LISTENING DEEPLY IN LOVE
Feb. 10, 2019. PUUF, Rev. Kit Ketcham
Story from another life: When I was a guidance counselor in Colorado working with young adolescents, one of my concerns was encouraging students to use appropriate help for the problems they faced as they moved from childhood through the teenage years and into young adulthood.
Early adolescence can be fraught with conflict with adults, particularly parents, and often young teens are unwilling or too shy to tell a teacher or counselor about the difficult realities they face.
Sometimes these are commonplace realities---the need to separate from parents and become one’s own person rather than a parental clone; the concerns about “am I normal?” as childish bodies change and others’ perceptions of those bodies seem a little scary or confusing; the many choices a teen must face as they think about further education, vocational possibilities, the age-old question of “who am I and what am I doing here?”.
And sometimes those realities are too big to handle alone: alcoholic parents, domestic violence, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts. Many times youth are uncomfortable telling adults about these problems and more comfortable telling a friend, so peer counseling programs were a popular approach in many schools.
Peer counseling curricula had been available in our local high schools for several years when my friend Carolee, who taught health education (aka sex ed), she and I decided to write a peer counseling curriculum for our older junior high students, 9th graders, who at that time in our district had not been absorbed into the high school.
Peer counselors, if you are unfamiliar with that concept, are not professional counselors; they are, instead, peers of the group they hope to reach out to. In our case, we were hoping to train our 14 and 15 year olds to listen helpfully to other students, to offer assistance as appropriate and to bring them to adult counselors or parents if the situation warranted it.
Carolee and I decided, once we got our administration’s go-ahead, to choose a group of about 15-20 9th graders from applications submitted at spring registration time. We interviewed them and looked for students with leadership potential, students who were admired and respected by other kids, not necessarily the most popular kids, the most goody-goody kids, or the most academically oriented kids. We admitted some kids that our principal took a dim view of.
But we wanted a diverse group, kids from all peer groups in the school, even the edgy ones thought of in those days as the freaks or the stoners or the skaters. We were full of optimism, even though we knew we were taking on a huge and somewhat risky challenge.
Now, if you think about it, adults have a lot of power over kids. And adults do a lot of telling kids what to do. We do it because we’re scared for them, we’re a little scared of them, we’re a little scared about what the world will be like when we’ve aged and they are running things. And we have a huge responsibility to guide them on worthy paths. So we tell them what to do----a lot.
And when kids reach adolescence, they often begin to respond negatively to our efforts because they are beginning to be aware of their own power to say no, to choose a different path.
Sometimes they start doing badly in school. Sometimes they get rowdy. Sometimes they act out in self-destructive ways. Sometimes they gang up---against us. Sometimes they close down and refuse to talk to adults or to acknowledge any responsibility for their actions. Sometimes they are compliant on the surface and go underground with their efforts to feel independent and different from their parents. All these are teenage power plays!
Many of those adults who have learned how to get along well with teens and older youth have discovered that one key is to recognize the power they are coming to have and to find ways to address that power with love.
In our peer counseling program one year we had quite a motley crew. Actually, we did every year, but this was a special group. Not only did we have a somewhat more racially and academically diverse group, we had several young people about whom our principal just shook his head.
“I don’t know what you are thinking, taking on Jamie so-and-so” he said. “That kid isn’t going to do anything but end up in a gang. Sure, he’s irresistible to the girls and can talk teachers into anything, but with his background? Good luck.”
But we took Jamie on just because of who he was. Jamie was going to be a powerful young man someday and we hoped to be able to shape the ways he used his power. And Jamie loved being selected as a peer counselor, learning to listen between the lines, make responsible decisions about what he heard, and be seen as a student leader. Jamie was a good peer counselor---eventually.
Because there was that time, early in the semester, when Jamie, goofing around in the hall before class, chased a girl he liked down the hall and into a classroom.
