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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 26, 2010

A Religious Call for Marriage Equality

On the 23rd of April 2010, our congregation voted its third covenant since our first gathering together as a congregation in 1720. It reads: We, the members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, with respect for the worth and dignity of each person, with wonder at the light we know by many names, and with gratitude for our deep connection to each other and to the larger web of existence, covenant to walk together in our search for truth, seeking the paths of wisdom, compassion and justice.

Those of us in this community who regularly or even occasionally involve themselves in political demonstrations know when I participate in these things I often wear a clerical shirt, that is for those unfamiliar with the term, a black shirt with a white tab collar. For instance if you recall pictures from the June demonstration in Arizona where I joined our denominational president Peter Morales and literally hundreds of other UUs, many clergy, and many tens of thousands of people demonstrating against the cruelty of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, there I was in Phoenix’s heat, sweating like a pig (an interesting image, that) and wearing my black shirt with the little white tab collar.

I’ve always promised to only use the power of that shirt for good. And, frankly, I’m wary of wearing it too often for fear of ridicule from my friends. But a couple of weeks ago there was a glitch in a marriage license I’d signed, and I had to go down to City Hall to deal with it. Thinking about what that experience was going to be like, I decided, perhaps this was an exception to the only at political demonstrations rule, and so I wore it. Now when I showed up I did say I was the minister from First Unitarian, truth in advertising, but the young woman with whom I dealt called me father, repeatedly, and I didn’t correct her. And, I noticed all went smoothly, the paperwork was soon all in order. As I said, I promise only to use this power for good, and not too often.

But, it also meant, as I went directly from there to a meeting, I was still wearing my clerical shirt. As this was a clergy meeting, the steering committee for the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island, I knew I was in for some teasing if not outright taunting. And, yes, if you care to know, I was taunted, mercilessly.

As things were winding down, our chair, the Reverend Eugene Dyszlewski, said, “James, as long as you’re wearing the priest costume come with me.” Being of a suspicious nature, I asked, “Why, Gene?” He replied, MERI is having a press conference at the State House, and you can be part of the background for photographs. Seemed reasonable enough, and as my mid-afternoon appointment had canceled, off we went.

The press conference took place in one of the meeting rooms at the State House. It was full of journalists and representatives from a couple of groups concerned with progressive issues. Kathy Kushnir, the executive director of MERI took the podium and announced the results from a survey they’d commissioned was now ready. A representative from the firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research then described what they had found. Greenberg et al is an important firm. They have a reputation within progressive circles as the people you go to if you really want to know something. They look closely and then report unvarnished. He explained. The poll was taken in mid July. It was a landline survey of registered voters. It had been conducted carefully and thoroughly and represented the best of contemporary polling. He also acknowledged the increasing problem with landline polling, that because it increasingly screens out younger voters who increasingly don’t own landlines, that there is a very slightly more conservative skew in the poll.

The results were, frankly, for me jaw-dropping; although perhaps I shouldn’t have been. If you asked me ten years ago if we’d see marriage equality anywhere in our country, I’d reply, sure, right after they elect a black guy president. I was sort of thinking mid twenty-second century. But today, right now, we’ve achieved marriage equality in five states and the District of Columbia. Of course here in our region that means marriage equality has been achieved in all of New England save Maine and Rhode Island.

This poll, I feel, speaks to the relentless course of history on this issue. Fifty-nine percent of registered voters believe we should endorse marriage equality in this state. This includes fifty-seven percent of Roman Catholics, an important number because of our state’s religious demographics. And, interestingly, when the pollsters point out the proposed legislation has an explicit “religious exemption,” meaning no church’s clergy must officiate at marriages they do not wish to, it shoots up to sixty-six percent of voters who approve the proposed law and sixty-three percent of Roman Catholics.

Now, it’s become sort of a ritual each year to have an event at the State House when marriage equality legislation is introduced. When I came here two years ago to serve this congregation, I was asked to be one of the speakers. Last year I wasn’t on the list. The politicians were too busy falling over themselves getting to the microphone and one upping each other in proclaiming their support for this bit of civil rights legislation. Among the pols who were there were both Frank Caprio and Lincoln Chaffee.

