In hindsight, the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd says she probably should have expected someone to vandalize and steal the Black Lives Matter banner her congregation hung in front of its Bethesda, Maryland, building, despite the town’s liberal reputation.
“That we receive that kind of pushback in what is essentially a very politically and socially progressive area is telling to me,” says Ladd, senior minister of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation (594 members). “There’s still tremendous work to do.”
Across the country, churches like River Road are showing their support for the Black Lives Matter movement with banners, vigils, and others signs of solidarity. They are also getting pushback, whether in the form of minor complaints, online trolling, protests, or even vandalism. That’s been difficult for some primarily white congregations. But clergy at several affected congregations say the backlash has only strengthened their churches’ commitment to focus on black communities that face racism and violence on a daily basis.
Vandals have defaced Black Lives Matter banners in front of at least a dozen UU churches, according to clergy and media reports. Others have received a flood of online harassment or drawn “pro-police” demonstrators. Vandalism at First UU Congregation of the Palm Beaches in North Palm Beach, Florida (142 members), even prompted a police detail at a Sunday morning service, according to the church’s minister, the Rev. C. J. McGregor.
The vandalism is so common that the Unitarian Universalist Association’s social justice campaign, Standing on the Side of Love, created a resource page for congregations whose banners have been vandalized. But UUs are hardly alone: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Lutheran, and United Church of Christ churches have also seen their Black Lives Matter banners defaced.
Threatening sacred spaces
Threatening though it is, the vandalism and harassment experienced by primarily white, progressive congregations have remained mostly nonviolent.
“Within the congregations, when people are anxious about the signs and the dangers that the signs put us in, a lot of us feel like, you know, we’re putting ourselves in a small amount of danger,” says the Rev. Cynthia Cain, interim minister at the UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore in Galloway, New Jersey (122 members). Someone defaced the church’s Black Lives Matter banner not long after it went up, and the church received a flood of harassment on its Facebook page.
“That’s not really much compared with what a person of color feels day after day all their lives.”
Meanwhile, black communities continue to experience intense violence—some of it aimed at churches. On June 17, Dylann Storm Roof shot and killed nine people during a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, one of the oldest black churches in the country. Last week, officials in St. Louis announced a string of six church arsons in predominately black communities near Ferguson, Missouri, over the course of ten days. Federal and local law enforcement are working to determine whether those fires are connected, officials said.
Unitarian Universalist congregations are not totally immune. On July 27, 2008, a man who described his “hatred of the liberal movement” in a letter he left in his car carried a shotgun into a UU church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he killed two people and wounded six.
Still, violence is exceedingly rare in primarily white, liberal churches. Indeed, many UUs living in conservative areas see their congregations as safe spaces where they can express progressive views without fear of reprisal, according to Cain. It’s important for clergy to acknowledge those feelings, she says, without letting them shut down the church’s social witness.
“We ministers are partly responsible if we’ve allowed them to believe that our houses of worship are these safe shelters, cocoons where we can come and feel safe in our little liberal thoughts and our warm cozy liberalness and not be threatened by the terrible conservatism that’s out there,” Cain explains. “But once we put up the sign, we bring it right to our door.”
Touching a nerve
While thieves have targeted rainbow flags in front of UU congregations for years, many clergy say the backlash they’ve seen against their churches’ support of Black Lives Matter is unprecedented.
The Rev. Jake Morrill has seen that backlash firsthand as lead minister of Oak Ridge UU Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (258 members). His congregation was the target of online harassment and a pro-police rally after it added a Black Lives Matter message to its electronic sign.
“The level of anger that I’ve experienced directed toward the church this summer, starting with the Confederate flag disputes in June and continuing, is far greater than any blowback that we ever got around marriage equality,” Morrill says.
That anger has to do with the history of white supremacy in the United States, according to the Rev. Broderick Greer, curate of Grace-St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and a writer on race, religion, and social justice. America’s economic and political systems were built on slavery, Greer says, and challenging white supremacy brings everything else into question.
“A white gay person receiving civil rights does not unravel American democracy. But a black person, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, receiving civil rights does,” explains Greer, who is black. “The current American capitalist structure is not built on the enslavement of queer bodies, but it is built on the enslavement and degradation of native and African bodies.”
