Presidents and Pulpits

SFG-Coral-Ghost-Eye-2-main-image-cropA response to the election of Susan Frederick-Gray as the next president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I am excited that the Unitarian Universalist Association has elected Susan Frederick-Gray as our next president and I wish her many blessings.  I will support her work enthusiastically.  At the same time, within this celebration of breaking one more glass ceiling, I feel compelled to continue looking forward in order to understand how Unitarian Universalists can truly live the lofty values we put forward.  This election is only one step in a series of many that must happen for us to accomplish that goal.  I will not rehash the troubled journey within the UUA over the last three or four months, nor will I debate the history of racial and gender bias in the denominational leadership.  Instead, as a new minister about to assume the great responsibility and privilege of leadership at the pleasure of a long standing and dedicated congregation, my question is much more basic: why must the President of the UUA be a minister?

On a simple level, it is very easy to see the structure of governance and the balance between “professional” and “lay” leadership that is attempted in our association.  Yet it is that same balance, that says to me having a minister at the helm of the entire Association seems an arrangement we should question in today’s world.  What is more, considering the specificity of how our ministerial leadership is developed in terms of educational pedigree, demographics, economics, age and ability it seems like we are perpetuating the very systems of exclusivity that we are asking our spiritual community to commit to unraveling.  Above everything else, the challenges of the world in which Unitarian Universalism as an organization is being asked to navigate are not challenges that our ministers are being explicitly prepared to meet as organizational leaders.

I’m well aware of some of the incredible professional histories that our past and new president bring to the table.  They are remarkable and multi-skilled people with passion and dedication.  They are immensely qualified leaders.  What is more, a minister leading a religious/faith organization just seems appropriate; one wouldn’t ask Elon Musk to lead the Episcopal Church.  But then again why not?  The assumption that a minister will lead a spiritual organization is status quo thinking and I’m sure that the progress we want to see over the next 10 – 20 years is not status quo progress.  When I look at the list and background of our history of Association leadership we have been blessed to draw the cream of the crop; but it is only a ministerial crop.  What are we missing by not looking across all of the crops within our vast acreage of talent?

I have had the pleasure to meet many incredible people in our congregations and the bulk of them are not ministers.  I have met lay leaders and professionals including Religious Educators, Musicians and Administrators.  They are former and current corporate and non-profit executives, they are lifelong organizers and activists, they are teachers and professors and they are deemed as somehow not qualified to lead this organization because they lack the title “The Reverend.” As a denomination, we place a lot of weight on the three-letter abbreviation (Rev.) But the title doesn’t make the person.  One of the greatest lessons I have learned through my own ministerial formation takes its cue from something Michelle Obama once said about her husband and the Presidency of the United States: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”  Becoming a ministerial leader is the same way, it is a process of constantly peeling away layers until you are your most forthright and present self.  Even then you continue to evolve and change and discover new layers of truth and strength.  It tests you in ways that until now, I’ve only seen from the outside.  But coming to ministry from a very different background of management, it is also very easy for me to see that the crucible that is ministerial formation does not guarantee that one will always be an effective organizational leader or that they will peel away the most restricting layers. It also doesn’t guarantee that one will be the right leader at the right time.  Again, leadership, any leadership is something that is revealed.

As we embrace the new direction of leadership that will be revealed in Susan Frederick-Gray’s tenure, I say hallelujah let’s celebrate!  But I would also say that it is not the time for us to sit back with relief and sigh “whew…at last, we did it!”  We’ve only rolled on to the tarmac, we haven’t taken flight yet.  Rather, it is the time to embrace Susan’s forward thinking and the forward thinking of all the candidates and say “what a great FIRST step toward wholeness!”  We have a long way to go my friends.  We are preparing for a long flight.  Let’s continue to challenge the structures that cultivate complacency, dominant culture oppression and mono-cultural vision.  At last we’ve proven that our leadership can rock a pair of heels (if she wants to…thank you Sofia Betancourt, Susan Frederick-Gray, Alison Miller and Jeanne Pupke).  Now, let’s keep proving that both our leadership and our lived faith can reflect the economic, racial, social, cultural, ability and educational diversity that we talk so much about.

More

Tomorrow, 5 years of seminary and many more years of discernment will come to fruition for me as I find out where I will begin my journey as a Unitarian Universalist minister.  For all of us who have been in search this winter, this has been a time fraught with anxiety and punctuated by incredible affirmation of our abilities as well as painful reminders that we cannot be everything to everyone.  I am grateful to everyone who has been with me on this journey and particularly to the incredible congregations who were generous enough to explore the potential for building ministry together.  I am overwhelmed with their love.

And in the midst of this, Unitarian Universalism is in pain (Critics decry ‘white supremacy’/UU World – March 27, 2017).  Once again, we are being asked to look deeply at the self perpetuating patterns of white supremacy that continue to dog our efforts to be “multi-cultural”.  Even as I launch my nascent ministry, I cannot be silent on this issue; particularly as a black gay man.  We have stepped into a new time of consciousness in the United States and I believe the world, where we are being asked to show what we are truly made of.  I am proud to soon count myslef among dynamic and diverse Unitarian Universalist religious leaders and I believe in Unitarian Universalism, but not with an eye that only looks back.  Fixation with the past is the same crime of our government that speaks of “founding fathers” and “original framers” to fix the ongoing terrorism of black and brown bodies and the epidemic of violence against women and the catastrophic marginalization of human sexuality, differing abilities and mental perceptions.  I must see Unitarian Universalism looking forward.  We cannot be sentimentally bound to the tools and structures that have reinforced patriarchy and subtle (and not so subtle) racism.  We must listen, we must learn, we must be humble, we must do better. We can be more.

More

“Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough,
when “worth” is code for “white”
and dignity is spelled “m-a-l-e.”
This slippery intention
to name us all the same,
too often strides
into assumptions about perspective,
privilege, agency and pride.

“Inherent worth and dignity”
refuses religiosity, and will not bow in unison
or hold a single vision of the divine.
Yet while it mutters a refrain that tries to contain
the vast complexities of every human being
it seems to sound just like the same Western God.

Because “Inherent worth and dignity”
is the language of the colony
that doesn’t know the pain of slavery in its genes,
that ignores its culpability for Holocaust,
that continues to bastardize native people in ritual and song,
that strains against translation,
and always leaves women one step behind.

“Inherent worth and dignity”
Is carved from the dissonant language of white supremacy.
It resonates with paternal principles grown from privilege,
and rises as an onanistic declaration,
excited most by promises of self-righteous satisfaction.

Inherent for you
But abhorrent to her;
Worthy to me
But valueless to them;
Dignity to him
That erases xyr …

“Inherent worth and dignity” is not enough
In a language where the word nigger still sours every tongue.

We must have more.
We must have freedom
Unchained.
We must be seen
Unfiltered.
We must be heard
Un-silenced in a full-throated and triumphant cry.
We must have more than the language of the oppressor
for this dream of freedom to grow living wings
and finally take to the sky.

Pretty Eyes

Paul Ryan

 

Such pretty eyes
big, limpid pools that seem both vulnerable
and searching
I could actually stare at them forever.
Well….

Yes, pretty eyes…
and I wonder what the world looks like
looking out of those big baby blues?
looking past the black and brown people
who are all looking at him for a clue
as to how they will eat
protect their families
or just feel safe…
like one might while falling in love with
those pretty, pretty eyes.

Pretty eyes,
that see the world
as a battle between good and evil
…good that doesn’t see me
and would sell me down the river
rather than look in my eyes.

Oh, those eyes
look past me
they look past so many
they look past anyone they don’t want to see
they only cast their sky pale glow
toward places already so well lit.

Don’t be fooled by pretty eyes,
those glistening mirrors
are fringed with darkness
that sprouts from a heart of coal
…such pretty, pretty eyes.
Intoxicating.
Exhilarating.
Reflecting the real darkness of a soul.

Today, House Speaker, Paul Ryan released his party’s agenda for creating a better plan to fight poverty in the United States.  No mention of the systemic barriers of race, gender, country of origin (and certainly not anything about LGBTQ people.)  Check out the snapshot here: A Better Way: Snapshot (full text: HERE)

And now have a look at some real solutions and strategies: PolicyLink: Equitable Economy

Click here to read more about my new collection of poetry “Love Beyond God”

Where Is Your Faith?

Unitarian Universalists have struggled in the past year to embrace the “Black Lives Matter” movement. In June, we passed our action of immediate witness to embrace the movement officially, but not after a contentious, overly “processed” and public debate at our General Assembly (UUA AIW). Our congregations have been struggling with the questions of whether or not to put up public banners on our churches resulting in strained relationships between congregants and sometimes clergy. We have had ministers preaching non-stop from the pulpit about race and racially motivated violence and some of us have seen numbers drop off as a result of fatigue. Now, we are seeing hate speech appear on our Facebook pages and banners are being cut down or vandalized (See this beautiful statement from UU Fellowship of San Luis Obispo: READ HERE.)

“Why can’t we just stay a nice club?”

This is a sentiment that I’ve heard in our churches repeated over the years all over the country. It is echoing louder than ever in my head these days, and it has me scared…

Scared that as a predominantly white community, Unitarian Universalists don’t have the stamina or the self education to do this thing we call “anti-racism/multi-culturalism”…that I call “being a person of color in America every day.”

Scared that we will retreat from the “fad” of “Black Lives Matter” in the reality of today, and only resurface 25 years from now to commemorate “Michael Brown Day” and converge on Ferguson, Missouri where we will cry and sing spirituals and march praising our UU presence while forgetting the thousands of people outside of our denomination who have died seeking justice for blacks in this country.

Scared that we will climb on the bandwagon to start electing old white men to the Presidency again because they talk a good game, entirely missing the point that it is more important to continue changing the face of the US presidency (and more importantly change the gender) than any political platform at this moment in history.

Scared that Unitarian Universalists and other folks of “liberal religion” are actually more concerned with protecting their white enfranchisement (regardless of their racial identity) than having a nation that is balanced in opportunity, safety, security and government.

I’m scared most of all that Unitarian Universalism isn’t strong enough as a faith.

So I ask that you don’t applaud, critique, or “white-splain” my honesty here… I don’t need the flattery of your attention. I need you to prove that my fears are wrong. Dig deep. Find the wellspring in your core that sustains you as a change agent. Where is your faith? We are on a long journey; we’ve only just begun marching up the hill…we aren’t even close to the crest. Where is your faith? We are entering a new reality where people of color are going to tell white people that they have no say; where whites are going to feel helpless and ineffectual; where people of color, trans* people and people of different abilities are going to disrupt, dismantle and disrespect the “order” that has been put in place to disrespect and disempower them.  They/we know exactly where our faith is.  Where is your faith?

Certainly, none of us knows where this will end. But we are sure as hell clear that it is headed away from single culture dominance, single gender influence and single ability perceptions.  That is the only way we will ever have real multi-culturalism and anti-oppression…

So, go put the banner back up. Let the trans*woman of color speak. Learn ASL. Trust someone else’s leadership…repeat.

And ask yourself, where is your faith?