Welcome Table: Why I Won’t Be Singing with the Choir at the UU Church Fundraising Event

By Atena Danner

I am awake at 3 am writing this, because it is on my spirit, and I cannot sleep through this queasy feeling.

I am a black woman. And I am a Unitarian Universalist. I grew up in and around black Baptist spaces, but as a precocious child I would have told you early and often that my household did not have a church, or a religion. I knew this was peculiar- my great grandmother was a Church Mother, who lived and breathed holy pursuits, and took me with her several times each week to Detroit Street Baptist Church in Flint, MI. when I was very young. Church was a clearly big deal for people, and my weirdo afro-intellectual family was saying a robust “No thanks! We’re good!” When I attended services with Nan as a 3-or-4-year old I would have been quick to tell you that I was “only there for the doughnuts.” Yes, that is a thing that I said.

Which is to say, from an early age, I was unbothered about being unchurched.

While we claimed no denomination, and no particular house of worship, my parents were deeply spiritual, and I learned their habits. Since college I have kept messy altars where I burned incense, and held up ancestors and I have always made room for spirit and nature in my little rituals and prayers, haphazard though they might be. The only things that called to me about church life were structure, social opportunities, and having a place to make change in the world with like-minded folks. And that call got distinctly louder when I decided to start a family.

(There is much more story to tell from that point of decision when I was 25 years old, but we don’t have time for that. We have to fast-forward nearly 14 years, and I’ll tell the story down that path another time.)

I chose UUism over a decade ago, and theologically, it was no contest. A multicultural beloved community where there is room for God, reason, boundless love, commitment to justice, spaces that are not queer-antagonistic, and educating children to be curious about the unfolding mystery of the universe in all its facets? Sign me up!

So, I found a church that had a message that resonated with me, and I signed up. I got the structure of weekly ritual and liturgy. I made friends, and had many opportunities to see them while doing all manner of social justice work. I found my community of like-minded seekers. And if you look into the incredible work done by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, you’ll see that quite a few black folks signed up for this good news, and found that we still had to do a lot of work fighting and advocating for justice and equity in our own religious spaces. Being multicultural and racially diverse means there’s a lot of work to do within our communities to untangle and dismantle the racist, white supremacist ways that were around long before us. It’s like the roads and sidewalks we walk on. Rarely do we tear up the old way before we put down a new one. We patch up the old stuff, or replace a single section. It’s a lot of time and money to build an entirely new structure. But with racism and white supremacy, there’s a cost to leaving the old bricks and stones underneath. Eventually they will surface. And if you only know how to build with racist materials, your gonna end up with another racist road. (I think I’m at the end of this metaphor. Thanks for riding that out with me.)

Which brings us to the church fundraiser: not just any fundraiser — the annual canvas! The pledge drive! What kind of commitment can YOU make to the life of this church? This is important, because this is how we determine our budget. And our church is doing something new this year — a Canvas Kickoff Event! Folks will give testimonials, there will naturally be food, and our excellent choir, of which I am a member, is invited to sing. Here’s the SNAFU: we got double-booked. Around the same time that our pledge planners were dreaming up this Canvas Kickoff, a program that I am involved with- Beloved Conversations- was actively recruiting folks to participate in an eight-session series on talking about race (naming whiteness, identifying microaggressions, etc). I participated in Beloved Conversations for the first time last fall, and decided to do it again- this time as a facilitator. I think the program is an important tool in our denomination’s work to set our houses in order when it comes to racial inequity and bad habits that stem from white supremacy.

Turns out, though we had been planning this fairly big program undertaking for many weeks, the church office didn’t have Beloved Conversations on the calendar when the Canvas Kickoff claimed the same time and space as we had. There had also been a staffing transition in the office when these plans were being made, so this kind of confusion, while frustrating, is entirely understandable.

Well, one week before we have our first Beloved Conversations session, one of the Canvas Kickoff planners (also a board chair), approached my co-facilitator and I to invite us to talk about social justice at the church during the event, and we noted that we’d like to support them, and would shift our start time to 15 minutes later to avoid getting to far off-schedule, since there are 10 other people who had scheduled their afternoons accordingly. We received a troubled look from that board chair, and the conversation ended soon thereafter.

My co-facilitator and I then received an email from our minister stating that “it is not okay” for us to hold our program during a major congregational event.

[Blink. Blink.]

Well, okeydokey — never mind that we have been planning this since January, and published these confirmed dates in the newsletter in February, and our program activities seem to keep getting bumped off the calendar to priortize something else. Fine. We offered to contact our participants and ask if they’d be willing to push the time back. We’d just go with whatever our participants were able to do. We were promptly told that this was also “not okay,” and that the power of the minster and the board was compelling us to knock it off, and either push our event back past the end time of the Canvas Kickoff or reschedule.

Okay, wayment… (For the colloquially uninitiated, this is a contraction of ‘wait a minute.’ I will soften the edges of my code-switching, and lean more toward the colloquial in this next segment, because I feel it best expresses the full significance of what I want to tell you, as a black woman.)

So, because of someone else’s clerical error, y’all wanna tell US that “it’s not okay” for us to carry out our program as-scheduled, which was planned in advance, and announced in the church newsletter? Excuse me, what? It’s “not okay?” Oh, but it’s okay to passive-aggressively invite me to speak at y’all’s event during the time I’m supposed to be organizing OUR event, instead of just coming out and addressing the scheduling mistake? It’s okay to keep de-priortizing our efforts at actual anti-racist culture-building, but you tryna having a black women happily sing about “justice” in the choir? It’s okay to keep sending the message that ‘racial equity is nice, but if it gets in our way, we’ll smack it off the table because it’s not actually important because hey- look around: You’re in the minority.’ THAT’S okay? Nah, boo! (shorthand, familiar: ‘that is not acceptable.’) I ain’t ya singing, articulate, obedient negro. Not ever.

I am not here to adorn your “Welcome Table” for special events, only to be served food that makes me ill. I am not here to supply brown faces for your marketing materials. I am not here to exhaust myself getting this meal ready, only to find out that you left my contribution cold and unshared on the kitchen counter during the banquet. (And then have the nerve to want me to sing and talk about how great you are?Tch. [insert teeth sucking sound])

I give my gifts willingly, in community. My service, my voice, my mind are shared with love. But I’m not about to let y’all use me up, and not fill my cup. That means that the church has to make a pledge and commitment to my life; to commit to racial equity and justice. That means whiteness has to get out of the way sometimes, and white people have to jump in and take risks — times when it’s uncomfortable or ‘doesn’t feel like the best time.’ Stop treating racial equity (or welcoming of BTQI folks, or creating accessible spaces, or any ways of including and respecting people) like a social justice “project” that the SJC is responsible for: we are all bound to this! Every time you opt out, or put it on the back burner, or ‘other’ it into special events and death-by-committee, you poison your banquet a little bit more. Diversity itself does not make a community beloved. Diversity is useless if it makes more sense to pull rank and command a couple of tired teachers (and ten other folks) to YET AGAIN push back the work of racial equity instead of showing us some respect while negotiating the fallout of an unfortunate scheduling mistake. What must you think of us and our ministry to treat us this way? No, thank you. That is not okay. And I will not reward it.

So, I will not not be making any joyful noises about my own marginalization during the Canvas Kickoff. But, because all communities are messy and we all make mistakes, I will stick around and do my part of the work to make it better. To make us better one of these days, hallelujah. Because ultimately, church makes me better. And I believe that we can untangle enough of the mess to create a truly beloved community.