We’ve got a feast for the spirit here, and a feast for the mind. Mango thoughts and jalapeno talk. There is nothing bland about the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, right? Oh, yeah.
But church should be more than interesting dishes on a potluck line. A church should be a sanctuary, a place for respite from a sometimes painful and frightening world, and a place to give us the energy to live our lives in ways that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
While I was in seminary at Starr King, I studied both preaching and theology with Rebecca Parker. Several years later, I took a class taught by both Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We discussed the instructors’ recent book: “A House for Hope, the promise of progressive religion for the twenty first century.” If you are interested in reading it, you can order it online from the UUA bookstore.
Their book contains some serious and meaty theology, and presents, I believe, some critical understandings of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology that help us hold onto both hope and purpose in these challenging times. It is important enough and complex enough, that I am going to do a sermon series on it. For three weeks in a row, we are going to dive fairly deep into theology. I hope you are ready for the ride.
Parker and Buehrens use the metaphor of a house to explain the theological basis of progressive religion, including, but not limited to, Unitarian Universalism.
This metaphorical house has a foundation and is built in a particular place. It has walls and rooms, a roof and a doorway. All of these correspond to categories in systemic theology, which is simply an organized way to look at the different aspects of various religions.
Briefly, because this might give some of you a headache, the foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
We are going to start with the last one: Eschatology, our location and relationship to the earth, the end of the earth, the end of time.
But first, some context:
There is a lot to Unitarian Universalism. We have our seven principles and six sources. We read the principles earlier, and both the principles and our sources are in the front of the grey hymnal.
The sources help to explain who we are and where we come from, and the principles are good guides for living. But neither the principles or the sources are actually theology.
Some folks confuse theology with creeds, so let me clear that up immediately. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a creed, no one tells us what we have to believe. As the song goes, we welcome atheists and redneck Hindus, as well as Pagan Buddhist Jews. That is part of what we offer to those who would join us. No one needs to check who they are and what they believe at the door.
I know that is very important to many of you. It was to me when I first found Unitarian Universalism.
We don’t have a creed, but we do, my friends, have some particular theological perspectives that influence how we interact with each other and with the world.
These perspectives are made up of the various parts I mentioned earlier: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, missiology, and eschatology.
If you can’t remember the definitions of those words, don’t stress. Think about a house with a foundation, walls, rooms, a roof, and a doorway.
Just like a house, none of these theological parts can stand alone.
How we conceive of the divine affects how we organize our churches. How we see salvation affects how we determine our mission. How we worship together reflects all of the above.
Let’s start with how we see the world and the ultimate purpose of existence. The most common eschatology in our wider culture here in the United States is the one that goes something like this: God created the world and in the end humanity will meet its maker, be judged and end up in either heaven or in hell. The end of the entire world will come at the end of a cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon. The world will be destroyed, but the faithful will be saved and taken to a new paradise. This is not what most Unitarian Universalists believe. As it said in the song, in case of Rapture, pack a snack, ’cause we’ll be left behind.
The major problem with that eschatology is that this world, this life, has meaning only so far as it gets us to heaven. If we believe that, we don’t have to worry about degradation of the environment as it will all be destroyed anyway. The pain and suffering in our own lives, the oppression so many are forced to live with, doesn’t matter because the rewards will all come after we die.
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t believe any of that. We do worry about the end of the world, more at some times than others, but our fears are about climate change, war, and other disasters, and not the wrath or judgement of some God.
There are three eschatologies that can be defined as liberal, all of which have been around at least since the beginning of Christianity.
Briefly, these three can be defined as Social Gospel, Universalist, and radically realized eschatology.
All are fairly popular within Unitarian Universalism and many are also shared by other faith traditions. As I go through, think about which one fits what you believe.
