It was 1991. A friend of a friend had moved from our relatively safe haven in Durham, North Carolina, to a tiny village in Clay County, way out in the westernmost county of the state, deep in the Smoky Mountains. He had taken a job managing a store no one else wanted, and he figured that since he was single and rather shy, his being gay would not be an issue.
Man, was he wrong. I got the phone call late that night, because my friend wasn’t home and mine was the only other number he had. “I’ve been kicked out of my house” he said “and I may have just lost my job too.”
I found my friend, and we drove all night out to Clay County. We found him in a nearby campground, sleeping in his truck. We spent that day with him – we found him food, found him a place to stay, found him lawyers, swore out complaints, talked to his boss and secured his job. Essentially, we spent the day making this slight, kind, young gay man safe.
Driving back to Durham, I realized: I was an activist. It was official.
Now at the time, I was lightly attending the UU congregation in Durham – a few Sundays a month, and singing in a women’s chorus that met there on Tuesday nights. I wasn’t active at all in church matters, although ERUUF was a very active church. Instead, my activism was being on the front lines of the LGBT community. I attended and later organized pride marches. I volunteered and even sewed a couple of squares on the AIDS quilt. I picketed Jesse Helms house and local offices. I raised money. I ate fire on the steps of the capital. I did tv and newspaper interviews. And I was able to make my somewhat conservative women’s college safer for young lesbians.
I left much of that behind when I moved out of the area and got a corporate job working 70 hours a week. I simply didn’t have time to be on the front lines. I still cared – I donated money, wrote letters, read the news… but my activist days were over. Sadly, so was my church attendance.
So when I moved back to New York State and started attending church again, I realized how much people were really involved – and how much they were involved in. Just in my own congregation, people were involved with
- Marriage equality
- Backstretch workers
- UU Service Committee
- Food at our Table
- AIDS and CROP walks
- Fracking, PCPs in the Hudson
- Therapy and service animals
- Planned Parenthood
- Green Sanctuary
- Voter registration and election monitoring
- Standing on the Side of Love
- Immigration (Justice GA)
It was overwhelming. I took my place in the choir and later in church leadership, largely because there was so much to do, I felt paralyzed.
And then I follow the call to ministry, and I choose Union Theological Seminary, known for its commitment to social justice. And everyone is involved. There’s Black Caucus. Queer Caucus. Fierce, the black and queer caucus. Persist, the Women’s Caucus. The Interfaith Caucus. The Poverty Initiative. Edible Churchyard. Occupy Wall Street Protest Chaplains. Borderlands ministry. Prison ministry.
And there’s me. Still on the sidelines now, still comfortably embracing music and worship, paralyzed because there is so much to do and so much need. I know I spent a decade working hard on the front lines, yet how come I can’t muster that same energy and passion? I am burnt out. And I feel guilty.
Yet I realized I stop just short of despair. Sure, it would be easy to be overwhelmed; the list of things we’re doing can paralyze us in deep anguish so we don’t even the thousands of ways, big and small, our world is hurting. As Rebecca Parker says in Blessing the World, “our despair keeps us from being able to see.”
Fast forward to this summer, where five regional congregations held a communal service with the theme “Sing Out for Justice.” Our guests were Kim and Reggie Harris, who do exactly that, with a focus on the Underground Railroad. During the service, they taught us a simple song with this chorus:
In the shelter of each other
in the shelter of our lives
We are open,
we are dreaming,
we are hopeful…
and we are wise
The message was all too clear to me. I realized that in places that burn with the fire of commitment, it isn’t just that everyone is on the front lines working for justice – no, people are creating that shelter of each other, FOR each other.
Can we do that in our relationships, our communities, our congregations?
Many of our fellow UUs spent the summer doing boots on the ground work – in June, thousands were fighting for immigration justice in Phoenix, Arizona. And most of us couldn’t/wouldn’t dream of being with them. Some of us would have been there if we could – except for work commitment or financial constraints. For some of us, immigration isn’t our thing. Some of us are on the front lines for other issues. Some of us fought bravely in our past but can’t put boots on the ground now. Some of us know we can’t give 100%, so we get paralyzed and don’t quite know where to begin.
