Introduction by Rev Diane Rollert, 7 May 2017
In moments like this, there’s always a story that catches fire and pushes people to act. This story begins with two people. One was a white man, the other was a woman of colour. (To be a person of colour is to be someone who is not of white, European descent.) Both the man and woman were serving as volunteers on the governing board of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the US, our siblings across the border. Both applied for a high profile paying job. The woman was told she had all the necessary qualifications, but she didn’t quite fit. The man got the job. Like the majority of people on the team he was joining, he was white, male and a minister.
Members of the UU community of colour in the US said, “Hey, wait a minute! Look at what’s been happening. You say that our principles call us to be a racially diverse and just movement. You ask people of colour to take on important volunteer positions. You take pictures of us in meetings for your publicity so that you can show the world how inclusive we are, but then you never hire us to hold leadership positions. You tell us that we don’t fit.” The situation got tense, and the current UUA president stepped down just three months away from the end of his final term. Three interim co-presidents, all ministers of colour, were named to take his place.
In the meantime, a group called Black Lives of UU floated an idea on the internet. Why not stage a teach-in about white supremacy? Yes, those were the words they used. The response surprised them. Day by day, the numbers of congregations that signed up to participate grew until it reached at least 600 strong — if not more — including us, and about a third of the UU congregations in Canada. This is really to the group’s credit. Their communications have been provocative, but also loving and thoughtful. “Consider your own congregation’s context,” they said. “Do what makes sense for you.” They also wrote:
“To tackle white supremacy *within* us is scary. Us? White supremacy? Surely not. We Unitarian Universalists think of ourselves as people with open hearts and minds. And we are. Part of having an open mind is realizing that, try as we might to be part of the world’s solutions, we may also be unwittingly contributing to its problems. This does not make us bad people. Our faith tells us that our goodness has already been established. Our task, then, is to live up to that inherent goodness.”
How can you ever truly change if you never let the other in? This wasn’t just a story of one failed hiring, it was about a long history that’s about more than jobs. It’s about everything.
Many of the Unitarian Universalists of colour that I’ve known over the years have been pioneers. They’ve found this faith because they love the principles we share. They don’t want to be part of any other religious movement, and yet they often find themselves standing out uncomfortably, struggling to fit into a culture that can feel very white, and very Anglo Protestant. It’s a story that I hear not just in the US, but here in Canada, and right here at home, in this congregation.
Visible minorities represent 30% of Montreal’s population, and over the years, I’ve seen many people of colour come and go in our community. Look around us today. We can delude ourselves by thinking that colourblindness is somehow a virtue, but all it does is reinforce the status quo and leave others who are not like us on the outside. Every week, we say that we are striving to be radically inclusive. We have a dream of a world as it should be, but we know in our hearts that we are far, far away from realizing that dream. Race affects everything we do, but let’s be honest, race is a topic we tend to avoid here. We don’t even know where to begin. So I’m grateful to those of you who shared some of your thoughts with me this week as we prepared for this teach-in.
You’ll notice that these are all white voices.
One person wrote, “As a white Anglo woman born and raised in Québec, most of my social interactions are limited to other white people, not because I shun people who don’t look like me, but because people of colour don’t have a huge presence in my community groups and here at church.”
Another person told me a story of going to a gathering with a friend of colour, another member of the church. To her surprise, she discovered that she was the only white person there. At some point, she turned to her friend and said, ”I’m glad I came, but I'm the wrong colour to belong here. I feel really out of place.”
Her friend responded very quietly, ”Now you know how I feel on Sundays.”
Someone else shared a story of being one of a few white people invited to an annual LGBTQ event for people of colour here in Montreal. They write, “In my usual manner, I was highly participatory and readily raised my hand to talk during discussions – that is, until a young black woman spoke up and said that ‘white people take up too much space in the world.’ The facilitator said nothing. …”
“Ultimately,” this person writes, “I agree that white people take up too much space in the world. There are times to be outspoken and times to be more of a listener.”
Someone else, who grew up as part of the Francophone community here, said that we needed to remember that Quebecois tell their own story of oppression within the wider context of Canada. It’s not an easy conversation, when everyone around you has a different story of pain and hurt to tell.
Someone else wrote: “I was totally shocked when I learned about the residential school system, only a few years ago. How could the Canadian government have perpetuated such a cultural genocide? Basically, as a white person, I feel guilty and so sad for all the pain and suffering caused by our treatment of Aboriginal people. I have a lot to learn about bearing witness. How much as a white person am I willing to give up?”
Someone else expressed concern that now was not the time to have this discussion, that today’s teach-in was not the result of any spontaneous sense of urgency to address issues of white supremacy among Canadian Unitarians. This person wrote that they worry about the bitter controversies in both the United States and Canada, especially on university campuses, where concerns for social justice are being pushed forward in ways that pose a threat to free speech. They wonder if a calm and rational discussion will be possible today.
