We are seeing things break in the horrific death of George Floyd from police violence and the sick way this same sort of thing keeps on happening over and over again in America.
We are seeing the break in the protest fires of Minneapolis and smashed windows of Atlanta and the torched police cruisers of Cleveland which all represent, as Dr. King once said, “the language of the unheard.”
We are seeing the break in our President’s despicable tweet where he urges the violence on, saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
We are seeing the break.
But you know what? The bigger the break, the bigger the opening, and the bigger the possibility for transformation.
Everything is happening against the backdrop of the coronavirus, and I and we have never lived through such times as these. 100,000+ people have died in America, 370,000+ around the world. Grief and anger and fear permeate all aspects of our living these days, and such difficult emotions are but dry tinder to the sparks of conflict and crisis.
But maybe it can all serve a larger cause. The old normal was not a just world. Maybe the unprecedented pressures of our present moment may truly provide the impetus and energy to push through barriers of inertia, towards real change in the new normal, and beyond.
But we must seek that. We must work for that.
That’s what I want to talk about today. What West Shore can do.
The bigger the break, the bigger the opening. Can we find the opening, go through it, get to the transformation side?
We must first of all break silence. That’s the very first thing.
For many white people, even just to talk about race smacks of racism.
In their bestselling book Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite a 2006 study in which 100 white parents of children between the ages of five and seven were part of a social-science experiment to measure the impact of multicultural videos on young children. The participants were divided into three groups: The first were asked to watch the videos alone, but not talk to their children about their content; the second were given the videos, along with a checklist of talking points; the third group was given only the checklist, and asked to talk with their kids each night for five nights. Five of the families in the last group quit immediately, telling the researchers, “We don’t want to point out skin color.” When the remaining families completed the experiment, the researchers saw no measurable difference in their children’s attitudes towards other races. But when they looked at the parents’ study diaries, they realized why: Despite explicit instruction, none of the parents had felt comfortable following the checklist. No one wanted to point out skin color—even the ones who stuck with the study. Because, mentioning race—explicitly talking about differences in skin color, hair texture, culture-related behaviors—felt, to them, like a betrayal of the colorblindness ideal. To them it seemed far better to just say, “Everyone is equal,” or “God made all of us,” or “Under the skin, we’re all the same,” or “All lives matter.”
All these pleasant-sounding things are said, but the unacceptable result is that it leaves white children (who eventually become white adults) in the dark and entirely incapable of joining in on the desperately-needed conversation about how we can work together to create an equitable world for all. Once this equitable world for all is created, only then might we finally stop saying “Black Lives Matter”—because we will have gotten to a point where that’s what a Black person’s actual experience happens to be. That they do matter.
We’re not there yet. We proclaim “Black Lives Matter” because that’s the world we want to create, and the world is not there yet.
So, we’ve got to disrupt what it means to be socialized as a White person, because that socialization is really about creating people who are ignorant about the racial dynamics that are benefiting them but making the lives of Black people miserable—or killing them. Knee to the neck.
“I’m trying to hold back tears,” says Cleveland City Councilman Basheer Jones. “I’m overwhelmed because I have this side that feels hopeless. I have a community that feels hopeless right now and don’t know what to do. If you’re tired of [black people] talking about racism, can you imagine how it feels to live it every day?”
Listen to a remarkable finding reported in National Geographic, which says that “A study of brain activity at the University of Colorado at Boulder showed that subjects register race in about one-tenth of a second, even before they discern gender.”
We can’t not talk about race. Our basic biological hardwiring demands it.
So White people need to break the silence. The bigger the break, the bigger the opening.
But I hasten to say that it’s not that West Shore hasn’t already been doing this. It has. All the ways this has been so for literally generations mandates that we continue breaking silence this day and forever.
In 1948, six West Shore members attended a local African-Methodist-Episcopal Church, in service to building a bridge of understanding between race differences.
