Introduced and convened by Kenny Wiley and Christopher L. Walton
Unitarian Universalism’s public focus has shifted notably in the last three years, as UUs have engaged the Movement for Black Lives, the New Sanctuary Movement, and most recently the resistance movement that is challenging the policies and politics of the Trump administration. While it’s true that UUs have been active in justice movements for decades, it seems to us that UU leaders and many congregations have embraced justice work as central to our movement in ways not seen in a long time—and in ways that some UUs are experiencing as unsettling or disruptive.
We are seeing, through letters to the editor and in online and in-person dialogue, that some UUs are responding to this new focus with excitement, some with relief that we are finally living out what they see as our calling. Others are expressing caution, frustration, or alarm.
We reached out to six UU leaders with diverse perspectives to invite responses to four questions about prophetic ministry and activism within contemporary Unitarian Universalism: Takiyah Nur Amin, a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship and the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective; Robin Bartlett, senior pastor of First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts; Ranwa Hammamy, an elder care chaplain and community minister affiliated with Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, California; Paul Rasor, theologian and law professor at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and author of Reclaiming Public Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square; Marilyn Sewell, minister emerita of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and author most recently of Raw Faith; and Pamela Wat, minister of the Denton, Texas, UU Fellowship.
We asked our respondents to speak not as a representative of any group or identity, but as thoughtful leaders who bring their own scholarship and lived experience to the conversation. We hope their reflections help you engage in this essential conversation: how do our beliefs and values call us to act and live?
Do you need to be an activist to be a Unitarian Universalist?
Marilyn Sewell: Not all UUs are inclined by personality or temperament to be activists. But do UUs need to care about social justice? Yes.
That said, few UUs are people of color and I expect even fewer are working class, so it’s difficult for most of us—or for most mainline Protestants—to identify with oppressed people: we are simply too comfortable. We often behave as privileged secularists, highly educated people who prefer circles of conversation, dabbling on the margins, rather than doing the hard work of social change, which requires getting in the street, witnessing at city council meetings, negotiating with the police chief, sitting on the railroad tracks and blocking the oil trains.
We UUs are largely ignorant of our religious history, even suspicious of religion itself. Uncomfortable with the concepts of sin and repentance, we fall into judgment and project our failings upon others, who we believe are not sufficiently “awakened.” We have embraced the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. without the faith that motivated, directed, and supported him.
If you embrace and believe in our Principles—dignity, justice, equity and compassion—you can’t sit idly by in the absence of those ideals in our society. —Takiyah Amin
Takiyah Amin: I don’t like this question because, of course, on the face of it, the answer is no. You don’t need to be an activist in the quotidian sense of participating in protests or demonstrations to bring about social and political change. But that’s not the end of the answer. The truth of the matter is that Unitarian Universalism as a faith and philosophy calls us to work toward building a sustainable, equitable context for all of us to live and thrive, and there is no getting around that. If you embrace and believe in our Principles—dignity, justice, equity, and compassion—you can’t sit idly by in the absence of those ideals in our society. We are supposed to uphold, as a matter of principle, the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. How does anyone propose we get there if we don’t take action to make it happen?
This isn’t about calling yourself an activist or an organizer or anything else—it is about being a person who lives out their principles in their home, at the job, in their congregation, and anywhere else their life might take them.
I am frankly tired of hearing fellow UUs saying “I am not an activist” or “I didn’t come to this faith to be an activist” because it misses the point. This faith requires something of us in return for being our ideological home, and that requires that we get up, get out, and build the world we dream about. I don’t care what anyone calls themselves—but if you aren’t called to act in, on, and through our Principles, maybe you shouldn’t call yourself a Unitarian Universalist.
