Wednesday, April 19, 2017

On Current Events in the UUA, and the Recognition of White Supremacy

Before beginning the annual IMPACT service on April 9th, 2017, I spoke briefly to the current events and conversation(s) going on within our wider Association.  This post from the Youth and Young Adult Ministry's blog Blue Boat, "Reflections on White Supremacy in our UUA," provides a good summary and overview.   The conversation has, no doubt obviously, continued and evolved since then, but this is a helpful place to start.  (There are also some great links through which to go more deeply.)

I'll note that I've included in the text below a link to the coverage given to this in UU World magazine.  This is useful, yet I would suggest reading it with a "critical" eye.  I know from my own knowledge of some of the events that the coverage does demonstrate its own bias.

A question that frequently comes up in homiletics class – sermonizing, that is – is how to know when to throw out what’s been planned in order to respond to something going on in the world.  I took preaching twice, with two different sets of teachers, and never heard anything like a concrete answer.  “You’ll know it when it comes,” was pretty much the best anyone could do.

Even though I’ve elected to stay on course for this Sunday, I don’t think I can do so without at least an acknowledgement of what’s happening within our Association.  Some people have no doubt been following it closely; there are certainly others who have no idea that anything at all is happening.  

What is happening – what has been happening – is that there has been a sudden awakening, if you will, to an awareness that for an institution committed to an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural vision for itself and our world, our leadership is overwhelmingly white.  The same systems and structures that perpetuate white supremacy “out there” are embedded in our Association as well.  78% of people working in so-called “service jobs” at the UUA are people of color, and there is no other category of employment in which people of color make up more than 11%.  People who identify – or are identified – as white make up only 17% of those doing “service jobs,” and there is no other category in which they are less than 75%.  That is systemic racism; that is white privilege; that is white supremacy.

I know a lot of people have had some very strong, negative reactions to that phrase “white supremacy.”  Good.  It’s supposed to be shocking.  It needs to be shocking, because it points to a reality which people of color have been talking about for more years than you can count, yet to which most white folks have been blind (or uncomprehending).  We need a term that shocks us – even good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks (maybe especially good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folks); we – and I’m talking to myself, here, and to those who look more or less like me – need to be shocked if we’re going to wake up and open our eyes.

The term is also accurate.  In the dominant culture in the U.S., people who identify, or are identified, as white are held up as supreme – “greatest in power; dominant; greatest in importance or significance.”  And so – shocking though the language may be – it is no stretch to say that the dominant culture in the U.S. is one that supports and perpetuates white supremacy.  (I saw a Facebook post this morning that said, “Why argue about the words?  Why not ask what pain has caused them to be used?)

As I said, there has been a sudden awakening (among white UUs) in the UU universe, and because there has been this sudden awakening to the reality that the institution of the UUA is as fundamentally, essentially, and inherently as mired in white supremacy as any other institution in the U.S., things have been shaken up.  The President, Peter Morales, has resigned, as have the UUA’s Chief Operating Officer and head of the office of Congregational Life.  And these departures, and both the rhetoric and the realities, are generating a lot of differing reactions.  Some are calling it “implosion;” some merely say, “chaos.”  There are some who think that none of this should be happening, and others who think that it’s more than about time.  And, of course, there are lots of positions in between.

We will be joining with over 200 other UU congregations who, on May 7th, will be engaging what’s being called the "White Supremacy Teach-In.”  Between now and then I would not be surprised if there is more upheaval, more change, and, as I said in my Bulletin column, opportunities for transformation.   (I’ll also be in the Parlor immediately following the service, for those who would like to share their feelings or ask their questions.)  Ultimately, it is my hope – and the hope of so many who are committed both to dismantling systems and structures of racism and to our Association – that we make this an opportunity to be “a people so bold … in a time such as this.”

I’d ask that we now take a moment of silence – for our Association, for those who are shocked and dismayed at what is being revealed, and for those UUs of color who are, painfully, not shocked at all …

*  *  *  *  *

Note:  the term White Supremacy is a sticking point for a lot of people.   For many it feels like the wrong way to speak about institutional racism, as it is likely to alienate a lot of potential allies for the work of ending oppression.  Much of the response stems from the idea that the word is too clearly linked to White Sepremacists, and, so, is open to negative misunderstanding.  

