Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Sermon “Let Us Dare” by David Pyle

I do not often post my sermons directly to the Blog here at Celestial Lands, but something is moving me to share this one here this morning.  Perhaps because I have been so disappointed and depressed over some recent events in American Political History that this sermon, written a year ago, is also preaching to me today.  I am presenting it this morning at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, IL.   

“How Dare You People Bring THAT MAN Here!?!” shouted the man at the young taxi driver. “How dare you people bring THAT MAN here without our permission!?!”

Though it had been three years since “that man” had come, the young taxi driver knew instantly why he was being yelled at. It had happened before.

It started innocently enough. A young man working as a taxi driver after college picked up a fare. The man gave him an address on Greenwood Street in Evanston. The young taxi driver knew that address, because it was for the house that shared a parking lot with his Church, the Unitarian Church of Evanston. And so, without consulting a map, he drove his fare home.

When they arrived the man asked with some surprise how it was that the young taxi driver had known where to go without directions or a map. It was then the taxi driver admitted he attended the Unitarian Church.

“How dare you people bring that man here without our permission!?!” shouted the man, his face purpling with rage. It had been three years since the Unitarian Church of Evanston had hosted a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962, but still the memory of that event was rough and raw for the yelling man.

“If we’d asked your permission, would you have agreed?” the young taxi driver asked.

“Of Course Not!” shouted the man.

With a smart-alec smile the young taxi driver said “Well, that’s why we didn’t ask!”

On October 31st, Halloween night of 1962 our church, the Unitarian Church of Evanston hosted a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. The event does not seem to have been advertised in the local papers. The church did not put up flyers saying it was going to happen. It had been arranged in part through the connections of a former minister of the church Rev. Homer Jack. Studs Terkel agreed to introduce Dr. King and to moderate the forum discussion. No recording of the event was made, and there was very little about it that I found in the Church’s Archives.

And yet, it was a profound and formative event in the life of this church. When I became this congregation’s ministerial intern, one of the first things I learned that had a real mythical quality was that Dr. King had once spoken here. As I spoke to several of the members of this congregation who were here that day, it became apparent that this was one of the two events from the time of the Civil Rights Movement that most shaped them… and no one remembered what he had spoken of in any detail.

By daring to invite Dr. King, this church created what was probably one of the largest interracial gatherings in the history of Evanston up to that point. Some told me that about 700 people, half of them white members of the church and community and the other half black citizens of Evanston had come to hear Dr. King speak. Black and white alike were sitting in these seats, standing in these isles, packed up the staircase and leaning over that balcony. All to hear Dr. King’s clarion call to racial equality and justice. You are in this room, this same room… take a moment to imagine it.


There were a few protestors outside, but the secrecy of the event meant there were fewer than you might expect. Packed shoulder to shoulder were Black and White, men and women, children and adults… all together in 1962. It was a moment of daring for all of the people who were involved…

“How Dare You People Bring THAT MAN Here!?!” shouted the closest neighbor to the church.

A few days later, one white female member of the church, who was there to hear Dr. King a few nights before, told her friend the store clerk at the local grocery what an amazing experience it had been to hear Dr. King. Immediately, all sound in the grocery store stopped, as everyone turned to stare in silence at her.

How dare you people bring that man here.

How profound it is to dare. How profound it is to dare to risk. How profound it is to dare to love. How profound it is to dare to dream. How profound it is to dare to hope. How profound it is to dare.

Through learning about this church’s involvement in the civil rights movement, I have found a new personal hero. His name was John O’Brien, and in 1971 he spoke in this church. He came to confess. A former Army Intelligence Officer, he came here to confess that he had been assigned to spy upon this congregation, on all of the churches in Evanston that were involved in the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements. He had come to this sanctuary and written down names, he had thought of ways to distract the church from its work. He had arranged to have these windows behind me broken so the church would have to spend resources to replace them. He had helped decide who would be moved to concentration camps if marshal law was declared.

And over time, he had dared to ask himself the question of what was more important to him, following orders or obeying the Constitution. He chose to follow the constitution, and got out of the Army. He dared to testify before congress, and for this he faced character assassination, the loss of his income, possible arrest, and the scorn of everyone he had worked in Army Intelligence with, including my father. As his last act before removing himself from public life forever, John O’Brien came to those he felt he had wronged, and he dared to confess, in a sermon he presented from the pulpit of this church.

We do not have to look far to find such daring. One member of this congregation who was in Evanston during the civil rights movement dared to challenge his neighbors on their racism, when they chose to move to Winnetka instead of have their children attend the new integrated Evanston Schools.

