Janet Onnie, Intern Minister

Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples


Standing on the Side of Love


It’s been almost a year and a half since an unemployed truck driver who ‘hated gays and liberals’ entered the sanctuary of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Knoxville and open-fired on the congregation.  He killed Greg McKendry and Linda Lee Kraeger, and injured seven more ---some of whom were children.  It was an act of identity discrimination at its most horrific.


In addition to inspiring renewed interest in articulating our faith, the Knoxville community response to this event spawned the new UUA initiative, “Standing on the Side of Love”.  It’s a catchy title with a flashy banner, but what does it mean?  Let me read from the UUA website:  “Standing on the Side of Love is a public advocacy campaign promoting respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Standing on the Side of Love will confront exclusion, oppression and violence based on identity. Based in the aspiration to create beloved community, the campaign will pursue social change through advocacy, public witness and speaking out in solidarity with those whose lives are publicly demeaned. All people, not just Unitarian Universalists, are invited to stand, speak, worship, march, roll, and live on the side of the love.” 


The Standing on the Side of Love campaign was launched at the General Assembly in Salt Lake City.  There were banners all over the convention hall and great excitement was in the air.  You can see a video of all this on the UUA website.  It was a masterful rollout to a masterful marketing campaign.  But we are Unitarian Universalists, and it is our nature to look beyond marketing slogans.  While many of us agree to the principle of Standing on the Side of Love, some of us have argued that this simple slogan ignores the complexity of many of the issues:  immigration and health care being but two of them.  Others have asserted that it’s a meaningless sound bite – like Don’t Mess With Texas.  It evokes emotion, but doesn’t address the specifics of  HOW to stand on the side of love.  What is a loving response to a bully with a microphone and apparently unlimited air time … or a court order … or a gun”?  I have a four suggestions.


First and foremost, I think we need to adopt an attitude of compassion.  That doesn’t mean that we put our brains on hold.  But it does mean a willingness to listen with our hearts as well as our heads.  Because only in close listening will we hear the hyphenated identities of an individual.  As a radical example, let’s look at Rush Limbaugh.  Now I suspect many of you share my negative response to that name.  But I learned something the other day that made me soften – just a little.  In one of his rants, Rush Limbaugh was advocating for an examination of the Centers for Disease Control.  It seems that the CDC has added a page to its website where employers can calculate the cost of employing fat people.  And the bottom line is not kind.  Limbaugh points out – albeit loudly and crudely -- that this program ignores the fact of genetic predisposition to size.  Also, it turns out that large people are not necessarily unhealthier than so-called ‘normal’ sized people.  And that the food industry has a large hand in the national epidemic of obesity by providing food with addictive combinations of fat, salt, and sugar.  In any case, there is no program like this for any other class of people.


So what has precipitated Rush Limbaugh’s championing opposition to discrimination against the overweight?  It doesn’t take much research to find out that Rush Limbaugh is a person of size and has been ever since he was a child.  Now it might surprise you to know that I, too, am a person of size.  And I have been since I was a child.  So when I discovered that Rush Limbaugh was a ‘chubby’ child a new dimension of him came into focus.  We have something in common:  we share the identity label “fat” and both of us have been the target of discrimination based on physical appearance.  Because I know all the pain this identity entails, I’m going to be a bit more compassionate toward him.  I’m not sure that I’m going to be able to stretch so much as to say that, in the case of the CDC discrimination, Rush Limbaugh is Standing on the Side of Love!  But from now on I’m going to hear an echo of woundedness in his angry remarks.  Will that change him?  Not likely.  But it will change me.  It will challenge me to look at his followers slightly differently;  to recognize fear and hurt that leads to such a desire for stability that blaming otherness is the easiest response to change.


So listening – mindful listening is the first suggestion.  As the religious historian Huston Smith,  says “Listening is how we comport ourselves in a pluralistic world that is riven by ideologies.  We must listen to put into play the compassion that the wisdom traditions all enjoin, for it is impossible to love another without hearing that other.”   


