Through the Narrow Places

Narrow places:

A door of no return
A boat hold
A desert bunker

A crevice between two rocks
A dry culvert
A dark closet

A prison cell
A tomb

Passover celebrates the escape of the Israelite people out of Egypt.  ‘Egypt’ in Hebrew, is ‘Mitzrayim,’ literally a narrow place.

Mitzrayim/Egypt is the place to which the sons of Jacob and their families had come as refugees from famine, generations earlier.  It is the place where, as the centuries passed, they became enslaved.  Moses was their reluctant leader, charged with standing up to Pharoah. 

His initial pleas and threats only made things worse.  But finally, after the god of Israel had sent plague after plague to break Pharoah’s will, the people stole away in the night with no time to let the bread rise.  “Let my people go!”

Passover and Easter are related.  The last supper, the meal Jesus shares with his disciples the night before he is seized and brought to hang on Calgary, is a Passover seder – the seder of the first night.

Jesus was from Galilee, in the north.  Jesus came to Jerusalem, where the temple was, for Passover. It was a religious custom, even obligation for those who were able, to come to Jerusalem during Passover week and to pay the temple tax.  The city was crowded with people from the countryside. 

But Jesus was not just adhering to custom.  Jesus was making a deliberate, radical connection between the Passover story of escape from slavery and his own message of liberation and defiance of Roman rule. 

He was asking for trouble, and he found it.  Death by crucifixion, a cold, narrow tomb.

A narrow place.

I’m not fond of narrow places.  If Pooh’s friend Rabbit had been my friend, I would not have ventured into his underground home and gotten stuck.  Rabbit would have come to my house for elevenses. 

The Lost River Gorge and Boulder Caves are in the New Hampshire White Mountains.  The website encourages us to come “experience the beauty and mysteries of granite walls that erupt from the earth, a river that plays hide and seek, and spectacular waterfalls and rugged caves. And for a completely different adventure, explore the dark recesses of the caves on an evening lantern tour.” 

I will skip the lantern tour.  I remember those caves from my childhood. I was shamed into squeezing through the narrow passageways between the boulders (“What’s the matter, are you too fat?”).  I would rather have taken the alternate route for people who were too wide or too nervous.  I hated those narrow places.

“Egypt, or Mitzrayim, … is a place that restricts us, constricts us, a place that’s too tight.  It is that which holds us in slavery.” [i]  That’s a quote from Michael Allen, a civil rights lawyer writing about assumptions and prejudice.

We all have narrow places, our own mitzrayim

A hated job.  A struggle with mental illness or addiction – our own, or that of someone we love.  A committed relationship now damaged beyond repair.  Chronic or terminal illness.  A body that does not reflect the person you know yourself to be.  Living with an abuser.  Not being able to make ends meet.  Or perhaps, a chronic anxiety fueled the state of the world around us.

Narrow places.  Situations that make us feel trapped, disempowered, afraid, held in slavery.  [ii]

Beth Ann Jedziniak and Jean Krogh are members of the worship committee who helped me start down the path of exploring narrow places.  They are not to be blamed for the fork I took.

Beth Ann told me, “Someone shared with me this past week that the mother of their 4 year old nephew was told that her son ‘did not fit in demographically’ in their chosen (private) school and was no longer welcome.  With that, they narrowed that young boy’s life.  The decision also narrowed theirs – it took away their opportunity to know this boy and his family.  It took away the opportunity for everyone involved to grow and learn and expand their lives.”

Jean pointed me toward the reading by Rabbi Address, and sent me this, from Lesli Koppelman Ross, who is a Jewish artist and writer, who wrote,  “Each of us lives in his or her own mitzrayim…; (including) …, the psychological burdens to which we subject ourselves.  …     Those burdens turn us into slaves and they turn us into oppressors, of ourselves and others. 

Passover leads us to question values and attitudes we hold, attitudes that hold us to those roles of oppressor and oppressed.”[iii]

Slavery is a strong word.  It suggests a loss of all agency – a helplessness in the face of whatever burdens or values or attitudes have us enslaved.

Howard Thurman said that his own sense of purpose and freedom came from a  “private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in his environment.”[iv]   Thurman was an extraordinary man.  He also wrote that freedom often means “the ability to deal with the realities of one’s situation so as not to be overcome by them.”[v]

Last Monday, in place of our regular monthly meeting, Coordinating Council members participated in a webinar entitled “Beyond the Banner …..”  It was led by members of the G.R.A.C.E. team of the UUA’s New England district.  G.R.A.C.E. stands for Growing Racial and Cultural Equity.  They describe themselves as “a team of lay leaders and clergy committed to building a learning community among congregations committed to growing their capacity to create and engage in multicultural, anti-racist ministries.”[vi] 

The webinar was originally described as a way for congregations that had “Black Lives Matter” banners to share what they were doing, or might do, in addition to that symbolic act.  It was scheduled before the controversy over hiring erupted at the UUA.  The hiring controversy has led to the resignations of Reverend Peter Morales, the UUA President, and more recently of the Reverends Scott Tayler, director of Congregational Life, and Harlan Limpert, the Chief Operating Officer.

