Love, Community and Power

August 4, 2002

First Unitarian Church of Oakland

By Eleanor Piez

Last November, after becoming the Justice Council Convenor of this church, I attended a national training for faith based community organizers. I was a little skeptical: what could a non-Unitarian Universalist program have to offer our church? Yet I also knew, from my years of searching for the path of justice within this congregation, that we do not have all the answers. I was seeking a way to replenish our church's knowledge and energy.

That training changed my life radically. After a week with 120 different folks of widely varying faiths, occupations, ethnic backgrounds and ages, from cities and suburbs across the United States, I knew that I had found my people — not my ancestral tribe, which is you, but the people of my, and perhaps our, future.* Let me tell you one thing that happened there.

Wade was a friendly, articulate white guy in his early 40's who would have looked right at home in our congregation. We knew that as a business owner in a racially torn neighborhood in Cincinnati, simply by attending this training, Wade was already stepping out of his stereotypical role.

Another class member, Kristen, was demonstrating a one-to-one interview with Wade. In minutes we learned about Wade's upbringing, his wife and two children, how he felt about his work, how he felt he had a stake in this mostly African American neighborhood because he owned a building there. He spoke with increasing passion about the children there, how their schooling, housing, and other conditions were all substandard. “Does this make you angry?”  Kristen asked. Wade answered indignantly, “Yes it does!”  “Why does it make you angry?”  “Because - ”  and suddenly tears were rolling down Wade's face, “Because it doesn't have to be this way.” 

Our classroom sat in silence as the interview ended. As I looked around the room, I saw Joyce, also from Cincinnati. Tears were rolling down her face too, and I heard her say aloud, “I have never seen someone who was not from our community care so much about our children.” 

Clearly the urban problems in Cincinnati, of education, housing, safety, health care, you name it, are the same ones we face here in Oakland. The question Joyce left me with was, WHERE HAVE WE BEEN? It's not that we don't care; we do. In this church, most of us care passionately about the issues that affect people in the city, especially here in our own neighborhood. We give a lot of service, witnessing to suffering and trying to make things a little better. What we have not tried to do is to marshal political power, in coalition with friends like Joyce, to make conditions substantively better in a community we share.

Why have we stayed away from power? Power has always been a difficult concept for liberals. Because so often it is wielded by people we don't trust, we tend not to trust power itself. We tend to see problems in shades of gray, not clear cut rights and wrongs. But if we can't make a choice that we are sure of, we won't put energy into making our opinions reality. And that's all power is: The ability to act, to make something happen, to make a wish or a dream or a vision come true.

Love, on the other hand, we are good at. At the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, we love each other and we love our wider world. The Justice Associates programs are beautiful examples of how we express this love. We bring breakfast to hungry people, we rebuild computers and run a training program, we tutor kids who need help in school. The Children's Religious Education program collected an entire minivan load of blankets for Afghanistan last November. And this kind of loving effort is not new. It goes back in our history at least to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. And for nine winters, we sheltered homeless men and women in Wendte Hall. Each morning, church members and other caring people prepared a hot breakfast, helping our guests get through another day in the streets.

We celebrate this work deservedly. I estimate that about half our congregation participates. People are attracted to the church because these opportunities provide an outlet for our desire to make the world a better place. But there is just one problem. It is good to bear witness and give help, but are we really changing the environment we, and our neighbors, live in? As loving people, and as Unitarian Universalists, we are called not merely to see and assuage suffering, but as well, to stop the injustices that cause this suffering.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, and she was not a radical by any stretch of the imagination: “Love has no value in itself or by itself.... Love is a force in you that enables you to give strength and power and freedom and peace to another person. It is valueless unless you can give something else by means of it.”  This quote has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, because it throws down the gauntlet: If you love someone or something, don't just feel your feelings, do something!

In this way it relates to the following, a generation later, from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.” 

Now listen again to Dr. King's words that Mary read earlier:

Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

This kind of love lies at the heart of our Unitarian Universalist principles: the worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; the right of all people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. This kind of love provides the moral substance that defines conditions of greater justice. It doesn't have a wide effect, though, if love is not coupled with power — the pragmatic ability to get things done.

Cornel West in his book Race Matters also talks about love and community, particularly in his critique of the work of Malcolm X. Love of self and love of others — love that Malcolm exemplified for his people and that in this church community we can nearly always take for granted — is the starting point for confronting and correcting unjust social systems.

“Nothing happens without leaders,”  our interim minister, Robert Latham, told us. Cornel West says: “We need leaders who can situate themselves within a larger historical narrative of this country and our world. This new leadership must be grounded in grassroots organizing that highlights democratic accountability.”  Furthermore, quality leadership does not arise by accident, but is deliberately cultivated in communities.

“Community”  has always been something I craved. I was brought up the child of Unitarian parents in the United States Foreign Service. I had an idealized concept of what church, which I rarely experienced directly, was like. And I was told that I was representing the United States — but I had little direct experience of this country. Although I knew the United States had its flaws, I also believed as I was taught, that democratic action by U.S. citizens had the power to heal those flaws. But I was separated from my culture, my religion, and from the democratic process. As a guest in foreign countries, I could not lift my voice to criticize. By the time I reached adolescence, I felt starved for a close community, and I had a deep, frustrated desire to use my voice and energy for communal good.

In Washington DC after college, I was hired to work on the staff of a Unitarian Universalist church that was 40% African American and full of major community leaders. At first I thought that people, especially the African American members of the congregation, would see me only as an overly educated, wet-behind-the-ears, hopelessly idealistic white woman. (Which is still true, although I'm not so wet behind the ears anymore.) But in fact, people welcomed me — not as a foreign guest, but simply as a new member of the community who had gifts to offer. And none of those people, of whatever color, expected me to see them as anything but a person with gifts that they in turn would offer me.

