As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.

White Supremacy at Unitarian Universalist Society: East?

A reflection from the Social Justice / Anti- Oppression Committee

With all we do to foster positive relations and support for people of the global majority, how can Rev. Josh (in his May 7 sermon) possibly say we are susceptible to white supremacy? We are not trying to squelch the right to vote or defending the police when another young black man is shot for a minor offense or sometimes for no reason at all.

What makes the unconscious sense of supremacy so difficult to perceive is its quietness. What we do actively as a congregation is very much trying to support people of color in achieving equality in education, in treatment by police, and in many other areas. But because the vast majority of us have grown up in an essentially racist society, we have become used to the many ways that people of color remain at the edges rather than at the center of life in the United States.

Much of this is unspoken and difficult to notice if one is not paying close attention. A young child of color might be punished more severely in school while a white child might just get a call to a parent or a reminder from the teacher for the exact same behavior. And it might even be more subtle than that, an omission rather than a commission. As Rev. Josh pointed out in his May 7th sermon, UUS:E has not set a formal goal of hiring a racially diverse staff. No one deliberately set out to exclude anyone—it just doesn’t occur to us in the normal course of events to encourage people of color to apply for jobs at UUS:E.

In the same way that women can recognize sexism in operation when men see themselves acting as they’ve always acted—what’s the problem?—people of the global majority can pick up on the minor, quiet, ways that white people and institutions reveal an unexamined sense of superiority. “This is how we do things.” And some of it is not even spoken—just a quiet assumption that whiteness is the standard by which everything else should be judged.

Here is a link to an online test that measures our automatic (as opposed to stated) preference for one race or another. Try it out—it’s pretty interesting. http://www.understandingprejudice.org/iat/racfram e.htm

We have much work to do in this area, personally and collectively. Watch for more on this topic.

White Supremacy Teach-In

Rev. Josh Pawelek

During last year’s presidential campaign there was an almost constant outcry from white conservative and working class voters who were tired of being called racist. They were especially tired of progressive white people on the coasts and in large cities calling them racist. ‘Just because we want to end illegal immigration doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support law and order doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ ‘Just because we support a temporary Muslim ban doesn’t mean we’re racist.’ Even traditional white supremacists started asking, ‘if it’s ok to say black lives matter, why is it racist to say white lives matter?

As you may expect, I have responses to each of these arguments. Each of them, if enacted in real life, have racist outcomes, regardless of the intent of the people who promote them. But this White Supremacy Teach-In is not about other peoples’ racism. It is about how white supremacy continues to operate in our beloved Unitarian Universalist faith. I remember hearing that outcry during the campaign. I remember wondering for a moment: have I become a coastal elite, looking down my hypocritical nose at heartland, rust-belt and southern white people who support a candidate who expresses racist views? Some of you asked that same question: ‘Are we those coastal elites at whom conservative white voters are so angry?’ And to some degree, at least for me, the answer is ‘yes.’ I was—and continue to be—angry at not only the racism, but the misogyny, homophobia, religious bigotry and classism driving major policy proposals and executive orders in Washington, DC, and having a negative social, economic and political impact not only on people of color, indigenous people, women, GLBTQ people, Muslims, but on many of those angry white voters as well.

But if that is the extent of my analysis, then shame on me. If the problem, as I assess it, lies only with those people out there and not with me too, then not only have I become that stereotype of the liberal, coastal elite, but I don’t really understand how white supremacy works. If all I really do is point fingers at other people, am I not excusing myself from taking any responsibility for the problem? Whenever I heard that outcry—stop calling us racist!—I wondered if there might be some legitimacy to the request, but only for a moment. It’s not a legitimate request. But the reason I feel confident saying that is because I know the problem does not lie simply with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Jeff sessions, Breitbart and Fox News, or police over-reaching, ICE deporting, and big energy companies building pipelines across lands sacred to indigenous people. It lies with white liberals too. It lies with me too. As much as our nation was founded on egalitarian ideals, it was also founded on an unexamined assumption and vision of white supremacy. Despite centuries of resistance, that foundation has yet to be sufficiently eroded, and thus white supremacy continues to move through virtually all aspects of our lives, including our religious lives. I don’t give those other white people a pass, because I don’t give a pass to myself, my family, my community or to this faith I love deeply.

