March/April 2000
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RACISM / by Tom Stites
Q&A with John Buehrens


orking on racism issues in the association and in his own heart has been "a very humbling experience," says UUA President the Rev. John A. Buehrens. Buehrens was interviewed as part of the World's exploration of the Journey toward Wholeness antiracism initiative. We started with the question of how far he thinks the UUA has come on the Journey toward Wholeness.

JB: There were a number of false starts. It took a while to figure out that what is needed is a spiritual transformation of a predominantly white, middle-class religious movement to become aware of its own enmeshment in cultural and institutional racism.

The resolution passed at General Assembly in 1992 is a plea for a more racially inclusive movement. In other words, let's have more people of color in the UUA. There was a problem with that, though. White liberals wanted more people of color around to reduce their guilt feelings, using people of color as trophies and tokens. When people ask me how we can find more people of color, I tell them, "Stop trying; don't go fishing for people categorically."

Another basic course correction has been learning that racism hurts all people of color. This thing started out as basically a black-white issue. But the rise of Latino/a voices; the presence and the transformation work of someone like [UUA staffer] Robette Dias, who's a Native American; the growing number of persons of color of Asian background—all of this has had to come out on the screen.

World: How did the change in thinking get started?

JB: A big task force met in St. Louis in 1993 and had to select a methodology for trying to advance this diversity agenda [called for in the 1992 resolution]. And when they realized it couldn't be about diversity without dealing with racism, they had to pick consultants who would help us become aware of our own enmeshment in cultural racism. They turned to the Crossroads Ministries. The Crossroads model is not perfect for us, so there's been a big adaptation of that. The approach that Crossroads helped us find recognizes that there are power dynamics involved in cultural and institutional racism, but it recognizes that change comes about in people.

You have little light bulbs going off in people's heads in the middle of our antiracism training where they realize, "Oh my God, if I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem. If I don't actively attempt to do something about further distributing opportunity and power to people who historically have been excluded, and where the culture reinforces patterns of exclusion, I'm just helping to perpetuate racist patterns." And those patterns also manifest themselves in our congregations and in our association as a whole.

World: How big a struggle is it to grapple with antiracism?

JB: I'm constantly realizing, "Oh, that's another dimension of this that I never quite got right." It's very humbling working on this stuff. Some people believe that there are those who get it and those who don't. I don't buy that.
There are going to be differences of opinion all along the way, and there are going to be mistakes, where insensitive things are done or people run. People get into the notion that, "I thought I could expect that there wouldn't be any racist responses." Well, good luck. The day that happens, we will have entered nirvana.
But I do think we have settled on a common, pragmatic methodology that's not a matter of merely working on prejudiced individuals and not a full-blown political, ideological stance, either, or a creed. We're being honest about history.

The history of this movement around race is not as noble as people like to portray it. There have been moments of real commitment of predominantly white Unitarians and Universalists to undoing racially based oppression. But even during the abolitionist era, the bulk of Unitarians were profoundly conservative and resisted abolitionism, even to the point of boycotting William Ellery Channing's preaching to the degree that he became depressed and ill and retired early from the ministry. His own really quite modest abolitionist notions wouldn't penetrate the heads of his parishioners, who were all tied up with their economic interests in the cotton trade, etc.

World: What do you view as the UU accomplishments?

JB: Well over 500 leaders of the movement have now experienced the antiracism analysis training. The whole model here has been one of transforming the awareness of the gatekeepers, those who hold the power.
We have now gotten to the point where we have 45 persons of color in ministerial fellowship. Most of our ministers don't even know that. We don't regard this as adequate, so we're now trying to add some active recruitment efforts. I think more ministers of color have been willing to take a risk on us because of the Journey toward Wholeness initiative, because they see, "Oh, the predominantly white leadership of this movement actually does grasp that racism is a problem, and they're willing to talk with me as a human being and not a racial abstraction."

World: Many critics of the Journey toward Wholeness initiative have been ministers. Why?

JB: They know it will be hard. And they know that right at the core of this methodology what is at stake is giving away power.

World: Their power?

JB: Oh, absolutely. And let me say, in the defense of people in our ministry, laypeople have no idea how scary and insecure the life of most ministers is, at a very deep spiritual level and at an economic level. Job security in our movement is lousy, as it is in most congregationally based denominations. So I'm not surprised when they put up resistance. They're very good at intellectual defense systems.

World: What tend to be their objections?

JB: Three things. Congregational polity--"Don't tell me what to do; I'll decide when and what." Fine. We're never going to be able to tell congregations when and just how to work on this stuff. But let's admit it: Is this initiative coming from the congregations? No. If we waited for it to come from the congregations, it would never happen. The association has a moral obligation to lead in order to help the whole of Unitarian Universalism adapt to a future that is necessarily going to be more multiracial and multicultural. We are going to persistently suggest that unless you learn to adapt to the exigencies of a more multiracial and multicultural world, your relevance is in danger.

Another area of resistance is, "Gee, this might make me feel guilty or my people feel guilty." That is not the intent, and that is not what happens, but it's guaranteed that when you start working on this, people will experience some conflict, differences of perspectives. You start talking across racial lines, people don't see things the same way. It becomes a real spiritual risk.

The third area of resistance is an attempt to substitute an educational model: "Let's read books and discuss them and debate the world out there and whether racism isn't less of a problem now than it used to be."

World: I think I'm hearing you suggest that this journey is going to take generations. Are we doing process here or are we doing real change?

JB: We're doing spiritual and social transformation. We're trying to do a social transformation of our own religious community, so that it begins to look more like the beloved community. The UUA is a service organization created by and for the congregations. Our job, on behalf of the whole family of congregations, is to make sure that not only does this religious movement not vanish from the face of the earth but that it adapts successfully to the new moral, cultural, and social demands of the age. That means we're always in the uncomfortable position of putting challenges in front of congregations, as well as services.

--Tom Stites

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