I was invited by the Malden UU church to say some words at what I thought would be a service for them putting up a Black Lives Matter banner. It wasn’t really a sermon but a panel talk as an event to go along with putting up the banner. I was asked to talk about what my experiences were like at my church for putting it up. This is what I said:
My name is David Concepcion and I am a member of the UU Church of Medford just down the road of Route 60. I am here today because the Malden congregation, as many others in our denomination nationally in our state and in our cities, have decided to show our solidarity with the victims of police shootings and the call for racial justice and accountability. This is no small undertaking but a necessary one. Unitarianism is a covenantal religion, meaning we practice our faith in the promise of how we treat each other; in some ways that bond IS our creed. As a religion we have always shone a light on injustice and as a beacon of hope. And in 2016, at the rate that Black people are killed at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve the public, they are in need of solidarity and hope.
Last fall, I asked our Reverend, Tess Baumburger, if we could put up a Black Lives Matter banner at the church. I didn’t ask because of any one particular death of a Black person at the hands of the police—despite the many that can still be named: Tamir Rice, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland; and the list goes on and is updated constantly. I asked about a banner after what happened to a Unitarian church in Reno, NV. Their minister, Rev. Neal Anderson, is a friend of mine and I heard that, at that time, they were dedicating their third Black Lives Matter banner after their first two banners were vandalized and stolen respectively. Despite each time this majority White church had their banner ruined or taken, they put up another one with the same blessings and commitment as they put up their first one. They did this because it was part of the commitment that church made to support social justice. To me the question was never why don’t we have a Black Live Matters banner, but why haven’t we put one up yet? And so we put ours up with much of the same commitment you are showing today.
Today is a good time for me to come and talk about your Black Lives Matter banner, as recently ours was vandalized. Someone had painted the “V” over in white paint so it read “Black Lies Matters.” This is much like what happened to the Black Lives banner at the church in Arlington: someone had taped the word “All” over the word “Black.” Put into context, we have a more considerate class of vandals in Medford and Arlington. Ours wasn’t stolen, graffitied, or torn apart so we can handle that. At our church, we are in the process of figuring out which is better: removing the paint or getting a new banner (which is a committee decision so that takes a little time, but we love our committees). However, there is no doubt we will be putting ours back up soon. At our church, we took on the responsibility to raise the banner. Part of that responsibility is to put it back up if and when it is vandalized. You are embarking on the same responsibility. I can say it is joy to see the banner each time we come to church, and it will be hard to deal with when the banner is damaged intentionally—and at some point you will have to deal with that as well. But as they say in life, it’s not how many times you get knocked down that is important, it is how many times you get back up. For many reasons, this is a commitment you chose to handle, and we are grateful for it.
It is strange but powerful how some symbols like this banner can be. They can be beacons for those who are oppressed. In 1930s occupied Europe, the Unitarian Service Committee’s flaming chalice was underground symbol for assistance to help Unitarians, Jews and others to escape Nazi persecution. We currently fly the rainbow flag signifying us as allies to the LGBT communities. The Black Lives Matter is simply another way to stand in solidarity with groups that are persecuted. Secondly, it is our way to speak out to an important issue. This banner is a statement in the larger conversation about race and power in this country. Some people fail to see the larger conversation the banner points to and focus only on the statement on the banner. When the statement is a slogan per se, people can misinterpret things. Let me explain. People more often than not see the words “Black Lives Matter” as a complete sentence; meaning they read it as “Black Lives Matter period.” It is not a complete sentence. If it was one, the slogan would actually be “Black Lives Matter comma Also period”—meaning we matter too. As it stands, it really says “Black Lives Matter comma Because” with a space to insert the reasons why. Black lives matter because we are no longer nor have we ever been 3/5 of a person. Black lives matter because we are not, nor should we ever be, considered possessions. Black lives matter because every one of them is meaningful but that is forgotten more often than not—either by stereotypes or innuendo. Black lives matter because not every crime deserves the death penalty meted out on the streets. Black lives matter because in a society that treats all people as cheap commodities, Black lives are often considered the most easily disposable. Black lives matter because we, in fact, bring color to the spectrum of diversity. Black lives matter because we are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews and people who have earned the love of their families and friends, and have given it back. Black lives matter because our lives have worth and dignity and should be honored as all of us with love, respect, and justice.
This banner, much like the chalice and the rainbow flag, are not only our entry into the larger conversations on equality and justice in human relations, but a way to live up to our own values as well. This banner is our own seven principles writ large, all seven of them—the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity and compassion in human relations; acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; a free and responsible search for truth and meaning; the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process; the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all; and respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. As such we not only have the responsibility to raise it, but to live it as well. We need to fly it for and with those that need to hear these words, but we also need to engage with those who can’t understand why this needs to be said. Every time one of our churches, or synagogues, or mosques, or individuals wave this banner, the conversation becomes louder for the better, letting all in power know that we are watching and listening and learning and doing our part to dismantle systemic and institutional racism and oppression. And if or when the banner falls, you will raise it once again (every time) to let those people know that the values behind the words are stronger than the hate that wrecked them. This is what you’ve agreed to do by raising this banner today. It doesn’t seem easy, but it really is once you realize everything this banner represents is worth it. And you will soon realize that you have friends and allies that you have yet to meet in your corner. So to the Malden UU Church, I say welcome to the growing number of congregations—be they Unitarian or any other religion—who have made the choice to stand up against oppression, stand with your brothers and sisters, and visibly live out your values.
Blessed be and thank you.