The stories of courageous people from our history can inspire and instruct us in our modern quest for socioeconomic and ecological justice. In three distinct periods of our history, Elizabeth Peabody, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, and Rachel Carson boldly broke with gender- and race-based norms to become leaders in social justice work. This sermon by UU seminarian Bob Clegg challenges us to use the lives of these Unitarian women as models for our own life and work today.
Sermon by Bob Clegg
When John F. Kennedy was running for president, he wrote a little book called Profiles in Courage – stories about political figures who did courageous things. Kennedy selected for his book like John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, and Sam Houston. They didn’t win every battle – in fact, most folks thought they were failures in their time. But Kennedy had a purpose for these stories. He was trying to communicate what qualities people need in order to be fit to lead our country. My dad had a copy of Profiles in Courage in his bookshelf, and I read it when I was a kid. I liked it, because Kennedy’s point was, sometimes you have to stick up for what feels right, even if everybody else says you’re wrong and that ruins your whole life.
This morning, I’d like to tell you some stories. These aren’t stories from Kennedy’s book. These are about courageous people from Unitarian history. I didn’t pick these people just because they were Unitarians. More important, both of them went through a tough time – a fierce landscape – a dark night of the soul. On the other side of that fierce landscape, they discovered they were changed, and they had a greater mission – a higher calling – than they’d ever felt before. I propose to you at the outset, that these stories of courageous people from our history, can help us live better lives today.
The first story is that of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who was born in Baltimore in 1825. Harper was a born a free black woman. She was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but she joined the Unitarians as an adult, and she maintained membership in both denominations for the rest of her life. But back when she was fourteen, Harper learned to read and write in a Quaker household where she worked. Before long, she was publishing poems about racism and slavery in Northern newspapers. She became the first African American woman to publish a short story, and at least four of her books are still in print. One of these was Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, where she took on not just racism and slavery, but also oppression of women. In later life, she wrote so many magazine articles that she earned the moniker, “the mother of African American journalism.”
But back in 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, things got so dangerous for free blacks in Maryland – which was a slave state – that Harper fled to the North. There she joined the Underground Railroad and helped escaped slaves make their way north to Canada. She spoke out on the anti-slavery lecture circuit in the North. After the war, she traveled extensively in the South, where she advocated for universal education and political action by African Americans.
Next, Harper focused on women’s rights. She worked many long years with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the women’s suffrage movement. But Harper didn’t forget about racism and bigotry. In 1894 she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. She continued to travel widely, speaking out against lynching, which was at its apex at the turn of the century. In 1889, she published an autobiographical novel that laid out her four-point program for African American liberation – “personal development, altruism, non-discrimination, and racial pride.”
Harper was complex – her dual membership in the A.M.E. and Unitarian Churches proves that! She identified with the A.M.E.s because that was her roots – it was full of people with experiences just like her own. The Unitarian Church of the late 1800s was a rare interracial institution. It gave her the chance to push white folks to take the fight for racial and gender equality into places that were denied to her. But Harper’s attraction to Unitarianism was not just political networking. Her concept of God was Unitarian, not Trinitarian. To her, Jesus was a role model for what we can all be in this world. In her last novel, she drew an analogy between African Americans and Jesus as Christ-figure – both, “by transcending their suffering, had the opportunity to transform society.”
Harper didn’t live to see women get the right to vote in 1920. She died nine years before, at the age of eighty-five. Her prose and poetry were popular while she lived, but after her death, male critics like W.E.B. DuBois mocked her work, saying she wrote too plainly – too sentimentally. But since the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements of the past fifty years, Harper has been rediscovered. Her “call for full human development—black and white, male and female— endures today…, as urgent and vital as it was during Reconstruction.”
When we look back at Frances Harper’s incredible life, the irony is that it could have been just another normal life, instead of an amazing one. When she fled from Maryland in 1850, she could have just curled up into a little ball and “behaved herself,” and we’d have never heard of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. But she didn’t go lightly. She resurrected herself. After the dark night of her soul – after her fierce landscape – she went on to find another calling, and she made the world a better place for a lot of people in the process.
The second story I want to share with you is about Rachel Carson, who became a member of a Unitarian church as an adult. I recently watched the PBS documentary, “Rachel Carson,” and I highly recommend it. It was one of the best-done documentaries I’ve seen in a long time. What I learned from “Rachel Carson,” the documentary, that I didn’t know about her before, is that she wasn’t always an environmental activist. I always thought Silent Spring was Carson’s first book. Turns out, was already highly acclaimed environmental travel writer, decades before Silent Sprint. Her earlier books were nature travelogues about the biological wonders that inhabit the rocky beaches on the Maine Coast – the starfish and sea cucumbers, the anemones and urchins and hermit crabs, that live there.
But when her sister died, Carson stopped writing so she could raise her two nieces full time. Quietly and privately, she deeply grieved giving up writing. But in the world of the 1940s, as the single woman in the family, she took on the maternal role that she never really wanted. Shortly after her nieces were grown, one of them died, and Carson went back to mothering again – adopting her five-year-old great-nephew, and raising him as her own son.
Later that year – in 1957 – friends told her about a US Department of Agriculture program, eradicating fire ants with the pesticide DDT. Carson went to her filing cabinet and pulled out an old proposal she’d written, years before. It was for a Reader’s Digest article about the unintended harmful effects of the pesticide DDT on the environment. That led to a multi-year study on DDT, complete with lab work and demographic studies. Out of that work came Carson’s first book that was not about life in nature, but about death in nature. That book, Silent Spring, revolutionized how people think about how we interact with the earth. What Carson proposed wasn’t really a new idea, but it is new to modern human beings. What she proposed was that we aren’t masters of the earth – rather, that human beings and the earth are interdependent on each other.
