a living faith

I have felt a gulf widening between myself and the Unitarian Universalist faith over the last year. I had expected activism to change me in profound ways; I just didn’t expect part of what drew me to this faith to eventually push me away. More and more often I ask myself, “What am I doing here? What am I representing? What represents me?”

We are a faith that is very proud of our commitment to social justice. We collect donations for charitable organizations and donate the proceeds of our collection plate once a month. We participate in legislative campaigns. We buy free trade goods in our sanctuaries or from artisans we invite into our space. We attend social action luncheons and serve in soup kitchens. We show up to march in parades in decent numbers, slightly less for vigils and protests, unless there is an opportunity for us to sing or some form of “alter call” from congregational leadership. But I rarely see UU’s  when our partner groups request volunteers or hold fundraisers. We’ll invite people into our space, meet them in neutral spaces, but rarely will we meet them in theirs.

I recognize that there are exceptions… but the fact that these two communities have such a small percentage of overlap is one of my biggest frustrations. I wonder if listing an organization as a partner on our website and showing up at the occasional demonstration or community event in our matching t-shirts is all we’re capable of. Displays of solidarity, participating in visible resistance efforts is a big, and important, part of justice work. But investing enough of ourselves to build the personal relationships necessary for an allied partnership seems to be beyond us more often than not. There is a reluctance to put ourselves in spaces where we would be the minority in the room, and resistant to sacrificing any of our time or investing our emotional energy. We’re all so proud of the justice work being done, but so few of us want to do it.

I’ve spoken with other allied activists & organizers and many have experienced the same frustrations. I was talking with friend and UU seminarian and commented that I was committed to my congregation thru the end of this RE year. After that, I don’t know. Unless there is a substantial shift in culture, I just don’t know. Which was followed by a discussion of whether I thought this culture was unique to my congregation or the entire faith, and how change is slow but we’re making progress. She’s not the first person to give me some version of the “arc of the moral universe” talk. As much as I love the quote, as much comfort as I find in it when applied to the folks across the aisle, hearing it applied to my faith both frustrates and outrages me.

Rage and fury and impotence aren’t really the emotions I was searching and yearning for when I went looking for a religious home. And as much as I love many, many members of my church family, as inspiring as I find my minister in and out of the pulpit, there are just far too many times that I feel like I’m in an abusive relationship. “We’re making progress.” “Change is slow.” “They’re trying… they mean well.” It sounds just like that girl, we all know her (hell, I was her), “He really loves me. He didn’t mean it. He’ll change.”

And maybe if my family looked different, if my closest friends and the vast majority of my support system looked different… if my neighborhood looked different, I might be a little more inclined to be patient. But my daughter told me last night that a classmate said to her, “You’re a black girl. Why don’t you just smack so and so?”… and it’s not the first time that kind of comment has been made. Women I love have reached out after having being hurt by someone’s unintended slur or stereotype, their colorblind ignorance… hands and voices trembling with hurt and anger. They speak of fear that speaking out will be interpreted as or strengthen certain stereotypes… or that they are most angry with themselves for having let down the wall they usually maintain with white people and being hurt because they hadn’t been on guard, hadn’t seen it coming. I have friends who have been harassed by police because of their skin color and/or accents, who get the full force of the law for minor traffic violations while we get passes for more serious infractions.

If this wasn’t my world, maybe I’d be less cynical and more magnanimous. I don’t want to be the only radical in my congregation (and that I’m considered a radical by fellow UU’s still perplexes me). But maybe I’d be willing to stick it out and be part of the catalyst for change my friends talk about. Maybe the stagnant pace of progress wouldn’t feel corrosive to my soul.

But this is my world, so forgive me, but I don’t care about your (our) good intentions anymore. I care about the impact of our individual and collective inability to live our faith and principles in meaningful and intentional allied relationships and how that effects people struggling for human dignity. I care about the people we hurt, directly or indirectly, with our good intentions.

This wasn’t easy to write. and I know that it may hurt or offend fellow UU’s, particularly those I have a personal relationship with.  But someone I love and respect asked me specifically to blog about this, and maybe she was right in that this is something that needs to be said, and heard.

