Only one commemorative march in Selma

Marching in the Arc of Justice Logo

In two weeks, I’ll be arriving in Birmingham, AL, for final preparations for the Marching in the Arc of Justice Conference, which will be held March 5-8, 2015, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and specifically, Bloody Sunday. I’ve been working with a team of people from the Living Legacy Project, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham, and others for almost a year now to plan this event. It has been a labor of love for all of us, and we’re thrilled with how the plans have shaped up.

I’m especially glad to see that an unified committee that includes the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Inc., The Faith and Politics Institute, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Wallace Community College Selma, 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement, The City of Selma, Rep. Terri Sewell, Rep. John Lewis, National Action Network, Rainbow/PUSH have come to an agreement that there will be only one march and that march will be on Sunday, March 8. Originally, President Barack Obama and John Lewis’s announcement that they would be coming to Selma to march on March 7 upset many people. Rep Hank Sanders wrote an open letter to the Faith & Politics Institute protesting this decision, which details a long history of distrust between the Faith & Politics Institute and Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, Inc.

I commend all the parties involved for coming to compromise that preserves Selma’s Bridge Crossing Jubilee’s tradition of commemorating Bloody Sunday on the closest Sunday to March 7, the date of the actual event in 1965. See The Sacredness of Bloody Sunday Triumphs for the latest announcement. Hopefully, this is the beginning of some healing that will create even stronger unity as the second 50 years begins.

We are still fighting for justice

Willie Nell Avery

Dr. Janice Marie Johnson and I had a chance to interview Willie Nell Avery, from Perry County, Alabama, who is a stellar and inspiring civil rights veteran who had to fight for her right to vote in the early 1960s and today works in the Board of Registrar Office on the road with the Living Legacy Pilgrimage.

Janice Marie Johnson: Would you please just share with us a snippet of your extraordinary story, Mrs. Avery?

Mrs. Avery: Basically I start with my move to Perry County, and my husband was not a registered voter, and there were lots of other people who weren’t. And we decided that we were not really citizens until we reached that status to become registered voters. Every time the registrar’s office would open, I would go and attempt to get registered. And we had to take a test in order to become registered. And I took the test. And each time the board was open, I would go back, and they would tell me they hadn’t graded my paper. That went on for a while.

Finally I told them: if you have misplaced my test, give me another. But they knew my walk, I guess! When I would walk in they would look up and say, “well we haven’t graded yours yet”. After everybody was being turned down, we wrote letters to the Justice Department telling them the treatment we were receiving. They had a hearing in Mobile, Alabama on the case and my husband happened to be one of the persons to testify. So in June ’63 they allowed my husband to become a registered voter, followed by mine in July 1963. I never filled out another application.

I guess they thought when they allowed the two of us {to vote}, because we were involved in the case, that we would stop, that we had achieved what we wanted to do.

But we didn’t have enough people, something like less than maybe 300 voters, and knew that would not make a difference, so we just kept pursuing.

And from that time until now I’ve been involved in a lot of things.

Today it is better, and not better. We hold more positions now than ever have held. In the Courthouse where I work, I work in one office in the Board of Registrar, we have more people in positions than ever. In the Commission of Revenue, there is a black woman. The elected official in the 2nd clerk is a black woman. The first African American probate judge, happened to be a woman. In the sheriff’s dept, there is a black person. So we have that leverage now.

Click here to listen to our interview with Mrs. Willie Nell Avery

But I see another arising of slavery, where they are dividing us now and almost about to conquer. The fight is not where they will strike you with a billy club, put water on you, or put dogs on you, or spray with tear gas…

But that mentality is still here. From ‘61 up until now, we are still fighting for justice. To make sure that everyone is treated fairly. But we are still struggling, still out here there trying to make a difference in our lives.

Annette Marquis: What drives you to do this? Why is this so important to you?

