The Dream of Holding Hands

A Dream of Holding Hands

Rev. Anthony Makar

Jan. 19, 2014

“And it came to pass in those days,” says the Rev. Victor Carpenter, “that the spirit of

God visited a young woman whose name was Rosa. God multiplied her strength and

her determination. She would not be moved. And all Montgomery looked up on her and

wondered.

“And God raised up a prophet in the midst of that people whose name was Martin, that

the courage of Rosa should not perish, but that it should be extended and multiplied,

and indeed, it was done.

“For the words of the prophet fell upon the ears of the nation. The people listened.

A dream was dreamed, a vision was provided, a highway was created through the

desert of racism, the lowly and the ignored were lifted up and exalted, and in the rough

places—Selma, Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, Boston, Washington D.C.—the truth

was made plain.

“But the plain truth was denied. The prophet was slain. Thick darkness covered the

land.

“Yet the promise declared by the prophet would not be overcome. In the darkness the

light continues to shine, the people are called forth…”

That’s the word from the Rev. Victor Carpenter. And you know what? We are among

those people he’s talking about, the ones being called forth:

With this faith, Dr. King dreamed, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of

our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

He dreamed, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, sitting

down together at the table of brotherhood.

He dreamed, little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and

white girls as sisters and brothers.

All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and

Catholics, joining hands and singing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last!

free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

These dream images, these prophetic words—he made them ring from every

mountainside, from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city. And

they ring among us, here and now….

Dr. King was not silent.

And we must not be silent either.

Now to say this about ourselves might surprise, even offend. After all, we are Unitarian

Universalists! Back in 1952, this congregation was the very first one in Atlanta to

integrate and, as a result, members here lost jobs and endured threats and more. The

very location of this building is a testimony to the prejudice and hate-mongering we

came up against. During the Civil Rights years this congregation was looking for a place

to move to, and one location after another in Atlanta would not have us because we

were who we were. They didn’t want our kind around. Troublemakers. Heretics. We’re

here because this is the one place that said, OK.

And don’t forget something else. Dr. King himself spoke from this very pulpit. Our

youth group and the youth group of Ebenezer Baptist (under the leadership of Coretta

herself) learned together and played together. Whitney Young, who would later become

president of the National Urban League, was a member of our Board of Trustees.

How can I even suggest that we are being silent? How dare I?

Yet it is more than 50 years later since Dr. King preached his dream from the steps of

the Lincoln Memorial, in 1963. A lot has happened since then. In particular, look who

is now President of these United States: Barack Obama! You can’t get from there to

here unless a whole lot has changed. What’s gone away is the old-fashioned bigotry we

have long known in America that would have made Obama’s election utterly impossible,

like slavery, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow. That’s gone away. Doesn’t this mean,

then, that the dream has become real? Why keep talking about it when it’s already

happened?

Makes sense to stay silent. In fact it can feel like it is our duty to stay silent. Now that

an African-American has ascended to the highest office in the land, and Michelle

is as glamorous as Jackie, and it is as good as Camelot ever was if not better, how

ungracious and mean-spirited to continue speaking of racism! Even just to talk about

racial differences—to point them out, to notice them—smacks of racism.

White folks especially feel this. In their bestselling book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson

and Ashley Merryman cite a 2006 study in which 100 white parents of children between

the ages of five and seven were part of a social-science experiment to measure the

impact of multi-cultural videos on young children. The participants were divided into

three groups: The first were asked to watch the videos alone, but not talk to their

children about their content; the second were given the videos, along with a checklist of

talking points; the third group was given only the checklist, and asked to talk with their

kids each night for five nights. Five of the families in the last group quit immediately,

telling the researchers, “We don’t want to point out skin color.” When the remaining

families completed the experiment, the researchers saw no measurable difference in

their children’s attitudes towards other races. But when they looked at the parents’

study diaries, they realized why: Despite explicit instruction, none of the parents had

felt comfortable following the checklist. No one wanted to point out skin color—even

the ones who stuck with the study. Because mentioning race—explicitly talking about

differences in skin color, hair texture, culture-related behaviors—feels like a betrayal

of the colorblindness ideal. Far better to just say, “Everyone is equal,” “God made all

of us,” “Under the skin, we’re all the same,” and “all people have inherent worth and

dignity.” Far better to just say that.

Silence about race and racial differences makes its own kind of sense. People (white

people in particular) feel like it’s the right thing to do, and, frankly, it’s tempting.