Quite of few of our hymns reflect the social gospel eschatology. “We’ll build a Land” is one of the more obvious.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God here on earth where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. This social gospel eschatology is also very popular with Methodists and many Catholics. The only problem with it is that building heaven on earth is hard work. You have to feed all of the hungry people in the world, end all oppression, and probably be extremely nice all the time too. It can also be frustrating when the arc of the universe seems to be bending away from justice. The approach can be inspirational, it can feed the spirit, but if it the only dish served at the church potluck it can also be overwhelming.
The second of the more liberal eschatologies is Universalism, which holds, basically, that “God’s love embraces the whole human race: another line from one of our hymns. If God loves all of us, then we should try to get along. The Universalist faith is in a God of Love who works to bring all into relationship with the divine.
The third liberal eschatology is radically realized eschatology. It is radical, because it says heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and respect.
Jesus said, the kingdom of God is among us. Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground he stood on was holy.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. As Rumi says, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Personally, I like some of all three of the progressive eschatologies. I still dream of a better world and want to help that come about. I believe in a God, a sacred source of love and compassion, that loves each and every one of us. But for my house of hope, I want to live in the radically realized vision, because with that one, heaven is already pretty much here. Yes, there is pain and suffering, but life is also to be enjoyed and treasured. Let it be a dance we do, another line from our hymnal, reflects this attitude.
As I said earlier, the parts of a theological house need to fit together. I am not going to go as deeply into the other parts today, simply because there isn’t time. We will do more in the next couple of weeks
But briefly, some of what we try to do in our worship services relate directly to radically realized eschatology. We have fun. We sing joyful songs and we recognize that life itself is a blessing, that it can be simply awesome. And yes, we can work hard for justice in so many ways, but we also have fun while we do it. It affects our mission, how we organize ourselves, and how we see God. It helps us figure out how to “let nothing evil cross this door.
It tells us that heaven can be right here, that comfort and healing can be found, not in some far-off place, but right here, right now.
That is the hope, a hope that is here because we can feel it among us when we gather together. We all know about hell. We all see the damage that is being done by those who believe that this life doesn’t matter, who don’t really care about protecting our planet because they think God will destroy it anyway.
We also know heaven. We see it in the sparkle of our children’s eyes. We see it in the tenderness of our caring committee. We feel it in our chalice circles, where we share our stories from deep inside.
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens say that to thrive, hope requires a home.
The fire rains down across the west
Choking smoke and flames
The water rises with the wind
Drowning out our southern lands
The drums of war beat loudly
Behind the Nazi chants
Dreams turn into nightmares
None of us are safe
I don’t believe in Armageddon
That’s not my kind of God
This horror is not holy
And prayers are not enough
Breathe deep with battered lungs
And sing into the howling wind
Beat your hands in time to music
Keep heaven in your heart
The roots of love run deep
A taproot to our souls
Be like the mighty redwood
Staying strong amidst the flames.
Snap your head
Back over your shoulders
Though it might seem
The world has gone insane
No time for dreaming
Lost in the clouds
Of a sweet fantasy land
Where reason might rule
Break open your hands
Dig in the dirt
Find the lost souls
Buried in fear
Wind up your wisdom
Carry your load
Speak when you’re able
As loud as you can
The rain is still falling
The flood waters burn
With the acid of lies
From clouds of despair
Pack up your troubles
And lend me a hand
If we stay woke
We might witness the dawn
Some words by Jonipher Kwong, a poem entitled
They say faith without works is dead
So I worked for equality
Next to my queer friends who wanted to get married
And I worked for religious freedom
Next to my Muslim friends who were accused of being terrorists
And I worked for racial justice
Next to my black friends whose lives were affected by police brutality
Yet I didn’t feel fully alive even after working myself to death
Until I let my work become a spiritual practice
Until I let go of my attachment to the outcome
Until I stopped chasing after political issues, one after another
I still believe faith without works is dead
But works without faith is just as lifeless
I was an activist before I was religious, and those words ring true for me. Without some type of faith, political engagement can really suck the joy out of life. There are always defeats and disappointments, hard fought progress is stopped or, worse, reversed. Despair, frustration, and bitterness can grow until one can forget to treat even friends with kindness. Infighting and misplaced righteousness has torn many a positive movement apart.
