We kindle a flame of power, illuminating the Holy in each of our faces.
We recognize in the flame a passionate commitment to our shared faith.
We are held and carried from day to day, week to week, in the shining of the light.
This flame is mine, as well as yours.
We are brought together on this day, called to growth, to expansion, within its glow.
What does your heart know while beholding this holy fire?
Adrian L. H. Graham has been a Unitarian Universalist since 1999 and a church lay-leader since 2003. He has served as a Trustee and Officer of the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore and as a member of several congregational committees, including a Ministerial Internship…
The Strength that Defines Us
By Rayla D. Mattson
“What I do with my hair shouldn’t affect how I’m treated or perceived, but unfortunately it does.”
—journalist Christiana Amarachi Mbakwe
My son was five when he announced that he would no longer cut his hair. He hated going through the whole process. He also liked his hair and was done. I agreed; I, too, was done fighting with him about haircuts. As time went on, I marveled at the beauty of his hair and the way his curls frame his face.
Soon the questions started about why his hair was so long, and comments about how I was “confusing” him by not cutting it. I ignored it all.
Then the bullying started. At first it was a few people calling him a girl. We would correct them and move on. Then it became vicious enough to send him home from school in tears, the teachers all saying What did you expect? and that if I want people to see my son as a boy, then he should look like one.
My heart broke the day he stood in the bathroom crying. He handed me a pair of scissors and told me to just cut it. He was done and he was tired. I told him how beautiful his hair was and how sad I would be to see him cut it. When I asked him why he grew his hair, he said he felt things through it. He said it connected him to his indigenous heritage that he could not claim officially. He said that sometimes it was his hiding place. But he was tired of being teased and tired of being called a girl when he wanted to be called a boy.
So I found pictures of indigenous men with long hair, and asked him what he saw in the pictures. He said he saw strength and pride; fierceness and sadness. I asked if he thought these men were teased over their hair. And he said no, but that if they were, they probably wouldn’t care. I told my son that the strength he saw in those men was the same strength I saw in him.
My son is now fourteen, almost six feet tall, and has facial hair. His hair is still amazing. He pulls it up in a messy bun and no longer lets me comb and brush it. He still gets questions about cutting it. He’s been called gay and Trans and queer. None of which offends. He sees it as a compliment. He endured the bullying and now stands strong. Not because he has long hair, but because he didn’t let others define what being a man or male meant to him.
Rayla Mattson is the Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, CT.
Reading: “Black Joy” by Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson
is not silent,
it moans, hums, and bends
to the rhythm of a dancing universe….
For our free African ancestors,
joy unspeakable is drum talk…
For enslaved Africans during the
joy unspeakable is the surprise
of living one more day…
For Africans in bondage
in the Americas,
joy unspeakable is the moment of
when God tiptoes into the hush arbor…
Joy unspeakable is humming
“how I got over”
After swimming safely
to the other shore of a swollen Ohio river
when you know that you can’t swim.
—Barbara A. Holmes
(used with the author’s permission)
When theologian Barbara A. Holmes talks about “joy unspeakable,” she’s talking specifically about how the contemplative practices of the Black church have sustained Black people in America through suffering and survival. More than referring to a particular church or denomination, this experience is collective and transhistorical. It’s also a different expression of Black religion than I’m expected to exhibit, as a Black woman.
On more than one occasion, I’ve had a particular mode of black worship projected onto me: the more charismatic modes of Black worship that we’re so familiar with—the shout, the stomp, the song. That particular style of Black worship sometimes strikes me as a caricature of joy—a shallow stereotype. I see this in the expectation that more “black” worship will bring more lively singing, more rhythmic clapping, more energetic worship. I see this in the anxiety that more “black” worship will bring more lively singing, more rhythmic clapping, more energetic worship. The shout. The stomp. The song.
But this caricature—this stereotype—is a narrow sliver of the complexity and the richness of black spirituality and black worship.
The modes of black spirituality that are most powerful, nourishing and nurturing for me aren’t the stomp, shout or song. Instead, I think of the rock, the sway, the bend, the moan, the hum. And I think of these things done in community. I marvel that in the midst of sadness and sorrow, in the midst of feeling the effects of generations of trauma wrought by racism and white supremacy, we can still find joy with each other. We are finding joy in each other.