Another member of this congregation dared to gather supplies from the Evanston community, and drive them down to the South each weekend, to Selma and Birmingham, Memphis and Montgomery, so the civil-rights protestors would have what they needed to print flyers, to have water, and to hand out pamphlets.

This church dared to invite other leaders of the civil rights movement to speak here, including James Baldwin, James Bevel, and Rev. Eugene Sparrow. They even dared to host a performance by Dick Gregory and the Freedom Singers.

This church as a whole dared to house an African American School for a period of time, until the Evanston Schools were fully integrated. UCE dared to hire an African American Music Director in the 60’s. UCE dared to challenge its minister to go to Selma after the death of Unitarian minister Rev. James Reeb at the hands of a white mob. Though ethical challenges would later bring Rev. Ross Allen Weston to leave this church, he accepted that particular challenge, and he went to march in Selma alongside hundreds of other Unitarian Ministers, and Dr. King.

If I were to pick a time in the history of this congregation during the Civil Rights Movement in which our church dared more than any other, it would be in the days that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Perhaps because Dr. King had spoken here, it seemed that it felt very personal to the members of this church that he had been murdered. Perhaps it was in the nature of the church’s brand new minister, the Rev. Charles Eddis to dare and to challenge authority… I do not know. I only know what happened. Rev. Eddis told me that it was one of the highpoints in his career as a minister.

When word came to the city of Evanston that Dr. King had been shot to death outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee on April 4th, 1968 there was deep concern in the city government that violence might erupt, as it had on the South Side of Chicago.

When two young black men asked the city for a permit to march in honor of King the following Sunday, those fears increased.

The city government, seeking a way to have the march but avoid any violence, called all of the Evanston Ministers together, both black and white. The Mayor begged the ministers to become involved in planning and leading the march, to hold a group rally and worship service in honor of Dr. King. It was thought that if the ministers were there, the crowd might be less inclined to violence.

I don’t know what came over him, where his daring came from, but Rev. Eddis had found his moment. He raised his hand and when called upon he dared to say something like this to the mayor: “We’ll lead your march, but you need to pass that Open Housing law that the city council has been debating for so long”. It was almost blackmail, for Rev. Eddis and the other clergy had long been advocating for the city to pass the law that would make it legal for Black Families to move into white neighborhoods in Evanston.

The mayor said they’d look into it, or something else fairly non-committal. When the ministers came together afterward, they knew that they would have to do something more, especially Rev. Eddis and the Rev. Jacob Blake, the African American Pastor of Ebenezer AME Church.
So, they held the march and rally for Dr. King… and then they kept on marching. Each night, the members of the AME church and the Unitarian church and other Evanston congregations would march in support of the Open Housing Law. They would follow behind Rev. Blake and Rev. Eddis, a Black Methodist from Chicago and a White Unitarian from Canada, locked arm in arm, carrying a banner which called for housing equality.

They would begin at a church, march through the white neighborhoods, stop in front of the house of the mayor or a city council member, hold a rally, and then march to another church. Often they would march from a white church to a black church, or visa versa. For two weeks they dared to march each evening, always respectful, following traffic laws and street signs. They dared to take their children with them, black children and white children playing at marching together. They dared so much that the mayor was heard to exclaim from inside his home “We’ll pass your damn law!” while he was apparently holding a shotgun behind the door.

A member of the church who did not march watched out her window as her fellow congregants of our Unitarian Church dared to walk through her neighborhood calling for integration, and she said the feeling of that moment has never left her.

It was a moment of daring in the life of this congregation. Not only did they call for the city government to act, they lead the movement to force them to do so.

At one march on Easter Sunday, over 5000 people marched with Rev. Eddis and Rev. Blake through the white-only neighborhoods of Evanston. When the law was passed, the members of these two congregations dared to make the “V” for victory sign at the city council members, as if to add insult to injury.

How profound it is to Dare! How profound it is to take a stand, to challenge even at risk to yourself and your own interests. Some people left the congregation because of its stand. About ten years before Dr. King spoke in this hall the congregation had voted not to become involved in Civil Rights. It was too risky… so what changed? From where did this daring spirit come?

I have seen this congregation dare. How daring it was to invite a former Iraq weapons inspector and a former U.S. ambassador to come and speak to a crowd of almost 500 about what a disaster an Invasion of Iran would be. How daring it was to make public our stand against the war in Iraq. This congregation has not forgotten how to be daring.

How daring it is to regularly read the names of those killed in the current wars in public. How daring it is to hang a banner on the church for equality, to put a peace pole out in a time of war.

