Working for Safety and to End Oppression

Tracey Robinson-Harris with Taquiena Boston,
Paula Cole Jones, Janice Marie Johnson, Devorah Greenstein

Work on congregational safety is linked to work to end oppression. A welcoming and safe congregation is one that encourages all of us to bring our whole selves into religious community. A congregation that practices right relations is one that respects and values the whole person and understands the blessings of differences for our life together.

We are often confronted with stories in which issues of oppression, such as stereotypical attitudes, discriminatory behaviors, and prejudicial values, overlap with issues of safety such as harassment, abuse, and sexual exploitation. So often these stories are tragic.

In our congregations, collisions between safety and oppression may be less traumatic than the stories that make the pages of our newspapers or the nightly news. Even so, they are always harmful to those individuals who experience them and to our collective well-being as Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations. We struggle with ways to be hospitable to new families who may be different from the core membership of the past twenty-five to fifty years. These new families may be gay, lesbian, and transgender families; families of color; or multiracial/multicultural, transracial, or interfaith families. How we welcome the newcomer who is different is an opportunity to live out our UU Principles. How we develop inclusive attitudes and expressions, practices, and structures to include these newcomers in congregational life—worship, religious education programming, social service and social action, governance, fellowship, and care-giving—is evidence of our attention to health, safety, and wholeness. Understanding where safety and oppression collide in the lives of our congregations is an essential first step toward shaping an intentionally supportive system where safety and anti-oppression work complement and balance each other. It requires at least two things: experience and information from the standpoint of persons who are part of historically marginalized groups in U.S. culture (and too often in our congregations) and understanding that the experience of safety for Unitarian Universalists who enjoy the privileges of status (as straight, white, able bodied, or male, for example) is mediated by that individual and collective status. Those of us with such privileges face the difficult necessity of discerning the difference between lack of safety and loss of comfort.

Our consultation, conversation, and commentary focused on four questions, which guide the rest of this essay. Thanks to those who contributed to this effort; their insights, observations, and reflections shape our comments and conclusions.

How can we develop a fine-tuned sense of the difference between safety and comfort? One of my consultation colleagues responded to this question simply: If it feels uncomfortable move toward it. If it feels unsafe pay attention. When we confuse safety and comfort—saying we feel unsafe when what we really feel is uncomfortable—we undermine our efforts for change, too often slowing or diverting them until we regain some sense of ease with the way things are. For those of us with the privilege of status, we must learn to allow our lack of comfort to be a sign to pause and take stock: Is this discomfort a sign that we are practicing an unhealthy spiritual discipline that doesn’t promote change and transformation?

Whatever the topic or issue in the work of creating safe congregations, asking questions about the links between safety and anti-oppression can help us view the work to which we are called—to create communities that are truly welcoming, inclusive, and safe for all those who want to call Unitarian Universalism home. Asking the question does not imply a quest for or the need for “the perfect” congregation, nor for any of us to have it all figured out. Seeking answers to how safety and anti-oppression serve our vision of the Beloved Community implies a desire to understand the things that matter most, those things that cannot be traded off by persons from historically marginalized communities who are or want to be Unitarian Universalists.

How can we create safe congregations that allow everyone to bring their whole selves to their communal religious life with respect and dignity? What parts of identity do we expect folks to check at the door so they can come in and be like us? What parts of our identities do we protect by ensuring their centrality in the life of the congregation? And at what cost? What parts do we project onto the congregations? And do we lose by doing so? How can we shift from assumptions about “being like us” to understanding what it can mean to “be us”? For ours to be a diverse and inclusive religious community we must attend to the institutional work of how “my identity” is reflected in “our identity” and how we value the blessings of our differences for our life together.

  • For some newcomers to a Unitarian Universalist congregation, certain trade-offs may be requested or implied. Consider these from the perspective of persons from historically marginalized communities:
  • I will not trade off around worship. Worship leaders and ministers must deal with issues that affect my life and my community.
  • I will not trade off musical style in worship.
  • I will not trade off for a church that feels like it belongs to “them” and is not mine or ours.
  • I will not trade off for a leadership role in which I am type-cast.
  • I will not trade off for a church where my children are treated as show pieces because they are “different” or where youth who are “different” are feared as dangerous.
  • I will not trade off common ground for the lowest common denominator.
  • I will not trade off doing spiritual work in religious community for trying to do spiritual work in a colorblind religious community.

Our hospitality must go far beyond the friendly greeting at the door; it must be the hospitality of a congregation that is safe enough to enter, safe enough to remain a part of, and safe enough for the diverse and sometimes complex and painful spiritual journeys we bring with us and share. The welcome extended at the door can be dissolved or dismantled by the experiences inside. Safety in an anti-oppressive context can become meaningless and a welcoming invitation can become cold as soon as a visitor moves beyond the front door and past the welcome table.

