“What’s in Your Pocket?” by Duncan Teague

Call to Worship Reading from Vineyard Gazette – Promoting Peace in Wake of Sandy Hook Shooting, Katie Ruppel
Reading: Grateful for Every Page in Every Book I Own by Duncan Teague

 “One night I went to the church. They had a mass meeting. And I went to the church, and they talked about how it was our right, that we could register and vote. They were talking about we could vote out people that we didn’t want in office, we thought that wasn’t right, that we could vote them out. That sounded interesting enough to me that I wanted to try it. I had never heard, until 1962, that black people could register and vote.” [1]

—    Fannie Lou Hamer (October 6, 1917 – March 14, 1977), who made this discovery about her voting rights at the age of forty-five.

We have, I hope, all heard the story of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Delegation—the story about how they forced the 1964 Democratic Party Convention to confront its alliance with Southern all-white delegations during segregation.  I had heard how Mrs. Hamer was uncompromising in her stance that the entire Freedom Delegation needed seats for justice to occur. She insisted that all 64 black and four white members of their party must be allowed on the convention floor as delegates. She was not at the convention to barter for her freedom; she was there to declare it with her fellow Mississippi citizens.

I was brought to tears on the UU Living Legacy Pilgrimage bus hearing her biography as we were approaching her grave site and her home, in Ruleville, MS.  We—44 UUs and friends—were visiting and paying homage to many Civil Rights veterans at key locations from Birmingham to Memphis.

Hamer was the youngest of 20 children and she began working at the side of her sharecropper parents at age six. She left school after the sixth grade to work full time in the cotton fields.[2]  There was no money for her to continue school. School for Negro children was not allowed to conflict with the crop work; therefore, school was in session only for about four or five months of the year.   So from this early age, Fannie Lou Hamer was allowed to work in the fields by the land owner, and later, in recognition of her intelligence, she was allowed to work in the accounting of the crops and the pay due to sharecroppers.  She was twelve when she left school.  Her desire for knowledge and desire to read was such that she read parts of newspapers and magazine articles thrown in the trash and discarded in the cotton fields. The story of Mrs. Hamer’s education was what brought me to tears of shock because of when this happened historically; in contrast, I had tears of gratitude for my own library and my own opportunities for education.

[1] Jone Johnson Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer Quotes, About.com Women’s History. (http://womenshistory.about.com/od/civilrights/a/Fannie-Lou-Hamer-Quotes.htm) accessed January 10, 2013.

[2] Fannie Lou Hamer, Infoplease, (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0900069.html) accessed January 10, 2013.

Sermon:  What’s In Your Pocket? by Duncan E. Teague


It feels great to be back home in this spot and very humbling.  Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Weekend!


Thank you to Rev. Marti Keller for requesting I preach here this Sunday. Thanks to all of you who have been asking heartfelt questions about where am I in the process.  I will see the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the MFC, in April.

We also want to acknowledge those of you who were, even as teenagers, in the Civil Rights Struggle that I will be speaking on today.  Some of you did not have to hear about it or study it in school; you were there.  You have your own testimony of what it meant to face, head on, the racism and bigotry of our society at that time.  You were present at the events we will be discussing. Thank you.

The Sermon

This morning we want to honor Dr. King, but in a different ways than what are typically said about our great social change leader and American symbol of non-violent strategies for liberation.  I will be speaking about Rev. King as a younger, inexperienced preacher who has just left graduate school in Boston.  I will mention others, among many, who joined with him in the cause of liberation. I begin by talking about a younger Rev. King and his new bride, Coretta Scott, who have chosen to come back to the South to pursue his ministry and to do what they can to help the cause of the Negro.  She, the new Mrs. Coretta Scott King, is giving up her musical career because in the South she cannot reach the acclaim she could as a vocalist classically trained in the New England Conservatory of Music.  He has not yet completed his dissertation, but in its anticipation, he had job offers from universities, a church in the North, as well as the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church of Montgomery.  Because Jim Crow laws are still enforced, we are discussing the country as though the Civil War has just ended. It is the 1950’s; life in the North versus life in the South is how one describes the choices of the Negro people.  I want us to honor a Rev. King who is not at his peak, but who has a book in his pocket that assures him of some help when he needs it.

