Unitarian Universalism Today: the state of our faith and its yearning for wholeness.
In 1997, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly passed the Business Resolution calling upon the Unitarian Universalist Association, in all its many forms, an anti-racist and multi-cultural organization. In time, that phrase “anti-racist and multi-cultural’ was a broadened to be “anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and multi-cultural.” That is now been shortened to the acronym of ARAOM or A-ROM.
I believe that that Resolution is as good a starting point for the main story of 21st Unitarian Universalism, a story that is still going on. The main gist of the story is this:
Black Unitarian Universalists pushed, and sometimes dragged, White UU’s into what is now a 25 year engagement with their experience with liberal religion, an engagement which is transforming Unitarian Universalist theology, liturgy, and ecclesiology. This transformation will prove to be as sweeping as the Women’s transformation of UUism in the 1970’s and 80’s.
I want to repeat that, in case you had dozed off because I was talking about a General Assembly Resolution from long ago.
Black UU’s pushed and dragged the white rest of us into dealing with their experiences in liberal religion, and as a result of that engagement, Unitarian Universalism is being transformed, in what we together believe, how we worship together, and how we are organized. This is as big a deal as the changes in UUism that came about from the Women’s Movement in the 70’s and 80’s.
Here are some of the highlights of that process since that 1997 Resolution.
The Resolution called educational programs or anti-racism trainings in congregations and there have many since then. Those have been slow-going, not getting into the heart of the congregation, but often confined to a smaller group of activists. What has been identified is what Robin DeAngelo calls “white fragility” — the tendency of white people to become very anxious and shut down when it comes to discussing race and racism. White people do not think often about race, because they operate in white spaces. When they are asked to talk about race, they are often overwhelmed by guilt and shame, and want to withdraw from the conversation. White UU’s are especially prone to white fragility, because they are so committed to what we defined as ‘racial liberalism’, so they/we get defensive and withdraw as soon as the conversation gets beyond remembering Selma. The latest manifestation of this decades long effort to raise our understanding of race and racism was the teach-ins of White Supremacy Culture, in the last couple years.
A second highlight of this period is the publication of Mark Morrison-Reed’s series of books about the history of African American people in Unitarian Universalism. His first book “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination” was first published in 1992, and has been regularly reprinted since. He also published a followup “Darkening the Doorway”, and specific histories of our Selma story,, “The Selma Awakening” and the Empowerment Controversy: “Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy.”
Mark Morrison-Reed’s books completely refute the prevailing mythology that UUism has always been a whites-only religion. There have always been Black UU’s, and they have never been made welcome.
A third highlight of this period was the election of the Rev. Bill Sinkford as the first black President of the UUA in 2001. He was a lifelong UU, having grown up in the St. John’s UU church in Cincinnati. It is telling that one of the first acts of the first African American President of the UUA was to publish an article, followed up by a book,, challenging UU’s to return to the use of more traditional religious language. More on this later.
Fourth highlight: Trayvon, Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter Movement. UU Churches posted BLM banners outside of their churches all over the country. Consider this, in every congregation, the congregation had to choose not to post an “All Lives Matter” banner, which was surely suggested by someone. “All Lives Matter” expresses the color-blind racial liberalism of the early 1960’s, which has since then, been the rationale for not examining the experience of African Americans on its own terms.
And finally, arising out of the Movement for Black Lives, Black UU’s formed Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, or BLUU. The goal of BLUU is minister to the needs of Black Unitarian Universalists and other Black people who are “UU Adjacent.” The UUA has pledged to raise $5 million dollars to permanently endow this ministry to Black UU’s, and it well on the way to reaching that goal.
Enough of the history. Let’s talk about this engagement with the repressed and silenced aspect of our history, African American Unitarian Universalists is changing us.
Let start with Liturgically: How we worship: There are few Unitarian Universalist congregations that have not incorporated gospel music, spirituals, freedom songs, and camp songs into our worship. I think I mentioned before that the 1963 hymnal, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, contained no song or reading with an African American origin. In 1993, our present hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition, included not only spirituals like Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, freedom songs like We Shall Overcome, gospel classics like Precious Lord, jazz compositions like Come Sunday by Duke Ellington and I wish I knew How it Feels to be Free by Nina Simone and Billy Taylor. The newest Hymnal Singing the Journey continues this trend. Congregations love to sing a easy to sing song, and even clap along with it. Congregations have added more musical instruments. And there is a persistent desire to somehow emulate the experience of black worship in our services, while remaining true to our tradition. People want our worship to be more participative, and embodied, and exciting. We are continue to move beyond the book report and the concert style of worship at the start of this story.
