Rehearsing the Beloved Community A sermon preached by Taryn Strauss All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City July 1, 2012

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1 1 Rehearsing the Beloved Community A sermon preached by Taryn Strauss All Souls Unitarian Church, New York City July 1, 2012 When I was about 4 or 5 years old, one of my earliest memories was on one Sunday morning at Third Unitarian Church in Chicago, in our fellowship hall, African drummers came to play music. In coffee hour, I placed myself in the center of a circle of adults, who were debating fervently over the political or social issue of the day, I think at that time it was probably war I the Middle East, health care, and equal rights for gays and lesbians, well I guess not much has changed. But they were talking, and I stood in the center of their circle and I began to dance. I continued dancing, becoming more animated with my moves and bringing up the energy of this dance until all the adults had stopped talking and they were clapping a common rhythm, and others were laughing and shaking their heads, as I beckoned them to join me. Soon the whole fellowship hall had gathered together, joyfully clapping a common beat. I don t know what came over me, except that in that fellowship hall, amidst my friends, the older youth, adults my parents age, and seniors, I felt completely and totally at home. My dancing was a joyful prayer, praising the community that lifted me up and welcomed me completely.

2 2 My question to you is this. If you saw a child dancing in the fellowship hall after the service at All Souls, would you clap along? I hope you would. I hope you would make space for her, join her, and open your heart to the joy of being alive and being in community with her. I hold this hope because I have seen what this community can do in the name of generosity and love. One month from today, it will be exactly a year since I came to serve with you at All Souls NYC. I was thrilled to come here, because I had heard wonderful stories about the work you are doing in the world. I had heard about the Monday Night Hospitality program serving 300 guests a hot, healthy meal every single week. I had heard about the Navigator, an open and affirming National alternative to boy scouts, launched by an All Souls member. I had heard about Heart and Soul, a strong philanthropic organization improving life for so many New Yorkers. I already knew of Unitarian Universalist Community Schools Campaign, another innovation born out of the inspired mind of an All Souls member.

3 3 I felt called to be among such movers and shakers, justiceseeking people who answer a prophetic call to take their UU faith into the world and create change. Today, all my expectations have been exceeded, we have already done incredible work together, and I am honored and grateful to have joined in fulfilling these visions with you. I have been a Unitarian Universalist my whole life. Growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, we attended 3 rd Unitarian Church, in a predominately African-American, lower income neighborhood. This in itself is rare, I know now. Many UU churches in the United States are situated in the fancier neighborhoods, with manicured lawns and expensive property. But Third church was not, and while this meant my mother s purse was stolen more than once outside the church, it also meant we had an opportunity to build a meaningful relationship with the community who lived there. We helped run an interfaith soup kitchen across the street, and after church most Sundays, parents would gather up their kids and we would all head over and serve lunch together, and then eat it, sitting down with the guests who had come for the free meal.

4 4 In my memory, this entire day spent together was church, not just the worship, not just the RE classes, but also the hour we spent serving food together and then eating it alongside members of the community. It was all church, and this whole experience of worship together, learn together, and then take our inspired, galvanized selves outside the walls and work alongside the community was what it meant to be a Unitarian Universalist. It still is what it means to me. Victor Hugo said that there is nothing more powerful in all the world than an idea whose time has come. The idea whose time has come today is the real possibility of the Beloved Community, a peace-seeking community of people who see the face of God in one another, who see the inherent worth and dignity in each other, and who honor that connectedness through their actions. That is what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Let me tell you some stories of UU living into their faith, and rehearsing the dream of the Beloved Community. Last week, I traveled to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly of congregations in Phoenix, Arizona. We were there for a Justice General Assembly during a boycott of the state, to lend our voice to the struggle for ethical treatment of immigrants and their families.

5 5 Two years prior, General Assembly organizers had developed partnerships with immigrants rights groups such as Puente Arizona and Todos Somos Arizona. On that night, we were invited to stand with those immigrant rights groups in solidarity and in vigil, outside of Tent City, where Sherriff Joe Arpaio has set up a deportation encampment. It s important that you know that we were invited by grassroots organizers working in the state. We did not assume what was needed, we asked what was needed, and we showed up. In these tents, which are billed as administrative holding areas to help people show up for court dates, we heard stories from witnesses of people being held in 110+ degree heat, handcuffed and made to wear prison uniforms. There are reports of widespread hunger, thirst, and physical abuse against detainees. Peter Morales and Bill Shultz, respectively the president of the UUA and the UU Service Committee took a tour of the encampment and saw this first-hand. Because the immigrants are not technically held as criminals, they are not entitled to due process or the right to an attorney. Sheriff Joe is proud of his stringent enforcement of immigration laws, and though the US government is currently suing him for civil rights violations, he continues his inhumane practices of profiling Latinos and rounding them up in his tent city.

6 6 Responding to the request of these grassroots groups in Arizona, we stood vigil, singing songs of love and freedom, chanting in Spanish because we knew the detainees could hear us, and calling for improving their conditions because we knew Sheriff Arpaio could hear us too. We stood in the heat until late into the night, exhausted but emboldened because for one brief night, we were experiencing the discomfort of the detainees, and it humbled us before them. Just for a moment, we knew the profound joy of being in solidarity, and giving up our own comforts to feel a sacred connection to detainees held in captivity. Looking at the faces of the All Souls members who were standing with me, Blanca Rodriguez, Bruce Knotts, Tiha Masciulli, Andrew Nicholas, Jim Moskin, and Daniel Gregoire, I found in their eyes a deep connection to each other, and to those marginalized in the camps. Letting our little lights shine, holding hands, we recognized the divine in one another. We were living our Unitarian Universalist faith in action.