Especially in communities which possess some degree of multicultural diversity. Po

Bronson, a white man who tells us that he grew up in an integrated school in the 1970s

and that now, in the 2010s, he sends his children to an integrated school, admits

to subscribing to a theory which he calls the “Diverse Environment Theory.” It goes

something like this, and I quote: “If your raise your child with a fair amount of exposure

to other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message…diversity breeds

tolerance and talking about race was, in and of itself, a diffuse kind of racism.” In others

words, raise a kid in a diverse environment (school or soccer team or church), and

multicultural competency just happens naturally without ever having to talk about it and

wrestle with the complexities. Natural as pie.

Staying silent can make sense.

But the time is not yet right for it. There is still a need for Dr. King’s prophetic words to

ring out across the land. We have to break the silence and keep on breaking it.

Look more closely at that “Diverse Environment Theory.” What the science shows

is actually opposite of what we might expect. We think a diverse environment will of

itself solve all the problems of prejudice and ignorance, but it’s not true. The authors of

Nurture Shock cite several long-term studies showing that the more diverse a school is,

the more likely it is that the kids will self-segregate. This is so, in part, because a greater

diversity just gives kids (and, really, all of us) more opportunity to find the people who

look and act just like us and hang out exclusively with them. I mean, just look around

this sanctuary, keeping in mind that we are in Atlanta which is 54% African American.

The good news is that never before have we seen so many people of color in our pews;

longtime members tell me this. Still—it’s not where things could easily be, in a place like

Atlanta….

Mere diversity is not the Dream. Bronson and Merryman mention a study in which

preschool children were assigned a T-shirt color to wear every day. Even in the

classroom where the teacher did not acknowledge the colors, children still developed

a bias in favor of their assigned color (i.e., “Reds are the smartest!”), demonstrating

how kids are developmentally prone to in-group preferences. Kids and the rest of us

just possess in-group preferences, and this works against a spontaneous unfoldment of

multicultural competency skills. We have to work hard to develop these skills. We have

to be intentional about the Dream. When our children point out gender differences, we

talk about them. We talk about traditional boy-girl stereotypes in an order to combat

them. We have to do the same thing with racial differences. Talk about them. “White”

and ‘Black” should not be mysteries we leave to our children to figure out on their own.

Same goes for all of us.

But isn’t talking about race a kind of racism? Shouldn’t we aspire to colorblindness?

Isn’t it enough to say, “Everyone is equal,” “God made all of us,” “Under the skin, we’re

all the same,” and “all people have inherent worth and dignity”?

No, it’s not enough. It’s true, of course; but you know what? There’s no such thing

as being human in general. That’s how Rev. Doug Taylor says it, and he says it well.

“Everyone is equal” is a universal truth, but the only way each of us can reach for it is

through the particulars of our living—and a significant part of that has to do with the

mix of privileges and disadvantages we grew up with and have made us what we are

today. We can reach for the universal and timeless only through the particular and the

timebound.

Let me also say this. Race is something that has been pushed into the face of people

of color for as long as they have been alive. They know what it is like continually to

be seen, not as free, self-determining individuals (which is what whites expect and

get for themselves), but only as members of a group—either as a “credit to their kind”

or as confirmation of some negative stereotype. It turns out that color blindness is

really just another instance of white privilege. Even having the chance to opt out of the

conversation—to wonder and worry whether we should talk about racism—is evidence

of privilege! It drives people of color nuts. And they’ll tell white people, too, who are

willing to listen. And as whites listen to the frustration and the pain, they need to realize

that the system is larger than they are; as in the movie the Matrix, it just comes through

and takes over (BZZAP!). It’s just going to take a lot of careful work and a lot time to

become more aware of this as it is happening, together with the formation of healthier

habits. Far better to be gentle and encouraging with oneself in this process than to be a

bludgeoning taskmaster.

Anything but staying silent.

Dr. King wasn’t silent. It’s true: 50+ years later, an African-American occupies the

highest office in the land. But 50+ years later, racism persists, even after the demise

of old-fashioned bigotry, even after Obama’s historic election. Racism is more than

individual acts of meanness. Rodney King and Trayvon Martin might never have

happened and racism could still be rampant, because racism is a system thing—a

system which blesses only some and not others. Whites continue to benefit from it

even if they don’t feel personally powerful, owing to other aspects of their identity that

may disadvantage them socially, like poverty, or disability. And even if a person of

color happens to be a jerk and goes around saying and doing prejudiced things against

others, still, he or she does not benefit from the larger system. A racist culture that’s

been rigged in favor of whites from the beginning is like a racetrack, and only one of

the aisles is free of hurdles owing to skin color. There may be other hurdles, relating to

being gay, or being a woman, or being something else, but not because you are white.

One less hurdle for a white person, one more hurdle for everbody else.

