Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Learnings & Lessons From the UU Black Empowerment Controversy

There are, I think, both learnings and lessons to be taken from the Black Empowerment Controversy that took place in the Unitarian Universalist Association in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While there must be numerous learnings that could be identified, here are a couple I can see, to begin.

First, kicking the can down the road is a terrible idea. Leadership pre-consolidation in both traditions didn’t really want to take the bull by the horns, and I doubt many even understood that the bull existed. The assumption was and remains that BIPOC folks need to be integrated into white society, rather than that they should be empowered and provided space to engage in self-determination. The desire was for one big happy family under existing standards, without grasping the truth that ‘community’ and ‘family’ are two different realities. When the 1960s arrived the white liberals were willing to show up for civil rights, but that was as far as they would go, with their integrationist mindset. When the topic of empowerment came up, it seems that many fell back into “I can’t be a racist” talk. By failing to listen for so many years, and by avoiding doing anything directly to begin addressing concerns, the frustration only increased into fury.

Second, I think it can also be learned from the events around this controversy, and it what followed in the decades after, that the white establishment found it far easier to deal with feminist and LGBTQ concerns. It could be that this is because both impacted white people directly. White women and the white folks in the LGBTQ community were family and friends, and so of course their concerns had to be taken into account. Weak ties to BIPOC folks meant that their concerns were deprioritized and dismissed, largely.

If I wanted to make a short, quippy answer to the question of what lesson there is to be learned, I might say “don’t write checks that can’t be cashed.” Under Dana Greeley spending was out of control, and both the board of the UUA and the General Assembly enabled it. I’ve wondered at times, while attending GA, if the delegates understand that there isn’t a bottomless well of money for everything. People focus on specific areas of concern rather than spreading themselves thin over every social justice issue out there, but I suspect this can also make our view myopic when it comes to getting the big picture and accounting for expenditures. The optimism often found at GA can also make people a bit giddy, I suppose. The impact of not having the money for BAC under the agreed terms was enormous.

What should they have done? Having made the promise, I think they should have rearranged the entire budget to prioritize paying it under the original terms of four years at $250,000 each. This would have meant cutting a lot of programs and staff, but it would have been the honorable, just, and current course of action, in my opinion. The austerity also might have served as a helpful reality check to the board and the association as a whole concerning money. It could be that during that time they would learn how to be more effective at raising funds and keeping their word, exiting the four years of pain a bit wiser and even a little stronger. Or, it could have broken the association. The congregations weren’t going anywhere, but the national and district levels could have been wiped out. Who knows? Maybe a clean slate would have been better.

What remains to be done is insistence on anti-racist education at all levels within the association, and particularly at the congregational level. The current soul-searching about how our structure supports white supremacy culture is good, and needs to continue to bear fruit in changes to how we operate and interact with one another. Funds promised to the current organizations representing the interests of black, indigenous, and people of color need to continue to flow, without interference as to how those funds will be used. Of course I think there should be financial transparency, but it should never be a topic on the table that some sort of strings would be attached, or approval external to those organizations required. It’s either autonomy and self-determination, or it’s just more of the same.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

The Premise & The Promise

via Instagram
When people told me that there would be a lot of reading in seminary. They were not kidding. Fortunately, I love reading, and I love the subject matter. In particular, right now I'm taking a Unitarian Universalist History course through Starr King School for the Ministry, and the book I just finished yesterday was "The Premise & The Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association,' by Warren R. Ross. 

Reading 'The Premise & The Promise' I found myself glad that I read 'A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalist: Volume Two' beforehand. Although reading both together would have made sense, I think that having taken in what people were writing closer to the events when they happened gave me better perspective on the history since consolidation. Speaking of which, this is the book that finally explained to me the difference between 'merger' and ‘consolidation.' Other history I've read mentioned it but never bothered to go into details. At the same time, I feel that 'Premise' is an odd mix of rose-colored glasses and frank discussion of events.

The rosiness shows itself in the onward and upward vibe I got any time Warren R. Ross, the author, discussed the future. Having been published in 2001, and with 19 years of perspective, not all of that has held up so far. He seemed particularly optimistic about YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), a program that would be dissolved only 7 years after publication. The tinge of positivity peeked through in some of the racial justice commentary, but perhaps that was just hope.

It continues to be troubling to me that the issue of racial justice, and the call to embrace anti-racism, seems to make so little progress over time among us. Between this book and the aforementioned documentary history, I at least feel as though some of the reaction to The Gadfly Papers makes a little more sense. I can understand how some whites of the Boomer generation, having experience the empowerment fiasco of the 60s, and the bitterness between BAC and BAWA, might feel like this is a direct continuation of that fight. Perhaps it is, but I see a difference as well.

We now have a more fully developed concept of covenant, and years of work have gone into informing UUs of anti-racist principles and concepts. There are also new generations at work. Gen X, Millennials, and the upcoming Gen Z folks did not experience that controversy directly, and we do not share all the same preconceptions of prior generations regarding what UUism 'should be.' Hopefully this shift in who UUs are will open doors to shifting how we interact with one another, and who we invite to the table and give priority seating.

On a completely separate note, there is a small mystery I’ve been trying to solve for myself for a few years now, and with 'Premise' I found a new trail for resolving it. It's my understanding that there were Universalist churches that opted out of the consolidation, going it alone afterwards without connection to the Unitarian Universalist Association. Some sources indicate that there were several, others a few, but nothing solid in terms of numbers. I've been left with the impression that they were rural churches that have likely faded out of existence. Oddly enough, it was a marginal note in my used copy of 'Premise' that provided a small lead. On page 28, the text reads:

“While there were, inevitably, instances of disagreement, expressions of fears and concern, as well as clashes of personalities, nothing except the debate about the wording of the Principles came even close to aborting the process. The final vindication was that only five congregations refused to go along with consolidation — and all but one came on later.”

That really didn’t sound right, based on what I’ve gleaned in the past from reading and conversations. In the margin, a previous owner of my copy of the book wrote ‘Jersey Universalist Church?” Finally, I had a name! A little internet searching and I arrived at a post from last year on Rev. Scott Wells’ blog:

“I first learned of the Jersey church back in the 1990s but it wasn't a member of the UUA but the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. Here it is in the 1998 NACCC yearbook, under Pataskala, Ohio. Several Universalist churches became members of the NACCC instead of the UUA, but none with the word Universalist in their names remain today, Jersey included.”

I have reached out to Rev. Wells about this topic, and hope that he can point me in the right direction to obtain more details. I’d like to know about as many such churches as I can find, and ascertain their current status. They could still exist, and I'd be fascinated to learn their history since that time.

Thursday, August 27, 2020