The second suggestion is to teach.  To share what you know with a young person.  Support education in a tangible way.  Tom Friedman wrote a column a few months ago expressing his opinion that we need to stay in Afghanistan.  I was horrified.  But, reading a little further – listening! --  I found out that what had inspired this conviction was his attendance at the opening of another one of Greg Mortenson’s schools for Afghani girls.  Those of you who’ve read Mortenson’s book “Three Cups of Tea,” understand the impact of these schools.    Friedman made the point that these schools were under attack from the forces that recruit for the Taliban and Al Queda – the forces who recruit among those who are illiterate and impoverished and isolated.    It would be in our national and human interests, he argues, to support those who are supporting these schools.  Tom Friedman is Standing on the Side of Love. 


We know, don’t we, that the Taliban aren’t the only recruiters of the poor and illiterate and isolated, and Afghanistan isn’t the only recruiting ground for terrorists of all sorts.   Poverty and illiteracy exist in all corners of the globe – even in America.  Even in Naples.  If we want more ‘like-minded people’ we’ve got to be willing to teach them.  I would be willing to bet that everyone sitting in this sacred space this morning knows how to read.  Can we teach someone else that skill?  And, while we’re at it, let’s offer them books that will stir up their curiosity and imaginations and lead them to think for themselves.  Then let’s go that final step and engage our children in conversation about what they’re reading.  Because it’s through this engagement that relationships are built.  We are really good at this in our inhouse Lifespan Education programs.  Now, let’s take these skills and passions outside our walls and find opportunities to shape a generation of literate people.


In addition to listening and teaching, a third suggestion for standing on the side of love is a corollary to the second way:   allow yourself to be taught by people unlike yourself.   My husband and I visited the Blackfeet nation after GA last July, where we were told by almost every Native American we met that they had a lot to teach us – the white people.  In thinking on this it occurred to me that the willingness to receive teaching from people different than us may be a way to reconciliation between people and between nations.  We Unitarian Universalists are not exempt from identity discrimination.  How many times have we dismissed someone who identifies as a political conservative?  Or a Christian?  Or who is obviously a young person?  Or an old person?   How many learning opportunities have we passed up because the teachers had a different identity?


So far we the actions under consideration are individual acts of kindness and charity.  My fourth suggestion for standing on the side of love is perhaps the hardest: challenge the system that produces these conditions.  At the SW Cluster Meeting last week Rev. Meredith Garmon told the story of a person walking along a river bank when she saw a baby in a basket floating down the river.  Naturally she waded in and took the baby to safety.  She took it home and cared for it as one of her own.  A few days later someone else was walking by the river and saw the same thing – a baby in a basket floating down the river.  He did the same thing his neighbor did – took the baby in and cared for it.  This went on for quite a while – villagers strolling along the river banks observed babies floating down the river.  They plucked them out of the water and cared for them.  By this time there were so many babies they had to build on to their homes, add schools, and generally strain their resources to the point of breaking.  One day one of the village Crones asked, why are there so many babies floating past our village?  What is going on upstream?  To answer this question, the village elders sent representatives upstream to investigate.


I don’t know what was going on upstream.  What I do know is that this little story is a perfect example of the difference between charity work and systemic change work.  To Stand on the Side of Love we need both kinds of work.  We need to get the babies out of the water – to feed a hungry person, to tutor a child, to provide a safe place where a young person can be her/himself.  We need to do these individual acts of kindness and caring as we listen, teach and learn.  But we also need to figure out what’s going on upstream that’s causing the need for the charity work.  What sort of system is producing all these babies?  And what can we do about it?  This aspect of the work – understanding and challenging systems of oppression – is risky, exhausting, exhilarating, tedious and transformative business.  But until we do this work the babies will keep on coming. 


This is the part now where I exhort you to go out and do good.  But many – most of you – are already doing that.  This is the greatest crowd of baby-savers I’ve ever seen, as evidenced by our Sandwich Sunday event last week.  You don’t need me – or a UUA marketing campaign -- to tell you what to do or even how to do it.  What I’d like to leave you with this morning is the thought that the babies keep on comin’ and we haven’t yet heard from the folks who went upstream to investigate the causes.  Jesus said that the poor will always be with us.  Peter said about Jesus, that “he went about doing good”.  Maybe our mission here as Unitarian Universalists is to figure out WHY doing good apparently isn’t enough.  The poor are not only still with us, the population of the poor keeps growing. 


What’s going on upstream?  Maybe it’s time to send up some of our investigators. 



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