On June 25th, in Portland Oregon, I had the honor of addressing the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists, thanks to an invitation from the UU Mosaic Makers. Below is what I shared with the UUs:
¡Buenos Dias! I am honored to be here because I know that Unitarian Universalists want to be part of building the Beloved Community. That has been difficult for you because you have historically been a white denomination with the added burdens of affluence and education. This does not mean you cannot work toward the dream. It means you will have to go deeper to understand how you will participate in shaping and realizing the future. I am so happy to see how your workshops are designed to help develop your understanding of the mosaic real by focusing on justice-making, accountable leadership, community life, and worship. These four pillars are key to the transformative work you in which you are engaged as people of faith. But this work is not easy, the pitfalls are many, and the shortcuts are too tempting.
For example, the great modern-day theologian – Steven Colbert of the former “The Colbert Report” – accepted applications for the position of his very own “black friend.” Realizing the importance of political correctness, Colbert thought it would be crucial to have a black friend he could point to just in case he was ever accused of being a racist. He was so committed to the effort of not appearing to be racist that he had to ask someone else, before choosing from the pool of applicants, which ones were black, because he was, of course, “colorblind.” Colbert’s approach to racially and ethnically diversifying his cadre of friends is similar to the shortcuts many take to diversify their churches. For some, the hope of diversification is more for the sake of political correctness rather than creating the Beloved Community.
And while I appreciate the overtures made to include people of color into you fold, I must ask: “Why do you assume I would even want to worship at your church? After centuries of exclusion, why should I come a-running now that you think it makes your church look good by having a black or brown face in the pew to prove that your congregations aren’t racist?” It is difficult for people of color to pray while sitting next to the banker who will charge me an extra point of interest because my last name is Latino. It’s hard to shout praises while being stared at by the police officer who gave me a ticket for driving while under the influence of being Hispanic. It’s challenging to proclaim the mercies of my God knowing that sitting across the aisle is a parishioner who refuses to show mercy toward the undocumented. Unless those within the congregation begin to honestly and seriously deal with their white supremacy and class privilege, it is unlikely that believers of color will ignore the realities outside the church building, and just come on in.
We don’t have time for churches to perfect their strategies before doing the justice work of reconciliation, because statistical trends reveal that as a nation, we are becoming more segregated. For the past half millennium, racial and ethnic forms of economic oppression have been normalized and legitimatized in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Euroamericans, an entrenched understanding that found religious justification. Due to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s (and other antiracist, anticolonial and democratizing movements throughout the world) the way whites construct reality was radically challenged and changed. Nonetheless, repackaging white supremacy that secured structural inequalities and injustices under the concept of “color-blindness,” preserved the historical racial hegemony; thus, a masked racism and ethnic discrimination persist in our churches. Unfortunately, claiming “color-blindness” simply replaced racial domination with a racial hegemony that poses questions concerning the struggle for justice on a universal rather than on a corporate plane by integrating the opposition so as to nullify their more radical demands. The reconciliation forged and advocated was a color-blind reconciliation that enacted anti-racist laws while failing to fundamentally change or transform the social structures that maintain and sustain racism. The more radical demands of the Civil Rights movement (i.e. equitable distribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities) were sacrificed in favor of limited economic, political and cultural access to power and privilege for a minority of middle-class people of color.
To claim the ideal of color-blindness allows church folk to approach racism on an individual, rather than communal level. Euroamericans can downplay, if not outright ignore, the importance of initiating socio-political acts that challenge the present embedded social structures that are detrimental to communities of color. For them, reconciliation is achieved through personal relationships across racial and ethnic lines, as in the case of Colbert having a black friend. Stressing individual-level actions over and against changing social structures allow those who are privileged by those same structures to feel righteous because of public apologies offered, with crocodile tears, for past racist acts. Meanwhile, they can continue to benefit from the status quo that protects Eurocentric privilege. We are thus faced with the question, “What is the best advice that can be given to whites living in a so-called post-racial society, wishing to diversify their institutions?” Or to answer Rodney King’s immortal question, “Can’t we all just get along?”
Here’s my disclaimer. I am an ordained Southern Baptist Latino preacher, so what I’m about to say should not be all that shocking. No church or institution should consider diversifying unless they first get “saved.” More specifically, they must nail their white supremacy and class privilege on the cross so that they can become a new creature. Becoming a new creature is not to be taken figuratively, but rather literally. The question that must be asked is how much the institution is willing to change, to die to itself, to become a new local where all can come, were all are welcomed. The institution wishing to diversify will never succeed while holding on to the attitude that “this is the way we’ve always done it and if you want to join us, you have to become like us.” The question we must ask is if we are committed to building a new way. Can we commit to the necessity that “black lives matter” before rushing to all lives matter.
Although we may come to our spirituality through different paths, we still are attempting to form one body – one very diverse body. The apostle Paul was among the first to see the importance of diversity. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “There are a variety of gifts yet the same Spirit, there are a variety of ministries yet the same Lord, there is a variety of working in all sorts of different people yet the same God who is working in all of them” (12:4-6). For Paul, because we represent different traditions, we all offer different gifts and different ministries. Our unity as one body does not come from watering down different races, ethnicities, or orientations so that they can become Euroamerican in thought and action; rather, our diversity makes unity possible, especially when that diversity is manifested in Community Life and Worship.
Paul reminds us that just as the human body is made up of different parts yet remains a single unit, so too is it with this General Assembly. Therefore, it would be ridiculous for the foot to insist that the eye also be a foot. Likewise, it is ridiculous for the Euroamerican to insist that the Latino/a must sing three hundred-year-old German hymns if they want to properly praise the Creator of all. Likewise, it is absurd that the African-American must follow a Eurocentric liturgy in order to be more spiritual. If all parts conform to the will of one of its parts, how then could it be a body? The parts may be many, but the body remains one.
I know that the first Mosaic workshop is called “Why Do We UUs Cross the Road.” Crossing the road is about justice ministry. The doing, orthopraxis, and not the believing, orthodoxy, is the answer for creating the Beloved Community. Moving beyond Steven Colbert’s political correctness requires the dominant culture’s consciousness to be raised to consider the struggles of their neighbors of color, without being defensive. The church discovers its own salvation through its solidarity with the marginalized. One engages in the process of liberation not to achieve the ultimate goal of having more faces of color in the congregation. One engages in the process of liberation for the sole purpose of becoming the church. Then, and only then, can we become one body poised in turning the world upside down.