The Church in the Mirror

UUCSS is at a crossroads. We have an opportunity to reflect upon where we have been and where we would like to go as a congregation. Recently our faith was forced to face the reality that despite our liberal leanings, issues of racial inequity impact our faith. The strife we have seen in our national governing organization concerning equity, have played out to a lesser degree within our own wall. This sermon lead by UUCSS member Charles Alexander offers one person of color’s perspective on the issue of White Supremacy and provide ideas about how UUCSS can build a more racially diverse and equitable congregation, and more fully live up to our vision of ourselves as “a progressive, warm, and energetic faith community, committed to upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

The Church in the Mirror

This is the third time I have stood here to participate in a lay led service. The first time, I shared my experiences dealing with racism, telling the story of the first time I was called the N-word, and I broke down crying I might add. I hope I can get through this without shedding tears, but I am not making any promises. I also stood here to introduce my coming of age mentee, Will Birdsall. This is the first time I will be the center of attention. But I am not nervous at all. When asked if I would deliver a lay sermon, I knew what I needed to address, “How can we become a more diverse, more equitable congregation.”  As I speak today, know that these are my perspectives. I do not presume to speak for all people of color in our faith. I humbly offer my point of view and my knowledge as an equity educator in hopes that my words will help us grow as a congregation. I hope to hold a mirror up to our congregation so we might see how we can grow and evolve. Thank you to the worship committee for offering me the opportunity to speak today. Thank you to Michael Holmes and all the musicians who so graciously agreed to sing and play today. Thank you to Ester McBride for holding my hand through this process. And thank you all for allowing my voice to be heard.

I remember the day I decided that I would embrace UUism and join UUCSS. Reverend Liz was in the pulpit on the Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend. She delivered a sermon about the legacy of King, his connection with our faith, and our faith’s history of involvement in the civil right movement. She spoke with pride about the Unitarian Universalists who struggled and endured alongside King, risking their safety and sometimes sacrificing their lives as they fought for equal rights for all under the law. I sat in awe as Reverend Liz explained how Reverend Dr. King would visit All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in DC when he traveled to this area. I learned that the only reason that Reverend Dr. King did not choose our faith as one of his platforms from which he would launch his movement was that our faith lacked the numbers to build an effective coalition. It is on this day that I was moved to sign the membership book.

Given the recent national discussions about White Supremacy in the UUA, I find myself wondering: What would Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King have to say to Unitarian Universalists today.

I believe his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, offers insight to what he might say. King wrote: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the White moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’”

As a collective, our faith likes the idea of diversity and equity. UUism is enamored with the visible and tangible displays of multiculturalism without truly grasping the idea that simply increasing our cultural, ethnic and racial diversity does not lead to equity. We are so married to and steeped in UU traditions and customs, our faith has created inequity despite the UU commitment to building open and welcoming congregations. If our faith is truly committed to becoming a culturally and racially diverse denomination, then by necessity, we will have to look at every decision we make, every document we publish, every sermon we deliver, and every music program we create, and ask ourselves, “Are we being equitable?” The commitment to racial equity must be a part of the very fabric of our faith and be prevalent in the very consciousness of our being just as LGBTQ advocacy, Deaf access, and environmentalism must remain ever prevalent in our collective consciousness.

It has been a surreal experience being part of a faith community that for the most part shares my liberal social and political views. On the one hand, it is comforting; however, I see how our faith community has landed itself in a tenuous position. The terms liberal and racial equity are terms that have become synonymous; regardless of our liberal stance, it is clear that even a progressive faith like Unitarian Universalism can marginalize people of color. When we think of the words, “White Supremacy” we think of disgruntled, angry, white men draped in bed sheets terrorizing people of color. But it is not Klan style White Supremacy that poses the greatest threat to UUism. It is the moderate voice of White Supremacy that poses the greatest threat, the moderate voice of White Supremacy that is most damaging. By White Supremacy, I am referring to a system that normalizes and favors cultural and racial “whiteness.” Moderate White Supremacy is systemic, invasive, and self-perpetuating, continually prioritizing White cultural values and interests above those of marginalized people of color. It permeates and corrupts our practices, systems, and institutions, even corrupting the reforms we institute to bring about equality. Paulo Friere explains this phenomenon best. You see if we implement reform without addressing the inherent inequities of the system, our reform simply masks the oppressive nature of the system. It is this dichotomy that put the right of same sex couple to marry to a vote in our state of Maryland. Rights are, for a lack of more religiously neutral terminology, God given. UUs must treat equity as non-negotiable, even if it means we step outside our systems, procedures, and traditions: even if it means we tear down parts of our structure.

While the departure of three beloved ministers seems an incredible blow, we have an opportunity to reevaluate ourselves and ask, “Are we truly a progressive, warm, and energetic faith community, committed to upholding the inherent worth and dignity of every person?” Each of us, must look within ourselves and ask some hard questions. This transformation needs to start with each individual asking how they have been complicit in supporting systematic inequities within our houses of worship as well as in our larger communities. We must look critically at our faith community. And we must be willing to make some uncomfortable changes to our church structure and the way we do business should we determine our way of going about our business leads to inequity. The conflict we see playing out in the UUA do not have to be duplicated within our walls.

