Centering as Spiritual Practice, continued….

In March many Unitarian Universalist transgender and non-binary people were angry and hurt after the Unitarian Universalist Association’s UU World magazine published an article entitled “After L, G and B.”[1] The article was written by a cisgender woman about her struggles to understand and love transgender people in her family and within our faith. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term cisgender, it refers to people whose gender identity matches their biological sex.) Many cis UUs—and some trans UUs—wondered why the article generated so much negative reaction. After all, don’t we expect our denominational magazine to feature stories that challenge our understanding of gender? Given that most UUs are cisgender people; doesn’t it make sense for a cisgender person to write an article about her struggle to learn about, accept and love transgender people? Doesn’t that help the cause?

It doesn’t—not at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

In late March, two Muslim UUs, one an ordained minister, the other a seminarian, published an open letter entitled “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists.”[2] The letter expresses anger and pain at the way UUs relate both to Muslim UUs and to Muslims in general. They contend that “Unitarian Universalists have been culturally misappropriating and exotifying Islamic traditions in many ways for many years.” They ask: “Are Muslim UUs really welcome in UU spaces? Or is it simply our pain and our poetry” that are welcomed? Upon reading this letter, some of us might wonder, “with all the Islamophobia in the wider culture, with all the attacks on Muslims, mosque burnings, threatening phone calls, FBI surveillance and the President’s Muslim ban, why criticize us? We connect with and support Muslims in the wider community. We support Muslim immigrants and refugees. This congregation is hosting a very public forum on Islam in America next Sunday. Aren’t we doing a good job?

Not good enough. This sermon is about why.

Both of these stories come amidst a backdrop of calls throughout our denomination to confront our own White Supremacy culture. Although this call has been with us in a variety of forms for decades, we began encountering this specific call to recognize, confront and transform our own White Supremacy culture in the late winter of 2017, after revelations of racist hiring patterns at our denominational headquarters.[3] People understandably ask, does this challenge really apply to us? Afterall, as a denomination, we’ve made a very public commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, to immigrants, to sanctuary for those facing deportation, to indigenous peoples’ struggles over water rights. We’ve repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery. In an era when avowed racists are organizing across the country and online, how is ours a culture of White Supremacy? How is that even possible? Well, it is—even at this point in our history. This sermon is about why.

A common thread unites these stories. People on Unitarian Universalism’s institutional margins are demanding a genuine place at the institutional center. Further, people on the margins are demanding the power to redesign the center so that it serves their interests as well as it serves the interests of those of us for whom it was originally designed.

This sermon continues a sermon I preached last September entitled “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Except I’m editing the title. I read to you earlier from Theresa I. Soto’s meditation entitled “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival).” Soto says “no one can rename you Other, it can’t stick, as you offer the gift of being and saying who you are.”[4] No one can rename you Other—but that’s exactly what the title of my September sermon did. “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice.” Soto inspires me to reflect on how I use the word ‘other’ when I address these issues. I don’t really want to use it anymore, mainly because so many of those historical others aren’t other at all. They’re right here, members of our congregations: trans people, indigenous people, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities. As gender-queer UU religious professional and consultant, CB Beal wrote in March, “We’re right … here.”[5]  Imagine a congregation where we notice and celebrate the differences, but no difference or set of differences makes a person “other.” As Soto says, “it can’t stick.”

Here’s what I said last September:

In the life and culture of any institution, including congregations, there is a center and there are margins. The center is where power is exercised, priorities determined, decisions made, money spent, resources allocated, values articulated, sermons preached, hymns sung, joys and sorrows shared, coffee served, gifts given. The center specifies norms for appropriate behavior and emotional expression; norms for which topics are speakable, and which are taboo; norms for belonging—who is in and who doesn’t really fit. Sometimes these norms are clearly articulated. Sometimes they are assumed, taken for granted, unexamined.

The margins are those places where people experiences themselves as out-of- sync with the center or, worse, excluded. For example, oftentimes as people age, as their mobility, hearing and vision decline, they may begin to feel marginalized from the physical life of the congregation….  If the center is White, People of Color may experience themselves as marginal. If the center speaks English, people who speak limited or no English may experience themselves as marginal…. [if mental illness is unspeakable,] people with mental illness may feel marginal. [If sexual violence is unspeakable,] survivors of sexual violence may feel marginal. Often we have some identities that occupy the center; and others that occupy the margins. We are rarely only one or the other.

