First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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The Practice of Multi-Centering

January 27, 2019
Rev. Dr. Sandra Fees

As a religious community, we do a lot. And there are continuing demands to do more. And yet, of course, we can’t possibly have a team or even an individual to work on every issue, program, or interest. Even with the projects we do take on, some teams can start to feel as though they are working in isolation or without the support of the church as a whole.

That siloing can have a number of negative consequences. It can spread people too thin, for one thing. It can also create a sense of competition for resources of time, money, and attention.

But the deeper and more damaging aspect of working in a too-narrowly focused environment is that it fails to bring a holistic and values-driven perspective to our ministries. It neglects to take care and intention to see the complex ways people and communities are impacted by decisions and priorities.

Unitarian Universalist minister Jennifer Nordstrom says, “Single-issue silos of concern that don’t account for the overlapping intersection of patterns of power result in narrower understandings of their own issue.” (“Intersectionality, Faith, and Environmental Justice," Justice on Earth)

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw introduced the term intersectionality in the 1980s. Crenshaw is a law professor who teaches critical race studies and constitutional law. She used the term intersectionality to describe the ways that power intersects and overlaps, impacting people in different ways.

My own introduction to intersectionality began when I lived in Harrisburg. I became involved in protesting a proposed medical waste processing facility. It was to become the world’s largest such facility. The facility was slated to be located in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with a large African American population. This was the same neighborhood where an old and problematic waste incinerator was already located and which had been under attack for decades.

A small group began to protest the facility. Each week, we walked from the proposed site to the local corporate headquarters of the company involved in the proposed deal. The leader of our effort was skilled in political theater. Until his recent retirement, he was a pro-bono lawyer and activist who had staged some pretty high-profile and memorable campaigns based on some of Ralph Nader’s use of props. In Harrisburg, he was known for protesting legislative perks and pay raises by arriving with a large pink inflatable pig.

For our protest, we carried tiny red hazardous waste bags and left them at the corporate headquarters. Placing these bags on corporate property was trespassing, which was the point. The goal was to get some media attention and expose the involvement of the local company. A few activists got arrested to generate attention. Eventually the proposal for the facility was withdrawn, and I like to think our efforts had something to do with it. I learned through that effort and the fights over the waste incinerator about the disproportionate environmental impact on poor communities and communities of color.

Much later, I also came to realize that one of the failures of our protest was that it was led and carried out by white people. We failed to partner with the people who would be most impacted by the facility. We were well-meaning, well-educated white activists who did not live in the immediate neighborhood that would be most affected.

Intersectionality like that is most visible and most talked about in explicitly social justice efforts. Our Unitarian Universalist movement is striving to think more holistically and in intersectional ways about social justice. The Unitarian Universalist Association selected the book, Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersection of Race, Class, and the Environment, as the 2018-2019 Common Read. While the book focuses on the intersection of race, class, and the environment, we must ultimately take into account a wide spectrum of identities and diversities, including those related to mobility, mental health, sexual orientation, and gender identities, among others.

Our church can begin to explore these possibilities with greater intention. We can do this by examining our church programs and our own thinking about them. And this can then be incorporated into other areas of our life as well. As with much of what we are learning together here at church, the first step is to educate ourselves, grow our awareness, and expand our consciousness. I think of church as a Spiritual Laboratory where we can do this with people we are in relationship with already and can take risks with.

The Food Pantry is a great example to consider. This is our congregation’s longest running social justice commitment. This program seeks to alleviate hunger and create food justice. It serves a diverse population, and some participants are people of color who experience particular oppressions and power dynamics that white participants don’t.

Walter and Wilfriede Axsmith lead the monthly Food Pantry with volunteers from the church and also from among the participants. Walter and Wilfriede have sought to supplement the program, recognizing the intersection of identities and power that are at work. For one thing, the Food Pantry serves an urban population disproportionately impacted by environmental issues as well as poverty. Environmentalism isn’t just about trees and birds but about the larger scope of the environment in which people live and work. It has to do with the quality of food, air, warmth and shelter, living in urban versus suburban or rural settings, and other factors. Winter coats and cold weather clothing are distributed at the food pantry, because families who come for food are also struggling to deal with a cold-weather environment. Personal care items, books, and jewelry are also available, because people need to learn, have beautiful things, and feel good about themselves.

Family Promise can be understood in a similar way. Our hosting is coordinated by Carla Mannix with many volunteers. Our hosting is coordinated by Carla Mannix with many volunteers. Family Promise seeks to move families out of homelessness. The dynamics of homelessness exist at the intersection of race, class, and the environment. Just as with the Food Pantry, this does not mean that every person in Family Promise is a person of color, but that those individuals of color in the program have additional issues of oppression and power to contend with. Environmental factors that impact the families include their having to move physically from space to space week after week, and also having little control over their choices of food.

