Churches throughout the United States spent Sunday honoring the fallen civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The West Shore Unitarian Universalist Church in Rocky River is a congregation that prides itself as being a welcoming, non-oppressive, liberal, religious sanctuary.
“We gather to grieve and mourn again each year. We wonder what might have been if not for one bullet. It is not only the loss of a leader, but of a symbol of hope,” said intern minister Ellen Carvill-Ziemer.
For this occasion, she conducted a sermon aimed at highlighting the message of King’s struggle. She elected to focus on the last three years of King’s life for this service.
“I do a combination of personal reflection and study,” said Carvill-Ziemer.
She touched on how racism and oppression affected her life personally. Growing up in a town in southern New Hampshire, Carvill-Ziemer was not exposed to much cultural diversity. Not until she reached college, did she begin to see the inequalities people face.
“Opportunity is handed to some, made possible to many, and denied to others,” she explained. Merely giving people legal rights, but denying them the changes that benefit them is a flaw in the legal system, she said.
“We should live in the great joy and freedom in trying to make a difference,” she said.
Another reflection of personal feelings was in the story she told of fostering her second child. She and her partner received tremendous support from the clinical staff and social workers when receiving their first foster child, which Carvill-Ziemer said was a white infant. The process of obtaining their second child, an African-American infant, was met with much less enthusiasm.
“Racism begins to shape our lives before birth,” said Carvill-Ziemer. “It is deeply pervasive in society. When we live in ignorance, we are not free.”
The sermon’s overall message of acceptance and change was also coupled with the argument of responsibility.
Carvill-Ziemer spoke of the recent shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and nearly killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, and similar acts of violence, stating, “We too are responsible. Responsible for creating hope and nurturing new life.”
The service incorporated hymns including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which has been dubbed the African American national anthem, “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “We Shall Overcome.
The Unitarian Universalist movement has been around since 1961 when it became organized as a religious group with the establishment of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Unitarians have long played a role in civil rights movements. Groups marched with King in the 1960s and continue to support the rights of citizens throughout the globe.
“Part of my personal mourning is not fulfilling King’s prophecy,” said Carvill-Ziemer. She noted in her sermon that King and his wife considered becoming Unitarian Universalists. However they believed that they would not be able to lead a nation of empowered black Americans as such. Unitarian Universalist Minister James Reeb was killed in 1965 while working for the civil rights movement in Selma Alabama. King gave an address at his memorial service.
Carvill-Ziemer believes that the influence of King’s life, the 60’s and the civil rights movement are profound and an essential building blocks to the job society has yet to accomplish.
“The work is so not done,” she said. “We need a supportive community to cheer us on, and to pick us up when we fall. We are working, building a new way. Spiritual liberation is to be found in action.”