The Power of We

In the 19th century Unitarians took strong anti-slavery stands before and during the civil war.  In the 20 th century Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists took a  leadership role in the civil rights battle of  the 1960’s.’’  They were in the forefront of civil rights for African Americans up until 1965.

There was a subtle shift in the late 60’s.  The Black Power movement, which championed black voices in economic, political and social decision making, also challenged decision making within the UU movement.

Although the UUA championed the rights of Blacks in the United States, their requests for more power within the UUA went unheard.   Demands to have separate meetings within the UUA for Black UU’s and those in UUA leadership led to many schisms, walkouts, and lost relationships that are still concerns at this time. 

The New England congregations during the 1960’s were the most adamant that “separate meetings, and decision making could not occur….” They thus rejected a philosophy of Black decision making or a Black Power approach……

I have spent time with a book describing the tumult:  Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy by Mark Morrison-Reed.  Rev. Morrison-Reed received The Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism at GA this year.

 “He has exerted an immense influence on Unitarian Universalism for more than 40 years…” the award read.   Only the second African American raised in the UU faith to become a minister, he pioneered the study of the African American presence in Unitarian Universalism.

A little over two years ago the UUA sought to hire a new executive director for the mid Atlantic region.  A “qualified female, POC” was not chosen for the position. Instead a white male person was chosen.  The individual passed over, pointed out the explicit policy that said the UUA would choose a person of color if they had the qualifications.

In March of this year, an essay appeared in the UU World entitled:  “After L, G, and B…..”  This was despite advice they received to hold back.  Alex Kapitan, a former staff at the UUA and a leader in the trans and gender nonbinary community wrote: 

In a political environment in which trans people are being actively targeted for violence by the state, in a context in which trans UUs are increasingly voicing the fact that Unitarian Universalism’s approach to LGBTQ welcome has failed trans people, an article written by a cis person, that centers cis people and cis perspectives, about trans people, is not incremental progress—it’s harm.

CB Beal also made an eloquent statement:

“If you are coming to this post as a Unitarian Universalist who appreciated this article and found that it spoke to you meaningfully, I am glad if you learned something new to you. And. I invite you to hold a brave space for yourself where you can simultaneously take in that you are a good person and that you still have much to learn and that this article caused me harm.

 All three of those things can be true at one time, and it is our responsibility when we are people who bear privilege to manage the discomfort that comes with our shortfalls. “

There is a reckoning at the UUA.   There is soul searching, resignations within leadership, and a re-evaluation of the culture.  I will simplify my picture of the problem to say that the UUA leadership has determined that a white, heterosexual male, supremacist culture has led to a certain type of decision making, and it is now all in question.

So why go to General Assembly?

I was feeling more connected to the UUA after attending a conference for ministers and spouses in Texas last spring.  Janet spent time thinking about her ministry, I spent time thinking about my medical practice.  It made me feel more connected to the big UU world.

Janet and I had a meeting last fall with Susan Frederick-Gray, the current President of the UUA.  We met to specifically discuss BLUU, or Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. She told us why the organization is important, why it deserved funding, and she asked us to support the UUA in keeping BLUU funded.   Think of this as reparations for the problems that occurred during the Black Power arguments in 1969 and 1970.  

Susan also told us about planning for GA, the themes about the Power of We, and expressed her hope that we would come.

And Janet kept inviting me.  So I let go of my discomfort of big national meetings, and decided to be open to how the UUA faced and negotiated these big issues.

We arrived before GA to take part in the UUMA meetings, the Unitarian Minister’s Association.  This is a separate, though connected organization.  As is my style with many things UU I joined the choir for the meeting.  It is a choir made up of UU Ministers, RE directors and spouses.

The services were all moving.  John Nichols, who served as the interim here in 2001 and 2, gave a sermon as a representative of those you had been in ministry 50 years.  John was our pastor in Wellesley when we became UU’s in 1990.

General Assembly began in the days following.  The opening words given today are taken from the moderator’s report, the moderators who set the themes for General assembly.

Who are We?

Who is in the center of our Circle, and who is pushed to the margins?  How do we discover that we are more powerful when all are included?

