Conversations

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
January 31, 2016

 

Anybody here this morning want to be a powerful person?

Anybody here this morning want to be a powerful person? Let’s see a show of hands. All those who want to be a powerful person, please raise your hands!

Not all of you raised your hands. That could mean that you prefer to be weak rather than powerful. Or it could mean that you are not sure what I am talking about.

To be a powerful person is to be able to make something happen. To be a powerful person is to be able to make a difference. To be a powerful person is to be able to take action that is meaningful and effective.

How many people here this morning would like to be a powerful person with regard to eliminating structural racism in the United States? If that is you, stand up and keep standing!

How many people here this morning would like to be a powerful person with regard to protecting our planet from the destructive effects of climate change? If that is you, stand up, and keep standing!

How many people here this morning would like to be a powerful person with regard to fair funding for our public schools, so that all children will have the educational resources they need regardless of where they live? If that is you, stand up, and keep standing?

Finally, how many people here this morning would like to be a powerful person with regard to eliminating legal housing and employment discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people? If that is you, stand up, and keep standing?

OK, you may be seated once again!

As Unitarian Universalists, we have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote our seven principles. We have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And so on.

It is not easy to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles in the public arena. It is not easy to affirm and promote the progressive social vision of beloved community built upon those seven principles. Our Unitarian Universalist principles run contrary to the values of tens of millions of American citizens. Our Unitarian Universalist principles run contrary to many unjust but long-standing customs and traditions in the United States. Our Unitarian Universalist principles, which promote justice and human rights, run contrary to many entrenched economic and political interests in the United States. These economic and political interests are very powerful, and as we work to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles in the public arena, we would do well to keep in mind these unsentimental words from Amos Wilson: “If you want to understand any problem in America, you need to focus on who profits from that problem, not who suffers from the problem.”

As Unitarian Universalists, if we are serious about affirming and promoting the progressive social vision of beloved community called for in our seven principles, we need to be powerful people. We need to be people who can make something happen. We need to be people who can make a difference. We need to be people who can take action that is meaningful and effective.

I am not talking about power over others. I am not talking about the power to dominate, or the power to perpetuate injustice, or the power to humiliate, or the power to oppress, or the power to exclude, or the power to marginalize, or the power to abuse.

Instead, I am talking about power with others. Power that is respectful. Power that is idealistic. Power that is relational. Power that is accountable. Power that is transparent. Power that is just and works for greater justice. Power that builds community. Instead of power over others, I am talking about power with others.

In his 1954 book Love, Power, and Justice, theologian Paul Tillich spoke about the importance of uniting love and power in the pursuit of justice. Dr. King, who was strongly influenced by Paul Tillich, put it this way: “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

As Unitarian Universalists, if we are truly serious about our covenant, if we are truly serious about affirming and promoting our seven principles in the public arena, then we need to be powerful people. Yes, we need always to guide power with love. But love all by itself, love that will not roll up its sleeves, powerless love, is “sentimental and anemic,” according to Dr. King.

Last August, on Board Installation Sunday, I presented a sermon entitled “Your Calling, Your Ministry.” I spoke of reinventing my ministry. Here is what I said about that: “Reinventing my ministry means focusing my attention on equipping you for the work of ministry. Reinventing my ministry means inviting you to follow a spiritual path where you can connect your deep gladness with the world’s deep hunger.”

My sermon this morning follows up very intentionally on that sermon with a very specific invitation to become a powerful person in a very specific way.

In the context of community organizing, power means organized people and organized money. Increasingly, however, I have been finding that what is effective in the context of community organizing can also be effective in the context of congregational life.

Just for the moment, let us set aside the power of organized money and focus on the power of organized people.

If you would like to be a powerful person within this congregation and in the larger community – if you would like to be able to make something happen within this congregation and in the larger community – if you would like to be able to make a difference within this congregation and in the larger community – the first step is to build relationships with other people.

Suppose, for example, that you would like to accomplish some task within our church. Suppose, for example, you wanted to set up a system for sending a happy birthday card each year to all the seniors in our church and to all the children in our church. Inevitably you would need to work with others, because the task would be too big for just one person to do alone. But suppose that you did not know anyone at this church. Would you be able to accomplish your project? No, you would not. You would be powerless. Why? You would be powerless because you would have no relationships with other people. If you did not know anyone at this church, how would you ever obtain a list of birthdates for those seniors and those children? And if you did not know anyone at this church, how would you ever get anyone to help you? To be able to make something happen, to be able to make a difference, to be able to take action that is meaningful and effective, you would first need to build relationships with other people.

