Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Survey Assessment

Community Sing at the 2018 BLUU Revival in Kansas City, MO

The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism seeks to be and is a spiritual home for Black Unitarian Universalists in the US (and indeed even the globe with our growing collaboration and partnership with the African Francophone Ministry led by Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana). In a world that is increasingly more dangerous for our people, we want to support our Black UUs as best we can.

We believe — and it’s at the core of all we do — that the people most directly affected by something are the people who can best articulate what they need from a group, organization, or spiritual community. It is in the spirit of discernment and listening hearts that we embarked on a journey to discover what Black UUs were looking for and needing from the BLUU OC. This was especially an invitation for those who were unable to attend the BLUU Convening in March 2017 in New Orleans. And we did indeed learn a ton from the survey results, and it has already and continues to inform our work moving forward.

Alice Walker, in her book of meditations, We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, shared a message from the Hopi Elders of Oraibi, Arizona that has reigned true for the BLUU OC in our work and calling. We offer them here, in their entirety, and share them throughout this assessment to help frame our findings:

We have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour
Now we must go back and tell the people this is the Hour
And there are things to be considered:
Where are you living?
What are you doing?
Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden?
It is time to speak your truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!
There is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart and they will suffer greatly.
Know the river has its destination.
The Elders say we must let go of the shore, and push off and into the river, keep our eyes open, and our head above the water.
See who is in there with you and Celebrate.
At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all, ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!
Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that you do now must be done in a sacred manner.
And in celebration.
“We are the ones we have been waiting for…”


CORE FINDINGS

We have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour
Now we must go back and tell the people this is the Hour

  • A majority of survey participants began attending UU churches in the last five years.
  • Whether or not they’re part of a congregation, most Black UUs feel a deep sense of isolation and rely heavily on social media, particularly the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism closed Facebook group, to connect with other Black UUs.
  • Black people tend to become a part of UU congregations because of their theology, not because of the community. White dominant culture gets in the way of their communal experience and serves as an exclusionary force in church life. Simply put: Black people, when they show up in ways that are culturally divergent from white, middle and upper class culture, do not feel welcomed.
  • Most Black UUs have only attended the one or two UU churches nearest them and so the local congregations are having the greatest impact on whether or not Black UUs remain active in the faith, whatever the Association and its leadership may or may not be doing in this regard.
  • BLUU plays a critical role in nurturing the spiritual lives of Black UUs across the country, whether or not they have actually sought out pastoral care. The public voice, presence, and existence of BLUU has been and is important to many Black UUs.
  • The meet-ups, online worship services, daily affirmations, and pastoral care that make up the BLUU Ministerial Network (BLUUMin) programming is deeply meaningful and sufficient for the majority of survey participants, and also folks are hopeful for an expansion of these offerings that involve more advertising of the programming, face-to-face gatherings, small group ministry, and opportunities for youth/young adult leadership.
  • Participants name all the ways that they maintain joy in their lives, including nature, family, music, learning, and spiritual practices of various kinds. But only a handful of those who are finding and maintaining joy in their lives mentioned church or a faith community as the reason. And of that handful, nearly half were referring to a community that was not UU.
  • The vast majority of people feel like organizing from a faith perspective with other Black UUs would be beneficial to them and their UU communities.
  • A lack of time and money, as well as the constraints of location and social anxiety, are contributing factors to Black UUs not being able to connect with one another.
Choir Practice at the 2017 BLUU Convening in New Orleans, LA

On Freedom: What Does it Look Like to Win, or to Make Change?

We asked respondents to visualize what winning looks like. Some focused on “freedom” in a Unitarian Universalist context, while others’ answers utilized a more general framework. We learned that Black UUs’ conceptualization of freedom is vast, and looks like many things to many people — not to mention being unfathomable to some — but ultimately hinges on being able to live life without social and economic constraints and outside the context of a stifling white gaze. One respondent writes:

“I think it may look like non-interference. That our thoughts, cultural productions, dreams, etc. are ours and for us without the need to be packaged for the white gaze. It looks like us organizing and having the room to imagine, create, fight, mess up and be forgiven without sacrificing ourselves, our people, or our principles to appease others.“

Several Black UU respondents spoke of a world free of oppressive systems. One wrote simply that freedom looks like “not having to worry about my family’s safety.” Another discussed, “The ability to live my life fully and intentionally without the constraints of social constructs, oppression and discrimination. It means that I can be who I am within my identity as a Black UU without having to explain, educate or justify it. I get to just be me!”


ASSESSMENT OF THE MOMENT

And there are things to be considered:
Where are you living? What are you doing? Are you in right relation?
Where is your water?
Know your garden.

“Stay the course. We need to plant a stake and claim our space in UUism. Do what you are doing. Create opportunities to invite more Black people into community who might be looking for the theology that UUs embrace. Keep creating Black space.”
“Freedom would mean being able to trust that non-black — and especially white-identifying — UUs would let me exist as a complex being and not as a cipher onto which they can project their suppositions, assumptions, and stereotypes — however generous and kind these might appear.”

The last year-and-a-half in the life of the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations have been fraught in more public ways than perhaps ever before. The exposure and acknowledgement of longstanding racial bias in hiring, the resignations of three UUA leaders in the aftermath of those allegations going public, and the rising up of Black and Brown voices nationwide saying, “Enough is enough,” has stirred up an unprecedented energy and commitment to do better and to be different people in our movement.

This is true of some white UUs in denominational and congregational leadership, and it is particularly true of Black UU and UU-adjacent folks, whether a part of congregations, the Movement for Black Lives, social justice organizing more broadly, or some combination of the three.

It has long been the case that Black folks have been a part of and, at times, in some measure of leadership within Unitarian Universalist congregations. At the same time, there has been a deep sense of isolation and ongoing concern about and anger over how unsafe UU spaces typically are. Black people are, by and large, showing up and making a home in UU congregations because of the theological perspective — the Seven Principles resonate and we are invested in living them out in our everyday lives. We are also invested in our own healing, both self-care and community care, and that healing seems hard to come by in UU spaces, in particular for Black UUs.

There are a number of reasons for this, all of which begin with the premise that UU congregations are predominantly white institutions with white dominant culture as their foundation. Black UUs want to engage and understand what’s needed for Black liberation and self-love as Black people, and these are hard-to-reach places in predominantly white space. Better, more soul-enriching music is a particular longing for Black UUs in worship; getting there is often difficult with white folks running a lot of music programs.

Despite some acknowledgement of our Six Sources, the lack of lived out investment in theological diversity in UU congregations, which manifests itself in worship and social spaces that more often than not don’t represent the full breadth of spiritual experience, has stifled deeper participation in and trust of these spaces among Black people, even to the point where we try to connect with Black visitors, but generally don’t feel like we can give glowing recommendations for them to return.

The development of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism in 2015 brought a renewed sense of belonging and purpose among Black UUs. Black folks in and around Unitarian Universalism are tired…and we’re also hungry — hungry for a life in UUism that feeds our spirits, holds more hope than despair, and creates spaces for us to show up fully as ourselves.

There has been a clear and unwavering commitment from the Organizing Collective of BLUU to expand the power and capacity of Black UUs within our faith, provide support, information, and resources to Black UUs, and to enliven justice-making and liberation through our faith. There is equal commitment to a deeper connection to the Movement for Black Lives and Black UUs more broadly are actively engaging and taking on these commitments, learning and growing in them in all the ways they can, with all the available resources that will enable them to do so.


DEEPER FINDINGS FROM THE ASSESSMENT

It’s time to speak your truth.

What do you know about BLUUMin?

“Everything. Watched it come into fruition online . Watched listened and learned as you collectively worked out who/what a minister/pastor might be /could be for us.”

