I’ve just returned from the UUA’s General Assembly in New Orleans. The theme was “Resist and Rejoice”. To be honest, I approached this GA with curiosity and trepidation. I wondered about the health of our denomination after several troubling events at our national headquarters. These included: the resignation of former president Peter Morales, a UUA hiring controversy which critics say favors white people, especially white male ministers, and a payout of $500,000 in severance packages to high level staff that departed amid the controversy.
I left GA encouraged and inspired. All of the programs that I attended focused on anti-racism. Programming at this GA was designed to awaken and deepen the commitment of Unitarian Universalists to the power and possibility of working in solidarity with those on the margins. The three interim co- presidents modeled a way Unitarian Universalists could move forward.
Here are some excerpts from remarks made by the three co-presidents during their speaking opportunities at GA:
“[When we began our co-presidency] We found a religious community in a state of shock. Many white UU’s asked how this could be? But most UU’s of color were not surprised, only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock and challenge to our community that we want to call Beloved.”
“It is crystal clear to the three of us that the inspection of our culture and how it impacts persons of color… how it impacts all of us…is urgent. It is overdue. The risks of failing to engage these issues are enormous for this faith. Change must come if our faith is to thrive.”
“I love singing “We’re gonna sit at the welcome table”. And I bet many of you do. Black, white, gays. Whatever, we all are going to come to the welcome table. My thought goes to who owns the table that we’re coming to, and I want to know, where am I [a person of color] going to sit at the table, because that’s important. Some people get more than others, depending on where they’re sitting at the table. So I want to come to the welcome table, but I think we need to build a welcome table, and this time, to build it on a structure that is not the structure, and I’m going to repeat it over and over, of white supremacy culture. Where all of us can be welcome, we have to do more than sing it. We have to restructure it. I think we know how to do it. We really do. But how do we risk restructuring the table and what do you bring to the table?”
“What is Unitarian Universalism at its core? And how might that richness that calls so many of us in community be carried forward in ways that are actually universalist, that actually make us more whole, that feed our full humanity and might actually impact the world in new ways? If the house was on fire, and I might say that it is, I think it’s on fire with opportunity, but if the house was on fire, what’s the one thing you’d carry with you? Find the heart of Unitarian Universalism. Find a way to share it with more than you.”
“Our real task going forward will be in our congregations. We need to ask: Who are we hiring? Who are we welcoming. Who do we buy from? You know these questions. This is not beyond your scope. We also need to move our congregational systems and our voluntary organizations to a place where it is always okay to ask how race and culture impact what we are doing. This is where we need to move, to get back home.”
“We are hearing from leaders of other faith traditions. They are watching us attempt to see our culture and structures of power with enough clarity to imagine changing them. They are looking for leadership in this area. This work is not just about one staff group, one congregation, or even one denomination. This is actually an invitation to broader communities to do the long needed work of justice and redemption in this nation. The work has to be driven by our values and can be supported by our faith. “
“You’re going to hear more about a Commission on Institutional Change as we move forward. The commission will help guide a vision and resources, and guide conversations. They can’t do that without you. We need to do the work together. We are a community of faith. When you get an invitation, say yes, show up. Be faithful. We believe in you.”
“The final message we would pass on is a message of hope. There is a reason that people of color have become Unitarian Universalist…from the very beginnings of this faith and still today. There is a fundamental hope in our values and our aspirations that speaks to persons across the boundaries of race and culture and language and economic circumstance and ability. It is the empowerment in our Unitarian legacy and the love of our Universalist promise that draws people to us and that keeps us here. It is our culture and not our theology that has been our biggest obstacle. And because that is true, our final message is a message of hope. We can change our culture if we have the will to do it.”