Friday, January 21, 2011

Where do we Go From Here: Martin Luther King’s Vision for the Future (January 16, 2011)

When I was a little girl growing up in a UU church, our minister often talked about Jesus in the context of 3 other heroes- Mahatma Gandhi, Susan B Anthony and Martin Luther King. So I knew at a young age that King was an important role model, was someone who lived a life of integrity, a life that today as when I was a child, reflects a vision of a more just and peaceful world. Our own Beacon Press has begun publishing a series of books from the Martin Luther King Archives -- some unpublished works, some which have been out of print for many years -- including his last book “Where do we Go From Here: Chaos or Community.” which has something to teach us about that vision, about our way into the future.

King wrote this book after more than a decade of action had brought into being important pieces of legislation, like the voter rights act, and the civil rights act, yet at this time the non-violent tactics of the civil rights movement were being questioned for those who felt that no progress could be made without violence. In the same year that the voter rights act was finally passed, just 3 months later 6 days of riots tore apart the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles- 34 people had been killed, thousands were injured or arrested. It seems the Watts riots of 1965 weight heavily on King’s mind as he wrote this book in 1967.

While acknowledging the tremendous strides for civil rights made in his lifetime, King felt strongly that there was more work to be done, and that all of us whether black or white, rich or poor were called to help create a more just world. In many ways the situation King describes is not very different from where we are today. The landmark legislation that broke down segregation and ended legalized discrimination has been passed, but creating a truly equal world for folks of all colors has yet to be achieved. Changing laws is not enough to change our culture, nor to change the hearts of all Americans.

Because, dear friends, though 40 years have passed injustice is not only a fact of King’s time, but of our own. King reminds us of many of the inequities our country faced in the late 1960s: the racial gaps in housing, education, jobs and poverty. He points out that in his time half of all Negros lived in substandard housing, had half the income of their white brethren, had twice the infant mortality. Those of us who gathered this past Tuesday to discuss King’s writing wondered how those statistics might be different today. It took a little digging, but I found some numbers that were really informative.

A 2009 Urban league report shows “that Blacks remain twice as likely to be unemployed, three times more likely to live in poverty and more than six times as likely to be imprisoned compared with whites.”
In education, for example, the progress has been substantial. In 1968, 70% of African Americans were high school drop-outs. Now, the figure is closer to 20% and there has been over a 300% improvement in the rate of African Americans who attend college But a significant gap persists. Barely half of African-American, Latino, and Native American students graduate from high school, with African American students graduating at 54%, Latinos at 56%, Native Americans at 51% and their white counterparts at 77%. WE have also seen progress in higher education. Fifty-five percent of African-American high school seniors go on to college these days, compared to 45 percent in 1970. But only 43 percent of African-Americans who enter college graduate – 20 percent lower than the rate for whites.

So though there have been significant strides, there is a long way to go. In the elementary schools only 12 percent of black fourth-grade boys are proficient in reading, compared with 38 percent of white boys, and only 12 percent of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared with 44 percent of white boys. Could this difference be explained by the economic circumstances of the students? It seems not, as poor white boys do just as well as African-American boys who do not live in poverty, (this was measured by whether they qualify for subsidized school lunches.)

A really heartbreaking gap is in infant health and mortality. Dr. Michael Lu, a UCLA Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Public Health reported that African-American children are twice as likely as white children to be born at a low birth-weight, twice as likely to be born premature and more likely to die in infancy. African-American women are three to four more times likely to die in childbirth as white women. Again, income was factored in, and race alone seemed to have a significant impact on health.

King noticed how in his time folks in predominately black and poor urban areas had to pay more and travel farther for basic goods. Just last year community organizers in East Palo Alto finally achieved a victory; they now have a grocery store into their community after a decades long struggle from 1974 to 2009, when no grocery store could be convinced to locate in their city. Imagine that for 25 years in a city of 29,000 everyone had to leave the city to buy fresh groceries. Yet a 2008 MSNBC report shows that many urban centers still are without stores where residents can buy fresh healthy foods, which is particularly significant in neighborhoods where residents lack a car or decent bus routes to commute to grocery stores in more affluent arias. What organizers call “food apatite” continues even today.