Paul Rasor: I find it disturbing that this question has even come up. There are many ways to express and live out the Principles and values we hold dear. Activism is certainly one of them. But not everyone has to take to the streets. We all have our gifts, and not everyone is suited to this kind of work, just as not everyone is suited to pastoral care or finance or religious education. And those who are drawn to activism (or to other roles) will often need times when they need to step back for quiet reflection and restoration. The last thing we need is a form of ideological or behavioral orthodoxy where those who are not called to activism feel judged or devalued. At the same time, I hope that those called to other roles could support our activists (as one expression of our values), and that the activists could equally support those who undertake other equally important tasks in our communities.
Pamela Wat: I believe that care for one another (and our communities) and concern about areas of injustice are central to Unitarian Universalism. Activism is central to our faith. Does every UU need to be an activist, though? I am uncomfortable naming what any Unitarian Universalist “should” do to be Unitarian Universalist because I know that not everyone is equally capable. I want our congregations to be places where the single, low-income, hardworking parent with three children and overdue bills can come and feel nurtured and cared for, and not feel like they aren’t “UU enough” because they aren’t hitting the streets, or making phone calls, or even staying on top of the issues. I want our congregations to be places where the person who is cognitively unable to empathize or to understand systems of oppression can be as UU as the person who is spending all their time leading a major justice movement or writing the next common read.
More important than whether activism is a measure for our faith is whether our faith prepares and strengthens people to campaign for justice in small and big ways.
Ranwa Hammamy: “Teach us therefore to love” is tattooed on my arm just below an image of a heart broken open, flames coming through its cracks. This line from a prayer by the Jamaican Unitarian minister Egbert Ethelred Brown speaks to the despair that our “troubled and puzzled world” brings, and to the duty that comes with bearing witness to that pain. That duty, I believe, is the commitment to action that comes with the decision to call oneself a Unitarian Universalist.
Our faith tradition was born out of the efforts of activists—people who committed their lives to bringing about social, political, and spiritual transformation. We often see “activism” as protests in the streets, meetings with local legislators, phone-banking with community organizers, legal challenges to discriminatory laws. It is also the creation of music and art that share truths that cannot be captured by words alone. Activism is the use of liberationist pedagogies that empower students to co-create an anti-oppressive curriculum. It is the vigil in the public square where we are reminded to #SayHerName each time another trans woman of color is killed. Activism is the preparation of a hot meal for the countless protesters who have been sitting outside in the cold Minnesota winter for days. So yes, I do believe that to be a Unitarian Universalist, you need to be an activist. You need to love actively in the face of a broken world.
Robin Bartlett: No.
Do you see a kind of ideological orthodoxy in the way Unitarian Universalists talk about and live out activism?
Pamela Wat: I worry that we think we need to be experts to be activists. We do more and more reading, as if the collection of knowledge itself will somehow change the world. Sometimes the world needs me to put down my news feed and simply show up.
I’m afraid that sometimes eager, justice-seeking Unitarian Universalists focus more on forcing an issue than on how we get toward justice. I believe that we can use our forceful, strong, outside voices to fight for liberation and we can also practice the compassion and relationship-building that is also at the heart of our faith.
I also worry that we expect activism to be big and we expect results to be immediate. “If I am going to march, I want that march to be the ‘next Selma.’” The fact is that activism rarely feels monumental and it is hardly ever celebrated, and sometimes “marching for justice” is just a whole lot of milling around, holding a sign. Thankfully we aren’t in it for the feel-goods.
On the flip side, sometimes we think activism has to be all suffering, all the time. My husband and I commit to spend more money on the Denton Black Film Festival than we do on mainstream cinema. Do we balance out the disenfranchisement of black artists? No, but we get to watch some amazing films and we do one more thing for justice.
