Widening the Circle

UUFA Board of Trustees member Marco Messori shares the following:

In 2017 at the General Assembly, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) started a Commission on Institutional Changes with the task to conduct an audit of white privilege and the structure of power within Unitarian Universalism. The Commission presented the final work to the general Assembly last year in the document Widening the Circle of Concern: Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change*. This report shared that at the beginning of the Commission’s research addressing the perennial problem of race in Unitarian Universalism was not broadly seen as a theological mandate, and a need for new definitions of multicultural competency for religious leadership was affirmed. Even if in 2020 at the General Assembly, progress on these issues was noticed, points were made that efforts to focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion were still met with derision and that white leaders openly speaking out about white supremacy culture and the need for change were finding their leadership affected.

Among many trends, the Commission found the following:

1. Economic and demographic patterns in society, along with our theological imperative, require us to look anew at efforts to promote equity, inclusion, and diversity.

2. Values such as accountability, multicultural awareness, and inclusive language are becoming the “new normal” in the larger world and require deep and faithful work to allow growth and change for us.

3. The change at personal and interpersonal levels is interconnected to the necessity of systemic changes. As Mary Byron has claimed, this transformational work will have its foundation in our willingness to get uncomfortable in a community with big-hearted, creative, welcoming people that want to come together to build a more just and generous faith community. Individual efforts do not guarantee the Beloved Community. We need to put greater emphasis on what it means to be bound to one another in an interdependent web and in keeping with our covenantal tradition. We need a clear sense of mission.

Personal relationships are still central to the work of organizations yet should not be used instead of sound governance structures. Our commitments to justice, equity, and compassion among us as well as our commitment to democratic processes require hard and committed work that engages the individual as well as soberly addressing the institutional dimensions of the work. Progressive-minded, working-age adults expect the basic practices of equity, inclusion, and diversity that many of our congregations currently lack. In the dance of congregationalism—sharing leadership, recognizing when individuals are best in position to lead or to move back, and making space for new ideas, change, and transformation- we are all asked to struggle as individuals and a body in order to determine the future of our faith. Change, agility, and innovation are needed for Unitarian Universalism to survive.

As we acknowledge that we are a part of the interdependent web of existence, we can recognize that the call to spiritual maturity and growth means listening to marginalized voices. The white majority refusal to acknowledge and accept the firsthand knowledge that people of color, indigenous and other marginalized groups face within our frames is maddening to those who experience it over and over among us. We have to take responsibility for the impacts of our voices, processes, and actions as we engage with the expectation of growth and learning. With humility, we must affirm one another’s humanity, even in times of frustration, heartbreak, and trauma. Together, we must dig deeper with self-awareness and mindfulness—recognizing the power we have over one another, simply allowing ourselves to wake up to that, not to be shamed or made guilty, rather simply to allow ourselves to prepare our own hearts for transformation.

We would not be having these conversations in 2020, if we had kept them going in the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. Our kids need to learn from what we are rather than from what we teach. Acknowledging and addressing our biases can help us prevent transmitting them to younger UUs. Our work of becoming more equitable, inclusive, and diverse within our congregations is justice work. While new generations show interest in being part of organizations that are making a difference, we need to recognize the essential role of religious educators, music professionals, and membership professionals in making congregational change.

In the respect for our responsible search for truth and meaning, sometimes truth needs to be affirmed to a public that isn’t quite ready to hear it. Our survival and liberation depend upon our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. Too often we make decisions based on what generates the least conflict within the majority culture, and what allows conformity to continue. A factor that contributes to the decline for our congregations in membership, participation and financial contribution is our inability to address issues of inclusion, equity, and diversity. 

Change produces conflict, and in order to continue to be flexible and responsive to the needs of today, we must be more comfortable with change and thus with the conflict that it may generate. We must hold each other in love and kindness, even when we do not agree. If we can live into the full participation of those who have been most marginalized among us, we can create a responsive, vibrant Unitarian Universalism marked by full equity and participation that will continue to play its vital role in transforming lives and communities.

*Printer friendly and audio version of Widening the Circle of Concern.