It is true that there is an almost automatic defensiveness in many white people -- and I'll acknowledge it in myself -- which wants to cry out, "But I'm not a skin-headed, neo-Nazi, Klu Klux Klan robe wearing white supremacist!"  This response misses the distinction that there are "white supremacists," who commit overtly racist acts, and the use of the term "white supremacy" to describe a culture that privileges whites and holds them "supreme" -- in other words, the dominant culture of the U.S.  As such, even people who are not overt white supremacists participate in a culture of white supremacy, and the systems, structures, and institutions within that culture intentionally or unintentionally support and perpetuate it.

The "White Supremacy Triangle" (or "iceberg") has proven useful in helping people visualize the multiple meanings of the term white supremacy, and to see how it can be appropriately applied even to "good-hearted, well-meaning, liberal white folk."

I fully expect -- hope, actually -- that the conversation will continue.  Feel free to talk with me about any and all of this.  The members of the Executive Team of our Racial Justice Committee will certainly be open to talking with you as well.  Part of our work as Unitarian Universalists (and members of this Unitarian Universalist congregation) is to come to one another, and receive one another, with openness and respect.  I hope we will do this as we wrestle/dance together with this vital issue.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Making a Change; Making an IMPACT

This is the text of the reflection I offered on April 9th, 2017.  It was for our annual IMPACT service, hopefully serving both to update people on the work that IMPACT has been doing, and to inspire people to attend the Nehemiah Action on Tuesday, April 25th, 2017.

What do Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists (of a variety of types), Catholics, Episcopalians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Quakers, UCCs, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, Muslims, Jews, and Unitarian Universalists have in common?  If you’re talking about here in Charlottesville, what we all have in common is IMPACT – the Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

If you’ve been around TJMC for a while, you’ve heard about IMPACT.  If you’ve been around for a long while, you’ve heard about IMPACT a lot.  For those who haven’t, and those who need a refresher, IMPACT is an example of a CBCO – congregation based community organizing.  Rather than trying to galvanize people to work for change based on neighborhoods, for instance, CBCOs organize people through faith communities where, let’s face it, there are already a lot of people.  Some influence things through money; others through connections.  Community organizing is about bringing people together to generate “people power.”   IMPACT’s annual Nehemiah Action is the largest public gathering in central Virginia, and the largest interfaith gathering for action anywhere in the commonwealth!  That’s “people power.”

This Nehemiah Action – which is coming up on Tuesday, April 25th, and for which tickets are currently available – is the culmination of a year’s worth of work.  In the fall, each of the 27 member faith communities hold a series of “listening circles,” to elicit stories of the real issues being faced by real people in our community.  The various issues that are brought up in these listening circles are then looked at, linked together where such linking makes sense, and ultimately brought to a gathering of IMPACT members who vote on which issue will be IMPACT’s focus for the year.

Then the real work begins.  Teams of people analyze the problem, research possible solutions, and form a plan.  This is done by volunteers – and we’ve had many TJMC folk who have been part of such research teams – and wherever possible it’s done in collaboration with the stakeholders who are most likely to affect change – city or county government, for instance, Region Ten, UVa Medical Center … you get the idea.  After a year of work, a plan is presented – publicly – and those with the power to act on it are asked – publicly – if they will commit to doing so.  That is the Nehemiah Action, and that is why it’s important to get as many people to attend as possible, so that when those “movers and shakers” are asked for their support they will have to look out at an auditorium of people who say that they want to see changes made.  (And we know – and they know – that each person sitting in those seats represents several others who aren’t there.  When more than 1,000 people show up – as usually happens – it’s really more like 10, 000 people calling for justice.  That is people power.)

Three years ago the issue that came to be IMPACT’s focus – and I really should say “our focus,” since TJMC has been an integral part of the IMPACT family since the beginning, and there is no IMPACT without its member congregations – three year ago the overarching issue we were looking at was crime and drugs.  During the research phase, we learned that the majority of crimes in our community have drugs or alcohol as a contributing factor. Yet this is not merely an issue of enforcement; it’s also an issue of treatment.  During our research we also learned that each year about 3,200 people are incarcerated in local jails who are struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol; we learned that the majority of these inmates who are women are also survivors of sexual abuse or domestic violence. 

