Speaker: Fenwick Broyard III
First Service: 9:30 am
Second Service: 11:00 am
There is a qualitative difference between offering a beacon and providing refuge, a difference we can overcome by drawing inspiration from our past history of sacrifice in the cause of justice. In addition to a warning and a word of welcome, we must also offer safety and a place of refuge to marginalized individuals. Our task is to ensure that UUCA is truly a “safe house.”
“Them that are weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that they may eat all things; another , who is weak, eateth herbs. [But] Let not them that eateth despise them that eateth not; and let not them which eateth not judge them that eateth; for God hath received them both. And, who art thou that judges another person’s servant? To their own master they standeth or falleth. Yea, they shall be holden up; for God is able to make them stand. One person esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth ever day alike. [But], in all things let every person be fully persuaded in their own mind.”
I chose this passage knowing full well that it may not be familiar to many of you, but assuming that at least some of you would recognize the resonance with a pair of statements much closer to home. For in the pair of admonitions contained in the first and last verses of our passage, I hear an echo not only of the 3rd and 4th principles of Unitarian Universalism but also I hear echos of the mission statement of this very congregation.
“Them who are weak in the faith, receive ye; but not to doubtful disputations…but, rather, in all things, let every person be persuaded in their own mind.”
That, for me, is a translation into Bible of the communal commitment of UU, to support the free and individual search for spiritual truth and the provision of community in support of such pursuit. Or, to put it in your words, “UUCA is a community of faith that encourages and supports individual spiritual questions out of which the community acts together for social justice.”
This is the beacon which Unitarian Universalism shines in the sea of intolerance, and it is the beacon which drew me both to this denomination and to the seminary I attended before arriving.
But friends, I have come to bear a difficult witness on this morning, and to relate unto you my testimony, based on the impartation of the observation that beacons and refuges are not equivalent.
For, on the question of the relation between these two concepts, to which we’ve previously presumed an equivalence, I’d like to submit that my recent experience has revealed that there is a subtle, and yet highly significant, difference.
My experience has revealed that a beacon can be true to itself and be little more than an advertisement, serving to signal or announce the nearby presence of some desirable existent.
An illustration of this may be imagined in the plight of an inexperienced seaman, who seeking refuge from a storm mistakes the first lighthouse as the location of the harbor he needs, only to discover upon running his ship aground that the lighthouse was only a beacon, and that the refuge, or safe harbor, that he sought was only indicated by the thing.
On the other hand, a refuge IS the safe harbor or welcome to which the beacon is the pointer. The place where the promise that is advertised by the beacon is fully, finally, and actually delivered.
In other words, a refuge is a beacon fulfilled and is the veritable co-existence of the two.
But, it is a sad truth about our superficial times that few and far between are the two co-occurrent.
My most recent encounter with a beacon posing as a refuge occurred during the most recent three years, during which I attended and completed my Masters of Divinity at the Vanderbilt Divinity School.
I was drawn to Vanderbilt Divinity because of its standing as a beacon of liberal religion, as well as for the commitment to inclusion which it signified with the hiring of an African-American, lesbian Dean. In fact, so bright was the shining of this beacon that I sold everything I had. And so bright was the shining of this beacon that students came from all over the southeast. And so bright was the shining of this beacon that Vandy became a haven for the queer and the questioning, all of us seeking a first-hand encounter with the inclusive and Beloved Community that was promised.
And though I don’t speak for all, I do speak for many whose hopes were dashed upon the shoreline of this beacon. This beacon that called the spiritually wayward to a refuge that it did not contain within itself.
For, at the epicenter of what was heralded as the most inclusive seminary in the country, I encountered the most insidious and disheartening expression of intolerance into which I’d ever come in contact.
What I discovered, to my heart’s dismay, is that there is such a thing as a liberal intolerance. And, in fact, what I learned, through experience, is that the liberal version is even more destructive than the conservative.
At least, when you’re dealing with conservatives, you know, if you are marginalized, that you are not welcome. But, when you are being called into community with those who have been excluded, you assume that you shall encounter welcome.
