Love, Justice and Radical Inclusion (Audio Available)

Reflection by Rev. Diane Rollert, 5 February 2017


Part I:  Every week we say in our words of welcome that we are striving to be radically inclusive.  But what does “radically inclusive” really mean? What are we really striving to do and how are we succeeding?

This is a question that our staff has been wrestling with lately. How do we live this out in our work? I asked our director of religious explorations, Katharine Childs, if she would write something for our newsletter. That led to a written conversation between Katharine and Yvette Salinas, our RE assistant. I’ve asked their permission to share some of their words. I’ve also invited them to lead a service on a Sunday when they can be the ones to talk, and I can be the one to listen.

Katharine writes, “It’s easy to be inclusive of people who are a lot like ourselves…  people who probably feel more or less at home in our society and our world. Because when our similarities are clear, it is not a big leap to see through our differences and recognize our common humanity.”

But, she says, “radical inclusion asks more of us than that.”  It asks us to welcome into our circle people “who face structural or systemic barriers to inclusion in the world at large. Radical inclusion demands that we [as a community] set ourselves apart by our willingness to break down those barriers and to love, support, and welcome those people who do not feel at home anywhere else.”

Katharine writes, “…to openly and purposefully stand with marginalized people is still a radical act: it is choosing, bravely, to stand apart from our society as a whole, to demand that marginalization be addressed, and to publicly stand as an imperfect example of how that can be done.”

Katharine asks, “What would it mean to be truly, fully, in community with a child who cannot communicate verbally, or a senior struggling with dementia, or a person living alone in debilitating poverty?  How might we be different if we were more willing to ask ‘what do you need to feel welcome here?’?”

Yvette responds that, for her, radical inclusion is “being inclusive when it would be much easier to not be; when it's much more comfortable to continue the status quo, either because it forces us to confront our feelings... or because it requires us to use time and money in ways we had not originally planned.” 

Yvette envisions a congregation that is willing to welcome children into spaces like the Sanctuary that are normally adults-only, even if their wriggling and talking can be distracting. Where we explain how things work so that newcomers can get involved. Where we reach out to marginalized groups when we’re posting a new job. Where we all shovel snow and put down gravel, even if it’s not your job! Where we choose music and other celebratory elements from other cultures to support musicians by paying them and expose our congregation to things we don’t usually see or hear. Where we let people from marginalized groups speak honestly about their experiences and we listen, without interrupting.

Yvette writes that we need to remember that 30% of Montreal’s population are visible minorities; that across the continent, Unitarian Universalism is still a religious movement that is 95% white. Radical inclusion means being inclusive of people of different cultural, ethnic and racial identities.

For both Katharine and Yvette, this question of radical inclusion is very personal. It’s personal for me too. I know how imperfect I am and how imperfect we are. Love and justice demand so much of us. If we say it, will we actually do it?

Unitarian Universalism is a place that has given many of us a voice. But it’s ironic how you can search for so long, and then once you finally find a community that you can call home, you become part of the inner circle. Without even realizing it, you can shut others out. That’s why we have to keep reminding each other that we are still striving, always striving, to be radically inclusive.

Please join me in singing. When Our Heart is in a Holy Place (by Joyce Poley).

When our heart is in a holy place, 
When our heart is in a holy place.
We are bless’d with love and amazing grace, 
When our heart is in a holy place.

When we tell our story from deep inside, 
And we listen with a loving mind, 
And we see hear our voices in each other’s words,
Then our heart is in a holy place.

Part II: Snowflakes. That’s the new term that the Alt-Right uses to describe people like me: liberals; progressives; the majority of university students on campuses across the continent; people who support the rights of the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock in North Dakota; people who stand up for the rights of Muslims and Mexican immigrants; people who say Black Lives Matter; who hold hands and sing songs like When Our Heart is in a Holy Place; people who argue for radical inclusion, who say that we are each precious and unique, that we each have inherent worth and dignity.

In the 19th century, “Unitarian” was a term that was used as an epithet against our ancestors. It was an insult until William Ellery Channing preached his famous sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Philadelphia in 1819. He drew a line in the sand and said, “This is where we’ll stand. We’ll proudly take on the name Unitarian and call it our own.” 

Snowflake. Each one miraculously different from all the others. It’s a beautiful word, a beautiful image. I willingly accept the label. I am a snowflake.

