Widening the Circle of Concern



The times are changing. The Christian organization, Bread for the World, had had on its Board of Directors the congressman who accosted and levied sexist insults at Representative Ocasio-Cortez and non-apologized for it. Yesterday, though, Bread for the World asked for and received his resignation from its Board. The Christian charity said the congressman’s “recent actions and words as reported in the media are not reflective of the ethical standards expected of members of our Board of Directors.” The group’s statement spoke of “our commitment to coming alongside women and people of color, nationally and globally, as they continue to lead us to a more racially inclusive and equitable world.”

You might remember a day when you didn’t hear Christian charities talk that way. You might remember a day when you didn’t hear Unitarian Universalist organizations talk that way.

I checked the New York Times Bestseller list yesterday. For Combined Print and E-Book sales, the new book by Mary Trump has the top spot. At number two is Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility. At number three is Ibram Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist. The top 15 titles this week also includes: Eddie Glaude, Begin Again (an appraisal of the life and work of James Baldwin in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement and the current administration); Ijeoma Olua, So You Want to Talk about Race; Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law (looking at how the American government abetted racial segregation in metropolitan areas across the country); Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow; Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy; Bryan Stephenson, Just Mercy; and Ibram Kendi’s earlier book, Stamped from the Beginning, (looking at anti-Black racist ideas through the course of American history).

That’s nine titles on the Combined print and e-book bestseller list. The Hardback bestsellers also include: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me. And the Paperback bestseller list this week also includes: Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns (about the Great Migration of 1915-70, in which six million African-Americans abandoned the South); Beverly Daniel Tatum, Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria; Trevor Noah’s memoir, Born a Crime (about growing up biracial in South Africa).

That’s a lot of interest in racism. And yes, there’s been an upswing in attention to the issue since George Floyd’s murder on May 25. More than half these books were not only receiving a lot of critical attention, but were bestsellers before George Floyd.

It’s true, Americans aren’t big readers, so even bestseller nonfiction isn’t seen by most Americans. Still, the ideas filter down, and there IS a lot of reckoning going on.

The concept “colorblind racism” is beginning to be more widely recognized. Colorblind racism refers to collective practices that reinforce the contemporary racial order even without individuals intentionally discriminating on the basis of race. It refers to ignoring the ways that whiteness exists as a system of power. And to ignore that system of power is to allow it to continue – it’s to be complicit in sustaining that system.

So Ibram Kendi makes the point that we can be racist, or we can be antiracist. There is no comfortable in-between called being “not racist.” "Nonracist" is an illusion – in fact, a delusion. Either racial hierarchy is OK, or it isn’t, and if we aren’t actively dismantling it, we’re tacitly saying it’s OK.

There are differences between racial groups in poverty, unemployment, educational attainment, homelessness, low birth-weight babies, hypertension, life expectancy, risk of subjection to police brutality. So where do we think those differences come from? There are racist explanations of those differences as rooted in genetics. But if it isn’t genetics, the only alternative explanation is systems of power and policies.

Certainly there are cultural differences. Cultural differences are either irrelevant to negative quality of life outcomes, or they are the targets of power and policies, or they are responses to, and results of, systems of power and policies. So any attempt at a cultural explanation immediately requires systemic explanation.

Thus, there is no middle ground between racist and antiracist. The explanation is either genetic and racist or its systemic and antiracist. We are either confronting racial inequities or we’re allowing them continue. Ignoring them is allowing them to continue.

What does it look like to NOT allow them to continue? What do we need to change to be antiracist? As individuals, I suggest take a look at the bestseller list, pick a title and start reading. As a Unitarian Universalist congregation – and as the Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations – what are the changes we need?

What I want to do today is particularly shine the light on Unitarian Universalist institutions because that’s where we are.

Let's begin with some history about Unitarians and racial justice.

In the pre-civil war years a number of Unitarian clergy and other leaders were prominent abolitionists. We can be proud of that – yet we must also remember that the rank-and-file Unitarian was not committed to abolition. In 1836, Unitarian minister William Furness preached against slavery to his congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia. Roughly half of his congregation was outraged and incensed. Many of them quit the church or withheld pledges.

That would never happen at Community Unitarian Universalist, right? No, probably not. For one thing, nobody defends literal chattel slavery anymore. For another thing, twenty-first century congregations simply don’t take their ministers as seriously as 19th-century congregations did. No matter how much you might disagree with what I say, you give it an interested listen and aren’t outraged because the pulpit isn’t as powerful and threatening as it was – which is a good thing.

But beyond that, try to get inside the heads and hearts of those 1836 Philadelphia Unitarians. They faced challenges and frustrations, and as they tried to build lives of comfort and good things for their families, they developed certain moral blind spots about what made such a life possible. In that regard, is that so different from us?