Mrs. Avery: I thought all of us are created equal. I really did. I thought, that’s what the Constitution says. I don’t understand why the color of your skin has anything to do with your character. I believe if you have it, and the Lord puts it here for everybody, I should have a piece of that pie too. And I’m not satisfied if I don’t. And I won’t be satisfied.

Janice Marie Johnson: Mrs. Avery, I know you have said you will continue this fight until you take your last breath.

Mrs. Avery: That’s right!

Janice Marie Johnson: Are you ramping up the fight during this election period?

Mrs. Avery:I am. I made a statement in church today. And I’m telling people:

Go to the polls and vote!! Click here to find your polling location.

Janice Marie Johnson: Mrs. Avery, we are so grateful and you continue to inspire us. Thank you.

Out of the closet and into married life

W&A outside the Henrico County Courts building with marriage license
Outside the Henrico County Courts Building with marriage license

On October 7, 2014, W and I became legally married in the Commonwealth of Virginia, less than a full day after it became legal for same-sex couples to marry here. We arrived early at the Henrico County Courts Building, expecting a line, and not only was there no line, it was not particularly early. The clerk’s office was already open. With at least a degree of mild apprehension about the reaction, I told the woman at the desk that we wanted to apply for a marriage license. She pointed us to a set of clipboards, labeled “Bride” and “Groom,” that sat on a table behind us. “The forms are both the same,” she said, expressing little affect. “Just pick one.” We both decided to pick clipboards labeled “Bride.” It somehow seemed most appropriate, although I have never thought of myself as a bride.

When we turned in the forms, two other staff people hovered around the woman at the computer who, with a wrinkled brow and pursed lips, set about entering the data. We weren’t sure if she was displeased with the fact we were both women, or if something was causing her distress. Soon she made it clear.  “The computer hasn’t been updated yet so it takes a while to put everything in,” she explained to the others. One woman expounded to us that she had to cover for her at lunch time so that’s why she was looking on. As the woman at the computer made progress, I saw her face relax, and as it did, I could feel myself relax. This wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Within minutes, we exchanged our money for the license and we were ready to leave.

As I moved toward the door on my immediate right, I read the sign posted on the door, “Closet, Do Not Enter.” I quickly rotated a little further to my right to the actual door, and as I did, quipped, “Oh, wrong door. I just came out of there.” The whole place, staff and visitors, alike, erupted into laughter. People followed us out of the building still laughing. “That’s going to be something they’ll remember,” one man said. I imagine it’ll be a moment the staff carried home with them on their first full day of granting same-sex marriage licenses in Virginia. I was glad to bring them joy on our joyous day!

Do you believe Frederick Douglass’s dream can be realized?

Ben Jealous, outgoing President of the NAACP, says that “I continue to believe that we are on the cusp of realizing Douglass’ vision. The question is how we will get there.”

In his 1869 speech “Our Composite Nationality,” Frederick Douglass laid out a bold vision for American democracy that has propelled the civil rights movement ever since:

“Our geographical position, our relation to the outside world, our fundamental principles of Government… our vast resources… and our already existing composite population, all conspire to one grand end, and that is to make [America] the most perfect national illustration of the unity and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.”

I also believe that Douglass’s vision can be realized. When I despair about the possibility that the human family might live in unity and with dignity, I have to remind myself of the moments, fleeting though they may be, when I have seen this manifest. It’s not been on a grand scale, at the national, or state, or even local level. It’s happened in living rooms, and churches, and small gatherings of people committed to peace and eqWriters Colony at Dairy Hollow signuality.

It happened last night at the dining room table at the Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Spring, Arkansas, where I’m currently in resident, when four strangers from different backgrounds, different lives, different experiences became friends, where we shared stories. laughed with each other, supported each other, and formed community.

I believe it is in those moments when the dream becomes possible. It’s moment, after moment, after moment like this linked together in wider and wider circles that the dream is no longer an abstraction but something real we can hold on to.

When have you’ve seen Douglass’s dream manifest for you? What have been your moments of the dream?