Are you involved in social justice organizing in your congregation:

“No. I am poor af, immobile and in an environment that is literally debilitating. But, in the meantime, I’m a soldier of shit I love, w/ great views of my future.”

Challenges around connecting with other Black UUs:

“Time, shared interest, faith that anything positive will result rather than retribution, resources in terms of factual information, money.”
BLUU 2018 UUA General Assembly Healing Space in Kansas City, MO

BLUU at its Best

Not surprisingly, Black UUs participating in the survey came from every region of the UUA. We are, literally, everywhere in Unitarian Universalism, so the notion that we haven’t been here and don’t have a place here, a more commonly held belief than some would care to admit, is patently false. Over half, in particular, came from two regions, the Central East and Southern regions, both at 32% of those participating. Then came the MidAmerica region (nearly 20%) and the Pacific Western region (13%). Only 3% of those participating were from the New England region.

These numbers do not even capture the full breadth of Unitarian Universalism across the diaspora, as there are Black-identified UUs all over the world whose opinions and needs are not reflected here. And while these numbers may suggest where we can (and perhaps should) focus our efforts on the ground, they most certainly indicate that our work must continue across the faith.

It is also clear from the survey responses that folks across a wide range of ages are engaging with BLUU and joining what folks have begun to refer to as the “BLUU spiritual family.” The two largest groups, at 24% each of participants, are the 45–54 and 55–64 age ranges. Following closely behind at 22% of those participating are folks in the 35–44 age range; there are probably more Black UUs in this age range than most folks realize. Of all those participating, 13% were in the 25–34 age range, and the rest of us were in the 65–74 age range (10%), over 75 age range (nearly 5%), and 18–24 age range (2%).

At the end of the day, BLUU’s primary call is to listen and respond to Black UUs. In March 2017, BLUU held its first convening of Black UUs in New Orleans. Over 100 people came to that gathering, again across the various age ranges, to connect, share, learn, and be in community in all the ways folks often weren’t able to do that in their UU congregations, if they attended a church at all. Over the course of the weekend, two primary needs rose to the surface: a deep desire for spiritual and pastoral care more responsive to who we are as Black people and political education that could enliven a connection between our justice making and our faith, more broadly, as well as to the Movement for Black Lives, more specifically. Because these were the hopes articulated by Black UUs, the OC sought out to meet these needs and continue to think creatively about moving that work and ministry forward.

BLUU’s Growing Edges

What’s missing from BLUU’s Ministerial Network programming is:

“More young adult programming. My 15 year old refuses to come to our fellowship — and I honor that. She shares my values, but does not see herself reflected in HSYG. Leadership opportunities for her would be very well received.”
“Maybe more advertisements for congregations to be able to share about BLUU and it’s existence and the work/programming that’s being done? I honestly was in my congregation a year and no one ever mentioned that BLUU existed.”
“I was unaware that all this programming was taking place, I just saw that I got an email from BLUU that went into my “promotions” folder in gmail by chance. I appreciate all that is being done, it would be nice to meet more Black UUs in person.”

It became clear in the early days of BLUU’s existence that folks were seeking connection to other Black UUs who are spread out all over the country and the world. So the OC worked to grow the closed FB group to its current 610 members and the public-facing FB page to 6,652 followers. Because the community is so diffuse, connecting online is our primary mode of communication. That said, it has also become clear that a range of communication modalities is important and necessary if we’re to reach the people we are called to connect with and support. We have an email list that we are making greater use of, and are developing ways to help build community that don’t rely solely on Facebook or other social networking sites to be meaningful.

We are also aware that we’re not reaching every demographic in all the ways we’d like to. This is particularly true of the youngest and oldest (in years) among us. While we have built deeply meaningful relationships with youth and seniors in our Black UU community, it is not lost on us that the lowest percentages of participation, by age range, were those 18–24 years old (2.2%) and those 75 and over (4.4%). And we have begun to understand how to shift this reality.

