Making This Place Beautiful

September 11, 2017 by Guest Faculty Bloggers

Invocation delivered at Convocation by Shayna Appel '78

The legendary poet, writer, playwright and social activist James Baldwin once wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Some of you who have been born and/or raised in America have probably heard the term “white supremacy.” Some of you who grace us with your presence today who come from countries that have endured the hard road of colonization may also be familiar with the term. For many of us, the term "white supremacy" conjures up images of hoods and mobs, or maybe even images from recent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Let me be clear for our purposes this morning that, when I use the term “white supremacy,” I am speaking about a set of institutional assumptions and practices, that often operate unconsciously, and which tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color.

Last Spring, one of the denominations I serve came face to face with an extraordinarily difficult realization. Despite our best intentions to create a force in the world for good, despite the many good works we did well in the arena of racial equality, despite our history of being way out front as a main-line denomination that fought proudly for the rights of LGBTQ people, we found ourselves confronted with an ugly truth. People of color made up no more than 11 percent of any rank of denominational employees, except in the category of service workers, where they represented 84 percent of employees. Almost all of our top staff positions were held by white people.

The revelation within the Unitarian Universalist Association that white supremacy (a set of institutional assumptions and practices that benefit white people and exclude people of color) was operating in our hiring practices sparked a major controversy over whether or not we were living into our stated racial justice values, and by the time this phase of what has become a protracted struggle for racial justice was over, the President of the Unitarian Universalist Association had stepped down, as had the President of the UU Ministers Association and many other top staffers throughout the organization.

It is a truism, you know, that every decent realtor trying to sell you a dump of a house will eventually begin chirping on about its "good bones." They’ll tell you, “This place could be beautiful. You could make this place beautiful![1]

By the spring of 2017, I was starting to feel like my spiritual home had become a dump of a house. I was appalled by most of what people were writing to, and about, one another. And, to be honest, I was ashamed to have been so deeply engaged in an organization and simultaneously so totally unaware of the white supremacy that was operating so prolifically. I know better. I’ve been graced with an extraordinary academic education and I have been privileged to serve in organizations under some really powerful Black leadership. And still, I missed it. I wasn’t paying attention to institutional assumptions and practices and so I failed to see that ours were benefiting white people and excluding people of color. I missed it. And I was not alone.

The fallout from the “UU Spring” sparked a denominational-wide examination directed at helping us see clearly how and where white supremacy had impacted not only hiring practices within the UUA, but our curriculum, our worship, our efforts at justice ministry… in fact, our entire UU culture. Between last April and May, more than 680 UU congregations, representing more than 65 percent of our 1,038 churches nation wide, participated in a teach-in that examined how white supremacy plays out in UU spaces, including in our congregations. In June, white supremacy within our movement was the topic for our international annual gatherings of ministers and laity alike.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” By the time of our international, denomination-wide gatherings, Unitarian Universalists across this nation were at least engaged in the hard work of “facing” the very deep and very painful reality regarding our institutional assumptions and practices.

But I was still a bit uncertain about our house - about our bones - about our deepest core values as a denomination and a movement, until…

On the last night of General Assembly two white UU Staffers were brutally mugged and robbed in the French Quarter by four Black men. Both were hospitalized, one in critical condition. Thankfully, both survived, but Tim, the one who was admitted in critical condition, has a long road to recovery ahead of him and he may well never be the person he was before the attack.

Word went out and a crowd-funding site was established to raise money for both staffers and their families. Travel and medical expenses were going to be significant. And it was in the middle of all this work to support our staffers that I got a glimpse of “the bones” of my beloved denomination, because it was in the middle of this work to support our staffers that one lone voice cried out in the wilderness, “What about the defense fund for the guys who did this?”

You see, the young men who had attacked our staffers were themselves victims. All of them had lost family members and homes during hurricane Katrina. Three of the four wound up wards of the New Orleans foster care system, but with so few families intact following the hurricane, these three boys found themselves in an orphanage.

In short, the four men who attacked our staffers were, themselves, victims. Victims of institutional assumptions and practices that had benefited white people, and excluded and oppressed people of color. “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced,” and we had been doing some facing, both in New Orleans and in the many weeks that preceded our time there. We had learned a little about getting beyond our own defensiveness and really listening to the experience of those who had been actually fighting oppression for over 400 years! We had done a little facing. And I thank God that we had done enough facing that at least some of our folks had the good sense to realize that the struggle for racial equality will have to include the victims - ALL of the victims - and that no movement seeking to overturn the systems of white supremacy in America will ever be successful if, when the going gets tough, it turns its back on the consequences of the oppression that it has sewn.

And so, it was right about that time I found myself thinking, “This place could be beautiful, right? We could make this place beautiful.”

Why am I telling you all of this? Look around you. Really look. Allow yourselves to be awestruck by the grandeur of Creation's diversity. In this room, our skin tones are black, white, yellow, red and every hue in between. We hail from about eight different nations. We are straight, lesbian, gay, bi, trans, ‘a’, pan, and queer. We are Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and too many more religions to name, and we are atheist and agnostic. Some of us hail from families that are filthy rich, others from families that are dirt poor, most of us fall somewhere in between. We are curvy girls and skinny girls, tall girls and vertically challenged girls. Some of us ride horses, others have no idea which end of the animal leaves the barn first. Some of us dance, while others sing. Some throw softballs while still others throw pottery. Some of us spin words into poetry, while still others wield them in the precision of debate. Some of us are athletes, and some of us are still waiting for "Sit Bit" to be released! We are Democrats and we are Republicans, and we are so much more.

This room, this school, this time is pregnant with possibility! The diversity present in this community, the mixed bag of multiformity we have almost come to take for granted if we have been here for any significant amount of time - this convergence of multiplicity is threatening to tear our world apart.

But not in here. Within the actual or metaphorical walls of this beloved school, you all have a chance to try something different. To embrace diversity, instead of just tolerating it. To learn about each other's cultures, instead of simply noting, “That’s different.” To come up against your own defensiveness and discomfort and ignorance over and over and over again, because each time you came up against that unholy triune of terror you made a choice to move through it. You have the opportunity, though I cannot vouch for the invitation, to examine this institution's assumptions and practices and see what you find here. And I encourage you to do so. Because opportunities to work together from within such a rich tapestry of racial, cultural, ethnic, economic, and gender diversity like the one we have here don’t happen often enough out there. And I encourage you to challenge the norms because, while everything we face cannot be changed, nothing can be changed until it is first faced.

This place could be beautiful. You could make this place beautiful!

[1] From ‘Good Bones’ by Maggie Smith.

Written by Guest Faculty Bloggers

Occasionally we feature guest contributions from members of our faculty. Their voices provide an exclusive view into the classrooms, halls, lounges, and residence halls that make Stoneleigh-Burnham School such a great place to live, work, and study. To find blogs exclusively from our faculty members, use “The Faculty Perspective” category.

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Filed Under: Alumnae, LGBT Support, anti-racism, social justice, diversity, Convocation, inclusion