I’ve been in Denver, CO at the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) Fall Conference, immersed in learning along with more than 200 Religious Educators and 30 UUA staff members, on how to build brave spaces in our lives and how to encourage brave conversations among children, youth, and adults we minister to. The original idea of the programming we were offered had us learning, deeply, about the principles of non-violent communication and how to use it in our churches. And then something happened.
The presenters – two men who (I am told) have worked with UU communities before in the Denver area – began their presentation talking about how they were worried about a power paradigm if they stood on the stage and we were sitting in the audience. Several people called to them to stand on the stage as we couldn’t see them. Then one started talking about how difficult it was to be male these days. As the soliloquy continued, more than one of us felt manipulated by the presenter. It got more pronounced as we were asked to pair off with someone and gaze deeply into their eyes (to see the humanity in them, I guess). I don’t like to do things like this – certainly not without a lot of ground having been laid first – and decided it was a great time for a break outside the room.
On Saturday the presenters began again. A packet of cards with values were handed out to tables, and we were ‘dealt’ 3 cards. We were asked to look at them and think about what their significance was to each of us, and what our lives would be like if we didn’t have some of the things written on the cards. As we laid them out on the table for all to see, the Really Big Problem clicked in: the words said “safety,” “self-assurance,” “ease,” “love,” and more. “This is a white supremacist culture’s exercise,” I said to myself. “Not everyone has these things in their life – we cannot assume that these are commonly held assets in our lives.” I started squirming but kept my mouth shut.
Behind me, I heard increased conversation, getting louder and more agitated. A group of colleagues, which included a number of the individuals who had developed the Black Lives of UUs Teach-In materials, were talking. Aisha Hauser, one of those educators, said from behind me, “I always am the one to stand up. Here I go again.” She then explained to the presenters that their model was offensive and assumed that we were all equals – and it is not true. The discussion went on around the room, with others speaking up – mostly people of color – and I sat there, wondering why in the world I hadn’t opened my mouth. Finally someone said to the presenter, “I think you should sit down and let someone else facilitate.”
At that point, a member of the LREDA board came to the stage and asked for a fifteen minute break. We sat, reflected, talked, and I tried to figure out why I had kept silent. I had left it to one my colleagues – a person I deeply respect – to open her mouth even though forcing people of color to speak up in situations where their safety and dignity are being damaged causes them more pain and harm. I had to recognize that I had been afraid to speak. Afraid that I might be seen as disruptive, not going with the plan. Willing to conform, rather than to disrupt the flow, advocate for my colleagues of color, and ask why.
And so, I thought, “Note to self: Be Brave.”
You may be wondering what happened next. When the gathering reconvened, the presenters were gone. The LREDA President, Annie Scott, announced that the presentation was being discontinued; the LREDA Board and conference planning team would develop other, more suitable training. Today, as I sat in a small group in a Restorative Justice sharing circle, I said that my biggest regret was not speaking up and leaving it instead to a person of color.
I will not make the same mistake twice: I am engaging, going forward, in a spiritual practice of trying to more deeply understand the roots of white supremacist behavior, and how it damages all of us. And yes, you can be sure I’ll be speaking up when I see things that I believe damage our efforts to dismantle racism.
I share this experience because we exist in a community of people exploring and living their faith. Follen is a congregation committed by congregational vote to working to dismantle racism in our lives. If we are to more deeply explore our beliefs, our values, our religious practice, we need to find it within ourselves to be brave and speak out, even when it feels disquieting to do so. Most likely there will be others who share our thinking; most likely there will be people around us who support our action. But whether that is so or not, by being brave, we stand the chance of knowing that our action is the right thing to do in this troubled world in which we live. And perhaps that is the path to a more just future for all of us.
Deborah Weiner, Interim Director of Religious Education