Last Preached on January 26th, 2014
I never imagined that I would be considered a Social Justice Minister.
You cannot become a Unitarian Universalist Minister without having some knowledge, interest, and willingness to be involved in Social Justice, in working to and organizing others to transform the world from what it is to what it could be. Learning about leading efforts of Social Justice was a larger part of my Unitarian Universalist seminary experience than was studying religious scripture, although I had done a lot of that before ever thinking about becoming a minister. In order to receive Fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist Minister, you have to be able to show you have a basic knowledge of Social Justice movements and leadership, at least enough to inspire and empower others in efforts of Social Justice.
Before going to seminary I had been involved in anti-Iraq War protests, and I had been involved in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender rights efforts in Texas. I cared a lot about the environment, and even about how veterans were treated and I volunteered as a shelter manager with the Red Cross… but these were all things I cared about as an individual. I was trying to be a good follower on the issues of social justice that I cared about.
As a minister, I saw myself as someone who was focused on pastoral care and on church management. As a hospital and then a military chaplain, I tried to be with people in the best and the worst moments of their lives… of crying with them and helping them ask the questions that needed to be asked. I became really good at funerals. I envisioned helping congregations to grow, to get past the barriers of small church thinking that keep so many of our congregations from ever having more than 200 people in worship on a Sunday morning.
One of my first acts as the Interim Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Midland, Michigan, the congregation I served before moving to California, was to disband their Social Justice Committee and encourage them to take a break from Justice work, to focus on the organizational issues and pastoral challenges they were facing. Sure, I went to the capital in Lansing and participated in protests supporting labor unions… but as me, not as the leader of that congregation. Not as a leader at all really.
I never considered myself a Social Justice Minister. And then I came to Ventura. And somehow, I don’t think my ministry is ever going to be the same again. Now, when someone recently contacted our denomination looking for Unitarian Universalist Ministers with a Social Justice focus, my name was one of the ones they were given.
Had anyone told me that three years ago, I would never have believed it.
I tell you all this today, because I want you to understand this aspect of how transformative the last two and a half years amongst you has been. Becoming the Ministerial Leadership of our congregations Justice Ministries, including our Homelessness Advocacy Ministry, has been a crash course in the practical aspects of advocacy, community organizing, social justice leadership, the Ventura Social Services community, and so much more.
Our theme for this month is resistance… and one of the things you may not know is that I resisted, rather strongly, taking the leadership of this congregation’s Social Justice Ministries. I think I knew how much doing so would change me, as a minister and as a person. I think I knew that I had a lot of book learning in social justice leadership, and almost no practical experience. I think I knew how intense learning this particular form of ministerial leadership “on the job” would be. I am still learning… and will continue to…
I want to share with you this morning three reflections, three learnings I have had over the past two and a half years, of the intersection of resistance and social justice. Our theme this month has been resistance, and our theme for the month of February will be Social Justice… and so it seemed an appropriate time. These learnings have happened in the life of this religious community, and some of you are involved. I have changed a few of the details of these lessons so as to not make it obvious who was involved, and I expect that those involved will know who they are. For all of you who have walked with me in some of these learnings, I want to say thank you.
Lesson 1… Sometimes we resist knowing something because we have to budget how much we can care about and work on at the same time.
It was about 20 months ago, not long after I took over as the Director of the Homelessness Advocacy Ministry of our church, Lift Up Your Voice. I had been here a year, but that year was mostly about surviving Rev. Jan being on Sabbatical, and making sure our Intern Minister, Kristen, survived with me. That the congregation survived the experience was a bit of a bonus… and all of you who were here through it were wonderful.
But the sabbatical was over, and so was my resisting Rev. Jan assigning the congregation’s Social Justice Ministry leadership to me… and I was doing what I always do when I need to take on some role that I am not prepared for or was not my idea…
I was doing my best to get myself excited and energized about it. Yea! Justice!
And I was learning. I was learning about what it is like for those who sleep each night in the river bottom. I was going out into the riverbottom with members of City Staff and the Ventura Police, as they were posting notices on homeless encampments, telling people they had two days to move all of their possessions somewhere else. There was a sense of “We can’t tell you where to go, but you can’t stay here” about it all, and I was shocked… not at the conditions in the riverbottom, but at how I would feel if someone came into my home and told me I had two days to pack everything I had and leave. And if I missed the notice, I would find out the day of my eviction, and have thirty minutes to pack up what I could while police officers stood around me with their hands on their weapons belts.
A few days after one of those trips into the riverbottom, I was sitting in Berg Hall, and I was sharing what the experience had been like with a few members of this congregation. As I shared what it had felt like, I saw something happen. In this group of three people, there were three separate reactions. One person became energized, and wanted to know if they could go with me into the riverbottoms. Another person told me what a wonderful thing it was that I was doing this, and how great it was that the church was paying me to do it. And the third person’s eyes glazed over, and they quickly changed the subject.
What I realized is that we are not all in the same place in the amount of our empathy and compassion we can bring to any particular issue in any particular moment… and that this is not only okay, it is necessary and it is very human. If there is anything that binds Unitarian Universalists together, it is that we are a people full of compassion and empathy for our fellow human beings. Knowing that we are all interconnected and that we all have the same inherent worth and dignity does that for us. And yet, the need and suffering in the world is so great, that if we all cared about it in the same way, with the same depth, on every issue all the time, we would all turn into emotional disaster areas.
