A Circle of Trust – Readings, Texts, and Resources

Readings and Text

Opening Words                                           Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water For Chocolate:

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us, but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches.

For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul.

 

A Circle of Trust: Introduction

Prior to the first week in April, this service, entitled “A Circle of Trust,” was intended to introduce to you the principles of deep listening and creating atmospheres of trust. I was going to lean deeply into Quaker author Parker Palmer’s book A Hidden Wholeness, and talk about how actively listening to one another – making space for silence, listening without trying to give advice, fix, or save the speaker, and being present to what’s being said versus thinking about what you want to say – helps our interpersonal relationships and our organizational relationships.

And then, of course, that week, things changed. As I explained on April 2nd, because of a hiring issue within the Unitarian Universalist Association that favored a white male minister over a Latina religious educator, a light was shone on the hiring practices and leadership assumptions of our denomination – practices and assumptions that trickle down to our congregations.

Those practices and assumptions are imbedded in the dominant culture in America, formed and institutionalized by Americans of European descent, with roots in the blatant racism of slavery, the pseudo-scientific racism of social Darwinism, the behavioral racism of Jim Crow.

It isn’t blatant racism and white supremacy – I doubt there’s a Unitarian Universalist who is actively, consciously, racist. But what we are learning – and what makes this hard – is that there is a larger culture of white supremacy that even the most progressive organizations find themselves a part of.

At his blog Scott Woods Makes Lists, African American poet Scott Woods explains:

The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes Black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.

Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another, and so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.

It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.

Today, we’re veering off the normal form of reading, sermon, and meditation, to listen to voices that are not ours, about their experiences in this culture. And I invite you to listen deeply, to pay attention, to not try to argue or rebut or save or fix, but to listen deeply.

It will be hard. Just as Don McKinney can testify, having been involved in the Black Affairs Council controversy in the late 1960s, these conversations are hard, and at times they are risky. But they’re not new – it seems about every decade or so, something happens that reminds us that we’re still struggling with racism and white supremacy. But as interim co-president Bill Sinkford said last week, “sometimes it takes a shock to the system to get it unstuck.” And if we do this right, if we don’t forget the lessons learned but keep on learning, we are poised to be the faith we say we are, and more – we are poised to be the faith we have been waiting for, and more who people of color have been waiting for.

So here we are. We’ve been asked by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism to raise these hard conversations in this Teach In, to lift up these voices that are speaking their truths, even as they make us uncomfortable. Know that in reading the words of people of color, I am not taking them as my own – I am simply the vehicle. Between the words from others, I will provide some context, with spaces to breathe and to sing a little. We’ll return again and again to the chorus of “There is a balm in Gilead” – a song from the time of slavery, and the one spiritual we feature today, as a reminder of the richness of the culture many of our people of color are descended from – this is their song. And in the midst of their hard words, they also offer comfort.

Please sing with me – this first time, I’ll sing it though and invite you to sing with me a second time. As we walk through our teach in, we’ll sing it together just once each time.

 

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul.

Reading                                                                                                                               

We begin with a reading from Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, a member of the Black Lives of UU leadership collective:

“As a black woman who claims Unitarian Universalism as my faith identity, I have felt compelled to clarify and yield to what’s truly most important to me in the last few months. The election and subsequent outrage, confusion, vitriol, and violence that has shown up in its wake have encouraged me to reaffirm my commitments to working for justice, as well as to recommit to protecting those who are most vulnerable, shaping my life in such a manner that it responds to and reflects what my values are as a black woman of faith in this tradition.

One reason I am a Unitarian Universalist is because it is a faith where I can bring all of the best of what I was taught growing up in my multifaith family and because, as a religion grounded in principle and reflection, justice-making and righteous action are essential to our faith, not something ancillary.

This resonates deeply for me, and connects to my grandparents’ social justice efforts as members of Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregations and to my parents’ legacy as socially conscious, progressive Muslims. My deep sadness as a Unitarian Universalist is that while this faith community has always been a space that welcomed my varied religious heritage, my blackness hasn’t always felt at home here.

