I, too, am America.

I am the gay brother.  I can’t walk down the street holding hands with the one I love.  We can’t get married , and I can’t be covered on his insurance plan.  People justify discrimination, injustice and even violence against us by holding up the Bible.

I, too, am America.

I am the Asian sister.  My great-great-great-grandfather came over to build the railroads.  My family has lived in this country ever since, but because of my features, people still see me as foreign.

I, too, am America.

I am the imprisoned brother.  I committed a crime, but I have turned my life around, and I have done my time.  I’ve paid my debt to society, yet this will follow me wherever I go, like a scarlet letter or the mark of Cain.

I, too, am America.

This past Monday we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  We celebrate his birthday because he was such a strong leader in the Civil Rights Movement, because he did so much to advance the cause of equality for people of African descent, because he fought for those rights through non-violent means, because he turned minds and hearts around, changed perceptions, led us to higher ground.  King is best known for his efforts on behalf of blacks in this country, but by the end of his tragically short life, he was expanding the focus of his efforts to be more inclusive.  If he had lived longer, who knows what minorities’ causes he would have lifted up?

King may be gone, but the Civil Rights Movement continues.  Recent events have created something of a revival of the movement, and we have to make sure to add our voices, to make sure to keep the movement alive. The work is not done.  It is not done until everyone feels welcome to sit at the table.

Meanwhile, our country gets more and more diverse.  People are immigrating from countries that weren’t well represented in King’s time, and populations that were mostly hidden in King’s time are coming out in the open – like gay, lesbian and transgender people, like handicapped or developmentally challenged people.

The way we continue King’s legacy is to attempt to embrace all this wonderful diversity – to welcome everyone to the table and to try to understand each other, try to make sure everyone is treated with respect, make sure everybody’s needs are met.

I am the Native sister.  My nation was here before the white men came and took away our land, our livelihood, and even our religion.  Now my people live in poverty, and many of my brothers are addicted to alchohol.  It has been such a struggle to hold on to our identity all these years against a culture that wants to swallow us up, make us disappear, take what little we have left.  I am spit on and called names.

I, too, am America.

I am the brother with mental illness.  My disease makes it hard for me to relate to people sometimes.  It makes it hard for me to be consistent and reliable, and I have a hard time holding a job.  People look down on me.

I, too, am America.

I am the sister in a wheelchair.  I can’t go everywhere I’d like to go, because of the barriers.  I sit in a world of standing people, and it sometimes feels like people are looking down on me in more ways than one, if they even look at me at all.

I, too, am America.

So how do we embrace diversity?  How do we work for justice for minorities, for people whose needs may not be getting met, for people who may be different from us in some way?

The first step is to seek to understand – to understand what their issues are, what their needs are, what their feelings are.

A friend shared a story with me recently, and she swears that it’s true.

“Several years ago, two friends happened to meet at a time when the man was carrying a large, obviously healthy-looking plant. The woman admired it, and he said, ‘Here, why don’t you start one of your own?’ and he broke off a sprig of the plant and gave it to her. ‘You don’t even have to put that in water,’ he said. ‘This plant grows so easily, you can just stick that in some dirt and it will grow.’

“So she took home the piece of the plant he had given her, and she stuck it in a pot of dirt, and gave it a drink. Later in the week she looked at it and thought, ‘Maybe it will grow faster if I give it some plant food.’  So she did that. Whenever it seemed to be dry, she watered it, and occasionally she gave it some plant food. The plant didn’t die, but it didn’t grow either. So one day, she ran into the man, who said, ‘How’s your plant doing?’  ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ve watered it and I’ve given it plant food. It’s ok – I mean, it’s still alive, as far as I can tell – but it’s not growing. I don’t know what to do next.’

“And the man said, ‘Why don’t you ask it what it wants, and then listen for its answer?’

She was sure she was going to feel a little silly doing this, so she waited till she was sure there was no one else around, and then she asked the plant what else she could do for it, or what it would like, and then she listened. And in her listening, she became sure that she had somehow heard the word, ‘coffee.’  Now she did feel a little silly, but nevertheless she made a cup of coffee, cooled it down to room temperature, and poured it in the pot with the plant.

