Intentional Integrity

Jazmine Steele
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 07/19/2015

Good Morning Sugarloaf,


I am happy to be with you this morning. My name is Jazmine Steele and I am proud to say that in the Fall I will complete the final semester of my M. Div. at Wesley Seminary in Washington, D.C. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan – home of Motown, the auto-industry and so many other great American contributions.

I am new to the UU tradition. I stumbled upon the faith through my seminary residency which I spent with a new UU-inspired movement in DC called The Sanctuaries. The Sanctuaries is a group of millennials that love art, social justice and spirituality. The lead organizer of that movement is UU minister, so that’s how I came to know about the faith and I began reading more about UU history.

I have to say that I am happy to be here, not only with you sharing this time but as a UU-inspired person of faith delivering a message brought to you from a deep place within my heart.

I have to tell you making the decision to be affiliated with Unitarian Universalism wasn’t an easy choice! You guys have a reputation! But we won’t unpack that right now.

Being UU is hard in a society where religion is such a linear topic and the dominant religious rhetoric tends to sway towards Christianity. So anything that’s not Christ-centered or focused on the Bible is just blasphemous and ridiculous to most people, even if they have never read the Bible or go to church. Religious culture is so embedded in our society that people tend to overlook the details of who they are and if that aligns with what they truly believe in.

Seminar was a time for me to really unpack religion, Christianity and what I believe. It was important for me to understand myself and accurately present myself to the world. I didn’t want to go through the motions of church, re-hashing lines that “Pastor said.”

As I went through seminary, there were times I questioned the accuracy of the Bible and the role of Christ. Many of my classmates endured the same struggle but their tension was even thicker than mine because they had to get past religious ties that were embedded in their lives as a child. I grew up mostly unaffiliated, so there were no barriers holding me back to receive and analyze the information we were learning. Wrestling with my theological woes allowed me to see that I did not have a high Christology in the sense of seeing Jesus as divine and I also did not wish to hold the Bible as a moral authority in my life. These defining attributes set me apart from a lot of my classmates at my mostly Methodist seminary. And while many of them might have shared some of the same questions and sentiments, they wouldn’t dare step into a congregation and say anything different than what most people expected to hear – Jesus is Lord.

This was a huge issue for me. An integrity issue. I still can’t understand why someone would attend an institution for 90 credit hours and not take any of the information back to the people they serve. When I brought up this moral question to some of my classmates, they would say, “Well you can’t smash people’s belief systems” . . . “if you rock the boat too much a church may fire you.” I even had one classmate say, “My job is to provide them with the spiritual experience they want.”

This was difficult for me to hear because I know I endured a journey to get to and through seminary. There’s no way I came this far to simply “Do” a job or perform a service for money. I came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfort. If I’m doing my job correctly, I’m going to say something you don’t like. You may hear something that makes you uncomfortable and when you do, just tell yourself, “She’s doing her job!”

The true call: is to speak truth to power. I knew if I was going to do this thing called ministry I had to be in a space that allowed me to be honest because, I want to show up in the room 110 percent Jazmine Tiana Steele at all times. That’s integrity and integrity is important.

My sermon topic today is intentional integrity because as people I find we live in the tension of who we say we are, who we aspire to be and who we actually know ourselves to be. When our integrity isn’t in check or in alignment it gnaws at our soul because at the end of the day you may deceive a lot of people but there’s no fooling yourself.

As humans we crave purpose and thrive on fulfilling purpose. When that dynamic is compromised, feelings of inadequacy can creep in. We can become sick at the thought of knowing we could be better or try harder. And then, the cover up begins. Your soul can’t rest living a life with compromised integrity.

I had a professor at the Howard School of Divinity that liked to say, “When your charisma doesn’t match your character, you’re in trouble.”

She was speaking about charismatic leaders and people that are eloquent and charming speakers without an ounce of integrity or dignity for what they represent.

I attended my very first UU General Assembly three weeks ago. Portland was lovely. I had a good time. The best part was meeting the Ware lecturer Dr. Cornel West. Myself and two other Black Lives Matter organizers received the opportunity to sit and have a 20 minute conversation with Dr. West. We were so excited to sit on the couch, share trail mix and speak with one of the most prolific public intellectuals and activist of our time.

