Ignoring the verdict. Is your congregation guilty?

Read follow-up to this post: Verdict Part 2 – Is social media driving new expectations for congregations?

We have a problem…  It has to do with congregations failing to meet some of their fundamental responsibility as faith communities offering public worship.  Today some of our congregations are guilty of failing to respond to what was a major event in the life of our country.  I know, guilty is a harsh word, but this is important, mission critical.

Not GuiltyUnitarian Universalist friends of mine, clergy and lay people alike, across the country are now talking on Facebook about how some congregations FAILED to address the Trayvon Martin – George Zimmerman verdict.  I know. I was a witness…

Today some congregations worship hardly mentioned the verdict, and failed to make space  for our feelings of anger, despair and hunger for justice.  I was there.  I made an unplanned trip to a local church today.  I was supposed to be working.  I changed my plans. I went to church and spent the majority of the service wondering if the worship leaders would mention it.

Yeah, finally a few words.  Not what I had hoped for. Good sermon, though.

Here’s the deal.  Failing to make space in worship *somehow* in the wake of a major event of this magnitude is a form of  ministry negligence.  In failing to address the issue that brought so many to church today, including newcomers, you caused harm.  You shook some people’s faith.  You made sure someone who came to your church for the first time is never going to return.   That’s not okay.

If you are going to open your doors for worship, you have responsibilities.  This includes creating space for ministering to people through your worship service in the wake of major national/world events.  You have a very real responsibility to check the news.   Seriously.   Yes, yes, I know it was  late, but that doesn’t get you off the hook.  Check in the morning.  Being in touch with the world is part of what you’re signing on to when you get into ministry, especially today given today’s technology and culture.

No, you don’t need to scrap your service as planned (with exceptions like 9/11).  You can change your opening words or revise a prayer.  You could address what happened with brief words at the start of the service with a  moment of silence and then launch into service as planned.  There are many ways to respond. But you must have a process for having worship leaders determine if there is anything that must be acknowledged in worship and for weaving in an appropriate response.

If it is Summer, that’s no excuse.   CLERGY, if you serve a congregation you are responsible for making sure this happens while you’re on Summer vacation.

If you consider yourself a leader in one of our congregations, I hope you’ll make it a practice to check in with worship leaders when you learn of a major event and to offer them support, but also hold them accountable to responding.  Together we need to make sure we are a smart enough faith to not blunder in this way.

There is too much at stake.

PS — Last year, Rev. Marlin Lavanhar offered this service on Trayvon Martin and the New Jim Crow.  Worth watching and sharing.


  1. Paul Dodenhoff

    My planned sermon was on surfing the shifting cultural sands. At 2 a.m., while not re-writing the entire sermon, I was busy making certain that the major point be about systemic racism and, in particular, the verdict in the George Zimmerman and its aftermath. I think its our responsibility as ministers and congregations to be able to adjust quickly at such times. But, as I mentioned at the beginning of our gathering today, I wish that just once I would have to tweak or re-write a sermon because something incredibly wonderful happened in the world. You can see how we made our chalice a witness to our sadness over the verdict at our FB page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Unitarian-Universalist-Congregation-of-the-Palisades/259525410750085

  2. Don Roberts

    Unfortunately I have a small fellowship that does not meet in the Summer. A situation that I object to because I think fellowship is (or should be) more than a place to hear interesting speeches. and presentations.

  3. Jon

    A man is found not guilty of murder and the jury accepted the evidence that he acted in self defense. Do you favor trying him again until you get the scripted verdict that matches the pre-judged media and administration driven case against Mr. Zimmerman? Rev. Lavanhar owes Mr. Zimmerman and apology for his senseless and self serving diatribe.

    There are murder trials every day and this case was hardly unique. Come to Chicago and “prophetic witness” to gang bangers instead.

  4. Jeff Liebmann

    Let me offer my personal decision-making process. I was not scheduled to be at my Fellowship today as I am finishing some time off. When I learned of the verdict late last night, I gave serious thought to going and perhaps inserting something into the service that my worship team had planned. When I awoke this morning, I simply was not in a frame of mind that would have allowed me to offer anything constructive. I was angry and frustrated and needed to deal with my own emotions first. I decided that I needed to be in solidarity with a community of African-Americans.

