Expanding Racial Justice at FUUFHC & Widening the Circle of Concern UUA Commission Report on Institutional Change by Sarah Ahrens

Every year, I attend the Liberal Religious Educators Association (LREDA) fall conference. This year, the focus was on “Widening the Circle of Concern,” the 2020 report published by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Commission on Institutional Change. This commission is charged with supporting long-term cultural and institutional change that redeems the essential promise and ideals of Unitarian Universalism. The charge given was to conduct an audit of the power structures and analyze systemic racism and white dominant culture within the UUA. Transformation is needed at all levels of our Association to abandon dysfunctional cultural expressions of our theology and polity. The covenants that bind us together, both within our own faith and to our partners in the world, are frayed and broken by the domination of white supremacy culture among us. To keep Unitarian Universalism alive, we must center the voices that have been silenced or drowned out and dismantle elitist and exclusionary white privilege, which inhibits connection and creativity.

This anti-racism, anti-oppression, multicultural (AR/AO/MC) work has been the primary focus of all of my professional development for the last five years at least, and I have personally grown and evolved through that learning in ways I would have never anticipated. That said, my own personal development is not the end goal. It is my responsibility as the Director of Religious Exploration to bring those educational resources to our FUUFHC community so that we may all successfully engage in this work together for the betterment of our faith, our community, and the greater world. Over the years, I have raised various suggestions for a more active approach to AR/AO/MC work within our congregation, but have been met with resistance. Certain terms and concepts, such as “white supremacy” or “white fragility” were uncomfortable for some, and it became clear to me in time that we have been reluctant to really ‘get our hands dirty’ with this work. And make no mistake, this is messy, messy work–filled with challenges to our perceptions, our beliefs, our world-views, and our emotions. But is it is vital work we must do, nonetheless.

The political landscape of the last several years has emblazoned openly white supremacist groups who now proudly fly the confederate and Nazi flags and who have been linked to multiple acts of domestic terrorism. These dangerous groups are no longer in the shadows and fringes. There are tens of millions of supporters. As UUs, we have a long and rich history of fighting this kind of injustice and oppression. Now is the time to redouble our efforts and commitment in order to salvage our democracy and society from these evils, and we have to start at home, right in our own congregation. We each have to commit to being actively anti-racist, which means confronting our own unconscious biases and prejudices. We have to commit to expanding our own understanding of the inherent racism in every single system of society, including our denomination. If we are not a part of the dynamic solutions working toward change and justice, then by default we are part of the problem. There is no room any longer for middle ground. It was lifted up by the writers of the commission report that if we fail to accept this need to live into our sixth principle, we will become an apartheid religion–a small (and dwindling) pocket of white folks’ faith in what will be a country of predominantly Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) by the year 2044. It is not only our country at stake. It’s our very own denomination which will not survive if we are not all active in expanding the margins to “widen the circle of concern” and be more inclusive and focused on AR/OC/MC work at all levels, including our fellowship.

The commission report (available here), is over a hundred pages of findings, recommendations, and take-aways covering the areas of theology, governance, congregational life, hospitality and inclusion, living our principles, religious professionals, education, innovation, reparations, and accountability. As we are a faith of deed, not creed, the recommendations require us to address equity, inclusion, and diversity issues with empathy and healing towards collective liberation for all. The authors call for greater emphasis on the theological basis for our efforts, which will help us to make decisions about the forms of this work most appropriate for our individual and shared faith lives. Our theology calls on us to respect the worth and dignity of all, and that is the foundation for our justice work. They acknowledge that adaptation, agility, and innovation are needed for Unitarian Universalism to survive, and that most UU congregations and organizations need ongoing intention, education, and structural change to be genuinely hospitable to all. The commission also calls for an overdue certification process, similar to establishing a Welcoming Congregation, for addressing our own organizational racial bias and oppression. Such forms of accountable partnerships are dependent on our ability to educate ourselves and avoid microaggressions, tokenizing, and other forms of modern racism.

People and communities who are front-runners and innovators in combating white supremacy culture and developing practices of equality, innovation, and diversity have traditionally faced barriers from those who are unwilling to adapt to the times when what we need for them to have is support. Unfortunately, and all too often, we are inauthentic to our theology and values because we are either consciously or unconsciously embodying the very things we are trying to fight–the white dominant culture traits of perfectionism, defensiveness, paternalism, power hoarding, worship of the written word, fear of open conflict, right to comfort, and insistence on there being only one right way. Ultimately, the same energy, foresight, determination, capacity for organization, invention, and passion displayed in the European conquest of the world should be brought to bear in the dismantling of its oppressive, ‘ecocidal,’ and genocidal practices.

The commission report indicates that we must bring empathy, compassion, mindfulness, and humility to this crucial work. We must each perceive and care about the struggle of others whose concerns may not be our own, recognizing that we are bound together through the interdependent web of life on earth, and that peace, justice, equity, and liberty must be prioritized for all. We must recognize the implicit and explicit privilege and power we have in various aspects of our lives, and allow ourselves to prepare our own hearts for mindful transformation. We must humbly acknowledge that we are learning, growing, and trying; that we will make painful mistakes along the way; that we don’t have all the answers or a playbook to follow; that we are beautifully human in our imperfections and the only wrong way to go about this work is to not begin at all.

To this end, Rev. Seth and I are going to be implementing several initiatives over the course of this year to better familiarize our congregation with AR/AO/MC work. No prior experience or education is necessary for these events, and they are multigenerational. Anyone at any stage of the learning curve is welcome, as the diversity of voices and insights will only enrich our conversations. Please direct any questions to Rev. Seth, or myself at dre@hunterdonuu.org. We hope you will join us on this important journey!

Half of our FUUFHC mission statement is the commitment to expand social justice, and any activism we do must be based on “ widening the circle of concern” to center racial justice. In this program series, we will begin by engaging with relevant and varied media content designed to capture the interest and imagination of all ages. Building on the foundation of the group’s covenant and our seven principles, we will explore ways to work both personally and as a fellowship to more actively engage in anti-racism/oppression efforts. You can join for the series, or drop-in as available.

Join us at 7:00 p.m. on 1/26; 2/23; 3/30; 4/27; 5/25. Link: https://preview.tinyurl.com/FUUFHCantiracism; (Meeting ID: 846 0420 8612 & Passcode: 356895)