“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

Written by Lisa Perry-Wood

“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

A Sermon by Lisa Perry-Wood
Delivered on Sunday, January 14, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford, MA



A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

“I choose to give my life for those who have been left out…
This is the way I’m going.  If it means suffering a little bit,
I’m going that way… If it means dying for them, I’m going that way.”

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
from “The Good Samaritan,” 1966





It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that this weekend that we’re celebrating the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Baptist minister, activist, a key leader of the U.S. civil rights movement. And, for this occasion, my first Sunday preaching in Bedford, I was enjoying my research of the history of the black national anthem, planning to talk about the origins of slavery and Jim Crow laws and the criminal (in)justice system – all  important topics and all relevant to Dr. King’s legacy. But then, a little over a week ago, the woman we’re calling “Maria” was brought overnight to the sanctuary space we set up in this church.


You know that old Yiddish saying: “Man plans and god laughs”? Well, I’ve been saying: “Woman plans and god laughs harder!” That was the week that I had – we’ve all had weeks like that. And, okay, my plans disrupted with sanctuary-related meetings and consultations, and, oh yes, figuring out how to keep this ship on a steady course, while John is in Transylvania for ten days. But I also had the great joy of spending time with our lovely guest, Maria, and that has been an unexpected pleasure I wouldn’t trade for any amount of planning! And actually, these things are not unrelated – Dr. King’s birthday, the black national anthem, and the sanctuary movement – in fact, they are quite deeply intertwined.


The words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem, were written by James Weldon Johnson, a school principal in Jacksonville, FL, to be performed by 500 elementary school children in celebration of President Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12, 1900.


The poem was then set to music by Johnson’s brother. According to Johnson, those schoolchildren kept on singing it, they and their teachers brought it to other schools, and before long it became one of the most beloved songs of the Civil Rights Movement, one of Dr. King’s favorites. I was originally moved to talk about the hymn by something one of my ministerial colleagues, the brilliant Aisha Ansano, wrote. Aisha talks about how this very powerful song is sung this time of year, in schools, churches and at various MLK day celebrations, but often without any context and without intentionality. Aisha asks: “When you sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” do you play close attention to the words?


It’s easy…to open the hymnal and sing along without necessarily processing what we’re saying; what the words we’re saying really mean… [Just consider the words of the second verse:

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,] “This song, Aisha says, deserves to be sung with attention. It…starkly names the horrors and violence of racism in this country, and it…should make us uncomfortable: uncomfortable with the history it calls upon, uncomfortable with the fact that the struggle for racial justice continues, and has not come quite so far as it should have by now. How can anyone sing the words ‘treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered’ without a deep, deep discomfort? Not only with the pain and horror of a now distant history…but also with what is still happening now.”


So, some might ask, what is still happening now? Well, there’s the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws, which means continuing economic, employment, housing, incarceration, voting and a host of other injustices that people of color, especially African Americans, endure. And then, there’s the ever-tightening noose of unjust and racist immigration laws that steadily closes around those with the least ability to fight for their own rights in our country, those without U.S. citizenship or visa, who we refer to as “undocumented”. Our Central American neighbors, in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador; people who came here to escape crushing poverty, inhuman living conditions, civil war and political oppression, forcing them to flee for safety and their lives. People seeking asylum, protection, in the land where the lady with the uplifted torch displays the words of Emma Lazurus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
Over the past 30 years, the noose of immigration law has increasingly tightened, with brief respite here and there, like the Obama administration’s efforts with DACA and those we call the “Dreamers.” Now even that program, widely seen as just on both sides of the political aisle, is at risk. And those who were not born here or carried here as children are even more in danger than ever before. Out of this very real fear of deportation, and from the deep caring of congregations of many faiths all over the country, the most recent sanctuary movement was reborn.


Sanctuary is one of the oldest traditions of people of faith; the ancient Hebrews allowed temples, even whole cities, to declare themselves places of refuge for those accused of crimes they hadn’t committed, until the matter could be resolved. Christian churches of the late Roman Empire often offered refuge to fugitives and, in medieval times, churches in England were recognized as sanctuaries for accused wrongdoers. In this country, the Underground Railroad helped escaping slaves flee the South and find safety in a network of congregations. Sanctuary has always been about providing safe spaces to victims of unjust laws.


The modern sanctuary movement began in this country in the 1980s, as refugees fled death squads in Central America, only to find that the U.S., often complicit in those activities, turned them around and deported them. These are some of the same countries, by the way, that our current commander in chief recently called…well, I’m not going to say that word from the pulpit, but if you haven’t heard it, I’ll whisper it to you after the service!


At that time, over 500 congregations participated in moving refugees through a network of safe houses and congregations. Many clergy were indicted and eventually acquitted for their involvement, as the sanctuary movement reminded the U.S. government of its own asylum and refugee laws, which they were not following. In the past eighteen months, and especially after last January’s Executive Order on Immigration, there has been increasing fear in immigrant communities, widespread protest, and a deep sense of uncertainty.