The senior ranks of UUA leadership are, like the membership of UU congregations as a whole, overwhelmingly white.  The UUA has been working on awareness of institutional racism within its own walls for many years.  It has conducted anti-racism training for Board members and staff.  It has made a deliberate effort to recruit people of color to its Board.  Policies and practices have been examined and rewritten. The hiring policy now explicitly gives preference to a candidate of color over a white candidate, as long as both are qualified. 

A few months ago, the Southeast UUA regional district was conducting a search for a new executive director.  One of the candidates was Christina Rivera, a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, someone with a long history of leadership in Unitarian Universalism and in her own congregation.  She asked, during the interview process, whether they believed she was qualified for the position, and was told that she was.  

Christina Rivera is Chicana/Latina, a person of color.  The job offer went to Andy Burnette, a white male minister.  When Rivera asked Reverend Tayler, who made the hiring decision, why she wasn’t chosen, he told her it was “a question of the best fit.”

A social media flurry began.  Letters and emails went to the UUA Board.  A letter signed by over a hundred people described the UUA as a “white supremacist organization.” Unfortunately, a part of Peter Morales’ response was, “If we’re white supremacist, what do you call the Aryan nation?”  Peter’s resignation came first.  The others came last week.

Here on Monday night we learned that a group led by African American clergy and laypeople has proposed that congregations conduct teach-ins about white supremacy, preferably on April 30 or May 7.  They say:.

Over the past few weeks, many have been responding to calls by UUs of color to look critically *within* our faith communities--including hiring practices, power brokers, and cultural habits--for the ways racism, sexism, and white supremacy live.

“White supremacy” is a provocative phrase, as it conjures up images of hoods and mobs. Yet in 2017, actual “white supremacists” are not required in order to uphold white supremacist culture. Building a faith full of people who understand that key distinction is essential as we work toward a more just society in difficult political times.

In order for us to be more effective at tackling the white supremacy beyond our walls, we must also identify ways in which systems of supremacy and inequality live within our faith, our faith practices, and our lives.

We talked about that last idea, for just a few minutes, last Monday night.  Are there systems of white supremacy here, in Northampton, in our own faith practices, cultural habits, and assumptions?  Can we see and name them?  And if so, do we, collectively, have the will or “ability to do deal with them so as not to be overcome?” Or are we enslaved by them?

Slavery is a strong word.  White supremacy is a strong expression for what others call institutional or systemic racism.  Narrow places sometimes call for strong language.

Some are calling what is happening at the UUA a crisis, and the deliberately disruptive call for congregations to go off script and engage in congregation-wide workshops in the next few weeks is a way of bringing attention to the crisis.

I’m reminded of the scene in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke and Leia and Chewbacca find themselves in a trash heap somewhere in the bowels of the death star.  The problem is how to get out.  They figure it must get emptied, somehow.  Suddenly there’s a clanging, and the walls begin to move.  They’re not in a trash heap – they’re in a trash compactor!  The place is getting narrower.  The problem has become a crisis.

A narrow place.

A tomb
A prison cell

A dark closet
A dry culvert
A crevice between two rocks

A bunker in the desert
A boat hold
A door of no return

Unchallenged assumptions and preconceptions.

A history of one group’s deliberate oppression of another.
   beginning, for the oppressed, with a door of no return.
 And that history’s living legacy.


The seder I went to this past week was full of political discussion, with a lot of passionate conversation about the plagues and mitzrayims we face today.  Plague or narrow place:  either metaphor can apply to the issues of systemic and institutional racism, and to all the biases and assumptions we carry that are hard to see.  Often, if we do see them, they are hard to acknowledge.  If we can acknowledge them, they are hard to see our way out of.  What can we possibly do?  Are we in a trash heap, or a trash compactor? 

As a nine-year old I was shamed into crawling through the narrow places at Lost River caves.  Shame is its own narrow place, a place that enslaves and demeans both the person shaming, and the one who is shamed. 

My proposal is that we wade into this Red Sea together, sobered, willing to be open and self-critical, but trying hard not to shame or be shamed.  If you are joining the book discussion or coming to see the replay of William Barber’s address to General Assembly this coming Thursday, your feet are already damp.  We will wander in the desert on the way to the promised land.  But we will have, again, begun.

We remember, today, that Passover is ultimately not mainly about the narrow places.  Passover is about emergence from them.  Easter, its sister holiday, is about resurrection – emergence from death and despair into new hope and new life.

Both joyfully proclaims emergence from the narrow places.  Both assure us that we can find, like Howard Thurman, our inner strength, our autonomy from the mitzrayim that would claim us.  We will seek them in different ways.  We will support one another in the search.

Today, we push away the stone.
We invite the light to awaken us to the possibilities within us and among us,
  to awaken us to possibilities for new life in ourselves and in our world.[vii]

 


[i] Michael Allen, “”Housing for the Least Among Us,” https://fairhousing.com/legal-research/legal-research-articles/making-room-inn-housing-least-among-us

[ii] Michael Allen, above

[iii] Lesli Ross Koppelman, http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/self-liberation/

[iv] From an interview with Howard Thurman by Mary E. Goodwin.  Thurman also tells this story in his autobiography With Head and Heart, 1979.

[v] Thurman, Meditations of the Heart, page 53.

[vi] http://www.newenglanduua.org/content/grace-team-0

[vii] Sara Moores Campbell, #628 in Singing the Living Tradition, UUA.