When Miss Shipley, the math teacher, shouted at him, “Jamie, what in the name of heaven are you doing?”, he called back, as he cornered this giggling girl, “I’m peer counseling her!”
That became, shall we say, a teachable moment for Jamie. The principal threatened to pull him out of the class and make him sit in study hall. But we intervened and kept him in class, and Jamie began to blossom. He never became an angel, but he did become a more responsible young man.
When I saw the effect our peer counseling class, with its strategies of teaching kids to listen deeply to their friends, to know when to alert an adult about a problem, to be able to mediate a quarrel between students, when I saw the effect this had on our students’ lives, I became passionate about the value of giving kids the tools to address the problems in their lives and when friends asked for help.
Why is this coming to mind just now? Well, at our most recent Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition meeting, I realized that a lot of what we do in that group is talk in generalities about what we NEED to do, kind of the way I used to hear adults talk to kids about they OUGHT to do, rather than teaching them some skills to help them do it.
“You need to listen to me!” we say. “You need to think about the responsible thing to do! You need to tell an adult about that problem! You need to stay away from those kids!”
I love belonging to our Lower Columbia Diversity Coalition, but I could tell that day that we were doing the same thing in our group as adults often do when they are concerned about kids---talk about what we NEED to do, rather than teaching the skills needed to do it. We assume that we all know these skills.
So another member of the Coalition, Anne Mabee, a counselor at CCC, and I decided that we would offer to the Coalition a workshop on deep listening skills.
Our hope is that once the members of our Coalition feel comfortable listening deeply, they will see the value of defusing conflicts by listening deeply to those with whom we are in conflict, whether adults who disagree with us about political or religious matters or individuals who are causing problems or a relative who disapproves of us for some reason. You can think of others, surely!
In a way, I’m thinking of the folks in our Diversity Coalition as potential peer counselors, people who have the skills to listen deeply, ask questions that will invite openness on the other person’s part, promote understanding between the two of them, and do a little bit to work out conflict and angry points of view.
All these folks are already community leaders, to some extent, representing divergent racial groups, sexual minorities, disabled, city officials, longtime activists, and retirees active in local affairs. They need to be able to listen effectively because this ability is a mighty tool in solving problems.
The thing is, most of us know at least some of the skills required to be an effective listener---but we often fall into old patterns and miss the boat. Those of us who have parented teenagers know how easy it is!
What is an effective listener? How do we know when someone is really listening to us and really hearing what we say? (cong.resp).
What’s the flip side, when you can tell when they’re not really listening?
What do you already know and use when you are listening to someone confide in you? (cong.resp)
Here’s what I think, after an email conversation I recently had about the value of listening deeply with love:
I think listening deeply with love is the essence of our faith, Unitarian Universalism, for with listening deeply comes understanding and a kind of love that is universal rather than selective.
We are usually selective with the kind of familiar love we experience---for children, friends, spouses and partners, other family members, animals, mountains, oceans, the most important and valued things in our lives.
What we often don’t allow ourselves to experience is that universal love that flows through the universe, that goes beyond physical attraction or blood lines or any of the numberless things that cause us to feel familiar love.
Universal love can come to us when we listen deeply for understanding of another person, when we learn what moves that person, when we get a glimpse of the humanity beneath the outward appearance, when we can see that person as they truly are, without the overlay of our own biases.
The late Thurgood Marshall, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, once said “in recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute”.
In other words, when we recognize in others the humanity that we ourselves are part of, we recognize that, though we both are imperfect, we are both human and that is a good thing, a point to start from in finding the universal love available in it.
Because to be human is to hold within us all the promise and all the threat of the human condition, and each of us makes the choices that shape our character. Whether we fulfill our promise or squander it, whether we succumb to the influence of negative powers or resist those powers with all our being, we are human beings together in a universe where the only saving grace is love, not just familiar love, but universal love, the love that, like gravity, shapes our daily living.
Gravity affects all of us, without exception. You may remember my telling you that when I was in AlAnon and had to find a Higher Power, something that was stronger than I was, I chose gravity because it affected my entire life like nothing else does. I could not exist easily without it.
