Stand on the side of love (looking back from the year 2031)
I was asked to give a talk about our Stand on the Side of Love motto, because it’s been our motto for almost 20 years and there’s a rich history to it. Here it is 2031 already…. Has it been that long? And since I was present for a lot of the events and I’ve accidentally become the church historian, here it is. And it’s why we have an old fashioned paper order of service today and no prompters or viewers and real candles instead of the projections. This is how services used to be. I see a lot of you shuffling around with the papers looking awkward, so I guess you’ll all be glad next week when we go back to the future.
Our Stand on the Side of Love sermon has become quite a tradition at Beacon, since it debuted back in 2011. For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, it started when there was a shooting at the UU church in Knoxville Tennessee in 2008, during which a man killed two and injured seven as a blow against liberals, Democrats, blacks and gays. He was angry at his ex-wife and he was angry about being unemployed, and he shot up a church in protest.
When Adkisson, the shooter, died in prison in 2018 most of the attendees at his funeral were UUs come to witness his life and his role in the extraordinary burgeoning of the UU movement, and to witness that whether we are good, evil or indifferent, death comes to all of us. From death we drew life; from hate we drew the strength to put love and service at the center of everything we do as a church. Martin Luther King Jr. sid “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.” We took up that challenge from the hands of someone who would destroy us, and we lived to return good for evil.
The UUA took out an ad in the New York Times after the Knoxville shooting, stating that “our doors and our hearts remain open”. Yes, open. Open in the face of corruption, deceit, violence and hatred; open in the face of apathy, cynicism, uncertainty and fear; open in the face of our own doubts and feelings of inadequacy. There IS a better way. We are NOT alone. Our US counterparts called the campaign “Standing on the Side of Love.”
Canadian UU’s looked longingly south to what appeared to be a very successful campaign of social action and denominational growth, and at a truly extraordinary AGM in 2012 which I call myself privileged to have been a part of, we adopted the sentiment as a call to action rather than witness, which is why it’s called “Stand on the Side of Love” here in Canada. What a day that was. With tears, with song, with a fire of urgency and a surge of strength, we gathered to commit ourselves to love, community and a bigger spiritual harvest than we could ever have in isolation.
With our Stand on the Side of Love banners, we have advocated and demonstrated and witnessed and testified; we’ve been shot at, harassed by law enforcement, jailed and stalked and beaten. There are two people sitting in this room who have done jail time for no other reason than that they were present at a rally in support of a young man who was queer-bashed and left for dead in Stanley Park; they stood between a number of physically disabled demonstrators and a neo-Nazi counterdemonstration and got arrested in the chaos. You will remember that social unrest and high youth unemployment pumped up the numbers of neoNazi groups back in the teens. Youtube has passed into history, but at the time it was invaluable in showing that our two members had done nothing illegal.
A UU church in Quebec was firebombed – and I am thankful that there was no loss of life on that occasion – and our ministers and lay leaders have been dragged from their pulpits more than once by ignorant and violent opposition to the message of dignity and love, which is the purest distillation of what it means to be UU.
Our interim minister in 2016, an openly lesbian woman who lived with two other women in a polyamorous relationship, had her car’s brakes tampered with and literally escaped death by inches when her car skidded off the #1. The perpetrator was never found, but I will never, ever forget what she said to us while she was in hospital.
She said, “Now I really know I am on the right path. She quoted Luke 6:22 “Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake.” She further said, if Jesus is God, and God is Love, then it is for love that I am being persecuted, and I will bear the burden of being persecuted in the name of Love to the end of the earth and my own life.”
We’ll never know for sure, but it was after she was the subject of a short documentary on CBC Television in which she made no secret of her theology, her sexuality or her at that time, quite unorthodox household, that her car was tampered with; but it didn’t slow us down a bit; and we made a wheelchair accessible dais for her return which as you can see I had to use this morning myself as I am not as mobile as I once was.
That is what love does. Tolerance stands around bragging. Love gets off its ass and works for a better world.
In the years of ferment and work after 2012, we became our name. We were, and we remain, a beacon of love and hope for the disenfranchised, for the immigrant, for the sexually non-normative, and for anyone who doesn’t share the same pigmentation as ourselves. We’re still a pretty white church, and we spend a lot of time at congregational meetings moaning about that, but we’ve sponsored refugee families and been involved in initiatives to end homelessness in our cities and we’ve worked to shelter those whom climate change has turned into refugees for the last 35 years. We grew after 2012 from a little church with no building, whose average member age was well over fifty, to a church with this gorgeous, expensive building, a full time minister and an RE program that was so popular that some of our kids started attending church upstairs because their classrooms were so crowded. Some of you may remember Mandy Seever, who quit the RE program and started attending worship services when she was eight. She’s in medical school in England now, but I remember the first time she lit a candle of concern. It was for the victims a renewed outbreak of cholera in Haiti. Her poise, and the heartfelt way she asked us to consider donating money to the Red Cross, didn’t leave a dry eye in the house. Thanks to her family and the many other families who joined us, we became a church that could afford to purchase a building in Port Coquitlam, although we were helped in that endeavour by some fortuitous planned giving. You can tell I’m one of the cranky oldtimers because I always ask what do we need a damned building for anyway.
