When my niece, Hazel, was three she wanted to know about her grandmother (Tara’s Mom). Tara’s sister, (one of Hazel’s moms), explained that her mom had died many years before. Then Hazel wanted to know what it meant to die. What it meant for the person; what it meant for the living. And so, in a moment of overwhelm, they called me.
Through the miracle and intimacy of FaceTime, I explained to Hazel that there was nothing to be afraid of. Dying meant we got to be where we were before we were born – with all the stars in the sky, with everything around us, and even the things we could only imagine are real. Hazel was comforted; her parents relieved – that is, until Hazel started speaking excitedly about her own death and wishing to become a part of the whole universe again!
It’s from this story that Hazel, now five, speaks of me and speaks of us (“church”) as the place where we get to ask the big and important questions. I’ve been thinking a lot about this standard the last few weeks as the Auction Theme has been created, discussed and changed.
If this is the place where we get to ask the big and important questions, is there a place we can live with the answers that follow? Not necessarily The answers, but the answers for right now? And is this that place, too?
A few weeks ago, when the Auction Team came up with the theme Fiesta, I had my reservations and I shared them. The Board did the same. We met, we read, we talked and listened. The Auction Team did the same. And I can tell you at the end of that first round (that we didn’t know would be the first round) I think we felt good about having moved the conversation forward. We gathered information about who we are, considered conversations we should have had, and will have in the future. In the end, we all moved forward with the theme of Fiesta.
But the conversation continued – among those who were a part of the initial discernment and of course a wider net after the theme was published. We gathered more information than we had: Not only educational information, but also the heart’s story, the voices of those often given less or no time to speak of fears and sadness, of a want to be seen, of a want to do no harm. Information about power, appreciation, and appropriation.
I know that through those continued conversations the hurt began for some and deepened for others. Some of us feel policed into guilt, forced into roles we don’t believe we’re playing or believe exist. Others of us lose faith in, and our identity as part of, our chosen community when we feel our viewpoint is dismissed as extreme, or ignorable; speaking for those who are not widely represented in the congregation. There is confusion and anger, and for some, confusion that is coming out as anger – on all “sides” of this conversation.
There is a fine, difficult to identify, line between appropriating another’s culture and appreciating it. We know we haven’t figured it out and that perhaps someone else or some other leadership group could have come to some other conclusion. Here is some of what informed our movement away from the theme of Fiesta:
The situation for Latin-American people living in the US is stark. Currently our nation is systemically oppressing Latin-American immigrants through the demonization of immigrants as murderers and rapists, the mass deportation of people–including one person per week from Trenton alone, and the violation of human rights of people in detention centers. DACA recipients, young people who immigrated to the US as children, are being threatened with deportation and being used as bargaining chips by our politicians. Families in these communities are living in terror, with citizen children afraid of their parents’ deportation. 195,000 people from El Salvador have lost Temporary Protected Status, which was originally granted because of the level of danger in their home countries. Many of these people will be deported and sent into mortal danger.
And lastly, perhaps the clearest indication that we were teetering on appropriation rather than our intent to appreciate: There is little connection between our institution, or the culture of our Auction, that connects to Latin American communities. To raise tens of thousands of dollars for our organization with the help of the beauty of a marginalized culture with little representation in our own congregation felt like use.
You may ask, “Does that mean we, a predominantly white community, can never celebrate another’s culture?” No, it doesn’t. But this time, for all the reasons above, we decided we shouldn’t. Perhaps you will agree. Perhaps you will disagree.
On my last day interviewing with my UUCWC search committee, I asked what made them most proud to be a part of this congregation. “The Boy Scouts”, one said – most nodded. There were tears as they told the story: a young Boy Scout wished to earn his largest credit toward becoming an Eagle Scout by creating a labyrinth for his faith community. A lovely gesture, I thought. You must be so proud, I thought. But, of course the congregation was split about what to do. A four-hour congregational meeting heard one story after another: LGBTQ people who couldn’t believe their congregation, where they had finally found a home, might support an organization that had so explicitly rejected their personhood.
Those of us who weren’t here at the time can only imagine the tension. When the vote was finally taken on whether to move forward, the young man heard the slim majority victory and decided it was better for the whole of the community to not build the labyrinth; to not create a symbol of division.
Who knows what the tears were for – this young man’s wisdom, the fights the Search Committee could still recall with people they loved, the need for the fight at all. All I know is that this is an important story we tell about ourselves. It is a marker of who we are. We asked the big questions with one another, stuck out the long, hard and sometimes painful conversations, and loved each other through the answer for that time.
I believe we are still those people. And I look forward to celebrating that with you at our Auction in May.
Rev. Kim Wildszewski