Keeping in mind the need to build relationship with other people, suppose that you moved forward with your quest to become a more powerful person by joining the quilting group, the social events group, and the art committee. After attending two meetings of each group, suppose that you asked everyone in each group to help you with your birthday card project. My guess is that you would be very disappointed with the response. One or two people might say, “Well, if you really need someone, perhaps I could send out one or two cards.” Here is the problem: someone who enjoys quilting may or may not have any interest in sending out birthday cards, and someone who enjoys helping with social events may or may not have any interest in sending out birthday cards, and someone who enjoys organizing art shows may or may not have any interest in sending out birthday cards. How do you know whether or not someone has any interest in your magnificent project of sending out birthday cards? You have to take the time to build relationships. You have to get to know people. You have to find out what motivates people. To use the language of community organizing, you have to discover someone’s self-interest.

Now suppose that you took the time to really get to know twenty-five people in the church. You invited them to have coffee or lunch and had a real conversation with each of them. You discovered their self-interest. And through this deliberate process you identified a small group of people who had an interest in reaching out to the seniors in our church. And therefore you invited them to work with you. But perhaps they had different ideas about how to reach out. Perhaps one person thought that making a phone call would be better than sending a card. Perhaps another person thought that baking a banana bread cake and delivering it in person would be the way to go. In any case, you finally were able to put together a small committee of people who were truly interested in working with you. And so you discovered the power of organized people. You built your power by building relationships with others. You became a powerful person – someone who could make things happen, someone who could make a difference, someone who could take action that is meaningful and effective.

That is how community organizing works. And I am coming to believe that what works in community organizing can also work in congregational life. From time to time I will hear someone say that they cannot find anyone to help with some project at church. That person may even complain that fewer and fewer people seem to be committed to the congregation nowadays. I understand now, as I did not understand once upon a time, that the problem may be that the person who cannot find anyone to help has simply not taken the time to build their power by building relationships. Similarly, from time to time I will hear someone complain that it’s always the same familiar faces who do all the work at church. Again, I understand now, as I did not understand once upon a time, that the problem may be that the person making this complaint has simply not taken the time to build their power by building relationships with anyone other than those same familiar faces. You have to be in relationship with people if you want to take action and make a difference. And there are no shortcuts, in my experience. No one else can “empower” you, for no one else can be your substitute in your relationships with others. Similarly, you cannot “empower” someone else, for you cannot be the substitute for someone else in their relationships with others. Each person has to build their own power.

A few moments ago, I said that as Unitarian Universalists, we have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote our seven principles. We have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. And so on.

A few moments ago, I also pointed out that our seven principles run contrary to the values of tens of millions of people here in the United States. I also pointed out that our Unitarian Universalist principles, which promote justice and human rights, run contrary to many entrenched economic and political interests in the United States.

As we enter Black History Month, it would be appropriate to remind ourselves of that well-known statement from the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.” As Unitarian Universalists, we say that we are in favor of justice and democracy and beloved community. However, unless we are willing to make demands in the public arena about our values and our vision, they will remain forever unrealized.

Our congregation includes approximately four hundred adults. If I am working out the math correctly, with four hundred adults there are eighty thousand possible relationships among us. Just imagine for a moment that we actually had eighty thousand caring, respectful, sincere, and appreciative relationships among the people within this religious community. In other words, just imagine for a moment that everyone here was well-acquainted with everyone else. Each of us would have a great deal of power in that scenario. Each of us would be able to act in very powerful ways. Each of us would be able to tap into the power of organized people.

Now imagine that instead of being in relationship with four hundred other people, each person in our religious community were acquainted with just twenty other people rather than four hundred other people. If I am still working out the math correctly, the number of caring, respectful, sincere, and appreciative relationships would be just four thousand instead of eighty thousand. That is a ninety-five percent decrease. I do not want to get sidetracked by the math. The point is not to make an exact calculation; rather, the point is to observe that we are a much weaker religious community when we are not acquainted with one another.

Anybody here this morning want to be a powerful person? Anybody here this morning want to be able to make something happen? Anybody here want to be able to make a difference? Anybody here want First Unitarian Church to be powerful enough to accomplish some wonderful and magnificent things? Anybody here want this congregation to be powerful enough to actualize our values and our vision?

If so, then my counsel is simple: Build power by building relationships – caring, respectful, sincere, and appreciative relationships. Have conversations, sacred conversations. Become acquainted with others and learn what makes them tick, what motivates them, what their self-interest is. As Margaret Wheatley has said, “There is not power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we have made a covenant together that we will affirm and promote our seven principles. If we are serious about our principles, if we are serious about our values, if we are serious about our vision of beloved community, then we need to build power by building relationships with one another. If we are unwilling to build those relationships, we are essentially saying that we do not really care whether our values or someone else’s values prevail in our society. Power is organized people and organized money. We can talk more about organized money on another day. For today, however, let us resolve to sit down and have conversations and get much better acquainted with one another. That is how we will build our power so that we can move forward toward our vision of the beloved community.

© 2016 by David Herndon

 

 

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
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