Should We Put Up a Sign? 

UUs value inclusion and are called to act where inequities exist. UUs also value building bridges and are called to listen and learn across difference. At this service with Rev. Sue Browning, we’ll consider the challenges of living out our values in a society plagued by both open discrimination and a growing sense of polarization and ask, When is it helpful for a congregation to post a sign saying, ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ or ‘All Are Welcomed’ or ‘Black Lives Matter’? The choir will sing. 
Text of Sermon

Should We Put Up a Sign?

It’s election season. It’s hard to miss with the crisp, fall landscape peppered with bright candidate signs and our phones ringing hourly looking for support. Signs for governor, the US senate and congress, and other state and local offices. And who can accurately define the role of  this office of ‘Orphan’s Court’?

Mostly these are signs with names and the meaning is pretty clear. A sign in your yard (or a bumper sticker, button or TShirt) shows who you plan to vote for.  Democracy is dependent on communications. It hopes for an informed citizenry, and yes, it relies on competition among and between candidates as they try to persuade us to vote for them, and as we then persuade others to vote as we do.

As we shared in our Thoughts for All Ages, signage helps candidates achieve name recognition. Signs are reminders to vote — an invitation to support a candidate. It may even lead to a conversation on issues. For the informed ‘consumer’ there is a value message in the sign. I’m with Jean or Joe. Join me in supporting what they support.

While our voting is by secret ballot, yard signs, and buttons, and bumperstickers and T-Shirts shed light onto the choices. Signs make it personal. Our democracy depends on open discourse, and these ‘Vote for…’ signs seem a part of a basic process.

We know it’s about more than signs. There are debates and candidate forums. And the TV and radio ads, and robo-calls soliciting donations. And surveys. And never-ending stream of views on Facebook.

Information overload. Yes. And too, in all the imperfection there is an attempt to engage.

Overwhelming, and yet energy. It the whirl, change is made possible.

Which parts of the rhetoric might lead to change – to make a difference? Rhetoric – the persuasive aspects of public dialog (and no the word was not always negative) did not begin with TV, Facebook, or even newspapers. Public discourse is about finding a message which is effective, and which fits for the audience.

An early place of effective message delivery goes back to the ministry of Jesus. The historical Jesus was likely a young artisan, possibly a woodcrafter who began a drumbeat for change at a local level. Jesus got messaging. He knew all politics was local. He listened and found a way to connect with a fed up rural people, and in his case a people with a history of resistance.

He had a fresh take on the order of things, and fairness that he was trying to sell. The people he was trying to reach knew had been persecuted, were hurt by taxes, and some had lost land. To get their attention he used parables tied to each audience as teaching tools. His audience agrarian, so his images of cultivation – scattering seed or heaven like a mustard seed. Jesus wanted to portray an alternative. He gained trust. To stay credible, Jesus’ ministry must have included listening and observing.

Importantly he needed to inspire a necessary openness to change. Jesus in effect led a grassroots effort to re-anchor the value system of the Jewish community and put pressure on authorities for greater justice. He had a message. He knew his audience. His vision was a God of love. A community where neighbor loved neighbor. Rhetoric worth repeating. Neighbors were to love one another.

Rhetoric is not new, and communities are changed in the sharing of beliefs, and values. And democracy is a competitive process where good ideas and leaders vie for attention. And sound bites and cryptic messages are used – 2018 is not an exception.

And we will wake up on Nov. 7 – an election behind us, and a sense of victory or defeat, or some mix. For many here who have engaged – and there are many of you – with voter registration, and phone banks, and candidate forums my hope is you will feel the process was good; that you made connections beyond sound bites; and that the signs you displayed felt aligned with what you value. Give your selves a hug – doing what you could, and without a doubt being a deeper part of the result in the connections you have fostered. (Commitment matters – though in full disclosure this Red Sox fan called it a night at 3 am Saturday morning as the game continued. We have limits!)

And whatever the results are Nov. 7, there is a sense of hope in the longer-term work begun these past years to move toward a more just society.vThat is my hope.

We know that grassroots work takes time. While Jesus and fellow followers got a ripple started – say in year 30 CE, it took more messaging around a core messages of love and fairness. And a knowing of audience for a core message. Who might be open to listen as the message spread? How might they be moved toward openness and a willingness to be a part of something in motion? Over the next centuries, stories were told and retold of Jesus’s ministry. And messages were tailored. The gospels are some of those stories, written in the century to followed fit various audiences, and carried forward.

What might a new world order look like? In The Gospel of Mark has a message that  was cryptic, at times secretive, matching the danger to listeners (likely was written to connection with a Greek-speaking Jewish community outside Jerusalem) –. Matthew was likely more tied to Jews more directly impacted by the destruction of the Temple. The audience understood Jewish teachings. Luke was written to a wider audience, and does not presume an understanding of Jewish custom, worship and teachings. And John was writing to Jews likely living further away.

What is the message? Who is the audience? These questions are at the heart of achieving change. They are not static.

As we put up signs, who are we communicating with? and what is our message? Focus where there may be openness – to someone disenfranchised, who is struggling, who wants to connect.

What of signs beyond candidates, beyond the election. What messages which are needed between elections? After a breath from campaign signs, is there a message you want to highlight? That fits for you, and your neighborhood, and your location?

