The Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium declared a Black-centered theology as worth remembering, centering, and fighting for.
The Rev. Yadenee Hailu (center foreground) and others raise their hands during the morning spiritual grounding time at the Harper-Jordan Theological Symposium sponsored by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism on November 1. (© 2019 Kevin Banatte Photography)
The Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium, convened by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), helped me remember forgotten childhood dreams.
During a plenary session, the Rev. Angela Shannon, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, talked about preaching her first sermon at 10 years old. Shannon’s words transported me back to a time when my childhood predicted the current pull I’m feeling toward seminary. When I was a child, my sister and I used to play church, and I was always the pastor. Our playtime wasn’t a far cry from my everyday life: As a child, I preached sermons during youth-led worship and gave speeches in front of my church on holidays. Although playing church—specifically playing minister—was a large part of my formative years, I had completely blocked out these memories until the symposium.
Remembering the joy I felt playing church, or the power I felt when I gave sermons as a child, also meant remembering when that joy and power were taken away from me.
I got older, and I didn’t feel at home in the traditional Black church as a queer woman who wanted to be heard, to have my questions answered, and to be treated as an equal to my male, straight counterparts. I got glimpses of possibility when I found mainline churches in adulthood, but the racism of allegedly progressive white people made it clear I wasn’t at home in those traditions, either.
I had to disregard some of the most formative pieces of my childhood because it hurt to remember what ministry meant to me.
But something in me broke wide open at the symposium, and it felt safe for me to reach for the memories and dreams I threw away.
The Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, October 30–November 2, gave Black attendees the gift of affirmed wholeness—the feeling that we didn’t have to leave any parts of ourselves behind. Since 2015, BLUU has focused on creating sacred Black space, whether that’s through online, Black-only worship experiences or through in-person events, like its 2017 Convening in New Orleans or 2018 Revival in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We are walking fully in our agency and creating spaces to hold each other, to worship together, to build community, to build a relationship, and to really center in something that I think is becoming evident about a Black Unitarian Universalism,” said Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin, BLUU content director and Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium co-convener, “which is our faith is not a confessional faith, whereby the evidence of your faith is what you confess to believe, but rather that the evidence of our faith as Unitarian Universalists is in the depth and quality of our relationships. So the evidence of our faith is in how we love each other and how we affirm and support each other’s full humanity.”
A significant part of BLUU’s work has been identifying what Black Unitarian Universalists and other Black, spiritually adjacent folks need and responding with deep intention.
Listening deeply is what led BLUU to create a symposium centering Black theology.
“We come from justice-making work in the world,” Amin said. “One of the things you learn with organizing is that you don’t build a model and then shoehorn people into it. You center the folks who you are working with and for and listen deeply and then build something that sustains and holds those folks. If you ask Black people what they need, they’ll tell you.”
A 2018 survey of Black UUs and other feedback from BLUU spaces made two things obvious. Black UUs want culturally relevant spaces and want to engage in theological rigor within those spaces.
“That came up again and again, that there was a longing on the part of Black folks to engage deeply with the theological sources of our faith and a real hunger to learn more about the history of Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism with Black folks at the center,” said Amin. “Too often, UU 101 workshops pretend like we were never a part of anything and that this was the good white folks’ faith, and we should just be glad to be guests in it.”
Although people who aren’t Black attended the Symposium, BLUU was clear that the Symposium’s intention was to honor the Black voices and Black histories of Unitarian Universalism.
The Symposium was named after Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black Unitarian abolitionist, suffragist, and author, and the Rev. Joseph Jordan, the first Black ordained Universalist minister.
It feels appropriate that BLUU named the symposium after such key historical Unitarian and Universalist figures as BLUU makes history in its own right.
During the symposium’s last plenary, featuring BLUU’s Organizing Collective, BLUU announced that it is officially recognized as a church that has its 501c3 status. The next phase of its work will focus on creating “BLUU Havens” and “BLUU Harbors.”
BLUU Havens will nurture social connection among Black UUs and other Black, spiritually adjacent folks, whether that’s through organizing or meetups related to spirituality.
BLUU Harbors will be predominately Black UU congregations. BLUU Harbors are named after Hush Harbors, which were secret places enslaved African Americans gathered to have shared religious rituals.
“The name came out of the Hush Harbor idea around spaces where Black folks could really just be and be their whole selves, even though they’re living in systems where they cannot,” said the Rev. Mykal Slack, BLUU’s community minister for worship and spiritual care and Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium co-convener. Slack said BLUU Harbors have four primary purposes: creating communities for worship, prayer, and meditation; studying and learning; creating intentionally multigenerational and intergenerational community; and justice-making through Unitarian Universalism out in the world.
In preparation for the Hush Harbors, Amin is working on a BLUU liturgical calendar and a BLUU lectionary.
People have asked me to describe the Harper-Jordan Symposium, and I don’t think one simple description does the event justice.
It’s difficult to describe the love and presence of healers, who used acupuncture, healing teas, and massages to care for the community.
How does one explain the depth, spontaneity, and joy in worship, especially closing worship? The elders were honored and the youth were blessed. The songs of Black ancestors brought me to tears, and the energy of the music had people dancing in the aisles, even after worship officially ended.
How can I explain how safe I felt knowing that for once I was in a UU space where anti-Blackness would not only be discouraged but also confronted?
I don’t have the perfect words to capture the Harper-Jordan Memorial Symposium. I do know that because I went, I’m no longer afraid to go to seminary, and if I go, I know I’ll have my BLUU family cheering me on.
It’s a rare occasion that I can be in a space that honors my theological foundations, my proclivity to skepticism, and my commitment to Black liberation. In absence of needing to defend any of the three at the symposium, I found healing and heard my own voice again, loud and clear.
I’ve seen Black Unitarian Universalists use the hashtag #MyBlackIsBLUU, and I think I finally get it. A faith and church that centers Black liberation is the only place I want to be.
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Marchaé Grair is director of Public Relations and Outreach at the Unitarian Universalist Association. She is also a spiritual director, facilitator, and karaoke enthusiast. Find more of her work at Marchae.com.
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