    So I attended the service at the Zion Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Saginaw. Interestingly, this entirely Black assembly (with the exception of my wife and I) did not address the case at all during their two hour service. We were greeted by dozens of people who joyously celebrated their faith that whatever challenges life offers us are there because God is offering us the opportunity for spiritual growth. In fact, the sermon chastised those (like the Jews in Exodus 15) who complain about their lot rather than ask God for help.

    I had already planned to preach next Sunday on “The Angry Jesus,” talking about the role of anger in social justice work and coping with inequality and unfairness in life. I will clearly address this matter as part of that sermon. I don’t know yet if my people addressed the issue during the service this morning. They have been actively discussing it online all day and I have joined them in that conversation with my own postings. Therefore, I feel that we have adequately addressed what pain might be felt by my congregants.

    Now, had this been something like the Newtown shootings, my response would have been immediate and direct. But this case has been in the public conscience for more than a year and we sadly should not be all that surprised at the outcome. As soon as the jury passed the two hour mark in their deliberations, I was prepared for the worst. So, I do not feel that we failed our people if we did not have an immediate response in this case. I care much more about the long-term work of anti-racism and anti-oppression both in our congregations and in our society at large.

    1. Amy Zucker Morgenstern

      Jeff, it’s so hard to know which news items need to be acknowledged in church and which ones don’t. You’ve heard from one UU, Peter Bowden. Here’s the input from another: I was on vacation in England. I heard the news and was stricken. Sick to my stomach, dizzy with “not again,” in despair that our society will ever recover from its disease of racism. It WAS “something like the Newtown shootings” in how deeply it upset me. If I’d gone to a US church that week and not heard anything acknowledging my pain and despair, it would have been a bad experience.

      So just be aware, there are people like us who needed to hear something from our religious communities right then.

  5. Paul Mason

    Peter, I honestly don’t know if there was (or is) a right way to respond — and I’m not surprised to read (Rev?) Mr. Liebmann’s report that the predominantly black church he attended did not mention the verdict. Are you suggesting that there was an absolute need to say SOMETHING? I think you are — but what if one honestly doesn’t know what to think or feel? Is it not worse to say something stupid? Is it necessarily useful to give people the opportunity to vent? Is it not wise to leave time to reflect? I’m Canadian, and I think American gun laws are bat-shit crazy…but in the context of the society you’ve collectively created (in which, I acknowledge, there are many good things), I’m by no means SURE that there was a miscarriage of justice here. Your post assumes (I think) that there’s unanimity among UUs as to the verdict. I doubt that’s the case.

    1. Peter Bowden

      Thanks for your comments, all of you. I don’t think there is agreement in our congregations or among our members. But it has been clear, I think, that this case was important in the life of our country and that their would be strong emotions needing to be processed. Now, I will admit that I am tied into social media and have been able to see the build up to the verdict. Many of our leaders are not, and were therefore not attuned to the ministry needs of the people.

      1. uujeff

        Hmm, I’m having difficulty with your last sentence, Peter. I would honestly be shocked to learn that many of our leaders were either somehow not aware of the case, or that they were not attuned to the ministry needs of their people regarding it. I have trouble imagining how anyone in a position of ministering to a congregation could have been unaware of the trial since it was omnipresent in every media outlet. And I would hesitate to judge our leaders’ level of attunement to the needs of their people based solely on their response to one event.

        As a minister, my biggest challenge right now is being plugged into so many injustices bombarding us every day, that I don’t know how to address them all adequately. My women congregants are being besieged by so-called pro-lifers who simply want to control their bodies. My poorer congregants are facing the challenge of no medical insurance, so-called right-to-work laws, and a corrupt banking system foreclosing on their homes. My GLBT folk are fighting homophobia in the state capitol with legislators calling them an abomination and seeking to allow employers and insurance providers to legally discriminate against them. The list goes on of egregious assaults on justice.

