I will be back in my hometown of Buffalo on Monday night. Christmas brings up all kinds of mixed emotions and expectations. I will be seeing my mother and my older sister and my nephew and his family. This is a season of dread, becoming nauseated after hearing yet another version of Silent Night at the mall. This is an annual pilgrimage for me seeing what changes have taken place back home and working role in the family dynamics. I might see if it’s possible to stream a black holiday classic movie.
This year is more challenging than ever as I have fought with my body to achieve a certain level of health. My two main presents are to myself: I had tied to quit working a few months ago and then I accepted a job a few weeks ago that begins in early January. My new supervisor has called several times and I have filled out all kinds of paperwork so I guess this is going to happen. The second gift is that of my functioning mostly pain-free body. I have an appointment with the VA on Monday to get the remainder of my ear wax removed before getting on the plane.
I am quick point out to all who will listen that this holiday is something very different for everyone. There are the people seeking asylum who are facing family separation and even death trying to find a better life for themselves and their families. There was the hear wrenching story of a young girl who died in a prison camp yesterday. There are the pictures of hundreds of Yemenis on the brink of starvation. There are the survivors of the journalists who were killed attempting to shine the light of truth upon the evil deeds of powerful people. There are the people whose stories were told in the song First Christmas of loneliness, abuse and fear. There is the loss of democracy caused by the state legislatures in Wisconsin and Michigan. And finally there are people being spat upon by racists who don’ even know them but feel cIt is a time to reflect on our hopes and dreams and resolve to find a way rejoice and be glad in it.
Sometimes I regret not playing more of a role in my nephews’ lives. My oldest nephew, John, was born the year I graduated from high school. When I was graduating from high school, I was experiencing deep depression. I felt loss from a woman I loved. I was protesting the war in Vietnam. I wanted to be a part of history. I was a horny male teenager. The depression was the most difficult of those things to understand. I remember writing letters back home in lower case to try to make them understand I was not doing well. Depression was a family characteristic. My mother and older sister have also lived with it. When you are 17 or 18 everything seems so overwhelming. The depression was about what my mind was saying about feeling empty and lonely.
Nobody who is that age is old enough to understand. If there is one thing I regret I wish I had learned to understand myself sooner. My younger brother also lived with a mental illness triggered by use of hallucinogens. I believe that I survived because of a combination of nature and nurture. James left home as a teenager and went west at a time many people were feeling alienated and wanting to get away from home. I was old enough to go to Howard University and be a part of history and the largest anti-war demonstrations in American history.
When you are young and you are struggling you have more options than I saw as a teenager. For me, the best choice after dropping out of college was the military. But when I returned to civilian life, I struggled with economic security. I heard the voices of my nephews but I was in no shape to be able to help them. Now that things seem to be different and I have gotten help I am no longer being driven by depression or mania. I am doing well. I was part of my niece’s life at an event to retire the flags last week. I cannot go back into the 1970s but I am proud to part of the present.
On the pursuit of happiness
I have been reflecting lately on two very different periods of my life. I had a long stretch in which I felt dissatisfied with a lot of what was happening. I was working in toxic environments, I was in bad relationships, and I felt unsafe in my neighborhood. Notice that I am using the word happiness as a measure of my life and whether or not I was feeling it. This is very deliberate as I want to avoid the impression that I was depressed during this period. I was not achieving my goals and I saw that it would be a long time before I would make any progress.
I tied a lot of things to get out of this rut including watching inspiring movies like the Will Smith movie I am referencing in the title. Self help books like the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People gave me some pointers. I underwent counseling and seriously considered the advice I was being given. In addition I talked with my older sister and changed relationships and careers. It was not the sort of thing I could do overnight. I almost forgot one tool from the mental health field which was the Wellness Recovery Action Plan. I wrote and revised my plan several times before bidding it farewell a couple of years ago.
On the Hidden Brain podcast a few months ago there was a story about how people ruminate or continue to think about their past decisions. I also go through this process of thinking about what I have done and wondering what I might have done differently. And I also learned that as time passes, you have to let go of what might have been and move ahead with what has happened.
The surprising result of this effort is that I feel happier than ever. I can think back to things that happened and how they improved my life. And I improved the lives of people I met along the way. That is the person I have become and I hope there will be greater happiness in the future.
