The Power of Together

The Power of Together

February 14, 2021 | Sarah Stewart

Spiritual director, Henry Nouwen, said that it is more important to do things together than to do them alone. And we feel that in our hearts right now, after almost a year of this pandemic. We are so tired of doing things alone, and we long to do things together. We miss big family meals, and sports games, whether we're playing or watching. We miss parades, and church, and dinner with friends. We miss being with our loved ones in the hospital. We miss working alongside someone. We miss our rituals of mourning. We miss hugs, and handshakes, and holding babies. All the ways in which we are together, together to celebrate or mourn, after a year, we missed them. That missing reminds us that we don't make meaning only with our words. Shared action makes meaning with our lives, in our lives, and group action for change, arises out of doing things together. Gathering together in groups is at the heart of our religious practice and at the heart of social change. Doing things together is more important than doing things alone. And we do miss all those ways of being together. But despite the pandemic, we have kept doing things together in new ways during this hard year. Thinking only of what has happened here at First Unitarian Church, our women's group; the sisterhood; has met for walks and gatherings, in the garden. when the weather was nice. Our youth group has kept up outdoor activities throughout the year. UU Guys, our men's group, meets on Zoom. Our choir, moved from monthly zoom meetings, which they're still doing, but now, they're even recording virtual anthems, like we had in last week’s service. People are reaching out with phone calls, participating in online small groups, joining this worship service, like you're doing right now. Our young people participated in FLOO Network WIOGORA, online WIOGORA, this past summer. Really, we wouldn't have our church, we wouldn't have First Unitarian Church without these ways of being together, without having adapted our being together to continue during the pandemic. And it tells us something about our faith, Unitarian Universalism has always been grounded in the power of voluntary association.

James Luther Adams was a Unitarian minister in the 20th century and a scholar of voluntary organizations in America, especially, and in the world. He wrote about our own religious history, about how the impetus to gather together as a voluntary group of people who wanted to worship together, according to their conscience, helped found our churches in America in the 17th and 18th centuries. He traveled in Nazi Germany and he saw how people gathering together for resistance, even gathering together in clubs or groups, to do something they wanted to do, was a form of resistance to tyranny. Voluntary organizations allow people to organize power apart from the state, and they distribute power and privacy into many groups of people. A group that's organized for some purpose is a way of organizing power. But even a group that's organized to go for walks, or to knit, or to do woodwork together, is a way of ensuring privacy and protecting people's time and attention for the things that they value. There are many organizations we're part of that we can't opt out of. Those are non-voluntary organizations; the state, the family, humanity itself, the community of living beings or the community of life on Earth. Voluntary organizations represent our freedom within those larger identities. A hallmark of a voluntary organization is that it uses volunteers, it is free to join, and free to leave. And if we think about social change in America, especially over the last 100 years, is what I'm thinking, but I think this is true going back to our founding, social change in America has come about because of voluntary organizations.

