A Place to be Our Best Selves

[Pledge Drive Kick-Off Sunday]

the Rev. Jennie Ann Barrington, Interim Minister


When your Finance Committee and I decided on the theme for this year’s pledge drive, it was that smoothest, easiest, most harmonious, and most enjoyable process for coming up with a pledge drive theme that I’ve ever experienced. It’s true that we had been discussing and brainstorming for several weeks, talking with each other, and listening to all of you, about why UUCC is so important to us, and in our wider community, and all the ways UUCC changes people’s lives for the better. But when it came time to decide, we all quickly agreed that this congregation is, above all, “A Place to be our Best Selves.” In saying that, we mean that UUCC is a place where each of us is furthering our own development as we strive to be more informed, more understanding and inclusive, more aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, more conscientious about our roles and responsibilities in all our relationships, and more clear about our ethical, religious, or spiritual values and path. And in saying that UUCC is “A Place to be our Best Selves,” we mean that here, we are among “like-minded people.” Here, we do not have to act like someone we are not, nor state that we believe something we do not believe. For all those reasons, this congregation is uniquely valuable and desperately needed, by its members and friends, and by all the communities we are in relationship with. And so, beginning on this shiny morning, and throughout the month of March, your leadership and I are asking you to reflect on what keeps you coming to UUCC, and what your hopes and dreams for its future are. And we are asking that you all attend one of the Cottage Meetings we are hosting during the month of March, to talk with us about why you value this congregation. We promise to do much more listening than talking! And we are asking that, after reflecting on and discussing these things, you do the best you can to help UUCC be the best it can be financially.


This congregation has been “A Place to be our Best Selves” since back in the day when it was far more difficult to do so than it is for us today. In 1950, nine people came together and committed to becoming charter members of the Unitarian Fellowship of Columbia. They didn’t have their own building or land, nor a minister or any staff. They met twice a month in each other’s homes. After ten years, they were twenty-five members. From the very beginning, they were welcoming and inclusive of different races and ethnicities, and non-traditional religious or spiritual views. The Fellowship took stands against segregation and held racially integrated services and programs. At least one rental space was denied to them because of that. The Fellowship’s original purpose, stated on its Certificate of Incorporation, was: to further individual freedom of belief, to further discipleship to advancing truth, to further the democratic process in human relations, to further a brotherhood undivided by nation, race, or creed, and to further allegiance to the cause of a united world community. I feel awe at those noble ideals, especially when I think of the context in which those founders came together. Within a culture which was hostile toward civil rights and liberal religion, this congregation was counter-cultural, visionary, and very brave.


Over time, the Fellowship grew in membership, purchased a building, engaged a minister, purchased a larger building, engaged more ministers, developed Unitarian Universalist programming for children and youth [what we now call “CYRE” classes], hired excellent staff, purchased this building and land, on the corner of Woodrow and Heyward, and renovated and beautified this, our “church home,” several times. It changed its name from Fellowship to Congregation. And it continued to advocate for racial minorities, to champion environmental causes, and to speak out on behalf of the rights of people who are gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. UUCC has seen its wider community become less hostile over the years as we have marched in the gay pride parade. And, over the years, this congregation’s protesting of the Confederate flag on the Capitol contributed to, finally last summer, our witnessing it being taken down, and off of the grounds of the State House, for good.


Since I began serving as your interim minister in August, it has been an honor and a real pleasure to learn about this congregation’s noble and brave history and to take part in your current worthy endeavors. In the pledge drive brochure that you’ll all receive, UUCC is described [beautifully, by Marcia Fletcher] as “a garden of hope and goodwill in a larger environment that is sometimes harsh and unwelcoming.” I agree! And I like to think of UUCC as a sanctuary for liberal thinkers and a bonfire of activism. As I have listened to you during my time here, I have been moved to learn what you are passionate about. And the sense of UUCC as a sanctuary is deeply meaningful to you, and central to this congregation’s identity. In fact, when the Governor spoke in opposition to refugees from Syrian coming to South Carolina, you spoke out in opposition to her. This congregation took action to advocate for and assist Syrian refugees. I think that advocacy arose from your experience of, as this congregation has been a sanctuary for you, so you feel called to provide sanctuary for others who are unfairly marginalized, excluded, and disrespected.


I know that it is hard  –it’s even scary–  to keep being a “garden of hope and goodwill in a larger environment that is harsh and unwelcoming.” But there are examples all around us to encourage and inspire us. We just need to keep noticing them, lifting them up, and following their lead. Those examples include the founders and predecessors of this congregation. We would not be here launching our 2016 pledge drive without their work and sacrifice, and we owe it to them to carry forward their ideals. And those examples include all people who were told not to bother trying, because they were different than the majority, yet they continued to speak out, to struggle for justice, and to work toward achieving their dreams. In the good company of all those examples, we can continue to transform the larger culture into a more inclusive, fair-minded, empathetic, and enlightened place. But in order to do that, we need this congregation to be as strong and solid and sustainable as it can possibly be. Your Finance Committee and I have set a goal that is something of a stretch, but not so high as to be out of reach. The budget is inspired by the committees’ desire to continue our ministry and programming, our social justice work in neighborhoods near and far, our intellectual discussions, and our social times together, and to compensate our staff, Andrea, Stephanie, Ginny, Jeff, and our childcare providers, fairly.  So in asking you to pledge for the 2016 – 1017 fiscal year, we understand that these are hard economic times.  We ask only that you do the very best you can to make UUCC the most comforting sanctuary of liberalism, and the brightest bonfire of activism, it can possibly be.  


