Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Presidential Forum
Follow-Up Questions for Candidates
White culture is at the center of our UU culture. There is often too little room for any other culture. As I have heard from people of color in our movement, the persistence of UU as a white-centric faith is not about theology but it may be about how our theology is not practiced. White UUs sometimes speak of “getting more people of color” as if there was a collection white folks should have. Although we have a faith and a theology that has a radical commitment to the value of each person, in practice we are not different from the communities in which we live. In housing, schooling, and social interchange, America is still very separated by race and income, and UU congregations reflect that social order. Our faith, in practice, too often reflects those shortcomings of inclusion and equality. We should expect more of ourselves.
The preference for white culture expressed at the center of our faith is real. There is a new awareness emerging to include the experiences, stories and treasures of many cultures but it does so too slowly. This emerging awareness needs more support from the UUA and from congregations that are building a new way. Creating worship that is welcoming and inclusive takes much time and resources, it involves many, is challenging, and is built up over time through learning and commitment. It represents change and requires sacrifice. Making decisions in a multicultural community requires less Robert’s Rules of Order and more time invested in listening. Building relationships requires being accountable to one another, spending time one with another.
The change and sacrifice are doable, necessary and right. Can we agree to prioritize many voices? Can we curate the resources needed for good multicultural worship for our inclusion? Can we speak the names of our heroes and sheroes to include those of color? Can we respect music in its cultural context, with its heritage shared with musicians who know that heritage and respect those claims?
We can name a hundred reasons why we cannot do these things but we cannot name one that stands against what is needed and right. When, finally, we take seriously these and other truths, we will honestly invite people of color into a lived UU faith, a community that knows the inherent worth and dignity of each.
I first want to appreciate the courageous leadership the Interim Co-Presidents, the Revs. Sofia Betancourt and William Sinkford and Dr. Leon Spencer, have shown in taking up the work of making substantive and lasting change in our Association. I deeply admire and respect their contributions to Unitarian Universalism and their service now.
In regard to Peter Morales’ Presidency, I offer the following:
Many said we could not leave 25 Beacon St. Some could not bear the loss of our prestigious location. Others imagined it was our only piece of history. Still others had personal history in the building and visiting was important. Yet UUA employees wore coats indoors in the winter. A ceiling fell on a desk. One “accessibility” ramp sloped so steeply a minister called it “the ramp of death.” The building had not been properly maintained and would need tens of millions of dollars of repairs. Even then, it would not easily accommodate a wireless world. Rev. Morales knew we could do better for our workplace and knew we needed to do so as soon as possible. It took a few iterations, but a better, more workable spot was found and the sale of our buildings made possible a positive outcome. This happened in President Morales’ watch against many odds.
During and after my service on the UUA Board, I saw Rev. Morales at many UU gatherings: congregations, districts, and special groups. One group I saw up close over many years was the Senior Ministers of UU Large Congregations. Not exactly a group without opinions on how the UUA should be led. There, in the midst of people who care passionately about the faith, he would listen, even as the opinion he was hearing was unlike his own or even when what was asked what was beyond his authority or scope. He found ways not to take personally the critique, some of which was not kindly offered. He never dismissed those whose passion overcame their ability to express it collegially. He listened and respected ideas and innovations even when his own were not seen.
Our movement now names the many different forms our religious communities adopt, congregations and beyond. Gatherings, convenings, small groups, online communities, house churches, satellite campuses are true expressions of the faith we share, and President Morales brought them into our consciousness as leader of the UUA.
There are other examples but these represent to me the heart of what Peter most strongly demonstrated in the Presidency as I experienced him.
Since the institutions that educate our ministers and musicians are independent places of study that are not governed by the UUA, we do not directly decide the courses of study. However, we do influence the work of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and convene it as the fellowshipping source for the faith. We need to work in partnership to assure that UU students in UU identity schools and non-UU schools develop the skills needed for a multicultural world.
But moving to multicultural worship is not easy. We must develop what it means to respectfully include many traditions not only in ministers but also in musicians, composers, religious educators, lay worship leaders and writers. We must be able to train ministers to offer care that respects the different pastoral needs of people of color. We need ministers capable of handling the myths and rituals of all traditions with respect and skill. Our education requirement must support these in theory and in practice. The UUA has the ability to name these skills as central to our UU faith and to promote their full integration into the formation experience.
To give music directors flexibility, we should encourage musical selections from within and beyond our hymnals. We think in terms of bound hymnals, but we need both printed and online music, music that is both printable and projectable. We need more music from non-European religious traditions and music in languages other than English. This requires technological and other changes to support such a transition, but these are changes for which the UUA, in partnership with the UUMA, UU Musicians Network and Liberal Religious Educators Association and others, can provide guidance to congregations and support that ethically grounds such innovation.
