Contemplating Race in Liberal Religion

In a few weeks, I will be headed to New Orleans, LA to participate in my first Unitarian Universalist (UU) General Assembly (GA). I decided to finally scrape the money to go because I feel my congregation, which resides in a conservative community that is 95% white with an average age of 68, is truly removed from so much of the vibrant, sometimes messy, struggles and celebrations our faith is going through right now. It is a bit like living in a “Leave It To Beaver” episode while looking out longingly at the technicolor landscape of real life.

Our faith has been embroiled in controversy and contemplation over race relations. We have a strong connection to #blacklivesmatter and within our faith #BlackLivesUU has grown up out of out of this movement as a means for the small but strong population of members of color within our faith to be together without feeling like they are under constant measure by their white counterparts. As with BLM, the movement within our faith is being lead by black women. Fierce, wonderful black women.

The leadership within the faith is still predominantly white men, and our faith itself is overwhelmingly white. My congregation is at this point in time I think is 100% white. While women make up the majority of the congregation, it is the men who still have majority in lay leadership roles. The UU faith is a descendant of the Protestant movement, and even in what most people would consider an extremely liberal faith, Calvinism is still a strong influence.

My minister recently commented on some of the controversy occurring in our faith, which has resulted in several members of the leadership in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), our organizing body, to resign. They were all men, mostly white (our UUA president who just resigned is latino). Black Lives UU was successful in waking some people up, and in their realization of how their words and actions affected others, they decided to step down. Goddess bless them for perhaps not fully understanding, but at least being willing to admit their lack of understanding was a major part of the problem.

Anyways, back to my minister and his comments on the controversy roiling within our faith. There was a poignant part of the discussion when my minister, also a white man, acknowledged that he had to work at stepping back and not inserting his opinions on the subject within the ministerial ranks. My father, who has just turned 80, piped in with a typical myopic white man comment during the exchange. It went something like this:

My minister: “As a white man myself, I felt my opinions on the matter…”

My father: “Would not be heard.”

I looked around and saw several heads nodding in agreement and understanding, heard a bit of laughter, but overall saw no discomfort at what my father said.

My minister: “Well, perhaps, but more importantly, may not be useful. I feel it is important for me as a white man to step back and let other voices be heard.”

You could hear a pin drop in the sanctuary after my minister said this. Who the hell knows what people were thinking, but I guarantee many of the men were probably saying in their heads, “Why shouldn’t our opinions be heard? Don’t we have a right to be heard in our own faith?” And many of the women were most likely asking the same question, “Why shouldn’t white men be allowed their opinions?”

My all white congregation cannot figure out why this is a problem. They look around and see all these white faces and wonder why their voices should not reign supreme in our faith. And don’t get me started on the ingrained #misogyny that goes along with the ingrained #whiteprivilege. Mind you this is a LIBERAL congregation. Imagine the MANY fundamentalist white Christian congregations that are all over our community. There is a reason I call where I live Trumpville.

As I said earlier, there are many people within our faith involved in Black Lives Matter, and the successive organizations that have grown from this movement. Yet, in my congregation, any suggestion in overtly supporting our black brothers and sisters comes up against statements like, “We don’t want to offend local law enforcement.” To this I point out that just 5 years ago, about 15-20 miles north of our sanctuary, a young black man, Rodney Mitchell, was pulled over and shot and killed by a police officer for the mere offense of being black. And, for that matter, Black Lives Matter is not anti-police. No, actually they are the opposite. They want to work with law enforcement to help make the systemic changes needed to end the institutional racism that is fueling these senseless deaths.

When these arguments are presented, you can actually see people’s self identification as part of a liberal religion kick in and prevent them from disputing these realities as reasons to get involved. They have a reputation to maintain, by golly. Instead, they use the stereotype of gun wielding white supremacists as their next argument: “We might be inviting [white supremacist] violence to our doorstep.” I hear this, and I want to to throttle them. Our black brothers and sisters have to face this threat daily not just from civilians, but from within law enforcement, and literally do nothing to provoke it but exist. But gosh forbid we might sacrifice a little safety to support our neighbors who, obviously, don’t even have the most liberal faith group in the area as allies in their fight to survive and thrive.

To say the least, this saddens me AND alarms me greatly. And it is the VERY reason why white voices need to shut up and white ears need to start listening to PoC. The bubble of #whiteprivilege needs to be popped because it is what is destroying our country and allowed an imbecilic white man that is so obviously completely unqualified to be President, into the Oval Office. And white liberals are still very convinced it is not because of them. They’re liberal. It couldn’t be. It’s all those radical right wing Christian white supremacists that are the problem.

My minister came to us from the St. Louis area. He had formed strong bonds with people in Ferguson while he was there. This issue is near and dear to him and when he starts in on it I see him working hard to be diplomatic and gentle with our congregation. I personally have no patience with the bullshit. I have given sermons from the pulpit in the past and requested to do it again on the issue of inclusion, but he has not taken me up on it. He knows I am not so diplomatic and that I feel our congregation needs a kick in the pants or a punch in the gut for that matter. I am truly sick of being surrounded by the arrogant white privilege that oozes from our congregation.

There is a small group of us within our congregation who all feel pretty similar about the issue. One, most fortunately, is the Director of Religious Education. This means I know my children are in good hands. It is the only reason why I remain with the congregation, truthfully. Surrounded by peers who are being raised in fundamentalist Christian churches, my girls need a weekly reminder that there are other people who think and believe like us in the world… well, almost like us.

So, I am going to New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the world. It is vibrant, rainbow hued, and gritty. It has the blood of slaves soaked into its streets and the pride of survival against terrifying odds shimmers in the air. I am frantic to get away from white people at this point because to tell you the truth I seriously dislike being around them. I cannot escape my own white skin, so my plans have been to immerse myself as much as possible into activities that allow me contact with people who do not look like me.

But then I realized that perhaps what I need to do is learn more about why white people are so fearful of breaking down the barriers and intentionally reaching out. What is it they think they are going to lose? Why do they not see the immensity of what they could gain? The GA provides a way for people to allow themselves discussions they might not otherwise have in their regular interactions with their congregations. Maybe I might learn something useful in how I might deal with my own congregation. Or maybe, as I fear, I will come back even more angry and more frustrated that my congregation is so fucking selfish.

May the Goddess guide me. She brings no judgement; she is the mother of all; she is love, and hate, and fear, and hope. But most of all, she is forever present, showing us the truths of life and death. The challenge is to be open to those truths. It is the ultimate enlightenment to be able to not just see, but live, beyond the barriers we as humans have set up to set us apart. I hope my time in New Orleans will help me learn how to make my own congregation aware of the barriers they have built around themselves that perpetuate the injustice that this country was and continues to be built upon. Yes, I pray for the Goddess to guide me.


2 thoughts on “Contemplating Race in Liberal Religion

  1. I do hope you can bring back much of what you learn at General Assembly and help dispel some of the ignorance. The congregation needs to understand better if they hope to help the community. I don’t think everyone in the congregation is in a bubble, but there are some that will not hear you.

    What do they have to lose you ask? Learning is hard. I think it gets harder as one gets older. A kid learning a language just tries and speaks and if they mess up they shrug it off and keep trying. An older person doesn’t want to feel stupid, so they shut out the opportunity. I don’t think that means we should give up, but keep at it with love.


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