I love getting emails from the Church of the Larger Fellowship. They start off with “Our faith alive in the world!” That phrase makes me smile every time I see it.
I’ve been concerned about the health and life of our faith and Association in the last few months. Since the US presidential election in November and during the recent organizational tumult at our UUA, I have wondered whether our Association would become a legacy organization, or would risk relevance in this world in which consequence and safety are inversely proportional. Of course, the organization is not the faith; it is only our faith’s structure of connection and support. Still, as Melissa Harris Perry opined in her thoughtful and challenging piece on the future of the NAACP, an organization may carry "the weight of history and burden of bureaucracy. But it does not seem willing to shed blood, literally, or in terms of the uncomfortable work that characterizes effective activism.” Perry's distinction between legacy and activist organizations is of personal consequence for me because I do not want to spend my life in service to a legacy organization with its glory days in the past.
With the focus on white supremacy at this General Assembly, especially after the upheaval in senior staff at our Association, I wondered how we would be together in New Orleans. Would we look back productively? Look forward in hope? Would we drop our anchors in conflict? To keep my spirits up and my mind engaged, I resolved before heading to New Orleans to look for signs that Unitarian Universalism is alive in this world at General Assembly. Here are some of the signs of life I saw:
- a general willingness to engage difficult conversation and a commitment not to waste a crisis
- openness to new forms of leadership and collaboration (the tri-mods and interim co-presidents, particularly)
- respectful and caring exchanges between folks with very different experiences with Unitarian Universalism (including board members Elandria Williams and Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs)
- conversations > reports
- folks coming back to the table, seeing new opportunity for transformation (Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika)
- generous funding of good work that is not centered on whiteness (Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children and Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism)
- more acknowledgement of shared ministry amongst religious professionals, not just ordained ministers. Our religious educators share substantial gifts, and are leading our Association, in many ways
- choosing the greater good over specific good (tabled First Amendment change proposal)
- white people confronting white people who behaved hatefully to attendees and presenters of color
- taking a real look at oppression woven into our UU fabric (removing the gender binary from our sources, considering making the Standing on the Side of Love campaign name less ableist)
- widening the circle, from the folks represented on the stage to the music and programming
General Assembly 2017 wasn’t all sunshine and roses. There were some hard conversations, in the Great Hall and in the hallways. I was saddened to hear from congregants and congregational leaders in the Southern Region who said that they’re not sure they have a place in Unitarian Universalism anymore with all the discussion of white supremacy. Some even said that they felt they were being pushed out for being white. I told them I hoped they would see [some variation on the following]:
- that a wider circle has room for them, still
- that their gifts and needs are still important, even as the gifts and needs of people of color are recognized
- that white supremacy culture harms everyone (including white folks) with its scarcity, lies, perfectionism, exceptionalism, corporate values, and shallowness
- that new forms of leadership and new leaders can be a relief, a comfort, a breath of fresh air. For example, our interim co-presidents brought calm, honesty, insight, and momentum to what may have been a serious leadership crisis without their service to our UUA
- that, as Rev. Theresa Ines Soto says, “All of us need all of us to make it"
If we had time for further discussion, especially if we have spoken in the past about the three concerns about which I hear most frequently from lay leaders (numerical growth, volunteer fatigue, dwindling financial resources), I shared these possibilities:
- that the numerical growth they want for their congregations is possible with work toward eliminating the toxic effects of white supremacy culture in their communities
- that the volunteer burden they have mentioned can be laid down when “just like us” isn’t an unspoken qualification for leadership roles
- that people of color and indigenous folks will invest their time, talent, and treasure in UU communities when their needs are acknowledged/met and their gifts are honored
A few congregants made sure to mention how much money they give to Unitarian Universalism while saying that they are considering leaving the faith. Have you ever heard a customer in a store tell an employee how much money they spend in the store to try to make their point or get their way? It felt like that to me. Gifts to a congregation and to Unitarian Universalism have not bought anyone a share certificate or a seat on the board; they have helped to sustain our faith and to put Love in the world. We’re not going to run out of Unitarian Universalism! Scarcity thinking is a lie of white supremacy. This faith is lived more fully with open hands than with a white-knuckled death-grip on what is MINE.
So what is mine to do? Be responsive and responsible. Build relationships. Commit to dialogue, not debate. Stop correcting and worrying about tiny details when real work is happening. Learn to see discomfort as a signal to keep listening. Be willing to take risks, make mistakes, look foolish, make amends, and move on. Educate myself. Continue studying Spanish. Love Blackness. Listen more, boost others' signals, and speak up more, as needed.
Sometimes I struggle with when to speak up and when to listen. When our Association’s hiring practices for management positions were called out, I was initially prohibited from commenting publicly. The only public comment I made was indirect, and could have been seen as unrelated. It was part of a poem, “Principles," by Danez Smith, a queer person of color, who articulated what was in my heart better than I could have. I read this poem each day before entering the convention hall at GA. It has become a prayer and a promise for me.
let us not be scared of the work because
let us move the mountain
because the mountain must move
let us, oh lords above us and within
let us be useful to our neighbors
& tender their wounds
let us be more bandage than blade
unless the blade is needed
let us be a sword against what does not
bring us closer to home
let us be dangerous to that which fails us
and bring us a world good to us, all of us
all us all us
General Assembly 2017 affirmed for me that I serve a living faith. Imperfect? Yes. Broken? Maybe, to some degree. Dead? No. I won’t leave precious connections and my vocation behind because of some faulty structures. And I couldn’t leave this faith. I will do my part to continue the work, shoulder to shoulder with all of you to make Unitarian Universalism a home that is good to us, all of us.
GA 2017 videos (even the general session videos are SO WORTH WATCHING)