Thou Shalt Engage
Our reading from this Sunday was an excerpt from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.“
Tomorrow morning and throughout the day, our nation will pause to remember the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, one of the great saints of America for the movement he formed, the pacifism he practiced, and the dream of this country he shared with all of us for a racially, economically, and politically just America.
It feels especially fitting this year that we will pause to remember so great a man, and the values he lived – with tensions in the world rising, an uncertain political future ahead for our country, the real effects of the new government already being made tangible, and racial divides underscoring much of the struggle in communities near and far.
With progressives and many moderates, and I can imagine a very large handful of traditional conservatives, fearing for what is ahead in this country, the values that guided Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers are worth exploring more than ever. As Unitarian Universalists, we have a special affinity with Martin Luther King Jr.
Some of us even try to claim him as one of our own. He wasn’t. But he was close with us. He preached at our general assembly in 1966, he was close with many of our ministers, and he found white allies at the ready within our ranks.
He quoted Unitarian and Universalist ministers in some of his speeches, and yet he still held on to his Baptist faith – a faith rooted in the gospels and in the liberation stories of the Hebrew scriptures. He died tragically.
And we tell this story year after year in Unitarian Universalist communities of faith. His movement, his call for justice, and the stories of his life have inspired millions – and today I want to share with you one such story that we truly can claim as Unitarian Universalists.
Today I want to share with you the story of Rev. James Reeb. A UU minister that heard the call of Dr. King and went to Selma to do what he needed to do. A man that Dr. King appreciated and supported.
James Reeb was born on January 1st 1927, 90 years ago, just outside of Wichita. He spent his youth in Casper, Wyoming – an odd kid that was pleasant with no friends, until he had surgery to correct severely crossed eyes. He would always look back and remember that experience of being friendless and, suddenly, finding friends once his appearance was different.
He also knew what it was like to grow up poor. He was an intellectually minded and argumentative young man. He also cared deeply for the plight of oppressed peoples. Surely his experience as a youth caused him to pursue ministry within the Presbyterian tradition.
After serving in the army, he went to St. Olaf’s College in Minnesota and then Princeton Theological Seminary. It is there he met his wife and they were married and ended up having four children. At the time of his enrolling in seminary, he was a literalist.
He believed the bible was inerrant – but upon taking biblical criticism courses, he started to doubt some of the stories. Upon looking at them closer, he was frustrated that seminary was not there to help him strengthen his faith, and it instead gave him a crisis of faith.
It happens to us all. Every day in seminary. However, his experiences in seminary made him more passionate about helping the poor, the oppressed, and those in need of comfort. Despite those crises of faith, he graduated seminary and was ordained in 1953.
He went on to spend four years as a hospital chaplain – bringing the love of God and his comforting, compassionate presence to all those he encountered – no matter who they were. As a hospital chaplain, however, his crises of faith continued.
His belief in hell was shattered. He lost his faith in the power of prayer. And his belief in a personal God came to an end, writing in his journal once, “I have clearly progressed in my views until I am much more of humanist than a deist or theist.”
Knowing this about his own faith and still being a Presbyterian minister, he joined a club that is all too common – that of the clergyperson that loses their faith but keeps on in their work, going through the motions.
It is a story you may not hear of often, but I can assure you it is a regular occurrence. Not all losses of faith are as dramatic, though. Not long after losing his faith, Reeb was given a copy of a book written by a Unitarian Universalist religious educator – Sophia Lyon Fahs, someone I preached about my first year here.
Upon reading it he proclaimed, “I must be a Unitarian if this is how Unitarians approach religion.” And then he surrendered himself to the process of becoming a UU minister. It took him two years to switch his credentials, and he was called to work as the assistant minister of All Souls in D.C. in 1959.
He loved the work of pastoral care, but hated administration. He once remarked, “If I ever find myself teaching in a theological school, I am going to tell them to replace their course in Old Testament with one in Parking Lot Management.” The struggle is real.
He left after five years and began working for the Quakers – for the American Friends Service Committee as a community organizer. He served predominantly African American neighborhoods in the Boston area.
Again, he loved the work of serving others. Not long after he began his work there, Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call to clergy from across the nation to meet in Alabama to resist the oppressions of the government. Upon seeing some of these oppressions – the loss of life, the use of attack dogs on nonviolent protesters, the beatings, the tear gas – James Reeb knew he had to do something.
In his biography of Reeb, Duncan Howlett tells us of a phone call that Reeb received from the Unitarian Universalist Association asking if he would join Dr. King in Selma, Howlett tells us:
“He hung up with a heavy sigh, and for a long time he didn’t speak. He just sat where he was, half slumped in his chair, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, thinking. He wanted to go. He wanted to go very much. This he knew with total clarity. … He knew there were risks. …
But these reflections did not lessen the impulse which had seized Jim like an external force. They increased it. All the blows should not fall upon the heads and backs of Negroes, he thought. They had already suffered enough. It was time now for privileged white people who believed in integration to stand with them and take some of the blows too…he was ready.”