It is equally important to offer greater clarity about BLUU’s role with respect to the institution that is the UUA. One respondent expressed happiness that BLUU was a working group that came into existence because of the hiring practices of the UUA and that they had hope in BLUU’s ability to make greater progress organization-wide.

Another respondent suggested that the BLUU Ministerial Network was engaged in the fight to make the UUA more inclusive. Because of BLUU’s commitment to Black UUs more broadly, it’s understandable that there would be confusion about our role with respect to the institution. Misinformation also spreads quickly because, as an organizing collective of six people, who are doing the work and living full lives, we can’t talk to everyone who has incorrect information. That said, we have always been transparent about our work as being primarily outside the institutional context and who we serve, Black UUs. We are not a part of the UUA; the UUA is our current fiscal sponsor. We will continue to share what is true about our work in word and in deed.

Finally, it may be difficult for some to understand how we do what we do in support of Black UUs and Black people, particularly because we have no systematized way of voting on particular matters. One respondent indicated that “staffing didn’t seem all that transparent” and another expressed that “there doesn’t seem to be room for the democratic process” in our decision-making. It is important to note here that a core aspect of our work is that it is, first and foremost, relational.

We are always talking to and getting feedback from Black people, both online and in person, about BLUU’s work and these connections and relationships make the work and ministry what it is. Similarly, the OC is always excited to do work with folks who are doing the work in ways that speak to our values a collective. So if you see folks in working relationship with the OC, it is most likely that they’ve been organizing in meaningful ways on behalf of Black people or specifically Black UUs.

Black Power & BLUU

Create your community.
Be good to each other.

“I love you. I appreciate you. I’m humbled and occasionally challenged by you. I don’t agree with everything and everyone, but am grateful for all the work you’ve done to bring UUs out of the dark age of denial around the need to dismantle white supremacy. You make us better.”
“I would like to further discuss how I create a local group here with the focus of getting black UUs and black non-UUs for creating dialogue and support in liberal faith. It appears that BLUU is only concerned with providing support to black UUs at this time but I would like to know more about the efforts to attract African Americans outside of the organization.”

Black Unitarian Universalism centers the thriving of Black folks in a way that our broader UU conversations do not. Self-determination for Black people is foundational to what we do. Centering Blackness is at the core of who BLUU is and what Black UUs are living into with deeper clarity and imagination. This shows up in all areas of the ministry/community we’re building. Participants indicate a gratefulness for Explicitly Black space at both the Healing Space at General Assembly, as well as in the online worship space. Folks indicated that we should be embodying what is at the heart of Black culture, specifically music, styles of worship, joy, and faith. One person suggested more sermons and religious education curricula by Black UUs. Some folks even expressed that money, time and other resources should not go toward changing the belief system of white supremacy:

“It is taught and absorbed over a lifetime. We do not teach it and therefore we can not eliminate it. Resources should be applied to change public policy and laws at every level of civic life, as well as improve the spiritual and material well being of brown and black people.”

When asked what has prevented participants from becoming members of UU congregations, answers varied. But, by and large, those responses cited a lack of diversity, with particular emphasis on a lack of people of color in visible leadership, liberal preaching that is “stale and tired”, social justice that doesn’t include racial justice work, relationship-building with local Black communities, or direct action around issues that most impact African-American communities, and negative attitudes among too many congregants about Black people. Overall, a lack of risk-taking measures to ensure that Black people are invested in, both within the congregation and out in the world, is at the heart of participants’ decisions to either leave their congregations altogether, or not invest their time and talent.

With these ideals in mind, it is not surprising what participants lifted up in terms of what we should be embodying as Black UUs:

  • The black joy that comes from communities building new worlds together;
  • The full inclusion of our experience, poetry, music and liturgy in worship (which you guys are working on)
  • Modeling what UU service and spirituality is and could be if it truly were multicultural — all the time, not just for Black History Month, or MLK holiday etc.
  • We must be strong, no-nonsense, and forward-thinking, yet not strident nor totally unyielding in our approaches, actions, and conversations with other people, especially Caucasians.
  • I would love to see Black UU Regional mini-conference or Retreat

What Heals Us?

