Delivered at the ordination of the Rev. Julianne Lepp, at Eau Claire Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Last Martin Luther King Day in Atlanta, as is the justice practice of our congregation, a somewhat smaller than usual group of us met outside a metro stop downtown. We then waited for the inevitably much-delayed start of the annual parade, with its high school marching bands, union and corporate banners, signs and buttons for many causes.
We were standing around, a lot, an intergenerational contingent with Coming of Age youth and their mentors, families with small children, and elders who had made the trek many times before. So at some point, to pass the time, we decided to come up with and practice some songs to sing along the route to the MLK historical district.
Our then-intern minister Julie Lepp and her oldest son were among the most enthusiastic members of our barely-organized, pick-up chorus. We came up with just a couple of songs to sing at first — ones we knew — leading off with what we always refer to as We Are a Gentle, Angry People, a marker song of our UU faith tradition, written by Holly Near.
The way we “covered” this song, sang it on that January afternoon as we walked (or rather meandered all over) those windy streets, was to put the emphasis on what kind of people we are, with its inclusive language: we are a land of many colors, we are black and white together, young and old together, gay and straight together.
A justice-seeking people.
Which, of course, is who we are in this liberal religious movement, as individuals, as congregations, as an association. As your soon-to-be-ordained minister, Julie brings a lifetime of standing up for her convictions — especially with respect to racial tensions — to this work, a commitment to the broadness of Unitarian Universalism. She is, in the words of Rev. Katherine Rhodes Henderson, one of God’s troublemakers, with what Henderson describes as an infectious passion for doing justice across generations.
You could see that spiritual activism on that MLK holiday, leading from the middle, her son close by. There it was, her commitment to a prophetic, empowering ministry, in the mix with her congregation, walking the talk. There it was, her great fierce love of children, her own children and the others with whom she sang along the way.
We sang that song and others, including the child-friendly This Little Light of Mine more or less in rotation as we made our way past the largest crowds I can remember, perhaps because of the lateness of our starting time, perhaps because of the rare good weather. And then we added another, one of our newest songs, Standing on the Side of Love, just the chorus.
Feeling good, buoyed by the sunshine and the camaraderie, in the spirit of King we walked down the famous Sweet Auburn Avenue, holding up our congregational banners and signs asking for marriage rights for all and an end to war. Just as we stopped in front of the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, King’s home church, two white men holding up a hand-scrawled placard: What God Loves, What God Hates, began to taunt us. It was hard to hear what they were saying and impossible to read their list of divine dos and don’ts, but the tone was crystal clear, and their faces were contorted with contempt, if not hatred.
These were voices being used, not to seek justice, not to reconcile and unify, but to divide, trigger shame.
In that moment of trying to discern something like What Would Martin Do?, we decided to take an offensive of sorts — to turn and face our hecklers, and to sing as loudly and forcefully as we could — We are Standing on the Side of Love. Over and over again, ignoring their steady stream of invective.
We are standing on the side of love, hands clasped together as hearts beat as one. Emboldened by faith, we dare to proclaim we are standing on the side of love.
There we were, at the end of our walking together, no longer hesitant in our singing, joined in common purpose.
Singing, as our colleague Sarah Dan Jones, president of the UU Musician’s network, tells us, as an organizing tool, the way leaders of the Civil Rights Movement employed hymnody, the kinds of songs chosen to inspire and propel them forward. You can find this device in the sermons and other writings of Martin Luther King, she observes, dotted with song titles: Won’t Let Nobody Turn Me Round, We Shall Not Be Moved, We Shall Overcome. Songs for Birmingham, for Montgomery, for Selma. Keeping up the strength, the heart, the faith for the struggle.
Not just secular protest songs were chosen, but many African-American spirituals as well, taken from the black slave period, songs meant not only to provide comfort and hope for redemption in the afterlife, but also the possibility of freedom in the human domain. This was life-affirming and even life-saving music, a balm for the sin-sick soul.
Like those who went before us, we are a justice-seeking people, looking to end oppression and transform systems, employing song.
And yet there are so many other times and reasons why we sing as a religious people. Holly Near insists: We are always Singing for Our Lives — which is the real title of her song. We sing to give thanks and praise, to mark the seasons, to celebrate, to mourn, to unify in love.
Growing up Unitarian in the fifties and sixties, for me, singing within a worship service was an awkward and spotty affair. By and large, we were not a singing people in those years. In fact, I barely remember any other hymns sung on an average non-holiday Sunday other than our own doxology: From all that dwell below the skies, let songs of hope and faith arise. Let peace, good will on Earth be sung through every land, by every tongue.
In order to sing, to really sing in a congregation, I had to join my girlfriends’ choirs in the Episcopal, Methodist, and Congregational churches in our town. Sitting up in stuffy, unventilated lofts, ignoring the messages, waiting for our turn to lift our voices, invoke the sacred through our harmonies.
The singing I can recall I did as part of my home UU congregation was linked to the marches and rallies we attended together to support voting rights, to protest nuclear armament, to oppose apartheid and the Vietnam War. As a young person in our faith tradition, I was buoyed and strengthened, with music woven throughout our public endeavors in a way that was absent in our sanctuary.
Julie brings a very different experience of song and religious community. In the Episcopal liturgy of her childhood, singing thanks and praise was a good and joyful thing, she remembers, literally. She associated singing with heaven, singing the high soprano hosanas with her mother from a very early age. She and her sister singing across the room from each other all their camp and hippie songs. After her older sister had left for college, singing herself to sleep sometimes.
She sang in her church choir as a teen, and in her high school chorus, and played guitar for Wednesday night gatherings in her father’s congregation.
She grew up and grew deeper singing for her life, bringing that conviction that the universal language of music, the power of notes and breathing, swaying and singing, are integral to a shared ministry.
Singing as we all can, across the lifespan, every voice unique and offering a contribution, no matter how young or old, with whatever training or experience. Julie tells us that song can connect us where mere words cannot, speaking to pre-memory, to joy — and all the things that music does.
Julie Lepp, about to be ordained this day, chose to sing lines of the sermon she delivered in front of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee because, she says, she knew she would connect with the core of who she is, and this credentialing body would see better who she is as a minister. I know she will bring this willingness to risk, this vulnerability, her harmonizing embodied faith in all of her ministerial roles.
May you be gentle angry people, guided and inspired, fueled by the powerful spirit of love and commitment.
May you sing, sing for your lives, in common purpose.
And blessings on your ministry together.