Remembering Journey Toward Wholeness

So every mistake has a purpose. This Juan Williams fracas is reminding me that when the UUA took up a Christian anti-racism curriculum called “Journey Toward Wholeness,” I complained that our sacramental austerity left us unprepared to deal with the model of confession and reconciliation.

Shirley Sherrod and Juan Williams, however, come out of a tradition in which confession and reconciliation are the highest form of religious integrity. The individual confesses, strives to do better, and the authority figures — both clergy and community — supported by a theology of a forgiving God — join in. They agree that we ALL have a long way to go, and they hold up the individual who has confessed and recommitted as a model for us all, as we all face our demons, both common and particular.

Interfaith literacy is key to multicultural communication. We whose stripped-down protestantism joined with Judaism to create secularized so-called “universal” institutions must always be aware of how these institutions reflect our original particular experiences, theologies and rituals. Fox television is not my medium of choice, but I am quite sure that its audience are familiar with the model Williams was using, just as I am sure the NAACP audience knew what Shirley Sherrod was doing when she spoke openly about her Journey Toward Wholeness. If they are going to use that framework successfully to improve their contributions to the public conversations, a little multi-cultural ear training is in order. We liberals, whose over-whelmingly white non-confessional culture has apparently lost track of this difference between black and white, need to spot this ignorance before it festers into a universal fear of being accused of “reverse racism.”

There’s no question that Juan Williams has over time made personal mistakes. But this was not one of them. It’s time for NPR to follow the footsteps of Tom Vilsak and Barack Obama, to apologize and see where Williams sees himself fitting into their mission. He may have been an “analyst” rather than a “commentator” so far, but it seems he has more to say… and we need to be more careful about hearing him and not framing his words through either his heritage — or his platform.

How Shall We Disagree?

This post, like yesterday’s, stems from a vociferous Facebook argument I had on Monday and Tuesday with Reverend Clyde Grubbs, about the best ways for of doing Anti-Racism work in the world, and, more specifically in the UUA.  Hurtful things were said, both to me and by me, for which, in the latter case, I am sorry.

Clyde and I can certainly agree on  several things: 1) that it is crucially important that we do anti-racist work in a culture which has for so long used racism as a power tool; and, 2) that it is possible to be a racist without knowing it; and therefore, 3) one must be attentive to response from others for feedback on what one is saying or doing.

But how shall we share the information about hurting and being hurt?  Is this a one-sided flow of information — sanctified by canon and caucus —  or are there multiple dimensions of human experience, even within an institutional framework?  That is where Clyde and I seem to disagree.  I cannot speak for him, but we got pretty clear that we differ on whether to prioritize the institutional vs. individual level, when it comes to doing anti-racist work within the UUA.

When too many UUs get to shouting at each other about anything — about money, about God, about social purities — as Clyde and I were doing this week about anti-racism work– the vast majority of people step back.  If the shouting goes on long enough, people leave.  They want someplace quiet for the sabbath, something reflective that opens their soul rather than stiffens their back.  This is something on which most folks seem to agree, across all kinds of social divides: the job of religion is providing a place of sanctuary.

Facebook is not the place to fight out major UU issues, which is why I am moving here.  The UUA blog watch keeps me interdependent and mutually accountable in this arena.  Social media are easier to use, and therefore, to use wrong.  I don’t want to turn Facebook into a parking lot conversation, a crucial leadership discussion to which most people have no access.

When it comes to the journey of disagreements in our Unitarian history, three different episodes come to mind.

At Collegium, earlier this month in Massachusetts, we had an excellent dramatic presentation from Ministerial Candidate Melinda Green about the incredible animosity which drove the Unitarian Controversy in First Church and Parish of Groton, MA.  What makes her drama so valuable is that Groton’s story was completely typical of many New England parishes, including right here in Burlington, Vermont.   So her words, often directly lifted from public records and private letters, describe the Unitarians’ rude push into denominationalism.

Here we see two ministers on one side, refusing to acknowledge the status of a liberal colleague.  A son excommunicates a father.  A thoughtful woman — no legal voice in those days — recorded and narrates the whole thing with more wisdom than any of the men might have wished.  On a theological basis, it underscores the Unitarians’ historic insistence on theological vaguery, a value at which Universalism arrived more slowly.

But the characters also clearly speak their disagreements about polity.  Some folks see religious fellowship as putting oneself under the guidance of folks with a greater access to sacred wisdom, and others see personal wisdoms — when properly shared and measured against the lives of others — as a primary overarching sovereignty of the whole.  It was this difference to which I alluded yesterday when I asked, “to whom are we accountable?” in claiming that we are “good UUs?”   The Unitarians breathed a sigh of relief when the Calvinists left, making the sanctuary, finally, a safe space for personal explorations of larger questions.  Denominationalism turned out to be a gift.

In 1999-2003 era, I had the great experience of participating as the First Church (UU) in Jamaica Plain, MA, moved itself with care and conviction through the Welcoming Congregation curriculum.  Some folks wondered why, since the parish already had GLBTQQ parishioners in all aspects of leadership and personal relationships.   But Welcoming Congregation isn’t just about in, it calls us to come together more deeply.

I can still close my eyes and see that circle of chairs in the Fellowship Hall, hear those stories, from folks whose hearts and bodies had been deprived of safe sexual growth during adolescence, and even young adulthood.  There were common elements, of course, but ultimately, each person’s process of finding safety, voice and love was unique to their fullness, complexity and decision-making independence.

There’s an old Christian song: “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley.”  Its verses name  authority figures as ultimately alone.  “Preacher got to walk…” “Deacon got to walk…”  “Daddy got to walk…”  “Mama got to walk…”  Even “rich man got to walk that lonesome valley” in that song.  It certainly applies to me.  But I define that valley not only as “the shadow of death, “but also “the chosen path of one’s life.    Black or white, mixed, Asian, aboriginal, gay, straight, transgender, anywhere else on any continuum that anyone might dream up.   Your culture is part of your walking, but thank God — the liberal God — your conscience has lots of leeway in shaping a personal path.

So what does a healthy conscience look like, when your your sources of learning were tainted by institutional bias?   In our worst moments, each of us thinks we know best.  In society’s worst moments, we are right.  But these days, most of life occupies a vague and muddy middle.   The devil is these days more often in the details, than in big moments.

And that’s a good place for evil… the manageable, everyday realm.  I remember the bitter fights of the 1970s, and the consequent hemorrhaging of members, money and programs.  In those days, I was on the institutional side — shouting, singing, demonstrating, and certainly excoriating many folks who disagreed with me.   Warren Ross, in his UU World article looking back at the Black Empowerment Controversy, points out that many longtime African-American UUs felt dismissed, even rejected by the militant profile of the Black Affairs Caucus (BAC).  And, of course, I was no kinder to my Euro-American elders, for their complicity in the social sins that seemed all-pervasive.  Their life journeys — in most cases a mixture of inheritance, accomplishment and luck — failed my tests.  Yet to them, we radicals felt like those orthodox Calvinists felt to earlier Unitarians.   Since we didn’t leave, they did.

Times have changed.   “White” is still a race, but nowadays it has fragmented into classes, ethnicities,  as well as personal self-expressions in gender and relationship.  I get challenged on my English and German backgrounds not only by people of color, but also by “white folks” whose ancestors were the servants, the employees, the victims of folks from whom I am, in some cases, descended.  All UUs ought be read Senator James Webb’s  Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America, for a rude awakening on the difference among even the white folks who came from the British Isles.

In some forms of anti-racism, it seems to matter nothing that in many cases, the most egregious wielders of power were neighbors my personally progressive forebears chose not to support through either personal or institutional affiliations.  The pains of navigating social and religious prejudice are not only racial, despite the occasional generations with money.  Eugene Robinson, of The Washington Post, points out that Black America, too, is disintegrating.  Race is no longer the sole — in many cases, not even the primary — determinant of most non-indigenous Americans’ social position.  A growing number of Americans are uncertain whether it will be the key determinant — or even key characteristic — for their children, their grandchildren, or their those children’s friends.

So yes, I’m casting my lot with process rather than outcome.  Safety– a place of listening — a circle of chairs in the Fellowship Hall.  That is how I believe we can sort ourselves out in this new, multidimensional, fast-self-destructing society.  If we listen well, if we collect and respect each personal journey, if we recognize that all of us now inhabit a muddy realm mixing racist and anti-racist institutions, cultures and opportunities —  if we have the safety to speak of pain even from positions of privilege on the economic and educational ladders — if each of us comes as equal and alone – I am sure we will eventually transform our institutions and our world.  We might even bring growth back to the Unitarian Universalist Association.

But if we fail, the fault will lie not with God, but with ourselves.


Last weekend’s Convocation of  the Partnership of Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage (PUUH) organizations had many inspiring moments.  It was a joint session with Collegium, which itself had too many highlights to count.  I recommend accessing websites for both groups (PUUH via UU Historical Society at to get more info, as it becomes available.

But there was one bit that sent off alarm bells, and sent me on a deeper train of thought.  It came as Gail Forsyth-Vail, of the UUA’s Adult Programs office, was introducing the history and heritage curricula for the Tapestry of Faith curriculum series, adult level.   She told us she was so excited that for the first time, the UUA has dared not only to teach with a curriculum series — in itself a nice change from some of the “tell us what you think” weak points of the recent past — but to frame it in “an outcomes based curriculum”

Outcomes based?  What flashed across my mind was the story of the Roman Catholic priest visiting his parishioner to ask how things were going at home.  “Fine, Father.”   “I only ask, Mrs So-and-So, because it has been awhile since you’ve brought me a baby to baptize.  You know how much the church values each of the lives of its faithful…”

This little story reveals my three questions for any UUA program or resource which aspires to judge outcomes.

1) What are the units of these outcomes?  What are we measuring, according to what standard, along what timeline?

2) Who judges the acceptable or unacceptable level of each criterion?

3) By what authority are these measures and these judges put in place?

4) What are the consequences for a positive or negative determination by these judges?

5) What is the process for appeal, in either setting these standards or challenging the conclusions drawn for oneself, one’s program or one’s congregation?

6) Who keeps the records, and with whom are they to be shared?

A million sarcastic remarks come to mind, but I’ve known Gail and the rest of the RE Office for a long time, and I know their intentions are honorable.  So I’m just taking these old questions, which I learned from C. Conrad Wright and his generation of polity scholars — dry, methodical, detached — and putting them forward in relation to what is happening now.