When I grew up hearing stories of the civil right movement, I thought of racism and oppression as a thing of the past, overcome by our great legislative strides of the 1970s. But now it is clear to me that just because our laws say that persons of all races have equal rights, this does not guarantee that persons of all races will have equal opportunity. According to an ACLU 2009 study, “Black and Latino students attend schools more segregated today than during the civil rights era. Schools are still separate and not equal more than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education.” Racism and racial injustice are alive and well today, and King challenges our complacency with his challenge that “with each modest advance the white population promptly raise the argument that the Negro has come far enough.” (p. 11)

We all know the violent and oppressive history of slavery in our country, but It bears repeating that most African Americans came here in chains, with out possessions, without rights, without even family ties. King reminds us that it was a practice for generations to tear families apart- to separate mothers and children, brothers and sisters. He reminds us that when slavery was finally abolished, at a time when the American Government granted white settlers millions of acres of land in the western U.S., “Four million newly liberated slaves found themselves with no bread to eat, no land to cultivate, no shelter to cover their heads. It was like freeing a man who had been unjustly imprisoned for years, and on discover his innocence sending him out with no bus fare to get home, no suit to cover his body, no financial compensation…to help him get a sound footing in society.” (p. 83-84) Or to quote Frederick Douglas “Emancipation granted the Negro freedom to hunger, freedom to winter amid the rains of heaven. Emancipation was freedom and famine at the same time.”

The systemic realities of broken families, separate and unequal education, discrimination and “blockbusting” in the housing market, and a history of profound poverty affected African-Americans in King’s time, and affect racial minorities in our time today. Legacies of poverty are handed down from generation to generation just as are legacies of education, property and privilege. It is easy to say “it’s been over 40 years since the civil rights legislation passed, why are we still talking about this?” But there has never been a sustained systematic program to overturn those basic inequalities, and the passage of time is not in and of itself a force that guarantees eventual justice. We know from Gandhi’s work in India that societal oppression and inequity can persist for centuries if unopposed. King responds “Based on the cruel judgment that Negroes have come far enough, there is a strong mood to bring the civil rights movement to a halt or to reduce it to a crawl. Negro demands that yesterday evoked admiration and support, today – to many – have become tiresome, unwarranted and a disturbance to the enjoyment of life.” (p. 12) To king the work of civil rights will not be ended until all those gaps- the education gap, the housing gap, the infant mortality gap are closed and the people of this country really do have equal opportunity.

I want to confess to you that I caught myself in this thinking sometime, to feel that because there has been this gap as long as I have been on this planet, it must somehow make sense, it is just “the way things are”. King cites Ruth Benedict’s definition of racism as: “the dogma that one ethnic group is condemned by nature to hereditary inferiority and another group is destined to hereditary superiority.” (p. 73) So how can I justify to myself the deep inequalities in our society unless at some level there is a seed of that racist notion that one ethnic group is destined to hereditary superiority?

Our Unitarian Universalist association has, through deep soul searching and attempts to understand the mistakes of its history, decided that we need to be held accountable. We believe that it is not for the European-American members of our churches to decide when racism has been eliminated from our communities, we ask our members of color to hold us accountable for creating an anti-oppressive institution. Because we know in the past 300 years we have allowed great injustices to go un-rectified, we have been content with a snail’s pace towards progress. We know that sometimes the pain of the oppressed is invisible to people of privilege.

We want to be held accountable, not only for our action but our inaction, for whatever injustice goes un-noticed or un-addressed. Our hearts are broken by this history and present reality of injustice, and we ask with King “Where do we go from here?” For King one of the most important answers to the question “where do we go from here” – is that we address poverty, the poverty which oppresses people of all races. White and black, Hispanic and Asian must join together to lift everyone out of poverty. He writes that “We are called to play Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through lige. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understand that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” (p. 198) King cites research that if we took just 2% of our GNP we could guarantee a job to every adult at a living wage, an amount similar to that spent on the war in Vietnam during his day. He notes, as so many have since, that we choose to prioritize the war overseas instead of our own war on poverty at home.

This was another important road forward for King, who called us to make a “peace offensive” waging peace around the world. He writes “If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war.” (p. 194) He wanted this not only because African-American men were dying in the war in Vietnam at twice the rate of white men, but also because he because he believed the only way we could be come a truly just and great nation, the only way for humanity to survive and reach its potential in this world we inescapably share with all nations and races, was to put an end to war. Writes King: “It is not enough to say ‘We must not wage war.’ It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.” (p. 195).

Given King’s courageous and principled commitment to non-violent action his call to end war should not surprise us. Further, he believed that non-violent action was the only possible path to create a peaceful world- it was an alternative to war. Where shall we go from here? If we chose war we choose a future of chaos, if we choose non-violence, there is a possibility of world community.