As religious liberals we often believe that it is our politics that saves us. —Robin Bartlett
Robin Bartlett: Absolutely. As religious liberals, we often believe that it is our politics that saves us. I grew up in a UU congregation that—in the 1980s and early ’90s—worshipped the holy trinity: Emerson, Humanism, and the Democratic Party. There were three words we were not allowed to say in church in those years: God, Jesus, and Ronald Reagan. I interpreted the message of Unitarian Universalism rather poorly: I was the 7-year-old mini-Richard Dawkins on the playground who told other kids there wasn’t a God, and also that Santa wasn’t real. In college, I had a bumper sticker that said, “The road to hell is paved with Republicans.” I didn’t even have a car, but I had that bumper sticker. And I humbly repent.
Now I serve a midsized and thriving Christian UU church that is federated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches USA out in rural Sterling, Massachusetts. We have progressive Christians; a large percentage of recovering Catholics; atheists and agnostics; and we have folks who believe that there is no way to be saved except through the blood of Jesus Christ. We have liberal Christians who believe in a metaphorical resurrection, and Biblical literalists who aren’t sure if they believe in evolution. Mostly, we have everyone in between. This kind of theological diversity is not for everyone.
The hard thing about my settlement in Sterling is not the theological diversity, though, it’s the ideological diversity. Sterling is a deep red rural farm town that Trump won. While liberals are attracted to our church on the town green with its rainbow flag, so are conservatives: it’s the only mainline Protestant church in our small town. We have the beautiful problem of being stuck together, and so ours is a religion of welcome for all.
Politically, we have about a 50/50 conservative and liberal mix. This is an unlikely scenario for a Unitarian Universalist church, I know. It’s a gift that even my colleagues in the United Church of Christ in New England don’t necessarily envy. Church leaders, both conservative and liberal, are used to political orthodoxy in our congregations. We are far more likely to say that the reason we join a church is to surround ourselves with “like-minded people,” than we are apt to say we joined a church to worship a God who unites us across difference.
Paul Rasor: Is it orthodoxy to live out your principles and deepest values? I don’t think so. It becomes a kind of orthodoxy if UUs who live out their principles in a different way are excluded, or made to feel excluded. I live in the Netherlands now, so I don’t feel that I am able to know the many ways that UUs in the United States are talking about and living out activism. My impression is that UUs in the U.S. are seeking different and perhaps better ways of talking about their activism—better ways of linking their activism more explicitly to our deep moral and theological principles. I see that as a healthy sign.
Ranwa Hammamy: Many of us know Michael Jackson’s 1988 hit song “Man in the Mirror,” a song I have shamelessly listened to on repeat for hours at a time. Its lyrics also help me see two limitations of dominant-culture Unitarian Universalism’s orthodoxy when it comes to activism.
In the chorus, Michael Jackson sings: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself.” One way that dominant-culture Unitarian Universalism does itself a disservice is in operating under the assumption that activism is meant to change “them,” not “us.” There continues to be resistance to the idea that within our roots and dominant culture are persistent strands of white supremacy, heterosexism, classism, and ableism. I see among us a shift in recent years from denial to acknowledgment, but that shift came not without significant energy from—and, frankly, at great cost to—many of us living in marginalized bodies. We must look at ourselves.
And, as Jackson sings next, “then make a change.” Unitarian Universalists often engage in activism that feels like a “one-won-and-done” approach. The work of activism, both in transforming ourselves and our world, is not simply making a single change. It is the perseverant and committed effort to make sustainable changes throughout all our life. That is not to say we cannot celebrate our victories or pause to engage in collective caretaking. By all means dance in the streets and eat plenty of chocolate, and let that joy fuel our continued efforts.
Marilyn Sewell: I find UUs extraordinarily sure of our social and political stances and therefore often reductive in thought and arrogant in expression. A case in point: many whites, including UUs, have become newly aware of our entitlement and the injustices wrought by racism. This awakening is all to the good.
However, several months ago, the president of the UUA (our first Hispanic president) and three white male leaders were accused of racism and drummed out of their positions. Online accusers, both laity and ministers, were raucous in their contempt for alternative views; they were “true believers” who got lost in soaring rhetoric (always a giveaway), personal purity, and moral arrogance. It seems now virtually impossible for UUs to have an open, honest exchange about racism, at least in a public forum. I am dismayed and deeply disheartened.