So my task right now is to simply name all of the anxiety in the room.
Take a deep breath if you fear that you won’t be heard or respected today.
Take a deep breath if you fear you’ll be made to feel guilty.
Take a deep breath if you fear your story won’t be considered or understood.
Take a deep breath if you fear that you won’t say the right words, or that you’ll say too much or too little.
Take a deep breath if you fear people will be angry at you for feeling that we need to talk about racism and white supremacy.
Take a deep breath if you fear we’ll do this service today, participate in a few hours of a workshop and then tell ourselves that we’re done and not go any further.
Take a deep breath if you fear the community you know and love won’t change.
Take a deep breath if you fear that the community you know and love may be changed in ways you won’t like.
Take a deep breath for anything that is making you feel apprehensive right now.
Take a deep breath and remember that we are deeply and infinitely connected to each other through the air we breathe.
I’m an American. Race has been a big part of my life. I know that Canada’s story is different from the US, but there are so many facts and figures we could share with each other about the experience of the Indigenous peoples here. We could talk about the slavery that existed here in Montreal in the 18th century. We could talk about the history of whiteness, of how it became a legal definition of who could fully participate in society. How Jews and Italians were once considered non-whites. How Asians had fewer rights. How Indigenous peoples still fill our prisons in disproportionate numbers.
We could talk about Viola Desmond who was arrested for sitting in the white-only section at a movie theatre in Nova Scotia in 1946; who was only pardoned in 2010, after her death; and who, in 2018, will become the first Canadian woman to be featured on a banknote. We could share recent studies about job discrimination here in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. If your name suggests that you might be Muslim or a person of colour, you’re less likely be called for a job interview. I’m only skimming the service here, and each day I realize how much my own knowledge is lacking.
Today, I think mostly of my own grandchild who will grow up living in two cultures: in the white, English-speaking world of his mother and in the black French-and Creole-speaking world of his father. He will grow up as a code shifter, as someone who will learn how to move back and forth between one culture and another. That’s a beautiful gift.
But my grandson will also grow up to be a young man of colour. He may be racially profiled in a way that the men on my side of the family have never experienced. Young black men I know here tell me that it’s just part of life to be stopped by the police for no apparent reason, to be followed around by shop keepers, and to be hired for temporary positions rather than permanent jobs. I want to see a better world for my grandson. I want to believe that the church I serve can be a place where he will one day feel at home. I hope that he can grow up claiming brave space for himself, not just safe space.
I’m hoping that you’ll join us for our workshop this afternoon after lunch, because that’s where the real work of this teach-in will happen. I really appreciate the conversations I’ve had with Vincent and their plans for today’s program. Just so you know, Vincent uses the pronoun “they” in English. We’ve talked about the importance of steering away from guilt. Guilt is not a useful tool for change. If anything, guilt makes us turn into ourselves. It makes us walk away and not engage. Shame and avoidance are not what we need right now.
What we do need is discomfort. When we have privilege, we tend to insist that our needs be met first. “Make me comfortable. This is my place.” Too often we ask others to hold all the discomfort, because we can always walk away. But I believe that change only comes when we are willing to hold the discomfort together as a community. That moment, when we dare to be uncomfortable together, that is sacred.
Introduction to the Offering: Guantanamera
One of the most challenging things about planning for today’s service has been the discussion we’ve had around music. We’ve really been leaning into the discomfort. Should we invite a guest of colour to provide music today? Wouldn’t this be the time to let other voices be heard? Yes, we agreed, we need to hire more musicians of colour and more musicians from the indigenous communities here. But today we decided, right or wrong, that we needed to do our own work, and it felt awkward to invite a guest.
Then came the question, was it ok for Jean to play music that doesn’t come from his culture, or was this appropriation? After all, he’s a white jazz musician. How do we respectfully approach music that isn’t ours? How do we lift something up rather than degrade or exploit it?
The song Guantanamera came mind. Both Jean and I had grown up loving this song as it was sung and introduced by Pete Seeger. For me, this was the first song I learned to sing in Spanish and it got me fascinated with Cuban history, the language and Latino culture. It opened a whole new world for me. Then the song got coopted by other white musicians who divorced it from it’s original story.
So, the music for today’s offering is based on a popular Cuban song that became the tune for a beautiful poem written by José Marti. José Marti was active in the Cuban Liberation Movement during the late 1800s. He spent most of his life in exile, but at the age of 42, he returned to Cuba. This was one of his last poems before he was killed in an aborted uprising.
I have always loved these words from the poem:
Con los pobres de la tierra
quiero yo mi suerte echar,
el arroyo de la sierra
me complace mas que el mar.
With the poor of the earth
I want to cast my lot,
the mountain stream
gives me more pleasure than the sea.
Ironically, the chorus, Guantanamera, guajira, sings of a woman of Guantanamo, a place now of such sad fame for the US prison yet to be closed on Cuban soil.
Download the Intro to the May 7 Worship Service