Rev. Darrell Berger
First Unitarian Universalist Church of Essex County, Orange, New Jersey
November 29, 2009
The celebration of the winter season changes with the times. The Salvation Army is now taking credit cards. Their people also now wear labels on their aprons that say bell ringer. He's standing there ringing the bell! Why would he need a sign? How convenient it would be if we all wore aprons explaining exactly what we do. The Salvation Army is a way of showing empathy. "A Christmas Carol" is all about showing empathy. Scrooge finally comes to understand what other people are feeling.
Of course, empathy itself became an issue when President Obama said that "empathy" was among the qualities he was looking for in a Supreme Court Justice. People on the far right wondered what kind of code he was using, what sort of secret political agenda he was pushing. What kind of people are these that are looking for political agendas behind the use of words like empathy? I concluded it was people who themselves used words as codes for secret political agendas and assume everyone is as devious as they are.
I thought before we began celebrating our several holiday rituals, we might take a look at how UU's have developed our sense of empathy throughout history, where the limits of our empathy have fallen, and how we might push them back.
From the Unitarian side of the family we were well educated, until recently solidly middle or upper-middle class and classically liberal. One of the prime ways that a classic liberal expresses empathy is charity. Alms giving. That is certainly a fine thing to do. We should all do more of it.
The Boston Urban Ministry, for many decades called the Benevolent Fraternity of Unitarian Churches, was founded by Rev. Joseph Tuckerman in 1826 to enable the affluent Unitarian churches in and around Boston to help the poor.
There has also always been an activist strain to Unitarianism. We recall that Henry David Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes for the Mexican War. His friend Emerson comes to visit and asks him why he is in jail.
Thoreau asks Emerson why he is not in jail.
Did anyone notice the short trial balloon that was floated in congress about the possibility of a war tax for Afghanistan? I think a war tax is a great idea! To think we might actually have to pay for a war as we go. In my lifetime, we have paid for wars only by saying we don't have enough money for education, we don't have enough money for housing, but we will have as much war as we want on credit.
Theodore Parker's church in West Roxbury was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
A century later Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death by segregationists in Selma, Alabama in 1965. He was one of a lage number of UU ministers who marched for Civil Rights in the South, at some risk to their personal safety and sometimes, at some risk to their career advancement.
Such people were considered radicals in their times. The great majority of Unitarians were far more timid, if not actively opposed to the radicals. Emerson did not follow Thoreau to jail, nor did any of his Concord neighbors, many of whom were Unitarian. Many Unitarian churches of his time would not permit Parker use their pulpits, his Transcendentalist theology being anathema to them. His church was the only Unitarian stop on the Underground Railroad.
A few years after Reeb was killed, the Black empowerment controversy crippled the UUA for twenty years, as it failed to establish a place for the African American voice.
Universalists were less politically liberal, less activist, but because they were less affluent, more rural, their empathy enabled them to identify with the oppressed in some areas. They had long-established ministries to families of prisoners. Horace Greeley was a man committed to woman suffrage. A number of their ministers were pacifists.
Rev. Frank Oliver Hall was minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City. He had been there several successful years when he announced his opposition to World War I. One of his most influential parishioners was a retired military officer who also happened to be the country's largest manufacturer of American flags. He left the congregation with a flourish as Hall announced his opposition. Soon Rev. Hall was the former minister of the Fourth Universalist Society.
Liberalism has its limits, as even the Bible says. Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish council that turned Jesus over to Pilate, shows us these limits quite clearly. He appears only three times. He meets with Jesus secretly; who tells him he must be born again, must find a spiritual approach to his life.
Nicodemus actually wanted to hear what Jesus was teaching before he judged him. This is one reason I call him a liberal. Next, he raises a point of order in Jesus' behalf at the council meeting, as the Nazarene was turned over to Pilate without due process. Finally, he helps prepare Jesus' body for burial.
Nicodemus' example is followed by liberals far more than Jesus'. We listen to the leader of the oppressed, raise a point of order at his trial, and prepare his body for burial. Unitarian Universalists raise up our saints of solidarity while failing to act with solidarity, being all too often satisfied with the charitable approach to justice, when what is needed is standing with the oppressed.
The closest Unitarian Universalists usually get to solidarity is identity politics. Many of our members are liberal women, and we stand for women's rights, as well we should. We were decades ahead of most religions, and unfortunately still are, on the issues of gay rights. We had many gay members even before an office of gay concerns was established at the UUA in 1974. What is personal to us is political, but too often it is only the personal that is.
The UU approach to diversity feels to me like that of an elite university. That is, it is sought because it is better for our churches, and only secondarily because might be better for the minorities that provide it. It is diversity as marketing.
Here is the heart of the matter. A demographic survey of colleges a couple of years ago discovered the most diverse university in the nation was Rutgers at Newark. Yet do we think for a moment that Princeton or Drew would want to be that diverse?
Likewise, most Unitarian Universalists in this area do not want to attend church in Orange. Charity is fine with UU's. Solidarity, not so much.
But, by being a member of this congregation you are saying you stand with that minor, radical strain of solidarity that runs through our history, of Theodore Parker and Thoreau and James Reeb, even as we know that most UU's will stand far back from us, applaud our mission, while having no taste to engage it.
What is that mission? We are in the heart of Orange. Its revitalization starts with the train station, and the parking lots nearby. That area needs to be made welcoming and beautiful. Along with this comes the greening of Main St., more trees and plantings. Continuing to green and care for our yards, one of the few open green spaces near Main St., is part of this. It is not just folks outside of Orange who do want to come here now. Even people who live here don't shop here! There are all sorts of community wounds that need to be healed here, and making Main St. more inviting to community and commerce is part of that healing.
A lot of people here also need help because their homes are near foreclosure. We are providing program space for H.A.N.D.S., the Orange non-profit development corporation, and New Jersey Citizen Action, to provide foreclosure prevention counseling.
Supporting these plans is not charity. It is solidarity. It is really self-help. Once this town is revitalized, it will be easier for people to want to come to church here!
Those of us who have white skin privilege, or economic privilege, or educational privilege can make such a big difference just by showing up. It is amazing how much a person can do by doing so little. Every UU at a demonstration of oppressed people keeps the cops just a little more restrained, the press just a little more interested, and the politicians just a little more attentive. It's pathetic, but true. It was James Reeb's death that got the attention of middle America. "Oh, they just beat to death a white man?"
Most of us here do not live in Orange, but in nearby towns and cities. Our presence here bears witness that our communities are connected. You can't revitalize a community by moving out the poor folks. The poor folks just go someplace else, without the ties of community, causing many of the social ills of the last decades, from crime to drugs to AIDS.
There is a place for charity, extended to the poor, to our families and to each other. Yet the most profound charity is not given by people of privilege. It is given by the poor to the privileged, who are trying in ways far too small, ignorant and timid, to stand with them.
Solidarity for this season means not that we give alms, but that we all stand together.