One of the largest joint efforts among congregations in recent history, organizers say.
The Rev. Bill Neely giving the sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton, New Jersey, during its white supremacy teach-in on May 7, 2017 (© 2017 Lauren Suchenski).
Two-thirds of Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country have participated in the White Supremacy Teach-In that was created in response to the crisis that erupted in March over hiring practices at the Unitarian Universalist Association, which critics say favor whites, especially white UU ministers.
More than 680 Unitarian Universalist congregations—more than 65 percent of the denomination’s 1,038 congregations—joined the teach-in, which was created by three UU religious educators to examine how white supremacy plays out in UU spaces, including within congregations.
The teach-in was “without precedent” in terms of numbers of congregations participating in a joint effort, said the Rev. William G. Sinkford, one of three interim co-presidents of the UUA. The closest similar effort, Association Sunday, created to engender congregational financial support for certain kinds of work, attracted about 500 congregations during his former presidency, said Sinkford, who served as UUA president from 2001 to 2009.
“But the teach-in was also without precedent in that it was organized simply by three religious educators and just captured the imagination of our movement,” said Sinkford. In comparison, Association Sunday had UUA staff working on it for months, he said, adding, “From the ground up, the teach-in became a collective response to one of the central challenges we face.”
About 190 congregations held teach-ins on April 30, and about 350 held them on May 7, the two dates suggested by teach-in organizers. Another 140 congregations held the teach-ins on another date, including on May 14, to coincide with Mother’s Day. The UUA held a teach-in for staff on May 9 that included both onsite and offsite participants. In a future series, UU World will be reporting in-depth on several congregations that participated in the teach-in.
“UUs are a lot braver on the whole than we give ourselves credit for. We have the capacity to have hard conversations, I really believe that,” said Kenny Wiley, one of the organizers as well as a senior editor at UU World and a lead organizer of Black Lives of UU. “A lot of congregations reported packed houses, even if that might have been out of annoyance or curiosity.”
Some teach-ins were part of the regular Sunday service; others were held as separate events. In some congregations, the minister or staff planned the teach-in; in others, it was laypeople and in yet others, it was a combination. No two teach-ins were the same in form or style.
Organizers and others have said they are heartened by the huge response to the call to address white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism.
“The idea that two-thirds of our congregations did something other than light a chalice means this has hit a nerve and, frankly, met a desire,” said Aisha Hauser, director of religious education at East Shore Unitarian Church in Bellevue, Washington, and a key organizer along with Wiley and Christina Rivera. It’s rare for such a huge percentage of UU congregations to participate in an organized action in this fashion, Hauser said.
The response far exceeded expectations, organizers said. Their initial goal was to get 150 congregations to participate, but that goal was reached in three days. UU congregations in all fifty states and in a few foreign countries are part of the effort, said Wiley.
Rivera, director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church UU in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a member of the UUA Board of Trustees, said that early feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive.” She said that while the effort was “challenging, hard, uncomfortable,” nonetheless “people were totally willing to stay in that place.”
Organizers curated resources for the teach-in, especially for children, with religious educators around the country sharing materials. They also built a resource guide for the workshop.
While the three primary organizers are people of color, they were supported from the start by a number of white UUs, said Hauser, and the UUA Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the teach-in. “The white ministers, especially, have been over the top in saying, ‘Thank you so much, we’ve been waiting to do this. Now our faith is at a place where it can be transformational,’” Hauser said.
The UUA Office of Youth and Young Adults was an early supporter, with Jennica Davis-Hockett, the Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, and Bart Frost helping curate resources for younger teach-in participants. The Rev. Erika Hewitt from the UUA’s WorshipWeb co-led a pre-teach-in webinar on worship with Rivera and Wiley.
Hauser is among those, including Sinkford and the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs, board secretary, who have noted that religious professionals from other faith traditions have said they are watching how UUs are handling the crisis over racial equity. “People are really paying attention nationally. It’s really quite extraordinary because nothing has been done like this,” Hauser said. “The fact there is this much energy and even anger about the words ‘white supremacy’ means there’s a level of engagement that simply hasn’t been there in our past.”
Going forward, the organizers plan to continue providing resources around issues of white supremacy and to advocate for creating opportunities for future conversation and training on race and other topics, Wiley said.
“My hope is we continue this conversation to meaningfully understand the extent and enormity of the problem because that’s when we can move forward authentically,” Hauser said. “In order for it to be transformational, the work among white people needs to continue in an authentic way."
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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