“Response Ability”

January 19, 2020

 

Not so many years ago when I was granted fellowship as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I was given a homework assignment of sorts.  I was in good company along with other middle-aged, white, affluent women answering this call.  It turns out the whole of Unitarian Universalism and our Minister’s Association as well, have taken up the assignment which has been long overdue in our movement.  The task was to explore my white privilege, something I had been doing over my lifetime and my previous career in one form or another, and so it came as a bit of a surprise.  Wasn’t I already doing this?  Doing this enough?  Doing this the “right way?” 

 

Needless to say, I dove in, signing up to take a personal diversity inventory, joining in intentional conversation about privilege and race with other women of all colors on a monthly basis, reading novels and other works written by authors and poets of color.  My awareness of racism and privilege was heightened in ways I had not expected.  I began to notice examples all around me; its prevalence pervasive in our culture.  I became somewhat ‘hyper-vigilant’ about it.  And it occurred to me somewhere along the way that this – this level of vigilance – was what people of color had been living with day in and day out for hundreds of years.  And I realized then that I will never fully know what that is like, and that this work is, in reality, the work of a lifetime. 

 

I share this story because there may be some of you who have felt yourselves in the same boat – “Aren’t I aware enough?” you may ask quietly.  It can feel a little off-putting when one has spent a good portion of their lives on a journey toward beloved community; involved themselves in the Civil Rights Movement or social activism on a continual basis, stood with people of color, the oppressed in our culture in general; kept ourselves current in the area of race and privilege.  And I want to say to you that, YES, you are enough and can be proud of how you live into your values.  AND, there is so much more to know and to experience on this path that is ultimately what Dr. King referred to as “Beloved Community,” that state of being in our world where all share in “the wealth of the earth,” where there is no tolerance for poverty, hunger or homelessness; racism, bigotry or prejudice, according to The King Center, and where these are replaced by an all-inclusive spirit that meets conflict with reconciliation and cooperation. 

 

It is where our hearts long to go because it lives at our core and seeks exploration and action in our lives.  We believe in the oneness of creation; of humanity; of our relationship to our earth home.  It rests at center in our beings, waiting to be tapped and brought to life.  It is not so much a destination, this “beloved community” which is how we make it sound sometimes!  Instead it is often right here in our midst when we journey together with each other and alongside the marginalized; when we gather as a covenantal community in worship or discussion or for a pot-luck dinner; when we care for one another’s needs – physical, emotional and spiritual; and when we take that spirit outside of these walls into our day to day living.  And some of the time we need to do a little searching; a little work to make it a reality in the moment. 

 

Our fourth Principle calls us to the affirmation and promotion of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and we love that, right?!  We are free to explore what is of deep meaning to us, each of us coming upon unique truths.  We are, in fact, encouraged to do that.  We love this freedom from dogma and creed!  But I want to focus on the other part – the responsible part – and I want to say that a piece of what it means is that we have a responsibility to continue the search.  If we are to be responsible to our faith tradition, we are to spend intentional time in that seeking mode.  And being responsible asks us to incorporate what we find into our living.

 

We may or may not bristle at the thought that we have more to learn about our privilege, whether it is rooted in our whiteness or our class or those two combined which is a more realistic approach to my mind.  If we are to be responsible, we are to be about the business of understanding these dynamics that are so much at the fore in these days; so much a part of the hate and violence we see inflicted in all directions; so much the underlying cause of the societal ills that Dr. King rose up against.

 

This fall I was blessed to co-lead a small group at First Parish Brewster; one of six that committed to the study of “Beloved Conversations, Meditations on Race and Ethnicity,” a curriculum developed by the Fahs Collaborative at Meadville Lombard Theological School, our Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  It is part of my personal commitment to continue the search and it was a gift to be able to explore in covenanted community with others wanting to deepen their reach inward and find meaningful ways to outwardly express what they have discovered.  We began with a facilitated weekend retreat and then participated in eight weekly sessions together.  It was intense!

 

One of the features of the work is the development of a clearer understanding of micro-aggressions in our world.  Micro-aggressions are those seemingly innocent things we say or do as white folks to people of color or other marginalized groups that, on their own are fairly innocuous, but in total, when received on a daily basis, day after day, can feel like a much more powerful form of aggression that leaves one with a sense of other-ness; of being an outcast based on race or difference; gender or ability.  Simply put, it is an extremely hurtful experience that we often unknowingly impose.

