We believe that hundreds of UU churches signaling to their own members and to the larger community that “our faith takes racism seriously, especially within our own walls” will push our faith toward the beloved community we all seek.
On Sunday, my Unitarian Universalist congregation participated in the first #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. This began as a call to action by Black Lives of UU for congregations around the country the dedicate one day of services to teaching about racism and white supremacy. Our worship team took the charge seriously, shifting not only the content of the service but the very structure of how we gather together. A new seating arrangement brought everyone face-to-face. Without the familiar printed order of service to guide us, we watched videos of anti-racist leaders like Tricia Rose, and worshiped in the company of art and music by people of color. Most notably, our pastors made unflinching use of the term “white supremacy.”
This format, in the steady hands of ministers and lay leaders, allowed the inevitable confusion and resistance of our majority white congregation to have its place. It did not, however, allow that confusion and resistance to take center stage, as it so often does when liberal white people publicly confront their complicity in persecution.
Our worship team kept the focus on pervasive inequities and the damage they cause. Beyond recognizing privilege, they named the structural violence that white people both contribute to and profit from (yes, even directly and yes, every day). We explored the specific ways that we stubbornly protect benefits that come at the cost of lost opportunities and lost lives. Even if we don’t want it to be so. Even if, as our pastor reminds us, we are people of good hearts.
UUs see ourselves as inheritors of a great legacy of resistance. Unitarians and Universalists stood up against American slavery, and a number of congregations and members were active in the civil rights movement. The other story, the one we prefer not to tell, lives alongside this one. When faced with choosing between righteous action and personal profit, many of our forebears chose the latter.
… most Boston Unitarian ministers supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which set up federal commissioners to catch and return escaped slaves. And many of the Boston Brahmins at the core of Unitarian membership were, in fact, industrialists who profited enormously from slavery: New England textile mills used slave-grown cotton from Southern plantations. As abolition gained ground among Unitarians, many industrialists left the denomination. Many Southern Unitarians—who owned slaves—also withdrew.
– Tom Stites, “Will We Be Abolitionists This Time?”, UU World
Courageous action requires more than good intentions. When we commit to working for justice, we must also commit to transforming ourselves, our work, and our relationships. A legacy, after all, is only as good as the acts of its inheritors.
More than a few members of this congregation have said that if they hear terms like “white supremacy” again, they will not come anymore. Others have simply drifted away. Such refusal is understandable. The place we see as our spiritual home now calls for a radical confrontation between what we believe ourselves to be and the world as it is. It sucks. It’s hard. And we don’t wanna.
As our community of UUs weighs the costs of public anti-racist advocacy, we should be reflecting in action rather than holding out for perfect answers. After all, how does the loss of a longtime member measure against opening doors to our larger community? How does the noisy frustration of exposed privilege measure against deportation, discrimination, and police brutality?
What losses are we willing to sustain to build the loving community?
In any home, what exists outside the walls has a way of creeping in and seeding change. We can see such invasion as a threat to our sustenance and survival, and set up our defenses to protect the sanctity of what we’ve built. Or we can welcome the disturbance. We can reconsider what and who belongs to us. We might even let the fissure split us apart, free us from what we hold sacred, and open us to becoming what lives beyond belief.