A Sermon on issues of race and anti-oppression by Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
UU Church of Minnetonka
February 21, 2016
Note: On Friday night, February 19, and Saturday, February 20, 2016, our congregation began its first “Beloved Conversations” weekend workshop as the foundational work for the eight-session curriculum that will follow throughout the spring (details of this program may be found on the Meadville/Lombard Theological School website under “Beloved Conversations“). The Rev. Ashley Horan facilitated the weekend workshop, and four members of the congregation will facilitate two small groups going forward through the remainder of the curriculum. Those four facilitators are: Naomi Wente, Jackie Smolen, Cindy Busch, and Malia Brandt. Here are reflections from two of those leaders, followed by my sermon.
REFLECTION ON THE WEEKEND
Why did I sign up to be part of this group?
- I signed up because I don’t want to be the “well meaning” white moderate stumbling block MLK Jr. talks about in his letter from a Birmingham jail.
- I signed up because I want to know how to talk about the Black Lives Matter Movement with family and friends.
- I signed up because Donald Trump keeps winning.
- I signed up because we say our congregation is a welcoming place for all, but it’s really hard to keep perspective on that from the inside.
On the first night of the retreat we began from a completely personal perspective. We worked to create a space where it was ok to not get everything just right, which gave us the chance to look at what we say we value, how our actions and life choices often get in the way of living out those values, and how our deepest fears and insecurities about ourselves play a very significant role when it comes to engaging people we see as different from ourselves.
The second day was an opportunity to look at our congregation in the same ways we had looked at ourselves and our own motivations. We can’t fix issues we don’t know are there, so in sometimes painful and sometimes humorous ways, we brought many assumptions about our community into the light. Even setting aside issues of race, we found that we have many different underlying, unspoken assumptions about how church “should be.” These assumptions along with who has power in making decisions, creates very interesting dynamics when it comes to say, planning worship, educating our children or ahem, building a new church.
We will continue these conversations into the spring through our smaller group meetings. I come away with questions about how to align our values and actions, about how and when to create change, how to tell stories about ourselves as a congregation and about others we want to engage with, that are rich narratives and not a single story, ripe for stereotyping. I’m not sure yet how these groups will affect our church as a whole, but know we are doing the work. This isn’t the important work of budgets and committees or building plans or worship themes, but the equally essential work asking us to do no less than examine and bring light to the soul of our church.
REFLECTION ON THE WEEKEND
Through intense questions, moments of silence, structured presentation, good food, and honest conversation, a group of 15 UUCMers [people from this congregation] journeyed through the Beloved Conversations retreat on Friday night and all day Saturday.
I initially became involved with Beloved Conversations through the ask of Reverend Kent to facilitate. This type of work, talking about race and the learning and implications surrounding topics of race, has often been something that intertwines with my commitment to social justice and humanness. I value justice. I value equality. I want to fight the patriarchy and the systems that oppress my neighbors and friends of color.
But, as a white, almost middle class, young, queer person, who grew up in a small southeast MN town and who went to the University of MN, Morris- a small rural college, surrounded by other white people, I have few strong relationships with those of other races. This doesn’t mean that I am not aware about the injustices people of color face; I was privileged in that I was able to travel to Cambodia multiple times through academic service learning, and I grew up with family friends from various parts of Asia. But society has taught me to feel comfortable only around others with the same color as my skin.
Having space to hold uncomfortable conversations–about my privilege, about my fear of conflict, of sounding ignorant about topics of race– was incredibly valuable. I left the retreat feeling mentally exhausted, yet fired up and wanting to do more. To discover. To continue to help facilitate. I also left thinking about a series of questions:
- Who do we serve?
- To whom are we accountable?
- What are our big assumptions about race? What is that five year old in our head telling us that is keeping us back?
As we continue into the next months of our eight follow-up sessions, I am looking forward to helping to dig deeper, to continue to uncover those layers and barriers.
Becoming Fully Human
Reverend Kent Hemmen Saleska
As both a precursor and ongoing partner with this work of anti-racism and anti-oppression comes intense personal stories and processing. So just as Malia and Naomi shared some of their story, I will also share pieces of my own story.
During my second year of seminary, at Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, the school held a weekend workshop on dismantling racism. It was a powerful weekend full of meaning, pain, and inspiration. The entire student body participated, including the long-distance learners who were there that weekend, along with all the faculty and staff of the school. At one point during the weekend during a large group discussion, one of the white students asked a question of one of the African American students. You know how it is with good-hearted, well-meaning white folks, right? Our intentions are good, right? So if our intentions are good, then we couldn’t possibly say anything hurtful.
And you know what “domestic work” is, right? It’s the work we do around the house to clean. It’s housework: vacuuming, sweeping, cleaning the windows and toilets, and mopping the kitchen floor. The phrase “domestic work” is also weighted and layered with issues of race, because from the time of slavery through the 1950s, and even today, some people hire house cleaners, and those house cleaners are often women, and those women are often women of color.
