A sermon by Eugene Dyszlewski and James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, June 5, 2011
THE WAY OF THE LARGER HEART
A Report from the Front Lines of the Struggle for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island
Wheras, a just society guarantees to all of its citizens certain civil rights, and Wheras, every adult deserves the opportunity to attain the legal protections and safeguards gained through civil marriage, and Whereas, the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Rhode Island affirms and promotes the Unitarian Universalist principles of The inherent worth and dignity of every person, Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, an World community, liberty, peace, and justice for all, We, the congregation of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, by a vote of our membership, endorse marriage equality in the state of Rhode Island. Further, we call upon Rhode Island's legislators to pass this legislation and for the Governor of Rhode Island to sign it into law.
— Passed by a vote of the congregation, and published on Valentine’s Day, 2011
In my youth I was inspired by the romantic story of Alonso Quixano, the sometime delusional grey haired Spanish gentleman, who saw the world differently than most people and dared joust with windmills. I believed that indeed Don Quixote saw Giants who were threatening the land. I admired the fact that he could be courageous enough to tilt with evil and injustice while everyone else mocked and ridiculed him. It is a grand, if not grandiose, feeling that alone you could change the world. Then I grew up… and I have been living in the real world. Being a pastor is a somewhat less romantic life than a knight errant, but it’s what I enjoy doing and it’s a living.
However, I have noticed that there are always giants in the land. Hunger, homelessness, poverty, injustice can be as common as windmills and thus easy to ignore. Then one day a giant came in search of me. Perhaps it is only when your hair is grey that you notice the giants in your midst. The giant of inequality and injustice toward the gay community is this odious creature. This is where the Cervantes metaphor ends, because in spite of my romantic leanings, injustice is too ugly and painful to be romanticized. And thankfully, I am not alone in the struggle.
For too long the gay community has been treated with less dignity or no dignity. For too long, we asked our gay brothers and sisters to ignore a vital and essential part of their humanity in order to obtain our affection. Since it appears to me that there is no reasonable explanation for this discrimination, the time seems right to slay this giant.
There was a time when I thought that the underlying reason for an anti-gay attitude was ignorance. However, I now believe that it is more out of arrogance than ignorance. From my religious tradition, I believe that God created humanity and declared it “Good.” …All of it. …Not some of it. It takes a profound level of arrogance to decide that God’s handiwork is 3 to 7% defective and I will look down my nose at my brothers and sisters who just don’t measure up to my standards.
Historically, America is a country of great diversity. This has been our strength and our weakness. True, there have been numerous examples of minorities who have been mistreated and eventually have arrived at full acceptance after generations of oppression. However each time this was done, it was wrong and every one was hurt in the process. I want to believe that this is not a predetermined pattern.
My sense is that the key American struggle is not how to be a minority; it’s how to be a majority. The arrogance of the majority has too often made us blind. Arrogance is the enemy of compassion. It has allowed us to negate the humanity of the “others,” and not see the hurt. It too often allowed us to impose our set of beliefs on the “others,” and not see the disrespect. I say this because I have struggled with this in the depths of my own soul. Arrogance is intoxicating; it is blinding. I also see this attitude in a lot of good people I know and otherwise admire. Good people, blinded by arrogance, do bad things.
At the very least, we need to understand that being in the majority doesn’t make me right; it doesn’t make me better. It is neither a blessing nor a curse, it is simply an “is.” The American social contract is “liberty and justice for all;” not “winner takes all.” But there’s more to this. I struggle to fully understand what brings me out of complacency and arrogance into compassion and justice. What is the antidote for arrogance?
If arrogance is the problem, what is the solution?
Not long ago I was asked how I came to be so fervently involved in the struggle for gblt rights, particularly in the struggle for marriage equality. I realized it was impossible to say for sure. I am also profoundly concerned with matters of war and peace and domestically with hunger and homelessness, the plight of the immigrant, the wounds of racism and the call for equal rights for women. So, what turned my heart toward this particular work? If you’re younger, hopefully, this sense of common human dignity regardless of affectional orientation is as obvious as the nose on your face, it is simply, an “of course.”
This isn’t so for my generation. I know I was raised with all the prejudices of our culture. I suspect first the civil rights struggle and then the women’s movement, and what seemed obviously a wrong-headed war opened my heart as well as my eyes to pervasive oppressions. Then when I was thirty, Harvey Milk a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, was murdered because he was an openly gay politician. It was shocking. Scales fell from my eyes, and I saw. One of those giants Gene described was revealed in all its ugliness. I realized the struggle for gblt rights counted right there as central to the healing of our people as important as racial reconciliation and the full equality of women.
This is in fact the path of the larger heart, the call to make this world a better place, to make our selves better people. For me the path has been slow and sometimes painful. For some it has meant beatings, jail, and even, as with Supervisor Milk, death. For me it’s been mostly a recurrent breaking of my heart. As I’ve walked this way I’ve had to let go of truths I learned at my father’s knee. I’ve had to allow my heart to break, any number of times. The desire to turn away, to give up, to move on, has sometimes been nearly overpowering. But I haven’t. Nor have you.
