Time to Move Away From Our Racist Past
Thank you for your editorial saying that the Dixie school district should change its name. I agree that it is long past time to do so. It is important to acknowledge our real histories, even if they are embarrassing. Only then can we move forward toward healing and reconciliation. The name “Dixie” was not an accident, and it was chosen for a specific and racist purpose. Also, while I don’t know the actual details of the history of racial segregation in the Terra Linda and Marinwood neighborhoods that comprise the Dixie School District, those are exactly the kind of suburbs that routinely had written covenants that prevented anyone who was not “Caucasian” from purchasing a home there. I do know that the Sleepy Hollow subdivision near San Anselmo had such covenants in its deeds well into the late 1970’s. Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism by James W. Loewen documents how widespread this practice was in the north and west after WWII. Racial segregation in housing was not an accident, but was instead quite deliberately planned. How can African American children feel truly welcome in a school district named with a racist intent? If we want to welcome all, then it is time to say we are sorry for our past and to change the name. To do so would be a symbolic and significant gesture toward racial reconciliation. It is time. Black lives do matter.
It is hard to see the sunlight
Beneath such a murky sea
Blood in the water
And blood on our hands
We have suffered the shark too long.
4 little girls in Birmingham
9 prayerful souls this week
Our hearts can’t break again
Ride the waves, drain the swamps
Speak the truth, call the racists out.
Follow the light
Swim to the shore
Find some air to breathe.
Happy holidays, but what if the holidays aren’t happy?
My heart has been heavy what with the news from Ferguson and New York City. Too many people of color are being killed being by the police, both for minor crimes and for doing nothing at all but trying to live their lives.
They go into a stairwell with their girlfriend and they are killed. They are 12 years old and playing in a playground with a toy gun and they are killed. They are walking down the street or standing on a corner, driving a car, or simply at home with their families. No one is really being held accountable for these deaths.
We are all, in fact, accountable. It has been going on a long time, this violence. It isn’t about individual prejudices, this oppression. It isn’t about a few racist individuals, although they do play their parts. It is about systemic and structural racism. It will take all of us working together to change the system.
My heart is heavy, but I am also encouraged that the pain and outrage that people of color have lived with so long is being voiced in the streets of every major city. Change does not come easy.
One news clip I saw this week keeps running through my head. Eric Garner’s widow cried out the words, “Who is going to play Santa Claus for our grandkids. Who, indeed, will do that? Who will play Santa Claus or maybe even the savior, for this hurting broken world of ours? If ever we needed a Prince of Peace, we need one now.
No, this holiday season is not a happy one in too many ways. But I do hope that we can still enjoy them. I hope we can slow down enough to look at the lights, to rest a bit, like that turkey described in our reading.
The holidays are always complicated.
This season is an emotionally loaded one. There are so many expectations! It is hard to resist the intense advertising, the message that if you don’t go into debt, you are not in the Christmas spirit. There is also, and this is the most damaging I think, the intense social and psychological pressure to be happy, no matter what is going on in your life, no matter how you are actually feeling.
So let me say, right now, and if you remember nothing else from this service, your feelings are OK, whatever they are. Your feelings are OK. If you aren’t happy, let your tears flow. If you are down and a bit grumpy, give yourself a break. If you are outraged over injustice, go ahead and rant about it. You don’t have to be jolly old St Nick for the entire month or the tranquil Mother Mary either. Trust me, I may share a name with Mother Theresa, but I rarely live up to it. I suspect that sainted lady had her off moments as well.
Even if most of the year we can manage to be content to be merely human, Christmas really puts the pressure on. Parents can work very hard trying to create magical moments for their children, and then be really disappointed when a young child collapses in tears from simple exhaustion. Disappointments large and small abound. The present that isn’t quite right, the sweater that doesn’t fit. The words that should be spoken and aren’t. The ones said out loud that shouldn’t have been. Christmas happens in the real world, not in the magical kingdom, not in fantasyland. Sometimes the whipping cream has gone rancid. We need to rein in our expectations a bit. Ice cream works just fine on pie, and if it has gone a little icy in the freezer, just scrape it off a little and dig down to the good stuff.
While Christmas lights and carols can cheer you up, they can also bring you down, especially if you are down already. Christmas is the stuff of memories, if it is a holiday we have celebrated. We remember a lot more about the December 25th’s that we have lived through than we do most other dates in the year. Our memories of those other Christmases are very close at hand in this season. Maybe they are of happier times; times spent with loved ones who have since died.
