“Pray When the Morn Unveileth”

The appealing imagery of natural beauty in the first stanza of this hymn text draws you in right away, and sets you up for the social and ethical implications of the second verse. Penina Moise, who wrote the text, was a Sephardic Jew born in Charleston, North Carolina, in 1797; she lived her entire life in Charleston, dying there in 1880 (Marion Ann Taylor, Heather E. Weir, Let Her Speak for Herself [Baylor University Press, 2006], 194). Her congregation, Beth Elohim in Charleston, published her hymnal in 1842, “the first hymnal written by an American Jew”; and her hymns continued to be sung long after her death, so that the Reform Jewish hymnal of the 1960s contained more hymns by Moise than by any other Jewish author (Colleen McDannell, ed., Religions of the United States in Practice, vol. 1 [Princeton Univ., 2001], 108 ff.). She is considered to be the first American Jewish woman to write poetry of note in the United States (Solomon Breitbard, “Penina Moise, Southern Jeiwsh Poetess,” ed. Samuel Proctor, Louis Schmier, Malcolm H. Stern, Jews of the South
[Mercer University Press, 1984], 32 ff.).

This setting of Moise’s text comes from the Union Hymnal of 1914. The music is by Alois Kaiser (1840-1908), who was born in Hungary and emigrated to the U.S. in 1866. He was an important early U.S. cantor, and a prolific composer.

Pray When the Morn thumbnail

Pray When the Morn Unveileth (PDF, sized for order of service insert, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2 in.)

The tune is typical of late 19th century American hymnody, which may not appeal to all tastes; and the melody has perhaps too wide a range for a congregational hymn (an octave and a fourth, as bad as “The Star Spangled Banner”). But the music is well-crafted, providing a pleasant setting for the text, and I thought it worth including here: even if it is never sung by congregations, it would make a nice choir anthem.

Click here for permissions and more about the 50 American Sacred Songs project.

Progress report

Four months ago, I wrote on this blog that grief takes time. Now, just over a year after my dad’s death, I can reaffirm that statement: grief takes time. It’s worth repeating, because our society promotes the myth that you’re done with grief in a few weeks, or, if it’s really bad, maybe a few months. Which brings up an interesting anecdote about the mathematician Paul Erdos, told by another mathematician and reported in the book The Man Who Only Loved Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman (New York: Hyperion, 1998), pp. 143-144:

“‘I was walking across a courtyard to breakfast at a [mathematics] conference,’ recalled Herb Wilf, a combinatorialist at the University of Pennsylvania, ‘and Erdos, who had just had breakfast, was walking in the opposite direction. When our paths crossed, I offered my customary greeting, “Good morning, Paul. How are you today?” He stopped dead in his tracks. Out of respect and deference, I stopped too. We just stood there silently. He was taking my question very seriously, giving it the same consideration he would if I had asked him about the asymptotics of partition theory. … Finally, after much reflection, he said: “Herbert, today I am very sad.” And I said, “I am sorry to hear that. Why are you sad, Paul?” He said, “I am sad because I miss my mother. She is dead, you know.” I said, I know that, Paul. I know her death was very sad for you and for many of us, too. But wasn’t that about five years ago?” He said, “Yes, it was. But I miss her very much.” We stood there silently for a few awkward moments and then went our separate ways.'”

In this anecdote, Wilf represents the typical attitude of our culture: get over your grief quickly, and five years is certainly too long a time to feel sad over a parent’s death. But consider that Paul Erdos was born a Jew in Hungary in 1913: while he was able to leave Hungary, he lived through two world wars and a Communist dictatorship; many in his family were killed by the Nazis, and his father was imprisoned in a Siberian gulag; he was blacklisted from entering the United States during the McCarthy era because he was from what was then a Communist country. I think there’s something in American culture — particularly upper middle class (i.e., college educated) white American culture — that wants us to believe that life is perfect, and wants us to reject anything that challenges that belief. Erdos had a more realistic understanding of life, an understanding that was not predicated on denying real problems, and so he felt free to feel very sad about his mother’s death five years after she had died — to the awkward bewilderment of Herb Wilf.

Noted with comment

“The contemporary version of religion is sport. It is sport, with its sacred icons, revered traditions, symbolic solidarities, liturgical assemblies, and pantheon of heroes, which is the opium of the people. It is also the culture of the people, in both major senses of the word: a communal form of life, but also a chance to display or appreciate the kind of artistry from which the mass of citizens are otherwise largely excluded.”

— Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (Yale Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 45-46.

And consumer capitalism favors sports over organized religion not least because sports can generate a large amount of consumer spending. Ordinary religion does not generate so much consumer spending: Scientology generates ongoing spending by adherents though one could argue that it’s not spending on consumer goods; Hiillsong Music and other producers of Christian pop music generate some significant consumer spending; and not much more. How can religion serve as the opiate of the masses when what the masses really want to do is spend money on consumer goods?

Bath time

We left a large clay saucer (the thing you put under a potted plant to hold excess water) out on the railing of our balcony, and filled it with water to make a bird bath. Many of the neighborhood birds have come to drink or bathe, including California Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica), American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos), Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), House Finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), and Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis). The crows and scrub-jays are too big to bathe, and all they do is drink the water — pretty boring. I most enjoy watching the juncos bathing — sometimes, one bird will be splashing around in the water while another waits impatiently for its turn to bathe. Yet even watching crows drink is better than staying glued to online “news” sources for more stories about a U.S. president who denies human-caused climate change while taking great glee in dropping the biggest bombs he can.

Dealing with attacks again

My hosting service let me know that evil hackers are attacking various parts of my blog. To address this, I’ve implemented “captcha” forms on various parts of the blog. Sorry for the inconvenience, but you’ll have to do some simple math before you post a comment. I’m also implementing other security measures — please email me if you run into problems.

In a comment, Alyson writes: “I was wondering if you had any practical input on how to teach this subject without making the non-white children in the congregation feel uncomfortable or singled out in the process. Our RE class is actually fairly diverse, more so than the entirety of the congregation, and I do not know how to broach this topic with them.”

Alyson, I’m facing the same problem: how to teach a group of Unitarian Universalist children who are not all white about white supremacy. Here’s what I’ve been thinking so far….

For initial inspiration, I start with Dr. Marcia Chatelaine and her crowd-sourced #FergusonSyllabus. Although Chatelaine’s Ferguson syllabus was mostly aimed at public schools and post-secondary education, this is actually incredibly useful for those of us working in Sunday schools that are at least somewhat diverse — because Chatelaine’s syllabus has to deal with far greater diversity than exist in most Unitarian Universalist Sunday schools, it helped me see how to structure lessons that do not assume that everyone is white, that do not assume that everyone shares exactly the same opinions about race, etc. In other words, I feel that Chatelaine’s approach opens up a metaphorical space in which to explore the topic from diverse experiences and diverse points of views. This article by Chatelaine at The Atlantic has a good set of resources to explore, including links and children’s books; at least some of these resources could be useful in teaching a diverse Sunday school group about white supremacy.

As noted in an earlier post, Chatelaine recommends working in subject areas that you know something about. With that in mind, I’m working on some Unitarian Universalist-specific children’s stories from Unitarian Universalist history (based on serious historical research I did, including in primary sources). Two stories I’m working on right now are about nineteenth century African Americans, one a would-be Unitarian and one a short-term Universalist, that reveal how Unitarianism and Universalism were less-than welcoming places for non-white persons. One of these stories-to-be also touches on class bias in Unitarianism, so we can get into intersectionality at a kid-friendly level (one of the points Chatelaine made in a workshop that I attended is that intersectionality is a useful strategy in teaching this general topic). In the other story, the African American was a vital part of a local congregation, but only for a short time. Most importantly, the stories of these two people are complex, not simplistic, and inspirational: some white persons were moving away from white supremacist worldviews at the same time that some black persons were moving towards liberal religion, and all these persons had complex lives and motivations worth telling stories about.

If I manage to write these two stories, and I think they’re worth sharing, they’ll get posted here on my blog. But even if I don’t, maybe this can get you thinking about how you can take Chatelaine’s advice and use YOUR strengths as a Unitarian Universalist religious educator — what topic area do you know best, and how can you apply that to teaching about white supremacy? And then how can you use your expertise to open up a metaphorical space in which children with diverse experiences and diverse points of views can explore the topic?

