The Rev. Jamil Scott, International Order of Buddhist Ministers, is Acting Director of Religious Exploration at First Unitarian Society of Denver, CO. In November 2015, the congregation’s Black Lives Matter banner was defaced with red paint. This is his story of what happened next.
Being a person of color in a predominantly white denomination, it’s hard to know how supportive a congregation will be of a religious professional who is a person of color. Naturally, I felt some trepidation when I arrived at my new place of employment, First Unitarian Society of Denver. However, as I came up to the building, I saw a huge Black Lives Matter banner on the side of the church. It was so affirming. I got a little emotional and felt that I arrived at a place I could call home.
A few months later, walking to work, I arrived at the church and saw red paint on the side of the building and covering our Black Lives Matter sign. It meant so much to see that banner flanking our building each time I arrived at the church. This red paint, splattered over our Black Lives Matter sign, seemed like blood pouring from the wound of our building. It seemed as if our church had been wounded, our mission had been wounded, and the work we were trying to do had been wounded. I was angry and shocked back into reality—the reality that we still have a lot of work to do for racial justice.
Initially, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to address this with our youth. As adults, we sometimes think these issues that matter so much to us—our justice work, the Black Lives Matter sign, the destruction of it, the emotions—we think that it’s only important to adults. Maybe our children know about it, but maybe it doesn’t affect them in the way it affects those of us who hang the banners, protest in the streets, do congregational organizing. Given that our religious education leaders expressed the desire to discuss racial justice with our children, I decided to address the vandalism in our classroom.
To frame the conversation, I used a religious education curriculum on forgiveness, speaking our truths, and asking for reconciliation before we forgive. I asked the children how they felt about our sign being damaged. To my surprise, they were all in the exact same emotional space that I was. They were upset and confused, especially our children of color. Initially, the children of color did not want to speak up, but once I gave them the space with our intentional discussion, they did.
Next, we asked them to write little notes—beautiful decorated hearts—that we pasted under the vandalized sign. The notes expressed how each child felt about the vandalism and what the vandals needed to do to heal the community before they could forgive the person responsible for these acts.
Some notes said, “I am angry. I am very angry.” Another said, “I don’t understand why you have done this. I don’t understand why you don’t like black people.” Many of them said, “For us to forgive you, you need to come and clean this up. Then we can offer forgiveness.”
Another touching moment occurred later, when one of our children gave me a new Black Lives Matter sign she had been working on for a week, constructing it out of cardboard. She presented it to me; it was quite beautiful and festive. We hung the sign for as long as it lasted outdoors. It was obvious that she thought it was important to present this to her director of religious education, a person of color, and I was quite moved.
This experience taught me how important it is not to underestimate the trauma our children experience in response to what’s happening in the news and in our communities. And we have to be responsive, especially when we have children of color in our community. Because they’re holding the same pain we wrestle with in this work, whether we address it or not, they hold this pain with us in their little hearts.