Two recent events have profoundly shaken the world of many Unitarian Universalists. First, a conflict arose over the hiring of a white male minister rather than a minority candidate for an important regional leadership position with the Unitarian Universalist Association. That conflict soon escalated, leading among other things to the resignation of UUA president Peter Morales, and a call for all UU congregations to devote either their April 30 or May 7 worship services entire to discussion of “white supremacy” within our movement and the larger society. The second event was the arrest of Rev. Ron Robinson, a high-profile Unitarian minister in Tulsa, Ok., on child pornography charges.
Many of you may not have heard of either of these developments. But others of you have been wondering among yourselves, and asking me, how we are going to respond, especially to the racism conflict. I have been wrestling with both issues. I will be discussing them frequently and in depth with the 50 or so New England ministers I will be with in Maine from Wednesday through Friday on our annual retreat. I expect to return with clarity about a number of options I will want to discuss with the worship team, the church council, the Board, and any of you who express individual interest to speaking with me.
For now, I urge any of you seeking more background to go to the UUWorld website and follow the various links there (http://www.uuworld.org/). I can say that I expect to be addressing UU racism in part from the pulpit this Sunday. And, of course, it is likely to come up at our classism and racism workshop this coming Saturday at CVUUS. Please plan to attend the workshop, even if you haven’t already registered (see tomorrow’s weekly news blast, your April newsletter or our website for details – http://www.cvuus.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Class-Race-Workshop-Flyer.pdf).
I want to close by directly addressing the request to all UU’s by the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective that we demonstrate our awareness of the seriousness of the racism issues by canceling “business as usual” on either April 30 or May 7 and entirely devoting the time together – both children and adults – to work on white supremacy and white privilege issues. May 7 is set aside for our Coming of Age Service and thus is not business as usual. April 30 remains a possibility, as does a decision for us to express solidarity in other ways than the action requested by BLUU. This should be a challenging but welcome opportunity for us to reflect on who we are and where we stand.
Daily Letters for Teach-In Apr 30 (from Rev Barnaby)
Dear CVUUS members and friends,
Monday (Letter 1): This is the first of what I expect to be daily email messages this week setting the stage for an extraordinary event this Sunday during our normal time for worship – a teach-in meeting. We will be looking at ways that the Unitarian Universalist Assn. (our national denominational organization of more than 1000 congregations based in Boston) unwittingly undermines its stated goal of opposing racism. We will also consider whether racism afflicts CVUUS in ways we may not recognize.
Today’s topic: why did we join more than 550 UU congregations in responding to a plea from an African-American group of UU’s to do this type of teach-in on either April 30 or May 7?
It starts with a recent decision in Boston to hire a white, male minister to head up the UUA’s southern region following the retirement of another white male minister from the job. The announcement led to allegations of racism (and other overlapping forms of discrimination) from a substantial number of UU’s who care deeply about how our denomination operates. The accusers included an unsuccessful Latina candidate for the job who was told she was well qualified but “not a good fit.” Like the minister chosen, she is a member of the UUA Board of Directors, but she works as a part-time religious education instructor and a technology entrepreneur.
The UUA president, Peter Morales, responded to the allegations in part with language historically associated with racism and other forms of white male power. As the controversy worsened, Rev. Morales (our first Latino president) and other officials decided to resign. Meanwhile, the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective called on all of our congregations to use the occasion of this hiring dispute to look seriously at what it calls “white supremacy” within the UU world. It invited every congregation to do so in ways that fit best with where that congregation is in understanding racism and doing anti-racist work. Many UU leaders, including the UUA Board of Directors, endorsed this call.
After consulting with board members, our worship team, and many others of you who have followed these developments, I decided as your worship leader that on this Sunday CVUUS will be among those committed to the teach-in. I did so primarily because a crucial aspect of justice work for predominantly white congregations like CVUUS is listening supportively to what victims of injustice – including UU people of color – say they want from us.
I am not asking anyone to presume racism drove any of the events leading to the teach-in. The teach-in is not asking any UU to embrace conclusions about racism among us that he or she rejects after an open-hearted and open-minded engagement of the issues. But we are embracing engagement itself. I believe much more than a better understanding of the UUA is at stake. Whatever we learn looking closely at our own situation will makes as more intelligent observers of how racism is embedded in institutions far larger than the UUA.