Back in October or November, I heard an interview with a professor from one of Canada’s universities who complained that political correctness had taken things too far. He refused to acknowledge one of his students’ pronoun choices. He argued that if you let the pendulum swing too far in this radical direction, you’ll experience a terrible backlash. Months later, there are those who say that political correctness lost the US election and put Donald Trump in the White House. We’re being told that we need to tone down the politics of identity and become more sensitive to those who are feeling overwhelmed by cultural changes that are coming too fast.

My first reaction is to say that I just don’t buy that argument. There were so many other factors at play, a long list that’s too painful to hash through right now. What I see is how much anger and hatred are on the rise, like a virus that is too easily passed from one person to another. I think of this young man in Quebec City, bullied as a child, quiet and conservative. Yet nothing about him raised any alarms. Then Marine Le Pen of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigration National Front in France comes to Quebec and the young man is radicalized by hatred. He’s an atheist who’s convinced that all religion is the source of what is wrong in the world. He believes that Islam is the worst, and so he enters a mosque, gun blazing and takes the lives of innocent men at prayer. 

We are in shock. This is not us. This is not Quebec. This is not Canada. Then we look in the mirror and we see the cracks. We see where we have let hatred fester. But I still see hope. I see love conquering hatred. I see a healthy conversation developing, and that to me is the essence of radical inclusion. It’s more than overthinking what is supposed to be politically correct. It’s being willing to be curious about what your neighbour needs in order to feel respected and understood. It means being willing to forgive when mistakes are made.

A colleague of mine has been working on a project at a local university to create something she calls “brave space” for her students. We aspire to create safe spaces, especially for those who feel most threatened and marginalized. But we often fail. We can’t possibly anticipate what will make someone else feel safe. My friend argues that with practice and encouragement, we can learn to claim brave space for each other, where we can speak for ourselves, listen with true curiosity and ask questions rather than make assumptions about the other. Your identity shouldn’t be a threat to me. It should enrich my life. But I can only discover that by stepping into brave space with you, where I can actually hear you and you can hear me.

On Thursday, a local mosque a few hundred metres from my home was vandalized. Someone had egged the building facade and had thrown a rock through the front window of the Kadijah Masjid here in Point-Saint-Charles. The message was clear. “We don’t want you here.” 

By two o’clock the next afternoon at least a hundred people had arrived outside the store-front mosque to show their support for the Muslim community here. The local politicians gave their speeches, and then the president of the mosque, an unimposing man, spoke, clearly moved and surprised by the number of people gathered at his doorstep. “We are so grateful you are here. We’d like to invite everyone in for tea.”

For many who entered, it was the first time they’d ever been in a mosque. It was a simple space. No furniture, just an endless expanse of beautiful red carpet decorated with a design of row after row of yellow arches. It was the hour of prayer and the mosque’s leaders invited us to witness their tradition, insisting that the women stay in the same room with the men.

Who was the stranger here? Was it the Muslim community or its neighbours who entered their sacred space for the first time? Everyone seemed genuinely surprised by the unexpected warmth of the encounter on both sides. It was so much more than a public demonstration. In those simple gestures of support and hospitality, I witnessed the beginning of a barrier that was being broken down. This was brave space. 

As we were leaving, the leaders of the mosque insisted that they give us a gift. “We have some cups that one of our members wasn’t planning to use. We’d like you to have them, to always remember this day.” It was clearly an unplanned gesture. Someone came rushing in with boxes of coffee mugs. On one side of each mug there was a logo for the Hilton Garden Inn. On the other side were these printed words: 

The Essence of Persistence. The power to shape the future is earned through persistence. No other quality is essential to success. It is the sandpaper that breaks down all resistance and sweeps away all obstacles. It is the ability to move mountains one grain of sand at a time. Please share this with family and friends.

I like to believe that we will move mountains together — beautiful snow covered mountains, after all this is Quebec —  and we will embrace radical inclusion, one snowflake at a time. I proudly claim my place as a member of the snowflake nation.

Please sing with me. When Our Heart is in a Holy Place (by Joyce Poley):

When our heart is in a holy place, 
When our heart is in a holy place.
We are bless’d with love and amazing grace, 
When our heart is in a holy place.

When we share the silence of sacred space, 
And the God of our heart stirs within,
And we feel the power of each other’s faith,
Then our heart is in a holy place.
When our heart is in a holy place, 
When our heart is in a holy place.

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