I call it Black Joy because I am Black and it is the joy that I have been familiar with my whole life. It is the joy that I have learned from Black people. It is the joy created through our collective healing — our laying down of burdens, to be picked up and shared by our people, our community. This is not joy in spite of suffering — a mask put on to hide pain, an armor put on to push through pain. This is an embrace, holding and soothing us in our suffering. This Black Joy, is joy created through our being together. This Black Joy reminds me that I am not alone, that trouble don’t last always, that I am held and carried forward by a power beyond what I can comprehend.
I call it Black Joy, but I want to offer it—to the extent that it is mine to offer—to this faith. One of my gifts to Unitarian Universalism is the suggestion that joy is ours. We are the people who commit to justice, equity, and compassion. We are the people who aspire to world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. We are the people who affirm our interdependence with each other and the universe itself. I want to challenge Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalists to claim Joy.
Unitarian Universalist Joy will require a different way of imagining ourselves and a different way of being with each other. Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires making space for the surprise that Holmes describes. Claiming the possibility of Unitarian Universalist joy requires slowing down to hear the talk of the drum—pausing to move to the rhythms of the drum. Unitarian Universalist joy requires opening to the possibility of the mystical encounter. Unitarian Universalist joy requires embodying this faith differently than many of us are accustomed to.
Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson is the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, in Bridgehampton, New York.
By Connie Simon
When I started attending a UU church, I was excited by the promise of worship that would draw from the arts, science, nature, literature and a multitude of voices. Indeed, some of the voices that Unitarian Universalists hear in worship each week belong to Thoreau, Emerson, Ballou, and others. Their words are beautiful, but they come from a culture and experience that’s foreign to me. When do I get to hear voices from my culture? I quickly learned that, other than the same few quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman’s “The Work of Christmas,” it wasn’t gonna happen. I sit attentively and listen with my head to “their” voices while my heart longs to hear more of “our” voices.
I am a Black Woman. When I look around on Sunday morning, I don’t see many people who look like me. In most of the congregations I visit, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I don’t hear voices of people who share my experience. But it still hurts. I want to hear voices that tell the struggle of living under the weight of oppression in this culture of White Supremacy. I want to hear stories of trying to stay afloat in the water we swim in. I want to hear voices of Living While Black in America.
I don’t hear those voices in UU churches so I have to supplement my worship by reading black theologians like Anthony Pinn and Monica Coleman. I read Maya Angelou, James Baldwin and my favorite poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Though not a Unitarian or a Universalist, Dunbar chronicled the African American experience in the years following the Civil War and the emancipation of enslaved Africans — a time of opportunities for blacks as we migrated north in droves seeking employment and education but also a time of continuing segregation, racism and oppression.
Dunbar acknowledged this tension in his writing. We hear him long for joy and prosperity while at the same time knowing that the system would conspire to keep true happiness just beyond his grasp. “A pint of joy to a peck of trouble and never a laugh but the moans come double; and that is life!” Still, he was a champion of social justice, believing that God has sympathy for the plight of the oppressed and that his grace will be bestowed not on those “who soar, but they who plod their rugged way, unhelped to God.”
For Dunbar, the struggle was real. One hundred years later, hearing Dunbar express his frustration and give voice to the contradictions of our existence as African Americans encourages me and nourishes my soul. His voice speaks to my heart. He knows my pain and understands my sadness, my fear and my rage. He understands the tears I cry as I pray for strength to get through another day in this world. He gives voice to my deep faith that real change is coming someday. He didn’t see it in his lifetime and I might not see it in mine, but I have to keep believing it’s possible.
That’s the message many African Americans long to hear in church. I know that’s what I need to hear every now and then. Will it ever happen? Or will we always have to go “outside” to hear our voices? If that’s the case, maybe there’s no place for us in Unitarian Universalism. The thought of leaving is painful — but so is being in a faith that ignores our voices.
Connie is an intern at the Unitarian Society of Germantown, PA. She will complete her studies for the UU ministry this month.
Moving beyond ‘whites only’ UU theology
Embracing theists is essential to the cultural and spiritual health of Unitarian Universalism.
DeReau Farrar 6/19/2017
It is no secret that a dominant voice in contemporary Unitarian Universalism is one that believes the existence of any God is irrational. For many, even entertaining the possibility by mentioning God in Unitarian Universalist worship is downright offensive. We are, after all, “smarter” than that.
