A Journey of a Lifetime
By the Rev. Rebecca Bryan
I was flabbergasted. Why wasn’t the professor doing something? Why didn’t he say something or protect me? I was just being honest in my response to my fellow student.
It was my first year in seminary. I was in a small seminar class with about eight other first-year students. We were a diverse group by many standards, including religion, age and race. We were talking about philosophy and somehow ventured into the subject of race.
In the course of the conversation, I became overwhelmed with the topic of racism. I felt powerless and at a loss of what to do. I said as much and was quickly admonished by a young black student who had clearly heard similar sentiments from other white people. I can only imagine how many other white people. I understand the situation and his response now; however, at the time, I was stymied. Now, I know that it is not a black person’s job to teach me anything about race. It is my job, and our job as white people, and there is an abundance of resources to do so.
At that time in my life, I was still in what I like to call my “denial phase.” I thought about racism when it was the “right” thing to do. When I thought about racism, I felt good about myself. Isn’t that what good liberals do: think about things like racism?
This all changed when I entered the path to ministry. I had an inkling that as a UU minister, I was going to have to engage with issues of racial justice. However, I felt overwhelmed by these and other issues related to social justice. I felt inadequate, less informed, and overall just less up to the task than my colleagues and many of my congregants. Perhaps, I thought, this just wasn’t part of my calling or ministry.
Eighteen months into my five-year process of studying and practicing to be a minister, I went before a pre-credentialing body called the Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy, or RSCC. This was a group made up of laypeople, clergy and UUA staff who met with candidates for ministry early on in their process. The members of the RSCC were allowed to ask us anything. They reviewed our lives from many angles and helped to point out areas where we needed to grow or potentially even recommended that ministry may not be the right path for us.
In my case, you guessed it, the one area that they identified as my growing edge was what we then called, “antiracism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism.” I was not too happy about this; however, my drive to be an ordained minister was stronger than my fear and resistance. So, engage with racism I did.
I chose to complete my two-year congregational internship in an urban church in Connecticut. While there we ran an eight-week course called “Examining Whiteness,” a curriculum offered through our Association. There was such a positive response that we ran it again. This time we invited people from the community to join us. Our “conversations on race,” thus, began, and the work at that congregation continues today.
From there I served as an interim minister in Brookline, Massachusetts. We were together for a set time of two and a half years. I was thrilled for the experience, trusting that it was an integral part of my path to settled ministry. Indeed, it was.
Six months before my arrival, the congregation had adopted a mission statement that included the phrase “to dismantle racism.” The congregation had hired an assistant minister, who is a Latino woman, and there was significant energy around becoming a multiracial congregation. It was happening, and it was hard.
The board was concerned that there might be a split forming in the congregation between people who were 100% invested in this approach to multiculturalism and those who came to church for spiritual reasons. It was not this clear cut, of course; yet, the essence of the concern was real.
What happened was remarkable. I did three things. First, I became willing to engage on the topic of racism. I was honest about what I knew, which was not much, and what I didn’t know, which was a lot. Second, I shared my process with the congregation. And, third, I engaged in activities that taught me and, as a result, grew with the congregation.
Slowly, I became willing to take even greater risks, including hosting members of Antifada, after a congregant worked with them at a peace rally in Cambridge. Antifada is an anti-fascist group that was responding to violence against black people. We were the first and only faith organization that had ever invited them into its space for dialogue. We all learned, and we were all changed.
Racial justice was not on the front lines of issues when I was active as a young adult in Unitarian Universalism. Most congregations in the 1990s were focused on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues.
Race was a big issue for Unitarian Universalism in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. What happened among UUs became known as the Black Empowerment Controversy. There was great fervor and work being put into welcoming black people into UU congregations at that time including allocating $1,000,000 in funding over four years to a group called the Black Affairs Council, or BAC. There were those who wanted blacks and whites to work together in Alliances, and there were others who believed that they should work separately, allowing Blacks to have their own space for healing and work alongside one another. In the end, no money was paid, and an estimated 1,000 black Unitarian Universalists left the denomination.
