Vision for the People: Liberation
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
September 20, 2015
“What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet. But names are important, aren’t they?
The hymn we just sang, by the way, is properly named Singing for Our Lives. For reasons of consistency probably, the compilers of the grey hymnal thought it easier to identify each hymn by its first line, so its listed as We Are A Gentle Angry People, but it’s real name is Singing for our Lives. Written by Holly Near as a response to the 1978 assassination of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, who was gay, this song became an anthem for the gay rights movement.
Can you tell by my calling it “the gay rights movement” that we’re talking about the 1970’s and 80’s? I didn’t say LGBTQ or Queer, I said “gay rights” and that language, though describing the same root idea, provides hints to the social context, the cultural politics, and our social formation, to use the language of Freire and Macedo.
And wow, has the social context changed! The times they are a changin' As you see, we have flowers this morning leftover from a beautiful wedding yesterday of two gorgeous women - who were really married 22 years ago in the eyes of the Goddess, but only yesterday was their marriage recognized by the state of Michigan because they were permitted, finally, to make it legal.
You might think it a small thing, that paperwork. Just a name: legal. Names are important, but what’s in a name? “a love by any other name would still love be.” The name is not the thing, it just points to it.
Language comes with this paradox. It is one of our most important human tools, and it is never enough to fully communicate. There is always more.
I wonder if the compilers of our hymnal could predict the unintended consequences of such naming. There’s a hymn in there that I rarely choose because it is listed “o what a piece of work are we” but actually, when I hear the music and lyrics together, it’s a perfectly lovely hymn. It describes the human condition as quite opposite of what I think of as “a piece of work.”
Sometimes it’s hard to get past the name.
Social situations. O yes, social situations. When do I mention to the person I’ve just met that my name, in fact, is not Kathy? My mother insisted when I went into kindergarten that I be called Kathryn, and it stuck. Kathy is our congregational administrator, our former board president. It’s a perfectly good name. It’s just not mine. If you yell it across a crowded room, I am not going to look, because you’re calling someone else’ name, not mine. I’ll answer to Kat, when my sister calls me that. Nobody else. KB. I pretty much answer to KB. Kata, if you’re speaking to me in Spanish. And once, when I was doing some Shakespeare in college, my co-director called me Kate – you know, from Taming of the Shrew, and that worked in that particular relationship and moment in time. But outside of that particular social context, my name is Kathryn.
Naming is an important part of liberation. Choosing names. Names are important. It’s one reason you’re invited to wear nametags on Sunday mornings. Not because we want to label you, but because we want to call you by your true name – we want to recognize you, and we don’t all know each other. Being able to call each other by our names is a gift. A gift we don’t always get in the world out there.
Unfortunately, the history of humanity is full of examples of calling people either wrong names or disparaging names. “Unitarian” was not a positive term. Historically, it was used to disparage a particular sect of Christians. It was calling them – get this – “Jews” – or even worse (in the name-caller’s mind) “atheists”. Somehow the Christian belief in a trinity became so central to orthodox Christianity, that anyone who denied a belief in the three in one idea (father, son, and holy ghost), and declared that God was One - was called, not in a good way, “Unitarian.”
But for most of us, the term carries a positive connotation of a free faith, a liberating tradition of recognizing our interdependence and oneness with God or the universe . We can thank William Ellery Channing for that. Tired of the name calling, he took back the term “Unitarian” in 1819 when he preached the sermon, Unitarian Christianity and basically said, if you’re going to call me that, then I’m going to define it for you and tell you why it’s a good thing that I’m a Unitarian.
Biggby Coffee company, when I first moved to Michigan, was Beaners. When the local coffee shop changed its name in 2007, keeping the B logo, my husband had to explain to me why: how “beaner” was an offensive term. I hadn’t heard it in Washington State where I worked with Mexican migrant workers and their children. They were called many names, but I don’t recall ‘beaner’ being among them. But my husband, from Texas, knew the term as a derogatory name for Mexican which refers to the fact that the Mexican diet includes a lot of beans. Wow. I imagine you could think of a lot of examples of insulting names groups of people have suffered, including people who are lesbian, latino, or fill-in-the-blank.
Black, Afro-American, African-American, Colored People, Negro – think of all the names people in this country have used to describe the race of some among us: people whose ancestors are from Africa or whose skin is dark. The name may begin neutral and become disparaging, or begin as an insult and then become a marker of pride – ‘black is beautiful.’
All these shifts in names have to do with shifts in attitudes and provide hints to the social context, the cultural politics, and our social formation. Whether or not the people named are being treated as objects or take their power as subjects.
Our hymn of the month, Woke Up This Mornin’, is a powerful demonstration of the importance of naming. In this case, naming the social context of slavery and segregation and discrimination.
It began, as our Director of Music, LB, wrote in the newsletter last month, as a gospel song in the church setting: Woke up the Mornin’ with my mind stayed on Jesus. It was changed during the Freedom rides of the early 60s. It was reworked by Rev. Osby of Aurora Illinois during his incarceration at the Hinds County Jail and modified by Bob Zellner, son of a southern Klansman who became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. “In its new form, it was sung by protesters on marches and at rallies. The folk group The Weavers brought it to an even wider audience during live performances and with a 1963 recording of a concert at Carnegie Hall.” I’m reading now from LB’s notes: “The original creators of the song were looking forward to leaving their lives of extreme hardship and prejudice and meeting up with Jesus in the afterlife. The Freedom Riders who repurposed the song were fighting centuries of legalized discrimination in this country.”
Freire and Macedo write that “literacy becomes a meaningful construct to the degree that it is viewed as a set of practices that functions to either empower or disempower people.” The writing and re-writing of this song functioned to empower people.
