Category Archives: Unitarian Universalism/Faith

Power in my religious community

White supremacy is like a field: easier to recognize when you’re looking at it from far away, harder to see it when you’re hopping from blade of grass to blade of grass. Is this just grass, or is this part of the field?

I was asked to write about the hiring controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is a thorough summary with lots of play-by-play details. If you read my blog from UUpdates.net, you’re privy to what was going on. If you are one of my friends or you read my blog from Twitter, this is the Too-Long; Didn’t Read version: OK, y’all know I’m Unitarian Universalist, right? Right. There was a hiring controversy within the organization that, for lack of a better term, organizes the congregations of my religion. It went to regionalization, and there are leads for every region. Leads don’t have to live in the region. A person of color was overlooked for a position in favor of someone white for reasons of “fit”. “Fit” is often used as a term meaning one’s conforming to pre-existing norms and relationships. So a qualified person of color being overlooked for a position otherwise entirely populated by white people is the sort of thing you’d expect to see when you’re seeing white supremacy. The president of the UUA made comments, not terribly helpful ones. Active UUs, who tend to be very passionate about anti-racist efforts, rallyed and spoke out to advocate for more people of color in leadership and unraveling white supremacy within the leadership of the faith. Ultimately, UUA president Rev. Peter Morales resigned, saying that his words had done more harm than good and he felt he was not the person to lead the UUA out of it.

I watched this like I am watching most things right now: quietly.

On one hand, I am a white person who feels strongly that we need to disassemble white supremacy and supremacy ideology in general.

On the other hand, I felt it wasn’t my place to comment. Listen: I’m out of covenant with the UU community. I care about it. I feel like I belong there more than I belong in any other religious community. It’s that I don’t show up. I give very little energy to UU-specific endeavors, feeling spent after the work I do in the city and the labor of love that is my family. I am not disconnected- I am a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, and I do occasionally darken the door of my local congregations. But how often am I actually physically around other UUs? Uuuuh. Does it count that my neighbor, two doors down, is UU? No? How about that time at SURJ, that other time, or that other time? Not a religious-enough thing? Well… There were at least four of us at another neighbor’s Orthodox Christmas celebration, does that count?

No, no it does not. If I’m not an outright outsider, I’m standing in the entrance-way, holding open the door. What right to I have to peak in and comment? Well, turns out I’ve now been asked twice to do it, by people I respect. So here goes:

This is what I understand: Power has a habit of reproducing itself. Power takes what is already seen as legitimate and excludes all else. Power makes its norms ubiquitous. You know how we don’t know what oxygen smells like? That we rarely stop to think about it? Power is like that. Power is the thread that holds together narratives about what is normmal, and proper, and what should be. If you knew nothing at all about the UUA, it’s existence in this context means it’s very unlikely to be unscathed by prevailing power dynamics: white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, heterosexism, and the list goes on. People who know stuff about the UUA have details. Supremacy, if you’re not actually looking for it, if you’re in the group that it favors, can feel pretty subtle. It is what normal tastes like if you’re not in the habit of being critical. So hiring a white person over a qualified person of color in a mostly white staff? Hiring a minister over a director of religious education? Yeah. That is the sort of thing you would expect from institutions reinforcing their norms.

The UUA, like many professional institutions, relies upon a socialization process that most frequently includes getting a master’s degree, a few internships, and the approval of a committee before someone becomes a fellowshipped minister. I am told that fellowshipped ministers tend to be favored for leadership over let’s say ordained non-fellowshipped ministers or directors of religious education or lay people. The training that one gets in that process is what is considered most legitimate. Regardless of whatever the content matter of that training (I mean, I don’t know that much about it), the process ensures that there will be a certain homogeneity of people who become fellowshipped. On the most basic level, they will be the people who can tolerate the process. They will have the resources to take the years to pass through, the financial support to eat at the same time, and the cultural and social capital to pass through without alienating so many folks that they can’t get approval. That’s how these sorts of things work. There will be certain types of knowledge privileged. There will be certain types of experiences preferred. It’s credentialism, and it does a bang-up job of maintaining the status quo of power and influence.

