Why Is This So Hard?

In a great Christian Century article about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity UCC and Barak Obama’s minister (and the keynote speaker at this year’s Ministry Days before GA–click on “CENTER Days” on the left sidebar for info), this story is told:

I asked Wright what response white churches should make to his Africentric gospel. He referred to a crash course on inner-city ministry he used to teach to white seminarians. He would close the course by telling them that the final exam was this: when their friends or family or parishioners exhibited racism, the students should speak up. If they didn’t, they failed the course. And only they and God would know.

So, this seems connected to me to the ongoing criticism of Starr King School for the Ministry and it’s commitment to Educating to Counter Oppressions and create just and sustainable communities. (Often abbreviated to ECO.) (pdf) We seem to be stuck arguing about whether or not “brown bag lunch” is connected to the practice of excluding darker-skinned African Americans from churches, fraternities, and clubs.

Some suggest that if we see no direct, provable connection, that the whole conversation is somehow an act of hypersensitivity and is worthy only of ridicule. Others just dismiss Starr King as “that school.” Clearly, our (superior?) judgment is more important than any connection someone who actually deals with racism every day may feel. Stentor Danielson at Debitage discusses the nuances and complexities of listening to the oppressed

I was going to say “all of this just makes me sad.” And it does. But it also makes me mad. It seems so arrogant to me. It seems clear that we’re an association that would rather fight over how somebody else tries to address racism and oppression than do anything about it ourselves. I’ve seen an insistence on accuracy when it comes to brown bags, but no need for the same insistence on accuracy when we feel like being snarky.

I’ve known for a long time that many people don’t understand Starr King and have a hard time with our denomination’s efforts to learn how to address racism and other oppressions. I was naive about how defensive and downright mean we can be with each other. Starr King and the UUA’s efforts are imperfect. Of course they are. Let’s not make that a reason to not even try. And what about a little “compassion in human relations?”

And then there is this (also from the Christian Century article):

The miracle (no lesser word is appropriate) of the black church is that the sons and daughters of Africa embrace rather than eschew the faith they first learned from their white slavemasters, and that they have renewed it again and again out of their own struggles. Conservatives may find the Africentric church too political, and liberals may squirm over its revivalist emotion. But the black church continues to makes converts in unlikely places, reflecting a God who makes a way where there is no way.

Isn’t that connected to what Peacebang was saying about ministry and integrity? How Christianity and/or Unitarian Universalism can be made stronger when we are able to be ourselves, incorporate our individuality and the things we bring from our experience and culture with us into ministry?

What does this mean if we are truly serious about having a diverse ministry? Who decides what people of color or others are “allowed” to bring? What if they are personally offended by something we say or do? What if their offense seems “too sensitive” to us? What if they actually ask us to change? Are we going to dismiss them because what they ask isn’t based on facts as we understand them? Trinity UCC church has found a way to give voice to an Africentric faith that may (and should) make us squirm a bit. Are we willing to learn?

What breaks my heart is not that people disagree with me, with Starr King, with the means and methods of trying to do what we say we want to do. What breaks my heart is that we are so dismissive and mean. What breaks my heart is that while hearts are breaking we sit around arguing about the standards we’ll use to determine who deserves to be heard. What breaks my heart is that so often it seems that defensiveness in the doctrine of our church, rather than love.

I don’t write this out of some need to scold, but out of genuine sadness and frustration. I am well aware of my own participation in patterns of defensiveness and behaviors that are not as respectful or loving as I would like them to be. But I cannot NOT speak up. It is a part of what I chose when I chose to be accountable to my calling. So I leave you with words that I find hopeful:

Religious leadership in our time is coming from people who are capable of being present to suffering without turning away; people whose own life experience has taught them that it is possible to cross thresholds and survive; people who are willing to be authentically themselves when others wish to silence them; people whose presence inspires, challenges, surprises, and calls forth strength from others; people who give themselves to the work of mending the world, and are themselves grounded in love. ~Starr King Journal, Spring, 1996

We envision theological education that includes engagement with culturally diverse values and life experiences, including those of people whose economic circumstances, lack of education, sexual orientation, and racial characteristics mark them as less valued by culturally dominant groups. This engagement must take place to add freshness to the questions, to deepen caring, and to create just community. ~Starr King Educational Planning Committee, February, 1993


8 thoughts on “Why Is This So Hard?

