De-Centering

©Rev. Lois E. Van Leer

February 11, 2018

WOODINVILLE UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST CHURCH

I did not expect to be up here before you this morning but given the events of last week, I would have had to have been at some point. There is little use to berate or place blame as we try to negotiate all of the events that led up to Rev. Jaelynn’s decision to resign her position as Director of Lifelong Learning at this church. What is needed is a commitment by all of us to rise to the challenge of rummaging through lessons learned. And understanding that now is the hard part. This is the hard part. This is when the real work begins.

 

I so wish that the book, Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry, which is a book by and for Religious Professionals of Color in Unitarian Universalism, had been available to me three years ago. Because with the painful stories and brutal realities the stories tell, I would never have been so naïve as to tell a potential Candidate of Color for any position in one of our churches not to worry about issues of race- that I had that covered. If I had read Centering three years ago, I would have prepped this congregation about the realities of what it means to hire a Person of Color. That race, whether we like it or not, is always an issue. Especially among those of us who are good white liberals. Because we want to think that we are the ones who are free of bias or prejudice. Here is how Manish Mishra-Marzetti describes it: “…ultimately our denomination and congregations reflect the same patterns, behaviors, and attitudes around race and culture that permeate our society at large; we are not magically further along simply because of our liberal theology.”

 

What I would have preached to you to prepare you for a Professional Person of Color would have included the fact that cultural or stylistic differences should not be confused with a lack of competency. That when a Person of Color comes into a basically all-white situation as a religious professional, they “represent.” In other words, they represent all persons of African American or Asian or First Nations or Hispanic or Indigenous descent. Because of that, they are under additional scrutiny. And they will be asked to represent all People of Color on task forces and committees to make sure that a Person of Color’s perspective is at the table. Which to me is tokenism. But no one person speaks for a whole people or peoples. It is exhausting to always be the one called on to provide a perspective that is missing. As the Rev. Derrick Jackson says, “How do we hold on to our self-worth when we often don’t know whether we are being raised up because of who we are and what skills we have or because we are People of Color?”

 

Or as the religious educator Natalie Maxwell Fenimore writes: “We have to be clear that when we invite People of Color in, we’re inviting them into a difficult place where the options available to them are both a gift and a curse.” They are called to bring their gifts to a congregation but often a congregation is not ready or able to receive them because they come packaged differently than the culture of the congregation. That they will be saddled with helping any Person of Color who comes through the church doors navigate Unitarian Universalism. That their presence is often the first as a Person of Color. And that their visibility is so important to children and adults of Color because it says, there might be a place for me here in a predominantly white culture. Because another Person of Color has given themselves over to our faith.

 

I would have warned us not to expect a Person of Color to explain all the ways that micro and macroaggressions manifest themselves when it comes to race. And not to assure me that I am a good white person and that I am doing it right. And not to go to Persons of Color with our pain when we wake up to the sin of racism. When I talk about sin, I talk about falling out of right relationship. As the Rev. Lauren Smith writes, “There is a constant pull to minister to white people about their relationship with People of Color. Much of our antiracism work has primarily been about transforming the hearts and minds of white people. Ironically, it has consistently placed white people at the center.”

 

What if we de-centered our stories? What if People of Color, when they gathered in their communities, didn’t always have to talk about those of us who are white and how we’ve behaved? What if they got to gather and just talk about their incredibly untapped power, waiting to be unleashed and offered to this faith?

 

I would have prepped you to say that when a Black man or child is shot and killed by law enforcement, it is personal to People of Color in a way that it never can be for those of us who are white. We are always bystanders. Again, Derrick Jackson: “Often when I engage with someone about these matters, the conversation quickly turns to them (how they feel about it, how they are not to blame, and so on); instead of engaging the issue, I’m engaging their needs. I minister to them pastorally instead of prophetically.”

 

Here’s the quote from the Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore, that got to me in my role as a preacher: “When I was scheduled to preach, I wrote three sermons. The first was written as I was inspired by the Spirit. The second was edited for the UU ear, and the third watered down so I’d still be employed after the benediction. I did not feel free to bring my whole self to the preaching moment.”

 

Sharing all of the above would have been a great way to prepare WUUC to prepare itself to welcome a professional Person of Color into its midst. I would have added to it my own voice about racism. About how it keeps us from speaking honestly and openly when we have issues with a Person of Color for fear that we will be perceived as racist. It is actually racist not to talk directly with a Person of Color about concerns or issues one has with them. It does not give them a chance.

 

A few weeks ago, J Mase, a transgender Black poet, blogger, and activist, preached on what he called a “passive faith.” A passive faith puts up a Black Lives Matter sign and calls it good. A passive faith passes a resolution in support of the movements for Black Lives without living into it and calls it good. A passive faith says this work of understanding racism, both the personal and institutional, is too hard and too painful and walks away from engaging it instead of using it as the beginning point to do the work.