That is to say, I have never been able to take for granted that I would be welcome in UU spaces as a black woman. No matter how long I’ve been a member, what committees I’ve served on, or the number of times I’ve been a GA delegate, I’ve never been able to take for granted the sense of home and welcome and connection that I see my white UU siblings proudly proclaim.

Still, there are resonances that keep me going. I am motivated as deeply by the seven principles of Kwanzaa as I am by the Seven Principles upheld by our association and member congregations; these are all touchstones of my personal theology. The Seven Principles of Black Lives, created in 2015 by the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective, act as another bridge for me, connecting me ever more deeply to this faith and to the work of the Movement for Black Lives.”

As we enter our first moment of silence, consider this question: “Are we a community that welcomes Takiyah’s blackness? How might we challenge ourselves to make it so, or to continue to make it so?”

Moment of Silence

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

 

Reading   “The Offensiveness of My Pain” By Shane Paul Neil

Our second reading is by writer Shane Paul Neil, who speaks a truth about those days after a young black man is killed by a police officer, a truth that we often don’t hear or don’t think about.

I’m on my way to a job where I am the only black person in my office. I work with people who either don’t know or don’t care about Alton Sterling or Philando Castile. They are going to ask me “How are you this morning?” and the simple truth is that I can’t be honest. I can’t say that I’m scared and angry and that I want to take a mental health day. I can’t say that I and people like me subconsciously fear for our lives on a daily basis.

I can’t say how I am this morning because it will make them uncomfortable and offended. The offensiveness of my pain is why we have to remind America over and over again that Black Lives Matter: because if you lack empathy for our tears it’s likely that you lack respect for our lives.

In our second moment of silence, I invite you to reflect on the pain people of color carry, unspoken, every day.

Moment of Silence

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

 

Reading Why I’m Absolutely an Angry Black Woman” by Dominque Matti

This third reading, excerpted (for time) from a longer piece by Huffington Post writer Dominique Matti, also explores the pain that people of color carry, unspoken. She explores in loving, gentle, angry words those things White Americans never see because of the lens we use to understand “normal.”

Why I’m absolutely an angry black woman:

Because when I was five, my kindergarten classmate told me I couldn’t be the princess in the game we were playing because black girls couldn’t be princesses. Because I was in third grade the first time a teacher seemed shocked at how “well-spoken” I was. Because in fourth grade I was told my crush didn’t like black girls.

Because in 9th grade when I switched schools a boy told me he knew I had to be mixed with something to be so pretty. Because in 10th grade my group of friends and I were called into an office and asked if we were a gang, or if we had father figures. Because in 11th grade my AP English teacher told me that I didn’t write like a college-bound student, though I later scored perfectly on the exam.

Because I was one of two black girls in the freshman class at my college. Because at meetings to talk about how to attract more black students, someone suggested that the school attracted a certain demographic and that maybe black people “just weren’t interested in things like that.” Because the boyfriend after that cut me off for saying he was privileged. Because I can’t return to my hometown without getting pulled over.

Because when I got married people assumed I was pregnant. Because people who know I’m married call my husband my “baby daddy.” Because my pregnancy with my son was plagued with videos of black lives being taken in cold blood. Because their murderers still walk the streets.

Because the nation sent me a message that my son’s life didn’t matter. Because when Tamir Rice was murdered I curled up on the bed and sobbed, cupping my belly. Because my son heard me sobbing from the inside. Because they don’t care about us. Because when I was 7 months pregnant my neighbor asked me to help him move a dresser up a flight of stairs.

Because I am not seen as a woman. Because I am not allowed to be fragile. Because the nurse that checked me in at the hospital to deliver wouldn’t look my husband in the eye. Because the vast majority of people won’t look my husband in the eye. Because when the doctors put my son in my arms and I saw that he was as dark as his father, I knew life would be even harder for him.

Because he will be regarded the same way I was. Because he will be forced to grow up before he is grown. Because strangers at the store think it’s okay to reach into my son’s stroller and touch him without a word to me. Because we aren’t entitled to boundaries. Because they think we are here for their enjoyment. Because people don’t think we are people.

