Unitarian Universalism

I’ve been attending a church lately. Scratch that- a congregation. They officially changed their name in the late 90’s away from “church” to “congregation” because a number of people in the congregation felt the word church carried too much Christian baggage. It’s a small group- about 100 members. But they are very active and very devoted to each other- they have a pretty healthy community feel to them. Tight knit is perhaps a good descriptor. It also implies that outsiders might find it hard to get enveloped in, but I am not sure if that is the case. I’ve been welcomed pretty thoroughly- I am a valued member of the choir, people have asked for my sourdough starter, and one of the choir members and I have started getting together and working on songs of our own. But then again, I am a middle class white woman of non-straight sexuality. The only way in which I am an oddity is that I am young in comparison to most. But as there seems to be a noticeable contingent of people who are early/mid 30’s, perhaps not even my age is that incongruous.

However, it is highly likely that people of color would find it alienating. To be sure, most UU congregations are very white and this is no exception.

But they are very interested in social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement especially. I should perhaps mention that this is the “James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation”. The person it is named for, James Reeb, is one of the white ministers who answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to the clergy to join him in the demonstrations at Selma, and was subsequently murdered for his involvement in the civil rights movement. This is, I think a very apt naming for the congregation. These are white Unitarian Universalists that want to fight injustice and want to do it on the front line. The matyrdom of James Reeb for the civil rights movement informs the attitudes and the interests of this congregation in most of its activities.

Which is all well and good, for the most part.

Well, okay.

Let me step back.

There is an interplay – in general, at large, in most things – between the drives of individuality and interdependence. Collectivism and individualism. The ancient debate over the size of the government, what it means to be in a society. Can we really ever go it alone? What do you lose if you leave a community? What are you gaining when you withdraw into your self or focus on yourself vs what do you lose? What do you get if you nurture and maintain relationships with family, friends, neighbors and is it worth the energy and effort that goes into that? When looking at relationships, are you looking at what you get out of it or what you put into it and the larger effect of the entire thing? Is there a larger effect of the thing? What does it mean to be part of a community? How and why do communities form? When should you put common goals ahead of individual goals?

The two drives are not always opposed- in fact they are often aligned. But there is undeniable tension between them.

An illustration.

I am in a choir. I am enjoying it quite a bit. Everyone in it is dedicated to learning and focusing on the music and because of that we are able to do a very good job at this, which enriches the experience of the people who listen to our choir on the Sundays we perform. Having a choir work well, however, is a matter of getting everyone in the choir dedicated to one common purpose and pulling their weight. Everyone needs to be on the same page. In most choirs, this is facilitated by having a director who has the final say on decisions and leads the group in what they are doing (I say “most” not as a contrasting statement but in the acknowledgment that there may be small fully democratic choirs). Our director, though skilled, is inexperienced and can be a bit timid. There are several members of the choir that are anything but. Our rehearsals are frequently interrupted by people who are suggesting ways they think things could be done better, and often these interruptions don’t so much bring up good ideas as they take time and effort away from the choir actually rehearsing.

These are people who are fiercely independent, people who are part of a religion where everything is decided by vote, people who are used to having their voice listened to. It is hard for them to switch cleanly to a setting where yes, while their opinions are valid and there may be things that the leader could be doing better, it is counter productive to try to take over and exert influence because in order for the choir to achieve its goals, deference must be given to the director.

Back to the context of social justice.

The people in this church are anxious to “do something” for the Black Lives Matter movement. They go to all the marches, we have a big “Black Lives Matter” banner that we are hanging on the outside of our building, we let the local vanguards of BLM use our space for events, and every Sunday you will find a number of “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts mixed in with the patchy tweed, dirt stained jeans, hand knit socks and Keen sandals (which seem to have replaced Birkenstocks). A number of sermons have directly or indirectly tackled issues of police violence, white privilege, and racial disparities in our region and our country. Still, we long to “do something”. We give money to local organizations that are related, we have discussion potlucks on racial justice, we pass congregational statements of support and advertise all the local events with racial justice as a theme. Still, I hear a lot of “I want to do something to help Black Lives Matter, and I want to go beyond just talking about it and education”.

Okay, a little more exposition.

