I left General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, exhausted (as always) and simultaneously more hopeful and more cautious than I have felt in years. Just as the “Justice GA” in Phoenix in 2012 stands out as a time that deep spirituality and action came together with unusual power, this GA was clearly a powerful experience on our long journey of confronting the profound effects of racism on our lives. (See UU World's coverage of GA.)
So many things converged: the stirring speaking of the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II; the presence of the leaders of the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Circle of North America at our public witness event; the inspiring preaching of former UUA President William G. Sinkford at the Service of the Living Tradition; the powerful admonition in the Sunday morning service created by the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd and Glen Thomas Rideout. (Those who were not at GA absolutely must watch some of the central events. I recommend you begin with Bill Sinkford’s sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition.)
I heard a number of people—leaders whose opinions I respect—express the feeling that we had reached a new level of understanding and commitment. Clearly, we are involving a new generation of UU activists. A new level of hope is palpable.
I hope they are right. And I am deeply afraid that they might be wrong. Why the caution? My hope is tempered by a tendency I have experienced among us in our antiracism, antioppression, multicultural work in the last twenty years: we tend to confuse catharsis with progress. I have been to too many painful and emotional meetings in which, after agonizing expressions of hurt and frustration, the gathering culminated in a catharsis. People felt we had broken through. We hadn’t. Nothing much changed. I desperately don’t want this GA to join the list of frustrating disappointments.
The Black Empowerment Controversy of the 1960s, back when very few of us were UUs, continues to cast its long shadow. Guilt remains. Suspicion remains. A sense of betrayal persists. Just listen to Bill Sinkford’s recollections in his SLT sermon.
And yet there have been changes that give me hope. The number of African Americans and other people of color in positions of leadership in the UUA is far, far larger today. I am not just talking about UUA staff, I am talking about ministers, religious educators, musicians, seminarians, and lay leaders. The number of young people of color rising into leadership is inspiring.
More importantly, look at the number of our congregations (most of them led by white ministers) who have courageously and publicly declared their support of Black Lives Matter. UUs who are “Gen Xers” and “Millennials” have grown up in a far more diverse culture. The generosity of those who attended GA in supporting Black Lives of UU shows a broad commitment.
The very presence of interfaith leaders at GA shows that we are part of a much larger faith movement that is committed to justice.
With all this going for us, why am I still worried?
I worry that we will lose steam. I worry that we will fall victim to the progressive habit of declaring victory too early. This will be a long, long struggle. Fear and ignorance abound and are deep-seated. People are still dying. We need to be relentless. We need to nurture work at the grassroots. We on the UUA staff must partner rather than impose our views.
Catharsis is not progress. But we have made an important beginning. We have a historic opportunity. Let’s not blow it.