“Meeting at the Intersection,” February 19, 2017, Kendyl Gibbons
I believe, and our religion teaches, that the path of right relation and liberation begins with the holy silence of authentic listening, and the speaking of long-silenced voices into that attention; telling their stories, and their pain, and their truth. Action that comes before that human connection of hearing at a deep level, is not likely to get us where we want to go in the end.
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This work of preaching is an astonishing thing. Only half of it is mine, you know. The other part is what you all do, together, week by week, offering your presence and attention, your intention to hear and consider deeply, your willingness even to have your mind changed, or your heart changed, by something I might say. Perhaps the thing I meant to say, but more often, probably, by something I didn’t quite know I was saying; by the transformation that happened where my words met your thoughts, and hopes, and hungers, and an inspiration was born. We preachers don’t control that process, let me tell you; we may get jaded sometimes, and start to take it for granted, but if we are paying attention, we are in awe of it – of how fruitful you, the congregation, make our offerings, through your engagement, your capacity to listen. You give us a deep and resonant silence, or a lively, effervescent silence; you hear us into whatever good news or prophetic admonition we have to share.
I want to talk about silence this morning – how ironic is that? I want to invite you to consider the process of listening, and hearing, as a spiritual practice; a holy art. It is said that a sermon should always have a ‘so what?’ – an action, or a practical application. I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that premise, but today it’s easy: the ‘so what?’ is that you should listen to, and participate in, the conversation that is underway in our society about suffering, injustice, and privilege; the way that a structural unfairness permeates and stains the fabric of our nation’s culture, and what we as progressive people with liberal values might do about it.
It seems to me that there are helpful silences, and unhelpful silences; let’s think for a moment about different kinds of silence. One is the silence of fear, when people do not speak because they are in danger. This can be the quietness of the abused child, who fears that things will only get worse if she tells anyone, or of the undocumented worker, who cannot report wage theft or sexual harassment because they would risk being deported. This is the silence enforced by the powerful on the powerless. There is also the silence of despair, when it feels as if there is nothing to be said, because no hopeful word is left. This is the silence of those who have tried so long to speak their truth, even to holler, and have never been heard. These kinds of silence injure community, and tear the connections of the interdependent web, which can only be mended by someone hearing what the silenced voices have to say. There are also positive forms of silence; the inner focus of intense concentration, when the mind is hard at work within itself, or creativity is flowing, and to speak would be an interruption of something precious. Or the speechlessness of genuine awe, when we are so struck by something marvelous that no words are adequate. Emerson says “The silence that accepts merit as the most natural thing in the world is the highest applause;” there is the silent honor that acknowledges courage, sacrifice, and heroism. Silence can also be uncomfortable but informative, like the social silence that greets a tasteless joke or offensive comment; such disapproval can speak volumes without saying a word. On the other hand, there is the silence that refuses to acknowledge a problem, that disguises injustice by ignoring it. This was the silence of the white clergy that Martin Luther King lamented in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail – the silence that prolongs suffering and allows evil to triumph; the silence that the hollering of the oppressed is intended to break through. But then there is also the silence that makes space for previously unheard voices to speak, the silence that is necessary when someone needs to be heard, and truth needs to be told. This is the silence that respects and invites the other into dialogue; that seeks to lift up the wisdom of history and the quiet messages of the earth and its other inhabitants. There is a silence that should precede all thoughtful speaking, so that our words might come forth according to our best intentions, and not carelessly hurt others. Genuine listening has silence as a necessary element, that our culture too seldom calls us to observe.
This spring, there are two opportunities before this congregation to participate in the listening that breaks the silence of oppression; two invitations to join with others to practice the holy art of hearing the truth that can make us free. We have the chance to break out of the helplessness and hopelessness that defeats our good intentions, to meet at the intersection of hollering, hope-telling and strategy. What this means is showing up, without the answers already in our back pocket, and willing to be changed by what we learn and what we feel in the course of the conversation.
The first opportunity offers us a conversation among our fellow Unitarian Universalists, as we engage with Rev. William Barber’s book, The Third Reconstruction. I have had the opportunity to hear and work with Rev. Barber several times, beginning at last year’s UUA Ware Lecture, and continuing through two events sponsored by coalitions of ministers of color here in Kansas City. Even though he is an engaging speaker, and his message is one I am disposed to agree with, it took me some time to understand the full implications of his work, and reading his book was essential to grasping what his movement is really about. Barber is taking seriously, and asking others in the progressive community, to take seriously, three things that we often pay lip service to, and then proceed to ignore.
