By Taquiena Boston, originally published in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists , edited by John Gibb Millspaugh (Boston: Skinner House, 2010). Used with permission. Taquiena Boston is a member of All Souls Church, Unitarian, an intentionally multiracial/multicultural Unitarian Universalist congregation in Washington, DC, and has been a Unitarian Universalist since 1984. Taquiena also guided the development of Building the World We Dream About.
Maybe because I was born in the same year as Brown v. Board of Education, I have always known that brokenness is not only individual but social and collective. Religious community and theology so often hold a people struggling with brokenness, suffering, and injustice. My earliest influences in being held this way are my family church and the movement for African-American civil rights.
At Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, where I grew up, the hymn "Come Ye Disconsolate" called worshipers to the altar for personal prayer:
Come ye disconsolate, where're ye languish
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel
Here bring your wounded heart, here tell your anguish
Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal
Established as the E Street Mission in southwest Washington in 1856, Saint Paul has a history inseparable from abolitionism and the struggle for racial equality. The congregation's founding minister, Anthony Bowen, formed the first YMCA for colored men in 1853. The church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Bowen joined Frederick Douglass and John F. Cook, Jr., to recruit the first black regiment from Washington, DC, the First U.S. Colored Troops, in 1863. After the Civil War, he petitioned the mayor to provide free public education for African-American children on the grounds that blacks were taxpaying citizens.
I hesitated to write about Saint Paul in a Unitarian Universalist context for two reasons: first, because the congregation cannot defend itself against my memory; second, because in order to accurately re-create that memory I must resort to the religious language of the Saint Paul community and risk being dismissed by members of my chosen faith. Although I discovered Unitarian Universalism as a young adult more than twenty years ago and feel it has always been my authentic religious identity, I have often had to navigate border spaces as culturally other in my faith community and religiously other in the African-American community. However, I cannot speak about faith, brokenness, suffering, and injustice without crossing back and forth between these communities and their theologies.
Despite its history, I would not label Saint Paul in the 1960s and 1970s an activist church. It was the congregation where Uncle Johnny volunteered with the Boosters Club, Cousin Dorothy supervised the Sunday School, and Cousin Earl cooked the meals that bridged the time between the morning worship and the afternoon fundraisers. Saint Paul was the place where our community's families marked all the important rituals from birth to death. The church had no committees for social justice or community outreach. However, like many historically black congregations, Saint Paul played an important role in supporting the African-American community materially and spiritually.
My earliest image of how faith holds a people in brokenness and suffering is Saint Paul members walking down the sunlit aisles in the former synagogue to bring their wounded hearts, anguish, sorrow, and loss to the wide wooden altar, as the choir sang "Come Ye Disconsolate." Those prayerful moments in the church demonstrated the equality of all in the eyes of the Creator: school teachers and nurses, government workers and college professors, beauticians and truck drivers, domestics and day laborers—all came to kneel humbly in private conversation with their God. When they rose to return to the pews, their eyes sometimes held tears, but always held hope, and their bodies were outlined by the glow from stained glass windows, still decorated with Stars of David.
Saint Paul, the extended family of a congregation made up of extended families, gave aid and comfort in times of trouble. The pastor, deacons, and missionary sisters connected individual families and the congregation. The first to find out about illness, death, or family catastrophe, they visited the sick and shut-in, sat with the bereaved, cooked and cleaned for people recovering from surgery, and became surrogate family for members with no other relatives to care for them. The church family assisted with funeral arrangements and collected clothes, food, money, or whatever was needed to help members in hard times. Extending service to those in need was evidence of what it meant to be Christian.
The congregation extended its care and comfort beyond the membership to welcome the stranger, recruiting neighborhood children for Sunday school and vacation Bible school. Adults groomed youth in the ways of doing church: worshiping, ushering, singing in the choir, fundraising, and leading Bible lessons. They consciously instilled pride and affirmed racial and religious identity in a city stratified by race, color, and class, not only between blacks and whites but also within the black community.
In the 1960s, social status in Washington was communicated not only by race and ethnicity but also through education, profession, material assets, and physical appearance. As early as age four, I saw that children with fair skin and silky hair were viewed as more attractive, intelligent, and well behaved by black and white society. I recognized that the black proprietor of my nursery school had great respect for the children whose parents worked for the federal government and owned their houses and that she treated me indifferently because my mother worked at a laundry, my father worked for a trash company, and we rented the upstairs apartment in another family's home. I went to an all-black elementary school, where the white principal did not allow teachers to give A's to students because she was convinced of the inferiority of black people. Aunts, uncles, and neighbors, when moved by television images of attack dogs and fire hoses turned on students and marchers, told personal stories about unfair treatment at work, in stores, by police, or while traveling through white neighborhoods.
The church, while not immune from race, color, and class discrimination, provided fortification for struggling against racial and economic injustice. Ministers in the 1960s and 1970s would never use a word like empowerment, but it was the subtext of sermons and the Bible stories they most frequently referenced. They spoke of evil as a social condition that was evident in oppression and inequality. The sermons about oppression came clothed in stories of persecuted prophets and other Biblical protagonists with whom the congregation could identify, those ancient stories often paired with accounts of contemporary civil rights struggles.