I have experienced that, I have seen it and I have lived it. Many of you have lived it too. Sometimes it even happens in churches.
I was worried when I went to New Orleans in June for our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A pattern of white supremacy within our association had been called out by brave Unitarian Universalists of color. There was defensiveness and some serious mistakes by some of our leadership which resulted in some significant resignations, including that of our national President. Our well-respected Moderator was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer and he died within a matter of weeks. Both of our two nationally elected offices were vacant.
What was going to happen? Would our faith be torn apart by the same forces that were tearing apart our country and the whole world? Would we find the courage and wisdom to resist not only the forces of evil that surrounded us, but also the fear that lived inside of us?
So, I was very worried. I knew what was happening within was in part the result of what was going on in the world. After the election, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities of all kinds, people who identify as Jewish or Muslim, immigrants, felt even more vulnerable than they had before. The list goes on to include everyone who is marginalized in some way, even women who are a majority in numbers but not in power, and of course that list includes all of the people that love someone whose very worth and dignity, whose actual life in many cases, is under direct attack.
So no wonder, so no wonder, that folks became more sensitive to instances of white supremacy, of sexism, of all the “isms” that afflict our culture, even the culture of our faith tradition.
I worried, but I shouldn’t have. I should have had more faith that who we are as Unitarian Universalists would help us through even this hard time.
My experience at both General Assembly and Ministry Days was simply amazing, and renewed my faith and my commitment.
Our national board named three African American co-presidents who led with grace, compassion, and courage. The Minister’s association’s worship included voices of ministers of color and other marginalized groups who spoke their truths as clearly as they described their visions. Co-moderators were appointed who led the business portions of our meetings with humor, transparency, and a flexibility that was a real joy to witness.
We tackled white supremacy in numerous workshops and in healing spaces reserved for people of color.
That work is far from done – Let me share an example of something I learned in one of the workshops, something that I don’t think was a part of the lesson plan. The workshop was described as a place to sing some of the music in our hymnal that comes out of the African American heritage. The room was crowded and it was clear there weren’t going to be enough hymnals for those sitting in the back. As often happens, there were plenty of seats up front. The workshop leader asked those in the back to move up front so they could share a hymnal. And then, a white woman in the back questioned this, saying it would be much better if some of the hymnals were handed to those in the back.
It was subtle, it was likely unconscious, but it was a clear example of how white supremacy can function in a religiously liberal setting. I caught the eye of the African American woman sitting next to me who also noticed the sense of entitlement that seemed to prompt that demand. The facilitator simply said no, we aren’t going to do that. Too often white folks think we know better and that our needs and ideas should take priority, even if we are late to the party. Listening, really listening, to the stories and experiences of a very diverse Unitarian Universalism was an important part of that week in New Orleans.
It was a joy that our youth from this church were there to experience it as well. Next week, they will be sharing some of their experiences with you.
I could go on about general assembly, it was a full and fruitful time.
But our world keeps turning, and there is going to be an eclipse of the sun – tomorrow, yes?
What a metaphor a solar eclipse is. Especially for us, who light our chalice each week for the light of truth, the warmth of love and the energy of action. We cannot let that light go out. We cannot let the forces of hate and bigotry, we cannot let fascism, because that is what it is, we cannot let it blot out our sun or dim our chalice. The symbol of our chalice, as most of you know, was created during WWII when we, as a faith, took a stand against the Nazi regime and all it stood for.
Many Unitarian Universalists were in Charlottesville last weekend, including Susan Frederick Gray, our newly elected national president, the first woman to ever serve in that position. Arm in arm with her were other clergy, including Jeanne Pupke, who had run against Susan in one of the pleasantest elections I have ever witnessed. Many were trained, many were veterans of non-violent resistance actions. Facing armed Nazi’s screaming racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic curses at them was a very different experience than they had ever had before. What courage that took. What faith they had.
