Worship Script 3
Our Larger Legacy and Remembrance
Worship Script (3 of 4)
By Lewis A. McGee, #165 from Lifting Our Voices
Our religion is a religion of social concern,
A religion of intellectual and ethical integrity,
A religion that emphasizes the dynamic conception of history and the scientific worldview,
A religion that stresses the dignity and worth of the person as a supreme value
And goodwill s the creative force in human relations.
This religion can and ought to become a beacon to which this kind of faith shines.
HYMN #107 Now Sing We of the Brave of Old
By Alice Walker, #175 from Lifting Our Voices
To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves,
That the line stretches
All the way back, perhaps, to God, or to Gods. We remember them because it
Is an easy thing to forget, That we are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die. The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrows, is always a measure of what has gone before.
Excerpts from the Introduction of “Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk” by Dolores S. Williams
As I encountered Hagar again and again in African American sources, I reread her story in the Hebrew Testament and Paul's reference to her in the Christian Testament. I slowly realized there were striking similarities between Hagar’s story and the story of African American women. Hagars heritage was African as was black women's. Hagar was a slave. Black American women had emerged from a slave heritage and still lived in light of it. Hagar resisted the brutalities of slavery by running away. Black American women have a long resistance history that includes running away from slavery in the antebellum era. But she had serious personal and salvific encounters with God -- encounters which aided Hagar in the survival struggle of herself and her son. Over and over again, black women in the churches have testified about their serious personal and salvific encounters with God, encounters that helped them and their families survive.
I realize I had stumbled upon the beginning of an answer to my question: Where was I to begin my effort to construct theology from the point of view of black women's experience? I was to begin with the black community (composed of females and males) and its understanding of God's historic relation to black female life.
HYMN #110 Come, Children of Tomorrow Come
STORY FOR ALL AGES
“Let My People Go” by Christopher Buice, from “A Bucketful of Dreams: Contemporary Parables for All Ages”
Once upon a time there was a little girl named Rosa, who loved to read her Bible. One of her favorite stories was the story of Moses, and how he helped the Hebrew slaves gain freedom.
Moses was a young man who lived in Egypt. He knew it wasn’t right for the Hebrew people to be the slaves of the Egyptian king, Pharaoh. One day, he heard a voice inside him say, “Moses, go tell Pharaoh to let my people go!”
The voice of conscience was loud and clear for Moses knew right from wrong. He also knew that when one’s conscience speaks the truth, it is the very voice of God. Moses decided that he had to go see Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go!”
When the Hebrew people saw Moses walking toward Pharaoh’s palace, a voice in their hearts began to sing:
“Go down, Moses,
Way down in Egypt land,
Tell ol’ Pharaoh,
Let my people go!”
But, when Moses told Pharaoh to free the Hebrew people from slavery, Pharaoh simply said, “No, no, no, no, no.”
Moses said, “Be careful, Pharaoh. All God’s children were born to be free. You may be a king but every child of God has royal blood. No one on earth was born to be a slave. You may say slavery is good but the powers of the earth and sun will rebel against that lie. The waters will turn red. The land will be filled with millions of frogs, gnats, flies, and bugs. Cows, horses, and donkeys will get sick. Hailstorms will send ice falling from the sky that will beat down everything growing in the fields. Egypt will be filled with locusts. And darkness will cover the land, turning day into night. Pharaoh, you are on the side of slavery but the universe is on the side of justice.”
And everything Moses said came to pass. Bad stuff started happening. Bugs, frogs—you name it, it happened. Sometimes Pharaoh would get sick and tired of all the misery and he would tell Moses and the Hebrew people, “You are free to go.”
But, as soon as the Hebrew people started packing their bags, Pharaoh would say, “I’ve changed my mind,” and so they would unpack their bags. Finally, Pharaoh got tired of fighting against the cause of freedom. He got sick and tired of frogs in his food and gnats in his ears. He realized that the universe was on the side of justice, and he told Moses and his people to go.
And they did go. Moses and the Hebrew people marched right out of Egypt singing:
“Ain’t gonna let no Pharaoh turn me round, turn me round, turn me round
I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching into freedom land.”
Rosa loved to hear this story of Moses and the Hebrew slaves walking to freedom. But as she grew up and got bigger and taller, she began to look around her at the world in which she lived and she realized something . . . she realized that her people were not free.
