Unitarian Universalists’ promise and prospects for building beloved community in the days and months ahead. Notes on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Please note, the 11:00 a.m. service is a multigenerational service also focusing on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Have We a Dream, Too?”
Today we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Many Americans—especially those born after Dr. King’s assassination 51 years ago, see him only in the oversimplified terms of race. This is unfortunate. Becoming an icon tends to remove a person’s scars and imperfections when, in fact, it’s the scars and imperfections out of which human authenticity and memorable public lives emerge.
Moreover, reducing the Martin Luther King story to one of race alone ignores the deeper issues he struggled with and spoke to: what it means to be civilized; how one confronts evil without creating more evil, division, and enmity; the industrial-military complex; class; and the proper role of religion in politics. In an era of political violence, attack ads and spin control, we are wise to remember what King told the Freedom Riders in 1960: “Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”
Martin King’s public life and public ministry began in September 1954 when he was called to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. In short order, Rosa Parks was jailed for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person. The 25-year old King was elected chair of a group calling for a boycott of public transit, a boycott that ended up lasting 382 days. The situation became so tense that Reverend King’s house was bombed. King was vilified and arrested, and yet throughout he practiced and extolled non-violence. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation on all public transport. In 1964, as a result of these efforts, he became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
By that time, however, Martin Luther King was focusing on economic justice issues. Then, in 1967, he began speaking out against the Viet Nam war—and within a year he was dead. At the time of his murder, Martin Luther King was perhaps the most dangerous man in America: the one public figure, much revered, who could potentially unify in his person and through the power of his moral authority the civil rights, labor, and antiwar movements. It was not to be. He did not leave us unified. What he did leave us with, however, was a dream. He never entered the Promised Land, but he saw it and he wrote elegantly about what it looked like; and the name of that land he called “beloved community.”
I’ve entitled today’s sermon “Have We a Dream, Too?” I have a dream. And as the person asked by you to lead your congregation for a short time, I want to share that dream with you this morning; a dream strongly influenced by Martin Luther King, and by our Unitarian Universalist tradition.
I’ve been impressed, since returning to the West Coast nine and a half years ago, at the many UUs I have met who speak of their congregation as a Beloved Community. One California UU I was talking to—a humanist and an agnostic, told me that Beloved Community was her concept of the “sacred” or “holy.” She recognized that she was talking about an ideal: something congregations strive to attain: a transcendent symbol that has evocative power to rally our spirits and energies to the cause of justice, celebration, healing, education, uplift, and support. Beloved Community includes humanists and theists, as well as others of different theological persuasions—sort of our highest common denominator, and hence an apt symbol for UUs and for people everywhere; one that can inspire hope, and the courage to reach out and to change.
It is curious that in his writings Dr. King, coming from the Baptist tradition, did not use the traditional Kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven instead of Beloved Community. But King was more of a humanist than many realize. Of the men who most influenced his thinking, one was Mahatma Gandhi—a devout Hindu; “Christ furnished the spirit…,” wrote King, “while Gandhi furnished the method.” Another seminal influence was the humanist Erich Fromm, whose book The Art of Loving was the source of today’s Reading. Fromm provided the intellectual framework for King’s spiritual recognition of love as a divine force uniting all life.
Healthy congregational life is about more than meeting our personal spiritual and emotional needs. Though that will undoubtedly follow, it cannot be the church’s raison d’etre. It’s not that achieving personal goals is not also worthwhile, it’s just that it will never galvanize the kind of passion and commitment that transforms lives, and through those lives, communities, and even nations. And that’s my dream: transformation. “The primary purpose of the church,” writes Unitarian Universalist consultant Michael Duvall, “is to create a community of compassion…calling members to lead lives of dedication and commitment—lives not just of success, but also of service and, when called upon, sacrifice.”
Beloved Community is not pseudo-community, where we make nice, try to please everybody, and avoid anything “touchy.” Being all things to all people is a favorite Unitarian Universalist trap—one that doesn’t work. A better strategy: figure out what you do well and strive to do it even better.
Okay; what does East Shore Unitarian Church do well? Several things, it seems to me:
- good worship services;
- good religious education. Historically, you have been and continue to be
- a socially active church, and you are learning how to be
- a generous congregation, and financially responsible: Four wonderful traditions.
Worship and music go together. They are the heart of what we do as a community: celebrate life, and all that gives life meaning. Joys & Sorrows, outreach projects, growing children, inspiring ideas and values—all these we celebrate without dogma and with the relaxed ambiance that drew so many of us to Unitarian Universalism to begin with. It’s good, but in my dream, it gets even better: more celebrative, more generous, with more young people. But most of all, more outreach.