Because my stomach sinks whenever I see a police car. Because when my husband leaves the house at night I am afraid he’ll be killed for looking like somebody. Because I worry that if I went missing like the 64,000 other black women in this nation, the authorities wouldn’t try hard to find me. Because I am disposable. Because I am hated. Because we keep dying. Because they justify our deaths. Because no one is held accountable. Because I am gas lighted.

Because I have been told that by speaking about being oppressed I am victimizing myself. Because our murders are filmed and still pardoned. Because I am afraid to relax. Because I am traumatized.

Because there isn’t a place in the world white supremacy hasn’t touched.

Because I am trapped here. Because the playing field isn’t leveled. Because I love my skin. Because I love being a woman. Because not hating myself is considered radical. Because I’ve been called racist for defending myself. Because all the major protests are for black men. Because I’ve been told that talking about the women who’ve died is taking away from the real issue.

Because I get no break from fighting. Because everything is a struggle. Because my anger isn’t validated. Because they don’t care about my pain. Because they don’t believe in my pain. Because they forgive themselves without atoning. Because I’m not free. Because the awareness of it permeates everything. Because it’s not ending. Because they teach the children that it’s already ended. Because someone will assert their supremacy over me today. Because they’ll do it tomorrow.

Because I want more. Because I deserve better.

Breathe. Breathe.

Moment of Silence

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

 

Reading   Healing” by Adam Lawrence Dyer

Yes. This is all very hard. And I know that our impulse is to just go in and fix it, to make it better, to heal this. But our circle of trust asks us to listen, not fix. My colleague Adam Dyer, who will be serving the prestigious First Parish Cambridge starting this fall, offers this poetic reminder to us – more uncomfortable truths:

Don’t speak to me of “healing”
racism, or “wounded souls”
or the “painful hurt”
until you are willing to feel the scars
on my great-great-grandmother Laury’s back.

Don’t speak to me of “values”
or “justice” or “righting wrongs”
until you are able to feel the heartache
of my great-grandfather Graham
whose father may have been his master.

Don’t speak to me of “equity”
or “opportunity” or the “common good”
until you are able to hear the fear
from my grandmother Mae
as the only black woman in her college.

Don’t speak to me of “passion”
or “longing” or “standing on the side of love”
until you know the shame
felt by my mother Edwina
mocked by teachers for the curve of her back.

Don’t speak to me of “together”
or “understanding” or “empathy”
until you know my rage
as a young actor hearing the direction
to “be more black . . . more male.”

The pain you are trying to heal
has no real name.
This “pain” you speak of
has no story;
it is anonymous, vague, and empty.

Don’t speak to me of “healing”
for I heal the second I am ripped apart.
My wounds self-suture,
and like the clever creature I am,
I just grow new legs to outrun
the pain ever faster.
It is something I have had to practice
for generations, that feel like an eternity.

So, please don’t speak to me of “healing”
because you cannot know
what healing means
until you know the hurt.

Breathe. Breathe.

Moment of Silence

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

 

Reflection

This work is hard.

These truths aren’t easy for any of us who are white and Unitarian Universalist, because we can’t believe this is what our fellow UUs experience. The words are hard. Racism, white supremacy, anger, pain. They’re hard. And it would be easy for us to argue about the words themselves, seeking language that makes US more comfortable. But I suspect that misses the entire point. For too long we’ve been comfortable, and we haven’t done enough to hear the discomfort from black, Latino, indigenous, Muslim, Asian people as they try to engage in this dominant culture.

But maybe we can sit in this circle and trust what we have heard, trust these words and these voices as speaking truths we need to hear. Maybe we can be okay with the discomfort. And maybe we can look for ways to respond better and do better inside and outside the comfort of our Unitarian Universalist congregations.

Karen Quinlan, a white minister in Wisconsin, says “true change happens only when we take the time and the risk of sitting with something hard. True change in the world is intimately related to our internal transformation, which is intimately related to our presence to our selves.”