In 1959, our Men’s Club sponsored the screening of a film called “Crisis in Levittown, Pa” which was about an outbreak of violence when a Black family moved into an all-white neighborhood.
In 1963, the Rev. Peter Samson preached a sermon, “If I Were a Negro,” which asked West Shore “to help open the doors, to tear down the walls, to unlock the cages and move aside the barriers that have stood so long between so many of my fellow humans and their birthright as human beings.”
In 1966, West Shore members Dr. J Stuart Fordyce and Beverly Fordyce sold their home in Westlake to a Black minister. The Fordyces believed in fair housing opportunities and wanted to sell the property to any qualified buyer, regardless of race. Dr. Fordyce, a NASA research scientist, listed his home on the NASA bulletin board because local real estate agents would not show the house to Blacks. The day after the Fordyces moved out, the house was set on fire, to the tune of $15,000 in damages. This incident brought forth an outpouring of help and concern from West Shore, and other West side residents and ministers.
In 1967 through 1969, our West Shore Religious Education Department created an innovative curriculum on the Black American, and it was requested by 75 other congregations for them to use because it was so good and so needed.
This is our history. We’ve been active a long time. We’ve been learning and questioning and opening up spaces for hearing and reflecting. We haven’t been staying silent.
In 1975, West Shore’s Social Concerns Committee went on record with the Ohio State Legislature in favor of a proposed landlord-tenant law which, in part, was about protecting tenants from racially abusive and discriminatory practices of landlords.
In 1985 through 1987, West Shore sponsored two El Salvadoran refugee families. In 2000, the Rev. Wayne Arneson led a book discussion on dismantling racism, and that led to the formation of the Undoing Racism committee, which is the grandparent of today’s Undoing Oppressions group.
In 2002, West Shore participated in a Jubilee World 1 workshop, which took the undoing racism book discussion to a higher level, and explored dismantle racism in both personal and institutional dimensions. Similar kinds of workshops also took place in 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2018, 2019, 2020.
In 2008, the West Shore Board of Trustees approved a statement stating that one of West Shore’s goals is to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural congregation.
In 2015, the Black Lives Matter banner was hung.
And then there is this item:
November, 2017: West Shore welcomed Community Outreach Minister Chris Long and formed West Shore Congregation Community Centered Outreach Ministry, to “strengthen efforts at West Shore to more deeply live into anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural values and so broaden our outreach in the community.”
So many hopes were kicked off with the start of Rev. Chris’ ministry, which soon morphed from being a “Community Outreach” position to that of our “Justice Minister.” That’s how I came to know Rev. Chris. I saw him hard at work building relationships between West Shore and the larger community. I witnessed the passion that he sparked in our Undoing Oppression leaders and others.
I know that the events of 2020 have been so very disappointing. The coming of the coronavirus, the world changing on us—including the economy—and the need for financial reasons to eliminate the position and say goodbye to Rev. Chris.
How I wish he could be a part of this goodbye, but Rev. Chris has expressed a desire for there to be no formal farewell, and we need to honor that desire. We are grateful for his ministry these past two and ½ years, and we wish him all the best.
I’m so sorry, West Shore, that this has happened. Some of us are closer to our justice ministries than others—makes perfect sense—and for those of us who are closer, this has truly been a punch in the gut, and heartbreaking. It has felt like a real betrayal of our commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism. It really has.
So here is where we are—the complexity of our present moment at West Shore. With the coronavirus as an ever-present reality in the background, with all the grief and anger and fear this involves, we are seeing things break in the world around us, and we are seeing things break closer to home, in our congregation that aspires to be a Beloved Community but is not there yet.
And, we have to talk about it.
We have to believe that the bigger the break, the bigger the opening, and the bigger the possibility for transformation…
Please hear me: how I wish we could all just pack the sanctuary—just gather face-to-face—and, while honoring our congregational CARE covenant, share our various pieces of what happened and why, and experience the start of healing that can only come from people saying what they need to say and people being heard. But we are socially-distanced, and in such circumstances, it’s hard to do the emotional work and trust-building work that needs to happen. I have been among you for only eight months now, and so much change has happened, and upon what basis can you feel like you can trust me?