They were not safe. They could have, and almost were, beaten. They could have been killed. Heather Heyer was murdered that day and many others were hurt.
During WWII no one was really safe from the Nazis, and I believe no one is safe today. They have come for the immigrants already. They have attacked Mosques and synagogues, they have burned down the houses of gay activists as happened in Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
What is happening is frightening; it can be overwhelming; and it can freeze our souls to numbness and despair.
We need to resist this evil with all that is in us, and we can do so with joy, rejoicing in the fact that we are not alone in this struggle against hate. We can do so with faith, knowing that as long as we remain true to our values, with our tradition as a guide, and the power of love as our engine, the forces of evil will not prevail. Our spirits will be renewed and our world restored.
I will end with these words by Anne Barker. She names the pain and she names the love that abides:
When the Unimaginable Happened
When we heard the news, saw the wreckage, felt the paralyzing blow…
Our hearts broke open – and spilled out – into our hands
And there we were
Watching our Love seep between our fingers
Watching our fragile Love pour out all over us.
Watching our Love seem to slip away.
When the unimaginable happened,
The ache we felt-
As if Love was being lost
Was the ache of Love’s despairing truth.
This is the Love that no one chooses,
the loss so out of order, so profound,
the Love we did not ever want to know.
And yet, the source of this despair,
the reason our hearts cleave and flow,
is because they know the fullness.
This is the Love of truth and beauty,
Love that spans the web of being,
Uniting each of us within its timeless form.
When we heard the news,
Our hearts broke open, spilled into our hands
And there we stared at Love, lamenting,
“What am I to do with this?”
And with these raw and tender yearnings
We will – beat after precious beat-
Seek wholeness once again
It will take time to find our balance
To grieve, if we will make the room.
Remember, friends, this is the right thing
This ache within our deepest beings.
Know that all these things are normal
To feel disrupted, empty or undone.
Our hearts broke open and the Love that is still true
Draws us once again together, story by story, step by step,
Into places of tender knowing, remembering
To restore us, mend us, piece by broken piece.
This is the Love that runs between us,
Sustaining force of restoration,
The Love that nourishes and feeds us,
Binds us, each, to our collective core.
We grieve…and march….and weep….and sing
And through the pain – but not despite it –
Love will repair us, not the same, but stronger in some places,
Honoring memories like treasures,
Living out our lives’ potential
In the shadow of the trespass
In the warmth of one another
In the light of what, restored, we will become.
May it be so, Blessed Be.
Sometimes when I wake
I am not sure
Where I have been
Dreams are like that
A soft focus
An imagined universe
Where the rules
Never quite apply
Sometimes when I stop
Doing whatever it was
That kept me busy
I am not sure
Where I am
What kind of world is this?
A harsh light
Batters my eyes
And I awake
To the suffering
All around our world
Hold me in a dream
Bring me home
To that land
Love and justice thrive
Peace at last
A soft focus
A sweet dream
Remembering, a year later..
Where will our grief go
If our tears should ever dry?
Where will our fear go
If our heartbeats ever slow down again?
Where will our rage go
If our bodies ever stop their shaking?
Our lives, our loves, are a river
Try to damn it though they do
Kill us with bullets and Bibles
Ban us from bathrooms
And let the white rapists go free.
Still we flow
On forever on
Until we finally swim free
In that warm sea
Filled by our tears.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” – Emma Lazerous
Tired so tired
We need another golden door.
Our own poor masses
No longer can breathe
The toxic soup of lies
That spew from factories of hate
Refuse fills our beaches
While children drown
On other shores
Homeless walk the streets
Of every town
In our “good ole USA”
Time to huddle
Time to pray
Time to plot
And way past time
To lift our lamps
Raising our voices
High and clear.
To dry the tears
Of our Lady, Liberty.
