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.
Nor was I cooked and eaten by hungry people. What I was asked how our Black lives matter meeting went, that was my response. One and one half days have passed and I am still alive. We have begun the trip and are fairly civilized. The group includes people who are fairly active in matters of racial justice and me. For me, racial justice lately has been the ability to earn a living without fear of eviction and having the same benefits as my co-workers. For people who don’t know, being a peer support specialist is my fourth or fifth career and it is the one the has lasted the longest. I have been a librarian, a cooperative developer, a grant writer and a day care worker. Since those other careers faded away, one can conclude that either I was not especially skilled or I am better suited for what I am doing now. These jobs sometimes paid decent money but unfortunately did not last more than a few years.
Peer support has often been a low paying career in which I had to fight to earn a living wage. I am wearing the first pair of glasses ever bought with company provided vision benefits. Either my previous jobs didn’t have vision benefits or I didn’t use them. Making my life matter meant a lot of pain and struggle to survive. There was also a lot of acting out and fairly embarrassing behavior that ruined relationships. My current life is the most stable I have felt for a long time.
I now feel as though I have something to offer such as the value of my experience. I know what it means to feel ashamed that you need to depend on your family for support well into adulthood. I know about having your payroll check bounce. I know what bad and good employers are like. These are all things I bring to the struggle to making black lives matter in Milwaukee. I was the only African-American at the table for our first meeting at the First Unitarian Society, a situation I hope to change. I hope to venture out and become a part of some of the struggles my fellow members have been involved with and make a difference. I will share my vision, now that it is clear what I can see.
In another step towards changing over from being an ad hoc “cabal” to a formal committee I asked for and received the names and contact information of the people who have been a part of the group. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about a dozen people. This is a testimony to Mary’s organizational skills. While she may seem like one of those flaky white liberals just running around doing thins, the fact is she helped create some pretty impressive events. The question is, what to do with all of the energy that she has helped create? Where does it go?
I will be busy sending out an email informing people of the changeover and and finding a date for our first meeting. Next week I will be attending the my first meeting of the social justice council as the chair of the new black lives committee. Once more into the breach.
This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
When I returned to the website of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee I saw information about events that the church made been organizing around the issue of Black Lives Matter. And so I felt more motivated. And I went for a walk. I had read that everything political starts with a personal choice. There was a movie on PBS by a man who lost his father to diabetes and his father was around my age. My heart skips a beat when I hear that people in my age group are dying from preventable diseases. The best way I can act as if I believe my my matters is my taking care of it.
Today I am proud to say I met my fitness goals. I am taking good care of the body my parents gave me. Almost as important, I sent a text message to a dear friend whose support helped me through a difficult time in my life. I said never underestimate the power of friendship. Patricia Raybon talked about the need for interracial friendships. I think this is something we need throughout our lives. We must maintain empathy for people who look and speak differently from ourselves.
It is true that we share different parts of ourselves with the people we meet. At the all black office where I am located most of the time, I talk with them about the Fondy Market a place where we can meet positive people including those who look like us. This is important because unfortunately in mental health, we are often dealing with people who are at their worst. That is why we need their help.
At the church I am a quirky older man who pops in once in a blue moon.
But what am I to you and why are you reading me?
I have been noticing that some white churches post signs and organize events that proclaim Black Lives Matter. Today I was at the First Unitarian Society in Milwaukee for the first time in several months and a couple I had seen during my last visit was there. It so happened that the husband is an expert on gang interventions I had heard about many years ago. His wife, who seems to be one of those people who creates a niche for herself wherever she goes, is one of a group within the Unitarian Universalists who are of a social justice ministry. In the church, she is doing Black Lives Matter events and it just so happened that today they had organized a silent witness.
I joined in representing formerly young gifted and black individuals. Most of the responses from passers by were positive. In addition, today’s donations were being shared with an organization that works with inner city youths. This is part of being allies. But how does this sound to you as a reader? How are mostly white organizations and churches witnessing? Do black lives matter to you or are you irritated by the expression? Do you yell back All Lives Matter twice as loudly? Who is it you are attempting to drown out?
Although my job is not specifically to fight racial oppression, African-Americans and other people of color with mental illness are at extremely high risk when they encounter the police. With our help, perhaps they will live longer, more productive lives. Their lives will matter, too.
After I wrote a blog post earlier this afternoon I happened to see a few pictures that interested me. I saw a picture of the police chief, whose name is Brown, and discovered his nice dark complexion, the same as mine. When I checked some other pictures of Dallas police comforting people I saw the same thin. That if twisted young Micah Johnson had wanted to start a race war, he had come to the wrong place. Maybe. When I was growing up, my friends and I spoke of the police as an army of occupation. I never recall seeing a black or brown person wearing a badge of any sort. There were no black teachers in the white high school I attended.
In the past few fear, African Americans have gained some positions of power and authority. Mayors, governors and lo and behold, our two term president. I would be interested in knowing how the criminal justice system has changed in Dallas with Chief Brown. For change to take place, we need to evolve from an army of occupation to a family of cooperation. What do the statistics tell us?