As you contemplate examples of how influential this congregation has been, and continues to be, I would also ask that you not sell yourselves short. As a relative newcomer here, it is easy for me to see how great and powerful the Unitarian Universalists of Columbia, South Carolina have been. I urge you to try to see yourselves that way, too. There are hard times within and outside of UUCC’s walls. There’s a negative energy in our nation, and perhaps especially in the South, that we are seeing, hearing, and feeling.  I think we need to reverse it–  I think we need to dare to be the strongest, healthiest, and loveliest UU congregation we can possibly be, at this time, and in this place.  I think we need to not be afraid of our own greatness–  We need to dare to be as strong and proud and beautiful as we have it in ourselves to be, both in parts and as a whole organization.


A minute ago I mentioned that one thing this congregation is passionate about is helping refugees from Syria find sanctuary. There’s something else I’ve noticed that you are passionate about: Women’s Basketball. And so I’ll close this morning with two stories of women basketball players. Interestingly, both of the women are from South Dakota. First, I was inspired to learn this week about Becky Hammon, who is the first woman to be a full-time paid assistant coach in the NBA. In an interview with CNN, Ms. Hammon talked about how she is using this opportunity to learn as much as she possibly can about being the best coach she can be. For her “it is about being a sponge and soaking everything up.” She has dared to excel at her personal talents and gifts, despite discouraging words and closed doors. And her example is inspiring to other athletes, including male basketball players. The reason this story caught my eye was its highlighted quote by Ms. Hammon, saying, “’Underestimated’ is the story of my career.” Her story of success moved me to say to you this morning: Don’t underestimate yourselves–  And don’t underestimate how great and powerful your congregation is and can be.


Secondly, this Native American story, is from a girls’ basketball team of the Oglala Sioux Lakota tribe of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, of a young girl in her teens, who lived not very long ago.  It’s from Ian Frazier’s book, On the Rez:

“When [basketball] teams from Pine Ridge play non-Indian teams, the question of race is always there…  occasionally at away games their kids will be insulted, their fans will not feel welcome, the host gym will be dense with hostility…  One place where Pine Ridge teams used to get harassed regularly was in the high school gymnasium in Lead, South Dakota…  In the fall of 1988, the Pine Ridge Lady Thorpes went to Lead to play a basketball game.  SuAnne [Big Crow]… was a freshman, fourteen years old.  Getting ready in the locker room, the Pine Ridge girls could hear the din from some of the fans.  They were yelling fake-Indian war cries, a “woo-woo-woo” sound.  The usual plan for the pre-game warm-up was for the visiting team to run onto the court in a line, take a lap or two around the floor, shoot some baskets, and then go to their bench at courtside.  After that, the home team would come out and do the same, and then the game would begin.  Usually the [Lady] Thorpes lined up for their entry more or less according to height, which meant that senior Doni De Cory, one of the tallest, went first.  As the team waited in the hallway leading from the locker room, the heckling got louder.  A typical kind of hollered remark was “Squaw!” or “Where’s the cheese?” [the joke being that if Indians were lining up, it must be to get commodity cheese]; today no one remembers exactly what was said.  Doni De Cory looked out the door and told her teammates, “I can’t handle this.”  SuAnne quickly offered to go first in her place.  She was so eager that Doni became suspicious.  “Don’t embarrass us,” Doni told her.  SuAnne said, “I won’t. I won’t embarrass you.”  Doni gave her the ball, and SuAnne stood first in line.  She came running onto the court dribbling the basketball, with her teammates running behind.  On the court, the noise was deafeningly loud.  SuAnne went right down the middle; but instead of running a full lap, she suddenly stopped when she got to center court.  Her teammates were taken by surprise, and some bumped into one another…  SuAnne turned to Doni De Cory and tossed her the ball.  Then she stepped into the jump-ball circle at center court, in front of the Lead fans.  She unbuttoned her warm-up jacket, took it off, draped it over her shoulders, and began to do the Lakota shawl dance.  SuAnne knew all the traditional dances  –she had competed in many powwows as a little girl–  and the dance she chose is a young woman’s dance, graceful and modest and show-offy all at the same time.  “I couldn’t believe it–  she was powwowin’ like, ‘get down!’” Doni De Cory recalled.  “And then she started to sing.”  SuAnne began to sing in Lakota, swaying back and forth in the jump-ball circle, doing the shawl dance, using her warm-up jacket for a shawl.  The crowd went completely silent.  “All that stuff the Lead fans were yelling–  it was like she reversed it somehow,” a teammate said.  In the sudden quiet, all you could hear was her Lakota song.  SuAnne stood up, dropped her jacket, took the ball from Doni De Cory, and ran a lap around the court dribbling expertly and fast.  The fans began to cheer and applaud.  She sprinted to the basket, went up in the air, and laid the ball through the hoop, with the fans cheering loudly now.  Pine Ridge went on to win the game.”  [pp. 208-209]


“America is a leap of the imagination.  [Frazier writes]  From its beginning, people had only a persistent idea of what a good country should be.  The idea involved freedom, equality, justice, and the pursuit of happiness; nowadays most of us probably could not describe it a lot more clearly than that.  The truth is, it always has been a bit of a guess.  No one has ever known for sure whether a country based on such an idea is really possible, but again and again, we have leaped toward the idea and hoped.  What SuAnne Big Crow demonstrated in the Lead high school gym is that making that leap is the whole point.  The idea does not truly live unless it is expressed by an act; the country does not live unless we make the leap from our tribe or focus group or gated community or demographic, and land on the shaky platform of that idea of a good country which all kinds of different people share.” [p. 213]


And all we are being asked to do, in this place and time, is to, please, make UUCC the best it can be.