- Genevieve Mills
- cisgender woman
When I was in seminary in the late 1970s one of the requirements was to take a course in non-Western religion. I enrolled in a course on Native American spirituality and tradition. A leader advising the seminarians informed me that that was not going to meet the MFC requirement for a non-Western religion. I protested, saying that indeed it was non-Western, and he responded by implying that it was not a real religion. I was furious and voiced my objection yet he would not reconsider. It was one of the first times I started to realize how many people don’t see their white supremacy/settler-colonial attitudes in action. Who was he to decide what is a “real” religion?
I joined my current UU congregation about ten years ago when I moved here for a new job. I’ve spent most of my career working with adolescents and had the chance to join an organization working on re-entry programs for youth offenders. My work gave me a close-up look at the vagaries and biases in the criminal justice system and I started to learn to identify systemic racism. I joined my congregation’s Social Justice Committee after the shooting of Michael Brown and the uprising in Ferguson.
Michael Brown was the same age as many of my clients and his loss felt personal to me. At the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, I knew we needed to get more white people engaged in changing these systems.
I advocated for hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on our congregation’s building when the call went out for congregations to support the movement with this action in early 2015. Our committee debated the idea for a few meetings and then we had to do congregational education before asking for a congregational vote. I was new to organizing work and found the gathering of signatures and conversations with my fellow congregants to be very informative about the range of views and level of understanding about racism in our country and our city. We had a lay service about white privilege in which three members shared their stories about the harm they had done to friends of color when they acted without acknowledging their privilege. It was very powerful and moving, so by the time the congregation voted there were only three dissenters.
So I was completely surprised—and bitterly disappointed—when the Board said they didn’t want to participate in the White Supremacy Teach-In just two years later. Our Social Justice Committee was working with the religious education director and Worship
Committee to make it happen when we got shut down without a real explanation. We had gone together to the Board meeting as a courtesy to let them know about our plans because they didn’t usually get engaged on matters of our Sunday services. The Board thought we had already done enough work and the framing of White Supremacy made them very uneasy. I was angry and sad and tired. We’d done so much educational work in the congregation and to be stopped in our tracks was tough, really tough. I have to admit I wasn’t my best self when I called the Board in on their cowardice and lack of support for our justice work. I told them centering their comfort was not what we needed in this moment. But our group wasn’t successful and we were one of the few congregations that didn’t participate.
I found a congregation in a nearby town that did participate and went to their service. I’ve attended services there a few times since, and while I’ve kept up with my Social Justice Committee work, the lack of support and enthusiasm from leadership for the work has made me reconsider whether that congregation is still a good place for me. I need a community committed to justice inside and outside the congregation.