Yet each one of us can support the work in Phoenix, and the work on the streets of our communities, and in places in the US and around the world that are hurting, and even in the halls of the Capitol Hill – through the shelter of each other. So how do we build and hold the shelter?
First, we must practice covenant inside our congregations.
We are, of course, a covenantal faith, which means that we are held together by the commitments we make to each other. And one of our commitments is to maintain the tradition of being a visible and influential force for good.
Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have a long history of standing on the side of good – for the abolition of slavery, for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, and recently for marriage equality and immigration justice. This is because of our covenant to each other to maintain a commitment to justice. We don’t just follow Gandhi’s idea of “being the change we want to see in the world” – we also know that “the way to change the world is to be what we want to see.”
But are we what we want to see, within our walls? Do we embody what we profess? We seek to build loving, just, and sustainable community in the world. Are we loving, just, and sustainable inside our walls? Do we have space, in the shelter, to answer the despair people outside bring to us, and provide solace for the disillusioned? By remembering that we are built in covenant, we make space for all that we profess.
Within the shelter of our covenant, we must then give care.
I am reminded of the story of Mary and Martha, from the Gospel of Luke. Jesus and his disciples have been out on the front lines, ministering to the needy, sharing hope and joy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked. They come to the home of Mary and Martha to rest, have a meal, get some sleep. Now Martha – well, let’s just say Martha Stewart was well named. Martha is the consummate hostess – she prepares a sumptuous meal, makes sure everyone has comfortable places to sit and lie down, washes their feet, brings them absolutely everything they could possibly need. Meanwhile, her younger sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to his stories – what it’s like out on the front lines, who he’s talked to, what’s happened. She listens as he shares a remarkable perspective on God’s love, on what the Kingdom of Heaven might be.
Martha is having none of it, however. She’s pretty miffed at her sister for not lifting a finger to help. She confronts Jesus, saying I’m busting my butt over here, and she’s not doing a thing. How can you let her just sit there like a slug? But Jesus turns to Martha and remarks, “There is need of only one thing; Mary has chosen the better part.”
Giving care in the shelter isn’t always about making sure everyone’s needs are met before they know they have them. We sometimes have a tendency to be, as Tom Owen Towle puts it, “help-a-holics” – and we give those coming off the front lines what we think they need rather than what they actually need. We think we can solve all their problems, but we can’t do it all inside the shelter. If we could, no one would go out on the front lines, and we know that’s not helpful at all. Most of the time, all they really need is a cold drink, a bathroom, and space to talk.
One of the things Mary did, just sitting at Jesus’s feet, was listen to his soul music. Sometimes when people have been on the front lines, they see only the difficulties and the work ahead and lose track of their own souls. When we become deaf to one another’s presence and relate violently to each other, we lose the music and move through our days in a cloud of numbness. Giving space in the shelter for the soul means giving space for silence so that we can hear the soul again, so we can witness the stories and allow our soul’s music to return. Mary did this right when they came off the front lines. We can do that too – but it’s important for us to make space in our shelter at other times, too – at coffee hour, in small group ministry, in committee meetings.
It all comes down to this: we build the shelter of each other, for each other, to prepare folks to do the work of justice when we remember the people who are helping as well as the people we are trying to help. And the best way to remember them, and help them out? Ask. Listen while they talk. They’ll tell you what you need to do – whether it be to brew a pot of coffee, donate some money, or get the word out.
Getting the word out is something else we do pretty well, when we remember that we are a prophetic witness. What do I mean by that?
Everyone has the ability to see what is happening, say what is happening, and ensure that our actions are in accord with what we know is true. And as UUs, “the words and deeds of prophetic men and women” is one of our sources. Whether the prophets are ancient – Amos, Ezekiel, Isaiah – or more modern – Susan B. Anthony, WEB Dubois, Martin Luther King Jr, Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben – they saw what was happening and were willing to speak out to their own communities. Why is this important to creating the shelter of each other? First, it allows us to hear about the things we must go out and fix in a way that encourages us. But also, it allows us to acknowledge our own shortcomings and do justice within our walls as well – to ensure we live in covenant.
We’ve seen prophetic witness in action fairly recently within our denomination. In 1993, General Assembly was held in Charlotte, which is part of the then-named Thomas Jefferson District. TJD was excited to host, and they wanted to celebrate the history of their district and the accomplishments of the man whose name they bore. With excitement, they announced there would be a Thomas Jefferson Ball – and people were encouraged to come in costume.
