Social Justice Advocacy: The Necessity of Discomfort

A sermon by Rev. Gene Dyszlewski

Audio Recording

To listen to the sermon by Rev. Dyszlewski, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box below:

Sermon Text

Good morning.  I’m the Rev. Gene Dyszlewski.  I’m privileged to be a community minister here at First Unitarian.   I usually show up during the week because on Sunday morning I am in the pulpit of Lime Rock Baptist Church in Lincoln, where I serve as pastor.

I am honored, once a year during the Rhode Island legislative season, to step into the pulpit to share a few ideas and to do a call to action.

This congregation has been a champion of social justice for as long as it has been in existence.   Our legacy goes back to when we were first gathered during the colonial period, in those days we were a voice for human dignity.   Abolition groups met here.  We should search the archives for more detail, but I know that we and other Providence churches were offering sanctuary back in the day when sanctuary meant being part of the Underground Railroad.  We hosted women’s suffrage meetings.   We marched and spoke out against racism and for civil rights.  I am pleased to have been here to work with you on the last major legislative campaign, Marriage Equality.

So for the last five years we have been focused on sensible gun regulations and criminal justice reform.   Last year after a four-year drought we enjoyed  an embarrassment of riches.  We got several legislative achievements: the domestic violence gun bill and the Criminal Justice Reform Package.

So, my plan for today was to encourage everyone to participate in the letter writing project during coffee hour

to advocate for sensible gun laws to make Rhode Island safe.   Just for the record, I’m not doing the letter writing project; the youth group has taken it over.   The young people of First U are hosting this legislative advocacy event.   I’ve got to say that I was moved by their interest and enthusiasm.   Don’t tell them this, but I actually got a little choked up.  They have taken over.  The next generation has picked up the torch.

It was at this point that I realized that I misperceived the legacy of this church community.  I am looking at the actions…but they are the symptoms of something internal.   The real legacy of this church community lies in the core values.  A belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person as expressed through affirmation and compassion — this is the real driving force.  We are not a collection of isolated individuals competing for importance, possessions, and space on the planet.  We are a community of people who are part of an interconnected web.   As such, we are more about generosity than greed. 

I think it important that we are driven by this internal motivation.   The issue we focus on tends to be the social injustice of the day.    We approach advocacy through the lens of our core values.  Therein lies our strength.

So, I am going recommend that we add to our efforts at legislative advocacy, which I know you are going to do, to personal advocacy.  We need to address the second shoe.  When we can, we need to do some face-to-face personal relational advocacy.

We seem to eventually win the culture wars in the legislature, but we also need to win the hearts and minds.   There is a segment of society that just can’t adjust to social change.   I was thrilled when marriage equality became the law of the land, but there is still a serious backlash of homophobia.  The issue went from the wedding ceremony to the wedding cake.   Personally, gay or straight, I never met a wedding cake I didn’t like.

There are a lot of people who just can’t or simply refuse to adjust to new things.  To be fair, we all adjust to new things and new ideas at different rates.  I believe that being progressive or being conservative is more about temperament than ideology.  I see myself as a progressive.   That’s not a good or a bad – it’s a neutral; it’s who I am.  Some folk are conservative by temperament.  They are more prudential and deliberative about change.  That’s not good or bad; it’s just how they need to be.   The folk on the fringe, both ends, are always more problematic.

Today, in the “New Normal” the real problem is more complicated.  Spurred by political interests, right and left have become tribal groups, not based on temperament but based upon positions that have become politicized.  For example, on the right, race, sexual orientation, immigration status and religion are used to win votes.   This means that instead of supporting a position because it is the better position and the right thing to do, folk are encouraged to support a position because it relieves anxiety and assuages fear.   Without question, this has poisoned the political climate.

So, my suggestion is that when we speak to someone on a personal level, our intention be relational not informational.  I suggest that we encourage them to do the talking.   We don’t have to convince them of the error of their ways.   We just need to remain genuinely unconvinced of their position but respectfully interested.   This requires tolerance and tolerance is in our social DNA.  We need to respond rather than react.   I don’t mean apathy or indifference, but being non-reactive.

It could turn into a productive conversation, and we could learn something.  If it doesn’t then what am I doing?

Well, I am demonstrating tolerance and respect.   I think it is safe to assume that some things cannot be learned by the lecture method.   Who here has learned to drive a car by watching a YouTube?   Tolerance and respect is learned through experience.  Who else is going to display this?  We need to be intentional about this.

I suggest that to be effective with this strategy we need to prepare.  Being non-reactive can be more difficult than we might imagine.  There is so much that has entered the conversation about political matters these days.  Indeed, these are not normal times.   I say this as a progressive who has engaged in such dialogue.

On the national scene, the political speech has been corrupted by incivility and infected by falsehood and contempt.  We have seen this play out before in the 1930s in Europe.   Purposeful lying is upending; it is an unexpected bold display of impudence.  In some people it creates a belief in a false narrative.   As the architect of the chaos in 1930s Europe said about the average person, “It would never come to their heads to fabricate colossal untruths and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”   This is the same guy who famously said, political propaganda “…must appeal to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning powers.”

