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Commission on Institutional Change is charged with long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. To that effort, the Commission calls on congregations, fellowships, covenant circles, and others to engage in this work with these provided discussion guides. The questions are designed broadly in order to inspire discussion and to help reveal what is on the hearts and in the minds of Unitarian Universalists about the essence of who we are as a faith movement and who we want to become.

Review the videos and read the questions to the room. (It is likely that the answers for each question will overlap, so taking time to do them one at a time may not be useful) Respond to questions or concerns…there are no strict guidelines! The following covenant may prove useful in facilitating these conversations. 

  • Bring your best self to the conversation. Have good intentions, and trust the intentions of others.
  • Be aware of the language that you use. Check for ableism, racism, ageism, and other –isms that might be hurtful.
  • Everyone should have a chance to contribute, as they are willing and able…one at a time, allowing everyone to speak at least once if they choose to
  • Discern with your faith at the center…we are not making decisions or advocating for a “side”; rather, we are sharing our thoughts and hopes for Unitarian Universalism
  • Listen carefully, and when necessary, reply/ask questions in ways that deepen understanding. There are no right or wrong responses.

Centering Theology

Building up towards the General Assembly 2018, the members of the Commission on Institutional Change (COIC) decided that as a faith community, we should be centering theology and faith work as we moved into a deeper engagement with the charge received from the Board of Trustees in GA 2017. As an entry point to this task, the COIC convened a panel around the question: How do we bring to the center the task of addressing White Supremacy within our Institution and congregations, our shared religious values, traditions, and perspective? Engaging this question also lead to a second question: Can we call for the reinvigoration of Unitarian Universalist theology as a theological option committed to promoting equity as a spiritual value? To this end, during GA 2018, the Commission brought together theologian Sharon Welch, historian Dan McKanan, and ethicists Sofia Betancourt and Elías Ortega-Aponte to address these and related questions in the hopes to ignite this conversation. 

In making the recording of this panel available, and providing a series of questions for discussion, the Commission on Institutional Change hopes that they serve as a starting point for deep engagements with the theological inheritance of our tradition. In our 4th Shared Principle, we declare a commitment to the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. In the spirit of this principle, we offer these materials, not as finish statements but as entry points for further discussion. 

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 1 - Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 1 - Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt

Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt: Serves as Assistant Professor for Unitarian Universalist Theologies and Ethics at Starr King. Finishing her doctorate at Yale University in Religious Ethics and African American studies. Her work focuses on environmental ethics of liberation in a womanist and Latina feminist frame. She served for four years as the Director of Racial and Ethnic Concerns of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and for three months last spring as Interim Co-President of our UUA.

Questions:

  • Where do we turn to for sources of theological wisdom and inspiration, inside and outside of our UU tradition?
  • What is the foundation that undergirds what we believe in a given moment?
  • What does it mean to gather in religious community? In what ways does being part of a religious community redefine what it means to be human?
  • How does being members of a religious community that take seriously the values we claim to share as Unitarian Universalist shape this next chapter in the work of dismantling white supremacy?
  • How can we ask ourselves questions that place the lived experiences of those too often pushed to the margins in the center of our theological questioning?
  • What symbols, messages, principles, or experiences are most central to your deep understanding of Unitarian Universalism?
  • During World War II, the Flaming Chalice promised protection on the journey towards freedom. What does this symbol offer today, to the liberation of those most driven to the margins of Unitarian Universalism?

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 2 - Dr. Sharon Welch

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 2 - Dr. Sharon Welch

Dr. Sharon Welch: Dr. Welch is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Humanist Studies and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Ministry Network. She served as Provost and Professor of Religion and Society at Meadville Lombard for ten years.

