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Dialogue on Race, Class, and Theology Marks Focus of Urban Church Conference
(Chicago, IL, March 9, 2001) Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris introduced the theme discussion for the Urban Church conference, a dialogue on race, class and theology. She said, "people at the last [Urban Church] conference identified issues they felt they needed support with…the thing identified as most critical were issues of race and class. This is one response to that identified need. There are a lot of questions…there are many things we could consider. We won't get to them all. We won't get final answers. And I encourage you not to let that sense of urgency stop you from having this dialogue.
Jose Ballester, director of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Service Committee's Just Works program and associate director of Member Action for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), presented the opening reflection which set the stage for subsequent discussion.
Ballester said, "My life is a dual life. There is a life I lead as a UU minister working for the (UU) Service Committee, and a life I lead, actually doing the work I do. I was born in New York City. My family came from Puerto Rico. I identify myself as a Puerto Rican, and a Neo-Rican, with different influences.
I grew up in an odd household…my father was, for all intents and purposes, a refugee from Puerto Rico…he did not come to the mainland to seek his fortune…he was a white aristocrat from a powerful family on the island. He was a political refugee. He was a nationalist, and he had to leave the island because he was about to be thrown into jail. My mother was a country woman from Puerto Rico. She was dark skinned, he [my father] was light skinned. They arrived in New York City, and I was born and raised. That is my personal history. But there are a lot of assumptions that are made about my life.
"What does it mean to be a Latino, what does it mean in this particular setting, in working with my fellow UUs…there are major differences between us…not all of them good, not all of them bad. It is the differences in class that concern me. An assumption is always made when you hear the word Latinos. Do we understand UUism and how important a higher education is to understanding UUism? I have heard reaching out into the Latino community, 'we have to wait to have literature in Spanish.' [But] I am quatri-lingual. Many of my fellow UUs are at least bilingual. We need to learn to speak Spanish. We need to be able to communicate. I speak before you as an ordained UU minister, and I speak in a way so that you would not know that my first language is Spanish. You don't hear what my normal speaking voice is, how I grew up in NYC. If you did, you would again make an assumption about who I am, how intelligent I am, and [you might not know] that this person has a 163 IQ. It is a learned behavior, so that I can take part in this world.
"A friend of mine is a CEO in an accounting firm, Caesar Martinez. The minute he speaks, because of his heavy Latino accent, people make assumptions…I am a New Yorker, I am a UU, I am many things…we have tried to oversimplify who we are, what we are. I do not object to you trying to learn more about me, the objection is to making assumptions about who I am and what I am. I did not grow up poor, I did not grow up uneducated, or working class. I hate those titles. I did grow up not really feeling the effects of poverty because my father worked two to three jobs to make ends meet, and my mother was a seamstress. I am successful at what I do with the Service Committee. I now make a salary that, with my spouse, puts us comfortably in the middle class, but because I can connect with the people I work with…people who have been destroyed by the economic system in which we live, I hope that we [here at this conference] can suspend any presumptions we make about what the lower class, poor class are doing. We don't know what's going on there, because we don't know what the questions are.
"Until you have groveled for food, you don't understand poverty. If you do not understand poverty, you do not understand the solutions. We as a group understand that we are called forth to make a difference in the lives of other people. Yes, we are. But we have to leave the confines of our world and enter into another world. We have to be proud of who we are and be proud of who they are. We can not simply hold up Thoreau, Emerson, and the other greats who wrote about theology. We need to be with UU itinerant ministers, going up and on the dusty roads, spreading a faith, living a faith as completely as we can. There is hope, there is always hope.
Recently, I attended a chapter meeting of the Latino Professionals Network. Here was a room of about 100 to 125 people…professionals, CEO's, COO's, ITT professionals, lawyers, doctors, and young people coming in. And I looked around that group, and they were all Latinos.
They were were there with their families, with their children, because that's the way the Latinos are. I went up to the first person and introduced myself. She explained what she did, and I said what I did. I said, 'I'm a UU.' She told me she was too. And told me what church she attended. I was excited. I met another man. He said, 'well I'm a UU, in a suburban UU congregation.' [A] third person, from New York City, we talked about 125th street, the barrio, and then got into the 'what do you do for a living' talk: 'I'm a UU.' Somewhere, somehow, these three UUs, prominent people in their industry, were never truly acknowledging their UU background. They did not share their background in UU churches. If they did, people would stop looking at them as powerful movers and shakers in industry, and look at them as those people who need, as those people who have English as a second language.
"I hope you have the courage to address this openly. I invite you to go through this process, and remember that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice, everywhere."
The group work commenced on examining discussion questions on this subject. At the conclusion of the morning, with discussion and feedback having been shared, Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris closed with a reflection on the nature of interconnection of our community. She talked of the "spider web in a corner of her house, stretched between timber frames and granite columns." It is [she said] a reflection of the strands between us that are real and constant…[and] a reflection of the questions we need to ask: not just are we connected, but how we are connected.
"The web is the heart of the matter…the web is the context for the other six questions. An antidote to the excessive commercialism we can see…the web has the strength and the fragility of all that exists…I can only ever see one side of this web. One [is] visible, the one we choose to see, our public face, and the other, an under face hidden because of cultivated blindness. Our task is to break through the concealment, to know the other side of interdependence, where the strands of oppression are the ties that bind.
Until the question, 'how are we connected,' is answered not by oppression but by beloved community, I, and I pray we, will not rest. So may it be."
The Urban Church Conference of the Unitarian Universalist Association continues through Sunday at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago.