Sermon by UCM Young Adults, 26 April 2015
I've got a confession to make. I like definitions. I like words that have precise meanings; not to mention singular spellings and proper grammatical uses. I'm making this confession in the hopes that you'll understand some of the things I wrestled with in reflecting on an Awake & Aware future. Many of the concepts that are part of our modern discourse defy simple definitions: like privilege, and appropriation; but more than that, to me, loving language means being aware of the the way that language can be harmful. It means committing to make sure that language is a step towards equality, not to a barrier to it, and not a hammer to crush it.
I was reminded at our UCM Passover Seder a few weeks ago of the wonderfully expressive word “dayenu” - it would have been enough. In the context of the Passover Seder, the story of Moses & the Jews' liberation from slavery in Egypt, it celebrates each step towards liberation as if it were the whole victory, and that victory inspires: to take the next step, and the next. Today as well as talking about the distance still to walk on the path towards an Awake & Aware world. I also want to celebrate the victories that we have already gained.
My dogged addiction to precise language is one of those things that occasionally makes me feel very old. I abhor chat speak, I am definitely with Ivan Coyote against the H-U-G-Z intentional misspelling, and though I do go in for an emoticon or two, I've more or less given up on Twitter because it's difficult to fit proper punctuation into 144 characters.
Now, I know, I know, this is supposed to be the “young adult” service, I'm not supposed to be standing up here talking about how old I feel. Especially since half of the time I don't feel like I'm a grown up at all. But I have to admit it's a strange thing that when I wear my UU hat I'm the same generation as Chloe here, but when I'm wearing my step mom hat, my step daughter is older than she is. It's a strange thing, but it's a wonderful thing. It's wonderful, because the first thing I want to celebrate today is that in our Awake & Aware world, we are rewriting the definition of the word family.
Many of my friends and contemporaries make the distinction between their family of origin and their family of choice. Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up with a nurturing family, and even more rare is the nurturing family in which generations follow distinct age lines, never get divorced, remarried, or have children “out of wedlock”, and generally live in nuclear bliss forever.
We recognize that family is key to our growth as human beings, that the support and love of others is essential if we want to become our best selves. Sometimes that love and support comes from people with whom we share a bond of lineage, and sometimes it's from people with whom we share a bond of love.
In 1998, our congregation joined the Unitarian Universalist Association Welcoming Congregation program, proudly proclaiming that we were a place where gay and lesbian, bisexual, transgrender, and queer people would be embraced for their whole selves. This was before gay marriage was legal in Canada, and UUs have a consistently stood with the queer community in defence of our rights to create family. But families in my generation are different still: some of them have not one or two adults, but maybe three, or four, or more. Families who share space, or who don't. As writer & performer S. Bear Bergman puts it: a constellation of intimates. And children loved by a whole community of supportive, encouraging adults, who are rewriting that most grave of maxims: you can pick your friends, you can pick your nose, and it turns out, you can pick your family.
My generation is also proving that you can choose how you want to express your gender, the body you want to live in, which pronouns people use with you, and you can choose to take a stand and support the people whom you love to live as their most authentic selves.
At the beginning of our service, Chloe asked you what it would take to make our congregation a safe space, and I have some bad news: as long as Unitarian Universalism continues to live out its principles, we won't be. So long as we are committed to taking all comers, to truly loving our neighbours as ourselves, we can never guarantee that our churches are places where people will never hear a slip into the hurtful language of the past. We can never keep everyone safe from microaggressions at every moment.
What we can definitely do is make ours a safeR space. We can make it a place where we can tell one another with love when we have made a mistake. A place to own up to it when we take the easy road when the harder choice is what our spirit truly longs for. We can commit to making the place around ourselves safe space. To diligently take stock of our own words, our own actions. To listen to the people who do not hold the privilege among us. To take not for granted a privileged place.
There is one of those words I knew I would have to confront in speaking with you today. Privilege. Such an ordinary English word, which has within our generation been brought into its own. A word that can now be used a weapon. But yet a word that speaks of a kind of social violence which has already been wielded.
The best I can explain it is this: everyone is carrying a backpack of social baggage. The lighter yours is, the more privileged you are. The less weight you're carrying, the more free you are to move around in society.
Let's break down that social baggage a little: are you visibly a person of colour? There's 10lbs of potatoes in your backpack. Grow up female? Here's your 5lbs of carrots. Grow up in poverty? There's 5lbs of onions. Have mental health issues? Another 3lbs of apples. Questioning your gender or sexuality too? Sorry, you actually have the 8lb bag of apples.
All of a sudden, what started out looking like a convivial hike with a whole bunch of people wearing backpacks is now looking a lot more like a race between people carrying a few mangoes and people carrying enough soup ingredients to put on a fundraising dinner. Can you imagine just walking with all of that weighing you down? Let alone dancing?
I had trouble writing this reflection, not only because it deals with a subject which I am jokingly uncomfortable with, but because it made me wonder how my presence here might be an action of “taking a privileged place”.
I've stood up here before you on Sunday mornings several times this year, and I hope that I have shared with you something worthwhile. But being up here is something which is very easy for me to do: I have the privilege of a lot of education, and my value as a speaker and writer has been reinforced by my family, friends, and colleagues.
My family has struggled with poverty in the last year, but I have still been able to take time to give back to this congregation: this certainly is privilege as well. I have struggled with my own mental health challenges throughout my adult life, and certainly the discouraging voice in the back of my head is very keen to remind me of the missteps I have made dealing with friends who have minority identities. But that I have access to mental health care when and if I need it is one of my greatest privileges indeed.
Even the fact that we are all free to attend church on a Sunday speaks to a privilege that we maybe don't want to be reminded of. Many of the students and the working poor I know are at work at poorly paying service jobs this morning. Now, I'm not suggesting that we wipe Sunday morning church from the record in response, just that we continue to grow into our understanding that each of our choices has a repercussion.
I used to think that people were supposed to have Serious Life Goals, and that's one of the things I am so glad that my generation is rewriting. Gone are the convictions that the recipe for happiness is material successes like a direct career to a high salary and solid investments, markers of social status like tropical vacations and home ownership, and proscribed social relationships like monogamous marriage and parenthood.
It took me a while to realize it, but really, at the end of the day, what I want for myself, what I have always wanted, is to increase the amount of love in the world. That's my goal. Sure there are lots of things I want to accomplish, lots of things I want to do with passion and commitment, but my goal is make the world a place with more love and less hatred, fear, and hurt.
I hope that today we have given you a window into how we might do that some day. Hearing the stories of others is the first step to becoming their advocates. Listening to AND BELIEVING people of colour when they say that something is racist – listening to AND BELIEVING women when they say that something is misogynistic, that is our next step. Until we can stop being defensive about our own privilege, we cannot create a world with more love in it for marginalized people.
What I have not had the time to engage with in this reflection, and which I hope we can carry into our coffee hour and conversations about what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, is how we can wrestle with appropriation within the context of the Sources of our Tradition. Our commitment to an open canon may make us unprepared to recognize when we are appropriating the spirituality of marginalized people, instead of inviting them to be whole sharers in our communal spiritual life.
Until we are willing to recognize how our privilege guides our words and our language, and how our words and our language can be harmful or supportive, we are not living up to our part in the interdependent web of existence. We are not welcoming everyone into the dance.
So with that in mind, I am going to state for you, grammar purist that I am, my 100% wholehearted support for Ivan Coyote's right, and the right of others, to make an appropriate and logical alteration to the English language and introduce through widespread usage the neuter-singular "they".
Not that they needed my permission, or anything.
Download the texts from the April 26 sermon