One More Story: Making Room for More

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this sermon.

I vividly remember the first time I attended an adult religious education session at a UU congregation in my hometown of Jacksonville, FL. I had just been hired to be the director of a Religious Education program there that included over 100 kids. It was September 2000. It is hard to believe that 22 years have gone by since then, and even harder to fully take in how much the world has changed since then.

Twenty-two years ago, at that church, a few lay leaders were presenting one of the sessions from the newly revised Welcoming Congregation program. I was there to observe. If you don’t know what that was and still is, it is an effort meant to help existing UU members understand more about the gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans folk coming into our UU congregations looking for a spiritual home; an effort to help people already in our congregations to be more welcoming of those with whom they aren’t all that familiar.

Although the Unitarian Universalist Association had been on record since 1970 as supporting the rights and worth of lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons, the lived experience of LGBTQ visitors to UU congregations spoke a different and often painful truth. It was in the late ‘80s that a report was released to expose the surprisingly negative attitudes, deep prejudices, and profound ignorance that LGBT people overwhelmingly encountered within UU congregations.

The report was troubling to many. A commitment grew to help make our congregations truly welcoming and inclusive places for all, especially those minority groups who had traditionally experienced exclusion, discrimination, and misrepresentation within our society. In 1989, The Welcoming Congregation Program began. The original handbook guiding this new sense of welcome was released in 1990.

The handbook was revised several times over the first ten years, and since, to be more inclusive of transgender identity, bisexual identity, and race/ethnicity and sexuality. The sessions had been increased from 10 to 14 by the time I walked into the one being held in the Jacksonville UU congregation in the year 2000.

I don’t remember which session I sat through, but I most certainly remember thinking and feeling, “That is so weird! This is so weird!” The people talking obviously had read the handbook, but they were all straight, and they were clearly not speaking from their own experience or firsthand knowledge. 

I remember asking myself whether I should speak up, or just let them continue speaking as if “an expert” with lived experience wasn’t right there in the room.

I held back.     

By the year 2000, I had been living as an out lesbian for 25 years. They had read a handbook.     

I chose not to say anything. But it was so strange to me. Who were the Martians they were talking about? It was weird. Really a weird experience.

Only a few Sundays after that, I was “installed” as their new Director of Religious Education. On that Sunday, I thanked those gathered for “worship” for hiring me, and for putting me in charge of all their children, when I had had none myself and frankly had avoided children for the previous 20 years!

They laughed and welcomed me in, trusting that I knew what I was doing.

I am not sure that was true, and I am not sure their laughter was anything more than nervousness.

And here I am now so many years later with five children in my family! You never know what the future might bring! I didn’t know.

I believe that transformative change is always about risk and about power. Who is willing to take a risk? Who is willing to give up some power, so that those who have been without can stand in theirs?                                

This poem by Laura Hershey titled “Telling” captures how I felt back then, and it helps me to understand how those who have continued to stay silent must feel now.

What you risk telling your story:
     You will bore them.
Your voice will break, your ink
spill and stain your coat.
No one will understand, their eyes
become fences.
You will park yourself forever
on the outside, your differentness once
and for all revealed, dangerous.
The names you give to yourself
will become epithets.
     Your happiness will be called
bravery, denial.
Your sadness will justify their pity.
Your fear will magnify their fears.
Everything you say will prove something about
their god, or their economic system.
Your feelings, that change day
to day, kaleidoscopic,
will freeze in place,
brand you forever,
justify anything they decide to do with you.
     Those with power can afford
to tell their story
or not.
Those without power
risk everything to tell their story and must.
     Someone, somewhere
will hear your story and decide to fight,
to live and refuse compromise.
Someone else will tell
her own story, risking everything.

This is why I love Rhiannon Giddens, whose music we’re enjoying during today’s service. She bravely tells stories that we have forgotten. She tells them in song, accompanied by instruments whose origins we have forgotten, like the banjo.

When I went to hear Rhiannon Giddens perform at Montclair State University, she sang with her eyes fixed straight ahead. I kept wondering what she was looking at—the wall? It was as if she was singing to the ancestors, rather than to the audience gathered there. She didn’t look at us, at first. That singing to the ancestors, or for the ancestors, was very striking. She became more engaged when the musicians and singers from Montclair State joined her onstage.