Moment of Silence

Refrain — There Is a Balm in Gilead

 

Reading

As a denomination, we have just had a moment, like many previous moments, of change. But have we been on a journey of transformation? Erik Walker Wikstrom, a white minister in Virginia, suggests that we must “not just express our desired change, we must reorganize our thoughts, our perspectives, and even our organizations to be like the anti-racist, multi-cultural, anti-oppression world we want to see.  And the sad truth is that as long as our denomination is organized the way it is, the best we can hope for is change. True transformation will elude us, and nothing short of transformation is what we need.”

Our last reading, given by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on the day before he was assassinated encourages us toward transformation, to keep on this path, because the journey is worth it. Please join me in reading it responsively.

 Something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land.

And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders.

But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg.

But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.

But I wouldn’t stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but “fear itself.”

But I wouldn’t stop there.

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.”

Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick.

But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in a way that we, in some strange way, are responding.

Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, the cry is always the same: “We want to be free.”

Moment of Silence

Pastoral Prayer

God of many names, we ask for your mercy.

We know we have failed to hear all the voices in the room. We have failed to include everyone in our circles of trust.

Open our ears and our hearts to the stories of others, to the truths of our organizations, and the truths of this cultural system of white supremacy that we find ourselves in. Open our minds to the ways this cultural system harms us too.

May we support each other as we find ways to transform into the beloved community we talk about. May we find the strength to bend the arc of the universe toward justice within our movement and in our communities.

Help us be okay in our discomfort and bless our hard conversations.

And thank you for the people of color who stay in this denomination, with all its faults, committed to the principles we affirm and promote and who challenge us to walk the talk.

In your many names we pray. Ashe and amen.

Closing Words

In order to take the important steps of change and transformation, the UUA board of trustees named three Interim Co-Presidents: the Revs. Sofia Betancourt and William Sinkford and Dr. Leon Spencer.

In a statement earlier this week, they shared their plans for these next few months to address both internal systems and how to engage the larger UU community in discernment about our aspirations for the Beloved Community.

They closed with this: “We have an opportunity to reaffirm the hope that is at the center of our faith. As we set about the task of institutional change, we commit as well to a process of healing that leads to spiritual renewal.”

And as Wayne Arnason, another white minister from Wisconsin, says:

Take courage friends. The way is often hard, the path is never clear, and the stakes are very high.

Take courage. For deep down, there is another truth: you are not alone.

Resources for Further
Reading and Consideration

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Books

Black Pioneers in a White Denomination by Mark Morrison-Reed

Learning To Be White by Thandeka

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson (2017 Ware Lecturer)

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Articles about the Culture of White Supremacy

What Is White Supremacy? A Sociological Definition” by Nicki Lisa Cole, PhD , ThoughtCo., 6/19/15

The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” by Anna Kegler, Huffington Post, 7/25/16

Yes, You Can Measure White Privilege” by Michael Harriot, The Root, 4/14/17

A Commitment to Multicultural Worship” by Christian and Kristin Grassel Schmidt, UUA, 3/17/17

The Subtle Erasure of Hispanic Texan Culture” by Eric, Literally Darling, 6/24/15

Also see Tolerance.org, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

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Articles from UU World

Humiliation and hostility: A riot lives on” by Elaine McArdle and Kenny Wiley, 3/20/17

Forgotten story of America’s whites-only towns” by Dan Carter, 1/21/08

We must change” by Rosemary Bray McNatt, 2/22/10

Three co-presidents to lead UUA until General Assembly 2017” bye Elaine McArdle, 4/11/17

Interim co-presidents see ‘opportunity to re-center ourselves’” by Elaine McArdle, 4/21/17

UUA Board of Trustees commits $5.3 million to Black Lives of UU” by Elaine McArdle, 10/17/16

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Films

Dear White People – Netflix

Selma – Amazon

13th – Netflix

Remember the Titans – Amazon

The Black Power Mixtape – Netflix

Queen Sugar – Hulu

Get Out – in theaters

Beatriz at Dinner – in theaters June 9

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Other UU Resources

Unitarian and Universalist Racial Diversity History Timeline

The Journey Toward Wholeness: Path to Anti-Racism

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