I think it’s also important to acknowledge some of the resistance we will face when we try to create this open metaphorical space in which a diverse group of children can explore this topic. I think we religious educators will face strong and conflicting pressures: white parents who want to protect their children from this topic, non-white parents who don’t want their children to have to be in a white-dominated environment to learn about this topic, non-parent adults who want us to adhere to a strict party line, congregational leaders who want us to fit into what they’re doing (instead of asking us what we’re doing, and building something around the children) — and some of us may also have to deal with micro-managing parish ministers and clueless denominational leaders and busybody academics, all of whom think we religious educators are not competent to take on leadership in this area.

But acknowledging the potential sources of resistance helps me clarify three basic pedagogical challenges. First, we know there is always resistance to tackling tough moral and ethical issues; we have dealt with this before, in teaching comprehensive sexuality education, in teaching about death, in teaching children to think for themselves. Second, we know Unitarian Universalism is a non-creedal religion devoted to open inquiry; we constantly challenge children to think deeply and openly about everything from the Bible and God, to masturbation and consent, and we constantly have to work to hold open that metaphorical space where children can enter the zone of proximal development in a learning community. Third, we know that race and racism are topics that make adult Unitarian Universalists very uncomfortable, which means they will tend to judge us harshly no matter what we teach; but we’ve been through this before, when we religious educators quietly taught about sexism and heteronormativity in Sunday school classes, even though those topics made many adults uncomfortable.

I think the thing that makes me most nervous about this white supremacy teach-in is that so many people will be watching me, ready to judge my teaching inadequate. And I wonder if your question stems in part from that same feeling. As an educator, I know these one-shot teach-ins never accomplish much, so I know already that whatever I do in a one-hour teach-in will be inadequate. Teaching and learning are long, slow, mysterious processes; we will not achieve miracles in an hour; we need to be in this for the long haul. And that means that the most important thing I can do in this teach-in is to respect each individual who participates, listen with openness to what they have to say, create a supportive learning community — so that they will keep coming back. It’s just like teaching OWL for grades 7-9 — many of the teens don’t want to come to the first few sessions, so you have to build a supportive community where any question is taken seriously and everyone feels a part of the community. For this white supremacy teach-in, then, our most important goal will be to make people want more.

That’s all I’ve got for you right now. Not sure if I’ll post my lesson plans and supporting material here — Unitarian Universalists are far too prone to savage and destructive criticism when it comes to teaching about white supremacy, and I just don’t have the energy for that right now. But feel free to contact me through email.

Teaching about white supremacy

How can we teach young people about “white supremacy” within the constraints of a typical Sunday school? What are some of the theoretical considerations, and what are some practical considerations?

One of my professional organizations, the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) has called on Unitarian Universalist religious educators to participate in a “white supremacy teach-in” in the coming weeks, to follow up on the denominational brouhaha which led to the resignation of Peter Morales from the presidency of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

This is a great call to action, but where do we come up with pedagogical strategies to teach children and teens about white supremacy? I’ll get to practical suggestions after a brief review of theoretical resources; although if you’re a hands-on educator you may want to go straight to practical suggestions, skipping over theoretical considerations which may seem pretty remote from actual children and teens.

Theoretical resources
Practical suggestions

Theoretical resources

Let’s start with the obvious: with bell hooks and her book Teaching to Transgress, and with Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Both these books provide useful theoretical perspectives. However, in my experience these books are not very useful for children and young people since they focus on persons age 18 and up.

Lev Vygotsky is another obvious source of pedagogical insight. Vygotsky’s theories provide us with such well-known concepts of “scaffold-and-fade,” and the zone of proximal development. For a helpful summary of zone of proximal development, I like Seth Chaiklin, “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction,” in Kozulin et al., Vygotsky’s Educational Theory and Practice in Cultural Context [Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2003]). Chaiklin makes a number of points that might prove helpful. Chaiklin points out “the zone for a given age period is normative, in that it reflects the institutionalized demands and expectations that developed historically in a particular societal tradition of practice,” thus implying a strong connection between institutional demands and children’s development. Chaiklin also carefully defines the technical meaning of “imitation” in Vygotsky, and then points out that “the main focus for collaborative interventions is to find evidence for maturing psychological functions, with the assumption that the child could only take advantage of these interventions because the maturing function supports an ability to understand the significance of the support being offered”; thus, there are definite psychological and developmental limitations to the amount of learning that can take place within the child.