        I could literally spend each and every Sunday focusing on social justice. Some of my congregants almost certainly think I already spend too much time on it. But, as a minister, I must balance my prophetic voice with the other demands on my preaching – education, self-improvement, spiritual development, and community-building. These are not mutually exclusive, but I hesitate to judge any minister simply because I don’t feel they are spending as much energy on any area of ministry or any particular world event as I deem necessary.

        We are battling a hydra and racism is simply one head. Rather than argue over which head is bigger or must be slain first, I believe we should be focusing on how to more effectively fight and eventually defeat the whole beast.

  6. Kim Hampton

    As someone who wrote about Trayvon Martin a lot last year, I’m going to take the opposite side to Jeff Liebmann; I think most UU congregations failed not only today, but failed spectacularly last year when a UU response would have really mattered. So this is an ongoing failure.

    And I’m going to go out on a big limb here…UU congregations will never be good at situations like this because the people who things like this happen to don’t belong to/aren’t members of UU churches. I bet we could count the number of young men of color (and their families) on a few hands. If you don’t believe me, look at your “downstairs” church; most of the children of color will be girls, not boys.

    Yes, right now I am a cynic about UU responses to the verdict. For me, it’s a case of wondering where the hell was this response last year? [not about the verdict, obviously, but about the situation]

    And Marlin’s sermon makes me cry every time I look at it.

    1. uujeff

      Kim, the article was about addressing the verdict literally 12 hours after it was released. I preach and teach often about anti-racism, white privilege, and the racial bias in our criminal justice system. I think where Unitarian Universalism sometimes fails is not in our response to current instances of injustice, but in our inability to provide a meaningful path out of the injustice – a saving message of hope and love. The church I attended yesterday focused on their saving message. They felt no need for public sharing of personal emotions about one verdict (a verdict that was probably accurate given the insane law the jury had to administer). Likewise, I feel no compulsion for us to dwell on our emotions regarding individual injustices in an unjust system. If we did this, we would never have time for any other worship.

      I do not share your pessimism. UU congregations that can be strong allies, no matter what their level of diversity. As a denomination largely loaded with privilege, there are ways that we can stand beside our allies of color, women, GLBT folk, immigrants and other oppressed group. I would rather focus most of my energies on helping people understand the root causes of injustice, and helping toderive solutions, than on a corporate sharing of our grief every time an injustice occurs.

      1. Kim Hampton

        If I felt like making the argument, I would say that the whole worship service was about Trayvon Martin; but right now I’m not feeling it. Although I am surprised he wasn’t mentioned in the prayer.

        The church that I grew up in talked about him yesterday. I wish I had been there instead of where I was.

    2. Kris Jones

      I too felt a deafening silence while at my fellowship the morning after the verdict. I wanted to talk about the law that ‘justified’ the killing for the jurers and the amount of gun violence and its interplay with systemic racism of our culture. Since my husband was murdered during a robbery, I was mute. How could there not be a discussion that morning. Were they waiting for me since typically I connect sermon topics to our gun toting society and the racism that make some killings more news worthy than others. I wanted to voice my sorry that Trayvon’s parents would still need to struggle to make something meaningful of such a senseless act, and can not get to rest their minds that they did all they can do to get justice for their child – as if they really can. I am hopeful that their actions, joined by all the other people who have lost children, parents and partners to gun violence, will be sucessful. Regardless of what was covered in our congregations, we can go foreward and chronicle the efforts to change the craziness of our gun regulations and laws like stand your ground. Kris Jones

  7. Spirituwellness

    This was my sentiment exactly. (http://spirituwellness.wordpress.com/2013/07/13/do-the-work-at-hand/) I will say however, it was a very different game to be a black man preaching to an all white congregation today. My message was about how we all have bias, bigotry and hatred within and that only by addressing these challenging parts of our selves, can we actually grow and evolve as loving people. We must take personal responsibility for our failings and not hide behind the pretext of “white guilt” or other group classifications. Only by personally owning our stuff can it get better.