As we broaden the cultural sources of our music, we need to ensure we are doing so in a way that financially supports UU composers and artists. The UU Musicians Network continues to encourage the creation of new music for our use. The availability of legal, manageable licensing options, such as those that charge an annual fee based on usage, is needed across institutions. With the UUMN and others, we can make richer musical choices legally and easily accessible.
To do these things we must travel, observe and be willing to try what we are learning, even when we will sometimes fail. Our faith needs to encourage our innovation and forgiveness as we struggle to learn new ways of worshipping together.
We’ll need conversations with members of the UUMA, UUMN, LREDA, and others who seek to develop agreements and guidelines for congregations about how to use music, rituals, and myths of all cultures and religious traditions in ethical and accountable ways to communities that are the sources of these treasures. The UUA has tried this in the past. We need to re-engage with these conversations and facilitate collaboration among key constituencies from across Unitarian Universalism. One of the key roles of the UUA is to keep this conversation alive and accountable.
We face a chilling divide. Despite the numbers of unarmed black persons killed by police, the inequitable prosecution and sentencing of black people, cries for reform of mass incarceration practices and violence perpetrated on communities of color, some among us imagine these matters are not something UU needs to address. We need deep conversation if we are to discover our differences. We must confront attempts to avoid that conversation and the conflict it may reveal.
The UUA is the congregations and covenanted communities. It should never be understood as being apart from them. As such, when congregations struggle, the Association struggles. Congregational polity is sometimes read as requiring independence and autonomy but I believe there is inter-reliance and interdependence that makes us stronger when connected. As such, the UUA must be available to congregations when disagreement becomes conflict. Congregations need skilled facilitation, mediation and good offices, and it makes sense that the UUA trains and maintains staff and volunteers with the skills to bring conflict into the open where it has a chance for reconciliation. The UUA has also modeled the use of right relations teams at GA and other gatherings. Supporting the creation of such teams for times of congregational conflict could be an opportunity for deeper reflection on our treatment of one another.
Our faith asks us to believe that each person has inherent worth and dignity. How can we practice that as citizens in a land where being black subjects a person to greater scrutiny, less opportunity and more state-supported violent reactions? How can we be UUs and be unconcerned that Jordan Edwards represents only a recent tragedy in a long line of those killed for the crime of being an unarmed black person. In what way does our faith allow us to be unconcerned with this legacy of death and oppression? I say it does not. It asks more of us than that. We need to live supporting this movement that affirms black lives and black culture.
Recognizing the importance of black lives will mean giving up and giving over privilege and preference so that others might live. If those of us who are white hesitate because we might suffer a little or be inconvenienced, what is that inconvenience compared to parents who send their unarmed children out not knowing whether they will make it home because of the dangers of state-directed attacks. How can we ever think this does not concern us?
We may differ in how we respond but we cannot long differ in what is important. We must have the courage as an Association to examine our differing perspectives even if it challenges the powers that be, even when it changes our culture, even when it risks conflict. I believe our faith calls us to exactly this kind of work. If elected, connection to the congregations and covenanted communities will be high priority.
The in-development Commission on Institutional Change will audit the UUA (including hiring practices) to define what did happen (and has been happening a long time) in the hiring made in the UUA. The information developed there will be important in any efforts to change and improve those practices. The first thing that should happen is to make some room for the diagnosis of that group. I am told that UU theologian Bill Jones always advised that getting the diagnosis right comes first. The same findings will let us know what injury has taken place. The response should be in proportion to those findings. Let’s trust the power of the process the Co- Presidents are busy creating.
Emerging from this will be the need for remedy. The UUA must develop system-wide plans for fair and open opportunity and monitor progress. A yearly report specific to progress in reducing and eliminating anti-black and white supremacist practices should be made for as long as it is necessary.
The restoration of antiracism training for all UUA volunteers and staff should be reinstituted with requirements for ongoing training. Antiracism training for leaders of all congregations must be promoted by the UUA until it becomes the norm of service there as well. In my plan, the, UUA will offer significant resources for congregations to confront white supremacy with growing skill and accountability.
We need a transformation of heart and commitment.
The one thing we cannot do is think small change. Small change would be “fixing that hire”. Small change would be working only on what the Commission finds. Small change would be a big burst of action and a cloud of dust for a couple years after.
We’ve had those bursts, like in our involvement in Selma followed by our retreat after the Empowerment controversy. We stirred to the Journey Toward Wholeness and retreated blaming our Crossroads connection. The pattern can swallow us if we are not awake, alert or we fail to persevere. We do not need technical fixes, we need this transformation to finally become what is needed. In it there must be reconciliation and room for the stories to be told. In it there must be repair for injury and the opportunity to go forward together.
It must be said, this is not going to be easy or peaceful. There will be conflict, and if we are wise, we will bring it into the open. We will talk and probably become hopeless…for a while. And then we will begin to turn toward a hope based on something real. We must change, contort, learn, and be hurt in order to be healed. We must learn. We must see our own changes and let them happen with a feeling of gratitude.
Then maybe we will leave behind anti-blackness and white supremacy and finally come home.