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Rowing for Home

Rev. Douglas Taylor



My original intention with today’s sermon was to dive into the question of how this pandemic will likely impact the way we worship and ‘do church’ together as Unitarian Universalists into the future. What I discovered over the course of writing it is that today’s sermon is focused a little more tightly than that. How will this pandemic impact the ways we do the justice work of the church into the future.

Right about now, a number of activists in our community are gathering at the Binghamton High School to march over to Rec Park, protesting for justice for George Floyd who was murdered by police last week on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. This is in the national spotlight because recording police interactions on our cellphones has become more prevalent. The officers involved were quickly fired; and many people, including the mayor of Minneapolis, called for more significant consequences. Tired of the lack of action, protestors set fire to the Minneapolis, 3rd precinct Police Department on Thursday. On Friday, Officer Derek Chauvin was arrested and charged with 3rd degree manslaughter, the beginning of what is sure to be a longer list of charges against him and the three other officers involved.

Do you remember the Black Panther movie from two years back (2018)? The marvel superhero film? Do you remember the opening scene? It starts, not in the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, but in Oakland, CA. That’s significant to the meta-narrative because the Black Panther party in the US began in Oakland back in 1968. It’s the fiction’s nod to reality. But that’s not all. The opening scene from that movie is not set in 1968, it’s set in 1992. Why is that significant? Because of the ’92 race riots sparked by the acquittal of the four white police officers who viciously beat Black motorist, Rodney King during a traffic stop.

There is a lot of pain and grief rolling through the community. The protests happening around the country today are not only for George Floyd. They are for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice in 2014; for Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and the Charleston Nine in 2015; for Alton Sterling, Joseph Mann, and Philando Castile in 2016; and on the list goes. They are also for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade from these past few months. The protests are the accumulation of every frustration felt at the acquittals and excuses letting the murderers walk free in the past.

But something is changing. Like Ferrar Burns in the story from Annie Dillard; we’ve been rowing toward home all along and drifting further out into the channel and into danger. But the tide is turning. Something different is happening. We have to keep rowing toward home now. We have to row hard.

The public pressure by protestors nationally is having an impact lately. It may yet be possible to change the way this story keeps playing out – the old story where another black or brown person is murdered by a police officer or a white vigilante, and nothing much happens to the killers. But the response to the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, for example, is different. The response to the murder of George Floyd is different. Consequences are beginning to occur more regularly for the individual perpetrators. Society is less willing to just back down and be okay with the deaths. The killing hasn’t stopped, but the response has begun to change. And a big part of what has changed is due to public pressure.

What, if anything, does this have to do with the pandemic? What, if anything, does this have to do with the impact this pandemic has had on how we do our justice work as a congregation? I am not sure I can answer those questions yet – but those are questions bumping around inside my head all the same.

I’ve noticed that our Social Justice work has faded into the background lately. I’ve noticed we have a lot on our plate and a lot pulling our attention. I’ve noticed and worried about it. And I suppose a few months back when everything became about the pandemic and how to navigate the impact of this virus – justice work settled into the background even more. How can you do direct action, after all, when you can’t get together and directly act without putting your health and the health of those you would serve and partner with and support at risk?

This virus does not care if our cause is just. The gathering of assault-weapon-toting citizens calling for re-opening resulted in a noticeable number of them catching the virus. I expect there will be a similar result for the Black Lives Matter protestors in Minneapolis and other cities. It is particularly tragic given we are finally making some headway on this police brutality form of white supremacy. This pandemic is getting in the way.

This pandemic is hounding us as we try to deal with other things. The reality of it all is overwhelming. It is daunting and most of us have not processed the magnitude of what is happening. On May 10th, 3 weeks back, I preached on what the pandemic will mean for our country. At that time, we had 4 million cases worldwide; we have 6 million now. I reported the death toll at over 275,000 back then. Today it is 367,000 – 92,000 people have died around the world from Covid-19 just in these past three weeks. In the United States alone, we’ve crossed the 100,000 deaths threshold earlier this week and we’re at 105,000 deaths now.

And still, this one death of George Floyd has sparked the grief and frustration into outrage. So where does that leave us? As a liberal progressive faith community, our place is as allies and accomplices for justice. Our role is normally to show up. With the reality of the pandemic, that’s harder to do safely. But there are multiple ways to get involved.

I was talking with a group about this very point yesterday. I had the pleasure of leading a workshop online with about a dozen UU young adults. They were having their annual Unirondack Young Adult conference, but because the camp is closed and we can’t have in-person gatherings, they held the conference online. I offered a workshop on ethics. We began with some generic questions but soon shifted into discussing the situation in Minneapolis. 

We talked about police brutality and the myriad reasons to obey or not obey a law. We talked about the logic behind property destruction and the importance of knowing which communities your actions serve. One of the sources I shared with them was Ethicist Dr. Sharon Welsh who said, “a single actor cannot be moral.” One must be part of a community, grounded in a context.

My context is this Unitarian Universalist congregation. Our community is multifaceted and engaged in the issues at hand. We don’t all agree on each aspect of what’s going on, but we are together in our context and our compassion.

I suspect, if we will let it, this pandemic will push us to be more creative in how we do our justice work as a congregation. Some people will still choose to show up at a rally – with a facemask and proper social distancing please! Some people can’t afford that risk or will take other risks instead. Perhaps you will be part of the fundraising or of spreading the word to others; perhaps you’ll cook food or organize resources; perhaps you will read up on the background and unpack your own bias; perhaps you’ll be a teacher or hold safe space for someone to process as the struggle stretches on.

Maybe the impact this pandemic will have is to push us to be more creative in how we support each other and how we show up – even when we can’t actually show up.

For in the end, we are all just rowing for home. The injustice we fight against, the anger and grief and frustration are borne from the yearning to breath together without fear, the longing to live in a good community that takes care of its people. We’re all rowing for home. The tide is coming in. Now is the time for us to row harder and bring a new version of this tired old story into the world.

In a world without end,

May it be so.