Most white UUs have not begun to become true allies to people of color. I can tell you that African American ministers in Portland are concerned about poverty, gun control, education, housing, and police brutality. Let us encourage empathetic and morally respectful dialogue that addresses these systemic issues we all care about.
Takiyah Amin: What I see is that the ideological orthodoxy that persists in Unitarian Universalism encourages and rewards duplicitousness. On the one hand we promote a kind of “big tent” message that says anybody and everybody is welcome here while affirming and rewarding—in our worship, leadership, curricula, and programming—a culture of white supremacy. This “big tent” messaging has been used to silence and marginalize the voices of people of color in our faith for years, telling us to come into this faith, to give our money and time here, but that we will only be supported and rewarded when we uphold, aspire to, and support white cultural norms. Simultaneously, this idea that all are welcome has come to mean “do whatever you want and think whatever you want and call it Unitarian Universalism.” This is how bigotry and racism thrive in our congregations and faith culture because we’ve encouraged a climate of “anything goes.”
We have encouraged Unitarian Universalists to not only “come as you are” but to “remain unchanged.” This low-risk, social, country club vibe undermines the transformative potential of our faith and makes a mockery of the notion of Beloved Community. As a result, the way I have experienced most UUs talk about and live out any kind of activist commitment is separate from any deep, rigorous, or thoughtful engagement with the philosophical and theological underpinnings of our faith; it is superficial, unreflective, and inauthentic. This leaves us with a tepid, watered-down social justice agenda and culture that is separate from a thoughtful articulation of Unitarian Universalism as a faith identity and religious/spiritual path. So, yes—there is an ideological orthodoxy and it is, to my thinking, mealymouthed and feeble.
What does prophetic Unitarian Universalism look like to you—or what would it look like to you? Where have you witnessed a Unitarian Universalism that changes lives?
Takiyah Amin: A prophetic Unitarian Universalism is intentional about making space for lament. It encourages small group ministries/church families where people can share the real joys and pains happening in their lives.
I have experienced the transformative, prophetic, and salvific reality of UUism most recently through Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism’s work, especially at our Convening in March 2017, in our Healing Space at the 2017 General Assembly, and during our online worship services. I have experienced this prophetic version of our faith when I am in the company of black UUs and other UUs of color who are not interested in sacrificing their cultural specificity so that mainstream UUs will embrace them. Most importantly, I have witnessed a Unitarian Universalism that changes lives emerge when we, as a faith community, remember that we are, in fact, a religion that requires us to do more than sit idly by with a smug sense of theological superiority while others step up to build a world that reflects our Principles.
A prophetic Unitarian Universalism is one that looks forward with expectation and exultation to the promise of Beloved Community and, as such, seeks to enact this reality through our lived experiences every day. This prophetic version of our faith offers UUs opportunities to practice our Principles together, and to be fortified and encouraged to go back out in the world and enact our Principles.
A prophetic Unitarian Universalism makes room for various kinds of worship—testimony, prayer, meditation, vespers—that decenters our inherited Eurocentric Protestant modes as the only way to “do church.”
Prophetic Unitarian Universalism not only interrupts the ways these sins have violated our world, it also advocates for and creates something new to honor the sacredness that has been denied. —Ranwa Hammamy
Ranwa Hammamy: I love the dictionary definition of a prophet: “one who utters divinely inspired revelations.” To be a prophet is to witness to what is sacred and to move people closer to what my Muslim roots would call a “divine will.” Prophetic Unitarian Universalism includes words and deeds that challenge and dismantle what are the real sins of this world, including racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and colonialism. Prophetic Unitarian Universalism not only interrupts the ways these sins have violated our world, it also advocates for and creates something new to honor the sacredness that has been denied.
