Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Need for Change

There is a struggle going on right now for the heart and soul of the faith tradition I serve.  Actually, I believe that the "heart and soul" of the faith is safe and well, but the institutional expression of that faith, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Affiliated Congregations, is struggling with how to live in to our stated commitment of becoming a truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-cultural community. 

The Unitarian, Universalist, and modern Unitarian Universalist traditions have a long (although decidedly mixed) history regarding issues of racism.  This history has been powerfully covered in the writings of the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, and the nearly exhaustive book, The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalism, Anti-Racism, and the Journey from CalgaryYet many see the so-called Black Empowerment Controversy of the late 1960s, as the catalyst for all the successes, failures, and struggles which form the foundation of where we are today.  Over and over again, this majority-white religious tradition has been challenged to look at just what it means to be a majority-white institution committed to the dismantling of the white supremacist culture in which we all "live, move, and have our being." 

In recent years there has been a strong call by people in historically, and still, marginalized groups within our movement for us -- as individuals, as congregations, and as an Association -- to really, fully, deeply come to terms with the ways in which we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the white supremacist culture that is the dominant culture in the United States and which informs and "infects" every institution.  Especially those of us who identify or are identified as white are being challenged to recognize that we, ourselves, though good-hearted and well-meaning, are mired in the very muck we claim we are committed to cleaning up.

This is not to say that the commitment we claim is false.  When I first moved to Charlottesville, Virginia -- where I have been serving the UU congregation for the past 8 years -- I met with an African American pastor with whom my predecessors had established a relationship.  I'm paraphrasing him a bit here, but he said to me, "We know about you Unitarian Universalists.  We know how you've shown up over the years to support the African American community.  We know how you answered Dr. King's call to march in Selma.  We know about your commitment to racial justice."  And when the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jr. came to Charlottesville to speak following the events of the summer of 2017, it was not by coincidence that he choose to speak from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist congregation.  Many UUs have spent a good deal of their lives, and a lot of their heart and soul, working for the cause of racial justice.  That's a fact that simply cannot be denied.

Yet that fact, that commitment, is not what's being challenged today.  What's at issue is not whether we UUs are committed to racial justice, but rather what that commitment calls on us to do -- again, especially those of us who identify or are identified as white.  In the years since the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and '60s the analysis of the many, and often insidious, ways racism works has evolved. 

One example is the growing insistence on using the phrase "white supremacy" where in the past one might have said, "white privilege" or, more simply, "racism."  For some whites the term is thought to be too provocative, too inflammatory, especially when it's being applied to us.  We might be willing recognize that there's a sense in which we are "racist," because of the inherent "racial bias" with which we've been inculcated from our earliest days, and we might even be comfortable acknowledging that we benefit from "white privilege," yet we draw the line at using the phrase "white supremacy," because we think that it should be reserved for those who march with tiki torches, while waving Confederate and Nazi flags.

Yet anti-racist scholars and activists note that the term "racism" is rather vague because it doesn't explicitly say anything about the power dynamics involved.  The bizarre notion of "reverse racism" can conceivably exist comfortably within the term "racism."  "White supremacy," however, clearly indicates that the issue is not just racial prejudice, but specifically all that follows on the idea that white history, culture, assumptions, norms, practices, perspectives, etc., are superior to those of people of color or, to put it another way, are "supreme."  So, while not every white person is a white supremacist, we all participate in, and benefit from, the culture of white supremacy.

What is being questioned today is whether or not we white UUs will evolve with this evolving understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy culture -- an understanding that comes directly out of the lived experience of people of color and those of intersecting oppression.  Another way of asking this is, will we who identify as white actually listen to and believe what we're told by our siblings of color about how we (even if unintentionally and unwittingly) participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of the oppressions we are committed to ending?  Will we believe what we're told about what's needed to actually dismantle the culture of white supremacy, even if what we're told is different from, and maybe even contradicts, what we've always been told and what our own assumptions and "reason" tells us?

This is the challenge with which we are struggling today:  will those of us who identify as white within this predominantly and historically white tradition be willing to see ourselves and our institutions through the eyes of people of color, and will we be willing to change because of what we then see?  This is the direction a great many UUs desire to see the Association move, discomforting and disorienting though it will necessarily be.  We believe our faith calls us to nothing less than such a transformation. 

