Five years into my ministry at Unity Temple, the congregation was designated a “Breakthrough Congregation” by the Unitarian Universalist Association because of the congregation’s rapid growth and expanded social outreach. This profile of Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation was produced by Laurence and Susan Marcinkus to be shown at the UUA General Assembly in June 2008.
Sermon from April 8, 2021
My favorite week of spring is when the magnolia trees begin to flower, the daffodils explode into bursts of yellow, and other spring flowers and blossoms dot the landscape. For these are signs of rebirth and new beginnings. As we move deeper into this season of renewal, I invite you to reflect on how life is a constant process of renewal, a necessary cycle. For the same is true with ministry. There are seasons of ministry, and the season of my ministry here at Unity Temple is nearing its end. As most of you have learned through my letter, at the end of June, I will step down from my position as senior minister. It has been 18 glorious and intense years serving you. In fact my ministry began three months before I was on the payroll. Your interim minister Rev. Fern Stanley, unexpectedly died 9 days after you voted to have me join you. And I flew out to be with you and Fern’s family. And that intensity hasn’t let up.
The congregation was ripe to grow and grow quickly. As I shared two weeks ago, the merger of Beacon Unitarian Church and the UU Church of Oak Park created an energetic community of lay leadership. You all moved from one to two services, created the Pastoral Associates, began a vital small group ministry, invested in religious education, and started taking steps to be intentionally more welcoming.
And so when I arrived, the congregation was ripe for an era of dynamic growth. During my first five years, the congregation grew from 300 to 500 members. The budget doubled. The Membership director position went from quarter time to full time, we created a youth coordinator position, and our new music director Marty Swisher doubled the size of the choir in her first year. You all agreed to give away the collection plate every week, and there was a palpable change already in the congregation. The UUA celebrated our growth in numbers, in depth, in spirit and recognized you as a breakthrough congregation. And a video was made entitled taking the path of risk.
Then concrete fell from the sanctuary ceiling and ushered in a second chapter under my leadership, an era of uncertainty and relationship building. In 2008, Rev. Emily Gage joined us and developed a compelling vision and strong leadership for our religious education program. While it was an exciting time for our families, it was a time of anxiety how on earth this crumbling building would be restored. We had no idea, couldn’t imagine it. The Restoration Foundation said it would have a $25 million price tag. The behind the scenes politics was nuts. I began losing my hair. After three years of feeling like we were in an impossible situation, I went on a personal retreat. I reflected on the question “Where is Love Beckoning Me?” It was so clear, love was not beckoning me to take care of a building, I had entered the ministry to support the wider community and not just a congregation, to provide leadership in social justice, but for my first eight years I had no clue how to do this. When Rev. Scott Aaseng came as an intern minister among us, we experimented with what it would like to bring faith based organizing into a large church. I and others were trained in faith based organizing. We began creating a relational network here, and I began creating a relational network in the wider community, especially among west side pastors and those who wanted to cultivate intercultural relationships.
I’ll never forget when the associate director of Alphawood came to meet with me and Ian Morrison, the then board president, and said we want to give you a game-changing gift, but we need you the congregation to put in 2 mil, to leave for the duration of the project, and to put the building in trust and support our efforts to retool UTRF. And we will raise the rest.
And then began a third chapter of this congregations history under my leadership, an era of restoration and visioning. We thought we would have a fifteen month out of building experience. We ended up meeting at United Lutheran for two years. During that time, the board launched the Daring to Dream strategic planning process that resulted in articulating our core values, mission, and goals. And during this time the old pool hall came on the market, and we made an offer in 24 hours. So much work went into cleaning and building out this fabulous space that enables us to do so much more.
The Mindful Reflection Community began while we were at United Lutheran, and talk about flowering! Beloved Conversations was launched back then too. BIPOC Black and Indigenous people of color, the Rainbow Connection for our LGBTQIA members, and the Welcoming All Team all were formed. All was going gangbusters and boom, the pandemic hit in 2020, and everything was sent up into the air. We had to pivot our worship services to online, our Coffee Hour on to Zoom, our committee meetings and various activities at a distance. Everything changed, and so much is in flux.
And it is clear to me that the congregation is about to begin a new chapter of innovation and creativity, not unlike where you were in 1994. It is an ideal time for me to step away and for you to bring in someone with fresh eyes and new energy.
I have shouldered the wellbeing of this congregation, challenged you to grow in faith, and pastored you for 18 years. It has taken an enormous amount of energy and attention. It has taken an enormous amount of love which has been inspired by the commitment, the passion and the love of so many of you. I have given so much of myself that I am in need of a time to regroup and discern what’s next for my ministry.