As I am here, kind of far away from the UU community, understanding this… I think the people of color in the UU denomination who have defied norms to speak up about it have a point and that we should listen. I think the religious educators who have decried their marginalization deserve to be listened to. I think that moving beyond reinforcing current structures of power will require completely changing how people in my religious community conceive of legitimate authority. That is much harder than staring closely at one brick and wondering if the building it belongs to is white supremacy. It probably does. May we be brave enough to reimagine our faith institutions so they may become the beacons of equity and models of dignity we so strongly aspire towards.

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Agnostic’s Prayer

When I was young, and Catholic, and learning the world was awful, I leaned into two things to be OK with it.
1) God is going to bring justice in the afterlife.
2) The belief that I could have some effect on far-off suffering by praying about it.

I prayed a lot. I remember praying about poverty, homelessness, Bosnia, Israel, Palestine, car accidents, people in my social networks, Africa, AIDS, people wrongfully convicted, various illnesses… I was really bothered by stuff as a kid.

As I became older, and significantly less Catholic, and significantly more aware of the abundance of suffering in the world (shout out to the adults in my life during childhood for doing a decent making sure I was sheltered from that in an age-appropriate way), I struggled to cope. Without heaven or an arbitrating higher power, it seemed that terrible things just happened, usually unanswered. And without a higher power who could bend the wills of people, there really was truly little to nothing I could do to affect a person’s suffering far away.

Then there was the whole realization that we all have free will. If this higher power existed in the manner the stories of my youth suggested it did, well it’s just sitting back and doing what exactly? Also what does an all powerful being care about me in particular, one of seven billion, in a universe so vast? Really? All of these sounded like pretty self-serving stories of a race of beings seeking to create meaning in a context of a lack of understanding of science and mechanics and how people operate. This was my descent into agnosticism.

So I came to a point where I believed petitioning a higher power was pointless because it seemed most likely that if one existed, we don’t understand it, and I’m not so sure it does exist.

…I did not stop praying. Old habits die hard, especially the stress crutches. Usually when I screwed something up. Usually when I felt inadequate. Usually when I felt like I was failing or needed to be better.

In that way, praying shifted from my efforts to right the world to my efforts to right myself, to take a minute to assess in what ways I am deficient and figure out ways to do better.

“God grant me the wisdom to figure this out.”
“God grant me the bravery to see this through.”
“God grant me the humility to admit I was wrong.”
“God grant me the patience to endure this tension.”
“God grant me the calm to get through this conflict.”
“God grant me the grace to forgive to those who’ve hurt me.”

Who’s this God that’s going to make me a better person? Uh. Hmmm. Well… Details, details.
I do not think I am actually talking to anyone so much as I am indirectly talking to myself. I am petitioning some nonexistent force for assistance to tap-into the nonexistent better version of myself. Nonexistent because I am, and always will be, just me. I belong to the universe, I effect the universe, and maybe this is one way of pausing and letting it affect me. Or I am just talking to myself.
Talking to one’s self is the domain of children but listen: they are on to something. This works.

I think my prayers are more effective now.

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Seeking

Thinking about faith and the sacred. Thinking about my increasingly secular life.

Or is it? What distinguishes a religious UU from one who isn’t? I am an irregular church attendee, but my values system has not changed. I feel like I am acting in my faith more than I have before. That values system that inspired me to become UU is the same one that inspired me to enter my current line of work. Being religious, on some levels, feels like the degree to which one submits their self to a religion. But the religion I’m affiliated with is a grassroots one that values the democratic process, that operates from the bottom up, and so it’s designed itself not to follow. This is a faith that still feels like it is mine, even as I have not taken part in any rites, and even when my community membership has diminished.

I was recently involved in Green Party organizing. I’ve taken a step back from it, mostly because all of the other steps in my life are a frantic and wonderful run of family and work. So, Green Party. They have ten key values! And the Unitarian Universalists have seven principles. And I sit here wondering how many other liberal progressive organizations that I can become affiliated with that also have lists, careful crafted by committee, declarations of belief made from a grassroots organizing effort. Delicious democracy, the leveler of power. Debatable democracy, relying on the wisdom of the masses for best practices. And I remember that both entities are human institutions, existing only because other humans similar to myself decided they should be that way. They could have decided something else.