The existence of a center and margins is natural and unavoidable in any institution…. However, here, our Unitarian Universalist principles call us to pay attention to what our center and margins are—to be institutionally self-aware. Who are we including? Who are we excluding? But then further, because we envision a highly inclusive community, a multigenerational, multicultural and multiracial community, a spiritually pluralistic community … our center must be in constant dialogue with our margins…. We must be willing to center that which is marginal.[6]

One could argue that in publishing a feature article about how to understand, welcome and love transgender people, UU World was centering transgender people. Transgender UU leaders emphatically said “No!” They said no because the article contained certain factual errors and unexamined assumptions, for example, the assumption that it’s OK to ask trans people about certain body parts when, for anyone else, such questions would be an invasion of privacy. They said no because the article failed to fully name the violence to which so many trans people are now exposed given the Trump Administration’s determined attacks on transgender rights; and it failed to name at all the ways in which trans people continue to experience marginalization within our faith.

But perhaps most significantly, they said no because a cisgender woman wrote the article. UU World centered her story, not the stories of transgender people. CB Beal wrote: “When we speak of inclusion but we mean that white people will write about the lives of black people, that cisgender people will write about the lives of transgender people, that heterosexual people will write about the lives of queer people, that able-bodied people will write about the lives and experiences of people who are disabled by our society, we are doing the opposite of inclusion. It is this which causes me the most harm.”[7]

Furthermore, UU World’s editor had given an early draft of the article to a leader in the UU transgender community, Alex Kapitan, and asked for feedback. Alex said, ‘don’t publish this article,’ and provided alternative suggestions. The editor chose to ignore Alex’s feedback, even though he’d asked for it. That’s not centering. That’s marginalizing. (Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement). Alex Kapitan was offering a way to reshape the center. The center said no. That’s why people were angry and hurt.[8]

Institutional centers don’t want to, don’t like to, and don’t need to change. They are inherently conservative, predisposed to continue doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” Even when they say they want change, they have many tools at their disposal—some conscious, some unconscious—to help them not change. They can go on receiving open letters about anger, hurt, disappointment in perpetuity, and if they don’t really want to change, they won’t. But our Unitarian Universalist institutional centers have been saying for a generation that change is necessary—that our ongoing relevance and even our survival as a liberal religion depend on it. Our institutional centers have been promising change, and some real seeds have been planted in fertile soil. Now, with increasing frequency, visibility and courage, people on our margins are calling for the fulfillment of those promises. The uproar over the UU World article was one such call. The letter from UU Muslims was another. The demand from People of Color organizations to confront our White Supremacy culture is yet another. Such calls are becoming more and more central to our collective spiritual lives.

Change isn’t just coming. It’s here. And this has implications for any of us with identities that reside comfortably at the center of our UU institutional life: white people, straight people, cisgender people, able-bodied people, middle-class people. What do we do? In the wake of the UU World article, the Transforming Hearts Collective—a group of four trans and queer faith leaders that supports congregations in becoming radically welcoming spiritual homes for queer and trans people of all races, classes, abilities, sexualities, and ages—published a list of behaviors that will help transform the center of our institutional life in relation to transgender people. They said: Believe trans people; listen more than you talk; be willing to remain in discomfort; have hard conversations, with love; value relationships over perfectionism; don’t expect every trans person to want to educate you, but honor those who do; stay in your heart rather than your head; don’t ask a trans person anything you wouldn’t ask a cis person; comfort those who are hurting and build awareness with other cis people; uplift trans voices.[9]

I urge you not to encounter these suggestions simply as “things to do.” I say this because all too often, when those of us who occupy the center learn there’s a problem, or that someone’s been offended or hurt in some way, our impulse is to do something to get past the pain and anger as quickly as possible, to fix the problem, to make it go away—so we can return to the status quo. That’s not what this list is for. This list is not for doing so much as it is for being. It’s not a ‘to do’ list, it’s a ‘to be’ list.

