Turn and Love

Feb 21, 2021

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

“You’re going to be preaching on nonviolence. Do you know Bayard Rustin?” Justin, our Director of Church Music, asked me. His question was innocent enough. I had been a student and adherent of nonviolence for decades and did not recognize his name. “He was one of the most important people in the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King’s advisor in nonviolence, drawing upon the teachings of Gandhi,” Justin said. “I have a book; I’ll bring it by church for you to read.”

So began my intensive study of the life and work of Bayard Rustin, to whom I dedicate this service. You will hear more about him soon.

My own decades-long attraction to nonviolence started in middle school when I began studying Mother Teresa and other religious people and advocates for social justice. The principles of nonviolence were, and are, where my religious beliefs, spiritual experiences, and values on social justice coalesce. It is deeply embedded in my spirituality and identity. It is not always popular nor easy to defend.

The purpose of this sermon is to explore nonviolence as an expression of love in action, not to push my beliefs. Last month, our worship series focused on forgiveness. Like forgiveness, nonviolence is not an occasional act, but a way of life.

Today we’re going hear about people, some who are famous, others who are not, but all who demonstrate this way of acting, including Mahatma Gandhi, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—a Hindu, a Quaker, and a Baptist, respectively. Unitarians have a history of leaders committed to nonviolence, including Henry David Thoreau, whose Civil Disobedience was an inspiration to Gandhi; Reverend Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who led thousands of Jewish children to safety during World War II; and folk singer and activist Pete Seeger.

We have FRS parishioners past and present committed to nonviolence, including Nikki Rosen, whose beautiful picture graces our Order of Service; Ken Kretsch, whose story I’ll touch upon this morning; and youth who are combatting harmful societal stereotypes and norms with nonviolent measures.

This sermon cannot cover all their stories in detail. I hope you hear yourself in their stories and consider how you act with love in your life. Are you a proponent of nonviolence? Why or why not? If so, what has stood in your way of learning more or acting as the teaching professes? What do you need for support in your journey?

The Albert Einstein institution defines nonviolent action as “sociopolitical action for applying power in a conflict without the use of physical violence.”[1] This may be through acts of omission, when people don’t do things they are expected to do, legally or by virtue of societal norms, or it may be through acts of commission, when people do things they are not expected to do, or both. The Institution’s website outlines 198 methods of nonviolent action including speeches, letters of support or opposition, music, art, vigils, teach-ins, and boycotts. These methods affirm that nonviolence is not nonaction, passivity, or conflict avoidance. “It is one response to the problem of how to wield power effectively.”[2]

Mahatma Gandhi, considered by many the founder of modern-day nonviolence, agreed that nonviolence is not nonaction. For him, nonaction, or impotence, was worse than acting with violence. “Violence is any day preferable to impotence,”[3] he said. Gandhi drew on both his Hindu faith and the teachings of Jesus in applying his methods of satyagraha, or truth as nonviolence. He described Jesus as “…the most active resister known perhaps in history.”[4]

In Gandhi’s application, ahimsa, or nonviolence, was political, religious, and spiritual. “Love is the law of our being,” he repeatedly said. His understanding of nonviolence was an outgrowth of his spiritual journey and subsequent unity within himself. Thomas Merton wrote, “One misunderstands Gandhian nonviolent action if it is seen as a way of achieving unity, rather than an expression or result of having achieved inner unity.”[5]  This concept led Merton to affirm, “…the spiritual or interior life is not an exclusively private affair.”[6]

Among the people who learned Gandhi’s understanding of nonviolence was Bayard Rustin, an African American Quaker born in 1912. He grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and was raised by his grandparents who were deeply committed to racial justice. Their home was a way point for many African Americans who were moving from the Jim Crow South to the Northern cities during the Great Migration. He moved to New York City in his early twenties where he became a secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation Christian Pacifist Organization and cofounder of the Congress of Racial Equality, formalizing his path as a noted teacher and strategist of nonviolence.

Rustin worked on issues of racial segregation in Southern prisons and, in the military, studied Gandhian nonviolence in India for eight months in 1948. Ultimately, he became Martin Luther King’s trusted teacher and confidant on these issues. John D’Emilio writes in Lost Prophet that “Rustin was as responsible as anyone else for the insinuation of nonviolence into the very heart of what became the most powerful social movement in twentieth century America.”[7] “In King, Rustin found the person who might take his own deepest aspirations and broadcast them to the nation and the world.”[8]

Rustin penned King’s first-ever published article which ran in the Liberation in April 1955. He was essential in developing the strategy of the Montgomery Boycott and King’s ascension in the public eye from an unknown preacher to a national leader in the work for racial justice.

