We Need Our Congregation Strong by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

In August of 2014, I had the privilege of being invited to attend the James Lawson Institute up in Nashville. James Lawson was the foremost strategist working in the Civil Rights Movement from 1958 to 1968. He worked under the leadership of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called him “the mind of the movement.” You’ve probably seen Lawson in historical footage or fictional portrayals of the students preparing to sit in at lunch counters, where they would practice the difficult and dangerous scenarios they were going to encounter. He was the one organizing the practices, encouraging the students to be hard on each other, knowing that what they were going to face in the process of ending segregation was severe hatred and violence. There is maybe no one alive better situated to place our current struggles for social justice in a historical context, although after yesterday maybe I should say no one outside of Georgia’s fifth congressional district! He is a great authority, and so I was very excited and eager to learn from him. A couple of his messages stood out to me in particular.

Someone asked Rev. Lawson during the Institute why movements for social change today seem to be stalling, seem to be much slower or less successful in their efforts than the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s. Was it that we lacked the charismatic leadership they had back then? Had the tactics of that movement lost their efficacy due to oppositional adaptation or societal indifference since that era? His response was that ending segregation and explicit prejudice and discrimination, to the extent it had been successful, represented the low-hanging fruit in our quest for a more just and equitable nation. He said dramatizing the injustices of segregation and explicit prejudice, while not easy things to do, had had clearer road maps to success than the issues facing the movement today, which one might broadly categorize as institutional racism. The effects of institutional racism are in their own ways just as harmful as segregation and prejudice, but are much harder to dramatize and therefore to fight against. He said that we are engaged in a much longer and more difficult stage of the fight for justice and equity that will require high degrees of patience, analysis, and collaboration. We’ll need our places to stand in the milky water, as we heard about in the reading this morning, so that we can be the mice with a psychological basis for optimism. I hope that UUCA can be one of those places.

The other thing he said that has stuck with me was one day on the way to lunch, when I was telling him about being a Unitarian Universalist minister in Atlanta. He asked about our membership and I said that for at least the last decade we have hovered about seven hundred people, sometimes a little higher or lower, and recently slightly under that number. We are around 650 members right now. Right as I finished describing our situation we got to the dining hall and he stopped, leaning on his cane and turned to me. He said “I know Atlanta. And I know Unitarianism. You all are very much what a city like that needs. You should be growing there.” Wow. So when we talk about needing our congregation strong, you don’t have to take my word for it; our civil rights elders see this need and hope that we will fulfill it also. They want us to be a source of optimism amidst the Rat Race.

Folks, we need our congregation strong.  On the surface “We need our congregation strong” may be the least controversial sermon title I have ever preached, given that in the last couple years I’ve spoken in favor of slavery reparations, preparing for the Singularity, and running barefoot on public roads and streets. But fear not, for even within the statement “we need our congregation strong” I intend to find some potential areas of disagreement and address them directly. And no, I don’t mean that I’m going to ask whether us being strong means we should start lacing our fair trade coffee with performance enhancing drugs; that’s not the kind of strength I’m talking about.

First off, I want to ask who we mean when we say “we” and “our.” Who are we as a congregation? As described above, our identity is very much tied to some of the proudest moments in our history, which mostly happened over fifty years ago now during the Civil Rights Movement. We seem to have spent much of the time since then asking how we can continue to make our presence felt in the world, asking “what’s next” for us as a congregation and as a movement that would help shape the world around us.

I agree with Rev. Lawson, that it is completely natural and sensible for our goals to be less clear and the way forward more difficult to discern than during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I say this as a long-time student of that era, albeit with only second and third-hand knowledge of it, and as someone with contemporary activist experience in the anti-Iraq War, Occupy, and Allies for Racial Equity movements. Mustering the high degrees of patience, analysis and collaboration necessary for this work now are challenging things to do, and are precisely why religious communities are some of the best places from which to operate as agents of social change.

In addition to the question of “who are we,” I feel we are called to ask “whose are we.” To whom does our community belong and to whom are we accountable? With whom are we in the kinds of relationships that can lead to collaborative efforts for the change needed in our world, the way that Farley Wheelwright’s relationship with MLK led him to be one of the first ministers to go to Selma? This question has been thrown into stark relief recently, as we consider whether or not to potentially sell our building and move the physical location of our congregation. For those of you who are visiting or have not heard, our congregation recently received an unsolicited offer to buy this property for a generous sum of money.

In asking this question of “whose are we,” I would like to lift up those who are not currently voting members of our congregation, but who will be affected by the decision of whether or not to sell this property. In particular, it is worth noting that because Article V, section 1, item (a) of our bylaws states that you must be at least fourteen years old to be a member of UUCA, we as a congregation are called to make this decision in a way that is accountable to those who are currently children, and to unborn future generations. What decision will best serve them? Let’s make sure that is part of the conversation.

Furthermore, we have a stated commitment to the work of anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism. The acronym ARAOMC we use as shorthand for this work. Who does that commitment make us accountable to? What decision will put us in the best position to truly continue to grow as a multicultural institution? The decision facing us is a hard one, but it is also an opportunity to ask the kinds of questions that will help us to be more fully in relationship in the ways necessary for us to act missionally for social change.

And what does it mean for our congregation to be strong? I believe it means that we are a source of optimism, like the stand in the milky water that helped some participants in the Rat Race to keep going longer than they would have otherwise because they were optimistic. I get discouraged in this work sometimes, and I need our congregation strong to convince me it is important to keep going, keep swimming. I know many of you do, too. Us being strong means that we lift each other up, support each other, treat each other with respect and dignity and model the world that we want to see, remembering the African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. We need this to be a place where we can practice living into Dr. King’s commandment that “We must all learn to live together as siblings or we will all perish together as fools.”  The work before us is more opaque than it was when we were younger as a movement and as a community, but we know that when the water is opaque, that is when it’s most important to remember our sources of confidence, our past successes in this work. We have been successful in the past working for a more just and equitable world, and if we can keep swimming, then there are successes yet to come in living into that vision. Peace, Salaam, Shalom and may it be so.