Tuesday, March 13, 2012

“The Story of Us”

A Sermon by The Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger
First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans
Sunday, March 11, 2012

This was a difficult sermon to write. I was asked by several members of the Greater New Orleans UU cluster not to do this sermon, and one local UU asked me if I was sure this sermon was a good idea. I must think it’s a good idea, or I wouldn’t be here.

Recently, a group of UUs from all 3 local churches participated in a session of the new curricula “Resistance & Transformation” that we are testing for the UUA, a session that was based on the story of New Orleans Unitarians in the Civil Rights era. Since then, I have thought it was a shame that more of us weren’t able to be a part of that session and the discussions that followed.
The draft curricula that the 3 GNOUU congregations are testing tells one side of the New Orleans story, that of our former minister emeritus The Rev. Albert D’Orlando, from the collection of his papers held at Andover Harvard Library. Today’s reading is taken from several different documents at the library that Rev. D’Orlando compiled and edited after his retirement, that were further edited by the authors of the “R& T” curricula.

One thing I learned early on in ministry, and that was emphasized in the Interim Ministry Training I took before coming home in 2007, is that there is no such thing as The Real Story or The True Story. Any event involving more than one person means there is more than one story – and each one of those stories is real and true for the person telling it. But if only one person or faction is telling the story, the story is less than complete.

I’ll tell you something else. With very very few exceptions, narratives framed around super Good Guys and evil Bad Guys are not completely true. Most events in life involve pretty good people, middling well-behaved people, mostly well-intentioned flawed people acting the best way they know how at the time. Sure, with the benefit of passing years and excellent hindsight (not to mention our superior judgment!), we feel we can look back and discern heroes and villains. But we ought to remember the words of Niebuhr with which we lit our chalice this morning: “No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint.” It’s equally true that no virtuous act looks quite as virtuous from different points in history.

Each of the UU churches of greater New Orleans has told themselves a story about what happened in the Crescent City during the 1950s and ‘60s, and the stories are all related, but different. New members who join each of the churches eventually learn their congregation’s “official version” of this story, whether orally through passed-down tradition, from the church’s printed history or its website, and from local history-based sermons. Since new members have nothing to compare it to, the official version becomes their version. When I joined First Church in the 1980s, I learned the First Church story and it became for a long time my story, and in that story there were Good Guys and Bad Guys. And guess what? All the Good Guys were at First Church.

The way we have told the story at First Church is roughly that there were bigots and brave fighters for justice contending for control of the church, and that the brave fighters won. But there are other ways to tell the story. Let’s play a few rounds of the childhood game “What if?” and see if it changes anything.

What if you’re an upper-middle or middle class person and your new minister is from working class Boston? And what if that minister is Italian? Prejudice around Italians in New Orleans was endemic, probably dating back to the 1891 lynching of 11 Italian men for the unsolved murder of police Chief David Hennessy. As late as the 1980s, even Italian restaurants in the city had “wop salad” on the menu. (My own father, a liberal New Orleanian if there ever was one, jokingly referred to my mother in letters written in the 1950s as his “dago wife.”) And what if the new minister from Up North has preconceptions about people in the South? (I know I experienced that while serving a congregation in suburban Philadelphia in the early 2000s.) You can’t entirely help the culture clash that ensues, because all of you are people of your place and time, with all that that implies.

What if you have been a Unitarian lay leader for years, and a lot of things about your new minister’s management and leadership styles rub you the wrong way? (Even people who loved Albert would say that he could be stubborn and dogmatic.) What if you’re a Unitarian Board member, and a new minister comes in and starts telling you what to do? What if the minister and the minister’s supporters seem to be accusing you of being a bad person? What if the new minister doesn’t want to hear your point of view? What if the minister appears to be drawing a line, in effect saying “My way or the highway”? Would you be evil for feeling your legitimate decision-making power was being taken from you? Would it be wrong to resent it?

What if you knew that actions your church was considering could negatively impact your life? What if you had physical fear that your connection to the church could get you fired from your job, or get your house fire-bombed? And what if this wasn’t mere paranoia, but were events you could see happening all around you? What if you had small children at home? Are you positive that you would put your livelihood and the lives and safety of your children at risk for a social justice issue? (At my family’s house in Chalmette in 1960, my parents had fire drills so we kids could get out of the house safely in case we were fire bombed by the KKK. Our house was never bombed, but my father's car was, and my parents felt they had to expect it. First Church was fire-bombed, but luckily the damage was minor.)