Though his name is not included among the authors, Rustin’s influence and thinking were also critical to the writing of the Quaker pamphlet “Speak Truth to Power,” from which we drew our reading this morning. The absence of his name was largely because Rustin was a homosexual, and in the mid-1900s homosexuality was still a crime in all forty-eight states.

There is much more I could share about the complicated and legendary life of Bayard Rustin. It is critical to tell the untold stories of black people and other people of color, as well as women, LGBTQ, and others historically written out of the history books. In fact, telling these stories is itself an act of nonviolence.

The stories of people engaged in speaking truth to power through nonviolence also live in the congregation, with those such as Kathy Desilets and Sandra Thaxter, who made the video we saw today and who teach the Quaker Alternatives to Violence program in prisons. You can learn more from them of the church at the coffee hour.

I am inspired by our children and youth, acting from love, each in their own way. Two stories about FRS young adults seem good examples of love and nonviolence.

Matt Costello recently posted on Facebook about his experience twelve years ago of being diagnosed with a rare childhood anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism. He wrote his post to raise awareness of mental illness and take action to resist bias against those afflicted by it. He said, “Even though I haven’t directly been affected by this in years, it has shaped me into the person that I am today. So, after years of hesitation, here’s my story, as candid and honest as ever. While reading, it is important to remember that it could be someone else’s story too.”

In a recent article in The Daily News of Newburyport, Sophie Himmel, age 11, revealed that they (as Sophie wishes to be called) had been using a feeding tube all of their life. They don’t want it to be a secret, but instead want people to learn more and thereby not be biased or afraid.

Ken Kretsch’s story touches my heart, as does his commitment to nonviolence. I share the story with his permission. He was born during the great depression in 1933 in the coal mining region of Scranton, Pennsylvania. As he puts it, “the die was cast” that he would be very conservative. In the 1960s he was an engineer, married to a nurse. They lived in Wheaton, Illinois, near Wheaton college, Billy Graham’s alma mater.

One summer, Ken’s wife was asked to fill in as a nurse at a summer camp in Vermont that was owned by Quakers. Ken was mortified when he saw all the hippy camp counselors. He described them by saying “… the kind that I had demonstrated against…”

One day while he was at the camp visiting his wife, he made the acquaintance of a young Quaker woman who was a counselor. The two fell into conversation and talked for hours.

I’ll quote Ken’s description of that experience:

It is hard for me to describe exactly what happened that afternoon. Neither she nor I remember any specifics, but the result for me was dramatic. I suddenly saw the Vietnam War in a different light, understood the meaning of the Quaker belief of “that of God” in all of us, that all human beings have the essence of God in them and so how can we kill, disrespect, or denigrate them without doing the same to God. I understood that there was (and is) discrimination in society against women and blacks. I understood that being a Christian was not about isolating myself in a nice church in the suburbs, but about engaging the world in the not-so-nice places. It was not only about providing mercy but working for justice… I realized that protest against the government when you believe it is wrong is not just a right, but an obligation…

Ken and his family returned to Illinois a changed family. They began to speak out against the war, communing with people they had previously spoken against. Ken was called a communist and chastised by his pastor for suggesting that Martin Luther King, Jr., and Moses had a lot in common.

Years later, at the encouragement of an FRS friend, Ken reached out to that Quaker counselor to tell her what happened. She remembered Ken, but nothing about their conversation. She cried when he told her the influence she had on his life. Ken said, “She said she had no idea that she had ever had any influence on anyone.”

None of us really knows the effect our lives have on others, certainly not fully. The effects of our lives live on in our families, friends, and neighbors long after we die.

None of us will ever be perfectly nonviolent. Gandhi said, “There will never be an army of perfectly nonviolent people. It will be formed of those who will honestly endeavor to observe non-violence.”[9] You don’t follow this course for worthiness, popularity, or acclaim. Instead, you do it because who you are depends on it.

Bayard Rustin and the other authors of Speak Truth to Power quote Rufus Jones saying, “It takes immense faith to swing out thus from the main social current of the world on a unique venture, to make an experiment in the practice of Love when everybody else insists that nothing will work but force.”[10]

Will we choose love? Will we turn and love? Will we?

Amen and blessed be.


[1] Albert Einstein Institution www.aeinstein.org

[2] Ibid.

[3] Merton, Thomas, Gandhi on Non Violence, New Directions Publishing Company, 1964 pg xiii.

[4] Ibid. pg. 55.

[5] Ibid. pg. 11.

[6] Ibid. pg. 11.

[7] D’emilio, John, Lost Prophet The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin, University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pg. 237.

[8] Ibid. pg. 226.

[9] Merton, Thomas, Gandhi on Non Violence, New Directions Publishing Company, 1964. Pg. xii.

[10] https://www.afsc.org/sites/default/files/documents/21955%20Speak%20Truth%20To%20Power%20-%20Publication.pdf

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