Clean and sharp as a zip line
The truth zings down
Old vines, twisted leaves
Can only cover
The truth so long
Fasten your harness
Carry water and snacks
It is going to be
An amazing ride
At a frightful height
Hold onto the truth
Hold onto the line
Balance is everything
Brute strength alone
Won’t keep us down.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are a promise making people. Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith, not a creedal one. What does that mean?
Theodore Parker had this to say:
“Be ours a religion which like sunshine goes everywhere, its temple all space, its shrine the good heart, its creed all truth, its ritual works of love.”
His ritual really was works of love, he was an active abolitionist. Naming our creed all truth was also a definite challenge to the religious mainstream of his day.
A creed is a statement of beliefs that are taken on faith. Members of religious institutions that have creeds are expected to agree with the beliefs specified in that creed. If you question the Virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or his unique divinity as the only son of God, you can be labeled a heretic. During the reformation, many were burned at the stake for that kind of questioning. Today, people are excommunicated from some faiths because they do not believe or follow all of a church’s teaching.
Parker’s line, “creed all truth,” was an affirmation that people should believe what is true and also that truth is subject to testing, to analysis, to science as well as personal experience.
Unitarian Universalists believe things, of course we do.
As individuals we all have beliefs, some of which we hold fiercely and passionately. There are also a lot of beliefs that we hold in common with one another. Those beliefs are not a creed, however, because they are not a requirement for membership. They are also subject to change based upon new knowledge or new experience. Our creed, if we have one, really is all truth but what that truth may be at any given time or for any given person is open to both questioning and doubt.
Some people consider our seven principles a creed. Many of us when we first read them, say, “oh yes, that is exactly what I believe!” Let’s look at them now if you will. They are in the front of our hymnal.
Please note the introductory lines. It does not begin with “I believe” like the Apostles creed. It says instead that we covenant to affirm and promote– and what does covenant mean? Simply, a covenant is a promise. As Unitarian Universalists, we make promises; promises to do things. The seven principles of Unitarian Universalism are not statements of belief, but rather action plans that we try to follow both as congregations and as individuals. Action plans! Don’t you love it?
What matters most is not what we believe, but what we do, how we treat other people and how we care for our planet. It is our promises that hold us together, it is the ways we have pledged to live our lives. That is a lot harder work than simply saying you believe in the virgin birth.
Am I treating that person that bugs me with respect? Am I fair and just when I deal with others? Am I working toward the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all? If we are faithful to them, our seven principles call us to that kind of reflection and action every day of our lives.
And yes, I guess you have to believe that justice, equity and compassion are good things, so beliefs are a part of it. But the key is not the belief, but the promise of action.
Has anyone here ever been asked, “What do Unitarian Universalists believe?” It is really the wrong question as we believe a lot of different things, in particular about theology. A better one is perhaps, “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The best answer is that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal faith. We are bound together by our promises. Covenants are not contracts, but statements of intent. How we live into those promises, the actions we take in our lives and in the world, are what matters.
Covenants also aren’t rules or laws. You don’t go to jail or get throw out of the community if you break your promises from time to time. We all break our promises sometimes. We are human and we do not always live up to our best intentions.
But living according to covenant can bring us back to those intentions when we fail short. We can forgive each other and ourselves. Then, we can we begin again together in love.
The point is that we have promised to live our lives in a particular way, affirming and promoting certain principles that we have agreed upon.
Many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations have also adopted congregational covenants that contain promises about how we will be together in a religious community.