Questions:

  • Are you and your people liberated? What are you liberated from? What are you liberated for?
  • Do our practices as a faith community lead to liberation, both for those who are oppressed, and those who are oppressors?
  • What does it mean for white people to be freed from one core form of oppression, that of white supremacy?
  • Can we have frank and honest conversations about our faith community’s shortcomings as agents of liberation?
  • What would it mean, if in the United States, our democratically elected leaders, forthrightly acknowledged their role in the institution on mass incarceration and asked for forgiveness and began practices of reparations, and instituted practices of genuine justice, and ongoing vigilance in the future?
  • Can UU Theology live into being a liberationist theology that courageously takes up that acknowledges that we need to be vigilant that what we claim as sustaining us does not end up creating injustices in the world?
  • What is the theology that undergirds and sustains us as we look at the place of UU history within our national history?
  • Those of us who are white UU’s, what does it take for us to effectively challenge the third manifestation of white supremacy, explicit racial hatred, and violence?
  • What does it mean for whites to be liberated into beloved community?

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 3 - Dr. Daniel McKanan

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 3 - Dr. Daniel McKanan

Dr. Daniel McKanan: Dan McKanan holds the Emerson Chair at Harvard Divinity School, which was created to renew Harvard’s historic connection to the Unitarian Universalist tradition.

Questions:

  • Thinking about your experience of Sunday morning services. In your congregation. How often do you hear something that might be described as a call to action?
  • How often do you hear a message that we are held by something larger than ourselves, something that sustains us even in our most difficult moments?
  • What are the things that we could name as sustaining us? Are these communally shared? Are they individual sources of inspiration?
  • How often on Sunday morning do you here these two messages together: meaning that the things that sustain us should also move us to action?
  • Think about your experiences in working to counter white supremacy or other forms of injustice. When you are doing these things, how often do you hear a call to action, and how often are you reminded that you are held by something larger than yourself?
  • Do you understand yourself accountable to that something larger than yourself?
  • Do your individual ways of talking about the sacred allow you to make both affirmations: 1) That which holds us empowers us to act, 2) and our action renews that which holds us?
  • Are you called both in worship and counter-oppressive work, to renew that which holds you through your actions?
  • Are you reminded in both places that, that which holds us empowers us to act?
  • If the answer to either of those questions is no or not entirely, what action can you take to renew that breath of theological vision in both of those places?
  • What does it mean for whites to be liberated into beloved community?

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 4 - Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte

Centering Theology: Conversation about faith, race and liberation part 4 - Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte

Dr. Elias Ortega-Aponte: Elías Ortega-Aponte is an Afro-Latino scholar whose areas of expertise are cultural sociology, religious ethics, critical social theory, social movements, and bioethics. He received his Ph.D. in Religious Social Ethics from Princeton Theological Seminary.

Questions:

  • Why do you choose to remain part of the Unitarian Universalist faith?
  • What are the rituals that anchor us to the sacred, that motivate us to celebrate the sacred circle of life, and instructs us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature?
  • How are we called to account by the “why” of our faith, to strive towards acceptance of one another, and to encourage the spiritual growth in our congregations?
  • Why does our faith captivate us, and turn us towards one another in recognition of our worth, and inherent dignity?
  • How does our faith spark imagination into dreaming of a world, inspired by the words and deeds of prophetic and courageous people? Can we challenge and confront powers and structures of evil, with justice?
  • Out of those rituals that we share in common, the lighting of our chalice, water communion, or flower communion, are we confident that they empower us in our faith journey as a body of faith, or have they become symbols empty of their power?
  • Does our chalice lighting still light the way for those seeking a safe haven?
  • Does our water communion still have the power to join our separate strains into one powerful stream?
  • Does our celebration of our uniqueness in our flower communion, give way into weaving us into a sacred tapestry?
  • How does this faith empower you to grow and thrive in your walk on this earth?
  • Why is this faith worthy of holding on, and being shared with others as Gospel, that is good news?
  • Is the “What and How” we do faith enough for others to join? Will our work be enough?
  • Consider how, what you call the Holy, motivates you to act in certain ways?

Mission, Vision, Values Discussion Group Guide

The following questions were discussed in break out groups at General Assembly 2018. The information gathered from participants aid the Board of Trustees and the Commission on Institutional Change and those who will be working on the Bylaws Commission which includes Article II: Principles and Purposes. These conversations will continue at General Assembly 2019 in Spokane, Washington. Review these questions with potential delegates, and make sure your congregation is represented in the discernment of our Association, as an in-person or online delegation.   

