I draw the title of this post with great appreciation for and no offense meant to Jason Shelton who wrote the song “Standing On the Side of Love” or to the hallmark social action program of the same name in the Unitarian Universalist denomination that is currently celebrating 5 years of bearing witness as part of our faith.
Last night, I had the accidental fortune to be right in the thick of the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly “Worship, Witness and Waterfire” event that was the centerpiece of the Saturday happenings. I say accidental because I hadn’t intended to go. I had a dreadful headache that kicked in during an incredible late afternoon presentation by Sister Simone Campbell as the Ware Lecturer for this year’s general assembly. Despite my headache, I was completely blown away by her commitment. I’ve followed her and the Nuns on the Bus for a while and have regularly looked to Catholic nuns as some of the deepest inspiration as a group of people who genuinely “bear witness” in so many different ways. I think of my friend Sr. Joann Heinritz who is committed to body work and sharing the need for human contact with people who are denied touch through her own hands-on work as a massage therapist, working with people from all walks of life, doing footwashing and healing with homeless people, simply because it needs to be done.
Following, Sr. Campbell’s beautiful talk that included her reflections on bearing witness of people in real pain both in traditional war zones and the war zone of the United States southern border, I took some time to tend to my headache in a dark room that was just in earshot of the “worship” portion of last nights festivities. I heard spirited singing and the word love bandied about with abandon. My head was swimming with Sr. Campbell’s words “walk willing toward trouble” and I found myself questioning how easily Unitarian Universalists are talking about love at this General Assembly. What does the word “love” mean? I’ve spoken with many people at this gathering (both young and old) who are questioning what feels like a surface engagement of the love ethic. The singers and musicians in the service are all extremely talented good friends and I don’t mean to take anything away from their gifts or their efforts, but for me and many of the others who are questioning how this has all landed, “love” is always a verb; it means nothing outside of action: where you choose to live, what you say and do, who you support, how you engage your community and those around you…even how you exist in your own body. Evangelicals who preach “good news” praise-type worship always include a call to action or a challenge as to whether one has been living the word of Christ good enough. You will never see a congregation of that kind simply singing about love to itself; it is always about love focused with a purpose, usually outward. We may not follow Christ, but we also want to be challenged. We want to be called to action…every single time. As another attendee mentioned, you can’t just make the announcement about letting the people with mobility issues leave the arena once at the beginning of the conference…you have to do it every time. Although singing about love is good, the real “witness” always depends upon where one is actually willing to stand.
I eventually took myself out of the stadium and made my bleary eyed way toward the busses back to my dorm. As it would happen, the busses were running only sporadically. Long story short, I realized that it would be better for me to just stay put until after the Waterfire event that would be happening nearby on the river. This was to be the “witness” portion of the activities and I realized that I had the opportunity to actually witness, the witness. I readied my camera and walked toward the event. As I arrived I noticed a broad range of locals gathering. There were young and old, black and white, different languages…it reminded me in some ways of the block parties we used to have in New York in the early 70’s. There was a very real innocence to those parties where everyone from every walk of life came together without biases or bigotry, just to enjoy being in community. And everyone was equal.
As I arrived at the main basin where the event was happening where there would be fire accompanied by music right on the water (hence the name ‘Waterfire’) I noticed that the front of the area closest to the water was cordoned off. I thought at first that this was for safety. The ‘braziers’ where the fire would be lit were large and when lit would probably send up a fairly huge conflagration. But I soon realized that this was actually a “reserved” standing area and that it was for the Unitarian Universalists. As I watched, this empty area closest to the action steadily filled with yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” shirts with the help of security and ushers who moved non-UUs out and moved credentialed UUs in. I watched yellow shirts push past, walk around and yes, even climb over residents who had been waiting for up to 2 hours to see this event. From my vantage point among the local crowd, what was intended to be a “witness” turned into more of a “display” and somewhat of a distraction.
I believe that our organizers had the best of intentions. They were aware of a local event that is unique and beautiful and they wished to find a way for the denomination to show up in force to affirm this gathering of a community. We are often reminded that “just showing up” is the first and most important step to offering solidarity. But one must also be mindful of how one shows up. Sr. Simone, as with many Sisters, does not wear a habit. Traditional garb can be a useful tool, both for safety and for sending an important message, so not wearing the habit is not only personally liberating, but it is situationally liberating. However, I’ve been told by Sisters that when they wear the habit, there is also an expectation of behavior that goes with it that can become a distraction and hindrance to their work when they are pushing the boundaries of love in which they believe. I was shown another example in a lecture earlier this year with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence where I heard them make this same important claim. Their “battle drag” is part shock value, part theater and part toolkit. It is intentional and never taken for granted in the many privileges (and vulnerabilities) it brings them in their work. When I see Unitarian Universalists show up at a local event in bright goldenrod t-shirts, I question how well we’ve thought out the “how” behind the way we are showing up? At the Waterfire event, were we showing up because we want to be with the people of Providence or are we showing up because we want to be seen and get a good seat?
In order to ‘walk willing toward trouble,’ I think it is important for Unitarian Universalists to understand first that we don’t always need a banner to tell everyone. Certainly it is useful when marching on Washington, supporting Moral Mondays, gathering in solidarity with local hotel workers protesting union policies…places where our visible presence makes a difference to media and people who aren’t engaged looking on. But when “witness” is asking a community to welcome our support of their efforts, it is easy to stumble over the line of show boating. One of the great lessons I learned as a massage therapist and that continues to be important for me in ministry is the ability to simply be present with people. As an organization, we could learn more about this delicate balance. We need to always show up, but without an agenda, and instead with open hands that say to those who have asked us, “please use me as you most need, I am willing to walk with you toward trouble.” That is love.