My best friend says she cannot hear the difference between when I say Worship—w-o-r-s-h-i-p—and War Ship—w-a-r, new word “Ship.” Since she shared this with me I have come to think of the Worship Committee as an intrepid crew of sailors. Most of the time this is just my own silliness. But if felt somewhat apt when we got the call this Wednesday that our beloved minister was fine, was OK, was on the mend—but had had emergency surgery that morning. Suddenly, Sunday service was in our hands. And it was high time to be intrepid.
We explored several options for manifesting worship: reach out to a minister who lives in our town but for whom we had no email or phone number; reprise one of the summer’s great services so that more people could enjoy it; or rely on the resources within our own congregation to create something new.
Swirled among our feelings of concern for the minister and our surprise and anxiety about how to fill the pulpit, we found that we had a sense of real excitement and purpose for taking on the challenge ourselves. We remembered that we kind of know how to organize a service. (I don’t mean that we’ll get everything right—you’ll probably notice a few bumps.) But more than that, we also noticed that were already in the midst of a rich conversation that could inspire the content of our worship.
I imagine that is true for any number of the committees and small groups that make up this Society, that meet in our cold, dim rooms most weekday evenings. At any time, the rich content of our connection with one another could suddenly become worship. And any group of us would step up to be of service when a challenge presents itself.
I love that this is who we are.
It is a blessing and a gift to demonstrate our love and compassion for our minister by taking up the duties of worship so that she can turn her energies to healing her body.
It is a blessing and a gift and a call of our faith to put our love for one another into this public forum.
It is not just the War Ship that I have come to think of as intrepid—which my dictionary defines as “fearless and bold”—but our entire denomination, our Unitarian Universalist faith.
For it is our denomination that is now lighting a beacon and setting an example to other communities of faith to take a stand against the tide of terror and exclusion rising up in our nation.
One reflection of the forces of fear and oppression at work right now is the violence and hatred directed towards gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer people.
Karen’s powerful poetry spoke to the tragic deaths of thirteen young people in recent weeks. These young people were subject to homophobic bullying because they identified as or were perceived as gay or transgendered.
Which is to say: Thirteen young people found the cost of expressing their true selves to be too high to bear, and chose to end their own lives rather than face another day of verbal assault, incessant insult, stalking, harassment, violation of privacy or physical violence.
It is not incidental that this continuum of violence against queer folk is happening as our culture debates whether or not to extend full civil rights to all of us. My dear friend Jenn Bealer, an activist and anti-violence educator, says,
When I was in grade school I got teased for being smart…. And although it wasn't fun, it never really got to me because outside of those few kids teasing me I was getting messages that being smart was actually a good thing. My teachers, my family, my community, and society at large reinforced the idea that being smart and doing well in school was something to strive for and be proud of…As a lesbian, I want to tell you that these days are very hard to be living in. It is impossible to hear about the uptick in violence against GLBTQ people—like the recent spate of physical assaults against men perceived to be gay in New York City— and not feel targeted, angry and afraid. It is painful even to withstand what is considered reasonable debate on the legislative issues, because the protective distance that I might feel from other causes—even those that I feel passionately about— is missing when I hear commentators, politicians and my neighbors discuss my worth and dignity, my right to equality, as if it were a question. It feels, in fact, like the conversation itself is violence.
When queer youth are surviving a daily barrage of harassment in school…and then they hear that they can be kicked out of the military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or that through the Federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act they cannot have equal marriage rights; when they see Iowa judges voted out of office for ruling same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional or hear political candidates saying unapologetically that homosexuality isn't "an equally valid or successful option"—they are being sent the message that the bullies, their harassers, are actually right.
In this hard time, I draw great strength from my intrepid UU faith. In particular, I have been buoyed by the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign.
“Right now, both love and fear are rising up in our nation,” begins the first talking point on the campaign website. “We stand on the side of love. We want to harness love’s power to stop oppression, exclusion and violence.”
Standing on the Side of Love puts our UU principles into action. It recognizes that the failure of our nation to legalize marriage equality is not only an attack on GLBTQ people, it is also failure of compassion, a failure of justice, and a failure of our nation to live up to the promise of religious freedom.
The failure of our nation to legalize marriage equality is a failure to live up to our founding promise of religious freedom.
If I am soothed, I am also inspired—and challenged, in the best possible way— when I follow the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. Because this project reminds me that I have common cause with others whose stories are different than mine. It reminds me that the call to love is a call to action.
