Day 3: Living the Dream
Today is Day 3 of the Thirty Days of Love. Today’s action is to journal about a world where the human family lives whole and reconciled. Click here for resources, family actions, and more! Click here to sign up for the daily Thirty Days of Love emails.
Recently, several leaders from the UU Metro NY District took the time to have an important “virtual conversation” with SSL Campaign Manager Jennifer Toth about fundamental issues related to race in our country and our congregations. One of the participants, Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, offers today’s daily action:
Take a moment to imagine a world where, in the words of a vision statement adopted by the UUA’s Leadership Council, “all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.” Can you imagine that? Friends, that’s where we’re going! Today, I encourage you to share the virtual conversation below with your congregation or family. Ask each other: What are the ways we can move these deep conversations into tangible actions, making Dr. King’s dream come alive?
Friends, please take some time to read and absorb the virtual conversation below to see what takeaways inspire you as we recommit ourselves to Living the Dream.
A Conversation with the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign
and the UU Metro NY District: Living the Dream
Metro NY District Leaders who contributed to this conversation
- Rev. Jude Geiger (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY)
- Rev. Peggy Clarke, (First Unitarian Society of Westchester)
- Rev. Michael Tino (UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester)
- Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt (The Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York)
- Rev. Hope Johnson (UU Congregation of Central Nassau)
- Dr. Janice Marie Johnson (Director, Multicultural Ministries UUA)
Jennifer Toth: First, I want to thank you all both for participating in this virtual conversation, and for coming together to craft the statement you jointly wrote in July of last year after the Zimmerman verdict. I know I’ve mentioned this to you all, but it might bear repeating: that statement to me was really profound, and I’ve shared it often with colleagues. I actually used it to shape our vision for this first week of the 30 Days of Love campaign. You managed to capture very powerfully so many things that were happening at once, especially the disappointment all across the country over Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal, as well as the Supreme Court decision to gut parts of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which felt like a big step backward for our country. In the aftermath of these setbacks, you wrote, “It is time our congregations made a commitment to joining a national conversation about race–and a commitment to the actions that will come from that conversation.”
Question: It has now been about six months since you released that statement. How do you feel now? Have our UU congregations really made that commitment to joining a national conversation on race?
Jude: Obviously, I still feel like we’ve taken several big steps backward for our country since the diminishment of the VRA, and the acquittal in the Zimmerman ruling. I feel that six months in, we’ve not been able to articulate a plan forward once more. With the case- by- case changes in the VRA, I only see a long road of locally sourced legal fights. This is energy that would have felt better spent on moving us forward, rather than getting us back to where we were. If I could find a positive in all this, I do tend to see folks more sensitive to exactly how bad we’ve let equity slide. The pendulum swing backwards, may be fostering more progressive stances among people who were once more moderate.
Michael: No, I really don’t think we have in any concerted and meaningful way. Time after time, delegates to General Assemblies have affirmed our commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism. The UUA follows up with excellent programs and trainings. Our congregations respond with defensiveness and denial. I preach about race and privilege on a regular basis—and the response is generally positive. The follow-up work, though, is hard—often too hard for our comfortable congregations. Sure, there are exceptions—congregations that have really meaningfully taken up this work (and certainly many individual UUs are involved in this conversation in their communities). But overall, no, I don’t think we’re part of the conversation.
Peggy: As much as I wish they were mistaken, I have to agree with my colleagues. No, we have not made progress. It seems to me that the pattern we have followed both nationally and in our congregations over the last six months is fairly common for religious liberals. First, we get angry or excited by an issue, like we did around the Zimmerman trial. We talk big, sometimes very big. We demand change and action. But we continue to look to someone else, to some institution or some group of people or, frankly anyone but ourselves, to do the work. How many times have I preached on these issues to be greeted with cheers and then…nothing. Follow-up meetings are empty. There are lots of apologies and folks who mean well, but few people are really ready to transform the system.
Hope: In many ways it’s a “both/and.” My expectations of Unitarian Universalist congregations and conversations are tempered by my view of the larger world. I am probably less disappointed than my colleagues are with regard to the slow pace of change. Change comes ever so slowly. Our congregations are a microcosm of the larger world. My congregation in Garden City, Long Island, NY, had to do much internal work before it was in a position to join a rich conversation about race. It had to first recognize the racism that was infused within our walls—and beyond. One of our former ministers, Rev. Farley Wheelwright, was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. The congregation didn’t hold him back but they had more pressing concerns about our building, and our money (or lack thereof). Then, I came along—a minister of color in a lily-white congregation. This was not an impetus for transformation, but rather an unfounded presumption that the congregation did not need to have a conversation about race because I was there. They assumed that they would not have hired, or called me, if they had not been “transformed.” My experience was, of course, quite different. However, I continued to do the work that I had to do both within my congregation and on the larger UU platform. Slowly we moved forward.
Question: Today we are celebrating Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 50 years after his I Have a Dream speech. Can you talk more about what this day means to you all, and how we continue to do the work of forming multicultural partnerships in meaningful ways?