Jump forward to 1965. Five hundred Unitarian Universalists from around the country went to Alabama to participate with Dr. King in the march from Selma to Montgomery, including over 140 Unitarian Universalist clergy -- 20 percent of all UU ministers in final fellowship at that time. We can be proud of that – yet we must also remember that two years later, in 1967, 135 Unitarian Universalists came to New York for an "Emergency Conference on Unitarian Universalist Response to the Black Rebellion." What ensued became the messy and forlorn chapter in Unitarian Universalist history involving the BUUC, the BAC, and the BAWA.

Almost as soon as the meeting was called to order, 30 of the 37 African American delegates withdrew to form a Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC). The BUUC developed a list of what they called "non-negotiable demands" to be submitted to the conference and, ultimately, the UU Association's Board of Trustees. The core demand was that the board establish a Black Affairs Council (BAC), to be appointed by the BUUC and funded for four years at $250,000 a year -- which would have then been 12 percent of the UUA's entire budget. The next General Assembly approved these demands. Then the General Assembly after that, finding that funds had grown tighter, wanted to spread the million dollars over five years at $200,000 a year instead of four years at $250,000 a year. The BUUC seemed heavy-handed to some, and another group, "Black and White Action" (BAWA), formed -- also sincerely wanting to advance the cause of civil rights.

Very hard feelings erupted on the floor of the General Assembly 1969 in Boston. Almost all of the 200-300 black delegates there got up and walked out. The BUUC folks denounced the BAWA folks. It seems the leadership of the UUA had some paternalistic civil rights attitudes. We can say the BUUC leaders might have chosen to be content with recognition and funding and not vindictively insisted on "not one penny for BAWA." And, too, the BAWA supporters might not have reacted against the BUUC as if their lives depended on it. Still, the fact remains that our denomination never recovered from the 1969 General Assembly. In the years following, African American membership in our congregations plummeted.


Source of Creation and Creativity -- and Destruction; source of birth – and of death:

Ours is a world of glory: from greens of summer, to orange sunsets, to every miraculous breath of air, from the transient sparkle of the fleeting meteor to the unexpected spectacle of Comet Neowise -- glory fills the earth from mountain height to ocean depth. Our hearts swell with grateful hallelujah.

Grounded in Thanksgiving, our spirits seek to respond in compassion, for the world’s glory properly opens our hearts to the world’s suffering as well.

We remember the war-torn, hungry and pandemic hit country of Yemen. Oh, how can this horrible situation still continue?

We remember the East Africa countries into the Horn of Africa and India and Pakistan as huge locust swarms move across the land. May our desire to act against their destructive force be planned sensibly, taking into account the needs of other wildlife so that the regions’ bio-diversity can be maintained.

We remember the areas affected by earthquake this week, notably the Aleutians East Borough, Alaska.

We remember Bangladesh, Nepal and eastern states of India hit by the worst monsoon flooding for many years. Millions have been displaced, and at least 500 human deaths have resulted, as well as loss of wildlife, including drowned rare one-horned rhinos. Aid efforts are impeded by multi-national lockdowns and closed borders.

We remember in gratitude the researchers whose work to find treatments and vaccines continues and progresses.

We remember in gratitude the life of John Lewis, the great civil rights activist and the great congressman, who died on July 17 at age 80. John Lewis would say, “It’s better to be a pilot light than a firecracker.” May we be pilot lights, shining and ever ready to fire up the engines of justice once again.

For those who have planned new jobs, or moving homes, may it go smoothly. For those forced into unplanned life changes by war, politically-caused famine, and environmental disasters, may safe, secure refuges of warmth, shelter, food, and drink be found. For all known to us overtaken by a trauma, may healing and peace come. And for ourselves. As we self-isolate, mourn, or rejoice and party, may we be safe, secure, and held in belonging. Amen.


200 to 300 African American delegates walked out of that 1969 General Assembly. We haven’t had anywhere near 300 African American delegates at any General Assembly since. Unitarian Universalists want, and I want, to build among ourselves a culture of multicultural competency that truly respects diversity, and that has the skills to know how to be properly respectful and welcoming and inclusive and supportive. But when it comes to doing the work to make that our reality, we blew it at the General Assemblies of 1968 and 69 – and we’ve blown it repeatedly since then.

There were antiracism initiatives in the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s. Each was discontinued too soon or inadequately funded to have much effect. I remember being a lay member of our Nashville, Tennessee congregation in the 1990s and going to some of that decade’s antiracism trainings at my church. The UUA program of that decade was called “Journey Toward Wholeness.” I remember learning some of the ways that what we now simply call white supremacy culture operated – and I remember how indignant some of my fellow UUs were at the very idea that there might be more to dismantling racism than strategies for convincing other people to be as colorblind as we thought we were.

And that brings us to spring 2017. As of early March 2017, I admit, I was unaware that racial tensions within Unitarian Universalism were at a breaking point. I was not noticing, for instance, the numbers: that all five of the Regional Leads for the five Unitarian Universalist regions were white ministers, as was their supervisor at UUA headquarters.

At that time, of 56 people with supervisory responsibilities at the UUA, 8 were people of color, just over 14 percent. I wasn’t familiar with how many of our congregation’s religious educators of color had stories of mistreatment at the hands of white leadership, or that our religious professionals of color tend to have disproportionately short tenures within congregations whose members may have never had another significant relationship with a person of color.