If you are ill, maybe you remember the Christmases when you were healthy, maybe you remember when you were young, when your children were young. Happier times, much happier times, they might seem to you now. Try and remember, though, that even those golden glowing memories were probably not picture perfect when they were happening. Enjoy them in memory, but try not to let them turn the present totally to gray.
Some of you may also be planning on going somewhere this Christmas that you wish you didn’t have to go. Maybe your extended family does more than simply irritate you; perhaps they are truly toxic to your soul, to your sense of self worth and dignity. Maybe your parents – or your children – just seem to love to criticize and nag you. Maybe they go out of the way to antagonize your partner, to question your life choices, your politics, and your religion. Maybe they just are a pain to be around. Try and remember that family is just that, family.
They aren’t your friends necessarily although they can be, and the biological accident of blood relationship doesn’t have to define your self worth. If it is really bad, it is very OK to decide to spend your holidays with friends or even alone.
Or maybe in your heart of hearts your wish for Christmas is to be with that crazy family of yours and have it be a simple nice time for once. A bit of laughter together shared that could heal so many of the wounds. Wishing won’t make it so, but having that dream, and making the attempt year after year is also OK.
Are you getting my message, yet? Your feelings are OK. And for those of you who don’t face any such challenges with your family members – I know there are at least a couple of you out there – Hey, your feelings are OK too. Count your blessings as you are very lucky.
When you are grieving, in the midst of a divorce, or out of work, the holiday cheer around you can become depressing. “Happy Holidays” is a wish; it isn’t an order, a command, a requirement. If you don’t have a lot to be happy about, it doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. You are just having a hard time, and we all have hard times, especially it seems around holidays.
It is really OK to cry around the Christmas tree or when you light the menorah. Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up about not “really being in the Holiday Spirit.”
We all have many memories of different holiday times, some are good and some are not. If you have ever lived with domestic violence or substance abuse, you know that holidays can be truly horrible when those things are involved. Those unpleasant memories can resurface even in happier times. Shed a tear for them, and if they are in the past, be grateful that the present is better.
It helps, I think, to follow some of the advice of our earlier reading. Enjoy the lights. Enjoy looking at them and enjoy thinking about them and about what they mean.
Light a candle, light a chalice, and make some promises to yourself to keep the flame of hope burning. Like the light in our chalice, the world needs symbols of hope.
Take time to rest, to just relax. It really isn’t necessary to spend every spare moment shopping and stressing out.
Many of us have more things than we need anyway. Spend what money you have in true acts of generosity. Just remember to save that half hour for yourself each and every day.
The last piece of advice from the reading was to make a list of “Things you want for Christmas that aren’t things.” What might be on that list for you?
What do you hope for what do you wish for in the deepest part of your soul?
It could be a wish you have for yourself. Maybe you want work that means something to you, that makes a difference. Maybe you just want a job that pays enough to live on. Maybe there is a relationship that needs healing, someone you used to love that seems like a stranger now. Perhaps you are yearning for a lover, or even for a friend.
Maybe you want to just have a pleasant gathering of family and friends.
It could be a wish for someone else and it could be a wish for the world.
Don’t we all want love and don’t we all want health and happiness? Don’t we all want to be valued for who we are? Can we give those gifts to ourselves, and can we give them to each other?
What about wanting world peace, about wanting justice for all? Wishes don’t always come true, even Christmas wishes, but spending some time with even the seemingly impossible ones can help us to remember what is truly important, and that is very much in keeping with this season.
And then. And then. Slowly try to take a deep breath and just look around you. Find something that warms your spirit. There are miracles in nature, the way the winter light shines after a cleansing rain. Feel the warmth of a fire or the heater coming on. There are small miracles all around you, if you look, no matter what else is going on. Cool water. Warm tea. The way a hot bath can be so relaxing. Notice how the colored lights shine.
Listen to the music. Listen to the children when they laugh. Know that you are not alone, even if you are feeling lonely at the moment. There are people just waiting to exchange a smile with you or to hold you when you cry, to share a clasp of hands, perhaps a meal. There are communities of love not fear.
Look around at each other. This world, this reality, is all we truly need.
Happy Holidays and Blessed Be.
