Unitarian Universalists are going back to Selma for the fiftieth anniversary of the march that eventually brought about the Voting Rights Act. Many Unitarian Universalists remember and cling to the moment as the apotheosis of social justice commitments, especially because one of our lay members, Viola Liuzzo, and one of our ministers, the Rev. James Reeb, were murdered in the days surrounding the march. They had both come in to participate following the call by Rev. Dr. King.
This is much more than an exercise in nostalgia and solidarity. It is a memorial, a funeral, a call to renewed efforts toward anti-racism and anti-oppression work in #BlackLivesMatter America.
Many clergy have been asking what to pack and what to wear, and as anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, these are not trivial questions.
Some Unitarian Universalist ministers want to wear these.
Or they think they should wear stoles over street clothes to signal to the world that they are religious leaders.
Neither of these choices is appropriate, and I have said elsewhere that I find the first option offensive.
I like, support and appreciate the Standing On The Side Of Love slogan and campaign. It is a banner I am happy to have flying in our church sanctuary at times, and a Tshirt that I own and wear when I am joining UUs at big events like gay pride or climate marches. I love the happy feeling I get when I walk toward a park or gathering place and see a big swarm of those bumble bee shirts. Those are my people! I think to myself, and I head toward them with gratitude.
But the fiftieth anniversary of the march from Selma is no time for anyone to identify themselves with a denominational brand. To do so communicates immaturity and competitiveness to others, no matter what Unitarian Universalists say about wanting to communicate enthusiasm and pride. An ecumenical leader just sent me a Facebook message saying, “I wonder if the glaring UU branding in the clerics is an expression not of ecumenical/ interfaith solidarity, but an expression of anxiety and competition. I know of no other denomination where the clerical uniform has been particularized with a color… ”
Of course it is! And the terminal uniqueness to which UUs are still unfortunately prone, even as time marches on and proves us to be marching in tandem with mainline Protestants in many of the issues we were once cutting edge.
Colleagues, be respectful and respectable. Wear structured clothing. Wear a suit. Wear clericals if you want to identify as clergy. Leave off the stoles flapping in the wind, as you are not officiating at a wedding or performing a pastoral function. Stoles are not public symbols of ordained ministry and often look goofy over street clothes. They are highly individualistic (“This is my denominational stole! This is my rainbow unicorn quilted stole! This is my home congregation design stole! This is my I Love Nature And Horses stole!”) and can ruin a photograph by being askew. They are liturgical vestments and do not really belong in the streets, but if you feel strongly about wearing one, please do not make it a denominational slogan. Please do not time-stamp an historic moment by wearing a transient symbol. I know that the Standing On The Side Of Love campaign is not denominational and purely Unitarian Universalist. That isn’t the point. The point is that this moment is not about team pride of any kind. It is about human history, legacy, remembrance, martyrdom and justice. None of those things should be cheapened by flagrant displays of specialness or separateness.
Some UUs may object: “I’m clergy but I’m not Christian and do not wish to wear clericals because that has no integrity.”
Then don’t wear clericals. Exchanging clericals for an unrecognizable, distracting symbol at a moment of high national importance is about your need to be identified in photos as a particular flavor of religious leader, not about making a visual, emotional, psychological statement for the ages.
It’s not about you or our tiny denomination, and if Unitarian Universalist cheerleading and preferred Rainbow Brite colors palette was going to win converts to our movement, I am certain that would have happened by now.
Part of the power of this image taken fifty years ago is that you cannot tell the participants apart by creed or denomination, church-goer, atheist, layman or clergy. They are elegant, they are dignified, they are one people.