The banner that greets John Harris as he walks into the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia, Maryland, carries a simple message: “Black Lives Matter.” It’s a message he played only “a complementary role” in erecting, but that nonetheless “feels very good” to see.
A UU for 25 years and one of the few black members of the 450-person congregation, Harris says the banner helps him stay hopeful, despite frustrations about racial injustice. “To have that support, to have the church honoring and respecting me and others specifically, saying a black life really is as important as any other life, is important to me.”
The UU Congregation of Columbia is one of more than two dozen Unitarian Universalist churches across the country participating in an unofficial “Black Lives Matter” banner campaign, which has grown in response to highly publicized police violence toward people of color in communities nationwide.
For two churches in Maryland, the decision to post the banner came in reaction to the non-indictments of officers involved in the Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri) and Eric Garner (New York, New York) killings. The Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, senior minister at the UU Church of Silver Spring, Maryland, described her congregation’s “profound sense of pain, and urgency that came out of that pain,” as the impetus for the banner.
Support in Maclay’s congregation was “overwhelming.” “We didn’t need a vote. Our lay-led campaign came out of deep groundedness [in racial justice work],” Maclay said.
Out west, the UU Church of Boulder, along with two Denver-area congregations, currently displays a “Black Lives Matter” banner. UU Boulder’s ministerial intern, Diana McLean, said that Boulder’s banner has “raised the level of awareness of racial justice issues [in our congregation] and brings out conversation about why it says ‘black lives’ instead of ‘all lives.’”
Leslie Butler MacFadyen, a UU activist who runs the Ferguson Response Network and the Black Lives Matter Visibility Campaign, believes articulating that “black lives matter” doesn’t contradict the faith’s principle of every person’s inherent worth and dignity, but in fact helps Unitarian Universalists live out that belief.
“We are focused on humanizing black people and fighting issues that affect black life at disproportionate levels,” MacFadyen said.
Columbia members cited UU values as one reason they’ve joined the racial justice movement and the banner campaign. “Public actions feel like a prayer with my feet,” Kerridwen Henry said. “We are not closing our eyes. We are bearing witness.”
“Their energy motivates us as ministers,” said assistant minister the Rev. Kären Rasmussen.
While Harris is delighted the Columbia banner is posted, he is also disappointed that more members from his congregation haven’t gotten openly involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I’m very happy at how supportive folks are . . . but it’s the same people leading at all the various events,” Harris said.
UU Congregation of Columbia’s senior minister, the Rev. Paige Getty, believes the “relatively small” group of those who are most committed have “been moved by stories—stories of African Americans whose names and faces we now know.” Getty, a white American, was referring not only to the deaths of Brown, Garner, and others, but to UUCC’s partnership with St. John Baptist Church, a predominantly black progressive Baptist congregation of 1,700 members just four miles northeast of UUCC.
St. John Baptist’s youth pastor, the Rev. Janelle B. Smith, said UUCC members contacted her about participating in a vigil on behalf of the victims of police violence. “St. John is very engaged in the Black Lives Matter [movement], but we didn’t initiate the vigil,” Smith said.
“It’s exciting to see people with racial privilege stand on the side of justice. It’s heartwarming, and long overdue.”
Members from the UUCC and St. John Baptist and other Columbia residents came together for a vigil in the cold, witnessing outside for two hours with signs.
Vigil organizers used the St. John parking lot as a staging ground, since the church sits right on one of Columbia’s busiest streets.
“We already knew each other from previous actions,” UUCC member Jen Hayashi said of the churches’ decision to work together.
Over 100 people participated in the vigil. Reactions from passersby were “mostly positive,” Getty said, but hearing slurs and nasty comments that night and at subsequent actions disabused many participants of the notion that Columbia, a progressive city of just over 100,000 people, was immune to racial prejudice. Smith, a black woman, spoke passionately about the treatment her black youth receive compared to white teenagers in town. “They get harassed just hanging out at the mall. They’re not able to relax like their white counterparts.”
“I suspect there is more racism here than many of us realize,” Henry said.
Rasmussen, after relating the story of an older black St. John Baptist member who described his amazement at seeing so many white people witnessing against injustice, said, “it reminded me of what [UUA President] Peter Morales says about bringing our faith outside of our walls.”
“We are a sleeping giant,” Hayashi said of her congregation’s potential within the racial justice movement. “It’s a matter of galvanizing them.”