Recording of our November 15, 2020 online worship service
Good morning, and welcome to Birmingham Unitarian Church! I am Jesse Beal. I’m joined today by our Co-Directors of Music Ministry, Abha and Steven Dearing, and Worship Associate Brianna Zamborsky, with technical support from our Communications Coordinator, Sara Constantakis, and our Zoom greeter, Drieka DeGraff. Our worship services are hosted on Zoom every Sunday morning at 10:30 and then later posted on Facebook.
BUC is a spiritual home for all people of good will. The lay leaders of this congregation have worked hard over many years to earn special designations from the Unitarian Universalist Association. In 1994, we became a Welcoming Congregation, a term that means we are committed to being intentionally inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer individuals and families. We’re also a Green Sanctuary Congregation, which is a similar program for environmental justice work in a congregation. Our commitment to both of these programs was renewed in this year. And although there is no such designation for racial justice, we are deeply committed to that work, as well.
After the service, we invite you to stay for a virtual coffee hour. You will be randomly sorted into breakout groups and we hope that you’ll participate in this opportunity to connect with others. If you are worshiping with us for the first time today, we extend a special welcome to you. We hope that you’ll stay after the service and get to know us.
We have three announcements this morning:
Want to do something on Thanksgiving but still be socially distanced? Join us for a Zoom gathering from 3:00-5:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day, which is Thursday, November 26. Bring something with you to share virtually with the group that represents what Thanksgiving means to you in 2020, like a poem, picture, story, song, food, or recipe. If you’d like to attend, please RSVP to Carol Winslow by November 24.
Our next Confronting Racism session is this coming Tuesday, November 17, at 7:00 pm. We’ll pick up where we left off in October with a viewing of the second half of the Oscar-nominated film “13th,” a documentary analysis of the U.S. system of mass incarceration, and specifically how the prison-industrial complex affects people of color. We'll discuss what we must do, locally and nationally, to stop locking people up at such high rates and begin undoing the harm this system of incarceration has wreaked. If you missed the October session, you may watch the first half of the film on YouTube in advance, and join us on Tuesday for the second half. Zoom access info is on the Meeting Calendar on our website.
Today at 12:00 noon, we have a very special installment of Getting to Know UU. Everyone is welcome to join this session for a short history of BUC and a virtual tour of the church building. If you've been missing our physical church home, we hope you'll tune in! The Zoom link is on the Meeting Calendar on our website. And we will end coffee hour at 11:45 today so that we can start the class at noon. It is a separate link from service and it's on the calendar. Hope you’ll join us.
Thank you, again, 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 with that, our service will begin.
As we light our chalice today, may it also light our hearts.
May it light our imaginations and help us envision a future of collective liberation.
May it light our way as we push, ever, towards this collective dream,
and may it be there, warm and bright, when we arrive.
Today we celebrate a dream awakening.
Today we worship with renewed hope.
Today we act on an audacity of hopes and dreams for the future.
Today we begin the hard work for justice, equity and compassion in all human relations, for today is a day like no other and it is ours to shape with vision and action.
Let us worship together and celebrate a dream awakening.
We are stewards of this community and of our beautiful campus. Even when we’re not worshiping onsite, we are still responsible for the various expenses of our church. This is a house of memory and hope, of love and of justice. Let there be an offering to support this Beloved Community.
Your contributions can be sent using Venmo, username @BUCMI, or through our website. Giving through either platform is easy and free. You can also put a check in the mail to us. I ask you to consider how much you’ve relied on BUC in the past months and do what you can to support our good work. Please give generously.
As we honor Diwali this week and its symbolism of beginnings, of hope like light in the darkness, we also know that many in our congregation and country are experiencing endings. Still others feel stuck, somewhere in the middle of something. Or feeling many of these states at the same time. Spirit of Light, wherever we find ourselves today and whatever we are feeling there, help us to know that it is okay. Tell us again and again that we are okay until we know it deep in our hearts. And remind us, one more time, that we are held, always, in Love.
Our first reading is from Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown.
“There are examples of emergence everywhere.
Birds don’t make a plan to migrate, raising resources to fund their way, packing for scarce times, mapping out their pit stops. They feel the call in their bodies that they must go, and they follow it, responding to each other, each bringing their adaptations.
There is an art to flocking: staying separate enough not to crowd each other, aligned enough to maintain a shared direction, and cohesive enough to always move towards each other. (Responding to destiny together.) Destiny is a calling that creates a beautiful journey.
Emergence is beyond what the sum of its parts could even imagine.
A group of caterpillars or nymphs might not see flight in their future, but it’s inevitable.
Oak trees don’t set an intention to listen to each other better, or agree to hold tight to each other when the next storm comes. Under the earth, always, they reach for each other, they grow such that their roots are intertwined and create a system of strength that is as resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.
Dandelions don’t know whether they are a weed or a brilliance. But each seed can create a field of dandelions. We are invited to be so prolific. And to return fertility to soil around us.