Another change in our liturgical practices was the renewed use of more traditional religious language, as suggested by President Sinkford. Practice varies from congregation to congregation, but more congregations are including prayer in their services, often directed to the Spirit of Life and Love.
Let me turn to theology: how has the hearing the repressed voices of black Unitarian Universalism changed us theologically?
There is an insistence that sin and evil are real. Unitarian Universalists had just about defined sin and evil out of existence, mostly because they were rebelling against the church’s practice of shaming people about their sex lives. But the existence of sin and evil is much more clear cut to African Americans. Slavery was evil; lynchings were sins; segregation was an evil system; and the institutionalized white supremacy that still blights their lives is a sinful, evil system.
Listen again to BLUU’s thoughts on sin from today’s reading.
….participating in the systems and structures of oppression and society in the ways we have all been conditioned to do so — these are systems we cannot escape. Rather, we negotiate our existence within and ideally, seek to do as little harm as possible.
Yes, this means we all sin everyday because it is impossible to live in this modern life without participating in systems of oppression — from our food system and how we make money and forsake the environment and the workers who harvest our food — to the fact that most of the clothes we wear on our bodies are made by women and children in developing countries for meager wages in mostly unfair, dangerous working conditions. We drive too many cars in many places because there isn’t adequate public transportation. All of this and more, yes, is sin.
It’s a social definition of sin, from which there is no salvation. The best that we can hope for it is that “we negotiate our existence within and ideally, seek to do as little harm as possible.”
But they go on:
This doesn’t mean we aren’t worthy of love. This doesn’t mean we can’t envision and attempt to build new and different ways that create deeper, closer connections. When we do that — when we create deeper and closer connections — we are turning away from sin and closer into Beloved Community. We are better able to mitigate harm and honor the full human dignity and worth of everyone when we turn away from the sin of disconnection and divest from the systems of oppression that are the cause of so much brokenness in the world.
As I read those words, what strikes me is that they not only explain the persistence of sin and evil, but set forth our collective moral mission: to create deeper and closer connections; to mitigate harm; and honor the full human dignity and worth of everyone.
To continue on this point: Take a look at the words on the front of your order of service.
What I want to point out is the phrase “foster healing.”
BLUU is telling us that the systems of oppression that we all live under cause us harm, how much depends on how cushioned we may be by privilege. The role of the religious community is not simply to ‘combat oppression’, but also to ‘foster healing.’ This is part of what is meant by “mitigate harm.’
UU churches are not very deliberate or conscientious about the need for healing in our members. Small group ministry is one way that we do now. The consciousness-raising groups of the women’s movement were another, because they connected what was going on in participants daily life with larger social structures.
I think as the African American influence in UUism grows, we will see more emphasis on healing.
And finally, I want to talk about ecclesiology — how we organize churches and what should they do.
After a short reflection, the Unitarian Universalist Association has endowed a ministry directed toward African Americans, a ministry run by and led by Black Unitarian Universalists. This was tried before during the Black Empowerment controversy when the UUA attempted to turn funding and programming to the Black Affairs Council. That project ended with bad feelings all around.
So we are all trying again with BLUU. It means that we are less stuck in the racial liberalism that would have see ‘one size fits all.’ Unitarian Universalism in the African American community needs its own space, because it will be different than how it is currently practiced.
One of BLUU’s first priorities is to provide ministry, pastoral care, connections, emotional support to Unitarian Universalists of African Descent, many of whom find the almost all white congregations near them challenging. BLUU identifies as part of their people, people in UU adjacent spaces: people who are not officially members anywhere, but who identify with our values and work.
I want to get out of the way now. Don’t take my word for any of this. I urge you all to seek out information about Black Unitarian Universalists in history and in the present. Read those books by Mark Morrison-Reed. Read those articles in the UU World. Get over your white fragility that makes you nervous and cautious about the subject of race. Seek out information from BLUU. But most all, I urge you to look at this long process as positive and hopeful. It will change us as much as the Women’s Movement changed us before, and again for the better.
There is a line in the hymn “As Tranquil Streams” that speaks of us as a religious movement that ‘reveres the past, but trusts the dawning future more.” May We Be So.”