Our Research shows – and not just here, but nationally – that treatment is key for reducing recidivism, and that for those individuals who have been unsuccessful with outpatient treatment while living at home, residential treatment can be game-changing. There are few options for men seeking residential treatment in town, but for women there were no local options. And for women who have children, the barriers to getting the care they need have often been so large that they wouldn’t even consider treatment like this, because they would have had to leave their children and their families, and travel far from any support network they might have, in order to get the care they need.  In the end this not only impacts their life, but the lives of their children, and ultimately the health of whole communities.

I used the past tense here, though, because the "people power" of IMPACT has once again made an … impact … on an injustice in our community.  By the end of 2017 a new residential treatment facility for women should be completed next to Region Ten’s existing facilities on Old Lynchburg Road.  (Groundbreaking could begin as soon as next month.)  And this facility will allow women to bring their young children with them, so that the children can be a part of the recovery process, and so the women will feel less stigmatized for seeking help, or fear losing their children.)  The Charlottesville City Council and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have each pledged to provide $75,000 to the project in their preliminary budgets, and at this year’s Nehemiah Action they will be asked – publicly, in front of the largest interfaith gathering for action in Virginia – whether they intend to follow through on their pledges.  It’s taken several years to get to this point, but IMPACT – we – saw a need, developed a solution, and got the needed support to make a real difference in the lives of real people.

Last year the listening process led to a focus on issues related to elders in our community as needing attention.  There are, of course, a number of specific issues under such a global topic as “elder care.”  Our society has a terrible track record when it comes to our elders.  The dominant culture in the U.S. is, and always has been, overwhelmingly youth-centered.  The gifts, the experience, and the wisdom of elders is too often denigrated or denied.  And as we have become a less stable, more mobile society, we have increasingly lost the ties that once bound people together across generations – elders are more and more frequently essentially cast adrift.  There are a lot of issues that live under the rubric of “elder care.”

But one of the first practical, concrete things that our research teams noticed was that the various agencies in the Charlottesville/Albemarle area that work on issues of concern to our elder population were not in any kind of collaborative conversation with one another.  Helping to facilitate closer connections became an initial challenge.

And continued research revealed a serious problem around the high costs of services and housing for senior citizens.  More than 6,000 seniors in the area struggle to keep a roof over their heads, and those households pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs; nearly 12,000 senior households in the region earn less than $35,000 annually; and it is estimated that by 2024, 25% of the area’s population will be over the age of 65, which means these issues will only become more serious and more challenging.  IMPACT is working on developing ways to make local governments prioritize affordable housing for seniors.  No specific remedy has yet been proposed, but it is essential that IMPACT – that we – demonstrate to community leaders that there is a lot of “people power” calling for justice for the elders in our community.  We want to say – publicly, loudly, clearly – that this is something that shouldn’t simmer on the back burner, but should be made a priority.

This year we, here, haven’t emphasized IMPACT in the ways we have in years past.  It has become harder in recent years to get the kind of volunteer leadership that this effort needs, and at the same time it has become harder to encourage people to get out to the Action (which has always been the most visible part of our connection with IMPACT).  These two things, together, have created a feeling of burnout among leaders, and a sense of undue pressure among congregants.  So this fall we decided to give the volunteer leaders the year off – no meetings, no phone calls, no mad push to get people out to the Assembly, the Rally, or the Action.  This doesn’t mean these things aren’t important.  They are.  Working through IMPACT is the only way available for true and comprehensive interfaith collaboration on issues of social justice impacting our communities.  Yet until fresh leadership emerges, this can no longer be one of our institutional priorities.

Nonetheless, during the Offering some folks will be going around with tickets to the Action – which is on Tuesday, April 25th.   I encourage you to take one of them if you would answer the call to be a representative of those in our Charlottesville/Albemarle area who care about women struggling with addition, and elders struggling to afford housing.  (You can take more than one so that you can share them with friends!)  These tickets allow IMPACT staff to track how many people came from each congregation, so it’s important that you bring it with you.  (On the line where it asks you to make a note of who invited you, I’d encourage you to say that you were invited by “Justice.”)  There will also be tickets available at a table in the Social Hall following worship each Sunday between now and the Action – which is on Tuesday, April 25th

I'd asked IMPACT’s Associate Organizer, the woman who liaisons with our congregation, Ruth Berta, to say a few words about who IMPACT has impacted her, personally, and she had the last word of these reflections …

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 17, 2017

Questions & Responses

I'm running a bit behind with updating this bog.  Lo siento.  Here are the questions asked during the "question box" sermon, Questions in Search of Answers, on March 26, 2017.  For those who weren't there, at the beginning of each service people wrote questions on index cards, and when the time came for the reflection, the cards were gathered together and I did my best to respond to as many as I could.  