And, here we are. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”
Just know this: your Board has agonized over all these issues every step of the way, and they are doing the job you elected them to do in ways that have deeply impressed me over the months I have known and worked with them. Your Board President especially—Joe Schafer.
It’s time we all started calling him St. Joe. St. Joe.
But to my point: your Board is planning, as we speak, ways to create spaces for the conversations that need to happen soon. We can’t wait until there’s a vaccine. We are going to do the best we can. ZOOM is what we have to work with, and it’s got to be good enough.
And, as we go into these conversations—about things breaking in the world around us and things breaking closer to home—I would ask that you bear with me a little while longer as I offer a way of framing these conversations. This way of framing the conversation was inspired by something Jeremy Dowsett said.
Jeremy Dowsett is a white minister, and he is trying to do what the Rev. Peter Samson talked about back in 1963 in his sermon, “If I Were a Negro.” He’s trying to walk in the shoes of a person of color. He’s trying to empathize and understand.
So, one day Jeremy Dowsett does what he usually does: rides a bike. But on this particular day, the insight strikes him. Being a bicyclist in a world of transportation that’s meant for cars is like being Black in a world that privileges whiteness. Just listen to what he says: “Sometimes it’s dangerous for me [being a bicyclist] because people in cars are just blatantly [rude]. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think it’s funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose.”
Jeremy Dowsett continues, “Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.”
“And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.”
“Car privilege,” Jeremy Dowsett is saying, is a very real thing. But unless you can put yourself in the shoes of a bicyclist and experience the road as they do, you won’t ever know there’s a problem. You just keep to your lane, eyes forward, mind focused on your private destination. It is all innocent, but it is also wrong if you care about the wellbeing of bicyclists.
That’s Jeremy Dowsett’s insight. His intriguing analogy between “car privilege” and “white privilege.”
And now come my ideas about how to frame the difficult conversations we need to have about things breaking in the larger world and things breaking closer to home.
Number 1: There is overt racism, and there is structural racism. They are different, and even if the overt Ku Klux Klan kind is not happening, that doesn’t mean all’s well. If you drive a car and you are the nicest, kindest driver, still, how the road you’re driving down is laid out–what the laws are you are following—they all represent threats to the health and well-being of bicyclists. If anything is to blame, it’s the entire transportation infrastructure and the history that got us here. It’s just not about specific drivers of cars. It’s just not about you.
This leads to idea number 2: People must not equate being White with being bad. This is a very easy conclusion to arrive at, especially for liberals who feel the pain of things breaking, and the terrible injustice of racism, and the enormity of what Whites are able to enjoy which people of color can’t or never will. The guilt and dismay can make a White person hate themselves and see their whiteness as a sin that can never be forgiven.
Studies have shown that this is, in fact, a regular stage in the process of a White person growing towards wholeness. In the context of the Intercultural Development Continuum, it’s the stage called Polarization, in the specific mode of Reversal. It’s where White people think and feel that White is bad and everything else is good. It’s stage two in a five stage process. It’s a regular stage, but we can’t get stuck there. We have to do something different with the guilt and dismay we feel.
In the same way that driving a car is a needed thing to do, and there are places you can’t get to without driving, similarly, being White is just one way of being in our world. This way adds richness and variety to life, like any other way. The real question White people need to be asking is, What does it mean to be a spiritually unhealthy White person? What does the healing journey towards spiritually healthy Whiteness look like? What is that path?
That’s what White people need to be talking about. Putting ourselves on the path. Understanding the journey as the continuum that it is.
But if we’re stuck in self-hate and guilt and we are convinced that being White is by definition evil, and evil is all we will ever be, well–our anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism will never get anywhere.
