Listening by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

(Gratitude for Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Ellen Page and all the many survivors who have spoken and written publicly about sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual violence they have survived, and that finally they are being listened to and believed; YES! It has been far too long in coming, I hope that we can support many more survivors speaking out in the future. I hope we can send a loud and clear message that we are listening, we hear you, and we believe you!)

This morning is the third week in our worship series on “Relational Activism”, and in it I keep being reminded of the famous quote by Lilla Watson, an Indigenous Australian visual artist. She says “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” If you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. To the extent that we are able to conceive of our liberation as bound up with that of our partners in the work of making a more just and equitable world, we will be successful. None of us are free until all of us are free. And our Universalist heritage teaches us that in the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience.

In the work of collective liberation, listening is not just a nice thing to do. Listening is crucial and necessary to the success of our movement. A recent experience that our UUCA Board of Trustees, Nominating Committee, and Senior Staff shared brought home for me the necessity of listening as we build the Beloved Community here at UUCA. On September 30th we all did a training called “Countering Oppression from the Inside Out.” We did an activity where everyone formed a very wide circle, out on the patio here. Then the facilitators read a series of statements, and if each one applied to you, you were supposed to take a step toward the middle. If you go/went to the Middle Hour program today, it was some of the same questions as in the activity there. Each question was designed to identify an aspect of race, gender, sex, sexuality, or class or other kind of privilege. The effect was that those of us with significant unearned privilege ended up at or near the middle of a cluster of people converging on the same central spot on the patio. Meanwhile, those without access to those same privileges were farther from the center. Multiple people of color took part in this exercise, and they ended up a fair distance outside the center of the cluster.

The “aha” moment for me in this exercise was that the people of color in this exercise had a MUCH better perspective on the group than those of us clustered at or near the middle. I was standing near the middle and all I could see were the people right around me. The folks on the margins could see each other and those of us clustered in the middle much more clearly. The people in this exercise who were literally marginalized could see what was going on better than anyone. Wow. That’s an image we need to keep in mind in the work of making the world a more just and equitable place. And those of us in the middle of that circle can’t hear the broader justice-making perspectives of those on the periphery unless we are willing to listen. We have to listen.

And you don’t have to take my word for it, here’s what one Trustee shared about the experience: “What kicked me in the gut during our workshop… is that it was real AND how few POC we actually have in our (board). …I took that image back into the sanctuary, also a circle, and thought about a dart board that has higher scores the further you go into the circle.  How have we made the bulls-eye an all-white experience? Not just by the people there but by the content choices (including) songs, readings, and topics? And how do we dismantle the rings of privilege we’ve constructed?”

And what I want to emphasize first and foremost is that this Trustee and I are NOT looking to ignore or erase the existing presence of people of color in leadership in our congregation and in our movement. Rather, we want to lift up that it’s harder to attain and maintain leadership positions for people of color in our movement. That’s been borne out for me in conversations with people at literally every level of Unitarian Universalist leadership. One is constantly fighting against headwinds of implicit exclusion in these situations. We have to remember none of us are free until all of us are free. In the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience.

It reminds me of the situation at the Religious Educators’ Fall Conference that Michelle described this morning. A workshop on Nonviolent Communication that was planned with the best intentions ended up triggering many people of color participants. Not because the white leadership was attempting to be exclusionary. But the leadership were the folks huddled at the center of the circle who could only see each other. They weren’t hearing the folks at the margins, the ones with a perspective on what all was happening, until the feedback got so direct and immediate it was unavoidable. Until white allies like Michelle Bishop made it clear “this is not about you.” Until we started to take seriously the idea that none of us are free until all of us are free.

And when it comes to oppression, there is by no means a binary of who is oppressed and not. Another Trustee of UUCA wrote that “I found it interesting that I ended up in the middle rather than the center. It put me in a unique position where I could touch the power center but still see the margins.” This Trustee was being aware there’s some ways their marginalized identities inform them, as well as some areas where their privilege blinds them. I can say from my own experience there’s a reason that heterosexual, white, cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, citizenship-having men struggle at this! That set of identities puts one square in the center, struggling to get any real perspective. It takes years of difficult practice for us to gain that perspective, if indeed we ever do. This is what I mean when I say that listening is not just a nice thing to do, but absolutely necessary for us as a faith movement. Folks with marginalized identities can see things that folks with privileged identities cannot. One way we collectively are called to listen right now is by elevating and empowering the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized in our movement.