I love this congregation. I love serving you. I love worshipping with you, being invited into your lives during your most joyful and most painful moments, reflecting with you on life’s challenges, praying with you amidst uncertainty and pain, and advocating for justice with you. The connections among us are deep. And so there is great tenderness and sadness in my decision to leave. My children, Marco and Erica, were blessed and dedicated here at Unity Temple. They’ve been shaped by their time here. The first three weddings they attended were same sex weddings including our big fat gay wedding when ten of our same sex couples with an average of 24 years of commitment among them legally became married.
I have prayed long and hard over this decision to leave. I know it is a surprise for many of you. But it’s time for me to step away. You are beginning a new chapter of your shared life. Some of you have expressed concern that I am not leaving for another church. No, I will take time to discern what is next. My black Baptist colleagues tell me that in their tradition they would say that I am in the process of stepping away in faith. I know sometimes the word faith is a little challenging for some among us, but I really resonate with what Sharon Salzberg says: Faith isn’t a singular state that we have or don’t have but it’s something we do and we cultivate the capacity to do regularly. Faith is a verb, a leap, a gesture, something we do over and over again. It’s a practice and a loyalty that grows over time. It is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experiences and truths.
Besides, I have always understood my central role here as gathering the prayers among all of you and responding with my own unfolding faith thereby inviting you to develop your own.
I’m so glad we have three months to say goodbye. Now is the time for tears and laughter, to share stories, memories, gratitude. A time to honor not only the accomplishments of this congregation but all the small but significant moments of insight, of learning, of internal shifts that make up the spiritual journey. You have blessed me with sharing so much of your lives, your joys, your sorrows, your struggles, your burdens. And soon it will be time to say farewell. This is a big transition. Doing these things and having this time is all a part of having a good goodbye.
You are a different faith community now than you were when I arrived. So much has flowered. So much has blossomed. And you will be a different faith community 18 years from now. Because now so much is in bud. You have so much richness, latent wisdom. In this season of renewal, as you see trees and flowers and bushes explode into blooms, think about what has flowered in your life since you have been a part of Unity Temple, or if you’ve been here longer than me, what has flowered in your life these last 18 years among this community. We have all accumulated losses along the way. We have known grief, and we have known rebirth. We have known new hope. We have experienced new beginnings. And this transition is no different. Without an ending, a new beginning is not possible.
As the season of my ministry here at Unity Temple approaches its end, be in touch, don’t be a stranger. And know that I love you. I love you deeply.
Blessed be. Amen.
As the season of my ministry among you nears its end, may we make way for a warm and engaging goodbye. I’m so grateful to have served you these past 18 years. So much has flowered among you, and so much is in bud. Bless you all.
We gather this afternoon in this sanctuary to celebrate the life and mourn the death of John Francis Wood. John was born in Chicago on July 24, 1938 and he died January 12 of this year. We gather in appreciation for his life of 79 years and to give voice to our grief that he is no longer with us in the flesh. We gather to give thanks for his life, to laugh and cry, and to open our hearts, our minds, our souls to the reality of love that extends beyond death.
To light the chalice, I invite John’s youngest grandchild, ___ to come forward. We light the chalice in honor of John’s life, all those who shaped his life and all those he touched, shaping others.
I invite you to sing hymn #354, We Laugh We Cry. Please rise in body or spirit.
Please join me in the Unity Temple covenant found in the order of service:
Love is the doctrine of this Congregation
The quest for truth is its sacrament
And service is its prayer.
To dwell together in peace,
To seek knowledge in freedom,
To serve humanity in fellowship,
To the end that all souls shall grow
Into harmony with the divine.
Thus do we covenant with each other and with God.
We have four readings that reflect John’s life and commitments
from Rev. Augusta Chapin, one of the earliest American woman ministers, a Universalist minister and the minister of this congregation at the end of the 19th century:
We shall survive in the memories of our friends
as long as the remembrance will serve any good purpose;
and then our work and thought and influence
will mingle with the great ocean of human achievement,
and the sum total of that
will be something more,
from what it would have been without us.
From Unitarian minister, William Channing Gannett
To live content with small means,
To seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion,
To be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich,
To study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly,
To listen to stars and birds, babes and sages, with open heart,
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely,
Await occasions, hurry never
In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.
Marge Piercy “To be of Use”
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water-buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out. <>
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
From Rev. John Wood, a Universalist minister who served as the district executive of the central midwest district and served a number of churches in New England
A candle is a careless thing, God wot. See how it is always stretching up and reaching out. . . . A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself. There is a proverb, “the spirit of an individual is the candle of the Lord.” In the worship of my church let me learn to spend myself.
Song: Spirit of LIfe
Anthem: In Remembrance
Truly we are here because of love and memory. I’d like to begin by sharing his words, from a sermon John gave from this pulpit nearly ten years ago.
One of my prejudices in life is that good formal education prepares us to be informed and knowledgeable and to think critically. But does anyone here doubt that many a well informed and knowledgeable person is at times a fool? And that many a person who relies mostly on life experiences can at times be wise beyond measure?