Should we feed the birds?

Mother robin preparing food for her babies
Mother robin with her babies in the neighbor’s dogwood tree

I’m never more conscious of the privileges I have than when I feed the birds. When I pour black oiled sunflower seed into the large feeder that tops a tall pole of other feeders, I imagine the birds and, inevitably the squirrels, who will gorge on these nutritious seeds, and I wonder about the people whose backyard touches ours. A woman in her late thirties, early forties, named Ebony, prepared a small plot of ground yesterday to grow some vegetables, to “try to save some money,” she said, when I introduced myself to her for the first time. She’s trying to save money by growing food for her family, and I’m feeding the birds.

I fill the smaller cylindrical feeders with the premium food, high quality nuts, dried fruit, and other treats for the smaller birds. These feeders have a screen around them purportedly to keep out the pestering squirrels but still allow small birds access to the very best seed. Like fine dining establishments, I muse. Proper attire required. In other words, no rif raf. No gluttonous squirrels, no swarming starlings, no aggressive blue jays. Only dainty black-capped chickadees, red-bellied woodpeckers, and crimson cardinals. The elite of birds. The ones everyone loves to watch. You never see anyone say, “oh look at that beautiful starling.” Even the distinctly marked blue jays are no one’s favorite because of their aggressive personalities. So even in my backyard, there is a hierarchy of things.

I wonder what the neighbors think.

There is no getting around that we are in a much better position financially than most of the people on our block. My partner and I both have well-paying jobs, health and retirement benefits, and all the trappings that come with stable employment. Built on a vacant lot less than three years ago, our two-story house stands out from the rest of the neighborhood. We park a late-model Honda and a year-old Subaru in the driveway and build flower gardens of nursery-grown plants. When we moved in, we added not one, but two well-crafted, pre-built 9×18 foot wood sheds to our backyard. These sheds, painted to match our yellow house, stand in stark contrast to the small metal, tin-roofed sheds that dot most of the backyards in the neighborhood.

To top it off, I feed the birds. I say to myself that no one is starving in this neighborhood while the birds are fat and happy. But I know that’s a rationalization. Tom, who lives across the street, does odd jobs around the neighborhood so he can afford to maintain his minimal existence. The man at the end of the block lives in a house that has fallen into deep disrepair. Other people live in houses where the blinds stay closed and are rarely, if ever, seen coming and going. I doubt they’re hiding in there to protect their enormous wealth.

Should I stop feeding the birds, I wonder? Maybe give the money I spend to the Richmond food bank? Would that make a difference?

It would make a difference to me.

I would miss seeing the birds line up on the side fence waiting patiently for their chance to swoop into one of the feeders. I would miss watching the acrobatic squirrels try to figure out how to defeat the squirrel-resistant feeders. I would miss the bird songs that fill the morning air. I would miss the neighborhood cats who are regular visitors to the most active feeding spot in the neighborhood. I would miss the peace and solace these gifts of nature bring me.

I believe the neighborhood would be an uglier place, a more desperate place, a lonelier place, if someone didn’t feed the birds. I can’t be the only one who delights in seeing the red-shouldered hawk circle the block looking for prey. I can’t be the only one who sits on her back porch and listens to the melodic tunes of the Carolina wren or the haunting call of the mourning dove. I can’t be the only one who feels the pulse of the neighborhood beat a little stronger because the birds gather here.

So I keep feeding the birds and I make this promise to myself: every time I go Southern States to buy sacks of bird seed, every time I replenish the feeders with suet, sunflower and special treats, every time I listen to the birds’ song, I will remind myself of the privilege I have and recommit to working for justice in this world, so every one of God’s creatures sleeps with a full stomach and a joyful song.

What do you think about feeding the birds when so many people live in poverty?