You dared to invite me to be your ministerial intern, when many other congregations might not have. I am a son of the south, white mixed with Cherokee, a military veteran, and a Unitarian Universalist Christian.
Not only did you dare to invite me to preach to you for that year, but you dared to look closely at your own assumptions about the military and those who serve, about Christianity, and about the South, and I am deeply honored by that daring audacity.

How dare you all bring that man here! How dare we? There is more I wish we could dare. There are many things I wish we as a denomination could dare.

I wish we could dare to ask ourselves the deep questions about why there were more African American members of our denomination in 1968 than there are today.

I wish we could dare to have the conversations about why some of our longer-term Unitarian Universalists are made uncomfortable by the presence of all these young families that are new to our movement.

I wish we could dare to change the way our denomination and our congregations think about money in these times of economic trial, and what it is our money supports when we invest it.

In the year that I was with you, we dared to bring into our midst the stories of the veterans among us, who for years have kept silent about that part of their lives… I wish we could now dare to reach out to the military families in the communities around our churches. There are more of them than you might think.

It is going to seem presumptuous of me, as I am not a part of the daily life of this church anymore… but I have been thinking about what I might wish this church to dare. Perhaps my dreams might inspire you, even if it is to find your own dreams of what you as a church might dare.

I wish this congregation could dare to ask why, over 40 years after the open housing law that our congregation marched for was passed, the map of where blacks in Evanston live and where whites in Evanston live looks almost as segregated today as it did then. In other words, I wish we would dare to look closely at how race and class are intricately linked in this very affluent city.

I wish this congregation could call attention to the racial bias shown by the Evanston Police, and the racial hatred and violence shown by the Chicago police around my own neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago.

If I have a prayer for you, if I have a prayer for our church, if I have a prayer for Unitarian Universalism, if I have a prayer for the movement of Liberal Faith this morning, it is this:

Let us Dare.

Let us dare to challenge our own assumptions, prejudices and beliefs, so that we can learn from them and break their hold upon us.

Let us dare to challenge the pre-conceived notions all around us, about race, about class, about creed, about culture, and shout to this world that the whole is much more complicated than many of our traditions make us think.

Let us dare to risk, to speak out and garner our neighbor’s ire when we see injustice and racial inequality. Let us invite those who have dedicated their lives to the values and principles we believe in, not to speak to us, but to speak through our faith to the wider community. Let us dare to hope that we can make a difference. Let us dare to dream of what this world will look like when it has become whole, and share that dream with others as the center of our living faith. Let us dare to love, even those who disagree with us. Let us Dare.

How dare you people bring that man here?

Let us Dare.

So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

5 Thoughts on “Sermon “Let Us Dare” by David Pyle

  1. Wow! This is a powerful sermon. May we always be brave enough to dare in matters of justice and compassion.

  2. Well thanks for daring to enter into public dialogue with the dreaded Emerson Avenger David.

    If only the UUA and MFC and a certain unmentionable U*U church were brave enough to dare to responsibly address the matters of (in)justice and (in)equity, and (un)compassion that I have repeatedly dared to share my concerns about over the years. . . I will be giving them another opportunity to do so soon enough but they keep rejecting my R.S.V.P. invitations to dialogue.

  3. This deserves not an amen, but Amen! Amen! Amen! I wonder how your tone ended and how the congregation reacted. I’m not clear though, you wrote it a year ago and this is the first time you’re delivering it?

    One suggestion, the text is very light. A notch darker, 4 or 3, would help the reading.

    Thank you.

  4. I thought I would jump in with a response to Norwegian Shooters question on how the congregation reacted. I was among the fortunate to be there when David delivered this sermon. I believe the congregration as a whole was moved and inspired by the sermon. There were audible amens at the end (very rare occurence). When the service was over, a significant number of people did NOT immediately head for the exits, as is usual, they stayed where they were in the chairs to talk about the sermon with those around them. All comments were along the lines of wishing to hear David preach every week, how deeply moved they were and, of course, speculating about who that taxi driver is. Many people were teary-eyed. I’ve also seen a number of facebook comments (all positive, and it is rare to see facebook comments about sermons from my fellow congregants). I’m so grateful I was there.

  5. I was a frequent guest at the Evanston Church in the early 1960s as my Aunt, Jane M. D’Arcy was a member of the church (she was also earlier a member of All Souls Church in Washington, D,C, when A. Powell Davies was the minister. I was at the MLK speech and also went to Selma as well as marched with him in Washington. It was a stressful but very dynamic time which is very hard to describe. Thank you for the memories.

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