Everywhere Rosa looked there were signs that said, “Whites Only.” Black people were not allowed in some parks, motels, lunch counters, swimming pools, and schools. They were told to sit at the back of the bus. If a white person needed the seat then the black person had to stand up and give up their seat. Rosa believed that all people should be treated fairly, and she knew in her heart that these rules were wrong.
A lot of other people agreed with her, and they agreed that they needed to challenge these unfair rules. One day Rosa got on the bus, tired after a long day’s work, and sat down. The bus went down the street a few blocks and stopped to let a lot of people who were mostly white get on board. The bus driver told some of the black passengers, including Rosa, to get up from their seats so that the white folks could sit down.
Everyone obeyed the driver—except Rosa. The bus driver told her again to get up, but she still sat in her seat. The driver threatened to call the police but Rosa still sat in her seat. Finally, the police came to take Rosa down to the station. As the other black passengers watched the police take Rosa away, there was a song in their hearts:
“Go down, Rosa, way down in Alabama,
Tell America, let my people go.”
At the police station they fined Rosa $14. But she had started something the police could not stop. The black people of Montgomery, Alabama, decided that they would not ride the buses until all people were treated fairly. This meant that the bus company would lose money. Now, in Egypt, suffering meant frogs, flies, and rivers turning red. In America, suffering means losing money. After a year of boycotting by black people, the bus company took down their “Whites Only” signs, and Rosa sat on the front seat of that bus. Rosa Parks had started a movement to lead her people from oppression toward equality.
Go down, Rosa, way down in Alabama,
Tell America, let my people go!
“Our Work is Not Yet Done” by Peter Morales from Voices in the Margins
O, Spirit of Life and Love that lives within s and among us, be with us now. Help us take our history into our hearts as well as or minds. Open us, so that we can feel our past live in us - the joy, the disappointment, the passion, the pain, the hoe. Let that past, all of it, live in the core of our being.
Let us be humble. Let us be honest. Help s to take instruction from our past. And let us also be inspired. But more than anything, let us feel your Spirit, the spirit of deep compassion, here among us this very moment.
O, Spirit of Love and Life, help us to know, truly know that we are your people, bound together by our collective memory and, more important, by our shared aspirations. We too are not perfect. We mess up. Sometimes we talk too much. Yet we are drawn together by what we love, by what we hold sacred and by a vision of what we may yet create together.
Finally, ender and gentle Spirit, guide us. Inspire us. Embolden us. For our work, your work, O Spirit, is not yet done.
CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN
Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives. As you do, you may briefly share what it is. We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.
A Way Out of No Way, by Niala Terrell-Mason
Welcome to the second week in our Black History month series of services here at UUCR. Last week Lee and Mathew gave us a really good historical overview of the struggle from the global beginnings of the slave trade to 21st century America. A personal highlight for me was the Malcolm X video. It was hilarious, super on point, and deliciously radical. I often wonder what the world be like, what would America be like, if an 88 year old Malcolm X was looking back on 50 years of public service right now. He was the same age as Dr. King when he was assassinated. Only 39 years old.
Dr. King’s last speech is now called “The Mountaintop Speech.” In it he seems to predict his own death. He says, “Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Dr. King was murdered the next day.
“I may not get there with you. But …we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” He knew. He knew he wouldn’t get there with us. We are still not there. I probably won’t get there either. The arc of the moral universe is long. With this knowledge, I am here to lay myself down as one more stepping stone on the road to the Promised Land. We are all stepping stones. We don’t just stand on the shoulders of giants. Giants aren’t very common, after all. What are much more common are the people whose names and faces and lives most of us will never know. We know they existed, because we exist, but that’s it. At least for most Black people. “The past is now another land, far beyond my reach. Invaded by insidious foreign bodies, foreign speech.”
Looking at the slave women in the photos is painful for me because one of those women could be my kin. The woman with the nursing baby and the toddler bears more than a passing resemblance to my own mother. She could be my great-great-great grandmother and I would never know it. She’s a photo on the internet. No name, no date, no place. According to history, she is no body. Most Black women to history are No Body. They were just hands and feet and breasts and wombs. Their hands tilled this soil, planted and harvested its crops, knead dough and made good food they weren’t allowed to eat, sewed clothing they weren’t allowed to wear. Their cracked and tired feet walked for miles in all kinds of weather to work as maids and nurses and laundresses. Their breasts fed white babies as theirs went hungry. Their milk wasn’t their own. Their breasts weren’t their own. Their wombs were not their own. The bodies of slave women were for the master’s pleasure and the master’s financial gain.
