A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, November 7, 2010
A Meditation on the Arc of History
"I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." Theodore Parker, in his 1853 sermon “Justice and the Conscience.”
"I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because truth crushed to earth will rise again. How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because you shall reap what you sow.... How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Martin Luther King, Jr on the steps of the Alabama State Capital, in 1965, two weeks following Bloody Sunday.
"Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice, but here is the thing: it does not bend on its own. It bends because each of us in our own ways put our hand on that arc and we bend it in the direction of justice...." Barack Obama in 2008, speaking on the 40th anniversary of Dr King’s assassination.
It was August 1965. I’d turned seventeen a few weeks before. My brother wouldn’t turn sixteen for nearly another month. Somehow, with assumptions about the world that wouldn’t fly in most circles today, I had a note in my pocket saying we had permission from our parents to hitchhike from Oakland, where we lived, to Long Beach, where we had friends. We both had backpacks, heavy things, as I recall. The Beatles had invaded the country the year before, so in keeping with the radical individualism of our age we both had long hair.
This was a major adventure, filled with memories that have lasted a lifetime. Among them two things happened that are particularly relevant for today’s reflection. First, while heading south along Route 101 we were picked up by an independent trucker who took us from, as best I recall, somewhere in the neighborhood of Gilroy, which is about seventy-five miles south of San Francisco pretty much to Santa Barbara, maybe a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Over two hundred, fifty miles, a pretty good stretch of road and our longest ride on that adventure.
The driver was particularly kind to two young boys. And let me tell you, we were not kids who looked older than our ages. He listened to our tales of our adventure to date, and then bought us lunch at one of those humongous truck stops, hamburgers and fries. He even pretended we’d helped him a bit when he had to rearrange the load on his flatbed, and gave us a few bucks for help that likely made his job take twice as long.
Oh, also, he was a black man, with a slight southern drawl.
As an aspiring writer, that evening while my brother and I camped out off the road outside of Santa Barbara I outlined a story about a proud and noble black man who owned his own rig. I wasn’t strong on plotting. So, it was a vignette, more or less a straight-ahead description of the driver and his truck, then for dramatic effect, I described a terrible traffic accident, where he bravely kept the rig from hitting a school bus, although dying as a consequence. Fortunately the manuscript does not survive.
Late the next day after a series of rides, I’ve thought about that last ride over the years, wondering what the driver was or was not thinking, because we found ourselves in the middle of the city walking through what I can only describe as a war zone. It was Monday, August the 16th. We were walking through the smoldering ruins of the Watts riots, which had devastated the neighborhood over the prior four days. We’d missed being caught up in the whole thing by a day or two, where something truly bad could have happened to two completely naive kids. Speak of wrong place and wrong time. And we really weren’t out of the woods, yet. I’d never, ever seen anything like it, a shocking site, burned out cars and buildings, and actual armed soldiers on the streets.
A police patrol car stopped us, and one of the two cops inside asked who we were, and what we thought we were doing there. He was an adult and I don’t think I actually was able to sense his thoughts at the moment, but he had us sit in the back of the car and they drove us a couple of miles before putting us out at a bus stop. The driver said, “Don’t come back.”
It would be years before the dime dropped and I realized that while we had no idea what was going down in LA, that trucker did. It must have been in his heart the whole time he was tending to us. And these things have sat in my own heart ever since. As we consider the matter of race, in our culture, in this congregation, in our individual lives, it is very hard to see all that is going on.
Many of us look out at this worshiping community we love, and which has fed us, and which inspires much good in our lives and the lives of our children, and at the same time while feeling that deep love, also feel down in our bones there is something wrong. Why is it that Sunday worship, as Martin Luther King Jr observed, is the most segregated hour in our country? In a 1963 interview he commented, “This is tragic.” And added, “Nobody of honesty can overlook this.” Here we are in 2010, and the situation isn’t much improved. And Dr King remains right, we do need to look.
There have been many improvements in our culture at large, and that needs to be acknowledged. The comedian Chris Rock has noted the changes. He observes how today, “All my black friends have a bunch of white friends, and all my white friends have one black friend.” Yes, there have been changes, mostly for the good. And we’re nowhere near that heavenly Jerusalem, that city on the hill our prophetic hearts call us to. The liberal heart, the deep intuition of connection that we find preached from this pulpit and more important proclaimed within our very beings, calls us to bring people together. And we have not succeeded, at least nowhere near as much as we want.
Those here, who are people of color, forgive my talking about you for a moment in the third person. My purpose is to wind around that “they, that “us and them,” seeking a genuine inclusive “us,” that greater “us” that I believe does rest in our hearts.
Also before I go on any farther I want to acknowledge what we mean when we speak of race as very complex. In my native California, questions of race clearly needed to include the tragic history of East Asian immigrants. When Jan and I lived in Arizona the questions of race turned more on our relationships with native peoples and Mexican immigrants. These and other issues for people of color, of all colors are very much part of the deal within that term race.
And our American original sin is the relationship between people of African descent and those of European descent. Slavery is the foul stain on our communal heart, and the consequences of that profound evil continue to mark all of us, whether we want it to be so, or not. Here in these few minutes we share while hopefully not forgetting the larger context, all the hurts, and pointing always to the greater hope, I’ll continue to be focused mostly on this situation, the relationship between people of European descent and those of African.
How hard it is to read people’s hearts in the best of circumstances. And how much harder it is when race is part of the mix. The racial divide over O.J. Simpson’s acquittal for the 1994 murder of his wife and a friend is an example. As best I understand it, most white people feeling he got away with murder while most black people felt he was railroaded.