I have witnessed this prophetic Unitarian Universalism in the abandonment of a prewritten agenda for a gathering of UU youth of color, who asked instead to bake cookies for and spend time among Black Lives Matter activists in downtown Denver. It has saved lives, thanks to the work Walnut Creek, California, UUs did in an interfaith coalition to transform a local armory into a winter shelter for individuals without housing. It gave a life-affirming vaccination against hate to a young child who danced their way out of the chapel at the end of a renaming ceremony celebrating their self-defined gender identity and name.
Robin Bartlett: The political diversity in my congregation was a shock to my system, to be honest. But it is the only church I’ve served in which I feel that I really get to live the dream of Unitarian Universalism: radical pluralism.
My prophecy has changed as a result. I stand in a pulpit every week and prophesy Love. “God loves everyone,” I say. That’s the gospel. I’m preaching that we need to love one another, including across political differences. I find I am preaching to myself a lot. On the Sunday after the election, I got up into the pulpit with a trembling voice. I told my people that I know we don’t watch the same news, and so I was only going to tell them news from our congregation. I told them about our children of color who have been harassed at school, our friends at the Worcester Islamic Center who need self-defense classes, our young adult who was sexually assaulted on the subway, our congregation’s immigrants worried about deportation, and our people scared of losing health insurance. And I said directly to my Trump voters: “I know you didn’t vote for this—for any of this—because I know you and I love you.”
“Tribalism got us into this mess, and it’s not going to get us out,” I said. I told them that no matter how we voted, we must now stand for black lives, for our children, for women, for Muslims, for Latinos, for queer people, for each other, because we stand for Jesus. We cried together, and then we chalked the whole town with messages of love for our neighbors. Some of my conservatives wrote me emails of gratitude. The emails said, in one way or another, “Thank you for loving me. I will stand with you.”
Our hearts of stone were replaced that day with beating hearts of flesh. We are learning to listen to one another, searching not always for agreement but understanding. It is heart surgery. No one leaves unchanged.
This is the good news of Universalism, the scandal of Universalism: we must continually choose to expand our concept of Love until it is as wasteful, extravagant, and as God-sized as we can make it. We must flex our heart muscles not only to include the least, the last, the lost, but also to include whomever we are currently referring to as “snowflake” or “deplorable” instead of God’s name for all of us, which is “Beloved.” We must love one another without stopping to inquire whether we are worthy.
Paul Rasor: Unitarian Universalists have always understood themselves as a prophetic tradition oriented toward social justice. This involves—I would say requires—speaking out against injustice where it occurs and working to overcome the social, political, and economic conditions that produce injustice. If we believe that all human beings have the inherent right to a meaningful and fulfilling life, then we have a corresponding collective obligation to help create the conditions within which this well-being can be fully realized.
We can all point to examples of life-changing prophetic practice; I would mention only two. The first is the well-known gathering of UUs in Phoenix in July 2010, where they joined with people from many other groups to protest Arizona’s unjust new immigration laws and then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s cruel and racist law enforcement practices. The second is less well-known but equally life changing for many. During the 1980s in Topeka, Kansas, when the now-infamous Westboro Baptist Church was just beginning its public “God hates fags” hate campaign, members of the UU Fellowship of Topeka began a counter-demonstration with signs proclaiming “God is Love,” “Love not Hate,” and similar slogans. Many LGBTQ people in the community said that this was the first time they felt so publicly supported.
Marilyn Sewell: I hear two different questions here. First, changed lives. Unitarian Universalism changed my life—actually, saved my life. When I chose divorce in my thirties, I was labeled a sinner and tossed out of my Southern Baptist community. My therapist suggested the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, because, as she said, “There are a lot of divorced people over there.” Eight years later I went to Starr King School for the Ministry, where I was told “Yes!” over and over again. Beacon Press said “yes” when they published my first book, Cries of the Spirit. First Unitarian Church in Portland said “yes” when they called me, an untried minister, in 1992. In my ministry I tried to say “yes” to my congregants and “yes” to those in the community who had little voice and less hope.
