The book Centering: Navigating Race, Authenticity, and Power in Ministry resulted from an October 2015 conference “to reframe Unitarian Universalist anti-oppression work by putting the voices, experiences and learnings of people of color at the center of the conversation.” It was a “common read” for 2017-18. What follows is a review from a UU who writes under a pseudonym.
By Veritas Curat
In Centering, we have a psychodrama about victimization and oppression; a battle for the moral high ground, that relies on a mutual dehumanization of the participants and prejudicial labels that divide them from us.
Labels are how we force other people to play roles in our psychodramas. Labels always distort and simplify. That is what they are for. We just have to use them with care and learn to hold them lightly. I don’t want to ever tell someone what their identity is. That is oppressive. — Rev Peter Morales (All quotations are from Centering unless otherwise indicated.)
The labeling psychodrama Peter Morales refers to plays out in a culture of victim, oppressor and rescuer; as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put it:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Culture does evolve in spite of our human flaws. That is why real change occurs slowly and with difficulty. The Civil Rights movement, attempting to put in practice promises of 100 years before, faced overwhelming violent opposition in which many people died And the victory was not complete. But the vision is clear, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Jonathan Haidt tells us,:
…in the 18th and 19th centuries most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor …to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it…this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood which… gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim…it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.
In Centering we have a collision between our flawed universal human nature evolving a culture of victimhood and an organization overwhelmed by its desire to occupy the moral high ground as rescuer. This desire arises from the best of intentions; from principles committed to justice for all oppressed people. The idea is to center the experiences of “people of color” and “decenter whiteness.” It is curious how this “decentering whiteness” seems to involve spending an inordinate amount of time talking about what is wrong with white people and white culture.
Centering defines the oppressor-victim labeling:
“‘people of color’ is a term we use as a political act to build coalitions to dismantle the effects of white supremacy. – Rev. Sofia Betancourt
This “white supremacy” label in an organization made up of around 80% white people is significant and troubling. It assigns to whites the role of “evil people committing evil deeds,” in Solzhenitsyn’s phrasing.
White hostility – In seminary, I was not taught how to be “authentic” when I showed up to work grieving because yet another murderous police officer had escaped indictment, not only feeling utterly alone in my grief but also experiencing White hostility to my grief. – Rev. Marisol Caballero
White fragility – I worry that the way we often choose to talk about racism within our movement is more concerned with what has come to be known as white fragility than with truth telling. – Rev. Marisol Caballero
White supremacy – The collective sin of white supremacy is a material and particular sin, and we cannot redeem it at a distance or in the abstract. -Rev. Molly Housh Gorden (in UU World Spring 2018)
Centering is thus functioning to “other” the 80% of white people who make up UU congregations. It pours racially charged gasoline on the already problematic divide between the organizational leadership and the congregations they are supposed to serve.
The voices of congregation members were not included in Centering. It is, rather, a centering of professional leaders of color. I would argue that this offers us a window into how the UUA leadership in total — both white and people of color — is now beginning to view the congregations. It’s not a pretty picture.
Belonging is a deep universal human desire. We are a tribal species, and this tribal heritage brings othering with it. Anyone not in our tribal group is other and a dangerous enemy. Given this heritage “Do unto others” has serious limitations in practice. It is practiced most easily within the tribe. Human history is filled with examples of bloody failures to extend it outside the tribe.
This is why the basic teachings of the world’s religions and ethical systems fail to be practiced on a regular basis. The quote sometimes attributed to Gandhi — “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” — is a universal truth. If any organization claims to be free from this disconnect between principle and practice, it is lying to itself.