And I’m here to say, in what is a progress report, as hard as it has been, and continues to be, this struggle has been worth the effort, the pain.
Here in Rhode Island this has thrown me along with many of us into the political fray.
And, my goodness, nothing quite like politics to teach someone humility.
As an advocate for same-sex marriage, I have spent a lot of time this legislative season at the State House meeting with Senators and Representatives on the floor of the chamber in the hour before the session begins and in the halls after the session is adjourned. The first time I walked onto the house floor to chat with the representatives, I was sure I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. After several months of visiting, I am not sure anybody there knows what they are doing. When I asked the question, “How does this place work?” The responses range from, “It doesn’t.” to “I’ve been here for years and I haven’t figured it our?” .
Over the past three months, I was joined by hundreds of people from the gay community, the college community, and the religious community who came to the State House to advocate for Marriage Equality. There were at least 60 clergy from the religious coalition who came either to testify at a hearing or walk the floor. It is interesting that each denomination behaved uniquely. The Episcopalians were well dressed and carried the most ecclesiastical titles. The Presbyterians came exactly on time and exited the chamber as soon as the bell rang. The crowd from the UCC came late; some came on the wrong day. Some ignored the bell and had to be escorted out by the clerk. The Baptists didn’t show up. Although we are not awarding prizes for lobbying, I am pleased to report that the company toaster goes to the Unitarians who were there frequently.
Language in the legislative chambers is used differently than I experience in everyday life. Rumor and wishful thinking are presented as fact. The word “lie” is never used in reference to even blatantly false statements.
When I was told by the leadership of the House that the marriage bill will finally come to the floor for a vote, I was skeptical but after the third personal assurance, I believed what I heard. I passed on the promise to everyone, “Don’t worry!” I told the 140 religious leaders in our coalition. “The bill will pass the House easily. Half the house has signed on to sponsor the bill. This is a no brainer.”
Then one sad day in April, the Speaker of the House announced that he was not allowing the marriage equality bill to come to the floor for a vote. Instead, he was going to propose a Civil Unions bill. I was in total shock. I felt the cold hard hand of political power knock me to my knees. In addition, I risked my credibility with my colleagues in ministry and I was wrong with my prediction. I felt foolish …publically humiliated.
Well, believing that you are in the majority is intoxicating and blinding. The legislative process is one in which power is held closely and jealously by a few. All issues become grist for the bargaining mill. Human rights, civil rights are traded as commodities for bridges and tax breaks. It is important to understand that this is not a process that we, the outsiders, the citizens, control. We can influence the process but not control it. Advocating for a cause with the legislature is a lot like baseball. You strike out more than you hit. You don’t win every game. What is important is that you don’t walk away from the process, even when humiliated.
I continue to believe that the arc of God’s universe is long and bends toward justice. I just don’t like that the arc is longer than I expected it to be. Make no mistake about it. The injustice and inequality visited upon the gay community is a giant who can be defeated. We need to get back on our horse, pick up our lance and shield and tilt with it again.
The compromise that appears to have been worked out in the backrooms is that we will have a Civil Unions bill on the Governor’s desk before long, maybe this coming week. Although, as Gene has said, we’ve been told other things were in the bag, before. As I’ve entered the give and take of politics I’ve learned one should be happy in most cases with half a loaf. To engage the political life is to learn the art of compromise. In itself no bad thing, part of that way of enlarging the heart.
But this Civil Unions bill is less than half a loaf, far less. And there’s something particularly distasteful about compromise on civil rights. I also join with those who are appalled at the amendment allowing religious institutions to continue prejudicial actions against their gblt employees. This bill is seriously flawed.
And, me, I want it. It makes for a large handful of improvements in the lives of gblt people.
But, win or lose, I have no intention of letting it go at that. This is a civil rights struggle we’re engaged in. And cleaning up the separate drinking fountain a bit doesn’t mean it isn’t a separate drinking fountain. Take the small victories, sure. But, keep your eye on the ball, as well. And the ball, the end of the arc of justice in this case, is full marriage equality.
Next year some politicians in this state should lose their offices over what happened this legislative session. While churches cannot be involved in those particular struggles, I guarantee you; you will know who in the legislature has been opposed to marriage equality, who has stood against civil rights.
And while the day has not yet broken, as sure as the sun rises, we will win, justice will prevail, the day will come when as I am honored to preside at the marriage of our members who are of the same gender, I will be able to conclude with the words, “By the authority of the state of Rhode Island, I pronounce you married.”
And no one will doubt it.
The prophet sang to us, calling us to let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness a never-failing stream.
This work is an irresistible tide.
That good day is coming. It is not far away.
(The Reverend Eugene Dyszlewski is the Interim Executive Director of Marriage Equality in Rhode Island. The Reverend James Ishmael Ford serves on the Steering Committee of the Religious Coalition for Marriage Equality in Rhode Island.)