The UUA President, Institutional Racism, Broken Covenants, and Living with Uncertainty

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.)

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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The power of presence

brene-brown-courage-show-up.jpgWhat can I do? When things feel off track in our lives or in our world, most of us ask ourselves this question.  We want to help, to act – do something! Yet so often, there isn’t anything really obvious to do, which makes us feel helpless, confused, and even more distraught.

One thing that is often overlooked is also one of the most powerful ways to have a big impact – which is to simply show up.  Show up for your friends with a phone call, email, or text asking simply, “how are you?” Show up for your children or grandchildren with your full attention sans phone or other distraction.  Show up for your friends or for others in the church with coffee, or a meal.  Show up on Sunday with a friendly smile and a “welcome!” Show up for your neighbors by cleaning off their walk as well as yours.  Show up for your own life, fully present.

The power of our presence is also instructive when it comes to our response in our greater community.  For example, the immigration-advocacy group, Fuerza Latina has launched 9 different committees to begin work in various ways to tend to the safety, protection and care of immigrants in our community.  At the meeting of the Sanctuary City group on Monday, I was struck by the power of two dozen of us in the room together, all self-selected citizens just wanting to “do something,” and struggling to figure out once again, what to do.

There were CSU leaders, dairy farmers, teachers, social workers, and scientists – and everything in between.  Together we stumbled through the questions and task before us, the question of organizing ourselves and coordinating, and attempting to articulate what it was we hoped to accomplish.  I’m not sure what will come of it, yet the showing up together remains important.  We need to be together, learn together, question and struggle together.

Throughout the meeting it struck me how many other meetings just like this are happening not just in our city, but across the country.  Democracy and human relationships are clumsy and slow and yet also beautiful and kind and so well-intentioned. Sometimes the lessons of showing up aren’t just about what you get done, but about cultivating the patience and the perspective to remain steadfast through all the messiness of the real work.

Fuerza Latina is just now getting clear about how best to leverage the great desire to “do something” that exists in our community.  I’ll let you know as these and other more action-based opportunities become more clear.

Until then, showing up for one another and for our immediate circle remains vital, and foundational.  We have a long road ahead, and our presence for one another and in our own lives is what will make all the difference as to whether or not we can keep showing up for our neighbors – and whether we can, as I said on Sunday, keep doing so with joy, laughter, love – and dancing!

Thank you for your partnership, and for your continued presence.

 

Highlights from General Assembly from Foothills Delegates

Five Foothills members – in addition to our current and future ministerial team Rev. Gretchen Haley, Diana McLean, and Sean Neil-Barron, attended the UU General Assembly (GA) in Columbus, Ohio, the last week of June.  It was, as always a powerful and somewhat overwhelming experience of learning, encouraging and clarifying all who gathered in our faith, values, and sense of purpose.

One of our delegates, Erin Hottenstein, shared her highlights from GA in her reflection last week.  This week, we invited the other four delegates to share their one big take-away from their GA experience.  Here’s what they had to say:

  1.  The powerful Sunday Morning Worship experience.

Judy Ohs writes, “I looked forward to Sunday morning at GA, remembering the last time I attended it was a very moving service, and I was not disappointed.

Glen Thomas Rideout was in charge of the music and choir, which was awesome.  He also read a poem he had written about the anture of God, saying god is waiting to be unshrunk!

Nancy McDonald Ladd gave a sermon, ‘In All Thy Getting, Get Understanding,’ with as much energy, humor and meaningful challenge as any I have ever heard.  She admonished us to ‘STOP having FALSE FIGHTS’ in our congregations – those fights about insignificant things like ‘the color of the paint for the bathroom,’ and instead get out in the mainstream of our lives, resisting things harmful to ourselves and others, and promoting the things needed for just living for all.  She said when we don’t get our way, we are ‘lovers of leaving’ (referencing the hymn, Come, Come, who ever you are), and that we need to put our personal preferences aside, and instead have the real and hard conversations with each other.  Only this will allow us to create real change, rather than becoming thoroughly agitated, but fundamentally unchanged.  She ended by saying that we need to ‘step more fully into encounters with the holy and the world,’ and in doing so we can love more and speak more.  We can reach out to someone whose hand is near to find support and keep it real.  The service ended with us all singing ‘Reach out and Touch Somebody’s Hand.’