Growing support for gay marriage: changed minds and changing demographics

This comprehensive study explores not only if people have changed their minds about same-sex marriage but what has influenced them to re-think the issue. The top answer: they know someone who is homosexual. Harvey Milk said it best, “Gay brothers and sisters,… You must come out. Come out… to your parents… I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives… come out to your friends… if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors… to your fellow workers… to the people who work where you eat and shop… come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters…”

Growing Support for Gay Marriage: Changed Minds and Changing Demographics.

Marriage equality is not just for same-sex couples

Photo 2009 National Eqality March
Photo 2009 National Eqality March
2009 National Equality March

Forty years ago, I first heard the word “homosexual” applied to me. I was eighteen years old when my mother disclosed that a nun from my Catholic girls’ boarding school had called with the news that I was involved in “an unsavory relationship with another girl.” The news devastated her. She never recovered from it. For many years, I yearned for her to accept me as a lesbian. I needed her acceptance to feel whole and it hurt and angered me that she withheld it.

In the eleven years since her death, I’ve come to realize that my mother could no more change who she was than I could become a heterosexual. My mother’s homophobia was not fear of homosexuality, it was fear for her lesbian daughter. Because society disparaged same-sex love so vehemently, she could not reconcile her fear. She feared that others would mistreat me, or at the very least, think less of me, and that, ultimately, God would condemn me. What she feared most of all was that she had done something to cause me to suffer this fate. Ironically, it was her deep love for me in a society filled with hate and intolerance that prevented her from accepting me as a lesbian.

On March 26, 2013, I’ll be attending a 7:15 a.m. prayer service, A Prayer for Love & Justice at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington, D.C., and then witnessing in front of the United States Supreme Court to join the United for Marriage Rally as the justices hear the first of two cases related to marriage equality for same-sex couples. Later than evening, I will attend Parting the Waters: A Seder for Love, Liberation & Justice. As the LGBTQ and Multicultural Ministries Program Manager for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I will join others as, once again, we stand on the side of love. Most of all, I hope our presence there reminds people that affirming same-sex love matters. If you can join me, wear your Standing on the Side of Love shirt and look for the SSL banner outside the church after the prayer service at about 8:30 a.m.

If you cannot be in DC on March 26, I hope you will join one of the many faith events happening around the country or create one of your own. You can find the full list or register your event at United for Marriage.

In the years since my mother died, nine states–Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont and Washington, and the District of Columbia–have recognized same-sex marriage. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s rulings on the two cases before them, more states, like Rhode Island and Illinois who are now considering bills, are sure to follow. Hearts and minds are changing. publicly and privately, people are reconsidering long-held beliefs about same-sex relationships and coming out in support.

And yet, I know that full marriage equality is not a panacea. Clerics will still blaspheme LGBTQ people from their pulpits; politicians will continue to deride us in the hope of attracting voters; employers will still fire us; detractors will still beat and kill us. And, because of the hate kindled by these clerics and politicians and employers and attackers, we will still kill ourselves.

But maybe, just maybe, as marriage equality becomes a reality for all Americans, the hate will subside. Maybe lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified youth, whether or not they eventually choose to marry, will have more hope about their lives. And maybe parents will be able to let go of enough of their fear to love and accept their children.

Marriage equality is not just for same-sex couples; it’s for the millions of people who love us and need to know society is not pitted against us. Please join me, so that together we can replace fear with love.

This post originally appeared on the blog.

A quiet revolutionary: Laura Matilda Towne devoted her life to a school for former slaves

Laura Towne marker
Laura Towne marker, Penn Center, St. Helena’s Island, SC

The Rev. William Furness’s sermons on the abominations of slavery angered wealthy members of First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia in the decade leading up to the American Civil War. Many withdrew from the church. Laura Matilda Towne (1825–1901) was among those who stayed to hear Furness preach, often with armed guards at his side, and his words left a lasting impression on her.