I asked Dr. West “With all the things you have studied and the places you have been, what advice do you have for younger people that care about change.” I was looking for Dr. West to give specific tactics about community organizing or some sort of focus on education, racism . . . but he actually named integrity as being one of the most important things needed in order for true change to happen in our world.

He said, “We live in the age of the sell-out. People want to see a leader that cares and that’s consistent. One that can’t be bought.” That really hit home for me because again, I thought about all the things this well-studied man could have said in regards to social and theological concepts. His advice was simple: Guard your integrity. Be intentional about integrity. Integrity is showing up in the room 100 percent authentic to who you say you are.

Dr. West’s call for integrity makes me think deeper about why integrity is so important and I think it’s because in an age of so much deception and manipulation, there is a desire to cling to something we can count on as consistent and true.

Integrity is about who you are when know when is looking. Who a=you are when it doesn’t count for anything. When I think about it integrity goes a long way in leadership.

One of the most dynamic leaders I have had the pleasure of working with during my seminary career is a man named Hal Garman, who is the leader of The Beloved Community Project in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The Beloved Community Project was a collaborative project birthed out of Wesley Seminary’s Urban Fellows Program and Asbury Methodist Village Retirement Community. Hal Spent his lifetime as minister and was gifted the opportunity to spend his retirement at Asbury, which is a pretty expensive place to retire. He could have settled into the luxuries of the gated community at Asbury, spending most of his days doing crossword puzzles or some other commonplace retirement activity. Instead, he organized resources: people and places at Asbury to launch an intergenerational mentoring program with local youth and so much more. There’s Spanish – English classes. Pool Parties. Nature / photography Club. He maximized all of the resources at the Asbury Methodist Village complex to create a space for the Beloved Community project to take shape.

The project has gained so much notoriety and support within the Gaithersburg community, they have the elementary and high schools involved. The Mayor’s involved. So much magic is happening over there with so very little. It’s truly amazing. I attribute a lot of the success of the project to Hal and his steadfast vision to see the beloved community happen. The beloved community being a place where all walks are embraced. Every shade. Every creed. Every socio-economic status matters and is cared for.

Ms. Martha the former Pastoral Care Director for Asbury defined the Beloved Community as a place where: “I want for you, what I want for myself.”

Mr. Garman / Hal is an integrous leader because even when he could have given up he didn’t. Even when he could have rested and enjoyed his retirement, he couldn’t. Ministry is the breath of life for this man. He can’t stop it. Even in his 80’s. Mr. Garman really convicted me and inspired me. If this man in his 80’s with a hearing aid, can organize community partners, recruit volunteers, photograph events, create program brochures, maintain his schedule, figure out how to work his email and do it well . . . then I have no excuse. There’s no way I could let this elderly man run circles around me! Hal inspires me to go harder and to not give up.

After listening to the advice of Dr. West and reflecting about integrity it makes perfect sense why the Beloved Community Project of Gaithersburg is so fruitful and it’s largely connected to the integrity of the project’s leader. People trust and believe in him. They can count on him in sickness or health, in youth or in old age, in his career or retirement to be consistent in his character. That’s integrity.

It’s a huge call and responsibility to take on the challenge of being intentional about our integrity. It’s about having the fortitude to stand firm in who you are regardless of what comes along with that choice. Sometimes, it’s about making changes when who you know yourself to be doesn’t align with who you aspire to be.

Friends, we are in some of the most trying times. War, racism, poverty, mass incarceration, poor education systems, modern-day slavery of all kinds. There is so much work to be done.

The charge I leave you with is to ask yourself who are you in the midst of this chaos. Who do you aspire to be? How do your daily actions feed into who you say you are?

Know that I am constantly in the intentional integrity struggle with you. I stand before you in my earnest attempt to embrace all that I am.

As a young black woman, as a person that cares about community and as a Unitarian Universalist minister. There are days and nights I wish I didn’t care about what’s going on in the world. I wish I wasn’t compelled to take action. But I am. To deny myself would compromise my integrity.

I chose The Invictus reading to go along with our service because that is a poem my grandmother likes to recite. It gives me hope and reminds me that I am the Master of My Fate and the Captain of My Soul. It energizes my desire to take ownership of my integrity. I pray it inspires you to do the same.