White supremacy. Patriarchy. These are hard words to hear fully, even more difficult forces to challenge, and yet we cannot be the Unitarian Universalist faith that we want to be without confronting them. Our liberal religious tradition — proud, historic, vibrant, ever-evolving, and deeply flawed — is right now wrestling with the roots of white supremacy and patriarchy in our faith. On that, our tradition is surely not alone. Yet the power of our faith’s principles also calls each of us, and particularly those who are religious leaders and those who identify as white, to not flinch from that reality. In this time in the United States, we can only be a beacon for hope and justice if we demonstrate the integrity of our principles through our actions. Inspired by our friends in the UUA Youth and Young Adult Ministry office, our team wants to tell you the ways we have fallen short of this integrity so that we can act differently in the future.
Our team is three Unitarian Universalists – two people of color: one man who is the staff supervisor, and one woman who is a religious educator; and one white woman who is an ordained minister. We help Unitarian Universalists build new relationships with people, and make it as easy possible to share the gifts of our faith in the wider world. Some of our jobs include overseeing the content and design of UUA.org, curating the site’s WorshipWeb section, editing the weekly Braver/Wiser message, managing creative and digital strategies at the UUA, leading workshops and trainings for congregational leaders through our Outreach Revolution network, and publishing this blog.
The face of Unitarian Universalism
In many ways, we are responsible for defining the face of Unitarian Universalism. Who do you see when you land on the UUA homepage? What text do you read? What information do you encounter? We try to balance the reality of who we are as UU’s – older, whiter, more liberal and more educated than our neighbors – with our aspiration for who we want to be – multicultural, multigenerational faith communities. We neither want to whitewash the diversity we do have, nor do we want to fall into the “college brochure” trap of showcasing a diversity that exists only in our fantasies.
We know we get this balance wrong sometimes. We’d like to hear from you when we do. But more importantly, we have been making these decisions in a vacuum, relying on our own best judgement. In the future, we commit to working in ways to do this more honestly, openly, and accountably.
The voices of worship and inspiration
Sunday morning worship is at the heart of our faith, and it is interwoven with a culture of white supremacy — not only its content, but its shape, its patterns, its sights and sounds, and its unstated rules. Our theology compels us to create experiences in which, to quote Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, “there’s a larger ‘we’ each time we worship,” but few worship services live up to that standard. Our congregations are filled with white folks who, despite their best intentions, often fail to recognize that when they approach people of color, they are attempting, again quoting Dr. Rideout, “to partner with people for whom love is not an automatic privilege.”
WorshipWeb and Braver/Wiser are widely-used tools for planning worshipful spaces, and we can and will do more to use them to de-center whiteness in Unitarian Universalist worship life, lifting up the voices of people of color and reconsidering our basic assumptions about what feels most spiritual and profound.
The “growth” mindset
We describe our work as helping Unitarian Universalists build relationships with new audiences, to help our saving message reach more people. We are careful to say that, yes, this relationship does not necessarily translate into membership, that it may take place outside your congregation, and that we can do ministry at many levels no matter who we are. But the truth is that we have also allowed the UU’s we train and advise to believe that, really, it’s about getting more members on the books and more pledges in the bank. We need more of “them” to join “us,” more brown and young people in the pews. We as a team sidestep this assumption which separates “us” and “them” even before we welcome newcomers through our doors. We allow it to persist, choosing to believe in good intentions rather than leaning into our discomfort and the higher calling of our covenants. We have avoided interrupting conversations that perpetuate both conscious and unconscious beliefs in the white experience as primary, normative, “better than,” and dominant (just look at the title of this blog).
Our churches often hide the best parts of our faith inside our congregations, and use it as a lure to become a member. We do this knowing that, as a predominantly and culturally white faith, people of color must make ourselves uncomfortable and endure our own marginalization to access the Unitarian Universalist spiritual wellspring. The UU need to grow, to prove our value by claiming others, can be traced to a Puritanical, colonial impulse to control.
Do we have the spiritual strength to give away the best that we have? At the recent Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism gathering, all main events were livestreamed for everyone. How many UU spaces and congregations would be willing to do the same? How many would be able to liberate their principles from the membership growth mindset? We as the outreach team have failed to bring this multicultural strength and value forward, fearing being seen as “too radical” or feeling that such changes were beyond the realm of possibility. We can and will name this truth in our work going forward.
Who do we serve: our mission and our principles, or our institutions? This is not an intellectual exercise for our team. It is physical and emotional and visceral, and our livelihoods are connected to it. When we whitespeak to pass as educated, competent and respectable, and center white audiences in our writing, we are not living up to our calling. And we say now, publicly, that we are committed to doing better, because we believe our faith depends on it.
We applaud and support the work Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) and Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) are doing for our collective liberation. We urge you to support the #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn by signing up here and donating to BLUU and DRUUMM.
Anna Bethea, Erika Hewitt & Carey McDonald