Leadership via democracy is a tricky business. Someone has to distinguish their self and their ideas first. Someone needs to spend some time as the minority faction that is otherwise ignored for a time, until the powers of persuasive change the balance of numeric support. And so if religion is a business of meaning-making, and progressive politics are a business of improving society, the grassroots variety assume that meaning and insight from from the masses themselves. So there is a lot of room to act and believe. It’s not a great place for those without a rudder to be.

I have a rudder. I have a direction, and a clear-eyed perspective on what my priorities are. I learn on faith in times of struggle when I need a sign, or a friendly person pointing, to give me a sense of where to go. That is not now. I have a strange relationship with religion at the moment. I belong to a faith whose strong suit is “community” but in practice this generally means the community that meets within its walls. There is nothing wrong with that. It is not necessarily what I seek right now. I’m still trying to figure out how to be in communion with humanity. I’m trying to imagine a society-wide beloved community. I am trying to create a just society.

I don’t need religion to prescribe my relationship to society as much as I am still seeking the scared. And I forget this, as I am surrounded by sacred things now. Infants are sacred. The earth is sacred. And so forth. That is what my atheist self is seeking right now: ways to connect to sacred things. Ways to reassure myself I am connected and a part of the broader web of sanctity. And the largest obstacle for me is the understanding that religion is a largely human institution, and if God exists, he’s only tangential to religion. I cannot deny that the need to belong is the backdrop of all my religious pursuits.

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Kelly On My Mind

We all die. It’s a matter of when, not if, though I cope with this terrifying fact by pretending it isn’t a predetermined thing. Every single person I’ve ever met, including all of the people I love, will perish. Yikes. So my inclination is to savor every day, and to enjoy the presence of my loved ones as much as I can. Life is precious. Everything I do in my life has that understanding behind it. Life is precious. Every life is precious.

Morbid? Perhaps.

Twitter’s becoming a hard place for me to wander every time there is an execution. I’m against state execution, broadly speaking. I loathe war, though I understand the need to maintain some boundaries, I’m saddened by the casualties, and the ease of which war expands its misery. State executions are as completely pointless as they are bankrupt. We’ve isolated the person we perceive as a threat. On a practical matter, what more needs to be done? Research has suggested that it doesn’t dissuade. We’re a people who seeks vengeance. I grew up on Star Trek, and one of the more disillusioning parts of being an adult is watching the way that my country’s culture isn’t inclined to be the better person. We strive to be safe, and we’ll go off the deep-end to do so.

Twitter has a nasty, but useful, habit of bringing uncomfortable things in front of you. Like protesters who interrupt your brunch to inform you that terrible things happen to them, who interrupt your peaceful complacency to tell you a truth, Twitter trends the names of the soon-to-be murdered. Debates about the ethics of death penalty, and news of the development of this person’s end of life filter through. Murder is about to happen. I can only avoid it by putting the phone down and walking away. It happens as my eyes turn away.

I didn’t know Kelly Gissendaner was a Unitarian Universalist until she was already executed. It’s irrelevant to whether the death penalty is ethical, but it was perhaps one of the first times that I had something in common with a person on death row. There aren’t a lot of us. And I watched on Twitter, the drama of temporary stays, and then I logged off to find out she was killed when I woke the next morning. And she’s gone.

Most crimes are things that never should happen. Murder’s different. It robs of time. We’ll all die, but life is precious so we hold onto life as much as we can. And life is sacred because it is our existence. It is beautiful. We have harsh penalties for murder because life is precious, because while we will all die eventually, we decided that we should not die sooner. Killing does not respect the sacredness of life. It is offensive and it is wrong whether done by citizen or state. I remain saddened that the state does not model being better. I am further frustrated that the immorality of the death penalty is compounded by its application to people who did not commit the crimes they are executed for. We do not have to do this, and yet we do.