I did not address all of these questions, and I can't recreate now what I said then, yet I want to post these as a snapshot of some of the things on the minds and hearts of our members.  Why not ask yourself these questions and see how you'd answer them?  Or ask them in your Covenant Group, or ask a stranger during Coffee Hour ...

Who are we?  Why are we here?  What is the great thing that we have come upon?

In your opinion:  What is the function/role of a Sunday service in a UU church, in this church?  How does that function differ from that of a mainline Protestant church, if any?

Why are we here?

The statement on the other side of this card is false?  (The other side of the card says, "the statement on the other side of this card is false?")

What do the rainbow colors [of the rainbow chalice] represent in UU beliefs?  [This was the focus of the service the very next Sunday!]

We're often told by the Right that if we protect the environment, and fight climate change, that it will hurt the economy.  Why wouldn't it be possible to have both -- protect the environment and make a profit?  Similarly with gun control -- why can't we protect gun owners' rights and make the country safer?

What is the escape for youth (new generation) who are trapped in a [...] culture of hate and discrimination?

What did you want me to ask?  [A note said that this wasn't being asked sarcastically.]

What is God?

Is our spiritual community a dynamic one, or anchored in past doctrine, unable to un-tether itself from that doctrine?

How do we deal with doubt?

How do we manage the stress from difficult, long-standing problems like racism, poverty, and divisiveness?

Where are all the single, cisgender, straight men?  [I was told that my answer was helpful ...]

Would you do a reprise of "Love Shack"?  [This was one of the songs the staff did during the Generosity Event (featuring Lip Sync Battle) a few weeks earlier.]

How would you frame the ethics of genetic modification?

What is the significance of the two octagons on the wall behind [the pulpit]?

So ... why do you "eat" fire?  [I'd covered this in detail in the service, "Lessons From (and for) the Circus of Life" a few weeks before.]

What question are you living with now (in the way the Rilke reading suggests)?

Star Trek or Star Wars?

Why is our church still named after a slave holder, who had children with one of his slaves, if we are a church that promotes racial justice?  How long will it take for us to truly see the white privilege and racism of our history?

Why doesn't our congregation require for people to contribute back into our religious community, whether financially or through volunteer time?  Maybe we wouldn't struggle so much if everyone contributed.  [I can't resist ...]

When you have only a few minutes to respond if someone asks, "What is Unitarian Universalism?", what do you answer?

What's the point?

[A beloved member of our congregation is] "very sick" and will die -- why?

What would it take to light the fire under this congregation to really get involved in racial justice?

What would it take to get rid of these pews and put in movable chairs in a semi-circle?  (We could look at each other!)

What is the biggest risk you'd like to see our congregation take this year?

Why is it that we are eager to call out the faults we see in others, but do so little to correct the faults in ourselves that we know exist?

How about animals as being equal to us?  Could we bring them into our sanctuary for [a] blessing?

How would you describe, "the Holy"?

What happens to me -- my spirit, soul, being -- after I die?

How may we all -- the country, the world -- grow in community?

We talk a great deal about the importance of our children, youth, and families.  Do we care as much about the quiet suffering and frequent loveliness of our elders?

Could we redesign the sanctuary to make it into a "church in the round?"  How feasible/desirable would that be?

What is the most FUN thing you've done so far this year?

Are we considering joining the sanctuary movement?

What are your thoughts and feelings on ageing and dying?  What are the thoughts and practices of Unitarian Universalism?

What question should a 70-year old person think about at the end of life?  What question should they ask?

What worries you most?  (And/or, what keeps your hopes up?)

Would this church be welcoming to someone wearing a tee-shirt with a confederate flag and a respectful, curious nature?  How?  Why?

What's the most important purpose for UU churches to exist?

What is your favorite stole and why?

Whenever are you going to lose weight??  (I worry about you!)

Where is God today?  We need [God] now more than ever!

Who are we really?

Where are we going?

What is one of your very favorite parts of your job?

Do you have a contemporary hero?

Have you ever dyed your hair?  Where did you go before this?  How old are you?  How long have you been a minister?

I struggle with my response to needy folks (panhandlers) at intersections.  What example do I make for my children?

Why are we here?

Pax tecum,