Naming a vision is the first important step. And then we must continue to name that vision. Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom. I don’t just name freedom as a goal, but my mind stayed on freedom.
“Freedom, reason, and tolerance” has been a vision of Unitarian Universalism since the mid-twentieth century, at least as named by Earl Morse Wilbur in his A History of Unitarianism. By so naming this vision and keeping our minds on it, we were able to participate in the social movements – particularly the liberation movements of the last century – gay liberation, civil rights, disability rights, to name a few.
Many of my colleagues have suggested – and I agree – that this vision needs updating. But some of them would replace that word Freedom with other goals… and I guess I’m just not convinced that we’re ready to move on from that vision, that we’ve accomplished enough. That we are free.
I don’t know, maybe it’s just September, and the beginning of the new year, and school year, and it’s busy – and I’m feeling the pressures of work and society, the pull of family – but I have to be reminded of my favorite quote from Paulo Freire, one he shouted from the floor of a convention he was attending “we are bigger than our schedules!” which is really to say, that we must take control of our own lives, not let our lives be shaped by outside forces.
We have choices to make and if we don’t make those choices, by default we will become objects of our lives, not the subjects we deserve to be. I believe that naming is an important step for all people, across social location and state of oppression – we must name what it is our lives have become in order to create the vision we seek to embody.
When I first arrived as minister here in 2002, the search committee told me that the congregation knew it was inhabiting an inadequate building, but loved the location. It named a problem and glimpsed a vision. Since then, we have identified, named a lot of issues – accessibility, for me at least, the most persuasive among them. We identified, named some options for improving it – expanding, moving – we considered locations in Okemos and Grand Ledge, and a myriad of other properties and buildings – groups of you looking at more than 20 places in all, before landing on the Capital Area Academy on South Pennsylvania in Lansing, which this congregation has now bought.
A visioning process took place last spring, to re-design the space into a regional Unitarian Universalist church – a church of Greater Lansing. And, mostly behind the scenes, the leadership of this church has had to name the fact that we don’t have enough money to build the design that was dreamed of.
And so they are in the process of “value engineering” – that is, changing the design, to reflect much of what was created, but within a budget that the congregation will actually pay for. If you want to know more about this process, please join the DreamIT4 – the four leaders who have been asked to oversee the process – downstairs in the Social Hall after this service. They have a presentation for you and you’ll have an opportunity to ask your questions. Your vision of inclusion, of removing physical barriers to people with disabilities and removing barriers to new people seeking us who can’t find a parking spot – your vision, is what drives this move. We have now sold this building and are paying rent to the owners. We will remain renting most likely until the end of March 2016. We hope to move in the late winter, early spring.
There is another part of this vision. This one, I think, has not percolated as long or has been named as clearly. It is another vision of inclusion, but it is about removing different barriers. I often hear it articulated in the hope that we will attract more people of lower socio-economic background, people of color, people with disabilities, and immigrants to our new location in South Lansing. But as some of you have pointed out, we could do that work in this location. Moving won’t change the way we operate. Moving won’t change how welcoming we are.
And so, you leadership has heard you name this vision of the people, and is offering a seminar series, a chance to hold healing conversations about race and identity. These small groups encourage understanding the work against social oppressions as a spiritual practice and an act of faith formation. Another way to name anti-racism/anti oppression work is liberation. And so these Beloved Conversations should help us with our liberation – healing the brokenness of social oppressions, especially racism, in order to create social and spiritual healing. However, in order to engage this work, we need to form groups that stay together over a period of time.
The Beloved conversations are launched next Friday night and all day Saturday and then are followed by 8 seminar sessions. It is a huge time commitment. But for those of you who are able to make that commitment, it promises a form of liberation that we so desperately seek. Most of the groups are already filled, but we have one or two spots open in the groups that meet Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. And I have out there a registration form for people who can’t meet at the times we have pre-determined. If we were to get 10-12 people to sign up on that sheet of paper who could agree to another regular meeting time, we could form another small group. Today is your last chance to make that happen. So, if you are interested, please stop by the Activities Table after church and register for a Beloved Conversation. And, I know, that some of you cannot participate because you have plans next weekend that prevent you from attending the opening retreat. Not to worry.
We are social beings, which means that the work of some will affect the work of others, and I believe we will all feel the benefits. And we hope to offer this series again. Of course, depending on how it goes this first time through.
Naming this vision of inclusion – standing on the side of love – has been critical in our communal life, as we seek the liberation of all peoples, and create the beloved community for which we long.
What's in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But names are important. Last week I presented my vision for the earth. I said that my vision for the earth is that we remember that we are sacred ground and we treat ourselves and our relations as such. I said that we are the earth become conscious. And it is our consciousness which can become the earth’s salvation. That consciousness begins with naming.Last week I showed you some pictures of my recent trip to the rain forest in the Olympic National Park. But I didn’t tell you about the Salish Sea, which wasn’t called that until 2008, though a professor named Webber requested as early as 1989. He recognized the need to name the fact that there was an integrated ecosystem off the coast of Washington and British Columbia which mixed saltwater and freshwater and shared marine life. Until it had a name, it couldn’t be protected (by the humans whose consciousness both harms and protects such things). Names are important.
And finally, did you hear about the re-naming of the tallest mountain in the US, a mountain I always knew as, and you may have called, Mt. McKinley? A US Department of the Interior press release quotes Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell who said that
“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives. The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations. With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska.”
What a powerful naming of the fact that Alaskan Natives were on the land long before European explorers arrived, before the United States existed, and before William McKinley served as president of the US. What’s in a name? A mountain by any other name….is still as beautiful. And yet names are important. They tell us the human narrative, the social context, the cultural politics, and our social formation.
It is my vision for the people that we would each get to do our own naming, that we would be called by our right names, and we would achieve liberation and peace.