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It’s that time of year: Time to Hate On Chalica

Four years ago I found Unitarian Universalism, and felt like I found a spiritual home. I grew up Catholic, and my spirituality was important to me and defined a lot of how I interacted with the world. Catholicism is a rigid faith, and there were many things that I felt were inaccurate. Primarily, the requirement of a penis for leadership struck me as fallacious, especially because I have the sort of personality that takes charge. It did not make sense that God would give me these gifts and then tell me not to use them. It seemed like a human prejudice. I would later conclude that religion is a primarily human institution, independent of whatever truth may exist in the divine world. Unitarian Universalism is honest about its human roots; it felt like home.

The faith is liberal and seeks to better itself. It has many sources, nearly all which originated from outside of the faith, to determine truth. Then it concludes that everyone’s answer will likely be different. It is a refreshing perspective.

If I had to identify one flaw of the faith, and there are more than one, I would say that it can have problems with authenticity. I feel that discomfort strongest around “Chalica” time.

Chalica was meant  to be Unitarian Universalism’s own winter holiday. It starts the first Monday of December, and you light a chalice every night in reflection of one of UUism’s principles. Apparently it’s not supposed to be a rip-off of Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but the ritual of lighting a candle every night seems awfully similar. Sure, candles are common, even advent wreaths have candles. You can exchange gifts, if you’d like. It’s also a holiday that few UUs actually observe.

My reaction to Chalica is fairly common. I agree with Anna Flowers (linked) in all of her points. It feels hokey. It’s celebrating something that doesn’t have enough depth to truly celebrate. It would be like taking a day to reflect upon each of the 10 Commandments. Sounds like a bit of a bummer holiday, right? And those commandments came from God, not a committee. Surely, there is something else to celebrate that is brighter than that. Christians and Jewish people celebrate parts of their history and celebrate their relationship with God. Pagans celebrate the earth. We celebrate a committee’s decision, one that can be changed with another committee decision?

In its attempt to give our faith more substance, it comes off as an admission that we sometimes lack it. That is why Chalica makes me uncomfortable. Clearly, someone lighting a candle and reflecting on what they will does not threaten me. It is just that I struggle with the holiday in the same way I do with other discomforts with the faith community. We are the congregations of mostly white people singing African American spirituals. We are advocates for social justice who (in my experience) tend to belong to the social upper crust, far more educated than most people, and those we would otherwise advocate for. We are the community of faith who sometimes gets tangled up in what it means to be who we are instead of taking the faith and going out in the world. So on one hand, Chalica has refreshing notes because it’s one of the few things that we honest-to-goodness came up with ourselves. On the other hand, it feels stolen. The name, for crying out loud, even sounds like Hanukkah. English speakers were not born yesterday. It could have been called “Winter Lights” or “Candles of Principle” or ANYTHING else. When we take the practices of others, often feels contrived.

We take so much from other faiths and people. Part of this is because we are trying to better ourselves and our community. The practice of self-improvement is inherently trying to become someone you are not. That is where we are, taking the best music, philosophy, and celebrations from others because they are often better than what we have on our own. But singing an African American spiritual does not make me party to its history; it’s still someone else’s. I may fight the good fight for social justice, but I am part of the structural oppressor in most categories, etc.

Chalica highlights a struggle for cohesion in our community. Do we celebrate the principles because that is the only thing we have in common? Why not celebrate life, the seasons, or earth? Solstice is my adopted holiday of choice, not just because its older, but the connection to the earth feels like connecting to something greater than myself. I do not have that sense with Chalica.

Part of the reason that people belong to religions, take part in their community, and work towards higher callings is because they wish to belong to something greater than themselves. When my Unitarian Universalist faith is at its best, I feel like I belong in the world. I have a sense of location among people and Earth, and a compass which gives me a vague direction of where to go. When it is at its worst, I feel like I am wearing the ill-fitting clothes of others. Chalica feels like an attempt to be an image of religion that would make more sense to outsiders than it fills a need for a holiday.  I agree with Matt Kinsi – we should focus on being authentic to ourselves first, in all things.

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