Motherless Chil’

This sermon was preached for the Unitarian Universalist Association weekly chapel service on May 12, 2015.

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless chil’.” Such a distant notion for me. I was fortunate to grow up in a household with a mama who was there for me, a Mama who taught me to read at the age of 3 so that when I showed up at J. R. D. Oldham Elementary School in Riverside RI, they didn’t quite know what to do with me.

I had a mama and I had a neighborhood of mamas. Gramma lived just seven houses away, and between our house and gramma’s, I had an aunt on one side of the street and a great aunt on the other. Two blocks away were two other aunts. And in between, all the mamas of my childhood friends. Plenty of mamas in my life.

We were working people. Some of us had daddies with skilled jobs, some of our mamas worked outside the home, and some of us were poor. But it was a time when there was tremendous public investment in our communities. New schools were being built, and an emphasis on mathematics and science as key to our country winning the space race meant that I could take AP physics and Calculus.

While I knew that I would be headed to college, I really didn’t have a clue about how I would get there. It was people from my church who encouraged me in looking at college catalogues, in visiting campuses, in making the decision about where to apply. It was when my pastor announced in church that I had been accepted to college, and my church burst into applause, that I knew that I was being held by a church that was there to help me on my journey.

Baltimore is in pain right now; pain that has been brought to the surface in the uprising that happened just hours after Freddie Gray, Jr., another Black young adult, was placed in the ground. Freddie’s body was buried, but the pain could not go underground. An entire generation of Black girls and Black boys, now Black young adults, women and men and all sorts of gender identities, an entire generation of children are in pain and so are their mamas.

For thirty years now, it has been illegal in Baltimore to be young and poor and Black; there has been zero tolerance for hanging out with your friends. A generation of youngsters have been harassed and oppressed, brutalized and beaten, captured and even killed, by the Baltimore Police Department. A community completely alienated from the Police. A whole generation of people whose mamas could not protect them.

I’m struck that one of the abiding images in the media was the video clip of Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who saw her son Michael Singleton about to throw a rock at a line of police officers. She “lost it,” she later said, when she stopped him from throwing that rock, when she confronted him, reached up and pulled off his mask; hit him; when this fierce mama would not let her son throw his life away.

I wonder, is there now a church that can be fierce in its relationship with people who live in concentrated poverty, a faith that can, with authenticity and clarity of purpose, be there to help poor people in Baltimore on their journey?

That is what we’re talking about in Baltimore, you know. Poor people trapped concentrated in areas of little opportunity. It is a mistake to look at Baltimore and point to generalized “white flight” as to what created this situation. The people who left Baltimore after the Second World War and in the urban tumult of the 1960s were people who had the capacity to do so. People who had access to government secured mortgages, people who could use the newly built interstate system as a way out of the city, White people and Black people who had the capacity to leave to more robust neighborhoods did. It’s just that our social investment gave more resources to people who had more resources, and the historically disenfranchised people were abandoned as corporate and governmental investment left the inner city. It is a poor people’s problem, and it is a Black people’s problem. And that’s a community that might feel like a motherless chil’.

The state of emergency has been rescinded; the curfew in Baltimore lifted; a new consciousness of the problem of policing is being raised; many things are returning to normal.

But if the norms continue to include a lack of opportunity for poor people in Baltimore City, those are unacceptable norms. They are unacceptable today, and they have been unacceptable for decades.

Twenty years ago, urban planer and former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk pointed out in his book Baltimore Unbound that without a metropolitan approach to solving the problems of the inner city, both Baltimore City and the surrounding counties would be mired in inequity. And indeed, the Baltimore that needs a new transit system that allows people in areas of high concentrations of poverty to get to jobs in areas of high opportunity, cannot accomplish it without a metropolitan approach. The Baltimore families that are trapped in high concentrations of poverty will not succeed unless a metropolitan approach to housing equity is adopted. The educational system that is populated by poor children will not succeed without a broader, more metropolitan approach where peer relationships between poor and middle income children give all of them a richer experience and give poorer kids a chance to dream of the possibilities that a better education might bring them. And this cannot happen until a more metropolitan approach to education is advanced.

There is good news here for Unitarian Universalist congregations, because it will take people in areas of opportunity—like where many of our congregations are located—showing strong solidarity with people in areas of concentrated poverty to advance an agenda for metropolitan organizing and metropolitan action. Using the substantial power of our congregations and organizing our work with other communities of faith, with our state legislative networks, with experiential learning in the College of Social Justice, with more spontaneous efforts like Standing on the Side of Love—and especially living into a relational commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, we may be part of the solution that will turn around the situation in Baltimore and, I believe, the many metropolitan areas across the country where an equivalent of the Baltimore Uprising is waiting to break out.

When William Ellery Channing spoke in Baltimore nearly 200 years ago, he gave us all an instruction: speak from the heart . . . preach from experience, that the truth which you dispense . . . [is] not merely words on your lips, but most affecting realities to your mind, and springs of hope and consolation, and strength, in all your trials.

And Sly and the Family Stone urged us further:

You’ve been sitting much too long

There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong.

There’s a cross for you to bear
Things to go through if you’re going anywhere.

Let’s go somewhere, sisters and brothers of so many other mothers, so many mamas. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s go somewhere. Let’s stand.

Blessed be.

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