There is not universal agreement, however.  This disagreement gained public attention in Spokane, Washington this past week where our Association was having its annual General Assembly.  A member of our clergy distributed copies of his self-published book in which he decried what he sees as the Association's fall into "safetyism," "political correctness," and "identitarianism." 

The Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliance responded with "An Open Letter From White UU Ministers," which was signed by over 300 ordained Unitarian Universalist ministers.  It is even more important to read the responses from DRUUMM -- Diverse  Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries -- and POCI -- the People of Color and Indigenous Chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association -- as these provide the perspective of the people of color who were most directly harmed.

Although I was not in Spokane, I asked to have my name added to the "Open Letter" because even without reading the book I have heard other UUs from historically, and still, marginalized groups describing the pain they felt and the harm the book's content caused.  I believe their testimony, and need no more "proof" than that to know that I must place myself in solidarity with them.

I will read the book, though, because as a person who identifies as white I think it is incumbent upon me to know what other white folks are saying, what "case" they're making to push back against the call to be transformed in and through the work of transforming our society.  In the little I've read so far I'm saddened, though not surprised, to see arguments that I've heard in the congregation I've been serving from people there who think that the way we were going about the work of racial justice was wrong.  The struggle that's going on in the larger Association is going on in local congregations as well.

I do not believe that I know everything about the work of our mutual liberation.  I know for certain that much of what I think and see has been conditioned by the very culture I am committed to changing.  I recognize that the truly anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural Beloved Community I am committed to working for will be entirely different than the world I know, undoubtedly unimaginably so.  And I know that getting there will require, will demand, that I undertake the painful work of transforming myself.  I do not like this.  I would rather not.  Yet if I truly am committed to dismantling the white supremacy culture I know that I have no choice but to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Pax tecum,


Monday, June 17, 2019

Leave It ... You're Fine

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, June 16, 2019 to the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.

A woman is doing some painting in her kitchen.  She bumps into a small table and then, in that horrified slow motion way, watches as the jar of paint falls off. When it hits the floor the jar shatters, paint spray hits the wall, and a mess of bright blue glossy enamel spreads across the floor.  Looking on this scene the woman says, “Good God …!”

I’m going to leave the story there for a minute, because we’ve all had that experience, haven’t we?  Oh, maybe it wasn’t spilled paint, but was, instead, knocking over a display in the grocery store.  My kids will never let me forget the year I totally, seriously burned the Thanksgiving turkey.  (I mean, the year I made the intentional decision to serve Caribbean blackened turkey.) If ever they think I have forgotten, they pull out the pictures they took. In my defense, I will say that once you cut through the half-inch or so of char, the turkey was pretty moist.

Have you ever meant to save something but somehow accidentally deleted it?  Or maybe hit “send” before you meant to?  I read about a guy who sent a group text to his friends and co-workers in which he spoke rather unflattering about their boss and told of his plans to pretend to be sick so he could go home and start the weekend early.  Unfortunately, he’d forgotten that his boss was part of the group.  He ended up with more than a long weekend.

Anybody here not have a story of some monumental screw-up?  Back in February I talked about how the theological concepts of “sin” and “grace” are so often completely misunderstood, that the one English word, “sin,” comes from eight different Greek words, many of which are, essentially, acknowledgements that we are prone to making mistakes.  “We are all sinners,” then, isn’t a judgmental condemnation.  It’s just a statement of fact: we all tend to screw-up. And that means we don’t have to put so much effort into, waste so much of our psychic and spiritual energy, trying to come off as something that we’re not: perfect.  We’re all just trying our best, bumping into things, making mistakes, making messes that have to be cleaned up.

So let’s go back to that woman in her kitchen.  This story comes from a song by the singer-songwriter David Wilcox.  When we left her, she was looking down at the mess on her floor, saying, “Good God …”. But I tricked you.  So doesn’t just say, “Good God.”  She says, “Good God, look at that pattern!  I’ve never seen that before.”

And then she lets the paint stay there on her floor.  When it’s dry she paints a white frame around it, installs gallery lighting, and gives it a name: “Kitchen Blue.”  And Wilcox tells us that, “rich folks come over for dinner, [and] they all want one of their own.  They say, ‘how much?’ ‘‘Who’s the artist?’ and, “My what a beautiful home.’”

