Building an anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-cultural community is a journey. What we soon learn when we embark on that journey is that it is a spiritual journey—and a messy one too. This work of becoming anti-racist and anti-oppressive takes us on a journey toward wholeness. As UU minister Marta Valentín who is a Latina lesbian writes,
This journey is continuous. It promotes justice. And it is never going to be perfect. Indeed we can look back on our Unitarian Universalist history and find evidence of our continued journey and also the ways in which it was not perfect. In the 1960s, a debate about the civil rights movement divided the Unitarian Universalist Association. We have been living in the aftermath of this break ever since.
What happened is that in 1968, the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus presented “non-negotiable demands,” and in response the denomination made a $1 million financial commitment to black empowerment programs. In 1969, the denomination’s board recognized that we were broke, and by 1970 they cut all the promised funding to the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus. The reaction was swift and has had devastating consequences to this day. That year 1000 African American members left the Unitarian Universalist Association. And the UUA backed off from active involvement in the civil rights movement.
In 1981, Unitarian Universalists again took up the work of addressing racism. The Unitarian Universalist Association board resolved to become a “racially equitable institution.” In 1992, there was a call for racial and cultural diversity in Unitarian Universalism.
Then in 1997, “The Journey Toward Wholeness” was adopted. The Journey Toward Wholeness was a commitment to become an “anti-racist, multicultural association.” (“Handout 1: Twelve Moments That Shaped Today’s UUA,” Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults)
That was 1997—22 years ago. This commitment is indeed a journey, a continued journey, which is never going to be perfect. The point of the journey is to heal the brokenness in our nation, in our faith community, and in ourselves. This term, “Journey Toward Wholeness,” was chosen because it conveys the idea that the examination of racism is a spiritual concern. It conveys the underlying belief that racism causes brokenness and that to begin the journey is to begin to heal.
This asks us to reflect on the question: “How is your heart?” and to recognize that the heart can’t be whole as long as we are broken by racism. To be on the spiritual journey to wholeness is to be about the business of healing. (“The Journey Toward Wholeness Is Spiritual Work,” https://www.uua.org/racial-justice/history/jtw/43120.shtml)
This journey of healing the brokenness caused by racism asks us to be curious and open. We need to be curious about ourselves, each other, about the history and effects of racism, and about how to dismantle it. We need to be open to discovering and being changed by what we discover.
Again and again, we are being asked to reflect on how UU faith guides and encourages us to make this discovery and to reflect on how it guides us to examine our attitudes, knowledge, and competency on matters of race. We are asked to look at how anti-racist anti-oppression multicultural work is faith work, and to connect this work to our Unitarian Universalist values.
Our seven principles offer support. The fourth principle affirms “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” Examining racism is part of this search. Reading and learning about race and being in conversation with others about their experiences help to widen our knowledge of other people’s lives and the fuller truth of how racism undermines our first principle of “human worth and dignity.”
Engaging with anti-racism work can also foster greater “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” as promoted in our second principle. (Jude Geiger, “Handout 3: Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning,” Be the Change). Ellen Zemlin, who is a white Unitarian Universalist, identifies anti-racism work as faith work. Zemlin links anti-racism commitments to the first principle. Zemlin says,
Collectively as Unitarian Universalists, our antiracist, anti-oppressive practice and our spiritual practice are becoming more and more tightly intertwined. This has led us as a denomination to our work on the adoption of an eighth principle. That principle names anti-racist anti-oppression work explicitly as spiritual practice, as faith work. The draft language is:
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions. (https://www.8thprincipleuu.org/)
Did you hear the language of journeying toward wholeness? That language of journeying toward spiritual wholeness is being carried forward from the earlier commitments of our faith. This proposed principle recognizes that this journey to build Beloved Community and the actions necessary to achieve it is a spiritual discipline.
Rev. Elizabeth Buffington Nguyen, Leadership Development Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color, who describes herself as “white and of color, American and Vietnamese,” says anti-oppression and anti-racism work has to do with living the Beloved Community, and practicing all that comes with that. That includes being vulnerable enough to fail and then to practice forgiveness. It means celebrating together. It means having the hard conversations. Nguyen says it is:
not just about courageously loving myself—it is also about courageously loving my Unitarian Universalist kin as we try to live the Beloved Community of Dr. King’s dream. It is about talking with white people about racism, about supporting people of color, Latino and Latina and multiracial within Unitarian Universalism, about “isms” and power and answering the call of love. . . . It is about shifting resources and facilitating workshops, about sharing experiences of racism and asking questions, about embracing conflict with song and prayer. It is about encountering my own limits, as an ally and an antiracist person of faith. About messing up, and failing, and about asking for forgiveness and beginning again in love.
And it is about celebration—about moments of connection across great difference.
Rev. Elizabeth Buffington Nguyen says, “when I am in conversation with someone who I think is very different from me, I try to let go of perfection and find that space of kindness.” This mirrors what we heard in our story this morning. In the story of “The Three Sieves,” the grandmother’s questions model a helpful approach for us in our efforts to connect with others across difference. Some people claim this story originally comes from Socrates. And it’s sometimes referred to as the three sieves test. This test can be particularly useful in cultivating a racial justice lens.
The test is: before speaking, we ask ourselves, is it true? Is it good or kind? Is it useful? At the very least, we can wrestle with these three questions and ask ourselves why we need to speak up or ask a certain question or take a certain action. The idea isn’t to silence ourselves but to go deeper with our own motivations.
Do I need to speak because I’m used to being the one who has to speak? Am I speaking out of ego and defensiveness or genuine interest and curiosity? What harm or good will my words and actions cause? And if I’m curious, is my curiosity of use in bridging differences or more of a prying nature? As is so often the case, we can often learn more by listening than speaking.
Of course we’ll make mistakes. Many mistakes. That’s okay. That’s part of how we learn and grow. That’s why those who are committed to anti-racism and anti-oppression work say time and again that we must let go of perfection. And as hard as it is to let go our need to get it right, that letting go can be such a relief.
In a recent UU World article, UU minister Nancy McDonald Ladd, who is white and writing of our anti-racism anti-oppression work says that “nothing we do will be perfect.” She writes:
We are not going to have a perfect strategy as a nation, a religious community, or as individuals. But we do need to have a strategy. We need to have a strategy informed by and grounded in our Unitarian Universalist faith.
We need to journey toward wholeness to heal our brokenness. We need to engage this work from the heart. This commitment begins “right at home [in] the very deepest recesses of [the] soul.”
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.