Someday We’ll All Be Free…But That Day Ain’t Today (Ferguson, Unitarian Universalism, and Me)

I. Can’t. Even.

I was going to respond directly to Rev. Don Southworth, but after a good night’s sleep I decided that I have already talked enough about Unitarian Universalist cluelessness and tone-deafness; why keep pointing out examples? They just make me mad. So I’m going to tell a story.

The one thing you need to know as I start is that my mother is not a worrier. I am the worrier. anyway…..

It was November, 2014. And all of St. Louis was waiting for the Grand Jury’s decision as to whether or not Darren Wilson is going to be charged with anything in relation to killing Michael Brown.

I was going to a meeting that was movement-related. Before my parents left out earlier that day I had told my mother that by the time they got back to the house, I would be gone. I wasn’t out a particularly long time, but it was long dark by the time I came back to the house. And my mother picked. And picked. And picked. Until she went to bed. I couldn’t figure out why she was picking. It finally came to me as I went to bed; my mother was worried about me being out in St. Louis after dark.

When I’m in St. Louis, I live 8.5 miles from Ferguson.

During the first month, I could tell you what time of day it was because the police helicopters flew over the house at particular times of the day.

Some mornings, we could smell the remnants of the tear gas that was released in the overnight hours.

My mother was worried because we live close to Clayton, which is county seat and where the announcement of the Grand Jury’s decision would be announced. If the decision came down that night, there’s a strong possibility that I wouldn’t have been able to make it home.

That is what St. Louis was like in those months. But I’m not finished.

Did you know there was a UU minister on the streets in Ferguson, EVERY DAY?

Did you know that there was a UU minister of color who had just moved to Ferguson mere days before Mike Brown was killed? And this minister was starting an interim position at the congregation that is closest to Ferguson? That some members of said congregation live in or around Ferguson?

Wanna know what we, the St. Louis area UU ministers, heard from institutional UUism (Board or Administration)? Not a damn thing.

Wanna know how many people from Administration came to St. Louis during Ferguson October? One, and that was because of a personal friendship. And that one was NOT the President of the UUA.

Wanna know how many members of the UUA Board of Trustees came to St. Louis during Ferguson October? NONE.

Do you know that we in the St. Louis area begged for an “all hands on deck” call for Ferguson October like the call that was given out for UUs to go to North Carolina for the Moral Mondays protest? Betcha didn’t.

So when I read letters like the one Rev. Don Southworth wrote, I have two reactions. One is to cry. The other is to do like Jesus and flip over some temple tables.

I’m not going to do either in this case. But I will make a comment on one paragraph in Rev. Southworth’s tragically conceived and executed letter.

“It seems clear that the board believes the most important issue and priority in our faith today is empowering our black siblings to have a more active and effective leadership role.  I also believe it’s important.  And I also believe it’s important to lower the debt for our religious professionals, and especially ministers, who sacrifice their financial well being to serve our faith; it’s important that all religious professional organizations and formerly affiliated groups such as DRUUM to have enough to do their important work; it’s important that our most innovative ministers and ministries – many of whom are people of color –  have enough money and resources so they can a) have enough money to live on and b) have the resources to give their ministries a chance; it’s important our seminaries, congregations and UUA staff have enough resources to be strong and healthy in the future; it’s important that we find funding for more community organizing, more speaking out against environmental devastation and immigration justice – especially given the insanity we have seen since the election; and it’s important that we deepen, strengthen and articulate our theology more powerfully in the world, so we can find new ways to connect with those spiritually hungry people in our communities who don’t know about us or don’t think we have something to offer them.”

It always fascinates me when white people don’t get that all these things are direct descendants of white supremacy. Environmental devastation? Ever heard of Flint? (they still don’t have clean water) Immigration justice? Shall we talk about how they are rounding up people who are darker skinned and leaving the undocumented Irish immigrants here in the Northeast alone? The “insanity we have seen since the election”? Let’s talk about voting rights and voter suppression, which is all about keeping people of color from voting. Community organizing? Let’s talk about how white organizers get paid but organizers of color are expected to organize for free. And that when they try to get paid, they are called everything but a child of God.

I’m done with white fragility today. More later, I think.

*–if you don’t know what I mean when I say my mother picked, email me. I’ll tell you.


7 thoughts on “Someday We’ll All Be Free…But That Day Ain’t Today (Ferguson, Unitarian Universalism, and Me)

  1. Thank you for your witness Kim. Thank you for your truth telling. Having our urgent requests fall on deaf ears was disheartening.

  2. I won’t say I can fully appreciate how tired you are of having to say this stuff. There is such a chasm in understanding between most white UUs and the people of color among us – lay and clergy – who identify as UU. There are days when I as a white person ask myself why people of color even bother to hang on, and then I accept that it is the religious movement, not the institution of the UUA itself, that has hold of their hearts. They have not given up on the promise and the possibility of this faith. I thank the gods and goddesses that they are still with us and still trying. It is our loss every time someone gives up, and there is no way we could blame them.