7 7 As I left the vigil, I stopped at a cart where a man was selling paletas, Mexican popsicles. He spoke no English, so I addressed him in Spanish. He asked where I was from, and when I responded with New York City, he became emotional. In Spanish, he exclaimed with wonder, you came all this way just to stand with us, and be with us and our friends and family members who are in detention? He could not believe we had traveled so far to bear witness to this violation of human rights. Then he started talking about the Statue of Liberty. I love the Statue of Liberty, he said passionately, wiping his eyes. She stands for freedom of belief, she stands for opportunity, she stands for safety and sanctuary for all immigrants. But those are not true for my people, he said. The Statue of Liberty is not for us. I assured him that Todos somos Arizona, we were all Arizona, and we were grateful to stand with him for justice. We hugged, and he handed me a paleta. These are the moments that grow the soul. These are the moments when I am living into my faith.

8 8 In her seminal book 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, religious historian Karen Armstrong calls on all people of faith to root their lives in the practice of compassion. Compassion, derived from the Latin patiri and the Greek pathein, meaning to suffer, undergo, or experience. So compassion means to endure something with another person, to feel their pain as if it were our own. Upon receiving the TED prize, Armstrong partnered with religious leaders from around the world to develop a global charter for compassion, which insists that compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the Centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. Reads the charter, It is the path to enlightenment.

9 9 Last year, Karen Armstrong gave the esteemed Ware Lecture at Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. Over a half century earlier, another lecturer spoke on a similar topic. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the Ware Lecture in 1966, when he urged that we Unitarian Universalists do not sleep through the revolution, but that we join our voices in solidarity with the oppressed. This call still rings true. But how do we know what we stand for? Are we as a church community ready to come to the table and truly live into our faith through action? How do we, the people, build a new way? We must hold the vision for the world, right here in All Souls church. If our nation is becoming more diverse, as the census figures demonstrate, then we must do what our strategic plan calls us to do, which is deepen our capacity to welcome that diversity. We come to church because it is a place where we can cross the borders imposed upon us by society. If All Souls is to be the rehearsal of the Beloved Community, then we must do the hard work of building authentic relationships grounded in compassion, relationships across socioeconomic borders, across racial borders, across borders of belief, and perhaps easiest of them all, borders of age.

10 10 If the end of injustice is the Beloved Community, then we must hold that vision here. We must be a place where we can be in covenanted community, and that means holding each other accountable to our commitments to love, equity, and compassion. I m a First and a Seventh Principle religious educator. That means I strive to live every day honoring the worth and dignity of every person, and honoring the interdependence of all life on Earth. I am humbled by the responsibility to live into this faith, and I believe that my work with you goes deeper than religious education. We are doing more than educating people about religion, aren t we? This year, I worked with the Religious Education Committee and Rev. Galen to develop a new mission statement for our Religious Education program. We are now in the business of spiritual formation. We are in the business of creating experiences that help grow your soul, which is to experience a transformation of the spirit. We can t do that work of growing our souls if we stay comfortable and separated within our cohorts, but the good news is that we can grow our souls, we must grow our souls, and All Souls is the place for us to do that work, and the best part is, we can do it together.

11 11 We can do it by creating One Church, where children are regularly welcomed and represented in the worship service, where story and narrative is integrated into worship as a way for us to make meaning out of life, and most of all where our children are seeing you take your faith out into the world and act on it, so that wherever you go, as Rev. Nate Walker says, the people will say, Aaah, the Unitarians are here. Wouldn t that be wonderful? When you arrive at the protest, at the City Council meeting, at the jail, at legislature, at the soup kitchen, even at the party, the people say, Aaah, the Unitarian Universalists are here. Rev. Jim Forbes, minister emeritus at Riverside Church in Harlem, where he served for 25 years, says that the sound of the siren is part of the sermon. When your mind travels and you think about the person in the ambulance, you have a moment of empathy and compassion where you hope everyone will be okay, that is connecting you with your humanity, and with all the other souls around you. Likewise, He also says when the baby cries in the sanctuary, that is the voice of God, which is also part of the sermon, bringing you back into the room.

12 12 The words of the sermon are part of that divine message, but the experience of the worship is the whole message. So the baby s cry during the worship service, the sermon even, is connecting you to the Beloved Community. The baby is the child of God, or at least the child of this church community, and if you are a part of this church, then you are a responsible elder of that child. It is all of our roles to mind the children, and to be open to what they have to teach us. If we are to be a community of all souls then we must welcome the children, and the tired parent who wants to worship with her family. We must open our hearts to the spiritual yearnings of our youth, and the religious values of our children, who find meaning in the power of story, and ritual, and the hopeful light of our chalice flame. If you saw a child dancing in the fellowship hall after the service at All Souls, would you clap along? If you hear a baby cry during the sermon, could you welcome it as the voice of god? If this congregation could embody a new way of being together grounded in compassion, could you take that vision out of these doors and into the world with you?

13 13 Let us take our work another step further towards growing our souls. Let s welcome our children into the full life of our church. Let us bring our youth deeper into our governance process. Let s form authentic relationships across the borders of age. Let us rehearse the Beloved Community within these walls even as we work for justice outside of them, and let us begin by creating the truly Multi-generational church. May it be so. Amen. Bibliography: Armstrong, Karen. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, King, Dr. Martin Luther. Facing the Challenge of a New Age. Keynote Address. First Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change. Montgomery, AL. 3 Dec Young, Rick and Hinojosa, Maria. Lost in Detention. Frontline. 18 Oct

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