broad spectrum of humanity? I think what gets lost is the voices of black men women and children who are saying I am here, I am your neighbor, I am worthy. What gets lost is the injustice of living in a society that gives preference to those who are white. What gets lost is the opportunity to be allies and say that black lives matter.
Somewhere I heard the analogy of a fire truck being called to a street to put out a fire at a particular house. Don’t all houses matter? Of course they do, but when one house is on fire, that is where the attention needs to go, ought to go.
All human beings know loss and suffering, in that sense there is no house that is not touched by pain. No house. Yet, we must see that those whose ancestors were enslaved, those who skin is black or brown, live with a greater level of fear, trauma, and many layered loss and suffering than those who are white. And that’s just wrong.
So what do we do? We can do big things and small things*, we can commit our lives to eradicating racism and we can identify one white ally for ourselves- someone with whom we can talk regularly about race and racism. We can learn more by reading books, watching videos, and talking to people, and we can start a book group and do that with others.
We start wherever we are on our own awareness of white privilege and white supremacy, and we move ourselves forward into deeper honesty with ourselves and others, and deeper commitment to action. We start where we are, in our families and workplaces and most certainly our churches.
First Parish has such a strong connection to this culturally and racially diverse neighborhood, that it has the potential to be a fabulously rich multiracial faith community, beyond where it is now. And it has the capacity to be a faith community that leads the way in justice work, beyond how it does now.
You get there, one step at a time.
One book at at time- there is interest in reading together one or both of the UUA’s Common Read- Daring Democracy by Frances Moore Lappe and Centering, Navigating Race, Authenticity and Power in Ministry, a collection of essays by UU ministers and Religious Educators of Color.
One public witness at a time- the monthly Standout for Black Lives at Ashmont T station, next on Thursday November 16th, 5:30, organized by Dorchester People for Peace is but one excellent opportunity
One walk at a time- The Louis D Brown Mothers Day Walk for Peace is extraordinarily important and inspiring event, and the organizing for the 2018 walk starts now
One reflection at a time- I wonder what it would be like for this venerable institution to look back at its history for what it could learn about itself in relation to race, specifically during the 1970’s, which was such a time in Dorchester and Boston around racial tensions and fears and also courage and progress. This church was right in the heart of it, and looking at the past- something often done in a time of interim ministry- can be illuminating, fascinating, and useful.
One conversation at a time- at the heart of work for racial justice is relationship. I think it surpasses everything. Conversations about race, and conversations about anything important that help us to know each other better, deepening our love for one another, across race and class and age and gender and all the other intriguing and sometimes challenging differences that exist. These are the opportunities that faith communities give us, a chance to know one another and love one another, and learn from one another, and help one another, and enjoy one another.
Rev. William Barber, leader of National Call for Moral Revival, and author of The Third Reconstruction, which a number of us read together last spring, spoke in Boston on Thursday, as you may know. He spoke truth about the world right now, and spoke of hope too. Among many things he said this, “Martin Luther King is dead, Harriet Tubman is dead, Viola Liuzzo- (a white UU activist murdered fighting for civil rights)-is dead, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is dead, Howard Zinn is dead, but we are their children.
Sometimes our collaborators in this work of dismantling racism are not only those beside us in the pews, and working beside us in our communities, but those now gone whose lives give inspiration and example of courage. We are the children who carry on the work, who create the path as we walk together and work together.
I myself would prefer not to be a martyr for the cause, as some on that list were, and I have no need to be famously known in history books, yet still, I want to be in that number. I would like to be known and remembered as one whose eyes were open to the world she lived in, who did not deny the painful truth of white privilege in her life or white supremacy in our world, who did what she could, not alone, but with others, to make right what is wrong. I suspect you feel that way too.
87-year-old Stephen Sondheim is working now on his next musical theatre creation, and here is what he said at the end of the New York Times interview:
“You shouldn’t feel safe. You should feel, ‘I don’t know if I can write this.’ That’s what I mean by dangerous, and I think that’s a good thing to do. Sacrifice something safe.”
If we don’t know if we can do this hard work of looking at our collective culpability in personal and institutional racism, even as we do the work, if we are feeling like it is dangerous and scary, yet still we do the work, that means we are doing the work of ending America’s original sin. It is the feeling that we are leaving safety behind to create the new that is the signal that we are doing the work.
Our collaborators are everywhere, they meet us and find us as we step forward.
New York Times, October 16, 2017 UU World, August 2017. Sin is personal, not just systemic, by Molly Housh Gordon Forbes Magazine, May 10, 2017.
Declining Black Homeownership has Big Retirement Implications. By Rodney Brooks See Twenty Small Steps for White People-