The work of elevating and empowering marginalized voices falls into a very broad category in the work of justice-making, which one could describe as “it’s not my fault but I can’t ignore it.” It’s not my fault that women, LGBTQ folks, people of color, non-citizens, non-Christians, and poor people have been systematically excluded from power in our country for hundreds of years, but I can’t ignore it. I am not responsible for the fact that our country was built on the labor of African-Americans who were defined as slaves by their skin color some 350 years ago. But now that we’re here, I am not free to do nothing about it. None of us are free until all of us are free. In the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience.

We recognize that something needs to be done, but we don’t necessarily know what needs to be done. And this again is where listening comes in. We are called, all of us in this room, to be listeners as we discern the way forward as a justice-making people. No one has a monopoly on the truth, and everyone has something to contribute.

Not knowing what to do can be confusing, and frightening, and it can induce despair. If you are feeling those things right now, it’s understandable. But we are more powerful than we realize. In the words of Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos, “They buried us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” We are more powerful than we can imagine, and I want to address a couple areas in particular where we can build that power.

The video that we saw this morning of folks attaining deeper levels of intimacy with each other through sustained eye contact for four minutes shows how easy and how difficult it can be to nurture closeness with others. Easy because it takes only a few minutes and can be effective with anyone from a stranger to a long-time spouse. Hard because this kind of intimacy makes many of us profoundly uncomfortable! I showed this video to my wife and asked if she wanted to do the exercise and she said not in a million years! So I totally understand if this doesn’t feel like something that you want to try. But the act of connecting with another person on a deeper level is in and of itself revolutionary. We are taught in myriad ways to commoditize each other, to not see others as human beings. Just as it was economically profitable to de-humanize African-Americans in the 17th century (and 18th and 19th) and exploit African-American lives and labor, it is today economically profitable for people to see each other as commodities, entities we can appease or exploit based on their status in order to further our own means. The act of humanizing each other is thus a revolutionary one which both performs and enacts building the Beloved Community, learning to love one another in ways we previously had not. It enables us to practice seeing each other in more meaningful ways than we usually do, and it allows us to form a deeper connection than we already had with someone. So, seeing each other in new and deeper ways is one way of listening and hearing each other better. It reminds us none of us are free until all of us are free. In the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience.

Another more literal and external way we can listen is through podcasts. I heard Symone Sanders, an African-American woman who is the former press secretary for the Bernie Sanders campaign, say this week how she believes podcasts are the talk radio of the left. The kind of specificity and nuance that liberals, whether religious or otherwise, crave, is much better suited to the podcast format both in terms of the shows themselves and how they are distributed. So, if you are not a podcast person, I would invite you to at least figure out how to download them on your phone or your computer, to start listening to some that look interesting to you, and possibly to branch out from there. If you are already a podcast person, I would like to challenge you to subscribe to at least one additional feed this week that is hosted by someone who does not share your social identities.

A participant at the Religious Educators Conference last weekend said “I understand learning and growing is my work to do as a white person, but how am I supposed to learn if people of color won’t teach me?” And what I want to say is that it’s all out there if we are willing to go look for it. It’s out there in podcasts like “Pod Save the People” with Deray McKesson. It’s out there in books like The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. We all need to educate and equip ourselves, because none of us are free until all of us are free. In the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience.

The point I hope folks will take away from each of these methods of listening, whether it’s empowering marginalized voices in our congregations, looking deeply into each others’ eyes, or delving into the world of podcasts, is that there are deeper levels we can go to, and that we are called by our ever-curious faith tradition to explore. Along the way, let us remember that we’re not doing this to be nice, but because our liberation is tied to collective liberation. None of us is free until all of us are free. In the process of getting free, we are held and nurtured by a universal love larger than any of us can ever know or experience. Peace, Salaam, Shalom, and may it be so.