Barriers and Boundaries

I tell this story with permission, with the names altered. It’s been 10 years, and it still matters. Shortly after 12-year-old Tamar Rice was murdered in Cleveland in 2014 by police, Kathleen had a series of recurrent dreams, dreams that she had serially, re-living after she awoke from her nightmare only to dream it again. She is walking her dog at her street corner, and the rowdy bar across the way is surrounded by the flashing lights of police cars. Nothing to see here, just some drunken frat boy fight. But in the distance, she sees her son Jesse running toward her. Jesse is 13, and he is running in his goofy way, arms mostly up in his sweatshirt sleeves, flapping and zig-zagging from one side of the sidewalk to the other. Kathleen has told him not to run like that anytime police are around. But he keeps coming toward her, and Kathleen becomes aware that one of the white police officers has raised his head and is looking toward her boy. And he has put his hand on his holster.

Kathleen screams “Jesse stop, stop now.” Everything gets loud around her, and then she wakes up. As she is falling asleep, the dream begins again.

I have a white son just a little older than Jesse, and I worried about him as a teenager. I worried he would have friends. I worried he would sustain a head injury from some stupid prank. I worried he would develop a drug problem. I worried would he grow into a good man. I never, not once, worried he would be viewed as a threat by the police and shot in the streets while acting like a child. I never had to think about that, because we are white. Kathleen, who is Black, has to think about it all the time, even while she sleeps.

I love Kathleen and I love Jesse, and I can’t experience what they experience. And I can’t turn from it either. I am obligated to struggle with myself to feel what Kathleen can’t help but feel, feelings pushed violently upon her by a culture that sees her skin as a threat. We are on the web together, my friends. What affects Kathleen affects me as well, affects us all, though not in the same ways. Kathleen and I, we share a physical geography and the emotional terrain of loving our children. We all of us share a physical geography, linked by land and water. We share an emotional terrain, linked by loving our families, feeling the aching in our bones as we age, by shopping for groceries and taking some exercise, by walking our dogs and watering our plants.

There is a boundary around our experiences, those windows of our perception. My race, color, lived experiences shape my window.

Kathleen’s race, color, and lived experiences shape hers. I cannot experience Kathleen’s window. It would be a grave mistake to pretend that I can. But I do need to remember that she has a window, and I need to listen to what she sees through it. We all need to acknowledge our limits, with grace and humility. It’s what Isabel Wilkerson and bell hooks and so many writers and thinkers call us to understand. It’s what so many of our neighbors, whose names we know, call those of us with privilege to understand. It’s what “privilege” is—a limit of experience that makes some things easier for some kinds of people than for other kinds of people.

The 8 th Principle of our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to “Individual and communal action that accountably dismantles racism and systemic barriers to full inclusion in ourselves and our institutions.” What unintentional biases reside within us that shape the way we welcome folk into our building or determine the way we go about our justice actions? How might we address those biases with fortitude and compassion as we try to change, to make the world better? As Wilkerson reminds us, “The price of privilege is the moral duty to act when one sees another person treated unfairly. And the least that a person in the dominant caste can do is not make the pain any worse.” For those of us with privilege, how can we better listen to those with less privilege, so that we might learn and foster more justice in the world, including right here among us?

In Canada, you have a history of official governmental apologies and acknowledgement of past harms caused to First Nations, Black, and folk whose origins began in the various countries of Asia.

These gestures are admirable. There is a history here, in other words, in recognizing the wrongs of the past. It gets more challenging when it comes to understanding that historical wrongs continue to reverberate now, in oppression, inequality, and injustice. For instance, when crimes are committed, Black and First Nations offenders are more likely to receive harsher sentences than white offenders do. Why would that be, except for lingering stereotypes that affect the delivery of criminal justice? People of color experience racism in the delivery of health care, in education, in the availability of financial products like business and personal loans. It’s in the statistics. The boundaries of a person’s identity run smack into barriers of access which assume certain people are “bad risks” or less deserving. The racism is compounded when people are poor as well as members of racialized groups. These are not opinions. It’s in the statistics. Why do such barriers still exist, when even the government acknowledges a history of wrongs? Barriers both in the larger world and perhaps in our own?

Our Unitarian Universalist faith is built upon the foundation of diversity—diversity of voices, diversity of beliefs, diversity of pathways to truth and meaning. We unite around the value of multiplicity, as a fundamental reality of the web of nature, with all its varieties of cicadas and woodpeckers and more. “What do we want diversity for? What is our motivation?” Given the partiality of all points of view, given the diversity of truth, given our calling to live our lives religiously, given these, a commitment to diversity is nothing more or less than honoring the call to seek wholeness—in my life and in our collective life. But we know that our social world is not built to honor diversity. It is not structured so that our human diversity is equally treated and equally valued. And some of that inequality has gotten into all of us—leaving behind a residue of unacknowledged privilege for certain kinds of us and often internalized oppression—when you believe the inequality that puts you down is valid—in others of us. And when people of privilege have to look at these results, especially in ourselves, we can become overcome with shame and guilt.

Imagine what a confrontation with racism and exclusion might look like at that very door, at the back of the Hall there. Imagine someone like your own Glenn Gould—He seems to have been a genius, he was perhaps bipolar or autistic.

Perhaps he was all three. Would you seriously want a world without him? Would you want to imagine that he would not be welcomed in with his refusal to shake hands or wearing a heavy coat, scarf, and mittens in the middle of the summer? That his eccentricity would be a barrier to inclusion? That the boundaries he needed in order to be himself would feed into barriers of exclusion? Do we truly listen to our neighbors’ vision, trusting its truth, focusing on the core values of justice, equity and compassion, to connect ourselves more fully with the unfolding truths of life and of our world? Do we with privilege ask our congregants with less privilege what they know? How the boundaries defining them run up against barriers, even here? Do we speak for the people we of privilege try to help—the refugees we foster, the impoverished and the hungry we support at Pathway or Compass, the First Nations people we offer space to? Do you? Search your heart.

But do not be overwhelmed in self-criticism, even within an invitation to self-awareness. Remember what bell hooks says, “Guilt leads to angry denial and inaction. Responsibility leads to grudging good works. The call to seek wholeness has room for acknowledging feelings of guilt (and anger, frustration) room for accepting appropriate responsibility and plenty of room for moving toward personal and communal transformation. Can you feel yourself, friends, part of, not apart from, the great interconnected web? Can you struggle with your compassionate hearts, holding the sorrows of those who share your country, your town, your neighborhood if not your life experience? Can you promise, friends, to open yourself to the ever-creative unity underlying our humanity? Can you help each other in this struggle?

All people deserve a voice in matters that concern them—particularly those who, for whatever reason, have long been held in silence—and that it is up to each of us to protect the rights of all in awareness of our interdependence with all humanity, and with the wider web of existence, and for all those things we dare to hope and dream.

We of privilege, we start by asking and listening, by believing and partnering, respecting boundaries and dismantling barriers, even here, in this beloved space. Listening with openness and respect, taking down barriers when we find them. This is how we move to wholeness and harmony.

And we do dream and hope for wholeness, I have faith that we do, for a better world that we have a hand in making. And “what is hope?” In the words of Rubem Alves, a Brazilian liberation theologian, philosopher, educator, writer and psychoanalyst, “It is a presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is a hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress is not the last word. It is a suspicion that reality is more complex than realism wants us to believe and that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual … Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see. This is the secret discipline. It is a refusal to let the creative act be dissolved… and a stubborn commitment to the future of our grandchildren.”

Will you feel yourself, friends, part of, not apart from, the great interconnected web, the great wholeness? Will you struggle with your compassionate hearts, holding the sorrows of those who share your country, your town, your neighborhood if not your life experience? Will you promise, friends, to open yourself to the ever-creative unity underlying our humanity, imagine working for a good future that you will not experience? Will you help each other in this struggle? It is time now. Let us awaken. Let us go down to the well together, the well of love and justice, the well from which we can all thrive. May we recognize that our lives are intertwined, so intertwined, that each is accountable to the other, each person, each perspective, each truth to be granted sufficient respect so that we truly listen to those ideas and allow ourselves to be truly challenged by them.

We need each other, the experiences and perspective you bring, so that I may know truth beyond my partial truth. We need each other, and what we can all do together for justice.

Each particular story calls us to accountability, calls me to accountability for my life, my limits, my individual and our collective transformation. Blessed are we who gather with open hearts, together, in this space, today. May we truly include the border-crossers, the refugees, the immigrants, the poor, the wanders who are not lost. May we truly be the hand-extenders, the sign-makers, the protestors, the protectors, the chalice-lighters of wholeness in justice, in love, and in faith. May it ever be so.


Recent Sermons