The chorus is,

“Leave it like it is.
Never mind the turpentine.
Just leave it like it is.
It’s fine.”

Leave it like it is … it’s fine.  And you, and me, we’re fine.  Our messes?  Our mistakes?  Our failings and failures?  They’re just part of being human.  We don’t have to try to be perfect.  We don’t have to try to hide our mistakes.

I’m not saying that there isn’t room for improvement; this isn’t an invitation to keep all of our bad habits. There’s a saying, “God loves you just the way you are … and loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  Those of us who, for example, identify or are identified as white — the way we are it isn’t “just fine.”  Same, too, for us men.  The mess of misogyny needs to be cleaned up.  We can’t recognize that we participate in and perpetuate the systems and structures of white supremacy (whether we want to or not) and simply say, “we’re really good people, we’re fundamentally okay and, anyway, we aren’t as bad as those guys carrying tiki torches and waving Confederate and Nazi flags.”  No … there are some messes, some mistakes, some “sins” (if you will) that need to be addressed; that do call for the mental, emotional, social, spiritual turpentine. It doesn’t matter how old we are, how set in our ways, how many other good things we’ve done — when we see or are shown the way our mistakes hurt people, it’s still true that we’re “fine” just the way we are.  We can’t, though, be content to stay that way.

But let’s look at that song again.  The woman doesn’t just notice the spill and decide not to freak out about it. No. She highlights it, frames it, names it, shines a light right on it.  And when the “rich folks” come over for dinner she doesn’t throw an area rug over it to “keep up appearances.” 

What would that look like?  The peace activist, poet, and Buddhist monk the Venerable Tich Nhat Hanh described in one of his books the way interpersonal conflicts are handled in Vietnamese monasteries.  When a monk feels hurt by something another monk said or did, the two come together, kneeling face-to-face, very close. The rest of the monks gather around in witness.  Then the aggrieved monks began to recount the story of what happened … with each monk focusing on what they themselves did wrong.  One might say, “The other day I intruded on your meditation,” and the other might reply, “When you tapped me on the shoulder I shouted at you rather than asking what you needed.”  The first could go on, “I should have apologized for the interruption, but instead I started to insult the strength of your practice.”  See?  One says, “I did …”. The other says, “I did …”. They go on like this, alternating back and forth, until the entire incident has been described, with each person focusing on their own faults first.   

Now, the monks could begin by each accusing the other of wrongdoing, each one telling “their side” of the story in order to show what the other person did wrong.  That’s how our dominant culture teaches us to handle conflicts — come out swinging, shine a spotlight on the other person’s failings while simultaneously trying to hide or at least minimize our own.  Well … how well does that usually work out?  That aggressive posture, which is really a defensive posture, almost always just reinforces the differences.  We tend to dig in when we feel we’re being attacked. Often, and maybe most often, we’re so busy inventorying the other person’s faults that we don’t even notice our role in the situation. Jesus is remembered as asking,“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in [the other person’s] eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own […]?

So, the song (and virtually every real spiritual tradition I know of) tells us that we don’t need to get entangled in the paralyzing worry of what other people will think of us.  And we don’t need to try to hide our mistakes, our flaws, once we’ve seen them.  It points to the truth that being willing to show them to others is the only way we have any real chance of addressing and correcting them … of making the changes in ourselves that are necessary for real healing.

Now … if that’s all the wisdom to glean from that song, that would be enough. But there’s one more thing. The last verse is:

“Most folks suffer in sorrow,
Thinking they’re just no good.
They don’t match the magazine model
As close as they think they should.
They live just like the paint-by-numbers,
The teacher would be impressed.
A lifetime of ‘follow the lines,’
So they’re just like all of the rest.”

“The mass of [people] live lives of quiet desperation,” is how our Unitarian ancestor Henry David Thoreau put it. To a large extent that’s because we’re trying to stay within the lines, conform to the expected, to behave — and be – the way we’re “supposed” to.  There’s a scene in the movie Avengers: End Game (which, if you haven’t seen it yet, first, shame on you, and, second, don’t worry, no spoilers here), after one character confesses with shame to another that they’re really just a failure, the other character responds, “Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be […].  The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.”