Cells may not know that civilization is possible. They don’t amass as many units as they can sign up to be the same. No--they grow until they split, complexify. Then they interact and intersect and discover their purpose… and they serve it. And they die. And what emerges from these cycles are complex organisms, systems, movements, societies.”
Our second reading is a poem by Rev. Theresa Soto, slightly modified, from their
collection Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience.
I wish the knowledge were easier to come by,
that individualism is just a scam, that
you are always the butterfly wings.
You are always the storm.
Edward Lorenz, a weather scientist from MIT, is sometimes misquoted
that the flap of a butterfly wing
can cause a hurricane in a different part of the world.
This shorthand isn't an accurate representation
of the math-turned weather scientist's work.
He proposed this:
should we make even a tiny alteration
to nature, we will never know what would have happened
if we had not disturbed it,
since subsequent changes are too complex
and entangled to restore a previous state.
Which is to say that you have an immeasurable effect on the system.
It will change and you will shape its DNA.
You must not believe the lying lie that you do not matter,
that whatever change you can organize is so insufficient
as to not be worth your time, your energy, your life force.
You must be willing to dream a dream
that carries forward your community.
This is how we rise.
This day is polluted with a mistrust of truth,
a fertile and warm medium for unchecked cruelty and power.
You must choose to scream the truth
until every leaf and stone bears unrepentant witness
to what happens
when you try to cage and smash,
to pin and frame
and their thousands and thousands
of fabulous, flamboyant friends.
by Jesse Beal
This summer when Rev. Mandy invited me to preach this Sunday on adrienne maree brown, emergent strategy, and interconnectedness, I had just finished reading brown’s book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds for the third time. I said yes enthusiastically before I realized that it meant I would have to actually write a sermon, and before I realized that I was being asked to preach about the importance of interconnectedness, community organizing, and movement building for social justice just two weeks following the 2020 election. And, it is almost like she did this on purpose.
adrienne maree brown is a writer, a pleasure activist, a sci-fi and Octavia Butler scholar, a facilitator, a speaker and singer, and a doula. She is rooted in Detroit where she has worked tirelessly for numerous social justice causes. She comes from a lineage of brilliant organizers and activists, including her friend and mentor Grace Lee Boggs, and movements for justice, including Occupy Wall Street, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
So, what is emergent strategy? I’m going to share a bit about what adrienne maree brown discusses in her book, but I also highly recommend you reading it. Go to your local library, your independently owned and/or black-owned bookshop, or AK Press online, buy yourself a copy, put together a virtual reading group, and begin discussing what emergent strategy could make possible in your life, in our congregation, in our country and in this world.
According to brown, emergent strategy “was, initially, a way of describing the adaptive and relational leadership model found in the work of Black science fiction writer Octavia Butler.”
But, it grew. It became plans of action, personal practices, collective organizing tools. And further evolved, as brown puts it “into strategies for organizers building movements for liberation and justice.”
It is now a collection of ways that each of us can, as brown says, “practice being in right relationship to our home and each other.”
brown claims: “emergent strategy is how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for, and maybe, if I’m honest,” she continues, “ it’s a philosophy for how to be in harmony and love, in and with the world.”
This guidebook for relational, heart-centered, humane leadership is predicated by the idea that change is constant, for us and for the natural world, and for us members of the natural world. Change is always occurring.
In practicing emergent strategies we are asked to pay attention to the birds, bees, mushrooms, and trees—as possibility models for ourselves and our movements as we navigate change.
The principles of emergent strategy are:
Small is good, small is all. The large is a reflection of the small.
Change is constant. (Be like water.)
There is always enough time for the right work.
There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.
Never a failure always a lesson.
Trust the People. (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy.)
Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass—build resilience by building the relationships.
Less prep, more presence.
What you pay attention to grows.
There are six elements of emergent strategy and they are:
Fractals – the relationship between small and large. brown uses ferns to discuss how fractals show up in nature. A fractal is something that displays self-similarity across scale. The lesson for organizers and movement builders, and indeed congregations, is that small-scale solutions impact the whole system.
Adaptive – how we change. brown looks to starling flocks to discuss this concept. A starling murmuration reacts to its environment to each other without centralized leadership. Any segment of the flock can transform the whole. This type of collective leadership or the concept of a “leader-full” movement is a hallmark of many progressive movements, including the movement for Black Lives—founded, but not owned, by three Black women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Both Patrisse and Alicia have excellent books out right now, too, if you are looking for further reading.
Interdependence and Decentralization – who we are and how we share. brown defines interdependence as “mutual dependence between things” and decentralization as the dispersion of distributions of power. She reminds us of the interdependence of geese flying their formations and oak trees rooted deeply within the soil wrapping their roots around each other and holding on tight. And, of course, she talks about mycelium, the part of a fungus that threads itself through the ground, connecting to one another to make healthier ecosystems for all through communication, detoxification, and interconnectedness. Mycelium is tiny and also together is the largest organism on earth. Mycelium has so much to teach us about how we can live for one another. In movements for justice we talk a lot about collective liberation and we mean that my liberation is bound up in yours. Simply, I don’t get free if you don’t get free. As a former community organizer, the common analogies for bringing small groups together to make change include single fingers coming together to form a fist and many feathers forming a wing, that allows us to fly. I think I prefer fungus.
Non-linear and iterative – the pace and pathways of change. brown reminds us that “transformation does not happen in a linear way.” Very rarely does changing the world take a direct path. She notes seasons of growth and seasons of harvest. A time to work, a time to rest. She playfully quotes Sierra Pickett, who references poet Naima Penniman: “I wonder… if compost believes in life after death.”
Anyone who has committed themselves to a movement for justice is acting with a broken heart. We lose all of the time. We grieve, we heal, we show up again, knowing more than likely we will lose the next one too. To those of us with broken hearts, brown reminds us: “the broken heart can cover more territory,” that “love can only be as large and grief demands,” and that “the heart is a frontline and the fight is to feel in a world of distractions.”
My favorite people are the broken-hearted warriors for change who fight every day to save our planet and our democracy, to end systemic racism, to forward LGBTQA+ rights, to change our economic system. As Brene Brown says, as leaders we have to have strong backs, soft fronts, and wild hearts… and I would add… even if they are broken.
Resilience and transformative justice – how we recover and transform. For brown, resilience is the ability to become strong again after something bad has happened; after you have been “pulled, stretched, bent.” This is about recovery and regeneration; destruction and creation. She describes dandelions and how the entire plant has medicinal properties; how each seed has a tiny parachute that allows it to travel far. Dandelions are thought of as weeds and are notoriously hard to uproot. As many a gardener can attest, they are resilient and prolific regenerators.
She references volcanoes and tectonic plates, forests and fires, starfish and their regenerating limbs, and again mushrooms and the way they detoxify the soil around them, transforming what is harmful into what is sustainable.
Similarly, brown argues that one core practice of resilience is transformative justice, transforming the conditions that make injustice possible. I know that my kin in the broken hearts club, understand this to our very bones.
We come to last element: Creating more possibilities – how we move towards life. As Octavia Butler once wrote in The Parable of the Trickster, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.” brown references this quote as she transitions to a conversation about Black Lives Matter. She claims that the phrase “black lives matter” is a “afro-futurist assertion.” Here she means that by saying that black lives matter we are calling a particular future into being, a future in which black lives do matter. We might agree here that black lives matter, but that is not the consensus. So, in saying “black lives matter,” we are creating a new sun.
brown states: “we see, and we believe, we know, and we bend the world to assert and embody that black lives matter.” She asks: “how do we, who know the world needs to change, begin to practice being different? How do we have to be for justice to truly be transformative? Not them, that massive amorphous “them” that is also us, in our heads and hearts, or that loves us…But, us who are awake and awakening. How do we need to be for Black lives to matter?”
So, Joe Biden won the election. I know we likely feel many ways about this. For me, the sweetest moment of the election was Georgia turning blue thanks to the incredible work of the Black community, and in particular Black women, including all of the amazing elected officials, activists and organizer, including Helen Butler, Tamieka Atkins, Melanie Campbell, LaTosha Brown, Nse Ufot, Deborah Scott, Stacey Abrams, and many more. How does a deep red state elect a Democrat after 28 years of electing Republicans?
What happened in Georgia was the audacity of black women to imagine the unimaginable. To create a new sun.
This was the outcome of over a decade of organizing and movement-building. Overcoming voter suppression tactics from the right and a failure of the imagination of the mainstream democratic party to believe and trust black women.
The Democrats just had to abandon their focus on undecided, moderate whites and expand their coalition by mobilizing their base and energizing new voters—many of them young and many of them people of color. Fair Fight and New Georgia Project, two organizations founded by Stacey Abrams, registered 800,000 new voters.
And, with that I have a word of caution. Said with love. The calls for unity from President-Elect Biden cannot be at the exclusion of those at the margins. We cannot win an election on the backs of the most diverse and broad-based coalition of all time and then not center them in the future we build. Unity is important, but it cannot mean sacrificing the heart of our coalition to appease those who would easily abandon us to pursue their own interests.
Instead, we must imagine the possibility of a different future that centers justice, equity, and liberation, and those at the margins of the margins. We’ve never done that before.
True unity requires us to imagine together and create more possibilities, to live into our interconnectedness, to seek small-scale solutions to large problems, to practice transformative justice, to take long and twisty path, and to heal together and regenerate. True unity requires emergent strategy.
I send you out into the world and implore you bring the elements of emergent strategies into your lives:
Be as strong and supportive as oak trees.
As resilient and prolific as dandelions.
As transformational as starlings.
As interconnected and dedicated to restoration as mycelium.
And, imagine the impossible.
In solidarity with movements for justice across the globe, May it be So.