It is my sincere hope that each of you will take the time to watch this service (video posted above).  It will lift your spirit and challenge your soul, and perhaps help you move out into the world to help create the change we need.”

Lindsay Smith added: “I have one request of our Foothills family: please watch the Sunday service. I found it deeply moving and hope we can use it as a common point of reference going forward.”

        2.  The welcome for young adults.

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Lindsay Smith writes: “As a first-time delegate to General Assembly, I appreciated the Planning Committee’s dedication to creating a welcoming space for young adults. Not only did the UUA set aside resources to help young adults get to GA, but supported us the whole week. We had dedicated staff and seating blocked off in the large general sessions. We even had ‘General Session Bingo’ to keep things interesting.

Many times I went back to the helpful guide on young adult programming in our (jam-packed!) schedule. I attended workshops on topics from interfaith work to the role of spirituality in mental health. I was happy to see many folks of other generations participating with us, too.

I was overjoyed to represent our congregation in the banner parade alongside my partner Nick. I felt proud to represent our Foothills community and loved seeing Rev. Gretchen, our president Erin, our new minister Sean, and many others cheering for us as we sang through the aisles.

Then, it was time to get down to business. The overarching theme of this year’s GA was racial justice. Youth and young adult UUs of color inspired me by sharing their deeply personal stories. They called us to immediate action with strength, courage, and love. Workshops on anti-racism helped start some of the uncomfortable but necessary conversations that need to take place among UUs and in the wider community.

GA left me inspired to connect with UUs both inside our home church and beyond. It was great to compare notes with delegates from churches across the country.

         3. The Choir 

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Nick Marconi writes, ‘Choir is a decision.’ These are the words with which Dr. Glen Rideout opened each rehearsal at GA, offering various reflections on the notion. Choir is a setting aside of time to come together and join in fellowship and purpose. Choir is the realization of the idea that we are stronger and more capable working in harmony—the embodiment of the mantra, “I put my hand in yours so that we may do together what we cannot do alone.” Choir is no mere blending of voices; it is a congregation, and it is deliberate.

In a week where very little else seemed deliberate, 180 of us dedicated ourselves to bringing the Sunday worship services to life. For me, it wasn’t the size of the choir or the audience that brought great meaning; 180 celebrants performing for a crowd of 3,000 is neither the largest ensemble nor audience I’ve experienced—even in Columbus itself, a city I had called home for many years. The real meaning came from the unity of purpose in a room that had lacked it over the course of several painful general sessions. The morning service brought renewed focus to disparate hearts. The afternoon service with Rev. Sekou and The Holy Ghost granted catharsis for those of us who have become all-too- frustrated not only with the prevailing tragedies of the world, but also with the perennial failures of conscience emerging from GA.

I cannot understand how we as a movement fail time and again to make meaningful solidarity with oppressed peoples. I cannot fathom the denominational cognitive dissonance it takes to be so moved by the reminder of our continual need to improve our relationships with minority communities and speak hard truths to those we call allies yet shirk away when called to take action. I pity what Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie calls our institutional addiction to dysfunctional process that truly impairs our ability to live up to our best vision of ourselves.

I have little, if any, control over the course of global events or the UUA. But just as I had in GA, I can still choose to share music in my small part of the world. Choir is a decision, and I will always make that decision.”

4.  Commitments for Social Witness

Shirley White writes, “CSWAIWCS/AI  Huh?  I put my volunteer efforts at GA here, hoping it would give me knowledge I could share back home. Indeed, it did! Wanting to support this important work of our denomination, still I had to keep refreshing myself on what all those letters mean. They mean a lot! They imply work too important to be buried in acronyms and jargon.So let me translate….

Commission on Social Witness (CSW) supports our efforts to do our social justice work focused each year by choices made at GA, to concentrate our efforts on work that we are best, perhaps uniquely, poised to do in our troubled world.

Congregational Study/Action Issues (CS/AI) are selected by UU member congregations for four years of study, reflection and action. This year, delegates picked our next four-year Congregational Study/Action Issue to beCorruption of Our Democracy.”

Actions of Immediate Witness (AIWs) are issues deemed too immediate and important to go through a four year process. The Commissioners narrowed 8 completed proposals to 3, which the GA delegates passed overwhelmingly.

