Thursday, July 23, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter @ TJMC (part two)

On Tuesday I noted that since hanging the Black Lives Matter banner in the front of the sanctuary questions have been raised:  Why a "Black Lives Matter" banner in the sanctuary? Hasn't that phrase really devolved into a bit of bumper sticker political correctness? Shouldn't we find our own ways of expressing our solidary with people of color in the fight for racial justice, rather than simply copying someone else's words? Hopefully that post addressed these questions, if not answering then than at least helping to make the conversation more nuanced.

Still, there is part of those questions that didn't get addressed at all: Why hang a "Black Lives Matter" banner in the sanctuary? Especially, perhaps, right up there in the front.

Before offering a response I'd like to have us step back for a moment and remember something we say each week at the beginning of our Sunday morning worship. "TJMC strives to be an intentionally inclusive community ..." We are committed to ever widening the circle of our welcome, yet that means that increasingly things will be said and done that some of us won't feel all that comfortable with. In fact, there may be some things going on that we downright disagree with.

Yup. That's the way it works when a fairly homogeneous group invites diversity. (At least if that invitation is sincere.) If we mean what we say about wanting to be a diverse and inclusive community, then those of us who have for so long been the dominant group in the congregation -- the group who largely determined the behavior and "feel" of the place -- will need to give up the privilege of calling all the shots. This doesn't mean that we still don't have a say. Not at all. It does mean, however, that we need to learn that our "say" isn't final. 

So ... back to the question of why we should hang such a political statement right up there in the front of the sanctuary. After all, many of us come to our Sunday worship to find a bit of peace, an oasis of calm, in which we can find rest from the tumult of the day. We look for -- long for -- a sanctuary, and anything that reminds us too much of the outside world feels inappropriately intrusive. Especially if it's something that brings up a whole lot of (White) guilt.

I do not doubt that this is true. In fact, I know that this is true ... for some of us. Some of you have already talked to me about your distress with this banner in that place -- even though it's been up for only a little more than a week at this point -- or have done so over other things at other times. Your voice, your feelings do matter.

Yet there have been other people who have talked with me over the past year or so about the disturbing and distressing absence of any such sign that we recognize that the things going on in the outside world are, indeed going on. Some of us look for -- long for -- a direct, clear, an unambiguous statement that we who claim to be committed to racial justice will not allow ourselves the privilege of turning our eyes from racial injustice ... even in our sacred sanctuary and our one holy hour.

The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh -- Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk -- has developed a statement of Fourteen Precepts for the Order of Interbeing which he founded. When I first read them, one in particular struck me deeply and it continues to reverberate in my heart:
Do not avoide suffering or close your eyes before suffering. Do not lose awareness of the existence of suffering in the life of the world. Find ways to be with those who are suffering, including personal contact, visits, images and sounds. By such means, awaken yourself and others to the reality of suffering in the world.
One of the most insidious forms of White privilege is that we have the option of choosing to"close our eyes" to the suffering of people of color in our culture.  We can choose to say, "Not here.  Not now.  For these 60 minutes I want to be in a place of peace and an oasis of quiet so that I can forget about the drumbeat of pain, and suffering, and need."  That is a privilege that we -- White we -- have that people of color really don't.

So we have that option, we can make that choice, but here's the real spiritual question:  should we?  It would be for some of us more comfortable, of course.  No doubt about that.  Yet what is it that they say about religion?  "Religion is about afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted."  I have heard people of color say that one thing they wish more White people would recognize is that, for them, racial injustice is not something they can turn off.  It is ever-present in their lives, if not in the forefront of their consciousness than incessantly buzzing around in the background.   And it's decidedly not comfortable.  

Can you imagine how it might feel, then, to enter the sanctuary -- the holy of holies, if you will -- of a predominantly White religious community and see that they have consciously chosen to add a little discomfort to their experience of their sacred time as a sign of their solidarity with those more afflicted by the disease of systemic racism?  It's a small thing,  to be sure, but small things can be powerful.  Can you imagine the comfort this act on our part might offer?  

Not everyone will agree with this, of course.  Some will assert that this is their time each week and that this their space.  Others will say that they empathize with the intention yet think that there must be another -- better -- way of achieving this goal.  Those of us who feel this way are entitled to our feelings.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith encourages us to refuse the desire to force others to think and feel as we do.  Yet our faith also demands of us that we not settle for complacent comfort in the light of suffering and oppression.  We may not like this demand, but it is there in our Principles and in our spiritual lineage.  