Some of us choose to learn of history, some of us choose to make history, dare we mention “reality television”, but some are chosen by history. Rev. King, the new pastor at Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in October of 1954, is about to be chosen by history.  He is to replace that radical, Rev. Vernon Johns, who kept stirring things up.  The church deacons, who have sought a more cautious minister, are probably unaware that the new Rev. King keeps a book in his briefcase, a book by his professor; Howard Thurman called Jesus and the Disinherited. This book is something noticed a little later in the Montgomery struggle by a journalist conducting an interview with Rev. King. The book is about reconciling the religion of Jesus, Jesus of the white Southern churches and Jesus and the disinherited, American Negroes. It has a strong influence on the young minister, as noted by Dr. Luther Smith, my friend and tenured Thurman scholar at the Candler School of Theology.

If we were to give an interview, what books would the interviewer notice in your backpack or your car?  Would we find books that would tell us that you are being prepared for what history has in store for you?

There are many others whom history chooses in this period.  I had heard of Fanny Lou Hamer, but it was not until the UU Living Legacy Pilgrimage, this past October that I heard her whole story.  Mrs. Hamer is not like Dr. King as you heard in our reading.  She is poor, while Rev. King is firmly middle class—educated, well read—he grew up in the best place, quite possibly, a southern, black child could, in Atlanta,Georgia, in the Black church on Auburn Ave. His mother is a powerful woman and his father is a church’s pastor.  Fanny Lou Hamer’s parents are not the Kings, she is grasping for something to read in the Ruleville, Mississippi cotton fields and along the roadside.  She has no access to a library, but history will use her common sense, and her determination.  Her gutsy plain speech will call the entire Democratic Party to stop and listen when it must. What are you reading and how did you get it?  How will history use your gifts this morning?

We, David and I, are blessed to have a library in our home and one more book might send one of our shelves tumbling over.  We are privileged in our literacy.  In contrast with our congregation, there are some places of worship where they don’t sell books in the fellowship hall. There are places in the world today that are punishing girls and young women for wanting an education.  We are powerful in just having our UU bookstore available every Sunday. Amen.  What’s in your pocket this morning? Our children are watching how we value learning and reading.

This morning we want to be so literate that no one can fool us with a ploy about the US constitution and our right to bear arms.  We have a need for folks who are learned about how we bring peace into our schools, not only in the suburbs and the rural areas, but in the inner cities.  Do we have what we need in our pockets to oppose those who would arm every teacher, every administrator and those support the sale of high powered assault weapons, which should have no place in our society but still exist as instruments of mass murder.  These weapons in the wrong hands have changed our society.  A talking head this week tried to distinguish between automatic and semi-automatic weapons.  REALLY! Are we reading and learning how we will be the best at providing the loving support to the children, the families, and the institutions that have faced violent shootings all over our country?

I know that this morning we are still emotional about the recent attack on the Sandy Hook Elementary children, teachers, and administrators. I am also concerned about our violent rhetoric and our violent entertainment as much as I am about the weapons.  I am concerned about our collective ministry to the families that are struggling with challenges, which include having family members with mental disabilities. Do we need more weapons and less care?  Why is it so easy to get a gun and ammunition, but not so easy to obtain a library card?  What’s in our pockets this morning?  Our UU Atlanta Cluster ministers agreed to address this on this morning as we honor what Dr. King stood for and died for.  What’s in our pockets and does it require a permit or will it help us bring non-violent social change to our hurting communities?

But let us return to that time in 1954 at the beginning of the career of Dr. King.  On that first night of the peaceful, eventually successful boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, a meeting was called for the Negro community of Montgomery.  The leaders did not all like each other; some did not know who this new minister “King” was, and they did not know all that they would face.  They did not know how long the boycott would take.  In the end it took a year of setbacks, bombings, and threatening calls in the night, sometimes while new born infant, Yolanda King cried.

