Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.
Are you familiar with the vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock? They are an all-woman, all African-American a cappella group who sing American spirituals, Black church hymns, African music, and protest songs. Although some of members have changed, the group has been in continuous existence since 1974.
When I was in divinity school at Vanderbilt in the late ’70s, the Dean made it possible for me to go to a gathering of women ministers and seminarians in Texas. During the latter part of my seminary years, I was United Methodist and a newly-out lesbian.
The gathering included United Methodist women ministers and women who were still in seminary or in some other stage of formation to become UM ministers. As they are still all these years later, the UMs were not allowing any openly gay folk into the ministry. But that didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of closeted women in all stages of ministry at that gathering.
Sweet Honey in the Rock had been invited. Their music was then and still is very inspiring. At some point during the concert they gave, one of the members of the group, a lesbian, aware of the power of their music, perhaps aware of what was going on in the denomination, asked if all the lesbians present who were willing to do so would stand up. It was risky, even in that crowd of women seminarians and ministers. But slowly, one by one, the lesbians stood up. By the time the song was over, everyone in that room was standing.
Sweet Honey in the Rock evoked a sense of solidarity that day.
It was later, after divinity school, when I would become UU, and even later a UU minister. I came out as a lesbian in part because I wanted to be counted as involved in the successive liberation movements of my teen and young adult years. I had been in many ways, since I’d been a preteen, involved in some small part of the civil rights movement. I was inspired and challenged by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s preaching, and his life. When he died, I made a commitment to continue his work.
It has taken many years for me and so many others to more fully understand that it is not just the person-to-person bigotry, sexism, and homophobia that infect our society, but the much deeper and more pervasive systemic injustices that still poison the ability of all to live free, to do whatever we each feel called to do.
I would have never guessed it would take so very long for full equality to come into being.
In 1941, the intellectual spokesperson for Unitarianism, the theologian James Luther Adams, wrote an essay cleverly entitled “The Changing Reputation of Human Nature.” In his view, even after the horror wrought by two world wars, our Unitarian faith was clearly suffering from what he termed an “overly-optimistic” view of the human condition.
I think he was correct in pointing out that our faith has long under-appreciated the capacity of humans to do evil to each other. Sometimes we see it, but we UUs often seem to not have the tools to meet it head-on.
Decades after divinity school, I found myself living in Savannah. Sweet Honey in the Rock was coming to town, to perform in the oldest continuously African American church in Savannah, The First African Baptist Church, organized in 1773. I bought tickets. It was a wonderful concert, with a mostly white audience. That made me uncomfortable, but I didn’t know why.
Later, while still living in Savannah, I went back into that church with a friend of mine. We were the only white people in the church service that Sunday morning. We had made the mistake of not sitting in the back, not sitting at the end of the pew. After an hour and 45 minutes, three offerings, and too much emotional content for me, it was finally over. I couldn’t get out of that room fast enough.
I was overwhelmed with feelings… and I so wanted to escape, to go back to my calm, safe (white) place. I have been occupying that place a long time.
We are being called at this point in our national politics to stand together as one, to stop fighting and be calm and safe again.
It is dangerous to rest in the calm too long, my friends. We have so much more to do.
Rest, but don’t rest too long. The “healing” has barely begun.
The Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer is lead minister at First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the author of Love Beyond God, a collection of poetry and reflections focused on Black identity and liberal religion. He is a gay Black man.
This is his poem “Healing.”
Don’t speak to me of “healing” racism,
or “wounded souls” or the “painful hurt”
until you are willing to feel the scars
on my great-great-grandmother Laury’s back.
Don’t speak to me of “values”
or “justice” or “righting wrongs”
until you are able to feel the heartache
of my great-grandfather Graham
whose father may have been his master.
Don’t speak to me of “equity”
or “opportunity” or the “common good”
until you are able to hear the fear
from my grandmother Mae
as the only black woman in her college.
Don’t speak to me of “passion”
or “longing” or “standing on the side of love”
until you know the shame
felt by my mother Edwina
mocked by teachers for the curve of her back.