And then there’s prophecy. Prophecy doesn’t have to do simply with confronting injustice—lots of secular groups do that. Rather, the word implies a relationship with and accountability to the Holy. So what does prophetic UUism look like? We come to understand that our life is quite literally connected with all that is and that we can never be separated from the Whole. We become bodhisattvas of sorts, dedicated to compassion for all suffering beings, and we act out of that understanding in the larger world.
Pamela Wat: Between March and July of 2017, during a time of upsetting UUA staff resignations and UU infighting, I observed two responses that changed my life.
One response was the invitation to ask bigger and higher questions than we, as a whole, had been asking about race. With incredible insight and imagination, Aisha Hauser, Christina Rivera, and Kenny Wiley created a resource guide so that UU congregations could participate in a white supremacy teach-in. As they challenged us to examine our own “white supremacy,” I wondered aloud why they had to use such inflammatory language. I felt like we were isolating people who believe as we do, but who couldn’t hear past that accusation of “white supremacy.” But I agreed to participate, and I agreed to use that language. In doing so I was able to challenge my own thinking in new ways and to shift my own sense of my mixed race identities (European and Chinese American). And this work helped prepare my congregation and me for the conversations around white supremacy that are now front and center in our wider communities.
The other life-changing response was in the examples of shared leadership we experienced at the UUA’s 2017 General Assembly: a co-president model, a shared moderation of the assembly, panels of witnesses instead of solitary experts, and many moments to share perspectives with others. These shifts modeled a new way of being in community that liberated us from models handed to us by our European American ancestors. They celebrated a collaborative model of community.
Are Unitarian Universalists looking for more ways to get involved as activists? What are the most effective ways of helping UUs put their faith into practice through advocacy and witness, or through direct action, or through resisting and challenging oppressive systems?
Ranwa Hammamy: I imagine many Unitarian Universalists are trying to figure out what to do with our broken hearts. “Teach us therefore to love.” And I do feel that we as a faith tradition are looking for more ways to get involved as activists effectively and accountably—to love actively in ways that truly “fulfill the duties of tomorrow,” as Egbert Ethelred Brown’s prayer names them. It is especially important to be in relationship with the communities who have already been doing this prophetic work for years before the majority of us knew something was an issue. When one form of oppression comes to our collective attention, it can be easy to believe that we are the first and only responders. That is a great way to overlook what has likely been an ongoing struggle, and to quickly burn out in our own efforts to create change.
Being in regular relationship with local organizers and communities not only allows us to engage in accountably crafted forms of witness, advocacy, and resistance, it also can take away the energy-draining edge that the shock of learning about these oppressions can bring. When we are in true relationship, we are no longer outsiders struggling to respond to a sudden crisis. We are friends and spiritual family supporting and continuing the efforts of people we know and love.
Marilyn Sewell: White Unitarian Universalists, like many progressives, have been newly awakened. Most white UUs didn’t know that African American children must be given “the talk,” lest they die from police violence. Most couldn’t imagine a country in which undocumented immigrants might actually be separated from their children and sent back to their home country to face violence and even death. Most knew that “climate change is a problem,” but did not understand that our use of fossil fuel is on schedule to make the earth hardly habitable. We are presently rethinking what we as a religious people are called to do. Passivity is no longer an option.
We need, first and foremost, spiritually grounded ministers and laity who lead by example as well as word. We need to support our congregations financially, and to focus more of those resources on justice staff and training. We need to commit ourselves to being “the yeast in the loaf”; we are small in number, but can be huge in our influence. The times call us to do no less. We no longer have the latitude to focus on “myself, my children, my neighborhood”; we now must take on the role of the devoted and faithful citizen of the nation and the world, for much is at stake.