The decision to hang this banner in the front of the sanctuary is an act that will afflict some of us while comforting others.  My hope is that those who are afflicted will be mindful of meaning this has for others in our midst (and beyond our doors), and that those who find it a comfort will be grateful for the sacrifice these others are making.

We need not think alike to love alike, yet also we cannot close our eyes to suffering.

Pax tecum,



Tuesday, July 21, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter @ TJMC (part one)

The question has been raised -- why a "Black Lives Matter" banner in the sanctuary? Hasn't that phrase really devolved into a bit of bumper sticker political correctness? It began as a social media hashtag after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, it has spread widely. Yet, given its origins, doesn't it really imply that Black (male) Lives Matter? What about Black female lives? And the lives of undocumented immigrants? Or soldiers? Or children of whatever race and ethnicity who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Immediately after the Black Lives Matter movement began to grow there was a backlash -- shouldn't we be saying that all lives matter? That's true, of course, all lives do matter. Yet at this particular moment in time it seems particularly important to lift up, specifically, that Black lives matter. When you attend a wedding and the officiant says, "today we celebrate the love of these two who have come before us ..." no one jumps up and says, "Oh yea? Well my love matters, too. And so does the love of all sorts of other people!" We recognize that it is okay to focus on a specific instance, even while recognizing that there's a generalization that's also true. So, yes, all lives matter, no one is doubting or denying that. In this moment of history, however, it's becoming increasingly obvious -- even to White America -- that it certainly looks as if Black lives don't. So now, in this moment, it's important to explicitly name that they do.

On the UUA website you can find these words:  
"Black Lives Matter" (or #BlackLivesMatter) is a movement and a stance in response to this reality: the United States was built on a legacy of slavery, racism, and oppression that continues to take new, ever-changing forms. To say that "black lives matter" doesn't mean that black lives are more important than other lives, or that all lives don't matter. The systemic devaluing of Black lives calls us to bear witness, even as we acknowledge that oppression takes many intersecting forms."
Black Lives Matter is not merely a slogan. It is a movement. The people who originated this campaign describe it this way:
Black Lives Matter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project -- taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Blacks lives striving for liberation.
This is no mere "bumper sticker."

To be sure, there are those in our congregation -- our predominantly White congregation -- who do not see all of this in that yellow and black banner hanging in the front of the congregation. It behooves us, then, to learn more about it. (The River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda has created a succinct FAQ concerning their involvement.) This is a movement that has a purpose -- a vision of the future that includes quite concrete demands for change that are embodied in that statement about Black lives mattering. That banner is literally a banner, a banner raised in all sorts of places, all over the country, beneath which important work is being done. That's what banners do and have always done -- provide a rallying point.

Unitarian Universalists are increasingly aligning ourselves with this movement. Congregations all over the country (again, our predominantly White congregations) are hanging the banner to demonstrate solidarity with people of color and are getting involved in the work that goes along with this alignment. (Our National Standing on the Side of Love campaign has a lot of really helpful resources for individuals and congregations who want to move beyond the rhetoric to the real heart of the matter. It's worth noting that Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of the BlackLivesMatter movement, spoke at the Marching in the Arc of Justice conference that was organized by the Living Legacy Project and the UUA to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. In her talk -- and I'm quoting the Standing on the Side of Love web site -- "Opal challenged UUs to help build the Black Lives Matter movement and welcomed our visibly 'bringing in love' through our presence and our signals of support such as Standing on the Side of Love Black Lives Matter banners and more." In other words, our movement has been directly and explicitly asked to ally ourselves with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some no doubt would say that even though all of this may be true, shouldn't we find our own ways to express our solidarity? Shouldn't we formulate our own expressions of principle, rather than simply copy someone else's? Well ... yes and no. Yes, to the extent that we should always try to be authentic. No, to the extent that we -- once again, White we -- truly want to be allies to people of color in their struggles. One of the things people of color find frustrating and painful when White folk get involved is that we almost always want to do things our own ways and say things in words that seem best to us. Part of the role of an ally, though, a crucial role, is to humbly listen to the people you are trying to support and to truly hear the language and approaches that makes sense to them