  1. Sean, have you seen ChaliceChick’s post that poses several questions? I think some of them overlap with yours below, which I *think* you may be posing partially rhetorically (i.e., the answer is found in the last question).

    I’m not jumping in right now (still mulling over) but I’d be interested to see some discussion on these points, in a way that is constructive and not ad hominem on either “side.”

    What does this mean if we are truly serious about having a diverse ministry? Who decides what people of color or others are “allowed” to bring? What if they are personally offended by something we say or do? What if their offense seems “too sensitive” to us? What if they actually ask us to change? Are we going to dismiss them because what they ask isn’t based on facts as we understand them? Trinity UCC church has found a way to give voice to an Africentric faith that may (and should) make us squirm a bit. Are we willing to learn?

  2. Since you ask, Sean, I have to say that no, that isn’t really what I was talking about. What I was really saying hasn’t yet been addressed because the SK supporters seem still to be in a place of defensive anger and loyal disbelief that “outsiders” would so grossly misunderstand what you’re trying to do.

    I’m disappointed but not surprised. Style over substance. We all tumble over each other about how we say something, and ultimately don’t pay that much attention to what is actually said.

    Since you mention arrogance, I have to say that I find it incredibly arrogant for UUs — who generally openly reject or ridicule Christianity — to ally themselves with Christian ideas and leaders as it is convenient for them (ie, totally cheering Jeremiah Wright, as we will undoubtedly do at Ministry Days) while casually dismissing (or even openly ridiculing) their foundational belief that God is running this show, not us. It bothers me tremendously that the SKSM folks I’ve been hearing from lately seem to be borrowing a lot of Christian concepts without having the faith in God that would render those concepts tools in the hands of a mysterious and sovereign God rather than cudgels in the hands of frustrated, self-righteous humans.

    I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t “get” to one degree or another that we are a sinful, broken and racist denomination and people in this country. In insisting that recent critics “just don’t get it” you seem to me to be beating a dead and imaginary horse. We get it. We get it. Mean or not*, we get it. We just don’t agree with you that the brown bag thing was a reasonable example of anti-oppression work, that’s all. For all the ink that’s been spilled on the subject, I still don’t. Following all the comments that have been contributed on the matter, I have been persuaded of one thing only: that SKSM folks really feel that not only are their school’s ECO commitments valuable and important, they personally feel invested in the way it’s being done there. That’s terrific. But it doesn’t do beans to address my very first question, which was: why must UUs persist on seeing people as victims (“others” who need to be protected) rather than fellow disciples?

    As far as being “mean” goes,I want to say something that no one else has said, and I think it’s time. It seems to me that you are coming into this argument/conversation on the pure assumption that what I wrote was just for shits-n’-giggles, just “let’s knock the nutty SKSM gang over there on the Crazy Coast.” Random, drive-by shooting. It seems never to have occurred to you that I wrote out of a sense of outrage and frustration coming from my own convictions about anti-racism work, and my OWN strong feelings about the evil of racism and how to combat it. Do I get to have those feelings even if I am not associated with SKSM, or if I am not enrolled in your method? Read back. Where does it ever seem to cross your mind that perhaps this bitchy colleague might actually care AS MUCH AS YOU DO about oppression? The mere thought obviously does not occur to you. Not once.
    Amazing. I’m sorry, who was arrogant here? What I come away with above all is your lack of perspective about SK’s importance in this work. I honestly had no idea until last week that you thought of yourselves as the vanguard of A/O A/R. I thought SK was a seminary educating ministers. I should have wised up when I saw the YouTube video wherein an earnest bearded SKSM student speaks of preparing for ministry and never once utters the word “church” or “congregation.”

    This is, for me, about theology. I don’t know or understand the theological underpinnings of Starr King’s ECO efforts. I obviously have serious concerns about any system that seems to me to put well-meaning men and women in the place of God, doing all of the work of grace and all of the work of the Holy Spirit by workshop and committee. When I said “Do those people think there’s any grace in the world?” NO ONE responded to it. Much to my amazement, someone shed tears over my use of the term “those people” (!!)