Q1: What is essential to you about being a Unitarian Universalist?

Q2: What do our purposes and principles capture well that is essential to who we are and what we must do as Unitarian Universalists? What do they leave out?

Q3: How could our mission, purposes, principles, and bylaws more accurately convey our vision of a future for our faith that compels us to act on our deep commitment to anti-racism and anti-oppression?

Q4: In what specific ways are we asked to transform lives, communities and the world in these times? How does our shared life in our congregations and covenanted communities prepare us to do this?

The 2018 Ware Lecture with Brittany Packnett

One of the highlights of the 2018 General Assembly was the Ware Lecture by Brittany Packnett. This was a passionate and straight-talking talk about the place where we find ourselves and where we must find ourselves as individuals and as faith community. This talk offers much for us to reflect upon as we examine the impacts of racism and white supremacy culture within our faith. We urge you to watch this and then consider having a conversation in your congregation.

We offer the questions below as conversation starters:

  • In Unitarian Universalism, we privilege certain kinds of knowledge, particularly those based on tradition, and identities. Packnett is clear she is speaking from “my knowledge is 33 years of being a black woman in America” that in American society, her lived-knowledge may be dismissed. How do you respond to this?
  • Packnett talks about the gap between what white America expects and the spirit of expectancy of marginalized people who have come to realize they cannot have expectations for a just society that takes their lives seriously. What emotions do you experience when you consider this?
  • She takes issue with the following statement, “This is not who we are.” She asks us not to give in into the sentiment of that statement and instead, points us to analyze the ways in which the kinds of hate-based policies we are seeing are, in fact, part of the fabric of what this nation has been offering throughout history. What can we learn from this and how does this impact our shared faith?
  • What does this conversation suggest about how we can better work for justice?
  • For Packnett, the messages of hatred and exclusion are coming not just from the people in power to shape our political and economic lives. They also come from us. In our personal lives, we also exclude marginalized people. How can we move to change our own exclusionary practices?
  • Packnett says even the progressive movements are affected by bias, how do you see that reflected or not in your experience?
  • Packnett makes the point  that progressives and white moderates want change in “short, digestible bursts.” That is to say, the type of incremental change that does not upend the status quo. These “short, digestible bursts,” do not consider the cost to those whose lives are shaped by injustice. Furthermore, they are more of a threat to freedom than hate groups. What truth do you take from that statement?
  • If you start with her statement, “Supremacy is so normative that you may not even be conscious that you are perpetuating it.” What does it reveal about the ways in which you move through the world?
  • Packnett asks us to consider the expectation of our neighbors, what does that suggest for us as a congregation?
  • Packnett makes a distinction between allies and accomplices. In her words, an “ally tends to be self-congratulating” and unreliable while accomplices “stick around and are in it for the long-term” and do not try to empower those who are already powerful. What practices could adapt to make the move from allies to accomplices? How does resistance, or discomfort, to such moves reveals our investment, whether conscious or not, in Supremacy?
  • “What do you expect of me and how do I meet your expectations?” is the question Packnett suggest that we should ask. Whose expectations do we prioritize? What does such prioritization reveal about our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in our relations?
  • A perfectionist culture does not like to have any areas in which growth and improvement are needed. Packnett talks about “calling people in” rather than “calling people out.” Discuss what is the potential this distinction can play in our community building practices.
  • “We are called to make the world better, each and every one of us….and your privilege? Your privilege increases your duty whether you accept it or not. Your power is waiting on you to pick it up, inform it with love and expectancy and WORK,” Packnett says. In what ways can we make the Privilege we wield as a faith community to work?
  • “It is not enough just to not to be a racist. We must expect ourselves and one another to be actively anti-racist. It is not enough just to not be sexist, we must expect ourselves to be intentionally and consistently interruptive of gender discrimination. It is not enough to not be a transphobe, we must expect ourselves to be as obsessed with justice for trans folks across the globe as we are with our own.”  What actions does this suggest?
  • Though Packnett says there is no one task to dismantle white supremacy and other oppressions, what is one new way you will approach this challenge?
  • “The tearing down is sexy but the freedom comes in the building.” What will you commit to building up?

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