The church asserted that neither material assets nor profession nor social standing determined intrinsic worth. God conferred worth and dignity. No matter the struggles and injustice in the world, the faithful would find support in times of trouble. The righteous will not be forsaken, we were told. The meek shall inherit the earth. We shall overcome. Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal. These messages gave me a strong sense of my own possibilities despite the larger society's messages.
As much as the Saint Paul community formed my understanding of how theology holds brokenness and suffering, the most influential minister of my childhood and early youth was a Baptist minister from Georgia. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the brokenness and suffering caused by injustice in society. His words, echoing the messages I heard from the pulpit, named injustice and oppression as evils that had to be transformed—but King went further. He called the oppressor as well as the oppressed to a vision of beloved community, a society of love and justice that all people were responsible for creating.
When King expanded his ministry and advocacy to include work for peace, antipoverty, and economic justice, I realized that social justice is ever evolving and that the work of making justice is never done. King's ministry underscored religious teachings that the core of faith was not what people believed but how they lived their values. Religious people face a difficult challenge: not choosing between compassion and justice, but learning how the two can operate together. Neither compassion alone nor justice in the form of retribution can heal the brokenness caused by injustice and oppression. King taught that justice unified with compassion is the supreme demonstration of love.
As I witnessed King's work at the intersection of his religious identity and social justice, I unconsciously absorbed the wisdom that living as a person of faith means practicing social justice. And I learned that one role of the church is to support its members in acting justly beyond its walls. However, a time came when the support that Saint Paul offered was inadequate to hold the identity struggles I experienced as a working-class, first-generation college student. Although the congregation continued to affirm me with positive messages, the theology did not address the complexity that I witnessed in worlds beyond the church community. However, the college environment lacked the values that I cherished at Saint Paul, as well as its emphasis on integrity and character.
My search for something to anchor me led me to other theologies. At the Howard University School of Religion library, I immersed myself in the philosophies of Howard Thurman, Zen Buddhists, existentialists, and Christian mystics, as well as traditions of the Far East, to help me cope with my personal anguish. Though the philosophies provided useful insights, they did not provide comfort. I found myself listening a lot to "Come Ye Disconsolate," as recorded by Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack. Many years later I commented to a Unitarian Universalist friend that it would have been helpful to know about Unitarian Universalism during that difficult time because it is a faith where questions are respected as part of the spiritual journey.
When I discovered Unitarian Universalism a decade later, as a young adult at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, I found a faith with justice at its core. I did not leave Saint Paul because I rejected anything; I joined All Souls because Unitarian Universalism was theologically expansive, included more social identities, emphasized human agency, and brought together faith and justice. For many years, All Souls was the religious home that fortified me through all the disappointing presidential elections, irrational wars, and halting progress of social justice movements. Unitarian Universalism challenged me to continue to expand my consciousness of the ways that injustice manifests in human relationships—not only with regard to race, gender, and class but also sexual orientation, disability, age, nationality, and religion.
My childhood religion still holds me, but in a different way. I understand the messages of empowerment as visible evidence of a people's capacity to endure and to create beauty in music, expressive worship, and in the many acts of service to families and their communities. There are times when I need to culturally immerse myself in the historically black church and hear the fortifying messages of my childhood, especially at times when events affecting the larger African-American community produce occasions of mourning or celebration.
The 2008 U.S. election pushed my buttons on race, class, and gender issues, and I found myself having, not a "come-to-Jesus" moment, but a "come-to-the-chalice" moment. Intellectually, I knew that the United States was having identity encounters, and the presidential primaries and election confronted people with identity issues about which many were either unconscious or in denial. Remnants of historical racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism asserted themselves strongly. Emotionally, I was scared—not afraid, but scared—of what I might learn about the only country I could truly call home, despite my desire to be a citizen of the planet. All of my family was here in the United States, and my known ancestors had been in Virginia for more than two hundred years. Education and profession had taken me to new class territory, but geographically I had not traveled far from my ancestors' home.
Increasingly, I needed a local religious community that would support me in being faithful to the vision and values of the beloved community—the community of love and justice—no matter the outcome of the general election. Even after the election, I knew that the United States did not enter the promised land on November 4, but stood on the boundary of the next struggle for social justice. The realization became a decision to renew my connection with a Unitarian Universalist congregation. My mature faith requires a community that will challenge my social consciousness, ground my commitment to justice in compassion, and nurture me spiritually by supporting me in living the values of love and justice.
Unitarian Universalism is my religious home. It is not a perfect faith community for a woman of color from a working-class family. Our congregations' struggle to be fully racially and culturally inclusive is a continuing source of disappointment, and it is painful to admit that not all social identities find full welcome in our faith. Despite the tensions and contradictions between Unitarian Universalists' principles and practices, in matters of faith and social justice I find in it a more expansive altar where I can bring my wounded heart and tell my anguish.
A People So Bold Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists
John Gibb Millspaugh
From Skinner House Books
More than 20 inspiring essays explore the vision, language and practice of Unitarian Universalism today.