Rebuilding the Dream
Rev. Douglas Taylor and Jo VonRue
January 22, 2017
Sermon Part I “The Dream Then” – Douglas
CD recording of “I Have A Dream” speech
I keep playing this same piece of audio year after year. I deviate occasionally; but most years, on the Sunday before or after the Dr. King holiday, I play the last 5 minutes of Dr. Kings 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. Here’s why. These words capture amazingly well the implications of my Universalist theology – the implications of where that kind of love ought to lead us.
King’s dream is an articulation of beloved community. That is our goal: the dream of unity and freedom, of community built across the differences of race and class, gender and sexual orientation, political ideology and religious belief. I play this piece of audio year after year because it serves as a reminder of where we are trying to go, of what we are trying to accomplish, of why we are in the struggle to make the world a better place.
Sermon Part II “The Dream Now” – Jo
Audible recording of Between the World And Me (8:36 to 10:46)
Ta-Nahisi Coates wrote his book Between the world and me as a collection of letters to his teenage son Somari. Coates names the structural persistence of racism as the central challenge for kids coming up today in the generation after Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, and after the hope that Barak Obama instilled in many of us.
This book, this letter to his son describes the tragedy and truth of the black experience, how lives are impacted by the inherent racism and societally ingrained perspective held by those in power.
The dreamers in King’s speech were the people with brown and black skin, but the dream that Coates speaks of has nothing to do with people of color, he does not speak of the future in a dream like state, or with hope for tomorrow like King.
The dreamers Coates tells us are those who cast votes, form the social narrative, become policy makers, teach in the schools, stock the library and continue to have power and authority they do not even understand or comprehend.
In the meantime those who walk through life in black bodies not being able to separate intentions and actions from perception and judgment try to move mountains in the futile attempt to protect themselves and their families from certain violence and discrimination.
He never makes full peace with the dreamers but is able to place humanity upon them, a bigger gift than he or his community receive in exchange.
Sermon Part III “Rebuilding the Dream” – Douglas and Jo
So we have two versions of the Dream at play before us today. We have Dr. King’s vision of the American Dream for all people with freedom and equality. And we have Ta-Nehisi Coates’ critique of the tranquilization and anesthetization of American people, mostly white people, thinking the American Dream is about a mortgage and Memorial Day cook-outs, credit cards and nice lawns. Whenever I hear King talk about the Dream, I cheer. And when I hear Coates speak of it, I cringe.
Here is the trick. The Dream is all well and good – either one I suppose. And … what we really need is to wake up and stay awake. After these past few months and more poignantly just these past few days, it is clear to me whichever Dream shines in my eyes, I can benefit by waking up and staying awake.
So how does that work, what does it look like? Let me start with an example from the trip to Standing Rock Jo and I took back at the beginning of November.
When we arrived in North Dakota, we went to the city of Cannon Ball on the reservation which was just a few miles from the camps. We entered a gymnasium full of about 500 clergy. We all sat silently as the elders of the tribe spoke to us about what they have called us here to do. They have called us here specifically to be allys in the struggle, to try to help to reduce the violence of the police, and to show them that they are not alone in this battle.
We were told specifically that we were to be peaceful, prayerful, lawful, and nonviolent. They repeated this many times as they did not need us coming to their land and making things harder on their people by staging protests and getting arrested or otherwise angering the law enforcement.
So, after we are done hearing from the organizer about how the tribal elders have asked us to behave while at Standing Rock, three white people got up to make an announcement. The guy in camouflage pants invited people to join him in one corner to talk about doing a civil disobedience to push the meaning of ‘lawful.’ I will be honest, part of me wanted to join that circle – I figured part of my work was to show up and put my body in the way of the rubber bullets because that is one sensational way to demonstrate solidarity. But another part of me was listening to what the elders had asked of us.
When I walked by the edge of that ring of white people talking about civil disobedience a few minutes later I noted that one of the tribal elders – a relatively small, female elder – was holding forth in the middle. Her tone was clear to me, though I could not hear all the words she spoke. “We have invited you here to help in this work. Don’t do what we have not asked you to do.”
We were there to be allies. We were invited in to participate, not lead. We showed up to support them in the work, not to take over the work. I used to think my role was to be visible. I used to think that what I was doing was showing up in the community and with those on the margin, standing in a particular place to be seen. Now I understand that was just my ego. Now I understand better that my role is still to show up, and do what the leaders from the margin have asked of me.
Here is another example of how to wake up and stay awake. Jo and I took a class at Meadville Lombard two weekends back. The class, “Unleashing your Multicultural Ministry” focused on the institutional and systemic work, rather than the personal work of anti-racism and multiculturalism. Thankfully it was not a room full of people who already get it – we were a room of learners, and we struggled a bit.