UBLAC (Uplifting Black Liberation and Community) is an organization based in Sherman Park, almost a year old, led by black women. They are drawing many coalition partners together for racial justice work and are an accountability partner for SURJ. Standing Up For Racial Justice Milwaukee is a part of the national SURJ network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. They align with the mission, vision and shared values of groups such as UBLAC. Members of the First Unitarian Society Black Lives Matter Group participate in UBLAC and SURJ events. Thus it seemed reasonable as the new chair to suggest that UBLAC ask us to host their upcoming potluck. This week we exchanged emails about the idea for August 6th. Unfortunately before we were able to act, the group was able to book another location. When I got home this afternoon I asked whether w might be able to host the next event which will be November 19th. I am optimistic. I hope to attend next moth o become familiar with UBLAC. We are developing our fall agenda for the Black Lives Matter First Unitarian Society.
The Unitarian Universalist Association was rocked this spring by revelations about their hiring practices and how few people of color it employs. It is a system which favors white ministers. Suddenly the liberal religion was turned upside down. The President, Peter Morales, quit and was replaced by three people of color who served on an interim basis. The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists became an increasingly important force for change. There was the news that the Board of Directors made a commitment of financial support to the Black Lives Matter group which surprised many white people. And the denomination began a self-examination to understand the ways in which white supremacy governed how it operated. There was a series of white supremacy services in churches across the country, including the First Unitarian Society. It was in the midst of this change that the leader of the Black Lives Matter at the church, Mary Devitt, decided it no longer made sense for her as a white woman to be in charge of the group and asked me if I would become the chair. Mary had been very active building relationships with all sorts of groups. I attended some events and was not involved in marching. I wrote a humorous blog post about the transition called Welcome Back which hearkened back to an old television show about a white teacher who returned to the school he used to attend.
The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists were very active in helping to raise money, which I learned about at the GA. I spent time watching videos from the Church of the Larger Fellowship which is an organization of Unitarian Universalists who are not affiliated with any congregation. I engaged on-line with the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and saw some of their videos from a gathering they held in New Orleans. I wondered what was going on and how could I fit in. It soon developed that there was one delegate credential left and there was a movement to reach out and make it possible to help cover the costs of people of color like me. I wondered how this GA would be different from those in the past. My long time friends at First Church encouraged me to go. And the outgoing development director sent an email about the fundraising and encouraged me to apply for a scholarship. I was sending emails and text messages and posting on Facebook up until a couple of days before I was supposed to leave. Despite the fact I had worries that things were not going to work out, a group called Standing on the Side of Love, handled arrangements getting us to New Orleans, providing spending money and finding a room in a hotel right across from the General Assembly.
The other part of how I got to GA is much more mundane. I have a full-time job with benefits including vacation. I discovered that the GA would coincide with our annual employee retreat but that was not a problem. My vacation was granted without a hassle. So, if you have understanding and compassion surrounding you, it is possible to do things. You can have support from the congregation. You can get the funds that you need to go. And you can rest assured that your job will be there when you return. In a lot of ways, it helped me feel that my life mattered.
On July 18, 2017, I had a proud moment when I walked into a public meeting and introduced myself as the chair of black lives matter at the First Unitarian Society. Years of preparation had led me to that moment at the meeting to close the Milwaukee secure detention facility. Since I took over as chair almost 3 months ago I have been quietly, in consultation with the the black lives matter cabal, been searching for an issue where we could help to fill in the gaps and have a meaningful impact.
At the meeting of our black lives matter collaborative in June I had recommended that we join and announce our support for the coalition. But that was different from standing before this room of family members and ex prisoners and saying that I was with them. I had decided that this was the cause. We had listened to a heart felt presentation this spring about the lives of thousands of people locked away for crimeless revocations and I was moved to action.
This was a start for me and I felt welcome pronouncing my name and finding, to my surprise, some of the people in the meeting were also with our black lives matter collaborative. I am always say that you can start anywhere so we did. I am hoping that the people in the room will begin to recognize as we begin to make changes together. We have a role we can play in ending mass incarceration. I need your support.
I have been a member of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee since the 1990s. Like many people, I was drawn to the many progressive things that the church members did. They were affirming the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry and have children. They supported the right of women to control their own bodies and led a clinic protection coalition when right wing anti abortionists threatened to close down clinics. They marched against American interventions in the affairs of other nations. And I was also drawn to what the Unitarian Universalists did not have, which was a religious creed. No one was forced to believe in the existence of god, which I never have. I have never read more than a few pages of the bible and don’t believe in any form of supreme being.
I also joined the Freedom From Religion Foundation a few years ago because I found that public officials routinely brought their religious views into the lives as mayors, senators and other forms of elected office. They violated the separation of church and state. In that way I felt that they violated my rights.. I am excited when I read of ordinary heroism done not in the praise of some being I consider imaginary. I am able to nourish my friendships and work on doing good for its own sake. I am part of a struggle to help transform the Unitarians from a largely white middle class denomination to a one which welcomes people of color and affirms that my life as an African-American matters. I want to know that these are people who will have my back. That is what I believe.