Our Unitarian Universalist principles name the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the imperative of justice, equity and compassion in human relations. As such they call us to be constantly vigilant about confronting white supremacy and other forms of oppression in ourselves and in the world, and I could and should be preaching this sermon at any time. But why today? And, for that matter, why are more than 600 Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country doing the same thing today?

It’s been a rough few months for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As many of you know, in early April, the Rev. Peter Morales resigned as President of the UUA in the midst of allegations of racism in hiring practices. For background, I want to read a section of a March 27th UU World magazine article entitled, “Critics Decry ‘White Supremacy’ in Hiring Practices.

“The hiring in March of a white male minister to a regional leadership position within the [UUA], an organization in which almost all the top staff positions are held by white people, has sparked controversy over whether the UUA is living its stated racial justice values.” News of this hiring “emerged as UU religious professionals of color were gathered in Baltimore for [an] annual … retreat on March 17. One of those religious professionals [who identifies racially as Chicana-Latina] … told colleagues at the retreat that she had been a finalist for the job but had been told she was not “the right fit for the team….”

Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over [a] woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job. Critics pointed out that the five regional leads, who supervise the fifty members of the UUA’s Congregational Life staff … were all white ministers….

UUA Moderator Jim Key said the Board of Trustees has received a dozen emails and letters expressing unhappiness over the lack of diversity in UUA staffing…. One of those emails—a letter signed by 121 UU ministers and other religious professionals—said that ‘the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming….’ Noting that people of color make up no more than 11 percent of any rank of UUA employees except service workers, where they are 84 percent …, the letter called for a change in hiring practices and a public conversation about monitoring the Association’s success in creating a multicultural staff.”[1]

Over the next few weeks the controversy grew. On April 1st Rev. Morales resign, saying he had lost the trust of too many people to effectively lead the UUA at this time.[2]  Eventually more senior staff announced resignations.

As soon as the controversy erupted, many Unitarian Universalists religious professionals of color and their white allies began using the term white supremacy to describe it. (Actually, many of us have been using this term for decades, but this is the first time in my memory that Unitarian Universalists are engaging deeply with it.) The organization Black Lives UU and some of its partners called for congregations to dedicate their worship services on April 30th or May 7th to a “white supremacy teach-in.” That’s the reason for today’s service.

Wait. What? White supremacy? In Unitarian Universalism? How can white supremacy apply to our justice-seeking, Black-Lives-Matter supporting, refugee resettling, criminal-justice reforming, GBLTQ-welcoming, earth-saving, answering-the-call-of-love, liberal faith? There must be some mistake. White supremacy applies to those other white people—the Alt Right, the people who want border walls and Muslims bans, who desecrate Jewish cemeteries, who commit hate crimes. Well, yes, but in pointing my finger at someone else, I am likely excusing myself from taking responsibility for the problem. Let’s explore this.    

When my people of color, indigenous people and white antiracist colleagues—people who I know and love and have worked with for many years—use the term white supremacy to describe Unitarian Universalism, I’ve learned to listen. I’ve learned to open my heart, approach the conversation with curiosity, and try to understand why the term makes sense. I’ve learned people don’t use this term merely to be provocative. They don’t use it to be mean. They don’t use it to make white people feel guilty. They use it to make sense of their own painful experiences within Unitarian Universalism. They use it to help themselves and others understand why decent, compassionate, loving, justice-seeking white people can nevertheless do and say things that are hurtful, often with no awareness. They use it to help themselves and others understand why spiritually open, love-centered, justice-seeking institutions can fail to practice stated commitments to diversity, multiculturalism and antiracism. In using this term, no one is calling anyone else a white supremacist. No one is likening the UUA or our congregations to the KKK or the Alt Right. But they are pointing out how our institutions center white people, white identity, experience, culture, ministers, history and spirituality; and how it makes them feel excluded, ‘less than,’ and invisible. When a hiring pattern favoring white people for high level positions becomes apparent, it is evidence that a deep-seeded white supremacy is operating. Not a hateful, violent white supremacy, but one that nevertheless has a painful impact on the lives of people of color in our denomination.

