The Larger Conversation
Our reading for this morning was from the poet, Denise Levertov, titled, “Goodbye to Tolerance.” It was written as a protest against injustice and intolerance. She writes:
Starting in March of last year, 2017, the Unitarian Universalist Association was in crisis. It was a crisis that led to debate, confusion, anger, pain, and the resignations of three of our denominational leaders: the Director of Congregational Life, the Chief Operating Officer, and the President of our Association. The charge? That the Unitarian Universalist Association was engaging in a culture of white supremacy through their hiring practices.
For those of you that are unfamiliar with this crisis that rocked our faith, let me back up here a bit. There is a lot going on here. I will not go to great lengths to explain our complicated polity and organizational structures. But here it is as simply as possible: Our congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington, is part of a national and worldwide movement of Unitarian Universalists, the Unitarian Universalist Association.
UUA for short. The United States is divided into regions and districts. Some parts of the country just have regions, some have districts, some have both – for the sake of our time together, let’s pretend regions and districts are nearly the same thing. Each of these regions is overseen by a staff person at our headquarters in Boston. The southern region, which we are not a part of interestingly enough, had an opening for that staff position.
The man that was hired had never lived in the southern region. He was a minister from Arizona. His runner up for the position was a layperson that was also a Chicana Latina who lived in the south. She was told she was not the right fit. Now in hearing this, you might wonder, well, yes, she might not have been the right fit.
Perhaps her interviews were terrible, maybe her talents could have been used elsewhere. But one woman not getting a job is not our focus here. What happened from her not getting a job brought to the forefront a very deep problem in our Association. And the proof is in what happened next.
Laypeople and clergy of color in our association voiced their concerns to the Association. Our leadership resigned. People noticed that all of our regional leads and their boss were white – that the majority of people of color that worked for the Association worked in the cafeteria or as janitors – and that while we, as Unitarian Universalists, say that we are committed to racial justice, we were knowingly and unknowingly participating in white supremacy. There is more to this story. Much more. Some of you may have heard it already last May when we engaged this topic or read it in our denominational magazine.
But let those words sit with you a minute. The Unitarian Universalists…were white supremacists. The most liberal religious group in the United States…were white supremacists. Let’s say it again: white supremacists! How many are you uncomfortable hearing that? Unitarians are white supremacists! If you want to jump out of your skin or can’t get the image of clansmen out of your head, you are not alone.
Those words evoke strong images. But since that crisis on the denominational level of our faith, I’ve heard those two words in mainstream dialogue more and more. Something is happening. The national conversation around race is shifting.
One can speculate about why. Was it the election of man who regularly makes racist statements? Was it the interests of people of color consistently being ignored? Was it the deaths of several unarmed black youth by the police? Where was the tipping point? As a white American, I honestly cannot say. But I suspect that tipping point happened a long time ago, but now, right now, is the moment where people of color are finally being heard.
I’m sure some of you are still struggling with those words. White supremacy. And for some of us the conversation is going to halt there with that discomfort. That’s a starting point at least. I find myself struggling with them at times. I thought acknowledging my white privilege was enough. I’m not a white supremacist, I would think to myself! I don’t wear bedsheets and burn crosses, shave my head and wear swastikas, I’m not one of those people.
People of color in our country remind us that, first, that phrase is nothing new. Their communities have used it to describe the imbalance of racial power in this nation for decades and, second, that the visible form of white supremacy, anti-semitism and racial slurs, is overt. It is the part of the iceberg you can see.
But underneath it, that is where the systems and power dynamics that favor white Americans rest. It isn’t just about people in bedsheets. It’s about a culture that tells us a Chicana isn’t the right fit, but a man with no connection to the region he’d be serving, is.
It’s a culture that has led to the mass incarceration of black and brown Americans at alarmingly high rates: 60% of incarcerated Americans are people of color. It’s a culture where black Americans have an unemployment rate twice that of white Americans, and when they are employed, their salaries are considerably less, 23.5%.
It’s a culture where well-meaning white Americans tell us we should be paying attention to the working class since the last election…ignoring the fact that the working class includes people of color and their interests as well. When you look at the data, there is no escaping this. I like numbers, I like facts.
But behind these numbers and facts are the tears and blood of generations of black and brown Americans. And still, given this, many of us might still be stuck on debating those two words. White supremacist. Which is, in itself, a good way of de-centering the lived experiences of people of color, and drowning it out in our own discomfort and debate.
I want to be clear here, I am in no way suggesting the white people in this room are all terrible people. However, I want us all to rest in any discomfort we might be having. That is part of justice work. Letting our discomfort come, remaining curious about why we are feeling that way in the first place, and, ultimately, working through it.
But so, too, justice work is also about learning to be quiet and deferring to oppressed populations and what their lived experiences and needs are. It’s about getting rid of those privileged responses that begin with words like, “but,” “actually,” or “I understand how someone like you could feel this way, but…” and so many more.
This is a heavy topic. And it’s a topic that has shaken our Association, in ways that I believe will either help us claim our voices as UUs or resign us to religious irrelevance. But in this heaviness, it’s okay to be uncomfortable! It’s okay to be angry. Because if we open our hearts to the voices of people of color, if we listen, if we allow the curtain to be pulled back – we can see the larger conversation, the larger problem, the reality that we have a long way to go before racism is no more.
We should all be angry at that! Angry at a system we unwittingly participate in that continues to keep certain populations controlled, contained, and constrained. There should be righteous anger! An anger that motivates us to not just wish away racism, but to leverage our undue power as white Americans to dismantle it.
But so what? The UUA is back on the right track one would hope, the dialogue is happening, what are we to do now? The answer is that there is much we could be engaging as Unitarian Universalists here at UUCL and in our daily lives.
