“Thinking Our Thoughts, Hearing Others’ Stories”

“Thinking Other Thoughts, Hearing Others’ Stories”
A sermon by Joe Cleveland, Ministerial Intern
delivered on Sunday, January 15, 2012
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts

I try not to think too much using my own brain. I am not disparaging my brain. I think I have a quite satisfactory cognitive organ and I hope it remains functioning and securely lodged in my skull for some time to come. It’s just that, being confined to my skull, while providing my brain with protection, limits what my particular brain has come into contact with. Having lived with my brain for some time, I am starting to know how it works and what it is likely to do. (I could say the same about my heart.) And while I often amuse myself by thinking my thoughts, sometimes I want to think other thoughts.

This may be why I am so interested in literature. I love to read and the main reason is because reading allows me to experience things, to feel things, and to think things, that I otherwise would not. I can get so caught up in a good story my wife, Kristin, has to call my name two or three times before I’m called back into the room. “Hello! Earth to Joe!” It is so easy to get caught up in a good story. But what does it mean to really hear someone else’s story? How do I know when I’m doing that?

This question was on my mind and in my heart a couple summers ago when I went on a trip sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. (Keep filling up those guest at your table boxes!) The trip was called “Freedom Summer: A Civil Rights Journey,” and we went to Atlanta, GA, and then Selma and Montgomery, AL. It was a powerful experience and really challenged me to think other thoughts and hear others’ stories.

I think it is hard to hear others’ stories. We can get so easily caught up in our own. One of the stories that we can get caught up in is a story about how we are living in a post-racial society now. An article in the current issue of The Nation magazine points out that

The problem with the illusion of a postracial society is that at almost any moment the systemic nature of racism, its legacy, methods and impulses, might have to be rediscovered and restated as though for the first time. If the problem has gone away, those who point it out or claim to experience it are, by definition, living in the past. Those who witness it in action must be imagining things. Those who practice it are either misunderstood or maligned.

This mind-set, this story that people who think there’s racism going on are nuts, seems to be well ingrained in an Ohio landlord who last month put up a “White Only” sign by the pool of a duplex she manages. Her action was found to be discriminatory by a state civil rights commission. But she wants them to reconsider their decision. She saw a black girl using the pool and put up the sign not to discriminate against the girl but “because the girl used in her hair chemicals that would make the pool ‘cloudy.’”

This story also must explain how a math worksheet that used examples of slavery in word problems was distributed for homework in Georgia. The teachers were trying to “incorporate history into their third-grade math lessons,” and that effort sounds good, but the word problems didn’t really give any background or context. All of a sudden you just get “Each tree has 56 oranges. If 8 slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” and it sounds like the fact that there are slaves here is nothing to take much note of.

Racism is pernicious. The summer I was on the trip — in fact, while I was on the trip, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his home in Cambridge. Gates’s lawyer, Charles Ogletree, spoke here last year, so some of you here know this story better than I do. Gates neglected to act courteously when a police officer walked into his house. A few days later, it was decided that this was no reason to arrest a man.

There was one man on the “Just Journeys” trip who had grown up in Birmingham, AL. But he left it to join the Air Force as a pilot and later became a military lawyer. We were talking over lunch one day about the different way blacks and whites see the world. We were talking about the police. When I was little, I remember going to the state fair or something, and my mother told me that if I ever got lost, that I should seek out a policeman because he would help me. Jim laughed at that, incredulous, and said that his mother told him that if he ever saw the police, he should run and get out of there! In his world, at least when he was growing up, the idea that ‘the police are there to help you’ is ridiculous. We start out with a hugely different way of understanding what “police” means. This sort of thing was definitely in play in Gatesgate. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s reaction to a white police officer confronting him in his own home makes a lot of sense if we see this as informing his reaction.

While I was on the trip, I took a lot of pride in the role that Unitarian Universalists played in the stories I heard, especially in Selma. The names that got lifted up there were Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Many of you surely know their stories, but they were pretty new to me at the time. Rev. Reeb was a Unitarian Universalist minister who went to Selma, AL, in March 1965 — as did our minister emeritus, Jack Mendelsohn — to march for voting rights after a previous march had ended in beatings at the hands of Alabama state troopers, an event now known as “Bloody Sunday.” Reeb had been working for housing rights for blacks in Roxbury. In Selma, he and two others came out of a restaurant and made a wrong turn. A group of white men started to follow the three men. One had a club and struck Reeb in the head, and the blow eventually killed him. Viola Liuzzo was a Unitarian Universalist from Michigan, who helped shuttle marchers between Selma and Montgomery, AL. A car of Klansmen caught up to her car and shot her as she was driving. Reeb and Liuzzo are two of the martyrs that Jack writes about in his book, The Martyrs.

