One might expect me to use this last newsletter of my Board presidency to reflect on all that we’ve accomplished and where the church is heading. But the violence last week at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, has me thinking of bigger questions. The attack has brought into focus for me why it is that I am a UU.
Certainly, I’m proud that we Unitarians are a clear voice in the national discourse about racial injustice. Our first principle, which proclaims the inherent worth and dignity of all people, calls us to continue working to heal this divided world. And of course I’m proud that we are not newcomers to this struggle. I’m proud of our presence alongside the civil rights activists of the 1960’s, working to bring about Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision. More generally, I’m proud of our heritage as early adopters on the fringes of justice. I’m proud of our abolitionists and our feminists. I’m proud that my gay friends can get married now, and that our denomination played such a big part in making that simple decency possible. I’m proud of all that we stand for. But I am not a UU because of that pride.
When last week’s racially motivated attack hit the news, I felt myself slipping into the too-familiar pattern of anger and hopelessness and isolation. I felt my heart begin to harden, to focus on all of the ways that this was not happening to me – to protectively separate myself from the tragedy. It’s something I’m not proud of. But it’s how I’ve always responded when the world reminds us just how broken it is, and the shock and pain and outrage and hopelessness set in.
What’s different, now, is that the roots I’ve put down in this faith have given me options other than turning away or despairing. In this community, we mourn together, we seek understanding together, and we work to find ways to address the underlying issues. I’m under no illusion that the enduring injustices in our society will magically recede before us. I know that it is beyond our power to heal the world unilaterally, or else it would long since have been healed. But I also know that whenever progress is made, whenever love wins a small, incremental victory, our people will be part of the reason. And I know that working in service to that effort beats the heck out of giving up.
I’ve chosen to be a UU, in other words, because I’m a better person when I’m rooted in this community, and it’s the best chance I have of helping this broken world bloom.
President Obama was asked in an interview this week whether he felt despair that such an act of racially motivated terrorism could still happen, after all this time. “Do not say that nothing’s changed when it comes to race in America unless you lived through being a black man in the 1950s, or ’60s, or ’70s,” he replied. “But what is also true is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution of our lives: that casts a long shadow.”
Listening to the president’s response, I felt the magnitude of this wound in the fabric of our society. I was reminded of hiking out of the Grand Canyon a few years ago. Starting at the banks of the Colorado River before dawn, we struggled upward as the sun climbed the sky and the heat intensified. The hike seemed endless; the canyon was so vast that the rim didn’t seem to be getting any closer. But every so often, we would round a bend and see the river impossibly far below, and the scale of both our efforts and our goal would snap into perspective. We have come so far, I would think. And yet we have a long way yet to go.
Which brings me in a roundabout way to the things I perhaps should be addressing in this final newsletter article of my term as your president. Ministerial transition is a difficult process, and ours has been perhaps more so than we might have expected. But the abundant capability, resilience and good will that make this congregation so special will see us through. As I pass the torch to Jennifer Powell, I’m at ease that we are in good hands and headed in the right direction. I’m comfortably certain that our church and the larger denomination will continue to thrive.
Which is a wonderful thing, because this world needs us. It needs our voice in the chorus of justice; it needs our diversity to find a way forward in these changing times. It needs our strength and stability supporting smaller partners in neighboring communities, so that the values we share have a champion everywhere they are needed. And it needs our walls to shelter us when we might despair, so that we can pause, take comfort, and go back out into the world strong and loving again.
Thank you all for an amazing year. I’ll see you Sunday,