Remember that the Unitarian and Universalist denominations were founded by white people to serve the spiritual needs of white people in the decades following the founding of the United States, which was by law a country for white people.[3] People of color were present among our spiritual forebears, but they were highly marginalized, in part because they had a less-than-human legal status in the larger society. White identity, values, culture, spirituality, music, food and concerns were at the center of early Unitarian and Universalist institutional life. That’s the white supremacy we’re talking about—that unexamined assumption that the center is always white. Today much has changed about our faith. And much has changed about America.  But if our institutions have never made a serious commitment to decentering whiteness, then it is always possible for white supremacy to operate. Even in the midst of our support for Black Lives Matter, refugee resettlement, former inmates, domestic workers and undocumented people—all of it essential work expressing our commitment to confronting racism—we can still perpetuate white supremacy.

Does it operate here? Yes. It’s not easy to say that, but yes. We were talking about this at the Social Justice / Anti-Oppression Committee meeting this past Tuesday. The UUA has a stated goal of hiring a diverse, multicultural staff. They failed to reach that goal, but at least they have such a goal. We can’t say the same thing. Over the past five years, as we’ve done hiring for two major positions, we never specified that a racially diverse staff should be an outcome of our hiring efforts. One could argue ‘that’s not white supremacy—we just want to hire the best person for the job regardless of race,’ or, ‘it’s impractical to set racial quotas with such a small staff.’ There are hundreds of arguments like these. But if we never affirm that we want racial and cultural diversity in our staff, in our leadership team, in our membership, in the artists whose work adorns our walls, in our Sunday speakers, or in our partners in the wider community, then we’ll never give ourselves the opportunity to think through how these goals might be achievable; whiteness will continue to be our unexamined institutional center; and the risk of white supremacy operating here will remain.

What can we do? If white supremacy operates because whiteness occupies the center of our institutions, then our task is to learn the art of decentering whiteness and centering the experiences of people of color and indigenous people. This is not a punishment or a demotion for white people. It does not mean white people are bad or any less deserving of love, care and support, or that we somehow have less inherent worth and dignity. But it does ask white people to intentionally make room for, to listen to, to follow, to be accountable to, to act in solidarity with people of color and indigenous people.

In my conversations with people of color here and in other UU congregations, people say it can be exhausting to be among white people who never seem to fully acknowledge the profound differences in life experience. One person says, “I would like someone to recognize that to be Black in America is to have lived an entire life perceived as inferior and illegitimate, directly and indirectly, daily from early childhood to adulthood compounded over a lifetime and that it is a significantly different way of existing and experiencing America than [for] those [who] benefit from white privilege. These differences need to be acknowledged.” And it’s not just the experience of oppression that people of color can bring to institutional center; they also bring traditions of resistance to oppression, as well as different experiences of culture, family, spirituality, language, history, creativity, vision. It strikes me that if these different experiences were regularly spoken aloud and fully embraced at the center of our congregational life, it would be much more difficult for white supremacy to operate in that unexamined, often unconscious way. It would be more visible, easier to confront; and our congregation would start to change in beautiful and compelling ways.

I’m describing a huge shift in the way Unitarian Universalism approaches its institutional life. I have no illusions that making this shift will be easy, or that we will not consciously and unconsciously seek ways to avoid it—old habits do indeed die hard. But I am convinced our principles call us to embrace this shift.

I leave you with words adapted from white UU antiracism activist, Chris Crass, who says: “White supremacy, you cannot have me. You cannot have my family; you cannot have my faith; you cannot have my congregation. I will not bow to the … fear you put on me. For today, I choose to rise?—?to rise for racial justice, to rise and show up for my siblings of color and indigenous siblings…. They have courageously led us into a fight to make ourselves the faith that these times call us to be: the faith of salvation from the death culture, the faith of [rituals, ceremonies, theologies, and sacred actions] that nourish and grow beloved community. I might be scared. I might be out of my comfort zone. I might not know what I’m supposed to do. I might even disagree…. Yet, I’m going to show up … with my community, with my faith … and say ‘yes’ to racial justice, ‘yes’ to being on the journey, ‘yes’ to building a new way, ‘yes’ to shattering that which does not serve this goal. I’m going to find sources of strength, hope and courage I didn’t even realize existed. Today I say ‘yes’ to getting free from supremacy systems and ‘yes’ to a Unitarian Universalist faith that is alive for racial justice, on a path to be a spiritual home for more and more people hungry for beloved community working for collective liberation.”[4]

[1] McArdle, Elaine, “Critics See White Supremacy in UUA Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 27, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/critics-challenge-uua-hiring-practices.

