In the Interim: Intention and Reality

A long time ago, when I was working for the Unitarian Universalist Association, I facilitated a workshop on congregational growth and outreach for UU churches in the Detroit, MI area.  There were a lot of people in the room, including some people of color.  One of them was a longtime UU, an elderly African American woman named Mildred Jackson.  She was beautifully dressed, wore a hat, and sat there skeptically assessing what I had to say about outreach and welcoming newcomers in.

At a break, I went over to talk to her.  “Mildred,” I said, “Please tell me why you think UU churches don’t have more people of color as members?”  She paused, just for a moment, took a breath, and looked me square in the eye.  “It’s because you don’t want us,” she said.  “You hang up Black art on the walls, sing spirituals during the service, and think we’re going to come.  We can get all that at a Black church.  The truth is:  you don’t really want us here – and we aren’t going to come until that changes.”

I remember blinking and gulping.  Mildred’s comments were direct and maybe, a little harsh.  But they felt true, and – all these years later – I have not forgotten her or what she said.  Some time later, Dr. William Jones, an African American sociology professor and UU spoke on the stage at a UUA General Assembly about anti-racism and the power imbalance that contributes to white supremacy.  He held up a rubber chicken by the neck.  “See this chicken?,” he said. “You eat this chicken at Kentucky Fried Chicken.  How many of you like chicken?”  Lots of people raised their hands.  “Now – tell me how do you think the chicken feels?”  Nervous laughter erupted.  “Until you decide that you are willing to stop eating chicken, there will be a system of oppression present.”

That felt true, too.  Race is hard.  It is uncomfortable.  It is difficult and not easy to resolve.  As a mostly-white culture, UUs don’t know what to do, what to say, how to act, way too frequently.  We have the best of intentions, but we don’t always understand what is needed to support real equity in a system that has been developed to benefit those in power – and in our communities, and our churches and social structures, that is, overwhelmingly, a system of white supremacy and control over others.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because – first –  Follen Church’s members and leaders are discussing whether it is appropriate to pass a resolution called “Advancing Follen Church as an Anti-Racist Congregation” and, among other things, hang a banner on the church which declares that Black Lives Matter.  And I’ve been thinking about this because of the way life evolves in the US right now, in our governmental systems and the controls we place on providing equal treatment for all people.  And because of the way people – people who want to feel important and be powerful – sometimes treat those who are thought to be in a position of subordinance.

The easy work is hanging up a banner.  It can be a statement of intent, a declaration of wish.  But, as my friend David Yermack reminds me, “Hope is not a business plan.”  The work of combatting white oppression in a centuries-old system will take years, quite possibly decades.  That is no reason to walk away, but it is important to recognize that this is not addressed by offering one religious education class, or looking at social justice issues for one year of a multi-year class rotation, or having an open forum discussion on the topic.  It’s the long-haul work that will effect change.

Months ago I started wearing a Black Lives Matter wristband.  I wanted to remind myself that I – a privileged, cisgender Caucasian woman, have the ability to go home to a house I chose and had the money to buy, in a neighborhood I feel safe in; to go through airport checks with the TSA while holding  pre-check status, to not be eyed suspiciously if I go into a store to browse.  I can take my wristband off, and I sleep with my whiteness each night.  Not all of us have that experience.  Those among us who are biracial or multicultural or Black or not of a ‘dominant’ race or culture (however that is defined, wherever you might live) are subject to glances, questioning, being followed by police, or worse.  That statement that “all [people] are created equal” is too often, hollow.

Please know:  I very much support the thought of Follen Church demonstrating its commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism – toward a goal of creating a beloved community of equity.  It will take years for this to happen.  Passing this proposed resolution is a first step, not a last.  I hope that Follen’s members and friends will view this challenge, and struggle, as important enough to want to engage in it; to be active participants on a journey which will, I pray, guide us as individuals and this faith community toward wholeness, one day.

— Deb