And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!

Those participating in this survey were given an opportunity to speak directly to how we’re doing with respect to spiritual care and what the needs continue to be around political education. Overall, folks expressed gratitude and hopefulness for the work of BLUU’s Ministerial Network, a group of Black UUs with a variety of spiritual gifts and hopes for healing, and the hiring of a Community Minister for Worship and Spiritual Care. This is what folks said:

“I have not actively sought out care, but I have received support numerous times because those involved “pay attention to the flock.”
“I have always felt uplifted and more connected afterwards.”
“I brought up a negative experience in my congregation while on a BLUU Connect call and have received thoughtful and sincere support.”
“It helped me to center myself during the general assembly this year.”
“I’m so glad BLUU exists. Before it, I felt very alone.”

In a question specifically about what feels most healing for us as Black UUs, an overwhelming majority of folks noted three things: 1) small group settings, 2) worship and other kinds of spaces where we can be held as ourselves, and 3) talking with someone one-on-one, all coming at 83.2%, 71.5%, and 70.8% reporting, respectively. So, while Black UUs note theology as their primary draw to UU congregations, we are also deeply relational. And it speaks to the deep need for community that folks have and that has shifted the primarily project-based focus of BLUU to a focus that is both project-based and community-oriented and relationship-based.

What Is Needed From BLUU Now?

There is a river flowing now very fast
It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid.
They will try to hold on to the shore.
They will feel they are being torn apart and they will suffer greatly.

“I wish we could address the issue with Black UUs who do not support BLUU. Many older Black folks, I feel, don’t relate to the principles of BLUU and the Black Lives Matter movement. It is difficult to have an explicitly Black space with many Black folks not understanding why it is exclusive.”
“Originally it was the theological diversity [that drew me]. The notion that I could be on my own path is appealing. I consider myself a Unitarian with Universalist leanings, more so than a “UU” (which, to me, feels like a social justice movement). The social justice is important, but I need the spirituality and connection to my African American roots too and that is missing for me.”

The BLUU OC strives to be a dynamic, nimble and responsive group of loving and fierce Black UUs in the world, committed to supporting Black UUs, increasing our power and capacity as Black UUs and ensuring that justice-making and liberation through our faith is a lived-out reality. But perhaps more importantly, part of our call is to continually open up ourselves and other Black UUs to the power and possibility in centering Blackness as a core foundation to our faith. This is not always an easy task. Black folks have been conditioned over generations to do the exact opposite of this, so not everyone will recognize or understand the value of this call. Some will even work to thwart our efforts. And this is precisely why our work matters and must continue.

Dismantling white supremacy begins with 1) undoing the knots that white supremacy culture has tied up within our own selves and 2) decolonizing our own minds. This survey is just one way that we know this. In particular, respondents have told us:

  • You are teaching me how vital it is to see the possibilities. There is nothing that is too hard to change.
  • I would find it beneficial ( and perhaps other elderly Black UUs) to be able to dialogue with younger generations of UUs,specifically BLUUs, to compare notes, and become informed of pertinent issues and perspectives.
  • There is another BLUU member in the area for work. Without BLUU, we probably would not have connected. We’ve met for dinner. Going to hang out again soon.
  • I don’t agree with everything and everyone, but am grateful for all the work you’ve done to bring UUs out of the dark age of denial around the need to dismantle white supremacy.
  • 98% of the black non-conforming people that I know want to have a space of their own. We would like to be black, weird & protected.

Know the river has its destination.