A sample is as follows:
“As a member of our Unitarian Universalist community, I covenant to affirm and promote our Unitarian Universalist principles. I am mindful, that as an individual and as a member of this community, I am accountable for my words, deeds, and behavior. Therefore, whenever we worship, work, or relate to one another, I covenant that I will:
Treat others with kindness and care, dignity and respect;
Foster an environment of compassion, generosity, fellowship, and creativity;
Share in the responsibilities of congregational life;
Speak truth as I experience it and listen to all points of view;
Practice direct communication. Speak to the individual –
not about them;
Act with respect and humility when I disagree with others;
Seek out understanding and wisdom in the presence of conflict;
Be true to my chosen path although the way may twist and turn, and support others on their journeys;
Resolve conflicts through intentional compromise and collaboration and, when necessary, request facilitation and/or mediation. “
The members of our board of trustees are in the midst of adopting a covenant for the board, promises about how they will work together for the good of the congregation as a whole.
They also think it would be good if we can adopt a congregational covenant, something similar to the one I just read. Such covenants have been proven to enhance the positive feeling of community and to reduce the rancor that can sometimes be involved in conflict situations. Disagreements are inevitable and if voiced respectfully can actually serve to make a community stronger and more committed to its common mission. They can help refine that mission and make it real. But nothing will drive people away faster than conflicts that are not discussed openly, respectfully, and directly.
Being in a religious community that really lives our values is very hard work. How many of you have been hurt by an unkind word by someone you thought was a friend?
What if you discover that you have hurt someone else by a thoughtless act or comment? How did you get back in right relationship? A covenant can help with that, as it is a reminder of how we have promised to be with each other.
Like marriage vows, which are a form of covenant, covenants of right relationship are best if they are created by those who are making the promises to each other.
Those of you who have participated in Chalice circles all have some recent experience in creating covenants.
Those covenants vary, but there are some common themes such as listening respectfully, keeping personal information confidential, sharing time fairly, and honoring the commitment to show up.
If UUP decides to create a congregational covenant, then each of the members will need to reflect upon what is important to them in creating and maintaining a strong and resilient religious community. How do you want to handle conflict? What is the difference between gossip and sharing someone else’s news?
Speaking directly to each other and not about each other is probably the hardest promise in any covenant. What fun it is to complain to a sympathetic ear about something someone else has done! How much harder it is to tell the person directly that you don’t like what they did and why.
One clarification on that: it really isn’t necessary to tell people to their face every little thing we don’t like about them. We all have personal flaws and quirks that it would be a bit rude to have pointed out to us. We all make mistakes. But if we are upset enough about something that we begin to gossip or complain to others about someone else, then we need to express those feelings directly.
It is about respect. It is how most of us would like to be treated. It also prevents misinformation from being spread and the community becoming unsettled by rumors and innuendo. Acting with respect and humility when you disagree with someone is also important. None of us can be right all of the time, and opinions expressed in arrogance can be very destructive in any community.
We also have a culture, both as a nation and as a faith tradition, that tends to be suspicious about anyone in any authority, and that tendency can make it difficult for anyone serving in a leadership capacity. It is not always just about the minister, although the minister rarely escapes such reactions, and most of us have learned to expect it, even if it is not pleasant.
How many of you have served on the board or on a committee and received criticisms that were hurtful? That demeaned your character, ability, or your intentions? Luckily it doesn’t happen very often here, but when it does it can be very hurtful.
A congregational covenant that establishes a practice of acting with respect and humility when we disagree with each other, of treating others with kindness and care, can go a long way in making the inevitable disagreements less personal and hurtful.
There are literally hundreds of congregational covenants that have been adopted by Unitarian Universalist congregations.
If UUP wants to create one of its own, a good way to start would be to create a task force of interested members who could look at a number of samples and then develop a draft to propose to the congregation. If you would be interested in participating in such a task force, please let me or a board member know.
I will end with a poem by the Rev. Derrick Jackson
We Are Called
In these times, we are called:
Called to step into the mess and murk of life
Called to be strong and vulnerable
Called to console and to challenge
Called to be grounded, and hold lofty ideals
Called to love in the face of hate
We are called
And it is not easy
And we will not always agree
And we will yell, and scream and cry
And we will laugh and smile and sing
We are called to be together
There is so much work to do
And we cannot do it alone
We need one another
Holding each other accountable to our covenants, to the holy, to love and justice
In these times, we are called.