I invite your feedback to these daily messages as they reach you and look forward to seeing you Sunday for this important event in our spiritual journey….Blessed be, Rev. Barnaby
Tuesday (Letter 2): Tomorrow, I am going to address the highly controversial claim from this group and many of its supporters of all colors that “white supremacy” is the term that best describes the problem they perceive. Wednesday, I will email a brief historical overview of how Unitarian and Universalist history and social culture work against our goals to be supportive of minority men and women who seek a place in our movement. Thursday, I will share what has gone into planning how we will spend our time together Sunday. Friday, I will address why I believe we can come away from this teach-in feeling like we have engaged in a deeply moving and thought-provoking alternate form of worship.
Welcome to the second of my daily emails giving us what I hope will be helpful background for Sunday’s teach-in addressing racism within the world of Unitarian Universalism. Please see yesterday’s email for a general introduction. Today’s topic: Why is Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), the collective that called on all UU congregations to replace worship with a teach-in this Sunday or May 7, asking us to see our movement as a product of and purveyor of “white supremacy”?
Most UU’s recognize that unconscious racism continues to deeply infect American society even as many individuals and institutions dedicate themselves to fighting racism. Many of us have also moved toward understanding that white Americans on the whole have many privileges and advantages that they neither seek or recognize.
It seems that terms such as “unconscious bias”, “anti-racism,” and “white privilege” give us plenty of linguistic ways to talk about what well-intentioned, loving people need to do to grow as faithful supporters of civil rights. So why center this teach-in on “white supremacy”, a term that would seem to associate us with shameful, violent racists in white hoods?
The short answer is that BLUU and many others who are living as people of color in are congregations are telling us this term makes sense to them. They are saying that we can perhaps begin to make more progress combating racism once we understand why. In other words, we are being challenged to truly listen with an open mind and heart rather than reacting defensively to these less familiar and extreme provocative words when applied to our denomination.
One of the first things the teach-in will clarify is that the term “white supremacy” in this context is not about individually racist attitudes or behavior. Institutions do things without racist intentions that are more likely to benefit whites than any other race. This conduct is embedded in their history and culture. Thus, “white supremacy culture” conveys to whites that “you will be comfortable here” and “the story you are about to encounter is primarily your story.” Here’s one example – the popular prison show “Orange Is the New Black” features white characters in a higher proportion than they are actually found in prisons. Thus center stage goes to a whitened version of the real story.
Our challenge Sunday will include a look at where our history may have left us with institutions and customs that are – invisibly to most whites — less welcoming and receptive to people of color than most of us realize. Like all good worship, it will invite us to change by showing us new possibilities. Blessed be, Rev. Barnaby
Wednesday (Letter 3) Here’s my third background email for Sunday’s teach-in addressing racism within the world of Unitarian Universalism. Please see Monday’s email for a general introduction and yesterday’s email for a discussion of why the term “white supremacy” figures prominently in the plans. (By the way, the number of UU congregations committed to doing a UU’s and racism teach-this Sunday or May 7 is now up to more than 600, according to Kenny Wiley, a spokesman for the UU group of people of color asking us to interrupt our normal worship plans for this purpose).
Now on to today’s topic: How Unitarian and Universalist history and social culture work against our goals of welcoming people of color into our denomination.
The Unitarian and Universalist movements in our country were spiritually progressive products of white European culture transported to the “New World.” Both were home to individuals who played high profile roles in the fight for abolition of slavery and other anti-racist activities. Some congregations became known as courageous public allies of African-Americans battling racial injustice. But the 19th century and early 20th century reformers were not, with a few exceptions, motivated by a belief that racial diversity within our congregations was a desirable outcome. Many bravely opposed racial discrimination but nonetheless left behind statements about the inferiority of those they sought to help that are appallingly racist.
Unitarian and Universalist congregations occasionally opened their pews to and even embraced isolated people of color who chose to worship “our” way. Involvement in the Civil Rights movement transformed our public stance into one of valuing racial diversity, especially after the two denominations became one in 1961. But we have rarely paid attention to how far out of their comfort zones people of color might need to move to call a UU congregation home. When we have tried to do so, we have often unintentionally thought and acted in ways that strike many people of color as shallow, untrustworthy, or misinformed about what life is like for people of color. In this part of our teach-in, we will consider how the white European legacy of how to “do church” so often ends up binding Unitarian Universalism to whiteness.