Many Black people walk around as visual reminders of the hundreds of years of bodily violations our women endured. My grandmother and my great-grandmother are both light skinned. My grandmother’s natural pre-white hair color is red. A light skin red headed black girl whose family migrated out of Kentucky. An “Upper South” border slave state that did not secede from the Union during the Civil War, but remained officially neutral and whose population was 25% enslaved Blacks. We know why my family looks the way it does.
Delores Williams, womanist theologian, says that for Black women our Biblical heroine is Hagar. Hagar is the Black Egyptian slave of Abraham and Sarah. When Sarah cannot conceive, the greatest shame a woman can endure in the ancient near east, she “gives” her “servant” to Abraham to have a child with. You might be thinking “wait.” How does this fix the problem or her not being able to conceive? Well. By law Sarah owned every part of Hagar. The child her husband fathers with her slave is legally HER child. And not in a property way, like it was in the American south, but her child as in her son or daughter. Hagar was a forced, non-consensual surrogate. It was a common practice in those days. When Sarah eventually has her own child, Isaac, she tells Abraham to leave Hagar and Ismael, who is legally HER son, in the desert. Abraham, knowing this means certain death for them both in the harsh desert does as she asks, even though he loves Ismael.
In the desert, Hagar walks away from Ismael because she cannot stand to see her own child die of thirst or hunger. God hears Hagar’s cries and feels her pain. God knows what Abraham and Sarah did was wrong. “She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me." Ismael, by the way, means “God hears.” God provides them with water and tells Hagar that they will survive. God gives her a way out of no way.
Hagar is disenfranchised, powerless, used and abused, she is living in a foreign land. She is disposable and subject to the whims of her oppressors. Hagar is also resilient, strong, brave, and audacious. She is the only person in the Bible who gives God a name. She lives and survives to give her child a chance. Ismael is the Biblical ancestor of the Muslim people.
Now, this is a complicated and not easy to understand story. When Hagar is pregnant she runs away from Sarah’s mistreatment into the desert. An angel of God appears to her and tells her to go back and submit to Sarah’s rule. An angel of God tells her to go back into captivity. Horrible, right? Is God supporting slavery? No. What God is doing is making sure Hagar survives and that her baby survives. She is an unarmed very pregnant woman with no food, water or shelter in the middle of a desert. To a slave woman, to Black women, the point here is clear. Freedom is not always attainable. Often times it’s something we fight for in the hopes of those who come after us getting to see it. It’s always a goal, but you must survive first. For yourself, and for your children. God gives Hagar the strength to endure. He toughens her up for the long hard road ahead.
“And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see - or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read.”—Author Alice Walker
In the book ‘Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South’, the author notes the failure of the white slave system to make Blacks docile by stripping us of our culture. “In the New World, slave control was based on the eradication of all forms of African culture because of their power to unify the slaves and thus enable them to resist or rebel. Nevertheless, African beliefs and customs persisted and were transmitted by slaves to their descendants” and one of the easiest ways to link African past and American present was religion.
The slaves brought over were from different villages and areas of the continent and they spoke different languages and had different customs, but most worshiped nature and the indigenous Gods of Africa. That was a shared language. The way they worshipped was common to them and that was beyond language. Drumming, for example, a stable of African worship was incorporated into Christianity. Drumming, singing, and dancing were used to spread coded messages to slaves and keep the memory of who they were and where they came from alive. These elements can still be seen in African American culture and religion today.
W.E.B. DuBois notes that the slaves came over here with similar and diverse beliefs that eventually became a glorious stew. He says, “the slaves arrived with a strong tendency to Nature worship and a belief in witchcraft common to all. Beside this some had more or less vague ideas of a supreme being and higher religious ideas, while a few were Mohammedans, and fewer Christians.” Yes, Muslims came to America in slave ships, as did some Christians. Voudon, Voodoo or Hoodoo, Santeria…all mixes of Christianity, witchcraft, and indigenous African faith. Black author Alice Walker is pagan, but her books, especially The Color Purple, are deeply infused with Black female Christianity, spirituality, AND nature worship. She says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.” For us, religion is history and culture and something in our soul.
