Sunday, April 2, 2017

Would You Harbor Me? Would I Harbor You?: Interfaith Relations, Racism, and the Quest for Sticking to our Principles

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending the first interfaith gathering in the cluster of suburbs that lie between Dallas and Fort Worth, known as the Mid-Cities. The gathering was hosted by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (on Harwood Road, Hurst) and included three panelists representing: Christianity/Episcopalians, Islam, and Unitarian Universalism.
It was a small gathering but well represented by all three religious groups. It was a great opportunity to hear what each faith group believes, a great opportunity to ask questions, and to get to know one another. The common theme among all three groups seemed to show that all believe in doing good, all believe in promoting justice, and all adhere to universal love toward all people. Another common theme among each group is that each is often times misunderstood.
Initially, I was going to this event to sit among the assembly as a UU but that quickly faded when I realized that each person was assembling as an inquirer. I quickly shifted my focus and my personal intention so that I could engage wholly in the purpose of the day’s event. While caught up in the talks from each presenter, I was not a UU, not an Agnostic, not Earth-Centered, not Christian – I was one engaged in learning and an individual among a small crowd of inquiring minds.
Yesterday’s gathering reminded me of what it means to be UU. Each Sunday we gather as a diverse thinking people – different beliefs, different philosophies, and different backgrounds. We come together for a common goal, a common purpose. We come together as a community united in love, bonded in covenant with one another. We adhere to the sacred promises we have made and continue to make with one another to uplift and support one another on his/her spiritual journey.
President Jimmy Carter once said that we become “…a beautiful mosaic.” He goes on to say that this is because we are “different people” and have “different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.”
I had a conversation with a friend (that I grew up with) after I attended the interfaith gathering on Sunday. He is a staunch atheist. Most of his atheism has to do with pain left over from his growing up in the Bible belt and having religion shoved down his throat. When I shared that I had attended such a gathering, he immediately quipped, “Any chance they’ll agree to just give it up?” While he was being snarky there was a bit of intended opposition.
I responded, "The purpose of interfaith relations is to see that despite differences we are all the same. We all need to work toward a common goal. I think to make statements of 'giving it up' because of your viewpoint somehow robs another person of his/her path.” I then went on to explain in my position that as a Unitarian Universalist where we have a vast number of Atheists and Humanists in the faith we care deeply about others of various other religions and philosophies. We mustn't be fundamentalist or evangelical atheists so as to tear down others who belong to a faith system. When we do this, it creates barriers and the door to healthy dialogue becomes closed. We all have to work toward a common goal and it has nothing to do with what one person believes or disbelieves.
Our common goals in UUism is sometimes blindsided. While we work hard to establish support and care for one another, we still find at times that some are torn down by others – by questioning one’s beliefs in a negative way, by racial insensitivity, and a lack of social justice. This past week we were saddened at the news of Peter Morales’ resignation as President of the UUA due to controversy over hiring practices regarding a white-skinned majority. I am concerned over the message this sends not only to those within our Faith but those outside of it as we are to be a Faith that provides equal opportunities and lives out our Principles and Sources.
We hold banners and have signage on our churches that say “Black Lives Matter,” “Welcoming Congregation,” “Love is the doctrine of this church,” and yet we tend to allow darkness in at times. Where does this darkness come from? Is it hidden in the cracks? It is lurking in the corners just waiting to attack?
It is more than just promoting a free faith or allowing each person to journey down his/her path for spiritual liberation. There is a great responsibility that EVERY member within Unitarian Universalism holds toward one another – not just toward those within the organization. Whether it be on the national level or in the congregation, we must adhere to our covenant of respect and love and seek out that which makes a whole people.  
We come together despite our differences. We recognize those differences. We draw upon those differences. We learn from those differences. We seek the value and the worth of each person’s differences. It should be our intention to position ourselves to truly live in harmony with one another. Even if one’s skills may not be up to par, we must make it our goal to seek out each individual’s wholeness as a gift to the overall integrity of our organization. Everyone has something to offer and we must be willing to search that out. Not doing so may lead to compromise in other areas.
All of this reminds me of my favorite song sung by Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Would You Harbor Me?” (which can also be found in our Tapestry of Faith and written by Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell). The words go like this:
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew
a heretic, convict or spy?
Would you harbor a run away woman, or child,
a poet, a prophet, a king?
Would you harbor an exile, or a refugee,
a person living with AIDS?
Would you harbor a Tubman, a Garrett, a Truth
a fugitive or a slave?
Would you harbor a Haitian, Korean or Czech,
a lesbian or a gay?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?
Would you harbor me?
Would I harbor you?

                What is your answer? What is our answer as an organization? Will we stand together? Truly stand together? Will we see one another as a piece of the beautiful mosaic? Are we simply giving lip service or just belonging to an organization because it is where we feel the “most comfortable?” Believe me folks: we’re not here to be comfortable. We’re not here to be safe. We are here to live out and to do the hard and vigilant work of seeking out justice for everyone. There’s nothing cute or fun or self-serving about this work. It is necessary and it is something that will be ongoing. As long as there are humans who will muck up the hard work that many have done before them, the work will never be complete. This is what struggle is all about.
                That being said, I know that I am a privileged white person. I know that I am sheltered in many ways as a Unitarian Universalist living in the Texas Bible Belt. I know that I have a long way to go in seeking out women’s rights, racial equality, bridging interfaith relations and even living out what we refer to as the “Living Tradition” in UU. And it is for these reasons and others that I am standing up to remind all of us that there is something at stake here. 
                It is going to take all of us working hard together and not just sitting on our butts in a chair or in a pew on Sunday morning for worship at our local UU and then going home when the service is over. Each of us are called to be part of and uphold the 7th Principle of our Faith, to have “respect for the interdependent web of all existence.” The Rev. Forrest Gilmore wrote in his book The Seven Principles in Word and Worship that “we make a profound mistake when we limit it to merely an environmental idea. It is so much more. It is our response to the great dangers of both individualism and oppression. It is our solution to the seeming conflict between the individual and the group.”
                Gilmore goes on to say that “Our seventh Principle may be our Unitarian Universalist way of coming to fully embrace something greater than ourselves. The interdependent web—expressed as the spirit of life, the ground of all being, the oneness of all existence, the community-forming power, the process of life, the creative force, even God—can help us develop that social understanding of ourselves that we and our culture so desperately need. It is a source of meaning to which we can dedicate our lives.”
                This is the message of harboring one another. This is the message of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. This is the message of peace. This is the message of hope. This is the message the suffragists, the civil rights fighters, the LGBT equality seekers, the reproductive rights advocates have fought to secure. This is the message of those who have gone before us. This message can be quickly torn down and quickly left to shrivel. We must be diligent and teach our children to be diligent in preserving every aspect of said principle. We must be diligent in harboring each other and not picking and choosing. We must diligent in our work by doing what we mean and meaning what we say.

John Lennon said it this way in his timeless song, “Imagine”
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

As we ponder on these words and the words of ‘Harbor Me,’ let us take time to really think long and hard what it truly means to be UU. It’s more than belonging to a congregation. It’s more than being part of a covenant group, a quilting group, or a social action committee. We must circle the wagons and stand together and bridge the gap for everyone. The time is now to truly be who we say we are. What will your answer be? Who will you harbor? 

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