By 1967 African-American activists were beginning to question the practice of non-violence which seemed so slow. The saw that the non-violent method had lead to laws being changed, but that these laws were not being enforced, nor did racism cease. Non-violence felt to many like a perpetuation of the submissive attitude which had been required of African Americans for centuries. How much better, many thought, to express their anger and frustration more directly. Many activists were moved by Frantz Fannon’s book The Wretched of the Earth which counseled ”that violence is a psychologically healthy and tactically sound method for the oppressed… that violence is the only thing that will bring about liberation.”(p. 56) But King’s could not be turned around. His vision was for the future beyond the struggle for civil rights. He knew that black and white would have to live together in this country. He knew that there was an inescapable network of mutuality that bound us together saying: “In a real sense, all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” (p. 191)

This resonates with our own 7th principle- the interdependent web of life. King’s vision for the future is one we UUs must take seriously, because he bases it on principles that are so much at the core of who we are. He is a universalist in the literal sense because he believes, with us, that “Deeply rooted in our religious heritage is the conviction that every man is an heir to a legacy of dignity and worth. ... There is no graded scale of essential worth. …. The worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of his intellect, his racial origin or his social position. Human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ pass away as determinants in a relationship and ‘son’ and ‘brother’ are substituted.” (p. 102-3)

King issues a special charge to white liberals- those like the Unitarian Universalists, those of us who believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons. He wonders how we can look at these persistent inequities between the races in the United Sates, we who know the history of how power and oppression have moved in this country, and who have not yet committed to work to end these inequities, these injustices in our country and in the world.
“The white liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love but also justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all.” (p. 95) This is where Unitarian Universalists hear their call to racial justice today. We understand that we cannot let our passivity enable an un-just status quo. What King said in 1967, we have believed for a century or more, that “There is nothing to keep us from remolding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.” (p. 199)

We, as a denomination, have issued our statement of conscience -- we know the work of racial justice is not finished, nor the work of economic justice, nor the eradication of violence in our world. We know that racism is not a black issue, class-ism is not an issue for the poor, and homophobia is not a gay issue. No matter who we are, these are our issues, because they stand between us and a just, peaceful world. We honor Martin Luther King’s birthday because the history of the civil rights history is American history, it is your history and mine. We celebrate today because King’s vision of the future is our vision of the future – a vision of not chaos but community. One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

King, Martin Luther Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community Boston: Beacon Press, 2010. Report sees 'sobering statistics' on racial inequality March 25, 2009 “Race and Ethnic Policy Issues” updated 2008 “What Is The Achievement Gap?” Education Equality Project

“More African-Americans Attend College, But Graduation Lags” Post by News One in Nation on May 10, 2010 at 8:46 am

“Black boys score far behind white students: Poverty alone doesn't seem to explain gap; expert cites 'racial differences'” By Trip Gabriel The New York Times updated 11/9/2010 4:41:51 PM ET “Is Racism Behind High Infant Mortality Rates Among African-Americans?” By Megan Carpentier, RH Reality Check May 5, 2010 - 6:00am “East Palo Alto gets first grocery store” ABC Local News, Friday, November 13, 2009 “Urban areas struggle to get grocers, fresh food Inner city ‘food deserts’ are instead loaded with fast food and fatty snacks” Associated press 12/18/2008 “Racial Inequality Still Going Strong in U.S.” San Francisco Bay View, News Report, Peter Phillips, Posted: Apr 27, 2009

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Holy Moments (Janary 6, 2011)

It happened at the ground breaking for the Opportunity Center. It was to be the only housing shelter in the county, with a wing for single people and a wing for families. When I went to the first briefing on the project I had been really touched by the architect’s vision of the space- it was so artistic and focused on a blending of indoor and outdoor space to be welcoming to un-housed people who were skeptical of the indoors. But on the day of the groundbreaking I don’t remember the scene too clearly; we were outside near the site of the building project, and local businesses had provided a table-ful of finger food. I was there with a few members of my congregation, some of whom were on the board of the capitol campaign, and we were representing a congregation that had surprised itself by raising $100,000. Different dignitaries got up to the microphone to speak, and when Jim Burklo, the founding minister of Urban Ministries got up to speak, a wave of the power of that moment swept over me. Jim explained that for decades landlords had refused to rent space for a shelter, but after decades of being denied a place to shelter those who needed to come in out of the cold and rain, here we were. All these people who had gathered to celebrate were there because they had believed in this common vision. I was overwhelmed by the holiness of the moment; he puncturing of ordinary by a flood of hope, the real concrete knowledge that people could come together to change this very particular and local, but in no way small part of the world.

That was a holy moment for me. It surprised me because it was different than what usually comes to mind when I think of a holy moment. I think for a lot of Unitarian Universalists our most commonly shared holy moment is one stumbled upon in nature. We share this also with that great poet and activist Wendell Berry, whose gift is to capture it in his poetry:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I can almost see that place “where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.” And feel the peace that such a place would give.

So how can 2 such different moments- one in a crowded party and the other in the solitude of a wild place, how can they both be holy, what do they have in common?
The most common contemporary meaning of the word holy is “exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness” but we usually think of holy as “pertaining to” the divine. So we need to wrestle with that for a moment. We Unitarian Universalists are very diverse theologically. We are atheists and theists and pantheists and agnostics. But because we are Universalists, we believe that whatever is most important, whatever is most worth of devotion, whatever is good and right is so for all people. We believe that not only prophets of old can experience something holy, but such experiences are available to everyone. It is the first source of our living tradition we find on the inside of the hymnal; “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves is to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” For those of us who use the word “divine” to describe those forces that create and uphold life, we Unitarian Universalists conceive a divine that must be accessible to all people.