My hands are up
Don’t shoot me please
Young black man
Just walking home
It makes his mother cry
It is my right
Leave me alone
Young white man
Asserting his rights
Assault rifle on his back
Oh waste of loss
America we’ve failed
Storm clouds gather
Justice must rain down
Tears are not enough.
And from Sweet Honey and the rock: Ella’s Song
I have hesitated on whether or not to write this post. Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) is important to me. It is the seminary where I studied for the ministry, and there is so much pain there right now. I don’t want to add to that pain. But it seems to me in all the discussion about the disclosure of confidential information and the board’s response to that disclosure, several important points have been lost. Three of them are, in my opinion:
1. The underlying racism of the reaction to the selection of the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt as SKSM’s next president
2. Ignorance of the power dynamics of institutions, including those of small religiously liberal seminaries
3. Hubris and confusion about what the “empowerment ” of students actually means.
You can read the public documents from the school here.
Facebook has been totally popping, but I only know of one UU blogger who has commented so far. Scott Well’s comments are here. I found some of Scott’s comments less than generous in tone and that is partly why I have decided to add my own voice.
Disclaimer first: I have no inside information, just what I have gleaned online. Most of the discussion seems to be about an anonymous email that contained confidential information and the students whose degrees have not been granted while the school investigates to see if they were involved. Publicly disclosing confidential information is a serious ethical breech, not something that a minister should ever intentionally do, except in cases where there are legal reporting requirements. This wasn’t that kind of case, however. It was instead because a student or students (or others) were upset with the selection of the next president of the seminary and believed the selection process was flawed.
There were 3 finalists for the position, all well respected and highly qualified individuals. When the African American woman was selected as the new president it triggered a lot of frankly racist nonsense about her being somehow less qualified than the other two candidates. This is a major problem for a school that has as an emphasis on social justice work and educating to counter oppressions. It is also something that always happens when a person of color rises to a position of power and authority, so I guess no one should have been surprised. Think of those that still question where President Obama was born. It happens to women too, and there was a very similar reaction when the now outgoing president, Rebecca Parker was first selected. Everyone can have a favorite candidate and is certainly entitled to be disappointed if someone else is chosen, but would the reaction have been the same if the white male had been selected instead? Would his qualifications and credentials be disparaged? Would the selection process have been declared corrupt by anyone?
2. Ignorance of power dynamics
If you chose to attend a small school or if you chose to work for that school, there is an expectation that you will generally support the institution, and also the board and administration. Don’t bite the hand that you want to feed you. Understand where the power lies and approach it with respect. Constructive criticism is one thing, advice offered in love is a gift that, in my experience, is usually reasonably well received, even if it is not followed. A milder version of this incident occurred while I was a student there. One student took it upon herself to state publically that academic standards were being ignored by the school’s administration in certain selections. She at least signed her name, but the personal advice I gave her was that if she really felt that way, it was probably time for her to look at transferring to a different school. Similarly, faculty at a small school need to support school policies and the decisions of the board and administration, at least in all public discussion. If you can’t do that, you don’t belong there. You might even be fired. By the way, this is also true for the staff who work for our local congregations. An office administrator should not be trash talking about the minister – or visa versa for that matter. The whole really is greater than the parts.
Whoever said that the students at the school should get to pick the faculty and the new president? Being able to give some input into such decisions is a gift, so to be outraged when another decision is made is just hubris in my opinion. This may be one of the systemic issues going on. Students are encouraged to speak truth to power and to be vocal on all sorts of social justice issues, but not enough attention appears to be given to the need for humility. The school is about so much more than the current student body and their opinions or even their careers. The outraged students don’t seem to understand that. If they hope to be effective ministers someday then they need to understand that the good of the congregation as a whole always trumps whatever personal issues the minister might have. Always. It can be a very difficult discernment process, but it is one that needs to be done. It should never just be about you; it has to be what is good for the whole, not what individuals think they want necessarily, but what will help them grow in their faith and also make a positive difference in their own lives and in the wider world.
I hope all involved can spend some reflection time on the following question:
What is the best thing I can do for the future of the school, for Unitarian Universalism, and ultimately for our world?
I happen to believe that both Unitarian Universalism and the world need the Starr King School for the Ministry. It is a very special place. It isn’t perfect, nothing is. If we want to be faithful and effective religious leaders then our mission must be to build things up and to make things better. Let’s all try and pray about it. That could help.
Tom Shade has some important things to say about power and authority (here)