Actually, we don’t even have to go back farther than this week’s sentencing in Oakland of a young white police officer who shot and killed a young unarmed black man. The former officer swore he thought he had his Taser in his hand, not his gun. On Friday he was given two years for involuntary manslaughter. The young dead man’s mother cried out, “Nothing, he got nothing.” A four-hour demonstration in Oakland against the decision followed, and it was marked by violence. Not Watts level violence. But… According to some reports most white observers thought it was indeed involuntary manslaughter, while most black observers thought it murder.
Convincing comprehensive analysis of this divide is hard to come by. Some things, however, seem fairly obvious, I think, to an open heart. One is that even if there is no law protecting it, literally hundreds of years of forced separation has created two cultures, one enjoying the fruits of our society and the other too often denied them. And making it so hard to deal with is an assumption on the part of those in the superior position that they belong there. We belong there. It is the belief we earned everything we have, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The shorthand for this is white privilege. If you are unfamiliar with the term or have some hesitations about it, I ask you to examine the matter closely.
White privilege just permeates our lives. The problem is, it means little if one is white. While, if you’re not, it can be everything. As our member and birth-right Unitarian Universalist Claudia Ford while writing about bullying, but it is sadly so easily applicable here, observes, “I could sum up my 56 year experience as an African American woman in America as one of legalized, systematic, unchecked, relentless, and-it-still-goes-on, societal bullying.” This is a highly accomplished person speaking. And that’s the other side of white privilege.
The experience for those outside the assumptions of privilege may be overt, although as often as not, it is low key, but constant. Constant enough that one outside the bubble often just can’t tell if someone was insulting or not, marginalizing or not. And therefore can appear overly sensitive to those on the inside. And for those of us from inside the bubble, not feeling the pervasive marginalization, can feel these encounters with people of color as if we were walking on eggshells. Which, you might think, would not be a good way to cultivate deep relationships.
Now if we were doing a detailed analysis, the next point we would have to address is class. It permeates the whole thing, and is a great problem, sometimes the deeper issue. But we don’t have time for that level of reflection. So, today I need simply to acknowledge it, and promise to return to a reflection on class sometime soon.
So, what does all this history of inside and outside, of human hurt and our longing to be more, to fulfill our intuition of that larger hope of inclusion, of a true universalism, mean here in our church? And what can it mean? Well, we must continue to unpack.
To put it in its crudest form, it is a commonplace among some of us that if we really want to attract African Americans we need to fire our classically trained music director and bring in a gospel choir to replace him. May I suggest this boils down and becomes a symbol of how we feel if we truly want more people of color to actually walk through those doors and stay, we need to become other than who we are. I suggest this needs some unpacking.
There is something in being willing to be changed, but this kind of change is not toward bigger and more inclusive, but just dropping who we are to become something else. It’s a red herring. Now, can we have more diversity in our music programming? Well, just like can we get better sermons out of me, at least people hope so, and better worship services each Sunday, and better offerings for involvement in our community, of course. Of course. We can be more inclusive, larger, more open. And I promise we who you’ve called and hired to serve this community are all of us committed to constantly improving, constantly seeking to serve as best we are capable to support that larger way which is our heart’s longing. That’s our part.
But, here’s the real challenge for you sitting in the pews. I ask everyone here who is white to look into your own hearts, to recall your own lives, and no matter how hard it may have been to get where you are now, or, even, just how hard it might be right now: to know, to really know if you’re black, getting there is harder, and staying is harder. As long as I’m on this, I want to thank those of us here who are black as well as of other races for putting up with those of us who are white, and opening your hearts and, most important, being us. Being us. We need to return the favor. That is the call.
For all of us, the way is simple: be curious. Want to know. Don’t wait for someone else to put on a program. Read. Go on the web, look around. Ask your friends, not just that one black friend. In fact, don’t make that person your resource. Can you imagine how exhausting that can be? Engage. Maybe it’s walking on eggshells now and again. But most things that are worth anything take effort. Along the way constantly reference your own heart. And think a moment before you say things that can so easily be offensive or hurtful, if you’ve given it any thought. Maybe that’s even a rule of thumb for engaging everybody. Two ears, one mouth, so use the ears twice as much. Our mother’s told us how to do this, it isn’t rocket science. Treat others like you want to be treated. A little respect goes a long way.
Will this lead to more members of African descent? That would be nice. And it might happen, especially if you invite some. Who is that friend? Tell her we have some spectacular music here. As you know, there really are only two kinds of music, and we have the good kind. But that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is that we become true allies of people of color, that we know there are real inequities, and we’re caught up in those inequities, all of us, while at the same time we see our common connection, and are constantly growing deep, finding the roots of love and intimacy and are genuinely seeking those ways to heal the ancient wounds.
I think our charge within this congregation is to think deeply about what it really means to be multicultural, to be welcoming down to the soles of our feet. I believe we need to be willing to change. And I think it fair to expect those who come among us are also willing to be changed. This is all about mutuality, it is about being us, dynamic and open.
I think of that trucker from my youth. A man whose heart must have been breaking, who knew ages of hurt, who suffered more than can be said, and must have been listening to reports out of Watts when he saw two skinny white kids with their thumbs in the air, stopped, gave them a ride, gave them food, gave them a little work, some money, and planted in that encounter a dream. I don’t think it too much to say it was Martin Luther King’s dream. It is our dream.
We do need a new world. And, some good news: I think it is at hand. Our ancestor Theodore Parker spoke of his confidence in the bending of that arc of history toward justice, it was repeated by our teacher Martin Luther King, Jr. And, I think, we were given a wise coda on this whole matter by the president.
We must do the bending. We find the fruition of this dream in the bending of our hearts toward justice. We find it in the bending of our hands to the work itself. Reach out. Open up. Become large.
That’s where, that’s how we will find justice, hope, and most of all,
That transforming love which heals all wounds.
This is the truth.