Jude: On Long Island, I see the work being done in the collaborations between local justice groups, area congregations, and regional service providers. Through the leadership of these groups, day to day personal changes are being made. Our congregants are making connections through the volunteer tutoring they do through these partnerships. Or the shelter system we host every Sunday in the cold season along with other area congregations. The multicultural partnerships that are formed through shared service lead to spiritual deepening. Friendships develop through the work, and it’s through those friendships where real transformation occurs.
Rosemary: I am always very aware on this day that much of the life I now enjoy as an African-American woman is because of the work of Dr. King and thousands of other people working together. None of us needs to look far in order to cross cultural boundaries and partner on issues that threaten our collective well being. The issues of race that continue to preoccupy us now have merged with issues of economic inequality in ways that are new and dangerous for everyone. The recent and alarming erosion of voting rights threatens all of us as well as our democracy. Because the threats are so great, I think it’s possible to make common cause even with people who might be fearful about a conversation based solely on race. It helps that we understand more about the intersections of oppressions than we used to. That understanding provides us with new tools to combat both racism and other oppressions; it helps us understand that we all have a vested interest in justice and equity, no matter who we are.
Hope: Each time I take folks on the Living Legacy Pilgrimage, we visit the sites of the Civil Rights Movement. Annually, I visit the home of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I enter the kitchen where he had his epiphany, choosing to stay in the battle for justice for all. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to my ancestors, my family, those whom I serve, and those who are yet to come. I MUST VOTE. People—all kinds of people—died in order for me to have the right to vote. I MUST VOTE. I can’t use my unearned privilege—yes, I too have unearned privilege—and let injustice pass me by. I must use the lessons that I have learned to do positive work honoring the legacy of my people. To make change. To make a difference. The measure of success needs to be realized in my lifetime, within my sphere. I can’t change the world, but I can share my learnings with those around me—Unitarian Universalist and otherwise. Giving back is an integral a part of my ministry—as meaningful as preaching, as natural as breathing. I pay deference to those who came before. Much is at stake.
Question: In your statement, you wrote: “Day after day, in cases far less publicized than the Zimmerman trial, the lives of people of color are systematically devalued by our “justice” system. People of color—and especially Black men—are treated differently by our system, leading to their disproportionate disenfranchisement and subjecting them to legal discrimination against people with criminal records.” Can you talk more about this? It seemed like there was a national coming together to mourn Trayvon Martin, and the sense that justice was not served in this case. Are people still talking about this case and committing to action so that no more needless deaths happen? What can we do to keep this conversation going? What actions can we take to dismantle the systematic devaluation of everyone, especially Black men?
Michael: Like many UU congregations, the congregation I serve (the UU Fellowship of Northern Westchester in Mount Kisco, NY) participated in reading and discussing Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. What Alexander describes so well, however, is the lived experience of people of color caught in the “justice” system in our country. People of color are “made examples of” by overzealous prosecutors while white people are routinely “given breaks.” People convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote—and thus the basic way American society gives anyone access to power. When the Trayvon Martin case has faded into unfortunately distant memory, people of color will still be facing an inherently unequal justice system. I feel like if we focus on specific cases as if they were exceptions to a larger rule, we miss the broad patterns of injustice that are replicated every day. We need to force ourselves to see the patterns.
Peggy: The necessary transformation of our “criminal justice” system first requires an awareness many UUs are privileged not to have to notice. Since reading The New Jim Crow, I am wearing new glasses. I can see the ways we are inculturated into accepting the disproportionality inherent in the system. First, we need to be vocal about the subliminal messages we receive daily so that those around us can see them too. Second, we have to challenge all those presuppositions about who gets what in our “criminal justice” system. Third, we have to demand a retraining of all parties involved. We also have to create vocal state-based groups that work to dismantle the laws that feed the injustice. And, frankly, every UU congregation should be part of this movement. If we want change, every last one of us will have to organize and get loud and demand that it happens. We have to end the conspiracy of silence.
Hope: It’s complicated; it’s also worth working on diligently. Six degrees of separation….There was an incident in Long Island, NY in 2008—a case that that was very similar to the Trayvon Martin case that transformed my congregation. It centered on Marcelo Lucero, a man from Ecuador who was profiled—killed because he was an immigrant. This was a turning point in my congregation’s growth in understanding. Because we had slowly and surely laid the groundwork, we were able to take an authentic stand on the side of love. We were part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
Janice: Friends, I’m closing out this conversation with my colleagues in the Metro NY UU District and the SSL Campaign and leaving you with these thoughts:
When I work with our congregations, I recognize that we yearn to be in Beloved Community. This is in spite of our struggles in figuring out how best to move forward. There are not many places in our lives where we can have such deep conversations.
The UUA’s Multicultural Growth and Witness staff group is ready to support your efforts—large, small, or somewhere in-between—as we collectively stand on the side of love.
Please, let’s keep this conversation alive!