Bottom line, the test of faith in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is not about believing the right thing; it is rather about doing what is right. May we all strive to live up to our highest aspirations for the common good.
Blessed Be and Namaste
A couple more short readings:
From THE INVISIBILITY OF WHITENESS By john a. powell
White people have the luxury of not having to think about race. That is a benefit of being white, of being part of the dominant group. Just like men don’t have to think about gender. The system works for you, and you don’t have to think about it.
So they live in white space and then they don’t have to think about it. First of all, they think about race as something that belongs to somebody else. The blacks have race; maybe Latinos have race; maybe Asians have race. But they’re just white. They’re just people. That’s part of being white.
from the Rev. Karen Quinlan,
But more often, I’m learning, true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.
Culture is simply everything that’s around us. At some point in our lives, we learn that there are other ways of being. Our human tendency is to think that ours is better than theirs.
When we are white, thinking that ours is better is supported by the fact that our social and political systems have been built through the same frame through which we’re looking.
We learn that our way is the right way and the best way. Simply put, this is white supremacy culture.”
She also says, ‘Come on and look inside you–it’s the best place to start.’ The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.’ So that is where I am going to start. I am going to tell some stories about how I, as a white woman, learned about race and about white supremacy. Just to be clear, white supremacy is the system we all live in, you don’t have to be a racist to participate in it, or, if you are white, benefit from it. As I tell my story, you might want to reflect on whether your own is similar or not.
I grew up in Watsonville, CA, a relatively small, primarily agricultural town. Unlike many white people who grew up in racially segregated suburbs, the town was very ethnically diverse and I was aware of that from an early age. Many of my friend’s parents were first generation immigrants and English was their second language if they spoke it at all. Our next door neighbor, who took care of me while my mother worked, spoke mainly Portuguese. I remember my mother explaining, when I was very young, that the town was settled by waves of immigrants who came mainly to work on the farms. Italians, Slavonian’s, Portuguese, Germans, Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Okies, and Mexicans were the groups she mentioned. I asked what we were, and she said Okies. Everyone had an ethnicity of some sort in my mother’s opinion, and she used it to describe virtually everyone we knew.
Phyllis was my Chinese friend, John was Slavonian, David was my Jewish friend, and I was named after my mother’s German friend, Theresa.
I remember asking her what we were. She said we were Okies. She’d moved from Texas to California in the 1930’s to find work as a waitress in Hollywood.
I have been thinking about Jordan Edwards a lot this week. He was the young African American teenager who was recently killed by the police in Texas. He was only 15 and had been at a party with his brothers and some friends. When someone said that the police had been called, they got in their car and tried to leave. An officer shot at the departing car, and Jordan was killed by a bullet to his head.
I have been thinking about it a lot, partly because when I was a teenager I went to a friend’s party. Some of the kids were drinking and her parents called the cops. We all got in our cars and tried to get away. In a panic, my friend David backed his car into a muddy field and we got stuck, but finally managed to get the car out and get away. We were scared, but because we were white, our lives were not at risk. The worst case scenario would have been a phone call to our parents and being grounded. That was white supremacy at work although I did not realize it at the time.
I was not totally unaware of racism as a teen, however. My US History teacher in high school, Mr. Hashimoto, had been interned with his family during WWII and talked about that on more than on occasion.
He also told us that it was because of racism that the US dropped the atom bomb on Japan rather than on Germany. He taught me to question things.
In college, although I had the opportunity to hear Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Bobbie Seale and other Black Panthers speak during those turbulent times, it was also the first time I was exposed to a pretty monolithic white middle class culture. Almost everyone in my dorm was white and most of them came from upper middle class white suburbs. White supremacy became the water I swam in.