And in a Unitarian Universalist context, I believe it’s helpful to connect Vygotsky’s collectivist understanding of learning and development with James Luther Adam’s theological conception of the congregation as a voluntary association in mass democracy. Adams’s conception of congregations as voluntary associations helps us understand that face-to-face and personal encounters within a congregation help prevent the atomization of the individual, which in turn can prevent mass democracies from hurtling towards totalitarianism. So Vygotsky teaches us that “a person is able to perform a certain number of tasks alone, while in collaboration, it is possible to perform a greater number of tasks”; and Adams’s work suggests not only that the congregation is a place where we can collaborate together to support a liberative and liberal democracy, but also that the congregation as a whole can support the developmental growth of children and teens towards healthy maturity.

Another useful theological resources is William R. Jones’s essay Theism and Humanism: The Chasm Narrows. In this essay, Jones makes a very helpful connection between theism and the “left wing” of theism: both are humanocentric worldviews, in which it is up to humans to effect positive change. Jones help us see that we can’t wait around for some Daddy God to bail us out — for that matter, nor can we wait around for Big Daddy Science to bail us out — a humanocentric point of view acknowledges that it’s up to us humans to effect change. (Jones makes the same point in his book Is God a White Racist?)

For theoretical resources specific to religious education, I’d turn to my other professional organization, the interfaith and international Religious Education Association (REA), which includes both scholars and practitioners. Over the years, the REA has published or presented interesting scholarship on how to teach liberation and social justice; the most notable recent instance is REA’s 2012 conference “Let Freedom Ring”: Religious Education at the Intersection of Social Justice, Liberation, and Civil/Human Rights. So REA conference proceedings and the REA journal Religious Education have plenty of theoretical material that would help in teaching about white supremacy. The problem with the REA publications is that you have to read through a great deal of material to find relevant articles, and even then you often have to do some translation from another cultural contexts (e.g., figuring out how an article outlining teaching peace to Israeli and Palestinian youth might translate to a U.S. context).

Beyond REA publications, there are plenty of progressive religious educators who have written books that offer resources for this kind of endeavor. A couple of books that come immediately to mind are John Westerhof’s book Learning through Liturgy, and Robert Pazmino’s Foundational Issues in Christian Education; Westerhof’s book helps usnderstand how learning takes place in and through worship services; and I have found Bob’s book extremely helpful in confronting my own internal inclinations and biases. A few Unitarian Universalists with anti-Christian biases and prejudices might be repelled by these books; but I’d suggest that the exercise of tamping down anti-Christian biases long enough to find the good in those books could be a useful preparatory exercise for those who have a serious desire to teach against racial bias and prejudice.

As an educator, I have been greatly inspired by Marcia Chatelaine’s workshop “Talking to Students about Ferguson,” given at Ferry Beach Conference Center in July, 2015. Chatelaine, a professor of history at Georgetown University, helped me understand how intersectionality could be a useful pedagogical strategy. Her workshop also helped me to understand how to get past the strong emotions elicited by Ferguson; she suggested addressing Ferguson from within one’s own area of disciplinary expertise. Thus, as a historian, she could talk about the history of Ferguson as a white-flight suburb, using her are of disciplinary expertise to generate insight.