So I didn’t know how systemic it was when our Community UU Congregation’s religious educator of color’s tenure with us turned out to be short. I didn’t know how prevalently our religious educators of color faced questions about their qualifications, comments that they are hired as “token,” regular challenges to their authority, culturally uninformed comments, and racial slurs – or how often the cumulative effect of this leaves them in need of treatment for the traumatic impact.

Then in mid-March 2017, a hiring decision for one of the five Regional Leads was made. The position was offered to yet another white male minister, passing over qualified Religious Educators of color. For a lot of Unitarian Universalists, that was the last straw and more than they could quietly absorb.

In the criticism of UUA, white supremacy was named, often. UUA President, Peter Morales, was evidently not prepared for the point that a system can be white supremacist – can tacitly operate to sustain the centering of whiteness – even if it is explicitly opposed to Nazi Skinhead white nationalist organizations. So in his initial responses, he made things worse. Criticism grew, and Morales resigned – which felt to many like a breaking of covenant to hang in with each other, and work things out.

A number of other high-ranking UUA officers also resigned, and when it came to light what substantial severance packages had been given – not normally offered in cases of voluntary resignation – the sense of hurt and injustice deepened. Strong feelings flared across social media, which caught rank and file Unitarian Universalists by surprise. As the Commission on Institutional Change – formed to address the issues raised – observed:
“Mainstream Unitarian Universalism was not aware of the amount of pain and trauma being held by the communities of color in the Association, which erupted around these events.” (168)
A sense of urgency emerged in the spring of 2017 – an urgency that continues today through our congregations.

The commission’s report, issued last month, mentioned continuity as a necessary commitment, recognizing “that we would not be having these conversations in 2020 if we had kept them going in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s” (138). So the urgency felt as the Commission began its work three years ago manifested as a visceral gripping imperative: “We can’t blow this again.”

We have said we are a welcoming congregation, that we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person; justice, equity, and compassion; acceptance of one another; respect for the interdependent web of existence. We say that we want diversity, want to be inclusive. But we haven’t lived it. Aisha Hauser, a religious educator of color, tells us: “I feel like we are at a precipice. Either we are going to be who we say we are, or we will be a country club for white people.”

As stark as that choice is that Aisha presents to us, in truth, it is starker than that. Either we are going to make more real the promise of the values we profess, or we are going to die out. The Commission’s report notes,
“the values of Unitarian Universalism cannot be realized in a system that is centered around one cultural expression. In fact, the centering of white culture and values has stymied the development of a full range of cultural expressions. . . . Younger generations expect multicultural competency, are wary of institutions that lack authenticity with their values, and expect more participatory models of shared leadership.”
Active commitment to becoming a model of antiracist community isn’t just the right thing to do – isn’t just a worthwhile and inspiring project. It’s our only tenable growth strategy.

A number of the Commission’s recommendations are focused on the UUA. Our responsibility is to be informed about what’s happening at the Associational level, and support appropriate changes. And as resources and trainings become available, to enthusiastically take advantage of them. One recommendation is for creation of a congregational certification program – like the Welcoming Congregation certification for welcoming LGBTQ folk, and the Green Sanctuary certification recognizing a congregation’s commitment to environmental preservation. To gain antiracism certification, we’d have to put some energy into learning and changing. The emphasis in all our justice work would increasingly privilege those most affected by the injustice, and follow the voices of those most at risk. There’s a recommendation that our congregational budget include funds
“to allow leaders of color, indigenous leaders, and other leaders under-represented to attend affinity groups and national meetings where they will be able to connect with others who share their identity and Unitarian Universalist faith.”
In all, the Commission on Institutional Change has 35 recommendations and articulates 119 actions it calls for to implement those recommendations.

The report, Widening the Circle of Concern, will not be an easy read for many of us – simply reading it will be, for many of us, an exercise in stretching our cultural awareness outside our comfort zone. But read it, I hope you will. The future of Unitarian Universalism, if there is a future for our faith, will look different. The commission collected hundreds of testimonials, and the report quotes from a few of them. One of them says:
“I wish more of my people looked like me. For that reason, I fear that I may always feel a little bit like an outsider. I will explain it to you in the following way. It is quite obvious to me that the UU setting is a sanctuary for gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people. It is not as obvious that it is for people of color.”
To change that – to de-center the cultural assumptions of whiteness – will change us. Some of the things that made this place comfortable for some of us will be lost. Change is hard because it involves loss. It’s appropriate to grieve.

If we can pull it off, change will also involve many gains – exciting and invigorating multicultural community – different voices, different music, different ways of thinking and doing. A healing and a new wholeness scarcely heretofore imagined will be ours. May it be so. Amen.


From Kimberly Quinn Johnson:
Hush: Somebody’s calling your name — Can you hear it? Calling you to a past not quite forgotten, calling us to a future not fully imagined? Hush, hush: Somebody’s calling our name. What shall we do?

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