Speaker: Rev. Taryn Strauss
First Service: 9:30 am
Second Service: 11:00 am
We’ll explore Howard Thurman’s theology of a spiritual discipline against resentment.
Professor of theology at Morehouse and Spelman, when he wrote Jesus and the Disinherited (1949), which deeply influenced leaders of the civil rights struggle. In this work, Thurman offered the vision of spiritual discipline, as against resentment, that later informed the moral basis of the black freedom movement in the South.
Howard Thurman and Spiritual Activism
I had originally named this sermon after Public Enemy’s 1990 record, Fear of a Black Planet. I was going to title this sermon, Fear of a Black Unitarian Universalism. Until a friend pointed out to me, that may somehow indicate to you that black Unitarian Universalism does not already exist.
And Praise Be, black Unitarian Universalism is thriving these days more than possibly any other time in the history of this faith tradition. The clip you just saw was taken just last week, at the Black Lives of UU inaugural Harper-Jordan symposium, a symposium The Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium responds to a longing on the part of many Black Unitarian Universalists to more fully understand where we have been, who we are now, and how we hope to live out our Unitarian Universalism as Black people.
The four-day gathering offered educational plenaries, spiritual grounding that speak directly to the learning, and was chock-full of networking and community-building opportunities.
The symposium explored an articulation of Unitarian Universalism that is unapologetically Black and proceeds from co-creation and co-development, such that we might proclaim and clarify a vision for a Black Unitarian Universalism. The symposium, open to everyone, is named for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (an abolitionist, suffragist, writer, and a Unitarian), and Rev. Joseph Jordan (the first black ordained Universalist). I have watched some of the plenaries, and you can too.
I decided it would be the right time let you in one of my visions of ministry, for this Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. It probably won’t be a secret to you, since it is proclaimed within this congregation’s ARAOMC resolution, regardless it needs to be articulated and shared in as many ways as possible, from this pulpit and beyond.
In a world that seeks to divide us, we know there is another way. In a city that has burned and struggled and been redlined, and bifurcated, that has innovated and come together and broken apart, we can be a part of Atlanta’s healing and hope, heaven-bent on an Atlanta that take its shattered history and piece together a beautifully mosaic’d, multi-racial future.
The vision is for UUCA to be a fully multi-racial, multi-cultural, queer-loving, multi-belief congregation that is working on itself. That is working harder to love Christians and theists who come here to worship. That can make space for humanists and atheists. That can offer a place for pagan ritual and Goddess-centered faith. That can hold it all, not perfectly, but artfully, flexibly, and beautifully.
I welcome this challenge as we move to our next permanent location. We already know we don’t need a building to be the salvific worshipping community that can transform and heal our City, and in some ways, this is liberating us.
This is by no means,the most challenging moment in the life of this congregation. It is not even close. The early UU Church of Atlanta struggled mightily with outside attacks of communism and anti-segregationist.
In the mid/late 1940s, As the church wrestled with public insinuations of Communist complicity, a real shift in long-standing and fundamental southern segregation policies was underway. In 1944 the Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Allwright declared unconstitutional the white-only primary system long used by southern Democrats to restrict minority voting rights. Change to southern Jim Crow traditions was afoot.
(1947-1948) of the Massachusetts-born Universalist Rev. Isaiah Jonathan Domas, in his words and action, reflected this change.
Upon arrival in Atlanta , he took a one-day a week job at Atlanta University, a predominately black college. Rev. Domas also reserved the right to meet with whomever he chose in his home. That company included Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, a black Unitarian from Ohio. Nonetheless, Dr. Jones attended a Sunday service in November 1947.
Rev. Domas recounted the event. “He was seated without incident, even to the taking of his offering … but the matter was hardly allowed to rest there. An ultra-race conscious minority promptly rushed to the telephone and served notice on those two members of the board that I should be fired forthwith.”
