Sunday, January 18, 2009

MLK and the Search for Truth and Meaning: a sermon

Rev. Kit Ketcham, Jan. 18, 2009

You could easily have called it the "Winter of My Discontent". It was January of 1965 and I was living in Goldendale, WA, with my parents, serving as a welfare caseworker for Klickitat and Skamania Counties. I'd been transferred from the office in Stevenson, which is located in the Columbia River Gorge, and is the county seat of Skamania County, to the Klickitat county office in Goldendale.

My dad was the minister at the First Baptist Church of Goldendale and it was logical that I would move back in with my parents, who lived in the parsonage next door to the church. I'd lived in Stevenson alone the year prior to that, in my own apartment, and had had a taste of independence--and loneliness--in my first full year out of college. Now I was moving back to my parents' home and this became problematic, even as it helped with my economic bottom line.

The trouble was, I'd gotten a new perspective on the Christianity of my childhood, a perspective gained primarily from my education at liberal arts Linfield College. And the summer after graduation, I'd spent three months at the American Baptist Assembly grounds in Green Lake, Wisconsin, marinating in the heady liberalism that was beginning to take root in American Baptist theology.

It was not a living situation that boded well for me or for my poor parents, who were doubtless bewildered by my restlessness, my strange physical complaints of dizziness and weakness, my irritability and puzzling unhappiness. I was still a good girl, though, and dutifully attended church services, led the junior choir, and played the piano for hymn singing.

For the physical complaints, I went to my parents' doctor, old Doc Timmer, who advised me kindly to leave Goldendale and start creating my own life, or else I was likely to end up like the stereotypical spinster living at home and caring for her aging parents while slowly giving up her own life.

That recommendation was what caused me to sign up for an adult religious education class on the other side of the Simcoe mountains, in Yakima. It was late winter by then, and Satus Pass was no fun in the snow, but I drove back and forth to Yakima every Tuesday night for weeks, in search of something positive to feed my desire for a meaningful life away from Goldendale.

The last night of the course, we had a visiting minister from American Baptist headquarters, a young man who made my heart go pitty-pat with his charisma and good looks. And I have to admit that it was probably his charm that made me ask him about the programs he supervised nationwide, serving Baptist community centers in such farflung places as Detroit and Chicago and West Virginia, thousands of miles from Goldendale.

But when he told me that he thought I'd be a natural as a program worker in one of these centers, I fell in love and started the application process. I learned that the western-most center was located in Denver and, after interviews and visits, I was assigned to the Denver Christian Center in the inner city.

My rationale for requesting assignment to Denver was that I had to be near mountains, and even though the Rockies barely qualified in my mind as real mountains (since all real mountains are actually former volcanoes), Denver felt like a good fit.

When I reached Denver that fall of 1965 to begin my work as a youth and children's program worker at the Denver Christian Center, I found myself in an environment that was both familiar and unfamiliar. My work was with youth and small children, which I knew something about from my preacher's kid days. My colleagues were black and white and brown and yellow, in the vernacular of the day. Our clients, our families, mostly lived in the housing projects nearby and they too were the colors of the human rainbow.

Our neighborhood, on the corner of 29th and Curtis, was dilapidated, dirty, and scary at night, when many of our activities with youth took place. But I was thrilled to be there. I'd rarely lived in a large city before and was excited by its opportunities. I'd never eaten burritos or enchiladas, either, nor chitlins or barbecue. And I had never really seen poverty or racism in the ways I began to see it now.

The center director, the Rev. George Turner, had been to Selma that spring and had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They were friends; George talked about Martin, about his hope for black America, about his hope that white America would understand what it meant to be oppressed, that the powers of government could be bent toward justice, that civil rights for minorities would be assured.

I knew nothing of Unitarian Universalism in those days, aside from the fact that the women of First Unitarian Church in Denver supplied materials and goodies for my preschoolers. But I was learning a lot about social justice work, humanitarian work, and the responsibility of the religious community to fight for civil rights for others.

Writing long letters home to my family, sending photos of the children and teens, telling about my experiences in the inner city, I was ecstatic about the work we were doing and every day my eyes were opened wider to the challenges of being poor, of being trapped in substandard housing, of being treated with disdain and scorn because of race or gender or class.

As I look back at it, though, I realize that though my work was meaningful, it was not particularly activist. My missionary experience---and that's what my official title was, Home Missionary---did not include politics, did not include activism beyond the day to day acts of providing the services of the community center: a food bank, clothing closet, free optometric clinic, job referrals, after-school activities, a Head Start class, and a small church service on Sundays.