So there we were in a large group and one good-hearted, well-meaning white male student asked one African American female student a question about race. I don’t even remember what the question was. And in reality, it is not even important what the question was. Because in this case, what was important was the reply. But in some part of his question, the good-hearted, well-meaning white male student turned to the female African student and asked her what she thought about the issue, and what she thought we white people should do. You know how we white folks do that in a room full of white people where there’s one or two people of color, right? We turn to them and ask them what they think, as though they can speak for the entire range of all people of color in America, right?
Well, 15 years later, her answer still jolts me as I strive to engage the work of anti-racism today. She said, “Don’t you expect me to do your spiritual domestic work for you.” Don’t expect me to do your spiritual domestic work for you.
It seems that when we begin to enter the world of anti-racism work, that’s often how we good-hearted, well-meaning white people start out. We turn to people of color and ask them what we’re supposed to do. First, during slavery, we commanded people of color to clean our homes, then as we progressed, we began paying them, a little, to clean our homes, and now we ask them to even do our spiritual domestic work – that is, the work of figuring out our areas of pain and shame, and then “fixing” us so we don’t have to feel guilty anymore.
Friends, I get it. Believe me, I get it. That good-hearted, well-meaning white male was, and still is, a good friend of mine, but it could have just as easily been me. There’s a way it makes sense to ask a person who is being hurt what you can do to stop the hurting. But what if that person has told you and told other white people, dozens or hundreds of times what to do, but they still keep getting asked? Or what if the system of institutionalized racism is bigger than one person, and that no matter what a person of color says, that racist system won’t change until white people start doing something about it?
As you may imagine, most people get sick and tired of telling others what they need and then having it not listened to or acted upon. In fact, they may even get angry. I mean think about yourself – and if you have ever had kids I trust you’ve experienced this repeatedly – have you ever gotten angry when someone has asked you the same thing over and over while at the same time never listed to your answer? So when you stop to think about it, it makes a lot of sense that people of color are not just worn out, but are angry. And sometimes they no longer even angry, they’re just simply not interested in talking about it anymore.
One other quote I remember from that same weekend in seminary, is another person of color saying, “When we were being oppressed by white people, we didn’t run to you white people to ask how we could survive your oppression, we had to figure it out for yourselves. Now it’s time for you to figure out for YOURselves how you’re going to stop being oppressive.”
Friends, that’s what has come here to us, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. We now have a tool to use in our work of learning how to stop being oppressive, learning how to see what we normally don’t see or don’t want to see, and then learning what to do about it, learning how to change. And all of it is to help us grow as we walk the path to dismantle racism.
That tool, as you heard described earlier in a few perspectives from Naomi Wente and Malia Brandt, is the curriculum called Beloved Conversations. This curriculum was written primarily by Dr. Mark Hicks, the religious education professor at my seminary alma mater, Meadville/Lombard. This curriculum is a little like the “Welcoming Congregations” curriculum that came out in the 1990s to help Unitarian Universalist congregations face and address our bias and prejudices around people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, except this time, the Beloved Conversations curriculum helps us face and address our bias and prejudices around issues of race.
For those of you who have been in Unitarian Universalism for a few years, you may remember that Bill Sinkford became the first black president of our denomination in 2001. After two terms in office, he was called to serve as the senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland, Oregon. Like most of our UU congregations, the Portland church was almost entirely white, and they didn’t have the congregational capacity to understand or address issues of race. So Reverend Sinkford contacted Mark Harris and said “Help! Please give me something I can use to work with the people here on race.” The Portland, Oregon, UU church has about 1000 members, and now they’ve been doing this curriculum each year, and over half of their members have participated in it, and it is required in that church that anyone who goes on the Board must have gone through this curriculum first.
So what exactly is this curriculum? According to the Meadville/Lombard website, “Beloved Conversations is an experiential curriculum that provides space to re-form and re-fuse the brokenness of racism into new patterns of thought and behavior ushering in social and spiritual healing. New ways of being are learned through the actions of conversation and probing dialogue. Beloved Conversations [asks] participants…to name what they have learned through social experience, to unlearn thoughts and behaviors that divide the human family, and finally, to relearn new skills and ways of being that are aligned, in this case, with the aspirational tenants of Unitarian Universalism.”
Especially with the emergence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the prominence of that movement here in the Twin Cities, I have been yearning for this congregation to engage this curriculum. This past weekend, we finally did. On Friday night and all day Saturday, 14 people from this congregation began the first steps in helping to move this congregation toward honoring the wide inherent variety of the human family, and to relearn new skills and ways of being that are aligned, in this case, with the aspirational tenants of Unitarian Universalism, specifically with the first and seventh of our principles, the inherent worth of each individual, and the interdependent web of existence, of which we are a part.
Our theme for the month of February is “Integrity,” and a big part of the definition of that word for me is around behaving in the world according to how we believe in our minds and in our souls, that our beliefs and our actions are in alignment. If we say we value the inherent worth of each individual, but then don’t show up when those in need are asking for our presence, then we are not in alignment. Our beliefs and our actions are not in tune.