I was struck by this, as we must do the same thing. We must be powerful, and we must take risks in telling our stories. We must shift the balance of power, by stepping back, giving room for the ancestors that have been forgotten and for the future of which they dreamed. Our future depends on it. We must be true to the ancestors whose lives were lived in multicolor kaleidoscopes, even as they were daily reduced to hate-filled epithets. And we must be gentle with each other, for you never know what future you are bringing forth; what future is bringing you forth.

I was talking to my therapist the other day about how things are going. I was saying that I am at the age when I am always wondering if I am having an impact on others the way others have had an impact on me. Am I opening doors of welcome? Sitting there in the room with Rhiannon Giddens being so talented, a woman whose skin looked more like the young white students with whom she was engaged than the young Black students, whose checks looked like a Native American, I had to go home and look it up. Who was she related to? In my mind I could hear my grandmother, my Southern grandmother, using an epithet that we don’t use anymore to describe what Rhiannon Giddens looks like. But to me she looked American and Southern and talented, and so brave.

My role here has been like any other minister: to care, to teach, to preach, to lead by example, to encourage, to celebrate who you are, who you have been, and who you are becoming. And more; as a developmental minister, my role is to see what patterns you have that have kept you from thriving. What needs to change for the future to unfold? 

There is a “can-do” attitude here that is so great. You have moved from the church in a box that met in rented space not your own, bringing your supplies to that space again and again 25 years ago, for years. Then you moved to this house… this house that you have claimed as your own.

I have to wonder if this house were destroyed, taken from you, into which well would you dip your bucket? 

With the listening help of my therapist, I was thinking about the varying decades of my life. So much has changed so rapidly in these last two decades of UU ministry. In the last two years or so, the change has been even more rapid.

It is a lot to take in.

I was describing to my therapist how probably 5-8 years after I began my second career as a UU minister, suddenly lesbians were in charge, mostly white lesbians. I remember being on the stage at the Richmond UU church with all the white lesbians in charge. It was WOW to me. What is happening here? It didn’t last long. It was very brief. We were so intent on making way for others, so sure that was what we were supposed to do. It didn’t long for the white lesbians in charge to change and change. So much change.  

There came a time in the past two Developmental Ministries with which I was involved that the congregations seemed to have an “aha” moment. They seemed to finally recognize what needed to be done differently.

One decided to stop acting out based on past trauma. There were so many people in that congregation who had grown up and had in their family homes some kind of terrible trauma, and they allowed new trauma to play on repeat over and over again. They had been in an unfortunate dance with their past minister. His family of origin trauma caused them to act from their past trauma over and over again. They finally decided to let go and let themselves be loved and healthy, and to stop giving signals to their visitors that it was a place where one could act out (and even be given a microphone!). They finally stopped doing that, and they finally realized what it might mean to be in healthy relationship with each other and with a minister. After me they welcomed an interim, that helped them even more. Now they have a called minister, and they love her and she loves them.

The next developmental ministry I did also had an “aha” moment. It came after they gave up the fantasy that someone would ride in on a white horse and be their hero, making everything like it used to be: their building clean and shiny again; their sanctuary full; their RE wing full; plenty of money; plenty of people wanting to come in every single Sunday, and not just Monday through Saturday, when their very able rental coordinator kept that building full of everybody except UUs. They had their aha moment, which was a letting go of that dream. It freed them to say goodbye to what had already died and yes to what remained. 

I had no idea when those aha moments would happen or what they would be exactly, but they happened. It was amazing to watch.

I have been thrilled to see all the energy returning to this building after the too-long time away, because of the pandemic. Just thrilled! You are at a turning point as a congregation, one that will involve risk, and a change in who holds the power. 

What stories do you tell? What stories will you let be told? Into what well will you dip your bucket?

I don’t know what your aha moment might be. But I know it is coming. So many things have changed. It is human to not want to change anymore. Enough already! But a bigger change is coming, and it has to do with everything you care about: with climate change, with social justice, with racial equity, with filling this room with all the people who ought to be here. Or taking the people who are here and going to another room; inviting in people who aren’t us through this door. Into what well will you dip your bucket? What stories will you tell? What stories will you let be told? Into what well will you dip your bucket?

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