Is there a shared message that this congregation wants to offer? Is there a message needed for our time? If yes, how would you effectively communicate this message? Would a sign fit in?

As one example noted in the Des Moines Register (Oct. 18, 2018), this month a church in Iowa, the Plymouth Congregational Church, opted to hang a Black Lives Matter banner on its building to show solidarity with the larger black community. A police spokesman challenged the sign hanging on the church’s exterior wall, finding the statement divisive rather than unifying. The minister explained, ‘We want to draw attention to racial disparities in our community and try to stand in solidarity with our African-American neighbors, and we don’t intend to disparage law enforcement at all” and noted there had been reach out conveying this to law enforcement in advance of hanging the sign.  

It was 5 years ago that the Black Lives Matter movement started as a response to the killings of young black men by police or vigilantes. It was never intended to suggest that only black lives matter, or matter more than other lives, but that black lives are disproportionately devalued.”

In the back and forth, the minister was asked if this sign in response to specific racial unrest in the city, and he responded, “it was not, and had been planned a year ago.” He said Plymouth’s exploration of racial dichotomies originated with the broader United Church of Christ… For two years, Plymouth members have been meeting for what they call “sacred conversations on race,” which have challenged the mostly white congregation to think about discrimination. The results have been “transformational,” he said.

Signs can stir the pot, with the intent of getting movement on challenging issues. This congregation in Iowa did do its homework, and hung a sign as an intentional part of a more complex story. My sense is they are prepared to collectively articulate the challenges.

Would a sign fit in here? How would you decide together to put up a sign or not?

Last summer the congregation had a request to consider a “Hate Has No Home Here” sign. The Wayside pulpit messages (Easton’s changing sign on Rt 50 are all subject to Board approval, and signs will be discussed soon. For now the sample signs sit in my office and the Board may discuss it soon.

I’ve struggled with this specific sign. Of course, hate is not welcome in my home, or my church, or my local school or gym. Period end. The message is true for me. Hate can be defined as extreme dislike or disgust, or intense hostility and aversion, often tied to bigotry. It motivated the horrible shootings in Pittsburg.

But we need to ask, who is our audience for the sign? What do we hope to achieve?

As a start, I can imagine the sign would offer clarity for those who belong to this UU community grounded in love and prove it is living out values of inclusion. It’s a statement of what is never ‘ok’ in a society where torches have been carried less than a year ago. Where shootings happened yesterday.

The sign may be an invitation to others who are in search of clarity on values and the courage to speak out. They may check out this religious community, and join their energy to the challenges faced by many.

And mostly importantly, the sign maybe reassurance for many who are victims of hate spewed by others based on skin color, immigration status or sexual orientation. It would say our UU principles affirm your worth and dignity, and we take that message to community. It is not a message just to be hung safely on our walls. We want you to be safe. The Multicultural Center in Easton hopes we convey this message.

Yet, could the sign ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ reinforce division? Possibly. Few think of themselves are hateful – or of extending hate? There may be some who from their center of love and justice support policies which I see as holding another group down, and which are discriminatory. Are all of those supporters hateful? While I want to resist discriminatory policies with all of my might, does this sign help? Does it set the stage for less violence? More openness? Could it help change the trajectory of actions which stereotype and disparage? Maybe.

Hate is a place to draw a line. To be clear.

What instead if there were a big sign saying, ‘All Are Welcome’ and having the message in multiple languages? How about the ‘All Are Welcome’ signage with transgender backdrop of rainbow colors saying Love Everyone means Everyone?

Would it have the same effect, and open more doors? Or is it hedging the harder issues?

I ask, because I think we all struggle. When to take a public position? When to hold our views quietly, grateful for the secret ballot, and clear in our effort of not wanting to make others uncomfortable?

After today’s service this congregation will exercise its power to act together. The members will hold a special meeting, and together you will vote and together you will make a decision on whether to call me as your settled minister – your long-term partner. In Unitarian Universalist congregations, members set the direction. Your elected leaders – your Board acts on your behalf.

Folks have asked, if we call you Sue, what will be different, and to be honest I think the differences will be subtle. My sense is the commitment we’ll make to one another will deepen our power to set direction together. Together we’ll ask, again and again, what is the role of this congregation? how do we support personal growth and find possibilities for collective action for change?

…Is this a place of safety and refuge, Or a place of developing courage…collective courage? How can it be both?

…Who do we serve? Who are our neighbors?

…What is our message beyond these doors? Who is the audience?

At the best signs invite questions, and over time, and with space for deeper learning, can change norms – can change mindsets. Advertisers know this. “You deserve a break today” or “Just Do It” – Nike’s umbrella slogan, which is opening new doors. Jesus knew this. Martin Luther King knew this.

As we pass by the election, and we will, after that – what is a fit for you – a sign, a button on your coat? Who needs the hope of your visible message? What might be changed in your display? And for the congregation, after study, should UUFE consider a sign – whether “Black Lives Matter” or “Dismantle Racism” or one I saw last summer at a UU church, “Our Faith Calls Us to Act for Racial Justice” or Hate Has No Home Here” or “All Are Welcome” message as a part of our forming identity? There is learning and spiritual growth in the hard conversations to decide.

In the months and years to come, may you have the wisdom to use the courage and power of this community to bring more love and justice to the world.

May It Be So


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *