I was in Las Cruces, New Mexico, this summer for several weeks, spending much of my time unpacking boxes the moving van had delivered while simultaneously trying to create an aesthetically-pleasing and comfortable home. I also went to the Unitarian Universalist church–twice! (I haven’t attended church or any other place of worship regularly for decades.) But, moving is a socially-disruptive experience and church is one place you can connect with individual people as well as with the larger community. So, I decided to visit the local UU congregation.
Unitarian Universalism has a fairly long and circuitous history in the United States. It’s roots are in liberal Protestant theology and practice, but the institution has branched out from its roots, seeking to be more “inclusive and diverse.” Some of the historical background and development of the church can be found on Wikipedia. As fascinating as this history and development is, I want to focus here on “Black Lives Matter”–a theme the congregation chose to use as it centered its worship on one of the Sundays I attended.
Even though the full-time minister was on vacation, the congregation went ahead with their singing, announcements, and sharing of “joys and sorrows.” One of the regular parishioners gave the sermon, spending considerable time being critical of her own community as she looked back over the collective history of the UU church during the past three or four decades, specifically regarding the lack of inclusion of Black people in leadership positions.
“We’ve done well as far as including women in positions of leadership. More than half of our ministers today are women.” The speaker went on to say that UUs welcomed Black people into their congregations during the 1970s and 1980s, but “we didn’t want Black people being in leadership positions.” She added, “It seems as though we were OK with having Black people worship with us, but we were not OK with having them lead us.”
That was the gist. I’m merely reporting on what I heard and experienced that one Sunday. Before visiting the Las Cruces congregation, I had only attended one other UU service–way back in the 1990s. I did note that the people attending the service in Las Cruces were quite friendly. Many made it a point to speak with me during coffee hour. There were about 75 people in the auditorium on this particular Sunday. Most were White women. There were a handful of Black people as well as a handful of Latinos. In addition, there were several same-sex couples. One woman wore a hijab. Informal dress, though, was the norm–jeans, shorts, flip-flops or sandals, and T-shirts. One woman worked on her knitting project during the service.
Immediately following the sermon, there was opportunity for people (congregants) to respond with comments or questions. Three of the people who spoke up during this time–all White people–reflected much of what I hear today when White people respond or react to the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.”
One man, from Detroit, immediately weighed in. He wore a T-shirt that read “Roar with Cecil.” “Believe me,” he said, “you don’t want to be a White boy in East Detroit. I’m here to tell you that racism goes both ways.” He elaborated some, but always came back to “racism goes both ways.” One of the Black men who had a part in leading the service just could not contain himself, went over to the man from Detroit and said, “You are wrong. Racism does NOT go both ways.” He briefly explained how the structures in our society support and propagate racism.
One woman from Brooklyn then spoke up. “You know, back when I grew up, the whole place was divided into neighborhoods. You had your Polish, German, Jewish, Italian, Irish, and Puerto Rican spaces, and you didn’t go into each other’s territory. I think it’s a matter of ethnicity.” She went on to explain that she was so relieved when she married and “could rid myself of my Italian name.” It took her a while to get to the place where she could eventually embrace her Italian heritage. I don’t think this woman “gets it.” She’s not wrong speaking about her experience, but she’s “off,” seemingly not understanding her privileged existence in a structurally racist society.
Then a man from Connecticut made himself heard. “We didn’t have any Black people where we lived.” He reported that when he was in high school, a Black, middle-class family with two teen-aged daughters attempted to move into his neighborhood. People fought to keep them out, but eventually the Black family “won” and settled in. “I ended up having some of my classes with these Black girls, and you know, they were just the sweetest things you could imagine.” I don’t believe he realized how condescending he sounded.
I think this concept–the structural nature of racism–is one that many people (most notably White people) have difficulty grasping and, therefore, are unable to unpack what’s at the heart of the phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” Our judicial system, our educational institutions, our politics, our economic system–all have emerged from White experience. Experience informs and shapes our beliefs and practices. Therefore, policies reflected in our laws, our schools and universities, our political parties, and our business “ethics” reflect the realities and interests of those people who have held collective power in our country–White people.
It was refreshing to hear the speaker at the UU Las Cruces church speak so candidly as she looked back on the history of her community’s behavior toward Black people. Supporting the concept of “inclusiveness and diversity” means (at least, partially) that those people who have ready access to society’s power structures need to accept that people, currently disenfranchised and marginalized, belong in the public sphere (leadership positions) so their voices can be heard, celebrated, and acted upon. Behaving defensively–“racism goes both ways”–does not move the conversation (and culture) forward.
Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va. She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam. She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.