The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
UU Principles in Action: Advocating Gun Control From a Place of Conscience
By Verdell Wright on May 24, 2023
What happens when you invite a Black male state representative who was expelled from their legislative body to preach at a predominantly White Unitarian Universalist church? It sounds like a situation poised for confusion and strife. Fortunately, that was not the case. When The Church of the River (First Unitarian Church of Memphis) asked Representative Justin Pearson to preach this past April, it would appear that encouragement, challenge, and hope for the future were the outcomes.
Rep. Pearson rose to national prominence when he and two other colleagues were expelled from the Tennessee House of Representatives due to their protest of gun violence. Days prior, Covenant Elementary School in Nashville experienced gun violence that is all too frequent in this country. It was this tragedy that Rep. Pearson—along with his colleagues, Reps. Justin Jones and Gloria Johnson—protested. They broke decorum rules by walking and talking on the floor without being formally recognized, an action that was referred to as a “lynch mob” by Republican members of the governing body. The legislative body voted to have Reps. Pearson and Jones removed, but not Rep. Gloria Johnson, a White woman.
They have since been reinstated, but the damage remains as does the challenge to those who are seeking to live out UU values. This is the context that Rep. Pearson spoke to in his sermon on Easter Sunday. How do UUs express their values against forces that are willing to ignore laws and the will of the people?
Pearson’s sermon urged the congregation to embrace the need for sacrifice and direct challenge to uphold justice for all. Mike Schooler, an usher at Church of the River, boiled Pearson’s main contention to a simple sentence: “We need to get off our butts instead of just complaining about ill tidings in the works.”
By using The Resurrection of Jesus as a theme, Pearson connected the efforts to remove him and his colleagues to the ways Black people have been historically silenced and attacked when crying out for justice. This gave the sermon a more evangelical bent than is typically heard from UU pulpits, yet it was that difference that likely helped it resonate. Ronald Peck, who serves as the board of trustees secretary, appreciated the chance to hear a message across a line of difference. “His sermon reminded me as a Unitarian Universalist to always strive to be open-minded and curious about people, cultures, and traditions different from my own.”
Laura McArtor appreciated the reminder that her reality is not the center of the world. Pearson noted in his sermon that like the women who first received and delivered the news of Jesus’ resurrection, Black women are this nation’s best guide toward justice. “I noticed myself feeling a little left out,” Laura said. “Then I was grateful for that reminder that everything isn’t centered in my experience and perspective.”
Carla and Patrick Weber thought it was key to note how many UU principles were uplifted in Pearson’s sermon despite theological differences. “He spoke directly of the dignity and worth of every person, justice, equity and compassion in human relations, respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part, the right of conscience and use of the democratic process in society, the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all.”
The goal of a quality sermon is to leave the hearers with a sense of hope and that positive change is possible. Rep.Pearson was able to establish that hope in the minds of the congregants. Nancy, another parishioner, said: “I, at 80, felt intensely hopeful for my children and grandchildren knowing that there are young leaders like Rep. Pearson on the scene.”
Angela Redden also felt that hope. “He is providing a hope that is palpable. He is making our city better.”
Photo is courtesy of Church of the River, Memphis, Tennessee.