When shots were fired at Fort Sumter in 1861, the 35-year-old Towne decided she must act. With medical training from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and a love of teaching, she responded to Abraham Lincoln’s call for teachers to go to South Carolina to participate in the Port Royal Experiment. The Union Navy had captured Port Royal Sound, just off the coast of Beaufort and Hilton Head Islands, so quickly that the plantation owners there deserted not only their plantations but also thousands of people they had previously enslaved. The United States government declared these people (and other slaves who turned themselves over to Union troops) not freed but contraband of war. It set up the Port Royal Experiment to prove that if the former slaves could be educated, become landowners, serve in the military, and build a self-sufficient community, they could become productive citizens in other parts of the South.

This set the stage for Towne’s life work.

In 1862, Towne boarded a ship for St. Helena Island, South Carolina. There she found 6,000 people who had known no other life but one of bondage. In addition to putting her skills as a homeopathic physician to use, Towne began a school, first in her home and eventually in a building she had shipped in pieces from Philadelphia. She named it the Penn School, in honor of William Penn and Pennsylvania’s Freedmen’s Aid Society, which funded the school’s first years. Later, her family, other prominent Unitarians, and abolitionists of other faiths supported the school.

Within months of Towne’s arrival, Ellen Murray — described as Towne’s lifelong intimate friend — came to work at her side. Together they built the school into the center of community life on the Sea Islands. Towne became a bridge between the government and the people of the islands, often as an advocate for their needs and wages. She opposed speculators’ attempts to buy lands that had become delinquent through nonpayment of taxes, eventually making it possible for people to own the land they had worked on all their lives.

When Towne died of influenza in 1901, at the age of 75, several hundred of her island neighbors followed the simple mule cart that carried her body to the Port Royal ferry, singing the spirituals she had so loved. She was buried in Philadelphia, and a memorial marker was placed in her honor at the Brick Baptist Church Cemetery on St. Helena Island. But Towne’s impact did not die when she did.

Towne was a quiet revolutionary; she broke social barriers and attacked the assigned social place of African Americans by fighting entrenched patterns of subservience. As the people of the Sea Islands developed skills and knowledge previously denied them, Towne supported their journey toward independence. Rosalyn Browne, former director of history and culture at Penn Center (the former Penn School), said, “In 1862, before freedom came, [Towne] taught my ancestors how to free their minds long before the United States Congress freed their persons.”

When the school closed in 1948, it became Penn Community Services Center, an agency promoting self-sufficiency and the advancement and development of the Sea Island community and its residents.

Penn Center played an important role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It was, among many other things, a safe haven for civil rights conferences, training, and retreats led by the Rev. Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Penn Center is now a national historic landmark district.

Within the past few years, Penn Center has reconnected with its Unitarian roots through the efforts of the late Milton Rahn and the Rev. Dr. Audrey W. Vincent, members of the UU Church of Savannah, Georgia, and the work of the UU Fellowship of Beaufort, South Carolina. The Beaufort congregation has developed such a strong multicultural partnership with Penn Center that on May 18, 2013, the fellowship will be inducted into the center’s 1862 Circle, which honors supporters and luminaries such as Congressman John Lewis, Vernon Jordan, Phylicia Rashad, and Pat Conroy.

As Penn Center celebrates its 150th anniversary, it continues to inspire through education, leadership, and service—and Towne’s legacy lives on.

First published in the Spring 2013 issue of UU World magazine.

Take action for marriage equality

When my wife and I were married in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, VA, two years ago next month, we celebrated our love and our commitment openly with our family and friends in our spiritual home. At the same time, we knew that we would not be receiving any of the benefits and protections from the state and federal government we would have received had we been a man and a woman. So in lieu of gifts, we asked our guests to make donations to support Equality Virginia.

With just two weeks left until Election Day, there is great hope that 2012 could be a tipping point for LGBTQ equality at the ballot box. Voters in Washington, Maine, and Maryland have the opportunity to approve marriage equality laws, while Minnesota voters will hopefully vote “no” to writing discrimination into their state constitution.

No matter where you live, you can take action to support marriage equality. Click here to get involved.