He discussed it with his wife, who reluctantly let him go to Alabama. Upon leaving for the airport, he told his wife, “I’ll be back soon.” He joined with clergy from all across the country in marching to Montgomery.
The march was halted by state troopers just as they were leaving Selma, and they were allowed to turn back. The carnage of the previous marches had caught the attention of the nation. Afterward, James Reeb decided to stay a little longer in Selma and get involved in additional marches that were to be held.
That same evening, after leaving a restaurant with two of his colleagues, the ministers were attacked. All three were beaten by clubs and called the n word again and again. Two of the ministers were not badly hurt, James Reeb was dazed, unable to talk, but could walk a little.
The first ambulance to pick him up caught a flat tire and the ambulance driver refused to change it. It was deemed unsafe to change a tire in a black neighborhood. It took them four hours to get to the nearest hospital. The Rev. James Reeb died the next day at 7pm. He was 38 years old.
To this day he is remembered as a martyr of both the civil rights era and of this faith. Yes, we have martyrs. His face was all over the newspapers, there was moral outrage across the nation – moral outrage that a white minister was martyred in Selma – and the following week, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Voting Rights Act to Congress.
In his remarks to Congress, he made several mentions of James Reeb. While I do not want to cheapen the death of James Reeb, we should pay attention to the power dynamic in this story. Countless black Americans had died during the civil rights era, but a white minister gave the President the motivation to do something significant.
The same day the Voting Rights Act was presented to Congress, Martin Luther King Jr. preached the sermon at Reeb’s funeral. Here are but a few of the words Dr. King said of Reeb:
“I say, in conclusion, the greatest tribute that we can pay to James Reeb this afternoon is to continue the work he so nobly started but could not finish because his life…was cut off at an early age. We have the challenge and charge to continue. …We must work with all our hearts to establish a society where men will be-that “out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.” We must work with determination for that great day. “Justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” …
We will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children-as expressed so beautifully in this marvelous ecumenical service-all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands in unity and brotherhood to bring about the bright day of the brotherhood of man under the guidance of the fatherhood of God. So we thank God for the life of James Reeb. We thank God for his goodness. We thank God that he was willing to lay down his life in order to redeem the soul of our nation…”
Whenever I hear the story of James Reeb, I need to fight back tears. He is one of those unknowing heroes that has inspired generations of ministers and people of faith since his death. He did not expect that to be his legacy. He likely would not have wanted that.
But what is inspiring of his story is what is inspiring of all the people that marched with Dr. King and all the people that marched with Gandhi – who was Dr. King’s greatest inspiration next to Jesus. Every person that has ever taken that risk and heard the call to engage the time before them, they are the company of saints that inspire us in this day.
We must not be a faith of complacency. We must not retreat further into our progressive island here. The work is clear before us. And it was there long before the incoming President was elected. He is just shining a bright light on it.
As a minister that has marched for marriage equality, marched for racial justice, protested the treatment of refugees, immigrants, and LGBT couples, and the list goes on and on – each time I’ve entered into those moments knowing that the forces of extremism and hatred could snuff out my life along with the lives of those also gathered there.
I’ve known that solemn fact. That is part of the job. And that is part of your job, too, as Unitarian Universalists. We are all called to engage, to march for justice, to speak up in boldness, to destroy hatred – not with violence – but with our presence, our love, our commitment.
If we dare to say these things, do we not mean them? Do we not join in these values and principles with our whole heart and mind and soul?
Ask yourself, would you die for any cause? What would that cause be? What is it you love so dearly in this world that you would go knowingly into a situation knowing that it could be your last?
I’m not asking any of you to lay down your life – to be martyrs – but I am asking you to reflect on your values, your faith, and find that which is immutable to your heart and mind. Find that one thing, find that cause, find the anger or fear or despair or even, in some cases, joy or whatever emotion is behind the passion for it – and know that that is the same fuel that has fueled those who’ve marched for and won the day for justice throughout history.
I don’t want to be a downer, but I suspect that the need for marches and witness in the face of injustice will become an increasingly common thing – should certain events and agendas come to pass. And so tomorrow, we are going to join together in an act that this congregation has done for many years. We are going to join together with people across the tapestry of this state and march in the name of justice.
We will march for the fears we hold for the future, we will march for the injustices that have come to pass in the previous year, we will march for that passion, that drive, that engagement that we will need as a progressive people of faith –
No matter who is the leader of our nation, no matter what we may face each day – because the work of justice is a tireless work, and marching is but one small gesture. I ask you all to join with me and with your fellow congregants tomorrow morning to march.
March knowing that this may just be the warm-up for the year ahead, march knowing that hatred and extremism will not give up easily – but they’ll certainly see us coming. March knowing that your love and your passion do make a difference. March, because silence and apathy are the greatest acts of complicity in the face of injustice.
Before James Reeb left his post as the assistant minister at All Souls in D.C. and long before he ever imagined ending up in Selma, he preached in one of his final sermons,
“We shall not find security in existence if the mere continuation of life is our final goal. Man never has been willing and never shall be content to merely live. Is there nothing in life worth risking the end of one’s life for? Are there no dreams so important that we can risk our own destruction in order to make them come true?”