As I have gotten older, now having lived a bit with the label of being “retired” I have been doing some thinking on the topic of wisdom. Such as “If I have a smidge of wisdom, where in the heck did it come from?” And with another very comfortable label on me as “Opa,” grandfather to 8 wonders of the world, this question immediately leads me to then ask myself, “ What can I do to help my grandkids on their path to judging rightly about their emerging life and conduct? Can I do anything to help prepare them for love and loss, friendship and betrayal, happiness and sorrow, success and failure?
Just as John reflected on how he might be a source of wisdom for his grandkids, so he reflected how he might be so for his peers, his sojourners here at Unity Temple, including his ministers, indeed everyone with whom he shared a smile and a kind word.
John was a proud Universalist. He had deep faith that we are here to live with hope and courage, not in fear or judgment, that we are here to spread the kindness and everlasting love of God.
It is a good question to ask where did such faith get inspired in him? His was not a happy childhood when he grew up in Forest Park. His mother died just before his third birthday. His father struggled with alcohol, with unemployment, with his temper which lashed out. When John was 12, his father remarried and John had half-siblings. He spent weekends with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather was a German chef and a Lutheran. His grandmother was Jewish, from a family of 14 children and was the only one to leave Germany. John says no one influenced him more than his granny, who conversed with him, consoled him, and encouraged him to pursue his own interests.
John had a keen mind. He loved word games and he was an avid chess player. His love of chess led him to meeting Jane Liddell, the love of his life. Jane and John met at the chess club in Maywood when Jane was still in high school. Jane was off to Knox college and when she graduated, the two of them married. That was 1964. They moved to a 2-flat in the city where they could care for John’s disabled grandfather. In 1969 they moved to Oak Park and wanted to find a house to accommodate John’s grandfather. They wanted the house on South Lombard but they had difficulty getting a loan because the area was redlined at the time. One banker said pointblank they wouldn’t get a loan in this area. John and Jane went to ten banks before they found one to help.
John never finished college but believed far more in learning from experience than claiming credentials. He held many jobs from a travel auditor for Greyhound to overseeing technology systems for banks. He directed the development of systems at the American Medical Association and then the American Hospital Association. His last position was Chief Informations Officer at Northwestern who gladly hired him without a college degree because he was so capable and published in his field.
John began attending church at Unity Temple two years before he and Jane were married. For nearly six decades, he dedicated himself to the caring community here that he happily noted was called the Universalist Church of Oak Park until 1961 when the Unitarians merged with the Universalists. You’ve already heard that he took on the newsletter and was a part of the potluck group that literally nourished in body and spirit several dedicated volunteers who laid the foundation for the extraordinary volunteer organization here.
When he and Jane joined the congregation, there was no choir. They were founding members of our congregation’s choir. He relished music. His tastes ranged from classical to folk. He sang tenor and remained in the choir until just a couple years ago. It was ten years ago that Marty Swisher asked all the choir members to wear hats because a photo would be taken entitled “Hang on to Your Hats”, and Marty tells me that John called all the members to make sure they knew.
Both Marty and I can attest to John’s hospitality, having taken each of us out to lunch. He took me to Papaspiros, when it was still on the corner of Lake and Oak Park. There, he introduced me to ouzo. Sharing food and drink I understand so many have shared culinary experiences with John. He took after his grandfather the chef.
As he was so committed to the music and worship ministries here, it may seem odd that he never served on the Music and Worship committee that was founded 50 years ago. There’s a simple reason for this. The Music and Worship Committee was founded by his wife Jane who served on it for decades.
John was one of the founders of the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. He supported it through challenging times until the Restoration Foundation brought in the gift that would complete the necessary work.
For John, the building itself wasn’t the point. For him, the point was the space within where life could thrive. John thought deeply, shared honestly, spoke frankly, conversed wittily. He had this way of blessing people. Saying something kind or gently admonishing them to be more loving toward themselves or others. I felt this support when he challenged me to stop taking responsibility for more than was healthy for me or the church. He reminded me that I will be of greatest use to the church if I take care of myself and cultivate a full life.
As a Pastoral Associate here, he companioned people. He recognized his job wasn’t to fix or heal, it was to be present to others in their joy and sorrow, in their hopes and their struggle—and the best way to do this was to come to greater acceptance with one’s own struggles.
And John knew struggle. He struggled mightily with his father such that he distanced himself from his half family only to discover his half brother Earl was living a couple miles away. It was a happy reunion a year ago, and John made sure I visited him to meet Earl. Another struggle John had was with his adopted son Michael. He acknowledged that he didn’t know how to effectively parent Michael but that Michael clearly knew something about parenting because he raised three beautiful, well-adjusted children. And lastly he struggled with his own health. It is easy to think that it was the lsat two years that were difficult as he addressed his heart and back issues, but in fact it was the last seven that he struggled. Jane supported him unflaggingly, a testimony to their commitment.
John was a Universalist. He believed that all people have the capacity to change and grow. He believed in life, in love, in laughter. He lived and loved and laughed such that he cultivated friendship, focus, and faith. And when I say faith, I mean a Universalist faith grounded in the belief that all people have the capacity to change and grow, that we are here to live with hope and courage, and to spread the kindness and everlasting love of God.
Today, one of our readings is from Rev. John Wood, a Universalist minister who died 35 years ago. John and Jane were acquainted with Rev. Wood when he was the district executive for the central midwest district. Rev. Wood’s words get at John’s faith
A candle must give itself away. In the giving, the spending, the spreading, the sending, it finds itself. There is a proverb, “the spirit of an individual is the candle of the Lord.” In the worship of my church let me learn to spend myself. The candle of John Wood’s life burned brightly, stretched up, reached out, and provided a lot of light.
Let me close with John’s own words he shared from this pulpit ten years ago.
Now, many years at near the end of the game, or at least my game, I now realize that my most important education was gathering pearls for later, sometimes much later, integration into the person who still is becoming John Wood. And I am so happy to boldly state that such rare and priceless gifts as wisdom dust are still given freely for those who have what I take to be prerequisites to being wise—curiosity and a sense of wonder. The need, the urge, to look, to question, and the willingness to be amazed. One of my steadiest sources of such gifts to me and my family has come from members of a caring community. Over the many decades that Jane and I have been privileged to be members of that community we have lived much. Deaths and births, marriages, graduations, unemployment, all the tasty things of life. And the same thing has been happening to others in our community. Joys and sorrows abound and are shared. Some held privately, others openly with honesty. What is my role in helping others to being wiser than I? I opine that it is first to do my miserable best at judging rightly on a daily basis. And it is my being a part of the daily life of a caring community that gives me the soul refreshment and friendships and life experiences to continue growing, despite me having become a bit gnarled on the edges.
And of course—you are the beloved community I am referring to. Your personal and your community wisdom and example, your wise judging and your trying to judge as wisely as you can, ah! that is indeed meat for my soul’s appetite. It is your caring and working for what is really important to you personally and as a community, it is your grace, and your sense of fun and adventure that gives me some of the pearls I desperately need in my daily journey.
May that magic of transformation, of trying daily to become more wise for our own sakes and for the sakes of the others we share the road with—may that magic last until the band stops playing.
Amen and may it be so.
I invite you to sing one of John’s favorite hymns that was to him like a prayer. It is #318 in the grey hymnal: We Would Be One.
O Spirit of Life, Source of All Love, Eternal Mystery of God within, among and beyond us,
The dear man we have known as John Wood is gone. From our own sorrow we ask: May our love be with him as his stays with us. May we keep faith in the human spirit. May his love of people and music remind us that life is filled with beauty and grace. May his compassionate smile and keen observations live on in our hearts, knowing that his presence among us, his wholehearted participation in life, the love he shared has shaped our lives and will continue to shape our lives. For John leaves a legacy of compassion.
Comfort Jane as she moves into a new chapter of her life. Comfort Evan, Beth, and Michael, as they learn to relate to their father through memory and enduring love. May John’s legacy burn bright in the lives of his grandchildren whom he so loved. Be with all who will dearly miss John, and may his curious and kind ways continue to guide our beloved community on together. May we live with John’s memory as he would want us to, without making a great fuss but instead hewing to integrity, curiosity, and joy. May we remember the gifts of the spirit are forever, and the love we have shared with John is stronger than death. Blessed be. Amen.
Please join me in singing a favorite hymn of John’s, Joyful, Joyful, found in your hymnal #29.
And now may the Truth that makes us free,
And the Hope that never dies,
And the Love that casts out fears,
Lead us forward together,
Until the Dayspring breaks,
And the Shadows flee away
Worship is the beating heart of congregational life, and I approach it as a craft that listens closely to the needs of the members and responds in a genuine, thoughtful way. I put a great deal of energy and care into crafting meaningful sermons and worship services. I enjoy the craft of finding music and readings and stories to hold together as a single whole.
You can get a sense of how I approach worship by engaging with the following materials.
Over the last two weeks, I’ve heard lots of deep concern and appreciation for the medical personnel who are on the frontline confronting the Covid-19 epidemic, risking exposure and literally putting their own health—and that of their family’s—at risk. I’ve also had conversations with physicians about it, and I’m truly inspired by them. The three I talked to have said, “I know that as a doctor I will most likely contract the virus. It is the nature of the current fight against the virus that doctors are taken out in waves as they contract it, but all of us who get better and can return to work, we shall have immunity and the ability to treat infected people with no further concern of contracting it again.” Some doctors who have fallen ill, they almost nearly hope they have contracted the virus so that their bodies shall build resistance to it so that they can return to treating patients without further worry.
All of these conversations are making me think about the nature of sacrifice. The word sacrifice comes from the latin sacrocere which has the same root as the word sacred. Sacrifice originally meant to make sacred, to make holy. To give something up of great material value on behalf of a larger or transcendent value. A sacrifice is a signal that what you’re making a sacrifice for is more important than what you are offering up—and what you’re offering up may be the most valuable thing you have.
In the early biblical times, the Jews didn’t eat meat much because meat was so expensive, especially beef. When the ancient Jewish people offered up a fatted calf to Yahweh, they were offering up the most valuable thing they had for the sake of being in right relationship with their god. This past week, all around the world, people have been called upon to give up their independence, to sacrifice our freedom to move about wherever and with whomever we want, and instead sequester ourselves at home for the sake of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. Sure, you may say, most everyone is staying at home to protect themselves and their loved ones. Yes, and.
I’d like to suggest, in the words of the late UU minister A Powell Davies: “There’s a sort of duality in each of us, a conversation within our innermost thoughts. Some of us will call the nobler voice within to be the voice of God, not literally, of course, but in source and spiritual vitality. Others of us will call it our better nature. But no matter what we call it, its presence is a firm reality.” We cultivate our inner lives, and thereby raise the quality of all our living, by giving specific time and attention to discerning and participating in this better nature of ours. I call this cultivation of our inner thoughts with our heart and spirit, spiritual practice. And, as Davies says, “To the extent that we see the world more clearly and ourselves and our part in it more plainly, we gain wisdom, clarity, sureness of direction; and this, in turn, relieves the tension that the world imposes on us—much of which is due to vacillation and uncertainty — and brings us closer to serenity.”
Who would have thought that in the year 2020, the world economy would be brought to its knees. It’s really scary what’s happening—all the uncertainty and anxiety. In today’s American culture, sacrifice seems foolhardy. Why ever give up something of especial material value? But in another perspective, one where there is a faith in love, a deep affirmation of the worth and dignity of all people, a recognition that we are all interconnected, how can we not give the best of ourselves and what we have for the sake of others, especially others who are suffering?
For us today and in every era, what is more important than money? What is more important than our independence? What is more important than even our own health and well-being? In this time, we are all called upon to make sacrifices.
I’ve enjoyed listening to exuberant expressions of gratitude at 8pm. This outpouring of spirit celebrates our health care workers. Let’s also think about who also is putting themselves at risk of exposure each and every day: grocery store staff, pharmacy workers, truck drivers, garbage collectors, people who harvest our food, prepare it or work at the factories to process or wrap it. It’s also a time to honor the service of police and firefighters—and firefighters are also EMTs who do ambulance duty. I am grateful for all these people who are leaving their families several days a week for the sake of the wellbeing of the rest of us. This a time to reflect on the various levels of sacrifice that so many people are making, on behalf of our common good.
We’re in the middle of a transition that will affect our society for the rest of our lives. The way we approach it will shape who we are as individuals and as a wider society. White Eagle, an indigenous Hopi leader wrote a week ago (I got this from adrienne marie brown on social media): “This moment humanity is going through can now be seen as a portal and as a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you. If they don’t repent of the problem and consume the news 24 hours a day, with little energy, nervous all the time, with pessimism, they will fall into the hole. But if you take this opportunity to look at yourself, rethink life and death, take care of yourself and others, you will cross the portal.”
A friend said, “It’s like our whole culture is going through a birth canal, and what is being birthed is a deeper awareness of how interdependent we are.” At least those of us who are willing to look at ourselves, to rethink life and death, to commit to caring for ourselves and others—it is like going through a long birth canal, from which we will emerge grounded in love.
What do you want to make sacred at this time? What greater good gives your life purpose and meaning? What is worthy of your time and attention and resources? Where are you called to sacrifice at this time?
I talked with a father of retirement age whose son is a doctor leading the response to COVID-19 at a local hospital. He had been asked what he’d do if his son gets extremely ill. The father said that he would go and tend to his son, risking his own health. Sometimes we are called to sacrifice what is materially most precious to us.
This is a time to discern what we are willing to sacrifice for. Such decisions are being made millions of times all over the world. May we help midwife a world where there is a greater recognition of the wisdom of sacrifice. May we cultivate our own spiritual practices to live fully and with love at our side, love infused in every cell of our body—so that we embody this wisdom.
June 2, 2021
Dear Members and Friends,
During last Sunday’s service, it was a privilege to articulate my theology of grace within a ruptured world. I shared the deeply disturbing story how Frank Lloyd Wright’s first cousin, Richard Lloyd Jones, founded the All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa and how, through his newspaper, he was largely responsible for fomenting the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and sought to entirely erase the horrific event from memory. If it wasn’t for two woman Black writers, one of America’s gravest crimes would never have been remembered. To learn more, go here. https://www.newyorker.com/news/us-journal/the-women-who-preserved-the-story-of-the-tulsa-race-massacre
Rev. Marlin Lavanhar had just started serving as senior minister at All Souls in Tulsa when a city commission brought to light in 2001 that up to 300 people were killed, 10,000 left homeless, and over 35 blocks of black businesses and homes were destroyed. This past Sunday, Rev. Lavanhar creatively conveyed the human toll of the Tulsa Race Massacre and the horrifying injustice of it all using cartoons. You can view his sharing from last Sunday’s worship service at All Souls here. https://www.facebook.com/allsoulstulsa/videos/176397617741208. Either watch the entire worship or go to minute 20 for Marlin’s sharing.