Among the many gifts I received was the knowledge that African-American history is not just for African Americans. The community spirit this history reflects was also reflected in that congregation, which in turn gave me the feeling that I had ached for as a child: the feeling of belonging to, and having a voice in, a powerful community. I have a debt of gratitude to pay, both to that congregation, and to the leaders of the Underground Railroad, Civil Rights, Black Power — who demanded, and are still demanding, that America heal its flaws the way I was taught we could. Their lives, their stories give all of us a road map to freedom, on a road that we have to travel together.

I believe that we in this church can become the kind of community that shapes, molds, and launches future leaders, by doing three things. The first thing we can do is grass roots organizing.

The Justice Council is creating a mechanism that works both internally and externally to take our love into the public arena. This new, ongoing group is called the Core Team. The Core Team finds and acts on issues that matter to us and our neighbors, and builds our political muscle one action at a time.

We've never done this before as a congregation or as a team. Our first action was to gather over 300 signatures to help put Just Cause Eviction Protections on the Oakland ballot in November. The initiative is on the ballot, partly because of us. This is an example of love using power to create justice.

Now, political organizing takes work, and there has to be some fun and reward along the way. Let me tell you two rewards that you can reap, personally, if you get involved. These are also the next two conditions for nurturing leadership.

The second thing we need to do is build even wider and deeper friendships. Almost everyone comes to church to find community. Sometimes people are almost apologetic about this. They say, “I don't really come to church to get involved in justice work. I just come for the community.”  Well, doing justice work depends upon having a community of friends. And by the same token, doing justice work is a good way to build community.

Getting back Wade, Kristen and Joyce, what happened in that room was the magic of friendship being formed. When Kristen asked Wade, “What holds you back?”  he answered, “I'm afraid that I might lose my friends.”  But at that moment it was clear that Wade was making new friends — people who shared his tears of rage, pain and love — people like Joyce, who was active in the interfaith organization to which Wade's church also belonged.

When I say community, I am talking about people who know one another because they have taken time to hear one another's stories, to feel both their differences and their common ground. They may not all come from the same place, but they know they are going somewhere together.

This is the other key role of the Core Team. Besides taking on issues and actions, our equally important role is to conduct one-to-one interviews, to get to know our congregation. We will also this outside the congregation, to build new friendships.

The third thing we need to do is the hardest. To become a community that nurtures leaders who are powerful enough to step beyond our walls, we need the leaders themselves to step forth. This requires personal risk-taking. If you are one of those individuals, what is your reward? The reward, and I say this from experience, is your own spiritual transformation.

Now don't let me imply that I have attained enlightenment. My own training and discipline has made me look hard at my history, my wounds, and my gifts. My ability to confront power structures is not something I was born or raised with. Grass roots organizing gives me practice, and my community nurtures me. Yet I have not yet had the impact I would like. Let me tell you about someone who did.

I spent my last three high school years living in Tokyo, and graduated from an American high school. When I arrived I enrolled in “Japanese I” , which was taught by an American man named Mr. Brown. A couple of months into the school year, after school one day my mother happened to mention, “Mr. Brown is Black.”  I was mystified. “What makes you think that? He doesn't look Black. So what?”  What I noticed about Mr. Brown was not his color, which was not dark, but that he was a nerd. He made bad puns, spoke Japanese with an embarrassing American accent, and worst of all, he wore an obvious, straight haired, auburn colored toupee.

Some years later, I heard a story about Mr. Brown that completely changed my outlook. Another teacher told me this. Apparently the school had a long-standing policy of differing compensation, where faculty members who were Japanese citizens earned less than those from the U.S. The Japanese faculty members somehow made their dissatisfaction known, and there was a difficult, emotional meeting to discuss the faculty's position. The majority, like Mr. Brown, were American citizens. Mr. Brown stopped the meeting in its tracks when he rose and said, “If this faculty cannot take a position of fairness, I will take off my wig and go bald!”  The faculty voted in favor of a stand for equitable compensation, apparently inspired by Mr. Brown's stand.

When I next saw Mr. Brown he had, in fact, stopped wearing his wig, and was going bald. He didn't look like a nerd anymore. His features were dominated by his huge smile. I could now see what my mother had noticed years earlier; he looked more African-American without his wig. But he was not different. If anything, he was more authentically himself.

As I think back on Mr. Brown, I wonder if his act on behalf of his colleagues actually opened the door to a level of comfort with himself that perhaps he had not expected to attain. He had made his home in a close-knit community, a bicultural enclave where there was no need for him to rock the boat on his own behalf, but where the prevailing, conventional assumptions perhaps kept another part of him in the closet. Yet something called him out to stop an injustice against others, and in stepping out in protest, he also stepped out of that closet. Who can say what the greater good was: that he helped stop a pattern of discrimination against others? Or that in taking a personal and public stand, he became more fully himself, and more fully known for himself in his community?

My sisters and brothers, we are on the brink of a new era, in so many ways. In meetings and retreats, even from this pulpit, we've discussed topics like the pastoral versus the program church, policy governance systems, our new understanding of ourselves that we gained during the interim period, and the hopes we have invested in our new professional ministers. But in the final analysis, it's all simply a means to an end. What really matters is, whether we want to take our religious values — of human dignity, of compassion, equity, self-determination, freedom in the quest for spiritual truth — out in public and make them real. We have the love to do it. We are a community that can do it. Our next task is to build the power.

Please rise as you are able
for Hymn #172: Siph' Amandla, Oh God, Give Us Power.

* Thanks to Judy Freespirit, FUCO Worship Associate, for the juxtaposition of “tribe”  and “people.”