And, in a community where tolerance is being extolled and demanded, you would think that you can count on it being practiced. But, in the most queer-friendly religious environment into which I have ever stepped, I uncovered (operating directly within it) a form of reactive and undeniable intolerance.
Never did I imagine that I’d find myself in league with fundamentalist Christians, until I observed the persecution that they suffered at the hands of so many of my liberal colleagues.
Those who professed a belief in Jesus Christ were treated as though they had personally persecuted their classmates; and their intelligence and their characters were constantly questioned until they were shamed into an abject silence.
And so it was that in the curation of a religious space that was intentionally queer-friendly, an environment was produced that was inadvertently, and unfortunately, believer-hostile.
In seeking a place of tolerance for their own sexually marginalized identities the victims of religious exclusion unwittingly exacted their own version of intolerance, marginalizing a whole group of potential allies through generalization and the projection of blame.
It is as a result of those three disheartening years that I stand before you this morning with a warning — “Before you go advertising ‘Beloved Community’ make sure you have it to offer, lest you do further damage to those whose identities have rendered them starved for such an encounter.”
For, friends, the testimony that I’ve come to share with you this morning is one that is both difficult to speak and to hear. For while it is true that UU’s have been historically averse to the practice of outward evangelism, my observation is that, inwardly, you have become quite comfortable and adept at the contrary practice.
You have, to your credit or detriment, avoided, at all costs, evangelizing your neighbors. But, once those neighbors have crossed over your thresholds you have shown yourselves quite comfortable with what I’ll call “de-vangelism.”
From the name of this term I’m assuming you can deduce what I’m intending by it, but I shall reveal my meaning by way of a pair of warnings that I received from UU ministers.
By one current UU minister I was strongly encouraged to guard closely my faith. “For,” she instructed me, “this denomination and its adherents will seek to secularize you.”
Additionally, by one retired UU minister I was told, with regard to this very congregation, that it was his lamentable observation, during his time here, that it was acceptable for a UU to be anything but a Christian.
Sadly, beloved, I must report that, in my short time, both these warnings have proven prescient, as I have encountered what I’ll refer to on this morning as “theological micro-aggressions.”
For, in addition to these warnings, I can report to having had personal encounters with this secularizing tendency, including having been personally asked to edit the manner in which I offer prayer.
After fielding the request that I lead the prayer for a group of this congregation, it was requested that I avoid making reference to God so as not to make the atheists uncomfortable.
I wish, at the time, that I’d had the presence to ask what difference it would make to them. For, to those who don’t believe in God or prayer, my question is “What is the harm in it happening around you?”
For, to those who unsolicitedly and vehemently deny the Christian faith, I have the same question as I have for those who zealously seek to proselytize Christianity. Namely, in all your unsolicited opining, “Who is it you are trying to convince?”
In hindsight I’m grateful that my Unitarian Christianity was actually hidden from view. For, I have been able to serve as a sort of “canary in the coal mine” during my period of service to this community.
I could not, as it were, hide my blackness and so have endured less discomfort on that account; however, my identity as a Christian served as an unseen marker that permitted me access to the “locker room talk.”
For, I have borne witness, first-hand, to the disparagement to which Christianity and Christians are subjected; and I have listened as the tradition which has been the marrow for millions had been subjected to mockery and mischaracterization.
And so, I close by asking this question in response to the commitment that is weekly proclaimed in this gathering. For when it is declared that “Whomever you love, you are welcome here,” my question is “Does that include those who love Jesus?”
My contention is that the answer to this question will determine whether UUCA becomes a beacon or a refuge. For, the fulfillment of your mission requires that you satisfy the letter of Romans.
“Them that are weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. [But], in all things let every person be fully persuaded in their own mind.”
For to engage in doubtful disputations regarding the veracity of someone else’s truth is not only to not be persuaded in your own mind but also to produce a feeling of unwelcome for the judged.
For a faith community of radical tolerance is absent of such disputations, being comprised of those who are fully persuaded in their own minds.
Such a community, and such a community alone, would deserve the distinction of “beloved,” as such a community would have accomplished the most difficult movement from Being a Beacon to Being a Refuge.