The president of the Unitarian Universalist Association reflects on the spiritual challenges of confronting the resurgence of American white nationalism.
A member of a white supremacist militia stands in front of religious leaders, including UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray, who gathered to protest a rally of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12, 2017. Police largely stood by as white supremacists brawled with antifascist protesters. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
This sermon was delivered June 24 at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Kansas City.
My fellow Unitarian Universalists, it is such a joy to be with you this morning, to be called together once again. This General Assembly represents the completion of one year as your president—a role in which I was charged not just to be a leader but also to be a pastor in these difficult and painful times. I have experienced this first year as one filled with incredible gratitude, because it is a gift to serve our faith, but it has also been a time of enormous heartbreak and challenge and urgency, a time when we are called to bear witness to so much pain—and to make room in our bodies and our spirits to hold so much of our own pain. It is time to acknowledge the past we are coming from and to do the work that enables us to create a new story and a new way of being.
Last August, just days after I arrived in Boston with my family, having packed up everything and moved from Phoenix, Arizona, the call came for faith leaders to show up in Charlottesville, Virginia. Local faith leaders, including Unitarian Universalists, called others to join them in fortifying an effort to stop white supremacist violence from descending on their town. I didn’t hesitate, because at its best our faith teaches us that the humanity of every single person is threatened when we let those who dehumanize go unchallenged. I knew that it is not enough to intellectually want to change the world, then shrink when that change calls us to take risks, to show up, to sacrifice to protect one another. It was important to show up and follow that challenging call at the heart of our faith to embody the fierceness of love in the face of hate and violence.
The police badly mishandled white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017, failing to give officers needed training, gear and marching orders, and remaining passive as bloody clashes between protesters and counterprotesters raged around them, a former federal prosecutor reported.
Being in Charlottesville was terrifying and traumatic. All who were there still hold the trauma of that day. A number of Unitarian Universalists were injured on the streets. Heather Heyer was killed.
We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville. The news cycle every day moves on—the latest shock or tragedy or atrocity—but it matters that we not forget what happened in Charlottesville in August 2017. For it revealed explicitly both the roots of the realities of today and what is at stake. The violence and dehumanization that undergird racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, antisemitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia were all on full display in that white supremacist rally. Standing in Charlottesville, hearing those awful words and threats, facing those white men with their guns and Nazi symbols, made the power and renewed boldness of the white nationalist movements in our nation undeniable. And it revealed the complicity of local police, of states, and of the federal government in the protection of these movements.
I want to be really clear: This is not about individual police officers, people of inherent worth and dignity. This is about an entire system of policing. I want to be specific about what I mean by complicity.
The night before the rally was to take place, white supremacists marched through the campus of the University of Virginia with fiery torches. They assaulted members of the Black Student Alliance. They marched on to a Presbyterian church where faith leaders were gathered in a peaceful worship service, blocking the doors so people could not leave. Throughout this the police were nowhere. The police were similarly absent as men armed with long guns marched in front of a Charlottesville synagogue during services shouting hate-filled Nazi slogans at the faithful worshipers. The synagogue had asked for and been told that they would be given police protection. No police showed up.
The next morning, the police again stood back, far from the crowds. We faith leaders stood face to face with well-armed white men dressed in surplus military gear, carrying long guns and hundreds and hundreds of rounds of ammunition: a right-wing volunteer militia supposedly “policing” the event. And then, when dozens and dozens of white supremacists came marching down the street chanting and yelling with shields and helmets and bats and sticks, coming right at the faith leaders gathered by the park, the police moved back. Violence only started when antifascist groups stepped forward to protect the faith leaders, when they saw the police were doing nothing and would do nothing. It was absolutely terrifying to see that level of armed white nationalist violence, and it was terrifying to see it go completely unchecked by police.
And I own and want to name how my shock reveals my own white privilege. And hear this: my own assumption that the police are in the business of protecting me, my body, my safety, that is not an assumption that everyone gets to make. Police largely stood down to give space for armed white men to carry out intimidation and violence throughout the community of Charlottesville for days, but in Ferguson, Missouri, when unarmed black people came out to the streets to protest and mourn the killing of a young Michael Brown, they were met with a militarized police force armed with tanks and tear gas.