It takes courage to buck the system, to take the risk of standing out, to be who we are instead of who the world wants us and expects us to be, to, “march to the beat of a different drummer,” quoting Thoreau again.  In our bones we know the truth of the Japanese aphorism, “the nail that sticks up is hammered down.”  And this thing of openly acknowledging our faults and failings, of paying more attention to them than to the faults and failings we see in others, to, keep clean, “our side of the street,” (as the 12 Step movement puts it) … well … that would make us stick out in a world where we’re encouraged to do anything but.  Yet being who we are, who we really are, with all of our follies and foibles, daring to publicly name our “growing edges,” is the key to living a full, rich, and authentic life.  All of the great religions of the world assure us of that.  And so does David Wilcox.

Oh!  One last thing.  It turns out that there are people who really have framed and highlighted their mistakes!  This is a photo of a hole a man put in the drywall when he fell down the stairs during the first Thanksgiving he and his love spent together.  In case you can’t see what’s at the bottom of the photo, it’s a small plaque that reads, “First Thanksgiving, 2015,” and he describes his medium as, “hand, drywall.”

Pax tecum,


Thursday, June 06, 2019

It’s Time For a Change

I submitted the following Letter to the Editor in response to the article in The Daily Progress on Wednesday, June 5, 2019, “City considers nixing Jefferson’s birthday observation.”

I want to thank Mayor Walker for proposing that we stop celebrating Thomas Jefferson's birthday in April, but, instead, make a holiday of Liberation and Freedom Day in March.  Undeniably Jefferson played a pivotal role in the founding of the United States.  His words about equality are the basis of the "promissory note" Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared had “come due” in his famous address in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963.  For the past 8 years I have served a congregation named as a memorial to the third President, specifically because of his championing of religious freedom.  And yet he also believed it was right for him to “own” roughly 600 women, children, and men, and we know that he raped at least one of these women, and was responsible for the separation of families, and the brutal treatment and deaths of the others.

I don’t believe that we should ignore his accomplishments and contributions to this country; I do not believe that we should forget or ignore history.  Yet that means the entirety of our history — including the ugliest and most traumatic parts.  As the more complete picture is more widely known it makes sense to think about what parts of history should be not only remembered but celebrated.

So ask yourself:  should we be celebrating the birthday of a slave owning rapist and murderer, (which is a true description of him regardless of all the good and great he did), or is it more appropriate to celebrate the day on which freedom was finally given to those whom that man held as property, as well as all the others enslaved in Charlottesville and Albemarle?   I don’t see how the answer is not obvious.

There is a saying  “If you can’t change your mind, how do you know you still have one?”  As individuals, as a community, and as a nation we should be able to change our minds as our knowledge and understanding evolves.  Thomas Jefferson did many things worthy of celebrating.  The man himself, though?    The time has come for a change.

Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom

Monday, June 03, 2019

Crossing Over

This is the text of the reflections I offered on Sunday, June 2, 2019 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia.  This was the Sunday of our annual Bridging Ceremony, the uniquely Unitarian Universalist rite of passage from "youth" to "young adult."  It might be worth noting that these words were illustrated by project images.  (I've put the images at the end of the post, and noted throughout where they came.)
Prior to the reflection we watched a clip from an episode of the BBC Documentary "Human Planet," about the "Living Bridges of Meghalaya."  It's awesome.

There aren’t too many rituals that we Unitarian Universalists all share.  The vast majority of congregations light achalice at the beginning of their worship services, covenant groups, and some meetings, but not all congregations do.  And many UU communities celebrate an annual Flower Communion, yet I don’t think it’s even most.
Back in 1967 the Rev. Peter Raible took songs from the hymnal that was then in use, Hymns for the Celebration of Life, and, as he described it, “freely translated” them, creating Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife.  One of the more popular, sung to the tune of “Holy, Holy, Holy” was, “Coffee, Coffee, Coffee:”
Coffee, Coffee, Coffee,
Praise the strength of coffee.
Early in the morn we rise with thoughts of only thee.
Served fresh or reheated,
Dark by thee defeated,
Brewed black by perk or drip or instantly.

Though all else we scoff we
Come to church for coffee;
If we're late to congregate, we come in time for thee.
Coffee our one ritual,
Drinking it habitual,
Brewed black by perk or drip instantly.

