“Vocare” originally appeared as a sermon delivered to University Unitarian Church. The associated readings that accompanied the sermon were from three sources: Tess Baumberger’s meditation “Let us Make This Earth a Heaven,” Rev. Theodore Parker’s sermon “Justice and the Conscience” and 1 Kings 19:7-13 from the Hebrew Bible.
Click here to listen to the audio recording of the sermon.
To my siblings in faith and action. I say these words in the spirit of love and I pray that you receive them in the same spirit. These last two weeks have come with more reminders that our world is in desperate need for justice, peace and most of all, prophetic love. With Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five police officers killed in hateful violence (in addition to the attacks in Nice, France, the attempted coup in democratic Turkey, and this morning’s events in Baton Rouge and so many other similar news stories coming almost every day), it seems to me that no matter how many loving steps forward I take in pursuit of justice, our shared path keeps getting longer; increasing in grade with the summit seeming to always be on the horizon. I am angry, heart broken, frustrated… and I am ashamed to admit it but I am also exhausted by it all.
I am ashamed because I take pride in being strong; physically, mentally, emotionally. Yet I continue to fail at the responsibility I put on myself of holding the weight of being an ally to people and communities who are so much stronger than I am. Not because they want to be; but because they have to be. Yet just like the Hebrew prophet Elijah, I hear their voices in that quiet whisper of God, questioning me: “So Justin, now tell me, what are you doing here?” And I have to cover my face and look away because this is HOLY work and holy ground to which imperfect I, and we, are summoned.
The Latin word meaning to summon or to call is Vocare. And it is from this word that we get Voice, Vocal, and Vocation. And I say all of these words with a capital “V.” Because they are calling out to me from the wilderness saying “prepare ye the way!” And yes, they are demanding. They demand my time, attention, money and hands. They demand that I use my Voice to shout “ENOUGH” alongside our siblings of color in all public places. They demand that I be Vocal, calling out in love both strangers and friends who persist in their rose colored glasses that #AllLivesMatter. They demand that I use my Vocation, as a person pursuing the ministry, to challenge the powers that be to dismantle and reform all our systems of inequity and oppression.
In essence, Vocare demands my being. And so here I am, proudly a Unitarian Universalist, responding to the summons of our time; saying from this pulpit that Black Lives Matter. Because not to respond, to let that phone continue to ring just to keep leaving a message on my machine, would be to reject that which I call most sacred; my humanity.
Not just my individual humanity but my shared humanity. Which I never really understood until I found Unitarian Universalism. You see, I grew up Catholic in a mixed race family. My miscellaneous brown skin and my social location in a mostly white suburb gave me the privilege that I didn’t have to think about race. And I was a progressive liberal Catholic who believed in equality and inclusiveness. I believed in hate the sin and love the sinner. I believed that non-Catholics (and even non-Christians) could also go to heaven. But in my heart there was always an “us” and a “them.”
Because I was the religious type I even went so far as to pursue the ministry, which at the time meant to study to become a Catholic priest! But nobody told me that seminary is a dangerous place. That it may end up razing my faith to the ground before it would even start to build it up again. I lasted two years before leaving. Still cowardly identifying as Catholic even though I was already doubting everything that the Church taught me. I was afraid to announce my apostasy. Because, what would the members of my Church community who I had known my entire life, say? What would my family say? If I were to suddenly come out and say “I do not believe in your systems anymore!”
It wasn’t until years later when I found the courage to go my own way. It took travelling half-way around the world and back again to finally step through our church doors and sit down in these pews. But I can say that the experience of US filled me with such a deep resonance. With our values as a community; focused on the dignity and worth of every person, a commitment to spiritual growth and democracy in the world, and a deep connection to the Earth and all living things. I immediately knew this would be my community of faith; the spiritual foundation for my future.
But, siblings, Unitarian Universalism did not offer me a soft, safe, carpeted foundation. Yes, I found fellowship and friendship; I found a family and community. But I also realized the radical kinds of responsibilities that came with my choice to identify as a Unitarian Universalist. This is a faith with a history of powerful reformers like Michael Servetus; suffragists like Susan B. Anthony; free thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson; and abolitionists like the Rev. Theodore Parker! Many of our spiritual forebears were burned at the stake for daring to proclaim their truth to the powers that be. And even though they were afraid for their lives they still fought church and state, whether it was in the rejection of hell or in the demand for freedom. No, I believe that ours is not a faith of comfort. To me this is a faith that answers that quiet voice among us asking “what are you doing here?” by saying “we are here because we see too much corruption in our government” and “we are here because the blood of the Earth cries out” and “we are here because too many people are being killed” and “we are here because Black Lives Matter!”
Which I believe embodies so much of our own prophetic history and work. In the words of Alicia Garza, one of the cofounders of Black Lives Matter:
“#BlackLivesMatter doesn’t mean your life isn’t important–it means that Black lives, which are seen as without value within White supremacy, are important to your liberation. Given the disproportionate impact state violence has on Black lives, we understand that when Black people in this country get free, the benefits will be wide reaching and transformative for society as a whole. When we are able to end hyper-criminalization and sexualization of Black people and end the poverty, control, and surveillance of Black people, every single person in this world has a better shot at getting and staying free. When Black people get free, everybody gets free. This is why we call on Black people and our allies to take up the call that Black Lives Matter. We’re not saying Black lives are more important than other lives, or that other lives are not criminalized and oppressed in various ways. We remain in active solidarity with all oppressed people who are fighting for their liberation and we know that our destinies are intertwined.”
