Look at all those beautiful faces:
This is from Oct. 12, people from UUCA and other North Georgia UU congregations proudly standing (and walking and riding) on the side of love and justice for the LGBTQ community at this year’s Pride Parade. There were a couple area ministers among the group as well. Rev. Thickstun, Rev. Terry Davis from Northwest UU, and me. The guy in the collar.
Here’s a closer look:
I’m not going to say anything about my stylish umbrella and its inadvertent endorsement of the University of Georgia. I had been expecting rain and wanted something enormous to shelter under and it was the biggest umbrella I could find at the CVS pharmacy on the way to the downtown parade site. Luckily, it wasn’t rain but sun that showed up that day, and I needed that umbrella to keep me cool in all the heat.
What I do want to talk about is the collar. As our worship that morning several weeks ago was nearing its end, I talked about how I would be dressed in that classic minister special of black suit and white collar as a way of expanding my ministry to people who had no clue in the world what or who I was and needed to know that they were loved by God like any other—that they had nothing to be ashamed of. The collar would telegraph that instantly, which is a unique power of symbols. Instant transmission to thousands and thousands of people of our Unitarian Universalist saving message and even though we can get used to it—that ONLY LOVE message—it packs a wallop for those who haven’t ever heard such a thing, who’ve lived in families and communities that don’t affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
I want to share with you an email I received later that night, after that long day in which I had happily sweated for love and justice in my minister get up under a hot sun. The subject line: “You made a difference today.” And then the message, from a congregant, Tammy Powell:
Of course, you make a difference a lot. But a young transman from rural northern Louisiana was visiting us this weekend for Pride, and he shared with me Saturday night that he had been persecuted by his church because of who he was. For that reason, he said, he was not comfortable joining Richard and me for services this morning. (Richard and I used to be the faculty advisor for the GLBTQIAA student group at Louisiana Tech, and we host them every year at Pride.) I told him that I understood, and that he should be gentle with himself, not rush into anything after such a traumatic experience. After you explained to us why you were wearing your collar today, and the message you were sending for those who were hurt, I messaged Danny and told him what you had said and that when he saw you in the parade today, he should know that you were wearing your collar for him.
I saw him while we were marching in the parade today (because our gaggle of kids was screaming at us!), and when he saw you he started crying. It meant a lot to him. Thank you! Tammy
I read this, and I cried too. And then I had a vision of all the yellow Standing on the Side of Love yellow t-shirts and all the people wearing them and all the people marching whether or not they were wearing them and all the coordination efforts that went into pulling the march off… And my vision went on and on in that direction, in the direction of revealing the interdependent web of people and events and actions big and small that are parts of any chain of cause and effect culminating in anything.
That young transgender man’s tears—his hunger for love and acceptance—and he saw it in my collar, and my collar was possible because of this place and you.
Only light can drive out darkness. Only love can drive out hate.
It’s our central mission, and it’s also our connection to the ages. People long ago, whom we have never met, who also believed in Only Love.
Let’s take a brief look at some of the history.
132 years ago, in 1882, when the Rev. George Leonard Chaney first came to Atlanta, it was just a lot of dirt. And by that I mean the prospects for liberal religion. The Civil War had ended only 17 years earlier, and Atlanta as a reconstruction-era southern city was decidedly unfriendly to northern Unitarian Christianity and abolitionism. On average there were 190 lynchings a year from 1877 to 1900 in Georgia and other states. The Ku Klux Klan was in full force of terror. There had been two other attempts to plant liberal Christian and abolitionist congregations in Georgia—one in Augusta and the other in Savannah—but both had experienced vicious attacks and by the 1850s, both were totally out of business, buildings sold, ministers gone. That’s what the Rev. George Leonard Chaney faced when he came to Atlanta. Colleagues warned him, telling him it would be a great waste of time.
But if we can see the situation as similar to an humble seed in a Dixie cup, then it makes sense to say that the Rev. Chaney watered the cup every day, faithfully. Once in Atlanta, he made arrangements for his first public address—it would take place February 19, 1882, in the Senate Chambers of the State Legislature. He located all the known Unitarian families in the area, posted advertisements in the newspapers, did all the things you do when you’re wanting to plant a new congregation, and guess how many showed up? Eight. Among all the many possible ten thousands of people. Eight. For Rev. Chaney’s next address, entitled “The Positive Principles of Unitarian Christianity,” ten showed up. People already known to Chaney. No one who was not already a convinced Unitarian. “This went on for six months,” he says—“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, and awakening few responses beyond its own echo.”
