Last week, I attended a gathering for Unitarian Universalists of Color at the Murray Grove Retreat Center in New Jersey to celebrate the 20th anniversary of DRUUMM, which stands for Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries. DRUUMM is a Unitarian Universalist People of Color Ministry and anti-racist collective bringing lay and religious professionals together to overcome racism through resistance and to transform Unitarian Universalism through our multicultural experiences. DRUUMM was founded in 1997 at Murray Grove. It was apropos for DRUUMM to have had its beginnings at Murray Grove and to celebrate its 20th anniversary since the center’s mission is to mark the origins of Universalism, a liberal religious tradition based on love and profound acceptance that transformed the landscape of religion in America. Murray Grove has a long, proud history and is the site of the Universalist “miracle” almost 250 years ago through a fortuitous meeting between John Murray, a Universalist minister landing on the New Jersey shores from England and Thomas Potter, who had built a local meetinghouse without a minister. The purpose of Murray Grove is to preserve and protect this heritage and to promote its message of Love and Inclusion. However, before I forget, yes, there are Unitarian retreat centers as well.
We finished our gathering on Sunday morning with breakfast and a worship service. Afterwards, there was still time for me to attend a service at a local UU congregation nearby before my flight back to Detroit. I attended the service with 3 other participants from the DRUUMM gathering. On our way to the church, we were anxious about entering into a “white” church after have being in non-white spaces over the weekend. One of my fellow companions mentioned that she wanted to go to the UU church because her parents are white and she wanted to remain connected with white Unitarian Universalism. The other two folks and myself had also grown up with white parents, so we could understand this sentiment. We had a shared reason to go from the DRUUMM gathering for people of color and to venture back into a white UU space since both are part of own identities as a person of color and have been raised by white parents.
The church we attended was a small congregation, a family sized congregation. The guest speaker graciously invited us into the sanctuary and she also asked us to speak about DRUUMM. There were about 25-30 folks in the sanctuary. Everyone in the room appeared to be white. The congregation was largely elderly and there was one family who had two children. Please excuse my language, the four of us stuck out like a turd in a punch bowl. The worship associate was wearing a Black Lives Matter button and began the service with the usual UU spiel about the congregation being an affirming place where everyone is welcomed.
On this particular Sunday, there wasn’t a sermon, but a discussion on how to evacuate from a natural disaster. We went into small groups, however the DRUUMM folks stayed together, and we listed what we would bring with us in the case of an evacuation. One older white gentleman said that he would bring his credit cards. A woman said she would bring her health insurance card. More answers were shouted out…my photo id, my computer, I would reserve a hotel room, I would drive to some place normal.
Our group had different answers. We listed...we would call our family and friends. We would bring our spouses. Bring a chalice. Carry matches (to the light the chalice, of course). We had asked ourselves…what if we didn’t have a car? Also, one of us was undocumented. Two in our group did not have credit cards. Our focus was not about what would “I” bring, but how would ‘we’ bring our resources together. This ‘we’ was necessary for our group since none of us individually had the resources to escape a natural disaster alone.
There was a disconnect between us and the white congregants. By the way…the cover picture on the order of service was an image of a hurricane over the Caribbean Islands. The most disappointing part for me personally was that the guest speaker had never mentioned the recent natural disaster in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria. Over 85% of the island did not have electricity after the hurricane. There was a gas shortage, water shortage and hospitals were closed and many are still. FEMA was slow to respond. We have a US President who throws paper towels for entertainment and doesn’t know that the Virgin Islands are part of the United States. Where was the call to ask the white UUs to shift their thinking from how they would individually get themselves out of a natural disaster, but towards examining how black and brown communities are treated during times of crises? Where was the call for white UUs in the room to challenge white supremacists showing up in Charlolettsville and the like? Who mattered in the room on that Sunday morning service? The button may have said, “Black Lives Matter,” however, the only things discussed were from those who were white in the room, not the black and brown communities affected by the storm. While this disconnect was not created by what I am sure were well intentioned people consciously, however, the experience where whiteness is at the center and the experiences of people of color are ignored occur at Sunday service after Sunday service in UU congregations.
The experience of not feeling at home in UU congregations but at the same time still having the hope in our Unitarian Universalist aspirations for love and inclusion can take a strain on our energy and our spirits. UUs of Color have gathered to create UU faith communities where we can call home. One such place is the annual Finding Our Way Home gathering for religious professionals of color.
This past March in Baltimore during the Finding Our Way Home gathering, Peter Morales, the then President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was asked from a director of religious education, why were there so few people of color in executive and level one positions in the UUA? At the time, there were only two people of color, including Peter Morales himself, and another, who is Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness in an executive level position. There were no, and still no people of color in level one positions which are the 5-regional staff lead positions. The initial response from Peter was that very few UU’s of Color apply for these positions and congregations need to work more on advancing UUs of Color into associational leadership.
In addition to all of this, during the Baltimore gathering, a white male UU minister was announced to have been selected to become the new regional staff lead for the Southern Region. We also learned that a Latina UU director of religious education and administrator had also been a candidate for the regional lead position as well, but was told that she was not the “right fit”. The Latina woman lived in the Southern Region and the white UU minister did not. For some background history, the UUA had expanded its hiring policies a couple years earlier to include non-ordained religious professionals for regional staff positions in order to include more UUs of color candidates into the hiring pool. Thus, the hiring of a white UU minister to a regional lead position amplified the conversation about hiring discrimination based on race in the UUA and white supremacy.
In late spring, three religious educators of color with the help of Black Lives of UU or what is also called BLUU, created a White Supremacy Teach- In for UU congregations. Over 2/3rd of UU congregations, including BUC, participated in one form or another in the Teach-In last spring to examine how whiteness is centered in our congregations. A common comment I receive from white UUs about the White Supremacy Teach-In is that they are uncomfortable connecting Unitarian Universalism with white supremacy. White UUs often say they are nothing like white supremacists and white UUs should not be tied to them. Unitarian Universalists aspire for love and inclusion, not hate and exclusion. I hear you and I understand the critique. While violent expressions of racism from white supremacists is morally wrong, however, does the lack of acknowledging white privilege have the same effect of perpetuating systems of white power and supremacy as those who violently express it?
In the recent controversies about professional football players kneeling when the National Anthem was played, I heard two very different stories. One was from those who wanted to bring awareness about police brutality in Black and Brown communities to a larger white audience. The other was about the need to honor and respect the aspirations of the United States as a free and prosperous nation. For the folks who are white and felt the kneeling was disrespectful, were they unaware of police brutality in communities of color or did they not want to acknowledge that pain because that would go against what this country proclaims to be as the land of the free? For the folks who did kneel, did they feel the ideas of this country not needed to be respected or did they feel that bringing awareness of the police brutality would bring us closer to the American aspiration for freedom and prosperity to all?
Analogously, my question when we talk about white supremacy in Unitarian Universalism is, has the belief that Unitarian Univeralism is a loving and inclusive religion prevented white UUs from working towards dismantling racism within our faith because acknowledging the existence of it would counter to who we say we are? On the other hand, are UUs of color disrespecting Unitarian Universalism by naming the existence of white supremacy or will that naming bring us closer to work towards our aspiration for a religion that is loving and inclusive that we all proclaim to be?
The complexities of these conversations are not one or the other, where one side is right or the other is wrong. We will be a need have both the naming of where we fall short and the proclaiming of who we aspire to be. None of us individually have the resources to escape the systems of white supremacy alone, we will need to call each other to do the work towards creating our collective liberation.