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A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 18, 2015

SHELTER FOR THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN
A Meditation on Race, Class, and the Way of Liberal Religion


Text:
Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn't matter. Ours is no caravan of despair. Come, even if you have broken your vows a hundred times. Come, yet again, come, come.

— Jalaladdin Rumi



When I first arrived here in Providence nearly seven years ago, race was very much on my mind. Early on I was involved in an attempt to create a dialogue about race among Providence's religious and intellectual leaders. My fantasy was that we could be the hosting congregation for a series of conversations, not leading but supporting in a visible way. I helped to call some folk together, and participated in a couple of meetings, but, sadly nothing jelled.

And then it became clear that there was a chance to achieve marriage equality in Rhode Island. And I, and many of us here, turned our hearts and our hands to that project. It was a good call. We succeeded. No doubt I will carry that victory in my heart as one of the greatest social justice accomplishments I've had a hand in, no matter how long I live, no matter where I go. I've been so grateful to be a part of it, and that we all here were such a central part of it.

Of course the many issues of race in our culture have not gone away. Today they feel magnified, brought to the front of our communal consciousness in ways that are both horrifying, and that open doors of opportunity. I find myself thinking of Dr King's warning to not sleep through the revolution.

Today I want to talk revolution.

Many here know I was thirteen when my father went to jail. It wasn't the first time he saw the inside of a jail, but it was the first time I knew about it. He'd been the manager of a liquor store in Hemet, California, when a friend of his said, "I just need to borrow the money 'till Monday." Today, I'd say his need to be one of the gang overcame his common sense. In this case my dad spent a year in jail because he agreed to that "loan."

I took it all hard. And so my mother sent me up to Oakland to live with my grandmother and auntie. As soon as I arrived they enrolled me at the local junior high school. If there was another white kid in that school, I have no memory of it. What I do remember was being beaten up that first day. And, again, on the second day. The third day I learned how to hide, to make myself invisible, of course not always successfully. It was a hard year.

The only thing that saved me from imprinting some pretty awful things was my grandmother. She'd been poor her whole life, was not well educated, and had no idea there might be alternatives to my going to that school, and if there were, how to manipulate the system to move me. What she did know was that while there were mean kids and bad kids, their race had nothing to do with that hard reality. I was being beaten for being different.

We were poor people. But, poor and uneducated does not mean without wisdom. She taught me whether we had any power over those things happening to us or not, we could control how we reacted to those things that happened to us. Our actions were in our hands.

Of course getting a handle on what was going on, getting the space and perspective that allowed wise actions is easier said than done. For my grandma prayer was the major tool in her kit for how to deal with life. And so we prayed together. A lot. We prayed for things to get better. But that wasn't the all of it. We prayed for my father who I was just learning to hate. We prayed for my mother who was having a hard time supporting herself and my younger brother. We prayed for each other. And we prayed for those kids at school. Most of whom my grandma told me had it harder than we did. As unlikely as that seemed to me.

Prayer is a good thing. These days I don't believe in a deity somewhere in the sky who takes messages and fixes things. That first part about praying to change things, I think is only useful in reminding us to get up and do some changing. But those other prayers. Leonard Cohen sings to us how there is "a crack in everything," and "that's how the light gets in." Well, prayers can push that crack ever bigger, allowing ever more light, allowing the critical view that includes all of us. And that insight opens a way of wisdom.

These days I continue that practice, although its called meditation, and it is a bit more clearly focused on the part that is opening up, being as wide as possible, noticing, letting everything rise like in a mirror. Just see. Just notice. And then from that seeing things begin to happen. Grandma's prayer for others started it all for me. Today, as prayer or meditation, this being radically open for some time every day is a practice I commend to all.

Actually there are a number of ways we can come to this larger perspective. In the last analysis living does it, or at least gives us the opportunity. But being more intentional about it feels pretty important to me. Our homegrown UU spiritual discipline of small group ministry, what we call chalice circles here, is another way, using the practice as listening. Frankly, just coming to church regularly and being called into community, and giving your heart to a moment that is dedicated to this larger life takes us a long way toward this open heart, this wise heart place. I'll return to that last thing in a moment.

Now this paying attention doesn't fix everything. Of course not. I know I continue to carry wounds despite my years of practice. But giving some time to that open mirror like place regularly, allows me to see bigger, and to become better integrated with my own heart, and with the world beyond my skin. It has even allowed me to be open to challenge what I think is, and what I think is always going to be.

Certainly we need to be open to those challenges when they present. And of those challenges, the big things that have been going on these past months have fired a lot in my heart. And perhaps for you, as well? I'm thinking particularly of those memes racing around the world, "Black lives matter," "All lives matter," and, of course "Blue lives matter." And out of this, all of it, I find myself thinking again about race and about class, which is just a heartbeat way from the issues of race.

And I think about us here.

