Reading from “Selma’s Challenge” in the UU World by Mark Morrison-Reed
People converged on Selma: clergy and laity, men and women, blacks and whites, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Protestants, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, and atheists. They came from across the United States and Canada. The events of March 1965 in that county seat in Alabama’s Black Belt represented a pivotal moment in American history. For over three weeks, the unfolding drama held the world’s attention. It was a cultural upheaval in which hope confronted intransigence. Protest was met with fury. Violence begot sacrifice and suffering. Blood was spilled, and the slayings of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American activist, and James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, two white UUs, triggered a transfiguration…
Unitarian Universalists did not know that Selma would become a pivotal moment in their own history. In the past, our religious forebears had stood on the brink of making a difference in racial justice, and had wavered. But not this time. Called, sent, drawn, or compelled, hundreds responded. When they left there were two UU martyrs in their hearts and there was conviction in their stride. They had been changed in ways their lives would reveal but which words could never quite capture…
Integration triumphed in Selma in a way that transcended the word’s customary—and spurious—meaning. Genuine integration happens when parts form a new whole; it is a melding rather than the subjugation of one by another. Some UUs achieved that melding during March 1965, when their values and practices meshed, when black and white stood together at the Selma Wall, sharing in struggle and song, discomfort and celebration—needing one another. For this group of UUs, Selma was memorable because there they experienced what it felt like to be whole, rather than experiencing the different aspects of the self as at odds with one another.
The barriers of race and class, head and heart, were breached. Selma was about being in authentic relationship to one’s values, promises, and hopes, and honoring them by committing one’s life even unto death. In giving their selves over to that time and its demands, to their conscience and sense of honor, to their faith and what it stood for, to the future and what they all hoped for, they found redemption. Together, in Selma, they found that their lives had purpose. And many, perhaps for the first time, felt whole. This was the “Spirit of Selma”; in the midst of turmoil, their values and their lives became congruent.
Sermon Still Something Sings
When I was still a brand new minister, I was incredibly excited to finally get to attend my first ministers’ retreat. Because Starr King Seminary was located in the district, rules were strict and you weren’t allowed to attend a retreat until you were actively serving a congregation or ministry in the district. This made sure that those coming to the retreats were far enough along in their process that it didn’t accidentally become a student retreat, focused around the trials and tribulations of being in seminary instead of the realities of actually doing ministry.
So those of us in the district waited somewhat anxiously to be in a position to actually attend our first retreat. It was a rite of passage and we felt the full weight of our changing role and the new expectations of us as ministers and colleagues within the district. I remember being quite nervous about going and unsure if I was really ready. When I received the materials about the retreat, I was happy and scared and then, surprisingly, disappointed. The topic of the retreat was not, as I’d hoped, some deep dive into theology. It wasn’t days of spiritual practice and worship. It wasn’t even, in my mind, a how-to about the practicalities of ministry. The topic was “Remembering the Past and Empowering the Future: Social Justice Ministry.”
“Social Justice?” I thought. “This is not going to be useful. It’s going to be a bunch of old hippie ministers sitting around, talking about the sixties and how they preached against the Vietnam War. They’re going to get all nostalgic about the “good ole days” and then spend hours complaining that no one takes to the streets any more.
I signed up and went to the retreat anyway, and found myself, after dinner the very first night, confiding my discomfort and my fears to a colleague. He had been in ministry for thirty or more years by then and he was a good listener. I kept talking.
I found myself telling him that my first political memories were of Watergate, of accusations of corruption and secrecy and lies, of the President of the United States saying “I am not a crook” in a way that convinced most people that he, and every other politician, was exactly that: a crook, secretive, untrustworthy, shady.
I told him how I grew up watching the Reagan juggernaut and then the first George Bush, and unlike the sixties generation, who believed they could change things, my generation just felt like we had been run over by the political machine. Our formative image of protest was not the Civil Right movement or Haight Ashbury, it was Tiananmen Square. We were cynical, realistic, aware of how little had actually changed, even after thousands poured into the streets to try and change them.
My colleague was very patient and kind and listened well to my story and to the sadness and anxiety, the helplessness and frustration that I was describing. Finally, when I’d run out of words and we had fallen into a long silence, he spoke. “Do you really think that we thought we would win?” He asked. “We didn’t march because we thought we would win. We marched because it was the right thing to do. Most of the time we thought nothing would ever change, but we had to protest. We had to show up. We had to say no to war and yes to freedom and equality, even if nothing changed. We didn’t march because we thought we would win. We marched because it was the right thing to do.”
That conversation was a turning point for me. I realized that until that moment, I really had measured the need for social justice work through the lens of efficacy—-whether it would work—-instead of through the lens of necessity—-the need to be true to my values, my morals, my vision of justice and my own responsibility to speak up, even if my words or actions had no effect. That conversation shook my world. Social justice—-marches and rallies, standing on the street corner with a sign—-these weren’t strategies to succeed, they were ways to communicate—-ways to stand up and live out my values. It didn’t matter if it would work, it mattered that I do what is right.
I hope you have been tuned in this week to the March in Selma, Alabama, marking 50 years since “Bloody Sunday” and that moment in history where, despite violence, blood, and death, the people would not be turned back. I hope you listened to the worlds of President Obama yesterday, as he reminded us that:
This is work for all Americans, and not just some. Not just whites. Not just blacks. If we want to honor the courage of those who marched that day, then all of us are called to possess their moral imagination. All of us will need to feel, as they did, the fierce urgency of now. All of us need to recognize, as they did, that change depends on our actions, our attitudes, the things we teach our children. And if we make such effort, no matter how hard it may seem, laws can be passed, and consciences can be stirred, and consensus can be built.