That may have been most appropriate for my role as a missionary, but it was true of much of my generation as well. We, those of us born in the years 1929 through 1945 according to sociologists studying generational differences, were tagged The Silent Generation.

Whatever the reasons for our silence---whether it was because of the patriarchal system we grew up in or the almost overwhelming establishment-mindedness of our parents or the frightening rebellion of our Baby Boomer children or siblings---we were observers of the cultural milieu we lived in, not activists who sought to change systems.

Of course, that changed for many of us as we grew older and realized that oppressive systems affected us all and once we got our dander up, we were more likely to participate in the political activism that has brought so much change in our culture.

But we needed leadership and role models and one of our most revered leaders became the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a so-called Silent Generation member himself, who was pressed into service as a leader of the civil rights movement because somebody had to do it, and he was there, in the South, when leadership was required.

That is often what happens to us, isn't it? Somebody has to do it. Somebody has to step in and say, "no more", say "let's try this", say "stop hitting that child, that woman, that man", say "I'll do it". We may prefer observing; we usually can't maintain that stance for long when circumstances require that we step forward.

So the good Rev. Dr. Martin provided that impetus, that model for many of us and I suspect that many of us here have been activists for many years because of his leadership, perhaps quietly, supporting causes with donations; perhaps vociferously, protesting injustices, standing up for freedoms.

Rev. King once wrote the following, which is one of the readings in our hymnal:
"We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that. We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love…We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope."

Though Dr. King is primarily remembered for his civil rights work in the South, he was not a one-issue leader, as history has shown us. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he said. He took on the Vietnam War, poverty, class, and labor issues. When he was assassinated, his wife and family took up his work.

I have been thinking about the several justice issues of our day. Racism, of course, is still an issue, though we have overcome enough of it to be witness to one of the most remarkable events in American history---the election of a biracial man named Barack Obama as our 44th president. We are not fooled, however---racism is still a threat and I pray for him daily, both for his safety and his integrity.

But we have become more sensitized to the many other civil rights abuses of our world as we have watched our former leaders misuse the United States constitution, declare pre-emptive war on Iraq, and respond in vengeance, aggression, and retaliation to the objections of even our own citizenry.

We see uneven taxation levels of our citizens, adding to the skewed imbalance of wealth among our citizens, and compounding the already-dreadful effects of poverty, poor education, and hopelessness.

We see racial profiling, that insidious product of fear, tribalism, and hate. We see gender discrimination and the continuing inequities between the roles of males and females in many workplaces.

We see violence toward children, women, and men, both at home and in our institutions, even our religious institutions.

We see laws that deny equal rights to certain groups---prisoners in our foreign prisons, the mentally ill, and sexual minorities, to name a few.

And I ask myself, what are we doing about any of these? What can we do? Well, I've had an idea and here it is. This idea is in addition to the many possible projects of the Social Responsibility Council and has been approved by our board as part of our Welcoming Congregation opportunities and responsibilities.

A few weeks ago, two of our newer folks stood up here at joys and concerns and announced their engagement. The smiles on their faces ignited smiles in our hearts as well, for their comfort in our midst and their joy at being together isn't always possible or welcomed in a religious setting. If we were a Southern Baptist church, we probably wouldn't have been so thrilled for them. If we were a Catholic parish, such an announcement might have been tantamount to thumbing one's nose at the Virgin Mary and the Pope.

But we are a Unitarian Universalist congregation and their love for each other thrilled us. This young couple has asked me if I will perform their wedding ceremony next summer and, of course, I agreed, with joy.

It won't be a civil marriage, in that they won't be going to the County Clerk to get a license. Instead, it is a marriage of two hearts, in the presence of friends and family members, which is what every successful marriage must be--a marriage of hearts as well as bodies, a marriage of friendship as well as romance, a marriage of commitment to one another during the good times and the hard times.

After our service that Sunday, I was struck by a thought. We have a great many same sex couples on this island, some of them having been together for many years. Some of them have traveled to far places to be legally married---Canada, New England, California. Some of them have traveled to places to be married and then had that legal relationship snatched away from them by voters' actions or court decisions.

After seeing this happen to two young friends in Portland a couple of years ago, I decided that someday I wanted to do something concrete to alleviate some of the pain caused by injustice toward sexual minorities. I had performed their wedding ceremony, had celebrated with them and their families, and had taken part in these festivities with great joy, because Portland and Corvallis had declared that civil marriage was a civil right.

And then, that right was unceremoniously taken away, creating unnecessary heartbreak and fear in my friends' hearts and in the hearts of all who had rejoiced with them.