Rev. Domas’s daughter described what happened next as seen from the parsonage located next to the West Peachtree Street church:
“When the Ku Klux Klan threatened our family in the fall of 1947, I was too young to be told and too short to look out the high windows. If I saw anything alarming it was the odd way my parents stared at the street. My mother stood on one side of a closed drape, my father on the other. Each lifted just enough cloth to let in a sharp slice of Georgia sunlight. On West Peachtree Street, two floors below, a convoy of battered cars and rusty pickup trucks stretched from Third Street to Ponce de Leon. Each was full of Klansmen in white robes tilting back their pointed hoods to hunt for motion behind our drapes.”
Several weeks later the church voted to exclude black people from all church functions. The local newspaper reported the news with an article entitled “Wallacite’s Church Votes Negro Ban”.
Rev. Domas offered his resignation to the Board of Trustees and the church subsequently voted to accept his resignation by a vote of 33 to 32.
At its May 1948 meeting, the Unitarian Ministers’ Association responded to the actions taken by the church by refusing to send any future candidates to Atlanta until the church reversed its segregationist policy. At the October 1950 meeting of the AUA Board of Directors, a recommendation was made and later accepted that both the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association withdraw support from the Atlanta congregation.
In September 1951, the AUA sold the church building on West Peachtree Street and the church was officially disbanded.
Following the sale of the church building and the disbanding of the original congregation, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association coordinated efforts to raise a new liberal church in Atlanta. Rev. Glenn Canfield was dispatched to the city in early 1952.
He successfully regrouped several former members and attracted new members and re-chartered the United Liberal Church. In 1966, the church changed its name to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta (UUCA).
In a newspaper article in the Atlanta Constitution on May 5, 1952, it was noted that Rev. Canfield brought to Atlanta a lively sermon style that was characterized by a two-hour sermon that included a discussion session, sometimes called a talk-back, with the congregation regarding the sermon topic.
Religious services were conducted in the Briarcliff Hotel.
While services were being held at the Briarcliff Hotel, Rev. Canfield recalled that he had a discussion with the hotel manager regarding people entering the hotel for services.
Adults entered the meeting room directly from the street, but the children entered through the main lobby. Since services were integrated, Black children were entering the hotel via the main lobby.
Although the hotel manager was sympathetic, he indicated that the hotel was a public place, and he could lose his job.
Rev. Canfield and others worked diligently to find an alternate meeting space where they could hold integrated worship services. In October 1952, the Unitarians and Universalists began negotiations with the Latter-Day Saints to share their current worship space at 605 Boulevard, NE.
Rev. Canfield, however, happily reported that, “The Liberals and Mormons have reached complete and amicable agreement! At least on some things.”
The Mormons were in the process of erecting a new building in the 1400 block of Ponce de Leon.
While the building was under construction the worship space would be shared by the two denominations.
By April 1954, the Mormons had vacated their old worship space and the Unitarians and Universalists took control of both the worship space at 605 Boulevard, NE and the parsonage at 489 North Avenue, NE.
So you see our congregation’s history is not as clear-cut as being quote “the first integrated church in Atlanta.” Even that title is complex, circuitous, and fraught with fissures and fractures.
What is being explored and accomplished in the wider world of Unitarian Universalism offers us a fresh path, a heartening way of expressing Unitarian Universalism.
I am concerned with a question asked in our congregation by a black UU, when people say they want our congregation to be diverse, do they mean it? What if we had more black staff than white? What if we had more black members than white members? Is that what people mean when they speak of diversity, or do they have a threshold, a limit for their own comfort?
Look, I know I am white, I have a spiritual discipline of staying aware of my privilege,
and keeping conversation partners who keep me aware of my whiteness and its privilege. I was raised in a neighborhood and a school where white people were not the majority. I’m grateful to have grown up code-switching, and I am still connected with many of those early childhood friendships.
It’s still a spiritual discipline for me to try to place myself in situations where I am the racial minority, to remember the gift of that feeling since these days, I sadly lack that experience in my life today, to my and my family’s detriment. As a minister, I wrestle with this each week. To whom am I preaching?