Finally, I would also turn to the works of educational philosopher Maxine Greene. In particular, I have found her short essay “Diversity and Inclusion: Towards a Curriculum for Human Beings” to be foundational for the kind of liberative religious education I hold us as an ideal. I’ll give one brief excerpt from this essay that might serve as an inspiration for a suitable pedagogic practice for teaching about white supremacy:

“[T]here has been a prevalent conception of the self (grand or humble, master or slave) as predefined, fixed, separate. Today we are far more likely, in the mode of John Dewey and existentialist thinkers, to think of selves as always in the making. We perceive them creating meanings, becoming in an intersubjective world by means of dialogue and narrative. We perceive them telling their stories, shaping their stories, discovering purposes and possibilities for themselves, reaching out to pursue them. We are moved to provoke such beings to keep speaking, to keep articulating, to devise metaphors and images, as they feel their bodies moving, their feet making imprints as they move towards others, as they try to see through other’s eyes. Thinking of beings like that, may of those writing today and painting and dancing and composing no longer have single-focused, one-dimensional creatures in mind as models or as audiences. Rather, they think of human beings in terms of open possibility, in terms of freedom and the power to choose.”

I wanted to end with that passage from Maxine Greene because it points the way to the kind of flexible, learner-focused teaching that I want to do.

Practical considerations

When I translate these (and other) theoretical resources into practical pedagogy for young people in a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school setting, here are some of the things I think about:

1. My teaching will be centered on activities that allow learners to be “selves in the making.” And, given my own strengths as a teacher, this means I’m going to use the arts; and knowing my limitations as a teacher, I’m going to do best with telling stories (I could see other people using dance, drama, etc., but those are not in my skill set). [This point inspired by Maxine Greene.]

2. My learners are going to be at various points in their development. I would love to be able to do some kind of formal pre-assessment, but that’s not realixtic in the context of an hour-long Sunday school session. Therefore, I’ll have to be a flexible teacher, willing to adjust my lesson plan to accommodate those who turn out to know very little, as well as those those who already know a lot. [See Bob Pazmino’s chapters on “Sociological Foundations” and “Curricular Foundations.”]

3. The educational goal of teaching about white supremacy is a BIG task. Since I have to be realistic about what can be taught (and learned) in a given limited time, I’m going to set realistic — and probably modest modest — educational objectives for one teach-in session. But for the long term, I will also continue the liberative educational praxis I’m already using and committed to. [See bell hooks about the realities of teaching.]

4. Anybody who has taught knows that teachers have to regulate the emotional temperature of a class. The phrase “white supremacy” will obviously generate strong emotions in many people; in fact, that’s the whole point of using that phrase. But I don’t want to limit my educational objective to merely eliciting emotions of shame, anger, guilt, and/or hatred, because from experience I know that too much of those emotions can stop the learning process temporarily (e.g., white people can shut down due to shame, non-white people can shut down due to anger, etc.). So I’ll need to balance how these emotions are elicited in the short-term, against a long-term goal of liberative educational praxis.

5. Oversimplification is always a temptation in teaching, and I think it’s a particularly strong temptation when teaching about white supremacy. To avoid oversimplification, I’m going to take inspiration from Marcia Chatelaine’s advice on teaching about Ferguson: use intersectionality. Intersectionality asks: how are different oppressions linked? (I suspect this will be an especially useful approach for adult Unitarian Universalists, because so many of them are already doing significant work and learning in sexism, classism, ablism, homophobia, etc.; thus intersectionality can connect what they’ve already accomplished and learned about to the topic of white supremacy.) [This point inspired by Marcia Chatelaine.]

6. Chatelaine also suggests: focus on an intellectual discipline or subject area you know well, and delve into that. The intellectual disciplines where I have some level of professional knowledge and expertise — philosophy, liberal theology, religious education — aren’t particularly well suited to teaching children and teens about white supremacy. So I tried to think of a subject area where, although I don’t have professional expertise, I have enough knowledge that I could teach something to children — and I thought of environmental justice, a topic I have already taught to children and teens, and a topic that lies at the center of social justice concern in our congregation.

———

The above are some preliminary considerations and practical ideas for implementing a one-shot “teach-in” on white supremacy. Note that what I am proposing does not necessarily conform to the teach-in called for by Black Lives of UUU. I’m specifically addressing the educational considerations of teaching young people in a Sunday school setting; Black Lives of UU has issued a broader call to include this topic in worship services, Sunday morning Forum, etc.