Tulsa wasn’t the only city to have a “Black Wall Street.” Chicago did too, until 1919, and it too was obliterated during riots two years prior to the Tulsa Race Massacre. You can learn more here. https://www.chicagotribune.com/history/ct-1919-chicago-riots-100th-anniversary-20190719-k4dexppvd5c6bkqbfwhgxfiacy-story.html
How do we navigate trauma in a ruptured world? Where do we find hope? Where is grace? I believe hope comes from the big stories that we develop from the details of our lives, the little details of that bring joy, beauty, and connection with others. When it comes to making sense of trauma, I agree with Dr. Serene Jones: “First, you have to recognize the pain. You have to embrace it for what it is and not be afraid of it, not live in the la la land of, supposing that if you’re a spiritual or faithful person, you’re supposed to be happy all the time. I think the despair that’s so prevalent in our nation right now lives inside of me too. But it’s not until you admit that despair, that you can actually situate it in the context of a grace that says, ‘Yes, that pain is real. And the breaking of lives that is happening is real. And all of it is surrounded by the love of God.’ The language I use for it is that our ultimate destiny is love. At the end of the day, the final word about all this big mess that we’re in, is love.”
I am deeply grateful for the work of Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union Theological School, who is the author of Call It Grace: Finding Meaning in a Fractured World and Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World.
I include some thoughts from her below for your reflection, including from an interview in Sojourners Magazine.
In peace and love,
A reflection from Dr. Serene Jones:
The most difficult story, of the many family stories that I tell, is of a discovery I made while a professor teaching at Yale Divinity School. I was listening to a lecture by a candidate for a position in African-American studies, and as the backdrop to his lecture he had pictures of postcards of lynchings. I had seen some of them before, but, much to my shock in the middle of his lecture, a postcard dropped and a picture that was the size of the whole wall of the classroom, and it was a young woman who had been lynched, and at the bottom of the postcard it said, ‘Okemah, Oklahoma, 1911.” And in Okemah, Okla., 1911, my Jones family made up most of the town. I had never heard that this lynching of Laura Nelson and her son had ever happened. It was impossible to avoid the reality that if my family had not participated in it, we would have told the story. I realized that the silence is in many ways, is part of the way that history is reckoned within the context of white supremacy.
It’s absolutely crucial that white communities in the United States stop acting like the legacy of Native American genocide and slavery and the awful sins of the past that still live with us are something that, because our family did things two generations ago, we can hold them at arm’s length and say they did that. But that’s not me. It’s time that we actually tell those stories and admit our own participation in those legacies.
Because of those lynchings in Oklahoma, very important actions were taken with respect to who owned the land, who eventually was able to accumulate money, who got mineral rights and oil rights, which families survived over the long run, and which family legacies completely disappeared.
So here I am today in 2019, an heir of that act. And until we stop being ashamed in a way that says, “I’m so ashamed, I’m not going to talk about it and act as if it didn’t happen” — we should feel shame, but it’s part of the country coming to grips with who we are. Until we can take that step and say that this history is not just about building museums that recognize the history of lynching; we need a museum that tells the story of the lynchers and how they became lynchers, and what happened to white people that could make them into these, brutal, heartless, desperate, and cruel souls that they became.
Grace and sin are probably the two most basic concepts of the Calvinist Protestantism that I was raised with. The first affirmation of that faith is that God creates the whole world and loves the world. And that’s the fundamental disposition of God towards all that exists. Then the second claim is, for reasons mysterious, and often rooted in pride and greed, as creatures of God we turn from that love and we do massively destructive things to ourselves and to the world around us. And sin names that.
In working in predominantly Christian communities, I feel that people have become so afraid of talking about “sin” because unfortunately it’s been equated over time with sexual deeds that are devious or bad in any way. Whereas, in reality, in the Christian tradition, it refers to all of the ways in which we act destructively, and it can refer importantly to whole social systems. We need to talk about the history of chattel slavery as sin, as sin in a forceful and a humongous measure. That kind of language makes it not just a political issue, but a moral and ethical issue that has to do with our very existence as human beings.
This morning, February 14, I attended the hearing for Mario and his two younger children at the Brownsville immigration court, essentially a large tent right next to the bridge to Matamoros in which rooms have been created with television screens. I knew that the judge and interpreter would not be physically present—they were at the immigration court in Harlingen, 25 miles away. A video camera would be on them so they would be broadcast on the screen.