 

And that is where we as a congregation are now. At the crossroads of making a choice between being a passive or active faith. We have to realize that it is from this place of confusion, broken relationship, misunderstanding, and miscommunication, and harm, that the work begins. Because now it is real to us in a way that it wasn’t before. This my friends, is not the time to walk away. This is the time to dig in, open our hearts and minds and ears. This is a time to acknowledge that covenant- those promises we make to one another-covenant which is the core of our theology if we have one - covenant needs to be restored. That we all need to be called back to our best selves. That we need to call each other not out with shame and blame but to call one another in. Call each other into the work of hundreds of years: racial justice. Because you see, as the Rev. Dr. Rosemary Bray McNatt, who is currently the president of our Starr King School for Ministry says, “I know very few ministers of color whose hearts have not been broken.”

 

When I shared with a colleague, a very good friend, who has always been a very good teacher, that we had hired a Person of Color on staff and that I was afraid that I or the congregation would fail them and that I was scared, he replied, “You should be.” It took me until October of this year to realize that I was not the white savior who could prevent Rev. JaeLynn’s heart from being broken. After I gave that up, my relationship with her became more authentic. I wasn’t walking around on politically correct eggshells. But the reality is, there is story after story from People of Color who have had their hearts broken in ministry within Unitarian Universalism. The Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson described her experience of moving from a lay person in our tradition into a religious professional as realizing that she was “a sister from another planet.” But then again she also came to feel quite at home with that because she claimed that identity when she realized that Unitarian Universalism is itself, “a sister from another planet” when it comes to religion.

 

I would ask us to take our lead in this work from Natalie Maxwell Fenimore, who wrote: “I am in love with the UUism that does not yet exist.” When it comes to race, racism, white supremacy, just as I said about the future of church last week, no one has a blueprint. Not People of Color, not those of us who are white. This time, those of us who are white, are not called to be architects. I think we are being called to be demolition experts. To don our hard hats and get busy in being an active faith. Because as I have said before, Unitarian Universalism is not a static faith but is rather, a Living Tradition. It is still becoming itself.  And we are being asked over and over again to stretch our arms wide and ask how much further we can stretch them in embrace. Race, racism, white supremacy- all these issues will not go away when Rev. JaeLynn leaves us. But we will be without a person who tried in her way, with love, to hold us accountable to the work of being actively anti-racist and anti-oppressive.

 

Yesterday, the UUA Commission on Institutional Change released its report that it has been working on since August. The Commission was set up after former UUA president Peter Morales resigned and Sophia Betancourt, Bill Sinkford, and Leon Spencer, acted as interim presidents of the UUA until last June when our current president, the Rev. Susan Fredericks-Gray, was elected. The report asks some very specific things of UU congregations. There are two that I think can guide WUUC in its next steps as we grapple with Rev. JaeLynn’s resignation: The first is, “To create spaces for conversation about systemic racism, other oppressions and internalized oppressions and to seek resources for addressing racism, bias and discriminatory practices.”

 

The second is, “To frankly examine how white supremacy culture, conflict avoidance, a lack of humility, scarcity mentality and a preference of safety over faithful living is  limiting justice work.”

 

The challenge here at WUUC is to have more than the usual suspects gathered for these conversations. To create a safe place for people to explore the questions raised by all of this and to freely express their thoughts and feelings even when they may not be politically correct. We need to be patient yet persistent with one another when it comes to dealing with all of these issues. We are not all in the same place. Of course we aren’t. Our life experiences are so different. But we can all be engaged in the work.

 

Conflict avoidance. WUUC needs to become conflict fluent and resilient. Any congregation needs to do that if it is to survive and be healthy. Not just around race but any issue that comes up. My friends, our relationships are more covenantal when we speak our truths, even when they are truths that make others uncomfortable. And we need to understand that what is broken is not lost to us. If we stay in engaged, if we commit to doing the work, not just reconciliation, but restoration of right relationship, is possible.

 

Humility is key. Remember that it comes from the Latin word humus which means fertile ground. What if all of us could have hearts and minds that were fertile ground for learning?

 

Lastly, we have got to let go of the attitude of scarcity. It is holding us back. In some churches the opposite of scarcity is faith. For us it means embracing abundance. Let’s shift our mindset from one of scarcity to abundance. If we lead with abundance rather than the fear that scarcity engenders, we can live faithfully.

 

I know these words may not be enough for some of you. Or too much for others of you. But we failed not only a person but ourselves as a congregation. Let us simply acknowledge that. We cannot rectify the past. But we can commit ourselves to doing the work of community differently, beginning now. Let us be in love with a Unitarian Universalism that does not yet exist and make it so.