When the Selma to Montgomery marches happened in 1965, Unitarian Universalism was actually quite young. American Unitarians and Universalists had joined together in 1961. Unitarians had had a history as a quirky New England branch of Christianity that seemed with every generation to shed another piece of core Christian doctrine, starting with belief in the Trinity and going on to question church polity, the exclusiveness of Christian truth, and then into the nature and existence of the divine. Universalists had held that salvation, redemption, and dignity were afforded to all humans, no matter what. The two schools of thought, when combined, form a framework that above all else, values people, and seeks to empower all people.

Many in UU at the time of the joining were involved in and devoted to the civil rights movement. Many attended the Selma marches and many considered this to be a necessary focus for the new faith. This was not shared by the entire association, however, and different approaches and reactions to the issue sprang up.

A group of black UUs at the time had formed a group promoting black empowerment and self determination within UU. As it limited roles of power to black people, there were a large number of UUs who felt that this was going against the free and democratic ideals that they held so dearly. A separate group sprang up with the goals of helping the black population, but included whites in positions of power. The fight between these two groups, these two ideas, nearly tore the denomination apart and the echoes of the debate still ring in UU today. It is known as the “Empowerment Controversy” and it certainly has loomed large in our current support of BLM. ¬†There’s a very good write-up here:¬†http://www.uuworld.org/articles/empowerment-tragedy

You’ve probably heard similar arguments to the various sides of this controversy in a number of places such as any affirmative action or “safe spaces” debate. Basically the black led organization made the argument that a space was needed for black people to determine their own affairs, to hold positions of power, and to work on their own community apart from the white majority that would, by dint of existing power structures, biases, and sheer numbers, never fully cater to the needs and interests of the black UUs. The argument for the other side was that empowerment for black UUs is a common goal that UUs of all races can work towards and therefore should be a part of. The first group found the approach of the second both patronizing and opposed to truly empowering black voices. The second group found the first group to be un-democratic and opposed to the foundational principles of Unitarian Universalism.

You see, there was a conflict between the group (the UUA) empowering the voices of the oppressed and continuing to empower each individual voice- including those of people in the privileged majority. What do you do when the apparent best action, in the name of valuing and empowering all voices, is for some to be silent? Strict democracy allows for majorities to trample minorities, everyone knows this. The American system has a number of mechanics to try to balance this (the efficacy of which is a different discussion)- when it comes to less formal matters- social movements and congregations- what is there but the good will and reason of the participants?

Back to my congregation.

I think it is safe to say that my congregation is doing a great deal to support Black Lives Matter. In many ways I am proud of it and happy that they are. But I see an attitude, a mentality in them that implies many of them still miss some points that are integral to the modern movement to inact structural and cultural changes for racial justice. Mostly- that their voices are not the ones that need to be heard right now. It is black voices that matter most in this conversation. Yes, white voices are important too, but they always have been important to structural and cultural issues and are frequently heard. In this movement, white voices are best to be raised in a supporting role. For us, educating ourselves and our white community, challenging our own culture, and showing support are the best things we can do, and should we try to take on the mantle of leadership in this movement we will be seriously overstepping our bounds and furthering the very system of white control we would see demolished.

We need to be able to ask ourselves if us leading is the best thing for the movement. If having our voice heard would be the best thing for the larger community. If our desires and our feelings are getting in the way of progress for the people who need progress the most. When we as white people speak, it will be heard. We need to ask ourselves if we are speaking over those whose voices should be heard or if we are passing them a microphone.


I like my congregation. I like that they seem to focus on service, community and social justice. I like that our choir is surprisingly good. I’m actually getting a lot out of going, and some of that might be stuff like this that is intellectually interesting. There’s some interesting theological history, too.


Other news, I think I might apply to a sociology PhD program and I need a writing sample but I don’t really know if I have such a thing? Its been a while since I’ve really written anything. I might write some long winded blog posts in the near future to try to get at some things that might turn into something good and/or just try to find a consistent voice in my writing. I’ve had a few people mention to me that they’ve totally read something I wrote that was compelling but they haven’t pointed to concrete examples so I’m probably going to have to write something new. Either that or send in the 11 page thing I wrote on refrigerator pickles one day this summer while hanging out in air conditioning provided by the public library trying to type up some of the recipes Jeff and I have. I got way too into looking up various cucumber cultivars and folk uses for dill, so I only got two recipes in.

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