Some of our African American members responded. “Shall we come in chains?”
It was a sobering moment of prophetic witness, as we realized – as a predominantly Caucasian denomination – we still aren’t handling racism within our walls as well as we’d like, and we have to grapple with the ugly side of Jefferson, the side that used his power over another race.
The ball did not happen. Instead, a group formed to address (and continues to this day to address) issues of racism and culture misappropriation within our denomination. The members of the Thomas Jefferson District wrestled for 18 years over the name of their district – balancing the desire to honor a man who did so much good and was in faith a Unitarian (even if he didn’t attend a Unitarian church) and the need to be less controversial and honor the greater good. Finally, in 2010, the district finally agreed to change its name to the Southeast District.
But we haven’t forgotten the story – because the prophetic witness of those African American members reminds us that when we live in covenant, the shelter must be big enough and safe enough for everyone.
The other lesson of that GA moment is that we are all prophetic. You, me, our friends on the social justice committee, our friends on the buildings and grounds committee – we all have the ability – nay, the responsibility – to speak truths to each other. The stories help us know what to do… but they also inspire us. I am inspired by the GA story; because if we can take steps to heal ourselves, we will be that much better out on the streets.
Now this isn’t to say that we are all meant, at every moment, to be out on the streets. I did a pretty serious decade of work in the 1990s, and I have plenty of stories to tell. Those stories in and of themselves help motivate those getting ready to go out; and more, in the telling, they remind us of what we needed to do the work so that we know what to do for those going out right now.
And we aren’t always meant to be on the streets for everything. There is so much to do, we can’t do it all. It’s okay to pick your poison – for one it might be marriage equality; another is fired up about fracking; a third is fighting for immigration justice. It all needs to be done, and there is room for it all. In the shelter of each other, we make a commitment not to the particular acts of justice but rather to the act itself. I may fight hard for LGBTQ issues, but I will certainly listen to your story about OWS, and I’ll probably even sign your petition. When we honor each other’s passions, we create a safe shelter for all the work.
Now one of the dangers of being a denomination committed to the cause of justice is that we sometimes forget what is supposed to happen within our walls. Despite appearances to the contrary, our congregations are not Rotary or Lions or 4H. We are not service organizations. We are – and need to be – the faith communities that nurture those doing the work.
Yes, our faith demands action of us – but we must first build our faith. Think about our first source: direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit. This is what we do best – and when we create the shelter of each other, for each other, we must make sure we carry out our rituals, sing our songs, tell our stories. We must make sure that everything we do – from cleaning the toilets to planning the stewardship campaigns – everything we do must be sacred. We’re not just weeding, we’re tending our sacred space. We’re not just planning a circle supper, we’re building beloved community.
We must make sure everything we do makes room for the renewal of the spirit, which energizes us to go back out and do the work. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to transform the world; thus, we must offer spiritual and religious leadership to each other, so that we can then offer it to a society that is called to change its fundamental ways of being.
So we come together on Sunday mornings, welcoming in the battle weary so they may find comfort and care and a renewal of hope, and preparing others with the spiritual strength they need to go out and fight the good fight. And in between, we keep the faith. Rebecca Parker says that “Even when hearts are broken by our own failure or the failure of others, even when we have done all we can and life is still broken, there is a universal love that has never broken faith with us and never will.”
The good news is that when we create the shelter of each other, for each other, we strengthen our covenant to each other and to the world we hope to heal.
I am rarely on the front lines anymore – although sometimes it’s kinda fun to hold a sign, or march in a protest, or talk to politicians. And I always enjoy watching fundraising totals go up when my share gets put in.
And I love hearing – and telling stories.
I love connecting people and resources.
And I make sure that when the people on the front lines come back to church to get fed, there’s something for them, in the form of good words, good music, and good spirits.
Most of all, I love reflecting back the good work they are doing – when their despair kicks in, we can sing their songs back to them so they remember the words.
We may not all be able to be on the front lines anymore – but we can all do the work of justice when we hold sacred our shelter of each other, for each other. In the shelter, we can nurture our spirits and help heal the world.