There are several innovative programs that allow marriage equality supporters across the country to take action. The Human Rights Campaign has developed a revolutionary “Call4Equality” tool that harnesses the power of Facebook to connect you with people you know in these states. The tool automatically creates personalized call lists and scripts for you to drum up votes and volunteers. For the more travel-inclined, you can work on one of the equality campaigns through United for Marriage’s “Volunteer Vacation” program.

Please join me in standing on the side of love this election season. Click here to find out how you can speak out for marriage equality no matter where you live.

Two years ago, my wife and I knew that Virginia was, and still is, a long way from voting to approve marriage equality. But this year in Washington, Maine, and Maryland, we have a real chance – a chance to make it clear that attitudes have changed – that the majority of Americans now support the right of everyone to marry the person they love. And, in Minnesota, we have a shot at saying “no” to defining marriage according to a few people’s view of what love should be. Help us seize this opportunity. Please take action for marriage equality today.

This was originally published on

Transcending Boundaries

From Occupy members to Post Office employees, protestors converged on Frazier Park in Charlotte, North Carolina the day before the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It was the designated starting place for a cooperative march, the March on Wall Street South, through Uptown Charlotte. I arrived promptly at 11 a.m. to offer support to the No Papers No Fear riders from Undocubus. These forty people, mostly undocumented immigrants, had crisscrossed the South in a several thousand mile trek from Phoenix, Arizona, to be in Charlotte in time for the Convention. They had stopped in small towns and big cities to bring awareness to the struggles of undocumented immigrants. Unitarian Universalist congregations had provided meals and housing for the riders all along the route. In my role as District Executive of the Southeast District of the Unitarian Universalist Association, I was helping with the final leg.

After a rally that included speakers and music, the Undocubus riders and other immigrant rights groups who had come to support them joined the marchers. Adorned with butterfly wings to represent the Monarch that migrates freely from Mexico to the United States without borders (see the new movie Flight of the Butterflies for more on this amazing journey), the immigrant rights marchers chanted, “The people united will never be defeated,” and sang, “No no no nos moveran” (We shall not be moved). And as we did, I carried a Standing on the Side of Love banner to demonstrate solidarity with the marchers. Standing on the Side of Love is a public witness campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association and its’ yellow shirts and banners have come to be recognized by immigrant groups as signs that allies are standing with them.

When we started the march, another Unitarian Universalist carried the banner with me. However, when she had to leave for another event, I carried it by myself for several long, hot blocks. That is, until Marichu approached me. “I love this,” she said, pointing to the banner. She then reached for one end of the banner pole, her smile and her motions conveying to me that although she did not know the English words to say more, she was offering to carry the banner with me.

I smiled back, struggling to find the Spanish words to say, “Yes, please. I’d love for you to carry it with me.” Only, “Si, por favor,” came out. Yes, please. But as I moved from the center of the banner to the opposite end from Marichu, she undeMarichu and Annette carrying Standing on the Side of Love bannerrstood my unspoken invitation.

Marichu was one of the undocumented riders. Up to this moment, I knew her only from her bio on the Undocubus website. But for the remainder of the march, we walked in alignment, in solidarity, one with another. Several times in our march, we switched sides so our arms could rest. We communicated with gestures and smiles and the few words we could find in the language of the other. But by the time we finished the march, we had developed a bond.

When I saw Marichu the next day, she hugged me and we practiced speaking to each other, even committing to help each other with improving our language skills. The following day, we had someone take photos of us and I promised to email them to her.  She invited me to come see her in Phoenix and I told her that I hoped that someday I could.  “Me gustaría hacer eso.” I would like to do that.

I don’t know if I will ever see Marichu again but I know that even if I don’t, we have made a connection that transcends boundaries—a connection that reminds us that we are not alone—that is it only through relationships that we can make the world a better place.

Thank you, Marichu, for reaching out and for reaching in.

Vaya con Dios!