Furthermore, my practical ideas grow out my own congregation, here in the very specific cultural context of the Bay Area — a region where Cesar Chavez started his career, a region where Chinese immigrants at times lived in virtual slavery, a region where Japanese Americans were illegally (and immorally) interned during the Second World War, a region where one police force (Oakland P.D.) was under federal control because of racial prejudice. I could also mention Oscar Grant. I could also mention to overt sexism and racism of Silicon Valley companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, etc., and of start-up culture, and of Silicon Valley venture capital firms. In terms of environmental justice, I might consider why it is that East Palo Alto, a historically black city, doesn’t have enough water supply to support the kind of development that could bring more jobs (and could also bring more gentrification that might drive out people of color). Bay Area racial history is complex, and your area will differ.

Irrelevant

I admit it, I’m feeling irrelevant.

As I watch a social media debate about accusations of “white supremacy” engulf my denomination, I’m all too aware that I’m on the far periphery of that debate.

Part of my problem, as I learned in a May 27 article on the UU World Web site, is that I’m a religious educator. According Peter Morales, who just resigned as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), this means I am not competent for leadership:

“Some have noted that a preference for ministers for certain staff positions also means the candidates will skew white, since there aren’t many UU clergy of color. Morales said the Association would be open to a religious educator in leadership positions but said they seldom have as much management experience as ministers. ‘So the question is, are you willing to overlook that and train them?’ he asked, adding, ‘you don’t want to set people up for failure’ by putting them in positions they aren’t ready for.”

Because I’m on the far periphery of my denomination, because I’m not privy to all the inside information that people on Facebook seem to have, I’m trying hard not to judge anyone who is centrally involved in this debate. But I’ve finally decided that I’m really angry about this comment by Peter Morales. In my first position as a part time Director of Religious Education, I had to hire, supervise, and in one case fire an employee; supervise a couple dozen volunteer staff; coordinate with committees and other staff; and manage events and projects. Yes, I made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things, but I gained a hell of a lot of management skills, and I was mentored by more experienced DREs who were very adept managers. I got more on-the-job leadership and management training in three years of part-time work than many parish ministers get in five years of full-time work.

But Peter Morales’ attitude is what I’ve come to expect from the cosy little in-group at the head of the UUA: — Religious educators must make poor leaders because, you know, it’s women’s work, and we all know that women don’t make good leaders. As for the male religious educators, if they had real skills they’d have become real ministers (I’m looking at you, Dan Harper).

Yes, I’m generalizing here. There are plenty of people at the UUA who value religious educators. But I have felt dismissed by UUA leaders; the only word for it is “patronized.” And it’s not just the UUA that is pervaded by that patronizing attitude of dismissal towards religious educators; many members and leaders of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) do a marvelous job of being politely condescending towards religious education and religious educators; and the UUMA never seems to offer continuing education to its members about religious education, I guess because real ministers shouldn’t lower themselves to that level. I may be generalizing here, what I’m saying may not be true of specific individuals, but what I’m saying is generally true.

Not surprisingly, this kind of thing makes me angry. And I’m a middle-aged white guy. Imagine how I’d feel if I were not white, or if I were a woman.

Maybe part of the UUA’s problem is that we have too many ministers in senior leadership positions. More precisely, we have too many of a certain kind of UU minister with an inflated sense of self-importance, with blind spots about their own prejudices, and with strong connections to a loose network of powerful people within the denomination. Many of these are good people. But this loose network of powerful people in the upper echelons of the UUA (and of the UUMA) takes care of its members in ways that are not good. I have watched this network close ranks around their friends who committed sexual misconduct (I still remember the time I wound up yelling at a senior UUA staffer over the phone regarding a minister who had committed egregious sexual misconductor). I have watched this network provide soft landings for its members when they needed a new job. I also believe this network shunts competent women and competent people of color into the less prestigious jobs at the UUA (“she’ll be a good fit for the Religious Education Department”; “he’ll fit right in to the Diversity Office”; etc.).

At this point, I can see that I’ve let my anger get the better of me, and I’ve gone on too long. “Bring it home, preacher” is what they’d say in some congregations. So I’ll ask: How do we get out of this?

Well, I hold out little hope that any of the three candidates running for UUA president will show increased respect for religious educators (and no, being condescending and not listening are not signs of respect). If you can’t show respect for the people who are training up the next generation of Unitarian Universalists, that’s not a hopeful sign. And if you can’t show respect for religious educators, why would I believe that you could show respect for people of color?