Even though I agreed to be the sponsor for Mario and his kids if they were granted asylum, I was not allowed in to attend Mario’s hearing. The lawyer, Cathy Potter, who took this case on as “low bono” had thought they would let me in. Because they didn’t, she gave me her car keys and I hightailed it to the Harlingen courthouse. Two people from out of town wanting to witness a case in person had already been told that they were not allowed in. Because of my relationship with Mario and his wanting me to be there, I was allowed in.
I sat on the far side of the room so I could see Cathy and Mario on the television screen. There were at least 25 empty chairs behind them. I was the only person in the room who wasn’t the judge, the translator, or the lawyer representing the government. When the lawyer for the government spoke, the video camera was set on her, and I could be seen in the background. Mario waved at me. I was glad he knew that I was watching what was happening.
I was impressed by how Cathy asked Mario questions to get his story out. He is from a small town in Honduras but found a good job in the city of Pimiento. He worked at a clothing factory. He was appreciated and hardworking. A man that Mario knew from much earlier in life had joined the gang MS-13 and moved back to Pimiento. This man came to Mario’s house with two companions and requested that Mario sell drugs at his factory where over 2,000 people worked. Mario refused and his acquaintance said he had a week to think it over–and if he didn’t agree he and his children would pay the consequences.
It was a heartbreaking and terrifying story. Mario broke down in tears when asked about moving away from his extended family. The government’s attorney asked Mario several questions and then it was over. There was a recess at the end of which the Judge said she would give an oral decision. I drove back to Brownsville and waited outside the Brownsville court to learn the judge’s decision. As I waited, I met seven people from all over the country, people who had come to help and witness what is going on.
When Cathy finally exited, she told me that Mario’s request for asylum was denied. She said that the judge acknowledged that she believed Mario but the law requires a certain amount of evidence to grant asylum. Cathy told me from the very beginning that very, very few migrants meet this bar. The bar to demonstrate persecution is so very high—and very few people can meet this, even people who have been kidnapped and hurt. She also said that most go into these hearings without a lawyer, and no one who represents themselves has been known to win their case. This has been the experience of many of Mario’s neighbors. Some told me that they had a tremendous amount of evidence and that they were still denied—but they didn’t have a lawyer. The law requires a certain type of argument and demonstration of persecution—and this is why the presence of a lawyer makes it 17 times more likely of winning the case–and still the probability is very low.
Once Mario and his kids were back in Matamoros, all I could do was give them hugs, talk with them, tell them I’m sorry. I gave Mario some money and told him that I will stay in touch. I will reach out to the people I know in San Miguel, a city in a relatively safe part of Mexico. He needs to find a place to where he can move, find a job and live without worrying about his family’s safety. I’m deeply saddened that entering the United States is not an option for them. I’m angry at how the U.S. immigration law works.
Mario is a hardworking individual, communicates well, and demonstrates a deep commitment for his children. I believe he can find a new life in a new place, but it’s identifying where and taking the leap that he now needs to do. He wants to file an appeal so that he can stay in the camp, but that will most likely simply delay the inevitable.
Until the laws change, refugees with real reason to leave family and friends to seek a new life will be stymied at the U.S. border. Cities like Matamoros will have areas that are essentially concentration camps. Although the conditions are better than when I visited in October, the people living there are living in a dead end. I admire how they hold on to hope and how, at least in Mario’s neighborhood, the people are taking care of each other.
I encountered a staggering number of people from all over the United States wanting to be of help, both in meeting the basic needs of these people and in changing the laws to be more humane. I met people from many different organizations, including Angry Tias and Abuelas. I talked political strategy with a number—more pressure needs to be applied to our federal representatives to end the Migrant Protection Protocol. I take heart at the numbers of people so concerned about this issue that they are going down to the border themselves.
So I return with grave disappointment that Mario and his children cannot enter the United States while I take heart there are people with courage and resilience both within the camp and outside, committed to finding a more humane way forward.
Love with Courage,
Mario has now lived in a tent with his 4 year old son Steven and his 9 year old daughter Belen for six months. They are lovely people from Honduras seeking asylum but have been stuck at the border since August. His wife and eldest daughter are in Dallas, also awaiting an asylum hearing. They crossed just before the Migrant Protection Protocols were instituted. Mario and his younger two children came just after. His second court date will be February 14. His wife’s is Feb 23 in Dallas.
It has been a challenging time at the border. When Mario first arrived in August, there were maybe 200 people there. Now there are nearly 3,000. These people are at the mercy of humanitarian workers, most of them coming from Team Bronzeville.
When I met Mario, I also met several of the people who live in tents in his immediate area. They were from not only Honduras but also Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These people who arrived at about the same time have been a community to one another, providing security in numbers. But it hasn’t been easy. His children can’t attend school. They get some lessons from volunteers who come over the border on weekends.
