“A Claim, An Aim, And A Task”

What is the nature of trust today?  What do we aspire to regarding trust?  And finally, what might we do regarding trust, in our homes, communities, and our nation?  Come worship with us this weekend as we explore “A Claim, An Aim and A Task” in the name of trust!


A Claim, An Aim, And A Task

A Sermon Offered to All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist

February 10, 2019

Rev. Shayna Appel

Chalice Lighting: The Blessings of Trust [Soul Matters]

We gather today to receive the blessings of trust.

May the relationships in this room, help us notice we do not walk alone. 

May the quiet we share, help us connect to and trust our deepest self.

May the music offered, help us feel and hold tight to the restorative rhythms of the world. 

May the words offered, remind us that we too have a voice, one that must be trusted and shared.

Opening Words: Excerpted from “Blessing for the Brokenhearted” by Jan Richardson, [From The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief]

“Let us agree for now that we will not say the breaking makes us stronger… 

Perhaps for now it can be enough to simply marvel at the mystery of how a heart so broken can go on beating,

as if it were made for precisely this…

as if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom but will save us nonetheless.”


On February 3rd, Washington Post Columnist Valerie Strauss published a blog by Christopher Emdin, who is an associate professor in the Department of Math, Science and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Dr. Emdin is also a social critic, and an intellectual who has written on race, culture, inequality and education in numerous publications and penned several books, including the 2017 bestseller, “For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too.”  

Our reading for this morning is an excerpt from Professor Emdin’s blog.  In it, he will talk about meeting Virginia Governor Ralph Northam who, you will recall, is currently being called on to resign in the wake of a discovery of highly racist photographs in the Governor’s Medical School yearbook.  Here is what Professor Emdin wrote about meeting the Governor and his wife.

Less than eight months ago, after addressing a room of educators about teaching strategies to acknowledge and heal from a history of racism in education, I took a seat to hear Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speak. After expressing his commitment to educational justice, he held my book, “For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood ... and the Rest of Y’all Too,” and told the auditorium full of teachers and school leaders to “get this damn book.” It was a flattering endorsement of my work from an elected official. I was deeply humbled.

After the event, we shared an intimate moment where he mentioned that he played basketball in a desegregated school in a troubling time in Virginia’s past. He mentioned that his high school graduating class was mostly African American. He told me that his experiences during desegregation shaped him and his outlook on educational equity. In that moment, I was convinced he was one of the good guys. A politician who understood how race and class could not be swept under the rug and needed to be faced head on to provide a sound education for all young people.

After the event, I was invited to the Virginia governor’s mansion where Northam’s wife and I discussed education in Virginia and their shared belief that students of all races and creeds should have access to an education that instilled a sense of pride in their racial heritage and culture.

At one point, we stood in front of a painting of Barbara Rose Johns that hangs prominently in the mansion. In 1951, then 16-year-old Barbara led a strike for equal education in Virginia. She was a revolutionary whose protest led to one of the law cases that folded into the historic 1954 Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Because of Barbara Rose Johns and people like her, “separate but equal” schooling was defeated in this country. Knowing that her portrait was chosen to adorn the walls of the mansion struck me deeply. I was convinced that it was chosen to represent what the governor and his wife stood for.

As we stood in this beautiful mansion before a painting that celebrated the life of a radical young black protester, I almost ignored the narrow set of steps just a few feet away that seemed much smaller than all the other stairs. I later learned those narrow steps had been reserved for “the help” in a past life of the mansion.

The short narrative I was told about the slave quarters housed right outside the main mansion’s windows didn’t mean much to me. What I held on to was the careful curation of stories and artifacts that were presented to me as a representation of the governor and what he stands for. I focused on the story of a young white boy in a mostly black school who was struck by inequity and injustice who went on to become a doctor and then a military officer, and then a governor who used his platform to fight for those who he had seen being wronged. This was a person who chose to have Barbara Rose Johns picture hang on the wall.

As news broke about the pictures that were in Northam’s medical school yearbook, I was stunned. However, what struck me the most was not the pictures themselves, but the reporting that the pictures were carefully curated by the governor. As an adult, after what he witnessed with the desegregation of schools, those images were what he chose to represent who he is. He selected them like Barbara Rose Johns portrait…

…Today, the unearthing of that abhorrent picture from the governor’s yearbook leads every black constituent to be framed as the Jim Crow image in the photo. It brings black folks in Virginia and beyond to feel the terror of being led by a Klansmen. Black folks will always question if this is how the governor sees them. They will never know who is leading them. Is it the local boy who learned from desegregation or the man who hates black people?