[2] Walton, Chris, “UUA President Resigns Amid Controversy Over Hiring Practices,” UU World, March 30, 2017. See: http://www.uuworld.org/articles/peter-morales-resigns.

[3] The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted citizenship to “any alien, being a free white person” who had been in the U.S. for two years. In effect, it left out indentured servants, slaves, and most women. See: http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226.

[4] Crass, Chris, “Let’s Move Beyond Fear of the words ‘White Supremacy’ and say Yes to Racial Justice!” April 28, 2017. See: https://medium.com/@chriscrass/im-scared-too-and-together-let-s-say-yes-917dd4317786.

 

Something My Grandfather Seemed to Know About Race and Class

Rev. Josh Pawelek

I want to share with you some stories about my father’s father, Stanley J. Pawelek.  Grandad Pawelek seemed to know something about race and class that feels extraordinarily important for this moment in American history.

He was the oldest of nine children born and raised in Thorp, Wisconsin. He was the son of Polish Catholic immigrants who didn’t speak English. Thorp was a farm town, and the Paweleks were subsistence farmers. They owned two acres of land and some animals—mostly chickens. My father remembers visiting Thorp with his parents when he was young. He loved Thorp. He loved the land. He loved eating fresh eggs for breakfast. He says his extended family was lovely in the sense that they were tight-knit and still practiced Polish culture and traditions. I get the impression from my father they were ‘salt-of-the-earth’ people. When he was with them he was one of them. He belonged. He felt loved. But there was a shadow side. They were racist. Like so many European immigrants who would eventually lose their hyphens and become White Americans, the Paweleks very quickly picked up American racism towards Blacks and other people of color. In fact, picking up and expressing that racism was part of becoming White. My grandad was no exception. My father remembers him using racist jokes and slurs. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites. He didn’t have much contact with Hispanics, Asians, Arabs and Native Americans; but I suspect if he had he would have held racist beliefs about them too.

My grandad also held deep admiration for what he called “the working man,” specifically people who worked with their hands. “A man doesn’t need a college degree to achieve the American dream,” he would often tell my father. A man could work with his hands—build things, manufacture things, repair things—and earn a good living, good enough to support a family, purchase a home and retire with enough savings to maintain a decent standard of living. He saw the working man as the proud, heroic heart of American society.

Oddly, he did not possess the gift of working with his hands, which may be why he developed a very specific vision for his life. He wanted to be the director of an industrial arts program for a major urban school system. He wanted to help train the next generation of working men. He knew this by the time he reached high school. He went to college to learn how to teach industrial arts and eventually earned a Ph.D. in vocational education from the University of Minnesota. In the early 1940s the Baltimore, MD board of education hired him as Supervisor for Industrial Arts, a job he held for over 30 years. He retired in the mid-70s for health reasons related to diabetes and died soon after that.

Baltimore desegregated its schools soon after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. As was the case in many towns and cities, White parents boycotted. They kept their children home. Grandad Pawelek refused to participate in the boycott. He went to work and he sent his kids to school. My father has vivid memories of White parents lining the walkway to the school entrance, taunting and spitting at him and the small handful of White students whose parents weren’t boycotting. We aren’t sure what my grandfather thought about integration or the boycott. The message to my father was crystal clear: your education is more important than whatever I may think or say about Black people.

In the pre-segregation era when my father was in elementary school, he and my grandad had an interesting Saturday morning routine. They would visit the schools under Grandad’s supervision. They would drive first to a White school, get out of the car, enter the shop wing, remove the best tools and equipment, load up the car, drive it across the city to a Black school, and replace what my father calls the ‘crappy’ tools and equipment at the Black school with the high quality tools and equipment from the White school. While they did this, my grandad would talk to his son about the working man. He didn’t talk about the White working man. It was just the working man. As Supervisor for Industrial Arts for the City of Baltimore, he understood it was his job to insure that every student received an education that would enable them to take their place in that proud, heroic heart of American society. If the Black schools under his supervision did not have adequate tools to successfully educate Black students, it reflected poorly on his leadership and he would do what he could to make things fair.

What I find so fascinating and confusing about this story is that despite his racist beliefs, he behaved in a principled way. He believed Blacks were inferior to Whites, but somehow his racism did not eclipse his sense of obligation to every school, teacher and student under his supervision. His racism did not eclipse his commitment to equality of opportunity. His racism did not eclipse his vision of who America is for, who could enter the working class, get a good job, support a family, purchase a home. His principles were bigger than his racism. His America was bigger than his racism.

The original title of this sermon was “What About All That Rage?” There are two underlying sources of White rage in the United States. The first is legitimate and the nation—including communities of faith—needs to address it: rage at rising economic inequality, economic neglect, the disappearance of traditional blue color jobs, a related deterioration of communities where those jobs were prevalent, and a prevailing sense of alienation, cynicism and loss in those communities. Though this rage is most closely associated in the public mind with White communities in the American rust belt—the declining manufacturing centers of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin—it exists everywhere in the country. It existed long before the 2016 presidential campaign, and people feel it across the political spectrum. Bernie Sanders spoke to this rage on the political left as much as Donald Trump on the right. During the party primaries it was fascinating to note a significant overlap among Sanders and Trump supporters. On the Democratic side in particular, often voters weren’t choosing between Sanders and Clinton. They were choosing between Sanders and Trump. In my sermon on the Sunday after the election I said if this election result was truly “a cry for economic renewal; if President-elect Trump and his supporters understand he has just been charged with dismantling the forces driving the nation’s industrial decline, driving the stark, immoral and unsustainable rise in income inequality, driving the erosion of workers’ rights, wages and dignity … that’s a movement I want to be in.”[1] Principle, not party.

But there’s a second source of White rage which dashes my hopes for this movement: the rage of White supremacy, White nationalism and xenophobia mingled with an alarming embrace of misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. This rage is also not new, but it has been given new life with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. I do not believe everyone who voted for Trump supports White supremacy. I am heartened when I see Trump voters, Republicans and conservatives trying to distance themselves from White supremacy and from Trump’s more egregious statements. Nevertheless, this rage is misguided, dangerous and un-American. It is a form of evil, and the nation—including communities of faith—need to counter it resolutely.

These two sources of White rage became entangled during the campaign. Trump’s rhetoric enabled the entanglement. Legitimate White rage over the effects of globalism, factory closures, job losses, workplace automation and income inequality became entangled with illegitimate racist calls for border walls, Muslim bans, law and order, stop and frisk policing and the continuing roll-back of voting rights. Illegitimate and immoral White American racism hijacked legitimate, moral anger at the nation’s economic condition. White American racism trumped America’s principles of fairness, justice and equality. It will be enormously important in the coming months and years to disentangle these two sources of White rage. The church must send us forth to engage with the rage for economic renewal, and to confront, challenge, and turn back the rage for White supremacy.

Grandad Pawelek said racist things and held racist beliefs. But from what we can tell, his racism didn’t become entangled with his vision of who could occupy that proud, heroic working class heart of America. While his racism was wrong, his understanding of the working class was right. Even before desegregation, even before the civil rights movement was in full gear, the American working class was never a purely White class. It has always been multiracial, multicultural, multi-ethnic. And it has always included women. It has always experienced racial tensions. It has its own history of racial and gender segregation, but it has always been a diverse class. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a White working class. There is. It has a history, culture, traditions, expectations. But when politicians and the media use this term to refer to a racially-identified group of voters with current and historic ties to American manufacturing, it gives a misleading impression of how diverse the working class really is. A brief glance at data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals there are Black, Hispanic, Asian and women workers in virtually every type of working class job.[2] And a 2016 study by Valerie Wilson, [3] director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, estimates that the American working class will be majority people of color by 2032.[4]

I’m pointing this out because it’s not just White workers who are angry about the impacts of globalism and income inequality. People of color workers have been enraged about these problems far longer than White workers have. Industrial manufacturing jobs left cities first, decimated Black and Hispanic communities first.[5] The Movement for Black Lives economic justice demands call for economic renewal designed primarily to benefit Black people, but if implemented would actually benefit all working class people. They’re calling for, among other things, a progressive restructuring of the tax code, federal and state jobs programs that provide a living wage, the right for workers to organize, restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act to break up large banks, renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities, and protections for workers in unregulated industries—domestic workers, farm workers, tipped workers and incarcerated workers.[6]

It was weird. Donald Trump kicked off his Presidential Campaign on June 16th, 2015, and even then I could sense the White working class rage he was channeling. Exactly one week prior to that I was arrested in Hartford at a Black Lives Matter action. I remember thinking, first, Donald Trump, you’re the 1% of the 1%–you don’t get to be angry. We’re angry. Black Lives Matter is Angry. Immigrants’ rights activists are angry. Voting rights activists are angry. You don’t get to be angry. But then as that legitimate White rage at globalism and “the rigged system” became more clear, I kept wondering, perhaps naively, why does the White working class like him? Why isn’t the White working class supporting the Black Lives Matter economic justice agenda? Why isn’t the White working class making the connection to all workers, to what’s happening in urban centers, on Indian reservations, to the environment, to militarism? Why can’t all of us who care about these things be angry together in a multifaceted movement for black liberation, gender justice, worker rights, immigration reform, environmental justice, demilitarization, criminal justice reform, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights?

Why? Because, in this case, Donald Trump made racism bigger than America. He entangled legitimate White rage with White identity politics, with racist dog-whistles, with xenophobic fear mongering, with the degradation of women. He didn’t strengthen the White working class. He isolated the White working class from its natural allies. He played the White working class, and in so doing, he is now poised to reverse years of civil rights gains, years of environmental gains, years of gains for women’s rights, years of health care gains, and years of regulations intended to protect the very workers for whom he claims to speak. That’s how racism rolls. It’s also how the rich get richer.

In his farewell speech Tuesday, President Obama made the argument that there will not be economic progress for working people if working people remain divided along racial lines. He said “Blacks and other minority groups [need to tie] our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who …has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change…. White Americans [must acknowledge] that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…. They’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised….  Native-born Americans [must remember] that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles—[they] were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.” [7]

Let’s take his words to heart. Let’s imagine an America for everyone. And let’s fight for it: in the streets, at the marches, in the legislative halls, in the schools, in the media, and maybe even on a Saturday morning when nobody’s looking and the good tools need to be moved. Let’s make America greater than its racism!

When my grandad died, our family made the trip to Baltimore to attend the funeral. I vaguely remember arriving late. And I vaguely remember for a moment thinking we were in the wrong church. Our white Pawelek family walked into a church filled with Black people. Most of them were the teachers and students who had worked with Stan Pawelek over the years. Working men and women. The proud, heroic heart of America had come to pay its respects.

His racism was real. His America was greater.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Josh M., “Sending Forth: Six Reflections on the 2016 United States Presidential Election,” a sermon delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, November 13, 2016. See: http://revjoshpawelek.org/sending-forth/.

[2] See the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey” at https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18.htm.

[3] See biographical information for Valerie Wilson at http://www.epi.org/people/valerie-wilson/.

[4] Wilson’s study is entitled “People of color will be a majority of the American working class in 2032: What this means for the effort to grow wages and reduce inequality.” It was published on June 9, 2016. View it here: http://www.epi.org/publication/the-changing-demographics-of-americas-working-class/.

[5] William Julius Wilson’s 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Vintage Books) is a definitive resource on this issue.

[6] Study the Movement for Black Lives economic justice platform here: https://policy.m4bl.org/economic-justice/.

[7] “President Obama’s Farwell Speech: Full Video and Text,” nytimes.com, January 10, 2017. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/10/us/politics/obama-farewell-address-speech.html?_r=0.