The first of these matters is history. Barber traces the disempowerment of minorities through the period that is often neglected in American history, between legal emancipation of slaves at the end of the civil war, through the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in the southern United States. The first wave of black civic and legal participation in the re-establishment of constitutions in the former confederacy is not something I ever learned about in school; indeed, the only association I had with the term ‘Reconstruction’ was something about carpetbaggers, and vaguely, President Andrew Johnson. Barber challenges us to remember how viciously and systematically that first flourishing of equality was suppressed by the deliberate strategies of what was called by the resurgent Southern white power structure, ‘redemption’. Those forces intentionally sought to re-establish a social structure as closely resembling the ante-bellum culture as they could legally achieve, and they were largely successful for the better part of a century. Voter suppression, economic deprivation, differential policing, legal advocacy, and sentencing, and separate, unequal education, were supplemented whenever necessary with unabashed violence, including lynchings. The Jim Crow system did not evolve; it was deliberately created, by people and organizations who can be identified, and their activities traced. When the Second Reconstruction occurred, to use Barber’s term for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the forces of oppression changed strategy, but not purpose. As Barber puts it, ‘Jim Crow went off to law school, and came back as James Crow, esquire.’ The language of states’ rights and ‘nigger’ shifted to community schools, voter fraud, and law and order. Again, these phenomena can be documented through the courts, the newspapers, the political campaigns, and the state legislatures. Not knowing these regional stories puts us at a huge disadvantage in understanding the national strategies of these same oppressions today. Rev. Barber has done his homework in this history, and asks us to attend to its lessons.
Second, Barber takes seriously the intersectionality of all forms of injustice and discrimination, recognizing that we make it easy to divide and conquer when we remain in our special interest silos. If blacks can be pitted against low-wage workers; if Christians can be made to oppose the GLBT community; if single moms can be in competition with the uninsured, then we will never have the collective strength to enact the progressive policies that would benefit us all. We don’t have to agree about everything in order to seek higher ground together, and to hold those in power accountable for their actions. As Martin Luther King once said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. When we fail to hear the hollering of those whose oppression takes a different form from our own, we give away the effective influence that we could have by uniting our voices, but more than that, we isolate ourselves, and we substitute the silence of indifference and ignorance for the silence of genuine listening. Being heard is the first step toward hope and empowerment; hearing is the gift that we give to those who are attempting to name their struggle. Oppression takes many forms, but it is a single will, and all its forms intersect; to challenge one is to challenge the whole structure, so that a victory in one arena ultimately benefits all. William Barber understands the trauma of racism – he is a black man, living in North Carolina, ministering with and to a black community; racism is always in his awareness. Yet he knows that the struggle of reconstructing a community of right relations has always included all marginalized people, and will never make progress any other way.
Finally, Barber takes seriously the voices of marginalized people themselves, and does not attempt to speak on their behalf, or solve their problems for them, or decide what they should do. In his struggle for India’s liberation from British colonial rule, Gandhi named a concept he called ‘swaraj’, or self-governing. By this he meant that his goal was not simply to replace British colonial officers with native Indian bureaucrats doing the same job and wielding the same power. Rather, he wanted a system by which groups of people could identify their own issues and priorities and leadership, speaking and advocating for the causes that they most urgently believed in. He may not use this word, but Rev. Barber also believes in swaraj – in the importance of listening to folks who have reason to holler, telling their own stories and stating their own moral conclusions, proposing their own remedies so that their lives can be more whole. And this commitment extends to the development and leadership of the movement itself; the strategy of the next step is not handed down from some authority, but rather emerges through conversation and discernment and above all, listening, to all the voices that seek to be heard. This kind of essential democracy requires faith, and patience, and risk. Faith, to take the next step, even when the whole stairway is not yet visible; patience, to keep listening and to stay with uncertainty and discomfort so that an unexpected consensus has a chance to emerge. And risk – to be willing to be criticized, or misunderstood, or arrested, or hurt, by the forces that oppose change and have privilege to lose.
To know this history, to understand the intersectionality of all forms of oppression, to invite people from within disenfranchised communities into leadership and swaraj – these are the ideas and practices that we are trying to understand and integrate as a denominational community of faith. In our own congregation, the Humanist Book Club has already had a discussion of The Third Reconstruction, and other opportunities to examine Rev. Barber’s work are being scheduled.