I am very proud of them and humbled to call myself a Unitarian Universalist because people like Rev. James Reeb and Ms. Viola Liuzzo and Rev. Jack Mendelsohn are part of the Unitarian Universalist story.

The congregation that converted me to Unitarian Universalism, the May Memorial Unitarian Universalist Society in Syracuse, NY, named itself after one of its former ministers, Rev. Samuel Joseph May. We love to tell stories about him. May was an active abolitionist, a founding member of the American Antislavery Society, and his home was a station on the underground railroad for the illegal shelter of escaped slaves. In October of 1851 in Syracuse, May was one of the leaders of a large group of men who went down and stormed the city jail and freed a former slave who had been arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act.

A story like that is easy to tell. One of the ministers of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta likes to tell a story of her congregation. The congregation was active during the civil rights movement and still is very active. In a frame hanging on the wall, the congregation has a letter on Southern Christian Leadership Council stationary from Martin Luther King, Jr., thanking the congregation for their work. Right next to it is a letter from Coretta Scott King from about ten years later, also thanking the congregation for work they’d done. But that’s not the story the minister wants to tell. She told me that the story she wants her congregation to remember is a story from the 1940s. A person new to the area, recently hired as a professor at a local university, wanted to join the congregation. The congregation voted against accepting him because he was black. The result of the vote was that the congregation fell apart. This is why the present congregation’s symbol is a flaming chalice with a phoenix rising from the flames with an olive branch in its beak. A new congregation rose from the ashes of the old, a congregation with a renewed sense of purpose and mission.

There are so many stories of the civil rights movement. And I had heard stories about it. I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr., was. But it was something else to hear the stories where they took place. I became convinced that I hadn’t really heard those stories. I had known that a church in Birmingham was bombed and that four girls died in the explosion. But it was a different when the daughter of the minister of that church, Barbara Cross, told us about her four friends Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

One of the things that happened on the trip is that we were hosted for dinner by several UU congregations and we had time at each of those congregations to hear some of their stories. One of those congregants was Nelson Malden, who had been a barber in Montgomery, AL. He was the newest barber at the shop where he worked, so the new customers ended up in his chair while the regulars went to the other barbers. One day he was cutting a man’s hair. The man wanted a haircut because he wanted to look good for the sermon he was going to give the next day at the Dexter Avenue Baptist church because the congregation was potentially going to make him their minister. He was in fact made minister of that church and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., became one of Nelson’s regular customers.

But many of the stories I heard weren’t about names that I knew. The story of civil rights is really so many stories. And it got me thinking about the stories that there might be in my own congregation in Syracuse. So I asked and I heard a story from a retired professor about his department hiring its first black faculty member. One woman told me about how her interracial marriage caused her to face some hostility and how she found some refuge in the congregation. I heard a story about a woman who was a school teacher and got involved in efforts to improve the housing situation of her students’ families.

And now here in Bedford, a few people have shared some stories with me. A story about working in Mississippi with share croppers who were rendered homeless because they dared register to vote. There is a story about a near riot at a high school that resulted instead in students marching down to the superintendent’s office with a list of demands that led to some policies getting changed. And, given my interests, when one person told me of learning a bit about the banjo at the Highlander Folk School my ears perked up!

Not all of these stories are easy to tell or hear. But there is something about sharing them that is transformative. The stories aren’t just going to be told. You have to ask for them. And to hear another’s story, we have to be open to thinking other thoughts. And if we’re open to that, then I think other thoughts start becoming our thoughts and we start to become a community that is committed to stewardship of those stories. Committed to honoring those stories. And that means we become a community that is committed to change. Mark Morrison-Reed, a UU minister who has preached from this pulpit, writes words that recall those of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

We are deeply and inextricably connected to one another and all that ever was or shall be. We want one another. We yearn to feel connected—and whole. Each of us is a unique manifestation of the eternally unfolding creation, each a member of one human family, each entwined in the arms of the Divine Mystery that is both parent and partner, all of us sharing a common destiny. As we love, are loved, and act out of that love, we are proclaiming twenty-first-century Unitarian Universalism with our lives.

Let that be our living story. Amen.