Love is the same. It is stronger than we are, it affects our entire lives, we cannot easily exist without it. I like to think that Gravity and Love share a common quality—they both are powers of attraction. Love draws us to one another in powerful ways; Gravity draws us all to the earth, in its own irresistible way.
A scientist might not consider the two forces the same thing, but I like the idea that Love and Gravity are two ways of saying much the same thing: attraction is a good and essential thing, unless it is perverted into greed, lust, envy, egotism or any of the so-called seven deadly sins that plague humankind.
We often succumb to perverted love again and again, as we neglect to consider its effects on ourselves, each other, and on our planet Earth, just as we neglect to pay close enough attention to gravity’s power when we take chances with our lives.
Finding the courage to resist perverted human love may lead us down the unfamiliar path of learning how human love can be perverted and used to harm. Listening deeply with love can be a corrective to perverted love, which is often a result of not having received adequate healthy love as a child.
Listening deeply is the mainstay of many therapeutic methods. When we listen deeply with love, we find greater understanding of the human being who does not know how to love in a healthy way and in return, that sad human being receives some healing mercies from our willingness and desire to understand.
Listening deeply with love is one mainstay of our Seven Principles of UUism, which states that “we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations.”
That principle is a call to live out our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, for listening deeply with love is how we learn to accept one another, even in our mutual imperfections, and gives us the wisdom to encourage spiritual growth in ourselves, each other, and in our congregations.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: As Monica extinguishes our chalice, let’s pause for our benediction.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, aware of the gift we give ourselves, another person, and by extension, the larger community when we commit to listening deeply in order to understand another person. May we give that gift freely, knowing that we are taking one small step toward healing a broken world.
Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
Sunday, February 10, 2019
Saturday, February 02, 2019
IN ANDY’S GARDEN
Rev. Kit Ketcham, recycled Oct. 16, 2016
Bear with me for a moment, set aside any theological reservations you might have, and sing with me, if you know this old hymn, and if you don't, just let us sing it to you.
I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses,
And he walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own,
And the joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.
My best friend in high school once told me, when we were girls sitting in the front row of the First Baptist Church of Athena, Oregon, where my dad was the minister, that she used to think God's name was Andy, because of the old hymn we just sang. I have since heard of children who thought otherwise: Our father who art in heaven, Howard be thy name.
Most of us have updated our concepts of God by now but many of us still remember our old ideas and the old songs with a nostalgic smile. If you're a Unitarian Universalist, of course, it isn't too cool to cling to old words and songs and rituals which are politically incorrect and theologically out of date. When I became a UU, I gave up that old-time religion in favor of a more pluralistic, interfaith tradition.
But I've come to realize, after several years of study and ministry experience, that you may take the girl out of the Baptists, but you can't take the Baptist out of the girl. I'm a Unitarian Universalist to the core, but my core remains Baptist. I think it's in my DNA.
I come by my UUism honestly through the time-honored route of youthful rebellion. One of my ancestors was BlackJack Ketcham, a New Mexican gunfighter in the 1800s, and my granddad was a bootlegger in Missouri during Prohibition, so of course, my dad became a Baptist minister and thereby set the stage for me and my rebellion.
I was a good girl, growing up, and in 1965, went to Denver, Colorado, as an American Baptist Home Missionary. My mission field was the Denver Christian Center in the inner city. A couple of years later, I married a UU man and began to explore the wider horizons of a noncredal religious faith.
But sometimes when I was alone, I'd sit down at the piano and plunk out the old hymns--Great is thy Faithfulness, O God My Father, Wonderful Grace of Jesus, Out of the Ivory Palaces-- the hymns which didn't appear in the UU hymnbook but occupied a prominent place in the hymnal of the First Baptist Church.