What if you essentially agreed with your minister on the social justice issues, but felt things were moving too fast? Or that the minister was being too pushy in getting his goals accomplished? What if you were sure that things would get better if the minister would just go more slowly, and bring more people along? Does that make you a bad person?

What if the conflict over these issues was costing your church thousands and thousands of dollars? Would it matter if you agreed with the minister or not, wouldn’t you think, as one former First Churcher wrote to me, that it might be better for everybody if things calmed down?

And what if you were just a regular congregant, not a church leader, just coming to church on Sundays, not sure of what might be going on behind closed doors of the Board meetings and the minister’s office, and the American Unitarian Association and later the UUA? What if all you heard were bits and snippets and rumors? Would you end up believing, as some did, that the church was spending thousands of dollars of its own money in the civil rights struggle? (It wasn’t – there were donations from around the country, including from playwright Arthur Miller, kept completely separate from church funds, but using the church’s name for tax purposes.)

If you weren’t active in the wider liberal religious movement, would you assume that what was happening might be unique to your church? (It wasn’t – it was happening all over the country, not just the South.) If you felt constantly scolded and harangued by social justice sermons – even if you basically agreed with them – wouldn’t you get tired of them? And if you made your unhappiness known, wouldn’t you assume that your minister thought you were a bad person? (He didn’t – Pauly D’Orlando told a First Churcher at that time that Albert never thought the dissenters were bad people, although it is true that he nursed a personal bitterness about the conflict that prevented him from ever attending a Community Church function, including installations of new ministers, which, by tradition, all UU ministers within easy travel distance are expected to attend.)

What if church meetings got more than uncomfortable, with shouting and name-calling and rudeness? Wouldn’t you want to absent yourself, have a little peace on your Sundays?

And there’s another important factor. What if the financial disaster that ensued – the forced sale of the parsonage, the city’s condemnation of the Gothic-style building that so many members loved, its subsequent demolition, the mortgage for the new building in a very different modern style, the “exile” period of services held at Temple Sinai while the new church was built, the hemorrhage of pledges and people, the doubling of the church insurance after the KKK fire bombing – could be traced in a roughly straight line to money troubles that still plague the church today? In 1967, the church had $17,000 of its own in the bank and owed $56,000. (In today’s dollars, it’s probably about where we are now.) Is that just the cost of doing justice work?

If you were a member of First Church who left, angrily or sadly, during this period, wouldn’t you feel, as one elderly former member, at the time a member of North Shore, said passionately to me a few years ago, that your church had been “stolen” from you? (Someone, I don’t know who, placed in the coffin at our Jazz Funeral service in January a note that said, “I have to let go of Rev. D’Orlando tearing down our church building.”) If you were a member of First Church who remained, either passive or a true believer, in the aftermath of the controversy, wouldn’t you feel abandoned? Would it surprise you to learn that after Katrina many members of Community Church felt robbed, and many First Churchers felt left behind?

Even the happy ending reported in this morning’s reading feels a little pyrrhic – after what is has been called the Black Empowerment Controversy in the UUA in the later ‘60s, First Church was among the UU churches that lost most if not all of their black members – and has never built back to comparable numbers.

Let me emphasize to you that as a white person striving to be anti-racist, I know that the choice to go slow, or not to participate at all in the civil rights movement, is a white privilege. I know that deciding whether to associate with people different from me – and how many of those different people I will allow around me – is a white privilege. I know that making a choice to take risks or not with your job or with your home or with the safety of your children is still today, sadly, a white privilege, because parents of color know their children are almost always already at risk, whether or not they actually do anything. I do know that some white parents did choose to take those risks for what they saw as a higher cause – I know this because my own parents made that decision, but I do not blame or judge other white parents for making different decisions. Safety and security are legitimate parental choices.

Let me be clear – however flawed they were, and however I might take issue now with their methods or even their goals, I still think of white people like Albert D’Orlando and my parents as heroes. On the other hand, I have lost my sure and certain conviction that the members of First Church who left between 1958 and 1968 were the Bad Guys.

