‘It ain’t just your faith. It’s mine.’
Ndidi Achebe, left, and Ebonie Remsey link arms during the closing worship of the 2016 General Assembly as Glen Thomas Rideout and the Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost sang “I need you to survive.” (© Nancy Pierce)
Frustrated by “uneven progress” from Unitarian Universalist congregations on racial justice, youth caucus leaders—supported by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizers—drafted a responsive resolution demanding a multiyear report on antiracism work from the Unitarian Universalist Association. They presented the resolution to General Assembly delegates Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio. Minutes later, the Assembly’s closing worship focused on Black Lives Matter.
The youth and young adult leaders, led by the caucuses’ members of color, were then invited by UUA Moderator Jim Key to come to the stage and express their grievances with, and hopes for, the UU faith. GA delegates passed the resolution almost unanimously.
Youth caucus leaders and UUs of color Alison Butler-Córdova and Eli Breidford spoke passionately for the resolution from the “Pro” microphone, backed by at least three dozen friends and allies. “We as a religion have acknowledged that we support the black lives matter movement with the passage of the AIW last year,” Breidford said, referring to the 2015 Action of Immediate Witness. But, he added, “This has done very little as to our attitude towards POC. Voices of color continue to be marginalized and spoken over and for.”
Breidford’s words and frustrations were echoed by other young people of color in the assembly. Butler-Córdova delivered a litany of grievances experienced by some UU people of color. For example, she said, “When UUs of color are recruited as the token minority on congregational committees, this is not support.”
The passion and frustrations of the youth caucus leadership took some attendees by surprise, as Breidford and Butler-Córdova’s words came one day after a special UUA collection raised $89,480 for the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective. One UU man in his forties, who asked not to be identified, said, “I understand their frustrations, but shaming us one day after we raised nearly $90,000 bothered me.”
Butler-Córdova and the youth caucus anticipated such a concern. “When UUs think that signing a check and throwing a bill in the offering means that we showed up for BLUU, and that accomplishing that means we’re done with this activism, this is not support,” Butler-Córdova said.
Key invited Bradford, Butler-Córdova, and the youth caucus up to the main stage, and asked people to “speak their truths for all of us to hear.” Three young black people spoke about their experiences in Unitarian Universalist communities, flanked by numerous allies, including multiple young UUs of color and former UUA President William G. Sinkford.
Kloie Rush-Spratt, a young adult from First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, spoke directly to the assembly: “You say ‘Black lives matter,’ but there are no black lives in some of your congregations. You are saying it to yourselves.” Uncomfortable applause followed, though the dozens behind Rush-Spratt cheered enthusiastically.
Cir L'bert Jr. was similarly direct, saying to white UUs, “You live vicariously through us because we fight the system, but you are the same system.” Isis James-Carnes added a blunt poem about her tumultuous experience as a black Unitarian Universalist in mostly white spaces.
Following the three speakers, Key brought the responsive resolution to a vote. It passed nearly unanimously, with only a handful of delegates raising cards in opposition.
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After the vote, over 100 UUs gathered outside the plenary hall. Black Lives of UU organizers Leslie Mac and Lena K. Gardner put out a call for white allies to join black UUs and other UUs of color in a procession into the general session hall. “Black lives, they matter here,” the multiracial, black-led group chanted, as they made their way toward the stage.
The Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost and the GA choir, led by Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout, provided music that moved people to tears, cheers, and arms raised in praise. Rideout sang a riveting rendition of Hezekiah Walker’s “I Need You to Survive,” and the Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost ended the closing worship with a 17-minute version of their movement for black lives anthem “We Ready, We Comin’.” Black Lives of UU organizers and about 80 others came to the foot of the main stage to sway, dance, and sing along at the end.
Organizers Leslie Mac and longtime UU leader Elandria Williams (who was elected a UUA trustee at GA) spoke at the closing worship. Mac called her first GA experience “like life, an experience of contradictions. Many churches have ‘Black Lives Matter’ banners on their walls, but black UUs don’t feel welcome in their pews.”
Mac appreciated the enthusiastic approval of an explicitly black space and lamented the need for such spaces at all. To practice solidarity, she said, UUs must “show up again and again and again until it comes a habit in your life.”
Williams—whom the order of service listed as leading the benediction—gave an impromptu, twelve-minute address laying out her UU history and vision for how the faith might fully engage with racial justice work. “This has been a hard week. My home church [in Tennessee] always told me I was loved—then I came to my first General Assembly,” twenty years ago, Williams said. She described racially fraught interactions and actions she and other UUs of color encountered at GA in the late 1990s.
“I need to be here. This is my faith. Don’t thank me for being here. It ain’t just your faith. It’s mine.”
Asserting her claim to the faith and the claims of other UUs, Williams concluded, “This is my church. I belong here!”
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Kenny Wiley was a UU World senior editor from 2015 to 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.
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