And then there is another conversation that our own All Souls congregation here in Kansas City has been invited to; a listening and speaking that I hope we will embrace, because I consider it something of an honor. My colleague from Kansas, the Rev. Cynthia Smart, of Mason Memorial Community United Methodist Church, was one of the pastors of color involved in our clergy reading group of The New Jim Crow two years ago, and she and I have stayed in touch. Folks from All Souls have participated in a couple of outreach events at Mason Memorial; we contributed to a coat collection, and a supply of children’s underwear, as well as helping to host an all day back to school open house with clothes and supplies for all ages. You might have seen Mason Memorial on the news back in January, when a drunk driver ran a car right through the wall into one of their Sunday school classrooms – fortunately NOT on Sunday morning!
Pastor C, as she is called by those who know her, and her congregation, have asked if All Souls would partner with them in reading together a book written by Rev. F. Willis Johnson, entitled Holding Up Your Corner: a guide to talking about race in your community. The author, Rev. Johnson, is the minister of Wellspring Church in Ferguson, Missouri, and he writes from the perspective of having lived in that community through the police shooting of Michael Brown and its confrontational aftermath. Marli read a passage from his book earlier this morning, about the role of hollering, and hearing those who are hollering, in community. Holding Up Your Corner is not a dense or lengthy book; the six chapters make up six discussion sessions, and Pastor C is hoping to gather two groups – one at Mason Memorial on Thursday afternoons, and one here at All Souls on Thursday evenings. This way, folks who work during the day can participate in the evening sessions, and folks who prefer not to drive after dark can be part of the afternoon group. Each section would also include a group of members from Mason, who would be likely to be people of color. Rod Harsin will be coordinating our end of the program, in late March and April, while I am on sabbatical. I’m extremely sorry to be missing it, not least because Pastor C is a beautiful person, and I enjoy her, but we are agreed that there will be other times for us to work together, and this is a program that should not have to wait for my return.
Now I want us to think carefully about all the times that members of All Souls have lamented the absence of people of color among us here, and wondered how we might organize programs that would create the opportunity for dialogue that could help us to emerge from our bubbles of privilege. This time the shoe is on the other foot — *we* are being asked to move into a space of conversation that someone else has structured, and wants to share with us. It’s not that scary, but it’s also not what we are used to. And I hope that we are committed enough in our desire to hear and speak greater justice into being that we will answer this invitation with gratitude and enthusiasm. It is great, and important, that we sign petitions, and show up at our congress people’s offices, and make those phone calls to state legislators, and take our role as citizens more seriously than ever before. But those efforts are only oppositional unless we are doing this work too – building bridges between communities that have had too few connections in the past; meeting each other at the intersections of our diverse oppressions; hearing the hollering of injustice and bearing witness to one another’s suffering, endurance, and persistent hope. Please, my friends, my dearly beloved – this is the time; we must show up, if we are ever to take ourselves and our mission to create a just society seriously.
In a recent article in NonProfit Quarterly, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Susan Nall Bales write this:
If we want smarter citizens, we must promote better explanations of how the world works. This is not about slogans or niche marketing. It requires real community conversations about the nature of the problems that confront us and our options in addressing them. Those conversations will likely begin in problem mode, so they require significant reframing if people are to be able to enlist slow thinking and train it on solutions. Perceptions of the truth are frame dependent. It falls to those of us who want to work with our neighbors, coworkers, and all whose fate we share to figure out how to get us back into the commons and reasoning together. Remind people of the values they hold for their communities, of the places they want their children and grandchildren to enjoy, of the institutions that have served people well in the past, and of the responsibility we share in building well-being for all Americans. In true American fashion, there will be hundreds of imagined Americas that result from that thinking as we experiment with various ways to bring it about. But only slow thinking [that includes silence and authentic listening] will anticipate the problem areas, put plans in place to overcome them, and lead to reengineering new approaches to what besets us all.
I know that we hunger for action, for immediate, tangible ways to fix all the things that make us want to holler about the injustices that we see and feel around us. I know it seems like yet another conversation might be just spinning our wheels. And yet… I believe, and our religion teaches, that the path of right relation and liberation begins with the holy silence of authentic listening, and the speaking of long-silenced voices into that attention; telling their stories, and their pain, and their truth. Action that comes before that human connection of hearing at a deep level, is not likely to get us where we want to go in the end. It is when we meet each other at the places where the lines of our separate oppressions cross, and listen carefully enough to discover our shared history, and our shared visions, and our shared moral claim, that we find a common voice, an inclusive word of protest, the song that is ours to sing together as we go marching to break the silence of indifference, and reconstruct a fairer and more loving world.
Copyright © Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons 2017