- Jessie Anaya
I came into Unitarian Universalism because I was queer. Sure, I no longer believed in the kind of God of the church where I was born. I probably would have stayed, for the music and the people and community if I hadn’t been a lesbian. That was non-negotiable.
When I came into my first UU congregation, someone asked me if I wouldn’t be more comfortable down the street at the Catholic church, and on my second visit, someone asked if they could touch my hair to see how it felt. The message, though, it spoke to me. About how we all have worth and dignity. The service the next week was about racial justice and immigration and I wanted to come back. I have lived in a lot of places that were not too good at welcoming me (I was working as a sociology professor then), so I kept coming back and I brought my kids.
Pretty soon I was asked to be on the Membership Committee and then the Religious Education Committee and the Board. We had districts back then and I was asked to be on that Board as well.
At my first district meeting, someone brought up their concerns that the site we had chosen for our conference was in a “mixed” neighborhood and they wanted to be sure people would be safe. I lost it and we had to call in a consultant from the UUA staff who seemed like she had never been part of a conversation about race before. When she got nervous, she used the term colored people instead of people of color. A couple of the other Board members defended her, saying it was “just words.” I ended up taking over the session and facilitating the conversation. At the end, people understood a lot more about the experience of people of color in this nation, and by my next meeting, I was thinking that maybe I needed to be doing this for a living.
When a job working for the district opened up, I applied and got it. My bilingualism was sometimes welcomed, but my biculturalism and my ideas on how to accomplish the objectives within my responsibility were consistently unwelcome.
I had to visit a lot of churches. It was troubling the way that Black and African diaspora music is appropriated within UU churches, many times as a way to perform “multiculturalism.” Another disturbing thing is the way people of color are erased. For example, a church with three Black members might hear comments at congregational meetings such as “We are an all-white church.” And I cannot count the number of times I have objected when someone has said, “Well, we have no diversity in this room,” only to have the response be, “Oh I mean Black people, real people of color.”
I had a lot of background in meetings, organizational development, and all of that. One time I showed up to help a congregation deal with a problem with their finances and an older white man from the Finance Committee said, “We don’t need someone to talk to us about race relations, we need someone who understands numbers.” A younger Board member stepped in and called him in. However, that incident and so many other little jabs stuck with me.
My supervisor changed a couple of times and then we did away with districts. I went to seminary and made my way through a reading list that had only a few authors of color then. (My complaints and those of some of my classmates helped change the reading list.) I went into mega debt to get through. For my first cycle of candidating, I was asked to candidate in five different places but wasn’t offered a call. I had to go back to consulting and also take a temp job to wait until the next cycle. It was the same thing except I was called to a small congregation that had had three ministers in five years. They had no Board policies and made a stink when I tried to get them to put some in place. I lasted there for four years, working around the clock. When I left, I knew I had made it longer than any of the last three ministers—but I was beaten up. One of my kids was a teenager then and got so sick of seeing what they did to me that she quit the faith.
I took a job as an associate minister in a larger congregation. The senior minister has done some work and I can call her on her stuff when it comes up. Someday I might want to try to be the number one again, but the way Unitarian Universalists have to always resist all authority and the way they resisted my strong womanist style just wore out my last nerve.
I think, looking back over my decade of involvement with Unitarian Universalism, that I was too polite for too long. Some of my younger colleagues of color come in now and they are much more real. I get through my days, I do what I need to do, and sometimes I say what I want to say: “You sing songs without understanding the history, the pain and the faith that birthed them. You change the words without understanding how that distinctly changes the meaning of our songs.”
Yes, a lot has changed. In a lot more congregations, people wouldn’t try to violate my body or touch me or try to send me to another church. And every day someone says something ignorant, truly ignorant, about someone who looks like my mama or my aunties or my kids. And that takes a toll, it really does.
Why do I stay? Because what we believe is what I believe and no color owns that. And because the young people coming in are fierce and I can’t help but want to see where that goes….