A perfect storm is coming around the behavior of congregants and the lack of accountability around that behavior. It has been brought to light by what people who are studying for the ministry understand from either their internships or their education and their conversations with those of us who have been in the parish. It’s not going to be pretty. For those of us who are people of color, this started earlier. We started getting out of the parish a lot earlier because of the experiences we were having with congregants, and race was a huge factor. – Rev Rosemany Bray McNatt
Accountability ought to work both ways, but it clearly doesn’t here. The problem is proclaimed to lie solely in the congregations, not leadership. And the role of the UUA has not been to support congregations but to support leaders whose malpractice can be responsible for painful conflicts. And there are many such conflicts
At a recent gathering of UU ministers, one attendee said that she wanted ministers to stop referring to congregations as “my” congregation and suggested saying “the congregation I serve.” My reaction to what she said was swift and visceral. I could feel my body tense, and I had a hard time focusing on anything else that was said in her presentation. I was affronted by the idea of “serving” a congregation of mostly white people… We are reverends. We are ministers. We are pastors. We are never servants.” – Rev. Cheryl M. Walker
If a leader objects to the word “serve” and is not willing to put forward other words that express an idea of humility that is a necessary part of good leadership, then that leader may fail in the kind of relationship that is necessary to be a “reverend” or “minister” or “pastor.” Blaming the congregation for these personal issues is a serious case of projection; it is never the responsibility of the leader but, rather, the fault of the racially oppressive nature of white congregations.
As a Christian minister from the black church, I was used to preaching from a biblical text… Folks were complaining because I used a text from the Bible instead of a reading from a non-theistic source. I gradually found myself compromising my style of preaching. When I was scheduled to preach, I wrote three sermons. The first was written as I was inspired by the Spirit. The second was edited for the UU ear, and the third was watered down so I’d still be employed after the benediction. – Rev. Dr. Susan Newman Moore
Preaching to a group of congregants, many seeking refuge from oppressively fundamentalist Christian backgrounds who are seeking a new spiritual home free of guilt and shame, ought to inspire some empathy and sensitivity. Does Rev Moore not understand the nature of her congregation and their needs? Instead, the story is about how the congregation is “complaining” about biblical texts and requiring her to edit her sermons for “the UU ear.” Is there something oppressively wrong with “the UU ear?”
We are almost always the first minister of color to be serving in congregations where our ministry takes us. These communities harbor some measure of anxiety that we might be passionate about diversity and that we might impose that passion on the congregation in some way. Clergy of color have been driven out of congregations and pegged as single-issue minister or as ministers who focus on social justice to the detriment of other needs. – Rev. Manish Mishra Marzetti
Are the congregants really “anxious” that ministers of color “might be passionate about diversity” or are they concerned about their “single-issue minister(s)” “imposing” their passion upon them? This is one-sided and unnecessarily patronizing.
Unfortunately, our current ministerial environment is one in which many, if not most, UU congregations are unprepared for the cross-cultural aspects of calling a minister of color. Further, they are not only unaware of their lack of readiness in this regard but also actively resist such self-knowledge. – Rev. Manish Mishra Marzetti
Is it possible that there might be more affirming ways of approaching a congregation besides belittling their self-knowledge? We are to imagine UU congregations as not only ignorant of their “lack of readiness” but also “resistant” to learning anything about it. Has this leader paused to consider that maybe this “resisting” could possibly be resentment at being patronized?
When I received this love and preached about Islam in a sermon that focused on the similarities among various faiths — including Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism — I was told that my speaking of Islam reminded some UU congregants of terrorism. Of course, this had the effect of silencing my voice yet again. The message I heard was that I could never preach about Islam. – Rev. Summer Albayati
Don’t ministers learn how to deal with concerns about their sermons in their training? How is it that a normal occurrence in ministry is so offensive that it becomes “silencing” and causes her to believe she could “never” preach about Islam. Does she not understand the difference between “disagreement” and “silencing”?
And, apparently from this, she concludes:
Can UUism ever purify its collective heart from hatred towards Arabs and Muslims?
It is curious that this overwrought hyperbole causes no concern in the book’s editor. There is a serious problem when a leader within the organization can slander UUism in this way and receive support and encouragement for doing so.
“This reminds some UUs of…’ is used often as a justification for silencing almost anything in our communities. This is the fear that we will create some tiny place of discomfort, some memory of early pain, some small sense of lack of inclusion, and that is used to justify massive lack of inclusion. We are severely limited by that phrase. How can we as religious leaders start to undermine the notion that it is okay for a personal small moment of discomfort to silence an entire tradition, an entire people, an entire faith perspective in our congregations? – Rev. Sofia Betancourt
Being “severely limited” by causing “discomfort” in their congregations may say more about the religious leader than their congregations. How does one weigh discomfort? The leader of color judges the discomfort in a white congregation as “tiny” while the “lack of inclusion” is “massive”? This minimizes the experiences of white congregants and exaggerates the consequences of this supposed “silencing” which, if the previous quotation is any indication, has been vastly overblown.
