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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