    Look at the people of color right now who are offering their gifts and challenging us to accept them. Already there are white leaders of our denomination who resent that we’d have to accept them on the terms with which they are being offered. That’s the key, is it not? Or at least it is a very big key, that white people do not and should not assign to themselves alone the right to be the arbiter of every standard, the settler of every difference, the supervisor of what people of color can do. The disrespect we have shown is enough to choke a bull but there are still white people high up in leadership who cannot see it. And if it sickens me, I cannot fathom how people of color stand it.

    There’s never going to be better proof that grace is undeserved, that it arrives where it is needed, not just where it is earned. We UUs would be spiritually impoverished if we managed to get any whiter than we already are. We are, whether some are ready to admit it or not, a white supremacist organization. That is how we originally were organized. The intent was not written in code back then. It just was flat out in the open, the way things were, and because we have failed to dismantle it, here we are, hundreds of years in, being challenged to admit that it continues to be how we function.

    We white people keep screwing up and, when presented with an opportunity to learn, we seem to slink right back into what we were doing before. We stub our toe on the occasional bump in the road and get so hung up on our own discomfort that all we do is sit around blogging about whether someone said “Ouch” in a sufficiently respectful manner. Meanwhile, no one ever gets back to the work of clearing the path so we won’t stub our toes again. We’re gifted the opportunity to do something right and we are held back by people who cannot accept that, at the most basic level, we need to change the oppressive way we function.

    There are times when I am too embarrassed to admit that I identify as a UU. This happens more and more when I am with some truly awesome people from other faith communities who are doing justice work in a way that makes me envious. I am sick of hearing white UUs claim that they are tolerant, only to see them turn right around and unleash the most dismissive, intolerant, self-pitying complaints about how their plans are being inconvenienced by someone else’s pain.

    Want to know how that looks to people on the outside? I at least can speak with some authority on how UUs are perceived in North Carolina and a few other Southern states because I am still pretty active in interfaith networking around justice issues and I have a lot of Methodist and Baptist and Lutheran and UCC and Nazarene friends who are willing to be frank about this kind of thing. They are resentful, for example, that so many UUs are of the belief that they started the Moral Movement with their participation in the Raleigh, North Carolina rally that drew a couple thousand UUs from around he country. That was the year that Dr. Barber issued the call for leaders of other faith communities to come here and help us with our protests against the state legislature. It was a hit, that’s for sure. The crowd was estimated to be some 80,000 strong. While having a couple thousand UUs show up was not the entirety of what happened that day, it was a nice show of support in an embattled state capital.

    But what UUs don’t seem to realize is that this event is an annual march. In fact, we just marked its 11th annual celebration. It is true, the UUs made a big show of attending that one year, but they have no right to assign themselves credit for having invented it. People of color did that. Students from historically black Shaw University and leaders from the NC conference of the NAACP and the Rev. Dr. William Barber and his leadership of a moral coalition did that. They are the ones who birthed this movement, and it pains me to see white UUs erasing history and putting themselves forward in a way that is undeserved. Whereas hubris honors no one, UUs have managed to turn it into a sacrament.

    There are a good many progressive people of faith who do not have a particularly flattering view of UUs right now. They see us as show boaters, quick to arrive just in time for a high profile rally of some kind but not as willing to come early and help with the setting up. They/we gather in our yellow t-shirts, high-fiving and taking selfies the whole time, sometimes leaving to beat the traffic even before the last speaker is finished and certainly not sticking around afterwards to help clean up trash, load the rented tables into pick-up trucks or make sure everyone has a way to get home before they drive off.

    There was a major rally in Winston-Salem on the opening day of the most significant federal voting rights trial since the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The state and national NAACP did a massive amount of organizing for it. They trained a hundred peacekeeping marshals and assembled local churches to host day-long teach-in experiences with breakout sessions on either side of the lunch that was being provided. On the day of the rally, the host city UUs attended in credible numbers for the morning sessions of the teach-in experience. I would say that the turnout was encouraging except for the fact that they then turned around and left en masse during the lunch break so they could go back to their own church for a tea party with the UUA president. A tea party. With thousands gathered at the epicenter of an insidious assault on voting rights, within sight of the federal courthouse where a trial was going to decide whether the oppression of voting rights was unconstitutional or not, even as they were recognized as the only UU congregation in the host city of Winston-Salem, they took off part way through the day, left downtown Winston-Salem behind and conducted an alternative event at their UU church in the white suburbs. A tea party, no less. That was one of those times when I hated to admit that I was a UU.

    Harsh words, to be sure, but this is a window into what some of these folks think of us as a religious movement. Yes, they are watching us. Yes, the Methodist friends I worship with know all about this latest unrest that reaches from the understaffed R.E. classes to the very top of our leadership. Yes, they know that whereas we have some amazing people of color who have dedicated decades to this association, when it comes to paid staff in positions that can affect policy, the UUA still has an almost entirely white facade.

    There may be some point in casting blame but I do not see that as the most productive thing we could do right now. If we happen to be in any doubt about what would be productive, I submit that it is way past time for UUs to follow the lead of people of color. For sure it’s way past time for white people to quit complaining about how others express their pain. Let’s at least cut that crap out before we do more harm.

  3. Pingback: What You Have Amnesia Towards Does Not Have Amnesia Towards You | East Of Midnight

  4. Pingback: Someday We’ll All Be Free…But That Day Ain’t Today–the Prelude (Ferguson, Unitarian Universalism, and Me) | East Of Midnight

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