Recording of our January 17, 2021 online worship service
Nico Van Ostrand
Good morning and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am Nico Van Ostrand, I use they/them pronouns, and I am this congregation’s Religious Education Coordinator. I am joined in worship leadership by our Senior Minister, Rev. Mandy Beal, and Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing. Our chalice will be lit by the Nordhaus family and we’ll also enjoy dancing by Alice Pulver. We also have technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis and Zoom Greeter Drieka DeGraff.
BUC is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Even in our virtual format, we are a thriving community with a place for everyone. Social justice is an essential component of our church life. We are a capital “W” Welcoming Congregation and a Green Sanctuary Congregation. Our social justice work this year is focused on environmental action, wealth inequality, civic engagement, and racial inequality.
Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook. After the service, we invite you to stay for virtual coffee hour. If you are worshiping with us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you.
We have three announcements this morning:
Calling all BUC bakers! The Bake-Off Fundraiser is coming up on February 14! Show your love for the BUC community and religious education by volunteering to be a baker. You can sign up to be a BUC Baker through Monday, January 25. The link to sign up is in your weekly email update, or look for the orange button on our website.
BUC Environmental Action invites you to “Kiss and Tell.” Kiss the Ground is a full-length documentary about regenerative agriculture, which has the potential to balance our climate, replenish our vast water supplies, and feed the world. You are invited to view the film—that's the "kiss" part—and then join us on January 26 to "tell" us what you thought about it, in a discussion led by a member of Sierra Club Michigan. You can stream the film with a Netflix subscription or create a free account on Vimeo and rent it for $1. After you've watched the film, join us on Tuesday, January 26 at 7:00 pm for the discussion. Zoom access info is on the calendar.
Join us this Tuesday, January 19 at 7:00 pm for the next Confronting Racism group meeting. All BUCers are welcome and encouraged to participate in the important work of understanding the history, drivers, and impacts of systems of racism and white supremacy and actions we can take to confront these realities and build an equitable and loving community for all. Zoom access info for Tuesday’s meeting is on the calendar.
Thank you for joining us this morning, or whenever you’re watching this. Although we are not together physically, we are together in spirit, and it is good to be together again.
And now our service will begin.
by Martin Luther King, Jr.
read by Nico Van Ostrand
. . . freedom never comes easy. It comes through hard labor and it comes through toil. It comes through hours of despair and disappointment.
And that’s the way it goes. There is no crown without a cross. I wish we could get to Easter without going to Good Friday, but history tells us that we got to go by Good Friday before we can get to Easter. That’s the long story of freedom, isn’t it? Before you get to Canaan you’ve got a Red Sea to confront. You have a hardened heart of a pharaoh to confront. You have the prodigious hilltops of evil in the wilderness to confront. And even when you get up to the Promised Land, you have giants in the land. The beautiful thing about it is that there are a few people who’ve been over in the land. They have spied enough to say, “Even though the giants are there we can possess the land, because we got the internal fiber to stand up amid anything that we have to face.
Rev. Mandy Beal
The mission of Birmingham Unitarian Church is to create a free and welcoming religious community that encourages lives of integrity, learning, service, and joy. The weekly offering serves as an ongoing reminder of this mission. Sharing in this weekly practice of generosity also strengthens the bonds between congregants and our high purpose. So let there be an offering in support of this Beloved Community and our good works. Contributions can be made through our website, Venmo (user name @BUCMI), or a check in the mail. However you choose to give, please do so with a heart of gratitude and for each other.
Nico Van Ostrand
I invite you now to settle into your space, and breathe deeply into a spirit of meditation or prayer.
As you breathe, hold both hands out in front of you like this, with your palms up. Imagine that you are holding everything that you know about racism and justice and privilege in your two hands. Feel the weight of it pressing against your palms.
Sit with that weight for a moment.
When you are ready, carefully, lovingly gather everything that you know about racism and justice and privilege into one of your hands, leaving the other empty. Close the fingers of your one hand around everything that you know, and keep it safe there.
Feel the emptiness of your other hand, palm open, ready to receive.
“Right To After Claude McKay” by Mahogany L. Browne
read by Rev. Mandy Beal
If we must live, let it not be in silence
Each shadow surrounding our right to be outraged
Let us not sit hands crossed while our stomachs growl upset
Full of bad food and assembly-line ideas
Listen closely: our bodies bubbling up angrily at the lies
we have been fed
If we must live, let no one decide how our hearts beat
Or how our songs should be sung
Or if our neighborhoods are worth protecting
Or if we are allowed to walk in stores freely
If we must live, let it be a true life
One full of choices and opportunities
One that isn’t designed to push us into a corner
Keep us quiet and formidable
Keep us without unique opinions and educated understandings
If we must live --
And we must --
Let it be with our fists in the air
To remind the people that we will speak up
for what is right
We will always stand up against that which brings harm
We will demand what is just
Not only for our own lives
but for the lives that are impacted
Let us live
To fight for a better day
by Nico Van Ostrand
Today’s homily is for people of color. We are so often the numerical minority in Unitarian Universalist spaces that we get minority’d right out of existence -- our experiences are either ignored completely or we’re talked about like hypotheticals instead of the vital members of UU faith whose theories and labor drive UU antiracism work. Decentering BIPOC UUs on the day before Martin Luther King Day, a day that exists to call attention to racial justice, simply did not sit right with me. And I know it is problematic in so many ways that we are lumped into this “non-white” category -- but I wanted to speak to you from my Filipino American perspective and hope that some of it resonates with some portion of your life experience.