I saw the class issues, because I was a scholarship student, but my social life was almost completely white and I was clueless about it. We were all for racial justice, but we didn’t really know any black people at all. One thing I have learned over time, is that while ideas and values are good things, you can’t really know someone else unless you take the time to listen. You can’t live our first principle without a deeper understanding of the inherent worth and dignity of all, which is so much more complicated than just accepting the sometimes very self-centered individualism of people with a lot of privilege.
I learned so much during my 25 years working for Social Security in Richmond CA. With almost 2000 employees when I started, it was something like 40% African American with a good mix of other ethnic groups. White people were not the majority, although something like 60% of the management staff was white.
What that meant is that people of color felt safe enough to talk about race and racism openly.
During the OJ Simpson trial, there was a clear racial divide and people argued about it. Most of the white folks thought he was guilty, and most of the black folks wanted him to be freed. When the verdict was announced, the black people cheered. A black man accused of killing a white woman was declared innocent. It was an historic event, something that rarely happens when you live under the thumb of white supremacy. I learned something very real about the reality of black lives
I shared with a black co-worker, a lay sermon I wrote about how Anne and I created our family as lesbian parents. (It was my very first sermon.) She cried when she read it, and told me she thought her church was wrong in how they treated gay people. She then told me of going to a sleepover camp where she was the only black child. She was 9 or 10 and could not swim very well. All of the other kids had swum out to a platform on the lake and she was left on the shore. She gathered her strength and her courage and swam as best she could out to the platform. She was exhausted when she got there, but when she tried to get on the platform to rest, the other kids wouldn’t let her. I am not sure if they used the “N” word or not. She did not say, but she cried again as she told me of almost drowning as she made her way back to shore. I was so honored that she trusted me enough to share that story. I did not make any excuses for the kids who had been mean to her. I just cried with her.
That story was a hard one, and I have more like that, but I have a few funny stories too. My assistant manager Hazel was complaining that I got internet access at my desk before she did. She said it was racist, that all the black managers were going to be last. I looked at her with a straight face and said, maybe, but maybe they are just giving the internet to all the gay managers first, because everyone knows how good we are at technology. We laughed for a solid half an hour about that one.
Conversations about race can be difficult. They can be uncomfortable.
The history is full of pain, and too often white people can get defensive because they don’t want to feel guilty. The very term, white supremacy, is one that is particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves liberal and certainly not racist.
But you don’t have to identify as a racist in order to acknowledge white privilege and that we live in a culture, a system, where white people and white culture is what is most highly valued. It shows up in all kinds of decisions, including hiring, including within Unitarian Universalism, including in our headquarters, our regions and our congregations. Despite principles and written commitments to diversity, the white candidate is often seen as just the “better fit.” My friends who are ministers of color know that they are less likely to be called to serve a UU congregation than are their white peers.
Straight white cisgender men are also still the most likely to be called to serve our larger churches.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are unfortunately very much alive within Unitarian Universalism. It isn’t always blatant, and the specific instance can be complicated, but if we were really who we say we are, who we want to be, the end result would be different.
Driving home to Utah from the Phoenix General Assembly I was stopped at the Arizona border in what was clearly a speed trap. The state trooper was almost apologetic to this older Anglo woman who maybe looked like his mom. I got a ticket, but he did not call immigration to see if I could be deported. I wasn’t shot and killed as so many people of color are during traffic stops. I did not have an Arabic sounding name so I wasn’t a terrorist. He didn’t ask to search my car looking for weapons or drugs.
I was white, so I was automatically one of the “good people” the “safe people.” The system of white supremacy took care of me. Every day of my life I have reaped the benefits of being white.
And every day, I have suffered from it too. It has kept me separated from other people me so that those moments of sharing across racial lines are as rare as they are precious. I can’t really be free until everyone else is free too.
This is too long already, so I am going to end by asking you to think some about your own lives and how you learned about and understood racism and white supremacy. You might want to share those thought with others during coffee hour.
This work will take a lifetime, but it is what will finally save us. We can all find some of the amazing grace we will sing about in our closing song, one that was written by a man who earned his living as a slave trader. Blessed Be