Of course all lives matter. And that doesn't mean we should not notice that a black man in an encounter with the police is much, much more likely to die than a white man. And, that doesn't mean police are all racists. Blue lives do matter. But the way things are means that even the slightest prejudice can have an amplified effect in a charged situation, particularly when there are guns involved. Each a truth, none negates the other.

So, there are many things that we might be involved in addressing. I'm an enormous fan of community policing and body cameras as concrete actions that can be helpful. But, today, I'm talking about the deeper soul sickness, what creates the circumstances that allow prejudice and racism and sexism, all the ways we create "us" and "them," all the ways we divide. And to consider the cure, the deep cure, that comes from seeing large, from learning the connections, and finding new perspectives.

Today I want to talk about us as a spiritual community, its profound value, and what we are doing right now that we should be aware of that inhibits our goals. And maybe, just maybe find ways to change a little. Of course, each of us walks into a spiritual community for our own reasons. Why we stay or go are also going to be deeply marked by our own journey in life. But some things we share in greater or lesser degree.

One is that we're all wounded. The call of all authentic spiritual communities is toward healing, toward liberation. I have a strong opinion here, I believe well informed. The good news to be found within our liberal churches about this way of healing, about our way into it, is amazing, and it should be shared. Our sense of the value of each and every person, indeed, of each and every living thing, coupled with our profound insight that we are all of us intertwined in an intimate dance of life itself, is itself a healing perspective.

We have genuine good news. We are precious, each of us. And we need each other. And we have practices that show us this truth as our intimate truth, found in being present to each other, and listening to each other in a conscious and regular way. This gathering is a miracle of human possibility. And, so we should be throwing our doors as wide open as possible, and inviting everyone who is hurt to come in and to find their way toward healing with us, particularly anyone who has difficulty with being told one particular spiritual story is the only true story.

The truth be told we are both welcoming and we have attracted a pretty good group of folk. But why are we attracting only a few people who are not white and middle class? This is a hard question, and it requires some hard looking. And I want to do some of that today.

I think we need to start by remembering these are human gatherings. And some of our issues are just people issues. So, to go to a popular example, I like one kind of music. You like another. No fault. Now we've been particularly fortunate in that our general taste as Unitarian Universalists for the European inheritance musically has been rewarded here in this particular congregation with a music director who is to my mind a genius, both in performance and as a teacher and mentor to many. We do our music with enthusiasm and competence. And it is our music.

At the same time with music as with other things we do as a spiritual community, we might ask how we can maximize our inclusiveness while honoring our completely legitimate tastes? Related to this and vastly more problematic is that even if we are genuinely looking for healing, for liberation, that doesn't mean our fall back position isn't seeking comfort. It's easier to be with people who we think are more like us. Race is one of those "like us" things. Class is another.

I believe this is the why in Dr Martin Luther King Jr's observation about how Sunday during worship is the most segregated hour of the week. So, those who study churches suggest there may not even be such a thing as an integrated church. There is no stasis point where all is right. Churches are in fact integrating or segregating. It's all dynamic.

But dynamic is something we of all people should get. Our whole spirituality is about the dynamic between the individual and the web of relationships. And, me, I want to be part of integrating communities. Maybe you do, as well. I do think our spirituality calls us to this.

But this isn't easy. People throw around the term "radical hospitality," a lot in my circles. And let me note: easier said than done. But, I do want us to be open. I do want us to be integrating rather than segregating. I want us to be more than a generally comfortable gathering for like-minded liberals, mostly white, mostly formally educated, mostly middle class. And I believe most of us do, as well.

So, what to do? What to do?

I think right after acknowledging there is a problem, and that problem at least so far as a white and middle class person has to do with it, has to do with the myopia of being white and middle class, together with the siren song of complacency. So, it is critical to notice those who do not fit those bills and genuinely welcome them in. I'm not saying people can come in and act in any way they want. And I've seen congregations that think being welcoming means throwing out behavior expectations. That's missing the point. I'm talking about being open to people who don't look or sound like me. Pay attention to those who walk through the doors. We all want to be seen. And that hardly seems too much to ask.

And, yes, there can be too much in this. I've been in UU churches where a black family walks in and they're inundated with too much friendliness. Often, sadly, salted with ignorant if well meaning comments, assumptions, for instance, about class. It seems the second rule of thumb after being open and welcoming, is to pay attention without making too many assumptions. This is all stuff I believe is well within our skill sets.

And one more, even earlier, actually. Let's let people know we're here. Me, I think we should have a small ad in the Providence American, just a classified ad saying "Looking for a Liberal Church? The First Unitarian Church of Providence welcomes you." And a link to our website.

We are friendly. Let's get enthusiastic about integrating. Be willing to make mistakes. But make them from generosity.

Is this enough? No. But it is getting started. After that we need to learn how to give power away. That's the most integrating thing of all. And, hard.

But for a start let's try a little of that radical hospitality. Let's invite ourselves to the revolution. Let's take the bushel off from our light, and let it shine, and when people come to that light, let's make room for them.

Whoever they may be. Let us become shelter for the birds of heaven. All of them.

Amen.