  1. expressing solidarity with Muslims,
  2. advocating gun reform following the Pulse nightclub massacre,
  3. affirming support for transgender people.

All will be further developed and highlighted in UU World.

We, at Foothills, do a lot of very important work. We might even be a standard bearer in the denomination. We could be more fully bringing our light to UUA/GA, by defining and proclaiming our commitment, particularly by sharing our successful collaboration with other communities and organizations in Fort Collins. Among others, we excel in programs of community collaboration in Faith Family Hospitality, One Village One Family, and  our ministerial leadership in vigils and actions of solidarity with our minority communities in times of stress and trauma visited upon them in our troubled times.

We have light to offer, as well as the opportunity to bask in the healing light that our denomination shines on the world’s pain. By engaging with the UUA, we can do more, especially by learning and engaging with social witness statement process we may accomplish more, and even be prepared to bring more of Foothills light to GA in New Orleans, 2017.

The Ones Who Show Up

BlackLivesMatter“Imagine if….We are a visionary church, leading our greater community and forming interfaith partnerships in our unquenchable thirst for social, economic, and environmental justice.”
 
Last Wednesday evening, I caught a glimpse of this courageous dream written by our provocative proposals team becoming reality.  It was late in the prayer meeting held by the Abysinnian Christian Church.  By then, we had all shed tears, sat in silence, shaken our heads and sung out loud, all to honor the Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, the churches that have been burned in the south, as well as the rage and grief we feel at the continued presence of racism and white supremacy.
I had just offered my prayer, and in the program it said we should next be singing Amazing Grace.  But before that, Pastor David said, we needed to do something else.  It might make us uncomfortable, but, he said, the Abysinnian Church, and more generally the black church, is a hugging church. Unfortunately, in that prayer meeting in Charleston, they never got around to ending their time with a hug.  But on that night, we weren’t going to leave that out.  We were going to end in a hug.  We were going to look to one another, many of us strangers, and say before we embraced: You are my sister.  You are my brother.  And then, embrace.
About 20 of us were there from Foothills.  There were other white folks in the gathering, but mostly the rest were African American.  Pastor David was right – it was a little uncomfortable at first.  But the joy, and the willingness was palpable, and it didn’t take long to get over the discomfort and move instead into a great relief, and hopefulness for us all, and for our world.

The Rev. David Williams, had called me a couple days before the gathering to invite Foothills and me to join the meeting.  I had first talked to him right after the Charleston shooting; I reached out to him as a pastor of a primarily African American church in Fort Collins, expressing my grief, fear, and solidarity in response to such a terrible act.  We talked about our roles as pastors and preachers – him in a primarily black church, me in a primarily white church – in a time like this, and how to be a voice of both comfort and challenge as we address and seek to transform the continued presence of racism and white supremacy.

I was humbled, and honored, that a few weeks later Pastor David reached back out to me to invite us to share in the Prayer meeting.  And I was humbled and honored to offer a prayer.  But it was that moment of embrace that gave me a better understanding and a clearer vision for how we as a Unitarian Universalist congregation are called to live into this vision of courageous love in our own community.

Which is to say – the provocative proposals team wrote this statement about our leadership, but in that moment, I realized our leadership simply took the form of showing up, being present, and following the lead of others.  It meant stepping outside our comfort zone, praying in a way we don’t usually pray, singing songs we don’t usually sing – but doing so with love, and willingness, and good will.  It was powerful, and as I said before, it gave me a glimpse of our potential powerful future.

One of my colleagues, the Rev. Sean Dennison, recently challenged a gathering of UU ministers to consider what it would _MG_1989mean if Unitarian Universalists were known most of all as the “ones who show up.”  The ones who show up with open hearts, and open minds, with willing hands and generous spirits.  The ones who show up gratefully, humbly.  I took a note at Sean’s question – not because this was a new idea – but because I recognized that this is something we already do pretty well that we could build on, and become known for pretty easily.  Coincidentally, when I had first talked to Pastor David I had told him, if you ever need someone to show up for you, call me – call Foothills.  We’ll be there. We’ll follow your lead.  

If you were one of those who helped make my promise come true last Wednesday, thank you.  And if you couldn’t make it – don’t worry, there will be lots more chances for us to show up and lead through partnership, humility and generosity – for us to further the reach of love all throughout our community, and in our own lives.   Isn’t it a beautiful vision?