When a curated progressive persona reveals itself to be a new iteration of the same old racism, it hurts. It takes the wind out of the sails of black folks who thought they were headed to a promised land of equity and freedom with the support of an ally…

…In moments like these, I become more keenly aware of the racism that is being masked by carefully curated words. I grow increasingly more sensitive to disingenuous celebrations of Black History Month by folks who don’t see our history without their supremacy. I become more aware that created artifacts that look and sound good, such as equity-focused curriculum, when enacted by racist people, only serve to distract from racism and not address it.

Most importantly, I am keenly aware that racism has been deposited into the fabric of this country. It is in every fiber of the fabric we use to mask it. It is woven into portraits of Barbara Rose Johns, deeply embedded in equity-themed academic standards, present in stories of desegregation, and stamped into pedagogies of inclusion. It is worn by those who profess to be our strongest allies and we won’t know it until they reveal themselves or their pasts do.

Sermon “A Claim, An Aim and a Task”

Our Soul Matters Theme for the month of February is “Trust.” In a TED talk on the same subject, Philosopher, Baroness, and crossbench member of the United Kingdom’s House of Lords Onora O’Neill, offers a really brilliant re-frame of a claim, an aim, and a task associated with “trust”. This morning, we will explore O’Neill’s deconstruction and reconstruction of trust, and then apply it to the reading we just heard in an effort to better and more deeply understand the distrust and dismay that has been generated, in Virginia and beyond, among those most impacted.

O’Neill notes that, in our culture today, the general sense of ‘trust’ is that it is declining. O’Neill disagrees.  She sought out evidence for the claim that ‘trust’ was on the decline and found a good deal of it in opinion polls, but little evidence elsewhere. Now, as we all know, opinion polls measure…opinion.  And they do so in generic ways by exploiting generic attitudes.  For example, an opinion poll might ask a respondent, “Do you trust teachers?”  “Do you trust doctors?”  “Do you trust politicians?” And respondents are asked to reply ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Here’s the problem with polls such as this, according to O’Neill.  In real life, if someone were to ask us if we trusted teachers, a normal response would be, “To do what?”  “Do I trust my child’s 4th grade teacher to teach?  Well, he seems to be doing a fine job of it, so yes.  I trust my child’s 4th grade teacher to teach.”

If a pollster were to ask, “Do you trust your child’s 4th grade teacher to perform neurosurgery?”  I’m guessing, across the board, the answer to that would be, “No!”

O’Neill’s point is that, in real life we place ‘trust,’ we offer ‘trust’ in a differentiated way, and opinion polls require us to drop this intelligence.  So the polls paint an inaccurate picture of reality and conclude that, “Trust is declining.” In fact, argues O’Neill, trust today is about the same as it ever was.  For example, people tend to trust some groups of professionals more, and others less.  Politicians, for example, are still a highly distrusted group.  And, while repeated sex scandals carried out by clergy around the world are absolutely eroding the trust of my own office, it is still my experience that many more people trust ministers than do not.

About the ‘aim’ of trust, O’Neill notes a common aspiration among people is that we should have more trust. We should have more trust, right?  I mean, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

O’Neill says, “No.”  Actually, what she says is that, “This is a stupid aim!”  She argues instead that our aim ought to be to have more trust in those who are trustWORTHY, and less trust in those who are not.  In fact, we should actively aim to NOT trust those who are untrustworthy.

In 2008, former NASDAQ Chairman Bernie Madoff admitted that the wealth management arm of his firm was an elaborate Ponzi scheme.  Forty-eight hundred clients lost an estimated sixty-four point eight billion dollars.  NOT trustworthy!  Madoff did great harm to a great many innocent people and good organizations. MORE trust is not an intelligent aim in this life.  Intelligently placed trust is. Honing our ability to discern that a person IS trustworthy BEFORE we put our trust in them SHOULD be the goal, not to simply become more trusting in the general sense of the word.

Finally, O’Neill asks us to reconsider the ‘task’ regarding trust.  Again, generally speaking, most people assume that our task with respect to trust ought to be to ‘re-build’ it.  But trust is given…or not.  We may choose to give or to receive trust, but we are powerless to make others trust us.  So, says O’Neill, we might be better served by focusing our attention on becoming more worthy of trust.  

