Staying At The Table

January 14, 2007
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

A few weeks ago, our very small Unitarian Universalist family was shaken by the death of the Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley who was an admired colleague to me and an inspiration to many of us. Marjorie had a cancer that progressed very quickly: I saw her husband Clyde Grubbs at General Assembly and at that time, all I knew is that she was in the hospital getting her gall bladder removed. We all thought she would make a rapid recovery, but then there was a cancer diagnosis, and all too soon she was gone.

Marjorie made incredible contributions to Unitarian Universalism, and beyond. This is from her obituary:

Marjorie was a founding member of the African American Unitarian Universalist Ministry (AAUUM); board member of the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation (1991-93); and a member of the UUA Commission on Appraisal (1993-1999 and chair, 1996-1998). She served as co-editor, with Nancy Palmer Jones, of Soul Work: Antiracist Theologies in Dialogue (Skinner House Books, 2002); wrote the Adult Study and Process Guide to "Belonging: The Meaning of Membership" (UUA Commission on Appraisal report, 2001); co-authored "Interdependence: Renewing Congregational Polity" (UUA Commission on Appraisal report, 1997); and was a contributing author for Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, an anti-bias curriculum for adults, (UUA, 1996). She wrote "A Case for an Actual Racism 101," (Christian Science Monitor, 1988), and numerous articles in periodicals, including UU World, First Days Record, Inward Springs, the LREDA Journal, The UU Women's Federation Communicator, and others. She served congregations in New York, Texas, and Florida . She had been called to the First UU Church of San Diego when her cancer struck.

I knew Marjorie through her through our involvement in the UU Christian Fellowship. I am proud that we both have essays in the book Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, published this past spring by Skinner House.

Today I want to lift up one of the most powerful things about Marjorie, the thing that I can' t get out of my mind when I think of her. Marjorie stood in her truth, and she did it with a really powerful grace that was about the integrity of her convictions and not about whether or not you liked her. Watching her, it often occurred to me that we would make much greater strides toward moral evolution in this country and in the world if we worried less about being liked and more about being honest.

Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley was warm and loving, and fierce. She made my soul sit up straighter.

Let me tell you a story about Marjorie that illustrates how she could stand in a place of honesty and truth particularly in regards to her anti-racism work. I wasn' t there when this happened, but I heard about it from Martha Niebank, a UU minister, in a sermon Martha wrote called "Breaking The Rules."

Here' s what happened.

A few years ago, Martha and Marjorie were both scheduled to be at Star Island on the same summer week (Star Island, as you may know, is a UU retreat center on a tiny island off the coast of New Hampshire). Martha was there to lead a singing group, something new to her that she was both excited and scared to do. One of the songs she most wanted to teach the group was by Sweet Honey In the Rock, an African-American woman' s ensemble whose music is very soulful, very roots, very focused on faith and justice. The song Martha wanted to teach is called "I Remember, I Believe." Its lyrics say, in part,

I don't know how my mother walked her trouble down.
I don't know how my father stood his ground.
I don't know how my people survived slavery.
I do remember; that's why I believe. …

I don't know why the angel woke me up this morning.
I don't know why the blood still runs through my veins.
I don't know how I race to run another day.
I am here still running, I believe.

Marjorie was the theme speaker that week, and at the time she was the affiliate minister at the Community Church in New York. Martha says in her sermon that "Marjorie spoke each morning about the challenges of making our communities diverse. She spoke about the need for African Americans to define and control their own culture rather than to simply disappear into the white-western culture. "

Martha heard all this. She really took it in. And she started to feel a little bit uneasy about the all-white singing ensemble doing this song about surviving slavery. She realized that there might be some cultural appropriation going on, as so often happens among well-meaning UUs. So one night over dinner Martha asked Marjorie about it. And Marjorie said she had studied with Sweet Honey In The Rock and that maybe she would join them on the song if she had time. Martha thought, Great. Marjorie will show us how it' s done. She' ll give it soul. Let me have Martha tell you herself what happened next, in her own words,

I got a group together, men and women, and we practiced, and we decided we were good enough to be in the musicale. Marjorie wasn' t able to join us until our very last rehearsal. She slowly walked into the room and asked a question. "How do you understand yourselves to be singing these words?"

[Remember, some of those words were,
I don't know how my mother walked her trouble down.
I don't know how my father stood his ground.
I don't know how my people survived slavery.
I do remember; that's why I believe. …]

I swallowed hard, feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable and spoke about the theology of remembering and believing. I looked her in the eye and said, " I believe that I can, by singing this song, learn in my body the kind of courage and faith of the African Americans who have survived slavery."

When I said those words I thought of myself as honoring those people and their courage.
Marjorie didn' t overtly respond with approval or disapproval but instead asked each person for their understanding. One man walked out of the room without a word, and the others began to talk all at once, defensiveness in their tone. I heard my own defensiveness in my voice that sounded aggressive and pointed and realized that we were being forced to have a real conversation about something uncomfortable. Until Marjorie had the courage to break the rule of silence, we had practiced good manners and kept quiet about our understanding of how a group of Euro-Americans could sing this song with any authority of their own experience. ("Breaking the Rules, Martha Niebank, 1997)

In this morning' s reading by Dr. King, he says "A time comes when silence is betrayal." This moment at Star Island was just such a time. Maybe some people went away thinking, "Boy, I don' t like that woman." Marjorie knew this. But she also apparently knew, as Dr. King said, "that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak."

Let me share this observation with you: when it comes to issues of racism and privilege in our country, I have found that it is often well-meaning, highly educated and experienced white people who feel they should speak, and that others should listen. I have experienced this many times in Unitarian Universalist circles – even once when participating in anti-racism training in Maryland, when white participants felt that it was their place to constantly interrupt the facilitators (people of color) in order to explain themselves, to ask the facilitators to try to understand them, to share their experience as white Americans of this or that ethnic background to emphasize how deeply they relate to the suffering and oppression of people of color because of their own personal oppression or suffering. I have been at the table when white liberals have sat there and insisted, from their privileged position, that they don' t have any privilege or power.

What Dr. King forgot to say was that sometimes it' s important that some people keep silence while others speak.

Marjorie asked, "How do you understand yourselves to be singing these words?"
In the spirit of that question, I ask us all today:

How do we understand ourselves to be living in a nation where racial segregation is still the rule rather than the exception, where wealth and political power is still concentrated almost entirely in the hands of white European-Americans, and where we give ourselves permission on one day a year – MLK Day – (and perhaps during "Black History Month" in February) – to confront the problem, the great evil of racism and our role in strengthening and perpetuating it, whether conscious or unconscious, complicit or explicit?

How do we understand ourselves?
How do we understand?

There is a wealth of resources from our own denominational headquarters on doing anti-racism work, intentional diversity building, and societal transformation around issues of cultural and racial difference. I know that we live in a very un-diverse part of the greater Boston area. I know that there is little chance that our congregation itself will ever become racially and cultural very diverse. Does that mean that we are done with the work itself?
That is a sincere question.

Marjorie said this during a keynote lecture to the convocation of UU ministers in 2002:

"In most of our congregations that I have been a part of or worked with, structures that create and sustain whiteness are normative. There is presumption from some clergy and some laity that these cannons of music, and literature, and art, and language, and social discourse, rooted in the European experience, are normative. Euro-centrism is seen as logical and rational, and those who express a need for a spirited form of worship or those who use a different language set are somehow made to feel less educated, less than worthy. These presumptions make it extremely difficult for culturally oppressed groups to find a place in our congregations. Speaking personally, while I enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of cultural traditions, when I cannot find myself in a worshipping community, it drains the life of the spirit out of me, and I must go elsewhere to nurture my soul." ("Nurturing Our Faith: Not By Ourselves Alone" Birmingham, Alabama)

Not easy to hear. But we stay at the table. We listen in discomfort. We do not try to make experiences our own that do not belong to us. We listen. We consider the discomfort. We consider what we might be called to do with it, how we might be willing to be transformed. Otherwise the discomfort is of no value, and the courage of one who dares to speak is spent in vain.

I give thanks this morning for the life of Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. She once hugged me and called me sister. That is a blessing and a commission I hope to live into. I give thanks for her life lived in courage, for her strength, her humor, her generosity in her ability to stand in her truth. It has been a privilege to be at the table with her.