This is America. This is the United States. This is the disparity that brings into sharp relief the reality of the racism and broader system of white supremacy deep in our nation and deep in our system of policing, the reality that Black Lives Matter organizers and immigrant rights organizers have been naming for years. This is not about individual officers. This is not about bad apples. This is about a system of policing that has been set up to preserve order in a system that is fundamentally disordered, unequal, untenable, and oppressive, violent, and murderous to people of color in this country.
My friends, as injustice, inequity, and disparity grow in our nation and across the globe, our nation’s investments in policing, in jails, in weapons, and in warfare all continue to grow, seeking desperately to preserve order in this disordered system, seeking to protect profit and the privilege of a few over human lives and human dignity. Would we need such investments in warfare if we had justice and equity for all? Would we need those investments if justice was real for all people?
We’ve got to deconstruct the way we . . . Look, I, as a white person, have to deconstruct the way I have seen the police.
It was so important to be in Charlottesville and to be there with Unitarian Universalists from across the South and East: y’all showed up so powerfully, so courageously, ministers and laypeople who came to support the local organizations, the local congregations, and to be in solidarity and witness to the larger community. And your UUA was there as well, in visible and behind-the-scenes ways, providing support to organizers and staying after for trauma response and pastoral care to the community.
This is one of the ways that we can hold each other as a collective faith in this time. I know from my own ministry in Phoenix, and in the struggle for immigrant rights and in combating the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, that the power of the UUA and our shared faith—when we show up for and with one another in times of crisis—is unbelievable. It makes a difference.
We are getting more and more opportunities to show up with and for each other. This isn’t just about Charlottesville.
As a people of faith who say we are committed to justice, compassion, and equity in human relations; as a faith that says we are committed to the inherent worth and dignity of all people; as a faith that says we are committed to respect for the interdependent web of all life: we have a role to play. Our faith is calling more from us in this time.
And two things are absolutely clear to me right now. Number one, this is no time for a casual faith or a casual commitment to your values, your community, your congregation, your soul, and your faith. No time for casual faith. And number two, this is no time to go it alone or to think that we are in this alone.
This is no time for a casual faith. As Unitarian Universalists, we are first and foremost religious communities that practice love as our foundation. We are living in times of heartbreak, violence, and pain, and in this time we need communities that remind us of our humanity.
Fifty years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asking what it would take for the United States to turn away from the giant evils of racism, militarism, and economic exploitation that he understood were so deeply affecting so much of our society. He said it would take a powerful, unconditional, overflowing goodwill for all people—a universal love for humanity. He called this kind of love “agape love.” He said it could very well be the salvation of human civilization. King said that agape love is “the love of God operating in the human heart.” I hope, whatever your theology, whatever your belief or non-belief, that you can hear the power of that message of helping our hearts embody and practice a deeper, unbounded, unconditional, overflowing, audacious love for all humanity.
And we need communities that teach us how to love with this fullness in the midst of the propaganda and politics that tell our hearts to be afraid. We need communities where we can fully bring our heartbreak and the fullness of our pain and anguish and be reminded that we are not alone, but that we are held by a love that never lets us go. And we are held by one another, and we will never let go. We need communities of both courage and deep practiced compassion, of resilience and resistance.
I know we may not all—well, what I want to say is we may not all be able to be on the streets in places like Charlottesville and Ferguson, but I don’t want you to hear that as letting you off the hook. Some people are dying, some people are ill, some people have to be more careful with the police because of their identity, their status. But we all have a vital role to play and we need more people showing up in Charlottesville and Ferguson and on the border, showing up on the streets in all kinds of ways and not being silent.
We also have a role to play in making a stronger commitment to build something new in our communities, in our congregations—to make a stronger commitment to nurture healthy, radically inclusive communities and the powerful practice of this faith that helps us build a courageous and fierce embodied love and nurtures what is best in us as human beings.
