A story in three acts

Rev. Chris Jimmerson
August 27, 2017
First UU Church of Austin
4700 Grover Ave., Austin, TX 78756
austinuu.org

When we encounter life’s challenges and difficulties, the stories we construct about them can help us or hinder us from fully engaging in them and moving toward wholeness and healthiness. Drawing on the work of Glennon Doyle Melton and Brene Brown, we will look at all three acts they outline for our stories.


Call to Worship

No One is Outside the Circle of Love
By Susan Frederick-Gray, Erika A. Hewitt

We know that hurt moves through the world, perpetrated by action, inaction, and indifference. Our values call us to live in the reality of the heartbreak of our world, remembering that:

No one is outside the circle of love.

We who are Unitarian Universalist not only affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person; we also affirm the inherent wholeness of every being-despite apparent brokenness.

No one is outside the circle of love.

We know that things break, or break down: promises, friendship, sobriety, hope, communication. This breaking happens because our human hearts and our very institutions are frail and imperfect. We make mistakes. Life is messy.

No one is outside the circle of love.

With compassion as our guide, we seek the well-being of all people. We seek to dismantle systems of oppression that undermine our collective humanity. We believe that we’re here to guide one another toward Love.

No one is outside the circle of love.

No matter how fractured we are or once were, we can make whole people of ourselves. We are whole at our core, because of the great, unnameable, sometimes inconceivable Love in which we live.

No one is outside the circle of love.

Reading
“Statement of Conscience on Escalating Economic Inequality”
adopted by the UUA General Assembly

Challenging extreme inequality inequity locally and globally is a moral imperative. As a pragmatic faith we are committed to working to change economic and social systems with a goal of equitable outcomes of life, dignity, and wellbeing experienced by all. The escalation of income and wealth inequity undergirds many injustices that our faith movement is committed to addressing including: economic injustice, mass incarceration, migrant injustice, climate change, sexual and gender injustice, and attacks on voting rights….

…The growth of inequity does not happen by accident. It is a direct consequence of the decisions of those people who own and control the nation’s and world’s corporations and resources and their allies in government, who take for themselves the wealth created by the hands of the many and the bounty of our fragile planet….

…Unlimited funding of campaigns by wealthy individuals and corporations, lack of access to conventional financial institutions and predatory lending, and flawed tax policies increase inequity and insecurity….

…Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to respond to economic injustice and advocate for those among us being harmed by inequity…

…Words and deeds of prophetic people challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil such as inequality with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love….

…By speaking, acting, and spending in concert with one another and by centering, resourcing, and empowering communities who are most impacted by economic inequities, we can create better and more just economies. Together we can make a difference….

Sermon “A Story in Three Acts”

Act I: David Overton and Rev. Chris Jimmerson

David

In late March of this year, almost exactly three months before our annual Unitarian Universalist (or UU) General Assembly in New Orleans, a controversy broke out within our larger UU denomination.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (or UUA), the administrative body that serves our congregations in a number of important ways, hired a white, male minister to head up the Southern UU regional arm of the UUA. The minister who the UUA hired did not live in the south and did not plan to move to take the position.

A conversation began among UU people of color about how UUA hiring practices had seemed to favor white, male, ministers and how few people of color had been hired to serve in top management positions.

Very quickly, a Latin religious educator from the south revealed that she had been a finalist for the position. She had been told by the UUA director of Congregational Life that, though qualified for the position, they were looking for someone who was “a right fit for the team.” and were thus hiring someone else. People of color have often experienced the term “right fit” as code language that white people use to exclude non-whites from positions for which they are clearly qualified.

A number of charged exchanges broke out on social media and other communications. The UUA President at the time, Rev. Peter Morales, wrote a statement regarding the controversy, hoping to calm the situation. Instead, a number of UU people of color found his wording hurtful. The controversy became more inflamed.

A few days later, Rev. Morales resigned from serving as President of the UUA, citing his hope that doing so would allow healing to occur. By early April, the chief operating officer of the UUA and the director of congregational life also resigned. The minister who had been offered the position announced he would not accept it.

The Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association wrote a letter to the UUA board in response. His letter further inflamed matters and by early June, he too had resigned.

In May, our well-loved UUA moderator (the moderator presides at UUA board meetings and at our general assemblies) also resigned due to a recurrence of a previous cancer that had been in remission. On June 2, Jim died.