Consider these two examples, which are repeated in the multiple ways we address anti-oppressive issues, initiatives, and projects. A member from an historically marginalized group brings to the attention of the congregation’s governing board a request to host a congregational welcoming meeting for families of color, multicultural families, and transracial adoptive families. The proposal includes a request for an educational program to help these families address identity and multiple identity issues as well as family relationship dynamics. The board listens to this member’s request and proposal and votes to accept it with the mandate that the member implement it. What are the challenges and pitfalls of this approach—a member from a marginalized group charged to develop their own inclusion, education, and leadership program? Then consider the strategy used in many congregations of forming identity or affinity groups based on cultural, gender, age, sexual orientation, or religious background to work on identity issues. Stories abound of the various ways these identity groups become separatist groups with no cohesion to one another or to the well-being of the whole congregation.

Being a safe and anti-oppressive faith community is not easy. But if we are to welcome the blessings of difference into our congregations, we must be open and prepared for the challenges and tensions that will come with our vision of right relations.

What does safety look and feel like to persons in our congregations who are from historically marginalized communities? What does safety mean to one of our eldest elders? Someone with a physical disability? What does safety mean to a gay or lesbian person? An African American? A multi-racial person?

Colleagues in the consultation asked themselves questions like these: Do I want to fight to make myself comfortable enough to stay?

  • Now what do I do? I thought it was safe and welcoming for me here and I’ve invested a lot. Now I don’t feel safe but rather like some “exotic prize.”
  • Do I find enough of me reflected here so that I can truly become a part of this community?
  • Is this congregation connected to my life, my identity, and my struggles in substantial ways? (For example, one of our congregations had the courage to deal with its own past in connection with the transatlantic slave trade and publicly acknowledge that history.)
  • Is this rush to greet me about me or about making them feel better about themselves because I am here?
  • Will people simply step out of my way because I use this wheel chair? And if they step aside will they speak to me?

What are the structures of cultural and institutional oppression, as well as the experiences of personal bias that undermine safety? The list of cultural and institutional issues is long:

  • Our ability to be inclusive is challenged by identities that are not readily apparent. We assume we know more than we do and treat persons in ways that are inappropriate or harmful.
  • We schedule meetings assuming that everyone has ready access to transportation and a reasonable commute.
  • We do not offer childcare but encourage families to take part in events and committees.
  • We do not offer alternatives to financial pledging, not acknowledging that some of us may be unable to make a monetary commitment. Service as an alternative may not work for our eldest elders.
  • Congregational leaders are randomly selected and not given appropriate training in leadership skills. Often our decision-making processes exclude many potentially excellent leaders.
  • Often our worship is inaccessible in terms of hearing, speaking, and representing human experience. We need to pay attention to the real lives of persons from historically marginalized communities.

Learning from Our Experience

How are acts of oppression a violation of ethics and safety? What can we take from our considerable knowledge of how sexism and sexual harassment work and their effects that can help us see the links between different forms of oppression, understand them, and transform them? What can we take from our considerable experience with work for civil rights for bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender persons? What have we learned in our advocacy and witness work for same-gender marriage rights?

Our experience teaches us that oppression is normative in our culture and in our congregations. Engagement in that norm, which may be unconscious, serves a maintenance function by allowing oppression to continue. Raising our awareness of our own complicity in those norms can create discomfort for those of us with the privilege of status. For example, consider this UU “norm”: There is a definition of the Unitarian Universalist “we” that assumes there are no persons of color in Unitarian Universalism, even when persons of color are in the room where this norm is being articulated. Our Principles and growing faith calls us to expand our understanding of justice and of who is included in Beloved Community.

Our culture—individual, family, congregational, and national—has not prepared us for the work of transformation. How can developing anti-oppression competency help us create safer congregations? One way to enter this conversation is to think about the experience of recent immigrants and how we can value, respect, and understand how they live and move in the world so that they might have the choice of seeing themselves as Unitarian Universalists. Another is to simply remember one of the now-standard guidelines offered to groups engaged in dialogue and reflection together: We each speak out of our own experience and listen to the experience of others without labeling or redefining it.

Let us dwell on these questions:

  • What if we act as if Unitarian Universalism is for everyone and stop meeting newcomers by assessing whether they “fit” with us?
  • What if we see ourselves as bridge builders rather than screeners, helping folks find a way in rather than screening them out?
  • What if we see ourselves as “cultural guides,” offering to accompany guests and potential members on an immersion experience into Unitarian Universalism, connecting them to the best we have to offer?

All of these questions about safety, oppression, trust, and inclusion are lenses through which to view the Unitarian Universalist community and the safety that those who move through our doors rightfully expect. Let us remember to reach out to one another and tip the justice scale with what poet Bonaro Overstreet calls “the stubborn ounces of our weight” toward respectful inclusion and responsibility in our faith communities.

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