Unitarian Universalism and the Art of Soul Gardening
Today, I invite you to imagine your soul, however you define it, as a garden.
I think you can do this even if you do not have an earthly garden where you regularly plant and prune, water and fertilize, or harvest and mulch.
I have some experience with gardens. I’m kind of a junior gardening assistant. As many of you know, Barb is the gardening expert. I just married the right person.
I have been fascinated by the first quote in the order of service, “Life is just a chance to grow a soul,” by A. Powell Davies, since I first heard it.
And to be fair, the first time it was paraphrased more powerfully to say, “The purpose of life is to grow a soul.” That idea challenged me to think about my life’s purpose.
Rev. Davies was the minister at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC from 1943 to 1957. I was already acquainted with his work on civil rights for African-Americans and women and his efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons after World War II. So, I was ready to learn more from him.
Let’s take a moment to visualize our souls as a garden. Is yours neat and tidy — no weeds — with everything in straight rows? Or maybe you are a permaculturalist, where you have a broad mix of native plants intermingled with edible vegetables. Or maybe yours is just a jumble of flora that have accumulated during your life?
Right now, my soul garden needs some tending. For the last couple of years, it feels like it has been trampled by some thoughtless people. A lot of foliage that was previously vibrant and healthy, like:
· the inherit worth and dignity of all people,
· and the interdependent web of all creation.
These have been crushed and are struggling to survive.
How’s your soil?
You know, I have a bit of a reputation for sharing good wines at congregational events. That reputation is mostly underserved. I share, but I don’t know that much about wine. Although, I have learned a few things.
If you want to have an engaging conversation with a winemaker — and see their face light up — ask them about the soil where the grapes were grown. Soil plays a big role in the complexity of the wine.
So, take a good look at the soil in your soul garden. What do you see? Sand, clay, or rich loamy earth? Is there a lot of worm activity? Take a deep breath. Can you smell the richness of your soil?
I think there is something amiss with my soil. For the last few years, I have noticed that the soil where my soul is planted has streaks of white supremacy culture, privilege, and white fragility. I’m not always sure how to deal with this, so sometimes I ignore it. I often need the help of other gardeners to identify these elements. It seems like this is work I cannot do alone. I need to work with all the other gardeners in my community to deal with this.
Those gardeners have convinced me that I live within a system of oppression that grants me enormous privilege.
Others may disagree but let me take you through my discernment process.
I don’t have to do anything for this privilege. It will be there even if I stay at home and play mindless video games all day long. It may not help me win at Solitaire or Soduko, but it is present in almost every other aspect of my life.
What did I do to get this privilege?
I am white. I am male. I am cisgender.
And for those who are unfamiliar with the term, cisgender, it describes people whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex. Compare cisgender to transgender. I was born male and identify as male, so I am cisgender.
I didn’t do anything to get this privilege. The system existed before I got here. I didn’t choose it. I didn’t create it. It’s here for me even when I do something stupid.
Let me tell you a story. It is true, and it really happened this way.
Recently, I bought a slice of pizza at Whole Foods. I had it on the seat beside me as I was driving home. We don’t eat much pizza at our house as Barb has an extreme dairy intolerance.
So, I decided to do her a favor and eat it on the way home.
Besides, I was stopped at a traffic light and the pizza was sitting right beside me.
As the light turned green, a motorcycle cop behind me turned on his lights and I pulled over.
Quick survey. If you’ve ever been pulled over by the police and are willing to share that information, please raise your hand.
Thank you. Many of you are familiar with this situation.
The policeman dismounts, walks up to my window, and says, “I don’t know if you noticed that I was behind you and I could see you talking on your cell phone.”
What the hell?
Now I’m getting outraged. I said, “I wasn’t talking on my cell phone. I was eating pizza.” And I pointed to the pizza crust and the box on the passenger seat.
“Where’s your cell phone?”
Really? Now, I am a mixture of being annoyed at him, embarrassed to be caught eating, and … honestly, I’m in bad mood because my sinuses are raw from a head cold, I’ve had for the last few days.
I said, “It’s in my pocket.”
He wanted to see it, so I started to reach into my pocket, but there were a couple of other things I needed to remove first, like a snotty handkerchief.
<pull handkerchief from pocket>
As he saw this, he said, “Forget it. You can go.”
