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Dismantling Racism in the Heartland

The Work and Witness of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington, Indiana

Overcoming the legacy of centuries of racism is never an easy feat, but it can be particularly challenging in less diverse communities in the rural Midwest.

Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington (Indiana) congregation member Guy Loftman says, "We have nearly four hundred members, two services on Sunday mornings, and a growing congregation with two ministers. We are predominantly European American, and largely oriented toward Indiana University faculty and students. Minority population in Monroe County is three percent African American, three percent Asian American and three percent Hispanic, and the remainder is European American. Minority participation in our congregation is disproportionately small for our community. This has been an ongoing concern and frustration."

But members of this Unitarian Universalist congregation haven't let those obstacles stop them in their anti-racism work.

For eight consecutive years, the Bloomington congregation has celebrated the Martin Luther King. Jr. holiday by showing its commitment to continuing Dr. King's work. Each year, the congregation's choir joins forces with the choir of one of its neighbors, the Indiana University African-American Choir Ensemble, and visits the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison an hour west of Bloomington.

The prison rents a 55-passenger bus for the two choirs to visit. The choirs sing together, travel together, and have lunch together at the prison. The Bloomington Martin Luther King Commission provides hundreds of dollars each year for the sound amplification equipment used for the event.

Over the years, members of the choirs have shared their concerns about the disproportionate rate of incarceration of men of color and the institutional racism inherent in the criminal justice system. Members of the UU Church of Bloomington took the issue to the board of the local NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) branch, with whom they had pre-existing relationships The congregation has a very friendly relationship with the predominantly African American Second Baptist Church and the choir is invited to sing annually at their Gospel Extravaganza. Members of the two churches make up about eighty percent of the NAACP chapter's board.

The NAACP chapter led a study of race and criminal justice in Monroe County that was published in 2000 showing numerous racial disparities between African Americans and whites in the Monroe County criminal justice system. The report was highly controversial and led to the formation of the Monroe County Racial Justice Task Force, which conducted and issued its own study, Race and Criminal Justice in Monroe County (PDF), published in 2003 The UU Church of Bloomington's "What Color is Community?" Racial Justice Task was expressly identified in that report.

"We are deeply involved at this time in the challenging but exciting efforts to see more of our recommendations implemented," Guy Loftman said. "We have already achieved official documentation of racial information in all court records. Now we are working on getting funding to install video cameras in police cars to document all stops and arrests."

The Bloomington congregation's work on dismantling anti-racism goes beyond annual visits of its choir to local prisons and collaborations examining racism in police detention and arrests. The congregation has also examined the issue of reparations. "Repairing the Breach: The Monroe County Race and Justice Project" is a task force formed by interested community members. Their work includes producing a documentary film, "Living with Jim Crow in Monroe County," which gained wide viewership in the community through the Monroe County Historical Society, the local community access TV station, schools, and churches.

The Monroe Country Racial Justice Task Force also gained recognition of the original segregated 'Colored School' with the placement of a state historic marker last February at the site. The congregation and the Bloomington Black Business Association organized a multiracial community-wide celebration, which attracted hundreds of people. It is one of the few historical markers in the state that deals with African American history, and only the second historical marker on any topic in Monroe County. Since then, other community organizations have begun planning other ways of recognizing African American history in the county.

The congregation's What Color Is Community? Racial Justice Task Force, established six years ago, sponsors an annual "Journey Toward Wholeness Sunday" event, holds anti-racism trainings and workshops, and organizes a regular movie and book discussion series on racial justice. Other anti-racist partnerships include outreach to local Muslims since the September 11, 2001, attacks, and an annual Ramadan fast-breaking in the church.

"What we have learned," Loftman said, "is that partnerships with groups outside the church are absolutely essential if there is to be a community impact. You must join with the people you want to 'help' on their turf and their terms."

The Sentencing Project (TSP) is a national leader in the development of alternative sentencing programs and the reform of criminal justice policy. The Bloomington Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) sought TSP's expertise in evaluating its report and in identifying strategies and best practices for preventing/reducing racial disparities or the perception of racial disparities in the Monroe County justice system. Based on discussions with TSP, the RJTF is conducting a second study to examine in greater depth the causes and implications of arrest and sentencing disparities identified during the NAACP-UU study, as well as to develop recommendations to remedy actual or perceived causes of racial disparity. For further information: Guy Loftman, loftmanlaw @ choiceonemail.com.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.

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2001 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, near Carlisle, Indiana, with members of the UU Church of Bloomington choir and Indiana University music students.


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