I did this surreptitiously and with many a caveat; I didn't want anyone to think I wasn't a devout UU, but those old hymns spoke to me in ways that no other songs did. I couldn't figure it out. Was it just nostalgia for a simpler faith? Did they speak a subconscious message? I had long ago moved beyond a theology of Jesus as bloody sacrifice, God as a white male, heaven as a place with golden streets.
In any case, it was interesting to have my poor mother accusing me of having lost my childhood faith by joining a UU church, on the one hand, and, on the other, to find such power (unidentified as it was) in the old songs.
I struggled with reconciliation for many years, reconciliation between me and my horrified family members, and reconciliation between my Baptist DNA and my UU beliefs.
And now, many years later, I'm making some headway. As I explore my own theology and its foundations more deeply, I have begun to understand the contribution that being a Baptist preachers kid has made to my spiritual life.
I'd like to try an experiment here. I recognize that we all come from differing backgrounds; we may have grown up Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Mormon, Jewish, you name it. Some of us grew up as Unitarian Universalists. Others may have no formal religious background. But we all have a spiritual history. For many, it was specific church doctrines; for others, values imparted by family or culture. No matter what, we all bring to our present religious experience the accumulation of years of values teaching.
So I ask you to delve into that experience and consider your responses to a few questions. I'll ask some of you to share your answers, if you're willing.
Question 1: think of a favorite old hymn or song, whose words no longer fit for you but which you still enjoy hearing or singing. Is there anyone who would be willing to share the name of the song?
Question 2: think of a present-day religious value that is a holdover from your early learnings.
Question 3: think of a religious value that you have added to that early value which makes you the unique person of faith you are today.
To return for a moment to the old hymn with which we began a few minutes ago: Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own. I no longer think of God as a white male on a throne, but this song still expresses for me the very close connection I feel to the Divine, to Higher Power, to the Ultimate in the Universe.
When I am in Andy's garden, whether on a high pass in the mountains or along a foggy Oregon beach, I am very aware of Divine Presence and my connection to the Universe, to God as I understand God. And the joy we share as we tarry there...is overwhelming.
The great challenge of our religious journey, I believe, may be to take what we know, our earliest values and religious instruction, and go deeper with it, beyond the literal, beyond the familiar, looking for ways to expand our understanding of what it means to be a human being in relationship with the Cosmos, with one another, with ourselves.
Most of us live and work in a community where people’s creeds and beliefs are different from our own. We are surrounded daily by people who are conservative Christian, Catholic, Jewish, or adamantly anti-religious. In our own congregations, we worship with folks whose theology is different from ours--pagans, Buddhists, humanists, theists, nontheists.
To be in religious dialogue with all, we must be able to articulate our faith in common terms, so that all feel welcome at the table of religious community.
Beneath the surface of most religious traditions, there is a depth of common human experience that transcends orthodox doctrine and dogma. When we explore those depths, both in our own religious past and in the traditions of others, we find common ground.
We learn to interpret legends as metaphors, not as literal fact, to find the deeper, more universal meanings beneath the fantastic stories and myths.
This is one of the challenges of Unitarian Universalism. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I preach to good people, folks who are theists, nontheists, Jews, Christians, pagans, humanists, Buddhists and combinations of all of the above.
I must present my thinking in terms which go deeper than the traditional language of Christianity, which is my native tongue.
To do this, I have learned to use my intuitive understandings of life, my mystical experiences, my dreams, my relationships with others, with the spirit I call God, and with myself, to glean what is common to the human experience and express it in terms which are understandable by others whose religious thinking is widely varied.
I remember as a Preacher's kid thinking to myself that there had to be a bottom line to religion, principles of behavior toward other people and toward God that would work no matter what. I remember feeling concerned that I was expected to base my behavior and beliefs on supernatural events which I sensed were hard to prove.
So I began to look for that bottom line. I didn't want my religious faith falling apart if somebody proved that Jesus didn't rise from the dead. I wanted it based on something that I understood and knew to be true.
