It started the way that so many Unitarian Universalist actions start: with a question.
One of our members asked on a progressive social media site, why there had not been any response in Fort Collins to the most recent shooting death of a Black man by police officers – in this case, Stephon Clark in Sacramento.
Just a few days later, the event seemed to be well on its way. Conversations were happening across various communities, speakers were being booked, permits were being pulled, objectives were being outlined. Some of the organizing was messy – most of us didn’t know each other. But we were figuring it out. The Facebook event went live. It was happening.
To be honest, I have been waiting for this moment. I knew it would come, hoped it would come. This moment when the right someone would ask the right question, at the right time, and movement would begin. We could show up, as allies, and supporters with our presence as a predominantly white faith community to support the voices and leadership of people of color.
When it comes to race and racism – we are not well practiced at these conversations in Fort Collins, at least, not in the white community. But in other spaces, amongst people of color, and sometimes across trusted friendships, it’s generations-long. Before I lived in Fort Collins, I first heard about it from one of my favorite artists, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, who wrote a piece about a stay here in 2008. He described the city as “one of the most racist places” he’d been in the U.S., and went on to describe a series of harassing anti-Mexican racist interactions he and his friend had while in town.
It’s long past time for all of us to be having this conversation, and to do the work to make change.
As the team started to discern its plans, it reached out to a core group of leaders of color in the city, hoping to invite their participation and engagement. Instead of positive reception, however, this group expressed serious concerns and resistance. First, at the focus on Stephon Clark and national issues. They felt it perpetuated a myth that racism happens somewhere else, not here. And second, that a single rally or event might help white people feel they were doing something, but wouldn’t necessarily make actual change for people of color in the community. They asked the group to put the event on hold so that greater conversation, relationship building, and strategizing could occur.
I already said that the early stages of this process were messy. But this was something else. This was – painful. Confusing. There was a plan in place, a lot of publicity. Already a group of volunteers being recruited. No one disagreed with the need to address race and racism – and yet it matters how, and with whom. As the Black Lives Matter organizers have said it, we need to move at the speed of trust. And these relationships, this partnership, it didn’t have the trust yet. We realized, we needed to start there.
So the lead organizers put the event on hold. There have been hurt feelings as a result, and some angry words – especially coming from white activists invested in the event. It’s been even messier than those first conversations.
And yet ultimately, I’m grateful that we aren’t moving forward with the event. Because an event is not the end we’re after. The event was just a means towards the bigger end, which is racial justice – and a Fort Collins where all people, including people of color feel welcome, and included, seen, and heard, and valued – for who they are. That end is going to take a lot of messy conversations and a broad coalition of partners. And it’s going to take a willingness to put things on hold when key leaders of color in the community ask for a pause, to slow down to build that trust. It’s going to mean listening, and re-assessing, and learning together, and privileging relationship over publicity, or facebook events – even when they have gotten many likes, and many people indicating their desire to attend.
With the event on hold this weekend, we are re-assessing our plans, and stepping back into that critical relationship-building work, and strategizing together in the way the group of leaders asked for. We’re engaging some help from community leaders who have walked this path before, and we’re taking a breath. We’re committed to the long-haul work, and to doing our part to build the Beloved Community. Most of all, I am grateful to get to be a part, to listen and learn, and to be on this journey, together.
Images of Mary and Joseph haunt me. Not the ones you find in most churches mind you, those ones that get commissioned to be placed in stained glass that feature the immaculately white and pure Mary looking all European and very definitely not pregnant or Palestinian. No, the images that haunt me this time of year are the more raw, modern depictions like Everett Patterson’s Jose Y Maria, which depicts the couple, struggling, in the rain, calling for help, in a bleaker by sadly relatable setting. The No Vacancy sign flickers and calls the question: would you let this couple in?
This is a high bar for most of us to say YES to without reservations. It is one of the reasons I love being part of Foothills, because through all of our shared work, with One Village One Family and our partnerships with Homeless Gear, our commitment to Faith Family Hospitality, and our Sanctuary Church work, we get to answer this question with a collective yes.
