What a powerful and painful week we’ve had. Anger exploded after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and has taken shape all over the country, even NY and this morning we’re learning it’s moved to Europe. With no response other than the protection of the officer who murdered Mr. Floyd, protests turned to riots so that even after one of the four involved was arrested and charged, the riotous expression of anger continued. Riots are sometimes the only way the voiceless can be heard. People on the outside find them frightening, as uncontrolled anger often is. People on the outside prefer the safety of our homes, which is understandable, but those of us safe at home serve the greater good when we recognize the horror experienced by thousands of people, horror powerful enough to push them out of the safety of their homes, especially in a time of pandemic, to take to the streets in protest. This isn’t the first murderof a black or brown person by the police- the force theoretically in place to keep us safe. 1,000 such deaths occur annually
We could say their names, but there are too many. We learn their stories, we feel the pain of their families. Those of us who are people of color or those of us who have people of color in our families are again reminded of the fragility of life in this country and the lack of protection and the system that’s not designed to help us. It happens again and again and again, and the rage builds until, from time to time, it explodes on our streets.
Mr. Floyd was pinned to the ground saying he couldn’t breathe, not unlike Eric Garner who also begged for air. During this time of pandemic when air is most definitively a source of both life and death, hearing a man saying he can’t breathe while one police officer kneels on his neck is particularly poignant. Are we not all wearing masks to protect each other? Are we not all being careful about ensuring the safety of our air? Are the police not here to protect us? Then why were 3 officers of the law pushing off bystanders who were trying to help the man who couldn’t breathe?
One of the things that happens to white people when we see black anger is we back away. We might feel afraid or we might feel like this isn’t our fight or maybe we don’t know how to get involved. We might not have the same generational rage. I’ve been hearing alot of “what do we do” questions as we watch from a distance. I’m taking some initiative to start a Standing Up for Racial Justice chapter and some other things, but then I saw a group of white people – mostly young, mostly women – who lined up between black protestors and heavily armed police. They were at a protest in Kentucky on Friday night and the police were in full riot gear and looking for a fight. One of the white women said “what can we do”and a black woman said “you can put your body between me and the police” so she did. They lined up, arm in arm, using their bodies as a blockade. That’s the right way to leverage white privilege. Nothing happened to the white women. The police may have valued their lives more. At the very least, they knew the country would and
pictures of young white women being beaten or suffering from tear gas or rubber bullets wasn’t going to play well in the media, so they backed off.
I saw those women and thought: Now that’s what it means to Be Church. I will use my body to protect you when you are the one who is vulnerable. And I know you will use your body to protect me when I’m the one in trouble. We are Church when we care for each other so well, that where we are and what we are doing is less relevant than the reality that we are in it together.
Be ours a religion that goes everywhere... And here we are, gathered in a new way. What does it mean to Do Church or Be Church when there’s no location? When church is not a building? It means we are called to live into our highest values wherever we are. And all the time. It’s not about Sunday morning but about Tuesday evening and Friday afternoon. If we can’t check off “went to church” on our good deeds, we’ll have to check off “lived church” instead. The call of Unitarian Universalism isn’t to go to church but to become the people the world needs us to be, people who bring beauty, who live hospitality, who leverage whatever they have tohelp someone else. And Community Church isn’t just about our location on 35th street, as much as I love our space; it’s about weaving a safety net for each other so tight, no one can fall through. It’s about stretching our moral muscles and growing into spiritual maturity, together. It’s about putting our bodies, individual and collective, real and metaphorical, between people who are vulnerable and the things that are going to hurt them.
We started a New Leaf campaign to help those in our congregation who lost their jobs during this pandemic. We’ve raised thousands of dollars. I think there’s about 10,000 in that account. Be ours a religion which goes everywhere... it’s shrine, the good heart... it’s ritual, works of love.