Speaking of this controversy and loss at a General Assembly, Reverend Jack Mendelsohn, then minister of Boston’s Arlington Street Church, said, “Our Black delegates . . . have left our movement, because life and time are short . . . the Assembly is returning to business as usual and to the position of Black people at the back of the bus.”
This story is critical and important for us to understand today. Rather than rush through it or skim the surface, I would like us to learn this history together through a class, including readings, taped interviews and film. Let me know if you are interested.
Our history as a denomination is important context for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, or BLUU, which our contributions this month are going to support. BLUU was formed four years ago in response to an increased awareness of the institutional racism that has continued within our denomination.
BLUU’s mission is to expand the power and capacity of Black UUs within our faith, provide support, information and resources for Black Unitarian Universalists, and create justice-making and liberation through our faith.
Their recently released vision statement is “BLUU harnesses love’s power to combat oppression and foster healing as a spiritual and political imperative. We know the power of love to be life changing, inclusive, relational, uncomfortable, unconditional and without end.”
Racism exists on four levels: inside of ourselves; between each other; within our institutions, as practices, customs and ways of doing business; and systemically or in the culture at large.
Race, contrary to what I was taught to believe, is not about skin color, and it is not about individuals, although it most definitely affects all of us. It is a social, economic, political system of oppression. Race and racism are constructs of beliefs and attitudes created by humans.
Whiteness, which for many historical reasons is understood in America to be the dominant or superior world view or narrative, is used as the standard, the bar by which all other things are measured. It is used to oppress others who are non-white. And even that – who is white and who is not – changes over time and history.
I was nearly fifty years old before I learned that there is such a thing as white culture. Interestingly, it does not even always have to do with the color of one’s skin, as much as the environment in which we live. Though be assured that white people live in white culture.
Characteristics of white culture include being focused on perfectionism in which mistakes are seen as something bad and wrong, living with a sense of urgency, valuing quantity over quality, worshipping the written word, being defensive, and under it all individualism. It’s all about me. Or even us, a small and elite us.
Whiteness is the dominant culture even if we personally understand it and are acting differently. Whiteness is the dominant view that dictates, laws, social acceptability, economic decisions and so on.
Knowing that racism is not about skin color and is about oppression, we as people of faith and moral conscience, we who are committed to our UU principles of peace, equity and liberty for all people, we who uphold the truth that all people deserve worth and dignity—we cannot remain silent. We must change inside of ourselves, between ourselves, in how our congregation operates. We must do everything in our power to end this.
When Steve said in his testimony this morning that his “children’s lives are physically threatened living in the United States” and that this “is NOT a safe place for them in 2019” and when he says that his family needs allies, we must stand up. If not us, who?
How do we do that? We do it together. We make this part of our commitment and ongoing work. This is not a program, workshop, or check list to complete. This is a way of life. As white people, we will be forever learning. We will make mistakes, and we will have to change if we are to be allies.
This is not about getting more black people into Newburyport or into this church, nor is it bemoaning that there are so few black people around here. It is about changing ourselves and participating in making change in the minds of those that we love and work with and making changes in our congregation and community.
A friend of mine, who is a minister in Virginia, has a gospel choir that sings in his church every month. Each month, it is the most highly attended service. When I asked him how he plans worship with them, he laughed and said, “Oh… gospel choirs don’t plan their worship. They sing as the spirit moves them.” “What do you do as the minister,” I asked. “Does the music fit with the sermon?” He laughed. He knows that I have a lot to learn. He is black, and I am white. He does not have to teach me.
My journey is not over. Far from it. I look forward to where our collective journey will take us. I know that the destination we dream of where all people are truly treated with equity is highly unlikely in our lifetime, and yet we must try. Staying as we are is not the answer.
Climb aboard, my friends. Let’s do this for Steve and his kids, our kids. Let’s do this for our neighbors, for your grandchildren, and for all people and of course for black people. Most of all, let’s do this for ourselves, because only we can break free from the bonds of blind whiteness. Once perceiving those bonds, only we can live differently.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Questions to ponder, discuss and hold…
Where are you on your journey in understanding the role that race plays in your life?
What is one of your early memories as it pertains to race, your own, or another’s?
Can you make one commitment in your commitment to racial equity?