January 15, 2024
Dear Members and Friends,
In 1915, a bright, young black student was denied entrance to the all-white seminary at Oberlin. The denial letter simply stated he didn’t have the proper credits. So this young man traveled to Oberlin to talk with the head of admissions. When the Head of Admissions re-stated the reason, the young man said, “Do you want students with credits or students with brains?” The head of admissions took down a book from his shelf written in German and handed it to the student to read. He did and was sent to the dean, the imminent Dean Bosworth. After a second similar repartee, he was handed a book in Greek. This student knew Greek even better than German, and this young man was offered provisional admission. Upon graduation, he was selected to give the student oration and it wouldn’t be long before he was the first African American to have a sermon included in The Best Sermons of the Year. His name was Vernon Johns.
The life work of Rev. Vernon Johns was to seek a more just society by resisting the forces that prevent so many people of color from living fully engaged lives. He called for change when few people could imagine it. He served in Lynchburg Virginia and then Montgomery Alabama. There in Alabama, he would post the title of his sermons. It was 1940, and one sermon title read, “Is it OK to Lynch Negroes in Alabama?” Another sermon title was, “Is Heaven Segregated?”
Rev. Johns made a lot of people uncomfortable. Every week, his sermon included a statement how God did not intend for people to live in segregation. The local police would often drive around the church wondering what new edgy things he would say. On one occasion, the police brought Rev. Johns to the police station and demanded what he’d be saying in the upcoming sermon. He responded, “Come to church and I’ll tell you, first after taking an offering.”
Some people Rev. Johns made uncomfortable weren’t only outside the church. His own deacons after several years proclaimed to their pastor: “You’re too controversial.” And they let him go. As they looked for his replacement, they sought a minister who would be scholarly, reverent, not very controversial, someone they could control. They found a young minister who had just completed his PhD and grew up a preacher’s kid. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.
On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, may you take some time for reflection on the relationship of your contemplative life and your engagement with your wider community. I take the opportunity to share more than I typically do in a letter to you, for this is a day to reflect on “What does the world require of us? What does love require of us?”
If King was alive today, he would still be preaching non-violence. And if asked what does the world require of us, his answer would surely echo the Hebrew Scripture prophet Micah: “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” King found sustenance in the faces of people who he got to know their story. He found sustenance in the love and courage displayed by ordinary people, often with little means, who showed up for what they believed was right. And found sustenance in music. His favorite song was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” It was written by a minister, Thomas Dorsey a week after his wife and infant son died. In his grief, he vowed he would never write another gospel song, but then a week later a peace enveloped him and out came a piece of music that would inspire millions. King was a deeply faithful man. like Gandhi. He had his flaws. But his vision and courage leave us a legacy to ask the question:
What does the world require of us? What does love require of us? It requires that we do justice, that we actively participate in the processes that bring about change for the common good. It requires that we love kindness, that we act with compassion towards those we encounter who are hurting. And lastly, the world requires us to walk humbly with our God. Now, some of us understand God in a personal sense, though you don’t need to believe in a personal god to walk humbly. Some see God as the aggregate of all creative events and insights. Others see God as the source of their love, however that has come to be. What matters is that we walk humbly, and by humbly I don’t mean being a doormat, for Martin Luther King was anything but a doormat. For King walking humbly meant pledging to do ten things, just as all members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were expected to pledge. And these ten things are:
- MEDITATE daily on teachings that affirm life.
- REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement anywhere seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
- WALK and TALK in the manner of love, for God is love.
- PRAY daily to be used by God [Love] in order that all people might be free.
- SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all people might be free.
- OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- REFRAIN from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.
- STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the captain of a demonstration.
I urge you to consider these in your own life.
King was particularly inspired by the concept of Satyagraha where, in Sanskrit, satya means “truth” or “love” and agraha means “force.” This concept of Satyagraha — truth-force or love-force – completely changed King’s perspective. Prior to reading Gandhi, King had just about concluded that the ethics of Jesus were only effective in individual relationships. “The ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy and the ‘love your enemies’ philosophy were only valid, I felt, when individuals were in conflict with other individuals,” he writes. “When racial groups and nations were in conflict, a more realistic approach seemed necessary.”
“But after reading Gandhi,” King continues, “I saw how utterly mistaken I was. Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.”
Satyagraha — truthful, forceful, radical love — for Gandhi, was a potent instrument for social and collective transformation. King embraced this philosophy and used it in his landmark civil rights work.
I will in time explore further the evolution of King’s commitment to nonviolent resistance and more about Gandhi, but here I want to focus on the basic invitation that exists for each and every one of us. No matter how destructive to a society is the breach between wealth and poverty, no matter how horrifically people treat one another in opposing political regimes around the world, no matter how challenging life becomes for us, there always exists an invitation to individual and collective transformation, a call to radical love.
King wrote, “Nonviolent resistance avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love. The nonviolent resister would contend that in the struggle for human dignity, the oppressed people of the world must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns. To retaliate in kind would do nothing but intensify the existence of hate in the universe. Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”
For each of us, this call looks different and it changes over time. For some, this call is about caring for an ailing relative or friend; for others, it is becoming a mentor to economically challenged children; for others, it is providing legal aid to the incarcerated or indigent, or creating paths to resettle refugee families. The list goes on and on. There are many opportunities of service that are worthy of us and our commitments, and radical love in our individual lives leads us to give of ourselves for the sake of others in ever more meaningful ways. For some of us, the call is to address the broader systems of power that keep individuals chained to their limited beliefs and passive behavior. The call is to take action against the source of the wrongs that exist in our society.
This congregation has a committed Social Justice Council that provides opportunities for members to participate in both charity and justice work. The co-chairs, Sudha Sankar and Anita Pfluger, asked me to write a statement regarding social justice engagement in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I share it below with a short reading from Martin Luther King, Jr., and a longer reading from Coretta Scott King.
Peace and Love,
Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
For my husband, Martin Luther King, Jr. prayer was a daily source of courage and strength that gave him the ability to carry on in even the darkest hours of our struggle. I remember one very difficult day when he came home bone-weary from the stress that came with his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In the middle of that night, he was awakened by a threatening and abusive phone call, one of many we received throughout the movement. On this particular occasion, however, Martin had had enough.
After the call, he got up from bed and made himself some coffee. He began to worry about his family, and all of the burdens that came with our movement weighed heavily on his soul. With his head in his hands, Martin bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud to God: “Lord, I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
Later he told me, “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced before. It seemed as though I could hear a voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth; and God will be at our side forever.'” When Martin stood up from the table, he was imbued with a new sense of confidence, and he was ready to face anything.
I believe that this prayer was a critical turning point for the African-American freedom struggle, because from that point forward, we had a leader who was divinely inspired and could not be turned back by threats or any form of violence. This kind of courage and conviction is truly contagious, and I know his example inspired me to carry on through the difficult days of my journey.
“Social Justice Engagement at UU Westport” by Rev. Alan Taylor
“Justice is the ongoing, never-ending journey to remake community by strengthening relationships.” — Marvin Ellison
As Unitarian Universalists, our faith’s core values call upon us to stand in the gap between the world as it is and the world that can be, should be, must be. We are not merely observers of a wide world, we are participants. When we experience, learn about or bear witness to suffering, especially that caused by human neglect or systemic oppression, we naturally want to address it. We cannot be whole human beings without finding ways to move with others to call the wider society into alignment with the deeply cherished value of “Justice, Equity, and Compassion in all human relations.”
Our experience of injustice vary depending on our social identities and daily experiences. For those of us with privilege, the challenge is to become and stay aware of how this privilege operates in our lives and institutions. For those of us with non-dominant identities, our work includes finding ways to sustain ourselves in the face of oppression.
By responding to the stirrings of compassion and conscience within and among us, it is an integral part of our faith to be engaged in social action and social justice, both helping others through and organizing to change laws and culture. Through this work, we as individuals are changed, and we hold faith in the possibility of social transformation.
A rich part of our faith is in the human capacity to respond to the injustice in our midst so that we can contribute to what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called the Beloved Community. The Beloved Community is a society where all people have the opportunity to thrive and cultivate meaningful lives.
Would you agree that the central human task is to learn to love and to love courageously? This kind of love fosters growth and wholeness, that heals disconnection, and guides us, indeed compels us, to collectively attend brokenness in the world. It’s the kind of love that calls us to bring our actions in accord with our most deeply held values. This kind of love urges us to make connections for meaningful change.
Join us in helping to build a sustainable world, to support human rights, and to protect the most vulnerable among us. When Unitarian Universalists live into the sacred work of engaging social action, we unleash courageous love. We aim for the horizon of significant culture change and find gratitude in the journey of touching one heart at a time.