In December, nine year old Belen got so sick with a respiratory infection that she ended up in the hospital. It shouldn’t be any surprise since her home is a small tent laid out on concrete pushed up against other tents. When it rains hard, the tent floods because there is nowhere for the water to go but collect. It has been a nightmare for Mario and his family. And yet he expresses deep gratitude for the care and the attention he has received from humanitarian workers. He constantly names his blessings.
I know these things because I helped him get a phone and I’ve remained in touch through WhatsApp. But it costs 10 pesos (55 cents) to charge a phone for an hour at the nearby little store. Sheer extortion. It costs the same if you wish to use a toilet in one of the nearby restaurants. Otherwise there are five port-a-potties that serve what is now nearly three thousand people camped out right across the border from the United States.
The power of telling his story and others has resulted in generosity. A friend of mine said, “Have you considered giving Mario a solar-powered charger?” And then that friend said, “Take mine—I will get another one.” But there’s generosity on a much larger scale as well now that This American Life and 60 Minutes have broadcast their own stories: Team Brownsville is the humanitarian organization that is heroically helping as many of the migrants as they are able. They serve two meals a day and they are creating a clean water system for the area. It costs $50,000 and now they have the money in hand. Their current projects are at their website here. Please take a look and consider whether you’d like to be of support.
When immigration activist Betty Alzamora returned to Matamoros, she gladly took with her a few gifts from me and our congregation at Unity Temple. From the congregation she brought cards/letters that were created by children in the religious education program at Unity Temple. It brought tears to my eyes to see Betty’s photo of Belen looking at these cards, holding the blue binder that I and others here have held in our hands. Belen was charged to give out the cards to other children, though many of the children she has known have left. Their parents have sent them across the Rio Grande in hopes that they may know a better life than what they believe they can provide for them. Truly heartbreaking.
In November, Illinois State Representative Lisa Menendez introduced a House Resolution calling upon the Illinois U.S. Representatives and the U.S. Congress to end the Migrant Protection Protocols that has created this crisis and to defund ICE. I joined Mony Ruiz Velasco in testifying in support of this important resolution—and it passed! When the federal budget came up, it included increases for ICE and the border patrol, not less. A few brave representatives opposed the budget for this reason. But even my U.S. Representative, Danny Davis, voted for it. There is still a lot of organizing to be done.
I keep the people on the border in my prayers and encourage you to do the same. But don’t just pray, share the stories, participate in actions to change federal policy to be compassionate rather than inhumane, and contribute to or volunteer with humanitarian organizations that are making a real difference in people’s lives who currently have no where to go.
It’s been three weeks since I returned from the border. On my last day there, I bought a phone for Mario, the Honduran man his 4 and 9 year old children with him and whose wife and eldest daughter are in Dallas. They left before him after Mario’s brother-in-law was killed and they feared their daughter would be kidnapped into trafficking. But then the Migrant Protection Protocols were instituted and that has kept Mario and his two younger children separated from his wife and eldest daughter.
I hired a lawyer for him and he went to the makeshift court in a large tent the following Monday. The judge was shown on a video screen. An interpreter was on the telephone. After the hearing he and his two children were given a second court date in late February. He’s been stuck at the border for nearly four months and has another four to wait out. Hopefully the lawyer I have retained can help him reunite with his family, as a lawyer makes it 14 times more likely to be granted asylum. However, the likelihood is still very small.
I am in touch with Mario and his neighbor Karla who has a 1 year old. Karla and her family had the same court date and so I’ve retained the lawyer for them too. Their greatest concern is the cold—and Karla’s baby’s health. Dylan has been sick with a cold the last several days. It is relatively cold at night and she doesn’t know how to find care for her son.
Their greatest expense is to keep their phones charged. The local merchants charge 10 pesos—50 cents—to charge a phone for an hour. Utter extortion from people who have virtually nothing.
They and the 2,000 other migrants in Matamoros rely on the kindness of humanitarian workers who bring food, water, clothing, blankets, and shoes. Team Bronzeville is raising funds to not only keep feeding the migrants but to create a water purification plant to provide clean water to everyone there.
What to do? Some of the clergy who went with me are organizing a trip to support the humanitarian efforts to help feed the migrants. We certainly could send a UTUUC delegation to do this in collaboration with them.
But the desperate conditions for thousands and thousands of people up and down the border won’t get better until the Migrant Protection Protocols are ended. This will take pressure from many sources.
Illinois State Representatives Lisa Hernandez and Rita Mayfield were part of our delegation. They have submitted a resolution to the House to call for the ending of the Migrant Protection Protocols and call upon the Illinois delegation to the U.S. House and Senate to do the same.
There will be opportunities to address this here in Chicago. And I’m sure there will be another opportunity to travel to the border again to put pressure on the U.S. Representatives, but I want to do this only in collaboration with others where we can amplify each other’s power.
Maria Zamudio, a journalist for NPR, also joined us on this delegation. Click here for her third story.