 

One of the exercises involves a skit where a white congregant is talking to a Latinx woman after a worship service in which she played a lead role.  The white person is speaking boorishly, at best about the “color” and “flavor” she instilled in the service, how great it was when she “sprinkled Spanish into her words,” and how much more, “lively” the service was with her music.  The woman of color finds this abrasive but doesn’t want to rock the boat too much and tries her best to back out slowly from the conversation.  She is visibly uncomfortable.  Along comes a third actor in the scene who is supposed to be an ally to the woman of color and they have a few scripted lines, but are then left to figure out how to carry on their assigned role.  It is not as easy as you’d think!  So many angles to consider.  Do you take over and admonish the congregant who has been instructed to act relentlessly in their part?  Does that mean you don’t think the woman of color can take care of herself?  Does she want help?  How much?  In what way?  What is at risk for her as a minority in the congregation?  What is at risk for the ally?  If you are at all thoughtful, it is complicated.

 

What happened over and over again in this scenario and really throughout the first half of this series was that white participants were left wondering, what can they say anymore that is safe and acceptable.  The reality is that we all find ourselves in this position from time to time.  It is embarrassing when we realize it.  I remember making the all too common error of responding to a person of color who called me out on what was perceived as an assumption.  I said rather abruptly, “That’s not what I meant by that.  I was just . . . .”  The truth is that my intention didn’t matter.  What mattered was that this was just another micro-aggression added onto the heap they had been accumulating and it hurt.  I owed them an apology.  It was an important lesson that I didn’t fully comprehend until I did this responsible thing about searching for the truth of my own white privilege.  The only real way to learn about what to say is to practice in real life with people who are also willing to learn and grow; make safe space to do so; know that you will mess up and forgive and move on together.

 

So, the flip side of this responsibility we have is our ability to respond.  What do we do with all these truths we uncover?  It feels like they are prompting us to change, but what can we do to enhance our potential to move in the right direction?  And it feels risky to put ourselves out there.  Is it worth the effort?  I guess I wouldn’t be standing here talking about all this if I didn’t believe it was! 

 

A meditation journal I have suggests that “creation cannot be complete without receiving.”[i] It talks about change as the product of creativity and receptivity.  We choose an intention and plant the seeds to make it happen.  To be receptive is to cultivate the ability to respond and adapt; to support the seed as it sprouts and continues to grow.  It goes on to suggest an active role in changes that effect one’s life because, perhaps, we want to be of service or have a new experience of life, share healing and love, express a purpose or create beauty. 

 

We take this active, initial first step toward a desired outcome.  That’s the creative part.  But without the ability to receive what happens next, incorporate it into our living, respond in ways that are nurturing, and then adapt ever so slightly, making our next move from this new place, we will be stopped cold in our efforts for change.  I am in the process of moving from just being responsible to improving my ability to respond.  We have no shortage of changes it would appear in our society today that cry out for attention; in our systems locally and globally.  How ready are we – how able are we – to respond in productive ways?  It is hard work as Rosemary Bray McNatt said in our reading this morning; the work of a lifetime. 

 

Tomorrow we honor and celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was an active proponent of this notion of Beloved Community, risked naming the injustices that stand in its way; called us all to action and ultimately gave his life for a cause he hoped to be realized in our world.  He connected love and power, as we shared in our opening words together, claiming them as inseparable, and stating the harm that comes from one existing without the other.  And this is what we must see going forward he says.

 

We are all called to this work, this very personal and very public work of creating beloved community.  We are called out of a sense of responsibility to the Principles we covenant to affirm and promote; out of our shared values; out of a desire for purposeful change in our world that serves humanity, enhances our experience of life with healing and love and creates the beauty that is Beloved Community.  May we join our hearts and minds and hands and voices as we endeavor to live into the reality of beloved community.  May we be humble and courageous as we face the flaws we encounter within and outside of our selves.  May we know that we are stronger together as a people of faith in this community we hold dear.

 

So may it be.

 

 

 

 

[i] From Rituals for Transformation:  108 Day Journey to Your Sacred Life.  Brianna and Dr. Peter Borten, 2019.

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