The masters thought they would tell their slaves that God said they should be slaves because they are naturally inferior and that they were to obey their masters and these simple minded people from “shithole” countries would be like yep that sounds legit.
And, speaking of, why isn’t America a “shithole” country? Because Immigrants? We get the job done.
Arrogant, simple-minded fools they were. No. It totally backfired. They taught the slaves about God, Jesus and the Bible and instead of being happily put in their place, the slaves came to the conclusions that their captivity was evil, unjust, and unchristian. They got the right conclusions from the wrong lessons.
The book goes on to say that “by 1774 American slaves were declaring publicly and politically that they thought Christianity and slavery were incompatible. Frederick Douglass said “Slaves knew enough of the orthodox theology of the time to consign all bad slaveholders to hell.” There are dozens of first hand slave accounts where the slaves or former-slaves say that they do not believe that slavers are going to heaven. Many thought that heaven would be where the slave masters would then be the slaves and the slaves the masters! It also didn’t help the Master’s “God is okay with slavery” claim when lots of them confessed their guilt about owning slaves to their slaves while on their deathbeds.
And who did the slaves particularly have no time for? White ministers who preached the gospel but owned slaves. From a slave fugitive named William Humbert: I have seen a minister hand the sacrament to the deacons to give the slaves, and, before the slaves had time to get home, living a great distance from the church, have seen one of the same deacons, acting as patrol, flog one of the brother members within two hours of his administering the sacrament to him, because he met the slave…without a passport, beyond the time allowed him to go home...I looked on the conduct of the deacon with a feeling of revenge. I thought that a man who would administer the sacrament to a brother church member and flog him before he got home, ought not to live.”
The slaves took this bastardized and poisoned Christianity and made it their own. They had their own prayer meetings in secret, and adapted songs and customs and stories to fit their own situations. The slaves saw themselves as the Israelites seeking liberation from their oppressors. Jesus, the poor, marginalized champion of the oppressed, was their savior. Not the exalted king who became the mascot of empire.
Slaves were forbidden from meeting on their own and reading the bible for themselves because the slave masters knew that within that text were the means to set the slaves free. The truth could and would set them free.
It is overly simplified, inaccurate and unfair to say that Christianity was just the master’s religion forced upon the slaves that they were forced to practice and believe. That strips Black people of our agency and is implying we were the uncritically thinking people the whites thought we were. The slaves, especially black women slaves, found something life giving and redemptive and powerful in Christianity. A woman, a member of an early 20th century sect called Father Divine Peace Mission was asked why Divinites do not pray in the traditional way. The woman quoted from the bible: “Prayer is the expression of the heart’s desire” and said every word that a person might utter could be a prayer. Our very breathing is a prayer. Especially everything that about us that causes us to be grateful is a prayer.”
White Western middle class Christianity, especially in America, got really stuck and hung up on personal salvation while the poor and people of color never forgot the original message of Jesus that salvation is collective. Ain’t none of us free until ALL of us are free. All of us or none, right? Miguel De La Torre, a famous liberation theologian, says “it is the privileged who need to come to terms with their spiritual wretchedness; it is the wretched who need to come to terms with their infinite worth.” Howard Thurman said in the early 1930s “the masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it councils them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs.”
The church was the one place where Blacks could express their emotions and lift up their troubles vocally and with emotion. Go to a Black church. All that energy and emotion is the pressure valve release needed for a long oppressed and long suffering people. This is especially true for women. Oppressed because of skin color and sex. Vulnerable and abused by white people and black men. The church is where women could lay down their burdens, get the support and love of other women, and become leaders empowered to become agents of change. Jesus might be the only man you can trust. One man who hasn’t abused or used you. Thurman also said “there are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person.” That is what it is like to be a Black woman in America.
After his temptation in the woods, Jesus walked out and said that it was his charge to ‘preach deliverance to the captives, give sight to the blind, and free the oppressed. Delores Williams says that Black women need to focus on Jesus’ life, not his suffering and death. Focusing on the crucifixion implies modeling the fact that he died for others. His suffering was redemptive. For us. Redemptive suffering is a slippery slope. Can suffering be redemptive? Yes. Is it necessarily redemptive or the only way to be redeemed? No.