This self-reflection and re-evaluation is necessary. In 1970, over 90% of Montgomery County’s student body was White. Today, White students make up less than 1/3 of enrolled students, with 30% of enrolled students being Latino. For the first time, this year, the largest demographic of students enrolling in kindergarten are not White, they are Latino. It is clear that our area is rapidly changing, and if we hope to grow as a congregations, if we hope for our church to thrive, we must evolve with our surrounding community. Our growth should reflect the community our church serves, an increasingly multiracial, multi-ethnic, and economically diverse population. As our church grows more diverse, we need to be ready and willing to learn about the cultural values and racial experiences new congregants bring with them. Further, in the name of being inclusive, we need to ensure that each culture and race represented with these wall, can see themselves reflected in the fabric our institution.

This church has made significant strides toward achieving the faith community we envision.  We have shown a commitment committed to racial justice. I look out into this congregations and see a faith community that has embraced the idea of equity. Some are so committed, that they have forgotten what it is like to lack understanding and knowledge. I believe it prudent to remember the words of Malcolm X, “Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t think as you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.”  Some of us, in our zeal to create a church that truly reflects our core values, have become impatient with the pace of change. In our efforts to bring about equity, some of us find ourselves growing increasingly frustrated with lingering elements of White Supremacy. Some have been critical and lashed out in frustration. The issue of equity has led some to ask whether this community is enough to sustain their spirits. Some of us have been hurt, and some have decided that they need to move on and find other communities of worship.

The good news is some of us have come to understand we could have handled issues of racial justice and diversity better. I have talked with individuals and read comments on social media that indicate that we are learning to walk in grace.

So how can UUCSS avoid mirroring the conflicts we see in the UUA? It is my belief that those who have privilege need to make space for minoritized voices and perspective to be heard.  White UUs need to understand that sometimes Whites can hijack the discourse, twisting it to serve themselves, without truly serving the best interest of those for whom they presume to speak. Black Lives Matter buttons can become badges of honor, worn to show others how down for the cause one is as opposed to serving to show support. Sometimes the indignant objections and confrontational attitude of White allies can serve to bolster their own feelings of self-righteousness, creating divisions in our congregations, leaving people of color to deal with the negative backlash. White UUs need to be careful with their language and think before hurling allegations of racism indiscriminately. I am reminded of the lyrics of Hezekiah Walker’s song “I Need You to Survive”. “I will not harm you with words from my mouth. I love you, I need you to survive.” Ultimately, we need start, engage in, and sustain productive dialogue. I have heard some refer to the “tone” police. I would offer that if our goal is to hear each other and be heard, and if we truly care for each other, we will not need tone police because each of us would use a tone designed to bridge gaps as opposed to close doors.

As we make space for minoritized voices, I believe that we must remember our covenant. We are in relationship with each other; we have committed to caring for each other, to looking out for each other’s best interest. We chose to be in covenant with each other. Let me say this again, we chose to be in covenant with each. So we must keep that covenant in mind if we hope to hold our community together. While all voices matter, we need to understand that the power distribution within our faith is not equal. If all voices matter we need to seek out the voices that have not been heard as easily, give them more time, and amplify them if need be; otherwise, those voices gets lost in the traditions and systems UUs elevate in the name of fair play and togetherness. Sometime that means White UUs will need to speak in the vacuum of absent voice; other times White UUs needs to be silent, follow and listen. Ultimately White UU’s must offer minoritized people a place at the table should they seek it, and look out for minoritized interest, even when people of color choose not to lead the work. For me, this is what it means to be in covenant.

In my 13 years attending this church, I have watched us evolve. The music program reflects a wide range of cultures, the worship services reflect a diversity of spiritual beliefs, we called a Black minister, we have been active in racial justice, and we have established relationships with congregations of other faiths with racial and ethnic compositions very different from our own. And the leadership of this church has offered minoritized voices space to be heard, as evidenced by my standing here today and by having been invited to participate in the selection process of our interim minister.

Still, we have not arrived; we have been in love with the accouterments of diversity and racial justice, and now is the time to internalize the idea of equity.  We have loved that Rev. Leon symbolized our commitment to become a welcoming community to racially and culturally diverse peoples. We have loved hosting David Smith weekend and embracing a gospel style of music. We have loved our vibrant multicultural religious programming. We are proud of our outward expressions of diversity.

BUT we cannot be satisfied if our efforts stop with the Black Lives Matters sign hanging at the entrance of our campus. We cannot be satisfied if our equity efforts stops at seeing colorful faces in the pews. We cannot be satisfied that we offer hip hop, R&B and host David Smith in our music program. We must go deeper. We must look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are truly transforming our community. We must ensure that we are not making surface changes while leaving systems and practices in place that might undermine our goals.

Reverend Liz once said, “This church is not the minister, it is always the people.” I will admit that I considered leaving this faith community when Rev. Leon announced he was leaving. I will admit that I again considered leaving this faith community when Rev. Liz decided to move on.  I will miss Leon, Liz, and Sarah. I will always regret the circumstances that lead to the schism between and the departures of Leon and Liz. I am regretful that some people can no longer call this place their religious home and have chosen to find other faith communities. I wonder if I could have done more to hold us together. Still, I am heartened by the efforts I have seen people make to mend wounds, unite and move on. I believe that WE needed a wakeup call, and strangely losing our spiritual leaders will force us to embrace one important concept. This church was never Liz, Leon, or Sarah. We have always been this church; we always will be this church.

In our call to worship, I asked us to make a promise to each other. As I close, I ask you to keep this promise in mind. We will need to hear each other moving forward. We affirm with the words from our mouth, our commitment to each other. It is hard to break a promise when our words give life to it.