What Unitarian Universalism looks like, twenty years from now.
Youth carry a UUA banner at the head of the UU crowd in Selma, Ala., March 8, 2015, passing First Baptist Church (© Christopher L. Walton).
December 15, 2034
Thanks for the phone call, sweetie; your dad gave me a heads-up about your Coming of Age assignment. It’s a good question you asked—how being Unitarian Universalist is different now than it was for your dad or your grandfather, or your great-grandfather, for that matter. It makes me happy that, even though I didn’t become a UU until I married your grandfather, you’re a fourth-generation African American UU. In every generation there have been more of us, and though I know you think I’m old-fashioned, I’m still what they used to call “a race woman,” and I like seeing our churches so full of people who didn’t used to come to UU churches.
I think the big change started about twenty years ago, in 2014, when our movement started paying serious attention to the issue of what we called white privilege, though the seeds were planted earlier. Back in the 1990s, we were working on “A Journey Toward Wholeness,” with a lot of workshops and trainings that offended as many people as they helped. I was doing my ministerial internship in Montclair, New Jersey, then, right after your dad was born, and it was a journey all right! But even though there was a lot of resistance within the faith at the time, that’s where the seeds got planted. As more and more people got used to asking questions—not about what it meant to be black (or Latino, or Asian), but what it meant to be white—we started to place the emphasis where it needed to be. We started to focus as a faith on all the ways Unitarian Universalists had cooperated with white privilege and benefited from it.
Once a critical mass of white people had the courage to grapple with that question, they started embracing another question: What would it look like to be a white ally? Your dad probably talks about what it was like for him and your uncle when Barack Obama was elected president. For some people it seemed that there was nothing left to do around race in America. But in some ways, things got a lot worse after his election. There was still a lot of racism embedded in U.S. culture, and it was enraging to see it combined with an increase in what we were calling “the surveillance state,” an increase in local police forces getting equipped with weapons of war, and what felt like a nonstop list of black people being killed by police and not standing trial for those deaths.
Your dad and your uncle were just barely young adults then, so your grandfather and I were pretty frightened for them. But we were also pretty mad, and so were a lot of other people, including a lot of UUs of every race. So we took to the streets, and we organized groups to monitor police, and we demanded changes in the way police shootings were investigated. And we kept talking about white privilege and getting people to think harder about it.
Remember that big yellow T-shirt that I used to make a pillow for your room, the one with the heart on it? That was one of our big slogans then: “Standing on the Side of Love.” Lots of us wore those shirts whenever we had religious work to do. Whenever people saw those shirts and those hearts, they knew who we were. A lot of people of color got curious about our congregations during the protests and the town meetings. They started running into us at community meetings, and at their own churches or mosques or synagogues or temples. They knew we believed in justice, because we were everywhere! And we were changed by those decades of work. I was leading the seminary in California back then, and the protests and the activism changed a lot of our students and the kind of ministries a lot of them wanted to do, too.
There’s a lot more to it, of course. There were lots of other changes going on in our movement. But I think these were the big things that made our congregations as multiracial and multigenerational as they are today.
Hope this helps, baby—call me if you need more, and I’ll go through some of these files your grandfather wants me to throw away!
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The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is president of Starr King School for the Ministry and a contributing editor of UU World. She is the author of Unafraid of the Dark: A Memoir (Random House, 1998).
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