There’s a big change coming here in America. You’ll hear me talk about it a lot because I think it’s important that we are ready and that we are engaged. We have an opportunity to help define the social transformation before us. As a nation, we could become an ossified oligarchy partial to fascism or we could birth a new age of ecological, social, economic and political balance. If we participate there is a better chance the new world we be grounded in principles of equity. Church is needed here and now. And, in the near future, I have a vision that Church will be the place Love is known. If we get to work, we can become the embodiment of the world we know needs to be born, the world those protestors are doing their best to birth as they tear down the structures of oppression that keep us all in cages.
We are in a moment. Today, this weekend, Church isn’t happening in most church buildings. It’s happening over zoom because most of the nation’s pastors understand that term – pastor - to be one of care-taking, of choosing the more difficult path so as to keep our people safe. So, we are doing church this morning in our homes, in millions of homes across the country. But, we can still take some time to reflect on things of worth. We can use music and poetry to fill our spirits. We can listen to sermons that call us to being our best selves.
I think the protestors are also Doing Church. Theirs is angry work. Painful, furious work. It’s also holy work. It’s the work of justice, of bringing us into alignment with ourselves. I’m not condoning violence, but I am understanding it. How else do we dismantle systems of oppression if not to burn them down? The problem isn’t the rioters. The problem is white supremacy- the system that inspires people, from time to time, to riot.
What’s happening on our streets is not surprising. The poor are getting poorer while the rich get richer. Poverty levels are skyrocketing and are set to reach highs we haven’t seen in decades, while America’s billionaires increased their wealth by 10% during this pandemic. Systemic racism and economic injustice are America’s pre-existing conditions. They make us vulnerable and the fissures they create in our society have only grown larger under the stress of global pandemic.
There’s talk right now about some heady things. Things like Civil War. Race War. Societal Meltdown. I don’t know where we’re going with all this, but I know we’ve been poised for a break for some time and a global pandemic that killed 104,000 people in under three months and sent 37 million people into unemployment revealed the fractures in our society that we collectively had been ignoring, hoping would just go away. We have a President who thrives on conflict and, far from being a calming force, has increased national divides. He’s also cultivating suspicion about our election process, setting us up for an extended Constitutional crisis this fall. There are also reports of white supremacists taking advantage of the anger being displayed in our cities by attending protests to spark additional violence. And, all of this disruption has distracted us from the horrific news that if we didn’t make massive changes to our economic system, the planet’s ability to sustain human life would diminish dramatically in the next decade, a fact we’re ignoring as the economic disparities increase during this global crisis.
All of this reaffirms my impulse to Be Church. It’s hard to believe that after this year, this nation will be what it was before. Even without the current crisis, I didn’t think America would be undamaged by the Trump presidency, but given these last two or three months, and looking at what we’re facing, I feel quite certain that what’s before us will be quite different from what’s behind us.
We are going to need to build up our church quickly to meet the needs we’re facing. I have faith in our ability to become who the world needs us to be, but it’s going to require some real work on our part. I dream of a church where everyone feels welcome, everyone feels safe, everyone knows that someone will defend them when they are vulnerable, will feed them when they are hungry, will fight for them when are hopeless. I dream of a church that isn’t distracted by their physical space, that has broken free of those boundaries and is living in multiple platforms, including a building that prioritizes the needs of the congregation and community. I dream of a church where people come to be healed, to find respite, to experience joy. I dream of a church engaged in the world, bringing love to front lines in our city and wherever it’s needed. When economic, social and political systems collapse, I dream of a church where people hold each other up.
What’s happening in our cities isn’t surprising, even if it is disconcerting. What happens next will be new and possibly unexpected. Regardless of whether our nation devolves into fragmentation and angry factions or we find it in us to rebuild in an image of justice and equity, our religion of the good heart can become the healing balm needed. May we be faithful practitioners of this religion whose rituals are acts of love. And when we enter this great turning, as we zoom in for worship or take to the streets in protest and in hope, let us remember that ours is a religion which, like sunshine, goes everywhere.