Over the last few months, many Unitarian Universalist congregations have taken the bold, public step of showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matters movement. Sometimes this has been through placing a Black Lives Matter banner in a public space on their congregational grounds. Other times it has been putting the Black Lives Matter message on their wayside pulpit or electronic marquee. Still others have put Black Lives Matter statements on the congregation's website, or in their social media presence. Unitarian Universalism has long leveraged our public spaces to make such prophetic statements in our communities about issues that matter to us... and we have faced public criticism and reaction for doing so.
However, there is something about this moment in our nation's history, and something about our movement taking this particular position of prophetic support for the cause of ensuring the Black Lives Matter, that is bringing forth a very visceral reaction for many people. Some congregations that have taken a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have seen that reaction manifest in banners being vandalized and stolen. Some have received angry phone calls and social media posts. A few have received threats against their congregations. Many more have been made aware of how uncomfortable this public stance in support of the Black Lives Matter movement makes some in the community where the congregation resides.
If your congregation is considering taking such a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Central East Regional Staff of the UUA want you to know we stand with you. Here are some thoughts for you to consider how you can best be prepared for the community reactions that you may receive.
- If you are emplacing a physical banner or sign on a public part of congregational property, accept from the outset that the banner or sign is likely to be vandalized, and have a plan in place of what you will do when it is. When you order your banner or sign, you might want to consider ordering two or three. That way, when the vandalism occurs, you are already prepared to replace the banner after the wider community has seen the vandalism has taken place. Congregations may also want to prepare their membership for the likelihood that the banner will be stolen or vandalized by naming that this happening is a part of the prophetic message. Racism is so often unseen in white-dominated spaces that it is difficult for many to envision. A vandalized Black Lives Matter sign by the side of the road is hard to miss.
- In placing a message supporting Black Lives Matter in a public space, whether physical or virtual, know you are committing to this message for the long-term. Taking this stand and then backing down from it in response to pressure is more detrimental to the Black Lives Matter movement than never taking a public stand at all. Some congregations have had to back away from a public expression of support for the Black Lives Matter movement after community response, and we have learned from their difficult experiences. Be sure that the congregation is committed to staying with this public message despite community response before you take this stand.
- Accept and educate the congregation that there will be pushback from the community. Besides theft and vandalism, congregations that have taken this public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have experienced angry letters, emails, and phone calls. Some have experienced protestors and disruptors. Some have experienced disapproving letters to the editor in local papers. More importantly, congregations have experienced congregation members being confronted by friends, acquaintances, and family members who are shocked and angry that "you could belong to THAT church". Some congregations have received veiled threats of violence. And while most congregations that have taken a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have had excellent response from local officials and law enforcement, congregations should be prepared in some communities for this not to be the case. The key to managing this well is for the congregation to expect it and be prepared for it. It is important that we realize that such responses are an expected and even necessary outcome to the work of challenging the pre-conceptions of our communities regarding race and racism.
- Knowing that the congregation will receive pushback, the congregation should take steps to prepare for it. You might make sure that those opening mail, receiving email, and listening to phone messages have the necessary self-differentiation and pastoral support. You might hold a discussion group in the congregation for people to process the reactions of their friends and neighbors. You might have a few well equipped congregants be with the greeters on Sunday morning to answer questions of the community specifically about the congregation's support for the Black Lives Matter movement. You might talk with the congregation about what you would do if people intentionally disrupt congregational events and services. You might increase the presence of people on the congregation grounds during the first few weeks after the banner goes up, just to ensure nothing is amiss. You might have conversations with local officials and law enforcement prior to putting a banner or sign up, to ensure support will be there if needed. You might prepare opportunities for members of the community who are made uncomfortable by the public stance of the congregation in support of the Black Lives Matter movement to be in conversation with congregational leaders who are prepared to respond well. What your congregation could do to be prepared will depend on your community, but knowing the response will come you have the opportunity to be prepared for it.
- Be prepared to speak to the media. Know who will speak for the congregation, and have your leadership agree in general to what they will say. Consider preparing and sending an official press release to local media, expressing why the congregation has chosen to take this public stand. Whoever is speaking for the congregation should also be able to respond to many of the current critiques of the Black Lives Matter Movement, such as the narrative that it is anti-police. They should also have some practice in talking about Unitarian Universalism with those who have not encountered our religious movement before. If you need guidance in how to speak to the media, this guide on uua.org is a helpful place to start.
- Not all of the response will be pushback. The congregation can also prepare to receive and welcome those who might join with the congregation in showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the most powerful aspects of our congregations taking this stand is that we are modeling for others how to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Our congregations need to be ready to welcome those who are inspired by this public stand, and wish to learn more about Unitarian Universalism. And we need to be ready and committed to learning more about them as well, and how we can join with them during this moment of racial awareness in our country.
Not every Unitarian Universalist congregation is ready to take a public stand in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. When our congregations take this public, prophetic stand, it is vital that we do it well and with commitment. It is important that support for the Black Lives Matter movement be expressed in the communities and spaces where our congregations are, and that it be expressed well. For every congregation who makes this commitment, we want you to know we stand with you. And for those congregations who are not yet ready, I invite you to take steps so you will be ready to support Black Lives someday in the future. Commit to using the Tapestry of Faith curriculum "Building the World We Dream About" to learn how to be comfortable talking about race. Have your congregation read and discuss "The Warmth of Other Suns" or "The New Jim Crow" and find out how the lived experiences in these books have impacted your local black community. And show up to the various trainings and workshops that your regional staff offers.
Standing on the Side of Love has compiled a list of the congregations we are aware of whose banners have been defaced or destroyed, as well as this list of suggestions for how to respond to vandalism of Black Lives Matter signs and banners on congregational property.
You may also explore a few articles recently written by Unitarian Universalists. You could begin with the Statement from the Organizing Collective of Black Lives UU. Rev. Ashley Horan's Open Letter to White Unitarian Universalists may also be helpful. So would Rev. Jake Morrill's article published in the Oak Ridge Times. As are all of the voices of Unitarian Universalists on the issue of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that can be found on UUA.org and beyond.
Rev. David Pyle
Justice Ministries Program Manager
Central East Region of the UUA