August 10, 2015
“Why We Are Here” Rev. Thomas Perchlik
Remarks at UU Kickoff for the one year anniversary weekend of the Ferguson Uprising. 2015-08-07
I am the Minister of the First Unitarian Church of Saint Louis. I serve the eldest Unitarian Church in this metro-area. Tonight I am here to speak for the founder. The Lorax spoke for the trees, I speak for the founder of Saint Louis Unitariansm.
In 1834, a young, entrepreneurial minister named William, William Eliot, came to this small city on the edge of civilized America. He knew that city was growing by the spirit of rapid profits and capital gains and booming commerce, and he wanted it to also be shaped by Unitarian principles. William knew that to follow Jesus meant to affirm the dignity and goodness of all persons. He knew that to fight for the Kingdom was to bring love and justice into all our actions and speech. Inspired by the preaching of W. E. Channing, Eliot was passionate about how education can lift the human soul.
William also saw how slavery oppressed and dehumanized people. He was known to speak out against the unfair and cruel treatment of slaves. When he inspired Unitarians in the work of creating a public school system the city was deeply segregated. So, we also created a school for black people that met in our church building. At its height, this school served more than 200 students. When the Civil war began, it became against the law for black people to gather together. Our police did not have tear gas back then, but fear worked the same then as now. Hearing about the new law, Reverend Eliot walked to the governor’s office and got approval for the school to continue meeting while the war raged on. This history is part of the foundation upon which we build here today. Unity of the one human race, with Love and Justice for all.
However, our motivations are never simple. William was a gradualist. He opposed those who wanted to end slavery immediately. He thought it would take generations to change habits and hearts. He feared the loss and pain and violence that always came with any sudden change. He feared the ruin of war. In general, Unitarian Universalists have put him on the losing side, even aligning him with the slaveholders. Some Unitarians called for immediate emancipation. Unitarians like Julia Howe and Theodore Parker went on to give voice and theology and vision for the cause of union and the fight against slavery. But in a way William understood the human spirit more truly. For here we are, more than one and a half hundred years later, generations later, still trying to change hearts and habits, still trying to undo oppression, unfair treatment, and divisiveness. That is why we are here, bearing these twin strains of our heritage, the immediate call for action, and the long vision.
No matter how we are called to serve, no matter our specific actions, may all that is holy bless us and guide us as we seek to embody Love and Justice this weekend.