After all, this is Martin Luther King weekend and Beloved Community as King understood and practiced it puts a high priority on working for justice: a particular way this congregation has a strong record. When it comes to direct services, education, and advocacy, you have done a lot—particularly in support for the homeless and the un- and under-employed. Allow me to list some of the many ways many of you are deeply and skillfully involved.
- Direct services: serious volunteer and financial
- Congregations for the Homeless, providing emergency dinner, shelter, clothing and showers;
- Providing well below market rate rent to scores of women in transition (Sophia’s Way) in Holly House;
- Crossroads Meals and the Food Bank;
- The Holiday Giving Tree and Good Start Back to School;
- ANSWER Nepal and Women Helping Women
- Plus, Special “2nd Sunday” Collections to provide funds for many good causes.
- Education: In collaboration with Adult RE,
annual book reading & discussions:
- “Race and Identity” a class led by my colleague, Aisha Hauser
- “Hindsight, Humor, and Hope” a class on issues in aging led by Milly Mullarky and me beginning next month;
- The Fourth Wednesday Book Club highlighting awareness-raising books;
- Salsa, Soul, and Spirit—a book discussion group about multiculturalism.
- Advocacy: petitions for important causes,
- supporting efforts over the last decade to marry whomever one loves,
- letter-writing campaigns,
- visiting legislators’ offices
- Black Lives Matter Flash Stances 3-4 times a month for over two years;
- attending rallies, and marches e.g., against gun violence, in support of Freedom to Marry and in support of many progressive political causes.
- Systemic Change: These kinds of projects tend to be the most radical and—in recent years—East Shore Church has not taken any such causes up, although my predecessor Rev. Elaine and Amanda Ulahan participated in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota last year. This kind of social action can and often does involve civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance—like that so prominent in the bus Montgomery bus boycott and the March to Selma.
All of these projects are good. They are all important. But you can do more. Direct services, education, and advocacy could be augmented with collective work for truly systemic change—like your radical embrace of becoming a sanctuary church for Guatemalan and Salvadoran families back in the ‘80s. Perhaps joining together to sponsor or help sponsor another Central American or a Syrian refugee family could link with your earlier efforts to support refugees—with the idea of finding a good way to help that virtually every ESUC member can get behind.
Some perceive a tension between social action and inner reflection—as though we had to choose either one or the other. But it’s not an either/or situation; it’s both/and. Worship and social action go together. Dana McLean Greeley was the first president of the newly merged Unitarians and Universalists when, in early March 1963, he received a telegram from Martin Luther King asking him to come to Selma, Alabama. Dr. Greeley then proceeded to call many other ministers across the UUA, enjoining them to join him and Dr. King at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Close to a quarter of our number did, including Ernie Pipes from Santa Monica. Dana McLean Greeley gets high marks as an activist, but he was more than an activist only; he believed that worship and social action informed each other. Fueled each other. Made each other stronger. “I want a church,” he wrote, “that knows what worship means, on the one hand, and what social action means, on the other hand, and that is tied together by bonds of love in such a fashion that the worship is truly communal and that the social action can be contained and non-divisive.”
Beloved Community is non-divisive and properly contained. It welcomes us in all our humanness, and brokenness and struggle; helps us acknowledge our humanness and brokenness and helps us re-collect our wholeness as part of something bigger: love, soul-force (Gandhi’s Satyagraha), God, the community of life—however you conceive it. It does not matter what you call it, it’s at the heart of Beloved Community because it’s at the heart of life: the force that through the green stem drives the flower (to use Dylan Thomas’ poetic phrase). Worship helps us get in touch with that force. Social Action helps us serve it. The two go hand and hand.
The times are difficult; we have growing inequality; we have climate change; political impasse and vitriol; terrorism; bellicose posturing from people in high office; war profiteering—not to mention gangs and dope and pop culture vulgarity. But we have hope, too. And we have imagination. And the models of good, creative, loving people—like Martin Luther King, like our Earth and Social Justice volunteers—to remind us how much we can do when we put differences aside and join our hearts and heads in a shared and noble task.
Perhaps we cannot all be Martin Luther Kings, but we can all get in touch with the energy that inspired him: love. We can all be dreamers—as Dr. King encouraged and as many of the heroic justice advocates among us here at ESUC are likewise encouraging us to be—we can all be dreamers for love and justice. We can all endeavor to do even better the things we’re doing well; and to keep working at nurturing Beloved Community among us, and beyond, across our town, our region, our country, our whole world. So, may it be. Amen. Shalom. Salaam. And Namaste.T