Similarly, in her book White Fragility, Robin Diangelo offers a list of behaviors for White people to engage in when confronted with their own racism. Her list includes: Don’t just dismiss feedback. Don’t get angry. Don’t make excuses. Believe. Listen. Apologize. Reflect. Process. Engage.[10] Again, it’s not a ‘to do’ list. It’s a ‘to be’ list. It describes a way of being that is open, receptive, spacious, ego-less. This is how people on the margins need people in the center to be in order for them to come fully into the center and begin their work of redesign.  

A note on apology. Mindful that people at the institutional center, people with privileged identities will inevitably make mistakes as we undergo these changes, apology is an essential skill. The UU World editor, Chris Walton, offered a powerful apology. He wrote: “I am profoundly saddened and deeply sorry to have caused pain to people who matter to me and whose dignity and worth I had thought we were promoting with the piece. As the magazine’s editor, I was wrong to decide to publish this essay and I apologize for the pain it has caused.”[11]

Centering is immensely difficult work. But I believe we are close to or at a tipping point. I suppose there are many who might disagree with me, but I see our various centers (congregational, regional, and national) learning not to dismiss the margins. I see reflection happening, apologies happening, structures evolving, new practices are emerging, and accountability shifting. Yes, this transformation is painfully slow, but I see us tipping.

Theresa Soto promises “we will find the people ready to be / on the freedom for the people way.”[12] I really want Soto to find those people at the center of our UU congregations. I believe we—and by ‘we’ I really do mean all of us—are the people ready to be on the freedom for the people way. I pray that we may be those people. I challenge: let’s be those people! I encourage: we can be those people. And I eagerly anticipate the day when we can say with confidence: we are those people.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] French, Kimberly, “After L, G and B,” UU World, March 1, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/after-l-g-b?fbclid=IwAR3qQ-2rO9yhMpcx_O_LloGxwZGGZ5qsuXCrnEkK9pYP4w9PB7hqJ6VQh8Y.

[2] Hammamy, Ranwa and Saeed, Sana, “About Us Without Us: A Call to Our Unitarian Universalist Siblings from Muslim Unitarian Universalists,” unpublished open letter, late March, 2019. See: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J9ccz9cmg2mmLu9hbVQqOYkYcoyUxL7YfmvpnqPIeNw/edit?fbclid=IwAR1zkpRxCzSzjE8GM4R4SKK0dCxmvcbR4AJBmdN2l5MHf5cKhVu6f1-Kwxk.

[3] Pawelek, Josh, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.XQQjx4hKhPY.

[4] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans*, non-binary, genderqueer and gender-expansive friends and kin: (and those of us whose gender is survival)” Spilling the Light: Meditations on Hope and Resilience (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2019) pp. 12-13.

[5]Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[6] Pawelek, Josh, “Centering the Other as Spiritual Practice,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, September 30, 2018. See: http://uuse.org/centering-the-margins-as-spiritual-practice/#.XQQotohKhPY.

[7] Beal, CB, “Centering the Marginalized: symphony and triptych,” Medium.com, March 6, 2019. See:  https://medium.com/@jpc_cb/centering-the-marginalized-symphony-and-triptych-9dabc93cd461.

[8] Read Alex Kapitan’s full statement at Kapitan, Alex, “What It Takes to De-Center Privilege: The Failure of this Week’s UU World Article,” Roots Grow the Tree: A Dailogue, March 6, 2019. See: https://rootsgrowthetree.com/2019/03/06/what-it-takes-to-de-center-privilege/.

[9] “Tips for Talking About the UU World Article,” Transforming Hearts Collective, March 8, 2019. See: https://www.transformingheartscollective.org/stories/2019/3/8/tips-for-talking-about-the-uu-world-article?fbclid=IwAR3a3AgGXiiwn7OerWOXV3645Pe5Qh4ZeiaHQQEXqAfwFNy8i5Xzl8g1n8s.

[10] Diangelo, Robin, White Fracility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018) p. 141.

[11] Walton, Chris, “Our Story Hurt People,” UU World, March 6, 2019. See: https://www.uuworld.org/articles/apology-spring-2019.

[12] Soto, Theresa I, “dear trans…” Spilling the Light, pp. 12-13.