Resisting how much we know about a particular issue of the world’s deep need and suffering is a self-defense mechanism. One we often have to have. While we should all seek to exercise and grow the muscle of compassion in our lives in this world, no one person can ever care to the depth the world needs on every issue all the time. And so, sometimes, we just have to limit how deeply we are aware of one set of the world’s needs, in order to be able to healthily and more fully work for justice in another area of the world’s suffering and need.
This is why we do justice in community. Not simply in the community of a church, but in the wider communities of a religious movement, and of all the movements for a more just, fair, sustainable, and equitable world. We need each other, so that we can trust that others are working on the justice issues we cannot hold in our hearts at this moment. Resisting knowing more about an injustice does not always mean someone does not care.
Lesson 2… Sometimes you have to fight the power, and sometimes you have to join the power in the fight. The challenge is knowing when to do what.
There are several different forms Social Justice can take… and not realizing this can get us into some major conflicts of intentions. I have begun to think of three of these forms by some titles I’ve chosen for them: Social Service, Social Partnering, and Social Witness.
Social Service is the more obvious one… it is where you see a need that someone who is suffering has, and you try to meet that need. Opening a food pantry or a soup kitchen, starting a homeless shelter, volunteering at a school, giving out information on homeless services. Our own Safe Sleep program is a Social Service, as is our partnership with the Riverhaven transitional housing community and others.
Before coming to Ventura, I would have said we should always do Social Service justice work… that if there is a need and we can help meet that need, then we should. However, Rev. Jan has me re-thinking that a bit, wondering if by meeting a need too quickly or eagerly we are letting others, such as the city, off the hook of their own responsibility for the suffering of their citizens.
It is between the other two, between Social Partnership and Social Witness that I have had to grow the most these last few years.
I love a good protest. I have a love for the dramatic action. There is a part of me that just loves the idea of Rev. Jan and I duct taping ourselves to the doors of City Hall, or putting up a billboard on the highway asking people to stop donating to Social Service Agencies who are denying services to the homeless because they have been deemed “service resistant”. There is a part of me that wants to “RESIST!” and “FIGHT THE POWER!” And there is a long history and theology of that within Unitarian Universalism. We are the tradition from which Henry David Thoreau wrote “Civil Disobedience”, and we marched in Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King, and we have laid down in front of Deportation busses and we opposed the Vietnam War. We published the Pentagon Papers, and Unitarian Universalists have sued just about every level of government and corporations over one thing or another. All of these kinds of Social Witness speak deeply to my soul, and before moving into Social Justice Leadership Ministry, almost all of my individual activism was of this type.
And yet, we have to be about more than just stopping the bad that is happening in the world. We have to be about creating the good… and we cannot create the good alone. What this congregation has helped me to see is how important to changing the world it is that we build Social Partnerships, and that we work with those partnerships to find co-creative solutions to injustice, inequality, and suffering. Sometimes those partnership are with those we have a lot in common with… and sometimes they are not. Sometimes those partnership have to be with the very people, organizations, and governments that we might otherwise be protesting.
I have learned that our power in those partnerships comes in two ways. First, it comes from us knowing what we are talking about and being willing to compromise… being willing to give as well as get. Secondly, our power in those partnerships comes from our partners knowing that we are just as capable of duct taping ourselves to city hall or putting up a public billboard calling them to task as we are to work with them… and it is in their best interest to act in good faith and keep us in the Partnership.
Lesson 3… There are always competing values… always.
There was a moment for me about a year ago, when I found myself stuck between competing values. Long before I came to Ventura, long before I became involved in Advocating for the Homeless, I was passionately involved in environmental justice activism. I used to say things like “If we don’t stop Global Warming, none of the other problems are going to matter”. As difficult as it can be to find yourself caring about too many things at once, it is entirely too attractive to decide you only care about one issue of social justice, and decide that no other is worth your effort or compassion.
And yet, I have an abiding passion for protecting our environment. And so, I found myself stuck between my value that people not be moved from the riverbottoms until there is somewhere for them to be housed, and the realization that people living in the riverbottoms is causing significant environmental damage. My first trip with the police and city staff made this difficulty plain… and so I can understand when I hear how callous some environmental groups have been to people experiencing homelessness, when they go into the riverbottom with the value of cleaning it up.
There are always competing values, and the most common way people deal with this conflict is to choose one value, and make it seem more important than any other. At times, people have thought of me this way with regards to homelessness, I know.
I have begun to see it a little differently though. I can have a priority, I can have a value that I am focusing on at the moment… and I need to be in partnership with groups who share the values I have that are competing with the one I have made a priority. Groups that are willing to do the difficult work together of finding a solution that honors those competing values.
And yet, you cannot always find those willing partners. Tomorrow night, I will be speaking to the Ventura City Council, holding up the value of Religious Freedom… and in particular standing up for the rights of those in our community who are the least privileged, the homeless. And yet, I know that there are competing values that will be present that evening. I know that even some who will be there supporting the stand our church has taken, to defend the Religious Freedom of Harbor Community Church, will feel those competing values in their own hearts… the value of children feeling secure in their neighborhood, or the value of property, or the value of peace and compromise. I, along with many others, had hoped for a compromise in this situation… and I still hope that one can be found.
And through these two experiences I have found for myself a way to decide among these competing values. A rule of thumb, if you will. When I am really torn between competing values such as this, I choose to uphold the value that most supports the marginalized, the oppressed, and those least able to defend themselves. If I do that, and seek the opportunity to find a solution that honors both values as soon as and as best as I can, then I know I am doing all I can to honor what is most important.
And, in both of these cases, that means I am called to stand up and speak out for those who are experiencing homelessness in our community.
So may it be, blessed be, and amen.