Waiting at Philadelphia Airport for a delayed flight, I was thinking seriously about why I decided to make the trip to Selma. It may seem obvious. But I’m talking about why I felt compelled to go.
What did I hope would happen at the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Campaign? Why did Unitarian Universalists go 50 years ago? Why did I, along with so many others, respond to the invitation to go now? What would it mean to me and to the larger Unitarian Universalist community to revisit this historic time in our nation and in our UU movement?
This month, when we are exploring what it means to live a life of inquiry, these are questions I have been wrestling with.
On March 7, 1965, I was 5 years old. I’m guessing there are quite a few of you who weren’t even born yet. I have no memory of that first march, now known as “bloody Sunday,” or of any of the other marches that year. Of course I learned about these events later. And last Fall, when an invitation to go to Selma arrived from the Living Legacy Project and Unitarian Universalist Association, I intuitively responded - without really thinking about it much. I just knew I was going to Selma. I can look back now and tell you that going had to do with our congregation’s conversations about race or the ongoing assaults on young black men in this country by police and via mass incarceration. These certainly had a hand in my going to Selma.
The truth is, I felt a yearning to go. I felt compelled. I felt a deep need to stand with my Unitarian Universalist kin in the places where others had put their bodies on the line, and where some lost their lives. The losses included the “slayings of Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African American activist, and two white Unitarian Universalists, Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. Every UU minister knows well that we UUs lost two of our own in the struggle for civil rights - one of our clergy and one of our lay people. “Telling her husband why she had to go, Viola Liuzzo said, ‘It’s everybody’s fight. There are just too many people just standing around talking.’ Reeb used similar words: ‘It’s the kind of fight I believe in. I want to be part of it.’ (qtd in Selma Awakening, Mark Morrison-Reed)
They had responded to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call. King’s message read:
In the vicious maltreatment of defenseless citizens of Selma, where old women and young children were gassed and clubbed at random, we have witnessed an eruption of the disease of racism which seeks to destroy all of America. No American is without responsibility. All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life. The people of Selma will struggle on for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all America help to bear the burden. I call therefore, on clergy of all faiths representative of every part of the country, to join me for a ministers’ march to Montgomery on Tuesday morning, March 9th. In this way all America will testify to the fact that the struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land.
Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo responded to the call. And Reeb was attacked the evening after the march on what is now called Turnaround Tuesday and died days later. Later that month, Liuzzo was shot and killed in her car by Ku Klux Klan members after ferrying marchers from Selma to Montgomery.
Of the 30,000 who marched on the final day, 500 were UU lay people and 250 were UU ministers. A quarter to a third of all UU ministers in full fellowship went to Selma in 1965. (http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/298756.shtml, "Selma's challenge," Mark Morrison-Reed, Winter 2014 11.1.14) Fifty years later, UUs responded once again. 500 of us showed up in Alabama for a sold-out three-day conference, called "Marching in the Arc of Justice: Revisiting Selma." During the conference, we worshiped together, sang together, broke bread together, cried together, laughed together, and marched together.
Our time began with a bus trip from Birmingham to Selma, visiting the site where Rev. James Reeb was killed and meeting his family.
That night we attended a mass memorial at Baptist Tabernacle Church. The service was emotional and lengthy, filled with spirited music, heart-felt prayer, and three prophetic sermons. It was a Baptist church, after all. Dr. King’s daughter Bernice spoke of “the fierce urgency of now” and the “we” factor. What we accomplish, we accomplish collectively. Rev. William Barber, Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church and President of the North Carolina NAACP, reminded us that “everything our fore-parents fought for is now under attack.” Rev. Jeremiah Wright offered us the profound insight that “black bodies have always mattered but black lives do not.” He meant, we are willing to build the industrial prison complex on the backs of African Americans without regard to the whole of the person. Three hours later, we departed that worship experience with full hearts and minds, with heavy hearts and minds.