But even then the question and the images still haunt me.
Meg Barnhouse in her article Bethlehem’s Hospitality grants me a much needed reframe. Helping me find a personal yes of course in the Christmas story.
When reading the Nativity story through the eyes of Arab-Palestinian culture, one comes to a stunning revelation: There was no Inn.
If you have ever traveled to the Middle East, which I have had the lucky fortune of doing so, you learn quickly highest among all the values is that of hospitality. Even being distant relatives Joseph was returning to his ancestral city, and thus would have been welcomed in by some distant relative.
The room that Jesus came into the world in was not the stable at the back of some Hotel, but Joseph’s distant relatives family room, which according to biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey in Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes “had an area usually about four feet lower, for the family donkey, the family cow, and two or three sheep.”
As Meg Barnhouse writes “There wasn’t room in the guest room, so the baby was laid in one of the mangers dug into the stone floor of the family room or made of wood and stood up on the family room floor, surrounded by animals, aunties, uncles, and cousins”
It is the story of the divine being born in the moments when we find our people and together try our best to accommodate all that life throws our way. Even if it is crowded and noisy, even if it all didn’t go the way we planned. Something beautiful, maybe even divine, can happen when we embrace what is, in all its absurdness miraculousness, and just do the best we can.
A year ago right now, we were preparing for election day. I woke up and put on a white shirt, and helped my daughter find a white shirt, we took a selfie together – we were planning for an historical outcome in the national election. It wasn’t that I thought it was a foregone conclusion – I knew the race was tight. But there was something in my white middle class progressive Unitarian DNA that refused to truly believe that the United States would follow up its election of the first African American president with the election of a president who bragged about sexual assault, or who portrayed Mexican immigrants as rapists, or who denied climate change, or…..
Many of us woke up on November 9th, 2016 stunned by a reality that probably shouldn’t have been such a surprise – but it was. It was painful, and even traumatic for many to have to face, and the fear of what it would mean hung over all of us with an aching dread.
A year later, I wish I could say that these fears were all unfounded, that the communal grief that sent nearly 430 of you into the Sunday service the Sunday after the election was overblown…..but it has been predictably, a really hard year. The fights for health care, and GLBT rights, and against the Refugee Ban, and the campaign-promise-fulfilling willingness to deport all those who are undocumented, regardless on the impact on families or on the individual worthiness as a contributing part of our community…the twitter fueds and the re-initiated global panic on the potential of nuclear war….these all take a toll, on all of us.
The ripple effects of anxiety and overwhelm, dread, and even despair have therapists working overtime, and still each Sunday, so many come for the first time, seeking some way to making meaning and to find hope in the midst of this difficult and upside down world.
A year later, however, I am not without good news. I’ve watched – in countless meetings and in small conversations – a new desire to engage, to make a difference, to orient our lives towards meaningful contributions, and to learn the skills needed to listen more deeply, connect more authentically, and to be a part of much needed healing and restoration for our world.
I’ve seen a deeper commitment to spiritual growth, to attending worship, to giving of yourself in time and with money – this great generosity of spirit in service of a larger vision. And I’ve seen bright faces of joy, and hope, each Sunday – a huge desire to learn, and grow, and be a part of the change we wish to see.
I’ve also seen new grassroots organizations formed, and new partnerships started – some of these have been especially important for our congregation and our learning in addressing homelessness, economic justice, and interfaith relationships. And, a new boldness and courage has taken shape in all sorts of ways, not the least of which in our community has been visible in our sanctuary vote and efforts.
In the past ten months, I’ve taken so many people to their first protest march, it’s incredible. And, I’ve seen a willingness to take risks on behalf of deeper values in ways that I truly don’t think would’ve happened even a couple years ago.