I looked for permanent, not transient, values: Love. Forgiveness. Service to others. Acceptance of others, no matter how different from me they might seem. In the Bible, the words of the prophet Micah particularly resonated for me: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. These were the values that seemed most important to me as a youngster, and they still do.
Take what you know and go deeper has become my guide to developing my theology, my personal creed, my own spirituality. It is important for three reasons:
1. When I take a familiar idea from the Bible stories I learned as a child and go deeper, I discover meaning that goes far beyond the literal story. One example of this is the idea of Jesus as my personal savior, which we hear quite a bit from more traditional Christians. I understand Jesus' death on the cross as an example of unconditional love, one man’s willingness to die for his friends and his beliefs. I do NOT see it as a sacrifice for my sins. I consider Jesus a human who was deified by history and the love of his followers. I am a heretic, a non-trinitarian. But Love is my personal savior. What Jesus represents to me is my salvation, my way of finding wholeness in a broken world.
Jesus' words in the Christian Scriptures, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to God but by me” say to me, Love is the way, the truth, the life; no one finds a relationship with life and living things without learning to love.
2. When I take what I know and go deeper, I find language with which I can talk with others of differing faiths. A non-theist may find the words God and Christian and salvation uncomfortable, even offensive. But most non-theists, however secular they may be, find the word and the concept of Love to be deeply meaningful. And Love does what Jesus and Gandhi and other heroes of faith came to do--it reclaims, redeems, reconciles all beings.
3. When I take what I know and go deeper, talking with those of other faiths about the inherent meanings of human experience, my understanding increases and deepens, joining me in religious community with women and men who are radically different. I am graced by this new community, and I have learned that it's not the story that is so important; its the meaning of the story.
This is, of course, not a bit easy. It's hard to listen and talk calmly about issues which are so important to us, especially when we feel we have the Truth. But we must learn to do it, both for the sake of community within our own congregations and a shared dream of peace in our larger world.
Martin Luther King Jr. did it when he, a Baptist minister himself, proclaimed love and justice with nonviolence to be the prophet Jesus' essential message from God. Mahatma Gandhi did it when he, a devout Hindu, used non-violent protest to reclaim his country's independence. Countless others have done it in the name of freedom, in the name of hope, in the name of justice.
This is the meaning of our UU principle “free and responsible search for truth and meaning”. Whenever we look for meaning beneath the surface of orthodoxy, we are following in the large footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Jesus, LaoTse, the Buddha and other prophetic men and women. When we take what we know and go deeper, we grow.
You and I bring to our Unitarian Universalism all the meaning of our early lives. We bring our ability to be faithful. We bring our ability to love. We come wanting to know more about the Divine. We know that our children need instruction. We come trusting our own experiences and our own minds. We want to be accepted for ourselves. We believe that in community we will find spiritual sustenance.
We crave beauty and find it in many settings, in nature, in art of all kinds, in a human face, in deeds of love and kindness. We want to give nurture, to reach beyond ourselves into the larger community, to bring justice to a world in pain. And we want a safe place to experience grief and joy. All these are the roots we bring to our religious journey.
And we also have wings. As our hymn Spirit of Life says, roots hold me close, wings set me free. Wings symbolize for us our religious freedom, that search for personal truth and meaning that directs our path. Our wings enable us to put our new insights into action.
My wings have enabled me to fly from a belief in a white male God to the conviction that the interdependent web of the universe connects all beings; I have leapt from the slogan "Jesus loves me" to a recognition that unconditional Love speaks to the inherent worth and dignity of every person; I have rejected supernatural events as doctrine and have accepted a free and responsible search for meaning instead. I have taken what I know and have gone deeper.