But he kept on. He trusted that life is everywhere, hidden in what is ordinary and unlikely, moving and growing in its own good time. One year later, in 1883, a new congregation was founded with not eight or ten people but twenty-seven charter members, called “The Church of Our Father.” A building was built, and the young congregation was finding ways of serving the larger world. It saw, for example, that there was a private Young Men’s Library in Atlanta, a library of 12,000 volumes. For a fee, you could use it; but what if you couldn’t afford it? And forget about even trying, if you were a woman, or if you were a person of color. So the congregation, under Chaney’s leadership, organized the establishment of a free lending library for every one, male or female, black or white, poor or wealthy. Paul in the Christian scriptures talked about how there was neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, but all are one in Christ Jesus—and here was our ancestor congregation incarnating these words practically, entrepreneurially, in the form of a lending library. Talk about prophetic religion—social reform that expresses a clear spiritual vision! Eventually the Carnegie Foundation got wind of it, saw how successful the venture was, and was inspired to establish no less than the Atlanta Public Library. That’s where it comes from. Us!
Guess what else? Georgia Tech (apparently the smartest public university in the land). One of its founders happened to be … the Rev. George Leonard Chaney.
You just can’t predict ahead of time what’s going to come up out of the Dixie cup. It’s a mystery you just water faithfully, and let happen. Every generation gets its turn.
Light driving out darkness. Love driving out hate.
Let me tell you another story.
Back in 1995, as way of celebrating her impending 60th birthday, UUCA member Joy Borra was thinking about doing something suitable to mark the milestone in her life. A chance encounter with President Carter helped her discover what that was. President Carter had said that malaria (borne by disease-spreading mosquitoes) needlessly kills a million people every year and that 80% of the dead are very young children. But if children could sleep under insecticide-treated bed nets, they would be protected from malaria. And a mosquito net costs just $5.
Eureka! That was it. Joy connected with Dr. George Ayittey, an economist in Washington, D.C., who grew up in Ghana. Dr. Ayittey suggested that UUCA work with a certain village in Ghana (Nkyenenkyene). A Mosquito Nets campaign was initiated. On Sundays, five year olds would appear at the campaign table in the social hall with a dollar in hand. “She wanted to give her allowance money,” the parent would say. Many adults wrote checks saying, “My mother doesn’t need a thing for Christmas, but she would appreciate helping a child in Ghana.”
Ultimately, a total of $7000 was raised!
We asked Dr. Ayittey to visit our village in Ghana to be the go-between in distributing the nets, and here is what he heard from the village elders: “We would be honored to receive the many mosquito nets to cover our children and prevent the malaria. But will you tell our friends in America that what our village really needs is a library. Our children have a school. But there are no books in this school. We have only a few textbooks, and no books for reading. Will you ask them if they will build for us a library?”
Dr. Ayittey said that it would cost $10,000, and he added, “If you can, you should build the library. This library is more important than you can imagine. It will create a new Ghana. Children who read the books in this library will be literate… really literate. They will create a better economy. They will have better lives. And they will become the generation that changes all the corrupt governments in Africa. Build a library and you will help Africa create a new future.”
We raised that extra $10,000. In 2006 we built that library. It was called The Friendship Library. It has lived up to Dr. Ayittey’s words. It is helping to create a new Ghana.
As the library was being built, one of Ghana’s public library officials asked, “Who is the angel that built this library?” The answer given was: “It was Mrs. Joy Borra and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta!”
Every generation gets its turn.
Standing on the shoulders of the Rev. George Leonard Chaney and so many others, who have made possible what we enjoy and nurture today, we are finding ways to pass their blessings on to others.
And we must keep on passing it on. We are in this together, through the ages.
Light driving out darkness. Love driving out hate.
Having said all this—and knowing that these stories of Only Love are just the tip of the iceberg—there’s only one thing that I can think of doing.
Carol Ann, would you please come up here? (Carol Ann is one of our Stewardship Chairs this year).
Carol Ann, I’m turning in my pledge for this upcoming year. I am increasing it by 20%. It means a personal budget that’s tighter, but I think I can manage. I’m going to get far more bang from my buck knowing all the good that this place does for me, for the folks within these walls, and folks beyond.
The fundamental question is: Who is the angel that supports Mrs. Joy Borra and everyone else here in all their good works? Who is the angel that carries of the legacy of the Rev. George Leonard Chaney and all those pioneers of the Church of Our Father which is the great great grandparent of UUCA? Who is the angel who makes a young transgendered man cry because he has felt shameful all his life but now he feels affirmed in his worth, now he knows that God loves him too?
Who is the angel that builds this congregation and keeps it strong, year after year?
We are the angels.
There are no other angels but us.
The purpose of this place is Only Love. Keep this place vital and strong. If we do not step up here, if we do not commit our time, our energy, and our treasure in a meaningful way here, then where? I believe now is the time, this is the place, we are the people. We need each other, Atlanta needs UUCA, the world needs Unitarian Universalism.
Be the angel today. Pledge your dollars. Increase your pledge if you’ve already given it.
Light driving out darkness. Love driving out hate.
Let’s commit to that.
Commit to Only Love.