What’s especially meaningful to me through all of this, however, is that I know that not everyone agrees about all the things, or in all the same way – and yet we have found a way to remain in conversation and dialogue. We have been working hard at learning how to have meaningful conversations about real things – and yet to be able to disagree, even while staying connected. It’s a practice that’ll likely take us our whole lives, and so we will continuously rely on grace, and spiritual practices of renewal, and a respect of a regular Sabbath, however that looks like to each of us.
As we cross this year mark, I am especially aware of the potential for burnout – in all of us. That we will simply be too overwhelmed or too tired to keep engaging, that church and community and participating could feel like just one more item on an already too-full to-do list. That the initial burst of resistance will transform into old complacency or cynicism.
This is all on my mind and heart as I look ahead to our plans for the next few months and beyond – at church, and in my own life. We have many days ahead, and there’s no guarantee things are going to get easier. We must be vigilant in all the things that allow us to keep going, to remain at the table so that we can do the hard work, to keep tending to that bright thread of hope. And we must keep leaning in to care for each other, sing for and with each other, make meals for and with one another, keep taking time for gratitude, and joy; silence and story; community and care – committing ourselves once again to the power and potential of real, authentic community of trust and accountability, calling us to show up each day, and offer ourselves to that greater vision.
I first met the Rev. Peter Morales when I was a student in my second year of seminary. We were at a collegial gathering at the church where he was then serving, in Golden, Colorado. He was quiet, and I left the meeting not knowing all that much about him – or he, me.
Still, as a seminarian and lay leader in Denver, I admired Peter’s ministry in the nearby Jefferson Unitarian Church, and so I eagerly supported his candidacy for UUA President in 2009. My partner and I dropped in at his church for the Sunday where he announced he’d decided to run. The enthusiasm and hopefulness in that gathering was palpable. He said, he wished that all of the congregations in the UUA could have the vitality of JUC – that the goodness they had together shouldn’t be contained in one small corner of Colorado. He wanted to lead the whole Association in discovering and embracing what they’d created there.
The first term of Peter’s Presidency was based on this vision, where he repeatedly called on our Association and our congregations to Get Religion, Cross Borders and Grow Leaders. I found this focus clarifying and relevant to the challenges we were facing, and a strong jumping off point for our work together. By the time of his second term (which began in 2013), however, this vision had fallen away as the challenges of institution-building and alignment presented themselves, the ups and downs of regionalization and the insufficient funds at a national level ran their course, and the politics of our small UU world played out. The role of the UUA President often seems to me like the most challenging/frustrating parts of large church ministry put together with the most challenging/frustrating parts of serving our smaller, most change-averse congregations. By which I mean….it’s a job filled intense pressure, public judgment, resistance to change, suspicion of authority, and polarized thinking – as I said to the three candidates currently running for President – you must be very brave. The job seems to me, exhausting, and often, disheartening.
I last spent time with Peter at the gathering for UU ministers serving large UU churches in Santa Barbara just a few weeks ago. He and his wife Phyllis are retiring to the town next to my hometown in Washington state, so we talked about what that life would be like, and what he hoped for. As he spoke of it, I felt happy for him, seeing that he was looking forward to retirement. He shared the surreal and heartbreaking experience of needing to issue “a statement a day” on whatever recent immoral act the Trump administration had done – sometimes there were multiple needs in a single day.
I say all this to start because, I think it’s important in these moments to remember what a small community we are, how often what looks like “big politics” is actually a relatively small group of people trying to figure out how to live and be and grow together, and also that there are finally, simply people here. Flawed, complicated, hopeful people, so wanting our faith to matter, to live into our promise – especially in this cultural moment where so many of our churches are thriving, feeling the call to do the important work of resistance, community-building, and unleashing courageous love.
Yesterday, news broke that Peter resigned his role as President, three months short of the end of his term. For some who haven’t been following our “small world that masquerades as big politics” in the last few weeks, here are the important facts that immediately preceded his resignation. (also check out the UU World summary here.)
- A few weeks ago, a hire was made in the Southern Region, for Regional Lead. The person they hired was a white, straight, cisgender male (someone I consider a good colleague, and to whom I send my sympathy and support through this difficult beginning to his new job).