    You can see why I have so little hope that we can ever really set this to rest. But hang in there, Sean, I’m sure you’ll remain a UU leader long after I’ve either died of exhaustion or finally given up and joined a Christian denomination. If I ever do, it will be one with a very large un-white population. Because that is NEVER going to happen in Unitarian Universalism. What we will continue to do, though, is chuck ballpoint pens at each other from across the room while the world outside careens more and more madly out of control.

  3. Thanks for taking the time to reply, PB.

    Yes, I missed your sincere commitment to and convictions about anti-racism work. Point taken. I’d love to hear more about it.

    I certainly don’t consider myself some vanguard or arbiter of ECO work. I’ve just been involved in it a long time. I was on the first ECO committee at SKSM some twelve years ago, and served on the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee of our association, and have been invested in doing something about this issue for a lot of years. Thus, I have observations and opinions. Same as you.

    You are wrong about one thing: several people responded to your question about grace. I was one, Berry’s mom was another, and several commentors too. Read our replies again. We talk about grace and we answer your question.

    You may be surprised to know that while my experience of Starr Kingers is different, your concern about how UUs relate to and misappropriate Christianity troubles me too. We misappropriate so many things, using them to meet our own needs. That saddens me a lot. It’s just that I don’t think of SKSM as the major offender. I see it just as often in other places.

    Whether you mean to or not, PB, your words seem to communicate a marked distrust of and disdain for Starr King. You sincerely believe Starr King has earned that disdain. I get that. But I don’t agree. I think you misinterpret and misjudge.

    Your comments like “style over substance” *are* dismissive. I see a lot of substance in what I’ve written. I’ve tried to engage deeply, honestly, and with some humility. I probably didn’t succeed on that last one. But I never said you or anyone else “didn’t get it.” I said I was heartbroken and that I didn’t understand. I said that some of the comments felt arrogant to me. I offered what I’ve learned and what still puzzles me.

    We are simply not going to agree. That isn’t personal, PB. I like you a lot and respect you and your ministry. We’re both passionate people, and I think this conversation has been valuable. That’s why I’m glad you responded. I think it’s better to argue about these things than remain silent.

    Rev. Sean

  4. oh shoot! -when I wrote “style over substance” I was referring to people’s tendency to focus on MY style over the content over at PeaceBang.
    Sorry that wasn’t clear. I wasn’t talking about YOU not having substance. Hell, no.

    The Christian appropriation issue goes on a lot in UU-land in general. I think it is particularly prevalent in our seminaries because people are finding their way and their language. Still, we have to be mindful of it. And I’m going to keep hollering about experienced UU ministers’ hypocrisy around their treatment of Christianity ’til my pipes bleed. It makes me craaay-zee. Watch for me to be pacing the back wall when everyone starts “amen-ing” Jeremiah Wright.

    I must have missed the responses about grace, or maybe just not gotten what you or Judy really said. I just remember a lot of description of what the SKSM method was. I don’t remember theological reflection, but maybe we can save that for in person.

    And finally, I seriously don’t have a widely dismissive opinion about SKSM. I have tried to stay on the one incident and what I think it represents. And I have responded to specific things that SKSM students have written or said recently. (As you may recall, I said nothing about the YouTube video when it came out, but it was soundly trounced in several other places in the UU blogosphere). I don’t know much at all about the cirruculum or offerings at any other school than Andover-Newton and Harvard. I have tried to tap my finger on that one news item and to ask, “what does this mean?” That’s all I ever meant to do.

    Peace out, brother.

  5. Thanks for the link, but I’m not sure how you read my post as saying “sometimes it’s even okay not to listen to the oppressed.” My belief, and the point of the part of my post directly dealing with the brown bag issue, is just the opposite.

    Incidentally, the post itself is here (the link in your post is just for the trackback).

  6. I think you’re right, Stentor, that I misrepresented your post. When I read it the first time, I got a mistaken impression, probably based my own frustrations with the discussion. I apologize and am going to rephrase my description of your post.

    Thank you,
    Rev. Sean

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