Coffee the communion
Of our Uni-Union,
Symbol of our sacred ground, our one necessity.
Feel the holy power
At our coffee hour,
Brewed black by perk or drip or instantly.
So there’s that – the Coffee Hour.  Yet not even all of us drink coffee.
No, the one ritual that I believe is celebrated in every Unitarian Universalist congregation is what we’re about to do here today.  As far as I know every Unitarian Universalist congregation marks the transition of its young people from being youth to being young adults.  We don’t have a first Communion.  We don’t have Confirmation.  We don’t have Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.  We don’t send our children out into the woods to come back adults.  Instead, we have the Ceremony of Bridging.
Bridges are symbols with deep roots in our cultural consciousness. From “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “A Bridge Too Far,” to “Bridge of Spies,” “Bridge to Tarabithia,” and, of course, the 1995 classic, “The Bridges of Madison County,” bridges evoke so much.
Fundamentally, bridges represent getting from here to there, here to somewhere else. (1)  They cross some kind of chasm, connect two places separated by some kind of gulf. (2)  Some bridges take a long time to traverse (3), while the journey over some others is pretty quick (4).  Some bridges are solid (5), when you’re on them you feel safe, secure.  Others are a little more … sketchy (6).  Some (7) are improvised, rather impermanent.  Others (8) you know can last for centuries.  Like those bridges in Meghalaya. (9, 10)
This morning I want to lift up three messages I find in this metaphor.  I’m talking particularly to our bridges, of course, yet I think we could all do well to listen.
First, even on the most solid of bridges crossing over from here to there is an act of faith.  You don’t always know (11) where there is.  We generally know where here is, but where there is, (12) and what’s waiting for you on the other side is not always so clear.  Sometimes you’re not even sure what’s under you, (13) what’s supporting you, what's keeping you up.  Yet we all have to cross over the bridges of our lives when we come to them. 
Oh, we don’t always have to be in a rush about it.  (14) Sometimes we’re able to take our time. (15)  Eventually, though, we all have to cross over the bridges of our lives. (16)  If we want to keep moving forward, that is.  If we want to truly be Alive, that is.
The second message in bridges is that crossing a bridge can be a dangerous thing.  That’s why so many movies set a fight scene on a bridge (17) – it ramps up the tension (18), because we all know, viscerally, that when you’re crossing a bridge from here to there, (19) there’s always the danger of falling.  Of course, there are some bridges that don’t give any cause for concern (20) -- they're not all that high, and a fall wouldn't be so bad.  And there are others that are built (21) so as to inspire every confidence, constructed to assure you of your safety.  But not all bridges are like that. (22)  There are some bridges that are truly dangerous (23) to traverse.  We know that we cross over them at our peril. (24)
Yet even these we have to cross if we want to keep moving forward and be truly Alive.  The truth is that even when it’s a bridge like this – and I hate to tell you, if your doing it right, you’ll come to such bridges more than once in your life – even when it’s a bridge like this – and maybe especially when it’s a bridge like this – it is actually far more dangers to our life’s journeys if we refuse to cross, and instead settle for staying stuck where we are.
So that’s two things – as we live our lives we will be faced with crossing over a bridge the end of which we can’t always know, and we will have to cross them even though we do know that it can be dangerous.  The third lesson comes specifically from those living bridges of Meghalaya. (25) The third lesson is that the bridges that are the strongest (26), that will truly stand the test of time, are those that we create with others (27), those bridges that are really Alive not only because they grow and evolve but also because they are made by living and loving hands. (28)  
You who are bridging today are about to cross a bridge (29) from here to there, from being seen as youth to being known as young adults.  And this bridge you cross has been lovingly built and carefully tended by your parents, your siblings, your friends, your teachers at school, your teachers here at church, the people who make up this Unitarian Universalist faith, and all those who have crossed over this bridge before you.  You, too, have a part in building this bridge, because as you cross it you leave something of yourself.  You add your own unique beauty, and you strengthen this bridge for all who will cross over it in all the years to come.
In this distinctively Unitarian Universalist ritual, one of the few shared by every Unitarian Universalist congregation, we recognize that you are young adults; that you’ve reached a milestone, a turning point, a transition in your lives and that we, as a community that loves you, recognize, mark this moment and honor this passage.
Oh, one more thing.  Despite the roughly 1,200 words I’ve just spoken, in the end it is up to you to determine just what the bridges of your life mean, and what messages you will glean from your crossings.  (30)   

Pax tecum,




(5) (6)


(9) (10)