But anything that keeps me from growing, from using my wings, is not a root, it's a tether. It is imperative that I look courageously at my faith, opening myself to new insight, eagerly joining others of differing faiths in dialogue which goes beyond doctrine, and learning the deep language which can bring us that shining goal which is another of our UU principles, that goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that our whole lives have brought us to this place in time and that our earliest learnings are valuable to us, if we can use them as starting points for our searchings. May we live out our faith in our daily lives, taking what we know and going deeper. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
Posted by Lilylou at 7:35 AM
Sunday, January 13, 2019
WHITE FRAGILITY DECODED
How our defensiveness undermines our racism efforts
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Jan. 13, 2019
During these last months of my being your minister, I’ve discovered in myself a need to speak about some of the most important issues of our current world situation. I’ve spoken with you about the post-election trauma syndrome that has affected us for the past two years, the growth of hate rhetoric and how antisemitism has burgeoned and has infected American culture with even more virulent forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the anger directed toward “the Other”, the persons who are different, who stand out for some perceived characteristic, be it religion, skin color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, whatever the hater has learned to fear, to hate, to condemn, to avoid, to oppress.
I’ve been reading quite a bit lately in preparation for writing this message: “Centering”---a book of essays by UUs of color about Antiracism specifically written for UU ministers; “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo; and “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. And I sat down for a conversation with a personal friend of mine, to learn about his experience as a man of color in almost totally lily-white Clatsop County.
This journey into up-to-date writings about racism and white supremacy has made me think hard about my attitudes toward race and whiteness, where my attitudes were shaped, and how they affect me today. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
I don’t remember noticing people of color in my earliest years. There may have been an elderly black man in my dad’s Portland congregation, but I don’t remember for sure.
When we moved to eastern Oregon though, I went to school for eight years with Cayuse and Umatilla Native students and only thought of them as exotic---and somehow just kids
at the same time.
Exotic because of their tribal connections, the finery the girls wore in local festivals, especially the Pendleton RoundUp, and the amazing athletic skills of the boys whose parochial high school competed with our high school in various sports. I knew they weren’t white, exactly, but I didn’t think of Natives as being “other”. They were just my friends Belva and Joyce Hoptowit and the high school basketball stars, Peter and Paul Quaempts, pretty ordinary except for the special attributes of being Native.
It wasn’t till years later that I began to wonder what it must have meant to these friends to be small islands of color in a slightly larger pond of white students. I once googled the names of these friends I had known fairly well and discovered that several of them had not lived past middle age; no cause of death given, but I had learned by then that alcoholism and chronic illnesses had plagued Native tribes for centuries.
It was at about this time that I learned, also, that the famed Whitman Mission National Historic site near Walla Walla had not had its true story widely told. This was the place where the Native people came to believe that poisoned medicines had killed many of the native peoples who had sought help from the Whitman missionaries, inciting the Cayuse people to rise up and murder their providers.
The version of the story told to schoolkids was varnished to place most blame upon the ungrateful and ignorant Cayuse people who killed the blameless Protestant missionaries in cold blood, but there are indications that disease swept the Native camps, disease brought in by white settlers and others, not poisoned medicines.
At Linfield College, I found several new friends of African, African-American, and Asian heritage. Though there were only a few on campus, those few were well-known and accepted, as far as I remember.
In my senior year, I roomed with a black girl named Millie. Millie and another girl, Judy, had planned to room together, but Judy’s parents put the kibosh on that plan because of Millie’s black skin and the dean of women asked me to be Millie’s roomie, which I was glad to do. I could not imagine my parents telling me I shouldn’t room with a black girl.
I had not previously realized that racism was alive and well in some Linfield parents. I was shocked and was glad to accept Millie as my roommate, which turned out to be a good situation for both of us, from my point of view. But the shame of being shunned by her friend’s parents seemed to linger in Millie and she never seemed to be truly comfortable with our situation.
As an aside, decades after graduation, I had a chance to catch up with a black friend who had sung with our Linfield a cappella choir, Archie Smith, who had gone to seminary after his graduation, gotten his Ph D in religious studies and came to my seminary, Iliff, in Denver, to teach a summer course.
