"The inmates are only allowed to receive Bibles, no other books." She stared at me from the behind the protective glass at the county jail. I smiled and held up the book in front of her. "It is my understanding that the U.S Constiution protects the rights of all citizens to practice their chosen religion, including these inmates, including those who are not Christian." Her eyes widened slightly as I continued in a carefully modulated tone. "My parishioner is a practicing Buddhist and this is a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Buddhist sacred text . . . like the Bible. He has requested a copy, as is his right. I would like to make sure he receives it."
She reluctantly took it and told me to wait while she showed it to the Sherriff. My parishioner did eventually receive his sacred text. I doubt anyone had ever made such a request before in this rural Southern county.
We gathered on the grass of the town plaza in the summer heat. A child pulled his wagon filled with bottles of water as the mother handed them out. Students set up a canopy and table for voter registration. The enormous image of George Floyd stared sadly out from the stage under the pavilion as a guy handed out T-shirts emblazoned with justice slogans. Then a young person, beautiful and powerful in their blackness, took up the bullhorn and led the chants: "Say his name: George Floyd!" "Until Black lives matter, NO lives matter!" "I can't Breathe!" We all moved together and poured into the streets and we were off, crying out truth into the air, pushing our placards forward and declaring our passionate participation in the repairing of the world.
I stood at the foot of his bed while his wife of 54 years and their two daughters joined hands with me and each other. There were no words as the doctor turned off the ventilator and we could only watch and listen as Brian’s breaths grew shallower. Soon there was only silence punctuated by quiet sobs and sniffs. I felt honored to be welcomed by these three women into this powerful place, the threshold of death. It was humbling to be included in this most intimate moment as they said goodbye to their beloved. We had shared so much in our work together for the church and he had helped to form me as a young minister. So I wept with them for my loss of an admirable, wise, kind friend.
“But I really can’t give more to the church. I have so many other charities that I support!” The President of the congregation spoke with a guilty, pleading tone in response to my suggestion that the Board pledge first and set the example with an increase.
“Your church is not just another charity, “ I said carefully. “I support several charities myself and I know their demands. But Save the Children will not visit you in the hospital. The Audubon Society will not bring you a casserole when you’re sick. People’s Loan Program will not marry or bury your loved ones. This congregation is your community, your tribe! You should pledge here first and most generously! These people know you, love you, and travel with you on your journey. Make generosity your spiritual practice. Your resources cannot be better placed than here!”
I grabbed the bullhorn out of my office closet and rushed to the Federal Building downtown where the crowd was growing. The protest organizer was absent with a sudden illness and no one knew what to do. When the NPR reporter walked up asking who was in charge, the group of total strangers all pointed at me and said, “She has the bullhorn!” Stunned, I was pulled aside and found a microphone before me. So I put on my best professional face and answered questions in a ministerial tone. Then moving to join those gathered on the sidewalk, I held the bullhorn up and began to lead chants as they marched up and down with their signs: "No one is above the law!" and "Democracy is on the line!" Later, on Alabama Public Radio, I heard “According to protest spokeswoman Rev. Ruth Vann Lillian . . . ” You never know where a bullhorn may take you!
"We are Unitarian Universalists with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve." I looked around at the earnest faces of U.U. Superhero Camp. "Before we sing, let's add 'feet' at the end. Why do we have marching feet?"
"My Daddies say we are marching for justice!" cried an eager boy.
"That's right! We march to protest what is wrong and to demand what is right. Let's also add 'rolling wheels' to our song. Why should we do that?" One shy girl raised her hand.
"Rev. Ruth, my Grandma uses a wheelchair. Are we singing about people like her?"
"Yes! We are all Unitarian Universalists who want to find ways to serve and to fight for justice no matter how we are abled! Let's stand . . . or sit . . . and sing!"
Minds, hearts, and hands and feet and rolling wheels . . . Minds that think, hearts that love, hands that serve and feet and wheels . . .