As diverse as we are, as diverse as the many people sharing this world with us, naturally we can expect to see some diversity in the holy moments experienced by each of us; we should expect how we experience the holy to be as various as we are. People have told me over the years about holy moments that happen between themselves and another person, one woman told me that she has experienced several such moments playing softball. For me, I often find that the presence of live music increases the possibility of something holy happening- something about the creating of art before our very ears. I know folks who will mention privately that it is the conjugal act where they experience their holy moments.

A holy moment is not something that comes only to Moses on the mountaintop, but to all who are looking carefully and all who are open to awe and wonder and gratitude in the experience of this life. In a novel by Tamora Pierce called “The Trickster’s Choice” the heroine has a special gift- a “trick of sight” and with this gift she can refocus her vision so that she can see magic wherever it is present around her. I liked this image immediately, because it reminds me of how each of us experiences the holy in our own lives. We refocus our sight from the ordinary to seeing the extraordinary present in the very same places and people and events. Now this is a character from fantasy fiction, where magic defies our laws of nature. But I think we of this world miss out on a lot of holy moments, miss out on the miraculous because of the way our sight is focused. We think that because we did not witness the parting of the red seas that there are no holy moments in our ordinary lives. I believe the holy functions within the laws of physics, and that this makes it no less special. So Today I invite you to practice the trick of sight that allows us to see the holy in our own lives.

I also want to acknowledge, that sometimes these moments happen alongside tragedy or despair. Sometimes being with someone who is dying is imbued with a sense of holiness that shines through the pain and fear of the moment. There can be in such moments a connection between people, or a feeling of connection to something larger than oneself that is present even in a moment of great pain and loss. And so I propose that it is the sense of connection, of one-ness that is at the common core of our holy moments. Merriam-Webster tells us that the root of “holy” comes from Middle English, from Old English hālig; akin to Old English hāl whole “healthy, unhurt, entire” To me this is the essence of the experience. For me the archetype of a holy moment is as Alice Walker describes it in her book “The Color Purple”

“One day when I was sitting quite and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I run all around the house.”

For Walker’s protagonist, there is no act, no parting of the red sea, not even the beauty of a wood drake that foretells the experience of something holy, just the spontaneous knowing of the one-ness of all living things.

The wholeness of such an experience is not necessarily that I myself feel whole- for me it is the realization that the whole is larger than myself. I can feel this in a moment of deep connection with another person, in a moment of wonder as the “wood drake rests on his beauty in the water” in which I feel myself part of the eco-system that surrounds me. I can feel this deep connection with my community when we make our hope manifest in real actions in the world. Whether it is music or a brilliant theorem that awakens this sense in us, the common thread is that our sense of what it is to be alive expands. It may be “good and righteous” as the definition of Holy suggests. Such a moment may be filled with power or beauty – filled with the Spirit of life as it were.

As for the character in the Color purple, such a moment of expanded awareness often comes as a surprise. I think it is in the nature of such experiences to come unbidden. I don’t know why- maybe it’s like what scientists are learning from quantum physics, that the gaze of the observer changes the path of the observed, or more colloquially, “The watched pot never boils.” But it is possible to cultivate such experiences, practicing that “trick of sight” that allows us to see the holy in the ordinary. Many religious traditions seek the powerful experience through preparing by fasting, or extended meditation, by right living, or by spiritual practices. They are cultivated by remembering, as Wendell Berry does, to search out the quiet of wild places. (The poem I read earlier was published by Berry in a collection of poems written over 20 years of his Sunday morning walks through the forests and fields near his Kentucky farm.) The most critical element, however, is openness. Because it is easy to stay on the surface of things and not sink down into their depths, to give only the minimum of attention needed to complete the task at hand. The great American spiritual teacher Ram Das tells the story of a friend of his who would approach each person he met as a Bodhisattva, and interact with each as if they were an enlightened being. As you might imagine it changed substantively the quality of their interactions. We “Increase the odds” of something holy happening through our willingness to say “this person before me, this wood drake, this moment is of deep significance. I open myself fully to it.”

We can have this openness not only when we are at our best, but even in our lowest moments. In a way our despair, our pain can crack us open so that we are ready to listen for that which is worthy of devotion. Then the “direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder” crashes over us or whispers quietly in a calm and stillness at our center. It lets us know that even though we are broken in body, heart or spirit, we are not alone. We are not without power, or beauty or hope. These moments are like a precious gift. We cannot count on them coming right when we want or expect them, only be grateful when they do come. We can also return to those moments to remind us of the shining depths at the heart of life. They can become touchstones, reminding us to remain open for the holy in each moment.