White people, you can learn a lot by practicing listening deeply, not taking up space, sitting with your discomfort. In fact, that is one of the most important skills you need to be a white ally -- and I genuinely hope that you do want to be a white ally. So stay in the Zoom meeting, don’t check out or close down or hide behind defensiveness. Stay with me, stay open.
I decided to address this homily to you, BIPOC Unitarian Universalists, because I’ve been to so many UU racial justice events that center whiteness, that seem to think UU racial justice work peaked with James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo. So many of those events close with calls for racial unity, which ultimately are not actually calls for radical healing and reconciliation, but rather demands that we allow whiteness to dictate the ways in which we must interact with and resist whiteness.
This fascination with protecting white comfort at any cost leads to reinforcing white supremacy in subtle ways, like censoring our feelings -- leaving no space for our genuine hurt and anger, but instead having us parade along our joy and our stories of strength. I’m not arguing we should not celebrate those things, I’m saying we shouldn’t be asked to focus solely on positives so that our white colleagues, family members, and friends can go on ignoring their role in the white supremacist systems that actively harm us.
In the lead up to the 2020 Presidential election, I was so frequently required in white dominated spaces to center joy, set aside my fear and grief long enough to share some contrived story about joy in my life. Each instance of this made me more angry than the last, especially when just a few days prior I was with my mom in a predominantly white neighborhood that we’ve frequented for years, and a flotilla of boats went past on the river, playing loud music and shouting political slogans across the water. And I stood there in the park I go to every Saturday morning and identified the nearest concrete pillar wide enough for me to hide behind. I ran scenarios in my head of what I would do to shield and protect my mom should the shouts turn into something more -- something I think about far more often than anyone should have to.
The day after armed, right-wing Americans invaded the Capitol, a white colleague of mine asked me how I’m doing, and I poured out an incoherent mess of my rage and fear and hopelessness -- and she responded by saying, “I’m choosing joy. I’ve decided that they don’t get to ruin my day.” And I shut my mouth, my head spinning with stories from former UUs who had brought their Black or brown wholeness into Unitarian Universalism and left again after being repeatedly silenced and invalidated.
Unitarian Universalism does have some harmful roots and practices. And it calls us to be better. It’s a challenging duality but there is no alternative -- for our faith or for our country. Racial unity of the kind Martin Luther King dreamed of requires us not to diminish ourselves to the comfort level of white supremacy, but rather to feel and embody joy on our terms.
In this morning's opening words, Martin Luther King reminds us that others have seen the promised land -- he says, “They have spied enough to say, “Even though the giants are there we can possess the land, because we got the internal fiber to stand up amid anything that we have to face.”
This doesn’t mean possessing the land in the way of European colonizers stealing land from Indigenous peoples through genocide, but rather a claiming of space. It’s flooding phone lines and inboxes with calls for justice for uprising arrestees and people on death row, it’s Indigenous creators on social media dancing and celebrating their traditions and raising awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Claiming space is marching for racial justice and ending up surrounded by hundreds of police officers with their guns and riot gear, armored cars and officers on horseback, a tank rolling up towards us, a helicopter spotlight shining down -- the anxiety threatening to bubble out of my stomach, cold and hungry and stuck there for far longer than we’d intended -- and music. A spontaneous dance party, mostly Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian youth -- that raw joy of daring to claim space, dancing and singing at a protest as a form of protest.
“If we must live --” says Mahogany L. Browne,
“And we must --
Let it be with our fists in the air.”
Joy is loud. It takes up space and demands better for us, if not for us then for our loved ones -- and if not for them then for everyone who comes after us.
One of the many, often-repeated quotes from Martin Luther King tells us, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Barack Obama, the only Black president in this country’s 244-year history, loves this quote too, and it’s actually a paraphrase of a sermon by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker. All three of those leaders’ lives in different ways illustrate the long, long arc of the moral universe, and none of them meant that we get to put our feet up and trust the arc to bend on its own.
That arc does not exist naturally, it is not predetermined. I imagine many of you have personal, painful stories that show this to be true. Recent history and the threats of further violent attacks in the coming days have shown us that forces of white supremacy and injustice of all kinds continually try to halt justice. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice only because we work hard to make it so.
As I watched livestreams of the attack on the Capitol on the 6th, I lay on my floor with a headache and a pit in my stomach, feeling the now-familiar weight of hopelessness and fear combined with a weary unsurprise, wondering desperately how I can still believe in racial justice and abolition in the face of such blatant white supremacist violence. But I must believe that racial justice is vital not only because my values and Principles call me to, but also because giving up on racial justice is giving up on the path that leads to the promised land, to joy.
Racism is destructive and violent and affecting us right now. It is affecting our quality of life, our health, our interactions with others. We deserve so much better, and we may never get it but I am comforted in my conviction that it is not important that I ever set my own eyes on true racial justice, as long as someone makes it over those hilltops to see it.
This is a movement, not a solitary journey. This is one heartbeat in the long arc of solidarity and justice. And I don’t mean this to take away from the reality of pain and suffering in this moment but I am clear in my mind that there is no way forward except to aspire through our every action for justice -- if not for us, then for our loved ones, and if not for them then for everyone who comes after us.
by Nico Van Ostrand
As we go out into the rest of the world and the rest of the week, and a change in the country’s leadership -- though not a chance in the necessity for racial justice work -- may you claim space and find joy on your own terms. In the words of Octavia Butler -- “So be it! See to it!”