I am not necessarily suggesting that things are the same as they were in Nazi Germany.  These times are different, and our political institutions are more resilient.  What is universal here is that decent ordinary folk expect the truth, and many are being misled by charlatans.   Secondly, I want to acknowledge how hard it is to engage in conversation with someone who has been duped and believes in a false narrative.

We are being berated on a visceral level by contemptuous lies in response to tragedies.   In the case of mass shootings when we expect empathy we get apathy.   Public officials tell us, “Our thoughts and prayers are will them and their families”; no, they’re not.  This is a hard time to hear a lie.  There are people who believe in “False Flag” paranoid conspiracies that claim the school shootings didn’t really happen.

When the response to the loss of innocent lives, especially children, is apathy rather than empathy or worse with paranoid fantasy, it is monumentally upsetting.  Sometimes, the obscenity of the rhetoric is beyond the pale.   Bottom line is no one deserves, at any age, to have their lives cut short by a bullet, whether in a church pew or at a schoolroom desk.

So just exactly how does what I am suggesting work?  The key step is to relate to someone in the other ideological camp with your compassionate openhearted attention.  This is relational.  We’ve got to talk to people on the other side, with affection.  First, we need to prepare for the dissonance of their argument.   If we get to talk with someone who is open-minded, great.  Something productive will happen for both of us.  But, it may not turn out that way.

I find some of the rhetoric used by the gun enthusiasts is extreme and often based on a belief system that is not mine.  So it is emotionally off putting.  However, my suggested goal is to engage the opposition in a relational conversation, not an intellectual exchange.   The purpose is not to convince anyone of the error of their ways.  The purpose is actually to demonstrate affirmation  — to demonstrate civility, acceptance and tolerance.

Affirmation satisfies a basic human need.  We all need to be understood.  No one expects to be seen as perfect.  However, when our positive qualities are recognized by someone else, they are reinforced.   When I am genuinely interested in and affectionately attentive to another person, I touch them in an important and powerful way.   The root of affirmation is generosity and trust, the opposite of defensive confrontation.   This is not likely to be reciprocal.   A frightened person may be to unable to see the good in my life.   However, I believe that affirmation can be the antidote for their fear.

My experience has been that the other person needs to keep taking about their position on race, gays, Muslims, immigrants, guns or whatever until they hear themselves talk.   Since they are talking to me, someone outside their ideological bubble, their ideas are not getting affirmed.  That’s in important distinction; I affirm the person not the ideas.

So, what do I do if some gets agitated and hostile.  I suggest that you step away.  I do.  There is no reason to get hurt.  This has to be done with a sense of humility.  I am not saving the world, I am simply making a contribution to sanity.

So, we have a lot of work to do.  My sense is we will do it.   We will start after the service by writing letters.  The legislative work still has to be done.  The kids will be expecting us.  So, do me a favor and get me off the hook.  Among social justice advocates there is the saying that in the RI General Assembly that each year one snowball gets through hell.  Well, last year we got two.  This year’s snowball is sensible gun control.  So let’s get to work and make some snowballs.

Testimonial by members Tony and Irene Allen

Audio Recording

To listen to the testimonial, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box:


Tony: One of the most popular books on our book table is Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Irene: Sure, that’s the one about the author’s years in four different Nazi concentration camps.  That even under the worst of circumstances, people search for meaning in their lives. But I thought we were here to talk about what First Unitarian means to us.

Tony: Yes, but isn’t there a strong connection between First Unitarian and the search for meaning?

Irene: The Fourth UUA principle is: A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

Tony: I’ve always thought that was key to our deciding to come to this church.

Irene: I’m not sure it reached such an idealistic level.  As I recall, it goes back to when we wondered if our children shouldn’t have a church to go to.

Tony: You’re right; we did come here for the children.  We showed up here one Sunday, and stayed.  It’s been around 50 years now.  So our first experience was with a Religious Education program that was valuable for the children.

Irene: We always love our Sunday mornings here: The Meeting House, the music, the inspirational services and readings and hymns. There is nothing else like it in our lives.

Tony: And we always seem to find ourselves involved beyond Sundays. For both of us, this currently means Chalice Circles and the Food Pantry. You’re also involved in the Green Task Force.  And I’ve been going to the Spirit in Life Group and also to training for immigrant Sanctuary in this church.

Irene: A high point for me is when my good friends Bruce Whyte and Gerry Boone asked me to participate as a witness at their wedding.  It was the first legally-recognized same-sex marriage in this church after Rhode Island enacted the Marriage Equality Act in 2013. Many in this church came to this wedding to celebrate the marriage of these two long-time members of our congregation.  This was a law that our church had actively supported.

Tony: This church has a strong record of standing on the side of love.  We continue to find inspiration and guidance here in our lifelong search for meaning.