What does this kind of reflection mean to our work with the Berks Detention Center? Tonya Wenger and Pat Uribe-Lichty have been champions of this work with others volunteering to make visits and participate in vigils and other efforts. Our involvement is easily seen as part of immigration justice. But immigration justice and racial justice are linked. Inseparable. And here again, the environment is a factor. And again, it isn’t so much a matter of trees and birds but instead the environment in which undocumented immigrants live. The institutional setting and detainment itself are detrimental to mental and physical well-being, especially for children. Another thing for us to consider is that, while our church’s efforts have focused mostly on migration resulting from violence and poverty, increasingly migration is being driven by climate change.

Reflecting on the intersections of power is not limited to our explicitly social justice oriented efforts. The work of all of our ministries can be made more accountable, connected, and values-based when approached with an intersectional perspective.

For example, the six-person membership team, headed up by Mike Mannix, discusses with greeters how to practice hospitality. How easily and well do we engage with people of different backgrounds and identities? Do we understand the particular needs of the individuals and families who enter our doors? Being welcoming to people of color and transgender people is not something we can assume we know how to do but is an ongoing area of learning that we need to grapple with more fully.

And what about the building committee—headed up by Dave Wentzel with Fay Oxenreider and Frank Wilder also having pivotal roles. These are the individuals who address the bricks and mortar needs of our building. Yet ensuring that toilets flush, heat and air-conditioning work, and the space is functional, safe, and aesthetically pleasing also means taking into account the needs of a diverse community. This work can’t be done in isolation.

The commitment to make our religious community a vibrant and inclusive space for learning, justice work, spiritual growth, and worship that supports people of different classes and races and abilities and sexual orientations and gender identities ends up overlapping with the work of all of our committees and teams.

Making the connections among all these various ministries can deepen and enrich this work and help us to live further into our faith commitments. Each area of ministry can be seen not as a separate effort but as part of a larger vision of wholeness and justice.

The more we make these linkages, the more we can live into our ethical commitments, commitments that are grounded in Unitarian Universalist theology—because at its core intersectionality is about values. The first and seventh UU principles give us that grounding in values. These principles call us to an intersectional approach. The first principle calls us to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the seventh to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

The value we place on both human worth and the inter-relatedness of all life is an ecotheological perspective. This perspective counters a pervasive belief that some humans matter more than others and that humans matter more than the earth and other creatures.

According to Unitarian Universalist minister Sheri Prud’homme, oppressions of people’s and the earth are rooted in what she calls “dominant culture Christianity that “has placed humans on the apex of a pyramid of life, privileging some humans over others as well as all humans (especially US citizens) over the rest of life in the planet’s ecosystem.” As Prud’homme explains: "an ecotheological view of the human being does not compromise the particular human person as a worthwhile and valuable subject with free will and agency, deserving of dignity and respect. However, when it is understood that each person, like each living thing, is one of the diverse expressions of the multi-layered relatedness of God, then these many and multiple centers are in communion with the whole. There is no apex but rather multiple and overlapping circles." (“Ecotheology,” Justice on Earth)

That unifying quality, that wholeness, is what we dream about and what we long for. It is what we mean when we talk about the Beloved Community, living in harmony, the sacred web of life, and unity in diversity.

Making these linkages requires that we learn more about those intersections, that we spend more time reflecting on them and noticing them, and that we have more conversations among our teams and committees about the implications. This is part of our spiritual work.

Think back for a moment to our story today of two vegetables—a daikon radish that we can buy for $1.89 at Giant grown at a distance using pesticides and low wage migrant workers or a daikon radish purchased at a produce store for $2.99 and grown locally using natural fertilizers on a sustainable small-scale farm.

How do we decide which is the better deal? An intersectional perspective, a holistic view, with overlapping circles, leads us to take into consideration not only the out of pocket expense but what it costs in terms of human worth and dignity, long term sustainability, the quality of produce, and our connection to people and environments.

And just when we think we may know which is the better deal, we realize that there are individuals and families for whom the price differential, when tallied up among all the items in the grocery cart, means the least expensive radish is the only option. And just then we realize that there are those for whom the cost of either radish or most fresh produce is well beyond reach. What of their human worth and dignity?

Our faith calls us to live into this complexity. Not to be discouraged by it. But to seek a communion of these many and diverse centers. In the words of Denise Levertov, let us “join our solitudes in the communion of struggle.” Let us engage in the conversation.

Amen. Blessed be.