We, Black people, have been crucified for hundreds of years. Lynching is crucifixion. We have suffered with Jesus on the cross. Jesus has suffered with us. Black women are criticized for following a religion that urges them/us to forgive our oppressors. How weak. How pathetic. Karen Baker-Fletcher says this is a gross misunderstanding of the religious notion of forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean trusting those who hate and sin against you.
Universalists believe in universal salvation. That does not mean we accept sin. Sin is a choice people make. Often against other people. Those who abuse others have inherent worth simply because they are human. We do not think they are going to be eternally punished. That’s not how we think a loving and compassionate God rolls. But it is our job to make sure they face justice here on earth and that the victims are taken care of and not forgotten.
Baker-Fletcher says “We cannot deny that we are all interrelated, but God created human creatures to be selective. We are empowered by God to select the degree to which we allow others to become part of our lives, part of our own sphere of becoming. There are degrees of relationship, intimacy, and distance. Forgiveness does not require close personal or social association with those who wound. It never entails accepting sin.” Baker-Fletcher believes that forgiveness is a personal matter that neither God nor the church can force or coerce. It is primarily for the forgiver and for their healing.
Black women who stay with Christianity have to wrestle with the “paradox” that violence was put upon us in the name of Christianity. We have to really think about our relationship to Jesus, who Jesus is, the bible and so on.
I could walk away from it all. Jesus, the bible, the Christian community, God. But I don’t want to and I think there is courage in the determination not to walk away. In Genesis, Jacob literally wrestles with God all night in the desert. At daybreak God asks Jacob to let him go.
But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”
Jacob wrestled with his faith and did not come out unscathed. He limps away with a broken hip. Still he overcame and walked away triumphant. Faith is hard. Belief a struggle. Religion both hurts and heals. Don’t look down on those who won’t time out or tag out. If you aren’t lesser for walking away, than others aren’t lesser for staying in the ring. We are all wrestling with the unknown and our own demons and questions. We are here in this church, in this community, to support each other’s journeys. I’m here to help you carry your load and bear your pain and I hope you are here to do the same for me and everyone else. We are all working together to overcome suffering and reduce pain. That is our sacred duty to the Universe and one another.
Black people and Black women especially have been martyred over and over. Some, like Dr. King, are given sainthood, but most are forgotten. We must remember them. Just as we remember our present day martyrs. The Rekia Boyds, the Trayvon Martins, the Sandra Blands. #SayHerName. #BlackLivesMatter. We will make it to the Promised Land one day. All the people we have lost will make it too because we will carry them with us. They got us here. Their determination, strength, and hope. Black women taught us, and continue to teach us, how to survive AND how to thrive. #BlackGirlMagic is real. Go live your life in such a way that honors theirs. Do what they could not. Be who they could not be. Fight the battles they did not win.
Communion: The ancestors that came before us. Their life blood runs through our veins. Our bodies came from their bodies. We live because they lived. Jesus said “do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus was not the only one crucified. This month especially we ought to remember all the men and women who died to build this country. The bodies of Black people built the wealth of this country and allowed it to become a superpower. In urban culture there is this idea of honoring those who died by “pouring one out” for them. It’s the same idea. It’s an act of communion. UUs do not gate keep communion. All are worthy and able to take part. No test of faith or right belief. Please join me in taking a moment to say “thank you” to the ancestors of America. This is their body and their blood.
HYMN #149 Lift Every Voice and Sing
Before asking people to sing the hymn, please introduce the hymn with the following context, to better understand the fact that when our communities sing this song, we are witnessing the song of another culture and context, and hoping in our voices to honor it.
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was first written as a poem. Created by James Weldon Johnson, it was performed for the first time by 500 school children in celebration of President Lincoln's Birthday on February 12, 1900 in Jacksonville, FL. The poem was set to music by Johnson's brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and soon adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as its official song. Today “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is one of the most cherished songs of the African American Civil Rights Movement and is often referred to as the Black National Anthem.
Alternative Hymn Choice: #119 Once to Every Soul and Nation
By Emily DeTar Birt
As we continue to work towards the visions,
The dreams of the Beloved Community,
Which has been left as our legacy to fulfill
May we always remember
Those who may have forgotten names,
but never forgotten souls,
Those who have suffered and given their lives
To our inherited legacy of love and justice.
We remember those known and unknown lives,
Who made our vision possible,
And carry the mantle once again towards a brighter tomorrow.
May it be so. Amen.