Drivers in Montgomery Alabama public buses in the 1950s could move the marker at will that separated the white, front section of the bus from the back section reserved for coloreds.  The drivers were notorious for not even fairly allocating the segregated seats according to the number of passengers.  Mrs. Rosa Parks knew and disliked the driver who, as it turned out, would have her arrested and she did not want to catch his bus.  But she had no choice. She was tired, and there were seats available in the white section, but not the colored section.  So she sat in the front and that led to her arrest.  Sometimes we need to be in conflict with injustice.  The folks who came that Monday night to the church had walked to and from work.  Had watched not only Mrs. Rosa Parks be arrested, but other women who wanted to sit without having to give up their seats for white passengers.  The folks who came to the church that night were fed up.  What are you fed up about this morning?  What seat are you not going to move out of again?

We have some buses that need boycotting this morning.  We need to find a way for every adult who loves another adult to enjoy the civil rights of marriage as granted by the state if they so choose.  We need to have a discussion about public education that is fair and reasonable.  We are heading for cliffs and they are not primarily fiscal: they are about the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil our food comes from.  Marti would like us to have a discussion about a woman’s right to choose, and how about if some women were in on that discussion. What about the way we are going to love each other into a time when the cheap oil is gone.  What are you reading?

A young, unsure but willing Rev. King in 1955 with a new wife and a new baby said these words:  “We the disinherited of this land, we who have been oppressed so long, are tired of going through the long night of captivity. And now we are reaching out for the daybreak of freedom and justice and equality.” These words were based on his reading of Jesus and the Disinherited, the book by Howard Thurman that he carried in his briefcase.

Recently, I spoke to Mr. Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.  He said he has been reading Dr. King and Caesar Chavez’ words because they are his heroes.  Mr. Gonzalez is an out gay man doing Latino organizing and voter registration here in Georgia. This community may be considered the disinherited.  I am still researching what our friends on the UndocuBus, today’s freedom riders representing the undocumented Latino fellow neighbors, friends, and workers were reading as they made their way across the country. We at UUCA proudly and quietly hosted them.  Are we reading something that will assure the oppressed that we are ready to stand by them?

I want you to grab your book and I will grab your free arm and walk with you to that place we are hoping for this morning, to that land where it will not be a big deal that a son of an adventurous, Midwestern white woman and an African student grows up to win not just once, but twice the US Presidency. This morning he will take the oath of the office of president, again. It is wonderful, but what oath are we taking today?  We are already in covenant together UUs to do justice work, to ensure more democracy and peace. Our principles say so. We have beat him to that oath.

What’s in our pockets that will assure that this is a moment of progress?  This may be a moment for us to be a part of history, an ordinary Sunday. Maybe someone here today will be the writer of the book that moves our nation into the progress we need in 2016, or 2050.

I don’t want to leave our guest out of it this morning.  It turns out that Charles Dickens, who wrote the poem, “Things That Never Die” that became the words for our anthem, had visited the Unitarian churches inBostonon both of his American tours.  He liked the Transcendentalists. He was a British Unitarian Christian. He wrote these words:

The plea for mercy softly breathed
When justice threatens high,
The sorrow of a contrite heart;
These things can never die.

Let nothing pass, for ev’ry hand
Must find some work to do,
Lose not a chance to waken love;
Be firm and just and true…

What’s in your computer?  We are not only readers, but we are the reading teachers, and we are the writers of liberation, workers right here in this room, right now. If the book isn’t in our pocket yet, look around you.

In the name of Fannie Lou Hammer, our martyrs: Mrs. Viola Liuzzo and Rev. James Reeb, both killed in association with the later actions in Selma; Dr. King, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Mrs. Rosa Parks, and all those thousands of unnamed Montgomery Alabama citizens who walked, drove cabs and turned their cars into cabs, distributed mimeographed fliers—no email or Face Book, made lunches, and dodged the Klu Klux Klan, repaired the bombed homes, for a year and more. May what is in our pockets liberate our disinherited. Amen.