I am grateful to my dear friend and colleague Rev. Jim VanderWeele of Community Church and to all the members and friends of all 3 area UU congregations who are participating in the test of the “Resistance & Transformation” curricula, and to all the UUs of this area who have spoken with me or sent emails about this important period of our history. I have learned so, so much. Rev. Jim and I are gathering together these recollections to send to the UUA. Hopefully, by including the comments of locals who were around in those days and are willing to share, the authors will incorporate this material and add new perspectives to the course that will help UUs for years to come.

The foundational issues that the events of those years bring up – no, make that, the issues that get shoved in our faces! – are still with us today. Even if a minister is completely in the right about a social justice issue (which of course is much easier to tell looking backwards!), like civil rights or the Vietnam War, how much should that minister push or pull the congregation to come along? How should a UU congregation negotiate a clash – over anything – with their minister? How much should UU ministers moderate or modulate their convictions when faced with dissenting congregational leadership? How often should a minister preach on a favored topic, even if the minister deems it to be of utmost, even critical, importance? What exactly is the power and authority granted by UU congregations to their ministers? Does it come automatically or does it have to accumulate over time? How should a congregation come to consensus on controversial topics? What if standing for social justice issues loses a church so much money and so many members that it ceases to have effective ministry? And what if concern over money and members keeps a church from taking a stand?

This also raises the question about what is a “true” story, or at least, what is a complete story. Albert D’Orlando wrote down things as he remembered them, and the folks who have shared with me told things the way they remember them. Although many of us may prefer a story to be "black and white," as in a lot of life, things are complicated and messy and emotional, and there is no way to ascertain some kind of “objective” or “factual” account of everything that happened. Whenever conflict arises in a UU church, we ought to keep in mind that we need as many viewpoints as possible, and reserve judgment until we do.

There are no easy answers to any of these questions, and no prescribed formula that congregations can follow. This is part of the challenge of congregational polity, of congregational democracy. In fact, it’s part of being Unitarian Universalist – no easy answers. And each UU congregation has to work this out, over and over again, for itself.

I preached this sermon this morning for several reasons. Because our story was part of the “Resistance & Transformation” course, and a group of local UUs experienced it, the story was already in the air and being talked about, not only here, but around the country. Because I feel so deeply that nothing can be resolved or gotten over unless we talk honestly and openly about it. Because since Katrina we’ve been in close relationship with the other UU churches, and the events and feelings of those days still hang over us. It’s hard to be in right relationship with folks you think of as the Bad Guys.

Whatever were the many tangled reasons that folks left First Church and helped form Community Church, it must be said that CCUU has had in the past and has now members of color, and that today their wider ministry includes a vibrant and participatory partnership with the Red Flame Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, the children’s arm of the Original Big 7 Social Aid & Pleasure Club in Tremé. First Church does not presently have a comparable relationship in the African-American community.

There are 3 Unitarian Universalist churches in the New Orleans metro area, and we have formed a cluster together, raising funds, worshiping together, planning social justice activities, enjoying fellowship, and sharing the Center for Ethical Living & Social Justice Renewal, the 501(c)(3) organization we formed after the Storm. None of the 3 churches is perfect, and none of us has been “made whole” since Katrina. We each have slightly different worship styles and different kinds of buildings and different flavors of theology. We each serve slightly different segments of the greater New Orleans community. In order for Unitarian Universalism to grow and prosper and help heal this broken and wounded metro area, we all need each other.

I will say what I believe now about this painful period of our shared history, by telling you a family story that’s seemingly unrelated. When my son Stephen was about 6 or 7, we took him on one of my preaching trips to San Antonio. While there, we went to the Imax to see a movie about the founding of Texas and the fight at the Alamo. Near the climax of the movie, my son began to cry loudly and had to be carried out. In the lobby, we questioned him and he blurted, “I couldn't take it, Mom! It was so sad, Mom! They were both right and they were both wrong!”

That’s how I’ve come to feel about what happened in the Story of Us – it’s so sad, they were both right and they were both wrong. We need to forgive ourselves and each other, and move forward in love and confidence in our shared ministry. I hope we do just that, because New Orleans needs us. AMEN – ASHE -- SHALOM – SALAAM – NAMSTE – BLESSED BE!