And here, the ‘task’ of trust nicely parallels the ‘aim’ of trust because, if you remember, the aim according to O’Neill, is to intelligently place our trust; to place our trust in those who are trustWORTHY.  Now she asserts that the task is for us to BECOME worthy of others trust.  I would assert that both require us to reflect deeply on what trust is, and we’ll get to that in a bit.  Furthermore, I believe if we cultivate trustworthiness within, we’ll get better at recognizing it in others, and when we get better at recognizing it in others, we become ore able to replicate that behavior in ourselves.

So, a claim, an aim and a task.  Let’s take this knowledge with us and step back for a moment to our reading for today from Professor Christopher Emdin’s blog, and the current state of affairs in the highest offices of the State of Virginia.  And, in case you are unaware, things there are a hot mess.  

Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam is under pressure to resign because of a racist picture published on his page in his Medical School’s Yearbook.  The picture depicts one white person in black-face and another in KKK regalia.  Northam denied being one of the persons in the picture, but confessed to wearing black-face to a school party.  His Lieutenant Governor is a person of color and was presumed by most to be the Governor’s likely replacement.  This appointment could have potentially helped to heal some of the hurt unearthed by the racist revelations of the Governor’s behavior, accept the Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, was accused of sexually assaulting a woman at the Democratic Convention in 2004.  The third in line for the Governor’s seat would be the States Attorney General Mark Herring, accept it just came out that he too wore black-face at an undergraduate student party.

When such a crises of leadership and integrity emerge against the larger crises of leadership and integrity we are living in the midst of, and all of that is amplified by the media, it is easy to believe that trust, as a commodity, is in perilously short supply. In other words, it is easy to claim that trust is on the decline, particularly along the boundaries of race and gender.  However, as Onora O’Neill points out, and as we discussed earlier, trust today is about the same as it ever was.  People tend to trust some people and professionals more, and others less, and the variables of our various identities play a significant role in who and how we trust, or don’t.  

Trust is also offered more intelligently in real life than in polling, as we heard earlier.  I’m guessing if I were to ask most of the people in this room, “Do you trust that some politicians will have done some really horrible things in their youth, and that these horrible things will likely emerge during very inconvenient times along their career paths?”, most of you would say, “yes”.  I’m guessing if I were to ask, “Do you trust white politicians anywhere, but particularly in the South, to be able to discern their role in promulgating a system of White Supremacy?”, most of you would say, “no.”  And I believe your answers would have been the same 50 years ago.  So the claim that there is less trust today than there has been in the past remains, in my mind, thin at best.

Let’s move from the claim to the aim.  People in general are inclined to assert that our aim, where trust is concerned, ought to be to have more of it.  O’Neill argues that our aim ought to be to have more trust in people who are trustworthy, and less trust in those who are not.  And here’s where the situation in Virginia has become so painful for so many.

Northham stepped into the public square in 2008 when he was elected to the Virginia State Senate.  In 2014 he was elected Lieutenant Governor of the state of Virginia, and in 2018 he was elected to his current office.  For 10 years now the people of Virginia have had a chance to observe this man in action.  And for 10 years he performed his duties competently, honestly, and reliably. He was known as an ally of people of color and a staunch advocate for educational justice.  Hell, he has a picture of a young black revolutionary woman adorning the walls of his Governor’s mansion.  Professor Emdin wasn’t the only one who believed that the picture had been carefully curated by Northham and his wife BECAUSE it reflected what they stood for.

So when the news broke that Northam had participated in the hateful and denigrating act of donning black-face for the amusement of those gathered at a college party, it went deeply and painfully into the very souls of so many who had come to trust him. Yes, trust was broken, but maybe even more importantly, those who had come to trust him, who had deemed him worthy of their trust, had their own abilities to discern who is trustworthy shaken to the bone.

In some circles, when a person or people experience something they have believed to be so suddenly become clearly ‘not-so’, that is considered a traumatic event.  So, what we are seeing in the calls across the state of Virginia, across caucuses and across party lines for Northham to resign is a consequence of trust broken in the extreme.

O.K. Finally, let’s turn to lessons about the task regarding trust that emerge from the Virginia fiasco.  O’Neill says the task isn’t so much about building trust, because trust cannot be built.  It is given, or not.  It is earned, or not.  Our task is to BE worthy of trust – to become increasingly worthy of the trust others place in us.