- The facts of that hire, however, made the leadership of the UUA wildly and disproportionately white, and male. For an explicitly anti-racist, anti-oppression organization, this was/is a problem, and a clear symbol of the larger problem of institutional racism that most of us realize is a part of our infrastructure – an infrastructure we have committed to transform.
- Through letters that spread quickly online, UU Clergy and other leaders named this problem as a systemic issue that needed to be addressed, grieved the lack of progress this hire signaled, and called us to live up to our stated values.
- In response, Peter wrote an open letter and sent it to his staff team across the country (the President is the CEO of the UUA). That letter, for the most part, did not – as he surely hoped – help the situation, and instead caused even greater division. In particular, some among us responded to his defensiveness and his use of the term “hysteria,” which has a particular cultural connotation and history – i.e. that the concerns were being blown out of proportion.
- It was in response to this division, that Peter resigned.
We will be electing a new President in June, so ultimately the practical impact of his resignation will be pretty short-lived. But it is the less-immediate, perhaps less-practical impact that I believe is worthy of our reflection and consideration.
To begin: are we institutionally racist and is our system built to perpetuate white culture and supremacy? Of course. Though we have tried, are trying, keep trying to do better, we are a part of the wider US culture, not immune to these forces. We are also institutionally sexist, homophobic, *trans-phobic, classist, ableist – and we swim in all sorts of other isms and phobias. Generations of Unitarians and Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have perpetuated these systems consciously and unconsciously. This is true in our wider Association, and it is surely true in our individual congregations – including our own.
It is always surprising to me that this is surprising. Perhaps it is because we confuse the Unitarian Universalist faith with the Unitarian Universalist Association. But our faith is not the same thing as the institution of the UUA. The UUA is – to use the great descriptor from Theodore Parker – the transient. The UUA is a human creation, limited by human imagination, human ego and yes, human sin. But our faith is not limited, nor transient – but rather calls to us with the vision of what is permanent – that we might serve on behalf of abundant life, for all – serve on behalf of justice and liberty, for all – that we might imagine a world free of racism, sexism, homophobia – a world free of all of these and other interlocking and oppressive forces – and to work towards such a world’s reality. That we might still journey in covenant together – even when we do not agree, even when our hearts are broken, even when we can’t see our way through.
There is almost always going to be a disconnect between the lofty promises of our faith, and the on-the-ground reality of our congregations, and our Association. This is what faith means in a covenantal association. Inherent to a covenant is the awareness that it will be broken. We will betray one another, and ourselves. The promises are too big, and we are too – human. What covenant asks of us is not to perfectly fulfill our ideals, however – but when things fall apart, to do the hard work of naming what has been broken, what the injury has been, to learn and listen and to try to understand. And then, ultimately, covenant invites us to restore the relationship in a renewal of promises. This is what faith means as a Unitarian Universalist.
Which, I guess, is my way of acknowledging, I wish that Peter would’ve been able to hang in a little longer. I wish he would’ve been able to model how we can and will mess up – even publicly – and yet the broken promise need not be the end of the story. What’s more, his leaving indicates that somehow he was singularly or supremely responsible for this broken covenant – but surely that is not the case. We are all a part of bringing us to this moment, and we all need to look at our own selves, and our own assumptions and privileges, and do our own work – that we might all keep attempting to bring our vision and our reality just that much closer to alignment.
But, he wasn’t able to hang in. For reasons only he knows, he decided to step back. And so we’re left with a feeling of uncertainty – and quite a bit of confusion as UUs across the country who haven’t been paying attention to the “inside baseball” details that led up to this try to make sense of why the UUA President resigned.
What I’ve learned from the past few months and our congregation’s experience of responding to brokenness and uncertainty, is that people are going to have all sorts of feelings – and we aren’t going to agree about how we can or should respond to this moment, or the ones that come next, or the ones after that.
