Racism in Religion
(The Promise and the Practice)
Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 14, 2019
A member of another Unitarian Universalist congregation shared with me a story many years ago. His story is about one of those visits from a religious proselytizer bringing news about God, truth, and how to be a better person by converting to the visitor’s religion. Early in the conversation, the visitor pulled out a picture of a family with a stunning mix of ethnicities saying this is the promise of the future: black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and more – all together as one family of believers. The visitor spoke in glowing terms about what might be possible if we all become one people of belief, practicing one religion together.
At this point, the Unitarian Universalist stepped away from the door for a moment and returned with a very similar photograph with one significant distention: The man holding the photograph was in the picture. The visitor was surprised and disbelieving, “Where did you get such a photograph?” I no longer remember the exact details of the family and the photograph but essentially through a previous marriage and an adoption, all three of his children were of different ethnicities. And the three adult children now lived around the world and had married into the different communities where they lived, so the grandchildren were also of various races and ethnicities. The photo had been taken when the whole family had come home to Minnesota for Christmas.
What the visitor’s picture offered was the promise of a multi-ethnic and racially diverse future. What the other photograph offered was the practice of a multi-ethnic and racially diverse present-day reality. When I reflect upon the promise and the practice of Unitarian Universalism in regards to Anti-racism and Multiculturalism, this story comes to mind. When I reflect on myself with regard to this same promise and practice, this story also comes to mind. And I think about why I feel the need to reach for this experience of diversity and Anti-racism. Why does it matter?
In the story, the visitor wanted that racially diverse reality for religious reasons. The visitor was explicit about it: this is the future to which God calls us. In other words, we should be Anti-racist because of our religious beliefs. As for the Unitarian Universalist Minnesotan who told me this story many years back, I’m not sure why it mattered to him. I didn’t think to ask at that time. I would guess he wanted that racially diverse reality simply because he loved his family, or because he’d been taught as a child to see past a person’s skin color, or maybe he had travelled the world when he was younger and thus his sense of identity was more global … I don’t know.
What would be your reason? I don’t want to assume that every one of you here this morning is committed to that vision of becoming an anti-racist, multi-ethnic, racially diverse community … Actually, I do want to assume that … but I’ll ask the question this way just in case. What would be your reason for wanting such a community?
There could be any number of reasons. I don’t think it is necessary to say one reason is better or more noble than any other. I just think it’s important to know why you care about something. I think it’s worth investigating.
You may want to be Anti-racist and be part of a diverse community because you are a person of color and my goodness it would be a relief to worship and belong in such a community. Or because most of your family is already racially diverse and becoming anti-racist or belonging to more racially diverse communities is where you are more naturally drawn. Or because you feel it is the politically-correct response given the current political climate, and you like to be on the right side of history. Or because your religious beliefs lead you to recognize racism as a sin, as separation from God and your siblings in faith. Or because you are outraged that a basic request for police to stop harming and killing black people without cause has been met in our culture with a bizarre fetishization of the police instead of with common sense. Or because spiritually you are yearning for wholeness and this is an obvious aspect of your life where you can put your spiritual energy to make a difference. Or because you are stirred up by the injustices and inequality you see and want to do your part to make it better.
Why are you interested in moving from the promise into the practice? Why are you involved in this Anti-racism and Multiculturism work? Why are you showing up for a worship service about grappling with White Supremacy?
For me, I will cast my vote as someone who does this for religious and spiritual reasons. I believe we Unitarian Universalists have a calling to become the Beloved Community, to use our penchant for pluralism to keep expanding the circle of welcome to include all humanity. And spiritually, I have found I am nurtured by difference and diversity. Spiritually, I come closer to wholeness when I can encourage and be encouraged by those who are necessarily like me.
As I mentioned the phrase a few paragraphs back, I’ll circle back for a moment and spend a few minutes on it. The phrase “White Supremacy” seems to trigger some people negatively. Some folks take issue with the phrase. We had a big “White Supremacy Teach-In” two years back and since then, throughout Unitarian Universalism, the phrase keeps popping up.