  8. Fred Small

    Thank you for speaking the truth in love, Peter.

    It can be challenging in the moment to discern whether and how to respond in worship to a public tragedy, to apprehend where it falls on the spectrum between, say, an apparently isolated death and, say, 9/11. Once an event is mourned in worship, it sets a precedent for mourning others, and feelings will be hurt if other events are not similarly lifted up. Voices will legitimately ask: is one death, one injustice, less important than another?

    To name the quandary is not to evade responsibility. Worship is inherently pastoral. It’s clear to me that the neglect of the Zimmerman verdict in our worship yesterday was a mistake that caused members of our congregation and visitors understandable distress. I’m sorry it happened and will seek to prevent its happening again.

    I like your suggestion of putting a protocol in place to make the call on responding in worship to public events.

    If you haven’t done so already, I hope you’ll share your concerns with yesterday’s worship leaders.

    1. Peter Bowden

      Hi Fred, I’d be happy to. Still processing our UU response to the verdict. I’m coming to appreciate how social media impacts our awareness of each others needs and serves to clarify sense of when pastoral care is required. I think my being part of a larger social media conversation amplified my desire to gather and connect in person. Interesting how social media impacts our needs and expectations!

  9. Jon

    There are at least at least four tragedies here – Trayvon’s loss of life, his parents grief and loss, George Zimmerman being prematurely cast by the media, professional race baiters, and uninformed or opportunistic ministers and politicians as a useful character to fit their preconceived notions for selfish political gain or grandstanding, and finally, the tragic corruption of real justice y these same self promoting characters and their rioting drones.

    Finding a scape goat to pin societies ills on is manifestly unfair and unjust.

  10. Susan Veronica Rak

    I’m reading all this 500 miles from home, on vacation… I know I “would have” addressed this if I were in the pulpit on Sunday… but then if I assess what I might have said or not in the months leading up to this, there isn’t much to tell. Yes, I wore a hoodie to church after the shooting. Yes, I preached on the culture of guns and might have mentioned the pervasive racism that lies submerged in this country then. And was thanked for my words. But I realize that if the community/congregation does not have attention to these issues as an explicit part of its mission – if acting and speaking on these issues is not how they express themselves, not part of their DNA – it falls flat, goes nowhere. I am returning from sabbatical determined to follow my heart and be more missional in my ministry. And here’s an example of what i mean, what inspires me- a religious community that consistently lives its mission and responds to what is happening here and now with spiritual depth and creativity: Middle Collegiate Church n NYC, with the Reverend Jacqui Lewis and an amazing team of leaders… http://www.middlechurch.org

  11. Jon

    Ask yourself why the Zimmerman case requires special comment when white, brown, black,
    yellow and red youths are killed daily. Chicago is having another violent year – http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130711/chicago/2013-murder-chicago-human-toll – where the violence is often black on black. Where is the UUA outrage? Where are Sharpton and Jackson? Where is Holder? Obama? Where is Rev. Lavanhar? Those stories don’t fit the desired profile of possible racist based crime, therefore, they only qualify as passing interest and don’t merit any protests and rioting in the streets, UUA drumming & banners and media saturation with evidence manipulation or sermons.

    May you never have to defend life or limb for yourself, loved ones or an innocent person, and if you do, may your attacker be only of an acceptable racial profile to justify your defensive actions. Or, better yet, take the beating and if necessary mortal injury just to show your tolerance. P.S. self defense with justifiable homicide are not an “insane law.”

  12. Clyde Grubbs

    It is part of the culture of Unitarian Universalsit congregations to lift up the realities in the world and society in which we live our lives. Not all faith traditions share that involvement in the world, so a African American congregation may not have lifted up Travon Martin.

    But our members expect us to live our love into the world. Many of our members are concerned that we were not prepared to provide a pastoral response on Sunday past. That is a failure, and we should do better.

  13. Peter Bowden

    Two comments were not approved on this post, one was not kind in my opinion, the other would take the conversation in a direction best addressed elsewhere online. It has nothing to do with congregational responses, worship or pastoral care and was getting into nature of the evidence.

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