Much of the vitriol directed at the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters accuses them of “reverse racism” for emphasizing the value of black lives. Vandals often deface church banners to read “All Lives Matter,” a common rallying cry among critics. Others accuse the movement of being anti-police or promoting violence.
These criticisms ignore how much more violence black Americans face on a day-to-day basis than their white compatriots. Black Lives Matter came to broad public attention after a white police officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014. Other police killings of black people—such as Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; and Sandra Bland, who died reportedly of suicide in a Waller County, Texas, jail after being arrested for failing to use her turn signal—have added momentum to the movement.
That violence is part of a long history dating back to slavery, according to Greer.
“A black body is a lot more difficult for our society to process as having dignity and having the right to exist,” Greer says. “Which is why, you know, every time an unarmed black person is killed and it receives any sort of notoriety, there is a tremendous outcry that that person, that that body deserved that execution.”
Some congregations have chosen to highlight the ongoing racism in their communities by leaving up vandalism for a period of time—including First Church of Somerville, Massachusetts (United Church of Christ); Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri (555 members); and Cain’s congregation in New Jersey.
It’s crucial that white people see how big a problem racism still is, according to George Davis, 81, a black man who attends Eliot Chapel and is active in the congregation’s Black Lives Matter work. “Many people who are not of color think that racism is dead,” Davis said. “I’ve heard that statement a number of times. And they tend to overlook the almost daily incidents that you see on television news and the net, and in the local newspaper.”
One of the problems with “All Lives Matter” is that it takes attention off of black people, shifting it toward an “all” that is overwhelmingly white. That shift may be intentional on the part of critics who want to undermine conversations about racism, both within and outside the church. The Rev. John Crestwell Jr., an associate minister at the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland (422 members), and founder of AWAKE Ministries, is adamant about the need for ministers to tackle those feelings within their congregations head-on.
“Because of the structure and history of our country there is a lot of guilt and shame around slavery, our original sin as a nation,” explains Crestwell, who is black. “What has grown out of that, with black incarceration and drug laws, is tremendous shame in white communities, within Unitarian Universalism and beyond. We aren’t able to articulate the shame, and so it comes out as anger and pushback when Black Lives Matter or other multicultural projects are promoted that are targeted specifically for African Americans.”
However, even primarily white, progressive churches with the best of intentions can risk making the story about themselves rather than about black communities that are really experiencing oppression—especially when they experience vandalism or other backlash.
The Oak Ridge congregation is staying focused on the larger message of Black Lives Matter by participating in a series of community dialogues initiated by the Rev. Derrick Hammond, pastor of a nearby black congregation, Oak Valley Baptist Church. Those dialogues will include community members, city leaders, and the town’s chief of police, according to Morrill. His congregation recently changed the message on their sign from “Black Lives Matter” to “Showing Up for Racial Justice” after Hammond raised concerns that focus on the sign itself might detract from the larger justice effort.
“For primarily white congregations, the experience of having a sign vandalized is only a passing glimpse of the terror of living as a person of color in a racist society,” Morrill explains. “It was important to me that our congregation not adopt the stance of victim when our sign was vandalized. Our congregation’s welfare is not the point of Black Lives Matter.”
The UU Congregation of the South Jersey Shore has taken a similar approach, joining a series of community police walks in Atlantic City organized by the Coalition for a Safe Community. Those walks have helped the church build connections with local black clergy and find ways to support their work, according to Cain. Now, the churches are starting to organize monthly Black Lives Matter events together.
It’s critical that primarily white congregations approach that work with humility, clergy agree. In Annapolis, Crestwell says, church leaders “emphasize the importance of anti-oppression and antiracism work, intercultural competency, and emotional literacy to help our members recognize their own privilege. This internal work can help primarily white congregations build the capacity to confront feeling of shame or guilt and accept their complicity in systemic racism.
“Many Unitarian Universalists are among the 3 or 5 percent, economically, and we always want to blame them—the 1 percent—saying, ‘It’s those people,’ when in fact it’s us,” Crestwell says. “When we begin to claim and see that we are part of the problem within structures and institutions—that our biases and prejudices are a big part of the problem—hallelujah! Then we will really begin the work of creating true beloved community.”