On its second platform—immigration rights—the Standing on the Side of Love campaign champions a message of radical inclusion and welcome. It asserts, “As people of faith, we are called to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed. We are called to welcome the stranger.” It reminds us, “Hospitality is central to spiritual life. The inhospitality and cruelty shown to immigrants today weakens our nation’s soul.”
The inhospitality and cruelty shown to immigrants weakens our nation’s soul.
This past summer activists converged in Arizona to protest SB 1070, that state’s newly enforced anti-immigration bill. I have never been so proud to be UU as when I read reports from that movement. Among other religious, labor and civil rights organizations, our denomination stood out for visibility, organization, clarity of purpose and effectiveness. The Reverend Melissa Ziemer, once an active member here and now the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent in Ohio, was among those UU activists arrested for civil disobedience: sitting in the road and blocking traffic, blocking business as usual.
The executive director of the organization Interfaith Worker Justice wrote of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “On the actual day of the protest, the UUs rocked.” And she wrote a primer for other denominations wishing to become involved in the immigrants’ rights struggle—based on the things we did right in Arizona.
The Rev. David Miller of Solana Beach, CA also wrote about his experience at the protests. He said,
This week I have wept with sadness but also with great hope and joy. I feel this is a turning point for Unitarian Universalism. There we were, in our orange-ish yellow shirts, in mass, with the giant word “love” on our chests. Excuse the old marketing guy in me, but there it was, our brand, we were being called ‘the love people.’That’s who we are.
We’re the love people.
It is a blessing, and a gift, and a call of our faith to turn our love to action.
In a hard time, an embattled time, I take solace from my intrepid faith. And I am challenged by it to open myself to the transforming power of love.
I first visited this Great Hall in 1998. One of the earliest services I attended occurred the week that Matthew Sheppard, a young gay man, was tortured and killed in Laramie, Wyoming.
I did not know anything about Unitarian Universalism. When I saw that the sermon would address the “dignity and worth of every person,” I assumed the minister would speak to the injustice of this young man’s death. And she did that. But she also called the congregation to do something much harder: to affirm the dignity and worth of the perpetrators of that terrible crime.
This was true in 2008 as well, when a man shot and killed those he identified as “liberals” at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. Our own summer service—a worship created by a small group of lay leaders, in a short period of time, who rose to be of service to their community—called on us to connect with our grief for those senselessly lost and traumatized. And also to recognize the worth and dignity of the shooter.
This week another life was lost in the epidemic of homophobic bullying. But this time it was the child who bullied and faced “zero-tolerance,” shame and censure for his behavior, who decided to end his life.
As Unitarian Universalists we are called to affirm that the bully has no less dignity and worth than the bullied.
Because we are “the love people.”
If “justice is what love looks like in public” as the African American theologian Cornell West reminds us, then our faith calls us to action for justice. It demands that we be the “love people.”
Fortunately, we have many opportunities.
The Standing on the Side of Love website provides resources for individuals, clergy and congregations to take action in support of GLBTQ and immigrant rights through letter writing and petition efforts and to make visible our message of love and justice through traditional and social media.
The UU conference center, Rowe, hosts an Allies Against Bullying conference on December 10-12, just one hour away. And even closer, the Civic Engagement Project at UMass hosts Immigration: a panel exploring current local and national civil rights struggles, on Thursday, November 18.
Earlier we heard the resolution passed at our national denominational meeting that calls us to change the way we do business – to hold our annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, limit the agenda to the bare minimum, and spend the rest of our collective time standing on the side of love, on the side of justice, with our immigrant brothers and sisters. Who among us will be there at GA 2012?
And on the evening of November 21, our front steps will be the starting point of a candlelight vigil and march that will conclude with an interfaith service at First Churches. This event, the local observation of the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance, commemorates lives lost to transphobic violence. Because if there has been an uptick in violence against gay men, there has really never been a diminishment of violence against transpeople. A National Day of Transgender remembrance has been observed every year since 1998. This year local organizers will also memorialize the young people who lost their lives to suicide.
It is right that a vigil memorializing lives lost to homophobia and transphobia begins here, at our Society. Because that’s what love looks like in public, and that’s who we are.
We know that worship happens when we stand in fellowship together.
We know that marriage prohibitions infringe not just on the GLBTQ members of our community, but on our freedom of religion as Unitarian Universalists.
We affirm the dignity and worth of all—the bully and the bullied.
We know that faith demands hospitality and welcome.
We’re “the love people.”
It is a blessing, and a gift, and a call of our faith to turn our love to action.