Nor do I see any imminent signs of culture change at the UUA. I know there are good people on the UUA Board of Trustees, and good people working at the UUA in Boston, and as field staff. But UUA policy is set by General Assembly, and General Assembly is dominated by well-to-do white people who can afford a vacation in late June, and well-to-do ministers who have a big enough professional expenses budget to attend. In other words, it’s the same old people who can afford to meet face-to-face who are going to continue to set policy.

Maybe something will come out of the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism movement. I hope so, but I’m not counting on it.

If we’re going to make real change happen, I strongly believe it has to start from the grassroots: from our local congregations. That’s where I believe we can do the real work: face-to-face in local congregations, where we can respond creatively and specifically to immediate problems. Don’t wait for the UUA to lead the change: make your congregation lead the UUA. Make religious education central to your congregation. Make racial justice central to your congregation. Make your congregation fight against the resurgence of sexism.

As I write this, I realize that it might not be me who is irrelevant. Nor are we religious educators irrelevant, despite Peter Morales’ dismissal of us as incompetent. It might be that the UUA, the senior leaders at the UUA, their cronies in the UUMA and elsewhere: all of that is increasingly irrelevant.

Denominational politics

I haven’t had time to pay much attention to denominational politics for the past year, between my boss going on sabbatical and the death of my father. But the recent uproar at denominational headquarters has been so big, I’ve had to pay attention.

Peter Morales, the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and the second person of color to hold that office, resigned yesterday amid charges from critics that he is perpetuating a “white supremacist” culture at the UUA. He had three months left in his second and final term as UUA president.

Some of the charges leveled at Morales say that he did not do enough to hire non-white people into senior leadership positions at the UUA. I was actually surprised to learn that the number of non-white employees (excluding service workers) was up to 11% — a pitifully low percentage, worse even than notoriously racist Silicon Valley tech firms, but much higher than I expected given how lily-white Unitarian Universalism is (I’d bet most of our Unitarian Universalist congregations are maybe 97% white).

Obviously, the first thing the UUA needs to do is hire those qualified non-white applicants who do apply for UUA jobs, and Morales resigned amid accusations that didn’t always happen. Mind you, I don’t want to second-guess UUA hiring decisions, but the UUA gives the impression of a cosy little in-group — not unlike Silicon Valley tech firms — and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn qualified non-white candidates are passed over in favor of white people who would “fit in.”

But even if the UUA starting hiring every qualified non-white candidate, there’s a bigger problem: there aren’t many Unitarian Universalists to begin with, and the overwhelming majority of them are white. When I served on a search committee for a district staffer a few years ago, I felt the pool of candidates was frighteningly small; there just aren’t a lot of Unitarian Universalists who want to work for an organization that demands long hours and offers modest compensation. In an interview on Monday, Morales said something that I agree with: the UUA could expand the pool of qualified applicants by considering persons of color who are not Unitarian Universalists, just as All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., did when they hired an associate minister a couple of years ago. Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, hiring non-Unitarian Universalists might be the only way the UUA will be able to increase the number of non-white staffers from 11% up to 36% (the percentage of non-white people in the general U.S. population).

[Update 4/1: In online discussions, people have pointed out that when the UUA does hire people of color, it often treats them badly enough that they leave the UUA (or even the denomination). Obviously, expanding the pool of candidates will be a waste of time if the UUA chases away its non-white staffers. So much for the one idea I had to address this problem.]

Above all, I don’t think we should give up on racial diversity. I have very little to do with the UUA any more (the last thing the UUA needs is another middle-aged white guy hanging around), but I’m still committed to moving my own congregation towards more racial diversity. On the other hand, I admit I’ve pretty much given up on trying to increase class diversity, and I hold out little hope for a non-Anglophone Unitarian Universalist congregation in the U.S. Sometimes I even feel as though we’re back-sliding on the meager progress we had made towards fighting sexism in religion.

Thank God I’m a Universalist, so I have this irrational hope that love will triumph in the end. Because at this moment in history, it does not feel as though love is triumphing, not within the UUA — nor in the wider U.S. society.

[4/1: several typos corrected]