So, as our denomination approached its annual General Assembly in June, we found ourselves with no president, several other high-level resignations, no moderator, and a raging internal controversy.

Chris

I recently participated in a workshop with Glennon Doyle Melton and BrenŽ Brown. The workshop was about how when we encounter difficulties, hurt and or/failure in life, if we can identify the truth of our story – if we can avoid creating a false story to numb the pain – we often can transform ourselves. We can learn and change in ways that are healthier and more life fulfilling.

As David and I were talking about recent events within our denomination and at our UU General Assembly, it became obvious to us that the framework presented in the workshop provides a great way to understand recent events within Unitarian Universalism and the challenges and opportunities our denomination is facing. In the workshop, Melton and Brown describe how when experiencing great difficulty, to respond to it in ways that are healthy and potentially transformative, we must live out a story in three acts.

In our current UU story, what David just described is Act I. Our denomination began what Melton and Brown call a “Brutiful Adventure”. “Brutiful” refers to how life can be both brutal and beautiful and that we have to accept and experience both. We do not get one without the other. If we reject the brutal, we also reject the beautiful.

The brutiful adventure begins with an inciting incident that often reveals realities and truths we have been suppressing or denying. In the case of our denomination then, the inciting incident was the most recent UUA hiring decision and revelation that a qualified person of color had been among the final candidates that David told you about.

This incident let loose a strong undercurrent of feeling among UU people of color about UUA hiring practices specifically and a continued dominance of white cultural values within UUism more generally that has been with us dating all the way back to a controversy that broke out in the early 1960 over efforts toward black empowerment within UUism.

The brutal includes the great hurt that so many have felt since the incident, the string of resignations and the unexpected and untimely loss of Jim Key during the middle of it all.

The beautiful is the way in which so many UUs have vowed to one another and to our denomination to work through these difficulties and truly live out our commitment to becoming a truly anti-racist, multicultural denomination.

Act II: Carolyn Gremminger and Rev. Chris Jimmerson

Carolyn

Since the events that David described, there has been a recognition within Unitarian Universalism, leading up to and following General Assembly (or GA for short), that we still have much work to do to be in right relationship with each other and to truly become a religion that lives our commitment to dismantling racism, both within our faith and beyond it.

We have come to realize that we are not all in agreement yet, and that we will have to live in that tension, even while remaining in covenant with one another for a while.

For example, we have begun a conversation about a culture of white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism wherein we do things in ways that adhere to white, western European cultural norms, often to the exclusion of other cultural practices.

Yet, some UUs object to the use of the term “supremacy” given how it is so often used in the media these days in relation to white nationalists and neo-Nazi hate groups. Other UUs though, feel very strongly that the use of the “culture of white supremacy” terminology is necessary in order understand the great challenge that lies before us as a denomination. For these UUs, the term captures that the dominance of white cultural norms is the water in which we currently swim and thus can be very difficult to see.

Other UUs fear that the great, almost singular concentration upon our internal UU struggles with race leading up to and at GA may distract us from other vital matters, such as climate change, class inequality, LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and the like.

Yet other folks also worry that this internal focus could prevent us from being present and vocal in public life at a time when our religious values are needed like never before.

Similarly, the UUA board had approved raising 5.3 million dollars over time to fund Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. Many saw this is a very positive step. Others worried that it might drain resources from other important needs. During the early and most emotional times of the inciting controversy, relationships between folks became strained or broken and will need time and much mutual work for healing to be possible.

So, our denomination is acknowledging that we must commit to doing the work of coming together across our differences, healing, and learning from all that has happened. We have committed to living out our multiculturalism both within UUism and out in our world. We know that this will take time and that we must stay engaged even while it will still be difficult sometimes.

Chris

What Carolyn just described is what Melton and Brown would call “Act II” of our story. Act II is where we have to stay on the mat – we have to struggle with our difficulties, feel the bad feelings, live in tension for a while, because if we try to avoid them by moving on too soon, we will be doomed to relive Act I yet again someday.

Melton and Brown also say that we have to identify what the rules of our current world are that may be holding us back. We have to identify such unhelpful rules in order to move past Act I and begin to work through Act II. For UUism, some of those rules include the dominance of white cultural norms within our denomination, such as perfectionism, either/or thinking and avoidance of open conflict.

