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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General Assembly – this year in New Orleans

Each June, representatives from our UU Congregations gather together for our annual General Assembly (GA) to learn and worship together and to conduct the business of our association.  This year, GA is in New Orleans and will run from Wednesday June 21st through Sunday June 25th.  Find out more information about the programming here.

It is a powerful experience to gather with other UUs from all over the country, and beyond – to feel the power of being with others far beyond our own congregation, and the power of our faith in all its different forms, and our core similarities.

As a large congregation, we are allotted 12 delegates who are responsible for voting in any business matters.  This year we are electing a new President of the UUA, so this role is especially important.  If we have more interest than delegate slots, we will designate delegates based on the following preference order:

  1. Members currently serving in elected positions in the congregation who will be continuing into next year (i.e. Board, Nominating, Personnel, etc.)
  2. Members currently serving in non-elected ministry roles in the congregation (i.e. Belonging Team or Stewardship Committee…)
  3. Members who are potential leaders for either 1 or 2 type roles in the next few years
  4. Based on order of expressing interest (still must be a Foothills member)

Delegate status is not required to attend GA – in fact many attendees prefer not to be tied into attending all the business elements and so attend as a non-delegate.

Are you interested in attending GA this year? As a delegate, or as an attendee? All are welcome to attend.  Limited scholarships are available.

If you are interested, or if you have questions, contact gretchen@foothillsuu.org.

Looking forward to spending some time in New Orleans and representing our congregation at our General Assembly!