In 1976 Howard Thurman wrote: I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man who stands with his back against the wall. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?
The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose needs may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs.
The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious question of modern life. -p. 3 Jesus and the Disinherited
I would say this claim is also true for Unitarian Universalism until recent years.
Thurman speaks to us in these days of rage:
During the early days of the war I noticed a definite rise in rudeness and overt expression of color prejudice, especially in trains and other public conveyances. It was very simple; hatred could be brought out into the open, given a formal dignity and a place of respectability. But for the most part we are not vocal about our hatred. Hating is something of which to be ashamed unless it provides for us a form of validation and prestige. If either is provided, then the immoral or amoral character of the hatred is transformed into active violence.
Friends, we are here, in 2019. Hatred has been given validation and prestige.
The person who represents our nation to the world wields hatred as a weapon, and this calls for love that is more powerful, more clear, more disciplined, and more radical in its expression.
Hatred cannot be defined, it can only be described. In the first place, hatred often begins in a situation in which there is contact without fellowship, contact that is devoid of any of the primary overtures of warmth and fellow-feeling and genuineness. Of course, it is easy to have fellowship on your own terms and to repudiate it if your terms are not acceptable.
And then, in 1976, Howard Thurman wrote about the insidious affects of social media and our internet communications:
It is clear that much of modern life is so impersonal that there is always opportunity for the seeds of hatred to grow unmolested. Where there are contacts devoid of genuine fellowship, such actions stand in immediate candidacy for hatred.
Unsympathetic understanding is the characteristic attitude governing the relation between the weak and the strong. When the Southern white says “I understand the negro, what he really means is that he has a knowledge of the negro within the limitations of the boundaries which the white man has set up. The kind of Negro he understands has no existence except in his own mind.”
This kind of hatred is paternalistic, it is complex and insidious, and those with privilege must be on guard for it at all times.
Hatred, in the mind and spirit of the disinherited, is born out of great bitterness- a bitterness that is made possible by sustained resentment which is bottled up until it distills an essence of vitality.
Thus hatred becomes a device by which an individual seeks to protect himself against moral disintegration. He does to other human beings what he could not ordinarily do to them without losing his self-respect. This is an aspect of hatred that has almost universal application during a time of war and national crisis.
We are in a time of national crisis, a war of extreme rhetoric, division and yes, hatred in our country.
Thurman wrote to the disinherited, to those with their backs against the wall, to love people in the way Jesus loved the tax collector. To love people, even enemies, while not condoning their way of life. It is not easy, it is a discipline and an overall technique to love one’s enemy.
Once the mutual discovery has been made that the privileged is a human, and the underprivileged is a human, then this must be reconciled, through the discipline of universal human experience, that we are each exceptional and we can also prove stereotypes. That we all have a lot of work to do.
The work of privileged is to lift up the underprivileged, and for those without power to love each other and themselves and define their own faith outside of the privileged person’s understanding or structure.
This is what these mystic activists have to say to us. We’ve heard from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dolly Parton, Hafiz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, and Howard Thurman. They want us to see God in everyone, and within.
To see ourselves with greater truth, the ways we are privileged, and the ways we are not. To be honest, and compassionate with ourselves when it’s needed and harsh with ourselves when it’s needed. We need not fear a Black Unitarian Universalism. It’s already here.
We can simply praise God, or praise what you praise that you are alive in this time, to witness to this cultural expression of our Unitarian Universalist faith,
breathing life into the future of our faith, and inspiring a love that demands our action and unending gratitude,
to look to our black leaders and leaders of color, support them, and honor their spiritual expressions joyfully free of judgment, simply with an ethic of gratitude. Always, always, keep fresh before you your moments of high resolve. May it be so.
Source: Southern Witness: Unitarian and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era, by Gordon Davis Gibson, Published by Skinner House Books, copyright 2015, page 71