UUA leaders alarmed by conflicts reported by religious professionals of color

UUA leaders alarmed by conflicts reported by religious professionals of color

UUA has been asked for help with more than fifteen conflicts this year. Commission on Institutional Change calls for investigation of ‘disparate treatment of people of color by congregations.’

Elaine McArdle
Members of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change

Members of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change, from left: the Rev. Natalie Fenimore, Elias Ortega-Aponte, the Rev. Leslie Takahashi, Mary Byron,Caitlin Breedlove, and DeReau Farrar. (© 2017 UUA)

© 2017 UUA


So far in this church year, the Unitarian Universalist Association has been asked to help resolve more than fifteen congregational conflicts involving religious professionals of color. Carey McDonald, the UUA’s acting chief operating officer, says the conflicts represent an “acceleration of a trend” of difficulties these professionals face in trying to do their ministries.

It’s impossible to know if the figure represents a significant increase because the UUA has not systematically tracked congregational conflicts involving religious professionals of color, but McDonald said he and others believe there is an increase over past years. In a letter that UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray sent to religious professionals of color in February, she said the UUA has received “a record number of calls from religious professionals of color who are experiencing conflict in their professional settings.” She added, “While the specifics of each situation are different, I am concerned by the trend and want you to know I am paying attention and want to help the UUA provide better support to religious professionals of color.”

“I think it’s more, and we are hearing other people [saying they] think it’s more,” said McDonald. “It’s clear there are a large number of cases right now where we need to be as engaged as possible because people’s ministries are on the line.”

McDonald said the UUA feels the “urgency” of the situation and that its staff are responding both to immediate situations and examining how white supremacy culture within UU congregations and the UUA contribute to them. “We’re trying to mobilize on a different scale and tempo than in the past, because we know how urgent it is,” he said.

In February the Commission on Institutional Change—an independent body created last summer by the UUA Board of Trustees to analyze systemic racism and white supremacy within the UUA after critics protested UUA hiring practices in the selection of a new senior staff person—issued a statement calling on the UUA to investigate what it says is disparate treatment of people of color by congregations, including the loss of a number of jobs by religious professionals of color since the summer of 2017.

The Rev. Leslie Takahashi, chair of the commission, told UU World that commission members met in person for two days in early February, when frustration over the enormity of their charge and what they perceived as funding delays when they were appointed in June—as well as their concern about the circumstances surrounding the recent departure of a black minister from the staff of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C.—prompted them to issue the statement.

While it was important for the commission to express frustration over its initial funding, Takahashi said, the bigger issue is the “amount of pain and damage to lives happening” to people of color in UU congregations.

“I think there is kickback from the White Supremacy Teach-Ins that has zeroed in on religious professionals of color,” Takahashi told the board during its February 12 teleconference. The commission’s February statement said that “a number of religious professional of color have lost their jobs among us since last summer,” and it called on Frederick-Gray and her staff to investigate those situations. It also called for “the expedited creation of a special field staff team to intervene in situations involving religious professionals of color.”

The UUA has field staff in place to support religious professionals of color, McDonald told UU World, and they have been involved in more than fifteen conflicts that have arisen since last summer. Two of those cases have garnered attention through social media and within broader UU circles.

One involves controversy within All Souls Church in Washington, D.C., about the departure of its associate minister for the past seven years, the Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore, an African American minister who was ordained in the United Church of Christ. Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) drew attention to Newman Moore’s objections to the circumstances surrounding her separation from the church; Newman Moore serves as one of four “elders” to the BLUU organizing collective.

The other high-profile case involves an anonymous racist written message left by a parishioner at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church–Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, targeting Christina Rivera, its director of administration and finance. Rivera is also a UUA trustee who was one of three religious educators of color who developed the White Supremacy Teach-In, which involved hundreds of UUA congregations since last spring.

In response to the note, the Charlottesville congregation’s board vowed “to examine and eradicate our own perpetuation of the culture of white supremacy under which this despicable action occurred,” and changed a party scheduled to mark the congregation’s seventy-fifth anniversary into a worship service condemning the note and challenging members to “recognize our complicity.” The Rev. Erik Wikstrom, lead minister, said at the service, “Somehow we have allowed a climate, an atmosphere, an environment to exist in which something like this can happen.”

The commission’s statement—first published on Medium on February 10 and then republished on the commission’s blog on UUA.org on February 12—decried what it says were delays in funding that interfered with its work early on and asked for an additional year to complete its ambitious charge. Two days after the commission’s statement, at a videoconference meeting on February 12, the UUA board voted to extend the commission’s two-year time frame by an additional year, until General Assembly 2020. Co-moderator Mr. Barb Greve and several trustees expressed surprise at the commission’s statement, noting that the board had voted in October to give the commission $488,640 it had requested as its budget. Takahashi told the board that the statement “was not intended to be deeply confrontational,” but was intended to “name truths” that were frustrating to commission members.

Takahashi told UU World that Frederick-Gray, McDonald, and the board leadership “have tried to be responsive” to the commission, “and yet the systemic problems still persist,” which contributed to the commission feeling frustrated.

Takahashi also said that even the process of preparing a budget had been challenging for the all-volunteer commission, since it was at the same time conducting interviews related to last spring’s controversial UUA hiring decision, which led to the resignation of UUA President Peter Morales and two top executives. The commission has completed twenty interviews with people related to the hiring controversy, and will be issuing a report regarding its findings within a few weeks, the February statement said.

At the board’s March 12 teleconference, Takahashi added that Morales was the only person the commission had asked to interview who had not agreed to meet with the commission. Morales told UU World he had no problem meeting with the commission but felt the discussion should be within an executive session of the board since it involved personnel matters. The board announced that trustees and two members of the commission met with Morales in executive session on March 27, in a conversation facilitated by Jesse King, chair of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. The commission now plans to release its report in April.

Frederick-Gray and McDonald published a mid-year report on February 16 that, among a number of other areas, emphasized the UUA’s support for the commission. “We continue to support the work of the independent Commission on Institutional Change, charged by the UUA Board of Trustees with redeeming the essential promise of our faith. In addition to funding the Commission’s full request of $500,000 over two years, considerable staff time is being spent to buttress the Commission’s work. This includes supporting staff hiring and contracting processes; assistance with budgeting, administration, logistics, communication and technology; and providing access to UUA archives, data systems and staff groups at the Commission's request,” it said.

It is important to note, Takahashi said, that the bulk of the commission’s statement was aimed not at the UUA but at UU congregations and affiliated organizations. It called upon them to fund BLUU “as an act of reparation for the denial of opportunities over centuries,” and to support Black Lives Matter, Muslim, and immigrants-of-color activists in a variety of ways, including by providing congregational facilities, providing financial support, offering sanctuary, and providing meals and free or low-cost childcare. The statement also called on congregations to foster conversation about systemic racism and other oppressions and to examine how white supremacy culture and hallmarks of that culture limit justice work.

It also invited individual UUs to answer its call for stories about how racism has affected people or groups within the UUA.

“Unless we find ways to address these issues at the congregational level, where the absolute majority of interaction occurs, our work is not going to be fruitful,” she told UU World.

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4/2/18: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story referred to the Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore’s “objections to the termination of her job.”