Don’t be the fair-weather activist who shows up only when the whole country is outraged over an issue. —Pamela Wat
Pamela Wat: Find what you are passionate about and stick to it. Don’t be the fair-weather activist who shows up only when the whole country is outraged over an issue. By committing to one area (antiracism, reproductive rights, transgender rights, etc.) you get to go deep. You can still be involved in other areas (and be in a keen position to notice areas of intersection), but keep your focus. If antiracism is your thing, participate in local efforts first—Black Lives Matter, NAACP, interfaith coalitions. And stick with that work, even when results are not forthcoming or fast. My hope is that our congregations are made up of members who have committed deeply in particular areas so that within any given congregation there might be a group of people (I didn’t say “committee”) who are knowledgeable and connected each in their respective area and who can draw the congregation into that work throughout the year.
Because of the commitments of my congregation’s members and me, we were already at the table when there were big moments needing action (leading singing at the Women’s March, for example, or officiating the county’s first same-sex marriage, or offering a prayer at the vigil at the A.M.E. church). Get to the table, even when it doesn’t seem like there is a lot happening there.
Paul Rasor: Which practices are the most effective will vary from situation to situation and issue to issue. Not all issues are national in scope; justice issues often arise in local contexts such as town councils, school boards, or even neighborhood associations. Sometimes quiet advocacy and education over coffee with neighbors or through statements presented to relevant public bodies can be more effective than taking to the streets.
But sometimes the issue is so problematic and pervasive that the attention attracted by direct public action—protests, vigils, demonstrations, etc.—is the appropriate response. The Black Lives Matter movement, along with the ongoing struggle against racist and violent police practices throughout the U.S., and the counterdemonstrations against hate and racism in Charlottesville, are just some of the more familiar examples. To be effective over the long term, these public forms of activism must also be linked to the work of lobbying and political advocacy.
Robin Bartlett: Relationship-building has been the most effective way of getting involved as “activists” in my congregation. Our folks partner with the Worcester Islamic Center to deliver food to Muslim refugees every week. We have hosted conversations on race across the political spectrum, conversations on being LGBTQ and Christian, conversations with the police about community policing. We have practiced listening for understanding, not agreement. This engagement with one another and with our neighbors has increased our political activism for the first time in the congregation’s history. We became “Open and Affirming” this year by unanimous vote—the UCC equivalent of the UUA’s pro-LGBTQ “Welcoming Congregation” designation—which was no small thing for this congregation. Activism has become part of our religious practice, and is not thought of as a dirty word for radical liberals in our congregation anymore.
The most effective way of putting one’s faith into practice through advocacy and witness is to have a coherent mission and a coherent theology. My church’s mission is simple: we gather in the spirit of Jesus, and commit to create heaven on earth. Our theology is also simple: we believe God is Love. These two central pieces of our identity call us to action.
Takiyah Amin: I don’t know that UUs on the whole are looking for more ways to do anything in particular. We are a verbose bunch, generally speaking—so I witness folks doing a lot of talking and thinking about this intersection, but not necessarily doing anything differently than they did the day before. This doesn’t surprise me because the vast majority of UUs benefit from the oppressive systems they are being asked to dismantle and people don’t want to sacrifice their ill-gotten gains. I also see many white UUs using their outrage and indignation as a stand-in for action, but your venting ultimately yields nothing because those of us who need access to resources can’t do anything with your shock or frustration.
I think one of the most effective ways of putting faith into action is first to get really clear about your faith. What do you actually believe? When is the last time you engaged any of the sources of our faith meaningfully to refine and clarify your own principle and direction? This kind of discernment is critical. The next thing I think people need to do is listen to and follow the lead of those most impacted by injustice: they know best what is needed, how, and when.
Can UUs be less arrogant and get behind multifaith coalitions committed to actual justice making and work with folks, even if we think we are theologically superior? Can white UUs really listen to the voices of black people and other marginalized folks who have been out here on the front line setting the precedent for what witness, resistance, and direct action look like? That is the question. That is the test.