It was about 35 years ago that I read Carson’s book, Silent Spring. I think it should be on everyone’s bucket book list. In Silent Spring, Carson presented in ordinary language, a compelling case about the long term effects of DDT. She also got into the human health effects of environmental toxins and nuclear fallout, and the link to human cancer. These were dots nobody had connected in the scientific literature until then.
When Silent Spring was published, it was an instant best-seller, but it was a difficult success. Carson was called to testify in Congress, where she was attacked by scientists, industry, and the government. They called her a scientific amateur and a hyper-emotional woman. Carson sacrificed much time with her adopted son to complete her work. The whole time, she was racing the clock against her own metastatic cancer. But in finishing Silent Spring, and in testifying on Capitol Hill, Carson rose to her ultimate challenge: Being a mother, not to her two nieces, nor to her great-nephew, but being a mother to all of us, and to Mother Earth itself. That was Carson’s final mission, her final calling, when she took up her pen again after all those years of quiet desperation. And from that calling, though she was persecuted and ridiculed, she did not shrink.
Now why am I telling you these stories? The value of stories like these is that they help us realize our own higher calling. By recalling exemplars from the past, we can find strength for our own future. But not all of our exemplars are in the past. Some of them are in the present! Yes, both of these Unitarian women did something amazing, and their stories can inspire us. But we also have stories of courage that are much closer to home.
Stories like these are what this beloved community, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Easton, is all about. I’ve read your website – and not everybody in Easton thinks you’re bringing the “right kind of people” to Easton by helping out in teen court, or cleaning up the river, or working with the homeless through the Hunger Coalition and the Interfaith Shelter. That’s okay! They’re going to think what they’re going to think! Take heart, and keep the faith! When the going gets rough, you just talk together, tell each other your stories – and if you run out of courage for a minute, then borrow some courage from each other!
Courage – there’s that word. What is courage? Courage is when we’ve gone through our own fierce landscape, our own dark night of the soul, and we’ve come out the other side and realized what we can become. Courage, as a member at UUs of Easton told me, is being scared half to death, but saddling up our horse anyway. From the outside, courage can look like heroism; but when we’re in the thick of the fight, courage is what we do when we know no other choice. Courage is standing up for someone else’s inherent worth indignity, or for our own, no matter what the cost. It’s knowing where to draw the line, where to pick our battles, and then standing firm. Courage can grow into believing in one thing, one cause, one principle, so strongly that we find something worth dying for.
I have one more story, and this one is about not just one U.U., but about everyone who was a member of the UUA in the early 1970s. This story was told to me by one of our members at U.U. Congregation of Frederick, a woman who is now 93 years old, and you can read about it on the Beacon Press website. This story starts back in 1967, when Bob McNamara, who was a member of Lyndon Johnson’s cabinet, became disillusioned with U.S. policy in Southeast Asia and commissioned a top secret study on the secret war the U.S. had been conducting in Laos and Cambodia for years – at taxpayer expense, but completely off the record. One of the panel members, Daniel Ellsberg, finally got tired of waiting in 1971 and leaked the entire report to the New York Times and the Washington Post, which started printing the papers in installments. The Nixon administration got a Supreme Court injunction – the famous “Stop the Presses Injunction.” The Times and the Post complied, halting publication of the report. Senator Mike Gravel, from Alaska, sided with Ellsberg. He called more than two dozen publishers, trying to make the content of the Papers available to the public. None of them would touch the project. It was either too risky financially, or two risky politically – or both – for everyone he asked.
But Gravel was a Unitarian Universalist, so he finally thought of our own UUA publishing house, Beacon Press, which is a department of the U.U. Association. Gravel called the editor, Gobin Stair, who agreed that publishing the Pentagon Papers in their entirety, in book form, was consistent with U.U. principles of peace, justice, and democratic decision making, and rolled the presses on a Friday morning. Come Monday, the bank called the UUA office in Boston and said, “Look, you better get over here. The FBI is here and wants the names and addresses of every person who’s contributed to the UUA for the past seven years.”
Unitarian Universalists were harassed by the FBI for the next year. Gobin Starr was subpoenaed and had to testify at Daniel Ellsberg’s trial. Beacon Press, as a department of the UUA, was threatened with prosecution. During the summer and fall of 1971, our UUCF member personally recalls leaving church with other members on Sunday mornings, to find FBI agents on the sidewalk, taking pictures of members’ license plates as they got in their cars. But U.U. congregations across the country voted to publicly express their support for Beacon Press’s decision. The furor finally subsided the next year when the Watergate scandal distracted the Nixon administration a year later. But until then, it was a dicey time to be a Unitarian Universalist!
I tell you this story because it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we U.U.s could find ourselves in a similar situation in the not-so-distant future. The storm surrounding the Pentagon Papers set in on U.U.s practically overnight. There was no real warning before what happened actually happened. There may be just as little warning next time around. Frankly, I’ve only been a U.U. for three years, and when I heard that story for the first time, I went home and told my wife, “Honey, I think I need to tell you what I’ve gotten us into.”
I’m grateful I’ve come to the place in life where I’m glad I have something worth really sacrificing for. Somehow, that makes my life feel more valuable. But when I think of actually dying for principles, or even losing all Connie and I have, I get a bit weak in the knees. That’s ok! None of us knows exactly how we will react until we are in the situation. As Rabbi Hillel warned, “Never trust in your own strength until the day of your death.”
Yet, there’s strength in numbers. What we can do now is to prepare ourselves for whatever storm may come – to cultivate our readiness, by sharing and meditating on exemplary stories with each other – to journey together, to find meaning in our own lives – seeking that thing that, to each of us, might be worth dying for. My prayer is that we may be granted the courage to seek, until we find, something in life that’s worth dying for.