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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
That’s what this multiculturalism thing is all about.
Being more free.