What You Cannot Be If You Want to Be a UU

Every community has something that everyone must be or do, and something that no one is allowed to do or be. During our Jazz Sunday Stewardship service, the minister emphasized the importance of cultural transformation and solving public problems. It was an excellent sermon, well done throughout. All the words and images welcomed all kinds of diversities. The funniest was an aside just before the Silent Meditation, when the minister confirmed that we had some stray music seeping in through the sound system. It continued, leading her to remark, “Well, Mercury is retrograde this week…”

Her casual acknowledgement of astrology — which used to be so derided in certain circles — jogged my mind about what is the one thing you cannot be in this religion right now. The answer came up pretty fast:

Apolitical.

If you spend your weekend on skiing, phoning friends, reading Proust (who was actually more political than people realize), enjoying the Beatles reunion by calling all your friends from 1964 — and don’t look at the newspaper, much less keep reading through the third page of the cover story of the New York Times and the entire Week in Review — you’re not gonna find anything among us.

And here’s how it might have been different:

Like I said, it was Jazz Sunday. We don’t have any significant African American presence, and yes, we are whiter than our town, even in Vermont. And as we were trooping around the aisle to turn in our pledge cards, the music came to a dead stop. The silence hung in the air, better than during the Meditation. 

I remarked to my friend — who also came up from Washington, DC — “This would never happen in the Black Church.” 

People who heard my remark broke into unrestrained laughter. My friend told me to put it on Facebook.

The jazz resumed. And I thought to myself, “Suppose in the Black Power controversy, we had challenged ourselves to welcome  African American musicians to lead a certain number of our services? Not preachers, necessarily, not activists, just really good pianists, guitarists, drummers, singers, trumpeters… the lot.”

And this thought made me sad. Because here are a large number of us (thank you, folks, by the way: I would have gone, in honor of my late grandfather and grandmother, if it had been possible) are down in the South fighting the same old fight. There’s a mixed-race African-American President, a mixed-race family in the Cheerios ads, but in our denomination, none of this seems to ever have happened. 

I’m reading Bob West’s memoir of his presidency among us, and the Black Power controversy seems so familiar. Forget that tonight you can see The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, you can see relatively powerless white liberals descending on the South to help the even more powerless African Americans and Poor Whites struggle to retain the right to vote. 

But what if we had addressed integration without politics? What if we had just said, “We’d like to celebrate these cultural gifts, these hard-working people of talent, by having them reset our hymns?”

And you know what, maybe this time around, that ought to be what we try. Because whatever that was the last time, in some ways it worked, but in other ways, it definitely didn’t.

But, like I said, if I’d been able to go to Raleigh, I probably would have.

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