I know from talking with many of you that when you witnessed what happened in Charlottesville, you turned to your congregations for healing and to hold the trauma. But where we want to be a salve to the wounds of the world, we also must be a mirror to our own infliction of wounds. In her Ware Lecture at our General Assembly, Brittany Packnett challenged us to recognize that we reinforce white supremacy and uphold it in ways we may not always realize, especially when we put our own comfort first. We need communities that are really building something new, places of abundant love and deep justice. My prayer for us as an association of congregations and communities is that we answer both calls, to hold each other in times of pain and to hold each other to account in acts of courageous love when our institutions create harm and in acts of courageous truth-telling when we as individuals inflict harm.
Ours has never been a monolithic faith and it does not have to be limited by the monocultural roots of its past. The promise of our faith means liberating ourselves from systems of dominance and exploitation that we all suffer under. The promise of our faith means making compassion a way of being. It means creating a collective sense of both community and responsibility. It holds the vision of a yet unrealized future where our collective survival, our liberation, and a practice of the fullness of our theology are possible.
When we stepped onto the streets in Charlottesville as faith leaders, we knew our safety could not be guaranteed or expected. We knew we were putting our lives at risk. Our faith that love is stronger than hate gave us strength, but something else gave us strength, and that was the fact that we were not alone. Friends, this is no time to try to go it alone. We need to be building the strength of our communities even as we are resisting in the larger world.
We as individual congregations can’t be in this struggle alone. We as UUs can’t be in this struggle alone. I was strengthened by the faith leaders with whom I stood shoulder to shoulder, arm in arm—Christian, Jew, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist—siding with love. Now is the time to get proximate and get closer and build stronger bridges across our faith, across our congregations, but also in deeper partnership and commitment with those most directly impacted by systems of injustice and oppression.
Because here is the thing: Theologically, our Universalism says that no one is outside the circle of love, right? However, we must understand that in our lives and in the context of oppression and discrimination, the circle never gets drawn wider from the center. The circle grows wider because the people who live at the margins, at the edges, who see how exclusion is happening, are leading and organizing and working to break those walls down. So we all have to be standing in the margins, pushing for greater liberation for all people. That is the way we make the circle wide.
We are living in a time of tremendous opportunity and needed change, and the health and strength of our communities and our commitment to this theology of love and justice and interdependence is crucial. And I know it is calling more from all of us, and I know the strain of the daily despair and heartbreak. But I also know that our faith is strong. If we let ourselves be held by it, it will give us what we need to keep on moving forward. And I know that we can hold one another in this work. We have been readying for it, my friends. We have been readying for years to grow our muscles for resistance and for courage and for solidarity.
This work, this moment that we are in, and it is not just this moment, it is many moments, moving to this time. But it is going to change us. The work ahead, it is going to change us deeply. That’s why we are a living tradition, right? We don’t need to be held by the past. We are always looking for the new revelation to guide our hearts and our spirits and to walk into something new. I see that day when we will look back and see the changes we have made in our hearts, in our communities, in the practice of our faith and theology. They won’t come from some casual practice or casual commitment. They require a greater commitment and generosity to one another and to our communities that sustain our courage and love.
New ways of living our faith will mean letting go in order to say yes, reaching out more boldly, lovingly, and faithfully with one another for justice. It will take each of us finding our own call, our work, our place in the struggle, where our gifts can help bring something new, something life-giving into this world.
May the spiritual community that we practice—may the spiritual communities that you lead and practice in your homes, in your hometowns—strengthen all of our hearts. May it give us courage. May we not be silent or shrink back from the demands of love. And may we hold one another as we follow new pathways of joy, of community, of change, of the unknown. And may we all be held by that deep practice of agape love that stirs in each and every one of our hearts. May it be so. Amen.
Adapted from a sermon delivered June 24, 2018, at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri.
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The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray is the ninth president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). She was elected in June 2017 to a six-year term after serving congregations in Phoenix, Arizona; Youngstown, Ohio; and Nashville, Tennessee. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Brian Frederick-Gray, and their son, Henry.
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