But never mind that. We advocated – over the strong objections of some of our members, who left the church rather than support it – for the end of marijuana prohibition and for principles of harm reduction with respect to all then illegal drugs, and we endured the firestorm of controversy and the temporary closure of the US border (much to the dismay of the many American born members) when marijuana was finally legalized in Canada in 2020. That was only a decade ago but sometimes it seems to me like something that happened in a black and white newsreel from a century ago.
When my mother was dying of cancer prior to the passage of that bill, the only thing that would help her keep food down involved me sneaking into her hospice with a vaporizer and some medical marijuana. I stood on the side of love then, trying to get a few calories into my dying mother. Thank goodness that Nasreen, the loving and competent nurse who held my mother’s hand as she passed, rolled her eyes but made no other comment when I snuck into my mother’s room.
Love has taken us places that daily life would make us fear to go. We started broadcasting our services on the internet in the same year we made Stand on the Side of Love our core value and our narrative hook, if you will.
We talked about moral values from a religious perspective without always finding it necessary to mention gods or supernatural critters of varying degrees of credibility. It seems weird to say it in front of all you brothers and sisters now that you’ve all swung back to theistic language, but Beacon used to be a very humanist church and in fact at one point I couldn’t even find a single theist in a church meeting, which you folks probably find hard to believe. I mean, Beacon doesn’t use hymnbooks because most of you have personal displays and we’ve got loaners for visitors. I’m making you use these old hymnbooks not just to remind you how it used to be, but to give you the feeling of having the hymnbook in your hand. It’s strange, isn’t it? It’s actually making me feel all weepy and nostalgic, which wasn’t really the tone I meant to strike in this homily, so my apologies.
Anyway, enough of my rambling and reminiscing.
When we decided to really commit ourselves to stand on the side of love, very odd things began to happen.
We commissioned Donna Hamilton – where is she, wave to every one Donna! To make us an excellent and reasonably weatherproof banner with our new motto on it, and then we did something unprecedented in our church history. We said that any two people in the congregation, we didn’t care who although minors had to be supervised, could take the banner to any event they thought needed it, and there were only a few things you weren’t allowed to do, like lose it. When you signed out the banner you’d write down what it was for and which Unitarian principle or principles you were supporting and then you could go have a two person demonstration. The most unlikely people in the congregation demonstrated together and the friendships forged as we witnessed our individual truths together still fill this room today.
The ability of this church to let go of the notion of having a nice tidy way of witnessing, and instead having this occasionally contentious but usually fun and individualistic way of publicly declaring your faith… that was intense. Now it seems sort of quaint, but back then it was a big deal.
So many of us rode our individual hobbyhorses; the great part was we could point to our motto and say that is us. We didn’t just stand around either; we got lots of letters published, worked on policy and helped draft legislation at the CUC level.
A couple of us marched in the Transgender Day of Remembrance; lots of us went to Pride, cause that is so much fun.
Some of us were interested in justice for aboriginal peoples in terms of language protection, aboriginal title issues and other justice issues, and aboriginal health. The banner is not just in our memories; it’s in the social history of BC, where we made our presence known. We were small but we were consistent, we were vocal, and we walked our talk.
Some of us wanted to help exploited children escape sexual slavery, and although the internet mocked us and made fun of us, it didn’t curb our resolve to end the sexual enslavement of children and not rest until there wasn’t one left in the world.
We were the first church to publicly demonstrate for polyamory rights in British Columbia.
We demonstrated for immigrant rights, especially with respect to family reunification.
We had a small but dedicated group of people who took the stand on the side of love banner to every food security group they could, arguing that if Beacon couldn’t make a decent Sunday snack, love wouldn’t last long in our church, and that food is an essential component of human life without which love has no nourishment. Soup is still part of our church tradition, and was even in the leanest times. Food is love.
We needed more banners. One got lost in the food riots over the winter of 2015 and one got stolen by the RCMP because the poles were ‘a hazard’ – yes, this was before we finally got our own provincial police, which was in 2018. Donna always said the same thing, “My goodness, I hope no one was hurt.” Then, “Well, I’ll have to make a new one. I think I’ll make two this time.”
We had members who rarely came to church because of scheduling issues, but committed immense swathes of time to love and social justice because they belonged to a church that said “Test your actions against our principles and go forth boldly and show your love.”
Oh yeah, we made a LOT of noise ‘n’ trouble in those days. And it made people want to visit us, because they saw us out there, and it made people want to be part of us – people who already were part of Beacon got more committed and newcomers stayed to find out what it was about Beacon that made us so engaged with the world. We got better at dealing with the press because we became more controversial. Some parts of that process still give the shakes when I recollect them.
Stand on the side of love changed us as an organization, too. We didn’t abandon the democratic process, but we found ways of bringing our now strong tradition of consensus into church matters. They said it couldn’t be done in a congregation of 200, but we did it. Beacon’s like that.
A lot of you want to move on to another slogan for our church. I hope you come up with one that will keep you going for another 20 years. But I tell you, it will have to be very good one indeed to beat Stand on the Side of Love. It’s what we do, folks. It’s what we do.