I believe one of our largest hurdles to that beloved community we seek, often phrased by well-meaning white Unitarian Universalists as “why are there no black people in our churches?” – I believe that problem is inherently theological. It is theological in how we talk about religion.
We say we welcome beliefs that are life-affirming and life-giving, that we support a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and yet, many Unitarian Universalists get upset if there’s too much Jesus. The story of Jesus, and many of the stories of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, are held dear by Black Americans. It runs bone deep.
Those stories were the stories of liberation the slaves sung about. They were the stories told during segregation. They were the promised land Dr. King preached and marched about in the Civil Rights Era. They are still those things to many Black Americans. A commentary on Maya Angelou best sums this up, it says:
Maya Angelou turned forty on April 4, 1968. She had planned a big party in Harlem, with many of the day’s black intellectual elite among the guests. History had other ideas; Dr. King’s assassination sent Angelou into a weeks-long depression. It was fellow writer James Baldwin who helped her dig out of it. Angelou recalls Baldwin’s assistance in her book A Song Flung Up to Heaven, where she writes that laughter and ancestral guidance got her through:
There was very little serious conversation. The times were so solemn and the daily news so somber that we snatched mirth from unlikely places and gave servings of it to one another with both hands. . . .I told Jimmy I was so glad to laugh.
Jimmy said, “We survived slavery… You know how we survived? We put surviving into our poems and into our songs. We put it into our folk tales. We danced surviving in Congo Square in New Orleans and put it in our pots when we cooked pinto beans… [W]e knew, if we wanted to survive, we had better lift our own spirits. So we laughed whenever we got the chance.
This begs of us the question, can our theology make space for the religious experiences of black Americans? Even if those experiences make us uncomfortable? Even if we have to grapple with a belief system we do not especially favor? But so, too, can we make space for experiences that embody a breadth of interaction?
What I mean here is, can we handle dancing during a vibrant hymn? Can we clap joyfully, even if it isn’t on 2 and 4? Can we sing hallelujah and amen? And can we just sit silently – all at once – encouraging our neighbors to do as their hearts compel them in our services?
Speaking in tongues might be a stretch for us, I’m just saying, but vibrancy and engagement as we are comfortable and moved to do so – that is rightly within our tradition. No matter what, though, however we come to practice Unitarian Universalism, the theological idolatry that we hold that we must let go of is any notion that people of color should be flocking to us, just because.
Such a notion de-centers not only the diversity we already have a unique individuals, but ignores the experiences of people of color that already call our communities of faith home. We keep seeking some great “other” that we ignore the needs and concerns of the people in our midst. Now, I cannot sum up this feeling. Though I am a gay American, I am a white male – I fit comfortably in this tradition.
So I defer to Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, a member of the Black Lives of UU leadership collective. She shares her experience as a black UU that cannot quite find home. She writes:
As a black woman who claims Unitarian Universalism as my faith identity, I have felt compelled to clarify and yield to what’s truly most important to me in the last few months. The election and subsequent outrage, confusion, vitriol, and violence that has shown up in its wake have encouraged me to reaffirm my commitments to working for justice, as well as to recommit to protecting those who are most vulnerable, shaping my life in such a manner that it responds to and reflects what my values are as a black woman of faith in this tradition.
One reason I am a Unitarian Universalist is because it is a faith where I can bring all of the best of what I was taught growing up in my multifaith family and because, as a religion grounded in principle and reflection, justice-making and righteous action are essential to our faith, not something ancillary.
This resonates deeply for me, and connects to my grandparents’ social justice efforts as members of Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregations and to my parents’ legacy as socially conscious, progressive Muslims. My deep sadness as a Unitarian Universalist is that while this faith community has always been a space that welcomed my varied religious heritage, my blackness hasn’t always felt at home here.
That is to say, I have never been able to take for granted that I would be welcome in UU spaces as a black woman. No matter how long I’ve been a member, what committees I’ve served on, or the number of times I’ve been a GA delegate, I’ve never been able to take for granted the sense of home and welcome and connection that I see my white UU siblings proudly proclaim.
Is there room for Takiyah’s blackness in Unitarian Universalism? Is there room for it here at UUCL? Conceptually we might say yes, but truly. Could she bring the entirety of her self into this space and find a home. And what are we doing to make that possible? I am careful in my language here, what are WE doing? What are white Unitarian Universalists doing to foster this openness instead of just asking where it is?
We can continue to think theologically. How is what we are doing as a church creating a home for people of color and actively dismantling systems of privilege and supremacy in our culture? That’s the question we can ask. But even then, many of us wonder, how on earth are we going to do that? The way we learn about race makes it sound like something that will just go away as long as everyone thinks good thoughts. It won’t.
We all need to imagine times in our lives when we assumed we would be welcome and felt completely isolated instead. Imagine that experience nearly every single day because of your skin color.
How do we tackle so large a problem? What we can do is engage with one another in difficult, thoughtful, heartwrenching, but ultimately life-giving work. Our own Unitarian Universalist Association has a series of workshops called Beloved Conversations — an eight week series – where UUs come together in a congregation and dig deep into issues of diversity and race. It is a serious commitment. Participants are only allowed to miss one week, any more, and you’re invited to sign up another time. But race is a serious thing, is it not?
We are bringing these workshops here, to UUCL, this coming Fall. And my hope is that many of you will engage it. This will not solve white supremacy, privilege, and racism. But it does hold within it the power to transform this church in ways we do not yet know. This is a part of our justice work. We can still march, we can protest, we can have our projects, but we need to have that deeper theological conversation. Something is changing within Unitarian Universalism. Something is, we hope, changing in our wider culture. Will you be a part of that larger conversation?