February is Black History Month. So, for examples this morning, I'm going to tell some stories about organizing in the black community in the 20th century for civil rights, and specifically the stories of two women, Ella Baker, and Septima Clark. Ella Baker was the first national director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She came up in the black church, inspired by her mother, Georgiana Ross Baker, and in the church community that she found as a girl, was an activist woman centered faith. It was a belief that people could, could and should organize in the church to make the world a better place, and that women were natural leaders to do that work. Baker became an educator and an organizer. She worked with the Works Progress Administration during the Depression. She worked in black communities, especially in Harlem, to promote co-ops and economic resiliency. Then in the 1940s, she traveled all over the South to organize chapters of the NAACP. She believed that the leader’s job was to promote democracy, even though that can be risky for the leader, because if you promote people voting their conscience and contributing their opinions, then those opinions, and that conscience, might sometimes disagree with the leader. Baker saw the leaders’ job was to embrace humility, and a spirit of collectivism. One biographer writes “her view was that you have to love the people around you, and those struggling right next to you as much as the anonymous and amorphous mass of humanity.” Baker was concerned about others, not as faceless victims, but as members of her extended family. Septima Poinsett Clark was a leader in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, she worked on literacy, voter rights, women's rights, and civil rights. Early in her career, she taught adults in rural America to read, write and register to vote. Her biographer writes, “she possessed a special ability to recognize natural leaders among four uneducated farmers, midwives and draymen, and the grandfathers, who had nurtured and educated their children and grandchildren, by working as washerwomen and domestics”. Septima Clark started her career as a schoolteacher, working in impoverished communities in the rural south. She organized in Charleston, South Carolina to hire the first black public-school teachers there. And later as a teacher in Columbia, South Carolina, she worked for equal pay for white and black teachers, organizing with the NAACP and the YWCA. Her struggles to organize poor and middle-class African Americans together, led Clark to return to the agricultural work she had begun, by teaching, she founded citizenship schools to allow people to vote and to teach literacy. The initial purpose of the schools was to enable black citizens to meet the literacy requirements for voting in South Carolina. But their overall goal was education and empowerment of the black community. She's found that adults needed to learn to read from their own experience, not from books that she brought in for them, especially beginning readers books, which were aimed at children. But the words and writing that they needed for their own lives, seed catalogs, bank checks, grocery lists, newspaper advertisements. Clark did not see leadership as belonging to people with a college education or members of the middle class. She said, “I have a great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking, I consider chaos a gift.” Like Baker, she was another leader who saw the leadership potential of the people. Even though that means the leader has to be open to where the direction of the organization is going. Now, voluntary organizations are not all good in the world. People can organize to do anything whether it's good or bad. One thing to remember about a voluntary organization is that they must be free for people to join and people to leave. If there's punishment for leaving the group, then it's not voluntary. But I want to think too about the piece about joining, because a group can become too narrow if it limits who can join. A narrow group will pursue narrow interests. Sometimes that's beneficial, like that black church that Ella Baker grew up in, like historically black colleges and universities, like spaces where queer and trans people can organize, like spaces that are for women to gather together.

People who are oppressed by a larger society sometimes need space, where they can work out their own needs and feelings with each other. The danger comes when a group assumes that its narrow membership represents everybody. I heard an explanation, not an excuse, but an explanation, for the thinking of the people who believe incorrectly, and against the evidence, that the presidential election was stolen. And this explanation was, no one they knew voted for Joe Biden. And that might be true. A community that’s solidly republican, participating in online communities that are also republican spaces, not knowing the people in your town who have different political views than you. It's quite possible that on either side of the aisle, that someone who voted for the Republican ticket only knows other Republicans, that someone who voted for the Democratic ticket only knows other Democrats. And it's when we assume that that group represents everybody. That something must have gone wrong with the voting because everybody must have voted the way I and my community voted. That we lose sight of the truth, and the larger reality, that's beyond us. And in the case of the presidential election and its aftermath, instead of opening themselves up to the truth, groups exploited that narrowness of thinking to promote a lie, and support and attack on the capital. Our organizations must be free to join and to have a truly open organization that loves the truth. We need to always be looking for the next person who needs to be at the table. One civil rights organizer in the 1950s said, “if everybody in the meeting agrees, then there aren't enough people in the meeting.” Where's that voice who has a different point of view? How can we bring them in?

People are beginning to get the Coronavirus vaccine. It gives me so much hope for our ability to re- gather in our organizations, for these pews here at church to be filled up again with people. The world will begin to reopen, we will begin to re-engage in our communities, and we need to have this question in our minds. How can we open ourselves to new points of view and new experiences? Who needs to be part of our organization? What point of view do we not have present with us today? There's a lot of talk about the new normal that we're going into. With more openness and points of view, the new normal can be an opportunity to create justice and peace. We have all had a hard year COVID, we are weary, we miss our in-person associations, from family, to friends, to church, even being part of the crowd at the baseball game. Online substitutes are second best, yet this forced isolation is temporary. And all the ways we stay connected now will matter when we can be together again. Even now, the wise words are true. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

I love you all. Amen.