Often a person of color is one of the most visible and invisible people in a culturally white faith community. A person may be highly visible by the way they look, or by name, language, accent or tone, or simply because of the energy created by a felt difference in culture. Yet, a person of color’s personhood, unique beauty, struggles, spirit, identity and experiences are invisible to the white community, often because of assumptions, projections, bias, micro-aggression, and discrimination. – Rev. Mitra Rahnema
How much of any individual’s “personhood, unique beauty, struggles, spirit, identity and experiences are invisible to [any] community?” We all arrive at a community being both visible and invisible. We are visible at first by the superficial appearance we present, people form first impressions and it takes a long time for our “personhood, unique beauty, struggles, spirit, identity and experiences” to become visible to those we become close to. Making this universal, human process of integration into something a “white faith community” unjustly does to people of color is itself an unjust othering of people based upon the color of their (white) skin.
Centering also provides valuable insights into the resignation of Rev. Peter Morales. His essay in the book was written before he resigned and provides important information about the issues involved in his resignation. He describes his precipitous rise within the organization:
It took only six years for me, a new seminarian and a relatively new UU, to be appointed to the following positions: the Steering Committee of what was to become DRUUMM, the Steering Committee of LUUNA, the UUMA Executive Committee (during my first year in preliminary fellowship and as the first Latinx), the UUA Board of Trustees (as the first Latinx), and UUA Leadership Council. Today I am the first Latinx to serve as UUA president…
When typical Anglo ministers are asked to serve in a leadership role in the UUMA or in the UUA, they can assume they have been chosen because of their qualifications. I have never been able to assume that…
… in no way would my qualifications have put me in line for the opportunities that were heaped upon me if I were white. A kind of distorted privilege was operating. I was caught up in a larger drama that I did not fully understand. I felt I was playing a role in someone else’s psychodrama… – Rev. Peter Morales
“Distorted privilege” was a very dangerous phrase for him to employ. Even though it is appropriate given the UUA’s “hunger for diversity,” as Morales puts it, this idea made him enemies. It is important to remember that his resignation followed an issue over hiring a white male instead of a woman of color. He further endangered himself by openly stating that there were not enough qualified people of color to choose from. This honesty led to a disproportional response which eventually led to his resignation.
The one true distortion in Peter’s argument is the misuse of the word privilege to describe the epic mind game that is tokenism…Tokenism is not a privilege but rather an indication that UUism remains a predominantly White movement that is generally awkward in its interacting with people of color. – Rev. Marisol Caballero
This “distorted privilege” is, I believe, a very real problem in the UUA, which addresses it poorly. Religious professionals of color are no longer interested in serving white congregations because they have heard stories about “silencing” and “white hostility” and “white fragility” and “white supremacy” and other psychodramatic labels. There appears to be no willingness to look at this supposed block of “white supremacists” as a gathering of diverse individuals all with their own “personhood, unique beauty, struggles, spirit, identity and experiences.” It appears that the only people who have these unique qualities are people of color facing an undifferentiated mass of stereotyped whites.
There is a danger in holding racism too much in the forefront of our minds. We may miss opportunities to do transformative ministry if we constantly fight against every instance of racism we see. – Rev. Dr. Kristen Harper
This quote describes the dangers represented by the book it is contained within. Apparently, the route chosen is to try and change the nature of white congregations rather than examine the negative perceptions leaders of color have towards them.
I found it hard to imagine that sentence about serving at the intersection of UUism and black communities would seem relevant to a search committee in Portsmouth, NH. I was concerned it would raise immediate red flags. I was applying for a ministry position in a predominantly white church in one of the whitest states in the nation. – Rev. Lauren Smith
The question of why a minister whose calling was to serve “at the intersection of UUism and black communities” would choose to apply at such a church goes unanswered. It seems this calling places the needs of her predominantly white congregation in a secondary position.
UU congregations present unique challenges to those serving as their leaders. They tend to be made up of highly paid and well-educated professionals who do not fit well in traditional Christian churches and who are apt to question religious authority. This dynamic gives rise to divisiveness between those trying to establish leadership authority and those they are insecure about leading.
Centering amounts to a recipe for making the UU church an unfriendly place for a white newcomer to enter and alienating the white congregants who are already members.