What I was lacking in that conversation with my colleague was moral imagination. I was so wrapped up in my sense of helplessness and ineffectiveness, that I’d forgotten the power of vision. I’d forgotten that the first step isn’t finding an effective strategy, it is creating a common longing for a better way, a common vision of what we hope will be. Dr. King didn’t say, “I have an effective and guaranteed strategy for change.” He said, “I have a dream!”
Last night, Rev. David Miller, one of my colleagues who traveled to Selma for the anniversary celebration posted this on Facebook:
Tomorrow I will cross a bridge. It is, of course, rich with metaphorical depth. I, with many others, will be honoring the countless participants who marched, sang, suffered, bled and died. Many will also be traveling to a new place in understanding, experience, and commitment. There has been a balance here between honoring the past and calling us into action.
I have heard the words that tell us that the work is never really done.
I know those who thought it was.
I know those who are tired of the struggle.
I know those who deserve our gratitude as they step back.
The work really isn’t done and now for many of us, it is time to reflect on what we can, and are willing to do, to pick up where others are weary.
So many times this week I have heard the talk of “we.” I have heard it said from the mouth of every speaker including today from the President of the United States. This is not a new concept, but it is a concept that we have struggled through as we have followed our individual passions, responded/reacted to conservatism and extremism, followed our own spiritual path. I have heard in the words of those who walked 50 years ago that they always knew it was a long road so they had a contract with each other to serve the long term goals, to keep their eyes on the prize, so to speak.
The work has evolved and we must evolve with it. It requires new analysis, it requires revised strategies, it requires different tools, but at its core, it is another step in that long arc. I will honestly say, I am not sure how all this will look for me or maybe any of us here this week, but I will tell you the thing that has resonated perhaps the most, Rev. Barber said that when he goes, when he is done, he wants to make sure that he is “all poured out.” I hear that, I feel that and I know that it will take a lot of work to understand how to be that risky, centered and committed. As often said, I will cross that bridge when I come to it and I think this week I just did.
The Anniversary of the Selma March is powerful because it reconnects us with the vision of justice that carried so many people through the terrible days when little girls were beaten and jailed or lost their lives to racist terrorists who bombed churches and spit on children as they went to school. This commemoration is powerful because it reminds us that Voting Rights are not just a political issue for some to play games with, but a fundamental part of the moral foundation of democracy. This time of remembrance is powerful because we witness the passion of people who answered Dr. King’s call, even though they knew that do so was to risk their lives, not for a strategy but for the world they wanted to see come to pass, a world where the United States of America was no longer marred by the ugliness of racism.
Of course their success was not guaranteed and is not complete. Every day, as we wake up to the news of another unarmed black man shot by police, another transgender woman of color murdered for living at the intersection of race and gender, another story of misunderstanding and even hatred, we know that there is still work to be done—work for us to do.
In this month in which we are focused on resilience, we are lucky to be reminded of the “foot soldiers” who for fifty years have not stopped working, not stopped marching, not stopped envisioning the world they are determined to bring into being.
We are also lucky that today is International Women’s Day, a day when we are reminded of the amazing achievements of women, but are also reminded how far we have to go to make equality and equity real for all women around the world. This year’s theme, “Make it Happen!” is yet another call to show up, to join the struggle, to share with the whole world our vision of what is right: a world where all people are free, all people are valued, all people are safe from violence and exploitation; a world where being born female is not a disadvantage or a danger.
We are lucky to live in a world where our elders remind us that they did not march into the streets sure of the outcome. When asked what he was thinking while being attacked on the Edmund Pettus bridge, Representative John Lewis said, “I was thinking that I was going to die.” And yet, he marched on. He marched the next day and a week after that. And yesterday, he marched across that bridge again, side-by-side with President and Michelle Obama and their daughters. We are lucky to bear witness to this amazing, unfinished moment, reminding us that we have come so far, but there is still a long way to go.
We are lucky to connect and reconnect again with the power of vision and of resilience. We are lucky that Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was, in his early life, a Unitarian minister gave us words to remind us:
It is not only in the rose,
It is not only in the bird,
Not only where the rainbow glows,
Nor in the song of woman heard,
But in the darkest, meanest things,
There always, always something sings.
‘Tis not in the high stars alone,
Nor in the cup of budding flowers,
Nor in the redbreast’s mellow tone,
Nor in the bow that smiles in showers,
But in the mud and scum of things,
There always, always something sings.
I’ve always loved that final line: “But in the mud and scum of things, there always, always something sings.” I like it because it is so graphic. Emerson didn’t say, “But in the untidy dust…” or “But in the dirt and disarray…” He said, “in the mud and scum of things.” It doesn’t get much messier than mud and scum. There’s no room for our minds to minimize or sanitize what he meant. Mud and scum stick to and stain things. Yet, “even in the mud and scum of things, always, always something sings.”
We are lucky to have had our moral imaginations stirred, our vision renewed, so that we to can be resilient in the struggle. UU Stephen Shick said, “Being a long-distance runner in the quest for peace and justice is an art.” Let us be artists, then. Let us paint a picture of the world as it must be—-a world of justice, of compassion—-a world where we honor and sustain each other and the earth itself—-a world so beautiful that we cannot abide to sit back, but find ourselves compelled to act to bring that vision into being. In the words of Paul Robeson:
Today we March, to remember and to honor
those whose names we know
and the many whose names we will never know.
Sorrow will one day turn to joy.
All that breaks the heart and oppresses the soul
will one day give place to peace and understanding
and everyone will be free.
May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so.
Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.