My Dear White UUs...

By Rumni Saha

A collage of autumnal gatherings from nature on a dark background.

This month we are delighted to share a voice from our pews. Author Rumni Saha recently shared a version of this essay with her congregation, and sent a copy to our NER office as well. We asked her permission to share it with you. Doing so is a faithful risk by our sibling in faith, and Faithful Risking is a practice of Spiritual Leadership that these days are calling us to. Autumn is a time for reflection; in the Hindu faith, this is the season of Pitru Pakshah, a time to remember ancestors and reflect on their gifts. We invite you into a spirit of reflection about who we have been as Unitarian Universalists, who we are today, and who we dream of becoming.

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I ran into a church member I had not seen in a while at a Black Lives Matter protest in my town. R.K. is African American; we were two of only a handful of people of color in an otherwise white congregation. I told her I missed seeing her on Sundays. She told me, “I’m not going back, it was too much. Everybody was trying too hard.” R.K. explained that she loved the church and the soul-stirring Sunday services, but the behavior of some congregants made her feel like she did not belong.

Coffee Hour was the hardest; she felt that all eyes were on her when we congregated in the vestry. People descended on her, making small talk, one after another. “Don’t get me wrong, they were all very nice, but it felt awkward and uncomfortable.” What was most disconcerting, she said, was that this is not how white congregants were treated. R.K. just wanted to be a regular congregant, going to church for spiritual fulfillment, and not made to feel like a novelty.

Before this chance meeting, my sweet church launched an initiative to closely read and candidly discuss the book, White Fragility. I was elated for the opportunity for us to collectively embark on dismantling white supremacy. One joyful Sunday morning I ran into the very able person who was leading the initiative. I shared my excitement to join the group, only to be told brusquely that I could not be a part of it. The only word that managed to escape my mouth, now agape, was “why?” I was told it was a reading group for whites only. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. Believe me when I say that it takes a lot to silence me, yet on this day I was successfully muzzled. What I experienced was segregation in my very woke church. Apparently, my beloved church was too fragile to discuss White Fragility with Brown me.

I shared R.K.’s comments with a white church friend. When I described her experience of being treated differently than other members, she said, with a twinge of unmistakable sarcasm, “I guess we can never win.”

My Dear Justice-Loving, Diversity-Seeking, Kind-Hearted, White Unitarian Universalists, let us dwell on that last statement: “I guess we can never win.” Friends, in congregational community, winning is not the goal. Getting it right is, but getting there takes time, patience, humility, and vulnerability. White bodies are forging new relationships with Black and Brown bodies - it will take time, and mistakes are bound to happen. We have to learn from them. Years of discomfort, alienation and subjugation cannot be repaired with one cup of coffee in an hour of camaraderie.

I am a proud Hindu and faithful UU. India, my country of birth, gave me roots that ground me. My adopted country gifted me with wings to soar. I adore my church, I love my congregation, and I have liked most UUs I have met over the years. My church’s commitment to working for the marginalized drew me in. My seminary studies opened my eyes to the cracks in my church. I came to realize that in all my years of belonging, no one there had ever asked me about my background, my faith, my culture, or my history. People I was close to didn’t know whether I was a Hindu, a Muslim, a Christian or a Bahai. To me, this feels like problematic color blindness that keeps me from being known for who I am in my entirety. It hides what brings me here, and what I bring to you. It deeply affects the kind of welcome one receives.

Folks like me would like to share our religious/cultural backgrounds, our spiritual formation, and our journey into Unitarian Universalism. Each of us has a rich story to share if we only made space to listen. It has been a missed opportunity to really know me, where I’ve come from and what drives my faith. My roots matter. My history matters.

Too often, the message in our welcoming congregations is: “You are welcome, as long as you become like us.” Assimilation is a prominent tactic for dominant groups as they enhance their ‘diversity.’ But none of us should have to leave our roots at the door; without our roots, we wither.

My incident with the reading group and R.K.’s story stay with me. Why did I stay, and R.K. leave? Obviously, we are not all the same. RK and I have very different personalities. I am an extreme extrovert - the one who descends on everyone at coffee hour. And I know that the person who shooed me away from the book group is kind and ethical, with no ill intentions. They did not understand the hurt they caused. Being good, compassionate, and ethical does not free them from being insensitive and hurtful - intentional or not. Even when there is no conscious malice at work, unconscious white privilege often is.

Caring deeply about my congregation means I gratefully acknowledge what we are good at while I’m clear about our challenges. That’s how we grow, change, and become better. Serious concepts like “a seat at the table” and “radical hospitality” have become overused. In our pursuit to be radically hospitable, we must not smother folks. Trying too hard and putting in too much effort to the point that it is alienating, is not being genuine. It drove R.K. away. Radical hospitality entails intentionality, authenticity, and knowing when to scale back. Radical hospitality does not exoticize People Of Color.

I know this can be confusing. So here is my proposal—let us shed inhibitions, be genuinely curious, and let us also take care. “Tell me about you, I’d love to know” is not the same as “So, where are you (really) from?” which conveys the sinister message that because of the way I look, particularly my skin color, I cannot really be from America. The first, a healthy curiosity, is a treasure and a tool, while the second is simply cloaked racism.

When my friend lamented, “We can never win”, not only was she giving up, but more importantly, she was belittling my Black friend’s very real experience, engaging in othering. This is how an unspoken wedge between us and them gets unknowingly but surreptitiously constructed.

Our goal, as justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists, is to steadily combat a culture of exclusion. Let's take care that while trying to fight it off we don’t fall prey to its insidious shackles within our sacred walls. Let us not lose our authentic selves, lest we become performative. Our faith is a promise of action, a commitment to lift others up.

In the end, here’s my simple wish for us— treat me as I treat you, as an equal, not as an accent or a pop of color in a monochromatic landscape.

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Rumni Saha graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology. Ms. Saha serves as an Multifaith Chaplain at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as well as the Hindu Affiliate Chaplain at Wellesley College. She loves her congregation, the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA, with whom she first shared a longer version of this essay.

About the Author

Rumni Saha

Rumni Saha graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology. Ms. Saha serves as an Multifaith Chaplain at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as well as the Hindu Affiliate Chaplain at Wellesley College. She loves her congregation, the Unitarian Church of Sharon, MA.

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