If I am a spiritually evolved driver, I am going to drive my car, but I am also going to reject the structural supremacy of the automobile, and I will use what power I have to agitate for the right of bicyclists to share the road equally with me, and to change the laws and change the budgets and change whatever else is involved in shaping our system of traffic.
My health is in how I use the gifts I have been given.
My health is in how I use my power.
And that leads to my third and last idea: Any system of traffic represents a coming together of many factors. Who sets the vision for transportation? What is within the authority of lawmakers to do? Do budgets follow the vision? How are budgets developed, monitored, and spent? What is the system of accountability to the public? And so on….
What I’m trying to say is that when things break, and there is an opening and the possibility for transformation, we must know that the factors involved in the breaking are multiple, and the layers are many.
Let me speak to some of these layers with specific regard to our Justice Minister position and the larger context of Justice work at West Shore.
If Justice work is key to our congregational mission, why has there never been a paid staff person dedicated to the coordination of our justice ministries? I am not here speaking of a minister position. I am talking about a staff person whose work would be analogous to that of a paid Membership Coordinator. We’ve never had that in the history of West Shore.
Why, furthermore, is there no money budgeted to support our Justice groups and task forces and give fuel to their aspirations?
I want to ask this.
And I ask these things, not out of a spirit of blaming anyone in particular, but of faithfully going through the opening that comes from things breaking, and faithfully getting to transformation.
So I ask: In light of a historical pattern in Unitarian Universalist congregations of Black ministers not succeeding, why was it that the funding strategy for our Justice Minister was so unreliable and, ultimately, unsustainable? And how was it that the leadership involved in the creation of this position thought that its elimination, when the money ran out, would cause no waves and would be received as no big deal by all and especially by the people who fell in love with the very loveable Rev. Chris?
Again, I am asking this not out of spite. As philosopher George Santayana says, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We need to be in remembering and reflecting mode, to emerge from all this stronger and wiser.
Another question has to do with what I discovered when I arrived here eight months ago. There was no job description for the Justice Minister position. There never was one, in all two and ½ years of the position. I was especially disturbed to discover this. How could Rev. Chris have known with clarity what his job was, exactly? How could the congregation? How could his supervisor?
West Shore, I am filled with questions, as a newcomer to your community.
I am filled with love–and questions.
Who are we really? What is it that we really want to bring to the world and to ourselves? How do we want to be responsive to the times in which we live? I’m talking about our vision and mission as a church—and that can’t come from a top-down way. It’s got to emerge from bottom-up. The entire congregation needs to be engaged. It’s slow going. It takes time. But as the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
That’s what we want to do. Go far. So we have to do it together.
Which immediately leads to financial generosity. If we want West Shore to have big impact and go far, we’re going to have to pay for it. There can be no shortcuts and no creative funding strategies. So that’s another big question we need to be asking. How do we talk–or avoid talking–about money? Can it be a point of pride for us, to generously fund our mission and ministries? Or is West Shore a place that is worthy only of hand-me-down furniture and second and third class quality?
These are things I’m wanting to ask about. At West Shore, who sets the vision? Who ought to do that, and how? Furthermore, what are our attitudes about money? How can we evolve these attitudes so we can be the congregation we say we want to be?
The bigger the break, the bigger the opening, and the bigger the possibility for transformation.
We are set upon this transformation path by every instance of police violence and every riot and every cruel Presidential tweet.
We are set upon this transformation path by our long history at West Shore of doing anti-racist work.
We are set upon the transformation path by what we’re experiencing in the present moment with the elimination of the Justice Minister position, and all the sense of hurt and betrayal that it’s bringing.
I know this is a tough time. I promise you, I am feeling it thoroughly.
But this too shall pass.
My only prayer is:
May it not pass without our lives being changed by it–all our lives, White and Black–for the better.
Let it not pass, and leave us unchanged.
Let it be what makes us, truly, Beloved Community.
The bigger the break, the bigger the opening.