“Within three days the plant had begun to put out new shoots, and by the end of two weeks it was beginning to take up the whole pot.”

The key to understanding is listening.  Withholding judgment, we listen to what people – or plants – are telling us.  We may be trying to give someone water when what they really need to thrive is coffee.  We may be trying to help someone, to provide for their needs, but we can fall into the trap of thinking we know what their needs are without asking, without listening, without understanding.

I am the poor brother.  I didn’t have any advantages growing up, and I didn’t make it through school.  I work hard, but at minimum wage, I can’t afford to support my family.  I don’t dress well, I don’t use good grammar, and I can feel the scorn of better-off people.

I, too, am America.

I am the atheist sister.  It has always been hard to be an atheist in America, but it feels like it’s getting harder in recent years.  Some people seem to think that if you’re an atheist you must be a bad person, and they don’t understand that it is the force of my strong conscience that requires me to express the truth I see.

I, too, am America.

I am the evangelical Christian brother.  I feel like people look down on me for believing.  My faith has turned my life around, yet when I try to share the good news, I feel stifled.  Heck, I can’t even say Merry Christmas anymore!

I, too, am America.

How far do we challenge ourselves to look through the eyes of others?  Are we willing to walk in their shoes for a while, to see what it’s like to be in their world?

My mother was visiting over the holidays a couple of years ago, and she can’t walk any distance anymore.  So when we went to an outlet mall, we got a wheelchair for her.  As anyone who’s ever pushed or driven a wheelchair– or even had to deal with crutches – can tell you, you suddenly become aware of the world in a different way.  I noticed how far out of our way we had to go to get to the ramp to get on the sidewalk from the parking lot.  And in one of the stores, the clothing racks were so close together we could only stick to the main path.  It was a very different experience with a wheelchair—much more limited.

While I was in seminary, I worked part-time at the University of Chicago as a programmer/analyst.  I was friendly with a woman I worked with there, an African American woman named Memory.  Memory invited me to her church, where mine was just about the only white face in a sea of black faces.  The people dressed differently than what I was used to – women all decked out in their Sunday best, complete with hats.  And the colors!  The worship style was very different from what I was used to, too.  They were clapping and singing for hours, it seemed.  Then the preacher got up and started speaking, and they yelled out “Amens” and “Say it, Brother” and other affirming exclamations.  He got all worked up and they seemed to be with him.  I wasn’t.  Though I was appreciative and non-judging, I still felt like an outsider looking on.

I am the Latina sister.  My English isn’t so good, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupida.  I struggle to make my way here, to have access to all the advantages America has to offer.  I am often treated like a foreigner.

I, too, am America.

I am the blind brother.  I hear things you never notice.  I am much more capable than you may imagine, but I still am at a disadvantage getting around in a world of sighted people.  There are many limitations on my abilities; some are inevitable, but many can be overcome with technology and understanding.

I, too, am America.

I am the transgender person.  All I want is to express myself as I know myself to be, but people want to put me in a gender box and keep me there.  They think I am a freak because I don’t conform to their idea of what male and female are.

I, too, am America.

It’s one thing to invite others to sit at our table; it’s quite another to go sit at theirs.  This is taking diversity to the next level.  Instead of just including others under our umbrella, this requires us to feel what it’s like under somebody else’s umbrella.  This is how we really start to challenge our comfort level, to test our acceptance, and to gain some understanding.

Unitarian Universalists have been struggling with this.  We are great at opening our doors and saying, “Come in, everybody, you’re welcome here.”  But we expect them to fit into our world when they come.  How willing are we to let others change our world?  How far are we willing to go to sit with them where they are?

These are the challenges we face as we continue to seek to fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream in the 21st century, as we seek to create an America where everybody is equal and respected and getting their needs met, an America that is enriched beyond measure by the music of all the different voices and by the beauty of each and every unique face.

I, too, am America.

I am the Unitarian Universalist sister.  I am aware that for all my good intentions, I sometimes fall short in my understanding of people who are different from me.  My goal is for everyone in America to sit at the same table, where we will all look around at each other and see how beautiful we all are, and then nobody need be ashamed.

I, too, sing America.