“I’m not a white supremacist!” You may be one of the people who experiences a reaction to the phrase, “I don’t wear bed sheets and burn crosses in people’s lawn.” Okay. Did you know that many people in Nazi Germany were not Nazis? They were just caught up as German citizens in the culture around them. So it is with the culture of white supremacy.
I’m not calling anyone here a white supremacist. What I said – specifically in the promotional description of this sermon – is this: “Unitarian Universalism is grappling mightily with institutional racism and the culture of white supremacy.” You may want to distance yourself from it. You may want to say, “That has nothing to do with me.” Unfortunately, no one gets to do that. We can choose how we respond to it; we can ignore it, we can enjoy it, we can fight against it, we can seek to transform it. The one thing we can’t do it not be part of it. The culture we live in is like the water a fish swims in.
If the description of our culture as ‘white supremacy’ makes you uncomfortable, I suggest you spend more time, not less, figuring it out. You don’t need to take it personally. As a person whose identity aligns considerably with the dominant culture, I have learned to be okay with that particular discomfort. I use it as fuel to pay better attention to the stories of oppressed.
Earlier this week, I was talking with today’s Worship Associate Karen about the topic. We were circling around to some good starting points for the congregation and it occurred to me … we’ve actually started this conversation so many times over the past dozen years or so. We’ve had guest speakers and special programs, instigating sermons and classes led by staff and lay-people.
We brought in Thandeka for a day-long workshop and a few years later we had Mark Morrison-Reed here for a weekend leading a workshop, preaching, and promoting his history books. A little after that Matt Meyers was here with a workshop on music and culture. We’ve done several workshops and classes: that White Supremacy Teach-in two years ago, Robin DiAngelo’s video about White Privilege, discussions on Michelle Alexander’s book about “The New Jim Crow” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” We’ve had the speaker, the book, the class, the workshop, the sermon. Now what?
As we heard in DeReau K. Farrar’s reflection, https://smallscreen.uua.org/videos/a-parable-of-privilege-by-dereau-farrar-for-the-promise-and-the-practice now is not the time for us to sit back thinking “Well done good and faithful Social Action Advocate.” No. Now is the time to go deeper. To build on what has been, creating something sustaining and fulfilling.
Over the past two years I’ve been nurturing some deeper connections with the Christian clergy in the area. I’ve been part of a group called MICAH – Moving in Congregations, Acting in Hope. We are a mix of clergy and lay people, white allies and people of color. We’ve done a class on racism together, we hosted a movie discussion, we sat down with the mayor to talk about the downtown area. In February, we had a big ecumenical worship service about Racial Unity. We brought in the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers from Ithaca. Aileen and I each had a part in the service. Two other people from this congregation showed up, which was disheartening. But by and large, the event was – for many people from many communities – an amazing starting point into the conversation that a handful of us have been having for a while.
Let’s do more than start again. Let’s do more than begin the conversation once more. We can re-form the anti-racism task force as one of the new Social Action Teams. I’ll start a list for you to indicate interest in doing something more with this conversation.
At the beginning of this sermon I asked you to think about why you show up for a sermon like this. Why are you drawn to become an anti-racist and to help build a diverse community? Recognizing that it is uncomfortable, recognizing that there is a good deal of brokenness in the past and probably a lot of heartbreak coming still as we move forward, recognizing it is hard, it is important you and I be able to name why we feel compelled to jump in to this work. I’m in it because I am called to build Beloved Community and because my spirit longs to be more whole. Why are you leaning in?
If we want justice to roll, we need to get in there and roll with it. We need to join that mighty stream and take part in what’s going on. Now is the time for us to do more than just start the conversation again.
I’m in it because I want to be whole. I want to pour gold into the cracks of my spirit, the cracks of my faith, the cracks of my country; and bring something both beautiful and functional back to the table. My spirit longs to be part of that healing conversation so that we can then fill that broken bowl to overflowing. I invite you to join with me as we bring our practice into closer alignment with the noble promise of our faith.
In a world without end,
May it be so.