So that’s all kind of amusing, but how would that have played out if I wasn’t a white guy with a ton of privilege?
Would he have let anyone reach into their pocket? Or would he have assumed others might have a weapon? Or would he have insisted on searching their pockets?
Do you see it? Do something stupid. Be white and male. Forget it. You can go.
I haven’t always been able to see this. In the past, I have argued that any success I’ve had at school or work was solely due to me. I worked and studied hard. I put in extra time. I tried to be clever and smart.
I probably said something like “I am colorblind. I don’t see race when I work with people.”
Now, I am convinced I live within a system of oppression that grants me enormous privilege.
Do you remember the story of Sandra Bland?
She was a 28-year-old African American woman who was pulled over for a traffic violation — changing lanes without signaling — on July 10, 2015, in Waller County, Texas. You may remember the dash camera footage.
The trooper who pulled her over demanded she put out her cigarette.
She said, “Why do I have to put out my cigarette when I’m in my own car?”
The trooper ordered her out of her car. She refused. He threatened her with a taser. It escalated. He arrested her, and she was taken to jail. Three days later, she was found dead, hanged in her jail cell.
There have been so many stories of police violence and escalation against people of color, but Sandra’s hit me in a different way. Maybe because the events all happened around same time as my birthday. Maybe because I was given Sandra’s name and picture at a Black Lives Matter event. I now carry her picture just behind the driver’s license in my wallet.
Or maybe it is because Sandra did exactly what I would have done.
And I didn’t end up dead in a jail cell.
I got, “Forget it. You can go.”
For those who raised your hands earlier, reflect on your experience of being pulled over. What did the trooper say to you? What happened to you?
Now, what am I going to do about this system of oppression that grants me enormous privilege?
What am I going to do to repair the soil where my soul garden is growing?
Consider another aspect of gardens. Neighboring gardens affect each other. The dandelion that goes to seed in one garden sends its seeds, floating delicately in the wind, to the adjacent gardens.
What other soul gardens are near you?
We are all bound up in this work together. I included the quote from Lila Watson in the order of service and even less subtly we sang “Swimming to the Other Side,” which includes the lyrics: “We are washed by the very same rain” and “We are swimming in this stream together.”
And it doesn’t need to be a garden metaphor. We have collective work to do together, regardless of the imagery. None of us can do this alone.
Let’s begin by looking at those places where mainstream society in America is white, male, heterosexual, Christian, ableist, cisgendered and favoring the wealthy. We need to decenter these categories.
To decenter this, ask about other standards. What is the perspective of other racial or cultural groups? How do you get your friends and colleagues to acknowledge other standards?
Bryan Stevenson — who among many things is the author of “Just Mercy,” was the Ware lecturer at UU General Assembly in 2017, is founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, a defense attorney, and a civil rights activist — he lists four things we can do and they are listed in your order of service:
1. Get proximate. Get close to people and communities who are at risk. Find a local organization led by people of color and listen and show up when asked. You might also consider becoming a pen pal with an incarcerated Unitarian Universalist. Our UU congregation, The Church of the Larger Fellowship (or CLF), has over 1000 members currently in prison. Go online and read about the pen pal program and sign up if you can.
2. Change the narratives that create policy problems. Don’t accept the politics of fear and anger. This is hard work. You need to engage in the public dialogue that keeps trying to make others into monsters. Write letters to your elected representatives. Write letters to newspapers. Gently engage friends and coworkers in conversation. And when you are ready, there is always work to do on Facebook and Twitter and the rest of social media.
3. Stay hopeful. This is the hardest one for me. I’ve included Stevenson’s quote in the order of service, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Some days, this is the hardest thing to do. But this is what we are called and challenged to do.
4. Be willing to do uncomfortable things. Be a witness. Be present. When you are called to a vigil, a march, or a protest, just go. I know it is easy to over analyze these things — I’ve done it. It’s too much work to go to the Board of Supervisors meeting or the courthouse, or whatever. I have this challenge and I now I am challenging — or encouraging — you to be uncomfortable.
Friends, there is some hard and uncomfortable work ahead. Think of it as adding mulch and fertilizer to your soul garden. Without mulch and fertilizer, our soil gets weak and our gardens get barren. Let’s do the work to make our souls and gardens flourish.
Can we work together to make the America that never has been? I think so. I am heartened by the end of Langston Hughes’ poem:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
May it be so.