And yet, as Rilke says, “no feeling is final.” The important thing is that we make space for all our feelings, and try not to resolve anything too quickly, or try to make everything seem all better when it isn’t, or to try to make agreement where there is none. It is so much harder to live into the words we say so often than we realize: that we need not think alike to love alike. Or in Ballou’s version, if we agree in love, then no disagreement can do us any injury – but if we do not, then no agreement can do us any good.
The love that Ballou is describing – the love we are called to “agree in” – is that greater love, that courageous transcendent love – the agape love that fuels and binds our covenant, and that calls us on. This love – however – becomes really hard to access when we’re anxious, when we’re uncertain, when we’re shocked – and when we wonder if the gap between what we long for and what we are will ever lessen.
So our task ahead, as an Association, and as Unitarian Universalists, remains a spiritual one. The challenge is to stay connected to this deeper love, this grounding and animating force that holds us, still. And it is to resist the urge to make everything all better and all right too quickly (what theologically we might call, cheap grace) – and instead use this time of uncertainty and the questions that have been raised as a great learning opportunity for how we could be even more who we say we are, that we could build the skills we’re going to need to do the really hard and deep work our faith truly calls us to do. To seek justice, love mercy, and travel humbly – with one another, with this faith, with courageous love, still urging us on.
This past Sunday, we had 180% more of you than usual, and it was what writer Glennon Doyle Melton calls “brutiful,” a combination of beautiful, and brutal. Beautiful to gather, beautiful to sing, to breathe, to laugh and cry and simply come together after a week where, as I said on Sunday, we experienced a “global plot twist.” I could feel the force of love among us. But also brutal, because what inspired so many to show up on Sunday was pain, grief, anger, fear, even despair. It was one of the most powerful Sundays I’ve ever experienced, and I’d give nearly anything for it not to have been necessary.
As we move forward, I want to clarify and underscore two commitments of our faith and our congregation that I hope you’ll help me uphold.
First, we still don’t do shame in our church. We don’t shame each other for who we voted for – no matter who that is, or for coming to different conclusions than we have about big and complex topics, or about how we will move through these complicated times (aka, life).
The emerging future is going to require a lot of learning. And learning requires imperfection, humility, laughter, and grace. We’re going to screw up a lot, and we’re going to state strong opinions that later we realize we were wrong about. A few months ago I preached on what it feels like to be wrong, exploring some of the ideas in the TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz What she says is that being wrong feels exactly the same as being right – only once we realize we are wrong does it feel differently.
We have to give each other and ourselves the space to be wrong, without shame. In place of shame, let us ask more generous questions (the topic of our Wednesday night Civil Conversations gathering by the way!). Instead of shame, try to listen for what’s hurting, what’s being wrestled with, what value is being expressed.
Growth and change require a level of safety – which is not the same as comfort. We need to create safe spaces where we can be uncomfortable together. This is the sweet spot of deep learning – real transformation, and courageous love.
Which brings me to the second commitment: there’s still no “them;”only us. Our world seeks to divide us, to harden the categories of who is worthy, who is good, who suffers the most, who is to blame, who is the enemy, and who is our kin. Our religious lens asks us to not let the categories, or our hearts be hardened to any other, but to keep up the practices that grow more supple hearts, hearts of compassion that can hold ever more complexity and willingness to see ourselves in the other. (This is the work of our upcoming Healing the Heart of Democracy series.)
This second commitment does not mean that we don’t have strong convictions. We are called to a practice of compassion with boundaries, covenant by way of self-differentiation. As my message on Sunday proclaimed, our faith compels us in this moment to a greater justice, a braver and bolder living out of our principles, our living Unitarian Universalist tradition, and our mission. Wherever hatred has been unleashed, we are called to unleash courageous love. The great discipline before us is to discern what that love looks like, and what it asks of us. And for that, we need each other and our religious community, more than ever.
Thank you for being present in the struggle, learning together, and unleashing courageous love for one another, and for our greater world. I have never been more grateful for this community, and our promise and commitment that we are all in this together.