“When Black people get free, everybody gets free.”
I’ve never been a part of a radical community like ours before. I found a faith in which I am constantly challenged to break my binary habits of “us vs. them” and “either vs. or” and to accept that at our best we are a people of “both/and.” We are Universalist and Unitarian. We are black and white. We are theist and atheist. We are trans and cis. We are gay and straight. I feel that at our best we have room enough to even be liberal and conservative. Siblings, you have inspired me to be a human being of radical action and prophetic love who is committed to rejecting the binaries.
And yes, I have made newbie ally mistakes along the way. In my very first Black Lives Matter march in downtown Seattle I tweeted out “All Lives Matter” with all the good intention in the world. And I was quickly educated that my good intentions had subversive impacts; that in reality by saying All Lives Matter as a response to Black Lives Matter both unintentionally and intentionally erases the Black experience. That the truth of our country and systems of today is that Black lives don’t matter; not as much as others. And I listened, learned and I was changed.
And a few weeks ago before our UU General Assembly I was asked a question that nobody has ever asked me before: “Do I identify as a person of color?” And I did not know how to answer. Yes, my grandmother emigrated from Mexico. Yes, my father is Mexican American. And while living in the Northwest has bleached out my melanin you would be very surprised how dark my skin can get given enough sun. But being asked this question made me realize two things: first, that yes I am a person of color who, due to my social location, has had the privilege of not having to identify as a person of color unless I want to. And second, that my privilege was bought and paid for without my permission at the price of my family in terms of culture, language and identity. These my grandmother sold away when she came to the United States. Even though she never spoke English herself, she concluded, accurately, that the only way for her children to succeed was to remove their “Mexican” and replace it with “American.” And it worked because I am only now learning what it means to be an ally to my Latinx siblings. From deep within I am educated that my grandmother’s good intentions have had subversive impacts. And I listen, learn and I am changed.
Now, in this time and place of social unrest and societal change, the challenge is to keep going. After the service today our Racial Justice Team has two places set aside to help us. First, honoring the practices that Black Lives of UU has called for, we offer downstairs in Howe, a sacred space for our Black siblings to gather in caucus. Second, members of the Care Team will be available in Nathan Johnson Hall for anyone who wants or needs to meet one on one with a member of the Team to discuss issues of the heart, mind and spirit. They will be wearing orange tags that say “Standing on the Side of Love.” Next Sunday after the service, we will have a Black Lives Matter stand in outside of the church along 35th Ave NE. Finally, we are responding as a community to a call to action, committing to provide for Black community organizers meeting and healing spaces here at UUC free of charge. In these ways, and in many more, we will continue to listen, learn and to change.
And believe it or not change is happening. Just last week, as I was considering deleting about half of the people from my social media connections because I was sick and tired of them not “getting it” with their Blue Lives vs. Black Lives vs. All Lives and their “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a bigger gun” a friend of mine made a simple statement on his Facebook page. He said,
“I’m ashamed to admit it has taken me this long to get it. The concept of Black Lives Matter isn’t a rallying cry to say that the life of an African American has more value than any other, it’s simply a reminder that the life of an African American has the same value as anyone else. Saying Black Lives Matter is just another way of saying Stop Valuing Black Lives Less.”
If my friend, a cis gender white male in his late 30’s married with children who lives in the suburbs who works in the tech industry who considers himself an enlightened liberal yet refused to accept the legitimacy of this most current Black movement can have a conversion of heart… it recommits me to keep doing the work. To keep speaking out on my social media channels. To keep engaging in loving dialog with those who disagree with me. To keep working in existing ways and finding new ways to not stop with the message that “the status quo has got to go.” And it is working; one person at a time.
Siblings, Vocare is a dangerous verb. It both summons the small voice inside and calls out through us as a louder voice in the world. To me Vocare is a powerful verb of Unitarian Universalism. We are an educated and privileged people with a history of justice and change, who do not let dogma or doctrine stand in our way, and who at our best have truly been one of the only real welcoming communities religion has to offer. Yes, I, and we as a denomination, have made so many mistakes along the way.
So what? We are a people who show up to listen, learn and to change.
I choose to believe that we are committed, whether we like it or not, to that prophetic vision that has spanned time from before the Rev. Theodore Parker to beyond the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and is present in the now through the words of prophetic Black organizers like Alicia Garza. That we are part of an arc in creation that has been bending toward justice from the very beginning. And each and every hand placed on that arc, through word and action, through my imperfect ally-ship and our collective imperfect ally-ship, will keep bending toward justice for as long as it takes.
Do you hear that? That small, quiet voice, full of the potential of justice and peace and freedom?
“So Justin, now tell me, what are you doing here?”
I am here because “things refuse to be mismanaged long.” I am here because I was summoned. I am here to answer the call. We are here to keep answering the call.