In a conversation with him during that summer, I learned that Archie and Millie and Rick and Bernie and Emmons and all the black students I knew had been afraid to walk downtown in McMinnville because of the harassment on the street and by cars passing by. Mounting evidence of my ignorance about racism became a cause for me. (McMinnville still harbors its racist component, if you’ve recently read the newspapers.)
My first job out of college was with welfare clients in Klickitat and Skamania counties in the Columbia River Gorge where I learned first hand of the poverty Native clients endured.
My second job was as a home missionary at the Denver Christian Center, offering after-school and evening programs for kids of all ages and assistance for their parents, almost all black and Hispanic. My third experience was as a student teacher in a Denver junior high during April of 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the city erupted.
Ironically, my first job as a Spanish teacher was in the lily-white junior high school in Evergreen, Colorado, a ritzy but rustic town in the Front Range of Colorado, a wealthy suburb of Denver.
From that point on, my career moves landed me in white school after white school---all junior highs, if that gets me any points for diversity and challenge. And my UU congregation, in Golden, CO was about as white as they come, with maybe one black family and a few multi-racial kids who had been adopted by white families or the product of one white and one black parent.
It wasn’t until seminary, 25 years later, that my environment changed and I was able to connect with many fellow students of color. I began to be aware of the insidious system which prevented many, perhaps most, people of color from achieving the same success as their white peers.
Mainline denominations hesitated to bring a black or Hispanic or Asian or Native minister into their leadership positions. Even Unitarian Universalists have struggled to overcome the systemic conditions which keep qualified candidates of color from achieving at the same levels as their peers, from being selected for ministerial or other leadership positions because search committees are afraid of creating conflict in their congregations or agencies, choosing white candidates (and often male) instead of a candidate of color, particularly women of color. Search committee members, consider this in your search.
Let’s look at some of the terminology of racism, the terms that are frequently reported in our news media: White supremacy, white superiority, white fragility, all have separate meanings, though the constant factor is whiteness. I hope to flesh out their meanings in such a way to help us see what each of them means in terms of our own lives.
Before I talk about these terms, I’d like to ask you to think about your own experiences with people of color. (Nod or otherwise indicate your response, if you wish.) Did you have black or brown or Asian friends when you were a kid growing up? How much contact with people of color have you generally had in your life? Have you had conversations with these folks about race and racial differences? In conversations about race, do you ever find yourself being somewhat defensive?
Two terms I’m using today---white supremacy and white superiority---are not synonyms, not similar words for the same concept. White supremacy means that systems and practices and policies are generally based on the preferences of the white majority or power group. In other words, white preferences are supreme because they outnumber others’ preferences.
This means that minority folks are widely prevented or discouraged, either actively or passively, from having the same benefits that white folks have, simply from the difference in numbers. This is what we know as systemic racism and it does NOT mean that white people are bad, but that we are mostly unaware of the unspoken privilege we have and the sheer weight of the difference in numbers.
White superiority is the attitude of many individuals and groups that minority folks are second class citizens and do not deserve the same benefits as majority folks. This group tends to harbor neo-Nazis and white nationalists. This is what we know as racial bigotry and it too can be passive or active.
White fragility is the discomfort that many, perhaps most, of us white folks experience when challenged to talk about racism and which makes it difficult for us to listen deeply to the experiences of our friends of color. Our friends of color may find it difficult to talk to us about their experience of racism if we are uncomfortable listening.
So often listening to someone else’s opinion or experience causes us to feel as though our opinion or experience is being criticized. And in a situation where we are listening to someone whose experience is different from ours because of the racial differences between us, we are apt to feel defensive and want to minimize the situation to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable.
Robin DiAngelo recounts this experience when she was leading a workshop about white fragility:
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color.
A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co- facilitator, the only person of color in the room.
Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
I’m guessing that most of us have seen and heard this kind of complaint from other white people. Perhaps we’ve stepped in and tried to calm the person down. Perhaps we’ve felt so bothered by the reaction we’re seeing that we tune out or leave the room. Perhaps we silently agree to some extent.