In pure naked political terms, here’s what this all means. The good citizens of Rhode Island are ready for marriage equality. It is probable the next governor will be one of those who have publicly stood for this civil rights issue, one of those guys who elbowed me out of the way to the podium at the State House. The votes are there among the representatives, and within reach in the senate. These are very exciting times.

But there is something going on that is vastly more important for us in this house of worship than the politics of social advancement.

I recall in 2004 when the supreme judicial court in Massachusetts declared equal protection meant what it says and opened the way to same sex couples seeking to marry. My personal experience in the wake of this momentous occasion was a rush of small and quiet weddings from those who feared a backlash would quickly stop marriages from going forward. Among the most memorable for me was with a ministerial colleague and her partner standing with two witnesses in their living room, all of us weeping through the vows.

But, most of all I recall my friends Gale and Judy. In part because they’re what I guess might be called a political couple. Gale held a prominent place in the mayor’s office in Newton and Judy had an even more prominent job in Wellesley’s city government. They’re used to being under public scrutiny. Also, well, they like a party.

What they didn’t know was that as they lived only a mile from the church, an hour before the wedding was scheduled while they were wondering why friends kept delaying their getting to church, about a hundred of us walked up, rang their bell, when they came to the door serenaded them, then we all together processed to the church singing loudly and mostly in tune while carrying banners and flags. Loved those American flags on that parade. One small child stopped her bike and saluted us. A few neighbors joined in the procession.

A member of the congregation now a lawyer, but who way back when had been a Chicago cop put on the day-glow vest and herded us across the one bit of real traffic. As we marched into the church the organ started up and the wedding began.

At the core of that service were those promises, as ancient as human aspiration, and as recent as yesterday when I helped a young couple make them to each other right here: to love, to care, to give a life full for the whole of that life, to be responsible for each other “till death do us part.”

And at the end when I concluded with those words finally made legal, “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts I pronounce you married,” the room which had been hushed, if tearful, burst into cheers that lasted and lasted. As has Gale’s and Judy’s marriage.

I want to do that again. I want to do that here in this lovely old Meeting House, this Meeting House where our former preachers railed against slavery, called for civil rights, pronounced the equality of women and men, witnessed for peace, compassion and justice. Where a band of women and men three hundred years deep, and gathered here now, and will continue to do so, stood and stand and will continue to stand for a living faith in the beauty of the individual and the mystery of our complete interdependence, who find the face of God in each other and in this world right here.

This is a holy place, and it is a place to do holy work.

And, Lord knows, we’re about that work. If we live to our covenant we are committed to reflect on our own hearts, and to grow deep. And, for goodness sake’ we’re called to action. You know the litany. Our social justice ministry counts sixteen activities. We feed the hungry; we reach out in our community and across the globe. When, sadly not if, when anti-immigrant legislation is introduced again this year many of us will be standing once again with the powerless, seeking ways through that stance to enhance human dignity, compassion and justice. The list of our social engagement is long. And, now, there is one more project we need to throw ourselves into.

There’s an ancient Greek term that has been adopted into Christian theology. Kairos. Karios means the time of fulfillment.

The time for marriage equality is at hand. It is a civil rights issue. It is a moral issue. It is a spiritual issue. Within our total interdependence when one is oppressed all are oppressed. It is time in our state to end an ancient evil, and to proclaim a new day.

I reported this press conference to our Standing on the Side of Love committee. They, too, saw this as the time to act. The committee will be presenting a petition to our Prudential Committee to bring a motion before our congregation. To pass it will require a super majority of our membership, as is only right in such an event.

We should have ample time to consider and discuss it. The vote should take place in February, which will mean just as the legislative session is beginning. It could be useful.

It will read something like this: We the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Providence by a vote of our membership and standing on the side of love, endorse marriage equality in Rhode Island. Further, we call upon our legislators to pass this legislation, and for our governor to sign it into law.

It is time for us to stand in witness before the world, proclaiming a way of compassion and justice. It is time for us all to stand on the side of love in real and concrete ways.

It is time for us to proclaim our faith and to stand with those who suffer at the hands of oppression.

It is time for love to prevail.

It is time to act. The time of fulfillment is at hand.