Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Long Night

by the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

A few years back, I dropped cable television service and haven't gone to the trouble to figure out non-cable television options. For that reason, I sometimes miss the visuals that make it into our national news cycle.

I hadn't seen the video of Eric Garner's killing until of the day of the grand jury decision not to indict his killer, police officer Daniel Pantaleo. My Facebook feed filled up with reactions from friends and acquaintances near and far. I watched in utter horror at the sight of a completely non-combative man being surrounded by police and choked to death on a city street in broad daylight.

What could be more terrifying than being attacked by the very people one should be able to call for protection from such violence? And then to know that there would be no deeper investigation as to how such a thing could happen?

I couldn't think. Unlike Eric, I could breathe, but the air around me seemed very thin. And I could feel: my heart racing, my throat going dry, the tears spilling onto my cheeks. I couldn't write, but I shared a picture of myself from those moments on Facebook, as I changed my cover photo to one of Eric just before he was wrestled to the sidewalk, in the last seconds of his life.

As my ministerial colleagues have written and preached, I have struggled to find words to compose that capture even a fraction of what I feel. This is my first attempt.

Like Eric, I have literally been in the cross-hairs of the police, my life at risk simply because I was a black man at the wrong place at the wrong time. One night in the late 1980s, as I was waiting for a bus on Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC, a car pulled up toward me slowly. The next think I knew, the lights of the car were shining on me, and a police was leaning out of the car with a firearm pointed at me. "Get your hands up, mother-f**ker!" he shouted. I did as I was told. In moments, I was surrounded by police cars.

One of the officers pushed me onto the trunk of one of the cars. I was frisked and searched. I was asked what I was doing, why I was standing there. I told them the truth: I had just gotten out of church choir rehearsal and was trying to get home. The searched my coin purse, presumably for drugs. After they were done, I asked why they had chosen me. One of the officers said that they were looking for someone in a black jacket and blue jeans who was carrying a concealed weapon. When one car rear-ended another and fled on the opposite side of the street, they all sped away in pursuit.

I cried that night too ... Grateful to still be alive, that I hadn't made a false move, and that the cops had not been trigger-happy.

After the non-indictment in the Michael Brown case, I wondered what an appropriate response would be, one that might make a difference. I'm unsure of the efficacy of tactics used in the past. I understand boycotts and public protests, but I wonder if those of us today have the fortitude of the Montgomery bus boycotters, who forewent public transport for a year until their demands for equality were met. While I appreciate the commitment to keep these urgent concerns in the public eye, I have difficulty seeing what it will matter over the long-term.

I do believe that younger generations -- as Dr. King and his contemporaries were in the 50s and 60s -- hold keys to progress and need to be empowered by those of us who are older to lead. And I do believe that, as during the civil rights era, change will come as a result of the persistent efforts of courageous people working over a variety of fronts over time. I believe in the power of partnership and relationship -- as we say in one of our mottoes for the Southern Region, "We are better together."

With that in mind, I am co-facilitating a Region-wide conversation with Elandria Williams, a member of the Education Team of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee. It was there that Rosa Parks received her training before becoming the catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Elandria is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a passionate activist. I am grateful to have her as a colleague in justice work.

Directions for joining that conversation will be posted in the next Southern Region newsletter, and on the Southern Region Facebook page. We look forward to being on that call with you.

Also, in conjunction with our congregations in East Tennessee, I will lead a weekend workshop on Marshall Rosenberg's approach to Nonviolent Communication, also known as Compassionate Communication, January 30-31. I believe that compassion for all people is going to make a difference in this present confusion. You can learn more and register for that event by clicking here.

My prayer is that love will guide us through this long, hard night in our nation's history. May we be willing to be saviors to each other, now and always.

God bless us, every one.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tradition and Change

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Staff

My Christmas tree is up and decorated. The trimming of the tree has always been a part of my culture. I grew up in the Midwest in a house with high ceilings and expansive rooms, so we always had a very big tree. Another tradition started with my relationship with my husband: putting the tree up on Thanksgiving weekend. He traveled a great deal in December for work and we also traveled back to the Midwest to visit both of our families, so if we wanted to be able to enjoy the tree, we needed to put it up early. We would put it up on Friday, let the branches fall out, then, on Saturday, put the lights on in anticipation of a few guests joining us that evening for the “trimming.”

Revisiting this tradition every year reminds me how much of the tradition stays the same, and how much I have changed. Our ceilings are lower, our rooms are smaller, and the kids are no longer here to add their touch, but we still get the largest one we can, and it still goes up on the holiday weekend.

The beauty of the ornaments and the overall effect of the tree used to be so important to me. Now, what resonates is the story that my tree tells. The new ornaments I added this year are from the new places I have visited this fall: The Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore Estate in Asheville. In addition to these two, the ornaments that took the front spot this year are the ones that represent the people of my life. They were given to us or placed on the tree at one of our tree trimming parties. I relive memories from the past with every one I hang.

I think it appropriate that these are at the center of the tree, as relationships are at the center of this faith that I love so dearly. While it is true that this time of year evokes a flood of memories of the past, it is only the present that is truly before us. For now is the time that needs our attention.

It is easy to say that relationships are important to us, but they need tending. I need to pay attention and give care to my current relationships in order for them to thrive. This is often not easy to do, as they take time, and I must often put my own desires aside in order to be truly present to others. One of the biggest gifts we can give to one another is listening. We so often listen with only half our attention as we are thinking about what our response will be…so, therefore, we are only partially listening.

Lynne Baab, author of “The Power of Listening” says that “healthy congregations are comprised of people who listen well.” I could not agree more. This care toward listening shows up in all sorts of places from one-with-one conversations and committee meetings to larger conversations. A congregation that understands the value of listening will invest dearly in “the process.” A good process for discernment and exploration is critical to navigating change.

I believe that if we can listen deeply with open hearts and minds, we have a good chance of making the world a better place. In order to do that, we have to be willing to have our hearts and minds changed. Some of us took so long to figure out what we believe that it is a scary prospect to be willing to give up some of those beliefs. But how else can we be in deep relationship with those who are different than us?

Our world is quickly becoming smaller and more diverse. In the Information Age, we can be in relationships all around the globe. We need to adapt to this constantly changing world. I cannot write here without acknowledging the pain of our sisters, brothers, and cousins across this nation in the wake of the turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri. What will it take for us as a nation to truly listen to one another? How can we let our assumptions be questioned without becoming defensive? Can we risk being wrong? Can we let ourselves be vulnerable in order to learn how to appreciate each other? Can we let go of what makes us comfortable in order for us all to benefit? Are we willing to sacrifice something of ourselves so that others may live a life in more humane conditions? Can we ask our best selves to come forward to live into this faith where we put relationships at the center, even if there are no guarantees what the future will look like?

We humans long for deep connection. We must tend to these connections. The tree in my living room is smaller than the trees of the past but it represents my journey from my past to my present. I do not know what the future will bring, but I will hold onto my my values, my relationships, my truth, if you will. I will hold on loosely, for I will have to let go of some things, and make room for others. That is the complexity of this wondrous life.

I wish you all blessings during this time of memories and hope.