Unitarian Universalism is currently in Act II with the story we are sharing with you today, at least for the most part. We are identifying that which has been holding us back and trying our best to stay on the mat. At times, we have not been entirely successful at staying on the mat, and that is not surprising or out of the ordinary. It is difficult. Sometimes we have to recommit.

We have lost leaders because they did not stay in relationship with us. We are hopeful they will come back into relationship, perhaps in a different way than they were before.

Yet, we also have a great number of us who have committed to staying on the mat – to doing the challenging yet potentially transformative work that lies ahead. At GA, the leaders that moderated our sessions clearly worked hard to set a tone that was respectful and healing but that also recognized the difficulties with which we must grapple. They modeled acknowledging our mistakes and working with one another across our areas of disagreement.

A multitude of opportunities to learn about dismantling racism and creating multicultural ways of being were also offered at G.A.

So at GA and since then, our denomination has been doing its best to stay in the struggle against racism internally and externally.

The way forward will be uncomfortable and difficult sometimes. This is where we are for now – staying in the struggle, even though it is hard at times, because it is the struggle that makes transformation possible.

Act III: Valerie Sterne and Rev. Chris Jimmerson

Valerie

While as a denomination, we are still mainly in what Carolyn and Chris have described as Act II, we thought it would also be important to mention some really positive developments that have occurred leading up to GA, at GA and since then.

After Peter Morales resigned, the UUA appointed three co-presidents to serve until the election for our new president could be held at GA. All three co-presidents were people of color, and one was the first female ever to serve as UUA president. These co-presidents implemented interim hiring practices with specific multicultural goals for UUA positions, including management positions Then, at GA, the delegates selected our first elected UUA president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray! Rev. Frederick-Gray has pledged to work with a board-appointed commission to put into place permanent multicultural hiring practices and has already appointed people of color to top positions within her new administration.

In late April and early May, almost seventy percent of our congregations participated in anti-racism/culture of white supremacy “teach-ins” using materials created by UU people of color. These congregations dedicated a worship service to the teach-in and many have offered educational classes following it. In the two days before GA, hundreds of UUs participated in intensive undoing racism workshops, and, as Chris mentioned, there were a number of great workshops on the subject also provided during GA.

We also held a beautiful memorial service for Jim Key at GA, which allowed our folks some closure around his loss. Kiya performed Meg’s song, “All Will Be Well” at the memorial service.

Since GA, our denomination has also begun to embrace a both/and outlook rather than an either/or point of view regarding our being able to do the internal work of examining the dominance of white cultural norms within our own institutions and showing up to work for justice in our larger world. We can do both, and, in fact, must do both. An essential part of doing racial justice in the world is also doing it in ourselves. We can’t make change out there, if we don’t also do so in our own hearts. Additionally, we can work for racial justice while also still working for justice against other forms of oppression and harm to our environment.

For instance, large numbers of our UUs were among the interdenominational faith leaders who showed up in Charlottesville to stage a peaceful, interfaith counter protest to the neo-nazi, white nationalist supremacists group who were there. Here at our church, we decided until Meg could be back with us to do something similar to the teach-ins I mentioned earlier. In the meantime though, our church already has a lot going with antiracism and multiculturalism efforts.

We have done education on white supremacy culture with our Austin Area UU White Allies for Racial Equity group and our Board of Trustees. We have an active People of Color Group and allies group. We have begun offering a racism-unlearning circle and have offered several film screenings and other learning opportunities regarding antiracism.

Finally, a group of folks is working to identify a broader educational curricula that we can offer in 2018 that would accommodate a large number of our church members being able to attend it over time.

So, much is happening and moving forward!

Chris

All the positive developments that Valerie just described are what examples of what Melton and Brown say can happen in act III of our story. If we have done the work of identifying the rules that are holding us back and staying in the struggle, we get to write our own ending for the story.

While we still have much work to do and must stay on the mat for a while, as Melton and Brown would put it, these positive developments are a sign that even though these have been difficult times for us as a denomination, they also offer us the opportunity for real growth and transformation.

We have the opportunity to write our own ending – to create a faith that is truly multicultural and inclusive of a multitude of cultural norms and practices. Such a faith in turn, holds the great potential of being transformative for each of us as individuals, by widening our worldview.

We invite you to join in. Feel free to talk with David about opportunities for getting involved with our larger denominations. Join our people of color or allies group according to how you identify.

Together, with each other and with the many wonderful folks in our larger UU faith, we will write our own ending to the story we have shared with you today.

And that truly is holy work.

Amen.


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