 

We must not be silent. Dr. King dreamed a dream of freedom. All of God’s children,

black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, joining hands.

This is the multiculturalism dream. And do you see how it involves more than race?

How it’s also about religion and class and gender and sexual orientation and ability and

on and on? With all my talk about race, I don’t want to lose track of the other identity

categories. They all count, they all make up who we are, they all belong at the table,

they are all parts that make up the great symphony of humanity.

We have to let freedom ring. Hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. Work

together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that

we will be free one day.

Things have been moving here at UUCA. At times, and in certain circles, explicit

and frank discussion and dialogue has happened, has pushed back against Diverse

Environment Theory. Years ago we committed to becoming a Welcoming Congregation,

as a way of affirming and embracing the LGBTQ folks among us. Our Director of

Religious Education is transgender. Recently we installed rails in this sanctuary as a

way of making this beautiful but difficult space more accessible to people with physical

disabilities.

As for race: the focus has primarily been outward. Through our Hope-Hill school project

and the Racial and Ethnic Concerns Working Group, we partner with community

justice organizations beyond these walls. We were also instrumental in launching an

intentionally African American Unitarian Universalist church called the Thurman Hamer

Ellington (or THE) Church—the whole story around this is fascinating and deserves its

own sermon.

As for internal racial diversity—and for all the work required to transform mere diversity

into the Dream—it’s still a work in progress. More than ten years ago, we had antiracism

trainings facilitated by UUA consultants. More recently, we formed a Cultural Mosaic

group, with the goal of creating a space of fellowship for the people of color in our midst.

In 2010, I preached a sermon that was explicitly about white privilege, and some people

told me it was the first time ever they’d heard a message like that coming from this

pulpit. In 2011, I worked with a team of folks from the Cultural Mosaic group to create an

intentionally multicultural worship service. I could say a lot more, actually. Things have

been moving.

And more will be happening. To get closer to the Dream, I am creating a Diversity Team

that will be doing the following: become familiar with the history of multiculturalism

efforts at UUCA and of best practices in the UUA and other faith communities; advise

me and other relevant staff and lay leaders; assist in resolving diversity-related

concerns; plan, recruit for, and coordinate initiatives that further growth towards diversity

in our midst; and model diversity in the team’s make-up as well as process. One of the

first things the team will be doing is participate in a multicultural training scheduled for

March, and this will include taking the Intercultural Development Inventory (which is at

use in the UUA). This test will help us assess UUCA’s multicultural strengths as well as

opportunities for improvement.

Things are moving. We’ve got to get closer to the Dream. Just like Dr. King said, we’re

going to have to work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom

together. It’s challenging work. To break the silence about race or other social identities,

we risk offence, we risk embarrassment, and for white people in particular, we risk the

consequences of never again being able to pretend that white preferences are right.

Going deeper into multiculturalism in a skillful way means a willingness to experience

discomfort without feeling like you have to react or blame someone or make someone

wrong. Like I always say about worship: prepare to dislike something. But that’s OK!

What’s bitter to one person is sweet to another. If you don’t like something, see it as a

sign that someone else probably likes it a whole lot! Make peace with your dislike as a

part of loving UUCA’s overall diversity. As a part of loving the Dream.

And we do it not really because of Dr. King. We do it because his “let freedom ring”

vision communicates the genius of our Unitarian Universalist faith, the genius that was

there long before he lived and the genius that will outlive each and every one of us.

We have always sought out the ways of freedom. The words of that old Negro spiritual

(“Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!) have always been

inscribed on our hearts. 2000 years ago, our people didn’t believe that Jesus was God;

they believed in a direct free connection without any intermediary. 1500 years ago, our

people didn’t believe that church traditions were equivalent with God; they believed that

the freedom way to the Source was the Bible alone. 200 years ago, our people didn’t

believe that Christianity with its Bible was the only way to the Sacred; they believed that

the freedom way to truth could be found in all the religions of the world. And now, right

now, what we are saying as a people is that European American culture—specifically

the Yankee variety—is not the only form of freedom through which to reach out and

touch God; there are lots of other ways to reach out and touch God, too.

We want this new reach of freedom. We want it for ourselves and we want it for all the

people who love Unitarian Universalism’s Seven Principles and who love what we stand

for but they come into our midst and realize, to their sadness and dismay, that they

have to give up who they are in order to fit in. They have to give up everything, and we

give up nothing.

That is not right.

I call that selfish.

I call that stuck in a rut.

It’s time to be more free than we have ever imagined.

More free in our community and our faith than we ever knew.

More free.

That’s what this multiculturalism thing is all about.

Being more free.