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Take a Knee

In the first congregation that I worked, each of the lovely, ornate box pews included an odd element that I didn’t immediately identify on first seeing them. They seemed a little like very short, very narrow benches, set opposite to the actual seats, and their tops weren’t level – they had a distinct slant to them. Having always lived, up to that point, outside of New England, and gaining my experience of Unitarian Universalism there, where our congregations tend to be more distantly removed from the Christian history in which our movement has its origins, I guessed that these distinctive pieces of church furniture were footrests. Based on my observation of their use by congregants, I think that was a common misunderstanding. It was some months before someone more knowledgeable than I explained that actually these were kneelers, meant to provide something more comfortable than the hard wood floor when the liturgy called for the congregation to kneel.

Of course, that congregation, like the overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations – including our own – no longer had any collective religious practice of kneeling. But in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and in many branches of Protestantism, the congregation is called to kneel in every service, particularly when receiving Communion. If you’ve ever visited a masjid – a Muslim house of worship, the term for which literally means “place of prostration” – then you know that they most often lack pews or rows of chairs, and are generally carpeted throughout. This is because in Islam, the standard position for the worship service and for prayer is on one’s knees, frequently on a special rug or sajjada. (One such sajjada, which was given to me as a gift from my little brother, hangs on the wall of my study at First Parish.) Judaism is much more circumspect about kneeling than are the other two Abrahamic traditions. This is not because it is considered somehow wrong or undesirable as a position for prayer, but because it is held to be such a profound and powerful religious act that it is reserved, in almost all cases, for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur (which will be observed this year in October). And while the most familiar image you have of a Buddhist in seated meditation may be with their legs folded, kneeling (depending again on the particular branch of Buddhism) is also very common.

To kneel is a cross-cultural sign of reverence and respect; it is a physically-serious position, not a comfortable or casual one. But lately, it has become a point of significant contention, as a wave of silent protest – sparked by Colin Kaepernick, of the San Francisco 49ers – has seen athletes kneeling at sporting events during the Star-Spangled Banner. Kaepernick and many others have chosen to kneel, rather than to stand, during the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice, conditions in which black and brown people can be and are being killed without anyone being held accountable for their deaths. As he himself put it, “…this country stands for freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” I, personally, applaud this protest, and I am not alone in doing so, but the voices speaking against it – calling it unpatriotic, hateful, even somehow criminal – have been very loud indeed. We live in an era when the extraordinarily simple and personal act of kneeling can be a flashpoint of anger – this is how far apart we are stretched as a nation in our understanding of the racial reality that we and the 318 million other Americans live within. For all the hate that has been heaped upon him, the burning of his jerseys, the challenges to his patriotism and his person, Colin Kaepernick has, by taking a knee, challenged his country to talk more about that racial reality, and perhaps to actually engage more actively in changing it.

Such a dialog begins at home, which is why I and your Social Action committee have committed to making learning and deep conversation around race and justice a priority for our congregation this year. As one beginning for this dialog, I hope you will make a special point to join us for Sunday worship on October 23rd, to help me welcome our guest, Cherish Casey, to speak about working for racial justice, particularly here in Essex County. The next night, on Monday, October 24th, I’ll begin the first in a series of workshops here at First Parish on race as an idea, an experience, and a force that shapes the world we live in. I hope you will consider joining us for that, as well.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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