Two years ago, I was trained as a facilitator for a Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association program on “Where Leads Our Call?” As the first part of that program, I co-led a three-day retreat last year in Delaware for UU ministers on “Call & Excellence,” reflecting on both the promises and perils of pursuing “excellence in ministry.” This past week, I co-led the second part of the program on “Call & Accountability.”
When this curriculum was written, there was no way to anticipate just how relevant the topic of “Call & Accountability” would be today in the larger Unitarian Universalist movement. As it turned out, three weeks before the second retreat began, news began breaking of a series of resignations in the upper levels of UUA leadership in response to a controversy around diversity in hiring practices. Depending on how deeply you want to dive into the details around this controversy, there is considerable coverage on the UU World website.
In response, the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective called on UU congregations to host a #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn. (A “teach-in” is a play on the protest strategy of a “sit-in,” adding a connotation of an educational forum equipping activists for social change.) The congregation I serve as minister is one of 633 UU congregations who accepted this challenge to host a #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn.
When leaders in a progressive religious movement begin resigning around accusations of perpetuating White Supremacy, a lot of people get triggered for a confluence of different reasons. So as I prepared last week, to co-lead a retreat for nearby UU ministers on “Call & Accountability,” the following is an excerpt of the opening reading we used for the opening session on creating a covenant of how we were committing to be together during the retreat. It’s called “An Invitation to Brave Space”:
Because there is no such thing as a “safe space”
We all carry scars and we have all caused wounds.
That challenge to co-create “brave space” reminds me of the quote that I reference each time we welcome new members of the congregation I serve. We reflect on what it means, that Unitarian Universalism is a covenantal rather than a creedal religious movement. Our word “creed” derives from the Latin credo, meaning “I believe.” And creedal religious movements seek to create unity around a set a beliefs. In contrast, as Unitarian Universalists, we sometimes say that “We believe in deeds not creeds,” and that, “We don’t have to believe alike to love alike.” So, in the words of a former president of the UUA from back in the 1990s:
The memory we seek to embody is of forebears wise enough to put aside the creedal question…“What do we all believe in common?” for more profound, covenantal questions: “How shall we treat and help one another here? What hopes might we share? What promises shall we make to help deepen one another’s lives in the time we have?”
Through creating “brave space,” our goal is neither to enforce a creedal orthodoxy, nor to make people feel shame. Rather, the goal is to cultivate greater awareness of where one another is coming from—to become more conscious of perspectives of which we are currently unconscious—so that we might more authentically build a beloved community.
In the brave space we sought to create in the retreat this last week, as part of how we reflected on how we are called to hold one another accountable as UU ministers, part of what we did was closely study the Covenant of the UU Minister’s Association. Some parts of that covenant are more uniquely applicable to ministers, but there are three parts of it that particularly stood out to me as potentially helpful for the larger progressive movement at such a time as this:
We covenant together…
To [be] mindful of our potential unconsciously to perpetuate systems of oppression;
To seek justice and right relations according to our evolving collective wisdom…
To cultivate practices of deepening awareness, understanding, humility, and commitment to our ideals;
I’ll say more about each in turn.
First, covenanting together “To seek justice and right relations according to our evolving collective wisdom” is a reminder that none of us has it all figured out. I would even go one step further to say that there is not even the possibility of perfection. Rather, at our best, we are ever-evolving—seeking to learn from the past to avoid repeating the same mistakes, and to draw increasingly wide circles of inclusion.
And often, it only becomes possible to draw those increasingly wide concentric circles of inclusion once we become more aware of ways we have unintentionally excluded others in the past. (As the saying goes, “Intention does not equal impact.”) Or in the second of our three points, we covenant together “to [be] mindful of our potential unconsciously to perpetuate systems of oppression.” This commitment is perhaps the biggest paradigm shift we are invited to wrestle with regarding the #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn.
We are not talking about the common understanding of White Supremacy as people “out there” like the Ku Klux Klan, who are conscious, aspirational White Supremacists, seeking to intentionally create a more racist society. You might think of learning to denounce conscious, aspirational White Supremacy as the entry level of dismantling racism. It is a vitally important starting point, and I’m all for it.
But I want to invite you to consider that there may also be a more advanced level of dismantling racism in which we are asked not only to condemn the blatant, conscious White Supremacy “out there,” but also to look in the mirror and investigate the ways that being raised in a racist, sexist, classist society has caused each of us to sometimes “unconsciously perpetuate systems of oppression” in various ways.
I invite you to notice not only that word unconscious, but also the word system—because the problem is so much larger than any of our individual perspectives. It is about the systems and institutions, laws and attitudes all around us. We need to do the work of dismantling on both the individual and systemic level: interrogating our own implicit bias as well as working together to write more equitable laws. We are called to an increased awareness that if we do not set up accountable processes for dismantling systems of oppression, then we reinforce and perpetuate those systems of oppression, both unconsciously and consciously.
The third part of the covenant that I am inviting us to consider is “To cultivate practices of deepening awareness, understanding, humility, and commitment to our ideals.” What sorts of practices might that refer to? When approaching difficult topics like racism, practicing humility can mean reminding oneself that we are entering into brave space to seek evolving collective wisdom. None of us has all the answers, and a practice of humility can invite us to move from defensiveness to curiosity. If you hearing the term #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachIn makes you feel anger, sadness, confusion or shame, those are understandable human responses. I invite you to both feel those emotions and to consider experimenting with the spiritual practice of curiosity. Ask yourself, what might I have to learn from reflecting on “our potential unconsciously to perpetuate systems of oppression.” I am not telling you that you have to embrace some pre-determined orthodox perspective. Rather, I’m inviting you to take a new perspective for a test drive, open to what new realizations you might potentially become aware of.
Also, with respect to covenanting “To cultivate practices of deepening awareness, understanding, humility, and commitment to our ideals,” I am struck by that word “commitment.” When discussing difficult topics, a spiritual practice of commitment can mean staying at the table and cultivating a capacity for just “being with” our discomfort. That’s the different between safe space and brave space. There are certainly times when we need safe spaces, but I invite you to consider that there are also times when we need brave spaces, when we are willing to show up and listen to new perspectives and be willing to sit with our discomfort rather than retreating. Co-creating such a space together is not easy, but it is the authentic, life-affirming soul work of building a beloved community. I’m grateful to be on that journey with so many of you.
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles