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Religious Discernment: Reflections from a Black Woman Moving Through UU Spaces

This essay was written in 2022 for the Renaissance Credentialing Program, a training program provided by the Unitarian Universalist Association to certify religious education professionals in 14 modules ranging from curriculum and faith development to system theory and multiculturalism. The assignment was to write three separate essays that covered our understanding of anti-racism, our self-care/spiritual growth, and what has changed for us as we’ve moved through the process of credentialing. I combined these three essays into one concise piece to convey my thoughts.

Originally published January 31st, 2023.

I’ve struggled with how to write this reflection. At first, my concern was that I would sound facetious, my life has ensured that I am painfully aware of racism and bigotry. From having a white grandmother who was openly racist toward her children while claiming she couldn’t be racist because she had married a Black man, to being raised by her son who still to this day hasn’t unpacked the harm his upbringing caused; I received all sorts of conflicting messages about what it meant to be Black, a woman, and the value my life had when those two identities intersected.

Years of unpacking the bias, anti-Blackness, and trauma inside and outside of my home taught me that the world was not fair and there are places I hold power and places I most certainly don’t. What I do with the privileges I have and with the oppression, I face not only impacts my own existence but others as well. While I grappled with how to be clear and concise without being condescending, I found myself dealing with the ever-prevailing racism in Unitarian Universalism.

Having to reconcile how I must prove in this essay, to a predominantly white panel, that I understand racism and the need for anti-racism to be weaved into every fabric of this faith, while battling the depression that being ambushed by someone’s vitriol in a Zoom meeting has caused is asking for a level of cognitive dissonance that my brain refuses to create. Not a single white person who was in that meeting interjected, after the fact they were all in agreement that what happened wasn’t ok and they felt bad that it caused me harm, but their feelings did not compel them to action when the harm was happening. Which is a pervasive problem in white liberal circles, UUism being no different.

Do I understand anti-racism? Yes, on a deeply personal and nuanced level. It isn’t only the MAGA hat-wearing, Confederate flag-waving stereotype of whiteness that exhibits racism. It is a multilayered system that operates in every facet of our lives perverting even the most well-meaning of spaces with its toxicity. It is the colorism that allows me to move through white spaces with more ease than other members of my family, but the internalized anti-Blackness that leads my white colleagues and congregational members to recoil and clutch their imaginary pearls at the sight of my box braids. They would deem themselves to be anti-racist, but anti-racism is not a bumper sticker you can throw on your electric car. It is work, lifelong work, that we each must do to break the hold white supremacy has on our perceptions and understanding of who does and doesn’t have humanity and whose life is and isn’t worthy of existing wholly as they are.

I know the assignment calls for these essays to be separate, but to be true to the intersections of who I am and what those identities mean in this faith I can’t compartmentalize these reflections as each part leads to the whole of who I am. To create balance and set boundaries I must be keenly aware of the way white supremacy moves in UU spaces and how I move in return impacts any anti-racism work that is or will be done. My tone, body language, and even appearance must be weighed when I’m establishing a boundary. Even more so when the request for my time also includes emotional labor. There is an air of entitlement to the labor of BIPOC UUs by white UUs. BIPOC UUs are wanted, or needed as we’re told, in UU spaces and at UU tables, but when we establish that our labor isn’t free, we’re met with pushback. Every time I instill a boundary, say no, or state that I will not overextend myself to save whiteness from itself I am doing anti-racism work.

This also ties into my self-care and life balance. To do the anti-racism work needed in UU spaces I keep what I reveal and how close I get to others to a minimum. My personal life is sacred and maintaining the peace that exists in it is vital to my well-being, this means limiting and curating how much of my personal life is exposed to UU spaces. I am even more particular about how and when I express discomfort and disappointment with Unitarian Universalism. It’s a constant dance of code-switching that allows me to experience peace while doing the hard work needed. I still struggle with finding spiritual renewal. UU spaces, in theory, should provide that for me but under the weight of white supremacy, it’s hard some days to feel renewed when I’m constantly being siphoned from. The mentors I’ve made during this process have helped me understand the importance of finding little slices of UU heaven in all the commotion of change.

The Finding Our Way Home retreat is what I envisioned Unitarian Universalism to be when I landed on the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s virtual doorway 14 years ago. The experiences I’ve had during FOWH services and workshops last year filled my cup in a way I was starting to believe wasn’t possible in the world of UUism. It restored my hope in what I was doing, it made me want to get back to the work of dismantling white supremacy in our faith, communities, and the larger world. I wish I could experience that soul-shaking joy more often in UU spaces. Which brings me to the last reflection, what do I envision for my role going forward?

It's easy to get disheartened being Black in this faith, I’ve walked away a few times due to the suffocating racism at work and understand why others do as well, but I believe this faith and our aspirations have the potential for great change. Change doesn’t happen without immense work and discomfort, though. I’ve approached the process of credentialing as a discernment period, an opportunity to dig deeper into Unitarian Universalism and decide if it’s a place I can -or even should- be. I’m still in that period and I don’t believe I’ll ever leave it. By constantly evaluating my place in this faith I’m able to stay objective about the pros and cons. This allows me to lead in my position from a place of understanding for white UUs who are waking up to the realities faced by those of us not sitting atop privilege mountain, while also giving me the strength to keep picking away at the table that UUism built out of oppression so something better can be built in its place.

This means pushing for, and creating, lifespan faith development opportunities that look critically at our past, imagine our future, and then put those desires into action. Allowing UUism to move from being an aspirational group of predominately white people who rest on their laurels, to the Beloved Community of rich diversity and radical inclusion that exists in small sub-sections of the Unitarian Universalist faith.

As for what’s changed for me, I was always on the fence about wearing the label of Unitarian Universalist. How can I claim to be something when I don’t see myself represented? How can I claim a label when that label asks for my humanity to be the kindling in its chalice? How can I not wear the label of a faith I’ve given 14 years of time, money, and labor to? I’m no longer on the fence. This faith isn’t where I need it to be for me to comfortably claim it loud and proud, but I want it to be. I can give my labor; I can nurture the faith and tend to it as it grows and changes into something I can proudly claim as a part of my identity without having to claim it as part of my identity now.

Being a Black religious professional in Unitarian Universalism means I can’t compartmentalize anti-racism, self-care, and my professional future. They exist together in the intersections of my identity. To respect myself and my worth, I refuse to put each of those layers into boxes. My lived experiences inform my anti-racism work. My self-care, my spiritual health, and most importantly the boundaries I set are part of the anti-racism work I do and vital to me being able to continue to do that work in this faith. My future in this faith, in leadership, changing the narrative on what Unitarian Universalism is and isn’t, is wrapped into the work I do personally and professionally. I am a multifaceted being who wears many labels, and it is my hope that one day I can wear the label of Unitarian Universalist with the same pride I wear the others.

Until then, we have work to do.

Copyright(c) 2022 Rayven Holmes

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