Over the next two days we heard from veterans of the marches and key figures in civil rights justice work, then and now. Opal Tometi, one of the three founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, insisted that, “the cosmos is urging that we complete the work. Justice is not inevitable.” In a conversation with Rev. Dr. C.T. Vivian, a nonviolent advocate in the 60s, he proclaimed that, "There are only three important words: justice, truth, and love.” And we once again heard from Rev. William Barber who gave us a rousing wake up call – both literally and figuratively – at 7:30 in the morning. He declared, "We must have moral dissenters who will challenge injustice.” It was Rev. Barber, among others, who drove home the message that “we must put our bodies on the line.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said it this way: “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” In other words, our humanity calls on us to put into action our most deeply held values. We must live our Unitarian Universalist principles not just think them.
Selma called to us last week to do just that. To live our principles. We weren’t there to celebrate the achievements of the past. We showed up to re-consecrate ourselves and each other. That word consecrate literally means “to associate with the sacred.” We were indeed in Selma to re-consecrate ourselves and each other for our sacred work as a religious people. We recommitted ourselves to the work which remains to be done. Just think about it. The 2013 United States Supreme Court decision weakened the Voting Rights Act, one of the prize achievements for civil rights from 50 years ago. How can we celebrate that?!
Our presence in Selma gave tangible expression to our moral commitment to the issues that matter most to us and which are now under threat: voting rights, immigration, black lives, and civil rights for all. We reconsecrated ourselves as members of one human family. As Rev. CT Vivian eloquently said, “until we love other people we are playing games with ourselves.” It all comes down to that, to love, to relationships.
As you heard in our Time for All Ages this morning, our world would be a better place if we followed our hearts and confronted injustice. It makes a difference when we listen to our hearts and bring more love into the world. I listened to my heart. I ignored what is a sometimes too loud voice that rises up in me to say: “don’t bother. You have other things to do. Let someone else go. It’s not your business. No one really cares if you go anyway. What difference will it make?” That doesn’t mean everyone was supposed to go to Selma. Or even that we can do everything. There are many ways to listen to the heart and to heed the call – like engaging in the work many of you were doing here to Ban the Box. The Ban the Box campaign advocates the removal of questions about convictions from job applications so individuals are first judged based on their qualifications.
Like those who answered the call in 1965, those who went to Selma in 2015 went because we were called by love. I went because I was, as UU minister Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed calls it, “compelled and consumed by love.” I didn’t fully understand when I was on my way to Selma that I was compelled and consumed by love. It became clearer and clearer to me during my time there. And I don’t yet know the full outcome of going to Selma. Mark Morrison-Reed’s words reassure me that not knowing is okay. He says: “It is not possible, nor necessary, to know the outcome of our actions; therefore we act in faith. Faith asks not that we succeed but that we try. We try because we yearn to live out our values.”
The conference culminated in the anniversary march in Selma last Sunday. Counted among our numbers were Rev. Orloff Miller and Rev. Clark Olsen. They had responded to King’s call 50 years ago and were with Rev. James Reeb, when he was attacked. It was Orloff Miller who led the 2015 UU delegation from his wheelchair. As we made our way from Brown Chapel, marching toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge, it became clearer and clearer why we were there. It became clearer as our UU group became swallowed up by the much larger body of marchers, as many as 80,000. The route was about a mile and a half long. I remember after about a mile, we reached a cross street. When we turned to the left, I could see the bridge in the not-too-far-off distance. As I turned toward the bridge, I looked out in every direction. There were people as far as I could see. I was completely and utterly surrounded, completely consumed by love.
That’s what love looks like: people standing together on the side of love, people standing up for their values, love guiding our feet. When I reached the bridge, the crowd seemed to part. Someone later said it was because everyone stopped to take a selfie. I prefer to think of it as the moment the Red Sea parted. I prefer to think we had arrived at just the spot where we could imagine the Promised Land that can be.
Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker once said:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Like Theodore Parker, I believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I hope it does. But more than that, I return from Selma recommitted to the power of love to bend the arc of the universe toward justice. I return recommitted and re-consecrated to our sacred and collective power to make it so.
May we build the Promised Land that can be – together. May we have the courage to act in faith and love.
Amen. Blessed be.
Note: This sermon was inspired by the many speakers and preachers I listened to throughout the Marching in the Arc of Justice Conference. My intention was to give proper attribution for the various ideas and quotes as much as possible, recognizing, however, that some ideas were expressed by multiple people and became recurring themes.