Back in 2014 The Root published an article titled, "Twelve Ways to Be a White Ally to Black People." It's well worth reading, because a lot of what it means to be an ally is counter-intuitive to Whites who (if only unconsciously) move through the world as though our world-view is an accurate reflection of reality. It isn't. And if we're really serious about the work of undoing racism in our communities, our nation, and our world, then we -- White we -- need to learn to look past our assumptions of how things and how they work and see things as others see them. This isn't easy for many of us, but nobody said that the work of undoing racism is going to be easy. And if learning to set aside our unconscious and, so, unquestioned assumption that we no best is the worst of our struggle in all of this ... it's not to high a price to pay. (The Unitarian Universalist organization Allies for Racial Equity -- A.R.E. -- is a great resource for learning the role of an ally, particularly as it plays out within our Unitarian Universalist faith.)

Kenny Wiley, a powerful -- and dare I say it -- prophetic voice within Unitarian Universalism wrote an important piece on his blog titled, "A Unitarian Universalist 'Black Lives Mater' Theology." (Actually, everything I've ever read on A Full Day -- which he describes as "Love-infused words on faith, sports and social justice from a black male Unitarian Universalist" -- is well worth reading, too. I'd encourage you to get to know this guy's thoughts and his heart. You won't regret it.)

Our TJMC Mission Statement concludes with the assertion that, "we seek to have a lasting influence on local, national, and global programs that promote equity and end oppression," We have been directly asked to join our passion and our hunger for racial justice to a Black-led movement seeking the same thing. Hanging the banner -- signaling our support -- is only the beginning. The real work is ahead of us, and in future posts you'll hear more about the Undoing Racism programs and projects we'll be involved with in the coming year.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

the little steps taken

On Sunday, June 5th, 2015 the service reflected on the incredible and historic Supreme Court decision recognizing marriage inequality as unconstitutional.  (You can read RevWik's sermon if you'd like to.)  The morning's lay Worship Weaver also shared, both personally and powerfully.  Here are her words:

I’m going to share a personal story this morning. During my early twenties I brought my girlfriend of five years to visit my family and the Unitarian Universalist church community where I grew up. As a 4th generation UU and graduate that church’s intensive Our Whole Lives sexuality education course, I expected my girlfriend would be warmly welcomed.

Distressingly, this was not so. For starters, for years and despite my protestations a close Unitarian family member introduced my girlfriend to others as either "Our family friend" or "Lucy's roommate." Secondly, my Catholic, Nigerian American girlfriend was brought nearly to tears after a series of interactions in the social hall at my family’s UU church. People had approached her to welcome her to the church and inquire what brought her to visit. When she answered directly and honestly "I'm Lucy girlfriend," she got surprised stares and people abruptly ended the conversation a sentence or two later. She interpreted this as rejection. She told me she wasn't sure if she wanted to go back to a place that professed support of her whole identity but subtly showed her something different. 

We don't know for sure what was going on in these church members’ minds, but this was a repeated occurrence and had a real impact on someone's experience with UUism. This has taught me that we sometimes think we are better allies than we really are. 

Marriage equality is an attractive cause to stand up for. It is also a distant, law-focused one. There is still much work to do in making our society safe for all LGBTQ people. That work starts with us. How many times are we complacent with our language that could promote homophobia? How much effort do we actually put into being allies or activists of LGBT issues? If we are more privileged, when do we choose to sit out instead of stand up? Only each of us knows the answers for ourselves.

This morning I look at myself. I am a stereotypically feminine woman who recently married the love of my life, a man, and I now identify as straight. My FaceBook page is purged of most photos of myself with a mohawk. While working with Erik to create today's service, I got to choose whether or not to out myself as someone who's had same-sex romantic relationships. 

I admit: I was tempted to keep this part of my history a secret from you all. I am afraid of being looked at differently, trusted less, or have women I talk to wonder if I’m attracted to them. Does it really matter if this small yet troubling story about a queer woman’s experience at a Unitarian church is heard? 

But then I thought of this quote from author and psychotherapist Claudia Black: "It is not the mountain that is moved that makes a difference. It is the little steps taken, one at a time." Some steps are attractive, while others are uncomfortable. I’m taking one right now. The next time you see a step, will you join me?