So I am filled with gratitude for the four members of our congregation who will be facilitators of the Beloved Conversations curriculum over the next eight sessions, who immediately said “Yes,” when I asked if they would be willing to be one of the leaders. Those four are Naomi Wente, Jackie Smolen, Cindy Busch and Malia Brandt. I am extremely pleased to share with you that Andrea Heier, our Director of Religious Education, and five of our Board members are also taking this curriculum. I know from experience and from stories of colleagues that deep awareness and transformation in a congregation doesn’t really begin to happen until the congregational leaders get behind something, and here they already have.
Our facilitator for the weekend was the Reverend Ashley Horan, who many of you may know as the Executive Director of MUUSJA, the Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance. As one of the trained facilitators for the Beloved Conversations curriculum, she just happens to live in Minneapolis, so her proximity worked out well for us!
As you heard earlier, on Friday night we talked about our personal issues and struggles, and then on Saturday we moved on to talk about some of those same issues and struggles on congregational and institutional levels. Well, one of the most powerful experiences for me during the weekend happened on Friday night. Ashley led us through a progression of activities where first she asked us the question, “What one thing would you change in your relationship to RACE and/or ETHNICITY that would make you happier or more successful?”
Now, I need to pause right here and let you know that this work to uncover our own fears and prejudices, and our own yearnings and aspirations, is a process that requires a significant amount of courage and vulnerability. And it also takes time, and a progression of activities with a small group of trusting people, something that doesn’t translate well into the public square of a Sunday morning worship service. But one of my commitments as a minister and leader, and more deeply as a human being, is to be as open as possible about where I’m at in a process. In the work of dismantling racism, just as it is in our own psyche, when something is hidden from us, it has greater potential to harm us. But when we bring that hidden thing into the open, we then have the power over it, rather than it, or other people, having power over us.
So I want to share with you just a little of my process. It feels pretty scary to tell you this because it feels like I should already be there, but in answer to the question “What one thing would I change in my relationship to race or ethnicity that would make me a happier or more successful person?” I said, “I want to feel in more real, deep, authentic relationship with people of color.”
Then Ashley took us through four more additional questions about our answers. The first one was “why?” That is, what values are we committed to that makes us aspire to this answer? My values around wanting to have deeper and more authentic relationships with people of color are rooted in my understanding of biology and ecosystems. The natural world requires variety in order to not just live, but to thrive. Monoculture ecosystems die out. So I value variety and diversity because it helps me live better. Without a variety of human relationships, I am living in a monoculture and I am withering away.
The second question Ashley asked us was “What are we doing or not doing that keeps our commitments in the first question from being fully realized?” That is, how are we sabotaging ourselves to prevent ourselves from reaching our aspirations? And some of my answer had to do with the fact that I moved to a mostly white neighborhood, I don’t join activities that put me in contact with people of color, and I chose a profession in a denomination that is mostly white.
The third question expanded on the second one…but it was the fourth and final question that really punched me in the gut, and is where I feel the most vulnerable. Ashley asked us to name the “Big Assumption” that underlies the pieces of our behavior that prevent us from moving forward with our aspirations. So even though I said I wanted more real, deep, authentic relationships with people of color, my “Big Assumption” about myself that prevents me from doing that is the feeling that if I take the risk to make friends with people of color, they’ll see me as I really am: an uncool, out-of-touch old white guy, beyond the ability or capacity for fun or even for saving.
Some of my fears were wrapped up in the notions and stories of leadership, and how, as a minister, I should have moved through this by now in order to be able to help others move through this. And other parts of my feeling were wrapped up the deep sadness I have around my fears and inaction. But the piece that made it easier for me to share in the group was that other people were doing the same thing. Hearing other people talk out loud about their fears was cathartic. We don’t have a ritual of confession in our religious tradition. In many ways I think that is profoundly unfortunate because the process of sharing something deep and painful with others, of naming it and bringing it out into the open is a confessional process, and rather than allowing a painful secret to control us, that confessional process allows us more control over what causes the pain in the first place.
That is part of what this work does. That’s why this work is developmental work. That’s why it is spiritual work. That’s why it is community work. Ashley shared a quote with us from theologian Frederick Buechner who said, “You can survive on your own. You can grow strong on your own. You can prevail on your own. But you cannot become human on your own.”
That’s what this Beloved Conversations process is all about: becoming fully human. To be fully human, to be fully alive and thriving to and beyond the limits of our purpose, we need to be in touch with variety. It’s true on a biological level and the same is true on the human relationship level. In the learning community of these Beloved Conversation groups, we work to shy away from being judgmental, we are transparent about our views, hopes, and dreams, and are committed to life-long learning. We grapple with history and search our personal and institutional experiences, environment [and congregations] for errant meaning-making, and collectively, as a group, design and create new practices that support the entire group’s formational journey of “becoming fully human.”
This Beloved Conversations program will run for eight weeks, so check in with the people who are doing it, and listen to what they are learning. And when this program rolls around again next year, engage your curiosity and join in. Just as we will not be able to become fully human on our own, we will not dismantle racism on our own. We need each other to hold us in our pain and to challenge us in our righteous and stuck places. We can only do this work together, and I invite us to courageously, and joyfully, join on this journey together.