There have been efforts to improve the playing field for people of color (and women) over the decades since the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most controversial has been Affirmative Action which emerged from the Equal Opportunity Act.
Affirmative action policies often focus on employment and education. In institutions of higher education, affirmative action refers to admission policies that provide equal access to education for those groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, generally minorities.
But because we lack an understanding of the magnitude of the systemic racism in white society, we often react defensively if we feel we are going to lose out, that someone else, maybe someone we believe is not as qualified as we are, is going to receive something we feel we deserve. We are pretty attached to our white privilege and it’s scary to think of losing any of it!
There are 3 levels to the negative feelings we may harbor that are relevant to our understanding of racism. The lowest level Is prejudice. Prejudice is not necessarily a bad thing. We all have it. It helps us sort out our values and make choices about our behaviors. We have both negative and positive prejudices. We speak occasionally of being prejudiced in behalf of a person we like a great deal. That’s a pretty normal feeling.
Negative prejudice is the feeling of distaste we may have for a person or a value or an item that we are uncomfortable with. When we act on that negative prejudice, we are discriminating which is the second level of negative feelings against the object of the prejudice.
Now it’s one thing to discriminate against intolerance or a food we don’t like, but it’s another to discriminate against a person for whom we have a negative prejudice. In a successful society, we do not discriminate against persons we may not like but who are entitled to the same rights we have.
Outright racism (the 3rd level) is the end result of collective negative prejudice which is backed up by the power of legal authority and institutional control. This power and control are so entrenched as to escape our own perception and cloud our self-image.
In other words, we can be blind to the systemic racism that excludes certain humans and denies them the advantages we have. If we white people lived in a society that was dominated by another culture or racial group, we could experience the same exclusion and denial of advantages that belong to the dominant group. We too could struggle to succeed in that milieu.
A very pointed Tweet by Jim Rossignol, a frequent contributor to memes that cut right to the heart of a matter: “I’m always fascinated by the line ‘we don’t want to become minorities in our own country’. Why not? Are they treated badly or something?”
And from Francheska Ramsey, “Privilege does not mean you’re rich, a bad person, have had everything handed to you or have never had challenges or struggles. Privilege just means there are some challenges and struggles you won’t experience because of who you are.”
So how might we as Unitarian Universalists improve our understanding of and approach to the challenges of systemic racism and the white culture in which we live?
One of the most valuable things I experienced in my research for this sermon was the timeline of my life, in which I took a close look at how my own attitudes about race and “the Other” have developed. I didn’t grow up in a bigoted environment and I had several experiences with people of color in early life, but I still was blind to the effects of hidden racism.
It took 25 years in white junior high schools, a long period of time in which I had almost no contact with any person of color, followed by immersion in an educational setting (seminary) where I was able to hear the first-person stories of new friends and colleagues, to open my eyes to what I had not seen before.
When we ask “What can we do?”, I would suggest that it might be useful to create a personal timeline of our own knowledge of and interaction with people of color. As I created mine, I included all the memories I could come up with about my feelings from fear to joy---including the home environment I grew up in. It helped me link my early experiences to the surprises and shocking learnings I had found, things I had not seen about myself and my life and our society.
I became aware that, though I had had several positive and joyful childhood and early adulthood experiences with friends of color, by the end of my junior high school teaching and counseling career, I had lost contact with all my friends of color, rarely saw a peer or colleague of color, and had distanced myself from the conflicts over race that appeared in the news.
Now I’m making up for that lost time. I am practicing carefully listening to people of color, as well as those others whose lives are different from mine. It’s an education and a life-changing experience. I wish it for you as well.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: As David extinguishes our chalice, let us close with our benediction.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering to listen to those who are different, to let go of our natural defensiveness, and to vow to observe the ways in which our culture fosters white supremacy and denies opportunity to our friends and neighbors who are not white. May we resist and oppose those systems which are discriminatory and may we speak up when we hear and see unfair treatment. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.
Posted by Lilylou at 6:37 PM