Now, here in Washington our legislature has enacted domestic partnership laws that ensure some of the rights of marriage for same sex couples, but those laws are inadequate to supply all the rights and benefits of marriage, both in a legal sense and in a cultural sense.

Children in families where two women or two men are heads of households cannot say that their parents are married, cannot enjoy the security of knowing that they are part of a nice normal culturally accepted family. Their parents love them as fiercely as any heterosexual parents, yet children are sensitive to the slights of their peers over cultural differences and must figure out how to cope with those slights.

To offer something to counteract the fear and heartbreak inherent in injustice of all kinds, to offer something only we, as Unitarian Universalists, can offer from our position as a Welcoming Congregation in a faith tradition whose First Principle states that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, to offer as a gift to same sex couples on this island, I have asked the board of trustees to approve what I am calling Proposal 2009. And they have done so, helping me work out the appropriate details of this gift and committing themselves to the support of the gift.

Here's what we, the UU Congregation of Whidbey Island, will offer to same sex couples on this island, during the year 2009: the use of our sanctuary and my services as an officiant to celebrate their marriages of the heart in wedding ceremonies that acknowledge their commitment to one another, their relationship as a positive and healthy thing in their lives, and their children as beloved members of a beautiful family.

I will work with these couples as I do with all couples who wish to be married, helping them to create a ceremony that expresses for them their deep connections, their vows of love and loyalty, their sense of beauty and honor. Their wedding may be public or private; it may be small or large; it may be simple or fancy, casual or formal.

But it will be a real wedding. And I will give them a certificate which acknowledges the seriousness of their commitment, as well as a promise that when the time comes, as it inevitably will in our state and across the nation, when civil marriage is acknowledged as a civil right by our state, I will sign their civil marriage license with great joy.

This is our gift as a congregation and my gift as a UU minister to our neighbors here on Whidbey Island who do not yet have this important cultural right to civil marriage. This is a gift, meaning that we will not charge for the use of our sanctuary and my services. We hope that our modeling of this act of affirmation will encourage other congregations to take bold steps to welcome same sex couples into a place where their love is honored and respected and validated.

We are grounded theologically in this gift by our Unitarian Universalist principles which state, among other things, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and that in a democratic society such as our, all persons must have equal civil rights.

In addition, two years ago we committed ourselves as a congregation to acting in behalf of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex community. As a Welcoming Congregation, we have a commitment to advocate and care for these friends, neighbors, and family members, whether or not they are members of this congregation.

I know that you may have questions and ideas about this gift. To give all a chance to discuss it with me, I invite you to be part of the regular conversation I normally have during the month we are examining each of our principles. That discussion would normally be at my home but instead we will have it here, in the sanctuary, to accommodate more folks than my little living room. We'll have some refreshments and some time to talk about what this may mean in our congregational life and in the life of the larger community.

I know some of you may be wondering what this has to do with honoring Martin Luther King Jr. I'd offer these words by Coretta Scott King in answer to your question:
For too long, our nation has tolerated the insidious form of discrimination against this group of Americans, who have worked as hard as any other group, paid their taxes like everyone else, and yet have been denied equal protection under the law...I believe that freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. My husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." On another occasion he said, "I have worked too long and hard against segregated public accommodations to end up segregating my moral concern. Justice is indivisible." Like Martin, I don't believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.

So in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, let us joyfully offer our gifts as a congregation to our friends and neighbors on Whidbey Island, in hope that we can do something concrete to alleviate the pain of injustice.

Let's pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our charge as human beings is to bring love and justice to each other and to the world beyond these doors. May we take this charge seriously, treating others as we would wish to be treated, loving the universe, the world we live in, and caring for it respectfully. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


Lizard Eater said...

WOW! What a wonderful way to begin 2009. Inspired.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks, LE, it has been an exciting day!

Miss Kitty said...

Incredible, INCREDIBLE sermon, Ms. K. I'm blown away.

Strange, but as I began reading, James Brown's "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" was playing on my iPod. Say it loud, indeed--may we all have the freedom to do so!

Mile High Pixie said...

BRILLIANT! Well put, Rev. Kit. Thank you for articulating the problem with the eloquence of MLK's own words. Interesting that his words, spoken in one frame of reference, apply to many frames of reference. Injustice anywhere is a threat everywhere. If someone can deny you rights for some odd reason, they can just as easily find a reason to deny me rights.

ms. kitty said...

Thanks so much, all of you, for your kind comments. My congregation has also been quite supportive.