This framework does not presume that everything about “whiteness” is bad. It only presumes that we need a clearer understanding of what it means to be an institution shaped primarily by white culture. What are the spiritual costs and benefits of this heritage? What pathways into the future does it provide us? And, if none of them are appealing, what do we do about it?
Here is today’s email looking forward to our teach-in service Sunday on racism in the world of Unitarian Universalism. You can find the three previous emails discussing what we are doing and why at the link: Rev. Barnaby’s daily letters.
Thursday (Letter 4): My promise for today was to give you an advance look at how the service was shaping up. To do so, I’m sending out the preliminary order of service. There may well be some minor changes and it may not be obvious to you how everything is intended to fit together, but the highlights of what to expect are:
1) Some powerful readings presenting the voices of UU people of color, past and present;
2) Music and information about it that lifts us up and challenges us to see how “white supremacy culture” impacts UU worship;
3) Enlightening talk about why UU people of color want the term “white supremacy culture” used to describe their experience of Unitarian Universalism even though they are not accusing any individual UU’s of being fellow travelers with the Klu Klux Klan or other active advocates of white supremacy;
4) Time for conversation and sharing from the congregation;
5) A little bit of context about the chain of events and resignations at UUA headquarters that led to CVUUS (and more than 600 other UU congregations) devoting this Sunday or next to teach-ins.
6) A few elements of our regular worship services like the Chalice Lighting and time for personal sharing of Milestones and Passages.
See Sunday’s Teach-In Worship Service: 04.30. Listen to it under “past worship services.”
Friday (Letter 5): I’ve sent an email every day this week laying the groundwork for our teach-in Sunday exploring racism in Unitarian Universalism. You can find the first four on our website. Today, I want to say just a little about why I am so optimistic that this experience will be an important and healthy one for this congregation. I’m going to do so by excerpting, with a few revisions for clarity, a bit of what I will say Sunday.
“So let’s get to the part of today’s gathering that all of the organizers expect to be the hardest – looking at where we are through the lens of the words “white supremacy.” … I want to say first that it’s not a bad thing if you are white and hate the idea of this exercise. I’m confident no one in this room and anyone who would put on a Klan robe and terrorize people of color, or walk into a prayer meeting in Charleston and gun them down, or advocate for laws that specifically allow discrimination based on race… This exercise is … not about trying to make you say “I’m just like them,” even if some people of color might see less of a distinction than you do.
So what is it about? This terminology was chosen to shock but also because it reflects how many people of color experience their encounters with us – namely a dive into a well-meaning but white-centered world that is often clueless about important aspects of their lives. This teach-in is about listening with the hope and expectation that you can come to see the world from marginalized perspectives. It’s about faith that in doing so, you can see our world in a way that actually helps you make better sense of it. It’s about hoping to see it in a way that opens up exciting, new possibilities for how we can be together – possibilities that will enrich our own opportunities to grow our souls. It’s about seeing new ways to make CVUUS an even more important place to build love in the wider community than it already is. The call to investigate Unitarian Universalism and ourselves through the lens of white supremacy is not intended as an insult. It may be a precious gift, if we use it wisely and compassionately. I believe we will. Blessed be, Rev. Barnaby
Post teach-in thoughts (5/10/17): As UU’s, we are in a period of heartfelt but, for many people, disturbing effort to deepen our understanding of the diverse ways people of color among us experience our “whiteness.” We also aim to reflect what we learn with collective as well as individual changes in behavior. It’s foolish to think we can make everyone who comes through our doors feel welcomed and accepted for who they are. It’s our desire and mission, though, to work toward that lofty goal, knowing that we can do better than we have. This is the kind of challenge that grows our souls as individuals and our ability to build love in the wider community as a congregation.
It’s stressful, though. The firing last night of FBI Director James Comey reminds us yet again that anything we do within our denomination or personal lives is unfolding within a time of relentless anxiety-promoting developments on the national political scene. This is true regardless of which political movements and leaders you support.
I pray that we not lose sight of a few core beliefs I hope we all aspire to live out: 1) The CVUUS community should be a safe place to be uncomfortable and in the minority; 2) We seek to practice kindness toward those with whom we differ; 3) We look for reasons to respect those with whom we disagree and to be humble about our own ability to know the “truth.” 4) We worship together (in part) to better understand how we are called to serve Love; 5) In the broad array of ways we serve, we affirm and better understand what we worship. Blessed be in these troubling times… Rev. B.