During our class, we watched a few clips of a movie called “Dear White People” if you have not watched it, I highly recommend it. In the clip we watched a black female college student (the main character) react to her white male classmate’s racist, misogynistic behavior towards her. We were asked as a class to talk about how we might respond as a minister towards certain characters in the show. The group that was asked to respond to the main character responded to her in a way that was nothing more than the scolding of a young angry black woman.
I glanced at my two good friends, both the only students of color in the room and saw that they were also dismayed. So, when it was time to offer some feedback, I glanced at them first asking if they wanted to speak, but when they did not, I voiced my thoughts that perhaps we were not giving this young woman a chance to speak her truth. Why was it that we were scolding her and not the young man who verbally accosted her?
My role in that example was as a witness, a witness the work of an ally. I witnessed one person of color struggle with the situation. My interpretation was the person wanted to speak out but did not want to speak in anger. So the person of color didn’t comment. Then I saw Jo step in as an ally, naming out loud to potential for how the first student’s words could have been heard.
Sometimes the work is to listen and step back, as with the example from Standing Rock. And sometimes the work is to listen and step up, as with this example from the class. The discernment piece lands on relationships.
One key point I want to lift up in the example is how the crux of the situation may have been about an older person talking to a younger person, or a white person talking to a black person, or a male person talking to a female person. Yet, more likely it was all three in juxtaposition, a fusion of power dynamics, an intersection.
Black legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in an essay she wrote in 1989 about the intersection of race and sex which focused on the intersection of discrimination that black women are often faced with.
The concept of intersectionality is not an abstract notion but a description of the way multiple oppressions are experienced. Crenshaw uses the story of a black woman who sued her employer for discrimination based on the fact that she was a black woman. You see, the car company hired black people but only men and they worked in the shop, and it hired women, but only white women who worked in the office. So they claim that they hire both black people and women, but the intersection is that they do not hire black women4
We can now think of the idea of intersectionality in broader terms like People of color within LGBTQ movements; girls of color in the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline; women within immigration movements; trans women within feminist movements; and people with disabilities fighting police abuse — all face vulnerabilities that reflect the intersections of racism, sexism, class oppression, transphobia, able-ism and more.
So as we are gearing up in this congregation to reimagine Sunday worship, and to reinvigorate Social Justice, we need to consider the ways in which we can intersect those things which we are passionate about. Yesterday those of you who participated in the women’s march in Binghamton carried our Standing on the Side of Love banner, our welcoming congregations banner, and a Black Lives Matter sign all of which remind us of the intersectionality of both feminism and the work we are doing here at UUCB.
Another way we will be doing this is by making the commitment to have the voice of a person of color in every Sunday worship. I would love for you to imagine with us how we might carry our intersectionality forward in other ways.
Hearing and feeling the magnitude of what we have just laid before you, you may be asking us “So now what?”
The way we live social justice into our heart, the way we move and act into that justice, the way we use our whiteness, our straightness, our gender, our able bodies to move forward into this messy world as partners and allys, the way we LIVE truth to power is by staying awake.
Staying awake means more than wearing a Black Live Matter button, or sporting a rainbow flag on your bumper sticker.
To stay awake means that we keep ourselves informed of all that are going on around us in this society especially in times of turmoil and conflict, specifically on occasions when the media is being heavily filtered such as the police brutality riots that have been happening all over our country.
Staying awake means speaking up against injustice when you see it, it means staging more protest marches, it means calling your law makers it means interrupting harassment, it is reaching out a hand of compassion, it is smiling at a stranger on the street, it is trying to understand a difference of opinion it is loving out loud.
We need to wake up and stay awake. King’s Dream still shines as a vision for us, but we cannot live in the Dream, we must be awake. When King spoke to the Unitarian Universalists (as the Ware Lecturer during our General Assembly) in the summer of 1966, three years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, the title of his talk was “Don’t Sleep through the Revolution.” Yes, we need the dream, but we need to be awake and to stay awake as we work toward fulfilling our dream of beloved community. Our work as Unitarian Universalists today is to not sleep through the revolution.
We know full well that the Dream will not just tumble into existence; we must make it become true. We must be willing to show up and do the work – sometimes stepping up and sometimes stepping back. And, we are experiencing a movement of resistance that has been underway for generations and at the same time it has begun fresh this weekend. Every voice is needed. Get involved. Pick any point of entry – they nearly all intersect eventually.
We Unitarian Universalists have a role to play in all this – not a role of leadership so much as one of partnership. Stay open to new relationships that arise in the community. Now is the time for us to wake up and pay extra attention, to offer extra care, to meet extra needs. And the Dream – Oh, the Dream – yes, the Dream is important; but to achieve it we cannot stay in it. We must instead wake up and help each other to stay awake.
In a world without end, may it be so.