As of December, over 800 congregations across the country have elected to join this movement, taking a stand against policies they perceive as both unjust and inhumane. In this time of partisanship and deep divisions, a hearteningly wide swath of beliefs and traditions are represented: Catholics, Quakers, Unitarian Universalists, Mormons, Jews, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists and others have all joined in this faith-based response. As stated in the training manual for sanctuary volunteers: “As faith allies, we are called to be in solidarity…to stop these raids, stop these deportations and support impacted communities. In the face of the…extremist anti-immigrant agenda we must respond with a prophetic and bold voice.”


And that is how, two weeks ago, when the Bedford sanctuary team, trained and at the ready, learned about the need for a sanctuary space, they put faith into action and moved forward boldly and rapidly. So, here we are, just over one week in, deep into all of the logistical and organizing details, mini-crises and unexpected events; big and messy, overwhelming and confusing at times, full of missteps and a huge learning curve, and yet, we wouldn’t have it any other way! Because, as crazy as this project might seem, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes says, “We were made for these times.” And in the midst of it all is opportunity, to go deeper, to live out our principles even more fully. We might echo a popular phrase, asking, “What would Martin do?” Well, I believe this is exactly what Dr. King would expect of us, and this is what we should expect of ourselves.


As I was working on my sermon this week, I learned that, in the Catholic world, this is National Migration Week. Like many USers, I’m an admirer of Pope Francis, so much so that when, at my oral exam with the UUA Ministerial credentialing committee last fall, I was asked to speak on the views of at least one liberation theologian, what popped out of my mouth was “Our pope! I mean, the pope!”


Pope Francis’ liberation theology, the preferential option for the poor, has fueled a consistent message of deliverance and hope for immigrants worldwide. In his 2016 Migration Week statement, he spoke of a “creating a culture of encounter,” reaching out to the people of today, who are far too “accustomed to a culture of indifference” and, says the pope, who need to “work and ask for the grace to build a culture of encounter, a fruitful encounter, an encounter that returns to each person their dignity as children of God, the dignity of living.” Pope Francis talks about not just looking but really seeing, slowing down and making time to visit and share moments of our lives, especially with those who are marginalized, for any reason. Encounters like these will be one of the many gifts of the sanctuary experience.


Here, in this moment, we have an opportunity to spend time with someone whose cultural experience is different from ours, but who also has hopes and gifts, dreams and aspirations, as well as great courage. And, in this case, who happens to be a woman of tremendous heart and spirit, so the encounter is already guaranteed to be very sweet!


In my meetings with Maria this week I found it very easy to connect, as she and I agreed, heart to heart, corazon a corazon – as mothers and sisters, singers and faith leaders, and lovers of cooking and Spanish food. I’ve always been a people person, it’s easy for me, I think it’s generational, my mom was like that too. I’m the kind of person who makes friends standing in the line at TJ Maxx, with my kids later complaining “Mom, always talks to everyone!” We talked about Maria’s sons and how much they all miss each other. She has been especially worried about her two youngest boys, still in high school. I began to form the idea of going to meet the boys in their home, a pastoral visit, just to see how they were doing and what we could offer them. Arriving yesterday, I was immediately impressed by the two shy and well-mannered young men, who bravely opened their door to me.  They had no indication that I would offer to bring them to Bedford to visit their mom, which I had arranged only minutes before I left, but they eagerly accepted my offer and immediately elected to surprise her.  Of course, we talked all the way back to Bedford, and I fell in love with them too! Encounters like these will change us and move us to take unexpected actions. They may also affect us for days and weeks afterward, maybe even changing our lives forever. That’s why they’re worth doing.


At this point, I’d like to ask anyone here who has volunteered in any way in support of our sanctuary so far, to rise, as you are able, and be appreciated. Thank you for your generosity, your devotion and your hard work. More will be asked of you, more help is still needed, but in this moment, thank you, on behalf of Maria and her family and this whole community for what you have given. And now, I offer this blessing for our work together:
Spirit of life, holy of holies, god of many names and no name, be with us as we move in the direction that our faith is leading us, into the unknown, guided by our commitment to love and service. We ask for blessing on the work of all the hands and hearts who support our sanctuary, whether from within our congregation or from the many other congregations supporting our work. May all who walk the path of sanctuary, whether as guest or host, as friend, family or community member feel blessed in their efforts and may the love and dedication of their actions be returned to them, in a thousand beautiful encounters, this day and every day.

Amen and blessed be.


And now, we’ll be singing hymn #149, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Aisha, who I mentioned earlier, asks us to sing this song with intentionality, to join her, as a woman of Afro-Caribbean heritage, in the deep discomfort that she and her brothers and sisters feel in singing those words. In other words, to have an encounter with the deep meaning of these verses. Will you lift your voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty?