Today a reporter asked me what I, and the congregation I serve, had been doing in light of the Trayvon Martin case unfolding in Sanford, just 30 minutes from our door. The question made me think it would be a good time to take stock and to make sure that others in the congregation know what has been going on.
I spoke about the situation from the pulpit for the first time on March 18. At the end of a sermon, I addressed the case as an example of the dangers of unmanaged anxiety. The following Sunday (3/25), I was out-of-town for a conference. The lay leader leading the service further addressed the challenges this case brings to us. Both sermons can be heard on the audio archive of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando (1U). A blog post summarizing my sermon is here.
The conference I was at was the Annual Assembly of the Florida District of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in Jacksonville, FL. The theme for our time together was “Crossing Borders,” which had a strong immigration theme, and provoked much thinking and conversation about diversity and its challenges. The apparent profiling of Trayvon weighed heavily on us. One colleague spoke to us powerfully of the racial profiling that had been experienced in her family. We wrote a statement from the ministers that you can read here. Our colleagues from another District would later use that statement as a template for their own. The broader Florida Assembly created a similar statement to be signed by both laity and clergy.
Meanwhile, some members of 1U went to attend a rally in Sanford (3/22). There they met up with Unitarian Universalists (UU) from other congregations for a total of 17 UUs that we know of. Most of them were wearing the bright yellow t-shirts of the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign. The next day, I received an email from a UU in Oklahoma who had seen one of the congregation’s signs in the background during a news segment. He was thanking the congregation for being a presence.
The following Monday (3/26), two of my UU colleagues and I answered a clergy call to come to Sanford. I was pleased to see the Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida (ICCF) there that evening along with several other leaders I have met around town. We gathered with many other clergy (black and white, though clearly more black) and together prayed before leading the half mile march to the convention center, where Trayvon’s parents spoke before the Sanford City Commission. Before I had to leave, I also saw the Revs. Al Sharpton, Jamal Bryant, and Jesse Jackson speak. One of my UU colleagues interviewed at the march was quoted at the end of an article in the Huffington Post about the role of white clergy.
On Tuesday (3/27), the Orlando Sentinel published a “My Word” column (longer than a letter to the editor) that I had submitted. I was helped in its creation by an interfaith colleague. The next day, both I and the main office received long angry phone messages.
The following Saturday (3/31) another contingent from 1U, about 10 people, attended a rally in Sanford. I understand they again encountered other UUs during the experience. The bright yellow shirts help, of course, but being a white minority may also have been part of finding each other as well.
As I have been in meetings with various clergy groups around town, we check in on this issue. Now that I have been in town a year and a half, I have made some connections, but realize how many more there are to make – how much more I still need to learn about my new community.
Throughout, I have been hearing from members and friends of the congregation, as well as UU and interfaith colleagues, about their experiences.
Where am I in my thinking at this point?
I understand that Trayvon Martin is, in many ways, a symbol for all the young black men who have been and continue to be profiled. Similarly, I believe that George Zimmerman is being made into “an example.” For that reason, I find I have compassion for him. While I believe he must be held accountable for the consequences of his decisions and actions, particularly the choice to carry a gun, I also realize that he stands as a symbol of the many injustices done daily in a society that has not yet fully addressed its issues with race.
I want all my friends and neighbors, all my sisters and brothers, to experience equality under the law. We are at best naïve, and I think more accurately irresponsible, if we think that there is no work left for us to do in order to ensure full equality for our citizens of color.
White clergy must speak on this issue so that, rather than being an issue of racial division, it is one of racial unity and racial justice.
We need to learn. We need to realize that one does not have to be a raging racist to have stereotypes and prejudices that can lead to harm. Nearly all of us can do better. We can serve Trayvon’s memory best by committing ourselves to do so.
I want justice to be served in this case, but if that is all that happens, we will have missed an important opportunity. With courage, we can make a difference in our society, in the future of other young black men, and in fact, in the future of us all.
May we be that courageous!