Liberation vs. Colonial Pews

First Parish in Cambridge Interior – Colonial Revival (renovation ca. 1914)

Listening to Rev. Joan Javier-Duval’s sermon at the closing worship of the UUA General Assembly, there was one word that resonated particularly deeply with me: Liberation.  Her message is a beautiful arc of what moving toward liberation can actually look like and I hope we take her challenge and continue crossing bridges to the other side.  But what does liberation look like for Unitarian Universalism?  Too often, and too easily, our energies get focused exclusively on the liberation of others.  So, I want to echo and amplify a significant part of Rev. Javier-Duval’s message, that the liberation must also be an internal ‘crossing over’.

Meetinghouse Original
First Parish in Cambridge Interior  – Gothic Revival (ca. 1870s)

The congregation of First Parish in Cambridge has an ongoing debate about getting rid of the high backed colonial pews in our meetinghouse.  These pews are not original. They were installed in 1914 when all of the New England Unitarian churches were embracing a colonial revival.   It was an aesthetic choice.  In fact, at that time the entire interior of the meetinghouse was gutted and done over in ‘colonial revival’ and the original Gothic revival decor (see image) was erased.  The congregation was trying to capitalize on something that had never been a part of the physical expression of the church building although the colonial history was inescapable in every other aspect of the community.

Today, these pews shape how we worship and how we experience our time together.  I cannot force the hand of my congregation…the church belongs to them.  Removing these pews will be their decision alone.  At the same time, I recognize that the potential removal of these pews is also a metaphor for the act of liberation that is most necessary across the wider Unitarian Universalist denomination.  Simply put, in order to liberate Unitarian Universalism we must first de-colonize Unitarian Universalism.  Intentionally, systematically and universally de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism is one step that will invite people of color, people with disabilities and people who otherwise would not have been thought of as fully human by the likes of our early Unitarian heroes, to feel whole in our our spaces our communities and our theology.

How can we cheer for the removal of Southern Confederate statues while our own congregations cling to celebrating Northern scholars and influencers who were apologists for slavery and white supremacy?  How can we reasonably invite land acknowledgement rituals in our spaces when we as a denomination never consistently acknowledge Unitarians as the theological progeny of the Puritans who were responsible for the removal, death and erasure of native people from their land and history? (See my previous post: Failure of My Faith for more on this subject.)

If we truly want to embrace liberation within our faith, then Unitarian Universalism should not get a pass in the national reckoning on histories and legacies of oppression.  Here are a few ideas for what de-colonizing Unitarian Universalism could look like:

  • Laying bare the disconnect between the colonial project and the modern inclusive, anti-oppressive movement.
  • De-centering Western religious history in what we teach, what we preach and how we practice; placing it instead as an equal in the global spiritual narrative.
  • Retiring harmful Puritan worship formats and content and/or reserving them for specific times and purposes when they are appropriate.
  • Asking white UUs to fully explore cultural whiteness, letting go of frameworks that regard people of color as problematic or the “other” to be solved.
  • Require congregations to assess their relationships with local communities of color providing them with resources, options and measures to build those relationships.
  • Rewrite the UU Principles to include the word “love” prominently along with an affirmation (not apology) of racial, religious and cultural diversity and a statement acknowledging the harmful colonial origins of the tradition.

We cannot continue to make excuses for our colonial roots if we are going to be the leader in creating modern inclusive spiritual community.  Our spiritual potential is too great and our future too important to be hampered by a brutally flawed past.  We cannot build a modern structure on the un-level surface of colonialism.  Doing so has already left the relatively new structure of Unitarian Universalism unstable.  It is not too late.  This is not cancel culture, but corrective culture.  This is liberation.  We have the opportunity in this moment of national reckoning to identify the flaws of the past, build a new foundation, and be informed by and aware of the past while placing it in its proper context.

We are not done.  Unitarian Universalism deserves a blueprint for change and a variety of actionable ways to make that change a reality. The question we are left with now is whether or not our faith is willing to be as strong in action as it is in words.  Are we willing to endure the pain of real liberation?  De-colonize Unitarian Universalism, NOW.


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.