The moderator’s words and CB’s words keep speaking to these questions.

The next phase in the meetings however became smaller and more personal.  We were asked to go into different discussion groups to discuss 3 or 4 questions.  These questions are also supposed to be brought back to each of our home faith communities.  They were:

  1. What sustains you and your faith community in efforts towards inclusion, equity, and diversity?
  2. What limits you from living out our faith’s promise towards liberation and transformation?
  3. What should we expect of ourselves and one another in living out our covenantal relationships?

All the GA attendees were asked to go to caucus rooms to discuss these questions.

I will give you the list, consider which caucus you would have attended:
 LGBTQ caucus, Ministers caucus, Black caucus, Young adults caucus, Youth caucus, People of color/LGBTQ caucus, Disabilities caucus, White caucus (there was more than one – divided alphabetically), People of color caucus. 

Which caucus would you attend?

This was new for me.  I went to the Black Caucus,  Janet attended the Ministers caucus.

 I walked into a large room with about 25 other Black UU’s.     This is a rare experience.   Some were older than me, many younger.  Most from Chicago, California, Houston, Alabama and Mississippi.   I have to say, we had a hard time getting to the questions posed.  We were all discussing usually being the only ones in our congregations, though many were  in leadership positions.   Three of the participants from Alabama and Mississippi were the Presidents of their small congregations….

We could discuss pleasures and difficulties that would never get described if all of us were in one worship space together. 

How nice it was to share spiritual space with these other Black UU’s.  All of us had been UU’s for more than 10 years, and it was very important to our lives that we remain engaged with UU theology and our home congregations. We had much to talk about, but not so much about the questions posed.

We never really addressed the questions; we instead discovered why being in community was important.

So let’s return to all of you.

Which group would you have attended?  Lot’s of different groups with some defaults.

Tough question.

Would any of you have left the meeting because of what appeared to be a segregated meeting?  

That’s what happened at GA in 1969.

Do you feel pushed out of a circle?  Do you feel like a victim of segregation, or do you feel liberated to be able to discuss important feelings in a more safe and holding space?

The following day Janet and I participated in a very crowded session titled  ”Combating Destructive Behavior and White Supremacy Culture.”

If you remember nothing else about what I learned, let it be this.

In all of the settings I serve in, I have always talked about preventing or calling out disruptive behavior…

They said:  Let’s stop calling out disruption..   Disruption is actually a good thing.  Let’s instead call out destructive behavior.   Disruption is discomforting and unsettling, makes us anxious and upset.  Perhaps turns off our ability to think.  Disruptive behavior is having separate rooms for different groups of people to talk about difficult issues.   Disruption is taking a pause from Robert’s rules of Order to allow difficult discussions to occur.

Disruption may allow us to think in new ways and form new bonds.

Destructive behavior is what we should monitor and disarm.  Micro-aggressions, hate speech, bullying.

The session offered a case study of a series of difficulties within a congregation.   Needless to say the issues were common in almost all of the congregations in the room.   People are welcomed, but do they feel at home? People are loved, but are they listened to?   People are offered dignity, but are they also be offered power?  

Our climate action team might ask whether our congregation really believes there is a climate emergency, as our banner proclaims.  I might ask; what do we mean when we say Black Lives Matter?

These are the difficult issues that the UUA has engaged.  Here is this quite progressive group of people who have recognized their own inability to really put everyone in the center.   We recognize that we still push people to the edges, despite our best intentions.

As Janet discussed last week, we are a religious institution based on covenant and relationships that attempt to be described and defined by covenant.

What are the covenants, how do we sit together when we don’t feel heard, or whole?  How do we sit together when we feel our own comfort threatened?  What does it mean to go beyond welcoming and instead say you belong here?  Would it change the pictures that hang in the parlor, the music sung during services, the words -  and what else?

I love this space, this community.  I continue to feel committed to do all that I can to make this a space for all who walk through our doors.  I will make mistakes, I will make assumptions that are likely wrong, but I am willing to try, and sacrifice, because this is such an important task.

I’m glad to be in this circle.  I’m glad to be doing this work with you.