It would be hard to miss the questions and conversations that are coming out of the movement-wide teach-in on white supremacy that the Unitarian Universalist Association invited its member communities to experience over the past two Sundays. Of course, as part of this community, I have felt the impact of the worship experiences of both of these past Sundays, I have heard the dialogs going on around the church, and I’ve seen some of the e-mail discussions taking place. Responses to our own teach-in experience have ranged from feelings of excitement for the deep work people feel called to do to feelings of real and palpable frustration over this experience. These responses, and the many and varied other kinds, are not unexpected. And please know that many of these conversations and responses are also taking place on a wider scale in our own movement.
But do you know where else these conversations are happening? Among just about everyone under the age of 20 in the United States. Last year during my time in divinity school, these very questions rocked the entire Yale campus, but they were felt most acutely in the undergraduate population. Centuries-old traditions were questioned around the campus, from stained glass windows depicting images of slavery being shattered by a community member, to objections to the use of the term “Master” for people leading residential colleges, and from the renaming of a residential college named for John C. Calhoun, to the images of students filling the streets and the front lawns of the homes of university leaders, all with the intention of remaking the community that welcomed them as students into a place where they felt safe and supported.
As these events unfolded, I recall remarking in response to these protests something to the effect of, “When people accepted the invitation to come here, didn’t they know the history of this place and places like it?” And in that question I betrayed a stark measure of my ignorance. It was in a class I was able to take this spring with the inspiringly brilliant Mark Hicks at Meadville Lombard about how knowledge is transferred that I got the real answer to my own tone-deaf question. And it was “No, they didn’t know the history of this place and places like it.”
See, part of the answer to my question lies in the ways that the culture of whiteness works to compartmentalize knowledge. You only need to read the introduction of the award-winning book Ebony and Ivy by Craig Steven Wilder to learn how this operates (though I commend the entire book to you). Notable, though, is Wilder’s lauding of librarians in his acknowledgements as the keepers and, of late, the revealers of the real history behind places that store knowledge and dole out access to it. The author’s well placed appreciation makes clear that those students who are granted access to certain kinds of education do not realize the bedrock of white supremacy those institutions rest upon until they are actually there and are granted access to that knowledge. And in this case, I mean bald faced, full throated white supremacy and its practitioners whose legacies are still cherished and applauded by some of these institutions, with Yale and John C. Calhoun among them, all concisely cataloged in Wilder’s book.
The work to be done here is important, but it is not all external. Much of the work to be done is on an individual, personal level. Some of my own work has involved reexamining old assumptions and making hard, new choices, including being as conscious as possible about media I consume and who benefits from my consuming it, understanding who owns the businesses I patronize, and how institutions I support, whether passively or actively, effect change in the world or seek to defend the status quo. But we also have work to do together as a community of faith.
Though Bill Sinkford, our Senior Minister is currently serving as one of three Interim Co-Presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association, his time with us on Sunday in the pulpit included the announcement that our church will be holding a set of discussions and sharing about this topic on Sunday, May 28th in the Eliot Chapel. The purpose of this discussion and sharing will be to create a safe space for all to bring some of these deep questions so we may hold them together and move united toward responses that will help each of us to live into our own hopes for ourselves and will help our community to live into its shared hopes for this world.
This time can be a gift, unfolding and growing from our cherished first source of our Living Tradition of direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life. And it is my sincerest hope and prayer that it may be so.