How do we do this?  Well, we turn to Brene Brown, of course!  For those of you unfamiliar with Dr. Brown, she’s a research professor at the University of Houston, the author of five books.  She has spent the last two decades of her life studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy…all of which play critical roles in our capacities to be trustworthy.

In a talk Brown gave on “The Anatomy of Trust” during one of her “Super Soul Sessions,” she lifts up the core elements of trustworthiness under the acronym ‘B-R-A-V-I-N-G’.  

To be trustworthy we need to have ‘B’, good personal boundaries.  AND we need to respect the boundaries of others. If we want to be accepted as allies of marginalized people, we need to listen to them with hearts wide open, appreciate their need for ‘us time’, and pay careful attention to a lesson that has emerged from the community of disabled persons: “Nothing about us without us.”  If we are not members of the marginalized community, we don’t attempt to lead the marginalized community!

‘R’, we need to be reliable…and not just once!  We need to be reliably reliable! Northam had a long history of reliability, so when he broke it, may were deeply hurt.  Taking responsibility for the hurt we may cause means we accept the consequences of our actions…we don’t compound the hurt by insisting that we are entitled to hold on to our privilege!

‘A’, we need to be accountable.  If we say we will do something, we either do it, in which case we’re showing up as reliable, and if we don’t, we own it.  That’s accountability. Accountability is also about accepting the consequences.  Stepping powerfully into and accepting them…with extra credit given to those who can articulate why the consequences are necessary and why they matter. 

‘V’ is for ‘vault’…we keep those confidences that are given to us because if we don’t, if we love to gossip about the confidences others have shared with us, we have no one to blame but ourselves when others decide not to trust us with their confidential information.  

‘I’ is for integrity.  There is symmetry between what we say and what we do.  Another way of saying this is that the tongues in our mouths and the tongues in our shoes move in the same direction!  We cannot simply claim to be ally’s of marginalized people…we cannot simply claim to be against racism, bigotry, mysogeny, homophobia, zenophobia or any of the other ‘isims’ without a track record of works to support that.  Faith without works is dead…and has been for over 4,000 years!

’N’ is for ‘non-judgement.’  If you need help, I’m not going to judge that.  And I will pray you will do likewise should it be me who needs the help! If those of us who occupy privileged classes are called upon for help by those in the margins, we must understand that it is simply our presence and our willingness to stand against societies presumptions that are needed…NOT our superiority…which is an illusion anyhow!

Finally, ‘G’ is for ‘generosity’.  Yes, I am generous in giving help when I can, but I can also ask for it. When those in positions of societal privilege lose sight of the invaluable leadership potential that lives in those occupying societies margins, everyone loses.  We need desperately to learn the lessons of those who have struggled before us, and who are struggling today.

The anatomy of trust according the Brene Brown…Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault, Integrity, Non-judgement, Generosity. B-R-A-V-I-N-G.

So, let’s try to recap this very data heavy sermon!  (And for those of you interested in reviewing what we’ve covered today, printed copies of this sermon will be available next week or on request.  You can also find todays service posted on our church website ASCVT.org.)  O.K…to recap…The claim that trust is declining is based on false data, meaning the good news is, or is not, that  it’s about where it always was.  So, rather than aim to have more trust, and thus put our trust in those who are unworthy of it, let’s work to be more intelligent about where we put our trust.  And while we’re at it, let’s all engage the task of becoming more trustworthy ourselves. Finally, when truth is broken, and our hearts are shattered into a million little pieces, let us remember the marvel of human resiliency…that our hearts, so broken, can go on beating…as if it trusts that its own persistent pulse is the rhythm of a blessing we cannot begin to fathom but will save us nonetheless.  As if deep within the human heart, the Spirit of Forgiveness has dwelled all along.

Won’t you pray with me.

Spirit of Life and Love, Keeper of confidences and trust-

We come into this life, each and every one of us, with a spark of Divine truth that enables us to trust and to be trustworthy.  Increase our capacity to see clearly who is worthy of our trust.  Make us worthy of the trust of others.  And when the process breaks down, may we all be blessed by the Spirit of Forgiveness when the time to do so comes.  We ask these things that we might become better builders of a world made fair, with all her people one.  Amen.

Extinguish the Chalice

We extinguish this flame but not the light of truth, 

the warmth of community, or the fire of commitment.  

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.