Don’t speak to me of “together”
or “understanding” or “empathy”
until you know my rage
as a young actor hearing the direction
to “be more black . . . more male.”
The pain you are trying to heal has no real name.
This “pain” you speak of has no story;
it is anonymous, vague, and empty.
Don’t speak to me of “healing”
for I heal the second I am ripped apart.
My wounds self-suture,
and like the clever creature I am,
I just grow new legs to outrun the pain ever faster.
It is something I have had to practice for generations,
that feel like an eternity.
So, please don’t speak to me of “healing”from Love Beyond God (Skinner House Books, 2016) by Adam Lawrence Dyer
because you cannot know what healing means
until you know the hurt.
Until we know the pain, the hurt, which we cleverly hide from in our “safe” spaces; which we leave out of our religious discourse; which we forget to name, to acknowledge, to be present with—until we can let that in, look at it, feel it, befriend it, we have failed to liberate anyone, even ourselves.
Bryan Stevenson—founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and the attorney who wrote Just Mercy—called us as UUs, when he spoke at the 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans, to get proximate.
What does that mean? Spend time with what you fear, what you are unfamiliar with, what you try to stay safely removed from.
He urged UUs to do uncomfortable things, say uncomfortable things, and be in uncomfortable places, and to stay hopeful about creating racial justice.
Spend the time to be in real relationships with those who hurt, and who have been hurt.
We like to say—I like to say—that all beings are family. It’s our evolutionary impulse as human beings to leave behind tribalism, nationalism, to include everyone. For every being to be in the in circle of kinship to become the beloved community, we must see the evil and we must do the reparations that are necessary.
Rest in safe space, but not too long. My friend Charlene Walker, a UU, a member of Beacon UU in Summit, and the Executive Director of Faith in New Jersey said this last week:
“Every year people rise to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., through service to others, posting whitewashed quotes without context, and uplifting the most palpable image of Dr. King. This is not a celebration. You are conjuring a Dr. King that is the weapon of white supremacy to act as an opioid for the people so they do not fully take up the legacy of the most hated man in America in 1967.
“If you are merely being of service to others without a call to action to undo systemic racism and capitalism it is devoid of Dr. King’s legacy. It merely continues the destructive mechanisms that he dedicated his life to fight. Instead find a political home and begin community organizing around that which keeps you up at night. Enter the trenches with those hurting by the systems leading and creating a space of nonviolent tension that forces a resolve to the crises we are facing brought on by white supremacy and capitalism. Get comfortable with agitation for change has never and will never come without it.
“Stop quoting Dr. King with mere snippets that do nothing more than help white America force this notion of unity down our throats without any form of accountability or reconciliation for the false comfort of perceived peace. Instead talk of the ideals he stood by that America’s blood still boils with at mere mention. Let’s start with reparations, democratic socialism, nonviolent direct action, housing desegregation, police accountability, anti-militarism, and the need for Black people to amass political power. Tell the truth, make your support known, and stop hiding behind some once a year check the box post to assuage any alignment you have with white supremacy.
“The attempted coup at our Capitol was not some peak in the wickedness of American society. It was merely white supremacy rearing its ugly head calling for the destruction of that which had the audacity to challenge it. It was a call to those of you walking around with blinders to take up the mantle of King and all our ancestors that have challenged white supremacy. I hope that in retrospect to Martin Luther King Jr. Day you’ve chosen to unapologetically walk the path of Dr. King, a radical that was murdered for his call to build the Beloved Community.”
If you don’t know where to begin, or if you have a Black friend, but they don’t speak of the evil in our midst, I urge you to read Breathe by Imani Perry. It is an onslaught of a gut-wrenching perspective from a Black mother with Black sons. We need to hear it.
The word “kind” has its origin in an Old English word that means ancestor, or offspring. (Think kin, kinship, and kindred.)
The Hebrew prophet Micah said that the essence of religion is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly.
The expression “sweet honey in the rock” comes from Deuteronomy. It refers to the best honey that the bees store in the clefts of the rocks. It is a metaphor that means that there is blessing in the hard places.
Let us go to the hard places, even now.