The function of reason as a means by which Unitarian Universalists process possibilities is an extremely important characteristic of the faith, and has been so since at least the nineteenth century, when Transcendentalism swept through New England and forever changed the course of liberal religious thought in America. It is this function of reason that now calls us to see that of course people of color, women, immigrants, queer people, genderqueer people, poor people, and refugees deserve the same rights and opportunities as educated, middle-class, cisgender, straight, white men.
Scientifically speaking, though we are all different, we are all equal. It is science that persuades us to advocate for the care and protection of our earth home, securing its healthy existence for generations ahead. The use of reason is critical to Unitarian Universalism.
However, I wonder if by stopping there we are falling short of our broader calling. Are we not also called to be both perfectly inclusive and respectful of others’ searches for and expressions of truth and meaning?
To put it rather bluntly, atheism is a White Thing. That is not to say that there are no atheists of color. We all know at least one. At least, those of us who know people of color do. But, for the most part, atheism lives fairly solidly within “white space.” A 2014 Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study (the same study that reminded Unitarian Universalists of its 78 percent whiteness) shows that 78 percent of American adults who claim to be atheists are white. Further, 11 percent of white American adults say they do not believe in God, compared to 2 percent of black adults and 6 percent of Latino adults.
I contend that people of color have, by and large, clung to their beliefs in God, in whatever form, not because they are insufficiently educated, but because it is God who has given them the strength to endure, resist, and—in some small ways—overcome systems of racism and white supremacy, in the myriad ways it has persisted, for centuries. It takes a certain amount of freedom and privilege to denounce the existence of God. It is, therefore, not realistic for groups of people who have been conditioned to believe they have limited self-worth to suddenly be expected to rely upon their own human potential for success.
For them, a belief in an illogical and supernatural God is absolutely reasonable—because the notion that their races have survived to this point is itself supernatural, even illogical. As far as they are concerned, they trust in the miracle-working God that helped to bring the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity—the God who continues that same miracle work today. The mysteries around the resilience of peoples of color can probably be explained away by scientific terms, but that does not serve to edify people of color, nor does it serve to empower them, despite what we might feel about education.
“Empiricism,” as a term, has been co-opted by scientific purists in recent times, but does it not point toward that which we have witnessed as much as that which we have proven? In this way, one could argue that God exists in the ways oppressed peoples have experienced the impact of God in their lives, whatever that ultimately means for them.
For these reasons, I believe any movement in Unitarian Universalism to make God unwelcome in our sanctuaries is effectively akin to posting “Whites Only” signs on our doors. If we are serious about being inclusive and racially diverse, we are going to have to stop the sometimes violent God-hating in our places of worship. As long as society unjustly favors white lives, people of color will need to lean upon their gods for strength, endurance, and peace of heart. It is our duty, if we mean what we say about pluralism, and if we indeed affirm the first, second, third, fourth, and sixth Principles, to provide a warm home for them, where they can fully express their spiritual selves without being judged or marginalized.
This is not to say that our congregations need to go back to claiming the singularly Christian identity of our faith’s parents. No, our congregations need only to recognize and embrace the concept that, as intentional pluralists, theism is already as much a part of our identity as atheism and agnosticism. Further, this does not aim to ignore the fact that many Unitarian Universalists are living with real trauma related to their spiritual pasts and previous relationships with theistic people and/or institutions. I imagine this pain might make it difficult for those people to relate to theists and welcome them fully into Unitarian Universalist fellowship.
It will take real humility for them to see and accept that many theists need Unitarian Universalism just as much as any religious atheist might. And, I would argue that Unitarian Universalism needs theists just as much—especially at a time such as now, when so much is at stake, and we are being brought to face our own shortcomings around racial inclusion and justice.
Extinguishing the Chalice
By Rebekah Savage (adapted)
Spirit of Life, Spirit of Love,
We have gathered under the banner of a shared faith.
We are born of a welcoming grace that extends and receives love;
we are touched by the ways we have fallen short of who we strive to be;
and we here we reborn — forged by a greater courage.
Let us extinguish this, our chalice, and move from this place,
Encouraged and refreshed for the journey ahead.
Rev. Rebekah Savage (formerly Montgomery) is the full time Associate Minister at the UU Congregation of Rockville, MD., serves in the US Army Reserve and is completing a Doctorate in Ministry at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC.
By Kimberly Quinn Johnson
Somebody’s calling your name—
Can you hear it?
Calling you to a past not quite forgotten,
Calling us to a future not fully imagined?
Somebody’s calling our name.
What shall we do?