Where are you on the Oppression Action Continuum? It’s not enough to educate yourself about an issue. If you are aware of an oppression and haven’t gotten involved, you are enabling that oppression. We can’t all do everything… but if we all did whatever we could instead of nothing at all, how amazing could we be? There is no small part of a justice movement; we all have our unique gifts, skills, and talents to offer even when our time or financial resources are limited.

I have found more personal fulfillment, been more deeply inspired, experienced more joy, felt more love, and seen more of God in the year I’ve been working with the activist community than I have in any church I’ve attended in all my thirty seven years.

If you haven’t invested of your self, what are you waiting for?

Oppression Action Continuum from Heeding the Call Justice Makers Curriculum

  1. September 18, 2011 at 11:27 PM

    Thank you for posting this. Not only is it an authentic and heartfelt message, but it is an important one that I think more UUs need to hear. Your points were well articulated and thought out, and to me it was apparent that this was written out of love—because if you didn’t love this amazing, messy, well-intentioned, somewhat wayward denomination of ours, then you wouldn’t care enough to feel enraged, frustrated, or impotent.

    I don’t have an answer for you. I don’t think any one person *can* have an answer for you, whether they are a minister, an activist, or an armchair theologian.

    But here’s what I do think: I think that your message needs to be carried through the denomination. It needs to be heard. It needs to be understood. It needs to be discussed. Only you can decide how far you will take your message, spoken in your own wonderful authentic voice. But wherever your message ends up going—whatever congregation hears it and responds to it—that place will be stronger for it, and you will have given them a great gift. If there is an answer to be had, it can only be found in community.

    So I wish you the best on your journey, wherever it may take you. You are a powerful woman with many gifts. Just know that there are those of us out there who agree with you. If we managed to find each other, who knows what would happen in the world!

    • September 19, 2011 at 9:44 PM

      For all the wonderful people I met on and in the days following 7/29/2010, there were so many wonderful people I didn’t… it’s comforting to be reminded I have friends I haven’t even met yet. Thank you for taking the time to comment; it’s so easy to write about the facets of UU that bring me joy, but have found it nearly impossible to write about experiences that have or continue to cause pain.

  2. Jolinda Stephens
    September 19, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes – to all of it. Every single word. I know it; I’ve lived it; I feel it in my body as well as my soul. As a UU religious educator who lives in the inner city and has a multi-racial family, I feel split, torn. It’s hard to feel whole.

    And yet, I hid out too long in the inner city. It took too long for me to figure out how to temper my outrage at my people. To bring it to the point that I could actually speak truth in ways that could be heard To gain the skills to encourage people to do things that felt risky, that took personal courage.

    I still don’t do it well enough, but it’s my obligation. If I can’t encourage people into the physical, mental and heart spaces where I, then my own experiences remain private. What we do has so much more impact if we can mentor others into the great adventure too.

    Forgive my grammar and my lecturing. I read your blog. I know you are both a mentor and a prophet. I’m just encouraging you to keep it up. To recognize your power. I’m also not claiming the moral high ground. There are many things I don’t do well and I do relationship with allies imperfectly. But I do have the courage and the love to try; to be in the minority; to work on relationship; and to keep encouraging others to try it.

    • September 24, 2011 at 11:22 AM

      Jolinda, thank you. I am not a particularly patient person and I am too easily frustrated. There is part of me that understands the need to meet people where they are and use babysteps when necessary… but MY GOD I AM SO TIRED. Tired of trying to reword REALITY into language that privileged people will hear. Tired of getting texts and phone calls from POC and ARWA friends that start out with “your/our people” and they’re not talking about some right wing racist on TV, they’re talking about liberal friends and aquaintances, people they go to church or work with.

      Part of this is my own privilege getting in my way. I’m white… I’m not used to not getting my way. And I’m a white woman. I should be able to accomplish in a year or less what black and brown folks have been trying to accomplish for generations. At least that’s how it works in all the nice white lady movies. I should be able to change the world, one colorblind, classblind UU congregation at a time.

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