So we will continue to answer the call. In direct response to suggestions made from this survey, we organized a regional revival, will continue to offer pastoral and spiritual care, and have increased the number of online worship services we offer per month. An overwhelming number of people (over 90% of respondents) have not sought out pastoral or spiritual care, even though many of the folks who took the survey express not receiving sufficient care in their congregations. So BLUUMin will be attempting to make deeper connections with Black UUs in our online and in-person communities. Because Black UUs have expressed a deep desire to support Black lives in their communities, we will continue to do our part and organize folks to help change the material conditions of Black people wherever that need is greatest.

Worship at the 2018 BLUU Revival in Kansas City, MO

Things the BLUU Community Members Want to Know More About

The Elders say we must let go of the shore, and push off and into the river, keep our eyes open, and our head above water.
See who is in there with you and Celebrate.

Some respondents expressed a deep desire for more theological grounding, and a greater understanding of UU historical context. This aligns with discussions and conversations that have taken place at BLUU events and in BLUU spaces over the last three years.

Generally, however, survey participants shared dozens of topics they’d like to know more about. These could become breakout workshops at local and regional gatherings, and/or online spaces could be built to explore subtopics. These topics can be split into three subgroups:

  1. Justice and Identity
  2. Black UU Theology, Church Life, and History
  3. Black Relationship and Family Life

Justice and Identity Topics

  • Womanism/Black feminism
  • Transgender Issues/Uplifting Trans Folks
  • Gender
  • Internalized oppression (“Why people use other races as self-identification when they are indeed..black..in America.. and how we all can love being BLACK AMERICANS!!!”)
  • How to dismantle systems of oppression
  • Reconstruction of Black masculinity, feminism, womanism, and how they could manifest in our liberation.

Black UU Theology, Church Life, and History

  • Theological pre-colonial ideas about God and a non-Christian God
  • How to ordain more African Americans in the UU churches and administrative level
  • Low-cost, doable ways to take care of our black bodies
  • Prisons and Policing; Black Art; Black Culture through Film; Diasporic Connections; Toxic Masculinity; Reproductive Freedom and Black Liberation
  • Building with Black UUs in Africa

Black Personal, Relationship, and Family Life

  • how BLUU members are living out helping youth with sexuality (i have taken OWL out into black & brown communities years ago) because i’d like to offer this again with more black & brown facilitators
  • Resegregation of schools
  • How to heal Black female and male platonic and intimate relationships
  • Prison Pipeline, Emancipation/Freedom Circles
  • The aging community, people with disabilities, and physical health and wellness
  • Aging and Black Liberation
  • “Healing…I just want to feel better.”
  • Single parenting.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally.
Least of all, ourselves.
For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes to a halt.
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves!


INFORMATION ON THE SURVEY

Banish the word “struggle” from your attitude and your vocabulary.
All that you do now must be done in a sacred matter…
And in celebration.

“From me, a UU POC, to you: You are appreciated — and in the nick of time — since I thought I would need to quit the UU religion because of the lack of cultural competence (specifically r/t POC) that I was immersed in, within congregations here…”
“I appreciate you attention to social justice issues. That is what sparked my renewed interest in UU.”

Is there something you feel we should be embodying as Black UUs?:

“Being blackity black and unapologetically demanding we be accepted as we are (self, not ego) if our presence is wanted in spiritual spaces.”

This survey was developed in the late summer/early fall of 2017 by the staff of Black Lives of UU and released for Black UUs to complete in September 2017. The survey was officially open for two months with 137 individuals responding. Despite information clarifying that the survey was only meant for Black UUs, twelve people who identified as white also filled out the survey as best they could. Their responses are not reflected here.

It has been a great joy reviewing the information contained in the survey, and the BLUU OC and staff are so very grateful for all the time, energy, and care Black UUs took to complete the survey in its entirety. We asked meaningful questions and got back the very real responses we sincerely hoped for. While we could not quote every single person who shared, please know that your expressions of joy, pain, hopefulness, and (yes) even indifference and mistrust helped us learn more about ourselves and this work than we could have ever learned sitting in a room by ourselves.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

“We are the ones we have been waiting for…”